Two Months Later, The Bar S Ranch
Betty Prince was determined to get to the bottom of a lot of mysteries swirling around the large cattle spread. The Bar S was one of the more prosperous ranches in the area. What she didn't understand was why her boss Rollie Pruitt wanted it. He already owned most of the town, including the Wennton Weekly Gazette, according to the research she'd been doing here and in Denver. Most of the townspeople lived in fear of him.
She climbed off her horse and took a look around. She was supposed to be meeting Pruitt here. He wanted to discuss the story she was working on. The Professor's Gang had struck two other ranches in the area, stealing their cattle and forcing them to sell most of their land. She had a few questions of her own she wanted to ask.
"Betty, Betty, Betty!” She looked up, surprised to see the man she'd met on the train riding towards her on a brown mare with a white mark on her forehead, herding cattle into a pen. He wore a black shirt with worn denim trousers, a battered felt cowboy hat, and dirt-crusted boots. His silvery-black hair was now a little longer, and his cheeks were flushed from the constant exposure to the sun. “How's your story coming?”
Betty sighed. “Not as well as I'd like. People are terrified of this Professor's Gang. Two ranches were hit in the last month, and I can't get either of the owners to talk. There's been more land purchased, too, the fields on the outskirts of town, near that old barn. I have no idea why anyone would want that. The farm there failed – that barn hasn't been used in years.” She looked at a small pocket watch. “I have an appointment with Mr. Pruitt in a few minutes. You wouldn't know where the manager's office is, would you?”
“I sure do! Matter of fact, I could take you there.”
“All right. I really don't know my way around.” She raised an eyebrow. “What are you doing here, anyway? From that fancy suit you were wearing on the train, I would never have guessed you were a cowboy.”
“I wasn't planning on being one.” His tight grin didn't quite meet his eyes. “Let's just say that you're not the only one trying to solve a case. I came back to Wennton to find that my mother was killed by a rattlesnake that got in her house.” His brown eyes glittered with fury. “They said it was an accident, but I don't believe them. I think she wouldn't sell her land and was murdered to get it.”
Betty nodded sympathetically. “I'm sorry. It must be hard to lose someone you love like that.” She looked sadly down at her hands. “I lost someone I love recently, too. Sheriff Victor Comstock was my fiancee. He went to Denver to talk to government officials there about a year ago and died in a gun battle when bandits raided his posse coming back to town.” She wiped the tears that glimmered in her eyes. “I miss him so much. It was hard to go on without him.”
Scott looked away from her. “Mom and Aunt Agatha were all the family I had in the world. I'm glad Aunt Aggie is back east.” He closed his eyes, not wanting her to see the hurt that plagued them. When he turned back to her, he was smiling. “You're not the only person who can play detective. I've been asking questions here and there. The other ranch hands don't think it was an accident, either. There was no inquest, no follow-up questions. No mention of a puncture wound, either. A snake bite would have left a mark.”
Betty frowned. “The Professor's Gang has been forcing people off their lands for months, usually with threats, but they've never actually killed anyone. Do you think there's a connection between your mother's death and the Professor's Gang?”
Scott nodded. “Yeah, I do. Pruitt's up to something. He wants the land badly, but why? Why murder a woman and run a lot of decent, hard-working people out of their homes, just to get scrub land, canyons, and pine trees that are only good for feeding cattle?”
“That's what I wanted to ask Pruitt.” She pulled her horse in next to the hitching posts near the office building. Scott did the same.
She knocked on the door. “Hello? Mr. Pruitt?”
Scott looked around. “You know, maybe we can do some investigating before he arrives.” He took a piece of wire out of his pocket. “Good thing I was working on the wire fences out by the pastures today.” He jammed the wire into the lock and wriggled it around a little. Betty kept a watch out as he worked. She returned just in time to hear a “click” and see him push the door open.
Betty followed him into the office. “Where did you learn that?”
“Picked it up working for a locksmith in Boston.” He finally pushed the door open. “After you.”
Scott went to the desk first. Betty started in on the bookshelves. “There's nothing here that's out of the ordinary.” He riffled through files. “Earnings...cattle sold...payroll...”
She pushed the book back on the shelf. “He probably doesn't keep them in there. I'll bet he has a secret box or safe somewhere.”
“Already on it.” He took out a stack of books and started feeling around the bottom of a desk drawer. “This is shallower up top than it is on the bottom. I think the bottom's false.” She joined him as he ran his fingernails along the bottom of the drawer. She drew a breath as the bottom swung open, revealing another, heavier stack of files. “Bingo. Take a long look at these.”
She nodded. “There's files on every single business or home that was driven away from their land. I recognize the names. The Bar S is in here, too.” She looked them over. “When the land was sold...cost of sale...mineral quality...huh? I thought there were no mineral deposits anywhere near Wennton. That's up in the canyons.”
Scott frowned. “What's going on here?”
“I don't know...” Betty looked up as they heard voices. “Pruitt's coming!”
Scott grabbed the files. “Help me here!” They shoved the files in, then closed the false bottom, then dropped the books back in the drawer. Betty had just gotten the last book back on the shelf when the door swung opened.
Pruitt raised his eyebrows. Cosgrave just made a face. “Aren't you a bit early for our interview, Miss Roberts?”
Betty nodded at Scott. “Mr. Sherwood brought me here faster than I anticipated. The door was unlocked, so we thought we'd wait for you inside. It is terribly hot out there.”
Pruitt took his place behind the desk. “I don't remember leaving the door open. In fact, I distinctly recall telling Miss Cosgrave that it needed to be locked to keep out all the vermin that tends to slither and crawl in.”
Scott shrugged. “Maybe she forgot.”
Pruitt glared at him. “Shouldn't you be leaving? You do have chores to do. The rest of the cattle needs to be rounded up, the stables need to be cleaned, and the back fence requires a new coat of whitewash.”
“Yes, sir.” Scott tipped his hat at Betty with a small grin. She gave him a small grin back. Her eyes followed his burly, rugged figure all the way out the door. He looked good in the tight, dark denim jeans.
“Miss Prince,” Pruitt snapped, “are you here to talk to me, or flirt with my ranch hands?”
Betty shook her head, a bit dazed. “Who is he, sir? Who is that ranch hand? He said his name is Scott Sherwood.”
Pruitt snorted. “He's a wastrel and a con artist whom I took in out of the goodness of my heart when he came here begging for money. Barely worth the time of day.”
Betty frowned. “Sir, to come to the point, I wanted to ask you a few questions for the story on the land grabbing I've been working on. I think we can tie it into the Professor's Gang.”
“Oh yes, the story.” Pruitt shuffled some papers. “I wanted to talk to you about that story as well. I've heard from people in the valley that you've become a bit of a nuisance with that story, asking questions about land and bandits where questions aren't wanted.”
Betty bristled. “My questions were in every way professional and in confidence. I think someone is buying up the land illegally. They may even have killed to get it.”
Pruitt laughed, a silky, evil chuckle. “You have an amazing imagination, Miss Prince. If people are buying land, it's for cattle grazing or farming, or to build new homes on. If they would even want worthless scrub land.”
“Two families were driven off their land in the past month, Mr. Pruitt. That land is worth money to somebody.”
Pruitt shuffled some papers. “Miss Prince, I'm taking you off this story.”
Betty frowned. “What? Why? I'm getting so close! I think this could be a real scoop!”
“Why don't you do a story that's a little closer to the pulse of this community?” He handed her a poster. “You'd be perfect for this. The county fair next month is the biggest event in this area. It needs someone with your...expertise to cover it.”
“Jam and pickle-making contest?” Betty shook her head. “I don't know anything about pickles and jam!”
“You have plenty of time to learn, don't you?”
Betty dropped the poster on the desk. “Mr. Pruitt, I...”
Pruitt looked down at his papers and waved her away. “You're dismissed, Miss Prince.”
Betty stormed out the door as Miss Cosgrave entered. “What got into her?” Miss Cosgrave nodded at the angry young woman climbing on her horse outside.
Pruitt watched her. “It's too bad she's so beautiful. She's much too curious. So is that stepson of mine. They were both here, snooping. I know what they were looking for. He wants to find out about his mother's death. She wants information on my...land purchases.” He narrowed his eyes. “She'll have to be watched. She's tenacious, that young woman.”
Cosgrave sat at her smaller desk next to his. “And Mr. Sherwood?”
Pruitt narrowed his eyes. “He's a liability. I thought keeping him around where I could see him would keep him out of mischief. Obviously, it hasn't. I know he was snooping around in the house, too. He was supposed to be painting the upstairs rooms last week. I caught him searching in the room I once shared with Fiona. He said he was looking for a paintbrush, but that was the most phony fib he's given me yet.” He sat back in his chair. “I think it's time we called one of those...people...I know who get rid of problems. He's made himself into quite a problem.”
A Few Hours Later, Office at the Bar S Ranch
Pruitt grinned at the tall, red-headed woman standing before his desk. “You know your job, Miss LaMarsh?”
She nodded. “Yeah,” she said in a heavy Brooklyn accent. “But ain't cuttin' out his heart an' bringin' it to ya in box a little...much? I mean, what did this guy ever do to you?” “It's not your place to question your orders. I want proof of his death. If he lives, he could undermine my position and my inheritance.” He handed her the knife with the fine pearl handle and long steel blade. “Here's what you'll use to do the job.” Maple nodded. “You got the money?” “After you do the job, Miss LaMarsh.” He handed her the knife and a velvet-lined box. “You've done jobs for me before, and you've never let me down.” “I'm the best.” She put the knife and the box in a fringe-trimmed leather bag. “How am I gonna get him to come with me?”
"I've already arranged that. I told him you're a new worker, out to help him round up cattle that's strayed into the valleys and canyons.” Pruitt looked at the clock on the wall. “He should just be finishing dinner at the meal house with the other hands. You'll meet him there. Bring me his heart as soon as he's dead. Leave his carcass for the buzzards.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Gee, now I wish I hadn't already had my dinner. That's a nice visual there.” She slung the bag on her shoulder. “I'll see ya later.” Pruitt watched her as she walked out and climbed onto her horse. Miss LaMarsh, despite her frivolous name, could be quite ruthless when it came to her work. She'd eliminate that meddling Sherwood stepson of his...and he would be the only handsome man in charge of the Bar S and its lands.
Scott White and the Seven Actors
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