Summary: A What Happened Next for the episode ‘The Countess’. What happens when the Countess returns to the Ponderosa?
Rated: K+ (8,675 words)
The Countess – My Lady’s Revenge
The Season 3 Bonanza episode ‘The Countess’ inspired this What Happened Next story. The episode guide tells us ‘Widow Lady Linda Chadwick visits Ben. Twenty years earlier she had declined his marriage proposal. Ben’s employees have heard rumours that he is broke and insist on being paid cash daily. Ben learns the rumour was started by Chadwick’s secretary Montague to force him to marry Chadwick for her money’
The episode ended with Ben confronting Linda and the woman flying into a violent rage, breaking the picture of herself and Ben that she had painted, and declaring that she hated him. It just made me wonder if she was quite sane, and why did she turn down Ben’s proposal? They had, after all, gone so far as printing the invitations. Ben had even given her a musical box. This story is my attempt to answer my own questions.
‘The Countess’ is also one of the few episodes that refers to the boys’ ages. We are told that Adam had met Lady Chadwick with his father twenty years before and at that time he was ‘almost 11′, and that Ben had not yet met Marie so Joe wasn’t even born. That indicates that in this story Joe would be 18 or 19 and Adam 30 or 31.
At first, Adam thought he’d imagined the soft knock on the door. He’d heard no sound of visitors arriving and the hour was well past midnight. Dismissing the noise, he returned his attention to the story he was reading, but had only got a few words further on when the knock sounded again, a little louder this time.
Laying his book aside, Adam crossed the room to pull open the heavy wooden door, his eyes widening in surprise as, in the glow of lamplight from the house, he saw who was there.
“Montague!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here? I thought you’d be half way back to England by now.”
The man who had left the Ponderosa with his employer, Lady Linda Chadwick, some three months earlier, gave Adam a ghost of a smile. “So did I,” he said hoarsely. “But I had to come back, had to warn you…”
As the Englishman moved a little closer to the light, Adam realised that he was injured. His face bruised and battered.
“What happened?” Adam slipped an arm around Montague’s arm shoulders and assisted the older man over to the couch. “How did you get hurt?”
“My Lady has some rather unpleasant gentlemen working for her these days.” Montague told him, giving a small groan as he sat down. “They caught up with me just a few miles away from here. Took my horse and rather roughed me up, I’m afraid.”
“But why?” Adam asked as he reached for the brandy bottle and a glass, poured a drink for the Englishman and held it out to him.
“Because I was trying to warn you about Lady Chadwick,” Montague accepted the brandy with a grateful smile, taking a small sip. “I believe they thought they had killed me. They left me unconscious in some bushes.”
“Warn me about Lady Chadwick?” Adam ran an appraising eye over the other man and tried to decide if he should rouse Joe to ride for the doctor. “What about her?”
“What happened here…with your father…” Montague looked uncomfortable and Adam thought back to the day when Ben had confronted Lady Chadwick in this very room. He’d let her know, in no uncertain terms, that he had found out what she had been doing. Knew about her plot to ruin the Ponderosa, to make him ask for her help and ultimately to drive him into her arms. Adam smiled wryly as he recalled his father calling her a “conniving witch.” Language hardly strong enough for what she had done, in his opinion.
“I thought that was all over and done with. Thought she was going home.”
“We got as far as San Francisco,” Montague told him as he leaned back against the couch and stared into the embers of the fire on the hearth. “I knew she was upset, very upset indeed, but I had no idea…” He took a gulp of his drink before he continued. “I fear the experience has quite unbalanced My Lady. She thinks only of revenge on your father.”
“What do you mean?” Adam questioned, picking up the brandy bottle and refilling Montague’s almost empty glass. “What does she intend to do?”
“She has hired some men, most disreputable sorts, the kind that will do anything for money. I really fear for your father’s life, Mister Adam, and I just had to come and warn him. She wants Ben Cartwright dead!”
“I just can’t believe it.” Ben looked towards the guest bedroom where Adam had put Montague the previous night, then turned back to face his sons sitting at the table, breakfast laid out before them. “I knew she was angry, but this…” he massaged his forehead gently, as though he had a headache, before continuing. “Surely Linda wouldn’t want to harm anyone?”
Exchanging a quick glance with his brothers, Adam spoke solemnly, his eyes locking with his father’s. “She’s hired men to kill you.”
“Perhaps there’s been some mistake?” Ben suggested hopefully. “Montague may have…” his words trailed off at Adam’s negative shake of the head.
“She was behind the timber camp fires, the mine flooding.” Joe interjected angrily, worried for his father. “She didn’t care that there might have been lives at risk then. I don’t think she’d hesitate to harm someone now.”
“But…” Ben’s protest was half hearted, born of the long ago memories of a woman he’d once thought he loved. “She’s not like that.”
“She wasn’t,” Adam got to his feet, pushing the remains of his meal aside. “Montague’s of the opinion that she’s mentally ill. Whether that’s true or not, we have to be aware that she has men after you and that you need to be careful.”
“I’ll ride in and tell the sheriff,” Joe offered, dropping the fork he had been holding with a clatter and starting to stand up. “I’ll take Montague with me.”
“Sheriff Coffee’s been informed.” Adam told them, holding up a hand to stop Joe. “I sent one of the ranch hands into town at first light. Asked him to tell Roy and the doctor to get out here as soon as they could.”
“The doctor?” Hoss asked with concern. “I thought you said Montague was all right?”
“I said as far as I could see he was,” Adam corrected quickly. “He’s been beaten pretty badly. There may be internal injuries that we aren’t aware of…”
“So where exactly is Lady Chadwick?” Joe interrupted, not interested in Montague’s welfare when his father might be in danger. “And these men she’s hired?”
“She was in Carson City, Mister Joseph,” The soft voice startled the Cartwrights, and they turned as one to see Montague at the bedroom door. “But I imagine she’s moved on by now.”
Moving swiftly, Adam went to help the injured man to a chair but Montague waved him aside. “I’m all right,” he said stiffly, limping over to the table and lowering himself into Adam’s empty place. “Hop Sing very kindly fixed me a bath in my room and a good long soak has made me feel a new man.”
“These men…” impatiently Joe returned to the subject at hand. “Where are they? Who are they?”
“I’m afraid I really have no idea,” Montague told him quietly. “I never knew their names, just their faces. My Lady hired them in San Francisco, paid them a thousand dollars each with the promise of a thousand more when the job is done.”
“Whooeee,” Hoss whistled softly. “That’s quite a price on your head, Pa.”
“They won’t be collecting.” Joe stated flatly, getting to his feet and heading for the credenza where his gunbelt lay. “If I have to ride the length and breadth of the Ponderosa I’ll find them.”
“And leave Pa here unprotected?” Adam’s words stopped Joe in his tracks. “We don’t know who these men are or even where they are, but we do know one thing.”
“Which is?” Hoss asked when the room fell silent.
“They’ll be coming here,” Adam told him. “Coming after Pa. So we wait for them to show their hand.”
“You’re going to watch me every minute?” Ben put in, shaking his head. “Boys, I can look after myself, and with Roy informed I’m sure that Linda will be picked up in no time.”
“Perhaps,” Adam conceded. “But until then we take no chances.” He looked at his brothers expectantly. “Agreed?”
Hoss and Joe nodded vigorously, both determined to see that no harm befell their father.
“Now you jest take care of yourself Ben,” Sheriff Roy Coffee shook his friend’s hand as he prepared to leave the house. “I got me a good description of these men from Montague here,” he nodded at the Englishman standing beside him. “But until I find ‘em I reckon you need to be a mite careful.”
“Don’t worry Roy,” Ben cast an amused look over at the fireplace where his three sons stood listening to the conversation. “If my boys have their way I won’t be allowed out alone anytime soon.”
“Now you know you’d be exactly the same if it was one of us that was threatened,” Adam told his father with a wry smile. “You can’t deny that.”
“He’s right,” Roy agreed, with a laugh, opening the front door. “Now, I’m gonna head on back to Virginia City with Montague and have him take a look through some of my wanted posters. He might jest get lucky and pick out a face or two.”
“I thought I’d take a room at the hotel Mr. Cartwright,” Montague put in, picking up his bowler hat from the credenza. “It might be helpful if I’m in Virginia City. If any of these ruffians show their face I can alert the sheriff immediately.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” Ben turned a concerned glance on the Englishman. “You know that you’re welcome to stay here and you were quite badly beaten.”
“The doctor assures me that there is no permanent damage,” Montague informed him, putting his hat on and adjusting it so that it didn’t press on his bruises. “I’m just glad that I got here in time to warn you. I do wish it wasn’t happening, poor Lady Chadwick. I’m sure that if she was in her right mind she would never…” His words trailed off miserably as he thought of his erstwhile employer.
As Ben accompanied Montague and the Sheriff outside, Joe turned to his brothers.
“So what now?” he asked impatiently. “Do we just sit and wait for Roy to pick up Lady Chadwick and these men or do we do something about it?”
“I thought we’d decided on that,” sitting down in the old blue chair, Adam looked up at Joe with a frown. “We wait and see what happens.”
“That’s what you decided we should do,” Joe told him irritably. “But it just doesn’t sit well with me. Why should we just wait for these people to show their hand when we could be out there looking for them?”
“Lookin’ where, Joe?” Hoss asked, sympathetic to his younger brother’s need to do something but understanding Adam’s viewpoint. “We got no idea where to start lookin’.”
“Well we know where they aren’t,” Joe pointed out quickly. “Roy says there’s no strangers in town, he’s checked, and Lady Chadwick,” the name was said scathingly, leaving no doubt of Joe’s opinion of the woman. “Has left Carson City. So, if they are after Pa, they gotta be somewhere on the Ponderosa.”
“They probably are,” Adam conceded. “But that’s a thousand square miles, Joe, with plenty of places where you could hide an army and nobody would find them.”
“I know the Ponderosa better than anyone,” Joe shot back. “Except for you, Hoss and Pa,” he amended hastily, seeing the look on Adam’s face at this statement. “I’d notice anything unusual I’m sure. Look, Pa’ll be safe enough with you two nursemaiding him, how about I take a few of the hands and start searching…might get lucky and find them.”
“I don’t know…” Adam shook his head slowly as he thought it over. “I don’t like the idea of any of us out there alone. I don’t think Lady Chadwick would be averse to getting at Pa through us.”
“But it doesn’t make sense for all three of us to sit here waiting,” Joe argued tersely. “I don’t give a damn what you say, Adam, I’m gonna start searching.”
“Joseph!” Ben’s deep voice cut into the conversation and Joe looked round sharply to see his father standing just inside the door, an annoyed frown creasing his brow. “That’s no way to talk to your brother.”
“Sorry Adam,” Joe apologised with a resigned sigh. “I didn’t mean to go off half cocked, but I still think I’m right.”
“Strangely enough, so do I,” Ben said, coming over to join his sons, smiling as Joe shot him a surprised look. “I don’t need all three of you here to watch my back and it might be a help to Roy if Joseph joined the search.”
“I suppose you could be right,” Adam admitted with a small smile at his father. “But if anyone goes I think it should be me or Hoss.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Joe’s temper flared at Adam’s words and he turned to face his older brother, eyes flashing fire. “I’m the one that wanted to go out looking in the first place, so I’m the one that’s gonna go, you got that!”
“You’d be better here with Pa,” Adam told him placatingly. “Guarding him, watching for any attack on the house.”
“Bull!” Joe yelled, drawing a furious glare from his father. “You’re just treating me like a little kid again, wanting me safe at home while you or Hoss go do the dangerous stuff!”
“Joseph!” Ben thundered and Joe fell silent, dropping his gaze to the floor. “Fully grown you may be but if I hear language like that again I’ll personally wash your mouth out with soap, understand?”
Not looking up, Joe nodded curtly. “Sorry,” he muttered softly in an attempt at contriteness. “Just lost my temper.”
“I think Joe will be safe enough with a group of ranch hands,” Ben continued, taking his youngest son aback, he’d fully expected his father to back Adam up. “I suggest he rides in and liases with Roy so that nobody searches the same area twice.”
“P’raps I oughta go along with him,” Hoss suggested with a worried look, knowing his younger brother’s propensity for attracting trouble. “Both of us know the Ponderosa well…”
“I think Joseph can handle it,” Ben reached over to put an arm around his youngest son’s shoulders and was rewarded with a smile. “You get some men picked out, Joe, and get started.”
“I will,” unable to resist, Joe shot a triumphant glance at Adam as he headed for the door. He sobered, however, as he donned hat and gunbelt and turned back to his family. “Just be careful Pa,” he warned softly. “Adam’s most likely right, they’ll probably come here.”
“Don’t worry,” Adam told him reassuringly, holding no grudge at being overruled by his father. “We’ll watch out for Pa, you just take care of yourself. Montague says these men are pretty darn dangerous.”
“I’ll be careful.” Joe assured him, grabbing his jacket from the hook by the door and heading out, leaving his father staring after him with a worried frown, hoping he’d been right to let the boy go.
Three days of riding the Ponderosa had produced no result, just an encounter with a family headed west who had made camp on the Cartwright’s land. Joe saw no harm in letting them stay awhile, especially when the pretty, dark haired daughter smiled at him beguilingly. In other circumstances he would have stayed for the meal that the girl’s mother offered him, but the threat to his father was uppermost in his mind, and so he had bade the family goodbye.
“Rider coming!” Harry, one of the Ponderosa hands riding alongside Joe, called out and sitting straight in the saddle, Joe looked to where a lone horseman was approaching, a trail of dust in his wake.
“Looks like Chet Peters to me,” Harry shaded his eyes with a skinny hand and peered at the distant rider. “Wonder what he wants?”
“Guess we’ll soon find out,” Joe said tersely, pushing his hat back on his head as he waited for Chet to reach them. He was aware of his gut clenching in anxiety as the horseman drew near. Chet was one of Roy Coffee’s deputies and the fact that he was out here made Joe fear that something might have happened to his father.
“Joe!” Chet called, reining back his horse and walking the animal over to the youngest Cartwright. “Glad I caught up with you.”
“Something up?” Joe asked him, mouth dry with apprehension as the man shifted in the saddle before replying.
“Roy sent me out to get you,” Chet told him. “He needs you back in Virginia City.”
“Is my Pa…”
“He’s fine,” Chet cut in quickly before Joe had time to finish the question. “All I know is that there’s something the sheriff wants to discuss with you. He didn’t give me any details.”
“I guess we’d better head back then,” Joe couldn’t imagine what Roy could want him for but didn’t argue the point.
“Just you,” Chet said, seeing the three men accompanying Joe turn their horses. “Sheriff said for the others to carry on searching the area you agreed with him.”
“I don’t know,” the eldest of Joe’s companions, the Ponderosa foreman Will Reagan, looked uncertain. “Maybe we should stay together.”
“I’ll be fine with Chet,” Joe assured him. “It’s not like I’ll be on my own.”
“But your Pa…” Will began to protest, then tailed off as the young man looked over at him angrily.
“He told you to watch out for me,” Joe said in irritation. “I might have guessed.”
“He just worries,” loyally, Will defended his employer. “Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that, Joe.”
“I guess not,” Joe heaved a resigned sigh and shook his head. “But I’m sure he’ll be fine about me going back with Chet.”
“I suppose.” Will had to accept Joe’s decision, the man he would be riding with was, after all, a sheriff’s deputy, but he couldn’t help feeling uneasy as he watched the two men ride away.
Chet and Joe made good time as they headed back, the journey quicker now that there was no searching involved, and by the following afternoon the two were less than an hour from town.
“Hey, Joe,” Chet called over just before they reached the Virginia City road. “Okay by you if we swing by my place, need to pick up something for the Sheriff.”
“Sure,” Joe agreed, turning his mount towards the cabin where Chet lived. The young deputy’s father had died some six months previously and now Chet inhabited the small building beside the lake, which the two had built together, all alone.
“Come on in,” Chet offered as they reached the yard of the cabin and he dismounted. “I might be a little while, have yourself a coffee while you wait.”
Jumping down from Cochise and hitching the horse to the rail, Joe followed the deputy into the darkness of the building, pulling up short when he found himself confronted by Lady Linda Chadwick.
“Don’t try anything kid,” a rough voice from his left stopped Joe reaching for his gun and he looked round to see a burly character, almost as big as his brother Hoss, holding a revolver aimed right at him.
“So nice to see you again Joseph,” Linda smiled sweetly and held out her hand as though greeting a friend. “I have been so looking forward to your visit.”
“What is this?” Ignoring the outstretched hand Joe turned to face the man whose home it was, only to find that the deputy was also holding a gun on him.
“Sorry Joe,” Chet apologised with a sneer that clearly announced the insincerity of his words. Reaching forward he deftly removed Joe’s gun from its holster and tucked it beneath his belt. “‘Fraid Roy Coffee didn’t want to see you after all.”
“So good of you to escort Joe,” Linda put in, turning her attention to the young deputy. “You’ll be amply rewarded of course.”
“If you’re thinking of using me to get to Pa,” Joe said, facing the woman. “Then forget it. I’m not going to help you get him here, you’d have to kill me first.”
“Oh Joseph,” Linda gave a tinkling little laugh. “You won’t need to do anything, my dear. As soon as Ben hears that we have you I’m sure he’ll cooperate.”
“No!” Joe swung round, launching himself at Chet, but the big man to his side moved quickly. Grabbing Joe from behind as he wrestled with the deputy, he brought the butt of his revolver down on the young man’s head.
“You know what to do Chet,” Linda said with a smile as Joe slumped unconscious and the young deputy struggled to his feet. “Go and tell Ben I want to see him.”
“I still don’t think I ought to go,” Adam Cartwright tied the bedroll onto his horse’s saddle and looked round at his father with concern. “There’s no news of Linda yet, and with both Hoss and Joe gone…”
“Now you know Hoss needed to oversee that timber cutting, I had to send him,” Ben said placatingly. “Just as I need you to see to this contract, it has to be someone I can trust.”
“I realise that,” Adam adjusted his hat as he spoke, a worried tone to his voice. “But I don’t like leaving you here alone.”
“I’m hardly alone,” Ben said with a laugh. “There’s Hop Sing in the house, and the ranch hands. They’re all on alert for Linda’s men, nobody will get past them.”
“All the same…” Adam cast a quick look around the quiet yard. “Just be careful will you?”
“I promise,” Ben assured him, with a gentle pat to Adam’s arm. “And the same goes for you, son.”
“With the escort you’ve arranged for me I should be fine,” Adam said wryly as Sam, one of the Ponderosa hands, came riding into the yard. “Beats me how we’re keeping the place running with half the men doing guard duty on us Cartwrights.”
“You let me worry about that,” Ben told him with a smile, raising a hand to acknowledge Sam. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
Swinging up into the saddle, Adam tipped his hat in a gesture of farewell, pulled his horse around, and trotted away, followed by Sam.
As his eldest son disappeared from sight Ben headed back inside and, sitting behind his desk, picked up a pen and opened one of the Ponderosa’s heavy ledgers. He was deep in a column of figures when, an hour or so later, the sound of horse’s hooves in the yard disturbed him. Taking a quick glance out of the window behind his desk, Ben saw Deputy Peters tying his horse to the hitching rail. Wondering if the young man was bringing news about Linda, Ben went to open the door to the deputy’s knock.
“Mr. Cartwright,” Chet greeted him, removing his hat as he spoke and running a hand through his thick, brown hair. “Afraid I’ve got some bad news for you.”
“Bad news?” Ben’s heart sank, his thoughts racing to his sons. Adam on the way to Carson City, Hoss at the timber camp and Joe somewhere out on the Ponderosa’s vast acres. “What’s happened?”
“Well…” Chet drawled, replacing his hat and smiling laconically. “It’s Joe.”
“Joe!” Ben exclaimed in alarm, confused by the deputy’s attitude. “He’s not hurt?”
“Not too badly,” Chet said, his hand closing over the butt of his gun. “At least not yet.”
“Not yet?” Ben asked, puzzled. “What do you mean? Where is he?”
“I’m here to take you to him,” Chet told him softly, and to Ben’s astonishment he drew his gun. “You see, he’s with Linda.”
“Linda,” for a moment Ben just stared at the deputy, confused. “Linda Chadwick?”
“The Countess,” Chet agreed with a nod. “She sent me to get you.”
“If she’s hurt Joe, I’ll…” Ben began, but was interrupted by Chet’s ironic laughter.
“Don’t seem to me like you’re in much of a position to threaten the lady,” he said with a grin. “Now, if you want to see your son again I suggest you tell your cook that you’re riding to town with me. I know there’s nobody else here,” he continued as Ben cast a quick glance back into the house. “Better hurry it up, if I don’t get back with you soon Lady Chadwick might think there’s been some hitch. Don’t give much for Joe’s chances if that happens.”
Calling for Hop Sing, Ben did as instructed and told the little cook that he was accompanying Chet into Virginia City. Aware that the deputy was listening he made no attempt to try and alert Hop Sing that something was wrong.
Riding out with Chet, Ben was concerned primarily for Joe. Somehow, despite all evidence to the contrary, he couldn’t believe that Linda could do him any harm. He’d known her well, imagined he loved her once, and she had professed to love him. It couldn’t be possible, he reasoned, for her love to have turned to such extreme hatred. Surely once he saw her, he could make her see sense and let him and his son go free.
Walking into the dimly lit cabin, Chet’s gun at his back, Ben’s eyes scanned the room rapidly, passing over Linda standing by the hearth, and settling on the prone figure of his youngest son, lying on the bed by the wall.
“Joseph!” he started toward the young man but stopped abruptly as a burly figure stepped quickly from the shadows and barred his way.
“He’s all right,” Linda said softly. “Jones here knocked him out and tied him up, but he’s alive.”
“Let me go to him,” Ben said harshly, turning to face the woman. “I want to see for myself how he is.”
Linda hesitated for a moment then nodded. “Let him check the boy,” she told Jones, who moved aside at her words. “But keep your gun on him.”
“How long has he been unconscious?” Ben asked in concern, tenderly probing the large lump on the back of Joe’s head and finding blood matted in his son’s curly hair. “Has he stirred at all?”
“You’ve seen he’s alive,” Linda said, not answering his questions. “Now leave him be and come over here.”
Not leaving Joe’s side, Ben looked across at the woman. “Why are you doing this?” he asked quietly. “Didn’t you put me through enough last time you were here?”
“And you humiliated me,” Linda answered shrilly, moving a little closer. “You threw me out of your precious house, out of your life.”
“What more did you expect?” Ben asked her angrily. “You almost ruined me.”
“There was never any danger of that. I had more than enough money to sort everything out, if only you’d asked me to help you,” her voice grew softer and she reached out a hand towards Ben. “I loved you Ben, I just wanted you to love me back.”
“By trying to destroy everything I’ve worked for?” Ben looked up at her in disbelief. “And now you hurt my son? That’s hardly going to endear you to me.”
“You loved me once,” she said, and smiled wistfully. “Don’t you remember, Ben? How happy we were back in New Orleans.”
“That was twenty years ago.” Ben told her flatly. “You left me and I met Joseph’s mother. What we had is long gone.”
“I should never have left you,” tears pooled in Linda’s eyes and she brushed them away impatiently. “You were so gentle, so kind. I soon realised that Lord Chadwick wasn’t half the man you are.”
“But you wanted the title,” Ben stated coolly, recalling the day Linda had told him that she was breaking their engagement and leaving for Europe. “That was more important to you than I was.”
“It’s not too late to try again,” her voice held a note of pleading now as she stood before him. “I could let you go. We could forget all this unpleasantness.”
“Unpleasantness!” Ben said, his voice rising in anger as he looked down at his son. “You call what you’ve done to Joseph unpleasantness?”
Seeing the fury on his face, Linda fell back a little and looked over to where Jones and Chet stood, watching them. “Very well, if that’s how you feel,” she said coldly and motioned to Jones. “Tie Mr. Cartwright to the chair.”
“Linda, don’t do this,” Ben told her as Jones caught his arm and pulled him away from Joe’s side. “You’ll never get away with it, everyone knows you’re out to get me. Montague…”
“Montague,” Linda spat as Jones pushed Ben onto the chair and reached for the ropes that stood waiting on the table. “I trusted that man and he betrayed me.”
“He tried to do what was right,” Ben told her earnestly, wincing as the ropes bit into his wrists. “He didn’t want to see you become a murderess.”
“I have men to do that job for me,” a flash of something evil crossed Linda’s face as she spoke and Ben suddenly realised that Montague had been right, the woman was unbalanced. “Money can buy most things.”
“At least let Joe go,” Ben said softly, looking across at the bed where his son lay unmoving. “He’s never hurt you.”
“He could have been our son Ben, yours and mine,” sitting herself down beside Joe, Linda let her finger’s trail leisurely down the side of the young man’s face as she spoke and Ben felt his skin crawl at the sight. “If we’d married as we intended.”
“He’s Marie’s son,” Ben said quickly, denying her any claim on Joe as he pulled vainly at the bonds that held him. “And I thank the Good Lord for that.”
“I should be careful what you say my darling,” Linda looked up and the malevolence in her eyes made Ben shudder. “For I could easily snuff out the boy’s life if I wanted. Perhaps that would be better than killing you.”
“No,” Ben could hear the quiver of fear in his voice and fought to keep it under control. It wouldn’t help to let her know how scared he was that she might hurt his son. “Leave him out of this, Linda.”
“He’s so handsome,” she almost cooed the words, her hand cradling Joe’s cheek. “So young,” her voice hardened and Ben winced as he saw her drag her nails along his son’s cheekbone. “And so precious to his dear Papa, isn’t he?”
“You’re insane,” the words ripped forth before Ben could stop them, cold anger in his gut as he heard Joe moan a little and flinch from her touch, a bright strip of blood springing forth on his face.
“Insane!” Linda turned on him angrily, getting to her feet and advancing on him. “You’ll be sorry for that Ben Cartwright, I’m going to make you very sorry indeed.”
As he watched her come closer, Ben felt despair enfold him. He had underestimated the extent of Linda’s hatred and now it looked like he and Joe might pay with their lives.
“Well, lookee here,” glancing back along the trail they had just ridden Adam’s companion gave an amused chuckle and reined in his horse. “Ain’t that a sight?”
Following the ranch hand’s gaze Adam saw a horse galloping swiftly towards them, its rider perched precariously in the saddle, one hand clutching the reins and the other pressed tightly down on the crown of a black bowler hat.
“It’s Montague!” Adam exclaimed in surprise, turning his horse to meet the Englishman’s. “What the devil is he doing out here?”
“Mister Adam,” Montague gasped breathlessly as he pulled his horse to a stop and slid unsteadily to the ground. “Thank goodness I found you.”
“Is there some problem?” Adam asked, leaning forward in the saddle to look down at the Englishman, an uneasy feeling beginning to take hold of him. “Bad news?”
“More puzzling I’d say,” the man replied, brushing dust from his clothes and removing his hat to shake that off. “I caught sight of one of Lady Chadwick’s ruffians near Virginia City this morning. Lost him I’m afraid, but Sheriff Coffee told me to ride out to the Ponderosa and let you know anyway.”
“I’m on my way to Carson City on business,” Adam told him. “But you could have left word with my father, he should be told about it.”
“Well that’s the puzzling thing,” Montague replaced his hat, knocking it down firmly on his head, and looked up at Adam. “Mr. Cartwright isn’t at the Ponderosa. One of your hands told me that he’d ridden into town with Deputy Peters.”
Adam shrugged his shoulders. “Then I guess Chet Peters got out to the ranch before you,” he said, wondering why Montague had bothered to ride after him with this. “I don’t see the problem.”
“It’s just that Deputy Peters hasn’t been on duty,” the Englishman informed him, a worried frown creasing his brow. “For the past few days he’s been ill. Sheriff Coffee didn’t send him.”
“Odd,” Adam sat back in the saddle thoughtfully. He couldn’t imagine that Chet Peters could be involved with the threat to his father, after all he’d known the young deputy for years and the man’s father had been a friend of Ben’s. It was strange though, and Adam suddenly found that he couldn’t ignore the anxiety that was beginning to gnaw at his gut.
“I know where Peters lives,” he told Montague, swinging his mount round as he did so. “I’ll ride out there with Sam and check things out. You get back to town and alert Roy Coffee.”
“With respect,” Montague raised a hand, halting Adam. “I think I should come with you. If, by some chance, Lady Chadwick is with Deputy Peters I feel I may be more likely to get through to her than either of you.”
Privately Adam doubted that. Montague had run out on the Countess, it was certain that the woman hadn’t a very high opinion of him at the moment. “Please yourself,” he said shortly, deciding that there wasn’t time to argue the point. “Sam can go for the sheriff.”
With a nod of agreement the ranch hand wasted no time, touching his heels to his horse’s flank and riding swiftly away. Adam waited for a moment for Montague to mount up before heading off in the direction of Chet Peters cabin.
Joe regained consciousness to hear his father’s voice calling Lady Chadwick insane. Heart sinking at the realisation that Ben was there, and in danger, he kept his eyes closed and listened silently. If Linda didn’t know that he was awake he might be able to make some move to help his father, perhaps take the woman by surprise. It was probably a vain hope, he could feel the harsh ropes that bound his hands together and the head injury was making him feel giddy and nauseous, but he had to take any chance he could get. He tensed as he heard Linda advance on Ben, but to his surprise she made no move to hurt him, just ranted and raved, veering wildly from calling him vile names to murmuring endearments. It was obvious that his father was right, the Countess was far from sane. Attempting to ignore the pain from the lump on his head Joe tried hard to concentrate on what was going on.
It came as a shock to everyone in the room when Linda’s haranguing was brought to a sudden halt by a series of raps on the cabin door. “Who is that?” she asked in alarm, turning from Ben to look over at Chet. “Are you expecting anyone?”
“It’ll be Carson,” Jones told her, as Chet shook his head. “That’s the knock we agreed.”
“He’s supposed to be keeping watch,” Linda snapped irritably as Jones went to open the door. “What does he think he’s doing…” the words died on her lips as the door swung open to reveal Montague.
“If Carson was the name of the man concealed in the rocks a little way up the trail, then I’m afraid he’s rather tied up at present,” the Englishman said, stepping into the cabin and casting a nervous look at Chet Peters, who was holding a gun on him. “Might I talk to you for a moment, my Lady?”
Regarding him through narrowed eyes, Linda moved away from Ben and nearer to the deputy. “I ought to let Chet here kill you,” she threatened softly. “You betrayed me.”
“I couldn’t go along with all this,” Montague told her, looking over at Ben bound firmly to the chair. “And I’ve come to ask you one last time to reconsider.”
“Have you?” Linda said with an ironic laugh. “Well, you’re wasting your time. I’m not about to change my mind, whatever you say.”
“But you will hear me out?” Montague looked from Chet to Jones and back to the Countess. “Without them interfering?”
“They won’t shoot you,” Linda assured him with a half smile. “I owe you that much for the years of service you gave me,” she frowned as Montague closed the cabin door behind him, a sudden thought occurring to her. “How did you know I was here?”
“I was going to visit Mr. Cartwright,” Montague told her, crossing to the table and perching himself on the edge of it. “One of his men told me he’d gone into town with Mr. Peters there,” he waved a hand at the young deputy standing beside Jones in the corner of the room. “I thought it was somewhat strange as I knew Mr. Peters has supposedly been unwell of late, so I asked if the man knew where Peters lived and came to check things out. I found Mr. Carson waiting and managed to overcome him.”
“You didn’t tell that man what you suspected?” Linda asked anxiously, her eyes darting to the door as she spoke. “Or anyone else?”
Montague shook his head firmly, hoping that she would believe him. After they had overpowered Carson, and persuaded the man to reveal the agreed knock, Montague had convinced a dubious Adam to let him try and reason with the Countess, to avoid bloodshed if at all possible. Reluctantly agreeing, Adam had concealed himself close to the cabin, alert for trouble and hoping the sheriff and his men were, by now, on their way.
“Then you may have five minutes to say your piece,” Linda said imperiously, very much the grand lady with her servant as she came to stand before the Englishman. “Then get out, and leave me to finish what I came here for.”
Montague sat and studied her for a minute or two while behind him Ben glanced over at Joe, hoping against hope that the Englishman’s pleas would have some effect. In the corner of the room, Chet Peters grimaced and put his gun away while Jones kept his weapon trained on Montague and waited to hear what he had to say.
“My Lady…Linda,” Montague began at last, getting to his feet and ignoring Lady Chadwick’s frown at his use of her first name. “I’ve worked for you for many years, back from when his Lordship was alive, and I’ve always respected and admired you. I’ve served you to the best of my ability all that time…” Linda nodded in agreement, her face softening a little. “But I can’t agree with killing Mr. Cartwright,” he continued quietly. “Such petty revenge is beneath you, My Lady. You are a Countess, an aristocrat, you should rise above the hurt inflicted upon you, put it behind you. To kill him, or order him killed, will make you no more than a common criminal.”
“He rejected me,” Linda murmured bitterly as the Englishman paused. “I can’t let him get away with that.”
“Oh, My Lady,” Montague reached out and took her hand comfortingly in his. “Never mind his rejection, forget him. Don’t you realise why I have stayed with you all these years, why I’m trying to save you from yourself now? I love you, Linda, I always have.”
There was a shocked silence in the room as the Englishman made his declaration. Joe, struggling hard against unconsciousness, was surprised by Montague’s words, but Ben, watching Linda’s face as the man revealed his feelings for her, was only surprised that she had never realised how her servant really felt, he himself had guessed the truth long before.
“Love me?” Linda jerked her hand away from Montague’s grasp and laughed incredulously. “You can’t possibly love me.”
“I always have,” the Englishman repeated, his eyes betraying his hurt at her reaction. “And if you’d just let Mr. Cartwright and his son go we could make a life together. We could start anew out here, forget that you were my employer and I only a servant.”
“Let Ben go!” Linda’s voice rose on the words and she backed away from the man. “That’s what this is all about. You don’t love me, you just want to save Ben Cartwright,” turning to Chet, she held out a hand to him. “Give me Joe’s gun.”
“Linda please,” Montague begged as Chet obediently handed over the weapon. “Please listen to me.”
“I’m through listening,” Linda swung round wildly, her eyes glittering with rage. “I came here to see Ben Cartwright dead and I’ll do it myself if I have to.”
“No!” Seeing Linda level the gun, Montague quickly placed himself between her and Ben. “I won’t let you kill him!”
“Get out of the way!” Linda shouted, waving the gun at him. “Get out!”
Behind her, Joe tried desperately to move from the bed, galvanized by fear. His movements were ignored by Peters, the deputy’s attention fixed on the Countess, but before he could even get to his feet, events took a deadly turn.
Jones suddenly brought his gun up to take aim at Montague. “I’ll take care of him,” he declared, finger tightening on the trigger.
“Nooo…” Lady Chadwick’s eyes widened in horror as the burly man made the move and, with an inarticulate cry, she flung herself at him, just as the bullet exploded forth from the barrel of his gun.
The sound of the shot sent Adam bursting from cover and, gun drawn, running for the cabin. He was momentarily halted when a man’s cry split the air, a high, keening wail so full of loss and despair that it sent a cold shiver of fear tingling along his spine.
He had almost reached the cabin door when Chet Peters and a burly man burst forth, heading for the horses. For a moment Adam paused, wondering whether to try and stop the two, but he rapidly dismissed the idea, intent on finding out what had happened in the cabin, if his father was hurt.
Pushing the door open slowly, gun at the ready, Adam breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Ben straight away, alive and well, bound to a chair in the middle of the room.
“Adam,” Ben looked up from where Montague knelt on the floor, the Countess in his arms. “Thank the Lord.”
“You all right, Pa?” Swiftly crossing the room Adam pulled out his pocketknife and bent to cut his father’s bonds. “What happened?”
“I’m fine,” massaging his numb wrists as the rope fell free, Ben looked over to where Joe was perched unsteadily on the edge of the bed. “See to your brother.”
“Joe!” Adam’s eyes widened in surprise as he looked round. “How did you get here?”
“They used me as the lure to capture Pa,” Joe explained groggily as Adam cut the bonds from his wrists. “Did you get them? Chet Peters and the man who shot the Countess?”
“No,” Adam shook his head, gingerly examining Joe’s wound. “But Roy Coffee’s on his way, he’ll soon have a posse out after them.”
“How are you feeling, Joseph?” Ben joined his sons, running an anxious eye over his youngest and reaching out to gently touch the deep scratch Linda had inflicted on him. “You were out a long time.”
“I’ll be okay,” Joe reassured him softly before turning his gaze on Montague. “I think he’s the one who needs your help now Pa.”
Nodding his agreement, Ben walked slowly across to where the Englishman sat, his body shaking with silent sobs as he cradled the lifeless form of Lady Linda Chadwick.
“I’m sorry Montague,” Ben stooped to lay a consoling hand on the man’s shoulder. “So sorry.”
“She must have loved me a just little don’t you think, Mr. Cartwright?” Montague asked as he raised his head and looked up. His face was ravaged by grief, eyes awash with tears as he choked out the words. “She saved my life, which must surely mean she cared for me.”
Ben looked down at the motionless face of the woman he had once thought he loved. Even in death she was still beautiful, her face smooth and curiously untroubled, as though she was just sleeping. “Yes,” he assured Montague softly, his heart filled with pity for the man. “I’m sure she loved you.”
With a broken sob, Montague bent to lay a tender kiss on the still warm lips of the woman he had so long adored, before gently lifting her body up from the floor and heading for the cabin door.
Ben was surprised, a few days after Lady Chadwick had been laid to rest in the Virginia City cemetery, to receive a visit from Montague. Looking up from where he was helping Joe to fix a broken board on the porch, he saw the Englishman ride into the yard and went across to meet him.
“Mr Cartwright,” dismounting, Montague turned and smiled sadly. “I’ve just called out to say goodbye.”
“You’re going back to England?” Ben asked, noticing how pale and gaunt the man looked, he had lost weight even in the short time since Ben had seen him at the funeral.
“Now that my Lady is at peace, and Sheriff Coffee has Peters and Jones locked up with Carson, there is really nothing to stay for,” Montague said quietly, “and I have a yearning to be home, familiar places you know, and I have friends there.”
“I understand,” Ben told him, remembering his own past griefs. “Friends can be a great comfort to a man at a time like this.”
In response Montague nodded, then reached into the pocket of the long coat he wore and withdrew a bulky, paper wrapped package, which he handed to Ben. “The sheriff found this amongst My Lady’s possessions at the cabin,” he said softly. “I thought maybe you might like it, after all it was a gift from you.”
Wordlessly, Ben pulled aside the paper to reveal the small silver musical box that he had given Linda as a Christmas present almost twenty-one years before. Lifting the lid he listened for a moment as the pretty, tinkling melody filled the air, before closing it firmly and handing it back.
“It’s yours,” he said, as Montague’s fingers tightened around the pretty object. “Perhaps, in time, it may bring back some pleasant memories for you.”
“Thank you,” Montague stowed the box away with a wistful smile. “Then all that remains is for me to wish you goodbye.”
“I hope you have a good journey,” Ben told him and held out his hand. “And remember what I told you once before, there’s a place here for you if you ever want it.”
“I’ll remember,” the Englishman assured him, knowing full well, as he took a last look around the yard, that he wouldn’t be back. “I’ll always remember your kindness,” mounting up he looked down at Ben. “There is just one favour I’d like to ask of you, if I may?”
“Of course,” Ben assured him with a smile. “Anything.”
“I’d like to feel that we’re parting as friends,” Montague told him solemnly. “And I would very much like it if you would think of me as Harold, Harold Montague, that’s my full name.”
“Harold,” Ben repeated, taking the man’s hand for a final handshake. “I’m proud to know you.”
“And I you Ben,” and with a touch of his knees to the horse’s side, Harold Montague was gone.
For a long time after the Englishman had ridden away Ben remained by the hitching post, deep in thought. It was Joe who finally broke into his reverie, coming over to join his father.
“Did she love him do you think?” he asked sombrely. “It’d be kind of nice to think so, at least for his sake.”
“In as much as Linda was capable of the emotion I believe she did,” Ben told him softly. “But I don’t think she ever admitted it to herself. She thought her money could buy her love and all the time it was there for nothing, with Montague.”
“Harold,” Joe corrected with a grin, before asking the question that had been on his mind the past few days. “Did you love her, Pa? I mean really love her?” he broke off and dropped his gaze to the ground, looking a little abashed. “I guess you must have,” he continued quietly. “You were gonna marry her after all.”
Ben turned to regard his son, the young man’s cheek still bearing a faint mark from Linda’s nails. “To tell the truth Joseph,” he confessed, putting an affectionate arm around his son’s shoulders. “I didn’t love her. Oh, I thought I did, but I realised later that I was just fooling myself. I was lonely, twice widowed and flattered that a beautiful woman like Linda would agree to marry me,” he paused for a moment, thinking back down the years. “I even had myself believing she’d have made a good mother for your brothers,” he smiled ruefully at the thought, and shook his head. “Can you imagine that?”
“So what happened?” Joe asked, eager to hear the rest of the story. “How come you didn’t marry her?”
“She found someone else,” Ben told him. “Someone with money and a title and suddenly the idea of marrying a hard up rancher didn’t seem so attractive to her,” he smiled at Joe’s look of sympathy. “I didn’t mind,” he said softly. “I think by then I’d already begun to realise what she was really like. I was glad to be free of her, and then, just a short while later, I met your mother and knew real love again.”
“I’m sure glad you didn’t marry her,” Joe touched a finger to the scratch on his cheek and smiled wryly. “Though I do feel kinda sorry for her, she was real unhappy wasn’t she?”
Ben nodded. “She thought money would bring love and happiness,” he said quietly. “But it doesn’t. Remember that Joe, never think you can buy love. Real love doesn’t come with a price tag.”
“I know that Pa,” Joe told him with a smile, and as they returned to the job they’d been doing Ben gave thanks for the three women he’d truly loved in his life and the three fine sons they’d given him.