The Paiute Necklace (by Susan)

Synopsis:  The return of a legendary necklace as part of a peace treaty could save countless lives.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  27,700


 

“I want you boys to be sure to check the fences while I’m gone,” ordered Ben Cartwright as he poured himself another cup of coffee. He glanced around the breakfast table at his three sons, then added gruffly, “And don’t forget to check the herd in the south pasture. If the grass is thinning, they may start to stray.”

“Doggonit, Pa, you’d think you’d never left us alone at the ranch before,” complained Hoss Cartwright, the middle and biggest of Ben’s sons.

“You’re only going to be gone a couple of days,” stated Adam, Ben’s oldest son. “I think we can manage to hold the ranch together for that long.”

“Don’t you worry, Pa,” chimed in Joe, the youngest of the Cartwrights at age 22, in a slightly mocking tone. “We’ll do everything you say. We’ll check the fences, check the herd, and make sure the barn is clean. And in our spare time, we’ll bake cookies and knit socks.”

“Don’t get smart with me, young man,” Ben growled. “I expect you boys to work while I’m gone. No taking time off for trips to town. This ranch doesn’t run itself, you know.”

Raising his eyebrows a bit, Adam studied his father. “Pa, you’ve been as grouchy as a bear with a sore head for the past two days. Are you going to tell us what’s really bothering you or are we just going to have to put up this with it until you leave tomorrow?”

A frown crossed Ben’s face as he started to bark out an answer. Suddenly, though, he sighed. “I know I’ve been acting unreasonable,” Ben admitted. “I’m just anxious about this treaty being signed, and I guess I’m taking it out on everyone else. I’m sorry, boys.”

“Pa, what’s got you so nervous?” Hoss asked. “You said the Army has made a deal with the Paiutes. All that’s left to do is get the treaty signed.”

“This treaty is so very important,” Ben replied. “If Winnemucca agrees to let the supply trains cross his lands unmolested, it will save a lot a lives. Food, medicine and equipment will be able to get through, as well as new settlers. All those small towns and ranches that are just barely making it will be able to thrive.”

“But it’s a done deal, isn’t it? Like Hoss said, all that’s left is for Winnemucca and Colonel Marks to sign the treaty and for you to witness it,” said Adam, sounding puzzled.

“Something could still go wrong,” answered Ben. “Winnemucca could change his mind. Some of his war chiefs don’t like the idea of the wagons crossing their land. He might decide that having the necklace returned to the tribe isn’t as important as protecting his land as well as keeping his braves happy.”

“I still don’t understand why the necklace is so important to him,” Joe remarked. “Gold doesn’t mean anything to an Indian. You’d think Winnemucca would want something like horses or cattle in exchange for signing the treaty.”

“It’s not the gold in the necklace that’s important,” Ben explained, “it’s what the necklace represents. The legend says that a Paiute chief was out hunting one day and came across a man in the woods who was performing some kind of ritual. The chief thought the man was a white medicine man and decided to leave him alone. Then he saw a bear coming out of the woods, ready to attack the man. The chief killed the bear, saving the man’s life. The man was so grateful that he took a gold chain from around his neck and gave it to the chief. He told the chief that if he believed in the power of the necklace, the chief would live a long time, and be considered good and wise by all men. The chief also was told that, as long as the Paiutes had the necklace, the Great Spirit would watch over them and give them good fortune.”

“The necklace has some kind of medallion on it, doesn’t it,” said Adam. “My guess it was given to the chief by a missionary and the message got a bit mixed up in the translation.”

“Could be,” agreed Ben. “But the point is the Paiutes think it’s powerful, and Winnemucca wants it back. He’s willing to agree to let the supply trains through in order to get it.”

“But if it’s that important to them, how come the Paiutes lost it?” Hoss asked. “And how did the Army get it and know to give it back?”

“I don’t know the whole story,” admitted Ben. “All I know is that it disappeared three or four years ago and somehow ended up in a museum in San Francisco. Colonel Marks is the one who recognized the necklace as the one he had heard about from the Paiutes. He persuaded the government to acquire it so he could use it as a bargaining chip with the Paiutes.”

“It must have cost the government a pretty penny,” Joe observed, shaking his head. “I heard it was solid gold.”

“I don’t know what it cost the government,” replied Ben, “but it was worth every cent. That necklace is going to stop the Paiutes from attacking the wagons. There’s no telling how many lives it will save, both on the wagons as well as in the places that desperately need those supplies.”

The sound of pounding on the front door of the house cut short the conversation around the breakfast table. Adam quickly got up from his chair and walked toward the door.

“Colonel Marks!” said Adam in surprise as he pulled open the front door of the ranch house. “What are you doing here? I would have thought you’d be heading for Spruce Meadow to get things ready for the treaty ceremony.”

“Morning, Adam,” replied Marks in an abrupt tone. “Is Ben here? I need to see him right away.”

“What’s wrong, John?” asked Ben as he emerged from the dining room and walked toward the door. He was followed by Joe and Hoss, both of whom looked at the army officer with curiosity.

“Ben, we have a big problem,” Marks answered grimly. “The necklace has been stolen.”

“Stolen!” exclaimed Ben in alarm. “Do you have any idea who took it?”

“We’re pretty sure it was a sergeant named Kelly,” replied the colonel. “He had guard duty the night before last, and was supposed to be protecting necklace in the safe in my office. When I got to my office in the morning, I found the safe opened and both Kelly and the necklace gone. I’ve got men out looking for him, but so far, Kelly hasn’t been found.”

A worried expression appeared on Ben’s face. “This is going to make getting that treaty signed very difficult,” he said with dismay.

“It’s going to make getting the treaty signed impossible,” Marks corrected Ben. “Winnemucca is going to think we lied to him about returning the necklace. He’s going to think we deliberately tried to make him look like a fool. At the very least, he’ll refuse to sign the treaty. It could even mean the Paiutes will go on the warpath.”

“Winnemucca isn’t going to be happy with the turn of events,” agreed Adam. “He could decide to take his anger out on every white man on the Washoe.”

“It’s worse than that,” Marks said bleakly. “There’s already half a dozen supply trains on their way here. I sent a message to General Taylor in San Francisco to let him know we had a deal with the Paiutes. Once the word got out about the treaty, the suppliers decided it was safe to send their wagons. Winnemucca is sure to send his braves to attack them if the treaty isn’t signed.”

“Can’t you stop them?” asked Hoss. “Turn them around and send them back?”

“We’d have to find them before the Paiutes do,” answered the colonel. “And that’s no easy task, considering we don’t know exactly where the wagons are. And even if we find them, there’s no guarantee we can get them back safely. I’ll have to split my forces to try to find those supply trains. A small troop of cavalry won’t be able to hold off a large band of angry Paiutes.” Marks shook his head sadly. “It would be a massacre, and I’m afraid there won’t be just one.”

“Couldn’t you just explain to Winnemucca what happened?” suggested Joe. “Tell him the necklace was stolen?”

“I’ don’t think he wouldn’t believe that,” Ben said in a forlorn voice. “The Paiutes have been lied to so many times that Winnemucca doesn’t trust much of what the white man tells him. The only reason he agreed to this treaty was to get the necklace back. Without the necklace as a token of good faith, he’s going to think we’re lying to him again.”

“Could you make up another one?” asked Hoss. “Maybe Winnemucca wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

“There’s not enough time,” Marks answered. “The treaty is supposed to be signed in three days. And even if there were, we couldn’t duplicate the necklace. The Paiutes have scratch symbols on it as well as adding things like feathers and beads to it. That’s how I recognized the necklace in the museum. But I don’t remember enough of what was on it to be able copy them exactly.”

“And Winnemucca wouldn’t be any happier if he thought we were trying to pawn a fake necklace off on him,” Ben added.

“What are you going to do, colonel?” asked Adam. “Cancel the treaty ceremony?”

“Not until I absolutely have to,” Marks replied. “If I delay or cancel things now, Winnemucca is going to figure out something is wrong. He’s liable to demand the necklace right away, and is going to be angry when I can’t deliver it. That will destroy any hope of ever getting the treaty signed. If I go ahead as planned, at least we’ll have three days to try to find the necklace. There’s always a chance one of my patrols will catch up with Kelly.”

“Do you have any idea where he went?” asked Hoss.

“One of the sentries saw him riding toward the mountains,” the colonel answered. “The sentry didn’t stop him because he had no idea what Kelly had done.” Suddenly, the colonel sighed. “I hope one of the patrols find Kelly, but I have to admit the odds are against it. My soldiers are good fighting men, but I wouldn’t call any of them great trackers.”

“So you’re just going to go ahead and act like nothing is wrong until the last minute,” Joe said, shaking his head. “Whew! I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when Winnemucca finds out that the necklace is missing.”

“I’m not looking forward to it,” agreed Marks glumly. “I’ll have some troopers at Spruce Meadows, and I hope that will discourage the Paiutes from doing anything rash. But if they’re mad enough, the Paiutes aren’t going to let a troop of cavalry stop them from shooting.” The colonel turned to Ben. “That’s why I rode over here this morning, Ben. I wanted to tell you what happened, and to tell you not to come to Spruce Meadows. It’s too dangerous. There’s no telling what Winnemucca and his braves will do if I can’t produce the necklace. I can’t put you in such a risky situation.”

For a moment, Ben said nothing. A frown crossed his face, and he looked down at the floor, as if trying to make up his mind. Then he took a deep breath. “John, I should go to Spruce Meadows with you,” said Ben slowly as he looked up at the colonel. “Winnemucca is going to be suspicious if I’m not there when he arrives. And I might be able to help calm him down if you can’t deliver the necklace. He might listen to me, since I’m not a soldier.”

“Pa, you can’t!” exclaimed Joe in alarm. “If Winnemucca gets mad, you’ll liable to find yourself in the middle of a war.”

“Joe’s right,” Hoss told his father in an agitated voice. “You’ll be right in the middle of a hornet’s nest, only it’ll be bullets flying around your head.”

“I have to go,” Ben said grimly. “If there’s any chance at all of keeping the peace, I have to take the risk. There’s too many lives at stake, both Indian and white, for me to simply stay home and hope for the best.” A small smile appeared on Ben’s face. “Besides, I’ll have a troop of cavalry to hide behind if things go wrong.”

“At least let us go with you,” urged Joe. “That’s three more guns in case there’s trouble.”

“No,” replied Ben in a firm voice. “I don’t need you three to help me sign the treaty, and if there’s trouble, three more guns aren’t going to make much difference.” He looked at each of his sons in turn, then added, “I mean it, boys. You show up at Spruce Meadows, I’ll ask John to have some of his troopers escort you home. And that means fewer soldiers to help us if trouble starts.”

A look of unhappiness appeared on each of the Cartwright sons’ faces, but all three of them heard the tone of Ben’s voice and knew their father meant what he said. The young men exchanged glances and, as their expressions on their faces changed to resignation, almost imperceptible nods.

“All right,” Adam agreed on behalf of his brothers. “We won’t show up at Spruce Meadows. At least, we won’t show up without the necklace.” He held up his hand to cut off the words of protest from both the colonel and his father. “We know this country better than anyone, and Hoss is one of the best tracker in the territory. If we can’t offer three more guns, then at least we can offer three more searchers.”

“Adam, Kelly could be anywhere,” said Ben doubtfully. “You could be wasting your time.”

“If you can’t stay home and hope for the best, than neither can we,” Adam replied. He looked over his shoulder at his brothers, who nodded in agreement. “We’ve got as good a chance as those soldiers at finding Kelly, maybe better.” Turning to Colonel Marks, Adam asked, “What does this Kelly look like?”

“He’s a big Irishman, about 40,” answered the colonel, a touch of hope in his voice. “Black hair, and a small scar above his left eye. The sentry said he was wearing his uniform, and riding a black horse. He was last seen riding toward Miner’s Ridge. He probably went over the ridge and up into the mountains from there.”

“Miner’s Ridge,” mused Hoss. “You know, if I was on the run, I’d go over that ridge and head west, rather than up into the mountains. There’s some clear trails, lots of fresh water and game, and once you got through Crater Pass, you could head in any direction.”

“Well, that may be,” Marks admitted with a shrug. “I’ve got my patrols searching the mountains, though. That’s the most likely place for a man to go to hide.”

“It would hurt to check out the trails to the west of the ridge,” insisted Adam. “Kelly might have figured you’d send patrols to the mountains and headed the other way. If we’re wrong, we can always go back and help search the mountains.” He cocked his head a bit and looked thoughtful. “How much time do we have?”

“Today is Tuesday,” the colonel answered. “The treaty ceremony is scheduled to start at noon on Friday. We’ve only got three days to find the necklace and get it to Spruce Meadow.”

“Well, I guess then we’ll have to have find Kelly and drag him and the necklace back to Spruce Meadows by Friday,” Joe said with a cocky grin.

*****

Pulling his horse to a stop near a pile of large rock, Hoss peered down the hill in front of him. “This is the spot,” he said confidently without bothering to look at his two brothers on their horses behind him. “You can see the entrance to Crater Pass. We’ll get a good look at anyone coming down the trail.”

“What if Kelly has already gone through the pass?” Joe asked sourly. “We got here in less than a day; maybe Kelly did, too. We’ll be wasting our time just sitting here waiting for him.”

“We were a lot closer to Crater Pass to start with, and besides, we took the short-cut to get here,” answered Hoss patiently. “Kelly would have to ride awful hard to make it from the fort to the pass in under two days. I don’t think he’d want to take a chance on hurting his horse with a ride like that. And he won’t be rushing if he don’t think anyone is looking for him over this way.”

“I still don’t like the idea of just sitting here,” Joe grumbled. “We ought to start looking for him. There’s an hour or two of daylight left.”

“Look, Joe,” said Adam with more than a little exasperation in his voice, “we knew it would be almost dark when we got here. We agreed that we’d watch the pass until morning. If we don’t see Kelly, we’ll start looking tomorrow. Let’s stick with the plan.”

Sighing softly, Joe nodded. “I know, I know. I’m just not very good at sitting around, especially when there isn’t much time for us to find that necklace.”

“Well, if you ain’t good at sitting around, you can go get some wood and make a fire,” suggested Hoss with a grin as he dismounted. “I sure would like a hot meal and a nice warm fire while we’re waiting.”

“Don’t get too cozy,” Adam cautioned as he got down from his horse. “I’ll take the first watch, but you’ll being do the second one.”

“Let me get this straight,” said Joe as he dismounted also. “I’ve got to go get the wood, make the fire, and then get up in the middle of the night to watch for somebody who’s probably not going to be coming down the trail when it’s dark?”

“Yep, that’s it, little brother,” replied Hoss, still grinning. Seeing the look of displeasure on Joe’s face, Hoss turned to his older brother. “Don’t he look cute when he’s mad, Adam?”

“Charming,” replied Adam dryly. “Now let’s get these horses out of sight and set up camp.”

*****

The twilight of dusk had faded into the black of night as Hoss walked over to where Adam was sitting by the edge of the boulders. “Nothing, uh,” said Hoss, as he stood over his oldest brother.

“Not a sign,” affirmed Adam, stretching his arms a bit. “I don’t think Kelly will try to go through the pass in the dark, but you never can tell. You keep your eyes peeled. I’m going to get a cup of your bad coffee and then get some sleep.”

Taking a step back to allow Adam room to get to his feet, Hoss looked out into the darkness. Suddenly, he frowned and stared hard into the night. As Adam started to walk by, Hoss grabbed his brother’s arm. “Look over there,” Hoss said in a low voice. Adam turned his head; he saw nothing but black.

“What?” asked Adam in a puzzled voice.

At first, Hoss didn’t answer; he simply kept staring into the darkness. Suddenly, he pointed. “There!” exclaimed Hoss. “See that light? Don’t that look like a campfire to you?”

Hearing Hoss’ voice and seeing his brothers peering out into the darkness, Joe got up from his seat on the ground near the fire and hurried to join the other two Cartwrights. “What’s up?” he whispered loudly.

Ignoring Joe’s question, Hoss kept his eyes focused on something in the night. “There it is again,” said Hoss. “That light in the brush. It’s there for a couple of seconds and then it’s gone.”

“I saw it,” Adam replied with a nod. “It could be a campfire.”

“You think Kelly would risk a fire?” asked Joe in surprise. “If I was running, I keep a cold camp.”

“He may think no one is looking for him,” Adam replied. “Besides, it looks like he’s trying to hide the fire. The wind must be moving the flames around just enough so they’re visible from time to time.”

“If he’s been on the trail for two days, Kelly is probably sick of cold beans and jerky,” added Hoss. “I sure would be.”

“You’re sick of cold beans and jerky after two hours,” commented Joe wryly. He looked out into the night and waited. A minute or so passed before Joe saw the faint glow flickering through the blackness. “There sure is somebody out there,” he stated. He turned to his brothers. “How do you want to do this?”

“I think we ought to wait awhile,” Adam replied. “Let him get settled for the night. Then we’ll work our way over there, surround the camp and surprise him.”

“If that’s not Kelly, we’re going to scare the life out of some poor hunter,” remarked Hoss.

“If it’s not Kelly, we apologize and come back here,” Adam said. “But I’ve got a feeling it’s him. He’s probably planning to go through the pass at dawn, when it’s just light enough to see. That way, if someone is on his trail, he’d be long gone before they got out of their bedrolls.”

“I hope you’re right and it is Kelly, Adam,” Joe told his oldest brother. “We’ve got to get that necklace and get it to Spruce Meadows in time. If we don’t, Pa’s going to be facing a whole lot of angry Paiutes.”

*****

Moving furtively through the darkness, three figures approached the area from which the light had been spotted. The biggest one was in the lead, and he held out his arms to silently stop the other two. Hoss listened for a minute, making sure that nothing had alarmed whoever was near the fire. Satisfied that everything was quiet, Hoss nodded. Joe and Adam crept away in opposite directions, disappearing quickly into the black of night. Hoss silently counted to himself as he waited. When he reached 100, Hoss pulled his gun from his holster and started forward.

For a big man, Hoss surprisingly was light on his feet. He quietly moved toward the figure wrapped in a blanket and apparently sleeping by the fire. But the man by the fire must have heard or sensed Hoss’ presence. Hoss was only a few feet from the fire when the man whipped off the blanket and sat up, pointing his pistol directly at the largest Cartwright.

“Hold it, boyyo,” warned the man, a trace of his Irish accent evident in his voice.

Hoss was close enough to see the man clearly in the fire’s light. An Army shirt with sergeant’s strips, the black hair and the scar over the eye all confirmed the man was the missing Kelly.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Kelly,” said Hoss. “You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

Kelly’s eyes widened a bit at Hoss’ use of his name, but he held his gun steady. “I don’t know who you are or what you want,” Kelly replied, “but I think the wisest thing would be for you to turn around and leave.”

“Drop the gun, Kelly!” shouted a voice from the soldier’s left.

“You’re covered on three sides, so drop it!” added a voice from the soldier’s right.

Never taking his eyes off Hoss, Kelly slowly lowered his gun and threw it to his right. Only when he heard Joe and Adam pushing their way through the bushes on either side of him did the sergeant glance to his right and left, merely confirming to himself that he had made the right choice. He watched carefully as the three Cartwrights came together near the fire, noting their revolvers were pointed at him the whole time.

“I don’t know who you lads are looking for, but I think you’ve made a mistake,” declared Kelly in a confident voice. “I’m just a soldier, out on patrol.”

“Patrolling by yourself?” replied Adam in a dry voice. He jerked his head a bit to the right, and Joe, understanding the signal, walked over to pick up Kelly’s gun from the ground. Taking a few more steps, Joe knelt and began going through the leather bags leaning against the sergeant’s saddle near the fire.

“Now why don’t you save my brother some time and just give us the necklace,” suggested Adam.

“Necklace? What necklace?” Kelly replied, feigning innocence. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, lad.”

“The necklace you stole from Colonel Marks office and is going to cause an Indian war if we don’t get it back,” clarified Hoss.

“I don’t have any necklace,” Kelly stated firmly. “You fellows have the wrong man.”

“He’s not lying,” called Joe from a few feet away. “There’s no necklace in his saddlebags. But look what I found.” He held up a small leather sack, obviously full of something heavy. “There must be $5,000 in gold coins here. I found it hidden inside his saddle blanket.”

“Hey, now! That money’s mine,” protested Kelly. “I saved a long time to get it.”

“On a sergeant’s pay? I don’t believe you,” Adam said flatly. He considered Kelly for a moment, then added, “You sold the necklace, didn’t you?”

“I tell you, I don’t know anything about a necklace,” Kelly declared. “You lads are barking up the wrong tree.”

“Who’d you sell it to?” persisted Adam. “Where’s the necklace?”

“You’re wrong, dead wrong,” Kelly answered, shaking his head. “If the necklace is missing, somebody else must have took it. I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“Want me to shake it out of him, Adam?” offered Hoss.

Cocking his head a bit, Adam studied the soldier. “No, I don’t think so,” replied Adam in a deliberate tone. “I think a bullet or two might be more effective.”

“Bullets?” squealed Kelly in alarm. “You can’t mean it!”

Ignoring the sergeant’s cry, Adam continued in the same deliberate voice, “I think one in the kneecap might be a good place to start. If anyone asks, we can claim he was running away and we stopped him.”

Cocking his gun, Hoss nodded. “Yeah, that’s good, Adam. And if that don’t work, I can put one in his foot. He won’t be able to walk anywhere after that.”

“You boys are crazy!” shouted Kelly, the desperation evident in his voice. “You can’t shoot me like that.”

“Oh yes we can,” said Joe, who had walked over to join his brothers. “See, our Pa is at Spruce Meadows, and he’s liable to be caught in the middle of a war if we don’t get that necklace. So we don’t have a lot of sympathy for the thieving coward who might start that war. You start talking or we start shooting.”

“All right, all right,” Kelly quickly replied. “I’ll tell you what you want to know. Just…just uncock those guns.”

Slowly, Hoss released the hammer on his pistol, and lowered it a bit. He tried to hide his relief that Kelly had caved in. He knew that neither he nor his brothers would have made good on their threat to shoot the soldier, and if Kelly had still refused to talk, they might never have known what happened to the necklace.

“Where’s the necklace?” Adam asked, his tone decidedly unfriendly.

“I gave it to a man named Abe Chandler,” Kelly answered, his tone a bit sullen. “He’s the one who wanted the necklace. He paid me to steal it for him.”

“Why would he want the necklace?” Hoss asked curiously.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Kelly said. “All I know is he offered me $5,000 to steal the necklace and give it to him. I met him on Miner’s Ridge, gave him the necklace, and he gave me the money. Then I took off. That’s all I know, honest.”

“He’s lying, Adam,” growled Joe, raising his gun menacingly. “He hid the necklace someplace.”

“No, it’s the truth!” cried Kelly frantically. “What do I care about some old necklace? I couldn’t try to sell to a jeweler or someone like that; I’d be arrested in a minute. I only stole it because Chandler paid me to.”

“Where can we find this Chandler?” Adam asked.

“He lives in Willow Bend or someplace near there,” answered the sergeant quickly. “I was in the saloon in Willow Bend about a week ago, crying in me beer about wanting to leave the army but having no money. This fellow Chandler comes up and starts asking me about the necklace. I told him what I knew, that the Paiutes wanted it back because they thought it was magic or something. Chandler starts buying beers for me and the next thing I know, we talking about how I could steal the cursed thing.”

“You knew that necklace was important to the Paiutes and you stole it anyway?” said Hoss in a shocked voice. He knew people could be callous sometimes, but it always surprised him when they proved to him that it was true.

“I needed money and Chandler was offering me a lot,” Kelly replied, as if his words justified the deed. “It’s not like I stole the payroll or something. It was just some old necklace that those dirty Indians wanted.”

“But you knew what would happen when the Paiutes didn’t get the necklace,” Hoss persisted. “You knew it could start a war, that a lot of people – including some of your soldier friends – could get killed.”

“Well, I tried not to think about that part,” admitted Kelly. “I figured to be up in the Oregon Territory where I wouldn’t have to hear about what happened.”

“Kelly, you’re the poorest excuse for a man that I’ve seen in a long time,” said Joe in disgust. He turned toward his oldest brother. “What do we do now, Adam?”

“Tie him up for now,” Adam answered. “In the morning, we’ll all ride to Willow Bend. After he helps us find this Chandler, we’ll turn Kelly over to the sheriff there. Then we’ll get the necklace and ride hard to Spruce Meadows.”

*****

Most of the world was still sleeping as the first light of dawn filled the morning sky, but not the men in the rough camp in the woods. While Adam sipped the last of the coffee in his cup near the fire, Hoss was busy saddling Kelly’s horse as well as the Cartwright’s horses he had retrieved from their own camp during the night. Joe sat a few feet away from the fire with a rifle across his lap. His gaze was steadily fixed on Sergeant Kelly, who sat against a tree with a rope wrapped around his arms and chest, and a decidedly unhappy expression on his face.

“Horses saddled?” asked Adam as he looked up to an approaching Hoss.

“Yep,” Hoss answered as he reached down for a cup half filled with coffee that was sitting near the fire. “All we need to do is pack up the gear and get Kelly on a horse, and we’re ready to go.”

“Hey now,” called Kelly. “It’s bad enough that you boys woke me before the sun was even up for breakfast. Now you’re talking about throwing me on a horse like a sack of potatoes. That’s no way to treat an Army man.”

“Kelly, you’re lucky we even fed you,” Joe said with more than a hint of disgust in his voice. “And I have a feeling your career in the Army is over.”

“Well, that may be,” admitted the sergeant. “But still, I’d like to keep what little of me honor I have left. At least let me ride in to Willow Bend like a soldier, not trussed up like some turkey.”

“He’s got a point, Adam,” Hoss said grudgingly. “We’ve got to travel some pretty rough country to get to Willow Bend. It’ll be easier if we don’t have to lead his horse or worry about picking him up off the ground.”

Taking another sip of coffee, Adam considered the situation carefully. Slowly, he turned to look over his shoulder toward Kelly. “If we untie you, will you give me your word you won’t try to escape?”

“I give you my word as a soldier,” replied Kelly solemnly. Then a wry smile crossed his face. “Besides, how far could I get with the three of you watching me?” the sergeant added. “I don’t fancy ending up with a bullet in me.”

Adam took another sip of coffee before answering. “All right, Joe,” he said as he pour the last of the liquid into the cup over the fire. “Go ahead and untie him. But watch him.”

Nodding, Joe set his rifle on the ground, and then got to his feet. He took a few steps, then crouched to untie the knot that held the ropes around the sergeant. As the ropes loosened, Joe started to stand and pull his gun out of his holster. Suddenly, Kelly grabbed Joe’s left wrist in an iron grip and yanked it hard, pulling the youngest Cartwright off balance. Dropping the pistol, Joe fell to the dirt, landing on his hip. Moving with cat-like quickness, Kelly jumped behind Joe, wrapping his left arm around Joe’s neck. The sergeant gripped Joe’s right wrist with his own right hand, and then stood, jerking Joe to his feet as he rose. Kelly twisted Joe’s arm behind the young man’s back and tightened his forearm against Joe’s neck. “All right now, boyyos, let’s see you drop those guns before I do some real damage to your brother here,” Kelly threatened.

Adam and Hoss had jumped to their feet and pulled pistols from their hostlers when they saw Kelly grab Joe. But both men knew they couldn’t get a shot at the sergeant without hitting their youngest brother.

“Drop ‘em!” ordered Kelly again. He tightened his vise-like grip around Joe’s neck and twisted the young man’s arm a bit higher in the back. Joe gasped, both in pain and from the pressure against his neck that was cutting off his air.

“Kelly, let him go!” yelled Hoss angrily. “You’re going to kill him!”

“You kill him and you’re a dead man, Kelly,” added Adam quickly.

“Now, now, I know what I’m doing,” Kelly replied calmly. “I know just how much it takes to crush a man’s throat. I don’t plan to kill the boy unless I have to. But I’m not going to spend the next twenty years in an Army prison. So drop those guns.”

Not knowing whether to believe that the sergeant would release Joe, both Adam and Hoss hesitated, keeping their eyes as well as their guns aimed at the soldier.

Once more, Kelly tightened his grip around Joe’s neck a bit. A gurgling sound came out of Joe’s throat. The young man’s eyes were closed but his mouth was open, desperately seeking air for his lungs. Kelly pulled Joe’s twisted arm a bit harder, eliciting a small gasp of pain from his prisoner. “You know, lads, I could get this wrong,” Kelly said almost matter-of-factly. “The longer this takes, the more chance I’ll make a mistake. At the very least, I’ll fix it so the boy won’t use this arm for a long time. So stop piddling around and drop those guns.”

Almost in unison, Hoss and Adam threw their revolvers to the dirt. “Now let him go, Kelly” Adam demanded.

“Soon as you two are laying face down on the ground, away from those guns,” Kelly replied. He watched carefully as the two older Cartwright brothers lowered themselves to the ground. Both men lay on their stomachs, their heads turned to look at the soldier.

Nodding in satisfaction, Kelly gave one last yank on Joe’s arm and heard the strangled moan from his captive. Then the sergeant released his grip on both the young man’s wrist and neck. Joe fell to the ground in a heap, alternately gasping for air and grunting in pain as he landed on the dirt. Calmly, Kelly stepped over the body at this feet and walked to pick up the rifle that Joe had dropped. “I’ll leave your horses down the trail a bit,” declared the sergeant, kicking Adam’s and Hoss’ guns into the brush. “You two stay on your bellies until you hear me ride off. I see either of you move before then, I’ll be putting some bullets of me own into some bodies.”

Neither Adam or Hoss bothered to watch as Kelly untied and grabbed the reins of the horses standing near his own animal. The two had no interest in seeing the soldier mount and ride off. Both Cartwrights were watching Joe, who was laying on the ground a few feet away.

Cradling his right arm against his body, Joe was rocking slightly as he continued to suck in air. He coughed a few times, expelling the dust he took into his lungs as he gulped in oxygen. Joe was vaguely aware of the sound of hoof beats followed, by footsteps coming in his direction, but he was more concerned with catching his breath than watching the activity around him.

“Joe, are you all right?” asked Hoss anxiously as he helped his younger brother to sit up.

“I…think so,” gasped Joe, but he winced as he tried to move his arm.

Putting his hand on Joe’s back for support, Adam looked around quickly. “There’s coffee left in that pot. Bring some over,” he ordered Hoss.

Nodding, Hoss rushed to pick up the pot of now tepid coffee sitting near the flickering embers of what once was a fire. He grabbed a nearby cup and filled it with the liquid from the pot. Dropping the pot, Hoss hurried back to his brothers.

“Here, drink this,” Hoss said as he help the cup to Joe’s lips. Joe grabbed the cup with his left hand and began sipping the coffee slowly, grateful for anything that would erase the dryness in his mouth and throat.

After watching to make Joe had no problems swallowing, Adam put his hand on his youngest brother’s right shoulder and gently probed it with his fingers. “I don’t think it’s broken or separated,” he declared. “How does it feel?”

Slowly, Joe lifted his arm and moved his elbow in a small circle, flexing his fingers during the process. “Sore,” he admitted, wincing a bit. “But everything seems to be working.” He smiled a bit at his brothers. “Good thing I’m left handed though,” added Joe. “I don’t think I’m going to feel like using this arm much for a day or so.” Then his face sobered. “Sorry. I just didn’t expect Kelly to be able to move that fast.”

“None of us did,” Hoss consoled his brother. “We should have been smart enough to have one of us hold a gun on him while you untied him.”

“So much for Kelly’s word as a solider to not try to escape,” said Adam in a dry voice. “That man has about as much honor as a rattlesnake.”

“What do we do now?” asked Joe.

“You rest a bit,” Adam replied. “Hoss and I will go look for the horses. They can’t be far. Kelly wouldn’t have wanted to be slowed down by dragging three horses behind him.”

“We going after him?” Hoss asked almost eagerly.

Biting the inside of his lip a bit, Adam thought about Kelly and the necklace. “No,” he said reluctantly after a few moments. “As much as I would like to get my own hands around Kelly’s neck, we’ll have to let him go for now. The important thing is to get to Willow Bend and find that necklace. We only have a little over two days left to get it to Spruce Meadows. We’ll send the Army a telegram from Willow Bend about Kelly and let them deal with him.”

“Do you think we can find this Abe Chandler without Kelly?” Joe asked with a trace of doubt in his voice.

“There can’t be too many men in that area who can afford to pay $5,000 to have a necklace stolen for him,” answered Adam confidently. “If we ask around, I’m sure we’ll find him.”

“The what?” Hoss pressed his older brother. “We just take it from him?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Adam. “We’ll have to figure something out, though. We’ve got to get that necklace to Spruce Meadows.” He glanced at Joe and then shook his head a bit. “That necklace means a lot to the Paiutes. I just hope it’s worth what it almost cost us.”

*****

As the three riders started down the main street of the small town of Willow Bend, Adam glanced surreptitiously at Joe, as he had been doing most of the day. Despite Joe’s claims that he was all right, both Adam and Hoss were keeping an eye on their younger brother, just to be sure. Other than cradling his right arm inside his green jacket, however, Joe seemed to show no ill-effects from his struggle with Sergeant Kelly.

“Where do you want to start looking, Adam?” asked Hoss as he walked his horse down the street.

“The saloon sounds like a good place to me,” Joe suggested before Adam could answer. “That’s where Kelly met this Chandler. Besides, bartenders always seem to know what’s going on.”

“And you could get a cold beer while we’re there, right?” countered Adam with an arched eyebrow.

“Well, that could happen,” Joe agreed with a grin. He coughed slightly. “My throat is still awfully dry.”

“Little brother, your throat is dry in the middle of a thunderstorm,” Hoss complained but he softened his words with a smile.

Looking around the nearly deserted street of the town, Adam shook his head. “I think we’d do better to start with the sheriff,” he told his brothers. “It’ll be easier for us to get the necklace if the sheriff arrests Chandler for paying Kelly to steal it.” Without waiting for an answer from Joe and Hoss, Adam pulled his horse to a stop in front of a building with a sign proclaiming it to be the sheriff’s office.

“Bet we won’t find any beer in here,” muttered Joe a bit sourly as he got down from his horse.

Adam pointedly ignored his youngest brother’s complaint as he tied the reins to his horse around the hitching post. He waited a moment for Joe and Hoss to tie up their animals, and then walked into the sheriff’s office with his two brothers in tow.

As he entered the office, Adam looked at the man sprawled in the chair behind the desk with a bit of surprise. Wearing faded brown pants held up by suspenders that came up over a well-worn brown and cream checkered shirt, the man looked less like a lawman than any sheriff Adam had seen. He noted the scuffed boots on the feet the man had propped up on the desk, and the fact that the man wasn’t wearing a holster. A badge sat on the desk next to a shotgun. The man looked up from a newspaper he was reading as the Cartwrights came into the office.

“I’m Adam Cartwright,” announced Adam as he walked further into the office. “These are my brothers, Hoss and Joe. Are you the sheriff?”

“Jess McConnell,” the man introduced himself from behind the desk. “And no, I ain’t the sheriff. I’m just kind of keeping any eye on things while the sheriff and posse are out tracking down some rustlers.”

“Well, maybe you can help us,” said Adam, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice. “We’re looking for a man named Abe Chandler. We think he lives in Willow Bend or somewhere nearby.”

“Old Abe?” McConnell replied. “Why you looking for him?”

Hesitating, Adam looked over his shoulder at Joe and Hoss before answering. Hoss shrugged while Joe nodded encouraging. Turning back to face the desk, Adam said, “It’s rather complicated, but basically, Chandler paid someone to steal a necklace that is important to the Paiutes. We’re looking to get it back before Paiutes go on the warpath.”

“A necklace, eh? I suppose it’s a magic charm or some such thing,” speculated McConnell. “That sounds like something Abe would want. Probably that gypsy woman put him up to having it stolen.”

“Gypsy woman?” asked Joe quizzically. “Who’s she?

“Madam Zola,” answered the man behind the desk. “At least that’s what she calls herself. Showed up here two or three years ago. She started telling fortunes over at the saloon for drinks and spare change. One day, she tells Abe that he’s going to be rich and live easy for the rest of his life. And he believed her.”

“That sounds like a prediction she’d make to about half the people she saw,” Adam remarked.

“Probably is,” agreed McConnell. “She told me that I was going to be rich, and I’m still waiting for it to happen. But in Abe’s case, the day after she told his fortune, he hit a big silver vein up on his digs. One of the big mining companies paid him a whole passel of money for it. And ever since then, he’s convinced she knows things that the rest of us don’t. He listens to whatever she says.”

“You think she told him to steal the necklace?” asked Hoss. “Why would she do that?”

“Can’t rightly say,” McConnell replied, shaking his head. “Maybe she told him it would bring him good luck or something. Old Abe always was kind of an odd duck, and he’s been acting really strange ever since he hooked up with that woman.”

“Why Chandler stole that necklace isn’t important,” said Adam firmly. “The important thing is getting it back. Where can we find this Chandler?”

“He built a place about five miles north of town,” McConnell answered. “It’s a big house, with a ten foot wall around it. You can’t miss it.”

“Will you come with us to arrest Chandler and help us get the necklace back?” Adam asked.

“Me?” answered McConnell in surprise. “No siree. I ain’t going near that place. I ain’t a real sheriff or anything; I’m just filling in until the sheriff gets back. I ain’t about to tangle with old Abe. He’s got eight or ten men working for him out at his place. Real bad hombres, they are. And those men make sure that nobody bothers Abe unless he wants to be bothered.”

“What’s Chandler got that he needs armed men and a wall to protect?” asked Joe curiously.

“Well, the story around town is that Abe don’t trust banks and he’s got a pile of gold coins hidden up in that house,” answered McConnell. “Don’t know if that’s true. I do know that the gypsy woman is the one who told him to build the place and hire the men. “

“We’ve got to get that necklace from Chandler,” said Adam with a tone of urgency in his voice. “When will the sheriff be back?”

“Can’t say,” McConnell replied with a shrug. “Shouldn’t be any more than three or four days, I’d guess. Depends on how long it takes him and the posse to catch the rustlers – or decide that they’ve lost the trail for good.”

“Adam, we can’t wait thee or four days,” Hoss said anxiously.

“I know,” agreed Adam. He studied McConnell for a minute, then said, “Look, we’ve got to get that necklace to Spruce Meadows by noon on Friday or there’s going to be big trouble. My brothers and I…well, let’s just say we’ll do whatever it takes to get that necklace from Chandler. Do you have any problem with that?”

“Not my concern,” McConnell answered with an air of disinterest. “The sheriff just told me to keep an eye on things in town. He didn’t say nothing about keeping an eye on what happens out at the Chandler place.” He cocked his head a bit, and then continued. “If you three figure on robbing the place, though, I’d recommend against it. Even if you could figure out a way to get it, those men at Chandler’s shoot first and ask questions later.”

“What about this Madam Zola?” pressed Adam. “Where can we find her?”

“She lives out there by Chandler,” McConnell answered. “Got a little house of her own in back of his big house. Abe wanted her close so he could ask her questions or something, I guess.”

“Inside the wall?” Adam asked.

“Yep,” McConnell said with a nod. “Those men protect her just like they protect Abe. Nobody gets to talk with her without Abe saying they can.”

“He does sound like a strange one,” commented Hoss, shaking his head.

“He is,” agreed McConnell. “I wish you boys luck in getting that necklace from him. ‘Cause you’re going to need it.”

*****

Sitting alone at a table in the back of the all but deserted saloon, Adam slowly sipped his beer. The only other person in the room was the obviously bored bartender who was reading a newspaper as he sat behind the wooden counter. Adam was glad of the solitude offered by the empty saloon; it gave him a chance to think while he was waiting for his brothers.

As Adam gazed idly at the door to the saloon, a small smile crossed his face. He could have predicted almost word for word the protests Joe had raised when Adam suggested Hoss take him down the street to be looked over by the town doctor. He knew his youngest brother would claim that he was “all right” and that he “didn’t need to be poked and prodded by some doctor”. It had taken Adam’s bribe of offering to buy beers for all of them, plus his suggestion that the doctor might offer some information about Chandler that they could use, to get Joe to grudgingly accompany Hoss to the doctor’s office.

Seeing Hoss and Joe come through the door, Adam loudly cleared this throat and raised two fingers, signaling the bartender that he was ready for the two additional glasses of beer he had already paid for. The man behind the bar began filling two mugs with foaming liquid as Joe and Hoss walked over to Adam’s table and sat down. Joe’s arm was resting in a sling of white cloth, but the youngest Cartwright seemed to find the sling more of a hindrance than a comfortable support.

“Did you get that telegram sent?” asked Joe as he awkwardly positioned his right arm on the table.

“Yeah, although I don’t know how much good it will do,” replied Adam. He gave a brief nod of thanks to the bartender as the man set glasses of beer in front of his brothers. “At least the Army will know where to look for Kelly. Whether they’ll be able to find him or not is another thing.” He took a sip of beer, then asked, “What did the doctor say about your shoulder?”

“Just what I told you he would say,” grumbled Joe. “It’s just bruised and a little twisted. He told me to rest in for a day or two in the sling and it will be fine.”

“Did he tell you anything about Chandler?” Adam inquired.

“Not much,” answered Hoss. “He said the same thing as that fellow over in the sheriff’s office – that Chandler was always a bit strange and has gotten stranger since he found that silver and made a lot of money. The doc says Chandler comes to town once a month or so for a check-up. The doc never finds anything wrong with him, but Chandler keeps coming anyway. “

“Evidently Chandler is afraid that something is going to keep him from living long enough to spend all his money,” added Joe. “According to the doc, Chandler’s always looking for some medicine or something that will make sure he lives a long time.”

“That explains why he wanted the necklace,” said Adam with a nod. “Chandler probably heard the part of the legend that says the owner of the necklace will have a long life. I don’t doubt that this Madam Zola also is giving him charms and predictions to insure a long life.”

“You know, it’s kind of sad,” remarked Hoss. “The doc said that in a lot of ways, Chandler was happier when he was looking for that silver bonanza than after he actually found it. Now that he’s got a lot of money, all he does is worry about living long enough to spend it.”

“He wouldn’t be the first man to find out that money can’t buy happiness,” Adam replied. “Our problem is to figure out a way to get that necklace away from him.”

“Well, if he’s got all those armed men out at his place, we can’t exactly ride in and take it from him,” Joe said.”

“He’s got the men, all right,” Adam confirmed. “The bartender told me there’s always at least six of them guarding Chandler’s place. He never lets more than one or two of them come to town at a time.”

“And even if we could figure out a way to sneak into the place, we wouldn’t know where to look for the necklace,” added Joe glumly. “It’s a sure bet he’s got it hidden or in a safe or something.”

“Maybe we could just tell him how important that necklace is to making sure there’s peace,” Hoss suggested. “I mean, if Chandler is worried about living a long time, he can’t want the Paiutes to go on the warpath and start killing white folks.”

“That would cut down on his odds for having a long life,” agreed Joe with a wry smile.

“I don’t know,” Adam said doubtfully. “If he had to choose between keeping a necklace that would insure him a long life, or giving it up to insure peace with the Paiutes, I’d bet Chandler would keep the necklace. After all, he’s built himself a fort and got armed men to protect him. He’s probably as safe as anyone could be in the middle of an Indian war.”

“We can’t just give up, Adam,” Joe told his brother with a frown. “Pa’s life could depend on us getting that necklace to Spruce Meadows on time.”

“Nobody is going to give up,” replied Adam patiently. “We just have to figure out the best way to do this. I’ve been thinking, and I think the best idea is to try to trick him into giving us the necklace.”

“Giving us the necklace?” Hoss said in surprise. “How are we going to do that?”

“We have got to convince Chandler that keeping the necklace is going to be worse than giving it back,” answered Adam. “We’ll have a better chance of doing that if we get Madam Zola to help us.”

“And how are we going to get Madam Zola to do that?” Joe asked. “I don’t think she’ll do it out of the goodness of her heart.”

“No, but she’ll probably do it for money,” Adam replied. “When I sent that telegram to the Army, I also sent a telegram to the Virginia City bank, asking them to make a wire transfer of $1,000 to the bank here in Willow Springs in my name.”

“$1,000!” exclaimed Joe. “That’s a lot of money.”

“You don’t think Pa’s life is worth a thousand dollars?” asked Adam skeptically.

“Yeah, I mean, sure, it’s worth every penny if it will help us get that necklace,” stammered Joe. He shook his head. “But how are we going to get to Madam Zola? McConnell says that Chandler doesn’t let anyone talk with her.”

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted. “We’ve got to come up with a story that will convince Chandler to let us see the woman.” Suddenly, he looked at Joe speculatively. “And I think I may have an idea.”

*****

Riding slowly, the Cartwrights approached the house surrounded by a high wall made out of rocks and cement. Only the very top of the house, which appeared to be sitting in the middle of a courtyard, was visible over the wall. The area seemed deserted; no guards were patrolling outside the wall and no activity could be seen or heard from inside the enclosure. But when Adam and his brothers approached the tall wrought-iron gate that was the only entrance to the compound, two men with rifles stepped into view inside the gate. Both were dressed in a well-worn shirt and pants, and had holsters strapped around their hips. Neither had a welcoming expression on their face.

“Hold it right there,” called one of the men. “Mr. Chandler ain’t expecting any visitors. So you three just turn around and ride off.”

“We’re not here to see Mr. Chandler,” Adam told the man. “We want to see Madam Zola.”

“Madam Zola? That gypsy woman?” said the guard, obviously taken aback. He blinked his eyes in surprise. “What do you want with her?”

“It’s…personal,” replied Adam carefully. “We need to consult with her about something very important.”

“I don’t know,” the guard said, obviously unsure of what to do. “Ain’t nobody ever come asking to see her.” He frowned for a minute, then turned to the man standing beside him. “Feeney, go get Mr. Chandler. He ought to decide what we should do about these fellows.”

As the other man trotted off, the guard turned back to the Cartwrights. “You don’t really believe in this gypsy, do you?” he asked skeptically.

“We’ve heard that she told Chandler the he would find the silver vein,” Adam answered, trying to keep an innocent look on his face. “And we heard she’s been advising him ever since. If a man like Chandler trusts her, why shouldn’t we? Why? Don’t you believe what she says?”

“Ain’t my job to believe her or not,” said the man with the rifle gruffly. “Mr. Chandler pays us good to keep him and the woman safe and to keep strangers away from them. If he wants to believe in a bunch of hocus pocus, that’s his business. I just do my job and collect my pay.”

“I assure you that we only want a few minutes with Madam Zola,” Adam declared as earnestly as possible. “We’re not here to cause any trouble.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” said a man approaching the gate from behind the guard. The man who spoke was a study in contrasts. A crisp, new-looking light blue shirt was tucked into faded black pants help up by a pair of old suspenders. Hatless, his thick black hair was visible, as well as a tanned face creased with lines of aging. Although he wore no gun, his demeanor and voice was as threatening as the men holding rifles next to him. “I’m Abe Chandler. What do you want?”

“Mr. Chandler, I’m Adam Cartwright,” replied Adam respectfully. “These are my brothers Hoss and Joe. Perhaps you’ve heard of our father, Ben Cartwright.”

“Ben Cartwright?” Chandler said, frowning a bit. “The fellow that owns that big ranch over by Virginia City? Yeah, I’ve heard of him.” Chandler cocked his head a bit. “Feeney here says you want to see Madam Zola. Why would Ben Cartwright’s boys want to see her?”

“As I was telling your man, it’s a personal matter,” Adam answered. “We’ve heard of what she’s done for you and we’re hoping she can help us. Perhaps we could come inside where we could discuss this more privately.”

“You can discuss it right there,” growled Chandler. “Either tell me what this is all about or turn them horses around and get out of here.”

Giving an exaggerated sigh, Adam looked over his shoulder to Joe, who was sitting on his pinto horse a few feet behind him. Joe’s arm was still resting in the sling the doctor had given him, and his younger brother sported a look of what seemed to be great sorrow on his face. Adam couldn’t keep a smile from his face, but he quickly erased it before turning back to Chandler.

“My younger brother, Joe, has injured his shoulder,” Adam explained. “It’s a very bad injury. The doctors have said that the only way to fix it is with an operation. But the operation is very risky. If it doesn’t go right, his shoulder could end up worse. It could even kill him. We’ve been trying to decide what to do, and then we heard about Madam Zola. We’re hoping she can see into Joe’s future and tell him whether to have the operation or not.”

For a minute, Chandler stood and studied the three men on the other side of the tall gate. Finally, he nodded and turned to the men beside him. “Let ‘em in,” Chandler ordered.

The two guards walked forward and unlatched the gate, pulling it open and then stepping back. The entrance to the compound was narrow; only one rider at a time could pass through it. The guards carefully watched the Cartwrights ride into the courtyard, their fingers firmly on the trigger of their rifles.

Once inside the wall, Adam stopped his horse as did Joe and Hoss. He looked around, and noted the large clapboard house, painted blue with white trim, and fronted by a wide porch. “Where should we go?” asked Adam.

“Get off them horses here,” replied Chandler. “My men will take care of them.”

As the three Cartwrights dismounted, Chandler suddenly rushed forward and grabbed Joe’s right shoulder. He pulled Joe’s shoulder back with a hard yank.

“Ow!” yelped Joe in obvious pain. “Why’d you do that?”

“Any fool can put his arm in a sling,” explained Chandler. “I just wanted to see if your brother here was telling the truth. Sorry.”

“Satisfied?” said Joe, rubbing his sore shoulder.

“I am,” Chandler replied. His expression suddenly changed. All traces of doubt and threat disappeared, and a look of eager anticipation appeared. “I’m glad you fellows understand about Madam Zola. Most people, they just laugh and call me silly for listening to her. But she really knows what’s she’s talking about. It’s nice to see someone else believes in her.”

“Well, we’ve heard good things about her,” Adam said in a neutral voice.

“Yeah, we hear she’s a real wonder,” added Hoss with a smile. His face suddenly grew sober, as if he abruptly remembered the reason for their visit. “We’re hoping she can tell us what to do about our poor, sickly brother here,” Hoss said solemnly.

“I’m sure she can,” Chandler assured the men. “Follow me. Her place is just in back of the house.”

“Don’t overdo it,” Adam hissed to Hoss as the Cartwrights walked behind Chandler. Hoss nodded, but he couldn’t keep the twinkle out of his eye as he looked over to Joe. The youngest Cartwright was struggling hard to keep the look of sorrow on his face, but the edges of Joe’s mouth kept twitching upward into a smile.

Chandler led the Cartwrights to a small but well-built structure located about twenty yards behind the main house. The wooden walls were painted a bright yellow, and the door on which Chandler was politely knocking appeared to be made of solid oak. The door opened quickly, and a woman dressed in a white peasant blouse and brightly printed skirt stood in the doorway. Streaks of white in her dark hair and a body whose frame was solidly filled showed that the woman was past the blush of youth. Her dark eyes, however, were bright and penetrating as she looked out at the men who stood in the yard in front of the building.

“Abraham,” said woman pleasantly, “what brings you to my house?”

“Madam Zola, I bring three men who need your help,” replied Chandler formally. “These are the Cartwright brothers. I promised them that you would talk to them.”

“But of course,” Madam Zola assured her benefactor as her eyes widened in surprise. She looked past Chandler to study the three young men standing behind him. “Madam Zola always helps those who seek her advice. Please come into my humble home,” she added in a heavily accented voice.

As Chandler started forward, Adam reached out and grabbed the man’s shoulder, stopping him. “Our situation is rather personal,” Adam said. “Perhaps it would be better if we talked with Madam Zola in private.”

“Oh, sure, I understand,” Chandler agreed quickly. “Why don’t you fellows come up to the house when you’re done. I’ve got some good whiskey to offer.”

“Thank you,” said Adam as he pushed past the man and walked into the house. Hoss and Joe followed their brother with rapid steps.

“Now, how can Madam Zola be of service to you?” asked the gypsy woman as she closed the door firmly behind the Cartwrights.

Adam looked around quickly before replying. The room in which the Cartwrights were standing appeared to be a parlor, furnished with two overstuffed chairs and a sofa, as well as two small end tables. Books, sewing, and pieces of paper with sketches were scattered around the room, covering both tables and a good portion of the sofa.

“We need your help,” Adam declared bluntly. “And we’re willing to pay well for it.”

“Crossing a fortune teller’s palm with a coin brings a clearer picture of the future,” Madam Zola acknowledged in a theatrical voice.

“Cut the act,” said Joe harshly. “We’re not here to have our fortunes read. We need your help getting the necklace Chandler stole.”

“It’s real important, ma’am,” Hoss added gently, trying to soften the impact of Joe’s words. “A lot of lives depend on us getting that necklace back.”

For a moment, Madam Zola simply stood and looked at the three men in her parlor. She seemed to be trying to make up her mind about how to reply. Finally, she nodded, and said, “All right, boys, what’s the story?” The accent in her speech had fallen to a mere trace.

“Chandler paid to have a necklace stolen from the Army,” explained Adam. “It was supposed to be given to the Paiutes on Friday at a treaty ceremony. If we don’t show up in Spruce Meadows with the necklace on time, the Paiutes are going to be very upset. It could mean a war.”

“And you want me to help you get it from Abe,” Madam Zola said. “Why should I help you?”

“Because we’ll pay you for your help. I’m sure we can offer you enough to make it worth your effort,” Joe answered a bit cynically.

Smiling, Madam Zola moved across the room and made herself comfortable in one of the chairs. “Don’t be too sure,” she warned. “I’ve got a very nice set-up here. I don’t know if I want to take a chance on messing things up.” Madam Zola waved her hand in the air. “This house, it’s the first real home I’ve had since I was a little girl. I even have a flower garden in the back. Abe gives me everything I want or need – food, clothes, or whatever – and he pays all the bills. If I want, I can go up to the house and eat with Abe, drink his whiskey, and enjoy his company. And all I have to do in return is listen to him and give him some advice.”

“That’s all you have to do?” said Joe skeptically. “Just talk to him?”

“Yes, Mr. Cartwright, that’s all I have to do,” snapped Madam Zola indignantly. Then her tone softened a bit. “I know what this probably looks like to you boys, but really, all Abe wants is someone to talk to and tell him what to do from time to time. I know he acts kind of strange, but he’s not a bad guy. And he treats me with respect.” The woman shook her head a bit. “I haven’t met many people who treat me with respect.”

“But ma’am, don’t you get a hankering to be with other people?” asked Hoss in a puzzled tone. “Ain’t you upset that Chandler keeps you out here and away from the folks in town?”

“Keeps me here?” Madam Zola said, surprised. “This isn’t a prison; it’s a refuge.” She sighed a bit , and then continued. “I’m a gypsy. I’ve been laughed at, spat on, and called every name you can think of. When I asked for help because I was broke or hungry or cold, people turned their backs on me or ran me out of town. I’ve seen dogs treated better than I have been treated sometimes. I asked Abe to build the walls around this place. The walls don’t keep me here. They keep people away from me.”

“Don’t you ever get bored?” asked Adam, genuinely curious.

“Whenever I feel an itch for a little excitement, I just tell Abe I need to go someplace to revitalize my gift,” Madam Zola answered. “He takes me to San Francisco, or Sacramento or Denver for awhile. I spend time doing things which Abe thinks are refreshing my powers, and then we enjoy the city for a bit. But I have to admit, I like coming back to my little home.”

“What happens when Chandler decides he no longer needs you?” asked Adam. “Or if he decides he no longer believes in you? What happens if he dies? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a nice little nest egg in the bank to fall back on?”

“Abe is a true believer,” Madam Zola replied with a smile. “And I’m careful to tell him what he wants to hear, or what makes sense.” She cocked her head a bit, though, and looked thoughtful. “But you have a point. It would be nice to have something squirreled away, just in case. After all,” she concluded in a voice dripping with irony, “no one can predict the future.”

“So nice to hear you admit that,” said Joe dryly.

Ignoring Joe’s comment, Madam Zola looked directly at Adam. “How much are you offering?”

Trying to gauge the depth of the woman’s greed, Adam answered carefully, “We are prepared to pay you $500.”

“Not enough,” said Madam Zola quickly.

“We could make it $700,” countered Adam.

“Make it a $1,000 and we have a deal,” declared Madam Zola. “I want the money first. And I get to keep it no matter what Abe decides to do.”

“$500 now and $500 when we get the necklace,” Adam stated firmly. “You only get the full amount if we get the necklace.”

“Done,” agreed Madam Zola, holding out her hand. She waited patiently as Adam pulled his wallet from the inside pocket of his vest, counted out some bills, and placed the money on the woman’s palm. Madam Zola counted the money, then folded the bills and placed them inside her blouse between her breasts. “Now tell me more about this necklace,” she said.

“We haven’t actually seen it, ma’am,” replied Hoss. “We know it’s a gold chain with some kind of medal on it, and it’s got some other decorations like feathers and beads attached. It belonged to the Paiutes but somehow they lost it. The Army was suppose to give back to the Paiutes when they sign the treaty on Friday. But this soldier stole it a few days ago. He told us this Chandler fellow paid him to steal it and give it to him.”

“I know the necklace you’re talking about,” Madam Zola told the Cartwrights. “Abe showed it to me yesterday. He told me he heard about it from some soldier in town a week or so ago. His story was that the necklace was supposed to insure a long life.” The gypsy shook her head in disgust. “The thing is almost ugly with all those feathers and beads on it. But Abe is very proud of himself for having gotten hold of it. I didn’t know he stole it. I thought he bought it. He’s always buying charms and trinkets that he thinks will protect him.”

“Do you know where he keeps it?” asked Joe eagerly.

“If you’re thinking about stealing it, forget it,” advised Madam Zola. “Abe wants nothing more than to be sure he lives a long time, and he seems to think that necklace will make sure it happens. He’s got it locked up in a safe that I doubt you could open with dynamite. And even if you did, Abe would have his men shoot you before you got ten feet from the house.”

“Is there any way to convince him to give it back?” asked Adam. “If that necklace isn’t there when the Paiutes are ready to sign the treaty, they are going to be very angry. It could mean war. And when the Paiutes are on the warpath, a lot of white men could die. Including Chandler.”

“A war with the Indians wouldn’t worry Abe,” Madam Zola replied. “In case you haven’t noticed, this place is built like a fort. And he’s got plenty of men to defend it. Abe is a lot like me, too; he doesn’t care much about what happens outside these walls.” She looked thoughtful. “He’s got to be convinced that keeping that necklace will shorten his life, not add to it.”

“How are we going to do that?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t know,” answered Madam Zola slowly. “Let me think a minute.” She looked around the room, then turned to Adam. “How did you convince Abe to let you talk to me?”

“We told him that my brother Joe needed a risky operation on his shoulder,” explained Adam. “You’re suppose to predict whether the operation will work or not.”

“That was a good idea,” Madam Zola complimented Adam. “Abe would feel sorry for someone who was sick or injured, since he’s always worrying about that happening to him.” She sat for a minute thinking, then nodded to herself. “Yes, I think I have an idea that will get Abe to give up the necklace. I’ll need you fellows to help, though.”

“Just tell us what to do, ma’am” said Hoss eagerly.

“How good are you are at keeping a straight face?” asked Madam Zola.

*****

When Chandler heard the knock on the front door of his house, he was a bit surprised. It wasn’t the knock that surprised him, but rather how much time had passed before it happened. He had expected Madam Zola to spend no more than a few minutes with the Cartwrights. Instead, almost an hour had passed before he heard the firm rapping on his door.

Pulling open the door, Chandler smiled at sight of Madam Zola standing in front of him. He looked past the gypsy and saw Adam, Hoss and Joe a few feet behind her. “Come on in,” invited Chandler in a hearty voice. “I’ve got some good whiskey ready, just like I promised.”

As Chandler turned and walked backed into the house, Madam Zola looked over her shoulder to give the Cartwrights a small smile and nod. Then she entered the house, trailed by the three men.

If anyone had described the room into which he walked to Adam, he wouldn’t have believed them. His jaw almost dropped as he looked at the opulent but incompatible furnishings. A huge picture of what looked like Greek nymphs hung over a large stone fireplace. On the mantle above the fireplace stood small marble statues, wooden crosses, and several small painted cards of angels and saints. The walls of the room were white, trimmed in carved wood gilded with bright gold. On the walls were hung paintings of various sizes and subjects, none of which seemed to have any logical relationship to the others, as well as a pair of crossed swords, a woven tapestry, and a wooden carving of The Last Supper. An overstuffed sofa covered in green printed satin was flanked by two chairs whose fabric consisted of white cloth with thin red stripes. In front of the sofa sat a highly polished mahogany table; an old deck of cards and cribbage board sat on the table next to a silver bowl of apples. A marble statue of a nude woman stood in one corner of the room, looking blindly at the painted wooden Indian chief standing in the opposite corner. Chandler stood in front of an intricately carved sideboard near the fireplace, pouring whiskey from an old brown bottle into small, cut-glass tumblers. He glanced at Adam and smiled at the look on the man’s face.

“Bet you never saw anything like this before,” stated Chandler smugly as he handed a tumbler half-full of whiskey to Madam Zola and then to Adam.

“I can truthfully say that this room defies description,” Adam replied. When Chandler went back to the sideboard to pick up more glasses, Adam looked at Hoss and Joe. His brothers seemed almost as stunned as he was by the odd furnishings in the room. Clearing his throat loudly to get their attention, Adam shook his head at Hoss and Joe. Both of them understood his silent warning, and quickly changed their expressions to one of solemn interest.

“Abraham buys things which interest him,” explained Madam Zola in a voice which was heavily accented once again. “As you can see, he has many interests.”

“Yes ma’am,” agreed Hoss. “I can see that.”

“Sit down and make yourself comfortable,” offered Chandler as he handed glasses to Hoss and Joe. He sat in one of the chairs next to the sofa on which Madam Zola gracefully lowered herself. Joe moved to sit next to the woman while Adam sat down on the chair on the other side of the sofa. Hoss walked over to an overstuffed red velvet chair and eased his bulk into it.

“How did things go?” asked Chandler in an eager voice. “Did Madam Zola tell you what you needed to know?”

Looking down into his glass, Joe gave an exaggerated sigh. “My arm’s not going to get better,” he said in the most tragic tone of voice he could muster.

“Madam Zola told us that if Joe has the operation, he will die,” clarified Adam. “And without the operation, his shoulder won’t improve.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, boy,” Chandler sympathized. He looked across Joe to Madam Zola. “Ain’t there anything that can be done?”

“I looked into his future, and saw only darkness when I pictured the doctor with a knife in his hand,” replied Madam Zola theatrically. “I heard a voice in my head that said that no power on earth can help him.”

“We’re ain’t sure what to do,” Hoss stated sadly. “I mean, with only one good arm, Joe here can’t do much around the ranch. And we can’t have the doctor operate or he’ll die.”

“I guess I’ll have to go away. I’ll have to leave my family and the ranch,” added Joe, still using what he considered a voice full of sorrow. “I’ll have to try to find something that a one-armed man can do.”

“We’re going to miss you, Joe,” Adam said solemnly.

“That’s terrible,” Chandler declared, shaking his head. “I wish there was something I could do to help. I hate to see a young man lose his family and his livelihood like this.”

“Abraham!” exclaimed Madam Zola suddenly. “The necklace!”

“The necklace? What about it?” asked Chandler, puzzled.

“I said no power on earth could help him,” Madam Zola replied. “But a power not of this earth might. You said the necklace was charmed. Perhaps if you let him hold the necklace, it will help him.”

“I don’t know about that,” Chandler said doubtfully. “The necklace brings long life. I never heard that it cures anyone.”

“But it might!” insisted Madam Zola. “Who knows what power such an object might hold? At least let the boy hold it. If it does no good, no harm has been done. But if it can help him, you will have done a great service.”

“I don’t know…” started Chandler.

“Please, Mr. Chandler, please let Joe hold the necklace,” interrupted Adam in a pleading voice. “It may be our last hope.”

“You said you wanted to help,” Hoss added. “This is the best thing you can do to help him.”

After looking around the room at the faces staring at him with beseeching expressions, Chandler sighed. “All right,” he agreed. “I guess it can’t do any harm to just let him hold it. I’ll go get it.”

As soon as Chandler left the room, Madam Zola turned to Adam. “Don’t forget; I want the rest of the money before you leave,” she said in a low voice.

“If we get the necklace, you’ll get your money,” Adam replied softly.

“Just do what I told you and you’ll get the necklace,” promised Madam Zola.

Chandler returned to the room with a small leather sack in his hands. He sat down on the chair again and slowly opened the sack. Then he pulled out the object for which the Cartwrights had been searching.

Dangling from Chandler’s hand was a necklace made of gold. Stands of gold had been woven into a chain about as thick as a man’s finger. At the bottom of the chain hung a medallion the size of a $20 gold coin. The image of a man in a long robe originally etched into the medallion was surrounded by newer, smaller scratches – symbols that seemed to represent a bird, a tree, and some animals. Two short strings of beads and several small dyed feathers were tied with rawhide strips to the bottom of the chain also; the beads were to the left of the medal while the feathers were on the right.

“Here it is,” announced Chandler almost proudly. “The Paiutes say this necklace insures long life to whoever has it.”

“I’ve heard about that necklace,” Hoss said excitedly. “It’s real powerful. It’s supposed to bring good luck as well as a long life to the person who has it.”

“Can…can I hold it?” asked Joe hesitantly, reaching out his left hand. Chandler nodded and passed the necklace to Joe.

Holding the chain tightly, Joe pressed the necklace against his right shoulder and closed his eyes. No one said a word; everyone in the room just watched and waited.

“I can feel something,” Joe announced suddenly. “My shoulder feels warm. The pain is going away. I can feel it.”

“Can you move your shoulder, Joe?” Adam asked anxiously.

“I don’t know,” replied Joe. “I can feel this tingle. It’s running down my arm. It’s like…I don’t know…like some magic power is working.”

“Raise your shoulder, Joe,” urged Hoss. “Raise it.”

Pulling the necklace away from his shoulder, Joe looked around the room. Slowly he pulled his arm out of the sling. Then he raised his elbow until it was even with his shoulder and moved it in a small circle.

“Hallelujah!” shouted Hoss dramatically. “Joe, you’re cured! You’re cured!”

“It still hurts some, but I can move it,” Joe agreed with a grin.

“Joe, you can stay at the ranch now,” Adam said enthusiastically. “You can stay with Pa and the rest of us!”

With a look of awe on his face, Joe stared at the necklace in his hand. “It really is magic,” he murmured.

“There are powers far beyond what earth-bound men can understand,” said Madam Zola dramatically. “This necklace truly is an object of magic.”

“Give me back the necklace,” Chandler demanded suddenly. “Give it to me, boy.”

“Sure, Mr. Chandler,” replied Joe meekly as he handed the gold chain back to the man. “I wouldn’t try to steal it. I know the legend.”

“The legend? What legend?” asked Chandler as he snatched the necklace from Joe’s hands.

“The legend says that if the necklace is freely given to someone, it will bring that person good fortune and long life,” explained Adam. “But if anyone steals the necklace, they will be cursed and die.”

“Cursed?” repeated Chandler, suddenly turning pale.

“Yeah, the legend says that after three days, whoever stole the necklace will be dead,” Joe said in a solemn voice.

“I heard tell of a Bannock brave that stole the necklace,” added Hoss, relishing the opportunity to spin a yarn. “The Paiutes tracked him and a few days later, they found both the Bannock and his horse dead. Just laying there in the woods. No marks or wounds or anything. It’s like they just laid down and died.”

“They died?” Chandler said, turning even paler. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” Hoss declared. “I also heard about the fellow who stole the necklace from that museum in San Francisco. The sheriff chased him for three days. On the fourth day, they found him dead in a hotel room. The way I heard the story, it looked like he just laid down and died. “

“And he still had the necklace?” asked Chandler, his voice trembling.

“Yes sir,” confirmed Hoss. “Then there was this other fellow….” Hoss stopped abruptly when he saw Adam glaring at him from across the room, understanding the silent message that he shouldn’t get carried away. “Well, all I know for sure is he died after stealing the necklace,” Hoss finished in a rush.

“The curse must be real,” Joe interjected quickly. “I mean, the necklace cured my shoulder, so it stands to reason that it must work the other way too.”

“But…but…you can’t be sure of that,” stammered Chandler.

“Well, no, we can’t be sure,” agreed Adam. “But it did cure Joe’s shoulder.”

“Let me hold the necklace,” offered Madam Zola, holding out her hand. “I will be able to tell if the curse is real.”

With a shaky hand, Chandler passed the necklace over to the gypsy woman. Madam Zola clutched the necklace in both hands and held it tightly against her chest. Closing her eyes, she lifted her head and began chanting softly in a language which none of the men recognized. Suddenly, Madam Zola’s eyes opened wide and she shrieked.

“No! No!” shouted the gypsy as she dropped the necklace onto the table in front of her. “It is cursed! I can feel the evil spirits running up and down the chain, waiting for a chance to escape.”

“But it cured the boy!” exclaimed Chandler. “How can it be cursed?”

“You gave the necklace to the young man freely,” Madam Zola answered. “Because of that, the good spirits kept the evil ones in check and worked their magic. It is only when the necklace is stolen that the good spirits become displeased. They refuse to stop the evil spirits from attacking anyone who wrongfully takes the necklace. After three days, the evil spirits work their way out of the necklace, and are ready to kill whoever has the necklace.”

Chandler licked his lips nervously. “What…what if someone didn’t actually steal it?” he asked. “I mean, what if somebody stole it for someone else?”

“You think the spirits don’t know what is in a man’s heart?” chided Madam Zola. “The spirits know who had them taken from the place they were meant to be, whether the person did it himself or not.”

Picking up the necklace from the table, Joe offered it to Chandler. “Here’s the necklace,” Joe said in an innocent voice. “Like I said, I wouldn’t steal it. I don’t want to be cursed.”

“No! Keep it away from me!” shouted Chandler, jumping to his feet.

“But it’s your necklace, Mr. Chandler,” Joe persisted. “You should have it back.”

“It’s not my necklace! Do you hear me? It’s not my necklace!” screamed Chandler. “Take it away!”

“You mean, you’re giving the necklace to me?” Joe asked almost politely.

“Yes, yes, it’s yours,” Chandler answered in an agitated voice. “I don’t care what you do with it. Just get it out of here!”

“Joe, I can see Mr. Chandler is upset,” Adam said calmly. “And now that you are well, we had best be getting home.”

“Yeah, Pa is going to want to hear about all this,” Hoss added, trying hard to keep a smile off his face.

“You’re right, Adam,” agreed Joe. He picked up the necklace and put it in the leather sack that Chandler had dropped on the floor. After sticking the sack inside his sling along with his right arm, Joe turned to Chandler. “Thanks for the necklace, Mr. Chandler,” he said in what he hoped was a grateful voice. “I’m going to keep it right here next to my arm, so that I’ll be entirely cured. I appreciate your help.”

“Yes, well, you’re welcome,” answered Chandler, sounding calmer now that the necklace was out of sight. “But I’d agree you’d better go. Just tell my men to get your horses.”

“I’d better go too, Abraham,” suggested Madam Zola as the Cartwrights headed for the door. “I will come back later when you are feeling better. I will read your palm and see what the future holds for you.”

“Thank you, Madam Zola,” replied Chandler gratefully.

Once outside the house, Madam Zola hurried to catch up to the Cartwrights, who were standing in the yard waiting for their horses. “My money, please,” she said to Adam, holding out her hand.

Reaching into his vest pocket, Adam pulled out his wallet and counted out some bills into the gypsy woman’s hand. Madam Zola quickly re-counted the money, then folded and stuck the bills between her breasts.

“Your plan worked like a charm,” admitted Joe with more than a little admiration. “I wouldn’t have thought that Chandler would believe that story about the curse.”

“Yeah, I didn’t see how ‘curing’ Joe would help,” added Hoss, “but he sure bought the idea.”

“Abe is a believer but he’s no fool,” Madam Zola explained. “He wouldn’t have shown you the necklace just because you asked to see it, and he wouldn’t have believed the story of the curse just because you told him about it. The ‘cure’ was the best way to get Abe to show you the necklace and to convince him it contained powerful spirits. Without the ‘cure’, he would have never believed the curse was real.”

“Are you going to be all right?” Adam asked with concern.

Smiling, Madam Zola nodded. “I’ll go back later and tell Abe that I see that a dark cloud has been removed from over him, that I see a long life ahead of him. That’ll make him happy. Besides, now I have $1,000 to fall back on if I ever have to leave. But I doubt that will happen any time soon.” A wry smile crossed the gypsy’s face. “I see a long and happy life for me living here with Abe.”

One of the guards brought the Cartwrights’ horses to them and handed the three men their reins. As he mounted, Hoss said to the gypsy, “Ma’am, if you’re ever over Virginia City way, come see us. I’m sure our Pa would like to meet you.”

“Yeah,” added Joe with a grin from atop his pinto, “maybe you could look into the future and tell our Pa that we need to go into town more often. “

“You two better stop jawing and start riding,” suggested Adam with a scowl. “It’s a long way over those mountains to Spruce Meadows, and we need to cover as much ground as possible before night.”

Joe smiled once more at Madam Zola, then turned his horse toward the gate. “Bye, ma’am,” called Hoss as he turned his horse to follow Joe. Adam looked at the woman standing a few feet away and slowly raised his hand to the brim of his black hat, tipping it a bit. With a small smile on her lips, Madam Zola nodded, acknowledging the oldest Cartwright brother’s gesture of respect.

As he followed his brothers through the gate and out of the compound, Adam was already calculating how long it would take to ride to Spruce Meadows to deliver the necklace.

*****

The Cartwrights rode for about almost four hours along the mountain trail, long past the time when the sun had gone down. Hoss finally called a halt to their travels when the shadows of the mountains and the canopy of tree limbs over their head blocked out the moon and made it impossible to see. Even though Joe understood the reason for stopping – he could barely see his hand in front of his face, much less the rocky, precipitous trail ahead of him – he chafed at the delay in reaching Spruce Meadows. Joe knew that the sooner the necklace was in the hands of Colonel Marks, the sooner his father would be safe from the wrath of the Paiutes.

As he sat near the fire after eating a hastily prepared dinner, Joe reached opened the saddlebag which laid next to him and peered inside, making sure that the small leather pouch holding the necklace was still there. He had discarded the sling which supported his arm shortly after leaving Abe Chandler’s walled home. Joe knew he could ride faster without being encumbered by the sling, and that the pouch holding the necklace would be safer within his saddlebags. He had checked on the necklace twice while the Cartwright brothers were riding, and once after they had stopped for the night. Now he felt the need to look one more time, to make sure the object that would insure his father’s safety was still in the bag beside him.

“Doggone it, Joe, you’re going to wear out that leather if you keep looking into those saddlebags,” grumbled Hoss from a few feet away.

“I just want to make sure the necklace is safe,” protested Joe. He looked across the fire to where Adam was sitting and sipping coffee from a cup. “Are we going to take turns doing guard duty tonight?”

“Why?” replied Adam in an unconcerned voice. “Nobody knows we have the necklace except Chandler and Madam Zola, and I hardly think they’ll be coming after us.”

“I don’t know,” Joe said, shrugging a bit. “I’d just feel better if we were keeping a close watch on things tonight.”

“Joe’s got a point,” Hoss told his older brother. “It wouldn’t hurt none to keep an eye out. Even if there’s nobody after us, there’s all kinds of things in these mountains that ain’t friendly – wolves, coyotes, and maybe a hungry bear.”

“Well, if you two feel that strongly about it, I guess it wouldn’t hurt,” Adam agreed. “Hoss, you take the first watch, and Joe, you take over after Hoss. If there’s any night left after that, wake me and I’ll do the last shift.” He stared at Joe for a minute, and then asked, “How’s your shoulder feeling?”

“Pretty good,” answered Joe. He raised his arm and moved it around to give proof to his words. “Just a little twinge now and then, but nothing that really bothers me.” Joe suddenly grinned. “Maybe that necklace really is magic. My shoulder has felt a lot better since we left Chandler’s place.”

“More than likely it was all that time resting your arm in that sling than the necklace that helped it,” commented Hoss.

“I don’t know, Hoss,” Joe replied. He suddenly changed his voice to give it a low, heavily accented tone. ”Zere are powers far beyond what zee earth-bound men can understand.”

“You do a very bad imitation of Madam Zola,” Adam remarked. He dropped the coffee cup from his hand onto the ground. “We’d better get some sleep. We’ve got a long day in front of us tomorrow. I want to be gone as soon as it’s light, and ride as long as we can, maybe through the night if we can see well enough.”

“We probably won’t get to Spruce Meadows until mid-morning, even with riding all night,” said Joe with more than a trace of concern in his voice. “That’s cutting things pretty close. Maybe we should have gone around the mountains instead of over them.”

“It’s a little late to be deciding that, little brother” Hoss declared, stretching his arms. “We can’t turn around now and still get to Spruce Meadows on time.”

“Besides, going around the mountains would have taken twice as long,” added Adam.

“Yeah, but we could have ridden faster and it would be easier on the horses,” Joe argued. “I’m just worried about that stretch right before we get to the lake. Hoss and I have hunted that area. It’s pretty rough country.”

“Aw, Joe, stop fretting,” advised Hoss. “We’ll get there in time. Besides, like I said, it’s too late to turn around. Now get some sleep. I figure I’m only good for a couple of hours of standing guard, and you’d better get all the rest you can before I wake you up.”

Nodding, Joe grabbed his bed roll and quickly unfurled it. He stretched out on the ground cloth and wrapped the blanket around himself, pillowing his head on the saddlebags which held the necklace. Joe knew he was being unreasonable, insisting on a guard and arguing about going over the mountains, but he couldn’t help worrying about what might happen if the trio didn’t get to Spruce Meadows in time. An image of whooping Indians with tomahawks and rifles charging toward his father kept flashing through his mind, adding to his worry over his Pa’s safely. Joe wished there was a way he could be sure he and his brothers would deliver the necklace in time to prevent any trouble. Sighing, Joe turned over and tried to sleep.

*****

Despite Joe’s anxiety, the Cartwrights had a peaceful night and started up the mountain trail as soon as the sun came up. The three men rode as fast as the twists and turns of the trail would allow, but Joe still chafed at their slow progress. Although they weren’t as vocal about their concerns as Joe, Adam and Hoss also felt apprehensive about the time it was taking to get up the mountain, and neither offered an objection when Joe suggested they skip setting up a noon camp. Pieces of beef jerky, bits of stale biscuits, and anything else that could be eaten as they rode filled their bellies .The three men pushed their horses hard up the steep path through the trees, stopping only to give the animals a breather when absolutely necessary, and for as short a time as possible. Each of them silently promised their faithful steed a long rest and plenty of oats when they got back to the Ponderosa.

The mid-June sky stayed light until almost 9 pm, and then the rays of the rising full moon offered a pale imitation of the brightness of day. Adam, Hoss and Joe rode doggedly toward Spruce Meadows, until Adam called a halt to the journey around midnight.

“Adam, why are we stopping?” asked Joe in a voice that clearly implied he wanted to continue.

“Because we’re tired and the horses are exhausted,” answered Adam. “You said yourself that area before we get to the lake is pretty tough. I don’t want to take a chance on covering that ground on tired horses, especially at night.”

“We’re not that far away,” argued Joe. “If we keep pushing, we can make it to Spruce Meadows before morning. If we stop now, we’re going to lose four or five hours. I don’t want to cut it that close.” He turned to face his larger brother, sitting on his horse to Joe’s right. “What do you say, Hoss.”

The indecision was clearly visible on Hoss’ face as he sat silently. Finally, Hoss voiced his opinion. “I have to go with Adam,” Hoss said reluctantly. “That stretch up by Six Forks is hard enough to travel by daylight, and I sure don’t like the idea of covering it at night. Besides, ol’ Chubb is about done in. He could use a few hours rest and so can I.”

As Hoss and Adam dismounted, Joe sat stubbornly on his horse, considering the idea of going on alone. Then he noticed his pinto’s drooping head, and thought about the animal’s heaving sides as the horse gulped air during the climb up the hill a few miles back. He knew he wasn’t being fair to the horse, or to his brothers, by insisting on continuing their journey without rest.

“All right,” Joe agreed, as he dismounted, “we’ll give the horses a breather and catch a few winks ourselves. But I want to be traveling again as soon as it’s light.”

“Didn’t plan to do anything else, little brother,” said Hoss with a smile.

*****

Pushing open the flap of the tent, Ben walked unannounced into the makeshift office of Colonel Marks. The officer was seated behind a small wooden table covered with papers. A glowing lantern hanging from a small peg on the tent pole to the colonel’s right filled the small space with light. Marks looked up as Ben stopped in front the table.

“I saw a courier ride in. Any new word from my sons?” asked Ben hopefully.

A small smile crossed Mark’s face before he answered. “Do you think I’d keep something like that to myself?” he countered Ben’s question. Then he shook his head. “No, I haven’t heard anything from your boys since the courier brought that telegram yesterday saying they had caught up with Kelly and were going after the man Kelly gave the necklace to. The trooper was just bringing a message that Kelly was caught in California and the Army has him in custody there.”

“I didn’t expect anything, but I had to ask,” Ben admitted with a sigh. “It’s hard just sitting here and waiting.”

“I know, Ben,” Marks replied gently. “But that’s all we can do right now. Wait and hope your boys make it here with the necklace before noon tomorrow.”

“When is Winnemucca arriving?” Ben asked, more to make conversation than anything else.

“He probably won’t get here much before noon,” the colonel answered. “He’ll want to make an entrance, riding in just in time for the ceremony. I’ve got the area set up already, though, just in case he does show up early.”

“So I saw,” Ben said. He had observed soldiers building a large lean-to, tall poles which held up a long length of canvas. Brightly colored rugs had been spread on the ground inside the structure on which the men would sit, and a wooden table with very short legs was positioned in the middle of the tent. If the ceremony did take place, the colonel and the Paiute chief would display the gifts they were exchanging on the table for all to see, as well as use it for the actual signing of the treaty.

“I’ve ordered my men to leave the rifles inside their tents and to only wear sidearms,” added Marks. “I want to make that a show of good faith to Winnemucca, as well as prevent some trigger-happy young trooper from starting a shooting war if things turn ugly. I’m hoping I can persuade Winnemucca to have his braves put their rifles off to the side, also. That way if Winnemucca gets upset, maybe we can keep it to angry words flying around, instead of bullets.”

“When are you going to tell Winnemucca about the necklace being missing,” Ben asked.

“I hope I won’t have to,” the colonel replied. “But I thought I’d wait until after the speeches, when the formal exchange of gifts begins. That will give your boys a little extra time to get here.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea, John,” Ben advised. “If you drag things out before telling him the necklace is missing, Winnemucca might feel like you were deliberately trying to make a fool of him. It might be better to tell him the truth as soon as he arrives. He’ll be upset but at least he can turn around and leave with some dignity.”

“Do you think he’ll accept the idea that the delivery of the necklace was delayed and that it will arrive shortly?” Marks asked hopefully.

“We can’t be sure my sons found the necklace, or that they were able to take it back,” Ben answered doubtfully. “There’s no telling when or if they’ll arrive with the necklace. I don’t want to lie to Winnemucca. That’s the worse thing we can do.”

“You’re right, of course,” Colonel Marks agreed reluctantly. He shook his head ruefully. “Ben, this whole thing has the makings of a disaster. I have a feeling that what started out as a way to insure peace is going to end up as the spark that starts an Indian war.”

“Don’t give up hope yet, John,” Ben consoled his friend. “We’ve still got some time. There’s still a chance my boys will show up with the necklace. Those sons of mine are pretty remarkable. They’re smart, tough and audacious.” Ben’s face broke into a grin. “But don’t ever tell them I said that. I have a hard enough time keeping them in line without them getting swelled heads.”

Marks returned Ben’s smile. “Well, I have to admit that they managed to do in one day what all my patrols couldn’t do in several days, which is catch up with Kelly and find out where the necklace is.”

“If anyone can get that necklace here in time, my boys will,” Ben declared. “They’ll give it everything they’ve got – and then some – to try to deliver the necklace by noon. I wouldn’t bet against them.”

“I hope you’re right, Ben,” replied Colonel Marks fervently. “I hope to God you’re right.”

*****

The sun bathed the riders in the dull of light of early morning as the Cartwrights emerged from a strand of trees and started riding over the much barer ground that led to the crest of the peaks. Adam raised his hand to stop his brothers and give their horses a chance to catch their breaths before starting the final ascent.

“We’re almost there,” stated Hoss, the relief evident in his voice. “Once we get to the other side, it’s not far to the lake. Then it’s a nice easy ride around the lake to Spruce Meadows.”

“You make it sound like that’s no distance at all,” complained Joe. “Tahoe is a pretty big lake, you know.”

“I know,” agreed Hoss. “But it ain’t like we’re going to ride around the whole lake. We’ll come in on the east side and just follow it for a little ways ‘til we reach the meadow.”

Looking up the trail, Adam frowned. “Are you sure this is the right way, Hoss?” he asked with a sense of uneasiness. “It looks pretty steep and rocky. The horses could have a hard time getting up there.”

“I’m sure,” Hoss answered confidently. He pointed to the right. “See those bushes over there? There’s a trail that goes around them to those rocks, and then up to them passes above. It’s a lot easier and gets us to the other side without having to go straight over the top.”

Adam’s eyes shifted toward the brush to which Hoss had pointed, and followed the barely visible trail up the mountain until it divided into six separate trails. Each of the paths led to what looked like six notches carved into the rocky crag.

“There’s half a dozen passes up there,” Adam observed. “Do they all go through to the other side?”

“Only three of them,” Joe told his oldest brother. “When Hoss and I were up here hunting, we found out the hard way that the other three end up running right into a wall of rock. They’re all kind of narrow and twisty, so you don’t know if you can get through until you reach the end.”

“Which ones are the right ones?” asked Adam.

Before Joe could answer, he heard a loud crack followed immediately by the tell-tale whoosh of a bullet speeding past his head. Joe looked over his shoulder quickly, pulling his gun out of his holster as he did so. His eyes opened wide in surprise. Charging out of the trees and up the hill was a band of Indians, shouting and firing their rifles as they rode toward the Cartwrights. The whooping braves with rifles and tomahawks whom Joe had feared would attack his father were, in fact, coming toward him. Joe fired his revolver twice, missing both times as his nervous pinto danced around the ground underneath him.

“Get up into the rocks!” shouted Hoss, urging his horse forward. Joe and Adam needed no second directive. They quickly followed Hoss around the bushes to their right and up the trail to the large boulders which offered protection. Once behind the large stones, all three of the Cartwrights dismounted, pulling their rifles from their scabbards as they did so. Leaving the horses sheltered by the largest rock, the three men ran to a small boulder and crouched behind it. Two bullets whined at them from below, hitting the rock before careening off harmlessly.

More concerned with quickness than aim, Joe fired his rifle at the yelling Indians below. The attackers had dismounted and were working their way up the hill toward the rocks. He fired again and saw one man grab his leg then hobble off behind a rock. The rest of the band scattered, finding cover behind whatever they could – rocks, bushes, and even the small ravine which ran beside the trail. The braves fired upward to the boulders where the Cartwrights were hiding. Bullets bounced noisily off the stone or dug themselves into the ground. Adam, Hoss, and Joe shot back, but their bullets did no more damage than those that had been fired in their direction.

“Hold it!” yelled Adam. “Save your ammunition. Those Indians are too well hidden for us to hit any of them.”

“They’re probably saying the same thing about us,” observed Joe as he watched two more bullets hit the ground in front of their protective rock. “Who are they? Paiutes?”

Lifting his head cautiously, Hoss peered over the boulder and studied what he could see of the braves below for a moment. Then he ducked back down behind the large stone again. “Looks like Utes to me,” declared Hoss. “As near as I can tell, that’s a Ute headband on the one in the ravine, and Ute markings on the horse standing over their near the trees.”

“Utes?” Adam said in surprise. “What do you suppose they’re doing so close to the Paiutes? You think they’re here to try to stop the treaty being signed?”

“Could be,” acknowledged Hoss. “But there’s only eight or ten of them. If they were going to cause trouble at Spruce Meadows, there’d be more of them. More likely they’re a hunting party who decided to make trouble for anybody they met up with.”

“What difference does it make why they’re here?” Joe snapped in frustration. “The longer they keep us pinned down, the more time we’re going to lose getting to Spruce Meadows.”

Once more, Hoss lifted his head cautiously above the bolder, but quickly ducked down when two bullets from below smashed into the rock. “We do have a situation here,” agreed Hoss. “They can’t get us, and we can’t get them. We’re both kind of stuck.”

“Maybe we should grab the horses and make a run for it,” suggested Joe. “Once we get up into the canyon, they’ll never catch us.

Turning his head, Adam studied the trail that led from the boulders to the six passes, then shook his head. “We’d never make it, Joe,” he said. “There’s nothing between us and the canyon but a couple of scrubby bushes. We’d be sitting ducks. Those Utes would pick us off before we got anywhere near those canyons.”

“We just can’t sit here and do nothing,” Joe insisted. “They could keep us pinned down for hours.”

“I kind of figure that’s what they’re planning on, little brother,” Hoss replied. “They’ll keep us pinned down until we run out of ammunition, or until they can figure out a way to sneak up on us.”

“Maybe we should just stop shooting,” suggested Joe. “If they think we’ve run out of ammo, they might come charging up the hill. Then we can pick them off.”

“Not a good idea,” Hoss replied, shaking his head. “There’s too many of them. We can’t get them all with the first shots. They’ll just find cover again, only this time they’d be closer. They’d be in a better position to do some real damage. We’re better off just waiting them out.”

“We need to horde the ammunition and make sure we don’t waste it,” observed Adam. “We might be stuck here for awhile.”

“How long do you think it will be?” said Joe anxiously. “We were cutting it pretty close as it was to get to Spruce Meadows on time. If we have to wait a couple of hours to get moving again, we won’t get there by noon.”

“There’s not much we can do about it,” Adam advised. “About all we do is hope they get tired of trying to wait us out and leave.”

His frustration boiling over, Joe rose and quickly fired his rifle three times — once toward the rocks on his right, once toward the ravine in front of him, and once toward a clump of bushes. “Go home, you idiots!” he shouted as the echo of his shots faded. Then Joe slumped down behind the boulder.

“Feel better?” asked Adam with an amused smile.

“Yeah,” grumbled Joe in discouragement.

Raising his head a bit, Hoss looked over the rock. “Don’t look like they took your advice, little brother,” he observed mildly. “They’re still out there.” He crouched low behind the rock as a hail of bullets whizzed into the boulder as well as the ground in front of it. “I think you made ‘em mad, Joe,” Hoss added with a grin.

Sitting with his back against the rock, Joe looked up at the passes through the mountain, knowing that they were the path both to escape and to Spruce Meadows. As he stared at the side of the mountain, an idea began to form in Joe’s head. He frowned a bit as he tried to work his way through his thoughts.

“Hey, Joe, what are you thinking about?” Hoss asked as he saw the look of concentration on his little brother’s face. Joe didn’t answer; he merely shrugged a bit and continued to look up to the passes.

Suddenly, Adam fired three shots toward the Indians below. For the first time, the Cartwrights heard a muted yell as one of Adam’s bullets hit home.

“Will you two stop daydreaming?” barked Adam. “They’re moving around out there. If you were paying attention, we might have hit more than one of them.”

“Sorry,” Hoss apologized quickly. He turned his attention to the ground below the rocks, but glancing over at Joe. Joe’s expression hadn’t changed much; he was still looking at the canyons, only now with a frown of concentration.

“I think I should make a run for it with the necklace,” Joe announced suddenly. “If I leave now, I still have a chance of getting to Spruce Meadows by noon.”

“Joe, you’ll never make it,” Adam replied. “Those Indians will shoot you before you get five feet.”

“You ain’t the biggest fellow, Joe, but you’ll still make an easy target sitting on your horse,” agreed Hoss.

“I wasn’t thinking about going on horseback,” Joe explained. “I was thinking about going on foot.”

“What!” exclaimed Adam in astonishment. “Are you crazy?”

“I can do it, Adam,” Joe replied eagerly. “If you and Hoss give me cover, I can run up to the pass. I’ll keep low, and run behind the brush. The shadow of the mountain will hide me some, too. Those Utes will never see me.”

“Joe, even if you get to the pass and get through it, you’ll never make it to Spruce Meadows on time,” Hoss argued. “It’s got to be close to 15 miles, and that’s as the crow flies. There’s hills and rocks and all kinds of rough ground between here and there. It’s a tough country for a man to cross on horseback, much less on foot.”

“We’re better off waiting,” Adam added. “Once we get away from here, we can push the horses hard. There’s still a chance we could make it by noon.”

“And there’s a chance we wouldn’t,” countered Joe. “Look, Adam, I can travel faster than the horses through some of that country. The canyon itself is so narrow that the horses would have to walk. I can run through it.”

“What if the Utes spot you? They’ll just send some men to look for you on the other side,” Adam said. “And they’ll be on horses.”

“They won’t know which canyon I’m taking,” replied Joe confidently. “They’ll have to guess where I would come out, and there’s only a one in three chance that they’ll guess right. Besides a man on foot can hide a lot easier than a man on horseback.”

“Joe, it’s just too far,” Hoss argued. “You’d kill yourself trying to get to Spruce Meadows by noon.”

“Look, once I make it to the lake, I can cut over to Sam MacAfee’s place,” Joe told his brothers. “I can borrow a horse from Sam and ride the last couple of miles or so to Spruce Meadows.”

“That still leaves a lot of hard country for you to cross on foot,” Hoss said doubtfully.

“I can do it,” Joe replied with certainty. “It’s the best chance we have of getting that necklace to Spruce Meadows by noon…and it’s our best chance to save Pa from getting caught up in a fight with a bunch of angry Paiutes.”

Neither Hoss nor Adam said a word as they thought about Joe’s proposed action. Both men knew that Joe would be taking a risk crossing miles of untamed land on foot; the dangers he could face ranged from wild animals to hostile Indians to exhausting expanses of rocky ground. But they also knew that Joe was right – the odds were against them making it to Spruce Meadows on time if they waited to leave their mountain hideout. The question that Adam and Hoss were turning over in their mind was whether Joe actually could make it to the treaty site by noon – and whether they wanted to risk their brother’s life on the that possibility.

“Maybe nothing will happen if the necklace isn’t at Spruce Meadows by noon,” suggested Adam tentatively. “Maybe the Paiutes will just go home.”

“When was the last time you saw a Paiute who felt he was insulted just pack up and go home?” argued Joe. “It’s not just Pa I’m thinking about. What about those soldiers who could die if there’s a fight? What about the supply wagons the Paiutes will attack if they go on the warpath? What about the Paiutes who might die? There’s a lot of lives depending on us getting that necklace to Spruce Meadows by noon.”

“He’s got a point, Adam,” Hoss reluctantly agreed.

Adam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right,” he said grudgingly. “I don’t like the idea but I agree we don’t have much choice.”

“You two just cover me,” Joe stated with confidence. “I’ll take care of the rest.” He took off his hat and laid it on the ground next to his rifle, then shrugged out of his jacket. He unbuckled his gunbelt and laid it next to his hat. “I can go faster without a holster.”

“No gun?” commented Adam doubtfully. “What if you run into trouble?”

“Don’t worry, I’m going to avoid anything that even looks like trouble,” Joe replied. “Trouble will just slow me down.” Crouched low, Joe hurried across the few feet of ground between the boulder and the rock behind which the horses were standing. Patting his pinto reassuringly on the rump, Joe reached into his saddle bag and pulled out the small pouch which contained the necklace. He stuffed the leather sack inside his shirt, pushing it down toward his waist to keep it secure between the cloth and his body.

“Take a canteen,” Adam called from the boulder. “You’ll need water and you won’t want to waste time looking for it.” Joe nodded his agreement, and reached up to slip the strap of his canteen off the horn of his saddle.

“You be careful out there, little brother,” Hoss called as he watched Joe prepare for his trek. “Don’t take no unnecessary chances.”

“Don’t worry, Hoss,” replied Joe with a smile. He slung the canteen strap over his shoulder and slid it up a bit so that the contained of water would be as close to his body as possible. “I’ll be waiting for you at Spruce Meadows.”

“Take care, Joe,” Adam said, giving his brother a tight smile. Joe nodded his understanding of both Adam’s words and his concern.

“When we start shooting, you start running,” ordered Adam. “And don’t stop until you get to Spruce Meadows.”

Crouching, Joe waited until Hoss and Adam were ready. He knew the hazards ahead of him, but he was willing to take them on. Lives were at stake, especially his father’s. Nothing was going to stop him.

As soon as Hoss and Adam started firing their rifles, Joe took off. He bent low, keeping behind the bushes and small boulders that dotted the ground that led up to the passes. As he zigzagged across the ground, Joe heard the echo of the shots behind him, but nothing that indicated any bullets were coming in his direction. It took him only a few minutes to reach the top of the trail, where it separated into six distinct paths. Joe headed for the second pass from the right – the one he knew was the shortest way through the mountain.

As he reached the start of the pass, Joe stopped for a moment. He glanced over his shoulder, catching a quick look at his brothers hiding behind the boulder. Then he squared his shoulders and started running. Joe knew he was racing the most unyielding opponent of all – time.

*****

As he ran the trail through the mountain, Joe’s thoughts were on the journey ahead. He didn’t need to pay attention to the canyon trail – the steep sides of the pass kept him on course and prevent anyone from surprising him – so, as he ran, Joe planned the strategy for the trek he had to make. Joe knew he couldn’t run the whole way to Spruce Meadows; no man had the strength to do that. He figured he could run for about twenty minutes, walk for another five or ten minutes, and then force himself to sit and rest for a several minutes before starting the process over again. Joe knew that, at least initially, stopping to rest would be the hard part. He would have to suppress his anxious desire to keep moving toward his destination in order to avoid collapsing in exhaustion before he got there.

When he reached the end of the trail through the mountain, Joe stopped behind a pile of rocks and cautiously studied the area ahead of him. Seeing no sign of a Ute brave waiting to attack, Joe decided it was safe to continue. Nevertheless, he ran as fast as he could over the open ground between the end of the pass and the start of the woods about thirty yards away. As soon as he reached the protection of the trees and bushes, Joe slowed his pace. He slowed not only to save his energy but also because the ground sloped downward sharply. He had to move a bit cautiously to avoid falling as well as maneuver around the thick wooden trunks and thriving shrubs. Joe had known he would have to travel through the woods but he hadn’t remembered the forest as being so thick nor the hill so steep. He kept to a straight path as much as possible, but Joe still found himself weaving through woods as he carefully descended to the bottom of the hill. He chafed a bit at the time it was taking him to get down from the pass but tried to console himself with the fact that a man on horseback couldn’t have traveled any faster.

The ground finally leveled out and Joe was able to break into a trot as he wended his way around the trees and other growth. He made himself stop after what he calculated was about a half-hour since he had left Adam and Hoss, resting on a rock and taking a sip of water. He was able to hold his anxiety in check for a few minutes, forcing himself to take deep breaths and relaxing his body. But the self-imposed break lasted less than Joe knew it should. He couldn’t stand the thought of just sitting when there was so many miles still to cover.

Another thirty minutes or so passed before Joe finally emerged from the woods into a grassy field. It had taken a lot of discipline for him to adhere to his regimen of running, walking and resting, but it had been worth it. Joe still felt relatively fresh and strong. He stopped for a moment to get his bearings. He spotted the ridge he would have to cross over to get to the lake, and figured it that, with a little extra effort, he could reach it in less than an hour. Joe took a deep breath and started running.

*****

After firing a few shots down the hill toward the still hidden Utes below, Adam crouched down behind the boulder. “They sure are patient,” he remarked to Hoss, who was sitting with his back against the boulder. “I would have thought those Indians would have gotten tired of this by now.”

“Maybe they ain’t got any place to go,” answered Hoss in a distracted voice. He was staring at the passes at the top of the trail. “Say Adam, did you see which pass Joe took?” he asked suddenly.

“No,” answered Adam, a bit perplexed by his brother’s question. “Why? Don’t they all come out in pretty much the same place?”

“No, they don’t,” Hoss answered. “That one on the far left there, it’s pretty straight and kind of angles off to the east. But it comes out in the hard rock and that’s pretty tough country for a man on foot.”

“What about the rest of them?” asked Adam curiously.

“Well, the next two passes don’t lead anywhere; they just twist back into the mountain,” Hoss explained. “The one in the middle twists and turns, too, but it goes through. If you took that one, you’d come out on the edge of the woods. There’s a deep ravine running down the hill there, though, and the ground is full of loose shale and dirt. It’s pretty slippery. A man would have to be real careful about his footing or he’d end up in the ravine. But once he got past all that loose stuff, he’d be able to get down to the meadow without much problem.”

“What about the last two?” Adam prodded his brother.

“The one on the far right doesn’t go through,” Hoss replied. “It’s real short and runs into a dead end. The one next to it is probably the fastest way to get through. It’s not that long and only has a couple of little bends in it. But if he took that trail, Joe’d come out right in front of the woods. He’d have to go through all those trees to get down the hill.”

“Which one do you think Joe took?” Adam asked.

“That’s just it, Adam; I don’t know,” answered Hoss, sounding a bit frustrated. “I wasn’t watching. He could have taken any of the three. There’s plus and minuses to all of those trails, and Joe knows it. I don’t know which way he figured would be the fastest.”

“It doesn’t make any difference, does it?” said Adam with a shrug.

“Well, I was kind of figuring that once we got out of here, we’d go the same way Joe did,” Hoss replied. “That way we’d be able to follow his trail, and help out if he ran into trouble.”

“If he runs into trouble, Joe will never make it to Spruce Meadows by noon,” observed Adam.

“Adam, both Joe and Pa could end up in a heap of danger,” Hoss said. “If the necklace don’t get to Spruce Meadows in time, there’s not much we can do to help Pa. But if Joe runs into trouble, we should be there to help him. Only we don’t know where he is.” Hoss sighed, and then added, “I sure hate the thought of both Pa and Joe being in trouble and we couldn’t do nothing about helping either one of them.”

Adam sat silently for moment, absorbing his brother’s words. “You’re right,” he agreed slowly. “Do you think we could find Joe’s tracks?”

Over hard rock?” scoffed Hoss. “Nobody’s that good a tracker, Adam.”

“Which pass do you think Joe took?” Adam pressed his brother. “Which one would you have taken?”

Staring at the passes through the mountain, Hoss thought hard. “My guess is the middle one,” he responded. “That loose rock would be tough to cross for awhile, but after that, it’s an easy trail.”

“Then we’ll go through the middle canyon, too,” declared Adam. He ducked down a little as a hail of bullets suddenly crashed into the boulder from the Indians below. “If we ever get out of here, that is,” he added.

Abruptly, Hoss turned and got on his knees. He positioned his rifle atop the rock, and fired in rapid succession, spreading the bullets over a wide range. He paused, looking to see if his shots had caused any activity below. Hoss’ eyes widened in surprise when he heard several shots – but these shots seemed to be coming from further down the mountain. His surprise grew when he saw five men in Army uniforms riding out of the trees, firing pistols at the Indians who were kneeling or lying behind rocks and bushes. The Utes immediately realized that they were going to be caught in a crossfire and got to their feet, running toward their horses which were grazing at the edge of the woods. Two the braves limped, and one had to be helped by another Ute.

The Army patrol’s intent seemed to be to scatter the Indians, rather than actually kill anyone. The soldiers’ bullets struck the ground and careened off rocks. The Utes, however, were in no mood to fight the patrol, especially when Hoss and Adam started adding their rifle fire to the mix. The braves quickly mounted and rode off.

Getting to his feet quickly, Adam waved the troopers below. Both he and Hoss had big smiles on their faces as the soldiers moved up the rocky trail to join them.

“Boy, are we glad to see you!” exclaimed Hoss as the patrol stopped their mounts near the Cartwrights.

“Sergeant Williams, sir,” the soldier in front introduced himself. “We were searching this area for a deserter when we heard the gunfire. Thought we’d better check it out. We could see those Indians had someone pinned down and figured you might need a little help.”

“Sergeant, you are a most welcome sight,” Adam affirmed. He cocked his head a bit before adding, “Did you say you were searching for a deserter? You wouldn’t be looking for a soldier named Kelly, would you?”

“Yes sir,” replied Williams. Now it was his turn to show surprise. “Sergeant Kelly deserted the fort a few days ago and took something valuable with him. We’ve been searching for him ever since.”

“Well, you fellows are looking the wrong place,” Hoss told the soldier. “We ran into Kelly about two days ago over near Crater Pass.”

“You did?” replied the sergeant. “What did you do with him?”

“He got away from us,” Adam admitted. “But not before he told us what he had done with the necklace.” Seeing the puzzled expression on Williams’ face, Adam explained, “I’m Adam Cartwright and this is my brother, Hoss. Our father, Ben Cartwright, is the one who helped Colonel Marks negotiate the treaty. The Colonel came to the Ponderosa and told us about the missing necklace. We’ve been looking for Kelly and the necklace also.”

“Do you have the necklace?” Williams asked eagerly. “The Colonel told us what could happen if we don’t get it to Spruce Meadows by noon today. I got a lot of buddies in the detail at that meadow. I sure would like to save them from having to get caught up in a fight with the Paiutes.”

“We have it, but not here,” answered Adam. “We got trapped up here by those Utes. We didn’t think we’d be able to get the necklace to Spruce Meadows on time if we waited until the Utes got tired of shooting at us, so our younger brother Joe took the necklace and made a run for it.”

“If he’s on his way to Spruce Meadows, he should make it in time,” remarked Williams, sounding relieved.

“Well, maybe he will,” Hoss said cautiously. “See, Joe couldn’t make across the open ground to the passes above on a horse, at least not without getting shot. So he left here on foot.”

“On foot! He’s trying to walk all the way to Spruce Meadows from here?” Sergeant Williams’ voice expressed a mixture of dismay as well as admiration.

“He’s a pretty tough kid,” Adam told the sergeant. “Only now that you’re here, we can try to find him. If we can catch up with Joe, one of us can take the necklace by horseback to Spruce Meadows. We’re sure to make it on time if we do that.”

“Do you know which way he went?” asked Williams.

“We think we do,” Hoss answered in a tentative voice. “It’s worth it to try to find him, don’t you think?”

“Yes sir,” agreed the sergeant. “Anything we can do to maybe stop an Indian War is important in my book.”

“Glad you feel that way, “Adam said. “With all of us looking, we’ve got a better chance of catching Joe. Give us a minute to get our horses, and we’ll show you the trail we think he took.”

*****

When he reached the top of the ridge, Joe paused to catch his breath. His chest heaved, and trickles of sweat ran down his neck and back. He wasn’t sure how long it had taken him to reach the crest, but Joe was sure that it was less than an hour. He had run almost the whole way across the field, then climbed as quickly as possible up the stony side of the ridge. Joe had stopped only to gulp some water during the previous hour; he had decided covering a lot of ground was more important rest.

Lowering himself to the ground, Joe leaned back against a rock and slipped the canteen from his shoulder. He took a long swig from the metal container before reaching up to pour some of the water from the canteen over his head. The water revived him a bit, but Joe knew he was tiring. His legs were beginning to ache, and his back felt stiff. And he was only about half-way to Spruce Meadows.

Joe patted the left side of his shirt, reassuring himself that the sack containing the necklace was still tucked inside. Picking up the canteen, Joe shook it a bit and then frowned. He had used up more water than he realized; the canteen was almost empty. Looking around, Joe tried to picture the countryside around him in his mind. He knew there was a creek at the bottom of the ridge where he could refill his canteen. The problem was that the creek was to the east, away from the direction he wanted to go to reach the lake. But the creek was much closer than the cool waters of Lake Tahoe, and Joe knew he would need to continue to refresh himself in order to keep going. Once more, he thought about the geography of the area. If he followed the creek bed, thought Joe, he would be going east, the direction that led to Spruce Meadows. But the pathway beside the creek would be harder to travel than the trail that ran along the lake, and he would be heading away from the MacAfee ranch where he had planned to borrow a horse. On the other hand, if he hiked over to the creek and then doubled back to the lake and Sam MacAfee’s place, he would be adding two or three miles – maybe more – to his journey, plus losing precious time. It was a no win situation, Joe concluded. Either he’d have to walk all the way to Spruce Meadows, or take the chance he could make up the lost time once he got on horseback.

Sighing, Joe looked up at the sky, hoping for some kind of inspiration to help him decide. He saw that the sun was continuing its unstoppable rise in the sky toward its peak. Joe figured he had about two hours until noon. He knew he couldn’t waste time doubling back; he’d have to travel to Spruce Meadows on foot.

With his decision made, Joe was eager to be on his way again. After pulling the strap of the canteen over his shoulder, Joe got to his feet. He ignored the twinge of protest from his tired muscles as he rose. With a look of stubborn determination on his face, Joe started walking rapidly along the top of the ridge to the east.

Joe traveled over a mile before he spotted the dark ribbon of the creek below him. He also saw a trail through the grass and scrub brush down to the water. As he trotted down the gently sloping path, Joe wondered idly who or what had first broken the trail. Probably it was a small herd of deer or maybe wild horses. Animals instinctively knew the easiest way to get to water. There was evidence that many other animals – and perhaps men – had followed the now well-worn path to the stream.

Once he reached the water, Joe paused only long enough to refill his canteen before heading east along the side of the creek. The ground was surprising smooth and even – probably it had been flattened over time by the feet of the many animals which had come to drink from the stream – and Joe found he was able to jog along the side of the water. He looked up from time to time to make sure the ridge was still on his right. With the sun hidden by trees, the east-west boundary of the ridge was Joe’s best guide to insure the creek was taking him in the right direction. As he continued to make what he felt was good progress toward Spruce Meadows, Joe was feeling better and better about his decision to turn east.

Once more, Joe fell into the routine of running, walking and resting as he continued to follow the creek. Joe covered what he felt was several miles before the ground next to the stream started to become more uneven and difficult. He stopped to rest and also to survey the terrain ahead.

The creek was winding its way through several hills, each one of which seemed to be larger than the last. Joe knew he was going to have to cross over one of those hills to get down to the lake trail which would lead him to Spruce Meadows. The larger hills would take time to cross as well as being difficult to traverse. Joe decided it would be better to turn toward the lake now, while the hills were relatively small.

Looking around, Joe tried figure out which of the grassy mounds would be the easiest to climb. Suddenly he spotted a gorge that seemed to separate two of the hills. The split between the hills wasn’t very wide, but it certainly was wide enough for a man to get through. And there was no question in Joe’s mind that it would be easier to follow the gorge than to climb one of the hills.

Joe knelt down by the creek and scooped several handfuls of water into his mouth. He was thankful that he hadn’t had to tap into the water supply in his canteen since he had refilled the container; whenever he had gotten thirsty, he simply drank from the stream. He calculated the full canteen should last until he reached Spruce Meadows.

Leaving the creek behind him, Joe started jogging to the gorge. He reached the chasm between the hills in less then ten minutes. Breathing hard, Joe stopped to study the gorge carefully.

The gorge was peppered with rocks, tree branches and bits of bushes, but the dirt bottom looked solid. Moving cautiously, Joe climbed down into the ravine and was relieved to feel hard ground under his feet. He had to walk a bit carefully to avoid the debris that littered the gorge, but Joe found it was possible to use the gully as a way through the hills.

As he walked, Joe kept his eyes on the ground in front of him. weaving a bit as he walked to avoid anything in his path if possible. His tired legs felt like they were made of lead when Joe had to lift them to step over a tree limb. Joe tried to ignore the aches and pains of his protesting muscles as he continued on.

Joe didn’t see the large trees and rocks which blocked the end of the gorge until he came right up to them. He stopped and looked at the barrier with dismay. It appeared that the side of one of the hills had slid down into the gorge, and the landslide filled the ravine. For a moment, Joe just stared at wall of dirt, stone and wood which blocked his way. He couldn’t believe that he had come so far only to find himself trapped.

Suddenly, Joe squared his shoulders and stiffened his spine. He knew he couldn’t go back. He would lose too much time retracing his steps through the gorge and then climbing one of the hills to reach the lake trail. Joe made up his mind that he was going to get to the end of the ravine and down to the lake, and if he had to climb over the landslide in front him to do it, then so be it.

Inspecting the landslide, Joe looked for the best part over which to climb. He ignored the area to his right – the hill down which the trees and other debris had tumbled – knowing that the ground was liable to be soft and crumbly there. The middle of the slide offered some promise of handholds for Joe to use to pull himself up, but not enough to satisfy the youngest Cartwright that this was the way to go. Joe moved to his right and studied the opposite hillside. The rocks and tree limbs were pushed up against mound and crammed together tightly. Joe could several places where he could place his hands and feet as he climbed. Without further hesitation, he started toward that part of the slide.

Although it took only several minutes to scramble up to the top of the landslide, Joe felt like he was climbing for an hour. It was slow and difficult work, and his legs and shoulders – especially his recently injured right shoulder – protested the effort with waves of dull pain. He was breathing hard when he finally reached the top of the pile of debris, but Joe also felt a sense of accomplishment. He stood still for a moment, both to catch his breath and to search for an easy way down to the ground below.

Joe noted that the hill sloped downward along the side of the debris to the dirt floor of the gorge. He figured the landslide must have carved a niche into the mound, with the bulk of the materials falling toward the part of the ravine behind him. Joe decided if he moved slowly and carefully, he could walk down the hill to the gorge, saving himself a difficult climb.

The slant was steep so Joe took small steps as he started down the hill. The dirt seemed firm as he pressed his heels against it. Joe had taken only a few steps when his foot landed on a small rock which he hadn’t seen. The weight of his body caused the rock to loosen from the dirt and tumble down the hill. Off balance, Joe slipped and fell forward. He started rolling and sliding down the slope, plummeting toward the ravine below. The fall happened so fast that Joe could do nothing to stop himself. His freefall finally came to a halt when his body hit the edge of the ravine, but his momentum pushed Joe over the rim and into the gorge. Bathed in the light filtering through the trees, Joe laid sprawl on the bottom of the ravine, unmoving.

*****

Groaning softly from aches in what felt like a hundred places on his body, Joe slowly scraped his arms along the dirt floor of the gorge. He felt dazed, unsure where he was or what had happened to him. He blinked his eyes and lifted his head a bit, wondering why he was on the ground. Then, in a rush, he remembered the fall as well as his mission to deliver the necklace.

Joe sat up quickly, a move he instantly regretted as a sharp pang of pain ran through his body from his head to his legs. Wincing and taking a quick breath, Joe waited a moment until the pain ebbed into a dull ache. Then he move his right arm slowly toward his body, not to determine if his arm was uninjured but rather to feel for the small sack which he had stuffed inside his shirt. Joe sighed with relief as his fingers closed around the lumpy parcel under the cloth.

Moving his arms and legs, Joe decided he had broken nothing in the fall. He could see that his pants were ripped at the left knee and stained with blood from a cut on his leg. When he reached forward to pull the cloth wider in order to examine the cut, Joe noted his right hand was scraped and bleeding. He flexed his right fingers, making sure they worked, and decided the injury was not serious. Joe eased the torn cloth on his pants apart and studied the cut on his leg. The jagged slash hadn’t penetrated very deep and the blood around it was already clotting and beginning to dry. He could see no other signs of bleeding, although he suspected that he was bruised in several areas that he couldn’t see.

“You idiot!” Joe berated himself in a loud voice. “Lot of good it would have done Pa if you had broken a leg or something. You have to be more careful!” He got to his feet slowly, and took a tentative step, testing the result of weight on his injured leg. He felt a twinge, more of an ache than a sharp pain; it was the type of soreness which could easily have been caused by hours of traveling across country by foot as much as by a fall.

As he looked around to get his bearings, Joe saw that the sun shining through the trees. He figured he had been unconscious for a short time, no more than a few minutes. Still, his fall had cost him time, a commodity which he had little to spare.

Turning his head a bit, Joe saw his canteen laying a few feet away, and walked over to the container. He opened the canteen, took a long drink, and then splashed some water on his scraped hand. Satisfied that he was in as good a condition as could be expected, Joe took a deep breath and started walking.

It didn’t take long for Joe to reach the end of the gorge and emerge from the hills to a flat expanse of grass. He knew that this was an area across which he could start running, and Joe tried to make his legs work. He ran a few feet, but his tired legs felt like rubber. He realized no longer had the energy to do more than trudge wearily across the field.

Walking almost mindlessly, Joe concentrated on simply moving forward. His body ached and the cut on his leg and hand burned. The sunlit meadow seem to be spread endlessly before him. Joe felt the rivulets of sweat running down his face and back, and stopped once or twice to take a drink and splash some water on his face. He wanted nothing more to sit down and rest, but refrained from doing so, fearing he might not have the strength to get back up.

Joe lost all sense of time and distance so he was surprised when he reached the top of a small knoll and saw the deep blue water of Lake Tahoe simmering in front of him. Joe estimated that the lake was about half a mile away, which meant he was close to Spruce Meadows. Wearily, he glanced up at the sky, and figured from the position of the sun that it was not yet noon. Joe was too tired to try to calculate whether he could make it to Spruce Meadows on time. Instead, he simply lifted his foot and started walking.

*****

The military encampment at Spruce Meadows was bustling with activity. Soldiers were cleaning rifles, grooming horses or policing the grounds. Two soldiers walked back and forth in front of the canvas lean-to where the treaty was scheduled to be signed, guarding it from unknown intruders. Ben sat quietly outside a tent, sipping coffee, a seemingly island of tranquility in the midst of the commotion. But Ben was anything but tranquil. He was worried – about the treaty, about Winnemucca’s reaction to the missing necklace, and most of all, about his sons. He knew his boys well enough to guess they were taking risks in order to get the necklace to Spruce Meadows by noon. He wished there was some way he could tell Adam, Hoss and Joe that no treaty, no token of peace was worth their lives.

Suddenly a shout echoed across the camp and men started walking quickly toward the edge of the meadow. Ben looked up, more curious than anything else, then immediately dropped his coffee cup to the ground. He stood and hurried to meet the patrol that was riding in, with Adam and Hoss at the front.

“Adam! Hoss!” called Ben happily as he rushed to where the riders had halted their horses and dismounted. He stopped abruptly and frowned. “Where’s Joe?” Ben felt a lump in his throat as he realized his two older sons were leading his youngest son’s pinto.

“He’s not here yet?” asked Adam, looking around. “We thought he might have made it to the camp by now.”

“No, he’s not here,” Ben confirmed. “Why would you think he would be? How did you get separated? Is he all right?”

“Pa, as far as we know, Joe’s fine,” Hoss replied in a soothing tone. “He just went on ahead of us.”

Ben heard footsteps coming up behind him, followed by the voice of Colonel Marks asking eagerly, “Do you have the necklace?”

“Joe has it,” Adam answered. He glanced at Hoss, then added, “He must be still on his way here.”

“I don’t understand,” said Ben, still frowning. “Where is Joe? Why isn’t he with you?”

Sensing that mood of the conversation was growing tense, Sergeant Williams decided it was time for a graceful exit. “I’ll take care of the horses,” he announced quickly, and grabbing the reins of the Cartwrights’ horses, led the animals, as well as his patrol, toward the end of the meadow.

“Adam, I want an answer,” Ben demanded. “What happened to Joe? Where is he?”

Sighing, Adam decided there was no way to avoid telling his father what happened. “We got trapped by a band of Utes. It looked like they were going to keep us penned in for a long time, and we wouldn’t be able to get the necklace here on time. So Joe took the necklace and started for Spruce Meadows on his own.”

“He should have been here by now, shouldn’t he?” Ben asked, the lump in his throat growing larger.

“Well, not necessarily, Pa,” Hoss replied hesitantly. “See, Joe was making his way to Spruce Meadows on foot.”

“On foot!” exclaimed Ben. “How far away were you?”

“We got trapped up by Six Forks,” Hoss answered, wincing a bit in anticipation of his father’s reaction to his bit of information.

“Six Forks!” shouted Ben in both anger and astonishment. “You sent Joe on foot over that rough country? How could you do that?”

“We didn’t send him, Pa,” Adam tried to explain. “It was Joe’s idea. We didn’t think we would be able to get away from those Utes in time, and Joe was sure he could make it here with the necklace. We didn’t know an army patrol was going to show up.” Adam shrugged a bit. “We thought it was the best thing to do at the time,” he finished lamely.

“We started looking for him as soon as we could,” Hoss added quickly, trying to calm his father’s anger and distress. “Me and Adam and the whole patrol looked everywhere for him, but we couldn’t find him. We finally figured it would better to ride on in and see if he was here. We figured we could get a lot more men to help look if he wasn’t.”

“It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, to let Joe go off like that,” Adam admitted. “But he was so worried about you, and about what would happen if the necklace didn’t get here in time. We all were. We thought it was worth a try.”

“Joe knew it wasn’t going to be easy getting here,” Hoss said almost plaintively. “But he was willing to try, so as to make sure nothing would happen to you. Joe was the best one to go, but Adam and I would have done it if we had to. All of us would have done anything to keep you safe, Pa.”

Ben stood silent, digesting his older son’s words. His anger dissipated and was replaced by another emotion – pride, affection, gratitude – Ben wasn’t sure what it was. Maybe a combination of all three. “I understand why you let Joe go,” he finally said softly. “I just wish you hadn’t done it.”

“Ben, I’ll get some men organized into search parties right away,” offered Colonel Marks. “If Joe is anywhere near here, they’ll find him. We still have a little time until Winnemucca shows up.”

“No, you don’t,” Adam stated, looking over his shoulder.

Moving with surprising quiet, Winnemucca was riding into meadow from the trees near the canvas lean-to. The old chief was wearing his ceremonial clothes – full headdress, leather shirt and pants decorated with fringe and small paintings, a bright red cloth draped over his left shoulder and tied at the waist to his belt. Winnemucca was flanked by two younger men also dressed in decorated buckskins and wearing feather headdresses. Behind the three men rode a line of braves which stretched back into the trees, all of whom were wearing the Paiute version of formal clothes – and carrying rifles.

Winnemucca led his party of men into the middle of the meadow, and then stopped. The stony expression on the chief’s face was reflected on the face of his men. The Paiutes waited for the white men to make the next move.

“Ben, what do we?” hissed Colonel Marks.

“Greet our guests,” Ben replied, trying to keep a neutral expression on his face.

“Do you think Winnemucca will go for the idea that the necklace is on its way here?” Marks asked in the low voice. “That sounds better than saying we don’t know where it is.”

Ben started to reply, but stopped when he heard a faint call from a distance. He frowned, and listened hard. Then a small smile broke out on his face as he heard the shout of “Pa” coming closer.

Turning, Ben watched with both relief and pride as Joe hobbled across the meadow from a strand of trees at far end of the field. Ben was shocked, however, at his son’s appearance. Dirty, clothes torn, and streaked with blood and sweat, Joe limped forward doggedly until he reached his father.

“Sorry I’m late, Pa,” Joe said wearily. He reached inside shirt and pulled out a small leather sack. “Here it is.”

Taking the pouch, Ben opened it and poured the necklace into his hand. He looked at it for only a moment – just long enough to insure it was the right artifact – and then quickly the necklace back in the pouch. “Here’s your peace treaty, John,” Ben told the Colonel as he handed the small sack to the officer.

Marks looked from Ben to Joe and back again. He seemed to be trying to find the right words to say, but could only come up with a heartfelt “Thank you, thank you very much.”

“Winnemucca is waiting, John. You’d better go greet him,” Ben urged the colonel.

“Aren’t you coming with me?” asked Marks, looking surprised.

“No, you don’t need me,” Ben replied. He looked toward Joe for a moment, then turned back to the Colonel. “My son needs the help now, much more than you do.” Marks nodded his agreement and walked with military precision toward the waiting Paiutes, shouting orders to his soldiers as he went.

As the Colonel marched off, Joe put his hands on Ben’s shoulders and slumped forward, too exhausted and sore to do anything more than hang on to his father.

“Joe, are you all right?” Ben asked anxiously as he clung to his son.

“I don’t know, Pa,” Joe answered honestly. “I’m too tired to feel anything.”

Adam and Hoss rushed up to join Joe and Ben. “Joe, you had us worried, boy,” Hoss said with concern. “Are you all right?” Joe nodded a bit, too weary to answer his brother.

“Where did you go?” asked Adam. “We looked for you but we couldn’t find you.” Joe just shrugged, finding no strength to talk.

“We can sort this all out later,” Ben declared. “Hoss, help me get Joe over to one of those tents. Adam, get some water.” He slipped Joe’s left arm over his shoulders and wrapped his own arm around his son’s back.

“I can manage by myself,” Joe protested in a barely audible voice.

“Sure you can,” Hoss agreed in a disbelieving tone as he grabbed Joe’s right arm.

“You made it on your own this far, Joe,” Adam told his brother. “Let us help you the rest of the way.”

*****

Ben sat by the cot in the tent, watching Joe as his youngest son slept peacefully. It seemed like he had been sitting here for hours, although Ben knew it couldn’t have been that long. Inside the tent, it was quiet; the only noise was the faint sound of Joe’s breathing. Ben waited for…something; he wasn’t sure what. All he knew was he had to be here, to watch over Joe until he was satisfied his son would be all right.

The current stillness in the tent was a sharp contrast to the flurry of activity that had occurred when the Cartwrights initially arrived at the canvas structure. Ben and Hoss had carried Joe across the meadow, because his youngest son’s legs could no longer support him. Once inside the tent, Ben had carefully laid Joe on the cot, and Joe had immediately fallen asleep. He hadn’t stirred even an inch as Hoss pulled his boots off his feet.

Almost immediately, Adam had barreled into the tent, carrying a bucket of water and a cloth, as well as the canteen. One look at Joe told Adam that the canteen wasn’t going to be used, and he had dropped the container to the floor. Adam and Hoss had set to work removing Joe’s filthy clothes while Ben had cleaned the dirt off his youngest son. Ben had seen the scratches and bruises on Joe’s head, shoulders, ribs, and legs. He could only wonder what misery Joe had endured in order to get to Spruce Meadows.

Throughout all the attention and care he was receiving from his father and brothers, Joe had showed no reaction. In a sleep fueled by exhaustion, Joe felt nothing, heard nothing. His only thought for hours had been to get to Spruce Meadows by noon, and he had accomplished that task through sheer willpower. Once he had handed the sack containing to the necklace to his father, Joe let the fatigue had had been holding at bay run through his body. That fatigue had forced him into a deep, dreamless sleep from which he showed no sign of waking any time soon.

And now Ben waited for some sign that Joe had moved from that frightening deep sleep to a more natural slumber. Leaning forward, Ben felt Joe’s forehead, checking for fever, and then move his hand to gently brush some stray strands of hair to the side of his youngest son’s head. He was surprised when Joe stirred and opened his eyes a bit.

“I’m sorry, Joe,” said Ben softly. “I didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep.”

“Is everything all right?” Joe asked in a groggy voice.

“Yes, everything is fine, thanks to you,” Ben answered. “Now go back to sleep.”

“I made it, Pa,” Joe mumbled as he closed his eyes. “I made it in time.”

“You sure did, son,” Ben agreed. He knew he would get no reply; Joe obviously was asleep once more. Ben watched his son’s even breathing for a bit, then stood. He bent forward to pull the blanket up to cover Joe’s shoulders and to pat his son gently on the top of the head.

If anyone had asked Ben what he was feeling at that moment, he would have had difficulty putting his feelings into words. He was proud of his son’s courage and endurance. He was grateful for the risk that Joe had been willing to take to insure his safety. And he had an urge to grab his youngest son by the shoulders and make him promise to never, ever do anything like that again.

Straightening, Ben watched Joe for a moment, once more assuring himself that his son was sleeping normally. Then he turned and walked out of the tent.

Ben wasn’t surprised to see Adam and Hoss sitting on two stools in front of the tent. He was surprised, however, to see that the meadow in front of him was virtually empty. The Paiutes were gone, the canvas lean-to had been taken down, and the soldiers seemed busy doing mundane tasks around the camp.

“Is the treaty ceremony over?” asked Ben in a startled voice.

“It ended about twenty minutes ago,” Adam answered. “Everything went fine. The treaty is signed, and both sides seemed satisfied. The supply wagons shouldn’t have any trouble getting through Paiute land any more.”

“You should have seen old Winnemucca,” Hoss added with a grin. “He rode out of here wearing that necklace and looking proud as a peacock.”

“How’s Joe?” asked Adam. “Still sleeping?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “I think he’s going to sleep for a week. There’s no sign of fever, though, and other than those scratches and bruises, he seems fine.”

“Did he say anything about how he got them?” Hoss asked.

“No, he didn’t,” Ben answered. “We’re going to have to wait until he wakes up to hear about that.” Ben shook his head. “That was quite a feat he accomplished, getting all the way from Six Forks to here on foot in a little over four hours. I wouldn’t have believed it could be done.”

“Joe’s a tough kid,” observed Adam.

“I always said he was half jackrabbit,” Hoss said. “Guess this proves it.”

Cocking his head a bit, Ben looked at Adam and Hoss. “I also wouldn’t have believed you boys could have found the necklace so quickly. How did you do it?”

“I think maybe we should wait until Joe wakes up to tell you what happened,” replied Adam. “He deserves to be there when we tell you.” A wide smile suddenly broke out on Adam’s face. “You’re going to like this story, Pa; it includes a reclusive miner, a gypsy and a magic cure.

“Don’t forget about the curse,” Hoss chimed in with a grin. “That’s the best part.”

“Magic cure? Curse?” Ben said incredulously. “Just what have you boys up to?”

“Just doing what you taught us, Pa,” Adam replied. “Making sure we finished what we started out to do, no matter how difficult it seemed.”

“We stopped an Indian war and saved a whole bunch of lives,” Hoss added. “That makes everything we had to do, including Joe’s little trip, worth it.”

For the first time in days, Ben smiled. “You know, I told Colonel Marks that I have some pretty remarkable sons,” he said. “But I don’t think even I knew how remarkable my sons really are.”

*****End*****

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