Breath trapped in her chest, Hope froze. The noise of the saloon faded and her vision narrowed, until all she could see was the hard glint in the woman’s eyes, her hand hovering above the gun at her hip.
“Now, Clementine, you and I, we’ve always had an understanding.”
Mr Wade. His voice. Hope jerked her gaze to him. Still sprawled in his chair, no shift in his lazy smile. How could he be so casual? Didn’t he see the menace in the woman?
“Yeah, and that understanding was I’d put a bullet straight through your fool head if you ever saw fit to show it.” The woman’s grin was all teeth.
“You know I did what was right and lawful. You would have done the same yourself.”
“But I didn’t, did I? You stole Winters out from under me. He should have been strung by his heels, beaten, and skinned. He slaughtered, Wade. He revelled in blood. He slaughtered my people. My brother—” Her voice broke.
Loud bangs. A jumble of limbs. A slash of silver. Bright red coating her hand. Panic. Pain.
Her family, dead.
Struggling to breathe, Hope squeezed her eyes shut. Soft breeze over gently waving green. Laughter in the distance. Calm. Peace. The passage of years.
Her heart slowed and breath started again.
Opening her eyes, she found Mr Wade in the same position, unconcerned with the danger before him. Clementine stood, recovered, her gaze hard and unwavering. She must be a bounty hunter, or maybe a gunslinger like Mr Wade. The guns strapped at her hips suggested such, as did the weathered look to her skin. She wore pants like a man, paired with a leather jerkin, and her dark hair hung in a braid down her back.
Mr Wade propped an elbow on the back of his chair. “I don’t argue he was a bad man and deserved justice, but what you were aiming for wasn’t justice. You know that as well as I, and if you weren’t so close, you would have agreed. I’m awful sorry you didn’t get your vengeance, but Winters is where he belongs.”
“I had him, Wade. I had him in my grasp, and you stole him.
Removing his elbow, he leaned forward, smile gone. “He’s a broken man, Clementine. More’n you could imagine. He’s got no friends, no wealth, and no anonymity. His delight was no one knew him for the monster he is, but that ain’t so no longer. For the rest of his miserable life, he’ll have to bear the knowledge of his fall, that everyone knows of it, and that is a greater punishment than anything you could devise.”
Clementine didn’t respond.
Hope looked between them, her breath again trapped in her chest.
“I still want to skin him,” Clementine said.
Mr Wade nodded. “I’ve no doubt.”
“He deserved to be skinned.”
“Maybe he does, but those he wronged also deserved to see justice done. Because you number amongst them don’t mean you get to determine what that is.”
She stared at him for another long moment. “Goddamnit,” she snarled.
Mr Wade kicked the chair opposite him. “Why don’t you sit, Clementine, and we’ll get ourselves reacquainted.”
Still thunderous, the bounty hunter dropped into the chair. Surreptitiously, Hope edged away from her, her heart not yet done with its too-fast rhythm.
Clementine laid one arm on the table. “Least you can do is get me a whiskey for my trouble.”
“You and me, both.” Mr Wade gestured at the barkeep, who scrambled into action.
Clementine’s gaze slid to Hope, and her lips pursed as if she were to form words. Before she did, Mr Wade asked, “What do you know of Callihan?”
Hope blinked at the sudden change, but it didn’t seem to disturb Clementine any. “I know he’s dead.”
Mr Wade rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I’ve heard that, too.”
The barkeep placed a glass before each of them, generously filled with whiskey. Hope eyed hers. She’d never had a taste for alcohol, but she had no wish to draw attention to herself with the bounty hunter seated beside her. Best to leave it be.
“What do you know different?” Clementine asked.
“Nothing. Have I introduced you to Miss McElroy here?”
Clementine kept her gaze trained on Mr Wade, thank God. “What do you know about Callihan?”
“Nothing, as I said.”
Her eyes sharpened. “He’s still got that bounty on his head.”
“Does he?” Mr Wade asked mildly.
Clementine scowled. “Wade,” she warned.
Mr Wade shrugged. “Maybe it is he does, but he’s passed on by all accounts. Ain’t really here nor there.”
“What are you keeping from me?”
“Nothing, darlin’. I share my soul with you.” He nodded Hope’s way. “I haven’t to my recollection introduced Miss McElroy, and you know I hate to be rude.”
The bounty hunter barely glanced at her. “If you’re keeping another bounty to yourself…”
“I wouldn’t do that. It’s as I said, Callihan is expired. Those warrants are outdated. Besides, five thousand is a paltry sum when you consider the danger the man exudes.”
“Five thousand,” Clementine said slowly.
Mr Wade nodded. “It’s a mite more than an insult. What, do they think we enjoy risking life and limb for the apprehension of bad men?”
“Huh.” Raising her glass to her lips, Clementine sat back in her chair.
“Tell me about you, though. What have you been up to?”
“Miranda. Johnson. Sully. They were easy.” She shrugged.
“Easy, huh? That’s nice on occasion. I had a bitch of a time with my last one. Took an age. Had to outsmart the wily bastard at every turn. Almost lost him four—no, five— times. Took weeks, taxed my brain. And then, at the end, he refused to go easy. Had to battle to get him to heel.” Mr Wade whistled, low. “Was glad of the rest, once it was done. The three grand I got for my trouble hardly seemed worth it.”
“What’s your next bounty?” he asked brightly.
“I was thinking Matheson.”
“Oh.” Mr Wade’s expression dimmed. “Well, like I said, the easy ones are good for a change. Some of the time.”
Clementine stood abruptly. “Thanks for the drink, Wade.” She tipped her hat at Hope. “Ma’am.” She strode from the saloon, eating the ground with each pace.
Hope stared after her. Now the woman had departed, her heart began a normal rhythm. “What was all that about?”
Mr Wade leaned back in his chair. “Legwork, darlin’. I dislike it. Why do it when others will do it for you?”
Brows drawing, she turned to Mr Wade. “Legwork?”
“Clementine’s gonna run herself into the ground to find out about Callihan. All we have to do is wait. She’ll point us in the right direction.” Leaning back in his chair, he gestured with the deck in his hand. “Cards?”
Disbelief held her mute. Snapping her jaw shut, she finally said, “So, your friend—”
She gritted her teeth. “How do you know she is going after Callihan?”
“Clementine hates to be bored. Callihan…. Well, he ain’t boring.”
It seemed a foolish plan to her. Beyond foolish. “How can you be assured she will discover his whereabouts, and more so, how will you know she has done so?”
“I have my ways. Leave me to my work, Miz McElroy. If you don’t feel you can sit and watch time pass, you can put yourself to work arranging a horse. We’ll be travelling over land, I suspect, and the sooner we have everything in place, the sooner we can start.” He squinted out the door in the direction Clementine left. “She’ll have information by sundown, by my reckoning.”
She studied him. He remained relaxed under her regard, his hat disguising his eyes. “She was determined to harm you.”
“She was. It’s what I do, darlin’. People hire me to settle their differences. I can do it on my own behalf as well as others.”
“But you didn’t pull your gun.”
“If I’d pulled my gun, Clementine would no longer be breathing. I like Clementine. I like her not being dead. ” There was an edge to his words, though he still work his seemingly permanent lazy grin. “There’s a hundred different, better ways to get what you want. Clementine’s as susceptible to them as everyone else.” He lifted his chin sharply. “You should go back to the hotel, Miz McElroy. There ain’t nothin’ more to see here.”
She had been certain he was in truth a layabout drifter. Reluctantly, she conceded she may have been incorrect in her suppositions. “And what will you do?”
“Play cards. Drink. Be generally disreputable.”
She gritted her teeth. Maybe she wasn’t wholly incorrect. “I would have you deliver updates.”
He remained unmoved. “When there is one, I’ll give it.”
“I will expect it,” she said, injecting as much hauteur as she could manage. At the end of the day, she was paying. He would do well to remember that.
Something flashed in his eyes. “You do that.”
Pulling herself to her full height, she said, “I will be at the hotel. We will leave as soon as you have something concrete.”
For a moment, he looked as if he would speak, but then that lazy grin spread across his face. She drew in her breath. “Be ready at a moment’s notice, darlin’”
Annoyed at her reaction to that goddamn smile, she rose. “Mr Wade.”
He tipped his hat. “Miz McElroy.”
With as much dignity as she could muster, she swept from the saloon. Once she was some distance, she slowed. Mr Wade was a mass of contradictions. She was beginning to believe there was more to him then he was willing to show, and for all it rubbed her wrong, the grin he wore seemed to be a mask that worked. She needed to rethink how she would deal with him…and she needed to forget how handsome the mask he wore made him.