~Four Corners of the Ponderosa~

Ace of Spades

Part Three



Chapter SIX


Ben, Joe and Hoss got the four members of the law of Four Corners back to the ranch without incident, moving slowly, then more quickly once Chris and Josiah regained consciousness, both mostly just sporting bad headaches.  As soon as they got there, Ezra was hustled off to have his wound cleaned up and put in bed, while the others were tended to in the main room. 


When Ezra awoke several hours later, he found himself being watched over by Little Joe, who was shuffling one of the four decks of cards he'd found in Ezra's bags and in his clothes.  It was the sound of the shuffling that had woken him up.  He watched for a moment, then started to chuckle as Joe dropped a handful of cards trying to perform a trick.


"What?" the youngest of the Cartwrights demanded, "think you can do better?"


"With two good hands, yes," Ezra grinned.


"Ha,"  Joe attempted his trick again.  Cards slipped from his fingers again.


"Here,"  Ezra pushed himself up on his right elbow and pressed his back up against the headboard.  If he was surprised to find himself waking up on a feather bed in a beautiful room, it didn't seem to occur to him to make mention of it.  As soon as he was sitting up fully, he reached out his right hand.  Joe frowned, then handed him the deck.


"But you only have one hand." 


Ezra just smiled, turned the deck over and fanned the cards, looking for something.  It took him only a second, and he turned them over again.  Then, deftly, he cut the deck open with one hand.  Manipulating it with his fingers, he caught a card, separated it out, and rolled it around so that it was face up on top of the other cards.  It was the Ace of Spades.  A second later, he opened the deck again and slid the card back in the middle. 


Joe grinned, then laughed.  "That was pretty neat, mister."


"Standish," Ezra said, putting the deck down and extending his hand, "Ezra Standish."


"Joe Cartwright," Joe shook the proffered hand, "pleased to meet you."




"You know, you should see his left hand.  He's better with it," a voice drawled from the door.  Joe and Ezra both looked to see Vin leaning against the frame.  Beyond, Ezra could see a dining room table and stone wall, set out for dinner. 


"Really?"  Joe looked back at Ezra, "You're left handed?"


"He's both," Vin answered.  "What's the word, Ez?"


"Ambidextrous," Ezra answered, taking his eyes from the table and looking back at Joe.  "Though it's a bit of a fallacy.  Though I can write, play cards, shoot and do most things with both, I prefer to write with my right hand and I prefer to shoot with my left. Speaking of which," he looked down at his left hand, "it feels better.  At least, I can feel it tingling, which is better than nothing,"  He looked up at Vin, "Did I miss the doctor?"


"No, not yet," Joe answered for the tracker. "It'll take Adam most of the day to get there from where we were.  He'll be back before nightfall though—that's what he told Pa."


"It feels stronger because you finally got some rest," Vin supplied.  "And we cleaned it with some linseed oil and milk—cleared up the infection some.  Wound still needs closing though—still bleeding and we can't get it to stop." 


Ezra nodded, "That's why I'm so tired still," he muttered, to himself mostly.  Vin didn't respond, because he knew Ezra wasn't looking for one.  The gambler turned too look out the window, to judge how late it was.  "What time is it now?"


"About five.  Nearly dinner time." Joe smiled, "Feel up to eating somethin'?"


Ezra grinned, looking again to the well laid dinner table, "Oh, I think I could be convinced."


"Come on, Ez," Vin walked over, "Let's get you up."


"Wait, ho, hold on," Ezra looked down at his clothes—he was still wearing the travel stained shirt from the last three days.  He looked pleadingly up at Vin.


The tracker sighed—he knew Ezra much too well.  "Yeah, all right."  He looked at Joe, "You fellas got a bath?"   


"Seriously?" Joe's eyebrows shot up.


"Oh," Ezra replied, "he most definitely is."


"Man's a freak," Vin said.  "Just humor him."


"All right," Joe stood, "Don't see why not.  I'll go see one's drawn."


As they watched the younger man leave, Vin sat down on the edge of the bed.  Ezra looked at him as Vin picked up the cards Ezra had put down and fiddled with them.


"So, how long have I been asleep?" Ezra asked, lowering his voice.


"About four n' a half hours, but you weren't alone.  Josiah was out for almost as long, and both me and Chris took turns."


"Took turns?"


"Well, we like these people, they seem honest, but…."  Vin shrugged, "It seemed better that someone stay awake just in case.  But this place," Vin looked around, eyes following the sturdy beams and well wrought furniture, "it feels safe.  I've not felt this way inside a house…well, not since I was little.  It…feels nice."


Ezra smiled, "I'd heard stories about the Ponderosa.  Seems they were true.  Tell me," he looked out at the dining table again, "am I on the first floor?  Seems a strange place for a bedroom."


"Yeah, it’s a guest room.  I think they use it for sick folks like you."


"You mean injured."


"Nah, I meant sick," Vin tapped his forehead and smirked.  "Yer just injured too."


"Ho ho ho."


Vin grinned, then continued, "they got a bunch more bedrooms on the second floor.  A whole mess of them.  We each got one.  No sleeping out in the dusty bunkhouse this time."  He shrugged, placed the cards down and looked around, "If we can get that sheriff to believe us, you might actually get out of this one alive, Ez, especially with the Cartwrights to back us up.  Though Chris'll probably still kill ya the minute we get home."


Ezra chuckled, "You mean he doesn't want to now?"


"Oh, he does, but he's trying to make a good impression."


Ezra chuckled some more at that, knowing full well making a good impression was usually the farthest thought from Chris's mind, but the laughter soon turned into a harsh cough, and pain lanced down his chest.  He didn't notice Vin had a hand on his good shoulder and was rubbing it until the coughing had stopped, and he was trying to take in some new air.  Blinking, he frowned.


"I hate this."


Vin patted his shoulder some more, "I know."


Ezra took another breath, then looked at Vin, "Chris tell them our story yet?"


"No.  He wants us all to be there, to help fill in details.  Ben seemed to understand that.  After dinner, Chris said."


"Sounds like a good idea.  Maybe the sheriff and that doctor will be here by then."


"Yeah, maybe," Vin turned his eyes to the window, trying to shake off the feeling that something more was very wrong.



Chapter Seven


"You're the eldest son, ain't ya?"  Slade drawled, staring down at Adam where he had been shoved to the ground, his hands bound behind his back.  They were in a small, hidden draw not far from the main road, just off Ponderosa land.  A couple of hours after Orrie and Mark had brought Adam here, Slade and his other two men had shown up, rage oozing from Slade like blood from an open wound.  After a short conference with his men, Slade had sidled over to question him.  "Yer the eldest of Ben Cartwright's boys, that right?"


Adam shrugged, his wrists protesting a little at the rope burn, "Yes."


"They say Ben Cartwright would do anything for his sons. That true?"




"Usually?  What the hell's that supposed to mean?" 


"It means, usually, yes, he would do anything for one of his sons."


Slade's face darkened, "Ain't what I asked, bright boy.  I asked, what's 'usually' mean?"


"It means, most of the time.  Why, you know another meaning?"


That earned him his first hard crack across his jaw, and Adam found himself shaking his head to dull it.  When he looked back at Slade, the man's face was an interesting shade of pink.


"Damn it, that ain't what I meant!"


"Then perhaps you should be more clear."


That earned him his second punch, and Adam had to breathe through the pain as he turned watering eyes back to meet Slade's, his tongue licking away some of the blood from his lip.  The sheer grit in the Cartwright's gaze hadn't diminished.  Slade leant over and grabbed the front of his black shirt, drawing Adam closer to his face.


"That clear enough for ya, Cartwright?"


"No," Adam replied snidely, "But I can guess.  If you're asking if my father will give up those men to you for me so you can kill 'em, he won't."


Slade snorted, then spat in Adam's face, causing him to cringe in disgust.  Slade smiled at that, then frowned again.


"He'll trade.  He'll trade because yer more important than a bunch of outlaws.  He'll trade," Slade sneered, "because he won't have any other choice, not if he wants you back."


"If those men are innocent," Adam said darkly, "which, based on your actions it would seem they are, then you're wrong, Slade.  My father would never let you kill them just to save me."


Slade snorted, "That ain't what I heard.  I heard old man Cartwright would move the world if he thought one of yous was in trouble.  You saying that's lies?"




"Then he'll trade."




Slade's face turned more and more red, and he threw Adam back on the ground, "He'll trade!"


Adam didn't answer, because there was no point.  He just shut his lips and glared, until Slade turned away. 


After a moment, Slade breathed out heavily, and looked back at him.  "Will he trade for just two of 'em?  If I let them other two go free?  Will he do that?"


Adam gave a slight frown of puzzlement, "I don't understand."


"The gambler and Sanchez.  Them I want.  The other two, them two gunslingers, they can go free.  Will he go for that?"


Adam's expression cleared as he understood, and he shook his head.


Slade's jaw tensed, "Why not!  What the hell are they to him!"


"They're men." 


"They're killers!"


"Somehow I doubt that," Adam hissed. 


"And how the hell would you know!" Slade replied, getting increasingly annoyed at Adam's terseness.  "The gambler cheated two men in our town and took some important papers worth more n' our whole town put together, and when they went after him, his old man killed 'em both.  I got the arrest warrants with me, sworn to by our sheriff.  Sanchez is gonna hang for what he did, you hear me?  And the gambler's gonna watch!"


Adam's eyes narrowed, "Sounds like Sanchez was defending his son."


"They were unarmed.  Sanchez gunned them down, shot them in the back."




"There were witnesses."


"I see.  You are your men, perhaps?"


Slade's jaw snapped shut, the red shade moving towards purple.


"You don't believe me."




"You calling me a liar?"


Adam took a breath, knowing there was no right answer to that question, and instead fell back on logic, assuming Slade knew what it was.


"Say you do have those warrants," he suggested slowly, "and say those men you're after are what you say they are," his eyes narrowed, "then why am I here?  If your warrants are legitimate, why haven't you gone to Virginia City for the sheriff?  Why kidnap me?  My father told you we'd make sure justice was done, and yet here I am.  You knew where I was going, and you deliberately stopped me."  His head tilted up so that he could look Slade directly in the eye, "Why?"


Slade didn't have an answer, his blue eyes scrutinizing Adam's face as if looking for some kind of deception.


"No answer?" Adam said after a moment, "Then I'll supply one.  For some reason, you can't go to the sheriff because either those warrants are bogus or," he arched an eyebrow, "because it's not the men your really after, but something those men have.  Money, maybe?  Or papers?"  Slade's expression flickered at the word papers, so Adam made the most obvious connection, "Deeds?"


The reaction was instant, and so fast he couldn't have seen it coming.  One moment he was kneeling upright, and the next he was on the ground, pain registering all through his head from where Slade's boot heel had kicked him in the side of his face.  His eyesight blurred, peppered with black spots, and the tinny taste in his mouth was unquestionably blood.  He had to work to understand the words Slade was saying, but only a few made it through the fast approaching darkness.  It was enough to chill his bones.


"One more word…kill you now…brothers…stop me...kill all you Cartwrights!"



"One more word out of you, slick, and I'll kill you now.  And if your Pa or your brothers try n' stop me getting them deeds, I'll kill all you Cartwrights!  You hear me?!"


Slade wiped the spittle from his lip, breathing hard, glaring at the obviously now oblivious man on the ground, his anger still boiling.  He twisted around when he felt the presence behind him, and growled at old Toby standing hipshot a few feet away, his arms crossed and his sharp blue eyes on the unconscious Adam.


"What?" Slade snarled.


"Hit 'em awful hard," Toby mused, his eyes lifting to meet Slade's.  "Kick to the head can kill a man."


Slade grunted, looked again at Adam, and squinted at the ugly the black and red marks on the side of the man's head.  With a curse, he knelt and pressed his fingers against Adam's neck.  After a moment, feeling the steady pulse, he stood up again.


"He ain't dead," he muttered.




Slade pivoted to face the scout, his eyes pinpoints of black inside his face, "You forgettin' who's in charge, Toby?  I know what I'm doin', damn it!"


"I know, boss," Toby smiled, lifting his hands to protest his innocence.  "I know you do.  I just wanted to make sure, you understand….He's worth a lot a' money, that one."


"You think I don't know that?"  Slade took a step forward, and Toby took a step back.  "You listen, old man, and listen good.  When Ben Cartwright sees his boy like this, he'll be happy to give up that gambler and them deeds, just to get this one back.  You get me?"


"Yeah, boss."


"Good."  Slade turned and stared at Adam for a moment longer, then kicked him in the stomach.  Adam grunted, but didn't wake. 


Toby chuckled, "His Pa won't be able to see that one."


"Yeah, well, that was fer him being too smart.  I don't like it when they're too smart."  He eyed Toby, "He spooked me.  How the hell'd he know about the deeds?"


Toby smiled again, shrugging.  No one could accuse Toby of being too smart.


"So," the scout lifted both eyebrows, the massive tufts of white shifting like sails in the wind, "what now?"


"Now," Slade wiped some more spittle from his bottom lip, "we send his Pa a message."  He pulled his knife from the sheath on this thigh.  "Get his gunbelt," he ordered.  Toby jumped, getting down to unbuckle the gunbelt, as Slade reached down…and sliced across Adam's forearm.  A slight wince in Adam's otherwise slack expression was the only reaction.  Grabbing the belt from Toby, Slade scratched the blood onto the empty holster, then handed it back.  Toby looked at the smear, then back at Slade.


"Nice message," the scout smirked.



Chapter Eight


About two hours later, clean, full of food, and more comfortable than they had been since leaving their home almost three weeks previously, four members of the law of Four Corners were settled around the main room of the Ponderosa, waiting for Chris to begin.


The gunslinger nodded when Ben prompted him, and started his tale.


"I'd like to say it was simple, Mr. Cartwright," he leaned forward on the couch with his arms resting on his legs, his hands clasped together, his eyes fixed on Ben, "but it isn't simple.  My men, as usual, took a straightforward assignment of delivering a prisoner," his sharp eyes flashed to land on Ezra, who instantly lowered his own eyes to the floor where he sat at the other end of the couch, "and turned it into a god awful mess."


"It weren't their fault, Chris," Vin interjected where he sat on the arm of the couch next to Ezra, his brow furrowing.  "You know that."


Chris snorted at his unofficial second-in-command, and turned his dark stare back to Ben.  "It never is.  Doesn't stop trouble from sticking to them worse n' flies to honey."


"I know someone else like that," Hoss said cheerfully, glancing askance at Joe. 


His younger brother instantly smirked back, "I don't hold the patent on it, older brother, as you well know.  In fact, aren't you often with me?"


Hoss tried Adam's stern face, failed, and smiled.  He couldn't deny the truth.  Ben gave them both looks.


"We're not the ones in question here, sons," he stated firmly.  He turned back to Chris, "Suppose you tell us a little more about this so-called god awful mess, Mr. Larabee?"


Chris grimaced, then looked at Ezra again.  "Well, Ezra there's a gambler—"


"I thought he was a lawman," Joe said quickly, glancing at Ezra's clothes which, of course, were exhibiting his usual flash, especially now that he'd bathed and changed.  His purple jacket had replaced the dust covered red one, and he wore a handsome embroidered vest beneath it.  His left arm rested in a sling under the jacket.


"He is a lawman," Chris sighed, "Of sorts.  We all are.  However," he pursed his lips for a moment, "some of us are other things as well."


"How is that possible?  To be more than one thing at once, especially a profession often in trouble with the law itself?" Ben demanded, crossing his arms.  "Seems to me being a lawman would take up most of your time, leaving very little for games."


"How true that is," Ezra muttered, clearly lamenting the fact, earning him a shove from Vin.  The gambler winced, then breathed slowly out of pursed lips.  Ezra turned a sharp look on him.  "Was that necessary?" he hissed.


Vin just grinned back shamelessly.


"As I was saying…," Chris began, trying to regain control.


"You didn't answer my question," Ben argued hotly.  "How can he be a gambler and a lawman?"


"Are you saying you've never been more than a rancher, Mr. Cartwright?" Josiah asked softly from his place in Adam's usual chair next to the fire.  "You've never worn a badge or tried your hand at politics or gambled?"


"He's got you there, Pa," Joe said, then quickly lowered his eyes as his father glared at him.


"That's not the same thing," Ben grimaced, looking at Josiah. "I am first and foremost about the Ponderosa.  I may try my hand at other things, but nothing that would jeopardize my home."


"And I would never do anything that would jeopardize Four Corners," Ezra said quietly.


Ben's unblinking stare switched to the gambler, eyes scrutinizing the man's face, then sighed.  "All right, fine.  I'll grant you that point, if it's true."  He looked back at Chris, "Go on, Mr. Larabee.  You were saying your man's a gambler."


Chris gave him a tiny smile, "Not just a gambler, an inveterate gambler—been a gambler far longer than a lawman."  He darted glances around the room, and when no one seemed inclined to interrupt again, he continued, "And, at least in his mind, he's very good at it." 


Ezra opened his mouth to complain, but Vin rested hand on his good shoulder to stop him.  So, instead, the gambler just sighed.  Chris thanked Vin with a nod and focused back on Ben.


"I bring it up because his gambling is what started this mess."  He took a breath before continuing, leaning forward on his knees and shifting his gaze to stare at the fire. 


"We were in California because we had helped transport a prisoner named Jules Tyson and his men to a town near San Francisco, at the request of a U.S. Marshal named Peters.  We'd agreed to extradite him, but knew Peters couldn't handle it alone, and with the Apache's on the warpath again, there were no soldiers to help him."


"Extradited?" Ben tilted his head, "for what?"


"Tyson was a con artist," Ezra answered, a strong note of professional disdain in his tone. Green eyes flicked up, "he and his cohorts defrauded a number of wealthy citizens in California, then in Arizona territory, and finally tried his hand in our territory.  He failed when he tried to pull one over on one of our own ranchers."


"Guy Royale," Vin supplied.  "Unfortunately for the Tyson, Guy Royale is a bigger crook than he is, and a hell of a lot nastier.  Would have lynched him and his men if we hadn't intervened."


"Lynched?" Ben's eyes narrowed.  "I don't believe in lynching."


"Neither do we," Josiah agreed solemnly.


"When Marshal Peters arrived soon after we arrested Tyson and his men," Ezra said, picking up the thread again, "we decided extraditing him to California was safer than letting him languish in our jail until our circuit judge arrived.  Royale was unfortunately doing an apt job of inciting the town, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep them calm.  Besides, California had a bigger claim."  Ezra snorted, "But, because we trust Royale about as far as we can throw him," he glanced at Vin, who gave a sideways smile back, "we thought the Marshal could use a little extra help in transporting him."  He sighed and shifted, adjusting his sling a little.  "Suffice it to say," he pursed his lips, "the trip was long and dull.  We arrived in the chosen town where the judge the Marshal worked for was staying, and then moved on.  By that time, our protection was invariably no longer needed.  Royale's rich, but he's not going to chase someone across two territories."


"Then why did you stay with them for so long? " Ben asked.  "Surely you could have dropped off the protection long before you reached California?"


"Because our trip became known around Four Corners before we left," Chris muttered, annoyance thick on his tongue, "and suddenly we were transporting much more than just a prisoner."


"A number of families decided it would be a good time to head west, under our protection," Vin sighed.  "One even asked us to escort them as far north as Nevada City."


"And the bank thought it would be a good time to send a strongbox of gold and papers to Sacramento," Josiah added.  "To the Central Pacific offices, to be exact.  They're financing the Southern Pacific, which is being built not too far outside our town."


"And let us not forget that our intrepid newswoman thought it an ideal excuse to send a wagonload of her newspapers to the central library in Sacramento at the same time," Ezra grinned. "For prosperity, of course."


"Oh yes," Vin laughed, "can't forget that," he glanced at Chris, but the gunslinger refused to smile.  Mary had the man wrapped around her finger, whether he admitted it or not.  She was also the main reason they had agreed babysat all those families, against all of their better natures. 


Chris waved Vin's mocking tone off, "Weren't Mary's papers that got this started, Vin," he sneered. "Was Ezra's greed."


Ezra looked pained, but didn't disagree.  Josiah sighed again.


"What does that mean?" Ben asked, the edge back on his tone.


"That damn railroad," Chris replied darkly, "the Central Pacific." 


"The railroad?" Ben looked at his sons, who shrugged.


"We did them a good turn in the past, freeing them of a corrupt boss named Rupert Browner who was running their Southern Pacific's construction," Josiah explained. "And they have a good memory for honest men—especially ones who turned down the thank you reward they offered—" 


Ezra gave a tiny groan, showing that that decision hadn't been his, and Josiah chuckled a bit before continuing, "In any event, they wanted to meet us.  I don't think they come across many honest people in their line of work, themselves included."


Ben harrumphed, but he didn't disagree.


"We had split up to run the errands," Chris explained.  "Vin and I took the families to their respective towns; Ezra and Josiah took care of what needed to be done in Sacramento.  We were supposed to meet them back in Sacramento, when, in Nevada City, we get a telegram that they would meet us in Iowa Town instead."  He scowled at Ezra, who kept his eyes down.


"Iowa Town," Ben repeated, "Slade's town."




"See," Josiah leaned forward, "After we dropped the money with the Central Pacific and told them who we were, we were invited out to have a drink with Crocker and Stanford.  I begged off, explaining we still had to take the newspapers to the archives, but they insisted.  Then they suggested a game of poker might be had…at which point Ezra decided he could stay and I could deliver the newspapers on my own."  He stared hard at Ezra, who still kept his eyes down.


"I was just being polite," Ezra muttered.  Chris rolled his eyes and Vin laughed.  Josiah just sighed.


"Well, while I went alone to the library, Ezra had a nice chat with two of the Big Four, not to mention winning a sizable pot off of both of them," he eyed Ezra again, saw the tiny dimpled smile on the face, then shook his head in annoyance. "They learned that Chris and Vin were headed up to Nevada City, and they asked Ezra for a favor—would he and I mind delivering nine contracts of sale to Iowa City?  It was on the way to Nevada City, and Chris and Vin could meet us there instead without much change in our plans, and in return…."


"…We were handsomely paid," Ezra finished, a strange smile on his face.  


"In other words, Ezra said yes for both of us," Josiah said. 


"Just to deliver contracts?" Ben said.  "Why couldn't a messenger do it?"


"Because the contracts evidenced almost fifty thousand dollars worth of purchases," Ezra said, looking up.  "The Railroad had agreed to pay nine families for the deeds to their land, land the Central Pacific is planning to cut through.  All the families would have to do was sign the contracts, take it to the Central Pacific office in Auburn, sign their deeds over to the CPRR and they'd get their compensation."


"Fifty thousand dollars!" Joe whistled.


"Ezra read the contracts on the way to Iowa Town," Josiah explained.  "He wasn't supposed to, but he did."


Ezra smiled and shrugged at the fact, then grimaced in pain, grabbing his left arm just below the shoulder. 


"Don't do that," Chris suggested quietly.  Ezra glared at him.


"Anyway," Josiah continued, "When we arrived in Iowa Town, we went seeking the families.  Turns out the bank had foreclosed on all of them just a few days before our arrival, and now owned the deeds.  It didn't take much to learn that the sheriff and the bank manager had worked together to push those families off their land, forcefully, so that they could get the fifty thousand for themselves.  Slade, as deputy, was the muscle that made it happen."


"There are a few honest folk still in Iowa Town," Ezra sighed, leaning back, still holding his left arm. Then he sneered, eyeing the preacher out of the corner of his eye, "They told us what happened and Josiah the bleeding heart there promised we'd help the families get their deeds back." 


"Don't blame me, son," Josiah snapped.  "You didn't disagree, and the poker game was your idea."




"Fine, suit yourself."


Ezra pursed his lips and closed his eyes, leaning his head against the back of the couch and pretending not to have heard.  It was a strange moment, and the Cartwrights didn't know what to make of it.  After a moment, Josiah sighed and continued with the story, since Ezra didn't seem willing to.


"Ezra came up with a plan," he said.  "Having met the bank manager, he knew the man was a snake who couldn't turn down a bet.  With the help of the same few honest folk Ezra mentioned earlier, we distracted the sheriff and Slade outside of town for a few hours, while Ezra pulled the bank manager and his teller into a game.  By the time the sheriff returned that night, Ezra had won all nine deeds off him, had them signed over in his name and witnessed by the teller who was also a notary.  Needless to say, the sheriff was not happy."  Josiah shook his head, "We had planned to leave before he returned, but he beat us to it.  We were attacked before we could get out of town and knocked out."


Ezra sighed softly, his right hand touching the scarring cut on his cheek.   "When we came to, Josiah was in jail, accused of murdering, conveniently, the bank manager and the teller, and I was with him as an accessory."


"The gallows being built is what woke us up," the preacher added darkly.  "All that hammering and sawing…."  He drifted off, his mind going somewhere else.


"When they couldn't find the deeds right away," Ezra said, his eyes still closed, "I was 'allowed' to escape, so I could show them where I'd hidden them."  He gave a small smile, "I got away from Slade and his flunkeys and orchestrated a jailbreak.  Admittedly, it was not the smoothest affair…."


"Lord no," Josiah muttered. "We barely escaped, riding hell bent for leather out of that town, bullets whizzing past our ears.  Ezra caught one in the shoulder, but we couldn't slow down.  Our only plan was to try and meet Chris and Vin on their way back from Nevada City, then try to find an honest lawman to help us."


"We met them all right," Chris said, staring hard at Josiah. "Half dead, both beaten, Ezra bleeding and barely conscious, Josiah bruised from a bad fall off of his horse during their run…."  He shook his head, "Absolute idiots.  We could have found a better way than that to help those people."


"It seemed efficacious at the time," Ezra retorted.  "Time was limited, as the Central Pacific specified they needed those deeds now.  If they didn't get those deeds by the end of this week, they would have taken the land by eminent domain, and the sheriff and the bank manager still would have won.  This way," Ezra's eyes opened, "I get the money instead."


"You," Ben ground the word out.  "What do you mean you get the money?  Are you saying its yours?"


Ezra tilted his head to look at the eldest Cartwright, the strange smile on his face again, "In a manner of speaking, yes."


"What?  How does that help those families?" Hoss demanded, confused and, suddenly, angry.  "Why, yer no better than that sheriff and the bank man!"


Ezra's eyes had moved to the big Cartwright, the smile still on his face, "I never said I was going to keep the money, Mr. Cartwright."


"But how do we know that?" Hoss growled.


"Because I don't have the deeds anymore," Ezra answered simply. "By now, they should be safely locked up in the Central Pacific's offices in Auburn, with strict instructions that the money be paid directly to the nine families who come to collect as my beneficiaries, each with a signed contract."        


"Beneficiaries," Ben frowned, still confused.


"The other part of Ezra's plan," Josiah smiled, a hint of pride in this voice.  "One of the honest men in Iowa Town was the town clerk.  He created a trust, with Ezra as Trustee, and named the nine families as beneficiaries.  When he won the deeds, he had them signed over to him as Ezra Standish, Trustee.  Then, soon as the bank manager and his teller were out of sight, Ezra gave them to the clerk along with the signed contracts and told them to get to Auburn as fast as possible.  A few others went with them, to find the families the sheriff had chased off."


"But," Joe was confused, "then that means…well, how can you be so sure those men were honest?  What if that clerk was really workin' for the sheriff?"


"If he was, Slade wouldn't still be after us," Josiah said simply.


"But what if they decided to take the money for themselves—pose as those families and keep the fifty thousand?" Ben asked.  "Are you so certain of the honesty of those men that they wouldn't do that?"


Josiah didn't answer.  Instead, he shrugged.


"Sometimes, Mr. Cartwright," Ezra said softly, his eyes closed again, "you just have to the risk that your intuition about someone is right.  I believed that clerk to be honest, and I can usually tell the difference."  He frowned, "The simple fact is, we couldn't run the risk of Slade catching us and stealing those deeds back, or, worse, chasing us for long enough that the Central Pacific would move ahead without them.  So, we took the risk and trusted the town clerk, just as your son did earlier today when he jumped into our camp."  He sighed, "As I said, it seemed efficacious at the time."


No one responded to that, not even Chris, who was once more moodily staring at the fire.  Hoss's brow furrowed and loosened and furrowed and loosened as he tried to get it all straight in his head, while Joe just sat on the arm of a chair and put his chin in his hand.  He was scrutinizing Ezra, as if trying to see inside his head.  Vin watched Ben Cartwright, who had turned and started pacing, his hands behind his back and his eyes to the ground.  Josiah just picked up the book on the table next to him and examined the spine.  After a moment, he opened it up and started reading.


Eventually, Ben stopped pacing, returning to stand by the fire, and propped up one foot on the base.  He was looking out the far window, where the sky was all but fully dark.


"Pa?" Joe said softly, "Pa…I believe them."


"So do I, Pa," Hoss agreed, his brow no longer furrowed.  "When Adam comes with Roy—"


"Where is Adam?" Ben interrupted suddenly, straightening his back to stare towards the outside door.  "He should have been back by now."


That caused them all to look at Ben, then at the door, as if the oldest of the Cartwright boys would take exactly that moment to walk in.


But, of course, he didn't.


Joe looked back at his father, "Well, maybe the doc had to finish something up, Pa.  Could've delayed him."


Ben pursed his lips, but didn't disagree.  There were a myriad number of reasons why Adam wasn't back yet, but that did nothing to stop the churning in his gut ever since the sun dropped below the horizon.  Adam had said he'd be back before nightfall.  He wouldn't have said it if he wasn't going to do exactly that.


And Ben knew…something was wrong.



Chapter Nine


A heavy silence descended then, with Ben returning to his pacing and everyone else, except for Josiah, who was reading, and Ezra, who had slid down a little on the couch with his eyes closed, all staring at the fire as if it would solve all their problems.  To Vin's mind, he felt like they had been told to hurry up and wait, and the tension in the room was growing with each heavy tick of the grandfather clock by the door.


Ezra's breathing evened out, and Chris turned to look at him.


"Asleep?" Vin questioned softly, causing Josiah clear blue eyes to flick up from his book and over at the gambler.


"Looks like," Chris answered.


"I'll feel better when that doctor comes.  He still looks too flushed for me."


"Could be the fire."


"Ain't the fire, Chris."


"I know."


Hoss walked over and touched the side of Ezra's face lightly.  The man didn't stir, which demonstrated the depth of his exhaustion.  Ezra was as skittish as a cornered animal most days, and normally he'd jerk awake at such a touch, but he obviously didn't really feel Hoss's fingers despite their coarseness.


"Yer right," the big man said, eyes meeting Vin's, "he's too warm.  Should probably be back in bed."


"I'll do it," Josiah said automatically, standing up, his joints creaking in protest.  Hoss opened his mouth to offer his help, but caught Chris's short shake of his head out of the corner of his eye. Backing off, he watched the preacher settled himself next to Ezra and very gently touched his arm and called his name, telling him to wake up.  The gambler muttered something unintelligible and turned his head away.


"Wasn't a request, son," Josiah replied, snaking his arm under Ezra's shoulders to lift him up.  "I'm not letting you sleep here."


A tiny smile creased Little Joe's face.  He understood now why folks could make the mistake of thinking the preacher was Ezra's father.


At almost the same moment, the sound of hooves racing up to the front door caused all heads to turn in that direction, and Ben's shoulders instantly relaxed like a deflated balloon.


"Finally," he muttered, marching to the door and swinging it wide, expecting Adam to walk up, followed closely by Sheriff Roy Coffey and Doctor Paul Martin.  Chris and Vin had also stood and turned to face the door, and Joe and Hoss flanked them unconsciously.  Ezra's brow furrowed in his sleep, and Josiah let him rest back against the couch, standing up as well.


Ben's back stiffened.  Before him, a grizzled old man with bright blue eyes smiled through gapped teeth, his thin horse moving about untied in the yard behind him, heading in the direction of the water trough.  The man carried a black gunbelt over his holster, which Ben glanced at, trying to pretend he didn't recognize it as he focused again on the man's face.


"Mistah Cartwright," the old man greeted.


"You're one of Slade's men," Ben stated, not needing to have actually seen the man to guess who he was.  "What do you want?"


"Name's Toby, sir, and I'm jes looking to deliver a message from my boss."  He scratched at his face, his expression thoughtful, as if trying to remember the whole thing before reciting it.  Pulling the gunbelt off his shoulder, he held it before him, for Ben to take.  "Slade wants you to know, first off, that if anything happens to me, you'll never see yer boy again.  Second...." he paused, in part because Ben had sucked in a sharp breath, and in part because five more bodies suddenly stood behind the tall white haired Cartwright, staring him down.  Toby grinned at them.  "Second," he continued, "we got yer boy.  Actually," he frowned, "that may've been the first point, and the other the second point, but you gets the idea."


Ben's hands shot forward, grabbing the gunbelt, knowing full well now it was Adam's.  He also saw the dried blood scratched into it from a knife edge.  Dropping it to the ground, he grabbed the lapels of Toby's faded corduroy jacket, fingers turning white in the fabric.  "Where is he!  What have you done with him!  If that's his blood…."  He didn't finish his threat, his throat having constricted too much from anger.  Joe knelt, picking up the gunbelt, seeing the same thing his father had.


Toby's massive eyebrows lifted, and he looked down at Ben's grip. "You best be lettin' me go, mister," he said quietly.  "Remember point one, now."


"Pa...." Hoss grabbed on of Ben's arms, putting pressure on it, until his father let go of Toby's coat.  If anything, it only made Ben angrier.  Hoss looked at Toby,  "You'd best back off a step, mister."


Toby did just that, but his smug expression didn't waver.


"Where is my son?" Ben commanded again, as if Toby would actually answer the question.


"He's alive, mister, if that's what yer askin', and, if not, then tough, 'cause that's all I'm tellin'.  Now, here's the way this is happenin'.  You want yer son back an' still in one piece, then all of yous are to be at a certain place at dawn."


"What place?"


"A meadow, looks like one you probably use fer pasture, about five miles south o' the main north road.  There's a stream running down one side and a sort of damp brook running across the middle of it—makes it real boggy.  Then there's a hedgerow on the other side from the stream, and trees borderin' it on the west side.  And, right smack dab in the middle's a big, gnarly old cedar tree that look like it don't belong.  Sound familiar?"


"Yes," Ben hissed.  The cedar tree was the distinguishing factor—he knew it because he'd planted it there for Joe's mother on their second anniversary. 


"Good.  Then you meet us there, at dawn, all of yous, unarmed, and bring them deeds.  We'll give you yer son, and you give us the deeds, the gambler an' him."  He pointed to Josiah, who frowned in response.  "Then the rest of you goes free.   Understand?"


A tiny crease in Ben's forehead, and he turned to look at Chris.


"We'll be there," the black-clad gunslinger stated, never taking his eyes off Toby.  The old man managed to meet them for a moment before shifting away—they made him too uncomfortable.


"Right then," Toby gave a nod and backed up a step, as if to turn.  Then he stopped, as if remembering something else, "Oh, and if you try followin' me, or headin' off to get yer sheriff, then we'll know.  We's got men staking this place, and they'll watch all night.  Get me?"


"We got you," Chris replied coldly.


Toby smiled at that, gave them all a nod, and turned towards his horse, a sharp whistle bringing it trotting over. Vaulting into the saddle, the old man tipped his hat at the men still gathered in the door, then took off at a gallop down the road.



Chapter Ten


Ben turned to Chris, his face inscrutable. "Mr. Larabee," he rumbled, "even if I were to agree to such a barbaric trade, which I would not, you just got through telling us that we don't have those deeds.  How…."


"I'll think of something," Chris replied plainly, turning on his heel and heading back inside.  He glanced at Ezra on the couch.  The gambler's green eyes were open and watching him, fully awake again—he'd heard the whole thing. 


Ben's jaw snapped shut, then opened again once he had some control back, "Mr. Larabee.  That is my son out there that those men have!  Men that you brought here!"  He followed Chris inside, to where the gunslinger was now pouring himself a drink from the brandy bottle on the sideboard.  Ben slammed his hand on the wood, shaking the remaining glasses on the sideboard, but Chris showed no reaction.  "And you're telling me that you'll think of something?  What the hell does that mean?!"


"It means he'll think of something," Vin replied coolly.


"Oh, don't you be flippant with me, boy!" Ben shouted, eyes boring into Vin.  The tracker didn't flinch.  "They have my son!" 


Chris shut his eyes.  Truth was, he knew exactly how Ben felt, and he also knew how much the Cartwrights wanted to do exactly as Toby had said—turn them over.  Unfortunately, he also knew that they wouldn't do it.  He knew that because he knew Ben Cartwright was made of the same stuff he was.  They couldn't do it any more than he could give his father-in-law up to the Nichols Family, or Smith and his men when they had that band of Mexican bandits after him, or any other time someone had brought trouble to Four Corners and needed protection. 


"Well, Mr. Larabee?"  Ben charged, still waiting.  Chris's eyes opened again, and he took a sip of the brandy.


"Chris," Ezra spoke up softly from where he was still sitting on the couch. 


The black-clad gunslinger turned, looking down at the gambler over his shoulder.


Ezra ran his right hand through his thick hair, "I can make them.  Forge them.  Nine deeds.  If he doesn't look too closely...." he trailed off.


Chris frowned, not because he didn't appreciate the idea, but because he wasn't sure yet how it could help.


"Forge them?" Ben asked.  Ezra eyed him, and smiled crookedly.


"Wouldn't be my first time, Mr. Cartwright."


At the slight narrowing of Ben's eyes, Vin coughed.  "Um, see, Ezra, he's…."


"Yes," Ben interrupted coldly, cutting him off, no smile on his face, "I'm beginning to understand what your Ezra is."


"Look, um, sayin' he could make 'em deeds, how does that help, exactly?" Hoss asked, echoing Chris's earlier thoughts.  "No offense, Mr. Standish."


Ezra shook his head, "None taken, Mr. Cartwright."


"We've used a fake deed to our advantage before," Vin mulled, sitting on the arm of the chair where Josiah had been, "with that wagon train when they kidnapped Charlotte…."


"As a distraction, you mean," Chris said, "so you and Ez could sneak round back and pull her out.  But this time, Slade wants us all together, where he can see us.  Don't see how that helps."


"Well, it's something," Ben hissed, staring at Ezra.  "There's paper in the drawer of my desk, boy, and stylos."


Ezra nodded, pushing himself up off the couch.  For a moment, the gambler's vision blackened, his right hand gripping the arm of the couch to anchor himself.  When his vision came back, he felt more than just the couch under his right fingers—he felt Josiah's strong arm around his back holding him up.


"He ain't well enough, Chris," Josiah's voice hissed near his ear.  Ezra pushed the preacher off, and, with a nod to Ben, walked over to the desk and sat down in the large leather chair.  Josiah trailed behind, not hiding the concern on his face.


"Drawer on the right," Ben informed him.  Ezra nodded, pulling open the drawer and finding several sheets of thick, yellow paper. 


"Josiah," he whispered, pulling the paper out, "fold those into three, will you?  It's easier if you have two good hands." He looked up at the others, "any of you know how to calligraphy?"


"I can, of course," Josiah said.  Ezra nodded at him, then looked at the others.  They all shook their heads no.  Ezra sighed, pulled the first paper Josiah had folded over and, dipping a stylo, started to write on the inside: By these men presents, on this, the fifteenth day of June, eighteen hundred and sixty six, the Grantor does hereby grant, warrant, pledge, enfeoff, sell, convey to the Grantee that certain plot and parcel of land….


"When I'm done with this one, Josiah," Ezra said, not looking up from his work as he began making up a legal description, "You can finish it off for me.  I'll show you how." 


"Mr. Cartwright," Chris said, drawing everyone's attention but Ezra's, "can I ask you something?"  There was something odd in his tone that had Vin standing up and Josiah turning to watch the leader curiously.  They could hear it—Chris had an idea.  Ezra blew on the paper to dry the inking he'd done so far, and looked up.


Ben shrugged, "About what?"


"We stopped at a line shack on a ridge not more than ten miles inside your property line.  It had the number 26 tacked on it.  Do you know it?"


"Of course we know it," Ben frowned.  "Why?"


"Are there any weapons stashed inside it?"


"Weapons?  There's a rifle in a box under the cot, yes.  Not loaded, but it's there and there's ammunition with it.  Again, why?"


Chris looked at Ezra, who nodded in response to the look and returned to his forgery, then looked back at Ben.  Chris smiled.


"Because I've thought of something."



Continued in Part Four