Chapter Twenty-One—Who Lives And Who Dies?

Wednesday, October 31, mid-morning…
          “Unless I miss my guess, we’re about half a mile from the cabin,” Karl said.
          We had been riding alongside the curvaceous Shiny Creek for the past three miles under the protection of a tall, round, barren rock known as Bald Mountain. Shiny Creek was in a ravine, bordered on our left by the mountain, and on our right, maybe 30 yards away, by a sandy ridge that was 15 feet high. The creek itself was shallow and crackled over, around, and through smooth, water-worn rocks. The occasional trout could be seen swimming along the bottom of the stream.
          “’A nice trout stream somewhere in the mountains, miles away from any human being,’” Allie had said to me as we rode side-by-side. “Isn’t that what you said?”
          I looked down at the creek, glanced at her, and smiled. “Yeah. That’s what I said.” And it sounded awfully inviting.
          But that had been an hour before. Now Karl had stopped us. He pointed up ahead. “As you can see, the creek snakes through this canyon.” It curved out of sight about 150 yards ahead. He continued. “It tumbles down the mountain about 100 feet a half mile from here. The cabin is sitting right at the edge of that waterfall.” He looked at me. “Somebody built it for defense. Water and canyon on two sides, clearing on the other two. Not easy to approach without being seen.”
          I scratched my jaw. “Injun?” I said that to Allie.
          “Let me go look. I’ll be back in half an hour.” And she took off—on foot.
          “It might be best to wait until night,” Ben said.
          “Let’s see what Allie has to say and then we’ll decide.”
          Karl half-grunted. “I have a suspicion she could crawl in under the floorboards and they’d never see her.”
          “I have a suspicion you’re right,” I replied…

          Even from half a mile distance, Allie was exceedingly careful, going from cover to cover, and always pausing behind each one to look…and listen. There was plenty of shrubbery and rocks she could hide behind along the edge of the ravine, but she wasn’t sure if there was a guard posted or not. It always paid to assume there was; such an assumption had saved Allie’s life more than once. But she saw—and heard—nothing as she neared the cabin. When the hideout came into view, she climbed out of the ravine, stopped behind a bush, and surveyed the terrain.
          As Shiny Creek neared its plunge to the depths below, the ridge to the right slowly rose until it was about 60 feet high. The cabin sat at the back edge of that ridge. Behind the house was the canyon into which Shiny Creek fell. From Allie’s perspective, it appeared to be a sheer drop-off, thus approaching from that direction would be impossible. Or at best, extremely treacherous for the terrain would be wet and slippery. There’ll have to be a better way than that…The 60-foot ridge beside the house was a possibility, except that it was almost totally sand and dirt, and was vertical until about 10 feet from the top where it arced outward, away from the cabin—a near-impossible approach as well. That left only the other two sides of the cabin—north and west. And, as Karl had said, there was clearing on both sides. The only thing that marred that was a corral where Allie could see seven horses penned. A water pump stood next to the house; can’t hide behind that. She didn’t even see a privy. There was a 30 yard gap from house to corral and no covering—anywhere. There was simply no good approach, at all, to that cabin. The cabin itself was made of logs, and looked sturdy enough, perhaps 30 by 30. There were two windows in front—the north side—and those windows were wooden shutters. Allie could also see there were small firing holes in each. Yeah, built for defense…A porch to a solid front door—and that was it. Hardly even a blade of grass in the front yard.
          Allie crouched behind the bush, thinking of one idea after another, and discarding all of them. As she was watching the cabin, a man walked out the front door and pitched a bucket of water onto the ground. He then set the bucket down and walked over to the trees on the opposite side of the corral. The privy, no doubt…Allie considered those trees for a moment, but then dismissed them; they were too far from the house and too close to the corral. The horses would almost surely announce the approach of any strange creature—human or otherwise. Allie smiled a rueful smile. Well, I could always keep these guys busy the same way I did the Crandall gang and let Conners and the others hit the place while we were occupied…It might work, but Allie wasn’t especially keen on the idea. I wonder if they will have a guard at night…we don’t have time to wait and check on that…we’ll just have to assume there is…She slowly backed away and returned to make her report.

          “Since Allie didn’t see a guard outside, couldn’t we just rush the place? Or quietly sneak up on it? If they aren’t looking, they wouldn’t see us.” That was Karl’s suggestion.
          “They’re looking,” Allie said. “At least, we have to assume they are. We wouldn’t get half-way across that clearing before they opened up and mowed up down.”
          “No way up from the back?” I asked her.
          “Suicide,” she said.
          I glanced at Ben and he was looking at me. “Got any ideas?” he inquired.
          “No, not a one. You?”
          He shook his head.
          I turned my gaze to Allie. “How about you? I can’t picture you without some kind of scheme up your sleeve.”
          She gave me a wry smile. “Yeah, I’ve got two….”

          “All right,” Rob said to her. Let’s hear them.”
          “Well, one of them I don’t like, and the second one, you aren’t going to like. But there’s just no easy way.”
          “What’s the scheme you don’t like?”
          “Well, Mr. Conners, you keep insinuating that I have certain…charms…as a female.” He had insinuated nothing, of course. Those kisses he had given her were about as obvious as he could get. But she continued. “I could…wander into the clearing, knock on the door, say I was traveling through the mountains but my horse threw a shoe…” In other words, the same gambit she had used on the Crandall gang. But, for some reason, Allie didn’t want to tell Rob about that prior experience. She shrugged. “I could keep them busy, or at least get their attention, and maybe distract them enough to where they wouldn’t be looking outside. You fellows might be able to sneak up and save a couple of damsels in distress.”
          Rob looked at her, but she couldn’t read his thoughts. He said, “If the second idea is worse than that, we’re going to have to come up with something else. If you think I’m going to let you walk in there and compromise yourself with a bunch of outlaws, then you’ve got another think coming.”
          Allie bristled a bit. “You can’t tell me what to do, Conners. If I think that’s the best idea, I’ll do it.”
          “Then have fun. I’m not going to come save you.”
          She narrowed his eyes at him. “You know, Conners, sometimes you can be a real….” And she made a very unkind—and unprintable—reference to his ancestors.
          He actually smiled at her. “Yeah. I know. But, I’m still not letting you go in there and do that, Allie. There are some things that…just aren’t worth the price.”
          That was a knife in Allie’s gut. “Even to save Gail Sanders?”
          “What’s your second idea?”
          Allie walked over to her horse and opened one side of her saddlebags. She pulled out a small case and opened it, revealing a few pieces of wood and a string. In a moment, as she began connecting the pieces of wood, it was obvious Allie was putting together a bow. It took her less than a minute to get it assembled —along with three arrows. She then reached back into her saddlebag, pulled out a bottle of oil and some old rags. She looked at the three men.
          “We soak these rags in this oil. Strike a match to them. I launch them at the house. When it starts burning down, the men inside will no doubt run out. We take them—dead or alive.” She looked at Rob. “And while Ben, Karl, and I are doing that, you dash into the house and save your woman…”
          I looked at her for a few moments, thinking this woman is out of her mind…I shifted my gaze to Ben and Karl. “I think I like her first idea better.” They laughed.
          “Well, I don’t like idea number one at all,” Allie replied, “and I’m not overly fond of the second one, either, but I haven’t heard a better one out of you yet.”
          I kept quiet because I didn’t have one.
          “Rob, we have to find a way to get all five of those men out of that house. If even one stays inside, he could pick us off one at a time as we tried to approach. And there’s a chance, if Gail is still alive, that with the house on fire, they might bring her out, too, and save you the trouble of going in after her. They aren’t going to know why the house caught on fire, and if Kragan hasn’t gotten what he wants from his wife yet, then they are going to have to keep her alive.”
          Ben said, “I don’t understand much about this whole thing. Why doesn’t Kragan just kill Gail and feed her to the wolves where nobody will ever find her? Why does he have to have her sign some papers? Wouldn’t he get the land anyway if she were dead?”
          “Well, technically, no, not if what Kelly Atkins told me was true,” I responded. “One of the arrangements of their marriage was that the land stayed only in her name. Apparently, she wants the Sanders’ name on it forever.” I shrugged. “With her dead, and with no heir, that becomes public land, open for anyone to buy it. Kragan might end up with it, but if he gets Gail to sign it over to him, then it’s his, free and clear, no legal hassles, no need to spend any money on it. At least that’s what I figure.”
          “Do you really think he’ll kill her?” Karl asked. “Kragan’s a lot of rotten things, but he never struck me as a murderer.”
          “For the sake of filthy lucre, better men that Kragan have done worse things than he’s contemplating. He won’t have anything to do with killing her, of course. He’ll just never see her again, not ask any questions, and tell no tales.”
          “We’re wasting time,” Allie said, a bit impatiently.
          I looked back at her. “All right, Ranger, we’ll do it your way. We menfolk haven’t thought of anything better. Anything is a risk, and I reckon your plan has as good a chance of success as any other. Especially since we haven’t thought of another.”
          “When do you want to do it?” she asked me.
          I shrugged. “No better time than the present. It would be better in daylight, or those fellows might escape us in the dark.”
          “That’s what I think, too. Let’s get it done…”

          We crept our way close to the cabin—or as close as we could and remain concealed. It was well within bow and arrow range, and Allie had the soaked rags wrapped around the arrowheads now, awaiting only the match.
          “I assume you are as accurate with a bow as you are with a gun,” I said to her, as she put the finishing touches on her soon-to-be fire arrows.
          She motioned towards the house with her head. “I could put this arrow through that window hole if I needed to.” She half-smiled. “But I don’t need to. Even you could hit that house, Conners.”
          I didn’t see any need to tell her that I, too, could put those arrows through that window hole. She enjoyed being conceited so much that I hated to bust her balloon. “Well, let’s just hope you don’t sneeze at the wrong moment and miss.”
          She laughed. “That won’t happen.”
          We waited a little longer while Ben and Karl positioned themselves in the trees on the opposite side of the cabin. The plan was that, when the men came out of the burning house, Allie and I would rise up and call on them to surrender. If they headed in the other direction, they’d run smack into Ben and Karl. I’d then dash into the house and get Gail—provided the men hadn’t brought her out, too, and provided she was actually in there. I didn’t trust Homer Kragan as far as I could throw him, and given how much he weighed, I doubted I could throw him at all.
          Ben was going to make a whippoorwill sound when he and Karl were in position. Allie and I went quiet while we waited. We were both kneeling, watching the house. As soon as we got Ben’s signal, I was going to light the arrows and Allie was going to fire away. It shouldn’t take more than 10 or 15 seconds to get those arrows onto the roof of that house. That’s where she was going to put them.
          While we were waiting, I touched her shoulder. She looked at me, and then looked a little more closely when she realized what I was fixing to do. But she didn’t stop me as I leaned over and kissed her. When I finished, she didn’t say anything.
          “You’re probably wondering why I did that,” I said to her.
          She still didn’t respond, she simply stared at me.
          I gave her a soft smile. “Well, in case this is my last day on earth…”
          Allie turned quickly away and I saw her swallow—hard. In a choked whisper, she said, “I’ll never understand why your wife left you…”
          We heard the sound of a whippoorwill….

          As I suspected, it took about 15 seconds to get all three arrows launched. The oil on the rags fired right up when I stuck a match to them, and Allie quickly rose up, discharged each missile, and retreated back behind our bushy hiding place. She put one arrow at the back left of the roof, one in the middle-middle, and the third in the front right. “That way, the wood should burn evenly,” she said. I couldn’t have done it better myself or thought of a better reason.
          The logs of the cabin were pretty thick, so it was going to take a few minutes before the fire made any substantial headway. It was doubtful the men inside heard the arrows land, or if they did, probably thought they were nothing more than some act of nature. Lots of things fell in a forest, and some of them landed on roofs—even when there wasn’t anything above that roof. Strange place, the forest.
          But in a short time, the fire and smoke began to waft with some noticeable effect, and apparently someone inside the cabin got a whiff. A man came out the front door and examined the roof. “Hey, the roof’s on fire!” he hollered at his companions. “Help me get some water on it!”
          He dashed around the side of the house—but still within our vision—to the water pump and began feverishly pumping water into a bucket. Any such efforts were going to be ineffectual. The fire was too spread out and burning too strongly now for a few buckets of water to douse it. But four other men appeared quickly and ran to help their companion.
          “Tinker, you calm the horses!” one of the men yelled, for indeed, the steeds were restless, seeing and smelling the fire. So Tinker headed for the corral. Allie and I waited another heartbeat just to make sure nobody else was coming out of the house. And, of course, I was thinking about Gail. Is she even in there? Nobody said anything about her and they didn’t bring her out…I looked at Allie and we nodded at each other. Time to move.
          We rose up from our hiding place and started running towards the cabin. When they saw us, Ben and Karl did the same. For a moment, the outlaws were so busy trying to get water on the fire than none of them saw us. But finally, when we were about 40 feet from the cabin, one of them noticed us, stopped, and said, “Who are you?”
          “We’re the law,” Allie shouted, gun in hand,“and you’re surrounded.” She motioned towards Ben and Karl who were coming up behind the men. “Drop your guns and surrender.”
          I didn’t wait to see the outcome of that demand, figuring that if Allie, Ben, and Karl couldn’t handle it, then we shouldn’t have come up here in the first place. The fire was raging out of control now, smoke was everywhere, and I had to get inside that cabin and find Gail before she either burned to death or suffocated.
          I ran into the house, and immediately started coughing. The smoke was thick. The fire had burned the wood more rapidly than we had anticipated and was already licking the top of the walls through the ceiling. That ceiling was liable to come down at any time and it wouldn’t be a good idea to be under it when it did.
          I could see, as I flailed my arms against the smoke, two rooms in the back of the cabin. “Gail!” I called out, but heard no response. The fire was hot—pardon the understatement—and a cinder fell from the ceiling and landed on my arm. I quickly brushed it off and dashed to the room to the left. It was a bedroom and I had to go inside a few feet to determine that nobody was there. Of course, I went to the wrong room first. She had to be in the other one—if she was in the house at all.
          My eyes were watering now from the smoke, and I took out my handkerchief and covered my mouth, continually coughing into it to clear my lungs. The fire was roaring now. I quickly ran out the door and started to enter the other bedroom when a burning log fell from the ceiling and, at an angle, across the entrance. I lifted a boot and kicked it, and followed it into the room. Sure enough, through the smoke, I could make out a human form on the bed at the back of the room. I jumped over the burning log and ran to the bed.
          Gail Sanders—Kragan—was lying on the bed. Her hands and ankles were tied, and she was unconscious. Or dead. I didn’t know which. I did see that her hair was smoking as the back wall was now on fire and the blanket behind her had started to burn. Without bothering to check if she were still alive, I scooped her up in my arms and turned away from the bed.
          To stare at a wall of fire.
          I quickly looked to my right and left, hoping for a window. But there wasn’t one. Well, there was, but it, too, was blocked by flames. I almost couldn’t see now, my eyes were watering so badly, and I was coughing constantly from the smoke. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I did know one thing for sure.
          If I stood there much longer, Gail and I would both burn to death. If we didn’t die of smoke inhalation first.
          That, of course, assumed she was still alive.
          There was nothing for it. I held what little breath I had and ran straight for the door, jumping over any burning obstacles in the way. My coat was on fire, as well as Gail’s dress. When I reached the main room, I saw a small, clear path to the front door and took it. As fast as I could, I darted through the door and immediately hit the ground, rolling, with Gail in my arms, trying to douse the flames that were now eating up our clothing.
          “Rob! Stop!”
          I heard the voice and something made me obey. And immediately, Gail and I were drenched in water, the fire sizzling its protest. Another bucket followed, and that water was as cold as that fire had been hot. But it was the most welcome cold I had ever felt in my life.
          I shook my head like a dog, and took quick inventory to see if there were any flames left burning on Gail or me. I didn’t see any, but what I did see didn’t provide any more immediate relief.
          Around the corner, from the direction of Shiny Creek, eight men came riding. Carrying rifles. Aimed in our direction.
          My first thought was hope—the cavalry had arrived. But it didn’t take a split second longer to realize that this wasn’t the cavalry. It was reinforcements.
          For Kragan’s men.