Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Chapter 12


12


It was hot on the pastures beyond the woods where the cattle stood, basking underneath the nearly noon sun and whisking their tails idly. Jasper circled the herd, one eye on the two dogs trotting ahead of him through the long grass, the other out for any sick, lame or isolated animal. From here, he would head back to the house for lunch, which Paul served at mid day for anyone within range, and then ride out with Flynn to Bandit and the mares, and bring in Gucci, who was still playing truant out with the brood herd.

Hammer, who he was exercising while Dale and Riley were busy with land training the colts, abruptly snorted and sidestepped, and Jasper looked up towards the woods to see what had spooked him.

Over by the tree line, toiling slowly south east, was a small, stocky figure in a dusty blue shirt far too big for him, and baggy work trousers with heavy braces. He was hatless and hunched forward with age, and his white beard stuck sharply out ahead of him in contrast to the receding white and black hair on his scalp.

Jasper drew Hammer in and leaned on his saddle, watching the man cross the deep grass in little, jerky steps that spoke of arthritis as much as age. The sunlight was bright, and at times he appeared almost transparent so that it was possible to see the silver and yellow aspen trees through him, and then he would solidify again, still walking onward.

There were many strange things to be seen on the ranch if you had the eyes to see them.  This was old land which the Shoshone had nurtured for centuries, understanding many things that the wagon trains and the ranchers did not. Jasper had seen many of them, and he was unsurprised that Dale also did.

But this was a sight he had never seen before. An unfamiliar figure.

These things often, to Jasper, played out like old fragments of cine film imprinted on the ground. You watched the sequence until it faded away. This sequence was rudely interrupted by a horse bursting out of the woodland path, his rider urging him to a full gallop as they reached open ground. Leo and Flynn. Flynn never ran a horse like that without good reason. Jasper turned Hammer with a swift pull, and set him at a canter to meet them. Out of breath and looking granite faced, nearly standing in his stirrups as Leo sidled, Flynn sounded terse and Jasper read his face, feeling his blood turn cold.

"The colts came back without riders. There's been a landslide in the woods."

Jasper turned Hammer to follow, urging him at a gallop after Leo.



The landscape bore no relation to the previous one. An entire ridge had fallen, and overturned earth and saturated mud and fallen trees lay like a silent battlefield. Jasper dismounted and stood, taking it in with a bleak sense of dread.

"It's deep." Flynn said behind him, sounding as if he was being strangled. He was white faced beneath the brim of his Stetson and his hands, arms and the legs of his jeans were black with mud. "I tried probing it with branches and I couldn't find the bottom – I shouted for them all over the woods. I tried climbing up but it's like climbing on quick sand-"

And Flynn, who had grown up on rough, steep land himself, knew as well as Jasper that if Riley and Dale were underneath then it was far too late for probing with sticks to help. Nor would Flynn have quit and left this spot to get help until he was sure – completely sure – he'd done every possible thing to find them.


Jasper looked across at Flynn, feeling an ice hand close around his insides. The fear was overpowering, but the woods were calm. There was no sense of death here.

"They may not be under it." Flynn was saying very curtly. "They may be above it somewhere. As soon as I've called the Sheriff, I'll ride up and look over the ridge and through the rest of the woods – if they're hurt or exhausted they may not have been able to hear me -"

The little white beard poked like a child's pointed finger. The little man was no bigger than a child, and he looked down at them from the top of the distant, decimated slope, his shoulders hunched and his head bent. He stared at Jasper almost defiantly, a challenging stare, then turned around and tottered out of sight up the ridge.


"They're not under it." Jasper said, turning Hammer to go around the landslide.


"Jas!" Flynn bellowed after him.

"This isn't earth, it's spoil!" Jasper shouted back, ducking branches. "Look at it! It's coal spoil! This is the mine! They'll have taken shelter in the mine!"


Being in total darkness was a severe shock. The light had been thin, but it had at least been light. Without it – the black was all encompassing. It was impossible to see, not even a hand in front of the face. Dale stood, listening to Riley's breathing quicken, and felt cold to the marrow.

The probability of finding their way anywhere in pitch darkness was not good.

"We'll need to find our way back down to the main tunnel." he said, and it was the same, cool and stable voice he'd used before in rooms full of panicking suits, in other disasters when people had depended on him. Save that in disasters involving money and papers and computers, no one actually died, and there had never been anyone in the room that he so passionately, desperately wanted to comfort.  

"Well we know where that is." Riley's voice was a little grim but it was calm beside him. Practical sense; every one of the four of them had it, and it came with a kind of confidence that you never found in a city or a board room. Riley wasn't depending. Dale found him in the dark, felt down to his hand and Riley squeezed back.

"We know the way, let's go back down to Ginver's hole."

He stooped and Dale heard rocks chinking, then Riley pushed handfuls of cracked quartz at him and Dale stuffed them in his pockets, knowing Riley was doing the same.

They had to feel their way, inch by inch, through the rough tunnel back to the junction and just as Dale found the archway into the main tunnel, Riley hunched back against him with a hiss that was near to a scream. 

"Ok, I swear something touched me!"

There was a sound. A long, slow sound, so soft and sinuous it was barely possible to hear it.

"Keep still," Dale ordered, hanging on to him. A moment later he heard it again, and Riley swore.

"Dale! There's something on the floor, moving!"

With hindsight, when he thought about it afterwards, it was a crazy thing to have done, but at the time he did it without a second thought. Just put a hand down towards the rock floor and felt until he found it. Cool. Smooth. Muscular. And it slid past, undulating over the rock….

"Gam Saan had a snake." He said aloud to Riley, and he felt an overwhelming and ridiculous urge to laugh. "Remember? Wade said David couldn't stand it. I think we may have found Suzu."

"Mind bloody Suzu…..?" Riley quoted bitterly. "A snake
? A frickin' snake's been down here for sixty years?"

"The age it must be, it's probably a python. It won't bite, we're quite safe. From what I can feel, it's massive."

And it seemed to like the attention. Dale could feel it coiling back, and then the nudge of its head near his hand.

"It's really been down here since 1943?" Riley demanded. "What's it eaten? You said there weren't rats!"

"There won't be unless we're very near the surface." Dale got up, spirits lifting as he realised. "She must have been able to get in and out of the mine, there's a lot of hunting in the pastures by the river. We can't be that far from a way out."


Gold ran on ancient river beds. Ancient passages through the rock.

Dale shut his eyes, visualising the map, and where they stood. There had been one more entrance marked on David's map in the attic; an entrance up in the rocky slopes of the valley, above the river.

The main tunnel up was a dead end. The gold tunnel was a dead end.

"There was one more tunnel on this vein." he said to Riley.

"If all this floods regularly, there'll be no escape hatch this way?" Riley felt his way after Dale, moving very cautiously.

"So where does the water come in?" Dale asked him. "The gold is in the wall of the valley, and we're now above the river. I'm sure of it, which means there has
to be an exit of some kind above us that breaks surface. Suzu comes and goes somehow. We want uphill, not down."

In the pitch darkness it was difficult to find right and left. It took a while of fumbling and the main tunnel seemed infinitely longer, but at last Dale felt the wall break into open space on his left. He promptly knocked his head and turned to grab Riley before he could do the same.

"Mind. It's low."

And steep. Within a few yards it began to run sharply uphill and Dale's heart lifted with a bound. The tunnel got lower and narrower, and suddenly colder as they crawled, and Riley yelped as he found debris under his hands. Silt. Dead leaves and grass. The mark of entering water. The tunnel was now less than a metre high and they were crawling, scraping shoulders and elbows and knees on the rough rock, and then suddenly there was a vague haze in the air, a long way ahead of them.

The python glided past them, moving swiftly up the tunnel and out of sight.

"Daylight." Dale said to Riley. "That's daylight. Not far."

The tunnel was wider than it was high, and he sat down to let Riley past him. Riley crawled on towards the light, and putting a hand out to feel the wall, Dale found some observational part of him commenting that this awkward hole had probably been the first mine – the first following of a quartz find on the surface, and probably the first tunnel ever dug at Three Traders. Other larger, safer and more stable tunnels had followed, but by then the damage had been done – this narrow little shaft had released gold, but also acted as a drain for water running down the valley, and in bad weather, water would stream down here. These tunnels would flood above what the sump could drain away, and therefore this section beyond Ginver's hole had been abandoned. Probably before David was born. Only Gam Saan had remembered it. And remembered the gold that still lay in its depths.

"I can see grass!" Riley called back.

Dale got to his hands and knees to follow, and somewhere on the ground as he moved, he found the brittle softness of cloth wrapped around something else, long, but small and hard.

"Dale!"  

There was more of it. Dale sat back on his heels, knowing what his hands moved gently over.

The skeleton lay face down on the rock, one arm extended above its head. Rocks and shale were scattered around it, not entirely dry.

"Dale?"

Logically, it was most likely he had drowned here, caught in this tunnel as water flooded in from above, trapped by the rock fall and the floods below as the tunnels filled and collapsed near the main entrance. The elderly little man born in Canton, who had come alone to the mine, to the most dangerous and long abandoned tunnels beyond Ginver's hole; the tunnels where no one else went, in his pursuit of gold which to him outweighed everything, including the risk.

Numbed, he let go of the frail body, and crawled after Riley, where the haze grew brighter, and he had to close his eyes against the light as it grew stronger.

They emerged almost directly upwards, clambering through a small, vertical hole where the top was half obscured with thick, wet grass. Riley hauled himself up and Dale boosted him, hearing the chink and scatter of rocks as Riley shoved them out of his way, then Riley's hand came back down and Dale took it, felt for handholds and scrambled upwards into blinding daylight. Riley let him go and dropped on his back on the grass. Dale crawled a few steps after him and sat, bending his head down onto his folded arms and closing his eyes.

It was shockingly warm and bright, and silent as it always was in the empty valley.  

For some minutes they didn't move, breathing hard, then Riley got to his hands and knees.

"I can see the river – we're not far from the town. It's going to be a long walk home, unless we walk through the town and up to the road and try hitch hiking."

There was no energy in his voice. After a minute, he sat down again, and then dropped back on the grass beside Dale.



*


The town was silent, and Hammer's hooves rang on the empty streets as Jasper cantered down the valley road and into the main street towards the mine, the dogs streaking behind him. The big horse moved like a locomotive when he was given his head. He was barely winded when Jasper drew him in at the main mine entrance and he stood, backing a little and snorting as Jasper raised his fingers to his mouth and blasted the same familiar whistle they all used to call the stock. It was a piercing sound, a trick taught to him by Philip who had learned it from David, and no one knew who David had learned it from, but it penetrated far further than a shout.  

Jasper listened for a minute, looking anxiously into the open mine entrance and around the yard, then blasted the whistle again, longer. It was a forlorn hope. If Riley and Dale had found their way into the mine, the chances were high that there was going to be an equal need for a rescue team, and it would be a rescue attempt that could take days, but their chances in the tunnels were higher than lying under tons of sodden earth and spoil. It was better than considering going back to wait for rescue teams, or to do as Flynn had ridden back to the house to do: to break this to Paul. Ash, at his feet, whined, and Tam lifted her head and barked.

Then he heard the replying whistle, not from somewhere far inside the tunnels but clearly, from up on the hillside, and the dogs bounded away, shooting straight up the rough grass slopes like arrows. Jasper swung Hammer around, following their direction, and the powerful gelding leapt up the steep hillside, scrambling on the turf. Away from the mine and the rail road, higher up, in the wall of the valley, Jasper saw them. Two figures sitting on the grass, one of which had its arm raised and was waving.

A car engine broke the hush of the valley a long way off. The four by four covered the distance faster than Hammer, even up the steep side of the valley. Flynn eased the big car up the slope, and he parked as Jasper dropped to the grass, seeing Jake emerging fast from the passenger seat. Flynn was out of the four by four at a run, and Jasper followed him, doing a rapid inventory of what he could see. Two men, no visible blood, both apparently conscious, but wet through and filthy, and fending off excited dogs nosing at them and licking muddied faces.

They were so wet that from a distance it was hard to tell them apart; they both looked dark, bedraggled, and Jasper saw the effort it took them to get up, Riley to hurl himself at Flynn in a desperate tackle, looking in imminent danger of strangling him. Flynn gave him an equally crushing hug that yanked him off his feet, burying his face in Riley's wet hair for a long minute with his hand hard around Riley's head. Then he passed Riley to Jasper and grabbed Dale. Dale shut his eyes, turning his forehead against Flynn's shoulder, his ribs creaking under the strength of Flynn's grip, and breathed him. Real and here, sweat soaked and strong with the deeply potent and familiar smell of horses and leather, the New Zealand accent strong with alarm.

"Are you all right? What happened? Are either of you hurt?"

"There was a landslide on the trail up by the train, the whole ground turned to water, did you see it?" Riley burrowed harder into Jasper, burying himself as deep as he could for warmth as much as comfort; his teeth were chattering.     

"We saw it." Flynn said shortly. "We were afraid you were under it. Jas thought there was a mine entrance there, did you walk through the mine?"

"It came out there." Riley nodded over Jasper's shoulder at the half hidden hole in the ground. "There's a fricking snake down there-"

"Flynn, they're freezing." Jasper interrupted him.

He was starting to peel Riley's t shirt off, sodden and a far cry from the colour it had been when Riley first put it on this morning. Dale wasn't at all surprised by the rough hand stuck without delicacy down the neck of his shirt, or Flynn's muttered curse. Flynn cupped a hand behind his head, pulled his wet shirt out from his waist band and started to unbuckle his belt.

"Get that shirt off. How long were you down there? Do you know?"

"Two hours, fifty two minutes."

It was hot on the grass- subjectively it was a hot day, but there was almost no sensation of sun against skin. Dale fumbled with his shirt, and someone else's hand helped it over his head. Jake, holding a thermos cup, and there was something assessing about his eyes although he sounded as relaxed as he always did.

"Here, get that down."

He'd given another one to Riley who had both hands cupped around it and was wrapped in one of the rough blankets that lived in the stables for human and horse emergencies. Jake had another one over his arm and he wrapped it around Dale as Flynn crouched to pull off his boots and then his soaked jeans. It was somehow even colder with them off. Riley's skin looked an odd shade of white under Jasper's tanned fingers, and the numerous scrapes and grazes visible on his arm and side hadn't reddened and were too wet to bleed. He was shivering like a dog, violently, all over. The sight of it made Dale look down at himself and realise that he wasn't shivering at all.


"Jas, no. Better not," Jake said mildly as Jasper rubbed the blanket over Riley's shoulders. "How about we get out of here? PDQ?"

There was something discreetly warning in his tone, Dale heard it. Flynn gathered up Dale's clothes and put an arm around him, guiding him down towards the car.

"Stop looking at that tea and drink it."

"There is something in there that you need to be aware of." Dale looked at the tea. Somehow getting it in his mouth was a very difficult concept, and he wasn't sure why.


"There are skeletal remains approximately eight feet from the entrance of the adit-"

"There's what
?" Riley demanded behind him.

"It's most likely Gam Saan." His tongue felt thick. Dale found himself speaking slowly and very carefully. "I think-  I think -"


Flynn's familiar hand cupped his chin and Dale looked up, seeing very dark green eyes suddenly close to his, and aware he could barely feel the firmness of Flynn's fingers against his face.

"What day is it?"


That was a ridiculous question. And one Dale found he had no idea of the answer to.
 Flynn wrapped the blanket closer around him, pulling him down towards the car.

"Yeah. Move."

"We can't leave him!" Dale heard Riley arguing hotly from somewhere a long way off, "He was David's friend, we can't leave him!"

"We won't leave him now we know where he is." Jake sounded soothing. "But he's been up here for sixty years and one more night isn't going to worry him."



Jasper parked the four by four at the foot of the porch steps instead of the garage. The battered green jeep of Emmett, the local doctor, stood in the yard alongside the Sheriff's car. Tom was pacing on the porch, Wade was sitting on one of the wooden chairs pulled near the porch rail and Paul ran down the porch steps, pulling the passenger seat door open and grabbing Riley who was nearest.

"You've got them? Oh thank God! Where? Was it the mine?"

Riley was damp and pale and filthy, and his teeth were chattering, but to Paul's alarmed and experienced eye, nothing worse.

"Flynn, have you got anyone hurt?" Emmett, lanky and wearing his familiar dust green mock army fatigues jogged around the car.

"Bloody cold." Flynn said shortly, "They walked through the mine, they were underground almost three hours. They're both soaked but nothing broken I can see. Dale, now. Move."

Paul saw Emmett look up in protest at the parade ground bark, but Dale responded, stiffly letting Flynn pull him to his feet with hands much gentler than his voice. The colour of his face made Paul peel Riley away in a hurry.

"Jas, take Riley into the kitchen bathroom and get him under the shower. Ri, did either of you fall? Anywhere at any time? Did you hit your heads?"


"Dale caught his on a low roof, I heard it after the torch gave out." Riley resisted Jasper's attempts to guide him into the kitchen, looking with increasing alarm at Dale.  
He was moving slowly under his own steam between Flynn and Emmett, but he was grey rather than white and his lips were an oddly purple shade.

"Shower." Paul told him. "Now. I'll make sure Dale's all right. Tom, put the kettle on for me please, and you and Wade stay in the kitchen. Flynn, get him upstairs."

Flynn stooped and picked Dale up without effort, carrying him swiftly through the kitchen and towards the stairs. Paul ran up ahead of him, stripped the covers back from Flynn and Dale's bed and pulled an armful of towels from the linen closet, spreading several over the bed sheet.


"Gently, try not to shake him," he ordered as Flynn put Dale down on the bed. "He's gotten worse since they came out of the mine?"

"I've seen him getting worse since we found them, he got a lot less responsive in the car." Flynn said curtly, and Paul heard the alarm under the gruffness. "He had about half of a mug of tea when I forced, and we had the heaters on full but it didn't seem to make much difference."

"After drop." Emmett said behind him. "Cold blood moving back towards the heart. It's all right Flynn, the fact he's worse is actually a good sign. It means he's getting warmer. Riley's temperature is ninety four point eight, and Jasper's got him under the shower." Emmett dropped his open bag on the bed, put several pillows under Dale's feet, and Flynn shifted to let Emmett slip a thermometer inside Dale's ear, his voice crisp.


"Dale? Dale. Tell me where you are."

"Dale." Flynn snapped when Dale didn't answer. "Where are you?"

"Ranch."

It came out promptly enough, but very blurred.

"Too low to register." Emmett said as the thermometer produced a disorganised shrill of beeping. "Which means under ninety four. Paul, we're going to need to get his core temperature instead."

"Get warm weak tea with plenty of sugar, a jug of it, warm not
hot, and every heating pack I've got in the first aid cabinet," Paul took Dale from Flynn, sitting down on the side of the bed. "Fill them and wrap them in towels. Check on Jas and don't let him leave Riley alone, his blood pressure will drop when he starts to warm up. We don't want him fainting."

It wasn't easy to leave. Flynn jogged downstairs into the kitchen where the round middled, moustached Sheriff was sitting with Wade at the table and Tom, tall and awkward and restless by the counter, had the kettle steaming. The Sheriff got up at the sight of him, looking concerned.

"Everything ok? Does Emmett want a chopper out here? I've got the local team ready on standby if you need them-"

"He doesn't seem to be ready to call for help yet." Flynn pulled a jug down from the cupboard and Tom took it from him, rapidly starting to make tea, heavily sugaring it without being asked. Flynn dug in the cabinet for the heat packs and took them to the kettle.


"Put some cold in that jug. It needs to be warm, not hot. Weak."

Tom silently did it, with the same deft, practical hands Jake had and with dark, watchful eyes that told Flynn he was fully aware of the problem upstairs. He and Jake knew the hazards and emergencies of unpredictable terrain better than any of them. Flynn thought again of Jake, calm but with that warning undertone. He'd known up on the hillside that they were in trouble.

"Jake stayed to bring Hammer back," he said brusquely to Tom with what reassurance he could manage, heading for the bathroom. "He shouldn't be long."

The shower was running and Jasper and Riley were obviously under the water together.

"Jas?" Flynn said sharply. "You two ok?"

"We're good." Jasper sounded calm over the fall of the water.

"Is Dale all right?" Riley demanded. Flynn didn't answer, heading back to the kettle and the heat packs.

"Jas, don't let him out of your reach, Paul's worried about fainting."

"Thank God we're not digging anyone out of that landslide." the Sheriff said darkly. "I didn't know the Three Traders mine even came onto your land."

"Neither did we." Flynn jerked his head at Tom. "Get that tea upstairs to Paul please."


Tom took the jug up and the Sheriff watched Flynn filling packs with sympathy.


"Anything more I can do? I'll wait until Emmett's sure he won't be needing help."

"I'll ask." Flynn said shortly, heading back towards the stairs. "Thanks."

The Sheriff, who had known Flynn for some years, didn't mistake the shortness, nor take offence. 


"Wade, do you want tea?" he suggested, getting up to re fill the kettle. "We might as well keep the water hot and ready. It looks like we'll be here a while yet."



There was a bath running upstairs and Flynn went into the bathroom first, finding Paul with a hand under the tap. He gave Flynn a quick look that Flynn recognised; both understanding and reassuring.  

"He's got a core temperature of about 91, which isn't good, but isn't awful. That's why he's a bit out of it. Emmett's given him something to bring his heart rate up, and it's just going to be a question of getting him warm."

"What can I do?" Flynn said grimly. Paul turned the taps off.

"Put those heat pads in the bed, and tell Emmett the bath's ready."

"Is it really safe to try warming him this quickly?"

Paul put a hand on his arm, pushing him towards the landing.

"He's young, he's fit and Emmett's here."

"Charles said he had the air ambulance on stand by if it was wanted."

Emmett was sitting with Dale, who was wrapped in towels. His eyes were open but he didn't look up or respond. Emmett shook his head. 

"We won't be needing them. He's got a minor cut on his scalp, but his eyes are reacting fine, no broken bones, just hypothermia. If you and Paul can get him in the bath I'll go down and take a look at Riley and I'll tell Charles to stand the air team down."

Flynn pushed the heat pads well down under the blankets, and unwrapped Dale from the towels. What had been increasing vagueness and disorientation on the fifteen minute drive back from the town, had become semi consciousness; he barely moved to help as Flynn picked him up, carrying him through to the bathroom. He was so damned light when you lifted him; just skin and thin muscle over long, slender bone, it seemed ridiculous that the force of Dale could be contained in such a shell.  Paul moved aside to let Flynn put him down in the water, then knelt down beside the bath with a competent arm behind Dale's head.

"The tea's on the windowsill there."

It was an order, not a hint. Flynn poured a small amount into the cup and handed it over, watching Paul splash a little on the back of his hand to check the temperature, then adeptly tip it against Dale's mouth. Dale swallowed mechanically although uncoordinatedly and about half of it ran down his chin.

"It's all right sweetheart," Paul said softly, "Try again, it's only tea. Flynn, top that up?"

Flynn refilled the cup, watching with envy for Paul's calmness, his practical skill; he'd seen it many times before. Gentle hands that always knew what to do, that never got rattled in a crisis. It was Paul who had competently organised finding Emmett and the Sheriff and the standing by of available pairs of hands when Flynn had abandoned Leo in the yard to grab a four by four and tell him briefly that he and Jasper had what was probably no more than a forlorn hope that Riley and Dale were somewhere inside the Three Traders mine.

"We don't know how bad Riley is yet before we go standing any kind of teams down," he said roughly. Paul shook his head.


"Riley's alert and talking, and he's got a good eighteen pounds of body weight over Dale. He isn't nearly as cold, and Dale's improving. Flynn, they're ok. Where on earth did you find them? How did Jas know?"

"I have no idea." Flynn ran both hands through his hair and sat down on the edge of the bath, putting a hand under the water to touch Dale. Even under the water he felt icy.

"He just went straight to them, like a magnet."

"Honey, your hands." Paul reached for his nearest wrist, turning up the hand that was resting on Dale. Both were plastered with dried mud, and underneath the mud the palms were cut. Flynn looked at it without registering the damage or the distress in Paul's voice.

"The landslide."

He'd dug there with his hands. The rigidity in his face and his shoulders said worlds to Paul who pulled him gently to his feet.


"Flynn. Sweetheart, wash your hands. Go wash your hands."


He moved slowly to the sink, turning on the taps and mechanically picking up soap.

"They were sitting on the hillside beside what looked like a large rabbit hole – nothing more than that – and then Dale said something about Gam Saan –"

"Gam Saan?" Paul looked up, startled. "They found him?"


"I'd guess it's him?" Flynn said bleakly. "Lying just short of the entrance, according to Dale. I can't think why he died there."

"Water."

They both looked down at Dale, who coughed. He sounded wheezy, as if he'd swallowed too much water himself, but his eyes lifted to Flynn's and focused, and his lips looked a little less purple.

"Adit. Not a tunnel."

"Ok." Paul passed the cup to Flynn. "Slide down honey, and let's get some of this mud out of your hair. You look like you rolled in it."

He was speaking gently, reassuringly, and Dale moved where Paul guided him, letting Paul draw him down the bath and tip his head back over his arm to palm water over his hair. "There was a flooded sump. The forward tunnels were collapsed, we went up towards the gold mine and we had to swim the sump."

"I have no idea what a sump is." Paul said conversationally. "Sit up and soap your hair."  


He helped, but Dale moved under his own steam, and Paul sponged water over his shoulders while Dale fumbled with soap and rather unsteadily began to work it into his hair. The movement was helping, he was starting to look more alert.

"A sump is a drain. They dug it to stop the water coming further down into the mine."

"And that was how you got out? Following the water channels uphill?" Paul helped him rinse his hair and leaned to pull the plug out. "Don't move, we'll change the water. This is black and God only knows what you were swimming in."

And the water was already lukewarm, cooled by Dale's body.

Paul wrapped him in towels while he changed the water, got up to pour him another mug of tea, and this one Dale held himself, leaning back in the bath and drinking without spilling, a towel still over his head and shoulders. There were grazes visible on his shoulders and shoulder blades, his elbows and knees; marks of where he'd knocked against rock, and he was starting to shiver instead of that awful, limp stillness. Paul had run the water a lot hotter this time; it was steaming, and Dale's skin was starting to show pink instead of dead white, even his face gaining colour as Paul used the towel to dry his hair.   

"Riley said the torch went out?" Flynn said abruptly. "Your torch attachments on your knives?"

Dale nodded, to Paul's eye not in the least intimidated by the growl.


"We used one at a time, but the second one went out when we were in the upper tunnel. Not too far from the exit."

Not only trapped in a derelict maze of collapsing mine shafts and underground water, they'd done it in total darkness. Paul looked up at Flynn, and got up, unable to stand it.


"Give me a minute. I have to check on Riley."

"For God's sake let's get them both in one place and solve the damn problem." Flynn took Paul's place, a wary hand behind Dale. "I'll watch him, go on."


"I'm fine." Dale suddenly seemed to realise where he was and what was going on, and Paul heard his voice change to the slightly alarmed and unassuming note they were used to, despite his teeth chattering. He put a hand behind Dale's head and kissed his still cold cheek, turning his face close against Dale's for a moment.

"Stop it. You stay put with Flynn and I'll be back in a minute, there's nothing you need to worry about"




There was no sign of the Sheriff downstairs. Wade and Tom were together in the family room – or at least Wade was sitting on one couch and Tom was pacing restlessly by the window, his hands linked behind his head. They both looked sharply up as Paul came downstairs.

"Is Dale all right?" Wade demanded. "That damn medic threw me out of the kitchen. Asked me to be a 'good chap'. I pointed out I hadn't been a 'good chap' since he was toddling around in diapers."

"Dale's very cold, but he'll be fine." Paul looked with distracted sympathy at Tom, heading for the kitchen. "Tom, if you need to escape then please go ahead, honey. You've been more than kind."

"Jake'll come back here and there might be something useful I can do." Tom said shortly. It was rather like the tone that Flynn had been using, and Paul heard the same note in it. He let himself through the closed door into the kitchen. Jasper was leaning against the table and holding Riley's free hand in both of his, while Riley's other hand held a mug of something steaming. Riley was wearing clean jeans and socks and was bare chested, being dabbed with what looked like antiseptic from the bottle Emmett was holding. From Riley's expression, he was just about tolerating it under protest. He looked damp and exasperated and reassuringly, resiliently himself, and he abandoned Emmett entirely at the sight of Paul. Paul caught him, holding him tightly and grunting slightly as Riley's embrace threatened to snap his ribs.


"Hi. I know, I know, I'm sorry. Dale was so cold I couldn't leave him. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, how's Dale?"

"He's ok, it's you I'm worried about at the moment." Paul looked up at Emmett who had given up on getting any more antiseptic on Riley and was putting away the bottle.

"Jasper got him thoroughly warmed through, his temperature's on the low side of normal. You'll need to keep him warm, but he'll live." Emmett said easily. "Some spectacular grazes, but nothing else. I've given him a Meronem antibiotic shot which ought to proof against any bugs down there. I don't suppose you know if Dale's up to date with his tetanus shots? I know you keep track of everyone else."

"I don't." Paul said apologetically, "That's something I ought to know too. I suspect he's up to date on everything with the amount of travelling abroad he's always done."

"I'll give him one along with the Meronem just to be safe." Emmett dug in his bag for the bottles. "Compared to what I was afraid we'd be dealing with when you phoned, I think we've been very lucky. How's Dale doing?"

"Talking, he's coherent and he's a lot less blue." Paul gave Riley another crushing hug and with an effort let him go. "I need to get back to him. Riley, put a sweater on. Flynn's horrible football ones are in the linen closet, they're big and warm."

"Charles got an emergency call and headed out." Jasper said, getting up. "I said there was nothing else we needed."

"What about the-" Paul began, and stopped. Jasper gave Emmett a friendly smile and followed Riley.


"About the what?" Emmett asked. "I didn't think there was anything else you'd want doing about the landslide? At least until it dries out."

"No, there's nothing else we need." Paul said with determined cheerfulness. "Go on up, Emmett. You two, please find yourselves something to eat-"

"It passed lunchtime about two hours ago," Wade said acerbically from the family room. "And I wasn't hungry then."


"I'll make sandwiches or something," Tom said abruptly, turning away from the window. "I'll look after him Paul, go on. You don't have to be polite to family."

"I like him." Wade said with satisfaction, nodding at Tom. "He can take me out to the bunkhouse, I haven't been out there in years. Not since David used to go out there to sulk. I lit the fire in the family room by the way, I thought we'd be needing it if you five want somewhere to stay warm together. Especially since you insist on crowding in the small bedrooms as if nobody knows."

"You're never this cheeky when Luath's around." Paul informed him, heading upstairs, and Wade grinned.

"Produce Luath and I might reel it in. Might. What's he going to do to me, I'm eighty four."

Riley was sitting on the landing at Jasper's feet, dressed in an oversized and very worn grey sweatshirt with CSU Rams printed on the front of it, and a blanket hung over his shoulders. They were both watching Emmett packing his bag and Flynn settling Dale under the warmed blankets on their bed.

"Temperature's up to 96." Emmett said cheerfully to Paul. "The heat packs and blankets should do the rest. You know what to do; hot fluids, feed them something high carb and keep them warm, and if you're worried call me. I'll drop in on my way past tomorrow morning."

"Come for breakfast." Paul, who knew Emmett's schedule, knew it often didn't include much time to eat, never mind a properly cooked meal. "You know when we eat. Thanks Emmett, we appreciate you dropping everything and running over here."

Jasper walked with Emmett downstairs. It seemed blessedly quiet when he'd gone. Flynn sat down on the bed beside Dale, and Paul took Riley's hand, leading him to the small armchair in the corner of Flynn's room and sitting down in it to pull Riley down on top of him.

"You're still cold."

"I'm way better than I was." Riley sounded perfectly calm about it, and there was no self consciousness at all in the way he was cuddling up to Paul.


I was strong, I was competent, I wasn't going to let myself be one of those weepy, emotional queens who couldn't run a bath without help – no, I was just going to pretend to myself I was above all that, and ignore that those guys were stronger than me because they had the balls to be themselves.

Tom had said that, and Dale understood painfully and exactly what he meant. Flynn slid down a little beside him, putting his back against the pillows and the bedstead, and hooked an arm under his shoulders, yanking him over without ceremony. There was no delicacy in the hand that slid up under his t shirt and ran over his back, but a very good deal of comfort, and Dale buried himself in the familiar hardness of Flynn's chest, gripping him, breathing him, thankful for cavemen.

A car engine started in the yard, and a moment later Jasper came back upstairs, walked around to the other side of the bed, and stretched out in the space on the other side of Dale, close against his back.  

"There's no sign of Tom or Wade."

"Tom took Wade over to the bunkhouse." Paul said into Riley's hair. "In fact he was amazing. He was the only one who had any idea what to do about searching a landslide, Charles would have panicked without him. We'd have been digging that mess looking for you if Jas hadn't been so determined you two had gone into the mine."


"How did you know there was a shaft there?" Dale asked. Hard against Flynn, he was aware of Jasper's leg against his, Jas's shoulder against his back and the nearness of his voice. He was tightly sandwiched between the two of them, finally starting to feel warm, and it was deeply, extraordinarily comforting. Somehow he freed a hand from the blankets and Jasper's long fingers slid into it and grasped.  

"I saw Gam Saan up on the ridge. In fact I saw him earlier, in the meadow too. The landslide was mostly coal spoil, and once I realised that, I realised someone was trying to tell us where you were."

There was a silence in response to that, as opposed to disbelief or an outcry or any kind of indication that this was a bizarre way to know anything.

Jas is spooky, Riley had said candidly when Dale first confessed to seeing unusual things around the ranch. So we're used to it and it doesn't seem weird to us.

"And you knew where we'd come out?" Riley asked. Jasper shrugged.

"From David's diagram most of the exits were north east of the woods. I hoped you'd come out in the town somewhere- or at least we'd have somewhere to start looking for you."

"How did you two know where to go through the mine?" Paul asked. "Did you just start walking?"

Riley nodded towards the bed.

"Dale knew David's map. We knew vaguely which shafts we were in and then we followed David's directions once we found his landmarks."

"To what?" Paul let Riley go as he slid to his feet, and watched him retrieve Dale's soaked and muddied jeans from the floor, digging in the pockets. Paul opened his mouth to protest as he tipped filthy rubble out onto the bed, and then stopped.


Amongst the mud was enough glitter to show white, and as Jasper picked up a piece, rubbing the mud away with his thumb, they saw the veins of gold.


***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

2 comments:

shakeskp said...

The whole mine scene was just terrifying.
So very well done, I fear I'll have trouble going to sleep.

Ranger said...

Thank you Shakeskp! We hope we didn't cost you too much sleep ;)

Three Traders