+ + + + + + +
Dark. Dark, and close. Vin concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, trying to control his breathing, trying not to let Sekani see his fear. They heard the strike and clatter of axes and shovels about them as they walked deeper into the bowels of the earth, their way dimly lit by kerosene lamps fixed to the walls of the mine.
Jonas gave them their own picks and shovels at the end of one of the passageways. He drove a steel pin into the ground with a hammer, attached their leg irons to it with a bolt. Then he showed them where to work, told them what Cray wanted. Vin found himself actually feeling grateful that it was Jonas who had taken them in instead of Healy. The man may be their captor, but at least he seemed to be more humane than Healy, intent on getting the job done, not on brutalizing his prisoners.
"What about water?" Vin risked asking when Jonas was about to leave.
"I'll be by with a water bucket, check on you," he answered. Jonas looked at Vin, saw the swollen eye and split lip. "I'll see what we got for that," he said.
"Thanks," Vin answered.
Jonas began walking back out of the passageway, he stopped briefly and called back to them over his shoulder.
"You'll want to watch yourselves around Healy. He's a mean'un."
"We noticed," Vin answered.
Jonas turned back to look at Vin.
"You don't cause trouble with Cray and there'll be none of that from me," he said, then turned back and disappeared into the darkness beyond.
Vin watched him leave, then felt a gentle hand. He turned to face Sekani who kept his hand on Vin's back.
"Your back?" he asked.
Vin knelt down as Sekani gently lifted his jacket and shirt. An angry welt spread across Tanner's back where the cane had struck, but the skin wasn't broken.
"No blood," Sekani told him, helping him back to his feet.
Vin stood uneasily as he looked about them, the one, dim lantern their only refuge from the dark. Already the walls seemed closer to him than when they first arrived. Sekani saw the look of a trapped animal in Vin's eyes.
"Small spaces - not good?" he asked. He had a friend in his tribe who was the same way. He remembered exploring a cave with Ansani when the boy began to shake, suddenly sweating and running in a panic to get out. Ansani had the same look in his eyes as this man did now.
"Not good, no," Vin answered in the native language. He tried to take his mind off his fear. "We'll find a way out of here, Sekani," he promised the boy, feeling better for having said the words out loud, even if he had no idea how to escape.
"My brother, Daksha, he follows," Sekani said, his face brightening at the thought of rescue.
"We better count on him, then," Vin said as he hefted an axe. "'cause there ain't no one comin' after me."
+ + + + + + +
The sun was beginning to set when the four friends and Daksha reached the mining camp. Buck and Chris looked at each other in surprise as they saw the extent of the mining operation that was underway.
"I thought you said this was played out around here?" Chris asked Andie as they lay on a ridge out of sight.
"It is," Andie insisted. "There's nothing there. And that particular mine was abandoned long before the others because it was so unstable."
"Looks like this is where our friend was taking us," said Buck, nodding towards Daksha who looked at the camp with murderous intent.
Chris pointed to the camp, then looked at Daksha.
"There?" he asked.
Daksha pointed to the same place as Chris and nodded. He needed to communicate with these people if he was going to rescue Sekani. But they had no language, and he very little English. And the little English he had he was unsure of, afraid to use in case he said something wrong that would anger them, cause them to leave. He had found some hope when he saw the buckskin that the woman had. It had belonged to the white man with Sekani. If they were looking for him...
"Daksha," he said, pointing to himself. "Daksha," he said again, drawing himself up proudly at the name.
"Daksha?" Chris said pointing to him. The young man nodded. "Chris," he said, pointing to himself, then to each of the others saying their names.
Daksha then pointed down towards the mine. "Sekani," he said. He reached for Chris' hand tentatively. When Chris yielded, Daksha took his hand and clasped it, drawing their arms together. He pointed to himself, "Daksha," then to the camp, "Sekani," then gripped Chris' hand tightly.
"Must be a friend down there," Buck said as he watched the simple pantomime.
"Or brother," Chris said, noting the concern in Daksha's eyes which mirrored his own for Vin.
Daksha nodded, then pointed to Andie.
"I don't understand," she said, shaking her head.
He pointed toward her again, brushing his hand lightly against her coat, against the pocket where she kept the telegram.
Carefully she pulled it out, handing him the buckskin again that he had become so excited over before. Daksha took the buckskin, pointed towards the mine, then grabbed Chris' hand again.
Chris grasped the Indian's hand, then pointed to the buckskin.
"Vin," he said, tightening his hold on Daksha's hand so hard the young man flinched.
Daksha looked into Chris' eyes and saw what he had hoped for. The white man with Sekani was this man's friend, or brother, and the rage and desperation that seethed within Chris matched his own. These people would help. And this man...this man would do whatever it took to save his brother. He saw that in the dark, cold, depth of the man's eyes and realized how close he had come to death himself when he had challenged him when they first met. This man did not fear to kill.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra said calmly, breaking the silent communication that bound the two men together. "I believe we have located Mr. Tanner."
They looked anxiously over the edge of the ridge to see Vin and Sekani being led out of the mine with the other Indian captives. Two men before them and two behind all held shotguns. Other men moved about the camp, heavily armed.
"Bastards," Chris swore as he watched Vin shuffle beside Sekani, the leg irons dragging heavily between them.
"He look alright?" Buck asked, as he tried to make out Vin's features in the fast-approaching night.
"Can't tell from here," Chris answered. "But at least he's alive."
"Sekani," Daksha said pointing at Vin's partner.
"Shit," Chris said as he looked to where Daksha was pointing. He saw the instant similarity between the two braves and realized Sekani must be Daksha's brother.
"That's why he was so excited when he saw the buckskin," Andie reasoned. "He figured we were looking for Vin, and he knew a white man in buckskin was with his brother."
"Also explains why he was willing to die to get us to help him," Chris said, admiring the man's devotion to his brother.
"Have we a plan of liberation?" Ezra asked Chris.
"You mean other than ridin' in there and shootin' anything that gets in our way?" asked Buck.
"Is there a plan B?" Ezra asked, ignoring Wilmington.
"I hate to say it, but Ezra's right," Chris said. "Nothin' we can do tonight but think on a way to get them out of there. Too many men down there, and we know Vin's gonna be useless to help, chained up like that."
Buck saw Chris' jaw tighten at the thought of Vin being chained. He knew the premium Vin placed on his freedom. They all did.
"I don't think I can..." Andie said hesitantly. "The thought of..." she started again. "He hates closed spaces," she said finally. She watched the words sink in with the men about her as they envisioned their friend in the depths of the mine.
"I don't think we're gonna be able to put much of a rein on our friend here," Chris said, nodding towards Daksha. "If we're gonna move, we're gonna have to do it soon before he goes off on his own and gets 'em both killed."
Buck watched Daksha as he ground the tip of his knife into the dirt before him, then looked at Chris who sat staring at the mine below.
"Then let's start thinkin'."
+ + + + + + +
Vin slept fitfully, his leg chained to the ground along with Sekani's. True to his word, Jonas had brought some soap and water to wash the cut on the back of Vin's head from Maddock's attack, and some kind of liniment Nathan would've been proud of, from the stench of it, that Jonas applied to the bruising around his eye.
Those ministrations, however welcome, did little to ease his mind at the thought of spending the rest of his life in the mine. He had barely made it through the day, trying hard to concentrate on the grueling work before him, keeping his mind off where he was.
Now in the night he thought of the inevitable return to the mine in the morning, and wondered how long he could keep hold of his sanity in the dark confines of his prison.
"Vin?" Sekani whispered in the night. "Why did he take you?"
"Same as you, I guess," Vin answered him. "To work."
"No. The other man," Sekani explained.
He meant Maddock. Vin swallowed hard as he thought of Andie, of what he should have been doing now - enjoying her laugh, the warmth of her arms, her tender kiss... He shook himself from the dream.
"The law thinks I killed a man. He was taking me as bounty," Vin answered.
"But you did not do this," Sekani insisted. "I do not believe it."
"I did not do it," Vin assured him. "But I can not prove it."
"When Daksha comes, you will live with us," Sekani offered.
Vin smiled at the young man and wished for the confidence he had in his brother's ability to rescue them.
"When Daksha comes, I'll go back to my home, my friends," Vin answered.
"Do you have a woman?"
"Yes," Vin answered. "I was meeting her when this happened."
"Your home is with her then?" Sekani asked.
I'm going to take her home with me, Vin thought to himself. He was surprised at the thought, but realized that if he did survive this, if Daksha was able to rescue them, he would ask Andie to come back to Four Corners with him. Somehow they would make it work. He was tired of being alone. He would do whatever it took to make her happy.
"Yes," he answered finally. "My home is with her."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra watched the camp from the same ridge they had all hid behind the day before. He wasn't entirely sold on this plan. The gambler felt there was too much risk involved - too many unknowns. It was not a hand he would've played. But Larabee was calling the shots on this one, and with the anxious Daksha beside him they proved too powerful a force to reckon with.
He had, however, felt bold enough to protest his own part in the rescue. Staying behind, backing up the rest of them with Larabee's shotgun left him uneasy. He was not a sharpshooter. Most of his dealings with a gun were at close range. He had finally raised his objection when he learned even Andie was to go with them into the camp.
"I want her close when we get to Vin," Chris said.
"But from what we have observed, Mr. Tanner appears unharmed," Ezra argued.
"She's comin' in with us, Ezra, and you're backin' our play up here."
"Perhaps Mr. Wilmington..." Ezra tried again, believing Buck's skill with a rifle to be greater than his own.
"Buck's an old Indian fighter - good with a knife. We need to take out as many of them as we can without raising suspicion before we show our hand."
"Hell, Ez, we know you ain't no Vin with a shotgun," said Buck. "Just do your best. Aim for a pocket of 'em if you can. There's a good spread on that shotgun. Should take out more than one if they're close together."
"We'll take out as many as we can without makin' a sound," Chris said. "We'll wait until they take 'em in, then take care of the patrol left behind. Buck and Daksha will try to get into the mine without 'em noticin'. But the minute you hear a shot, you come out firin'. From that moment on it'll be an all-out gun battle."
"At best, Mr. Larabee, I feel we are holding two pair - 3s and 6s. Not a hand with which I'd choose to wager our lives, and that of Miss Andrea's," Ezra tried one more time. He looked at Andie, at Daksha, at Chris. "However, it appears I am overruled. So be it. Do what you can, Mr. Larabee, and know that help shall come from on high as needed."
+ + + + + + +
Vin took a deep breath as Jonas pulled up the stake that held Sekani and him to the ground. They stood as he directed and started their way to the mine again.
Tanner stiffened as he heard Healy approach them from behind.
"You still alive? Hell, I figured one day in the pit would do you in," he feinted a blow to Vin's jaw, but the tracker didn't flinch.
"Damn, Jonas, you see that?" he asked the big man next to him. "Ain't he a tough hombre?"
"We're goin' down," Jonas answered as he pushed Vin and Sekani ahead of him, carefully putting himself between them and Healy.
"You gettin' soft, Jonas?" Healy sneered at him.
"I'm gettin' the job done," Jonas answered. He walked purposefully on, a slight pressure at the backs of Vin and Sekani with his rifle to keep them moving along, away from Healy's taunts.
"Mr. Cray!" Healy shouted suddenly, causing Jonas to stop in his tracks.
"What is it, Mr. Healy?" Cray asked as he sauntered towards them.
"I noticed that Tanner here didn't have much to show for his day's work yesterday," Healy said, throwing a hateful glance towards Jonas. "I don't think he cares for our little operation here."
"Mr. Jonas?" Cray asked the man. "Is this true?"
"Only worked half a day. Come on in the afternoon," Jonas answered.
Cray walked over to Vin and slid his cane under his chin and alongside his face. He turned Vin's face towards him.
"The eye looks much better," said Cray. "Your handiwork, Mr. Jonas?"
"Can't work if he can't see," Jonas replied.
"How is your friend doing, Mr. Tanner?" Cray asked, his cane remaining pressed against Vin's face as he looked over to Sekani.
"He's fine," Vin answered through gritted teeth.
"Getting along are you?" Cray asked with a suggestive smile. His free hand reached out to brush Sekani's cheek. The brave made a move to shove his hand away but Vin intervened, sensing the danger. He threw himself between Cray and Sekani, sending the man sprawling into the dirt.
Jonas pulled him back in line as Cray stood, slowly brushing himself off.
"Mr. Jonas?" he said to the man meaningfully.
"Let me get 'em back to work," Jonas said.
"Are you taking his place, Mr. Jonas?" Cray asked.
Jonas looked at Vin, then back to Cray. He lowered his eyes and stepped back behind Vin.
"I didn't think so," said Cray. Healy held Sekani as Jonas lowered Vin to his knees, forcing his head to the ground.
"The jacket this time I think, Mr. Jonas," Cray said as Jonas reluctantly pulled Vin's jacket up over his head.
Vin closed his eyes, his hands held behind his back, as he waited for the cane to fall.
+ + + + + + +
"No, Chris!" hissed Buck as he tackled the gunfighter to the ground. Daksha helped Wilmington hold Larabee down.
They had drawn close to the camp in time to see Vin's punishment meted out by Cray. Andie had been unable to bear the sight and turned away, hiding her face in her hands. Larabee watched, his face contorted in rage as the cane fell again and again across Vin's back. He struggled fruitlessly against Buck and Daksha as they held him, fighting their own anger at Cray along with Larabee.
"Hang on, Chris," Buck pleaded, unable to watch the beating for fear he would join the reckless behavior of his friend who threatened to race into the midst of the camp in an action that would kill them all.
Through a black rage that almost blinded him, Chris watched as the cane cracked three, four, five times against Vin's back. He saw the blood begin to seep through the shirt, tasted blood himself as he bit down on his own tongue to keep from making a sound. Mercifully it ended, and the three watched as the man holding Vin pulled his jacket back - almost tenderly - then raised him to his feet. Vin stumbled forward as Sekani took his arm, helping him to walk.
"He's mine, Buck," Chris croaked in a whisper. "I want him. I'll kill him."
Buck saw the look of a cold, calculating killer in Chris' eyes. A look he'd seen before, but never this black, this empty.
"He's yours, Chris."
+ + + + + + +
Jonas secured Vin and Sekani's chains to the ground in the same tunnel he had left them in yesterday. Vin sank to the ground, his face resting against the cold rock as he struggled to remain conscious.
"I'll get some water," Jonas mumbled, leaving them.
Vin felt the gentle hands of Sekani draw his jacket away, then his shirt. He flinched as the sticky shirt peeled away from the broken welts on his back.
"My fault," Sekani said, shaking his head mournfully. "I should not...he was..." the brave said, shaking at the thought of the disgrace.
"It's...alright," Vin gasped as a wave of pain washed over him. "I'll be fine. Just...need to...catch my breath."
"Here," said Jonas, startling him as he set a bucket of cold water beside them. He soaked the rag in the water, then wiped it carefully along the cuts, washing away the blood.
"Hell of a job, Jonas," Vin said to him, unable to fathom why the man would work for someone like Cray.
"He...saved my life once," Jonas said uneasily.
"So shake his hand and get the hell outta here," Vin said tersely, wincing as the wet rag rubbed against the open wounds.
"I was thinkin' on it," Jonas answered honestly as he replaced Vin's shirt.
"Take us with you while you're at it," Vin said, laughing humorlessly.
"I don't..." Jonas stopped, his head cocking to the side. Vin heard it too. Gunfire. Heavy gunfire outside the mine. He turned to Jonas, then to Sekani, and then he felt it. The earth began to shift beneath his feet and an ominous rumbling joined the burst of gunfire above.
"Get us outta here!" Vin shouted, pulling at the pin that held their chains to the ground.
Jonas panicked, running for the exit of the cave.
"No, wait, help us!" Vin shouted as Sekani joined him, pulling at the chains as loose rock began to fall about them. The earth moved, the walls shook, dust fell in sheets about them as their lantern fell to the floor, shattering, plunging them into darkness.
+ + + + + + +
"Vin!" Buck shouted as he ran into the mine. Daksha was beside him, calling out for Sekani as they raced in. They could still hear the shouting and gunfire behind them as they raced through the tunnels.
When the cave walls began to shake they heard the shouts of men making their way back to the opening. Healy came racing towards them and Buck recognized him as the man who had held Sekani, the one who had caused the trouble for Vin. He drew his gun, but Daksha flew past him, tackling the huge man to the ground. They fought as Buck pulled his revolver, looking for a target.
A gun went off and Buck watched Daksha sag onto the body of the man below him.
"Damn you!" Buck shouted drilling Healy with two slugs from his revolver as the man attempted to run. Healy fell back dead, and Buck noticed a knife sticking from his side. Daksha had gotten to him, but not fast enough to stop the bullet that would end his life.
"Shit!" Buck swore again as he raced to Daksha's side.
"Sekani," Daksha whispered as the blood poured from his chest.
"I'll get him," Buck promised. "I'll take him home," he said as the ground shook beneath his feet.
+ + + + + + +
Outside the cave was chaos. As soon as the last of the work detail had entered the mine, Buck and Daksha had managed to take out two of the eight men left on duty outside before they were discovered. Guns fired as Chris pulled both revolvers from his holster taking out two more. Ezra pounded down from the ridge, his shotgun firing, as two more men fell.
Chris found Cray racing towards the corral. He fired once, winging the man as he grabbed the reins of a horse. Chris continued to run forward, his gun trained on Cray as he shouted back over his shoulder to Ezra, "There's one more!"
"Draw you son of a bitch!" Chris shouted to Cray, oblivious to the ominous rumbling of the earth as he watched the man fumble for his gun.
"Turn and draw you stinkin' coward. Let me see your face before I send you to hell!"
Cray dropped his gun, turning to face Chris with his uninjured arm in the air.
"Kill me and you'll never find them," he said quickly, looking at the entrance to the mine as it belched forth a great cloud of black dust. "There are escape tunnels. I know where they are. You'll never find them in time without me."
Chris shook his head, trying to clear it of the rage that consumed him, trying to concentrate on what Cray was saying as he finally became aware of the pounding and grinding of rock about them.
They heard two more shots as they stood frozen.
"Chris!" he heard Ezra shout. "Chris! God, where are you?"
"Here!" Chris shouted. He motioned to Cray to start walking back to the camp.
They walked with Larabee's gun trained on Cray's back as the gunfighter scanned the ground before them. It was littered with the bodies of Cray's men. He looked for Buck or Daksha. The last time he had seen them they were making their way into the mine. He saw Ezra, then, kneeling on the ground and motioning to him wildly from the side of the mine, his face drained of color. And then he froze. The body of one of Cray's men lay beside the gambler. With one hand Ezra held a smoking gun, and with the other he desperately held back the blood that pulsed from the body of Andie Kincaid.
+ + + + + + +
"Sekani?" Vin said weakly as he regained consciousness. "Sekani?" He felt his heart beating wildly, he couldn't breath. Buried alive, alone. God no, not that.
"Sekani!" he shouted, then fell into a racking cough as he swallowed the thick dust that blanketed him.
"Vin," came the soft voice beside him.
Thank God, thank God, Vin's mind screamed. Not alone!
"Are you hurt?" he asked the Indian.
"My arm is broken, but I'm fine," he said. Vin could hear the boy straining to cover his fear, and smiled to himself at his remark. I'm fine. Even in another language it sounded of false bravado.
Vin could not move. His legs were pinned beneath a wall of rock. His back screamed in torment, his head ached, his throat burned.
"Me too," he said.
+ + + + + + +
"What the hell happened?" Chris asked as he finished tying Cray up, then knelt beside Andie.
"Stupid," Andie whispered, biting her lip. "I wanted to go with Buck...to help Vin. Stupid," she gasped as Ezra pushed down hard on her side to try to stop the bleeding.
"I've done a lot of stupid things tryin' to help Vin," Chris said, his smile tight, his eyes searching Ezra's for the gambler's assessment of the situation.
"Indeed," Ezra said lightly, his eyes betraying the weight of his despair. "Since becoming acquainted with Vin I have found myself floundering into a succession of obtuse escapades."
"Why Mr. Standish," she smiled slightly, her eyes closed. "You called him Vin."
+ + + + + + +
The dust settled and Buck looked about, his eyes adjusting to the dark. He pulled a match from his pocket and struck it against his heel as he peered behind him. The entrance was closed with fallen debris. Before him, three lanterns lay on the ground, the glass hurricanes shattered. He marked their locations in his mind as the match went out, then gathered them in the dark. There was one lantern full, another half-full, and the third empty, its contents having spilled onto the ground in the fall. He struck another match and lit one of the lanterns, hooking the spare onto his belt. He drew the body of Daksha over to the side of the cave, crossing his arms over his chest. He took the Daksha's knife out of Healy's side and slid it into his belt as well.
"I'll bury it in the bastard who took your brother," he promised the brave. "If there's anything left of him after Chris is done."
He held the lantern before him as he made his way along the cave walls, calling Vin's name to the echoing darkness ahead.
+ + + + + + +
"Can you move?" Vin asked Sekani. His legs were numb and he felt the panic surge within him again. "I'm stuck here."
"Coming," Sekani answered. He crawled along the floor of the mine, reaching before him in the darkness. He felt Vin's hand and grasped it.
Vin held onto Sekani's hand, willing his heartbeat and breathing to slow down with the comfort of Sekani's presence.
"My friend, we're not much better off than we were," Vin said.
"Daksha will come," Sekani said, the same hopeful assurance in his voice. Vin remembered the confidence that shone in the young man's face with the belief in his brother's abilities.
"You have a lot of faith in him," Vin said.
"Do you not believe your woman will come?" he asked.
"She doesn't know where I am. By now, she prob'ly thinks I'm dead," Vin answered, speaking the painful truth.
"They don't know what happened to me either."
"But when you do not come, they will look."
"Trail's pretty damn cold, Sekani."
"If they are good friends, they will look until they find the signs," Sekani reasoned.
If they are good friends, thought Vin.
"I'm about as well-hid as a man can get, Sekani. Not much sign left," said Vin.
"If they are good friends, they will come," the boy said again.
Vin took a deep breath and thought of Buck, Ezra, Nathan, J.D., Josiah, Chris...
"Then they'll come."
+ + + + + + +
"How bad?" Chris asked Ezra after the gambler had wrapped bandages around the wound in Andie's side as she lay unconscious. Larabee had been questioning Cray as Ezra tended to her as best he could. There was no exit wound, and both men knew there was little hope.
"I'm no more a healer than I was a marksman, Mr. Larabee," Ezra hissed angrily as he bent over the young woman. "This was your plan, wasn't it? You figure it out."
Chris grabbed Ezra's shoulder. Standish raised his head and glared at the gunfighter fiercely.
"You got somethin' to say to me?" Chris challenged him.
"Just waiting for orders, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said coldly. "We don't have Vin, we've lost Buck and Daksha, we'll probably lose Andrea, and thanks to you, our friend over there is still very much alive - just what part of your great plan actually worked?"
"The only reason he's alive is to help us get to the others," Chris spat. "He's dead the minute I find Buck and Vin."
"Not much incentive for my assistance," Cray said.
Chris turned on him with such ferocity that Cray fell back, cringing as if he'd been struck.
"You'll help me find them or by God I'll watch you die inch by inch for as many days as I can make you last," Chris growled.
"I suggest you start looking," Ezra said. "If they're trapped in the tunnels they won't last long without air."
"What about..." Chris said as he nodded towards the still form that reclined in Ezra's lap.
"I'll see to her," Ezra said.
"If she dies..." Chris said, swallowing hard.
Ezra glared at Chris, then at Cray.
"I'll put a bullet in him myself."
+ + + + + + +
"Vin!" Buck called out as he made his way through the mine. A muffled groan rose from the ground to his left and he ran quickly to where a man lay half-buried in the rock. Wilmington turned him over and saw the face of the man who had led Vin and Sekani into the mine.
"Where are they?" he screamed at the man in desperation.
"Be...Behind me...," Jonas gasped. Blood spilled from the corner of his mouth and Buck knew from the little he had learned watching Nathan that the man was bleeding inside.
With dread, Buck looked up and saw the wall of rock that separated him from his friend.
"Vin!" he called again, straining to hear any response. He took the handle of Daksha's knife and struck it against the rock. "Vin!" he called again.
"There's..." Jonas said, his voice thick with blood. "There's...a back way. Escape..." he muttered again, then gasped in pain.
"Where?" Buck asked. He pulled the man's head up and asked again. "Where's the back way?" he asked again, but he was staring into the lifeless eyes of Daniel Jonas.
"Damn!" Buck swore. A back way. Behind Vin? Or around the side in one of the other tunnels? Exiting where? He could hear shouts now from men in other areas of the mine and drew his gun, not sure if he would meet up with prisoners or guards. He saw no way through where Jonas lay buried, so instead he moved to a tunnel on this right, concentrating as best he could on keeping his bearings in relation to where Jonas had said Vin and Sekani would be.
+ + + + + + +
"Buck!" Chris shouted as he dragged Cray behind him, his hands tied. They made their way carefully across the top of the mine, Cray directing him to the left or the right. They had found one escape tunnel already and Chris had helped the few surviving prisoners out of the cavernous hole below them. One of the guards emerged, squinting into the sun that reflected off the barrel of Chris' .45. The man had yielded, and Chris gave him into the hands of his prisoners.
They moved on as Chris continued to shout.
"Vin! Sekani!" He turned to Cray. "Where else?"
"There, over there," Cray said pointing with his bound hands.
"You send them in that direction?" Chris demanded.
"I...I don't know. It was up to Jonas where he assigned them."
"You better be tellin' me the truth..." Chris threatened.
"I swear, I don't know...I can only tell you where the escape routes are."
Chris stopped as he heard the voice coming from the ground below him.
"Buck?" he asked, dropping to the ground at another entrance.
"That you Chris?" Buck called from below.
Within minutes Chris saw the faint glow of a lantern followed by Buck's face several feet below them.
"Damn good to see ya, Cowboy," Buck said smiling up at him.
"You find Vin?" Chris asked.
"No. But I found the guard who took him in. Can't get to Vin the way they walked in, but the guy said there was an escape route somewhere around here. Guess this was what he meant." Buck answered.
"Ask him if there's another one," Chris ordered.
"Can't. Dead," said Buck. "You get me another lantern or somethin' so I can keep lookin' down here?"
"I'm comin' down with ya," Chris said.
"What good's that gonna do?" Buck asked, frustrated. "You keep lookin' for these escape tunnels up there, I'll keep lookin' down here. You get me a couple lanterns, I can mark my way back here so I don't get myself lost."
Chris hated to admit that Buck was right. Better to be looking in two directions than both of them together. Some of the prisoners they had rescued had heard the exchange and returned now with lanterns and kerosene.
He looked at them gratefully.
"Thank you," he said, reaching out to take the lanterns from them. The Indian in front of the group pulled the lanterns back.
"Him," he said, pointing to Cray.
Chris looked at Cray as it dawned on the man what was happening.
"No," he muttered fearfully. "You...You need me yet. To find the other openings."
Larabee realized the other prisoners were willing to help him - but only in exchange for the life of Aaron Cray. And why not? They were the ones truly wronged. And Chris had no doubt that whatever revenge he would extract from the man would pale in comparison with what they had in mind.
"You'll help me find Vin?" he asked the Indian, not knowing if he would understand. Chris pointed down into the hole. "My friend?"
"Friends," the man nodded, pointing in the same direction.
Of course, thought Chris, there are more of them down there, too. He looked at the prisoners, then at Cray.
"We work together," he said pointing at them, at himself, "Get them out. Then him," he said, pointing to Cray.
The prisoner seemed to understand and Chris thanked God that the man had some English.
"But we take him now," the Indian said firmly.
Chris looked at the determination in the man's eyes and nodded in agreement. Then a new thought occurred to him.
"Help woman?" pointing to where Ezra sat back in the camp with Andie.
The Indian shrugged, uncertain, then called to one of the other prisoners. They talked briefly, the young man looking concerned, but apprehensive. The first man spoke again, more forcefully this time and pointed to Ezra. Finally the young man nodded and walked towards the camp.
"Father - good medicine. Son knows some. Tries," the man in charge explained.
"Thank you," Chris said gratefully. It wasn't much, but he knew how much stock Vin placed in Indian medicine, and right now they had very few options.
As Cray continued to scream his protests, Chris passed him over into the hands of his former prisoners who took him back to camp and secured him there, then joined Chris to continue the search for the others.
+ + + + + + +
The air was getting stale in the small space Vin shared with Sekani. Twice he had drifted to sleep and twice he had startled himself awake, shaking with the dread of being in the confined space.
Both men were plagued by constant coughing as the fine dust choked them in their efforts to breathe the stagnant, thinning air about them. They had stopped calling, trying to save their breath, and instead used the shovel and axe to tap out their pleas for help against the stone that buried them.
Vin tried to escape the prison of rock by picturing himself strolling the vast, endless prairie above with Andie at his side. He drew her face from memory in his mind, her almost violet eyes, dark brown hair, tender smile. He saw her laughing at him, at his shy, hesitant way with her. Saw her eyes widen in surprise as he boldly took her in his arms, kissed her, held her...
"Vin?" asked Sekani. "Listen!"
A faint tapping echoed in the darkness.
"Daksha!" Sekani shouted hopefully. "Daksha!"
The tapping continued, stronger now, and closer.
"Here!" Vin shouted, joining Sekani. "Down here!"
"Vin?" came the voice, closer than the tracker would've thought possible - and familiar.
"Buck?" he whispered in disbelief.
"Vin!" Came the shout again, this time unmistakably Wilmington.
"Buck! Here!" Vin shouted, then gasped, choking on dust as the racking cough shook him again.
"Chris! Got 'im!" Buck shouted.
Chris? Vin thought to himself. Chris is here? He can't...
But he could not deny that it was Wilmington's voice calling to him through the rock. And if Buck was here, Chris would...
"Buck! Where? You find him?"
"Here, Chris, follow my voice. Here!"
It sounded as Buck were almost beside them now, though not in the same direction Jonas had run when the tremors began. He was more to their left, and Sekani beat against the rock furiously with the shovel to give them direction.
"I hear ya, Vin," Buck called to them. "I'm gonna get help. Just hang on."
"No!" Vin screamed suddenly. So close to rescue, the word was out of his mouth before he could stop it, the panic built up inside him bursting free at the thought of losing contact with the world outside again.
"Vin," Buck shouted back. "It's ok. I know where you are. I'm comin' back, I promise. And I'm bringin' Chris. Hang on."
Bringing Chris. Buck was coming, and he was bringing Chris. Vin clung to the hope with desperation, his face dripping sweat, chest heaving as he struggled for air, the dry cough burning his throat.
"They have come," Sekani whispered confidently beside him. "I told you."
+ + + + + + +
"Vin?" Andie whispered as she was roused from a fitful sleep by the young Indian's careful touch.
"Rest easy, Miss Andrea," Ezra said soothingly as he cooled her forehead with his water-soaked kerchief. "The young gentleman is here to assist," he explained as the boy felt around the wound cautiously.
"My bag," she said swallowing down the pain that flared within her.
Ezra picked up the medical bag Andie had dropped. He had already taken bandages from it to use on her and given her some of the laudanum Nathan had packed.
"Bullet?" she asked.
"I fear it is still inside," Ezra answered with dread.
"Not...too good, huh?" Andie asked with a weak smile.
"I have a horse."
Ezra turned to Cray who sat bound between two of the Indians.
"Congratulations," Ezra said coldly. "Although I doubt you will have need of it much longer."
"I meant...you could take her to Tascosa. Get her help."
"Your concern is duly noted," Ezra said. "Although it shall buy you no absolution from me, nor our friends below."
"Listen," said Cray, licking his lips in desperation. "Listen, you and me - we're educated men, we can discuss this..."
Ezra drew his gun, clicking back the hammer and pointing the barrel at Cray.
"At the risk of angering these gentlemen by ending your life prematurely, I would request you refrain from drawing any comparison between us," Ezra said evenly. He saw the look of concern on the faces of the two Indian guards and released the hammer gently. Slowly he eased the gun back into his holster.
"And the correct phrase is you and I," he added in disgust, as he turned back to Andie. The Indian worked diligently to ease Andie's pain.
"Perhaps our friend here will be of help," Ezra offered, his voice softening again as he held her gently.
"Whatever...he can...do," Andie nodded. "But...if I can't...if Vin...I want him to know..."
"I shall remain here with you until Mr. Tanner returns," Ezra said as he fought to control his emotions. "And you resume the tryst so rudely interrupted."
"I like it better when you call him Vin," she said, closing her eyes again.
"Then I shall call him Vin the rest of my days," Ezra promised, holding her hand.
+ + + + + + +
Ten minutes seemed like an hour to Vin as Chris was lowered into the escape tunnel with two pick axes for himself and Buck. They ran through the tunnels to where Buck had heard the voices of the trapped men. The quarters were too tight for more hands so the two friends alone stood shoulder to shoulder digging furiously at the rock and dirt that separated them from Vin and Sekani.
Vin listened to the rise and fall of steel against rock, counting each strike that brought them closer to freedom.
Neither he nor Sekani were wasting any of the precious air on talking now. Both lay motionless, breathing shallow, willing their rescuers to break through the wall of rock.
Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three Vin counted in his head twenty-four, twenty-five... a rush a fresh air fell across his face as the side of the wall fell in, the rock and dust crumbling about them.
Buck's face, black with dirt and running with sweat peered in at them.
+ + + + + + +
"How?" Vin croaked through parched lips as Chris opened a canteen of water.
"Drink," Chris ordered.
Vin took a deep drink of water from the canteen, then coughed as he swallowed it together with the dust that caked his mouth.
"Easy," said Chris, offering him another small sip.
"Found your telegram, pard," Buck said as he worked on a splint for Sekani's arm.
"But, before," Vin said.
"Andie got us," Buck answered. "She's a hell of a woman, Vin. Maybe you better marry her after all. This courtin' business is too dangerous for you."
"Sure is, Vin. Waitin' up top for ya. So why don't we quit yakkin' and work on gettin' you outta here," said Buck. He saw the look of amazed delight in Vin's eyes and smiled at Chris. The smile faded slowly as he saw the look of anguish in Larabee's eyes.
"Chris?" he asked as a sinking feeling of dread stole over him.
Larabee turned to where Vin lay buried still under a wall of rock.
"Let's get you outta here, Vin," he said, turning from Buck to the task before him.
Buck's stomach turned cold as he sat unable to move, the look in Chris' eyes had been filled with the same raw emotion he had witnessed at the deaths of Sarah and Adam.
"No," he murmured prayerfully, closing his eyes.
"Buck?" Vin asked, alarmed at his friend's reaction. He could not see Chris from where he lay, had missed the solemn exchange between the two men.
"You finished with that splint?" Chris asked Buck, a new look now that challenged the man to keep this horrid secret from their friend a moment longer.
"Yeah, almost," Buck stuttered as he turned back to his work, grateful to have a reason for looking away from Vin.
Buck cut the end of the cloth wrapped around Sekani's arm and the splint, dividing it in two to tie a knot, finishing the bandage.
Sekani suddenly reached out, his hand covering Buck's. He looked at Wilmington with soulful eyes.
Buck was confused, then looked down at his hand. He froze when he realized he was using Daksha's knife to cut the cloth.
"Daksha?" Sekani asked, his eyes bright with tears.
Buck shook his head. He hadn't wanted the boy to find out this way. He had been so happy just moments ago when they had reached Vin and Sekani. Now the happiness was shattered with the pain of having to tell the boy the fate of his brother, of having to tell Vin...
"I'm sorry," he said finally. Finding no other words for the boy, he handed the knife to Sekani.
The boy looked to Vin. Chris was sitting beside him, carefully working at the rock that continued to trap Vin's legs.
"I'm sorry, Sekani," Vin said, his heart breaking for his young friend.
A single tear left its trail along the dust-covered face of the boy as he cradled the knife lovingly in his hands. He shuddered slightly, then slid the knife into his belt, wiping his face dry with his uninjured arm. Proudly, he raised his head and looked back at Vin.
"I told you he would come."
+ + + + + + +
"Well, pard, you got yourself in good here," Chris said as he pulled rocks away carefully, one by one.
Buck had taken Sekani out through the passage and was helping the other prisoners to haul him up through the escape tunnel.
"Your legs broke?" he asked Vin.
"Can't tell for sure. Can't move 'em, but they don't hurt too bad. Back hurts," he said, grimacing, turning his head away from Chris.
"Yeah," Chris said, fighting to control his own emotions as his mind filled with the haunting vision of the beating once again.
"Cray?" Vin asked, reading his friend's mind.
"Top side," Chris answered briefly as he worked.
"What the hell does that mean?" Vin rasped, coughing again.
"I traded 'im," Chris answered with a shrug.
"With who?" Vin asked, confused.
Chris stopped working and looked down at his friend with a cold smile.
"Your fellow prisoners."
Vin looked at Chris as his own smile, the first in a long time, crept slowly across his face.
+ + + + + + +
"Sekani's up," said Buck as he made his way back into the cramped quarters with Chris and Vin.
"What happened to Daksha?" Vin asked him.
"Met up with that bastard that caused all the trouble this mornin'. He was runnin' for his life outta the mine when she started to go. I pulled my gun, but Daksha was already on top of 'im. Got him with his knife, but not before catchin' a bullet himself. I finished the job for him."
"Sekani believed in him. Knew he would come," Vin explained sadly.
"Well, he sure took a hell of a chance gettin' us to help," Buck said.
"Hey?" Chris said to Vin as he thought about their first meeting with Daksha.
"What?" asked Vin.
"Remind me when we get home to ask you again about learnin' some language."
"Home," said Vin softly. "I've been thinkin' about that." He looked at Chris. "Thinkin' maybe of askin' Andie to come home with us. You think she would?"
Buck glanced at Chris, then looked away, shoveling the rock Chris had loosened out into the passageway.
Chris continued to work, his back to his friend.
"She'll go wherever you take her, Vin."
+ + + + + + +
It was almost an hour before they were able to free Vin, pulling him carefully from beneath the last of the dirt and stone that covered him. Vin had moved his legs carefully and was relieved that while stiff, sore and badly bruised, it appeared only his right ankle had been broken. Chris and Buck carried him to the escape tunnel and hoisted him up to the Indian who waited above.
The former prisoners had continued to search other tunnels for survivors, finding small groups of two or three, some dead, some alive. Larabee left the fate of any guards who survived to the Indians. Some, those like Jonas, were allowed to leave on foot. Others would be taken as prisoners back to their village for retribution.
After Chris was pulled up alongside Vin, he motioned to Buck to go ahead to the camp while he knelt beside his friend.
"Hey Cowboy," Chris said, swallowing a lump in his throat.
Vin looked at him and saw the pain in Larabee's eyes.
"Chris? What is it?" he asked with dread.
There were no words. How could he tell this man, this friend, that life had once again dealt him the cruelest blow. Time and again Vin had picked himself up and continued on in the face of adversity. Time and again he had risked opening his heart, only to be betrayed. How many more times would he be able to rise against the hand of despair that seemed to strike him down at every turn?
He looked at Vin with wordless sorrow.
"Aw, Chris..." Vin choked, his eyes full, his heart heavy.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra relinquished his grasp on Andie's hand as Chris and Buck lowered Vin beside her. The gambler staggered at the sound of the grievous sob that burst from Vin as he saw her.
"Andie?" he whispered, his voice breaking with emotion.
"Vin," she said, her eyes opening wide, a faint smile trembling on her lips. "Oh, Vin, you're safe."
"Thanks to you," Vin said, holding her close.
"Ezra said you'd come."
Vin looked over at the gambler who stood solemnly with Buck and Chris. He nodded his thanks. Ezra nodded back, unable to find the winning smile that usually came so easily to him.
"Ol' Ez, he ain't wrong often," Vin said as his tears began to fall unashamedly.
"Little...late...for our picnic," Andie sighed.
"We can wait until tomorrow."
"Naw, plenty of time," Vin said, whispering too, now, as he bent his head close to hers.
"Vin, I want..." she pulled him close and whispered into his ear. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he held her, willing her breath to match his own, in and out, in and out, breathing in tandem until his chest alone rose and fell in the rhythm of life.
+ + + + + + +
Chris helped Vin onto his horse. The young Indian who had helped Andie had bandaged Vin's back and set his ankle. Ezra had wrapped Andie's body carefully in his blanket and laid her on a travois attached to Vin's horse. Vin and Sekani had said their good-byes, comforting each other in their sorrow.
With Vin's help, Chris had learned the name of the Indian who had spoken to him at the mouth of the escape tunnel. Maha'qua stood with several of the other former prisoners as the Regulators prepared to leave. Cray was nowhere in sight.
"Thank you for your help," Chris said to him as he shook his hand.
Vin translated carefully, using words that sounded familiar - words Daksha had used upon their first meeting.
Chris looked up at him.
"What did you say?" he asked.
"What you said, 'thank you for your help,'" Vin answered.
"That meant 'Help?'"
Buck put the words together from memory with the others Daksha had used, repeated them to Vin. "What's that mean then?" he asked.
Vin turned to him, questioning them all with his eyes.
"There's no one word for it in English," he answered. "It's like beggin'. I suppose it'd be closest to 'please.'"
"Let me know when Vin sets to teachin' you language, Chris," Buck said. "I think I might just sit in."
Ezra and Buck mounted their horses. Chris scanned the camp once more.
"Cray?" he asked Maha'qua .
Vin stiffened in his saddle at the mention of his captor.
The man spoke to Vin in his own language.
"He says you traded the son-of-a-bitch to him," Vin interpreted.
"I did. I was just...wondering. I have..." Chris looked at the anguish in his friend's eyes. "We have our own fight with him. I wanted to be sure..."
Vin spoke with Maha'qua again.
The warrior looked behind him at his people who had been imprisoned, then turned back to them with hate-filled eyes. He spoke savagely to Vin.
Vin nodded solemnly at Maha'qua and bowed his head, then pulled his hat down low and urged his horse carefully forward with its tender burden.
"What'd he say?" asked Buck.
Vin answered as he rode.
"He said he will die a thousand deaths for each soul he imprisoned and a thousand more for each life he took from the earth."
Ezra watched as Chris and Buck followed behind the tracker, then looked back at Maha'qua and his people. Finally his eyes rested again on the travois.
"It isn't enough," he said to himself.
+ + + + + + +
When the four friends drew near to Four Corners, Chris pulled up short at the cut-off to his cabin.
"I'm gonna take Vin home with me for a bit," Chris told the others. "Give him a chance to heal up before he goes back into town. You might want to ask Nathan to drop by tonight."
"You know J.D. and Josiah are gonna want..." Buck started.
"Yeah, I know. Tell 'em everythin'," Chris said, avoiding a glance at the travois. "Ask 'em maybe, could they wait until tomorrow to come callin'."
"We shall request their patience in affording Vin a sufficient interval of mourning," Ezra assured him.
"Thanks, Ezra," Chris said. Vin looked at his friends with gratitude, then turned to follow Chris to his homestead.
"Hey," Buck said suddenly as he made his way back to Four Corners with Ezra. "You called him Vin."
+ + + + + + +
"I want to thank you for this," Vin said a week later as he nodded towards the new grave beside Sarah and Adam Larabee.
"I was grateful to do it," Chris answered, his hand resting lightly on Vin's shoulder.
"This is what it was like, then, with Sarah, with you," Vin said. "Tryin' to think about gettin' on with life."
Chris nodded silently, vowing that he would be there to see that Vin did not take the same painful road back to life that he himself had wandered.
"I know it ain't proper or anything," Vin said quietly. "It was what she asked me. What she wanted, you know?"
"Hell, Vin, she loved you. That makes it proper."
"Sarah wouldn't mind none? That it ain't legal and all?"
Chris swallowed hard as he saw the naked anguish in his friend's eyes, the need for reassurance that he had done right by the woman he had loved.
"Sarah would be proud," he tried to smile. "Hell, they're probably tradin' stories about us right now, wonderin' why we got the time to sit around here when there's work to be done."
"You reckon that's so?" asked Vin with a boyish hopefulness that tore at Chris' heart.
"I reckon it is."
Vin took a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly. He settled his hat firmly on his head and looked to the horizon, then nodded slightly as if making up his mind on something.
"Best get on with it, then," he said finally.
Chris watched his friend limp slowly towards the cabin, realizing the true weight of Vin's words. He pulled his own hat down low and looked towards the plain cross on Andie's grave.
"I'll see to it he does," he promised her.