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Part 1

Train to Wennton, Colorado, May 1880

Scott Sherwood watched the arid, scrub pine-dotted landscape fly by him. I'm going home. He hadn't been back to the Bar S in years, since his father, Kevin Sherwood, died. His mother, Fiona, had called him home. He knew she'd been lonely, but she had the ranch hands, and the servants. He'd rather see the world. He'd been living with his Aunt Agatha in Boston, but had mostly traveled, gambling his way from New England to Calcutta.

He looked up as a young woman came into his compartment. “Oh,” she said, surprised. “I didn't realize this seat was occupied.”

She was an eyeful, he had to admit that. Her chestnut-brown curls were pulled back in a chignon under her simple pale-blue hat. She wore a pale blue suit with black trim and a large black purse. He immediately stood for her. “Not at all. Take any seat you'd like.” She ignored the offer and sat in the seat across from his. “So,” he began, “where is a beauty like yourself on her way to?”

She sat up straight, pulling a battered red notebook and a pencil out of her purse. “Wennton, Colorado,” she told him. “I work at the Wennton Weekly Gazette there.”

“Ahh. You're a newspaper reporter.” He grinned. “Very exciting. Got any big stories you're working on right now?” He inched a little closer to her seat. “Besides me, of course.”

“Actually,” she said, without looking up from her notebook, “I'm working on something I'm hoping my editor will be very interested in. It could be the biggest story to ever hit Wennton.” She frowned. “The Professor's Gang has been running people off their land...which is then being bought by some mysterious party from back east for a song.”

Scott shook his head. “What would anyone want with Wennton? It's just a town people pass through on their way to somewhere else. There's no gold or silver in those there hills. Sure, the farming can be good, and there's a couple of cattle and horse ranches, but they're no boom town.”

The woman nodded. “That's what I'm wondering. I was doing research in Pueblo, trying to find out more about these land deals and how the Professor's Gang operates.”

He shrugged. “They must be pretty desperate. There's nothing under that town but ground and scrubland. I grew up there. It was too quiet.” He got a little closer to her. “Now Denver, there's an exciting town. Maybe I could take you to a theater I know there....”

She shook her head. “I really need to work on this story. I came to Wennton from Indiana three years ago, and I've made a lot of friends there who could lose their livelihoods if these deals go through.”

“Yeah,” Scott said under his breath, “that makes two of us.” He didn't know what his mother would do if some two-timing land grabber tried to get a hold of their ranch. The Bar S had been his father's whole life...and after his death, it was hers. He shook the thought out of his head and turned the smile back on. “How about next week, after we've worked on this story?”

“We?” She stared at him. “Are you a reporter?”

“No, but I know people. I could ask a few questions.”

She took in his fancy blue suit and narrow yellow tie, with the expensive hat with the red grosgrain ribbon. “I'll bet you know people.”

“So,” he started, “what do they call you? Maybe I'll look you up in town.”

“Betty Prince.” They both heard the conductor announcing their imminent arrival in Wennton. “And what do they call you?”

“Scott Sherwood.” He took her hand and gently kissed it. He noticed that, though her warm brown eyes remained amused, she didn't pull her hand away. “You know, I could walk you to your hotel.”

She shook her head as they disembarked. “That won't be necessary. I need to stop at the office first and talk to my boss about this story.”

He tipped his hat. “I'll see you later tonight, then.”

She nodded. “We'll see.” He watched her stroll across the street to the building that housed the Weekly Gazette offices. What a gorgeous woman, he thought wistfully. Smart, no-nonsense...I'll have her eating out of my hand in no time.

“Scott Sherwood?” A decidedly different sort of female voice met his ears as his mind returned to the present. It was scratchy and prim. He found himself looking towards a dowdy, middle-aged woman in a plain dark-green plaid suit. “I'm Priscilla Cosgrave. I'm the secretary for Rollie Pruitt, the head of the Bar S Ranch.”

Scott narrowed his eyes. “Why did Mom marry him? Of all the men she could have had, what did she see in the most miserly financier in Denver?”

Cosgrave ordered two large, burly men in dirty cowboy outfits to pick up Scott's suitcase. “ It was a lovely wedding. You should have been there. The whole town came. They had a real whirlwind courtship,” she explained as they stepped into the Bar S Ranch's private coach. “It's too bad she didn't get to enjoy it for very long.”

Now Scott was really worried. “What? Where's my mother? Why isn't she here?”

Cosgrave rearranged her skirts as they sat across from each other in the plush seats. “R.P will explain everything when we arrive. He has some new...arrangements...for running the ranch.”

The worried feeling remained in the pit of Scott's stomach all through the ride to the Bar S. It was several miles outside of Wennton, at least an hour's drive. He'd heard from his mother just last week, but her letter was full of concern...and pure, naked fear. Someone was trying to run them off their land. There had been accidents. Their long-time foreman was killed in a stampede. Some of their cattle had twice been stolen overnight by unseen rustlers. Two sheds were set on fire; hundreds of dollars worth of supplies vanished.

Nothing seemed terribly different as they rode through they drove under the weathered wood sign and onto the main path to the house. The house was still the same three-story yellow clapboard and shingles farmhouse he was born in. The outhouses all looked the same. The ranch hands still had the cattle out in pens, grazing on grasslands that stretched as far as the eye could see. He did note that the ranch hands and the cowboys were all wearing black armbands or black bandanas. Another "accident,",This is getting out of control. Mom should do something about it.

The carriage stopped in front of the main office building, a log cabin just beyond the main house. He tried to shut out the memories of coming to see his father here, when he was still alive. His father would take him on his knee and let him play with carved wooden oxen while doing paperwork and dealing with the foreman. Cosgrave told the men to take his suitcase to the family house. He followed her into the building.

“Scotty!” Pruitt sat behind the speckled pinewood desk that had been his father's, then his mother's. His father's paintings of Colorado's natural beauty and shelves of wooden carvings had been replaced by heavy, ponderous old books with stiff leather bindings and portraits of fat old gentlemen in fancy waistcoats. Pruitt reached out to him. “I have so much to tell you, my boy.” His smile looked as phony as the seaside property Scott once sold some rich man in northern Nebraska. “So much tragedy.”

“Tragedy?” Scott leaned on the desk. “Where's Mom? Why didn't she meet me?”

Pruitt pretended to dab at his eyes with a handkerchief. “It's so sad.” Cosgrave blew her nose behind them. “My dear, sweet Fiona is dead. She died just last week of a rattlesnake bite. They buried her yesterday.”

“No!” He slammed his fists on the desk, his eyes wide with shock. “Mom wrote me last week! She was alive then!”

“It was all so, so sudden.” One of the goons who followed Scott inside pushed him into the heavy, velvet-trimmed visitor's chair in front of the desk. “Have a seat, dear lad.”

The tall, bulging man went to Scott, walking around the chair. “You're the spitting image of your father, boy. He was quite a handsome devil, too.” Pruitt lifted his chin, as if studying his strong features. “Yes, very much like your father. Eyes the color of the canyons, hair as black as the trees in the valleys after a wildfire, skin as fair and soft as snow on the Rocky Mountains.”

Scott pulled his head away from Pruitt's fat fingers. “Thanks for the assessment, but I can see myself in a mirror.” He clutched the sides of the chair. “What's going to happen to the Bar S Ranch?”

The older man smirked. “Fiona and I had a long talk after we were married. She agreed that the ranch needed someone with experience to run it, someone who knows about business. I'm now the sole heir to the ranch and all its holdings.”

Scott glared at him. “And me?”

“You? A two-bit gambler, who abandoned his own mother?” He snorted. “You and your good looks are barely suited to menial work.”

Scott's fingers wound tighter around the chair's sides. “Pruitt, the ranch belongs to me, and you know it. I'm the rightful Sherwood heir.”

Pruitt steepled his fingers. “You gave up your claim on this ranch the day you walked out on your mother. Miss Cosgrave and I did research on how you've been making your way in life in the ten years since you moved to Boston, haven't we?”

Miss Cosgrave tried to keep from moaning when Pruitt rubbed her shoulder. “Oh yes, R.P” She turned her bespectacled, watery eyes to Scott and shook a finger at him. “You've been a very bad man, gambling away every cent you've made, spending your time with loose women and people who swindle good, solid gentlemen out of their hard-earned dollars.”

“I never hurt anybody!” Scott protested. “Most of those rich guys had it coming to them.”

Pruitt sniffed. “That's no excuse.” He sat back down and riffled through the papers on his desk. “I just learned about your arrival a few hours ago. If it were up to me, I would have let you die in some stinking back alley in Constantinople or Rabat. Fiona had a sentimental streak when it came to you.” He put the papers aside. “Since you're here, I might as well make some use of you. You'll pay off your debts to me and your poor, late mother by working as a ranch hand. A little time in the sun, wrangling cattle and building fences, will put some color into those pale cheeks of yours.”

Scott narrowed his eyes. “Something's wrong here. Mom knew how to handle rattlesnakes. She wouldn't have let one into the house. I know a con when I see one.”

“The coroner ruled Fiona's death an accident, Scott.” Pruitt leaned close to the younger man's face. “I'd suggest you do the same.”

He nodded at the mook who stood behind him. “Frank, take Mr. Sherwood to the ranch hands' quarters to change into clothes more suitable for his current position. You have my permission to make that attractive face of his far less so if he causes any trouble.”

“I don't need the escort. I grew up here. I know where the ranch hands' quarters are.” He stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him. Frank just shrugged and followed him. He was not a man of many words, or brains, really.

Miss Cosgrave sighed. “You know, Mr. Sherwood is rather handsome.” Pruitt gave her a nasty look. “Not like you, of course, R.P. But he's still good-looking.”

“Yes, I know.” Pruitt sneered. “I don't like that. He's too attractive, too charming, and far too intelligent. He's already suspicious about Fiona's death. We may have to eliminate him as well.” He sat back in his chair. “For now, we'll keep him under wraps. My boys will keep an eye on him. If he gets out of line,” he chuckled, “I know people who will get rid of little problems for a fee.”

Scott White and the Seven Actors

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