Birch '05: Underground

Chris Larabee didn't like being underground.

The mine's walls were plenty wide, wider than his outstretched arms, and smooth; quartz glittered for his briefly-lit Lucifer. They weren't more than a few paces in, and already the darkness had swallowed up sunshine. He could look over his shoulder, and see the day bright and brilliant like a picture book, framed on all sides by the mine's dark, open mouth. He lit the candle, covered it with the short glass chimney, and glared once more back at the sun. A quiet nicker from Buck's horse--damn thing was almost as talkative as its owner-- broke the stillness, and he turned toward the depths.

The hole was mule-high, too, high enough for a man as tall as Buck to walk without hitting his head. Chris held the candle and they proceed slowly forward.

"100 Feet." The sign was long and narrow, its tin letters tacked into the board that hung down from the ceiling. For that, Buck would've had to duck; Chris's hat just barely made it under. With only 100 feet between him and daylight, Chris still didn't like being down here. He glanced back to the light, still big and bright, but high, and off-center; the shaft was curving, and angling down--not sharply, but enough to tell him that the sunlight would be invisible before long. He tried to keep a straight line to Buck's left and hurry his steps, but the iron track for the rail cars kept catching his feet and making him stumble. Buck, loping along to his right, reached out a steadying hand a time or two, until Chris cursed and moved further away. There. He'd found the space between the evenly-laid rails, smooth earth tamped down by time and water and countless miners' boots.

The wind in his face was colder than an Indiana winter, a steady breeze that rose up from somewhere, through niches in the rock or more tunnels. He concentrated on the glassy smoothness of the earth under his boots, and wondered how they'd dragged it, or how many men had tromped in and out to pack it down so neatly. As the sign that read "200 feet" came into view, he adjusted his grip on the candle holder and slowed down, just a touch.

"Ought to be an escape hole dug, somewhere along here," Buck muttered.

"You afraid of the dark?" Chris sniped, as much to cover his own discomfort as to needle Buck.

"Hell, no," Buck answered, but Chris didn't spare thought to whether his partner was telling the truth or not.

Chris just set his eyes to seeking an exit, but found no more than a rotting foreman's desk, half-tumbled to the ground in a blasted-out niche. Maybe there was a tunnel beyond, maybe not; he couldn't tell and didn't investigate. The only other things that marred the smooth blasted surface of the wall were little cave-ins, low piles of rock or dirt right around gaps and cubbies that made no sense to him. Chris didn't see the unreflective, dark maw off to the right until they were almost under the 300 foot sign. He pointed across Buck's chest and stopped. "That it?"

"Hold up the candle."

Chris did, stepping across Buck and lifting the chimney a little, unaccountably relieved when it flickered and danced; the cold air swept up this hole faster than it did the main tunnel. This shaft was smaller then, and the way the wind moved, it must lead to the outside. He took three faltering steps into it before changing his mind; the earth here was softer, disused, and when he knelt the only boot prints in the dirt were his own.

"Heard these flooded out a few years back, all the way to the mine head," Buck said. Even though there was no sign of people yet, Buck's voice was barely above a whisper, and the hand that touched Chris's throat when it steered him back around was icy cold. Chris picked up his slow jog, frowning at how Buck half-crouched as he ran, keeping his head down like someone would be able to see him; there was nothing to see, and no way to see it in this blank shaft of blackness.

Chris tried, then. The candle's glow was small comfort, barely reaching the mine walls, showing him holes where things had been, or where earth had fallen. It just barely caught out Buck, faint and flickering, making the whites of Buck's eyes shine for a second her and there, sometimes outlining the sharp jut of his jaw, like he was a ghost, or no more than Chris's shadow. He was staring so hard that Buck, when he spoke, startled him.

"Reckon they're still full, lower down, or the companies would come back to 'em."

He turned his face back to the black hole in front of him. Flooded mine shafts, tunnels under water leading miles into nowhere... Chris Larabee would drive cattle from here to doomsday before he'd make his life's wages blasting rock deep underground. "Reckon so."

"You all right?"

"Shut up," he hissed through clenched teeth. He wanted to get in, get the bastards, and get out, as quick as he could.

He shouldn't have told Vin, JD and Ezra that he and Buck could take this route, cut off the back trail. He could have let these bastards go once they'd cleared Four Corners, but Ezra and Vin wanted that reward, and JD still wanted his glory.

Buck just wanted a good fight.

400 feet.

Buck kept his silence for a time, just a quietly panting breath and the brush of boot leather over hard-packed earth as they passed under the "500 Feet" sign.

Damn the bastards.

They slowed to inspect two different branching shafts, but when Chris stepped into each and lifted the candle chimney, the wind was quiet. "Must lead to nowhere," he muttered.

"Stopes," Buck said.

Chris glared at him in the darkness. Neither of them knew shit about mining, but Buck maybe knew more than Chris did; miners were the most common callers on whores. Miners who worked a corporate hole had the best pay, he'd been told, and this whole area had been owned by Calumet and Arizona, one of the best-funded companies in the States. Quality was clear in the construction of the buildings outside, abandoned now but still holding together just fine, in the weathered survey map tacked to a wall in the assembly building that looked to reflect miles and miles of tunnels down here. It was clear in the way the tracks ran so smooth and flat, nary a niche between the first and the next, like dark iron ribbon unfurling down the shaft. Must have been an awful lot of water, that they hadn't found a way to pump it out and keep blasting.

He kept his thoughts to himself, uninterested in conversation.

The gang could have been down any one of the shafts they passed, but Chris didn't think so. He smelled wood smoke on the cold breeze that came from deep in the mountain, smoke and something else, so at each junction he shook his head and they moved on.

The candle, Chris held far out to his left to give a shooter a target that wasn't either of their bodies --just in case Miller and the others saw them first.

"Cold," Buck muttered, and Chris shivered at the word. It was, and getting colder; the breeze cut through his cotton shirt and pants, cut through the silk underdrawers he wore that were supposed to keep a man dry. Sweat collected under his hat brim, the thick felt the only thing that effectively protected from this breeze. It chilled his hands until he wondered if he could feel his fingertips; he flexed them into fists several times, as best he could without dropping the candle, to keep the blood moving.

"How the hell deep did these boys go?" He spat. "And why?"

"Can't say, Chris. Hell, they could've doubled back out that hole we think was the escape route, or hid out in one of the others."

"They're in front of us," Chris replied, grim. "You don't smell that fire?"

A few moments later Chris thought he could hear them now, and waved his free hand Buck's way until it connected with flesh; Buck slowed immediately, then stopped.

"What?" the barest whisper still reached him, making distracting visions roll into his head--he was nervy underground, and his mind kept skittering off to greener pastures, pleasanter times, places, events. Anything to keep him from staring at the barely reflective tin letters that announced "600" just a few feet before him. "You hear 'em?" Buck asked.

"Think so."

"Could be a ways yet. Sound'll carry a long way, down here."

"Then shut up."

A sharp snort cut off into nothing, and Chris pulled his gun from the leather and eased close to the wall, a bit in front of Buck, and started tripping over the damned cart rails again.


It took longer to reach the 800 foot marker, as they were working harder to be silent now. Their boots on the dirt sounded like no more than the sweep of a yard broom, scratching at dust. Chris paused. A light that had been faint a hundred feet ago looked brilliant now, a sharp glimmer in the distance. Chris snuffed out his candle, wondering about the lack of sentries. He'd have posted somebody at least this far out. Leaning in close enough to feel Buck's breath, warmer and sweeter than this chill wind, he whispered, "Sentry?"

Buck's hand floundered, whapping against him before it found his shoulder, gripping easily for balance as much as guidance. "Listen out for 'em. They'd sit on this side, don't you think?"

A right handed man would. Buck's hand squeezed tighter at his shoulder, and Chris put one foot in front of the other.

Murderers. Thieves. He'd kill 'em now just for making him crawl down this hole. Chris hunched his shoulder away from Buck, sweating a little even in the cold. He hefted his gun, rebalancing the weight, and the click of the hammer drawing back cracked loud like the boom of thunder. He frowned when Buck's hammer echoed the same.

The noise ahead was steady now, and easy to identify: men's laughter, low voices. Light--looked like a camp fire and maybe torches on the walls, the way it seemed to fill the space--almost reached him and Buck now, and Chris took a few more steps forward. There, right under the "900" sign, Miller himself stood, whiskey bottle in hand and gesturing grandly.

He took a moment to place the others he could see: Kennedy, the younger Miller brother, the two fellas with Polish names. Five of eight. He eased closer still, until he saw two pairs of outstretched boots. "Miller!" Chris yelled, wondering where the hell a sense of fair play had come from; him and Buck were outgunned, three or four to one.

The big man ducked and drew, and Chris started shooting then, indiscriminate-seeming, but the gun aimed true and most of his bullets found their marks. Behind him, Buck jumped to the other side of the mine shaft, and the flare of powder drew bright points of light right at the end of Buck's peacemaker's barrel. They didn't even duck; there was no place to hide anyway, as the only thing those bastards would be able to see to shoot at was muzzle flare.

It wasn't long before five men lay dead before them, and two more mortally wounded. Chris reloaded, heard empty shells thud muted on the earth as Buck did the same, then led the way forward. He kept to the shadows and kept his gun trained on the bodies, daring any one of them to move, while Buck knelt by each, shaking his head for dead and shrugging for the dying.

"Did you see the last one while we were shootin'?" Chris asked, peering more closely now at the piles of supplies. None looked big enough to hide a man, but he'd best search them anyway.

"No," Buck said, still moving through the bodies. Reckon he's on back there somewhere." He barely nodded deeper into the mine.

Buck's big boot nudged side arms out of the way--and out of reach, just in case--as he moved. He knelt over the last one, no more than a kid really, who had actually crawled toward the money and held a bank bag in his bloody hands, like salvation. The boy gasped and panted in pain, and dark blood spilled out of holes his belly. Reminded Chris of Ezra, with the money up against him. He knew this boy would remind Buck of JD.

"Was it worth it, kid?" Buck asked, then Chris heard the sigh just before more, quiet words. "You're not gonna get to spend it where you're going."

"Buck." Best cut off those thoughts before the guy got maudlin.

The tunnel branched, a switch line for the tracks clearly visible just a few feet beyond the fire. Chris peered hard down the narrower hole, staring until his eyes hurt, but he couldn't see a damned thing. "All eight of 'em come in here, kid?" Chris asked, not even looking behind him.

"N--" a wet cough, "no. Sam don't like..."

Chris stopped listening and walked past the tunnel branch, daring anyone to take a shot and making sure Buck was watching for an opportunity. No gunfire, no nothing. He took five steps on down the bigger tunnel shaft and stopped when his boots slid and sank into the earth. He took a few more steps, harder than the last, as the ground softened further and gummed up on his boots; he could see faint reflection now, and realized he was just a few feet from the edge of an underground lake. He couldn't believe they'd made their camp this close to the underground lake; it was less than 30 feet further down the hole, close enough that he could see it reflect the campfire light. Didn't the water levels rise now and again? Either way, there was no escape, and a quick glance around showed no place a man could hide.

He swallowed, hard, and frowned to himself. It was just a mine shaft. Just water. Chris eased back against the wall, chilled anew. "Buck. Let's get the bank bags and get out of here."

"We gonna take 'em out and bury 'em?" Buck asked.

Chris shook his head. This abandoned mine was as good a tomb as these fellas could wish for. Chris turned his head toward the water's edge, caught by a sound, but nothing was there, and the water's surface rippled gently...


He heard it then, or felt it, and it didn't take being a miner to put that sound together with a sense of impending doom. He started to run, jerked short at the end of his arm by Buck's hand that had banded around his wrist; he bounced back like a kid's toy. "Buck!"

"Chris!" Buck hissed.

"We've gotta--"

"You don't run at a cave-in! Now stay still for a minute."

He shook like a leaf, so hard Buck could probably feel it vibrating his bones, until information wormed its way through sheer, stupid panic: the roof above them was holding, the walls solid and steady; the fire, dancing merrily in the steady stream of air that flowed up from somewhere barely flickered... there. Another flicker. Another, and then the flames at fire and torches settled as they would on a clear prairie with no wind at all.

The kid, still on the floor, cackled, then coughed. "Was it worth it?" he taunted, vile and mean, and without a thought Chris put another bullet into him.

"Put him out of his misery," he said, to satisfy Buck--it could have been true, after all. Gut-shot like that, all the kid had to look forward to was a few hours of agony.

Buck just stared, mouth a tight line, eyes narrowed and squinting at him, measuring.

"I'm fine," Chris said stiffly, looking back the way they'd come. "How bad is it?"

Buck chuckled then, and knelt beside the fire, placing his peacemaker across his thigh and holding his hands toward the flames. "Bad enough, if you're asking for my opinion."

Chris laughed at that shot, but the sound came out dry and brittle to his ears.

"Didn't know close spaces bothered you, Chris," Buck said, his voice measured and casual.

"They don't." Chris denied. "I don't like being underground, is all." He gestured toward the entrance. "You know what did it?"

"Gunfire, maybe?"

"They blasted this hole with dynamite, Buck. A few guns going off wouldn't bring it down."

"There were pulled timbers near the mine head, Chris. Probably locals just scavenging. Didn't you see them square holes in the walls where the big framing used to sit?"

"Hell no, I--" but he had. He just hadn't known what he was looking at. "That oughtn't to have nothing to do with it," he groused.

"Fine," Buck said shortly. "You figure it out, and let me know."

He didn't want to figure anything. "I don't care what it was. I just want to know if it's between us and the open air." For some reason, Chris couldn't keep his eyes off the fire, and the flames that barely moved compared to the way they'd crackled and danced a few minutes ago.

Buck rose to his full height. "Stay here. I'll be back in a few minutes."

"I'll come--"

"You want to wander off in the dark and leave that last old boy dying alone, when I'll be back in five minutes?"

"Nobody says you'll come back," Chris grated, hard.

"Yeah. All this time and it's this minute I'll pick to run off and leave you stuck down here."

"That wasn't--"

But Buck was already reaching for a big torch, pitch-soaked; the black smoke danced up to the low ceiling before sliding up, toward the mouth of the shaft. "Sit tight," Buck said. "I'll be right back."

Chris barely bit back "You'd better," and said instead, "You're that sure we're cut off?"

Buck's head dropped forward and he shrugged before glancing up, his eyes more sober than the rest of his face. "You don't see that fire moving, do you? "

"Damn it."

"Get us some coffee started," Buck said, and he sounded calm enough. What the hell did Buck Wilmington know about mining? "One of them boys must've had some on him."

Chris balked at doing as he was told, particularly since he knew Buck was just giving him busywork, but he kept an eye on the last living man down here and rifled through packs until he found staples: coffee, flour, sugar, salt--they even had butter instead of lard. They hadn't planned on staying long, but they'd planned to eat well. Before he filled the pot, though, he pulled down a torch and tossed it down the side hole; light danced like a kaleidoscope against the sharply-descending walls, making his trigger finger itch, but there was little to see in those brief seconds: just dirt, more track, jutting stone, and water. Chris swallowed, took a few steps down the hole until he could pick up the torch again and wave it around. A lump of rock protruded between even floor and curving wall, and a rope was tied around it--no, twine. Could be a hundred feet long, and it led into the water and pulled taut. What would they have sunk, and did Chris want to see it enough to tug it up from the water? He knelt, keeping an eye out, and pulled out his pocketknife, but hesitated when he pressed it against the twine. Could be something else they'd stole. But the bank bags were behind him, and he wasn't in the mood for surprises. He cut the twine and watched as it went slack then slowly disappeared beneath dark water.

Coming back to the fire, he case a brief, cool glance at the dying man: he'd been hurt less than the kid, hit twice in the upper chest, but blood flecked his mouth and Chris didn't hold any hope that this one would stand trial either. "You got anything you want to say?" he asked.

"Forgive me..." the man said, and coughed. More blood spilled out of his mouth.

"Not my job to forgive you, mister."

"Ask... my name's Proctor. Didn't mean... to get..."

Chris just stared through the next cough, watched the blood that gushed now, then listened to the harsh wheeze of sucked-in breath. More coughing. More blood. He didn't inhale again.

Chris sighed, and readied coffee in the funereal silence, the only sounds the light smack and burble of water as he emptied someone's canteen, the whisper of coffee grounds against each other, and the crackling of the fire. He put his back to the water and waited, refusing to stare up into the darkness to see if he could catch a glimpse of Buck.

Buck came back before the coffee was boiling. "Could be worse," he said without preamble

"It cave before, or after that exit hole?"

Buck chuckled a little. "Could be better, too. The ceiling came down somewhere around 500 feet, but there's breeze whistling along at the top of the slag. I couldn't see no light, but I reckon that's just because the cave-in's so far underground already. Air's getting through, though. We're not sealed off."

Chris said nothing, just watched the flames crackle.

"They'll fetch us out, Chris. The horses are right outside, and them fellers left enough sign that you and me could follow it on the run. Vin won't miss it."

"Yeah? What's he gonna do when he hits a wall of dirt?"

"Go get help. Must be some retired miners in that town. They'll show the boys how to get in. He die while I was gone?" Buck asked, changing the subject and staring down at the seventh man.

Chris just nodded, wondering about the 8th. "The last one tried to swim out, if he was ever here."

Buck didn't ask for more information, just said, "Lucky for him, either way; I hear dying of freezing is fast and pretty quick, and not dyin' at all is even better."

Chris looked at Buck, really looked at him; his partner appeared calm, almost relaxed, and in the shifting light Chris wasn't sure if Buck was just trying to coddle him, or if Buck really was that unworried.

As good a place as this was to bury these criminals, he didn't want himself and Buck in eternal rest alongside them.

A tiny plop! A droplet of water, no more, caught Chris's attention and he turned to look, but his vision was too poor in the dark to see anything much. He wondered if it meant there was another cave-in, or if water just collected on the ceiling. Hairs prickled on the backs of his arms and neck. He didn't want to be this close to that water, couldn't help but eye the waterlines on the walls above him; it had been deeper before, and could be again.

"We ought to move up to the cave-in site, in case we c'n hear 'em when they come in."

"Yeah. We can haul this stuff up there, start a fresh fire. Make us some dinner."

"This ain't a camping trip, Buck," he said, snide.

But Buck refused to be wound up. "It is now."

Nervous energy compelled Chris to rise, but Buck's hand touched his shoulder, belaying him.

"It okay if we just have that coffee first?"

Chris reached, patted the back of Buck's hand where it touched him; he didn't like it, and he sure as hell wasn't as optimistic as Buck and never had been. But he hoped Buck would take the touch as a sign of reassurance, and maybe not start clucking over him like a hen with her chicks. It was a faint hope, he thought wryly, but better than nothing.

Buck pulled coffee mugs from a camp kit and handed one across to Chris, then grabbed a disused bandana to hold the pot handle and poured. "Any sugar?"

Chris pointed.

After Buck had sweetened and stirred, he moseyed around the fire and settled down beside Chris so that their elbows bumped. "Downright cozy, ain't it?" he said, too friendly for the circumstances.

Chris looked pointedly from Buck to the corpses splayed around them. "You'd best be joking."

Buck chuckled. "Needs some cleaning up, o' course. Put these fellers into the water, maybe, let 'em rot in peace."

It wasn't a bad idea, far better somehow than leaving them down here to desiccate and mummify like them kings of old. "Leave 'em, for now," he decided. "Might need the bodies to collect on the rewards, and Ezra'll throw a fit if he has to try and fish 'em out of the water."

Buck shrugged agreement. They finished their coffee, rifled through gear for oilskin coats and gloves and anything else they could find to fend off the cold, and munched on apples they'd found in a gunny sack. Only then did they pile up the bodies--freeing them of their earthly goods like firearms and cash, hats and bullets. Chris opted for the steeper shaft, the one where he'd found the twine; they piled them a few feet from the water's edge, and Chris hoped he and Buck would be long gone out of here before they started stinking up the shaft.

The fire still burned high when they started laying out torches in the shaft, propping them low near the tunnel floor so they could see well enough to walk easily. It seemed like slow going, and it irritated Chris to no end that this place was far more comfortable, well-lit and without that infernal wind blowing. The fact that easy light and no wind meant they were trapped should've been more important to him, but it seemed he'd taken Buck's opinion to heed; Vin and the others would find them, and somebody would dig them out. Hell, they could start from this side whenever they were ready.

They worked in silence, just the barest brush of gloved hand to hip or shoulder or face in passing--mostly Buck touching, all Chris pausing to let him. Chris stopped Buck from piling things right near the fallen dirt, and they set up beneath strong-looking timbers that had been left untouched, hauling steadily until everything of value or interest had been moved up nearer their makeshift camp.

Carrying firewood up was the hardest, and Chris mused that Miller's gang must've coaxed a horse or two down here, to get so many supplies in. He and his boys wouldn't have ever bothered to carry so much just to be comfortable in a hide-out.

After a few loads of wood, he let Buck call a temporary halt. "I'll just put out them torches and bring 'em back up with me," Buck said. "They'll last us a while."

Chris started a fresh fire off coals of the old that he'd brought up in a fry pan, happy to see the flames dance again. On the other hand, he was none happier staring at the fallen rock and dirt than he'd been staring at the unnaturally still underground waters. He surveyed their supplies; they had enough food to last 'em a while, and the water back there smelled fresh enough. They'd eat damned well, right up until they ran out of food. "Now all we need is a deck of cards," he said to the empty space.

He heard Buck long before he saw him, his voice only slightly off key reaching Chris far before the man did: <> At the top of his lungs.

so the men went down to Alma town
for women and for whiskey
and many a tall tale is still told
of men who fought and died over yellow gold
and the dancing lady from the east
who set many a heart on fire
she danced and twirled the whole night long
for the lonely en of Alma town

Chris tried to recollect; he thought that was the second verse, maybe the third. By the time Buck reached the chorus, he was close enough that his voice just boomed up the shaft.

Silverheels! Silverheels!
never saw a face so pretty
Silverheels! Silverheels!
she was a flawless beauty
Silverheels! Silverheels!
come and dance with me
I'm just an old gold miner, child,
you are a queen to me

Buck knew all nine verses, he wasn't opposed to repeating ones he'd already sung, and lord only knew how many other song about mining he knew. Chris fought to get his smile under control before Buck saw it, or he'd be singing along, and much as Buck would enjoy meeting death with a song on his lips, Chris was of a more sober persuasion; he'd rather muse and recollect, and regret. Besides, it'd be awhile before death found them down here, if she did at all.

Buck dropped his pile of torches, some still simmering and smoking and stinking worse' n a tar pit, between them and the cave-in, upwind.

"Best shove 'em into the dirt," Chris warned, thinking to save them as long as they could--and that smelling that stink wasn't helping anybody.

Buck did as he was bid, and stretched tall, tall enough that his hands bumped the ceiling of the shaft. "Ain't this a purty place for a song, Chris?"

"Uh huh." His mouth must've twitched, because Buck grinned, sly and too content for their circumstances, and knelt down beside him.

"Reckon I could get a yell or two out of you, if I put my mind to it," he said, half-flirt, all promise.

Chris tried not to smile. "Reckon you could. But is that really the way you want to go?"

Buck drew back, and the most confused look crossed his face before Buck said, "Hell yes!" and Chris finally laughed.

"Guess there's worse ways to go," he conceded as Buck shuffled around behind him. Hands insinuated themselves in above his gun belt and he raised his arms to let them, kept them up and sucked in a slow breath while Buck unbuckled him and slid hands down his leg to untie the holster strap at his thigh. The belt fell away, weight disappearing from his right hip to land with a thud before it was dragged away. Buck's hands returned, settled on his belly for all of a minute before fingers insinuated themselves under the waistband of his trousers.

"You tryin' to get frisky?" he demanded, mock-gruff. There really were worse ways to go. Not that he was planning on going any time soon.

"Not trying," Buck said against the skin of his neck, and Chris felt a grin stretch his face again. "You think of something better to do?" Buck added.

"Dig our way out," he offered, and leaned a little more heavily against Buck's chest.

"Sure. Later," Buck murmured, then the mustache tickled the back of Chris's neck.

He shouldn't feel so comfortable now, here, with the possibility of death right in front of him, but if he were honest with himself, he'd admit that in these past few years, he was probably most comfortable when death was near. He wondered how Buck tolerated it, but Buck never seemed to mind. Hell, Buck was real big on that--what was it?--carpe diem. Buck took every pleasure and every pain like it counted for something, and for all the things Buck had run off from over the years, he'd never run off from something joyful.

He'd never even run off from Chris, and Chris Larabee was the first to admit that he was a mixed bag of goods at best.

He tilted his head to give Buck more room, and reached to pull off his hat. Hardly needed it down here; he'd just been worried about setting it down somewhere in the blackness never to be seen again. The thought made him chuckle, and he shook his head against Buck's interrogative noise.

"Nothing. Keep doing that."

And Buck did, and soon enough they had most of their clothes off and lay bundled together between dead men's bedrolls and oilskin coats. It was good, and he let himself feel it, let Buck feel it as he clambered over the bigger man and settled atop him. Buck's knees bumped his as they parted, and Chris sighed, reaching a hand between them to settle their manhoods alongside each other. He shifted his hips once, twice, and sighed into Buck's mouth.

There were far worse ways to go.

After the moment of glory had taken them, Chris gave thought to the fact that they could've stayed further from the fallen earth, and not felt such a strong bite of the breeze. As it was, the cold air slipped between layers of bedding to chill the sweat right from his skin, and he knew he was a poor blanket for Buck.

But it seemed better to be close to the problem, where their wood smoke would trail up out of here just like Miller's had, and help call the boys down the hole; where they could hear the boys yelling, maybe. "Reckon we should start digging out," Chris muttered sleepily. Buck's body was too lean and too bony to make a good pillow, but Chris had never had a problem falling asleep on the man. The barely-awake part of him contemplated that, vaguely.

"Mmm hmm. In a li'l bit."

"You'll fall asleep," Chris warned.

Buck's arms tightened around him, one hand venturing to cup his buttock and settle him more firmly. "Yep."

* * *

He must've slept heavily, because when he woke he was alone and twisted up in the mass of bedding.

"Buck?" he croaked, then cleared his throat. The fire had burned low, and it cast a circle of dim red light not five feet past his outstretched hand. He couldn't see Buck, but he could hear him, quietly humming some old song. The scrape and muted slide of earth and metal defined itself next. "You already tired of lazing around?"

"Thought I'd see how deep this is," Buck called back. Chris eased out of the bedding and felt around for his underdrawers and boots, so he could build up the fire. By the time it was blazing, his front was boiling and his backside was frozen; he turned, warming himself before he pulled on the rest of his clothes.

"How deep is it?"

Buck walked into view shouldering overfull saddle bags, wearing only shirt and suspenders. "Can't tell yet," he said, and passed right on by. Buck's own drover's coat and the coat he'd taken from the dead men's supplies were piled up with the rest of their supplies.

Chris watched him dump dirt on down the shaft. "You been working long?"

"Nope." But the pile of earth back there said different. "Could use a hand tryin' to move some rocks out of the way," Buck said, pausing briefly by the fire; he looked flushed and warm, and wore only his shirt and suspenders. His long coat and the overcoat he'd taken from the dead men's supplies were

Chris found gloves and another coat, put his hat back on to keep his brain warm, and pitched in.

Hours later, Chris wasn't sure if they'd done any good at all; the roof was still soft, and clumps and clusters of dirt rained down on them more than once while they worked. He couldn't tell whether they'd made headway or not, but the pile of dirt further down the mine shaft was growing. Buck called a halt to it, headed further down the mine shaft, and a minute later Chris smelled the sharp tang of piss. Damn, he needed to go too. He started water boiling and waited for Buck to return before heading back into the dark himself, feeling his way carefully once his booted foot found a rail. He trusted his luck not to step in whatever puddle Buck had made, and did his business, tucking in quick. It really was cold when you weren't working up a sweat.

"You sure are calmer now than you were when we came in here," Buck commented, and Chris weighed whether or not to reply; Buck had been quiet while they worked, and doubtless just needed to let out some air.

"Yeah." He grinned Buck's way. "Guess I was worried about gettin' stuck down here. Now that we are stuck, well, there ain't anything else to worry about."

Buck laughed and shook his head, eyes sparkling with amusement, and Chris shrugged weakly. He couldn't explain why, but he'd just told the God's honest truth.

Buck set to mixing the warmed water with flour and salt for pan bread, holding the silence, seemingly content with just the sound of the fire, their breathing, and the sizzle of food in a pan. They feasted on bread and good jerky, apples, even tomatoes. Chris wondered how much of the money those robbers had spent on luxuries like tomatoes, and what he might've bought if he'd been one of them, instead of who he was. Whiskey, no doubt.

"There any whiskey in all that stuff?" he asked.

"Nope. Looked already."

Only mildly disappointed, Chris leaned back, stretching a little. Looked like the next few days would be predictable enough--and they were. Digging, sleeping, eating, interfering with each other, talking. Chris felt damned peaceful in this eternal dark, so much so that when he first heard another voice, he thought he'd dreamed it.

"Buck! Chris!" JD. Faint. He stirred a little, looked down to see that Buck was still asleep, then blinked. They'd let the fire die out again, and the first thing he'd need to do was relight it.

"Buck! Chris!"

<> He hadn't lost hope--hell, this had begun to feel almost like an illicit holiday, but it was still a surprise to hear a voice not Buck's or his own.

"JD!" he hollered, and Buck jerked and jumped, the same panic in his eyes that he used to have when he thought a woman's husband was coming home. "Best get dressed," Chris chuckled, sparing a fond pat for hip and groin before he threw off the covers and exposed Buck to the cold.

Buck glared, shivered and yawned, and it took him more than a minute to stir. Chris was already dressed down to boots and coat, and had started the fire up again.

"JD?" Buck yelled this time, and Chris watched him scuttle up the ever-sliding pile of earth.

"Buck!" JD's voice was faint, fighting against the breeze that still rose from below. "Thought we weren't never gonna find you! Vin tracked your horses, and we found this mine entrance. Locals said it was flooded out, but it was clear as day that folks had come in and not come back out..."

Chris tuned out the chatter, concentrating on making a fresh pot of coffee and, as the fire built up, looking around to make sure no evidence of their shenanigans was left lying around. The bedroll... shit. He stood up quick, sure that JD and rescue was still a while away but seeing no reason to take risks, and separated the bedding, leaving one pile where it was and moving another to the opposite side of the fire.

That was better. More innocent, for those of them that didn't know, or wanted to pretend they didn't. Ezra at least, was firmly in that camp, and Chris was happy to let him stay there.

He settled down, coffee in hand, and watched the fire play over the backs of Buck's legs. He could pick up the play of muscles, the clench and release of calves and backs of thighs; it was almost eerie, how he'd gotten so used to the dark.

"Buck? Coffee?"

Buck's backside hunched up. "In a minute," Buck called back, then went right back to jabbering with JD.

It must've been half an hour later before Buck slid back down their side of the dirt, his face and front coated a dark brown; bits of dust clung to his mustache and eyebrows, and Chris blanched. "What's JD have to say?"

"They're 20 feet in or so, and the folks behind him are thinking there's another 10 feet to dig. We'll be out tomorrow."

"It's day?"

Buck frowned, then turned to climb back up the pile. "JD!"

Chris laughed a little, and ducked his head.

Turned out it was indeed day, and that four days had passed. It had felt like a week, with no sun or moon to guide him. He'd checked Buck's pocket watch only twice, unnerved when he realized he didn't know if eight o'clock was the morning or the night.

They put their backs into it and dug faster, less worried now about falling dust, or carting the dirt away, just making sure they didn't bury the supplies or the fire. They even slept again, each of them fully dressed and chastely on his own side of the fire in spite of Buck's grumblings, and the next thing Chris knew, Buck was clambering up the slag and tugging JD back down with him.

JD half fell, half-rolled before he stood up, covered in dirt from the crown of his head down to his boots, which he promptly removed to shake dirt out of. "Chris, Buck!" he looked so joyful, and sounded so young; Chris eased out of his bedroll and stepped back a pace to let Buck soak up all that excitement, and shook his head when Buck caught the kid around the neck and made to toss him to the ground.

"You think you two could hold off cuttin' up until we get out of here?" he tried, but the suggestion was drowned out by JD's complaining and Buck's rolling laughter. <>

When JD finally got away from Buck, he turned toward Chris, hopping on one foot as he tried to replace his boot. "Chris, we were worried about you two, worse when we found the cave-in. Thought maybe Miller and them boys--"

"They're dead," Chris said, cutting off speculation. "Bank bags are over there, and if you made a big enough hole, there's staples and dry goods we might as well take out with us."

He could see light now, coming from near the ceiling, the faintest flickers and shadows shining out the hole JD had just slid through. They were almost home. An hour later, Chris decided that mining might've grown on him, had he ever tried it. They all continued to dig from their side, widening the hole, and Vin was the second person to shimmy through it.

"Y'all have a nice vacation?" Vin's voice brought a grin up from nowhere. He sounded so calm, so casual as he scrambled through the tiny hole, like he'd run across them dozing on the job instead of trapped down a mine shaft after days of hunting and rescue effort.

"Fine," he replied.

Vin slid head-first to the bottom of the pile of rubble and righted himself. "Right cozy in here, ain't it."

It wasn't a question, and Chris shot him a brief glare that said, <> He suspected that JD knew, given the way Buck liked to lecture the kid about the ways of the world, but if JD didn't, Chris wasn't going to be the one to surprise him.

"Best get you two out 'fore you decide to set up house down here," Vin added, grinning, and Chris couldn't argue. He was past ready for sun and horses, friends, whiskey, a bed even.

"Yeah. Buck?"

"Yeah, pard, I've been missing something soft and accommodating for too long."

Chris said nothing, knowing Buck meant a decent mattress but happy to let JD and Vin think what they would.

Buck went first, and between their pushing on his feet and somebody probably dragging on his arms, Buck slid out of sight. JD followed right after, announcing that there was more digging and shoring to do, and that he'd be back quick with a rope.

Left alone with Vin, Chris met eyes that turned far more sober, now.

"We was worried, at first, that we wouldn't find anything," Vin admitted. "Had to dig through near thirty feet of cave-in, and the miners said you two could've been under it."

"We could've," Chris agreed, not trying to soften the blow, "but we weren't. Miller and his men had a camp set up a few hundred feet further down the shaft. We were there when this happened."

Vin stared at him for a long minute before he said, "Any of 'em left?"

Chris shook his head. "Piled seven bodies up back there, if you and Ez want to drag 'em out for the bounties. The eighth, I guess he got away clean."

Vin shook his head. "We found one an hour after you and Buck split off. He's in jail back at Grimsville, waitin' for us to take him to trial."

Chris nodded. He thought he'd mention Proctor's name, see if there were any kin needed notifying.

"Guess you and Buck'll cash in pretty big on them."

Chris scoffed at the idea. "I don't want the bounties enough to go down there and haul them bastards up. Anybody who does, is welcome to it."

"We'll work something out," Vin said after a moment.

JD scrambled back through before he could say anything else, and they started packing things out; bank bags went first after Chris wryly confirmed that Ezra wasn't at the other end of the rope, then foodstuffs, and finally bedrolls, guns and bullets, and the bits of cash they'd found on the dead, all stuffed into Buck's rolled-up coat. They'd use it to pay something to the folks who'd dug them out, and split the rest up among the seven. Chris didn't even know who'd been sent back to Four Corners, but figured that Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan were back there now, worrying and keeping an eye on things.

As it should be.

Vin helped him into the hole and just for a moment he got that closed-in feeling, shimmying and pulling himself through a space no bigger'n a cat, but he came out the other side and looked for Buck, and together they helped haul Vin through.

Daylight, a few minutes later, looked like heaven--until he stepped out into it, then it felt like somebody was poking bits of glass into his eyes.

One of the retired miners, Emmett Johansen, put a hand to his shoulder and handed him a bandana. "Takes a while, for your eyes to get used to it again," he said. Chris wrapped the bandana around his head like a blindfold, and blinked, his eyes still tearing up at what sunlight made it through.

"Y'all want to rest over in Grimsville?" Vin asked, taking Chris by the arm and steering him along.

"Hell no," Chris muttered, though he ran smack into the side of his horse, startling the animal.

Vin laughed under his breath and Chris cursed under his. His eyes still hurt, and he didn't know where Buck was, but for the time being he trusted JD to be looking after his friend. "We stop long enough for a bath, and to give something to these folks that helped us out. Let you lay claim on the bodies back there with the sheriff before we go."

"Sounds good," Buck's voice, satisfied, sounded far too close to him. Chris sniffed, but smelled only the green tickle of grasses and the warm scent of his horse. He tried removing the bandana, but had to squeeze his eyes shut tight and still, it wasn't enough to keep the pain out.

"Won't take too long," Johansen's voice promised. "An hour, maybe less."

Then in three hours--maybe less--they'd ride for home.

-the end?-