Summary: Terrance has everything he ever wanted: the love of a wonderful woman, the town’s admiration, and a boisterous friendship with Little Joe. What could possibly go wrong?
Rating: K+ Word Count: 6278
Terrance Liddell Coletrane was a serious man. He had never favored giddy entertainment and was suspicious of the entire concept of harmless fun. As a youth, he had accepted the notion that work was its own reward and success was only accomplished through great diligence and circumspection. He’d taken the idea to heart, and no one could have faulted him for the quiet, thrifty, conscientious life he led.
Thus, he was quite ill prepared for the whirlwind experience of becoming Little Joe Cartwright’s bosom chum and pet project.
The weeks following a rather exciting, albeit somewhat embarrassing, incident found Terrance tucked firmly beneath young Cartwright’s green corduroy wing undergoing what could only be termed a schooling in the manners and skills befitting the more rugged example of Virginia City men.
Under Little Joe’s tutelage, Terrance’s riding had so improved that he was no longer required to hang on to the saddle horn when he nudged his horse into a trot. In addition, Joe had introduced him to the art of gunfire. Consequently, Terrance could knock two out of five cans off a fence post, and he no longer closed his eyes while pulling the trigger. Moreover, Joe and he spent a considerable number of hours in Virginia City’s drinking establishments with the goal of building Terrance’s tolerance for alcohol to “at least a peg above sissy.” Combined with the newfound enthusiastic attention from Virginia City’s fairer sex, Terrance could honestly testify that he hadn’t had as much fun since he’d worn short pants.
It was shortly after one of those alcohol-soaked excursions that Terrance found himself confessing the more sordid details of his recent “rescue” of Little Joe Cartwright to his beloved, Moira Gallagher. Substantially under the influence of the paint thinner the Silver Dollar Saloon sold as whiskey, Terrance had stumbled over to Moira’s home (blessedly, her aunt had been away for the evening) and laid out the entire mess: his envy of Little Joe, his jealous fury that Moira had seemed to prefer the cowboy, the duplicity of the miner, and the hard truth that Terrance had agreed to aid in a “prank” that had very nearly cost Cartwright his life.
Little Joe had never breathed a word to anyone about the truth of the situation. Forgiveness had been immediate and complete, and the cowboy had treated him with a sincere regard that left Terrance both humbled and elated. Inebriated and facing the woman of his dreams, Terrance found he couldn’t maintain the lie. After all, he rationalized fuzzily, shouldn’t his intended know the worst about him?
That impulse seemed noble as he was relating the story. It seemed patently stupid the moment he ran out of words, and the sweet, honorable woman he loved beyond all reason silently regarded him. Lord help him, he had ruined everything! Moira would never forgive him, she would never allow him to call on her again, she most certainly would never again allow him to steal a kiss from those petal soft lips, and of course, she would never agree to marry him . . .
“Breathe,” she directed. “You’ve got yourself all worked up, haven’t you?”
“I am sooo, sooo sorry, my dear!” Terrance babbled. “I wouldn’t blame you a bit if you never wanted to see me . . .” He shut his mouth abruptly when Moira lifted an eyebrow.
“I want to make sure I understand,” Moira forestalled another flood of words by placing a calming hand on his arm. “You gave in to your dark impulses instead of listening to your conscience, but somehow you and Little Joe were saved. And instead of payin’ the piper for all of your foolishness, you’ve been reapin’ a hero’s rewards. Have I got that right?”
He gulped nervously. “Yes, my dear. That would sum it up.”
“So, how do you feel about all this?”
“I feel . . .” Terrance hesitated, searching her expression for a clue to the proper answer. “Happy?”
At her stern look, he swiftly backtracked. “I feel guilty. Very, very guilty. Just terribly, terribly guilty.”
His consternation increased when his beloved placed her hands over her mouth and turned her back on him. Terrified, he watched her as she stood there with her shoulders shaking, hands pressed firmly to her lips. Was his sensitive sweetheart crying? Finally, after swiping her hand across her eyes, she returned to sit beside him.
“Do you still resent Little Joe, then?”
“Resent him! Heavens, no. I was merely unaware of his many sterling qualities. Salt of the earth, our Little Joe.”
“The two of you have had quite the time together lately, haven’t you?”
“W-well,” Terrance blushed and stammered. Intoxicated as he was, he could hardly deny frolicking with Joe Cartwright. “It’s not all been fun and games, you know. I have learned a great deal about horses, for instance.”
Moira’s lovely eyes widened, and she chewed her lower lip. For just a moment, she stared at her hands clasped loosely in her lap before rising gracefully from her chair.
“Go home, Terrance. Sleep it off.” Moira grabbed his elbow and tugged him toward the front door. “I expect you still have a lot to learn, love. I’ll leave you to your lessons.”
She patted his arm and smoothed down his coat lapels. “You’ve been given a gift, Terrance Liddell Coletrane, a gift of forgiveness and good fortune. Just don’t be surprised when you finally get your comeuppance.”
He found himself on the front porch, the door shut in his face, before he could gather the courage to pucker up. As he considered his next move, it occurred to Terrance that Moira was the most forgiving, most understanding woman in the entire world. Not only had she failed to censure Terrance for his deceit, she had been understanding of his friendship with Joe Cartwright. In fact, she was so understanding she had encouraged him to continue in his present activities.
Slapping his hat onto his head, Terrance stepped off the porch as smoothly and briskly as the effects of too much whiskey would allow. Yes, indeed, he was a lucky man, and he was not going to take his hard-won good fortune for granted.
Naturally, the pressures of business (whether ranching or men’s fine clothing) prevented Terrance and Little Joe from too-frequent indulgence in their less-than-productive activities. As it happened, a pleasant Friday afternoon found Terrance sharing cool beers with all three Cartwright brothers who had come to town to shake off the trail dust from their recent cattle drive and absorb the hospitality Virginia City had to offer.
With the elder Cartwright brothers (drinks in their hands and painted ladies at their sides) safely a small distance away, Little Joe seized the opportunity to school Terrance on some of the finer points of frontier manliness.
“What you need” Little Joe announced, pointing a wavering finger at Terrance’s chest, “is a good nickname.”
“A nickname? What’s wrong with my name? I’ll have you know that I was named for my grandfathers—both men of great virtue and industriousness.” Terrance muffled the belch that unfortunately punctuated his statement.
“I’m just sayin’ that you should have a nickname, some . . . name . . . that sounds, I dunno . . . tough. Nothin’ too long. Best keep things simple.” Joe peered closely into the beer glass, perhaps looking for ideas.
“Of course, you’re the expert on tough nicknames, Little Joe.” Terrance snorted.
Cartwright ignored the jibe. “You’re onto somethin’ there. You should just use your name, part of it, anyway. How ‘bout, Rance Coletrane. Sounds good, doesn’t it?”
Terrrance considered it. Rance Coletrane. He liked it. It sounded rugged. Joe was pretty good at this stuff.
Seeing that he had gotten his way, Little Joe reached out and slammed his hand against the table top.
“Bruno,” he yelled, “another beer for my friend, Rance Coletrane.”
“Here you go, Rance,” Bruno placed another couple of beers in front of the two men.
They sat in companionable silence, savoring the beer. Pulling one long, final swallow, Joe drained the glass.
“I gotta go to the livery before it gets too late. I’ll see you later at the shop.” Joe’s chair squeaked against the wood floor as he swayed to his feet.
This nickname stuff had gotten Rance to thinking. “Why do they call you ‘Little Joe’ anyway?”
Joe shrugged into his green jacket and set his hat to a rakish angle. Leaning down to steady himself with one hand on the sticky table top, he peered solemnly at Rance.
Ironic? What in the blue blazes was that supposed to mean? Joe stood there waiting for him to catch on. The light finally dawned. Oh. Ohhh. The arrogance of the man!
“You conceited . . . egotistic . . .” Rance was having trouble finding his words.
Joe’s satisfied cackle echoed through the crowded saloon. He gave the tailor a jaunty wave as he swaggered through the bat-wing doors
Rance couldn’t help laughing. What would it be like to be so confident? So effortlessly charming?
He was still chuckling when Adam Cartwright slid into the chair Joe had vacated.
“What’s my little brother talked you into now, ‘Rance’?”
“Hmmm, nothing at all. You know, Adam, sometimes I wish . . .”
He paused when Adam gripped his shoulder, somewhat painfully.
“Trust me,” Adam said, “You don’t want to finish that sentence.”
“It’s just that things come easy for him, don’t they?”
“Things aren’t always what they seem. Strange as it may sound, the only man I know up to the job of being ‘Little Joe Cartwright’ is my youngest brother.”
As if that made any sense. But, the man looked dead serious. Rance sighed. He’d always suspected Adam Cartwright was a bit peculiar.
Rance tapped his foot impatiently, waiting for Joe to come out of the dressing room for the final adjustments to the new suit. His own fault, probably. He shouldn’t have put three full length mirrors in the room if he didn’t want Joe Cartwright to moon over himself.
It was a fine set of clothes after all. Rance had produced a top-quality wool jacket and trousers cut in the latest fashion. The color of the exquisitely-dyed fabric shimmered between tobacco brown and olive green depending on the light. To complement the suit, Terrance had designed an eye-catching vest, fancifully embroidered with flaming aspen leaves on slender branches atop snowy white satin. A pristine white shirt and fine black silk tie completed the outfit. He really had outdone himself. Idly, he wondered if Joe would mention his shop when he wore the suit at the wedding a few days hence. An heiress with whom Joe had attended school was getting married in a fancy society event in San Francisco. A man couldn’t buy that kind of advertising. Shame about the heiress, though. Seemed his friend never could find a girl to settle down with. Perhaps Moira knew a likely prospect for Little Joe . . .
He was so engrossed in his thoughts he nearly fell from the chair when Little Joe hollered at him through the door.
“Rance! I’m going to step out a minute and show this outfit to Lilah.”
Drat the man. Rance had failed to anticipate that the dressing room’s door to the alley (to facilitate trips to the outhouse) might enable his customer to promenade through Virginia City’s lowbrow establishments in his finery.
“Don’t you dare muss that suit up,” Rance hollered back.
“Relax. I won’t be long.” The sound of a door slam confirmed Little Joe’s departure.
It looked like he had time to kill. Might as well see what new damage Little Joe had done to his green jacket. Surprisingly, the jacket was in one piece. Rance pulled at the garment, checked all the seams, and tugged at the closures. On impulse, he slipped his arms into the jacket and headed over the mirror to check out his reflection.
Not bad. Not Little Joe Cartwright, but not bad. The shoulders were a little loose on him, and the jacket didn’t quite close around his midsection, but overall, not bad.
He pulled off his string tie and opened up his shirt collar a bit. Better. Where was Joe’s hat? Grabbing the headgear from the nearby table top, he settled it on his head and adjusted it to a jaunty angle. Well, well, who was that dashing man in the mirror? Almost there, just one more flourish. Quickly, he scooped up Joe’s gun belt, looped it around his waist, took it off again in order to adjust it a bit for comfort, and then fastened it securely around himself. He leaned over to tie the rawhide around his leg, and the transformation was complete. Wouldn’t Moira be tickled to see him like this?! He could amble over to her place while Joe was sweet-talking that saloon girl. He’d knock at the front door, and she would open it, expecting her mannerly, staid beau. Instead, she would find herself facing a roguish cowboy with a devilish twinkle in his eye and a definite way with the ladies. He couldn’t resist practicing.
“Howdy,” he growled seductively. “It’s a fine evening for a stroll.”
“It is for a fact,” an unfamiliar voice behind him agreed. “Mind your manners whilst I take your gun. You and me are gonna take a little trip, Cartwright.”
Jelly legs. Rance had always believed the words to be merely one of those expressions the cowboys used to embellish stories about their trail adventures. However, when he turned to find himself facing the business end of a gun, he decided it was a very apt description after all.
So, to prevent the drop to an embarrassing heap on the floor, Rance kept a white-knuckled grip on the back of a nearby chair. What in the name of all that was holy was going on? He was certain he’d never even seen the man holding the gun before in his life, much less done anything to provoke violence. It took him a few more moments of steadying breaths to understand that this man apparently believed mild-mannered Terrance Liddell Coletrane to be Little Joe Cartwright.
“My good man . . .” Rance offered an ingratiating smile, but the man with the gun wasn’t taking him up on the offer.
“Shut it! I don’t wanna hear a peep outta you, Cartwright. Move.” The gesture to the door was unequivocal.
Silence and cooperation seemed the best course of action. Rance walked slowly through the door with the gun’s barrel pressing against his spine. As soon as they were out of his shop, the kidnapper pushed him toward Joe’s pinto. Wonderful. Cochise and Rance had never really gotten along. The wicked nag had nearly bitten a plug out of him the last time he had dared try to ride him. Fortunately (or not), Cochise didn’t raise any commotion this go-round, and Rance was herded down the street and out of town without incident.
Once past the city limits, he took a chance, “Who are you? Why are you doing this?”
His captor sneered in reply. “Emma Trelawney’s my sister, Cartwright.”
Of course. The blackguard had a sister. The sister was involved with Little Joe Cartwright. The blackguard thought Rance was Little Joe.
No point in arguing or trying to explain. Rance shut his mouth and obeyed the order to kick his horse to a trot. He hoped Moira would find the strength to carry on without him. He especially hoped his ghost would be able to haunt Little Joe for the rest of the rascal’s days.
“You know,” the stranger commented as he gave a last pull on the knot binding Rance’s wrists, “you don’t exactly look like I pictured you would.”
It occurred to Rance that possibly he had just been insulted. It also occurred to him that the stranger had no right to talk. The man looked dead ordinary—shaggy brown hair, scruff of a beard, cheap clothing—nothing remotely villainous. Appearances certainly could be deceiving.
Rance was debating the wisdom of asking Mr. Trelawney outright about the plans for the evening (he was reasonably certain he wouldn’t care for the answer) when the sounds of an approaching horse were heard. A few minutes later, a man of imposing height and weight strode into the campsite. The scowl on his face looked as dangerous as the gun at his hip. This man looked absolutely villainous; it was too much to hope that his appearance was deceiving.
“Howdy, Jeb. I found him for you just like you asked,” Trelawney greeted the newcomer.
“This dude is Cartwright?” the stranger asked in disbelief.
Trelawney threw up his hands, “I know! Doesn’t look like Emmy’s type, does he?”
Really, this attitude was too much. He would be the first to admit that he lacked Joe Cartwright’s obvious superficial qualities; but by thunder, Rance had actually killed a man only weeks before. Surely, that deed should have bestowed upon him at least a smattering of panache. If he lived through this encounter, he was going to ask Joe for pointers on developing his own scowl and swagger.
Attempting a fractious attitude of his own, Rance curled his lip into an insolent sneer
“It’s certainly clear which man is not her type.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Cartwright, dead wrong.” Jeb moved faster than a rattlesnake; he was up in his face before Rance had finished insulting him. “Emmy has always been my girl, and there ain’t no way some shifty-eyed, soft-handed galoot is gonna take her from me.” Jeb ended his tirade with a vehement spit of tobacco juice into the dirt at Rance’s feet.
Satisfied he’d made his point, the scoundrel sauntered over to the bag of supplies and pulled out a bottle of rotgut. Pulling the cork out with his teeth, he tipped the bottle to his mouth and gulped a large portion of the vile stuff. Wiping his sleeve across his mouth, Jeb seated himself on a nearby rock and fixed Rance with a murderous glare when he wasn’t chugging down the whiskey.
“Me and Emmy have been sweethearts since we were knee-high to a grasshopper,” Jeb slurred mournfully. “Didn’t matter if I got into a bit of trouble now and then. No matter what happened, she understood. She was always there when I needed her.”
“That’s a fact,” agreed Brother Trelawney.
“A few months ago, I was almost done with my prison sentence when I get a letter from Emmy,” Jeb fumbled inside his coat pocket and pulled out a soiled scrap of paper. “Does she tell me she loves me? Does she say she can’t wait to see me? Hell, no! What she says is ‘my friend, Joe Cartwright,’ says she deserves a man who cares more about the woman he loves and less about drinking, fighting, and robbin’ folks. She says that lovin’ a scoundrel ain’t worth the heartache. She says she’s leavin’ Virgina City and never lookin’ back!”
Jeb jumped to his feet, swaying from strong liquor and emotion. Pointing a grubby finger in Rance’s face he shouted, “I ain’t been able to find Emmy, and it’s all your fault!”
“My fault! It appears Emma made a sound decision. Good for her. You really have no one to blame but yourself . . .” Rance’s voice trailed off with the sick realization that there were times when good advice was appreciated, and there were times when the advice giver ought to keep his mouth shut.
“You’re wrong, Cartwright. She made the worst decision of her life. And you’re goin’ to find her for me, and make her come back to me.”
“I have no idea where she is,” Rance answered truthfully.
“You’d better get an idea, and get it quick. Otherwise I don’t see any point in keepin’ you alive,” Jeb snarled.
Although Rance didn’t have a great deal of experience with these situations, he certainly knew the difference between a threat and a promise. Jeb had just made Rance a promise. Now all Rance had to do was figure out who Emmy Trelawney was, where she might have gone, and convince her to return to her miscreant lover. He was doomed. He considered coming clean about the whole “Joe Cartwright” mix-up, then rejected the notion immediately. Jeb didn’t seem the type to find the humor in these situations. No, his best chance to avoid becoming buzzard food was to play for time and try to escape.
“Perhaps, if we all put our heads together,” Rance offered in soothing tones, “we can come up with some ideas.”
“Now, you’re getting’ smart,” Jeb triumphed. “You get to thinkin’. Keep an eye on him, Trelawney. I gotta go see a man about a horse.” Hitching his threadbare trousers up a bit, Jeb headed into the thick brush surrounding the camp.
Trelawney waved the scoundrel on his way and proceeded to putter around the campsite. He peered at the beans simmering in the pot over the fire, poured himself a cup of coffee, and settled back against his saddle to spare Rance an appraising look.
“How come they call you, ‘Little Joe’?”
At last, a question Rance could answer.
Rance was saved from having to explain himself when Jeb crashed back into the camp shouting in glee.
“Lookee here! I found this dandy skulkin’ around the wood line.” Jeb shoved a cowering, whimpering fellow (dressed in a frankly exquisite suit of clothes) into camp. The poor man hit the dirt hard and lay in the dirt, shivering in fear. “Speak up! Who are ya’ and what do you think you’re doin’ here?”
The skulker gulped, gathered his courage, and peered up at Jeb through the frightened tears glistening on his eyelashes.
“My name is Terrance Liddell Coletrain, and I’m here to rescue my best friend, Little Joe Cartwright.”
To say Rance was put out with Little Joe’s insulting impersonation was an understatement. Sadly, circumstances didn’t allow for a proper scolding. The best Rance could manage were furious whispers after Joe was ordered to sit down and shut up while Jeb and Trelawney figured out what to do with their extra hostage.
“That ridiculous performance was supposed to be an impersonation of me?
“Who else am I supposed to be?” Joe raised an eyebrow at the green jacket draping Rance’s shoulders. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist. I’ve got a plan. This ain’t my first rodeo, you know. I wrote the book on hostagin’.” The man had the audacity to smirk.
“When we get out of this, I’m going to kill you,” Rance whispered.
“That’s the spirit, buddy.” Joe flashed a quick grin.
“Sir?” Joe interrupted their captors’ huddled conversation. “You forgot to tie me up.” Rance watched in horror as Little Joe Cartwright, eyes wide and innocent as a puppy’s, held out his hands.
“So,” Joe explained patiently to their captors, “this can all be worked out. You two send a ransom demand to his pa. Ben Cartwright pays the money; you set us both free, and you can use the money to make a fresh start.”
Jeb didn’t appear convinced. “Just like that? Ben Cartwright is gonna pay whatever we ask to get his son back? And throw in a few bucks to get you, too?” Jeb cast a dubious eye over Rance.
“Guaranteed. Ben Cartwright LOOOVES Little Joe. That boy is his favorite, no contest.” Rance did his best to appear lovable.
“I like this idea,” Trelawney piped up.
“It don’t get Emmy back for me, though, does it?” Jeb said.
“But, iffen we’ve got money; when you find her, you and Emmy can live big, just like you always promised.” Rance could see that Trelawney had his eye on a prize and wouldn’t give up easy.
“It shouldn’t matter to Emmy if I have money or not,” Jeb pouted. “She’s always been my girl, and she promised to stick with me, no matter what.”
“She was twelve years old,” Trelawney muttered. “She didn’t know no better.”
“What do you mean by that?” Jeb squinted maliciously at his partner.
Trelawney looked at his friend with something close to sadness, “It was one thing when you was a kid, and everyone thought you’d outgrow drinkin’ and shootin’ and thievin’. But you never did grow out of it, did ya? Got worse the older you got. It’s just fun and games to you, ain’t it?” He sighed. “Maybe it would be better to take the money and leave Emmy alone.”
“Stop it! Emmy’s my girl. She’s the only girl for me, and there ain’t another woman like her. She’s the most understandin’ and forgivin’ woman ever born. I just have to see her and talk to her . . .”
Rance couldn’t bear to stay silent another moment. Jeb’s sniveling complaints had just gotten under his skin. Maybe Jeb wouldn’t know the truth if it was lit on fire and stuffed down his britches, but Rance wasn’t as far gone down the road to perdition.
“Face it, Jeb, this is your comeuppance. You had everything when you had a woman who loved you for what was fine and worthy about you and forgave you for the rest. But that wasn’t good enough, was it? You had to keep finding trouble. She kept forgiving you, and you thought she always would. Do you know what that makes you?”
Jeb’s mouth hung open in amazement at the speech. Rance was feeling a little amazed himself.
“Easy, Rance,” Little Joe warned quietly. Rance was in no mood to be warned off.
“It makes you stupid, that’s what,” Rance said, “and I should know.”
Rance couldn’t drag his eyes away from Jeb’s furious face, but he heard Little Joe sigh quietly, shift around, and fiddle with the rope around his wrists.
Jeb’s self-pity had evaporated. His misplaced sense of self-righteousness took over.
“Stand up, big mouth,” he growled. Jeb drew his sidearm and pointed it dead center at Rance’s chest.
“Jeb, let’s take it easy,” Trelawney pleaded. “We need this fella, remember? He’s gonna help us find Emmy.”
“Ben Cartwright won’t pay ransom for a dead son,” Joe put in.
Their advice went unheeded. Jeb seemed to only have one thing on his mind. He re-holstered his own sidearm and drew Joe’s pearl-handle pistol from his coat pocket.
“Stand up, Cartwright. I ain’t tellin’ you again.”
Seemed he didn’t have much of a choice. Rance got up nice and slow, no point in rushing the inevitable. If his hands shook a little, maybe Jeb wouldn’t notice. He wasn’t that surprised when Little Joe scrambled up to his feet beside him.
“Sit down, Coletrane,” Jeb said. “I’ll take care of you in a minute.” Obediently, Joe eased back down, settling into a crouch beside Rance.
“Untie him,” Jeb ordered. Trelawney accomplished the task in a distressingly short time. He gave Rance an apologetic pat on the arm and got out of the way. Rance rubbed at his wrists a little to ease the sting from the rope.
“I hear you’re fast on the draw,” Jeb said.
“I think I’m about to disappoint you,” squeaked Rance. The whole situation had the quality of a nightmare, and his already overwrought nerves were stretched to the edge of hysteria.
“Don’t matter to me.” Jeb tossed Joe’s pistol onto the ground at Rance’s feet. “See, I’m givin’ you a chance. More than you deserve for bad mouthin’ me to Emmy. Go on, grab your gun.”
“Umm, no?” Perhaps they could still settle this peaceably.
“Your choice, Cartwright. Go for your gun. Maybe you’ll get lucky. Or, you can just stand there and give me a nice target.”
Rance’s breath was going in and out of his lungs like a forge bellows. His heart must have figured out on its own that it wouldn’t be beating much longer because the pounding in his chest just got faster and louder until it was practically the only thing Rance could hear.
He’d really done it this time. Between his ill-considered insults and playing at being a Cartwright, Rance was well and truly caught. He cast about feverishly for alternatives and came up with nothing. What would Little Joe do? The question didn’t require much consideration. Joe Cartwright wouldn’t just stand there and let himself get shot. Well, Mother always said, ‘in for a penny, in for a pound.’ Might as well do this right.
Rance swiped his arm across his brow, halting the sweat dripping into his eyes. He unclenched his fists, opening his right hand wide, and slowly eased forward. Never taking his eyes off his adversary, he felt a flicker of hope when Jeb didn’t move in response to his fidgeting. Perhaps he did have a chance. After all, Jeb was pretty liquored up, and Rance’s reflexes were pretty good. Rance rocked forward on the balls of his feet, steeling himself to make a grab for the pistol. He just needed a moment to lunge down and grab the pistol—what he wouldn’t give for some small distraction to divert Jeb’s attention . . .
As if Heaven-sent, a piercing whistle rent the silence. Jeb glanced around for the source of the sound, and Rance made his move. Before he could hook his hand around the pistol’s pearl-handle grip, Rance saw Jeb draw his weapon and fire. Expecting to feel the impact of a bullet in his chest, Rance was astonished to find himself quite alive, but with his face in the dirt. Incredibly, Little Joe, ropes nowhere in sight, had recovered his weapon and had swiftly fired off rounds forcing Jeb and Trelawney to dive for cover even as they answered Joe’s barrage with shots of their own. Shouts and rifle fire from the brush surrounding the camp site only added to the din. With no means of escape or defense, Rance covered his head and tried his best to dissolve into the rocky soil. Finally, after several harrowing moments, his addled senses picked up Trelawney’s cries of surrender, and the noise and gun smoke faded away.
From his spot in the dirt, Rance watched Adam Cartwright step out of the tree line, his rifle aimed at Trelawney who was huddled over Jeb’s noisy, thrashing form. Hoss Cartwright appeared next and grabbed his youngest brother into a quick embrace before the two men headed over to Rance.
“Can you sit up here for me, Rance?” Hoss asked him. Could he sit up? Rance wasn’t too sure. He felt strange, almost as if he wasn’t quite inside his body. Hoss helped settle him against a boulder and encouraged him to drink from the canteen he pressed to Rance’s mouth.
Rance squinted up at Little Joe. “I thought you were tied up.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Pfft! The minute I saw you, I knew that dude couldn’t tie a knot.”
“You tracked us here?” Rance asked as Hoss poked and prodded at his left arm.
“Yup,” Hoss replied. “Joe saw that character take ya, and he sent old Digger to round up me and Adam.”
“And you got here . . . in the nick of time.” Rance winced as Hoss’s prodding hit a sore spot.
“Huh, the nick of time is the only sort of time our younger brother knows.” Hoss replied. As he spoke, the big man grasped the left sleeve of the green jacket and in one smooth motion pulled the sleeve away from the rest of the jacket and down, then off Rance’s arm.
Rance stifled the urge to giggle hysterically. “I’ve been wondering who’s been tearing the sleeves off this jacket.”
“Let’s just say, this ain’t my first rodeo,” Hoss tore off Rance’s shirt sleeve. “Just what I thought, straight through clean as a whistle. I told Joe not to worry about you. A coupla stitches, a sling for a few weeks, and then good as new. Probably leave a pretty little scar for the ladies to admire. Though I gotta tell you, if Joe hadn’t knocked you outta the way . . .”
“Are you telling me I’m shot?” How could he be wounded? He hadn’t felt a thing. Pushing Hoss’s hands aside, Rance took a good look at his arm. The sight of the blood running down past his elbow had a curious effect. Intense throbbing pain suddenly and sickeningly made itself known. Rance’s vision instantly narrowed to a pinhole as darkness crowded in around the edges.
“Hang in there, buddy.” Rance felt a wet cloth wipe his forehead and face. Opening his eyes, he found himself back on the ground again, flat on his back this time with Little Joe fussing over him like some mother hen. Rance waved a weak hand at his friend, and with help, he was again more or less upright.
“Don’t feel bad,” Joe explained cheerfully. “The first time is always the worst. You won’t be nearly so peaked next time.” Rance decided not to dignify that little piece of frontier wisdom with an answer.
At least he was doing better than Jeb. He watched soberly as Hoss and Adam wound a bandage around Jeb’s leg, all the while ignoring their patient’s whining complaints. Trelawney sat nearby, evidently as sore as a wet cat.
“You shoulda seen him and Emmy when they was kids,” Trelawney fussed. “Couldn’t bear to be apart. He woulda done anythin’ for her. But, nooooo . . .” he sputtered, throwing his hands into the air, “he didn’t cotton to bein’ a farmer like his pa. Said he felt invisible, that nobody paid attention to him. Liked the idea of bein’ on a wanted poster. He wanted to be noticed, ya see? What happened to you, chucklehead? You used to be such a nice kid.” He stood, and at Hoss’s direction, helped his partner onto a horse.
Adam gestured for Trelawney to mount up and after a few quiet words with Joe, the elder Cartwrights departed with their prisoners.
“You think you can ride?” Joe asked. “It’s all right if you’re not ready. We can wait as long as you need.”
Rance searched Joe’s expression for any hint of condescension and found none. Instead he saw only kindness and the sort of mature understanding he hadn’t known Joe Cartwright possessed. He shook his head ruefully; he really didn’t deserve this man’s friendship. In fact, there was a whole list of things he didn’t deserve.
“I’m grateful,” he told Joe. “Not just for tonight, but for the last couple of months . . . for everything. Being friends with you, well, it means a lot to me.”
“Aw, Rance . . .”
“The thing is, this—this—whatever it is that happened tonight—this isn’t really me. Or at least it’s only a little part of me. I’m not ‘Rance.’ I’m Terrance Liddell Coletrane, and tonight was my last rodeo.”
Clean, rested, and adorned with a sling that coordinated attractively with his suit, Terrance knocked on Moira’s front door. Her delighted smile at his presence was a balm to his soul. The frown of concern at the sight of the sling sent a guilty pang through him. Hastily pushing aside all doubts, Terrance stepped through the door into the front room, wrapped his good arm around his beloved’s waist, and bestowed upon her rosy lips an ardent kiss. The embrace left both of them smiling and breathless.
“What has gotten into you?” Moira asked, snuggling into his shoulder.
“I’ve learned my lessons,” Terrance whispered, pressing a kiss into her hair.
“Did I ever mention that I’m named for my grandfathers, models of virtue and industriousness? I’ve always tried to live up to their examples. Because of their lessons, I’ve built a sound business and reputation. My bride will be comfortable and can hold her head high.”
“Those are good lessons.”
“There’s more. I also have friends who have provided excellent examples. Joe taught me that there’s more to life than work—there’s laughter and fun. And as I’ve recently discovered there are going to be times I have to stand up and defend what I love. I know I can do that now.”
Terrance gently withdrew from his beloved’s embrace and fell down upon one knee in front of Moira. He took Moira’s trembling hand and kissed it fervently.
“I’ve also learned the greatest lesson of all from the glorious woman I love. I don’t have to be anyone else. It’s enough to be Terrance Liddell Coletrane, a pretty good tailor, but a very poor cowboy . . . that is, I hope it’s enough. Moira Bridget Gallagher, I wouldn’t last a day without you. Will you be my wife?”
Terrance Liddell Coletrane was a happy man. His beautiful bride was on his arm. His friends crowded around shouting congratulations and best wishes for their honeymoon. Moira’s aunt had given them her own home as a wedding present; and in Terrance’s pocket was a letter of introduction to Joe’s San Francisco friends. Mother always said (and the lovely Moira agreed) that a man should strike while the iron was hot. If their wedding trip included a small amount of business, he and his new wife agreed that it was perfectly appropriate.
Finally, the stage coach driver shouted for all passengers to board. Moira accepted chaste kisses from all four Cartwrights before being helped inside the vehicle. Terrance himself was nearly inside the coach when he found himself pulled into a back-slapping bear hug from Little Joe Cartwright.
“Listen, you” Joe advised him. “Watch out for those big-city business men. They might get riled when you snap up their best customers.”
“Don’t worry,” Terrance replied. “I’m not afraid of the competition.”
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, mistaken identity
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