Chapter One—The World Is Full of Them

          Kelly might think my horse is ugly, and she might be right. He might think she’s ugly, too. Regardless, Ol’ Paint was as fine a horse as I’d ever known, and I knew horse flesh better than most men. So I kept him, defended him, and made sure he ate and drank better than I did. He’d saved my hide more than once in my life, and I wasn’t going to let him forget it.
          He was actually a pretty nice looking bay gelding, brown with white stockings. And he had a head on his shoulders, too—that is, if horses have shoulders. When I left River Bend, I hadn’t the foggiest notion where I wanted to go. But Ol’ Paint knew where he wanted to go—south. Someplace a whole lot warmer than River Bend was liable to be in winter.
          Ugly, maybe, but not stupid.
          Clearwater Valley is pretty far north, so getting south enough to find some warm clime would take some hustling. It wasn’t so much latitude as altitude; even though it was a valley, Clearwater was a good 4,000 feet in elevation, which—given its latitude—meant it was usually cursed with frightfully frigid weather in winter. I didn’t mind that so much, I was sort of a cold weather person, but I don’t think Ol’ Paint was a cold weather horse. So…when we left Clearwater…we headed south. At least to a lower elevation.
          It would be more accurate to say we headed southwest. The mountains weren’t as thick in that direction and the sun was actually shining once we got about 100 miles away from River Bend.
          And then I had a thought. I told Allie Summer that I’d like to get away for awhile…go to a trout stream, do some fishing, clear my head…That idea sounded better and better the more I rolled it around my noggin. And I knew just the place to go. A nice little warm cabin on the side of a hill, with a trout stream not 50 yards away. There was a stable for Ol’ Paint and nobody within miles. I knew it was there because I had built it over a decade ago before I met Julie and we had gone up there a couple of times when we were married. I hadn’t been since she’d died and I wondered if the memories of her would haunt me. But at the moment, they weren’t, so I thought I’d go and see how I felt about it. It was a couple hundred miles away, so it took Ol’ Paint and I a few days to get there; I stopped in the town of Agua Caliente and loaded up on supplies.
          I found my cabin—as solid as ever. I stabled and fed Ol’ Paint, stored my stuff, cleaned up around the place a little, built a nice fire, found my fishing pole…
          …and was still there three months later…

          They say that time heals all wounds, but sometimes “they” don’t have the faintest idea what they are talking about. Four months after Rob had left River Bend, Kelly Atkins was thinking, I wonder where he is. He said he’d write. I knew he wouldn’t. He and that ugly horse of his are probably in Mexico now…or he got into a shootout with some hotshot and got killed. No, I’ll bet he’s found him another woman. He’s a skirt-chaser if I ever saw one. He was seeing that Robin woman when he was up here the first time, and married her instead of me. What a cheat, a hobo and a liar…
          He isn’t worth it, Kelly, he just isn’t worth it…
          It still wasn’t working. Tears came to Kelly’s eyes…
          If Rob Conners was a rebound, he was long one.

          The interesting thing about it was that Kelly was almost right about some of the thoughts she had had. Almost, but not quite.
          She was almost assuredly right about me not being worth it, though…

          I’m sure the reader is a whole lot more interested in knowing what Allie Summer is doing than in what I’m doing, so I’ll tell you. In a little while. Some of you, who haven’t read River Bend, would probably like to know who Allie Summer is. Well, I’ll tell you that, too. In a little while. For the moment, you just need to know that she worked for the territorial Rangers, the best on the force. Right now, we must meet some other principles of this sordid, nefarious tale.

          The Buckner gang wasn’t the only conglomerate of hoods that plagued the territory; Allie hadn’t cleaned them all out yet. Trent Tolliver and his brothers, and their associates, operated on a wide scale, scanning three or four states or territories—all except Montana. The Tollivers had a lair somewhere in the Gallatins or Absaroka mountains; nobody was really sure. They’d do their raiding in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, or Utah, and then meet up in Montana. And because they wouldn’t operate in the Montana territory, the Rangers had no jurisdiction over them.
          “Let me go after them,” Allie had said, more than once, to Captain William Travis McConnell, the head of the Rangers. “I’ll find them and put a stop to their nonsense.”
          “Can’t do it,” her boss had responded. “They aren’t wanted for anything here so we can’t touch them.”
          Allie had mumbled, “I can touch them. With a few bullets to the brain.”
          “Leave it be, Allie. They’ll make a mistake one day and we’ll get them.”
          They were still loose, raiding a wide area, and disappearing back to their hideout when necessary. It was all very well coordinated, and Trent Tolliver was the mastermind behind it.
          The gang itself usually consisted of 12 or 13 men. There were five Tolliver brothers—Trent, Top, Terrell, Twain, and Tristy, and they were as close-knit a family as family could be. They would go out in separate groups, each brother taking two or three other men with him (a few of these “extra” men the Rangers had been able to kill, but never a Tolliver). Then, every few months, the whole group would congregate at the Gallatin/Absroka mountain cabin and hide out for awhile. When Trent (the oldest), figured things were safe enough, he would get out his map, and designate which brother would go where in the next series of raids. Their objectives were usually small town banks, stagecoaches, and maybe even the occasional train, though that required two or three of the brothers working in tandem. They’d all be gone for a pre-determined period of time and then rendezvous again at their HQ again, where the booty would be counted and distributed. Trent ordered them never to take any chances on their “missions”; if the situation looked too dangerous, pull out and go to the next target. The brothers usually followed orders in that regard and it was one of the reasons why the Tolliver gang had never been captured. And with five groups making these sorties, they generally collected a pretty good pot, certainly enough to last them till the next time Trent sent them out.
          There was one exception to these “group” outings, and that was Tristy. He was the youngest, the cockiest, the quickest with his gun, and, next to Trent, the quickest with his mind. “I want to operate alone,” he had told his oldest brother from the outset. “Too many people make me nervous and I don’t trust anybody but myself.”
          Trent had snarled at him. “Even your own brothers?”
          Tristy had smiled back. “Especially my own brothers.” They actually had all laughed, and they let Tristy go it alone. Trent thought that Tristy’s gun found its way out of its holster a little too often, but, as noted, the youngest Tolliver was brash and liked to show off. His reputation as a quick-draw was growing rapidly, as was the price on his head. The reward for the entire Tolliver brotherhood was $5,000; half of that was for Tristy. But for all his arrogance, Tristy was careful. As noted, he was smart and that made him doubly-dangerous. And he brought in a lot of loot.
          Well, it was the first of January and time for the next set of operations. Trent, his four brothers, and nine more men were at the mountain cabin and the eldest brother had spread his map on the table, and pointing to the areas in which he wanted his siblings to operate. “Top, you take Gus, Lem, and Snarky and go into Idaho”—he pointed to the region of the map he had circled. “Twain, you head to Wyoming, Terrell I want you in Utah—“
          “We haven’t been there in a while,” Terrell interjected.
          Trent gave him a sour look for interrupting. “That’s why I want you over there. But watch those Mormons. They tend to shoot first and ask their questions to dead bodies.” He stood up. “Tristy, you go wherever you want to, you’re going to anyway.” He looked sternly at the youngest Tolliver. “Try to keep your gun holstered as much as possible, will you? Don’t kill unless absolutely necessary.”
          To Tristy, killing always seemed necessary, but he responded, “Yeah, yeah, ok. I think I’ll head to Idaho, too. I know a couple women there I like.” He grinned a big grin. “All the folks there seemed to really take to me.”
          “I’m sure they do,” Trent said, dismissively. “All right, guys, leave out tomorrow, back here as close to May 15 as you can. Got it?”
          There was universal acceptance, and Trent rolled up his map. He himself was taking a group to the Black Hills. Lots of gold over there
          The Tolliver gang was on the prowl again.

          It was the first of February and I’d been holed up for about three months. The ground hog had seen his shadow, so I figured spring would come early. And, actually, it seemed to be doing just that. The weather was unseasonably warm and the area was clear of snow. I thought it was time to head out and make something of myself. The trout fishing had helped—I had chosen the location for my cabin wisely, i.e., right by a hot springs pool, so I could take a warm bath every day and catch fish that were almost already cooked. But a man can fish and hunt only so much in life……………hold it.
          That’s got to be about the dumbest thing I ever wrote.
          Regardless, I was leaving, my mind just about settled to go back to River Bend. I admit I was getting anxious to see a cow rather than a fish. And, I also confess I had been thinking a lot lately about Kelly. Robin had left me, well, not quite a year ago, but I couldn’t—wouldn’t—let myself mope about it forever. Maybe it was time to settle in Clearwater Valley and see if Kelly would have me.
          Or Gail Sanders.
          Or some cow—and I don’t mean a human one.
          I sighed as I saddled Ol’ Paint; he was ready to go, too. Something wasn’t quite right in my gut yet, though, and I wondered if it was still the hangover from both Julie and Robin. But I just couldn’t let that hold me back, so I’d head in the direction of River Bend and see what happened when I got there.
          If I got there.
          I didn’t get there.