M7FFA Entry

 

Close Quarters


by Susan Zell


RATINGS/WARNINGS: PG; Hurt/comfort; mild cursing. This story takes place after "Inmate-78" and "The Collector."




JD Dunne burst into the saloon, his face smeared with sweat and dust. It was early morning and the only souls inside were a bleary-eyed bartender and an impassive Chris Larabee. The latter glanced up at the boy's distressed entrance. Something had set the kid on edge. He set his tin coffee cup back meticulously down on the table.

"Chris!" JD shouted, running toward him.

"JD," Chris acknowledged with a little less enthusiasm. The gunslinger's voice remained low in contrast to JD's excited cry.

"We've got trouble! Where are the others?"

"Gone to Landon on business. What trouble?"

"Mrs. Wells said that Casey's been missing since yesterday!"

Chris almost smiled but it was too damn early in the morning. For the last couple of weeks since they met, the two kids had been circling each other like wary predators but whenever one made a move it always turned into an argument. Leave it to some crisis to change the scenario with the unpredictability of a summer storm. Chris kept his voice composed in an attempt to calm the boy. Now was not the time to go and do something rash. "Did something happen out at Nettie's ranch?"

"No, no!" JD was becoming flustered. Casey was in trouble and Chris was playing twenty questions.

Chris silently observed JD's growing impatience but there was little he could do until JD gave him some more details. "Where was she last seen?"

JD fidgeted in front of the passive gunslinger. "Mrs. Wells said Casey was riding up towards Coyote Bluff. But she never came back last night. I know something's happened!"

Chris sighed gently. He hadn't known Casey Wells long but the impression he got was that she had more fire in her than most young boys--not to mention grown men. She seemed likely to get caught up in some adventure and forget about the time. Still a whole evening had gone by and a cold one at that. It could be considered extreme. He stood slowly and gathered his wool coat and hat. "Saddle my horse. I'll tell Mrs. Travis we're heading out."

JD bolted out the door towards the stable. Chris had almost told JD to go look for her on his own. Most likely he'd find the girl camped out on the bluff and who knows, perhaps some quiet time together out in the wilderness would be all that was necessary for the budding romance between the two kids to blossom.

But to be honest, Chris was a mite bored in town with everyone gone. Four Corners seemed almost quiet without Buck's boisterous voice or Ezra's shuffling cards. He missed his philosophical conversations with Vin and the steady hammering of Nathan and Josiah's tools from the direction of the church.

He donned his hat with exasperation. God, he was getting pathetic in his old age.

He drowned his grimace with a last belt of black coffee and for a moment wished it was something stronger, but ever since Jericho he had been trying to avoid the temptation. There was the other reason to get out of town for a while. He had dried out some during his time in the prison. It had cleared his head. He figured there was a reason for it. Unfortunately though, it had been quiet for the last couple of weeks which only made it harder for someone trying to give up the bottle. Right now some activity would take his mind off his incessant cravings.




It took an hour to reach Coyote Bluff. At its base, Chris whistled shrilly and JD, far in the lead, turned to see Chris rein in his horse. JD pulled his own steed to a halt abruptly, its sides heaving, its flesh wet. They had been riding hard.

Chris studied the ground. He wasn't as accomplished a tracker as Vin but he had enough rudimentary skills to follow his quarry if they weren't trying to hide. A single rider had passed, heading up the mountain, that much was obvious. It had not come back down, at least not on this trail. The minute he informed the younger man of this, JD had his mount racing madcap up the slope. Shaking his head, Chris followed, albeit a tad slower.

They found Casey's mare tied at the top near the entrance to an old mine shaft. JD dropped from his horse looking around frantically. "Casey!"

There was no answer. Chris dismounted and glanced around gathering first impressions. There was no campsite. The girl's bedroll was still behind her saddle and wet with the morning's dew. Now Chris was beginning to worry.

"She's not here!" JD announced breathlessly coming back from a swift circumvention of the area.

Chris' eyes were drawn to the dark maw of the abandoned mine.

JD turned to follow his gaze. "You don't think...," he began and Chris raised a contrary eyebrow at him. JD expelled a frustrated curse. "Yes, she would," he finished in exasperation, anger displacing his fear momentarily. He grabbed the lariat from his saddle.

Chris fished the extra torch from Casey's saddlebags. Striking a match from his pocket, it blazed into life. "Let's go." With the narrow circle of light to lead them they entered into the pitch darkness.




Casey's consciousness returned slowly. She felt wet and cold and achy. She blinked into the darkness that continued to engulf her and for a moment she panicked. Was she blind? Then her memory kicked in and she remembered the mine shaft and falling. Her hand splashed in an icy pool and it led her to believe that the torch had been extinguished by it when she fell. It was probably useless now. She eased herself up and fruitlessly groped for it anyway. She tried to stand and cried out as her right leg felt like a hot poker had stabbed her. Please don't let it be broken, she prayed her hands flying quickly to cradle the injured limb.

She probed gently, fighting her fear. Tears falling, her fingers searched for but didn't find a break. Relieved, she choked back a sob but then realized her predicament. There was no way for her to climb out of the shaft on her own. What if no one came looking for her? She had no idea of the passage of time but it must have been hours past when she had fallen and still there was no help.

"Don't panic, Casey. There's no reason to panic." She practically chanted to herself. "Aunt Nettie will come or she'll go get help when I don't come home." Suddenly her stomach plummeted. Oh no! She'd go straight to Mary Travis and from there straight to Chris Larabee who'd grab JD Dunne. Her head plopped into her hands. Oh please, not JD. She couldn't be rescued by him! Lord, how embarrassing. She'd rather die in this hole that have that happen. She felt the slimy water against her skin and shivered. Something buglike scurried across her hand. She jerked it aside with a slight squeak and tried to breathe calmly again. Okay, so maybe it wouldn't be so bad if JD rescued her.

She glanced up and tried to see how far she had fallen but the murky darkness offered little information. She fought to keep her terror at bay. Then in the far distance she heard something. Footfalls, voices perhaps. To her shock, a faint trace of light could be seen far above her at the shaft's opening. "Hello!" she cried. "I'm down here."

There was the sound of running feet and then a dark form appeared abruptly over her. It looked like the figure was about to topple in with her but then suddenly fell backward as a rain of stones and dust came down instead. Casey ducked her head.

Chris released JD's shoulder and eased himself over the edge holding the torch high above him. JD crawled quickly over and looked over as well, calling "Casey!"

"I'm here," she shouted back, finally seeing their dim faces.

"Casey, are you alright?" JD's voice was higher than normal.

Chris was amused at the young man. He certainly wasn't acting as if this girl got on his nerves as he continually told everyone. Quite the opposite in fact. The fool kid had almost fallen headlong into the shaft with her. Thankfully, Chris had seen the danger at the last second and grabbed him.

Casey's sarcastic voice drifted up through the hole. "Oh, of course I'm just fine. I fall down these things all the time. What the Sam Hill do you think?" she yelled

JD spat back a retort, falling quickly back into their normal routine. "Look, I just asked if you're okay. Don't bite my head off!" To Chris, he grumbled, "Stupid girl."

Chris ignored him and called down, "It's Chris Larabee, Casey. Are you injured?"

Casey stared at the tall dark form above her. It was Chris Larabee alright. He was the only man she knew who wore black all the time and would probably be recognizable with or without illumination just by the sheer will of his intimidation. "I hurt my leg."

JD muttered, "That's what I asked her and she jumped all over me."

Chris played the rope down the hole. "Casey, you think you can tie this around you? We'll haul you up."

Casey reached for the descending rope. "Sure, I can do that." Within minutes she had the rope tied as instructed. "I'm ready."

Chris set the torch into a sconce on the wall. Then he took up the rope, JD holding onto the end like an anchor. Chris nodded and they proceeded to pull Casey as gently as they could up the shaft. Casey moaned in agony as her injured leg came off the ground but she didn't pass out--though a part of her wished she had. But the thought of JD at the top of the shaft curbed such feminine action. She bit down on her lip in an effort not to cry out. She had to be strong.

The trip up the long shaft seemed to take forever but in reality she had not dropped far, maybe ten feet. She had been extremely lucky. Luckier than she deserved. She was sure to hear about her blatant stupidity from now till Sunday and from every soul from here to the ranch. While Aunt Nettie would conclude the escapade with the worst reprimand since God lectured Eve.

Then she felt JD's strong arms grasp her under the shoulders as she came over the lip of the shaft and her breath left her momentarily. She silently convinced herself that it was from exertion and not the touch of his hand.

"I've got you," he said in that sweet voice of his. She stared into his worried face as the shadows danced across it and dropped her gaze into his warm, dusky eyes. His expression changed into one of perplexion as he watched her and she realized how stupid she must look. Her hand flew up to her face in a pretense of wiping away the mud. He eased her up against a twin set of boulders set five feet apart.

Chris knelt down beside them on the other side of Casey. He gently probed her leg. She let out a gasp as he found the tender area. Pursing his lips, he looked up at an anxious JD who was torn between looking at Casey and looking at Chris. "It's not too bad. It doesn't feel broken." He turned to JD. " Get the blankets tied behind the saddles. Take the torch with you. We'll be alright in the dark for now."

"Okay!" JD leaped up and ran back out the way he came, across the huge cavern and up the main shaft towards daylight. As he moved further away, the light faded from the room plunging them eventually into pitch darkness. Casey drew in a deep steadying breath. It brought back the same fear as when she had awakened alone in the shaft. She was shivering uncontrollably, her arms locked tight around herself.

Taking off his wool coat, Chris draped it across her shoulders. "He'll be back soon," he comforted. He squeezed her hand reassuringly only to have her grasp it tightly before he could let go. So she wasn't as tough as she thought she was, he mused silently. "You know, it wasn't a particularly smart thing going into this mine by yourself. It was very...."

Casey interrupted him harshly between her chattering teeth. "Yes, I know! It was extremely stupid and dangerous. Believe me, I know."

Chris was silent for a moment then grinned. Her brusqueness didn't faze him much. She'd have enough of a lecture from her Aunt and maybe a good tanning as well. "Just so you do," he told her and left it at that. Minutes passed and still JD had not returned. Chris silently cursed the boy. How long did it take to find those few things?

Casey mirrored his thoughts. "What the heck fire is taking him so long? It's not as if you sent him to round up some cattle."

Chris realized it was only the pain and fear that was making her talk so. At least that's what he hoped. Though he had to admit his own frustration at JD was rising. He didn't particularly like sitting here in the dark himself.

Suddenly, Casey screamed loudly, squirming and flailing. She practically leaped into his arms not a easy feat for someone in her condition. He grabbed her. "What's the matter?"

In an instant, he knew himself. A flurry of rats swept over them, past them, their nails skittering over the stones and cloth.

"One's on my arm! Get it off!" Casey shrieked, nearly hysterical.

Chris brushed his hands over Casey and finally found a lingering rat nearing the top of her shoulder. He pushed it off and it squealed away into the darkness with the rest. Casey was a trembling mess. He was afraid she was slipping into shock. JD better hurry with those damn blankets or Chris was just going to carry her out. He felt a hand on his own again.

"Please don't tell JD I screamed, will you? But I really hate rats." She shivered against him, suddenly noticing the aroma of sawdust and smoke that surrounded him. He smelled nice. She began to slowly relax again. She realized that she had never gotten this close to the steely gunfighter before. He wasn't quite as menacing as she first thought.

Chris patted her shoulder with surprising tenderness. "I won't say anything. I have the same reaction to snakes."

Casey's eyes went wide in surprise. "Really?" She was amazed that this man was afraid of anything, much less a silly old snake.

"Yup," Chris admitted. "You keep my secret and I'll keep yours."

"It's a deal."

The cavern began to lighten and soon they could hear the approaching footsteps of JD. He jogged in with a bundle in his arms, out of breath and perspiring.

"Took you long enough," Chris chided.

"Yeah," Casey added her own ire up. She hated being in this cave and her fear and anger were growing by the minute. "What did you do, go to the next county?"

The boy glared at Casey for a split second then he looked suitably chastised. "Sorry, but the damn horses were acting up. Yours took off like the devil himself was chasing him, Chris." He wrapped one of the blankets around Casey and offered her a canteen. She drank it eagerly.

Chris straightened. "What?" This was odd news. His gelding was considerably even-tempered. It'd stay quiet under a hail of bullets and a flurry of lightening bolts. Yet he had to admit his own nerves had been steadily growing on edge. Something wasn't right here, but his first duty was to Casey. He dismissed the other matter for now. They had to get her out of the cave as quickly as possible.

He was just about to pick Casey up and carry her out when he heard the first rumble, like a distant roll of thunder. The dust from the ceiling began to sift to the floor as the tremors began.

JD, stationed behind Casey, supporting her back, looked up in alarm. "What's that?"

The ground began to shudder. Chris, set back on his heels, almost lost his balance. He put an arm out to steady himself. With horrifying clarity, he realized the danger. He cursed. "It's a ground shake. We have to get out of here now!" He grabbed Casey's arm and pulled her to her feet. JD helped him. The earth was shaking so violently that they could only keep their balance by touching the cavern walls. They were at the mouth of the cavern and just about to enter the main shaft but no sooner had they reached the tunnel did Chris shove the two kids behind him. The ground bucked violently beneath them.

"Get back!" Chris shouted.

The two kids fell roughly between the twin boulders on the ground. On top of Casey, JD raised his head and caught a final glimpse of Chris, arms raised protectively over his head, as the roof of the main tunnel collapsed in front of him. Then the cavern was plunged into darkness once more.




JD felt Casey raise her head into his shoulder. He had done his best to protect her from the debris. He pushed himself up and felt dirt and stone fall away from him. Casey did the same. He heard her strangled whisper, "Oh god."

He bumped up hard against something above him. He explored it with his hands. A huge beam had fallen and would have crushed them if they hadn't been protected by the two boulders they lay between. JD scrambled out from beneath it and assisted Casey.

For the third time that day Casey knew the world of darkness. It wasn't any better than it had been before. Even though she knew he was right beside her she reached out to touch JD, calling his name hesitatingly. The air was filled with dust and she coughed violently.

"We're okay. We're okay." He glanced towards where he thought the entrance was. He was getting turned around in the inky blackness. "Chris!" There was no answer.

Terror, the likes of which JD had never known, enveloped him. He fumbled around for the torch he had been holding before the earthquake. With a grateful prayer his hand clasped around it. His fingers shook as he tried to find the matches in his coat pocket. It was like being blind. How did anyone live like this? Feeling only through touch the boy tried to light a match. By the third fruitless time he began to curse, frustration overwhelming him. He felt a soft touch on his arm and heard an even softer voice.

"It's alright. Just try again," Casey soothed. It did the trick. The match burst into flames and the torch followed soon after. The heat and the light illuminated the cavern through the sheets of dust still falling. It played across Casey's anxious face.

JD coughed to clear his lungs. He struggled to his feet and approached the pile of rubble in front of them where he had last seen the shootist. "Chris!"

He climbed over the rubble searching desperately for the gunfighter. The torch only illuminated a small area through all the dust. The debris before him was mainly boulders and timbers wedged tightly over the only exit from the mine. Soon JD could go no further. He put a hand out on the wall of stone, his throat constricting dangerously. Chris just couldn't be dead.

"Can you see anything?" Casey called out. She had perched herself atop one of the boulders.

"No, nothing." He turned back toward her and then he saw Chris' hat. He leaped over the rocks, nearly falling. He shouted his friend's name again.

This time there was an answer, weak and low. "Over here."

A pale hand reached up over another piece of timber. JD ran over, Casey hobbling after. The gunfighter was wedged beneath the beam, his rusty blond hair covered in grey dust. He was pushing at the wood, clawed fingers scratching at its surface.

"Get it ...off me," he hissed, his face contorted in agony.

JD scrambled over to Chris. The dim torch showed the heavy wooden beam that trapped Chris beneath its weight. It was too big for JD to even get his arms around. A boulder to the left side saved Chris from being completely crushed when it fell. JD gave Casey the torch as he grabbed the higher end of the beam. It lay at a twenty degree angle against the pile of rocks. Straining, he attempted to lift it but it wouldn't budge.

"Casey!" JD's eyes were pleading. He hated to ask her, injured as she was.

Casey took one look at JD and something inside her actually broke at the desperation and fear she found there. She immediately set the torch inside a crack in the rocks. Hobbling over, she leant her strength to his efforts. Yet even combined, it wasn't enough. With the barest of shivers, the beam remained where it was.

"I can't, Chris!" JD gasped out. That admission tore deep at the boy. He had failed the gunfighter. The man had trusted him enough to let JD stand beside him in battle but when it had counted most, he had failed. JD dropped to his knees beside him as Chris' head fell backward, his eyes closed against the pain.

"Don't ... worry." Chris' voice was low. The heavy beam was crushing the very air from his lungs. Each strained breath felt like broken glass. Chris tried to settle down. The deeper he tried to breathe the more pain washed over him. He moved on to other things. "Can we ...get out?"

JD cleared some of the rocks away from Chris' head in a futile attempt to make him more comfortable. "Not the way we came in." He looked over at Casey. "Is there another way out of here?"

"No, the rest of the mine caved in a long time ago. We're trapped." The last came out as a forlorn whisper.

JD felt his own stab of fear but fought it off. "No!" he insisted fervently. "We'll get out of here. We'll get help. We have to!"

"Oh and how are we going to do that? We'll never move those rocks!" Casey shot back waving an arm at the massive wall of stone rising before them. It seemed hopeless.

JD moved to Casey's side, his hand instinctively grasping hers, offering his strength. He doubted it was enough to hold her fear at bay for his own bubbled just below his semi-calm exterior. "We have to try."

Feeling his own large hand slip around hers, Casey squeezed it hard, straightening her posture and putting forth as brave a front as she could possibly muster. It must have worked, for JD almost smiled.

"What are we going to do?" she asked, swallowing her fear of the darkness, of the close quarters, of the things that shared the cramped space with her. Things she didn't want to think about.

JD dragged a hand through his gritty hair. He had no idea what to do. Usually it was one of the seven who came up with a plan. He gulped down several breaths of air. Casey and Chris were counting on him. He had to come up with something! But what? *Come on, think JD!* He ferreted through his mind, desperate for inspiration.

He looked back at Chris, lying limp, his breathing shallow and strained. His eyes then found Casey, her brown eyes wide and trusting. JD's jaw locked with determination. They were depending on him.

*Him!* JD Dunne. Sheriff of Four Corners. One of the Magnificent Seven.

It was time to start earning his keep. Fate had thrown him an opportunity to show his worth.

JD paused. Yeah, but why did it have to be so damn difficult a test?

He shook off his doubts. He had work to do. Casey was still waiting for a reply. He released her hand and climbed to the top of the pile of rocks. "We start digging. If we can get a hole open, I might be able to go and get help."

Casey frowned. "But I'm smaller than you. I could fit through the hole easier. It would save time rather than trying to make it larger just to get you through."

"Yeah, but you've got an injured leg, " JD argued. Didn't she see that he was looking out for her? Casey crossed her arms angrily. JD frowned back. Obviously not.

"Even with a broken leg I could get help!"

JD's patience broke. "Yeah, right," he said sarcastically.

Chris coughed weakly from the other side of the boulders and got their attention. "Stop arguing... and just dig... a damn hole," he ordered tiredly.

The two kids shut up guiltily, all the while glaring at the other. Casey had made JD look foolish in front of Chris. So typical, he thought, just like a girl.

Casey glowered at JD, at his so obviously male attitude. She could do anything he could do even with two broken legs! She paused. Alright, maybe not, but at least with a broken leg and a broken arm.

JD rolled a boulder down the slope. Casey jumped out of the way. The daggers her eyes cast towards JD Dunne should have pierced all the way through to his heart, but instead JD didn't even turn around. Casey dug her hands deep into the soft shale and began to shove it aside with all the fury of a thundercloud.

Chris laid his head back, sighing a limited breath. Those two were the most obstinate kids he had ever met. He just hoped the rest of the seven would return to Four Corners soon. Chris doubted anyone else would come looking for them, except perhaps Mary Travis, and he knew without a doubt that the townsfolk wouldn't be willing to venture into a collapsed mine regardless of whom was trapped within. They would just assume the three of them were dead or doomed.

He listened in distraction to the sounds of rock scraping against each other as Casey and JD worked fervently towards freedom. He also heard the indistinguishable insults and gripes the two still traded, more mumbled in the other's direction than flung in earnest.

They both were so young, so innocent. Their whole life lay before them and they were more interested in scrapping with each other than in facing it together. They'd either realize their obvious attraction or let it fade away until years later it turned into one of the many regrets they would collect along the way. He grimaced at the sobering thought. He had garnered his own share of those.

Chris wished the others would hurry. He knew they'd come eventually. Buck and Vin would both become curious as to why they hadn't returned to town and he had no doubt Vin could track them to the cave. The man's skill was undeniable. The question was how long would it take for them to realize something was amiss.

Hopefully, Buck wouldn't dawdle like he had about Jericho. Though granted, he had done so only because he thought Chris needed space--which wasn't far wrong. It was just blind dumb luck that trouble had found Chris before he had found the solace he craved. It looked like it had found him again.

The second question was how long the air in the cave would last. He hadn't told the kids about that mainly because there was little they could do about it. They were doing the only thing they could at the moment which was to try and make an air hole. If they managed that, it would solve the problem. If not, the point was moot. Hopefully, there was an airshaft in this particular portion of the mine.

He didn't care so much himself, but JD and Casey had their whole life ahead of them. They deserved to live. Chris' life had been full enough. If it was fated to be over, than he would not argue the matter. There were things in Heaven that he wished to see as well, maybe more so. It seemed these last few years had been merely a headlong rush to get there. He hoped Sarah and Adam would be waiting. His eyes slipped closed.




Vin Tanner relaxed finally in his saddle seat when he spotted Four Corners over the rise. It had been one hell of a trip and it surprised him how comforted he was by the sight of the small town where he currently spent his time. Who'd have thought that he could call any place home, even after all these years?

He heard Buck mutter, "Finally," beside him. Nathan sat behind him. He had lost his mount when the earth tremor had struck a few hours ago. It had spooked all of them, man and beast alike. Thankfully, it had not lasted long.

Ezra walked up beside Vin, leading his horse. The gambler's horse was lame thanks to a well-placed gopher hole which the horse had stumbled across in it's terror of Mother Nature's wrath. "Well, at least divine providence decided to spare the prosaic little community any additional despondency."

Nathan whispered to Buck, "What did he say?"

The tall man shrugged. "I don't know. I don't speak Ezra."

"He said, thank God the town's still standing," Josiah answered.

Smoke billowed into the late afternoon sky. Four Corners had obviously taken some damage. A fire apparently burned from the direction of the east side of town. Each man considered the town's layout in their head and realized it was most likely the telegraph office, possibly the laundry. Since it had been hours since the quake, the town must have gotten it under control, since the rest of Four Corners still stood.

Josiah reined in his mount beside the gambler and offered him a hand up. "Come on, Ezra. Let's get home."

Ezra smiled and quickly grasped the preacher's arm, swinging up smoothly behind the big man, his other hand still holding his own mount's reins. He didn't feel the same nostalgic tug for the town that the others obviously felt but at least he didn't have to walk there. The money roll tucked safely in his boot was beginning to chaff his skin something terrible.

"I sure hope the saloon survived this disaster, otherwise Chris is gonna be in a *hell* of a mood," Buck drawled.

Muted laughter swept through the group as they spurred their mounts towards town. Within an hour they rode down the main street. Buildings were cracked as the timbers they had been constructed of had given way under the fury of the once sedate earth. Store signs and awnings littered the boardwalk and the street. People still milled dazedly about the road staring with slack faces at the sudden devastation. Vin had experienced such a cataclysm before and knew that Four Corners had come through the quake fairly well, considering.

The group walked slowly through town, passing the church and approaching the saloon which remarkably had the least damage. The mission, on the other hand, looked almost as bad as when the preacher and the healer had first started their work.

Buck turned in his saddle. "Damn, Josiah."

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Josiah commented. There was only a slight hint of despair in his voice. The huge man had witnessed worse disasters than what was before him. The church could be rebuilt. The curve of his lips sank slightly. It just seemed as if he was forever rebuilding.

Nathan clasped Josiah's shoulder and nodded at the single large window set near the top of the church in the back. Miraculously, the glass was still intact and it's gorgeous red color still vibrant. It brought a smile to Josiah's face. Some things, it seemed, could still stand without his help.

They reined in at the saloon and Vin slipped off his horse, slapping a single rein around the askew horse rail. He was surprised that Chris, or JD for that matter, hadn't emerged to greet them. Perhaps they were down by the fire. He entered into the saloon, the others trailing behind him.

Seth Becket, the saloon keeper, looked up, his hand resting on a broom. A majority of the bottles and glasses usually lining the back of the bar had fallen and left a wake of broken glass and the overpowering smell of whiskey permeating the room.

*Not that it hadn't smelled that way before,* Vin thought wryly.

"Now *this* is a disaster," Buck griped, poking at a shattered bottle of Red Eye atop the wooden bar. He liked that particular brand of whiskey.

Seth grimaced and made another half-hearted sweep with the broom. The scraping of the shattered glass sounded harsh in the empty bar.

"Seen Chris?" Vin asked the depressed barkeep.

The man shook his head, brown curly hair bobbing at his temples. "Not since early this morning."

Vin frowned but murmured his thanks. "I'm heading down to the newspaper office," he informed the others. If anyone knew what was going on in town it would be the paper's proprietor, Mary Travis.

"I'll come with you," Buck said.

Josiah went to check on the church while Nathan went to see how much damage his own place had suffered. He had a great many breakable bottles filled with liquids more precious than whiskey. He hoped he had fared better than Seth. He was sure there would be many patients following something like this.

Ezra suddenly realized he was alone in the saloon. He glanced at the barkeep, who's eyebrow arched queryingly. The man had the audacity to point out a second broom leaning against the wall.

Ezra pursed his lips. He had no intention of helping with the clean up and there was no other real reason to remain at the saloon. It wasn't as if a card game would be beginning with all the work left to do in town. Tipping his hat at the baleful barkeep, he followed Buck and Vin more out of boredom than curiosity.

Mary Travis wasn't at the newspaper but they did find her at the laundry which was nothing more than a smoldering ruin. Luckily, the townsfolk had managed to save the nearby buildings thanks to the fact that the laundry had been separateD from the others by a good fifteen feet.

Soot covered men sat wearily on the boardwalk, their battle ended and their empty buckets dangling from limp, blackened hands. Vin spotted Mary's tall form helping some of the men who had been burned. She caught a glimpse of the three protectors striding toward her and visible relief swept over her. She straightened, brushing blackened hands carelessly down the sides of her already filthy dress. "Thank goodness you're back. We need Nathan."

"He's at his clinic now," Buck told her.

Vin scanned the gathered crowd, but failed to pick out the gunslinger or the town's young sheriff. He couldn't shake the incessant bad feeling that had cropped up suddenly since they had hit town.

Ezra helped Mrs. Potter to a seat on a nearby crate. She must have been helping fight the fire for she was covered in soot and ash. The gambler turned to Mary and asked the next question burning Vin Tanner's lips. "Where is Mr. Larabee? We expected him to be here at the very crux of the excitement."

Mary flinched as if she suddenly remembered something. "Casey Wells turned up missing this morning. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Dunne went looking for her. They haven't come back yet." She frowned. "Do you think they're alright?" she asked in concern.

"Most likely the young lady led them on a wild goose chase into the hills." Ezra glanced down at his red coat and noticed sooty fingerprints upon the sleeve. He cast an exasperated grimace at an oblivious Mrs. Potter. He brushed determinedly at his now smudged wardrobe.

"They probably fared better in the open country than here in town," Buck assured the fair newspaper woman.

The sound of approaching hoofprints attracted Ezra's attention. Chris' black horse came tearing down the main street. It was riderless. The gambler nudged Vin and Buck. "It appears that might not be the case."

Vin leaped out and waved the horse to a halt. It slid to a stop, content to finally be in familiar surroundings. It trotted to a nearby water trough and slacked it's terrible thirst by gulping down the cold liquid. Vin grabbed its reins and pulled it away. It's sweat flecked sides heaved and drinking like that could cause colic. He ran a hand down its shoulder. It had been running hard and long, but without a rider.

"Leave it to Chris to find trouble one way or the other," Buck mumbled.

"It could merely be that our Mr. Larabee lost his seat during the quake," Ezra pointed out logically.

Both Vin and Buck regarded Ezra with sincere disbelief. Chris had busted broncs for a living at one time. He had been damn good at it too.

Ezra threw up his hands in defeat. "It was only one possible explanation."

"If this were JD's horse, I'd say you might be right." Buck ran his fingers down either slope of his mustache. He met the bounty hunter's intense gaze and canted his head in the direction of their own horses.

Vin only waited a moment before answering. "Let's go look for them."

"We don't have much daylight left to burn," Buck noted.

"Maybe it won't take more than that," Vin hoped. There was a chance that Chris and his two charges were forced to walk back to Four Corners. With any luck, Vin and Buck would meet up with them long before the sun set.




JD wiped away the cloying dust and dirt which had caked around his eyes and then quickly resumed his task of digging painstakingly through the massive rubble. He could hear Casey laboring just below him and he stole a quick peek in her direction.

She was drawn and pale and twice as dirty. How could a girl as young and as...pretty as he knew Casey to be get so filthy so fast? It was beyond JD. Of course, he probably looked no better at present. Casey was quiet but JD couldn't tell whether it was out of sheer bravery, cumulative exhaustion or just plain stubbornness. He hated not being able to determine much about a female's feelings. It all came so naturally to Buck, and at times, JD hated the man and the way he flaunted that knowledge in front of JD. It was positively aggravating.

It took him a second to realize that they had both stopped working and that Casey's huge brown eyes were now watching him with a mix of fear and annoyance, as if she couldn't tell which way her emotions wanted to sway.

JD's heart nearly stopped, right there at that moment, as she turned on those orbs full bore. Did she know what the sight of them did to him? She was beautiful and she was counting on him to get her out of here. So was Chris.

JD's stomach dropped out once again in pure unadulterated fear. There had to be some way to help Chris besides just digging. His hero was being crushed before his very eyes and JD couldn't do a damn thing to stop it. The gunslinger's breath was labored and shallow, in the dim light his lips looked dark and swollen. On top of that the air wasn't the best. JD could feel the strain on his own burning lungs. Either the air was bad or they were running out of it.

Frustrated, he angrily picked up a rock and threw it across the cave's length. It landed with a clatter on the other side.

Taken by surprise, Casey jumped. "God damn it! Why the hell did you do that?" she snapped.

"I felt like it!" he retorted, his frustration building. JD stared at her. "Does your Aunt know you talk like that?"

Casey fumed. "What does it matter if she did? We're not getting out of here!"

JD immediately relented, letting his anger go, feeling the young girl's fear manifest in the space between them. She had been hiding it bravely. So had he. "We ARE going to get out of here!" he insisted. "The rest of the seven are already probably out there digging their way towards us."

A spark of hope lit Casey's eyes. "You really think so?" she whispered.

JD put on his best brave face. "Of course they are. They're the smartest bunch of guys around. Why do you think I hooked up with them."

Casey smiled shyly. "I know." She remembered the day all too vividly when she had first seen them -- seen him. The day Lucas James murdered Mr. Potter in cold blood. She had noticed JD immediately when he rode in as she and Aunt Nettie were getting their big driving horse reshod. It had thrown a shoe on the way into town for supplies. They had left Mr. Potter's general store just twenty minutes prior and that thought always left her with a sick cold feeling.

When the two shots came from that location moments later echoing against the ringing of the blacksmith's hammer, Casey had quickly darted out to see what was going on. By the time she got there, old Judge Travis had already stepped in to challenge Lucas James, and Casey's blood had run cold as she realized the odds were against him.

It was then that she had noticed the seven stern men dismounting and walking casually into the fray. Chills had run up and down her spine at the cavalier way they approached the James' gang, exposing themselves openly to violence as if they didn't know that Stuart James owned half this valley and he and his kin were perfectly willing to kill anyone who got in their way.

The man in black, spurs jangling lightly in the sudden silence, had stepped up beside Judge Travis. James, ever stupid, hadn't recognize the steely eyed man for what he was and tried to intimidate the gunslinger, as if anyone ever could. Even Casey had seen the futility of that. Chris Larabee's peeved retort made the breath in Casey's lungs freeze. She would remember it till the day she died.

But when the youth in the bowler hat answered the gunfighter, Casey's attention drifted to him. She got her first real look at JD Dunne. He had looked too young to be a part of these cold, hardened men, but he had talked to the infamous gunfighter and even called him by name. Casey's eyes had never left him after that, not even after Lucas James surrendered. That is until Aunt Nettie had pulled her by the scruff of the neck back into the safety of the blacksmith shop. They had ridden back out to the ranch within the hour all the while Aunt Nettie mumbling how dangerous the town of Four Corners had become and how it was best just to steer clear of it for a time.

But Casey had never forgotten that day nor the young man in the fancy suit and the bowler hat. Though she did forget how stupid a face she usually put on when she thought about that moment and when she came back to the present she found JD watching her with a mix of perplexion and amusement.

She scratched at her mussy hair flinging it out of her face. "What are you looking at?" she groused self-consciously. *God, why was she always doing stupid things in front of him?*

JD reflexively reared back, more confused than ever by a female's rapid mood changes. "Nothing. I'm not looking at nothin'."

"Good," Casey mumbled. "It's not polite to stare. What were you, raised in a barn?"

JD's rush of anger returned all too quickly. "I'll have you know that even though I was a stable boy, my mother raised me up right!" It was out of his mouth before he even realized he had just told her something he had hidden from her for months. His face reddened.

Shock and surprise made Casey's eyes widen considerably. "A s-stable boy?" Immediately she regretted her words as JD's face twisted with embarrassment. She always said the wrong thing!

JD's pride got the best of him and he leaped to his own defense. "That's right, a stable boy! My mother was a maid for a wealthy family in Boston. Before she died she made sure I knew how to read and write and, above all, how to be *civil!*" He emphasized the last word with more venom than he intended.

"A stable boy," she said again, this time more softly. It was the last thing she had expected but it now made perfect sense.

JD huffed angrily that she couldn't get past that point, but then her next words blew aside his ire with the swiftness of a desert breeze.

"No wonder you ride so good." Admiration and awe filled her expression as an almost beaming smile came over her.

His chest swelled slightly and he tried to wet his lips only to taste the grit of dust. He could feel it crunch between his teeth but he didn't care. With a toothy grin that blazed brilliant white against his dirty face, he stared at her.

"For a city boy," Casey added quickly trying to restore their normal balance.

"Well for the love of...!" JD frowned and turned angrily away to resume his digging. "Just forget it."

Casey breathed a sigh of relief. It had worked. Last thing they needed to be thinking about was this kind of stuff.

JD shoved more debris aside with an ear cocked back towards Casey. He was relieved when he heard her return to the task as well. Hell, it was safer if they just didn't talk to each other.

Damn, he was embarrassed still about blurting out his past. He hadn't wanted her to know that. He was proud of the schooling he had had, only one step away from a college education. He had loved school and found all the wondrous new concepts fascinating, though in the end the allure of the west had beckoned to him. He loved the stories he had read, full of color and the richness of life. It made the city seem that much dirtier and ugly. After his mother's death, Boston had turned dark. He had needed get out of there. He couldn't have stayed another day.

It was then, like a flame being fanned in the dark, that an idea from the past gripped him. He turned abruptly and stumbled down the embankment.

Casey stared after him. "What's the matter?"

"I know how to free Chris! Come on!" He grabbed her arm as he darted back up the slope to help her down.

"How?" she asked genuinely puzzled. JD's energy switched directions too fast for her to follow at times.

"Something I remembered from school. It's called a fulcrum."

"A what?" Casey asked easing herself gently down to the lowest level of the cavern. With JD's help she made it over to Mr. Larabee who was strangely quiet.

JD babbled on excitedly, looking frantically around the dim, murky interior of the mine. "If we can wedge another beam under that one," he said, pointing to the beam across Chris' chest, "then by making like a seesaw with another rock under the new beam, we'll use our weight on one end to lift up the other end and free Chris!"

Casey was only half listening as she placed a hand on Mr. Larabee's chest. She trusted JD implicitly and had always known he would come up with something, so she directed her attention elsewhere. Mr. Larabee's pale skin was alarmingly visible even through the coating of dust it possessed. She shifted closer to the quiet man in black and laid her head upon his shirt, fear creeping up on her like a chill in the darkness.

JD, oblivious until now, and lugging a hefty timber closer to Chris, stopped suddenly when he saw Casey listening to Chris' heartbeat. His throat closed up abruptly as he realized he may have come upon this idea too late.

Time froze as they waited, and for JD it stretched to an eternity, but finally Casey straightened and nodded encouragingly to JD.

"He's alive but he's hardly breathing." Her fingers gently touched his cold lips which, upon closer inspection, were turning blue from the lack of oxygen getting to his starving lungs.

Chris finally stirred and looked blankly up into the blurry face of Casey, though at first he couldn't tell who it was. All he saw was shadows and shapes and bright pinpoints of light flaring around them. Then he heard Casey's voice.

"JD's found a way to get this block of wood off ya, Mr. Larabee."

Chris tried to sort out the shadows enough to find JD and only realized when something heavy landed near him raising a small cloud of dust that JD had settled beside him with a weighted load.

"I figured it out, Chris!" JD shouted with what was left of his expended breath. "This is gonna work. I know it!"

Chris wanted to ask what it was the boy had in mind but the pain in his chest and the precious little air in his lungs prevented it.

"Here Casey," JD ordered, "help me."

Together the two kids maneuvered the new beam into place and JD heaved a large rock under the middle of it. Rivers of dark mud ran down JD's face from the sweat. He roughly brushed it out of his eyes. Casey watched him, her own hope and excitement growing with him as his idea became more logical. It could actually work!

JD's confidence was suddenly boundless. "Okay Casey, I'm going to operate the fulcrum. You pull Chris out."

She quickly positioned herself behind Mr. Larabee's head, easing her injured leg carefully to the side. It was throbbing something awful, but she tried to ignore it, desperate to help JD and Mr. Larabee.

It was then that JD realized that that wasn't going to work. "No, wait a minute, you won't be able to pull him out."

Casey bristled. "I can do --"

JD cut her off. "We'll switch. You apply your weight to the beam. I'll pull Chris out."

Casey shut her mouth. She didn't care what she was doing as long as she was doing *something.* JD helped her up and all but carried her to the fulcrum.

A minute later they were ready. At JD's nod, Casey eased herself down on the fulcrum's end and pressed as hard as she could. She could feel it shift slightly more than they had been able to do before on their first attempt hours ago.

JD heaved back on Chris who barely covered the moan of agony as his abused body was stretched but not freed. Chris clenched his teeth against the pain. He could tell that the beam across him was not going to relinquish it's hold.

Frustrated at their failure, JD shouted, "Try it again!"

Chris braced himself and rode out the pain that blossomed within him arcing through every nerve, but again the effort was futile. JD struggled for a better hold on Chris' shoulders and it was then that Chris stopped them with a hand on JD's arm.

"Wait," Chris croaked hoarsely.

JD was devastated at his failure. He had been so sure this would work. He pleaded with Chris. "I know it will work this time, Chris. Let's try it just once more, please?"

Chris raggedly shook his head. His voice was so low now that JD had to bend over to hear his strangled words. "Help Casey ... on the beam ... I'll pull... me out." He sank back trying to recapture his strength.

JD hesitated but then saw the wisdom of Chris' suggestion. Casey wasn't heavy enough or strong enough to make a difference on her own. Neither of them were, but combined, it might be possible so long as Chris was able to pull himself out on his own. At first JD would have said no but this *was* Chris Larabee they were talking about. His strength, both physical and psychological, was never something to discount. JD had himself witnessed Chris' endurance and his gradual comeback from the hell that was Jericho prison. The man worked miracles.

With a gentle, almost imperceptible squeeze to Chris' shoulder, JD rose to help Casey. She scooted over to make room. JD, his eyes still bright with hope and determination, half smiled at the young girl, trying to instill in her apprehensive expression just a touch of the confidence he had in their task. It slowly worked as she smiled hesitatingly back at him.

They readied themselves and JD glanced down at Chris who took as deep a breath as he could and nodded.

The young boy and girl threw all their weight down on the beam. With an audible groan and a perceptible shudder, it moved. A cloud of dust wafted out as the rocks and wood shifted allowing more dirt to sift through the cracks. To all of their amazement, the heavy beam across Chris' chest began to lift.

"It's working!" Casey shouted.

Chris' vision closed in on him as the weight of the beam left him. He had drawn in a deeper breath and the pain that went with it nearly made him pass out. With a snarl that bordered on feral he pushed the darkness aside and locked his arms.

"Keep going," he hissed forcefully. JD and Casey threw their remaining strength against the fulcrum and the pinning beam rose a few more inches. It was enough.

With a moan of desperation, Chris pulled himself free, arms trembling and sweat poring into his eyes causing wild tracks like scars streaking across tender flesh. Drawing his legs out from beneath the beam, Chris collapsed back, gasping for long denied breath, coughing harshly despite the protest of his ribs.

JD and Casey let drop their own timber and scrambled over to the gunfighter, quickly checking him for injuries that they had not been able to see before.

"Anything broken?" Casey asked fearfully, checking Chris' ribs and glancing up at JD.

"I don't see any big wounds," JD announced after checking the rest of the small various cuts and scratches on the Chris. The gunfighter winced as Casey probed his tender spots.

With a glaring eye at the two of them, he sat up a bit straighter. If there was one thing he hated, it was the way doctors always discussed their patients as if the patient wasn't even there. JD and Casey had obviously learned that from Nathan. Embarrassed now at the two kids' sudden attention, he weakly pushed their hands away. "I'm fine. Just give me a minute."

JD sat back and exchanged a look with Casey who shrugged and crossed her arms, eyeing the ailing gunfighter worriedly. Chris' jaw was locked tight against the sharp stabs that continually erupted across his chest with each shaky breath.

JD watched him anxiously until Chris nodded and stretched his arms out towards the two of them. "Help me up."

The young man automatically wanted to tell him to rest and he'd take care of things but he immediately knew that Chris would never allow that. JD eased Chris gently to his feet with Casey offering a little bit of her support as well.

A small groan escaped Chris' lips and he tottered for a moment, testing trembling, numb legs. Satisfied that they'd hold, he let go of the two kids and inclined a head towards the slide. "Let's get the rest of the way out of here."




Vin reined in his horse and dismounted for the second time in less than an hour to scan the road before them. He fingered the sod carefully and then looked up the trail ahead of them. Turning to Buck he said, "Looks like Chris' horse came from up there." He gestured towards the bluff ahead of them.

"Coyote Bluff?" Buck said curiously. "What the hell was that girl doin' up there?"

Vin shrugged and remounted in one fluid movement. "I've long since given up tryin' to understand why women do anything. It's safer."

"Looks like in this case it wasn't," Buck noted gloomily.

Vin grunted and touched his heels to his horse's flanks, confident enough to ride faster now. Buck's horse leapt to follow as they raced the darkness to the bluff.

They made it an hour before sunset and bounced to a halt at the peak. JD's horse, still tied to a tree beside Casey's dun, skittered sideways, nervously bumping into the mare which swiftly nipped it's neck.

"JD! Casey!" Buck shouted.

"Chris!" Vin called out but only answering silence returned. Both men's eyes tracked to the gaping hole of black in the side of the mountain.

Buck immediately began cursing. "Damn, damn, damn!"

It was the only logical place to look. The only place which would have caused them all to go missing when the earthquake hit. Vin said not a word. He had reached the same conclusion.

Vin quickly made a short burning torch. It would last long enough for the two men to verify their suspicions. Cautiously, they made their way inside the dark mine, their small torch casting huge ominous shadows before them, flickering madly. A few feet in they found their worst fears realized.

Buck climbed up on the rocks that were blocking their path. "Chris! JD!"

There was still no answer.

"Sweet Jesus, Vin," Buck said softly, the horror of it all engulfing him in one fell swoop.

Vin meticulously studied the collapsed area, studying as best he could in the dim light the way the rocks had layered as they fell.

Buck looked back the way they came still clinging to some small hope, his words coming fast and furious. "Maybe they're outside somewhere. They wouldn't be stupid enough to stay in here during a quake, would they? They're probably just outside somewhere."

Vin lowered the torch towards the ground to illuminate a boot mark and then beside it another. He recognized them. "They're in here, Buck." The tracker straightened. "Go back to town, bring back shovels, lanterns, rope, wagons. Anything to help dig. Dynamite too, if Mrs. Potter has any. Check the back storeroom. Bring the others and anyone else you can find that's willing to come out and help."

Buck's eyes narrowed at the mere thought of the townspeople backing out after all that the seven had done for them. They still weren't all that well liked in town. It made his blood boil. No way he was going to let them turn their back on Chris and JD and young Casey. He patted his sidearm. "Oh, they'll help, trust me."

He ran back towards the light at the end of the passage way. Within minutes, he was mounted and with spurs to his horse, took off down the mountain slope at a breakneck speed.




Buck made town just as the veil of night descended. The street fires blazed and a continuous cloud of smoke drifted on the wind. Josiah, Ezra and Nathan stepped out of the saloon and onto the boardwalk as Buck pulled up to the rail outside. They had obviously been waiting anxiously. That he rode in alone and driven only proved that the news was bad.

"There's been a cave in!" Buck shouted. "They're trapped in the old' mine shaft atop Coyote Bluff."

Nathan, without another word from Buck, turned on his heel and headed for his room to get his medical kit. Josiah reentered the saloon with Buck on his heels. With a booming voice honed by years of podium preaching, Josiah stood at the bar and called out, "Brothers! There has been a cave-in on Coyote Bluff and some of our brethren are in trouble. We need your charitable assistance."

It caught most everyone's attention except for those so inebriated they couldn't recognize a man's voice from a cow's. One man, whom Josiah immediately recognized as the man who led the mob to set Stuart James' nephew free, looked at them.

"Who's trapped?"

Josiah bristled. "Does it matter? They are still souls worth saving."

Buck still found he didn't like this man much. "And if I said it was Chris Larabee, what would you say?" he snarled stepping up to the man and leaning down into his face.

The man shifted in his seat, suddenly uncomfortable, but then quickly grew angry. "He's most likely dead already. The quake was hours ago. I say it's no loss."

Buck grabbed his collar roughly. "Why you no good, son of a...."

Josiah laid a quieting hand on Buck's arm. He wasn't sure if Buck's anger was venomous enough to warrant violence but it was best not to take chances. "Well," the preacher remarked, his voice dropping practically to the opposite volume he used before, "then Mr. Larabee should count himself lucky he got trapped along with the Sheriff of the town and Mrs. Nettie Wells' young niece." His eyes all but blazed, their flames boring deep into the soul of the man. "Does that change your mind any?"

The man swallowed nervously but held his ground. "How do we know they're alive? We could be digging in the dark for nothing."

"If it were you stuck in that cave, would you like it if we just left you to rot in that hole because we figured you were already as good as dead?" Buck growled.

The man grew flustered, huffing and trying desperately to think of an answer that wouldn't come off sounding callous and cold. He didn't want to anger these gunslingers any more than was necessary but he certainly didn't want to go digging needlessly for hours either.

Buck pulled back out the man's face and brazenly took in the rest of the saloon. "So who's stupid enough to side with this here idiot and who's for coming with us out to Coyote Bluff?" It was by no accident that his hand rested on his pistol butt.

There was a moment of silence as each man weighed their options against what they knew of Wilmington's temper and their own false bravado. Fear eventually won out. They grudgingly started coming to their feet.

Just then Mary Travis burst into the saloon doors with Ezra, looking angry and determined.

"Mrs. Travis!" Buck exclaimed, her sudden appearance startled him.

"I just heard that Chris, JD and Casey are in trouble and that you were having difficulty in getting the men of this town to help." She turned swiftly to the meek men in the saloon. "What is the matter with you people?"

"Uh, Mrs. Travis...." Josiah tried to explain.

She didn't hear him, lost in her own welling frustration. "Chris Larabee has put his life on the line for this town plenty of times. So has Mr. Dunne, taking on responsibilities that you decent, grown *men* refuse. Well, I'm sick of it!"

"Mrs. Travis," Buck tried to attract her attention to no avail. The woman was on a roll.

"And Miss Wells is one of our very own citizens!"

"MARY!" Preacher and scoundrel shouted together.

Finally she turned to Josiah and Buck. "What?"

"They've agreed to help us."

She stepped back in surprise. "Oh." Straightening, she tugged on her blouse realigning the seams. "I see." Taking a deep breath she collected herself. "Well then, let's get going."

Buck couldn't help but smile slightly. "Yes, ma'am."




Vin ignored the trickle of sweat as it slid down the back of his neck. He threw another large rock off behind him. Despite the plodding work he refused to give in. They were alive. He knew it. Chris wasn't the type of man to die in a stupid cave-in.

He heaved a boulder to the side. Damn it. He wasn't going to give up. *Where the hell were Buck and the others? How long did it take to get things organized?* He rubbed the sheen of perspiration around his face and slumped for a second. His eyes lifted to the wall of rock still before him and he fought down the despair that swelled within him at the sight. *If only we knew if they were alive,* he lamented.

Then an idea came to him. He scrambled over the rocks up to the top of the pile closest to where the actually mine shaft was located. Picking up a hand-sized stone he slammed it against another one sitting beside him. The loud echo reverberated around the cavern. As soon as it died away he struck again with his stone, now tapping out in a quick almost rhythmic rapping.

"Come on, Chris. Show me you're still alive."




Chris braced himself before picking up the next rock, steeling himself against the pain that stabbed at him with each exertion. Logically he knew he shouldn't be doing anything. If one of his ribs were broken, the constant motion could cause one to puncture a vital organ.

However, the alternative wasn't much better. They were running out of air. A couple more hours at best still lingered within the cavern but it wouldn't last long.

There was no sense relating this fact to JD or Casey. They were working as hard as they could. Chris was proud of both of them. They had kept their heads, a sure sign of growing up. He only wished that they had more time ahead of them. *It wasn't fair,* he thought bitterly.

Casey struggled with a huge boulder, her breath labored, muscles strained past the point of endurance. The stone wouldn't budge. Then a shadow fell over her. She looked up to see JD towering above her. She smiled at him, so completely taken that she had no idea of the silly smirk plastered on her face.

"Stand aside," he said. "Let me."

A warm rush filled her and she backed off and watched as he too struggled with the rock. Huffing and puffing he threw his weight into it only to fail miserably. The twisting, puffy-cheeked expression on his face was too much for her. Casey snickered and suddenly the two of them were arguing again.

Chris was more than willing to just ignore them but they were wasting valuable air. Instead he threw the rock he had in his hands their way and it clattered loudly startling both of them. "Take a break," he told them, his tone indicating that it was command, not a suggestion.

Both kids took in Chris' annoyance and shut up. They moved away from each other, uncomfortably embarrassed by their foolishness.

JD cursed silently his rash temper. Why did Casey wear so on his nerves and then in the next moment make him weak in the knees? Her spirit amazed him and yet at the same time intimidated the hell out of him. It shouldn't, but it did. He reacted instinctively before he could even think rationally. They consistently misinterpreted each other's words and actions, firing off retorts and opinions before understanding what the other truly meant.

Casey sulked on the other end of the cavern, hot tears welling in her eyes but she didn't let them fall, her anger saw to that. She sat on a boulder, feeling the cold stone through her thin clothes. She meticulously placed her throbbing leg up on a higher boulder and rubbed the deep aches that lived within, but it wasn't enough to distract her thoughts from JD.

Why was she so stupid all the time? She shouldn't have laughed at him. She hadn't meant anything by it! It had just happened. He always overreacted. The minute it slipped out she'd known he'd be angry but it had happened before she could even consider the consequences of her amusement.

Damn, damn, damn. Now he would hate her. They were going to die in this hell hole and they would die hating each other. She would never get the chance to say she was sorry.

She jumped slightly as the imposing form of Chris Larabee towered over her suddenly. With fearful eyes she dragged her gaze up his tall frame. He was frowning and she winced, casting her eyes immediately to the ground, hoping he'd move on. Surprisingly, he settled gingerly beside her. The shock and sudden apprehension must have shown on her face for he rolled his eyes slightly and sighed. She knew what was coming and a part of her couldn't say she didn't deserve it.

Instead they sat there quietly for a few moments and Casey thought that maybe she was wrong. He just wanted to sit and rest. She started to relax but then his voice finally came out of the silence and gloom, rough and low, and though she flinched slightly at its sound she also found it strangely comforting.

"It's not ... a competition, Casey. It's about what you feel ... during the still moments ... about what you're thinking right now." He turned to her as she regarded him in stunned wonderment. "Otherwise... you're just wasting ... valuable time. Understand?"

Casey nodded hesitatingly. Her first instinct screamed for her to deny her feelings to the gunslinger, but thankfully her respect for him--and her fear of him-- held her in check. She wouldn't swear to it but in the murky shadows she swore she saw him smile that one-sided grin of his. The one that meant he knew exactly what was going on in her head.

Her heart pounding hard in a staccato rhythm, she stood, smiling gratefully back at him. Then she realized it wasn't her heart beating, it was something else. Chris heard it too and stood beside her using the wall for support, listening intently.

"What's that?" JD asked.

Chris came closer, tracking the sound that seemingly echoed around their stone prison. A steady rapping came through the rock walls.

"Someone's out there," Casey cried out scrambling madly to get closer.

"Quiet," Chris ordered. There was something familiar in the rhythm.

JD watched Chris expectantly. Casey sidled up closer to him. "Why doesn't he answer?" she whispered.

JD reassured her, trusting Chris implicitly. "He will, just wait."

Suddenly Chris came forward as quickly as his ribs would allow him. "It's code," he told them.

"Code?" Casey asked. "What kind of code?"

"The kind that telegraph operators use," JD explained, realizing abruptly what it was they were hearing. He stared at Chris. "Can you understand it?"

Chris nodded. He had done his time in the army and it was one of the things he had picked up and retained. The tapping kept repeating, *Alive? <stop> V <stop>*

Chris picked up a fist-sized rock and answered his friend. His eyes slipped closed afterwards for a few seconds as a sense of relief fell over him. He never doubted the fact that Vin would come for them, even if the bounty hunter had to dig them out on his own. Chris answered, keeping the messages short and sweet since with each strike of the rock something in his chest stabbed deep. Even after just a few short words he had to stop. He asked if Vin had help.

Vin answered in the affirmative and Chris quickly related that to JD and Casey. "They're coming."

The wave of relief that had previously engulfed Chris now swept across the two young people and they instinctively embraced each other in sudden elation. Seconds later they realized what they were doing.

JD's wide eyes swiftly locked with Casey's. The two sat there in paralyzed silence, their grip around each other never lessening. JD's throat went even drier when he realized just how close his lips were from Casey's full, pursed ones. He couldn't draw his attention away. To his amazement, Casey's eyes fired with sudden conviction and she swiftly leaned in and planted a full kiss on his lips, sinking into their soft folds, tasting the semi-sweet layer of salt that lingered there, feeling the sharp bristle of his day old stubble on her chin.

With the realization that she was losing herself, she pulled back, shocked at her own brazen actions. JD just stood there, his mouth gaping, his expression slack. Casey's embarrassment was rapidly changing to ire. "Well, say something," she demanded.

JD's focus abruptly sharpened but all he could do was grin at her, his emotions colliding within him, his throat and his brain only faintly working. Instead, he kissed her back, deep and hard like Buck had explained to him. He felt her melt into him and he found he couldn't stop and was overwhelmed when he discovered that she wasn't stopping either.

Chris glanced back behind him about to relay more of the message but then halted. Eyebrow cocked with amusement, he suppressed a chuckle. *Damn, my advice worked almost too well,* he thought. He turned back to the wall, tapping.

*Hurry<stop>*

*No <break> air? <stop>*

*Yes <break> and <break> no <break> cold <break> water <stop>*




Vin sat back in puzzlement. "What the hell does *that* mean?" he mumbled. Shaking his head, he sat back and it was then he heard the approaching hoofbeats outside. Help had arrived.

He met Nettie Wells at the main entrance to the mine. She looked as stalwart and strong as ever despite the fact that her only niece was buried in a cave-in. The rest of the town came riding up behind her in wagons loaded to the brim with men and equipment. She led them like an officer commanding an army. Vin smiled at the image. If anyone could bring this off it was her.

"Are they alive?" she asked dismounting from her vehicle.

"Yes, ma'am. They're all alive," he answered, grateful he could tell her good news.

For a brief moment, her back to the crowd, the old woman touched Vin's arm and then gathered her strength again. Only Vin caught the diminutive break in her armor. "Thank God," he heard her whisper.

She turned to the gathering troops. "There's hope but not much time. Let's get busy." She began organizing the crowd of men and giving them their orders. They bristled a bit but obeyed. Especially since the guardians of the town had dispersing themselves among the various assemblies like burly drill sergeants about to harass lowly privates.

Buck stepped up to Vin. He tossed his head back towards a wagon. "I brought what little dynamite Mrs. Potter had in the store. It's not much."

"Let's hope it's enough."

"You think it's stable enough to try it?" Buck contemplated the structure before them.

Vin shrugged. "Hard to tell, but they're running out of time."

Buck knew what the bounty hunter meant. "It'll work," he said confidently.

The teams entered the dark maw of the mine and began to dig. The rocks and dirt and timber steadily came out along the string of arms leading to the side ravine. After an hour and a half of labor, Vin made them pause and struck up a conversation with Chris again.

*Air? <stop>*

It took more time than Vin liked for Chris to answer.

*Not <break> much <stop>*

*Have <break> dynamite <stop> Dangerous <stop>*

*Do <break> it <stop>*

*Get <break> back <stop>*

Chris pushed himself to his feet weaving slightly and regarded his two charges who sat side by side. Casey's head rested on JD's shoulder, eyes closed. They had given up digging from their side. The air was almost gone and they were conserving what little they had now. The young kids looked up expectantly at the gunfighter. Casey blinking at him with glassy eyes. Chris waved them away from the debris.

"We have to...get back," he wheezed. The strain of drawing the dissipating oxygen into his starving lungs and bruised chest was only making each breath agony. He stumbled slightly over the rocks and JD and Casey scrambled up to help him.

"What are they...going to do?" Casey asked anxiously.

Chris looked at her trusting face and debated telling her the truth. Most likely the blast from the dynamite would only bring down the rest of the cave burying them all but they had little choice. The air was almost gone. Even JD and Casey were breathing with difficulty now. Chris decided they were strong enough for the truth. They had demonstrated that clearly over the last few hours.

"They're...going...to blow it."

Fear drenched Casey and a slight tremor coursed through her. Her eyes drifted up to the huge rocks over them. She knew the risks that lay in that option but she also knew they had run out of time. She nodded.

JD swallowed his fear and pointed to some large boulders forming a slight ring. "We'll be safer by them...in case more of the ceiling...comes down."

Chris was proud of them. No one could have afforded themselves better under such circumstances, both were setting aside their fears and thinking clearly. Chris nodded his approval at JD's plan.

Casey and JD laid down side by side, his arm draped over her comfortingly. Chris laid down in front of them, covering their heads with his own body.

Then came the waiting, and the silence of the interim was deafening. Casey could hear her own heartbeat resonating in her ears till she couldn't stand it a second more.

"JD. I'm scared," she confessed in a hushed voice.

There was a period of silence and for an irrational moment she thought she had offended him by her admission of weakness. She was about to take it back when he finally answered in his own low voice.

"I'm scared too."

Casey felt her fear fall away from her shoulders momentarily. JD's arm tightened around her and then his other hand found one of hers and squeezed it reassuringly.

"It'll be all right."

She closed her eyes and prayed for it to be true. Seconds later, she jumped as her world was suddenly filled with tremendous sound and light, then darkness and falling debris. She couldn't help herself. She cried out, burying herself deeper into JD's protective embrace. She realized dimly that Chris Larabee was also trying his best to shield the both of them.

A silence settled over them and she couldn't tell whether she had gone deaf or whether she was just dead. She tried to move but found herself pinned. Panic rose up again. For the second time, dust threatened to clog her breath as it filled the small cavern.

JD wasn't moving beside her and terror beat at her brain that maybe he was dead. Breathing in deep in order to call out his name only caused her lungs to rebel further.

Suddenly, other voices became clearer. One was her Aunt. Casey struggled to rise, to let them know she was alive. She reached up a hand over her head.

"They're over here!" Nettie shouted.

"Get them out now! This ain't gonna hold."

Casey recognized Vin Tanner's voice. Then abruptly the added weight across her was gone and strong hands picked her up and carried her towards the distant speck of light in the distance. Her Aunt held her hand the whole way as she relaxed against a colorful swathe of cloth. She looked up to see Ezra Standish's beaming face regarding her.

"Another moment, Miss Wells, and your ordeal will be over."

"What about JD?" She twisted in his arms but Aunt Nettie quieted her.

"Mr. Wilmington is taking care of him." Casey didn't miss the exchange of her Aunt's worried glance with Ezra.




Chris shoved himself dizzily up on an elbow, twisting around to see Vin's smiling face awash with relief. The Bounty Hunter reached a hand down towards him and Chris gratefully accepted it. With a single yank, he had gained his feet. Vin wrapped an arm around him to hold him upright and together they stumbled forward.

Then Chris balked. "JD," he gasped out through the settling dust.

Buck came up quickly from behind to stand next to them, an unconscious JD in his arms. A loud crack resounded through the mine.

"Move!" Buck shouted, realizing abruptly what it meant.

The men ran towards the mouth of the cave, feeling the mine's exhale of breath against the nape of their necks. Chris' ribs stabbed painfully with the pounding of his legs. He shoved aside the pain and concentrated only on running. His world collapsed to only that, hardly aware of what was transpiring behind him.

But Vin knew. He could hear it, smell it, taste it. The roar of the dragon's breath, the odor of the damp pungent earth, the grit of it lay in his teeth. It was only a moment's step away from taking them all. Chris faltered beside him and Vin shouldered almost all of his weight, trying desperately to keep up the pace. He'd be damned if he lost now. Not after all this.

Just ahead of them, Buck's muscles were almost liquid, burning with the strain of running with the added weight of JD. The kid's limp head lolled against his arm. He tried to protect him as much as he could from the falling debris as the whole shaft began to collapse around them. The hazy torch light from the main tunnel was just ahead. He could see figures calling out to them, urging them on.

A rock struck Buck on the shoulder, forcing a cry of pain from his lips. He almost lost his grip on JD, but stubbornly ignored it and clenched the boy even more tightly to his chest. Only ten feet away from the opening, he saw the roof of the shaft ahead crumpling, the light of salvation dimming. But then he was through! People had hold of him and were bearing him further away. He pulled back from them. Where were Vin and Chris?

Vin saw Buck and JD make it into the clear. With a flash of dismay and fury, he knew he wasn't going to make it. His eyes flashed angrily. He wasn't going to let Chris die! Not when they had gone to so much trouble to save him and the others! His anger gave him strength and he used it to bodily fling the half conscious gunfighter into the waiting arms of Ezra and Josiah.

Then a wall of rock and earth grabbed him and held him fast. His breath rushed out and darkness took it's place.

One minute it was all encompassing, suffocating blackness and the next he felt hands grasp his and pull. His arms felt as if they were being ripped form their sockets but then the world became one of dim flickering lights. Vin literally fell onto Josiah, bearing him to the ground. Sweet air flooded his lungs and he coughed. Clouds of dust rose as his frame shook with the force of it.

Ezra pounded his back. "Calling things a mite close, Mister Tanner."

"Sure as hell didn't mean to," he gasped, using Ezra and Josiah for balance till his lungs relaxed.

Chris, pale and concerned, rushed to his side, stumbling down onto one knee in his haste. Nathan caught him before he sprawled into Vin.

"You ... alright?" Chris asked anxiously, his green eyes slowly coming back from the brink of terror that had clouded them.

Vin nodded wearily and reached out to place a reassuring hand on the gunslinger's shoulder. "We're *all* going to be alright." Chris smiled a little then. Using each other for balance, they rose stiffly and then turned to where Buck was standing with Nettie Wells. Together they limped over to them.

"How's JD and Casey?" Chris voice was little more than a rasping hiss, his throat raw with the past few hours' strain.

A canteen appeared in front of him and Chris looked over with surprise to see Mr. Craven holding it. He was one of the more outspoken citizens regarding his distaste for gunslingers watching their town. With a nod of thanks, Chris accepted the canteen and took a long draught from it, one ear cocked toward what Buck was saying.

"He's fine, Chris. Just took a knock on the head from a rock. He's already come around."

A dazed JD, his head cradled in Casey's lap, gazed up meekly at Mrs. Wells, half expecting the matron to scold him for being so audacious with her niece. After all, Nettie Wells was extremely protective of Casey and here he was lying across the girl whose small hands continually brushed across his brow and dark hair.

Nathan was kneeling next to them. He regarded Casey's Aunt. "They're both fine. Just banged up a bit. Casey's leg looks like it's badly sprained." He put a hand on JD who was struggling to rise. "Whoa now, son."

"You need to check on Chris, Nathan. He was pinned down under a real heavy beam for quite a while till we figured out a way to get it off him."

Casey nodded. "JD thought of using a fulcrum."

Buck looked dubious. "A what?"

"A fulcrum."

"What the hell is that?" Buck demanded.

Nathan lost the rest of the conversation as he spied Chris in the crowd. Rising, he moved over to the slouching gunfighter. "I need to take a look at you, too. JD told me what happened in there."

Chris frowned and thought about telling the healer he was fine, but a quick look around and he found himself nearly surrounded by the remainder of his men, all of them with determined, concerned faces. He relented, sighing, and helped Nathan raise his shirt.

A low whistle slid from Nathan's lips as he gently probed the massive bruise that wrapped it's way across the gunfighter's torso. Chris hissed as some of the probes went deep and brushed against tender ribs.

Chris turned his head to the side and his gaze came up against Mary who stood just off to the side of Vin. Her expression was filled with anxiety and alarm. Chris immediately felt a pang of guilt for causing such a pained look to mar her porcelain features. He dropped his arms and pulled down his shirt self-consciously, even though he knew Nathan wasn't quite finished with his examination. He heard an exasperated sigh from the healer but Nathan didn't push it. At least not yet.

Nathan turned to the small gathering. "Might be some cracked ribs." He eyed Chris carefully. "Have you coughed up any blood? Been dizzy?"

Chris shook his head, dragging his eyes away from Mary. "I'm fine, Nathan," he insisted quietly.

Nathan scowled but then gestured to the wagon behind them. "Let's get back to Four Corners. We've all had about as much excitement as we can stand today. You, Chris, into the wagon."

Chris impaled Nathan with a steel glare. "I can ride."

Used to the gunfighter's obstinate nature, Nathan didn't budge. "You're riding in the wagon." Nettie Wells already had Casey and JD nestled nicely in the back.

Vin stepped forward and spoke to Chris. "Afraid we don't have a horse for you anyway, pard. Your black is back in town."

Chris' eyed narrowed. "What about JD's horse?"

"It's thrown a shoe in all the commotion."

JD's eyes widened in the back of the wagon. His eyes flicked back to his bay and then at Buck. The scoundrel shook his head at JD and motioned him to silence.

Comprehension filled him then and he turned quickly back to Casey to hide his smirk from the irate gunfighter.

"What's so funny?" Casey asked.

"Nothin'."

Casey frowned at him and expelled an maddened breath. "Fine. Whatever!"

JD sighed. He never seemed to make her happy. Though he wanted to. God, how he wanted to. He wanted her to smile at him all the time, have her stare at him with those wide coffee and a touch of cream eyes. It literally consumed him sometimes.

He looked at the cave, now buried and closed forever, and a chill swept through him. He had almost lost her in there. He regarded her. "Casey, what were you doing in that mine anyway?"

Casey's face twisted slightly, not with anger at his question but with a touch of sadness. She shifted uncomfortably in the bed of the wagon.

"Were you lookin' for something?" JD urged, trying desperately to keep any sense of accusation or consternation from his voice.

She looked at him then, her eyes glistening in the lamplight as a thin veil of tears filled them. She drew in a deep, almost trembling breath. "Remember when Guy Royal was harassing us?"

"Yeah."

"Well, Aunt Nettie made me pack up some of our things to hide them so's Royal couldn't get his grubby hands on them. The only place I could think of was this old' mine." She sighed. "It was a fine idea at the time."

"But that was a month ago. What were you doing in there now? I didn't see any of your stuff."

"I moved them all back home two weeks ago but I couldn't find something." Casey's voice dropped lower, emotion flooding her. "It was real important I find it."

JD raised his voice angrily. "What could be so all fired important for you to risk your life in that rickety old' mine? It nearly got us all killed."

Once more, Casey turned those eyes toward JD. He could see her tears clearly now and his stomach dipped, his anger gone.

"I had to find this." She dug something out of her pocket. It was a silver locket.

"Jewelry? You went back for a necklace?" It was so unlike Casey. She just didn't usually care about such things.

With a quick flick of her thumb, as if she had done it a thousand times, she snapped open the locket's face. She held it up towards the light from a nearby torch for JD to see. "These are my parents. It's all I have left of them."

The firelight flickered on two distinguished faces. The man was proud and regal and sporting a huge handlebar mustache. His eyes were dark and hard, very much like Nettie Wells herself, showing a fierce determination. JD easily saw the resemblance between brother and sister.

And then there was Casey's mother. The woman was beautiful, her eyes the very mirror of her daughter's, huge soft orbs that belied a sense of wonder and humor at everything around her. Her mouth was small and set sternly but that hardness never reached the eyes. They still sparkled from the fading photo. JD could see she was a gentle woman, her features relaxed and poised, so very much unlike Casey.

One thing stood out above all else though. Casey was the spitting image of her mother. JD had the opportunity to know what Casey would look like when she was a grown woman and it took his breath away.

Casey's voice broke the spell. "I wanted you to know them." Her voice trembled with emotions held barely in check.

JD's throat caught. He looked up at her. "It's an honor," he whispered.

Casey's face broke into a huge grin and she exhaled the breath, almost giddily, that she had been unconsciously holding. A tear escaped her eye and it cascaded down her cheek. JD's hand was there in an instant to catch it, his hand resting there a moment. Then he leaned forward and kissed her quickly, his lips sinking into hers. When they finally broke apart, Casey's eyes closed and her arms encircled JD tightly.

"Thank you. It means a lot to me," she said in his ear buried under a curtain of his dark, curling hair.

The wagon shuddered and Chris cautiously climbed on. He stared at the two of them for a second and then settled down carefully on a blanket, stretching his legs out. He didn't look happy at all to be there.

JD and Casey abruptly released each other and looked away, embarrassed at having been discovered once more in an embrace in front of the sullen man in black.

"Don't let Nettie catch you like that," Chris mumbled just loud enough for them to hear. To his surprise, Nettie Wells heard it anyway.

"Too late for that," she retorted, her eyes boring like steel pistons into JD who jumped a good six inches off the wagon bed. She climbed up onto to the wagon's seat and unwrapped the reins from around the brake. "You pull that again son and I'll toss you down my well to cool you off. Understand?"

JD nodded fearfully. "Yes ma'am." The old woman had his full attention until Casey punched him in the arm. He regarded Casey angrily. "OW! Why did you do that? You don't want me to talk back to your Aunt, do you?"

"No," Casey hissed. "But I do want you to get off my leg."

"Oh!" JD quickly shifted once again to the side.

Casey rubbed her injured leg vigorously, grimacing through the pain. "Sheesh, JD. Take a care, will ya."

JD quickly became irked. "You weren't complaining a minute ago when I had you in my arms."

Casey's swiftly flared to match. "Yeah, well maybe I shoulda been!"

The loud exchange that soon followed elicited a genuine smile to Chris' face. *Yes, it was going to be one interesting courtship.*

The End




Inspiration: "Why do I always get to be the fulcrum?" -- Ray Vecchio of "Due South"

Thanks Ray, for helping me through a nagging writer's block!


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