“Jack! Where are you?” Several voices shouted into the air. The sun was quickly setting, and the night was closing in. There were two men driving the pickup truck; the rest were on horseback. Jack was nowhere to be found, and some of the men were beginning to lose hope.
Their employer left early Monday morning, before sunrise, to help a neighboring friend who asked for Jack’s assistance in repairing the small log cabin hidden back in the Montana mountains. He set out that particular morning on horseback because the torrential rains of the past few days washed out the roads leading up the mountain. Jack thought the horse would serve him better in getting up the rocky and muddy trails.
On a normal day, it was about an hour and a half ride on horseback from his own ranch gate, but the rains made the trip longer. However, Jack still promised his wife, Sandra, that he would be back by dinner in two days. Now here they were, the fourth day, out looking for him.
It was not like Jack to be late, but when he was not home Wednesday night by dinner, Sandra thought perhaps he had been delayed somehow. When he did not come home at all that night, she began to get concerned. Then Thursday came and went. Now she was deeply worried. It simply was not like Jack to be that late and not get word to her.
On Friday morning Sandra and her father-in-law gathered all the men on the ranch in the barn, which was halfway between the bunk houses and the main house. They planned to begin the search for Jack at first light. However, the heavy thunderstorms began again, delaying their departure by two hours. Still, they had been out most of the day, and now the sun was beginning to set.
Many times, they had been over the trail her husband was supposed to have taken. They even went to Old Man Tom’s cabin. Much to Sandra’s dismay, the neighbor informed them that Jack had left earlier than originally planned. She was becoming frantic.
If something had happened, Jack should have been found along the trail somewhere. However, there were no signs of Jack or anyone else. The early morning downpour had seen to that. The trail was so wet that in places the mud was almost liquid. The only tracks were those of their own horses and even they were not recognizable long. They left the trail, deciding to check along the road instead. There was a chance Jack had decided not to take the trail all the way up.
They stayed on the road for a couple of hours, but after several trips back and forth they paused to consider whether to give up or check farther afield than Jack would normally go. They settled on a suggestion to follow the main road all the way back to the ranch in case he never took the trail at all.
But their hearts were beginning to sink because they were almost halfway home and once they reached it, there would be no more trips until the morning. Such a long time to wait. Sandra was sure she could not take another night of not knowing. The thought alone was almost more than she could bear.
Sandra, twenty-eight, thought back to when she and Jack first met. She still looked much the same, young and vibrant. Her brown waist-length hair was currently pulled back into a ponytail lying just off her shoulders under the cowboy hat she wore, protecting her some from the hot sun rays.
Suddenly, everyone stopped calling Jack’s name and as everyone came to a halt, Sandra’s thoughts snapped back to the present.
“Don’t stop now! We can’t!” she yelled in alarm.
Her father-in-law held up a hand to silence her. It was a gesture Joe often used, mostly with his workers. She knew it well and obeyed. Though in the silence, the minutes seemed to drag on. Each second that passed was pure torture, especially since she did not know why they were all waiting. Had they heard something? Did Jack call to them? Where?
“Let’s go. There’s nothing here,” a voice came from the front.
“I guess you’re right,” sighed Joe.
He reluctantly moved forward. Sandra remained where she was. There was a lump in her throat so big she feared it would choke her. Never, in all the years she had known him, had she seen her father-in-law so exhausted. He had come home from a week long trips to sell cattle with more energy than he displayed now. In just one day, she saw the years quickly catch up to Joe McDillon. He was in his middle fifties, but looked more sixty-five. Lines that etched in his face were not there only days before and his white hair stood out all the more under his well worn cowboy hat. He was a tall man with nearly perfect posture, but his shoulders seemed to stoop now.
Sandra was about to resume her course when she heard something that sounded like whimpering, but it was extremely faint so she could not figure out where it was coming from. She listened a few moments longer, then decided it was coming from the left.
She dismounted and went to the edge of the steep hill. Sandra took a tentative step closer and was about to take another when she felt someone grasp her elbow to pull her back.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Joe said gruffly. “Are you trying to get yourself killed? Come on, let’s go.”
Sandra jerked herself free. She turned in exasperation to face the impudent man. She was in no mood to be taking orders from anyone; however her anger instantly diminished when she saw the concern in his eyes.
“The others have gone on,” he said, the gruffness leaving his voice. “There is nothing here. We. . .”
In an unconscious gesture of mimicry, it was Sandra’s turn to silence Joe with her hand. Had she done it under normal circumstances, she would have promptly apologized. Even though he was a loving father, he was still intimidating. For now, though, the only thing she cared about was what she heard.
When the noise came again she wasted no time. She ran down the hill, grabbing any rock that she could to keep from falling. The footing was not very good, and she almost slipped several times. Still, she kept on with Joe not far behind.
Sandra was about half way down when she called back to Joe. The horse was now in full view. She continued her rapid descent as Joe scrambled back up. She could hear his frantic shouts for help as he went.
Sandra reached the horse and dropped to her knees. Lifting his head, he managed to nudge her gently. He was lying on his side, moving his legs slightly as if he was trying to stand. She ran her hands down his neck and over his side. He neighed in pain and tried to stand, but was unable.
The horse’s right front leg was twisted at a grotesque angle, obviously broken. And the gashes on his side were a horrific sight. Looking at the horse’s injuries made her panic. She could not see how the horse had survived for so long, and if the horse was hurt this bad, what had happened to Jack?
Jumping to her feet, she scanned the area. But there was no sign of him, not even a footprint. What if he were hidden in the bushes or under some storm debris? She almost did not see the horse; he was so well hidden at the bottom of the rocky slope and covered in mud.
Sandra began screaming Jack’s name as she threw debris around. Then she pushed her way through the bushes, scratching her face and hands as she went.
Finally, exhausted and unsuccessful, she climbed back up the hill. She held up her hand to shield her eyes from the remaining sunlight then scanned the area around the horse again, but saw nothing.
The men were coming back now with Joe in the lead. When he got close to Sandra he dismounted without even bringing his horse to a full stop. She then watched him make the same reckless descent she had made only minutes before.
Her throat was tight with fear. With each hour that passed, it seemed a part of her had died and she was becoming numb to what was going on around her. Reality seemed like a remote memory.
When Sandra and Jack were married, he wanted to hire a cook for her. He said that one woman should not have the burden of preparing a meal for so many men. Especially those men, who after working all day, had massive appetites. She was grateful for her husband’s concern, but she loved to cook and enjoyed the challenge of cooking for so many.
But not tonight; it was a burden. She had managed though, and all she had to show for it was a kitchen full of dirty dishes. Normally Jack would help with the dishes after they put their daughter to bed. It was their time to be alone together and talk. Now she had to manage the task alone.
Joe agreed to put five-year-old Anna to bed while Sandra cleared the table. She gathered the dishes and took them to the kitchen. Then, she began to arrange them into more manageable stacks, all the while paying little attention to the unnecessary noise she was making.
Sandra’s stomach grumbled, but she did not care. Food looked repulsive right now. She neither had the heart nor the appetite to eat. So, even as her stomach protested, she did not eat. With all that had happened, eating just did not seem important.
Distracted, Sandra dropped a plate off the top of the stack she was moving. She sat the rest of them on the counter with a loud clattering thump. Dropping to the floor, she began to pick up the pieces one by one. When she was almost done with the task, she cut her finger on a piece and immediately jumped up, forgetting the pile of glass she had in her other hand. It all fell to the floor, shattering into a million pieces. She went to the broom closet and slammed the palms of her hands into the door. Then she jerked the door open, but left the broom where it was.
Instead of disposing of the shattered plate, she went to look in on Anna and Joe. Standing just outside the doorway, she overheard part of their conversation.
He sat on the edge of the bed he had just made for her and she sat on his lap, snuggled comfortably against his chest. One of his arms propped her up while the other was wrapped around her tiny waist.
“Did I do something wrong?” Anna asked. “Was I a bad girl? Why hasn’t daddy come home? He said he’d be home.”
“Well, I. . . Anna, you’re daddy loves you very much. He would never stop loving you,” he said softly.
“Where is my daddy?” she murmured.
Joe pulled Anna closer, holding her a little tighter. His voice was hoarse as he said, “Oh, my poor, poor baby.”
Sandra did not stay around to hear anymore. She whispered “God, help me” as she walked away because she knew that if Joe did not tell Anna what had happened to her beloved father she would have to. She dreaded the moment. Part of her hoped that Joe would tell Anna so that she would be spared the agony of watching her sweet baby’s reaction to the news that her father was missing.
Yet, she knew it would be just as hard for Joe to tell her because it meant acknowledging what they both feared. Regardless of what it meant, Sandra had to be there when the news was broken. Anna was her daughter and her responsibility. So, she rigidly turned around and walked back into the room.
Sandra found herself in the barn where the injured animal had been taken. She was leaning against one of the support posts listening to the sound of the horse’s labored breathing. He still whimpered periodically, and she hoped with all her heart that the animal would survive. She told herself it was because Jack would need the trusted animal when he returned, but in actuality, it was because the horse was her only link to Jack and his welfare. The veterinarian felt that the animal’s injuries were too extensive. There was not much he could do to help, but she would not allow him to shoot the horse.
Sandra was so preoccupied with the day’s events that she lost all sense of time. She did not know how long she stood against the post. She did not even move when she heard the horse take its last breath. It was not until the veterinarian came to speak to her that she moved.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. McDillon” was all he said, as he tipped his hat and left.
Joe, who had been sitting on the back porch, saw the man leave. Sure the news was not good, he stood up and looked wearily down to the barn.
Sandra came racing out the barn doors, stopping a few feet from them. First, she stamped her right foot in anger several times as she turned wildly in a circle. Then, stopping abruptly, she began to laugh hysterically. But that stopped just as suddenly as it began in order to give way to sobs. She dropped to her knees, finally letting the torrent of tears overtake her.
She felt strong hands on her shoulders gently pulling her to her feet. They turned her around so that she could rest her head safely on Joe’s chest as she cried. Standing there, he held her in much the same way he did her daughter just hours ago.
“The h-horse,” she sobbed, “the horse is dead.”
Reality hit hard. All remaining hope diminished when the horse took its last breath, taking with it her loving husband. The worst part was that they would never know what happened to him.
Joe hugged her close as they cried together, releasing the pain and frustration of the last few days. It began to thunder, but still they stood. They stood there for what seemed like hours, their tears mixing with the downpour.