The Bar S Ranch, Late That Night
All was dark at around the ranch. Owls hooted into the night as they took off to find tasty rodents or rabbits. Wolves howled in the distance. Cattle mooed and snorted in their sleep. The wind whistled through the apple orchard. The wind was heavy enough to cover the sound of huge goons being grabbed by spectral beings covered in white and yanked back into the shadows.
Rollie Pruitt was gathering the last of the papers he was bringing east with him. “Do you have everything you need, Cosgrave?” he asked his breathless secretary.
“Just about.” She threw papers and rock samples into a box. “You know, R.P, it seems rather odd that we haven't heard an explosion in town yet. I haven't seen any of the men, either.”
Rollie just groaned. “Why can't one plan go the way I wanted it to?” He dropped his suitcase on the porch. “I'm going to go check up on our visitor in the storage house. You see if you can get some of the ranch hands to bring our things to the carriage in back of the house.”
Cosgrave nodded, making her way across the hall and past the office. She shuddered. The house was dark and spooky at this time of night. Despite being only forty or so years old, it felt far more lived in. She thought she heard whispers in the bushes outside, but that might have been her overexcited imagination talking.
That was when she saw her. An elegant-looking, black-haired woman in white. She was all ghostly, spectral white, from her ruffled wedding gown and beaded shoes to the veil that covered her face. Cosgrave couldn't help the gasp that issued from her horrified throat. “Who...who is that? Reveal yourself!”
The figure wore what looked like a wedding veil. She had a dead rattlesnake around her neck. “I am the ghost of Fiona Sherwood Pruitt,” she moaned in a heavy (and very fake) Irish accent. “This is my home. You are an intruder.” She lifted the snake. “'Tis no real snake that killed me. You know it wasn't. It was a snake of the human variety. A no-good, sidewindin' rattlesnake, with a tail made of brocade and scales of human flesh. He will be dragged in the depths of eternal damnation and scoured of all his sins before an audience of sidewinders who have murdered and killed and raped those who work and cherish this land. Or have I said too much?”
Cosgrave turned nearly as white as the “Ghost.” “Oh god...god no...you can't be...” She turned to run, but saw two more ghosts coming at her. One was a younger man in a tattered cowboy's outfit that was slightly too big for him. The other man was a shorter fellow with a thick mustache, dressed as what looked like a banker in a fine waistcoat and trousers. Both were white as sheets and gave of a faint glow, like a pair of mismatched moons.
“You know too much,” whispered the older man. “You destroyed us all. Now you must be destroyed!” The cowboy ghost said nothing at all, but his large, dour brown eyes glittered hungrily in the dark.
“It...it wasn't me!” Cosgrave wailed. “It was R.P. It was all his idea. He's the one who wanted to sell the minerals under the town. He has friends in Denver who are surveyors. They found out that the land is more valuable than people thought. He killed Fiona Sherwood and her son! He and the boys planted that bomb in the town hall. I had nothing to do with it! If it was up to me, we would have just kept selling cattle!”
“That's all we needed to know.” Sheriff Gertrude Reece stepped out of the downstairs coat closet. Her short, springy orange-red hair and stony glare were quite clear, even in the darkness. “You just said a mouthful, ma'am.” She clapped handcuffs over Cosgrave's wrists. “You're under arrest for accessory to fraud, attempted murder, first-degree murder, and claim jumping.”
“But I didn't do it!” Two deputies who had been hiding on the porch lead her away. Tom Eldridge, who wore his usual bow tie and sweater over his phosphorous-covered body, patted the tall female sheriff on the shoulder. “Thanks, Gertie. I knew we could count on you.”
“We've been after Pruitt and his boys for months.” She made a face. “We always suspected he was after something big. I think he was involved in my old boss Victor Comstock's death, too. Victor wired us the day before he died and said he'd found important information about the Professor's Gang and how they operate.”
“Shhh!” Pruitt's voice could be heard out back. Hilary waved them away. “Mackie, C.J, get in place. Gertie, get in the closet, where you belong.”
“Hey, I'm the Sheriff here!” Hilary ignored her protests and pushed her into the nearest coat.
“What the blazes is going on?” Pruitt stormed into the living room. “Cosgrave, you were supposed to meet me outside. What did you find?”
He nearly ran right into Hilary. She turned to him, giving him her most menacing stare.”F...Fiona?” Pruitt's piggy eyes nearly tripled in size. “No! You're dead! I killed you myself! I saw you drink the poison!”
“You killed me,” she breathed. “You killed my son. You stole our home.”
“He knew too much!” Pruitt snapped. “And you were being stubborn about strip-mining the ranch. There's valuable minerals under this land. We could have sold it for five times what we'd make selling gas-creating, grass-eating quadrupeds!”
Pruitt gasped as more glowing beings began appearing. They came in through the windows and the doors. They wore ruined dresses and bonnets and suits, blackened and singed from gunpowder. They looked as if...as if they'd been in an explosion.
“How could this be? I didn't hear an explosion! I didn't think it went off.”
A tiny, once-pretty young woman in a frilly white and pink gown lifted her filmy, ripped sleeves...revealing her lack of hands. “Oh, it went off. Now we're not all there.”
Pruitt nearly screamed when a dark, hulking figure in brown fringed leather stepped out of the shadows. A familiar one. And this one was living, without a hint of glow on him.
“You're the snake in the apple orchard, Pruitt. You killed my mother. You made her think you loved her, then you murdered her in cold blood. You sent those men to kill Victor Comstock, and then you sent them after me.” The full moon and sickly glow from the seeming ghosts around them gave Scott Sherwood's ebony hair the glow of moonlight. His narrowed eyes were deep, heavy brown and filled with dark fire. His normally affable smile became as menacing as he could manage as he pulled a glass of pale brown liquid from his jacket. “Care for some hard apple cider, Pruitt? Or are you afraid of joining us? After all, we're not your cronies. We're just worms in the apple.”
“You can't be alive! You can't!” He pulled a gun out. “I'm going to enjoy getting rid of you, once and for all!”
Scott thought fast. He threw the glass of apple cider at Pruitt. It blinded him enough for Scott to get a hard uppercut in his face. Mackie and C.J grabbed his arms as Gertie shoved her way out of the closet.
“Next time, Miss Booth, could you push me behind a chair? It's hot and stuffy in all those coats” She pulled out handcuffs. “Rollie Pruitt, you're under arrest. Not only did I hear everything that was said tonight, but your secretary confessed as well. You two murdered two innocent people, repeatedly tried to kill a third, and would have blown up a whole town of innocents if this young man and that reporter,” she nodded at Scott and Betty, the latter of whom was attempting to roll up the oversized sleeves of her gown, “hadn't told me what was going on.”
“No! I will get what I want!” He finally pushed away from the two smaller men. He grabbed Betty and held a gun to her head. “No one move, or the fair news hound really won't be all there.”
“Scott!” Betty screamed. She kicked angrily at Pruitt. “Let me go, you big bulldog!”
“I have no desire to.” He dragged her to the porch, still holding the gun on her. “If any of you come after us, she won't live to repeat this story in that unimportant rag you people refer to as a news publication.”
Scott held up his fists, his face livid with rage. “Pruitt, if you even try to harm her, I'll...”
Pruitt pointed the gun at him. “You'll finally die, the way you should have when I sent Miss LaMarsh after you.” He smirked. “I'll be taking her with me as well. Some of my men were bringing her to the carriage house. They should be there by now.”
Scott started after him as he dragged Betty to the porch. “Don't any of you come near me!” He dragged the kicking, angry young woman down to the carriage house.
“You bastard!” Scott started towards him, followed by Mackie, C.J, and Hilary. “If you hurt her...”
A carriage rode up to the front of the house. Several people in tattered garments were fighting goons and ranch hands, throwing them against bushes and trampling the cornflowers. Pruitt shoved the struggling young woman into the carriage. Maple was in the back, bound and gagged between two goons. Pruitt shoved the goon who was driving out of the carriage and took the reins himself. Scott got out just as the carriage shot across the ranch and onto the main road.
The Valiant Journey Acting Troupe watched in surprise from the porch as Scott rushed over to Lighting, who awaited her master with the Acting Troupe's carriage at the hitching posts by the corrals.
Hilary got there first. Jeff, whose deputy's costume was streaked with white thanks to the phosphorus, quickly joined her. Hilary grabbed his hand. “Scotty, what are you doing?”
Scott climbed onto Lightning. “I'm going after Betty and Maple.”
“Oh no, you're not.” Hilary took Jeff's hand and dragged him to the carriages. “We're all going.”
Jeff nodded once he got his breath. “Doug and the others should have gotten the Walwalra tribe by now.”
Mackie, C.J, Mr. Eldridge, and Sheriff Gertrude joined them. “They're gone,” the older law woman puffed. “Some of the ranch hands who were in costume left to head him off. We got most of his boys, but not him.”
“We're going to help them. Pruitt destroyed my mother. I'll be damned if I'll let him kill the woman I love!” He dug his spurs into Lightning and took off down the road towards Wennton while Hilary was still loading the others into the carriage.
Canyons Outside Wennton, Colorado, A Half-Hour Later
The cliffs of Colorado were strange and haunting places in the dark. Only the glow of stars lit the carriage's way as they thundered across the canyons. The wary eye of a wolf or a cougar could sometimes be seen as they raced past cacti and sagebrush.
“Boss, can't we slow down?” whined Frank, who held Betty tightly, a beefy hand over her soft pale lips. “We had to have outrun them folks from the ranch by now!”
“'Sides,” whined another man, “it's spooky out here. This is Injun country. You don't wanna mess around with their ancestors. They don't really like it none. Their ancestors could come around with tomahawks an' knives an' scalp ya, just like that!”
Pruitt rolled his eyes. “You imbeciles have heard far too many ghost tales around the campfire. Sherwood's ruse at the farm house notwithstanding, there are no such things as ghosts.”
“Hey Boss,” snickered Frank as he stroked Betty, “what are we gonna do with these girlies when we get to Denver?”
Pruitt looked over his shoulder to glare at Maple. “We'll turn Miss LaMarsh over to the authorities, or one of you can have her. She's too softhearted to be of any use to me.” He smirked at Betty. “Miss Prince, however, is very beautiful. She might make a fine wife for my empire.”
Betty kicked at her captor; he released her long enough for her to scream “I wouldn't be your wife for all the scoops west of the Mississippi!” and try to get out of the carriage.
Pruitt grabbed her while Frank nursed his now-bruised knee. “You won't be going anywhere, my frail little wildflower, except for into my arms.”
Pruitt grabbed Betty's chin to pull her face to his for a kiss...when a bullet hit his hand dead-center. Pruitt leg out a shriek and grabbed his bloody hand. Frank stumbled over to his boss with a cloth to wrap around his hand. Betty hastily climbed over Pruitt and out of the carriage.
“It's over, Pruitt.” Scott stood on the edge of the canyon, his brown eyes icy in the cold desert moonlight. Betty hurried to him; he gently nudged her behind his back. “Let Maple go. Unlike you, she's not a murderer.”
Pruitt winced, even as he withdrew his own pearl-handled pistol from a finely-engraved scabbard. “It's extremely fortuitous that you didn't damage my shooting hand. If I can kill a grouse at thirty paces, I can certainly take sitting pigeons like you and your beloved reporter.”
Betty let out of a growl of her own. “I can't believe you! You were going to blow up a whole town filled with innocent citizens, and over what? Some rocks? What about people's lives? There's more to living than buying and selling!”
“That's how I live, you foolish child.” He aimed the gun further at both. “Buying and selling is all I know. It's what I was trained for. Where I come from,” he cocked the gun, “a man keeps buying and selling and making deals until he gets what he wants.” He smirked. “Your precious Sheriff Comstock never understood that, either. He kept making a nuisance of himself, pushing the government into my affairs. I had to eliminate him. He knew too much, just like you two do.”
Scott stepped in front of Betty. “Maybe I used to think that way. I thought life was all one big con game, too. I thought I could buy anything and throw it away.” He looked into Betty's eyes. She smiled warmly. “I was wrong. Love...friendship...work that challenges you...people who care about you. That's what life is about.”
“Please.” Pruitt raised the gun at Scott's heart. “I'm going to dispatch you here and now, before the dialogue gets even more sickening.”
Scott had a split second to react. The moment Pruitt shot, he ducked away, pulling Betty with him. The bullet missed his arm by inches. Scott quickly shot downwards, hitting Pruitt in the knee. Pruitt dropped to his bloody appendage with an anguished scream.
Scott held the gun over the whimpering man. “That was for Mom, Pruitt. I could have killed you right here and now. It's what you deserve.” He glared at him. “But I'm not like you. I don't murder a man in cold blood.”
Betty's eyes widened as she saw the shadows gathering around them. “Uh, Scott...”
Another shot blasted between Scott and Betty. It hit the canyon wall, sending slivers of rock flying in all directions. Pruitt's men from the cart surrounded them, all holding guns or rifles aimed at Scott's heart.
Scott swiveled his gun between hulking bandits. “Come on, boys!” he snarled. “I can take you all on! Anyone want it in somewhere that hurts a lot more than a knee?”
Frank sneered. He cocked his gun. “Why don't we see if Mr. Ghost really has a bleedin' heart in that big bear chest'a his?”
That was when an arrow hit Frank in the arm. He gasped and dropped his gun. Betty reached for his gun, then turned to the road into the canyons. “It looks like we have reinforcements.”
Scott let out a whoop that equaled the ones heard from the Walwalra warriors. “All right! The cavalry’s here!” Fifty tall, strong Walwalra warriors surged over the cliffs, shooting arrows at the bandits. The bandits who weren't hit ran to take cover in or behind the carriage.
The Valiant Journey Acting Troupe carriages arrived at the same time. Mackie and C.J tackled two of the smaller bandits. Hilary and Jeff confronted another one with prop swords. Jeff managed to slash a “J” into his shirt. Hilary added her own “H” in the knee of his worn trousers.
Doug Thompson galloped over to them on a palomino pony. Eugenia Bremer and Mr. Foley had already climbed off a dappled gray mare and were untying Maple in the carriage. Mr. Eldridge helped Soaring Eagle tend to the wounded. Scott grinned. “For once, I'm happy to see you, Doug.”
“Looks like we got here in the nick of time.” Doug climbed off the soft little horse. “You were right, Scott. I only had to mention your name to Chief Grayhawk, and he automatically rounded up any of his men who were awake to help out.”
“I knew Pruitt would be looking for an escape route.” Scott nodded at the cliffs. “The canyons aren't as fast as the main roads, but they're less-traveled and an excellent place for someone who wanted to get away from the law as fast as possible to hide.”
Sheriff Gertrude was leading Pruitt away, with the help of Soaring Eagle and several deputies and Walwalra braves. “Thanks, Scott. You're the one who saved the town. He'll be put away for a long time for the information you and Betty found.”
“And I'm going to have the story of the century! I need to start working on this first thing tomorrow.” Betty looked up at Scott. “But what about you? Are you going to sell the ranch?”
Scott shook his head. “Not anymore. I thought about it, but the Bar S is really too important to the Wennton community.” He took Betty's hand. “Maybe it's time I settled down and started planting my roots. I couldn't think of a better place to do it than among friends.” He rubbed her hand gently. “And the woman I love.”
This time, it was Betty who took him into her arms and kissed him deeply, ignoring the phosphorus rubbing off on his lips and cheeks. Doug Thompson watched them, shaking his head. He went over to Eugenia and Mr. Foley to help Maple LaMarsh out of the carriage. The tall, red-headed bounty huntress was quite lovely herself, nearly Amazonian in proportions. He wondered if she was free tomorrow night...
Hilary sighed. “Well, all's well that ends well, as Shakespeare says.” She turned to Jeff. “Speaking of planting roots, I was thinking, maybe it's time the Valiant Journey Acting Troupe settled down as well. That old barn on the edge of town could be made over into a splendid theater. We could sell the carriages, see if Scott will loan us the rest of the money, and move in.”
Jeff gave her a kiss of his own. “I think it's a splendid idea. No more roaming from town to town, avoiding policemen and being chased out by ignorant farmers. We could show these folks what a real play looks like.”
Mackie tapped Scott on the shoulder. “Hey Scotty, does this mean I'm playin' the huntsman again?”
“Yeah, Mackie.” He gave Betty a squeeze. “I'm going to be too busy running the Bar S to appear in regular shows.” He grinned at Betty. “I might give a farewell performance, though. The final show of Scott White, actor per excellence.”
Betty laughed. “I don't think you'll ever stop acting. You're always on, Scotty.”
“From now on, Betty,” he smiled at her, “you're the only princess I could ever want.”
Betty snuggled into his arms. “And you're the only prince I ever want to rescue me.”
The white light of the shining full moon hit the duo as they once again kissed. Chief Grayhawk smiled, exchanging knowing glances with Tom Eldridge. Eugenia and Foley blushed. Hilary and Jeff did some kissing of their own as the moon faded out over the vast, glowing Colorado horizon.
Scott White and the Seven Actors
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