Written in honor of Lorne Greene’s birthday, 2021.
Summary: A stand-off at the bank reveals what’s truly important to Ben Cartwright.
Word count: 4088
Author’s Note: As a note regarding my prequels, I love Roy Coffee and so, in my Bonanza world, Roy was an acting ‘lawman’ from a very early date in the settlement. Nothing official, of course, but acting on the town council’s behalf to uphold the law along with other men. Later, after a stint as deputy, he became sheriff.
HIS FATHER’S ARMS
“I am going in there and nothing you can say – or do – is going to stop me!”
Roy Coffee shifted uncomfortably on his feet. His fingers tickled the metal band on the handle of his holstered gun.
The strap was off.
“Now, Ben, don’t you try me,” he warned, his voice pitched low enough the mob milling about them would not hear. “I got me an empty cell back at the jail house just waitin’ on a occupant.”
The rancher’s dark eyes narrowed dangerously as they shifted from the bank door to him. “It won’t be empty for long.”
“Nope. Not if you push me too far.” Roy wasn’t sheriff, but he was one of the men officially tagged by the council to act as such in matters of the law. He sucked in a breath that drew along with it the fear that had gripped his innards the moment he heard just who was bein’ held hostage in the bank. “Ben you’re not gonna do your boys any good by rushin’ in there.”
“I am not going to rush in!” his friend snapped. “Do you think I’m an idiot?!”
Roy’s eyes shone with sympathy.
“No, Ben. Just a father.”
There was only about an inch in height between him and Ben Cartwright – dependin’ on what boots he pulled on in the mornin’ – but still the other man managed to loom over him. What made Ben so imposin’ wasn’t how tall he was as much as the determined cast of his jaw and the spark like flint strikin’ in his eyes. He wasn’t a man to let others stand in his way when he wanted somethin’, and right now what he wanted was to walk into that bank and take his sons’ place.
And that was somethin’ he couldn’t let him do.
“Ben, you ain’t thinkin’ straight! Those men in there, they’re desperados.” He held his friend’s gaze, knowin’ every word he spoke only dug the grave deeper. “There ain’t no way they’re gonna turn over two boys for a grown man like you. You go through that door and they’ll just shoot you down and take Adam and Little Joe with them anyhow.”
He’d seen the pair go into the bank about a half-hour before. Little Joe was ridin’ on his big brother’s shoulders. Adam had grown so tall at sixteen that the curly-haired tyke had to duck his head as they entered. It wasn’t near closin’ time or nothin’. No one would have suspected that six men would swoop in and try to rob the bank in the middle of the afternoon. A couple of quick-thinkin’ patrons had managed to duck out the back as the gang entered and they’d quickly spread the word. Ben had come runnin’ the minute he heard. He’d listened as one of them lucky devils apprised them of the situation. There was six innocent people inside. Two was the bank clerk and manager. Another pair, a couple of older women. And then there was Adam and Little Joe.
They only had the good Lord and a lingerin’ cold to thank that Marie and Hoss wasn’t in there with them!
“I can’t just stand here and do nothing!” Ben declared.
“Yes, you can, and you will.” Roy kept his tone even; his eyes never leavin’ the rancher. “We ain’t even got us a set of demands yet. Maybe they just want horses and time to ride. You ever think of that? Maybe, just maybe, you go bargin’ in there and you’ll make things worse!’
Ben continued to glare at him. Then he dropped his head and a sigh escaped him. “You may be right, Roy….”
“Sure, I’m right!” He clapped a hand on the other man’s shoulder. “And I’m right glad to hear you think I’m right. Now, I need a promise from you.”
Ben Cartwright’s eyes was a wonder. They was so brown they was almost black, and seemed solid at times – solid as the soul that looked through them. A tiny little muscle twitched at the edge of one; the only sign that the rancher might be entertainin’ the thought that he’d been a bit hasty.
“I gotta go talk to the witnesses and then, if I ain’t heard anythin’ from the bad men inside by the time I’m done, talk to them too.” Roy pressed a finger into his friend’s vest. “I need to do it without worryin’ about you and what you’re up to.”
That littlest one of Ben’s? Little Joe? He had the face of an angel. Came by it right natural too. The rancher looked innocent as a white cloud rollin’ by on a sunny afternoon.
“There’s no need to worry what I’m up to, Roy.” Ben spread his hands wide. “You can see me here, plain as day.”
“And I need to keep seein’ you there. Every time I look back. You understand me?”
The rancher nodded. “I understand.”
Roy drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, satisfied at last. “Ben, I’ll do everythin’ in my power to see that those two boys of yours come out of this all right. You know that, don’t you? Now, I can’t make any promises….”
The lawman held his friend’s gaze for a moment before he walked away. It was about five minutes later that he heard a startled cry.
Ben was heading for the bank door.
It took a second, but he remembered.
The rancher didn’t make no promise neither.
“Shh! Joe, hush!” Adam hugged his four-year-old brother closer to his chest. Little Joe was so terrified he’d drenched both of them with his tears and fear. “Don’t cry. I promise, everything will be all right.”
“You shut that kid up or I’ll do it for you!” one of the robbers growled – and not for the first time.
“I’m trying,” he protested. “He’s a little boy. He doesn’t understand!”
The man drew his gun and pointed it directly at Joe’s blond curls. It was a good thing baby brother had his head buried firmly in his shirt so he couldn’t see, otherwise the wailing would have grown louder. “Do you understand?!”
“Leave it alone!” a harsh voice ordered. Adam’s head swiveled toward it. The robber who had been threatening Joe was young – maybe not much older than him. This man was in his thirties. The robbers had been careful not to use names and were well-concealed, with bandanas tied tightly about their mouths and hats pulled low to shield their faces. If asked to identify any of them, he wasn’t sure he’d be able to.
Which was probably a good thing.
“The kid’s bugging me!” the young robber growled.
“I can tell you ain’t got any of your own,” the older man said with a snort as he walked to their side and looked down. “Look, kid. I’m sorry you got caught up in this.” The leader glanced over his shoulder at the younger man who was walking away, still grumbling. “That one was supposed to make sure the bank was clear before we entered.”
He and Joe had been in the manager’s office. Mr. Hanson offered to give little brother a sucker. The two women were up front by the window and a quick glance through the door would have missed them. Adam’s gaze shifted to the pair. Mrs. Hayes and her daughter were huddled together with their backs against the east wall. Both were terrified.
So was he, but not for himself.
“Let Little Joe go,” he said. “A child is only going to prove a liability for you.”
“No-o-o-o-o-o-!” his brother wailed, clinging even more tightly to his shirt with his little fingers. “I won’t go without you, Adam! No!”
“Joe,” he said firmly. “You will do whatever I tell you. Is that understood? As your older brother I have the last say.”
The man’s brows leapt up toward the fringe of brown hair showing between the bandana and hat. “He ain’t your kid?”
Adam laughed. He must look a lot older than he was!
“No, he’s my kid brother and I’m asking you – again – in the name of all that is decent to please let him go.”
The man stared at him for a moment. His eyes were an odd color – blue with a circle of amber near the center, making them appear almost green.
“Too bad I ain’t a decent man.”
With that, he walked away.
Adam let out a sigh and shifted, trying to find a position that was comfortable. It was nearly impossible between the soaked cloth of his pants and the hard floor.
“I’s sorry I made you wet,” Joe apologized with a small hiccup.
“It’s okay, buddy.” He knelt in so his lips tickled the little boy’s ear. “If you want to know the truth, I made myself wet too!”
That got a smile.
It faded quickly as the young robber shouted at the ladies. Joe’s eyes went wide as he peered out from under a curtain of loose blond curls.
“Are the bad men gonna hurt us?”
Already in his short life, Joseph Francis Cartwright had seen too much violence. The settlement was a rough and ready – and rowdy place. Pa didn’t bring Little Joe or Hoss here very often. Today had been a special day. They’d come to town to get their ailing brother a present at the mercantile. Hoss had been sick with a catarrh and worn both Marie and their father down to a nubbin. A couple of days ago his fever had broken and all the ten-year-old could think of was lemon drops to soothe his still aching throat. Pa was coming in any way to do some business. He’d volunteered to ride along, take Joe to the store, and then keep watch over the rambunctious youngster so their father could do what he had to do. He’d remained at the mercantile for quite some time chatting with the owner’s daughter while Joe played with Mr. Henderson’s boy. When he realized how much time had slipped away, he’d secured the lemon drops, had Joe climb up onto his shoulders, and then headed to the bank to wait for the older man.
Everything was fine when they arrived. He’d even done a sweep of the street to make sure nothing looked suspicious before entering. He and Mr. Hanson had talked about how things were going on the Ponderosa until Little Joe grew bored and started to act up. Taking pity on the youngster, the older man ushered them into his office and produced a jar full of suckers that had Joe salivating like a hungry pony over fresh hay. His brother was puzzling over which color to choose when the bank’s door opened and closed – quickly.
Then, there was a scream.
It didn’t take long. Six men with at least ten guns between them made quick work of any protest and soon the two ladies were trussed up and leaning against the wall, the manager was gagged and tied to his chair, and he and Joe were forced into the opposite corner while the clerk was ordered to make quick work of opening the safe and handing over the money. They’d left him free. He knew why.
All it took was one look at Little Joe.
‘Adam?” His brother tugged his shirt. “Adam!”
“Sorry, buddy. I was thinking.”
“Mama says you do that too much.”
He looked down at the little boy. “What?”
“She says you think too much.” Joe wrinkled his nose. “Does it hurt?”
“You two! Quiet!”
It was the same young robber; the one with the itchy finger.
“Shush, Joe. Whisper if you have to say something.”
As Joe fell silent, he went back to watching. The clerk had not hesitated to turn over the money, obviously schooled to do as he was told in the event of a robbery. Pa said Matt Hanson was a good bank manager. He would gladly give his life to save his patrons’ wealth, but would not risk others. The robbers were almost done. Two of them were laden with money bags and another was closing the safe.
Suddenly, Adam became aware of the leader standing in front of him. The teen looked up into the barrel of a gun.
“Get up, kid.”
He started to put Joe down.
“No. Keep the kid. You, alone, means trouble. You and the kid, well, that’s insurance.”
Adam blinked back tears. “Please. Please let my brother go,” he said, his voice ragged. “I’ll go with you. I promise I won’t try to get away.”
“A promise don’t mean nothin’,” the man said wearily.
“It does if you’re a Cartwright.”
The teen turned toward the door; his lips opening to utter a single word.
Ben Cartwright froze, his impressive form framed in the bank’s open doorway. He’d thanked his God as his fingers closed on the latch and it turned, knowing Providence had assured the robbers forgot to lock or bar it. He stood with his hands held high. His hip was bare. He’d shed his gun belt and flung it at Roy Coffee’s feet, tripping the lawman and gaining the few precious seconds he needed to make it inside. Ben quickly took in the scene that greeted him – Andy, the bank clerk, standing, stunned behind the counter. His employer nowhere in sight. Mary and Lily Hayes, bound and sobbing near his feet and, on the far side of the room, a long, lanky figure with black hair struggling with a small curly-headed boy who was fighting to break free.
As six men with guns turned his way.
“Joseph! You will stay where you are!” he boomed.
“Papa!” The little boy twisted to look at him. Tears streamed down his cheeks. “Papa!”
Ben met his elder son’s gaze. He shook his head.
Adam clamped a hand over his brother’s mouth and held him more tightly.
“Who’s in charge here?” the rancher demanded.
“I am,” a young robber replied as his gun rose and leveled at his chest.
Ben sized him up and dismissed him with one look before turning to the others.
“I asked – who’s in charge?”
An older man broke free from the group. He should have known he was the leader. There was something different about him – a decided cast to his shoulders; the glint of something in his eyes.
“What do you want, old man?” the man asked, though the difference in their age couldn’t have been greater than five years. Perhaps he looked older.
He’d certainly lived enough in his thirty-odd years.
“I want you to let my sons go.”
The man shook his head. “Sorry. Can’t do that.”
“I insist you take me instead.”
“You’re a generous bunch, aren’t you?” The leader’s lips curled with something akin to a smile. “I’ve already been through this with your oldest one. That kid,” he pointed at Joseph, “is our ticket out of here. No one’s going to take us on if we have a kid with us.”
“A child,” he said.
“Joseph is a child. Not a ‘kid’. He’s four years old.” Ben paused. “Do you want the death of a four-year-old on your conscience?”
“No one said anythin’ about killin’ no kid….”
“Child,” he repeated firmly. “You are about to leave here with every penny this bank has. Do you mean to tell me you actually believe that the citizens of this settlement are going to stand idly by and let you do that without trying to stop you? There will be a posse.” His gaze flicked to Adam, who was doing his best to comfort – and quiet – his little brother. “There will be gunfire.”
“Not if you tell them to stand down.” The leader hesitated and then added, “I know who you are.”
“How do you know who I am?”
He scoffed. “Everybody around here knows about the Cartwrights. They know you mean what you say.”
Ben didn’t miss a beat. “So you know I mean what I say when I tell you that I will make no attempt to get away if you take me hostage instead of my sons.”
The robber shook his head. “It’s not the same. A kid….”
“In other words, what you are telling me that you are the kind of a man who is so despicable and so debased that he would use a baby as a shield.”
“I’m not a baby!” a little voice piped up.
“Sorry, Pa!” Adam winced as he clamped his hand once again over his brother’s mouth.
Ben closed his eyes. ‘Dear God,’ he breathed. ‘Give me words. Help me reach this man!”
“You watch what you’re sayin’, old man,” the leader growled as his finger tightened on the trigger. “You just might make me mad.”
“Good!” he exclaimed. “Get mad! Feel something!” Ben glanced at the ring of desperate men surrounding him. Some of them had to be fathers and, if not, brothers at least. “Think, man, about what you are doing! These women, they could be your mothers or your sisters.” He pointed to the clerk. “That man, your brother! And these two….” He looked at Adam and Joe; Adam so brave, and dear Joseph whose eyes were wide with a knowledge no child should be privy to – the possibility of death. “These two could be your children!” He held the leader’s gaze. “Do you have children?”
The robber hesitated. Then, he nodded.
“Would you use one of them as a shield?”
It was gettin’ late in the day. The sun was dippin’ behind the mountains and the streets runnin’ red with light like blood. It had been an hour since Ben Cartwright walked into the bank. In that time the mob that had been buzzin’ like an angry hive had quieted into a crowd hushed with expectation. Roy looked at their faces. Some was white as ash, afear’d of what was to come. Others were high in color, angry that someone dared to try to take what they’d earned fair and square. Still others, they was filled with hope. They was the ones knew the owner of the Ponderosa, and knew that Ben had about as direct a line to the Almighty as any man livin’.
That made them think things would come out all right.
Roy lifted his hat and ran a hand through his thinnin’ hair before settlin’ it back on his head. It’d been about a quarter of an hour since they’d heard anythin’. There’d been a shoutin’ match at one point with words flyin’ fast. He’d been right sure bullets was gonna follow, and more than grateful when he was proved wrong. The lawman pulled out his pocket watch and glanced at its white face. It was three ‘til four. He was gonna give it until the hands struck the hour and then he was gonna follow Ben right up to that door and….
“Roy! Look! Someone’s comin’ out!”
It was Ben.
The rancher halted at the edge of the boardwalk. He glanced behind. It was two long heartbeats before another feller followed. He looked to be about thirty.
“This is Joshua Reynolds,” Ben said. “He meant to rob the bank.”
“Meant to?” Roy asked as he approached.
The brown-haired man looked at Ben. Then he shrugged. “Guess I changed my mind.”
That made him blink. “You…changed your mind?”
“No, I guess I didn’t.” Joshua snorted. “Mister Cartwright changed it for me.”
Still not quite sure what to make of things, Roy asked, “What about your men?”
Ben glanced at his knuckles, which were bleeding. “We had a little trouble persuading one of them. You’ll find him tied up inside.”
“What about the others?”
His friend held his gaze. “They’re gone, Roy.”
“I let them go.”
“You…let them go?” He’d had a man watching out back. “There ain’t no way they could of got past Zeke without him seein’ them.”
“He saw them.”
There was somethin’ about Ben Cartwright; somethin’ bigger than life. He’d been a seaman in his younger days and was anchored as surely as one of them ships he’d sailed. Some might have called him ‘immovable’, but they’d have been wrong. There was still room for wind in his sails. When the wind was blowin’, there was no one like Ben. He’d set a course and steer that ship safely back to harbor. The men in these parts had come to trust in that.
Roy let out a sigh.
Course, that didn’t mean he wasn’t gonna slap the former sailor’s ornery hide in a jail cell once he got hold of him for takin’ matters into his own hands!
It was Joshua Reynolds. He stepped off the boardwalk as he spoke. “Those men were just followin’ me. I got riled up about my ranch failing. I tried every bank between here and Hangtown, but there wasn’t one would lend me money. So, I decided I would take what I needed. I told myself the banks had more money than they knew what to do with and they wouldn’t miss it any.” His smile was almost shy. “Forgettin’, of course, that the money in them belonged to men like me. “ The robber held his arms out, ready to be roped. “I’m responsible, and I’m the one who should pay.”
Ben stepped forward to place a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I’ve promised Joshua a job once he gets out of jail.”
“Well, now, Ben, that might be a long stretch seein’ as how he was tryin’ to rob a bank and had hostages and all – your boys included.”
The rancher paled a bit. “The money is in the safe. Mrs. Hayes and her daughter have decided not to press charges. As for me…Adam and Little Joe are safe and that’s all that matters.”
“What about the bank?”
“I’ll take what comes,” Joshua said. “I did wrong and I need to pay for it.”
“Pa? Is it okay if Little Joe and I come out now?”
Ben’s gaze took in the crowd. Roy had wondered why the boys were still inside. Now he knew. The rancher hadn’t known how the crowd would react to what he’d done. There’d been a few grumbles when he said he’d let some of the would-be robbers go, but when it seemed the excitement was over – and Joshua and the one left inside would pay – the crowd had slowly begun to disperse. He watched as Ben turned and nodded.
Seconds later Little Joe was in his arms.
“You okay, son?” Roy asked Adam.
The older boy was exhausted. The circles under his eyes and the lines beside his full lips told the tale. He nodded even as his gaze went to his brother.
Ben was holdin’ the little squirt and Joe was smilin’.
All was right in the world.
That night as Ben sat in his Ponderosa, with his beautiful wife at his side, he thanked his Maker that he and his sons had survived the afternoon. It could have turned out so differently. There had been a moment when he’d feared the worst. Joshua told his men to disarm and the youngest among them rebelled. The robber took aim at Little Joe and pulled the trigger.
The gun misfired. There was a puff of smoke and….
Nothing but God’s grace.
Nothing but His favor.
In the end, tragedy had been averted and a man’s soul had been saved. He doubted the other men who traveled with Joshua Reynolds would cause any trouble. Like their leader, they were disgruntled farmers and ranchers who had come from several valleys over where they and their families had weathered a severe drought. Tomorrow he would send some of the men over with supplies – and water. He would help them get back on their feet. Men without hope grew desperate.
Men with dignity, thrived.
Marie had dozed off and was settled in the crook of his arm. His fingers were entwined in his youngest son’s glorious curls. Hoss had his lemon drops and had fallen asleep to the sound of his older brother’s melodious tones.
Ben smiled broadly.
All was indeed right in the world.
Like his son, he was safe and content in his Father’s arms.
Tags: hostage, bank, family
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