Author's Note

Whitewater is the first of a series.  River Bend and Return to River Bend are sequelsAnd, Lord willing, there will be others to follow.  All of these stories are stand-alone, meaning one does not have to read them in order.  But Whitewater is the first, if the reader does wish to tackle them in the sequence that I wrote them.

Obviously, some of the characters do, and will continue to appear in all of the novels.  Hopefully, they are likeable enough that the reader will want to continue to trace their exploits through succeeding narratives. 

One very important note about Whitewater.  The Indian tribes in the story are wholly fictitious; I did not use real, historical tribes.  I think it will be obvious to the reader, once reaching that part of the novel, as to why I did that.   I hope it doesn't detract from the story.

The arrow next to 2010 in the Blog Archive will provide access to the rest of the book.

Mark K. Lewis


     Oh, I hate riding in a stagecoach…but then, she made a face. But I don’t know anybody who DOES like it…
     Robin Morrow was soooo uncomfortable. Hot, dusty, bounced and jolted incessantly, and cooped up for hours—sometimes days—with some of the most obnoxious and/or irritating people on earth. And it was even worse considering her destination. Her Aunt Martha’s. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t like Aunt Martha. It’s just that she had had a good job back in New York, and the pretty, dark-haired, brown-eyed young woman didn’t want to leave it.
     But she had to go. She was Aunt Martha’s last living relative. Which made her Robin’s last living relative. Aunt Martha and Uncle Ben had actually raised Robin from the time she was two years old until she went off to school back east when she was almost 18. Uncle Ben she had loved. He was a kindly, thoughtful old gentleman, round face with only a wisp of white hair covering his bald pate. He always had a smile on his face, and he adored Robin. And she felt the same way towards him.
     But Aunt Martha…
     Robin frowned in thought as she looked out the window at the passing countryside. It was mid-May, and the undulating—and rising—terrain was covered in waving green grass. She could see majestic mountains in the distance. Her destination would put her at the foothills of those mountains. The town of Whitewater. Where Aunt Martha lived.
     Aunt Martha wasn’t that bad. It had been seven years since Robin had left Whitewater to go to school back east, and she hadn’t seen her aunt and uncle since that time. But Robin remembered her aunt as somewhat cold, strict, and not terribly loving. She could be very harsh at times, insensitive, and callous. But then, maybe I’m just comparing her to Uncle Ben—who was the opposite of all of that. Well, he didn’t let me get away with much, either, but he was always kind and gentle. She just had better memories of Ben than of Martha. A few too many bad memories of her…
     Robin had stayed in New York when she finished school and gotten a good job. But then, a few weeks ago, a wire. From Aunt Martha. Uncle Ben had died of a heart attack and oh, Robin, I need you so badly. Please come back and live with me.
     Robin had cried at the news of Uncle Ben. She would have gone back when she had finished school, but the job offer came up. Aunt Martha had wanted her to come home, but Uncle Ben had counseled her to stay and accept the new job. So she had. But he was gone.
     And Aunt Martha wanted her home now. Again, Robin didn’t want to go, but felt duty-bound. Aunt Martha was over 60 and, well, she had raised and, with Uncle Ben, provided for Robin when she was growing up—fed her, washed her clothes, done all the things a mother would have done. For all her coldness—at least that’s the way Robin thought of it—Aunt Martha had taken care of Robin in her youth; now Robin felt she ought to take care of Aunt Martha in her old age. Family responsibility, and it had been instilled in her, mainly by Uncle Ben.
     So…stagecoach…Aunt Martha…no Uncle Ben…giving up her job and friends back east…
     Robin wasn’t in the best of moods.

     She was on the last leg of the long trip. In about four hours the stage would arrive in Whitewater. Aunt Martha had gotten Robin a teaching job there. Robin had been the executive secretary to the Vice President of a pretty large banking firm in New York, and that had been pretty exciting. Teaching wasn’t really something that she wanted to do. But the decision was made and she’d have to make the best of it.
     This stagecoach is so insufferable…for mid-May, it was a little hot and stuffy.
     There were three other passengers—a nice, plump old lady who talked too much, a pompous, fat middle-aged aged man who talked when the nice, plump old lady paused to take a breath, and a gambler who thought he was God’s gift to womanhood and ogled Robin like a wolf at a sheep’s convention. Well, he had found out verrrrry quickly that he wasn’t God’s gift to Robin Morrow. He hadn’t talked to her for 200 miles and that suited her just fine. He couldn’t have gotten a word in edge-wise anyway.
     The stage hit a bump in the road. Robin bounced and gritted her teeth. Only four more hours of this and I get to be with Aunt Martha…and then she felt a pang of conscience at her attitude towards her aunt. It’s just a change of life I’ll have to get used to…
     But…not immediately. A change of plans was in the works. At least for the immediate future.

     A little while later, the stage rounded a bend, and Robin heard a rifle shot. Then the driver yelled, “Whooooooaaa,” and the coach rolled to a stop. Robin was sitting at a window, looking forward, so she leaned her head out to see what was going on.
     “What is it, dear?” the plump old lady asked, a bit of a tremor in her voice.
     “A lone horseman. In the road. Coming this way. Rifle pointing at the driver.”
     “Oh, no. A hold-up.”
     Yep, that’s what it looked like to Robin. Well, at least a little excitement on this trip…She wasn’t terribly worried. She had lived in New York City for about 7 years…
     The horseman came riding up and Robin heard him speak. “You fellers please don’t do anything stupid. I’m really a nice guy and don’t want to hurt anybody. Just toss that gun to the ground…that’s it. We’ll get along fine if you do everything I ask you to do. And I’ll try to ask real nice. My momma always taught me to be real nice even when I was robbin’ people.”
     Robin actually smiled. She’d never heard such sarcastic drivel in all her life.
     “You folks inside the stage kindly step out, please,” the man called. “I want to relieve you of a few necessaries. Necessary for me, that is.”
     And again, Robin smiled.
     The brigand was on her side of the stage, so she got out first. She looked around. The first thing she saw was him sitting on a nice, brown bay. She looked the horse up and down and ignored the man on it; nice horse. Then she glanced around at the scenery—rolling hills of cattle grass. Boring. But the snow-capped mountains in the distance were pretty. Whitewater was in those mountains. She did like it there. She looked back at the outlaw. 30ish, maybe 6 feet, or not quite, it was hard to tell when he was sitting on a horse. Western clothes including light brown vest and gray, flat-topped hat. Dark blonde hair, blue eyes. Not bad. I’ve seen worse…
     Back to the robbery. The other three followed her out of the coach. The horseman tipped his hat. “Howdy, folks. How are you all doing this fine morning? ‘Scuse me, it’s afternoon now, isn’t it.”
     “Are you…are you going to rob us?” the plump lady asked.
     “The thought had occurred to me, ma’am. But not you. I don’t take from a lady. But that fat drummer there and that gambler. They probably have something I want.”
     The gambler was glaring at the thief with fire in his eyes. He was wearing a gun and his hand was poised over it, just waiting for the outlaw to look away so he could go for it. The horseman had his rifle pointed in the general direction of the stage, covering everybody. When he saw the gambler’s itchy palm, he slid the rifle into its saddle boot and stared back at him.
     “You want to go for that gun, gambler?” the robber asked him.
     It got tense in a hurry, and Robin and the other two travelers gave the two men some room. The gambler stood there, weighing the odds. He didn’t seem to like them. His hand move away from the gun.
     “Good idea, fella,” the outlaw said, and took the rifle out again. “Now, very carefully, with two fingers, take out that gun and toss it over here.”
     The gambler obeyed.
     “And the derringer up your right sleeve.”
     The gambler’s eyes blazed again. But he removed the derringer and tossed it away.
     “Good boy.”
     “How did you know he had a derringer up his sleeve?” Robin asked the man on the horse.
     “Every one of those jokers do. Along with a couple of aces,” he replied. Nobody appeared to catch the pun.
     The old lady pitched in. “Young man, why are you an outlaw? The good Lord put us on the earth to help mankind. ‘Thou shalt not steal’, the Good Book says. You should repent and change your ways or you will face the wrath of the Lord.”
     The horseman looked at Robin and rolled his eyes. She hid a smile.
     “Shut up.”
     “Oh!” she replied. Robin almost burst out laughing that time. She had wanted to say that at least 100 times to that woman on the trip, but she had bit her tongue each time. Thank you, she thought.
     “Tell you what I want you to do, ma’am,” the thief said. “I want you to relieve those two gents of their wallets and bring them to me.”
     “I will do no such thing, young man.”
     He fired the rifle and the bullet landed six inches from her right foot.
     “I’m already tired of visitin’ with you folks and that driver sittin’ up there looks like he’s about to do somethin’ stupid”—Robin glanced up and noticed that whatever stupid thing the driver was about to do he quit before he did it—“and I want to be on my way. Please bring me their wallets, ma’am. I said ‘please.’ Ain’t that nice enough?”
     The fat lady, who had nearly had a heart attack when he fired the rifle, immediately went over to the two men. They gave her their wallets and she brought them to the robber.
     “Thank ye kindly, ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat to her briefly. “Let’s see what we have here…” He spread the fat man’s wallet. “Oh, lookee here. A good wad.” He took out most of the bills and stuffed them in one of his front shirt pockets, then tossed the wallet back to the man. “I left you 20 bucks, fella, so that you could have a good meal tonight.”
     “You are too kind, sir,” the fat man said sarcastically as he picked up his wallet.
     “I know. That’s the way my momma raised me, God rest her soul.” He then opened the gambler’s wallet and wasn’t surprised to see a large amount of cash in it. He took most of it, stuffed it in the other shirt pocket, and pitched the wallet back to him. “Left you 20 bucks, too, gambler. Shouldn’t take you long to build it back up again, the way I’m sure you cheat.” He looked at the older lady and smiled at her. “I don’t rob ladies, ma’am, though that is a nice diamond you have on your finger.”
     She tensed, then tried to huff a bit. “My dear late husband gave this to me, and I would be very appreciative if you would let me keep it.”
     “Have no intention of taking it, ma’am. I think I’d look pretty dumb with a diamond ring on my finger.”
     Then the outlaw looked at Robin. “Where you headed?”
     “None of your business.”
     He scratched his chin. “Never heard of that place. Probably over around Hole-In-The-Wall. Would you prefer going with me?”
     Robin was a little surprised at her own thoughts. The man was actually fairly nice-looking, and not the typical New Yorker’s vision of a western outlaw. Yes, actually I would like to go with you. Anything to get out of that stagecoach and delay going to Aunt Martha’s….But, of course, she said, “Drop dead. I wouldn’t go to your funeral.”
     He smiled. He has a nice smile, Robin thought. “Well, miss, I’m not rightly plannin’ on going to my funeral,” he said. “In fact, I’m not rightly sure where I’m going next, but I’d sure be proud if you’d go with me.”
     “That would be kidnapping, sir!” the fat man said.
     The robber thought about it a moment, and grinned at the drummer real big. “Yeah, it would, wouldn’t it. Unless, of course, she came along willingly.” Then he looked at Robin again. “Come on, you’re going with me.”
     “I am?”
     “Yep. And I’m ready to leave, so climb aboard.” He patted the horse’s back behind him.
     “And if I refuse?”
     “Well, I’ll just shoot the four horses up there and you’ll have to walk to wherever you’re going. Would you rather ride or walk?”
     A gasp from somebody.
     “You wouldn’t,” Robin replied.
     He shrugged. “Of course, I could miss and hit the driver. Wouldn’t that be awful? So do you want to try me?”
     And again, Robin was a little mystified by her own thoughts. No, I want to go with you…But she had to put up a front.
     Robin sighed. “Ok. No, I don’t want to try you. But I’m going to make life miserable for you.”
     He smiled. “I’m sure you will.”
     “Sir, this is pre—“ the fat man started to say.
     “You shut up, too, fatso.” Another almost grin from Robin. Wanted to say that to him, too, a few times…
     “Do you mind if I get my bag?” Robin asked the outlaw.
     “Go right ahead. Just don’t pull a gun out of it, or I’ll do the world a favor and shoot the gambler.” A sneer from the gambler.
     “You think you’re funny, don’t you, mister,” he retorted.
     “Barrel of monkeys.”
     “Well, you just better hope we never meet again.”
     “Have no desire to ever meet you again, gambler. But the thought don’t scare me none.”
     While Robin went for her stuff, there was more mumbling and grumbling. The driver and shotgun rider threatened the thief with all kinds of pursuit by the law.
     “Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’ve been after my hide for a long time and they ain’t caught me yet. I doubt they will any time soon.”
     Robin showed up again with a suitcase in her hand and a purse hung over her shoulder. “You sure you want to do this?” she asked him.
     He smiled and shrugged. “Who knows? It might be fun.”
     Robin grumbled something under her breath but came over. “Tie your stuff on with that rope and climb aboard.”
     “Sir, I plead with you, if you have any decency—“ The fat man again.
     “I don’t, so don’t waste your breath, you blowhard.”
     It only took Robin a minute to tie her stuff to the back end of the horse. “I’m wearing a dress,” she told the outlaw.
     “So you are. Pretty one, too.” She gave him a dirty look. He reached a hand down. She took it, and he pulled her up behind him. She fiddled with her skirt, pulling it up almost to her knees to be able to straddle the horse.
     The outlaw touched the brim of his hat to the rest of the people. “Nice doing business with you folks. Have a safe trip.” He started backing the horse up.
     “You’ll pay for this, sir,” the drummer said.
     “Buddy, I’m probably doing you a favor taking this lady off your hands.” He huffed and puffed.
     The robber quickly turned the horse and took off in a gallop. “Hang on,” he said to Robin. Her arms were around his waist and she was holding on for dear life. This horse is fast….
     They rode like that for about three minutes. I don’t know what this creep has in mind, but it’s got to be better than anything Aunt Martha does

     He slowed the horse down to an easy trot. They were well away from the stagecoach now and there wasn’t going to be any immediate pursuit anyway. But he saw no sense in tempting the fates.
     “What’s your name?” he finally asked Robin.
     “Robin Morrow. Yours?”
     “Robert Conners. Rob, for short. Nice to meet you.”
     “You don’t expect me to echo that sentiment, do you?”
     Conners chuckled. “No, I reckon not.”
     They went silent for a few moments, then she asked, “Why?”
     “Why what?”
     “Why did you kidnap me?”
     He hesitated. “Well, I…I…well, I…wanted you to come with me.”
     And again, “Why? Are you lonely?”
     Rob thought on that one for a moment. “Maybe. Never really thought about it. I just liked the looks of you, I guess.”
     “Am I to take that as a compliment?”
     “Only if you like men liking the looks of you.” Then, he added, “And don’t tell me you aren’t just a little relieved to get away from that bunch you were riding with in the stage.”
     If you only knew, mister…After a few moments silence, Robin asked, “Where are we going?”
     “I don’t know. You’re fixing to find out what a drifter does.”
     Wonderful. “I suppose you’re going to rape me.”
     She saw him grin. “Well, of course. Multiple times.”
     Robin detected a note of playful mockery in his voice, so she wasn’t quite sure how to take his answer. “I’ll fight you,” she responded.
     “Well, I should hope so. Rape’s no fun otherwise.”
     “Are you an expert at it?”
     He laughed out loud at that one. Robin didn’t see anything funny about the question.
     Rob said, “The first thing we’ve got to do is find you a horse.”
     “You can’t rape me until you find me a horse?”
     “Oh, get off that, will you? Ol’ Paint here is a good horse, but carrying double will tire out the best of ‘em. There’s a ranch up here aways, but it’ll be getting dark before we get there. We’ll camp out tonight and I’ll get you one tomorrow.”
     “Steal it?”
     “Good heavens, no. What do you think I am, a horse thief?”
     That stopped her. “Well, I kinda got the impression that you did occasionally take things that didn’t belong to you.”
     He grunted. “Yeah, but never a horse. A fella could get hanged for that.”
    “But not for kidnapping and rape?”
     “Yeah, but they have to catch me first.” Robin didn’t quite understand the logic of that. “Besides, all I did today was rob from thieves. That drummer and gambler both cheat people out of money, so I don’t feel a bit of remorse taking from them.”
     He had a point there, Robin had to admit. “Yeah, you should have seen that elixir that fat guy was trying to sell everybody. Cure everything from tooth decay to menstrual cramps.”
     Rob laughed. “And that gambler, all he does is rob other gamblers. They sort of just pass the money around among themselves. I don’t feel too guilty about letting them share some of it with me. In fact, I don’t feel guilty about it at all.”
     “But sometimes you rob nice people.”
     He paused, a little uneasy. “Yeah, I guess I do, although I really haven’t robbed very many people.”
     “Why? Frankly, you don’t strike me as a criminal.”
     “I kidnapped you and I’ve threatened to rape you. What does a man have to do, in your eyes, to qualify as a criminal?”
     Robin thought a moment. “I don’t know, you just don’t seem to be the type, I suppose.”
     They rode on in silence for a time. “Where were you headed?” he asked her.
     “Pretty place. What takes you there?”
     “My Aunt Martha. She’s alone now since my uncle died a few weeks ago. She and he raised me, so I’m going to go back and help take care of her in her old age.”
     “Nice of you.”
     “I’m all the family she has left.”
     “Yeah, I don’t have any, either. Cousin back in Boston, I think, not even sure any more.” A few moments of silence, then he said, “I’m sure your aunt will be happy to see you again.”
     Robin replied, “I’m sure she will.” Then added in a sarcastic tone of voice, “Once I get there.”
     Again, they were silent for awhile. They rode north, towards the mountains, actually getting nearer Whitewater. Maybe I can escape tonight, Robin thought. Then she frowned. Do I really want to do that? This guy seems nice enough…Rape or Aunt Martha? I think I’ll take rape…and she smiled at her own playfulness.
     The sun was going down behind the mountains, and it was starting to get a little chilly. “There’s a nice place to camp up here,” Conners told Robin. “Stream and everything. We’ll stop there for the night.”
     “Aren’t you afraid I might try and run off?”
     He shrugged. “Well, if you want to try…” He smiled. “That might be fun, too.”
     Robin hmph’d. Then asked, “Were you always an outlaw?”
     “I didn’t think so. What did you do before and why did you decide to become one?”
     Rob sighed. “I was a rancher. And I became an outlaw because the law wouldn’t do anything for me. So why should I do anything for them?”
     “What happened?”
     He hesitated, not wanting to go into this. But he figured she had a right to know. “I had a small place not all that far from here. 160 acres, filed, bought, it was mine. Ran a few cows, horses, pigs, chickens, had a garden.” He paused. “A wife.”
     Robin winced. She had a feeling this wasn’t going to be good.
     “There was a big rancher whose land bordered my place. Wilson Brant. Thought he ought to own the whole valley. I never bothered him, I just wanted to be left alone. He tried to buy me out, offered me peanuts for my place. But I wouldn’t have sold, regardless of the price. Julie and I were perfectly content where we were and…” He paused again. “…expecting our first child.”
     Robin grimaced big time. She knew this wasn’t going to be good now.
     Rob continued. “Brant ran off most of the other small outfits in the area, but I didn’t scare. I’m pretty good with a gun. So he decided the only way to get rid of me was to burn me out and kill all my stock. I was gone to town one day and when I got back home, the ranch house was burned to the ground. With Julie inside.”
     “Oh, no,” Robin said.
     “Yeah. Killed all my cows and horses, too. I went to the local lawman, but he was in Brant’s pocket. Everybody and his dog knew who had done it, but the sheriff said he couldn’t do anything without proof. Well, I could. I snuck over to Brant’s place that night and put a bullet between his eyes. Took care of few of his hired thugs, too. Well, nobody—who stayed alive—saw me, or at least recognized me, but the law came after me.” He snorted. “Had no proof against Brant, but couldn’t arrest him. Had no proof against me, but were going to hang me.” He glanced back at Robin. “I didn’t have much choice but to become an outlaw.”
     “How long ago was this?”
     “Six months.”
     “I’m sorry.”
     Rob’s mood went very somber, and Robin thought, And I thought Aunt Martha was bad…she’s nothing compared to what this guy has gone through…
     They stopped at a place near some trees. Robin saw that it was a nice place—level ground, the trees, a stream maybe 50 yards away. Uncle Ben had taken her camping numerous times when she was young but she hadn’t done it in many years. This brought back some memories, happy ones, but the thought that Uncle Ben had died saddened her again.
     They dismounted and started taking things off the back of the horse. “Do you mind…if I go wash up in the stream?” Robin asked him. “Do you trust me?”
     He smiled at her softly. “Go ahead. I’ll trust you. I need to take care of the horse and then I’ll build a fire and get some supper going.”
     “Ok.” She walked down to the stream. She glanced back, but couldn’t see Rob or the camp. The thought went through her mind to try to get away, but she decided against it. I should. Aunt Martha will be worried about me. I don’t want her to be worried…But he’s nice, maybe he’ll take me there tomorrow…She undressed and went into the stream. It was cold, but refreshing. She washed up, shampooed her hair, and then dried off and put on some new clothes. Warm woolen shirt, jeans, boots. She combed her hair, but it was wet, of course. Hope he’s got that fire going…
     He did, with a coffee pot sitting on it. He was cutting up some potatoes and putting them in a pot. He glanced up at Robin. “Your hair’s wet,” he said with a soft smile.
     “Oh? I hadn’t noticed.” She went over to the fire and sat next to it, warming up and brushing her hair next to it.
     “The coffee should be ready,” he told her. “That will warm you up some. I’m sorry, but all I’ve got for supper is potato and bacon stew. I need to go get some water from the stream.”
     She was curious about him. “Where did you get the water for the coffee?”
     “My canteen.”
     “You could have gotten fresh water from the stream.”
     Rob looked at her, a little puzzled. “You were over there.”
    An outlaw and a gentleman…strange combination. “Oh, yeah, I forgot,” she replied.
     He made a face, then finished cutting up the potatoes. “Hang on, I’ll be right back.”
     He got up and walked down to the stream to get some water for the stew.

     Robin watched him go. She picked up the coffee pot and poured herself a cup, thinking, examining her feelings. Mostly sad. Sad about Uncle Ben, sad about leaving some good friends back east, sad for him—Rob. Life isn’t always fair, I guess…I wonder what I would have done if I had gone through what he did…She made a face…I would have gone and killed Wilson Brant, too…become an outlaw?…There were a few female outlaws, most notably Belle Starr. I don’t think I’m cut out for that kind of life…
     She saw him coming back. He said he was going to rape me. I can’t imagine him raping anybody…
     Then she smiled to herself. But I’m going to test him…

     They started eating and were quiet for awhile. Then, just to make conversation, Rob said, “I guess you’re anxious to see your Aunt Martha.”
     “Not especially.”
     That stopped him. “Why not?”
     “I had a good job and lots of friends back east. I wanted to stay. Besides, sometimes Aunt Martha can be kind of…kind of…well, you know. Arf Arf.”
     He was amused. “Well, maybe you didn’t mind so much going with me.”
     Robin looked at him, annoyance in her eyes. “Nobody likes to be kidnapped and raped.”
     Rob went back to eating. “No, I suppose not.”
     They became silent again. Then she asked, “What are we going to do tomorrow?”
     “First thing is, get you a horse. There’s a ranch a few miles from here. I’ll buy you one there. Then I thought about going up into the mountains. I like it up there.” He grinned at her. “It crossed my mind to go to Whitewater and get a few supplies, but that might not be a very good idea. So we’ll have to find another town.”
     “You’d trust me in a town?”
     “I don’t know. I might have to tie you up outside.”
     “Joy,” Robin said sarcastically.
     “Would you like some more stew?” he asked her. “There’s a little left.”
     “No, thank you. You go ahead and finish it.”
     So he did. It was fully dark now. Rob picked up the dishes. “I’m going to go wash them, then take a bath myself. I can’t stand being dirty. Be back soon.”

     Robin watched him go again, then looked into the fire. She absentmindedly threw a couple more sticks on it to build it up a little. It was chilly. I guess I could go steal his horse and ride out of here. She smiled. That would make me a horse thief, wouldn’t it. I could get hanged for that. Right along side him for kidnapping and rape…if he was a jerk, I’d do it. Then she frowned. But then, if he was a jerk, he probably wouldn’t have left me here all by myself with a chance to steal his horse…he probably never even thought about it…
     She picked up her brush and combed her hair some more. It was dry now. She brushed it for a few minutes, then put the brush back in her purse. She spotted something and smiled. A small bottle of perfume. She shrugged, Why not? She took it out, opened it, and put a dab on both sides of her neck. I wonder if he’ll smell it…I doubt he’ll get within 20 feet of me…Here he comes…She quickly put the bottle of perfume back into her bag and closed it.
     When he got back, she was sitting by the fire, idly playing with it with a stick…

     Rob was trying to get the water out of his ears, and appeared a little frustrated by the effort. He said to Robin, “That’s where I left you.”
     “Yeah, I didn’t feel like moving. I thought about stealing your horse and riding out of here, but I couldn’t get up the energy.”
     He stopped fidgeting with my ears and gave her a peculiar look. “Hmm, I never thought of that.” Ha, Robin thought. I knew it.
     “You’re a lousy kidnapper, Conners, you know that?”
     He grinned. “It would be terrible to get hanged for something I’m terrible at. Well, I’ll have to work on it some more, I guess. You planning on taking the stage again any time soon?”
     “Very funny,” Robin replied. “If I can help it, I’m never going to ride in another stagecoach in my life.”
     “Can’t blame you for that. Too many robbers and kidnappers out there.” He went over and picked up his blanket and found a nice spot to spread it out under a tree. “Here. You can have the blanket to sleep on. It’s a good one, so you should be comfortable. I don’t scrimp on sleeping stuff.”
     “I’m not going to take your blanket,” Robin said, almost in a huff. “What would you do?”
     “I’ll go find the nearest town and get a hotel room.”
     “Hmph, leave me out here all by myself.”
     “I have a hunch you could probably take care of yourself pretty well. I’d be more frightened for the wolves and bears.”
     She “hmph’d” at that, too, but then said, reflectively, “Uncle Ben and I camped out a lot when I was younger.” She smiled, thinking back. “It was fun.”
     “It gets old.”
     “Yeah, I guess it would.”
     Neither of them said anything for a while. Robin listened to the cicadas chirp. She heard an owl ask who they were. A whippoorwill echoed the owl. Stars were coming out. The fire was low, but burning warmly. It was a lovely night.
     Then Rob yawned. “Rough day. I think I’ll turn in early.”
     “Not afraid I’ll steal your horse and run off?” Robin asked with a pixy smile.
     He grunted. “He wouldn’t take you anywhere. He’s my horse and he knows it, and he’d throw you before you got 20 yards.”
     “Oh. I guess that’s why you weren’t terribly worried about it earlier.”
     “Well, actually, I didn’t think about it.”
     He stood up and then Robin did, too. “Let’s go ahead and get it over with, ok?” she said, her voice a little sharp.
     He gave her a puzzled look. “Get what over with?”
     “Oh, come on, quit playing so innocent. You’re going to rape me. I’d prefer you get it over with.”
     Her attitude piqued him a bit. “Well, now, I’ll rape you when I’m good and ready to, and not before. You don’t need to be in such a hurry.”
     She planted her feet and put her hands on her hips. Rob had to admit, she looked good, very seductive. “Well, Mr. Kidnapper, how about doing something I want to do for a change? I want to do it now so I can get to sleep and not have to worry about you getting in heat in the middle of the night.”
     Rob replied hotly. “Well, I don’t feel like it right now, so you’re just going to have to be pa—“Then he checked himself. He chuckled and scratched the back of his head. “Um, hold on here a minute. I think we’ve got this backwards. I’m the one who’s supposed to want to and you’re the one who’s not supposed to want to.”
    Robin saw the humor in it, too, but she didn’t laugh. “Well, I didn’t say I wanted you to…” She stopped as she saw him slowly walking over to her.
     He was shaking his head. “I’m the kidnapper, so we do what I say.” He leaned down and picked her up in his arms. Robin, immediately and instinctively, put her arms around his neck. He carried her over and laid her on the blanket. He knelt down at her feet and pulled off her boots.
     “You’re sleeping on the blanket,” Rob said, “and that’s final.”
     “And where are you sleeping?” she asked him.
     He pointed across the camp. “Over there. I’ve got another blanket, I’ll be fine.” And with that, he smiled at her and stood up. “Sleep tight.” And he walked away.
     Robin frowned. He could have at least TRIED…but it was nice that he took off my boots. With a shrug, she rolled her coat up and stuck it under her head for a pillow. Then wrapping the blanket around herself, she turned on her side and tried to sleep.

     Rob had an extra blanket. It wasn’t as good as the other, but it would do. He took off his boots, and using his saddle for a pillow, lay down on his back with a sigh. He pulled the blanket over him. It was a little chilly.
     He stared up at the sky. Sleep wouldn’t come…

     Robin turned over onto her other side. No sleep…he could have at least tried to kiss me…I could have slapped him…would have served him right for kidnapping me…
     I would have slapped him right after he finished kissing me

     Rob was staring up at the sky. Thinking. I wonder what she would have done if I had tried to kiss her…He made a wry face…Probably slapped me…

     Robin rolled again. He didn’t even try to shake my hand…

     Rob sighed again. Why did I take her? I should have just ridden off and left her with the stagecoach. Then, he frowned. She sure is pretty, though. A smile. Kinda feisty, but I guess I would be, too, if somebody kidnapped me…

     He’s really a nice man. It’s so sad what happened to him. He’s no outlaw…Then, I wish he’d come over here…I don’t want him to make love to me, I just…want him to come over here…

     Rob was flustered. I want to go over there. I wonder what she’d do if I did. Probably bite my head off…

     Robin was flustered. Don’t just lay there, you loghead, come over here…

     Rob was flustered some more. I wonder what she’d do…Then, he shrugged. Only one way to find out…He stood up…

     Robin could see him. What’s he doing? Oh, he’s coming this way. He better not…he better…not stop and go back

     Rob walked over with his blanket and spread it out next to Robin. She started to ask what he was doing, but she didn’t. She just watched him. He lay down right next to her. She was lying on her left side, he on his right, no more than a foot apart. They stared at each other, eyes searching…
     “What are you doing?” she finally asked him.
     “Watching you. Making sure you don’t try to escape.”
     “Oh. Good idea. I was thinking about it.” Not

     For a good thirty minutes, neither of them said a word. They just…stared at each other, trying to read one another’s eyes. She’s beautiful…

     He’s different…and handsome…and he’s really very kind…

     She reminds me of my Julie…The wind softly blew a strand of Robin’s dark hair over her eyes. Rob gently reached up and pushed it back. She just…stared at him.

    Finally, he reached over and pulled her to him. She didn’t resist, and curled up against his chest. He’s different…so different…I don’t know how I know that, but I know that he is…

     Rob was a little melancholy as he stroked Robin’s hair. I found Julie. She was…beyond wonderful. I never thought I’d ever find anybody like her again…but… he was flustered, flustered, flustered…how do I know about this woman? I’ve barely met her…
     I just know…she’s…she’s…there’s nobody like her…I just know
     They fell asleep.

     The middle of the night, who knew what time it was? Rob woke up, but kept his eyes closed. He sensed something strange…he opened his eyes…
     Robin was staring at him…
     For thirty minutes....they stared at each other…
     Then they fell asleep.

     The first light of dawn. Robin awoke. Opened her eyes. He was staring at her…She smiled. “Will you quit looking at me?”
     He didn’t smile back. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. Why would I ever want to look at anything else?”
     And Robin’s heart turned a flip…

     They got up when it was fully light. Robin was despondent. It had nothing to do with Rob. She had actually wanted to go with him, had enjoyed being with him, and, as strange as it had been, the previous night had been absolutely wonderful. How can I fall for a man just by staring at him…and him at me…? She knew, though, she just knew…I’ve never met anybody like him…will I ever again?…
     But…she had a strong sense of responsibility, drilled into her by her late Uncle Ben. And while she was angry at the world yesterday—the stagecoach, the idiots in it, having to leave her friends back home, her dislike for her Aunt Martha—she realized now that she needed to go and be with her aunt. That was what she needed to do, but she wasn’t quite sure how to bring it up to Rob.

     He could tell something was wrong, however, as they loaded everything up onto Ol’ Paint, his horse. Robin wouldn’t look at him, so Rob feared that she had regretted the previous night. I should have stayed on my side of the camp…but it was so…beautiful…SHE’S so beautiful…He figured he’d better get it out into the open.
     “Ok,” he said, just as they were fixing to mount. “Out with it. Tell me.”
     She still wouldn’t look at him. “I…it’s…” She appeared almost to be in agony. “Rob, I need to go home. To my aunt’s. She needs me. I just…need to be with her.”
     He looked down at her. He knew what she was saying was true, and that it was totally unfair of him to take her from her life. He had “kidnapped” her on a whim; she was pretty, he had wanted some company, it was, frankly, a totally selfish and stupid thing to do. Which, of course, was pretty much the way he had been living his life since he had been on the run from the law. He didn’t want her to go, but he knew he had to let her go.
     So he said, “Ok, Robin. Let’s go get you a horse and I’ll make sure you get safely to your aunt’s place.”
     She looked up at him then. “But…I thought you wanted me to go with you. You kidnapped me, remember? We haven’t even been gone a day yet.”
     “I know. But you’re right. You need to be with her, not me, and I’m going to see that you get there.”
     He put a finger over her lips in the classic “no talking” gesture. And then he chuckled. “Here we go again. Last night, we argue over the rape thing. Now we are arguing over me kidnapping you. I want to let you go; you are arguing about staying.” She smiled softly. “I’m going to do the right thing, Robin. But I’ll tell you this.” He put his hand under her chin and lifted her face to look at him. Their eyes met, and he said tenderly, “I have never in my life had a more wonderful night than I had last night. It was so…strange, but I’ll never forget it. I shouldn’t have kidnapped you, but I’m glad I did.”
     Her eyes searched his as if seeking confirmation of what he said. He never even kissed me, but…it was so beautiful…Rob thought he saw the beginning of tears forming in her eyes, but then she dropped her head and he wasn’t sure. “Thank you,” she said softly. “It was the most beautiful night I’ve ever experienced, too.” Then she looked back up at him, and indeed, there were tears in her eyes. She smiled softly, “Even if I wasn’t raped.”
     Rob couldn’t help but laugh at that. “I knew had something planned that I forgot to do,” and she laughed softly, too. Then, a little forlorn, Rob dropped his head, not wanting the moment to end, but knowing that it had to. “Come on, let’s go get you a horse.”
     Robin nodded, not wanting it to end, either. Why does he have to be an outlaw?…
     Rob helped her up onto the back of Ol’ Paint, and she protested, “I can’t let you buy me a horse.”
     He smiled at her as he mounted. “I’ll steal one then.”
     “Ooohhw,” she replied.
     “You need a horse. We’re a good 20 miles from Whitewater and I don’t want us riding Ol’ Paint double that long.”
     Robin started to protest, but only said, “Ok, I can understand that. But do you have enough money?”
     He smiled again. “That drummer and gambler did.” She laughed softly.
     The ranch was only about three miles from where they had camped and it wasn’t much out of the way to Whitewater. They topped a rise and could see it spread out nicely in the valley below. There was a big corral with a lot of horses. “Come on, let’s go get you one that you want.”
     The owner was more than happy to sell them whichever horse they wanted, though he tried to pawn a deadbeat off on them. But Rob and Robin were both too horse-wise to let him do it. Or maybe it was something else.
     “I don’t like that color,” Robin said. It was a gray gelding. “Too fat anyway.” That was true, and a good insight.
     Robin happily stood on the corral fence looking at about 50 horses. Some were stationary, some were running around, some were tossing their heads, showing off, as if trying to tell her “I’m the best, choose me.”
     “Do you see one you like?” Rob asked her.
     “Oh, they are all so beautiful,” she said. “It’s hard to choose.”
     “Well, pick out two or three and we’ll narrow it down from there.”
     “Ok. Hmmmm…I like that one…” she said, pointing, “…and that one…and that one…” The owner had a couple of his men lasso the chosen ones and bring them over.
     “Which one do you like the best?”
     She went up to each of them. “How much riding experience have you had?” the owner asked her.
     “I grew up on a horse,” she said. Her Uncle Ben and Aunt Martha had had a ranch and thus a lot of horses, so she’d spent a lot of time riding when she was young. Not so much back east, though.
     All three of the horses seemed to take to her. “Tell me about each one,” she asked the owner, and he did. She had picked out a strawberry red bay, a black gelding with three white stockings, and a spotted black and white Palomino.
     “That bay is three years old, and he’s a bit feisty. That’s why I asked if you knew how to ride. He might take some gettin’ used to. That gelding is about three, too, and he’s mighty gentle. The Palomino is two years old, good horse, best of the three in my ‘pinion.”
     Robin looked at Rob. She knew he knew something about horses, and of course, he’d been inspecting them as well. “Which one do you like the best?” he asked her. “They all three look like good horses.”
     “Which do you think is the best?”
     Rob examined them up and down, even the teeth. “’Course, none of ‘em are gonna come cheap,” the owner said. Then his eyes narrowed suspiciously. “By the way, there’s been talk of a stage robbery and kidnappin’ yestiddy down the road aways. Robber took a pound of money and a nice-lookin’ dark-haired female. Only one hoss.”
     Robin didn’t wait for Rob to speak up. “Are you trying to imply something?”
     “No, I’m just repeatin’ what I heard, and frankly, you two do fit the description. One hoss, good-lookin’ woman…” he left it hanging.
     Robin went back to scrutinizing the horses. “Do I act like I’ve been kidnapped?”
     “Well, no.”
     Rob spoke up, checking the Palomino’s hooves. “We lost her horse when he hit a rabbit hole yesterday. I hate to lose horses that way, but it happens.”
     “Yeah, that’s too bad.” The owner was apparently satisfied. Either that, or didn’t want to push the matter and maybe lose a sale.
     Rob glanced at Robin. “You decided yet?” he asked her.
     “Ooohhw,” she said. “I want them all.”
     He laughed. “I’m only going to buy you one of them. Which one do you like the best? They are all good.”
     She sighed. “The Palomino. She’s the youngest. And I like her coloring.”
     Rob nodded. “I think she’s the best of the lot, too.” He asked the owner. “How much?”
     He rubbed his jaw. “Well, again, she’s a mighty fine hoss.”
     “Cut the sales pitch and give me a price.”
     Robin’s eyes got big. She thought that was way too much. It was a little pricey, but not extravagant for a real good horse. And the Palomino fit that description. “Throw in a good saddle and blanket and you’ve got a deal.”
     “Done.” He held out his hand and they shook. “I’ll get you a bill of sale, too.”
     “Yeah. Thanks. I was going to ask you.”
     He yelled at one of his men. “Sid, go get that new saddle, bags, and blanket and come put it here on the Palomino.” Then to Rob, “Hang on. I’ll go into the house and write up that bill of sale.”
     He left and Robin looked at Rob. “Rob, that’s too much, isn’t it?”
     Rob smiled at her. “Not really. It’s a little high, but she’s only two and if you take care of her, she should be good for a long time. Plus a new saddle isn’t necessarily cheap, either. I’m happy with it.”
     “Do you have that much?”
     He gave her a wry smile. “You know, I never did count up all the money I ended up with yesterday.” He took both wads out of his pockets and quickly added it up. “Not a bad day’s work,” he said. “$1,450. That’ll buy a lot of booze and women.” He grinned.
     She grunted. “Sounds like you’re going to have a good time.” Then she said, “Thank you. You really shouldn’t buy me this horse, though. I still think she’s too expensive.”
     He smiled again at her. “I want you to have the best. Besides, it’s the least I could do for kidnapping and not raping you.”
     She started to say something, but Sid showed up right then with the blanket, saddle, and saddle bags. They were indeed new and looked solid. Rob nodded. “Good stuff,” he said.
     “You got you a good hoss, miss,” Sid said. “Woulda been my pick of the whole litter. Gonna hate to see her go.”
     The owner brought out a bill of sale, Rob gave him $400, Robin and he mounted, and off they went. The Palomino wanted to run a little, so Robin turned her loose and Rob followed on Ol’ Paint, who seemed like he wanted to stretch his legs, too. Robin’s Palomino was fast, and Ol’ Paint had trouble keeping up with her and he wasn’t no slowpoke. After about three miles, they slowed the horses down and settled them into a steady trot. Neither horse seemed the least bit winded.
     “Wheee, that was fun,” Robin said. “I haven’t done that in a long time. She’s easy to ride, too.”
     “Good. What are you going to name her?”
     She thought for a moment, then smiled a little wistfully. “I think I’ll name her Roberta.”
     Rob smiled in return. “Nice name.”
     They rode slowly, talking and laughing. Finally, they topped a hill and there below them lay Whitewater. It was a lovely setting. Long, narrow green valley, running east and west, with huge, pine-covered mountains behind it. The town got its name from the narrow river that came out of the mountains and ran about a quarter mile east of the town. Home to Aunt Martha. And Robin now.
     They both knew it was time. They glanced at each other, then looked away, neither one of them, at the moment, able to make the direct eye link.
     “Well, Aunt Martha is waiting,” he said.
     Robin gave a wan smile. “Yeah. Not sure yet what I’m going to tell her.”
     "Well, you were kidnapped. Raped four times.”
     “I don’t recall any of that happening.”
     Rob smiled softly.
     Robin said, “The kidnapping I’m sure she knows about. In fact, you probably need to be careful, there may be a posse out looking for you.”
     “Yeah, that’s possible. I’ll keep an eye out.”
     “I’ll have to think of something to tell Aunt Martha about how I got away and got this horse.”
     He shrugged. “You banged me on the noggin when I wasn’t looking and stole mine.”
     She made a face. “Kinda fishy, but it might work.” She sighed and glanced at Rob again. “Well, I guess I better go.” She paused. “Can…I ask you to do one more thing?”
     “I’ll do anything for you.”
     She closed her eyes as if fighting back tears. She didn’t open them, but said, “Please stop being an outlaw. You aren’t one and you aren’t any good at it.” Then she opened her eyes and tried to smile. “You can’t even kidnap and rape correctly.”
     Rob smiled sadly. “Ok,” is all he said.
     “Promise me you’ll stop.”
     Their eyes held again, and he nodded. “I promise. No more outlaw. But I still might end up in jail for what I’ve done.”
     “I know. But at least I’ll know you won’t do it again.”
     “I hope you’ll think of me occasionally.”
     “I will.” Then she looked down toward Whitewater. “I need to go.”
     “Yeah.” Their eyes met again. “I won’t forget you, you know.”
     “I won’t forget you, either.” She gave him a sad smile. “Be careful non-outlaw.”
     He smiled back. “I will.” He leaned over; she watched him, then closed her eyes as his lips met hers. He held it for several seconds. Please don’t break it, Rob…please never break it…
     But he did. He turned his head, not wanting to look at her because of the ache in his heart. “Get going.”
     She sighed, not wanting to leave, but nodded. Without looking at him again, she said, “Bye.”
     She walked Roberta down the hill towards the town. Rob watched her for a few minutes. Robin never turned around and looked so he finally kneed Ol’ Paint and they headed back the way they had come. I wonder if I’ll ever see her again. I guess not…
     But he was wrong—about her not looking back, that is. About 10 seconds after Rob had gone, Robin did turn back and look. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again. I guess not…
     And with supreme sadness filling each heart, Rob Conners and Robin Morrow rode in opposite directions…


Chapter One—Back Home

     Aunt Martha had moved into town after the death of Uncle Ben. With her mind still on Rob Conners, Robin stopped her horse in front of the house and tied it down to the picket fence. It was the first time she had seen the house, of course. It was small, and white framed, painted with light blue trim, with a swing on the front porch and some flowers lining the walkway to the single stair up to the porch and front door. It was going to be Robin’s home and she liked her first view of it.
     Aunt Martha came running out of the house when she saw Robin. She was almost hysterical with worry, so Robin knew she had made the correct decision in leaving Rob—hard as it was.
     “Oh, you poor, poor child!” Aunt Martha said, hugging Robin tightly, tears streaming down her cheeks. Wow, this isn’t the Aunt Martha I remember. “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”
     “No, Aunt Martha, he didn’t hurt me. In fact, he was actually very nice. When I told him the situation with you and…Uncle Ben…I guess…well, I guess he had a pang of conscience and decided to let me come home to you.” She smiled. “He even bought me that horse.”
     “Oh, I’m so glad you’re safe. Are you sure he didn’t hurt you? The sheriff is out looking for you—him—right now and if he hurt you…”
     “No, Aunt Martha, he didn’t hurt me at all.”
     “Well, I’m so glad. You come into this house this instant. You are as skinny as a rail. Your Aunt Martha is going to have to fatten you up.”
     Oh, joy. “Thank you, Aunt Martha.”
     Aunt Martha had sold the ranch almost immediately after Uncle Ben had died. “It was much too much for me. So I got a very good deal and bought this house in town.”
     She had told her niece, in her last wire, that she now lived in town, so Robin had stopped and asked where. Whitewater had grown quite a bit since she’d last been there. It had a population of about 2,000, which included the surrounding area. There was ranching in the valley and some mining interests in the mountains. There was talk of the railroad coming through, but it hadn’t made it yet. That would help town growth more.
     Inside, the house was small, cozy, and comfortable. Two bedrooms, a kitchen, and living room with a fireplace against the left wall. Besides the pleasant front yard, there was a stable in the back where Robin could keep Roberta. The whole thing was tidy, just like Aunt Martha had always been.
     After making sure for the tenth time that her niece was all right, Aunt Martha caught Robin up on all the local gossip—who had died, who had married, who had left town, and so forth. Some of that was interesting to Robin because she remembered a lot of those people, in fact, some of them had been her friends whom she had lost track of over the years. She chuckled at a few of the “she married hims”. Oh, that poor girl, to get stuck with that jerk…you can’t be serious! THEY got married?…wow
     “Oh,” Aunt Martha said, “There is the cutest, sweetest man that I want you to meet. He works with the mining company here and he’s such a doll. I’ve told him about you and I know he’s dying to meet you. His name is Len Kramer….”
     Robin mentally rolled her eyes. Aunt Martha was the matchmaking type, though she had always thought her niece was a little too young for boys when she was living in Whitewater. Robin hadn’t thought so once she hit about 14 or 15, and the boys hadn’t, either. She thought of Rob and felt a pang, but she also thought that, since she had known him for such a short time, that the feelings weren’t too deep and would go away soon. At least she hoped so. Maybe some of the local male clientele could help with that.
     But even as Aunt Martha talked on and on, Robin listened with only one ear. It wasn’t that easy to shake the overpowering feelings that had come upon her since last night. They were still with her, strongly with her.
     And when she went to bed that night, sleep didn’t come that easily. I wonder where he is…what he’s doing…where he’ll go…I’ve got to forget him, that’s all there is to it…

     Over the next few days, Robin settled in nicely. Aunt Martha had changed, mellowed, and seemingly quite a bit. She could still be a little bossy and obnoxious, but Robin was older now and perhaps able to deal with it better. Robin did what she could to keep the peace. She wasn’t going to fight her aunt, and wanted to make her last years as comfortable and pleasant as possible. Robin was old enough and mature enough to accept her aunt’s faults and foibles—at least, she hoped she was. And, she thought, maybe Aunt Martha hasn’t changed at all; maybe it’s me who’s changed, and she came to the conclusion that that was probably the case.
     Yes, she still thought about him, but there were distractions now.
     A little more about Whitewater. As noted, it was a mining/ranching/farming community of about 2,000 people, which included the rural ranching and farming people, plus the miners who lived in barracks up the mountain. The town ran east-west at the eastern end a long, narrow valley. The terrain opened up about a half mile west of town into open range grassland for farmers and ranchers. There were high, pine covered mountains to the northeast and north that sloped down to the valley west of town. Lesser, but still formidable hills to the south bordered the open range grasslands as far as the eye could see. If the railroad came through, the town could grow to be a fairly large size, but most of that growth would have to be east, for reasons noted in a moment. Whitewater, like most western towns, was laid out in a grid, with one long street down the middle—Main Street—but with several cross streets. Given the nature of the terrain, the town was rectangular. And, being partly a mining town, it had its share of male riff-raff; miners were not the salt of the earth by any stretch of the imagination. So, to accommodate that, much of the northwestern part of the town had been given over to saloons and brothels, and the town fathers were determined to keep that element bottled up there. That was why any residential growth would be east. There was a little room north and south, but not much because of the mountains and hills. Whitewater, if it grew, would spread east, across the Whitewater River which meandered northwest to southeast near the current city limit, no more than a quarter mile away from the town’s eastern edge. It wasn’t much of a “river,” more of a stream, maybe 60 feet wide and 5 feet at its deepest, though it could get deeper in spring when the mountain snows started melting. But it wasn’t the Mississippi by any means.
     Uncle Ben had been a rancher, not a big one, but enough so that, when he died and Aunt Martha sold out, she had a very comfortable retirement in town. She intended to supplement her income with a little part-time dress making for a local clothier, but nothing major. Robin had been a little surprised to hear about the mining business that had begun; that was very new, within the last two years, and thus the over-abundance of saloons and brothels were recent as well. But so far, that “element” had stayed in its place and not created too many headaches for local law enforcement. But it wasn’t terribly uncommon to hear of a shooting or stabbing death in the “Miner’s Corner,” as everyone called that section of Whitewater. Aunt Martha strongly cautioned Robin to stay away from there, a warning that her niece didn’t need.
     So Whitewater, overall was a nice town, slowly growing, in a beautiful part of the country. But it had one serious, serious problem. A dangerous and potentially deadly one.
     The mining industry…

     Aunt Martha’s new home was in the southeastern section of the rectangle, where a substantial portion of the populace lived. Whitewater had recently built a new school building, right at the edge of the city limit in the northeastern quadrant, and that was where Robin would work. The town had grown sufficiently enough to need several teachers now, for the younger kids, and for the older. Robin got one section of the younger children and she preferred that. She arrived in Whitewater right near the end of the school year in May, so she only got to meet with the children for a few days. Thus, she was fixing to have the entire summer off since school wouldn’t start again till September. She was on a 9-month contract, but her pay was spread out over 12 months. But she wouldn’t start getting paid till she started working in September, so she thought about maybe trying to get some work in the summer, and intended to pursue it.
     Since Whitewater was a little off the beaten path and the railroad hadn’t come through yet, the town had to provide its own entertainment. And actually, it did a pretty good job. There was the ubiquitous monthly dance, but there were also ice cream socials, church functions and potlucks, ladies and gents’ social clubs, various local intramural sporting events, a small group of amateur musicians who performed frequently and were pretty good, a small performing arts cast who put on plays periodically, and the occasional traveling professional troupe or circus that came through town. There was plenty of hunting and fishing for those who wanted to do that. Of course, in a farming/ranching/mining community—and especially in the summer—a lot of people worked sunup to sundown getting crops, etc. in. Yet those who serviced them, the townspeople who owned and operated the various shops, had a little more time on their hands thus the various social functions were a welcome diversion.
     Robin renewed acquaintances with several old friends from days of yore, but nearly all were married now and had two or three kids, several of whom would be in her class. Some of her friends had moved away—as she had—but there were enough left to remind her of some fun times and so that she wouldn’t have to start building friendships from scratch. Susan Markum—well, she had been Susan Hightower when Robin lived in Whitewater before—had been Robin’s best friend and she was still in town, but had obviously married. A rich rancher named Frank Markum. Some girls have all the luck…The Markums didn’t have any children yet.
     As noted, Aunt Martha had wanted her to meet a man named Len Kramer, who was fairly new to Whitewater. He was one of the managing partners of the Kilmer Mining Company, the business interest working the mines in the mountains just north of town. About a week after she arrived in Whitewater, Robin and Aunt Martha were in a local grocery store when Len came in.
     “Oh, come along, Robin, there’s Len Kramer. I want you to meet him. He’s a doll.” Then she called out, “Len! Oh, Len!”
     Robin grimaced. She didn’t mind meeting men, of course, but usually preferred to do it on her own terms. Yet there was nothing for it now. Len looked over, saw Aunt Martha, and they went towards each other. Robin tagged along behind her aunt.
     “Len,” Aunt Martha said, “This is my niece, Robin Morrow. Robin, this is Len Kramer. He’s the Vice-President of the largest mining company in town.” Emphasis on “Vice-President” and “largest.” Actually, it was the only one, but that wouldn’t have sounded quite so good.
     Well, Aunt Martha was right about one thing—he was certainly a doll. Thick, light brown hair and eyes, tanned, strong chin, nicely proportioned nose and mouth. About 5’10 or so, and trimly built. He had a nice smile.
     “Pleased to meet you,” he said with a smile. He waited for Robin to hold out her hand, which she thought was appropriate. She did, and he shook it, firmly, though he didn’t try to squeeze her fingers off.
     “You, too.”
     “You’ve just moved from back east to teach at our school, Mrs. Morrow tells me.”
     “Yes. I used to live here, went to school and worked in New York, but when Uncle Ben died, Aunt Martha asked me to move back, so I did.”
     “Well, that was very dutiful of you. I’m sure she appreciates it very much and I’m confident that the town has got a good new teacher. My condolences on your Uncle Ben. He was a fine man, one of the best.”
     “Thank you, and yes, he was.”
     Aunt Martha was beaming, but there was no electricity passing between Robin and Len Kramer. He was handsome and he seemed nice enough, but he wasn’t ogling Robin or giving any indication of any overt interest. Just meeting someone new. But Aunt Martha already had the wedding planned.
     “Len, you simply must come over for dinner some night. Robin is an excellent cook and sh—we’d enjoy your company. Say this Friday night?”
     Robin winced, and Len noticed. He smiled his understanding and even gave her a wink. “I…don’t think I’ll be able to make it this Friday evening, Mrs. Morrow, although I certainly appreciate the invitation and love good cooking. Perhaps we can make it for another time.”
     Fortunately, Aunt Martha left it at that. “Well, that’s disappointing, but I’ll expect you soon.”
     He was very diplomatic, and Robin liked him for that. He looked at her. “I certainly enjoyed making your acquaintance, but I’m on a quick lunch break and need to pick up a few things. I’m sure I’ll see you again sometime.” And he smiled again.
     “Yes, it was nice to meet you, too. Bye.”
     When he walked away, Aunt Martha whispered to Robin, “Isn’t he a dreamboat? And such a gentleman, too.”
     “Yes, he was very nice,” Robin said. And that was that.
     As aunt and niece rode home, Aunt Martha talked on and on about how wonderful Len was. Robin frowned. Her mind was still on somebody else…I wonder where he is…

Chapter Two—The Death of Rob Conners

     It wasn’t too long afterwards that Robin got a semi-answer to her wondering about Rob.
     Communication was still relatively slow in many places in the west at that time, but occasionally interesting news could travel very rapidly. And something very interesting—especially to Robin—hit Whitewater.
     It was a Thursday. Robin was having lunch at a local diner with a man she had met the day before whose name was Cameron Collins. Cameron was the foreman for a local ranch, the XQ Limited, or XQL, as it was called, and he was a rugged, outdoors, cowboy type. Yet very poised and polished. He had raven black hair, that had darling curls in it with a little graying at the temples, and his green eyes were deep, intelligent, and yet kind and could laugh at the drop of a hat. His face and hands showed some years of hard outdoor living, but he was still very handsome in his own, rugged, masculine way. Probably early-40s. He’d lost a wife to cholera several years before, but he did have a teen-aged son who worked at the XQL as well. Robin had found him attractive right off, and even though sparks hadn’t flown here, either, the burner had started a little higher than it had with Len.
     “I knew your Uncle Ben well,” Cameron was telling her as they were eating. “Finer man never walked the face of the earth.”
     “Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say so. I thought he was a wonderful uncle.” She made a face. “I’ve always wondered how he got stuck with my Aunt Martha, though.”
     Cameron laughed, a deep, throaty laugh. “Now that’s a naughty thing to say, but honestly, there’s been many of us wonder the same thing, Robin. Love is blind, I suppose. But she does have her good qualities, just a bit of a temper, and she and Ben seemed to have done a good job of raising you.”
     “I suppose so…”
     It was at that moment that an old timer came into the restaurant and sat down at the counter. Robin didn’t pay any notice to him, but his voice was loud and carried, and she and Cameron were sitting at a table nearby.
     “Hey, Rolly,” the old timer said to somebody a couple seats from him. “Did’ja hear ‘bout that shootout between Rip Slade and Rob Conners up to Dry Gulch t’other day? Man, that musta been sumpin’!”
     Robin immediately stiffened and her stomach turned to ice. Rob? In a shootout? Oh, no…
     “Naw, didn’t hear a thang about it. What happened? Slade buried ‘im, I’ll bet. Greased lightenin’ with a gun.”
     Robin had a sick expression on her face and Cameron noticed. “Is something wrong?” he asked her.
     She gave him a wan smile. “No, I just…feel a little queasy at the moment…”
     Cameron said something else, but she wasn’t listening.
     “That’s what I’da figgered, too,” the old timer said. “But word is, he barely cleared leather and Conners drilled him right ‘twixt the eyes. Then, the sheriff tried to arrest ‘im and hold him fer trial, but Conners decked him, then hopped on his horse and high-tailed it outta town ‘fore the sheriff could git up and grab ‘im. Great stuff, I tell ye.”
     Robin sighed with relief. But what is Rob doing getting in a shootout with a killer like Rip Slade?
     Rolly asked pretty much the same question. “How’d all that start?”
     “Rumor is that Slade begun it. Lost some money at poker and was lookin’ t’ take it out on somebody. Slade started a fight, and Conners ended it. I knew Conners was good with a gun, but, man, outdrawin’ Slade…that’s really fast.”
     “An’ Slade hardly cleared leather. That is sumpin’.”
     “Yeah, an’ Slade even grabbed iron first, is what the story says. Conners standin’ there, then alla sudden, gun’s in his hands. Slicker’n snot an’ faster’n a rattler. I’da give a month’s wages to see Slade get it. He was a skunk if’n there ever was one…”
     Robin quit listening because Cameron was asking her something. “I’m sorry,” she said. “What were you asking?”
     “I was just wanted to make sure you were ok. You really did look ill for a moment.”
     “Well, no, to be honest, I was listening to that man at the counter tell about the shootout between Rob Conners and that Slade fellow. Rob…Conners was the man who kidnapped me just outside of Whitewater on my way here.”
     Cameron’s eyebrows went up. “Yeah, I heard something about you being kidnapped, but I didn’t know it was Conners.”
     “Yes. He was really kind of…nice. When I told him about Uncle Ben and how I was coming to live with Aunt Martha, he let me go. Even bought me a horse.”
     Cameron shook his head. “Never can tell what an outlaw will do, although I’ll tell you something, Rob Conners did the world a favor when he put a bullet in Wil Brant. That man was pure poison. Should have given Conners a medal, but made an outlaw out of him instead. What did Judd say, I wasn’t listening.” He was referring to the old timer who had told the story about the shooting in Dry Gulch.
     “He said Slade provoked Conners into a fight and that Conners outdrew him and killed him.”
     Cameron whistled softly. “Slade was mean and almighty fast with a gun. If Conners beat him then he’s fast, plenty fast, because Slade had the reputation of making greased lightening look slow. I don’t even think Ben Thompson or Hardin or Earp would have wanted to tangle with him.” He shook his head again. “Well, maybe Conners can go around and clean this country of sidewinders.” He looked at Robin. “Not very nice kidnapping you, though.”
     “I think he was just lonely and wanted some company. He told me Wilson Brant had killed his wife several months ago.”
     “Yeah, sent Conners over the edge, I reckon. Men have tipped for a lot less of a reason than that.”
     “Did you ever meet him?”
     “No, he was a small rancher. Never heard of him till we got the word he had plugged Brant. Believe me, there were a lot of people wanting to raise a statue of him. And they’ll want to give him a second one for drilling Slade.” He spoke to the old timer. “Hey, Judd. Where’d you hear that story about Conners and Slade?”
     “Stage just come through. Some fancy pants Yankee newspaper fella from back east was all in a huff ‘cuz’n he was up in Dry Gulch and thinks we ain’t civilized out here. Billy Walters, the Jehu, confirmed it. Saw it all, he says. Never seen anybody move as fast as Conners, fact, said he never even saw Conners move. Jest standin’ there with his hand by his gun, then boom, hole in Slade’s head. Given a month’s wages to see that, I would,” he repeated.
     “Yeah, that would have been a good one. Never knew Conners was that fast.”
     “Reckon Slade didn’t, either. From all indication, he didn’t even know who he was dealin’ with.”
     “What did Conners do?”
     “Lit a shuck outta town’s what Billy said. He’s wanted down in these parts and the sheriff up there musta knowed it, though I doubt that buffoon in Dry Gulch’d know his own mother if’n he saw her.” Judd looked at Robin and narrowed his eyes. “Ain’t you the filly that Conners kidnapped?”
     “Yes,” Robin responded. “He is a very nice man, actually. He has no business being an outlaw.”
     “Mebbe not, but he’s still got a hangin’ rope comin’ if’n the law ever catches him.”
     Robin looked at Cameron. “Isn’t there some kind of, oh, I don’t know, extenuating circumstances or something? I mean, Brant killed his wife, and Rob told me that she was expecting their first child.”
     Cameron Collins winced at that. “Hadn’t heard about the child. That’s rough. I don’t really know what could be done, Robin. There’s no real proof that Brant burnt him out.”
     “Is there any real proof that Rob killed Brant?”
     “Well, nobody saw him do it, but they were fixing to railroad Conners into a noose.”
     “Some justice. Brant steals everybody’s land, murders people, but the law won’t do anything about it. Except railroad an innocent man. And then turn him into an outlaw. What other choice did he have?” Robin was incensed.
     Nobody had anything to say to that because there was really nothing to say. And nobody looked at her, either.
     “Well, it’s far from a perfect system we have,” Cameron commented, rather lamely, “but it’s the best we’ve got at the moment.”
     Robin felt despondent. Hearing about Rob tended to arouse the feelings she had developed for him when they were together. She had never totally lost them, but she had become pretty resigned to the idea that she’d never see him again. Now, to hear about this…and the injustice of it all…She tried to put it out of her mind and concentrate on her lunch with Cameron Collins.
     But it was hard. I wonder where he is now…a “wonder” she had frequently…
     Well, she found out soon enough.

     Two days later, Saturday, in the afternoon, an anguished Cameron Collins knocked on Aunt Martha’s front door. Martha answered it, and Cameron asked if Robin was there.
     “Yes, Mr. Collins,” Aunt Martha said. “Come in and I’ll fetch her. She’s out back with her horse.”
     A few moments later Robin came into the room. Cameron was standing there with his hat in his hands. Robin said hi, and smiled, until she saw the look on his face. One of pure angst. “Is something wrong, Cameron?”
     “Well, mebbe, mebbe not, but I don’t really want to be the one to tell you.”
     Robin felt her stomach knot up. It’s about Rob, I know it is…“Tell me what?”
     Cameron sighed. “Another report came from up north. Seems as though yesterday Rob Conners robbed a stagecoach not far from Dry Gulch. Killed a lady passenger. Sheriff got up a posse, chased him, and shot him, and Conners fell over a high cliff. By the time they got down to him, and it took a couple hours, the coyotes and buzzards had gotten to him and he was hardly recognizable. Rocks made a pretty good mess of him, too, when he hit.” Cameron was agonized. “I’m sorry, I know you thought he was a nice feller, but he musta just snapped when his wife was killed.”
     Robin was staggered. It took a moment for it to sink in. Rob? It can’t be. He promised me…and he wouldn’t kill…never…she sat down, a dazed expression on her face. “How…how do they know it was Rob?” she said quietly.
     “He announced it when he robbed the stage. Apparently, he was wearing a mask, but he shot the lady and shouted, ‘I’m better than Rip Slade and nobody can stop me, Rob Conners!’ Or somethin’ like that. Then he took off, laughing like a hyena, witnesses said.” Cameron shook his head. “Everything that’s happened to him lately must have finally driven him over the edge.”
     Robin was still sitting, her eyes open, but not seeing anything. It was so…unreal. That didn’t sound like the Rob she had met, not at all. Then she closed her eyes. Well, I knew him less than 24 hours…but he was so…tender…kind…she dropped her head as another word came to mind…loving…Tears formed in her eyes, but she shook them off. I guess Cameron is right. He was under so much pressure lately. I shouldn’t have left him. Maybe I could have helped. Maybe he was reaching out to me…to somebody…for help…Well, it’s over now…I guess that’s for the best…it could never be between us…
     Still not looking up, she said, “Thank you for coming by and telling me, Cameron. I do appreciate it.”
     Cameron replied, “I’m sorry, Robin.” He couldn’t think of anything else to say, so he turned and left.
     Aunt Martha, who was as nosey as an aardvark, came into the living room after Cameron left and asked, “What was that all about?”
     Robin was still sitting on the couch with her head down. She took a deep breath. “Rob Conners, the man who kidnapped me on the way here, was killed up north yesterday. Robbed another stage, killed somebody, and the sheriff tracked him down and shot him.”
     “Well, good,” Aunt Martha said. “A no-good man like that who would kidnap women and kill people isn’t fit to live on God’s earth.” And she turned and went back to the kitchen, her head up in righteous Puritanism as if she had been the one who had passed the sentence and done the executing.
     “I guess so,” Robin said, looking down at her hands in her lap. Then she got up, went into her bedroom, lay down on her bed, and cried.

Chapter Three—Robin Forgets to Duck

     Robin’s life went on, of course, and she was beginning to make friends. And, as noted earlier, some of her old friends were still in Whitewater, though they were all married now and nearly all of them had children. Still, she knew a lot of people, though there were many more she didn’t. Because of the mining company now operating in town, Whitewater had almost twice the population it had had when she had left several years before, so there were lots of new faces.
     The night Cameron came by with the news of Rob’s death, an ice cream supper was scheduled at Whitewater Park, on the river just beyond the bridge that spanned it. It was an informal thing, and one of the local music groups was going to be playing for entertainment. Robin didn’t especially feel like going, but she had promised Allie Kirk, one of her best friends of many years ago, that she would, so after a light supper around 5, she mounted Roberta and rode the short distance to the park. Aunt Martha didn’t have an ice cream maker, but Robin had made a couple of batches of chocolate chip cookies, so she put them in a basket and brought them with her. Aunt Martha begged off, pleading a headache. Too bad, she would have been the life of the party... But, just to indicate that her good ol’ aunt hadn’t lost her touch, she admonished Robin before the party, “You be home by 10 o’clock.” Robin rolled her eyes, but knew she meant it. Aunt Martha’s niece would never grow up as far as she was concerned, and Robin tried to roll with the punches and be understanding. Who knows? I might be like that with my kids when I get to be her age. But she hoped not.
     Robin was surprised to see a goodly number of people there at a lovely park by the river. A huge area, at least three acres, had been graded flat and planted with grass, and there were still many nice shade trees in the park. There was a canopied picnic area, large enough to accommodate about 12 long picnic tables with benches, and several of them held refreshments. A number of residents had also brought card tables and folding chairs and there were already a number of domino games going on. An impromptu stand had been set up and the band, which included a fiddler, guitar player, banjo, and mandolin, were tuning up, getting ready to play. The western part of the park sloped gradually down to the river itself, and even though the weather hadn’t turned real hot yet, there were a number of children splashing, laughing, and playing under the watchful eye of their mothers.
     Allie, whose maiden name had been Childers—she married Greg Kirk?? Allie, I thought you had more sense than that—saw Robin as she rode up. Her friend waved and\Robin smiled and waved back. The horses and wagons were all hitched across the road from the park, so Robin found a convenient place to tie down Roberta, picked up her basket of cookies, and headed across the road.
     “I’m so glad you came,” Allie said, giving Robin a hug. “And we are all so glad you’re back. It just wasn’t the same without you.”
     Robin had her doubts about that, but the sentiment was nice. Greg, whom she had known before, came over and said hi—he was a short fellow, shorter than Allie who was shorter than Robin by an inch or two (Robin was 5’6”), and he was sort of round with a round face and round glasses and a round…everything. But he had always been a sweet guy, just kind of a bumbling nerd. Intellectual, might be a better word. And he was a Vice-President of the bank now, not even 30 years old yet, so he had something on the ball. They had two children, Ricky and Veronica, and they would be in Robin’s class when school started in the fall. She saw them running around being bratty and figured that’s what she had to look forward to in the fall.
     Robin saw a few other people she knew, but frankly, not very many. Susan Markum, her best friend, wasn’t there. The ones she did know were a few of her friends from days of old, plus a few people she had met at church or who Aunt Martha had introduced her to in passing. Several times Robin was asked, “Did your Aunt come?”, and when she explained about Aunt Martha’s headache, Robin could have sworn that, more often than not, she saw expressions of relief pass over the faces of the ones who had asked. Of course, that might have been a simple matter of transference—what gave Robin gratification she thought she saw in the faces of others. But she really hasn’t been that bad since I got back…And that was the truth. I just have a lot of bad memories, I suppose…. Or, more than that, she compared Aunt Martha with Uncle Ben, whom she had simply adored.
     The band started playing, and Robin listened to them for a couple of tunes, amazed at how good they were. She noticed that a few people were dancing, not many, but when Rory Langston asked her to dance, she accepted, though she didn’t really feel like dancing at the moment. She had known Rory before and was pretty sure he had had a crush on her years ago, but then she vanished and he ended up marrying Sue Palmer. Rory was a nice guy, but Robin had never considered him her type. Long, lanky, with black hair that he absolutely could not keep in place, he and Sue made a perfect couple—she was short, a little dumpy, and fastidious. And just to confirm her suspicions, Rory said while they were dancing, “I had a crush on you back when we were in the fifth grade.”
     Robin remembered the crush being a little later than that, but smiled and responded, “You did? I never knew.”
     “Yeah, but don’t tell Sue or she won’t speak to me for a week. She’s the jealous type.” That was a hoot, Robin thought. Sue didn’t have much to worry about. Robin couldn’t imagine too many females wanting to steal Rory away from her.

     Not too surprisingly, as Robin mingled and chatted the rest of the evening, she heard a lot of talk about the recent happenings up in Dry Gulch. That kind of stuff didn’t happen a lot—well, as noted, shootings and stabbings were fairly common among the rowdy miner bunch in northwest Whitewater, but that wasn’t news any more. A good, old-fashioned fast draw shootout, a stage robbery and killing, a posse hunting the varmint and gunning him down—now that was worth yakking about.
     “Conners beatin’ Slade to the draw musta gone to his head…”
     “What a real sidewinder, gunnin’ down a woman like that. Wished they’da caught ‘im and stretched his neck…”
     “Yeah, but he got what he deserved. Buzzard bait…”
     “Glad he got rid of Slade, though…”
     “Two snakes goin’ at each other…that woulda been a sight to see…”
     “Them outlaws have a way of getting’ rid o’ each other, then fallin’ by the wayside. Conners buries ol’ Wil Brant, a polecat if’n there ever was one, then drops Slade, an’ gets his the next day…”
     “Yeah, unfortunately, like that lady Conners kilt, the innocent git in the way sometimes…”
     “Good riddance to the scumbag, is all I can say…”
     Robin was getting a little angry at some of this talk, and when she heard somebody say, “I met Conners once. One of the meanest, orneriest, low-down, son of a side-windin’ buzzards I ever met in my life. Would cheat his own mother outta her last penny. No account feller if there ever was one…,” she had to speak up.
     “Well, I met Rob Conners once, and I found him to be one of the nicest, sweetest, most gentlemanly men I have ever met in my life. Perhaps he was only a low-down son of a side-winding buzzard when he was talking to one.”
     That stopped the fellow cold. “Well, I…I’m just…tellin’ what I saw…”
     “You never met Rob Conners in your life and you know it. And if you did, you were trying to cheat him out of something and he unloaded on you and made you look like a fool.”
     Now the fellow was getting a little hot under the collar. This man didn’t recognize Robin. “I don’t rightly care to be called a liar, ma’am, or a fool.”
     Robin was mad now. “Well, you’re one or the other. You’re either a liar or a fool. Or maybe both. Which is it?”
     The man’s name was Burt, and the friend he was talking to attempted to be diplomatic talking to a lady. “You’ve got to admit, ma’am, that a fellow who would shoot a lady down in cold blood ain’t one of the most upstandin’ men around.”
     Robin snapped at him. “I wasn’t talking to you, so mind your own business. This fellow cast aspersion on a man who isn’t here to defend himself, a man who I knew to be the exact opposite of the way he described him.” She looked back at Burt, getting madder by the moment. “So, yes, you are either a liar or the very thing you accused Rob Conners of being.”
     Burt had a very short temper. And he wasn’t too bright. He was losing a war of words, mainly because he had been lying—he had never met Rob Conners—so he reacted the only way he knew how. “Why, you whorin’ little…” And he slapped Robin, hard, on the left side of her face, hard enough to snap her head back.
     Everybody within 20 feet heard the sound of the slap; it was almost like the crack of a whip. All eyes now were on Robin and Burt. Robin cried out softly when the blow struck, then reached up to her cheek. Before she could react, the other man with Burt said angrily, “Now, Burt, that was totally uncalled for. Maybe she wasn’t being too nice to you, but that’s no cause to hit a woman.”
     Burt then turned on his friend. “Well, you heard what she called me! A man can’t take that from nobody, not even a woman.”
     But Burt was being ostracized now. People were looking at him with extreme disgust. Hitting a woman, regardless of what she said to you or about you, was simply not done in the American West. Robin might have been out of line, but Burt went waaaayyy over the line in his response.
     “Git on home, Burt, and sleep it off,” his friend said.
     Burt growled, but as he looked around, he saw he didn’t have any friends to support him. So he just gave Robin another dirty look, then turned and stomped off.
     Burt’s friend, sighed, shook his head, and looked back at Robin. “I apologize for Burt. He’s a little short-tempered sometimes, but he’s a good fellow overall. I’ll get him to apologize to you in person soon. Are you ok?”
     Robin was still rubbing her stinging cheek. “Yes, thank you.” She noticed that people were still listening. “Maybe I was a little hard on him, but I met Rob Conners not long ago and he was as sweet as he could be. And I’ve heard nothing but bad about him tonight.”
     The man’s eyes narrowed. “I’m Tom Stewart. Aren’t you Martha Morrow’s niece?”
     “Yes, I’m Robin Morrow.”
     Tom scratched his chin. “Please don’t think I’m trying to impugn you here or doubt you, but…aren’t you the one who Conners kidnapped a few weeks ago? It’s kinda hard for me to figure you saying nice things about a fellow who…well, I’m sure he had less than honorable intentions….”
     Robin shook her head. “He didn’t hurt me at all. I think he was just lonely. You know the story, don’t you? How Wilson Brant killed his wife and baby, after his men had raped her?”
     Tom nodded. “Yeah. Believe me, Conners got a lot of sympathy when he buried Brant.”
     “Well, how would you feel if that had been your wife and baby? You might get a little lonely, too, wouldn’t you?”
     “Yeah, but I don’t think it’s right to take somebody against her will.”
     “I didn’t think it was, either, and I don’t think so now. But all I can tell you is how he treated me when he did. He didn’t hurt me, or abuse me, in any way at all, and when I told him about Uncle Ben dying and Aunt Martha being here alone, he bought me a $400 horse the very next morning and rode with me to Whitewater so I could go to Aunt Martha.”
     Tom was chewing on his lip, an expression of indecision on his face.
     Robin shook her head. “I don’t know what happened up north yesterday, why he killed that woman. Maybe he finally snapped after the shootout with Rip Slade. I don’t know. But I do know that wasn’t the man I met. And what that fellow”—motioning towards where Burt had disappeared—“was saying wasn’t the Rob Conners I knew.”
     A man spoke up from behind Robin. “Tell you the truth, I think Burt was a-lyin’, too. I did business with Conners onct. Bought five horses from him, gave me a fair deal. One of ‘em died o’ some kinda illness ‘bout a week later, and I went down to see ‘im, ready to peel his hide off, thinkin’ he knowingly sold me bad stock. All he said was, ‘Wayne, I’ll give ye yore money back, or ye can take yore pick of whatever horses I got left.’ Low-down sidewinders don’t do business that way.”
     “Maybe he was scared of you, Wayne,” somebody else shouted out, and that got a big laugh because Wayne was barely 5 feet tall and 100 pounds and was crippled.
     Wayne grinned. “Mebbe.” He looked at Robin. “I ‘pologize fer Burt, too, Miss Morrow. He was way outta line, and you was right to stick up fer a feller who ain’t here to defend hisself, though I don’t cotton to no woman-killer. But that don’t sound like the Rob Conners I met, neither.”
     Tom said, “I think you’re probably right, Miss Morrow. Conners probably finally snapped. His wife and baby getting killed, he defends himself like any decent man would, the law won’t help him, now chases him, threatening him with a noose. He has to make a living on the run. He’s sees something pretty—you—gets to spend an evening with her, then sees her ride off, probably reminds of him of his wife—having her for a short time, then losing her. Then the shootout with Slade—that’s a stressful situation for any man…yeah, better men than Rob Conners have gone loco over a lot less.”
     Robin fought back tears again. “Thank you, Tom. I don’t guess it really matters any more.” She turned away.
     She started to head for her horse to go home; the night was over for her. But a young man came up to her. “Hi. My name is Chris Draeger. I’ve…been wanting to meet you all night long, I just haven’t had an opportunity. I heard…saw…what just happened, and I’m sure you’re a little upset right now. But, would you like to dance? Just once. Maybe take your mind off…” He let it fade.
     Robin looked at him. He seemed to be about her age, maybe a little older. Taller, over six feet, with a thick brace of auburn hair that could have done with a trimming. He had blue eyes, regular features, but a nice smile. He wasn’t especially handsome, but he wasn’t an ogre. He did seem a little unsure of himself, and it probably didn’t help that what he saw in Robin’s face as she looked at him wasn’t giving him much encouragement.
     She didn’t really feel like dancing. But she didn’t really feel like going home yet, either. She was still very uptight, so maybe Chris was right, a dance might help. She smiled at him softly, and said, “Yes, thank you for asking. That would be nice.”
     Most fiddle and banjo tunes aren’t exactly designed for slow, eye-gazing dancing, but there is the occasional exception. The tune that had just started wasn’t going to put anybody to sleep, but it wasn’t a barn burner, either. It was slow enough for Chris and Robin to at least get one arm around each other.
     As they started dancing, Chris gave her an embarrassed smile. “I wanted to get you over here in a dance before you found out who I am, or you might never have spoken to me.”
     “Oh? And who are you?”
     “That fellow you were having the…discussion…with? Burt?”
     “He’s my father.” Chris actually had an amused expression on his face.
     “Oh.” Robin was a bit nonplussed. “Oh,” she repeated. “I…” She didn’t really know what to say.
     Chris laughed. “It’s ok. My dad can be like that sometimes. He likes to name drop, and you ought to listen to him tell about some of the fish he’s caught.”
     Robin laughed at that, and it felt good. “Well, I know I was a little rough on him.”
     “Well, maybe, but he deserved it. I can almost guarantee you that you were right, he never met Rob Conners in his life. But that was the big story of the day and dad wanted to be a BMOC, I guess.” Chris shook his head. “I’m really, really sorry that he hit you. That was totally uncalled for.”
     Robin gave him a pixie smile. “What would you have done? Like father, like son?”
     “Hmmm,” Chris murmured. His expression was thoughtful, but his eyes were playful. “Welllll…hopefully, I wouldn’t have lied in the first place, but if I had, and you called my hand on it….” He grinned. “To shut you up, I might have grabbed you and kissed you. Or if you were really being a brat, I would have put you over my knee.”
     “I see,” Robin replied. “Then you might have gotten what your dad gave me.”
     He laughed softly. “And deservedly so, I suppose.”
     Robin was feeling a little better. This bantering with Chris was helping. She asked him what he did for a living. “Dad and I own the feed store in town. We do ok.”
     Robin nodded. “Your mother?”
     “Lost her a few years ago.”
     “I’m sorry.”
     “Well, I’m sorry about your Uncle Ben, too.”
     Robin was feeling either naughty or mischievous, she couldn’t quite decide which, but either way, she said, “Maybe we ought to get your dad and my aunt together and watch the fur fly.”
     Chris got a real big laugh out of that one. “How many rounds do you think they would go?”
     Robin giggled. “Don’t know, but believe me, if your dad did to my aunt what he did to me, she’d slap him back so hard that his head would spin around three or four times.” And they both laughed.
     And then Robin’s eyes got huge. “Oh, no! What time is it?” Chris had a pocket watch and told her it was 9:50. She grimaced. “Oh, Chris, I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go home right now. Aunt Martha said I had to be home by 10, and when she says 10, she doesn’t mean 10:01.”
     The music had just stopped anyway, but Chris made a face. “10’s a little early, isn’t it.”
     Robin sighed. “I know, but Aunt Martha still thinks I’m seven years old or something. All I can hope is that she’ll be asleep now and won’t hear me come in.”
     Chris chuckled. “I’ll walk you to your horse.”
     It didn’t take but about a minute to get to where Robin had left Roberta. She untied the reins, then turned and looked at Chris. She smiled. “Thanks. The dance did help. I feel much better now.”
     He smiled. “I’m glad. And again, I can’t tell you how sorry I am for what happened.”
     “It’s all right, I’m ok.” She mounted and looked down at him. “I’m sure I’ll see you again sometime.”
     “I hope so,” he said, and stepped back so she could turn Roberta. “Bye.”
     It was a short ride back to the house, and she made it right before 10. She stuck her head in the door and yelled, “Aunt Martha, I’m home. I need to take care of my horse.”
     “All right, dear, but hurry it up. It’s late.”
     Robin just shook her head. 10 o’clock is NOT late, Aunt Martha, but then, Robin had never been over 60, so maybe it was late to somebody that old. Still…anyway, she got Roberta stabled, rubbed down, watered, and fed, and by then it was almost 10:30.
     When she got inside the house, it was obvious that Aunt Martha had already gone to bed. I guess she just wanted to make sure I was ok…I AM all she has left. Robin thought about it as she got cleaned up and ready for bed. Maybe I just have selective memory. I remember all the strappings she gave me, but not the times she was patient with me…She made a face. Yeah, I don’t remember any of those. I WAS pretty stubborn and rebellious...
     And Robin decided right then that she was going to try to get along with her aunt as best as possible and make Aunt Martha’s last years as pleasant as possible. She grinned ruefully when she thought, That probably won’t be too easy. I’m still pretty stubborn and rebellious. I’ll try, but I need a little space, too…

     The next morning, Robin simply had to get this curfew thing straightened out with her aunt.
     “Aunt Martha, can we talk about how late I can stay out? I mean, 10 PM… even at the school back east, we had a curfew of 11 PM on weekdays, and midnight on Friday and Saturday, and sometimes even 1 AM if it was a school function.” And I sure had a lot of fun THOSE nights…”I am 25 years old now.”
     “Well, honey, I know you’re old enough, but your Aunt Martha does worry about you. You’re all I have any more and I don’t know what I’d do without you. So I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
     Robin recognized that there was some basis for that. She did come back to Whitewater to live with and help take care of her aunt in her old age and she didn’t want to worry her. But Robin wanted a life of her own, too. “Can I at least have the curfew hours I had at school—11 PM on weekdays, midnight on weekends?” She wasn’t about to ask for the “all hours of the night” curfew she “restricted” herself to once she finished school and got out on her own. New York was…well, New York, not Whitewater…
     Aunt Martha acquiesced. “Well, I suppose so. As long as you let me know where you’re going to be and who you are going to be with. And if you need to be out later, just come by and tell me so I won’t worry.”
     Robin was satisfied with that. It was the 19th century, the Victorian Age, where boundaries were tighter--everywhere except in New York, she thought with a giggle—and Robin knew and accepted that. And it wasn’t like she was out partying till all hours of the night anyway. In fact, except for the ice cream social, she hadn’t been out past 9 PM yet any night she had been in Whitewater, and Aunt Martha had been with her on the two occasions she been out till 9. So it really shouldn’t be much of a problem, or a problem at all. But she didn’t want to have to be clock-watching every moment of the day, either.
     On Tuesday, Robin ran into Len Kramer. They exchanged greetings, talked for a few minutes and then Len said, “Oh, can you come by my office tomorrow morning? I’ve got a proposition I want to discuss with you.”
     Robin thought a moment. “I don’t see why not. You aren’t going to tell me what it’s about?”
     He shook his head. “I’d rather wait and discuss it with you there, if you don’t mind.”
     “No, I don’t mind a bit. I’ll be there.”
     “Great. See you then.”
     Hmm, Robin thought as she walked home. I wonder what it’s about. A job? I kinda hope so. I’d like to have some more income coming in this summer…that would really help…

     She was right, it was about a job. She arrived about five minutes early and was ushered into Len’s office. It wasn’t plush, but it was nice, with pictures on the wall of various mining operations of the Kilmer Mining Company, of which, as noted, Len was a Vice-President.
     “We’ve only been her in Whitewater less than two years, but the mines are proving to be fruitful so there is a good chance we’ll be here permanently. Or at least for the long-range foreseeable future.”
     “What are you mining mostly here?” Robin asked him.
     “Mostly copper, but we’ve found some tin and iron ore, and there’s been a hint of silver which we hope will pan out to bigger things. No gold yet, though.”
     “Well, I’m sure you’re busy. What is the ‘proposition’ you have for me? I’m dying to know. And if it’s marriage, then I’ll have to think about that for awhile.”
     Len laughed. “No, not marriage. A job. Part-time, summer.”
     “I’m interested, but doing what? I refuse to go down into one of those mines.”
     He smiled. “Well, if I remember correctly, your Aunt told me that you did a little bit of accounting back east.”
     Her job as executive secretary required a little of that, though the bank had experts to handle bigger matters. “A little bit, yes. I’m not a professional accountant or anything, though.”
     Len shook his head. “Not what I want. I have a professional accountant and he handles the major monthly chores. What I need, for a few months, is somebody to handle just day-to-day things. Recording outlays, purchases, income that we might receive, that sort of thing. No serious debit or credit stuff, no payroll, maybe write a few checks, things like that. You’d handle the daily books, and then, at the end of the month, turn everything over to Thomas Bering, our main lawyer/accountant. He’ll tie it all together, and he handles all the legal stuff as well. You may only have to work about three days a week, and probably not even all day long.”
     “Well, that does sound interesting. But you know that I have the job teaching school starting in September.”
     “Yes, I know, and hopefully I can find a replacement by then. I had a fellow, but he just recently quit and moved back to Texas. He wanted full-time wages, and it’s just not a full-time job at the moment, and I didn’t have enough other work for him to do. The job pays…” and Len named a figure, which was almost as much as Robin’s full-time salary teaching school.
     “Well, it sounds good. I’ll take it,” Robin said, pleased. “When do you want me to start?”
     "When can you?”
     “Anytime, I suppose.”
     Len looked thoughtful for a moment. “Let me talk to Thomas today so he can sort of get things ready. Then how about showing up at 8 AM tomorrow morning?”
     “I’ll be here.”
     Robin was excited about the new job. Accounting wasn’t the most thrilling thing in the world, but she liked working with numbers and felt like she’d enjoy the job. Maybe not for 8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week, but part-time, 3 days a week should be fine. She went to bed early that night in anticipation of starting the next day.
     And it was an interesting day.