A Sure-Fire Plan (by Patina)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  5600


 

“That’s the one we want,” Bert said as he pointed at the man strolling along the sidewalk.

“You sure?” asked Melvin.

“Of course I am.” Bert fixed his companion with a look and then asked, “Have I ever steered you wrong?”

Melvin scratched at his cheek as he thought it over. “I suppose not.” He swatted at a fly buzzing around too close to his mouth and asked, “How did Shorty describe him?”

“All he said was the one he wanted has dark hair and wears a jacket. It’s obvious he meant that one.”

“Why’s it obvious?”

Bert rolled his eyes before taking a patient breath. “Because he’s got dark hair and has a jacket on.”

“Did Shorty say what color his jacket is?”

“Who gives a dadblamed hoot about what color jacket he’s got on? If I say that’s the one we want, then that’s the one we want.”

“What if he ain’t the right one?”

“How many times have I got to tell you? That there’s the right one.”

“I just wanna be sure is all. It’d sure be a shame to grab the wrong one.”

“Shorty says Old Man Cartwright’ll pay the ransom sure as the sun is gonna rise in the east, so we gotta take his word on it.”

“Old Man Cartwright payin’ or the sun risin’?”

Bert took a deep breath and counted to ten before removing his hat and smacking his partner with it. After another calming breath, he jammed his hat back onto his head.

The man reached his horse, jammed something into the saddlebag, looked around, shrugged his shoulders, and then mounted up. His horse kicked up puffs of dust while leaving town at a gallop.

“We’ll wait ‘til he’s a ways out of town before we make our move. Wouldn’t do us any good to attract everyone’s attention.”

“You’re sure he’s…”

This time Bert rolled his eyes and said a quick prayer to whichever saint might be listening and willing to grant him the ability to keep from dunking Melvin in the water trough for the rest of the afternoon.

*****

Adam was headed for home, absorbed in his new book. He’d ordered it three months back and it’d finally arrived at the mercantile. Between the heady smell of the leather cover and the stirring prose, he wasn’t paying much attention to his surroundings. Besides, Sport knew the way home and if any danger arose the horse would alert him. Sport’s sudden snort followed by a gruff, “Reach for the sky, Cartwright,” meant that Adam wasn’t going to reach Chapter Three before getting back to the ranch.

“I don’t have a large sum of money on my person, despite what you may have heard,” said Adam.

“We ain’t interested in money,” said Melvin. At a sharp jab to the upper arm, he clarified with, “We’re interested in money but this ain’t a robbery.”

“What is it then?”

Bert tried to take a deep breath through the bandana that covered the lower portion of his face but ended up sucking in more fabric than air. He pulled the cloth down and asked, “You’re Joe Cartwright, right?”

Adam raised an eyebrow in response. He’d never run into bandits that were interested in which Cartwright he was. Chances were pretty good that if these two wanted Joe, they’d intended to kidnap his youngest brother and hold him for ransom. Considering he’d wanted a short vacation for over six months, getting kidnapped was the next best thing. Maybe they’d hold him long enough to miss out on the branding scheduled for the north pasture.

“I asked you a question, Mister.”

Closing his book, Adam replied, “Yeah, I’m Joe Cartwright. That’s me alright.”

“See?” Bert said smugly to Melvin. “I told you he was the right one.”

Adam looked from one man to the other and asked, “How’s this work?”

“You come with us, we send a note to your Pa, and once we get the money we’ll let you go home.”

“How long do you think this’ll take?” Adam asked.

“At least a few days. Maybe more, depending on how long it takes your old man to scrape up the money,” answered Bert.

“How much am I worth?”

“We figure at least five thousand dollars.”

“That’s all?” Adam asked. Some kidnappers had demanded ten thousand or more for Joe’s return; perhaps these kidnappers were part of a union that capped the ransom amount to keep down costs.

“That might not sound like a lot of money to someone as rich as you, Cartwright, but it’s a lot to us,” protested Melvin.

“Let’s get him to the shack and tied up just in case someone should happen along the road,” advised Bert. “Follow Melvin, Cartwright, and I’ll be following you with my gun on your back. Don’t try anything funny or I’ll shoot.”

“Won’t I be worth a lot less money dead?”

“I figure you’d still be worth something,” answered Bert. Then he hollered, “Pick up the pace, Melvin!”

The only sounds after that were the horses’ hooves, the squeaks of rodents running out of the way, the warnings of rattlesnakes, and the cries of hawks.

*****

The trio finally arrived at a shack that had seen better days—shingles were peeling from the roof and the porch sagged like an old woman’s bosom. Fortunately, there was a hitching rail that still seemed sturdy so the men tied their horses snugly.

“Gimme your hands,” ordered Bert as he pulled some rope from his saddlebag.

Adam obediently stretched his arms forward with his hands together to make it easier for his captor to secure the rope around his wrists. After tying him securely, Bert grabbed him by the elbow and steered him towards the shack. So much dust was stirred up by their entrance that Adam let forth a sneeze that must have loosened a few shingles. There were only two chairs at a flimsy looking table, so Adam sat on the floor with his back against the wall.

Melvin entered the shack with a frying pan and a coffee pot. After setting the items down, he checked the canisters that held the cooking supplies. There was no coffee or flour and hardly enough beans to feed a chipmunk (supposing a chipmunk ate beans).

While Melvin grumbled about their lack of supplies, Bert started poking around the place, which only stirred up dust. All three men began sneezing and Adam was sure he heard a board come loose. With a loud, “Aha!” Bert found what it was he’d been looking for — a scrap of paper.

Realizing what it was, Adam said, “Let me see that ransom note.” Bert handed it over, sure that Adam would be impressed; instead, he was appalled at the atrocious spelling, complete lack of grammar, and underuse of commas.

“Tell you what, get me a clean piece of paper and I’ll fix you up a real good ransom note. One that’s sure to get my father’s attention and make him understand the consequences.”

“You’d do that for us?” asked Melvin in surprise.

Adam winked and said, “Why sure. You fellahs have to make a living, right?”

Bert blew his nose after another sneeze and said, “That sure is neighborly of you.”

“It’ll be my pleasure,” Adam replied with a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile on his face.

Melvin helped their prisoner to a chair and Adam wrote a note that wasn’t too long or too short. Both Bert and Melvin were pleased to see that he’d written the number 5 so large that Old Man Cartwright would have to see it. Finishing up with a flourish, Adam folded the note in half and held it up.

Bert took it and said, “I’ll deliver this and be back in time for supper. You keep an eye on him.”

“I got to go to town for supplies. We don’t have enough to last until we get the money.”

“Who’s gonna watch him?” asked Bert with a jerk of his head.

“I won’t go anywhere,” said Adam. His captives looked at him with doubt in their eyes so he added, “I promise.”

“You’re sure?” asked Bert.

Adam straightened in his chair and said, “Cross my heart and hope to die.” He used both index fingers to cross his heart since his hands were tied together.

“That’s real neighborly of you,” said Bert.

“My word is my bond,” answered Adam.

As the sound of hoof beats faded, Adam rested his head on his arms and closed his eyes to get a nap. He never got the chance to completely relax during the day, so he intended to make the most of his vacation.

*****

Bert slowed his horse as he neared the Ponderosa’s barn. He didn’t want to get shot while delivering the note that would make him a rich man. Shorty, a Ponderosa ranch hand who’d suggested that kidnapping his boss’ beloved youngest son was a quick way to make some money, had warned him that the Cartwrights were sometimes trigger happy so it’d be best to make a slow entrance. As his horse came around the corner of the barn, he saw a large man working at a forge.

“Pardon me, friend,” said Bert. “Where can I find Mr. Cartwright?”

“I’m Mr. Cartwright,” the large man answered.

“I got a note for you.” Bert was afraid to dismount for fear that the man would pound him into a greasy spot in the yard upon realizing who he was holding for ransom.

After the man took it, Bert backed his horse a few steps and then kicked it into a gallop; he pulled it up after rounding the barn so he could peek at Cartwright’s reaction to the note. As he watched, the big man shrugged and then headed for the front door yelling, “Pa! A message came for you.” The door opened and Bert saw a white-haired man take the note, read it, and go back inside without a word; the big man returned to the forge. That seemed a strange reaction but Bert supposed that Old Man Cartwright was getting the money together. Since he had to get back in time for supper, he got his horse in gear and headed for the place where he was supposed to meet Shorty.

*****

A lone man sat on horseback in the north pasture. He pulled his watch from his pocket to check the time and clenched his jaw at the sound of the heifer’s bellow. “I told you to keep quiet,” he snarled. The only response was a moo.

The man was Shorty, one of the tallest of the Ponderosa’s ranch hands. He’d been given his nickname as a gangly twelve year old by boys who thought it funny that he had to stoop to go through doorways. He’d show them once he was a rich man! He was going to use his share of the ransom to finally realize his dream of opening a haberdashery shop in San Francisco to tailor to the needs of that city’s wealthy.

When Bert pulled up his horse in a cloud of dust, the heifer let loose another loud moo. “Shut your trap!” ordered Shorty. The cow twitched an ear to ward off a pesky fly and decided to try grazing on the scrubby vegetation.

Turning his attention to Bert, Shorty asked, “You got that note to Old Man Cartwright?”

“Sure did. He didn’t seem too awful bothered, though.”

“Didn’t you bring anything to prove that the Cartwright kid’s been kidnapped?”

“You never said we had to that.”

Shorty muttered to himself about doing something yourself if you wanted it done right and restrained himself from knocking some sense into the other man; it wouldn’t do for Bert to be able to think on his own. “You best get on back to the hideout to help Melvin keep an eye on Cartwright. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to him that might cause Old Man Cartwright to deduct some of his money from our hides.”

“Melvin went to town to get some supplies, just in case it takes awhile for the old man to scrape the money together.”

Shorty’s bushy eyebrows drew together, forming one long caterpillar above his eyes. “Who’s watching Cartwright?”

“He promised to stay put.”

“And you believed him?”

“Why wouldn’t he?”

“Get on back to the shack and keep an eye on our money maker!” Bert kicked his horse into a gallop and headed off in a cloud of dust. The cow mooed her complaint as she shook her head.

Shorty waited until Bert was well out of sight before jerking on the rope around the heifer’s neck. He’d hidden a few of the cattle in strategic locations so he’d have an excuse to be away from the herd and not make his fellow hands suspicious. Being a ranch hand had its advantages sometimes — especially when an excuse was needed to meet up with a conspirator to make a few extra dollars. “Come on you lousy ton of stubborn,” he griped as he led the cow back to the herd.

*****

Melvin patiently waited his turn to approach the counter in the mercantile. He’d tried whistling but after several glares from customers, he’d stopped. Then he’d started rocking back and forth on his heels until he came close to falling over. Now he tried to ease his boredom by twirling his hat on a finger.

Two feminine voices drifted over a table piled high with bolts of fabric. Melvin wished he’d taken the time to splash some water on his face from the trough after tying his horse to the rail outside so he’d look a bit more presentable. The voices giggled and Melvin stuck a finger in his ear to clear it out so he could hear them better. He sure hoped they were talking about a dance coming up soon. When he removed his finger he heard, “…green jacket matches those devilish green eyes.”

Melvin knew they weren’t discussing him as his eyes were blue. At least they looked blue most times even though sometimes they seemed sort of gray. Oftentimes his eye color depended on how dirty his shirt was, though. He was brought out of his day-dreaming by a deep voice saying, “You ladies would do better to pick fabric colors instead of discussing Joe Cartwright’s clothing.”

“Yes, Reverend,” said one of the voices.

The reverend strode past Melvin on his way to the door and took in the man’s appearance with a scowl. If his face always looked that sour, Melvin thought, there probably weren’t many people in the pews on Sunday. As the door closed, feminine giggling drifted over the bolts of fabric.

Two separate thoughts collided within Melvin’s head, causing a mighty ache. That Cartwright they had was wearing a jacket all right but it wasn’t green. If he remembered right, his eyes weren’t green either. When he got back to the shack, he was going to have to have a long talk with Bert.

“Can I help you, sir? Sir? Did you need something or not?”

A loud, “Hey!” got Melvin’s attention. He turned a splotchy scarlet when he saw the man behind the counter tapping his fingers on it in an indication that time was wasting. The unkempt cowboy stepped up and said, “I need me some bacon, some flour, some coffee, and 6 of them licorice sticks.”

“How much?”

“Ain’t I s’posed to ask you that?” asked Melvin.

The clerk’s eyes narrowed as he asked, “How many pounds of bacon? How many pounds of flour? How many pounds of coffee? ‘Some’ isn’t an exact measurement.”

“Oh. How much you reckon three men could use?”

Taking a deep breath, the clerk asked, “You got two dollars?”

Melvin pulled his coin purse from his pocket and then, once opened, he turned sideways to inspect its contents without the clerk seeing how much he had. In addition to several pesos, he had a variety of U.S. coins and a wadded up dollar bill. He hated to part with his money, but he was soon going to be a rich man; at least that was what Bert said.

“Do you have two dollars or not?” The clerk was reaching the limits of his patience.

“I got it.” Melvin snapped his coin purse shut after he plucked what he needed from its shallow depths. He laid the coins on the counter and the clerk confirmed that it was the correct amount. As his order was collected, he strode over to the licorice jar and pulled out six dark black sticks, putting them in a paper sack.

“Here you go, Mister. Two pounds of coffee, two pounds of bacon, and two pounds of flour. If you have any money left, you might consider a trip to the bath house.”

“It ain’t Saturday,” protested Melvin. The sound of feminine giggling turned his scarlet face a shade brighter. He swept up his purchase and headed quickly for the door. Once the sacks were safely tucked in his saddlebag, he took a bite from one of the licorice sticks and gave the rest of it to his horse.

Speeding back to the shack, he tried to remember what was so important about the jacket that Cartwright fellah had on. Seemed as if there was something he needed to tell Bert where that jacket was concerned. He chewed on a licorice stick as he gave it some thought.

*****

Adam rubbed his back against the wall in hopes of scratching a persistent itch just below his right shoulder blade. Except for the rope chafing his wrists, this kidnapping business wasn’t too bad, he thought. Joe made it sound like it was something terrible when it was actually pretty relaxing.

Hoofbeats alerted Bert that someone was approaching and he looked out the window to see who their visitor might be. Turned out the rider was Melvin returning from town. Bert thought it a shame that his partner hadn’t been tossed from his horse and had his neck broken as that would be one less man to split the money with.

The door was flung open and Melvin strode across the room without a “howdy”. Reaching Adam, he squatted down, placed a hand under the prisoner’s chin, and tilted his head back to get a good look at his eyes. Adam winced when the back of his head hit the wall with a thud.

“Open your eyes up wide,” ordered Melvin.

Instead of complying, Adam squinted and asked, “Why?”

Melvin drew his gun and placed the barrel against Adam’s temple. “Because I said to. That’s why.”

“What’s this about?” asked Bert.

“I heard some ladies in town say that Joe Cartwright has green eyes. If’n this Cartwright don’t have green eyes, he ain’t Joe.”

“His eyes look green to me,” offered Bert.

 “I’m Joe,” said Adam. “Why would I lie to you?”

“I ain’t got that figured out yet,” said Melvin.

“Bring the lamp over and I’ll prove to you my eyes are green.”

“Get it,” growled Melvin to his compatriot.

Bert lit the lamp and carefully replaced the chimney before bringing it over to test the color of their prisoner’s eyes. He squatted down and held it in front of Adam’s face. Instead of looking quite so dark, his eyes looked more on the green side. Fascinated, Bert pulled the lamp away and Adam’s eyes appeared browner; he moved the lamp closer and they again looked greenish.

After about a minute of moving the lamp back and forth, Bert took it back over to the table. “See? They’re green after all.”

“Those gals said Joe’s eyes are green. Why are his eyes brown sometimes but green in the light?”

“Because they’re hazel,” said Adam.

“What’s that mean?” asked Bert.

“Means sometimes they look brown and other times they look green.”

“Well, there you go,” said Bert.

“Something just doesn’t seem right,” said Melvin.

“Before I forget, Shorty said we should send something of Cartwright’s to his Pa as proof we’ve got him.”

Adam gulped nervously — if one of his captors showed up at the ranch with something of his, then Pa’s suspicion would be alerted. He finally decided on the one thing that would send his father off on a wild goose chase. “Take my horse. That’ll be proof enough for my pa.”

Bert looked out the window and saw that the sun was beginning to set. “It’ll have to wait til the morning. I don’t want to get accused of horse stealing.”

Melvin, busy getting some supper together, said, “I’ll take his horse. That way I can talk to Shorty to make sure we got the right Cartwright.”

“How many times have I got to tell you we’ve got the right one?” asked Bert.

“I just want to be sure is all.”

Adam tried to get comfortable in his place against the wall as the aroma of baking biscuits wafted in the cabin. He could get used to this kidnapping business.

*****

Melvin was leading Cartwright’s horse to the Ponderosa when he was suddenly startled by a steer running into his path. He pulled his horse up as Shorty appeared, tugging on the rope around the steer’s neck, yelling, “Stop you crazy critter!”

Noticing Melvin, the ranch hand said, “You’re a half hour early. Besides, I thought I was supposed to meet Bert.” Getting a look at the animal his co-conspirator was leading, he said, “That looks like Adam Cartwright’s horse.”

Melvin’s eyebrows drew together as his mouth turned down in a frown. “So this don’t belong to Joe Cartwright?”

“Joe rides a black and white pinto.”

Melvin’s eyes narrowed and his face scrunched in thought. Shorty didn’t like the idea of his henchmen suddenly developing the ability to think on their own.

“I ain’t so sure we got the right Cartwright. That Joe’s supposed to wear a green jacket and ours don’t. I told Bert my gut didn’t agree that the Cartwright we were watchin’ was the right one, but he just said my gut was growling from indigestion. ”

“He doesn’t always wear that jacket, so I wouldn’t be too worried.”

“You said this is some other Cartwright’s horse. Why would Joe be riding someone else’s horse?”

Shorty scratched at the stubble on his chin. “Maybe he borrowed Adam’s horse if his brother was going to be driving a wagon back to the Ponderosa. I’ll come out to the shack and take a look at our Cartwright. It wouldn’t do for us to have one that isn’t worth much money.”

Before both men could head off together, they heard a shout of, “Shorty! You find that steer yet?”

“Doggone it!” growled the ranch hand. “You head on back and I’ll try to sneak off later.” After Melvin was out of sight, Shorty tugged on the rope he’d lassoed the steer with and said, “C’mon you lazy, beeve. Time to get back to the rest of ‘em.”

*****

Melvin arrived back at the shack with Sport in tow, determined to prove to Bert that they had the wrong Cartwright. He burst into the shack, gun drawn, saying, “If you’re Joe, that ain’t your horse.”

Adam was glad that he’d had three cups of strong coffee; his mind worked a whole lot faster when properly awake. “That’s right — the horse I was riding belongs to my brother, Adam. I borrowed it.”

“Why?” asked Melvin.

“Because my pinto’s at the blacksmith’s. He got a stone in his hoof.”

“You couldn’t take care of the horse yourself, at your ranch?” asked Melvin.

Adam knew his vacation would be coming to an end if he couldn’t convince these two that he was Joe. “I was closer to town when it happened. Everyone knows you don’t wait until you get home to remove a stone from a horse’s hoof. That could ruin an animal.”

“He’s got a point,” offered Bert.

“Besides, I love that horse. He’s my trademark.”

“Your what?” asked Melvin.

“You know, my calling card.”

“That horse helps you get girls?” asked Bert, blushing.

Adam winked, lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and said, “You bet it does. Girls like nothing better than a guy with a fast, fancy horse.”

Melvin thought there was something fishy about this story. He wasn’t sure what but something wasn’t adding up, which made him wish he’d paid more attention to the math lessons when he’d been a schoolboy.

“If my horse was ruined because I didn’t see he received proper care, I’d never have a full dance card again.” Adam added a dramatic sigh for effect.

Bert rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. Next time he was in a town with a good store, he was going to be sure to buy his horse some molasses drops to show the animal how much he cared.

“What’s wrong with you?” Melvin asked his compatriot.

“You ever see a man who loves his horse so much?”

“That don’t prove he’s Joe Cartwright.”

“You said some gals were talking about Joe when you were in town. He said his pinto gets girls’ attention. The fact that his real horse is being cared for the by the blacksmith proves that he’s the same Joe Cartwright those girls were talking about.”

Melvin tapped the barrel of his pistol against his chest as he grumbled, “And Shorty calls me the stupid one.”

“If a fellah takes good care of his horse, it’ll take care of him. If it just happens to get him lots of girls, then it’s a special horse that deserves plenty of good care.”

Adam tried to keep the smirk from spreading across his face into a full-blown smile. It wouldn’t do to suddenly end his vacation by getting shot. He finally settled for what passed as a cough, which drew Melvin’s attention back to him.

 “There’s a sure way to settle this,” said Melvin.

“How?” asked Bert, rubbing his nose to stimulate the thought process.

“We’ll just pay us a visit to the blacksmith. If he’s got a pinto with a hurt hoof, that’ll prove that this here Cartwright is Joe. If he doesn’t have a pinto, that’ll prove that we’ve got some other Cartwright.”

“Won’t the blacksmith want to know why we want to know about his horse?” asked Bert with a jerk of his head in Adam’s direction. “After all, if he thinks that we might steal it, he might just alert the sheriff. I don’t want my neck to get stretched before I can enjoy a single penny of that ransom money.”

“You got a point,” agreed Melvin. Horse stealing was a crime and there wasn’t any point in risking jail or hanging for taking another man’s mount.

Adam’s smirk was fading fast. He wasn’t ready for his brief respite from ranching to end. Their mistake had been his gain and he was beginning to enjoy this kidnapping business. He was roughly pulled up from the floor and a gun was again pointed at his head.

“You’re coming with us, Cartwright,” said Melvin.

“Where?”

“The blacksmith’s to check on your horse.”

“You’re taking me into town?”

“That’s right. If that isn’t your horse…”

“You’ll do what?” Adam asked, eyebrow raised.

“We’ll…um…we’ll…what’ll we do, Bert?”

While Adam waited for an answer, he jerked away from Melvin and slid down the wall until he was again sitting on the floor. His captors could continue to debate the issue or ride into town to check on the horse. Either way, he intended to stay put and remain on vacation.

Before Bert could come up with a plan, all three men heard a bawling bovine outside and a man yelling, “Shut your danged noise before I turn your ornery hide into a set of chaps.”

“That’s Shorty,” said Bert.

A lump formed in Adam’s throat because Shorty, as a Ponderosa ranch hand, would reveal his true identity. Once Bert and Melvin realized they didn’t have Joe after all, they’d probably kill him. He drew his legs up and placed the soles of his boots firmly on the floor in case he might have to launch himself at someone to avoid getting shot.

Shorty walked in grumbling about stubborn cattle and slapping at the dust on his chaps with his hat. As he put his hat back on his head, he saw a man in a yellow jacket sitting against the wall. His eyes widened in surprise — those morons he’d hired had kidnapped the wrong Cartwright. Now he’d probably never see a penny of that ransom since Old Man Cartwright was always grumbling about his oldest son and that fancy education of his interfering with his ability to think.

Realizing he’d been recognized, Adam leapt to his feet and barreled for the door, shoving Shorty aside and leaving a confused Melvin and Bert in his wake. He was thankful that his captors had tied his hands in front as it’d be easier to climb aboard Sport and ride off. Before he got more than a few feet from the shack, he ran smack into something sturdy and fell to the ground.

“What are you doing up here?” asked Hoss.

Squinting in the bright sunlight, Adam said, “I could ask you the same question.”

“Hoss saw Shorty leading off one of the steers so we decided to follow him in case he was involved with that bunch that’s been rebranding cattle,” said Ben. “Your note said you were at the Miller ranch building a windmill. Care to explain what exactly it is you’re doing here?”

Joe looked at his eldest brother with envy. It wasn’t fair that Adam was the one who was kidnapped. The kidnappers must not have been very good at their job, he thought, because there wasn’t a mark on his brother. Every time he’d been held hostage, he’d at least had a split lip or a black eye.

Adam got to his feet with some help from Hoss who then worked at the knots on the ropes. “They kidnapped me and said they’d kill me if I didn’t cooperate.”

“That’s not what your note said,” reminded Ben.

“You’re not Joe Cartwright after all,” said an irritated Melvin, walking through the doorway. His hunches had proven correct, despite Bert insisting he was wrong.

Joe’s smile practically stretched from ear to ear as he realized that he’d been the intended target after all. It wouldn’t do for word to get around that he’d lost his value as a bargaining chip for men who wanted to make some easy money.

“You said you were writing a humdinger of a ransom note,” snarled Melvin as he realized he’d never see a penny now.

“Look, all I wanted was a short break from the cattle. Besides, you and your partner didn’t even know what Joe looked like so I took advantage of you. No harm was done.”

“By the way, I’m Joe,” said the youngest Cartwright as he removed his hat so Melvin could get a good look just in case he’d still be in the kidnapping business after this.

“Hey! You got a green jacket,” said Melvin finally looking at the men on horseback. He looked at Adam’s yellow jacket and felt his anger begin to boil. “I bet you got green eyes, too,” he said to Joe.

“They match my jacket,” replied Joe with a wink.

“And you ride a pinto.” Melvin grabbed Adam by the sleeve and jammed his index finger against the other man’s chest as he growled, “You said the horse was at the blacksmith’s.”

“Looks like I lied.”

“Why you…,” was all Melvin got out before he was swallowed up by darkness.

“You shouldn’t have hit him so hard,” groused Ben.

“Sorry, Pa,” answered Hoss.

Looking at his ranch hand, Ben said, “You’re fired, Shorty.” As the man opened his mouth to protest, Ben added, “I’ll make sure cattle rustling is added to the charge if you say a word.” Shorty quickly closed his mouth and pressed his lips together.

“So we ain’t getting rich?” asked Bert in disappointment.

“All you’re getting is a visit with the sheriff,” said Ben. “You boys,” he gestured at Hoss and Joe, “get these men to town. You,” he pointed to Adam, “come with me. You’ve got some branding to do.”

Adam mounted up and watched in disappointment as his brothers led his captors and Shorty away. “Bye, fellahs,” he yelled at their backs as he waved. Bert just turned his head and glared at him.

Melvin held a hand over his eyes to block out the sun’s glare as he had a powerful headache from that smack upside the head. Peeking through his fingers, he said to Bert for the fifth time, “I told you that was the wrong one back in town but you just wouldn’t listen.”

Bert shrugged his shoulders and said, “He matched the description.”

Shorty scowled as he realized he’d probably never get to open that haberdashery now. Next time — if there was a next time — he’d hire smarter henchmen who’d get proof of their victim’s identity before they went through with the kidnapping. He shook his head, thinking good help was hard to find, as he listened to Melvin and Bert bickering about who was responsible for everything going wrong and Joe complaining that it wasn’t fair that it was Adam who’d gotten kidnapped. If there was a next time, he’d just do everything himself to make sure it all went according to plan.

***The End***

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