Chapter Seventeen—Getaway

Monday, October 28, afternoon…
          Ol’ Paint had been working hard that day so I didn’t push him down the hill towards the lady who was standing there, her rifle in her hands, watching me. I glanced to my left a couple of times just to make sure her tormenters weren’t returning, but I saw no sign of them. After a couple of minutes’ descent, I stopped my horse about 10 feet from her. We examined each other for a few seconds. She was an astoundingly beautiful woman, an inch or so above medium height, black hair which she had piled under her hat so I couldn’t see how long it was, medium dark, soft skin, curves in all the right places, and mesmerizing ice blue eyes.
          Astoundingly beautiful…and she’s a Ranger??...

          Allie scrutinized the man on the horse as he was inspecting her. Not bad…confident…cynical…arrogant, but in a good way…a bit of a twinkle in his eyes…needs a haircut, but nicely groomed otherwise…I’ve seen worse…a lot worse…
          I wonder who he is…he sure saved my bacon…

          “Allie Summer, I presume,” I said to her as we continued to look at each other.
          Her right eyebrow rose. “Who wants to know?”
          “McConnell’s in River Bend, waiting for you,” I replied, obviously not answering her question. “I don’t have a horse for you because I don’t have an extra one and I never expected to find you in a valley this size anyway. We’ll have to ride double back to town, but take it a little slow. Ol’ Paint’s good but he ain’t God.”
          Allie’s eyes showed some surprise. “McConnell’s in River Bend? He sent you looking for me?”
          “Yes. And there are some Rangers coming from Port Station, but they probably haven’t left yet. Or no earlier than this morning. Doesn’t matter. We’ll go back to River Bend. It’s less than 20 miles.”
          “How do I know I can trust you?”
          I had no intention of sitting there, arguing with her. “You don’t. And I don’t care if you do or not. You can come with me and take your chances, or you can keep going the way you were and dodge Backstrom’s men the next 80 miles. Suit yourself. But I’m leaving. I’m not going to sit here and be target practice for those thugs who are looking for you.”
          “Ok, ok, I’ll go with you,” Allie said. “But I would like a little more information.”
          I patted Ol’ Paint’s back behind me. “I’ll tell you what I know on the way. But let’s get moving, all right?”
          She still seemed a little suspicious, but she nodded her head. She picked up the sack, walked over and handed it to me, and—still holding the rifle—climbed up behind me. “I guess I’ve got to hang on to you,” she said.
          “Depends on whether you want to fall off the back of the horse or not.”
          I heard her grunt but her arms went around my waist. I trotted Ol’ Paint back towards the hills. I wanted out of that valley as quickly as possible.
          Allie asked, “Is that a Vetterli in this case?”
          “Yeah. Modified to a .58 caliber. It can splatter a moose at 500 yards.”
          “I’ll bet. I’ve always wanted a Swiss rifle. How were you able to modify it to a .58?”
          “Gunsmith I knew down in Whitewater. He could transform a bow and arrow into a cannon.”
          “You from Whitewater?”
          “Yes. From is the operative word there.”
          “You live around here now?”
          “You said McConnell sent you. Are you a new Ranger? I don’t know you.”
          Allie was a little exasperated. “Who are you, then? You haven’t told me.”
          “I’m a fellow who your captain sent to try and find you. And help keep you alive until you can deliver those papers to him.”
          “Dangerous assignment, you know. Backstrom probably has men all over these hills looking for me.”
          “I’m sure he does.”
          “Why did you take the job, then? Do you have a suicide wish?”
          “Nope, but I do have a vested interest in seeing Nicholas Backstrom behind bars as soon as possible.”
          “Why? What’s your interest?”
          “He’s about to marry—and then kill—a very dear friend of mine.”
          “You know Kelly Atkins?”
          “Yeah. Do you?”
          “No, not personally, but I knew Backstrom was engaged to her. No offense, but if she’s a dear friend of yours, that doesn’t speak too highly of you. Why would she marry a gangster like Backstrom if she was decent?”
          “Because she didn’t know until yesterday that his name isn’t Evan Dryer. And I’m not sure she believes it yet. She thinks he’s as harmless as a puppy dog.”
          “But you told her otherwise.”
          “Shore did. I told her what McConnell told me about him. I’d never heard of the guy before I met your captain in River Bend.” I grunted a chuckle. “I said Kelly was a dear friend of mine. After I told her about Backstrom, she didn’t act like she wanted that sort of relationship to continue.”
          “Didn’t believe you, huh.”
          “Well, cut her a little slack. Would you believe somebody—anybody—if they came and told you that a person you were deeply in love with was a dirt-crawling, murdering, thieving, scumbag?”
          “No, I guess I wouldn’t. But how can she love a man like that?”
          “You’ve met him. You tell me.” I’d met him, too, of course, but I didn’t know the answer to her question. Maybe a woman saw him differently than a man.
          Allie thought about it a moment. The charm, the grace, the confidence, the daring, the incredible good looks… “Yeah, I guess I can understand.” She paused for a few seconds. “You say he intends to kill her?”
          “Saturday night I overheard a conversation he had with Homer Kragan. Kragan’s going to kill his wife within a couple of weeks to obtain her land free and clear and then Backstrom’s going to marry Kelly in a few months, wait a year or two, then she’ll have an ‘accident.’ He’ll get all the town’s sympathy and own the place.”
          Allie was incredulous and incensed. “You overheard them talking about that?”
          “That’s what I said.”
          “Why didn’t you blow them both to hell?”
          “I don’t want to run from the law. Again.”
          “Again? You never have told me who you are. Are you an outlaw?”
          I smiled. “Would McConnell use me if I was?”
          “Well…maybe he promised you amnesty if you found me.”
          I continued smiling. “Are you worth—to him—giving amnesty to a notorious criminal?”
          Allie considered the question. And she laughed. I thought it was a nice laugh. “You know, I’m not really sure. He thinks all outlaws should be behind bars.”
          “An assessment I agree with.”
          “Ok, I’ll play 20 questions with you. Are you a lawman?”
          “Bounty hunter?”
          I laughed at that one. “Only if there’s a price on your head. And if I were a bounty hunter, we’d be heading to Backstrom’s right now.”
          “How do I know you’re not?”
          “That depends on whether you believe anything I’ve told you so far.”
          More thinking on Allie’s part. He doesn’t seem like a liar. And what he said about Kragan and Backstrom certainly rings true…”Are you a gun for hire? You handled that rifle pretty well, though you missed every shot.”
          “Wasn’t trying to hit anybody. What if they had been the lawmen and you the outlaw? I didn’t know for sure. But to answer your question, McConnell isn’t paying me a dime, and nobody ever has for my gun. I wouldn’t take it if they tried.”
          “What are you then?”
          “A rancher who, at the moment, is without a ranch.”
          Allie thought some more. “Whitewater, you said?”
          “Via Rogersville.”
          “What are you doing up here?”
          “Wife left me, went back east. I sold out in Whitewater, headed north, west, south, east—somewhere. I ran into some settlers who were coming this way with some cattle. They didn’t know a cow from a pig so I ramrodded their drive till they got here. I’m headed for Red Canyon, if I can ever get there.”
          “What’s in Red Canyon?”
          “I’ll know when I arrive.”
          “Why are you being so mysterious?”
          “Because you'll forget me 15 minutes after I turn you over to McConnell so why bother telling you my name?"
          "I'm not apt to forget somebody who saved my life."
          Allie just grunted at that.
          We had been doing this tap dance for about 20 minutes and Ol’ Paint had had to navigate a hill or two so I thought I’d give him a blow at a stream we had come to. “I’m going to stop here for a few minutes and give my horse a rest. There’s some jerky in the left saddlebag, if you’re hungry.”
          She hesitated as we both dismounted. “Yeah, I am a little hungry, if you don’t mind.”
          “Don’t mind a bit.” I took my canteen and walked to the stream to fill it up. The water was cold and refreshing. Ol’ Paint took a mouthful, reared his head up and threw the water around for reasons I couldn’t begin to fathom, and then took a drink. I glanced back at Allie and she was munching on some jerky, watching me closely. I smiled and winked at her. She didn’t smile or wink back.
          Why was I not surprised?

          Don’t get fresh with me, buster, you won’t even tell me your name…But Allie knew men well enough to know…he isn’t an outlaw…he’s…protecting himself…She frowned…If he isn’t taking money, why is he doing this?... And those thoughts came out of her mouth. “If you aren’t taking any money and you don’t need amnesty, why are you doing this?”

          I heard her question but I wasn’t looking at her—and didn’t. I took a drink from my canteen, then lowered and refilled it. I was thinking of an answer, and…I didn’t have one. Why AM I doing this? I could end up getting shot full of holes…I stood up and walked over to Allie Summer. I looked down at her and she looked up at me. There was still some suspicion in her eyes, but a question, too.
          “Ranger Summer, I honestly don’t know the answer to that. McConnell asked me to help and…that’s what I’m doing. I don’t really have anything else to do at the moment.”
          She searched my eyes as if trying to decide whether to believe me. “What’s your name? Why won’t you tell me?”
          I don't generally tell anybody my name if I don't have to, but this woman was persistent.  “My name is Rob Conners. I haven’t told you because it’s not important.”
          Her eyes immediately indicated her recognition. “You’re Rob Conners. I’ve heard of you.”
          “I have, too.”
          She almost smiled at that. “You’re reputed to be the fastest gun in the territory. I’d like to see you in action sometime.”
          Before she could blink, I had the tip of my gun at the tip of her nose. “That was my slow move,” I said.
          She glanced at the gun barrel and then back at me. “Cocky so-and-so, aren’t you.”
          I put the gun back in my holster and walked away. “No, Ranger Summer, I just don’t care.” Julie…Robin…Kelly…Gail…
          What was left? A hunk of earth somewhere with a bunch of fat animals eating grass?
          Somehow…some way…that just didn’t seem so important any more…

          Allie watched him walk back to his horse and idly check the cinch, the saddlebags, the case with the Vetterli…So he’s Rob Conners…I wonder why his wife left him…I guess I shouldn’t ask him that…boy, he’s fast…I’ve never seen anybody move as quickly as he did…why did he come looking for me?...he didn’t have to…surely, he has a reason…I owe him my life, not to mention anything else Curt might have had in mind…

          She walked in his direction. “You can call me Allie if you want. ‘Ranger Summer’ sounds a little formal.”
          He didn’t look at her. “I doubt I’ll be calling you anything after I drop you off with McConnell.”

          That sounded rude, but Allie remembered the previous words he had spoken to her. “I just don’t care…” He must have loved her very much…
          Just then, she and Rob heard three rifle shots from a substantial distance away. Then three more a few seconds later. Her eyes met his. “Backstrom’s men being called together,” she said.
          Rob stared thoughtfully in the direction of the shots and nodded…

          Curt was disgusted with the whole thing. Who was that shooting at us? I’m going to find him, too, and roast him along with that lady Ranger…
          He, Phil Cotton, and Billy Iron Fist had ridden back to the safety of the forest. Cotton and the Indian had been wounded, the former with a bullet his shoulder. Billy had just been grazed along his right side, but he was bleeding freely.
           “I…need to get…this bleeding stopped,” Cotton said through gritted teeth. Billy bore his wound stoically.
          “There’s a stream up here aways. We’ll stop there,” Curt told him.
          It was about a half-mile a half mile into the forest. They stopped and Curt helped dress the wounds. He was still angry. “We had her and that fellow started shooting…”
          “Yeah, I wonder who that was,” Cotton said and Curt tied up his shoulder.
          “I don’t know, but I hope I find out and get him in my rifle sight. You’re going to have to go to town to the doctor and get this bullet out. Tell him we were out hunting and you got hit by accident. That’s almost the truth.”
          Billy had been dressing his own wound and had the bleeding stopped. Curt spoke to him. “You go back to the house and let Mona fix that up better.”
          The Indian just nodded.
          That taken care of, Curt said, “Now I’m going to call in reinforcements…” And he raised his rifle and fired three times, the signal for all of Backstrom’s men within hearing distance to gather at a pre-arranged location on the road to River Bend—on the double. Decisions would be made from there. He heard three rifle shots in return and nodded, satisfied that his message had been received and understood.

          “You said you and Kelly Atkins were close friends. Do you mind me asking how close?”
          We had started our journey again and I was letting Ol’ Paint pick his own course through the goose-bump hills. I would like to have traveled faster, but Ol’ Paint was carrying double and had to maneuver around some uneven terrain, so we made the best time we could.
          I didn’t want to answer Allie’s question, but I did. At least, the short version. “We almost got married three years ago. Gail Sanders—Kragan--and I are pretty close, too, though never as close as I got with Kelly.” Then I said, with some annoyance in my voice, “Well, Gail and I were pretty close until I asked her why she married that fat pig Kragan. She lied about it, I called her hand on it, she threw a cup at my head, and I left. She apologized later and didn’t seem to take too much offense when I told her Kragan was planning to kill her in a couple of weeks.”
          “You told her that?”
          I glanced back towards Allie. “Well, not in so many words, but I think she got the point. What would you have done if you were me? Let the slob murder her?”
          “No, of course not.” Allie paused a moment. “That must have been hard. Both with Kelly and Gail.”
          “I’ll admit that walking through a rattlesnake den had more appeal to me.”
          Allie was still confused. “Rob, why did you come searching for me?”
          “You asked me that before and I still can’t answer you. Call me a good Samaritan, call me an idiot, call me crazy. I don’t know.”
          “Well, for whatever reason you are doing it, I owe you a thanks. You saved my life.”
          “We aren’t in River Bend yet.”
          “What if we run into Backstrom’s men again? Are you going to throw me to the wolves?”
          I just grunted at that one.
          “What if the shooting starts? Are you going to die for me?”
          “Why do you ask so many questions?”
          That stopped her a moment. “I…don’t know. I guess…I’m just trying to figure you out.”
          “Forget it. After today, I doubt we’ll ever see each other again.”
          Allie pulled a rather annoyed face. “I’m beginning to see why your wife left you.”
          I glanced back, and my face couldn’t have been happy. “Don’t go there, Ranger.”

          But, she was young, and sometimes Allie didn’t quite know when to leave things alone. She knew she shouldn’t ask this, but she did anyway. “Why did your wife leave you?”

          It was an incredibly presumptuous question, but then I figured she wouldn’t have gotten to where she was—McConnell’s best Ranger—by being timid and shy. But two could play this game. “Actually, she didn’t leave me. I ran her off because she didn’t know when to shut up.”
          Allie smiled. “Ok, ok, I get the message.”
          We rode in silence for awhile. I kept scanning the hills around us, looking for hostiles, but I didn’t see anybody. Ol’ Paint’s head was beginning to droop and I could tell he needed a rest. “We’re going to have to walk for awhile. My horse isn’t going to be able to carry us for much longer.”
          I could tell Allie wasn’t terribly happy about that, but she said, “Ok. But I guess you know I’d like to get to River Bend as quickly as possible.”
          “I know. Me, too. The sooner I get you there, the sooner I can get on with whatever I intended to do in the first place.”
          I wasn’t sure why I was being so mean to everybody. It struck me that I had tried to save Kelly’s life, and Gail’s, and I probably had saved Allie Summer’s, but I was irritated for some reason. Robin, the stupid sheriff in Windy, the settlers, the Reeses, Kelly, Gail, McConnell, Allie…why can’t people just leave me alone?...well, Robin did…
         And, sure enough, Allie asked me, “Are you always this grumpy?”   
          I took Ol’ Paint’s reins and we started walking. I sighed at her question. “No, Allie, I’m not, and I’m very sorry. The last few months—and especially days—have been very stressful. That’s no excuse and I shouldn’t take it out on you. I need to find me a nice trout stream somewhere in the mountains, miles away from any human being, and go fishing for a few weeks.” I looked at her and gave her a wan smile. “Clear my head a little bit, I reckon. I’m really a nice guy. Most of the time.”
          Allie waited a few seconds before answering. Then she said softly, “I believe that, Rob, I really do.” And she smiled, the first she’d done that when she was looking at me. “And that trout stream in the mountains sounds lovely. I might do that myself when this assignment is over.”
          I don’t need to say that her smile was beautiful, charming, almost…innocent. I had a feeling that perfectly described this woman. Well, maybe not the last word. I didn’t think she was suggesting anything by her “trout stream” comment; at least that’s the way I took it.

          Allie, you need to learn to get your brain in gear before your mouth goes into motion. I hope he didn’t take me wrong about the trout stream…Then she frowned. What DID I mean about it?...

          I was still looking at her when her expression changed. “You were smiling and now you’re frowning. Why the change?”
          Allie studied me for a moment, then slowly shook her head. “This time it’s my turn not to know the answer to a question.” Then her face went serious and I could tell her mind went in another direction. She started walking away. “Let’s get to River Bend or neither of us will ever go fishing, or anywhere else, again.”

         Because Rob and Allie had to move so slow, Curt was able to gather twelve men, who congregated about a mile south and east of the Backstrom mansion. “Ok, guys, I don’t think the Ranger knows this land very well, but apparently she’s got somebody with her now, and I’m betting they are headed to River Bend. They’ll have to stick close to the road so we’ll conceal ourselves in the Crazy Creek region and look out for them. We have to make sure she has those papers, so surround them, let me check and make sure she’s got what we want, and then we’ll fill them both full of lead. But just in case she’s still headed to Port Station, I want you…you…you…you…and you”—he selected five men—“to keep going in that direction. A couple of you travel the road, though I think she’ll avoid that. The rest of you go where we found her, near Cougar Bluff, and head off across the valley from there.”
          Just at that moment, Mona came riding up—bouncing would be a better word. “Ooo, Curt, I goot a message froom th’ Mahn.”
          Curt was a little annoyed. He muttered to the other men, “I can’t understand a word she says.” And he got a general chuckle. “What is it, Mona?” he said to the housekeeper.
          She pulled up on the horse, but didn’t get down. “Mr. Backstrom wants ye to fetch that woman to ‘im when ye nab ‘er. He wants to talk to ‘er, so send someboody to th’ hoose and tell ‘im. Meet ‘im at Sutter Flat.”
          Curt was really annoyed now, but he nodded. “Ok, hopefully we’ll have her soon. I’ll send Hutch directly to the house when we get them.” He waved dismissively at Mona and she rode off. He shook his head and spoke to his men. “The longer we keep those two alive, the more dangerous they are. She’s a wildcat. Anyway, you’ve all got your assignments.”
          “How will we know if you’ve found her?” That question from one of the five men he had ordered to search towards Port Station.
          “You won’t, so just follow the first plan. Unless you hear otherwise, go to Port Station and stay there till I contact you. And keep an eye out for her there. In fact, Bill, you and Rusty get over there as fast as you can.” This he spoke to the two men he had sent on the road to Port Station. “And stake out the Rangers’ headquarters. If you see her, try to grab her and get those papers.” He looked around at his men. “That’s the most important thing. Get those papers! A $500 bonus to any man who puts them in Mr. Backstrom’s hands.”
          Eyes bugged out at that. $500 was a lot of money, more than some of these men made in a year. It was quite an incentive to search hard.
          “Any more questions?” Curt asked. There weren’t any so he dismissed them. He looked at the seven remaining men. “All right, fellows. To Crazy Creek. On the double…”

          It was about mid-afternoon, and the sun had actually peeped through the clouds for a few minutes, but it was still chilly. Allie and I stopped at another stream, but basically only long enough to mount Ol’ Paint to cross it. He wanted another drink, though, and he took a long one. I think he suspected what was about to happen and was trying to delay it as long as possible.
          In spite of the cold weather, Allie took her hat off and wiped her forehead. Two things happened when she did. First, her hair fell down. It was pitch black, straight, and long, about down to the bottom of her shoulder blades. Some of it slipped to the front of her body. It only enhanced her beauty.
          The second thing was that I noticed she was wearing an Indian headband. I looked at her a little peculiarly and asked, “Are you Indian?”
          “Half Cheyenne, half Scandinavian.”
          I nodded, remembering now that McConnell had told me she was half-Indian. I smiled at her. “Which are you most proud of?”
          She didn’t smile back, but I could tell it wasn’t out of displeasure, and responded immediately, “Indian.” She put her hat back on and looked at me. “I got my eyes from my mother and everything else from my father.”
          We looked at each other for a few seconds and I said, “You’re a beautiful woman, Allie Summer.”
          “And you’re a handsome man, Rob Conners.”
          “And you’re also nearly blind.”
          She grunted. “Don’t sell yourself short. Good looks are more than skin deep.”
          I smiled at that. “I could take that to mean I’m ugly to look at, but maybe not so bad to ride the river with.”
          She gave me a half smile. “No, to the first part of that, and definitely yes to the second.”
          I have no idea what made me do it. The mood really wasn’t right, there hadn’t been anything romantic pass between Allie and me, but…I did it anyway. I walked up close to her, knocked her hat back off her head, and took her face in my hands. She just watched me, no reaction. I kissed her. She didn’t respond, but she didn’t push me away, either.
          I felt a bit foolish—and rejected—and stepped back. Her eyes continued to study me, but there was no anger in them. I started to apologize, but she spoke first. “Why did you do that?” she asked softly.
          I thought about it a moment. “Well, I guess if Backstrom’s men catch us today, and kill us, it will have been a very nice thing to have kissed a beautiful woman on my last day on earth…”

          Allie watched as Rob came over to her. What’s he doing so close to me?...Why did he knock off my hat?...His hands are warm…He’s going to…I don’t want him to…or do I?...This isn’t the time, Rob…. But when it was over, her thoughts were in a bit of a jumble…why didn’t I respond? He probably thinks I’m an iceberg…he caught me by surprise…Allie let her mind drift back a moment…when was the last time I was kissed by a man who I really wanted to kiss me? She thought of Backstrom’s men a few nights before when they had repeatedly taken her; they had had their filthy mouths all over her.  That certainly wasn't what she meant. She remembered the weeks she had worked at the brothel during the Oliver Schott case...that was a job…Allie recalled the Tate Crandall gang….that was business, too….She’d never been intimate with any other man…Willie Key kissed me several times…but I was only fifteen years old…Rick Lager the next year…but…never a man…a man like Rob Conners…did he really want to?....So, she asked him, “Why did you do that?” And received the answer recorded above….

          Upon my response, I was a little surprised to see tears come to Allie’s eyes. At least, I thought I saw them. She dropped her head so I wasn’t sure. But then she looked back up at me and, indeed, those ice blue eyes had melted a little and there was water in them. “Rob,” she said, trying to smile, “those are the loveliest words a man has ever spoken to me.”
          Well, she’s human after all…I wonder if McConnell knows it…I moved up to her again and brushed a tear from her right cheek. “Then, Allie, you’ve been hanging around the wrong kind of man. For I never spoke truer words in my life.”
          I took her in my arms…and this time she did respond…

          We rode Ol’ Paint for awhile and he seemed to have caught his second wind. Yet the ground was still mostly uneven and undulating, so he still had to pick his way. Allie had her arms around my waist, of course, but also her head lying against my back. She hadn’t done that before.
          “Are you going to the road to River Bend?” Allie asked me.
          “No, but I want to get close so we won’t get lost. I know the general direction of the town—I’m sure you do, too—but I don’t want to wander around and lose any more time than necessary.”
          Allie lifted her head and looked behind us. That’s not the first time she had done that. “Is somebody following us?” I asked her. “You keep checking behind us.”
          She scanned around. “I don’t know. A couple of times I thought I saw something, but I never see anything definite when I look. If we are being followed, whoever is doing it is good.”
          I was a little bit aggravated at myself. I could usually spot a tail a mile away and I had seen no one. And I’d surreptitiously been looking, too. “Well, keep your eyes peeled. I don’t want to have to backtrack and relieve us of any extra burdens.”
          As it turned out, it didn’t matter. We neared the road—I could see it from a knoll we topped. We then went down a vale towards a ravine I wanted to follow because it paralleled the road. But when we exited that vale and went around and maneuvered between a couple of boulders, we had a rather nasty surprise waiting for us.
          Seven men.
          I heard Allie gasp so I figured that she knew them and that they weren’t necessarily friends of hers.
          I sort of deduced that anyway by the fact that they were all pointing rifles directly at us.
         My first thought was, “if Backstrom’s men catch us today, and kill us, it will have been a very nice thing to have kissed a beautiful woman on my last day on earth…”
          That was looking very possible at the moment.