The Golden Fleece (by Susan)

Synopsis:  Joe lies trapped while Ben sets out to organize a rescue party.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  9,100


 

The thin shaft of sunlight coming from the escape hole at the top of the tunnel made only a small crack in the darkness that surrounded Joe Cartwright. The pale ray of light offered little illumination, but the beam was enough to keep Joe’s feelings of panic and abandonment at bay. He didn’t want or need much light anyway. He didn’t need to see the blood oozing from the cuts on his face and hand; he could feel the warm, sticky liquid trickling down. Joe knew without looking that his right leg was broken. The throbbing pain was a constant reminder. And Joe certainly didn’t need any light to show him that there was half a mountain of rock between him and the entrance to the mine.

Reaching behind him, Joe brushed away a few small rocks and other pieces of debris as he tried to make himself more comfortable. He was sitting with his back against the side of the tunnel, with his legs jutting out in front of him. Joe looked up to the top of the tunnel, toward the escape hole about ten feet above him and a few feet to his right. The hole looked so close, yet Joe knew it had taken his father quite a while to inch his way up to the emergency exit, even with two good arms and legs. There was no way that Joe could have made it with his broken leg and injured hand, and his father would have never been able to carry him out. Both he and his father knew that leaving Joe in the tunnel while Pa went for help was the only possible way to insure Joe’s rescue; they had agreed on that without much debate. He had smiled encouragingly at his father when Pa started to climb up the side of the tunnel. Still, Joe had experienced a sinking feeling in his stomach when he saw his father disappear through the escape hole. He knew it would take hours for Pa to get to the town of Cottonwood, organize a rescue party and return for him…longer if the horses were no longer waiting outside the mine entrance. Joe knew he would have to spend those hours alone in the dark tunnel, fighting both pain and fear.

Turning his head to the left, Joe couldn’t see the wall of rock that blocked the entrance to the mine, but he knew it was there. He and his Pa had been several yards from where the explosion had brought down the roof of the mine. He wondered briefly if Steve Becker, the mine owner, and the other two men had made it out. Joe shook his head; he couldn’t even remember the names of those two men. He only knew they had been looking at the mine for investment purposes, just as Joe and his father had been doing. The other three had been closer to the explosion, but they had also been closer to the entrance. Maybe they had been able to run out before the mine caved in; maybe they were already trying to bring help.

Maybe, thought Joe as he leaned his head back against the side of the tunnel and closed his eyes. What a word. Maybe. Maybe if he hadn’t insisted his father go deeper into the tunnel, they might have escaped. But then, maybe if he hadn’t dragged his father down the passageway, they would have been killed by the falling rock. And maybe if he hadn’t insisted that the Ponderosa needed that herd from Arizona, none of this would have happened…

*****

“It’s a good investment, Pa,” Adam Cartwright argued, “just the kind of thing that can insure a steady income for the ranch, no matter what else happens.” Adam slammed his hand on his father’s desk to emphasize his point.

Leaning back in his chair behind the desk, Ben Cartwright studied his oldest son. Adam was standing at the side of the desk, papers in hand, convinced that his idea was sound. Ben turned his head to look at Hoss and Joe, his younger sons, who were seated in the chairs in front of the desk. “What do you boys think?”

“I think we’re ranchers, not miners,” answered Joe. “I’d rather spend the money on improving the herd then investing in some wild mining scheme.”

“Why do we have to spend the money anyway?” Hoss asked, genuinely puzzled. “Why don’t we just put in the bank so it’s there in case we need it?”

“Because $25,000 is a lot of money to just leave lying around in the bank,” answered Ben patiently. “The way to continue to grow and prosper is to use money to make sound investments or purchases. We invested $15,000 to buy a herd of cattle originally, and we sold it for $25,000. Now we need to decide how to best use the money we made to continue to make the Ponderosa flourish.”

“I don’t see how investing in some gold mine is going to make the Ponderosa flourish,” grumbled Joe. “Seems to me the best way to do that is to buy the cattle in Arizona that Pete O’Brien has up for sale. We can grow that herd and sell it at a profit, just like we did before.”

“We’d have too much of our capital tied up in cattle,” insisted Adam. “We need to diversify to protect the ranch.”

“We are diversified,” Joe argued. “We’ve got cattle, horses, and timber. We don’t need mining.”

“And what if the Army decides they don’t need to buy remounts from us?” countered Adam. “They could always decide to buy cheaper horses from someplace else? Who are we going to sell all those horses to then? What if disease or bad weather decimates the herd? We won’t have any cattle to sell, much less make a profit off of. And we can’t cut timber in the winter.”

“And what if that mine turns out to be a dry hole?” said Joe heatedly. “We’d have thrown away $25,000.”

“It won’t be,” Adam assured his brother. He turned back to Ben. “Look, Pa, Steve Becker is the cousin of one of my closest friends in college. He’s not some old prospector just grubbing in the dirt. He’s a geologist, and he knows what he’s doing. Steve knows how to spot potential veins in rock, just like you know how to spot potential in a young horse. He’s convinced there’s gold in that mountain. All he needs is some financial backing to get the operation started.”

“Why don’t we just wait and see if he’s right?” suggested Hoss. “Seems to me that would be a whole lot less riskier.”

“The bigger the risk, the bigger the profit,” Adam explained. “Look at the silver mines around here. Even if you could buy a share in one of those operations – and that would be hard to do – your return would be small because those mines have a lot of investors already. The only way to make real money is to get in on the ground floor. Our $25,000 would buy one-third of Steve’s operation, and we’d get one third of the profits from his mine. We’d have a steady stream of money coming in for quite awhile. We’d make back our $25,000 in less than a year, and we receive regular payment from the profits for several years after that.”

“Have you actually seen this mine, Adam?” asked Joe. “How do you know it even exists? I mean, the name of the mine is The Golden Fleece. They say when someone tricks you, you got fleeced. Seems to me your friend might have a warped sense of humor if this is a swindle.”

“Yeah, Adam,” Hoss added, “you wouldn’t be the first one to be taken in by a lot of fancy reports on a mine that don’t even exist.”

“Have you seen the herd O’Brien is offering?” countered Adam. “For all you know, they could be a bunch of skinny, half-wild cows that he rounded up from the scrub brush. And The Golden Fleece is a perfectly good name for a mine. It refers to the rich prize that Jason searched for in mythology.”

“Adam, you know we’ve done business with O’Brien for a couple of years,” answered Joe with more than a touch of exasperation in his voice. “He’s always given us a fair deal. There’s no reason to doubt he won’t do the same this time. I trust him.”

“And I trust Steve,” Adam said, waving the sheaf of papers in his hand. “I’ve read his reports, his analysis of the minerals, and his preliminary findings. His reasoning and testing is based on sound, scientific principles.”

“Sound, scientific principles,” growled Joe. “Seems like guesswork to me. You’re just blinded by all that college hocus-pocus.”

“And you’re just too close-minded to see opportunities in anything other than cattle and horses,” snapped Adam.

“And both of you ain’t nothing but a pair of stubborn mules who won’t listen to each other,” interjected Hoss in a loud voice.

“Enough!” boomed Ben, sitting upright in his chair. “I will not have this discussion deteriorate into name-calling and finger-pointing.” Taking a deep breath, he noted with satisfaction that all three of his sons were staring at the floor with a look of guilt on their faces. “Now, both Joe and Adam make good arguments,” Ben continued in a much calmer voice, “and neither of you seems willing to give in to the other. So I suppose it’s up to Hoss and me to make the final decision.”

“Uh, Pa, I don’t think I rightly know which one of them is right,” said Hoss tentatively.

“I’m not sure I do either, Hoss,” Ben admitted. “We both need more facts. So here’s what I propose. Hoss and Adam will go down to Arizona to look at that herd O’Brien is offering.”

“But Pa,” protested Joe, “all Adam will do is try to find something wrong with the cattle and give Hoss a good reason not to buy them.”

“As I’m sure you will try to find a good reason for me not to invest in the mine when you and I inspect it,” replied Ben. He saw the puzzled expression on his sons’ faces. “Look, boys, I think the only way to make a decision is to thoroughly investigate both opportunities. I have no doubt that Adam will point out every flaw, every problem with the herd to Hoss. But if he can’t convince Hoss that his objections are valid, then we’ll know the herd is a good investment. The same holds true with Joe and me at the mine.”

“And if one of us is convinced it’s a bad investment, then we’ll know where to spend the money,” said Hoss, nodding with understanding. “But, Pa, what if they both turn out to be bad deals? Or they both turn out to be good deals?”

“If they both turn out to be unwise investments, we’ll just hold on to our money and look for something else,” Ben answered. “If they both turn out to be good opportunities…” Ben paused and smiled a bit. “I wonder if I still have that coin I flipped when I was trying to decide who to vote for as mayor of Virginia City?”

*****

A faint rumble caused Joe to snap out of his reverie and look around anxiously. He couldn’t seen much in the dimly lit tunnel, and didn’t know if he had heard the sound of the earth settling or the impending fall of more of the mine’s roof. Joe swallowed hard, knowing that if rock started falling down around him, there was nothing he could do about it. He couldn’t run and he couldn’t protect himself.

Joe listened hard for several minutes but heard nothing. Whatever had caused the rumble appeared to have stopped. Joe told himself not to worry about something that he couldn’t prevent, but that was easier said than done. A mental picture flashed in his mind of tons of rock crashing down on him, burying him forever.

Forget it, he told himself. Think of something else. Joe relaxed against the side of the tunnel and closed his eyes once more, as if not seeing could prevent something from happening. He turned his mind to a question that had been nagging at him faintly since the explosion. Why would someone throw dynamite into The Golden Fleece? Why would someone want to close the mine?

Frowning, Joe tried to recall the minutes before the explosion. He had told his father that he wanted to show him the rock deeper in the tunnel, and the two had walked down the passageway, with Joe carrying the lantern. There had been a shout, the sound of running feet and then an explosion. What seemed to have be an entire mountain of rock then began to fall as the tunnel collapsed. Joe remembered dropping the lantern as he pushed his father away from the tumbling stone and debris. He had tried to run, tried to follow his father, but something had hit him in the back, knocking him to the ground. Then what he later found out was a support beam fell on his right leg and a rainstorm of dust and rock covered him.

Somehow the lantern had managed to survive the cave-in. His father had found it in the pitch blackness of the now sealed-off mine, and re-lit it. Then his father had dug Joe out. Joe hadn’t needed to see the look of frantic worry on his Pa’s face. He could hear it in his voice as his father repeatedly called his name, and he could feel it in the way the rocks and debris were hastily pulled off of his body. Removing the support beam had been difficult. In the end, his Pa had lifted the beam and Joe had pulled his leg out from under it. Both of them had shouted for help for several minutes, and his Pa had spent a long time hitting a fist-sized rock against the wall of stone, signaling the two were alive and in need of rescue, before Joe had remembered the escape hole. With the lantern flickering and starting to fade, the two men had made their way down the tunnel. Joe remembered how they had found the escape hole just as the lamp used up the last of its oil and went dark.

What Joe didn’t want to remember was the agony he had felt as his father had literally dragged him down the tunnel toward the emergency exit Joe had recalled from his trip to the mine the day before. He also didn’t want to remember the look on his father’s face in the few seconds before his Pa had left him to climb up to the escape hole. There had been just enough light for Joe to see the pain in his father’s eyes caused by knowing he had to leave his son behind. He remembered his Pa tightly holding his uninjured hand, his Pa gently wiping the blood from his face with the bandana his father always wore, and his Pa ruffling his hair before turning away to start the climb to the escape hole.

Don’t think about that, Joe told himself sharply as he felt the knot in his stomach starting to form again. Think about something else. Think about who blew up the mine and why.

Furrowing his brow in concentration, Joe tried to recall what was shouted just before the explosion. He knew he had heard it; the sound had echoed down the tunnel. He had a feeling that call would tell him who threw the dynamite. But no matter how hard he tried, the words wouldn’t come to him.

Trying a different tack, Joe thought about the reason someone might have thrown the dynamite into the mine tunnel. Did Becker want to kill him because he thought Joe had discovered some secret about the mine? Or maybe one of the men who didn’t want to see the mine in operation had decided to close it down forever. Maybe it had nothing to do with the mine. Joe knew he had made an enemy in the short time he had been in Cottonwood. Maybe someone simply wanted to kill him.

There was that word again – maybe. Joe shook his head. He was just guessing and that accomplished nothing. He needed to forget about maybe and concentrate on another word.

Who? Who could have done this? Joe closed his eyes and tried to think.

*****

“Pa, I think it might be better if I went out and looked at the mine while you finish studying all this…material,” Joe offered. He was seated at a table in Steve Becker’s office in the small town of Cottonwood, Nevada. His father sat across from him, looking closely at paper on which projected costs were listed. Joe had tried for two hours to pay attention to the survey maps, mineral samples, and lists of projected operating expenses and profit. He had even listened carefully to Becker’s explanation of the scientific testing he had done to prove gold was in the mine, although Joe had understood only about half of what Becker had said. But now Joe was willing to admit he couldn’t stand being cooped in the office filled with papers and rocks any longer.

“I think it might be better to wait until tomorrow, when I can go with you,” suggested Becker.

Looking up from the paper in his hand, Ben asked, “Why? Is the mine unsafe?”

“Of course not,” Becker replied quickly. “It’s just that Joseph may not understand what he is seeing, or rather not seeing in this case. Tomorrow, when the other potential investors are here, we can all go out together. Then I can show you why I think there is a large vein of gold in The Golden Fleece.”

“Is there something in that mine you don’t want me to see now?” asked Joe with a slight frown on his face.

“No, there’s not,” Becker stated firmly. “I just don’t think what you’ll see will mean anything to you. Tomorrow, I can be there to explain things to you.”

“If the mine is safe and there’s nothing to hide, I don’t see any reason why Joe can’t go out and look around,” said Ben, sounding slightly puzzled.

“Of course, if that’s what you wish,” Becker agreed with a sigh. He looked at Joe and shook his head slightly, then turned back to Ben. “Frankly, Mr. Cartwright, when you wired me that you were coming with your son, I expected Adam to be with you. I hadn’t expected…well, that is, I didn’t think…”

“He would bring his son the cattleman?” Joe finished the sentence. “Mr. Becker, I may be a cattleman, but I also know something about mines. Pa wouldn’t have brought me with him if I didn’t.” Joe wasn’t the expert on mining that his brother was, but still, he knew enough. One couldn’t spend time in Virginia City — a town full of miners and mine owners — without picking up bits and pieces about mining. Besides, thought Joe, I’ve probably learned some things from those miners that were never written up in any textbook.

Pushing back his chair, Joe grabbed his hat off the table and got to his feet. “Mr. Becker, I’m going to ride out to your mine. I know where it is; you pointed it out clearly enough on the map.” He turned to his father. “Pa, I’ll meet you at the hotel around dinner time.”

Engrossed in studying the figures on the paper again, Ben merely nodded and mumbled “Fine.”

Almost an hour later, Joe was standing just inside the entrance to The Golden Fleece. He looked carefully at the timbering, making sure it seemed solid, before going further into the tunnel. One of the first things he had learned about mining was to make sure a mine was safe before going into it. Satisfied that the wood was firmly in place and showing no sign of aging or splintering, Joe picked up a lamp from a cluster of lanterns sitting by the entrance. He lit the lantern and then walked slowly down the tunnel.

After walking about a mile into the mine, Joe had to admit that Becker may have been right. He didn’t see much that told him anything one way or the other about the potential of gold. He had seen the mine was well constructed, with an escape hole about a half a mile from the entrance in case there was a cave-in. He also had seen various streaks of mineral in the rocks, dark lines which scored the side of the tunnel before petering out. Joe wasn’t sure what, if anything, those streaks indicated.

One thing Joe did find curious, however, was the quartz. He knew that, in most cases, wherever gold was found, traces of quartz were in the same area. Joe had noted a sprinkling of quartz in the front part of the mine but the deeper he went into the tunnel, the less quartz he had seen. Finally, the quartz seemed to disappear completely. Joe had lifted his lantern and moved it around, looking for the tell-tale sparkle in the rock but didn’t find it. Now, almost a mile from the entrance, the side of the tunnel was glittering again as the quartz sparkled in the light from the lantern. But the pattern of the quartz was odd. Instead of streaking through the rock, the quartz seemed to be in a circular pattern. Joe had seen a pattern like this once before. In that case, a swindler had salted a mine by blasting gold into the rock with a shotgun.

As he turned around and walked back to the entrance of the mine, Joe tried to figure out what the odd pattern of quartz meant. Had Becker salted the mine with quartz to convince investors that the gold was there? If he had salted the mine, why use quartz and not gold? Joe shook his head. There could be a logical explanation. The pattern of quartz simply could be some natural phenomenon, rather than evidence of a scheme to defraud investors. Joe had to admit he didn’t know enough to figure it out. He decided to show the oddity to his Pa tomorrow. He was sure his father would be able to tell whether the strange pattern was natural or not.

*****

Sitting in the darkness of his stone prison, Joe remembered with regret that he had never had a chance to show the odd pattern of quartz to his father. The two had been walking toward the strange configuration of mineral when the explosion had stopped them. Joe still wondered whether the pattern was natural or man-made, but he decided it probably wouldn’t make any difference now. It was unlikely that The Golden Fleece would ever be mined. No one would be interested in removing a ton of rock from a mine that might or might not have gold in it.

Suddenly, Joe winced as a stab of pain shot up his leg. He had tried to keep his leg as straight and still as possible, to prevent the bone from rubbing or displacing any more. But he couldn’t keep the leg from swelling or his muscles from cramping. Joe gritted his teeth as another wave of pain traveled up the limb. He took several deep breaths and tried to relax his muscles. The pain ebbed a bit. Joe’s leg still throbbed but at least the ache was bearable.

Closing his eyes, Joe turned his thoughts once more to Steve Becker. The more he considered the man, the less likely Joe thought it was that he had caused the explosion. Becker had no idea that Joe had spotted the odd pattern of quartz, and even if he did suspect that Joe had seen the strange splattering of mineral, he may have had a logical explanation for it. Joe felt it was unlikely that Becker would blow up the entrance to his own mine, and kill his potential investors. Even if the Cartwrights and the other two men declined to put their money into his venture, Becker could have sought out other investors or simply moved on. Unless, that is, he really was running some kind of con game. If he feared arrest, would Becker go so far as to try to get rid of all the witnesses? Joe didn’t think so, but he couldn’t be sure.

It must have been one of those men he met in Cottonwood, thought Joe. One of them must have thrown the dynamite into the mind. But which one? Which of them felt strongly enough about the mine – or him – to commit murder.

Once more Joe felt a shooting pain in his leg. He grunted, then gasped for air. Try to relax, he told himself, try to think of something else. Think about those men in Cottonwood…

*****

Sipping from his beer glass, Joe studied the cards in his hand. He had returned from the mine to Cottonwood about a half hour ago, and figured he had about two hours to kill until he was due to meet his father. What better way to spend the time than drinking a beer and playing a little poker? He could always claim he was trying to find out more about Becker and the mine from the people who lived in the town.

“I’ll see you and raise you two dollars,” Joe declared, throwing three chips from the pile in front of him into the middle of the table. He looked expectantly at the other four men seated around the table. There had been the usual cursory introductions –- an exchange of names – when Joe joined the game, but none of the men seemed interest in talking about themselves.

The two men sitting to Joe’s right were older – gray-haired men in their 70’s at least. Joe figured they were retired ranchers or farmers who were filling up some empty hours as he was. The man sitting next to the older men looked like a prospector to Joe; the man’s faded striped shirt and dark brown pants were powdered with a faint covering of dust. He looked to be in his early 30’s, and wore a pair of wire-rimmed glasses which he kept pushing back up his nose as he studied his cards.

The fifth man was the one Joe couldn’t quite figure out. His tanned, weather-beaten face and hands were evidence of a man who had spent most of his 30 some years on the open range. Joe would have guessed he was a ranch hand, except that his fancy black vest and crisp white shirt belied that fact. Besides, no ranch hand would be in town playing poker in the middle of the afternoon. He also was too neatly dressed for a cowboy just passing through town. In addition, Joe was suspicious of the way the man played poker; he seemed to win every hand he dealt.

The two older men threw their cards onto the table, indicating without words that they had dropped out. The prospector hesitated, taking a moment to push up his glasses before reaching down and taking three chips from the neat stack in front of him. “I’ll see you,” the man said in a thin, reedy voice as he dropped the chips carefully into the middle of the table.

Joe turned his attention to the fourth man – he had called himself Randall — who looked at the cards in his hand with a blank expression on his face. His eyes darted to the left as he tried to read something in Joe’s face which would tip his hand. But Joe looked back with a bland expression as he took another sip of beer. Finally, the man threw a couple of chips into the middle of the table and said, “I call.”

With a smile, Joe laid down his cards, revealing the three queens in his hand. The other two men threw down their cards in a combination of disgust and irritation. Joe reached out and raked the chips from the middle of the table toward his pile of tokens.

“My deal,” growled Randall as he reached for the cards. Joe watched the man carefully as Randall gathered up the cards and began arranging them into a neat stack. He saw how Randall had the cards facing toward him as they were stacked, moving a card or two around to neaten the deck. Joe noted the way Randall shuffled, using a stiff, awkward movement as he mixed the cards in his hands. Joe looked carefully to see if he could identify the card on the bottom of the deck.

Everyone seated around the table threw a chip into the middle, their ante into the game.

After dealing five cards to each man, Randall looked briefly at his own hand, then put it down and picked up the deck. “How many?” he asked Joe.

“We’d prefer you give yourself cards from the top of the deck,” Joe declared suddenly, his voice cold and his eyes peering at Randall with intensity.

For a moment, Randall looked startled, but his expression quickly changed to one of anger. “You think I’m cheating?” he snapped, the fury evident in his voice.

“I didn’t say that,” replied Joe in a deceptively calm voice. “I just know the ace of hearts was at the bottom of the deck when you started to deal. I’d be interested in seeing if the ace is still there or if it’s in your hand now.”

With a sudden move, Randall pushed his chair back from the table and jumped to his feet. But Joe had expected the move and he did the same thing almost simultaneously. Randall started reaching for the gun on his hip but froze when he saw that Joe’s lightning fast draw was already done, and Joe’s pistol was pointed directly at him.

Swallowing hard, Randall eased his hand away from his gun and dropped it to his side. “I wasn’t cheating,” he insisted in a sullen voice.

“Let’s just see,” Joe answered. With out taking his eyes off Randall’s face or moving his gun, Joe added, “Pierce, why don’t you see if the ace of heart is in his hand.”

The man wearing the glasses pushed his spectacles nervously up his nose before reaching across the table and turning over the five cards that Randall had dropped. The cards were a jack, a nine a fair of fives…and the ace of hearts.

“That don’t prove nothing,” Randall shouted. “You were wrong about seeing the ace on the bottom of the deck. I dealt myself that ace from the top.”

“Really?” said Joe in a voice full of disbelief. “Then how did I know you had the ace of hearts? Lucky guess?”

Turning his head to toward the men at the table, Randall whined, “I wasn’t cheating, honest!” But his statement was met by three skeptical looks.

“I think you’d better call it a day,” Joe told Randall. “This isn’t a friendly game any more, at least not for you.”

Glaring at Joe, Randall started reaching for the pile of chips in front of his chair. “Hold it!” Joe ordered. Once more, Randall froze. “You started with ten chips,” continued Joe. “I think ten chips is what you should leave with.”

A look of pure hatred crossed Randall’s face as he looked at Joe and the gun still pointed in his direction. Randall quickly counted ten chips from the pile, then snatched them up from the table. “I’ll get even with you for this, Cartwright,” the man threatened as he put the chips in his vest pocket. “You’re going to pay for this.”

Joe said nothing. He merely watched with cold eyes as Randall move away from the table, and then stomped out of the saloon. He kept his gun on the man until Randall disappeared through the swinging doors.

Taking a deep breath, Joe holstered his gun and turned back to the table. “I think I’ve had enough poker for one day,” he declared. The other three men nodded silently. Joe took the chips Randall left on the table, divided them evenly into four small stacks and pushed one stack in front of each of the three men. “That should make things even,” he said. Joe picked up the remaining stack of chips, then gathered up the tokens piled in front of his chair. He left the table and headed toward the wooded bar at the front of the saloon.

“Cash me in,” Joe told the bartender, laying his chips on the polished oak surface of the bar, “and give me a beer.” The bartended nodded and began counting the chips.

“I’d like to buy you that beer, Mr. Cartwright,” said a voice.

Turning Joe saw Pierce, the bespeckled poker player, standing behind him. Joe smiled and nodded his agreement.

“Two beers,” Pierce announced to the bartender. “Pay for them out of this.” He laid his pile of chips on the bar also.

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” said Joe amiably.

“It’s the least I can do,” Pierce replied. “You saved me and the others from being cheated. Even if I had discovered Randall’s deception, I’m afraid there’s nothing I could have done about it. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to confront the man.” Pierce hesitated, then continued. “I would recommend you be careful, Mr. Cartwright. Randall is known to hold a grudge.”

“What’s he do?” asked Joe. “Is he a cowhand?”

“No one seems to know for sure,” Pierce admitted. “He disappears for a few weeks and then returns to town, usually looking rather worse for the wear but with his pocket full of money. He cleans himself up and lives well, enjoying himself until he runs out of money. Then he disappears again.” Pierce leaned toward Joe and added in a low voice, “Most of us suspect he is doing something illegal but no one can prove it.”

Taking a sip from the glass of beer that the bartender had put down in front of him, Joe studied the man standing next to him. Pierce spoke in precise English and his demeanor implied a meekness of spirit. He looked and sounded like no prospector Joe had ever met. He was another oddity in a town which seemed to be full of them.

“What about you?” Joe asked the mild-mannered man, frankly curious. “What do you do?”

“I’m a scientist,” Pierce replied. “I’m looking for evidence of dinosaurs in this area.”

“Dinosaurs? What are they?” asked Joe with a puzzled expression.

“Large creatures which roamed the earth thousands of years ago,” Pierce explained. “The dinosaurs suddenly disappeared and no one knows precisely why. My theory is that the streams and rivers which once flourished in this area dried up for some reason, and whatever caused that to happen also killed the dinosaurs. I’m looking for bones, fossils and other evidence which will prove my theory. If I am successful, it will be an important scientific discovery.”

“Why would anyone care about some animals that died thousands of years ago?” Joe clearly questioned the value of Pierce’s efforts.

“If I can prove that rivers and streams were in the area, and that the dinosaurs thrived here, perhaps we can learn why both disappeared,” replied Pierce. “Then perhaps we can prevent the same thing from happening in the future. The best way to predict the future is to learn from the past.”

“Have you found anything?” asked Joe, his curiosity now piqued.

“I’ve found some indications that there was water which suddenly dried up,” Pierce answered. Then he sighed. “But I admit I’ve found little else. I’ve been looking for close to a year for definitive proof, without success yet.” Pierce smiled at Joe. “But I feel I’m getting close. The signs have been hopeful lately. We scientists are persistent lot, and I don’t plan to give up.”

“What is it about Cottonwood that attracts scientists to this town?” said Joe with a laugh.

“I presume you are referring to Mr. Becker.” Pierce practically spat out the words. “Mr. Becker is not a scientist. He’s a menace.”

Surprised by the anger in Pierce’s voice, Joe asked, “Why do you say that?”

“Because that mine of his would destroy the whole area in which I am working,” Pierce answered resentfully. “For the sake of a few nuggets of gold, he would destroy perhaps the biggest scientific discovery of this era. I’ve tried to tell him that, but he doesn’t care. He’s nothing but a greedy philistine, willing to sacrifice anything to the golden idol of profit.” Pierce pounded his fist on the bar several times to emphasize his point. “Mr. Becker should be stopped. He must be stopped!”

Joe found it a bit difficult to reconcile the vehemence of Pierce’s word with the meekness of the man’s appearance. “You feel pretty strongly about stopping Becker, don’t you?”

“I do!” exclaimed Pierce. “I am not a violent man, Mr. Cartwright, but when I think about the damage Mr. Becker and his operation will do, I can understand how one could be driven to aggression.”

“The reason I’m in Cottonwood is that my family is thinking of investing in Mr. Becker’s mine,” Joe explained calmly. “My Pa and I are checking out his operation, trying to decide if we want to help finance it.”

“Don’t do it,” Pierced practically begged. “Don’t give that philistine the funds he needs to destroy the evidence I have been looking for.”

“If we don’t invest, someone else will,” Joe replied. “You can’t prevent him from getting the money he needs.”

Sighing, Pierce nodded his head. “I know,” he admitted in a discouraged voice. “It’s impossible to stop the flow of money.” Then Pierce pulled back his shoulders and straightened his back. “But I will find a way to stop him,” the scientist said in a determined voice. “I suggest you stay as far away as possible from Mr. Becker and his mining operation. I promise you, Mr. Becker will not open that mine.”

*****

Looking up to the escape hole from the floor of the mine tunnel, Joe tried to tell if the light had faded. He wondered how long it had been since his father had left. It felt to Joe as if hours had passed.

Suddenly, Joe shivered. His face felt warm, almost hot, but the rest of his body was cold. He wondered if he was suffering from shock or just feeling chilled by the cool rocks which surrounded him. His leg continued to throb and now his injured hand was beginning to burn. Joe’s head ached and he was sure he was getting feverish. His mouth was so dry that he felt as if someone had stuffed it with cotton.

You’re a real mess, Joe Cartwright, thought Joe. And there’s nothing you can do about it but just sit here.

Almost without warning, Joe felt a surge of anger. Someone had done this to him. Someone had caused this agony he was enduring. Someone had deliberately exploded dynamite in the mine entrance, not caring who he killed or injured. Joe suddenly wanted to throttle that man, to beat him senseless, to make him suffer like he was suffering.

As quickly as his anger had come, Joe’s rage ebbed away, leaving him feeling deflated and discouraged. He had no idea who had done this. It could have been Becker, or Randall or even Pierce. Randall had threatened him, and Pierce wanted to shut down the mine. Becker may have wanted to cover up the evidence of fraud. They all had a motive for setting off the explosion.

But they weren’t the only ones, thought Joe. No, there was one more. There was one more person who would be happy to see The Golden Fleece closed forever…

*****

Sprawled in a chair on the hotel porch, Joe turned the page of the newspaper in his hand. After leaving the saloon, Joe had walked around Cottonwood but found little to interest him. The town had the usual collection of shops – a mercantile, blacksmith, dressmaker, and so on – but none of them offered the diversion Joe was looking for. He spent some time looking around in the mercantile, but none of the items offered for sale appealed to him. He finally bought a copy of the local newspaper and headed for the hotel.

Now Joe was wasting time reading about people he didn’t know and events he didn’t care about in the thin pages of newsprint.

“I see you are enjoying the fruits of my labor,” said a voice.

Putting down the newspaper, Joe looked up to see a middle-aged man wearing a gray suit smiling down at him.

“You the editor of the newspaper?” asked Joe.

“The editor, reporter, and printer,” admitted the man. “I also wash the office windows.” He grinned and stuck out his hand. “John Thornton.”

“Joe Cartwright,” replied Joe, shaking the man’s hand.

“And what brings you to our fair town, Mr. Cartwright?” Thornton inquired as he reached into his pocket. He pulled out the stub of a pencil and a piece of paper.

“Just visiting,” Joe answered vaguely.

“Mr. Cartwright, no one comes to Cottonwood just to visit,” Thornton stated with a smile. “This is a small town and everyone knows everyone else’s business. The only reason they bother to buy my newspaper is to see who’s been talking to me.” Thornton poised the pencil over the paper in his hand. “I understand you’ve spent time in Mr. Becker’s office.”

Sighing, Joe decided that evasion wasn’t going to work. “My father and I met with Mr. Becker,” he confirmed. “We’re considering investing in his mining operation, but we haven’t made a decision one way or the other yet.”

“Speaking for the town, I hope you do,” said Thornton as he scribbled something on the paper.

“You don’t speak for the whole town, John Thornton,” boomed a voice. Both Joe and Thornton turned to look at the speaker who was stepping up on to the hotel porch. The man was wearing a black frocked coat with a stiff white collar around his neck. Tufts of gray hair sprang in unruly tangles around his thin face lined by age. His piercing blue eyes looked at Joe with coldness, and his lips were pressed together in a stern line of disapproval.

“Ah, Preacher, it’s good to see you are consistent,” Thornton observed with a smile. “Let me do the honors. Mr. Cartwright, this is the Reverend Henry Brown, the minister of our church and our local prophet of doom. Reverend, this is Joe Cartwright. He and his father are considering investing in Mr. Becker’s mine, the instrument which will lead to the destruction our town, according to your last sermon.”

Taken aback by Thornton’s comment, Joe sat still, not knowing what to do or say.

“You make fun, John,” said Reverend Brown, ignoring Joe. “But you know I’m right. Opening that mine will only bring wickedness and evil to our town.”

“Opening that mine will bring prosperity to Cottonwood,” Thornton countered. “It will bring in new business, new money and new people.”

“New people, bah!” exclaimed Reverend Brown. “The people who will come to work in the mine will not be the kind of people we want in this town. They will be the papist Irish or worse, heathen Chinese.”

“That will give you a whole new group of people to try to convert,” Thornton noted, apparently unfazed by the reverend’s complaint.

“And it’s not just the miners who will come,” the preacher continued. “They will be followed by gamblers, whiskey dealers, and women of ill-repute. They will turn our town into a brothel, a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Disturbed by the minister’s ranting, Joe felt compelled to offer a comment. “Reverend, I think you may be over-reacting. We have plenty of mines in Virginia City, where I live. Most of the miners are decent, hard-working men who are just trying to make a living. I know quite a few miners who saved their wages so they could buy land and bring their families to join them. There are a lot of farms and ranches near Virginia City started by men who used to be miners.”

“Are you saying there are no saloons in Virginia City?” demanded Reverend Brown. “No gambling? No houses where women sell their favors?”

“No sir, I’m not,” admitted Joe. “I’m just saying that you can’t blame the miners for that. The cattlemen and the farmers in the area visit the saloons just as much as the miners do, maybe more. But Virginia City isn’t any worse than most other town, and the mines aren’t the reason why there are saloons and gambling there.” Joe waved his hand toward the street. “You don’t have a mine here yet and you have a saloon where I spent the afternoon playing poker.”

“The boy’s got a point, Preacher,” acknowledged Thornton with a grin.

“Hellfire and damnation!” shouted the minister. “That’s what that mine will bring to our town. You wait and see. Hellfire and damnation!” With that, Reverend Brown turned on his heels and walked away.

Neither Joe nor John Thornton said anything for a minute. Then Thornton cleared his throat, and commented, “Well, um, I hope you don’t think the reverend represents the way most people in this town feel about Becker opening his mine. Reverend Brown has…strong feelings on the subject. Almost everyone else is in favor of what Becker is trying to do. I hope you’ll remember that.”

“I’ll remember,” Joe promised. “And I’ll remember what the Reverend said also.”

*****

“I’ll remember, I’ll remember” Joe murmured as he shifted his weight on the hard ground of the tunnel. He felt terrible. His leg was sending waves of pain upward again. His hand throbbed and his head ached. Rivulets of sweat were running down his face, mixing with the blood already there, and the salty moisture was causing the cuts on his face to sting. Joe’s mind felt fuzzy, and he couldn’t seem to put his thoughts in order any longer. He was tired, thirsty, and hurting in numerous places. His body cried out for relief from the hard ground on which he was sitting. Joe closed his eyes, hoping he could fall into a dark abyss of sleep, a place where he could feel nothing.

But Joe couldn’t seem to turn his brain off, no matter how hard he tried. His mind kept replaying the events from yesterday, and the minutes before the roof of the tunnel collapsed. There was a connection between the two and his brain was working hard to find it. But the connection was elusive, a butterfly which fluttered away before his mind could captured it.

Forget it; it’s not important, Joe told himself. Concentrate on staying alive. Nothing else matters now. You have bigger problems than worrying about who blew up the mine.

But the butterfly kept fluttering in his brain, teasing him with the idea that he knew the answer if he could only capture it. And then suddenly, Joe knew. He knew what he had heard just before the explosion and who had thrown the dynamite. His mind had captured the butterfly.

“Joe! Joe! Can you hear me!” a voice called down to him, reverberating through the tunnel.

“Pa?” Joe answered weakly. “Pa?” The word was hardly more than a croak from his dry throat.

“I’m here, Joe!” Ben shouted to his son from the escape hole. “Hang on, Joe. We’re coming to get you!”

With an air of detachment, Joe watched as his father was lowered by rope from the escape hole to the floor of the mine. He saw his Pa rushing forward, pulling the strap of a canteen off his shoulder as he ran. Joe felt the gentle touch of his father’s hand on his head for a moment, and then a canteen was put to his lips. Joe drank eagerly, trying to swallow as much of the water as possible. His Pa pulled the canteen back and then offered it again, making sure Joe didn’t choke or make himself sick by drinking too fast.

When Joe had quenched his thirst, he looked up at his father. “Thanks, Pa,” he murmured.

Once more, Ben gently stroked Joe’s head. “I’m sorry it took so long, Joe,” he apologized. “I got back here as soon as I could. I brought a lot of help with me. We’re going to get you out of here.” Ben glanced over his shoulder and noted with satisfaction that several men were being lowered by rope into the mine. He turned back to Joe. “Everything is going to be all right now, son.”

“Pa, I have to tell you,” said Joe, grabbing the front of his father’s shirt with his uninjured hand. “I have to tell you what he said before he threw the dynamite.”

“What?” replied Ben puzzled. “What are you talking about Joe?”

“Pa, I remember!” cried Joe. “You have to listen. I know what he said.”

“Don’t worry about that now, son,” Ben replied in a soothing voice as he gently stroked his son’s face. He could feel the heat of fever, and decided Joe was delirious. “We’ll talk about it later. The important thing is to get you out of here, to get you to a doctor.”

“Pa, I heard what he said,” insisted Joe, pulling harder on his father’s shirt. “I heard him yell ‘Philistines’. He said ‘Philistines’, Pa. Pierce was the one who threw the dynamite. It was Pierce who blew up the mine.”

Epilogue

Shifting on the bed, Joe moved his splinted leg closer to the middle. He tried to relax against the soft pillows that supported his back, but he couldn’t. He was tense, apprehensive, and couldn’t wait for his father to return to the room.

Resting his heavily wrapped hand on his stomach, Joe used his good hand to push himself up a bit, trying to find a more comfortable position on the bed. Then he settled back and waited, watching for the door to open while he drummed his uninjured fingers anxiously on the bed.

The door opened so suddenly that Joe flinched a bit in surprise. “Well, what did he say?” Joe demanded.

“Hoss says that herd in Arizona has some of the finest cattle he’s ever seen,” Ben answered with a smile. “Even Adam had to agree. O’Brien has included the son of one of his prize bulls in the deal, so the herd is worth every penny of that $25,000.”

“Did you tell Hoss to buy them?” Joe asked eagerly.

“I sent him a telegram telling him to buy the herd as soon as I got his one,” Ben replied, showing a paper to his son. “I also told him the doctor said that you could travel in three or four days, and we’d be back at the Ponderosa by the end of the week.”

“The doctor is an old worrywart,” grumbled Joe. “I’m fine. I could travel tomorrow.”

“Joe, you were unconscious for almost a day,” Ben said in exasperation. “And it was two days after that before you felt strong enough to sit up. I think waiting another three or four days is wise.”

“I suppose,” Joe agreed grudgingly.

“By the way, I stopped by the sheriff’s office on the way back here,” Ben said offhandedly. “That fellow Pierce is still insisting that he didn’t know anyone was in the mine when he threw those sticks of lighted dynamite into The Golden Fleece.”

“Yeah, right,” replied Joe with skepticism. “That’s why he yelled into the tunnel before throwing in the dynamite.”

“Well, it’s a good thing he did,” said Ben. “Otherwise, he’d be facing the gallows instead of just a long stretch in prison. Becker and the others barely got of the tunnel in time. His call made them look back to the entrance, and when they saw the lighted dynamite, they ran for their lives.”

“For their lives. They didn’t worry much about us,” Joe complained bitterly.

“Joe, they thought we were dead,” advised Ben in a gentle voice.

“They could have checked,” insisted Joe. “Becker knew where that escape hole was. If he had just checked instead of riding back to town…”

“Well, he didn’t,” Ben interrupted. “It’s over and done with, Joe. Forget it. Brooding about what might have been doesn’t do any good.”

“You’re right,” acknowledged Joe. “Besides, Becker will never be able to open that mine now. I guess that’s punishment enough.” He looked at his father curiously. “Did you ask Becker about that strange pattern of quartz I told you about?”

“Yes, I did,” Ben answered. “He believes it was caused by a stream that suddenly dried up. The quartz clustered when the water disappeared without warning. That was one of the reasons he was so confident that there was gold in the mine. He felt sure a mass of gold sunk into the rock, just as the quartz did.”

“That’s what Pierce thought,” mused Joe. “That a stream drying up suddenly, I mean. Funny, both Becker and Pierce had the same idea, and they both wanted to dig up that area. But Pierce was looking for old bones, and Becker was looking for gold.”

“I’m afraid Mr. Pierce felt much too strongly about the need to protect the area so he prove his theory,” Ben observed. “He was willing to sacrifice the present to preserve the past.”

“Yeah, he was,” Joe said, nodding. “I think it was the one thing that Pierce really cared about. I think the need to find those bones was the only thing that could drive Pierce to commit murder, if he had to. He cared about those old bones more than anything, including people.” Suddenly, a grin spread across Joe’s face. “So Adam had to admit I was right about those cattle in Arizona, eh?”

“Yes, he did,” Ben agreed with a laugh. “But that doesn’t necessary mean your brother was wrong. If Pierce hadn’t blown up the mine, I think I would have considered it a good investment.”

“Pa, you would have never invested your money in The Golden Fleece,” declared Joe confidently.

“Oh, I wouldn’t have, would I?” said Ben, smiling. “And why not?”

“You’re a cattleman, Pa,” answered Joe. “You’d never invest in something that would constantly remind you of sheep.”

*****End*****

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