Chapter Twenty-Two—The Shootout at the Shiny Creek Corral

Earlier that morning…
          “Your hubby should be here this evening. I wonder how many horses he’ll kill getting up here.”
          The man whom Gail knew only as Comstock laughed at his own semi-joke. She was lying on the bed, her hands tied behind her and her ankles fettered as well. They kept her that way for the most part just so they wouldn’t be bothered with having to watch her. So far they hadn’t abused her, but Comstock followed up his laugh with the comment, “Once you sign those papers over to dear ol’ Homer, he’s going to head on back to town and leave you with us. We’ll have a little fun, then it will be lights out for you, lady. As in permanently.”
          Gail closed her eyes. “I’m not going to sign those papers,” she said defiantly.
          “Oh, yes, you will,” Comstock replied. “Before I’m through with you, you’ll be begging to sign them.” He laughed again and left the room.
          Gail started to cry. She had lost all hope. Why didn’t I listen to Rob?...

          Kragan’s reinforcements started firing, but as they were on moving horses, their aim wasn’t good. But still, bullets were whizzing by with uncomfortable regularity. In a moment, they would stop those horses, dismount, and take aim. And they were less than 30 yards away.
         Once again, I had no time to check on Gail’s condition. I pulled my pistol, rolled and started firing. I hit two of them with my first three shots, but then two others jumped off their horses and started firing at me. A bullet clipped my hat and another singed my shoulder. I leveled my gun and fired again and another man went down. The other two scooted in the opposite direction, but they were only buying time to get behind some cover.
         I looked around. There was no place to hide. At the moment, however, no one was firing at me. I didn’t see Ben, but I saw Allie and Karl, kneeling, near the corral, shooting as rapidly as they could chamber rifle bullets and pull the trigger. I winced when I saw Karl take a bullet and fall, but Allie did a dive between two of the cross poles of the corral fence, got to her feet, and dodged in among the horses. The rest of Kragan’s men—the ones who had been in the cabin initially—were gathering arms to help their comrades. The numbers were getting decidedly against the good guys.
          I mentioned that I had hit a couple of Kragan’s men with my first shots, and they were down on the ground, not moving, about 20 yards away. I got to my feet and, in a crouch, ran to one of them as quickly as I could. What I wanted was his rifle and I got it. One of the outlaws, near the house, saw me and he raised his rifle to fire, but he was a split-second too late. He went down with a hole in his forehead. A couple others had spotted me and were now shooting at me, and there was no place for me to run. So I simply knelt, and, as calmly, but as rapidly as I could, I started placing bullets where I thought they would do the most good. A bullet parted my hair, another kicked dust onto my boot, another buzzed by my ear, but some of Kragan’s men were falling. And others were running for cover. For the moment, that took care of the men shooting at me. I saw Ben kneeling beside the water pump, and he was reloading his gun. One of Kragan’s men took aim at him, and he wasn’t 15 feet away.
          “Ben! Watch out!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. He looked up, and I fired my rifle from the hip. It wasn’t a lucky shot because I practiced such things. Kragan’s man arced his back and his rifle went off—harmlessly into the air. He fell to the ground and didn’t move. I caught Ben’s eye. He nodded, and I returned it. Then we both went back to work.
          Still kneeling and searching for targets, I looked towards the corral and saw four or five men milling among the frightened, screaming horses. It was a melee in there, and then I saw Allie, too. She was moving towards the back of the corral, and for all the confusion, there was some order and direction to the whole thing. Slowly, but surely, Kragan’s men were pushing the Ranger into a corner that she wouldn’t be able to get out of. They’d have her and she’d be dead.
          I lifted my rifle and started to fire, but it wasn’t quite that easy. The men were moving and the horses were stomping and that meant I couldn’t get a clear shot. I ran towards the corral and saw Ben doing likewise, but this was going to be pot luck. Dodging among a bunch of horses, somebody could be at your back and you’d never know it. And we’d be outnumbered. I didn’t like these odds or this sort of gambling.
          And then, one of Kragan’s men aimed and fired—and I saw Allie go down. I grimaced. What am I going to tell McConnell?
          But then I had an inspiration. A revelation…from eternity? But was it too late?
          I turned my head and whistled as loudly as I could. That whistle meant one thing and only one other creature on earth knew what it did mean. And within five seconds, Ol’ Paint came galloping around the corner of Shiny Creek at top speed. He knew when I meant business.
          He slowed down just enough for me to leap into the saddle. Reading my mind like only he could do, he headed straight for the corral—and it must have been a beautiful sight to behold to see him flying over the top railing and into that horse pen. For a moment, I felt like I was soaring like a bird. He hit the ground and didn’t miss a beat. The other horses were scattering and I maneuvered Ol’ Paint among them, wielding my rifle like a club, maniacally battering every head I could see. I spied Ben tangling with one man, and almost felt sorry for the fellow. A couple of the outlaws took shots at me, but they weren’t close. I heard one of them scream when he was knocked over and trampled by a horse, and two more hit the corral railing on a dead run, leapfrogged over it, and headed towards their horses, which had retreated to Shiny Creek. I saw eight other men running with them, a couple of them limping, and three of the others obviously wounded as well. I let them go, and looked around but saw no more danger. The shooting had stopped and, interestingly, Ol’ Paint’s presence seemed to have a calming affect on the other horses in the corral. They were still running around but didn’t seem to be in a panic any more. The Shootout at the Shiny Creek Corral was over.
          I saw Ben and yelled at him. “Ben, check on Karl and Gail. I’ve got to see about Allie.”
          “Karl’s ok,” he shouted back. “Took one in the shoulder, but he’ll be all right. I’ll go to Gail.” And he ran off.
          I hopped off Ol’ Paint and ran to Allie. She was lying motionless on the ground at the back of the corral. The front of her shirt was a bloody mess.
          I knelt down, my guts tearing themselves apart. Not Allie, too…I ripped open her shirt. She opened her eyes and grinned at me painfully.
          “Don’t you…get…fresh with me…Conners…”
          “You’re not in much of a position to stop me if I was of mind to, lady,” I replied, and she coughed a laugh.
          Ol’ Paint was standing by so I grabbed my canteen, wetted my handkerchief, and started cleaning the blood off Allie’s chest, trying to find the bullet hole. “Tell McConnell…” she said, “tell him…thanks….for saving…my kitty.”
          I didn’t bother to ask her what she meant by that, I was too busy. I found a bullet hole; in fact, I found two of them, and it was strange because one of them appeared to be an exit wound. But yet it was in the front of her body, not the back. She had been hit in the left side of her chest, just to the left of her sternum, but the other opening was below her shoulder. I puzzled over it for a moment, then gave her what must have been the most exasperated look I had ever given anyone in my life.
          She saw the expression on my face. “What…is it?”
          “You are the luckiest…” I grunted a chuckle. “The bullet hit one of your ribs at an angle. It would have gone into your lung otherwise and you would have bought your ticket to Paradise. But it apparently bounced off the rib, slid under your collarbone, and exited just below your shoulder. You’ve got a couple of holes and you’ve lost some blood, but there’s no bullet in you. We’ll get you patched up and you’ll be good as new in no time.”
          Allie closed her eyes and exhaled slowly, the relief evident on her face. “How’s…Gail?” she asked.
          “I don’t know. Ben’s working on her so she’s in as good a hands as I know. Let me get your bleeding stopped and I’ll go see.”
          I worked on Allie for a couple more minutes, cleaning the wounds, and then putting some ointment and bandages, which I had gotten from the medicine kit in my saddlebag. Never went anywhere without it. When I finished, Allie said, “Thank you,” and started to get up.
          “Why you stay down for a few minutes and relax?”
          “Why don’t you quit bossing me around?” she said, but I could tell she was being light-hearted. “Help me up, there’s nothing wrong with my legs.”
         “Or your mouth,” I muttered, and she laughed.
          I got her onto her feet and she swayed and closed her eyes. “I’m a little dizzy,” she said, weakly.
          “You lost quite a bit of blood. Let’s take it slow and go see how Gail is.” Now that I knew Allie was going to be all right, I was worried sick about Gail. I wanted to get over to her quickly, but Allie wanted to go, too. She got stronger, though, the more we walked.
          The house was still burning, but only the remnants. It was little more than a charred skeleton now. I saw Ben and Karl kneeling over Gail; Ben had rolled her over onto her stomach and was pushing against her back. Karl was holding a bloody scarf to his shoulder, and he was pale, but he didn’t seem to be in bad shape.
          Allie and I walked over to them. “How is she?” I asked.
          “She’s alive,” Ben said, “but her breathing is hard, hoarse, and irregular. She got too much smoke into her lungs, Rob. I’m trying to pump it out, but I don’t know if this is working or not. I don’t know what else to do.”
          “She needs oxygen,” Allie said. “Her lungs are starving for it.”
          Ben looked up at her. “Do you know what to do?”
          “Yes. Rob, help me down.” She was trying to lower herself to the ground without aggravating her wound, and I helped, but she grimaced and said, “I’m not going to be able to do it.” She looked at me. “Open her mouth. Put yours over hers, hold her nose, and breathe into her lungs.”
          “Huh?” I responded.
          “Like this.” She pulled me to her, and showed me what she meant. I was a little shocked and pulled away when I felt her breath travel into my lungs. “Do it every five seconds,” she said.
          Ben nodded. “Yeah, I remember reading about it now. Seems like it’s even in the Bible. Elijah with a little boy or something, but some doctors have been working on the idea for several centuries.” He looked at me and shrugged. “Worth a shot,” and he rolled Gail over.
          “Make sure her tongue isn’t in the way….hold her nose or the air will come out that way. It needs to get into her lungs.”
          So, as best as I could, I did as Allie suggested. I breathed into Gail’s lungs several times, and her chest heaved up and down. Finally, she coughed spasmodically and rolled over onto her side. I could literally see smoke coming out of her mouth. Then she threw up, violently, heaving and retching miserably. She whimpered and I could see tears streaming down her cheeks, and I was in agony for her. I looked at Ben and there must have been a pleading in my eyes because he smiled at me and said, “She’ll make it.”
          I lowered my head, closed my eyes, sighed, and whispered, “Thank the Lord.”
          I felt a soft hand on my shoulder. “You saved her life, Rob,” Allie said in a tender voice.
          I shook my head. “No, I didn’t, Allie, you did.”
          “But you’re the one who came after her in the first place. And went into that burning house to get her. And you saved my life, too. For the second time. Those men would have come and killed me if you hadn’t done that flying horse trick.”
          “You saw that?”
          She smiled. “Yeah. You and Ol’ Paint ought to be in a circus.”
          “Then he’s the one who saved you, not me.”
          “You saved my hide once, too, pard,” Ben said.
          “Well, I owed you at least one.”
          “You don’t know it,” Karl said, “but you also got a fellow just before he leveled down on me. I had an empty gun.”
          I was irritated. “Oh, get off it, you people. All of us helped one another and none of us would be here without every one pitching in and doing his, or her, part.”
          “I knew you were good, Conners,” Allie said, “but I’ve never seen anything like it.” She looked at Ben and Karl. “Did you see him? Not a place to hide so he just knelt down like he was made out of ice and started shooting. Bullets flying all around him. I’ve always wanted to do that but never had the guts.”
          “He’s the best, I told you that,” Ben replied.
          “You got my vote for President,” Karl chimed in.
          I was getting more than a little tired of this; I did what I had to do and they did, too. That’s the way I looked at it. So I changed the subject. “Gail still seems to be hurting.”
          She was propped up on her right elbow, her left hand pressed against her chest. She was breathing hard—gasping might be a better word—and her eyes were tightly shut.
          “It’s all right,” Ben said, “she’s breathing deeply, getting oxygen into her lungs, like Allie said. Every bit of good air she gets into her drives the bad air out.”
          Gail finally managed, “My…head…oh, my head…it hurts….”
          I looked at Ben. “Oxygen starvation to her brain,” he told me. “It will clear.”
          I sighed again, and nodded. And then I realized I was cold. And wet. And then I remembered…”Who threw that water on Gail and me when we left the house?”
         “That was Karl’s idea,” Allie said. “Quick thinking, too.” She smiled at him. “McConnell will want you in the Rangers, if I tell him how you acted today.”
          “I…think I’ll stay with Gail,” he said. “But thanks anyway.”
          “Well, I appreciate it, Karl,” I said to him. “Seems like I owed you one, too.”
          Ben said, “You were doing a pretty good imitation of a human torch, believe me. I’ll need to look at you. You may have some nasty burns on you.”
          I did a quick inventory and didn’t really feel like anything was burnt. I had been wearing a thick coat, of course, which was now pretty useless, and had gloves on my hands, so they didn’t get burned. My pants were in pretty bad shape and I did feel a few hot spots on my legs. “Time enough for me later. You’ll need to check Gail first.”
          Since I had been carrying Gail, I had taken the brunt of the fire, but her dress was scorched pretty severely below her knees. Her hair was singed, too, but she was alive, and, at the moment, that was all that mattered.
          She finally rolled over onto her back with a groan, the back of her left hand on her forehead. She opened her eyes. “Rob?” Then she saw her segundo. “Karl?” She looked blankly at Allie and Ben; she knew neither one. “What…what are you doing here? What happened?”
          I let Karl do the explaining. When he finished, Gail looked at me with tears in her eyes. “Oh, Rob, I’ve been such a fool. You risked your life…all of you did. You shouldn’t have.”
          “Oh, it wasn’t that big a deal, Gail,” I said. “The four of us were just passing this way and thought we’d stop and have a nice shootout. Happens every day.”
        She tried to laugh, and Allie did laugh. “I think it does happen every day in your life, Conners,” the Ranger said. “Must be exciting.”
          “An excitement I can live without, I assure you. Karl, let’s find a good place to camp for the night. Lots of wood, out of the elements, near water.” Then I remembered he had a bullet in his shoulder. “Uh, maybe I can do that. Where’s Ben?”
          Ben had gone to see if any of Kragan’s men were still alive. A couple of them were; there were five who weren’t. He was helping the living. I walked over to him. “We can load the dead ones on their horses and take them back to River Bend,” he said to me. “But I need to do some operating first. The bullet has to come out of this man, and I need to get Karl’s, too.” He looked up at me. “What about Allie? Does she have any lead in her?”
          “No, hit a rib and ricocheted out just below her shoulder. She’s got a couple of holes in her, but I’ve got them bandaged.”
          Ben nodded. “I’ve heard of bullets bouncing off ribs but have never seen it. She’s pretty lucky.”
          “No, she’s not. If the bullet had hit her in the head, it would have just bounced off.”
         “I heard that, Conners!” Allie shouted at me. Ben laughed.
          We spent the rest of the day finding a camp, moving bodies, building fires, fixing wounds. Gail was weak, but other than that—and a couple of minor burns—she was ok and able to help. She especially proved useful to Ben as he was removing bullets from those who needed it. She held Karl’s hand while Ben was working on him, and one would never have known a bullet was coming out. I wasn’t sure if Karl was in love with Gail or not; but I wasn’t sure he wasn’t, either. He at least had a strong fondness for her or he wouldn’t have risked his life to save her. Or maybe he was just loyal. Some men were like that; work for the brand, die for the brand, regardless of who the boss was.
          We were all thoroughly bushed when nightfall came. Ben and I did most of the camp work since we were the only two really healthy bodies around. Gail did what she could, but she was almost out on her feet. After supper, I told her to go to bed and she didn’t argue. Kragan’s men proved to be no problem, but we kept them tied up, just so we wouldn’t have to watch them. They weren’t terribly comfortable, but then, they shouldn’t have been shooting at us. I didn’t feel sorry for them in the least.
          I was a little restless and, apparently, so was Allie. Even though it was cold and my coat wasn’t in very good shape, I decided to go for a walk along the creek. The moon had come out and it was reflecting off the waters of the stream. The tinkling of the water over the rocks also had a calming sound to it.
          Allie asked me where I was going. “Just for a walk. I’m really tired, but I need to wind down a little.”
          “Yes, I feel the same way,” she replied. “Do you mind if I walk with you?”
          "Are you sure you are feeling up to it?”
          “I’m ok,” she said, with a soft smile. So we ambled slowly along the bank of Shiny Creek.
          “You know, it’s funny,” she said. “All the times I’ve been shot at, this is the first time I’ve ever been hit.” Then she laughed softly. “Not fun.”
          “It would have been worse if the bullet were still in you. Well, like I told you, if that bullet had pierced your lung, it would have killed you. But even where Karl got shot…” Then I changed the subject. “Allie, how long are you going to do this?”
          She didn’t answer immediately. “I don’t know, Rob. I’m only 22. I enjoy being a Ranger. No, I love being a Ranger. And I think I’m pretty good at it. I don’t want to quit. Yet. But I would like to get married and have a family some day, too. I don’t think I could be a Ranger and do that.”
          “No, probably not.”
          “What are you going to do, Rob?”
           How many times, in this story, have I been asked that question? And I had the same answer. “I still don’t know, Allie. When I found out what was happening in Clearwater Valley, I had to do something to help Kelly and Gail. I hadn’t thought beyond that. Hopefully, that’s behind me now and I’ll be able to decide where I want to go and what I want to do.”
          I could hear the playfulness in her voice when she said, “Are you going to marry Gail Sanders?”
          “She has a husband.”
          “But he’s going to jail.”
          “He’ll still be her husband.”
          “She could get a divorce.”
          I sighed. “Allie, drop the subject, please.”
          A few seconds of silence. “I’m sorry.”
          “It’s ok.”
          “What are you going to do about Kragan?”
          “Well, hopefully Gail will testify against him. If she won’t, then we’ll get these two hoods of his to do so. If they won’t, I’ll just kill him.”
          Allie grunted a chuckle. “That’s what he needs. A bullet between the eyes.”
          “Is that your answer to everything?”
          “That’s not fair, Rob. You know it isn’t.” But I could tell she was smiling when she said, “But it does solve a lot of problems.”
          I laughed. “Yeah, I guess it does.”
          We stopped, looked at the moon, the stars, the water. I don’t know about Allie but I was touched by the beauty and romanticism of the scenery.
          I guess Allie was, too, because we went silent for awhile. Finally, I looked at her and she looked at me. The expectation was in her eyes, so I took her in my arms and kissed her. When we finished, she looked up at me, and with a smile, asked, “Why did you do that?”
          “Well, in case I don’t wake up in the morning….”
          And, to my utter surprise, Allie Summer laid her head against my chest and wept like a baby.