CAVE IN by Niteowl

Nathan drove the jeep slowly towards the hill across the open field, avoiding the larger rocks and fallen trees, but it was still a bumpy ride for him and Ezra. He looked over at his younger brother as a hiss escaped between his teeth after a particularly big bump. "Are you sure you’re all right?" Nathan knew the other boy’s head was probably killing him.

"I’m fine," Ezra replied through gritted teeth, looking out the window. "According to the map, this hill should be roughly over the back of the Luck Lady. If these map marks mean anything, we should be in the right area."

"Do you think the shaft is going to be marked, or does it have a cover on it or what?" Nathan asked, deferring to his younger brother’s claim of having gone cave exploring with one of Maude’s previous husbands.

"If it was ever covered, I’m sure it’s long gone by now," Ezra answered, not taking his eyes off the scenery. "I would imagine we’re looking for a hole, one that’s probably obscured by foliage." Ezra looked back down at the map, then up at the hillside. "Here, stop here. This should be the right place."

Nathan eased the jeep to a stop. He and Ezra climbed out, then went to the back of the jeep. Nathan pulled out a coiled length of rope and slipped it over his shoulder. He handed a flashlight to Ezra and kept one himself.

"Thank you for coming with me, Nathan," Ezra said as he took the offered light, lifting his head and meeting his brother’s eyes.

"It’s gonna be all right," Nathan assured him. Although he knew Ezra tended to be reluctant about being touched, Nathan gave him a quick squeeze of the shoulder before they walked away from the jeep.

"I think it would be best to walk a zig-zag pattern down the side of the hill," Ezra cautioned, as they split up. "Be careful where you’re stepping.

+ + + + + + +

Vin woke up and sat up with a yawn and stretched. He looked around in confusion for a second, then frowned when he took in his surroundings. "Was hopin’ it was just a bad dream," he said out loud.

"You and me both," Buck added.

Vin turned to look at his older brother, sitting with his back leaning on the rock wall. "You wouldn’t have any more candy in another pocket, would ya?"

"Sorry," Buck replied, shaking his head.

Vin just shrugged and stood. He walked over to where Buck was sitting and sat down next to him.

Buck handed him the canteen. Vin shook it before taking a small swallow, then he handed it back.

"You okay, Buck?" Vin asked when his brother just leaned back against the wall again.

"Yeah, I’m just fine," he answered, sitting forward when he saw the look of worry in Vin’s eyes.

"No luck?" Vin asked, noticing the shovel and flashlight at Buck’s side.

"Nope," Buck answered, "Not yet anyway. We just gotta keep lookin’. There’s gotta be more than one way in or out of here."

"Why aren’t you scared?" Vin asked.

Buck snorted before he looked over at his brother. "Are you kidding? I’ve been scared ever since I headed in here after you two."

"You don’t look it," Vin said, chewing on his bottom lip.

"Hell, Junior, I learned a long time ago livin’ with Chris Larabee, you gotta stay calm even if things look bad," Buck replied with a half-smile. He could see the tension in Vin’s posture and thought a little hard work might take his mind of their predicament. "Here," he said, handing Vin the shovel. "Maybe it’ll help if you do something."

Vin just looked at Buck skeptically, but he took the shovel and stood.

"We might be hearin’ the rescue people any minute now," Buck said, nodding at the pile of debris blocking their way out. "In the meantime, we could get some of this stuff out of the way." He watched as Vin went to work on the blockage.

+ + + + + + +

"NATHAN! Nathan, over here!" Ezra called as he knelt down to clear the limbs that had fallen across the opening in the ground. "This is it! I’m sure of it."

"Slow down," Nathan warned, approaching the hole and bending over to look inside. "It doesn’t pay to get ahead of yourself."

"How far do you think it goes?" Ezra asked as he pulled the last limb back.

"One thing at a time," Nathan replied, taking the rope off. He looked around until he found a rock about the size of a bowling ball. He tied it securely at the end of the rope, then began feeding it into the hole. A little more than ten feet down, he felt the rock hit something.

Frowning, he handed the end to Ezra. He moved close to the opening and shone his flashlight inside, hoping to discover why the rock stopped falling. He knew the shaft had to be deeper than that if it was going to help them get their brothers out.

Ezra was jerking the rope and suddenly felt it as the rock came loose and started moving down again. "Anything?" he asked Nathan.

He shook his head. "Too dark; just keep feeding it in there."

Finally the rope played out at twenty feet and still the rock hadn’t hit bottom. "That has to be a shaft," Ezra said, letting out a sigh of relief. "It should go all the way to the floor of the Lucky Lady."

"Let’s go tell the others," Nathan said, standing and pulling a reluctant Ezra up with him.

When they got back to the mine entrance, Nathan went with Ezra to find Tim Carter and their other two brothers.

"We found the ventilator shaft, just where the map indicated," Ezra said, looking up at Chris. He just looked down at Ezra without saying a word, causing the hopeful look to dim from the boy’s eyes.

Josiah noticed and moved close to him and patted his shoulder. "That’s good, Ezra."

"We played out a good twenty feet of rope down and still didn’t hit bottom," Nathan added. "It’s got to be deep enough to go all the way down to the mine."

"All that proves is you found a shaft, or a hole or whatever it is," Carter said impatiently. "It might not be anywhere near where they’re trapped."

"Then give me a chance to find out, Mister Carter," Ezra countered defiantly. "Let me go down the hole and find out."

"No!" Carter declared. "If it’s a shaft and not just some abandoned well, then it’s old and it’s probably partially collapsed. If you go down there and get caught, then that’s another rescue we’ll have to deal with."

"Mister Carter, I assure you, I know what I’m doing," Ezra tried.

"No," he answered, shaking his head emphatically. "Our best chance is to keep working on the tunnel until we reach them. And that’s what we’re going to do."

"Look, all I want--" Ezra started, refusing to give up.

"Ezra!" Carter cut him off impatiently. "I am so tired of you. What you want is for someone to say that it’s okay and it’s not your fault. Well it’s not okay and it IS your fault!"

"All right, Tim. Hold it right there," Chris finally spoke, moving between the older man and his younger brother. He didn’t see Ezra’s look of relief and expectation. "You’re wrong about Ezra. And right now you’re way out of line. He’s just trying to help. Finding that shaft and wanting to go down it ought to prove that, even to you."

"All it proves to me, Chris, is that Ezra might not be the only one to blame here," Carter said darkly.

Josiah had heard enough. "We still have two brothers down there that we’ve got to get out of that mine," he said lowly, but everyone could hear the barely controlled anger. "You two going at each other like this just ain’t going to get it done. All right?"

Chris and Carter continued their battle of wills, neither looking away. Carter finally broke eye contact and stalked away, shaking his head.

Ezra gave Josiah a small smile of thanks before walking away from the small group in the other direction.

Chris made a move to go after him, but he heard his name being called. He turned to see Mary Travis coming toward him.

"Chris," she said, putting her hand on his arm. "Are you all right? I can only imagine how hard all this must be on you."

"I’m okay, Mary," Chris replied with a sigh, watching as Ezra disappeared in the direction of where Chaucer was tied. "I just don’t know where we’re going to go from here."

"Why don’t we go get a bite to eat? I’ll bet you haven’t had anything all day, have you?" Mary asked, hooking her arm into his. As he allowed himself to be led toward the kitchen trailer, he didn’t see the look Mary shared with Josiah, or the small nod of thanks from his oldest brother to the pretty reporter.

+ + + + + + +

Buck could see Vin was getting more and more antsy as time went on. He was having the same problem Ezra had earlier. Every time he’d get a little headway in the pile of rock and dirt, another small stream of material would fall from the roof and fill it up. "You hear anything yet?" Buck asked, standing and coming up behind Vin, placing his hand on the younger boy’s shoulder.

Vin jumped liked he’d been hit with an electric jolt. "Dammit, Buck!"

Buck cocked his head and just stared at the startled youth.

Finally Vin ducked his head. "Sorry," he mumbled.

"That’s okay, Vin," Buck said, "Just don’t make a habit of it. You hear any digging sounds or anything else?"

Vin shook his head and threw the shovel into the pile. "No," he said shortly. "Just this gravel comin’ from the ceilin’ and these awful moans – that’s all I’ve heard for hours."

"Probably just a hibernatin’ grizzly," Buck teased, until he saw the look of near panic flash in his brother’s eyes. "I’m just kiddin’, Vin. It’s probably just some escaping mine gas. Here, let me look," Buck said, taking his flashlight and shining it toward the roof. "Looks like a whole network of cracks up there. They probably go all the way up to the surface. Those spooky sounds you’re hearin’ is just he wind whistling through them."

Vin folded his arms across his chest and opened his mouth to tell his brother he wasn’t a baby, when suddenly they both heard the tell-tale sound of a rattlesnake nearby.

"Whoa," Buck said softly, aiming his flashlight where he thought the snake would be. There it was on the cavern floor, coiled and waiting. "Easy, Vin. Come on, slow." He pulled Vin away slowly and moved him behind his body as they moved to the far side of the room. Once they were as far away as they could get, Buck shined his light back up at the roof. "Suppose he fell in through the cracks?"

"He got in here somehow," Vin whispered. He reached down and picked up the other shovel, raising it above his head without taking his eyes off the snake.

"Don’t kill it," Buck said quickly, pulling Vin’s arm down. "It could lead us out of here. It got in here somehow. Anyway, there’s enough room in here for the three of us ‘til Chris and Josiah get through."

"Come on Buck, we ain’t heard a single sound!" Vin exclaimed. "How do we know they’re anywhere close? Or if they’re here at all? And what’s that snake gonna do when the batteries run out and we’re in the dark?"

Buck reached out and took his brother in a gentle embrace. "Don’t you think like that, Vin Tanner," he admonished. "Don’t you give up on Chris or Josiah either. I know Ezra got out and got help and they’re gonna get us out of here real soon."

Vin just sighed and leaned into the comfort the bigger man offered, too scare to argue. It made him angry with himself that he was having such a hard time dealing with being trapped. "I’m sorry, Buck. I wish I could be more like you."

"Well, that ain’t hardly possible, Junior," Buck said with a real grin. "The good Lord only made one like me."

Vin couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped and he rolled his eyes.

Buck laughed and pulled Vin in tighter.

+ + + + + + +

The area around the Lucky Lady was beginning to look like a small army encampment. Men were scurrying back and forth, yelling across the area to one another. Women were standing by the food table and in the portable kitchen. The news crew was in the background, talking to the ring of spectators at the edge of the clearing. Vehicles were everywhere. The digging had been going on all night between the alternating crews. No one would rest until the trapped brothers were free.

At the sound of a deep rumbling noise and vibration felt through the ground, everyone froze and turned their attention to the mine entrance. Men came running and stumbling out, covered in dirt.

"Hold it – Stay back," a Deputy was ordering as the crowd began to move forward to find out what was going on. He grabbed hold of Nathan’s arm as the tried to get past to the tunnel. The middle brother had been helping the EMT’s with one of the miners whose hand had been hit by one of the other miner’s picks. It had been bruised but not broken.

Nathan breathed a sigh of relief when he caught sight of his brothers. They came up to him and together they walked away from the crowd.

"We had another cave-in," Chris said, out of breath. "Part of the overhead."

"The water in the adjoining shaft is beginning to weaken the walls," Josiah explained.

"We’re runnin’ out of time," Chris said, unable to keep the worry out of his voice.

Tim Carter came up to where they were. "If it keeps up like this, we’re going to have to stop the digging," he said with a heavy sigh.

"Then what?" Nathan demanded.

"I don’t know," Carter replied sadly as he walked away. He walked toward the small trailer that had been brought in and was being used as the command post. There he was met and embraced by his wife, Karen, who had arrived earlier in the day, joining the crowd of volunteers and supporters.

"I don’t believe this is happening," Nathan said, wanting Chris to tell him Carter was wrong and everything would be okay.

"We may never even have gotten close to them," Chris whispered, his eyes betraying the hopelessness he felt.

"Chris, don’t give up," Josiah said gently. "It’s not over yet."

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Vin heard the same rumbling and felt the same shaking and it caused them both to lose their balance and land on the floor. More dirt and rocks fell down on them and they rolled away from the pile that was growing even higher. When it was over, they picked themselves up off the ground and dusted off again.

"What was that?" Vin demanded, his voice trailing off in a fit of coughing.

Buck just shrugged and shook his head and he tried to stop coughing himself. Then something caught his attention. He walked back over toward the wall by the pile of rocks, listening intently.

"What do you hear, Buck?" Vin asked, watching his brother curiously.

"Ssshhh" Buck admonished, concentrating.

"Is it digging? Do you hear digging?" Vin asked excitedly, walking over to Buck’s side.

"No," he answered slowly, leaning toward the rock and touching the wall. "It’s not digging. I’m not sure what it is. It’s a little hard to make out."

Vin suddenly drew back. "It’s water. It sounds like lots of rushing water!"

"Vin," Buck reached out as he heard the beginnings of panic in his younger brother’s voice.

"Where’s the water comin’ from, Buck?" he demanded. "What happens if it comes in here?"

"It’s okay, Vin," he replied, lightly resting his hand on Vin’s shoulder. "The water’s on the other side of the wall, and who knows how thick all this rock is. It can’t get in here. We’re gonna fine."

"You sure?" Vin asked. He relaxed some when Buck nodded and gave his shoulder a squeeze. "Buck! The snake’s gone!" Without realizing it, they had moved back over to where they had left the snake. "He couldn’t just disappear," Vin said, looking all around. "He’s hiding here someplace."

"Okay, don’t move, Vin," Buck cautioned, "it could be anywhere." He took his flashlight and slowly and carefully moved across the cavern floor, looking around and behind any rock big enough for the snake to be hiding behind. He finally stood up and looked back at Vin with a shrug. "It’s gone."

Vin looked up at his big brother in surprise. "It got out of here?" Buck just nodded. "How? Snakes don’t jump," Vin declared, shining his own flashlight back up at the cracks they thought the snake had come through earlier. "How did it get up there?"

"Just maybe it didn’t come in that way, Junior," Buck replied, swinging his flashlight low to the ground. "There’s got to be a hole to the surface around here."

"Something we haven’t found yet?" Vin asked.

"Yeah, it’s here somewhere," Buck answered. "It could be six feet or six inches wide, but we gotta find it, all right? It’ll give us some air, and just maybe somebody will hear us." He started at the rock pile and began walking slowly away, training his flashlight on the floor along the wall.

Vin started on the other side of the pile and walked away in the opposite direction.

"Vin, if you find something and need to go poking around, use the shovels, okay?"

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was loading another length of rope onto the back of Chaucer’s saddle when Tim and Karen Carter walked away from the crowd around the mine.

"Damn fool’s going to try and go down that shaft," Carter said, shaking his head.

Karen Carter stopped where she was and took hold of his shirt sleeve. "Don’t let him do it, Tim. It’s too dangerous." When he didn’t respond, she looked over at Ezra then back at her husband. "He’s only a boy," she entreated.

Carter shrugged and walked up to Ezra slowly. "It’s a fool’s errand, son."

"You have called me worse, Mister Carter," Ezra replied, stopping his work for only a moment.

"I’d be willing to bet that shaft is impassable, or it dead ends," Carter said.

"I understand what I’ve done, Mister Carter. That’s why I’m going down that shaft and see for myself," Ezra said, his jaw set in determination.

"Ezra, I’m sorry if I was too hard on you. You know, for years Karen and I thought we couldn’t have kids," Carter explained, looking in his wife’s eyes and seeing her nod before he went on. "Doctors couldn’t explain it. So when we had Timmy, it was kind of a miracle to us. Then when we lost him in this damn place…" He took a shuddering breath before he continued. "I didn’t want anyone else hurt or killed in there. I thought I had it blocked off tight, and I swore I would never come back here again."

Ezra turned to face the couple. "It hurts losing someone you love," he said quietly as he swung up into the loaded saddle. "It’s far worse when it’s your fault." With that, he reined Chaucer around and spurred his horse away.

"Ezra!" Carter called after him.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had tied Chaucer off away from the shaft entrance, where the horse was nibbling contentedly on the grass, oblivious to the activity around him.

He had brought the several lengths of rope and laid them on the ground. He had one end tied to a nearby sturdy tree and was just securing the other end around his waist when he looked up in surprise, and some relief, at the sound of his brother’s old jeep approaching. Josiah, Chris, Nathan and Mary climbed out and ran to him.

"Ezra! What do you think you’re doing?" Josiah exclaimed.

"What I have to do, Josiah. There’s no other way," he replied.

"Then let one of us," he argued, squatting on the ground beside him.

Ezra just shook his head, his whole body tense with determination. "We don’t have time, and I’m the only one small enough to fit." He cringed inwardly when Chris came up and knelt next to him, steeling himself for the argument he thought was coming. He wasn’t prepared for the gentle touch on his back as Chris spoke to him.

"This family’s gotten through an awful lot by stickin’ together, Ezra," Chris said softly. "I’m sorry, I guess I just forgot that."

Ezra looked up at his brother, gratitude shining in his eyes. "We’ll get through this – all of us," he promised. Then he looked at each of his brothers and met their gaze with a nod.

Nathan moved in closer and took hold of the coil of rope ready to feed it down the shaft, while Josiah took a position where the rope was tied off to the tree, ready to keep the rope secure.

Mary reached over and held up a small microphone connected to a rolled length of narrow wire. She let Ezra see it before she clipped it to his shirt collar. "We’ll be able to hear you until you run out of cable," she explained, showing him the headphones as she handed them to Chris. "Be careful," she said, planting a kiss on his forehead. She moved away to stand behind Chris.

Ezra blushed, then nodded at Chris. "I’m ready."

As he descended into the dark narrow shaft, he quickly found and turned on the flashlight he had tucked into his belt. "A little slack," he called as he used his feet to brace himself. "A little more – more. Mister Carter was right, it’s really narrow down here!"

"Take it easy," Chris called back. "Just go slow."

With every foot of rope Nathan fed into the shaft, Ezra basically fell another foot further, bouncing off the walls and using his hands to grope in the dark. Suddenly he came to a stop, something solid beneath him. He twisted in the narrow space, using his hands to feel beneath him. "Nathan, hold it," he said into the microphone. "There’s a big tree limb under me. This is as far as I can go unless I move it. Send me down a hatchet."

+ + + + + + +

"You knew it had to be here somewhere," Vin exclaimed, as he and Buck worked together to work a loose rock away from the wall almost opposite of where the cave-in had occurred.

"Here it goes," Buck warned as it came away and he stumbled back with the momentum.

"Wow! A shaft!" Vin said, as he wormed his head into the small opening and looked up into the dark hole above. He suddenly scrambled out and shot away from the opening.

"And there’s our missing friend," Buck said, as he looked in to see the missing snake. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Vin replied breathlessly, nodding.

"Now all we gotta do is get it out of there so we can find out where the shaft goes," Buck said with a frown. "If we had a long stick…"

"Sure," Vin said. He went across the cavern and picked up one of the shovels, then went back and got the other one off the ground near Buck. He pulled the strap off his canteen and used it to tie the two shovel handles together while Buck looked on and nodded approvingly.

When Vin was ready, Buck held his hand out. "Here, you better let me," he offered.

"No way," Vin said indignantly. "I can handle it."

Buck just groaned at Vin’s bad pun. "You sure?"

Vin nodded in reply, then he moved up to the narrow opening. He carefully worked the shovel toward the snake, gently scooping it up.

"There you go," Buck said quietly, not wanting to rattle Vin or the snake. "Just take it away from here."

Vin looked around and stepped carefully to the rock pile, setting the shovel down on the very top. He tipped the snake out onto the rocks, then slowly backed away. The snake coiled tighter and settled itself on the rocks.

"Way to go, Vin!" Buck cheered, clapping him on the back when his brother rejoined him. "What he hell was that?" he exclaimed when they heard a crashing noise coming from the opening. He peered in cautiously and looked back at Vin when he saw an old tree limb settling to the floor inside the recently discovered space.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra awkwardly hacked away at the obstruction below him, using his feet to kick the loosened pieces to the bottom of the shaft. He also worked on the edges of the shaft where the limb was lodged, trying to force it loose from the wall.

He let out a sigh of relief when he felt the bulk of the limb finally break loose and crash somewhere below him. "Okay," he said into the microphone. "Give me some slack." He felt himself moving lower again and was using his feet and hands to steady himself on his controlled fall into the darkness.

"Keep going, Ezra," Chris whispered unheard above him. "Just keep going."

+ + + + + + +

Vin was almost on his hands and knees as he stuck his head inside the small opening again. He pulled it out again quickly. "Ow!" he cried, stumbling to his feet and rubbing the top of his head where a small rock had just hit him.

"Be careful," Buck said, steadying Vin to keep him from losing his balance.

"There’s a lot of stuff falling down from there," Vin said. "I can see up a little ways. Maybe it’s blocked right past where I can see."

"Don’t matter, Vin. We don’t have much time," Buck said, the worry in his voice plain for Vin to hear. Buck led the younger boy back to where they had heard the water running behind the wall of the mine. He pointed his flashlight and Vin’s eyes widened in concern. A steady stream of water was now running down the wall, forming a small pool at their feet. "I got a feelin’ this place is gonna flood pretty soon. Our only way out is that shaft."

"Okay," Vin nodded, "let’s get started."

They both knew the first order of business was to make the opening to the other chamber wide enough for Buck to crawl through. Vin wouldn’t need much of a hole to get through, but Buck’s taller frame would need a wider entry.

They had been working on chipping the hole out, when a shower of dirt and rocks came from the shaft and something hit the floor with a THUD! Buck shined his flashlight toward the darkness and found a pair of bright green eyes shining back.

"EZRA!" Vin cried.

"Vin! You’re alive!" he called back, twisting and writhing his way back around to where his brothers were reaching to touch him. "Buck! Are you all right?"

"Hey, Ez," Buck said, smiling. "What are you doin’ here, boy? You’re getting all dirty!"

As Ezra pushed from one side and the others pulled from theirs, he was able to worm his way out of the small space and into the cavern with Vin and Buck. They were all talking at the same time, and no one could really hear what the others were saying, but it didn’t matter.

For once, Ezra didn’t try to pull away when he was enveloped in a Buck Wilmington bear hug. Then Vin was there too, and Ezra couldn’t stop himself from reaching out and ruffling Vin’s hair the way their older brothers did. He smiled to himself – everything was going to be all right. ‘So why’, he thought to himself, ‘were tears running down his face?’

+ + + + + + +

The stars were shining brightly somewhere beyond the ring of lights that surrounded the small shaft opening. There was an A-frame construction straddling the hole, a nylon rope leading down and several men manning the ropes in a smooth rhythm. Tim Carter was in the midst of them, peering down the hole, offering a word of encouragement or instruction. Josiah was at the edge of the support structure, still manning the rope that was bringing his brothers to safety.

To one side of the activity, Ezra stood wrapped in a blanket, sandwiched between Chris and Nathan. The usually reticent blond had his arm firmly wrapped around his Southern brother’s shoulder, occasionally leaning over to rest his head on the top of Ezra’s, leaving no room for doubt that his efforts were appreciated.

Mary Travis was once again in front of the news camera. "The miners are working as fast as they can. One of the boys is already up, but time is still of the essence. And perhaps one of the most daring mine rescues in recent memory is coming to a close. The prayers of everyone here, and you out there, have been heard."

There was a sudden quiet, then a cheer, and then Josiah was reaching in and helping Vin up and over the lip of the shaft, holding him off the ground in a crushing hug before he set him down on the ground. Chris made his way through the crowd, waiting for his brother to be removed from the safety harness around his waist. As soon as he was free, Chris gathered Vin into his own embrace. Neither said anything, they just stood there together. Words just weren’t necessary sometimes. Nathan came up behind them, draping a blanket over Vin’s shoulders.

"Are you okay?" Chris finally asked, moving back a step and holding Vin out at arms length, giving him a visual once over.

Vin just nodded, unable to trust his voice over the lump in his throat.

Mary remained a polite distance as she continued her report. "All these people have come out into the night to see the happy end to this story."

A sudden commotion had the crowd parting and Chris smiled at the sound of JD yelling "BUCK!" long before they could see him. The Deputy who had brought JD was having a time of it trying to keep up. JD’s legs might have been short, but the boy could move! JD broke through the crowd into the clearing, frowning when he didn’t see his dark-haired brother.

"JD!" Chris called. "Over here."

Nathan and Ezra moved to stand next Chris and Vin as JD made his way over.

"Where’s Buck?" The words were out his mouth before anyone had a chance to speak.

"They’re bringing him up right now, JD," Ezra explained. "They’re having a little trouble getting him into the shaft."

"How’d you like the ride in the Deputy’s car?" Chris asked, feeling a little guilty he hadn’t gone to get JD himself.

"It was cool. He drives a lot faster than you," JD replied, no trace of anger or disappointment in his voice. Looking over at the hole where Josiah was still working on the rope, he turned back to his brothers. "Why’s it taking so long?"

"Well, Buck said to tell anyone that asked that he was gettin’ presentable for the camera," Vin replied with a smile.

"Hey Vin," he said, giving his brother a quick hug. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, JD. I’m fine," Vin replied, "Just really glad to be out of there."

Ezra came up to stand in front of JD. "Actually, it’s because Buck’s so tall," he explained. "They were having trouble making the hole big enough to get him through."

JD met Ezra’s emerald eyes with his own hazel ones. "You promised you wouldn’t leave them in there,’’ he said softly, his eyes filling with tears. "Thanks, Ezra." To Ezra’s surprise, JD threw his arms around Ezra’s neck and squeezed as tight as he could.

Ezra allowed his youngest brother to cling to him even as he felt the moisture on his shoulder.

"All right, here they come," Josiah called out, straining on the rope.

The five moved as one closer to opening, straining to see what was going on inside. The crowd was hushed in anticipation.

Mary looked on with the rest of the crowd. "And it looks as if – yes, the last brother is safely up."

Another cheer went up from the crowd as the top of Buck’s dark hair could be seen, followed by the rest of his tall lanky frame. Josiah grabbed hold of the rope at the top of the harness his brother had been secured in, swinging him over to his side of the shaft opening. It was hard to tell who was hugging who the hardest. Buck planted a kiss on the cheek of his eldest brother’s face. Neither seemed to be the least bit embarrassed.

Chris was having a hard time holding JD back, waiting for Buck to disentangle himself from the safety harness. Once he was free, he took a few unsteady steps toward his brothers. That was all it took for JD to break out of Chris’s grasp and take off at a dead run to Buck’s side. He wrapped his arms around Buck’s middle and refused to budge. Buck smiled over his head at the rest of his brothers. Then they were also at his side, surrounding him with hugs and claps on the back. Josiah came up from behind and joined in the group hug.

Finally Tim Carter approached the group. Meeting Ezra’s eyes, he held out his hand. As Ezra took it, Carter spoke quietly. "Good job, son. Your father would be proud of you."

To Ezra, there was no higher compliment.


After a night’s stay in the hospital for observation, Buck and Vin were allowed to go home. Vin had a mild case of dehydration and would be fine with a little rest and lots of liquids. Buck had a mild concussion and some bruising and abrasions on his back, and the doctor told him to take it easy for at least a week, maybe two. Ezra’s head was already healing.

After waiting one more day, Chris called a family meeting after dinner.

"Okay, first thing is, we’re all really glad you’re both okay," Chris started, looking first at Ezra, then at Vin. "But we," he said, looking first at Josiah then Buck, "still have to decide what we’re going to do about you two going into the mine in the first place, after you were told not to."

He paused, waiting for either of the teens to argue. He was mildly surprised when they sat there quietly, waiting for Chris to pass judgement. "So, I want you to explain to me what was so all-fired important for you to take a risk like that, going into a place you were told was too dangerous? And don’t even start with that bit about JD being the only one who promised to stay out. You both knew exactly what I meant."

Ezra and Vin exchanged glances. Before Vin could speak up, Ezra did.

"I guess I really just wanted to see if there wasn’t something – anything – of value that might help with the expenses for the ranch," Ezra explained, not meeting his older brother’s intense gaze. "I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t want to go by myself, so I talked Vin into going with me. Then, when you made JD go with us, we convinced him not to tell on us."

"That ain’t right, Ezra," Vin added. "I’m old enough to know what I was doin’, and I did it anyway. I guess I let the idea of finding a pile of gold go to my head. Didn’t mean to get anyone hurt." He let his eyes wander over to Buck, who still wore the bandage on his head. Buck tried to catch his brother’s eyes with a smile that inferred he was okay, but just rolled his eyes heavenward when Vin looked away quickly. "Anyway, we’d already decided when we went back to get Ez’s watch that it would be the last time."

"Well, we know your intentions were good," Josiah said, "but how you went about it was totally wrong. We’re just lucky we got all three of you back in one piece. I don’t mind telling you all, I’ve never been so scared in all my life." Both Ezra and Vin were looking intently at something on the floor. "Do you have anything to add, Buck?"

"Nope – you two are doin’ just fine," he replied, sitting back and putting his hands behind his head. "What about you, JD?"

The youngest brother looked up in surprise, hoping he could just go unnoticed and wouldn’t be drawn into whatever Chris had in mind for the two teenagers. "What? I kept my promise – I didn’t go in the mine," he protested, shifting in his chair uncomfortably.

"No, but you knew they did," Josiah said gently. "And a sin of omission is still a sin."

JD just stared at his oldest brother in confusion.

Nathan just shook his head, knowing Josiah had gone completely over the younger boy’s head.

"You don’t make a promise you know is wrong," Vin explained to JD. "And we shouldn’t have asked you to. Sorry, JD." Ezra nodded in agreement.

"All right, so we all agree you know what you did was wrong," Chris said. "Now let me tell you this – there is no amount of money in this entire world that would be worth losing any one of you. Not Buck, not Vin, and not you either, Ezra. You got it?!" He directed his gaze at Ezra, wanting him to understand. They all knew how Maude had raised him to value wealth as all-important, and they knew how hard it was at times for him to change the way he thought.

Chris waited for everyone to nod in agreement before he went on. "This family has always gotten by with what the Good Lord has provided. We’ve never been worried about bein’ rich and we’ve never been afraid of a little hard work. Mom and Dad taught us that. I hope you all remember that next time. Like Josiah said, we got lucky this time and I don’t ever want it to be that close again."

"So we’ve decided what your punishment will be," Josiah said, standing up in front of the three younger boys. The three older brothers had thought long and hard how best to make an impression, and had come up with something he knew they’d remember for a long time. "First of all, you boys are getting a little big to be spanked, so you’re all three grounded for two weeks – no staying after school, no trips to town, no friends over. Second, no riding for you two for one month, JD one week." He paused and watched the look of dismay Ezra and Vin exchanged. "IF you stay out of trouble, then just maybe we’ll still let you help with the roundup."

Vin swallowed hard. He’d do just about anything to be able to help with the roundup. It was his favorite time of year.

"Is that all?" Ezra asked hopefully. His frowned when Chris stood to join Josiah.

"Not quite," Chris replied. "Since Buck’s been told by the doctor to take it easy, somebody’s gonna have to take care of his chores. And since the three of you will have plenty of time after school, guess who that’s going to be?"

Ezra rolled his eyes in reply, JD’s eyes widened and his mouth opened and closed.

Vin just shrugged. "Guess that’d be us," he said.

"Guess you’d be right, pard," Chris said, stepping up in front of the three dejected boys. "You have no idea how scared we all were." He reached out and gave them each a tight hug. "Don’t ever want to go through something like that again, okay?"

"Okay," was all JD could get out past the lump in his throat.

"Yes sir," was Ezra’s reply as he reluctantly pulled away from the embrace.

"Sorry cowboy," Vin said quietly, blinking back the tears stinging his eyes.

"All right," Josiah said with a clap of his hands, "I do believe some of us have homework to catch up on." He ignored the groans following him as left the room to answer the telephone that had just rung.

The four boys gathered their school books from the living room and spread out at the dining room table. When Josiah came back into the room, he shook his head with a smile. Nathan was sitting next to Ezra, helping him work on a math problem; Chris was leaning over Vin’s shoulder helping him with his English homework; and JD had found room next to Buck on the couch who was helping him find something on a map in his Geography book.

Seeing his family safe and happy, Josiah walked quietly back to the den, sitting down at his father’s desk to enjoy the peace. Somehow he knew it wouldn’t last, but he would be grateful for what he could get.

The End

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