The sun was just clearing the horizon as they reached the meadow, the shadows still deep along the hedgerow on one side, and the gnarled tree looked black and cold. The morning chill still clung to everything, causing more than just Ezra to shiver inside their jackets, though the gambler's lips had bluish tinge the others didn't have, almost as dark as the shadows under his eyes. The deeds had taken him the entire night, Josiah's help notwithstanding,
Chris, Vin and Josiah rode unusually close to him, and Chaucer was not pleased. The chestnut bared his teeth a few times and even tried to take a nip at Solon, which was always a bad idea. The big black didn't bother to nip back; Chris's horse just turned it's head, rolling a large eye at the chestnut as if in disgust...and possibly warning...before turning forward again.
Chaucer only tried to nip at
The earth was wet, and the horse's hooves squelched as they walked across to the center of the meadow, bits of morning fog swirling around their legs as it waited to be burned off. The horsemen formed a rough circle, their horses stamping the ground, as each turned to scan a different direction.
As expected, they caught glimpses of at least two men shadowing them from behind cover, ready to pick them off if need be.
Only a few minutes passed by before the sound of more hooves squelching in the muddy earth could be heard, and everyone turned to the far side of the meadow, to watch as four horses separated from the shadows of the treeline to greet them.
One of which was Sport, with Adam on his back.
Ben sucked in a harsh breath, seeing the way his son slumped in the saddle, his hands obviously bound behind his back. His son's head was down, meaning he couldn't see Adam's face beneath his black hat, which only worried him further.
Toby pulled at Sport's reins, pulling Adam behind him as Slade and another man walked their horses towards them with deliberate slowness.
"Mr. Cartwright," Slade nodded, "Nice of you to come."
"Adam?" Ben purposefully ignored Slade, his eyes only for his son. When Adam didn't raise his head, he repeated the name louder.
Toby nudged Adam's leg. "Answer him, slick," he ordered.
Ben sent an acid glare towards the scout for daring to touch his boy, which Toby ignored. Next to his father, Hoss grimaced slightly at the phrase "slick," hoping Adam's sharp tongue hadn't gotten him in too much trouble. Clenching his jaw, the younger brother watched as, slowly, Adam sighed and lifted his head.
"Holy hell," Joe whispered from Ben's other side, either not caring or not noticing the cuss.
Blood and bruising showed vividly down the right side of Adam's face, his right eye partly shut as a result. He appeared disoriented as he blinked a few times, as if trying to get his bearings, until they finally focused on his family just a few feet away. The lips parted, but he didn't say anything. After a moment, the eyes closed again and Adam's head drooped again, his whole body slumping forward more with the movement.
"Adam!" Ben kneed his horse forward, then pulled up as the man to Slade's left lifted his rifle to stop him. He glared at the stranger, "I need to see that he's all right!"
"He's alive," Slade spat, causing Ben to refocus his glare. "That's all you need to know for now."
"Like hell it is," Ben hissed.
"Listen, old man, you know what we want. Give us the gambler, his old man and them deeds, and you get your boy back." Slade turned his icy stare on Ezra, who sent a raised eyebrow back in response.
"We can't," Ben replied, his lips twisting into a scowl. "They don't have the deeds on them."
Slade flinched, his eyes narrowing to slits, "What?"
"He's telling you the truth, Slade," Chris stated, before Slade could respond more violently. "Ezra hid them in a line shack we came across when we first crossed into the Ponderosa. We knew you were close, and he thought it seemed," he glanced at Ezra, "efficacious at the time."
Slade stared at Chris. The gunslinger stared back. Finally, the deputy sheriff snorted.
"You think I'm that stupid, gunslinger? You think I'm going to fall for it twice? The gambler already pulled that one."
"They're in the shack, Slade," Ezra assured calmly. "Let Adam go, and I'll take you to them."
"I ain't listening to you, chiseler," Slade snarled. "Think I don't know a con when I hear one?"
Ezra frowned, "It's not a con, Slade. Search us, if you don't believe me."
Slade met his eyes for a few moments longer, then looked again at Ben Cartwright. "You want your son to die, is that it?"
"Of course not," Ben snapped. "Don't you think that, if I had them to give, I would? I don't gamble with my boys lives, Slade. If you know anything about me at all, you'll know that's true!"
Slade just frowned at him, trying to read his expression.
"Boss?" Nash glanced askance at Slade, "It's easy to verify. Can't we just check the shack?"
Slade darted a glance at Nash, then back at Ben, "They're trying to pull something, Nash."
"What can they pull?" Nash persisted, "We're the only ones with guns."
Slade's eyes narrowed again, and suddenly he swore. He raised his gun, pointing it at Ezra's head, causing the gambler to sit up straighter.
"Take off that jacket," he commanded, "and show me yer arms!"
Ezra's jaw tensed, but he obliged, pulling the red jacket off. Lying it on the saddle in front of him, he showed that his right arm had nothing on it.
"And the left," Slade ordered.
A slightly twitch of Ezra's eyes, but he reached up with his right to untie the knot for the sling his left sat in. The arm fell loosely down in front of his embroidered waistcoat, and he winced as he pulled the sling's fabric the rest of the way off.
"Satisfied?" he asked. Slade sighed, his jaw still clenched. He knew what Ezra meant. There was no derringer rig—which was what
Slade had been looking for. It was what
had helped Ezra escape the first time, back in
"Can I put the sling and coat back on?" Ezra asked quietly, arching an eyebrow.
Slade didn't answer, turning back to Ben. "Damn it, what the hell are you trying to pull, Cartwright?"
Ben heaved a deep breath. "I just want my son," he said, his anger more subdued now. "Please."
Slade watched him a moment longer, then pursed his lips. Turning, he looked at Toby behind him.
"Push him off his horse," he ordered.
Ben's gasped "No!" did nothing to stop the scout, as Toby reached over and kicked Adam's left foot out of the stirrup, then gave him a strong shove, sending Adam to the ground. Ben jumped down off his horse, intending to run to his son, stopping only when Nash's rifle barrel got stuck in his face. Breathing hard, the Cartwright patriarch sent daggers at the dark haired Nash.
Adam groaned, trying to push himself up off the wet ground with his bound arms, then he apparently gave up, ending up lying slightly curled on his side, his hat several feet away. He didn't make another sound after that, his hot forehead resting on the cool earth, eyes closed.
"Listen to me, Cartwright," Slade stated, "And listen good. You got two healthy boys there. I kill this one," he pulled the hammer back on his gun and backed his horse up to point it down at Adam, "and looks to me that I still got two to threaten you with."
"I'm not lying, Slade," Ben hissed, not taking his eyes from Slade's face. "They don't have the deeds on them."
Slade stared at him unblinking, watching the nerves dance across Ben's face. He looked up, seeing the looks exchanged between the other two Cartwright brothers, and the looks they gave the other four men with them. They gave the appearance of men hiding something, even if their father's expression didn't.
The gun shifted in his hand.
"We'll see," Slade hissed, he looked down at Adam…and fired.
Ben's agonized yell was echoed by both Joe and Hoss as Adam was jolted awake with a scream, curling towards his leg where the bullet hit. The limbs pumped, but he couldn't get away from the pain, and his bound hands prevented his trying to suppress it. Ezra turned worried eyes to look at Chris, but the gunslinger showed nothing except a parted lip at the act. Josiah slammed a hand on Joe's chest, stopping the boy form charging his horse forward to Adam's side, while Hoss gripped his hands into fists so tight, his knuckles turned white and the veins in his neck looked ready to burst. Vin took a deep breath, his right arm partly out of sight…fighting the overwhelming desire to engage Ezra's derringer rig strapped to it. He nearly did so when Slade first pointed his gun at the helpless man on the ground. If he hadn't been able to tell that Slade was going to aim for Adam's leg only, he would have given away one of their only two surprises.
Slade smiled, turning the gun on Ben. He found humorless black eyes fixed on him—a frightening coldness there that hadn't been present before. Slade didn't care, determined to show he was the one in control here.
"Still swear they don't have them deeds on them?" he challenged.
Ben took a deep breath. "By God, Slade! I swear by everything I am that they do not have those deeds on them. Now let me see my son!"
Slade nodded, tilting the gun back and putting it back in its holster. Ben was by Adam's side instantly, checking the shot to the leg, thankful to see the bullet had gone straight through, then checking the side of Adam's face. His son groaned, the pain in his face clear as he tried to understand what had just happened. Ben shifted then to kneel by his side, pulling Adam's head up on his lap, and looked up at Slade atop his horse next to him.
"Why?" he demanded hoarsely. "Why did you have to shoot him?"
"First, to remind you who is in charge here," Slade replied coldly. "Second, to keep you honest." He looked at the rest of the men gathered, then looked past them.
"Mark! Orrie! Come out here!"
Vin, Josiah, Joe and Hoss turned, watching as the two men who had been hidden emerged from their cover to slowly walk into the meadow, rifles still held high. Ezra and Chris didn't take their eyes off of Toby, Nash and Slade. Slade smiled at the gambler as he waited for Orrie and Mark to get closer.
"All right," the deputy sheriff ordered, "all of you except Standish…." Slade paused, looking first to Hoss and then to Joe, "and you, boy, which are you?"
"And Joe, get off your horses. That includes you, gunslinger, and the tracker there." Slade eyed Chris and Vin, who, still expressionless, dismounted without looking away from Slade's face. "Now send 'em horses away," Slade ordered.
Except for Ezra and Joe, still mounted, the others did as they were told, hitting the rumps of their horses and sending them off. None of them actually went very far, so Orrie sent a couple of shots in their direction, sending them running further, until they were around the edge of the hedgerow and out of sight.
Chris looked back at Slade, "Now what?"
"Now, me, Standish, Joe and Toby here are going to find that cabin. The rest of you are staying here." He looked down at Ben, who had pulled the green kerchief from his neck, intending to create a tourniquet. He pulled the hammer back, and Ben looked up, confused.
"Don't wrap it," Slade ordered.
"What?" Ben said. "Are you mad?"
"You can wrap it when we get back. Until then, let it bleed."
"The sooner we get back, the better off he'll be," Slade shifted his gaze to Joe and Ezra, "You get my meaning? Any funny business, any more attempts to stall, and slick there will die of blood loss before we get back. Understand? I want this done as fast as possible, and, if you care for him at all, your only option is to move even faster than that. Get me?"
Ezra gave a short nod, while Joe ground out a frustrated "yes."
"Good to hear. Nash, Mark," Slade turned to the third man now behind him, "Orrie…you got guard duty over these men. Any of them so much as twitches, shoot them. And don't let Cartwright bind his son's wound, you hear me?"
"Sure boss," Nash said, his voice not quite as firm as Slade's. Orrie looked away, not meeting Slade's eyes, while Mark didn't respond at all. The deputy grimaced at them, but didn't push. Wheeling his horse around, Slade fixed on Little Joe.
"You know where the cabin is?"
"Then you lead. Let's go."
Joe took a breath, met his father's and Hoss's eyes one last time, saw his father give him a nod, then turned Cochise around and kicked the paint hard, sending him into a gallop. Slade took off right behind, followed by Ezra and then Toby. In moments, they were gone, headed back up towards the ridge at a fast pace.
Ezra's red coat floated down to the ground from where it had slipped off Chaucer's saddle, landing in the mud. The gambler never did get a chance to put it back on after he reset his arm in the sling.
Nash dismounted, sending his own horse off to one side, and he, Orrie and Mark took up roughly triangular positions around the men they guarded. Hoss's fists were still white as he glared at all of them, a bit like a caged bear watching his captors, and Josiah's expression wasn't much calmer where he stared off in the direction Joe and Ezra had gone. Chris and Vin had gone stone cold—nothing in their faces at all. As he met their shuttered eyes, Hoss found that a little disconcerting. Not even Adam could close himself off that much. Heaving a sigh in an attempt to calm down, the big man took another look over to where Ben was cradling his eldest son.
Ben pulled his son's head towards him, wanting to get a
better look at the damage to it. Probing
it a little, he stopped when Adam gave an annoyed grunt followed by a peevish:
Brown eyes blinked up at him, shining with his son's usual intelligence.
Ben blew the air out of his cheeks, suppressing the urge to laugh for joy. Adam's vagueness from earlier had really scared him. It shocked him to think that, possibly, the gunshot wound had woken him up. "Son…you hurt anywhere else that I can't see?"
"Just bruises," Adam grimaced, pain shooting down his leg for a moment like a hot poker, before it seemed to numb again. "Is it bad?" he asked. Ben sighed, knowing his son meant the gunshot wound.
"It'll heal, if we get you to a doctor."
Adam winced again, riding another wave of pain, then settled. "Pa…."
"Hush, my boy, it'll be all right."
Leaning back a little, Ben saw the bound hands, and he looked over at Nash. "Can you at least cut his bonds?" At Nash's frown, Ben licked his lips, "Look at him. What possible danger is he? He's not going anywhere. Please!"
Nash looked at him, then over at Mark and Orrie. Mark shrugged, while Orrie grimaced. With a sigh, the dark haired Nash pulled a knife from a sheath on his thigh and crossed over, kneeling next to Ben. Within a few moment, he cut the ropes binding Adam's wrists.
"Thank you," Ben said, smiling a little. The other man only grunted in reply.
Orrie walked up behind them, and Nash looked over his shoulder.
Orrie didn't answer. Instead, he pulled off the red bandana around his neck. Not looking at Nash, he handed it to Ben.
"Bind his leg."
"What!" Nash erupted, standing up. "Slade specifically said…."
"That was for the benefit of the two that went with 'em," Orrie replied coolly. "Doesn't matter to us. Bleeding out's a horrible way to die, Nash." He looked down at Ben, who still hadn't taken the bandana. "Take it. Just promise me you'll remove it when Slade gets back."
Nash fumed, but he didn't interfere as Ben gave a grateful nod and snatched the bandana, not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Quickly, he added his own green bandana to the makeshift bandage, tightening it around the wound in Adam's leg to try and stop the bleeding.
In the background, no one saw Vin put his hands behind his back, or the tiny shake of the tracker's right arm as he took advantage of the distraction to engage the derringer.
Orrie backed off, heading back to where he stood before, not far from Chris and Hoss. Mark stayed near Josiah and Vin. Nash stared at Ben and Adam a moment longer, then tapped his rifle on the older Cartwright's shoulder.
"Okay, that's enough. Go stand with the others. Your boy's not going anywhere, as you said."
Ben frowned, reluctant to leave his son, but, after a moment, he nodded. Leaning over, he whispered something to Adam, then eased him back to the ground. Adam rolled back on his side, partly on his back, his eyes closed again as his forehead once more rested against the cold earth. Ben moved around, still on his knees, heedless of the muck coating his trousers, and leaned over his son as if to check him one more time.
"It's his son," Chris said suddenly, lifting his chin. "Let him stay with him."
Nash's turned to glare at the gunslinger, "I want you all standing in one place where I can see you, and that includes him, father or no."
Chris sneered, "What's he going to do? With his son on the ground, he's as helpless as his boy while he stays down there."
Nash's eyes narrowed, and Orrie stepped forward, nudging Chris hard in the ribs, sending him a step forward. Chris turned a strangely amused glance at the outlaw
"You best stay out of this, gunslinger," Orrie warned.
"Name's Larabee," Chris hissed, "and I'm getting a little tired of that 'gunslinger' crap." He looked back at Nash.
"Like I care, gunslinger," the dark haired outlaw snarled. Turning, Nash looked back at Ben, frowning to see him leaning over to whisper to his son again.
"Damn it, that's enough!" Nash snapped, shoving Ben with the rifle barrel. "I said move!" Ben glared up at him, sighed, patted Adam on the arm, and stood up.
With one more look, Ben sighed and turned, heading towards the others. He came to a stop near Chris and gave the gunslinger a sidelong glance and a small, firm nod. Chris didn't respond, just pursed his lips and looked at the ground.
Nash followed him over, putting his back to Adam, then turned his head to peer off into the distance to where Slade had disappeared to.
"How long will it take for them to get to that cabin and back?" he asked, turning to look at Hoss.
The middle Cartwright brother grimaced, then shrugged. "At a gallop? I don't know, couple o' hours or so, I reckon. Not sure the gambler's gonna be able to keep at a gallop though."
"He will," Josiah sighed. "He won't slow down unless the others do, not when he knows what's at stake."
Hoss frowned at that and walked a little bit further out from the group in the direction of the ridge. The three outlaws eyes followed him, but didn't yell at him to stop…yet. After a moment, Hoss stopped of his own volition, sighed, and looked back at Nash. He frowned some more as he glanced at Mark and Orrie. All three were watching him like hawks.
Secretly he exulted—now he just had to keep their attention. Doing his best to keep his expression cool, he put his hands behind his back and looked up at the sky. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Vin moving slightly into position closer to Mark.
"Look, can I ask you all somethin'?" he asked, looking again at the three outlaws. Nash's eyes narrowed.
"Well, not to sound stupid or nothin', but, what if,
when they get them deeds, Slade and that scout of his just ride off? Back to
Nash frowned, "What're you on about?"
"What's to stop them from running? Leaving you holding the bag?"
Nash rested his rifle on his shoulder, "Because Slade's not like that." A grunt of assent came from Mark, and Orrie looked down at his feet.
"Look, he won't…he can't. Not while we have the preacher with us."
Josiah's eyebrows lifted, and he moved forward to be more in the line of sight of the three men. "Me?"
Nash looked at him, "Slade's got to bring you and the gambler back. Dead or alive, you get me? To make it legit."
"Legit," Josiah chuckled, walking over next to Hoss. His back to the three outlaws, he looked around at the fields open before him, "By that, I suppose you mean legitimate. Legal." He snorted, "The irony is almost comical." Hoss turned to look at Josiah's profile…in part because he didn't trust himself to not give away what was happening behind Nash.
Nash frowned, "No funnin', preacher. Turn around."
Josiah turned, giving Nash a sarcastic eye. "Why? Don't feel like shooting me in the back?"
"No one's going to die here today," Orrie said sharply. "Not if you all do as your told."
"Ha," Josiah sneered, turning away again.
"I said, turn around!" Nash shouted, lowering the rifle into his hands.
Josiah purposefully ignored him.
Nash pulled back the hammer, "I said….urk!"
Mark and Orrie whipped their heads around at the strange sound, and everyone stopped.
"Drop your weapons," Adam hissed to the other two outlaws. He had one arm wrapped around Nash's chest, and the other held a knife to the man's throat. "Now."
Ben had slipped his son the knife hidden up his sleeve while Chris distracted Nash, whispering in Adam's ear, asking if he felt strong enough to help. His son had nodded—nothing kept a Cartwright down for long when his family was in danger. Then, while Nash, Mark and Orrie were watching Hoss and Josiah, Adam had pushed himself upright, balancing on one leg. He almost hadn't made it, giving himself away by falling back onto the wet earth, but sheer determination kept him moving. He practically fell on Nash's back, the knife pressing deeply into the man's neck. Nash was afraid to move, feeling how much of Adam's weight he was carrying, worried any slight shift on his part could result in his esophagus being sliced open.
Mark glanced at Orrie, as if trying to decide if they should let Nash fall or not, but found Orrie obviously as unsure as he was as the other man tried to read the eldest Cartwright boy's face. Mark's fingers tightened around the stock of his rifle, and he was about to test Adam's resolve when he heard a different, calmer voice behind him.
"Do as the man says," Vin warned, pulling back the hammer on the tiny derringer in his right hand now pointed at Mark's head, "or you'll see how big a hole this tiny little gun can make in your head."
Mark's eyes widened. He dropped the rifle as if it were a rattler.
Vin switched his aim to Orrie, who was now staring openly at him in surprise, and raised his eyebrows. "Well? I don't want to kill you mister, not after the nice thing you did."
Orrie sighed, but he put his rifle down. Chris walked over and picked up the fallen weapon, then walked over and picked up Mark's, tossing that one to Josiah. Hoss had walked over and pulled Nash's from his loose fingers.
"Okay Adam," Ben said, coming up behind his eldest son who was still hanging on Nash's shoulders, "Let go."
Adam closed his eyes and stepped back, his hand falling away from Nash's neck. At least he had meant to step back—fact was, Nash was holding him up. His full weight was far too much for his leg, and he fell, landing neatly in his father's arms. Ben smiled as Adam chuckled, allowing his father to sit him down again.
"That was fun," Adam hissed through clenched teeth. "We should make this a weekly event."
Ben smiled, then looked up as Chris took control like he was born to it.
"On your knees!" Chris ordered, and all three outlaws immediately went down, "And hands on your heads. I see you reach for anything, and you'll see what it really means to bleed out." Behind him, Vin ran for the horses, whistling sharply to get their attention. He knew they wouldn't have gone far, and, in fact, Solon was leading them all back around the hedgerow even before he reached it. Grabbing the rope off of Peso and Solon's saddles, he tossed one to Hoss, and they made quick work of tying up the three outlaws. Josiah grabbed Solon's reins and pulled him forward to where they were all standing, and the other horses naturally followed behind.
When Hoss had finished tying Mark, he walked over to check on Adam, kneeling down in front of him. His "big" brother gave him a weak smile back. Hoss sent a thank you heavenwards for small favors.
"Hoss," Chris said, getting the big man's attention. "You and Josiah stay here, guard these outlaws. Ben, you should get your son to a doctor. Vin and I'll…."
"No," Ben stood up, "I'm coming with you."
"There's no need," Chris replied, "We can take care of…."
"They've got Joseph still. I'm coming with you."
Chris sighed, "That's all well and good, Mr. Cartwright, but Adam…."
"I'll be fine for a few hours, now that my leg's bound" Adam stated, not about to be spoken about in the third person while he was awake. "Go, Pa," he looked up at Ben, "get our boy back."
Chris opened his mouth to argue again, but Ben simply ignored him and walked across to his buckskin, pulling out the gun hidden under the saddle. Turning back to Chris, he arched an eyebrow.
Chris gave a half smile, shook his head in amazement and jogged over to Solon.
Josiah grimaced, wanting to go as well, but aware that he wasn't well enough to keep up with them. So, instead, he just patted Vin on the shoulder as the tracker walked past.
Vin smiled at him reassuringly, promising in that smile to bring Ezra back in one piece, then jogged and jumped up on Peso's back in one smooth motion, turning the black horse around. Ben was mounted by then as well, and he wheeled his horse around to meet Chris and Vin's eyes.
"Despite Slade's threat, Joe will still take them by the longer route, as we planned. You follow me, and I'll show you the shortcut. We should only be behind them by ten minutes or so by the time they reach the cabin."
"Then after you, Mr. Cartwright," Chris grinned.