Chapter Twenty—And It's a Close Game, Too

Tuesday October, 30…
          I saw Allie, Ben, and McConnell at breakfast the next morning. “We sure do appreciate your help, Conners,” the Ranger Captain told me. “If you hadn’t found Allie…”
          “Well, I’m glad it turned out the way it did. And I was glad to help.”
          “How’s Kelly doing?” Allie asked.
          “She’ll be ok. She’s young, strong, and resilient. And if I know Kelly, once she gets over this, she’ll be so angry, she’ll go out and spit on Backstrom’s grave every so often. Kelly Atkins doesn’t like being made a fool of.”
          Allie smiled at me, a cute, cheeky smile. “Are you going to marry her?”
          “Funny thing. She asked me the same thing yesterday about you and me.” Allie turned red, which sort of surprised me, I didn’t think anything could embarrass that woman. I looked at McConnell and changed the subject. Any future nuptials I might have was not a topic I was interested in discussing. “Any problem with Backstrom’s men?”
          “No, they are all in Diddlysquat’s jail, or Doonothing, or whatever his name is.” I laughed. “He was shocked about Backstrom. At least he said he was. I suggested he might be more qualified for a different kind of work. Like dog catcher.”
          Allie grunted. “Suggested, nothing. You flat told him not to run for sheriff again or you’d report his incompetence to the territorial governor.”
          “Well, somebody needs to, that’s for sure,” I said. “I suspect he was getting kickbacks from Backstrom and Kragan, but you’d probably have trouble proving it.” I looked at Ben, who had been quiet during this discussion. “What have you got planned? Have you decided yet?”
          “Captain McConnell asked me to help him and Allie transport Backstrom’s men to Port Station. He, uh, also mentioned that the Rangers might be short a few men…”
          Allie grunted again and repeated, “Suggested, nothing.” She looked at me. “He offered Ben a job.”
          My eyebrows shot up. I looked at McConnell. “You couldn’t get a better man.”
          “Yes, he could,” Ben countered. “He could hire you.”
          McConnell said, “I appreciate your recommendation, Conners. Allie told me how cool Ben had been yesterday, and that was recommendation enough. But your seconding of the motion just cinches it.”
          “Are you going to take it?” I asked Ben.
          He hesitated. “I’m…thinking about it. I haven’t made up my mind. What about you, Rob? What’s your plan?”
          McConnell cut in. ‘You have a job with the Rangers, if you want it.”
          Allie added, “River Bend is going to need a new sheriff soon, too. You’d win the job unanimously, from what I’ve heard around town.”
          I sighed and shook my head. “I don’t know yet, Ben. I still want to be a rancher, not a lawman. I’ve got something else I have to do here, so my personal future is on hold until I do it.”
          “Gail Kragan?” Allie asked.
          I nodded. “I’m going out to her ranch as soon as I finish breakfast.” I looked at McConnell. “Do any of Backstrom’s papers incriminate Kragan?”
          He shook his head. “But I’m going to send them back east, and there will be several others who’ll spend the rest of their lives in jail.”
          “Good. When are you all leaving for Port Station?”
          “Probably tomorrow,” McConnell replied. “I’ve got a little more paperwork to do and I want to give Allie a day to thaw out and rest. She’s been through the ringer.”
          I shifted my gaze to her, but spoke to McConnell. “I see why you don’t want to lose her. She’s a jewel, in more ways than one.” She met my eyes and smiled her thanks.
          “Best man I’ve got. Even for a woman,” McConnell said, smiling as well. “You can’t have her, Conners.”
          I turned back to him. “I don’t think that’s in the works, Captain.” I wished people would shut up about that.
          I had finished my breakfast. “Well, I need to go see Gail. I wish you all the best.” I stood up and the others did as well. I shook hands with all three. Ben and I held the shake a little longer.
          “Thanks for watching my back, fellow,” I said to him.
          He nodded. “You would have done the same for me.”
          I started to leave, but Allie said, “If you need any help with Kragan…”
          I smiled and looked around the table. “I’ve got three Rangers I can appeal to.”
          Ben grunted. “Maybe.” He looked at McConnell. “He’s worth four men all by himself.”
          “I’m serious about that job, Conners.”
          “Thanks, Captain. I’ll think about it.” For guess how long?
          I left the restaurant. Full of food but empty of heart again.
          Why couldn’t I say “hello” for awhile instead of “good-bye” all the time?
          And I had one more “good-bye” to make.

          The conversation at the restaurant continued, unbeknownst to Rob, of course.
          “He’s the best man I’ve ever known,” Ben said.
          “Is there any way you can talk him into joining us?” McConnell asked.
          Ben slowly shook his head. “He’s his own man. It’s probably better this way, Captain. He’d do things his own way.”
          McConnell smiled ruefully and looked at Allie. “Well, I’ve already got one Ranger like that. I don’t imagine another would be so bad.” Allie just smiled. The captain spoke to her. “I don’t suppose you could have any influence over Conners.”
          “I have no intention of trying to talk Rob Conners into anything….”

          I didn’t break any speed records getting out to Gail’s ranch. I realized she might not even be there. Kelly had told me that she spent some of her time at Kragan’s place in town. And when I arrived at her house, I immediately figured that was where she probably was because Bushy Mustache—Karl—wasn’t standing in his usual place. I berated myself for not stopping by Kragan’s house before I made this trip.
          But I was here now, so I tied Ol’ Paint to the hitching rail outside of Gail’s house and started up the stairs.
          I turned. It was Karl coming towards me from the barn. I walked in his direction.
          “She’s not here,” he said. “Headed back east to visit some folks.”
          My blood immediately went cold. If she was already “gone,” then Kragan must have put his plan in motion sooner than he had indicated to Backstrom. “When did she leave, Karl?”
          “Yesterday afternoon. Her husband came by and picked her up.”
          “Oh, Lord,” I responded, and sighed deeply.
          Karl caught my concern. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
          “Karl, do you know that Gail doesn’t have any relatives back east?”
          He studied me closely. “Well, she hadn’t ever spoken of them before, so I was a bit surprised. But she certainly doesn’t tell me everything. How do you know she doesn’t?”
          “Because she did tell me.” Then I related to him the conversation I had overheard between Kragan and Backstrom.
          When I finished, Karl turned his head and gazed into the distance, not seeing anything, just thoughtful. “Oh, Lord,” he said.
          “Get your gun and your horse saddled,” I said to him.
          He headed towards the corral. “I’ll be ready in five minutes.”
          “I’ll give you three.”
          We rode off together in two and a half.

          "What do you intend to do? How are we going to find her?” Karl asked me these questions as we cantered towards River Bend.
          “We are heading straight for the bank to confront Homer Kragan. If Gail is dead, so is he.”
          Karl glanced at me, wondering if I was serious. I think the expression on my face answered that for him.
          We hitched our horses in front of the bank. I was in no mood to hesitate. Karl was on my heels as I walked into the building and straight back through the little swinging gate to Kragan’s office.
          “You can’t go in there!” a clerk shouted at us.
         “Try to stop me, if you've got a death wish,” I replied, not slowing down.
          I opened Kragan’s door and walked in. There was somebody sitting across from his desk, talking with him. Kragan blinked at me—and Karl—a couple of times and asked, “What’s the meaning of this, Mr. Conners? As you can see, I have someone in my office at the moment. If you want to make an appointment—“
          I cut him off by walking over to the other man. “You. Out. Mr. Kragan needs to see me and Karl right now. You can come back later.”
          The man fumbled around a moment, so I picked him up by the coat collar and said, “Karl, help this fellow find the door.” Kragan’s visitor managed to do it by himself. Karl kicked the door closed behind him.
          “This is preposterous, Mr. Conners,” Kragan said. “I’m going to go get the sheriff,” and he started to rise.
          I leaned across his desk and shoved him back down into his chair. “Where’s Gail?”
          Kragan swallowed, his three chins flapping. “What…why do you want…”
          I pulled my gun and stuck it to his nose. “I won’t ask you again, Kragan.”
          “Don’t you think I—“
          I cocked the pistol.
          That got his attention. “She’s…she’s gone back east to visit some relatives.”
          “She doesn’t have any relatives back east. She told me so herself. And I overheard you telling Nicholas Backstrom—who is now dead, in case you haven’t heard—that you intended to kill Gail in the very near future so you could have her land free and clear.” I waggled the gun. “If she’s dead, Kragan, I promise you…I promise you…I will scatter your brains from here to Christmas. Where is she?”
           For all his greed and bluster, Kragan was easy to intimidate. He was short and fat, with bushy dark eyebrows and not a whole lot of hair, and the only thing he knew was making money. That’s how he pushed people around. He was no match for somebody with grit and determination.
          So he started sweating—in a relatively cold room—and he squirmed. He looked from me to Karl then back to me, and he stammered, “She’s…I had some men…take her to a cabin up near Bald Mountain. The cabin is near…Shiny Creek.”
          I looked over at Karl. “Do you know it?”
          He nodded. “About 25 miles.”
          I returned my attention to Kragan. “Why did you send her up there? And how many men?”
          “Five…men. They are…guarding her. I’m going up there tomorrow…she’s to sign the land over to me…then…” His voice trailed off. Then he spoke rapidly, desperately, “I really wasn’t going to kill her, Conners. Honest. I just told Backstrom that because….because…he wanted to hear it. He wants—wanted—some of the land, too. I was going to…force her…to sign some papers, giving me control all of East Clearwater. I didn’t intend to kill her. Just frighten her.”
          “Why did you need to send her to a cabin in the mountains to do that?”
          He gave me a weak smile. “Well, you know Gail. She can be a little stubborn…”
          “So you turn five apes loose on her for a little while—or threaten to—and she signs…’willingly.’” I said the last word mockingly. I raised up, uncocked my pistol, and shoved it back into my holster. “We’re going to go up there, Kragan. But not you. I’ll even give you a sporting chance. You can get out of town, right now, run like a rabbit, because if Gail is dead, I’ll come back here and bury you, too. But if you run, and she’s dead, at least I’ll have to come looking for you. It won’t take me long to find you, though.”
           “She’s not dead, Mr. Conners, believe me. The men up there are under orders not to…hurt her…until I arrive tomorrow.”
          Karl grunted. “’Until,’” he repeated. “So fat boy here gets what he wants, his men get what they want—Gail—and then kill her and hide her somewhere in the mountains where only the wolves can find her.”
          “That’s the way I read it, too,” I agreed. Then, to the banker, “I’ll be back, Kragan. Whether you’re still here or not is your choice.” I turned and walked towards the door. “Let’s go, Karl.”
          He nodded, opened the door, and we left.
          “You plan on just the two of us doing this?” he asked me.
          “Not if I can get some help.” I headed for the hotel, hoping to find Ben and Allie.
          We made our way rapidly across and down the street to the hotel. It was late morning now, so I had no idea if either Ben or Allie were in the hotel. For that matter, I wasn’t even sure Ben was staying in the hotel, and it fleetingly went through my mind, “why isn’t he out with the settlers?” I’d ask him if I got the chance, but it wasn’t my highest priority at the moment.
          I stopped and checked the hotel register; the clerk just blinked at me a couple of times. Allie was in room 5, McConnell in room 7, and there was no Ben Baker registered. I thought I’d go to Allie’s room; I doubted McConnell would join us, but she seemed like she was always ready for a good fight. And maybe she knew where Ben was. Provided she was in her room, of course.
          She was. “Hi,” she said, when she opened the door, and didn’t seem too disappointed to see me. “Come on in,” and Karl and I entered the small, typical western hotel room. It looked just like the one I’d stayed in the night before except everything was flip-flopped to the other side of the room.
          “Are you busy?” I asked her.
          “Well, not really. I was going to have a bath, grab a bite of lunch, then probably take a nap. What’s up?”
          I introduced Karl and told her about Gail. “Karl knows where Bald Mountain is, so we are headed that way right now. I wondered if you’d be willing to help.”
          “Sure,” she said, immediately. “I’ll need to tell McConnell, but this is Ranger-type work.” She shrugged. “If he won’t let me go, I’ll take a vacation and go anyway.”
          “Ok, good. Thanks. Do you know where Ben Baker is?”
          “I think he’s with Captain McConnell.” She smiled. “Boss was trying to talk him into taking a job. Giving him the hard sell, I suppose.”
          “Well, maybe we can catch him there then.”
          Allie got her hat and coat, gun…knife…razor…derringer…the woman was a veritable walking weapons factory. No wonder nobody with any sense messed with her.
          "Good grief," I muttered, and she grinned at me.
          "Do you like my bracelet?" she asked, showing it to me.
          I looked at it suspiciously.  Several slender golden wires with a heart-shaped clasp.  "Very pretty," I replied--suspiciously.
          "Don't let me unwrap it and get it around your neck."
          I just stared at her.
          “Let’s go,” she said. “McConnell is just two doors down.”
          I knocked on the captain’s door, and he opened it almost immediately. I was relieved to see Ben in the room. I smiled at my buddy. “He talk you into a job yet?”
          Ben smiled back. “He’s working on it. The hang-up is the $200 a month I’m asking for.”
          Allie chuckled. “Good luck getting that in a year.”
          McConnell gave her a bit of an annoyed look, then said, “You fellows don’t look like you’re heading out for a picnic. Allie doesn’t carry that thing around her neck”—meaning the razor in a pouch—“unless she’s about to scalp somebody. What’s going on?”
          I told him in a nutshell. “I wondered if you’d loan us your new recruit, too.”
          Now it was Ben’s turn to look annoyed. “I haven’t accepted yet, Conners.”
          “Oh, well, technicality. You want to come? We could use you.”
          “Yeah, I’ll go. Somebody needs to watch your back or you’ll get it blown off.” He started strapping on his gunbelt, which he had laid on the bed while visiting with McConnell.
          Allie spoke to her boss. “I don’t know how long we’ll be gone.” She looked at Karl. “How far is it up there?”
          “About 25 miles. Rough country, though. We won’t get there tonight, even if we leave right now.”
          “A couple of days, then,” Allie said to McConnell. “We’ll bring those guys back and maybe take them all in with Backstrom’s bunch. Kragan, too.”
          McConnell looked at me, the annoyed expression having returned to his face. But there was a twinkle in his eyes. “Did you notice that she didn’t even ask me if she could go? I often wonder who’s the boss any more.”
          Allie smiled and said, “I have to let him think he is or he pouts.”
          McConnell sighed. “Try to be careful,” he said to her. “I didn’t pull you out of Backstrom’s lair to get you shot up by a bunch of two-bit hoods.” Then, to Ben, “We’ll talk some more when you get back. Try to get Conners to join us.”
          Everybody was trying to plan my life for me. I simply responded, “Let’s go.”
          Allie had one last, joking barb. “In a hurry, isn’t he,” she said, to no one in particular. “Maybe he wants to marry Gail instead of Kelly.”
          Now I was annoyed. I looked at McConnell. “When was the last time you paddled her backside?”
          He chuckled. “You want to try?”
          I looked at Allie and she was smiling at me. I smiled back. “Oh, I don’t know, it might be fun.”
          “Yeah, it might,” she replied, still smiling. “I could teach you how to Indian wrestle. That is, if you don’t mind flying through windows.”
          “Well, let’s worry about that later. Gail isn’t going to marry anybody if we don’t get her out of those mountains.”
          “She’s already married,” Karl pitched in.
          “Yeah. But not for long.”

          It took us about an hour to get the supplies we’d need and everything ready to go. We took a mule for the provisions; we figured he’d be more sure-footed than a horse and could carry a lot more. We didn’t intend to be gone long, but in the mountains, it paid to be extra-prepared.
          “Make sure you’ve got a medical kit,” Allie said to me as she was tightening the cinch on her saddle. She kicked her horse in the gut to make it expel air so she could get the cinch as snug as possible.
          “Got one in one of my saddlebags. I always carry it.” I gave her a wry grin. “You never know who you might have to shoot full of holes on a given day.”
          “Yeah,” she said. Then, leaning against her saddle, she said, “Do you know how to remove bullets from human flesh?”
          “I’ve done it before, but I’m not a doctor. Don’t get shot up and we won’t have to find out.”
          “Oh, I’m not worried about me. I was thinking about those outlaws.”
          “Well, just kill anybody you shoot and that’ll take care of it.”
          She laughed. “I like your style, Conners.”
          She might have laughed, but I was serious. It was a rare thing when I only shot to wound. Wounded beasts can fight back; dead ones can’t. “Karl,” I said, “since you know the way, you take the lead. When we get close to that cabin, we’ll send our little Injun here to scout out the place and then we’ll determine a plan of attack.”
          Allie said, with a smug grin, “I might be all the plan of attack you need.”
          I was getting tired of her arrogance. I looked at her and then leaned down and made like I was going to unbuckle the cinch on Ol’ Paint. “Well, in that case, since you’re so good, you can just go take care of it by yourself, and Ben, Karl, and I will stay here and take a nice, long nap.”
          She stared at me, still leaning on her saddle. Ben and Karl had stopped what they were doing to watch. With a rather fierce expression on her face, Allie said, “I don’t think I like you, Conners.”
          “Woman, I don’t give a rat’s rear if you like me or not. I’m going up into those mountains to find Gail Sanders and bring her back here—safely, if she’s still alive. If you want to help, then you are welcome to come, too. But if you’re going to shoot your mouth off the whole time about how good you are, then I’d just as soon you stay here.”
          She looked me up and down for a few moments, then as she started to mount her horse, said, “Now I know for sure why your wife left you.”
          I let that slide. There were more important things to do than trade barbs with Allie Summer. I said to Ben and Karl, “Are you guys ready to go?”
          They both nodded.
          “Then let’s see how far we can get today, and take care of this tomorrow.”
          Within three minutes, we were out of River Bend.

          Karl had been right, the going wasn’t easy. There was an occasional game trail we could follow, but for the most part, we made our own path, skirting trees, canyons, and streams. We were getting into higher country, but not above the tree line. The weather was colder, however, and I’m glad I had a thick wool coat. The sky was overcast, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had snowed, but it never did.
          About mid-afternoon we stopped to water the horses and munch on some jerky. “How far have we come?” I asked Karl.
          “Maybe ten miles,” he said, and then with a smile added, “as the crow flies.”
          I thought that was pretty good, actually, and said so. “Do you know a good place to camp up ahead?”
          “There are tons of good places to camp,” he said. “Lots of water and cover. It’s been a while since I’ve been up here, but I seem to recall a cave with a stream less than 100 yards from it. I think I can find it. It will put us within 3-4 hours of Shiny Creek.”
          “Good. It will be nice if we can get there by noon tomorrow.”
          “Should be able to.”
          Allie hadn’t said a word since we had left River Bend, which suited me just fine, I wasn’t paying any attention to her anyway. As long as she did her job when we reached the cabin, I didn’t care if she never said another word as long as she lived. My concern was Gail. Kragan had said the men he’d hired to watch her were under orders not to hurt her, but a man will say anything with the business end of a pistol stuck up his nose. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had sent us off on a wild goose chase. I couldn’t see that fat guy riding all the way up here to take care of business. He’d kill the poor horse. But I had been serious. I’d kill him if Gail was dead, I don’t care if I had to run from the law the rest of my life.
          I had gone off a ways from the others to water Ol’ Paint; I just wanted a little solitude. What am I going to do after we get Gail back home? That thought had definitely been on the back burner for awhile, but now I was getting close to having to face it. Red Canyon? For some reason, that didn’t really appeal to me. Stay in Clearwater? That didn’t especially hit my fancy, either. Join the Rangers? That was my least favorite option. I looked up—way up. This stream bordered a sheer cliff that rose at least 500 feet. I could climb that thing and jump off…pretend I was a bird….that would certainly take care of things…But I wouldn’t do that, that was a cop-out. I’ll admit, there were many a night, after Julie died and Robin left me, when I prayed to the Good Lord above that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. But I guess that was pretty selfish of me. He must be keeping me here for some reason…and I guess helping those settlers, along with Kelly and Gail, had been part of it.
          But that still didn’t make me feel any better about Julie and Robin…
          I turned and looked. It was Allie. Boy, she’s quiet. I never heard a thing. I examined her a moment. She appeared a bit uncertain, which was the first time I had seen anything but utter confidence from this woman. Well, maybe she’s human after all…Then I remembered her kiss and recalled that she was, indeed, very human. And all woman.
          My slowness to respond seemed to make her even more uneasy. “I’m…sorry for what I said,” she began. “About your wife leaving you. That was…rude and classless. Especially bringing it up a second time.”
          I couldn’t disagree in the least with that sentiment. But, to try to be diplomatic about it, I replied, “It isn’t exactly my favorite topic of conversation. Nor do I have many friends who remind me of it; they don’t stay friends for long if they do.” Actually, she was the only one who had ever said anything about it, but she didn’t need to know that. Then, I sighed heavily, looking down, gathering some thoughts. “Allie, you’re one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met in my life. You’re also one of the most dangerous, talented, and competent. McConnell was in serious angst over the thought of losing you, and I perfectly understand why.” I looked at her. And I smiled. “You don’t need to tell anybody how good you are. Your actions speak plenty loud.”
          “Thank you for your words, Rob. But I don’t feel very competent after the way I bungled the Backstrom case.”
          I walked over to her and looked down at her. She was only about four or five inches shorter than I. “You didn’t bungle it. You got the papers and a lot of people are going to jail because of it. And that’s a very successful conclusion.”
          “Yeah, but if you hadn’t baled me out…”
          “Allie, we all need help occasionally. That’s what you need to remember. And there’s no disgrace in that. If Ben hadn’t showed up when he did, we’d both be toast right now. You’re human.” Then I paused and smiled again, “Boy, are you ever human…”
          She gave me a coy smile. “Now, what do you mean by that, Mr. Conners?”
          I took her in my arms and showed her what I meant.
          And, yeah, she was human.
          And all woman.