Word Count: 8921
“JOE! DADBURN YOUR ORNERY HIDE!” grumbled Hoss aloud, which earned him a stern look from his father.
“JOSEPH!” Shouted Ben, his hands cupped around his mouth to give volume to his already deep voice.
“I wonder where that boy has wandered off to this time?” growled Adam. “Seems like lately, all our time is spent looking for that smallest cub of yours, Pa.”
Ben shook his head, angry that Little Joe had taken off without telling anyone where he was going, again.
“You’re right Adam, I just don’t understand him; I plainly told him yesterday that he had better not let it happen again. And look, not more than twenty-four hours later, he does the same thing!”
“I checked every place you told me too, Pa, the barn, the loft, the smokehouse, the hen house and even peeked in the outhouse, he ain’t in any of’em,” Hoss explained. “Shucks, I even looked in the well house and down in the cellar.”
Ben let out a long sigh and lifted his hat from his head with one hand and used his free hand to run his fingers through his silver hair. He glanced up at the sky and sighed again.
“It’s going to be dark soon,” he said, more to himself than to his two sons.
“His pony is still in the barn,” Adam said, “so he couldn’t have gotten too far, not on foot.” Adam turned to Hoss, “when was the last time you saw him?”
Hoss wrinkled up his face, his eyes pinched tightly closed, as he gave thought to the last time that he had seen his younger brother.
He scratched his head, “breakfast…I remember cause he was still poutin’, and he didn’t come in at lunch, I remember that too, cause Hop Sing was shoutin’ about how he’s always slavin’ over a hot stove and then no one ever comes in and eats, ‘ceptin’ me, that is.” Hoss smiled broadly at his brother and father.
“Naturally,” muttered Adam.
“Son,” Ben said, addressing Hoss, “you said Joe was still pouting; what was he pouting about?”
“Well, I ain’t rightly sure, Pa; could have been a number of things…”
“Such as? Hoss, I need a little help here, if Joe was upset about something…”
Hoss was shaking his head, “He t’weren’t upset about anythin’, just mad cause I wouldn’t let him go down to the corrals with me yesterday after supper. The men brought in a whole new herd of mustangs and started breakin’ them. I know ya don’t like him down there durin’ those times, and…well…I had to send him back to the house twice. The last time, I told’em I’d tell you if’n I caught him back down there again. I suppose that must’va been what he was poutin’ about,” explained Hoss.
Ben’s brows drew together as his face twisted into a deep scowl.
“Pa, don’t be mad at Little Joe, he cain’t really help himself none, he sure ‘nough likes those horses,” Hoss said, hoping that what he had just revealed to his father would not get his youngest brother into more trouble than he was already in.
“Hoss, you did the right thing, you know how Pa feels about Joe being too near those wild horses, and besides, Little Joe knows too,” Adam challenged Hoss’ peacekeeping effort.
“Your brother is right Adam, Joseph knew better than to be down there, he knows the rules. When I find him, that will be just one more thing that I will discuss with that little scamp,” Ben growled as he headed for the barn.
“Adam, come on; Hoss, Adam and I are going to go look for Joe. You stay here in case he comes back. I don’t want him coming in after dark and finding himself alone in the house. The last thing I need is for that boy to start a fire trying to light a lamp!”
“Sure ‘nough, Pa,” Hoss called as he started back toward the house. “I’ll grab a sack and stuff it with some chow, poor little fella’s liable to be hungry when ya find him.”
“Hunger is going to be the least of his worries,” Ben muttered under his breath.
Adam glanced at his father and though Ben’s tone sounded angry, the worry that he saw in his father’s eyes, told a different story.
“He’s probably down at the fishing hole and forgot about the time,” Adam said as he saddled his horse. He was hoping to reduce his father’s worries to a minimum.
Ben stopped what he was doing and glanced up over the top of his saddle at Adam.
“Thank you son, I know what you are trying to do, but it won’t work.” Ben gave his eldest son a small smile. “You know how I am about that boy, I’m a regular…”
“Mother Hen?” smiled Adam, his eyes twinkling.
In spite of himself, Ben laughed. “Yes, a mother hen, but I can’t help it son, if anything were to happen to that boy…”
“I know, Pa…we all feel the same way about him.”
“I realize that, Adam, and I love you more for feeling as I do about Joe. I find that the older I get, the more I tend to worry, especially about him, he’s so…so…”
“Unpredictable?” Adam offered with a slight smile on his face. He snickered when he saw his father’s head nod in agreement and then followed Ben out of the barn.
“Exactly, not to mention free spirited, rambunctious, spontaneous, impulsive and fearless, all rolled into one and…all of which are good reasons to make me worry. Now come on, lets try the lake first, since it’s on the way and then, being as how he seemed out of sorts with Hoss, we’ll stop by his mother’s grave. That’s where he usually likes to go when he’s got something on his mind,” Ben told Adam as he mounted up.
Hoss hurried across the yard and handed the sack of food to Adam. “Good luck,” he called as Ben and Adam rode out of the yard.
Hoss stood with hands on his hips and glanced around the yard, trying to think where his little brother might have ventured off too. He knew that Joe would not stay out too long, not with it growing dark, Joe didn’t much like being out after dark, even if one of his brothers or their father were with him, much less by himself.
“JOE! YA AIN’T HIDIN’, ARE YA?” shouted Hoss. “HEY JOE, I HOPE YA AIN’T MAD AT ME ABOUT THEM MUSTANGS AND ALL! Dadburnitall…” mumbled Hoss softly.
Hoss shoved his hands deeply into his pockets and kicked at a clump of dirt with the toe of his boot.
“I’M SORRY, LITTLE JOE. I DIDN’T MEAN TO GET YA IN TROUBLE WITH PA!” he called as he wiped his large beefy hand across the front of his face.
He was beginning to grow concerned that something might have happened to his little brother, and if it had, he’d never forgive himself. Hoss, being the most tenderhearted of all the Cartwright men, and the one closest in age to Little Joe, was also the one who tended to start worrying long before the others even thought about worrying. He kicked the toe of his boot at another clump of dirt and ambled slowly to the barn. When he started to pull open the door, a strange noise caught his attention. He stopped, hoping that his missing family member might cause the racket being made.
Hoss entered the barn cautiously, “JOE, IS THAT YOU BOY?”
“Meow…” an old barn cat jumped down from the worktable and scampered between two boards where a hole provided an escape.
“Gosh dangit!” Hoss fussed, disappointed that it had been the old mama cat searching for a mouse for its supper and not his little brother.
Hoss felt like crying, the sun had set behind the treetops and soon would disappear entirely behind the mountain peaks, and still no signs of Little Joe.
“Where are ya, short shanks?” whispered Hoss as he walked to the stable where Joe’s pony was munching on some oats. He stopped long enough to scratch the pony’s velvety nose.
“Hey ya, Paint, reckon where that little rascal went off too?” Hoss asked the pony.
Paint bobbed his head up and down and pushed against Hoss’ chest with his nose. “Sure wish ya could talk, little pony. I know Joe talks to ya all the time, and I bet ya, he dun told ya where he was headed, didn’t he?” whispered Hoss.
When the pony bobbed his head a second time, Hoss truly believed that he had his answer. “I thought so.”
“Pa, it’s too dark, we best start home,” Adam said, eyeing his father’s worried expression. “Maybe he’s already there…”
“And if he’s not, then where could he be, Adam?” Ben’s voice expressed his fears. “Dear God, what if something has happened to the boy?”
Ben met Adam’s dark eyes, and knew that his eldest son was worried as much about his brother as Ben was about his son.
“Don’t think that way, Pa…Joe’s probably alright, he’s just…just…Pa?” Adam asked suddenly as an idea popped into his head.
“What is it, son?” Ben answered, seeing Adam’s facial features change.
“You don’t suppose that Joe might have…hm…run away, do you?” Adam suggested.
Ben’s eyes widened at the prospect that his youngest son would be so daring. “Run away? Adam, whatever for?”
“Well, Hoss did say that Joe was mad at him, and Hoss did threaten to tell on him. What if Joe believed Hoss did tell? Then he’d know he would be in trouble, so perhaps he thought that by running away, he….”
“Oh Adam please, Joe might know he would be in trouble, but not so much so that he’d actually run away!” Ben shook his head. “No…Joe doesn’t like being out after dark well enough to run away.”
“Then maybe he’s hiding, trying to worry Hoss to make him feel guilty for fussing at him,” Adam said after giving a moment’s thoughts to his father’s dismissal of his first suggestion.
This time, Ben nodded his head.
“I can see Joe doing that,” Ben said softly. “And if that’s what he’s been up to, then he’s only digging himself a deeper hole. Come on, lets start back, maybe the boy has gotten home by now,” Ben said wishfully.
Hoss was waiting on the porch when his father and brother returned and hurried across the yard to greet them. Ben could tell by the disappointment on his middle son’s face that Joe had not come home.
“No luck?” Hoss asked as Ben dismounted.
“I’m afraid not. There was no sign that he’d been fishing and no tracks to indicate that he’d been up at his mother’s grave. I just don’t know…Adam, I know you’re tired son, but would you mind riding over to the Devlin’s and asking whether or not Mitch might have seen your brother any time today?” Ben asked.
Adam was in the process of dismounting and stopped, swinging his long leg back across Sport’s saddle.
“I don’t mind, I’ll be back as soon as possible,” he said and turned his horse away from the yard.
“What are ya goin’ to do now, Pa?” Hoss asked, following his father into the barn.
“I’m going inside and get a bite to eat and wait until Adam comes back. If Mitch hasn’t seen your brother then Adam and I will start all over,” grumbled Ben as he marched back to the house.
“Mitch, you’re sure you haven’t seen Joe today, not at all?” Adam asked for the second time.
Joe’s best friend stood next to his father in the living room of their spacious home. Adam watched closely, the boy’s face, for he knew that there had been certain times when the boy, and his brother, had lied to cover up for the other.
“Positive, Adam. I ain’t seen Joe since yesterday when we rode home from school together,” Mitch repeated his answer. “I came straight home, just like Pa told me too, and I left Little Joe at the forks of the road, just like always.”
Adam let out a long sigh and placed his hand on Mitch’s shoulder.
“Alright Mitch, but if you should see him, would you tell him to come home? Pa’s really worried about him.”
“Sure,” Mitch agreed.
“Thanks Mr. Devlin, I’m sorry to bother you this late, but we’re getting a little concerned, it isn’t like Joe to stay out this long after dark,” Adam explained as he walked to the door with his father’s close friend.
“I understand, Adam. Would you like for me to saddle up and help you look for the boy?” Charlie Devlin volunteered.
“I would think that it’s almost too dark to find any tracks, but I’ll let Pa know and if Joe hasn’t come back by morning, I suppose we could use as much help in searching for the boy as we could get. Thanks again,” Adam said as he mounted his horse.
“I’ll ride over in the morning, Adam. I’ll see you then,” Charlie called out to Adam.
“I talked to the men in the bunk house, they haven’t seen him either,” groaned Ben as he paced back and forth in front of the massive fireplace.
Adam sat in the blue chair and Hoss had settled his large frame in Ben’s favorite red leather chair. Ben picked up the fire poker and began jabbing at the dying embers with the end of the poker.
“It’s going to be cold tonight,” he said absently.
He turned suddenly and glanced at Hoss. “Did your brother have on his jacket when you sent him back to the house?”
Hoss shook his head. “Nosir, it was rather warm this mornin’ and when Joe left the table, he didn’t stop to get it.”
Ben’s eyes traveled across the room to the hat rack beside the front door. Joe’s jacket was hanging by one of the wooden pegs.
“Well, at least he has his hat…” murmured Ben.
Ben returned to his poking of the embers, lost in thought.
“Pa?” Adam said, standing to his feet and moving to place his hand on his father’s shoulder.
Ben glanced up into the face of his oldest son.
“Sam Taylor has some tracking dogs, why don’t I ride over to his place and ask him if we can use his dogs? I hear tell they’re pretty good,” suggested Adam.
Ben turned to look at the clock, noting the late hour. “It’s rather late to go knocking on a man’s door son, it’s nearly ten o’clock.”
“I know, but if I talk to him tonight, he could be here first thing in the morning, we’d save several hours by going over there now rather than waiting till morning,” Adam concluded.
“I suppose you’re right. Go ahead, and tell Sam I’ll pay for his time,” Ben agreed at last.
He rubbed his hand across the front of this face; his fear for his youngest son’s welfare was easy to detect by the fine lines caused by his concern for the missing boy.
It was nearly mid-night by the time that Adam returned. When he pushed opened the door, he wasn’t at all surprised to find his father where he had left him, standing in front of the fireplace.
“Well? What did Sam say? Is he going to let us use the dogs?” Ben quizzed his son.
“Yes, sir. He said he’d be here first light,” smiled Adam.
He felt more assured after speaking with his neighbor. Adam had seen the dogs; they were purebred bloodhounds and more than capable of tracking a man, or boy, just by taking a whiff of the person’s clothing. Adam explained that to his father as Ben finally allowed himself to sit down.
“That’s what they are bred for, Pa, tracking. Sam said that even the sheriff over in Carson City used them once to track down a murdered. All he did was give the dogs a shirt that the man had worn, and the dogs took right out after that fellow. Only took them a minute to pick up the man’s trail and by noon, the sheriff had his prisoner back in jail.”
“That’s good; I hope we are as lucky.” Ben stood to his feet. “I guess we might as well try to get some sleep, tomorrow will be a long day.” Ben began moving slowly toward the stairs.
“I’ll turn down the lamps for you, Pa, you go on to bed.”
Adam rose to his feet and moved to his father’s side. Ben had paused at the bottom step. Gently, Adam placed his hand on his father’s shoulder.
“We’ll find him, Pa…and he’ll be alright,” Adam said in a low voice.
Ben’s head had dropped and he fought to control his rising panic. He swallowed away the thickness in his throat and he turned and faced Adam.
“I pray that you’re right, son. If anything has happened to that boy, I’d never forgive myself,” Ben muttered.
Without another word, Ben climbed the stairs and made his way down the hall, stopping at Joe’s bedroom door. He paused briefly and then turned the knob, pushing the door opened. Silently, as if he expected his son to be sleeping, Ben entered the room and crossed the floor to Joe’s empty bed. Ben’s heart began beating rapidly; his eyes misted as he bent down and picked up Joe’s ragged stuffed dog, Scruffy, and cradled the worn toy to his breast. For several moments Ben stood silently, praying for his son’s safe return, unaware that Adam stood in the doorway watching. When Ben at last placed the stuffed dog back where Joe had placed it, Adam slipped softly into his own room and closed the door, fearful of what the morrow might bring.
Ben, Adam and Hoss where just finishing their breakfast when the sound of barking dogs caused them to hurry from the house. Ben was first out the door, and smiled at the welcomed sight of his neighbor, Sam Taylor.
“Sam!” greeted Ben, extending his hand. “Thanks for coming!’
Sam clasped Ben’s hand and shook it up and down. “No problem Ben, that’s what friends are for. Besides, I know how fond you are about that boy of yours, ya should have come seen me sooner, the minute you realized the lad was missing!”
“Well, I really wasn’t too concerned at first, I just thought he might have wondered off to do a little fishing, or perhaps hiding from his brother, I never really expected him not to come home, until it got dark. That’s when I really became frightened for the boy,” explained Ben.
“Well, don’t worry, Ben; if the boy’s around, these hounds will find him,” Sam said. “I need something of the boy’s, something that he’s worn recently, so the dogs can become familiar with his scent.”
“Oh yes, Adam said you’d need an article of clothing. How’s this?” asked Ben, handing Sam Joe’s jacket, which he had grabbed from behind the door.
“That’s perfect, Ben. Now, where was the last place the boy was seen?” asked Sam, glancing around at the others.
“Hoss? You would know better, since you were the last one to see Joe,” Ben said, directing his question at his middle son.
Hoss scratched his head in thought. “Yesterday, at breakfast, remember, I told ya that already.”
“Before that Hoss, when Little Joe was outside,” urged Sam, fighting to hold the barking dogs back.
“Well, the day before, down at the corrals, when I sent him back to the house. I ain’t sure where he went once he got here, I suppose back inside,” Hoss answered, glancing at his father.
“Pa, he could have gone anywhere, his tracks are all over the yard, and I’ve dun checked, there ain’t any leading out of the yard, exceptin’ those showin’ he went down to the see the mustangs,” Hoss added.
“That’s alright, Hoss, we’ll take the dogs down to the corrals and let them pick up the boy’s trail from there. If he came back to the house, they’ll follow his scent back here and then pick it up and lead us in which ever direction that Little Joe took from here. Come on, let’s get started.”
Sam jerked on the leashes of the two dogs and headed off in the direction of the corrals where Hoss had last been with Joe. The dogs yanked and pulled excitedly on the long leashes, baying at the top of their voices in anticipation of the hunt.
Once Sam had the dogs down by the fences where Hoss pointed to the spot where Joe had been standing, he let the dogs take a long whiff of Joe’s jacket. Ben, Adam and Hoss stood to the side, watching how the dogs reacted to Joe’s scent.
The dogs started howling; Sam released the snaps on both collars and shouted, “Go find him, boys!”
The dogs immediately began running in circles, looking for the scent and when one dog made a mad dish toward the house; the second dog followed both yapping loudly. Sam took off running after his dogs.
“Come on!” he shouted over his shoulder to Ben and his sons who instantly reacted and began following Sam.
Within minutes, the baying hounds were back in the yard. One dog ran toward the front of the house, the second dog seemed to be running in circles as if he were chasing his own tail. The first dog, a large brown hound with long droopy ears returned to the center of the yard and spent several moments sniffing around in the dirt. Dusty, a rich red colored hound, moved off toward the barn, going inside but just as quickly returned to the front yard.
“They’ve lost the trail,” surmised Ben, the disappointment showing on his face as he looked at Sam. “Why?” he demanded, not attempting to hide his frustration from his neighbor or his sons.
“They haven’t lost it, Ben,” Sam explained, “the trail ends here.”
Ben frowned, pinching his lips tightly together as he glanced at Adam and then Hoss. “How can that be? Unless Joe just up and vanished, disappeared into thin air!”
Ben was beside himself, he had anticipated an early end to his search, one in which he had hoped would find, and return to him, his youngest son.
“Take it easy, Pa,” Adam whispered, “he’s doing the best he can.”
“Well it isn’t enough! I want my son back!” Ben shouted. Ben inhaled deeply, filling his lungs. “I’m sorry, Sam,” he apologized. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you like that.”
Sam snapped the leashes back onto the dogs’ collars. “It’s okay Ben, I understand. Look, is there anyway that Joe might have…say…rode off, maybe on his pony or with someone?”
“His pony is still in the barn,” Adam told Sam. He looked at his father, “who would he have ridden off with?”
“I have no idea, none of the men have seen anyone around that they didn’t know…dear God! You don’t think someone might have taken my son, do you?” Ben said worriedly as the new thought brought forth a new kind of fear.
“You mean, kidnapped Little Joe?” Hoss stammered. “Why would anyone want to kidnap, Joe?” he asked cutting his eyes around to check Adam’s reaction.
“I haven’t even given that idea any thought,” Adam admitted, “but it is possible, I suppose. We were all busy that day; anyone could have just ridden in and taken the boy.”
“Not without a fight, I mean, Joe wouldn’t have just gone along willingly, he would have called out, I’m sure,” Ben suggested.
“Unless he wasn’t able to,” Adam added.
His statement brought a new expression of fear to his father’s face. Ben turned away from his sons and neighbor and began pacing back and forth. He stopped suddenly, rubbing the back of his neck.
“What if that someone was a person that Joe knew…not a stranger…so he’d have no reason to think he would be in danger?” Ben implied.
“But who?” Adam said, thinking out loud. “And better yet, why? If someone wanted to take him, say for a ransom, why haven’t we heard anything? They would have had plenty of time to send a note, but we’ve not received a thing.”
Before Ben could comment, Roy rode into the yard, followed by two more men.
“Howdy, Ben,” Roy called as he dismounted his horse. “Jess and Hank here have come to help search for Little Joe, ya ain’t found him yet have ya?”
“No Roy, not yet. Sam turned his dogs loose, but they can’t find anything except from the corrals to here. Hi Jess, Hank, thanks for coming by.” Ben shook hands with all three and then turned back to Roy.
“We’ve been discussing the possibility that Joe might have been kidnapped,” explained Ben.
“But ruled that out as we’ve received no ransom note,” Adam added.
“I have to agree with Adam, Ben. If someone was looking to make a quick dollar, they would have let you know by now,” Roy said, agreeing with Adam’s thought.
No body noticed that Hoss had grown quiet or that he had suddenly slipped away into the barn until his father turned to speak to him and then realized that Hoss was no longer with the group.
Adam’s eyes swept the yard, surprised to see that Hoss was gone. “Beats me, he was here just a minute ago.”
“I’ll look in the barn, why don’t you have the men mount up and we’ll start another search, it’s light enough now, maybe we over looked something last night?” suggested Ben.
When Ben entered the barn, he spotted Hoss right away. The boy stood in the back corner with his forehead resting on his arm that was propped against the wall. Hoss was unaware that his father had entered and was now standing behind him.
“Hoss?” Ben spoke softly, surprised to hear his son sniffling.
Hoss whirled around startled by his father’s voice. Quickly he rubbed his hands over his eyes, wiping dry the moisture that had dampened his face.
“I didn’t hear ya come in,” he stammered, embarrassed that his father had found him weeping.
“Son, are you okay?” Ben asked gently.
“Yeah…I was just…um…” Hoss took a deep breath, his eyes filled with tears and when he blinked, they rolled slowly down his face. “I shouldn’t have said what I said to’em, Pa. I didn’t mean it, honest,” cried Hoss, dabbing at his eyes again. “I was just angry, ’cause the little cuss wouldn’t do what I told ’em to do…I really didn’t mean I wished he’d just disappear!”
Ben tenderly gripped his sixteen-year old son by the shoulders. He was having trouble understanding what Hoss was trying to tell him. Gently he guided Hoss to a wooden crate and forced him to sit down.
“Son, please calm down.”
Ben waited until Hoss had his emotions under control before continuing with his questioning.
“Now, why don’t you start from the beginning? What has you so upset…if it’s Joe, we’ll find him, son, don’t fret about that…it’s only a matter of time,” Ben said encouragingly with more enthusiasm that he actually felt.
Hoss looked up at his father. “It ain’t that, Pa…I know we’ll find him, eventually.”
Ben took a seat next to Hoss and slipped his arms about the sobbing shoulders. “Then what is it?”
Hoss sniffed his nose and swiped his hands over his eyes once more. “The other day, when the boy was down at the corrals, I had to keep shooing him back to the house. I was getting madder by the minute, cause the ornery little cuss kept sneakin’ back down there. The last time I shooed him away, I told’em I wished he’d just disappear for a while, so’s I could do my work.”
Hoss stopped and glanced at Ben. His chin had begun to quiver and he was fighting back more tears.
“I didn’t mean it, Pa…not really,” sobbed Hoss.
Ben’s heart melted; his compassion for his tenderhearted son was evident on his face.
“Oh, Hoss, of course you didn’t mean it, and I’m sure your little brother knew you didn’t,” Ben tried to console his son.
“But he had the strangest look on his face, like he really did think I meant what I’d said. He was hurt Pa, I saw it in his eyes, but right then, I didn’t care, I just wanted him to leave me alone,” Hoss hung his head, gently shaking it from side to side. “I hurt ’em, Pa…that’s why he’s gone, because of me.”
“No, son, no.”
“I wished him gone, and now he is gone. It’s all my fault,” stammered Hoss as he stood to his feet and walked away from the comforting presence of his father.
Ben could hear the soft sobbing sounds that Hoss made and it tore at his heart. How could he ever convince his distraught son that Joe’s disappearance was not his fault?
Ben eased quietly over and placed both hands on Hoss shoulders.
“Son…shh…try to pull yourself together. The men are waiting outside for us, we need to get going.” Gently he tugged on Hoss, as he’d turn the boy around until Hoss faced him.
Ben smiled, “that’s good, now, I need your help son, and so does Little Joe. He’s somewhere, that we know for sure, and my guess is that he’s alone and frightened, and wishing more than anything that his big brother would come for him,” said Ben.
He pulled Hoss into an embrace and hugged the boy tightly. Almost instantly Hoss pulled back and smiled slightly.
“Then I’d best get to lookin’,” he whispered.
Charlie Devlin joined the group at the forks in the road. The search party had grown to fifteen men. Roy, the two men that had come with him, the three Cartwrights, Sam, Charlie and seven of Ben’s ranch hands.
“I think we should split up,” advised Roy. “Ben you take some men and head off in that direction, Charlie take some with you and work your way south, Adam take a couple of men and go north, Jess and Hank can come with me. We’ll meet back here in an hour, fire three shots if you find anything.”
The group began splitting off, each going in the directions that the sheriff had ordered them to search.
“Sam, you bring the dogs and come with me,” Ben issued. “Hoss, have you any idea where Joe might hide, if he didn’t want to be found…some secret place that maybe only the two of you know about?”
“There’s the cave, up yonder,” Hoss pointed toward the hills. “But we haven’t been up there in a long time, some ole mama bear took a likin’ to our hideout.”
“Think son; is there anyplace else that you think Joe might have gone?”
“Sure, there’s a place up at the lake, it’s like a little clearin’ ‘ceptin’ it’s all grown over with bushes and stuff. Me and Joe are the only one’s that know about it, but I doubt that he’d be there,” Hoss informed his father.
“It’s too far to walk, remember, Joe didn’t take his pony,” Hoss said.
Ben seemed to be lost in thought. What Hoss said, made sense, Joe could not have walked all that way, not alone and not in the dark. A nagging feeling that urged him to check out the hideaway forced his decision.
“Let’s go have a look anyway. Can’t hurt to check it out,” he said and then spurred his mount into action. “Sam, you come along with the dogs, Hoss and I will wait for you there.”
Hoss explained to Sam how to find the secret place and then left to catch up with his father and the two men that worked for them. They had ridden for what seemed like forever to the worried young man who blamed himself for his brother’s disappearance. When they at last reached the hideaway, Hoss jumped quickly from his mount and pushed his way into the thicket.
Ben waited patiently for several moments and then followed the path that Hoss had cleared. Just as he broke through into the small clearing, Hoss emerged, with Joe’s hat in his hands.
“PA! PA! Lookit…Joe’s hat!” he cried excitedly. “He’s been here, but how?” he stammered as tears filled his eyes.
“Calm down son,” Ben ordered.
He took Joe’s hat from Hoss’ trembling hands and looked it over carefully. He glanced up at his son.
“Blood,” he whispered.
Ben pushed past Hoss into the clearing and began scanning the ground for signs that might tell him what had happened to his child and as to why Joe’s hat had blood covering the inside rim.
“Hoss, look at this,” Ben said, pointing to the ground.
Hoss squatted down, making his own survey.
“There’s two sets of tracks, Pa. These little ones are Joe’s, and then…here, these are larger ones.” Hoss cast frightened eyes up at his father.
“He’s not alone, that’s for sure,” surmised Ben. “And whoever is with him, either had to know about this place or forced Joe into bringing him here.”
“Ya reckon whoever it is, hurt Little Joe?” worried Hoss.
“Possibly; come on, let’s give the signal and when Sam gets here with the dogs, maybe they can pick up Joe’s trail again.” Ben stepped from the clearing and drawing his pistol, fired off the three shot signal.
Minutes later, Sam appeared with the dogs and a short time after that, Adam with his group of men arrived. Quickly he dismounted and hurried into the bush where he found his father and Hoss talking with Sam.
“Did you find him?” he asked expectantly.
“No, but we found this,” Hoss replied as he handed Joe’s hat to Adam. “There’s blood inside,” he explained. “And blood over there,” Hoss said, pointing to the ground where several small drops of darkened blood had been found dotting the leaves.
“Dear God,” stammered Adam as he envisioned his little brother lying wounded somewhere in the woods, bleeding and unable to cry out for help.
Sam’s dogs had begun to bark and howl, yanking hard on their restraints in an effort to be free. Adam spun around, watching.
“Turn them loose, Sam!” he practically shouted. He glared at the man with dark eyes, his own fear beginning to cloud his thinking. “For God’s sake, turn them loose!”
Sam never hesitated. Once the two hounds realized they were free, both took off running. Ben, Adam, Hoss, Sam and Ben’s two hired men plowed their way through the brush after the dogs. For several minutes the men made a line as each followed the man in front of them. When they broke through the brush and onto the banks of the lake, they stopped. Each man was huffing and puffing, trying desperately to fill their heaving lungs. The dogs ran to the water’s edge, yelping and howling as they dashed in and out of the water and back to their master.
“The boy must have gone into the lake, Ben,” huffed Sam.
“Pa!” wailed Hoss, “NO!”
Ben turned to see the terrified look on his middle son’s face and rushed over to gather Hoss into his arms.
“Shh…take it easy son,” Ben stated anxiously as he glanced over at Adam.
“But the water…he drowned Joe…PA! JOE’S DEAD! AND IT’S MY FAULT!”
Hoss jerked free of his father’s embrace and weeping, ran a short distance down the shoreline, where he stopped and dropped to his knees.
Adam stood silently, stunned by his younger brother’s reaction. He looked at Ben and saw the tears and the same fear in the dark eyes that finally pried themselves away from the heartbreaking scene.
Adam stepped up to his father and placed a hand on Ben’s arm. “What is that all about? Why does he think Joe’s disappearance is his fault?”
Ben swallowed hard and turned back to watch Hoss as the large boy hauled himself up from the sandy ground.
“He said that he told Joe that he wished Joe would disappear. He was angry at his little brother for not minding him and he spoke in anger, words that he didn’t really mean,” explained Ben.
“I have to go to him,” Ben said absently moving away from Adam and towards Hoss who had started back toward them.
Adam followed a short distance behind his father but stopped when Hoss and Ben were face to face. He couldn’t hear what his father was saying to his brother, but he did hear Hoss’ sobs as he fell into Ben’s outstretched arms. Adam felt his own throat constrict and quickly wiped at his eyes as he turned away.
“Roy!” Adam said, as he watched Roy and his small group of volunteers ride into the clearing. Adam quickly made his way to the sheriff’s horse.
“Andy,” Adam said, surprised to see that another of their hired men had joined the group. “How’d you know where to find us?” Adam asked out of curiosity.
Roy dismounted and stomped over to Adam. “Where’s your father?” he demanded in a tone worthy of his position.
“Over there, why Roy, what’s wrong?” Adam questioned, seeing for the first time the handcuffs that Andy was wearing.
“Wrong? I’ll tell ya what’s wrong…BEN!” shouted Roy, drawing Ben’s attention.
Ben took Hoss’ arm and led him back to the group. “What’s wrong, Roy?” he said.
Roy pointed his finger up at Andy who had dismounted and stood quietly next to his horse.
“I found this here man, your hired man, messing around your place. I had to go back to the ranch and get another horse, mine came up lame and while I was there, this yahoo came sneakin’ around. I was in the barn and saw him slip into the house. He used the kitchen door and in a minute or two, he came sneakin’ back out, carryin’ this here sack full of grub. When I tried to stop him to ask why he was nosin’ around the Ponderosa when there wasn’t anyone home, he tried to run me down. I had to shoot him, winged him in the arm, ain’t bad though. But I reckon he has something to say that ya should hear, Ben.”
Roy walked over to Andy and shoved him forward until he stood inches from Ben.
“Ya better git to talkin’, Mister,” growled Roy.
Ben could see the fright in the young man’s blue eyes as he looked around at each man’s face.
“Do you know something about my son, Little Joe?” demanded Ben.
Andy dropped his head, afraid to speak. Ben became impatient and grabbed the startled man by the collar of his shirt and hauled him upward until he was standing on his toes.
“I asked you a question, do you know anything about my son?” snapped Ben.
His dolorous eyes had darkened to ebony and the way that his lips had formed a nasty snarl seemed to have loosened the other man’s tongue.
“I didn’t mean the boy no harm, honest Mr. Cartwright…I was just tryin’ to help the kid, that’s all…I didn’t mean for him to get hurt,” stammered Andy as he glanced around at Adam and then Hoss.
“Hurt?” echoed Hoss.
He shoved his father aside and grabbed Andy, who was only a year or so older than himself, but much smaller, around the neck with his large beefy fingers.
“Where is he…where’s my baby brother!” Hoss gave the man a few good shakes. “Speak up ya varmint afore I wring your scrawny neck!”
Ben snapped out of his stupor and grabbed Hoss’ arms, pulling his hands from around Andy’s neck.
“He’s hurt, that’s why I came back… to get some bandages and some food. The kid was alright until he started fightin’ me, tryin’ to get away. When he ran off, I chased after him, and he fell. That’s when he hit his head and blacked out. It was an accident, honest, Mr. Cartwright…I never meant the kid no harm! Please, ya gotta believe me!”
Ben was taking slow deep breaths, trying to maintain a certain amount of control. “Where is he now?”
Ben’s eyes followed the man’s finger as Andy pointed toward the lake. Ben’s head jerked around, looking the man in the eye.
“I don’t understand…he’s in the lake?” Ben stammered. He felt his heart beginning to pound and as the blood rushed to his head, he swayed slightly.
“He can’t be…dead…”
“NO!” shouted Andy as Adam advanced toward him. “He’s out on the island. It was the only place I could think of to take him so he wouldn’t try to run away again. I knew he needed help, I couldn’t get him to wake up, and I couldn’t leave him alone in the woods, so I took him out to the island.”
“You could have brought him home, where he belongs!” Ben shouted at the trembling man.
With no thought to his actions, he grabbed Andy and plowed his fist into the man’s face.
Adam quickly sprang to his father’s side and grabbed Ben’s arm before he could punch the younger man again.
“Take it easy, Pa…we have to get to Joe!” shouted Adam until his words finally broke through to Ben’s mind.
“A boat…we need a boat!” Ben yelled and then turned again to Andy. “You were going back out to the island, how?” Ben demanded.
Andy pointed to a thickness in the bushes. “Over there, the boat’s over there,” he said weakly.
“Come on!” ordered Ben as he grabbed the sack of medical supplies and food that Andy had snatched from Hop Sing’s kitchen.
Hoss and Adam followed Ben into the bushes and within minutes had the small rowboat in the water. “We’ll be back soon, Roy. Charlie, please, ride into town and have Doc Martin meet us back at the ranch house!”
“Alright everyone, lets get going. You, Andy, mount up, I’m takin’ ya to jail,” Roy order.
“Guess we won’t be needin’ my hounds anymore,” Sam declared as he snapped the leashes onto the hounds’ collars.
“Jess, you and Hank wait for Ben and the boys to come back. If they need anything, see that they get it,” Charlie asked. “I’m going for the doctor, just in case.”
It seemed an eternity before the three anxious men reached the tiny island in the middle of the lake. Ben was out of the boat and into the shallow water before the boat even scraped along the shore bottom. He grabbed the sack and rushed to the edge of the shoreline.
“JOSEPH!” he shouted, glancing in all directions.
“Pa, over here,” Adam called. “One set of tracks leading up, along the water’s edge and one coming back. That must mean that Andy had to carry Joe ashore,” he said, giving his father a hesitant glance. “This way,” he muttered and began to follow the footsteps until they turned inland.
Once they were into the dense forest, it was next too impossible to seen any tracks, the ground covering was so thick with fallen leaves, ferns, moss and broken twigs of various sizes.
“Wish we had one of Sam’s ole hounds,” commented Hoss sadly.
“SHORT SHANKS, WHERE ARE YA, PUNKIN!” shouted Hoss.
Hoss lagged behind, taking extra care to check in all directions and examining almost every branch on every bush and low hanging tree he passed. Within minutes, his father and brother were out of sight, yet Hoss lingered.
“Help me…oh…please…someone…help me!”
The muted cry finally reached Hoss’ ears, and he stopped dead in his tracks, listening carefully to determine which direction that the pleas were coming from.
“Over here! Hoss! Hoss!”
Joe came stumbling through the woods and practically ran smack into his older brother. Hoss’ arms automatically wrapped themselves around the sobbing child. He dropped to his knees and cradled the weeping boy in his arms as he began to cry along with Joe.
“Joe…Little buddy, I’m so sorry…I didn’t mean what I said!” sobbed Hoss, clinging desperately to Joe.
“Hoss…Oh Hoss…I was so scared, I thought I’d never see ya again…” Joe cried. He had wrapped his arms about Hoss’ neck as the two brothers clung tightly to one another.
“I tried to get away…I wanted to come home and tell you I was sorry for what I dun, but Andy wouldn’t let me. He said that ya didn’t care nothing about me and that all ya wanted was for me to disappear. He heard what ya said, and he told me I should make ya pay for being so mean to me and that’s when he made me take him to our secret hiding place. But then he got scared cause he thought Pa would have him arrested so he tied me up, but I got loose and when I tried to run away, he chased me,” Joe quickly explained.
“I didn’t mean to scare ya…honest Hoss.” Joe buried his face in his brother’s neck as Hoss held him securely within his protective arms. When Hoss rose to his feet, Joe was still in his arms.
“PA! ADAM! I FOUND HIM!” shouted Hoss.
Adam and Ben burst through the trees at the same time, relief showing on their worried faces.
“Joseph!” Ben whispered when he spied his youngest son in the arms of his middle son.
Joe raised his head and peeked over Hoss’ shoulder.
“Pa!” he cried and wiggled free of Hoss’ embrace. Hoss set the boy on the ground and reluctantly released him.
Joe flew into his father’s arms, locking his own arms around his father’s neck. Ben in turn cinched his arms about his son’s trembling body.
“Shh…don’t cry sweetheart, it’s all over now,” soothed Ben, though he was having his own trouble, trying to keep his tears from rolling down his face.
“I’m sorry, Pa…I know I dun wrong, goin’ off with Andy like I did. I didn’t mean to scare everyone…honest,” Joe cried.
Ben gently pushed Joe back far enough so that he could see his son’s face. “Why son? Why did you go with him?”
Joe sniffed his nose and then buried his face against Ben’s neck.
“Cause Hoss said he wished I’d disappear,” he whispered in his father’s ear. “I was only gonna make him think his wish came true, but then Andy wouldn’t let me leave, he said Hoss was mean to me and I should make him get in trouble for saying nasty things to me.”
Joe leaned back and looked deeply into his father’s eyes. “I dun wrong…didn’t I, Pa?” he asked softly.
Ben noted the fresh pool of tears that welled in the hazel eyes that searched his face and the slight quiver to the boy’s chin. Ben pulled Joe firmly against his heart.
“Yes, Joseph, you did wrong, but so did Hoss,” he murmured as he carefully placed Joe on his feet.
“Guess we both made some bad mistakes, heh, punkin?” Hoss asked.
He had moved to his father’s side and rested his hand on Joe’s back.
“I’m sorry Little Joe, for being so nasty to ya. I shouldn’t have spoken so harshly, especially since I was mad at ya. Guess I forgot what Pa’s always preachin’ to us about sayin’ things in anger and how words can hurt. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, Joe. Can ya forgive me?” pleaded Hoss.
Joe dropped his head, suddenly very ashamed of himself. When he glanced up at his brother, his eyes had filled with tears.
“I did two wrongs, Hoss. I tried to get back at you, when I knew in my heart, ya didn’t really mean what ya said, and then I went of with a stranger, even if I knew him,” confessed Joe.
Ben and Adam snickered causing Joe and Hoss to turn around and look their way. “Well, he used to be a stranger, before he came to work for you, Pa. And I really didn’t know him very good; I shouldn’t have gone off with him. I’m sorry, Pa,” apologized Joe.
“I’m glad that you realize that what you did was wrong Joe, but I think Hoss is still waiting for his apology. Ben nodded his head toward Hoss.
“Oh yeah…I’m sorry too, Hoss. I was wrong to listen to Andy’s suggestion that I scare you by really disappearing. I’ll forgive you, if you forgive me,” he smiled.
“I reckon I will,” smiled Hoss happy at last to have found his baby brother.
“Thanks, Hoss, oh…and I’m sorry for not doing what you told me to do. Guess I really made a bunch of mistakes.” Joe’s smile faded away and he turned to look at his father.
“I guess ya gonna tan my hide when we get home, ain’t ya?” Joe asked softly.
Ben ruffled the top of Joe’s thick curls and offered a smile.
“I reckon I should, but you seem to have figured out what you did wrong, both of you!” he growled at both Hoss and Joe.
His tone was light, and both brothers knew that they had somehow come out on top.
“Now, let’s take a look at this head of yours. Does it hurt?” Ben asked as he gently probed through the crown of dark locks until he found the bump at the base of the hairline.
“No, only when you poke at it,” complained Joe.
“Ouch!” he cried when Adam stuck his finger against the knot and gently pushed a finger down on it.
“Boy, Joe, that’s about the size of a goose egg,” Adam announced. “How’d you get it?”
“I tried to run away from Andy, and I tripped over a log and hit my head.” Joe turned to his father. “Pa?”
“Yes son?” answered Ben as he gently cleaned the small cut in the center of the bump that had caused the bloodstain in the boy’s hat.
“What will happen to Andy? I mean, he didn’t hurt me; I hurt myself when I ran away. Will he have to go to jail? He didn’t make me go with him, when he stopped in the yard, all he said to me was, ‘come on Little Joe, I know a place where you can hide and ole Hoss won’t ever find you.’ That’s when I climbed up behind him on his horse and rode off with him. It was only suppose to be a joke, but then it got dark and I got scared, that’s when I told him I wanted to go home. When he told me I couldn’t ‘cause it was too dark to see how to get home. He said we should wait until morning, but I didn’t wanna, that’s when I got mad at him and started punching him. That’s when he tried to tie me up. I told him he’d go to jail if he didn’t let me go home. Then he got scared and when he wasn’t looking, I got away.”
Joe stopped, and glanced at his father. “I guess Andy made some mistakes too, huh?”
Ben pulled Joe into his arms. “Yes, Andy did make a mistake, a big mistake, he held you against your will, that’s breaking the law, Joe. What do you think should happen to him?”
Joe shrugged his shoulders. “I guess he’s too old for you to wallop, reckon?”
Ben smothered his rising laughter, “I reckon,” he said as calmly as he could. He smiled at Adam and Hoss who were also fighting back the giggles.
“I suppose Andy will have to go to jail, but not for too long,” Ben added when he saw the worried expression on Joe’s face.
“Can’t you talk to Roy, please Pa? After all, it was partly my fault, I shouldn’t have gone.” begged Joe.
“I don’t know son, I suppose I could, being as how you have accepted responsibility for your actions, and Hoss has accepted his, and Andy did say he hadn’t meant to hurt you. I can’t make any promises, but I’ll see what I can do,” smiled Ben.
“Really? Golly Pa, thanks,” Joe cried, flinging his arms about Ben’s neck.
Ben laughed and gathered his son up into his arms.
“I think the first thing we should do, is to get you off this island and back home where you belong. Doc Martin will be waiting at home for you so that he can check out this hard head of yours,” laughed Ben.
“Doc Martin? Aw…Pa, not him, he’ll just make me drink that awful junk he calls medicine and then expect me to stay in bed for a week!”
“But it’s true, Pa…shucks, I wish…”
Hoss suddenly clamped his hand over his little brother’s mouth.
“Oh no ya don’t short shanks; ya better be careful what ya wish for, ya never know…it might come true!”