Summary: As day ends the fight to survive the night begins.
Disclaimer: I don’t own the Cartwrights or Bonanza. No copyright infringement is intended. Original plot and characters are property of the author. This story is for entertainment and no money was made from it.
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Terror Stalks the Night
The passengers were jolted around within the stagecoach like dried peas in a tin can. With each plunge into a deep rut, they were tossed against each other or thrown across the small divide between the bench seats.
Another round of pardons was exchanged as everyone regained their place. Ben Cartwright’s face was bright red in embarrassment as he’d landed hard with his knees upon the floor but his head in a young lady’s lap. Once settled back in his seat, he adjusted the cuffs of his shirt and braced the soles of his boots in anticipation of the next lurch of the coach.
The young lady blushed a bright crimson. Minnie Hawkins was nineteen and returning home after two years spent in finishing school. None of her etiquette lessons had included instruction in polite extrication from strangers’ laps while traveling within the confines of a stagecoach. She fluttered her bamboo fan to cool the heat of her cheeks.
Two other men shared the cramped space—a Romanian nobleman named Count Blestemat and a young man named Abraham who was the personal assistant to the actor William Irving. Abraham had opted for the stagecoach as mode of transportation while his employer had chosen to travel by train. Now Abraham regretted his thirst for adventure and his desire to see the “wild” west; he hadn’t seen a single red Indian in war paint or a bandit intent upon robbing the coach. As far as he was concerned, the most enjoyable experience so far was sharing the bench seat with Minnie.
Count Blestemat had kept up a steady chatter with Ben and Abraham but spent more time admiring Minnie than the passing scenery. He frowned in displeasure when Ben or Abraham distracted Minnie with questions or observations of their own.
The sun was making its journey to the horizon and clouds ranging from deep red to pale orange streaked the indigo sky. Minnie pulled aside the oilskin flap covering the window, the gentle light of sunset bathing her face in a warm glow.
“I’ve missed the Sierra twilight,” Minnie said through a smile.
Blestemat admired the arch of Minnie’s neck and stared with no shame. He reached forth and gently stroked his forefinger underneath her jaw.
A frisson traveled up Minnie’s spine and she lowered the oilskin as she settled back at her end of her seat. The smile faded from her lips and her eyes were fixed on the floor as she said in a voice not much louder than a whisper, “You shouldn’t take liberties.”
“I appreciate beauty,” replied the count. He removed the red silk scarf wrapped around his neck and leaned forward to drape it around hers. “The night air may chill a bloom as beautiful as you.”
Ben cleared his throat and Blestemat withdrew to his side of the coach. The two men locked gazes, dark brown meeting light blue.
When neither man appeared willing to back down, Abraham cleared his throat, raised an eyebrow, and asked, “Is it customary in this country to give such personal . . . tokens . . . to ladies with whom one isn’t acquainted?”
“No,” replied Ben. He didn’t know Minnie’s father yet he felt a personal obligation to see her safely to Carson City.
“Station in about three miles!” yelled the driver from his perch atop the coach.
“I don’t remember a station being out here,” said Ben, his eyebrows drawn together.
“I’ll certainly welcome a respite,” said Abraham to no one in particular. He wondered if his employer was enjoying a multi-course dinner, fine wines, and the promise of a feather mattress to sleep upon.
“Mr. Cartwright, will we stop or stay the night?” asked Minnie.
Ben smiled his best reassuring fatherly smile and said, “If this is a new station, we’ll probably stay overnight so we can tell future customers how generous and hospitable the Overland is.”
Minnie put her hand over her mouth and giggled.
Blestemat scratched an itch alongside his nose and said, “A meal will be most welcome.”
The passengers were again jostled as the driver pulled the horses to a stop. Ben and his travel companions brushed dust from clothing in the dim twilight in hopes of appearing presentable.
Once at a standstill, the driver flung the door open and Ben exited the coach. While the driver disappeared inside the station house Ben extended a hand to help Minnie from the coach; Blestemat accepted the assistance and climbed out. The count nudged Ben in an attempt to move him aside but Ben stood his ground. The two men glared at each other until Minnie, standing as well as she could at the door, cleared her throat. Before Ben could help her, Blestemat placed his hands around her waist and removed her from the coach.
“Thank you,” she said politely. She then stepped around the count to stand closer to Ben.
Blestemat glowered at Ben and then stalked off into the coming night.
Ben looked at Minnie and shrugged a shoulder. He then extended a hand to assist Abraham out of the coach.
The driver returned to the coach and said, “Don’t appear anyone’s about. Found coffee and a pot as well as some grub. Miss, if you don’t mind a cold sandwich we’ll have us a meal in a jiffy.”
“A sandwich will be just fine,” Minnie said through a smile.
“I’d hoped for a beef steak,” muttered Abraham in a disappointed tone.
“Could be beans instead of a sandwich,” said Ben with a wink to Minnie.
Abraham stuffed his hands into his pockets and headed into the house.
“I’ll fetch some water and tend the horses later,” said the driver.
Ben escorted Minnie inside and saw her settled into the only upholstered chair in the common room. He strolled around and noted the two bedrooms—one would do for Minnie while the men could choose their accommodations.
The driver returned from his errand and then cut generous slabs of ham and bread. “Where’s the other fella?” he asked as he stacked bread on a plate.
“He can’t have gone far,” Abraham said to no one in particular.
With the plates of bread and ham on a long table, the driver and his passengers sat down to eat. The only sounds were chewing and slurping of coffee as all sated their appetites.
Declaring his belly full, the driver went outside to tend to his team. Inside, an awkward silence reigned as Ben and Abraham longed for soft beds and Minnie thought of home.
After about a half hour the count entered the house, his face flushed as if he’d run a great distance.
“Anything wrong?” asked Ben, one eyebrow raised in curiosity.
“Nothing at all,” replied Blestemat.
“Are you hungry?” Minnie asked as she carried one of the plates over to the counter where the ham sat.
“I’d prefer to sleep,” the count answered. With a bow, he took his leave and shut one of the bedroom doors behind him.
“Guess that’s settled,” said Ben in an annoyed tone. “Looks like we’ll make do out here, Abraham.”
Minnie looked to the empty bedroom and said, “Maybe you two can share the bed and I’ll take the chair.”
“No, ma’am, that wouldn’t be right,“ said Ben. “You take the bedroom. We’ll sleep well out here.”
Minnie opened her mouth as if to lodge a protest but Ben took her elbow and steered her to the bedroom. “Sleep well, Miss Hawkins.”
She smiled in reply and said a goodnight to Abraham.
Ben absently strolled around the room as Abraham, seated at the table, ran his forefinger back and forth through the dancing flame of a candle.
“Where do you suppose our driver’s got to?” Abraham finally asked to break the silence.
“He’s probably sleeping in the coach. Plenty of room to stretch out since it’s empty.”
Abraham snorted and asked, “Which chair do you want?”
Ben looked at the upholstered chair and wished it were the red leather chair back home. He’d slept many an hour in that particular leather chair as he waited up for one of his sons to return home or simply fell asleep while reading a novel at the end of a long day.
“You take it; I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“But . . . .” began Abraham.
Ben held up a hand to end his companion’s protest. “I’ve spent many a night sleeping with nothing but a thin blanket between me and the hard ground, my saddle for a pillow. This floor is luxurious by comparison.”
Abraham chuckled at the twinkling amusement in Ben’s eyes. “Good night, sir,” he said to the older man.
Ben nodded a goodnight to his companion and then stretched out on the floor in front of the fireplace.
A panther’s scream tore through the house. Ben awoke from a deep sleep, uncertain if the earth or only his body was shaking. He rolled onto his back and squinted in the dim glow of the fire’s embers.
“Mr. Cartwright, I think that was Minnie,” said Abraham as he crouched on the floor beside Ben.
Ben draped an arm over his eyes and muttered, “Probably just a mountain lion.”
“But what if,” Abraham began. He was interrupted as another scream pierced the night.
Ben lurched to his feet, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. He crossed the room in a few strides and knocked upon Minnie’s door.
“Miss Hawkins? Minnie? Are you all right?”
A muffled scream was the only reply.
Ben tried the knob but the door was locked. More muffled screams came from within the room. Ben lunged against the door, smashing into it with his shoulder. The door refused to give. He lunged again and again without success. An eerie silence followed an ear-splitting shriek.
Abraham, his senses regained, jolted into action and joined Ben at the door; their combined effort tore the door free of the lock. The two men stumbled into the room and drew up short at the sight that met their eyes.
Blestemat, standing in a pool of moonlight, held Minnie’s limp body supported in his arms. Her dress had been torn away from her shoulders to reveal ethereal pale skin above her corset. Minnie’s head had fallen back and was cradled on the count’s bent arm; his lips were upon her neck as if he were delivering a lover’s kiss.
“Let her go,” said Abraham in a burst of bravery as he drew a derringer from his coat pocket.
The count turned away from his prize and fixed the intruders with a malevolent glare. His lips were stained crimson with Minnie’s blood.
Ben’s stomach lurched and he leapt across the room with the vigor of a younger man. He was thrown to the floor by a sweep of the count’s arm.
Abraham closed one eye and squeezed the trigger with a shaking hand. The gun popped and the count roared as the bullet creased a thin trail of blood along his upper arm.
Forgetting Minnie, Blestemat let her body fall to the floor in order to dispatch Abraham. The Englishman shot again but missed his target. The count leapt into the air and shoved his opponent back into the common room.
Abraham fell on his back and he struggled against the larger man’s weight. The empty gun remained in his hand and he tried to use it as a club, to no avail. Blestemat pushed with one hand against Abraham’s jaw to expose the man’s neck. As the count lowered his head to feed, Abraham felt hot breath against his throat. He kicked but couldn’t dislodge his captor.
Blestemat howled in rage as strong hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him away from his intended victim. He rammed an elbow back and a satisfied leer crossed his lips at the resounding grunt. Before he could return his attention to Abraham, the count was grabbed around the midsection and pulled away.
Ben dragged the struggling count across the room, taking a fist to the cheek and a boot heel to the shin. Losing his grip, he was shoved back into a chair, which splintered upon impact.
Abraham fumbled in his pocket for bullets. With trembling hand, he withdrew two but dropped one bullet onto the floor before successfully reloading the derringer.
The count knelt with a knee upon Ben’s chest and he pressed down. Ben grimaced as he fought to breathe against the crushing pain.
An intact chair smashed against Blestemat’s head and the count roared. The blow didn’t dislodge him from Ben but the kneeling count turned his attention to his attacker.
In a burst of courage, Abraham pulled the trigger with a steady hand and the bullet entered Blestemat’s chest. A crimson flower bloomed against the white shirt.
Blestemat let up the pressure on his victim’s ribcage and sucked in a deep breath as he pressed his hand to the wound in his chest. He withdrew his hand and confusion clouded his face at the sight of his own blood.
Ben fought down nauseating pain and stretched out an arm in hopes of finding a weapon. His fingers connected with a splintered chair leg. He tightened his hand around it and thrust it upward into Blestemat’s chest with all of his might.
The count’s body shuddered as he tried to pull out the splintered wood. He gasped for breath as scarlet froth trickled from the corner of his mouth and down his neck. Blestemat’s eyes rolled up into his head as his body fell to the floor.
A scream shattered the eerie silence and both men turned to see Minnie standing in the bedroom doorway, her hand clutching the torn fabric of her dress in attempt at modesty.
Abraham helped Ben regain his feet and then he strode over to Minnie. “Are you all right, Miss Hawkins?”
Minnie gulped to force the bile down her throat and merely nodded in reply.
Ben made his way over to his companions and studied the bruising, shallow punctures on Minnie’s neck.
She looked into Ben’s face and saw her father in the furrowed lines across Ben’s forehead and in the worry reflected in his dark brown eyes. “I want to go home,” she said in a ragged whisper.
“Stay here,” Ben ordered. He went outside and returned within minutes. “Driver’s dead. Horses are still hitched.”
Minnie’s breath quickened and tears gathered at the corners of her eyes.
“I’ve driven a stage,” said Ben in his best comforting father tone of voice. “I’ll get us to Carson City.”
“What about . . . .?” asked Minnie, afraid to speak her attacker’s name.
Ben fetched the lamp from the count’s bedroom and removed the chimney. He sprinkled the oil around the room and on the count’s body. After escorting Minnie and Abraham outside, he retrieved a match and dropped it on Blestemat’s corpse.
In the dancing light of the hungry flames, Ben and Abraham buried the driver in a shallow grave. Minnie stood nearby, Abraham’s coat draped around her shoulders.
“Think anyone would believe what happened?” asked Abraham.
Ben glanced over at Minnie. She trembled in the watery light of dawn, her fingers clutching the coat at the base of her throat. He returned his gaze to young Abraham Stoker and said, “No, not even if you wrote it down.”
Other Stories by this Author
- A Voice in the Night (by Patina)
- Fireworks (by Patina)
- Saints Preserve Us (by Patina)
- Snake in the Grass (by Patina)
- Fish Out of Water (by Patina)