Summary: No man deserves all the attention.
Rating: K+ (6,025 words)
Terrance Liddell Coletrane knew he was a catch. Of this, he was quite confident. He’d built his small tailor shop into a prosperous enterprise sufficient to employ a shop assistant as well as a Chinese girl to cook and clean for him; his rooms above the store were comfortable and well-appointed, and he had enough education to be interesting, but not enough to ruin him. Moreover, Terrance was as physically fit as any reasonable person could expect from a man who spent much of each day crouched over a work table cutting, pinning, and sewing men’s garments. And if his chin was a bit weak, the strength of his character more than made up for it.
Yes, indeed, Terrance had everything a girl could want in a man. Sadly, despite his many sterling qualities, he hadn’t found the woman wise enough to recognize his worth. Naturally, he’d given the problem a great deal of thought, and he’d come to the conclusion that Virginia City itself bore the greatest responsibility.
In any other town, young ladies would have sweetly fluttered their lashes while softly giggling at his genteel wit. In any other town, he would have been in high demand at dinner parties and small soirees. In any other town, Terrance’s fine characteristics and solid prospects would have been enough to quickly find a respectable young lady of acceptable features and fortune. However, in the Comstock, where the number of ladies of the marrying sort was woefully small, Terrance’s sterling qualities were simply lost in the crowd of miners, saloon keepers, brewers, shop owners, drifters, general ne’er do wells, and, of course cowboys.
Cowboys. The very thought of the arrogant rascals set Terrance to grinding his teeth.
Why any self-respecting girl would be taken in by the rustic charms of men who busted up the two-bit saloons when they weren’t keeping company with a bunch of cows, Terrance swore he would never understand. Yet, somehow, the girls swooned over these miscreants as if cowboys had invented dashing appeal.
Well, perhaps not every cowboy. He would admit that most cowboys were regular guys who seemed to get an average amount of feminine consideration. A few of the lot were seedy, smelly, and flea-bitten. Not even the most addled lass seemed to find those fellows attractive. However, there was one example of the breed drawing far more than his fair share of attention and adoration—Little Joe Cartwright.
Terrance had ample opportunity to witness the phenomenon as the youngest Cartwright was a frequent visitor to Virginia City. Whenever in town, Joe Cartwright would bestow the favor of his charms on the citizens—graciously nodding to friends and acquaintances, courteously tipping his hat to the married ladies, and destroying the good sense of the maidens with impertinent winks and brilliant grins. In reward of those efforts, those maidens nearly swooned at a mere glance from the man and competed ferociously for Cartwright’s attentions. And did Cartwright appreciate such attentions? Not likely! The man seemed to flit from girl to girl as a bee sought nectar from a field of flowers.
It was just unfair that one man should attract so much regard at the expense of others. Frankly, Terrance was more than a little sick of Joe Cartwright, and it was only the considerable amount of business the Cartwrights provided his shop that kept Terrance from confronting the rascal and denouncing him as a cad. As it was, Terrance profited nicely from the suit jackets, trousers, satin vests, and other assorted items the Cartwrights were in the habit of purchasing from his shop. And although he hated to admit it, Terrance could almost make his living just from mending and reconstructing Little Joe Cartwright’s green jacket. The man had an alarming propensity for both violence and accident.
So, Terrance strived to be stalwart and philosophical about the situation. After all, Joe Cartwright wouldn’t remain a bachelor forever, and as Mother always said, every pot had its lid.
Terrance might have fumed silently for years over the situation if it hadn’t been for Moira Gallagher.
He’d noticed her the moment she’d stepped off the stage. On the way back to his shop after a quick lunch, Terrance had stopped dead in his tracks at the sight of the most enchanting woman he’d ever seen. Strawberry blond curls were barely contained beneath the bonnet framing a lively face decorated with just the faintest trace of golden freckles. A modest traveling costume emphasized her slender figure becomingly. Waiting for her baggage, she shaded her eyes with a delicate, gloved hand and peered eagerly at her surroundings. When her wide eyes briefly met his own, Terrance was both ecstatic and terrified by the smile she sent his way.
He was never quite sure how he managed to find himself at her side; he couldn’t recall setting his feet on the path. However, he was right at hand when the stage coach driver tossed down the suitcase Terrance accepted on her behalf.
“Allow me, miss,” Terrance said placing the bags on the ground. “Welcome to Virginia City.”
“Thank you, sir. You are very kind.” Her voice was lovely, soft and lilting with a charming Irish accent.
“It was no problem,” Terrance paused to clear his suddenly dry throat. “Are you meeting someone I might fetch for you?”
“Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary. My aunt should be along directly. I’m Moira Gallagher.” The young lady offered her hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Terrance replied gallantly. The warmth of her fingers against his own had the puzzling effect of disrupting his ability to breathe. “I’m Terrance Liddell Coletrane. My shop . . . I have a shop . . . um, of . . . for gentlemen . . . their clothing and so on.”
Stop rambling, idiot!
Miss Gallagher attempted to peer over his shoulder in the direction he was indicating. Rising up on her tiptoes, she placed her hand momentarily on his arm for balance. When she spied his storefront, she released his arm and stepped back. Moira seemed about to speak when catastrophe struck.
“Miss Gallagher?” he heard a voice behind him.
Terrance didn’t see his nemesis; but he recognized the signs of his approach. Miss Gallagher’s lovely pink lips formed a perfect “O” while her hazel eyes grew wider and darker. As Joe Cartwright drew even with the pair, Miss Gallagher’s gaze drifted to the vicinity of her feet when she wasn’t looking through fluttering eyelashes at the interloper.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to meet you when you arrived.” Tipping his hat, Cartwright gently took the lady’s hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “I’m Joe Cartwright. Your aunt asked me to escort you to the house. Are these your bags?” Confidently, Joe tucked Moira’s hand in the crook of his arm and hoisted the baggage easily with his other hand.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it? Nice to see you, Terrance.” Cartwright flashed his signature grin. “Miss Gallagher, your aunt’s house is just down the street.”
Without a backward glance, the couple left Terrance standing there on the street with a stunned look on his face and a hole in his chest where his heart used to reside.
Although Terrance wasn’t known for patronizing saloons in the middle of day, that afternoon seemed a good time to start. Seated at a table in the back, he nursed a bottle of whiskey through the remainder of the afternoon. Nobody paid him any mind; he figured he didn’t look like someone who wanted any company. Finally as the light filtering through the windows softened to signal the end of the day, one of the girls ambled over in his direction. Fancy ladies weren’t really his territory, but Terrance was in the mood to take a risk.
Della sat down with a swish of satin and a gust of cheap perfume. She tipped whiskey from his bottle into the glass she carried and smiled at every one of his boozy jokes. Just as Terrance was beginning to understand the attraction of these establishments, he caught Della sweeping sideways glances at the bar. What’s so darn fascinating? When he caught sight of the familiar green jacket, the swallow of whiskey he had in his mouth went down wrong. He sputtered and choked while Della pounded his back.
“Don’t worry, honey, let me get you a glass of water.” Della was sashaying to the bar before he could protest. She sidled up against Cartwright so as to ask the barkeep for water. He delivered a glassful right away, but she’d lost interest in Terrance as soon as she’d lost herself in Cartwright’s eyes.
Terrance waited and watched, mostly because he couldn’t seem to look away. Clearly, Della was gone for good. By thunder, what had his life come to when he couldn’t keep the attention of a woman actually paid to entertain the customers?
Enough was enough. Terrance pushed his chair abruptly away from the table, scraping it loudly across the floor. He clutched the half-empty bottle against his chest and stumbled out the swinging doors onto the street. Vigorously shaking his head in the cool evening air didn’t help much, but he managed to stagger his way down the street to the shop without incident.
A rather satisfactory dream featuring a triumphant Terrance soundly kicking Little Joe’s ass was interrupted around midnight by someone pounding on his shop’s alley door. Lifting his aching head from the cradle of his arms, Terrance responded as courteously as possible.
The infernal racket failed to cease; in fact, it became even more insistent. Armed with liquid courage, Terrance charged to the door, ready to send the intruder on his way. Jerking the door open revealed a tall stranger outfitted in worn garments that hung on his lean frame. Bushy dark eyebrows and a head of greasy hair shadowed a face so pale as to have never seen day of sunshine.
Must be a miner.
“Can I help you?” Terrance growled.
Ignoring Terrance’s churlish attitude, the miner boldly shouldered his way into the workroom. He paused to smirk at the mess Terrance had made—cloth, pins, and scissors swept aside to make room for the nearly empty bottle and glass.
“Take my advice, friend. Never drink alone.” With that, the miner pulled a chair up to the table and drew another bottle from inside his jacket. Waving Terrance to a chair, the man sloppily poured himself a drink and tilted the chair back on two legs as he tossed the drink back.
Terrance remained standing, unsteady but upright, and wondered how in the dickens he was going to evict this buffoon. The miner kicked a chair over inviting Terrance to sit.
“I saw what happened today,” the miner smacked his lips after emptying his glass.
“Is that a fact?” Terrance said. “It’s no crime to sit in a saloon.”
“I saw what happened at the stage coach,” the man replied, “and then I saw what happened in the saloon.”
Terrance felt a flush warm his neck and ears. If this miner had seen what happened, how many others had witnessed his humiliation? Was he a laughing stock?
“You know,” the miner drawled, “Every man expects a little competition when it comes to the ladies. Wouldn’t be any fun, otherwise. Know what I mean?” When Terrance shrugged, the miner chuckled.
Abandoning his whiskey for the moment, the miner picked up a pair of shears, opening and closing them idly, testing the edge against the side of his thumb.
“Of course, women ain’t got no sense. So, some men take advantage of their silliness, don’t they? Pretty boys like Joe Cartwright, for instance.” Terrance nodded firmly at this. “Some fellers just need taken down a peg.”
“Why do you care?” Terrance asked.
“Dudes like him make me mad. I couldn’t buy a dance at the last social for all the gals moonin’ over him. In the long run, it won’t matter much to me ‘cause I don’t plan on settling down here. But, I would be willing to help the right feller to—you know—balance things out.”
Terrance finally sat. “What do you have in mind?”
“Not much, just a prank really. Something to make Mr. High-and-Mighty a little less pretty and a lot more humble.”
“I don’t want any trouble.”
“Nothin’ to worry about. He gets a little roughed up, learns a little lesson. Cartwright ain’t no kid. What’s he gonna do? Cry to the sheriff?”
“He’s got brothers.” It might be all right to start a feud with the Cartwrights if you were just drifting through town, but Terrance was going to have to live with the aftermath of the prank.
The miner shifted forward in his seat a bit, fixing Terrance with a look that might as well have shouted, “Don’t be such a sissy.”
“Boy, this is your chance to get some of your own back. I guarantee if you take Cartwright down a peg the girls will look at you different. Ain’t it time things changed?”
There was a little queasy feeling in the pit of Terrance’s stomach. He wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey or his conscience, but doggone it, the miner was right. It was time for things to change.
“What kind of prank?”
Terrance had never been a man who’d sympathized with self-inflicted aches and pains. However, on the morning following his hours of over-indulgence, he found he possessed a good deal more compassion for those who had suffered as he was doing. His head ached so badly, his stomach behaved so mutinously, his eyesight turned so unreliable that Terrance barred the door, closed the shutters, and took the day off.
He sat as quietly as possible in the gloom of his shop attempting to separate real memories from tipsy fantasies. Lordy, what had he done? Not only had he drunk himself sick, he’d agreed to partner in some hare-brained prank with a man he’d only just met. The previous night had not been an example of his finest hours.
In fact, he was having serious second thoughts about the whole plan. After all, it seemed a bit childish to punish Cartwright for being popular with the ladies. With the advantage of a clearer head, Terrance decided he could let bygones be bygones. He just had to go find the miner and let him know of his decision.
The first few minutes in the glaring sunlight were unexpectedly painful. With a hand against the porch post, he breathed through his misery and began his search. Mere steps from his storefront he came face-to-face with the lovely Moira.
His heart skipped a beat at her beaming look of recognition. His complaints vanished in the warmth of her smile. Gallantly, he shook her hand and inquired after her health.
“Thank you, Mr. Coletrain. I am very well.” Moira dimpled prettily at his attention. She accepted the offer of his arm, and they strolled down the street together. He couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy. They were chatting amiably about the fashions in gentlemen’s waistcoats when Moira’s casual question shattered his bliss.
“Mr. Coletrain,” Moira asked, “I was wondering if you had any notion of the next time Little Joe plans to visit Virginia City?”
She must have seen the impact of her question because she excused herself quickly from his company with a story of a forgotten errand for her aunt. As Terrance watched her walk away, all thoughts of remaining the bigger man evaporated. If it meant Little Joe Cartwright would feel just a bit of the pain Terrance was experiencing, the tailor decided he could be a very small man indeed.
On the day of the prank, Terrance was in a fever of anticipation. Unable to concentrate on work, he failed to calculate Mr. MacKay’s bill correctly resulting in a rather embarrassing conversation, and THEN he ordered GRAY damask satin rather than GREEN damask satin from the textile man. Terrance wasn’t even able to locate his favorite shears and had to make do with an older, inferior pair.
As the hour drew near for Little Joe to arrive to pick up his father’s suit, Terrance became even more muddled. Finally, he sent his assistant home and puttered around his shop alone. He lit the lamps as the afternoon began to give way to evening, unlocked the back door and waited. Visions of Little Joe limping back to town clad only in his long underwear, footsore, filthy, and properly chastened helped him pass the time enjoyably.
When the bell on his shop door rang at Joe Cartwright’s entrance, Terrance’s nerves were pulled so tight he nearly jumped out of his skin. As usual, Cartwright was all smiles and vacuous charm.
“Terrance! How you doing? Sorry to make you wait. It’s a long ride from the Ponderosa.”
“I’m happy to oblige you, Little Joe. I have your father’s suit in the back room, all safe and sound. Would you like to step back here with me?” Terrance was in a cold sweat he hoped Little Joe wouldn’t notice. No customer was ever asked to go to the back room—would Joe get suspicious?
Apparently, Little Joe wasn’t the suspicious type. He merely shrugged and followed Terrance.
He waved Little Joe to precede him through the door into the cluttered workroom, lit only by the meager light filtered from one dimmed lamp. The cowboy had hardly stepped over the threshold before Terrance heard a thud quickly followed by the sound of something (someone!) hitting the floor.
Turning up the light, Terrance was appalled at the sight of Joe Cartwright motionless on his floor. A gash at the back of the man’s skull was already forming a small puddle of blood beneath his head.
“What have you done?” Terrance demanded. “You were going to wave a little chloroform under his nose—you weren’t supposed to kill him!”
“He ain’t dead,” the miner replied calmly. A hunk of polished granite Terrance kept as a fabric weight was now slick with blood. “This was easier.” He tossed the soiled object onto a nearby table.
“Really, this is too much,” Terrance told him. The miner scoffed at his squeamishness, not deigning to reply. Instead, he eased the door open before clapping Terrance on the shoulder.
“Grab his shoulders while I catch hold of his feet.”
Little Joe wasn’t a big fellow, but he was certainly heavier than he looked. It took Terrance a couple of attempts to get a good grip under Joe’s shoulders in order to lift him high enough for the pair to shuffle out the back door and load his limp form into the back of the waiting rig. By the time they had Cartwright settled out of sight, Terrance’s shirt front had absorbed more than a little of Joe’s blood.
As the miner settled himself to take the reins, Terrance returned to the store just long enough to grab a hat and lock up his store. As they drove out of town, he wondered how things had gotten out of hand so quickly.
Terrance sat up as they passed the little copse of trees a mile out of town.
“Hold on—that‘s the spot we talked about!”
But the miner showed no inclination to listen to Terrance’s protest and instead urged the horse to move even faster.
Despite the bone-jarring pace, Terrance hadn’t heard even a whimper from their captive. He might not have had much experience in these sorts of undertakings, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that he’d been bamboozled by the miner. Terrance knew he was in more trouble than he had ever contemplated in his life and could only grieve that he hadn’t gotten smarter about his partner a whole lot sooner.
Finally, the miner halted the buggy at the entrance to an old mine. A hobbled horse loitered nearby. Never having much need to explore the countryside, Terrance had no idea where they were and couldn’t have found the place on a bet or a map.
Without a word, the miner dragged Joe out of the rig and slung him roughly over a shoulder. Ducking low at the entrance, Terrance followed the miner into a cavern already lit by a burning lamp and furnished with a couple of crates and sack of supplies. He watched as Joe was trussed up hand and foot before being propped against the rock. Satisfied with his handiwork, the miner finally acknowledged Terrance as he liberated a bottle of whiskey from his stash.
“Looks about right, don’t he?” sneered the man. Anyone with an ounce of compassion would never agree that the bloodied, bound young man looked “about right.”
“What have you done? This isn’t what we agreed!” Terrance shouted.
“Of course it’s what we agreed, boy. You wanted Joe Cartwright punished for what he’s put you through, didn’t ya? You wanted to take the shine off him, right? I’d say he doesn’t look so shiny now.”
The miner paused to give Little Joe a sharp slap across the jaw, finally prompting some sign of life as Joe groaned and attempted to roll away from his attacker.
“Stop that!” Terrance hollered. “He isn’t fighting back, and his pa will have our hides for bringing him back hurt. We’re only playing a prank, for Heaven’s sake.”
In lieu of a proper reply, the miner spat noisily into the dirt and grinned at Terrance’s snit.
Terrance’s chest heaved in righteous indignation. His fists were clenched as he adopted the commanding tone he was sometimes forced to use with his shop assistant.
“I have decided that I no longer require your help in this matter. You may be on your way.” It was a manly, forthright statement in no way blemished by the slight tremble in his voice.
Somehow, Terrance was not entirely surprised when the miner ignored his directive. Even so, the miner’s evident amusement was infuriating.
“Sounds like your friend . . . has plans of his own, Terrance,” muttered the captive at their feet.
For the briefest time, Terrance had forgotten all about Little Joe. Apparently the miner was also surprised to hear from Cartwright. However, the scoundrel recovered quickly and crouched in front of the Cartwright –the better to sneer in the cowboy’s face. Joe’s head was lolling back against the rock wall, and the eyes glaring back at the miner were noticeably unfocused. Despite his infirmity, a quick intake of breath and widened eyes alerted Terrance to the fact that Little Joe recognized the miner.
“Terrance, ya really know how to make friends,” Joe slurred. “I gotta say I never expected you to be party to a kidnapping.”
“This is not a kidnapping,” Terrance sputtered. At Joe’s skeptical expression, Terrance felt the need to change the subject. “How do you know this miner?”
“He’s not a miner,” Joe explained gently. “This here is Cal McWhorter.”
Cal McWhorter. The name didn’t ring any bells, at least not at first. However it did awaken some vague memory of a depraved act, some hideous cruelty.
“He cut Rose Welles,” Joe supplied helpfully. “His prison sentence must be up.”
Oh, now he remembered. Cal McWhorter had abused one of the many Virginia City saloon girls in a most shocking way before disfiguring her face with a hunting knife. The trial had been a sensation. Although Terrance had not attended the trial for business reasons, he remembered McWhorter had claimed the girl had thrown him over for another man . . . Terrance’s heart sank as the final puzzle piece fell into place. McWhorter had blamed Little Joe for the loss of the girl’s affections. The tailor was pretty certain the man had even threatened Cartwright right there in the courtroom.
McWhorter finally spoke up, “Tailor, watching your face while you put that all together was as good as seein’ a show at the Opera House. I guess you see now why I was so all set on helpin’ you make an example of this one.” Terrance was unable to find the words to reply.
“I didn’t think you’d mind me borrowing these.” As McWhorter spoke, he drew Terrance’s missing scissors from inside his jacket. Opening the shears wide, he slid the edge of one the blades down the ragged jacket. A thin slice of fabric fell to the floor.
“Naturally, I had to hone the edge a mite.” McWhorter noticed Terrance’s horrified expression. “Don’t fret, boy. I’m aimin’ to let you have a turn.”
“Let me have a turn? I’ll have no part of this . . . betrayal!”
“Betrayal!” thundered McWhorter, the word echoing around the cavern. “I haven’t betrayed you. This ‘un here has been tempting every woman in town to betrayal. Nothin’ would have happened to Rose if she hadn’t betrayed me. But she’s just a silly woman; he’s the one to blame.”
“Don’t kid yourself, McWhorter. Rose was never your girl; she was scared to death of you. It turned out she was right to be scared. It’s just too bad you survived prison.” Joe was running his mouth and fighting the ropes as if he had a chance of breaking free to pound the wretch. “You touch me, and you’ll find yourself right back in prison.”
“Cartwright, that’s where you got it all wrong. If anyone goes to prison for takin’ care of you, it’s gonna be the tailor, not me.”
McWhorter stepped up to Terrance, eyeing his “partner” smugly.
“Think about it, tailor. Young Cartwright’s blood is all over your store. Hell, it’s all over you.” McWhorter jabbed at Terrance’s stained shirt. “I bet plenty of people saw him go into your store. Nobody saw me. Everybody in town knows you hate Cartwright. Nobody in town even knows I’m out of prison. I can ride out of here and leave you with the body, and you’ll hang for murder . . . unless I go back to town with you and help you organize things.”
The depth of trouble his jealousy and stupidity had wrought stole Terrance’s strength. He leaned against the cavern wall, eyes closed, picturing the consequences McWhorter described. It was all true; every scrap of evidence—including the scissors McWhorter clutched in his filthy hands—would point directly at him. No one would believe his story of being duped by a murderous accomplice. He sank down to the ground, afraid he was going to be sick.
“Ain’t got the stomach for it?” McWhorter sneered. “Don’t matter. Just sit there, and stay out of my way.”
McWhorter resumed his crouch in front of Little Joe who twisted and kicked at the madman. Easily dodging out of harm’s way, McWhorter grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair and forced his head back. Laying the scissors’ edge against Joe’s face, he pressed the sharp blade into the soft skin next to his mouth until bright red blood appeared and dripped from the wound. Joe continued to struggle, grimacing but silent despite his pain and rage.
“Think you’re a tough guy? We’ll hear from ya before long, won’t we?” McWhorter promised.
“You gonna stand for this, Terrance?” Joe called out. “You gonna let this guy cut me up?”
“Stand for it, Cartwright?” McWhorter asked. “Him and me have been lookin’ forward to this.”
For the rest of his life, whenever Terrance reflected back on that day, he would never be able to explain precisely what propelled him out of that corner. He certainly hadn’t thought it through. He had no affinity for Cartwright; he barely knew the man. The thought of eternal damnation never crossed his mind. His only clear impression had been a vision of Moira Gallagher’s smiling regard dissolving into horror at his crime.
Fisticuffs were never a part of Terrance’s upbringing. His fighting skills were paltry, to say the least. Yet, he managed to topple McWhorter to the ground and roll him away from Cartwright. A benefit, perhaps, of never learning to fight properly was a complete disregard for the niceties of a fair fight. Terrence kicked, scratched, and bit with no regard for his dignity as Little Joe Cartwright called out encouragement. Yet, even equipped with the strength borne from true love, the outcome seemed dire. Terrance was not the only man there who knew how to fight dirty.
Tangled in a painful embrace, Terrance concentrated on keeping the scissors turned as far away from his throat as possible. McWhorter was just as determined to finish the fight with the sharp blades fatally embedded in Terrance. If they had not rolled close enough to Joe to allow the captive to give the miscreant a hard kick in the back, events might have taken a cruel turn. As it was, the kick stole both McWhorter’s breath and concentration. Fortune favored Terrance at that moment; when he managed to turn the weapon, McWhorter slipped in his attempt to retrieve the advantage and plunged the shears deep into his own heart. The criminal gasped his last breath as his life blood soaked into the dirt. Terrance pulled away in shock and exhaustion, took a moment to convince himself that the fight was indeed over, and then stumbled to the mine entrance to empty his stomach into a clump of grass.
“Terrance? You all right, buddy?” A weak voice floated out from the interior of the mine.
Time to face the music. After a couple of shaky cleansing breaths, Terrance stumbled back into mine. Carefully averting his eyes from McWhorter’s mortal remains, Terrance approached their victim. Little Joe was definitely not looking his usual, dashing self. A bloodied head, filthy clothes, sickly pallor and unfocused gaze had transformed Virginia City’s most pursued bachelor into a pathetic shell of his former self. This was just what Terrance had wanted, had dreamed of. And the choking surge of remorse nearly sent him back outside.
Sighing, he set about untying the ropes restraining Joe’s wrists. Cutting the ropes would have been faster, but Terrance had no knife and using the scissors didn’t bear consideration.
Once the ropes were thrown aside, Terrance hoisted Joe to his feet and helped him outside. He eased the cowboy to the ground, fetched water, and politely ignored the resultant nausea Joe’s head wound seemed to have induced. When all was quiet again, both men rested, silent, with their eyes on the darkening sky. The night air felt refreshingly cool; the darkness was calming. Terrance was sorely tempted to lie back and sleep—and just deal with everything in the morning. But no, he had created this mess; it was up to him to put things right.
“I suppose,” Terrance said, “that we need to head back to town. It’s customary to tie the man across his horse, isn’t it?”
“Leave him there,” Joe said. “The sheriff can come fetch him.”
Yes, the sheriff. No help for that.
“Just so you, know” Terrance said. “I will turn myself in to the sheriff as soon as we have you settled with the doctor. I take full responsibility for the night’s debacle, and . . . ”
“Hold on,” interrupted Joe, “Full responsibility? You knew what McWhorter had planned? You wanted to kill me?” Suddenly, Joe’s face revealed concern.
At Terrance’s vehement denial, Cartwright relaxed. “Well, the way I see it, you saved my life.”
“That’s your concussion talking. Your life would never have been in peril if I had been less an idiot.”
“Ain’t no law against being dumb,” Joe replied. “What did you plan to do?”
Terrance thought hard. The original plan was a bit of a blur.
“I can’t . . . I can’t exactly remember. Alcohol was involved. I will just say that at the time it seemed immensely satisfying.”
Although embarrassed by his confession, the giggle that erupted from his companion was contagious, and for a few moments the two men gave themselves up to laughter.
“I never realized you hated me, Terrance,” Joe said.
Terrance huffed out a breath. “I didn’t . . . don’t hate you, not really. It’s just that it’s ridiculous to try to compete for female attention when I’m. . .” and Terrance made a hopeless gesture toward his very ordinary self, “and you are . . .” followed by a sweeping motion that acknowledged the glory that was Little Joe Cartwright.
Joe looked completely flummoxed by his explanation.
“Nah. You’re kidding me, right? Moira Gallagher is right sweet on you; she can’t stop talking about you.”
It was Terrance turn to be flummoxed.
“This is too much!! What do you take me for? At our last meeting, Miss Gallagher made a point of asking about you.”
Joe’s brow furrowed in confusion, then smoothed over again in comprehension.
“Pa has been handling some investments for Moira’s aunt. I carried the paperwork to her before I headed over to your store. Believe me, Terrance, I’m not the man Moira has her eye on.”
Pure disbelief slowly changed places with budding hope. Terrance had never felt so giddy.
She was interested in ME all along. All along, she was INTERESTED in me. ALL ALONG . . .
“Well, damnation!” Terrance groused.
It took the entire night to reach Virginia City. As suggested, McWhorter’s body remained in the mine for the sheriff to retrieve. Since Terrance had no idea of their location, and Joe was unconscious during the first trip, they back-tracked their buggy’s marks as best they could until Joe was able to orient them to familiar landmarks.
Their pace was laborious, punctuated by frequent stops to ease Joe’s aching head or queasy stomach. It gave them plenty of time to talk; or in Little Joe’s case, to argue. In his uniquely convoluted way, Little Joe assured Terrance that he would be hailed as a hero for saving one of the Cartwright boys from a painful death. The facts regarding Terrance’s participation in the event leading to the showdown were immaterial as far as Joe was concerned. Joe believed Terrance hadn’t meant any real harm, he’d come through for Joe when it counted, and everyone knew a fellow lost his common sense when women were involved.
They met the Cartwrights with the posse just outside of town at dawn. Ben Cartwright’s obvious relief at finding his son alive was clearly tempered with fury at those responsible for his boy’s less than pristine condition. Fortunately, Joe’s strength was adequate to the task, and his legendary gift of gab quickly surfaced. Within a few minutes, Terrance found himself the recipient of grateful handshakes from the father and oldest brother along with a congratulatory thump on the back from Hoss that nearly knocked the tailor out of the buggy. Terrance could only shake his head in wonder at the changes in his fortune.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Joe whispered as his father prepared to take Terrance’s place in the rig. “This is nothin’! Wait ‘til the girls in town hear about you.”
It was just as Joe had predicted. Terrance, who had long believed himself invisible to Virginia City’s fairer sex, found himself frequently buttonholed by young ladies fascinated by the courage and audacity he’d employed in rescuing Little Joe. Of course, it was a bit embarrassing, at least at first, to be the object of such rapt attention. With practice, Terrance was able to tell the story with suitable flourishes and just a little glossing over of troublesome details.
In fact, at the annual Harvest Dance, Terrance’s company was in such demand it was difficult to pay proper attention to Moira. Ladies bestowed such a degree of flattering attention even dashing Little Joe was feeling a little left out in the cold. Terrance wasn’t even left in peace long enough to savor a cup of punch before being dragged yet again to the floor by a giggling lass.
When he threw a backward glance at Little Joe, he could tell his friend was just slightly put out at the situation. Over the opening chords of the music, Terrance could hear Hoss’s good natured ribbing.
“What’s the problem, little brother? Can’t stand the competition?”
Written for the 2015 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
My words were: miner, prank, betrayal, kidnapping, tailor
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