Chapter Nine—A Shorter Fishing Trip

Friday, October 25, about lunchtime....
          Gail had a nice ranch. It was nestled against the rising hills on the eastern side of the Clearwater valley, so she now called her ranch East Clearwater. She had simply called it "Clearwater" before I had come the first time. The ranch house itself was one-story, log, with a nice porch running all along the front of it and a couple of apple trees providing some shade and fruit, though not much of either this time of year. The outbuildings--barn, bunkhouse, corral and such--were behind and not distracting in any way from the loveliness of the setting or attractiveness of the house itself. She obviously took some pride in the place because it was neat and had some flower beds along the front, though again, flowers were in short supply at the moment.
          I rode up and hitched my horse to a rail about 20 yards from the porch. As I walked up I saw the same fellow I had seen three years ago when I had visited Gail--a fellow with a bushy black mustache, looking like he was guarding the place. And he was standing in the exact same place. Karl was his name, if I remembered correctly.
          "I'm here to see...Mrs. Kragan," I said, almost saying "Miss Sanders."
          He jerked a thumb towards the front door. I couldn't help but smile. That was the only movement I had seen out of him three years ago, too.
          I walked up the steps and knocked on the front door. I was still somewhat anxious about this whole thing. As I think I've made clear, I was uneasy about seeing her before I ever arrived in River Bend, and she didn't help matters much last night when I'd talked with her. But there was nothing for it, I was there, and I was going to visit with her. I found myself almost hoping that Homer Kragan would be there; it might lessen the tension somewhat.
          She opened the door and smiled at me. She was wearing a blue dress with white lace around the collars; I think I had seen it before.
          "Hi," she said. "I'm glad you could come." She didn't seem quite as antsy as she had the previous evening, but her eyes were still a little unsure. "Would you like a cup of coffee?"
          "Yes, that would be nice, thank you." The weather hadn't changed much from the day before.
          "Ok. Have a seat in the living room and I'll get it for you." And off she went to the kitchen.
          It was a comfortable house, but simple. Her father had built it, and apparently after Gail's mother had passed away, but it looked more masculine than feminine, at least in structure. No pretty arches or fancy windows. Just...plain, functional, almost severe. There was a small entranceway that opened into a big living area. Plush leather seating—dark brown sofa, love seat, and two chairs, with a bear rug in front of a well-used fireplace, that had a strong fire going in it, thankfully. Various western paintings on the wall, a couple of coffee tables and end tables judiciously situated, and two doors leading deeper into the house. A hallway led off to the left. I couldn’t see where, it was at the back of the room. Gail had added some feminine touches as well--hanging plants, crocheted Afghans, useless knick-knacks scattered here and there. It was pleasant and comfortable.
          I remembered, after tasting the excellent coffee she brought me, that she was an equally excellent cook. And, even though I had eaten a big breakfast at the Gold Dust, I was looking forward to what she had prepared. "Homer's not here?" I asked her, when she handed me the coffee cup.
          She stiffened a little, but tried to catch herself. "No. I told him you were coming, but he couldn't get away. Said it would be nice for us to chat alone anyway. Old times." She smiled. "He's not the jealous type. And if you try something naughty, I'll just scream for Karl outside." She changed the subject. "Let me get the meal on the table and we'll eat."
          My memory had served me well; the food was delicious, and I told her so. She smiled shyly and said, "Thank you." I still was having trouble believing this was Gail Sanders. I don't remember her acting like this at all.
          But then, I reminded myself that this wasn't Gail Sanders. It was Gail Kragan. And I wondered if I was truly seeing the difference.
          Over the meal, she asked me what I had been doing the past three years, so I ran through the whole thing with Robin, and that almost ruined my meal. She had a shocked expression on her face, as if not believing somebody could do something like that to such a sweet person like me.
          "I'm really sorry to hear that, Rob," she said, and I was really tired of people saying that to me. But it was to be expected, I suppose.
          But it also piqued me a bit, so I was a little ruder and blunter than I had intended to be when I asked her, "Gail, why did you marry Homer Kragan? And don't give me this nonsense about it being a love match. You couldn't love that pig if he bought you Paris and Rome and took you on a trip around the moon."
          I saw a little fire in her eyes--that reminded me of the Gail I had known. But it passed. She didn't speak for a moment, seemingly choosing her words carefully. "Rob, things are...different...than when you were here before. I've got responsibilities I didn't have before, some of which are over my head. And some of which I don't really think I'm qualified to handle. There are a lot of reasons why people fall in love; physical attraction is not the only one. There is a whole lot more to anybody than first impressions or what can be seen from the outside. Helping one another get through life is a very important thing."
          This was high cholesterol pig slop and I think the expression on my face told her that's what I thought about it. "Homer is a nicer person than I think you think he is," she said. And that was lamer than anything else she had said so far.
          I sat there and looked at her for several seconds, and she couldn't meet my gaze for long. She squirmed as she realized that I was still staring at her. In fact, she reminded me of a worm on a fish hook. And I wasn't going to let her off. I knew why, too. I cared about Gail very much, too much I now knew, and I hated to see her ruin her life like she was doing. It made me mad so I was brutal.
          "Gail, I don't believe a word you said, and you don't, either. I don't know what hold that man has on you, although I suspect it has something to do with that land deal I help you put together a few years ago. And if that's the truth, then Kragan is a bigger, filthier snake than I thought he was."
          Now she was mad. "Rob," she said sharply, "he gave me a good deal and you know it. In fact, if I remember correctly, the whole thing was your idea. And I don't appreciate, in the least, you talking about my husband that way. Regardless of what you think about him--and I don't care--he's my husband and he always will be. I haven't lost a thing since I married him and in many, many ways, I'm a whole lot better off."
          I should have kept my mouth shut and ended it right there. But I couldn't. I just couldn't. "Gail, yes, that was a sweet deal we worked out, but do you think Kragan would have done it if there wasn't something, a whole lot, in it for himself?"
          "And what, pray tell, is wrong with that? Would you make a financial agreement with somebody that didn't benefit you in some way?"
          "No, of course not. But I also know that, if you didn't keep your end of the bargain on that deal, that the whole thing dropped, like a ripe plum, right into Homer Kragan's hands. And you've already admitted that there are things over your head, that you aren't qualified to handle. It doesn't take an idiot to add two plus two."
          She stood up, her eyes blazing, her face red with fury. "Get out my house, Conners! You're not only insulting my husband by insinuating he's a crook, but that's a reflection on me for marrying him, saying I haven't got enough sense and intelligence to do what's best for me."
          I didn't move, I just looked up at her. "Do you, Gail?"
          That utterly infuriated her. "Get out! Right now! Out! And don't you ever come back here again. I never want to see you again, you...." And she called me something that I'm not going to print.
          So I stood up, preparing to fulfill her wishes. But I had one more barb to throw at her, though it really wasn't one. I wanted her to see some things, though I had a feeling she already saw them and was mad that I saw them, too, and was letting her know it. I said to her, "Ok, Gail. It's your life and none of my business for butting in. I just care about you and don't want to see you hurt or destroyed. Or worse." I paused a moment. "I've only got one more question for you. Who gets East Clearwater if something happens to you?"
          She looked utterly shocked, as if I would have the gall to ask such a question. "Ohhhw!" she stormed. "How dare you!" And she picked up her coffee cup and threw it at me. She missed and it shattered against the wall behind me.
          I looked at her, sadly. "I hope I'm wrong, I really do. But I'm not and we both know it." I turned away and said, "Good-bye, Gail. I wish you only the best." And I left the house.
          I didn't think I could get much lower than I had already been over the past few weeks. But if somebody can be emptier than empty, that's where I was as I rode the seven or so miles back to River Bend. I tried to convince myself that I was only trying to do the best for Gail, but I had to admit that I probably went at it like a bull in a china shop. Way to go, Conners. You handled that like an ace. Now, just go and offend Kelly the same way and you can REALLY be proud of yourself....
          Little did I know....