The Long Ride Home (by Doreen)

Summary:  A Missing Scene from the episode “The Quest”
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  2350


It had been an audacious idea of Joe Cartwright’s to build a flume high above Buckhorn Meadow with the intention of using it to deliver a stand of Ponderosa fir straight down to the Truckee River, and then float the timber directly to the mine belonging to the Sun Mountain Mining Company. 

Even Adam had conceded privately with his father it was an inspired plan, though he questioned his little brother’s ability to pull it off on his own.  Reluctantly, Ben had nodded in agreement, concerned as well at his youngest son’s insistence he could manage without any help from the family.  “He’s got to start somewhere, I suppose,” Ben had remarked. “And I have a feeling if Joe doesn’t get a chance to prove himself here on the Ponderosa, we might just lose him.  But I sure wish he’d chosen another quest rather than this timber job.  It’s going to be hard…very hard.”     

And hard it had been — harder than Joe had ever envisaged.  But spurred on by his success at securing the contract to supply the timber from under the nose of his rival Will Povey, Joe had set about his task with optimism and commitment.  He was relishing the challenge of doing something on his own at last and even managed to negotiate a personal loan of five thousand dollars from the bank to pay a performance bond required by the company. 

Men were hired, materials bought and soon the flume began to take shape.  But to Joe’s dismay, it soon became clear not everything was running smoothly high above Buckhorn Meadow.  He was rapidly falling behind with his schedule, mostly due to the inefficiency of the small crew of men hired by his friend and foreman Dave Donovan.  They were obviously work-shy and totally unsuited to the physical demands of building the flume. Noticeably sulky and indifferent to the work they were required to do, these men were more interested in playing poker with the distinct odor of whiskey on their breath at all times of the day and night, and Joe had no choice but to fire them all — his friend Donovan included.  

However, to his credit, Joe refused to let the setback curb his enthusiasm, and, to his delight, under the new foremanship of the experienced Jake Weber, the remaining loggers proved their worth tenfold; toiling from before sunup to after sundown in an attempt to catch up on the time lost.  

And so over the next few days considerable progress was made.  Though everyone was bone tired and near to exhaustion — Joe included — he continued to encourage and joke with the men, jubilant that with only another mile to go on the flume, he would soon be able to send the first of the felled logs rolling down the hill on their way to the river.  

But suddenly to everyone’s surprise and alarm, the logging camp was attacked by ruthless hired gunmen, intent on causing havoc and delaying the work so that Joe would lose the contract and have to forfeit his bond. Under the direction and pay of the unscrupulous Will Povey, Dave Donovan took advantage of the rifle fire that had penned down the ill-prepared and vulnerable loggers, and the ex-foreman managed to pack a few sticks of dynamite around the legs of the flume then struck a match… 

*****

The day had started so well and full of promise for Joe. But as the gunfire ceased and the sound of horses galloping away echoed through the forest, he stared over despairingly at the flume, now a jumble of twisted and broken timber.

There was the unmistakable stink of cordite in the air and Joe sank down, leaning on his rifle with his shoulders slumped in defeat and trying to make sense of what had just happened. So much for doing something on his own, he silently mused as he looked around him. His dream had gone up in smoke; his well-laid plans to prove his worth and give him the credibility he so desired and craved from his family now lying wrecked and smoldering at his feet.

Then through the mist of his own misery, Joe thought he heard his name called in a low but urgent manner. “Mr. Cartwright?”

The voice of his foreman became more insistent. “Boss?”

Joe slowly raised his eyes and could see Jake was beckoning towards him as he stood with the men, all gathered around a prone figure who was moaning pitifully on the ground.

“Brennan’s been hit,” Jake called over. “It looks pretty bad.”

Joe felt an overwhelming sense of shame at his selfishness. He’d been so self-absorbed that the welfare of the men under him had momentarily taken a back seat in his mind. Shaking himself from his moroseness, he quickly hauled himself up.

“Anyone else hurt?” Joe asked with urgency as he made his way to the injured logger whose face was ashen and his eyes were wide with fear.

Jake looked around, checking each man carefully. “Everyone else is fine, Joe; just shook up. We’re not used to being the target for some mad fool gunmen.”

Thankful no one else was injured, Joe knelt by Brennan and could see his face racked in agony as a red stain became noticeable, spreading across his chest. Only minutes before they’d been joking together, and as Brennan raised a hand, he gripped Joe’s arm tightly. “How bad is it Boss?” he asked in a strained voice. “I ain’t ever been shot before. Am I gonna die?”

Knowing all eyes were on him, Joe took a nervous swallow and quickly examined the wounded man, suddenly feeling very tired. Worry and concern was taking its toll on the youngest Cartwright, but to his relief as he gently wiped away the blood, Joe could see the bullet had done far less damage than first thought, luckily just missing the man’s collar-bone and going straight through his shoulder.

“It’s okay, Brennan,” Joe smiled with reassurance as he packed the bullet hole with pieces of torn-up shirt to stem a trickle of blood that continued to flow. “You ain’t gonna die, I promise. And I don’t think you’ll be laid up for long. In a couple of weeks, you’ll be able to beat my head off like you threatened earlier. And I’ll still let you do it.”

Visibly relieved, Brennan sank back with a sigh and gave Joe a grateful nod. “Thanks, Boss,” he croaked in a whisper before closing his eyes with the pain.

As Joe stood up, his face noticeably drawn and pale, he turned his gaze towards his foreman. “It’s nothing too serious, but we still need to get him to the doctor. I don’t want to risk the chance of infection.”

Jake nodded, immediately taking charge and shouting orders to the able bodied men to empty out the supply wagon. Then the injured logger was laid gently down in the back, covered with blankets and made as comfortable as possible. With one man keeping him company at his side and another driving the team, the wagon then set off for Virginia City.

“It’s not your fault,” Jake said as he and Joe watched it disappear from sight. “You weren’t to know there’d be so much trouble.”

Joe gave a wry smile. “Thanks Jake, but I’m the boss. I’m supposed to know everything and be ready for anything, including keeping the men safe. I failed them, Jake. I failed them big time.”

Someone then thrust a mug of steaming coffee in Joe’s hands and he accepted it gratefully. Deep in thought, his eyes once more floated towards the flume and the scene of unbelievable devastation, and while he sipped at his drink, Jake and the remainder of the men stood around in silence.

“So…what now, Joe?” Jake eventually asked. “What do you want us to do?”

As Joe turned his head, he could see all the men were looking at him expectantly, waiting for instruction. But his confidence was now shattered and at an all time low, and for a few moments, Joe had no answer. It was obvious there was no way the small band of loggers could rebuild the flume in time to meet the date agreed in the contract. It would be futile to even attempt it. And even if they could, Joe was now loathed to try.

Over the past few days, they’d all become friends, their hard work making them worthy of Joe’s comradeship and respect. And now he’d allowed one of them to take a bullet while trying to help him prove a point to his family. A vague sort of contempt for his own failure slowly swept over him. He was the boss, the one in charge…the one who made all the decisions. But he’d let them down.

“I’m sorry. I know it doesn’t help much to say it but I’m real sorry. There’s no way we can get this flume built in time now,” Joe said at long last. “It’s over, men…we’re finished.”

As the loggers looked uneasily at each other Joe could guess what they were thinking. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you get paid up to the end of the month. You won’t be out of pocket. Just won’t be able to pay you the bonus I’d hoped to give you for all your hard work….”

As Joe’s voice trailed off, Jake felt a deep compassion for the young Cartwright. “But you’ll lose your performance bond if the flume isn’t completed Joe. You’ll be down five thousand dollars.”

Nodding his head, Joe took a deep swallow. “I know, Jake, but I had no idea Povey would stoop so low. No life is worth risking for the sake of meeting that contract. Looks like he’s won after all.”

“But you can’t let him get away with this!” Jake then cried. “What about your Pa, Joe? Couldn’t you ask him for some help?”

As he drew his fingers through his hair, Joe shook his head wearily, refusing to consider it. “No, Jake. I made it quite clear I wanted to do this on my own, without any help, and I have no right to expect Pa or my brothers to bail me out now.” He studied the scene once more for a few moments before he spoke again. “You and the men stay here until the wagon returns tomorrow morning, then you can bring the remaining supplies back to town and I’ll meet you all there to pay you off. You should be safe enough tonight. Can’t see those gunmen returning now; after all, they’ve done what they set out to do.”

Reluctantly, Jake nodded in agreement and followed Joe as he walked over to where Cochise was tethered. As he took hold of the reins, Jake looked at his boss questioningly. “What are you gonna do now, Joe?”

Joe heaved a deep sigh of resignation. “Not much I can do around here so I might as well go home,” he said quietly, not relishing the prospect of crawling back to his family with his tail between his legs.

Noticing a sympathetic look suddenly cover the foreman’s crinkly old face, Joe laid a hand gently on his shoulder. “I should have listened to Adam, Jake. You’re a good and honest man and I was wrong to not give you the foreman’s job from the first. With you in charge, I probably wouldn’t have got into this mess. I’m sorry.”

Jake thrust out his arm in admiration. “Takes a big man to know he’s wrong, and an even bigger one to admit it. It was a pleasure working with you, Joe…I just wish things had turned out better for you.”

As Joe shook the hand offered towards him, he gave a faint smile. “So do I, Jake…so do I.”

With a heavy heart, Joe then mounted and gave his foreman and the rest of the crew a final nod of thanks and farewell. As he slowly walked Cochise away, he looked back at the camp site with a long lingering look for a final time. He’d so nearly proved himself. But he could have so easily had a dead man on his conscience and that was a price too high to pay for success, and suddenly it didn’t seem to matter so much any more.

The day was still warm and bright, but as he made his way through the forest of fir, Joe’s mind was in such turmoil his eyes didn’t see or appreciate the beauty of the tree-studded landscape. Instead, gloomily his mind drifted back a few weeks and he furrowed his brow as he tried to remember what his father had once said. ‘By himself, any one of us can be broken.’

Well, I’m sure broken now, Joe quietly mouthed. He knew he was a fool to himself and should ask for help from his Pa and brothers. But pride and his desire to prove himself had driven a silent wedge between them and he didn’t expect any offers of assistance or sympathy now. The only thing he could really expect was the ‘I told you so’ speech he so richly deserved.

His stomach churned with the thought he’d soon have to admit to his family he’d failed and he wondered how his Pa would react to his news. Maybe it would come as no surprise. Joe blinked back tears of disappointment from his eyes. Depressed and deflated, he pointed his horse towards the Ponderosa and allowed Cochise to walk at a steady pace, for there was nothing now to inspire haste.

It sure was going to be a long ride home.

***The End***

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