Chapter One—Well, That’s That Times Two

Tuesday, October 22, a few hours earlier…
          I woke up about sunup the next morning. I wanted to get an early start because the southern pass into Clearwater Valley was about 20 miles away. I had breakfast with the settlers, said my good-byes but that I'd see them again, then saddled and mounted Ol' Paint. Ben was there.
          "Take care of yourself, guy," he said. "You need a bath and a haircut."
          I laughed. The bath I didn't need because I had one--a very cold one--the night before. The haircut...well, nah. I only got a haircut about once a year. Whether I needed it or not. "In case I don't come back, get these settlers into the valley, Ben. They need all the help they can get."
          "Yeah, that's true. But some of them are getting better. You are coming back, aren’t you? At least for a while."
          I nodded, but leaned down and shook his hand anyway. We didn't need any more words. I turned Ol' Paint and headed towards the south pass. I didn't look back.
          My mind was already on something else.

          The trail across the south pass wound upwards and then down. But once the peak of the pass was reached, the valley spread out below. And a beautiful valley it was. It was shaped, roughly, like a baseball field with Clearwater River coming in well beyond the left field foul line, meandering its way through the middle of the valley, and then exiting a little way up the first base line. Nestled in one of the curves of the river, near second base, was the town of River Bend. It looked like it had grown a little over the past three years, but not wildly. I could see some scattered farm/ranch houses in the valley. There were about 250,000 acres, total, in Clearwater Valley, and it appeared that a lot of it was still open to settlement. But that was hard to tell from where I sat.
          My mind drifted back. Gail Sanders had owned the western half of the valley and Jim Perry had owned the eastern half. Neither of them had filed on the land, so they technically didn't own it, and they were both having problems with squatters. And they both wanted to hire me to clean them out. I declined both offers. I eventually had to kill Jim Perry—when a fellow draws a gun on you that doesn't leave many options--and Gail bought all the land, intending to pay off the mortgage by advertising and selling the West Clearwater land, in parcels, to anybody who would buy--like the settlers I had been leading up here. Once Gail sold all that land, she could pay her loan and her mortgage would be free and clear and she'd have legal title to East Clearwater, as she was going to call her ranch. The banker I had mentioned to the settlers, Homer Kragan, was a fat, greasy, greedy sort of man, but he went along with the plan because he stood to make a lot of money, too. Especially since all these new settlers would bring in new businesses to River Bend, who would buy buildings for those businesses and plots of land for their homes--most of which were owned by none other than Homer Kragan. It was a sweet deal for both he and Gail--provided she could sell the land. Well, she's got some potential buyers now....
          South Pass, I'll call it, wasn't quite as easy to navigate as North Pass, which is why I had led the settlers in that direction. I hadn't been sure about the northern entrance into the valley until one day, searching for water, I stopped in a town about 25 miles from the entrance of the pass and asked the best way into Clearwater Valley. I received perfect directions and was even told where there was water and where we could park the cattle while the settlers deliberated over what land they would buy, etc., etc., etc. South Pass had more foliage and the trail was windy--in both pronunciations of that word. The wind blew strongly, and the trail snaked its way down the hill. The cattle and wagons could have made it, but North Pass was much easier. It was flatter and there wasn't near the foliage through which to navigate.
          I made my way down the trail, trying not to think about what I couldn't help thinking about. I stopped near the floor of the valley--in almost the exact location I had stopped about three years previous. I looked around but didn't see anybody. I did see a rabbit beside a tree, however, and he was scraping and struggling like he was trying to get free from something. I dismounted and went over to the little critter. One of its back feet had gotten stuck between two roots of the tree. I knelt down and gently pulled the foot loose, though the rabbit didn't seem to like me any more than it did the root that had trapped it. But regardless, he was liberated and he took off. I couldn't help but smile as I watched him scamper off. I liked animals better than I did people.
          I was still kneeling, watching the rabbit, when I heard a familiar voice behind me. "There's nothing to eat at that tree, hobo, so just get on your horse and keep riding."
          Kelly Atkins. She obviously didn't recognize me, but then, my back was to her.
          I stood up and turned towards her. Smiling, I said, "Do I really look like a hobo?"
          She was holding a rifle--the rifle she had bought when I had been here before. It was pointed in my direction, but when she recognized me, her jaw fell open, her eyes got big, and she stared at me for a moment. Then she squealed, dropped the rifle, and ran at me, squawking the whole way--about 50 feet. When she got near enough, she leaped at me and almost knocked me over. She wrapped both arms and legs around me and squeezed me tight. I laughed. I couldn't help myself.
          "Oh, Robert! I thought I'd never see you again! Oh, it's so good to see you!" Yada yada yada. We hugged a few moments and I told her how good it was to see her, and then I slapped her lightly on the legs.
          "You're heavy, woman. And I'm not as young as I used to be." She laughed and released me, but she kept her arms on my shoulders. We looked at each other for a few seconds. She was...three years older...but it didn't show much. Raven hair, green eyes, full lips, tanned, curved in all the right places--she was lovely, and I told her so.
          She wrinkled her nose at me. "You look three years older, Robert Constance"--and that reminded me again that she didn't know my real name. I'd have to find a convenient, and propitious, way to tell her.
          Fortunately, she would leave me an opening shortly. First of all, she asked me, "What are you doing back here? I never expected to see you again."
          "Well," I said, "I ran into some settlers who were driving some cows up from Colorado. They had heard that there was some land available in Clearwater Valley and they weren't having too much luck where they were, so they decided to come up here and see if they could find something. Is the valley still open?"
          She hesitated, then replied. "Well, yes, but there are some problems. Why don't you come back to the house and we'll have some lunch and I'll tell you about it." And then she smiled cheekily. "And I'll also tell you all about my fiancée. He's such a dear. My dad will be glad to see you, too."
          Fiancée, huh....Well, that takes care of that. The thought bit me some, but in a way, I was relieved. Anything that might have happened between me and Kelly obviously wouldn't happen now. And I just wasn't sure I was ready...Robin...Julie...I think I've been through that before in this story....
          As we walked back to her house--I was leading Ol' Paint by the reins--she asked me what I had been doing the past two or three years. "I...have something to tell you, Kelly, and I'm a little embarrassed about it, but hopefully you'll understand why I did what I did."
          She gave me a peculiar look. "What is it, Robert?"
          "First off, my name isn't Robert. Well, that's not true, my name is Robert, but I usually go by Rob. But my last name isn't Constance. It's Conners."
          She stopped and stared at me, incredulity in her eyes. "'re Rob Conners? Why....?"
          I told her the story. I was on the run from the law, needed a new name especially when I went to work for the army...etc. etc. etc. Kelly didn't seem to be taking it too well.
          "You could have told me, couldn't you? I mean, you and I...we might have...I really liked...."
          I held up my hands in a placating gesture. "I know, I know. I wasn't deliberately trying to deceive you, and I would have told you, I promise. It just...was easier at the time, Kelly. If the sheriff in River Bend had known I was Rob Conners...well, I didn't know if I was known by the law up here or not, but I just couldn't take the chance. There was enough going on that I didn't need that headache, too."
          She seemed mollified somewhat. "Well, yes, I guess I can understand that. Still, I wish you had told me. I wouldn't have told anybody else." Then she shrugged. ”Well, that's water under the bridge." She smiled at me. "I'm still glad to see you, whatever your name is."
          "It's Rob Conners, I promise." 
          "That would explain an awful lot when you were here before. You single-handedly cleaned out the vermin in this valley, and nobody had ever heard of Robert Constance." Then, she grunted a chuckle. "And nobody has heard anything about him since. But you're still a legend around here and it grows with the telling. After you left, I had people ask me almost every day if I had heard from you. But you never wrote."
          I dodged that one. "I got a pardon from the governor for some help I gave to the army, and so I went back to being Rob Conners." I told her the story of the Whitewater Indian raid and the part I'd played. By that time we were at the house. I remembered it--a well-built log structure, with a corral and small outbuildings behind and to the left, and a narrow road that led down to the valley and town. Lots of trees around, but there was pasture land behind where the Atkins’ had some cattle and horses. Not many, they only had a quarter section of land.
          Her father was over by the corral, repairing a saddle. Kelly called to him. "Dad! Look who's here!"
          Fred Atkins was a short man, but solidly built. He had red hair and a beard, with blue eyes. Kelly must have gotten all her features from her mother. She was even an inch or two taller than her father, who couldn't have topped out over 5'5". But I remember him being a good man, a hard worker, and willing to defend his land, regardless of the cost. And the other small ranchers in the area looked up to him--figuratively.
          He walked over and held out his hand. "Constance. Nice to see you again."
          I shook his hand and glanced at Kelly. I let her tell him. "Actually, dad, his name is Rob Conners. He, uh, needed to hide his identity while he was here because he was wanted by the law." Then she gave me a puzzled look. "You didn't tell me what you were wanted for. You were an outlaw?"
          I laughed. "Well, not exactly. I'll tell you about it over lunch."
          Fred Atkins didn't seem too disturbed about my true identity. "Conners, huh. Heard of you. Hell on wheels with a gun is your rep. You proved that while you were here. I don't cotton to outlaws, though. I hope you've got a good explanation." He looked at his daughter. "Kelly, hustle up some grub. We'll give Mr. Conners a chance to explain himself." He grinned. "And then I'll run him off."
          We all went inside and I explained everything while Kelly stoked a fire in the stove to heat coffee and make something to eat, and Fred stoked a fire in the fireplace because it was cold, at least cold enough for a small fire. The place was well built and well insulated, though, so it wouldn't take much to warm it up and keep it that way. There were two other rooms off to the right; bedrooms, I correctly assumed.
          The Atkins listened attentatively as I explained what had happened to Julie. Kelly nodded and said, "I remember you telling me that. No wonder you did what you did. And the law wouldn't help you."
          I shook my head. "Kinda like the situation up here with Jim Perry. A man's got enough money, he can buy almost anything he wants." I told them--retold Kelly--about the Whitewater Indian battle and how I'd gotten a pardon from the territorial governor, married Robin, the ranch in Whitewater, her problems, the the time I had finished my tale of joy and woe, Kelly had the food on the table and I wasn't feeling much like eating. But I did anyway.
          Kelly followed up on the romance. " married? Were you...seeing her when you came up here?"
          I made a face at her. "Of course not. I had met her before I came here, but I didn't think I'd ever see her again. Maybe I'll tell you about it sometime, but it's not that important. I want to hear about your intended and what's going on in Clearwater."
          Kelly glowed. "Oh, he's so wonderful, Rob." Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she added, "Almost as wonderful as you."
          "Boy, he must be something then." My heart was in the pit of my stomach. I didn't know if it was because of the story I had just told about Julie and Robin...or...Kelly. I'd let myself believe it was Julie and Robin.
          "Well, his name is Evan Dryer. He moved to town a couple of years ago, right after you left, I guess. Anyway, he's a lawyer, a good one. He's wealthy and owns a lovely house about five miles from town. I met him at church and...oh, he's just a dream, Rob. So handsome, so sweet, says and does the nicest things."
          I had glanced at Fred Atkins a couple of times while Kelly was talking about Evan Dryer. He wasn't beaming. Kelly noticed, and said, "Dad doesn't especially like him..."
          "Shyster lawyer," Fred mumbled.
          "He's not, either, dad," Kelly said, with a little bit of heat, and I got the impression that maybe this wasn't the first time they'd had this disagreement. "You know he's treated you very well, got us out of a big financial mess once." Kelly looked at me. "We got a rotten price for our cattle last year, and didn't have enough money to restock like we needed to. Homer Kragan wasn't going to loan us any money, but Evan talked him into it. He works pretty closely with Kragan because, well, most of the new settlers need a lawyer to legalize their land purchases and they borrow money from Kragan. But anyway, Kragan loaned us the money to help tie us over until this year when things were a lot better." She gave her dad a sour look. "He helped us out, dad. He's been nothing but good to you--and me--and you know it."
          Fred said, "Yeah, I can't deny that. And he does seem to dote on Kelly." He gave me a wry smile. "I guess I'm just not ready to lose my daughter to another man."
          "You know I won't be that far away, dad." She looked at me. "Like I said, Evan has a house, and some land, about five miles on the other side of River Bend, so it's only about ten miles away."
          "You should be able to still help your dad, then," I said to her. "But I can understand his feelings." Then I made a face. "Well, maybe not, I've never had a daughter."
          "But you've lost a couple of wives," Fred said. "I lost one and that hurt. I can imagine doubling the pain."
          I glanced quickly at Kelly and she was looking sad--for me, I suppose, and probably for her dad, too. I remember she had told me that she had never known her mother. I tried to turn the conversation back to a happier theme. "I wish you and your husband well, Kelly. It sounds like he's well situated to give you a good life, especially if he has a stable job and loves you so much."
          Her face radiated pleasure and happiness. "Yes, and I love him dearly, too. I just never thought I'd...find anybody like him." Her voice sort of tailed off at the end; I figure she thought I might take that as an insult.
          I didn't, but shifted the topic again. "So, what's going on in Clearwater Valley?" I looked at Fred. "I told Kelly that I helped some settlers come up here. They are sitting outside the north pass right now with about 700 cattle wanting to buy some land. I hope there's some available for them; they came up here all the way from Colorado and if they can't find anything...." I left that hanging. Such a scenario could be disaster for those folks.
          "Oh, there's still land," Fred said, "and plenty of it." Then he snorted. "If they can afford it."
          Kelly picked up the thread. "You remember Gail Sanders, don't you?"
          "Of course."
          "Well--you aren't going to believe this--she married Homer Kragan."
         She was right, I didn't believe it. Indeed, I was utterly flabbergasted. Gail married that fat slob?? My next thought was, well, that settles that..times two...But it was still hard to fathom. So I responded, "You've GOT to be kidding."
          My face must have shown my incredulity because Kelly laughed. "No, I'm not," she replied. "I guess you remember that Gail mortgaged her land to Kragan in order to buy West Clearwater, Jim Kelly's old spread. She was then going to sell plots of land to settlers to pay off the note." This has already been described to the reader. Once Kelly went through a brief recounting of that, she said, "Well, she asked--and Kragan was probably behind it--too much for each plot. She couldn't sell enough and couldn't make her loan payment. So...she married Kragan. End of problem."
          "A lot of that is speculation," Fred said. "We don't know, for sure, that she wasn't able to make her payments; that was between her and Kragan. We all did think that she was asking too much for the land, but that was her business. It's good land, no doubt about it, and she had a number of takers. Whether she was making enough, we don't know. She claims that she and Kragan were a love match, that she dealt with him so much that she got to know him real well, that really he's a sweet man, etc. etc. etc. and that she married him for that. There ain't a soul in River Bend that believes it, but that's the tale they both tell."
          I was still in shock. " effect, all that land belongs to Kragan now."
          "They say 'no' to that," Kelly said, "that part of their marriage arrangement was that her land, East Clearwater, would remain strictly in her name, but since Kragan, in effect, owned the notes on West Clearwater that he has title to that land." She shrugged. "He'd get the money for any plots of land that sold anyway. He'd probably get East Clearwater, though, if something happened to Gail."
          My antennae started wiggling big time at that one. "How long have she and Kragan been married?"
          "About six months."
          I didn't like any of this. But, again, I shifted topics--slightly. "When I asked you earlier if there was land to buy up here, you said there was a problem. What did you mean?"
          "Well, it's just expensive. There have been several people move in, get a loan from Kragan to buy it, then have to default when they couldn't make their payments. Kragan is hard-nosed about it. You don't pay, he forecloses and the land goes back to him, of course. Evan tries to help the people, but he doesn't have much influence with Kragan, at least when if comes to money. Kragan only acquiesced in our situation because I was…involved with Evan."
          "So, these settlers I brought up here will probably have to shell out a pretty penny for a down payment, have high interest notes, and lose their land if things go rotten for them."
          "Yeah, that's pretty much the tale."
          This sounded worse and worse by the moment, and I fleetingly thought that I wished I had moved on and not stopped here. Everett and his bunch, by their own admission, weren't ranchers. I wasn't too surprised that Gail—well, Homer Kragan--was demanding a high price for the land. The man has "greed" emblazoned on his forehead. It was highly doubtful these settlers could sell enough cattle to buy a blade of grass, much less a quarter section of land. But then...Kragan could no doubt spot a sucker when he saw one. He'd probably sell them the land, fully figuring they'd never be able to meet their mortgage payments, and thus he could pocket what they had already paid him, shoo them off the land, and sell it again. Nice setup.
          "I don't expect Gail and Kragan have too many friends in River Bend."
          "Well, that's not necessarily true. These new settlers, even though most of them haven't stayed very long, have brought business to the town and that helps the merchants, of course. They aren't losing their land, so that's not really their problem. Kragan and Gail never have had much of a reputation around here anyway, so they aren't really hurting themselves any." She looked at me with concern. "What are you going to do, Rober--Rob? Were you planning on buying some land up here, too?"
          I sighed. With all I'd heard, I wasn't any farther along in making a decision than I was before. No, that wasn't true. As much as I liked Clearwater Valley, I was almost 100% sure I wouldn't stay here. That meant I would move on. But to where, I had no idea. I only knew I wasn't going back to the Whitewater area.
          If I had gotten any lift at all from my melancholy by the thought of seeing Kelly and Gail again, it was completely gone now. I was as dead and empty as I had ever been.
          "I don't know what I'm going to do, Kelly. But I almost surely won't stay around here." No sense in not being open about it.
          "Why? Do you not have any money?"
          "I've got plenty of money. Enough to buy most of West Clearwater, if I wanted to." That wasn't much of an exaggeration.
          "Then why don't you stay? You won't find any better land anywhere or place to live. Yes, Kragan may be charging a little too much, but he'd probably give you a discount if you bought enough land. And I'll get Evan to help any way he can."
          I smiled softly at her. "Thanks, Kelly. I'll think about it." For about as long as I thought about becoming sheriff of Windy.
          I stood up. "I really need to get back to the settlers and see what they've decided, whether they've been able to get any land or not. If they haven't, then they've got a real problem and I guess I need to be there to help them any way I can."
          Fred and Kelly stood up, too. "That's really nice of you, Rob, to help them out like that. What will they do if Kragan won't sell them any land?"
          "I don't know, but my guess is that he will, in full expectation that they won't be able to make the payments and the land will be his again."
          Fred grunted a laugh. "Cynical so-and-so, aren't you."
          "Well, maybe that, or I just know that these people are greenhorns. There's not a rancher among them, so they are going to need somebody with a little leeway and patience to work with them. That doesn't sound like Homer Kragan."
          "No, it doesn't," Kelly said. "But I'll ask Evan to try and help them. He writes all of Kragan's contracts, so maybe he can persuade him to be a little more lenient."
          "I hope so."
          Then she gave me a pixy smile. "Are you coming to my wedding?"
          "When is it going to be?"
          She hesitated. "Well, we haven't set a firm date yet, but Evan has been so busy. I'm hoping things will settle down for him at the first of the year. That's what he's hoping, too." Then she smiled. "He said we'll set a date by the end of the year, for sure, regardless of what his schedule is."
          "Well, that's nice. I wish you nothing but happiness." My heart was still in my stomach, but that had been its resting place for a long time now anyway. It's funny how a fellow never gets used to that. "If I'm still around, I'll come to the wedding for sure."
          "Oh, please stay, Rob. I know you'd be a real asset to the area. And you can't wander forever."
          I nodded. "I told you I'd think about it, Kelly." The two seconds of thought I was going to give it were up. I wasn't about to stay around and watch Kelly Atkins get married. Which I guess told me a little about how I still felt about her.
          The three of us walked out the front door. I shook hands with Fred, gave Kelly a hug, and went over to Ol' Paint. "Are you going to go see Gail Sanders? I mean, Kragan?" Kelly asked me.
          My turn to hesitate. "I...doubt it. There's no reason for me to. Does she still live out at her ranch house or has she moved into town with Kragan?"
          "She still lives at the ranch, mostly. He has a big house in town--the biggest--and he stays there most of the time. He doesn't like riding a horse, and I'm sure any horse feels the same way." We all laughed at that. "But she comes into town and stays with him a lot." She shrugged. "They make do, I guess. It's their business."
          "Yeah." I mounted. "Well, I guess I better get back."
          "You'll come back and see us, won't you?" Kelly asked.
          I smiled softly at her. "Sure," I said, and knew I had just told a big whopper of a lie. I never intended to set foot on this piece of property again. Kelly's eyes told me that she knew the same thing.
          In fact, as I rode back towards South Pass, I had a very good mind to just keep on riding and not even bother going back to the settlers' camp.