Chapter Three--Down From the Loft

Tuesday, October 22, nighttime…
          With more than a little apprehension, Allie followed Curt down to The Man’s study. It was dark outside, and Allie could hear the wind moaning against the eaves of the house. She fully realized that this might be her last night on earth, but she intended to go down fighting. At least as best as she could.
          She wrapped the thick robe around her more tightly as she walked down the hall to the study. There was very little heat in the hallway, so she was cold, especially her feet. That didn’t help her mood any. Hopefully, he’ll have a fire going in the study…
          He did and the room was warm. He was sitting behind his desk doing some paperwork. There were two other men in the room, holding rifles. Curt gave her a shove and said, “Sit down.”
          Allie did as ordered and arranged the robe as far down her legs as possible. She looked at The Man. He was scribbling something, head down, acting like she wasn’t even there. That irritated Allie.
          “Come on, Backstrom,” she said. “I haven’t got all night.”
          Nicholas Backstrom—The Man—looked up. He didn’t smile, he just said, “Are you going somewhere?”
          Allie met the eyes of the man she had been trying to put behind bars for almost two years. He had nearly been caught in Philadelphia on extortion and stock fraud, but it didn’t stick. “I don’t know. Am I?”
          He dropped his fine, feather pen and leaned back in his chair, studying Allie closely. Then, reaching forward, he picked up a stack of papers. “These are the ones you were planning on running off with two nights ago. I guess you realize that if you had gotten away with them, you would have…put me out of business for a long time.”
          “That was the point, I think,” Allie said. The proof of his extortion and stock fraud—among other crimes—had been in those papers. He hadn’t been inactive since moving west, but the only thing that was known—for sure—was cattle rustling. But, again, no proof. Allie had been able to check the brand on every, single, solitary piece of beef she could find on Backstrom’s land and there wasn’t a fraud among them. Not even one that looked like it had been doctored by being branded over.
          What really bothered Allie the most, at the moment, were a few “disappearances” that had been linked with Nicholas Backstrom. But, no bodies, no proof. Allie feared she might join the ranks of the “disappeared.” She could be dumped in a cave somewhere in the mountains behind Backstrom’s home and never be found.
          He continued to scrutinize his prisoner closely. “How did you know which papers to take?”
          “I do my homework. I know what you’ve been doing for the last several years, and I’m not the only lawman in America who does.” She gave him a wry smile. “Knowing it is one thing, proving it to the satisfaction of a jury is a whole new can of worms.”
          Backstrom half-smiled. “Yes, it is, and I don’t intend to let you, or anyone else ever do that.”
          “Why don’t you just burn those papers?” Allie asked. “There’s a nice fireplace behind me, you could be done with it in two minutes. And then let me go and there would not be a shred of proof against you.”
         “It’s not quite that easy, Miss Ranger. I need these papers for…business transactions.” He shrugged. “And there are plenty of people, mostly back east, but one or two here, who…could do me some harm as well. Of course, they are in as deep as I am, so they’ll go down if I do.” He shook his head. “No, these documents must remain safe. With me.” He looked at his foreman. “Curt, have you had a chance to get to town and see if you can find someone who can change the combination to this lock?” Then he glanced at Allie. “If one person knows it, somebody else might, too.”
          That was true, actually. Allie had been able to obtain the combination and she had given it to McConnell as well.
          “Haven’t been to town yet, boss,” Curt responded. “We’re getting ready to move those cattle in the next day or so and I’ve been tied up with that. I’ll get them on their way and get to town before the end of the week. There’s a locksmith there who can do the job.”
          “Well, there’s no real hurry, I guess,” Backstrom replied. “But I’ll feel better with a new combination. How many cattle do you have to move?”
          “About 250.”
          “Nice size.”
          “Yeah. I think we can get $50 a head for them across the border. Those ‘jacks and miners love beef.” The Canadian border was only a week or two away for a cattle drive, depending upon the weather. There was an almost limitless demand for beef in the mining and lumberjack camps and they asked no questions about where it came from. And didn’t care about the cost, since their company paid for it. Then Curt grinned. “We could take this Ranger up there with us. I’ll bet she’d fetch a lot of money, too.” He laughed. “A one-woman whorehouse, but I bet we’d rake in a pile.”
          Backstrom gave only a half-smile, and it didn’t reach his eyes. “Yes, I’m sure those men up there would pay nicely for an hour with her,” he replied, absent-mindedly. That wasn’t what he had in mind for Allie.
         She had never been able to figure out where Backstrom hid the cattle he rustled. 250 wasn’t a huge herd, but he still needed to feed them until he moved them. “You’ve got a nice little set-up here, don’t you, Backstrom. You have your own little business, then you rustle the cattle of the settlers who move in, force them to default on their loans since they don’t have any cattle to sell any more, then you and that fat banker split whatever money you do get and sell the land again.”
          He gave her the same half-smile he had given Curt. “Well, we don’t rustle all the cattle, you know. Just enough to force the rancher to default. When they do that, we buy what they have left at bargain prices. They are glad to get what they can, even if it’s $5 a head. Then, as Curt said, $50 a pop up north…” He shrugged. “It’s business.”
          “It’s theft.”
          “Call it what you want to, I sleep well at night.” Then, to Curt, “How many boys are taking the cattle up north?”
          “Just six. Small run. Me, Rino, Hutch, and Bob are staying here. I’ll get it going and then let Dom ramrod it.”
          “Ok. Do that, get this combination changed, and then we’ll take care of the little lady here. Make sure you keep somebody at the bottom of the stairs with that double-barrel shotgun loaded. We don’t want our honored guest to leave.” Then another half-smile at Allie. “Just yet.”
          “Will do.”
          Allie asked the question she had to know the answer to. “What are you going to do with me, Backstrom? I want to know if I’m going to be home for Christmas.”
          He chuckled. “No, I think you can be safely assured that you won’t be home for Christmas this year. Or any year after that.”
          Allie’s stomach tightened. “So you’re going to kill me.” It was a statement, not a question.
          Nicholas Backstrom sighed. “I frankly don’t know what else to do with you. Your suggestion of turning you loose is, of course, utterly ridiculous, and I can’t keep you locked up in my loft for the rest of your life.” The half-smile again. “You understand my dilemma, of course.”
          “Of course,” Allie said sarcastically.
          “I didn’t ask you to break into my house, Ranger. If you were me, what would you do with you? And, please, don’t give me the ‘turn you loose’ line again.”
          Allie didn’t answer because she didn’t have one. At least, no answer that she liked that Backstrom would agree with.
          When she didn’t respond, Backstrom continued. “So, when Curt gets back from sending the cattle on their way, I’ll have him and a couple other boys take you up into the mountains. For a nice campout. Except you won’t return.”
          “McConnell will get you, you know he will,” Allie said.
         “He won’t get me for murdering you because he’ll never find your body. I wasn’t being totally facetious about the campout. I like to burn witches, too. And scatter their ashes to the four winds.”
          Allie winced. “I hope you’ve got the decency to put a bullet in my head before I get roasted.”
          “You’ll have to talk to Curt about that.”
         Curt grinned. “That depends on how nice you are to me.”
          “What difference does that make?” Allie countered. “You can do what you want to anyway.”
          “Well, it’s so much nicer if you’re willing. I want you to enjoy it, too.”
          One thing Allie was proud of was that she rarely lost her temper. She had taken about every sort of suggestive comment and insult from men that could be thrown at a woman and not lost her cool. But this time, she exploded. She jumped up, hopped over to Curt, and completely to his surprise, threw him halfway across the room. Then she grabbed the barrel of the rifle of the nearest man and rammed the butt into his stomach. He doubled up with a loud grunt. Allie tried to yank the rifle out of his hands, but he held on.
          “Don’t shoot her!” Backstrom yelled.
          She heard someone behind her and she turned around just in time to duck. The other man had swung his rifle at her head, but missed. In a half crouch, Allie lashed a foot out and kicked him in the stomach. He, too, doubled over. By this time, Curt was reaching for her. She rolled under him, tripping him up, then jumped on his back, grabbed his hair, and banged his head on the floor, hard, three times. Then, aware of the other two men, she bounced up and turned around—and ran right into a fist in her jaw.
          Allie’s head snapped back and she grunted and fell back. Before she could recover, the other man—and Nicholas Backstrom—had seized her and pinned her arms. Allie kicked and struggled but to no avail.
          “A regular wildcat, aren’t you, Ranger,” Backstrom said, holding her tight. “Curt, quiet her down a little, will you?”
          Curt was now on his feet, a little groggy, with a growing lump on his forehead. His expression was ugly. “Gladly, boss,” and with his open hand, he slapped Allie’s face, several times, until her head sagged and she went limp. Backstrom took her and dumped her in the chair in front of his desk. Allie’s head lolled around, but she was conscious.
          Backstrom brushed his hair back with his hand and angrily sat down behind his desk. “I warned you about her,” he said, to nobody in particular but everybody in general. “Curt, keep your tongue in your mouth. And you’d better be double careful when you take her out to kill her.”
          His foreman was breathing hard and rubbing the knot on his forehead. “Yeah. I hear you, boss. But now we know what she can do.”
          “She can probably do more than that,” his boss told him. “And if you let her get a weapon in her hand, she’ll probably kill all of you. She’s that dangerous. You got it?”
          Fully chastised, Curt said, “Yessir.”
          “Get her back upstairs,” Backstrom said. “Get that herd on the move and get back here on the double. I want her out of here no later than Friday night.” Today was Tuesday.
          “Done, boss.”
          Allie was groggy, but she heard what was being said. She had three days to live. I’ve got to get that nail and get out of the floor tomorrow…
          If she didn’t, she’d end up…scattered to the four winds…