Prologue, Part Two: Ants and Ugly Horses

Early November…
          Kelly Atkins and I were having lunch at the Gold Dust Café in River Bend. It was a few days after the death of her fiancée, Nicholas Backstrom, and the Shootout at the Shiny Creek Corral. Kelly remained understandably distraught over the loss of her intended, but I could tell she was also getting angry, bitter, and disgusted at what he did to her. And at herself for letting him do it. She’d get over him, and it probably wouldn’t take very long.
          “You’re leaving Clearwater Valley, aren’t you,” she said to me. It wasn’t even a question.
          I glanced at her, then looked away. Kelly had a way of seeing right through me. She had asked me, a few days ago, not to leave Clearwater Valley, her home, and I hadn’t given her an answer. Yes, I was leaving Clearwater, and I had to tell her, but I hadn’t—didn’t—relish the thought.
          A little background. My name is Robert Conners, Rob, for short. Four years ago, I had been a happily married rancher near the town of Rogersville, which was a few hundred miles south of Clearwater Valley. I had small ranch, was totally satisfied with it, and enjoying a wonderful life with my wonderful wife, Julie. But the local land-baron, named Wilson Brant, wanted my land and everybody else’s, too. I wouldn’t budge, so he sent his men to burn me out. They raped and killed Julie, who was expecting our first child. I’m not bad with a gun, and I sent Wilson Brant and five of his paid thugs to Boot Hill. Well, Brant owned the law in the area so I had to run. As noted, this was maybe four years ago. During my wanderings from the law, I met the lady who became my second wife, Robin Morrow, who lived in the town of Whitewater, some 90 miles north of Rogersville. But before Robin and I got married, I had traveled here—running from the law—to Clearwater Valley, where I met, among others, Kelly Atkins and Gail Sanders. I helped the valley out of a tight situation, and Kelly and I almost got married; she was 19 at the time. But, Kelly and I didn’t get married; Robin and I did. But, sad story short, Robin left me, got a divorce, and I departed the Whitewater region going…somewhere; I had no idea where. I ran into a group of settlers who happened to be heading to Clearwater Valley, so I joined them, ramrodding their cattle drive. Once we arrived in Clearwater—River Bend is the town here—I met up with Kelly and Gail again. Gail had married the local banker, Homer Kragan, who intended to kill her, and almost did; such was the reason behind the aforementioned Shootout at the Shiny Creek Corral. Kelly had been engaged to Nicholas Backstrom, who was a slimeball deluxe operating in River Bend as a lawyer under the alias of Evan Dryer. Backstrom was a criminal genius (Kelly didn’t know this, of course), but with the help of new acquaintances, such as Ranger Allie Summer and ex-barber Ben Baker—and Kelly herself—Backstrom got his just deserts. And Kragan, too, who was found drowned in Clearwater River, which slices through the valley. (The information in this paragraph is a summation of the previous Rob Conners stories, Whitewater and River Bend.)
          And if all that doesn’t confuse the reader…well, hopefully, you get the general idea and background of this current tale. And why I was in River Bend at the moment.
         I had adored Julie more than words can say, and I may have loved Robin even more. So Julie’s death and Robin’s departure—the latter which had been only a few months prior—had left me totally empty and very melancholy. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I was a rancher, and I had enough money to buy a fair-sized spread. And that’s probably what I would do. But I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to do it in Clearwater. I was very, very fond of Kelly Atkins—and Gail Sanders, too, for that matter—but…Robin was too close in time. And Kelly was faced with the same situation with Nicholas Backstrom. But she still didn’t want me to leave Clearwater. I had to tell her I was going to.
          Full circle back to the beginning of this prologue.
          Still not looking at Kelly, I responded to her statement. “Yeah. I’m leaving Clearwater.”
         She was obviously frustrated. “Rob, why? You can’t keep wandering around.”
          I can’t? “I can’t?”
          “No, you can’t.” She was a bit angry now, and Kelly Atkins was a beautiful woman when she was angry—and when she wasn’t. A little above medium height, she was raven-haired, with green eyes, full lips, a pixy nose that I had always wanted to pinch but never had, and curves in all the right places. Her most wonderful—if utterly inexplicable--quality, though, was that she seemed to be fond of me. And, as noted earlier, I was terribly fond of her. I did look at her now, and wondered if I wasn’t being a total and complete buffoon by not asking her—at this very moment—to marry me. But I couldn’t. I just…couldn’t. Julie…Robin…oh, let’s don’t start that again, Conners
          Kelly continued. “You’re a better man than that, Rob. Clearwater is a lovely valley, with good grass and water, and you could get a good ranch here. And you know it.” And then she gave me a sassy smile. “I might even let you come call on me sometime.”
          Yeah. Nicholas who?
          Then she added, “Provided, of course, you aren’t planning on marrying Gail Sanders or Allie Summer.”
          I ignored that final comment and smiled in return. “Well, calling on you would be the best reason to stay in Clearwater, I assure you,” and her smile turned warm. “But,” I was in some angst. “Kelly…can you understand? I just…there’s something in me…that won’t settle down yet. It’s like I’ve got ants all inside my body, itching me, shattering my nerves, keeping me from…keeping still.” I sighed and shook my head. Then looked at her. “I just can’t sit still at the moment.”
          Kelly stared at me for a long time. “No, Rob, I don’t understand, I’ve never felt that way. I want some stability in my life right now. You seem to want to run away. It won’t work, you know. So, no, I don’t understand. But I’ll respect your feelings. And I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
          I wanted to kick myself for feeling the way I did. But how could I change how I felt? Kelly was right. I didn’t really know what I was searching for. But—at the moment—it wasn’t her. It wasn’t Gail Sanders. It wasn’t Allie Summer—not that any of the three would have had me anyway. And whatever it was I was hunting wasn’t in Clearwater Valley, either.
          “Will you write to me?” she asked. “I mean, once you get settled somewhere. I want to know you are all right.”
          I don’t know how to write, Kelly, you know that…I hadn’t written to her after I’d left Clearwater the first time. But I smiled at her, and it had to be a sad smile. “Sure. I’ll write.” And we both knew I was lying. But she made me do it by asking a question she already knew the answer to.
          We left the restaurant together and stood outside the door, about to say good-bye, and not wanting to. “Can you wait here a moment?” she asked me. “I have something for you.”
          Her horse was hitched at the railing outside the restaurant, so it only took her a moment. She brought back a small box and handed it to me. With a sad smile, she said, “I…made it for Evan for Christmas. I want you to have it. Go ahead and open it.”
          I did and pulled out a red and blue scarf. It was soft and it looked warm. I wrapped it around my neck and returned her melancholy smile. “It’s lovely, Kelly. Thank you.”
          She just nodded her head.
          It was a cold, blustery day, and that matched my mood. Kelly and I looked at each other, and I didn’t know what to say. So I said something stupendously brilliant.
          “Give your dad my regards.” Well, it was a nice thought
          Kelly nodded again. And, with one last look at me, she turned and walked away. I guess she didn’t know what to say, either. Or, she’d said all she intended to say. I stood there and watched her. She didn’t look back.
          “You two have a spat?”
          I glanced in the direction of the voice; an old timer was standing next to me, a silly expression on his face.
          “No,” I replied, not that it was any of his business. I gave him a wry grin. “Sometimes a man doesn’t know what to say to a woman, and she lets him say it.”
          “No feller ever knows exactly what to say to a woman, but yore an idiot if’n you let her get away, Conners. She’d marry you tomorrer if you’d ask her.”
          I didn’t need to hear that, and I wasn’t sure he was right. At least about the “she’d marry me tomorrow if I’d ask her” bit.
          But I was pretty sure he was right about me being an idiot for letting Kelly Atkins get away.

          Kelly had walked away from Rob without saying anything for the simple reason that she didn’t trust herself to say something. She was afraid she would break out crying, and she’d done her fair share of that in recent days and didn’t want to do any more. And, understandably, her heart went on the defensive. Let him go. If he wants to be a saddle tramp all his life, that’s his business. This is the best valley in the country and if he doesn’t have the sense to see it, then he’s not the kind of man I’d want anyway…
          I certainly don’t need him…
          He can’t stay put for more than a year or two…
          He’s a two-faced liar. He’ll never write to me and he sat there and said he would…
          I’ll bet he’s headed out to Gail Sanders’ place right now to propose to her…
          Or he’ll go join the Rangers and marry that Allie Summer. She practically threw herself at him…
          And his horse is ugly, too…
          It wasn’t working. Tears came to Kelly’s eyes…
          She turned and looked back at him, but he was walking in the other direction now. His dark blonde hair and twinkling, cynical blue eyes fit perfectly on a 6 foot, 200 pound frame that was almost solid muscle. He could smile and laugh as easily as anyone she had ever known. But she also knew there was hurt, deep hurt, inside him.
          As there was in her at the moment.
          She hoped Rob Conners was just a rebound from Evan Dryer.

          I had one more thing I wanted to do before I left River Bend. I had been carrying around nearly $100,000—from the sale of my ranch in Whitewater—ever since I’d left down there, and I was getting a little concerned that I might set it down somewhere and then forget where I’d put it. So I picked up my saddlebags, where most of the stuff was, and went to the River Bend bank.
          I walked up to the teller. “I’d like to open up an account and deposit the money in these saddlebags.”
          The teller, a big, burly fellow who didn’t look the first thing like the stereotypical teller, smiled at me and said, “Ok, sir. Conners, isn’t it? How much would you like to deposit?”
          All the people in River Bend knew me, of course, I’d saved the town twice. Or at least that’s the way the story got told. Everybody likes a good lie. I’d only saved it once.
          “Well, I don’t rightly know how much is in here.” So I opened the saddlebags and dumped all the money in front of him. And was amused at how big his eyes got.
          “Uh…yes, yes, Mr. Conners, I think we can help you, but perhaps you’d better talk to the president, Mr. McBee…”
          Well, that’s what I did, and within half an hour, I had $95,000 deposited in the River Bend bank. I kept a couple of thousand on me for spending money at wherever I wandered to. Since I had once been an outlaw, the notion fleetingly went through my head that it might be kinda fun robbing the River Bend bank, but most of the money I’d end up with would be my own, so I didn’t see much sense in it. But it was nice to know that I could still have evil thoughts.
          But what this deposit really told me was that there was a very good chance that I would…
          Return to River Bend…