Two years ago, a killer stalked the streets of Boston, and reporter Harry Temple covered the case. After an informant gave Harry the criminal’s identity, the police ordered him not to run the story—but he did anyway. The killer fled the city, and Harry has been on his trail ever since, hunting for a chance at redemption.
Now, Harry is in Abilene, Kansas, with a burden on his shoulders and a news clipping in his pocket. A woman has been strangled, and the perpetrator left a calling card that is all too familiar. The town council is hoping to keep the story quiet, and the police are on high alert as they wait for the madman to strike again. But Harry doesn’t have time for that. Luckily, there’s one man in town who can help: Clint Adams, the Gunsmith.
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Harry Temple rode into the town of Abilene, Kansas, feeling the weight of a two-year hunt on his back. The saddle he sat on and the gun belt around his waist were worn. That was because they had once belonged to someone else. The trail clothes he was wearing still felt odd to him, not because they, too, had once been worn by someone else, but because he’d once dressed in very different clothes.
Temple was from the East. Born and raised in Philadelphia, he wasn’t used to cowboy boots and gun belts. At least, he hadn’t been until about two years ago, when he came west. This was a whole new Harry Temple, not the one who had spent his first thirty-two years in Philadelphia, and then several years working in Boston.
Over the past two years the man had changed drastically. Not just in the way he dressed, but the way he thought, and felt and acted.
He reined in his horse in front of the first saloon he came to and dismounted. After tying the horse to a hitching post among a few others, he entered the place and found himself a spot at the crowded bar.
“Beer,” he said to the bartender.
“Comin’ up.” The bartender’s hand dwarfed the mug he set down in front of Temple. He was a big, meaty man in his forties. “There ya go.”
Temple heard some raised voices in the back of the saloon and looked that way, as did the others at the bar. There was a crowd of men back there, watching some activity or another.
“Passin’ through?” the bartender asked.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m doing,” Temple said. “What’s going on back there?”
“So what’s all the fuss about, then?”
The bartender leaned his massive forearms on the bar.
“It’s who’s playin’.”
“And who’s that?”
“The mayor, the district attorney,” the bartender said, “a couple of local ranchers.”
“Doesn’t sound like a whole lot to attract a crowd like that.”
“There’s one more player in the game.”
“And who’s that?”
Temple paused with his mug halfway to his mouth.
“The same,” the bartender said.
“Well, friend,” Temple said, “where I come from, that’s called burying the lead. Maybe it’s worth taking a look. Thanks.”
He took his beer and walked to the rear of the saloon.
* * *
There were five men around the table, as the bartender had said, and they weren’t hard to identify. The best dressed of them, a big, florid-faced man, had to be the mayor. Another man wearing a suit, a few years younger—with his jacket hanging on the back of the chair and dark sweat rings soaking his white shirt beneath his arms—had to be the district attorney. Two other men, both in their fifties, wearing clean ranch clothes, had to be the ranchers.
That left the fifth man.
Tall, wearing trail clothes that were worn but not old, he also seemed to have most of the chips in front of him. He sat, calmly looking at his cards, while the other men made their plays, and then he tossed some chips into the pot. While Temple watched, more times than not, he also raked in the pot.
Temple nursed his beer while he watched the game progress. An idea was forming in his head, and he wanted to let it roll around awhile, as he always did. He prided himself on never jumping the gun, and always giving situations enough thought. He’d done that even with the decision he’d made that had backfired on him and sent him out here to the West. And even so, he didn’t completely regret it.
The people around him changed positions, as some left and new ones came. They weren’t there to see the game as much as they were there to see the Gunsmith.
Temple could see the chips on the table, and from listening closely, he knew what the denominations were. They may not have been playing high stakes, but there was still hundreds of dollars on the table.
He asked a passing girl for another beer, and settled in to watch Clint Adams clean them all out.
While Temple nursed his second beer, people gradually lost interest as Clint Adams won three out of every four hands. Eventually the mayor and the district attorney tapped out and quit, leaving only Clint Adams and the two ranchers. From the conversation, it soon became clear that Adams was friends with one of the men; maybe they’d known each other before he came to town.
“I’ve had it,” the other rancher said. “Thanks for the poker lesson, Adams.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Blake,” Clint Adams said. “Anytime.”
The rancher stood, shook hands with Adams and the other man, and left.
Clint Adams looked up and saw Temple standing there.
“You looking for a game?” he asked.
“Me?” Temple said. “No, sir. I’m no gambler. I was just passing through, saw the crowd, and stepped up to see what the fuss was.”
“Lot of fuss over nothing, if you ask me,” Clint Adams said.
“You’re too modest,” the other man said. He was older, with the gray hair and wrinkles to go with the years. “What’s your name, son?” he asked Temple.
“My name’s Abraham Corman,” the older man said. “This is Clint Adams.”
“I know that,” Temple said. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Adams. You, too, Mr. Corman.”
“Well,” Corman said, “I better get on home. My wife’s gonna be waitin’. Clint, you want to come to dinner?”
“Thanks, Abe, but I think I’ll just stay in town tonight, spend some of my winnings on a steak and beer.”
“Suit yourself. Make sure you stop by before you leave Abilene, though.”
“You know I will.”
Corman left while Clint Adams collected his chips and went to cash them in.
Temple took his beer back to the bar.
“Another one?” the bartender asked.
“No,” Temple said, “I think I had enough. You can answer a question, though.”
“Clint Adams,” Temple said. “Any idea how long he’ll be in town?”
“Not sure,” the barman said. “He came to town like you, just passing through. Found out he knew Abe Corman.”
“Any idea how long he’s staying?”
“I don’t know that either. Why?”
Temple turned and looked around the saloon. Clint Adams had collected his money and left.
“Any idea where I can get a good steak?” he asked the bartender.
“Now, there I can help you,” the bartender said. “Go across the street and two blocks west to Jake’s Steakhouse. Best in town.”
“Thanks. What do I owe you?”
“Two bits,” the barman said. “First beer was on the house for a first timer.”
Temple dropped two bits on the bar and said, “Thanks.”
He turned and left the saloon.
As he entered Jake’s, he saw Clint Adams sitting at a back table, working on a beer and probably waiting for that steak he’d mentioned.
“Take any table,” a waiter said as he passed. The place was busy, tables occupied by couples, families, and some lone men.
He started across the room to a table, but his attention was attracted by Clint Adams waving at him.
“Why don’t you join me, Mr. Temple?” he asked.
Temple looked around, then walked over to Clint Adams’s table.
“Don’t mind if I do,” Temple said.
“I ordered a steak,” Clint Adams said. “Supposed to be the best in town.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“From the bartender?”
The harried waiter came over and took Temple’s order, brought him a beer.
“Seems like you did pretty well at the game,” Temple commented.
“I hope that doesn’t mean you can’t pay for your steak,” Clint Adams said.
“I can pay,” Temple said, “don’t worry about that. But I’m curious about something.”
“Why would a man like the Gunsmith invite me, a stranger, to eat with him?”
“Maybe it’s because I want to find out what that stranger wants with me. You got something on your mind, mister. What is it?”
Clint had been in Abilene for several days. Intending only to pass on through, he’d spotted someone he knew on the street. Turned out Abe Corman owned a ranch nearby, invited Clint out to see it and have a meal, so his one-day visit stretched out some.
The poker game in the saloon had started innocently enough among Clint and some other patrons, but soon the mayor joined in, and then the district attorney, and finally Corman entered the saloon with another rancher, and they joined the game.
When the word got out that the Gunsmith was playing poker, it attracted some crowds, which Clint was not pleased about. But he enjoyed poker very much, especially when he was winning, so he continued playing, and eventually, the novelty wore off.
Except for one man, who got a second beer and kept watching . . . and then walked into the same restaurant . . .
* * *
“What makes you say that?” Harry Temple asked.
“You spent a lot of time watching a poker game being played by a bunch of people you didn’t know,” Clint said. “And you seemed real interested in me. I’ll bet you even asked the bartender about me, which is why you’re here.”
“Well, you’re right,” Temple said, “I did ask him about you, but then I asked him about a good meal and he sent me here. I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Then it’s a coincidence,” Clint said, “although I don’t much believe in those.”
“As a matter of fact . . .” Temple paused as the waiter appeared with their steaks. Both men leaned away from the steaming plates as their server set them down, almost expecting them to end up in their laps.
“You happen to be right,” Temple finished when the waiter was gone. “When I rode into town, I had no idea you were here. Once I found out, I got interested.”
Clint cut into his steak, saw that it was almost perfectly cooked. He was able to cut the potatoes and carrots very easily with his fork.
“So what’s on your mind?”
“I was a journalist in Boston—”
“I don’t do interviews,” Clint said, interrupting him. “It’s a rule of mine.”
“Let me finish, please.”
“All right,” Clint said. “Sorry. Just wanted to get that out there.”
“Up to two years ago I was a journalist in Boston,” Temple said. “Then everything changed. There was a killer at large in the city. I got word from an informant about who it was. I checked with the police, and they asked me not to run the story.”
“But you did.”
“Like I said before,” Temple answered. He had cut into his steak, but had not yet put any into his mouth. Clint chewed and waited. “I was a journalist.”
“The story comes first, right?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“So what happened?”
“The killer left town.”
“And the police held you responsible?”
“Hell, I was responsible,” Temple said, “but it wasn’t even that. They were just happy that he left Boston.”
“But you weren’t.”
“No,” he said. “If I had sat on my story, he might have been caught.”
“So now . . . what? You’re looking for him? Hunting him?” Clint asked.
“I heard stories about killings in Cleveland,” Temple said. “But by the time I got there, he was gone. That was two years ago. And yes, I’ve been tracking him ever since.”
“Well, I’m not a tracker, of course,” Temple said, “but I’ve been following stories of cases that sound like him.”
“What kind of cases?”
“He kills women, strangles them,” Temple said. “But by the time I get there, he’s always moved on.” He shook his head, finally put a piece of meat in his mouth, but it didn’t look like he was tasting anything. “He kills more women, and every one he kills is my fault.”
Clint remembered dealing with stranglers in Oregon, New York, and London, England.
“I have some experience with those kinds of killers,” he said.
Temple chewed more enthusiastically, but only so he could swallow and talk.
“Well, then,” he said, “maybe you can help.”
“Come with me,” Temple said. “Help me hunt him down.”
Clint put another hunk of meat in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.
“What brought you to Abilene?”
Temple took something out of his pocket. He unfolded it and showed it to Clint. It was a clipping from the Abilene Reporter-News, the local paper. The story was about a woman being strangled.
“That was two weeks ago,” Clint said.
“Took me two weeks to get here.”
Clint handed it back.
“I’ve been here three days,” he said, “haven’t heard anything about it.”
“You can help me, though,” Temple said. “You have contacts here, and you can track.”
“That rancher friend of yours.”
“He’s the only person I know in town.”
“That’s one more than I do,” Temple pointed out. “I was just going to talk to the local editor.”
“You can still do that.”
“Yes, while you talk to your friend.”
Clint chewed thoughtfully.
“I can talk to my friend,” Clint said, “but as far as tracking the killer . . .”
“Look,” Temple said, “I’ll take whatever help you can give me at this point.”
“Yeah, okay,” Clint said. “I’ll do what I can—now eat that steak before it gets cold.”
They finished their steaks, had pie and coffee for dessert. When it came time to pay, they both dug into their pockets for money and paid for their own meals.
Out in front of the steakhouse, Clint said, “I’ve got to say you don’t dress like a journalist.”
“This?” Temple said. “Soon after I came to the West, I realized I needed to change everything about myself, including the way I dressed and traveled. So I bought these clothes, found somebody who would sell me their horse and saddle and gun belt.”
“Yes,” Clint said, “I noticed your rig was worn.”
“I also did it because I needed to blend in, not stand out,” Temple said.
“Well, you’ve done that,” Clint said. “You don’t look anything like a journalist.”
Temple rubbed his hand over the stubble on his cheeks and said, “You think I can get a shave without ruining the look?”
“Sure, why not?” Clint asked. “Many a saddle tramp is clean shaven.”
“Good,” Temple said. This time he scratched his cheeks. “This was getting kind of itchy.”
“Where are you headed now?”
“The newspaper office to talk to the editor,” Temple said. “His name’s Pete Tanner.”
“Okay,” Clint said, “you do that. I have a standing invitation out at Abe Corman’s ranch, so I guess I’ll take a ride out there and see what he knows about this murder of yours.”
“It’s not my murder,” Temple said testily.
“Okay, sorry,” Clint said. “I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“Yeah, okay,” Temple said. “I don’t have a hotel room yet, so I think I’ll take care of that first.”
“I’m staying at the Oak Tree Hotel down the street,” Clint said. “I’m sure they have rooms.”
“I’ll try them.”
“I’ll check later to see if you got a room, and we can compare notes.”
“See you then.”
Temple headed down the street to the hotel, while Clint went the other way, toward the livery.
* * *
Clint collected Eclipse from the stable, welcoming the chance to have the big Darley Arabian stretch his legs.
He let the big horse gallop all the way from town to Abraham Corman’s ranch, reining in the animal in front of Corman’s house.
“Boss said you wasn’t comin’ out today,” Ed Halston, the foreman, said as he walked over to greet Clint.
The two men shook hands and Clint said, “I didn’t think I was, but something came up. Boss inside?”
“Yeah, he’s at his desk,” Halston said. “You want me to have your horse taken care of?”
“No, you can just leave him here,” Clint said. “I don’t think I’ll be long.”
“You want me to tie him off?” Halston asked as Clint dropped Eclipse’s reins to the ground. “So maybe he don’t wander away?”
“No,” Clint said, “that’s good enough. He won’t be going anywhere.”
“Suit yourself,” Halston said. “Come on, I’ll take you inside.”
“Lead the way.”
They went up the white steps to the front door of the two-story house Abe Corman had built himself.
Before they could get to Corman’s office, they encountered his wife, Brenda, coming down the stairs from the second floor.
“Clint! How nice.” She was a lovely woman in her early fifties, with a beautiful head of silver hair. “Abe told me you weren’t coming out tonight.”
“I wasn’t, Brenda, but something has come up and I need to speak with him.”
“Of course. I believe he’s in his office . . . is that right, Ed?”
“Last place I saw him, ma’am.”
“All right, then I’ll take Clint to him.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Halston said. “See you later.”
“Thanks, Ed,” Clint said.
“Come on, Clint. Follow me.”
She led him down a hallway to Abe Corman’s office. The rancher was seated behind his desk, going over some paperwork.
“There he is,” she said, “trying to cover the losses to you in poker.”
“Quiet, woman!” Corman said with a grin. “Clint, what are you doing here?”
“I just need to ask you a few questions, Abe,” Clint said. “I can’t stay.”
“The cook is making her famous rosemary chicken,” Brenda said. “You sure I can’t tempt you?”
“I’m sorry, Brenda,” Clint said.
“All right, suit yourself,” she said. “I’ll leave you two to talk business, or whatever it is you’re going to talk.”
As Brenda left the office, Abe Corman said, “Have a seat, Clint. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Clint sat across from his friend.
“It’s about that young fellow who was watching us play earlier,” he said.
“What was his name?”
“Temple,” Clint said. “Harry Temple.”
“Should that name mean something?” Corman asked. “I can’t place it.”
“No,” Clint said, “it’s not a name you’d know. Let me tell you what this is about.”