Chapter Sixteen—And It’s a Close Game

Monday, October 28, about noon…
          Clouds continued to smother the sky and the cold, light mist wouldn’t go away. Allie traveled carefully, pausing frequently behind a bush or a rock to survey the landscape and listen for anything out of the ordinary. She saw none of Backstrom’s men that morning, but she knew they were out there. And they were on horses. If I could catch one of them alone…But they were traveling in packs. And, again, she didn’t want to fire her rifle unless absolutely necessary. So, she would remain afoot until she came across a ranch.
          As she neared Dandelion Valley, the land was still rugged and required weaving between hills to avoid having to climb them. But she could also tell that the elevation was gradually lowering and thus she should be in the valley very soon. And indeed, after making her way around a particular fat hill, she saw the valley laid out before her. It looked almost flat and stretched as far as her eye could see. The grey, overcast, misty weather played a part in that as well. Allie saw nothing but miles of brown grass—no settlements, but surely there are some. This valley is made for farming and ranching. That gave her some encouragement that she would be able to locate a homestead somewhere.
          She was going to enter the valley a little north of the Widow’s Hill range. She would have preferred being closer to Haley’s Ridge, but she’d have to trek several miles north to reach it. Better to head on across and try to find cover where I can. At the moment, she couldn’t see a whole lot.
          And before long, she was going to need some…

          I waited until early Monday morning to leave River Bend, traveling the road to Port Station. In one sense, I thought the whole thing was farcical; how in the world could I find one person in a valley the size of Dandelion? And if she saw me first, she’d almost certainly hide. I couldn’t ride around that valley yelling, “Hey, Allie Summer, I’m one of the good guys, show yourself!” “Needle in a haystack” might be overstating the case.
          But I told McConnell I’d try, and like everything else in my life since Robin left, I didn’t have anything else to do. I had planned on going to Red Canyon anyway, which was beyond Port Station, so it meant I would have been using this road. I wouldn’t have cut across Dandelion Valley, but as I noted earlier in the story, I might see some land I was interested in, so it might not be a wasted trip. I’d check the soil, see about water, grass, etc. I didn’t especially want to be this close to River Bend, but I didn’t want to wander the rest of my life, either. Robin’s leaving had kind of shattered my existence and I hadn’t picked up the pieces yet. At least I wasn’t running from the law like I had been after Julie died.
          Staying close to River Bend caused my mind to drift back to Kelly and Gail. If Backstrom and Kragan had their way, those two ladies, both of whom I cared deeply for, didn’t have much time left on this earth, especially Gail. But what could I do about it? I had warned both of them, and told McConnell. I could go and shoot both Kragan and Backstrom, but that meant I would be on the run again.
          No, thank you.
          The key…was finding Allie Summer.
          Full circle.
          Ol’ Paint, maybe because of the briskness of the weather, had felt like stretching his legs a little, so I let him have his head and he was loping along at a nice canter. I was looking for a reasonably painless—for him—gap through the Widow Hill range towards Dandelion Valley. The hills along the road to my left weren’t especially high, but they were steep and there wasn’t any break in them, at least not for several miles. There wasn’t a lot of foliage, either, mostly just brown grass. The Port Station road wound through these hills; apparently previous travelers had found the path of least resistance. Getting to Dandelion Valley might not be very easy on horseback.
          But after about 10 or 12 miles, about mid-morning, I saw a vale which I thought would be fairly easy terrain for Ol’ Paint so I turned him in that direction. This narrow gorge had a stream running through it, so I stopped and let him have a drink. Since the stream and vale were crooked, I couldn’t see what lay ahead; just hills rising on both sides. But I had a feeling this would take me to Dandelion Valley.
          Where I could search for the overstated needle in a haystack.

          While Allie Summer did not know the mountains east of Nicholas Backstrom’s house, Billy Iron Fist did. And having picked up Allie’s trail, he knew where she would have to go to exit these mountains. Which meant he knew almost exactly where she would enter Dandelion Valley. And since he knew the mountains, he knew the quickest way to the valley.
          The last mile or so of topography to Dandelion Valley was a series of wart-shaped hills split by shallow ravines and gullies. Being on horseback means Billy, Curt, and Phil Cotton could travel must faster than Allie. The lady Ranger was, as always, wary, sticking to the ravines and using whatever brush cover she could find. It also meant, however, that she couldn’t see anybody who might be searching for her. She wouldn’t have seen Billy and his partners anyway. They were hiding in a grove of trees at the edge of the valley.
          “Are you sure she’ll come out this way?” Curt said, blowing on his hands to keep them warm. He wasn’t wearing gloves because he wanted quick access to his gun.
          “She come this way,” Billy said, his keen eyes watching a certain ravine where he expected Allie to show. He pointed. “There. That gulch. Long, narrow, much cover. She in there, come out soon.”
          The “gulch” he pointed at was less than 300 yards away. The land then sloped gently downward into the valley. There were very few places, once Allie reached the valley proper, where she could conceal herself. But she didn’t need much. Still, there would be times when she would be far more exposed than she wanted to be. She wasn’t aware of that, of course, not knowing the valley. She figured she could take to the hills again if need be, regardless or how much it might slow her down. The valley, she believed, would simply be the best place to find some transportation.
          “What’re we going to do when we spot her?” Phil Cotton asked Curt. “Ride her down and kill her?”
          “That’s pretty much the story,” Curt said. “Mr. Backstrom wants us to make sure she has those papers. If she does, we take them, kill her, and haul her body off somewhere. Burn her down to ashes and scatter them to hell and gone.” He grinned. “All McConnell’s horses and all McConnell’s men will never put Allie together again.”
          Cotton grunted a chuckle. “You’re not planning on having a little fun with her first?”
          “No,” Curt said, with finality in his voice. “I don’t trust that woman an inch. I want her dead as quickly as possible after we find those papers. I’m not even sure I trust her after she’s dead. She’ll probably put a curse on us and haunt us for the rest of our lives.”
          It was Billy Iron Fist’s turn to grunt. “She part Cheyenne. She maybe do it.”
          Curt surveyed the land. “We’ll swing around behind her through these trees and hit her when she’s about 50 yards out of that ravine. That won’t give her time to get her rifle in play, if she has one, and I think she does.”
          “Just go in guns a’blazin’ and mow her down?” Cotton asked.
          “No, we need to make sure she has those papers. We’ll surround her, get the documents, then kill her.”
          Cotton nodded. “Sounds ok to me. Just tell me when to start shooting.”
          The three men went silent. Until…45 minutes later…
          A hat appeared at the edge of the gulley. Then, slowly, a human form underneath the hat. “There she is,” Billy Iron Fist said.
          Curt nodded. “She’s got a sack with her. The papers are probably in there. Let’s go.” He swung his horse around to guide him through the trees.
          “She’s got a rifle,” Cotton said, following him.
          “Yeah. So we’ll split apart about 20 yards and ride in low. Hopefully, we’ll be on her before she knows we’re there.”
          Well, for the moment, Allie didn’t know they were there. But she’d learn soon enough.

          The going was tough and Allie was frustrated. She tried to stay in the gullies, but she had to backtrack twice when the terrain was too steep for her to climb. But finally she found a ravine that she could follow to the base of the hills. When she reached the end of it, she scaled the rise and looked over the edge. There was some timber to the south, on the sides of the Widow Hill range, but it would be a bit of a climb to reach that cover. The main thing she was trying to spot was a ranch house, but there were none in view. She surveyed the land immediately in front of her, looking for usable hiding areas, and spotted a couple within a quarter mile. She’d go from hiding place to hiding place, all the while keeping her eyes open for Backstrom’s men. She had fifteen bullets in her rifle and she had no compunction about using them if necessary.
          She climbed over the edge of the ravine and, in a crouch, trotted towards a cluster of boulders about 200 yards away, her first place of concealment. She hadn’t gone 50 yards, however, until she heard something behind her.
          Allie turned and looked and immediately dropped her sack and tried to get her rifle into play.
          But it was going to be too late.

          This land was kind of boring. Hills that were sort of like goose bumps, and Ol’ Paint had to weave among them, down and up some gullies, and across some cold streams. At least it was his feet getting wet and not mine, though I’m not sure he appreciated it as much as I did. There was some timber higher up the hills, but we didn’t get anywhere near it, just looked for the easiest route to Dandelion Valley. I let him find it and I took a snooze.
          And, as always, he didn’t let me down. And when we topped the final knoll and I looked down into the valley, about 200 yards ahead of me, I saw something very interesting.
          Very surprising, but very interesting.

          They were simply on top of her before she could get her rifle ready to fire. Three Winchesters pointed right at her from less than 15 feet. Allie’s heart sank, especially when she saw the smirk on Curt’s face. Oh, not again…And the expression on the foreman’s face didn’t bode well for her immediate future. Phil Cotton was sporting a wide grin, and Billy Iron Fist was impassive, as ever. But his rifle, aimed at Allie’s heart, wasn’t impassive at all.
          “Well, we meet again, little lady,” Curt said, that smirk infuriating Allie. She knew they would kill her, but she’d do what she could to take one, or all, of them with her. “Wha'chu got in that sack?” he continued.
          “My pet rattlesnake,” Allie replied, “and he’d love to play with you.”
          Curt laughed, confident in his position. “Somehow I think you might not be telling me the truth. Why don’t you empty that bag and let’s see what’s inside? I think Mr. Backstrom especially will be interested in its contents.”
          Allie tossed the canvas bag about five feet in front of her. “You want to see what’s in it? You open it.”
          Curt appeared somewhat irritated. “You’d save us all a lot of trouble if you’d do it.  We’re going to find out anyway.”
          “Then find out. I’m not in the mood to not save you any trouble.”
          “All right,” Backstrom’s foreman responded. “Have it your way. But for all the aggravation you’ve caused, I think I’ll roast you a lot slower than I first intended. Remember, you’re going to be the main dish at the barbeque we’re going to have.” He glanced at Cotton and Billy Iron Fist. “If she so much as breathes funny, fill her full of holes.”
          “Gotcha,” Cotton responded and emphasized his understanding by re-aiming his rifle at Allie. Curt started to dismount.
          He never hit the ground because lead started flying—but from a different direction.

          My first response to seeing the “surprising” and “interesting” thing that had come to my view was—surprise. Amazement, actually. Or maybe total disbelief. I saw three men sitting on horses in a semi-circle around a woman who was standing in front of them. I wasn’t absolutely, positively sure that this was Nicholas Backstrom’s men confronting Allie Summer, but I’m not totally stupid, either. 200 yards is a pretty long shot for a Winchester; it was a piece of cake for the Vetterli. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the Swiss rifle assembled and I figured the Ranger might not have the time to wait for me to do it. So I grabbed the Winchester, dismounted, lay on the ground, aimed, and started flinging bullets in the general direction of Backstrom’s thugs.
          I didn’t intend to kill anybody, I simply wanted to come close enough to attract their attention and get them away from Allie Summer. And I succeeded in my intentions. I levered and fired six bullets in less than five seconds, and even at that range, dirt was flying up all around the horsemen. Their mounts were startled by the bees buzzing near them, so all three horses reared up. That gave Allie Summer a chance to hit the ground, roll, and start shooting. Before she got her rifle firing, the men had taken off, back towards the mountains to the west. I saw her hit two of the riders, but neither of them fell from their horses. They were far out of my range now so I stopped shooting. She quit firing as well, having shot only three times. She could have shot more and I didn’t know why she didn’t. If she was as good as McConnell said she was, I imagine she could have downed all three men. I found out soon enough why she hesitated to do so.
          I half-smiled at a thought that went through my head. I wonder if I just prevented three lawmen from apprehending a notorious female criminal…

          Curt had lifted his right leg, about to throw it over his saddle horn and get off his horse. When he heard the rifle firing, he stopped, confused, looking at Cotton. Cotton looked at him with surprise on his face. At the same moment, they—and Billy Iron Fist—and Allie Summer, too—realized that the shots were coming from somewhere behind them. The horses reared and whinnied, and Curt yelled, “Let’s get out of here!” By the time the rifle stopped firing, they were galloping back towards the trees. Allie had hit the dirt and rolled. She brought her rifle up and hurriedly fired three times, wounding Phil Cotton and Billy Iron Fist. She muttered a curse because neither of them fell from their horses. She quit firing when they were at the edge of the Winchester’s range in order to save on ammunition. But then they were gone, she was alive and still had the papers, and…she looked to her left. Who was that doing the shooting?...
          She stood and watched as a lone rider came sauntering down the hill on his horse. I don’t know him…