To The Swiftest

by Deb Hicks

It had been quiet for far too long. It wasn't so much that Chris minded the quiet, it was the fact that with six other able bodied, boisterous lawmen in town if trouble didn't come from the outside -

"You're crazy, Ezra!"

It frequently came from the inside.

"Mister Wilmington, I assure you I am completely..."

"What makes you think..."

Chris brought his chair back level on the rough wood broads of the sidewalk. Sighing, he stood and stretched. It really was too nice a spring day to be breaking up fights. The voices coming from inside the saloon weren't raised yet so he figured if he went in now maybe he could stop the argument with a glare or two. He pushed open the swinging doors in time to see Ezra lean back slightly from a menacing Buck.

But it was JD who spoke. "You're both wrong."

JD's brash statement stopped both of the other men, calmly things momentarily. Chris grabbed a bottle on the way by the bar and joined his friends. Ezra's solitaire was forgotten in front of him as he glanced between Buck and JD. Josiah was ignoring all of them, intent on his breakfast. Vin was leaned back in his chair watching the other three in patient amusement. Since the look on the tracker's face was relaxed, Chris decided that whatever the argument was, it wasn't serious.

"Mister Dunne, while I appreciate your opinion, I fear that you are as mistaken as our companion in this instance."

"Seems to me," Vin suddenly added. "That it would depend on what kind of work you're talking about. Ezra'd get lost in Nettie's back forty and I'd look pretty silly in a purple dress."

Ezra graced him with a murderous glare.

Lost as to what exactly the argument was about, Chris was suddenly enlightened when Ezra shot back, "Mister Tanner, there is no work that a good southern thoroughbred cannot excel at."

Chris was hard pressed not to heave a sigh of relief. They were arguing about horses! That seemed reasonably harmless.

"A thoroughbred ain't good for anything but sissy racing and making other thoroughbreds," Buck sneered.

Even from across the table Chris could see Ezra's eyes flash. "Mister Wilmington, that poor excuse for a mount..."

Buck stood up, and Chris slammed the bottle into the middle of the table, stopping everyone.

"Gentlemen," he said firmly. "There is an obvious answer to the question. A horse race."

Ezra frowned, his first reaction to think it over, trying to find an angle. Buck had no such hesitation. "Good idea! Let's go..."

"Wait," Ezra cut in. "We need to consider our good leader's suggestion for a moment. What exactly were you considering, Mister Larabee?"

"Ezra," Buck said with an exasperated sigh, "what is so gol-darn hard to understand about a horse race?"

The handsome gambler graced him with another glare. "A few details would be welcome. When? Where? How far?"

"What happened to any..."

"Shut up, Buck," JD cut in firmly. "Let's hear what Chris has in mind."

Feeling surprisingly excited about the idea, though he didn't let it show, Chris sat down. "Nothing fancy. Trial to the top of Cider Ridge and back."

He watched the five gunslingers think this over. It was not an easy route, a round trip of just over twenty miles, ranging from the flat of the open road to nearly a thousand feet.

"What about when?" JD asked.

"Week from Saturday," Chris decided.

"A challenging route, Mister Larabee but one I feel Hamlet and I can command," Ezra said, his accent coming across very smooth, a sure sign of trouble. "However, perhaps a little wager would make the arduous journey more interesting."

No one was surprised at this announcement; if anything, they had all been waiting for it. "What did you have in mind?" Chris said, having to hide his smile again.

With a practiced shrug, Ezra said, "Five dollars each, winner take all."

"Ten days," JD said thoughtfully. "How about rules?"

Buck shook his head. "JD, you're getting as bad as Ezra. What kind of rules do..."

Once more the young sheriff cut off the older man. "Well," he started, hesitated and tried again. "Can we change horses? I mean, if you think you can find another one that's better."

Everyone thought this over for a moment and then looked at Chris, leaving it up to him. "Can't see any reason not to. The argument was over what kind of horse we think is better. JD, if you can find something that fits that for you, go ahead."

"So then," Ezra went on, smiling wide enough for the gold tooth to glint. "are we all agreed to this endeavor?"

"Trail to the top of the ridge, then back," Vin repeated, smiling.

Josiah smiled, shaking his head. "Hellraiser tolerates our long rides together but I don't think he would take to me thinking I'm a jockey."

"Josiah, we'll need a starter and someone to hold the stakes," Vin spoke up.

"It would be an honor," the bigger man said.

"Ah yes, well, I was going to suggest that I keep our funds," Ezra said with an innocent look. "It might be possible over the intervening days to increase..."

"No," the other's said in unison.

Ezra just smiled.

JD stood up, his usual enthusiasm taking over. "I'll go tell Nathan!"

Even as he sprinted out, Ezra raised his glass of whiskey. "Gentlemen, to a safe and interesting contest."

Chris smiled, pleased with himself for the idea. It might actually keep his six charges out of trouble for a while. With a smile to the others he also acknowledged that he thought he and his horse, Diablo, might have a good shot at winning.

+ + + + + + +

What had started as a good idea had quickly gotten out of hand. In JD's haste to tell Nathan of the contest, he had also told Mary Travis. The next thing they

knew there was an article about the contest in The Clarion and the race between six friends had become an town event. Ranch hands and townsfolk, even several of the Seminoles, had come for the race. One of the warriors had entered and Chris had found himself facing a dozen men who objected to the mere idea. It was Ezra who easily explained that if they truly were better horsemen then why not just take the money? The incident had ended quietly.

A milling of fifteen horsemen now filled the street in front of the newspaper. Chris rode into the group. He had left off his duster and extra guns. He spotted JD, Ezra and Buck easily. Ezra was astride Hamlet, while Buck was sitting on Char. JD had opted for a borrowed cow pony, a small cross between a mustang and who knew what. It was only half-broke and even as Chris drew up, gave a little crow hop that JD ignored. Josiah waved at him from the sidewalk. Draped across the street was a bright banner with the words "Start - Finish" in red.

Pulling up next to his men, Chris said, "Where are Vin and Nathan?"

"I don't believe Mister Jackson will be joining us this fine morning," Ezra said with a sly smile.

"Rain came into town with the Seminoles," JD blunted out, blushing as he did.

"Yep," Buck picked up, "I reckon he's having a more interesting ride than..."

JD slapped him with his hat. "Buck! Rain is a lady."

"Wasn't that just ... what the hell?"

A surprised silence claimed the dozen plus riders and Chris turned to see what had brought on it, and Buck's comment.

Vin's mount was small, maybe only fourteen hands or so, a dark red dun with stripping on all four legs, a mane that stood straight up and a short, thin tail. The tracker nodded to Josiah and Mary Tarvis as he ambled over to join the others.

JD was the first to speak up. "Vin, I hate to tell you this but that ain't a horse."

"A mule!" Ezra nearly shouted. "Have you taken leave of your senses, Mister Tanner? You expect a mule to beat all these fine horses? Are you attempting to make me feel guilty about taking your money..."

"Gentlemen," Josiah's voice rang out over the crowd. "if you will remove your hats, we will offer a blessing for a safe journey, then our lovely Mrs. Travis will signal the start of this race by dropping the handkerchief."

As the deep booming voice called out the blessing, Chris took a quick look at Vin. For some reason he had a bad feeling about this. Vin could be as sneaky as Ezra when he wanted to and something told Chris this was one of those times. It wasn't helped by the slight smile both rider and mount seemed to be wearing. As Josiah finished, Chris pushed the thoughts aside and concentrated on his race plan.

The white cloth dropped. A loud cheer went up from the spectators and whoops went up from the riders as they spurred their mounts full tilt down the mainstreet and out of town.

+ + + + + + +

Chris let Diablo have his head for the first couple of miles, just letting them both enjoy the fine moving and feeling of moving. He glanced around, vaguely surprised to find himself toward the back of the pack. Pretty far up ahead he could see Ezra and Buck. As they came to the first upraising, Chris saw that a couple of the town boys and the Seminole brave were leading. Settling deeper into the saddle, he gave the reins a slight tug, telling Diablo to slow to easy lope.

"Nice day for a race, ain't it?"

Vin's voice startled him out of his study of the competition. His friend was riding slightly behind him, the red mule having to go at a faster lope to keep up with the bigger horse. Still, Chris had to admit, he was surprised to see them this close.

"Yeah, gonna get hotter later on though," Chris observed.

"Yep," Vin acknowledged. He tipped his hat to the other man, and slowing his animal, dropped back a bit.

+ + + + + + +

An hour later Chris came to his planned second rest stop, directly on top of the raise. The incline had taken its toll. Chris had passed five riders already walking back to town, either with tired horses, tired butts or, in Buck's case, plain bad luck. His old friend's horse had managed to throw a shoe about halfway up.

Six of the remaining riders were already on the flat at the top of the ridge. Ezra was sitting under a small tree near the side of the road, his horse's saddle already loosened and by the dried sweat on the beautiful chestnut they had been resting for awhile. JD, on the other hand, had just finished watering his horse. Chris glanced down the trail. Four other riders where strung out along the trail, resting their mounts in different places. From what Chris could tell none of them would be in contention. Vin was walking his mule slowly up the steep incline. Chris finished loosening the saddle, gave Diablo a couple hat fulls of water then came over and sat down not too far from the gambler.

"I trust Mister Wilmington is not too upset over his misfortune," Ezra commented, taking a sip from the ever-present silver flask.

"Nah," Chris admitted. "Seems to think he can make up for the loss with sympathy from some of the ladies."

That gained a laugh from JD who was walking his horse. "I don't think I'll every understand how he does it."

Chris and Ezra both smiled at their youngest companion. Buck's talent with the fairer sex had mystified JD from the moment he had joined the group. Chris had to admit, sometimes even he found it amazing but had given up trying to explain it.

"His talent," Ezra agreed, "does seem to defy both logic and taste."

Chris came to his feet, stretching. He started walking Diablo around, not wanting him to stiffen up. Behind him he heard Ezra stand and start tightening his saddle. That worried Chris a little. Ezra was a good rider on a good horse; he was also a lighter rider on a tall horse. He couldn't afford to let him get too far ahead but he wanted to get a little more rest for his mount. His hope, which he had bet on for the whole trip was that Ezra would over estimate Hamlet and run him out too soon.

Two of the others were mounting also. Just as they started off Vin came to a stop beside Chris and tipped his hat to Ezra. Ezra just shook his head and started down at a slow trot. Dismounting, Vin followed the same routine that Chris had, though the mule only took a hat full of liquid. After a minute more of walking Chris came to a halt next to his friend.

"Why a mule?" he asked bluntly.

"Used one buffalo hunting," Vin said. "Tough animals, sure-footed, agile. Haul 500 pounds of hides on one without nearly as much feed and water." The blue eyes glanced up from under the wide brimmed hat. "Can be slower than a horse though."

Still confused by Vin's thinking, it was JD who asked, "So, you expected us to wear out and you'd pass us up?"

"Fast ain't always the answer." Vin gave them a half-smile. "Better walk her."

Five minutes later, JD swung up into the saddle and was off with a quick yell. The last of the other riders had sped off just ahead of him. As JD took off, Chris started to tighten his own saddle. Behind him he heard Vin stop walking.

"Nice view from here, ain't it?" the Texan said.

Chris looked out over the steep southern side of the ridge. Four Corners was clearly visible through the trees. "Yeah," he nodded..

"Short trip as the crow flies," Vin continued.

Not use to Vin just making small talk, Chris turned to see what about the town had Vin so interested, only to find Vin already tightening his own saddle. He started to make a comment about the short rest but held back. Vin was as good a horseman as anyone, he knew what he was doing. Swinging up into the saddle, he smiled down at his friend.

"See you in town."

+ + + + + + +

Chris urged Diablo into a faster gallop. Four riders were now left ahead of him - Ezra, two of the Double W cowhands and JD. None of them seemed to be running out of go, which meant that Chris was going to have to push a little. He glanced around, trying to judge the distance left compared to the tiring horse under him. There was only a mile left until they hit the edge of town, then another half mile to the finish.

With a yell, Chris spurred the black gelding into a dead run. He came up fast on the first cowhand. The man cursed and slapped his reins back and front over his horse's neck. The animal was done though and Chris flew by. The riders ahead of him were now all pushing their mounts. JD and the other cowhand were closing on Ezra. Leaning forward he silently asked Diablo for just a little more. Slowly, he started gaining on them.

They flew into town with barely five yards between the four of them. Chris inched passed Ezra and heard a very uncharacteristic curse from the southerner. There were only two left now, both pounding hard, both yelling, crouched over their horse's necks. JD took the lead. Chris laid both hands on Diablo's neck, yelling, urging him on. The black's nose inched up on the cowpony's tail then haunches - and they flashed under the finish line.

Chris sat up in the saddle, leaning his weight back, hardly touching the reins as he signaled his horse to a stop. When JD turned his horse around, he was smiling from ear to ear, standing up in the stirrups and yahooing his victory. In the face of such enthusiasm, Chris was hard pressed to regret his loss. The four horsemen came to a stop together in front of The Clarion. Josiah was standing there smiling at them. JD literally jumped out of the stirrups.

Dismounting, Chris grabbed JD's hand. "Good race, JD."

"I must confess, today, Hamlet and I were outridden," Ezra said with a grin that revealed his gold tooth. "A fine race, Mister Dunne."

"Nice ride, Sheriff," the cowhand added, also shaking hands with JD.

It was only as he turned back to Josiah that Chris noticed that it had been a very quiet victory. The crowds that had seen them off that morning, and he expected to see now, were absent. Turning slowly around, he realized that the only noise was from the saloon.

"Josiah," JD asked, before Chris could, "where is everyone? I thought they'd want to see the winner."

Josiah gave a little nod to the right. "And they did. Though I must say that second place was much more hotly contested than first."

"What?" Chris said sharply. "How could the winner already...."

The doors to the saloon swung open and Vin stepped out onto the boardwalk. He had a mug of beer in his right hand and Blossom hanging off his other side. Before Chris could open his mouth, Billy Travis came from between buildings, leading Vin's red dun mule.

"She's all cool now, Mister Tanner," Billy said politely.

"Thanks, Billy. Just tie her there. Why don't you and some of the other boys take these fellow's horses and walk them out, okay?" Vin urged.

A couple seconds later the other four were staring up at Vin in complete confusion.

"Hidy, boys," Vin said quietly, a grin crinkling his eyes. "Have a good ride?"

"I don't understand!" JD exclaimed. "You never passed us."

"Trail to the top of the ridge and back to town," Vin repeated. "Didn't say I had to take the same trail back."

"But... but... how... there is no other way back to town!" Ezra sputtered.

Chris watched the smile on Vin's face get a little wider. The tracker loved to get the smooth conman flustered enough to stutter. Remembering the warning signals he'd been getting all day, Chris tilted his head down, then looked up at Vin from under the black hat.

"You came down the side of the ridge." Chris suddenly understood.

"Too damn steep to come down, " the cowhand argued. "There ain't even a deer trail down that ridge."

"Didn't need a trail, got a mule," Vin said calmly.

"He came down the ridge," Ezra muttered to himself.

Chris thought of arguing, but what came out was a laugh. Vin gave him a slight nod, his eyes glittering under the slouch hat.

"Gosh, Vin, you really came down that ridge? And everyone says I'm the crazy one!" JD and the cowhand were both laughing now.

Only Ezra seemed stunned by the end of the race. "Down the ridge," he repeated.

"Come on, pards, let the winner buy ya'll a drink," Vin urged.

Ezra was the first one there. He threw an arm over Vin's shoulders, leading him in and Chris heard him say, "Mister Tanner, are you aware that Eagle Ridge has an annual race...."

Just as Chris started through the doors, he glanced over to where the mule stood. He smiled - and the little red mule smiled back.