Summary: Adam and Joe are caught in a cave in. Adam is not amused.
Word Count: 3900
The last thing Adam consciously thinks before the sky quite literally falls down on him in an ear-shattering crescendo is “I told you so,” although, even in the midst of being buried alive, his sense of justice lets him admit that he might have been a little late when he “told so” and that if he’d been quicker in catching up on Joe’s plan he might have been able to prevent—but then there is a sharp pain at the back of his head, an explosion of blinding white light, and—
For an endlessly long time, nothing. Peace.
Then awareness, mild panic, return of pain, darkness. Complete murk.
And silence. Almost nothing to hear, just…a tiny sound. The chirping of a bird, perhaps.
Scraping. Rustling. Swishing. Fumbling fingers?
Fingers. Not a bird then.
More likely a ten-year-old lummox.
“Adam? Can you hear me?”
Yes, I can. Not that I particularly care to hear what you have to say right now—unless it’s an apology.
The words don’t make it from his brain to his mouth, which, considering everything, isn’t too bad right now. Too acerbic anyway. But while his mouth obviously is somehow incapacitated, his brain works quite well. Better than the other way round.
“I can’t see anything. Can you?”
Speaking of the other way round….
“Adam, say something.”
You really don’t want to hear what I’d like to say. Although…it might have been liberating to just let it out.
“I’m scared.” The smallest voice possible. Must have cost Joe everything to admit it.
Clearly, it’s time to make an effort. Curling fingers and toes, Adam groans experimentally, which evokes coughing: hacked, raw, productive. He spits out what feels like all the road dust from here to Virginia City, harrumphs painfully, then croaks, “I’m here.” Much weaker than he’d hoped for, but in the complete stillness just loud enough.
Excitement wafts over from…somewhere. “Adam, are you all right? You are all right, aren’t you? Say you are!”
“I’m…yeah, I guess I am. Are you?”
“Can you move? You’re not trapped, are you?”
“Are you injured? Does anything hurt?”
“The truth, Joe.”
“I’m not hurt, honest, Adam.”
“Just…?” He raises his eyebrow, which he knows will somehow transmit to Joe by magic? A strong brotherly bond? Long experience?
“I mighta cut my face a little. And twisted my wrist. But that’s all there is. I swear!”
“Cross your heart and…”
“I hope ta die, yeah.”
“Good then. And don’t roll your eyes at me.”
“How do you…?” Out of the following, almost unintelligible mumbling Adam only makes out some colorful expressions Pa had better not hear about; then Joe speaks clearly again. “And yours? Your truth, I mean?”
Adam swears under his breath, an oath Pa had better not hear about, either. Of course Joe would fall for his euphemisms just as little as he’d fallen for Joe’s.
“I’m mostly…” Mostly what? He takes a short inventory: head hurts abominably, mouth still dry, tongue a mere cotton wad. Arms, legs, all free—thank the Lord—and…yes, mobile—wait, not the…
“My collarbone seems busted, and I’ve got a helluva lump on the back of my head…” and a stinging cut that still leaks blood at the somewhat alarming rate that head wounds are wont to bleed, but Joe doesn’t have to know everything, so “…other than that I’m right as rain.”
“Guess we were lucky then.”
“Lucky? A mine just collapsed on us, in case you haven’t noticed. And by no fault of mine.”
Oh, well. Dang. Apparently, after all his mouth does work better than his brain. Or at least quicker.
As if Joe needs the reminder that it, in fact, is his fault the mine has collapsed, just because he apparently felt the strong need to kick–kick!—at one of the rickety posts that support—well, did support—the disused mine’s ceiling, whatever reason drove him to do it. And there must have been a reason, for not even hot-headed Joe would be so careless as to kick at the old, fragile beams just out of spite…not even out of anger at his older brother.
And suddenly all Adam wants to know is, “Why’d you do it?”
“Why’d I do what?”
“Kick the confounded beam.”
“I didn’t…no, really, I didn’t kick it. Not on purpose, I mean. I was going for the rattler.”
“The rattler. The one coming at us. Didn’t ya see it? Musta come out of a cleft. It was awful quick, and I… Honest, Adam, I was just trying to kick it away. Must’ve missed it and hit the beam. But it didn’t get us, right?”
“No. Either you got it after all or the mine did.” Just like the mine got us all. From smoke to smother.
“D’you really think the rocks got it? Or perhaps it’s still around, lurking somewhere?”
“No rattler would wait out a cave-in for the vague chance of having easy prey afterwards. And we aren’t prey anyway. They bite to defend themselves. If that rattler wasn’t crushed by the rocks, it’s gone now, anyway. Out into the sun, most probably.”
“Hey, then we were lucky again.”
Lucky again. Only Joe would…. They are caught under tons of rock and soil and timber, by some major miracle not squashed to death—so, yes, perhaps they are a teeny-weeny little bit lucky after all; a ten-year-old skinny weed and a man who doesn’t dare sit up lest he should find he were concussed after all; in complete darkness, and—wait. Darkness?
“Joe, where’s your light?”
“You had a Davy lamp, hadn’t you? It was in your hand when the ceiling came down. It must be near.”
Instantly, there is rustling again, scraping, swishing, a triumphant “Yes!” Clanking, more rustling, then the darkness is replaced by a flickering light.
The soft orange glow reveals that, indeed, they have been lucky: not the whole ceiling crashed down on them. In fact, most of the structure that supports the main shaft still stands. Unfortunately, that’s where their luck ends, for the part that has come down blocks their way out. Adam has no idea how much rubble there is, whether it’s mostly soil and gravel or a thick, solid wall of rocks, too big to be moved by themselves—or by Hoss, who hadn’t yet come into the mine when it collapsed.
Lord, had he been vexed when he’d noticed Hoss’s horse limping, even though his brother was quick to assure him it was probably only a small stone caught in the horse shoe. Vexed and impatient to get into the mine and haul his dim-witted little brother out, which was why he left Hoss tending to the horses and just gone in alone.
Joe would certainly say they were lucky he had done that. And in a way, they are. Of all the people Adam would like to have outside a mine that just collapsed on him, it’d be Hoss. Hoss, who doesn’t panic, who has the strength to move rocks that most men can’t even stir, who will know when and where to get help. Hoss, who by now must be desperately waiting for a sign his brothers are still alive.
But to give a sign, Adam has to get up, as untempting as it seems. Bringing his arms under himself he slowly pushes his torso up (carefully favoring his good shoulder) pulls his legs around, and slowly, cautiously, lifts himself up into a sitting position. He’s glad for the rock at his back. Sitting unsupported doesn’t seem to be an option right now.
Joe is at his side a split moment later, as if he was reluctant to scamper over as long as Adam lay prone. “Hiya, yer up, lazy bones! I already was worried…” he cries as he holds the lamp up to his brother’s face.
Whether it’s the light so close to his eyes, Joe’s screech or the fact that he’s just sat up, Adam doesn’t know, all he knows was that his head is suddenly assaulted by stabbing pain, fiery zigzags flashing before his eyes, and an all-drowning roar in his ears. His hands fly up to cradle his head, palms pressed on the eye sockets, fingers around his skull trying to keep it from exploding. The world makes a jump, lurches nauseatingly to the side and down, and then slowly up again while it twists around him, round and round and round…. Then the twisting subsides with the pain and the zigzags and the whooshing. Unfortunately, the nausea remains.
He swears. Honest to God, he swears, loud and clear. He shouldn’t do it, and most certainly not in front of his little brother, but what little control of himself he’s left he needs to keep the contents of his stomach down.
“You had better not Pa hear those words,” Joe says cheerfully.
“Put that lamp down, willya?”
“Aren’t we lucky I found it?” He swings it in front of Adam’s face, perhaps for emphasis, but it just sets the world into unnatural motions again, which requires a Herculean effort not to vomit after all.
“Put it down, now.”
“You sound like Pa when you’re so grumpy,” Joe says, but finally sets the lamp on the ground and slumps down next to it.
Adam, neither feeling particularly lucky nor like Pa, decides not to comment on that and confines himself to rolling his eyes. Which sends another jolt of pain through his head.
Heroically, he does not utter another oath.
Instead, he subjects Joe to a quick scrutiny. The boy’s pants are torn but his knees peeking out of the holes are not bloodied. There are scratches on his face, some shallow, some deeper, and a cut over his left eyebrow, all of them clotting already. Looking remarkably calm and composed, especially considering his earlier admission to being scared, he sits cross-legged, on hand drawing figures on the dusty ground, the other curled loosely in his lap.
Which reminds Adam… “Show me your wrist.”
It is reddish, swollen, and tender, but Joe can flex it and move all fingers.
“Sprained, I think,” Adam says as he fumbles his bandana from his pocket and wraps it around Joe’s wrist. “Here, that should do till we can show it to Doctor Paul.”
“When that’s gonna be, Adam?”
“Depends on how thick that boulder wall is.” He lifts himself up, laboriously, taking a couple of deep breaths to find his equilibrium and make his head and stomach agree with each other.
As he walks over to the debris he casts a short glance at Joe’s Davy lamp and finds its flame faintly flickering to one side. So there’s air, a slight draft. At least they won’t suffocate.
The gravel wall consists mostly of stones of all sizes, soil and roots, and even some sod clumps. A thorough cave-in, not just a little rubble coming down. Just what the owners must have feared when they closed the mine. The beams supporting the ceiling are held up by the debris, which means that before the blockade can be cleared away the roof beams have to be braced from the other side of the wall.
Which means nothing can be done from inside.
“How thick is it, Adam?”
“I don’t…” He produces his revolver and raps its handle on a rock, carefully so as not to disturb the precarious balance of the gravel wall. The knock resonates through the cave, hangs in the air for a while. Adam listens at the wall for an answering knock, raps again, listens. Raps. Listens. Raps, listens, raps, listens, raps, listens, raps…
“Did ya hear something? The wall ain’t thick, right? Adam? Adam!” Joe plucks at his shirt, joggles his shoulder. His bad shoulder, and that jolts Adam out of the vicious circle.
He shakes his head, pinches the bridge of his nose—it’s for the headache, just for the headache— takes a deep breath. “No, Joe, I didn’t hear anything, and I don’t know how thick the wall is. It can’t be too thick, though, or no air could go through.”
It’s good reasoning, and sound enough to not only make Joe believe him but to make Adam believe himself, too. Too good reasoning, apparently, for now, before Adam can thwart it, Joe launches himself into digging them out. He can be rather quick, the little squirrel, Adam has to give him that, but very fortunately Adam can be quick, too, and so he pulls them both away just in time from the small avalanche Joe’s attempts unleash.
He’s got Joe grabbed by the collar as he hauls him out of harm’s way, and as the dust settles and he realizes that the ceiling is still intact and won’t come down on them for good, he can’t help but give him a good shake.
“Don’t do that again.”
“But Adam, we gotta—”
“Not again, do you hear me?”
Joe suddenly goes limp, then twists and wriggles himself out of Adam’s grip. He gets just out of Adam’s reach, then puts his arms akimbo. He looks like a miniature version of Pa like that, but his voice doesn’t reach Pa’s volume, even though he certainly goes for it.
“You can’t tell me nothing,” he roars, two or three octaves too high to be truly impressive, but still nerve-grating enough. “You think you know everything, just because you went to that fancy school of yours, and you think you can order me around.”
“I do not think—”
“But you can’t tell me nothing.”
“Anything. I can’t tell you anything. Or I can tell you nothing. Even though there’s slight difference in the meaning, anything being not a thing and nothing being nil.” He could warm up to the topic and go on for hours, but that’s not the point. The point is that Joe is silent.
And he remains so, for quite a while, just silently staring at Adam. Then he can’t stop his lips from curling anymore. “You’re pulling my leg, right?”
Not completely in the way you think, little brother, but still… “Yep.”
And suddenly he’s so very tired. He reaches for Joe, pulls him back to where he can sit with his back to the wall and lowers himself down. Joe follows reluctantly.
“Look,” Adam says, and he wonders why he didn’t say it before Joe started to scream at him. Might have saved him the additional headache. “The wall is the only thing supporting the ceiling right now on this side of the mine. If we move the boulders…well, you saw what happens then. So we can’t do anything but wait for help. We’ve got air and it’s not overly hot in here, so we can go on without water for a while.”
“But no one knows we’re here. I didn’t tell anyone where I went.”
“Well, I knew where you went, right? You didn’t have to tell me. And, anyway, Hoss knows where we are. He was with me, was just tending to the horses when the mine collapsed. I bet he already got help. We might be out of here quicker we think.”
“I just want to be outta here before the party.”
The party. Of course. “The party is on Saturday night, Joe. That’s two days from now, and I don’t think they’ll need that much time to get us out.”
And with that Joe’s face lights up. Like a match being lit in the dark. “Then I reckon I better go and see if I can find them diamonds. With all the rubble coming loose, perhaps some were pulled free, too.”
Adam buries his head in his hands. He doesn’t look up as he says, “Joe, I told you there are no diamonds in this mine. It’s a silver mine. And I’ve never heard of diamond deposits in the territory anyway.”
“But Mitch says he’s seen some.”
“In this mine?”
“And what business did Mitch have in a closed mine, which you all know you’re not allowed to set foot in?”
“He just went in for a spell, honest, Adam. We never stay for long, we’re not stupid.”
Well, that’s debatable. “You were here before? Against Pa’s express order?”
“Just a few times, and only for short. Truly, Adam.”
His head hurts too much to launch into a full lecture. And anyway, Pa will do it as soon as Joe’s out of here and found unscathed.
“I’m glad you knew where I went,” Joe pipes up again. “Or else…”
Or else, indeed. “Or else” could have easily happened, even though Joe doesn’t have to know that right now, for it had taken Adam a while to to figure out where Joe was heading when he found his little brother and his pony missing instead of seeing one of them cleaning horse tack and the other munching hay in the barn.
While usually he and Joe seem to communicate in two different languages, Adam is quite apt in deciphering “Joe” to normal speech. Still, he had to go through their conversation at lunch several times to distill the crucial facts from his little brother’s incoherent rantings.
The cornerstones were easy enough to identify: coming Saturday night, Pa’s birthday will be celebrated with a big party on the Ponderosa; a fact that has Hop Sing in a fuss already, and Joe almost as bad, just for a completely different reason. Cause of Joe’s agitation is nothing less than Pa’s birthday present. After much persuasion, Adam showed his brothers what he brought from Boston, just for this occasion: a silver tobacco box, engraved with a clipper ship. Hoss then produced the beautiful set of Mexican spurs he bought from the money earned helping Widow Hawking chopping enough wood to last her all winter.
Joe, it turned out, had spent his little savings on candies for a girl at school, had been completely surprised by the sudden upcoming of Pa’s birthday and was subsequently now short of a present.
Neither Adam’s idea to just draw Pa a picture like he used to was met with much gratitude or enthusiasm (“I’m not a little child anymore!”) nor was Hoss’s idea to whittle something (“In two days?”). Instead Joe had lashed out at his brothers.
Adam lost him somewhere between how unfair the two of them were, being older and able to earn money, and how he was going to show them and everyone else at the party.
He was already saddling his horse to go after Joe—irrationally, since right then he had no idea where that could be—when he remembered hearing something like “much more precious” and “just digging it up.” That was when he knew where Joe was heading. It seemed a far cry, but something told him he was on the right scent.
He’s more than happy now he went with his instinct. Because if he’d not, then…”or else.”
He’s torn out of his musings by another triumphant cry “Gotcha!” and then Joe appears at his side, swinging a dead snake in his good hand.
“The rattler!” he cries. “Look, Adam, the mine got it after all!”
Really, he might be able to reciprocate Joe’s enthusiasm more if there weren’t the pounding in his head. Or the buzzing in his ears. Or the queasiness.
But Joe’s unperturbed. He swings the rattler back and forth a few times, then just hurls it into the depths of the mine and goes back on his diamond hunt.
And of course, the place he deems perfect for his search is the one place Adam doesn’t want him to be, the foot of the gravel wall.
Everything goes quickly then. Joe lets out another whoop of joy, bends down and tries to retrieve something from the base of the wall—the base!—Adam jumps up to haul him back, stomach lurching, black spots in front of his eyes—and the buzzing, the buzzing!—rocks come loose at the top of the wall, rippling down at an almost sedate pace, Joe looks up but does nothing—the fool!—Adam knows he is too slow, much too slow to reach Joe in time, still he must try, but his legs won’t support him anymore, he’s falling, falling, and then a cry “Joe!”—is that he?—and another, “Adam!” and Joe’s voice is not as it was, and then his face hits the ground, and pain, and—
He wakes, and this time it isn’t dark, and there isn’t pain, not much anyway, and it isn’t silent. There’s light and the crackling of fire, the smell of coffee, and a voice saying the familiar words of, “Welcome to the land of the living, Adam.”
He’s helped into a sitting position, pillows are stuffed behind his back, a glass pressed into his hand. Before he can enjoy the fresh, cool water, he has to answer the usual questions. Yes, can manage on his own. No, he doesn’t feel much pain. Or nausea. In fact, he feels pretty well, thank you. Yes, he’s hungry, and yes, he thinks he can keep a solid meal down. And for the love of…he knows his name. It’s Adam. Cartwright, there. He has to admit he doesn’t know which day it is. If he ventures a guess then perhaps Friday. He certainly has slept the night through.
It turns out it’s Saturday already. Saturday night, to be precise. Pa’s birthday party has been postponed, but Pa considers the rescue of his sons the best present anyway. That and his middle son’s part in said rescue.
“He rode like the wind,” Pa summarizes it, “got help, and then dug most of the rubble out of the way himself.”
“And Joe?” He’s certain Joe can’t be too bad off or Pa wouldn’t be sitting at this bedside. But he needs the reassurance.
“He’s fine. Anxious to see you. And positive he’s the luckiest fellow in the world.”
There’s commotion in the hallway, and then Hoss and Joe are ushered into the room by Hop Sing, who deposits a huge tray on Adam’s desk. Apparently Pa’s birthday party will be taking place right here in Adam’s room.
And the first item on the agenda, it appears, is Joe’s present to Pa. It’s presented with as much dignity as Joe can muster, wrapped in a piece of velvety cloth. Joe fidgets and shifts on his chair, and Adam can see his hands twitching when Pa isn’t quick enough to open the twine that keeps the velvet bundle together. But he gets completely still when Pa finally opens the fabric and reveals five walnut-sized, faceted, clear stones.
“Diamonds,” Joe prompts. “I found them in the mine, just before Hoss broke through the gravel. You can buy whatever you want with them.”
They regard the diamonds in reverent silence.
“They are beautiful,” Pa says after a while. “I don’t think I’ll sell them. I’d rather keep them as a reminder of how lucky we were.”
He puts them on Adam’s nightstand, one by one in a row. They are beautiful. Perhaps the most beautiful mountain crystals Adam has ever seen.
“Right.” He nods at Pa, then looks at Hoss, and finally smiles at Joe. “How lucky we are.” And he means it. Honestly.
Yet still he can’t help giving a wink.
A/N: Written for the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. The words/phrases dealt to me were:
rattler, lucky, collapse, Saturday night, diamonds