New variation on the chess theme: Paladin, having studied the lives of both Hannibal and Napoleon, puts himself in their place to imagine a chess game between the two. (More interesting, I suppose, than simply playing a game against himself.) He mentions that he has played 38 such games, which makes me wonder how it is that Hey Girl had never noticed him doing so before. Hey Girl has interrupted with a telegram. A certain man is finishing up a jail term for robbery in Santa Fe. Both the sheriff and Paladin are aware that the man is also guilty of murder, and if Paladin will come and testify to that effect, he will be given a 2,500 reward. This seems a little fishy; if the judge found out that Paladin had been paid so handsomely for his testimony, might he not suspect that Paladin might be lying?
Several quick shots show Paladin riding briskly along, and then it suddenly stops with an ominous sight: a dark lump lying near a pond or small lake, with a horse standing loose nearby. Paladin is looking in very bad shape. Two pairs of legs approach him, vocally wondering if he's dead. Paladin manages to open his eyes, but he can't see above the men's chests. One man is wearing a distinctive ring and boots with Spanish rowel spurs. The spurs in fact look like fighting spurs, the sort you don't use when riding a horse (or you shouldn't). The other man has a distinct German accent. He's the one who is uneasy about the situation; Spurs, with no hestitation at all, immediately starts pawing at Paladin, finding that he's been the victim of a mountain lion (who presumably attacked while Paladin was getting water). Spurs is casually convinced that Paladin will die, and helps himself to Paladin's gun. As their own horses had been stolen (supposedly German's fault) he helps himself to Paladin's horse as well, gleefully finding a lot of money in the saddlebags, as well as some food. German is still concerned about Paladin, but not so much that he will stay begind. Paladin blearily watches as the two ride off on his horse.
We will learn that it took Paladin five days to make his way to the town of Prarie Orchard. Everyone gives him a wide berth as he comes staggering in. Even the sheriff shuts his office door. Paladin spots a bathhouse and goes in. The attendent claims to have no knowledge of any two men of Paladin's meager description. Rather rudely, he leaves the wounded man to draw his own bath. (Paladin fortunately had a bit of cash in his pockets.) The attendent finds one of Paladin's cards tucked inside his hat (never seen one there before) and looks at it carefully.
Following the bath, Paladin's next step should have been the doctor's office. Cat scratches of any breed are dangerous, and with the deep, extensive slashes from a mountain lion, Paladin should already have had a bad infection setting in. Just a quick shot showing him leaving the doctor's office would have sufficed. Instead, Paladin goes directly to the sheriff's office, and never consults a doctor at all. (Perhaps they didn't want to show a doctor behaving the way the rest of the town was). The sheriff seems indifferent to Paladin's plight. Paladin spots the same ring that he saw on Spurs' hand, but the sheriff blandly tells him that they had had a cholera epidemic the previous year, and many people had purchased such rings as a sort of amulet against the disease. Paladin states that $1,800 had been stolen. I thought for a moment that this was a continuity error, but then Paladin went on to say that the reward had been for $2,500, as the telegram said. This begs the question: what happened to the other $700? Did Paladin wire it back to San Francisco? And if so, why didn't he wire the bulk of it, and keep only a nominal amount for traveling money? Did he present a portion of it to the sheriff in Santa Fe? The sheriff of Prarie Orchard prefers to think that Paladin simply gambled it away, and is now complaining of theft. Paladin points out the illogic of this: he would have given the sheriff a better description of the men, and he certainly wouldn't pick a fight with a mountain lion just to make things look good. The sheriff wants Paladin to leave town, but Paladin reasonably points out that he has no horse. He also wants to get a good look at the man who robbed and abandoned him.
Next stop, the telegraph office, to arrange to have some money wired in from his bank in San Francisco. The telegraph man is just as uncooperative as the others have been, but Paladin, who somehow managed to hang on to his little derringer, is rapidly losing patience. The man is wearing familiar looking boots, but he tells Paladin that they are having a Mexican fiesta shortly, and a lot of people are dressing the part. A German-sounding man walks along, wearing the same sort of boots and the "cholera" ring as well. He tells Paladin that there are roughly 30 German families in the area. Paladin heads for the hotel. Having gotten a room, he then visits the saloon. Free food is offered, and Paladin quickly makes himself a sandwich while ordering a beer, but when the barman finds that Paladin has no money (Paladin, for some reason, doesn't mention the $200 that he sent for) he snatches back both the beer and the sandwich, in spite of the bite out of it. A bar girl, Topaz, comes up and tosses a quarter onto the bar to pay for Paladin's beer. (However, Paladin doesn't get his sandwich back.) Topaz already knows all about Paladin, that he is there (she thinks) to kill the men who robbed him. She bends over backward trying to justify the actions of those men, leading Paladin to suspect that she's in love with one of them. Topaz denies this, and tells Paladin to be satisfied with the fact that he's alive. Paladin, exasperated, tells her of his five days spent eating mountain lion meat (raw, presumably--ick!) and wrapping up in it's skin to keep warm at night. (Untanned skin--he must have been really ready for that bath.) He has no intention of leaving town without his horse, his saddle, his money, and his guns. Topaz thinks that he would leave quietly under those circumstances, and Paladin does not tell her otherwise. Topaz gets up and saunters around the room, speaking quietly to various men.
Back in his hotel room, Paladin hears a thud in the hall, and finds that his holster is lying outside the door. Coming outside, he finds his horse parked directly outside the hotel's door, with his rifle tucked alongside the saddle. There's a considerable crowd gathered round. Paladin checks the saddlebags, which are empty. The sheriff has arrived, hoping that Paladin is ready to leave, but Paladin's not ready yet, not without his money, and there's a score to settle, as well. The sheriff thinks that Paladin would have died without his anger at the two men to sustain him--and he might have a point, there. Topaz comes walking up with his handgun, which she said had been left at the saloon. Oddly, she tucks it right into the holster instead of handing it to Paladin. A German-sounding man hands over an envelope of cash, but it's only the $200 that Paladin had wired for. The man, however, IS the German Paladin was looking for. He protests that he was not the one who took the money, and Paladin does not argue--he knows that Spurs is the one who was grabby. Spurs finally makes his appearance--he's Cull, the barman. Everyone quickly backs away, leaving a clear field. Paladin had been holding the envelope as Cull announced himself, but if you look carefully, you can see that he slipped his derringer into his hand and held it loosely concealed at his side as Cull challenges him. Paladin pops him one in the arm before Cull can even clear leather. The sheriff is outraged at this breach of gunfighter's protocol, but his protests die as Paladin shows him that his regular handgun is empty. Cull had planned to murder him.
Finally accepting the perfidy of Cull's behavior (which Paladin has been trying to point out all along) the sheriff, shamefacedly admits that Cull owed money to a lot of people, and when he showed up with a large wad of cash, his debtors claimed it without asking questions. Naturally, they didn't want to give it up when they found it was stolen money. This brings up yet another question: Cull would not have mentioned having robbed a dying man, and his German companion would not have wanted to admit anything, either. So why was the whole town shunning Paladin as he walked into town? Once he arrived, Cull would have quickly told them what happened and made arrangements for the cover-up, but these people ignored a badly wounded stranger right from the get-go.
The people reluctantly come forward with their share of Paladin's money--and notice that they all had it right there, and some of them had it in envelopes; obviously they were already prepared to hand it over. Topaz is the last, and she pleads with Paladin to believe that she did not know that his gun was unloaded when she gave it to him. (And yet, why did she put it in the holster? Did she not want him to hold it and realize from the weight that it was empty?) Paladin either believes her or chooses to overlook it. She was the only one who showed him any consideration at all, and he rewards that by allowing her to keep her share of the money. Mounting up, he reaches a hand toward her. It looked rather like he was going to give her his signature tap on the nose, but sensibly realized that, on horseback, he might end up jabbing her in the face instead. Everyone watches as he rides out of town. (And somehow, I don't think he's going to be back.)
An interesting little mystery, with some touches of humor--the way the town rapidly pulls together to cover things up, and Paladin's irritation at how EVERYONE in town knows everything about him. I just wish they'd explained some of the questions.