Summary: It’s just another typical day for the Cartwright brothers on the trail of a confidence man who suckered them during their Pa’s absence. Ride along and use your own tracking skills to find 105 Bonanza episode titles embedded in the story. (And don’t worry; they’ll catch up with him eventually. They always do.)
Word Count: 2665
After a relentless push through the long night, three weary horsemen arrived at Cutthroat Junction just after daybreak. The storm would not be far behind. A curtain of angry clouds hung between heaven and earth, and silent thunder shook the air, heavy with the smell of blood on the land. It was unusually warm for springtime, a hot day for a hanging.
Not one, but three nooses hung from a gallows in the middle of town. The tax collector, the Duke and his wife, a.k.a. the Lady from Baltimore, had managed to escape the hanging posse, thanks to two stouthearted souls with a passion for justice, but the jury, confident it had discerned the pure truth of the matter, had rendered the guilty verdict for all three. The decision was no surprise, given the eyewitness testimonies of Denver McKee and the actress with whom he has been keeping exclusive company these days. (The fact that he recently added her signature to his bank account gives credence to the mill of rumor that her next role will be that of “the bride”.) In addition to the bank run, the trio stole the Hayburner and two other thoroughbred racehorses owned by Square Deal Sam which were tied up outside the Dark Star Saloon. And as any friend of Walter’s knows, horse thievin’s a hangin’ offense.
However, the hangings were not the reason this unlikely band of brothers had ridden fifty miles without a good night’s rest. They were on the search for the tall stranger who had duped them in the cheating game, one of the oldest cons in the book, a salted mine. This land grab was bigger than the Thunderhead Swindle, worth more than all the gold in Logan’s Treasure, and if they didn’t get their investment back, they would surely face a day of reckoning when Pa got back from his annual “business meeting” with the Magnificent Adah in San Francisco.
A rumble rattled the windows of the Rich Man, Poor Man Cafe as they approached.
“Did you hear that?” asked the youngest.
“What?” asked the oldest.
“Thunder, man,” replied the youngest. “Are you deaf?”
The firstborn glared at him. “No, and I’m not blind, either. I saw you ogling the mountain girl back there at the way station when we stopped for water, little brother. I am so sick and tired of your Lothario Larkin mentality. It’s your fault we’re even in this mess!”
“Well, older brother, I’m sick of you always makin’ me out to be the scapegoat! You were the one who was so busy playing footsie with the ballerina you didn’t even notice when you lost the money. Who carries a bank draft in his boot anyway? Maybe you should keep ’em on next time.”
The middle brother, who was also the biggest, held up his hands and bellowed, “Oh, for the love of Old Sheba, will you both just shut it! I’ll tell you what I’m sick of, and that’s you two always bein’ at each other’s throats. It’s worse than the Paiute War.” He scowled. “Now the way I figger it, you got two choices. You can start actin’ like brothers instead of a house divided, or you can keep on fightin’ in which case I’m liable to knock you both from here to Twilight Town. But either way, I’m gonna have my breakfast!”
Both brothers were clearly taken aback by this outburst from their normally easy going sibling. The oldest scratched the back of his neck and cleared his throat before he offered his hand to the youngest with a mumbled apology. The youngest reciprocated in kind.
“Who died and made him king of the mountain?” the youngest murmured to the oldest as they made their way toward the cafe.
The oldest shrugged. “Well, he is biggest, and if he wants to be the boss, I’m not gonna stand in his way. Besides, I’m hungry too.”
A violent gust shook the dry leaves of the tree in the middle of town with a vengeance, swirling five into the wind. An old hound dog lying in the meager shade stood up and sniffed the air expectantly. A few moments later rain from heaven splattered the dusty street, fat drops soaked up greedily by the parched earth. From all appearances, the gift of water would be most welcome.
The brothers paused outside the cafe long enough to read the menu posted on the door. As they were about to enter, Thomas Bowers hailed them as he hurried toward the awning shelter, accompanied by an exotic-looking woman.
“Hello, Cartwrights! Fancy meeting you here!” He shook their hands warmly and then turned to the woman. “Elizabeth, my love, this is Adam, Hoss and Little Joe of the famous Ponderosa Ranch. Gentlemen, this is my wife Elizabeth, formerly the Countess of Malaysia.”
She nodded demurely.
“How do you do,” said Adam, politely.
“Howdy ma’am,” said Hoss, pleasantly.
Little Joe, never at a loss for charm when it came to an attractive woman, took her hand and kissed it. “My pleasure, ma’am.”
She returned his smile, lowering her exquisitely long eyelashes slowly. Joe’s green eyes twinkled.
Adam made a face, and then turned to Tom. “Are you here for a performance?”
“No; actually, I’ve retired from the spotlight.”
“Retired?” said Hoss. “But you’re still in the prime of life.”
“Precisely,” said Tom. “And I want to spend as much of it as I can with my beloved.” He looked lovingly at the lovely Elizabeth, who smiled at him before turning her attention back to the youngest Cartwright. “But I haven’t given up music. No, the artist in me would never allow that. I am a composer now. I’ve already written three western operettas — The War Comes to Washoe, Calamity over the Comstock, and Elegy for a Hangman. I’m currently researching the Philip Diedesheimer story as a possible fourth.”
“I know Philip,” said Adam. “He is truly a man to admire.”
“Yes, a man to admire,” agreed Tom. “That would make a good title, by the way. Might I use it?”
“How about you and the missus joining us for breakfast?”
“No thank you, Hoss, we’ve eaten. We were just on our way back to the hotel when we were caught in the cloudburst, which appears to be over. We’re leaving for Sacramento this morning, so I’m afraid we must be on our way.”
They shook hands once more. “Well, good luck,” said Adam. “And congratulations to both of you.”
“Thank you,” said Tom, as the three of them looked at the lovely Mrs. Bowers engaged in deep conversation with twinkly-eyed Joseph Cartwright. “You know, she’s not really a countess,” he admitted in a low voice. “I met her in Reno. She was part of a gypsy traveling show — they called her ‘The Burma Rarity’. She did this amazing act with flaming batons…” He chuckled and winked at them. “There’s just something about a woman of fire…Come my dear.”
She smiled farewell as she strolled away regally on her husband’s arm.
“Mm, mmm.” Little Joe sighed in appreciation. “She walks in beauty, doesn’t she?”
“You mind your manners, Short Shanks. She’s a married woman,” scolded Hoss.
“I know she is,” said Little Joe unapologetically as he followed his brothers inside. “But I’m no less a man for it.”
A pretty young waitress greeted them at their table. “Good morning,” she smiled. “What can I get you?”
Little Joe’s eyes twinkled anew. “What do you recommend?” He grinned his most irresistible Little Joe grin.
She dimpled. “Well, the ham and eggs are always good, but I really like the hotcakes with lots of butter and syrup.” Her blue eyes matched his green ones twinkle for twinkle.
“Mmm, hotcakes,” said Little Joe, locked into her gaze. “That sounds delicious. What’s your name, by the way?”
“Really?” said wide-eyed charming little Joe. “Marie was my mother’s name, and she was a beautiful woman too. I have a feeling we have a lot in common.” He leaned over and whispered to her. “Say, why don’t you ask your boss if you can take off for a while so you can show me around town after breakfast? Who knows, Gabrielle Marie, my love? This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
She giggled, blushing. Hoss tried in vain to give her his order, but the girl had suddenly gone blind and deaf to everyone except the smiler before her, alias Joe Cartwright.
Adam rolled his eyes and sank back in his chair, exasperated. “Here we go again.”
His brothers stared as Hoss Cartwright proceeded to polish off his fourth plate of hotcakes. “I swear, Hoss,” said Little Joe. “I thought you said you’d never eat those again after the flapjack contest.”
“Well, that was a month ago. I’ve got my appetite back since then. Besides, the ride last night left me ‘bout half-starved. I was so hungry I would’ve eaten cheese.”
“Well, I hope you’ve just about gotten your fill, because we need to get going.” Adam checked the time on his pocket watch, the gift from the stranger he pulled from the river on the Truckee Strip last spring. The rescue was nothing out of the ordinary; he and his family were accustomed to playing the role of the Good Samaritan. In fact, all the folks on the Comstock knew they could depend on the friendship and goodwill of the Ponderosa in times of trouble. It was the legacy of Ben Cartwright, who raised his boys to lend a hand. “Virtue is its own reward,” he always said. Still, gold was nice too, Adam thought as he buffed the watch on his shirt. He put it away quickly before Joe and Hoss could get their greasy fingerprints on it. They were always pretending to be interested in the time, but Adam knew they were just jealous because no one had ever given them a gold watch with a “nekkid” lady on it.
As usual, Hoss wound up with the short match so he got stuck with the bill. Joe tipped their saucy waitress with a kiss before tossing her a silver dollar along with his best twinkly-eyed grin. Adam waited for them on the sidewalk, surveying the street.
“Where to now, Adam?” asked Hoss. “Sheriff?”
Adam scratched his neck, his eyes narrowing. “Barber.”
The barber was a pleasant faced man named Sam Hill. Talkative, too. Adam figured a shave and a haircut and thirty minutes with this guy would be well worth fifty cents. “Just a little off the top,” he told him. He intended to avoid a repeat of the last haircut he got, which made his forehead look too high.
“Whatever you say, Mister. You folks in town for the hangin’s?”
“Actually, no,” said Adam. “We’re looking for someone. A tall man, slightly gray, probably in his late forties. Figured maybe he came through here; maybe you’ve seen him.”
“Well, that ain’t much to go on. That description could fit any number of people. Is there anything else about him?”
“Yeah, he’s got a birthmark on his cheek,” said Hoss, “shaped sorta like a triangle.”
“Why didn’t you say so right off? That’s the kind of thing I would remember. Of course, faces are what I see mostly in this business. A person could be a little man, ten feet tall, bow-legged or have feet of clay, but I’m more apt to notice his nose or a mole on his chin. A stranger passed this way a couple weeks ago, had a little scar above his lip, where a guitar string snapped him when it broke. Couldn’t grow a decent moustache because of it. I reckon a barber sees things other people don’t.”
“Did you see the man we’re looking for or not?” Joe frowned.
“Nope. But there was this other fella came through who was once a doctor, had a big goiter on his….”
A few minutes later, the brothers stepped back outside. Joe shook his head as if to clear it. “My ears are still ringin’. I didn’t think that guy was ever gonna shut up. Hoss, how in the world could you sleep through all that chin waggin’?”
“Huh?” Hoss looked puzzled for a moment before removing a small wad of paper from each of his ears. “What’d you say, Little Joe?”
“Forget it,” said Adam. He put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath. Ah, he loved the smell of bay rum in the morning. “Let’s go talk to the law.”
The tin badge on his vest identified the man behind the desk as the sheriff. “What can I do for you, gentlemen?” His manner was courteous as he eyed them warily, rising to a height of well over six feet.
Adam was quick to assure him. “We’re not here to cause trouble. We’re looking for someone.” He then explained the reason for the quest that had led them there.
“I’ve got my hands pretty full here with three hangings today, plus the trail gang that arrived last night. I understand your situation, but I sure hope this is not some sort of vendetta. There’s desert justice and there’s the law. I hope you know the difference. I’d hate to have to arrest you boys.”
“We have every intention of operating within the law,” said Adam. “We’re not the gunmen you think we are.” He had read the sheriff’s assessment of them immediately.
“Well, I’m glad to hear that.” He turned back to his desk. “Now, I’m not saying I’ve seen this fella, but if he likes cards as much as you say, you ought to go talk to the Colonel. He’s the faro dealer over at The Last Viking. Maybe he can help you. But I just want to remind you, if it comes to a showdown, you’d better be in the right. I’m not the lawmaker, just the defender. I take my job seriously.” He tapped the star on his chest. “This is no badge without honor, and I’m honor-bound to do my duty according to the law.”
“Understood,” said Adam. “As I said, you’ll get no trouble from us.”
The sheriff seemed satisfied. “Good luck, then.”
“Uh, where is The Last Viking, anyway? I didn’t see it on the way in,” said Adam.
“South side, off the main street behind The Spitfire Grill. Doesn’t look much like a saloon. Used to be a bed and breakfast called The Lonely House. The sisters who ran it decided a different line of work would be more profitable.
“What’s that?” asked Joe, his interest piquing as it always did at the mention of persons of the female persuasion.
The sheriff only grinned. “Just tell ‘em I said hello.”
“Spitfire Grill? They got good eats?” asked Hoss, who was beginning to get powerful hungry after his single breakfast of carbs.
“Sure. But you ought to try that new Tex-Mex restaurant, El Toro Grande. Rosita’s Gorditas will make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Hoss licked his lips. Joe sighed wistfully. Adam rolled his eyes at them yet again. They were only his half brothers, but brothers nonetheless, he reminded himself. “Let’s go,” he grumbled.
“Adam, what time is it?” asked Joe.
“Shut up and ride.”
Author’s Note: Did you find them all? For a complete list of answers, email firstname.lastname@example.org