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Two Days Later, Alhambra Theater, Pueblo, Colorado

“No, Hilary!” Scott shook his head. They were striking the sets and getting ready to move on to their next location when the messenger boy arrived with the letter. “I can't go there! Pruitt didn't invite us because he thinks we're good actors. He wants to kill me...or worse!”

“But it's a great opportunity!” Hilary sighed. “It may just be a little county fair, but they'll be hundreds of people there. Maybe even critics from larger cities. We'll be able to see and be seen.”

“She''s right,” Jeff added. “We could get more people to pack the seats in a few days at a fair than we could for an entire week's run at some tiny town in the middle of nowhere.”

“I don't know.” Eugenia looked pale. “They've already tried to kill Mr. Sherwood twice. What if they try again?”

Jeff raised his chin in determination. “We'll be ready for them. Hilary and I won't let this Pruitt hurt a member of our troupe.” He grinned at Scott. “Besides, he's gotten some decent notices as the huntsman. This would be a great shot at publicity for the troupe.”

“Publicity is the last thing I want.” Scott started pacing.

“What if we hid him somewhere?” Mr. Eldridge said. “Like a closet?”

Hilary grinned. “Or in plain sight.” She hurried to the wings and started rummaging through a costume trunk.

Jeff raised an eyebrow at the things his wife was tossing around. “Hilary darling, what are you doing?”

“Ah ha!” Hilary finally emerged from the trunk, carrying a wig with coarse, butter-yellow curls. “I knew we still had it from the time Jeff played Cupid in Cupid and Psyche.”

“That wig?” Jeff made a face. “Hilary, that thing so itchy! I had to resist scratching my head every night I wore it.”

“It's just for when he's in town.”

Scott stepped back. “I don't know if this is a good idea...”

“It's better than you hiding in a closet. We're going to need you for the show.” Hilary plopped the wig on his head. “Eugenia, help me with his make-up. This will be my finest creation since I played Ariel in The Tempest.”

Wennton, Colorado, A Week Later

The county fair was the biggest event held at Wennton. Every year, people from towns for miles around brought their finest livestock, jams, jellies, relishes, and baked goods to be sold and judged. The rodeo attracted cowboys from as far away as Denver to win the cash-prize the Bar S put out. Booths and tents sold bright Indian jewelry, soft woven blankets, thick woolen socks, herbal-smelling soaps, and the most delicious fruits and vegetables the local farms had to offer. It was a lot just for Betty Prince to take in.

“This is really amazing, isn't it?” Doug Thompson asked. “I'm glad I agreed to join you while you worked on this article.”

“I thought it would be interesting to hear about the fair from a man's perspective as well as a woman's.” She looked over her notes. “I think I have enough. I talked to the jam sellers and the winner of the corn-relish-making contest and the owner of the largest steers and the fattest hogs. The rodeo will be later, and I need to interview the acting troupe that's in town for the fair.”

They stopped by a slightly weathered wooden building in the center of Wennton's main drag. “Wennton Weekly Gazette” could be seen painted in curling golden letters on the second floor. “I need to pick up those papers the surveyor sent. I don't care what my boss says. I think I have proof that he's after a lot more than a couple of cattle spreads. I think there's something in the very dirt the town's built on.”

Doug took her hand. “Betty, be careful. Pruitt's ruthless. They talk about him and his dirty dealings in Pueblo. He'll do anything to get what he wants, including murder.”

Betty smiled. “I'll be ok.” As she headed for the office, she noticed a poster hanging on the wall next to the little hat shop on the first floor. It was an advertisement for the Valiant Journey Acting Troupe. She took it down, studying it. She recognized Scott White. She had when she and Doug had gone to see the group last week. Scott White had to be Scott Sherwood, the man she met on the train, the one who ended up working as a farm hand on the Bar S. The one who wanted to find out what happened to his mother. How did he end up joining an acting troupe? He didn't say anything about being an actor.

She put the poster under her arm. There was more to this than met the eye. Now she really wanted to interview the troupe. Scott had said he thought his mother had been killed to get her land. Had he ever found out the truth? Her inquiring mind had to know.

Later That Day, Outside Wennton Town Hall

“I feel like a clown. I should be keeping guys from getting stepped on at the rodeo.” Scott sat in the carriage with Eugenia and Hilary. He wore the yellow wig, a checked shirt, a plaid jacket, an old pair of Mackie's pants, and a pair of old boots.

“Oh, stop complaining. You were the one who was worried about being recognized.” Hilary sighed. “You could always say it's part of our act.”

They were sitting in the carriages in the back of the Town Hall. The Town Hall had no dressing rooms. It was rare that Wennton hosted even a semi-professional acting troupe. It's stage was mainly used for assemblies, town meetings, and the local school's holiday pageants.

“I think you look very unique, Mr. White.” Eugenia fluffed Scott's wig.

“Is that a euphemism for 'weird,' Miss Bremer?” Scott grinned and raised his eyebrow. She giggled.

“Hilary, are you ready to...” Jeff took one look at Scott and doubled over laughing.

Scott glared at Hilary. “I knew this wasn't going to work.”

“Jeffrey Singer, stop that!” Hilary lightly cuffed his shoulder. “I think he looks quite debonair.”

Mackie came in behind him. “Hey Scott, which way to the circus?”

“Very funny.” Scott took off the wig. “I'm not wearing that. It itches like crazy!”

“I told Hilary to get rid of that wig,” Jeff added between guffaws.

“Do you have any better ideas?” Hilary grumbled to her highly amused husband.

Scott dumped the wig in a trunk behind him. “Hilary, I need to look up a friend while I'm here. I promise, I'll be back well before we start rehearsals.”

Hilary nodded. “All right.” She turned to the small crowd gathered around her. “The rest of you have the next two hours to yourselves. You can do what you want. Just come back here in time to prepare for tonight's show.”

Jeff took Hilary's arm. “I know what I'd like to do with you, Miss Booth. I'd like to take you out there and show you a shady area under the bandstand that would be perfect for some...private time.”

Hilary grinned back at him. “Sounds like a lot more fun than watching people decide between two identical pigs or jars of blackberry jam.”

“Don't wait up for us.” Jeff winked at them as they headed for the bandstand.

Scott followed the others through the Town Hall and onto the main street. “So Scotty,” Mackie started, “who is this friend of yours you need to talk to?” He gave him a sly grin. “Man friend or lady friend?”

“Lady friend.”

Mackie saw the look on Scott's face. “Is she pretty?”

Scott nodded. “Beautiful. She's the prettiest thing in the entire state of Colorado.” He sighed and shook his head. “But right now, I just need to ask her some questions.”

“Do what you want.” Hilary straightened her lavender hat trimmed with flowers. “Just be back in time for rehearsal.”

“Don't worry, Hilary.” Scott chuckled. “I'll be there.”

That Day, Office at the Wennton Daily Gazette

Betty's eyes widened as she read the papers. “Oh my....” She couldn't believe it. “That's it! That's why Pruitt wants the land.” She frowned. “And Victor knew, too. That must be why...” She looked over the copy of the deed from the Bar S Ranch she'd picked up the day before. “Those metals would be valuable. This is what Scott wanted. This is why Victor was killed.” She looked at the coroner's reports and felt woozy. “And Fiona Pruitt, too. She wasn't killed for her land. She was killed for what was under it.”

“This is really important.” She pushed the papers into a folder and shoved it under her arm. “I have to talk to Pruitt and find Scott Sherwood. I can't believe he...Scott's the owner of that spread! Why was he really working as a ranch hand? To get the goods on Pruitt? And where has he been?”

She was surprised to see the answer to her questions sitting in the lobby. “Betty?” Scott stood. He wore a plain, ill-fitting suit, with trousers so long, he had to roll them up to keep from tripping on them. Someone had made him up to be more rosy-cheeked and red-lipped, but it was still plainly him. “I'm glad you're here! I was hoping to talk to you.”

Betty nodded. “And I wanted to talk to you.” She pulled out the papers. "I talked to the coroner. He was supposed to repress his findings.” She gave him a little smirk. “A five dollar bill does wonders to change a person's mind. Your mother was poisoned, but not by anything that came from an animal. There was no rattlesnake. They don't know where the poison was, only that it was taken internally.”

Scott's fists curled. “I knew it. Pruitt was lying through his teeth. He just wanted Mom's money. He probably put poison in wine or juice and gave that to her.” He growled. “Damn it! I want to go down there and rip the smirk right off the face of that pompous ass!”

“Scott, your language.” Betty shook her head. “We don't know this for certain. There has to be a way we can trap him.”

“Can we kill him first, then trap him?”

“No, Scott.” She sighed. “Where have you been the last few months, anyway? How did you end up joining an acting troupe?”

Scott raised an eyebrow. “How did you know about that?”

Betty smiled. “I saw you at the Alhambra Theater in Pueblo with a friend. You're not a bad actor, by the way. You made a wonderful huntsman. I was in tears when you broke down and told Snow White she was too innocent for you to kill her.” She crossed her arms. “Are you avoiding your stepfather?”

Scott nodded. “Yeah. Not that it's done much good. Pruitt's done everything short of outright shooting me. He sent a bounty hunter after me. Thankfully, she was a friend of mine and let me go. He had goons ambush me and two of the actors from the troupe. They wanted to choke me to death, but the guys chased them off. He sent some old woman to sell me a comb soaked in poison. The head of the troupe and the musician and prop man got that out.”

She looked around. “If he's that desperate, I don't think you should be here. Maybe you should really be back with the troupe. They sound like they'll protect you.”

“I had to find out what happened to Mom.” He gently pulled her closer. “And I wanted to see you. I've thought about you a lot in the last few months.”

Betty blushed. “ have?”

He nodded. “All I want is to get the Bar S back. I don't know if I'll stay there or sell it and use the money...but I do know that whatever happens, I want you to be with me.” He took her hand and kissed it. “I fell for you when I saw you on the train.”

Betty's face was as red as the apples on the tree by the main house at the Bar S. “I...I don't know what to say.” She played with the folder. “I've thought about you a lot, too. You were so mysterious, so handsome, so smart....” She frowned. “It was like losing Victor all over again when you took off. I dated other men, but....I couldn't stop thinking about you.”

“Betty, I...” He couldn't help himself. He kissed her hard...just as Doug Thompson walked into the room.

Doug's eyes were wide. “Betty? Who's this?”

Betty looked dazed. “Doug, this is Scott...”

“White.” Scott took Doug's hand and shook it. “I'm with the acting troupe here. How about you? You one of Betty's fellow reporters?”

“Actually, I'm a lawyer. My office here is two doors down, on the second floor over the doctor's office.” He looked at Betty with a sheepish smile. “Miss Prince and I kind of have a date today.”

Scott frowned, crestfallen. “Oh, you do.” He turned to Betty...but the love in the amber orbs just a few minutes before had been replaced by solid steel. “I'm sorry to have bothered you, Miss Prince. Thank you for your help. I'm sure you don't need a ranch hand as an informant.”

“Scott...” He left before she could tell him that Doug was just a friend. She could see that he was hurt, but...well, he just kissed her! How could he be so bold? They weren't lovers. They barely knew each other, no matter how attracted she was to him or he to her.

“So, he's a ranch hand.” Doug watched Scott stomp down the stairs. “Where does he work? I haven't seen him at the rodeo or selling anything the booths for the local ranches.”

“He works at the Bar S.” Betty set her own slender jaw. “We have to find him. He's in grave danger.” She looked at the papers under her arm. “And when word about this gets out, I may be in danger, too.”

Main Street, Wennton, Colorado, A Few Minutes Later

Scott stomped back to the town hall. “I should have known,” he muttered to himself. “She never loved me. She just smelled a story. She's a reporter. That's all they care about. I'll bet she has five guys on the side.”

Booths for local wares lined the streets. Scott hadn't noticed the one set up next to the town hall. It was lined with every type of apple treat ever made. He just barely noticed apple fritters, apple turnovers, fresh apples, apple dumplings, apple tarts, and two large, luscious apple pies topped with cinnamon. A large man in a huge hat, his face covered in heavy make-up, was going over the booth's profits. He could barely contain his smirk when Scott appeared.

He pulled out a tart. “Fresh apples!” He said in a rather badly done western accent. “Apple tart, apple turnover, apple dumplings. We have everything you could make of an apple. Why, the missus made these here pies fresh this morning.”

“I'm not hungry.” Scott frowned. This guy seemed too familiar. Especially that voice. “You got anything a little...harder? To hell with Hildy's rules. I want to forget my troubles. I want to forget Betty Prince ever existed.”

“Ahh. Woman trouble.” He smirked and pulled out an earthenware jug from under the booth's counter. “I have just the thing.” He patted the jug fondly. “Hard apple cider! My cowboys pulled it out of the distillery just this morning. It has just a little...kick...that will make all your troubles disappear.”

“That's what I want.” Scott put three nickels on the counter. “Make it a triple.”

“How about four, then?” He could barely contain his smirk. “I'll join you. We could go in the Town Hall.” He wiped his forehead. “It's mighty hot outside today. A man could roast out here.” He put a “closed” sign on the booth and strode out with the three drinks.

Scott wiped at the sweat trickling down his own neck. “Yeah.” He followed the man into the Town Hall. A thought nagged at the back of Scott's brain. He'd seen that man's swagger before. His instinct was telling him to bolt. He ignored it. He just wanted to get drunk. If Betty Prince was going to take up with some cutesy lawyer, he didn't want to think about her again.

What Scott didn't see was the man duck into a dark alley between the Town Hall and the livery stable. He sprinkled a strange white powder into Scott's third drink before hurrying inside.

Town Hall, Wennton, Colorado

The Town Hall was all one room. It was mainly a small stage, with benches set out for the audience, and a small area for a band or orchestra. The two men settled in the first row of benches.

The apple seller handed Scott the drinks. “Here you go, my boy. Get your mind off whatever devious creature has caused you pain and heartache. I can see you're hurting. Perhaps your wife left you?”

“No, not wife. Never been married. Never will, at this rate.” He sighed and gulped down his first cider. “I met her on the train coming here. I fell for her right the moment I met her. I thought she might even have liked me, but...” he shook his head, “of course, she was already taken. I made a fool of myself, thinking that a smart, beautiful girl like her could love someone like me.”

“We're all fools for love, once in a while.” He sipped his drink as Scott gulped his second one. “Why don't you try that third one? I added extra seasoning. A man with heartache like yours needs a little extra something.”

Scott nodded. Maybe his brain was already feeling the effects of the cider, but this guy was almost looking like Pruitt. He smirked like Pruitt. No, it couldn't be. Pruitt wouldn't stoop to selling liquor in some podunk Colorado village's county fair. “Well, down the hatch. Here's to all the dames who love you, then love lawyers.”

The apple seller watched with unbridled glee as Scott drained the last glass down to the very final drop. He grinned. “Hey, you're right! That wasn't...” Suddenly, he felt sick to his stomach. He was overwhelmed by nausea. He wanted to vomit, but all he'd had that day was the apple cider. His head was hot, but his body felt cold. He tried to stand, but the apple seller swept his feet out from under him. “I...dizzy...feel sick...the cider...” The glass fell from his fingers, rolling to one side.

“Got him, boss?” Frank and one of his boys came out, just as Scott hit the floor.

Scott barely saw the man remove his hat, revealing Pruitt in a ton of greasepaint. “Yes, I did.” He knelt and grabbed Scott by his hair, yanking his head up to his face. “Like mother, like son. Fiona was just as foolish as you. I married her for her money. She was beautiful to look at, but much too feisty. I had to get rid of her. She found out what I had planned for the town and the ranch. She died the same way you did – drinking a glass of apple cider lovingly prepared by her husband. One that just happened to contain the poison from crushed apple seeds.” He shook his head. “Now I'm the only handsome man at the Bar S...and I'm going to stay that way.”

“” Scott tried to fight the waves of nausea, but they finally overwhelmed him. “Mom...B..betty...” His head lolled back, and his eyes finally closed.

“What are we gonna do with him, boss?”

“Leave him here. Let those idiot actors he was so fond of deal with him.” He pulled off the apple seller's apron. “What about the explosives? Are they under the stage?”

“Sure are! They're set to go off right at 7 o'clock. Everyone should be there by then, watchin' the play...includin' the mayor and all the town officials.”

Pruitt smirked. “With them out of the way, I'll be able to buy off the rest of the land and start strip mining it. There's a vast store of copper and aluminum ore right where we're standing. I could sell it back east and make a fortune, more than I ever could branding cattle at the Bar S.”

“What about us, boss?”

He smirked. “Oh, we won't be at the show. We'll be at the Bar S, getting ready to go back east.” He sighed. “A tragedy is going to befall the town. The Professor's Gang is going to destroy the Town Hall. I'll be gracious enough to buy up all that now-worthless land that the poor, grieving families will be encouraged to sell.”

Pruitt's evil laughter was the last thing Scott Sherwood heard before he lost consciousness.

Town Hall, A Few Minutes Later

Mackie, Hilary, and Jeff came in first. Hilary was patting her perfect auburn hairstyle back into place. “Those cowboys have absolutely no sense of humor,” the actress complained. “We were just having a bit of fun under the bleachers!”

Mackie rolled his eyes. “Hilary, you and Jeff were spooking the horses.”

“You'd think they wouldn't have that spot right there.” Jeff dusted off his jacket. “It's an open invitation to neck.”

The trio made their way to the back of the auditorium. Mackie rolled his eyes. “You two think high noon in the middle of town is an open invitation to neck.”

“Don't be silly, Mackie.” Hilary put an arm around Jeff. “We're just enjoying each others' company.”

“Yeah, when you're not screaming loud enough to be heard in Arizona and Nebraska.” Mackie nearly tripped over a tin cup as he passed the first row. “Someone left this laying around...” His eyes followed the glass to a hand on the floor. “What's this?”

Hilary and Jeff both rushed up at once when they heard Mackie scream in horror. Long-legged Jeff got there first. “What's wrong, Mackie?”

Mackie looked up, his eyes shocked under his round spectacles. “Hilary, Jeff, I think Scott's dead!”

“What?” Hilary and Jeff joined Mackie on the floor beside the prostrate man. Jeff took off his jacket and stuffed it under Scott's head. Hilary looked at her husband. “Jeff, get a doctor.”

He nodded and hurried off as Betty and Doug hurried in. “Excuse me, but I wanted to talk to...” Betty gasped when she saw Scott on the floor. “Oh my god! Who did this?”

“We don't know. We came in and found him passed out.” Hilary checked his pulse and went white. “I don't feel anything!”

“No!” Betty decided she'd try to do the life-saving operation she'd learned during a first-aid class when she still lived on the farm in Indiana. She was glad she'd let her mother talk her into that. “Doug, keep everyone back.”

Mackie raised his eyebrows as Betty leaned over and pressed her lips against Scott's...though she was red as a tomato the entire time. “What is she doing?”

Doug frowned. “Saving his life.”

Eugenia and Foley hurried in, with Jeff and an older man on their heels. Hilary came over with the glass as the doctor went to the duo on the floor. “I smell apple cider in this. Darn it, I told him not to drink before rehearsal!”

“I think that's sort of, um, our fault,” Doug admitted with a sign. “He saw Betty and me and got upset.”

“Upset enough to drown himself in what I assume was hard apple cider?”

Now Doug was the one who was red in the face. “I sort of caught them, um, kissing in the Daily Gazette office.”

Hilary raised an eyebrow. “Not the most romantic place for a secret rendezvous, but if that's how he wants it...”

C.J and Mr. Eldridge hurried in next. “What's going on?”

They came just in time to hear coughing. Betty had been pushing on his chest as hard as she could. Scott finally turned over, hacking up what sounded like gallons of hard apple cider. Betty and the doctor rubbed his back.

Scott turned to Betty. “Thanks...Betty...Doc....”

The doctor frowned as Betty told Eugenia and Foley to bring towels to wipe up the mess. “Son, what happened here? Did you overindulge? There was an apple seller near here an hour or so ago...”

“No...well, yes, but it was only three ciders.” Betty and the doctor helped him to his feet. “That last one was poisoned. He told me himself.” He grabbed hold of the stage. “Pruitt told me. He was the apple seller.”

Doug's normally pleasant face darkened. “I'm going to see if the apple seller is still there.” He hurried out of the hall.

“We didn't see anyone when we came in,” Eugenia added. “There was a booth, but it was empty.” Mr. Foley nodded in agreement.

Hilary and Betty sat on either side of Scott. Scott would have grinned at the sight of Betty holding his hand if he felt better. “This is the third attack on your person in the last month, Scott.” Hilary made a face. “You're too popular with the wrong people. You need to start running with a crowd that's less fond of poisons and strangulation.”

Scott looked up at Betty, his eyes troubled. “Pruitt wants the Bar S and the whole town. He killed my mom to get the Bar S.”

Betty nodded. “I've suspected for months that Pruitt was after the land for a reason. We got the message from the surveyors this afternoon. There's thousands, maybe millions of dollars worth of valuable minerals under this area, including Wennton and the Bar S. Pruitt wants to strip-mine the area and send it off to the highest bidder.”

“And I've suspected for months that Pruitt didn't marry Mom because he loved her. He wanted the ranch...and the minerals.” That was when Scott remembered the rest of Pruitt's talk to his men before he lost consciousness. He jumped up...then wound up back on the bench when his head started swimming again. “The..the stage! There's a bomb down there!”

“A bomb?” Mackie jumped away from the stage as if he was stung.

Scott stumbled over to the stage. He ran his fingernails along the edges, trying to feel for a loose board. “C.J, Mackie, help me out here.”

“All right, Scott.” Mackie took one side of the stage, C.J the other. “But if we're blown to smithereens, I'm holding you responsible!”

All three men checked all along the stage for a few minutes. C.J finally let out a surprised squawk. “Found it!” He yanked the board off. Scott, Mackie, Hilary, and Jeff hurried over. The object in the dark area under the stage looked like a large clock attached to explosives with wires. It ticked away ominously.

Betty gasped. “There's enough dynamite there to destroy the entire town!”

Hilary's eyes widened. “That thing could have given us all a very early retirement.”

“Don't touch it!” Mackie ducked back. “It might go off!”

Scott nodded. “Jeff, Hilary, go get Sheriff Reece. We have to dismantle this thing, before it really does blow.”

They left as Doug came back in. “Your friends are right,” he admitted. “There is a booth next to the Town Hall, but it's empty. There isn't even anything for sale anymore. I asked a few people, and they did say there was an apple seller in that spot earlier. No one knows when he closed or where he went.”

“He left because Pruitt thinks he got what he wanted.” Scott's eyes sparkled. “Or he thinks he did.” He turned to Mackie. “Do you remember the ghost act I put on the day you hired me?”

Mackie raised an eyebrow. “Ok, Scotty, out with it. I know that look. You've got an idea running around in there.”

He turned his grin to Betty first. “How's your acting?”

“I played Cinderella once in third-grade.”

“Close enough.” He took her hand. “Betty, betty, betty, you're gonna get the story of the century!” He grinned at Mackie. “And you're gonna get yourself a nice little acting challenge.” He went to C.J, who was returning the loose board to the stage. “Do you have that glowing white stuff? You used it on me when I played the ghost in


“You mean phosphorous?” C.J nodded. “I just bought some more not long ago, in fact.”

“Good. We're gonna need it.” He turned to Betty again. “Pruitt thinks we're all gonna be dead after tonight's show, right?”

Betty nodded. “Right.”

“Why don't we just let him go on thinking we're all dead?”

C.J and Betty exchanged surprised looks. Betty could only blurt out “Say what?”

Scott just gave them his famous cat-ate-the-canary grin. “Very exciting!”

Scott White and the Seven Actors

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