CAVE IN by Niteowl

AU - Angela’s 7B Ranch

Rating PG – Just a tad of cussin’

Gen – lots of h/c

Disclaimer – Wish I could come up with a more original way to say I wish I owned them but I don’t. No money is being made, this is strictly for fun.

Notes – The technical stuff at the mine is borrowed from an episode of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which is the basis of Angela’s AU

Thanks to LT for her beta work and the wonderful pic!

Size: Approx 123K

One of the advantages of staying home from school sick was it gave a person time to look around places they might not have noticed before. That’s exactly what Ezra was doing. Chris and Buck were out on the ranch somewhere rebuilding part of the fence, Josiah was at work and the rest of his brothers were at school. It was mid-afternoon, and Ezra was bored. The sore throat and mild fever he’d had the night before were gone and he was looking for something to occupy his time before his brothers came home. He wandered out to the barn and fed Chaucer and the other horses some carrots he’d gotten from the fridge. He knew better than to saddle his horse and go riding without one of the older boys knowing where he’d gone, so he settled for brushing his horse down. Then he went over to the old barn that the family used for storage. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever really looked inside, so he thought today was a good day for exploring.

Inside, he found the usual assortment of things most people put away for a season, some never to be retrieved again. But in the corner, something concealed under a tarp caught his eye. It was a variety of old mining equipment, some of it damaged beyond repair, but some of it looked like it might still work. He picked up the picks and shovels and let his mind wander in a daydream of finding a gold mine and sharing the wealth with his brothers so they’d never have to work hard for a living again.

Ezra was well aware of how hard Buck and Chris worked to keep the ranch going, and it was not a good year with a drought going on its second year. Josiah’s salary as a counselor at the High School helped, but there was still a lot of work to be done around the ranch. Every day after school and on weekends, the younger boys were expected to do their share. He was pulled out of his thoughts when he heard his name called. Nathan, Vin and JD were home from school. Vin had come down to the corral and was calling his name.

"I’m in here, Vin," he called back.

"Hey Ezra, what’re ya doin’ in here?" asked his brother.

Ezra just shrugged. "Just looking around. Take a look at the old mining stuff in here."

Vin joined his brother in the corner of the old barn and Ezra showed him the equipment. Some of it he was able to tell Vin what it was and how it worked, but most of it was a mystery.

"Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we found a gold mine on the ranch?" Ezra finally said.

"Yeah it would, but if there was one, Chris and Buck would already know about it," Vin offered.

"Probably," Ezra agreed.

"But you’re right, it would be cool," Vin added.

Ezra and Vin finally left the old barn and walked back to the house. Later that evening, after supper was eaten and dishes and homework were done, Ezra remembered the things he’d found. He went in search of his oldest brother, finding him in his room, working at his desk.

"Josiah?" Ezra said softly from the doorway.

"What is it, Ezra?" came the reply as Josiah turned to face the younger boy.

"I was exploring in the old barn today," he began.

"I thought you were sick?" asked Josiah, raising an eyebrow and trying to hide a smile.

"I was, but after lunch I felt a lot better," Ezra replied defensively.

"I’ll bet you did," Josiah said, this time letting the smile show. "And -?"

"There’s some old mining equipment in there. I was wondering who it belongs to?" Ezra asked.

"Some of it was dad’s and some of it was grandpa’s," Josiah answered.

"Is there a mine of some kind on the ranch?" Ezra asked.

"I think there is, but to tell you the truth, I don’t know that much about it," Josiah admitted. "I remember dad talking about it a couple of times, but I really didn't pay much attention. You know, if you really want to know, you need to talk to Tim Carter about it. I remember something dad said about them being partners a long time ago. Maybe when we go into Four Corners next Saturday, you could look him up and ask him." Josiah could see the idea of a gold mine had a rich appeal for his younger brother.

"Okay," Ezra agreed.

"Now off to bed with you," Josiah said, shooing his younger brother out of his room. "You’ve got school in the morning."

Ezra just rolled his eyes, but did as he was told.

+ + + + + + +

The next Saturday, the whole family made its weekly trip into Four Corners for shopping and other business. Josiah gave Ezra and Vin permission to go to Tim Carter’s real estate office and see if he was in. Since Inez was working at the café today, he knew it would be a long afternoon before they’d be able to get Buck to want to go home.

Going into the office, the two brothers found Tim Carter there. He was in his mid-fifties, a little shorter and a little heavier than their older brothers, with balding dark hair and a moustache. He looked like he was getting ready to go home. "Ezra, Vin - What can I do for you boys?"

"We found some of our dad’s old mining equipment. We were wondering if you could you tell us about it?" Ezra ventured.

"Not really, not without looking at it," he replied, shaking his head. Seeing the disappointed look on the boys’ faces and remembering it hadn’t been that long ago their parents had been killed in a tragic accident, he added, "Tell you what, though? I’m heading out past your place later this evening. How about if I stop by and take a look? Think it’d be okay with Josiah?"

"That’d be great!" Vin exclaimed. He was intrigued with the idea of his foster father spending time in an old mine, just like they did back in the Old West.

"I’ll be sure and let him know. If there’s a problem, I’ll be sure and phone you and let you know," Ezra assured the man.

+ + + + + + +

True to his word, Carter was at the Larabee Ranch just before nine. After spending some time talking to the elder brothers, Ezra and Vin were finally able to direct him to the old barn. It was lit with a small light bulb in the middle of the room. The boys showed him the equipment under the cover. Carter looked at each piece almost reverently, turning it over in his hands, or just touching the heavier pieces. By the time he started explaining what each piece was and how it was used, he had an audience of five, with Nathan, Buck and JD joining them, the youngest never wanting to be left out of anything. They all sat and listened as Carter told stories of his grandfather’s days in the mines. While they never made a fortune, there was always enough gold to be found to see his family through the hard times.

Finally he stood to go. "Did you know your dad and I were partners in a small mine called the Lucky Lady?" Hearing the name, the three younger boys turned to Buck and grinned, while he just blushed and shook his head.

"No really – We were both just starting out. Your dad actually dug the gold for your mom’s wedding band right out of that mine. After that, it made just enough to pay for his place here and put me back in college to get my degree in structural engineering," Carter explained.

"Hey, maybe we could do that, Buck," JD announced, "Go back in the mine and get enough gold so you guys won’t have to work so hard. Then we could go riding and stuff more."

"That’s an outstanding idea, JD," Ezra agreed, the gleam of gold shone through his eyes. "It would be like carrying on a family tradition, just like Dad."

"No, that’s impossible. The Lucky Lady is too dangerous. We were having so many cave-ins, I finally called it quits and closed it after…" Carter began, but the rest of his sentence trailed off as he looked away with a pained expression.

"Mr. Carter, I assure you, I’ve been in more than a few caves myself. One of my mo- Maude’s intended’s was an avid spelunker," Ezra said. Seeing Vin and JD’s look of confusion, he added, "Cave explorer. In the morning, we could just go down to the Lucky Lady and have a look around without any problems."

"We’d be careful," Vin added. "Besides, we’ve all been in all kinds of caves up in the mountains around here."

"No – no, boys, believe me, it’s too dangerous. Now I mean that," Carter insisted.

"You heard the man," Buck interjected, ending the discussion.

"Okay," Ezra reluctantly relented. Vin just shrugged his shoulders beside him.

Buck and Nathan walked Carter back to his pickup while the three youngest went inside. After JD headed to the kitchen, Ezra led Vin to the study. They went over to a filing cabinet behind the desk. Vin looked on as Ezra opened a drawer and pulled out a sheath of old maps.

"Here it is," Ezra said with a smile.

"Here what is?" Chris asked from the doorway, making both boys jump back.

"We were just looking at one of the maps of the ranch," Ezra explained, bending over to pick up the maps he dropped. "We might want to go exploring tomorrow."

"After chores, that is," Vin added with a hopeful look at Chris.

"As long as your exploring don’t take you anywhere near the Lucky Lady," Buck said over Chris’s shoulder, as he and JD came into the hall in time to hear the conversation.

"Excuse me?" Chris asked, giving both younger brothers a disapproving look. "What do you know about the Lucky Lady?"

"Just what Mr. Carter was tellin’ us, about how he and Dad were partners," Vin answered.

"And how it’s too dangerous to go inside," JD added.

"Did he tell you why it’s so dangerous?" Josiah said, joining the conversation, Nathan standing beside him.

"No," Ezra replied, the others shaking their heads.

"Tim Carter had a son, Tim Junior. When he was about sixteen, he and a group of his friends went up to the Lucky Lady, I suppose to fool around or something. It caved in on them. They got everybody out but Tim Junior. By the time they got to him, it was too late," Josiah explained, looking from one stunned young face to the other. Even Buck looked surprised.

"He never said anything about that," Nathan said, shaking his head sadly.

"He never talks about it," Chris said. "Now I want you to promise me you will not go into that mine."

"I promise," JD piped up quickly.

"Vin – Ezra – Do you hear me?" Chris asked sharply.

"Yeah, I hear you," Vin said with a frown.


"I hear you too, Chris," came the reluctant reply.

"Fine, then if you two want to go riding tomorrow and do some exploring, go ahead," Chris said, smiling at the look shared between the Vin and Ezra. "You can pack a lunch if you want, and I’m sure you won’t mind if JD goes along. He likes exploring too, don’t you?"

JD’s eyes widened and he nodded his head quickly. "Heck yeah," he exclaimed.

Ezra just rolled his eyes. Whatever he might have planned would take re-thinking if they were taking ‘the informer’ with them. He knew it wasn’t really JD’s fault, it was just his age and his naïve outlook on life – and he just couldn’t seem to keep a secret from Buck.

"Fine," Ezra agreed, nodding at Vin. "How about we leave right after breakfast."

+ + + + + + +

Most Sundays, Ezra chose to lounge around watching TV or playing solitaire, since he wasn’t allowed to play poker anymore. Anything that kept him in the cool, clean house was fine with him. But he also loved to ride his horse, Chaucer. And this particular Sunday, he was a man on a mission. He had memorized the map he had been looking at the night before.

Sometimes Vin thought the best part about living on the ranch was all the places that hadn’t been explored yet. Bright and early in the morning, the horses were saddled, including JD’s little pony. They each packed a sack lunch and Vin reminded the other two boys to fill their canteens before they left.

By mid-morning they had reached the foothills to the south of the ranch house. They were following the creek into a small canyon. If JD noticed his older brothers seemed to know where they were going, he didn’t mention it. He was having too much fun riding and looking around.

The ride got steeper as they followed an old trail up into the mountains. Suddenly, they came to a clearing and at the far end was a mine entrance. It was obvious an attempt had been made to completely block it closed, but some of the boards had rotted and fallen away, leaving a dark opening in the hillside.

Vin and Ezra dismounted, ground tying their horses to some fallen tree branches. They approached the entrance to the mine slowly, picking their way over fallen limbs and piles of rock and dirt.

"What do you think?" Vin asked Ezra quietly.

"I’m positive this is the place," Ezra replied just as softly.

Finally, JD looked at his brothers suspiciously. "Where are we?" he asked, his hands firmly planted on his hips. "That better not be the Lucky Lady, ‘cause we promised Chris we wouldn’t go in there."

"Actually, JD, you were the only one that made such a promise. Vin and I only agreed that we heard what Chris said," Ezra explained with a smile.

Vin just snorted. "You really think that’ll work on Chris?"

"Probably not, but as along as nobody tells him, he’ll never know. Right JD?" Ezra’s green eyes drilled into his younger brother.

JD swallowed hard. Now he was being put in the middle, and he didn’t like it. On one hand, Ezra was right – he was the only one who promised not to go into the mine. But he knew what Chris meant, and he knew Vin and Ezra knew what Chris meant. He didn’t want Vin and Ezra mad at him, but he didn’t want Chris and Buck mad at him either. Then there was the chance that if he told on them, they wouldn’t ever take him exploring again. He didn’t want his brothers to get hurt. On the other hand, if they found some gold…

He was pulled out of his thoughts by his brother’s voice.

"Well, JD?" Vin was saying. "Are you gonna tell on us?"

"No," he answered unhappily, "But I’m not going to lie for you either if you get caught!"

"Deal," Vin agreed, holding his hand out to his little brother. It was a familiar and honored family tradition. A promise given with a handshake was unbreakable. The two boys shook hands then Ezra also shook hands with the small boy, making him feel even bigger.

While JD stayed outside, Vin and Ezra made their way into the decrepit old mine. Brushing away cobwebs and picking their way slowly around piles of debris and rocks, evidence of the earlier cave-ins, they found the light only penetrated a little ways in, not enough to get a good look. They looked around at the entrance, but there were no discarded lamps or torches. It was soon too dark in the passageway to see. Since their older brothers had watched them pack, they never had a chance to pack flashlights. This was strictly a search and find mission. Now that they knew where the mine itself was, they could come back at a later time with more supplies and explore some more. Less than a half-hour later they went back out the way they came. Coming back outside, they shared a smiled at JD’s audible sigh when he caught sight of his brothers.

"See JD, safe and sound. There’s nothing to worry about. We got to look at the mine, now we can go home," Ezra assured him.

"Did you find any gold?" JD asked expectantly.

"I’m afraid not. We really couldn’t see that much without light," Ezra answered.

"Oh," said the younger boy sadly. "Too bad."

"Hey JD, you want to stop by the pond and go swimming before it gets too late?" Vin asked. Ezra shared a conspiratorial smile with his fair-haired brother. They knew if they could get JD excited about something else, it would help him not dwell on their being at the mine and they’d have a better chance of not being found out. The boys gathered the reins to their horses and climbed back on.

"Heck yeah," JD exclaimed. "Wanta race?"

"Maybe when we get a little closer, okay?" Vin replied.

"Okay, but no cheating," answered JD with a pout, sliding a glance in Ezra’s direction.

"I do not cheat!" he protested. Then they reined their horses around and went back the way they’d come.

+ + + + + + +

The next day, the boys were back in school. Nobody thought it strange the first night when Vin and Ezra did their chores as soon as they got home from school then disappeared into the old barn. But as the week went on and the routine stayed the same, the older brothers exchanged questioning looks, only to be met with the shrug of a shoulder. Nobody knew what the two boys were up to.

When Saturday came again, the family began getting ready for the trip to town.

"Josiah, is it okay if Ezra and me stay home today?" Vin asked, as his brother was brushing his teeth.

Josiah looked up into the mirror and noticed Ezra was beside him. "You two don’t want to go shopping with us?" Josiah asked in surprise. It was kind of a ritual; everybody who went shopping got to pick out a treat while they were at the store.

"We’d rather go riding," Ezra piped in. "We have done our chores all week without complaining."

"And we didn’t get in trouble at school all week either," Vin added.

"I know," Josiah said, thinking it over. "You’ve both been real good. What do you two have up your sleeve?" He’d been worried all week, knowing his brothers’ propensity for practical jokes. It was like waiting for the other shoe to fall.

"Nothing, I assure you," Ezra answered. "We realized if we were to procure for ourselves a chance to do something we wanted, being on our best behavior would best serve our purpose." Vin just nodded in agreement.

Josiah looked back at Ezra in the mirror, eyeing him skeptically. The more he used his command of proper English, the more suspicious his older brothers tended to be. "Okay, I guess you guys have earned it," Josiah relented. "What about JD?"

"We’ve already spoken to him, he’d rather go shopping with Buck," Ezra said.

"He figures he can talk Buck into taking him to McDonald’s for lunch," Vin added.

"All right. You guys be careful and be back before dark," Josiah said, ruffling both brothers’ hair as he went past them in the hall. He smiled and shook his head at the high-fives they exchanged behind his back, hoping they’d all live not to regret whatever they were up to. He honestly didn’t have a clue.

+ + + + + + +

It was just getting dark when the Suburban pulled up into the driveway. Three of the brothers climbed out and began unloading the supplies. The dark-haired fourth carried the small sleeping fifth up the steps and into the house, putting him on the couch asleep. Buck then joined his brothers in bringing in the groceries.

"Did Vin and Ezra get back?" Nathan asked, not hearing any noise coming from upstairs.

"I’ll go see," Chris replied. He went out the back door towards the corral. Stepping into the barn, he spotted Peso and Chaucer in their stalls, munching on a full manger of feed. He knew the boys hadn’t been home long. Hearing voices coming from the direction of the old barn, he shook his head with a smile and walked towards the old building. He knocked on the door to let the boys know he was there.

"Hey, did y’all have a good ride?" he asked going in.

The two younger boys looked up in surprise. "Chris!" Vin exclaimed.

"What on earth have y’all been doin’?" Chris asked, giving each boy the once over. They were filthy – both covered with a layer of dirt, both faces smudged with sweat mixed with the dirt.

"Not a thing," Ezra replied, trying to keep the guilty look from showing. "What makes you ask?"

"Well, you both look like something the cat drug in," Chris replied, eyeing them both.

Vin shifted uncomfortably before replying. "It was pretty hot out ridin’ today, and we didn’t stop to swim ‘cause we didn’t want to get back late. Then we came in here and got busy movin’ stuff and knocked all this dust loose. We just ain’t had time to take a bath yet."

"A situation I intend to remedy post haste," Ezra added, getting up from where he had been sitting and he walked past his older brother.

"Me too," and Vin followed him out the door with a quick smile at Chris.

Chris folded his arms and leaned against the doorway. There was something going on, he could feel it. But he loved and trusted his brothers enough not to accuse them of something when all he had to go on was something as vague as a feeling. He looked around and had to admit they had done quite a bit of rearranging and it looked a lot better. He sighed and followed them back to the house.

+ + + + + + +

Early Sunday morning, JD followed Vin into Ezra’s room. "Well, did you guys go back to the Lucky Lady yesterday?" he asked in a loud whisper.

"SSSHHH!" Ezra said sharply, looking up at the doorway.

"We don’t talk about it in the house, JD," Vin said, "Only when we’re out in the old barn. Okay?"

JD nodded and smiled. "Did you find gold? I wanna see!"

Vin just rolled his eyes when he realized he’d accidentally given JD his answer.

"After breakfast, we’ll all go and feed the horses, okay?" Ezra offered.

"Just don’t say a word until then!" Vin added.

His little brother smiled and nodded again.

Once the horses were cared for, the three boys went into the old barn. Under the tarp that held the mining equipment that had started it all, Ezra drew out a small pouch. He undid the pull-string and held out his hand for JD to see. He shook the bag and a few small gold flakes and grains fell into his palm.

"WOW!" JD exclaimed. "How much is that?"

"Not near enough to be worth anything," Vin said.

"I’m afraid Mister Carter was correct," Ezra explained. "There’s not very much gold in the mine. At least not that we could find."

"Yeah, and we looked all day," Vin added. "We just barely made it back here before you guys got home last night."

"We are going to have to watch our time more carefully next time," Ezra said.

"Yeah, well I wasn’t the one who kept sayin’ ‘just a little longer – there’s got to be a vein here somewhere’," Vin said. It was obvious even to JD that Vin wasn’t very happy with the way things had gone.

"Well, if you hadn’t kept going outside for ‘air’ and helped more, maybe we would have had more luck," Ezra countered.

"Look, I told you Ez, the air in there was bad," Vin tossed back. "For all I care, you can go back all by yourself next time."

"I just might do that," said Ezra, carefully putting his treasure back in the bag.

"Fine!" Vin said hotly.

"Fine," Ezra replied.

+ + + + + + +

Right after lunch, Ezra grabbed Vin by the elbow and dragged him out the back door.

"What do ya want?" Vin asked, jerking his arm out of Ezra’s grasp.

"We need to go back now," Ezra said in a whisper.

"Are you crazy? No way," Vin replied.

"We have to," Ezra almost pleaded. "I need your help. I think I left my watch there."

"What?" Vin exclaimed, then changed his tone when he noticed the panicked look in Ezra’s eyes. "Are you sure?"

Ezra nodded shortly, swallowing visibly.

Vin knew what the antique timepiece meant to his brother. Their foster father had given it to him on Ezra’s last birthday before their parents had died. Their father had explained how it had been a treasured keepsake passed down for four generations, and how he was giving it him because he trusted him to keep it safe and pass it down to his son. Vin knew Ezra would never be able to explain why he wasn’t wearing it to school the next day. "Fine," he finally begrudgingly agreed.

"Thanks Vin," Ezra whispered.

"Yeah," Vin mumbled.

Going for a ride on Sunday was not an unusual request, even if they had just gone riding the day before, so Josiah gave them permission without a second thought. He knew how young boys never tired of riding and exploring, and they had plenty of both on the Ranch.

Once again, Chris insisted JD go along so he wouldn’t feel left out. He and Buck had work to do – With Nathan’s help, Chris was going to be working on an almost worn out water pipe coming out of the holding tank. And in a drought, any water lost was too much. Buck was going to be spending the afternoon making sure the upper watering holes still had water for the stray calves. If he found them dry, it would be time to start moving the cattle down closer to the ranch. It was already close to time to round up the cattle, a favorite activity for all the boys. It meant camping out just like the Old West days. Chris almost suggested they go help Buck, but in the heat wave they were having, he knew they’d just be miserable and Buck could get the job done faster alone. He had already ridden out, promising to be back soon.

It was mid-afternoon by the time the boys were back at the mine. They had explained to JD what they were doing, and promised they’d only stay inside the mine just long enough to find Ezra’s watch. JD had agreed, knowing how much Ezra loved the watch. Once again, JD waited outside with the horses while the other two boys took their flashlights and entered the mine.

Carefully making their way, they finally found the area they had been working in. Vin shone his light around, the beam finally coming to rest on Ezra’s misplaced watch.

"There it is," Ezra said as he bent down to pick it up, dusting it off carefully before putting it safely back in his pocket.

"Fine," Vin replied. "Now let’s get out of here. This place gives me the creeps."

"Are you afraid of ghosts?" Ezra asked in surprise.

"Nah, just don’t like small dark places is all." Vin answered defensively.

"Why didn’t you say something earlier?" Ezra asked.

Vin just shrugged, then he reached out and touched his brother’s arm. "Ez, I don’t want to come back here again. You oughtn’t not either. I don’t think we’re gonna find any gold, leastways not enough. And I don’t like lying to Chris and I don’t like askin’ JD lie to Buck."

Ezra opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it and nodded. "You’re right, Vin. It wasn’t fair of me to make JD part of our conspiracy. And you are probably right about there not being any gold left in here anyway. I certainly haven’t seen any evidence to the contrary."

"Why don’t you go tell JD you found your watch. I’ll grab the rest of this stuff and be right behind you," Vin suggested, motioning to the picks and shovels and canteens they’d left behind for the next time they came.

"Are you sure you don’t need any help?" Ezra asked.

"Nah, it’d take you too long and I don’t want to listen to you complainin’ about getting your hands dirty again," Vin said teasing. "Yesterday was bad enough."

+ + + + + + +

Buck’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched in anger when he saw the three horses at the entrance to the Lucky Lady. He had been chasing a stray calf back toward the ranch when he’d come across the boys’ tracks. Since he was on his way home anyway, he decided to join up with the boys and go home together. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out where the trail was leading.

When he got to the entrance to the old mine, he smiled and some of his anger dissipated. JD was sitting on the ground; the reins to all three horses were tied off to one of the fallen beams. The younger boy jumped at the sound of Buck’s horse coming into the clearing.

"Buck!" he exclaimed. He ran toward his older brother, coming to a stop while Buck dismounted.

"What are you doin’ here, JD?" Buck asked.

"I didn’t want to come, but Chris said I had to and I didn’t want to stay home by myself." JD answered, chewing on his lower lip.

"It’s okay JD," Buck said, giving the smaller boy a reassuring smile. "Where’s Ez and Vin?"

"They went in to get Ezra’s watch; he left it yesterday." JD answered, then clamped his hand over his mouth as he realized he gave away the secret.

"Why are you waitin’ out here all by yourself?" Buck asked.

"I promised," JD answered solemnly.

Buck reached out to take JD into a quick hug. "That you did," he whispered. Then he let go and led JD back to the horses. "You wait right here, I’ll be back in a minute."

"You gonna whip ‘em?" JD asked.

"Not right now," Buck replied. "First let me get ‘em outta there and get ‘em home, then we’ll figure it out from there."

"Chris ain’t gonna be happy," JD said, knowing he was probably in as much trouble as his two older brothers.

"That’s puttin’ it mildly," Buck agreed. "You wait here - we’ll be back in a few minutes."

"Okay," JD said with a nod. "I’ll take care of Max for you."

"Thanks kid," Buck offered with a smile. "See ya in a few."

As Buck made his way in the dark, he wished he had his own flashlight. But since he hadn’t planned on going into a mine, he hadn’t brought one with him. He was using his hands to feel along the wall as his eyes adjusted to the dwindling light and several times he tripped over large rocks or discarded support timbers. As he rounded a slight turn, there was Ezra.

On his way back out, Ezra’s flashlight had picked up something shining on the wall. The younger boy’s full attention was turned to the wall of rock as he shone his light directly onto the surface. Even in the dim light, Buck could see the look of concentration on his face. Ezra was so engrossed in his quest, he never heard Buck approaching.

Suddenly, Ezra found himself grabbed and spun away from the wall he had been investigating. "Vin!" he cried out, as he fumbled with his flashlight, trying not to drop it, "that wasn’t funny." He wriggled in an attempt to escape the hold he was in.

"You’re damn right it ain’t," Buck ground out, not letting go of Ezra’s collar.

"Buck! What are you doing here?" Ezra exclaimed.

Buck cocked his head toward the other boy. "I think that’s supposed to be my question." When Ezra didn’t answer right away, he pulled the boy closer and thundered, "What in the hell are you two doing in here?" His tone of voice was more for show than anything else. His anger had evaporated with the knowledge both his younger brothers were safe, but he also wanted Ezra to know he was not a happy camper!

"I left my watch in here yesterday," came Ezra’s reply. "I asked Vin to help me find it. It’s not our fault JD tagged along."

"JD bein’ here’s got nothin’ to do with the trouble you’re in," Buck said, knowing Ezra was thinking the only reason he was in trouble was because he had involved their youngest sibling. "Chris told you straight out he didn’t want you coming in here, it’s not safe. You promised you’d stay out of this place."

"On the contrary, Buck," Ezra countered, using the same argument he had used on JD. "It was only JD that made that promise. Vin and I only agreed that we heard what Chris said."

Buck rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Ez, you try that one on Chris, and I guarantee you won’t be sittin’ down for a week. Now where’s Vin?"

"A little farther down the tunnel," Ezra pointed out. "He’s gathering up the rest of the equipment we left yesterday."

He sighed and released the hold he had on Ezra’s collar. "I’ll go get him. You head on out and wait for us with JD." He held out his hand and Ezra reluctantly handed over the light.

"Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?" Ezra asked.

"Positive," Buck assured him. "Now get going." Buck watched Ezra turn slowly and walk toward the mine opening. He then turned and went deeper inside.

After picking his way over more debris, he finally found his way to the small chamber where Vin was gathering the last of the shovels. "Ready to go home, Junior?" As his blond headed brother looked up in surprise, Buck couldn’t help but notice the look of relief that crossed Vin’s face.

"Buck! What are you doin’ here?" he asked in surprise.

"Well, for one, I’m getting tired of people askin’ me that question," Buck replied dryly. Now that Buck had time to cool off, his temper was firmly in check.

"How’d you know we were here?" Vin finally asked, looking down at his feet.

"I didn’t," Buck answered. "I was chasin’ one of the calves and just got lucky. Now, you mind tellin’ me what you’re doin’ in here? Especially after what Chris told ya the other day?"

"We didn’t really promise, only JD-" he began.

"Don’t even try that one," Buck interrupted. "Ez already did."

"Told him it wouldn’t work," he finally replied quietly. Vin flashed his brother an embarrassed half-smile. "I don’t know. I shoulda known better, but Ezra really wanted to come and look around, maybe find gold or something else so you guys wouldn’t have to work so hard. We were only tryin’ to help. Then he left his watch…" By the time his voice trailed off, Vin’s head was hanging and he was digging a hole in he dirt with the toe of his boot.

Buck stepped up closer to the nervous teen and tipped his chin up to meet his eyes. "I know, Vin. But this ain’t the way. One of you gets hurt, and it wouldn’t be worth anything you might find, you got that?"

"Yeah, Bucklin, I got it," Vin replied, turning away to pick up the last of the canteens.

"All right then, let’s get out of here before Ez and JD get tired of waitin’ and they go home without us." Buck said.

"I’m really sorry about JD bein’ here," Vin said earnestly, "but he wouldn’t break his promise. It meant that much to him."

"Thanks, Junior. At least he had enough sense to listen to his big brothers." With that he put his arm around the younger boy’s shoulder, squeezing gently before he adjusted his hold to put Vin in a brotherly headlock as he led them toward the entrance. He took the picks from Vin, leaving him the shovels and canteens.

At that same moment, Ezra was almost outside when he suddenly threw up his hands and turned back toward the rear of the mine. His canteen! The last thing he needed was to leave something else in there that might tempt him to return. He wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone in the world, but the silly thing meant something to him. It was one of the first gifts Josiah had given him when he arrived at the ranch. It was just one of his older brother’s old canteens that he had used when he was a kid, but he had known Ezra would need one if he was going to go riding around the ranch. The gesture had meant more to Ezra than he was willing to admit aloud.

He started jogging back the way he had come. "Hey Vin," he called out, "Don’t forget-" but his voice trailed off when he suddenly tripped over a rock. He reached out to steady himself and leaned all his weight against a loose timber along the wall. The long ago discarded beam suddenly made a creaking noise as it fell away from Ezra and into the nearest support timber, which splintered under the impact.

To his horror, the rocks above his head started raining down in a small trickle. He instinctively backed away, then glanced up as he heard his brothers coming toward him. "BUCK! Vin!" he called out in warning, just before larger rocks began tumbling down around him. A few fell close enough to glance off his body, making him feel like he was being pulverized. Then, with a horrendous roar, it seemed like the entire mountain was coming down!

"EZ! Run!" he heard Buck call out.

"Get back!" Vin called.

Through the falling rock, dirt and crumbling timbers, he could just make out Buck pulling Vin back away from the cave-in. Then a rock struck him with a glancing blow on the side of his head. He stumbled back several steps before collapsing onto the floor. He was oblivious to the debris that made its way toward him, coming to a stop within inches of the unconscious youth.

JD heard the tremendous roar from where he sat by the horses. He looked up in fear to see dirt come billowing out of the mine entrance. "Buck!!!" he cried out, taking a tentative step toward the entryway. "Vin, are you guys okay? Ezra?" Not hearing any response, he stepped into the dark, coughing as the dirt still drifting in the air filled his mouth and lungs. He turned back into the sunlight and clear air. Then, taking as deep a breath as possible, he once more plunged back into the mine opening.

He made his way slowly, holding his breath as long as he could. When he finally exhaled with a whoosh and then breathed in again, he went to his knees coughing. As he crawled along, scrubbing the dirt out of his eyes, his hand finally came into contact with something that wasn’t rock or dirt. He peered down through the cloud of dirt to see his brother on the ground in front of him, a trickle of blood coming from his hairline and down his face.

"Ezra!" he choked out, shaking his brother’s shoulder. "Come on, Ezra. Wake up." He glanced up at the wall of rock and splintered timber on the other side of his brother. "Ezra?"

Ezra finally responded with a moan to JD’s shaking and pulling. "JD?" he rasped out.

"Yeah, Ezra. What happened? Are you okay? Where’s Buck and Vin?" JD asked.

"JD, I need you to go home and get help," Ezra said. Without opening his eyes, his hand went to his head and found where the blood was already drying. He winced when he touched the large bump forming on the side of his head. He finally peeled an eye open when he realized the younger boy hadn’t moved. "JD, go get Chris and Josiah."

But JD just shook his head, staring past Ezra. "Where’s Buck and Vin?" he repeated, tears welling up in his hazel eyes.

Ezra reached out and tapped JD gently on the cheek, bringing the younger boy’s eyes to meet his own green ones. "They’re back there," Ezra said softly, tipping his head in the direction of the still-settling rocks, "and we have to get them out. But I can’t do it by myself. I won’t leave them in there, so I need you to ride back to the house and get help. Can you do that for me – for Buck and Vin, too?"

A momentary flash of doubt passed through JD’s eyes, then it was quickly replaced with determination. He nodded, then put a supporting arm under Ezra. "But you need to get up first. The air’s yucky in here."

Ezra smiled through his barely-contained panic at JD’s simple declaration. He allowed his younger brother to pull him up to his feet. He swayed heavily, but JD’s steadying grip kept him on his feet. Together, they tripped and stumbled out to the fresh air and sunlight. Ezra took several deep gulps of air and shook the loose dirt out of his hair.

"Okay, JD," Ezra commanded quickly, "I need you to get going. Can you find your way home by yourself?"

"Won’t need to," he replied, allowing a half-hearted smile. At Ezra’s questioning look, he walked over to Buck’s big gray. "I’ll take Max," he stated. "Buck says all you gotta do is point him in the right direction and he’ll find his way to the barn. Besides, he’s the fastest."

"Are you sure, JD?" Ezra knew JD was his only hope of getting help quickly, but he was still anxious about sending his youngest brother all the way home alone.

JD answered with a small nod. "I gotta, Ezra." With his brother’s help, he climbed up into the saddle and gathered the reins, then looked down at Ezra. JD could plainly see how distraught he was. "I’ll be back as fast as I can. You be careful."

Ezra nodded, unwilling to trust his voice to speak past the lump in his throat. He couldn’t believe JD didn’t hate him. He gave Max a light tap on the rump and sent them on their way.

Ezra was already blaming himself and was certain the others would too. After all, it had been his idea to find the mine. He’d been the one to convince Vin to come with him and he had cajoled JD into keeping their secret, and he had been the one to leave his watch down there.

At the thought, he took the treasured timepiece out of his pocket, his eyes filling with tears of frustration. Pulling his arm back, he almost sent the watch flying. But realizing it wouldn’t do anyone any good, he put it back in his pocket.

He watched as JD disappeared into the trees, then turned and went back inside. He meant what he told JD – he wouldn’t leave Vin and Buck in there.


Feedback welcome!