Chapter Twelve—A Most Unpleasant Surprise

Saturday, October 26, morning, noon, and afternoon…
          The Captain of the territorial Rangers and I were about a quarter mile out of town before he spoke. “Does the name Allie Summer mean anything to you?”
          “Not a thing.”
          “Nicholas Backstrom?”
          “Nope. Since I don’t know any of the principles in your tale, does that mean I can go?”
          He grunted. “You can leave any time you want to. I’m not going to hold you.”
          I was still intrigued. “What, exactly, do you want from me, Captain McConnell?”
          “Well, some information might help. I’ve been told you know something about the history of Clearwater Valley.”
          “I was up here about three years ago for a few months. Helped them iron out some problems. I haven’t heard a word from anybody up here since I left. I’m not sure I can be of much use.”
          “Maybe not. But I know some people who know you and they say you’re on the level and will give it to a man straight. And that’s what I need, as far as you can.”
          “Then, shoot. I’ll tell you what I know, but don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t amount to much.”
          “All right. Allie Summer is one of my Rangers. She’s a woman, and the best Ranger I’ve got. She’s been working on a mission, off and on, for the past two years trying to nail Nicholas Backstrom’s sorry hide to the wall and put him in prison, or inside a rope. She told me not long ago that she was awfully near the conclusion of the case, and that she’d probably have it wrapped up the first part of this week. Allie never goes a week without wiring me. Never. Even if just to let me know she’s ok. I haven’t heard from her in about 10 days now. That’s the main reason I’m here. I don’t want to lose my best man—or, woman in this case.”
           I found that…somewhat…interesting. “A woman, huh. Since when have you been hiring women?”
          “She’s the only one, and I’m telling you the truth, Conners, she’s good. She might not be able to beat you to the draw, but I’ll bet she’d get a bullet in you. And if you threw a knife against a wall at fifty feet, she’d throw one and split it down the middle. She’s half-Indian and knows Indian wrestling better than a full-blood, and she can move in the forest and at night like a snake. She’s smart, she dedicated, she never fails, and she’s only 22 years old.  She's irreplaceable."
          “Sounds like somebody unique in the world.”
          “I’ve never met anyone like her, that’s for sure. This Nicholas Backstrom is scum, but smart scum. He’s nothing but bad news, Conners, totally ruthless, completely amoral, a criminal genius, and yet, by all accounts, total charm and grace—when he wants to be. He’s about 35 years old, and spent most of his life back east. He’s been guilty of, among other things, extortion, embezzlement, bribery, kidnapping, stock fraud, and probably murder, but nobody has ever been able to prove any of it. Witnesses against him have a way of disappearing and never being heard from again. It got a little hot for him, though, a couple years back and he moved out here. He’s been into land swindling and rustling since he got here, but again, no proof. Allie thought she was about to get it. I’m afraid he got her first, that’s what I’m afraid of.”
          I still didn’t know what any of this had to do with me, and I said so.
          “Mr. Conners, you know Nicholas Backstrom.”
          “I do?”
          “Yes, but you know him as Evan Dryer.”
          I stopped my horse and stared at him. I had never had anybody drop a bomb in my lap like that one. I was stunned, then I slowly closed my eyes and lowered my head. Softly I muttered, “Oh, Kelly…Kelly…” It was my first—and dominating—thought.
          I don’t know how long I stayed like that; not more than a few seconds surely. But I sighed, open my eyes, and raised my head. I saw McConnell looking at me, waiting patiently. “I don’t guess there’s any chance you could be wrong,” I said.
          He just shook his head. “I’m sorry. I had a feeling from being with you this morning that you and that young lady were fond of each other, but I didn’t know you’d react quite like this.”
          I gently nudged Ol’ Paint and we started on again. “Kelly and I…came close to getting married three years ago, but she was a little too young and I was…a little too close to the loss of my first wife.”
          “Heard about that,” McConnell said. “I’m sorry about that, too.”
          “How do you know all this stuff about me?”
          “It’s my job, Mr. Conners.”
          “Yeah,” is all I responded to that. “Anyway, yes, I’m very fond of Kelly and she’s seems absolutely smitten with that man. It’s going to kill her….”
          “You’ll have to tell her, you know. She simply can’t marry him. It will be the ruination of her.”
          I glanced over at McConnell, wondering why it had to be me. But as I thought about it…he was right. And it would be the hardest thing I ever did in my life, 100 times harder than the conversation I had had with Gail the day before.
          “Ok, what do you need from me?”
          “I want you to tell me everything you know about Homer Kragan and the dealings you had this week with Nicholas Backstrom, aka, Evan Dryer.”
          I thought for a few seconds before I answered him. “I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything illegal from either of them, though, again, my dealings with both have been minimal. When I was up here three years ago, Kragan was the pawn of a big rancher named Jim Perry. Perry claimed half of Clearwater Valley and Gail Sanders, who has since become Gail Kragan, owned the other half. There were some folks, like Fred Atkins, Kelly’s father, who had bought a piece of that land claimed by Perry and/or Sanders, but the latter two were trying to run them all off. You’ve heard the story before.”
          “Yeah, many times,” the Ranger responded.
          “Ok. Perry and Gail both wanted to hire me to drive out the small fry off, but I wouldn’t do it; that’s what had happened to me down in Rogersville. The big cheese in the valley tried to push me out, then he killed my wife so I put him six feet under the earth. That’s what got me on the run.”
          “I know all about that. And about your pardon. Which, incidentally, you never should have needed.”
          “Thanks. Anyway, that’s what Perry and Gail Sanders were trying to do here. I helped the Atkins and the other smaller ranchers, and finally had to kill Jim Perry when he drew down on me. Then, because I thought Gail Sanders could be reasonable, I helped her work out a deal with Kragan where she would buy all of Clearwater Valley, but sell the western half in plots to folks who wanted to buy a little land. The money she made there could pay off the note she owed to Kragan, who, frankly, worked out a very generous deal for her. So that’s what happened. Gail bought all the land, chopped up the western half, and started selling it. That’s pretty much where I left it three years ago. These folks that I ran into down in Windy and helped to come up here were looking to buy a piece of that land. Well, they did buy a piece, and I helped them with the negotiations with Evan Dryer—or, Nicholas Backstrom, as you say his real name is.”
          “Did he give them a good deal?”
          I shrugged. “I thought the price was a little high, but these folks didn’t have any money to put down. They were going to sell their cattle to try to raise enough capital for a down payment. Kragan let them buy the land with no money up front, but charged them a little more and upped the interest rate a little to cover his risk. If they default, he gets the land back, of course, plus all they cattle they have, including any new stock. If they don’t default, well, the land is theirs.”
          “Do you think they’ll make it?”
          “They might. A little green, but they’re well motivated.”
          “Why did Gail Sanders marry Kragan?” McConnell asked me.
          “Beats me. I asked her and she said she loved him, but I don’t believe it. The man looks like a toad and wallows around in bear grease. I suspect that she got into some trouble on her loan, he put the squeeze on her, and she married him to keep her place. That’s only speculation, but that’s what skepticism in River Bend believes.”
          “I suppose Kragan gets her place if something happens to her.”
          “When I suggested that to Gail yesterday, she threw a cup at my head.”
          The wind was getting chillier because we were winding up a trail beside a lovely little stream about 30 feet below us with some rising mountains to our left. I’d have to cross a pass to get to Red Canyon, but the elevation was lower there than at River Bend, so it might not be so cold.
          “You ever been to Red Canyon?” the Ranger asked me.
          “Nice area. Not as nice as Clearwater, but it’s ok. Land and water aren’t as good, so it would probably be cheaper to buy something there, if you are of a mind to.”
          “I’ll look it over.”
          We went silent for a little while. I waited to see if McConnell had anything to say that would expand on my earlier monologue.
          He obliged. “Your settlers will be very lucky to make it, Mr. Conners.”
          “Why is that?”
          “Simple. Kragan and Backstrom—Dryer—have been rustling the cattle from the small ranchers in the valley, so the folks don’t have enough to sell to pay their notes. When they don’t pay, Kragan forecloses. Resells the land, starts all over again. The sheriff says he’s heard tales of rustling, but he doesn’t believe them, so he sits on his can and does nothing. He also says Kragan and Dryer are top notch fellows with near perfect reputations in town.”
          “How are they making any money off of what they are doing?”
          “Well, they sell the cattle they rustle to miners and lumberjacks up in Canada who need the beef and ask no questions about where it came from. Allie went up there and found out they are getting upwards of $50 a head for them.”
          I gave a slow whistle. That was a good price.
          “Then, Kragan will wait until the people have made a payment or two, so he’ll get a little money that way, too. Since, in effect, it’s all his land anyway, anything he pulls in there is pure profit. If he gets some money up front, which he normally does I’m sure, all the more good. He forecloses when the payments aren’t made, then resells the land, at a higher price.” He glanced over at me. “Your settlers paid more for the land now than they would have three years ago.”
          “That’s possible, but I don’t know that for sure.”
          “I do. Allie checked. Well, she doesn’t know what your people paid, but she does know that land prices have gone up in the past three years.”
          I just shook my head. “And except for the rustling, which you can’t prove, everything is legal.”
          We went silent again for a few minutes and then I stopped Ol’ Paint and looked at him. “Is there anything else you wanted out of me?”
          He had stopped, too, of course. “Well, I was kinda hoping you’d stay around River Bend for a few days, snoop around some, ask questions. As a pretense, you could say you’re thinking about buying a ranch in the valley.”
          I shifted my gaze to the stream below us, staring at a small waterfall trickling over some rocks. But I wasn’t looking at the water, I was thinking about what McConnell wanted me to do. I flat didn’t want to do it. But I was doing a lot of things lately that I didn’t want to do.
          I looked back at the Ranger Captain. “I’ll stay…for a little while. I won’t tell you how long, because I don’t know. I reserve the right to pull out any time I want to, which is liable to happen after I talk to Kelly Atkins. Gail Sanders—Kragan—threw a cup at my head. Kelly is liable to put a bullet in my gullet.”
          “She won’t do that. But I don’t envy you having to tell her.”
          “I don’t envy me, either.” I’ve already noted that it’s probably going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Well, besides burying Julie. “You accept my conditions?”
          “Couldn’t hold you if I would, wouldn’t hold you if I could. Find out what you can, let me know, but if you head out this afternoon, I wish you nothing but the best.”
          “You sound like Homer Kragan and Evan Dryer.”
          He grinned wryly. “If you’re going to insult me, Conners, I’ll fire you before you even start.”
          I laughed. “Ok. You may regret this when you get my bill.”
          “I doubt it. If I could talk you into the Rangers, I’d do it.”
          “You can’t. Don’t try.”
          “Figured you’d say that.”
       We turned our horses back towards River Bend. I would rather be in Hades with the rich man than go back to that place.  For rather obvious reasons, I suspect.

          It was a little after noon when we arrived back in River Bend, and frankly, I didn’t really know what to do with myself, but I walked around town and most people remembered me. And quite a few of them gave me a fairly good opening to question them as McConnell wished.
          I often got, “You planning on staying in this area?”
          “I don’t know. I’m thinking about it. What are the land prices doing here now? Kragan still hold most of it?”
          “Yeah, he and his wife. Not sure what she sees in him, but beauty’s in the eyes of the beholder, I reckon. There’s still lots of good land available, not sure about the prices, but Kragan sure ain’t starvin’.”
          “I’ve heard lots of people have bought land, but then lost it. That’s a little bit of a concern to me.”
          “Yeah, old Kragan’s pretty tough. He ain’t very flexible when it comes to payments. You either fork up what you owe, or go live somewhere else. I think he’s a little quick on the trigger, but it’s his land.”
          “Any rustling going on? I don’t want to buy a herd and have it stolen out from under me.”
          “A lot of them small ranchers who’ve had to leave claim they’ve been stolen blind, so they don’t have no cows to sell to make their payments. Sheriff has checked, so he says, but thinks everything is on the up and up. If there’s rustling goin’ on, they’re good at it.”
          “What about that lawyer fellow, Dryer? I’ve met him, but I can’t get a good read on him.”
          “He seems to be ok. Nice fellow, helpful, church-goer, seen around the community a lot. Everybody likes him. Fixin’ to marry that Atkins girl. He got a prize there….”
          Blah blah blah blah blah. That’s a pretty good general summation of what I got except for one man.
          “I got wiped out by rustlers. Had 100 cows on a full section of land. Maybe a few too many, but I was doing ok. I had good grass and water. I woke up one morning and 50 of ‘em were gone. Told the sheriff, he came out, but didn’t believe me. ‘You can’t run 100 cows on this size ranch. You must have miscounted.’ Made me want to puke. As if I don’t know the difference between 50 and 100. Two months later, I lost 40 more. Kragan foreclosed on me because I couldn’t make the payment. I’m barely scrapin’ by right now. Sweeping floors. Gonna have to go somewhere else, I guess.”
          “Who’s behind the rustling, do you know?”
          The man shook his head. “No, but wouldn’t shock me a bit if Kragan was. Can’t prove it, of course, but that’s what I think. He steals all the cattle, sells ‘em somewhere, then forecloses. Sweet deal.”
          This fellow was sharp. “Nobody else thinks that way?”
          “There are a few who are suspicious about it, but no proof. Sheriff’s a clown so he’s no help.”
          “What about that lawyer, Dryer?”
          “He seems to be ok. Haven’t had much dealings with him, but everybody who has says he’s on the up-and-up.”
          “He works a lot with Kragan, doesn’t he?”
          “Yeah, but just writing contracts and such. He don’t have anything to do with selling the land. Well, sometimes he negotiates with some of the buyers when Kragan don’t want to do it, but he’s just doing it for Kragan. It’s not his land….”
          I went to McConnell’s hotel room near suppertime to let him know what I’d found out. “I’m getting pretty much the same story from everybody,” I told him. “Kragan’s tough, but he’s fair. Claims of rustling, but no proof, except one fellow who’s hung around. Says rustlers got all his cattle and thinks Kragan might be behind it, but no evidence, of course. Most think Kragan is a little too tough, but it’s not really their problem. The ones who he’s foreclosed on, for the most part, have left the area so there’s nobody left, except one or two, with a gripe against him. He appears to be a lot more lenient with people in town than with ranchers.”
          “Yeah, more money involved in the land. What about Dryer?”
          “Nothing but good. Even for a lawyer, he’s got a solid rep. Any word on
your girl?”
          “No. I rode out to Backstrom’s place just to see where it was, but that didn’t tell me much, of course.”
          “Are you going to confront him?”
          McConnell scratched his chin. “I don’t know. I don’t really see what good it would do, he’d just deny everything. I’ve got to find Allie, that’s what I’ve got to do.”
          “He might be holding her somewhere.”
          “I’m afraid that he is. No, what I’m really fear is that he’s killed her. He’d have no reason to keep her alive.”
          I shrugged. “Depends on how pretty she is, I guess.”
          McConnell looked at me, hard. “She’s beautiful, Conners. And, yes, I suspect Backstrom and his men would have some fun with her before he planted her. But she’d make it hard for them, too, believe me.”
          He was worried about her, that was plenty obvious. But there was absolutely nothing I could do about Allie Summer.
          “When are you going to talk to the Atkins girl?” he asked me.
          “I’d like to to put it off as long as possible, but I’ll probably do it tomorrow. And then probably head out, Captain. I don’t really know what else I can do for you. I talked to about 8 or 10 people today, got pretty much the same story. I doubt it would be different from anybody else. The people we need to talk to are those ranchers who lost their land. But, except for a case or two, they are all gone.”
          “Yeah, but they couldn’t prove anything, either. Allie is the key, she knew she had the goods on Backstrom.” I could see his frustration. “I’ve got to find her.”
          “If she’s alive.”
         The Ranger looked at me. “Yeah. If she’s alive.”