Chapter Fourteen—Some Things Just Have To Be Done

Saturday night, October 26…
          It was getting close to 10 o’clock so I figured McConnell would be in his hotel room. I stopped at the desk and asked his room number, and upon being told, went up the stairs two at a time. I knocked on his door and was rewarded by him opening it.
          “We need to talk,” I said. “And we don’t have time to ride 10 miles out of town.”
          He nodded. “Come in.”
          His room was like mine, a bed, dresser with water and bowl, wardrobe closet, a window and a chair. I took the chair, he sat on the bed.
          “Your girl is alive and well,” I began. “She apparently had been captured by Backstrom, escaped, but returned and stole the papers she wanted that would put him in prison. She got away and is in the mountains somewhere, maybe heading towards your main office. There’s no way she could know you are here.”
          McConnell was listening intently. “How do you know all this?”
          I told him of the conversation I had just overheard between Kragan and Backstrom. “I could only imply some things, but that was what I got. Nobody knows, for sure, where she’s headed, but Backstrom figured she’d head out for your office.”
          “Yeah, she couldn’t come here, Backstrom owns this town; she’d never be believed, even with the papers.” He sat there, thoughtfully. “I guess the telegraph office is closed now, though I’m tempted to go roust the operator out and send a wire to my office. Only problem is, there won’t be anybody there this time of night. I’ve got to get some men in those mountains, looking for Allie.” He looked at me. “Will you help?”
          I shrugged. “I’ll help you look for her, but I don’t know those mountains. Does she?”
          He hesitated. “No. But Allie is half-Indian and she can move in the forest like a full-blood. She’ll be hard to find.”
          “Captain, it won’t be trees the whole way to your HQ. There are plenty of mountain valleys out there where she won’t have much cover at all.”
          “But I’ll bet she’s trying to find a farm or ranch where she can borrow a horse. If she does, she’ll have a much better chance of escaping.”
          I shook my head in doubt. “Not a very well-settled area up there. She’s going to have trouble finding anything.”
          “All the more reason I’ve got to get every man available out there searching for her.”
          “How many men do you have available?”
          His face was grave. “Not as many as Backstrom sent after her, and my men are almost 100 miles away.” He sighed. “She’s going to be on her own for awhile.”  Then he looked at me again. “Unless you can find her.”
          I grunted a chuckle. “I’ll search, but don’t expect much. She doesn’t know me and if she spots me, she’ll hide, thinking I’m one of Backstrom’s men. If she’s as good as you say she is, I could pass within five feet of her and not see her.”
          “And I’m not going to be able to leave in the morning, either,” I told him. “I’ve got to go talk to Kelly Atkins and Gail Kragan. Captain, those two men are planning on killing both of them, Gail within a couple of weeks.”
          “Good grief,” McConnell replied. “Why?”
          “Kragan gets the other half of the valley, free and clear, if Gail’s out of the way. She owns it. He said she’s going to go ‘visit some relatives back east and never return.’ Emphasis on the ‘never.’”
          “I’ve heard tales like that before,” the Ranger responded.
          “And Backstrom is going to marry Kelly Atkins in a few weeks, not because he loves her, but because it will enhance his already prestigious reputation in town. Marry the town sweetheart. Then when she ‘accidentally’ dies in a year or two, he’ll be able to play the sympathy card. River Bend will not only love him, they’ll feel sorry for him. The stupid masses will swoon.”
           McConnell shook his head in disgust. “I told you the man was the scum of the earth.”
           “Yes, and I believe it. But anyway, I can’t go after your girl until I talk to Gail and Kelly.”
          “I can see that. Do you think you can convince either one?”
          I didn’t answer. I simply gave him a very skeptical look.
          “The key is Allie Summer,” McConnell said.
          “The key is Allie Summer,” I repeated. “But you can’t go after her, Captain. Not you personally. You have to stay in River Bend.”
          “Why?” he said, his dander up a bit.
          “What if she shows up in River Bend and you aren’t here to greet her?”
          He was exasperated. “Man, I can’t just sit here and do nothing.”
          “Then you better have one of your men come and sit and do nothing. You’ve got to have somebody here in case she shows up.”
          He nodded, but he didn’t like it. “It will take a man two days to get here.”
          “Maybe she’ll show up before then. Or maybe we’ll find her.”
          He looked at me, and I could see some agony in his face. “Conners, she’s by herself for at least two days; it will take my men that long to get into those hills to look for her. Please get out there as quickly as you can. I’d feel better with somebody in the field.”
          I sighed and nodded. “I’ll do what I need to do with Kelly and Gail as quickly as possible. If all goes well, I can start searching tomorrow afternoon.” I looked at the head Ranger, understanding his angst. “I’ll do the best I can, Captain McConnell, but it’s going to be like finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.”
          “It will be worse than that looking for Allie Summer.”
          “Then Backstrom’s men will have trouble locating her, too.”
          “That’s my hope….”

Sunday morning, October 27….
          In spite of all my irreverent jovialities in the prologue of this story about preachers and church-goers, I had actually been raised in a religious family. And Julie and I, and then Robin and I, had been regular in our attendance at Sunday meetings. Since I had been wandering the past few months, I’d only made it to church if I happened to be in a town on a Sunday morning, and only if that town had the particular brand of church I liked. I was pretty snobbish when it came to such things.
          And, under normal circumstances, I might have gone to church that Sunday morning. But I didn’t. In fact, I was up earlier than the chickens because I had to catch Kelly before she left; I distinctly remember her telling me that she and Backstrom went to church together. If I didn’t talk to her before she headed to town, I might not get to for the whole day because there was every chance she’d spend the afternoon with that creep. I wanted to see Kelly and then I wanted to talk to Gail, and then I’d head northeast on a search for Allie Summer.
          That is, I’d head northeast if I was still alive after talking to Kelly and Gail.
          I dreaded—I dreaded—talking to those two women. Gail had already given me a taste of what she thought of my displeasure with her marriage, and Kelly’s feelings for Backstrom were so deep that I expected nothing less than a volcanic eruption from her. But I had to try. There was no way I could live with myself if I didn’t.
          I arrived at the Atkins’ home a little after sunup. Kelly was already outside, feeding chickens, and she smiled at me when she saw me, though her face showed an overabundance of curiosity.
          “Hi,” she said. “I’m surprised to see you. I was just getting some morning chores done before I got ready for church.” She pulled a face. “We’ve got a sick calf so dad’s not going to be able to go, but that’s happened before.”
          My insides were churning. “Yeah, I’ve been there many times.” I didn’t quite know what to say.
          And she was still looking at me curiously. “Would you…like a cup of coffee or something? I’ve got some time.”
          I sighed and dismounted. Might as well get it over with. I walked over to her and looked down at her. Her face went from curiosity to thoughtfulness and perhaps even some concern.
          “Rob, what’s the matter? You aren’t your usual jovial self.” I didn’t know if she was being sarcastic or not.
          But my face must have shown the gravity I felt. I could think of no other way than to just come out with it. With a bit of a preamble. “Kelly, I’m going to tell you something. You aren’t going to believe me, you’re going to hate my guts, and you’re going to run me off your property. That is, if you don’t shoot me. But I’ve got to tell because I care too much about you.”
          Now her face went grave, too, and I thought I started to see some fire in her eyes. “It has to do with Evan, doesn’t it.”
          “Kelly, his name isn’t Evan Dryer. His name is Nicholas Backstrom. He moved here a couple of years ago from back east, where he is wanted for just about every crime in the book. He came out here to escape the law, and ever since he’s been here, he and that fat banker have been robbing this valley blind. He’s a no-good, sidewinding, piece of cow manure, he doesn’t love you, and he has every intention of using you. Until he’s finished with you. And then he’ll kill you.”
          Volcano. Yeah. Kelly slapped me, hard. I’ll admit, I wasn’t terribly diplomatic, but I was going to have to say these things at some point anyway, so there was no use beating around the bush. But Kelly was…volcanic.
          She could hardly find the words. “Rob, I can’t….I can’t believe you’d do this. I thought you were a better man than that. Coming up here and lying…the filthiest lies…ohhw!” She turned away in disgust, then back to me. “Yes, you better be glad I don’t have my rifle with me or I’d put fifteen bullet holes in you right now.” She closed her eyes, then pressed her hands against her temples, obviously trying to control her emotions. “I care about you so much….and you do this to me.” She opened her eyes and looked at me, and now I saw tears. “Why are doing this to me, Rob? Why? It hurts so much, it really does.”
           I went tender, as tender as I could. “Kelly, I’m doing it because I care about you, too. Very deeply. And you are headed for the most agonizing, and dangerous, time in your young life.” I told her what I had overheard at Kragan’s office the night before. “You are a tool to him, Kelly, that’s all….”
          She’d finally had all she could stand. She pushed me as hard as she could. “Get off my land!” she shouted. “You don’t know Evan Dryer. I’ve been with him countless times over the past several months, and he’s the sweetest, most thoughtful man I’ve ever met. He puts you to shame, Rob Conners. You aren’t one-tenth the man Evan is, and you never will be. And I’ll bet you recognize it, too, which is why you’re up here right now, trying to destroy him in my eyes. Well, it’s not going to work, mister. Evan has made something with his life, and you’re nothing but a wandering bum. I’m going to marry him, Rob Conners, not you, and I can’t believe I ever even gave a moment’s consideration to that thought, or even spent ten minutes with you.” She spat in my direction, but I was too far away for her to hit me. “I thank you for one thing, though, and that is for showing me the kind of man you truly are. And helping me to see just how wonderful Evan is. Now, you get out of here, ride out of this valley, and don’t let me ever see you again.”
          I looked at her a few moments, my guts about to twist until they strangled my insides. I knew that this was the reaction I’d get from Kelly. But some things simply must be done, regardless. I was fixing to hear the same thing from Gail—if she’d even see me again. I sighed, nodded, and then mounted Ol’ Paint. I had one more card to play—a two of clubs—and I had no reason not to play it. I looked at her—fists on her hips, a wild, sexy look about her, even though she was in a near-killing mood. Kelly Atkins had become a very beautiful woman. If not a terribly reasonable one.
          “I’m not lying to you, Kelly. This is way, way too serious to lie about. There’s a Ranger in town,” I said to her, quietly. “He’s the Captain of the territorial Rangers. His name is William McConnell. He’s the one who first told me about Backstrom. If you have one ounce of respect left for me, or even if you don’t, go talk to him. He’ll give you an earful.”
          “I wouldn’t talk to him if he were the last man on earth. Well, I’d talk to him before I’ll talk to you again.”
          “Ok, it’s your heart and your funeral. Give your dad my regards.”
          And I turned Ol’ Paint and rode out of Kelly Atkins’ life.
          Or so I thought at the time.

          Kelly watched Rob ride away. She was furious, she was hurt, she was…in doubt. Why would Rob do this? And she closed her eyes and lowered her head. And what if he’s telling the truth? Kelly Atkins was an intelligent woman; Evan Dryer had, indeed, been wonderful to her, but…she could see…she could tell…and she had wondered, more than once, just how much he really cared about her. Kelly had a little too much pride for a woman—yea, for any human being—and she didn’t want to admit she was wrong. And she didn’t think she was. She knew that Evan was an extremely busy man and so she chalked up some of his moods towards her as simply distraction. Such a thing was to be expected from any human being, especially was one with as many things on his mind as Evan Dryer had. I don’t expect him to be perfect…
          Kelly stood there a little longer, trying to convince herself. It was hard to stay mad at Rob for long; she cared too much about him. He was the most level-headed man she’d ever met in her life; this was totally out of character for him. Why would he do this? What did he hope to gain? Does he want me to come back to him, and did he think this was the way to do it? Surely not…then why?...
          She went back to feeding her chickens. Feeling something deep inside her that she did not like feeling at all.
          She felt doubt….

Sunday, October 27, about noon…
          Gail Sanders’—Kragan’s—ranch was about 12 or 13 miles from the Atkins place, across the river on the eastern side of the valley. It took me a couple of hours to get there because I didn’t rush it, trying to frame in my mind what I wanted to say to her—if she’d even talk to me. How do you tell a woman that you overheard a conversation in which her husband was plotting to kill her? If the reader has any suggestions, I’d like to hear them before I reach the next paragraph.
          Bushy Mustache—Karl—was at his usual post when I arrived at Gail’s ranch. His eyes followed me up the track that led from road to house and then continued to scrutinize me as I dismounted. I walked in his direction and stood before him.
          “Not sure she wants to see you,” he said to me.
          “I…think I can understand that,” I responded. “Would you pass a message—“
          Before I could complete the sentence, I heard my name called. “Rob.”
          I looked up and Gail was standing at the front door. Her face didn’t show any anger; in fact, if anything, there was some uncertainty. I just looked at her, not saying anything.
          “You can…come in, if you’d like. It’s ok, Karl.”
          Karl’s thumb moved and I went up the stairs and followed Gail into her house. We walked into her living room. She had a small fire going in the fireplace, but the room was still cold. Or maybe that was simply the mood of the moment. She motioned for me to sit on the couch. I perched myself on one end of it, and she on the other.
          “Would you like some coffee?” she asked, and I could still see some misgiving in her face.
          “No, thank you. I need to talk to you, if you will.”
          She nodded, but before I could say anything, she said, “Rob, I’m sorry about yesterday. I know Homer gets the ranch if something…happens to me, but I don’t believe he’s that kind of man, I really don’t. He’s a little hard-nosed at times, and he loves money too much, but I don’t think he would…I mean, he’s not like that. You understand?”
          Oh, brother…I rubbed the back of my head in indecision and stood up and walked over to a window next to the fireplace. She had a lovely view of the mountains to the north and east. There were some foggy-looking clouds obscuring the peaks in the distance. I wondered how much longer she’d be able to look at them.
          I stood there, not saying anything, still not sure what I wanted to say or how I was going to say it. I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Rob, what is it? Did something happen to Homer?”
          I turned and looked down at her. Gail’s eyes searched mine; I’m not sure what she saw, but at the moment I felt a measure of sympathy and anger—sympathy for her, of course, and anger at her thieving, scheming husband. I don’t know what made me do it, but I took her in my arms, drew her to me, and kissed her.
          And she responded, hungrily, as if….she had been sleeping on the second floor of a house with her husband on the first. We held the kiss for several seconds, and then I pulled up. Her arms had gone around me, and she held on, laying her head against my chest. I stroked her hair. She trembled. How could I tell her? How could I not tell her?
          I spoke softly. “Gail, are you planning on taking a trip back east to see some relatives in the next couple of weeks?”
          She pulled back and looked at me, a bit puzzled. “No. I don’t have any relatives back east. Why?”
          I gently untangled myself from her and turned back to the window. “I…overheard a conversation last night between your husband and Evan Dryer.” I looked back at her. “Incidentally, his name isn’t Evan Dryer, it’s Nicholas Backstrom, and he’s wanted back east for just about every crime in the book. A real scumbag.” Gail looked shocked. I resumed my study of the mountains afar, wishing, at the moment, that I was among them.
          “How do you know that?” she asked me.
          “The head of the territorial Rangers is in River Bend at the moment. He told me.” I didn’t go into the details.
          “Does Homer know who he is?”
          Once more, I looked at her. “Yes. And in that conversation I overheard between him and Backstrom, Kragan said you were fixing to take a trip back east to visit some kinfolks.” I knew my face was hard, but I wasn’t feeling soft at the moment. “He said you’d never come back.”
          Gail turned pale, and her eyes went from perplexity to something akin to fear. “What does that mean?” she asked, barely above a whisper.
          “You figure it out,” I said.
          And I put on my hat and walked out of Gail Sanders’—Kragan’s—life.
          Or so I thought at the time.