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Authors: Jean Barrett

Tags: #Suspense

Cowboy PI (20 page)

BOOK: Cowboy PI
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“You could have been killed, man!”

“We were worried sick when you didn’t turn up.”

“Just about to look up the nearest sheriff and have him organize a posse.”

“Someone shooting at you? No! Who could it have been? Are you sure?”

Sympathy and outrage were expressed by all of them. Except Ernie Chacon. He stood apart from the others, silent, the familiar little sneer on his mouth. Did it mean anything? Samantha wondered. Alex must have thought so. He turned to Ernie speculatively. “We all split up to look for them, went off in separate directions. You were gone the longest, Ernie. Which way did
you
go?”

Ernie rounded on him furiously. “What are you suggesting, college boy?”

“You had your rifle with you, didn’t you?”

“Why, you little bas—”

“Stop it!” Ramona came hotly to her son’s defense, flying between them to prevent a fight. “Both of you stop
this right now! I won’t have Ernie blamed, because
all
of us had our guns with us on that search, including me.”

“Ramona is right,” Roark said calmly. “No one is accusing anyone of anything. The rockfall was probably just an accident, and whoever was taking potshots at us might have been someone trying to warn us off his land. We weren’t hurt, so let’s just forget it and move on.”

Samantha was surprised, knowing that Roark didn’t believe what he was saying. Then she realized he had simply decided to be practical. What good would it do to provoke a scene when they had no proof that the culprit
was
someone in the outfit, including Ernie? Because, even though it was beginning to seem more and more unlikely, the enemy could still be a stranger.

One thing was for certain. If Roark
had
winged their sniper yesterday, and that individual was one of the outfit, he had no visible wound. None of them evidenced any sign of an injury, though it was possible clothing concealed a flesh wound.

“You two better grab some breakfast,” the trail boss said. “And then we need to pack up and head out. We’ve had enough delays on this drive, and those stock cars in Alamo Junction aren’t going to wait for us.”

This was the seventh day of the drive, and Samantha knew that they still had a long way to go. Was that why Shep looked even more unhappy than usual, a bleak expression on his tired face? Or was there another explanation?

Samantha was so busy pondering this, as she tucked into the eggs and biscuits Ramona had waiting for them at the cook wagon, that for a moment she didn’t realize Roark was gone. He had taken his own plate and disappeared. Several more minutes passed before he arrived back at her side to explain the mystery of his absence.

“I went off where I couldn’t be overheard to phone Wendell,” he confided to her in an undertone. “I didn’t want to waste any time getting him back out to the Walk
ing W to take a close look at those caves. And while he’s there, I asked him to take more photographs of the ravine. Not just in the area where Joe went down but all of the ravine. I don’t want to overlook anything.”

“I hope you warned him about the possibility of snakes.”

“I didn’t forget.”

“Did he have any news for us?”

“He’s still digging into the backgrounds of the abbot and the museum director. Nothing useful so far, and Ernie Chacon is proving to be almost as elusive. He was arrested in Austin on a disorderly charge, but all anyone in Purgatory seems willing to admit is that our Ernie has a bad temper.”

“Which we already know. Is that it?”

“For now. You finished with those eggs? We need to mount up. The others are already out waiting with the herd.”

Samantha, knowing she was about to undergo another siege of assorted miseries on the long trail, suppressed a groan.

 

I
F HE’D BEEN A VILLAIN
in a melodrama, this would have been the place to say, “Curses! Foiled again!”

But he was no villain, old-fashioned or otherwise. Not by his definition. He was simply someone going after what he wanted. What he
deserved
to have. And Samantha Howard was in his way.

Damn that PI! Hawke was forever at her side. He made it tough to get at her when he was always there to rescue her. Like yesterday, when he’d spoiled another opportunity.

What made it so difficult was the necessity of being careful not to reveal himself. Never lowering his guard, continuing to play his role. That was essential.

So, all right, he’d need to find some way of separating
Hawke from Samantha. He would have to wait for that, because the moment had to be right. He still had time, but he was growing impatient.

 

“T
HIS TIME
I
MEAN IT
,” Samantha informed the heifer. “You get into trouble, and you’re on your own. I’m not making a fool of myself again and chasing you into another gorge. No, sir, I turn my back and I ride away.”

This drive has affected my brain. Listen to me talking to a cow.

Worse than that, she was convinced that Irma, who was trotting beside her, actually heard and understood. Insanity couldn’t be far away.

Of course, there was no reason for the heifer to believe her. They both knew Samantha wouldn’t keep her word. Nor did she when that same afternoon Irma was cornered by a rattlesnake. Backed up against a boulder, the heifer rolled her eyes with terror and bawled pitifully.

Samantha looked around. There was no help available. Roark had dashed off to the other side of the herd to deal with a pair of reluctant longhorns.

It would be a snake, she thought. Refusing to give in to her horror, she dismounted, found a rock and launched it in the direction of the threat. To her satisfaction, the rattler slithered away. Irma scooted back to the safety of the herd.

Samantha was back in the saddle when Roark arrived at her side. “Problem?”

“Nope,” she said. “Just routine stuff.”

She supposed it was a measure of her progress that she could be so matter-of-fact about a thing that once would have had her trembling in panic. Was Joe Walker getting his wish?

All right, maybe the drive was tempering her into a tougher material. Maybe she could even be proud of herself. It didn’t mean she had softened in her resolve to have no part of ranching. Roark’s presence was a constant reminder of that.

After yesterday’s menace, he seldom left her alone for
more than a moment or two at a time, and then he always kept her in sight. Otherwise he rode so close beside her that his nearness inflamed her senses. She knew that he was every bit as aware of her as she was of him. But never once did he try to touch her. Nor did he refer to their blissful interlude in the canyon. And though she ached for him, she understood his restraint, knew he was right. Considering the issues that still loomed between them, it was better to let it all go now before either one or both of them was hurt beyond recovery. Or was it already too late for that?

 

“L
ET’S STOP IN HERE
for a few minutes,” Roark said, halting them on the sidewalk.

Samantha looked at the shop he indicated. “A bookstore? Why? Is there something you want?”

“Maybe just to browse,” he said, offering no further explanation.

The drive was laying over for the night near another town. There would be no cabins this time, nor a party around the campfire. But several members of the outfit had strolled into town to shop for essentials.

Edgerton, once a thriving mining center and now a quiet community, was tucked between the mountains, its business district a single street that wound through the narrow valley.

Samantha followed Roark into the store. He went off toward the back, leaving her at the front to examine a window display of volumes featuring old Colorado mansions. Houses of all eras were her business, and she never failed to be fascinated by their stories.

She was returning one of the books to the pile when she caught sight of Shep through the window. He was on the other side of the street, and he wasn’t alone. He and another man had just emerged from a café. Even from this distance, she could tell they were arguing. Samantha watched them for a moment. When the trail boss started
to glance around, as if suddenly worried he was being observed, she quickly pulled back from the window.

Roark found her hugging the wall at the side of the window when he joined her a few seconds later. “What are you doing?” he asked, one of his thick eyebrows lifted in bemusement.

“Hiding.”

“Why?”

“Shep is out there, and I didn’t want him to spot me.” Roark leaned over and looked out the window. “Get back before he sees you.”

“There’s no out there but an old lady on the corner.”

“Well, they were there a minute ago, he and this man he was talking to.”

“What man?”

“The one he met back in Lost Springs.”

“You sure?”

“Positive. I recognized his hard face. Roark, what’s he doing here in Edgerton? And don’t tell me Shep was meeting him to secure permission for the drive to cross private lands. That might have been true in Lost Springs, but the explanation doesn’t work twice. Not with the distance we’ve covered since Lost Springs.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t. On the other hand, if our trail boss has a reason to keep this guy a secret, then why did he risk being seen with him out on a public street?”

“Will you ask Shep about it?”

Roark shook his head. “Not much use in that. If he lied to me before, then he won’t hesitate to lie again.”

“So all we can do is watch and wait,” Samantha said, discouraged by their inability to find answers. She was so caught up in her frustration that she didn’t notice the plastic sack Roark had under his arm until they came away from the bookstore. She stopped him out on the street to ask him about it.

“You bought books?”

“I’m not going to just watch and wait, Samantha.”

“I don’t understand. Aside from the fact that we barely have space as it is to carry the necessities, what with the outfit’s gear squeezed into the truck and on two of Dick’s packhorses, just when do you expect to find time to read between here and Alamo Junction?”

“I don’t. Look.” He opened the sack, inviting Samantha to inspect its contents.

She glanced at the titles of the three volumes inside, was puzzled for a moment, and then she understood. “You’re going to use these to smoke out the enemy.”

“As bait, they may be a little too obvious, but it’s worth a try. Let’s get back to camp and see what happens.”

 

R
OARK WAITED
until they were all collected around the fire after supper to set his trap.

“Anyone know anything about Native American artifacts?” he asked, beaming at them around the circle.

Dick laughed. “Not me, that’s for sure.”

“Me, either,” Roark said, withdrawing his purchases from the sack at his feet and, with deliberate carelessness, displaying their titles. “That’s why I picked these up at the bookstore. Supposed to be a whole education in them on the subject. Not that I’ll get the opportunity for that until after the drive.” He tossed the books back into the sack. “They’ll end up in the bottom of one of my saddlebags until then, but at least I have them.”

“What brought all this on?” Ramona wondered.

“My interest? Oh, it’s because of the canyon. I told you there are cliff dwellings there, didn’t I? I got to thinking about that. What if there are valuable relics in those ruins? Stuff that somebody could be looting, and maybe that’s why Samantha and I were shot at. You know, to warn us off.”

“That’s not very likely,” Alex said. “I mean, if the place is being looted, you’d have seen signs of digging, wouldn’t you?”

“You’re probably right. Anyway, when I get the chance
I want to learn more about the subject. There are ancient sites all over the Southwest, and some of them could still be rich with artifacts.” He chuckled. “Who knows, maybe there are even Native American relics buried on my own spread back in Texas. Or my neighbors’. It’s worth looking into.”

All the while that Roark so casually explained about the books, Samantha watched the faces in the firelight, looking for some indication that one of the company was worried about his fascination for ancient sites. After this afternoon, she was particularly careful to observe Shep’s reaction. He’d remained silent throughout the conversation, his expression even more glum than usual. But was it her imagination that, when Texas was mentioned, the trail boss scowled grimly in Roark’s direction?

As for the others…well, none of them revealed by word or action that Roark might be a threat to a desperate scheme. Ernie looked bored, Dick and Cappy equally disinterested, and Alex and Ramona only politely interested. No one made any mention of the caves at the Walking W.

Dick got to his feet and stretched. “Time for my shift with the herd.”

“You oughta been out there with them already,” Cappy complained.

The others indicated their readiness to turn in for the night. The subject of ancient relics was forgotten.

Samantha was disappointed. Roark’s experiment had produced no results. Nor had he made the effort she’d been anticipating. She’d looked for him to follow her example and sharply examine each face around the campfire, but he had seemed almost indifferent to their responses, barely glancing at them. Then why had he made them aware of the books he’d purchased?

Samantha had no chance to ask him about it. Nor, as it turned out, did she have to. Her question was answered early the following morning when she rolled out of her sleeping bag to the sounds of a scuffle behind the cook
truck. Alerted by the commotion, Roark was already on his feet. She didn’t wait for him to order her to stay behind but hurried after him as he strode around the side of the truck to investigate.

They found Alex and Ernie engaged in a struggle for possession of a battered canvas bag.

“Take your hands off of it, college boy, before I smash your face!”

Alex, hanging on with determination, called out to them. “He’s got something he’s hiding in here! I open my eyes to find him snooping through our belongings! Then I catch him sneaking back here and stuffing whatever he took into the bag!”

BOOK: Cowboy PI
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