“Can I help you?” she asked, looking him up and down. Givens knew his size brought him to the attention of both men and women, for different reasons. She looked interested in what she was seeing.
“Yeah, I just rode into town,” he said. “I'm lookin' for a couple of men and thought the sheriff would be able to help me.”
“Well, I'm Sheriff Lawson,” she said.
“Yeah, I heard there was a woman sheriff here in Gunnison,” he said. “But I didn't hear you were beautiful.”
“Yeah, well,” she said, “smooth talk'll only get you so far. What was it you wanted? Information on two men you're lookin' for?”
“What's their names?”
“I don't know their names,” he said, “but they're drivin' a buckboard with a heavy load.”
“Ah . . .”
“Does that mean you saw them?”
“What do you want with them?”
“Why's that matter?”
“I'm just curious.”
“A woman's curiosity, or a lawman's?”
“Are lawmen usually curious?” she asked. “Let's say the female part of me and the law part of me want to know if you plan on killing these men.”
Suddenly, Givens wasn't so friendly. He started to get to his feet, saying, “Now listen, girlie,” when he suddenly found himself looking down the barrel of a Peacemaker. She cocked the hammer, and they both remained silent for a few moments.
Then he sat back down.
“Okay,” he said, “okay. Calm down.”
“I'm calm,” she said. “But I won't be spoken to or treated rudely. Do you understand?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Now ask me your question again.”
“Have you seen two men with an overloaded buckboard go through here in the past few days?”
“No,” she lied. “Next question.”
Clint followed the trail until it crossed with that of a mountain lion.
“What?” Tesla asked.
“There.” Clint pointed to the ground.
The track was clear enough for even Tesla to see. A large paw track.
“My God,” he said. “That's huge.”
“Yeah,” Clint said, looking around, “it's pretty big.”
“What's itâwhere's it going?”
“It's following our deer.”
“Oh,” Tesla said. “Well, can't we find another deer? Why do we have to go after the same one?”
“You want venison stew, don't you?” Clint asked.
“Not if it means I have to fight a mountain lion for it.”
“Don't worry,” he said, “I won't make you fight a mountain lion.”
“Shoot one, maybe,” Clint said, “but not fight one.”
Givens found the other three men at the saloon, each holding a beer, or leaning over it on the bar.
“Beer,” he said to the bartender.
“What did the whore sheriff have to say?” Roman asked.
“Nothin',” Givens replied. “Says she didn't see our guys.”
“You believe her?”
“Why didn't you make her tell you the truth?”
Givens took his beer and sipped it, then looked at Roman.
go over and make her tell you?”
Roman frowned at Givens, then turned his head.
“After this we'll go over and talk to some of the merchants. Somebody must know somethin',” Givens said. “We'll split up and find out.”
“Maybe I will go and see the sheriff,” Roman said.
“Yeah,” Givens said, “maybe.”
About an hour later Clint and Tesla stopped again.
“What is it?”
“Let's just sit here awhile.”
“I won't complain about that.”
They sat down on some rocks.
“Do you think a deer will come walking by?” the scientist asked.
“Actually,” Clint said, “one might. There are a lot of tracks here.”
“How will we get it back to the house?” Tesla asked. “Aren't they heavy?”
“If we wanted the whole animal, I'd sling it over my shoulders and carry it back,” Clint said. “But I'll butcher it out here. We'll take some of the best cuts and leave the rest for the cat.”
“Do you think the cat will appreciate the gesture?”
“Not at all,” Clint said. “He'll probably eat his fill, and then follow us to get the rest.”
“Will you kill him?”
“Not unless I have to,” Clint said. “He's just trying to survive.”
“Like the rest of us?”
“Well,” Tesla said, “maybe I can't carry an entire deer carcass on my shoulders, but I'm sure I can carry some meat.”
“Okay,” Clint said. “We'll sit here awhile and see what happens. In a little while we'll start moving again.”
“How long will we stay out here?” Tesla asked.
“We'll be back at the house before dark,” Clint said. “Guaranteed.”
Givens, Roman, Lefty, and Donnie left the saloon.
“They must have had somethin' to eat,” Givens said. “Somebody check the restaurants. Can't be that many.”
“I'll do it,” Donnie said.
“Somebody else check the general store.”
“Me,” Lefty said.
“I'll go back inside and talk to the bartender,” Givens said. “Roman, you want to talk to the sheriff?”
“We'll meet back here in an hour,” Roman said. “Somebody better find out something.”
Givens watched the three of them walk away, then turned and went back into the saloon.
“See it?” Clint asked twenty minutes later. “There, straight on.”
“I do,” Tesla whispered.
There was a deer about a hundred yards off, just standing and looking around. It was a young male, with just stubs where his antlers would soon be.
“You want to take a shot?” Clint asked.
“No,” Tesla said. “If I miss, we will lose him. You shoot.”
“Okay,” Clint said. “You can try next time.”
Clint shouldered his rifle and fired one shot, dropping the animal cleanly.
Tesla started forward, but Clint held his arm out to block him.
“Slowly,” he said. “That lion is still around.”
Tesla nodded, didn't move until Clint did.
A half a mile away, a mountain lion lifted its head at the sound of the shot and listened intently. Then it sniffed the air.
And then it moved.
Roman had a sneaking suspicion that Givens had never left the saloon.
The big man was halfway through a beer when he saw Roman. He turned to the bartender and said, “Bring a cold one.”
Roman joined him at the bar as the bartender put the beer down.
“So?” Givens asked. “Any news?”
“No,” Roman said, “I didn't find any merchants who saw them.”
“Or they won't say,” Givens said. “Folks like to mind their own business.”
“We'll have to see what Donnie and Lefty come up with.”
“It won't matter,” Givens said. “The barkeep here told me he saw the sheriff in here with two strangers. He thinks they may be the ones we're lookin' for.”
“How's he know?”
“He saw a heavily loaded buckboard outside.”
“Does he know where they went?”
“No, but maybe the sheriff does.”
“She's wearin' a badge,” Givens pointed out. “Why don't we wait for Donnie and Lefty to get back and then we'll ask 'er?”
Sheriff Miranda Lawson saddled her horse quickly, keeping an eye out so no one could come up behind her. The word she'd gotten was that the man she'd spoken to and three friends were all looking for Clint Adams and his friend, Tesla. Whatever the reason was for that, it couldn't be good. She also knew they'd find out that she was in the saloon with both men, so she thought it was a good time to get out of town.
She mounted up and rode out of the livery. She figured she could kill two birds with one stone by leaving town and riding to warn Clint Adams. She had a general idea where the house was that he and Tesla were renting. He may have been the Gunsmith, but he still needed some warning that four gunmen were looking for him.
The heavily laden buckboard rode into Gunnison, noisily announcing its arrival. There were two burly men on the seat, looking worn out from the drive from Denver.
Givens and Roman had just stepped out of the saloon as the buckboard came down the street, and the big man put his hand on Roman's chest to stop him.
“Where do you suppose they're goin'?” he asked.
“Beats me. Why?”
“Well, the two fellers we're lookin' for had a loaded buckboard.”
“So suppose this load is also theirs?” Givens asked. “All we'd have to do is follow it.”
“So how do we find out?”
“Easy,” Givens said. “We ask 'em.”
“We gotta stop for some food and beer,” Joe Scott said.
“I can go ya one better,” Les Willard said. “Let's spend the night. I don't wanna sleep on the trail again, and we should be able to get this load delivered tomorrow.”
“That's the plan,” Willard said.
“Let's find someplace to put up this load.”
Once Givens realized the two men were going to stay, he suggested that he and Roman just wait in the saloon. Eventually, Lefty and Roman showed up, and Givens and Roman told them what was going on.
“So we're just gonna wait here?” Donnie asked.
“That's right,” Givens said. “Those two are gonna want a drink eventually.”
“Suits me,” Lefty said.
“And I got another idea,” Givens said to Roman.
“I'm the only one ain't been seen by those two you tangled with,” Givens said.
“So maybe these two would like some help from a big man like me unloading that buckboard when they get where they're goin'.”
“That's a good idea.”
“Yeah,” Givens said. “I thought so. Why don't you and the boys go and see what you can find out from the sheriff? There's no point in letting them know I'm with you. When they get here, I'll try and get myself a job.”
The smell of Clint's venison stew filled the house. Tesla was sitting at the table, reading some books. Clint cut up some onions and potatoes he had bought in Denver and added them to the stew, then mixed it.
The rest of the meat he had butchered was hanging off the back wall of the house, in the cold, up high where animals could not reach it. He was sure the big cat was feasting on the remains of the carcass Clint had left behind for him, but when he was finished, he'd come looking for more.
If they were going to be staying in this house for a long period of time, the day would come when he'd have to face the cat.
When the stew was ready, he poured it into two bowls and carried them to the table. He went back to the stove and returned with coffee cups, then sat opposite Tesla. The scientist put his books aside and spooned some of the stew into his mouth.
“By God!” he exclaimed. “I don't think I've ever tasted anything better.”
“Part of the reason for that is that we hunted it ourselves,” Clint said. “No meat ever tastes as good.”
“I can see that.” He had another bite, with potato and onion. “You're quite a cook, Clint. I was assuming my meals would be meager while I was here. I'll have to thank the President.”
“There's plenty left,” Clint said. “You can have more, we can heat it later, or tomorrow for lunch.”
“And the rest of the meat?”
“Hung up high, where the big cat can't get to itâhopefully.”
“What about other animals?”
“There are plenty,” Clint said. “Other predators. But he's the one we have to worry about.”
“Will he come at night? Try to get into the house?”
“No,” Clint said, “he'll stay outside. But come at night? He might.”
“But we will be on the lookout for men,” Tesla said. “Will we not then be on the lookout for the cat?”