Scott Sherwood wouldn't have believed it even a few months ago, but he was beginning to enjoy being a member of an acting troupe. Before he came home, he'd always been a lone wolf, dashing from place to place, never staying anywhere long enough to create ties. He was surprised at how much he was learning. Jeff Singer taught him about voice projection. C.J showed him how the sets worked, how to slide them in and out and make them look almost real. Mackie showed him how to be anyone he could imagine, from a grumpy dwarf to a noble king. Eugenia and Mr. Foley helped him with the props and gave him new musical pieces to learn. Mr. Eldridge had great stories about how he'd first come to Colorado as a settler with a wife and three children. Even Hilary Booth seemed to be warming up to him.
For all the wonderful moments on the stage, when he was in costume and lost in the world of fairy tales or Shakespeare, there were difficult times as well. The troupe was small and not well-funded. Jeff said one man had stolen the till in Crowley, which is why they were behind on their bills. People often didn't trust actors, either. They were frequently accused of stealing everything from cattle to farmer's daughters. Scott's trick with the ghosts didn't work everywhere. They'd been run out of one town where a farmer swore they stole his pigs. It was more likely that a ranch hand stole his pigs, or they just ran away, but people believed him just the same. A few days after the pig incident, Scott, Mackie, and Jeff were on their way back to the carriages from a nearby town. They'd been picking up supplies for costumes and sets, ribbons and fabric and lace and braid and other fine trim. Scott found pearly bolts of satin in blue and yellow that might make a good costume for Hilary when she played the title character of Snow White. She complained that the dark green dress she wore now was too plain and made her look too old to pull off looking like a young girl.
It was Mackie who heard the rustlers. Mackie's ears had been pricked ever since they left town. “I swear we're being followed,” he fussed. “I know I've heard horses behind us for miles.”
“That's your imagination talking, Mackie,” Jeff scolded. Scott liked the younger man. For all his ego and preening, he had a good heart and a good head on his shoulders. He was genuinely devoted to Hilary, despite their occasional heated spats over billing or their money woes.
“I don't know, Jeff.” Scott slowed Lightning to a trot. “I've been hearin' somethin', too. It's not the Indians. They've mostly cleared out of this area.”
The trees surrounding the river seemed to magnify every sound. Mackie's whimper almost matched that of his pony Colonel Moore. “I think we ought to get away from the river. At least the land will be more open there.”
“Yeah,” Scott started, “I think so, too.” He began to turn Lightning from the river towards the hills.
Jeff shook his head. “You're making a mountain out of a...” A bullet hit the tree nearest to Jeff, splintering the wood inches from his cheek.
Mackie let out a screech as eight armed men rode from behind bushes and trees. “It's an ambush!”
Scott pulled out his gun. “Come on, guys. We've gotta hold them off.”
Jeff pulled out his own pistol. “At least long enough to get out of the woods.” He loaded the pistol as quickly as he could. “I wonder what they want? It's not as if lace trim and sequins are valuable.”
“Maybe they're a rival acting troupe who want to steal our costumes for their own company!” Mackie wailed as he pulled out a smaller pistol.
Scott had already taken a few shots at the goons. “I doubt it. These guys look like they can't read past the first grade primer. They probably think Hamlet is something you eat with beans and rice.”
Jeff struggled with two of the goons, who were trying to get him off his horse. Mackie had pulled Colonel Moore behind some heavy brush and was attempting to take down two more, though he wasn't a very good shot. His bullets were more likely to end up in trees and on the ground.
Scott saw one of the goons throw Jeff off his horse Brent. “Jeff!” He leaped off Lighting and, dodging Mackie's stray bullets, hurried over to his friend.
He ran straight into an immovable object...namely, Frank's barrel chest. “Goin' somewhere, Mr. Ghost?”
“Yes!” Scott snapped. “I'm gonna help my buddy there, before your oversized pieces of beef flatten him into a flapjack. If you don't move, I'll have to get rough with ya.”
“That's what you think, Mr. Ghost.” Scott had no time to react. Frank's sausage-like fingers yanked his arms behind his back, binding them with colorful silk scarves. Another set of thick hands looped scarves around Scott's neck and pulled them tightly. Scott collapsed to his knees, struggling to pull free from Frank's vice-like grip. Spots began to swim in front of his eyes. His lungs were bursting.
That was when something shiny and golden came down over Frank's head. He was distracted long enough to let Scott go. The dark-haired man gasped, trying to shake off the length of colorful silk that threatened to choke him. His head swam. He finally fainted on a bed of moss.
When he came to, he was looking into a pair of concerned liquid brown eyes. Lightning nudged her master. Mackie was unwinding the scarves from his neck. Jeff, his right eye now an interesting shade of purple-black, was freeing his hands.
“You ok, Scotty?” Mackie got the last of the scarves free. “Those guys really had it in for you!”
“Yeah, they did.” Jeff frowned. “Mackie somehow managed to get two of them in the arm. The others took off after I got the biggest one over the head with the curtain rod.” He held up a bent brass rod. “Hilary's not going to be happy, but we might be able to get a blacksmith somewhere to fix it.”
Scott managed to get on his knees. “Those were...the same guys...who tried to take...your carriages. Probably...my stepfather's...men. Want to kill me...I know too much...”
Jeff and Mackie helped him to his feet. “Are you gonna be ok?” Mackie asked with genuine concern.
Scott nodded. “Yeah. I'm fine. I just needed to catch my breath.”
“Let's get out of here.” Jeff lead Scott back to the horses. “Stay between us, just in case anyone else tries anything.”
Scott saluted him. “Yes, sir.” Mackie chuckled and Jeff rolled his eyes as they climbed onto their horses and wrote out of the woods.
The Office at the Bar S, Later That Evening
“I gave you a simple job. Just kill him and make it look like an accident! Not only did you not kill him, but the acting troupe he's staying with now knows there's someone after him. They'll be watching over him like a hawk.” Pruitt glared at them. “You're all dismissed.”
Cosgrave came in as the men were leaving. “What's wrong, R.P? What did those men say about the heart in the box?”
His lip curled. “It would seem Miss LaMarsh lied to us. The heart in the box is that of an old sow who was slaughtered for bacon the same day I sent her to eliminate Sherwood.” He turned to his most loyal and trusted employee. “Miss Cosgrave, how are you with acting?”
“I used to appear as an angel in our church's nativity pageant ever year as a child.”
“That stepson of mine is becoming a nuisance. It seems he managed to escape the grasp of my men, thanks to two of his new friends. He's still more alive than he should be.” He was going through his desk. “It should be in here somewhere...”
Cosgrave sat at her desk. “What are you looking for?”
“Aha!” Pruitt finally pulled out what appeared to be a simple wooden comb, the kind that could be purchased in any general store for five cents. “I know how to eliminate Sherwood without any bloodshed or anyone the wiser.”
“How do you plan on doing that, R.P? You know he's clever. He might figure it out. And even if he does, one of the members of the acting troupe might find him.”
“Oh, but they'll never expect this.” He turned to Cosgrave. “We'll dress you as a peddler, selling things for the troupe.” He waved the comb. “Including this for that shining dark hair of my stepson's.” He smirked. “When he puts this those ebony locks...he'll get a dose of a lot more than hair oil.”
Scott White and the Seven Actors
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