CAVE IN by Niteowl

Buck’s first impulse when he heard the ominous rumbling was to run through the impending rock fall before they became trapped. But catching a glimpse of Ezra through the rain of dirt and rock quickly ruled that option out. After shouting the warning to one younger brother, he quickly used his body to shield the other as he guided Vin further back into the mine, away from the danger. They couldn’t move fast enough and a good-size amount of dirt and rock above them fell away, hitting Buck squarely on the shoulders and back, driving him to the ground. He managed to shove Vin far enough ahead of him before another rock hit him squarely on the back of the head, sending him into oblivion.

Vin was sent sprawling by Buck’s push and lay stunned for a moment. He drew in a sharp breath, only to start coughing in the dust filtering everywhere. He turned over onto his back, trying to orient himself in the choking dust and darkness. "Buck?" he croaked out when he realized his older brother was no longer next to him. "Buck!" came his more urgent cry, followed by silence.

He sat up and used his hands to comb the ground around him trying to locate Buck or his now missing flashlight. When he found neither within reach, he gingerly got on his hands and knees and began crawling around the floor. He bit back the urge to cry out several times as his knees or hands would press into a sharp rock or piece of splintered wood, and he kept moving.

Finally, his hand found a yielding mass. He skimmed his hand over the back of his brother’s shirt until he located Buck’s dark hair. Vin began brushing the dirt away, trying to clear Buck’s nose and mouth. He was afraid maybe his older brother wasn’t breathing, and just the thought was enough to almost send him into a full-blown panic attack. He tried to slow and steady his breathing. He had to be strong – Buck needed him now. Vin’s hand then came in contact with his brother’s nose, and he held his own breath while he kept his hand close to Buck’s nose and mouth. He was rewarded with the barest of breaths blowing across the back of his hand.

As the dust settled, he realized there was still some light coming from somewhere around him. Not much, but just enough to make out shapes and objects. ‘The flashlights’, he remembered to himself, ‘one of them must be on.’ He looked around until he found his own light. Feeling around, he also found Ezra’s and turned it off, setting it down close to him, in case he needed it later.

Leaning in close, he squinted, trying to get a good look at Buck. As he touched the back of Buck’s head, he could feel the warm stickiness of blood. Vin pulled his hand back quickly and felt tears that had nothing to do with the dust around them filling his sky blue eyes.

"Buck," he said softly, "wake up." He wanted to shake him until he woke up, but didn’t want to risk making an unseen injury worse, so he settled for brushing more dirt off his brother’s back and legs, and still Buck didn’t move. Vin sat staring at him for awhile, waiting and hoping for any movement. Then he slowly leaned over and lay his head down on the bigger man’s back where he could feel the rise and fall as the other breathed. Silent tears ran down his cheeks and onto the fabric of Buck’s dust-covered shirt. "Please don’t die," he whispered.

Vin didn’t care about all the times he’d heard boys aren’t supposed to cry. Buck had been the one to tell him a long time ago that it was okay if you had good enough reason to. He figured this was about as much reason as he’d ever want to have, and so he let the tears fall.

+ + + + + + +

It took JD over an hour at Max’s best speed to make his way back to the ranch. He had given Max his head and whispered "Go home," then hung on for all he was worth. The longer he rode, the more his vivid imagination played out worse case scenarios. He was already yelling for Chris long before he got close to the corral. Chris and Nathan came running out of the house at the sounds of pounding horse hoofs and JD’s hysterical shouting.

"JD? What’s wrong?" Nathan asked. He reached up for his little brother and helped him off the horse as soon as Chris had a hold of Max’s reins, but the boy couldn’t catch his breath.

"JD, where’s Buck?" Chris called over his shoulder as it suddenly dawned on him whose horse the boy had come charging in on. "I thought you went exploring with Vin and Ezra?"

JD took a gulping breath and met Chris’s eyes with a look of desperation. "We went back to the mine," he began, not caring if Chris yelled at him or not. "I waited outside ‘cause I promised Buck I wouldn’t, but Ezra left his watch and him and Vin went in to get it. And then Buck was there and he went in to get them. And then there was this real loud noise and it felt like a train was going by and all this dirt and stuff came out. And I went in on account of they didn’t hear me when I yelled from outside. And I found Ezra, but he hurt his head and we went back out and he said I had to come home and get help ‘cause all these rocks fell and Buck and Vin are behind the rocks!"

With each additional ‘and’ in JD’s story, Nathan’s eyes got bigger. The two older brothers looked down at the boy who finally finished his story and was probably waiting for his big brother to punish him. Acting on instinct, Nathan moved closer to make sure JD wasn’t hurt.

To JD’s surprise and Nathan’s relief, Chris knelt down in front of him and took him in a gentle hug, then held him out at arm’s length. "Are you okay?"

JD just nodded, trying to hold back the tears that were finally threatening to spill.

"It’s going to be all right, JD," Chris said.

"Promise?" JD said, his bottom lip trembling.

"I promise," Chris pledged quietly, taking his exhausted brother into another hug. As soon as JD’s head hit Chris’s shoulder, the tears came. Looking across to Nathan, he met the troubled brown eyes. "Go get Josiah, then call the Sheriff. We’re going to need a lot of help. Josiah and I’ll go now on horseback; you wait for the Sheriff and come in the Jeep." Chris was already making a mental list of the supplies they’d need.

"What about JD?" Nathan asked.

"Call Nettie and see if she can come stay with him," Chris replied.

"NO!" JD cried, "I’m coming with you! I want to help!"

"We all do, JD," Nathan reasoned, "but it’s too dangerous for you to be there."

"I want to help," JD repeated, trying to twist out of Chris embrace.

"Listen to me, Little Bit," Chris said softly.

Hearing the nickname only Buck used for him coming from Chris, JD froze.

"We don’t have time to argue - You rode Max all the way home by yourself and that was a very brave thing to do. But right now, I need you to stay with Miss Nettie and help her take care of the horses. I know you want to help us get them out, but if you go back and get hurt, do you think Buck or Vin would like that?"

JD’s eyes went to the ground and he shook his head slowly.

"Will you stay here and help Nathan get ready and help Miss Nettie not to worry? And I promise, as soon as we get them out, I’ll come get you." Chris reached out and lifted JD’s face so their eyes could meet. When he had the boy’s attention, he held his hand out to him. "Deal?"

JD knew how important it was to Chris when he made a promise with a handshake. "Deal," he replied, taking his brother’s offered hand.

"Okay then," Chris said. "How about you help me get the horses saddled?" Chris draped his arm across JD’s shoulder as they walked to the barn.

By the time they had both horses bridled and tied to a hitching ring, Josiah came in and they worked quickly and quietly. Chris knew Nathan had told him everything JD had said. They knew they had to act quickly. Everything they thought they would need went on a packhorse, and before long they were ready to go.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was so frustrated he was almost to the point of tears. It seemed like it had been hours since JD left to get help, and no one had come yet. Was his little brother all right? Had he made it home safe? How long should he wait before he went for help himself?

As soon as the younger boy left, Ezra had gone back inside and started working on the rockslide. But he felt like he was getting nowhere. Several times he’d worked a good size hole in the face of the slide, only to have dirt and rocks tumble down and fill in his efforts. He had yelled himself hoarse calling for his brothers, but silence was his only answer. He had only taken one small break to run down to the creek to get a desperately needed drink before returning to the mine and back to moving rocks and pieces of wood from the ruined support beams.

He took another break to catch his breath and was sitting back leaning on the cool rock wall. To his relief, he heard the sound of hoof beats coming toward the mine entrance. He ran outside to meet his brothers.

"Chris!" he called out, spotting his older brother. His heart sank when he realized Chris was alone. "Where’s everybody else? Did JD get home okay? Didn’t he tell you what happened?"

Chris was off his horse without saying a word, striding into the mine past his younger brother. Ezra followed slowly, seeing the barely contained anger in his brother’s eyes. He caught up to Chris as he was taking in the scene of the devastation.

"What the hell happened, Ezra?" he said between clenched teeth.

Ezra took a deep breath before replying. To his credit, he made no attempt to deflect whatever blame Chris was going to place on him. "I left my watch here yesterday. I used that as an excuse to get Vin to come back up here with me. Buck found us here and he sent me out first and went to retrieve Vin. I was going back to get my canteen and I tripped. A loose timber crashed into the support beams and the roof caved in. Buck and Vin were just coming out and I saw Buck take Vin back into the mine. I sent JD home for help and I’ve been trying to dig them out myself ever since." That said, Ezra waited for the explosion he knew was coming, and he felt he deserved whatever that might be.

Chris reached out and took Ezra’s chin in his hand. He moved the young Southerner’s head left and right, examining the injury. Finally he spoke. "Josiah’s coming right behind me. Go outside and wait for him."

"I want to stay and help," Ezra protested.

"I don’t have time to deal with you right now, Ezra. Just do like you’re told for once," Chris ground out, looking away from Ezra to focus on the pile of rubble before him. "And have Nathan take a look at your head when he gets here."

Ezra backed out slowly, his head hung low in defeat as he went.

+ + + + + + +

The dust had finally settled and it became easier to breathe. Vin sat up and used the inside of his shirttail to wipe the dirt out of his eyes. He turned his flashlight off after lighting one of the old lamps he and Ezra had found earlier that had been lying in the dirt. There was a small amount of oil left that provided a flickering light around the room, enough for him to see. He gently brushed the rest of the dirt off Buck’s back, then began working on making sure his nose and mouth were still clear, keeping one hand on his brother’s back, taking comfort in the steady rise and fall. Vin was trying to be careful as he brushed his fingers through the other’s dark hair. Vin could see it was covered in dirt and not the normal dark shade he was used to seeing. As he came close to the injury on the back of Buck’s head, his brother groaned and tried to pull away from Vin’s touch. Buck barely managed to get up on his elbows, before falling back down with a moan.

"Buck, can you hear me?" Vin whispered.

Buck’s face scrunched tightly with pain as he tried to pull himself out of the darkness he was in. He moved one arm, then the other. He used his right arm to feel around, finding himself on the hard ground surrounded by debris. His hand finally landed on his younger brother’s knee.

Vin took Buck’s hand in both of his and held onto it like a lifeline.

Buck managed to crack open an eye and recognized the blurry form in front of him. "V-Vin?" he managed to get out before he started coughing on the choking dust he had already inhaled. That caused the pain in his head to intensify to the point where he squeezed his eyes closed again and waited for the wave to pass. When he finally recovered his breath and could open his eyes again, he found Vin looking at him in the semi-darkness. "You all right?"

Vin just nodded, not trusting his voice yet.

"Sure?" Buck asked.

"Yeah. You?" Vin replied.

"Well, I’ve been better, but I think I’ll live." Buck used his hands to push himself up slowly onto his arms; then he rolled over to get a look around. Once he was in a sitting position, he started coughing again. Vin reached behind him where Ezra’s canteen had landed. He picked it up and offered it to Buck.

Buck took it and looked at his brother. "Thanks, Junior," he said before he took a small swallow. "How long have I been out?" he asked.

"Not long," Vin replied. Then, in a frightened whisper he added, "Buck, what are we gonna do?"

"Well, right now, I reckon we just sit tight. I imagine by now Ezra’s got Chris and everybody else at the ranch out there helping him dig us out," Buck answered, squeezing Vin’s arm lightly. "Don’t worry, they’ll find us."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat in the back of the open ambulance, being attended to by one of the paramedics that Nathan knew from his week-end ride alongs with the local EMT’s. From where he sat, Ezra was watching the mine entrance for any familiar movement.

There were several dozen people scurrying about, setting up equipment and trying to be useful. At the moment, it looked like they were just getting in each other’s way.

The opening itself had been cleared. Where before the boys had to pull down the wire mesh and work their way in through the spaces made where the boards had rotted and fallen away, it was now wide open.

Ezra jumped down and joined Nathan when he spotted Chris and Josiah coming out into the light. They walked up to the waiting group, which included a Sheriff’s Deputy who was helping coordinate the early hours of the rescue attempt.

"What’s it like in there, Chris?" the Deputy asked.

"The guys that relieved us, the miners from Murphy’s, say it’s real bad, a major cave-in," he answered, pulling off his helmet and wiping the sweat from his forehead on his shirtsleeve.

While Chris avoiding looking in his direction, Josiah couldn’t help but notice how heartbroken Ezra looked as he listened to the exchange. Seeing the bandage on his head, the oldest brother raised an eyebrow in question at Nathan, who had stepped up behind Ezra. Nathan just shrugged and offered a small smile and a nod of assurance that he was watching out for the guilt-ridden teen.

"Well listen, just pace yourselves," the deputy offered. "Sounds like you’re going to need everything you got."

"Where is the mine rescue unit? Nathan asked.

"On their way," the Deputy replied. "Thing is, Tim Carter heads the team. They’re trying to locate him." The Deputy noticed the look of guilt from Ezra and anger from Chris. "Well, if you can think of anything else--" Since he couldn’t think of anything to say that would be of comfort, he backed away to give the brothers their privacy.

"Chris, never once did I think--" Ezra started, closing his eyes in an attempt to block the pain he was feeling, not from his head but from his heart.

"Later okay," Chris cut him off. "We’ll talk about it when this is over. Right now, we’re trying to get them out."

"You’re right," Ezra agreed. "I’m ready to assist."

"No," Chris said sharply. "There’s no way you can help us down there now."

"Ezra, you just took a nasty bump on the head. Why don’t you give yourself some time," Nathan added a little more sympathetically.

"Chris please, I just want to help," Ezra was almost pleading.

"No!" came Chris’s immediate reply. "You do what Nathan says. Come on Josiah."

Josiah patted Ezra’s shoulder gently, then gave him a thumbs-up sign as he followed Chris back into the dark recess of the tunnel. Nathan moved a little closer, and it took every bit of restraint he had not to throw his arm across his brother’s shoulder to try and comfort him.

+ + + + + + +

When Vin began to stand up, Buck grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him back to a sitting position. "Stay down," he instructed. "You can breathe better down low, okay?"

Vin nodded in reply. "Ya think we’ll be here long?" he asked.

"Hard to tell. You know though, when we get outta here, we’re gonna be major celebrities – TV, movies, magazines – the works," Buck answered, trying to take Vin’s mind off their predicament. He grinned at Vin’s look of distaste, knowing how he felt about being the center of attention in a group of strangers. "Tell ya what, you just leave all them pretty girls that’ll be flocking around to ol’ Buck here."

That brought a grin to Vin’s face. "You need anything?" he asked. "How’s your head?"

"I could use a drink of water and a bottle of aspirin," Buck replied, shifting to try and find a more comfortable position.

Vin picked up the canteen and handed it to Buck. "Water I can manage, aspirin I ain’t got." Then he helped his big brother take a healthy drink.

"Thanks," Buck said with a sigh. "You too."

Seeing the no-nonsense look on Buck’s face, Vin decided not to argue and took a drink himself. The worried look was back on his face again as he brought the canteen down and looked around.

"Come here Junior," Buck said, pulling Vin’s arm to scoot the younger man closer. "I don’t know about you, but it’s gettin’ a little chilly in here. Would you mind sharin’ a little body heat?"

Vin smiled and shook his head, but crawled over and settled comfortably into the crook of Buck’s shoulder. "Thanks Buck," he said softly.

"Anytime, Vin," he replied. Using his free hand to put up behind his head, he leaned back and closed his eyes, praying help would arrive soon.

+ + + + + + +

In the next hour few hours, even more people and all kinds of equipment arrived at the mine entrance, including a news crew from the local TV station. Mary Travis, a pretty young blonde was standing in front of the camera. "And so the frantic effort to save the two brothers grows, as more volunteers, neighbors and strangers arrive to help…"

Ezra sat on the tailgate of the parked jeep, but he couldn’t seem to keep still. Nathan frowned as he watched the quiet Southerner fidget and squirm, never taking his eyes off the mine entrance.

Suddenly, Ezra jumped down and ran over to the table where Red Cross volunteers and some of the women from the area had set up a table of food and drinks. Ezra grabbed two cups of coffee and met Chris and Josiah as they came out of the mine again. "Here you are," he said as he handed each brother a cup.

"Oh boy," Josiah sighed as he took the cup gratefully.

"Have you heard any sounds? Voices maybe?" Ezra asked hopefully, his expression falling as he watched Chris walk past him to stand by Nathan.

"We’re not close enough, Ezra," Josiah replied. "But the guys on the rescue team are terrific."

"I can work now," Ezra offered. "I’m feeling a lot better."

"That’s good," Josiah said, waiting for Chris to say something. The silence went on until it became uncomfortable.

"How about you two?" Nathan finally asked. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, great," Josiah answered. "We’re just going to take a quick break then get back in there."

"Chris--" Ezra started.

"Ezra, I don’t want to hear it right now," Chris interrupted, turning his back to the younger man.

"I have to talk to you," Ezra said, on the verge of tears.

"NO!" Chris said emphatically.

"I have to explain--" Ezra kept trying, moving closer to the blonde.

"Not now," Chris said as he turned back around to face his other brothers.

"Ezra," Nathan tried, putting his hand on the other’s arm.

"Nathan please," he said, stepping away from the comforting presence as he moved closer to face Chris. "I want to hear it from him. I just want you to understand, I didn’t mean for this to happen. It was an accident."

"No it wasn’t," came Tim Carter’s decidedly angry voice. He was just climbing out of a Deputy’s car nearby. "Accidents don’t happen when you’ve been specifically told to stay out of a place as dangerous as a closed mine!"

"Mister Carter, I don’t know what to say," Ezra began. "I know how stupid ‘I’m sorry’ is going to sound. It was dumb--"

"Dumb?" Carter cut him off. "Dumb is when you back into someone else’s car. Those are your brothers down there, and they’re there because of you! And now you have all these people here, wanting to help even though they know it dangerous. And if any of them gets hurt, it’ll still be your fault."

"Tim, no matter how bad you feel, Ezra doesn’t deserve this," Josiah offered softly.

"I’m only telling the truth," Carter replied hotly.

Ezra looked to Chris, waiting for his brother to leap to his defense. When he was met with stony silence, Ezra’s face went pale and he shouldered his way past Nathan and Josiah, losing himself in the crowd surrounding the clearing. Josiah sighed and shook his head sadly.

Nathan also looked to Chris, but still he kept quiet. Nathan watched in dismay as Chris finished his coffee, threw the cup away and walked off in the opposite direction of their younger brother.

+ + + + + + +

Vin wasn’t sure how long he’d been lying there in the dim light, but he sat up with a start when he felt himself nodding off. He knew enough about head injuries that he needed to keep an eye on Buck and not let him go to sleep. "Buck," he said, carefully shaking him, "wake up. You can’t go to sleep."

"Hmmm?" Buck replied sleepily, having drifted off himself. He adjusted his position with a moan, trying to find a more comfortable spot. His head still hurt, but not as bad, and his back between his shoulder blades was sore with every movement.

"You okay?" Vin asked, looking his brother over carefully.

"I’ve been better," Buck replied honestly.

"How come we haven’t heard the rescue people digging yet?" Vin asked, trying to get Buck to talk to him.

"I don’t know," Buck answered, sitting up and watching Vin rise and stretch.

"Hey, the air’s better now," Vin said, looking back at Buck as he began to pace. "Are you sure Ezra got out?"

"Positive," Buck replied, "I’ll bet Chris and the others are trying to get us out right now."

"You still cold?" Vin asked, coming to a stop in front of Buck.

"I’m fine," Buck assured with a shake of his head, starting to pull the shirt he had on over his t-shirt off. Vin helped Buck out of the shirt and handed it to him. He began to roll it up to make a pillow. "Look," he said, pulling something out of his pocket. It was a wrinkled bag of M&M’s. He couldn’t help smiling as he saw Vin eyeing it. "Here, you can have it."

"Aren’t you hungry?" Vin asked, taking the offered candy. "I think I’d even eat one of those school lunches about now."

"Boy, I didn’t think anybody got that hungry," Buck teased, knowing Vin’s reluctance to eat in the school cafeteria, preferring to pack his own lunch every morning. He watched as Vin poured a few out into his hand and popped them in his mouth, then made a face. "What can I say? – They’re from the movies, couple of weeks ago," Buck apologized with a shrug.

Vin poured a few more out, then handed to bag back to Buck. "Here, you better take half."

Buck smiled and took it from him, putting the shirt behind his head. Vin watched him cautiously. "Don’t worry, Vin. I’m not going to sleep. Just need to rest a few more minutes."

Vin took another swallow from the canteen, handed it to Buck and looked around the dark room.

+ + + + + + +

Night had fallen while more and more equipment and people were coming to the site of the disaster, all wanting to help. With Tim Carter there, everything was getting organized and the digging was being done in shifts.

Ezra was finally allowed in the tunnel to help. With Nathan and Josiah flanking him, Chris stood back for a moment and watched as his brothers worked.

"This has to be it. I know they’re in there!" Ezra declared, swinging his pick erratically at the pile of rock.

"Ezra, slow down," Chris warned, watching a trickle of dirt drift down from above Ezra’s head. "Be careful,"

"They’re in there," he repeated, swinging the pick even wider. When he connected with the roof, a good-sized rock dislodged and hit Tim Carter’s hard hat with a glancing blow.

"Get him out of here, Chris," he growled, "or I will."

Chris made a motion to Josiah, who moved up to Ezra’s side. "Ezra – Ezra – Come on, let’s go get some fresh air," he said, gently pulling on his younger brother’s arm.

"Leave me alone, Josiah," Ezra answered angrily, pulling his arm loose.

"Ezra," he said sharply, pulling the pick out of his hands. "Now." With a hand on Ezra’s elbow, he led the teenager back toward the mine entrance. Chris sighed as he watched them go.

"Get some more men in here!" Carter called.

Just then, one of the men from Carter’s mine rescue unit came running up to him. "The scoop’s here, Tim," he announced.

"Good. That could really cut through this stuff," he said, motioning to Chris. "We’ll have to see how the walls and the overhead can handle the vibration."

Chris nodded in acknowledgement.

As Ezra and Josiah made their way into the cool night air, a large front-end loader with a scoop bucket was rumbling it’s way toward the tunnel entrance. It was going to be a tight squeeze. They flattened themselves against the wall and let it move past.

As the scoop could be heard approaching the cave-in, Carter tapped the men digging on the shoulders. "Let’s pull out!" he called over the sound of the machine’s engine. "I have to see how it works."

The group reluctantly backed away from the rock pile, including Nathan. Chris and Carter were the last to leave.

As Carter turned around to watch the machine as it made its way past him to the debris, Chris began to exit the mine shaft. Something on the rock wall caught his eye and he stepped closer and leaned in to get a better look.

"Tim," he called the other over, "look at this."

Carter joined Chris. His eyes widened in surprise. A steady trickle of water, beginning at the roof, was running down the wall of the tunnel. The two men exchanged a look of concern.

"This isn’t good," Carter said softly.

Outside the mine, Josiah and Ezra had walked over toward the Red Cross table. The older of the two stepped away from Ezra and snagged two cups of hot chocolate, then took several long strides to catch up with the forlorn figure who hadn’t stopped walking.

"It was an accident, son," he said gently, handing Ezra one of the steaming cups. "You didn’t mean for it to happen, did you?"

Ezra slowly shook his head without looking up.

"All right then, let’s just concentrate on getting them out," Josiah said.

When they reach their battered old jeep, Ezra climbed up on the tailgate and sipped his chocolate with his head still down.

"Ezra, look at me," Josiah said gently. When his brother just shook his head again, he took Ezra’s chin in his gentle hands and lifted his face until their eyes met. "Aren’t you being a little hard on yourself?"

"Josiah--" he began, trying to pull away from the comforting touch.

But Josiah refused to let go. "Listen to me," Josiah said, "I remember this story Dad told me a long time ago, about how he lost a hunting dog down in that mine. It took him days to get to him, but he got him out."

"What on earth does that have to do with anything?" Ezra asked with a drawn out sigh.

"We’ll find them, Ezra," Josiah replied.

"When?" he asked, his voice not much more than a desperate whisper.

"We have to be patient," Josiah replied. "These things can be tricky." When Ezra finally nodded to let his older brother know he was listening, Josiah finally released the youngster’s chin, taking a drink from his own cup.

Ezra took a slow sip of his drink, then looked back up at Josiah. "How did Dad lose the dog anyway?"

"What? Oh, from what I remember, he fell down an open ventilator shaft at the back of the mine," Josiah replied, his brows coming together as he tried to call up the memory.

"A ventilator shaft? Where?" Ezra said, really looking up for the first time.

"I don’t know for sure," Josiah answered, shaking his head.

"Where Josiah?" he demanded, jumping off the back of the jeep, his eyes bright with hope.

"Forget it, Ezra," Josiah replied, looking over at his brother as he realized how excited Ezra had suddenly become.

"Forget it? I think not," Ezra declared as he ran to where Chaucer was tied.

"Ezra!" Josiah called after him, but the younger man was on his horse and gone in a matter of seconds, disappearing into the dark.

When Chris came walking out of the mine, Nathan was waiting for him.

"Here, they just made this," Nathan said, handing Chris a cup of coffee, his caretaker instincts taking over. "You need to sit down."

Chris took the cup and allowed his brother to lead him to a large boulder, where he sat down heavily. "We keep digging and digging – but I can’t see where we’re getting any closer," Chris said, his voice trembling with exhaustion and a little desperation. "I’m past scared, Nate."

"I know," Nathan said, laying his arm on his brother’s in support. "And I know you probably don’t want to deal with this right now, but you need to say something to Ezra."

"There’s only so many things I can handle at one time," Chris said, avoiding Nathan’s eyes. "And right now they’re down in that mine."

"He needs you too," Nathan said gently but insistently.

"I just don’t know what to say to him," Chris said.

"Tell him you understand; that’s all he really wants," Nathan offered. "We can deal with the rest when this is all over."

"Yeah, I know," Chris finally admitted, draining the rest of his coffee in a gulp. "Where is he?"

"He was with Josiah," Nathan answered, standing up and looking around. He waved his oldest brother over.

"Chris," Tim Carter called out. He waited until he had the other’s attention before he continued. "Well, the scoop is out. Anything that weakens the wall will cause a flood that’ll fill the whole mine."

At Josiah and Nathan’s questioning looks, Chris explained. "We found some water seeping into the tunnel."

"Can we pump it out?" Josiah asked.

"If we had months – maybe," Carter replied, looking crushed. He walked out into the night, the small area lit up with artificial light. He looked around until he located one of his fellow mine engineers and they walked together over to the small trailer they were using as the command post, beginning to discuss if there were any options left.

+ + + + + + +

It was just getting light as Ezra reined Chaucer in at the front of his family’s home. He had ridden home carefully in the dark. He threw the door open and ran inside. He went straight to the den and opened the cabinet he had found the maps in that day not long past. He rifled through the stack, discarding one after another, after giving each a quick perusal. Finally he came across what he was looking for and he cried out in triumph. While he was still bent over the large piece of paper, the sound of footsteps drew his attention to the doorway.

JD stood just inside the room, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "Ezra? What are you doing?"

"What are you doing up this time of morning?" Ezra asked with a smile.

"You woke me up," JD grumbled. Then as he remembered the events from the day before and stepped in closer to his brother. "Did you find them yet?"

"Not yet," Ezra replied. "But we’re still looking."

"Are you okay?" he asked, noticing the bandage on the side of his brother’s head.

"I’m fine, I assure you," Ezra answered with a small smile, glad to know someone still cared.

"What did you come home for?" JD asked, looking curiously over at the map in Ezra’s hand.

"I need one of Dad’s old maps to help us perhaps reach them more quickly," Ezra replied.

"Can I come back with you?" JD asked, his bright hazel eyes practically begging.

"Not yet, JD," Ezra replied. "But as soon as we find them, someone will be back to retrieve you."

By the time Ezra rolled up the map and tucked it inside his jacket, Nettie Wells had also come into the hallway, a warm robe over her nightclothes, her niece Casey in her arms. "Land sakes, child," she exclaimed. "What are you doing here at this ungodly hour? Is everything all right?"

"No time to explain, Mrs. Wells," Ezra declared, planting a quick kiss on her cheek as he ran past her back toward the door, opening it and running out into the cool dawn air and back onto Chaucer. Once he was aboard, he gave his horse a nudge with his heels and they were on their way back to the mine.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was up and walking around, checking the walls with his flashlight, hoping to find another way out. Every once in a while, another rock or trickle of dirt would rain down on him and he’d back away with a sigh or a mild curse, looking over at Buck and waiting for his reproach, which never came.

"It’s solid," he finally admitted, sitting back down next to Buck. "The whole thing is solid. Where is everybody anyway?!"

"They’ll be here, Vin," Buck replied, putting a reassuring hand on his younger brother’s back and rubbing up and down. "It’s just going to take them a little while. Scared?"

Vin looked up sharply and opened his mouth to deny it, then hung his head and nodded. " A little," he finally admitted.

"It’s okay, Junior," Buck said, "Me too. But never in all my life has Chris Larabee ever given up on something once he puts his mind to it. Trust me, he ain’t ever gonna give up. And he’s got Josiah there to help him."

"You’re right about that," Vin admitted, stifling a yawn.

"How about you get some sleep and I’ll keep an ear out for the rescue crew," Buck suggested, patting the ground beside him. He took his shirt out from behind his head and handed it to his brother. "I need to stretch anyway." He swayed a little as he fought a wave of dizziness, but was able to stay on his feet.

"Thanks Buck," Vin said as he got as comfortable as he could. Within minutes, he was sound asleep.

Buck took the flashlight and began his own search around the small chamber. ‘We’ve gotta find a way outta here.’

+ + + + + + +

As Ezra rode back up to the mine entrance, Mary Travis was once again in front of the news camera and this time she had Nathan standing with her.

"We’ve received scores of phone calls from people all over the country, offering their prayers and support to you and your brothers," she said as she held the microphone over to Nathan.

"We’d like to thank those people and the friends and neighbors and strangers who’ve come to lend their help and support," Nathan was saying. "We haven’t had much good news, so those words mean a lot. Thank you."

Ezra smiled over at Josiah as he dismounted and tied his horse securely, giving him a quick pat and finding his feed bag. He had stopped on the way to allow the animal to drink at the small creek just a short distance from the mine. He pulled the map out of his jacket as he walked over to Tim Carter.

He waited until he had the older man’s attention before he began. "Mister Carter, I understand I can’t change the way you feel about me right now, and as feeble as it sounds, I’m sorry is the best I can do."

"Ezra, I just don’t have time to deal with you right now," Carter said as he began to walk past Ezra.

Ezra didn’t see Nathan walking up behind him as he blocked Carter’s path and handed him the map.

"Look, I found this map in my father’s things. I’m not exactly sure what these markings mean, but are they not ventilator shafts here and here?" he asked, pointing to the map.

Carter barely glanced at it before thrusting it at the stubborn Southerner. "I don’t know – I don’t know what they are. But I do know there’s no shaft back there."

"Mister Carter, is it possible our father found one that you aren’t aware of?" Ezra persisted.

"Ezra, just stay away from me," Carter said through clenched teeth as he started to go around him.

Nathan came and stood beside him. "Mister Carter, why don’t you give him a break?" he said.

"I don’t want to see him up here while your brothers are down there, got it?" Carter replied as he stalked away.

As he saw his brother’s shoulders slump in defeat, Nathan looked at the map still in Ezra’s hand. "Do you really think those are vent shafts?" He glanced over and was rewarded with a small smile of gratitude.

Ezra nodded in reply. "From what I remember of the maps my stepfather used to show me, that’s what they have to be."

Nathan took the map from him and fished in his pocket for the keys to the jeep. "Come on. You and I are going looking."


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