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Part 4

Two Days Later, Valiant Journey Acting Troupe Carriages

Scott caught up with the troupe around Olney Springs. The two carriages were colorful affairs, painted red and gold, with ornate gingerbread-like roofs. They were parked by a lake just outside of town. The townspeople are probably too good to let them stay within city limits, Scott thought in disgust. If it were the Bar S, Mom wouldn't have any problems giving them shelter. She never minded people spending the night on our grounds.

He didn't see anyone around. Maybe they're rehearsing a play somewhere. He peered inside one of the carriages. “Hello? Anyone home?”

There was food – fruit, cheese, rolls, and meat - set up on a small table in the center of the main carriage. On one end was a tipsy stack of sheet music and scripts and a rack of sequined costumes. On the other end were three beds that were built into the wall. In between were pans used for dishes and for cooking food. Scott sniffed. It all smelled so good to him. He'd eaten his last bit of dried beef the night before, and he was ravenous. He grabbed a roll from a basket. “I don't think they'd mind if I borrowed one.” He drank a little of one of the glasses of lemonade that was at the head of the table. He took an apple, too.

He looked around, yawning. He could barely keep his eyes open. “I need to rest my eyes for a second,” he murmured to himself. “I'll wake up long before they arrive.” He tossed the apple core out a window for Lightning's snack, then lay down on one of the bunks. It'll just be a few minutes... He was so worn out, he was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.

What he didn't know was the owners of the Valiant Journey Acting Troupe – Miss Hilary Booth and her sometime-husband Jeff Singer – were, in fact, on their way back from chasing off what they thought were bank creditors. The rest of the troupe followed behind them. They were a small troupe, just three actors, two musicians, the young stagehand, and the elderly caretaker, but Hilary was determined that someday, they would be the finest troupe of performers this side of the Mississippi. After all, if she could conquer Broadway, a small, rambunctious town like Denver shouldn't be a problem.

Mackie Bloom, the troupe's diminutive character actor, was the first one to realize something was amiss. He nodded at the golden stallion cropping grass near the first carriage. “Hey, whose horse is that? She's a nice little filly.”

C.J McHugh, the stage hand who helped old Tom Eldridge deal with the horses, frowned. “I don't recognize her. She's not one of our ponies.”

“Then she must be someone else's,” added the kindly old jack-of-all-trades who also acted as a cook and housekeeper for the troupe.

“Too bad,” said Eugenia Bremer, the plump, cheerful pianist and seamstress. “She's an awfully pretty horse. Her fur is the color of the gold that's supposed to be in the hills.”

Hilary turned to her tall, handsome leading man husband. “Jeffrey, do you think someone's robbing the carriages?”

“I hope not.” Jeff Singer climbed off his horse. “They're going to be disappointed if they are. We have nothing for them to steal but some old sets and costumes.” He looked at the little man playing the harmonica behind him. “Why don't you and I check it out first, Mr. Foley?”

Mr. Foley shook his head and started going the other way, but Hilary pushed him ahead. “I'm sure it's just a vagrant looking for free meal," she insisted.

“I don't know, Hilary.” Mackie and Mr. Eldridge were inspecting the horse. Mackie stroked her mane. “This is a nice horse someone has here. She comes from good stock. Unless the vagrant stole her, she doesn't belong to any old desert tramp.”

Mr. Eldridge was feeding the horse an apple core. “She's hungry, too. She very nearly ate this in one gulp! Not very good manners, but a good appetite.”

Hilary made a face. “Which one of you have been throwing their leftovers out the window? You know that attracts flies and bugs and other creepy-crawly things I don't like.”

Mackie made a face. “Geez Hilary, we know how you feel about that.”

Jeff finally took Mr. Foley by the arm. He pulled out the prop gun he kept on his person to scare off bill collectors. Mr. Foley held a pole from their scenery over his head. “Come on.”

The two men and Mackie entered the carriage. Jeff took a quick look around. “Everything seems to be all right.”

Mackie frowned, holding up a lemonade glass. “Hey, which one of you guys been drinkin' outta my glass?” He nudged the roll basket. “I think one of these is missing, too. And no, I didn't eat it. I didn't get a chance to eat anything before Hilary thought she heard bill collectors.”

Mr. Foley was the first one to see the lump in the bed. He gasped and grabbed at Jeff's sleeve. “What is it?” Foley tugged Jeff over to the first bed near the table.

The little man poked at the lump. It groaned. “Go 'way.”

“Foley, wake him up.” Jeff pointed the gun at the lump as Foley shook him awake. “Ok, who are you, and what are you doing here?”

The first thing a bleary-eyed Scott Sherwood saw was the barrel of a gun right between his eyes. “If you'll get that thing out of my face, I'll tell you.”

“Are you robbing us?” asked Mackie, who held what he hoped was a very threatening-looking butter knife.

Scott laughed. “Robbing you? No way.” He slowly sat up, stretching. “Actually, I wanted to ask you if you had any vacancies.”

Jeff moved the gun from the stranger's face, but continued to aim it at him. “Vacancies?” He thought the stranger was a rather odd-looking man. He was mostly dressed like a Native or a cowboy, in fringed buckskin trousers and a matching leather jacket, but he had a faded black shirt on under the jacket. A battered suede cowboy hat with a black band had fallen over his thick, longish black and silver hair. A leather holster held a long-handled knife. He might actually be rather good-looking when he shaved off the two-day growth and washed his grimy face.

Mackie stepped back. “You're not going to hurt us?”

He got to his feet. “Nahhh. I want to join you. You might say I'm on the run.”

Jeff lowered the prop gun. “From what?”

Scott scratched his back. “There's this guy who's after me. My stepfather, actually. He thinks I know too much about...well, let's just say he doesn't like me very much.”

The others had poked their heads in. “What's going on here?” Hilary Booth swept in first. She made a face at Scott's bedraggled appearance. “I told you it was a desert tramp.”

Jeff moved aside. “Sir, this is my wife, Hilary Booth. She's the head of this troupe. If you want a job, she's the one you talk to.”

Hilary looked over his fringed jacket and tattered and faded shirt. “We don't hire vagrants.”

“I'm not a vagrant. All I want is a job, lady. I don't care what it is.”

“Do you have any experience in the theater?”

Scott shrugged. “I never really took to the legitimate stage. All that fancy talk. Now vaudeville, that's where the real fun is. I used to spend a lot of time at vaudeville houses when I...when I traveled.”

“Have you ever done any acting before?”

He gave her his most charming smile. “I've convinced people I'm something I'm not.”

“He looks like he's strong enough to move scenery,” Eugenia put in. “And he seems like a nice enough young man. He hasn't really hurt anybody.”

Mr. Foley opened his mouth to ask if he knew any music, but C.J got there first. “I could use some help building and striking the sets. I'd really rather concentrate on the special effects, anyway. I find the electrical effects they're starting to use in some newer theaters really interesting.”

Eugenia saw the look on Mr. Foley's face. “What about music? Can you play an instrument?”

Scott nodded. “I took piano lessons for most of my childhood. My mother thought it would make a gentleman out of me. I'm no virtuoso, but I can pick out a tune.”

Jeff turned to his wife. “The final decision is yours, Hilary, but I say we take him. We really could use another hand.”

“Yeah,” Mackie added. “I can stop playing all seven dwarfs when we do Snow White for the kiddies.”

“And his horse likes him,” Mr. Eldridge puts in. “You can always tell a man by how he treats his horse. Or his mother. I can't remember which.”

Hilary sighed. “All right. We need another actor badly.” She gave Scott a charming smile of her own. “And I'm sure this fellow can act as badly as anyone else in Colorado.”

Scott chuckled. “Thanks, Miss Hildy.”

Hilary frowned. “My name is Hilary Booth. Don't make me regret hiring you. Now, you know my name, as do all civilized people, but we don't know yours.”

“Scott...” He quickly looked around the carriage. His eye caught a poster for that performance of Snow White the little man with the graying mustache mentioned. “Scott White. My name is Scott White.”

“Good.” Mackie grinned. “Now that we have a new member, why don't we...”

That was when gunshots were heard outside. “Come out here, Singer!” hollered a gruff, whiskey-fueled voice from outside.

Eugenia saw them out the window. “Oh Miss Hilary, it's those nasty bill collectors again!”

Scott's hand went to the handle of his knife. “Bill collectors?”

Hilary nodded. “These men have been hounding us for weeks to pay the money we owe on the carriages and horses. Unfortunately, business has been rather poor lately. These backwoods farmers wouldn't know a good performance of Hamlet if the ghost of his father rose up and appeared in the front row.”

Scott and Mackie peered out the same window. The men were dressed as cowboys, in chaps and old shirts like him, but they were grimy and greasy. The beard on the largest one was flecked with this morning's meal. They looked like a couple of grumpy bears who were awaken from hibernation a month too early.

“Get your skinny hide out here! We want those carriages n' horses, an' we want 'em now!” The largest one shot the curls off the top of the wagon's roof. “Or we'll be shootin' all them actin' folks inside next.”

Scott looked at Jeff. “Are they always this pleasant?”

“Usually, they just show up screaming threats.”

Scott pulled out his long, silvery knife with the intricately carved handle. He grinned. “I have a plan.” He looked the bag of flour on the floor and an old purple robe hanging on the side of the wagon. “How about we give them some real ghosts?”

The three men were more than a little surprised when only one emerged...and he was a bit familiar to the largest. Frank had seen the cowboy in the leather jacket somewhere before. “Are you varmints comin' out, or are we gonna have to get ugly with all them nice people?”

“Now fellas, there's no need for all these threats.” Scott shook his head. “I'm just dispelling the ghosts.”

One of the men gulped and looked at Frank. “” He gasped. “There ain't really ghosts around these parts, are there?”

"'Course there ain't. That's ol' wives tales."

One of the men gulped. “But I ain't married!”

Frank glared at Scott. “There ain't no ghosts in there, ya sidewindin' snake. Are you gonna let us in, or are we gonna have to take that knife an' use it to cut pieces of your hide bit by bit?”

That's when creatures in ragged clothing, covered in grainy white, floated behind him, moaning and groaning. Scott gasped...though in truth, he was trying not to laugh. “He's the ghosts! They've come for us! Save yourselves!” He screamed as the tallest with the curliest hair threw white powder at him.

That was enough for two of the men. They turned their horses around and galloped off into Olney Springs. Frank wasn't amused. “I don't think these are ghosts. There ain't no such things as ghosts.”

A small, elderly man who was covered in white from head to toe stood behind him. “Oh, you'd be surprised, young man.”

He turned see a short man with a bristling mustache on his other side. “Yeah. We might decide to get rid of ya now. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe we'll just play wit' ya for a little while, then stab ya in the back when ya ain't lookin'.”

The taller woman in the long, heavy plum-colored cloak almost floated over to him. “You will be one of us. We will take you with us to the ethereal plane, where the gods of judgment will either ascend you to the pearly gates of eternal waking bliss, or hurl you into the fiery reaches of the darkest corners of the most evil sides of hell and damnation. Or have I said too much?”

Scott came with white powder on him, too. He lifted his knife over Frank. “You are one of us.”

Frank screamed as the group chanted around him. He took off after his friends, shrieking about ghosts all the way. The last thing on his mind was how he'd seen the guy with the knife before...

Scott laughed and shook the flour out of his hair. “What a bunch of dopes! I can't believe they fell for that.”

Eugenia brushed the flour off her tawny yellow bun. “That idea was brilliant, Mr. White!”

Jeff and Hilary were brushing each other off. Clouds of white dust flew around Hilary's cloak. “Nice scheme there, Scotty.”

“Thanks, Hildy.”

Hilary shook her head. “First of all, Mr. White, if you're going to work with us, it's Hilary. It has to be Hilary.”

Scott just nodded with a smile. “Hilary.”

C.J had taken a brush to his jacket. “Can we eat now?”

Mackie was brushing the flour out of his mustache. “Yeah. I'm so hungry, I could even eat Hilary's pasta and ketchup.”

“Right now,” Scott said with a small grin, “I'd be willing to eat just about anything.”

Mr. Eldridge was still all white. “This should suit you.”

Scott chuckled and Hilary made a face as they all headed indoors to eat what remained of their meal.

The Office at the Bar S Ranch, the Next Day

Pruitt growled at the three ham-sized men standing in front of his desk. “It was a simple assignment. You were just supposed to gather the money that acting troupe owes us. If you couldn't get money, I wanted their carriages and horses. And yet you come back here with wild tales about ghosts!”

Frank nodded. “Yeah, they were all ghosts, Mr. Pruitt, sir! They floated around me, chantin' an' screamin' like banshees. They even turned that one guy with the black hair into a ghost, right in front of us!” Frank screwed up his face like he could actually think. “Ya know, that guy was kinda familiar. I seen him someplace before. He must be a new member of the actin' troupe.”

Pruitt raised his eyebrows. “I wasn't aware that they were holding auditions. From what I gather, they can barely afford the three actors they have.”

The second man nodded. “He weren't too tall, an' he wore all leather, like an Injun, an' he had long black hair like an' Injun, but he weren't no Injun. He was too small' in big around to be an Injun.”

“Yeah,” Frank added. “He looked a lot like that new ranch hand with the dark hair you hired a few months ago. The one who disappeared after he went off with that purty red-haired lady.”

Pruitt could barely contain his fury. “He's alive!” He glared at the three men. “That 'ghost' was my swindler stepson Scott Sherwood. He tricked you, and probably tricked them, too.”

Frank gave him a gap-toothed smirk. “Ya want us to get rid of him, boss?”

“Yes, but be more subtle about it than you were with getting money from the theater company.” He could see the blank expressions on their faces at the word “subtle.” “Oh, for heaven's sake, make it look like an accident! Just don't shoot him. That's too messy.” He looked at the rapidly darkening sky. “It's too late to go out tonight. Start tomorrow. Ask around where the troupe's been staying. I doubt they'll be in one place for too long. My stepson may have already told them about the attempt on his life.”

“Right, boss.” The trio stumbled out as Priscilla Cosgrave pushed her way in.

“I wish you wouldn't deal with low-lives like that.” Miss Cosgrave wrinkled her nose at the pungent fragrance that wafted from their oversized persons. “They'll give you a bad name.”

“All I care about is that they do their duty.” He turned to his faithful secretary. “Miss Cosgrave, would you know where Miss LaMarsh went to after she brought us the box with my stepson's heart?”

“Not a clue, R.P, and I don't care. I don't like that young woman. She's tries to act tough, but I think underneath, her heart is a lot softer than a bounty hunter's should be.”

“It would seem she lied about my swindling stepson's tragic passing.” He handed her the box that Maple had said contained Scott's heart. “Here. Ask some of the ranch hands who work with the cattle whether or not this is a human heart, or that of an animal. I'm beginning to think Miss LaMarsh played a little joke on us.” He narrowed his eyes. “I don't like jokes. After you talk to him, I'll send some of the boys after Miss LaMarsh. I have a few questions for that so-called bounty hunter.”

Scott White and the Seven Actors

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