Word Count: 1906
Not my son! Dear God…God, please! Not my boy!
The desperate plea sounded over and over in his head as Ben ran as he hadn’t in years toward the bank, praying he remembered where it was. He could feel his aging muscles scream in protest at the unaccustomed abuse, but he ignored the pain as he rounded the final corner toward his destination. Just another block, maybe two…
Not my son! Please!
Everything was fine this morning; everyone was safe; Joseph was safe. He was just going down to the livery to check on Cochise. That was all. How could something like this have happened? That boy wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the bank! If he’d just returned to the hotel like he was supposed to…
Ben needn’t have worried about where the bank was; the throng of curiosity seekers milling about told him. And his Joseph was in there somewhere, hurt…maybe even…
Not my son!
The boy burst through door and raced through the hotel lobby, breathing hard as he caught up to Ben. Ben frowned, trying to remember where he had seen the lad before.
“Can I help you, young man?” As he searched the boy’s face, he suddenly remembered. It was the boy from the livery stable. The one who had taken care of their horses last night.
“Mister?” the boy repeated, trying to catch his breath. “Do you…do you have a son? A boy with curly hair? Maybe sixteen, seventeen?”
“Why, yes,” Ben replied, dread starting to churn in his belly at the young man’s fearful expression. “Yes, that’s my son, Joseph. Is there a problem?”
The boy nodded vigorously. “Mister, there was a robbery down at the bank! He got shot…”
As Ben approached the bank, he could hear the onlookers murmuring anxiously as they crowded about the entrance, craning their necks in an effort to see inside. Glass from shattered window panes littered the sidewalk, and the door gaped open. Ben impatiently pushed his way through the crowd to the deputy guarding the entrance.
“Sorry, sir,” the deputy held up a hand to stop him. “The bank’s been robbed. You’ll have to wait out here.”
“But my son is in there!” Ben pleaded, his voice high with agitation. “My son was shot!”
The deputy looked surprised, and then nodded in sympathy. “Alright,” he agreed quietly. “You can go in.”
Ben stepped inside and paused to let his eyes adjust to the darkened interior. Someone was sweeping up broken glass; a few people were standing about anxiously, as if wondering what to do. And there, near the teller window…
“Oh, God!” Ben nearly choked on the words as he saw blood in a shimmering pool on the floor, the obscene red splatter of it on the wall. So much blood. Too much. “Oh, God! Joe!”
Terror, like an angry fist, slammed into his gut and nearly drove him to his knees. He reached a shaking hand to a nearby chair to steady himself, struggling to breathe around a sudden lump in his throat. Joe. Oh, God. Oh, God. The boy wasn’t even supposed to be here. Why was he even here?
“Excuse me.” Ben found his voice and managed to hail a man standing nearby. “Excuse me! Where’s my son? Where’s my boy?”
The man stopped and stared at him. “You’re his father?”
Ben nodded. “Cartwright. I’m Ben Cartwright. My son was…”
But the man was calling out. “Mr. James! That kid’s father is out here!”
Another man – presumably the bank owner – stepped from an adjoining office, anxiously wringing his hands. “You’re his father? Oh, sir, I’m just so sorry that this had to happen! It’s just terrible! That poor boy was just standing there – he wasn’t even doing anything, and those robbers, those robbers, they…”
“Is he…” Ben paused and swallowed hard, unable to put words to his greatest fear. “Is he…”
The man shook his head grimly. “I don’t know, I don’t know. He looked pretty bad.”
“Where is he?”
“Doc Peters and one of the deputies carried him out the back way to his office. Says he needed surgery right away. Oh, that poor boy. That poor, poor boy…” The man covered his eyes with his hands, and gasped sharply when Ben caught him up by his collar.
“Where??” Ben snapped impatiently. “Where? Where’d they take my boy?”
“Just down the street and ’round the corner, maybe a block or so. Right next to the livery stable.”
Ben was immediately out the door, pushing his way impatiently through the crowd still milling about. Right next to the livery stable, the man had said. Where Joseph was supposed to be in the first place. The boy was supposed to be checking on his pony, not wandering into a bank in a strange town.
They shouldn’t have come here, Ben decided. They should have stayed on the trail where things like this didn’t happen, where his sons were always within shouting distance, where they were never out of his sight, where they were safe. Oh, there were dangers to be found out on the trail, to be sure — a step too close to a frightened steer or a coiled rattler lying hidden in dust –and shadows were only a couple of ways a man could find death while trailing cattle. It could take him in ways either quick and vicious or slow and agonizing, and Ben couldn’t count the times his heart had skipped a beat when danger had brushed a cold hand against his sons.
But the danger to be found in a town full of strangers…that was a different sort of peril entirely, one not made up of natural threats, but one of vile menace, one that shouldn’t happen at all.
“We shouldn’t have come here.” This time the words were gritted out beneath his breath as he rushed along the street. “Should’ve turned and headed for home, and stayed out on the trail.”
They had arrived in Sacramento late the night before, having sold off a hundred of their finest head to a rancher just outside of town. It had been Ben’s idea to come here in the first place; it was supposed to be a treat for his sons, a welcome respite from a week of cold nights and saddle-sore backsides. Flush with cash from the sale, Ben had promised his boys a warm bed and a hot meal in the town’s finest hotel.
And now Ben’s own throat was closed off in tight, fearful strangulation. Because of his own impulsive decision, his youngest son was hurt badly, possibly even dead. The realization of his own mistake threatened to choke him.
He thought back to the last time he had seen Joe. Had it only been an hour ago? He had barely talked to the boy that morning, he recalled. Just a mumbled goodbye from behind his newspaper as he sipped his coffee. Or had he even said that much? Did he look at him, see him, notice what he was wearing?
Ben quickly rounded the corner and caught sight of the doctor’s office, hoping, praying…
God, please. Not my son.
Ben jerked to a halt as he nearly slammed into Hoss.
“Hey, Pa!” Hoss grinned happily. “There you are! We was just wondering where you were ’cause…”
“Hoss!” Ben clutched at his big son’s vest. “Hoss, it’s Joe! Joe was…”
“Joe an’ Adam are back at the hotel, Pa. We was all wondering about going out for some lunch. I hear that restaurant across the street is…Pa? What’s the matter, Pa? Something wrong?”
“Joe is… Hoss, are you sure Joe’s at the hotel?”
Hoss looked at him quizzically. “Well sure, I’m sure, Pa! Think I don’t know my own little brother? I just left him two minutes ago to come looking for you!”
Not my son. It’s not my son.
“It’s not Joe, Hoss!” Ben felt his knees go weak in relief at the stunning realization. “It’s not him!”
“Pa? What in the blazes are you talking about?” Hoss asked, confused by his father’s distress. “You feeling okay, Pa? You’re looking awful pale…”
“I have to… Hoss, I have to see…”
Without another word, Ben quickly climbed the steps to the doctor’s office and pushed through the door. His heart leapt into his throat as he beheld the pale figure lying on a cot on the far side of the dim room. It was the body of a young man–a boy, really–with a thick wave of brown curly hair. It was no wonder that the livery boy thought it was Joe. A grim-faced deputy stood alongside, clutching his hat in his hands. As Ben watched, the doctor somberly grasped the sheet and drew it over the youth’s head.
The doctor glanced up as Ben stepped into the room. “Is this your son?”
“No,” Ben replied weakly, realizing that he was trembling. “No, it’s not my son.”
Not my son…
“Well, we’ll have to find who the kid is then.” The doctor heaved a sigh and shook his head in defeat. “Such a waste.”
…but someone’s son.
The deputy straightened and donned his hat. “I guess I’ll start asking around,” he said soberly. “Sure the kid’s got folks somewhere.”
Ben would return to the hotel and his own son would be there waiting for him, alive and breathing. Ben imagined the boy’s easy, familiar grin as he asked his pa where he’d run off to, imagined the boy’s bewilderment as his pa swiftly and unexpectedly pulled him into an embrace.
Ben’s face fell once more with the realization. Somewhere…soon… someone else would be given the devastating news and know the anguish that Ben himself had just felt. The crushing pain and horror that had been miraculously lifted from Ben would find its home in the heart of another parent, and Ben’s heart broke for that parent. With a fresh sense of sorrow and an inexplicable feeling of guilt washing over him, Ben whispered a quiet prayer as Hoss stood by patiently, still puzzled.
After a long moment, Ben patted his big son on the arm. “Come on, Hoss,” he said finally. “Let’s go see Joe.”
Thank you, Dodo and Corinna, for your help with my story! How could I do this without you?
Note: This story is based on a true-life experience. When my daughter was fifteen, her school called me to report that she had been in a car accident. I raced to the school, saw a mangled car lying on its side in a ditch, and police and flashing lights and chaos everywhere. I was then told that she had been rushed to the hospital by ambulance, and her condition was not known. On my way to the hospital (and I was trembling like a leaf by this time), I got a call on my cell phone from my husband, telling me that Becky was alive and well at home, and she was wondering where I was. Turns out that it was another child who had been injured — the girl’s last name was nearly identical to our own — and even in my relief, I realized that there was a parent out there whose child was in trouble, and they didn’t know.
The girl recovered, by the way.