Rodeo, Ransom, and Fireworks
A 4th of July Cozy Mystery
Sneak Peek - How 'Bout Them Cowgirls
A wispy white cloud drifted in front of the summer sun, creating a momentary reprieve from inevitable sunburn. I squinted at the clear blue sky, knowing the shade wouldn’t last long. Sweat streamed down my face and neck as I struggled with the latch on the paddock.
One of the ranch hands claimed he fixed the sticky gate and yet here I was unable to enter. I dropped the hay bale and removed my gloves to inspect the clasp.
Most days I tried to complete my chores before lunch, but work at the Twin Bluebonnet Ranch was never done. Especially with the upcoming Star-Spangled Rodeo.
“This weather is killing me.” From her perch on the fence, Becky Robinson slathered on a second coat of sunscreen. Despite growing up in our small town, she was a city girl at heart. “When is fall?”
I checked the date on my watch. “Eighty-one days.”
Her brows furrowed. “Seriously? You’re joking?”
She swung her arms. “Look who I’m questioning. Of course, you know the exact count. Sorry for doubting you, Samantha.”
My friends enjoyed teasing me about my photographic memory but I got the last laugh as class valedictorian. I pointed to my temple. “Comes in quite handy.”
“No kidding. I’d kill to have your brain.” She cringed at her phrasing. “You know what I mean. You’re like the cowgirl Temperance Brennan with better people skills… well not worse.”
“From the TV show Bones.” She chuckled. “When I grow up, I want to be you.”
“You’re six months older than me.”
“Well, yeah. It’s just a silly expression.” She blew light-brown hair from her face. “You excel at everything you do and your life is mapped out. Me, I’m leaving for college in like a month and I can’t even pick a major.”
I shook my head. “You’re a terrible liar. Everyone knows Becky Robinson will be a movie star someday.”
“Okay, so I’m lying. But what I want isn’t what my high-powered attorney mother expects.”
“Do you want to be a lawyer?”
Her nose puckered into a snort. “Goodness no. My only route through law school is to fake it like Mike Ross.”
“Another television reference?”
“Good one.” I climbed over the fence, abandoning my attempt to fix the sticky latch. “This is exactly what ranch hands are for. Why can’t they do what I ask?”
“Maybe I found something Samantha Brown isn’t good at after all.” She beamed. “I should start a list. Every Super Girl has her Kryptonite.”
“Don’t forget to add small talk. I’m told I can use work in that area.”
“Huh, made it all the way through high school and I still don’t know when to properly use those words.”
“Well, one is used…”
Becky nudged her thumb over her shoulder. “I think Hokey fixed your broken latch.”
With hands on my hips, I shot daggers at the horse aptly named Hocus Pocus. He grazed in the field of wildflowers, outside the paddock. “What did I tell you about sneaking out?”
His black mane bobbed up and down and he whinnied a taunting response. He wasn’t much of a cutting horse but he could escape from any stall or pen without breaking a sweat. And I couldn’t resist his chocolate eyes. “Alright fine, enjoy your play date.” I broke into a smile as he trotted after his pal, our Dalmatian dog named Whodunit.
“Remember when we found Whodunit and rescued her from the cave as a puppy, we promised to take turns and share her?” Becky asked. “That lasted all of two minutes. She’s never spent a night away from you.”
“What can I say, she fell in love with life at the Twin Bluebonnet Ranch.” I removed my cowboy hat and wiped the perspiration from my forehead. “Are you ready for your riding lesson?”
“Ha, you must be joking.”
“You’re the granddaughter of a rodeo champion, Becky and you don’t know how to ride.”
“I understand the basic principle.” She cocked her head to the side and sized up the horses a few feet away. “I think I’d be more comfortable on a pony, something more my size.”
“After all this time hanging out at the ranch, you’re scared of horses? Of sweet Peaches?” My palomino mare bobbed her head and nuzzled closer for a rub.
“From this distance, we’re amazing pals.” She chuckled. “If I wanted to ride any horse, which I don’t, it wouldn’t be a speed demon rodeo queen like Peaches.”
A whistle from the barn drew my attention. My shoulders slumped. “Uh-oh.”
Becky squinted through the sunshine. “What’s wrong?”
“Hokey is bothering our pampered guest.”
“You mean the secret racehorse recuperating in your barn that I’m not supposed to know about?”
“That’s the one.”
“Wow.” Her eyes bugged. “I never expected you to confirm without a fight.”
“As if the armed guards outside our barn don’t give it away.” I waved my hat in the air. “Hokey, come.” Whodunit raced ahead, barking for her equine friend to follow. “Since he’s such a troublemaker, I’m trying to teach him a few tricks.”
“Sorry.” Becky shook her foggy head. “I’m obsessed with Secretariat now that you confirmed. Security seems awfully tight.”
“For a million-dollar champion? You bet.” I snagged Hokey’s lead rope and closed the paddock gate. “They won’t let us anywhere near our own barn.”
“The boarding fee eases our discomfort. He needed a week in the country to rest and nowhere is better than here. About that lesson…”
Her eyes searched the trees. “By the way, what are those things? The soundtrack of summer noise. The hissing snake mixed with a sizzling skillet.”
I recognized her obvious subject-change tactic but let it slide. “Cicadas.”
Flip-flops squeaked over my shoulder, announcing the arrival of my identical twin sister, Lizzie Brown. “I think they’re locusts.”
“Like the plague from the Bible?” Becky asked. “Those are still around?"
My gaze cut between the two, unsure who to deal with first. “I know the difference between cicada and locust, Lizzie. The latter can be detrimental to crops while the former is harmless.” I gestured to the remnants of a bug on the post. “Not to mention the evidence staring you right in the face. Cicadas shed their exoskeleton.”
She flicked a painted nail at the oak tree. “You convinced me, Samantha. I defer to the bug expert.”
“They sound like they’re frying in the Texas heat and crying out for help.” Becky fanned herself with her sunhat. “I totally sympathize.”
“How was your relaxing day at the pool?” I asked.
Lizzie narrowed her gaze. “I realize you’re trying to bait me but I don’t care. Being a lifeguard at a city pool is hardly relaxing.” She twisted to Becky. “Your brother faked another drowning.”
“That kid is getting on my last nerve.”
“You’re telling me.” Lizzie rolled her shoulders. “Have you ever tried to lug a six-foot-tall eleven-year-old out of a pool? What do your parents feed him?”
“He eats like a goat,” Becky said. “I won’t survive the rest of the break with him and it is only July. Shouldn’t a delinquent like him be in summer school?”
“Why are you picking up extra shifts at the pool anyway?” I asked. “The dude ranch isn’t keeping you busy enough?”
“Mom and Dad don’t pay very well.” Lizzie slung her arm over my shoulder. “And some of us aren’t blessed with a full ride to college.”
“There is plenty to do around here. Especially with the rodeo tomorrow.”
Becky cringed. “The committee assigned me to work the ticket booth.”
“Really.” Lizzie bit back a smile. “I’m sure you’ll do fine, Beckaroo.”
“We both know I’m severely underqualified to handle the exchange of money. Look at how many times I fall for Boone’s change for a twenty con.”
“The magician’s silly trick?” I swatted my French braid over my shoulder. “Perhaps you should switch jobs with someone.”
“I tried. It was this or rodeo clown.”
Lizzie pointed across the field where our prized rodeo bull grazed. “Who’s the guy with Simba? I don’t recognize him as one of our guests.”
“I’m not sure.” I adjusted my hat to shield the sun. The man hiked his baggy khaki shorts as he climbed over the bullpen. “But he’ll soon find out why you don’t trespass on a ranch.”
“As much as I would enjoy seeing Simba buck a nosy tourist looking for a photo-op, we should probably intervene before he hurts himself.” Lizzie dropped her pool bag on a tree stump and switched out the flip-flops for rubber boots.
“Becky can you…”
Her eyes widened. “Go get Doak in case there’s a problem. Yeah, I’m on it.” She leaped from the fence and took off in the direction of the bunkhouse.
The fellow in khaki shorts circled the bullpen, snapping pictures as he maneuvered. Something about him didn’t quite add up. Even our nerviest guests wouldn’t jump the railing. And if they did, they wouldn’t camp out for a photoshoot.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Lizzie asked.
As small-town amateur sleuths, we were predisposed to skepticism. I rolled the sleeves of my work shirt. “He’s not a city guy.”
“So, what is his interest in Simba?”
The spotted brown bucking bull kicked the dirt with his front hoof and snorted. His horn dug into the ground. “Uh-oh.” I swung open the paddock gate and whistled for Peaches. Whoever the trespasser was, he was about to be flattened.
“I’ll help him, you take care of Simba,” Lizzie said. Despite her ridiculous wardrobe, she raced across the field.
“Stay, Whodunit. Good girl.” I boosted myself onto the palomino and swung my leg over. I snagged a rope dangling from the fence post and hurried to help. Within ten seconds, we passed Lizzie.
She waved at the man. “Get out of there!”
He scrolled through his photographs, completely unaware of his surroundings. Simba roared and the fellow finally took note. He tossed his phone and scrambled to the fence. But unlike most people in a similar situation, he didn’t run or turn his back on the animal. Again, hinting at experience.
My knees tightened as balanced bareback. I charged to the other side of the bullpen, trying to draw the animal’s attention. “Simba over here.”
Lizzie climbed the first rung of the fence and swung her arms. “Settle down.”
The man backpedaled and spilled on his caboose. He rolled and struggled to find his footing. Lizzie climbed the first three rungs of the six-foot metal fence. She leaned over and grabbed the guy by his t-shirt. “Crawl through the fence.”
I twirled the lasso above my head hoping to catch the bull’s eye. But Simba remained fixated on the intruder and my sister. Without a saddle, I had no leverage against the 1,500-pound animal. I steered Peaches closer and threw the lasso. It roped Simba’s horns but he yanked it from my grasp with a shake of his massive head.
Lizzie shoved the man into the fence. “Move it.”
The guy struggled to lift himself over the railing. “I can’t.”
Irritated by the afternoon disturbance, Simba refused to simmer down. He charged the struggling pair. I dismounted Peaches and entered the bullpen with a whistle and a gyration that could land a plane. “Come here, Big Boy. Leave the idiot city-slicker alone.”
Simba pawed at the dirt and snorted. I bounced on the balls of my feet, prepared to evade his charge. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Lizzie boosting the man to safety.
With a zigzag pattern, I hustled across the pen. A hand reached for mine as I surged to the fence and hauled me over. Horns smacked into metal.
When my boots hit solid ground, I smiled up at the ranch hand. “Nice timing.”
Doak Walker Montgomery tipped his dirt-stained Resistol cowboy hat. “Anytime.” A muscle in his jaw twitched as he twisted to the intruder. “Just what did you think you were doing sneaking into the pen with a bull?”
The trespasser hugged his knees as he caught his breath. “He looked friendly enough to me.”
“You know what provokes a bull?” Doak asked. “Everything.”
“Those girls are the ones that scared him. He was fine until they started hollering.”
Doak lunged his fist rolled in a tight ball. “I oughta…”
Lizzie placed a hand on his chest. “Clearly this guy doesn’t understand who’s in charge.”
The man snorted. “A couple of teens? I doubt it.”
I bit back a grin. “He called your bluff.”
“I am in charge,” Lizzie said. “Basically, with Mom and Dad out of town.” She spun on the rubber boot. “And what do you think you’re doing trespassing on our property?”
“I wanted a picture of a bull.” He retrieved his sunglasses and hung them on the back of his sunburned neck.
“Ever heard of Google?” Doak lifted him by his grubby t-shirt. “Do you want me to arrest him?”
Lizzie cocked her eyebrow. “Are cadets in training allowed to make official arrests?”
“Basically,” he said.
The man’s beady eyes bounced between us, the gravity of the situation finally hitting him. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. This was a stupid dare and I learned my lesson.”
“Where’s your ID?” I asked.
“Because I want your name in case you don’t stick to your word.”
He reached for his wallet and removed his driver’s license. “I’m Mackenzie Reynolds.”
My eyes swept across the license. “From Wayne City, Texas.” The town neighboring Lake Falls.
“What are you doing?”
Lizzie smirked. “She’s memorizing your date of birth, address, and your driver’s license number.”
“You can’t possibly…” He held his hands in surrender. “Never mind, I don’t care. I’m leaving your property now.”
“I think that’s for the best,” Doak said.
“About my phone.” Mackenzie pointed to the bullpen.
“Maybe we’ll mail it to you.” Lizzie followed his gaze. “Don’t worry, Simba won’t make any long-distance calls. All his exes live in Texas.”
The trespasser twirled on his dusty sneaker, kicking up a patch of grass. He raised his arm in a dismissive wave.
“Doak, follow him and make sure he leaves,” I said.
“You got it, Boss.”
I whistled to Peaches. “Come on girl, back to your paddock for a nice, juicy apple.”
Becky jogged beside us, giving my horse a wide berth. “So, remember earlier when I said I could either be a ticket taker or a rodeo clown? Yup, definitely made the right call. Bull wrangling is not the career for me.”
Lizzie flicked mud from the leg of her board shorts. “What do you suppose Mac actually wanted?”
“The nutty trespasser?” Becky puckered her lips. “I’m thinking he has a death wish.”
I shook my head. “Too many variables to say definitively.”
“My gut tells me he was here to sabotage Simba.”
I stopped midstride to check if Lizzie might be joking. I couldn’t always tell with her frequent use of sarcasm. Her mouth set into a firm line but sometimes that was part of her bit. “Quite the leap.”
“Why else would someone break into his pen the day before a big rodeo? Simba is one of the toughest bulls on the schedule. If he’s drugged and not on his best game, certain bull riders might benefit.”
Becky frowned. “I thought the bull the cowboys ride is a luck of the draw.”
“It is. Sabotage wouldn’t benefit anyone directly,” I said. “Perhaps we’re looking for a mystery where one doesn’t exist.”
“No way.” Lizzie shoved sunglasses through her golden-brown beach waves. "Something sketchy is going on here and I intend to get to the bottom of it.”
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Rodeo, Ransom, and Fireworks - A 4th of July Cozy Mystery