Chapter Eighteen—Confrontation and Some Surprise Participants

Monday, October 28, morning and afternoon…
          Kelly Atkins arrived in River Bend about mid-morning to buy a few small articles at the general store. But what she really wanted to do was go to Evan Dryer’s office and see him. She knew he’d be busy, it being a Monday morning. But, he always had time to say hello and sometimes they went to lunch together. Kelly was hoping that would be the case today, but she always tried to be understanding of his busy schedule.
         She had sat with him at church the morning before and blushed at some of the questions she was asked. The preacher himself, as Evan and Kelly walked out together, asked, “When are you two going to come here for a different reason—to let me tie the knot between you?”
          Evan seemed a little irritated by the query, and Kelly wished people would not put them—him, especially—on the spot like that. But he was gracious. “It shouldn’t be too much longer,” he replied, with a smile at Kelly. “I want to clear a few more things up so I’ll have…time…to spend with my new bride. I certainly want to do it before winter is over because it gets cold at night.”
          And Kelly blushed big time at that one.
          Georgia Bull, a local dressmaker who looked like she needed to wear a blanket and not a dress, overheard the conversation and tried to drum up some business. “Well, dear,” she said to Kelly, “you just let me know the date so I can be sure and have your wedding dress ready for you.”
          Kelly had made no arrangements with Georgia about a wedding dress, and she wanted to make her own, so she just responded, “We’ll see.” But she was having fun thinking about it and all that would be involved in the days leading up to the wedding.
         Betty Collier chimed in. “We’re all praying for you two, but we know you’ll have a wonderful marriage. You’re just made for each other.”
          “I think so, too,” Kelly said, and looked at Evan. He just smiled. He seems a little distracted today, she thought. Well, I know he’s got a lot on his mind…But he had been his usual wonderful self that morning, and it helped her overcome the doubts that Rob Conners had put in her mind earlier that day. I wonder why Rob did that. It could be a case of mistaken identity. Probably…She didn’t like to think about it. “Do you…have time for lunch?” she asked Evan.
          He smiled at her, but he still appeared a little occupied. “Of course, where would you like to go?”
          “Uhhhh,” Kelly thought for a moment. “I think I’m in the mood for Chinese.”
          “Chinese it is, then,” Evan said. “I’ll go get the wagon…”
          They tied Evan’s horse to the back of the wagon which Kelly had ridden in for church, and went to Wang’s Chinese Restaurant. She saw a black man in the dining room, which was a little unusual. Nice looking man, too…I wonder who he is…It was a bit spooky because he kept glancing at her, but not with romantic or lustful interest. Almost like he was mad. He’d look at Evan, too, and Kelly didn’t like that. But she was able to put it aside to visit with her beau.
          She tried to make conversation with Evan, but he usually replied only in monosyllables. Finally, she asked him, “Is something wrong, Evan? You seem… preoccupied, or something.”
          He smiled at her, that charming smile that just melted her heart. And then he spoke words that melted it some more. “How could anything be wrong when I’m with the most beautiful woman on earth?” Kelly smiled her joy. He continued, “I’m sorry, but I do have a lot on my mind at the moment. A couple of new cases had cropped up and they are doozies. I hate that they occupy my mind when I’m not at work, but it just seems to happen.”
          She nodded. She never asked him about his cases; she had once, but he had responded, “Lawyer-client confidentiality. I really can’t tell you, and I never will be able to, even after we get married. I’m sorry, but it’s just something you’ll have to understand and accept.” Yet, the conversation with Rob Conners that morning came into her head again, and it aggravated her. How could this man be what Rob says he is?
          “Well, then,” she replied, “I won’t ask if I can come out to your place this afternoon then. I don’t want to distract you further.”
          Even started to say something, paused, and then said, “Maybe that would be the best thing, Kelly. There’s something in particular that’s developed that I’m going to have to concentrate on and I won’t be able to give you much time today.”
          She smiled, disappointed, and said, “Well, we’ve got a sick calf anyway, and dad had to stay with her, so maybe I better go back and help him.”
          “Oh? I hope nothing serious.”
          “I don’t think so. I’m not really sure what it is…”
          They talked—or she did—ate, and then departed. He left her with a kiss and a promise that he’d see her as soon as possible. That was all the assurance Kelly needed…

          So, when she arrived in River Bend on Monday morning, she made her stops and went to Evan’s office a little before lunchtime, hoping he’d have time to take her out to eat. But she was surprised when she found his door locked. He was always there on Monday morning. She couldn’t recall him ever being ill. And if he had to leave his office for some reason—like showing the settlers around the previous week—he would leave a message on a chalkboard next to his door, explaining where he was and when he’d return. There was no such message today. Sometimes he’d leave Kelly a special note taped to his door, but that wasn’t the case this time. It was obvious that there was no light on inside the office, either, so he wasn’t there.
          Kelly debated what to do. She was concerned that he might be sick. Should I go out to his house or not? He might be working there. He said he had two difficult cases. Maybe he didn’t want to come to his office so that no one would disturb or interrupt him. She pulled a face. Nobody—like me. But he had never made her feel like she was a bother. And she wanted to see him—she always did. I think I’ll go out there. I’ve got a reason, thinking he might be sick. If he’s just staying there, working, I’ll leave. With that decided, she went downstairs, put the stuff she had bought in the saddlebags, mounted her horse, and headed towards the Dryer mansion. She loved going there. That will be my home someday soon. It’s such a beautiful place…
          But the beauty of the location was nothing compared to the love in her heart. I’d marry with him even if we had to live in a drafty one-room shanty with rats running around everywhere…
          The previous day’s conversation with Rob Conners was completely gone from her mind.

          Kelly arrived at the Dryer/Backstrom home a little after noon. As always, she used the brass knocker of a lion’s head on the front door to announce her presence. And, as always, Mona answered the door. With a smile.
          “Ach, lassie, coom in ootta the cold. Ye’ll catch yer death.” Kelly laughed. She always did when listening to the Irish lady speak. She followed her into the lush living room and walked over to the fireplace to warm herself. Kelly was relieved to get out of the damp, chilly air and near the fire.
          “Ah’ll goo tell th’ Mahn that ye’re here, dearie. He’s in his stoody. You just warm yereself by th’ fire and I’m sure he’ll be oot in a few minutes and be glahd t’ see ya.”
          Kelly smiled. “Thanks, Mona. I hope I’m not bothering him. I was afraid, when I didn’t find him in his office, that he might be sick or something.”
          “Nah, he’s fine, just loads o’ work t’ do, I reckon. I’ll fetch him for ye.” And she headed down the hall.
          Kelly held her hands out to the fire, a dreamy smile on her face. Her heart started beating a little faster when she knew she was about to see the man she loved more than life itself….

          “What’s she doing here? I don’t have time for that….” And the word Backstrom used to describe his fiancée would better have been used on a female canine—the same word he had used two days previous when Kelly had showed up unexpectedly. But he sighed and made an appeasing motion with his hand. He said to Mona, “Tell her I’ll be there shortly. And get something ready for lunch.”
          Mona never let anything ruffle her. She had a pretty good idea—more than that, really—that Backstrom didn’t care anything about Kelly, but it was none of the maid’s concern. She just did what she was told, enjoyed having a nice place to live, and went on about her business. She nodded and left the study.
          Back in the living room, she said to Kelly. “He’ll be right oot, dearie. And he wants me to whip oop some loonch so ye’ll be a’eatin’ here as well.”
          “Thanks, Mona. I hope he’s not too busy.”
          “Nah, he’s always happy t’ see ya, ye know that.” And Mona headed to the kitchen, aware she had just told a whopper, but not concerning herself with it in the least.
          Dryer/Backstrom composed himself in preparation for visiting with Kelly. She’s my ticket to owning this valley, so I’ve got to handle her right…Then he leaned his elbows on his desk and rubbed his eyes. But if I don’t find Allie Summer, none of it will matter…He sighed. Well, maybe Kelly will be a nice distraction for the day. I wish she wasn’t so blasted Puritanical, being in bed would be a nice way to spend the afternoon…He stood up, getting his mind into what he called his “Kelly mode.” Then he smiled to himself. I should have been an actor, I’m so good at it…no money in that, though…Backstrom walked out of the room and down the hall.
          “Hello, angel,” he said as he entered the living room. “This is a nice surprise.”
          Kelly radiated sunshine and went over to him. He gave her a hug and a kiss. “I hope you don’t mind me coming out,” she said. “I went by your office but you weren’t there. I thought you might be sick.”
          “No, no, I’m fine, I just wanted to have some solitude to get some of this work done.” Then he added hastily when he saw Kelly’s expression change to one of doubt, “But that doesn’t mean you, of course. In fact, I’m glad you came. I need to get away from those papers for a little while.” He gave her a mischievous smile, one that always turned her heart upside down. “We’ll have lunch and then keep each other real warm. In here by the fire, of course,”
          “Of course,” Kelly repeated. “I’m sure that’s all you had in mind.”
          He gave her a big, wide, innocent look. “What else could I have meant by it?”
          “Well, if you’ll hurry up and marry me, I’ll show you some ways.” Backstrom had never asked Kelly to go to bed with him—he knew what she’d say—but the closer their marriage came, the more he made subtle little suggestive hints, like the one he had just made. Kelly loved it.
          “That I certainly look forward to. Let’s go see what Mona has for us for lunch, shall we?...”

          “Well, what do we have here?” the man in front—who I subsequently learned was the foreman, Curt—asked. “Who’s your travelling companion, Lady Ranger? Just so we’ll know the name to put on his tombstone, of course.” He looked at me. “I assume you’re the fellow who took those potshots at us earlier today.”
          That was the second time in the past few weeks somebody had talked about putting my name on a tombstone, and the other one—Isabel Reese—was dead. But at the moment, it didn’t appear that Curt was going to join her any time soon. “Rifle went off by accident,” I responded.
          He actually laughed. I guess you can do that when you’re holding the seven guns. “Well, for an accident, you got awfully close to hitting us.”
          “Yeah, lucky for you. If I’d been aiming at you, you’d be dead right now.”
          He didn’t take a fancy to that answer. He scowled and said, “Well, you had your chance, fellow, and it will be the last one you get. Now—very slowly—both of you get off that horse. And if I even get the hint of a gun being pointed in our direction, we’ll fill you so full of holes we’ll be able to open our own Swiss cheese factory.” He spoke to one of his men. “Hutch, go tell the boss we’ve got her and we’ll have her at Sutter Flat in an hour.” Hutch nodded, and rode off.
          I glanced at Allie and she at me. I saw no fear in her eyes, but she knew the advantage lay with Backstrom’s men at the moment. So, giving me a “what else can we do?” look, we both dismounted. Very slowly.
          When Allie and I were on the ground, Curt said, “Now, toss all the hardware over here. The gun in your holster, mister, plus the rifle in the casing on your horse. And, Ranger, your rifle, too, plus anything else you might be concealing on your person.” Then he grinned wickedly. “Or we can repeat last week and I’ll find it anyway.”
          I didn’t know what that meant, but I didn’t especially like the sound of it. I didn’t look at Allie. I had a fleeting thought of drawing and shooting, but it was only fleeting. Even if I got six shots away—and there was no chance of that—there were seven rifles pointed at us. No doubt, Allie would join in and help me, but we wouldn’t survive the melee. Be patient and wait for an opportunity…

          Allie was thinking the same thing. She hardly noticed Curt’s off-color remark, her mind was a whirr of thoughts trying to figure out an escape route. I’m glad Rob Conners is here. I hope I don’t get him killed. But I’ll need the extra gun...if we can ever get our hands on a couple…
          At the moment, she couldn’t think of a way to do that.

          Allie and I tossed our guns towards Curt and one of his men gathered them up. “The knife on your hip, too, hotshot,” he said to me. So I sent that his way as well. He looked at Allie. “I know you’ve got something hidden somewhere. Let’s have it before I do something you don’t want me to do. Oh, and that sack at your feet, too. I’ve got a suspicion there is something in there Mr. Backstrom would like to have.”
          Allie’s eyes burned at Curt, but she pulled the knife from the back of her pants, swiftly flipped it over, and with a rattlesnake-quick move, flicked it towards Curt. The knife stuck in the ground and quivered, right between the foreman’s feet. I raised my eyebrows. I was impressed. McConnell told me she was good…and fast…
          Curt examined her for a moment, then leaned down and picked up the knife. Allie pitched the sack about 10 feet in front of him where he’d have to come and get it. “I told you she was a wildcat, men. Do not underestimate her.” Then he smirked at Allie. “I hardly recognize you with your clothes on, Lady Ranger. You look a whole lot better without them, I assure you. And I heard about the party a few nights ago. I’m sorry I missed it.”
          That was pretty clear and even I understood it. I glanced at Allie and I could see her jaw tighten. She didn’t look at me.
          “Hey, boss,” one of Curt’s men said, “can we have a party with her before we bury her?”
          “That’s enough of that,” I said. “You thugs keep your perverted thoughts to yourself.”
          Curt spoke to me. “And what are you going to do if we don’t?”
          “You make one mistake, buddy, and you’ll find out.”
          He snorted and pointed his rifle at me. “I can take care of that right now. We don’t need you. Mr. Backstrom only wants the woman. I see no reason I shouldn’t shoot you right now.”
          And I think he was about to do it when Allie spoke. “If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me, too, because I’ll be at your throat and scratch your eyes out until I’m dead. What will your boss think of that?”
          Curt looked at her. “There’s seven of us, Ranger. We could hold you.”
         “You want to find out?”
         He looked back at me and lowered his rifle. “Ok, you get a reprieve, mister. I’m sure Mr. Backstrom wants her in one piece. But it’s only a reprieve. You’re dead meat soon, don’t forget that. And, believe me, I won’t make a mistake. Who are you, anyway?”
          “Rob Conners.”
          “Whoa,” Curt said with surprise. “Boys, we’ve got us another big fish. The best gunman in the territory. Won’t that feel good to know we were the ones to kill Rob Conners and Allie Summer.”
          I smiled at him, but it wasn’t my friendly, happy-to-know-you smile. “Give Allie and me a gun each to make it fair, and we’ll all have some fun. And see who lives.”
          Curt laughed. “No, Conners, I don’t think I’ll do that. I like holding all the aces.” Then, “Ok, you two, mount up. You’ve got a rendezvous with Nicholas Backstrom and I’m sure he will be very happy to see you. Especially you, Lady Ranger.”
          So we all climbed on our horses and were off to see the wizard…

          That afternoon, Kelly and her beau did what lovers do on cold autumn afternoons. They sat in front of a nice, warm fire, they talked a little, they cuddled a lot, they laughed and giggled…and the young woman was glowing. But still, she could tell something wasn’t quite right with Evan. “Distracted” was the word that kept coming to her mind. It wasn’t the first time such had happened in their relationship; she was used to his mind being on the difficult matters he had to deal with as a lawyer. But this time it did seem a little bit worse. She would say something and often have to repeat it. It frustrated her a little, but she tried to be understanding.
          “If you need me to go so you can concentrate on your work, I will,” Kelly said to him at one point.
          He smiled, but a bit absently. “Oh, no, you can stay. I’m sorry, this is just a pretty big deal.” Lady, you’ll never know how big a deal it is…unless we don’t find that woman…
          “Well, ok. I just don’t want to be a hindrance to your work. Or a distraction.”
          He pulled her to him again. “But you’re the kind of distraction I like having…” And Kelly loved hearing that.
          Then, about mid-afternoon, the blonde-headed Hutch stuck his head in the room. “Boss, can I talk to you a minute? Something has come up.”
          Backstrom nodded, hoping that the “something” was the capture of Allie Summer. “I’ll be right back,” he said to Kelly, and she nodded. She glanced at Hutch and he smiled and winked at her. Kelly didn’t smile back, and looked away. I don’t like him. He thinks he’s God’s gift to women…
          But she did watch Dryer/Backstrom. He and his worker huddled at the edge of the hallway, just as it entered the living room. They talked in whispers, so Kelly couldn’t hear or understand them. But she did overhear the words “Sutter Flat.” She had heard of the place but she didn’t know where it was. Is Evan meeting someone there? Or maybe it’s a plot of land that he’s selling someone. Yes, I’m sure that’s it. But why all the secrecy? Then she smiled, because she knew the answer. A rich friend of his from back east is moving out here and doesn’t want anyone to know it. Those people always like their anonymity. He figures if I knew, I’d gossip about it. She giggled to herself. Maybe I would…
          Anyway, in a couple of minutes, Evan came back over to her. “I’m sorry, Kelly, but something very important demands my attention and I’m going to have to leave. I don’t know when I’ll be back, but it might be awhile. I don’t mean to run you off, but…” and he left it hanging, his meaning in no doubt.
         Kelly grabbed her purse, and smiled at him pixily. “Oh, I understand. You’ve got to go meet your other girlfriend.”
         For just a flash of a second, she saw something strange in Evan’s eyes, as if…as if…maybe he is? No, of course not, that’s silly. He just doesn’t want me to say anything about the case…But whatever it was, he corrected himself instantly and smiled. “Oh, you finally caught me. I’ll introduce you to Agnes sometime. You’ll like her. She’s got hair coming out of her ears and a big wart on her nose.”
          Kelly laughed. “That’s probably what you tell other people about me, too.”
          “Only the men so they’ll leave you alone.” And she laughed again. “Let me get this behind me,” he continued, “and then we’ll set a date for our marriage. It shouldn’t take long.”
          Kelly beamed at that and hugged him. “Oh, that would be wonderful, Evan. I can’t wait.”
          “It won’t be long now, I promise.”
          He seemed a bit more relaxed now, but also in a hurry, so Kelly kissed him good-bye and left the house. She was smiling dreamily as she mounted her horse, but…there was an uneasiness in her stomach. That momentary look in his eyes…Rob yesterdayit can’t be true, it just can’t…
          But, as she started to go home, Kelly also couldn’t deny that feeling of anxiety that existed within her…

October 28, late afternoon, Sutter Flat…
          Our little group arrived at Sutter Flat first. It was appropriately named, but it wasn’t big. A small clearing no more than 30 yards by 30, almost entirely enclosed by small, largely barren knolls—at least on the south and eastern sides, where we had arrived from. The trees picked up again on the opposite side. The one part of the flat that wasn’t enclosed had a pathway leading into it, winding out of sight through dense foliage towards the northwest. It was on that path that Nicholas Backstrom arrived about 15 minutes after we had.
          He rode up with his man, Hutch. He seemed surprised to see me. “Mr. Conners, what brings you to our meeting? Did you join the Rangers, or did you just come to see Miss Summer off?”
          Before I could reply, Curt spoke up. “We found the Ranger near the entrance of Dandelion Valley. Conners took some potshots at us and we had to scatter. Cotton and Billy Iron Fist got clipped, but they’ll be ok. Fortunately, we caught these two near the road to River Bend.” He smirked. “I guess he was doing his good deed for the day. Too bad it’s going to cost him his life.”
          Backstrom got off his horse. “Yes, I’m afraid we can’t let you live, Conners. I’m sure this lady has told you everything you had no business hearing, so you’ll have to be dispatched as well.” He gave me a humorless smile. “Breaks of the game.”
          I didn’t bother responding. Frankly, I didn’t really know what to say and nothing I could have said would have made any difference anyway. I needed a gun and my attention was on trying to figure out a way to get one. But Backstrom’s men were all a good 15 feet away. If I made a charge at them, I wouldn’t get halfway there before I became a lead deposit. It didn’t look good.
          Backstrom shifted his attention to Allie. “You have caused me nothing but trouble, young lady, and I am going to be very glad to get shuck of you.” Then, he spoke to Curt. “Did she have the papers?”
          The foreman handed him the sack Allie had been carrying. “They are in here.”
          Backstrom opened the sack and rummaged a moment. He pulled out a stack of papers, briefly thumbed through them, and nodded. “I think they are all here.” He looked at Allie. “You didn’t hide any someplace, did you?”
          Allie smiled. “I managed to get a few of them off to McConnell. He should have them by now and you’ll be on your way to prison before long.”
          “She’s lying, boss,” Curt said.
          “I know she is. But even if she isn’t, she’ll never know if I’m on my way to prison or not because in a very short time she’ll be on her way to meet her Maker. Give Him my regards, will you? Or, the devil, more likely. I imagine ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘thou shalt not kill’ will be enough to keep you from going through the pearly gates.” He grinned wickedly. “And perhaps ‘thou shalt not commit adultery.’ You made no protests the other night about your virginity and I suspect with a good cause.”
          “Does your future wife know that you aren’t?” Allie replied.
          “What Kelly doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I don’t intend for her to be around for very long anyway. She’s a nuisance. I’ll keep her long enough to have some fun with her, then dispose of her. That will build me a lot of town sympathy, and I’ll own the place. And who knows what after that?”
          If I could have gotten my hands on that man’s throat right then I would have strangled him until his eyeballs popped out. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody as disgusting or as revolting as you, Backstrom,” I said to him. “Kelly Atkins is one of the sweetest, most wonderful people on this earth. How can you do what you are doing to her, and sleep at night?”
          “Oh, I sleep just fine, Mr. Conners. And what you think of me doesn’t concern me in the least. And in a few moments, it’s not going to concern you, either. Nothing will, ever again.” He smiled. “Isn’t that a nice thought? Never to have any worries any more.”’
          “Give me a gun and I’ll make sure you won’t have any more, either.”
          “But, at the moment, I don’t have any.” He held up the papers he had rescued from Allie. “I have these, I’ll have you and her in the ground, and all will be well with the world.”
          “Except you’ll still be breathing,” Allie said. ‘You aren’t going to get away with this, Backstrom, you know that, don’t you? McConnell will get you—eventually.”
          “We’ve been down that road before, Miss Summer. I’m not in the least worried about your boss.” Then he gave her a really nasty look. “If he hasn’t got any more sense than to hire incompetent whores like you, why should I concern myself with him?”
          I was about ready to reach out and grab Allie in case she launched herself at him. But she showed remarkable restraint, though I could see her jaw tighten and her fists clench. She spoke in a low, menacing voice, one that would probably scare the rattles off a rattlesnake. “You’re such a spineless coward, Backstrom, that you haven’t got guts enough to say that to my face without half a dozen guns pointing at me.”
          “No, perhaps not,” he replied. “But I do hold the guns, and thus all the cards. And, like with Mr. Conners here, I don’t care what you think of me, Miss Summer.” He held up the papers again, all confidence. “I win, you lose. It’s that simple. And your loss will cost you your life.” He turned to Curt. “Kill them, Curt. Then burn their bodies and scatter their ashes. I don’t want any trace of either of them anywhere.”
          Curt smiled a depraved smile. “Sure thing, Mr. Backstrom. Uh, some of the boys want to have some fun with the woman before we do her in. What do you say?”
          “No,” Backstrom replied emphatically. “I want her dead. If you keep her alive and try to rape her, you all are so stupid she’ll find a way to outfox and kill every one of you. Get it done, now. And I want to watch, to make sure you do it right.”
          “Haven’t got the guts to pull the trigger yourself, do you, Backstrom,” Allie said. I’ll give her all the credit in the world. She was fixing to die, but she showed not an ounce of fear.
          As for me, in my last few seconds on this earth I was trying to figure out a way to extend those seconds indefinitely. But I saw no opening…none…
          Backstrom sneered at Allie. “You aren’t going to rattle me into a mistake, Allie, so quit trying.” He spoke to Curt again. “Kill Conners first. I want Allie to see that, to know that she cost a man his life. She can go into eternity with that thought.” And seven rifles pointed at me…
          But then, a voice…from eternity…spoke. “If any of those men pull a trigger, Backstrom, you’re going to be joining Conners a split second later.”
          The voice came from the small knoll behind me. Every head in that clearing turned and looked.
          Ben Baker. 
          Holding a rifle.
          Pointed directly at Nicholas Backstrom.
          Our eyes met for just a split second. I nodded imperceptibly and he returned it and said, “Just watching your back, Conners.” Needless to say, I had never been so glad to see anyone in my life.
          And, needless to say, Backstrom’s killing party was put on hold for at least a few moments. The Man spoke, his face ugly, “And just who are you?”
          Ben’s eyes were hard and penetrating. “I’m the ghost of Christmas future, buddy, and I doubt you’re going to have either one.”
          “There are still seven rifles pointed at Conners. You only have one. You haven’t got a chance. Give it up and ride out of here and I’ll let you live.”
          “Yeah, and I’m Santa Claus, too,” Ben said. With his rifle still pointed at Backstrom, he reached down, picked up a Winchester from the ground, and tossed it to me. It didn’t take me long to lever a shell into the firing chamber. “Now, that evens the score a little,” Ben continued. “No, actually, I’d say advantage to Conners. I suspect he’s better with a gun than all seven of your hoods put together.”
          Allie spoke to Ben. “You haven’t got an extra one of those, do you?”
          “No, but I’ve got this,” and he pulled his pistol from his holster and tossed it to her. She caught it, cocked it, and pointed it at Backstrom. I suspect one could have heard that gun being cocked a mile away.
          Now there were some somber faces staring at us. Backstrom obviously still had us outgunned, but his men knew most of them wouldn’t survive a shootout with Rob Conners and Allie Summer. They’d probably get us—and Ben, too—but we’d get most of them, too. And Backstrom for sure.
          The tension was high, electrifying, and almost tangible. Backstrom spoke first. “Well, it looks like we have us a bit of a stalemate, doesn’t it. But you three do know that, once the shooting starts, you’ll all die.”
          “And you will, too, Backstrom,” Allie replied. “My first bullet is going straight into your heart, so you’ll never know what happens to the three of us. Until we all meet in hell. Maybe you can serve us some red wine down there.”
          Backstrom’s face clouded. “Yes, I suspect that all three of you will aim at me first. And I don’t fancy that thought. So I’ll make a deal with you. We’ll call it a draw. You all back up and leave and we’ll do the same and nobody gets hurt. Fair enough?”
          Allie said, “On one condition.”
          “And that is?”
          “I’m not leaving without those papers.” I had nothing but admiration for that woman even though it was my life she was playing with, too.
          Backstrom slowly shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t accept that condition, Allie.”
          “So you’d prefer death to a prison sentence.”
          “You’ll die, Allie. And Conners and that black fellow, too. Is that what you want? Call it even now and you can live to fight another day.”
          “They can leave if they want to, I’m not stopping them. But I’m going to have those papers and I’ll put you where you belong. Either in jail or in hell, that choice is yours.” The gun was rock steady in her hand.
          Backstrom appeared to be getting a little desperate. Allie could chill anybody to the bone. It was obvious why McConnell was so high on her and didn’t want to lose her. Backstrom looked at me. “Are you going to let her get you killed, Conners? I’m offering you all a way out.”
          I smiled at him. “Oh, I always did like a good shootout,” I said. “Especially when I’ve got a Winchester in my mitts.” I lifted the barrel slightly and fired three shots in such rapid succession that it almost sounded like one. “This thing holds fifteen so I’ve still got twelve. And I never miss. This could be a lot of fun.”
          It was quite apparent to Backstrom’s men that they didn’t agree with that assessment. I saw two of them gulp, and a voice spoke up in a croak, “God, I’ve never seen anybody fire so fast…”
          “Don’t you men turn coward on me!” Backstrom said. His face was getting ugly because he was now losing the battle. But I could also tell that he had no intention of giving in, even if everybody on that field died. Which was highly likely, at the moment.
          So we all stood there…waiting. For what? Well, what we eventually got was something none of us expected. Another visit from eternity…
          A small—angelic--voice spoke from the edge of the forest. “Evan? Evan….why?”
          I—and the whole contingent of humanity in that flat—followed the voice to its source. Kelly Atkins was standing there, holding a rifle, pointed at Nicholas Backstrom.
          Backstrom was utterly shocked. Well, I was, too, and everyone else as well, I suppose. “Kelly,” he gasped. “Kelly…what are you doing here?”
          Kelly was in agony, that was plain. And it was also obvious that she had been crying. And, indeed, a tear trickled down her cheek. “I followed you. Rob… yesterday…told me who you were. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to believe him. But…you were acting strange. I had to know.”
          Backstrom regained some of his composure. “Kelly, this is a personal matter. This woman”—pointing at Allie—“stole some very important documents from me—“
          But Kelly cut him off. “It’s no good, Evan, or Nicholas, or whatever your name is. I heard…everything.”
          Allie twisted the knife. “Did you hear the part about how he and his thugs raped me repeatedly the other night?”
          Another tear ran down Kelly’s cheek and she just nodded her head.
          “And the part about how he cares nothing for you, is using you, and is going to kill you? Just like I told you?” That from me.
          Kelly closed her eyes for a moment, the agony re-doubled on her face. Another nod.
          Ben tossed in his two cents. “And how he was fixing to be guilty of cold-blooded murder?”
          “All right, enough!” Backstrom said. “This changes nothing. Kelly, go back to the house, we’ll talk later. I can explain everything.” He spoke to Allie. “I’m still not giving you these papers, Ranger. So get out of here unless you want to be the cause of a lot of blood being shed.”
          “And yours, too, Backstrom,” was her response.
          So, yes, in effect, even with Kelly there, nothing had changed. I suspected that, when the shooting started, Kelly would join in with us, but that still left seven guns to four. Backstrom was right. A lot of people were going to get killed, and some of them would be good guys. Or gals.
          The tension hung in the air for several seconds, eleven guns aimed at various human flesh. That tension was broken—again, from the most unlikely source.
          “Evan,” Kelly said, softly.
          He looked at her.
          “I really loved you,” she said. And then she pulled the trigger on her rifle….