Summary: The author of a dreadful dime novel visits Virginia City in pursuit of the book’s harshest critic–Adam Cartwright.
Rated K + ( 2,888 words)
This story was first published in Bonanza® Gold Volume VII Issue 4, Oct/Nov/Dec 2009.© 2009 Bonanza Gold-TM/Bonanza Convention, Inc. and Bonanza Ventures.
The Gallant Cowboy
“Adam!” Hoss stomped into the Bucket of Blood, slamming the batwing doors back against the wall. “There’s a telegram for ya! Badger Wilding says it sounds urgent, but it’s been sittin’ in the office for over a week! He says he ain’t had a chance to send it out to the ranch.”
Adam set his beer on the bar and turned. Hoss slapped the much-wrinkled paper into his brother’s hand. Adam quirked a brow and deliberately unfolded the paper and read silently for a moment.
“Adam?” Hoss asked. “What is it?”
“It seems that someone is coming to Virginia City.”
Hoss held up a finger to the barkeep. “Can I get a beer, Sam? Who’s comin’? Friend of yours?”
Adam crumpled the telegram in his fist. “No. As a matter of fact, I’ve never met the gentleman.”
“Who is it?” asked Hoss, sipping his beer with a sigh of pleasure.
“Wilberforce B. Henley, Esquire.” Adam said, tossing the crumpled telegram into the brass spittoon at the end of the bar. “He’s a writer.”
“Is that all?” Hoss said, taking off his hat and wiping his forehead with his bandana. “The way Badger talked, that telegram had to be delivered quick, somethin’ about ‘danger’ and a ‘deadline’. Them’s his exact words.”
Adam shook his head. “Oh, it’s about ‘danger,’ all right.”
Hoss expectant eyes gazed at him pointedly.
Adam sighed. “Wilberforce Henley is a novelist. He writes dime novels about the Romantic West. He instills his stories with such blatant inaccuracy, that I, well—”
Adam turned away from his brother’s gaze, his face reddening.
“Let me guess. You told him to come here if ‘n he wanted to see the real West.”
“Not exactly. I wrote to his editor to complain about the inept and ridiculous claptrap he was publishing. To make my point, I sent along a chapter of his latest book, with my—er—editorial comments written into the margins.”
Hoss chuckled and took another swallow of his beer. “I’ll bet that showed him!”
“Apparently, the editor passed my comments on to Mr. Henley.”
Hoss set his beer down on the bar.
“I was not very—complimentary.“ Adam ran a hand over his face. “I wrote in the heat of the moment, I’ll admit, but I never should have actually mailed—anyway, Mr. Wilberforce Henley will be passing through Virginia City on his way to San Francisco.”
“And he’s coming here to kill ya?”
Adam pinched the bridge of his nose. “Worse. He was so grateful for my comments that he is stopping here to ‘seek my advice’ for his latest manuscript. Because of my ‘previous interest’ he feels sure that I will wish to advise him. And since the deadline for the next publication is apparently looming, he left St. Louis shortly after hearing about my comments.”
Hoss was openly laughing. “When’s he coming?”
Adam mumbled something.
“What was that, Big Brother?” Hoss asked, grinning.
Adam gazed at Hoss’ reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “According to his telegram, and if the stage met its schedule, he arrived yesterday. He’s probably at the International House right now.”
Both brothers raised their beer mugs to their lips and took a long, synchronized sip.
“Well,” said Hoss. “How bad can he be? Might be interestin’ to talk to a man who’s written books.”
Adam didn’t answer.
Hoss set down his glass and looked at Adam intently. “Adam.” He waited until Adam’s gaze reluctantly swung his direction. “Just what did you say about his book?”
“Hoss, if you’d read that utterly ridiculous tripe—”
“What did you say?”
Adam sighed, and let his head fall to his chest for a moment, then straightened his shoulders.
“His hero is a cowboy named Dirk Danger—”
Hoss started, and shook his head.
Adam nodded. “Dirk Danger. The book is called Dirk Danger The Gallant Cowboy.”
“Oh.” Hoss signaled for another beer. “That’s the danger the telegram was talkin’ about.”
Adam nodded. “Dirk—er—Danger is a particularly inept hero, who rides so carelessly that he galloped his horse through a prairie dog town—”
Hoss’ eyes widened. “Why’d he do a dang-fool thing like that?”
“—because he was in a hurry to get some important, life-saving medicine back to the ranch to save Beautiful Belinda from a fatal illness. But his horse fell and broke its neck. Dirk broke his leg.”
Hoss snorted. ”Serves him right, treatin’ a good horse that way. He must’ve really been ridin’ reckless to break the pony’s neck.”
“He lay in the desert for days—”
“Days? Didn’t nobody from the home camp help him?”
“They could not find him,” Adam said.
“They couldn’t track him? On their own range? For days?” Hoss shook his head in disbelief.
“That’s not the worst of it,” Adam said.
Hoss’ eyebrows rose. “What else?”
“Well, to get out of his—er—‘dire and life-threatening predicament,’ Dirk Danger roped and tied a passing steer. With his suspenders.”
Hoss stared, mouth falling open. “He roped—with a broken leg—passing steer—Suspenders?”
Adam nodded. “He then took his spurs, pounded them into a branding irons on a nearby rock—”
Hoss began to make sputtering noises.
“—and he built a fire. With his makeshift branding irons, he branded H-E-L-P onto one side of the steer, and a cross on its other side.”
Hoss erupted into laughter, great belly-deep guffaws that had him clutching the bar in support.
“He then turned the steer loose,” Adam continued relentlessly, raising his voice slightly to be heard over Hoss’ laughter, “and the steer returned to the barn, where it was spotted by the rest of the hands, who correctly interpreted the brands to mean that Dirk Danger was in trouble near Cross Creek. They then rode to his rescue—”
But the remainder of the story was drowned out by the guffaws and shouts of laughter from Hoss and Sam the barkeep, who had wandered over to see what was so funny.
Hearing Hoss’ and Sam’s reactions, Adam found that he was laughing himself, finally abandoning his indignant anger at the farcical story.
After a long, long moment, his laughter exhausted, Hoss clapped his brother on the back.
“Older Brother, I feel a sudden need to go over to the International House. A man that could come up with such a story—well, that’s a man I have to meet!”
“I don’t think I can face him,” Adam said. “I mean, what would I say to him? He wrote it in all seriousness. He has absolutely no idea how absurd his story really is.”
“Well,” said Hoss “there’s so much wrong with that story I don’t think you’re ever likely to set him straight. His whole way of thinking about ranchin’ and is so far off balance that he don’t know which leg he’s standin’ on.”
Adam blinked at his brother’s sensible view of things.
“You’re right.” He sighed and set his empty beer glass on the bar. “Let’s get it over with. If we’re lucky, we can meet Mr. Henley, tell him I can’t help him, and get back here before Little Joe gets wind of this.”
The hotel clerk had apparently stepped away from the desk at the International House, and as they waited, Adam spotted his youngest brother in the hotel restaurant, sitting with a lovely, fashionably dressed young woman.
“Adam! Hoss!” Joe stood and gestured toward his table. “I’ve got someone I want you to meet.”
Curiously, and with a touch of envy, Adam turned his steps toward Joe’s table. How does he always run into the prettiest newcomers before the rest of us?
“Ma’am, these are my brothers. Adam, Hoss, this is Miss Wilhelmina Henley. Turns out, she’s the writer of those books you are so—er—interested in, Adam!” Joe took a slight step back to watch his brothers’ reactions.
And he was not disappointed. The play of color in Adam’s face, the twisting of Hoss’ forehead, their jaw-slackened, twitching glances were everything he had hoped for when he had first learned who Miss Henley was.
“Miss Henley?” Adam finally managed. “I was expecting—I mean, the books are written by Mr. Wilberforce Henley.”
Miss Henley stood and held out a lace-gloved hand.
“I’m afraid that’s my editor’s idea,” she said. Her spun-sugar voice made Adam’s mouth bend involuntarily into a smile. “He feels that my adventure stories will be better received if they are written by a man. So I write under my father’s name.”
Hoss blinked and blinked again, then, aware of Joe’s smirking gaze, closed his mouth abruptly.
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” Hoss stepped in front of Adam. He held out her chair, and she seated herself once again. The three Cartwrights quickly settled themselves at the table.
“Mr. Cartwright, I am most happy to make your acquaintance! I can’t tell you how much I’ve looked forward to this day!” Miss Henley placed her hand on Adam’s arm, and the feathers on Miss Henley’s bonnet bobbed and quivered. “My editor told me that you sent such insightful and honest comments on my most recent story. I am delighted to find such an ardent admirer of my work.”
“Admirer?” Hoss blurted out. “Ma’am— Ow!“ Any further words were cut off as Adam stomped on his foot under the table.
“I take it he did not send my comments to you directly,” Adam said.
“No, but I am sure he will show them to me when I arrive in San Francisco. I cannot tell you what it means to me to have a real rancher, a true Westerner, read and enjoy my work.”
“Er, it’s entirely my pleasure,” was all Adam could come up with.
“It sure is!” Joe nodded at Adam. “I can’t tell you how many times he’s brought up your stories to us over the dinner table. Why just the other day, he read me a chapter that had him wavin’ his arms and stompin’ around.”
Adam glared at Joe.
“Oh!” Miss Henley said. “Oh, Mr. Cartwright! Really?”
Adam swallowed. “Yes ma’am, I believe that was my reaction. But Joe exaggerates—my interest is not more than any of your many readers—”
“But other readers are not well-educated, expert ranchers, as your brother assures me you are. Joe has been telling me about your accomplishments and adventures, Mr. Cartwright. Oh dear, there is the desk clerk—he was to signal me when the stage was ready.”
Miss Henley stood up, and the three Cartwrights politely stood also. “I am so disappointed that I must continue my journey this afternoon. I had hoped to get your opinion on my latest manuscript. Alas, I cannot interrupt my journey any longer than I already have—”
“Alas,” Joe said, capturing her hand and kissing it gallantly. Miss Henley pulled it firmly from his grasp and held it out to Adam.
“—but I would so like to send you my future stories, if I may be so bold, to get your opinion prior to publication.”
“Er—” Adam cleared his throat as he took her hand. “Perhaps you should check with your editor before you commit to sending me anything.”
“So modest!” Miss Henley murmured. “Just like Joe said you would be.”
“Indeed, ma’am, my brother is too modest,” Joe said, ignoring his brother’s hard glare. “Adam wouldn’t tell you this himself, but he’s been in tighter situations, and managed to think his way out of them, just like your Bob Bullet.”
“Dirk Danger,” both Miss Henley and Adam said.
“That’s right,” Joe said. “Adam’s a regular Dirk Derringer. Like the time he held off rustlers single-handed, or the time he rode through a blizzard for the doctor. But things like that only happen once a month or so. No, your influence, ma’am, has changed my brother’s way of doin’ things day-to-day. Ever since Adam has been readin’ your stories, he’s found out all kinds of good ways to improve our tools. Why just this morning, he told me that he was going to order new equipment for each of our hands—”
Adam bit the inside of his cheek and stared steadily at Miss Henley’s bobbing feathers. Miss Henley, in turn, was staring raptly at Joe, absorbing his every word.
“Of course,” Joe went on, ignoring Adam’s discomfiture. “It may take some doin’. I was over at the mercantile, talking with Lacey Gibson—”
“Of course you were,” Adam said.
“—and I saw that we’ll have to wait until Mr. Gibson lays in a new supply. But I think it’s worth tryin’. Besides the obvious use that you described in your book, I can think of all kinds of things that the hands will want to do with ’em when Adam tells them how he wants them to start wearin’ ’em—”
“Joe.” Adam said, low in his throat.
“—so I told Mr. Gibson we’d like about two dozen, to start—”
“Joe,” Adam’s voice raised above his younger brother’s.
“—only problem I can see is that they come in just one color. Do you think the hands will kick up a fuss at wearing red?”
“Joe, what the heck are you talking about?” Hoss said.
“Suspenders, of course! Red ones, just like Dirk Danger wears! Mr. Gibson’s gonna order a big shipment, enough for all the bunkhouse hands!”
“Joe,” Hoss said, eyes wide and darting to Adam, Miss Henley, and back again.
“Miss Henley,” Joe said, “I hope you can tell us the maker of those suspenders. According to your story, they sure are somethin’, and we’d like to get the same kind.”
“Joe!” Hoss said.
Adam raised his hand.
“It’s all right, Hoss.” Adam turned to look at Joe. “That’s a great idea, Joe, except for one little thing.”
“Great idea? Adam, that has to be the worst—” Hoss said.
Adam merely raised a hand to stop Hoss’ words.
“Joe, you know we can’t have all the hands riding around wearing red.” He bowed to Miss Henley. “I’m sorry, ma’am. That red color’ll stampede the bulls. I just don’t think we can risk it.”
Miss Henley’s shoulders slumped. “Oh. Oh dear! I didn’t think of that! Do you think it undermines the credibility of my novel?” Her lovely blue eyes blinked pleadingly up at Adam.
“Not at all,” he heard himself saying. “We can just get Mr. Gibson to special order a new supply in green or brown or some other color.“
Hoss turned away, making curious choking noises. Joe solicitously pounded on his back. “You OK, Big Brother?”
Hoss merely nodded.
“Please allow us to escort you to the stage,” Adam said, gently grasping Miss Henley’s elbow, and stepping toward the door.
When they reached the stage office, Adam walked quickly to the waiting stagecoach and handed Miss Henley firmly inside.
“Goodbye Mr. Cartwright,” Miss Henley said in worshipful tones as she settled herself on the stage seat. “I will never forget our meeting and your kind words. I’d like to base my next protagonist on you, if you don’t mind.”
Adam froze, a stunned look on his face.
Joe stepped in front of Adam, and slammed the stage door. “He’ll be delighted, Miss Henley! Let ’em go, Hank!” An impatient snap of the whip and jingle of harnesses and the stage pulled smartly away.
“She’ll never forget you, all right,” Hoss said, as they watched the stage roll down the crowded midday street. “Especially when she finds out what you really think about her story. What’d she mean by pro-tag-ness, anyway?”
“Protagonist,” Adam said, his eyes glued to the now-distant stage. “She means the main character of the story.”
Joe clapped Adam on the back.
“Don’t worry, Adam. Once she reads your comments, she’ll probably make him a bad, bad man,” Joe said, eyes twinkling. “Dirk Danger will likely shoot him dead.”
“Maybe,” Adam said. He lifted his head and smiled at Joe, clearly struck by this thought. “I can only hope.”
With tacit accord, the three brothers collected their horses, mounted, and headed toward the edge of town.
“Hey!” Joe said, as they passed Henry’s Blacksmith Shop. “We should stop in at Henry’s. If we get all the hands those green suspenders, they’ll all want new branding-iron spurs, too!”
“That might be harder to do,” Hoss said. “Ol’ Henry, he just don’t have any imagination when it comes to inventin’—not like Miss Henley does.”
Joe lost his battle for control and doubled over in the saddle, great high-pitched peals of laughter wrenched out of him. Adam suddenly turned his horse, dug in his heels, spurring his horse back into town.
“Hey, Adam, where ya going?” Joe called.
“I need to send a telegram,” Adam called back over his shoulder. “To stop that editor from showing Miss Henley my comments.”
“See, Hoss,” Joe said, watching Adam ride away. “The Gallant Cowboy. Maybe Miss Henley was writin’ about Adam after all.”
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by a reminiscence in Agnes Morley Cleaveland’s wonderful memoir, No Life for a Lady.