Summary: Guilt abounds when there is a cave-in.
I wrote this as a Ponderosa story, but it fits in the Bonanza world as well. Warning for claustrophobics. Which I nearly was after finishing writing it. © January 2004, as allowable.
Rating: T (6,100 words)
Dear Readers — This story was written almost fifteen years ago for my own pleasure, and I’m happy to share for others to enjoy. I know some readers may wish there was more, but this how I saw fit to write this story. Since I no longer write Bonanza fan fiction, I ask that you honor my request to not post comments asking for the story to continue.
He could taste it. Smell it. The fear rose from his body and filled what little space was left around him.
It pressed him into the rock. It pushed on his chest harder than the beam of Ponderosa pine that had almost crushed him. The fear constricted his breathing until he could barely hold back screams he couldn’t afford. Was there was enough air? Barely – choked with settling dust as it was – if he could stay calm. Why was the pitch-black around him so suffocating?
He steadied his breathing. After what seemed a long time, once the dust finally settled, he realized the air wasn’t getting stale. By some miracle, there must have been a passage of sorts to the outside. He tried calling for help, but soon discovered the airflow wasn’t sufficient – dizziness tilted his small world, and he clamped down hard on rising panic. Small breaths. Patience.
As he relentlessly brought himself back under control, his mind came back into sudden sharp focus — did Joe get out?
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Twelve-year-old Joe Cartwright knew it was his fault. He’d volunteered to take Adam’s written message to Jeb, the mine foreman, grateful for the chance to get out into the fresh, free air. Every time he went into a mine, he told himself that the timbers would hold, that these man-made caves weren’t graves reaching out for him. Adam had promised him that he’d worked out all the numbers, that they would be safe. Yet he could never rid himself of the dread that the walls would crumble, the ceiling would collapse, that tons of rock would fall and trap him in everlasting darkness, crushing the life out of him.
He’d held himself to as slow a pace as he could manage, trying to look like he wasn’t afraid, but a small voice at the back of his mind screamed at him to get out – get out now, and get out fast!
He’d found himself near running and, busy berating his lack of courage, he tripped over the rails for the ore carts and tumbled into a support beam . . . and his fears came suddenly, appallingly true.
He’d jerked his legs up just in time to avoid being crushed by the pelting rocks – rocks that must have buried his oldest brother. Why had he been in such a hurry? Why couldn’t he control himself? He’d known to be careful. They all knew to be careful in this particular shaft; they’d seen the water seeping through the walls.
And now he was outside, free, and Adam was inside, trapped, maybe dead.
The warm sunshine filtered through the branches of the trees, speckling the ground with vibrant colors. Someone handed Joe a canteen, and he drank deeply then poured enough water into his hand to wipe the grit off his face. He stared at his wet hand. Does Adam have water? he wondered. Does he have air? That was the real question. People could live a few days without water, but only moments without air. Is it going bad on him? Is it going stale? Is the rock dust filling his lungs, making him cough and choke as he tries to breathe?
He felt the clear, crisp mountain breeze tease at his sweat-dampened hair, then drew the sweet coolness deep into his chest. Someone laid a warm arm around his shoulders. Not wanting to offend the well-meaning friend, he made himself stand still for a moment, but soon slipped away to the pile of shovels and headed back into the dark hole. He didn’t know how much help he could be, but he couldn’t bear the offered comfort. Not when he knew that the only embrace Adam had felt since yesterday had been that of cold earth and damp darkness.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
A small trickle of water ran down the rocks by his left ear. It was quiet in his world now; the rocks and beams had finished settling, and once he had stilled his panicked gasping, the sweet warbling of the miniscule stream was the only sound. In the utter darkness, throat parched beyond swallowing and mouth dry with dust, he ached for the water. He tried once more to turn his head far enough to reach it. His left arm was pinned to his side by granite, and his right hand was caught somehow between rocks and what he guessed from the smooth surface was the ore cart he’d been using for a desk.
The beam across his chest allowed him barely enough room to breathe, but not quite enough to shift around. If he could find a way to slide his right hand up just a bit, though, he might be able to stretch enough to the left to get just that much closer to the water. He leaned a little toward the modest stream, tried to flatten his right hand so that it could slip just a bit. It began to throb as he pulled against the rocks that trapped it as surely as if it was manacled. The ache spread up his arm, but he persisted and was rewarded by a few drops of gritty wetness. He pulled again until the pain shot up into his shoulder, but the water, the sweet water, Lord, it tasted of iron and dirt on the tip of his tongue, but it was wet. The first few drops cleared the dust from his mouth, absorbed before it even hit his throat. He finally he got enough to swallow, and it hurt the first few times.
It spilled over the left side of his face, cooling where it touched skin, leaving the rest of him feeling even stickier with hot sweat.
He sipped precious dribbles until the pain in his arm finally outweighed his thirst, then fell back the scant inches, breathing heavily.
His headache gradually eased, and he realized it had been caused mostly by thirst and hunger, not injury. In fact, he seemed to have escaped relatively unscathed. Had Joe? And could he last long enough to find out?
He had air, as long as he stayed quiet. He could get to the water. It would hurt, but he could do it. It would take a while to get enough, but he had time. Time to spare. It wouldn’t be easy, but as long as the water held out, so could he.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Hoss had spent his strength. His biceps quivered as he passed another melon-sized rock back to the other hopeful diggers, and his legs threatened to collapse. The muscles in his chest ached with a heavy weariness that told him he couldn’t go on much longer. He knew he needed rest, food, water, but it had been two days since Adam had disappeared into the mine, and he simply couldn’t stop. How could he fill his belly with warm, comforting food when Adam was starving; how could he drink cup after cup of hot coffee when his brother was cold and parched? How could he sleep when Adam was waiting for him, counting on his strength, lying in endless darkness, praying his family would reach him before his air ran out, or he died of heat or thirst or injuries — if he hadn’t already.
No. He wouldn’t think that way. He couldn’t. He had to believe Adam was still alive, was waiting patiently for his brother to reach him. Adam was good at patience, good at enduring. As Hoss and Joe had grown up, they’d each had times when they tried to match his ability to simply sit serenely until whatever he wanted came to him – or didn’t. Pa had praised them for their efforts, but said that Adam had learned patience young and the hard way, and he, for one, didn’t mind if they never reached their brother’s level of tolerance. The price had been too high.
Some of the helpers had given up, gone back to their lives, their families; a few sparing a single look back and a shake of the head. But not Hoss. He had to keep digging. To stop would be to accept that Adam was dead – or worse, as good as dead. Someone passed him a canteen and the coolness eased his throat, poured strength into his arms again. He turned back to the wall of rock before him and dragged in a shaking breath, daunted by the sheer impossibility of what they were doing.
A hand on his arm pulled his attention to the boy at his side.
“Please, Hoss, go eat, sleep for a while. I’ll keep digging, I promise.”
He turned back to the rocks. “I gotta—”
“No,” Joe broke in. “If you give out on us, Adam doesn’t have a chance.”
“Joe, if I stop, I’m afraid I’ll never get goin’ again.” His head dropped, his voice was a ragged whisper. “I’m afraid I’ll believe it’s too late.”
Joe dragged him around, and it was a measure of his weariness that Hoss couldn’t resist.
“I won’t believe that until I see him, and you won’t either. I won’t let you.”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
He drank again, wrenching his shoulder and arm once more. He wished the water would come faster, useless as he knew such wishes were, but he was grateful for its presence at all. He was getting better at ignoring the pain – it was, at least, something different in the endless passage of time.
How long had he been here?
The hunger that tied his stomach into a hard knot told him that at least a day had passed. Perhaps more. He’d lost count of the times he’d stretched out to the trickle of water, so it was probably longer. No matter. With water, he could wait.
He wasn’t as hot now, and he didn’t know if it was because he had water, or if there was something wrong with him. He didn’t think so, and he tried testing his arms and legs. None of them could move against the rock, but he tensed and released the muscles, testing the feeling against memory. He pulled his stomach muscles in, relaxed, and tried to arch his back even a scant inch. He couldn’t get his shoulders up, but the relief to the small of his back was intense.
Then the big muscle just under his right shoulder blade cramped. It twisted into an agonizing knot, and he moaned through gritted teeth.
Ride it out, ride it out, he chanted to himself. Deep breaths—
That didn’t work; he choked on the dust. Coughing violently, he banged the back of his head against the rocks, and his hands grabbed desperately for something – anything – to hang on to as his right calf cramped in sympathy.
He wanted to scream his frustration, his need to stretch out, to move, but clamped down hard on the urge. Eyes squeezed shut, he focused on slow, even breathing, and eventually his back relaxed, then his leg. One quick, sobbing hitch of air was ruthlessly cut off, to return to steady breaths.
Time seemed stretched in the endless darkness, and, exhausted, he slept in what he thought were snatches. His dreams were muddled, confused images of rocks falling, one of Hop Sing’s banquets, and the relief in his brother’s eyes when he’d asked him to take the message outside.
One thought was constant, though, awake or sleeping: God, I hope Joe made it out . . . .
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Stomach-churning, throat-choking, near-paralyzing terror. Ben Cartwright’s return to Eagle Station from Sacramento hadn’t been greeted by the good-natured teasing of his boys, but by the solemn, horror-stricken eyes of Hop Sing. Ben clamped down on his own fear, turned it into action.
A hurried discussion with him about what supplies were at the mine was followed by a quick trip to the general store. Ben commandeered a wagon and horses from the livery while Hop Sing picked out the needed supplies. They were headed out of town within twenty minutes of Ben’s arrival.
It was a wild ride in a buckboard full of food, picks, shovels, buckets, blankets, lanterns, oil, anything they could think of that might be useful. It should have ended in the relief of his eldest’s slightly guilty grin for putting them all to so much trouble, but instead, he was greeted by the sight of his middle son staggering from the mine entrance to collapse in the dirt.
Ben knelt beside him, gathered him into his arms. “Hoss?” he whispered.
“Pa,” he cried. “We cain’t find him, Pa.”
Hop Sing handed a damp kerchief to Ben, who used it to wipe the dirt from his son’s face.
“Shh,” he murmured, and traded the cloth for a cup of hot coffee that Hop Sing held out next. “Drink this, and then you can tell me.”
Hoss pushed it away and looked up at his father, his eyes begging for understanding. “I’m sorry, Pa. I always thought I was strong enough, but I ain’t, I just don’t got what I need, what Adam needs.” He gripped Ben’s arm. “Oh, Pa, it’s been three days and I just cain’t dig no more . . . .”
The man-sized piles of rubble to either side of the mine entrance testified to the efforts of everyone here, but the raw bleeding blisters on his son’s hands told Ben what he already knew: Hoss had spent his heart – had broken it – on the search for his brother.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Another drink – he filled his empty belly with water, though it took forever and cost him more pain in his wrist and hand and shoulder. His back ached from lying in one position for so long, and a small rock that he’d barely noticed at first was now digging painfully into his waist. He’d managed to wiggle free a scant inch of legroom, but though his feet moved freely within his boots, the boots themselves were hopelessly immobilized.
Was anyone still looking for him? He knew from reading about mining that anyone who wasn’t recovered within the first two days was usually found dead, if they were found at all. Lack of air, injuries, no water, heat – terrible, blistering heat. Those things were the killers, and everyone knew it. Rarely did a cave-in spare its victims one, let alone all four. He fully realized how lucky he was that the water dripping down by his shoulder didn’t burn him with every drop.
He knew more than two days must have passed – he was beyond hunger now. Had they given up on him? It was only reasonable. Had they found his brother?
The killers had spared him, but for what? How long would he live, encased in dead rock with air and water enough to keep him alive?
Forever, he was beginning to realize. And if his family had given up on him, if they one day, as they must, came to believe he couldn’t have survived, they would walk away . . . and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
Panic grabbed at his heart, and for the first time he lost control and screamed for his family, struggled against the tons of rock that held him prisoner. Dizziness came on suddenly, but in his panic, he was unaware of the warning. His cries finally used up the small trickle of good air, and he fell unconscious.
After a long while he woke, slowly, painfully. He stretched for water against the familiar ache in his arm and shoulder, his strained throat desperate for relief. The water now tasted of the bitter tang of old smoke and unanswered prayers.
Exhausted, his aching head fell back, and the cool rock gradually soothed the pain. He understood now that he wouldn’t be saved . . . and he also realized that he had no way to end this torment, no way to die. If he tried to use up all of the air, he would simply pass out again and wake up when the air freshened. He could scrape his head or his right arm along the rock, but would never be able to do enough damage to bleed to death. Could he deprive himself of water long enough? Could he force himself in thirst-driven insanity to refuse to drink?
No. No one was that strong.
There was no hope. No future. Just this strange, lightless limbo for the rest of his life – the days, weeks, or even months it would take to starve.
He shivered in the darkness.
He hardly knew when he slept now, except that his dreams, when they came, were comforting. He would hear his father’s deep voice, feel Hoss’s big arms around his shoulders, see his little brother’s bright eyes dancing with glee.
No end but madness in this black, agonizingly slow death.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
“Four days, Ben. He couldn’t still be alive.” It was a friendly voice, caring, from someone who wanted to save him from further grief. Ben looked up from the campfire, but his flame-blinded eyes couldn’t make out who it was. It didn’t matter. They didn’t understand.
Something rose up then inside Ben Cartwright, something primeval: a beast, a force of nature, a driving will to make things turn out the way he wanted. He would find a way to rescue Adam, and Adam would not be dead. He couldn’t be.
Ben stood, threw the cold coffee in his cup into the fire where it hissed angrily. “I’m not giving up. I’ll never give up until I hold his lifeless body in my arms.”
His friend sighed and murmured, “All right then, we’ll keep at it,” but Ben ignored him.
He strode back to the mine, grabbed a canteen from the pile by the entrance, and followed the lanterns to where his youngest was digging with a pick at another rock wall.
“Joseph!” he called.
His son kept swinging, an irregular rhythm that echoed off the walls.
“Joseph!” he demanded again.
He finally turned, and his eyes burned in lantern’s light like the depths of hell. They were too old – like Adam’s at that age.
He staggered, and Ben grabbed his arm to steady him. He didn’t bother to tell his son to sit down and rest – none of them would find rest until they knew. “Why are you digging here?” he asked.
“Why?” Joe’s voice was hoarse, strained. He drew a forearm over his sweaty brow. “How can you ask that, Pa? How can you think—”
“Joseph!” Ben shook him gently. “I’m not asking you why you’re digging; I’m asking why you’re digging here.”
Fatigue, pain, fear . . . guilt. Easy for a father to read, easy to know how all of it could distort judgment. He softened his voice. “Do you remember where your brother was?”
Joe gulped for air, nodded. “Yeah, I remember. I’ll – never forget. He had a board across one of the ore carts, had a lamp on it, too. He had his papers spread out on the wood so he could write on them.”
“Then he probably wouldn’t have moved much between when you left him and when the roof caved in.”
Joe shook his head. “I don’t think he even saw that I left.”
Ben pressed a canteen into his son’s hands. Joe dropped the pick at his feet and took it, but his hands and arms shook as he tried to lift it to his mouth.
Ben steadied him, helped him drink.
He lowered the canteen and swiped at his mouth. “It was at that bad spot in the rail. He couldn’t take the cart any farther.”
Rubbing thoughtfully at his temple, Ben tried to recall a conversation he’d had with his eldest about the mine, before he’d left for Sacramento. “Wasn’t Adam talking about how Jeb was going to join this tunnel with the shaft from the north side of the hill?” he asked.
Joe’s head came up like a like a hound on the scent, and his eyes brightened. He threw the canteen to the ground and raced out into the night. “Hoss! Hoss!” Ben could hear him shouting. “Where are those maps Adam had?”
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Risk. Life out here was all a risk. Jeb promised he’d minimize it as much as he could. He’d brought out the best explosives man he knew – a dark Irishman who had a lilt to his voice, a woolly scarf wound around his neck and a perpetually lit cigar clamped between his teeth. Paddy gathered his tools quickly and went cheerfully to work. Long fuses in undersized charges were set carefully in small holes. The holes were packed with wadding at the bottom so the blast would go to the sides, not behind where they feared – hoped – Adam might be. He blew them one small, cautious explosion at a time.
Hours passed, a new sunrise – the fifth day – and once again, the Irishman came out of the cave to refill his supply of charges, then returned to the darkness.
Another small explosion. Ben wiped sweat from his forehead and followed him with another shovel. After every explosion, Paddy stepped back and a rush of people attacked the new rubble. Hoss and Ben dug carefully, Little Joe and his friends loaded wheelbarrows with rocks, and a host of others ran the wheelbarrows outside and brought empties back.
Then, finally, a small rockslide revealed a motionless hand. Ben grasped it, praying for a return squeeze, even a twitch, but there was nothing. The shirt cuff was rolled up over the wrist, revealing scrapes and bruises, and the long fingers were still and cold, fingernails torn and bloody under the white dust. That his son had lived past the first rock fall was obvious, as well that he had tried desperately to dig his way out of his tomb. Ben’s heart nearly broke. He never could have succeeded.
Were they too late?
Then water shot from the opening, drenching them all. It slowed some after the initial burst so that they were no longer being sprayed, but it started to puddle on the floor, backing up against the rock wall. In just moments it slopped over the toes of Ben’s boots, then rose to his ankles. They had to move quickly. The water loosened rocks around Adam’s body, poured mud onto the floor of the mine, making their job easier, but Ben worried that if by some miracle Adam were still alive, he would drown before they could get him out.
A beam came into view, a boot, a leg, a belt . . . a filthy gray shirt that moved, ever so slightly, as his son’s chest rose and fell in choked gasps.
“He’s alive,” Ben breathed. “My God, he’s still alive!”
Joe whooped and clapped Hoss on the back, beyond words.
“Joe,” Ben said, “can you get down and see in there? Is there anything trapping him?”
Joe splashed to the opening, took the lantern that Ben passed to him and crouched to look through the hole. “His head’s clear, but he isn’t awake. I can’t see his other arm.” He turned to his father. “We gotta get him out of there, Pa. All this water’s coming down right over him. We can’t let him drown, not now.”
Hoss stood in the growing puddle, got his shoulder under the beam, set himself and lifted. Joe murmured something else and grabbed the arm, Ben got a good grip with one hand on the belt, his other gathered his son’s legs, and they hauled. They almost had him loose when something hung up, then suddenly released. Adam slid toward them on a rush of water, and Ben barely caught his head before it went under and cracked on the floor.
The water continued to pour out onto the floor of the mine, creating a lake that would soon engulf them all. Hoss let the beam fall with a huge splash that soaked them all again. Ben lifted Adam in his arms, and Joe ran out of the mine ahead of them. His wild whoops set off cheers from all their friends as Ben carried Adam outside to a bed of blankets that had been hastily laid under a tree.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Thunder. This dream took place in a storm – more thunder, and the rain started to pour down, soaking his shirt, washing the filth and dried sweat from his body. It felt wonderful to have the caked dirt cleaned away.
“Adam,” he heard his father call. “Adam . . .” His father needed him, but there was nothing he could do. “So sorry,” he whispered, and turned his head away. Water streamed over his face, into his mouth. Finally he had enough to drink without that tearing, dragging pain on his arm and shoulder.
He felt someone patting his face, tugging at his other arm. Joe, most likely, wanting him to come out and play. “C’mon, big brother, please!” Yeah, that was Joe. Always wanted to pull him away from work for some sort of playtime. Used to be it was fishing or the cavalry fort he’d built for him . . . more recently, it was sneaking into town for candy from Eli’s store. Why hadn’t he gone more often? He’d give anything now to share a licorice whip with his brother or to play hooky from work at their favorite fishing hole.
Joe, oh, Joe – had he been crushed by the tons of rock? Adam had been protected in part by the ore cart, but there’d been nothing like that in the tunnel to save his little brother. He’d never know; he knew he would die still wondering.
The rain came faster, too much! Too much! Harsh coughs ripped at his throat, and he began to choke. Then the water stopped and strong arms surrounded him. Or maybe he’d gone inside somewhere, but for whatever reason the water stopped pouring down on him, and he was glad. No more water . . . no more . . . .
His muscles cramped and spasmed. He cried out and felt a gentle touch. It soothed him – yes, he remembered that touch, so rare, so treasured. His father’s voice called to him. He felt something at his lips – no, he couldn’t drink, couldn’t . . . .
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Something cool played over his body, and he hazily recognized it as a breeze. A breeze? In the mine? He was so cold.
“Adam!” He heard his father’s voice again, felt a familiar palm against his forehead.
Is it real? he wondered. Is Pa really here, or have I finally lost my mind? He was so tired, but there was a brilliant light that hurt his eyes. He turned his head to the side and a slight darkness fell. Light . . . dark . . . but not the pitch-black of the last days. “Joe—?” he’d just begun to wonder when another paroxysm of coughing curled him on his side. When he finally relaxed into warm, familiar arms, his eyes opened.
Something hazy seemed to hang in front of him, framed by brilliant light. He squinted and made out the face of his youngest brother. “Joe?” he whispered, and wondered if the boy he saw before him was in Heaven. Then he saw the tears sliding from eyes that seemed too old. Do angels cry?
He reached up, surprised his arm actually moved, touched warm flesh for the first time in what seemed forever. “You made it,” he wheezed, his relief almost more than he could bear.
Joe nodded. “So did you.”
“You don’t have to.”
Little Joe’s voice echoed faintly through the mine as he set the lantern on the ground. He and Adam stood just inside the entrance, facing the black hole, on the cusp between sunshine and darkness, warmth and damp cold.
“Yes, I do.” Adam’s response was soft, and it took every ounce of will to say it. Trapped! How many times in the past few days had he been back in the mine in his head? First it was just having the bedcovers tucked in tight – he’d woken screaming and flung blankets and sheets in every direction as he kicked himself free. He shook from more than cold until his father had gathered him into his arms, but found he couldn’t bear to be held tightly. He hadn’t needed to see his father’s face to know that he hurt him when he pushed away. Can’t breathe, he’d finally gasped, and somehow, Ben had understood. He’d turned Adam so he leaned back against his father’s chest, and with his father’s strong arms lightly encircling him he’d finally relaxed, eventually falling asleep.
When his father finally gave in to his repeated demands to get out of bed, he was at first happy to simply sit in front of the great fireplace, soaking up the warmth and reveling in the space around him, taking comfort from the strong, soaring beams of the high ceiling. But then the room seemed to become smaller, more confining, and he found himself pacing until he wore out what little strength he had and nearly collapsed onto the settee.
Once he was finally strong enough to go outside, it was the ice house. Cold, damp, black. He had no idea how long he’d stood in the doorway before finally turning away, telling Hoss to fill the bucket for Hop Sing.
He couldn’t go on this way. “It’s like getting back on a horse after you’ve been thrown,” he explained to Joe. “And the sooner the better.”
“But Adam, you’re still sick. It’s only been a couple days since you could come sit at the table for dinner with us, and Hop Sing is still mad at how you aren’t cleaning your plate.”
It was true, he was still wobbly and a bit weak from his ordeal. It had taken all of Hop Sing’s culinary genius to find something his stomach would tolerate after five days with nothing but water. Hoss said his appetite wasn’t big enough to feed a hummingbird, let alone to get his full strength back. And he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep since before—
“I can’t lie in bed any more, staring at the walls and wondering if I’ll ever have the guts to walk into a mine or a cave or even a dark room again. Pa’s depending on my engineering knowledge to help decide what to do about mining on the Ponderosa, and I can’t – I won’t – let fear stand in the way.”
Joe turned to face him. “The mines aren’t that important, Adam. We can forget about them, get rid of them, never have to step a foot into one ever again—” He swallowed hard and stared down at his boots. “You’re more important than any of this.”
Adam turned his gaze from the opening of the mine to his brother, and he wondered if this was more than a little brother trying to help. There was something else going on here.
“You’re right,” he said, “family is more important. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t important, too. The mines can bring us enough income that we don’t have to cut down as many trees, we can afford to buy cattle and horses that will improve the bloodlines of our stock – it will help protect us and our land from people who’d take it away given half a chance.”
Joe slumped, miserable.
“What is it?” Adam asked. “This isn’t about whether or not we should be mining. What’s got you all tied up in knots?”
He saw the sudden tears. Joe shifted away and hooked his hands into the back of his belt, unable to look him in the eye. “I – I did this.”
Adam waited, simply raising a questioning eyebrow.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~
Joe looked up, then took a deep breath and blew it out, hard. He tried to muster the courage to tell Adam what he should have said days ago, what had been burning in his gut since that terrible moment when he realized the cave-in – that he had caused – had buried his brother.
Every bruise on Adam’s body, every bloody scrape, his winces, his poor appetite and weak reassurances – all had beaten Joe, had punished him for his cowardice that had almost caused his brother’s death. And though they’d rescued him, Joe knew that Adam wasn’t the same after being trapped for so long. Did he give up on us? How long was he lying there awake, thinking he’d never get out? Did he believe he would die, abandoned and alone?
The answer was in Adam’s eyes; Joe had seen it the first time he’d visited him in his room. Fear. Violent, wild, all-encompassing fear. Rigidly under control now, but Joe had been terrified when Adam kicked off his blankets, yelling like Indians were attacking them. He’d torn at his nightshirt to get it off, and buttons flew across the room. It had taken his father an hour to calm him down enough to sleep again. And when Pa finally left the room, he wordlessly gave Hoss a big hug and gently pushed him into the room to sit with their brother, and then had actually picked Joe up and carried him to the chair by the fire. Joe had wrapped his arms around Pa’s neck and hugged him hard. They’d sat there, together, for a long time. Joe had pretended he didn’t notice his father’s heaving breaths.
Adam was waiting patiently for him to continue, but Joe looked away again. He couldn’t stand seeing the condemnation on his brother’s face.
“I tripped coming out of the mine.” He forced the words out, and now they came in a rush. “I was going so fast to get out of there, I tripped and fell into the support, and the whole roof came down.” There. He’d said it. “I’m sorry, Adam. I’m – I’m so sorry.”
All he could hear was the wind blowing through the pine trees, but his words seemed to echo in the caves ahead.
“Joe, look at me.”
Adam didn’t sound mad. Joe risked a glance.
“You don’t need to apologize. It wasn’t your fault.”
Joe still couldn’t let it go. “Yes it was, and I’m grown up enough to say it.”
“I never said you weren’t.” Adam’s eyes were warm, kind, and a hint of humor seemed to be creeping into his expression. “I said you don’t have to apologize because it wasn’t your fault.”
“But the beam—”
“Was going anyway,” Adam interrupted. “They all were. Neither one of us should have been that deep in the mine until we shored it up all the way. I did the numbers wrong.” He gave Joe a little shake. “Why do you think I sent you out with that note?”
Facts were reordering in Joe’s mind faster than he could keep up. “Because Jeb needed the measurements?”
A smile teased at one corner of Adam’s mouth. “He didn’t need them right then. I could see the ceiling was about to go, and I wanted you out of there—”
Now Joe interrupted. “Takin’ care of me again!” he snorted, disgusted. “When are you gonna get over this mother hen thing?”
Adam chuckled. “Probably never, little brother.” His tone softened. “And are you trying to tell me you aren’t doing the same thing? I’m strong enough now to make this trip out here without a babysitter.”
Joe ducked his head. That was exactly what he was doing, in spite of his own dread of the shadowed caverns.
“The roof was gonna go any time, Joe. I sent you out first so I wouldn’t mow you down when I made a run for it.” He sobered. “Left it too long, though. As soon as I saw dust falling, I turned to go, but then it all came down. If anyone should apologize, it’s me, for putting you through all that.”
A weight lifted from Joe’s heart, but his dread of the close walls still pulled at him.
“You don’t want to go in there any more than I do,” Adam guessed.
“No,” Joe whispered.
Adam curved a hand around the back of Joe’s neck. “Will you go with me?”
He looked up, startled. The fear was back, shadowing Adam’s eyes, but he saw something even stronger there – love.
He stretched up and took a deep breath. “Yeah.”
Adam grinned and clapped him on the back. “Let’s get it over with, then, and maybe do a little fishin’ on the way home.”
Joe nodded and lit the lantern. A big grin appeared on his face. “Are you sure you got all them numbers figured out right this time, big brother?”
And as they stepped forward together into the darkness, the sound of Joe’s chatter and Adam’s rich laughter echoed through the mine and out to the warm sunshine.
From the Brandsters / Librarians — Any comments that do not respect the author’s wishes as posted above shall be removed.
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