Summary: while trying to help some friends Adam becomes trapped in a mine, no one knows he’s there, he faces death ..alone.
Rating K+ (15,575 words)
The final page contains reviews/comments from the Old Bonanaza Brand Library
In the darkness the only sounds were those of coughing, of gravel and rocks and stones slithering down walls; of dull thuds as the rocks struck against bodies; of sharp cracks as they struck against other larger rocks.
Then there was the sound of wood splintering, cracking, snapping and along with that the fall of more rocks, of slurry sliding and boulders rolling. Afterwards there was the coughing, the dripping of water and a groan of pain. Eventually there was just the sound of dripping water and the odd slither of debris to eat into the silence.
“Hi, Pete!” Hoss Cartwright waved a hand at the stagecoach driver who was ambling towards him.
Pete grinned, hawked and spat tobacco juice in a stream onto the road. A stone bounced an inch as the spit struck it centre on. He raised a gloved hand in greeting and continued on his way. Hoss continued on towards the saloon, a contented smile on his face.
It was good to visit town on a day like this particular day. There had been light rain during the early morning, and everything smelt fresh and clean. The sun was shining now from a blue sky, bathing everything in warmth so that a sense of well being seemed to wrap itself around all whom Hoss met along his journey.
Joe’s high pitched gurgle of a laugh could be heard even over all the laughter that was going on in the saloon. Hoss pushed open the door to survey the rather ambitious attempts of Timothy O’Brien dancing the Irish version of the sailors horn pipe. This entailed, in Timothy’s version, a considerable amount of falling over and taking a nip of whiskey from a hip flask in order to get him back onto his feet.
“Awl ma pins are a-skew.” he slurred which caused another uproar of laughter as he was hauled to his feet and steadied up .
Hoss joined in with the general laughter as he walked to where his Father and brother were standing. He was greeted with a broad smile from Ben who slapped his son on the shoulder,
“Finished with your errands, Hoss?”
“Yes, sir.” Hoss grinned, and turned to watch Timothy for a second or two. It was pleasant sharing this time in the saloon with Pa and Joe, amongst friends, and hearing the sound of laughter everywhere.
“Let’s have a drink then,” Joe suggested with a grin “And as you are the last to arrive,Hoss, you can have the privilege of paying. What do you say, Pa?” and he winked conspiratorially over at his father who raised his eye brows and shook his head
“No, boys, it’s time to get back to the ranch. Don’t forget we’ve guests coming tonight.”
“Aw, yeah, I’d forgot.” Hoss sighed, “Pity Adam ain’t here with us though.”
“He should be back by tonight or tomorrow morning. I did tell him to take his time, there was no need for him to rush home.” Ben picked up his hat, and left the saloon.
Hoss cast a sorrowful eye at the glasses on the counter and followed his father, with Joe trailing behind him, still chuckling over Timothy’s antics. Together they walked to where the horses were nodding over the water trough outside the General Store.
“Pa sure is all fired up to git back home, ain’t he?” Hoss grumbled, his sense of well being dissolving each step that distanced him from a cool glass of beer.
“You know what he’s like when we have guests,” Joe reminded him, untethering Cochise. He stroked the horse fondly and was about to place his foot in the stirrup when he heard his name being called. He gave a grin when he saw Tom Riley striding towards them “Hi, Tom, how’re you doin’?” he glanced over Tom’s shoulder and raised his eyebrows “Where’s Dave?”
“He’s at the mine” came the rather curt reply.
“The mine? What mine’s this?” Joe asked, for David Riley was one of his oldest friends and yet had never mentioned anything about a mine to him.
“Our grandpa died last week and left his mine to us.” Tom grinned and shrugged “He never got more’n coupla pokes of gold flake and dust from it, but it allust seemed to be enough to keep him in what he needed.”
“You mean, he actually had a mine up in them hills?” Hoss’ blue eyes widened in amazement “I thought he was jest an old hermit.”
“He was to all intents and purposes. He hated comin’ into town, even for his staples, but no one lives forever, and he’d been dead almost a month when we found him.” He frowned at the memory “Not a pretty sight.”
“Shucks no, I guess it weren’t.” Hoss grimaced, forcing himself not to dwell on the picture that came to mind.
“Anyhows he must have come into town some time or other and made out his Will & Testament and left the mine to us. He allust said that there was a good seam of gold thar but he’d not had the right touch to find it.” Tom frowned, “Dave’s pretty keen to get it working like a proper mine and he’s going to ask your brother Adam if he could come up with some ideas on making it safe. Seeing how he’s an engineer and knows about things like that, seemed the best idea. Pa said your brother thought up a real good system for the Gould & Curry mines last year.”
“Aw, Adam can turn his hand to jest about anything. We’ll tell him Dave wants to see him when he gets back.” Hoss nudged Joe with his elbow and nodded over to where their Father was sitting astride Buck and looking impatiently at them “Gotta go, Tom, things to do,” and the big man turned swiftly and mounted his horse .
“Don’t forget to tell Adam about the mine, Hoss, Joe?” Tom yelled as they cantered past him. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair and frowned. Being a sensible level headed fellow he had already decided that he would rather die than step foot inside the hole in the ground that had become their legacy from their late departed, but not lamented, grandfather.
“Fancy that, Hoss,” Joe frowned peevishly “Dave getting a mine left him and him not telling me.”
“Probably too busy. Do you know where this mine is exactly, Joe?”
“No idea. I didn’t even know the old man owned a mine, he just came into town every so often with his donkey and I thought he was a hermit. Remember the time Matty Gardner got killed? It was old man Riley that found the body. I always avoided him after that, not that it was his fault, Matty dying I mean, but ….. he just made me feel kinda uncomfortable.”
“I wonder where that mine is though. Tom didn’t look so pleased about the idea, did he?”
“Tom doesn’t like the dark.” Joe muttered “It’s a good idea getting Adam to have a look over it though, he’ll be able to tell Dave how to make it safe, what kind of prop shafts to put in and all that kind of thing.”
“For a percentage….” Hoss guffawed.
Ben turned in the saddle and glowered at them “Are the pair of you going to twitter about all day?” he yelled.
Joe and Hoss shared a grin between them, and put spurs to their horses. Chubb and Cochise stretched out their legs to eat up the distance between them and their Father so that it wasn’t long before the three of them were riding abreast towards home.
Hop Sing had already set out the table for their guests and gave the three of them a black look,
“Why you so late? Supper almost ready and guests come velly soon! You no time to get clean up now,” he scolded and shuffled back into the kitchen chattering to himself in his native tongue.
…………… ……………. ……………. …………
Ben stretched and flexed his arms and yawned “I’d forgotten how much Mrs Jessop can talk.” he groaned and released his breath with a sigh
“You can say that agin.” Hoss mumbled as he tugged his string tie loose. He sat down on the big wooden table in front of the fire and loosened his collar “Hey, Pa, did you know the Riley’s grandpa at all?”
“Not very well. He tended to keep himself very much to himself. Why do you ask?” Ben reached out for his pipe and tobacco pouch, and began to make up his smoke for the evening.
“He died, and left his mine to Tom and Dave.” Joe said, flopping down into the big blue chair and yawning hugely “What do you know about his mine, Pa? Do you think Dave has any chance of striking it rich?”
“It’s a gamble,” Ben said slowly and narrowed his eyes as his mind took a trip back in time “I can recall when we first got here… the Grosch brothers were panning in the Washoe ..”
“That was way back before the Big Bonanza in ’59, weren’t it, Pa?” Hoss eased his feet out of his boots with a sigh of relief and wriggled his toes in ecstacy in front of the dying fire.
“That’s right, a long time back. If Henry Comstock had not bluffed those two men into selling their mine to him, and then him selling it out before he realised just how rich that vein was, things sure would be far quieter around here.” Ben smiled and stuck the pipe stem between his teeth.
“But what about Riley? It was him who brought Matty Gardners body into town, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, one of his rare acts of humane kindness.” Ben blew out a perfect smoke ring and settled back against his chair and thought back to the time when Matt Gardner had been killed and sighed. “He was just a loner, chose to live like a hermit.” He took another puff and smiled slowly “The only person he trusted was another old timer like him, Chuck Norris. But Chuck just drifted really and had no particular roots, although he was always very loyal, as a friend, to Riley. I’m surprised Riley didn’t leave the mine to him, rather than his grandsons whom he hardly knew.”
“What about his mine though, Pa? Do you know where it is?” Hoss asked eagerly
“No, I don’t. In fact, I don’t know that many who do because it isn’t so much a mine as miles and miles of subterranean tunnels that lead who knows where. He was never into proper mining, he just loved living out there. All I know is that it is in a beautiful area, a man could lose himself there but be content. Tim O’Brien, and Chuck Norris of course, and perhaps a few other oldsters, could no doubt locate it, if they really were in a mind to do so.” Ben frowned “I can’t see David or Tom making much success of it, it’s going to cost a fortune to get it into proper working order for a start.”
“Dave wants to ask Adam to help him install that system he designed for the Gould & Curry mines.” Joe wrapped his arms around his knees and hugged them close to his chest, “Reckon that college education does our brother pretty well, huh?”
“Speaking of whom,” Ben glanced at the clock “I doubt if he’ll be back tonight.”
“Well, you did tell him not to rush home, so long as he’s got that contract fixed up.” Joe grinned, he unwrapped himself and stood up, stretched to the ceiling and yawned, . “Anyway, I think I’ll go to bed now. I hope Dave lets me know where this mine of his is, it sounds a great place to explore!”
“A man can get lost there, in those tunnels.” Ben said very softly “I recall O’Brien telling me once that a whole tribe of Pauite got themselves lost wandering those tunnels. I recall asking Chief Winnemucca about it but he didn’t want to discuss it,” he yawned again and laid down his pipe “I think I’ll go up too….Hoss, don’t lock the door, in case Adam does come back tonight.”
The word was a drawn out cry of agony, followed by the rasping breath of a man taken to the limits of human endurance. The word hung in the air and remained unanswered.
“Anyone there? Anyone at all? “ He coughed harshly and the sounds bounced from the walls in whispers of an echo and were caught up in the groan of despair that parted from his lips.
“Davy?” there was the sound of a match striking and the flare of a flame that in the darkness seemed little more than the gleam from a glow worm. Anxious eyes darted from left to right to locate the voice “Davy? Where are you?”
“I don’t know.” Dave Riley whispered “I can’t see.”
“Can you see the match? I’ve a candle – hold on – I’ll light it.” Rocks and stones slithered as the man fumbled in his pocket and eventually produced a candle which he lit and held above his head “Davy – can you see the candle?”
“It’s so dark!” Dave Riley groaned “Dark………and…..coooold!”
“Hang on there, boy, hang on.”
“Do you know where Cartwright is?” Riley’s voice sounded as though each word was being squeezed through a bellows, punctuated by a groan or gulp of pain.
“He was behind you .” the older man muttered, moving the candle as far in one direction as he could go and then back to another direction. He set it down on a flat rock near his hand and began to look carefully at the way the rock fall affected him, and the amount of damage that had been done to the shaft itself.
“I don’t know,” Riley sighed “Chuck, I don’t think I’m going to make it. This wasn’t s’posed to happen. I promised Tom,” His words stopped in a sob, a quivering sob that indicated that he was fast losing control and that perhaps his own words were prophetic in the likelihood of his survival being very remote.
Chuck Norris moved carefully. The candle was a mere pin prick of light in the thick blanket of darkness that enshrouded them. It was barely enough to show him what was right in front of him. Any hope of seeing beyond that was impossible. He had other candles, he always carried plenty of candles and matches, but in this situation more candles meant less air and less hope of light later.
“Yes, Davy boy?” the older man paused in his efforts to inch forwards to where Riley’s voice seemed to be coming from, “Yes, son?” he whispered
“I – I can’t breathe”
“Davy, Davy, don’t skeer yerself. Jest relax, boy. Jest relax and wait fer me to come to yer.”
He pushed against a beam of wood. Just an hour or so earlier it had been part of a support truss that had been put in place years before and had, like so much of the timber there, slowly been eaten away by termites, wood eating bugs, water and mould. His fingers slipped against the slime of rotten wood and with a sickly creaking cracking rippling sound the beam of wood tottered under the weight of rocks and slipped several more degrees bringing yet another downpour of dust and rocks and rotten wood upon the men lying in the old mine shaft.
Adam Cartwright forced his eyes open and stared into blackness. He stared and stared and wondered why it was so dark. He closed his eyes and the darkness remained. There was something slippery and warm slithering across his face. It went at angles across his left cheek and over the bridge of his nose and dripped onto his hand upon which his right cheek was rested. He knew he should move but his body was languid, tired, and weary. It felt as though the weight of the world was stretched out upon him, like another sleeping body.
He opened his eyes again and took a deep breath. Pain seared across his back and his chest and then down his spine right to his toes, he clenched his teeth and curled his fingers into fists and groaned. The pain forced the groan out of his lungs and out of his mouth and into the cavern.
The young man’s nerves tingled at the sound of the voice. He paused, closed his eyes and tried to think of what to say in reply.
“Yes,” the word came from his mouth in the form of a grunt.
“It’s me, Chuck Norris”
Adam frowned, and tried to remember who Chuck Norris was when there were so many names whirling about his head now. He took a breath and began to cough. It would help to be able to remember where he was and why he was there.
“Cartwright? Where are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Can you see anything?”
Adam sighed, a release of breath that contained within it a slight edge of caustic cynicism.
“Nothing!” he replied slowly.
“Can you move?”
“I don’t know.”
He unclenched one fist and reached out in front of him. Then above. By easing one shoulder and then another, small rocks and stones slithered away. He brought up one leg and then the other. There was intense pain but he could not locate its origins. At least, he knew he was free of anything that could prevent him from moving. Very carefully he inched forwards, wiping, instinctively, his sleeve across his face to remove the slithering something that was crawling across it.
“Can you see the light of the candle?” Norris asked
Adam turned his head to look in the direction of the voice and saw the tiny flicker of light and what seemed a pale blob beyond it. He crawled towards the flame and stopped when a barrier of wood and rock prevented him from moving any further. His hands explored the height of the obstacle and Norris, holding the candle away from him, was able to see the other mans eyes looking, not at him, but at the flame, merely a few hands length from him.
“I’m sure sorry about this, Cartwright,” he said slowly.
“What I’ve bin fearing to happen for years now. All the old trusses and props Riley and I put in years back, rotten then and more rotten now. I told Davy to wait until …”
“Slow down,Norris.” Adam whispered “Slow down.” He pulled his bandana from a pocket of his jacket and wiped where the blood was now trickling down his face from the gash in his skull. It seemed strange but somehow he seemed unable to think clearly, everything seemed enshrouded in a fog. He looked at the candle “What am I doing here? I mean, how did I get to be here?”
“Can’t you remember?”
“Would I ask if I could?”
“You were riding along and we saw you and Davy told you about the mine and how he wanted you to have a look at it and construct some safety measures for him and Tom and me to work in, and you said ‘No time like the present if that’s where you’re headed’ and so we all rode up here and I guess that’s it really.”
Adam closed his eyes and tried to recall riding up to wherever this particular mine happened to be, he sighed, no doubt the memory would come back in time. He touched the rocks and ran his hand over the timbers.
“Are we above water level?”
“Couldn’t you tell we were walking downhill?” Chuck mumbled.
“Uh.huh!” Chuck leaned back against the rock and closed his eyes, the effort to talk when he was in such pain was making him feel ill. He remembered Davy and rallied in order to prop himself up and call over to Adam “Cartwright, you got to find Davy. He’s in a bad way.”
“How about yourself?”
“I guess my legs busted. Can’t feel it now, it’s numb. There’s a pile of rubble on it.”
“Give me the candle and I’ll see if I can find Davy”
“Wait.” Chuck carefully withdrew another candle and lit it, and passed it over to Adam who took it with caution before slowly creeping back into the darkness.
“Davy?” he called and held the candle slightly higher but its flame was so weak in the depth of the darkness that it revealed nothing.
He inched along slowly, grateful that he had been wearing his heavy coat and had not been tempted to discard it. He had to stop every so often to mop up the blood from the gash in his head, before he proceeded inch by inch to search for the other man.
Something soft rolled under his booted foot and he paused. Lowering the candle he discovered that he had actually trodden upon Davy’s outstretched hand and he hastily moved back before leaning forward to take hold of the limp fingers. By fumblingly groping up the arm he finally succeeded in locating Davy’s body. He put the candle in a secure niche and ran his hands over the other man, stopping only when the debris and rubble prevented him going any further. Now he touched the vein in the boys throat, and then the pulse in his wrist.
“Davy, it’s me, Adam Cartwright.” he whispered and gave the younger man a slight shake. There was no response and after a few minutes, having rechecked for vital signs, Adam had to acknowledge the fact that for Davy, there would be no more pain in this world. He knelt by the lads side for quite some time, holding the limp wrist in his hand and wondering what, if anything, he could do – but how could he restore life to a dead man?
“How is he?” Chuck yelled from his own rock bound prison “Is the lad alright?”
“Far from it, I’m afraid.” Adam replied sombrely and he picked up the candle and returned, crab like, towards where the other candle flickered.
“He’s dead then?”
“Poor lad. He had such hopes of making this mine profitable too.”
Adam said nothing, but set down the candle beside the one Chuck had and began to very carefully move away the rocks. One by one he picked them out, and shifted them aside. Every so often there would be the slither of dust and shale, reminding him that it was precariously loose and if too hastily disturbed could become his own grave.
Fifteen minutes of saying nothing. Of dust and grit drifting into his eyes and nostrils and down his throat. Fifteen minutes of wondering whether or not he would ever be able to shift it all before whatever was left collapsed about him. Fifteen minutes and the candles burning lower and lower and his hands tearing and bleeding and slipping on the rocks where his blood dripped onto them.
“Give up, son, give up.” Chuck whispered eventually “You’re doing a good job, but there jest ain’t no point to it. “
“You don’t want to die here too, do you?”
“Wal, I guess not,” Chuck said very slowly “But I gotta busted leg, so I ain’t gonna be anything but a nuisance to ya anyway. You’ll have to drag me along and that ain’t gonna be any good fer ya”
“You’re alive, and I don’t intend to leave you here to die, old man!”
“I ain’t gonner live, boy.” Chuck sighed and reached out a hand and took hold of Adam’s in a weak grasp “Look’ee, lad, don’t wear yerself out no more. You’ll be plain wore out and then …” he began to cough, a racking, harsh cough that made him groan with pain and the younger man’s face contort with sympathy for him. “Look, here’s my store of candles and matches.” he pushed them through the gap in the boulders “Use ‘em sparingly.”
“Do you think anyone will be coming by at any time soon?”
“Shucks no. This ain’t no real mine, lad, it’s just a labyrinth of tunnels made hundreds of years ago by nature. Riley and I just shored up parts that we used over the years, that’s all. Hardly anyone comes here because there jest ain’t no call to visit.” his voice gave way to more harsh coughing as he gripped Adams wrist tightly and tried to focas on the vague features that could be barely seen through the candlelight “Look, this tunnel goes downwards, below the water level…no point in even trying to get out the way we came in that’s well and truly blocked off and if’n you try you’ll only bring more down onto yourself. There’s an exit turning somewhere…when you find it …if you find it…keep going and keep to the left turns. Always take the left turns …”
“Look, Riley and I spent nigh on 20 years exploring these here tunnels, some lead to dead ends, and some to underwater caverns and some jest ain’t worth botherin’ about…just keep taking the left turns and you’ll come out. It’ll be tricky in parts but you should be able to do it. I jest hope them tunnels are still alright, and not blocked off at all, bin a few years since we bothered with ‘em”
“Listen, Chuck, what about…”
“Thet’s enough now. Best you git going …”
“But what about…”
“Go on, lad, git going now.”
“Hey, Paw…look up thar? D’ya see what I dun see?”
The man driving the battered wagon glanced up to look at what his daughter was pointing and raised his eye brows. He was well into his sixties with sparse hair, hollow cheeks and a chest that looked like a decompressed pair of bellows. He wore red homespun and denim pants and a filthy old hat that looked like the mule dined on it for breakfast everyday. He pushed the relic of a hat to the back of his balding head and blew out his cheeks
“That is some horse flesh, Eliza” he muttered in admiration.
“Ain’t nivver seen nuthin’ so beautiful,” she breathed and gazed up at her father with wide brown eyes that looked like melted chocolate. Her mouth opened into a grin, showing off her rather caramel coloured teeth “Shall we go ketch it, Paw?”
“It’s saddled and bridled up. Could be the owner is hanging around about somewheres”
“Yeah, wal, if’n he is there ain’t no harm dun, is thar? We jest bin looking at the horse, is all!” she glanced at the old man and smiled as he drew the two sorry looking mules to a halt and clambered down from the wagons seat.
“Stealin’ a hoss is a hangin’ ‘fence!” he muttered
“How’d we know he belonged to anyone, seein’ how he’s jest grazin’” she smiled, and slowly began to climb the slope towards where Sport was grazing. “Here, pretty, come on..come and see what ‘Liza got fer yer!”
Sport raised his head and surveyed the couple with curious eyes. He had wandered off from where his master had left him, grazing here and there, nibbling a bit of this and that, but always heading for home and a warm stable and the company of his stable companions. The night had come and gone and he had wandered further afield. Now, as the dawn sky streaked overhead, he allowed himself to be enticed by the young woman who held out the tussock of grass towards him.
“See, Paw, what a soft mouth he has?” she stroked the horse gently and looked at her father who was walking around the horse looking rather anxious “Now, Paw, what you lookin’ like thet fer? Anyone would think yer’d lost summat instead of findin’ it!”
“Recognise the brand here, Liza? Thet’s the Ponderosa brand that is. Reckon this here hoss would be safer left here, fer us anyhows!”
“Aw, Paw….you ain’t afraid of them Cartwrights,is yer? Reckon we could hide the saddle and bridle huh? And the rifles new as can be, we’d be fools to jest leave ‘em”
Old man Ramsay looked at the horse thoughtfully and without saying a word began to unbuckle the girth straps and take away the bridle. Stealthily he rummaged in the saddle bags, finding therein several things he rather liked the look off, and stuck into his pockets He was about to cast the rest into the back of the wagon when Liza grabbed them from him and pulled out a book. She held it gently in her hands and opened it and looked at the words that seemed to dance across the page. She smiled and slipped the little book of verse into her pocket. Now she helped her father to haul the tarpaulin over the stolen items, and a rope was cast over the tarpaulin to hold it down and prevent any prying eyes from seeing what lay beneath it.
Satisfied with this task, Ramsay grabbed the horses mane and led Sport along to the back of the wagon. A rough rope was found and slung into a noose around Sports head.
“Kin I ride him, Paw?”
“No, you cain’t….yew git yerself back up her.” he growled and having fastened the rope to the back of the wagon he trundled the whole baggage of them down to the rivers edge “Seein’ we gotta go into town, we had best hide that brand best ways we can.” Ramsay muttered and began to make a glorious mud pie which he sloshed over the back end of the horse, making it look like it had been enjoying a mud bath before being taken into town.
“You sure that’s gonner be good enough? Folks might think it odd seein’ a hoss that handsome looking so muddied up!” Liza pouted
“If’n a Cartwright rode it, mebbe, not us Ramsays, though!” the old man spat a stream of tobacco juice into the water and then remounted onto the wagon.
“Hi, Hoss – Joe” Tom Riley said sullenly, and turned to pull out the Ponderosa mail from its assigned box. “How’s things with you all?”
“Fine, jest fine.” Hoss said, thumbing through the letters with a frown on his round face.
“You don’t look so happy, Tom, what’s wrong? Davy not back with the biggest gold nugget this side of the sierras yet?” Joe grinned.
“No, not yet.” Tom frowned and leaned on the counter, which prompted Joe and then Hoss to do a little leaning themselves “Fact is, I don’t like the idea of him being up there at all. Chuck Norris, my grandpa’s old partner, went with him to show him around, but I don’t like it.”
“When you expecting him back?” Joe asked, taking a letter addressed to himself ftrom Hoss and sniffing at the envelope before slipping it into his pocket
“Oh, he could be back anytime. Said not to worry about him as he was going to be gone at least a week. I jest hope he ain’t gonna try and get me going up there. I hate the dark!”
“Chuck Norris is a reliable man, though, Tom. He’ll take good care of Davy”
“Yeah, but you know what Davy’s like, never met anyone like him for finding trouble, except perhaps you, Joe.” Tom grinned and excused himself as Mrs Hackett required some attention.
The two brothers strolled out of the mail office and along the sidewalk, both deep in thought. Joe’s mind was as much occupied with Davy and the mine as it was on the letter he had slipped into his jacket pocket.
“I’m going in to see Sam” Joe muttered, and slapped his brother amicably on the shoulder “I’ll see you later for a cold beer if you like, Hoss”
“Suits me!” Hoss said smugly and watched his little brother stroll into the Bucket of Blood. He looked twice at the horse tethered to the back of a battered old wagon that was hitched to the saloons rail. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and screwed up his eyes to take an even better look and was about to cross the road to look closer when he felt a prod in the back
“What yu lookin’ at, big feller?”
He turned to survey the girl who was now standing at his side, her hands on her slim hips and her eyes dark and sparkling,
“That horse that’s tethered to that wagon, that’s what I’m looking at!” Hoss replied shortly.
“So? Why the interest?” she raised her eyebrows and took off her hat, sending cascades of golden red hair tumbling down her back and looking so like a bush of spun gold that Hoss went red and blushed.
“It kinda reminded me of a horse I know.”
“Wal, that hoss is my Paws. We’ve had it fer years. Paw won it in a card game down in Sacremento. He spends more money paying fer that hoss’ grub than he does mine,” she pouted, pretty red lips that were full and well shaped as a cupids bow. Hoss gulped and took off his hat,
“Ain’t seen you around here before, have I, miss?”
“Jest rode in this morning,” she said smartly and thrust out her hand “Name’s Liza Ramsay.”
“Hoss Cartwright!” and he took the proffered hand very gently in his own and shook it, and smiled “I was about to go in for a cup of coffee and some cake. Would you like to join me?” he murmered coyly, as her brown eyes smouldered up into his.
“Guess I’d better not, Paw would be wonderin’ whar I wuz.”
“Will you be coming into town agin, at all?”
“P’raps,” Liza frowned and looked up into Hoss’ face, and smiled. She liked what she saw, an honest open face “Best git back to Paw then. See you agin, Hoss!”
Hoss nodded and swallowed in a thick gulp, and watched her walk away. By the time he had his hat on and had turned to survey the horse and the wagon, the horse had disappeared although the wagon was still there, and a wiry man wearing a battered hat was clambering up onto the seat. Liza was crossing the road to join him. Hoss frowned and watched as the odd couple trundled out of town, the girls flaming gold hair now hidden again beneath her hat.
He shook his head and decided he had been seeing things, or imagining things and perhaps it would be best not to mention that to Joe either. He turned and continued on his way to Cass’ Store.
“You kin quit that racket” old man Ramsay snarled as they rode at a quicker speed than normal from town. He glared at his daughter and wished he had a free hand to give her a sharp clip around the ear. Carrying on so over a horse they hadn’t even had in their possession longer than a few hours. “I had no choice but git rid of it, there were Cartwrights everywhere I went and I don’t want to feel a noose around my neck jest yet a while!”
“I saw a Cartwright too.” she blubbed “He was staring right at the hoss, didn’t even cotton on to it either.”
“He will, if’n he thinks hard enough about it.” Ramsay growled
“Why’d ya have to sell it though, Paw? I woulda given my eye teeth to have kept that hoss!”
“Yeah, no doubt you would’ve, but we need money to buy victuals with don’t we? Or are yer fergitting your ma and sisters thet easy, huh?”
Liza said nothing to that, but wiped her nose on her sleeve and sniffed and thought of the ribbon and candies she had got in exchange for the little book of verse at Cass’ store.
“Cartwright? You still there?” the mans voice was a mere whisper now and Adam, kneeling close by, had to lean forward to hear him.
“I’m still here,” he said very quietly
“Young idjit, you should have gone by now, gone outa here .” Chuck sighed and closed his eyes
“How longs it bin now?”
“About an hour,” Adam replied, having checked the time by holding the candle close to his time keeper “Chuck, I’ve nearly got one area of this removed. It shouldn’t take me much longer to be rid of enough to get you out.”
“I told you, boy, not to bother. Jest go now while you have the chance.”
“Just another hour, Chuck”
“Are you mad? There ain’t another hour left for me. Listen -.” the rasping voice became quiet and Adam strained his ears.
Apart from the dripping of water down the walls, and the occasional eerie echo of some far off sound, there was only silence. Then he heard another sound. It was like a slow cracking splintering sound the like of which one would hear when ice on a pond was beginning to thaw and crack. Adam raised his head and listened intently, much like a hound waiting for the hunt to begin and listening for his quarry. The sound was stealthy at first, but was increasing in volume as the seconds ticked by. He struggled to his feet, stood as erect as he could and raised the candle flame higher.
Above him, on the roof or ceiling of the crumbling mine shaft, or tunnel, he saw myriads of tiny feather like cracks. They looked like the spun threads of a spiders web, but as he raised the candle flame higher he could see that the cracks were moving. More and more threads were fanning out across the ceiling. He had been so intent on his task of clearing rubble away from Chuck that he had not heard a sound. Only a man on the threshold of death and with the acutest of hearing, had heard.
“Hear it?” Chuck whispered
“I hear it.” Adam whispered in return and he got down on his knees and reached for another boulder. Chuck’s fingers curled around his wrist,
“Thanks for trying, boy. I appreciate it, like I said before, there ain’t no point. Jest git outa here and remember what I said, only take the left turns. All the best. Go now, before the whole lot comes down on top of you.”
“I can’t leave you here, Chuck, not now.”
“What’s a man to do?” Chuck groaned “You Cartwrights have to argue all the time, prove yerselves right, jest go, can’t a man die in peace?”
Adam leaned back on his heels and stared at the man’s face. The candle flame flickered as the man’s final breath was exhaled and the death rattle sounded in his throat. There was a spasm as the fingers tightened their grip around his wrist and then opened to release him. Very gently he leaned forward and closed the blank eyes and placed Chucks arms across his chest. He had been right after all, he had been dying and had died to prove it.
Gravel sifted down onto his back and he knew that the spiders web was spreading faster now than was safe for him to stay any longer. It really was time to go!.
“Well,” Ben frowned as he read the cablegram and then looked at his sons “Seem’s Adam’s done alright for us, he got the contract and everythings signed and sealed.”
“Anything about when he’s due to get home?” Joe asked, biting into an apple and looking up from perusing his own letter.
“He just says that he’ll see us back home soon. Could be anytime now!” Ben smiled as he refolded the letter and slipped it into the desk drawer “How’d you get on in town?” he glanced at them both and Joe grinned and shrugged
“Met an odd fella in the saloon, wanted to sell me a horse.” Joe chuckled “When I told him my name he went kinda pale and said I probably wouldn’t be interested in what he had and went and sold it to old Hogan. I ask you, Hogan of all people? He’ll probably have it hung drawn and quartered by tomorrow morning and living off horse steaks for the rest of the week.”
“Yeah, I reckon I saw the horse” Hoss murmered, strolling up with a large chunk of Hop Sings apple pie in his hand “It was a dead ringer for Sport!”
“Really?” Joe raised his eye brows “Well, Hogan paid a decent price for it anyway, perhaps he’ll decide not to have it for breakfast and dinner for the next month after all.”
“Purty little girl came and said it was her Pa’s.” Hoss bit into the apple pie before it had a chance to crumble and fall onto the floor. Joe thought it was like watching slurry slip into a quarry mouth!
“Ah-huh? A purty little gal, huh? How purty, Hoss?” Joe teased
“Real purty” Hoss chomped at another bit of pie “Big brown eyes and the brightest red hair I ever did see. Looked half starved to me. Said her Pa fed the horse better than he ever got round to feeding her. I reckon that weren’t far off the truth either.” He perched onto the edge of the big coffee table that stretched out before the fire and with another chomp, the apple pie was gone. He rather daintily licked his fingers “Who’s your letter from, Joe?”
“Oh, a little filly I met when we were in ‘Frisco last.” Joe sighed and slipped the note back into the envelope “Wanted to know when we would be visiting there next”
“Uh-huh!” Hoss grinned and winked over at his father, then he stood up and stretched, “I got me a present for big brother for when he gets back home!” Hoss walked over to the bureau where he had tossed his hat and jacket, and from under these he produced a small book of verse. “Thought he’d be sure to like this book. Sally said she had only jest got hold of it herself”
Ben looked at the book and smiled thoughtfully, he nodded at Hoss, thinking that it was a kindly gesture on the part of the young man. Joe looked at it and took it from Hoss and shook his head.
“Nah, he’s already got this one.”
“He can’t have … it’s brand new!” Hoss looked pained, and reached out for the book.
“Sorry, Hoss, I saw him reading it before he left here. He only got it himself the day before, said it was a first edition and that one day it would it worth some money.”
“Are you sure, Little Joe? You ain’t joshing, are ya?”
“As if I would.” Joe chuckled
“Let me see that,” Ben said and took the book from Joe and opened it “Joe’s right, Hoss. Adam was reading this. Someone else must have a similar taste in verse.” he smiled at Hoss and returned it to him “It was a kind thought, Hoss, why not keep it for yourself?”
“Shucks, I ain’t got the time to read stuff like this!” Hoss protested, he took the book and held it against his chest, “Aw, I jest wanted to git Adam summat he’d enjoy.” Hoss sighed and put the book down and strolled out to the kitchen. If he timed it right he might just be able to grab another slice of pie before Hop Sing got back into the kitchen!
The candle had melted to stubs and the hot wax dripped onto his fingers. The creaking, cracking sounds above were beginning to gain momentum. For all the hours he had been in that mine Adam had succeeded in keeping a control on his nerves but this race against time, against the whole roof caving in on him before he found the way out and into the next tunnel was straining his nerves to the utmost. The gash in his head was still bleeding and he had bound the bandana around it. Hopefully it would prevent the flow of blood from streaming into his eyes. His hands were raw, blisters were torn open and bleeding and the hot wax only added to the problems. He was exhausted now. His throat was so dry and sore from lack of any water that his tongue seemed to have fused in his mouth. His lips were cracked and bleeding.
The flame of the candle, so feeble in the darkness, shivered and Adam watched it and thought ‘Somehow this means something!” He watched it tremble again and realised that it was moving due to a draught of air. A draught of air meant that there was an opening out of the shaft.
It had been the darkness that had been the most unnerving thing to combat throughout those hours. To strain his eyes against a wall of pitch black and to be able to see so little by the light of the candle, never knowing what his foot may have stumbled against that could cause another rock fall. He knelt down and the flame danced on the candle. If he were not careful it was in danger of gutting out altogether as he inched his way forwards.
A gap, the width of a mans body and carved out of the rock. Its smoothness proof that it was not by human hands, but by the more forceful action of water that had at one time surged through and smoothed out its contours. He felt the shape of it with his hands and then, getting down onto his belly he wriggled his way through the aperture.
The darkness was still there but so was the feeling of immense space all around him. It was like walking from someones vestibule and into a ball room. He could sense the vastness and it was daunting. He cringed back against the rock and felt water cool to the touch of his fingers.
“Water.” his exhausted brain told him and he groped along the rock until he found a scooped hollow, filled by the natural flow of water . It was heaven sent and he did not neglect to give thanks as he filled his hands and let the water trickle into his parched mouth. It was so cold and clean that he gagged at first. It made him cough, but it was life giving, life restoring and he drank carefully. He forced himself to remember that having gone without for so long, to gorge on it now could have had disastrous effects.
The blisters of his hands stung, raw now and he took time to tear off a strip from his shirt to wrap around both of them. The coldness of the water as it had touched his innards made him shiver just as the cold air in the vast cavern reminded him that he needed to move on before he came too cold to do anything. He ran his tongue around his lips and tasted blood along with grit and dust.
The water cleansed them but the bleeding continued for a while, he wasn’t really sure when it ceased to be a nuisance. He slithered down onto his haunches, with his back against the rocks and thought about what had happened. If he had stayed in San Francisco just another day, if he had taken another route into town. If only, if only. The candle had gutted now. The darkness about him was horrifically intense. He closed his eyes and opened them several times and realised that open or closed made no difference at all.
He had water near at hand, and some candles. He was exhausted and in pain, in terrible pain, and he was cold, he could feel the extremities of his body becoming numb and yet it screamed for sleep, and as he sat there in the vast cavern with the water dripping down the walls by his side, his body began to close down and relax into the stupor of the utterly weary.
“I must sleep.” he told himself and took a deep breath. He could feel his body slipping away when there came a shuddering earth moving crash that jolted the floor of the cavern upon which he sat and within seconds clouds of dust and grit were rolling towards him.
With little time to think he turned and moved as fast as he could on all fours until he managed to get his feet and scramble upright. He had to run, to out run the dust and the grit and the rubble. He had to run as a blind man, for there was nothing for him to see all around him but the intensity of the darkness.
He ran, he staggered, he fell. He rolled several yards bumping against rocks and boulders and riccocheting from them until he fell, pain shot through his knee as he crashed down upon rocks and then he sprawled out among the debris unaware of anything and totally unconscious.
Dave Riley had dreamed of wealth and glory, but now he lay where his dreams should have been realised. The place for his dreams fulfillment had merely become his grave. Years if traversing the mines had not helped Norris, whose body lay smashed beneath the rocks that had been there since time immemorial. Alone and broken Adam Cartwright’s breathing became shallower with every passing moment.
Ben Cartwright stretched and yawned and scratched his head. It was good to be alive on a day so fresh and sunny. He opened the bedroom window wider and leaned against the cill to observe the view beyond. In the stillness of the early mornings dawn there was true beauty and he wondered, rather sleepily, if there was a poem about that in the little book of verse Hoss had hoped to give Adam.
Co-incidences, he smiled.
“Hey, Pa, hurry up, Hoss is ravenous and if you don’t hurry you’ll get no breakfast,” Joe chortled as he ran past his fathers bedroom and rapped on the door.
Ben stretched again and smiled. He half turned and paused a moment to observe the rider coming into the yard. He shook his head bemusedly. What was old Hogan doing here so early? Rumour had it that he never rolled out of bed until mid day.
By the time he had reached downstairs Hogan was knocking on the door and Hoss was throwing it open with a grin on his face. The smile faded somewhat when he saw Hogan for the wretched man always brought the unwelcome aroma of goats with him, and the smell lingered.
“Phew!” Hoss muttered, and stepped backwards, “Er…come in, Mr Hogan..would you like some coffee?”
“Nope,” the old man scowled and looked directly at Ben “I jest wanted you to come and see what I bought yesterday. I want you to see it fer yerself before you go gitting any wrong ideas, thassall.”
Hoss and Joe and Ben exchanged looks, each and every one of them assuming the old man had gone a little crazier than usual. They followed him out into the yard and stopped at the sight of Sport nodding at them over the hitching rail.
“That IS Sport,” Hoss said firmly “Dadburn it, I should have known…” and the three of them rushed to the horses side to check the brand mark on its flank. “This is the horse you bought from that old squatter, ain’t it, Hogan?”
“Bought it fair and square.” Hogan said glaring at Ben as though it were all his fault .
“Where’s the Bill of Sale?” Ben asked “And who did you get it from?”
“I ain’t got no Bill of Sale. The old guy I bought it from promised me that he was selling in good faith because his family were starving and they needed the money. It was a transaction between two men, not businesses.” He glowered at Ben again, “I paid in good faith for this horse, and then I saw the brand mark when I washed off all that thar mud. Then I realised why I thought the crittur looked so familiar. Reckoned I’d best bring it on into here fer you to sort out.”
Joe ran his hands over Sports legs and then down his flanks and looked at his father and nodded, “The guy who was selling Sport yesterday, he was the one who didn’t want to sell to me, once he knew who I was a Cartwright!”
“Wait,” Ben put up a hand and then passed his hand across his face as though struck by some terrible thought “Wait.” for a moment there was silence, as they waited for him to speak and he tried to think down a route that he really didn’t want to go down “There’s something wrong. If Sports here, then where’s Adam?”
“Do you think someone’s ambushed him for the horse?” Hoss whispered “I mean, why bring Sport into Virginia City of all places if they had done that?”
“That book, Hoss. The one you bought yesterday. Did Sally say where she had got it from?” Joe looked at his brother earnestly, his hazel eyes dark with anxiety.
“Said a young woman had brought it to the shop and wanted to exchange it for some furbelows.” Hoss shrugged and then his eyes widened “Heck, Pa that little gal with the red hair,” he clicked his fingers and turned to Joe “Ramsay, that’s what they were called.”
“Yep, Ramsay, that’s his name alright,” Hogan said “But what about me? What about my money?”
Ben did a half turn to glance back at him, for he had started back to the house as soon as he had realised the connection between Sport and the book and his missing son, “Not now, Hogan, but I shall see you about it later. At this precise moment of time I have more important things to think about.”
“What’s more important than -,” Hogans voice ended in a whine and he shrugged and shook his head and turned to his horse “C’mon, Desdemona, I guess we jest ain’t wanted round here.”
Roy Coffee pulled down his gun belt and was buckling it round his waist even as Ben was telling him about Hogan, the horse and the Ramsays. He picked up his hat and then looked seriously at Ben,
“So you’ve got Hoss and Joe scouting around?”
“On the road back from ‘Frisco.”
“Ain’t that a bit of a stupid idea, Ben? Wouldn’t it have been better to have waited to see what these Ramsay folk have to say? If’n they found Sport then they’ll give you a better idea of jest where Adam can be found.”
“What if they bushwhacked him and hid the body? They’re not likely to tell us where he is, are they?” Ben’s voice tightened with suppressed impatience at what he felt was Roy’s dithering about, as usual.
“Can’t see why not, most folks round here are mighty obligin’ when the laws poking around, Ben” Roy raised a placating hand as he realised his friend was about to blow a short fuse “Alright, alright. I see it your way too, but let’s jest go and find out for ourselves shall we? Then we’ll have to send out a posse to find your two boys ,” he grumbled under his breath as he swept out of the sherriffs office.
Adam paused and held the candle higher. His gratitude to Chuck Norris and this provision of candles was manifold! He had taken two left turnings so far and still the vast tendrils of the labyrinth continued onwards. Now he had found himself walking down, lower and lower. It was obvious that some hours earlier he had walked beneath the water table . The air in the cavern was cold as water trickled like minor waterfalls down the sides of the rock, spilling onto the floor over which he had to walk, to cascade over the rim to the depths below . As he walked he stayed as close to the rockface as possible, occasionally pausing to lean against it for support, fighting off pain, letting his knee rest momentarily before he proceeded to walk on.
Perhaps another hour has passed before he stopped to drink. He soaked the bandana and wiped his face and neck. Then he picked up the candle and began to walk forward. He had gone about a dozen steps when he realised that the light from the candle was reflected back at him. Gingerly he took another step forward, his free hand outstretched. His fingers touched wet rock. Total dejection welled up inside him and he set down the candle and began to feel the rock with both hands. Up, down, round to the left…round to the right. He stood on tip toe. His way was seemingly blocked. He was totally perplexed now for he had obeyed Chucks directions to take only left turnings.
He placed his hands upon the surface of the rock and leaned upon it as though somehow he could move it by that simple action alone. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, and found a measure of relief in doing so for the strain of attempting to see through the dense darkness, to focus on the pin prick of light form the candle seemed to be sucking them from their sockets. Of course nothing happened, the rock never moved, water still streamed down the walls, soaked his clothing, his skin.
He took a deep breath and sat down and buried his face in his hands. How much longer could he go on for he asked himself. This just seemed never ending . He was so tired, so hungry, so ………….scared? He shook his head, no, he was not scared. Not yet anyway. He still had his strength and he could still use his legs. He moved to pick up the candle. As his fingers touched it, it fell from the rock and rolled away from him. He reached out to snatch it up but it just continued to roll out of reach.
He pulled out another candle and lit the wick and lowered the flame to the ground. There was no sign of the other candle now. He stretched out his fingers and there the rock, unmoving and unyielding. So where had the candle gone if not beside the rock. It was just a simple thing, but suddenly it seemed overwhelmingly momentous. He was on all fours now groping along the ground in the direction of the lost candle, it had rolled away from him and gone, but where? Upon his knees he shuffled along groping along the rock strewn ground until he touched – nothing. The more he groped the emptier the space he was finding.
Panic hit him in the throat for a moment, he leaned forward and realised the gap was wide, the nothingness beyond stretched beyond the massive rock that had prevented him moving onwards.
This had to be the only way he could go, unless he back tracked and took a right hand turning. The opening was very low down, and he would have to lower himself somehow into it. Adam paused to think about the unforeseen dangers .
He sat for a moment with his head down, deep in thought, his mind on what was ahead of him. Taking a deep breath he blew out the candle. Using his hands he groped around the rocks, found the aperture and carefully eased his body into it. For a fraction of a moment he realised there was no ground beneath his feet and that he had to let go or swing himself back up into the tunnel. And then it was too late to consider the matter for his hands were already too torn and tired and he could feel his fingers slipping away from the rock.
Arthur Ramsay and his wife stared up at the sheriff and Ben Cartwright and listened to what they were saying. A dirty faced, runny nosed boy of six clung to his mothers skirts and a little girl of four, bare legged and equally dirty faced, stared up at them from behind her fathers legs. Liza, her flaming red hair, bundled into braids and tied with the new ribbons from the store, listened from the doorway.
“I tell ya the horse was grazin’. Ain’t thet so, Liza?”
She glanced up warily at the sound of her name and approached the two men cautiously. She scowled up at them and nodded,
“Could you show us where you found the horse?” Ben asked
She glanced at her father and shrugged and Ben looked in exasperation at Roy who nodded and looked at Ramsay.
“I’m ‘fraid I have to arrest you, Ramsay.”
“What? Are you crazy?” the old man started backwards, his red rimmed rheumy eyes opened so wide that he looked the one who warranted the term ‘crazy’.
“Doin’ my job, mister, thet’s all.” Roy frowned “Now, there’s an easy way of doing this, and there’s a hard way. I’m sure you kin guess the best way I like it to be?”
Ramsay spat and wiped his hands on the back of his pants and nodded,
“Alright. Look, it’s true what I told yer, we found the horse jest grazing. Its saddle and stuff is in the wagon, we ain’t touched it.” he frowned and looked at Ben “We didn’t steal the crittur. There jest wasn’t no body about to ..”
“….care for it” Liza said quickly. “There jest weren’t a body in sight, I swear!”
Ben and Roy exchanged looks once more and then Roy nodded and gestured to Ramsays horse “Best come along with us and show us!” he said in his quiet polite manner.
Arthur Ramsay did not even look back at his snivelling wife and equally snivelling and squalling children. Liza glowered at them and swiftly ran indoors. Fear made her shake now, they had not even looked to see if the owner needed help. She had to confront the fact that a man could have died because of their greed.
“What’s that up there, Hoss?” Joe pointed to a black blob on the horizon and squinted.
Hoss took off his hat and shielded his eyes and scanned the horizon, then he scratched his head
“Looks like an old wagon and a couple of mules left out to graze.”
“Perhaps the owner may have seen Adam,” Joe suggested, and spurred his horse forwards and up the hill towards the wagon.
The two mules continued to crop at the grass and totally ignored the riders as they galloped towards them. Both men dismounted and walked up to the wagon and peered inside “Miners equipment” Hoss muttered.
“What for? Where’s the mine?” Joe said, looking at the equipment in puzzlement.
“Hey, ain’t this where old man Riley had his place? You know, where Dave came?”
“Yeah, of course.” Joe grinned and his eyes twinkled for a moment “Hey, won’t he be surprised to see us.”
“Hold on thar, Joe, we ain’t come here courtesy callin’, we came to find Adam.”
“Well, so far as I can make out,” Joe said, staring down at the ground “this is where Sports prints have led us. No harm in asking Dave and Chuck if they seen big brother, is there?” and he grinned and dismounted, tethering Cochise onto the back of the wagon.
The two brothers walked along the ridge of the hill and down towards where the mine workings appeared. It was obvious to anyone with half an eyeful of knowledge about mining that serious work had long ceased. There was a sluice, and other apparatus indicating that at times some work was done, but any indication of it being an up and coming thriving business was far less apparent.
They walked to the mine entrance and peered inside,
“Phew….that’s what I call dark!” Joe muttered
“There’s a lantern down ther,” Hoss pointed to an oil lamp and picked it up and lit it .
“Do you reckon Dave’s here?”
“I wouldn’t have thought so,” Hoss held the lantern higher and pointed to where another lantern stood nearby. “It seems kinda odd, don’t’cha think?”
“It’s quiet. No sign of any fire, or camping equipment. You know how Dave likes his food?”
“Oh yeah, I hadn’t thought about that,” Joe frowned and held up the other lamp and looked around“Hoss, there’s a heck of a lot of dust and stuff flying about.”
“It don’t look none too safe if you ask me!”
They walked a few feet into the mine and paused to look around. Hoss brought the lamp down to the ground and surveyed the dust there, then he stood up and shook his head.
“There’s been a recent fall here. If Dave and Norris are here, or have been here, the dust has already covered any of their tracks.”
“That was two days ago.” Joe said quietly “Hey, what’s that -.” he pointed to something white that was pinned between two rocks and hurridly prised it free “Hoss, look at this!”
Noting the sound of fear in his brother’s voice Hoss took the paper and looked at it anxiously, then he took a deep breath and shook his head,“It’s Adam’s hand writing, he’s been here.”
He had landed on his feet quite safely but it was now impossible to get back up and it was equally obvious that since Riley and Norris had last been there and negotiated that particular tunnel, there had been a shift in the rock formation which had effectively sealed most of it up. He did a side step, groped in his pocket for the matches and a candle and lit the wick He could see how the narrow tunnel took a bend but flattened out, but to negotiate the bend meant that he would have to wriggle on his belly a little more and that the tunnel beyond him, as far as he could see was only the width and breadth of his body. He was, more or less, equivalent to a cork in a bottle, and with very little room in which to move.
He manouvred his arms and decided that the best way to tackle the tunnel was to move in a swimming motion, which would mean the candle always being ahead of him, providing him with some light and some direction. If he raised his head too suddenly, too high, he cracked it on some projecting rock; sometimes the passage way was so narrow that his cheek was grazing against the rocks surface that made up the floor of the tunnel, and the makeshift bandages around his hands were were torn so much as to be useless, his fingers were skinned raw. Several times the lack of air made him feel as though he were going to pass out and he considered the sense of having the candle alight, for the flame was eating away at what oxygen existed. He inched forwards, squeezed himself pass several more rocks, left more skin on the sharp stones that grazed against him as he pushed himself along. Then, suddenly, his hands touched water.
This was water as in the amount one would swim in. The narrow chamber had led him to a vast underwater cavern and beyond it he could see light. He lay there, his face a bloodied mask, his lips cracked and his eyes streaming, as he stared, and stared, at the sight of a one inch slip of light far beyond the expanse of water.
He measured the distance with his eyes and then sunk his head into his arms, the candle fell from his fingers and the flame phizzed out in the water.
Ben took the paper from Joe and smoothed it out
“August 9th…Riley’s site ….
No of shaft props required
Amt of shoring timber
Amt of tracking
Essentials other items – which
“Something happened as he was writing this out.” Ben said in a voice barely audible. He looked at Roy and his sons “They must still be in there .”
“It’s the 11th now,” Roy said quietly and he put a hand gently on Ben’s arm “I’ll ride back to town and get some men organised to come on out here.”
Joe and Hoss kept their eyes on their fathers face,watching the stern, handsome features of the man settle in lines of anxiety and concern for their elder brother. Neither of them dared to say what they were too frightened to even hint at – Joe swallowed a lump in his throat and eventually turned away and surveyed the hills around him. Who would have thought it, that someone would have been crazy enough to mine there.
What on earth had possessed Adam to step into such a mess, him being a trained engineer too. He should have known better; he should have noticed that everything was a mess and that it was just a death trap. He wiped his nose on his sleeve just as he would have done years ago, when a little boy.
Lost in such thoughts he jumped when Hoss’ fingers curled over his shoulder, “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, little brother?” Hoss muttered.
“I’m thinking that Adam was darn stupid to have stepped foot inside that place.” Joe growled, sniffing frantically, and struggling to keep the tears from dripping from his eyes.
“I’m going in now. I can’t jest hang around here waiting for those men to come.”
“I’ll come too.”
“No, Joe.” Hoss turned and looked at his little brother, “Shucks, Joe, if anything were to happen to you in there – .”
“What’s going on?” Bens strident voice broke into their conversation and they both turned anxiously to look at their father who had already discarded his vest and hat and was rolling up his sleeves “What are you two talking about?”
“I was jest saying to Joe that, Pa, what you plannin’ on doin’?” Hoss’ voice queried in some puzzlement.
“I’m going to see what I can do in there. I can’t hang around for Roy to get back from town, there’s already been enough time wasted. Joe, ride back to the ranch and get some of the men here. Get Hop Sing to set up a chuck wagon of sort. This is going to be a long haul!”
“Yeah, but – ,” Joe gestured feebly and seeing the stern look from his father, he turned back to where he had left Cochise. He then leapt into the saddle and galloped frantically away.
Ben watched him go and shook his head “Let’s just hope he doesn’t break his neck along the way.” he growled.
Adam Cartwright had never felt so alone. He sat there, with his head burrowed in the crook of his folded arms, and once again surveyed the water. That light so far away was … well, it was just so far away and he doubted that he had the strength left in his body to reach it. Weak, so weak. He wanted to just keep his head resting upon his arms with his eyes shut and drfit into the calmness of death. His body was warmer now, the pain was constant either sharp enough to cause him to groan, or tingling, always tingling at the tips of his fingers and around his mouth and face.
“I am alone!” he said quietly to himself and burrowed further into the warmth of his arms “I am alone!” he repeated and drifted back into that dark sleep that hovered between rest and unconsciousness.
Time ticked away the minutes before he opened his eyes again ….and he forced himself to sit up and look at the water. He couldn’t go back, not back to the tunnel. He reached out a hand and touched the water and sent ripples trickling back towards the light.
He scooped up some water and tasted it, drank it, and then bathed his face with it. It was the colour of ink, but beyond, on the horizon, was that steady consistent small patch of light. He had by now lost all sense of direction, all he had to work on was this body of water and the fact that it had an outlet, obviously beneath the hill. Could it be that this water flowed into the river that wended its way through the Ponderosa? He could feel that there was a current too, that this body of water was not still nor stagnant and yet its movement was slow. What he could not know was what dangers lay hidden beneath the surface.
He relit the candle, grateful for the matches being still dry and impatient for the damp wick to sizzle into life. Then he slowly turned his body in order to get out his watch and check the time by the candle flame. He shook the time piece and then pushed it back into his pocket, the useless thing had stopped working, its hands remained at 2.00 and who was to know whether that meant before or after noon. He looked again at the speck of light on the horizon and knew that he would have to swim towards it soon before the darkness came, before it grew cold once more. Nothing could now be worse than to be swimming into the dark. He struggled out of his coat and bundled it up and with his belt secured it to his back, much like a soldiers back pack. Then, without a backward glance, he slid into the water.
It was like swimming in ink. Ice cold ink. At first he swam slowly, gauging his own strength and the force of the current, letting it take him with it, making sure that he was still in control. All the time he kept his eyes on that small square of light and the spangles of silver that danced upon the ripples of the inky black water.
“The men are here, pa.” Joe said quietly. Gently, but forcibly, he pushed a mug of hot coffee into the older mans hands.
Ben merely nodded, and straightened his back. He was dirty, dischevelled, and his unbuttoned shirt was stained with sweat and mud and dust. Joe tapped his brother on the arm and pushed a mug of coffee into Hoss’ hands, forcing him to stop work and, like his father, Hoss stood up, straightened his back and looked dirt stained and worried.
“How’s it going?” Roy’s voice echoed eerily in the cavern, where dust filtered everywhere and clung to everything, and lamps and lanterns hung on every conceivable nail in order to provide sufficient light. “Anything yet?”
“It’s a big one!” Hoss said quietly “Thankfully there’s no water seepage, otherwise there would have been even more trouble. No, we just keep moving rock and timber from one place to another, and yet keep finding more. It’s as though the whole mine shaft just collapsed in on itself.”
Tom Riley, so afraid of the dark and confined spaces, pushed his way ahead of Roy and stared in horror at the wall of rock and debris that still faced them.
“Is there any chance of them coming out of this alive?” he asked
No one spoke an answer to that question. Other men were coming in now, men who worked in mines and had experienced mine falls and knew how to handle fallen debris. They took their places and without a word began to work with deadly caution, but with sufficient speed to encourage Joe, Hoss and Ben to get busy once again.
Hop Sing watched as the men worked in shifts. It was, as Hoss had said, a big one. This was not going to be a salvage or rescue operation that was going to end in a few hours, but looked as though it was set to go on well into the night.
With a dismal feeling in his heart the cook prepared food for the hungry and hot drinks for the cold and disheartened. By the time the stars and moon came out to shine, they shone down upon a very sombre and disconsolate group of over a hundred men.
“Joe, Hoss, I want you both to go home now. Get some rest and come back tomorrow morning. You’ve worked yourselves to a standstill.” Ben looked at his two sons with red rimmed eyes for the dust and grit got everywhere and it was impossible to avoid rubbing ones eyes to free them from the stuff. Joe and Hoss looked at one another
“What do you intend to do, Pa? Sleep under the chuck wagon?” Hoss asked
Ben said nothing to that, but turned his back on them and stared at the mine which now had so many lanterns adorning it that it looked like a continuation of the stars in heaven. Joe and Hoss could see, the way the older mans chest was heaving up and down, that Ben was exhausted and emotionally wracked.
“Go home, Pa.” Hoss said quietly “If we come across anything, we’ll send for you rightaway.”
Ben shook his head and was about to speak when there came a yell and Zeke Hanratty came running towards the mouth of the mine, waving a lantern which was the signal that something, or someone, had been found at last. The three Cartwrights ran with Hop Sing close behind them towards where a group of men were carrying a body, draped with a blanket.
The name of the dead person rippled towards them and they slowed their running to a disconsolate walk. Tom Riley approached the body which was gently laid upon the ground, and after lifting a corner of the blanket, nodded and walked away. Joe, his gentle heart torn with anxiety over his own brother, and having been a close friend to Dave Riley since childhood, walked hurriedly over to Tom and without a word the two young men walked away from the crowds to where they could talk in the darkness of the night.
“Do you think they’ll find Adam?”
“How do I know, son?” the words were uttered as a long drawn out sigh.
Hoss sighed and bowed his head. He still hankered after the times when, if he asked Pa’s opinion or advice about anything, it was as though something magic happened because Pa was always right. If Ben had said “Yeah, of course they’ll find Adam and he’ll be just fine” then Hoss would have felt his spirit uplifted and confidence return, but the answer Ben gave left him in despair.
Two hours later and the whisper rippled around the crowd that another body had been found. In silence they waited. The three Cartwrights stood together and waited for the worse kind of news. Hanratty walked towards them, swinging his lantern by his side,
“It was Chuck Norris, Mr Cartwright.”
“No sign of any one else?” Ben asked
“Only this,” and Zeke produced a very battered, misshapen and dust covered black hat. “Nothing else, sir. We looked but that’s all we found.”
Adam swam through the square of light that had got brighter and brighter as he drew nearer to it. Without breaking the rhythm of his strokes he swam out beyond the rock and boulders that had incarcerated him for the past two and a half days and then he paused and looked around him. High in the sky a silver moon shone down and in the water, just a few yards ahead of him, the moons sister reflection rippled in the shallow waves that his swimming created.
With a strange determined passion Adam swam towards the reflection and when he reached its centre he stopped, and with a loud whoop he raised both arms high in the air and whooped again and again. Then he flopped onto his back in the water and allowed the gentle currents to carry him just a little further before he turned and began to swim towards the shore.
His hands touched the earth and his feet trod down grass and he smelt clean fresh air scented with the late summers flowers. Oh joy of joys and to be alive!
He untied the belt and pulled free his jacket before he fell, exhausted, into the long grasses as though to all appearances, dead, with his arms flung out and his eyes closed. The moon drifted along in the sky, sometimes hiding her face behind the clouds and bathing the still body with darkness, to peek again and sprinkle upon it her silver beams. The stars played hide and seek and slowly retreated before the awesome arrival of the early morning sun that sent out gentle warmth upon the young man lying now as though in pleasant slumber.
He stirred and raised an arm to shield his eyes from the sun, and for some moments lay there in contented peace. He wanted to move but his body cried out for peace and stillness, and so he remained at the waters edge, soaking up the sun and blanking out from his mind the misery and pain of the previous few days.
….. ……………………. ……….
Ben Cartwright watched as the men dissembled and began to journey back to their homes and work places. He had thanked them all personally, shaken their hands, accepted their condolences and said his good byes. He wearily picked up his hat and jacket and looked up at his sons, “Let’s go home.”
Hoss said, putting an arm across Joe’s shoulders “You never know, Adam may be there.”
Ben flashed an angry glance at his second son, and scowled but Hoss was determined to be positive.
“Pa, I’ve bin thinking, that hillside is jest about honeycombed with tunnels, ain’t it? What if Adam found a way out, huh? See – it’s like this – those tunnels don’t jest go round and round, do they? I mean ta say, they ain’t some kind of maze, they gotta end someplace, ain’t they?” he glanced at Joe for support, but his youngest brother was too miserable himself to even think about honeycombed hills “I reckon Adams got outta there, makes no sense otherwise.”
“What makes no sense?” Ben asked
“Well, if’n they can find Dave and Chuck and Adams hat, why didn’t anyone find him? Stands to reason,he has to be somewhere else.”
“Yeah, exactly!” Joe snapped angrily “Somewhere in those honeycombed tunnels you keep prattling on about, aw, Hoss, just shuddup will ya!” and Joe walked more quickly to his horse, hoping to out distance his overly optimistic brother.
Hoss shook his head and frowned, it all made complete sense to him, although the fact that Adams body could be lying incumbent anywhere in the tunnels also made complete sense to his brother seemed irrelevant to him. He walked to his horse, scratching his head and pondering about the possibility of Adams whereabouts.
Getting his legs to move had been a problem. After all the bumps and bruising, the scraping and sliding, he felt as stiff as a ram rod. He was also weak from his head wound and loss of blood. And he was extremely hungry.
He stretched and gasped as pain trickled up and down his body. But resolute now he turned towards a familiar spot and began to walk towards it. After ten minutes his strides became faltering foot steps, and within minutes he was staggering like a drunkard along the track that led to home.
After another ten minutes he had fallen onto his knees and then sprawled out full length in the roadway. He was oblivious to the sounds that came his way, of hands roughly turning him over and feeling his body and then lifting him and carrying him away from the road.
The three men were sunk in lethargy and each one of them seemed lost deep inside their own thoughts. Hoss stood by the fire and poked at it savagely, still trying to work out why there had been no sign of his brothers body and always coming up with the same answer, that he was safe somewhere and possibly needing their help.
Joseph sat hunched over in the big blue chair while he kept chewing his thumbs and spitting nail into the grate, his mind going over and over the hours spent in that mine and then the horror that hit his gut when they brought out Dave . In his minds eye he tried to imagine being shut in there for days on end and what would he do, and what, in consequence, could Adam have done?
Ben stared at the flames of the fire and thought also of the hours spent in hauling out the rocks and boulders, the timber and other rubble from that mine shaft, of the hopes that he had kept close to mind. He shuddered inwardly at the memory of the times when the men yelled “Stop, don’t move” because of the threat that more of the rock fall was about to take place. It had not, thankfully, but the fear he had felt at the thought of it happening, and the realisation that Adam had experienced it, alone, tormented his already distressed mind.
That was the worse thing a father could bear. The thought that his son had suffered and perhaps during the suffering had longed for the help of his family and received none.
Had he been afraid? Had he been badly hurt and in great pain? How could anyone so loved suffer so much without them feeling some instinctive awareness and going to their aid. And was Hoss right? Could Hoss be right? If he were, then Adam would still need their help.
He got to his feet, he felt stiff and clumsy from lack of sleep and from hauling boulders and rocks for hours on end. Hoss and Joe stopped what they were doing and looked at him.
“What’re you plannin’ on doin’, Pa?” Hoss asked, holding the poker at a rather dangerous angle towards Joe’s head.
“I’m coming with you.” Joe said, fending off the poker and jumping to his feet “You’re going back, to find Adam, arn’t you?”
“If he were there, dead or alive, we would have found him.” Ben said simply, walking towards the bureau and picking up his hat “Because he wasn’t means that he got out, that he’s somewhere out there on his own and may be in need of our help.”
“Ain’t that jest what I said?” Hoss cried, a momentary hope bringing joy into his words.
Joe opened his mouth but Ben held up a hand “No what if’s, Joseph. We’re going to find your brother dead or alive, even if – if it kills me in doing so.”
There was little point in arguing or making further comment. Hop Sing was summoned to
prepare food for them, something to sustain them during the hours of searching that they knew were to come. As they reached for their gun belts, their jackets and hats there came the sound of wheels and a horse entering the yard and each of them felt an exasperation, frustration, at the thought of their search being delayed. It was as though suddenly minutes wasted were as precious as hours.
The thuds on the door struck over loud in the silent room, and with a glare of annoyance Ben threw open the door “Hogan!” he exclaimed impatiently.
“S’right!” Hogan replied, pulling off his hat and clapping it against his chest as though it would act as some kind of buckler to fend off any angry word.
“This isn’t quite the right time, Hogan. I’ve -.”
“I’ve brung you someone.” Hogan said simply, indicating his wagon “Thought to bring him right home as fast as I could.”
Hoss was already running towards the tailgate of the wagon, his face alight with smiles, which faded when he saw his brother sprawled out upon Hogans sacks of groceries.
“Adam?” he whispered .
Joe skidded to a halt, looked at Hoss and then looked down at Adam and grimaced, then he looked at Ben who was walking hurridly towards them, for some reason, the power to run had seeped from his limbs.
“I dun told one of yer men to go fetch Dr Paul,” Hogan said quietly, twisting his hat round and round in his hands.
“You did the right thing. Thanks, Mr Hogan.” Hoss muttered, as he pulled out the pins to release the tailgate and to reach towards his brother.
“I’ll come by another time, to see how he is,” Hogan said, as he watched the three men bear their precious burden back into the house.
He was not offended when the door closed on him without any reply, and thick skinned and ignorant though he was, his heart was soft enough to compel him to pray for the family that he left behind as his wagon disappeared out of the Ponderosa yard.
It was Hoss who placed his brother gently down upon the settee and Ben who sent Hop Sing hurrying away to see to bandages and warm water with which to bathe the bloodied face. Now they crowded around him, seeing for themselves the wet clothes, the ripped skin of his hands and the dirt and blood stained features. Ben took one hand in his own while his dark eyes devoured the sight of his beloved first born,
“Adam? Can you hear me, son?”
The silence and stillness of the body made each one of them fear the worse but it was Joe who whispered the words “Is he dead, pa?”
Hoss shook his head, a shiver ran down his spine “He ain’t, is he, pa? He cain’t be -.”
They stared down at the blood stained face, and gently Ben raised the torn, bleeding hand and held it close to his chest, willing his son to feel the love that was contained in the vessel that beat thunderously loud in his own ear drums.
“He’s cold. Hoss, get a quilt” he said brusquely.
Hoss pulled out a quilt from the cupboard near the door and brought it to his brother, carefully and gently covering him with it. Joe stoked up the fire, both moved as quietly as possible. Hop Sing now appeared with towels and hot water and with a look of fierce determination on his face began to gently clean the young mans face and around his wounds.
“Mister Adam he get bettah quick … I put good herbs in water … make wounds bettah quick” he muttered, and very carefully took hold of Adams hand and began to clean it.
“Why doesn’t he wake up?” Joe asked impatiently.
“Because he’s exhausted,” Ben said, resting a gentle hand on his youngest sons shoulder. He turned away and put a hand to his face and closed his eyes, “Why didn’t I know that he needed help. I should have been there,” he groaned.
“You couldn’t help it, Pa.” Hoss said, placing his huge hands over those of his fathers “You told Adam to take a few days off. You weren’t to know he’d come back early.”
“And no one knew the location of that mine, if you could call it a mine.” Joe added .
“You can’t blame yourself, Pa.” Hoss murmured softly.
Ben looked at them both and wondered how long it would be before they too, would feel this responsibility of blood. This love of father and son, this bond that makes a man subject to the greatest burdens of all, of wanting to protect, cherish, and always be there, and never forgiving oneself when one is not!
Adam stirred slightly and opened his eyes. For a second or two his eyes stayed focused on the ceiling above his head, as though expecting to see once again the thousand threads of that web that cracked and splintered and brought down death. Then he turned his head and saw Hop Sing who smiled at him with the beauty of devotion and care ,
“Hop Sing? Am I home?” he whispered in the hoarse voice of one who had long ago exceeded his strength.
“You home, Mistah Adam…you velly much at home and safe …” Hop Sing said, with his sloe dark eyes moist with tears.
Adam closed his eyes again, and sighed a deep sigh and drifted away into sleep, content in knowing that at last he was safe and no longer alone!
Other Stories by this Author
- Lassiter (by Krystyna)
- Forgiveness (by Krystyna)
- Trouble ….again! (by Krystyna)
- Winter (by Krystyna)
- And Afterwards (by Krystyna)