Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
I feel I must give added credit to MARY McAULEY. She has fleshed out and intensified many of the scenes and raised the level of suspense in the entire story.
Special thanks to NOTTASHA one of the best betas out there and who's real good at catching the goofs in the logistics of the story.
Standish fell heavily into the chair, throwing his hat onto the table and running long fingers through his auburn hair. He exhaled as he tried to ease the stiffness out of weary muscles by rolling his shoulders. The saloon was quiet, having closed its doors to customers sometime ago. The urbane southerner savored the serene ambiance of what he considered his one and only home. Even though he was acutely familiar with every corner of the tavern he found himself scrutinizing the rustic surroundings and wondering why he continued to stay on. He barely eked out a living, at least by his lofty standards. His fellow lawmen didn't seem to have the same dilemma. It doesn't take much to maintain a lifestyle when one's home was the back of a wagon, or a broken-down church.
Standish cringed at the sound of boots on the hard wood floor behind him. The tranquil feelings that had been slowly enveloping him evaporated at the sight of the darkly dressed gunslinger. Ezra sighed at the appearance of the tall healer beside him.
Chris slid his sinewy form into the chair opposite the southerner just as Nathan slid in next to him.
Ezra wearily leaned back in his chair and eyed Larabee and Jackson respectively. Nathan Jackson barely tolerated him, feeling that all Ezra Standish cared about was Ezra Standish. The highly principled healer had a knack for causing the slick conman to second guess every aspect of his life. On more than one occasion it caused the two men to butt heads over the gambler's questionable tactics. Chris Larabee was a different sort of animal. Although he had grown to respect the lawman, he still found that Larabee could coerce him into reluctant obedience with just a glare. These inimitable men together made the gambler very nervous. "And to what do I owe to this intrusion on my quietude?"
"What'cha know 'bout mines?" Chris asked.
Ezra's gaze shifted between the two men. He wondered what they were up to, to what degree he would be implicated, and how would he finagle his way out of it. All these thoughts rushed through his mind before he answered. "Ah, yes. Mining. My experience with that plebeian occupation exists in the execution of one ingenious scheme. It involved the salting of a barren mine..."
Chris held up a hand to stop the tale, hoping to smother any verbal onslaught between the brash southerner and conscientious healer. "I don't need the details. I just want to know if you can tell if a mine is safe or not."
Ezra smiled at the expected disgust on Nathan's face. Arching an expressive eyebrow he took a moment before responding, "Yes, I engaged thorough research before pulling the con."
Chris nodded curtly and leaned back in his chair. "Good! The Judge wants you and Nathan to check out complaints about an unsafe mine west of here."
Ezra eyed Nathan. He wondered why the healer would be accompanying him but decided against asking. "Now? I just got off patrol and it's the middle of the night."
"It'll be Sunday morning in a few hours," Chris explained. "I'm hoping there won't be anyone around so you can avoid any trouble. It'll only take a couple hours then you can come back and get your beauty sleep."
Ezra sighed and picked up his hat, running his hand along the molded brim. The look in Larabee's eyes told him he wasn't going to get out of this one.
Jackson and Standish traveled carefully through the desert terrain, the early morning gray stretched out shadows, creating a patchwork of light and dark around the two riders.
"We've become safety inspectors without so much as a raise in pay," Ezra grumbled out loud. He had grown weary of the silence between them and decided some moralistic tête-à-tête would at least break the monotony.
Nathan frowned at his reluctant companion as he recalled how the gambler acquired his mining expertise. It figured that Ezra would risk someone else's life to make a dollar.
"So, you salted a mine," Nathan retorted, his angry glare returning to the trail. The venom that flowed through his words was not hard to miss.
Standish had been waiting for the high-minded healer to finally voice his displeasure.
"It was a very successful con," Ezra proudly proclaimed, not hiding his arrogant smile. It had been his mother's idea. Plant a few nuggets in a dead mine, and then sell the rights to any unsuspecting dunce who couldn't tell the difference between fool's gold and the real thing. Maude and Ezra had sold forged deeds to five different people then promptly left the area. Ezra always made note never to visit the town of Crested Bluff lest someone remember him and demand retribution. In reality, there were probably eight such municipalities where he would be most unwelcome and at least one where he in all probability would hang.
"What if someone got hurt or killed diggin' for their false riches?" Nathan didn't know why the southerner always ignited his anger. He just couldn't accept Ezra's lifestyle. "Wouldn't have bothered you a bit, would it?" Nathan's horse started to prance nervously under him, feeling his owner's agitation. The healer had lost friends in mining accidents, and now Standish unashamedly admitted to placing people in danger just for money.
Ezra's jaw muscles clenched. At the time, he had never considered the possible consequences of his actions. He had thoroughly checked out the mines he used and found them sound. But what if something had happened? Ezra shook the sudden disquieting thought away. "Greed would have been the downfall of those men. In any case, no one was hurt so this discussion is pointless."
"You just don't get it do ya? Playing with people's lives, seeing how far you can go and what you can get away with." Nathan's anger had dwindled to a penitent sadness that caused Ezra's gut to twist. "It's all a game to you. Winner take all and loser be damned!"
Ezra regretted initiating the conversation. In the future he would remember to keep his big mouth shut.
The sun was just peeking over the horizon as the two lawmen came upon the black, gaping maw in the gray rock of the mountain. Equipment lay strewn about the rutted and stripped landscape like silent sentries. The land had been brutalized.
The two lawmen eyed the dark ingress uneasily, a portal that led into the bowels of the earth, and a place Ezra was not sure a man belonged. He looked over to Nathan, unsettled by the abiding sadness that had assumed possession of the healer.
Jackson eyed the opening like it was the entry to hell. The high-pitch call of a desert bird broke the silence.
"Let's git this over with." Nathan reached down and grabbed a nearby lantern, shaking it to hear the kerosene slosh inside. Then he strode toward the mine.
Ezra grabbed a torch. He hesitated a moment before following suit.
The dirt floor of the mine was packed smooth by the passage of hundreds of pounds of ore in overloaded carts. The darkness immediately tried to swallow up its intruders. Ezra lit his torch just inside the entranceway and waited for his eyes to adjust to the diminished light. He regarded the rough-hewed beams shoring up the sides of the mine and allowed the torchlight to dance over the joints. Nathan stepped up beside him and held up his lantern.
"Looks like they used solid enough wood."
"It appears so," Ezra answered distractedly as he turned and headed up the slightly inclined passageway.
Nathan looked over his shoulder at the light of day that seemed to fear the darkness within the mine. He already craved the warmth of the sun. The dampness of the mine as well as the memories it evoked sent an involuntary shiver down his spine. Nathan turned his back on the day and started after the gambler.
Ezra had stopped several yards down the shaft and held up his torch to examine the shoring timber. Nathan was somewhat surprised; Ezra seemed to be taking this very seriously, and he seemed to know what he was doing.
"Notice anything, Mr. Jackson?"
The words came out as a challenge. Nathan moved next to the gambler and laid his hands on the supporting timber.
"They're not usin' the same type of wood they used in the beginning of the shaft," Nathan responded, slapping the low-grade timber. He peeled off a long splinter. He looked at Ezra who was now staring back down toward the entrance.
"What is it?"
Ezra motioned down the tunnel with his torch.
Nathan stared down the dimly lit shaft. It took a moment for him to see what Ezra was trying to point out.
"The spacing...it's too wide," Nathan intoned, barely making out the dark silhouettes of the shoring beams against the gray rock ceiling.
"They used high-quality wood the first one hundred feet into the cavern, probably hoping to fool anyone who checked. After that there are nothing more than chop sticks holding up tons of rock," Ezra assessed.
"This whole mountain could come down at any time," Nathan added.
"Indeed, this is an open grave just waiting to be filled."
Nathan exhaled and turned to look at Ezra. There was disgust in the conman's voice. Did Ezra really care?
"Let's get back to town and tell the judge," Nathan said. "He'll have this mine shutdown by Monday morning."
"Gentlemen." An icy voice echoed through the cavern and caused the two lawmen to turn toward the entrance of the mind. "May we be of assistance?"
Nathan raised his lantern to reveal two men pointing guns directly at them. The older of the two smiled at the healer's bewilderment. "I know these tunnels like the back of my hand, boy. Didn't need any light to tell of our coming."
"What'cha want to do with 'em, Mr. Stokes?" The younger man asked.
"Stokes?" Ezra repeated.
"Ah, you've heard of me."
"You know this man, Ezra?"
"Mr. Stokes has a reputation around Tucson as a ruthless mining boss, forcing men to work in atrocious and dangerous conditions," Ezra explained. "Did you really think you'd get away with such slipshod work?"
Stokes chuckled. "Well, no, not for long anyway, but long enough to make a profit then move on." Stokes shifted to the right slightly his body blocking the distant light from the entrance.
"You risk men's lives for profit," Nathan yelled at the smug miner.
Stokes glared at the healer like something that was on the bottom of his shoe. "It used to be easier back when I could just use people like you; no one cared then."
Nathan's spine stiffened and his fists clenched at the affront. No matter what he did, some people only saw his black skin, a man whose only place was to be a slave. Nathan stepped forward but Ezra held his upper arm halting his enraged progress.
Standish gently but firmly pulled the healer back. He didn't want to provoke a shoot-out in the close confines of the mine. Especially since Stokes had the upper hand. He would wait until he was dealt a better play.
"I've heard of you, Mr. Standish, and the other six gunslingers who pretend to be lawmen. You make a mockery of the law," Stokes said.
"That's not true!" Nathan interjected. "We protect people from the likes of you. This mine is nothing more than a death trap."
"Well, as I see it, most people want what the mines supply, and they don't really care how they get it. Of course, some want the mines safer, but they don't realize how much that costs and how much it eats into my profits," Stokes glibly stated. "Can't have it both ways."
"Times are changing, Mr. Stokes." Ezra kept his voice steady. "Judge Travis is attempting to decrease the number of widows in this territory." His mind raced to produce an escape where the odds would be their favor. He believed he could draw his gun and possibly get a shot off, but he would not risk Nathan getting hit.
"So, what are you going to do with us?" Nathan asked as he slowly set the lantern down next to his feet, not taking his eyes off the two men.
"There will be an accident, tragic really," Stokes sneered. His partner chuckled beside him. "By the time they find your bodies, I'll be long gone."
The game was about to fold and Ezra decided to pull out an ace. He thrust his flaming torch at the two men. They threw up their arms to protect their faces. Nathan lunged at Stokes and slammed the man up against one of the support beams his forearm under the man's chin. Ezra had activated his derringer and held it on the younger man, who dropped his gun and surrendered.
Suddenly a deep rumble growled through the rock. Four pairs of eyes darted around the tunnel and heartbeats quickened.
Nathan broke away from Stokes and snagged the lantern as he grabbed Ezra by the arm, pulling the gambler further into the tunnel as dirt and rock suddenly rained down on them. The two lawmen ran down the tunnel, stumbling and picking each other up as the floor rolled under their feet. Wood beams cracked and broke, allowing the walls to disintegrate and give way. Stokes and his partner ran back toward the entrance of the mine, their screams abruptly cut off as they were swallowed by tons of rock and earth.
Nathan stirred as the first inkling of consciousness tickled through his aching head. A groan disturbed the silent darkness and echoed in his ears. Nathan tried to push himself up, wincing at the throbbing pain and realized the groan was coming from his own throat. He blinked and wiped his face with the back of his hand, feeling the wet stickiness. Utter blackness surrounded and cocooned him. He took a quick account of himself, not feeling any broken bones. Probably got a concussion.
Nathan struggled to his knees and shook off as much of the dirt as he could from his clothing. The darkness and silence engulfed him. He breathed deeply to cut off his growing panic. He swept his hand out until his fingers stroked the metal of the lantern. Miraculously the glass was in tact. The healer dug into his pocket for a match, striking it on the side of the lantern. The match flared to life and he applied the flame to the wick illuminating the dark tomb.
Nathan coughed to clear his throat of the dust and dirt. The flickering lamplight revealed the passage, blocked by tons of rock and debris. He slowly pivoted, sweeping the lantern around the cavern, noticing that the tunnel continued into the blackness. He knew most mines didn't have rear exits.
A gasp escaped the healer's dry throat as the light exposed Ezra's slack face.
"Ezra," Nathan rasped, scrambling over rocks and pieces of wood. He coughed and called out again. "Ezra."
"He's dead," Nathan thought. Ezra had been knocked flat on his back. A heavy crossbeam lay across his body, pinning his right shoulder and left leg to the ground. Nathan's gut twisted. He set the lantern down and placed his hand on the man's neck.
"Ezra?" Nathan repeated, feeling the pulse.
A groan was the only response.
"C'mon, Ez," Nathan softly cajoled, patting the conman's dirt covered cheek. "Can you hear me?"
Ezra's green eyes fluttered, then opened, and relief filled the healer. He released the breath he had been holding and watched as momentary confusion flashed across Ezra's face.
"Mr...Jackson?" The gambler's southern accent was harsh and strained. He tried to rise and hissed as pain erupted and took hold of every part of his body. His free hand pushed at the beam in front of him, trying to siphon off the agony that ripped through him.
"Easy Ez, you're trapped." Nathan pressed a hand on Ezra's left shoulder forcing it back down. He looked at the huge piece of timber that lay across the conman's body. It was a miracle that Ezra hadn't been crushed. The rock and dirt that piled up on the floor of the tunnel had saved his life.
Ezra was panting, trying to gain control of the pain that stole away his breath. "Try not to move," Nathan instructed.
Ezra cocked a sarcastic eyebrow. "Believe me...that won't be...a problem."
The pain was slowly subsiding and he started to take account of where he was and what had happened. He noticed the blood on the side of the healer's face.
"Mr. Jackson...are you injured?"
Nathan tentatively touched his head and scrunched his face as he felt the cut above his eyebrow. "It's nothing."
He stood up and walked over to the end of the beam. He looked down the long piece of timber and saw that the other end was embedded firmly in the wall. Jackson wrapped his hands around the end of the joist, arm and leg muscles aching as he applied every ounce of strength trying to lift the beam.
"Aaaaggggg," Nathan yelled. His back strained until it felt as if it would break. The healer released his grasp on the beam and fell to his knees gasping for breath. "It's no use. I can't budge it." He crawled back to Ezra.
"I thank you...for the effort."
"Can you breathe alright?" Nathan asked, hearing Ezra wheeze.
"The pressure is intense...but I can breathe...although with some difficulty."
"Damnit Ez, just say yes or no," the healer admonished. He hadn't meant to be so brusque but he was worried. What could be aggravating the trapped man's breathing? He pulled Ezra's shirt open and slid his hand down the left side of the gambler's chest until he felt him flinch. "Feels like you might have a couple broken ribs. Anything else hurt?"
Ezra seemed to contemplate this for a moment. "I believe my shoulder is dislocated...and my left leg tingles and feels cold." Ezra held up his left arm and opened and closed his hand as if to make sure it was still intact. When he met Nathan's eyes again he saw the healer's dubious expression.
"I'm well versed in the sensation, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan had to agree with him there. He stood up to view the other side of the wood. "The beam might be cutting off your circulation." He jumped over and began digging away at the dirt and rock as much as possible, but the dirt was packed so firmly, that he made little headway. He reached under the beam and ran his hands down Ezra's legs, relieved when he could not feel any breaks or bleeding.
Nathan looked at the remaining beams that still held the mountain at bay above their heads. He could tell that one was sagging, but the others looked sturdy enough.
"We're lucky," Nathan commented.
Ezra snorted which turned into a cough that sent spikes of pain through his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut and replied, "And what exactly...would your definition...of lucky be, Mr. Jackson?"
Nathan pointed up. "Looks like they was gonna dig out another tunnel. This section here is a little better reinforced." Nathan looked at the timber trapping Ezra and frowned. "Well, most of it anyway."
Through watery eyes Ezra could just make out the four cross beams overhead. He could hear the trickling of dirt somewhere and the creaking of wood that was not meant to hold up so much weight. The sound was disconcerting. But Nathan was right; if they had not made it to this spot they would have met the same fate as Mr. Stokes and company. It was just unlucky that his whole body hadn't made it.
Ezra tried to shift to alleviate his growing discomfort and screamed out in pain.
"DAMNIT EZRA DON'T MOVE!" Fear raised the healer's voice an octave. He felt helpless without his instruments. They didn't even have water. Instinctively placing his hand on Ezra's forehead, he gently rubbed the conman's temple trying to soothe away his pain.
The gambler's head throbbed intensely and he barely felt Nathan's gentle touch. He fumbled for some measure of self-control. Ezra prided himself on remaining au fait of his emotions at all times, but this was proving a challenge that he was not sure he could meet.
Nathan removed his hand as Ezra's breathing evened out and the tremors left him.
"Mr. Jackson, maybe you should go...and explore our prison. Maybe...this shaft comes out somewhere."
Nathan looked down the black hole of the tunnel and then back at Ezra whose face was bathed in sweat. "I'd have to take the lantern. It would leave you in complete darkness."
Ezra chortled slightly. "Sir, I'm not afraid of the dark. Besides, it might be wise. This ceiling may not hold for long. You had best explore our options."
Nathan smiled briefly. He was anxious about the gambler's injuries; the weight of the beam was causing him considerable pain. Then it dawned on him: Ezra was trying to save him...wanting him to leave in case the mine did collapse.
"If there's another opening the others will find it and come for us. I ain't leaving you."
Ezra didn't say a word, infinitely grateful to the healer.
Vin returned to the jailhouse. Chris still sat behind the desk hunched over several wanted posters. A faint smile tickled the tracker's lips. The dark-clad gunslinger had been perusing those same posters for the past hour and Vin doubted Chris could even recall one.
Larabee looked up from the posters. "Nate and Ez back yet?"
Vin sat on the corner of the desk. "Nope."
Chris leaned back in his chair and rubbed a hand over the stubble on his face. He was worried about the two men.
"They should have been back by now," Chris softly stated.
"Unless they ran into trouble."
Both lawmen jumped to their feet as a young man rushed in. "Mr. Larabee?"
"Yeah, that's me."
"There's been an accident at the mine."
Chris's heart dropped into his stomach. "What happened?"
The young man swallowed and took a deep breath. "There's been a cave in, and we think there might be some men trapped inside."
"Vin get the others and meet me at the livery."
Vin nodded and hurried out the door.
"Did anyone see who went inside?" Chris asked. The young man nodded, running nervous fingers through his hair. He couldn't have been any older than JD.
"Mr. Stokes," he said with alarm, "We can't find Mr. Stokes or his assistant. And a foremen was there checking the equipment. He said he saw a black man and a man dressed all fancy go inside. Maybe Mr. Stokes went in with them."
"Go back to the mine and get everyone you can to help," Chris said as he grabbed his hat.
Chris watched the young man race out and jump on his horse. If this was more than just an accident there would be hell to pay, and Larabee knew all about hell and how much it cost.
"Mr. Jackson...how did you acquire...your knowledge concerning mines?"
Nathan was silent for a moment. Ezra began to wonder if the tall man would even offer a reply, but then he heard the soft Georgia drawl from just beyond the circle of light.
"When I was young my mas...the man who owned me, used to rent us out to the mine owners. Better us risk our lives than a white man. Our owner earned extra money, and the mine owners got a cheap source of labor." Nathan frowned and bit at his bottom lip, his thoughts turning dark from an unbidden memory. "I was workin' a mine with six others. I was the youngest, probably no more than eight. I was sent out to fetch water."
Nathan swallowed and found his throat constricting, making it hard to get the words out. "I was several feet outside the mine when it collapsed. I can still remember the sound, like thunder. Dust and dirt billowed up from the mine entrance and everyone ran. I tried to go back, but one of the other slaves, grabbed me."
Nathan's dark eyes stared anxiously at the blackness around them, for the first time feeling what those men must have felt. His heart ached, as if a hand was slowly squeezing it. His breathing became fevered gasps as the terror he had felt so many years ago returned.
"I could hear them yelling inside the mine, screaming for someone, anyone, to come and save them." Tears stung at the ex-slave's eyes and trailed down his cheeks. The walls felt like they were closing in on him. "I still to this day hear their pleas in my dreams." Nathan's voice was now meditative with an underlying sadness riding on his words. He audibly inhaled, closed his eyes and bowed his head. The feelings of horror and loss from his past were overwhelming. What had those six men felt during their final hours? He at least had hope: five men who would do everything possible to rescue them.
Ezra's eyes had remained transfixed on the healer, seeing and feeling the man's pain and developing a whole new understanding for his life as a slave.
Nathan raised his head and exhaled as if dispelling the demons that had tried to take hold. "The guards said that no one was to try and dig 'em out, they were expendable...our owner was reimbursed for his loss, of course."
Ezra closed his eyes. He'd seen much depravity wrought against the black race as he was growing up in the South, but the thought that men would be tossed aside like mere possessions sickened him. Had he ever been guilty of such impiety? No, only of indifference.
"Expendable...is not a word I'd ever associate with you, Mr. Jackson."
Nathan smiled slightly, knowing the southerner was trying to help. "I think the men inside the mine knew they wouldn't be saved. They cried out for a few minutes then went silent. They knew their pleas would be ignored. I could have been one of them: buried alive. And only a roughly carved cross at the mouth of the mine to mark the grave." Nathan's smile dropped as he looked into the cavern's darkness. "Maybe I was suppose to have died with them."
Two men met Larabee and the others at the mine: the nervous young man who had told him of the cave in and a burly older man who looked as rough and hard as the mountain behind him.
"Have you heard anything?" Chris immediately asked as he dismounted.
"No," the burly man answered, stepping forward. "I'm Cliff Barley, the foreman. Tad and me checked inside, and went in as far as we could. The cave-in happened about 500 feet in."
JD glanced around the area. "Where are the others?"
"Aren't any others, most went into town last night and won't be back till Monday." Barley guffawed. "When they hear the mine collapsed I don't expect many to come back at all. The owners, well, I figured they knew the mine wasn't safe so they took off to avoid any retribution."
"Did the miners know it wasn't safe?" Buck asked.
"Sure they did," Barley replied, ignoring the incredulous looks of the five lawmen.
"What are the chances that our friends are still alive?" Vin asked.
Barley rubbed the graying bristles on his chin. "The mine is about 1200 feet deep and this is the only way in. It's going to depend on how much of the tunnel collapsed of course." He paused a moment. "They do have one chance."
"What's that?" Chris prompted.
"There's a reinforced section of tunnel about halfway. We were gonna blast an off-shoot tunnel. That section might still be intact."
Chris eyed the mine entrance. Even in the light of day, the black hole looked ominous. "So we might have to dig out one or two hundred feet of dirt."
"Well, let's hope that's all," Barley replied. "If'n it's more than that we may not reach them before their air goes bad."
"Let's get to it," Chris exclaimed, shucking out of his duster.
Standish's green eyes snapped open. He heard rocks falling and his heart raced with the fear that the mine was again collapsing. He hadn't even realized he had fallen asleep; time was lost in the dark depths. The lantern flickered above him atop the debris. Jackson's body moved in and out of the sphere of orange light as he diligently worked at the top of the mine blockage.
"Mr. Jackson, what are you doing?" Ezra winced as a shooting pain reminded him not to move.
Jackson stopped digging and looked down at the trapped southerner. The pain was exhausting Ezra and it was getting hard for him to stay awake. Nathan was worried about the constant pressure of the timber on the gambler's leg. Even if-no, when they got out, the constant pressure on his leg may cause him to lose it.
"Well, the others will be trying to dig us out, so I figure I'll give'em a hand at this end." Nathan looked at the small amount of work he had accomplished with only his knife. "Not really making much headway though."
Ezra chuckled. If the whole shaft was filled they had very little chance of being rescued before their air ran out. The others might even think they were already dead and just erect a tombstone for them at the entrance.
Ezra's mind drifted. Lord, what would his mother think? He was killed trying to do a good deed. He could see her now, yelling and cursing him, 'Didn't I always tell you to watch out for number one?' Number one? Did he consider himself expendable? No, their friends would do everything possible to extricate them. Ezra only hoped it would be enough.
Buck dumped another load of rock outside the mine entrance and wiped his dirt-covered brow. He turned his face to the sun basking in its heat and light. The daylight was a welcome respite from the cold darkness of the mine.
JD rushed out of the mine with a load of dirt. "C'mon on Buck we need that wheelbarrow." The young gunslinger hadn't stopped working in two hours. The fear that his friends could be buried alive kept him going with a vigor that rivaled a team of horses.
"Slow down JD. You won't help anyone by passin' out from exhaustion."
JD stiffened in anger until he realized that Buck was right. If he collapsed then someone would have to tend to him, taking two men away from digging.
"Sorry, I just can't stand the thought of Nathan and Ezra trapped in there."
"Don't'cha worry none bout them two," Buck stated, draping an arm across JD's shoulders. "Nathan is very resourceful, and Ezra, well Ezra is just plain lucky."
JD smiled faintly, but his heart wasn't really in it.
Ezra had drifted off again and woke to the feeling of wetness seeping under him. He slowly turned his head, the lantern light revealing the blockage that still impeded their escape. He also saw dark water pooling at its base.
Ezra closed his eyes, feeling the icy water soaking through his jacket and sending a chill down his spine. If he could have gathered enough breath, he would have laughed. It wasn't enough that he was trapped under a crushing mountain, now he was in danger of drowning.
Nathan finally surrendered in his attempts to dig out. He jumped down from the debris pile and heard water splash as he landed.
"What the hell?"
"We seem to be taking on water," Ezra calmly noted.
"Dear God." The healer grabbed the lantern and took off down the shaft plunging the gambler into complete darkness.
Jackson waded through the pooling water searching for its source. A short distance from where Ezra lay he discovered scraps of piping littering the floor and he scrambled to keep his footing. He held the lantern low and tracked the seeping, gurgling sounds that emerged from the inky liquid. Suddenly, Nathan stopped and gaped at a spring of water forced up from the mine's floor like a sentry guarding its murky depths.
"No, no, no," Nathan murmured as he drove the heel of his boot into the torrent. His efforts only caused the water to spray more violently, drenching his clothing and washing away his confidence completely. Nathan looked back down the passage, recalling that he had left Ezra in complete darkness. He took a deep breath. He had to remain calm. The others would rescue them. They were not expendable.
Nathan moved back to the fallen timbers that trapped Ezra. The glow of the soft light swung in wide arcs across the tunnel and danced over the saturated floor. It caught the stark whiteness of Ezra's arm as he gripped the wooden beam that crushed him. Nathan shrugged off his coat and folded it over several times. He knelt down and placed it under Ezra's head. He didn't have to explain what was happening; he could see in the cardsharp's green eyes that he already knew.
"I'll get you out of this, I promise."
Ezra found it difficult to do anything more than simply nod.
Barley and Tad worked side by side with the five lawmen. They could feel the fear driving the gunslingers as each one delved into every reserve of strength and stamina they possessed.
Vin pushed the twin handles of the wheelbarrow forward dumping the contents near the miners. "So, why did the men stay if they knew the mine wasn't safe?" His voice was airy with tension and exhaustion as he wrenched the handles back and pivoted the wheelbarrow around.
Barley halted his digging and leaned on his shovel to watch the tracker. "Work's hard to come by for some people. The mine paid well, most were willing to take the risk." Dirt crunched as he plunged the sharp shovel into the wall of debris again. "I'll tell ya. I know the judge was plannin' to close down this mine, but he woulda had a hard time doing it. If'n you're not a farmer, rancher or storekeeper there ain't much else a person can do to make a decent wage."
"Doesn't look like that'll be an issue anymore," Josiah remarked coldly, as he continued to dig, not breaking from his rhythm.
"The judge just wants to make it safe for the workers," Chris interjected.
"Well, I'm all for that. But you have to understand that people have been working mines for generations. They're not going to stop just cause some high-n-mighty judge wants to do right by them. They have families to feed." Barley's shovel hit the earth again as he returned to his work.
The men considered Barley's words silently. The tunnel filled with the crunch of the metal shovels and the labored breathing of seven men.
JD worked in the deepest part of the tunnel swinging a pick at the wall that trapped his friends. He stopped in mid swing, the axe held in the air. "I hear something."
The men froze in their positions, every breath held tight.
"I don't hear nothin' JD," Buck whispered.
"It sounds like water, running water." Silence filled the cavern again as every man listened.
"You're dreaming, kid." Buck took the axe that JD still held poised in the air and pushed his shovel into the kid's hands. "You just need a change of scenery. Go dig over there."
JD's dark brows knit in frustration but he took the shovel and moved to the edge of the excavation. He plunged the tool into the earth and swung the dirt into the wheelbarrow.
"Don't worry, JD." Chris bent as he drove his shovel in for another load. "I'm starting to hear things, too. Take this load outside and bring the canteens back with you." He patted the pile with the back of his shovel. "JD?"
The digging stopped again as each man listened for a response. JD's ragged breathing filled the cavern. He had dropped his shovel and knelt on the tunnel floor clawing frantically at the dirt with his hands. Chris leapt over the wheelbarrow but Buck was there before him. He kneeled behind JD and wrapped long arms around him. His grip pinned JD's arms to his sides and the young man fought furiously to free himself.
"Ezra, it's Ezra!" JD's voice was raw.
"JD! Take it easy, kid..."
Chris looked past them into the digging site. It was dark but he could see the dull leather of the expensive boot partially buried in the dirt. The other men moved forward and working together they quickly pulled the heavy body from the debris.
"That ain't Ezra." Relief flooded Buck's voice and he pulled JD tight to his chest for a moment. Then he stood, pulling JD up with him. "We have to keep digging."
Barley brushed the dirt from the body. "It's Mr. Stokes, the owner." He stooped to pick the man up. "Likely we'll be findin' his assistant close by."
Josiah and Tad helped to carry the body out of the mine as the others resumed the endless digging.
"We're close now." JD drove the shovel into the earth with renewed vigor. "I can feel it."
Nathan crouched next to Ezra, the water soaking through his boots. He watched the conman's body tremble as the icy liquid crept up to saturate his bruised flesh. It numbed Nathan's feet and he hoped it might be an anesthetic for his friend as well; cooling the pain that burned under the weight of the beam.
Nathan shook the gambler slightly. "Ez, you alright?" He had listened to Ezra mumble for the past hour, but couldn't make out what he was saying.
Ezra opened glazed and befuddled eyes. "I remembered my seventh birthday, what a strange thing to recall." Ezra's voice was soft and unsure.
Nathan's forehead scrunched in worry. The cold and pain were starting to take their toll. "What about your birthday?" Nathan pressed, hoping to keep the conman awake and at least semi-lucid.
"Mother and I were in St. Louis. Everyday we would pass a store that dealt only in toys. I'd never seen such wondrous things. I had never wanted or asked for anything in my life. But there in the window was this toy locomotive." Ezra's eyes seemed to light up at the childhood memory. "It was made of tinned sheet iron and brightly painted with oil colors, black and red, I think, and a touch of gilt; it was fitted with a clock spring for propulsion."
"Sounds like a real terrific toy," Nathan prompted.
"I looked at it everyday for a week, even made sure mother saw me looking at it. Did everything but drop on my knees and beg." The child-like light flickered and died in Ezra's eyes. "Then, on that honored day, what did I get? My first marked deck of cards and instructions on how to use them. We spent the day going over the fundamentals and the evening was reserved for putting the cards into practice. I never wished for anything again."
Nathan hadn't realized that he was rubbing Ezra's shoulder as if trying to soothe a child. He got very little when he was a child; just to eat and not get beaten or sold was usually what every slave child wished for. But Nathan realized something; he always had the love of his family and friends. Listening to Ezra now Nathan didn't think the urbane southerner had received anything more than was necessary to hone his skills as a conman.
"My existence is but a meaningless accident upon this world. Even my mother has admitted to such," Ezra abruptly stated, not really knowing where this self-pity was coming from.
"No, Ezra-Stop!" Nathan angrily retorted. "You're not an accident. You can be an arrogant sonofabitch, but you got a heart of gold. I seen it and so have the others." Nathan paused a moment and took a deep breath. "Just don't know why you so intent on hidin' it all the time, 'specially from people who care about ya." He was not going to let Ezra die thinking he was worthless.
Ezra couldn't believe what he was hearing. Did the others really care about him? Did Nathan? Had they truly been able to see the real man under his self-serving demeanor? He had always been taught to take care of himself first and foremost. Others were nothing more than a mark, a means to financial security. But he had come to care for the six men he rode with. Why couldn't he tell them that?
Ezra was about to reply when they both heard a muffled scraping sound. Nathan jumped to his feet and raced over to the blocked entrance.
"HELLO? CAN ANYONE HEAR ME?" Oh, please let there be someone there, Nathan silently prayed.
"Nathan? Ezra?!" Josiah's modulated, baritone voice penetrated through the rock and dirt.
Nathan smacked the dirt wall with his palm. "Josiah! Thank God!"
"Nathan! Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, but Ezra is trapped under a piece of timber. I can't get him out."
"Hang on, Nathan!" Josiah's voice sounded distant. "We'll be there soon, we still have more rock to move."
Nathan's heart shuddered and he closed his eyes. How much more rock did they have to move? And how much time did Ezra have left? He turned back to his trapped friend. Even with his head propped up on the coat the water already covered his ears. The beam only allowed him to raise his head an inch, but he couldn't hold it up for very long. "Josiah." Nathan halted to get rid of the shakiness in his voice. "The cavern is filling with water."
Josiah's eyes widened, and he looked over his shoulder at JD. His fear filled expression was mirrored in his friend's face.
"Mother of God." Buck grasped JD's shoulder, "You sure did hear somethin', kid." Buck stabbed his shovel violently into the rock that separated them from their friends galvanizing everyone into action. "We're almost there!"
Nathan heard his friends doubling their efforts, but he knew they would never rescue them in time. He slid down the debris and sat quietly at the bottom, staring at the water that was now halfway to his knees.
Two strangers and five friends tore at the mountain of dirt. Noone spoke as picks and shovels cut deep and removed part of the pile bit by bit. They all knew that time was of the essence. They had heard it clearly in Nathan's words. Chris found himself digging furiously, sending his fear and frustration into the dirt with each strike of his shovel. He was responsible. He had sent Ezra and Nathan into the mine. God forgive him if anything happened to them, because he'd never forgive himself.
Buck glanced at his oldest friend, knowing if they lost Nathan or Ezra, they would lose Chris too. Buck didn't think he'd be able to save Chris a second time.
Josiah grunted and groaned with each swing of his pick but ignored the aged complaints of his body as he tore at the mound of dirt and rock. He was in danger of losing his best friend, and a man he almost considered a son, he could feel it in his heart.
The water caressed Ezra's face and he sputtered and choked as it surfed into his mouth and nose. He raised his head, using his free hand to hold onto the beam across his chest, but pain raced down his neck and back and he was soon forced to relinquish his hold. Ezra felt Nathan's hands behind his head and looked up in gratitude at the dark healer's kindly face. He was trying to maintain his composure but was finding it more and more difficult as the water continued to cover him. He didn't want to die this way, not here.
"Hang in there, Ez." Nathan couldn't stand the thought of the gambler sinking in the murky pool and fear pounded in his heart. He listened to the muffled sound of picks and shovels tearing into the mountain of earth. Would they break through only to find him standing over Ezra's body?
The quiet southern drawl broke Nathan from his morbid thoughts.
"There is an old chestnut that claims that just before you die, you see your entire life flash before you, from childhood all the way to your last moment on Earth." Ezra paused a moment. In the flickering lantern light Nathan could see there was more the conman wanted to say. "Mr. Jackson, there are many aspects of my childhood and my life that I do not wish to re-live."
Nathan stared at Ezra, listening to him choke and gasp for air. "You ain't gonna die, Ezra."
The ex-slave's dark brow furrowed as a sudden thought flashed in his mind. He pulled Ezra's good arm from the water and pressed it to the beam. "Hold on, do you hear me? I'll be right back."
Ezra could barely feel his hand grasping the beam. He held his head out of the water, squeezing his eyes shut and desperately tried to hear the shovels hitting the earth. Please hurry.
Nathan raced back down the tunnel his heart pounding in his chest like thundering hooves. His feet were numb as he splashed and stumbled in the cold water. When he reached the source of the spring, he held the lantern close to the surface. Plunging his free hand into it he groped the floor of the mine.
"Damn, where is it?" he muttered out loud, turning in a complete circle. His search became more frantic until numb fingers finally found the scraps of metal piping. He pulled up a foot long length of pipe and hurried back to Ezra, smiling at his prize.
Standish was fighting to maintain his grip in the complete darkness, but the pain in his back and neck became unbearable and he fell into the icy cold embrace. He grabbed the edge of the beam again, clawing the rough surface and pulled himself up enough to breathe. Light reflected off the water and broke the confusion. He felt Nathan's arm firmly behind him.
Nathan knelt in the water, sliding beneath the gambler. He cradled Ezra's head and shoulders as high as the timber would allow, but he knew that soon it wouldn't be enough. Ezra grunted in pain and strained to see the healer's face.
Nathan held the piece of piping in front of Ezra's eyes. "Ez, do you see this? You're going to breathe out of it." Nathan placed the pipe into his own mouth and blew out the debris that lined the tube.
Ezra stared skeptically at the pipe. God, he was so cold. His body felt detached from the chaos surrounding him. The water filled his ears and the healer's voice was garbled. Water suddenly rushed down his throat and he began to cough. Nathan tried to lift him higher, but Ezra cried out as a sharp pain speared his chest.
"Ezra! Listen to me: take a deep breath and try and relax. This is our only chance," Nathan tried to reason with the injured man but they had run out of time. He wrapped a large palm across Ezra's forehead and forced the pipe into his mouth. The conman pulled back, the pipe scraping across his face, but he had no possibility of escape. Nathan grasped his jaw easily and replaced the pipe. He held it tightly in place with one hand and pinched the man's nose closed with the other.
Nathan felt Ezra's chest heave with terror. The gambler's free hand grasped Nathan's wrist fighting to get free of the strangling hold. His right leg splashed furiously in the water, the heel of his boot scraping the mine floor seeking a foothold. The water continued to rise, nearly reaching Nathan's waist and submerging the man he held firmly in his lap. Grunts and labored wheezing emerged from the pipe, as Nathan held fast.
"Breathe, Ezra! Breathe through your mouth." Nathan tried to speak in a soothing tone but fear accented his words. "You can do it, you stubborn fool-they're almost here."
Ezra's strength weakened. His grip on the healer's wrist slipped and his resistance converted to a desperate struggle to cling to his friend. He tried to open his eyes.
He could hear his breath heaving in the metal pipe. It was so dark and cold. The eerie glow of the lantern and the shadow of Nathan hovered above him. The water distorted the images, and only Nathan's sure presence kept him connected. His mouth was numb and it was hard to feel the pipe that allowed him to breathe.
The cold engulfed him. It was like being in another world separate from everyone else, which wasn't too far removed from his own reality. He remembered stories of mermaids when he was a child. How sailors back from sea swore they saw a beautiful woman just below the surface looking up at them.
Breathe. Relax. Nathan's voice sounded so distant. Ezra lost his grip on the front of Nathan's jacket. He could no longer feel his fingers.
Nathan felt the fight in Ezra ease off, but his body continued to tremble furiously. He kept the gambler's face positioned around the pipe and listened carefully to the regular breathing that huffed from it. Lord, how long before his own fingers were deadened by the cold?
Jackson was afraid to take his eyes from Ezra's face but the sound of dirt falling into the water drew his attention to the top of the blocked entrance. First, he saw light as the lanterns from the other side of the wall suddenly showed through the opening, and then a pair of hands appeared and pushed more dirt away.
"Nathan! Ezra, you still there?" A huge smile broke across Nathan's face as Vin's lithe form suddenly slithered through the opening at the top. The tracker slid down the dirt on his stomach until he reached the bottom. He looked at Nathan and then saw the pipe sticking from the water and his eyes went wide.
"He's alive, Vin! Move the beam--get the timber off 'im!"
Buck came through next, then Chris and JD. Josiah was the last to come through enlarging the opening with his mass.
Nathan couldn't ever remember feeling such relief in his whole life. Each man moved quickly along the length of the timber trying to get a handle on its girth. All eyes were locked on the pipe sticking out of the water, knowing it was the only thing keeping Ezra alive.
"The beam is embedded in the wall. I couldn't lift it." Nathan noticed that the water level had risen to within two inches of the top of the pipe and he flexed his stiff fingers.
"Buck, Vin, c'mon," Chris instructed as he climbed up to where the large beam was buried in the wall. They had brought their shovels into the cavern and began to dig frantically. The gunslingers were exhausted, but the sight of Ezra suspended in this dark watery tomb, pumped fear-driven adrenaline through them.
Chris, Vin and Buck tore at the mine wall, breaking through the packed earth. When the beam shifted each man moved to get a good grip. Josiah placed himself at the free end of the beam and prepared to lift.
"JD, help me here!" Nathan tried to shift his hold on Ezra but found it difficult to move. JD stooped next to Nathan. He snaked his arms around the gambler's body and held fast.
"I'm gonna pull you out, Ezra. Hang on." JD could see part of Ezra's face beneath the water. His features were ghostly white and tinted with blue.
The huge preacher bent his knees and took a deep breath then released it. He got a good purchase on the rough piece of lumber and with every ounce of strength that he possessed, and what strength he could plead from the man upstairs, he started to lift the beam. Buck, Vin and Chris heaved with unfeasible force and the weight of the lumber shifted. The water grew murky with stirred up dirt.
A sharp agonizing pain lanced through Ezra's leg and he screamed, gulping in the filthy water.
Nathan heard the water-garbled scream. "NOW! GET HIM OUT NOW!"
"LIFT, BROTHERS, LIFT!" Josiah yelled through clenched teeth. The beam rose up, the wall finally giving up its hold.
Nathan and JD yanked desperately on the gambler's body. Ezra was dragged out from beneath the beam and erupted from his prison choking and expelling the water in favor of air.
Nathan stumbled, his legs numb. Josiah held the healer on his feet as Chris and JD struggled to get a grip on the wet, shaking gambler. His chest heaved and he curled forward, retching water, his mouth bleeding.
"Easy, Ez, I got ya," Chris soothed.
Ezra's head lolled back against Chris' chest. His eyes rolled up in his head and he fell limp, bringing everyone back into action.
"We have to get him out of here. He's freezing," Nathan said.
Buck and Vin climbed through the opening in the mine first. Cliff Barley and Tad were there, waiting. Barley grabbed a fistful of Vin's shirt and righted him as he slid from the opening. The miners waited expectantly for word of the buried men, braced for the news of more lives lost.
"Blankets!" Buck gasped. "Get some blankets for 'em, Barley- they're freezing."
Barley and Tad moved out of the tunnel with purposeful strides. If anyone knew where supplies were kept in this camp-they did. It seemed impossible that the two lawmen had survived and they were reeling with the discovery. Barley clutched Tad's shoulder when they emerged in the sunlight.
"Start the fire-heat some rocks. I'll get the blankets."
"Barley!" Tad called as he immediately started to pull together the components for the fire, "Whiskey! Stokes kept whiskey in the tool shed!"
Barley waved cheerfully over his shoulder at his fellow miner. "I'll get what's left of it, Tad! I'm afraid I knew that, too!"
Inside the cavern Josiah wrapped a supporting arm around Nathan. The adrenaline that had kept his friend going for the past few hours was slowly evaporating and Nathan was shaking from the cold and fatigue.
"His shoulder...he's dislocated it again-be careful." Nathan flexed his fingers trying to bring some feeling back as Chris and JD gently lifted Ezra into the muddy passageway. Buck and Vin reached through and took the gambler from them.
"Get out of there!" Buck yelled into the cave. "Now!"
Buck tried to hold Ezra's right arm still, but the conman was trembling so violently Buck could only hope to keep his grip on the man at all. He kept his focus on the light at the mouth of the tunnel willing this trip out of the black, subterranean passage to be his last. Vin kept a careful pace behind the ladies man watching his step.
Nathan squinted up at the late afternoon sun as he exited the mine. The empty blue sky seemed boundless. God, it felt good to be outside. Vin and Buck had gently laid Ezra down on a blanket that Barley spread out near a small campfire. Nathan knelt next to him, Josiah never leaving the healer's side.
"I need to put his shoulder back." Nathan placed one palm on Ezra's chest and turned the gambler's face toward him with the other. "Ezra, can you hear me?"
Ezra's lips were blue, his pale face etched in lines of pain. His breathing still held the edge of terror that had originated in the dark cavern.
"He ain't with us yet, brother." Josiah placed his palm on Ezra's forehead. "Best put his shoulder back before he is."
Nathan rubbed his hands together as Josiah opened the gambler's wet shirt. He worked the adhering material off completely. A dark bruise already marked Ezra's right side from his shoulder blade down to his hip, where the timber had left a deep cut. Josiah got behind Ezra and held him up as Nathan expertly pushed on the damaged flesh moving the capricious shoulder back into place. Ezra moaned as Nathan gently tested the shoulder's rotation.
"We have to get him warm," Nathan explained. "Get the rest of them wet things off."
JD was positioned near Ezra's feet and slid off the right boot, a splash pooling on the blanket.
"I got more dry ones here." Barley placed a stack of blankets to warm by the fire. Tad returned too with the supplies he could find and a bucket of water.
JD gently pulled off the left boot and Ezra erupted from the ground twisting in pain. His arms flailed seeking stability and each hand was quickly caught in the grip of a comrade. Chris clasped one hand and forearm and pressed Ezra firmly back to the ground.
"It's OK, Ezra. We gotcha. You're safe now."
Ezra's gut sucked in with panicked breaths. He held tightly to Chris and the familiar grip of Nathan. He heard their voices and felt the remarkable warmth of the sun on his chest. He blinked and squinted but could only see silhouettes moving in the flickering sunshine. Sunshine.
His breathing evened out and he drank in the warm, fresh air as delectable as the finest liqueur.
Nathan could feel the trembling in Ezra's body slow to a shiver. "Put one of the blankets on him now. I'll splint that leg first, then wrap his ribs." The healer pressed Ezra's cold hand into Josiah's. The preacher smiled. He held the gambler's hand to his own chest, massaging warmth into it.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."
Ezra's head turned to Josiah, his eyes still shut. "He...mmmmake..."
"Easy, brother." The big man pushed Ezra's still wet hair off his forehead and held his palm there. The men leaned in to listen.
"He maketh me...to...to...lie down in...still waters..."
"That's true, Ezra, but that ain't exactly how it goes." Josiah's laughter smothered the sound of Nathan's knife cutting through Ezra's wet clothes. The gambler drew in a sharp breath as the healer prodded the crushed limb, positioning it for a splint.
Cliff Barley and Tad had rolled hot rocks from around the fire in canvas and placed them in the blankets that surrounded Ezra. Now Cliff held a half empty bottle of whiskey in front of Chris. "Get 'im warm on the inside, too."
Josiah lifted the conman's shoulders as Chris helped him drink. At this angle he could open his eyes less painfully and he met Chris's gaze.
"Ezra, I'm so sorry," Chris said softly.
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra's head rested on Josiah's arm. "Mr. Jackson and I have...have determined the mine to...be unsafe. Please...tell the judge...he was right."
Nathan looked back at the black hole that was the mine's entrance. He prayed he would never have to step foot in one again. Some day he would go back and pay his respects to the slaves who had lost their lives in that cave-in so many years ago. But right now he just wanted to get Ezra home.
The six lawmen carefully placed the bound and splinted gambler into the back of a wagon. He wore Josiah's spare shirt under layers of wool blankets. His body was finally warmed and the endless trembling had stopped. Now he slumbered in restless pain; a fever warming his skin.
More than a week later Standish woke to the warmth of his down comforter. Nathan had finally released him from the clinic. Ezra felt he was fit to leave after a week, but for some reason Nathan, Buck and Vin conspired to keep him in the clinic longer. Their awkward attempts at distraction proved amusing and he deferred his usual difficult tendencies in favor of their entertaining antics. He knew they were up to something, especially since he hadn't seen Josiah, JD or Chris in three days.
Ezra ran his hand down his face, noting that he was in dire need of a shave. The memory of the mine was finally fading, and he no longer dreamed of drowning alone in a dark pool. Ezra sat up; wincing slightly as his injured ribs still pained him. He eased his legs over the side of the bed and stopped. His mouth fell open and his heart seemed to sputter in his chest. There, sitting on his nightstand, illuminated by the early afternoon sunlight as if on display, sat a beautiful Toy Locomotive.
Ezra's finger reached out and tapped the silver bell that was suspended from a scrolling frame that arched across the top of the train's broiler. He ran his hand over its black body that sat on four cast iron wheels. It was almost exactly like the one he remembered in the store window so many years ago.
Ezra knew he would allow six men to win a lot of money for this extremely meaningful gift. The thought that they wanted something in return never crossed his mind. He was part of a family, one stronger than the one he had been born to, and more precious than any he could wish for.