Chapter Thirteen—The Bad News Piles Up

Saturday morning, October 26…
          Nicholas Backstrom slammed the door of his safe so hard it rattled the walls of his study. He hurried over to the window, opened it—and cursed when he noticed it wasn’t locked—stuck his head out and yelled as loudly as he could.
          “Curt!” The foreman was in the corral and heard his name being called. “Get in here, on the double!” Backstrom them rammed the window shut.
          Curt arrived less than a minute later. Backstrom was pacing the study. “She came back,” he said to Curt, without preamble. “The filthy, stinking whore came back. And she took the papers.” He stopped and looked at his right hand man. “Find her! Round up all the men you’ve got and all you need and find her. I cannot let her get away with those documents. She could put me away for life.”
          Curt was stunned for a moment, then replied, “Well, there’s only Hutch, Rino, Bob and me here. The rest are on the drive.”
          “Then send those three and you get into town and hire as many men as you can. Tell them we’re looking for a thief, and that would be the truth.”
          “The sheriff?”
          “He’s an idiot. Don’t waste your time.”
          “I’ll get right on it, Mr. Backstrom.” He paused. “Do you…have any idea which way she might have gone?”
          “Use your head, man! She can’t go to town, so where else?”
          Curt thought about it a moment. “The Rangers’ HQ?”
          “Of course. Isn’t that where you’d go?”
          “But that’s almost 100 miles away.”
          Backstrom was getting very angry and shouted at his foreman. “Do you think she’s planning on walking the whole way? She’ll get a horse at the first ranch she comes to and be there in two or three days. Now get out of here, and don’t let me see your face again without those papers and news that Allie Summer is dead. You got it?  Also, get word to Kragan that I want to meet with him tonight. His office, 9 PM.” And then, an afterthought. “Oh, who’s that Indian tracker who’s so good? Iron Hand, or something?”
          “Billy Iron Fist. He can track an ant up a tree.”
          “Hire him. Pay him double. Now get out of here.”
          “Yessir. We’ll get the woman, I promise.” And Curt left the room.
          Nicholas Backstrom took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and ran his hand through his hair. “I should have shot her on sight,” he said to himself. He poured himself a glass of sherry and sat down at his desk, trying to think of some contingency plan. Nothing came to mind immediately.
          There was a knock on the study door. “Come in,” he said, irritably.
          Mona stuck her head inside. “Kelly’s here. In th’ livin’ room.”
          Backstrom gritted his teeth in anger and muttered, “I don’t have time to see that…” And the word he called her wasn’t nice. But he nodded to Mona. “Tell her I’ll be out in a just a moment, I’ve got some paperwork I need to finish.”
          He composed himself and walked into the living room. Kelly was standing in front of the fireplace, warming her hands. “Hi, angel,” Backstrom called, and put on his warmest smile. “I’m glad you came out.”
          Kelly smiled back and walked over to him. She hesitated. “I…didn’t come at a bad time, did I? I mean, you didn’t leave me a note…”
          Backstrom put his arms around her and smiled down at her. “No times a bad time for you to come, you know that.”
          Kelly beamed and blushed. “You’re so sweet, I don’t know what I’d do without you…”
          And the thought went through Nicholas Backstrom’s head, if Curt doesn’t find that Ranger, you may find out what you’d do without me….

          Curt immediately sent Hutch, Rino, and Bob eastward, through the forest, to find Kelly. “Get some provisions for several days,” he told them. “I’m going to River Bend and get some more men. We’ve got to find her. If the boss goes down, we will, too.” Within 20 minutes, the three rustlers were in the forest, on the trail of Ranger Allie Summer…

Saturday, October 26, nighttime…
          After I finished talking to McConnell, I had supper, trying to decide when I wanted to go and talk to Kelly about Nicholas Backstrom. There wasn’t going to be any good time to do it, but I didn’t want to ride out to her place that night so I went back to my hotel room and thought I’d spend a pleasant evening reading a book. I’d been into Dickens lately and Great Expectations seemed to describe the exact opposite of my life at the moment, so I thought I’d read about Pip and Estella and see if the guy had any more luck than I’d had with the opposite sex. As it turned out, he didn’t.
          But I was restless and didn’t want to lie in bed and read. When you end up re-reading the same paragraph three times because you were thinking of something else, it’s time to put the book aside and go do something else. And that’s what I did.
          It was nearly 9 o’clock by then and cold outside, but neither of those facts bothered me. My mind was on Kelly; I guess I still had hopes that what McConnell had told me wasn’t true about Nicholas Backstrom—for her sake and for mine. It would be terribly difficult to tell her and it would crush her heart to find out. She and I hadn’t ended on the best of terms that morning, and when I told her about Backstrom, that wasn’t going to help matters much. I wandered up and down Main Street trying to think of the best way to break the news to her. I even had the thought of just leaving town and letting her find out for herself, but I couldn’t do that. It might be after she got married before she did and that would be too late.
          I stood for a little while supporting a supporting post, ruminating on all the ruminations in my life, miserating mostly over the miserable ones. Then I happened to spot Dryer/Backstrom walking on the opposite side of the street, moving away from me. As far as I knew, he hadn’t seen me. I watched him a moment, wondering where he was headed. Since I didn’t have anything better to do, I decided to follow him.
          I jogged across the street; Backstrom was about 40 yards ahead of me. I saw him turn down the street where his office was, so I figured that’s where he was headed. I tailed him around the corner, but instead of going into his office, I saw him veer into an alley. I also noticed that a light in the bank was on, and my curiosity was aroused even more. A late night tryst with Homer Kragan? Well, why not? I wouldn’t want anybody to see me with him, either…
         I looked around, but didn’t notice anyone paying especial attention to me. In fact, I didn’t notice anyone, period. I followed Backstrom into the alley just in time to see him enter the bank building. There was nothing really mysterious or suspicious about Backstrom’s actions. It wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for the two men to conduct business at night. And Kragan would have had to unlock the front door for Backstrom to come in that way; so the lawyer simply entered the back way, where the banker’s office was anyway. So the whole matter wasn’t automatically nefarious.
          But I thought I’d check, just in case.
          I pulled out my knife, expecting I’d have to jimmy the lock on the door, but was surprised to find that it wasn’t locked. So I opened the door and slipped inside. There was a hallway, maybe 30 feet long, with a door on the left—Kragan’s office. That door, however, was closed. That was to be expected, of course, because Backstrom’s visit was almost surely business. I couldn’t see him and Kragan as social buddies. I had gone this far, so I figured I might as well go the rest of the way.
         I slipped my boots off so that I wouldn’t make any sound on the wooden floor, and then crept closer until I could hear every word that was being said. I had to put my ear almost right up against the door. I heard Kragan’s voice speaking:
          “You mean you let her get back into the house and steal those papers?”
          Backstrom: “I never even considered she’d come back.”
          Kragan: “Backstrom, that’s the kind of mistake that can get you a long prison sentence.”
          Backstrom: “Quit calling me ‘Backstrom,’ you toad. You’re going to do that in public some day, and we’ll both have a lot of explaining to do.”
          Kragan: “All right, all right, but that’s the name they are going to put on your prison shirt if you don’t find that woman.”
          That portion of the conversation provided me with a lot of information. I winced when Kragan called his visitor “Backstrom;” that proved the man’s identity once and for all. And, apparently, Allie Summer was alive and well, and had gotten the information she needed against him. I didn’t understand the “back in the house” statement of Kragan’s but that didn’t really matter.
          The conversation continued with Backstrom saying, “Yeah, well, we’ll find her. She hasn’t showed up in town so I’m positive she’s headed toward the territorial Rangers’ office. I’ve got a dozen men searching for her, and some of them are excellent trackers. She hasn’t got a horse, so she can’t travel fast. We’ll get her.”
          Kragan: “Are you sure she’s headed for the Rangers’ HQ? That’s 100 miles away.”
          Backstrom: “Where else would she go? I imagine she knows the sheriff in this town wouldn’t be any help.”
          Kragan: “Yeah, we’ve got Doolittle tied up nicely. Did you know that McConnell is in River Bend, looking for Summer?”
          A pause. “No, I didn’t know that. I don’t know how she could know it, either, though. And, well, if she had known it, she would have come to town and met him. And we’d probably be in jail by now.”
          Kragan: “What do you mean ‘we’? There’s nothing in those papers against me.”
          Backstrom: “If you think I’m going down alone, Kragan, you’re out of your mind. You’re in as thick as I am with what’s been going on around River Bend. Rustling might get you hanged.”
          Kragan: “Well, you better find her, then, and put her where nobody else WILL ever find her.” I remembered from three years previous that Kragan was pretty easy to intimidate—Jim Perry had done it easily—and it appeared that Backstrom was doing the same thing.
          Backstrom: “We’ll get her. Like I said, she’s on foot. It won’t take long.”
          That wasn’t good news, that is, about the lady Ranger being without a horse. There was a lot of territory out there, but a dozen men would probably get her eventually. I’d have to tell McConnell. Maybe he could round up enough men to do a search. I don’t see what else he could do. It was going to be a race—to see who found Allie Summer first.
          I was about to leave, but the next part of the conversation caught my attention. Kragan asked Backstrom, “When are you going to marry that Atkins girl?”
          Backstrom: “Probably after the first of the year. I can’t put her off too much longer.”
          Kragan: “I still don’t see why you’re marrying the…” He called Kelly something I didn’t like and I was tempted to go knock his head off right then and there. But I didn’t. He continued. “She’ll be more trouble than she’s worth.”
          “No, she won’t. You don’t seem to understand, fat man. It’s all about appearances. Public image. Form over substance. Kelly Atkins is one of the most well-loved people in River Bend. I can only enhance my already substantial approval rating by marrying her. There may come a time when that kind of capital will be needed. Men in our position need to be married. It looks better, you know that.”
          Kragan grunted. “How long do you think you can fool her?”
          Backstrom: “I’ve been fooling her for quite a while now. When I get a little tired of her, I can always find an excuse to take a trip somewhere. And then, in a year or two, I’ll arrange a little ‘accident’ for her. That will build up public sympathy for me. I’ll have this town eating out of my hand. Probably do the political thing before long.”
          It took every ounce of my will power not to walk into that room and blow Backstrom to the back side of hell. He didn’t love Kelly; the marriage was all for show, and he intended to kill her in the not-too-distant future. That man was every bit of the slimeball McConnell had said he was—and worse. I couldn’t let him fulfill his plans towards Kelly; but how would she ever believe me unless I had some proof of who Backstrom was? McConnell might be of help, but she wouldn’t believe him, either. More than ever, I realized that Allie Summer and those documents she stole were the key.
          The conversation between Kragan and Backstrom went from intolerable to…beyond intolerable. Backstrom continued, “Speaking of doing away with wives, when are you going to get rid of yours? East Clearwater will be yours, free and clear, and we can divide it up, too. That’s a lot more settlers, a lot more cows, and a lot more foreclosures. I’d actually like to have a piece of that ranch as well.”
          Kragan: “Yeah, well, I’ve got something nasty planned for Gail within the next couple of weeks. We’ve only been married six months; I still haven’t been able to get her into bed. She’s always either at her ranch or in the second floor bedroom and I don’t want to waste the energy climbing the stairs. She isn’t much use to me that way, so I’ll dispose of her and sell the land piecemeal.”
          Backstrom laughed. “Nice job, Romeo, she won’t get into bed with you, so kill her and be done with it. Greediness is next to godliness.” And they both laughed at that.
          Kragan: “Gail is going to go back east to visit some relatives, and never return. Emphasis on the ‘never.’” They laughed together again.
          So Kragan planned on killing Gail just like Backstrom was going to kill Kelly. They’d own the whole valley then and Backstrom could, indeed, play the sympathy card for the “loss” of his “wife.” I was stunned, appalled, incensed and disgusted, all at the same time. The conversation wasn’t finished, but the only other matter of note I heard was the current bit of larceny. Backstrom was saying, “I’ve got a herd of 250 cattle on the way to Canada at the moment. We took those from those four ranches you directed us to. You should be able to foreclose on them before long.”
          Kragan: “Good. How much do you think you’ll get for those cows?”
          Backstrom: “We’ll pull in at least $50 a head. Remember, we got 60 a head last winter; not much beef available for those ‘jacks and miners this time of year.”
          Kragan: “250 times 60 is $15,000. That’s penny-ante stuff. We won’t get rich on that, but it’s our best haul on cattle since you’ve been here. Those settlers Conners brought in have about 700 cattle. Let’s give them a couple of years before we hit them. With natural increase, they should be close to 1,000 head by then, even with what they’ll have to sell, and we’ll take what they’ve got then. 1,000 times 60 begins to be something a fellow can feel.”
          Backstrom: “Yeah. And there’ll be more settlers come in. And even more if you’d plant that wife of yours and put that land on the market.”
          Kragan: “In time, Ba—Dryer, in time. We’ve got this whole valley in our hands, if we’ll handle it right.”
          I’d heard enough. Not only was I stunned, appalled, incensed, and disgusted, I was also getting sick. Plus, I needed to go tell McConnell what I had heard. I couldn’t take this to the sheriff, of course; my testimony would never stick in a court of law; and, from all I’d heard, Doolittle was a stooge anyway. But the Ranger Captain would be glad to know his lady was still alive and he could start moving on that. Then…then…I could go talk to Kelly…and Gail…I sighed.
          Maybe I could send Ben Baker to do that….
          I decided I had pushed my luck for enough and learned everything I wanted to find out from these two weasels. I slowly crept back to the door and picked up my boots—and promptly dropped one of them. The noise, to me, sounded like a bomb going off, and I heard two chairs scrape the floor as the two men no doubt intended to investigate. I quickly slipped out the door, holding my boots, looking around for someplace to hide. There wasn’t any and I knew it was only a matter of two or three seconds before Kragan and Backstrom burst through that door. The only thing I could think of at the moment was to start staggering and singing at the top of my voice:

          “In a cavern, in a canyon, exshcavatin’ fer a mine,
          Dwelt a miner, ‘49er, and hish daughter, Clementine…”

          “It’s some drunk,” I heard Backstrom say with disgust as I stumbled away from the door. Then he shouted to me, “Shut up, you fool, you’ll wake up the dead.”
          “Aw, go eat a lizherd,” I replied, not looking back, and falling to my knees for a moment. The fact that it was dark in that alley was certainly in my favor. I got back up, lurched on, and heard the door shut behind me. I glanced back and saw neither man. I breathed out through pursed lips and put my boots on. That was too close…I would have had to kill them, and I couldn’t do that.
          But it was on the agenda.
          For now, it was time to report in.

Saturday night, October 26…
          Curt was in the Double Nickel Saloon looking for men to help in the search for Allie Summer. He had to play it carefully.
          He had ten men around him, huddled in a corner, the conversation not overheard due to the rest of the noise in the saloon. The men he had chosen were not the salt of the earth, but they were all looking for work. “Five dollars a day, you say?” one of them asked the foreman. That was what he was authorized to offer these men for their efforts.
          “Yes, for up to two weeks, and fifty dollars and a case of whiskey as a bonus to the man, or men, who brings her to Mr. Dryer’s house. You’ll have to provide your own provisions, but at five bucks a day, you should be able to cover it.”
          One of the men was scratching his chin. “What did this here woman do? Cheat on Backstrom?” That got a general laugh.
          “No, she was a guest of his, the sister of one of my men who was visiting from down south, but she stole some very important papers from him.” He made a wry face. “That’s some appreciation for Mr. Dryer’s hospitality.”
          “Is she a looker?” another fellow asked, with an almost toothless grin.
          “Yes, she’s very nice looking, and, frankly, Mr. Dryer is so incensed at her that he doesn’t care what you do with her as long as you bring her back. Actually, all he wants is those papers, so bring her in dead or alive, though alive would be better, of course. I’ll warn you, she’s very feisty, so don’t take her for granted. She’s part Indian and knows how to use a knife and her feet, so be careful with her.”
          Even with the money being offered, there were a couple who were still skeptical. “Why don’t you just go to the sheriff?”
          “Oh, I will, I’ll tell him, but he’s only one man.” Curt had absolutely no intention of telling the sheriff—on Backstrom’s orders. “Plus, Sheriff Doolittle is busy and since it’s an internal ‘family matter,’ so to speak, Mr. Dryer would rather handle it without involving the law. I’m sure you understand.”
          Some of them didn’t understand, but five dollars a day for two weeks was more money than any of them could earn in two months punching cattle or sweeping floors. And the fifty dollar bonus was an incentive as well. The case of whiskey was probably the major selling point, however.
          The ten men looked around at each other, and there were several nods and “well, why not?” type facial expressions. “When do we start?” Curt was asked by a man named Buster Homm.
          “Tomorrow morning. Come to Mr. Backstrom’s place and get out there by daylight. We’ll divide you into twos. Spread out. One group follows along Haley’s Ridge to the north, a second group along Cranston Creek, and third around Widow’s Hill. The other four of you in between. I’ve got three more men out looking right now and they are headed directly for Dandelion Valley, so don’t go there, but do search along the edges.” Curt had sent his three men, Bob, Hutch, and Rino towards that valley. It was the most direct route to the Ranger HQ. In fact, Allie would have to go fifteen miles out of her way to avoid the Dandelion Valley, and Curt was gambling that she wouldn’t do that. But he was ordered to put the men in the field anyway. He continued to give directions to the men in the saloon. “Spread out a little bit to cover more territory, but stay within shooting distance of each other. If you spot her, yell or fire your gun three times so that the others nearby will come running. Especially search caves, ravines, gulches, those sorts of areas. Any place she could hide if she happened to see you first. I’ll have some more men join you in a few days.” Curt had already sent another man he trusted, Art Teacher, to locate the cattle drive and bring four men back with him. Three men would be left to watch the cattle; seven was way too many to drive 250 cattle anyway. By the time it was all set, Backstrom would have 18 men scouring the hills for Allie. She had only a day’s head start and with no horse. All of Backstrom’s men would be mounted. The major advantage Allie had was the forest; but if she tried to cross Dandelion Valley, she would be in serious peril. It was a mountain valley about 20 miles wide by 50 miles long. And there weren’t many places to hide.
          “Any more questions?” Curt asked the ten men.
          Nobody had any.
          Curt nodded. “Get to work. Find her. Bring her back, and especially those papers. You’ll be well rewarded.” He waved at the bartender. “A round of drinks for these fellows,” he yelled. They all cheered. But he looked at them. “Don’t get drunk tonight,” he told them. “Anybody who shows up with a hangover, or who gets there late, will be dismissed. Get a good night’s sleep. Mr. Dryer is paying you well, and so he expects top service. Got it?”
          The men got it. Curt knew he wasn’t getting much when he hired these men; if they were worth anything, they’d have jobs. But they were available and he gave them a simple task—find Allie Summer. The money, the whiskey—and Allie—were enough for men like this. He’d catch up with the cattle drive tomorrow night—they wouldn’t be that far ahead—and those men would be in the field no later than Tuesday morning,
          With 18 men combing the hills, it was just a matter of time before Allie Summer was found. Curt didn’t envy her when she came face-to-face with Nicholas Backstrom again.