Chapter Fifteen—The Game is Afoot

Sunday night, October 27…
          By Sunday night, Allie hadn’t made as much progress as she had hoped she would, for two main reasons. The canvas sack full of provisions that she was carrying was heavy, plus she had to make sure that she didn’t make any noise with it. The cans inside had a way of rattling if she didn’t wrap them up tightly in the blanket. She was about to dump the sack and take her chances without food, or on the possibility that she could find some berries or something else edible on the way. She didn’t want to take the time to set a trap to catch a rabbit. Allie had hoped to make the trip to the Rangers’ HQ in four or five days; she was figuring on 20 miles a day, even through the mountains. She would pick up speed through Dandelion Valley; more on that in a moment. That would be less than 2 miles an hour if I traveled for 14 or 15 hours. With her familiarity with mountains and forests, she believed she could do that. And the four or five days would be only if she couldn’t locate a horse. She’d do it in two with a good mount.
          But the other thing that slowed her down was the men Backstrom had searching for her. They were showing up with irritating regularity and Allie was having to find places to hide. It wasn’t hard; there were plenty of bushes, scrubs, and rocks that could conceal her, but she had to be constantly on the lookout, moving slowly, stopping frequently to listen and look around, and generally having to slow her pace far more than she wished. She was under no illusions as to what would happen to her if caught. On one occasion, a couple of horsemen stopped within ten feet of her and she heard every word of their conversation.
          “You know, Mitch, I think old Dryer’s bein’ awful generous with his money. Five smackers a day is good pay.”
          “Yeah, it is. He must want that woman pretty bad.”
          “I wouldn’t mind havin’ her myself, if what Curt said about her is true. Quite a looker.”
          “Yeah, just think, Stretch. If we find her, we get the five bucks a day, fifty dollar bonus, and a case of whiskey. And we can have some fun with the woman first. What a catch that would be.”
          “Yeah. We could get her, bang on her awhile, then kill her and wait a couple o’ days before bringin’ her in. That’d be an extra ten bucks.” They both laughed at that.
          “How many bottles o’ whiskey is in a case?”
          “Beats me, but gotta be more than one. We could party fer a month.” More laughing.
          “Well, we better get to lookin’ for her. They’s gonna be fifteen or twenty men out here searchin’. And rumor is that Dryer has hired Billy Iron Fist, too. If we don’t find her first, he’s sure to get her. So keep your eyes and ears open.”
          “Righto. You, too.”
          They moved on but they had given Allie an earful, especially the part about fifteen or twenty men on her trail. And she frowned at the news about Billy Iron Fist. She had heard of him and his reputation as a tracker was unparalleled. McConnell had even used him a time or two to scout and track for the Rangers. Billy didn’t care who he worked for as long as the color of their money was gold. Allie would have to make an extra effort to cover her trail and that would only slow her down more. A horse is the key…
          But she wasn’t going to find a horse where she was at. She had been traveling in terrain where it would have been impossible to put a house and corral. It was a fierce land, with steep hills and deep gullies, a few of them so vertical she had to maneuver around them. The topography would soften in a few miles, but at the moment it was slow going, and tiresome. Not just physically, but mentally from having to keep a constant lookout for her pursuers.
          So, by late Sunday night, she had probably traveled only ten miles, at best. It was hard to tell because of her zigzag course. But she would press on; what else could she do? Allie considered backtracking to River Bend, but dismissed that almost immediately. Surely Backstrom would have men in town waiting for me. Since she didn’t know that McConnell was in River Bend, all she would be able to do was send a telegraph, and then hide—and wait for the Ranger boss to show up. Too risky…
          At it happened, Backstrom did put some men in town to keep an eye on McConnell, the stables, and the telegraph office. He wasn’t worried about Allie getting to Sheriff Doolittle; the lawyer could handle the lawman. But the Ranger Captain being in town presented serious problems. If those documents got into his hands, Backstrom knew he was finished. Or he’d have to kill at least two Rangers, and such would be dangerous indeed. That would even get Doolittle’s attention to say nothing of what the Rangers would do. No, Backstrom had to find Allie Summer before she reached McConnell or Ranger HQ.
          A word about the geography between River Bend and that HQ (which was in the town of Port Station). Port Station was almost due east of River Bend. A mountain range called Haley’s Ridge was north of River Bend and ran from 20 miles west of the town to about 50 miles east of Port Station. It was rugged and treacherous terrain and Allie thought it would be too far out of the way to travel at the base of the ridge, though there would be many good hiding places. Cranston Creek was a little south of Haley’s Ridge and mostly ran parallel with it. It began in the mountains of the Ridge and meandered its way past River Bend and emptied into Clearwater River about 15 miles west of the town. Dandelion Valley was about 20 miles wide, stretching from just south of Cranston Creek to a string of hills, the highest of which was Widow’s Hill. Those mountains were a little south and east of River Bend and weren’t as high or rugged as Haley’s Ridge, but they were still formidable. Dandelion Valley was actually the most direct route from River Bend to Port Station, as the crow flies. It started about 15 miles east of River Bend and petered out about 20 miles west of Port Station. Another series of rather rugged hills then had to be traversed, though there were a couple of good passes. Through one of them, a road from River Bend to Port Station had been established. That road curved south from River Bend around Widow’s Hill before turning northeast towards Port Station. That road branched just near the end of the Widow Hill range and the left fork went to Rock Canyon, where Rob Conners intended to go. If he ever got the chance.
          Allie, who had, of course, studied the map thoroughly before she made the initial attempt at Backstrom’s papers, knew the general lay of the land. Her plan, if she had successfully escaped that first night, had been to head to River Bend, where she had a horse stabled. That horse was probably still there—but, again, she figured that Backstrom would no doubt be watching the stables. So after weighing all her options, Allie decided that going by foot would be her best choice, and trusted she could locate some faster transportation along the way.
          It was well past dark when Allie elected to find a place to spend the night. It was getting colder, being overcast and misty during the day and near freezing at night. She tried not to pay much attention to the weather, and at night she could wrap up in the blanket. But worsening weather would only make her journey more difficult, though it might discourage Backstrom’s men as well.
          She started searching for a place to bed down, someplace with some cover in case Backstrom’s searchers were still out looking. She had half a mind to go looking for one of their camps; I could steal a horse. It was tempting, but then they’d know the general proximity of her location; it was better they not know where she was. Either that, or she'd have to kill the man/men from whom she took the horse.  And, regardless of the reward, that was too high a price to pay.  I can't murder a lackey...No, she couldn’t steal one of Backstrom’s men’s horses; she’d have to find a ranch.
          With the overcast sky, it was virtually impossible to see at night, which frustrated Allie all the more. She would be harder to see, too, but in the current terrain she was in, a false step could send her tumbling down into a treacherous ravine; a broken leg would be catastrophic. So she made as much progress as she could and then, when it was simply too perilous to continue, she found a place to camp. At least that’s what she had done Saturday night and she’d do the same again this night.
          About dusk, she had been on a rise, spotted a cave perhaps a half mile away, and decided she’d make camp there. There was just enough light for her to map out a route to the cave and, being a little reckless because of the coming darkness, she hurried down the hill and up the adjacent one to where she had spotted the opening. When she arrived, she could see very little, and the inside of the cave was pitch black.
          She hadn’t made a fire the night before for fear that it might be seen; the recollection of her first night in Backstrom’s house was still fresh in her memory. But in this case, she had to have some light; she’d at least have to strike a match to explore the beginnings of the cavern. So, setting the canvas bag on the ground, she pulled the matchbox out of her pocket and lit one. She took the rifle with her, just in case she ran into something unpleasant.
          She walked a few feet into the cave. The roof was several feet above her head, and the entranceway was about nine or ten feet wide, though the cave appeared to narrow farther in. She walked in about fifteen feet and saw nothing. The match had burned down sufficiently to where she had to light another one. Continuing on into the cave, she discovered it ended about fifty feet from the opening. Allie nodded. That suited her fine. In fact, fifty feet was probably deep enough for her to have a small fire, but she dismissed that thought almost immediately. She wasn’t going to risk the “unforeseen” anymore.
          Allie retrieved the canvas sack and, with another match lit, made her way to the back of the cave. One more match allowed her to get the blanket and knife out of the sack. She set the knife and rifle down beside her, curled up in the blanket, and, with her head resting on the sack, fell asleep almost immediately.
          It was home. Or at least it was the place the cat went when it wanted a place of refuge or simply to relax after a satisfying meal. He—the cat—had run more than one creature out of the cave, or perhaps killed and eaten it. He considered the cave as his and woe be to any intruder.
          But this night, after an unsuccessful hunt, the cat was leery. The smell coming from the back of the cavern was unusual, not like any animal the cat had ever encountered before. For the beast had never had an encounter with a human being.
          The animal wasn’t quite sure what to do. With its excellent night vision, it could easily see the long, slender form, not moving, except for a slight rise and fall of the chest. The cat decided the intruder was asleep…but maybe it wasn’t. Best to be careful. Survival depended upon wisdom and caution.
          But it was the cat’s cave, so he laid down, about 25 feet from the huddled form and kept close watch. All through the night. Time enough later to decide if whatever it was constituted a threat. Perhaps it would be a meal. It was a fairly big creature, so it might be good for two or three meals. But…wisdom and caution…
          So the big wildcat waited…and watched…

Monday morning, October 28…
          It was nearly daylight when Allie awoke. She had been sleeping on her right side, facing the front of the cavern. She did not get up immediately because she sensed there was something wrong, something out of place…something that needed explaining, if possible, before she moved.
          The first light of dawn was barely visible outside, and silhouetted against that light, about 25 feet away, was a shape…a lump. It was dark and Allie couldn’t distinguish what the shape was. A rock? But it hadn’t been there the night before, Allie was sure of it. Then something long and thin began waving, like a snake curling, behind the lump, and the Lady Ranger’s blood went cold.
          She knew what the lump was now…

          The cat, with its God-given instincts for survival, sensed when the sleeping form awoke. It didn’t move, but it was awake. The beast swished its tail, inadvertently identifying itself….

          Allie didn’t move for a moment, considering her options. Rifle or knife? She summarily dismissed the rifle. The shot could echo from that cave for miles and men would come to check. The knife became her preference.
          Allie waited a few minutes until there was more light outside and the crouching shape developed more form. Then she slowly grabbed the knife and just as slowly pushed back the blanket. She could now see the eyes of the cat.
          And the cat was looking at her…

          The cat watched as the creature at the back of the cave slowly stood up. It stood on two legs, tall, but not especially big. The cat uttered a low growl from its throat, but didn’t move. Whatever this being was, it was meat, and the cat hadn’t eaten the night before. Yes, big enough for at least two meals…
          But there was something very wrong. The cat, very sensitive to such things, perceived absolutely no fear in its adversary—for that is how the cat viewed the beast before it now. The adversary moved slowly towards the cat, holding one of its…paws? front of it, gripping something that looked dangerous. The creature was uttering some strange sounds….
          And its eyes…the cat could read those ice blue eyes clearly.
          And those eyes read death

          Allie Summer wasn’t afraid of the wildcat. Maybe she should have been, but Allie Summer wasn’t afraid of anything. She judged that, if the animal stood on its hind legs, it would probably be as tall as she, and outweigh her by at least 30 pounds. So what? I’ve brought down more dangerous animals than this one who were a lot taller and weighed twice what I do…the two-legged variety… In a crouch, she moved towards the animal, the knife in front of her. She spoke angrily, looking the big cat right in the eyes.
          “Come on, you big ugly freak. You want to fight? I’ll slit your throat from ear to ear and pull your claws out one at a time.”
          The cat was crouched, too, as if in preparation of pouncing. Allie was ready if it did. The wildcat hissed and growled, but gradually gave ground, moving back slowly, away from the fierce, knife-wielding Ranger.
          “No, this way, pussy cat,” Allie said. “Don’t be afraid, I’ll make it quick and as painless as possible…”
          The cat had faced other animals that weren’t afraid of it, especially a big bear that also could stand on two feet. A wolf was no problem; a wolf pack was to be avoided. And this…angry, fearless enigma in front of him…it didn’t especially look fierce; it wasn’t nearly as big as a bear. But it kept approaching, the sounds it made were harsh in the ears of the wildcat, and it showed no apprehension at all. And its eyes…the cat had never seen eyes like those before. Hard. Ice. Dangerous. So, the decision was made that maybe there was an easier meal to be had in the forest. Rabbits especially were still plentiful, and a young deer could never put up a fight (bucks were to be evaded, though. The cat had learned that the hard way.) So, slowly but surely, the animal began to give ground, hissing, spitting, snarling—but moving backwards, keeping its eyes on the ever-advancing menace. The creature made no overt moves, it just…kept coming, making those strange, abrasive sounds. It was time to leave….

          Allie watched as the cat turned and bounded out of the cave. She lowered the knife and muttered, “Chicken.” She didn’t want to fight the animal, but she knew she could kill it. Bloody scratches could have been a problem, though…The Ranger had no medication, so injuries were best avoided. She sighed, stuck the knife inside the back of her pants, and went back to collect her belongings. Deciding that the canned goods inside the canvas sack were too troublesome, she removed them and stuck them in a narrow cranny in the side of the cave, but not before she opened a can of corned beef and had some breakfast. But she hid the rest, not wanting to leave any visible evidence of having been in the cave.
          She picked up the sack and the rifle and, with a branch-full of leaves, swept the ground around and inside the entrance of the cave, erasing any sign of her having been there. That done, Allie began the day’s trek…

          Billy Iron Fist was traveling with Curt and a man named Phil Cotton, one of Backstrom’s cowboys who had been on the trail drive and made it back Sunday right before Curt and Billy had departed. Cotton was good with a gun and that’s what the foreman wanted. On Sunday night, they had camped about five miles behind Allie, and they resumed their search at almost the same time the Ranger had left the cave.
          “She hard to track,” Billy told Curt. “She like an Indian, cover her trail well.”
          “But you can find her,” Curt said, almost as a question.
          “Billy Iron Fist can find anybody.”
          About 30 minutes after they set out Monday morning, Billy found a mistake Allie had made. He knelt down and studied the ground. He saw where she had laid the canvas sack; there were some broken grass blades and an indentation in the ground. And a very, very faint toe track. Allie had been tired and missed these signs.
          “She come this way,” Billy said, he said searching for more sign but not seeing any.
          “Good, let’s get going,” Curt said. “Keep your eyes peeled for more signs.”
          Billy Iron Fist, who looked more Indian than white, gave the foreman a piercing look. “You not tell me my job. Billy Iron Fist knows.”
          “Ok, ok, sorry,” Curt responded. “I’m just anxious to find her.”
          “Billy Iron Fist find her. Then she yours…”
          W. T. McConnell roused the telegraph operator, who lived in an apartment behind the telegraph office, out of bed just after sunup.
          “We ain’t open yet,” R. J. Armstrong told him. “Come back in a couple hours.”
          “My name is McConnell and I’m head of the territorial Rangers. I need to send a wire and I need to send it now. It’s official business. Be grateful I didn’t get you up late last night.”
          Armstrong, an older man with thinning white hair and a wart on his right cheek, grumbled, but responded, “All right, give me a minute to get my britches on.”
          McConnell already had his message written out: “Immediately send every available man towards Dandelion Valley. Look for Allie. Find her! Repeat, immediately. Postpone all other pending cases.” He knew he had at least five men available at HQ, maybe one or two others who had recently wrapped up assignments and might be back at Port Station by then. But if five was all he had, that’s what he’d send. There might not be anybody at HQ for another hour or so, and it may take a few hours to round up the men and get them provisioned. But they’d be out there as soon as possible. His men were as protective of Allie now as he was and they’d do all they could to find her.
          But will it be too late?
          Captain W. T. McConnell felt a greater anxiety than he ever had in his life. And it would be multiplied because he knew Rob Conners was right, that he needed to stay in River Bend in case Allie showed up there. He had to be there because he was sure Backstrom had men waiting in town, too.
          Waiting. Like McConnell had to do.
          And it was the waiting that was tormenting him…

          I had absolutely no idea where to search for Allie Summer, of course, except in the general direction of Port Station. McConnell had told me the overall layout of the land—the Widow Hill range, Dandelion Valley, Haley’s Ridge—and that his lady Ranger would almost assuredly have to cross the long, wide valley. It would be the most direct route and least treacherous. “I’m not even sure she could make it any other way,” he had told me. “There are some major ravines and basins in those hills north and south that would seriously delay her. And the longer she’s out there, the better chance Backstrom has of finding her.”
          Well, if she had to cross Dandelion Valley, that’s where I’d go. If she left Friday night, she might be there by now. So I decided to take the road directly to Port Station for about ten miles, and then find a gap in the Widow Hill range and hit the valley. I smiled to myself. Might even find some land I want to buy. I wonder who owns that valley. Actually, nobody did, it was still open range waiting for settlement, but I didn’t know that at the time. It would have been pretty hard to get a herd of cattle into that valley but it could have been done.
          I also wasn’t aware that there weren’t any ranches in the valley at all. But I wasn’t looking for one. I was simply looking for a human needle in a very large geographical haystack.

          Allie Summer wasn’t aware of the absence of human dwellings in Dandelion Valley, either, and so a major part of her plan—find a ranch and a horse—had a huge hole in it. She knew that Backstrom’s men were after her, but she had no idea, of course, that Rob Conners was also searching and that McConnell would have men coming from the direction of Port Station as soon as possible. Allie figured she was alone. She had a rifle with 15 shots; no ammo in reserve. She had the knife and her wits in a forest. She’d stuffed a little bit of food in her pocket, but she wasn’t worried about that; she figured she could go a few days without eating. Water was plentiful in the various mountain streams. Her only worry was Nicholas Backstrom.
          If I can only find a horse…

          Billy Iron Fist knew this forest, and he knew that to get to Port Station Allie would have to cross Dandelion Valley. And since he now had her trail, he had a very good idea of where she would enter the valley. So, rather than take the winding trail that Allie had taken, he led Curt and Phil Cotton on the most direct route to where he believed the lady Ranger would be. It cut a good two miles off their journey and Billy hoped, and figured, he would reach Dandelion before Allie did.
          He was almost right…and he was right enough…

          Sergeant Pine at the Ranger HQ picked up McConnell’s telegraph message about an hour after it was sent. He didn’t hesitate. There were four Rangers—not five—immediately available and another arriving back at Port Station that day. Every Ranger was in love with Allie—infatuated, endeared, whatever term one wishes to use, so they would be on the trail as quickly as possible.
          All of the free Rangers were in Port Station and each checked into the office at 8 AM just to see if they had an assignment waiting. When the four men arrived, Pine immediately called them together.
          “Got this telegraph from McConnell just a little while ago.” He handed it to Tom Rivers, who read it, then passed it to the other three men.
          “What’s up?” Rivers asked. “Sounds like Allie is in trouble.”
          Pine shook his head in ignorance. “Don’t know. The telegraph is the only info I have on it.” The sergeant knew what the operation Allie had been working on, but he had no information regarding her progress. The other Rangers didn’t know what task she was carrying out. “I know she was working in the River Bend area, so head in that general direction. And be quick about it. This telegraph sounds urgent.”
          Hack Pewter gave the telegraph back to Pine. “Dandelion Valley is a big place. You don’t know anything else?”
          “Just that she was working around River Bend, so I assume she’d be coming from that area.”
          “It will take us a couple of days to get there.”
          Pine looked sternly at the four men. “Then get going. Unless you never want to see Allie again.”