A Gem Without Price
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SUMMARY: Virginia Cityís new jewelry store is robbed and a valuable hostage is taken.
I knew that new jewelry store in town, Maximís, was gonna be trouble right from the start. Itís a shame too, Ďcause Virginia City really needed something like that. A lot of folks around here have been goiní pretty far away to find an engagement ring or a pocket watch, and having a place with a nice selection of those things should have been all to the good. But then there were the other things, the heavy necklaces and big gaudy rings meant for the newly rich mining millionaires to give their ladies. Those kind of things are just an open invitation to robbers. I knew as sure as Iím sittiní here that somebody was gonna try to knock off that place. I just didnít know everything else that was gonna go down when they did it.
The day it happened didnít start out no different from most others. The morning had been pretty quiet, and round about eleven I was takiní my usual stroll around town just tryiní to pick up on whatever might be happeniní and generally keepiní an eye on things.
When I got to the Mercantile, there was Ben Cartwright, talkiní over the counter to Manny the clerk.
"Howdy, Ben," I said. "Havenít seen you or the boys around town for a couple weeks or so. Everything all right?" He looked over at me and raised a hand in greeting.
"Hello. Roy. Good to see you. Yes, everythingís fine. Weíve all just had our hands full, repairing winter damage to the fences and such, rounding up the cattle to move to new pastures, branding the new calves...you know what this time of year is like."
I nodded. I heard the same story from Ben, and from the other ranchers around these parts just about every spring.
"Are the boys in town too?," I asked.
"Just Adam," Ben replied. "He had some sort of private business to attend to. Iím not sure where heĎs gotten himself off to." He smiled. "Hoss and Joe are spending their day off visiting a new neighbor...who just happens to have two quite attractive young daughters. I think they were planning a picnic or something of the sort."
That gave me a chuckle.
"Roy, how would you like to come out for dinner sometime this week?," Ben continued. "We havenít seen enough of each other lately and it would be a good chance to catch up on things."
I was just openiní my mouth to say Iíd be happy to when we were interrupted by young Billy Lawson who appeared at the door, panting hard.
"Sheriff Coffee, you gotta come quick!," he gasped. "Somethingís happeniní over at Maximís Jewelry Store! Hurry!"
Well, I didnít waste no time. In about a half a second I was out the door and heading down the street with Ben close at my heels. We hadnít gone but maybe twenty steps when we heard shots being fired. People were runniní down the street away from the store, coveriní their heads or ducking into alleyways between the buildings. Tiny puffs of dust rose in the street, marking where the bullets fell. As the gunfire continued Ben and I drew our guns and took up position right across from the door to the store behind a wagon that was parked there.
Someone else had found refuge there too. Charles Bailey, a quiet young fella with curly brown hair who was a clerk at Maximís was standing there trembliní all over. I laid a hand on his shoulder, hopiní to calm him down some.
"Whatís goiní on here, Chuck?," I asked him.
He took a deep breath and did his best to give me the story. "Mr. Tyler, the manager, was in the back room with a messenger who had brought a shipment of special items for the store. I was waiting on a customer. There was some noise and shouting from in back, then I heard two shots. All of us in the front room kind of froze when we heard that. A few seconds later four men with kerchiefs over their faces and guns drawn came busting out of the back room, shouting for everybody to get down on the floor. I had just showed my customer out and was standing right next to the door, so I managed to slip outside. One of the men took a shot at me as I ran, but, thank God, he missed. Then they started shooting out through the windows. I think they were trying to clear the street to make a path for their getaway."
"Any idea who these men are?"
"The biggest one, the one who was shouting the orders, was called Jerome by one of the others. Thatís all I know."
Four men with a leader named Jerome. That meant the Casey brothers. And that was not good news.
"How many people are in there? Besides the gunmen, I mean."
"Well, thereís Louis, the other clerk and the couple he was waiting on. Then there were a couple of other people who were just browsing. I think thatís about it."
"Thanks, Chuck," I said, giving him a quick clap on the back. I turned to Ben Cartwright. "Iím goiní out there, Ben," I said to him. "You keep me covered." He nodded and focused his attention on the storefront.
I stepped around the wagon and into the middle of the street.
"You in the store!," I called out. "Jerome Casey! This is the sheriff! You or your brothers harm any of those people in there and itís gonna go hard with you. Come on out with your hands up and nobody will get hurt!"
For a long minute nothing happened. Then there was movement at the door and a man who fitted the description I had received of Jerome Casey emerged, the kerchief pulled down from his face, pushing another man roughly in front of him while he held a gun to the manís head. I heard a gasp from behind me. Taking a quick glance back at Ben I saw that his face had gone suddenly pale. Truth to tell, I felt a lump rising in my own throat.
The man with Caseyís gun at his head was Adam Cartwright.
"Oh, God," I heard Ben murmur under his breath. "What in the world was Adam doing in there?"
I just happened to know something about that. Last time I spoke to Adam he said somethiní about wantiní to check out this new place. He was thinkiní about a new pocket watch for his país next birthday. But I didnít see how knowiní that was gonna help Ben any, so I didnít say anything.
Now, Ben Cartwrightís boys have always been like family to me. Theyíre all fine young men, of course, but I have to admit that I have a kind of special regard for Adam. As a lawman I have good reason to appreciate that fierce sense of justice he has. Iíve seen it in action often enough. Adam has been helpful to me, probably more than anyone in this town except maybe his own father. I have to confess that seeiní him in the hands of that desperado with his life being threatened like that kinda sent a shiver through me. I could only imagine what it was doiní to Ben.
Casey stepped forward, keepiní Adam close and his gun cocked. From the way Adam carried himself and the look in his eyes you might have thought that he was the one holdiní a gun on Casey, not the other way around. Heís always been a cool customer, but Iíve never been more impressed with that fact than I was at that moment. He looked over at his pa, and it was clear that he was tryiní to reassure him that he was all right.
"Sheriff," Casey called to me, "it seems to me like Iím the one with the high card here. Now the way I see it is this. You are going to let me and my brothers ride out of here without any trouble. And weíll take this fella with us, just to be sure you donít play us any tricks. Unless you want to see his brains splattered all over the street, that is."
"You wonít get very far. You know that, donít ya?," I challenged him.
Casey gave a nasty laugh. "I guess as long as we get out of town all right, we can take care of ourselves after that. Iíll take that chance anyway."
I wanted to shake my head. Why do criminals always think so much of themselves - assume they can get away with things? Course itís a good thing they do. Us lawmen would have a lot harder time of it otherwise.
I took a minute to consider. At that point there didnít seem to be much choice. Sometimes you just gotta give in for the moment to give yourself a chance to come back later. This seemed to be one of those times.
I nodded...reluctantly. "Get your ugly faces out of here then."
Ben had come up to stand directly behind me. "Roy..." he said in a choked voice, and I could sense his desperation.
"Take it easy, Ben." I tried to keep my own voice calm. "They ainít about to hurt him. Not as long as they think he can be useful to them. And this ainít over. You know that. It ainít over by a long shot."
A few minutes later Jerome Casey and his brothers were mounted up and heading out of town, taking their loot and their hostage with them. Ben Cartwright stared after them with a look in his eyes that I donít think Iíll ever forget.
The other clerk and the other customers in the store were unharmed. One of them, a young fella, told us that Casey had been ready to take his pregnant wife for their hostage, but Adam goaded him, saying sheíd only hold them up in their escape, and thatís how he wound up being the one chosen instead. Ben shook his head at that, as if to say that was just what he might have expected of his son, but it didnít exactly make him happy.
The manager and the messenger he had been meeting with were found dead in the back room with bullet holes in their heads. There was also a paper listing the pieces in the special shipment of jewelry that had been stolen. The total value came to over seventy-five thousand dollars.
Of course we got a posse together and went after the gang as quickly as we could. There were five men besides Ben and me who were plenty eager for the job. One of them was Charles Bailey.
Their trail proved to be kind of hard to follow. At one point there was a fork in the road and the hardness of the ground made their tracks hard to pick up. It was Ben who noticed a few small shreds of paper on one side of the fork and recognized them. Seems Adam liked to carry a small notepad in the inside pocket of his jacket, and it looked like he had somehow managed, right under the nose of his captors, to tear off a few small pieces from it and drop them as an indication of the direction they had taken. We found the same signal at several other points where there was a question as to the right path. Wasnít there a fairy tale where someone left a trail of crumbs to mark their route? Strange as it might seem, thatís what I was reminded of.
After several hours of hard riding the trail led us up a rocky slope that passed the entrances to a couple of old abandoned mines. Finally, just as the sun was about to set, we rode through a gap between two rises of ground into an open space surrounded by hilly ground on all sides. In the middle of it there was a good size wooden shack that had once been used by miners. And there were the gangís horses, tied up next to it.
There was light coming from inside, but the silence was almost eerie. You could just feel that they were layiní low in there and waitiní for us. We pulled our horses up behind some rocks at the edge of the area and dismounted, tryiní not to make too much noise. The men stood there lookiní at me while I tried to decide how to proceed.
The first thing I wanted to do was try to find out exactly where Adam was and see what the situation looked like in general. I thought Charles Bailey would be the best one to try to do that, so I whispered in his ear and he took off toward the shack, keepiní low to the ground, intendiní to try to get a peek in the window. He hadnít covered more than about half the ground when we heard the sound of shattering glass, and a second later a gunshot came from the broken window. Chuck Bailey gave a little cry of pain and lay there, still. He didnít move again. The rest of us drew our guns, took shelter behind the rocks and began firing back. The exchange of fire went on for several minutes, then died down while everyone reloaded their weapons.
And then, suddenly, the situation just blew up in our faces - literally. There was a tremendous explosion and the shack blew apart with jagged pieces of wood falling all around us. We fell to the ground, covering our heads while the rain of debris lasted.
Ben was the first to scramble to his feet. "Adam!," he shouted, and ran right into the ruins, with the rest of us not far behind. The badly burned bodies of the four Casey brothers were sprawled there close together in the middle of the destruction, but there was nary a trace of their hostage. Ben looked around the scene with frantic eyes and continued to shout his boyís name. Finally, from somewhere under the floor there came a muffled sound. Ben fell to his knees and his hand scrabbled through the dirt and debris until he found the handle to a hidden door in the floor. He threw it open, uncovering a small cellar.
And sure enough, there was Adam, curled up in the cramped space, his hands tied, looking up at us with eyes that squinted against the fading light.
"Hello, gentlemen," he said in a raspy voice. "May I have something to drink, please?"
We had him pulled up out of there and untied before you could say lickety-split, and somebody handed him a canteen. He took a long drink, then poured a little water into his hand and splashed it over his face. He was dirty and thirsty, but he didnít seem to be hurt. Ben embraced him so fiercely that I was afraid for a minute that he might choke him, but somethiní to my surprise, Adam didnít seem to mind.
"Sheriff, take a look at this!," one of the men said. He handed me a soft leather pouch that had also been pulled out of the hole. I opened it, and there were all the pieces of jewelry that had been stolen...all but one, that is. There was one piece missing... a necklace with one very large pearl...a pearl of great price you might say.
I shook my head. The loss of that necklace wasnít gonna go down well with the group that owned Maximís or with the insurer.
I looked over to where Ben stood with his hands still gripping his sonís shoulders, speaking into his ear so quietly that no one else could hear. "What the devil!," I thought to myself. "We recovered the most valuable thing...the thing beyond price. Thatís what really matters."
I guess thatís about it. One happy grace note to what was, at bottom, a sorry situation. Seven men dead all told. And for what? Nothiní that was worth it, thatís for sure.
There are still a couple of mysteries about that day. The ruins of the shack were gone over with a fine tooth comb, but we never did find that missing pearl. You might have thought it would have survived the explosion, but.... Was it somehow lost in the getaway? A search was made along the trail we followed that day, but nothiní was found. The only thing I can figure is that it somehow fell out of the pouch and was picked up by some poor passer-by before we got around to looking. We probíly never will know for sure.. As I expected, the insurers werenít very happy about it, but there wasnít much they could do except pay off to the owners.
But the biggest mystery is what caused the explosion. Since the shack was used by miners itís not surprisiní that there might have been some amount of explosives left there. But how did it get set off? Did they mean to use it against any pursuers and did one of them get careless with it? Again, weíll never know for certain.
It still isnít sure whether the store will ever be opened up again. I donít know myself how I feel about that. I still think that kind of place is an invitation to trouble. But then, I could sure use a new pocket watch.
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