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Colorado, Present Day
A majestic elk stood stock-still on the hill, long neck arched to the sky in the sunset, antlers large and proud. Scattered wildflowers nestled within the long grass, and the colors of the horizon were almost whimsical in their beauty.
Scarlet Barlow kept her distance, though the animal didn't seem to be the least bit afraid of her. The elk in the area were accustomed to people who came to hike the mountainous country, the crests and valleys and little plateau where the onetime Conway Ranch was now a bed-and-breakfast, complete with a gift shop and museum. No one disturbed the elk that came here to graze the lush meadows, and the elk apparently knew that. The B and B was a mere stone's throw from the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, so those who came to admire the animal life there meant it no harm.
The big bull elk seemed to be aware that he was posing like a model; it was almost as if he was happy to offer her the photo op.
She snapped several pictures, paused and glanced at them on the screen, then smiled, pleased with what she had captured.
"Thank you, sir," she said to him, then turned away and looked out over the natural splendor of the Rockies and the town of Estes Park, nestled among them.
People came here for many reasons.
One of the biggies was The Stanley Hotel. Stephen King had been staying there when he'd been inspired to write The Shining. The hotel offered both ghost and historical tours, and Scarlet loved it. She liked to imagine what the author had thought and to hear the staff talk about how the events in the book related to what had really happened there.
The Conway Ranch, where she'd been working as a researcher and curator for the past two months, had a history just as unique and intriguing, even if not as well-known. She loved knowing that her contributions to the small on-site museum were helping it to become more and more of an attraction on its own. The ranch had been founded in the 1860s, just a few years after Joel Estes had established the town and a few months after Welsh explorer Griffith Evans had opened a dude ranch in the area. Ranching was no easy matter in this mountainous country seventy-five hundred feet above sea level. And as far as the Con-way Ranch went, "ranching" had long meant guided trail rides for the tourists.
Scarlet smiled. She couldn't get over the awe she always felt as she looked at the towering snowcapped peaks of the Rockies.
She'd been told nothing compared to the Canadian Rockies, but she couldn't imagine that any scenery could be more beautiful than this.
Even the town felt special to her, with its unique shops and restaurants, everything nestled in a natural paradise of mountain peaks and forests cut through by brooks that were bubbling and bright in the sunlight, cool and mysterious by night. Hikers, horseback riders and tubers and rafters, who took their chances with the rapids, came year-round to enjoy the scenery.
This place was as different from her native South Florida as it could get, but both were natural playgrounds, and this was a perfect place to be. At least for now.
Her apartment was on the top floor of what had once been a storage barn for feed and ranching equipment. Now it housed the museum on the ground floor and her two-bedroom apartment on the second. The museum had actually come about accidentally. The original builder had started out organizing his own Civil War and Native American memorabilia, then added more pieces as he acquired them. Over the years various people had taken a stab at cataloging everything, but finally the current owner had decided it was time for a professional to come in and make sense of it all.
And that was where Scarlet had entered the picture.
She'd been a bookworm all her life, with a particular interest in history. At college she'd majored in history and minored in archaeology, going on to get master's degrees in both. What she loved most wasn't the bare bones of dates and places but the stories that went along with events, stories about the people who'd actually lived at the time and whose experiences provided a unique perspective.
After college she had worked in New York for several years before she had been invited to come home to South Florida to work a new dig in the field she considered her specialty, eighteenth and nineteenth century America, at the mouth of the Miami River. She had followed both the lure of the job and her heart, taking the position not only for itself, but also to be closer to the man she'd loved, FBI agent Diego McCullough. And now, thanks to the current owner of the ranch, Ben Kendall, she was here in Colorado.
Ben, a descendant of the original owner, Nathan Kendall, and his wife, Trisha, had purchased the place five years ago. For them, restoring the Conway Ranch was a labor of love. They'd refurbished it with the money he'd made as a New York stockbroker, having given up the city life to return to his family roots.
A history buff from way back, he had tracked down Scarlet in New York City after discovering that she, too, had a family connection to the ranch and to him, and they'd stayed in touch when she went back to Florida, where she'd eventually married Diego. And he'd been right there with a job offer after the divorce, when she'd wanted and needed to get away.
"Scarlet! Afternoon!" Ben called out to her now from the wide porch of the main house, breaking into her thoughts.
Given the time, she realized he must have just returned from leading the afternoon trail ride, just as he did six days a week. Angus Fillmorethe quintessential cowboy, with his long white hair and beard, solid shoulders and strong armswas still leading horses into the stables. One of the guests, Terry Ballantree, thirtyish and another descendant of Nathan Kendall, was talking animatedly to Angus, who was nodding politely but didn't seem to be saying much. Gwen and Charles Barton, newlyweds from Mississippi, were waiting for their chance to say something to Angus, but Terry seemed to be nothing if not long-winded.
"Scarlet, I'm glad to run into you," Ben told her, just as the head housekeeper, Linda Reagan, tall, slim and very pretty, stepped out on the porch behind him.
"Don't forget to wipe your boots off before you come inside," Linda said, then waved to Scarlet.
"I will, I will!" Ben promised, then joined Scarlet on the wide front lawn.
She smiled, wondering how he had ever been a stockbroker. He was fifty-five and blessed with a full head of snow-white hair that he liked to keep long. He always had a smile on his face now, which he hadn't had when she'd first met him. The stress of working on Wall Street had kept him looking harried and worn, but now he was a happy man. He'd told her once that he was certain he'd really been made for the great outdoors.
"You're welcome on the ride anytime," he told her. "I know you love the horses."
"Believe it or not, Ben, I grew up around horses."
"South Florida? That's beach country."
"There are lots of horses all over the state," she said. "I grew up in Davie. We had horses there, and my folks still do."
"Well, I'll be damned," he said. "So how's it going? Are you liking the job?"
"I love it here," she assured him. "Your collection is amazing. Colts from just about every era from the 1850s onward, Spencer repeating rifles, Smith & Wesson revolvers, Winchesters, you name it. Worth a fortune, if you wanted to sell."
He shook his head. "My selling days are over. I'm looking forward to spending every day here, sharing all this with our guests, for the rest of my life."
"You're a happy man," she said.
He grinned. "Best wife in the world and this little piece of heaven. How can I not be happy? Looks like you appreciate the place, too." He nodded toward her camera.
"I just got a terrific picture of an elk. Big guy with a huge set of antlers."
"Can't bring yourself to say 'big rack,' huh?" he teased.
She laughed. "Honestly, it never occurred to me. One thing we don't have in Florida are elk. Especially not elk that like to pose for you."
"Let me see," Ben said.
She produced her camera and hit the little button to show her stored photos.
Ben took the camera from her with a grin on his face, but his grin froze as he stared at the screen and then at her. "Where the hell were you? What is this?" he demanded, handing the camera back to her.
Startled, Scarlet took the camera and stared at the screen. There was no bull elk with majestic antlers. It was the same spot, but the picture was of a man. A man hanging from a branch of a mighty oak, blood dripping from his body to the ground.
She stared at it, stunned.
"II didn't take this!" she said.
She hit the button to switch to the next picture. That one showed two people, the same man and a woman, on the ground, tangled together in a pool of blood.
She f licked backward and saw a picture of the woman while she was still alive, though just barely. A large red stain covered her midriff, her arms were thrown back and her mouth was open in an O of agony and shock. It looked as if a bullet had just ripped through her body.
Dead people. Her pictures were of dead people.
She flicked back to the shot of the couple. It was hard to tell exactly which limbs belonged to which person as they embraced in a pool of blood.
"Honestly, Scarlet, what the hell?"
"II don't know," she said. "I didn't take these. I never saw any of this. II was right over there," she said, pointing.
He looked at her for a moment as if she was severely disturbed. Scarlet looked back at the camera, flicking through the many shots she had taken in search of the elk.
It wasn't there anywhere.
Just the man and the woman
Perhaps her stunned expression had an effect on Ben, who asked, "Can a camera be hacked?"
"I don't think so," she said. "But I just don't get it. I didn't see anything like that, and I never would have taken pictures of it if I had." She shook her head and handed the camera back to Ben, as if she couldn't bear to touch it.
Ben studied the camera and scrolled through the shots, then stared at her, frowning. "What did you do that for?"
"Erase them all."
"I didn't erase anything!"
"Well, they're gone. I admit your elk is fantastic, but why on earth would you fake pictures of corpses on my property?" Ben said.
She stared at him, angry now, and totally confused. How could those vile shots have disappeared and the elk have reappeared in their place? "Really, Ben? You think I could do something like that? Because I didn't take those pictures, and I didn't erase them, either. I don't know how they got there, but I had nothing to do with it."
"I'm sorry, Scarlet. But they were there, and it was a real shock to see them."
He stared at her, puzzled, but she thought he believed her.
"We should just take your camera in to Marty Decker. He runs a great camera shop in town. I'm sure he can figure out what's going on. You know, even if it's just a camera, I think anything and everything can be hacked these days. I wouldn't even have a computer if we didn't need the damned thing for the business. Leave it with me. I'll get it to him, and I'll make sure he saves your pictures of the elk. They're really beautiful."
"Thanks, Ben," she told him. "I use computers and cameras all the time while I'm working, but I've never seen anything like this."
Ben shrugged, then asked, "You going to join us for dinner?"
She was still offended that he could even think she would do something like that, but on the other hand, she couldn't really blame him. She forced a smile. "No, I've got some paperwork to finish, but thank you for the invitation. You're sure you don't mind taking the camera to your friend?"
"Not at all."
"Okay, thanks." She gave him a little wave and walked away. Terry Ballantree and the Bartons crossed her path, so she paused to say hello, even though she longed to get away and try to sort out what had happened.
"Scarlet, thanks so much for the tour yesterday," Terry said. "Any way I can get another look before dinner? I'd love another look at some of those old photos."
"We loved it, too," Gwen said.
"I'm glad you enjoyed yourselves," Scarlet said. "Ben is kind of strict about the museum. It's only open Thursday to Sunday, and this is Monday, but if you're all here for a few more days, I'll ask him if I can take you back through for a private tour tomorrow or Wednesday."
"Thanks," Terry said.
"That would be great," Gwen said. She and Charles were both in their twenties, and they almost looked like children playing at marriage, but Scarlet had found them both to be open and friendly. Charles had been a football player at Ole Miss, and Gwen had been a cheerleader. Now he had just started his own law practice. Gwen was blonde and blue-eyed, a perfect contrast to his tall, dark and handsome.
Terry was a nice guy, too, though his neverending enthusiasm was a bit exhausting. He was good-looking, with sandy-brown hair and large hazel eyes, a generous mouth and a perfect nose. While he was only medium height, he was in good shape.
But with her nerves completely frayed right now, she just wasn't up to dealing with any of them.
"I'll talk to Ben and let you know," Scarlet said, then quickly made her escape. "See you all later," she called over her shoulder.
The old storage barn had been given windows sometime at the end of the Victorian era, and though plain shades were drawn over the museum windows, those upstairs boasted pretty drapes.
Scarlet unlocked the door and stepped inside. The security lights, added to the last of the daylight seeping in, created an eerie glow, but it didn't bother her in the least. She was in love with the place. Many of the displays were the originals, over a hundred years old, as were the placards they held, written in cursive by a gentle hand almost a hundred and fifty years ago.
There were life-size figures on pedestals arranged throughout the room, ranging from Ute chiefs in full battle regalia to Yankee and Rebel soldiers, fur trappers, gunslingers and frontier women, along with excellent re-creations of real people like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. There were twenty-two of them altogether, the oldest nearly as old as the ranch itself. Her favorite was a Ute woman holding a child and looking skyward. There was something so beautiful in her expression that Scarlet was certain she had been modeled from life by an artist who adored her.