Chapter Eight—What Kind of Luck Does Allie Have Left?

Thursday, October 24, early, early in the morning…
          There was nothing for it. The pantry was the only place Allie could go so she dashed over and yanked the door open. It was dark, of course, but she could see the outline of the room. It was about 10 feet deep by six wide. There were shelves all around with mostly canned goods stacked on them. However, on the floor to her left, she saw a huge canvas sack full of something that looked like corn meal and another big white sack farther back brimming with flour. And she thanked her…lucky stars…that she had decided to come down in only her white undergarments. That sack of flour was her hiding place.
          Well, behind it. She crouched down in the corner and, as best as she could, maneuvered the sack in front of her. With her darker skin and hair, she would be hard to see in the dark, and if the men looked down and saw white…well, flour. At least that was what Allie hoped.
          She had barely gotten settled when the door opened. “Hutch, where does she keep that breadbox?” That was obviously Rino.
          “To yer right, over behind them bags o’ rice, is where I found it last time,” was the response. That was a blessing to Allie because that was on the opposite side of the pantry.
          But it was a few feet in, so Rino walked farther inside and she heard him shoving things out of the way. “You ain’t got a match, do ye, Hutch?” Allie held her breath. Well, she was doing that anyway, but a match could be disastrous.
          “Naw, left ‘em all in the bunkhouse with my smokes. It’s a white box, surely it cain’t be that hard to find.”
          “Yeah, here it is,” Rino replied. “Dang it, there ain’t none in here. I bet Bob’s done been down here and et it all, that bugger. Here’s some canned peaches. You want them?”
          “Naw, I want somethin’ that will sit in my stomach. See any corned beef?”
          “Hmm, no, not on this side, let me check the other…Man, I wish I had a match. Get out of the door so’s more light can come in.”
         That isn’t what Allie needed.
         Rino searched for cans of corned beef. “Hmmm,” he murmured again, and moved farther into the pantry, pushing stuff out of the way, looking from shelf to shelf. “She’s got enough flour here to feed the whole Confederate army fer a month,” he replied.
          “Ain’t no Confederate army no more, you meathead.”
          “I know that, I was just saying…” He was looking right over Allie’s head…but he never looked down. “Here’s some. Oh, boy, five or six cans. How many of ‘em do you want?”
          “Grab me a couple, I’m pretty hungry. That mess o’ beans and rice she fixed for supper didn’t last very long.”
          “Yeah, I know what you mean. Chink food’s got no guts at all. Ok, I got four cans. That should be enough.” Allie heard the cans sliding off the shelf and then Rino turned and walked out of the pantry, saying, “I wish we coulda found some o’ that bread. That woulda hit the spot…” And that was the last thing she heard for the door shut and she was in near total darkness.
          She heaved a huge sigh of relief and remained where she was for a good two minutes. Then, very carefully so as not to bump something and make noise, she crawled to the pantry door and opened it just a crack. She didn’t know whether the men were eating right there or not. They weren’t, and she didn’t hear them anywhere.
          So she rose and went into the kitchen.
          She searched around for about two minutes, quietly opening drawers and cabinets. She had seen the pantry, so she didn’t need to go back in there. What she was looking for was a weapon, again, preferably a gun, but at least a knife. She found the latter, but not the former. It would have to do.
          One more thing she saw that she thought she’d take was a canvas sack. There were a stack of them in one of the corners. Carrying things in there would be easier than wrapping them in the blanket.
          Allie was finished, so she headed back to the stairs. Before she left the hallway from the kitchen, she looked around carefully in the living room, and saw nothing. A quick dash up the stairs. Crouching at the landing. Nothing. Listening. Backstrom snoring. She did her rapid tiptoe down the hall and then up the stairs, making sure she closed the door behind her. It struck her that she wouldn’t be able to lock the loft door behind her, but hopefully that wouldn’t be noticed. If it was, she’d bluff her way through it. “It’s not my fault the idiot forgot to lock the door last night when he left. I just wish I had noticed it.” Something like that.
          She lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling for several minutes, going over the plan for tomorrow night. She couldn’t account for cowboys going to the privy or getting hungry in the middle of the night, but other than that, she couldn’t see any flaws. She’d just have to go through with it and see what happened. It’s certainly better than going to a campout with Curt on Friday night.
          And with that thought, the Lady Ranger fell asleep.

          She was awoken by the key in the door, and it was Mona. The Irish lady was her usual red, and cheerful, self.   “I think soomeboody fergoot to loock the door last night,” she said with a laugh.
          Allie looked at her. “You mean it was open?”
          Mona laughed again. “Yep. Ya mean ya didn’t check?”
          Allie sighed. “No, I didn’t check. I just assumed…”
          “Ye’ll never get oot of ‘ere that way, lassie.”
          “I don’t guess I’m ever going to get oot, uh, out of here, period.”
          “Well, maybe the booss will ‘ave a change a’mind. He’s taken a fancy to ye, I think.”
          “Yes’m. Wants me to fix up my best cookin’ tonight, sez he’s goonna invite ye along.”
          “Joy,” Allie responded sarcastically.
          “Ah, he’s not soo bahd, onct ye gets to knoo ‘im. Just doon’t cross ‘im.”
          “It’s too late for that, Mona.”
          “Well, maybe ye can make it oop to ‘im tonight.”
          “And just how do I do that?”
          Mona shrugged. “Use yere ‘magination.”
          Allie didn’t have to.

          Breakfast came. Hutch brought it. Allie was tempted to ask him how he liked his corned beef last night, but figured that wouldn’t be too smart. He talked a little, but Allie didn’t respond much. He was a young, blonde-headed fellow with a mischievous grin, and would have been darling under any other circumstance. But it was the wrong circumstance.
          Allie didn’t have anything to do, so she asked Hutch if he’d bring her something to read. He did—a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Allie read a little and slept a little; she was tired from last night and wanted to be rested up for that night’s adventures. Lunch came—Hutch again—but it consisted only of soup and some bread.
          “Bread and water? Is this all the condemned woman gets?” she asked.
          He laughed. “No. Mr. Backstrom doesn’t want you too full because you’re going to have a big meal tonight.”
          “I hope his serving is full of arsenic.” Hutch laughed again.
          Allie spent the afternoon pretty much the way she had spent the morning—reading a little, sleeping a little, and going over…and over…and over the plan for the night. She just couldn’t see anything else to add or take away from the scheme.
          The afternoon had one interruption. At about 3, The Man himself came in.
          “Are you enjoying your stay in Hotel Backstrom?” he asked with a smile.
          Allie gave him a look that would have frozen Antarctica.
          “Well,” Backstrom continued, “we do have one of the best cooks in the area, and I’ve asked her to fix up a special meal. Chicken Marsala is on the menu for tonight, with your choice of red or white wine.”
          “What is Chicken Marsala? We don’t eat that kind of slop on a Ranger’s salary.”
          “Oh, it’s got chicken breast, mushroom, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, green onions, Marsala wine, a touch of this, a pinch of that. You’ll love it, I’m sure.”
          Allie had never eaten anything like that in her life. “Final fancy meal for the condemned, huh.”
          “I don’t really want you to look at it that way.”
          “How am I supposed to look at it?”
          “Try to enjoy it,” Nicholas Backstrom said again, smiling his award-winning smile.
          “Am I going to be dessert?”
          Backstrom ignored the insinuation. “No, actually dessert is carrot zucchini bread with candied ginger. It’s my favorite.”
          “Sounds delightful.” Allie couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of her voice.
          “Red wine or white wine?” he asked her.
          “How about a glass of beer?” Allie couldn’t stand beer, but she wasn’t in the mood to be in any way agreeable.
          And Backstrom laughed. “Miss Summer, one does not drink beer with Chicken Marsala. I’ll choose the wine if you’d prefer not to.”
          “Red,” she said.
          “Ah, my favorite. Such a warm, sweet taste.”
          “I’ve never had a glass of red wine in my life,” Allie retorted. “That stuff is for the hoity-toity like you. I just like the color red.”
          Backstrom chuckled, and shook his head. “You do have a tongue on you, don’t you. But hopefully the night will go well. Say 6 o’clock?”
          “Oh, I’ll surely come, if I don’t get a better offer somewhere else.”
          He smiled compliantly. “Good. That’s all set.” And he started to leave.
          Allie couldn’t resist one last dig. “What am I suppose to wear to this upscale feast you’re preparing for us? My formal is out to be cleaned. Or perhaps I’m not supposed to wear anything.”
          “What you have on is fine,” he replied. Graciousness personified. “I’ll have Hutch—and Rino—come get you at six.”
          “Can I ride Rino’s back? Or is he going to stick me with his horn?”
          “I might let him at that.” Backstrom left the room, and he seemed a little perturbed. Allie smiled. It took a while, but she thought she finally got to him.
          Some victory…She wasn’t terribly thrilled with the idea of having dinner with Backstrom, but it would get her out of this cramped, dingy, cold room.
          And where else? she mused sardonically. On Rino’s horn?

          Backstrom’s men were disciplined and prompt. At the stroke of six, though Allie didn’t know that for certain—she heard the key in the door. Hutch stuck his head in. “Soup’s up. You ready?”
          Allie replied, “Yeah, let’s get this over with. Where’s your animal buddy?”
          Hutch looked blank for a minute, then chuckled. “Oh, you mean Rino? He’s at the bottom of the stairs with the shotgun. Please don’t do anything dumb, I don’t want to get splattered with you.”
          She walked down the stairs with him behind her and Rino pointing the shotgun at her the whole time. As she neared the base of the stairs, he began to back up, keeping at least 10 feet between the two of them. Hutch separated himself from her by about the same distance. There just wasn’t any chance for escape; they were too careful.
          They led Allie into the dining room. She had been able to smell the meal as she neared the bottom of the winding stairs, and she had to admit, it smelled delicious. In the dining room, she saw Backstrom standing near the back wall, wearing a magnificent red dinner jacket with dark blue trim, and a glass of something red in his hand. He smiled and greeted her.
          “Miss Summer. Glad you could make it.”
          “I had to cancel other plans to be here. I’m sorry I’m a little underdressed for the occasion.”
          “Well, I’ll overlook it this time. Just don’t do it again,” and he laughed.
          Allie hadn’t seen the inside of the dining room the night before when she had gone on her reconnoiter. The room was longer than it was wide, probably twice as long. A crystal chandelier hung over a spotless, shining cherry wood table that could seat at least 12 people. There were plotted plants along the walls, of some exotic sort that Allie had no idea what they were. A china cabinet stood against a near wall full of knick-knacks that might have come from anywhere, paintings, mostly of European or classical scenes covered much of the rest, and there was a liquor cabinet and bar across the room. And a statue of Augustus Caesar in a far corner doing his famous pointing at nothing in particular. An impressive place, if Allie was inclined to be impressed, which she wasn’t
          But she also didn’t intend to be as sassy and acidic as she had been so far. She saw no need in it. It might make her feel good, but it might also anger Backstrom, and she figured that could reach back and bite her. So she’d try to be civil, though it wouldn’t be easy.
          “Would you like a glass of sherry? Wonderfully calming liquid.”
          Allie hesitated, then said, “Yes, thank you.”
          He went to the bar and poured her about two fingers worth in an expensive looking bowl glass. “Sherry goes back a long way,” he said. “The Phoenicians apparently came up with it about 1100 BC when they had settled in Andalucia, Spain. A town called Jerez. Andalucia wasn’t called that at the time, of course,” he said with a smile. He walked over and handed her the drink. The Romans loved the stuff but the Arabs invaded in 711 and renamed the town ‘Sherish,’ hence, sherry. Sherry is also known as Jerez. Depends on where you are, I suppose.”
          “I suppose,” Allie replied and took a sip. It was good and she said so.
          “I’m glad you like it. We’ll have something else with dinner. Which should be served in just a few minutes.”
          He talked on a little, mostly about the odds and ends in the china cabinet, pieces of useless junk that he had picked up in his travels around the world. At least that’s how she thought of the stuff.
          “Have you ever been out of America?” he asked Allie.
          “I went to Canada once, chasing Marl Ogletree, who had robbed the bank in Miles City and killed a teller.”
          “Ah. Did you catch him and bring him back for justice?”
          “Yes, to the first, no to the second.”
          “And why ‘no’ to the second?”
          “He didn’t want to come.” Allie shrugged. “So I left him there.”
          Backstrom smiled. “Why do I get the impression that he didn’t necessarily stay in Canada willingly?”
          Allie just smiled.
          Mona came in then bringing steaming plates of food, chattering about this and that. Allie didn’t know what any of the food was and when Backstrom told her, she still didn’t know. “I though you said we were just going to have fried chicken?”
          He laughed heartily at that. “I haven’t eaten fried chicken in ages. That might be a treat.” Fried chicken was one of Allie’s staples and always had been. She and Backstrom were from different worlds, but then she’d known that for a long time.
          They sat down—Backstrom at the end of the table and Allie right next to him, to his right. “Don’t get any ideas with that knife,” he said with a chuckle.
          “Can I kill the chicken with it?”
          He laughed. “It better be dead already or I’m getting another cook.”
          Allie let him serve the portions, and if she ate like she normally did, she’d be through in three bites. But she decided to try and be dainty, so she cut a slice of chicken about the size of her little fingernail and chewed on it slowly. It was…rich. That was the first word that came to her mind. And it was the kind of food that Allie rarely ate. “Never” might be a better word.
          But there were potatoes and beans, although they had fancy names, too, and all in all, she enjoyed the meal. After they had started eating, Backstrom began the conversation. “So, why did you decide to become a Ranger, and how did they ever let you in?”
          She told him the story of her kitty, the lawman who had pulled it out of the tree for her, and her desire, from that point on, to serve in that profession. “It’s dangerous,” she said with a shrug, “but it’s been worthwhile. Regardless of how much longer I last.” Her eyes met Backstrom’s briefly; it was his that shifted away. “Why did you become a crook?” she asked him, a little bluntly. “Civil” can only go so far.
          And he smiled. “One reason. Money. I love the stuff and can’t get enough of it.”
          Allie put down her fork for a minute and said, “Nicholas, you’re intelligent enough to make money without stealing it. If you wanted the stuff so badly, why couldn’t you get into a profession where you could get rich legally? Help people, instead of hurting them.”
           He took a bite and chewed on it for a few seconds. “Two reasons. Number one, this sort of dropped into my lap as a ‘get rich quick’ life, and it’s worked. I don’t know if I could have done this well, this quickly, on the other side of the law.”
          “What’s the second reason?”
          He looked at her, and his eyes were…daring. Allie realized immediately why he was so irresistible to women. “The danger,” he said. “The challenge, the…thrill. Doing things legally is…boring. In my life, I…maneuver, manipulate, strategize. There are some awfully smart lawmen out there, and to outwit them…a lot of it is a game to me, Allie, and it’s a game I enjoy and am good at.” He shrugged. “I guess I don’t have much of a conscience. I do what I think is best for me, and the consequences for anyone else be damned.” He was still looking at her. “Nobody has ever gotten as close to catching me as you did. And I didn’t even know you were there.” He looked away, and shook his head thoughtfully. “That’s disturbing, very disturbing, that you could get that close with me totally unaware of it.”
          “You won’t get away with it forever, you know.”
          He smiled again. “Oh, yes, I will. And even if I don’t, I’ll enjoy it until I do get caught. But I don’t think there’s anyone out there who can catch me.”
          Allie half-grunted at that. “If I can, then somebody else can, too.”
          “But you didn’t. Regardless of how it happened, you didn’t. Some of us live under a lucky star, Miss Ranger. I do. I’ve had some close shaves before, so close that I had to move out here, though none as close as you came. But close is as good as a miss.” He changed the subject as he saw Allie had finished her meal. “Did you enjoy it?”
          “Yes, it was good, thank you.”
          “Dessert is coming right up. Carrot zucchini bread with candied ginger.”
          Allie wasn’t especially looking forward to it, because she had never liked carrots, zucchini, or ginger, and she didn’t expect she’d like them all piled on top of each other. But she did like candy, so maybe that would make up for it. It didn’t. It was as bad as she feared it would be, but she ate it anyway, and thankfully, Backstrom was generous with the red wine, which she didn’t especially like, either.
          After they had finished everything, Backstrom said with a smile, “Shall we retire to the living room?”
          Allie started to say “no,” then nodded. “Sure.” Better than that cold loft…
          “Another glass of sherry?” he asked. “Or red wine? Or you can try the white wine, if you prefer.”
          Allie never drank much and her head was spinning a little from what she had had. So she said with a dry smile, “Are you trying to get me drunk so you can take advantage of me, Mr. Backstrom?”
          “Oh, perish the thought,” he said with a soft chuckle.
          “I won’t do it willingly, you know.” He knew what she meant.
          “I haven’t asked you.”
          “Keep it that way.” And Allie headed to the living room.
          The night really hadn’t been too bad, so far. The conversation over dinner, while not thrilling, had been interesting, and in any other setting, Allie would have enjoyed it, even if the food wasn’t to her liking. But with the pall of rape, torture, and murder hanging over her, it wasn’t easy to enjoy much of anything. She couldn’t forget that this man was going to let all that happen—unless she could find a way to stop it. When he held all the cards, he could be grace and charm personified. But Allie knew he could be ruthless when necessary. And, in her case, ruthlessness was eventually called for.
          She walked into the living room and sat down on the couch in front of the fireplace. The fire was warm, but she shivered anyway, hearing the low moan of what she knew to be a cold wind outside. I’ll be out there in a few hours, she thought, but that was certainly better than remaining in that loft until Curt came for her. Backstrom walked in and, holding a glass of sherry and smoking a cheroot, went and leaned an elbow against the mantle of the fireplace.
          “I guess it’s a little hard for you to enjoy the evening, isn’t it,” he said.
          “Could you, if you were in my shoes?”
          He made an acquiescing gesture. “No, I don’t suppose I could. But I’ve always been willing to accept whatever fate put before me. I wish, you and I…a different time…a different place…”
          Allie wouldn’t look at him. “We’re different, Nicholas. As different as night and day. You’ve got to have all this… rubbish,” she said, making a motion at the expensive folderol around her. “This means nothing to me, it never will, and it never could.”
          "What does mean something to you, Allie?”
          She looked at him for several moments. “Helping a little girl get her kitty out of a tree. That’s what means something to me.”
          Backstrom considered Allie for a long time, thoughtfully. “Yes, you’re right,” he said, quietly. “We could never…I take what I want, Ranger, when I want it, and I let nothing get in my way. If that kitty in the tree stood between me and my goals, I’d shoot it and never give it a second thought. You’d stop and help the little girl…even if it cost you your life.”
          Allie glanced back up at him, but said nothing.
          “And yet,” he continued, “you…you are the most…dynamic woman I’ve ever met. You’re not only physically beautiful, but you’re smart, you’re daring, you’re good, and if it hadn’t been for plain, dumb luck, I’d probably be on my way to prison before long. And you’re one other thing.”
          Allie did look at him this time. “And what’s that?”
          “You’re the one woman I could never have without forcing myself upon her. And that means, I want you more than I’ve ever wanted a woman in my life.”
          Allie studied him for a few moments before she responded. “Would going to bed with you save my life?”
          Allie laughed, sardonically. “So I’d lose both ways.”
          “Would it really be that bad?”
          That set Allie off. She jumped off the couch, walked over to Backstrom, and stuck a finger in his chest. “Yes, it would be, Backstrom, because you’re nothing but scum, a low, rotten-bellied cur who thinks of nothing but himself, who couldn’t have an unselfish thought about somebody else if he tried. Your world revolves around you, pleasure exists only for you and is defined only how you define it. You couldn’t care less if I, or any other woman, enjoyed being with you, as long as you got what you wanted out of it. That’s all that matters to you. Discard the last one and bring on the next. And it’s all gone to your warped, perverted head. You have your little fiefdom here, surrounded by a bunch of sycophantic jesters who dance to every tune you play, and you’re so self-absorbed in all of this that it never occurs to you that there is another world out there, full of decent men and women who work hard for what they have, earn everything they have, and deserve every bit of it and more. But, to you, those people are just your toys, pawns in your self-centered game. They exist only to be robbed and plundered at your whim. You are your own god, and woe to any man or woman who has something you want. The kind of man you are utterly revolts me, Backstrom, because the words ‘kind,’ ‘considerate,’ ‘selfless,’ and ‘thoughtful’ are not even in your dictionary. In fact, your dictionary has only one word—me. You couldn’t do a caring deed if your life depended upon it because the whole concept is totally foreign to you. What makes you think that any woman could ever care enough about you to enjoy being with you?” She turned away from him. “You make me sick.” Then she looked back at him. “Where’s your bed? Let’s get it over with.”
          All the while she had been lecturing him, Allie could see Backstrom’s face getting harder and harder. The acid in Allie’s voice, especially the very last words she had spoken, had burned him deeply. But he controlled himself and said, “Nobody has ever talked to me like that before.”
          Allie poured it on. “Then you had a rotten father and mother, who were every bit as depraved as you are.”
          She could see his teeth clench even though his mouth was closed. There was fire in his eyes and Allie knew she had gone too far. “You filthy little whore,” he said. “I’m going to prove you right.”
          “I see,” she responded, the acid still dripping from her mouth. “I won’t come willingly so you resort to force. That’s all you know, isn’t it. Give you what you want or you’ll take it any way you can get it.”
          Backstrom slapped Allie backhanded. She cried out, but didn’t strike back. Then he called out, “Hutch!”
          Hutch appeared almost immediately. “Yessir.”
          The Man looked squarely at the Lady Ranger and Allie could see…insanity? his eyes. “Take her to my room. And when I’m finished with her….”
          Hutch smiled wickedly. Allie’s stomach turned.
          But now wasn’t the time to fight.

Friday morning, October 25, early, early, early…
          Allie got back to the loft a little after midnight. The life of a Ranger had taught her to be practical, to accept what came as objectively as possible, and not let it interfere with decisions that needed to be made or any important course of action. But she was human, and the previous few hours were humiliating, degrading, vile, and repulsive to her. For a few moments, as she lay on her bed, exhausted but regaining her strength for the ordeal to come, her only thought was I’m going to kill that man…She closed her eyes and a tear ran down her temple. McConnell warned me…
          But, regardless of what had happened, she was still proud to be a Ranger—and more determined than ever to bring Nicholas Backstrom and his horde of raping thieves to justice. If she didn’t kill them all first. Well, at least Backstrom, Hutch, Bob, and Rino…All the other men were out with the cattle drive. I’m glad Dirk wasn’t here…
          Allie forced herself to think of what she had planned for that night—her escape attempt. She went over her strategy step-by-step…get the door open, down the stairs to the kitchen…canvas bag…put a number of canned goods and non-perishables in it…be careful that the cans don’t rattle…maybe get that blanket on the couch first, wrap the cans in it…the knife, don’t forget the knife…and the matches, I’ve got to have the matches…then…the study…get those documents…then, out the window…straight to the forest…don’t stop, find a ranch or farmhouse…get a horse…get to McConnell….She could see no flaw in the plan—but she couldn’t account for…the unforeseen…
          It was overcast so there wouldn’t be much light coming in from the windows. That could be a hindrance, but it couldn’t be helped. She knew she needed to move as swiftly as she could, but…no mistakes...get the knife first…just in case…Allie knew how to use a knife as a weapon, as well as any man in the Rangers. Woe be to anyone who got in her way when she had one in her hand!
          She tried to nap, but found sleep impossible. The nervous tension was rising in her, but she expected that, and knew that it would make her more careful and hone her senses just that much more. But she also knew she couldn’t let her nerves rush her into making a mistake…all deliberate speed
          The minutes crept by…she didn’t know how many, but she waited until she figured everyone would be well asleep. She thought sardonically, Well, at least I wore them all out so maybe they’ll sleep soundly…
         It was time. As she had done the previous evening, she stripped down to her underclothes, and knelt at the door, inserting the nail into the keyhole. Since she had done it once before, it didn’t take her as long to work the lock. She heard the satisfying click, though it was again a little louder than she wanted.
          She grabbed her clothes and gently opened the door to peek out…and immediately the door was shoved wide open and Allie found herself standing face-to-face with a maliciously smiling Nicholas Backstrom, with Hutch, holding a shotgun, on the step below.
          “Ah, my dear Allie,” Backstrom said, “Just where do you think you’re going this time of night?”