Chapter Twelve—The Loft

Monday, October 21…
          Allie was awakened by the loud sound of the key turning in the door. She was so tired that it took her a moment to get her bearings and remember what had happened. It all came back to her and a sense of melancholy swept over her.
          It was daylight, that she could tell by the little bit of light coming in through the window high up on the back wall. She had no idea what time it was, though. She looked up and saw a short, stout woman entering the room. Allie, realizing that she was wearing nothing, pulled the blanket up higher, but she was already well under it.
          She turned her attention to her visitor. The lady was dressed in a white dress; Allie couldn't decide if she was the maid or a nurse. Allie guessed "maid" given the woman was carrying a tray with a pitcher of water on it, a towel, a washcloth and a couple other items.
          "Me name is Mona," the lady said in a strong Irish accent. "I'll be ye're maid and ye're nurse and I'll wipe ye're nose if ye need that as well. Just don' go tryin' to escape on me, 'cooz they's a felloo doon at the bootom of the stars with a dooble-barrel shootgoon and he'll blow ye to t'other side of kingdom coom, if'n ye shows ye're nose oot the door."
          Well, that takes care of that idea...The first thought Allie had had, once she figured out where she was, was to get out that open door. She didn't really care that she didn't have any clothes; escape was primary, even if she had to do it stark naked. But she wasn't going anywhere, at least while Mona was here. Or more accurately, while that fellow was at the "bootom" of the “stars.”
          Mona continued as she walked over to the closet. "Ye don' have t' hide oonder the kivvers. I don' expect ye're carryin' anythin' that any other woman ain't got, too."
          Allie just watched the maid for a few moments. The lady Red hair, red face, red hands, red legs...her head looked like a huge brick had sat upon it because it was wider than it was tall, as if it had been mashed down somehow. Yet, all in all, Mona seemed like a nice enough sort.
          "What time is it?" Allie asked, still holding the blanket up to her neck, but now leaning back against the headboard of the bed.
          "'Boot eight o'clock," the maid replied. "Why? Are ye goin’ somewhere?” And she laughed.
          Allie didn't especially see the humor in it, but she didn't think Mona was being evil in her intent. "I'd like to. Can you get me out of here?"
          Mona was replacing everything in the water closet and talked while she worked. "'Fraid I can't do that, lassie. The Man wants ye here fer soom reason. Noon of me business, he joost pays me t' keep the place clean. Said to make sure yere room was nice an' tidy, too."
          Allie knew that would be the answer, but it didn't hurt to ask. "Well, then, can you get me some clothes? Something to eat?"
          "Breakfast will be oop in a minute. Noot sure aboot the clothes, I joost do what I'm told." She looked over at Allie and smiled, and it was a nice smile. "I'll ask, though. I'll tell The Man I'll pee in his coofee if he don' give ye noon." And she laughed. Allie couldn't help but laugh, too.
          "Well, thanks. I'd rather have a one-way ticket out of here, though."
          "Can't help ye wi' that one, dearie," Moan replied. Then she looked at Allie studiously. "Ye must be a bad 'un fer The Man t' keep ye up here ool by yereself wi' no cloothes on." Then she made a wry face. "A good-lookin' bad 'un, if ye don' mind me sayin' so. I hoop that ain't what ye're doin' here, if ye knoo what I mean."
          "Yes, I do, and I hope not, too," Allie replied. "Listen, Mona, I'm a territorial Ranger and...I think you know what kind of man your employer is. He's hurt a lot of people and I'm trying to put him where he belongs—behind bars."
          Mona shrugged. "Nooble gool, I reckon, but I don' know any of his affairs, sweetie. I figger he's goot some skeletons in his clooset somewheres, boot he's been good t' me. I don' know that I kin help ye."
          "Just get me out of here, I'll do the rest."
          Mona shook her head. "Sorry, lassie. Couldn't if I wanted to." She had finished her work and was ready to leave. "Food'll be oop in a bit. I'll tell 'em yere awake, but they woulda figgered that by now." She stopped and looked down at Allie right before she left the room. "I'm not a-kiddin' boot that feller with the shootgun at th' bootom of the stars. If he's sees innyboody but me come oot from here, he'll blast away. I don' really want to be blowed in two, so I'd appreciate it if ye wooldn't try t' foller me." Allie sighed and nodded. Mona left the room and locked the door behind her.
          Allie got out of bed and cleaned up. Then she walked over to the corner of the room and knelt down. What had made her smile the previous evening during her search was a nail in the floor. It was sticking up, maybe an eighth of an inch. Allie thought that she'd be able to pull that nail up and out of the floor; it wasn't loose at the moment, but she'd work on it and eventually, hopefully, lever it free.
          She knew how to use nails to unlock doors.

          As soon as she had finished her toilet, Allie went straight to the corner where she had found the nail and started working on it, trying to loosen it and pull it free. It wouldn't budge initially, and Allie looked around for something to try to pry it loose with. There wasn't anything available, except the pitcher, pan, and chamber pot, and they weren't much help, so she went back to work with her hands. She started feeling a little movement when she heard the key in the door again. She quickly ran and hopped back into the bed and covered herself up. A man came in, carrying a tray with food and drink on it. It smelled good and Allie's stomach rumbled. She was hungry.
          The man looked down at her and smiled. He was, like all of The Man's hired hands, a nice-looking gent, with brown hair that was starting to run a little thin on top. He had long sideburns which he manicured to a point on his cheek. He had rather thick eyebrows and sad brown eyes. His face was a bit weathered, though he probably wasn't much over 40, if that old. He seemed to be a little embarrassed about being there.
          "Howdy, miss. My name is Dirk Manners. And I hope I have some. I brought you some breakfast. We don't want you to starve to death."
          "Well, I appreciate that, but it would be nice to have some privacy while I ate. I'm not exactly dressed to be the belle of the ball."
          Dirk chuckled. "I heard about that. And I'm sorry. I don't make the rules, I just follow them." He went over and, holding the tray in one hand, he took the lamp from the table and set it on the floor. He then put the tray on the table and moved it over and sat it next to the bed. "I'll go sit in the chair and turn my back while you eat. That's the best I can do, ma'am. I'm sorry."
          Allie met his eyes for a moment; kind eyes. "Thank you. I'd appreciate that."
          Once Dirk got settled in the chair, Allie took the tray of food and sat it on her lap. Eggs, bacon, toast, a sweet roll, coffee--all of it looked delicious. She talked while she ate. "Aren't you afraid I might sneak up behind you and bash this tray over your head?"
          "No, not really," Dirk replied. He had a slow drawl when he spoke. "Wouldn't matter if you did. Blue Moon Morris is at the bottom of the stairs with a double-barreled shotgun with orders to unload both barrels into you if you put your foot on the step below the door. I don't reckon that'd be very pretty."
          "I guess not," Allie responded, but not surprised at his answer. "Why do they call him Blue Moon?"
          "He got into a fight once and ended up with a blue moon around his eye. Boss hung that nickname on him, and told him if he ever did it again, he'd be fired. Boss don't cotton to us being too rambunctious in town."
          Allie ate in silence for a few moments, then asked, "What's he going to do with me, Dirk?"
          Dirk shifted in his chair as if the question had made him uncomfortable. He paused a few moments before he answered. "I don't rightly know, miss. And that's the truth. I'm just one of the hired hands and I'm not privy to all the goings on around here. If he's made up his mind, he hasn't spread the news yet."
          "Are you going to join in the...festivities...if he decides to turn you men loose on me?"
          Allie watched Dirk scratched the back of his head; his hair's a little scraggly..."Don't ask me that, miss. I don't want him to do that, but...I'm part of this group and..."
         He seemed in some angst, so Allie interrupted. "Dirk, you don't belong here. You're a nice man. What are you doing with this crowd?"
          "No, ma'am, I'm not a nice man, I'm a rustler just like all the other sidewinders in this bunch. It's just what I'm good at, so I reckon I'll keep doing it until I end up behind bars."
          "Dirk, if you'll testify against him, I'll do everything I can to get you immunity from prosecution. Then you can start over and live a decent life."
          "I don't reckon I can do that, Miss Allie."
          She pressed the point. "Why?"
          Dirk shifted again. "These men I work with...they're my friends. I couldn't do that to them." Then he paused and asked, "Could you?"
          Allie didn't answer. She didn't know what she would do in Dirk's position, but she understood his dilemma. She'd been as loyal as necessary to the Rangers--including breaking the law for them--so she understood the concept of loyalty regardless of the cost.
          She'd almost finished her meal. "Can you at least bring me some clothes?"
          She heard Dirk sigh. "I'll mention it. Are you through eating?"
          Allie was irritated. "Why? Do you want to turn around and gape at me?" Then she immediately felt regret because Dirk had been nice to her.
          And she saw his ears and the back of his neck turn red, and not in anger. "No, ma'am. I reckon I was just...making conversation. You were going in some directions I didn't really want to discuss."
          "I'm sorry."
          "I wish I could do more for you, Miss Allie, but I just can't."
          Allie was intrigued. "What would you do for me if you could? And yes, I'm finished eating." She put the tray on the table and covered herself up. "I'm decent, or as decent as I can be."
          Dirk got up and turned around. He went over and picked up the tray. "I'll see about getting you some clothes and I'll bring you some supper later." He started to leave.
          "You didn't answer my question, Dirk."
          He stopped and looked down at her. "That's because I don't know the answer, Allie. You've got us in a difficult situation, you know. How can we let you go? I ain't into killing people, especially lawmen. And more especially, women. But we can't keep you here the rest of your life." He paused, looking into her eyes. "If you were us, what would you do with you?"
          Allie didn't answer the question because she didn't know the answer, either. So she simply responded, "Dirk, you're a nice man. Get me out of here. You can go with me. I'll take you to McConnell. We'll take care of you."
          He smiled, a sad smile. "I'll see you soon," he said. And left the room. Locked the door.
          Allie sighed, frustrated. But she didn't dwell on Dirk Manners and what he probably wouldn't do. She hopped out of bed and went to the corner. To her nail. Started working it. She felt a little movement.
          And with every little movement of the nail, her hopes rose....

          Allie pushed and pulled on that nail for the next two hours, until her fingers were sore. She had eventually had to drag the blanket over and use that to protect her fingers and it worked well enough. But it was a slow process. She wasn't anywhere near getting the nail fully loose and pulled out. But she was confident that, as long as she could stay with it, she'd eventually liberate the nail. And hopefully, liberate herself.
         As she worked, her mind was racing ahead, as it always did on a mission. Ok, I get the door would have to be late at night...I wonder if they'll have a guard at the bottom of the stairs for 24 hours. She frowned at that thought. That would ruin everything. But that was something she couldn't control; all she could do was all she could do. Clothes. What am I going to do for clothes? I could stop in one of the bedrooms and see if I could find something in a closet...She didn't especially like that idea because every moment of delay meant a greater possibility of getting caught. I'll just go like this if I have to....maybe I can cut the blanket up...with the nail...yeah, that would work, at least something to cover me up...where will I go when I escape? town?...hmmmm...not sure about that one...he has that town in the palm of his hand, the sheriff would never believe me...I'll have to make my way back to McConnell as best I can...That was about 100 miles...Maybe I can find a farmhouse or ranch...they'll help...She didn't especially like any of the ideas that were running through her head, but she'd keep working on it. First thing is to escape...but I want a plan for when I do...Think ahead...plan for every contingency...yeah, except for some guy going to the privy...she made a wry face...I'll try to go out the front so I won't be seen from the bunkhouse...but I need to get those papers...I'll have to go back to the study....that would be dangerous and time-consuming, and Allie knew it. But, she had a job to do, and that was paramount, even if she could use the nail to escape. She'd risk getting caught again; she had to finish this job. The thought of getting away without getting the information she needed on The Man was simply not an option with her. The Rangers had assigned her a job, and she wasn't going to leave until she had completed it.

Tuesday, October 22…
          Allie had been left alone for the remainder of the previous day, except that some surly cowboy named Thursty came in with supper. He just sat and stared at Allie while she ate and didn't say a word. When she finished, he took her tray and left. More men should be so eloquent...
          She had continued to work on the nail that evening and into the next morning, the 22nd. Mona brought breakfast and cleaned up--and didn't shut up--the whole time Allie ate. Mona left. More working on the nail. It was frustrating and time consuming. It was a big nail, long, and the wood was solid. But Allie could tell she was making some progress.
          Dirk brought lunch about 1. He stayed and chatted awhile. Allie thought that was nice, but she wanted him to leave so she could get back to her nail. He left. She pulled, pushed, tugged, and twisted, and slowly...ever so slowly...the nail was working loose. Supper at 6. She had to admit that the food was good. Back to the nail, but about an hour later, she heard the key in the lock. Hurriedly, she gathered up the blanket and rushed to the bed, jumping in it and covering herself up. The door opened just as she got settled.
          Curt came in. He looked down at her and his expression wasn't friendly. All he did was jerk his thumb over his shoulder and said, "Come on. Boss wants to see you."
          Allie's stomach tightened. That wasn't especially the news she wanted to hear.

          The Lady Ranger wasn’t going to roll over, though, and intended to show no fear. "Well, if I've got to go down and see 'the boss,' can I at least have some clothes to wear?" Allie didn't get out of bed until she got an answer to her question.
          Curt tossed her a robe. "Yeah. See? We're nice." Then he backed up, smiling, but still watching Allie.
          Allie took the robe and gave him a disgusted look. "But not nice enough to turn around while I put this on."
          "Boss said to keep an eye on you the whole time. I've got to obey orders." And he chuckled.
          Allie didn't respond, she just angrily threw the covers back, got out of bed and put the robe on. "All right. Let's get this over with." She headed for the door.
          "Better let me stick my head out there first," he said. "Wouldn't want you sawed in half by a shotgun blast. Besides, some of you might get splashed on me." And he laughed again.
          So he took the lead and Allie followed. She was tempted to push him down the stairs, but that would accomplish nothing. The best thing to do was to keep trying to work out escape plans. She made a rueful face. Provided I survive this meeting...
          But if she did...the nail...I know I can get that nail...get the door open...find some clothes...get the papers I need...then I'll go into town and wire McConnell...he can be here in two days at the most...
          Yes. That's what I'll do...
          I'll go into River Bend and send McConnell a wire..........