Chapter Nineteen—A Second Game Is Afoot

          We were all stunned, but there was no one more shocked than Backstrom himself. He stared at Kelly with an expression of total disbelief on his face. And slowly a little red bloom formed on his chest. And slowly, without uttering a word, Nicholas Backstrom sank to the earth—dead.
          No one quite knew what to do. Backstrom’s men were staring down at their now deceased boss with various expressions ranging from incredulity to horror. I was watching Kelly. She stood in place, gazing down at a man she had loved, a man so utterly undeserving of that love. Tears continued to roll down her cheeks, and she whispered, barely audible, “I’m sorry, Evan.”
          Not surprisingly, the person who broke the silence was Allie Summer. Her gun was now pointed at Curt. “All right, boys. Drop your guns. There’s no sense in you dying for a dead man.”
          I’m not sure they heard her, or that what she said registered with them. The death of their employer, the stability of their lives, was the last thing they had expected. And so they remained rooted where they stood, still not quite grasping the reality of what had taken place.
          I looked at Ben and motioned with my head. “Cover us, Allie,” I said to the Ranger, and then Ben and I walked over to Backstrom’s men and began taking their guns away from them. None of them put up any resistance, until I came to Curt.
          “No!” he shouted, and fired his rifle at Allie Summer.
          But Allie had been anticipating such a move, so as soon as Curt gave an indication he was going to shoot, she crouched down and to her right. The foreman’s bullet whizzed harmlessly over her head. The bullet from Allie’s gun went straight into Curt’s heart and he was dead on his feet.
          “Anybody else want to join them?” Allie asked, her gun slowly sweeping the remaining men.
          None of them did and Ben and I disarmed them all. “Let’s get some rope and tie them up,” I said to Ben, and he nodded. In a short time we had all the men’s hands tied behind their back. Most of them still appeared dumbfounded.
          I looked over at Kelly. She hadn’t moved. Her eyes were still on Nicholas Backstrom, her hopes and dreams shattered. I walked over to her and she slowly lifted her head and looked at me. Her eyes were full of tears. There were no words to comfort her, of course, so all I could say was, “I’m sorry, Kelly.”
          And then the dam broke. “Oh, Rob,” she cried, and dropped her rifle and threw her arms around me, crying…like a woman with a broken heart. I held her and stroked her hair until she cried herself out. It didn’t really take as long as I thought it might.
          She pulled back slightly, sniffling, wiping tears from her cheeks, her head down. “How could I be so blind, Rob? I saw…little things…here and there, but I just…I just didn’t want to believe he didn’t love me, too. I feel so foolish, such a dupe.”
          “I’m sorry, Kelly,” I repeated. “I guess…it happens to a lot of us. I sort of had the same problem with my second wife.”
          She looked up at me then and gave me a small smile. “Yeah, I guess so. I’m so sorry about that—for your sake.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Kelly was young and a strong woman. She’d recover.
          She knelt down and picked up her rifle and walked over to Allie Summer, who was gathering Backstrom’s papers. Ben was helping the bound men onto their horses for transport to River Bend. Allie looked at Kelly as she walked up. Kelly held out her rifle.
          “I guess…I’m under arrest, too.”
          “What for?” the Ranger said, a little nonplussed.
          “Well, I just shot a man in cold blood. He wasn’t wearing a gun. Isn’t that a crime?”
          Allie glanced at me; I was standing behind Kelly. “I didn’t see any such thing. Did you, Rob?”
          “I have no idea what she’s talking about.”
          Kelly’s head dropped and she said softly, “That’s not right.”
          Allie went on about her business of getting things ready to go. “Shooting snakes is not a crime in my book.”
          I winced a little at her insensitivity. Calling a man a “snake” in front of a woman who loved him wasn’t exactly the height of diplomacy. But Kelly simply responded, “Thank you.”
          “Come on, Kelly, I’ll take you home.” I looked at Allie. “You can handle things from here, can’t you?”
          “Yeah. We’ll be in River Bend in a short time. I’ll put these guys in jail, find Captain McConnell, and we’ll wrap this thing up. Probably transport these men back to Port Station in a day or so.” Her eyes met mine. “Thanks for your help, Rob.”
          “I really didn’t do a whole lot.”
          “You saved my life. I consider that a pretty big deal.”
          “Well, we owe somebody else a thanks, too. Ben.” I called to my friend and he walked over, having finished getting Backstrom’s men mounted up. He had also loaded Curt and Backstrom onto a horse, leaving one for Allie. I said to him, “Allie and I wouldn’t be here without you. ‘Thank you’ can’t express my gratitude, and I’m sure Allie feels the same way.”
          She nodded and repeated my thanks.
          Ben waved it off. “You would have done the same thing for me.”
          “How did you know we were here?” I asked him.
          “I followed you from River Bend.” I glanced at Allie. Ben must have been the “shadow” she had seen tailing us a couple of times.
          “But why? I don’t understand.”
          Ben looked at the Ranger. “I ran into your boss in River Bend. We struck up a conversation and found out we had a mutual acquaintance—Rob. Captain McConnell explained to me the situation.” Ben shifted his eyes to me. “He asked me to follow you, just in case.” He smiled. “To watch your back.”
          I shook my head in disbelief. “Well, you’re good, buddy. I can usually spot a tail from a long way off.”
          “But you weren’t looking for me, had no reason to expect someone was following you. I stayed out of sight and followed your tracks. You couldn’t have seen me anyway.”
          “I think Allie spotted you a couple of times on the way back.”
          “She’s got good eyes then.”
          “I wasn’t sure,” Allie said, “but I did think I saw something once or twice.”
          Ben smiled again. “Then I got careless.” He changed the subject. “I’ll help you get these men to River Bend.”
          She said, “Thanks.” And she smiled, that beautiful smile again. “I wouldn’t mind you watching my back, too.”
          With that solved, I walked over to Kelly. She was standing, quietly, pensively…sadly. “Are you ready to go home?” I asked her.
          She looked at me and gave me a soft smile. Kelly Atkins was indeed a beautiful woman. “Yes. Thank you, Rob. You kept me from making a terrible, terrible mistake.”
          I was about to say that she was the one who pulled the trigger and solved her own problem, but I was a little more diplomatic than Allie. So I responded, “I care about you very much, Kelly. When I found out what I did about Backstrom, I couldn’t let it go without trying to tell you.” Which reminded me of something else, and I turned back to Allie Summer. “Do you think there are any papers in that pile of Backstrom’s that will hang Homer Kragan?”
          “I don’t know,” she said, “but I’ll take a look. The stuff in his safe, too. Kragan needs to be behind bars as well.”
          “Yeah,” I replied. “And I’ve got to make sure he doesn’t send his wife…back east.”
          “Get on it, then,” Allie said to me. “If you need any help, let me know. I’ll be in River Bend a day or so, at least, and you can wire me at Port Station after that.”
          “Thanks.” And then to Kelly, I said, “Let’s go home.”
          She nodded without a word, and went to get her horse.

          It was almost dusk now and the clouds had blown in again, so it was cold and windy. A storm looked possible. I don’t think Kelly even noticed.
          Not surprisingly, she wasn’t in a very talkative mood on the 10 mile or so journey back to her home. But she wasn’t totally quiet, either. “Was he really that good, Rob? I mean, as an actor? He had to love me a little, didn’t he, to be so convincing.”
          I doubted very seriously that Nicholas Backstrom had ever loved any human being but himself. Yet, I didn’t want to cause Kelly any more pain than she had already endured. So, I said, “Yes, Kelly, I think he must have loved you some. He loved himself more than anything, but there was room in his heart for you, too.”
          She didn’t respond immediately to my answer, but, after a few moments, said, “You’re a terrible liar, Conners.”
          To which I instantly replied, “No, I’m not. I had you believing for several months that my name was Constance.”
          “Then, were you acting, too, those times…we spent together?”
          I stopped my horse and reached out a hand to stay hers. I looked at her. “No, Kelly, I was not acting about that. I cared very, very deeply for you, and I still do.” I gave her a small smile. “Do you think I would have risked enduring your wrath yesterday otherwise?”
          She tried to smile back, but it was hard for her. “No, I guess not. And, I’m sorry. I couldn’t figure out why you did what you did. I know now. Thank you for caring. That means a lot to me.”
          We rode on, silent for a few minutes, then she said, “Are you going to stay in this area?”
          We’d been down that road before, of course. “I still don’t know yet, Kelly. Before Captain McConnell asked me to help find Allie Summer, I was intending to leave. I don’t really see how anything has changed.” Well, something very important had changed—Kelly wasn’t going to marry Nicholas Backstrom. But that didn’t mean she’d marry me. Or that I wanted to marry her. Any thought I might have had of that had been put out of my mind by her intended nuptials to Backstrom/Dryer. And no doubt it would take Kelly some time to get over her loss. Her life had been shattered; she had to pick up the pieces and she needed time to do that.
          I knew the feeling. Julie. Robin. The latter wasn’t that long ago.
          Kelly then asked me a question that utterly blindsided me. Looking straight ahead, she asked, “Are you going to marry Allie Summer?”
          “Where in the world did you get that idea? I had never met her before today. There’s nothing between her and me.” Well, we did share a nice kiss but that was two people…locked in a desperate moment…needing reassurance…I guess…
          “Ok,” Kelly replied. “I just think you two would make a nice couple.”
          I thought the idea was ridiculous and I suspected Allie would burst out laughing at the suggestion. I figured Kelly didn’t fully have all her wits about her at the moment. For understandable reasons. Her future had ended at Sutter Flat.
          I knew the feeling. Julie. Robin. The latter wasn’t that long ago…
          And now…Kelly. I wasn’t lying to her when I said I had cared—and did care—very much about her. To see her heartbroken like this. Piled on top of the emptiness I had already felt…
          Quit feeling sorry for yourself, Conners…
          I shook it off and forced my mind in another direction. “I do know one thing I’m going to do,” I told her. “I’m going to check on Gail Sanders—Kragan.” I recounted to Kelly the plans Homer Kragan had for Gail as related to Nicholas Backstrom. “I obviously have to try to stop that.”
          “Yes. Yes, you do.” Kelly was obviously very subdued so her responses weren’t very enthusiastic. “He’s not a very nice man, is he?”
          The poor girl was lost in space. I didn’t try to make any more conversation and neither did she.
          When we got back to the Atkins ranch, I helped her put her horse away and walked her to her front door. It was dark then, but there was a light shining through the window, so I figured Fred was inside. He was probably used to Kelly being home late, and I imagine he was trying to get used to her not coming home at all. Well, he’d get to keep his daughter a little while longer.
          “Do you…need anything?” I asked her, once again, totally at loss for words.
          “No,” she replied. Then, “Yes. Hold me, Rob. Please just hold me for a few moments. You don’t mind, do you?”
          Of course I didn’t, so I took her and she laid her head against my shoulder. I could tell she was crying again, and I gently rocked her back and forth until she stopped. She pulled away from me and whispered, “Thank you. You’re such a wonderful man.”
          She and I were probably the only two people in the world who thought that. And she’d probably change her mind tomorrow.
          Kelly then looked up at me, and said, “Will I see you again? Or…are you going to leave…be gone for another three years…or never come back again?”
          I honestly didn’t have an answer to any of that. “I don’t know, Kelly. Maybe it’s just best this way. You’ve got to pick up the pieces of your life. I can’t help you do that, in fact, I’d probably be a complication you don’t need right now. I…can’t make a promise, one way or another.”
          She lowered her head and nodded. “I understand.” I’m glad she did, because I didn’t. What I had just said was barnyard material, but…what do you say at a time like that, when you are as mixed up as the person asking the question? “I’ll never forget you,” she said, then quickly reached up and kissed my cheek, turned and ran into the house.
         And left me standing, feeling emptier than I ever had before.
         And I wondered how in the world that could be possible.

          I rode into River Bend and had supper at a back street restaurant where I figured nobody I knew would see me. Well, nobody who I wanted to see me—like Ben, or Allie, or McConnell. I just…didn’t want to see anyone. I was tired, irritable, and…empty. My only desire was to be left alone.
          I made my way to the hotel and got a room again. And, fortunately, saw nobody I didn’t want to see. I put my gear on the floor in my room, cleaned up as best as I could with what was there, and then lay down on the bed. Thinking. And for all the sorrow I had for Kelly Atkins, there was somebody else whom I cared deeply about and who also was in deep trouble, whether she knew it or not.
          Tomorrow I would ride out to Gail’s ranch and see her. One more time. I had to try.
          One more time.