Chapter Seven—A Short Hunting Trip

Thursday, October 24, during the day....
          I met the rest of the farmers at 9 AM the next morning at Dryer's office. They were as excited as the bunch yesterday had been about looking over the land. I was excited for them, but I wasn't especially excited about much else. Yancey, the land agent, didn’t show again. “Ill, I think,” Dryer told us. Well, we didn’t need him anyway.
          "I talked to Mr. Kragan early this morning about the deal we negotiated yesterday," the lawyer told us after all the introductions had been made in his office. He gave me the half-smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "I told him you had been involved in the negotiations. He was surprised you were back in town, said you single-handedly turned this valley upside down three years ago. And he wasn't complaining. He got a good deal out of it, made a lot of money and stands to make a lot more, even got a lovely wife. I don't think you're in bad with Homer Kragan, and that may have had something to do with his accepting the deal we made yesterday."
          I didn't give a rat's rear if I was in bad with Homer Kragan or not, but I was pleased that he had agreed to the arrangements made yesterday, and I said so. "I hope he'll accept the same deal with these fellows here today."
          "I don't see why he won't. The land I'm going to show you today is comparable to what we looked at and agreed to yesterday and if these men are willing to abide by the same terms, we should be ok." All the farmers enthusiastically said they would. And they were all in a hurry to see what was available and choose their new homes.
          The weather was brisk, chilly, cloudy, and windy. Folks were walking swiftly on the wooden boardwalks, heads down, hands in their pockets or, in the case of the women, with gloves on. The wind kicked up a little bit of dust in the street, but not much. The humidity was up and that kept the dust down. Still, it was a pretty dreary day and it would get worse over the next few weeks. I just hoped it held off long enough for the settlers to get some kind of shelter built.
          The weather didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm, except maybe mine. I sort of wished things were different with me. I liked this valley and there was some good land available. Like I pointed out to the settlers yesterday, it was a little overpriced, but Kragan had been willing to negotiate and I'm sure he would with me, too. Especially if I wanted to buy a big parcel—with cash—which I would have done. I got a good price for my land in Whitewater, the money from which I dutifully carried on my person, daring anybody to try to take it away from me, so I could have bought a nice-sized hunk of geography here in Clearwater Valley. Maybe hired Ben as my foreman and Eddie and Barney to watch my horses, Sadie to cook and clean house, and a few other fellows to work the cattle. And I'd sleep till noon every day.
          But I wasn't going to do that, and why I let Kelly Atkins and Gail Sanders keep me from it I couldn't have explained if my life depended upon it. To be fair with myself, though--or as fair as I could be--there was a restlessness in me, too, and I really hadn't been ready to settle down yet even before I met these farmers.
          Dryer gave his customers the same sales pitch he'd given the men yesterday. Verbatim, I think. I guess he'd done it enough to memorize it. I didn't pay any attention, I was looking around at the high, craggy, mountains to the north and west, some of them with patches of snow dotting their moon-like landscape. Much of that land obviously topped out above the tree line, but there was still a lot of pine and ash, and I even saw what looked like a sprinkling of Tatarian maple, but it was hard to be sure from that distance. A grey haze lingered over much of it, some of it from the clouds, some of it simply from the distance. Much of the top of the mountains, however, was shrouded in clouds, and was probably getting a heavy dose of snow. It would work its way down to Clearwater Valley eventually; the elevation here was a little over 4,000 feet. The scenery was beautiful. I'm sure Kragan factored that into the price he was demanding for the land as well. People pay for a view, even though they can't eat it.
          The day went well. The land Dryer showed us was indeed equal to yesterday's, so the men all picked out plots they liked and we went back to the lawyer's office to handle any negotiating that needed to be done. Since Kragan was apparently willing to give these men the same terms he had given the bunch the day before, there really wasn't much to negotiate about.
          "I've got 13 sets of papers that I'll need to write up and have you men sign," Dryer told them. He smiled his Cheshire cat smile. "Actually, 26 since you all get a copy, too. That will take me a few days, but if I work through the weekend, I should be able to have them done by Monday or Tuesday. I do have a few other matters to attend to as well. Why don't all of you meet me here, say, 1 o'clock Tuesday? We'll need to go down to Mr. Kragan office and have him sign, too, but I'll arrange that meeting with him. You can put your name on the dotted line, and you'll be the proud owners of a half-section of the best land in the best valley west of the Mississippi."
          Beaming faces all around. "Can we go ahead an' start movin' our cattle an' such onto our land?" Angus McCoy asked.
          "I don't see why not," Dryer replied. "I can't foresee any problems with the signing, but if for some reason the deals fall through, I guess you can move them all off again." He got a little chuckling with that remark. "But this should go smoothly." He looked at me. "Are you going to be at the signing, Mr. Conners?"
          "I doubt it. There's no reason for me to be there."
          "We'd like for you to come," McCoy said. "I mean, you been such a big part of the whole thing."
          "I'll think about it." For two seconds. I continued, "I'll be in town a little while longer"--for maybe three seconds--"and if I'm still around, maybe I'll drop by."
          "Be glad to have you."
          Evan Dryer chipped in, "I'm sure Mr. Kragan would be pleased to see you again."
          I had my doubts about that, unless I was green and had a picture of Ulysses S. Grant pasted on my forehead. But I nodded. "I hope everything works out well for everybody," I replied, as generically as I knew how.
          "I'm sure it will," Dryer responded, with equal generic-ness. No one can whip a lawyer over words.
          It was getting close to dusk again; the negotiations hadn't taken much time, but there were more men today, so deciding on the parcels of land had taken a little longer. The cloudy, overcast sky made it seem later than it really was. It didn't look like it was going to rain and it wasn't quite cold enough to snow; it was simply a dreary, cloudy day. It was getting to be that time of year.
          I did intend to stay a little longer than three seconds. It was Thursday, and I really wanted to give Ol' Paint a couple days rest. Before they headed back to the camp, Angus McCoy asked, "Mr. Conners, would you be willin' to help us move the cattle over the pass and onto our land? We'd like to get 'em over here before we divvied them up, but the sooner we got 'em here, the sooner they could get familiar with their new home and such."
          Bevo didn't give a royal, rotten fig about its "home;" it would follow the grass and water. But it would be hard for them to get out of the valley on their own, and the grass and water should keep them here. I was a little put out by McCoy's request to help them move the herd; they didn't need me. Before long, they'd be asking me to build their houses for them. "Do you have any idea when you're planning on bringing them over?"
          "I think we ought to try and do it maybe Saturday. Our wives won't let us do it on the Sabbath, and if we're gonna sign the papers on Tuesday, that would give us Monday to sort of settle things down a bit with the cattle over here. What do you think?"
          I didn't see any cause why they couldn't do that. In fact, I thought it was a pretty good idea. Getting them into the valley Saturday would provide a couple of days in case problems arose. Plus, it was going to be a rather substantial drive to get that beef where they wanted it; probably a good 15 miles. Most of their ranches were going to be adjacent to each other, so they could stick all the cattle together and divide them up as they had time and opportunity.
          All of that went through my head, and then I considered whether I wanted to help them or not. Well, why not? We could get the cattle moved Saturday and then I could leave Sunday. Before they found something else they wanted me to do.
          I told Angus that I thought his plan was sound and that I'd be willing to help. "We'll need to start them about sunup so I'll be out there by then. Tell Ben and the Pickens boys to get ready to move them then." I wasn't about to sleep outside in that camp tomorrow night, not when I could get a nice, warm bed at the hotel here in town. I’d get up early enough to arrive at the camp before daybreak. I'd beaten the sun up many, many times over the years. In fact, it happened more often than not.
          They all were happy I agreed to help and we parted with a covenant to meet Saturday and drive the cattle into the valley. I could tell the men were excited, and I smiled, happy for them. I watched them ride off, sitting straight in their saddles, proud as peacocks. I knew the feeling. There's something nice about owning your own piece of land and being able to stick some cattle and horses on it. I hoped to do it again myself, and very soon.
          But not in Clearwater Valley.
          At least that wasn't my plan....

          Given the current composition of the outside elements, I thought a warm, soaking bath would be a nice reward for a job well done that day. The hotel provided such a service, and I lingered as long as the water remained functional for my purposes. When it got tepid, it lost me. Besides, suppertime had arrived, and another part of my anatomy was calling for attention.
          I did one or two final things I wanted to do in my room and then walked down the stairs, heading again for the Gold Dust Cafe. They did cook up a good steak and their coffee was always hot so that further set my juices flowing. However, I was delayed just a few minutes from enjoying my evening repast.
          When I walked out of the hotel I walked straight into Gail Sanders. Or Gail Kragan, as she was now dubbed.
          We didn't actually physically bump into each other. We just...stood face-to-face and looked at each other.
          I had never liked Gail as much as I had Kelly, but I still had a fondness for her. She seemed to mellow as soon as she recovered all the land her father had claimed. To me, she wasn't quite as pretty as Kelly, either, but that was nothing more than a matter of male taste. She certainly was a lovely woman. Strawberry blonde hair that waved and curled a little past her shoulders, blue eyes, firm mouth and chin, though both of those features seemed to have softened some as well. Her height and build were similar to Kelly's, though she might have weighed 10 pounds less. She was probably in her late-20s now. She was wearing jeans and a royal blue cowboy shirt, though she had a leather jacket on as well. A cowboy hat dangled down her back from a chin strap around her neck. Gail was more beautiful than I remembered her being.
          We looked into each other's eyes for several seconds, trying to read one another, I suppose. I wasn't quite sure what I saw in hers, except maybe…doubt? Hope? Uncertainty was a certainty in them, but I didn't know what she was uncertain about, of course.
          "Hello, Gail," I said, softly.
          "Hello, Rober--uh, Rob, I guess is what you prefer."
          "Yes, I do. So you've heard."
          "Everybody in town now knows you're Rob Conners." She gave me a half-smile, charming, but demure and...unsure. "I'm not sure the sheriff wants you around."
          I lifted my eyebrows at that. "Why? Afraid I'll shoot him? Or that I'll take his job?"
          "" she replied. "I guess he just doesn't want...I mean, your reputation...." She let it hang.
          Her uneasiness was making me very uneasy. I had been very apprehensive about seeing her in the first place, and her demeanor wasn't helping. But it struck me that she had probably been as apprehensive about seeing me as I had her.
          She continued. "Are you...doing ok? Homer told me you were in River Bend, that you had helped some settlers herd their cattle up here. That was nice of you."
          She was palavering and we both knew it. I palavered back, not really knowing what else to do. "Yes, I'm fine. I was headed...north anyway, ran into them down by Windy, and they asked my help. I had nothing else to do at the moment."
          Gail was looking around now, as if afraid somebody might see us talking. Whether that was the case or not, I wasn't especially in the mood to continue the conversation. So, before she could respond to me, I said, "Well, I was just heading for supper. It was nice to see you again. I trust all is well with you."
          That was kind of abrupt and I knew it...and she did, too. She dropped her head as if...hurt? Uncertain? This was not the Gail Sanders I remembered from three years ago, who had a rod of iron for a backbone and a block of granite for a heart. But then, she wasn’t Gail Sanders anymore, either. So, she simply responded, "Yes, I...need to be going, too." She looked up at me. "You're welcome to come out to the ranch sometime. I mean, if you'd like to.'re going to be here for a while."
          Yes, I wanted to do that. I think this meeting with Gail, as brief as it was, had made me extremely curious about her. She had changed, and I especially wanted to know why in the world she had married Homer Kragan. So, I nodded. "I won't be here for very long, probably just the weekend, but I'm not too busy tomorrow, if you're going to be out there."
          She seemed a little relieved. "Yes, I'll be there. Come for lunch, if you can. I'll tell Homer. Maybe he can...make it, too..." Her voice drifted a little with that final comment. The last thing I wanted was for that fat slob to be there. I might not get much to eat if he was. And I certainly wouldn't get to talk to her like I wanted to. But I understood her position, too. Inviting a single man out to her home without her husband knowing about it didn't look so good.
          So if he was there, I'd eat and leave. I told her I'd be there at noon. She nodded, said good-bye, and scurried off. I watched her go for a moment. Then I heard a voice from behind. An old timer. I didn't know him.
          "She ain't what she used t' be, that's fer sure," he said, watching her as well. "If'n ye ask me, I bet Kragan takes a blacksnake to her ever' once in awhile. They was a bunch of us, afore you showed up last time, that wanted to do it ourselves."
          "Well, she certainly seems different, but then, I didn't know her very well before and I didn't get a chance to talk to her much now." Not knowing her well before wasn't exactly true, though I guess it depends on the definition of "well." I worked for her for a few months, so I got acquainted with her, but only on a business level. Running that ranch occupied her time and, except on one occasion, the first time I visited her, we never got anywhere near romance. Well, I was seeing Kelly at the time anyway, so I wasn't interested in a fling with Gail. But she never gave me any indication that she was interested in one with me, either.
          "Take my word fer it, Conners, she's a whole lot more likeable now than she was then. And she ain't exactly Cinderella right now." I had absolutely no idea what he meant by that final comment, but he limped off before I had a chance to ask him.
         I shook my head in wonderment, not sure what to think about anything going on in this town at the moment. These settlers, Kelly, Gail, Kragan, Dryer...none of it seemed right to me. But then maybe that was just my current melancholy mood. Or maybe I'd been burned so often that I didn't trust anybody or anything any more.
          I didn't need this. I was beginning to look forward to Sunday when I could ride out of this valley and let these people solve their own problems. There wasn't anything I could do for them, anyway—I’m a gunslinger, remember?--so I was going to mind my own business.
         And I intended to do it someplace other than Clearwater Valley.