~Four Corners of the Ponderosa~

Part One


(Small chapter note—Chaucer (Ezra's horse) was named by Kristin, Peso (Vin's) and Quincy (Josiah's) by the folks at Melody Ranch, and Solon (Chris's) by me.  Solon was the Lawmaker of Athens, and I always liked the name).



Chapter One


Ezra was dog tired, literally sleeping in the saddle as Chaucer picked his way along the trail, following Chris's big black without any need to be nudged or driven by his rider.  Wherever Solon led, Chaucer would follow, blindly and without urging. 


Chris sighed, turning around in the saddle to check up on the men behind him.  He smiled at the sight of the black riverboat gambler hat where a face should have been, hiding the exhausted man following directly at Solon's heels, bowed head bobbing unconsciously with each step of his chestnut horse.  The smile lessened at the sight of the white bandage wrapped around his upper left shoulder, stained dark with blood.  That would need changing soon.  At least the bullet wasn't in there anymore, but it obviously hadn't stopped bleeding despite the tight bandage.  That was not good. 


Leaning out a little, Chris looked past Ezra to where Josiah was slumped heavily in his own saddle, his sloppy hat also pulled down low.  Like Chaucer, Quincy was following the line, really not caring one way or another where they were going or when they would stop.  The colorful poncho the preacher wore looked gray and dingy in the twilight, mainly due to the fact that the older man was covered nearly head to toe in dust and sand--it wasn't obvious where the buckskin horse ended and the man began.  From what Ezra had told him and Vin, the fall Quincy took this morning into the soft earth during their mad dash had sent Josiah rolling across the dry desert floor—both horse and rider had been lucky it hadn't done much to either slow them down or cause them much harm. 


Chris's eyes flicked past Josiah and landed on a similar pair of sparkling eyes, as Vin smiled softly back at him from the rear atop Peso.  The tracker gave a tiny nod.


All quiet.


Chris turned around again, peering into the nearly lightless sky.  In a moment, they would be riding by moonlight.  Around them, the Sierra's began to rise black, blue and purple against the indigo sky.


Chris looked back at Ezra, then shifted his horse a little to the side, intending to get beside the gambler's horse.


Chaucer, on the other hand, simply turned and shifted sideways with Solon, keeping his nose neatly up against Solon's rump.


Chris tried not to roll his eyes, and changed his mind, pulling Solon to a stop.


Chaucer stopped automatically.  The horse really wasn't up to making its own decisions right now. 


Next in line, Quincy actually ran into Chaucer before stopping, not having noticed the chestnut had stopped.  Of course, this wasn't necessarily because Quincy was tired—the horse was just that dumb.  The dumbest in the territory, Buck often remarked, and even Josiah had to concede the truth of that the fifth or sixth time Quincy tried to make friends with a polecat.  The animal honestly never learned.   


Peso, never one to follow a leader even when tired, didn't feel like stopping, and had to be stopped by a hard tug from Vin.  The horse threw his head in annoyance, then lowered it to eat some of the scrub on the side of the trail, earning another tug.


"Not yet, boy," Vin whispered, patting the fractious black horse's neck and pulling him in tight next to Quincy.


"Ezra," Chris turned more in the saddle and backed the big black up a little, accidentally bumping into the chestnut.  It earned them some weakly bared teeth from Chaucer, but not much else as Solon continued to move Chris in range for him to touch Ezra's hurt arm if he needed to.  Chris tilted his head to look at the man's chin under the hat brim. "Ezra, wake up."


The gambler sighed, surprising Chris.  The black brim lifted, revealing shadowed and sleepy green eyes, looking surprisingly awake for someone he thought had been sleeping.  A dark bruise and tiny cut still colored one cheekbone, where that deputy sheriff Slade's fist had hit him, but otherwise the skin was as clear and flawless as ever.


"We across the border yet?" Ezra yawned.


Chris gave a small smile and shook his head.


"No, something else.  Vin, can you wake the preacher?"


"Surely."  Vin reached over and tapped Josiah's arm.  "Wake up, Josiah."


Josiah jerked awake, the gray haired man reaching for his gun without thinking, relaxing only when he saw Vin's grizzled mug smiling back at him.  He snorted, took his hand off of the weapon and leaned his forearms forward on the saddlehorn.


"Already?" he asked softly, then, slowly, his face cracked a grin, his blue eyes surprisingly merry despite the situation.  "Shame, I was having a fairly nice dream…."


"A dream," Vin chuckled, "Josiah, I'd hate to know what you dream about when in the saddle."


"Well, I have to admit," the big man's grin broadened, "Ezra's mother might have been present."


Ezra's head snapped around, and there was no mistaking the growl that escaped his lips, even as his face winced in pain from the unintended pull on his shoulder muscles.  Josiah chuckled.


"Now, now, son, be mindful of that shoulder—it's telling you to be more careful."


Ezra's eyes narrowed, "Now, now, Josiah," he mocked, "be mindful of your teeth—they're telling me to knock them out."


"Aw Ezra," Vin's smile was innocent, "You know he can't help it.  After all, you have to admit," his expression grew wicked, "your mother's got a real pretty—"


"Vin!"  The gambler eyes were wide.


"Smile," Vin finished, all innocence again.  "I was going to say smile! Honest!  Though," Vin's eyes glittered, "she also has a damn, fine pair a'—"




"Hands!  I was going to say hands," Vin looked at Josiah for support, and just got laughter in return.  "Really!  After all, the way she manipulates cards, why, just imagine what else those hands could do…."


Ezra growled again, Vin clammed up with a grin and Josiah laughed harder.   Up at the front, Chris hid his smile under his hat, happy to see them bantering again, aware Vin was joshing Ezra on purpose to keep him alert.  He wished he didn't have to change the mood….


Grimacing, he cleared his throat to get their attention.   Three sets of eyes looked forward, and Chris raised his to meet them.  Their smiles faded. 


"Boys," Chris said, changing the tone, "we have some decisions to make."


They had all been talking softly, even when joking, perhaps in deference to the tranquility of the landscape, but Chris's words quieted them even more. 


"There's water up ahead," Chris informed them, to explain the stop.  "I can hear it running.  Good place to stop for a little while."


"Stop?" Ezra's tired face frowned, "I thought we weren't going to stop."


"The posse will have stopped, because they'll be relying on their tracker.  No use our killing the horses," Chris answered, patting Solon's lathered neck.


"But, surely, the logic of widening any distance between us and them…."


"We'll be out of California tomorrow, and the horses need a rest." 


"Well, yes, that I agree with," Ezra sighed, patting his maligned best friend and wishing he hadn't had to ride him so hard.  Chris's eyes caught the slight shiver that shook the gambler's frame as he pet Chaucer—it wasn't just the horses that needed to sit still for a while.  Off in the distance a coyote barked, but other than that, nothing broke the serenity of the rapidly darkening world around them.  The smell of sage and juniper filled the air as a light breeze touched their faces, heralding the cooler temperatures of the oncoming night.


"So," Ezra peered up at the shadowed mountains in front of him, "where exactly are we?"


Chris turned and looked in a particular direction where the mountains clearly opened for a pass, and Ezra and Josiah both instinctively looked in the same direction.  "Over those hills ahead is Lake Tahoe," he answered.  "Our choices are, we either take the pass to the North, and look for some real law to help us in Virginia City.  Or we cut to the South and aim for Carson City.  Both places are supposed to be honest.  Carson is, obviously, closer to home and, since we'd be following the main overland stage route, might get us there faster."


"South would seem to be the desirable direction, then," Ezra remarked.


"But they'll be expecting us to go that way.  It's an easier road, particularly when you have wounded.  The north pass is steeper and higher up," Chris looked past him to Vin for affirmation.  The tracker accepted the assessment with a nod.  He didn't know the area around here, having never ventured this far north and west, but he trusted Chris's judgment.  Chris nodded, "North, on the other hand, would also probably get us to help quicker—more justice, less politics, at least right now."


"Then let's go North," Josiah yawned, "if that seems more right to you, Chris.  Go ahead, we'll follow."  He lowered his head again, pleased a decision had been made.


"There's another reason," Chris said, causing Josiah to look up again.  Chris grimaced, "I don't think the posse will leave California—at least not the members who are chasing us because they think Josiah killed that man.  However, the ones who are after those deeds will keep coming."


"Most likely," Ezra agreed, yawning just as Josiah had.


"So, we can gain some time by heading north and then cutting through the Ponderosa when the road goes around it.  Fellas chasing us won't follow, I don't think.  They won't risk it.  They'll go around, assuming we did as well, if we cover our tracks well enough, and we'll gain some time on them."


"Ponderosa?" Josiah frowned, "What's the Ponderosa?"


The question earned startled silence from Chris.  Ezra snorted, turning his head again to peer at the preacher over his shoulder with a disdainful air.


"You're not serious," he drawled.


Josiah frowned, and next to him Vin also had a look of puzzlement on his face.  Ezra arched an eyebrow at both of them, then chuckled.


"Gentlemen, that is embarrassing!  The two of you have never heard of the Cartwrights?  First the Nichols Brothers and now this—it makes me wonder if all the famous families of the West haven't somehow slipped past your grasp!"


"I don't kin to know city folks as well as you, Ezra," Vin muttered defensively.  Josiah just shrugged, he just didn't care about famous people one way or another.


"They're not city folk," Chris amended, "They're ranchers."


"Ranchers?" This time Vin's tone was angrier, his first thoughts turning to the two evils of Four Corners.


"Not like Royale and James, Vin," Chris rubbed at his forehead, knowing without asking exactly what the tracker was thinking.  "The Cartwrights…are more like Nettie.  They've been taking care of their land for many years, and they share it with homesteaders and the Indians.  But they are territorial.  They protect their land and don't suffer trespassers lightly.  We get caught by them on the Ponderosa, and they're likely to order us back the way we came, probably right back into the posse members who are following us."


"So, you're saying there's a risk," Josiah said calmly.


"Yup," Chris looked at him, then at Vin and finally to Ezra.  "And I'm willing to listen if you'd rather we go around or head south.  But cutting through will likely take half a day off the ride, at least.  And once we're in Virginia City, we can get a wire to Travis and maybe get some back-up.  The Central Pacific's got to have a presence there, however small.  From what you've told us, the line they're planning will run not too far north of there." 


Ezra didn't offer any words, just stared back at Chris, frankly just too tired to think.  Josiah eyes strayed to Ezra's back, seeing the hunched shoulders and the weary way he sat on Chaucer's back.  Vin watched Josiah, then looked up at Chris.


"If we do get caught by these Cartwrights," Vin's gray eyes narrowed, "any chance we could talk them into helping us?"


Chris shrugged, "That I don't know, but I doubt it.  Even if they believed we are who we are, Ben Cartwright's got the reputation of having a streak of righteousness in him wider than Mary, Nathan and the Judge combined.  And his sons aren't supposed to be much better.  They've the reputation of being arrogant, proud and judgmental.  I'm not sure any of them would give us the chance to explain once they learn it’s the law we're running from."


"Some law!" Ezra laughed, and suddenly started coughing, leaning forward in the saddle.  Chris watched him a moment, then reached out a feather touch to Ezra's bowed back, knowing it was the bruised ribs and back that caused the attack.  After a moment, the coughing subsided and Ezra managed to sit up a little straighter, his breathing shallow but evening out even as his hammering heart calmed down.  He glanced askance at Chris, who pulled his hand back, and nodded a brief thanks for not asking the unnecessary question of if he was all right.


Josiah's voice sounded strained as he spoke, that cough making his decision, "Get us the quickest way to someplace he can rest, Chris."


"Where both of you can rest," Vin added, knowing Josiah's body was no less bruised.  He just hid it better.  Of course, he didn't also have a still bleeding gunshot wound tying up his arm.


"Okay then," Chris nodded at them, "We go through the Ponderosa."



Chapter Two


They broke camp before dawn, taking advantage the clear skies creating a long stretch of false dawn before the sun actually rose.  Making good time, they were climbing up into the pass before noon, the horses never wavering.  By the time the sun hit its zenith, the road had turned and was now heading almost due east along the plateau.


The distinctly cooler air had brought their jackets back out, though Ezra didn't bother to put his useless left arm through the sleeve of his red coat—it hurt too much to lift.  The shoulder burned, and he knew that, even with all the care the others were taking to help him keep it clean, the wound was not healing well, if at all.  It couldn't, not until he actually got some real rest.  The three or four hours on the cold ground last night didn't count and he felt like hell this morning.  He was sure that whoever was banging away on the timpani drums inside his skull was going to give up and start banging a hole through his skull at any moment.


"Could you wear your purple coat?" Chris asked, pulling up next to Ezra and startling him from his reverie.  The gambler glanced sideways at the gunslinger.  Ezra knew his red jacket was as close as he could get to actually wearing a bullseye, but it was much warmer and more durable than his purple one, which was currently carefully stowed in one of the saddlebags. 


"I'm cold," Ezra finally admitted softly.  "Colder than…normal.  My red coat is wool.  The purple jacket is not."


"I see," Chris nodded understanding, his eyes shifting away so Ezra didn't see the flash of worry in them.  Colder "than normal" meant Ezra was probably chilled to the bone, his shoulder wound obviously the reason.  A slight breeze in Four Corners when the southerner was healthy would have him complaining of "freezing, Arctic temperatures," but when he was ill, and reluctant to admit any weakness even to his friends, his words would run the opposite way, severely understating everything, not to mention the actual words themselves tended to be simple ones.  Grimacing at the insight, the black-clad gunslinger quickly moved away before he let Ezra know that he'd been understood all too well what Ezra had just told him, knowing the embarrassment it would bring. 


The gambler sighed, finding it difficult to really think about anything this morning.  He was, of course, the only one with two coats.  The others wore the same ones they always did.  Maybe he should switch….


A blast of cold air sent another sharp chill through him, causing him to shiver uncontrollably, and his left arm lost more sensation.


Then again, he thought, pulling the thicker coat together with the numb fingers of his left hand as he finally got the shuddering to subside, maybe not.



Vin trailed behind, scouting down the pass and looking for signs that they were being followed.  He'd been doing so constantly since they broke camp, the tracker not trusting his ability to completely hide their passing.  If the scout Slade and his men was using was any good, they'd be easy to follow.  His only hope was that the trick he'd left, creating a false trail from their campsite to the south, would send them that way first and thus delay them long enough to….


He grimaced. 


Movement.  Too many men to be just wayfarers, especially without a wagon.




Wheeling Peso around, he kicked the horse into a quick trot, catching up to Chris.



"How far back?" the gunslinger asked.


"Half a day, at most," Vin replied, his frustration clear in his voice.  "And Chris, I've been thinking…they know we're headed this way now, and they might also think that we're going to try to cut through this Ponderosa of yours.  If they do, they're going to try and stop us before we do.  How long before we get there?"


"Actually," Chris looked up, measuring the distance of the plateau of the ridge, "we're already past its most western boundary.  We head in that direction," he pointed off the main road to the south, "I think we'd hit it in a couple of hours.  Straight ahead," he frowned for a moment, mentally guessing distances, "we probably will hit it by dinner time.  It creeps up on this road, and the road shifts north to go around it.  That's where I meant it would save us time to cut through."


"It's that big?" Vin asked wonderingly.


"The largest in Nevada," Ezra spoke up from behind them, a hint of wistfulness in his voice.  Vin turned and looked at him, then back at Chris.


"Well…thing is," Vin frowned, "Chris, we're moving too slow."  He didn't need to explain it was because of Ezra and Josiah's injuries that they were forced to a slower pace than their hunters.  "They'll catch up to us before we hit your shortcut, if we stay on this road."


"What are you saying?"


"That we head south, as you pointed out first.  A couple of hours, you said.  We can stay ahead of them for a couple of hours, and if I hide our trail well enough—" 


"We do that now, we'll lose the advantage of distance," Chris shook his head.  "They keep following the main road, they'll get ahead of us.  They'll be heading almost directly east, we'll be heading south, then northeast on an angle.  And the country to the south is much harder to travel, especially for….And if they do figure out what we've done…."  Chris frowned.


"I'll use everything I know to keep them from figuring it out, Chris.  If you really think the Ponderosa will protect us, it's the only way."  Vin's eyes narrowed, "But that's only if you're sure they won't follow us onto it."


Chris turned around, looking behind him.  Both Ezra and Josiah were sitting slumped in their saddles, waiting for him to make his decision.  Neither attempted to suggest that they be left behind—it would be a waste of breathe. 


In answer Vin's unspoken question, the gunslinger's jaw muscles flexed then relaxed.  He turned dark eyes on the tracker.


"Hell, Vin, truth is, I don't know anything at all.  I don't know if they will follow us or not.  I can only guess. I don't think they'll follow us, but they might think that's safer than trying to convince the sheriff of Virginia City or Reno or Carson City, or the army in any of the local forts, that we're dangerous and must be extracted.   They may think it's safer than letting us possibly slip past them to a different city than the one they aim for.  They may think it'll be safer than letting us…possibly…running into the Cartwrights and getting them on our side."  He shook his head, "All I know is, the Ponderosa is our best chance."


Vin stared at him a moment, then shrugged, "So…let's go now.  Let's not wait.  We'll lose time, but it's better than staying on this road like sittin' ducks."


Chris took a deep breath, hating that he had to make the decision.  For the hundredth time in his life, he wondered how he'd ended up the leader of these men.  He'd never asked for it.  He just…seemed to become it.  Vin watched him, waiting, his advice given.  It was, as always, up to Chris.


The gunslinger quickly weighed the options, the pros and cons rippling through his head like cards through Ezra's fingers. 


He looked back at Vin, then behind him at Ezra and Josiah.


"All right.  We head south," he announced, exuding the confidence he knew they needed, even if he didn't honestly feel it.  He looked back at Vin, "Cover our tracks.  I want them blind until it's too late, you got me?"


"I gotcha," Vin nodded solemnly.



Chapter Three


Chris was wrong—it was barely an hour before they hit the edge of the Ponderosa.  The four men halted their horses and stared at the large, obvious "No Trespassing" sign posted on a tall Ponderosa Pine.


"I wonder," Ezra said nonchalantly, glancing at Chris, "do you think they use dogs?"


"Dogs?" Chris replied, his brow furrowed in confusion.


"To catch trespassers.  Great big, snarling German Shepherds or Dobermans, their sharp, flesh-tearing teeth dripping with saliva and hunger, just waiting to tear any foolish interloper—"


"Ezra," Chris growled, "Shut up."


The gambler couldn't resist a grin.  Vin smiled as well, happy to see the gambler making jokes.  Perhaps it meant he was feeling better.  But it was more than that—they all felt it: for some strange reason, this sign promising dire consequences to anyone caught on the Ponderosa had made them feel like they'd found salvation.


Very strange indeed.



They rode more slowly now, no longer on any obvious trail.  At one time, they'd even stopped, because the view had been too much to ignore.


It was when they saw Lake Tahoe clearly for the first time. 


The blue lake shimmered and shifted beneath the perfectly blue sky, the sun casting a glittering glow off the wind blown ripples, as if pure gold was somehow hidden beneath its surface.  The lush pine and timber surrounded it on all sides, and the mountains in the distance were purple against the sky.  It was the sort of sight that humbled a man, and the four men staring in wonder at the vision were not immune.


Not long after they saw the lake, Chris turned them more east, and the horses found themselves climbing up a gentle hill between the pines, the lake now at their backs.


When they reached the top, the found themselves on a logging road that followed the ridge, wagon ruts clearly work into the ground.  Without much thought, they followed it for a while.  After a short time, they came across an unoccupied line shack, and the horses were more than happy to stop and get some water and feed.  They also found a storage place filled with dried food, and Josiah made a quick lunch much tastier than the hard tack and scrub they'd been eating for two days.  In return, Ezra was "encouraged" by the others to leave a couple of silver dollars to replace what they took.


As they made their way back to the horses, Ezra suddenly found himself thinking that Chaucer looked bigger than normal.  Taller.  Gamely ignoring the obvious illusion, he put his left foot in the stirrup, intending to push himself up and use his balance to get on the horse without help as he had done for the last two days without the use of his left arm.  That was as far as he got.  For some reason, he couldn't do it.  Somewhere between the shack and Chaucer, the rest of his energy had been sapped. 


He had probably stood there trying to work up his nerve for a few seconds when he found Chris next to him.


The gunslinger placed a hand on his back, not saying a word.  Ezra did not to look at him, though he was internally grateful for the unasked help. 


With a grunt, the exhausted gambler pushed up and, as his foresight had told him, he probably would have fallen backwards if Chris had given the extra push he needed to pitch forward and get his right leg over the saddle.


The gunslinger patted his left leg and walked away, never once looking Ezra in the eye.


Ezra sighed.   


It was going to be a long day.


When did it get so hot?



"He's damn good," the scout said, peering off to the south.  Slade frowned, the deputy sheriff of Iowa Town rubbing a rough thumb across his grizzled chin.  He didn't like the sound of that.


Growling, he asked, "What does that mean, Toby?"


"It means," the scout turned to look at him, wide open blue eyes and shaggy white hair making him seem pale in the sun, "they're not on this road anymore.  They got off it somewhere's back.  Probably to head south into the Ponderosa."  He stood up from where he'd been trying to find fresh tracks in this muddy section of the road.  There should have been four sets of horse's hooves not more than a few hours old, and one with the distinctive gait the gambler's horse had been showing to compensate for his rider's favoring one side, but there was nothing like that here.  "That tracker of theirs musta hid their passage but good.  I never even saw it."


"If that's true, how do you know they went south?" one of the other men asked.


"Same way we guessed they came this way rather than go around the south side of the lake," Slade spat in answer for the scout. "They're hoping the Ponderosa will hide 'em."


"Big enough place," another man remarked.  "If they did, how we gonna find 'em now?" 


Slade grimaced, silently agreeing with the comment, watching the distrustful eyes of the men surrounding him.  There were still eight men strong, including himself, now that they'd crossed the border.  All of them had been promised a cut of the profits those deeds would bring—land that the Central Pacific was planning to buy to build that railroad of theirs.  The deals had already been cut, but in the area around Iowa Town, the sheriff and the bank manager had colluded to foreclose every mortgage and evict the owners, taking, of course, the rights to any proceeds the railroad had promised upon consummation of the sales.  It didn't matter that none of the mortgages were due, or that the evictions hadn't been particularly lawful.  And everything would have been perfect if the damn bank manager and his moron of a teller hadn't then gambled all nine deeds away before the sheriff and Slade knew what was happening.  Worth almost fifty thousand dollars, those deeds.  They had to get them back from that gambler.


"They still got to be headed for a city.  Either to find an honest sheriff or an honest judge.  That means, no matter how far south they went, they gotta turn east at some point.  And they're going to avoid the pastures, so they won't get spotted by any of Cartwright's ranch hands.  So…we head forward a ways, enough so that we know we're ahead of 'em, then cut south ourselves.  We do this right, we'll still catch 'em."


"But," one of the men shifted nervously in the saddle, "that means…we'd be on the Ponderosa, Slade.  We start anything and the Cartwrights'll…."


"I'm a deputy sheriff, Nash," Slade's black eyes glittered angrily, "The Cartwright's try to intervene, I'll just tell the truth.  Sanchez is wanted for murder, Standish and them other two for helping him escape, and we're taking 'em back.  Cartwright'll be glad to hand 'em over."




"Fifty Thousand Dollars, Nash.  You gonna let them four Cartwrights get in our way?"


Nash frowned, but didn't reply.  Slade gave him a sharp nod to indicate the conversation was over, and looked back at his scout, "Take us down the road a ways then find us a way in Toby, and figure out where they are in there.  No mistakes."


Toby screwed up his face, but shrugged.  It wouldn't be too hard.  Two men were injured.  They'd need a lot of water and they'd look for the easier passages but stick to the trees.  That meant following streams and probably following logging roads, maybe even stopping at line shacks and waystations.    


As he mounted and started leading them forward down the road, Slade at his heels, the other six men followed, their reluctance at coming up against the Cartwrights quickly fading in the face of  their greed.



Chapter Four


Chris looked up, measuring the amount of time left in the day, and not happy with the reckoning.  They hadn't gotten as far as he'd liked, with Ezra half out of the saddle with exhaustion.  It was obvious he had a fever, one that had been growing since the morning.  He'd been sluggish since lunch and the flush in his cheeks wasn't from the sun, which had disappeared behind the thin clouds a while back.  It meant they were moving even more slowly than before--riding quicker than a fast walk just hadn't been possible. 


The rush of another stream, this one faster and clearly wider than the smaller ones they'd crossed so far, met Chris's ears.  Turning, he glanced back at Vin, and saw the tracker nodding.  Vin knew what he was thinking, and he agreed.  They'd take the risk.  The way Ezra was looking, they'd have to.


"We'll make camp up ahead," Chris said, glancing at Josiah.  The preacher raised a weary head and met his eye, then looked up, easily noting that there was still a good two or three hours of daylight left.  Josiah grimaced, but didn't make any remarks as they reached the fast moving stream—about six feet wide—and Chris turned to follow it downhill.  He understood too well, having been riding next to Ezra and expecting the smaller man to topple over at any time.  If the gambler had even heard Chris's order, he didn't make it known, just turned Chaucer to follow Solon as he always did. 


They were on a logging road again, this one cut about halfway down a hillside, and the stream waterfalled from above, tumbled over the rocks marking the sides of the road, and then disappeared downwards.    Chris had crossed the stream, found a deer track on the far side leading down, and was now following it, looking for a sheltered location.


The rocks grew in size, as large as small shacks in some places, rising up on both sides of the stream.  The horses maneuvered around them, navigating fairly narrow passages.  As long as Chris's big black could get through—Solon was not exactly a slim horse—the others had no problem.


Perhaps about twenty feet down, the boulders opened up to reveal a flat, open clearing.  The rocks offered protection and quiet, and a small overhang would protect from rain, should it come down.  Vin scouted a little further, then came back, indicating that this was their best bet.


Of course, it also had the danger of being a box.  If Slade came upon them, they'd be trapped.  He could approach from any angle and they probably wouldn't know it until he was on top of them.


Ezra didn't care.  He slid off the saddle and probably would have fallen if Josiah hadn't helped him to the ground.  He barely spoke, and even let himself be half-carried to where Chris had put a blanket on the ground.  As soon as he was lying down, he curled up on his good side and fell asleep.


There was no question.  They had to take the risk.



They spent two nights there, as Ezra's fever spiked in the morning of the day after they arrived.  Vin prowled around the site like a caged tiger, hating to see his friend sick, and he often found excuses to disappear.  Josiah never left Ezra's side.  He was as tired as Ezra was, but he refused to rest until Ezra's fever fell.  He sat next to him under the overhang, mopping the younger man's brow and telling him stories, random ones, just to keep Ezra company.  Chris, meanwhile, acted as sentinel.  Constantly on alert, expecting any moment to be found—either by Slade or by Cartwright men—he never put his gun down and never seemed to blink. 


The weather didn't help Ezra either—it drizzled for much of the day, and the temperatures rose and fell without logic. 


The strain was obvious in all of them.  Chris's temper grew shorter and shorter, so that he flared up at the smallest thing.  Vin's voice disappeared, as if his jaw had steeled together.  Josiah's hands shook as he read from a small book, reading aloud to Ezra the poems in it, and his usually booming voice suffered a tremor that was unnatural.


Ezra's fever broke by nightfall of that same day, at almost the same time as the stars came out in a finally clear sky—and as soon as it did, Josiah fell asleep, dead to the world.  Vin came back to camp, and Chris relaxed his vigil, trusting Vin to take some of the watch.  They stayed the second night, only to ensure that Ezra's fever stayed down and that he was on the mend.  In the morning, provided Ezra seemed strong enough, they knew they had to move on.


At least, that had been the plan.



"It's them all right," Toby said, standing up and smiling, brushing his hands off on his trousers.  He looked down the logging road towards the east.  "They came through here a couple days back, movin' real slow.  The gambler's horse is weaving something bad—compensating for a rider who isn't solid in the saddle.  They can't have gone far."


Slade smiled and looked back at his men, glad to see the shine of soon to be fulfilled avarice and pent up vengeance back on their faces.


"What do you reckon they did, Toby?"


"Holed up somewhere near water, somewheres dry and outta the wet yesterday," Toby answered, looking up at the brightening day.  It was just past dawn, and they'd been traveling south and west for the last two days, checking each road they'd come across, for the right tracks.  "And I'd bet there still there."


"Then find them."


"Yessir!" Toby grinned, jogging to his mount and vaulting into the saddle like a young man. "Jes' follow me, boys."



Chris was tightening the cinch on Solon's saddle when he heard it—or rather, stopped hearing it.  He looked up, staring around at the tops of the trees from which, moments before, chattering birds had been loudly welcoming the morning.  The sudden silence was disconcerting. 


Vin grabbed his rifle off of Peso's saddle, his jaw muscles flexing.  Checking the barrel, he walked a little down the hill a ways, intending to get to a better view of whatever might have spooked them.


Ezra frowned, watching as Chris hit Solon's rump, sending the horse to the far side of the clearing.  The gunslinger had grabbed his rifle from the saddle before doing so and was now climbing up between two of the boulders at the top of the camp, eyes alert for danger.  The gambler's right hand moved to rest on the Remington he'd just finished strapping to his hip, and he stood up slowly, still feeling weak but not about to hide from a fight.  He wiped the sweat from his brow and turned to look for Josiah.


The preacher was, in fact, walking back from having filled up the canteens, several of them hanging off his back.  The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and something had him moving faster…by the time he'd reached the camp again, he was running.


The first bullet shattered the soft sandstone rock above Ezra's head, maybe only six inches above his head, and the gambler was still marveling at the closeness of the shot as Josiah reached him. Ezra felt himself slammed to the ground in a half tackle, Josiah’s oppressively heavy hand holding him down as slivers of rock and shale shattered the stillness of a moment ago.  Bullets shaved the pink sand and limestone boulders they hid behind, skidding and ricocheting over their bowed heads. 


After a few moments, once the fear faded and anger took over, Ezra shoved off the heavy hand and rolled over, ignoring the pain in his left side as his good arm pulled the Remington off his hip.  He found a space between two rocks, just wide enough for his arm and his eye, and he began returning the favor to the shadowed figures that seemed to have appeared from nowhere on the far side of the rushing stream.  Josiah grimaced at having been pushed off, but pulled his own Smith & Wesson, hunkering down between two large boulders near to Ezra's position, trying to spot movement in the same trees that Ezra now fired upon.


Vin and Chris, rifles at the ready, attempted to pinpoint their attackers from their higher and lower positions, shooting off carefully aimed bullets in an attempt to both locate and take down the threats. But Slade and his men were well hidden and in far better positions.  If it weren’t for the fact that Chris knew they were on Ponderosa land, he wouldn’t have given much on their survival.


But they were on Ponderosa land. 


And sound traveled.



Continue to Part Two