Sky Ryder
Sky and the Starlets
Fiction by Frank Knebel
Chapter 12

Mayor Holmes rose from his chair and cleared his throat. Councilmen Roberts and Bayer were talking together in low tones and editor Norman Barrett, Herb Vidor and Reverend Andrews were leaning forward in a conversational huddle. Even though there was little noise from these discussions, Holmes tapped the table with his pen. The murmuring stopped. Barrett, the secretary for the group, opened his notebook.

      “The meeting is called to order,’ said Holmes. “I want to thank the members of the Council for agreeing to meet so early this morning and on such short notice.’

      “Treating us to breakfast at Jeb´s didn´t hurt,’ growled McClain, with mock gruffness. “I can´t take these meetings on an empty stomach!’

      There was appreciative laughter in response to his remark. Even Holmes chuckled.

      “And we especially want to thank our Wild West Days chairwoman and her assistant’--- he nodded toward Summer and Fred Merrill --- “and our guest of honor, Miss Joan O´Connor, for being here to receive our thanks for their service to the city of Kermit.’

      Joan, flanked by Sky, Julie and Copper on one side and Sheriff Winchell on the other, stood in front of the Council almost exactly as she and Diana had four days before.

      “In appreciation of their bravery and dedication in facing trials and dangers far greater than any expected of them,’ continued Holmes, “the Council feels it only right and proper that we present these two courageous women with a small token of our gratitude and our esteem.’

      He reached into the inside breast pocket of his suit coat and drew out two envelopes, which he handed to Joan and Summer. The flap of the envelope had been tucked in rather than sealed, so Joan was able to open it easily and withdraw a check. Behind her, Copper stood on her toes and leaned over in an effort to see it. She was unable to read the amount.

      “This is quite generous of you, Mr. Mayor,’ said Joan. “Not only generous, but unexpected as well.’

      The blond starlet exchanged a glance with Summer who was also examining her check. Her husband looked over her shoulder. Fred´s eyes opened slightly and he gave a low whistle.

      Copper looked up at Sky and Julie.

      “I don´t get it, Sky,’ whispered the girl. “They´re both volunteers! Why is the council paying them for what happened?’

      “I may have a suspicious nature, but I´d say that they were trying to head off a lawsuit,’ Julie said softly.

      Sky scanned the faces of the councilmen.

      “Julie´s probably right,’ added Sky. “They´re concerned that they could be held responsible for not providing adequate protection for the women in the coach. They might ---“

      He was interrupted by an outburst from Bayer.

      “What´s all this, Warren?’ he cried in alarm. “You mean to say that we´re going to pay these women for being in danger when Miss O´Connor´s agent was the one responsible for putting them in danger? When did you come to this decision? No one asked for my opinion!’

      “We tried to contact you last night, Harland,’ said Roberts. “But no one seemed to know where you were.’

      McClain waved a dismissing hand.

      “For God´s sake, Bayer,’ he growled, “they were all bound and gagged in that stagecoach and nearly driven over a cliff. The danger was real enough!’

      Eckhart, seated beside McClain, was nodding.

      “And I must agree with the rest of the Council on this,’ he said. “Even though I objected to inviting moving picture actresses and all they represent to our community, neither Miss O´Connor nor Mrs. Merrill were aware that this was a publicity stunt. Just compensation is due them for their experience.’

      “The rest of us met informally at the Sheriff´s office and voted on it,’ said Holmes. “I´m sorry if you don´t agree.’

      “I most certainly do not agree!’ declared Bayer. He leaned forward and snatched the wire-rimmed spectacles from his pudgy face. He waved the glasses for emphasis. “I don´t think that we should be held accountable for ---“

      “I agree completely, Mr. Bayer,’ said Joan O´Connor, in the firm, commanding tones of an actress. She handed the check back to the Mayor. “I hope you´ll accept this as my donation to the building and modernization fund of Kermit General Hospital.’

      Summer Merrill also stepped forward and returned her check to Holmes.

      “And adding this to it should make quite a tidy contribution, don´t you think, Mr. Mayor?’

      Holmes and the councilmen all appeared stunned for a moment. Reverend Andrews stood up.

      “Gentlemen,’ he said, “I think that these women are more deserving than ever of our thanks.’ He looked earnestly, but not accusingly, at Bayer. “And some of us find ourselves, once again, owing an apology to Miss O´Connor.’

      Herb Vidor leaped to his feet and began applauding.

      “Hear, hear!’ he cried.

      One by one, the other councilmen, Holmes, McClain, Barrett, Roberts and Eckhart also rose and began clapping. After a moment, Bayer put his glasses on, rose and sheepishly applauded with the others.

* * * * *

      Diana Malloy paced the small space between Deputies Amy Cole and Bonnie Johnson and bit lightly on a thumbnail as they waited. The beautiful blonde stared at the closed door of the Kermit City Council meeting room.

      “Take it easy, Diana,’ said Amy. She smiled at the actress. “No matter how hard you look, you won´t be able to see what´s going on in there.’

      Diana gave an embarrassed laugh.

      “I guess you´re right, Amy. Being under arrest and wondering what the Council is going to do about it makes me nervous, I guess.’

      “I wouldn´t worry too much about bein´ unduh arrest, if´n I was y´all,’ said Bonnie.

      Diana stopped pacing and looked at the deputies. Amy smiled again.

      “Bonnie´s right. Neither Joe nor any of the girls who were in the coach are going to press charges against you, and I think that Sky and the Sheriff have convinced the local D. A. to reduce your charge to something like creating a public nuisance.’

      “You mean that I won´t go to jail?’ Diana asked incredulously.

      Amy shook her head.

      “There´ll be a small fine. Judge Wilcox may even suspend the sentence if I know him.’ She looked in all directions for eavesdroppers and dropped her voice to a conspiratorial level. “If you ask me, he has an eye for a pretty face.’

      Diana giggled.

      “O´ course,’ added Bonnie, “if it´ll make yuh feel bettuh, we could put y´all in handcuffs aftuh yuh finish the last shift in the kissin´ booth this mornin´.’

      Diana giggled again.

      “I might make more money for the hospital if you had me do my shift while handcuffed!’

      Amy grinned.

      “If Joan´s pucker gets tired, we may try that!’

      They all laughed for a moment until the opening of the chamber door interrupted them. Joan, Copper, Julie and Sky were first out, followed by Summer, Fred and the Sheriff and the councilmen. Copper immediately huddled with Joan, Diana and the deputies.

      “You should have seen it!’ Copper said softly but gleefully. “Joan sure showed the Council! When they tried to pay her and Summer off, they both handed the money right back to the hospital fund. They were all pretty impressed by that!’

      “Even Mr. Eckhart thinks actresses aren´t so bad now!’ Joan added with a chuckle.

      They all laughed. Fred Merrill put his arm around Summer´s waist.

      “And even though she´s not an actress, I´m right proud of Summer.’ He looked at Sky and shrugged. “´Course the money would´ve come in handy.’

      Summer gave her husband a playful slap on the arm.

      “Why Fred Merrill! We´re doing just fine! And you know that the hospital needs the money much more than we do!’

      Fred nodded.

      “There are plenty of people who need money more. Including some of the councilmen.’

      Reverend Andrews stopped at the little circle containing Joan and Diana. After hesitating a moment, he shook hands with Joan.

      “I´m sorry that in many ways this was a less than ideal homecoming, Miss O´Connor. But I hope you´ll forgive some of the things you heard in the council and accept our grateful thanks now.’

      “Of course, Reverend Andrew,’ she said with a warm smile.

      He turned to Diana and shook her hand, putting his left hand on top of their joined hands. He smiled at her.

      “I´m glad that the Council has decided to show leniency in your case, Diana. And I hope that this experience has taught you something valuable you can take with you.’

      “Oh, it has, Reverend, it has!’ Diana said earnestly.

      The clergyman took his leave. Diana watched him walk away.

      “Nice fellow, that Reverend,’ she said musingly. “Anybody know if he´s married?’

      “I think it´s time we got these two off to their last shift in the kissing booth,’ said Summer indicating Diana and Joan. She held up a well-filled moneybag. “The hospital can always use a few more dollars, and we´ll keep the booth open until the last rodeo events and the closing ceremonies this afternoon.’

      As Summer and the deputies bustled the two starlets off Sheriff Winchell yawned and stretched contentedly.

 “It´ll be good to have a quiet day for a change,’ he said.

      “Won´t it be nice to just enjoy the fair for a change?’ Copper asked Sky and Julie. “I think I might go on one of those mile rides in the stagecoach.’

      Sky Ryder was staring thoughtfully at the departing women.

      “I don´t know, Winch,’ he said slowly. He turned back to the others. “Did any of you ever wonder how the gang got into the Armory so easily? Your men didn´t find any forced doors or windows.’

      “That´s true,’ admitted the Sheriff. “But that roll-up door for the National Guard trucks isn´t exactly new or foolproof. They could have gotten in that way.’

      “Maybe. But the Armory´s also city property. Where are the spare keys kept?’

      Winchell looked uneasy.

      “There are a couple at my office. And a couple at City Hall.’

      “And what about those men who made the diversion by shooting at the outlaw re-enactors?’ continued Sky. “They didn´t seem to worry about the outlaws shooting back. The gang must have known that our men were shooting blanks.’

      “Didn´t Virginia Gregory sit in on some of the meetings about the stage holdup reenactment?’ asked Julie. “She might´ve known.’

      “She, and everybody in town, knew the route and some of the specifics about where the outlaws and the posse would be stationed,’ said Winchell. “But the decision to have the re-enactors armed with blanks was made in meetings some time ago, long before Miss Gregory was even in town. I don´t remember it being discussed when she was present or her asking about it.’

      He looked at Sky with a grave expression.

      “You think it could be one of my deputies?’

      “Maybe. But it seems more likely to be someone on or close to the Council.’

      “But why,’ asked Julie, “would one of the councilmen conspire on a publicity stunt?’

      “For what it´s worth,’ said Winchell, “that Miss Gregory says she arranged the whole thing by hiring an ex-actress named Patricia Perry and that man Dugan to do all the fake kidnappings. She swears that a few of the people they hired just got out of hand.’

      Sky was nodding thoughtfully.

      “Now the question is who else might be connected with the people Virginia hired?’

      “You think that something might happen today?’ asked Copper

      “Since it´s the last of the Wild West Days, it´s entirely possible,’ said Sky. He asked Winchell: “How many deputies are on duty at the fairgrounds today?’

      “Just the day shift, except for Cooley and Harrison who´re on patrol in town, and about eight auxiliary deputies to help with traffic and crowd control.’

      The tall rancher took in a deep breath.

      “We´d better get out there and keep our eyes open.’

      “Great!’ said Copper. “But what are we looking for?’

      Sky shook his head.

      “I wish I could tell you.’

* * * * *

      Patricia Perry handed envelopes to Dugan, Baynes and Jackson.

      “There it is, boys. Your final pay for the job.’

      Jackson thumbed quickly through the bills.

      “Hey!’ he protested. “There was supposed to be more than this!’

      Patricia raised an eyebrow and one corner of her mouth. She looked more devious and minx-like than usual.

      “Well, if you have any complaints, Jackson, I suggest that you take them directly to Miss Gregory. I believe you can find her in the County jail.’

      Baynes was counting his money much more slowly.

      “I hope you gave us whatever you had for Jarvis and Jones and the girls,’ he said laconically. “They aren´t likely to need it for a while.’

      “Your concern for your colleagues is touching, Baynes.’

      “It´s almost as great as yours,’ Baynes replied evenly. “You´re cuttin´ them off pretty clean. And what do the rest of us do now? We´re stuck out here miles from anywhere with just over half the money you promised us.’

      “I don´t know what you boys intend to do, but I´m going to change clothes then clear out. We have two stolen cars. You´re welcome to them. My advice would be to drive them back to L. A. and ditch them as soon as possible.’

      “A nice sendoff after all we did on this job!’ griped Jackson. “Risking our necks against the law was bad enough. But when I think about all those times we had luscious women undressed and all tied up and had to keep our hands to ourselves…’

      He shook his head as he trailed off for a moment.

      “It seems that we oughta get more for that than a few bucks and a hot car.’

      Dugan stood up.

      “Quit cryin´, Jackson,’ he said gruffly. “If you´ve got a sob story, take it to your mothah, and Patricia´s not your mothah.’ He addressed Patricia in polite tones. “We´ll let you go first to reduce the chance of drawing any attention to ourselves. Go on upstairs and change if you want to. We´ll wait here.’

      Patricia felt vaguely uneasy as she removed her clothing in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Though Dugan was the steadiest and most business-like member of the gang, there was something unsettling about his lack of complaint at receiving only partial payment. She wondered if he had something else in mind.

      Patricia looked at herself in the mirror. She wore only her bra, panties, half-slip, garterbelt, shoes and stockings. The lightweight traveling dress she had selected lay spread on the bed a few feet away. Her packed suitcase lay beside it. She snatched her robe from the top of the neatly folded items and put it on. Being sure to make plenty of noise, she opened the bedroom door and went to the top of the staircase. Looking down, she saw the three men where she had left them. Baynes and Jackson were on opposite ends of a couch with Dugan, apparently reading the newspaper, in an armchair facing them.    

      “I think I´d like to take a shower before I go,’ she announced. “Are you sure you boys want to wait? You can go first if you want.’

      Dugan looked up from his reading.

      “There´s no hurry. Go ahead. We´ll wait.’

      Patricia crossed to the bathroom and closed the door loudly behind her. After pulling the shower curtain and starting the water, she slipped off her shoes, crept back out of the room and padded back to the stairs to listen.

      “…. so we´ll be cut in for around five grand each,’ Dugan was saying to the others.

      “And he gets as much as we get all together,’ said Jackson with obvious dissatisfaction.

      “Quit gripin´, Jackson,’ said Baynes. “Without him we wouldn´t even know about this, and it´s a lot more money that we´ve got now. How many guards?’

      “Only one or two of the gal deputies,’ said Dugan. “Plus that chairwoman and maybe Ryder´s wife or niece. And the boss has arranged it so they won´t give us any trouble.’

      “Sounds good to me,’ said Baynes. “When do we start?’

      “We´d bettah lie low until noon or so. The booths all close at one and everybody goes to watch the last couple hours of the rodeo and the closing ceremonies. We´ll make our move then.’

      As Patricia tiptoed back to the bathroom, she heard the men´s voices continuing their discussion of the plan. She opened and closed the bathroom door as quietly as possible and leaned against it as she pondered what to do.

      The men were obviously planning some kind of robbery, a robbery arranged by someone who had been in contact with Dugan, perhaps from the very beginning. It was one thing for Patricia to stage and participate in fake kidnappings in which she knew that the victims were in no real danger, but this was armed robbery, a major felony. Jarvis´ and Jones´ excesses of yesterday had had nearly fatal results. What the men were now planning could be even worse. Somehow she had to stop them. There was only one way: she had to warn the sheriff. It was a dangerous decision, but she knew there was no alternative. Leaving first gave her the advantage. She would have to feign ignorance of their plans, get out of the house and alert the authorities. It would take good acting skills to pull it off. She was struck by the irony of it. Had she been a better actress she would not be in her present dilemma.

      She turned off the shower water and waited for a moment before opening the door. It was quiet. Keeping a watch on the top of the stairs, she tiptoed quickly toward her room.

      She blundered into Dugan standing in the doorway.

      “Some shower, Patricia,’ he said grimly. “In the old days we used to get wet.’

      “I just--- I mean, it was ---,’ she stammered. His expression told her that there was no way to talk her way out of this. “You can´t do it, Dugan! They´ll catch you! Please, just clear out.’

      His stare was like a lizard´s. He said nothing.

      She smiled invitingly and stepped closer.

      “I´ll go with you, if you want,’ she continued. She laid a hand between her breasts and let her top teeth rest suggestively on her bottom lip. “We could have a real good time.’

      Jackson and Baynes came up behind her. Both men grabbed one of her arms and held her.

      “No sale, Doll,’ said Dugan. He told Baynes and Jackson, “Bring her in.’

      “I think we know how to handle girls like her,’ said Jackson with a grin.

* * * * *

      Summer Merrill stepped into the end of the kissing booth line and waved her arms in crisscross fashion at a few men headed toward her.

      “Sorry, gentlemen,’ she announced. “All the exhibits are closing in five minutes. Be sure to attend the closing ceremonies in the rodeo pavilion at three o´clock.’

      A groan went up from several of the men.

      “Come on, boys,’ she continued with a good-natured grin. “You´re all repeat customers anyway. Give the girls a chance to rest their lips.’

      There was a good deal of laughter at this.

      “I´d settle for a smooch from you, Summer!’ yelled someone.

      “Or one of the gals selling tickets!’ said another man.

      Copper and Julie looked up from their places in the ticket station and smiled.

      Summer brought up the end of the line as the last dozen men bought their tickets.

      “You certainly came up with a great idea for money making with this one, Summer,’ said Julie Ryder. She and Copper straightened the edges of the stacks of bills before placing them into the metal cash box. Julie flipped the lid closed and handed it to Summer. “There you go. A nice little profit for the Hospital fund.’

      “It wouldn´t have worked without the help of all our volunteers,’ said Summer. “Especially of these two.’

      Joan and Diana flanked by Amy and Bonnie joined them. The last of their customers were drifting back through the street between the tents, some toward the rodeo stands and some toward the parking lot.

      “We were glad to help out,’ said Joan. Her smile seemed especially radiant.

      Diana looked at them all rather sheepishly.

      “I´m just glad you let me help out this morning. I really wanted to do something for you and the town after being partly responsible for all trouble that´s been going on. After all, I nearly got you two killed yesterday.’ She nodded toward Joan and Summer.

      Joan put her arm around Diana´s waist.

      “But don´t forget that you were almost killed yourself, Diana. And we don´t blame you or even Virginia for that. It was just an accident caused by that man who went out of control.’

      “Well,’ said Diana shyly, “I´m just glad that I could do something to help.’ She partially turned her back to Amy and put her hands together. “Are you ready to put the cuffs on me now, Amy?’

      Deputy Cole laughed.

      “Not quite, yet.’ She smiled at Copper. “Copper says that when you first got to town you talked about doing some horseback riding here. She asked me if I´d release you in her custody for a few hours so she could take you to the Flying Coronet and do a little riding.’

      Diana´s face lit up with delight.

      “You mean it? You´ll really take me out and let me ride?’ She looked excitedly at Copper. “I´m a complete beginner with horses, you know. The studio talked about putting Joan and me into a Western, but we never got around to doing any training for it.’

      “I´d be glad to. And we´ve got the perfect horse for you.’

      “That´s wonderful!’ cried Diana. “And you´re going to trust me to turn myself in later?’

      “Copper will drive you back to the office when you´re done,’ said Amy. She winked. “I´m not even going to give her any handcuffs.’  

      “I think I can handle her all right,’ said Copper.

      They all laughed.

      “It´s a good thing,’ said Summer. “Because I need both of these alert and capable deputies to escort me and all this cash’ --- she hefted the money box--- “back to the Wild West Days office. We´ll have several days proceeds there, so an armed escort will be welcome.’

      Copper grabbed Diana by the sleeve.

      “We´ll see you all later then,’ she said hustling the starlet off.

      The remaining five women strolled through the emptying fairgrounds. Summer, Julie and Bonnie led the way. Amy and Joan, chatting over old times, trailed them by a few steps. They were nearing the rodeo stand when they bumped into Mr. Roberts.

      “Good afternoon, ladies,’ he said heartily. When he spotted the moneybox under Summer´s arm, he became much more confidential. He looked around warily. His voice dropped. “Is that part of the proceeds?’

      “Yes, Mr. Roberts,’ replied Summer. “It is.’

      “Well, I´m glad you have armed deputies with you. At the conclusion of the ceremony, I´ll be here with three guards to take the money to the bank. I´m just sorry we weren´t able to arrange for an armored car.’

      “I´m sure it´ll be safe with you, Mr. Roberts,’ said Summer. “We´ll see you in a couple hours.’

      Roberts nodded. He looked around again as though several hordes of Chinese bandits were about to appear, then walked briskly toward the main gates of the stadium.

      “Oh, Joan! Joan! Miss O´Connor!’

      They turned to see Harland Bayer jogging toward them from behind. Though they stopped walking immediately, the man was sufficiently unused to exercise that after he caught up to them he did a good deal of huffing and puffing before he could speak.

      “Joan, …I just wanted …to say…’ He looked sheepishly from face to face. “I wanted to apologize for… for… I said a good many things that….’

      He looked at them all again as though searching for a friendly face. Apparently not finding what he sought, he grabbed Joan by the hand and shook it.

      “Thank you, dear, for all you´ve done for Kermit. I just hope that one day you can find it in your heart to forgive us, and me most of all.’

      Avoiding eye contact with all of them, he walked quickly away.

      “Well, I nevuh!’ exclaimed Bonnie. “Whut was that all about?’

      Summer and Julie tried to explain briefly as they walked on.

* * * * *

      “There they go,’ noted Dugan.

      From their car in the lot, he, Jackson and Baynes watched the five women walk through the main gate of the rodeo pavilion.

      “She couldn´t have too much money in that little box,’ said Baynes in the passenger seat.

      “There´s a lot more in the office inside,’ said Dugan. “All we gotta do is wait a while.’

      “Not too long I hope,’ said Jackson raising himself for a better view from the back seat.

      Baynes looked back at the little man.

      “I hope you did a good job on our old boss.’

      Jackson grinned.

      “You saw most of it. I even gave her a little bonus when you guys were goin´ down the stairs. I wanted t´ see if she could take it as well as she dished it out.’

      Dugan grunted.

      “Just so she can´t go running to the cops.’

      “Oh, don´t worry about that. I took real good care of her.’

* * * * *

      A frustrated Patricia Perry wiggled uselessly and whined into her gag. After having to spend several days instructing the men on how to tie a woman securely and safely, they had used their newly acquired skill on her. And those oafs had learned their lessons well.

      They had started by tying her hands behind her back. They seated her in the chair of the dressing table, a chair with a low enough back that her arms were able to easily pass over it. Baynes had bound her to the chair with a number of loops around her arms and torso that were secured to the outer stiles. Jackson had passed several loops around her waist and lap to secure her to the seat. Dugan had bound her legs together above the knees and at the ankles, then linked the ankle ropes to the right front chair leg. Jackson had then taken a pair of clean underwear from her suitcase, wadded them into a ball, wrapped them in a long scarf and gagged her. He had added wide adhesive tape over her mouth to further muffle any cries she might attempt.

      “Too bad it has to end like this, Patricia,’ Dugan had said. “As clever as you are with ropes, you ought to be able to get yourself out of this in a few hours, but we´ll be long gone by then.’

      “Yeah,’ Jackson had added. “Give our regards to the Sheriff, won´t ya?’

      She looked down at her bare breasts. Dugan and Baynes had been content to leave her bound to the chair. Jackson had hung back for a moment, slipped a tiny knife from his pocket and cut the shoulder straps and the elastic between the cups of her bra. He had pulled it down and given both breasts a little squeeze.

      “Prime goods there, Patricia. Thanks for the view.’

      He had chuckled softly and hurried after the others. The bound woman rolled her shoulders and tried to flex her arms. Nothing was working. Somehow she had to free herself. Not just to escape, but to get back at them. Especially at that little pest Jackson.

* * * * *

      Councilman Eckhart waddled down the tunnel leading to the office area of the rodeo ring. He was oblivious to the cheers and shouts of the crowd watching the last few events, which were always the most important ones. All his attention was on the tray and five glasses of lemonade he was holding. He made his way slowly and painstakingly.

      “What´re you up to, Bob?’ called a hearty voice.

      Eckhart stopped and carefully turned. It was McClain.

      “Is real estate so bad that you´ve had to turn waiter?’ continued McClain.

      Eckhart smiled faintly. Since he smiled rarely, the expression appeared slightly painful for him.

      “Oh, no,’ he said with an attempt at geniality. “It´s just that… that…’

      “That what?’ roared McClain.

      “Well, I was rather unfriendly to Miss O´Connor and her friend, and said some things I´m not very proud of.’

      “You mean all that about them being panderers and worse?’

      Eckhart nodded.

      “I know that she and Mrs. Merrill, Mrs. Ryder and the deputies are in the office right now, so I thought I´d bring them a little peace offering. It´s a hot day.’

      “Well, Bob, I´m almost ready to take back most of the things I´ve said about you not being a human being. What was that?’

      A loud cheer came from the ring. Both men looked to the end of the tunnel.

      “Somebody must have done something remarkable,’ said Eckhart. “Hey! Look out there, McClain! What are you trying to do? Get your fingers in the lemonade?’

      “Don´t be a fool! You almost lost a couple glasses when you turned around. Be careful!’

      Eckhart checked all the glasses.

      “They´re all right. I´d better be going before I spill something.’

      “And I want to see the bull riding.’

      McClain strode down the tunnel toward the arena. He could hear Eckhart knocking on the office door.

* * * * *

      “Why this is very kind of you, Mr. Eckhart,’ said Joan as Eckhart bustled in and laid the tray of glasses on a small table standing against one wall. Summer and Julie were seated at a large desk lined with bags and boxes containing proceeds from Wild West Days events.

      “Oh, it´s just a little peace offering from me, Miss O´Connor,’ he mumbled apologetically. “I wasn´t very courteous to you at times this past week. I just wanted you to know that there was nothing personal in it. I was just worried about the town assuming the burden of protecting two very attractive young women who were being stalked by some crazed movie fan. It may not have been apparent how concerned we all were for you´re your safety.’

      Julie turned her head so Eckhart could not see her face and rolled her eyes at Summer. The chairwoman could not completely stifle her laugh. Eckhart did not notice.

      “Well, we all appreciate the gesture,’ said Joan.

      The portly councilman waved his hands fussily.

      “Oh, it´s just a small thing, but lemonade´s certainly good on a hot day like this.’

      His eyes tracked along the moneybags and boxes on the desk.

      “This certainly has been a boon to the hospital,’ he said softly. He smiled at Summer and added in a more normal tone: “You´ve done a wonderful job, Mrs. Merrill.’

      “Thank you, Mr. Eckhart,’ Summer said with a nod.

      “Well I must be off,’ said Eckhart as though roused from a reverie. “Final ceremonies coming up soon. I hope to see you all then.’

      He bustled out of the room. Bonnie stepped forward and took a glass from the tray.

      “This is just in time,’ she said. “I´m dryuh than Texas in Septembuh.’

      “Hand those out, will you, Bonnie,’ said Julie. “I imagine we can all use some.’

      Amy took a glass and offered it to Joan.

      “After locking lips with every dusty cowboy in town, I´ll bet you need more than lemonade,’ she said.

      The starlet giggled.

      “You´re right about that, but I´m an iced tea girl.’ Joan pulled a small thermos from her bag and set it on the desk. As she poured herself a cup of iced tea, Bonnie handed glasses to Julie and Summer. Amy sipped from the glass that Joan had turned down.

      “Time to start the happy work,’ said Summer, rubbing her hands with theatrical glee.

      Joan sipped her tea.

      “Well I´d like to know how we did at the kissing booth. Being chapped for a week won´t be so bad if I know we did a lot of good for the hospital.’

      Summer reached for the metal box.

      “Never have lips given greater service.’

      “As a matter of fact, I´d like to find the ladies´ room to care for my lips and a few other things. Want to come with me, Amy?’

      “I know that I´m violating the female oath about going to the ladies´ room in groups, but I´d better stay here on guard while money´s being counted.’

      Joan covered her mouth with one hand.

      “Sorry. I didn´t think.’ She picked up her purse. “I´ll be back in a few minutes.’

      Amy let Joan out of the office and locked the door behind her.

* * * * *

      Copper Ryder leaned forward, looking intently at a large house just ahead. She let up on the station wagon´s accelerator.

      “What is it, Copper?’ asked Diana Malloy in the passenger seat. “Is something wrong with that house?’

      “There´s something kind of funny going on. That was the Nicholson´s place, but they´ve moved to Mesa. Another couple was going to buy it, but they had to pull out at the last minute. There shouldn´t be anyone at home, but there´s a car parked in front.’

      “Maybe a new buyer´s taking a look at it. I see the realtor´s sign there.’

      “I don´t think there´d be anyone looking it over today with the Wild West Days celebration still going on. And that car isn´t the realtor´s.’

      Diana took a long look at the car. She gasped. Copper jammed on the brakes.

      “What is it?’ she asked.

      “That car!’ exclaimed Diana, pointing as she spoke. “I could be wrong, but I think that woman Patricia was driving a car exactly like it!’

      Copper put the car back in gear and turned into the driveway.

      “Let´s have a look!’

      There was a sign stuck in the ground next to the driveway. It read:


* * * * *

      When there was no response to his knock, Dugan slipped the key into lock of the office door. He drew a revolver from under his suitcoat. Baynes and Jackson also drew out pistols. With a nod to the other two men, Dugan quickly turned the key and threw the door open. There was no reaction. The three men hurried into the room and closed the door to prevent being seen from the outside.

      Dugan looked around the room and smiled to the others. He smiled as he tucked the pistol back into his belt.

      “Real peaceful, isn´t it?’

      Summer Merrill and Julie Ryder were still sitting behind the desk, now with their heads and upper bodies lying across the desktop. Amy Cole was seated on the floor partially slumped against the wall closest to the door. Bonnie Johnson had managed to get into a chair on the opposite side of the room before collapsing. Her wide-brimmed Western hat had fallen onto the floor, her chin rested on her upper chest and her long brown hair hung down.

      “That stuff the boss gave ‘em worked pretty fast,’ said Baynes as he pocketed his pistol.

      “And real well, too,’ added Jackson, giving Amy a poke on the shoulder. The unconscious deputy slid a bit further down. Jackson caught her, letting his arm squeeze her breasts as he propped her up again.

      Dugan drew a roll of adhesive tape from his pocket.

      “All right. Let´s get ‘em tied. Use the deputies´ cuffs on ‘em, tape on the others. Be sure to do their eyes and mouths real good, too.’

      “Right,’ said Baynes.

      He swung two large bags onto the desk and went over to Bonnie.

      “Come on, Honey,’ Jackson said to an unresponsive Amy. He took the handcuffs from her belt and pulled the deputy´s unresisting arms behind her. “This won´t be as much fun without you squirming a little.’

      Dugan was taping Summer´s wrists behind her. He saw Jackson finish tightening the cuffs on Amy then reach around the unconscious brunette and undo the two top buttons of her uniform shirt.

      “Keep your mind on your business, Jackson,’ he growled. “We gotta do this fast. We don´t have time for your entertainment.’

      Jackson drew a wad of cloth and a roll of white adhesive tape from his pocket. He forced the cloth into Amy´s mouth then tore a six-inch piece of tape and pressed it over her lips.

      “I don´t know, Dugan,’ Jackson said as he continued his taping. “Any man who wouldn´t like to have a little fun with a sweet dish like this may not be worth following.’

      Baynes knelt in front of the handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded Bonnie and began taping her ankles together.

      “How about following somebody who can keep you out of jail?’ he asked.

      Dugan finished with Summer. He gently propped her up in her chair and carefully rolled the chair a few feet from the desk. He took up one of the large bags Baynes had put on the desk.

      “You tie up Ryder´s wife,’ he told Baynes. “Jackson and I will staht loading the money.’

      Baynes nodded. When he finished taping Bonnie´s ankles he moved behind Julie, drew her hands behind her and looped them with tape. Jackson groped in Amy´s cleavage one last time, then rose and began emptying small money bags into one of the large ones they had brought. The three worked quickly and silently.

      Dugan looked up sharply. He held up a hand.

      “Wait a minute.’ He ordered. “Someone´s coming!’

      They froze. The sound of approaching footsteps came from the hallway. There was knock at the door.

* * * * *

      Copper Ryder knocked again and slowly swung the door open a foot or so.

      “Hello!’ she called. “Is anybody here?’

      There was no answer. She opened the door enough so that she and Diana could both see inside the house. All was silent inside. To the left of the door was the dining room. Besides the built-in sideboard and china cabinet there was no furniture. On the right was a living room, sparsely but comfortably furnished with two floor lamps, several easy chairs and a couch. The front windows of both rooms were covered with white sheets.

      “Hello!’ Copper called again. “Anybody home?’

      The two girls stepped hesitantly into the entryway. Diana hurriedly closed the door behind them.

      “What´d you do that for?’ asked Copper.

      Diana replied in a whisper.

      “I didn´t want anyone to see us here and think we were breaking in. I´m in enough trouble already.’

      Copper took a few more steps inside, continuing to scan the premises.

      “I wonder what´s going on in here,’ she said. “The Nicholsons had a big moving van take all their things away. Who put this other stuff in here?’ She pointed to the dining room. “I´ll bet the kitchen´s that way. Take a look in there. I´ll check the living room.’

      Diana grabbed her by the sleeve of her flannel shirt.

      “Are you sure about this, Copper? Why don´t we just call the Sheriff?’

      “And tell him what? That we found a car parked in front of an empty house? That´s not exactly the crime of the century. Go ahead.’

      Reluctantly, Diana obeyed. Copper cautiously entered the living room. There were a few used ashtrays on the floor by the couch and two of the chairs as well as some well-read newspapers. Against the rear wall Copper spotted a teacart of some kind. When she looked closer she discovered an ice bucket, some used glasses and a number of mostly empty liquor bottles. Diana appeared at the other door.

      “Somebody´s been staying here, that´s for sure,’ the starlet reported. She pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “There are both dirty and cleaned up dishes out here. Pots and pans, too. Someone´s been cooking.’

      Copper spotted a telephone on a small, old-fashioned telephone table at one end of the couch. The instrument was connected to a box on the wall. She hurried over to it and picked up the receiver.

      “It works!’ she exclaimed. “Whoever was here was in communication with the outside.’

      “So what do we do now?’ asked Diana.

      Copper hung up the phone and looked around pensively for a moment.

      “Well, I think we can call the Sheriff now, though maybe we should call Sky first. He´ll probably tell us to---“

      She stopped. They could here a faint whining sound from upstairs. Copper now grabbed Diana.

      “Come on! I know what that is!’

      “Me too!’

      The two girls sprinted for the stairs and clattered up, calling as they ran. Copper spotted a seated figure in one of the bedrooms.

      “In there, Diana!’ she cried, pointing.

      “Oh, my Lord!’ said Diana. “It´s Patricia!’

      The girls hurried in. The captive woman was bouncing in her chair and calling urgently behind the tape over her mouth. Copper peeled away the tape as Diana untied the knotted scarf holding the gag packing.

      “What happened?’ asked Copper as the prisoner spat out the wadded cloth.

      Patricia took a couple deep breaths and wiped her lips with her tongue.

      “Those men I hired,’ she gasped. She looked at Diana. “You know the ones who did all the phony kidnappings---“

      Diana nodded.

      “Well they were working for someone else too, someone who´s arranged some kind of robbery for today.’

      “At Wild West Days?’ asked Copper.

      “I don´t know,’ Patricia replied. “I think so. All I know is that they were going to get several thousand dollars each.’

      Copper looked at Diana.

      “Go call the Sheriff. He´s probably out at the fairgrounds, but they can reach him from the office. Tell him what she said. He and Sky will know what to do.’

      Diana nodded and hurried back down the stairs. Copper dug into the pockets of her jeans. She was unable to resist the temptation to smile at the bound woman, making sure that Patricia saw her enjoying the sight of her exposed breasts.

      “Well, for an evil woman you certainly got yourself into a fix here, didn´t you? I won´t say I´m not glad to see that you´re getting a taste of how it feels for a change. What´d you do to deserve all this?’

      “It doesn´t feel very good at all. And right now I´m really sorry for what I did to you and the other girls here.’

      Patricia looked earnestly at Copper.

      “I know that you don´t think very much of me, young lady, because of what I did for Virginia. But I really did try to do the right thing this time. I tried to talk them out of robbing whoever it was they were going to rob. But they grabbed me and tied me up so I couldn´t warn anyone. One of them even cut my bra open to humiliate me.’

      Now Copper could not help feeling a little sorry for the woman.

      “Well, don´t you worry.’ She held up her pocketknife. “I´ve found my knife and I´ll have these ropes cut in a jiffy. You´ll be free in no time.’

      “That´s wonderful, dear,’ said Patricia. “I don´t know how I can thank you.’

* * * * *

      There was no answer to Joan O´Connor´s second knock. She listened for a moment. The room seemed unusually quiet. Even with the important business of counting money, she had expected to hear some gossip or chatter among her friends inside, especially since the mostly wooden building was far from soundproof. Something was wrong. She turned to go but immediately collided with someone.

      “Why, Miss O´Connor! What seems to be the trouble?’

      She looked up to see the fat face of Councilman Eckhart looking down at her.

      “I just knocked on the office door but got no answer,’ explained Joan. “I thought that there might be something wrong, and I´d better find Sheriff Winchell or a deputy.’

      “So you thought something was wrong, did you?’ Eckhart said softly. He took her firmly by the arm. “Well, we´ll see about that.’

      He pounded on the door.

      “Open up in there! This is Councilman Eckhart. What´s going on?’

      The door slowly opened inward.

      “There,’ said Eckhart. “See? There´s nothing at all wrong. Let´s go have a look shall we?’

      A wave of fear ran through the actress.

      “No, that´s not really necessary,’ she faltered. “I think I should---“

      Eckhart pinned her arms tighter and clapped his other hand over her mouth.

      “Give me a hand out there, will you. This one´s getting frisky.’ He smiled malevolently at Joan. “Let´s go on in, Miss O´Connor. Your friends are waiting.’

      Two pairs of strong hands reached through the doorway and grabbed Joan. Eckhart kept his hand tightly over her mouth. Despite her struggles and protests, she was dragged into the room.

* * * * *

      “Hold on to her, Baynes,’ said Jackson. “I´ll find something to gag her.’

      “Hurry up, will ya!’ said Baynes. “She´s fightin´ like a wildcat.’

      Jackson found a fresh roll of tape on the desk and whipped a clean handkerchief from the breast pocket of his suitcoat.

      “This oughta do the trick.’

      “Don´t struggle so much, my dear,’ Eckhart said unctuously. “You´re no match for four of us. You´ll only force us to hurt you.’

      Joan looked at the other men. Realizing the truth of his words, she relaxed.

      “Good girl,’ said Jackson. “Open your mouth.’

      She could not help but wiggle and mew into Eckhart´s hand as the little man held up the wadded handkerchief. Eckhart slipped his hand away and Jackson forced it into her mouth. As Baynes held Joan´s hands behind her, Dugan secured the girl with tape.

      Eckhart stepped back and watched as the three men worked. He strolled to the little table holding the tray on which he had brought the lemonade. Two empty glasses and one full, apparently untouched, glass stood on it now as well as a small thermos. He ran his index finger around the rim of its top/cup, half-filled with iced tea.

      “You´re obviously the tea drinker in the crowd, Miss O´Connor,’ he said. “Too bad for you. A few sips of the lemonade and you´d be as cooperative as the other young ladies.’

      Jackson was just finishing pressing tape over Joan´s lower face to seal the gag. She looked at the other bound, unconscious women.

      “Oh, don´t worry about them,’ Eckhart said soothingly. “They just pleasantly asleep. They may experience a slight hangover when they awaken but nothing more.’

      “Yeah, but what about her?’ asked Dugan. Baynes brought another chair up and Dugan pushed her into it. Baynes started taping her ankles together. “She´s seen all of us and you, too. Whadda we gonna do about that?’

      Eckhart put a hand to his chin and stroked it thoughtfully.

      “I´m afraid that we´ll have to eliminate Miss O´Connor,’ he said matter-of-factly.

      Baynes looked up. He finished taping the girl´s ankles and rose.

      “Nobody told me about any killin´ when I took this job,’ he said.

      “Me neither,’ said Dugan firmly. “Stealing money and doin´ phony kidnap jobs is one thing, but killing isn´t in my line. She´s just a kid, and she´s in pictures. The cops and the papers´d never let somethin´ like this rest.’

      “Let´s just take her someplace she won´t be found for a couple hours,’ suggested Baynes. “That´ll give us all the head start we need.’

      “You´re overlooking one fact, gentlemen,’ said Eckhart. “This isn´t enough money to last the rest of my life. I need to live here after this.’ He looked narrowly at Joan. “And I can´t do that if there are witnesses.’

      “Where you spend the rest of your life isn´t our business,’ said Dugan. “I´m not killin´ anyone for you.’

      “Me neither,’ said Baynes.

      Eckhart regarded the two for a moment. Their faces were stern and set.

      “How about you, Jackson?’ asked Eckhart.

      “I´m with you, boss,’ the little man said with a smirk.

      “Very well. Dugan, you and Baynes take your money and go. Jackson and I will take care of Miss O´Connor.’

      Dugan and Baynes exchanged an uneasy glance. Baynes shrugged. They loaded some bills into two of the smaller bags. Baynes went to the door and opened it a crack and looked out.

      “Clear,’ he told Dugan.

      Baynes slipped out of the room. Dugan took one last look at Joan, bound and gagged in the chair. He looked down as though embarrassed, then glared at Eckhart.

      “Think it ovah real carefully before you do anything you might regret,’ he said. Then he was gone.

      “What next, boss?’ asked Jackson.

      “Let´s finish loading the other bag with the money. Then you´ll have to bring my car up close to the main door so we can load our cargo in some privacy.’

      Joan looked up at Eckhart with wide and entreating eyes. He reached for a stack of money and stuffed it in the bag.

* * * * *

      Diana Malloy put the telephone back onto its cradle. Patricia Perry and Copper looked at her expectantly.

      “I know that you two heard only the last part, but I gave Sue Kendall the whole story,’ said Diana. “She´s going to call the Sheriff out at the fairgrounds and warn him about the robbery.’ She looked at Patricia. “I told her not to worry about sending anyone out to get you. I said that we´d bring you in.’

      Copper laid her hand on Patricia´s arm.

      “It must´ve been tough to do the right thing, but we´ll help you all we can. And I know the Sheriff and the District Attorney will do everything they can on your behalf.’

      Patricia smiled at the two blondes. She took them both by the hand.

      “You´re both wonderful,’ she said, her eyes shining with gratitude. “I just have one favor to ask before you take me in.’

      “Of course,’ said Copper. “Anything we can do.’

      Patricia was still wearing only the same underclothes she had on when the gang had left her bound and gagged in the bedroom. Jackson had cut the bra so that unless Patricia held it up and closed, her breasts were exposed.

      “Just let me find another bra and dress in something fairly decent. I don´t want the Sheriff and the whole town to see me like this!’ she looked at Copper. “Maybe you could help me pick out something. I don´t know what to wear to a police booking.’

      “I´d be glad to help you,’ Copper said with a smile.

      “Now you just wait here, Diana. We won´t be very long.’

      Diana picked up one of the newspapers and sat on the couch as Copper and Patricia went upstairs.

* * * * *

      “Well, Sky,’ said Sheriff Winchell, “it looks as though one of your hunches was wrong. For once.’

      The two men were standing in one of the rodeo arena aisles, leaning against the rail of the next row of seats. The crowd was waiting for another broncobuster to be released into the ring.

      “Believe me, Winch,’ the tall rancher said, “I´ve got no objection to a quiet day now and then.’

      “Hey, Sheriff!’

      The two men looked around. Lanky Deputy Charlie Barnes was making his way down one of the vertical aisles toward them.

      “Call for you, Sheriff,’ called Barnes. “Fred took it in the pressbox.’

      “Thanks, Charlie. I´m on my way.’ He started up the steps but stopped when he noticed Sky following him.

      “You expecting something, Sky?’

      Sky shrugged and smiled.

      “This may be the call that proves me right about today.’

      The Sheriff laughed and led the way up.

      The pressbox served both reporters covering events below and as public address service. Fred Merrill sat behind the microphone at the announcer´s table. Burt Medford and several other reporters were writing or typing at other tables. Fred pointed to a phone with its handset off the hook at a table in the rear.

      “It´s Sue at your office, Winch,’ he said. “Sounds like something´s up.’

* * * * *

      Joan O´Connor stopped struggling for a moment. Not only was she a bit short of breath from her gagged exertions, but Eckhart had finished loading money into the bag and was watching her with a faint smile. He leaned over to gently stroke her hair and the side of her face.

      “Yes, this going to be a great shame, my dear,’ he said softly. “You´re quite a fetching young thing. A ripe and fresh young beauty.’

      He moved his hand from the side of her face to the top button of her blouse and unhooked it. He pulled back one side to see her cleavage better. She could hear his breath become faster and slightly raspy as he undid another button. His fingers slid between her breasts.

      He pulled away abruptly at the sound of someone at the door. Jackson hurried in, a blanket over one shoulder.

      “The car´s up, boss,’ he said. He pulled the blanket off his shoulder and unfolded it. “And this ought to be good enough to wrap up our little prize.’

      “Very good, Jackson. Let´s get Miss O´Connor and the money out of here.’

      Neither of the men noticed Amy Cole stirring.

* * * * *

      “Yeah, I´ve got it. Thanks, Sue.’

      Sheriff Winchell hung up the phone and turned to Sky. His face was grim.

      “You were right, Sky. There is something in the wind. The woman who hired the gang that staged all those phony adventures for Joan and Diana says that there´s going to be a robbery of some kind out here this afternoon.’


      Winchell nodded.

      “From what Diana just told Sue, the woman didn´t know anything about the robbery until this morning. When she wouldn´t go along, the gang turned on her. They´ve been hiding out at the Nicholson place. They tied her up and left her there. Copper and Diana saw her car there and found her when they went to investigate.’

      “The first thing we should do is to warn Summer and Amy.’

      Winchell nodded.

      “Let´s get some help.’

      The two men went quickly down the steps. Deputy Barnes, who was standing just outside the pressbox joined them. Winchell waved to Deputies Tyler and Rivera as they reached the office level. The two trotted over.

      “What´s up, Sheriff?’ asked Tyler.

      “Possible robbery, Harry. Check your weapons, men. We´ve got to get to the office.’

* * * * *

      Diana Malloy finished reading an article and turned to another page of the paper. She looked at her wristwatch. She wondered what was keeping Copper and Patricia. Surely the woman couldn´t have so many clothes that it would this long to choose something to wear.

      She put down the newspaper and got up. In the entryway she leaned against the banister and looked upstairs.

      “Is everything okay up there?’ she called.

      “We won´t be another minute,’ replied Patricia. “We´ll be even faster if you come up and help us with the bags.’

      “I´m coming,’ said Diana, as she started up the stairs.

* * * * *

      Sheriff Winchell knocked on the office door for a second time.

      “Summer! Amy!’ he called. “It´s the Sheriff. Are you all right in there?’

      There was no answer. Sky Ryder looked at the Sheriff.

      “We´d better break it down, Winch,’ he said urgently.

      Winchell gestured to the deputies.

      “Give him a hand, men.’

      Sky, Harry Tyler and Charlie Barnes all lined up with their shoulders to the door.

      “On three, boys,’ said Sky. “One. Two. Three!’

      It took three lunges to break through the door. They immediately saw three of the bound, gagged and blindfolded women: Summer and Julie at the desk and Bonnie in a chair facing the door. Aside from a few bags of coins, the money was gone.

      “Let´s get them untied!’ said Sky as he hurried to Julie.

      Deputy Barnes went to assist Bonnie and Sheriff Winchell to help Summer Merrill. Tyler and Rivera stood in the open doorway. Tyler was looking around frantically.

      “Where´s Amy?’ he asked loudly.

      They heard a muffled sound behind the door. Tyler looked around it and found Amy slumped against the wall. He knelt beside her and began peeling the tape from her eyes.

      “Are you all right, Amy?’ he asked anxiously.

      Until he removed the tape from her mouth, the brunette beauty could only nod. He began carefully pulling the tape. Amy did not wait. She swung her head in the opposite direction to make the peeling go faster then spit out the cloth packing.

      “Find Councilman Eckhart!’ she gasped. “He was the mastermind! He´s got the money and Joan, too.’

      “How long have they been gone?’ asked Sky.

      “Just a couple minutes,’ said Amy. “You might be able to catch him. There´s one man with him, Jackson, the little one in the cheap suit. I think they´re planning to get rid of Joan.’

      Sheriff Winchell had removed the tape from Summer´s eyes and mouth but the woman was still out cold.

      “Charlie, you get the girls untied. The rest of you, come with me. We´ve got to catch them before it´s too late.’

      Barnes took the pistol from his holster and handed it to Sky.

      “You might need this, Sky. Amy and I´ll take care of Julie and the others.’

      Sky took the weapon.

      “Thanks, Charlie.’

      “Let´s go.’ ordered the Sheriff.

      The four men sprinted for the main gate.

* * * * *

      Eckhart and Jackson loaded Joan O´Connor´s blanket-wrapped and wriggling form into the back seat of Eckhart´s car.

      “Gently now, gently,’ said Eckhart as the lowered her and pushed her along the seat. “We don´t want to harm our fair guest unnecessarily.’

 Jackson looked at him curiously.

      “Whaddya mean?’ he asked. “We´re just gonna get rid of her later, aren´t we?’

      “Perhaps not,’ said Eckhart. “I may be able to persuade her to be cooperative.’

      Jackson put his hands on his hips and laughed.

      “I´ll be a son-of-a-gun! You want her, don´t ya? You think you can talk her into staying with you?’

      Eckhart opened the driver´s side door and tossed the moneybag into the front seat. He scowled at Jackson.

      “I refuse to discuss it. This isn´t the time. Get in the car.’

      Jackson laughed again.

      “Get in the car!’ roared Eckhart.

      Jackson wiped away a tear of hilarity.

      “What would a young dish like her see in a fat old fossil like you?’

      Eckhart dived into the car, slammed the door and started the engine. Jackson started to circle behind the sedan to reach the passenger side.

      “Hold it right there, you men!’ shouted Sky Ryder. “The Sheriff´s here. Give it up!’

      Jackson stopped and turned. He could see Sky, Winchell and the two deputies, all with weapons drawn less than fifty feet from them. He was too far from the car door to make a dash for it and there was no cover nearby. He tried to draw his gun.

      “Don´t be a fool!’ yelled the Sheriff. “We´ll shoot if we have to!’

      Jackson managed to get his revolver out from under his coat, but before he could aim both Winchell and Tyler fired. The little man staggered and fired a wild shot in the air before dropping the gun and falling to the ground.

      “Get out of the car, Eckhart!’

      Instead, the councilman pressed the accelerator down. The car leaped away from the main gate and flew down the lane between parked cars toward the road. There were two auxiliary deputies wearing star badges and Sam Browne belts at the parking gate, but they were unarmed. One of them tried to close his side of the gate as they scurried out of the way, but Eckhart´s big sedan broke the wooden barrier to splinters as he drove through.

      Andy Rivera was about to take aim at the fleeing car, but looked helplessly at Winchell.

      “What´ll we do, Sheriff? We can´t shoot with Miss O´Connor in the car.’

      “You boys get after him,’ said Winchell. “Call it in to the rest of the force and have Sue alert the State Police. Sky and I will be along as soon as we check on this other hombre.’

      “Right, Sheriff,’ said Tyler. “Let´s go, Andy.’

      The two deputies sprinted for their car.

      Sky Ryder picked up the pistol that Jackson had dropped. The man lay groaning where he had fallen. Sky knelt beside him, took his handkerchief and pressed it over a wound near the man´s right shoulder.

      Deputies Al MacKeever and Ben Norris, their pistols drawn, came running out of the main gate. A number of curious civilians were following them.

      “Ben!’ called the Sheriff. “Get an ambulance. Al, get some of the extra deputies to keep the crowd back.’

      He knelt beside Sky. The tall rancher nodded.

      “He´ll be all right, Winch. The one I´m worried about is Joan.’

      Winchell looked in the direction Eckhart had driven off.

      “He´s got a good start on Harry and Andy. With all the properties he deals in, he could head anywhere.’ He grinned at Sky. “It´s a good thing we´ve got an equalizer.’

* * * * *

      “Now, now, Joan,’ Eckhart said softly. “There´s no need to kick. You know that it can´t do you any good. And you don´t want to irritate me, do you?’

      Joan, wide-eyed and now naked above the waist in the sedan´s back seat, cringed. She knew that he was right about her struggles being useless. After losing the pursuing patrol car among a maze of side roads and wooded patches, her captor had driven into a secluded farm lane and parked among some trees. He had then unwrapped her from the blanket, cut off her blouse and bra and added more tape around her arms and upper body. He had stopped on the verge of freeing her ankles to deliver his warning. They were apparently miles from anywhere or anyone who could help her. There was nowhere to run, even if she managed to kick him away and get to her feet. She shook her head in answer to his question.

      “Good! Then we´ll proceed.’

      He tore the last couple loops of tape from her feet then groped at her belt buckle. She could not help a few involuntary shrieks as he pulled off her slacks. Only her panties remained.

      “I don´t know how much we´ll need these again,’ he said as he folded the slacks neatly. “But it´s always a good idea to be prepared.’

      He tucked the slacks under the front seat, where the remains of her blouse and bra also lay. Taking up another roll of tape he bound her ankles once again and added loops around her legs both above and below the knees. The bending and exertion winded him somewhat. He laid a hand on her shoulder, ogling the nearly naked beauty with obvious delight.

      “You´re extremely beautiful, Joan, a rare treasure for any man. I hope you didn´t think that all those things I said about you and your friend in the council meetings were because I found you unattractive. I certainly did not. I just wanted the money. I needed it desperately, and thought that having you in town might ruin my plans, so I tried to get you sent away. Then I realized how beautifully the danger you were in could serve as a distraction. Everyone would be worried about the glamorous starlets and forget about protecting the money. It was sheer luck that Dugan, the man I hired to help me steal the money, was the same man that run-down actress hired to make it look like you two were in danger.’

      He leaned closer to her and stroked the blond hair along the side of her face. She tried to shrink away from him. He drew her closer.

      “I never dreamed that I would be able to have both you and the money.’

      He took his hands from her shoulder and the side of her face and grabbed the sides of the waistband of her panties. She squealed in alarm and shook her head. He merely smiled.

      “You´re so beautiful.’

      He pulled the panties down her hips, under her bottom and down to the tapes above her knees. She closed her eyes and held her breath.

      “And you´re a lucky girl,’ he went on. “Now that the Sheriff knows that it was I who engineered the robbery, there´s no reason to dispose of you to protect my identity. However, if I´m going to be on the run, I can´t be burdened with an uncooperative female. You can go with me as my willing companion or I´m afraid I´ll have to make other plans.’

      She looked at him with a horror-stricken expression.

      “You don´t like the idea, I see. Well, there´s no need to decide right this minute.’ He pointed. “About eight miles down this road is a property I know, a farm for sale. In one of the more remote sections there´s an old well. I think we should go there. We can have a more intimate… er, chat, let´s say. Then you can tell me your answer to my proposition. Should you decide to reject my offer, I´ll make sure you get a closer look at that well. A very close look.’

      He pushed her down on the seat, shut the door and got back into the driver´s seat. Almost immediately the engine started and the car pulled onto the road.

* * * * *

      “I hope we´re on the right track out here, Sky,’ said Sheriff Winchell as he scanned the ground below the Hummingbird though binoculars. “I´m sure no expert, but I don´t remember Eckhart being the agent for much property out here.’

      “Maybe not, Winch,’ answered Sky. “But whether he´s the agent or not, he knows this area pretty well. He even knew how to use the geography to lose Harry and Andy.’

      Julie Ryder, in the copilot´s seat, looked quizzically at her husband.

      “The ground is kind of rolling,’ he explained “The roads are in the flat areas, and the ridges, hills and trees make it difficult to see any distance. That´s why Winch said that the Hummingbird is our equalizer.’

      “I see,’ said Julie. When the plane dipped slightly, she blanched and put her hand to her head.

      “Feeling all right, Mrs. Ryder?’ asked Deputy Hansen from his seat beside Sheriff Winchell in the back. He had been included in the party because Deputy Barnes was too tall to spend a long time in the plane´s rear seat. “I hope that stuff they used to drug you gals isn´t making you sick.’

      “I´m fine, Lew,’ she replied. “Fortunately, I wasn´t one of the thirsty ones. Bonnie drank all of hers and most of Joan´s and Summer drank some of mine as well as her own. I´m not surprised they´re still asleep.’

      “Doc Barton´ll take good care of them,’ said Winchell.

      “Sheriff´s Control to Hummingbird. Come in please. Over.’

      It was the voice of Sue Kendall on the radio. Julie took up the handset.

      “Control, this is Hummingbird. We read you loud and clear. Over.’

      “Sheriff, be advised that the Lieutenant Conway just called in. He and his men caught Dugan and Baynes near Bullhead City. They are in custody. Over.’

      Julie handed the microphone to Winchell.

      “That´s great news, Sue. Any reports from other units? Over.’

      “Negative, Sheriff. Units Two and Five are in your area but have nothing to report. Over.’

      “The only interesting thing we can see from here is you, Hummingbird,’ Harry Tyler chimed in. “Over.’

      “Is that you on Black Creek Road, Harry?’ asked Winchell looking down. “Just keep moving ahead. We´ll give you directions when we have some. Over.’

      Deputies MacKeever and Norris called in as well. Winchell directed them to take a parallel course to Tyler and Rivera. Between the two cars and the plane, they were advancing the search on a wide front.

      Julie spotted something and raised her field glasses for a better look. She pointed.

      “What does that look like to you, Sky?’

      Sky took the glasses and peered at the spot. Winchell was looking as well.

      “It´s a car, and one that looks a lot like Eckhart´s,’ said Sky.

      “A fancy car like that looks pretty out-of-place on a dirt ranch road, doesn´t it?’ noted Winchell.

      “Get your men up there as fast as you can, Winch,’ said Sky. He scanned the terrain ahead. “If we fly low behind that ridge on the left, I think I can get ahead of him and land without him spotting us. Maybe we can head him off.’

      Winchell took the radio.

* * * * *

      Eckhart´s big sedan pulled off the road into an overgrown path leading to small field among some pinewoods. A tumbledown shack stood some fifty yards from the road. A nearly invisible track led from the shack to an unused and forlorn looking circular stone well not far away. The car stopped in the shelter of a grove of trees and the door opened. Eckhart slowly swung his legs out. He stood, closed the door and went to the back door. When he emerged again, he did not have Joan in his arms, but the blanket in which she had been wrapped. He carried it to the shade of the trees and spread it carefully on the ground. Only after the stage was perfectly set did he return to the car and lift the bound and struggling girl from the seat. He carried her to the blanket and placed her gently in the middle of it.

      “You´re as light as a feather, my dear, as weightless as an angel,’ he said, removing his suit jacket. He began to loosen his necktie. “And I certainly hope you´ve been seriously considering the offer to be my companion. My lifelong companion.’

      Trussed as she was, it was difficult for her to even recoil from him. Using her bound feet she pushed herself to the far edge of the blanket.

      “I realize that a lovely young woman like you might not find me especially attractive,’ he said with apparent geniality. “But I assure that the alternative is far less attractive.’

      He dropped his jacket on the blanket and walked to the well. There were a few stones lying on the ground near it. He picked one up and held it theatrically over the mouth of the well. With a smile, he dropped it. For long seconds there was no sound. Finally a soft thud and a softer splash came from below. He walked slowly back toward her, rolling up his sleeves as he came.

      “Wouldn´t you say that a long trip with me is preferable to that relatively short trip?’

      Joan struggled fruitlessly and wailed into the gag. Eckhart lowered himself to the blanket beside her and reached out. He stroked her shoulder, then her breasts and drew her closer. Still she fought as best she could.

      “So lovely,’ he whispered.

      “All right, Eckhart! Give it up! This is the Sheriff!’

      He turned with a start to see Sheriff Winchell, his pistol drawn, striding toward him from the trees.

      His face a mask of fear, Eckhart struggled to his feet and took a few lumbering steps in the direction of his car, only to have Deputy Hansen appear in front of him. He turned again and started to run on at a right angle to the left. Sky Ryder stood in his path. For a moment Eckhart kept turning his head, like a trapped animal. Then he sank to his knees and began sobbing.

      Sky, Winchell and Hansen all advanced to within a few feet of the man.

      “Take care of him, will you, Winch?’ said Sky.

      The Sheriff nodded sadly. Sky walked back to the blanket. Julie had removed Joan´s gag and was cradling the weeping girl in her arms.

      “She said that he put some of her clothes under the front seat,’ said Julie.

      “I´ll get them.’

      As he neared the vehicle he saw the approaching red lights of two Sheriff´s cars. It was over.

* * * * *

      “Well, I hope that this has been enough adventure for one week!’ said Amy Cole.

      Joan O´Connor was seated between Amy and Harry Tyler who was driving the patrol car. Sky and Julie Ryder were in the back. Following Joan´s rescue, the Ryders had flown Joan back to their ranch and given her some of Copper´s clothes to wear. Amy Cole in one car and Tyler and Andy Rivera in theirs had joined them there to give them a ride back to town. Tyler had offered to drive Amy´s car so the old friends could have another chat. Rivera was following them with the other car.

      “Enough for a week!’ exclaimed Joan. “This has been more than enough for a lifetime! From now on, any more adventures I have will be on the screen.’

      “Well you don´t have to worry about lack of publicity,’ said Harry.

 “Don´t even mention that word!’

      “Most stars have to create interesting things in their lives,’ said Julie. “But with you, nobody will believe what really happened to you.’

      “Though there´s a young man waiting in town to hear your complete story,’ added Sky. “If you want to tell it.’

      Joan looked apprehensively at Amy.

      “I wonder if he can take it.’

      “I think he can,’ said Amy with a smile. “Just in case, I´ll have the smelling salts handy.’

      They all laughed.

      “Hey, Harry,’ said Sky. “See if you can find out if Copper´s ready for dinner. I think we should celebrate.’

      “I´ll do it, Sky,’ said Amy taking up the radio handset.

      She called the Sheriff´s Office. Sue Kendall was still on duty.

      “Sorry, Amy,’ she said. “We haven´t seen Copper all afternoon. Over.’

      “Are you sure, Sue? She and Diana were supposed to bring in that Patricia woman a couple hours ago. Over.’

      “Try the airport,’ suggested Sky. “She might have thought we´d fly back to town.’

      Amy tried this as well. Neither the girl nor the station wagon had been seen.

      “I don´t like this, Sky,’ said Julie. “Something may have happened to her.’

      “The last place we know she was is the Nicholson´s old house,’ said Harry.

      He turned on the car´s rotating beacon and accelerated.

      It was growing dark when they reached the house. The Flying Coronet station wagon was parked in front. Harry, Amy and Andy Rivera led the way with drawn pistols.

      “Is anybody here?’ called Amy.

      Because the house was very still, they could hear some faint, muffled sounds from the second floor.

      “I know that sound,’ said Amy as she holstered her service revolver.

      “We do too,’ said Julie, raising an eyebrow at Sky.

      As they neared the top of the stairs they could tell that the sounds were coming from the first bedroom on the left. Sky stepped inside and threw the light switch.

      Two blond women, clad only in panties, were in the room. One was seated in a low-backed chair. Her hands were bound behind her back and the chair back. Many ropes circled her arms and body, holding her tightly in the chair. Her knees and ankles were also bound with ropes, and her feet were secured to one of the chair legs. Wide adhesive tape covered both her mouth and eyes. The other woman was hogtied on the bed. Other ropes secured her arms and body and her eyes and mouth were also taped. Amy peeled away the blindfolding tape of the woman in the chair. It was Diana Malloy. Julie Ryder removed the blindfold of the hogtied woman to reveal Copper Ryder. Both women demanded indignantly, and quite unintelligibly to be set free. The group laughed.

      “Quite a job of crime fighting you two did today!’ said Amy.

      “Got her right where you wanted her, eh?’ asked Harry.

      “Oh, come on,’ said Joan sympathetically. “They might not have done so well here, but thanks to them we found out about the robbery. They deserve something for that.’

      “Should we untie them?’ asked Amy.

      “Yeah,’ said Julie. “Let´s do that.’

      As Amy, Julie, Joan and Harry worked at freeing the two, Andy Rivera picked up a piece of paper from the dresser.

      “This has your name on it, Sky,’ he said, handing it to the tall flyer.

      It was a single sheet of folded notepaper with Sky´s name written on the folded flap. He opened it and read.

            Dear Mr. Ryder,

      It has been a distinct pleasure matching wits with you this week. For now the advantage is to you. I look forward to the next time we meet.

      Your niece is a brave and clever girl. She does have some weakness for a sad story though. This will probably be a good lesson to her that some of the people who tell sad stories are only acting.  

                                          Ta-ta for now,

                                          Patricia Perry

                                          (stage name)

The End

The End

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