That Evening, In the Canyons Outside of Wennton
Scott shaded his eyes as he looked around the narrow floor of the canyon. “Are you sure you saw them down here, Maple? It seems a little odd for some of our cattle to wander this far.”
Maple wasn't listening to Scott. Her mind was on the task ahead. What she hadn't told Pruitt was she knew Scott. She knew him well. She'd helped him with a couple of cons out east. They'd even had a brief relationship, before they decided they were better off as friends. There was no way she was going to let anyone, let alone some penny-pinching jerk, kill off a friend of hers.
He turned his brilliant grin to her. “How did you end up with this job, anyway? I thought you said you weren't a country girl. The only animals you ever dealt with were the kind who paw your dress when you're conning them.”
She shrugged. “What can I say, Scotty? Times are tough. It was either this, or not eat.”
Scott nodded. “I can understand that. I've been having a pretty rough time lately, too. I came out here to talk to Mom, only to find she's dead and Pruitt's got the ranch.” He clutched the reigns harder. “Pruitt doesn't care about the Bar S. He'll run it into the ground at first opportunity. I think he killed Mom, or had her killed. I just need to prove it.”
“He didn't exactly seem like the most pleasant guy in the world to me.” She watched Scott as he turned his back to her, the light from the setting sun falling over him. His black-silver hair practically glowed. Now is the time. “You know, maybe the cattle went in a cave to get out of the sun. It can get hot over here. The tumbleweeds ain't gonna give ya shade. Some of 'em might have water in 'em, too.”
“Yeah, that's true.” The two dismounted their horses, tying them to a rock, and headed for the canyon walls. Scott lead Maple into the first cave, a dark, rather shallow-seeming outcropping under a pile of boulders. Scott's back was turned to Maple as he looked around, his eyes intent on finding the lost animals.
This is it. I gotta do it now. “Scotty? Do you see anythin'?”
“Nahh, Maple. I knew this was a wild cow chase. I think we ought to...” He turned...just in time to miss a long knife aimed straight at his heart. “Maple, what are you doing?”
“I...I don't know.” Maple lowered her arm, breathing heavily. She finally threw the knife down beside her. “I can't do it. I can't kill you. Especially after all the fun we had in Kansas City.”
Scott licked suddenly dry lips. “Kill me? Maple, why would you want to kill me? I swear, I'm sorry I ran out and left you with the check in that steak house in St. Louis. I sold two guys a new kind of hair tonic, and they decided to take off my head when it didn't work.”
She rolled her eyes. “That ain't it. Although I did always wonder what happened with the steak house. Scott, Pruitt hired me to kill you.”
Scott's amber eyes got even wider. “Pruitt? I know he'd stab anyone in the back if it would get him money, but...why me?”
“I ain't sure. Somethin' about you overwritin' his position and his inheritors.”
Scott's eyes went cold. “He doesn't want me to get the Bar S or the money from Mom.”
“I don't know. He didn't tell me nothin'. All he said was he wanted me to stab ya an' bring him your heart in a box.” She shook her head. “I'm gettin' sick just thinkin' about it.”
Scott's hand went over his chest. “You and me both.”
Maple grabbed his arm. “Scotty, get outta here. You can't stay here. If Pruitt finds out I didn't kill you, he'll do worse things to both of us. He really wants you gone.”
“What about you, Maple?”
“I'll figure something out. I could give him an animal heart, or a fake heart.” She almost literally dragged him out of the cave. “Scott, go! Now! Before someone sees us out here. Run, Scotty. Find somewhere Pruitt ain't gonna look for ya.”
He finally climbed onto his horse. He gave her one last grin. “Maple...thanks. You're a real friend.”
She waved him on. “You're welcome, Scott. Now, get a move on, before I do decide to take out at least a piece of your hide for leavin' me in the lurch in St. Louis.”
She watched him as he galloped off. I'm glad I did that. He doesn't deserve a knife in his back. A slap in the face and a knee in his important parts, maybe, but not a knife. Those hurt! She frowned as the rapidly setting sun dissolved over the rocky cliffs. I hope he's ok out there. Some of those animals can get almost as nasty as Pruitt. And then, there's the Indians...
That Night, Pruitt's Office, Bar S Ranch
Maple didn't like the positively gleeful look on Pruitt's face when she arrived. “Did you do it?”
“Yeah, I did it.” She pulled out the box and the knife. “Here ya go.”
He pulled out a wad of bills, counted them, and slowly handed them to Maple. “Here you go, Miss LaMarsh, for a job well done. And you're certain he's dead?”
“Of course he is! I left his body way back in some random cave in the canyons. You'd have to be a prairie dog to dig that far.”
“Good.” He waved her away. “You may go now, Miss LaMarsh. Don't spend that all in one place.”
“Oh, don't worry. I won't.” Maple pocked the money and headed out the door. There's somethin' wrong with the whole thing. Scott's right. Why does Pruitt want him dead? What's goin' on here?
Four Days Later, Canyons of Colorado
It was hot. Scott had never felt such blistering heat. The brilliant yellow sun beat down on him relentlessly. He'd managed to find a spring and get some water, but that had been over an hour ago. He was now hot again. He felt like he could be poured into a jar, like molasses. He wanted to melt. He'd never wanted anything so badly.
Usually, on a day this hot, he'd be in a hotel somewhere, gambling under a lazily turning fan, maybe with a pretty lady on his arm and a cold hard apple cider by his side. A lady as pretty as Betty Prince...no, he corrected himself, no woman was as pretty as Betty Prince.
His horse had slowed to a crawl ages ago. He'd let Lightning drink from the spring that he found, but now, the horse was as tired and parched as he was. If he didn't find some kind of water soon, they'd both end up looking like the bleached bones scattered among the cacti and odd-shaped rocks.
So tired... He struggled to keep his eyes open. Why did Pruitt want to kill him? Was he getting too close to finding out the truth about his mother's death? And what about Betty? Did this have to do with all those people being run off their land? Was his mother killed to get her land? Would Pruitt try to hurt Betty, too?
He wiped his dripping brow on the back of his hand. “God, it's hot out here, Lightning,” he said to the golden stallion. “It's so...hot....”
His hands slipped from Lightning's reigns. He finally slid off the horse, landing face-first on the ground. So this is how it's all going to end. Dead of dehydration in the middle of the desert. I was born to the desert, and it looks like I'm going to die here.
He just barely looked up as he heard soft footfalls around the rocks. His bleary brown eyes took in a long, strong, red-brown leg, almost the same color as the clay in the creek near the Bar S, then strings of beads and feathers. He heard the buzzing of a strange, yet oddly familiar language around him. He finally passed out before he could figure out any more.
A Day Later, Walwalra Tribe Camp Site
Scott had no idea how long he was out. He no longer felt as hot or dry. Something soft surrounded his burned skin. When his eyes fluttered open, he realized he was looking around at animal pelts in desert shades of tan, soft yellow, and dark rock brown. He started to get up when a young man wearing feathers around his neck and in his long, straight black hair gently pushed Scott back down. He carried what looked like a basket of herbs and berried.
“Shhh.” The man was crushing some leaves that were in the basket. “You aren't well yet. Father says that you need rest, Scott Sherwood.”
Scott just barely raised an eyebrow. “How do you know my name?” His scratchy voice sounded more like the croak of a toad in the creek on the Bar S.
The man smiled at him. “The name of Sherwood is known to the Walwalras. Your father was good man. He always treated us well.”
Scott just barely smiled. “Dad always believed in being good to the Indians. Said they weren't any different than anyone else. They had their ways, and we had ours. A lot of people thought he was crazy, but he didn't listen. I remember playing with some of the kids when I was still in short pants.”
The man grinned impishly. “Do you remember a boy named Soaring Eagle? You used to play jokes on the ranch hands with him. We once painted the entire side of a house before your mother ran over and told us we were painting someone else's house.”
Scott laughed weakly. “Soaring Eagle, is that you?” He shook his head. “I haven't seen you in years. How's your dad, and those brothers of yours?”
“My brothers are fine. Two are warriors now. They're out hunting elk. One is a diplomat in Denver for tribal relations.” He poured a reddish water from a jug. “Father's with the tribal elders, but I'm sure he'll want to see you as soon as you're well. He loved and respected your father. He let him hunt on his land, as long as we didn't eat cattle.”
“What about you, Soaring Eagle?”
He sloshed the water and leaves around in the bowl. “I am not like my brothers. I never had the heart to harm a living creature, and I have always been interested in the plants we see on our journeys. I am the tribal healer and medicine man.”
Scott leaned back. “Good, then I can trust you. If you're the tribe's doctor, you know what you're doin'.”
Soaring Eagle chuckled. “Father would skin me like buffalo hide if I harmed you!” He brought the bowl to Scott. “Here. Drink this. It'll help bring back your strength.”
Scott gulped it first, until he started coughing. Soaring Eagle shook his head. “Sip it! Don't drink so fast. You're as bad as my sons. They want to gulp it all down, too.”
“You have kids.” Scott's smile was weary. “How many?”
“Two boys and a girl. They grow like weeds, Scott. You'll probably meet them later. Dad wants to see you as soon as you're well.”
“Of course.” Scott yawned. “I guess...tired...I'm so tired. Pruitt...I have to run away....Betty...Mom...run away...so tired...” His eyes fluttered, then shut. His breathing became more even.
Soaring Eagle frowned as he gathered the now-empty bowl. Scott had been muttering to himself in his sleep ever since they found him. He didn't really understand most of it. His father might be able to get more out of him when he was recovered.
The Next Day, the Chief's Tent
Scott felt well enough by the next afternoon to greet Chief Grayhawk, Soaring Eagle's father. He borrowed a buckskin jacket and trousers from Soaring Eagle. Some of the braves were rather amused that Scott insisted on wearing the jacket over his worn black shirt. When Soaring Eagle asked him about it, he just shrugged and said “I burn easily.”
Chief Grayhawk had the largest tent in the encampment. Scott had always liked him. He was a tall, strong man with a broad face and a wise manner. He used to bounce Scott on his knee and tell him stories of his years as a warrior fighting other local tribes like the Shoshone and the Ute when Scott was barely knee-high to his long spear. Scott bowed before him, letting the Chief finish his pipe. “Hi, Joe. Have any good stories for me?”
Joseph Grayhawk patted the buffalo pelt next to him. “Hello there, Scott. Sit down right here.” Scott did so. “So, you've finally come home.”
“It wasn't my original plan.” He frowned. “Mom's dead, Joe. They say it was an accident. A rattlesnake got into the house.” He shook his head. “I don't believe them. Mom knew about rattlesnakes. Someone killed her for the Bar S' land.”
Joe took a drag from his pipe. “We've had similar problems, Scott. A week ago, we were attacked by men who wanted us off our hunting lands.”
“The Professor's Gang.”
“I don't know what they called. I only know they were brutal. Good thing my sons had just come back from a hunting expedition and were able to drive them off. Some men were injured, and the women and children were frightened, but we lost no lives.” He frowned. “They did burn some of our teepees, but they can be replaced. My sons want to move on, find another place to hunt.” He shook his head. “Where? This is our home. It was our ancestors' home, and their ancestors' home. We're some of the lucky ones. The locals may not trust us, but they know we prefer hunting to war. As long as we don't eat their cattle, they let us be.”
Scott looked around. “I never really thought much of this land. All I ever wanted was to leave.”
Joe Grayhawk took out his pipe. “That's because you have a wandering spirit, like your father. I heard stories about Kevin Sherwood when he first came to Colorado from settlers who passed through our land. He was a no-account, they all said. A gambler, scoundrel, swindler. No one could trust him. He could charm an elk into giving him the antlers on their heads. He'd never settle down, never find a place he could call his own.”
Scott grinned. “I know this story. Then he met Mom, and he fell head-over-heels for her. Mom was a rancher's daughter, he was the snake oil salesman. He thought he was selling them on that phony snake oil concoction, but she was really sizing him up for marriage.”
“Your father did well for himself, Scott. He and your mother loved each other deeply. They thought they'd never have a child. Fiona came to our people, praying to her gods and ours for a child with hair as black as the trees around the ranch, skin as soft and white as the snow on the mountaintops, eyes the color of the rich soil of the cliffs.” Joe Grayhawk leaned back, lost in memories. “Your father had a huge pow-wow when you were born, Scott. People came from miles around to see their new son and watch our tribal dances. I even took part in a few.” He patted Scott's hand. “They even let me give you the blessings of our gods.”
Scott sighed. “I felt blessed, until recently. Joe, I think Mom was attacked by a rattlesnake. A human one. I don't know how Rollie Pruitt got her to marry him, but I think he did it because he wanted her lands. He killed her, or had her killed, to get the Bar S. I just wish I knew why.”
Joe watched the smoke rings from his pipe drift lazily in the cornflower-blue sky. “We did hear about Fiona's marriage and death. I've been wondering about it myself. Her death was far too sudden.”
“I think so, too.” Scott looked back towards the hills. “I have to find out, but I can't go back to the Bar S. Pruitt knows I know, or at least that I'm suspicious of him. He tried to have me killed. Fortunately, the lady he hired was a friend of mine and let me go.” He sighed. “Betty needs my help, and I need to find out what happened to Mom.”
Joe Grayhawk raised his eyebrows. “Betty? Is she your sweetheart?”
Scott shook his head, but his face was a little dreamy. “Nahh. She's a reporter for the local newspaper. She's investigating all the land grabbing in the area. She thinks Pruitt's behind it. I wouldn't put it past him.”
“There's more than that.” Joe Grayhawk blew smoke rings into the brilliant blue sky. “The last time I saw that look on a man's face, your father just told me how he felt about your mother.”
“Joe...she's beautiful. Beautiful, smart, sweet, tough....she's everything I've ever wanted in a woman. I might even love her.” He frowned. “But she thinks I'm just a ranch hand for Pruitt.”
“Prove your feelings to her, Scott.” The old chief briefly removed the pipe from his mouth. “Your father did when he courted your mother. He swore he'd give up get-rich-quick schemes and swindling people...and he mostly did.”
“Yeah.” Scott stood. “Joe, thank you for havin' me, but I can't stay here. Pruitt's boys are still after me, and I have to figure out what happened to Mom. If Betty's writing that article, she may be in danger, too.”
Joe nodded. “I understand, Scott.” He looked up with one of his small, knowing smiles. “How are you with acting?”
“I've never acted professionally, but I'm pretty good at convincing people to do things, and being someone else when they aren't convinced. Why?”
“My warriors spotted the Valiant Journey Acting Troupe passing through Ordway and Rocky Ford on their way to Pueblo. Maybe you could join up with them. What better way to hide than to be someone else? Even if they don't take you as an actor, you could do another job, work with the scenery or the horses.”
“That's not a bad idea, if I can get them to take me.” Scott stood and bowed. “Thanks, Joe. You're still a great friend.”
“Anytime, Scott. Your horse is with the other horses out by the brook. My grandsons have been taking care of him. We'll outfit you with food and supplies for your journey, too. If they haven't gone far, they should be about a day's ride from here.”
Scott nodded. “All right. Thanks again.” He patted Chief Grayhawk's shoulder and headed off to find Lightning.
Joe Grayhawk shook his head and looked to the sky. “There's so much darkness surrounding him, Kevin. He's much like you were. Twice as smart, though. He'll figure it out.” He took another puff on his pipe. “I hope.”
Scott White and the Seven Actors
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