“Hey Little Joe!” Hoss called, riding up quickly to where his younger brother was leaning against his saddlehorn atop Cochise, staring dreamily out across the Ponderosa.  Joe heaved a sigh and sat up, turning to look in the direction of the voice, smiling crookedly at the ever present grin on Hoss’s face. 


“Little Joe, I just came to warn you,” Hoss’s grin turned wicked as he pulled up along-side his little brother, “Adam’s lookin’ for ya.”


Joe’s expression soured, “For what?”


“Somethin’ about,” Hoss thought for a moment, his eyes searching the heavens--or perhaps the brim of his ten gallon hat--for answers, “about moving the steers back up to the high country for summer.”


Joe’s attitude changed abruptly.  Gone was the scornful expression, replaced by one almost akin to nervousness.


“Aw nuts!” he muttered, grabbing the reins of his paint tightly, “he asked me to do that two days ago!”


“And did ya?”


“Look at my face!  You think I did?” The youngest Cartwright worried his bottom lip, thinking about what he'd been doing for the past two days, which certainly hadn't involved cattle, and had, in fact, involved quite a bit of Betsy Kline.  “I had other things to do.  Didn’t see the need to do it until today.”


“Today?” Hoss looked around at the near empty field, “But ain't the mornin' half gone already, Joe?”


“Yeah, well,” Joe shrugged, “I forgot, now, didn’t I?  Oh, I’ll never hear the end of his from our perfect older brother, will I.  Oh no. Adam never forgets anything!  Shoot!” He wheeled his horse around, planning to charge down to the low pastures where the herd was, and to gather up as many hands as he could along the way.


“Need a hand?” Hoss called after him, as Little Joe sped up into a gallop down the hill away from him.


“No!” Joe yelled back, halfway down the slope.  "Don't tell Adam!"


Just then, a sorrel horse glided out of the trees from the lower pasture Joe was aiming for, and on its back sat a familiar looking man dressed nearly head to toe in black.  The sorrel came to a stop just as Joe’s paint skidded to a halt about twenty feet away from it, bits of grass flying from under the shod hooves still on the uphill.


"Don't tell Adam what?" Adam asked, his expression stern, though there was a distinct twinkle in his eye.  “And where are you going in such a hurry, younger brother?”


Joe didn’t notice the twinkle--all he saw was the set of the Adam's lips in a frown.


“Now, now, Adam, look here,” Joe backed his paint up a little, turning him ever so slightly in a different direction from where his eldest brother now regarded him, “about the herd….”


“Yes,” Adam’s head tilted slightly, “About the herd.”


“Well, see, I was just on my way and, um, Hoss, there, he distracted me!” Joe’s hand waved in the direction of the big man still sitting atop the crest of the hill, obviously grinning down at the both of them.


“Really?” Adam’s eyes lifted up, gazed for a moment at Hoss, then rested back on his younger brother.  “Is that a fact?”


“Oh, he’s a dastardly one, that Hoss, Adam.  He’s trying to stir up trouble, I’m sure of it.  He’d like nothing better than to keep me from my chores, just so he can get in your good graces.  He’s really awful clever.”


Adam had to work not to laugh out loud, trying to imagine Hoss caring one whit about whether or not he was in Adam's “good graces.”  Joe was the only one who seemed to care about that, though he'd never admit it.  Adam managed to keep his lips tightly shut, but he did lower his hat for a moment to hide the smirk.  Taking a deep breath, he looked up again, his face a mask of sternness once again.


Little Joe knew that face, knew it very well, but, by this time, Cochise had been maneuvered into the right position.


“Anyway, Adam, here’s the thing,” Little Joe tapped his horse’s neck, as if petting him, “See…truth is….I, uh….HYAH!” 


The paint took off like a shot, tearing sideways along the slope and on a less steep angle, to land Little Joe very neatly about fifty feet away from where his older brother was staring dumbfounded at the boy’s “escape.”  Joe grinned and was halfway across the pasture before Adam started to laugh, nudging Sport up the slope to meet Hoss on his way down.  Stopping next to each other, they watched as Little Joe finally slowed Cochise down in the lower meadow and came to a stop, looking around as if surprised he weren’t being chased.  They watched as he lifted his head, spotting them watching him from the hillside together.  Adam nudged his horse down the hill, as if to take up the chase, and Joe instantly spurred Cochise back into a gallop, disappearing into the trees.  Adam started laughing.


Hoss pulled up alongside, wide grin still evident as Adam laughed.  He glanced askance at his older brother.  Adam sighed after a moment and leaned back in the saddle, a smug look on his face.  Hoss nodded.


“You weren’t really expecting him to move that herd two days ago, now, was ya?”  the big man asked.


“No,” Adam admitted happily, “I wasn’t expecting him to move it today, either.  I told him I just wanted it done sometime this week, but I think he forgot that part.  Now he’ll have them all up at the high pasture before the sun’s down,” he grinned wickedly.  Hoss chuckled.


“You’re a mean one, Adam.  Sly, but mean.”


“It’s a gift,” Adam agreed.  He looked over at Hoss, and tilted his head again.  “So where’d you leave Pa?  I thought he was riding with you today.”


“He was," Hoss looked vaguely up behind him, "But I think he said he was going to check on the new fenceline you're supposed to be putting up over near the new homesteaders."


"No!"  Adam's face went instantly from rosy to white, and he pulled on Sport's reins, causing the sorrel to dance nervously, "He…he can't.  I haven't even…."  Suddenly, the deep brown eyes narrowed, recognizing the goofy grin on his younger brother's face.  Hoss was kidding him.


Adam pursed his lips, "You know perfectly well I told Pa I was waiting for the weekend, Hoss.  He's done no such thing."


Hoss's smile blossomed into a full-fledged grin, "Nope." 


Adam sighed, "Well, I guess I deserved that."




Adam gave him a dark look, then smiled, unable to stay mad at Hoss for more than a moment.  No one could.


"He just stopped off to say howdy to them new folks, the Monroes," Hoss explained.  "He'll be here any moment.  In fact," Hoss sat up straighter in the saddle, looking over Adam's head.  Adam turned his head in the same direction, recognizing the figure riding towards them.  His father rode easily, raising a hand in welcome.  Adam and Hoss returned the wave.  "There he is now," the middle brother added unnecessarily.


That's when the first shots were heard.  All three horses flinched with their riders, and all three heads turned in the direction of the big lake glittering in the distance beyond the treeline.  Without a word, the Cartwrights started galloping in the direction of the shots, Adam quickly pulling out in the lead.


Two fields away, Little Joe pulled up and looked to his left.  He glanced behind him, knowing that, though he couldn't see them any longer, Adam and Hoss would already be heading in the direction of the gunfire.  Turning Cochise around, he kicked the horse into a gallop, speeding off in the same direction.



Chris ducked, feeling the bits of stone like shrapnel hitting his shoulders and raining on his hat.  He'd have taken it off to hide himself better, but it offered too much protection.  Turning his head, he saw Ezra intent on reloading his Remington, the action difficult as his left hand wasn't working all that well, and his Colt was lying on the ground nearby, probably also empty.  Josiah had shifted his position further away from the gambler, trying to find a better range.  Vin he could make out further down, but only because he could see part of a white clad leg and part of an arm behind the timber and rocks the tracker had chosen as cover.


They were, effectively, cornered.  Inside the little bowl they were in, they couldn't climb either up the hill or down without exposing themselves.  And the stream tumbling down between them and their ambushers was doing an admirable job of confusing their attackers locations by hiding the sound of their movements. 


Worse, if they were being snuck up upon from behind, it was likely they wouldn't know it until the man appeared. 


As if hearing his thoughts, he saw Ezra look up suddenly.  Something had startled the gambler, and he had his gun up and was firing at something almost directly ahead of him on top of a rock.  A hoarse yell, and a man fell into the camp, holding his gut where Ezra's bullet had hit him.  Then Ezra switched his aim, pointing towards Chris.  The gunslinger didn't think, he rolled forward, getting out of Ezra's line of sight, hearing the Remington's report and another grunt.  Twisting onto his back, he looked back at where he'd just been standing and saw another dead man.


Chris looked back at the gambler, eyes wide, and got closer to him.


"Thank you."


"Thank that hawk.  That's why I looked up.  I just happened to see the two men signaling each other.  Pure luck."




Ezra blinked, "You didn't hear it call?  It was quite loud."


Chris just shook his head.  It wasn't important right now.  Patting Ezra on his good shoulder, he got back to his feet and went to find a new position, letting Ezra keep an eye now on their surroundings.  The gambler would keep a keen watch now that it seemed the shooters were indeed going to try and get them from behind.


Josiah and Vin hadn't stopped firing across the stream.



Adam turned his head, nodding to Little Joe as he joined them atop the ridge overlooking the thick tumbling stream.  The youngest of the brothers had made the hawk call to announce his presence, and he was a welcome addition; there were a large number of men down there. 


"All right," Ben frowned, "What have we got?"


“Looks like four men on that side, Pa,” Hoss informed him, peering down the stream to the left, his expression part curiosity, part annoyance.  "They just shot two men coming up behind 'em, but they’re stuck worse'n fish in a barrel."


“And at least four more to the right,” Adam added, leading his sorrel across the stream and peering down in that direction.  “Hoss is right—it's easy to see that the men on the right have the better position.  Thing is, seeing as two already crossed the stream and got behind the men on the left once, there may be more than four on the right.  I can't tell from here.”


"That's not good," Joe noted coolly.  "It's bad odds."


“Can you tell who they are?” Ben asked, jumping down off of his horse’s back to get closer to the edge.


“Nah, they all look dirty, about the same color, nothin' indentifyin',” Hoss replied, his head turning back and forth.


"Hold on.  One of the one's on the left has a red jacket," Joe noted curiously. "I can just see a corner of it between them rocks."


"Gambler?" Ben asked.


"Yeah, looks like."


“What do you want to do, Pa?” Adam asked, looking back at his father.


“Well,” the Cartwright patriarch frowned, “part of me wants to let them shoot it out­­—”


“But the better part of you wants to stop it, then get the sheriff,” Adam interrupted quietly.  It was more a suggestion than a completion of his father’s thought, and Ben gave his eldest a sharp glance in response.  Adam pretended not to notice.  Ben finally shrugged, deciding that, right now, he just wanted to noise to stop frightening his cattle.


“Well, for now, let’s just try and put a stop it and find out what is going on.  We can bring in Roy later.  Hoss, Joe, you get down closer to the four men on the left.  Adam and I’ll take the right.  Follow my lead.”


Pulling out their pistols, and Ben, Adam and Hoss also grabbing their rifles where they were tied to their saddles, they quickly made their way into better, more protected vantage points.  Ben waited until he got a nod from either Joe or Hoss that they were ready, then stood up and sent two very loud shots from his rifle into the air.


The new, distinctive sound from above caused the men firing down below to pause, and Ben got the moment he wanted.


“You men!” he shouted, “My name is Ben Cartwright and you’re on my land!  Stop what you’re doing right now!”


“Can’t do that, mister!” a voice from the right side called back.  “Them boys there are murderers—can't afford to stop and let 'em get away again.  We aim to take ‘em back, dead or alive!”


“The only murderers here are you and your boys, Slade!” a different, darker voice shouted from the left.  “And your sheriff’s corruption doesn’t reach to this side of the mountains!”


Ben arched and eyebrow at Adam, who shrugged back. 


"Who are you!" Adam yelled, purposefully not directing the question to either side in particular.


"Name's Slade," the voice from the right yelled.  "I'm deputy sheriff out of Iowa Town, two n' a half days ride from here in California.  We've been hunting—"


"His name is Slade and he is a deputy, that much is true," a voice yelled from the right, a hint of southern accent underlying it, "but do not believe he has chased us all this way because of he is upholding the law, Mr. Cartwright!  Those men are bandits, using the badges they wear as weapons!"


"And who are you?" Adam yelled.


"We're…the law of Four Corners," the southerner replied. 


"Now who is lying!" Slade shouted.


"Two sets of lawmen?" Adam said, his voice curious.  "Or two sets of liars?" he added.  He tilted his head to his father, asking him silently if he should move further down hill to the men on the right.


"I've never heard of Four Corners," Ben yelled, not responding to his son's vocal question, but he did respond to the silent one, by shaking his head at Adam.  His free hand clearly made a motion that he wanted Adam to stay put.  Adam's jaw tensed.  Ben looked downhill again, "Where is it?"


Silence had answered his question about Four Corners, until someone down on the right hand of the stream started laughing. 


"They don't even know…."


"Four Corners is several hundred miles away from here," the southerner interrupted, a hint of reluctance in the voice.  "In New Mexico Territory."


"Then you're awfully far from home," Ben replied. 



"Don't we know it," Chris said, looking at his three men.  Ezra was resting with his back again a large rock, watching every direction but the stream.  He was breathing hard from yelling, which had to have hurt his ribs.  Chris could see the tremor in the man's legs despite the steady hand with which Ezra held his gun—despite appearances, he definitely wasn't well enough for this.  Not far from Ezra, Josiah was wiping blood from his own face.  A stone had gauged a furrow across his forehead, and it had yet to stop bleeding.  It was amazing the older man was still conscious.  Vin had shifted back a little, so he could see Chris's face.  The gunslinger nodded at him.  Vin nodded back.  Then, slowly, his eyes shifted upwards.


Chris was uphill of the tracker, and he knew Vin was telling him that there was movement in the rocks leading up to the ridge.  Question was, was it more of Slade's men, or was it a Cartwright?


Ezra's eyes flicked in the same direction suddenly, and his Remington pointed uphill.


But, this time, he didn't fire.  The green eyes narrowed…and, slowly, the hand holding the gun lowered.


Joe Cartwright stared directly at those depthless pale green eyes, knowing that he'd just escaped being shot by the red coated gambler.   He'd made a bad move, his foot slipping on a wet rock and resulting in his being well in sight of the camp below.  Had the red coated man been a killer, he would have been shot dead.  At least now he knew what sort of man one of them was. 


Correction, two of them.  He saw one in a buckskin coat watching him as well.  He was about to call to them when the buckskin clad man held up a hand and motioned him back.  Joe frowned, not understanding.  The man then pointed to his eyes, pointed across the stream, then waved him back again.  This time Joe did understand.  One more step and Slade and his men would see him as well.  He nodded at the buckskin man, smiled at the red coated man, and slipped back into the rocks.  Taking a couple of deep breaths, he looked across the stream. 


Chris turned slowly, looking up into the rocks.  From his position, he couldn't see the man whom Ezra had decided not to shoot and to whom Vin had made hand motions, but he still felt too exposed where they were.  Something had to happen soon.


Ben Cartwright's voice boomed from over their heads again, and Chris could tell the man was closer than before.  He'd come down off the ridge some.  Slade was yelling something about arresting them for murder and theft and taking them back to California.  The gunslinger's jaw clenched.   What could he do to prove that Slade was lying?


Little did he know his men already had, simply by being who they were.



“If you have arrest warrants for these men, then it sounds to me like you boys need to talk with the sheriff down in Virginia City, especially as you're in Nevada now, not California,” Ben shouted in response, “Why don't you all surrender to us, and we'll….”


“No thanks, mister,” the voice from the right yelled back.  “We can handle it.”


“No, I don’t think you understand,” Ben bellowed.  “I’m not going to let you drag men off my land without evidence that they’ve done wrong.  Seems to me that….”


“You don’t want to get in our way, Cartwright,” the same voice yelled again.  “This ain’t your fight.”


“You’re making it our fight,” Joe shouted, his temper shorter now that he'd decided who to fight for, “Now drop your guns!”


"Well, listen to that!  One of you's moved!  Closer to Sanchez and his men!" Slade laughed, his voice tinged with amusement.  "You better watch yourself Cartwright junior!  Those men in that camp are killers!  They'll shoot you as soon as look as you."


Joe couldn't resist smiling—it was the first lie he truly knew to be a lie.  "You're lying!"



Ben's head snapped up at Joe's decisive response.  What?  How could he know that?


Adam, while his father was distracted, moved further down the hill towards toward Slade and his men.  Ben hissed, and Adam looked back at him.  Again, father made it clear to son that he was to stop moving.  Adam stared at him a moment, then shifted a little further down.  


"Adam!" Ben's voice was strained with frustration at the disobedience.  Adam looked up at him again, then pointed to a set of rocks.  If he reached them, he'd have a perfect position to threaten Slade.  Ben shook his head.  Too risky.


Adam sighed, and looked back over to where Joe's yell had come from as Slade's slick voice answered the boy's shout.



"And how do you know that, boy?" Slade challenged.  "They got you in their clutches already?  Gun to your head?  I told you they were killers, Ben Cartwright!"


"He's lying, Pa!" Joe yelled again. "No one's got anything on me!"


"Listen to him, Pa!" Hoss suddenly yelled.  "Joe's fine!  I kin see him!"


"How can you be so sure Slade is lying, Little Joe!" Ben yelled.


"Trust me, Pa; I know!"


Ben grimaced, but, truth was, he did trust his sons.  He looked at Adam.  His eldest matched his gaze.  Adam wasn't going to make any suggestions, though he did shake his head a little.  He trusted Joe, sure, but the youngest Cartwright's judgment was not always the best. 


Ben frowned.  Damn these men!


"Okay, Slade and….Sanchez?"  Ben remembered the name from Slade's previous yell, "I'm giving you one last chance…."


Josiah's head had come up at hearing his name, but his eyes suddenly lost their focus and his vision blackened.  It was if the surprise at hearing his name from Ben Cartwright's lips was too much, for he suddenly keeled over, the rifle clattering into the rocks.


"Josiah!" Ezra whispered fearfully, nearly dropping his gun as he crawled over to the former preacher's side, pressing fingers against the older man's neck. 


Hoss had a perfect view of the four men in the camp, something even Vin didn't know.  He saw the red coated gambler go to the older man's side, saw him shaking an arm though the older one was obviously out cold.  The gambler then looked back at the man dressed all in black, who was holding up a boulder a ways up from the camp. 


The man in black was obviously the one in charge, because the red coated one was obviously looking for direction.  The gambler hissed something and the man in black heaved a sigh, paused, then gave a single nod.


He then saw the leader draw in a deep breath.


"All right, Ben Cartwright," the man in black yelled, still watching the gambler and the older man, "We'll surrender to you."


"Like hell!" Slade's voice shouted from across the way.  "Don't trust these murdering thieves, Cartwright!  They've tricked your boy somehow!"


"Joe?" Ben's yell was clear.  He was asking Joe's opinion again.  This time, though, it was Hoss who answered.


"One of 'em's hurt, Pa!  Looks to me like they mean it!"


Vin's head snapped around, eyes wide as he saw Hoss Cartwright smiling down at him.  The tracker was completely flabbergasted—how had such a big man snuck up on him!  On HIM!


Hoss grinned some more at the slack jawed surprise of the one in the buckskin coat, then looked at the rest of the camp.  The other two saw him as well now.  The gambler had shifted, moving to shield the man on the ground with his body, watching Hoss warily.  The man in black just looked thoughtful.  It reminded him a little of Adam when he didn't want his emotions to show.


Speaking of Adam….



Ben gripped his hand into a fist as Adam dashed out from his cover down to the rocks he told his Pa he wanted to get too.  Damn that boy!


No bullets heralded Adam's run, but Slade and his men had to have seen it.  Adam turned and grinned back at his pa, then settled into a good covering position over Slade's camp below.


"Okay, Slade," Ben licked his lips, silently screaming bloody murder at his disobedient first born, "you willing to let us take them in?"


"Hell no!  They're ours, Cartwright!  And they're killers to boot!  We can't let you take that risk!"


"We've handled worse, Slade.  You head out, go to Virginia City, and we'll meet you at the Sheriff's office.  You have my word!"


"You can't trust Sanchez, his boy or them two gunslingers with them, Cartwright!  You're making a huge mistake!  And your family will pay for it, in blood!  I promise you that!"


"We'll take that risk, Slade!  Now get off my land!"






"You try and stop us doing our duty, Cartwright, and we'll take you down too!" 



Chris breathed some more, turning his eyes back again towards the opposite side of the stream.  Ezra was watching Hoss while staying close to Josiah, and Vin just seemed to be watching everything.  He listened to the shouting between Ben Cartwright and Slade, trying to determine exactly which way the wind was blowing. 


He'd wanted help, yes, but he didn't mean for the Cartwrights to get in harm's way as a result.  Not like this.


"…And we'll take you down too!" Slade yelled.


Hell. This had gone too far.


"Wait!" Chris yelled, making a snap decision, "Cartwright, wait!  They…Look, Slade…don't hurt them!  They're not involved in this!"


"Oh ho!" Slade shouted, "What's this?  A conscience blooming?  Tell me another one, gunslinger!"


"Shut up, Slade!  Listen to me, they're not part of this, and I promise—"


"Chris," Ezra hissed, interrupting, "what are you doing?!  The Cartwrights can help us—"


"Slade will kill them," Chris hissed back.  "It's not their fight.  I won't let—"


"A little late for that," Joe Cartwright said, vaulting off the rock over their heads into the camp, and grinning at their startled expressions.  "You're on Ponderosa land.  That makes you our responsibility."  Still grinning, he kept down and headed over to Ezra and Josiah, eyes quickly examining the older man, then Ezra.  Wary green eyes stared openly back.  Joe smiled.  "Don't worry, gambler, I ain't gonna shoot ya."


Ezra swallowed and looked back at Chris.  The gunslinger shrugged, and looked back across the river.  Had Slade seen Joe's entrance?


"You gonna finish that sentence, gunslinger?  Promise what?" Slade yelled.


Guess not, Chris thought, thankful for small favors.  Still, the Cartwright boy had just complicated the heroism he'd been about to volunteer his men for.  Okay, what did he say now?


"Slade, uh…."


"It doesn't matter anymore!" Ben Cartwright yelled, cutting Chris off, for which the gunslinger was, for the first time that he could remember, actually grateful.  "They've surrendered to us, Slade.  Now, get off our land, before I have you thrown off!"



Slade ground his teeth together, looking over at Toby and Nash, the two men he could see in visual range.  Mark, Randy and Orrie he'd sent off already, and he hoped they had followed the quick instructions he'd given to them earlier.


Damn it!  Damn the Cartwrights! 


He breathed out through his cheeks, then looked up at the rifle end he could see over their heads.  The Cartwright dressed in black had a good shot at them from up there.  While he was there, they couldn't start fighting again—they'd just be picked off by him.


He just need to stall a little longer.  Until Randy did as he had been ordered, and got around behind that damn Cartwright….


"All right, Cartwright," Slade yelled, shaking his head at Toby and Nash, "We're leaving."


And, with deliberate slowness, Slade got himself up and pretended to move down the hill, away from the stream and towards the horses.  Nash and Toby imitated him.



Ezra arched an eyebrow, and looked up at Chris.  The gunslinger was watching the shadows across the river with an unwavering gaze.  He didn't trust Slade, with obvious reason.


Joe watched as well, but he was more interested in the men he had jumped into the middle of than those across the stream.  He watched their expressions and how they handled their guns, trying to guess who and what they were.  None had turned on him, for which he was grateful, even if he did trust both his instincts and, of course, Hoss's aim.  It certainly helped knowing Hoss was backing him up.


So, he focused on assessing the unconscious older man's injury, clearing away some of the blood from Josiah's face and looking a little at the man's clothes for answers.  The cross around his neck was certainly an interesting thing—holy man of some sort?


Chris suddenly jerked, and Joe and Ezra both looked across at him.  The gunslinger raised his rifle, pointing across the stream, but not in the direction he'd been pointing before.


He was pointing uphill.


A horrible sensation wrenched Joe's gut—God no please…he couldn't have been wrong!



Adam watched as Slade glanced a number of times up in his direction, obviously aware that Adam had the advantage over him, but strangely he didn't make any moves to threaten him.  The eldest Cartwright boy's eyes narrowed slightly, feeling a little like he was missing something.


Slade turned and looked up at him again.


Adam's lips parted slightly—oh God, he was waiting for something.  That's what it was!  How could he have been so stupid!


"Adam!" his father's warning was loud, but it came too late.  Adam had twisted the moment he realized someone was probably coming up behind him, swinging his rifle around, but he wasn't fast enough.  


Slade's man was standing over him, finger about to pull the trigger, a gruesome smile on his face.


The gunshot split the air, and Adam cringed, throwing his left arm over his face in a useless effort to ward off the bullet.   At almost the same moment, a second shot was fired, like an echo, and he heard someone from the other camp yell the name, "Chris!"



Chris didn't think, just stood up, aimed and fired, shooting the man standing over the older Cartwright.  Joe's startled gasp did nothing to stop him, and, had Chris been looking in the right direction, he would have seen Ezra shove Joe's arm away before the youngest Cartwright could fire at Chris.


But Chris had opened himself up when he took his shot, and Slade took instant advantage, cracking a rifle shot at the gunslinger, and Chris jerked at being hit, head impacting the rock behind his head as he fell back.


"Chris!" Ezra's yell punctuated the air.



And Adam realized he wasn't dead.


"Adam!" Ben's yell was different this time, and Adam lifted the arm of his face, trying to understand how the man standing over him could have missed. 


"Adam, are you all right!" Ben yelled.


But Adam still didn't answer—he was too surprised by the sight of the dead man of Slade's lying a foot away from him, the bullet in his forehead dead center.



"Move! Move!" Slade yelled, as Adam turned and furiously started pelting their camp with bullets, his anger palpable as he shot at anything that moved.  The deputy sheriff and his remaining men ran into the woods to their horses, and took off, not looking back.



"Adam, are you all right!" Ben yelled, his own anger clear.  "Answer me!"


Adam was breathing hard, staring down at the deserted camp, wiping the sweat from his lip. 


"Yeah, I’m all right," he spat angrily.


"Thank God," Ben said, scrambling down to join him.  Once he was sure Adam was telling him the truth, he stood and looked around, to make sure Slade and his men were indeed gone.  Once he did, he looked across the stream.  "Joe!  Hoss!"


"Yeah, Pa!" Hoss yelled back.


"You all right?"


"Yeah, Pa.  But they're not."


"All right," Ben looked at his eldest son, "Adam, ride to Virginia City, fast as you can, and fetch the doctor and the sheriff.  We'll get them to the ranch."


"Right, Pa," Adam pushed himself up off the rock he was leaning on and scrambled back uphill. "I'll be back home before nightfall."


Ben nodded, accepting the statement as fact, and carefully made his way across the stream, using a felled log, and found his way into the other camp.



Ezra was shaking, leaning against a boulder as the two Cartwright boys took care of Chris and Josiah, both still unconscious.  Vin stood a little ways away, not liking the strangers, his rifle resting on his shoulder, watching everything like a hawk.  He hadn't been asked to give up his rifle or the Mare's Leg strapped to his leg and he wasn't about to.  Ezra still held his Remington in his right hand as well, but it was a loose hold.


"Both of 'em just got bad knocks on the head, and the man in black a gouged arm," Joe said, drawing Ezra's attention. "Your friend and your old man here will be fine."


Ezra smiled softly at the reference to Josiah, "Oh, Josiah, he's," he took a shallow breath, "he's not my old man.  They're both," he took another breath, "friends.  We work together."


"Ez," Vin ordered quietly, "Sit down."


Ezra sat down by leaning against a rock.  He never argued with orders he agreed with.


"Oh," Joe's forehead screwed up a little, "but I thought Slade said…."


"Josiah...tends to…act that way sometimes, and…people make assumptions," Ezra stuttered in explanation, his breathing still shallow. "We're…it…," Ezra sighed, falling back against the rock and slumping down a little, closing his eyes.  The action forced the red coat open a little, and Joe got a good look at the wounded shoulder for the first time.  He gave a low whistle, meeting Ezra's eyes again when the gambler opened them. 


"That been tended to?"


"Not well enough," Vin answered.  "Needs stitches.  We can't keep it closed.  He had a bad fever all day yesterday too."


"Sounds like you boys had a rough time of it," Hoss muttered, standing up from where he'd been checking on Chris, who was groaning a little as he came around.  Vin gave a nod.


"Yup."  Suddenly, the rifle was in hand and pointed towards the stream.  A moment later, it was lowered as Ben Cartwright slid in between two boulders.  The older man gave him a single nod, and looked around.  He looked at Vin again, who returned the rifle to his shoulder.


"You in charge of these men?"


"Me? Hell no," Vin sighed.  "I'm just the only one not hurt."


"Gambler listened to ya," Hoss noted, glancing at Ezra.  The gambler offered him a crooked smile in response.  Vin snorted.


"Nah, he just ain't stupid.  He sat down 'cause he I reminded him he needed to.  I was also just letting him know he could.  If he'd been more well, he'd have laughed at me."


"Thanks…for not calling me stupid…Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, a hint of a smile on his face.  "Otherwise…his…assessment of my condition…is accurate."


"Having trouble breathing son?" Ben asked.


"Having…more trouble…staying conscious…Mr….Cartwright," Ezra replied, smiling again.


"So who is in charge," Ben demanded.  "Which one of these men is Sanchez?"


"Josiah," Ezra said, "but…."  Without warning, like a candle had been snuffed, Ezra's eyes closed and his head tipped forward.  Hoss moved over and touched his chin, lifting Ezra's now slack face up.


"He's done in, Pa.  Pale as a wraith too, and there's a lot of heat comin' off 'im."


"Well," Ben smiled thinly, looking over at Vin, who's grip on his rifle had gotten tighter, "You’re in charge now, boy.  Here's what we're going to do.  We're taking you all back to the Ponderosa, where you're going to wait.  I've sent my oldest boy for the doctor and the sheriff, and they'll come, check you out, and those that can travel will go into Virginia City with the sheriff.  You have any problem with that?" 


Vin actually gave a small smile, "No sir.  Not at all."



Adam pulled up hard, turning Sport to the side as a large black horse materialized in front of him on the road, his expression hardening as he rested a hand on his holster.  The blond man in front of him already had his gun raised and pointed at his chest.  Adam grimaced, lifting his hand off the holster, but preparing to kick Sport into a gallop if he could.


"What's the meaning of this," he demanded.  "Who are you?"


"Hand away from your gun, Cartwright," the man said.  Then his eyes looked past Adam, "You got him, Orrie?"


"Yeah, Mark, I got him.  Do as he says, Cartwright," a voice called from behind Adam.  Adam turned, seeing another, darker haired man pull up behind, his gun also raised and ready to fire.  The eldest of the Cartwright sons licked his lips, turning again to the one called Mark.


"Who are you," he demanded again.  Mark's lips twisted into a smile.


"We're the ones kidnapping you, to trade for those men yer foolishly protectin',"  Slade's man answered.  "Now throw down that gun and get off that horse."



Continue to Part Three