It had been a long two weeks and he considered that his mouth may never be free of trail dust again. The convoy of riders that followed behind him looked just as trail-weary, but they had done him proud and the cattle drive had been a success. Well, if getting all of the cattle to their destination without loss or injury was a success. Even if it had taken almost a week longer than they had planned due to a washout that had forced them farther north. Ben rubbed at the grit on his face and scratched absently at the stubble on his chin. He would be very happy to visit the barber and get a close shave and tidy haircut. Just as soon as he got home.
As always, Ben felt his spirits lift as the ranch house finally came into view. He smiled at both Hoss and Adam as they seemed to sit a little taller in the saddle as well. No matter where he went or how long he was gone, Ben never lost the sense of peace that washed over him when his home appeared over the crest. The house had seen all manner of things come and go for his family over many years, but somehow the solid logs he had hewn with his own hands were like a fortress that encased them all and kept them strong. He smiled at his own thoughts and almost laughed out loud. Adam would understand his musings, but he wasn't so sure about the rest of the men. Oh sure, Hoss would smile indulgently, but if Joe were there, he'd have burst out laughing at his father's sentimentality.
"What's so funny?"
Ben startled as he realised he'd been observed. Adam was watching him from under the brim of his hat as he rode alongside him.
"Oh, just thinking about Joe."
Adam allowed a flicker of a smile as he nodded. "Well I hope little brother has the hearth fire ready and a hearty stew on the stove. After all, he's had two weeks to relax while we've been hard at it."
Ben looked at his eldest son, well aware he was teasing with his comments. Somehow he couldn't help but rise to his youngest son's defense.
"I'd hardly say he's been relaxing. Harry Macklin had far too much work out there to keep him from putting his feet up."
"Well, Little Joe does somehow manage to find these excuses to get outta real man's work! It seems mighty fine timin' that Harry just happened to ask as we was gettin' ready to ride out."
Ben snorted at Hoss's comment as he urged his horse forward. "Why do I sense a week's worth of "who did more work" arguments coming on?" He rubbed at his forehead in an exaggerated gesture as his sons grinned at him.
"Well there's no argument, is there, Pa?"
"No, none whatsoever!"
Ben pushed his horse towards the hitching rail and smiled as he slid off onto the ground. It did him good to feel the solid ground of the Ponderosa beneath his feet once again. The trail of weary men pulled into the yard and he smiled as Hop Sing clambered down from the chuck wagon. One thing was for sure – there was no argument as to who had eaten better over the last two weeks. He might have had a mutiny on his hands if he'd left their cook at home just to keep Joe fed.
He'd half expected his youngest to come ambling from the house, ready to engage his brothers in whatever ribbing came to mind. As he looked up into the afternoon sky, Ben knew that it was quite likely that Joe was still at the Macklin ranch and would not return until dark. Or perhaps even later if he stayed to share a meal with Harry and his sons. He sighed as he began the chores of unpacking after a long drive. It wasn't just his tiredness that nagged at him. He'd missed his son more than he could explain and was disappointed he wasn't home to greet them.
"He'll be here soon enough, Pa." Adam clapped his father on the shoulder and Ben nodded slowly.
"Don't you go tellin' him nothin', but Adam's missed Joe too!" Hoss grinned at his older brother as he ducked a swat to his head.
"That'll be the day!" Adam reached for his horse's reins and headed for the barn. "I've missed his smart mouth and his practical jokes that aren't funny and … oh yes, there's the …."
Ben turned back for the house and laughed as he walked. In spite of what they said, he knew that Adam and Hoss were just as eager to catch up with their brother as he was. As he stepped into the great room he was struck by how chilled it was. He frowned as he headed for the fireplace and found nothing but grey powdery ashes in the grate. Even if Joe had intended to be late, he would have banked the fire before leaving. It was such an ingrained act of survival in a wilderness area that his sons all knew how to do it as small boys.
"I guess Joe's gettin' lazy without us on his back!"
"Hmm." Ben reached for the stack of firewood that Hoss had carried in, but he could not shake a shiver of concern that washed over him. Joe might take advantage from time to time, but he would not slack on something important. As the nights turned colder, a fire burning in the hearth was not something to trifle with.
By the time they had shared a meal and were ready to retire for the night there was still no sign of Joe. The fact Cochise was standing in his stall simply confirmed that Joe had taken a wagon to the Macklin ranch. What bothered Ben most was how little feed remained in the stall and that it had clearly not been mucked out. Ben knew that there was no way his son would neglect his beloved horse and it just added another notch of worry to his already tired mind. His concern must have shown on his face as he once again glanced toward the closed door, almost as if expecting his wayward son to wander in at any moment.
"I guess he musta felt it was easier to stay at the Macklins for the night. They had a mighty big job planned out there after all."
Hoss always found a way to put a positive spin on any situation and while Ben appreciated what he was doing, he could not bring himself to agree. After all, there was nobody else to do the chores that Joe should have been doing and he had no way of knowing when the men would return home.
"You could be right. Whatever the case, I think we'll head over to check on their progress in the morning."
Adam nodded in agreement as he glanced at his brother. Hoss's face reflected his own concern and he knew that all three of them would be hard-pressed to sleep, regardless of how trail-weary they were.
The sun had barely crested the horizon when the trio of riders set out for the Macklin homestead. Ben had been proud of his son's willingness to help when Harry Macklin had been thrown from a Ponderosa horse and broken his leg. The whole incident was an unfortunate accident and Harry had assured them he held no malice, but Joe had felt the weight of responsibility fell on his shoulders. Ben had been unable to assuage his misplaced guilt and knowing his youngest son the way he did, he knew that Joe's best avenue for dealing with it was in a practical manner. Harry's two boys were hard workers and fine young boys, but they were just boys. While Harry had been incapacitated, things had slipped around the ranch. The biggest concern weighing on Harry's mind was the road that had washed out behind his homestead had left him having to travel the long way around to get anywhere. Adam had suggested a small bridge placed upstream of the washout would solve the problem and Joe had set to work cutting timber for it. When the time came for them to leave on the cattle drive, Joe had begged his father to be left behind to finish the job. Hoss and Adam had teased him mercilessly about shirking his own work, but even they had known it was nothing of the kind. Winter was on its way and if Harry was going to have the use of his bridge before the spring then the job needed to be completed sooner rather than later. The river water was already chilled, but soon it would be clogged with ice and any work would have to hold over until it thawed.
As Ben's horse crested the hill that overlooked the Macklin ranch, he was pleased to see signs of smoke rising from the cabin chimney. It at least meant somebody was at home. For some unknown reason, he had harboured a nagging thought that told him otherwise and he could neither explain it nor shake it. By the time he pulled his horse to a stop in the front yard, he was shaking his head at his own runaway thoughts.
Young Robbie Macklin stepped out on the porch with a water pail in his hand, but stopped in his tracks when he saw the three men approaching.
"Did ya find him?" The look on his face was a mixture of trepidation and hope and Ben frowned at the question.
At the sound of voices, Robbie's older brother walked out through the open door and stared at the trio of riders. He craned to see behind them, as if expecting somebody else. As Ben climbed down from his horse and strode towards him, he frowned at the man's expression. How did he not know?
"Little Joe, of course! Didja find him yet?"
Ben crossed the small porch in a couple of steps while staring at the two boys. "I came here to see if Joe had stayed here overnight. Why should I be out looking for him anywhere else?"
Robbie frowned at his older brother and instinctively knew that something wasn't right. He couldn't explain it, but Darren was shuffling from one foot to the other and looking very uncomfortable.
"Boys?" The tone of Ben's voice made them both jumpy and Robbie edged a little closer to his brother.
"We figured the sheriff musta called you in from the cattle drive. You know… to help look for Joe."
Ben was rapidly losing patience, but he forced himself to speak calmly. He could see he was frightening the two boys and he needed them to give him the answers he desperately needed.
"Boys, I think you need to start from the beginning. Why do we need to be looking for Joe? What's happened to him? And where is your pa?"
"Pa went lookin' for Joe. He told me to ride to town and get the sheriff so's they could help look. That was yesterday and Pa ain't come back yet."
Ben could feel his blood pressure rising as he clenched a fist, trying not to spook the boys with his frustration.
"Where was Joe? When did you last see him?"
Robbie could not contain the tears that welled in his eyes and he gulped a mouthful of air.
"It was my fault! Pa told us to stay put on the river bank, but I just wanted ta see the new bridge they was building." He felt his brother's arm slip over his shoulder as he started to sniffle again.
"It was an accident! Robbie didn't mean no harm. He was tryin' to see and he slipped. He fell into the river and Joe just jumped in after him."
Ben scrubbed his hand across his face as he tried to make sense of the story. If Robbie was standing in front of him, then clearly Joe pulled him free of the water. He knew he was missing something, but the small boy who was now sobbing openly was not making much sense. Darren hugged his younger brother's shoulders and nodded.
"Joe was up on one of them crossbars that he and Pa were hauling up and he saw Robbie fall in. I guess the crossbar wasn't lashed down yet, 'cause when Joe jumped in the river, it fell in too."
Adam and Hoss had moved in beside their father and the three of them made an unintended intimidating sight. Robbie rubbed a fist across his nose and tried vainly to stop the tears that flowed.
"Joe grabbed my collar and he pushed me up onto the bank, but before he could get outta the way, that big log hit him."
Ben felt his stomach drop as understanding sunk in. A massive piece of timber, the size of a crossbar, moving at speed in the water could do some serious damage.
"Pa was tryin' to get to Robbie and his leg was giving him grief so's by the time he got there, Little Joe was gone."
Ben felt Adam's hand clasp his shoulder, as if ready to keep him standing upright.
"Yessir. We couldn't see him anywhere and Pa shouted at me to go and get the sheriff. I did! As fast as I could get there an' Sheriff Coffee brought a bunch of men with him. He told me to get Robbie dry an' warm an' wait for Pa." Darren's voice began to waiver as he stared at the faces before him. "We've been waitin' all night, but nobody's come back yet.
Ben reached a hand to ruffle the boy's hair before straightening back up. "I'm sure they've found Joe and just needed to dry him out by a fire. Now you two need to get back inside where it's warm and wait for your Pa. I'm sure he'll be along soon."
Darren tugged at the empty water pail in his brother's hand as he watched the three men mount up and ride out towards the river.
Roy Coffee pulled his horse up alongside the hitching rail and slowly slid from the saddle to the ground. It was dark and the streets of Virginia City were almost deserted as he made his way into his office. He was grateful that one of his deputies had left the lamp burning before heading out and he shuffled towards the pot of coffee brewing on the stove. As he poured a cup of the thick black liquid, he felt every inch of his body aching from long days in the saddle. It had been four days since young Darren Macklin had torn into his office, rambling some wild nonsense about Joe Cartwright being dead. As he slumped into his chair and sipped at the bitter liquid, Roy closed his eyes. He was beginning to think that Darren might have been right after all.
At first he'd told the terrified boy that he needed to slow down and tell him the whole story. It soon became apparent that he needed men to search the river and he'd dragged out anybody he could find. He'd never expected to find Ben and his boys riding towards him only hours later. A part of him had been relieved he didn't have to wire his friend and call him home, but a bigger part of him was frightened. He'd seen his friend almost go under when Marie died and he was certain that the loss of his youngest son could very well break the man.
For four days they had scoured the river and the surrounding banks looking for any sign of the young man. He knew Joe could swim like a fish, having grown up swimming in Lake Tahoe, but Harry's words had chilled him to the bone. Joe had barely managed to drag young Robbie to the riverbank when the crossbar had slammed into him. Harry said he had gone under and none of them had seen him resurface. Even the best of swimmers needed to come up for air. The Truckee River was running almost at its peak and the currents were wild and unpredictable. The water was freezing as the season slipped closer to the winter snows and Roy knew that each passing hour lessened any hope of finding Joe alive.
Adam turned to hang the bridles over the railing and he paused to stare at Cochise. Joe's horse had not been out of the barn since they had returned and his tired mind kept throwing all sorts of questions at him that he did not want to answer. As if reading his state of mind, Cochise snorted loudly and pranced backwards in his stall. Adam moved over to rub at his neck and watched as the horse began to quieten down.
"You miss him too, huh?" Cochise watched him as Adam stretched up to scratch his muzzle the way Joe did. "He's coming back, you know. Don't you worry, he'll be back to take you out for a ride real soon."
"Course he will."
Adam swung around to see Hoss watching him from the doorway. He had no idea how long his brother had been there, but he felt a little foolish to be caught talking to a horse. Hoss simply grinned at his awkward expression.
"Little Joe ain't gonna just leave Cochise here. He'll be back before you know it."
Adam pushed away from the railing, gave the horse one last pat and headed towards the door. He nodded at Hoss and made his way towards the house. As the two of them walked through the front door they were surprised to find their father seated at his desk with his head in his hands. What shocked them both was that he made no attempt to straighten up as they came in the door. They both knew their father was a strong man who could usually keep his emotions in check when he needed to.
"Pa?" Hoss slowly moved towards the desk and frowned at Adam as their father still made no attempt to move.
"Pa? Are you feeling alright?"
As the two of them reached the front of the desk, Ben slowly looked up. All three of them were exhausted, but he suddenly looked completely beat.
"I was just wondering where we look tomorrow. I mean …" Ben looked towards his two sons and saw his own uncertainty reflected on their faces. He scrubbed a hand across his jaw as he struggled to find the words his mind was trying to deflect. "I mean, we must have missed something. We need to start over because we must have missed something!"
Adam slowly sat down on the edge of the desk and stared at his father's anguished face. He refused to acknowledge he had begun asking himself some unsettling questions too. Like when they would be forced to admit defeat and call off the search. "I think we all need to get some food into us. Hop Sing almost has supper on the table and we need to eat."
It was painful to watch as his father slowly pulled himself up from the chair and moved towards the dining table. His father was the strongest person he knew and yet it seemed he was being torn to shreds before their eyes. Hop Sing hovered around, trying to decide between staying close and retreating back into the kitchen. As Hoss piled food onto his father's plate and shoved it under his nose, Adam tried to force himself to step up. It wasn't the first time his father had needed his strength and he was determined to give him whatever he needed. They all tried not to acknowledge the empty chair where his brother should have been and Adam momentarily closed his eyes to blot out the ugly thought that arose in his mind. He had not shared his last meal with his youngest brother. He simply refused to believe that to be true.