No matter how much time Buck spent in the white world, the wastefulness of its inhabitants never failed to astound him.
The rough-hewn chamber in which he stood was littered with debris. Bending, Buck carefully extracted a pickaxe from the spill of rock that balanced precariously against one wall of the shadowed room. The tool was chipped, its sharp edges worn smooth from constant use, yet its damage was not so great that it couldn’t have been repaired. Shaking his head, he replaced the item, making a mental note to return with a wheelbarrow to gather all the salvageable items he was finding in his exploration. This chamber, after all, was only one of several dozen that honeycombed throughout the abandoned mine, each interconnecting room leading lower and lower into the depths of the earth. He believed firmly in the “waste not, want not” philosophy - an aftereffect of his Kiowa upbringing that he was proud to embrace. As soon as he cleared out the mine, he’d seal the entrance. Once children came along, he couldn’t risk one of them wandering into the shafts and being injured.
Children. Buck stood, staring at the bare rock walls of the inner chamber but no longer seeing them, lost in a vision of the future that he had never truly believed he would be able to create. A home, maybe with a white picket fence and an explosion of flowers in a garden bed out front. He closed his eyes, seeing the riot of colour that would brighten their lives. A wife, equally at home with horses or at the hearth, eager to share in every aspect of his life. And someday… someday soon… children to scamper at their feet, small happy faces shining with love and joy.
Running his hand through his hair, Buck opened his eyes and let out a shaky sigh. Standing alone, with only the flickering light of the oil lamp to cast back the capering darkness, it was easy to doubt that his dreams were about to genuinely become reality. Memories of years of scorn from the townspeople were hard to forget. Yet he only had to look into the eyes of the woman he loved to know that his loneliness would soon be at an end. He would have a homestead, a wife, a life. Buck had a newfound belief in happy endings.
Catching up the handle of the oil lamp, Buck made his way to the next chamber with a lighter heart.
Three things happened simultaneously. William Tompkins dropped his candle, barked his knee on an outcropping of rock, and let forth with a string of profanities that would make a sailor blush.
Hobbling to the nearest pile of rock-strewn rubble in the dim cavern, Tompkins rested his ample behind against the decrepit carcass of an ore cart, tensing as the rocks upon which it lay shifted uneasily. He held his breath, easing only when the rumble of the rocks ceased, before leaning forward to slide his pant leg over his knee. Trickles of blood dribbled down his skin, pooling in the rips in his long-johns. The pain of the scrapes flickered only briefly, far outweighed by the emotional distress of the cost of replacing both long-johns and trousers. For not only were his undergarments in ribbons, but there was also a hole in his trouser knee as big as a silver dollar. The irony was not lost on him. Tompkins fumed. More of his money wasted, and all because of the danged Express riders!
Tompkins shook his head, lowering his trouser leg slowly and wincing as the material brushed against the gash. They weren’t Express riders any more, he realized. In fact, a couple of them had actually made something of themselves, though he’d never have believed that was possible the first time he met them. What a sight they’d been, still wet behind the ears yet swaggering into his store full of the bravado of youth. He had fully expected Cody, for one, to fall flat on his face, though even THAT probably wouldn’t have wiped the smug and cocky expression from it! Instead, Cody had published a couple of stories in “True Tales of the West” - stories that Tompkins had to admit were well written and polished - and the boy had even joined up to serve his country in the War Between the States. After Lou confessed her “hidden identity” - Tompkins guffawed at that memory, the laugh sounding very loud in the enclosed space - she and Kid had married. Lou’s clothing and fabric store was doing a bang-up business, so much so that Tompkins was almost envious of the money she was bringing in. Heck, he reconsidered, there was no “almost” about it.
Easing himself to his feet, Tompkins’ thoughts turned to the half-breed. Even Buck Cross was making something of himself these days. As Rock Creek’s new marshal, Buck was doing a good job of keeping the miscreants in line and the town safe. Much as Tompkins hated to admit it, he was forced to agree that Teaspoon had made the right choice in giving the badge to Buck. And now the town’s gossip grapevine was swirling with the news that the half-breed was interested in purchasing property. Property that just happened to include this abandoned mine.
Tompkins did not consider himself a fool. There was only one reason that the boy could want to buy this property - there was obviously silver still left in its forsaken veins. Tompkins intended to find it, and claim it before the half-breed knew what hit him.
Muscles protesting against use that they hadn’t seen in years, Tompkins inched forward, shuffling his feet like a palsied old man. Eyes searching the murkiness for the stub of his candle, he grimaced as his feet came into contact with a standing pool of dark, fetid water. The liquid, disturbed from its motionless rest after so long, released its dank breath into the air. Tompkins struggled against the sickly smell. Gasping for air and cursing the loss of his new shoes in addition to his trousers and long-johns, Tompkins stumbled towards the chamber opening he remembered glimpsing momentarily before his luck turned sour.
Buck had a routine going.
In each chamber he searched, he gathered the flotsam left behind years before by the crew of miners. So far, he’d collected enough equipment to outfit a decent tool chest. Hammers, axes and shovels were only a few of the items he’d come across - each one rusted or damaged in some way, but mendable with some time and effort. His exploration had also yielded miners helmets, bits and pieces of track that had once carried ore carts laden with precious metal, scraps of cloth that crumbled at his touch, and even a large fragment of finger bone. Though curious by nature, Buck didn’t want to speculate about that particular find. He only hoped that the owner went on to live a long and prosperous, though fingerless, life.
As a result of his exertions, Buck was liberally coated in grime and certain that he smelled worse than an open outhouse on a sizzling sunny day. But he believed it was worth it. He had accomplished much in a short span of time. One final trip, wheelbarrow in tow, would enable him to lug all the scavenged items outside. Then he could set about placing his official offer to buy the land.
Buck’s stomach clenched at the thought, but by now the feeling was familiar… a mix of nervous anticipation and anxious dread. Logically, he knew that both the land office and the bank would be eager to have his business. He hadn’t spent much of the money earned from his days with the Express, and he knew they’d consider him a “good investment.” The bank manager had already practically told him that the land was his, hence Buck’s desire to begin the clean-up process immediately. Still, there was always that worm of fear left over from his early days in Rock Creek… fear that in the end, the bank manager would see him only as the Kiowa half-breed, and not the successful man he had become.
A mournful sound drew Buck out of his reverie, making him glance around uneasily. It was the third time such a cry had disturbed the quiet of the caverns, and each time it occurred, the hairs on the back of his neck rose in silent distress. It was not beyond the realm of possibility for there to have been deaths in these shafts - miners lost in the endless caverns, begging for help that never came, trapped in an endless sea of night.
“Stop it,” he muttered to himself, almost ashamed at where his thoughts had headed. “It’s the beams shifting, and you know it.” Buck glanced at the wooden beam bracing the ceiling at the far end of the chamber, as if staring at the warped joist could prove the truth of his words. As he picked up the oil lamp and began the trek to the surface, he told himself that he merely wanted to have plenty of time to bathe and change before he paid court that evening. His earlier than planned departure had nothing to do with images of emaciated miners dragging their lifeless bodies through the shafts, arms outstretched in search of a lone explorer. No, nothing like that at all.
Tompkins drew his hat wearily over his sweat-drenched forehead, leaning against a wooden beam and breathing heavily. He’d lost track of how many barren chambers he’d investigated, but he already knew that whatever the total was, it was one too many. There was nothing there. No silver, no gold, not a thread of any ore worth mining. He’d wasted a perfectly good Saturday afternoon that he could have spent making money in the mercantile. He’d had to pay an assistant to take over the counter duties for the day. AND he’d ruined almost an entire set of clothes to boot! Tompkins was tired, but he wouldn’t be tired forever - and when he saw Buck Cross, there was going to be hell to pay!
Pushing off from the support beam, Tompkins headed towards the exit that he hoped led towards the surface before stopping suddenly. The noises that he’d come to correlate with the settling noises of an old house had increased the further into the mine he’d traveled, but… Tompkins cocked his head, moving forward a few steps as he listened. The new sound came from the chamber just ahead, and it was… Tompkins strained… a voice!
Breath he didn’t know he’d been holding released from his mouth in a shaking laugh. Somehow, it made him feel better to know that he wasn’t the only one to be taken in by Buck’s sudden interest in a remote piece of land. Wondering who the other sucker was, Tompkins started forward to the next chamber, anxious to commiserate with another poor soul.
“Hey, wait up!” he called out, hoping that the stranger hadn’t lost his light source as he had. He’d taken only a few steps when the “settling noises” became louder, drowning out his footsteps in a rumble of protesting wood and groaning rock. A crack louder than thunder reverberated through the tiny room. Turning, he had time to see the joist on which he’d leaned burst open as though crushed by the fist of an angry god. The chamber was filled with falling rocks and choking dust. The world went black.
Buck maneuvered slowly to his knees, fighting against the nausea that rolled across his stomach like the crash of an angry wave. He blinked, his vision wavering in and out, black spots dancing with white spots to the jig that was playing in his brain. A shaky hand placed at his forehead came away wet and sticky, the crimson tide of blood unseen in the deep blackness that the cavern had become. Buck hesitantly took a shallow breath, wincing sharply at the pain the small movement sent through his chest. Cautiously he played his hand along his chest, mentally calculating the extent of the damage to his body. Two ribs fractured, possibly three, he gauged, but it was the gash on his brow that worried him more. The wound should be freshly bleeding, and the fact that the liquid was viscous told him that he’d been unconscious for more time than he’d have liked.
Not trusting his feet just yet, Buck carefully felt around him. His questing hands felt the same thing at every turn - rocks, rubble and debris covered the area. The oil lamp was lost amongst the debris, and the chamber was black as sin. He should have heeded the moaning cries of the support beams. Railing against his lack of foresight, Buck played over the events just prior to the cave-in, hoping to determine in which direction lay the most likely chance of escape. The beams had groaned, he remembered, and he’d taken up his lamp and headed to the chamber opening, and…
Buck stopped, eyes staring sightlessly. And… he’d heard a cry. A voice, calling out from the next chamber. It had been…
“Tompkins?” Buck raised his voice, drawing in a deep breath despite the pain it sent through his chest. “Tompkins!”
Buck strained to listen, his body tensing as he stretched forward, as though the extra effort would reward him with the results he sought. A delicate music reached his ears, the gentle patter of water dripping slowly along a far wall. Buck had licked his lips prior to calling out again when a second sound reached him. An intake of air, soft as the whisper of a baby’s breath. Wrapping his arm around his injured ribcage, Buck held his other hand in front of him and made his slow and careful way to the source of the noise. Rocks and pebbles shifted under his weight, and with each step Buck feared a renewal of the cave-in that had already done so much damage. Pausing after every few steps to listen anew for the gentle intake of breath, stepping warily over a multitude of unidentifiable pieces of debris, Buck finally reached his destination.
Dropping to his knees, cursing the murkiness of the cavern and the dust that still settled in the air like noxious clouds, Buck ran his hands painstakingly over the prone body of the storekeeper. His cautious probing did little to ease his mind. Tompkins’ lower body was covered in broken shale, and a jagged piece of wood had pierced his thigh. Tompkins groaned as Buck’s ministrations, gentle as they were, pulled him back to consciousness. Wheezing in pain, his hands clawed at the air, seeking purchase in the coal-black bowels of the earth.
Buck reached out quickly, grasping a searching hand and letting Tompkins feel the solidity of human touch. The older man’s hand gripped and squeezed, painfully, holding on the lifeline of humanity as though his very sanity depended on it.
“It’s going to be all right, Tompkins,” Buck said with deliberate slowness. “I’ve got to-”
“Buck? Is that you, boy?”
“It’s me. Listen, we’re going to get out of here, but you’ve got a… your leg is injured. There’s a piece of wood in there, and I’ve got to pull it out. It’s going to hurt like hell, Tompkins, but-”
The voice was little more than the brush of two reeds in a shallow pond, but the determination and plain old-fashioned stubbornness that personified William Tompkins was still more than evident. Buck felt the older man’s body tense and knew the discomfort that the man felt at releasing his hand. Taking a deep breath, Buck placed both hands on the wooden stake and wrenched it from the older man’s body.
Blood poured across Buck’s hands in a sickening flood, washing away layers of dirt in its torrent of release. With a movement that sent his injured ribs thrashing in excruciating pain, Buck ripped his own shirt from his back, his practiced hands able to fashion a tourniquet around the injury even without the benefit of sight. Only then did he lean back shakily, giving in to the waves of nausea and misery that wracked his body.
Buck’s head jerked, eyes fluttering open in confusion and head feeling like an overripe melon.
“Yeah,” he mumbled around a tongue that felt about three sizes too big.
“You passed out, boy. I been tryin’ to wake you for a good five minutes.”
“Only been five since I come to myself.”
Buck’s lips turned up. He wouldn’t quite call it a smile, but heck, any admission from Tompkins that he wasn’t infallible was worth something.
“I’m thinkin’ that we ought to try to move out o’ this room,” Tompkins continued. “I don’t like the sound o’ them beams…. What’s left of ‘em, anyway.”
Buck struggled to listen, to think, to plan. “You think you can walk on that leg?”
“I’ll walk to hell and back, boy.”
“Then let’s go. And don’t call me ‘boy’.”
With much trial and error, the two men got to their feet, clutching to each other like drowning men. Stumbling, cursing the darkness and fate itself, they made their methodical way across the rubble-strewn cavern.
Ike leaned against the post outside the bunkhouse, trying not to panic. It wasn’t like Buck to be this late.
Oh, he knew the others had their own thoughts on the subject. But none of them knew Buck like he did. He knew how much Buck had been looking forward to their little “reunion” in Rock Creek. Cody had taken a short leave from his army scouting duties. Noah and Cassie had come all the way from Cedar Springs. And even Jimmy had put aside his wandering ways to reunite with his old Express friends. It had been two years since they’d all been together again.
Noah and Cassie had taken a room in town, and Kid and Lou had stayed in their little apartment at the back of the dress shop. But the others… they had cleared out the old bunkhouse and moved in like it was old times, right down to Cody’s voracious appetite, Jimmy’s bad temper and Rachel stopping by to beat them all at poker. They had talked through the night, retelling tales of their younger days with only a little exaggeration, and laughed ‘til their sides were about to split.
Buck was looking forward to this reunion as much as he was. He wouldn’t be late.
“Still worried about Buck?”
Rachel’s soft question drew him out of his reverie. While he’d stood on the porch, the sun had drifted across the sky to vanish in golden glory. Shadows crept along the boardwalk, and here and there lovers snuggled and touched, drawing comfort in each other from the oncoming night.
“He should be back by now.”
Rachel drew her shawl more firmly over her shoulders against the crisp evening air. “Well now Ike, things have changed-”
“I know that, Rachel!”
“Could be that Buck just lost track of time.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
“I don’t know, Ike. With the right company, it’s mighty easy to lose track of pretty much everything.”
Ike’s eyes widened, and Rachel grinned. “You don’t think you’re the only one that knows what Buck’s been up to these past few months, do you?”
“He... he TOLD you?”
“No. But I’ve been taking care of you boys for enough time to know when one of you is sparkin’ a pretty girl. And it don’t take a genius to figure out who that girl is.” Rachel held up her hands. “No, don’t worry, I ain’t going to say. I don’t want you to break a confidence. I’m just sayin’ that there’s a very legitimate reason why Buck might decide to spend the night in town tonight, and long blonde hair and pretty blue eyes will win out over old friends any day of the week.”
Rachel held out her arm, and after a moment, Ike linked his own arm through hers. “Come on inside,” Rachel smiled, “and let me win some of your hard earned money.”
Letting her lead him into the crowded bunkhouse, Ike cast one last look back at the moonlit street.
It wasn’t like Buck to be this late.
Buck eased carefully to the ground, his back brushing the damp earthen wall against which he and Tompkins had decided to huddle.
He’d completed two circuits of the room in which they were trapped.
Trapped. He didn’t like the word, but he’d been forced to admit that it fit their situation just about perfectly. They were trapped as completely as the wolf in the hunter’s snare, and they had just as little chance of escape.
Buck let his hand graze across the clay at his back, and closed his eyes. So close! They were still deep in the inner recesses of the mine, but the existence of the earthen wall proved that they were in a chamber along its outer rim. There could be five, six, even seven chambers between them and freedom - yet the outside world was right beyond the clay wall. He sighed. Not that it made any difference one way or the other. The chamber opening was completely blocked by rubble, and nothing less than a dozen men working non-stop would clear it in less than a week. And even IF he and Tompkins got it cleared out… then what? The same situation would exist in the next room, and the next, and the next.
“Could we dig our way through the wall?”
Buck wearily opened his eyes, regarding Tompkins in the dim candlelight. At least they’d been able to combine forces in one way, he thought. His stub of a candle, tucked in his trouser pocket, and Tompkins’ matches. It had made his search of the room easier, and harder at the same time. With the candle to guide his progress, he didn’t have to shuffle through the chamber like a drunken man. Yet the simple illumination also served to highlight the desperation of their situation. Without its flickering rays, he might have been able to fool himself that the chamber wasn’t as blocked as he thought.
He shook his head. “With what?”
“Rocks. Our hands.”
Buck closed his eyes.
“Hell, our teeth if we have to!”
Buck jerked as Tompkins’ hand roughly grabbed his arm. His eyes flew open as pain raced through his chest like a prairie wildfire.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you, boy!”
“I ain’t no boy!” Buck pulled his arm away, eyes blazing. “You want to try to dig through that wall? Be my guest! This is clay, Tompkins, and it’s laced with shale. You try digging through that with your hands, all you’re goin’ to end up with is fingers that look like summer sausages. Oh, and if that ain’t enough for you, how about this? We got nothing to shore up the sides of the wall as we dig. Even if we could get through it, the whole thing would collapse in on us within ten feet! I don’t know about you, Tompkins, but being buried under a ton of rock is bad enough. I’m not real eager to see what it’s like under a mountain of dirt!”
“I don’t see you comin’ up with no better ideas, BOY!”
“I swear, Tompkins, you call me that one more time and-”
“Listen.” Tompkins held up a hand, the anger fading instantly from his eyes. “You hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything,” Buck began stubbornly. But then he did. Far off, crying in the distance. The moan of wooden beams struggling to hold weight that they could no longer endure.
Tompkins swallowed, a desperate gulp of air, before turning a pale face to his companion. “It ain’t over yet, is it?”
Buck’s mouth was dry as the desert after a sandstorm. “Maybe we ought to conserve the candle.”
Without a word, Tompkins snuffed the fragile light with his fingers. In darkness that was suddenly a blessing, neither man could see the other. Neither man would see if tears were shed.
Lou’s hand snaked out to Kid’s, her slender fingers entwining in his, drawing reassurance from his touch though she couldn’t tear her gaze from the ruin.
She didn’t remember dismounting from her horse. She didn’t remember taking the first steps towards the rubble that had once been the mouth of the cave. She didn’t remember drawing her gun, its solid weight in her hand a useless comfort. For this was something that could not be fought with cool metal or daring bravado.
This was devastation, complete and total.
Shock and loss reverberated silently through the clearing. She didn’t wonder at it. The seven riders had long ago merged into a unit, their emotions and feelings as clear to her as though they were part of her. When she could drag her eyes from the wreckage, she knew the horror she felt would be mirrored in the eyes of her husband and her “brothers.” Though it lasted only moments, it seemed that time stopped as they stood, motionless and wracked by guilt.
Feeling as though she were moving underwater, Lou turned her head to Ike. The bald rider had fallen to his knees in the dry brush, his face twisted with inner torment. The look of profound anguish on his face caused her stomach to knot in renewed self-reproach.
Why hadn’t they listened to him? Why hadn’t she listened to him? But no, they had brushed off his fears. They had laughed and told him that Buck was a grown man who could take care of himself. They had teased him for being too protective of his friend. Even this morning, when Buck still had not returned, they had assured Ike that Buck had simply been too busy sampling the pleasures of his mysterious lady love to check in with his friends. It had taken Barnett wandering over to the bunkhouse, wondering why Buck hadn’t arrived for his shift at the marshal’s office, to make them understand that he was really missing. Truly missing.
And now… now he’d likely been trapped in that cave-in for over twelve hours.
Lou felt the tears begin to build and pulled her hand from Kid’s grip, brushing at her face angrily. She would not cry. She would not allow it. What she would do… is save him.
“We’ve got to clear that opening.”
Jimmy’s voice, raspy with repressed tears of his own, broke the spell that they’d been under. The former riders moved as one, immediately forming their own version of a bucket brigade. But instead of handing over water pails to douse a raging fire, they exchanged rocks. Instructions were barked out, yet she didn’t know who was speaking. Stones, some as large as she was around, were passed into her outstretched arms, and she didn’t know who passed them. The world had dwindled down to the movement of her body and the weight of the rocks that stood between her and Buck.
Lou blinked at the sweat running down her face in dusty rivulets, only gradually becoming aware that Ike was standing in front of her. Had likely been standing in front of her for some time. His hands stabbed the air in his frustration.
“This isn’t going to work!”
Lou gritted her teeth. “Don’t say that, Ike. It HAS to work!”
Ike shook his head, his eyes eloquently expressing what his lips could not.
Silence once again reigned in the small clearing as the men turned, their attention fixated now on Ike and Lou.
Ike’s hands raised in a desperate gesture. “There’s too much! The mine leads down… we could have a mile of rock to dig-”
“I don’t want to hear that!” Jimmy’s anger rode on the wind. “It’s not goin’ to be blocked that bad and we ARE goin’ to get them out. You hear me, Ike?”
“You wantin’ it so don’t make it so, Jimmy!”
“Cody, you just shut your mouth!”
“This ain’t doin’ Buck any good!” Lou’s voice rose above the sudden tumult. Forcing herself to remain calm, she placed her hands on Ike’s cheeks, turning his face to hers. “We got to believe we’re goin’ to get him out, Ike.”
Ike shook his head.
“I don’t believe this!” Jimmy cursed bitterly, clenching his black-gloved hands. “You got a better idea, Ike? We’d love to hear it!”
Ike slowly lifted his head, his gaze meeting not Jimmy’s merciless stare but Lou’s cool and compassionate eyes. Lou stared back, uncomprehending at first. Then she recognized the look that sparked in Ike’s face. Hope. It was hope.
Ike stepped away in an instant, his hands flying through the air too fast for any of them to follow. Finally, he simply grabbed Lou’s hand in his own, and pulled. There was a moment of hesitation… a moment of believing that Buck’s only chance of rescue lay in clearing the rubble that covered the cave opening. A moment of believing that to follow Ike would mean the death of Buck. Then she gave in to the lure of hope in Ike’s eyes and fled with him, abandoning herself to his faith.
“You see?” Ike struggled to keep his movements smooth, trying not to allow his agitation to overwhelm him. No one could understand him when he signed too fast. No one, he amended silently, except Buck. The thought of his friend trapped in stifling darkness, perhaps injured, perhaps… NO! He would not allow himself to think it. Buck was not dead. Buck was not dead. And now, they actually had a way to get him out. They would save him. Because if they didn’t, he would never forgive himself.
“All right,” Noah said patiently. “Let me test my understanding. The mine borders the stream.” He indicated the bubbling flow at their backs. The soothing murmur of the water flowing over the pebbles was a soothing counterpoint to the tension that rang through the air. “You think that some of the mine shafts have earth walls?”
Ike nodded. “I know they do!”
“Wait a minute,” Kid interrupted. “You’ve been inside?”
Ike dipped his head, hating to squelch the sudden eagerness that not only lit up Kid’s face, but which he saw reflected in the eyes of his friends. His fingers moved haltingly. “No. But it HAS to. Look at the way it’s set up!” He let his gaze linger on the faces of each of them, letting every ounce of faith he had fill his countenance. “It has to!”
Jimmy took a step forward, and Ike’s chin lifted stubbornly.
“I believe it,” Jimmy said.
Ike’s mouth dropped open in disbelief.
“It’s a better idea than tryin’ to sift through a mountain of rock. And it does make sense. Heck, it’s the best idea we’ve had so far.” Jimmy squinted as he took in the sloping ground, dotted here and there with patches of scrubgrass. He looked at Ike solemnly. “Any thoughts on how we dig through?”
“There’s all kinds of shovels back at the station!” Lou started towards the horses, face alight. “We can just-”
“Shovels ain’t goin’ to work, Lou,” Noah interrupted. “We’d get down a few feet and the whole thing would cave in on us!”
Kid looked thoughtful. “But… but if we got somethin’ to shore up the sides as we dig-”
Cody shook his head. “Think about how long it took us to dig that danged artisan well for Teaspoon! We’d have a better chance of diggin’ through to China before we’d get through to Buck!”
Ike closed his eyes, letting the debate flow around him. Kneeling, he let his knuckles drag across the dusty ground. Pressing his palm flat, he opened his mind, trying to tune out the sounds around him. Tiny pebbles pressed into his skin, their pinpoint edges digging into his palm. The sun had warmed the earth, its heat soothing both his tired body and his restless mind. He let his thoughts drift as Buck had taught him to do. He became one with the earth, the sun, the trees. And he prayed… not with words, but with his heart and soul.
He didn’t know how long he knelt, a silent presence, unheeding of the voices around him. But when he opened his eyes, he knew what they had to do.
“You smell somethin’ funny, boy?”
“Not a boy,” Buck mumbled, the reply coming automatically but without any real rancor. In the last few hours, realizing that their situation was all but hopeless, it had suddenly seemed pointless to sweat the small stuff.
Buck shifted his position, the small movement sending a sharp pain through his chest. He now knew that he’d been wrong about his analysis of his ribs. The nature of the pain proved that he’d punctured a lung. It didn’t matter. None of it much mattered anymore.
They were going to die.
“It’s the air, ain’t it?” Tompkins said, his voice rasping. “We’re losing air.”
Before Buck could answer, more rumblings filled the mine, the bellows of a great beast loose within its walls. But this beast was another cave-in, and its mammoth jaws crushed rock like it was candy.
“That one was closer.”
Buck shrugged in agreement, not sure if Tompkins could see it in the flickering light of the candle and not caring either way. The storekeeper was right. His mouth crinkled into a wry smile. He felt a laugh building in his chest and knew that to free it would be his undoing. He would laugh until he cried. Laugh until he screamed. Laugh until he lost his mind.
“What’s so funny, boy?”
“Just trying to decide which I would prefer. Suffocation, or being squashed under rocks. The rocks would hurt more-”
“-but at least it’d be over with. On the other hand-”
“-suffocation has its advantages. We’d-”
Buck closed his eyes, trying to ignore the ache that was now constant in his chest. He licked his dry lips, though the spittle from his mouth was all but used up. Instead of the parched wasteland he expected, his tongue tasted moisture.
He squinted his eyes shut. He didn’t want to look. He didn’t want to know.
Raising a shaking hand, he dabbed at the corner of his mouth. The moisture clung there, dampening his finger. Its coppery scent tingled at his nose. He didn’t want to know. Buck opened his eyes, already knowing what he’d find.
The blood seemed to sparkle. Crimson fluid, dancing on the tip of his finger. Mocking him.
“Buck, is that-”
“It appears,” the tremble in Buck’s voice gave away his fear, despite his attempts to quell it, “that I’ve been given a third option.”
Buck met Tompkins’ eyes. The older man seemed to be at a loss for words, and again Buck’s mouth upturned. Odd to find humour in their situation, but he did. It was, after all, the first time he’d ever seen Tompkins tongue-tied. It was a day for firsts.
Tompkins frowned at his reaction. “I think the lack of air is making you loco.”
Though he fought it, Buck’s grin got wider. “Great. A FOURTH option.”
Tompkins threw his hands up in the air. “I give up!” Though he tried to make his voice sound gruff as usual, he couldn’t quite manage it. He finally gave in and smiled, shaking his head.
Settling back against a spill of rock, Tompkins eyed Buck curiously. “So, I know why I’m here. Why are you here?”
Talk, that was the ticket. Keep his mind - both their minds - off the inevitable. And it was another first. A moment of camaraderie with Tompkins. First and LAST, but wasn’t the point of conversation not to dwell on that? He eased back, smudging the blood on his trousers. “You first.”
“Heck bo-Buck,” he amended, “I thought I was goin’ to be rich!”
“Rich?” Buck choked back a laugh, coughing on the bitter metallic taste of blood at the back of his throat. He was absurdly grateful that the storekeeper made no mention of the spasm, but merely waited for the outburst to pass before continuing.
“I figured there must be some reason why you wanted this mine. Had to be silver. Gold. Somethin’. But there’s nothin’, is there, Buck?”
“I was hoping to find something. I had this vision…” Tompkins looked up, suddenly seeming to remember that he had an audience. “Awww, it’s stupid.”
“What vision, Tompkins?” Buck asked softly.
For a long moment, Tompkins face was set in hard lines. He wore his weariness and cynicism like a cloak. Then his mouth quirked, and he grinned. The action took years off his age, making him look almost spry despite the layers of dirt and grime that caked him like a second skin.
“You ever hear the story of Princess Evangeline?”
Buck shook his head.
“Way back in the olden times, in the lands of dragons. She was a beautiful princess, o’ course. What princess wasn’t beautiful in them stories? And she was pledged to marry a handsome fair-haired prince from a distant land. Her pa wanted her to marry this prince, ya see, so’s they could join their lands. But Princess Evangeline fell in love with a dark-haired minstrel; didn’t have a penny to his name! She knew her pa wouldn’t approve, so she and this boy snuck around behind his back.”
Tompkins stopped as another rumble filled the caverns, his eyes widening with fear and his mouth abruptly gone dry.
Buck leaned forward. “How did it end?”
“Huh? Oh. Eventually he came ‘round to Evangeline’s way o’ thinkin’. He let her marry the fella with no money. And at her weddin’, see, he gave her a sparkling pendant made o’ silver. The last o’ the silver on his land. And he knew that every time she looked at that pendant, she’d remember how much he loved her.” Tompkins looked away. “It was Jenny’s favourite story when she was a little girl.”
“And… I had this stupid idea that… if I could find silver here… I could make a pendant for my little girl. I could make it and give it to her on her weddin’ day, and she’d know how much I love her.”
Tompkins stared defiantly at Buck, as if daring him to laugh.
Buck leaned forward, not trying to hide the surprise and wonderment in his eyes. Another first. Tompkins reveals he has a heart. He rested a hand gently on Tompkins’ arm. “It was a beautiful thought.”
Tompkins eyes lit up briefly with gratitude. “Yeah well,” the older man muttered, pushing away Buck’s hand. But gently. He pushed gently, and Buck noticed. “All right, so you know why I’m here. What about you, Buck? What are you doin’ in this godforsaken mine?”
“I wanted to buy it.”
“Well heck, I know that! What I don’t know is why! Crumbling piece o’ dirt!”
Buck grinned. “I’m - I was - going to start a homestead out here. A little house, a corral with some horses, maybe some chickens.” He took a shallow breath, afraid more of what he was going to say next than of the stabbing pain in his chest. But Tompkins deserved to know. The man who wanted to make his daughter a silver pendant for her wedding deserved to know. “I was going to get married.”
Tompkins face registered his surprise. “Married?”
“Yes.” Buck’s throat worked convulsively. “To Jenny.”
He expected outrage. Shock. Fury. What he got was a blank stare. “Tompkins?”
The storekeeper blinked. “Jenny? MY Jenny?”
Buck swallowed. Option Number Five on the “ways to die” list made an appearance. Because once the shock wore off, there was a very likely possibility that Tompkins was going to throttle him.
“I know she deserves more,” Buck said softly. “I know she… she deserves the handsome prince. But I love her, Tompkins. I love her. And I’m sorry. More sorry than you know.”
“Sorry that me wanting this land got us trapped in here. Sorry that she’s not going to get her wedding and her silver pendant. Sorry for all of it.”
Buck bowed his head, holding back the tears that wanted to flow. His chest ached with the effort. His throat burned with the thick coppery taste of blood. He hid in the shadow of his hair and waited for Tompkins to strike - if not with fists, then with words.
He tensed as Tompkins’ hand came down on his shoulder. The hand flexed, then gripped his arm gently. Slowly, he raised his face to find Tompkins smiling down at him kindly.
“I’d have been proud to have you as a son-in-law, boy.”
Buck glared in mock-anger. “I’m not a boy.”
Tompkins’ grin widened. “I know.”
Ike tensed, his shoulders and back straining with effort. It wasn’t only the weight of the tree trunk, hung partially suspended above the slope, which caused his muscles to tremble. Every moment, every second that they laboured, he knew, was another moment that Buck remained trapped and helpless.
“We need more water!” Jimmy barked out. Ike was dimly aware of Lou scrambling up the slope, almost unrecognizable under a liberal coating of dirt and mud, to fetch two more buckets from the stream.
At the signal from Kid, the former riders heaved together, edging the tree trunk back from the hillside. When Kid’s hand came down, they released their holds in unison. The freed trunk swung loose like a battering ram, slamming with force into the slope and burying itself deep within the well-moistened walls of the hill. As they’d done countless times already, Ike and the others clambered down the narrow passage carved by the trunk. Stepping carefully on the rough boards they’d used to shore up the sides of the passage, they scooped handfuls of sodden earth aside. Finally, they retied the massive trunk to the ropes leading to their horses, easing the trunk free of the constricted channel. Then they’d do it all over again. And again. And again. They’d repeat the process as many times as it took for the force of the tree trunk to penetrate one of the mine’s distant chambers.
Ike stepped aside, pulling his bandana from his head and using it to mop at his sweat-soaked brow. Despite his exhaustion and worry, he felt his chest swell with pride. They were working as a unit, more in harmony than any of them had been since leaving the Express. Kid and Jimmy worked side by side, laying down more boards against the walls of freshly revealed clay. Lou made her way back to the brook, filling more canteens. When she was done, he would make his own way down the slope, soaking the ground in preparation for the next assault, while Cody and Noah readjusted the ropes on the horses. Not even the animals protested the treatment. Even they seemed to know what was at stake.
Cool metal pressed against Ike’s palms. He shook himself. He’d done it again. He’d drifted, letting his worries about their activities overwhelm him. Fear and concern crawled like a worm through his gut, gnawing at him no matter what he did.
Because this was his plan. And if it failed, his best friend was dead.
Ike’s finger clenched at the handles of the buckets, relishing the feel of the solid metal under his flesh. When his eyes met Lou’s, they were clear. They would do this. They would do this if it killed him. He would not let the others see his weakness, his fear.
With determined steps, Ike eased his way down the passage. They would do this. HE would do this.
William Tompkins stretched out a leg, coaxing the tired limb to co-operate. His thigh pulsed with pain, the rhythm of his blood beating behind his aching flesh like a trapped bird. Moving cautiously, he removed the bandage that Buck had wrapped around his thigh. It seemed like ages ago that the Indian had found him, trapped and bleeding. Time meant nothing when incarcerated in endless night.
Blood had seeped from the wound, soaking into the fabric that had once been Buck’s linen shirt. But there was less of the crimson fluid than he expected. The tourniquet had done its job. He’d have a scar, but otherwise the injury would heal. It wasn’t like he was flashing his gams to anybody these days anyway.
Tompkins felt his lips turn in a rueful smile, and didn’t fight it. A scar. The air was now so thin that each breath was a struggle. He could feel his lungs striving to take in the needed oxygen, then crying out when they were denied. His head spun, multicoloured lights replacing the dull grey rock of his prison. He was dying, and he was wondering about a scar!
Tossing the ragged shirt aside, Tompkins squinted in the dim light. Their candle was all but burnt out, little more than a puddle of tallow and wax. Every jagged outline of rock and shale seemed to stand out in stark relief, yet he didn’t want to close his eyes. He knew, deep inside, that if he let his guard down, death would creep upon him. He wasn’t about to go without a fight. Forcing his body to move, Tompkins turned to his companion. Buck’s eyes were closed in sleep. The young Kiowa had used his own shirt to bind Tompkins’ leg wound, and Tompkins had returned the favour by ripping his own expensive shirt to ribbons. It now wound around Buck’s chest, helping to hold his injured ribs in place. Tompkins reached out a shaking hand, hesitantly touching Buck’s chest. For a long moment there was no response, no movement. Tompkins felt his own heart freeze. Then the dark body moved underneath his hand, as Buck drew in a shallow breath. Tompkins matched it with a laboured sigh of his own. The boy lived.
Settling back again, Tompkins let his gaze drift around the chamber. His burial chamber, his mind insisted, and Tompkins scowled at that inner voice.
He had never been one for regrets. He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. He didn’t care what anyone thought of his actions or his feelings or his behaviour.
But now, after all that he and Buck had shared, he felt regret.
Before the pressure on their lungs had become too much to bear, before lights began dancing in front of their eyes, before the rumblings from deeper in the cavern began to creep closer and closer to their refuge… he and Buck had talked. It was as if a floodgate had opened for them both, spewing forth words instead of water. Listening to Buck talk of his days with the Kiowa and his first tentative forays into the white world had truly opened his eyes, in more ways than one. Through Buck’s unique perspective, he suddenly saw his Jennifer in a new light. Though hesitant at first, Tompkins had finally found the courage to share his own memories. His own feelings. His own fears. Discussing that disastrous wagon trip - of losing his precious wife and daughter - had freed something within his soul. Poetic as all get out, but still true.
So regret now covered him like a shroud. Regret that he would never be able to hold Jenny and tell her that he understood. Regret that he’d never be able to apologize for the hurtful things he’d said or implied to her in the past. And regret that he’d never be able to walk down the streets of Rock Creek arm in arm with Buck Cross, proud to call him friend.
William Tompkins, whose only legacy would be one of hostile words and bitter rancor, blinked back tears.
“Penny for your thoughts.”
Buck’s rasping voice pulled Tompkins from his reverie. Schooling his face into its usual gruff lines, Tompkins scowled. “Just wonderin’ when you was goin’ to stop bein’ such a lazy ass!”
Buck managed a half-hearted grin. “You can’t blame me for sleeping, Tompkins. Got to do something to get away from your foul temper.”
“You’re walkin’ a fine line, boy.”
Buck’s grin widened. “Not a-”
The rumble and crash of falling rock filled the cavern, as a fine spray of dust rained down from the ceiling. Both men turned their faces upward, all other sound obliterated as they listened to the cave-in engulf the room above them. Faces visibly paler, they waited for the ceiling to collapse upon them.
As the sounds dwindled, Tompkins managed to splutter, “Was ‘crushed by rocks’ option number one or option number two?”
Before Buck could answer, the wall above them exploded.
Buck blinked, eyes straining to focus on a world suddenly infused with shades of grey. He struggled to get to his feet, parched lips cursing when his damaged body failed to obey him. He fell back against the damp earthen wall, the contact sending more of the crumbling earth to his shoulders. When one of the clods hit Tompkins on the forehead, the older man also stirred, wincing with pain.
Buck frowned. He could see the expression on Tompkins’ face! Abruptly, he realized that the small corner of the chamber was suffused with gentle light. He closed his eyes in wonderment. Was this the light that he had heard the whites talk about… the beckoning light of heaven? If he were to turn his face to the light, would he be drawn into the spirit world of his ancestors? Would he feel the tenderness of his mother’s embrace; the loving touch of his beloved Song Bird?
Tompkins groaned, and with the noise, comprehension crept in. Part of the wall upon which they leaned had collapsed inward. They were coated with mud. They were alive, and the sun was struggling to pierce a gloom that had never known warmth or light. Buck met the storekeeper’s eyes, and knew the incredulous look he saw on Tompkins face was reflected on his own. For a long moment, the two men simply knelt side by side, enjoying the feel of the cool spring air that managed to waft down the eighty-foot opening. The passage was little more than a foot wide, but the hope it filled within Buck was all encompassing.
Tompkins cocked his head. “Is that…?”
Buck’s voice was barely a whisper. “I think it is.”
Far above the trapped men, the former riders sprawled on the muddy slope, screaming with the ferocity of newborn babes. Their voices blended into one.
“Buck! Buck! Can you hear us? Buck! Are you okay?”
“It’s the boys!” Tompkins screwed up his face. “What are they sayin’?”
Buck looked equally confused. “Something about… iroquois?” He shook his head, the movement sending a jabbing pain through his body. “Tompkins, I don’t… I can’t…”
“I can!” Tompkins struggled to his feet, ignoring the ache that lanced through his thigh and the ominous rumblings of overladen beams from the chambers surrounding them. He took a massive gulp of air before hollering, “We’re down here! We need help NOW!”
“Holy smokes, is that Tompkins?” Cody’s shocked expression matched those of his friends. Then his face crinkled in puzzlement. “Why’s he yellin’ about beer?”
“Don’t matter none!” Jimmy’s voice betrayed his excitement. “We need to get down to ‘em! Kid… maybe if we-”
“They’re goin’ to need water first!” Pushing through the knot of men, Lou crouched at the edge of the tunnel, quickly lowering a canteen threaded through the long rope they had previously used for the tree trunk. Ignoring the discussion on how to release the trapped men that raged around her, she waited patiently. Finally, a tug on the rope told her that the prize had reached its destination. Lou surreptitiously swiped at her cheek, grateful that no-one noticed the way her body demonstrated its relief.
“I still say we got to widen the tunnel!”
“You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Jimmy!” Noah slapped at his thigh, sending up a blanket of coarse dust that coated his white pants. His nose crinkled in disgust.
“Why don’t we just-” Kid began.
Ike slammed into the group, gesturing wildly as he dropped the two saddles he’d taken from the horses onto the muddy ground. His hands moving with ease and grace, he explained his plan. The confused faces of his friends changed swiftly to elation as Ike made himself understood. Moving quickly and communicating more with looks than with words, the former riders fastened a saddle and harness into a hastily-made rig that would support a man’s body. They moved as one to the passage they’d carved through the hillside.
“Buck! Tompkins!” Jimmy shouted. “We’re goin’ to get you out. Just strap yourself in and we’ll haul you up!”
Lowering the hurriedly constructed rig into the tunnel, they waited for the tug that would let them know that one of the trapped men was ready to be lifted to safety. And, each in a different way, they prayed.
“They’re yellin’ somethin’ again,” Tompkins said.
Buck nodded, the simple action taking most of his strength. He could hear the renewed vigor in Tompkins’ voice, but Buck himself seemed to have used up the last of his reserves. The bitter metallic taste of blood coated his throat; the pain in his chest was now dulled and remote; the skin of his flesh was cool and grey. He didn’t have to be a doctor to know what it all meant. Tompkins was suddenly reaching past him, the brush of his body like liquid fire. Buck tried to focus, knowing that he must have passed out. He willed his mind to concentrate. He could do this. He called to mind the face of Jennifer. Jennifer as Eagle Feather, her cornflower hair braided and her feet bare. Jennifer as Jenny, eyes sparkling like a crystal stream. If only he could see her again.
It was only when he felt his body being lifted that he realized he had lost consciousness again. Buck opened his eyes, taking in the harness and saddle that Tompkins was struggling to strap him into. Understanding flooded his senses, even as another crash of rock and rubble sounded in the cavern above.
Using every ounce of strength he possessed, Buck pushed at the older man. The unexpected force staggered Tompkins backwards.
“What the hell do you think you’re doin’, boy?”
Buck pulled himself into a sitting position, hands grappling helplessly at the leather straps that hung from the harness. Glaring, he finally gave up and simply pointed at the storekeeper. “You!”
Tompkins shook his head. “You’re goin’ up first.”
“No!” Gritting his teeth, Buck threw himself forward, clenching at Tompkins’ arm. It was a constant fight to speak, the struggle to form each word a battle that he knew must be won. He coughed, ignoring the blood that dripped from his lips. “No! I’m not going… not going… to make it, T-Tompkins. You know it.” He stared into the older man’s eyes, and saw the confirmation there. “You go f-first.”
He waited for Tompkins to nod his head in affirmation. “Jenny needs you, T-Tompkins. Tell… tell Jenny… I love her. Tell her…” Buck’s eyes fluttered closed.
Tompkins finished tying the straps, making sure each buckle was secure. The reverberations from the other chambers were no longer intermittent. The sounds of crashing rock and ripping earth were continuous. There wasn’t much time left.
“Wouldn’t do no good to get half way up and then come crashin’ back down,” he muttered to himself. He checked Buck’s body one last time, then tugged on the rope.
“Tell her yourself,” he said softly as Buck’s body began its ascent up the tunnel. “Tell her yourself.”
He kept watch as long as he was able. It seemed fitting.
He kept watch until the ceiling collapsed.
“I now pronounce you man and wife.” Teaspoon waited, but the groom didn’t move. He finally nudged the awestruck man. “Buck, that means you can kiss yer bride.”
“Oh.” Grinning sheepishly, oblivious to the cheers of his assembled friends and “family,” Buck melted into Jenny’s embrace. Time stood still as he claimed a prize he believed he’d lost forever.
The auxiliary hall was festooned with enough ribbon to choke a horse, but anyone with more sense than God gave a duck could see that the effect was lost on Buck. He had eyes only for his bride, whose loveliness clearly outshone any mere display of ribbon and lace.
“Jenny? I’ve never seen you look more beautiful.”
The newly married couple turned in unison. Jennifer’s eyes sparkled. “That’s because I’ve never been happier, Father.”
Jenny bent, smoothing her skirt under her knees like her mother had taught her as a little girl. The action sent a pang of regret through Tompkins’ heart. Sally. He would give anything if only she could see her little girl now. Their baby, become a woman before he knew it.
William Tompkins deftly backed up his wheelchair, giving her more room at his side. The danged chair had cost him an arm and a leg, but he was nothing if not determined. He had got the hang of using it quicker than two swishes of a lamb’s tail, if he did say so himself. And he DID say so. Frequently. To anyone who would listen.
Jennifer’s hand touched his cheek, and then drifted to the pendant clasped to the front of her yellow dress. The silver caught the light from the lanterns, seeming to shine with an internal glow of its own. “I can’t thank you enough for this,” she said softly, eyes shining. “It’s gorgeous. Where did you-”
“Oh,” Tompkins interrupted, “never underestimate a father’s stubbornness. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” He glanced at Buck with a wink. “Ain’t that right, boy?”
“I’m not a boy, Tompkins,” Buck laughed. “I’m your son-in-law. Better not forget it.”
Jenny leaned in to kiss Buck’s cheek before returning her attention to her father. She never noticed his hand drift along his bare arm. Long ago, when he’d first joined the Express, he’d once asked Teaspoon to give his Kiowa bracelet to Ike. He had thought he’d be leaving his Express family, and the token that he’d received from Red Bear was the only item he had of any worth to leave to his white brother. But he’d never had to leave, and Ike had returned the bracelet happily.
Buck was glad. It’s silver had found a much better use today.