"C'mon, boy!…you can do it…."
"Move! Gie up there, horse!"
The four horses were driven up the mountain side without a break, the paint pony in the lead setting the rough pace as its owner pushed the poor animal to its limits. The horses labored to move as fast as their riders wanted, muscles straining, hooves grabbing at the dirt and gravel as they pulled themselves and their riders up towards the ridgeline. The horsemen sweated and swore even as they encouraged their mounts, winding around rocks and trusting the animals not to slip on the loose rocks hidden inside the grass and mud.
It was hard work, constantly keeping them moving, constantly trying to keep your balance, constantly on the look out for holes and pitfalls. Joe rode in front, never letting up the hard pace he had set, and was probably the most vocal of the bunch as he encouraged Cochise to hurry. Slade rode behind, his expression a tense grimace, knowing that he had encouraged the speed the Cartwright boy was pressing, but regretting the work-out it now entailed. Ezra was third, surprisingly the only one the four not wasting his breath on words—only his harsh, shallow gasps for air betrayed him. Each jarring step Chaucer took caused more and more blood to seep into the white bandage encasing Ezra's shoulder, seeping through to leave specks on the fabric of the sling.
Finally, in last place, Toby was probably the only one not concerned with the difficulty of the drive. If anything, he appeared to be enjoying it.
Joe knew he was not focused. He knew, because he couldn't stop seeing Adam's face, seeing the vivid bruising and the dried, caked blood down one side and his brother's eyes lifeless beneath the heavy lids. The image wouldn't go away, no matter how hard he tried, like sunspots marring his vision. He wanted to stick to the plan—such a simple plan, divide and conquer—but how could he when every time he tried to think about how he and Ezra could turn the tables on Slade and Toby, Adam's scream from the gunshot pierced the rational side of him like paper, showing how truly flimsy it was.
He wasn't meant to be rational. It just wasn't in him to think clearly when his family was in pain.
And he was so damn angry.
Fury boiled inside him, getting hotter with each second of this hard ride. He was furious at these men, invading his home and stealing his brother from him. He was angry at Larabee and Standish for bringing them here. He was angry at himself for accepting his father's nod and not taking the shorter route, but climbing up this, the longer way, because that was the plan. What if they hadn't gotten the better of Slade's men left behind? What if, when he got back, Adam was dead? God, what if they were all dead? And if he'd just taken the shorter route, he might have prevented….
Oh God…Adam…I'm so sorry….
They crested the hill, and found themselves looking down on a logging road on the far side.
Joe pulled up short, knowing he had to give the horses a moment to rest even if he didn't want to. Slade pulled up alongside, and Joe watched him out of the corner of his eye. Turning to see the deputy sheriff more clearly, he smiled some at seeing the sweat dripping off the man's tired face and the harsh breathing.
Slade wiped the wet off the top of his lip with his arm, and his eyes snapped to Joe.
"We…" The word came out as a croak, and Slade swallowed, removing the dryness from his throat, before trying again. "We takin' that road?"
"Yeah," Joe said. "Take us straight there."
"G'wan then. Let's go."
"To hell with the horses. Move!"
Taking a deep breath to stop himself from talking back, Joe spared one glance at Ezra, who had pulled up on his other side, then spurred his paint down the hill.
In that one glance at the gambler, the anger dissipated, replaced by fear. Ezra was so pale—he looked like a dead man who just didn't know it yet.
Come on, Joe, focus!
Below them in the valley still, following a steadier climb which allowed the horses to move faster, three men galloped without any other concern except speed. Two men raced to save their friend and brother, and one raced to save his son.
The shack came into view as they rounded the last corner,
looking much the same as when the men
Slade's eyes narrowed, seeing only the open door, and the deeds he hoped were hidden within.
Ezra didn't see much of anything. He was trying to focus on not throwing up.
Toby grinned, riding past the others to look around, pulling up hard in front of the shack, eyes alert for possible danger. After a moment, the spry old man leapt off his horse and grabbed his rifle from the saddle. With a wave of his arm, he motioned the others forward, letting his horse wander towards the water trough on his own.
Joe couldn’t resist an arched eyebrow at the athletic old man. He hoped he was that "young" when he was Toby's age.
In moments, they were all lined up in front of the shack—Toby had backed up in order to keep them all in sight of the rifle.
"Off them horses," Slade ordered, pulling his gun out of his holster as Joe and Ezra both looked back at him for direction. With a nod, Joe got down and threw Cochise's reins over the post.
Ezra breathed out slowly, looking down at the ground so far away. Well, he thought wryly, I could always just fall off.
"Help 'im," Slade hissed, seeing the gambler's problem. Little Joe looked over at the gambler, saw the apologetic expression Ezra threw him, and smiled wryly in return. Walking over, he stood on Ezra's left hand side, ready to catch him if necessary.
It was necessary.
Ezra practically fell into Joe, and the younger man kept him upright with a grunt.
"Thanks," Ezra mumbled, pushing Joe away as soon as he had his feet under him. Joe didn't let himself get pushed, gripping Ezra's right arm a little more tightly than necessary.
"Can you do this?" Joe asked sharply. To Slade, it was a question about staying upright without aid, but to Ezra it meant something quite different. The gambler took a deep breath and wrenched his arm free, proving to Joe that he still had strength in it.
"Yes," Ezra replied quietly, his gaze steady, "We can do this."
Joe lowered his eyes, obviously not as certain, and turned his attention back to Slade. Ezra took a few steps away from him in order to lean on the hitching post, his right hand gripping the wood behind him tightly for purchase.
Seeing Toby had them both in his sights, Slade dismounted, gun still in hand. He walked past Joe to lean against the hitching post to Ezra's left, smiling that same cruel smile he'd been sending the gambler ever since meeting up with him again.
"Now what?" Joe asked Slade, not liking the look the deputy was giving Ezra.
"Now me n' the gambler here are goin' inside that shack, where he's goin' to give me the deeds." Slade looked back at Joe, "You and Toby are staying out here." Slade glanced at Toby, "You know what to do if Cartwright here moves?"
Toby smiled, hefting the rifle to point squarely at Little Joe's chest and cocked the lever, "Shoot him?"
Joe rolled his eyes in return, crossing his arms. Ezra quirked a smile at the kid's reaction even as Slade replied:
Toby shrugged, "Then I reckon I know what to do iffin he moves."
Slade chuckled, and looked at Ezra. The gambler's eyes shifted to glance at him over his left shoulder, then shifted back to Joe, as if Slade wasn't worth the effort. The smile fell from Slade's face. Joe barely had time to shout a "no!" as the deputy's hand shot out to grab Ezra's left arm, wrenching him towards him by the hurt limb, earning an involuntary cry from Ezra's lips.
"Think yer better n' me, don't ya," Slade hissed at the hurt man. Ezra didn't answer—he was in too much pain.
"Slade!" Joe shouted, "Stop!"
Slade ignored him, wrenching Ezra's left arm again, causing another gasp from the smaller man. Ezra was half hunched now, and Slade gripped the arm harder, drawing him close.
"Say please, gambler," the deputy hissed in his ear. "Beg me to let you go."
Joe turned away, unable to watch any more. Still gasping for air, Ezra turned his head to look up at Slade from his bent position, his bloodshot eyes watering.
"Please," he whispered, "Let go."
The deputy threw his head back and laughed. Feeling sick at the sound, Joe once more shouted for Ezra to be let go, but it only caused the deputy to mock him at the same time. Finally, Slade twisted the gambler's left arm and threw Ezra to the ground, grinning in satisfaction as he curled up on his side in the dirt with his eyes screwed shut, trembling something fierce as his right arm cradled the left. Little Joe made to move forward to help him, but stopped as Toby quickly fired a warning over his head. Twisting, half crouched, Joe glared at the scout. Toby simply leveled the rifle at him again, cocking the lever again.
"Leave 'im be, boy," Toby hissed. "Gambler had it comin'."
Straightening, Joe gripped his hands into fists as he stared down at the scout for a few moments before clenching his jaw in frustration and turning his gaze back to Ezra and Slade.
The deputy was watching, amused, as Ezra struggled to stay conscious. The gambler was trying to ride through the pain as it continued to spark and flash to a point somewhere behind his eyelids.
"Get up gambler!" Slade needled, kicking Ezra in the legs, "or the boy's dead, hear?" He looked at Toby, "If Standish ain't on his feet in thirty seconds, shoot Cartwright."
"Sure thing, boss."
Ezra opened his eyes at that, still just trying to manage the hot pokers sliding back and forth through his left shoulder. Then the pale green irises lifted to focus on Slade standing over him—and narrowed in anger. The deputy tilted his head, waiting—gambler had a lot of grit, he'd give him that.
"Well?" Slade demanded.
Slowly, determinedly, Ezra got his right arm under him and pushed up, eyes tearing at the effort. The blood striping his bandage was starkly obvious now, as any healing that had occurred over the past few days was obviously ruined. Getting his legs under him, Ezra somehow made it back to his feet, and he lifted his chin in order to stare down at Slade even as his rebellious body continued to shake. The deputy sneered and lifted his gun. Using it as a pointer, he indicted Ezra lead. Without a word, the gambler turned and headed towards the shack at a tripping gait, his left arm still cradled firmly by his right as if it might fall off. Slade followed on his heels.
Behind them, Little Joe cocked an eyebrow at Toby, then crossed his arms as Ezra and Slade disappeared inside.
Divide and conquer…okay...they were divided….now he just had to wait for the right opportunity to conquer….
If Ezra lived that long.
He fought the urge to tap his foot. God, he hated this.
The sun filtered in through the slats of the walls, and Ezra glanced briefly to his right. The silver dollars still sat on the small windowsill where he'd left them, glittering in the light. Slade stopped in the doorway, leaning against the frame. He wanted to be able to see both Ezra and Joe, just in case. Still, his eyes followed the gambler as Ezra made his way to the cot on the far wall and then knelt down, reaching underneath for something with his right hand.
"Careful," Slade warned, his eyes narrowed. Ezra stopped moving, knowing Slade was warning him that he'd best not be pulling out a gun from under the cot. The gambler turned, looking at the deputy over his bad shoulder.
"It's a strongbox," he said softly. "The deeds are inside."
"Sure, but just so's you're aware, I see the flash of a muzzle, and I'm sending a bullet through your back, deeds or no."
Ezra snorted, "Well, I appreciate the candor."
Slade smirked, "No problem."
Facing away from Slade again, Ezra resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he bent down to see under the cot, trying to find the box he knew was supposed to be there. After a moment, the shadows separated from one another, and he saw the dark outline of a long rectangular box. Reaching under the cot again with his right hand, he found the lid…traced it with his fingers until he found the edge…and finally the leather handle pinned to the side. Grabbing it, he pulled, grunting at the weight of the object.
Slade just smiled, not about to help.
Ezra pulled harder, his face screwed up in pain as the box shifted slowly, then more quickly, across the rough wooden planks.
Several grunts later, he had managed to pull the dust covered box out completely. Panting some at the exertion, he wiped his good arm across his forehead, then fingered the padlock keeping the box closed. Blowing out through his cheeks, he struggled back up to his feet. Turning, he looked at Slade. With a sigh, he walked back towards the doorway.
Slade instantly held the gun up again, stopping Ezra's advance. "Where you think your goin'?"
Ezra cradled his bad left arm with the other, "I need the key."
Slade's eyebrows rose. "Key?"
The deputy frowned, "Well, how did you open it last time?"
"I picked it last time."
"Then pick it again."
"Last time, I was able to use both hands. I'm not as dexterous as I was, thanks to you." He patted his practically dead left arm to make the point, then looked over Slade's head. "The Cartwright's told me the key is hidden over the doorframe."
Slade didn't look up.
Nuts, Ezra sighed. So much for Option One.
Instead, Slade backed away from the door, more into the cabin, never lowering his aim. He kept his eyes on Ezra until the gambler was in the doorframe. Ezra took a quick peek out front, saw Toby was standing closer to Joe, maybe only a couple of feet away from the young man, but the rifle was still pointed at the Joe's chest. Joe had his arms crossed and was, probably unconsciously, tapping his foot. His eyes narrowed in question upon seeing Ezra, a hint of expectation in the look.
He obviously was having a hard time being patient—Ezra almost smiled.
Looking up, the gambler reached up with his right hand, feeling along the edge of the doorframe. It didn't take much to find the key. Grabbing it, he lowered his arm, showed the key to Slade, then turned and shuffled back to the strongbox.
Slade moved forward to stand in the doorway again.
Stiffly, Ezra got back onto his knees and inserted the key into the padlock.
Slade leaned over slightly, trying to see what Ezra was doing. With the gambler's back to him, he couldn't actually see what was in the box, it was too deep in shadow.
Ezra pulled the padlock off, tossing it on the cot, then, slowly, he lifted the lid.
The hunting rifle looked back at him, full of promise for salvation. He also saw a handful of knives, sheathed, other utensils, a branding iron, and, of course, a box of ammo.
Branding iron, eh?
He smiled wickedly at the thought.
Licking his lips, he breathed deeply and leaned more into the box, his right hand reaching into his waistcoat where the deeds were hidden. Pulling them out, he glanced at them—thankful to see the ink hadn't smeared—then moved in a way as to make it appear he was taking them out of the strongbox. As his right hand dipped inside with the deeds, he snatched up one of the knives and slid it inside his sling.
Closing the lid loosely, he turned, holding the deeds out with his right hand to Slade from his position still kneeling on the floor.
"Here," he said.
Slade's breath caught, as if, for a moment, he didn't believe the deeds were actually there. He took a couple of steps forward, then stopped. He frowned.
"Bring them to me."
"Oh come on," Ezra sighed, slumping against the cot next to the box. "What am I going to do? Throw the padlock at you? I can barely hold these." As if to prove his point, his right hand started to shake, causing the papers to flutter.
Slade pursed his lips, but it didn't take much for greed to overcome caution. He took another few steps forward, now completely out of view of the two men outside, and snatched the deeds with his left, his right still not lowering the gun he held. The aim, though, wavered. He glanced at the deeds, then at Ezra, then back at the deeds.
He wanted to count them, to make sure they were all there and that it wasn't some other kind of trick, but he couldn't do that and keep the gun trained.
It was torture for the deputy, wanting to put the gun down and fan out the papers and open the deeds up to see the writing inside, but knowing he couldn't. His eyes kept looking down at the deeds in his hand. They looked like deeds. Were there nine? He couldn't tell. Were they the right nine? He couldn’t tell that either, not while they were folded.
Ezra watched him, slowly pushing himself up off the floor, ignoring the sensation of sea-sickness he felt. As he did so, he silently reopened the strongbox lid with his foot, leaving the lid open and propped against the cot behind it, taking a chance that Slade's distraction would be powerful enough for the deputy not to notice. Once fully upright, his right hand cradled his left arm again, but this time, the right thumb ran across the edge of the knife he'd hidden. Sliding his hand inside the sling, he grasped the leather hilt, his trained eyes measuring the depth of Slade's shifting focus.
Slade finally succumbed, looking down at the deeds in his left hand and fanning them in order to count them.
Ezra turned slightly, putting the bandaged shoulder to Slade, and drew the knife out of the sling. Pressing his finger along the length, he shifted it to a throwing position.
Slade looked up again, and saw something in Ezra's eyes.
The deeds fell to the floor as Slade raised his right arm to shoot.
Ezra threw himself backwards and to the side, throwing the knife as Slade pulled the trigger.
The gunshot and Slade's agonized yell startled Toby, and he instinctively switched his aim towards the shack.
Joe leapt, grabbing the barrel in both hands, trying to wrench it from Toby's hands. The old man squealed, pulling the trigger and sending a bullet streaking towards the shack. It hit one of the tiny glass windows, shattering it, and another shout of pain was heard.
Slade screamed, his first shot slamming uselessly into the wooden wall, missing Ezra by a mile. The knife had slammed into the deputy's left arm first, ruining the man's aim, and the shot he fired went wild. Ezra landed hard on the solid cot behind him as the bullet hit the wall, his right hand landing on the padlock, but Slade was already bringing his right arm around again to fire....
The rifle shot shattered the window behind him, and Slade screamed as it pierced his right shoulder blade, lodging itself into the bone and shoving the deputy forward, closer to Ezra.
Grabbing the heavy padlock, Ezra threw it with all his might at Slade's gun hand. The deputy chocked on a third cry as the metal hit his arm halfway up the bone of his forearm, and the gun clattered to the floor from lifeless fingers. Slade was practically bent double now, pain radiating up and down both arms.
Almost falling off the cot in his haste, the gambler reached into the open strongbox for one last weapon….
Reaching down to the floor, Slade grabbed the gun he'd dropped with his left hand, pulling back the hammer as he twisted to shoot the gambler.
But this time, he was too slow.
His eyes widened to see Ezra standing over him like Archangel Michael, bringing the heavy metal branding iron down across his back like a cavalry sword.
Joe pulled and twisted, trying to get the rifle away, but Toby was worse than a cougar with its grip on its prey. The old man yelled and bit, kicked and jumped, refusing to let Joe get the better of him. Finally, Joe purposefully fell to the ground onto his back, bringing Toby and the rifle down on top of him. Using his legs, the youngest Cartwright kicked both feet up against Toby's midsection and pushed up, flipping the old man over….
But Toby still didn't let go of the rifle, using the momentum Joe gave him to almost pull it from Joe's hands. In fact, he succeeded in getting Joe to let go one hand, and the younger man had to spin quickly in order to keep his other grip firm as Toby again wrenched the rifle towards him, throwing Joe off balance.
Suddenly, Toby let go, sending Joe flying sideways into the dirt, rifle in hand. Before the youngest Cartwright could make sense of why, Toby had pulled his gun from his belt and was firing.
Little Joe didn't think, he just rolled, jumped to his feet and dove behind the water trough, cocking the lever of the rifle as he did so. Puffs of splintered wood and splashes of water flew over his head as Toby fired shot after shot in his direction.
"Can't hide from me, boy!" Toby shouted, backing rapidly over to his surprisingly calm horse, looking to grab the shotgun he had tied to the saddle once his bullets ran out, "I'm gonna git ya!"
Little Joe sucked the air in through his teeth, decided it was now or never, and took a chance. Rolling over, he popped up from behind his paltry cover to take a shot, aiming the rifle towards the crazy scout. Toby laughed as his prey showed its head, and aimed to fire his gun one last time as his other hand grasped the shotgun handle.
It was just the scout's bad luck that, not only was he out of bullets, but he didn't see the three horsemen bearing down on him like the horsemen of the apocalypse, guns raised and firing. The scout's thin horse took off like a bat out of hell as a hail of bullets finally woke the creature up, streaking into the woods and leaving his rider standing in the middle of the road grabbing at nothing.
If the old man heard the echo of the shots that ended his life, he gave no indication—he was still laughing even as he folded to the ground like a puppet whose strings have been cut, his revolver still clicking on an empty chamber as he did so.
Little Joe fell forward across the trough, shaking from the adrenaline, his hands falling into the water as he simply tried to remember how to breathe.
Ben was off his horse, running towards his son even before the buckskin had stopped moving.
Chris and Vin were almost as fast, off their horses and sprinting towards the cabin.
Vin slammed into the wall next to the door, while Chris sent some shots into the air from under the shattered window.
"Come out, Slade!" the black-clad gunslinger shouted.
Surprisingly, Ezra's weak chuckle floated back to them. "He…he can't."
Vin's eyebrows shot up, and he ducked inside, followed closely by Chris. They stopped on the threshold, trying to make sense of the scene in front of them.
"About time," Ezra chastised feebly, staring up at the two of them with a wry smile on his face. He was sitting on the floor slumped next to the open strongbox, his eyes clearly dazed where he still gripped a branding iron in his right hand.
Several feet from the gambler, Slade lay on the floor on his side, unconscious, the fake deeds scattered all around him. A knife was embedded in one arm, but not deeply. A gunshot wound was sluggishly bleeding out from his shoulder, and his right arm was sporting a livid red bruise. And across his back, a thick black line marked the man's tan coat where something long and hard had driven him to the ground.
Vin jumped lithely over Slade's body and over to Ezra, getting his arm under the gambler's and helping him up off the floor and onto the cot to sit. Carefully avoiding the puddle forming from the gunshot, Chris knelt by Slade, checking for a pulse just in case. As soon as he was sure there wasn't one, the gunslinger's eyes looked over at Ezra.
"You hit him with that?" he asked, indicating the iron.
Ezra smiled more broadly and looked down at the black metal rod. "Mr. Slade has been marked by the Mark of Cain…or rather," he held up the iron, showing the pine tree brand at the end of it, "the mark of Cartwright." He gave another chuckle, slumping a little more into Vin sitting next to him—the tracker was still holding him under both arms, trying to keep him upright.
Chris shook his head with a smile, "Cute, Ezra," he looked down at Slade again, peering at the gunshot wound. "So how did you manage to shoot him in the back?"
Ezra blinked back, "Oh that? I didn't."
"Come on, Ez," Vin tried not to laugh, at the gambler's innocent expression, "If you didn't shoot him....?"
"Came in through the window," Ezra explained, smiling still. "Can you imagine? One split second later and I—" Suddenly, his whole face winced, choking off whatever he'd been about to say. The branding iron slipped from his fingers to clatter to the floor. "Ow…." he breathed, exhaling all at once, his green eyes losing all focus.
Time seemed to stop for Chris as the gambler's eyelids drifted close with a strange sort of finality, and a coldness washed over the gunslinger's soul. Vin made to grab Ezra before he could fall forward off the cot, and tilted him back to lean more into him. The tracker shifted forward to better see his friend's face, to understand what just happened….
And realized the gambler hadn't pulled in a fresh breath yet.
Hastily freeing one hand, Vin pressed his fingers against Ezra's neck, his eyes wide at the dead weight he was suddenly holding.
"Ezra?" Not feeling a pulse, Vin took both hands and shook his friend. "Ez? Come on, don't do this…not now…." Scared gray eyes looked up at hazel ones, as Chris stood up from his inspection of Slade on the floor, watching without a word.
"No!" Vin shook Ezra harder, focusing back on the gambler's slack face, "Don’t you dare! You come back! I promised I'd bring you back!"
"Vin," Chris said softly, "I think…."
"NO! God DAMN IT!" Vin stood up, bringing Ezra up with him as if he weighed nothing at all, holding the unconscious man upright by his arms. "Don't do this!"
"Vin!" Chris reached forward, stepping over Slade to get to Vin. Ezra's head had fallen completely forward, his chin on his chest. "Stop!"
"No! I won't let him! Not like this!" A tear streaked down Vin's cheek as he shook Ezra again. "Wake up you stupid son of a bitch! Come back! I said COME BACK! Breathe, damn you, BREATHE!"
Chris was about to pull the gambler away when Ezra suddenly gasped for air, the sound half a choke. Vin whooped and, without even realizing he was doing it, pulled the gambler into a fierce hug, as if afraid to let him go again, patting the gambler's back as he took in several more choked breaths.
His head against Vin's shoulder, Ezra's eyes fluttered open, confused. Chris's relieved smile met him, and the gunslinger rested his hand on the top of the gambler's head, ruffling the thick hair.
"What…?" Ezra whispered, looking up at him.
"Ezra," the gunslinger replied, lifting his hand away, "and I mean it this time, don't do that again. You understand me?"
"No…," Ezra blinked some more, "Is't my deal?"
Chris had to laugh as the gambler continued to stare up at him, totally bewildered, while Vin just continued to hold on, happy just to keep feeling Ezra breathe.
None of them saw the two Cartwright's standing in the doorway, Joe leaning against his father, and Ben holding onto his son's arms.
Ben looked down, then backed out of the cabin, and, after a moment, Joe followed.
"You know, Little Joe," the father said, heading towards his buckskin, his son at his back, "It's amazing how you can find a family, even when it doesn’t make sense."
"People make assumptions," Ben said, "isn't that what the gambler said about Josiah?" He chuckled, patting his horse on the neck and looking back at his son. "Those men share a bond, as real as the one between the four of us. It's pretty incredible."
Joe smiled, looking back towards the shack. Then he chuckled.
"What?" Ben asked, leaning against his horse.
"Just thinking about the fact that Josiah said there are three more of them back in their home town. That means they've got us outnumbered, ."
Ben grinned, "Why? You worried about them challenging us to a fight?"
Joe laughed, "Why not? Wouldn't you like to know who'd win?"
Ben burst out laughing at that, and inside the cabin, Chris had to crack a grin of his own at the sound.