At first, stealing a buffalo seems like a strange thing to do, but as Nancy and her friends investigate, they find a whole herd of suspects. Antoinette Francoeur, an eccentric animal rights activist, makes a habit of freeing caged creatures. Badger Brady, a rival buffalo rancher, has been making threats—with an ax. And some archaeologists in the area aren’t happy about the girls’ snooping. Now it’s Nancy’s turn to round up the clues and stop a buffalo thief in his tracks.
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Chapter One: Where Is Justice?
Nancy Drew looked out over the rolling hills of pasture. In the distance she could see a herd of huge brown animals walking slowly through the green and gold grass. Behind them, jagged mountain peaks cut into the horizon. "They have the best profile of any animal ever," she said.
"I love their legs," Nancy's friend George Fayne said. Leaning against the corral fence, she held up a hand to shield her brown eyes from the South Dakota sun. "Buffalo have these humongous heads and bodies, but such skinny legs."
"But those legs are super strong," came a voice behind them. "They can run at thirty-five miles an hour for a half hour straight. That's faster than ahorse and rider at top speed." Nancy and George turned to greet their hostess, Kincaid Turner. "Bess will be here in a minute," Kincaid added. "She wanted to change her sweater."
"Typical," George muttered. "We got here an hour ago, and Bess has already changed clothes twice."
Bess Marvin was George's cousin, even though they were physical opposites. George was tall, slim, and athletic, with dark hair and eyes. Bess was shorter with a fuller figure, and she had straw blond hair and pale blue eyes.
"I heard that," Bess called out as she joined them. "And they're not buffalo," she added, lightly jabbing George with her elbow. "They're bison. Right, Kincaid?"
"Strictly speaking, you're correct," Kincaid said with a laugh. She had a pretty face, with a cap of light brown hair and bangs. She was tall with long slim legs. Nancy figured she was about eighteen -- the same age as Nancy and her friends.
"Real buffalo live in Asia and Africa, and they don't look like these guys at all," Bess continued. "But people have been calling American bison buffalo for so long, it's become their other name. Even the locals call them buffalo." She gestured to the small sign over the corral: M-Bar-B Buffalo Ranch.
"I'm impressed," Kincaid said. "You were paying attention after all."
"Hey, I learned a lot from all those times I've visited here," Bess said. "I'm so happy Nancy and George could come this time even though the circumstances aren't the best."
"I am, too," Kincaid said. "I sure hope you can help us, Nancy." Kincaid looked so upset that Nancy thought she might burst into tears. Then Kincaid took a deep breath and clenched her hands into fists. "This is just tearing up my folks. We've got to catch the rustlers soon or we'll be out of business."
"Don't worry," Bess said, putting an arm around Kincaid's shoulder. "Nancy will figure this out. She's the best."
Kincaid led them through the corral that surrounded the area at the front of the huge barn. "Bess said you've already lost thirty animals," Nancy said. She shook her head and brushed strands of reddish blond hair out of her bright blue eyes.
"That was last week," Kincaid said. "Ten more disappeared a couple of days ago. Dad's out now with some hands moving the herd in closer."
"Closer?" George asked.
"Usually, we let them have the run of our thousand acres," Kincaid said.
"Wow," Nancy said, impressed by the size of the ranch.
"We have over three hundred head of bison. Even on a thousand acres there's not enough wild oats, rye, and grass to keep that many bison happy. So we also give them feedlot supplement," Kincaid explained. "Now with all the rustling, Dad has to bring the herd in closer and build new fence so we can keep them nearer to the ranchhouse compound. This means we'll have to give them more feedlot supplement, which costs money."
As they entered the barn, they heard a huge bellowing roar echo from the distance. "Was that a mountain lion?" George asked.
"Nope," Kincaid said, her golden brown eyes twinkling with amusement. "Just one of the bulls from our herd showing off."
"The corral has a wood fence," Nancy said. "But what about the fence around your ranch itself, around the thousand acres of pasture. What's it made of?"
"Wire," Kincaid said. "For horses or cattle you need a fence five feet high. For bison, it has to be eight feet. The top few rows of wire are barbed. The lower rows aren't."
"What are the rustlers getting out of this?" Nancy asked. "How much are buffalo -- bison -- worth?"
"Just say buffalo," Kincaid said, smiling. "We switch back and forth between the two names. A two-year-old is worth at least sixteen hundred dollars. Good breeding stock can be worth more."
"I was here when a calf named Lulu was born," Bess said. "She was unbelievable -- a rusty brown color. She looked like a fifty-pound cinnamon ball. Kincaid hand-raised her and showed her in exhibitions and competitions -- she was a real pet."
"You won't believe it, but she's a mother now," Kincaid said.
"Wow!" Bess answered.
"She had a calf herself a few weeks ago," Kincaid added. "I named him Justice after my grandfather. I'm going to raise him as I did her. Lulu's still real tame, and she's wonderful."
"Where are they?" Bess said. "I'd love to see them. Do you think she'll remember me?"
"Probably," Kincaid said. "She's really smart. I have them in one of my secret places, isolated from the rest of the herd. Cows like to keep to themselves when they give birth, and I want to keep Justice safe for a few more weeks. Don't want him to get bumped or bruised. We'll ride out to see them after lunch."
The girls spent the rest of the morning touring the ranch. Then they went back to the house for lunch. "This is the best hamburger I've ever had, Mrs. Turner," George said, after swallowing her first bite.
"Actually, it's a buffalo burger," Mrs. Turner said, an amused look in her beautiful large brown eyes. Kincaid's mother, Melissa Turner, was tall and slim like her daughter. Brown-black hair framed her pretty face.
After lunch Kincaid helped Nancy, Bess, and George saddle up for their ride out to see Lulu and Justice.
"Bess, you can have Miss Penny," Kincaid said, as Bess headed immediately for the stall of a beautiful copper-colored mare with a rippling mane. The horse whinnied as Bess approached.
"I think she remembers me from the last time I was here," Bess said, stroking the horse's head as she talked.
"Could be," Kincaid replied as she led out a large black horse with a jagged streak of white across its nose. "This is Flash," she said, smiling at George. "I think you'll like him."
While George saddled up, Kincaid took Nancy to where two Appaloosas waited impatiently. "You're ready for a run, aren't you, Misty?" Kincaid asked. One of the huge horses snorted and bobbed its large head as she neared.
"Nancy, you can have Paha Sapa," Kincaid said, handing Nancy the reins of the other Appaloosa. "Paha Sapa is the Sioux name for the Black Hills."
When everyone was finally ready, Kincaid led them out of the barn and up a trail that cut across the ranch.
It was a clear, sunny day, and Nancy felt as if she could see forever. At first they rode through flat pasture, but then the ground began to roll into the low hills of the Great Plains.
The horses stepped through green prairie grasses and bright-colored wildflowers. Shadows from the clouds threw patches of grayish purple across the ground. Occasionally a soft wind would kick up, strong enough to ruffle the horses' manes and swirl dust and tumbleweeds across the path.
"This is so beautiful," Bess said with a sigh. "I always love coming here."
"I can see why," Nancy said, smiling.
"I feel like cutting loose a little," Kincaid said. "Anybody else game?"
"I'm ready," George called, and the others nodded their agreement. Following Kincaid's lead, they guided their horses off the trail. Within minutes they were galloping across a field of buttercups at full speed.
When Kincaid finally pulled up Misty, the others followed her lead, bringing their panting horses to a stop.
"I knew Bess was good, but you two are excellent riders, too," Kincaid said to George and Nancy. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you all grew up on a ranch or a farm." As she talked she led the others over to a small pond, where she reined her horse in to a stop.
"I don't ride as often as I'd like," Nancy said.
"That's because you're too busy solving crimes and working on cases," George said.
"Well, I sure hope you can help us," Kincaid said, climbing down from her horse. "We've got to stop this rustling, or we'll be bankrupt." She led her horse to the edge of the pond and dropped the reins, so he could drink.
Bess slid down and led Miss Penny to the pond. The others followed her lead. While the horses drank and rested, Nancy and the others sat on a rocky outcropping and talked.
"Who might be rustling your family's herd?" Nancy asked Kincaid. "Do you have any suspects?"
"My dad is sure it's Badger Brady," Kincaid answered, making a face.
"From the look on your face, I take it he's not one of your favorite people," George said.
"He's not," Kincaid said. "He's Dad's chief competitor -- has his own ranch near the Badlands. Dad thinks he's trying to drive us out of business. They've had some bad history together. They were in business together once -- ten years ago, but it went bankrupt. Dad says it was Badger's fault. Dad's sure Badger stole money from the business, but he couldn't prove it. They had a huge fight and haven't spoken to each other since -- except to yell when they run into each other."
"But if they've had this feud for that long, why would Badger start rustling now?" Nancy asked.
"This isn't the first thing he's tried," Kincaid said. She stood up and began pacing back and forth. Nancy could see that she was very upset. "He's been causing us trouble for years. He filed a libel suit against Dad for some of the things he believes Dad has said, paid one of our ranch hands to mess up our accounting books, and even started his own bison ranch as competition."
"But why does your dad think he's started rustling?" Nancy persisted.
"Dad heard Badger is having a really hard time financially lately," Kincaid said. "He's had to let go of most of his ranch hands. He even sold some of his breeding stock. It figures that it would be a lot easier for him if he could drive us out of business."
"Does your dad have any proof that Badger Brady might be behind the rustling?" Bess asked.
"Nope," Kincaid said with a sigh. "Nothing. Whoever it is, he -- or she -- hasn't left any clues so far." She walked over to Misty, who stood patiently waiting. Stroking the horse's thick neck, Kincaid said, Well, what about it, old girl? You ready to go see Justice?"
The four climbed back in their saddles and continued the journey to the area where Kincaid had isolated Justice and his mother Lulu.
When they had ridden another fifteen minutes, they came to a hill of rock that had a distinctive flat top. The sides of the hill were covered in dark green brush and purple prairie clover. Kincaid pulled her horse around to face the others and said, "The corral and shelter are right around this mesa. Let's dismount and walk the rest of the way. I don't want to startle Lulu."
As they walked, leading their horses, Nancy watched Kincaid. For the first time that day, the worries of the world seemed to leave her friend.
"I can't wait until you see him," Kincaid said. "He's the cutest baby I've ever seen."
As they rounded the small hill, Nancy felt a sudden stab of alarm as she looked at the scene before her. The corral gate was open. Beyond was a large heap of rubble-large chunks and slabs of wood were tangled with piles of grasses and hay.
"Oh no!" Kincaid cried. "They're gone! Justice and Lulu are gone!"
Copyright © 1999 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.