Christmas in Cowboy Country (3 page)

Chapter 3
“W
hy do you have to go to the meeting? Because you and your brothers are gonna inherit this ranch someday.”
Tyrell Bennett's far-seeing gaze swept over the rolling acres of the ranch, lightly frosted with the first snowfall of the season, then moved back to his daughter's pensive face. He chucked her under the chin. “I said
someday,
Annie girl. Not soon.”
He strode to the blue truck where his wife, Lou, waited behind the wheel as Annie hurried to catch up to him.
“Did Zach and Sam attend town meetings?” she asked.
“Once in a while. Not if they could help it,” he said dryly. “But the time has come for you to listen and learn. Take notes,” he added.
“I was planning to.” Annie followed her father and got into the bench seat ahead of him. She thought it best not to offer an argument. Her dad generally won the important ones.
“Is this your first town meeting, honey?” her mother asked. “Somehow I thought you'd been to one before.”
“I have. You took me with you when I was six. I remember falling asleep on a pile of coats.”
“Oh, that's right.”
“I expect you to keep your eyes and ears open,” her father informed her.
“This could be important.”
“Really? Mom says the mayor's not even going to be there.”
“He oughta be,” Tyrell grumbled. “Maybe we should stop by his hangout and tell him we're not going to vote for him again. Go to the Grizzly Bar and Grill first.”
“Oh, Ty,” his wife said soothingly. “Let him be. Annie's right. There will be other meetings.”
Lou backed up the truck and swung out onto the ranch road. They reached the main road in minutes and were on their way. Annie slid a sideways look at her dad. He frowned at the sight of the small city's lights below, gleaming in the dusk.
She wondered if he was thinking what she'd thought: that Velde looked different lately. More spread out, but not in a coherent way. Far below, toward the east, there were two rows of cold white lights revealing a new street that seemed to go nowhere.
Those definitely hadn't been there yesterday. She strained to see. There weren't any houses. It was just a street waiting for houses to be built. Someone had turned on the street lamps, that was all.
Annie sat back. The new development, if it was one, was still a long, long way from where they lived. The ranch was very much theirs and probably always would be. Her parents were about the least likely to ever sell their land.
But some would and they had the right to do so. Like her mother said, they couldn't stop change.
 
 
The Bennetts entered in time to help themselves to coffee from an urn, and sat down in the back row holding their foam cups. Annie looked around. She recognized a lot of the people in attendance without being able to put a name to every face. There were newcomers, but that was to be expected.
Her father turned his head and spotted someone he didn't like, judging by the way his eyes narrowed. Annie looked in that direction.
Chuck Pfeffer was leaning against the wall under the exit sign. He was a rangy man in late middle age with light brown hair cropped close to his head, wearing khakis, not jeans, and a nylon windbreaker.
“Will you look at him standing there. Great spot for a quick getaway,” Tyrell muttered.
“Dad, shh. I know you don't like him, but he's not a criminal. What if he hears you?”
“I don't care.” But Tyrell settled down for the roll call and the minutes of the last meeting. Annie took out a notebook and a pen and slipped on tortoise-frame glasses. She hadn't heard anything worth writing down yet. She simply listened.
Then Lou, who had moved forward to talk with Nell Dighton, turned around to gesture to her husband to come forward when someone abandoned the folding chair next to hers.
“All right, all right,” he said to her as he rose. He looked down at his daughter. “Annie, no sneaking out.”
“I'm not going anywhere,” was her indignant response. She leaned back and hugged her notebook to her as he edged past.
The procedural details continued at a snail's pace. Annie took a few notes, but she could feel her eyes glazing over already. The meeting could take hours.
A deep voice that was oddly familiar spoke from behind her, as if its owner was bending low. “Is your dad coming back?”
Annie whirled around. Marshall Stone's face was inches from hers, his mouth curved at the corners in a faint smile. This close, she could see how unfairly thick his eyelashes were and the rough trace of stubble along his jawline. His strong hand rested on the metal chair that Tyrell had just vacated.
She glanced toward the front row where her father was now ensconced between his wife and Nell. “Doesn't look like it.”
“Would you mind if I sat with you?”
“No.” That was the truth. The one-word reply didn't sound too eager. He couldn't read anything into it.
Stone stepped between the rows of chairs in the back, excusing himself without much need to. Lean as he was, he didn't bump into anyone.
“I wasn't expecting to see you here,” he murmured, easing down next to her in the confined space.
“My parents' idea. I'm supposed to be learning something.”
“Any luck?” He gave the appearance of paying attention to the speakers, but his profile showed a real smile this time.
“Not yet. So why did you come?”
“Chuck Pfeffer asked me to attend,” was Stone's reply.
“Oh.” His reply made her uneasy. He didn't offer any more information.
The rangy man was still leaning against the wall, his hands now jammed in his pants pockets. Pfeffer was never going to be pals with her dad, but they shared a property boundary and it would be best if they resolved their differences on that subject peaceably.
Where Marshall Stone fit into that issue was something that puzzled her. His presence at the meeting was a surprise. Why Stone was hanging around Velde after completing the surveying assignment for their neighbor was a mystery.
She hadn't spotted him out their way since Tyrell had ordered him off their land yesterday. Annie made an idle note or two. She wasn't going to tell him that she'd been looking for the bright yellow gizmo atop the tall tripod, something that would be pretty easy to spot in open fields. So was he.
It occurred to her that he must be staying somewhere in town, since it was now the second day since his arrival. No doubt Nell had obtained some information on that, or tried to.
The council members spoke into microphones with the volume cranked high enough to cover her low-pitched exchange with the man at her side. No one complained or even looked at them. Annie kept half an ear on the proceedings.
Stone's presence distracted her.
If he were any closer, she'd be in his lap. The folding chair was simply too small for him. Cautiously, he extended one long leg under the seat in front of him, trying to get comfortable.
As if he were trying to minimize his bulk, he folded his arms across his chest. Different shirt, she noticed. Same muscles. Holy cow. He radiated masculinity. And heat. It was warm enough already in here.
The council members droned on for a long while and then took questions from the audience. Annie checked her watch. It was past nine.
The questions turned to zoning issues and then someone asked about a new ordinance requiring residents to prove title and have property lines redrawn for land some families had owned for generations.
Up front, Tyrell Bennett sat straight up, listening closely, and so did her mother. The atmosphere in the hall began to crackle with tension.
She noticed that Chuck Pfeffer was no longer holding up the wall under the exit sign. He had walked to the front to join the council members and face the townspeople. Someone handed him a wireless microphone.
“It's getting late, so we won't keep you much longer,” Chuck began.
We?
Chuck wasn't an elected official, Annie thought. He wasn't even an appointee.
“I'd like to introduce a consultant to the town council who has the expertise to help us all,” Chuck continued. “This is Shep Connally. Shep, would you like to say a few words?”
A thickset man in a rumpled suit stood up and walked the few steps from the front row to Chuck to take the mike. He gave the audience a jowly grin and straightened his colorful tie. The rest of his attire was sober and dull, but it did kind of look like he'd slept in that suit.
His short speech sounded rehearsed, but people listened attentively. Connally presented himself as the man to see about property problems, which he promised to resolve.
“To the best of my abilities and the fullest extent of my knowledge,” he added in a booming voice.
Heads were turning, as if the homeowners and ranchers in attendance were asking each other who this guy was. Annie didn't remember his name mentioned in the local newspaper. Then Connally answered the question that everyone seemed about to ask.
“If you're wondering what makes me an expert, let me reassure you. I have over twenty years of experience with property issues and law. Chuck talked me into doing some consulting for you folks and the town council.”
Shep turned and pointed to a council member on his right. “Joe Gitterson here can give you my bona fides. I understand he's Chuck's right hand.”
Not a glowing recommendation. Tyrell Bennett turned around and frowned for Annie's benefit. She didn't know Gitterson or any of the other council members, but she had a feeling this wasn't how the town was supposed to be run. She made a note.
Who pays Connally? Follow the money.
“Joe is actually the one who hired me just a month ago,” Connally added, talking faster. “Chuck doesn't have that authority, if any of you were wondering about that.”
Annie distinctly heard someone mutter, “Damn straight.” Not her father, though.
“So. Moving on. I just want you all to know that I got up here to Colorado as soon as I could.”
There was a pause for dramatic effect. He could have been a carnival pitchman or a tinhorn politician, Annie thought.
“And I'm ready to knuckle down and work.”
Like this so-called consultant was doing the people of Velde a huge favor, she thought. And he hadn't said where he was from.
“It's clear that many of you have important questions,” Connally added, ignoring the raised hands. “These are complex issues. I may not have every answer right at my fingertips, but I'm sure as heck determined to help you all.”
His attempt to be folksy fell flat with most.
“We'll get this business straightened out,” he went on. “Maybe not tonight, but soon. You can count on me.”
Annie listened to more reassurances that sounded like casual lies, even to her inexperienced ears. She glanced at Marshall. His jaw was set and there was a hard gleam in his eyes. She considered asking him for his opinion on exactly what was going on. But he was watching Connally intently.
“He sounds like a con man,” she whispered to Stone.
He only shrugged. “Prove it. He can say what he likes. It's a free country.”
Stone's indifference irked her, but she kept it to herself.
“Say, it might be best if you all could write down your questions,” the consultant added. He took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead. “Then I could address each case individually, maybe do some research ahead of time in the town records. With permission, of course. Just keep in mind that I'd be happy to speak privately with any of you, if that is your preference.”
Another red flag, as far as Annie was concerned. She made another note.
Private meaning no witnesses and no official record?
She wasn't the only one with suspicions. The low murmurs in the room were threaded with concern, even though she couldn't make out every word. But a few homeowners seemed to be jotting down their thoughts. Connally glanced downward at the ones who were closest to him, smiling affably.
Offering private talks was a shrewd move, she thought angrily. The proceedings of the town meeting were supposed to be transparent, but not everyone wanted their business out in the open. Some of the older people on fixed incomes had financial troubles that they kept to themselves.
Annie had overheard her mother saying as much to her dad more than once, but Lou always glossed over the details.
Well, at least everything Connally said tonight would go on the public record. The trouble was, he hadn't said anything definite or with substance.
Even though the mayor hadn't attended, his secretary was dutifully taking notes on a steno pad. She sat next to the video camera taping the meeting for good measure.
The head of the town council wrapped up the meeting, and people milled around.
Marshall Stone stood first, his dark gaze on Annie. She couldn't read it or his neutral expression as she gathered her things and got up.
“Want to go outside and talk for a bit?” he asked.
Annie hesitated.
“I heard someone say it's snowing again,” he continued. “Besides, it's stuffy in here.”
“That would be from all the hot air being generated by that guy.” She indicated Connally with a discreet nod.
There were people gathered around him, including several senior citizens—a married couple in their eighties and a widow Annie thought her mother might know, and a bachelor farmer who was so old and stooped his overalls looked hollow.
“You have a point,” Marshall said in a low voice.

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