Author's Note

River Bend is a sequel to the previous story/link Whitewater.  One does not have to read the former book, however, to understand this one, and there is enough information given here to explain what's needed.

This is, in my opinion, the best story I've written.  Occasionally a book comes together just right, and this one does.  I like the characters in this story--one in particular--and any readers who continue to follow my westerns will see some of these people again.  I hope you enjoy reading River Bend as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Mark K. Lewis

Prologue, Part One: Windy Day for a Hangin’

          It was a town that a body came upon kinda sudden-like. At least that’s how I happened upon it.
          I was riding through the mountains, and some pretty rugged, steep ones at that. Lots of Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs. I topped a little rise, wound my way down the other side of it, dodging tree branches, and there, fifty yards in front of me, lay a small, rather quaint, settlement. Well, quaint from the standpoint of the scenery. A stream curved around the southern edge of the town and the north was bordered with the same kinds of trees and terrain I had been wandering through for the past few hours. The town itself, though, could have been placed in the middle of the prairie and been mistaken for a thousand other such places. One dusty street lined with wooden, false fronted buildings, several of them two-storied with cracking white paint. They weren’t in bad shape; the citizens of--I read the hand painted sign at the edge of town--"Windy" had some civic pride. But they weren’t going to be in any of the better homes and gardens magazines anytime soon.
          I will say that the town was well named. A west wind—the direction I was headed at the moment—was whipping up pretty good, slicing between the hills that surrounded this small valley and right up the main street between the buildings. I could tell that the valley opened up a little west of here; Windy was apparently at the base of a horseshoe.
          Anyway, it was mid-September and not too early to get chilly in the higher elevations. I already had my coat on so I turned up the collar as I rode into town. My next impression of Windy was…it was empty. I didn’t see anybody. All the shops were closed. I could see goods in the clothing store, general store, haberdashery, etc., just…no people. Where is everybody? And I really thought that was a fairly intelligent question.
          I found out soon enough. The town followed the flow of the river at the southern edge, which meant it curved back to the north. As I got near the bend in Windy, I could hear singing; the wind helped bring it in my direction. The music was religious—“Shall We Gather at the River?” if I heard correctly. Not that I knew a whole lot of songs like that, but I’d ridden by a church a time or two in my life, and that seemed to be a favorite. It also seemed to be a favorite at hangings, and I was becoming suspicious that that might have been what I had ridden into.
          Yep. I made the corner and there spread out below me—Windy slid down a hill some—was the whole scene. Courthouse, gallows, mob of people, preacher standing on the stage of the gallows leading…”Shall We Gather At the River?” I stopped in the middle of the street and watched for a couple of minutes. Since I had so fortuitously stumbled upon this town, I thought I’d get something to eat and buy some supplies. I didn’t especially want to watch a hanging. And I actually debated whether I ought to just ride on through and not stop. But I reckon that bit of human emotion that likes to gape and gawk at the misfortunes of others got the better of me, so I rode down the knoll, hitched my horse in front of a saloon, and sauntered over towards the multitudes.
         There weren’t many, but there were about 100, which seemed to be the entire population of Windy, from what I’d seen so far. The town looked bigger than that, though, at least building-wise. Maybe some of the good folks of Windy were sleeping in that day, though it was almost noon now.
          Regardless, the current tune they were bellowing out was “Rock of Ages.” I had a few people look me up and down as I stood a little aloof from the crowd, but nobody approached. There was nobody on the gallows, either, except the preacher, but just then, I saw the courthouse door open—no doubt the jail was in there—and two men, sheriff and deputy—led out a man who didn’t appear to be too happy about his immediate future. He was crying and wailing and bawling and carrying on like he was about to meet the devil. Which was probably the case.
          Anyway, the voices of the singers rose in volume, thankfully drowning out the blubbering of the soon-to-be-deceased. The preacher, a big man in black suit, black hat, and white shirt, was certainly proud of his voice—he could be heard above everybody. But then, I’d never met one of those fellows who wasn’t proud of his voice. I was convinced that was why most of those gents went into that profession. They couldn’t do anything but talk and they liked the sound of their own voices. But maybe I’m being too judgmental. Probably not….
          The sheriff and deputy dragged the poor ill-fated miscreant up the steps to the platform of the gallows. He was still bawling like a calf looking for its momma, but nobody was paying him any mind, folks just sang louder to cover his noise. I was a little annoyed with the whole thing; why does this stuff have to be dragged out so long? Just put a rope around his neck and push him off…But there’s that bit of human emotion that likes to…gape and gawk…and perhaps is supplemented by a morsel of cruelty to our fellow man, enjoying the sufferings of the damned. Especially when singing religious songs.
          The noose was placed around the neck of the malefactor, but it wasn’t easy. He fought and shrieked and rumbled, acting for all the world like he didn’t want to go through with it. He screamed his innocence, and—the singing having ceased—I heard the sheriff tell him to shut up and die like a man. Easy for him to say.
          The preacher then polished the stained glass of his vocal chords and proceeded to preach the depraved fellow straight to hell. “This is the fate of those estranged, dastardly sons of Belial who frolic about with the Wicked One, who habitate dens of iniquity, who slither and slide with the foul creatures who damn their own souls by their cowardly misdeeds…” I didn’t hear much more of it because I was trying to decide if “habitate” was really a word.
          Well, while the preacher prolonged the agony of the “damned,” the latter continued to blubber his innocence. “I didn’t do it…I’m not….” I didn’t get to hear who, or what, he wasn’t because at that exact moment, the fat lady in front of me let out a sneeze that must have echoed through the canyons for 50 miles. I was only glad she was in front of me and not behind, or I might have been echoing through the canyons for 50 miles, too.
         There was an old timer standing about 10 feet away from me. He had a bent back, leaning on a cane, with long white hair under a gray hat that had probably been white when he had bought it. His clothes were gray, his boots were gray, he was gray, except for his long white hair and flowing white mustache. He looked like a decent sort, though, so I strolled over and struck up a conversation.
          “What did he do?” I asked the fellow.
          He harrumphed. “Sidewinder if’n there ever was one. Law’s been after his hide for three-four years now.”
          That didn’t really answer my question, so I tried a different approach. “Murder?”
          “Yep. Kilt five men in a shootout, one of ‘em still in his bed, but what really got ‘im in trouble was the woman he done in a few months later. Held up a stage and drilled her dead while he was a-robbin’ the rest of the folks. He’s a-gonna get what he deserves. Finally.”
          I frowned. Something about that sounded familiar, but it didn’t quite register with me. I looked back up to the platform. The preacher had finished his oratory and was now praying to what he obviously believed was a deaf God. Maybe that’s where all that wind was coming from earlier…except it was cold, not hot…The solemn folks of Windy all had their heads down, men with their hats off. Old Timer gave me a bit of scowl, so I quickly removed my hat as well.
          All the while, the fellow with the rope around his neck was crying an ocean of tears. “I didn’t do it…I didn’t do it…I’m innocent…I’m not….” And the lady sneezed again. So I still didn’t know who, or what, the fellow didn’t think he was. Guilty, probably. They all think they are innocent or somebody else when they’ve got a noose around their neck.
          The preacher quit praying and piously walked off the platform and down the steps, a Bible that looked like it had never been opened crooked under his arm. The sheriff asked the outlaw if he had any final words. He re-proclaimed his innocence and said again who/what he wasn’t. This time I heard him, and a chill ran up my spine because it was a who. The sheriff told him that was enough and made a motion to the deputy who was going to pull the lever, the lever that would send a man to his death.
          I leaned over to the Old Timer. “Who did he say he wasn’t? I mean, who is he?”
          The Old Timer told me.
          The deputy pulled the lever…and the trap door opened.
          I pulled my gun…and fired.
          The man with the rope around his neck fell—and he hit the ground with a thump and a grunt. Alive. My shot had neatly severed the rope above his head.
          Not too surprisingly, everybody turned their heads and looked at me. Many of them in shock, most of them in transparent disapproval.
          I kept my gun in my paw.
          The sheriff, a tall lanky fellow with a droopy mustache and brown hair under a brown hat, was still on the platform, which was about 20 yards away from me. Hands on his hips, not smiling, he looked at me and said, none-too-friendly, “You want to give an explanation why you did that, mister? And you’d better have a good one.”
          “The best,” I responded.
          “Oh? And what might that be?”
          “The man was telling the truth. He’s innocent. He’s not who you think he is.”
          “And just how do you know that?”
          “Because, my dear sheriff, I am Rob Conners.”

Prologue, Part Two: The Ranger and The Man

One month later, mid-October…
          The Ranger hid in the trees and bushes on the hill overlooking the house. It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning and all the lights in the house were out. But the Ranger was extremely cautious; this chase had been going on for almost two years now, looked like it was nearing a conclusion, so mistakes at the moment simply could not be tolerated. Another day or so of reconnoitering wouldn’t hurt. Just to be sure.
          The house was almost an exact replica of a Southern plantation mansion, which was a bit ironic since The Man who owned it came from Philadelphia. He had been guilty of numerous crimes back east, from extortion to bribery to embezzlement and probably murder, too, but that one might be hard to prove. The Ranger had been in contact with law authorities back in Philadelphia, and had been working on the case ever since The Man moved west. A conviction on any of the charges would be welcomed and put The Man in prison for life.
          Back to the house for a moment. It was two-storied, white framed, but solidly built with columns in front, a porch extending all the way across the front, and a balcony overlooking the manicured yard. It was set in a cul-de-sac of a valley; the hills on three sides rising to towering mountains in the distance. The valley that spread out before the mansion was huge and The Man was attempting to own as much of it as possible--another mark against him in the Ranger’s eyes. There was no doubt he was rustling cattle, forcing small ranchers to default on their loans, and then The Man and the local banker would buy up the notes at disgustingly cheap prices. Sometimes The Man would buy the land to expand his empire, sometimes the banker would resell the land, send his (and The Man’s rustlers) back to work, forcing a small rancher to default…and the process would go on and on. He and the banker were barely started with it, but it had been working like a gem so far. Slowly but surely, the banker and The Man were gobbling up all the land in the valley. Nobody had quite caught on yet.
          Except the Ranger, who knew that The Man had been pulling these sorts of shenanigans for a long time. Not exactly the same thing; rustling wasn’t exactly common back east. But that’s part of what made The Man so hard to catch. He followed no pattern—except breaking the law. Nobody had been able to prove it, though.
          The proof is in that house…The Ranger had gotten a detailed blueprint of the mansion, knew right where the safe was in The Man’s study, and had even been able to obtain the combination of that safe. The Ranger smiled at that thought; working a little outside the law to obtain some of that information was worth it to get what was needed to fry The Man. But…patience. It had been a long journey; the Ranger wanted no mistakes now.
          The house itself faced south, and the Ranger was on the eastern hill, probably a quarter mile from the building itself. There were outbuildings behind the house—a barn, stables, corral, and, most importantly to the Ranger, a bunkhouse where ten men lived. Rustlers. I know that, too, though again, the proof was lacking. Yet these rustlers weren’t crude, doltish cowboys; they were cowboys, all right, but all of them well-mannered, clean, well-groomed, friendly—hypocritical, the Ranger thought. They are murdering thieves, every one of them. Yet, the local townsmen thought the whole enterprise run by The Man was totally above board, and he had the “cowboys” to match the image. They never created any ruckus in town; The Man wouldn’t have tolerated it. His hired hands were well paid so they followed his orders closely. None of them would ever have a job like this one again where they would be compensated so well for doing what they enjoyed.
          Positive image or not, they were ruthless. I DON’T want to fall into their hands…
          So, for the past three weeks, the Ranger had—carefully, very carefully—observed the house every night. From every angle. Watching at what time The Man came home, who came, who left, what time the hired help went to the bunkhouse, who was in the house—The Man wasn’t married, but he had a housekeeper who had her own little cottage outside. From what the Ranger could tell, only The Man was in the house at night after dark. Somebody—almost surely the housekeeper--put out all the lights, shut the blinds, and locked the doors. As soon as that was done, the housekeeper left for the evening and went to her cottage. The Man’s bedroom was in the northeast corner of the house, the study right below it. The Ranger was going to try to enter the study through the window. There was no way of telling whether that window was locked or not, but the Ranger had ways….
          There was a dog prowling the grounds, but I can handle that. The canine barked a lot—animals, for sure—so if he barked at the Ranger, it shouldn’t be too suspicious.
          The Ranger was getting a little antsy. Tomorrow night, there would be little moon. The Ranger nodded. That would be the night…

         The Ranger was back the next night, but not exactly at the same location; it didn’t pay to be in the same spot every night—just in case. But everything seemed normal. The cowhands did some chores and went in for supper about six. A few of them left and headed…somewhere. It wasn’t unusual for some of the cowboys to leave at night. The Ranger pulled a face. Maybe rustling. I hope they don’t stay out too late… Otherwise, things were normal. It was already dark by 8 P.M., and soon after that, all the lights in the house, except the ones in the study and The Man’s bedroom—were doused, and the housekeeper left. The cowboys who hadn’t left were in the bunkhouse. The dog was roaming the grounds, though it was very hard to see. It was a starry night and that helped some, but still quite dark. Suits me just fine....
          About 9 o’clock, the light in the study went out. Perhaps an hour later, the bedroom darkened; the man had gone to bed, and at the usual time. About 11 o’clock or so—the Ranger wasn’t sure, but was a good judge of time via the stars—the cowboys who had left earlier came riding in. They were laughing—sound carries very well at night—and they appeared to be a little drunk. They put their horses away and soon the Ranger heard the bunkhouse door close. A few minutes later, the light went out and it appeared everybody was bedded down for the night.
          The Ranger had been involved in some difficult, tense situations before so this was nothing new. Still, there is always some nervous anxiety before the final action is taken. Have I left anything out? I can’t see any holes in my plan…Of course, there was always the possibility of some unforeseen factor arising, but then, there wasn’t much that could be done about that. Some flexibility was always necessary because rarely did a plan work exactly as drawn up. Hopefully, this one would.
          The Ranger was going to be patient, however. Being this close…3 o’clock, when humans are usually in their deepest sleep or least alert, was the time the Ranger had set for moving. Again, without a watch, the Ranger was dependent upon the stars. But those had been well-studied, too. I’ll know when it’s time.
          The designated hour arrived. Slowly, as silent as a church mouse, the Ranger crept down the hill towards the house. There was a clearing of about 50 yards from the foliage on the hill to the house; the Ranger paused at the edge of that clearing, listening. Cicadas chirped, of course, but that was part of the night sounds. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Then…a growling close by…the dog. The Ranger carried a small pouch to put any confiscated papers from the safe into. There was, at the moment, some meat in the pouch. The Ranger pulled it out and tossed it in the direction of the growling mutt. In a moment, it was obvious the meat was gone. The dog came over, slowly wagging its tail, obviously wanting more goodies. The Ranger obliged. There…that takes care of that problem. Getting into a crouch, the Ranger dashed to the window of the study. Crouching below the window. Looking around…listening…no sounds out of the ordinary. The dog nuzzling…the Ranger scratched its ears. Then stood up, examined the window. Tried to open it. Locked.  Not surprising…The Ranger carried some tools in the pouch. It was a matter of two minutes work, and the Ranger slowly slid the window open and crawled inside.
          It was very dark in the study, darker than outside. The Ranger waited a minute or so to try to become as adjusted as possible to the interior of the room. Slowly, the outline of some shapes became manifest—a couch, chair, desk against the far wall. The safe lay behind that desk, in the wall. The Ranger nodded. Move with all deliberate speed….
          The Ranger got down on hands and knees, feeling carefully for any obstruction that might make the slightest sound. When working the combination of the safe and viewing the papers inside, the Ranger would need light. But not until then.
          The distance was navigated and the Ranger crawled around the desk. Reached out…touched the chair. The Ranger stood up, and carefully felt the wall…a painting. Tugging slightly on the right side of the picture frame, the Ranger was rewarded with a slight click. Swinging the picture to the left…there…even in the darkness, the safe appeared lighter in color than the surrounding wall. The Ranger’s heart sped up.
          There was one more thing in the pouch—well, two. A candle and matches. This would be touchy because the match would make a slight noise when struck and the light from the candle might possibly be seen outside. The Ranger was going to try to prevent that as much as possible, but there was also a window on the north side of the room—the Ranger’s right—so it would be virtually impossible to totally hide the light. But the effort would be made.
          The Ranger grimaced when the match flared; the sound was like a bomb. Yet it surely couldn’t have been heard outside the room. The light from the match would have been seen by anyone outside, but again, that was one of the “unforeseens” that couldn’t be helped. I’ve got to have SOME light to see the combination of the safe.
          The candle being lit and the doused match dropped back into the pouch, the Ranger worked as quickly as possible to open the safe while keeping the light as inconspicuous as possible. The combination had five stops; the Ranger had long ago memorized them. It took less than 30 seconds to dial the numbers; the Ranger turned the lever on the door, as was thrilled to hear another click. The safe door opened easily.
          Pulling out all the papers, the Ranger put them on the floor, trying to hide the light while searching. There were at least 100 different papers, forms, bank books, various correspondences; with as much haste as achievable, the Ranger searched. Several of the papers were exactly what was needed. Those were set aside. When the Ranger finished examining everything, the papers/documents that were not needed were arranged as they had been found. The ones the Ranger wanted were stuffed into the pouch. There were about 35 papers; more than enough to put The Man away for eternity…
          Now, let’s make sure everything is exactly the way I found it…papers like this…the combination was set on the number 17…perfect… Snuffing out the light, the Ranger got on all fours again, and quickly, but cautiously, negotiated the distance back to the window. The window would have to be left unlocked; there was no way that could be helped. Hopefully, the housekeeper will be blamed for an oversight. It was the best that could be expected.
          The Ranger slipped out the window and silently closed it. Then everything fell apart. Four lanterns in a half moon were lit about 10 feet away, between the escapee and the hills beyond. The Ranger cursed inwardly and was almost blinded by the light.
          “Well, what have we here?” a voice from behind one of the lanterns said. “Somebody has been in my study.”
          The Ranger said nothing, despondent at being caught, looking for a way of escape.
         “Don’t try drawing your gun, lawman, I have three rifles trained on you.” The Ranger heard three rounds of ammunition being shucked into firing chambers. “Please, very slowly, lift your pistol from your holster. Thumb and forefinger only.”
          The Ranger was very quick and accurate with the gun, but wisdom prevailed here; outshooting three rifles aimed at you was impossible for even the fastest of gunmen. So the Ranger did as ordered.
          Another voice spoke from behind a lantern. “Boss, do you notice something strange about that Ranger?”
          “Hmm,” the “boss”—obviously The Man—replied. “What do you mean, Curt?”
          Curt then laughed. “Look at this.” He walked over and removed the Ranger’s hat.
          “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle…” The Man said, and the other two with him chuckled. “A woman…”
          Yes, indeed, Allie Summer was all woman…


Chapter One—Windy Day To Die

Back to mid-September….
          Everybody around the gallows was staring at me, but I paid them no mind. The crowd parted like the Red Sea as I walked over to the poor unfortunate fellow who had almost gotten his neck stretched. He was sitting on the ground with a dazed, dumbfounded expression on his face, as if not quite believing what had just happened. I knelt down to him.
          “Are you all right?” I asked him.
          He looked at me. His answer was, “Who are you?” So I guess he was ok.
          “I’m Rob Conners. And who are you?”
          “You—you’re Rob Conners?”
          “Yep. Now you answer my question. And while you’re at it, tell me why these people thought you were me.”
          He looked a little sheepish as we both stood up. He winced. “Left ankle is a bit sore.” Then he glanced at me and looked away. “My, uh, name is Aubrey Castle. I’m…an actor. I guess I played the wrong part, didn’t I.”
          I gave him a rather incredulous look. “Yeah, I reckon you did. You want to tell me why you were claiming to be me?”
          Before he could answer, a voice from behind me spoke. “Conners.”
          I turned and looked. It was the sheriff, with a half moon of townsmen behind him, some looking puzzled, some looking skeptical, and some looking…well, dumb. In other words, the usual expressions on most human faces.
          The sheriff looked from me to Castle. “Ok. Which one of you is the real Rob Conners?”
          “I am,” I told him. “This fellow was impersonating me.”
          Castle spoke hastily. “Well, I was…until…” He paused.
          “Until we almost hanged you,” the sheriff finished. “Why were you impersonating Rob Conners?”
          “I really want to know that,” I muttered.
          Castle shifted a bit and looked down. “Well, I…Well, I’m an actor. Rob Conners is…sort of famous. I’ve been told I look like him. Some.”
          I scrutinized the fellow. He didn’t look a bit like me. Well, he did have darkish blonde hair like mine and blue eyes. He was about my age, height, and weight. Well, I guess he did look like me. A little.
          “So you come hopping into this fine little town trying to make everybody think you are somebody important,” I accused.
          Castle grinned sheepishly and held out his hands in a “well, I tried” gesture. “I told you. I’m an actor. I had these people fooled.”
          “Yeah. Right into a noose,” I said. “The only stage you need to be on, fella, is the next one out of town.” I looked at the sheriff. “I assume the stage comes through here.”
          “Once a week,” he said. He narrowed his eyes at me. “You know, if we’re going to hang Rob Conners, there’s no reason why we can’t get on with it today.”
          I raised my eyebrows at him. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
          “Oh? And why not?”
          “Mainly because I got a pardon from the governor over two years ago. What hole have you been living in, sheriff?”
          He looked dubious. “Why should I believe you any more that this…actor here?”
          I gave him a curious look. “I can show you the pardon letter, sheriff. What I want to know is, what brought all this on? I mean, I’ve been out from under that sentence for a long time. You haven’t heard?”
          “No. I want to see that letter.”
          I nodded. “It’s in my saddlebags. Now tell me why you wanted to hang me.”
          “I’ve got a wanted poster on you—“
          “Good grief, sheriff, that thing has to be three years old. Don’t you ever get any new ones?”
          “Yeah, but I still had that one on you. And no word that you’d been pardoned.”
          I sighed and shook my head. “Boy, this place is the backside of nowhere, isn’t it.”
          “We’re pretty proud of our town, mister.”
          “Well, you shouldn’t be if you’re going to hang innocent people and are two years out of the news loop.”
          A man spoke up from behind the sheriff. He wasn’t giving me a friendly look. “I still thank we orter stretch his neck. I don’t cotton to no woman killer.”
          I gave him an angry look. “I didn’t kill any women, buster. I didn’t murder anybody. Yeah, I buried five men. Wilson Brant and a few of his thugs. He was trying to steal my land. He burned me out, killed all my stock, and his men raped and murdered my wife, who just happened to be expecting our first child. Tell me what you would have done if you had been me.” Interested readers can find more on this in the story Whitewater.
          The crowd just stared at me in complete silence. The man who still thought I should be hanged mumbled. “You still kilt a woman.”
          “No, I didn’t.” I glanced over at Aubrey Castle and then back at the old man. “Apparently there is a rash of people in this country who like to think they’re me. Some other fellow did that, claimed to be me, shot that woman, but was killed the next day by the sheriff and a posse down at Dry Gulch.” Then I said to the sheriff, “You can check that out, too, if you want to get caught up on my biography.” Much of it, anyway.
          “We’ve just got your word for all of this, Conners. Show me that letter from the governor.”
          I was disgusted. “You’re a moron, sheriff. If I was guilty, do you think I’d come in here and announce who I am when I find out you’re about to hang me?” I shook my head. “Get out of my way and let me get to my horse.”
          The sheriff pulled his gun and said, “I’ll keep you covered just in case you decide to hop on your horse and ride outta here.”
          I stopped and stared at him. I hadn’t been happy before and I was really unhappy now. “Sheriff, I don’t care if you are the law. I don’t take kindly to anybody pulling a gun on me. Next time you do, you better be ready to use it. And you better be quick about it.”
          We stared at each other for a few moments. I don’t think he liked the look in my eyes. He motioned with his head for me to go to my horse.
          I started to move in that direction, but just then, somebody from down the street hollered, “Sheriff! The bank’s bein’ robbed! The bank’s bein’ robbed. Four fellers with guns….”
          Before he lit out, the sheriff looked at me, crossways. “Is that why you are here, Conners? A cover for this bank robbery? You stay put, you’ve still got a lot to answer for.” Then he ran off down the street.
          I threw my hands up. “Oh, good grief.”
          There was quite a commotion in town, as might be expected. People started screaming, shouting, cursing and running in all directions, raising more dust than a cattle stampede. Like any of that was going to do any good. I certainly didn’t owe Windy anything, but since I always like a good bank robbery, I thought I’d follow the sheriff. Besides, he might not even know where the bank was.
          I did know where the bank was, however. It was in the first block of Windy as one entered the town from the direction I had come. I had noticed as I rode by that it was closed, but that didn’t bother me, I didn’t have any money in there and had no intention of making a deposit. But the point is, the sheriff—and another man was running with him, a deputy, I supposed—was quite a distance away from the bank. He could have confiscated a horse, but he didn’t. And that didn’t surprise me. I think I’ve made it clear that this lawman hadn’t exactly impressed me with an overabundance of intelligence.
          So I did an intelligent thing, too. I ran after the sheriff rather than getting on a horse. Once I started running, I realized that the bank wasn’t as far away as I thought. As I got nearer, I saw three men coming out of the bank, two of them holding bags. A fourth man was standing near four horses—the escape route, I assumed.
          The sheriff yelled at the men to stop, pointed his pistol in the air and fired it. The bank robbers halted, but the lawman faced a serious conundrum. The other man—the one who wasn’t carrying the two sacks of money or caring for the horses—was holding a little boy. In front of him. With a gun pointed at his head. The poor kid was frightened out of his wits—understandably—and a woman, obviously his mother, was in the middle of the street sobbing, wailing, and carrying on like a bank robber had a gun to her son’s head.
          “Hold it right there, sheriff,” the man said (Robber One, I’ll call him). “I’ll blow this kid’s head off.”
          The sheriff did as ordered, and stopped. “You let that boy go, right now.” Did he really think the robber was going to do that just because he told him to?
          Well, if he did, he was disappointed. Robber One smirked. “I don’t think so. He’s our ticket out of town. We’re going to get on our horses, ride outta here, and take the boy with us. You aren’t going to follow us. When we get far enough out of town where I feel good about it, we’ll let the boy go. Got it?”
          Windy’s lawman didn’t answer. There were a crowd of people around, and one of them said, “Do somethin’, sheriff.”
          “I’m open to suggestions, Dobson.”
          Dobson didn’t have any.
          I was standing a little behind the sheriff now. He didn’t know what to do, but I did. I started walking towards Robber One and his buddies.
          “What are you doing, Conners?” the sheriff asked.
          “What you ought to do but won’t.”
          I got closer to the outlaws…50 feet…40…30…and Robber One said, “Hold it right there, mister.”
          25 feet…20…”Conners, get back here!” That from the sheriff.
          “I’m warning, you, mister,” Robber One said. “I’ll shoot this kid.” He was getting a little unnerved, but not as much as I’d hoped.
          I stopped 15 feet away from him. He was standing a few feet in front of the bank door, which was at the corner of the street. I stared at him intently. “Are you really that anxious to die today, buddy?”
          The whole street had gone deathly quiet, including the boy’s mother. Robber One looked at me coldly. “I don’t plan on dying today, mister.”
          “You will if you shoot that boy. That I promise you.”
          His eyes narrowed at me. “Who are you?”
          “Death.” And I think I did unnerve him a bit this time.
          But he fought back. “Do you really want this kid to die? Unless you let us go, I’ll shoot him, I swear I will.”
          Mother sobbed again. The rest of the people watched the tense confrontation. The sheriff didn’t move. At least that I knew of. He was behind me, so I didn’t really know, for sure, what he was doing. I do know he wasn’t standing next to me, giving me any support or help. Not that I wanted his kind of help anyway.
           “No, I don’t want the boy to die. What you have to decide, fella, is whether that boy’s death is worth yours to you. Because I’m telling you, if you kill that kid, you’re a dead man.” I looked at the other three robbers. “And that goes for you three as well. Once I start shooting, sometimes I just don’t know when to stop. Especially when I’m shooting at people who deserve to die.”
          One of the other robbers, Robber Two, who was holding a sack, was definitely getting unnerved. “We don’t deserve to die, mister. Rocky’s the one holdin’ the gun.”
          “Accessory to murder, friend. There isn’t a jury in the land that won’t hang you. Except you won’t live long enough to collar a rope.” I continued to look at him and the other two. “You boys drop those sacks, and your guns, and go to the sheriff, and all you’ll get is a rap for bank robbery. But as long as you’re playing this game with Rocky here, you’re headed for Boot Hill if he does something stupid. Like pull that trigger.”
          Rocky was still trying to…get his way. “Mister, I don’t know who you are, but you’ve got five seconds to clear out or I shoot this boy.”
          “Rocky, that means you’ve got six seconds to live. And you other three have seven, eight, and nine seconds.”
          “You aren’t that good, buddy,” Rocky said. “Nobody is.”
          The sheriff called out. “He’s Rob Conners. He is that good, too. I suggest you do as he says.”
          Rocky’s eyes narrowed again, and he appeared very uncertain now. “Conners, huh. I’ve heard of you.” The other three had, too. They all looked at each other, and figured I might be telling the truth about their expected life span.
          I really didn’t know what Rocky would do. He looked dangerous enough to shoot the boy. I fixed my gaze back on him. “It’s your call, Rocky. Life or death.”
          The other three had had enough; they didn’t want Rocky to get them killed. Robber Two dropped his sack. “I give up. Don’t shoot.” And his hands went up. Robber Three, the other bag holder, decided to do the same, as did the man with the horses. But other than that they didn’t move.
          Rocky was angry now. “You cowards,” and then he did what I hoped he would and anticipated he might. He shifted the gun towards me.
          He got a shot off, but it was by accident. I drew and fired and hit him right between the eyes. He grunted and fell back; his trigger finger reacted but the gun was pointing down. The bullet pounded harmlessly in the street. He was dead before he hit the ground.
          The boy broke free and ran towards his mother, who started sobbing again, grabbed him, and held on to him like he’d been raised from the dead. The other three robbers were staring at Rocky, then at me. Robber Two said, “Please…don’t shoot, Mr. Conners. We give up, we really do.”
          I nodded, my gun pointed in their direction. “Drop your guns.” They obliged. I holstered mine. “They’re all yours, sheriff.”
          I turned around and the people of Windy were staring at me, too. Somebody muttered, “I never seed anything in my life lak that a’fore.”
          “Did you see him draw?”
          “No. One moment gun’s in his holster, then blam! Outshot a feller who had a gun a’pointin’ at him.” That wasn’t the whole truth. Rocky didn’t have the gun pointed at me yet and I anticipated his move. It wasn’t as big a deal as they were making it out to be. But, to be honest, there probably weren’t too many other people who could have done it, either.
          The sheriff spoke to his deputy. “George, take these other three over to the jailhouse and lock ‘em up.” He looked around, found the banker. “Mr. Lovelace, there’s your money back.”
          A short, fat man who looked like a banker was mopping his brow, even though it certainly wasn’t hot. He nodded, but said to me, “Th-thank you, Mr. Conners. I think all the people of Windy thank you.” And there went up a cheer.
          The fickle mob. A half hour ago they were ready to hang me.
          The sheriff came over. “I guess I was wrong about you, Conners. That was a dangerous play you made, but you seemed to know what you were doing. I couldn’t have done that in a million years.”
          I shrugged. “Most people don’t want to die. Once I convinced him that he would, he hesitated. But when his partners gave up, he cracked. Wanted to get back at me, the man who had spoiled it all. Human nature. It helps to know a little bit about it.”
          He let out a deep breath. “Yeah, I guess so. You really didn’t think he would shoot the boy?”
          “I didn’t know what he would do, sheriff. But I knew I was going to kill him if he did. And he knew it, too.” Then I changed the subject. “I’ll get that pardon letter from the governor and let you read it.”
          “Forget it. I’d pardon you myself after what you just did. Incidentally, my name is Dave Braniff.
          I shook his hand. “Sorry we got off on the wrong foot,” I said to him, “but I hope we can change that.”
          A number of people had come over and wanted to shake my hand, too. The mother of the boy especially gushed over me. She was still crying, holding her son’s hand, thanking me, thanking me, thanking me, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. I was my usual humble self and told her it was no big deal.
          And it wasn’t, frankly. I may sound light-hearted as I write this, but let me tell you, at the time I was talking to that sheriff and those people, I didn’t really care if he had hanged me or not. I was about as empty and melancholy as a human could be.
          You see, not only had I lost my first wife, Julie, in the manner described earlier, but my second wife, Robin, was gone, too. I thought our match was made in heaven, but things fell apart, mainly for her. Her Aunt Martha died, and that tore Robin up; she had really grown attached to the old woman. It affected her so much at work that she lost the store she owned—“For Ladies Only”—and then, soon after, she miscarried our child. That was the final straw. She blamed me for everything, caught a stage and train, and headed back to New York, where she had lived for several years before returning to Whitewater. I was crushed, and even more so, when not long after she arrived in New York, I received a letter that she was filing for divorce. I was totally shocked, figuring that she just needed some time to herself for awhile. But she went through with it and there was nothing I could do about it. Oh, I could have tried to block the divorce, I guess, but I didn’t; if that was what she wanted, then I’d give it to her. So I did.
          That left me…alone…and about as empty and melancholy as a human could be. After Robin and I got married, I had bought a ranch not far from Whitewater and was doing well with cattle and horses. When she left, I couldn’t stay there, just like I had been unable to remain in Rogersville where Julie and I had had a ranch. So I sold out at Whitewater and started drifting. That was about three months ago. I headed in sort of a northwesterly direction, not really sure where I was going. I loved the mountains, though—at least I always had. At the moment, I didn’t love or care about much of anything. I guess it was just in my nature to see that justice was done. So I couldn’t allow that poor fellow hang for claiming to be me, and I couldn’t let that bank be robbed, even though the good citizens of Windy would have buried me if I had given them half a chance.
          Anyway, the sheriff of Windy tried to apologize, but he had a little too much pride for it to come off with a lot of sincerity. “Well,” he said, “I guess we owe you an apology as well as our thanks. I’m sure we would have caught those robbers, but you just made it easier.”
          I wasn’t convinced that this bozo could have caught a cold, but I just said, “Glad to help. I didn’t have anything else to do today.” I gave him a whimsical smile. “Except get hanged.”
          He ignored that. “You just passing through?” he asked.
           “Stay the night and the town will buy you a steak and put you up. It’s the least we can do.”
          I thought about it a moment. Well, why not? My immediate itinerary was to go nowhere as slowly as I could get there, and Ol’ Paint was as lazy as I am and always wanted a straw bed and a bucket of oats. “Feed and put up my horse, too,” I said to the sheriff, “and I’ll do it.”
          “I think we can handle that. I suspect the people of Windy will be happy you came along.”
          “Not as happy as Aubrey Castle, I’ll bet.”
          He actually grunted a chuckle. “Probably not.”
          Sheriff Braniff said one final thing to me before he headed to his office. “Go put your horse up, and get a room in the hotel. Tell them it’s on the town because of what you did. Might be a reward, too.”
          I waved that away. “Not necessary, but I’ll take you up on that steak. Where’s the best place in town to get one?”
          “The Four Aces,” he replied and pointed down the street. “Saloon, but Bump Hadley, the owner, whips up the best grub in town. Tell him we pay for that, too.”
          I winced when he said “saloon.” Not my favorite establishments. But all I said was “thanks,” and headed to the livery stable. A night in a place called Windy. Whoopee.
          Well, Ol’ Paint was tired and, frankly, I was, too. If the steak was good, I might stay two nights.
          But it would have to be an awfully good piece of meat. These people might change their minds tomorrow and decide to hang me after all.

Chapter Two—Windy Day for More Trouble

          It was getting on in the afternoon by the time I had bedded Ol’ Paint down, made sure he had some oats—double portion, let the taxpayers pay for it—and got a room in the hotel.
          “’Preciate what you did, young feller,” the clerk behind the desk at the hotel said. “Got all my money in that bank and ‘bout had a heart attack when I heerd it’d been robbed.”
          I looked around and wished he would put some of that money into sprucing up his hotel. The red and yellow flower patterned rug on the floor was horribly faded and had rips in it, the paint was peeling from the walls, and I saw a cockroach scurry across the floor. But I said, “Glad to help,” took my key, and went up to room 1, which had one window that overlooked the town and another that had a great view of the brothel across the alley. I wondered if I’d get any sleep that night. Not that I intended to visit the brothel, mind you.
          The room actually was clean and fresh and the bed comfortable. I lay down and tried to snooze for an hour or so, but never fell asleep. When my mind started drifting back to Julie and Robin, I decided to get up and have that steak the sheriff had promised me.
          “Oh, Mr. Conners. Yes, of course, I should have recognized you. I was at the hanging, and then saw you stop those dastardly outlaws from pilfering our money.” This guy was a saloon owner?? “No, I haven’t seen Sheriff Braniff, but I’ll certainly take your word for what he said. Indeed, if he didn’t say it, I would be happy to provide you the meal anyway.” I suppose he had all his money in the bank, too.
          “Well, thanks. You’re welcome to check with him; I’m sure he’ll confirm what I said. Mind if I go ahead and order?”
          “Oh, please do. Would you like a drink? Perhaps a little roulette on the side?”
          I grinned. Quite the businessman. “Just milk to drink, if you have it, and I’ll pass on the roulette, thanks.”
          He seemed a little put out by that, but I didn’t care. I wanted to eat and get out of the place, not waste my money on some cheat.
          So I found a table, the bartender brought me a glass of milk, and told me my food—steak and potatoes--would be out soon. I had to wait a little longer than I wanted and the clientele started showing up before I even got my meal.
          But the sheriff also came in, looked around, spotted me, and came over. “Mind if I sit?”
          I was into my meal now, and had a mouthful of a juicy steak, so I just motioned to him to have a chair. I kept chewing.
          “Didn’t mean to interrupt your dinner,” he said.
          I swallowed. “No problem. I can listen while I eat.” I cut another hunk of steak. It was good.
          Braniff gave me a wry smile. He tossed a wad of money at me. “City fathers want you to have a $500 reward for stopping the robbery.”
          I made a face at him. “I’m almost insulted, Sheriff.” But then I picked up the money and stuffed it in my pocket. “But I’m not so insulted that I won’t take the money.”
          He grunted. “Didn’t figure you’d turn it down. You don’t look like a fool.”
          “Thanks.” A forkful of potatoes.
          Braniff looked at me closely. “You ever done any law work?”
          I shook my head. “Been asked a couple of times, but turned it down,”
          “Why? If you don’t mind me asking. I hear you’re hell on wheels with a gun. Well, I saw it, too.”
          “Maybe, but that doesn’t necessarily make me a good lawman.” I gave him a crooked smile. “Could make a good outlaw, you know. But I’m a rancher and that’s what I want to do.”
          “Stay around here?”
          He was getting at something, but I didn’t know what it was. “I don’t know. I haven’t looked around. What are you driving at, Sheriff? If you don’t mind me asking.”
          He sighed and nodded to the bartender who put a beer down in front of him. “I ain’t a lawman, Conners. Thought I’d like it, but I don’t. What you said earlier today rings true. We almost hanged an innocent man, though he half-way deserved it, if you ask me. But I should have been more up on things. If you were pardoned two years ago, I should have known it and that’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
          I looked at him closely, and my opinion of him changed drastically. “That’s big of you, Sheriff, but I’m sorry, I don’t want the job.”
          “Wish you’d reconsider. This area…needs a little cleaning out.”
          I had finished my meal, waved at the bartender for another glass of milk, leaned back in my chair, and scrutinized Braniff some more. “What’s the problem?”
          “Ever heard of the Colt Reese?”
          I nodded. Not the fellow I’d invite home to meet my daughter. If I had a daughter. “Yeah. He operates in this area?”
          Braniff nodded. “Got a whole gang of rustlers and horse thieves and I can’t catch a one of ‘em. Know he’s behind it, him and his four sons, though I’m not sure his wife, Isabel, doesn’t run the whole show.” He pursed his lips and shook his head. “Don’t get in her way, Conners, she’s plumb poison mean. Makes Colt look like a pussycat.”
          I didn’t intend to get in her way because I didn’t intend to stay in Windy long enough to get in anybody’s way. “Well, I’m sorry to hear about that, Sheriff, but again, I’m not interested in the job. And if there’s a gang of rustlers that you…that can’t be caught, then I don’t want a ranch around here, either.” I sighed. “Remember, I had some problems with some thieves before and I don’t really want to go through it again.”
          He finished his beer, nodded, and stood up. “Can’t blame you. But if you decide you want a challenge, I’d step aside and let you have the job.”
          “I’ll keep it in mind.” For about two seconds.
          He nodded again and left.
          I watched him leave. I felt for him, but I didn’t envy him. Unfortunately, sheriff was an elected—political—position and they can be bought. Braniff didn’t seem that way, but I’d run into such lawmen so I had a bit of a bad taste in my mouth about that sort of job. And, like I told Braniff, I wanted a ranch again; that’s what I loved and wanted to do, and it might be the only thing that helped me get over Robin. And Julie.
          Anyway, I was mentally heading a direction I didn’t want to go and it was making me a little sour and a lot depressed, so I figured I’d go try to find something to do. What was there to do in Windy? Well, I wasn’t going to waste money at Hadley’s roulette wheel or on the brothel across from the hotel, so I’d have to find some other way to keep myself entertained.
          But, for the immediate future, somebody helped me out. Just as I was about to get up and leave, a burley fellow with a bushy beard and greasy black hair, who was sitting a couple of tables over from me, looked at me and said, “You’re Rob Conners, ain’tche.”
          I examined him for a moment, and it didn’t take me long to get annoyed. His eyes were turning red, which meant he was already feeling his booze. His whole demeanor read “trouble.” Why, why, why does trouble always start, every night, in a saloon? I guess the kind of liquid sold in these places has something to do with it.
          I nodded at him. “Yeah,” was all I said. It didn’t matter what I said; he was looking for trouble even if I was Jesus Christ.
          He had a very unfriendly expression on his face. “You think you’re tough, don’t you.”
          I almost laughed out loud at that one. Surely this ape could think of a better line than that. But I wasn’t in a laughing mood and I wasn’t in a mood to banter with this fool. So, as quick as my reflexes would allow—which is pretty fast, I must admit—I was out of my chair, my gun in my hand, the barrel up Ape’s nose.
          “Yes, I think I’m pretty tough. And I’m also a pretty good shot with this gun, though it might be hard to hit the pea-sized brain you’ve obviously got in your head. But I’ll try if you really want me to.” I cocked the gun.
          The saloon immediately went quiet. I think Ape sobered up a little; a cocked gun up a nostril has a way of doing that. He was looking cross-eyed, staring down at the barrel of my .45. He said, rather meekly, “I bet you wouldn’t be so tough without that pistol in your mitt.”
          So I lifted the gun, uncocked it, holstered it, and stood up. “You want to find out?”
          Some of his bravado returned when I removed the gun from his nose. His face broke out in a wide grin and he said, “Yeah, I’d like to cut you down to size a little. I don’t fancy anybody shovin’ a gun in my face.” He got to his feet. He was big, a good three inches and thirty pounds above me. That didn’t bother me, though. The bigger they are, etc. etc. etc.
          Bump Hadley decided to step in right then. “Uh, Burt, this isn’t the time or—“
          I turned and looked at him, and something in my eyes told him to shut up. Everybody in the saloon was watching, of course, and it was more than half full—a good 30 men. I turned back to Ape—Burt—and said, “You know something, Burt? I’m having a difficult time making a decision. Maybe you can help me.”
          “What’s that, tough guy? I’ll help you and then help Hadley by moppin’ the floor with you.” He was rolling up in right sleeve as he was talking.
          I could have leveled him right then—I usually like throwing the first punch—but I wanted to play with him a minute. “I can’t decide whether I ought to break both your arms or just one of them. What do you think?”
          He sneered. “Funny guy, too, ain’tche. Ye ain’t gonna have no teeth to laugh through when I’m finished with you.” He reared up like he was ready to start punching.
          I held up both hands. “Wait just a second. Maybe Mr. Hadley would like to take some bets on how this will turn out.” I glanced back at Hadley and raised my eyebrows in a question.
          He smiled. He was always game for a good bet. “Three to one on Burt,” he said. “Any takers?”
          Nobody did.
          Burt sneered again. “Nuff o’ this, Conners. You’re stallin’. Jest keep that pistol in your pocket. This won’t take long…” And he threw his first—and only—punch.
          Burt was big, but he wasn’t necessarily strong. He had a beer gut on him that told me that manual labor and he didn’t meet very often. I caught his punch in my left hand about a foot from my face. Stopped him almost dead still. There was a gasp in the saloon. A surprised expression came over Burt’s face. Then I saw fright in his eyes…because he was looking into mine.
          I’ve already informed the reader that, because of Julie and Robin, there was nothing inside me. Empty. Dead. And that’s probably what Burt saw in my eyes. It is a bit frightening staring into an empty tomb. Especially if you think you’re the one fixing to be in it.
          I held his fist for a few seconds, then launched a short, hard right directly into his wind. He doubled up with an “ooooof,” and then I grabbed the back of his head and rammed his forehead against the table so hard that the boards broke in two. The two men who had been sitting with Burt cried out and jumped back, knocking their chairs over, and spilling their drinks and the bottle of whiskey they’d been sucking on. Well, actually, the broken table had taken care of the booze.
          I shoved Burt down to the floor; he was out like a light. Or maybe dead, I didn’t care, though I figured a hard head like his could take a whole lot more than I had given him. Then I turned and headed for the door of the saloon.
          “Who’s going to pay for that table, Conners?” Hadley.
          I didn’t stop walking. “Let the man who started the trouble pay for it, Hadley. Isn’t that the way it ought to be?” And then I was outside.
          I stood on the boardwalk for a few seconds and took a deep breath. What to do, what to do, what to do? I had half a mind to go get Ol’ Paint and ride out of this half-baked, two-bit basement of an outhouse town. But I was tired and decided to stay. A couple of people passed me and thanked me for catching the bank robbers. That made me feel a little better. But I was still thinking about leaving.
          I didn’t. Before long, I was going to wish I had.

Chapter Three—Windy Day For A Haircut

          It was a little after 6 when I left The Four Aces. I decided I wanted a bath and haircut, the former especially, and I spied a barber shop down the street. I walked over to it, but it was closed. Had a sign that said “Open 9 A.M. sharp. Close 6 P.M. sharp.” I liked that. Punctuality. The world would be better off if everybody would be on time.
          But that left me nothing to do for the evening. So I went back to the hotel, and stayed out of trouble for the rest of the night. I’d find plenty the next day, although I didn’t know it yet, of course.

          The next morning, I wanted to see just how punctual that barber was, so I arrived at his place about 10 till 9. It was chilly, overcast, and…windy. Not cold enough to snow by any means, but cold enough for a jacket.
          While I was standing outside the barber shop, a man walked by and glanced at me. “You the fella that saved the bank yestiddy, ain’t ye.”
          “Yeah,” I said. I was a star.
           “Welcome.” I changed the subject. “Is the barber as punctual as his sign says?”
          “Yeah, but I don’t know why. Hardly gets no business.”
          “You’ll find out when he gets here,” and he walked off.
          I pulled a face and waited, thinking the barber might be a wild-eyed, mad scientist ready to lop my ears off and use them in some magic potion. A man showed up at 9:00, glanced at me, and opened the shop. Without a word, he went inside. And I think I knew what the fellow meant when he said the barber got little business.
          It wasn’t his laconic behavior. I followed him into the shop. Standing behind the barber’s chair, getting his materials ready for the day, was a black man. He glanced up when I came in and our eyes met. This fellow was different. His eyes were dark brown, sharp, and full of intelligence. He had some white blood in him because his lips were thinner than the typical African and his nose was not as big and round, either. He did have the kinky hair, but it was close-cropped. He was wearing a clean white T-shirt and gray slacks. He was solid and well-proportioned, maybe a couple of inches shorter than my 6 feet, but he might have outweighed me by 10 pounds or so. All muscle. He even intimidated me a little bit.
          But he was black.
          And obviously intelligent.
          Two things whites of that day didn’t especially like.
          “Haircut,” I said to him, matching his laconic attitude.
          “Shave?” he asked.
          I rubbed my whiskers. I didn’t like to shave every day, but I usually did. I’d let him do it. “Yeah.”
          “Two bits.” I nodded.
          I sat in the only chair in the place and he draped a sheet over me. Neither of us said a word while he did his job, and he did a good job. Didn’t cut my throat or ears.
          When I got out of the chair and scratched the back of my neck, he asked me, “You gonna pay?”
          I gave him a perplexed look. “Of course, I am.” I pulled 30 cents out of my pocket and handed it to him. “Two bits, plus a nickel for doing a good job.”
          He returned the nickel. “Don’t want the nickel. Just what you owe me.”
          I took the nickel back, not wanting to offend him. “What made you think I wouldn’t pay?”
          He grunted. “Most of the people in Windy think I’m still a slave, so I work for a slave’s wages. I ain’t the most popular fellow in town, if you’ll pardon the understatement.”
          I nodded my understanding. I hadn’t been around too many Negroes in my life, a few cowboys, mostly, and they tended to be good men, hard workers. I didn’t have any problem with the color of a man’s skin as long as he held up his end of the deal. “How do you stay in business?”
          “Men still have to have their hair cut, some want a bath and a shave. A few of them even pay, but, like I said, most don’t, and I’m outnumbered so there’s nothing I can do about it. I get by, but I’m not going to be living on Snob Hill anytime soon.”
          I shook my head, a bit disgusted, but that he had described the feeling of the age. “I’m sorry to hear that. You did a good job on my head.” Our eyes met again. On impulse, I said, “I’m headed down to the restaurant for some breakfast. Want to join me?”
          He grunted again, this time a slight chuckle going with it. “You’re out of your mind.”
          “I’ve been told that. Doesn’t look like you’ve got a line waiting. Close up, I’ll wait for you outside.”
          “They won’t serve me.”
           I looked him up and down. “Yes, they will.”
          He narrowed his eyes at me. “You’re that fellow that stopped the bank robbery yesterday, aren’t you.”
          I walked over to him and held out my hand. “Yep. Rob Conners.”
          He took my hand. “Ben Baker. You’re the first man who’s shaken my hand since I’ve been here.” Then he smiled coyly. “Wait outside, I’ll go with you. I’m interested in seeing what happens.”
          I nodded and left the shop. I was hungry and wanted some breakfast, and Ben Baker intrigued me. Then I smiled to myself. I’m kinda interested in finding out what happens at the restaurant, too…
          It didn’t take him long to close up. I chuckled at the sign he hung up: “Gone to lunch. Be back noon sharp.” “Early lunch,” he said. “Or maybe a brief one.”
          “A little early for lunch,” I said.
          “I don’t have a ‘Gone to breakfast’ sign. I’ve already eaten, but I’m curious to see what you do in that restaurant when they throw me out.”
          “I am, too.” I spied a restaurant across the street and down aways; I figured that would do. I pointed. “That place ok?”
          “As good as any to get kicked out of.”
          I grinned at him. “This might be fun.”
          He grinned back. “Yeah, it might.”
          We started across the street and about half way, I glanced to my left and saw a man on a horse speed up and head towards us, acting like he was going to run us down. I figured he was probably just trying to scare us, intimidate Ben, but I wasn’t having any of it. I put my arm in front of Ben and we backed up. The fellow on the horse came by and I reached up and grabbed him and, in one smooth motion, tossed him over my head into a nearby water trough. He hollered the whole way, but he got a bath anyway.
          Ben laughed. “You got guts, Conners, I’ll say that for you. And thanks. That’s the first good laugh I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
          We continued on across the road. The fellow in the trough stood up and called me every name in the book, but I ignored him. “Do you have any friends at all in this town?”
          He glanced at me. “Well, some of the women are pretty nice to me. When their husbands aren’t around.”
          I could understand that. Black or not, Ben was handsome man. He continued, “You’re not going to have any friends, either, if you’re seen with me for very long.”
          “You know what, Ben?”
          “I don’t give a rat’s rear if anybody in this town likes me or not.”
          He laughed again.
          “You already ate, you said?” I asked him.
          “Yeah, but not much. I’ll eat again—if they’ll serve me.” Then he cast me a sharp look. “I don’t want any charity, though.”
          “I’m not offering any. You pay your own way around me.” Ben just nodded. “Unless you’re female,” I added. And he smiled at that. “And then you pay my way, too,” I finished. And he chuckled again.
          “You ain’t got many girlfriends, I’ll bet.”
          I started to say something about my two wives, but decided against it. So I just said, “Not at the moment.”
          We entered the restaurant—“Blacky’s,” it was called, and I thought that was a bit paradoxical. When we stepped inside, everybody looked up at us and the place went deathly silent. There was a counter to the left, and then about 10 tables, covered with blue and white checkered tablecloths. The place was about two-thirds full and didn’t look terribly friendly.
          I glanced at Ben and caught his eye. I motioned with my head for us to go find a seat. I started walking towards an empty table near the back, Ben behind me.
          As Ben passed the first table a man grabbed his arm. “Nigger, you know you ain’t welcome in here. Now, git.” Then he looked at me. “An’ if you’re with him, you git, too.”
          I figured we’d better get this settled right then and there. And I didn’t figure words would do it. So I turned to the fellow, grabbed him by his shirt, and pulled him out of his chair. “Open the door, Ben, I’m going to take out the trash.”
          Ben hid a grin, and did as I asked. The slimeball I was holding was squawking and squirming but I threw him outside anyway. Then I turned to the rest of the people inside the restaurant.
          “Anybody else want to find out who’s going to stay and who’s not?”
          Nobody spoke.
          I looked over at the man behind the counter. “You’re going to serve this man or I’ll tear the place up. You understand?”
          He had a dumb expression on his face, and nodded his head. “S-sure, mister, whatever you say.”
          I nodded to Ben and we went and found a table at the back. I sat where I could watch the masses, just in case. I could hear some grumbling, but everybody went back to their meal.
          The waitress—a pretty young blonde—came over and gave us both a menu. She had a coy smile on her face. “You didn’t make too many friends with that one, mister.”
          “You know what, lady?”
          “I don’t give a rat’s rear if I did or not. I’m not here to make friends,” I told her. “Maybe I’ll go rob the bank.”
          She and Ben both laughed. “Bacon, eggs, toast, and milk for me,” I ordered. “And a lot of all of it.” I looked at the black man.
          “I don’t think I want breakfast again,” he said. Then, to the waitress, “Fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, apple pie for dessert, with a big, cold glass of milk to drink.”
          She pulled a face, but nodded. “One big breakfast and a fried chicken lunch comin’ right up.” And she sauntered off.
          Ben looked at me with a twinkle in his eye. “And, whitey, don’ you say nuffin’ ‘bout me eatin’ chicken.”
          I laughed. “I’m just surprised you didn’t order goober peas and watermelon.”
          He laughed back. “I would have, but I didn’t figure they had any of either.”
          I looked at him carefully, changing the subject. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
          He snorted. “Nigger couldn’t get no work in the Souf, nigger couldn’t get no work in the Norf, nigger come out west.”
          I nodded. That happened a lot. Blacks weren’t any more welcomed in the North than they were in the South, regardless of Yankee propaganda. “Raised in the South?”
          “Yes. Mother was a slave, my father was…white. Plantation overseer, I think, momma never told me.” That explained some of his looks. “My mother was sold off to another plantation when I was 5 and I’ve never seen her since. That was in ’64. I was freed the next year, of course. Served as a house boy for awhile for my former ‘owner.’ Besides selling momma out from under me, he was good to me. Taught me to read and write. Said he saw something different in me, but when I was thirteen, carpetbaggers came and took his land. Left me on my own. I’ve been making it ever since.”
          “How long you been in Windy?”
          “Too long. How about you? What’s your story?”
          The food came and we dug in before I answered his question. I gave him a brief bio, Julie, Robin, drifting. I didn’t spend too long with it. “My folks were from the South. Well, my grandpa was. Owned some slaves, but freed them in the ‘40s.”
          Ben snorted again. “They all say that. You expect me to believe it?”
          I glanced at him, then took a bite of bacon. “You know what, Ben?”
          He half-smiled. I think he knew what was coming. “What?”
          “I don’t give a rat’s rear if you believe it or not.” And he laughed again.
          “Sorry,” he said. “I’m a little bitter.”
          "Understandable. Where’d you get the name Baker? Plantation owner?”
          We ate in silence for a few minutes. “How long you planning on staying?” he asked me.
          “Maybe tonight, leave tomorrow. Want to give my horse a blow, do a little shopping, take a nap, get into some more trouble, that sort of stuff.” I looked at him, gave him a slight grin. “I’d like a bath later. I’ll be by at 5:55.”
          “You’ll heat your own water, then.” I chuckled.
          We finished eating. “I need to get back to the shop. I’m sure there’s a long line waiting for me,” he said, sardonically.
          “I’ll be there later. I’m serious about the bath.”
          “It’ll be on me,” he said.
          “No, it won’t. I don’t want any charity, either.”
          I dropped some money on the table and he did, too. “That chicken any good?” I asked him.
          “Too greasy. Best place to eat in town is The Four Aces. At least that’s what I’ve heard. They won’t serve me, either.”
          I looked at him, perplexed. “Where do you eat?”
          “The grocer’s wife feels sorry for me and sells me some food.”
          We left the restaurant. “I’ll see you later,” I said.
          He just nodded and walked off.
          I watched him for a few moments, then shook my head, feeling a little sorry for him myself. Wasn’t his fault he was born with the skin color he had.
          A man spoke from behind me. “Wouldn’t be a bad feller, ‘cept for the color of his skin.”
          I glanced at him. “He’s not a bad fellow, regardless of what his skin color is. Better than anybody else I’ve met in this town.”
          He hmph’d at that, and walked off. I shook my head again. Conners, if you don’t get out of this town, they’ll hang you yet…
          And the way I felt—Julie, Robin, etc.—I didn’t really give a rat’s rear if they did or not.