Chapter Four—Choices and Meetings

Wednesday, October 23…
          I got up very early the next morning in order to get a good head start on my trip to nowhere. It wasn't even light yet. As I was tying my blanket onto Ol' Paint's back, Clem Everett came up to me. "Mr. Conners," he said in that voice that told me he was fixing to ask me to do something that I probably wouldn't want to do.
          "Yes?" I kept tying my blanket down, hoping Everett would get the hint.
         He was hesitant, but came out with it. "We know that you's plannin' on leavin', but we's wonderin'..." He hesitated again.
          I turned and looked at him but didn't say anything.
          I don't think that encouraged him much. He stumbled around. "Well, you know, we's all farmers, an''....we know farmland pretty good, but...well, you know...none of us is ranchers and we ain't real sure the kind of land and so forth that we ought to get. I mean...well...we know we need grass and water and such, but..." He sighed and blurted it out. "Would you be willin' to go with us and help us choose our land? Make sure we got a good plot? We want to get off to a good start, you know what I mean?"
          I looked at him for a few seconds, then turned my head and stared into the distance at nothing. Just thinking. Yes, a good ranch needs water and grass, but it's not quite that simple. You look at the lay of the land, will it get good sunshine, how does the water sit, will a tank need to be added to provide more water, is there a good place for a house and barn, how thick is the's not a bad idea to taste the water. If a human won't drink it--well, a cow might drink anything, but still with these mountains nearby, there could be some sulpher or hot springs that even cows won't touch. You look at the soil.......all in all, he was right, his people were farmers, and land that a farmer would buy a rancher might not touch. Kragan didn’t care what these settlers bought, in fact, he'd probably try to sell them the worst land possible so that they would fail. I really had no reason not to stay and help them; it wouldn't delay me much, and, again, I didn't have any place to go anyway. My intention was just to wander till I wandered no more. Wherever and whenever that would be.
          So I nodded. "Ok, I can do that. You said you're going to start looking today?"
          He looked relieved. "Yeah, we's supposed to go to the lawyer's office this mornin'--well, try to be there by 10 or so. He' and the land agent are the ones who's goin' to go with us, show us the plots of land, and so forth. We'd really appreciate your help." And then he added hastily, "And we'll pay you, o' course."
          I smiled at that. "No, Clem, you don't need to pay me. You folks need to keep your money for the winter that's coming. You'll probably need to buy supplies so keep what you've got." I looked at him. "Who all is going this morning?"
          "They's five of us goin'. We're goin' to do it in shifts. That way some of the men can stay here, watch the cattle, be with the women and children and such. T'morrow or the next day the rest will go."
          I thought that was a good idea.
          He continued, "We really hope to get our land picked out as soon as possible. We'll look it over, and with your help, decide, take our wives to see to make sure they like it, then if all's well, finalize on the land and get the cattle moved. That may take a few days longer, but we want to do it right."
          And again, I thought that was wise. "All right. Sounds like a good plan. When are you leaving?"
          "As soon as ever'body is ready. I'm goin', along with Hartenstein, Edison, Nelson, and Zimmer, the Reese man. Like I said, the rest'll go tomorrow or the next day. Gonna ask Ben to go, too, just in case he'd like to."
          Ben said he'd stay with the cattle, which, frankly, I was glad he would. Next to me, he was the best cattleman here, and it wasn't a bad idea to have one of us around to keep an eye on them. The Pickens boys could have handled it, and McKenzie was getting better. And a few others. But I felt better with Ben in charge.
          It wasn't even my cattle drive any more, but I was still interested and felt somewhat responsible. The more I thought about it, the more I began feeling guilty about pulling out so soon. I ought to at least hang around until these folks got their land bought and their cattle settled onto it. There wasn't any reason not to.
          And the thought fleetingly went through my mind--well, more than fleetingly--that I had wanted to get out of the area so I wouldn't have to see Gail or Kelly again. I wasn't sure why, but then, I wasn't sure about anything when it came to those two. Except that they were both taken now so any possibility I had of courting them--if I had decided I wanted to--was now out the window.
          Anyway, the six of us--Everett, Hartenstein, Edison, Nelson, and Zimmer--rode into River Bend. My stomach was in knots as we neared the place; and I just couldn't figure out why. But that's the way I felt and it was hard not to conclude that it was because of those two women that had been virtually obsessing me for the past several days.
          As we rode through the town, heading to the lawyer's office, a few people looked at me, did a double-take, smiled and waved. "Constance! Good to see you again!" I got that more than once.
          And I received some peculiar looks from the men I was riding with. I smiled. "They think my name is Constance. Long story. I'll have to disabuse them of the notion."
          We hitched our horses in front of the lawyer's office, which was on a side street right behind the bank. There was a sign hanging out front: "Evan Dryer, Attorney-at-Law," then just under it. "Second floor." When we went inside, I saw three doors stretching down a morose, ill-lit hallway in front of us to the right, and the stairs immediately before us. Since Dryer had so graciously located his office for us, we traipsed up the steps and found the door with his name on it—there were three doors down a hall to the right, the lawyer’s in the middle. We knocked, heard a “come in,” and entered. There was only one person in a room that was rather untidy with books and papers. He stood up, smiling. He was wearing a black suit, white shirt, and bolo-tie. Walking over to us, he held out his hand.
          "Evan Dryer. It's good to see you again, Mr. Everett. Mr. Yancey, the land agent, won’t be able to come with us, other pressing matters intervened. I can handle all the transactions, though." We all shook hands with him, and he greeted, by name, the men whom he knew. Some of them had been at the meeting the day before, and Everett introduced those of us who had not. When he introduced me, Dryer nodded.
          "Kelly told me you were here. You've got quite a reputation, Mr. Conners. Quite the gunman, I hear."
          I didn't like this guy from the get-go. Number one, I don't like lawyers, just on principle. Number two, I don't like being called a "gunman." I was a rancher who knew how to use a gun, not a gunman who knew how to ranch. Number three, he was going to marry Kelly, and that was probably the main reason I didn't like him. Number four, he was an extremely handsome man--dark hair, dark eyes, mid-30s, firm chin, strong disposition--the latter was evident immediately--so maybe I was jealous because of his looks, too. But, to try to be fair, he seemed genuine enough--for the most part. His smile didn't quite reach his eyes, and that always made me a little suspicious.
          Regardless, I responded, "I'm a rancher, Mr. Dryer, not a gunman. If I have to use a gun, I will, but I don't want a reputation as a gunslinger." Then, with a little annoyance in my voice, I said, "Apparently, I already have one, though."
          Dryer's smile diminished a little at my rebuke. "No offense intended, Mr. Conners, but Kelly told me a pretty good tale about what happened the last time you were here, and well, you weren't ranching. So, yes, in River Bend, I'm afraid your prowess with a gun overshadows your desire to be known as a rancher. Are you planning on buying some land here, too?"
          "No," I said. "I'm just going to make sure these people get good land. They are farmers, not ranchers, so maybe I can be of some use."
          "Well, that's nice of you," Dryer said. "I'm sure they appreciate it."
          There was some tension between the two of us; I don't think he liked me any more than I liked him. And maybe it was Kelly on his part, too. He probably wondered if anything had gone on between me and her the previous time I was here. I smiled inwardly at the thought that maybe that bugged him some--the not knowing. My "make sure they get good land" comment also had an intended barb in it, and I'm sure Dryer caught it. The farmers were looking at me and the lawyer strangely.
          But, he redirected the conversation to everyone. "Well, I don’t see any reason to stand around here and waste some good daylight. If you gentlemen are ready, we can go and see what we can find for you."
          And the five men responded enthusiastically. Even the former rustler, Zimmer, seemed eager to get some land of his own. Maybe he had really reformed. I hoped so.
          Not surprisingly, Dryer talked the whole time as we rode out of town, extolling the virtues of Clearwater Valley, the good grass, fine water, solid land, decent people, great town. "We're proud of our valley and want good people moving in to help us grow."
          The farmers were eating it up. I'd heard the sales pitch before and wasn't impressed.
          The first piece of land Dryer showed us was a piece of junk, and at an exorbitant price--I think he was testing me to see if I really knew good ranch land. I was diplomatic about it. "No, I don't think is what you want, men. What else have you got, Mr. Dryer?”
          "Well, let me show you," he said, with an almost amused glance at me. Don't try to rip these people off, buster...Another mark against him in my eyes.
          The rest of the land he showed the farmers was good land, and the price was higher than that of the piece of junk land he initially took us to. He talked and talked and talked about how many cattle could be grazed on such grass, the quality of the soil for gardening and hay, the purity of the water, the lovely view, and the parcels he showed even had some protected areas from the north wind--tree breaks or small, but steep hills against which a house could be built. The water came from the mountains and I tasted it. It was better than any I’d ever had. The cattle would be fine with it.
          "I think you can see," he said, "that there is going to be water, year-round, from the mountains and that the grass is still edible, even this time of the year." It was, which was good for late October. That did indicate good soil and good water, though some late rains had helped, and that didn't always happen. Still, it was a good selling point.
          It took all afternoon for him to show us around, so it was getting dusky by the time we headed back to River Bend. "None of these plots are more than seven miles from town, so it won't be a long trek in for supplies." Yada yada yada. You'd think he was selling land right next to the throne of God with the tree of life growing on every acre. But then, that’s what land salesmen are supposed to do.
          "What do you think, Mr. Conners?" Clem Everett asked, when we got back to Dryer’s office. "Is it a good deal?"
          Negotiation was expected. At least I expected it. "The land is good, Clem, but the price is too high."
          If what I said riled Dryer, he maintained his composure very well. "For the size and quality of the land they are getting, Mr. Kragan and I think he's asking a very reasonable price." I found it interesting that he referenced Kragan selling the land and not Gail.
          "Well, I don't, Mr. Dryer, and I know land and cattle."
          "Perhaps, but you don't know land values in this area."
          This was fun. "I don't care if the land is inside the pearly gates, it's too expensive. I could buy that same piece of ground down near Whitewater for half the price."
          Clem Everett was thoughtful. "Reckon there's some good land available fer all of us down there, Mr. Conners? I know it's late in the year, but if we could save a bundle..."
          I could have kissed him. He didn't seem to know it, he was being serious, but letting a potential seller think you might go somewhere else was always a good tactic. Dryer saw some sales possibly slipping away, so he said, "Do keep in mind, gentlemen, that the price is affected by the fact you don't have a down payment to make. Mr. Kragan is offering you a good deal, all things considered."
          That wasn’t an invalid point. Kragan would have to put up all the money, not an overly terrible risk, given he’d get everything back if the settlers defaulted. And he could demand a higher payment from them which would mean a greater chance of failure. Everett looked back at me, and asked again, "What do you think, Mr. Conners?"
          I made a counter-offer to Dryer, what I thought the land was really worth and at what interest rate and terms. He countered, I countered, he countered, I countered, and the farmers’ heads were moving back and forth like they were watching a tennis match. In the end, we agreed on a price that I thought was still too much, but was substantially less than original. And he went down on the interest rate, so that would help, too.
         Dryer smiled at me. "You're a tough negotiator, Mr. Conners. I'll have to bounce these figures off Mr. Kagan, of course, but if he goes for them, I'll get the papers drawn up, we can get them signed and notarized in a few days and, well, gentlemen, you'll all be the proud owners of a half-section of land in one of the most beautiful valleys in creation."
          The men beamed. Everett said, "We'll want to show it to our women-folks, too, just to make sure they like it, but I know my missus will love it." The other men echoed the same sentiment. "The rest of the men want to have a gander at some land tomorrow. Do you think you'd have time to show them around?"
          Dryer's smile was back in place. "Well, of course. That's what I'm here for." He looked at me, with a wry expression on his face. "I assume you'll be coming along with them, Mr. Conners."
          I smiled back at him, the same kind of smile he'd been giving me all day. "I think that's a fair assumption, Mr. Dryer."
          The farmers wanted to get back to camp that night so we all stood up and shook hands. “Are you going to stay in town tonight, Mr. Conners?” Dryer asked me.
          “Yes, I think so. I’d like to give my horse a rest and I’m going to be here tomorrow anyway, so no sense in me going back.”
          “The River Bend Hotel has recently been remodeled so I think you’ll find it cozy and comfortable enough.”
          I nodded. “Thanks.” Trying to be as objective as possible, I had to conclude that Dryer wasn’t such a bad sort. He had a job to do, and his job was to sell land at as high a price as possible for his client, while the farmers’ job—with my help—was to buy land as cheaply as possible. There’s always a little bit of friction in that, and so that, my natural dislike of lawyers—who doesn’t?—and his marriage to Kelly all tended to taint my view of him. But I still had reservations. Maybe it was just because he was human, and, at the moment, that wasn’t my favorite species of organic life.
          Anyway, I took Ol’ Paint to the livery, said “howdy” to a few folks who recognized me, told a couple of them my real name so hopefully it would spread, and then got a room in the hotel. Dryer had been correct. It was nicer than when I’d been here before.
          “Lots of new folks moving into the area,” the hotel clerk told me. “So we’re trying to spruce the place up some.” Then he made a wry face. “We’re losing them almost as rapidly as they are coming in, but that doesn’t really hurt our business since folks with homes don’t stay in hotels anyway.”
          “Why are so many leaving?” I asked him.
          “Well, Mr. Kragan…he is pretty…strict…about his money. If people don’t make their land payments…” He shrugged. “We don’t really want people around here who can’t survive financially. Some folks feel that Kragan is not being patient enough with people who haven’t been here very long, but it’s his business and that’s the way he runs it.”
          Yeah, and he gets his land back…It made me wonder if the land the farmers were about to buy was defaulted land. I hadn’t seen any improvements on any of it, though. Well, it didn’t really matter, it was theirs—if Kragan would go along with the deal we had made—and if they could make the payments, they’d keep the land. Kragan would win, too. This was, of course, the same story Kelly had given me.
         I still didn’t like the guy and I was still suspicious of his lawyer. Gail and Kelly? Oh, get off that, Conners….
          I was hungry, so I decided I’d go see if the restaurant had been remodeled, too. The “Gold Dust Café” I remember it being called. Well, there was plenty of dust in this town, but I hadn’t seen a whole lot of gold.
          Homer Kragan has most of it, I imagine….