“It must be a hard life. Why did you choose it?”
“I didn't,” Clint said. “It chose me.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, looking ahead at the plumes of smoke.
“So what shall we do?”
“We ride through,” Clint said.
“What if it's a settlement with a saloon, or restaurant? I could use something other than beans and bacon.”
“We've only been on the trail for two nights,” Clint said.
“Yes, well,” Tesla said apologetically, “I've never been very good at roughing it.”
“I thought you said your village was like this?” Clint asked.
“Yes, it was,” Tesla said, “but I have been away from there a very long time.”
“All right, then,” Clint said. “Let's just go ahead and see what happens.”
Eventually they came to a roadânot a well-traveled one, but one that had seen some recent use. They took it and reached the source of the smoke plumesâa settlement made up of tents and falling-down shacks. There were several fires going, and a couple of the shacks had some smoke coming from pipe chimneys.
As they drove in, they became the center of attention. People stopped what they were doing to watch them drive by.
“Where should we go?” Tesla asked.
“That biggest tent,” Clint said, pointing.
When they passed one tent, several women came out, showing their wares.
“Whores,” Clint said. “Looks like a small mining town.”
“How do you know?”
“Mining towns attract whores, gamblers, and worse.”
“What is worse?”
“Con men, killers.”
“Ah,” Tesla said. “Perhaps we should not stop, after all. We really don't need any supplies.”
“Let's just ask how far we are from Gunnison,” Clint said. “Then we can keep on. We've still got a few hours of daylight.”
They passed another tent, and three men came out to take a look. They all had whiskey glasses in their hands. They wore dirty trail clothes, guns in worn holsters, and hungry looks.
“They do not look very welcoming,” Tesla said.
“We'll have to watch them,” Clint said. “They look like the types who think they're entitled.”
“Whatever they want.”
Tesla halted the team in front of the large tent. The flap was open. Clint could see that the inside was filled with shelves of supplies.
“Trading post,” he said, “or a general store.”
Tesla turned, saw the three men still staring after them.
“Where's your rifle?” Clint asked.
Tesla reached beneath the seat, came out with a Winchester.
“Okay, I'm going in to ask about Gunnison,” Clint said. “Keep watch. If you think there's going to be trouble, fire off a shot. I'll come running.”
“Fire a shot . . . where?” Tesla asked.
“Straight up,” Clint said, pointing. “Into the air.”
Tesla looked straight up, then back at Clint.
“When you do that,” he asked, “where does the bullet go?”
“But . . . where does it end up?”
“Nikola,” Clint said, “we'll do an experiment later, okay?”
Tesla looked nervous and said, “Okay.”
When Clint entered the tent, he saw that it was filled with supplies set on floor-to-ceiling homemade shelves. Off to one side was a similarly handmade counter, behind which a morose-looking man stood.
“Buyin'?” the man asked.
“Sorry,” Clint said.
“I'd advise you not to leave your wagon out there, then,” the man said. “Too many fellas around here with sticky fingers.”
“I got a man on the wagon.”
“Hope he's got a gun.”
“Hope he can use it.”
“Well,” Clint said, “I've only got one question and then we'll be on our way.”
“Go ahead and ask.”
“Gunnison,” Clint said. “How far away are we?”
“A day's ride,” the man said.
“Buckboard or by horse?” Clint asked.
“You stay to the road, you should be able to make it with your buckboard.”
“Okay,” Clint said, “thanks.”
“Sure you don't need somethin' before you go?” the man asked.
“No,” Clint said, “we're pretty well set.”
“Where you comin' from?”
“Two nights on the trail?”
“Well,” the man said, “you should make Gunnison easy. They got a general store there.”
“That's good to know,” Clint said. “Thanks.”
Clint nodded, turned, and walked out the tent flap. Outside he saw that the three men who had been watching them now had the wagon surrounded. One of them was holding Tesla's rifle, had apparently taken it away from the scientist before he could fire a shot. Clint looked around, saw a barrel filled with hickory ax handles.
“Any law in this town?” he asked the storekeeper.
“Just what you can enforce yerself,” the man said.
He grabbed one of the ax handles and stepped forward . . .
Tesla was surprised at how quickly the three men had surrounded him, suddenly yanking the rifle from his hand before he could fire a warning shot for Clint.
“Give that back!” he shouted to the man holding his rifle.
“Now, that ain't exactly friendly,” one of the men said. “Sittin' there with a rifle over yer knees. Whataya think, Donnie?”
“Not friendly at all,” Donnie said.
Tesla couldn't tell the three men apart; they looked the same to him. Same clothes, same stubble on their faces, same hard expressions on their face.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
The third man walked to the back of the buckboard and peered under the tarp.
“Whoeee, boys, but he got a lot of stuff under here,” he called out.
“Don't touch that!” Tesla yelled. “Some of it is delicate.”
“Delicate, ya say?” the first man said. “Then maybe you need to have it protected.”
“We could do that,” the one called Donnie said. “Hey, Roman?”
The first manâRomanâsaid, “We sure could, fer a price.”
“I don't need to have it protected,” Tesla said.
“Yeah, ya do,” the third man said. “'Cause otherwise somethin' could get broke.”
“Yeah,” Roman said, “you need protection, dude.”
Tesla suddenly saw Clint coming out of the tent and felt relief flood over him.
“I already have protection,” he said.
“And where would that be?” Roman asked.
“Right behind you.”
Roman turned his head, saw the man coming out of the tent carrying an ax handle, and turned to face him. The other two men also saw the man and stepped away from the wagon . . .
“Can I help you fellows with something?” Clint asked.
“This your wagon?” Roman asked.
“Where you headed?”
Roman jerked his thumb at the buckboard.
“This stuff valuable?”
“It has value to us,” Clint said.
“Seems to me ya may need some protection, then,” Roman said.
“You fellas hire out for that sort of thing?”
“Well,” Clint said, “I think we're okay. Why don't you give my friend back his rifle?”
“I don't know,” Roman said, “he might get hurt.”
Clint moved closer, keeping the ax handle down by his leg, in his left hand.
“I don't think he will,” he said. “Just hand it back to him and we'll be on our way.”
“We've got protection.”
Roman exchanged a glance with his cohorts. Clint took the opportunity to move even closer. He thought he was now within reach with the ax handle.
“Yer pushin' it, friend,” Roman said.
Clint lunged forward with the ax handle and buried it in the man's stomach. As Roman doubled over, Clint snatched the rifle from his hand and tossed it back to Tesla, who reacted just in time to catch it.
“Don't,” Clint said, pointing with the ax handle at the other men.
“Yer makin' a big mistake, mister,” Donnie said.
Roman straightened up and went for his gun. Clint swung the ax handle again, got the man on the forearm before he could draw his gun. There was a loud crack as the bone in his arm broke, and then Roman was holding his arm and howling.
“This town got a doctor?” Clint asked the other two men.
“Yeahâ” Donnie started.
“Better get your friend over there,” Clint said. “We're going to be on our way. I hope we don't cross paths again.”
“You better hope that,” the third man said.
He and Donnie moved to either side of Roman and helped him away from the buckboard. They looked back over their shoulders a couple of times before they committed to taking Roman to the doctor.
“That may not have been a good idea,” the storekeeper said to Clint from behind.
Clint turned and held the ax handle out to the man to give it back.
“Keep it,” the man said. “You're pretty good with it.”
Clint climbed up next to Tesla, set the ax handle beneath the seat, where Tesla had also replaced the rifle.
“I'm sorry,” Tesla said. “They surprised me.”
“It's okay,” Clint said. “Let's just get moving before they come back with help.”
Tesla flicked the reins at the team.
“How far do we have to go?” he asked as they pulled away from the settlement.
“A day's drive,” Clint said. “We probably need one more night on the trail, and then we'll reach Gunnison tomorrow. How much farther will the house be after that?”
“A few hours, according to the man I rented it from,” Tesla said.
“Who did you rent it from anyway?”
“An agency,” Tesla said. “I saw the ad in the Denver newspaper.”
An agency, not an individual. That meant any one of a few people could give away their location.
He turned and looked behind them, saw that at the moment no one was following.
“Do you expect more trouble from those fellows?” Tesla asked.
“I guess that depends on how badly I hurt that man's arm.”
“I thought I heard a bone crack.”
“So did I.”
“So if he's that hurt, he won't come after us.”
“Just the opposite,” Clint said. “If I broke his arm, he's going to want his revenge.”
“Well, I assume you can handle them,” Tesla said. “You certainly did just now.”
“We'll have to see,” Clint said.
“Why didn't you shoot that man when he tried to draw his gun?”
“I didn't feel I needed to,” Clint said. “I'm not anxious to kill a man at any time, but I don't even know this one. Hopefully, he learned his lesson and we're done with him and his friends.”
“I hope so.”
They traveled a few hours more and then stopped to set up camp.
“Sorry we couldn't get a meal back there before leaving,” Clint said, handing Tesla a plate of beans.
“Don't worry about it,” the scientist said. “I was just glad to get away from there.”
“The storekeeper there said there's a general store in Gunnison,” Clint said. “We should be able to go back and forth when we need supplies.”
“I have everything I need for my experiments,” Tesla said, “except for a few other things that will be delivered. Other than that, we'd just need food and coffee and other sundries.”
“Shouldn't be a problem,” Clint said. “Not if there's a store in Gunnison.”
“What about those fellows from back there?” Tesla asked.
“We'll keep watch tonight,” Clint said. “They won't travel in the dark, but they may show up tomorrow, depending on how bad the injury was.”
“This is just the kind of thing I do not need,” Tesla said. “Once we reach the house, I will need to concentrate on my work.”
“I'll make sure you're not interrupted,” Clint said. “What about the other items you're having delivered. Where are they coming from?”
“That means they'll take the same route that we took today.”
“So they will have to go through that same settlement,” Tesla said. “They may have trouble with those men like we did.”
“Maybe they won't be there,” Clint said. “Or maybe they learned their lesson today.”
“I am now thinking that it was a good idea for the President to send you to watch over me,” Tesla said. “You proved that today.”
“Well, let's just hope it doesn't go any further,” Clint said. “I'll take the first watch. You get some sleep.”
Roman Troy sat with his left hand around a shot glass of whiskey, and his right arm in a sling. His partners, Donnie Ward and Lefty Cole, sat across from him. They each had a glass of whiskey and were keeping quiet. Neither of them wanted to be the object of his anger, which was like a black cloud, ready to unleash a torrent.