Here Come the Brides: Talk to Me

brides cast“”I raised up my lantern and there he was –Mrs. Miller’’s Misfortune. He was eight feet tall with the head of a goat and a tail with a point on the end just like a devil. He opened his mouth and snarled at me with teeth that were like a hawk’’s talons and I knew that if he got hold of me he’’d rip me to shreds.”

Caleb Flannigan paused in his telling as he scanned each of the faces in front of him. Thirteen-year-old Richard Lawrence wasn’’t buying any of his blarney, that was for sure, but he had the rapt attention of the other three children, – Nate Gibbons, Alice Greenly and Jeremy Bolt.

The three of them had barely breathed since Caleb began telling his story by lantern light at the mouth of Miller’’s Cave.

“”So what happened next?”” Ten-year-old Nate prodded.

“”I stood there, shaking in my boots, let me tell you. Then that old Misfortune, he lunged forward and HE GOT ME!”” Caleb shouted, making the poor boy jump nearly out of his skin.

“”N-n-n-no, he d-d-d-didn’’t,”” eleven-year old Jeremy Bolt said softly.

“”H-h-h-how do you know?”” Lawrence mimicked.

Jeremy started to reply, was caught short then started again. ““Bb-b-b-because he’’s here now – n-n-n- ot dead!””

“”Right you are,”” Caleb declared, giving Jeremy’’s small frame a friendly shove. “”And I’’ll tell you how I escaped. As soon as that old Misfortune came near me, I looked him right in the eye and said, hallowdee fee, hallodee fi, alacazabra and ziggity zie. Over and over I repeated those words and on the third time, old Misfortune screamed deep in his throat and then he ran from me as if I had a sword in my hands.””

“”Why?”” Alice asked, breathless with respect.

“”Because those are magical words and you should all memorize them in case you run into Misfortune yourself. You got to say them fast and perfect, three times through in half a minute by a watch and zap, you’’re protected from the likes of him and all his kind.””

Lawrence laughed long and loud. “”That will work for Alice and Nate, but Bolt here’’s doomed! Can’’t you hear it – h-h-h-h-h-hallowd-d-d-d-d-dee f-f-f-f-f-fee – before he finished the first word old Misfortune would be having him for dinner!””

“”W-w-w-w-would not!”” Jeremy jumped to his feet, fists at the ready.

“”W-w-w-w-would not!”” Lawrence mimicked. “”Got that right, because you’’re such a baby you wouldn’’t even step foot inside Miller’’s Cave if you had both of your brothers standing behind you.””

“”W-w-w-w-w-would, too!””

“”W-w-w-w-would, not.””

“”Y-y-y-y-ou stop making. . . . f-f-f-fun of me, L-l-l-l-awrence!””

“”Make me.””

And that was all the challenge Jeremy needed. He went after the older boy with fists a flying. Outweighed and under confident he was quickly done in and left on his behind.

“”Can’’t talk, can’’t fight, can’’t do much of anything, can you Bolt?””

“”Leave him alone,”” Alice snapped as she helped Jeremy to his feet. “He’’s more of a gentleman than you’’ll ever be, Richard Lawrence, even if he can’’t talk right.””

Jeremy shook Alice’’s hand off of his arm, tried to talk but got no further than a rasping sigh and with that he turned and ran.

“”Going home to cry on your big brother’’s shoulder, baby Bolt? Boo hoo, hoo.””

“”Stop it.”” Alice gave Lawrence’’s shoulder a shove. “”You’’re so mean, sometimes.””

“”Maybe mean, but at least I’’m not a coward.””

“”Are, too,”” Alice shot back. “”You’’re happy to pick on a boy half your size, but I’’d like to see you manage with someone as big as you.””

“”Like Joshua Bolt, maybe,”” Lawrence replied, a disgustingly suggestive note in his voice. “”I know what you’’re thinking when you look at him. Oughta go to church twice on Sunday to make up for that sin.””

“”You’’re disgusting!””

“”And you might get your wish! As soon as baby Bolt tells big brother I made fun of him, old Josh will be looking to pummel me.””

“”And you’’ll take him on?”” Caleb asked, pulling the attention back to himself.

“”You bet.””

“”I will, too. Bet you a nickel that he beats you into the ground like a tent stake.””

“”I want some of that,”” Nate replied. “”I’’ll put up a nickel, too.””

“”Done deal.”” Lawrence spit on his palm then shook hands with his two friends. “”Start shining those nickels, boys, by tomorrow afternoon, Joshua Bolt will be nursing his wounds and I’’ll be ten cents richer.””

#  #   #  #

Woman’’s work. That’’s what it was. Not that he minded helping around the house, sweeping the floor or washing the dishes, but he drew the line at laundry. It just wasn’’t right.

Grumbling out loud with no one else around to hear, Josh yanked a shirt off the line then tossed it into the basket with all the venom he could muster. He thought Jason would give in when he “forgot” to do the washing five days in a row but all he had accomplished was making more work for himself. That’’s why he was still taking down the last of it when he should have been inside preparing supper.

Preparing supper!

“”Start calling myself Johanna Bolt! Get myself a dress and a purse and lip rouge. . . “”

“”How about a nice hat with flowers on the brim?””

Josh whirled around at the sound of the unexpected voice.

“”Miss Hatfield. I didn’’t hear you come up.””

“”I knocked on the door but no one answered.”” She came into the yard, mindless of the mud on her lovely shoes.

Carlotta Hatfield had recently relocated to the small town of Seattle with plans of opening a saloon to serve the lumbermen and the men of the mill. Though several of the founding fathers considered her less than respectable, the Bolt brothers all enjoyed the pleasure of her company. Josh could spend all day and night listening to her tales of her travels around the globe. She painted lovely pictures with her words and often Josh was left longing for more than their small cabin on the mountain. Today would surely be one of those days.

“”Jason’’s still up at camp and I don’t know where Jeremy is. Off playing somewhere, I suppose.””

Unasked, Lottie began unhooking the clothes from the line, shirts, pants, underclothes. . .

“”I can manage, thanks.”” Josh grabbed the long johns from her hands then stuffed them into the basket beneath a sheet and a towel.

“”I don’’t mind helping. As a matter of fact, I miss having someone to help.””

“”I’’m sure you have better things to do than help me with the laundry.”” Finished, Josh picked up the basket then carried it back to the house.

“”Actually, I have nothing better to do. The founding fathers are voting on my proposal tonight. I was hoping Jason would be there to plead my case. That’s why I came up here, to see why he wasn’’t in town.”” Lottie followed Josh into the house. “”I thought maybe he changed his mind about me.””

“”Jason?”” Josh set the basket on the bed then looked back over his shoulder at the woman. She was curvy, blond – just the kind of female the church going residents of Seattle wanted to avoid and exactly the kind of the woman the lumbermen needed. “”He’’s on your side. We all are,– him and me, I mean. If he can make the meeting, he will.””

“”I hope so.”” Lottie opened the cupboard above the washbasin, shuffled several of the tins and jars on the shelves then chose a jar of pickled vegetables and a package of jerky. “”Is this all you have to eat around here?””

Josh shrugged. “”There are some eggs down below and a sack of corn meal.””

“”Hardly enough for three growing boys.”” Lottie bent down to retrieve the eggs and meal. “”As soon as I get the saloon open I’ll be serving meals like they make in the finest establishments back East – beef wrapped in pastry, juicy pork strips with fruit compote and fresh fish with dill and greens.””

“”Stop, you’’re making me hungry.””

Lottie plucked a strip of jerky from the pack then tossed it to Josh who caught it in mid-air. “”Will that hold you over until I can prepare a proper meal?””

Josh nodded, his mouth now too busy with chewing to talk.

“”You know, even once my saloon is open, I’’m sure I’ll have plenty of free time during the day while the men are at work.”” Lottie grabbed a bowl from the shelf, measured in a few cups of corn meal then cracked in several eggs. ““Maybe I could come by every couple of days to help out, – you know. You boys could use a–”” She stopped short.

“”Mother?”” Josh filled in. “”It’s all right to say. Our mother’s been gone five years now.”” He sat down on the bed beside the basket, fingers clenched around a small, plaid shirt. “”I have a hard time hearing her voice.”” Then he laughed at his own phrasing. ““I mean, it’s getting hard to remember what she sounded like and that’’s me. I can’’t imagine how hard it must be for Jeremy. He hardly got a chance to know her and now with father gone. . .” “ He tossed the shirt back into the basket. “”Sometimes I wonder what will become of us.””

“”Oh, you shouldn’’t wonder. Jason’’s taking good care of the family from what I’’ve seen. You have this cabin and the mountain and a good solid business. From where I stand, you’’re doing very well.””

The front door banged open then banged shut as a filthy, sweaty Jeremy stomped into the house.

“”You better go out and come back in right and proper!”” Joshua demanded.

“”D-d-d-d-don’t tell me what to do!”” Jeremy shot back, then he noticed Lottie and his face flushed red. “”I’’m sorry. I d-d-d-didn’t know we had company.”” He ran his sleeve across his eyes and tried to disguise a sniff as a cough.

“”Are you crying?”” Josh asked, more annoyed than concerned.

“”I’’m not c-c-c-crying!”” Jeremy turned as if to go but Lottie caught him by the arm.

“”Let me look at you,”” she said, then gently pulled him around to face her. This close she could see the developing shiner and the matching bruises on the boy’’s chin. ““You’’ve been fighting.””

“”I don’’t think one punch counts as a fight,”” he muttered, every word clear and correct as Lottie guided him to sit at the table.

“”Who did that to you?”” Josh asked, taking the seat across from him. “”No, don’’t tell me, let me guess. Richard Lawrence.””

Jeremy just nodded then winced as Lottie touched a wet rag to his jaw.

“”Who’’s Richard Lawrence?”” she asked as she wiped the dirt from the boy’’s face.

“”He’’s nothing but a rich bully. His father owns the biggest horse ranch in the territory and he thinks that entitles him. How come he hit you?””

“”C-c-c-c-cause I hit him first. Called me a c-c-c-c-coward. Said I wouldn’’t f-f-f-face Old Misfortune.””

“”Old Misfortune? That’’s just a legend. And you steer clear of Miller’’s Cave. It’’s not natural. It’’s some kind of dug out shelter the Indians made a long time ago. It’’s not safe. You stay clear of that place. You hear me?””

“”Yes, SIR,”” Jeremy grumbled. “”I’’m hungry. What’’s for supper?””

“”Eggs Carlotta.”” Lottie stuffed the wet rag into Jeremy’’s hands. “”Finish washing and I’’ll finish cooking and one of you explain about Old Misfortune.””

“”It’’s just a story,”” Josh said. ““They say that twenty years ago, there was a woman named Eva Miller who lived in these parts. She had twelve children before her husband left her. Her thirteenth child was born out of wedlock. Sspawn of Satan, so it goes. A hideous creature with the head of a goat and a devil’’s tail with an insatiable hunger for flesh – animal or human, preferably human. He was so horrible, Mrs. Miller abandoned him in a cave with hopes that he would die before finding his way out. He never did find a way out but he never died either – he lived his whole life in that cave killing and eating anybody who dares step foot inside.””

“”Charming. Set the table, would you?””

Josh hauled his long, lanky body out of the chair then gathered the plates, cups and utensils. “”And I can’’t believe you let that big blowhard give you a black eye.””

“”Well, I didn’’t plan on it.”” Carefully Jeremy dabbed the cloth against his own face barely removing any of the dirt. “”He’’s bigger than me.””

Josh dropped three tin plates on the table. ““It wasn’’t just because he called you a coward, was it? He was teasing you about your stuttering, wasn’’t he?”” Three spoons hit the plates.

“”Forget it.””

“I’’ll pummel him.””

“”D-d-d-d-don’’t pummel him.””

Three cups landed on the table above the plates. “”I warned him, not two weeks ago, I told him that if I caught him teasing you one more time I was going to rip off his lips and stuff them in his big ears.””

“”A lovely picture,”” Lottie said as she poured the batter into a pan. “”Haven’’t you ever heard the saying, sticks and stones may break my bones. . . “”

“”Exactly,”” said Josh as he ladled water into each of the cups then returned the scoop to the bucket. “”Only I don’t need sticks and stones to break his bones, I can do it with my bare hands.””

Lottie turned and grabbed Josh’’s hands in hers. “”These fingers were meant for better things, young man. Use your brain instead of your fists.””

His only response was a long, flat smile.

“”D-d-d-d-don’’t fight my battles for me!””

“”Somebody has to.”” Josh mounted his chair as if it were a horse.

“”Boys, boys. Supper is served.”” Lottie slid a corn pancake on to each of their plates then topped it off with a fried egg.

Josh raised an eyebrow at her, obviously unimpressed with the fare. “” Eggs Carlotta?””

“”Best I could do with the materials at hand. At least you didn’’t have to make it.””

“There’’s a point.” Josh stuck his spoon into the egg releasing a river of runny yellow yolk. “If I gave you two dollars, could you buy what you need to make a real gourmet supper?”

“”Gourmet?”” Jeremy asked around a mouthful of food.

“”Fancy-like.””

“”Where you gonna get two dollars?””

Joshua smiled. ““Might be able to kill two birds with one stone.” ” Then he filled his own mouth with food.

“”Joshua Bolt,”” Lottie warned. “”What are you up to?””

“”Just what you said, Miss Lottie, using my brain as well as my fists.””

“”That’’s not exactly what I said.””

“”Funny, cause that’’s exactly what I heard.””

* * * * *

Usually Jeremy looked forward to the end of a school day. Though both of
his older brothers enjoyed reading and writing and Josh was particularly
good with numbers, Jeremy didn’t have their love or their talent.

“I don’t understand it at all,” Miss Essie would tsk. “Joshua only comes to
class for two hours a day and he’s my star pupil but you can’t seem to
complete even the simplest assignment without help. What ever am I going to
do with you?”

A life at sea might be the answer. Sailors didn’t have to know how to read
and write and cipher – did they? That’s what he was thinking about when
Miss Essie dismissed the class tightening the already tangled knot in his
stomach.

“Maybe I should stay a little longer,” he suggested, when his teacher tried
to shoo him out the door. “I don’t get these times’s. Maybe you could show
me again?”

Miss Essie pinned him with a suspicious stare. “I show you and show you but
you won’t learn it if you don’t try.”

“I d-d-d-d-do try,” Jeremy said softly, but Miss Essie was all ready shaking
her head and tsking her tongue.

“Never had this trouble with Joshua. . . .”

Jeremy sighed as he slipped out of the bench seat.

So this was how it was going to be? Compared to his brother for the rest of
his life? Smart Josh, glib Josh, handsome Josh – Jeremy felt bad for
wishing it, but he hoped that just this once, Richard Lawrence would win the
fight.

* * * * *

Josh considered meeting Jeremy in the school yard, but decided it would be
better to wait on the path that that led away from the school – away from
the teacher and any other adults who might want to put a stop to the main
event.

Joshua Bolt versus Richard Lawrence – every kid in town knew what was coming
and every one of them would be on hand to witness the destruction. Which
was perfect as far as Josh was concerned, wasn’t hardly worth skinning your
knuckles if you didn’t have an audience.

And what an audience it turned out to be. Fifteen minutes after the school
bell clanged, the clearing at the top of the hill was crowded with
children – every kid in town and for two miles around it seemed, except
ne – the most important one – Jeremy.

“Fancy meeting you here, Bolt,” Richard Lawrence called as he crested the
hill with several of his cronies at his side. “To what do I owe the
pleasure of your company?”

“I warned you about picking on my little brother, then you went and did it
anyway, so now I have to beat some sense into you.”

“Is that so?” Lawrence began to circle forcing Josh to counter his move.
“Well, I believe a man’s gotta have my respect before I can listen to what
he’s saying.”

“Respect? Don’t worry, I’m gonna teach you to respect me real good.” Josh
stepped closer; Lawrence tried to back away but was stopped by the ring of
spectators.

“Never gonna respect a man who opens his home to a harlot.”

That statement stopped the punch Josh had been prepared to throw. “What are
you talking about?”

“Carlotta Hatfield? I hear she’s been spending nights up at your place.
What do you say Josh? After she tucks baby Jeremy in for the night, whose
bed does she climb into? Yours or Jason’s?”

“Why you filthy—“ Josh finished his sentence with a roundhouse punch to
Lawrence’s jaw. Lawrence took the hit and came back with a right cross then
a hit to Josh’s midsection which was too weak to do much good at all.

A moment later they were on the ground, rolling and grabbing, each boy
trying to get the best of the other, the crowd around them shouting and
cheering them on.

When Jeremy finally broke through the circle of children, Josh was getting
tossed on to his backside but he quickly returned to the fracas and
ultimately got the upper hand. When Richard Lawrence was lying on the
ground, bruised and bloody, Alvy Bricker, the unofficial referee, declared
Josh the winner and territorial champ.

Grinning from ear to ear, Josh ran his fingers through his shaggy blond
hair, wiped the sweat from his face with his sleeve, then held out his open
palm into which the spectators began dropping coins.

“No welchers among you, I hope,” he said as he mentally tallied the nickels
and pennies. Wasn’t going to reach the two dollars he was hoping for, but
all in all, not a bad take.

When the last begrudging soul had paid his debt, Josh offered them all a
piece of advice. “Never bet against a Bolt, you’ll lose every time.” Then
he turned from the group and headed for home.

#   #  #

He’s so wonderful.” Alice sighed, her big brown eyes locked on the
departing figure of the ‘champ’. “You must be so proud.”

“You’d think,” Jeremy grumbled as he watched the excited crowd disperse.

“Not to many girls his age around here,” Alice continued. “Just Lucy Early
and she lives way over in Everett. Wouldn’t see her at all if her papa didn
’t come to town to talk milling with Mr. Stemple. And there’s that other
girl, the one whose pa is a trapper – but I can’t see Josh having eyes for
the likes of her, can you?”

No answer.

Alice gave Jeremy’s shoulder a shove. “Can you?”

“Can I what?”

“Joshua! Has he got a girl?”

Jeremy groaned louder than necessary to make sure she got the point. “He’s
n-n-n-never going to look at you, if that’s wh-wh-wh-what you mean.” Now
that the path was clear, he started for home but Alice was quickly on his
heels.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re just a g-g-g-g-g-girl. He’s not interested in g-g-g-girls.”

“What is he interested in?” Alice scooped up a handful of mashed leaves
then threw them at Jeremy’s back. “Boys?”

“Women,” Jeremy said, brushing away the bits that caught in his hair and the
collar of his shirt.

“At least he knows how to treat a woman. Did you see how he fought for Miss
Hatfield’s honor?”

Jeremy stopped so suddenly, Alice bumped into him from behind.

“Wh-wh-what about Miss Lottie?”

“Richard said it wasn’t proper, the way Miss Hatfield’s been comin’ round
your cabin. You being all boys up there with no ma.”

“She c-c-c-cooked us supper! And you b-b-b-better not be saying anything
else!”

“I wasn’t!” Alice shot back, then her lower lip began to tremble. “I was
just telling you what Richard said. And if I were you, I wouldn’t shout at
me since I’m about the only real friend you have in this—“ She clamped her
mouth shut but it was already too late.

“Wh-wh-wh—“ Jeremy snapped his chin toward his chest as if that might
force the words to come but they wouldn’t.

“At least Richard says it to your face,” Alice said softly. “I think that’s
better than laughing behind your back like all the others.”

The full force of what she was saying hit him like a felled hundred-year-old
pine tree. “Is th-th-that so? F-f-f-f-ine! You get all of them. Everyone
who-o-o has laughed at me and you tell them to m-m-meet me tonight at M—“
He sucked in a breath, then another. “At M-m-miller’s cave.”

“Why? What are you going to do to?”

“W-wh-what I should have done t-t-t-today! F-f-fight my own b-b-b-battles!”
And finishing that sentence took the last of his strength, so he let his
face tell the rest. He grabbed Alice by the shoulders and held her square
so he could look her in the eye. He wasn’t going to be the laughing stock
of Seattle for another day – even if it meant facing a monster that had
inhabited his nightmares for as long as he could remember.

* * * * * *

“No eggs and mash for supper tonight.” Jason Bolt’s booming voice shook the
small cabin with its depth and volume. “I have a treat.” He set a clay pot
on the table, barely giving Josh a chance to clear his books out from under.

“If that’s Isaac’s camp cooking, I’d prefer to scramble some eggs.”

“That’s not what it is at all.” Jason pried the tight lid off the pot,
letting loose a rich, meaty aroma. “Just smell that, would you?”

Josh filled his lungs and let the images of his mother making hunter’s stew
play fast and easy in his mind. “If it tastes even half as good. . . “ He
leaned forward then stuck his nose in the pot. “Where’d you get it?”

“Maccano, the chief’s wife made it for us. The chief said they had a
successful hunt and we were good neighbors so they wanted us to share in
their bounty.”

“Bounty is right. My stomach is happy all ready.” Josh pulled last night’s
dirty dishes out of the washtub, rinsed them quickly with a wet towel then
began serving himself from the fat, clay pot.

“Don’t you think we should wait for your brother to have supper?”

“Not me. This is the best thing we’ve had to eat in this house for months.
I’m not waiting for nobody.” Josh shoveled a spoonful of stew into his
mouth then nearly swooned from the experience. “Those Indian women sure
know how to cook.”

Jason passed on the stew, in favor of making a pot of coffee. “What goes
around, comes around,” he said as he worked. “We’re kind to the Shoshone
people, and they in turn are kind to us. Oh, I know there are times when
we don’t see eye to eye. When it seems as if our two peoples can’t live
alongside each other a second longer – but in the end it’s not might that
triumphs, it’s goodness and understanding.”

Josh let his fork fall onto the plate. “You just had to do it now, didn’t
you? You just couldn’t let me sit here and enjoy this meal for ten lousy
minutes.”

Jason put the coffee on to cook, then turned back to his brother. “The way
I see it, you’re lucky you can sit at all, young man. I heard all about
your little escapade with Richard Lawrence and I’ve given some serious
thought to tanning your hide.”

Josh rolled his eyes. “I’m a little old for that, don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t think!” Jason’s fist slammed down on the table vibrating the
fork off of Josh’s plate. “I won’t have you acting like some drunken sailor
on a Saturday night. Mother wanted us all to be proper men, not a bunch of
animals.”

Josh pressed his chair back on to two legs, his eyes cast down to his knees.
“I didn’t do it because I wanted to. I did it because I had to. And it
wasn’t just about Jeremy this time, it was about you and me, and Miss
Lottie.” He looked up quickly, saw Jason’s angry glare, then turned his
eyes to the floor again. “It was about honor, Jason. About family.”

“Which is why you took bets.”

Damn. Brawling and gambling – he was in for it now.

The chair’s front legs thumped down onto the floor. “You want to tan my
hide, go ahead. That’s a great way to teach me that might doesn’t make
right.”

Jason’s eyebrow’s lifted as he pondered this little bit of wisdom. “What do
you know, you actually have a valid point there.” He sat down across from
Josh, then filled his plate with still steaming stew. “So what should I do
to punish you?”

“Nothing. I don’t think I deserve to be punished.” Josh picked up his fork
again, then poked the tines into a soft, baked carrot. “I didn’t do
anything that half the boys in town would have done.”

“Boys will boys, is what you’re saying.”

“Pretty much.” Josh began to eat again.

“And this is acceptable to you. Teaching Jeremy that it’s best to sock a
man in the mouth if he disagrees with him?”

“This isn’t about disagreeing. This about Jeremy’s feelings. Aren’t you
tired of seeing him all tied up in knots and crying his eyes out? I know I
am.”

“So I guess Jeremy feels better now that you’ve hit that boy who made fun of
him. That’s obviously why he’s sitting here right now, enjoying this
delicious stew with his family – because he feels so much better about
himself.”

Again Josh threw his fork down. “Fine, I’ll go find him.” He pushed his
chair back to the point of knocking it over then stomped toward the door
with all of the dramatics he could muster. “I don’t think you ever intended
to tan my hide. THIS is the punishment you had in mind all along. You
bring in the best stew I’ve ever tasted, then make it so I can’t enjoy a
single mouthful without feeling bad. You’re evil, Jason. Evil.” Then he
was gone, slamming the door behind him.

“Evil, possibly. But smarter than the both of you, put together.”

* * * * *

“I don’t think this is a very good idea, Jeremy,” Alice said as she paced
the front of the cave beside him. “You don’t even have a weapon. You need
a knife or a gun or a bow and arrow or something!”

“I d-d-d-don’t need anything, b-b-b-because there’s no m-m-m-monster in
there.”

“Yes there is,” Alvy Bricker insisted, staying well back with the handful of
curious souls who had ventured out to see the show. “I saw him. He snuck
into my bedroom one night. Would have torn my throat out if my dog, Buster,
hadn’t chased him away.”

“See,” Alice whined. “Please don’t do this, Jeremy. Nobody’s going to call
you a coward anymore.”

“Not once I’m th-th-through here, they won’t.” Jeremy lifted the lantern
into the air so he could scan the faces of those who had come to watch.
Some friends, some enemies – enough of a mix to make it effective if he didn
’t chicken out and ruin it all. “I’m going in.” He said the words aloud,
but it was really more for his own benefit. A verbal nudge to get it over
with – now.

Pushing down his fear, Jeremy set his hand on the cave wall then stepped
into the mouth. He listened for a moment, heard nothing, then moved on
following the wall, sliding his feet across the dirt floor inch by inch then
foot by foot. The passageway narrowed and the roof dropped down to just a
bit above his head. Still he moved on.

“Jeremy, come back.” Alice’s small voice echoed and bounced inside the cave
and was followed by the sound of scratching from somewhere up ahead.

Old Misfortune had fingernails like talons.

Holding the lamp as far ahead of him as his arm could reach, Jeremy moved
deeper into the cave. Again the roof sloped downward, forcing him to crouch
for a few paces before it opened up into a large room. The air was different
here, cooler and maybe a little fresher. It was too dark to get a real
picture, too dark to see what else might be in the room creating the small
scratching noise that was beginning to wear on his nerves.

”Jeremy!” Alice’s voice was louder than it should have been. “Jeremy Bolt,
answer me!”

Jeremy turned and stepped and there she was in his way. She screamed, he
shouted and they both went tumbling in opposite directions. The lantern
fell from his hand, hissed, fizzled then went out.

“W-w-w-what are you doing?” Jeremy shouted. “Scared me to d-d-d-death!”

“Why didn’t you answer me?” A soft creak, creak, creak echoed through the
chamber. “What is that?” Alice got to her feet, stumbled over something then
fell again.

Jeremy could barely see her. She was just a shadow banging about in the
dark. He got to his feet, throwing his arms out to his sides in order to
find the wall once more. His hand hit wood, a beam.

Something scrambled across the floor.

Alice screamed. “Jeremy! I want to get out of here.”

More creaking followed by a tick, tick, tick sound.

“Alice, ss-s-s-tand still. I’ll get you. Just t-t-t-alk to me so I can find
you.”

“What should I say?” Then she sniffed.

“Don’t cry,” Jeremy snapped. “Just talk to me.” He put his hands out in
front of him then moved into the darkness.

“Jeremy, there’s something in here. I can hear it moving. It’s coming closer
to me.”

“That’s j-j-j-j-just me, there’s nothing else in here, Alice.” More
creaking, a bit of dust fell from the roof and into his face. “J-j-j-just
stand still so I can find you.”

“No! He’s in here! Old Misfortune! He’s going to eat us both!”

Jeremy made a grab for what he hoped was Alice but the second his hands
touched her she screamed and pulled away. Then suddenly the air was full of
dust and the roof came down on his head. After that there was only darkness.

 

#  #  #

It was starting to rain, not heavy but one look at the sky told Josh there
was a storm brewing. In the house, out of the house – it was all the same –
bad news wherever he looked.

“Jeremy Bolt, you are going to pay for this.” He started to follow the path
toward town then thought better of it. If Jeremy were hiding out, he wouldn
’t do it there. Then he remembered their supper conversation of the night
before. Lawrence and the other children teasing about Miller’s Misfortune.

Changing direction, Josh walked back up the hill then east toward Miller’s
cave. He knew he’d made the right decision when he heard a bunch of
children running his way.

Don’t tell me Jeremy decided to take on Lawrence after all – was what he
thought, but that idea faded when Alvy Bricker came charging toward him.

“Josh, Josh. Old Misfortune’s got them – Alice and Jeremy. They’re in the
cave and I’ll be damned if he didn’t bring it all down around them so he
could take his time eating them up.”

Josh’s pulse rate quickened before he even started to run. “Get some help.
My place. Jason’s there, tell him what happened.” Hoping the boy had enough
wits about him to obey, Josh ran past the frightened children and all the
way to Miller’s cave.

“Jeremy!” He dashed into the gapping mouth, but a cloud of dust attacked
his eyes and throat pushing him back. A cave-in.

Josh pulled a handkerchief from his pocket then tied it over his nose and
mouth to filter the dust. He turned his lantern up as high as it would go,
mindful of the fact that it would burn twice as fast but even at that level
it barely pierced the dust-shrouded darkness.

“Jeremy! Alice!” His voice bounced off the cave walls so he stood still
and waited for it to subside. A trickle of tumbling rocks was the only
response. Damn it.

With one hand to the wall, he forged ahead. He’d only been inside the cave
once before and that was nearly three years ago when a friend had dared him
to challenge Old Misfortune. He could hardly blame Jeremy for rising to the
same bait but still he was planning to have more than a few harsh words with
his brother when they both got home.

If they got home.

Josh slowed his pace, remembering how the passage narrowed and the roof
dropped so low he had to go the rest of the way on his hands and knees. That
was last time, but not this time. This time the passage was completely
blocked by broken timbers and a pile of crumbled rock.

“Jeremy! Alice!” He held his breath, listening for an answer. Nothing.

Josh set the lantern on the floor then tested a few rocks in the stack. He
was able to remove two without a problem, but the third one sent a fall of
rubble rushing from ceiling to floor. Reassessing the situation, Josh moved
over to another section. With his bare hands he pried a large rock loose
then another and another.

“Jeremy! Alice!”

“Josh?” The voice was so small he almost missed it.

He pulled the handkerchief down around his neck then called back, “I’m here.
I’m going to get you out. Just hang on.” Working faster, Josh dug and clawed
until he created a hole large enough to see through. “Are you two all
right?” He held the lantern up to the opening so he could peer inside the
chamber. There appeared to be plenty of room behind the wall of debris but
both children were curled up in the farthest corner nearly hidden by a
shroud of dust.

“We’re okay,” Jeremy called back. “But my leg’s c-c-c-caught on something. I
can’t get out.”

At least they were alive and speaking. “Just hang on. I’m gonna get you out
of here.” Feeling a little less pressed for time, Josh took a moment to
survey the pile of rubble that separated him from the children. He
considered going for help but he changed his mind when Alice called his
name.

“Josh? Are you still there?”

“I’m here. I won’t leave you. I promise.” He took another few seconds to
decide the best method of attack, then he began enlarging the hole he had
created. The opening was small enough for Alice to get through but it would
have to be bigger for him to reach them.

“I heard a noise!” Alice shrieked.

“D-d-d-don’t get all scared,” Jeremy replied. “It’s just Josh digging out
the rocks.” Jeremy started to say something more but the words turned into a
ragged cough. “There aren’t any m-m-m-monsters,” he finished when he had
cleared his throat of dust. “It’s just a st-st-story.”

Josh hit a loose spot sending a shower of pebbles down on both sides of the
wall. Alice shrieked again and again he heard Jeremy trying to calm her.
Good boy. Keep your head. Josh lifted the lantern once more. “Alice, can you
come over here and get this lantern from me?”

He saw her little head bob then she stood ever so carefully. “I can hear the
cave moving.” She said barely able to keep the tears out of her voice.
“There’s something in here. I know it.”

“There’s not,” Josh insisted. “What you hear are the beams creaking. Just be
careful. Keep away from the walls and come towards the light.”

Josh heard her move more than he saw it but a moment later she was
illuminated by the lantern’s glow. Her hair was caked with dirt, her face
streaked with dust and tears. Her dress was filthy and torn. “That’s a good
girl. Grab the lantern, careful now.” He had to stretch to put the lamp
within her reach but finally she caught the handle. “Good, take it over to
where Jeremy is. You can set it on the floor right by him.”

Alice moved back to Jeremy, her head whipping in this direction and that as
the creaking and scratching noises echoed inside the chamber.

Josh couldn’t help a sigh of relief when she reached his little brother.
Jeremy was half lying on the floor with one leg curled beneath him and the
other trapped beneath a beam. He was covered in dirt, as was the girl, but
other than that he seemed right enough.

“J-j-j-josh,” said Jeremy. “I know you told us not to play around here
but…”

“Forget it. We’ll talk about that later. I just want to get you two out of
here.” Josh worked a few more rocks loose then paused to evaluate his work.
This wasn’t a time to hurry. Even now the dirt pile was beginning to shift
and complain. Looking up, he saw one rotten timber lying at an angle above
his head. Disturb that and the whole place would be coming down on top of
them. He couldn’t take a chance of digging out anymore.

Head first.

Josh stuck his arms through the opening then pulled himself into the chamber
behind the wall of debris. The drop on the other side was a good four feet
down to the hard-packed ground. Nothing to be done about that. Bracing
himself as best he could, Josh leaned forward and let gravity pull him
through.

He hit the floor – hard- bringing a fresh rain of dust and pebbles down on
the three of them.

Josh threw his arms over his head then lay as motionless as possible waiting
for the shower and the aches in his body to cut him a break. The shower of
dirt stopped first. The aches were going to hang on for a while.

When he lifted his head he saw Alice and Jeremy hunkered down in their
little corner again. The girl was shaking and Jeremy was doing his best to
soothe her with pats to the back.

“It’s okay, Alice. It’s okay.”

Josh got to his knees then slowly to his feet. He waved his hand in front of
his face but there was just no clearing the curtain of dust that hung in the
air. “Let’s get you two out of here.” He scooped Alice up into his arms,
giving her a reassuring squeeze before carrying her back to the opening he
had created. “I want you to climb out this hole then follow the cave wall
until you’re out. There aren’t any wrong turns to be made so you’ll be fine
if you just keep your hand on the wall.”

“I’ll wait for you,” she said, clinging to Josh as if he she might drown
without him.

“No. I want you out of here. Promise me you’ll keep going until you’re
outside.”

She didn’t want to promise but he caught her eyes with his and that sealed
it. “I promise but you’re going to get Jeremy and be right behind me, aren’t
you?”

“Right behind you. Now go.” Josh lifted the little girl above his head so
she could put her feet inside the opening. “I’ll hold on to you as long as I
can. Just wiggle through and watch your head.”

She started through fine but suddenly she panicked, failing her arms,
desperate for something to hold on to. Her movements started another small
landslide, not dangerous but noisy. Noisy enough to scare Jeremy now that he
had no one to calm but himself.

“J-j-j-josh?”

“It’s all right, Jeremy. I’ll be back to you in a second.” Josh stood on
tiptoes to keep his hold on Alice but finally he was stretched to his limit.
He thought about warning her, but decided it was best to just let go. When
he did she shrieked then cried out as she tumbled down the other side of the
wall. “Alice!”

Silence.

“Answer me!”

“I’m okay,” came the small voice.

Josh sighed. “Good. Now go, like you promised. All the way out and don’t
stop until you can see the sky.” He stood still another moment listening for
the sound of the girl moving away. Then, when he couldn’t hear her any more
he set his mind to freeing Jeremy.

 

#  #  #

The boy was coughing again by the time Josh returned to his side. “Let’s get
this beam off of you.” He grabbed the offending chunk of wood then started
to lift but he stopped the second he heard Jeremy cry out.

“What’s hurting you? I don’t understand.”

“I don’t know, something sharp. It’s not so bad when I lay still but it hurt
like the d-d-d-devil when you lifted the beam.”

Josh dropped to his knees then pulled the lantern closer to Jeremy. The
wooden beam was laying on a slight slant. When he pushed up on one end the
other end see-sawed downward pressing into Jeremy’s leg. Josh had to move
even closer to see the source of the pain. The wood was splintered and there
was a large, pointed shard cutting into the boy’s flesh. “I see the problem.
Hold on.” Josh climbed over Jeremy, settling himself in the small space
between the boy’s back and the wall of the cave. On this side he saw that
the beam was being held in place by another broken beam and a pile of rocks
and dirt. “This is gonna take a few minutes. Just stay still.” Josh dug his
already scared and bloody fingers into the pile then pulled away a chunk of
dirt and then another.

“Coming in here was p-p-p-pretty dumb, huh?”

“Won’t argue with you there.”

“Alice said told me n-n-not to I don’t know why I d-d-d-didn’t listen.”

“Because girl’s addle one’s brain. It’s a fact of life and you might as well
get used to it.” Josh sat back on his heels then looked up at the ceiling.
The remaining crossbeam appeared to be breathing. “Jeremy, I don’t have time
to take this easy. There’s a splinter of wood cutting into your leg.” Josh
stopped to cough the dust out of his lungs. “I’m going to try and lift it
but you’re going to have to pull yourself free. Can you do it?”

“Sure.” Jeremy pushed up to his hip then set his hands on the floor. “It’s
gonna hurt isn’t it?”

Josh put his hand on Jeremy’s back. “Just for a second. Then we’ll be out of
here. Ready?”

Jeremy’s body tensed beneath Josh’s touch. “I’m ready.”

On his knees, Josh slipped his hands under the broken beam then gave a test
tug. Then he put some muscle into it. The beam barely budged. The temptation
was to rock the beam from side to side working it loose but that would only
put more pressure on the splinter that was cutting into Jeremy’s leg. “One
more try.” Josh got to his feet this time. He got a better grip on the chunk
of wood, took a deep breath then yanked as hard as he could.

Jeremy cried out then tried to swallow the sound. Poor little guy was
determined to be brave.

“Move Jeremy, now.” A loud creak echoed through the chamber along with the
smaller sounds of shifting rubble. “Hurry.” Suddenly the beam gave up the
fight, it came loose and the change in dynamics knocked Josh off balance. He
fell backwards; hit the cave wall grabbed for a handhold and instantly knew
he’d made a mistake.

Pushing off the wall, he threw himself over Jeremy’s small body covering the
boy as much as he could before the sky began to fall.

The first hits were like hail stones pelting his back and legs and the
ground around them. Instinct made him want to cover his own head with his
arms but duty made him toss out that idea in favor of protecting Jeremy. The
boy was shaking, crying, his small hands grabbing for Josh’s sleeve as the
world came down around them both.

The hail stones grew larger, the noise rose to a roar then something heavy
hit Josh across the back. The pressure shoved him down on Jeremy, forcing
the boy into the floor. Dust burned Josh’s eyes and locked up his throat and
just when he thought it was over something hard and heavy smacked him in the
back of the head. There was a bright flash of pain then nothing.

* * * * * *

Jeremy didn’t move. He was afraid to move even though the storm was over. He
lay still on the floor of the cave, his eyes and mouth full of dirt, his leg
aching. There was a heavy weight pressing down on him: Josh. He wasn’t
moving either.

“J-j-j-osh?” Jeremy coughed then spit out a mouthful of dirt. “Josh?”

No reply.

Jeremy wriggled out from under his brother’s protective embrace but he didn’
t go far. The air was so thick with dust he could barely see his hand in
front of his face. “Josh?”

No answer.

He reached into the darkness for his brother’s body but his fingers slammed
into wood and rock. He moved to hand to the right and found cloth, a sleeve.
Sliding forward on his knees, Jeremy followed the sleeve upward. His palm
ran over a layer of pebbles and grit then he found Josh’s shoulder.

“J-j-j-osh. T-t-t-alk to me.” He gave his brother a push. The trickle of
shifting rock punctuated the air like rain on the porch. Jeremy dropped his
head to Josh’s chest. He held his breath and listened, praying inside his
head for some sign of life. Then felt it, the slow rise and fall of Josh’s
chest. Alive. Good. Now for some light.

Crawling on his hands and knees, Jeremy crossed the cave floor sweeping his
arm out now and again in an attempt to find the lantern in the darkness. He
found it on the third swipe, then inched backwards until he found Josh once
more.

“I’m g-g-g-going–.” His tongue tumbled around in his mouth refusing to
cooperate with the words his brain was telling it to make. What ended up
coming out was a guttural noise more like an animal than a human being.

Think. Think. Don’t panic.

Jeremy found Josh’s shoulder in the darkness, then followed the line of his
body down to his pants pocket. He searched one, then the other then found
the box he was after. Fumbling in the dark, Jeremy drew the match head
across the floor. On his second try the flame burst and sizzled to life.
Carefully, he opened the door on the lantern then touched the flame to the
wick. It didn’t catch right away, too covered with dust he presumed, but he
held the match still until it had burned right to his fingers. When he
finally pulled his hand away the wick was glowing.

“B-b-b-better, see.”

And now he could see. Josh’s head was lying at a funny angle. Jeremy
slipped his hand under to move him but quickly drew it back sticky and wet.
Blood. Don’t panic. Don’t panic.

Jeremy yanked his shirt off, smushed it into a bundle then carefully stuffed
it beneath Josh’s head. “C-c-c-can you hear me?” He gave his brother’s
shoulder a shake, gentle first then harder. “J-j-j-” He clenched his fists
and pounded them against his thighs. “Have to, have to, have, have, have. .

A hand touched his. “Easy, little brother. I can hear you.” Josh tried to
push himself up on to his elbows but a coughing fit drove him back to the
ground. “The air’s real bad in here. How long have I been out?”

Jeremy started to answer, choked, then forced out, “Couple of minutes I
think.”

Josh craned his neck backwards so he could see the opening he had created.
“Put the light up to the wall.”

Jeremy got to his feet, favoring his left leg then carried the lamp to the
debris pile. He couldn’t reach the hole but there was enough light to see
that it wasn’t as big as it was before.

Josh groaned as much from frustration as from the pain that wracked his
body. His head throbbed so badly he thought he would throw-up, if the dirt
in his lungs didn’t send him there first. That wasn’t the worst of it by any
means. When he moved his legs it felt as if someone was driving a long
needle into his lower back.

“Jeremy, the hole looks big enough for you to fit through. Do you think you
can climb up there by yourself?”

“N-n-n-no. I’m not going l-l-l-leave you.” Jeremy came back to Josh’s side
then sat down.

“You have to, Jeremy. You have to go get help.”

“Alice will get help. S-s-she’ll get Jason.”

Josh’s eyes slid closed.

“J-j-j-osh! Don’t. You have to hang on.” Jeremy gave his brother a shake but
snatched his hand back when Josh cried out in pain. “D-d-d-on’t close your
eyes. T-t-t-alk to me. Tell me about tomorrow. What are you g-g-g-going to
do tomorrow?”

Josh laughed, surprised to hear Jeremy speak so many words in a row. “With
any luck I’ll be lying in bed, all day.”

“N-n–no chores.”

“No chores.” Josh felt another cough welling up in his chest but he fought
to subdue it. The pain was unbearable when he coughed. Swallow, concentrate,
don’t let it take over your body. The tickle grew worse. Josh tensed his
muscles as he allowed the smallest cough to escape. It was no use, the
coughing spasm took over his body until his lungs were clear and his eyes
were clouded with tears.

“You’re bleeding,” Jeremy said, speaking each word with great care. “What –
should – I – do?”

Slowly, Josh lifted his arm so he could touch the back of his head. He found
the spot that was the cause of his headache, a swollen and sticky patch just
behind his left ear. “Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” Josh gave Jeremy’s
arm a pat. “You need to get out of here.”

“No. I t-t-t-old you. I’m not gonna leave you here alone. We can wait,
together. We’ll be fine . .. . . fine until help comes.”

Josh didn’t think so but he kept his opinion to himself. There was an entire
hillside sitting on top of the cave. Without the support beams, it would
only be a matter of time before the dozen tons of dirt came down on top of
them. He’d have to convince Jeremy to get out now while there was still
time. He’d have to but it was hard to think. Josh’s eyes slid closed once
more.

 

#  ## #

“Talk to me, Josh. Talk to me.” Jeremy had to remind himself not to shake
his brother even though he wanted to, desperately. “Josh, . . .” He took a
breath, steadied himself. He had to do this. It was just Josh, after all,
not like talking to strangers. Slow and easy – one word at a time. “Josh.
If you could go anywhere, right now. Where would you go?”

“Home.” Josh said without opening his eyes.

“I mean . . . in the whole world.”

Josh shifted slightly pulling his knees tighter to his chest. He lifted his
head for a second, then gave up, letting it fall back to the floor at an
uncomfortable angle.

“I’d go to Egypt.” Jeremy said as he adjusted the bundled shirt under his
brother’s head.

“What do you know about Egypt?”

“I know they got a lot of sand and m. . . . ummies. I read it in one of your
books.”

Josh almost laughed but then caught himself before it turned into a cough.
“You’ve been reading my books?”

“I like to know things too. I read about how they had all this gold and
jewels and stuff and when the kings died they wrapped them all up and buried
them in this tomb underground with all their stuff and sometimes they buried
live slaves with them and…and..I think I’d rather go to China.”

This time Josh did laugh even though it quickly turned into a cough and
moan. “Don’t make me laugh. It hurts.”

“I wasn’t trying to be funny. It just turned out that way.” Jeremy glanced
at the lantern. The wick was nearly burned out; it wouldn’t be long before
they’d be plunged into darkness once more. “Where do you want to g-g-g-go?”
He moved closer to his brother then set a gentle hand on Josh’s arm.

“Scotland. I want to see Kilmaran, our ancestral home. I want to see the
castles and learn to play Annie Laurie on the Gaelic Harp. Father used to
sing it while he chopped the trees. Remember, Jeremy? Remember the words?
Maxwelton’s braes are bonnie, Where early fa’s the dew – remember?”

Jeremy nodded, his father’s singing voice so clear in his head. “And ’twas
there that Annie Laurie, Gave me her promise true.”

“Keep going.”

“Gave me her promise true, Which ne’er forgot will be, And for bonnie Annie
Laurie, I’d lay me doon and dee.”

Josh made a sound something like a rasping laugh deep in his chest. “Doon
and dee. Somehow we keep coming back to dying, don’t we?”

Something scurried across the floor.

Jeremy popped up to his knees as he scanned the chamber. The dust had
settled but the light was growing dim. He couldn’t see anything but shadows
beyond where Josh lay. “Do you ever see monsters, Josh? Big, scary, hairy
monsters with yellow teeth and glowing eyes?”

“If you’re looking at one right now, I don’t want to know.”

This time it was Jeremy who laughed. “Now who’s being funny?”

“If you mean in my nightmares, I guess everybody has.” Josh shifted hopping
for a more comfortable position but there wasn’t one to be had. “When I was
little, Jason used to share the bed with me and I know I woke him up more
than a few times with my terrified screams.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

More scurrying. Tiny feet on loose dirt then the sound of small rockslide
echoed through the chamber. This time Jeremy threw himself over his brother
but it was unnecessary. The roof remained in tact.

“Jeremy, you need to get out of here.”

“We’ll both go. You can do it. If you can get up, I can make the hole bigger
then we’ll both climb out.” Jeremy tugged on Josh’s arm. “Try to sit up.”

“Help me.” Josh gave the boy his hand, then slowly, painfully, pulled
himself up to sitting. It seemed like a huge victory but that was as far as
it went. The change in position made his head swim and the pressure on his
back was unbearable. “I can’t, Jeremy.” He slipped back to the ground in a
heap and that was when the lamp went out.

Jeremy pulled himself even closer to Josh, then laid his head on his brother
‘s arm. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes but he battled them back.
There was nothing to be afraid of. Help would be here soon.

* * * *

They stayed together in silence for a few minutes, Jeremy listening for
monsters and Josh fading away into blissful sleep.

“Josh, talk to me.”

“About what?”

“Anything. I don’t think it’s good for you to fall asleep.” When his brother
didn’t answer right away Jeremy gave him a shake. The movement brought a
gasp to Josh’s lips.

“That’s one way to keep me awake,” Josh said after finding his voice.

More scurrying, closer this time. Jeremy curled himself into a tighter ball.
He wasn’t usually afraid of creepy, crawly things but here, in the damp,
damp, darkness everything was scary. “What do you think that is?”

“Not Miller’s Misfortune. A mouse probably,” Josh’s voice faded off as he
spoke. “He’s just looking for a place to hide.”

“Him and me both.” Jeremy took a deep breath but found his lungs didn’t fill
all the way. What was that all about? “How long do you figure we’ve been
here?”

No answer.

“Josh?” He gave his brother a shake but this time Josh barely moaned. “Josh,
are you listening to me? I was thinking you and me should take a trip. We
could go someplace far away, like to Mexico or San Francisco. Just the two
of us. It would be like an adventure in one of your books. Just you and me,
Josh. Josh.” Jeremy sucked in some air but it felt funny in his lungs.
“Josh? It’s getting kind of hard to breathe, isn’t it?”

Josh only heard bits and pieces of what Jeremy was saying. It was getting
too hard to listen, too hard to do anything but close his eyes and drift. At
first he assumed it was the head wound that was causing him to fade, but now
he suspected it was something else. The air, or lack of it.

“Jeremy. Stop talking. Uses up more air… you need to get out here.”

“I don’t want to leave you.”

Josh couldn’t see the tears but he could hear them in his brother’s voice.
“Jeremy, you could climb out, get some air, you could talk to me from the
other side.”

“Why isn’t anybody coming to help us? Why is it t-t-t-taking so long?”

“It was getting dark, Jeremy and there was a storm brewing. Listen to me.”
It was hard to push the words out. “There’s not much air left in here. With
two of us, it goes faster. I can’t get up so you have to go or we’re both
going to die in here.” He hated saying that word, ‘die’ to his brother but
it seemed like the only word that would push the boy into action. “Go on
Jeremy. Get out. Get help.”

“I can do it. But you gotta promise me you’ll be all right.”

Josh felt for Jeremy’s hand in the dark. “I promise. Now get out of here.”

He felt Jeremy move away, just a little at first then farther. “It’s gonna
be all right, Josh. It’s gonna be all right.”

Josh answered in his head but his lips didn’t form actual words. Actual
words? Jeremy had barely stuttered twice in the last few minutes. Wonder
of wonders. And that was the last thought Josh had before the darkness
swallowed him again.

* * * *

Jeremy lit a single match to help get his bearings in the chamber. There
were two left. He thought about leaving them with Josh but decided he might
need them if he had to make the trip back to the cabin in the dark.

With his arms in front of him for protection, Jeremy moved across the floor
until his hands hit the pile of rubble that blocked the entrance way. The
hole, he knew, was to the right and only a foot or so above his head. If he
could find a handhold, he could climb up and wiggle through. He hated
leaving Josh but the pains in his own chest told him that getting out was
the smartest thing he could do.

Feeling around on the wall, Jeremy found a rock he could hang on to and
another that formed a step. He found a second handhold, moved his foot to a
new location but this grip wasn’t as sure. His foot slipped sending a shower
of pebbles on to the cave floor.

He expected Josh to say something, to ask after him, but he didn’t. Couldn’
t. Jeremy had to try harder. Once again he tried the foothold and this time
he managed to raise himself up quite a bit. Cool air hit him in the face
along with a breath of fresher air. The opening. It was close. Just a little
further.

“Josh, I’m almost there. I think I can do it.” Jeremy patted the area above
his head until he found the opening in the rocks. He slipped his hands
through and tried to pull himself up the last few inches but it was tough
going. The sharp rocks cut at his arms and legs where he was pressed against
the rubble pile, but still he went on. Another foothold, then one more and
finally he was balanced on his stomach half in and half out of the hole.
Forward or back. Time to choose. He thought of Josh lying on the floor
unconscious, the air disappearing from the chamber. There really was no
choice at all. Jeremy went forward through the opening then tumbled down the
rock pile on the other side. Even with as light as he was, the force jarred
the rubble loose. Jeremy heard the echo of bouncing stones and all he could
think about was his big brother lying helpless inside the cave. That was the
last thing he thought of before he hit bottom.

* * * * *

“Talk to me, boy. Talk to me!”

The masculine voice cut through the fog in Jeremy’s head. Sort of like
Josh, but not exactly – a stronger voice, a deeper voice.

“Pa?”

Strong arms pulled him up to sitting, then there was water running over his
parched tongue. It felt so good, he couldn’t resist grabbing hold of the
canteen and lifting it higher so the water would run faster down his throat.

“Easy, Jeremy. Not so much, you’ll make yourself sick.”

A cool, wet cloth dabbed at his face, then cleared the film of dirt from his
eyes. Not pa, Jason.

“Josh!” Jeremy came alert in that single instance. “He’s still in there.
The air’s almost gone. You gotta get him out.”

“We will. Just tell me a little more. Is he hurt?”

Jeremy nodded. “His head and his back. He can’t get up. He saved me and
Alice. Jason-”

“We’ll talk about that later. Right now we have to get some of this debris
cleared.” Jason lifted his lantern to what had been an adult sized hole in
the collapsed wall. Now the space was barely big enough for a bunny to fit
through.

“It was bigger before I climbed out,” Jeremy said, a whole new wave of guilt
assaulting his head and heart. “I didn’t want to leave him. He m-m-made
me.”

Jason laid a firm hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I’m sure you did everything
you could to help your brother. Now, I need you to go outside and let me
work.”

Jeremy was about to protest but the calls of several other men made him
change his mind. Moments later, four of the loggers from the camp came
around the bend with lanterns and tools.

“Josh is on the other side of this wall,” Jason announced, his big voice
bouncing off the walls like cannon fire. “He’s hurt and the air is bad. We
need to work quickly but we’ll have to shore up the ceiling first so the
rest of it doesn’t come down on our heads.”

Jeremy stumbled out of the way to allow the men a place to work. Limping on
his aching leg, he made his way to the front of the cave, sucked in a lung
full of fresh air then went back inside. He had to be inside, that much
closer to his brother – the brother who wouldn’t be in this mess if it wasn’
t for Jeremy’s wounded pride.

Well no more. No more trying to prove himself to a bunch of laughing
hyenas. So what if he couldn’t talk as smoothly as everyone else. What
difference did it really make? It didn’t matter to his real friends like
Alice, and it didn’t matter to those who loved him like Joshua and Jason.

“Just let him live, God. P-p-p-please, God? P-p-p-please.”

* * * *

After what seemed like an eternity to Jason, the opening in the crumpled
wall was large enough for him to crawl through. Once on the other side, he
retrieved a lit lantern from one of his men then dropped down at his brother
‘s side.

“Josh? Can you hear me? Talk to me.” He gave the boy a shake and was
actually pleased by the soft moan he got in return. “He’s alive. But I’ll
need some help getting him out of here.”

Theo, the Greek was the first man to respond. Without any question, he
climbed through into the chamber, then helped Jason lift the boy between
them.

Working together, the two men carrying Josh to the opening in the rock wall,
where they were able to hand him through to the loggers on the other side.
Jason let Theo follow and as he waited his turn he heard the sound of
scratching of claws running across the shadowy floor and the slight trickled
of shifting dirt and rock.

“Come on, Jason. Get on out of there,” Theo urged when the older Bolt didn’t
follow right away.

“Take the lamp.” Jason handed the lantern through the opening then watched
as the chamber disappeared in the darkness. He thought of his two brothers,
especially the younger one, alone here in the dark with the scratching and
the creaking. Then he heard a voice in his head; a very young Josh crying
about monsters in the dark.

‘Don’t worry, Joshy. I’ll protect you from the monsters.’

‘Promise, Jason?’

‘I promise. Now you go to sleep and I’ll lie right here next to you.’

‘You won’t leave?’

‘I won’t leave, Joshy. I won’t let those dumb ole’ monsters get you.’

And now it was Josh who was the big brother. The protector.

Jason turned to the wall, hoisted himself up to the opening then pulled
himself up and out of the chamber.

 

#  #  #

“I took c-c-c-c-care of him the best I could.” Jeremy was sitting next to
Jason in the back of the wagon, one hand resting on Josh’s chest as they
rode back to the cabin. “I k-k-k-k-kept talking to him, especially when the
lantern went out. It was p-p-p-pretty scary in there but I kept talking to
him so he’d know he wasn’t alone.”

Jason gave his youngest brother a one-armed hug. “And what exactly did you
talk about all that time?”

“I don’t know, going places, like to S-s-s-scotland and we talked about that
song Pa used to sing and how m-m-m-mad you were gonna be when you found out
I went in there after Josh told me not to.”

“And I intend to be very mad as soon as I’m sure you’re both all right.”

Jeremy sighed. “In that case, my leg hurts something awful.”

Josh shifted beneath Jeremy’s hand, he mumbled something then was quiet once
more.

“He’s hurt pretty bad, isn’t he?”

“He’s strong. He’ll pull through.”

Jeremy wiggled around so he could lie down in the buckboard beside his
brother. “He said it would be bad if he went to sleep. I think cause he got
hit on the head. I just wanted to tt-t-t-alk to him. So he’d know it was all
right.” Jeremy snuggled a little closer to his brother then whispered. “Talk
to me, Josh. Wake up and talk to me.”

Jason was about to reassure him yet again that Josh would be fine but in the
end he decided silence was best.

* * * *

Josh slept through the night and well into the next day before finally
opening his eyes. When he came to his senses he realized he was laying in
bed. Some test movements reassured him that he was alive but still very
achy.

“Welcome back!” Jason appeared in his line of vision. “How you feelin’?”

“Like I’m very glad to see the light of day.”

“I second that. Can I get you something? A drink of water? Something to
eat?”

Josh shook his head and was immediately sorry when an all-new pain shot
through his brain. “Maybe later. You know I’m surprised Jeremy isn’t sitting
right here next to me. He didn’t want to leave my side when we were
trapped.”

“He didn’t want to leave your side here at the house, either, but I finally
made him go outside and get some air.”

“Which reminds me.” Josh filled his lungs to the very top. “That feels so
good. I gotta tell you, I thought we were gonners. You should have seen
Jeremy though, he was acting all brave for Alice’s sake and then after, when
it was just him and I. . . ” Josh shifted on to his side, groaning slightly
with the pain the movement caused. “He did everything right, Jason.
Everything he could to keep us both safe. And he was scared. I know he was
scared.” His eyelids batted open and shut, his voice slurring with sleep.
“I was scared but he kept talking to me about things, silly things but it
really helped.”

“I’m sure it did,” Jason replied softly.

“I wish you could have heard him, Jason. At first, he could barely speak
with the stuttering, but the more we talked, the more control he got and by
the end he was barely stuttering at all.”

“It’s amazing what people can do when they have to.”

“Yeah. It was funny though, him being the big brother for a change.” Josh’
s eyelids slid shut once more. “He really came through for me.”

Moving silently, Jason readjusted the quilt on the bed so it coved Josh to
the chin. “Well, he had a good teacher.”

Josh snuggled down under the blanket. “It’s strange,” he said, his voice
barely audible as the need for more sleep dragged him down. “You’re the big
brother. Jeremy’s the little brother. I’m the only one who’s both.”

Jason sat down in their mother’s old rocker beside Joshua’s bed. “A hard
position to be in, I’m sure.”

Silence filled the room for a few minutes then Josh spoke again, a little
louder this time. “Jason. Talk to me.”

Jason pressed his toes to the floor to set the rocking chair in motion then
he began to speak, “My glass shall not persuade me I am old, So long as
youth and thou are of one date; But when in thee time’s furrows I behold,
Then look I death my days should expiate.
For all that beauty that doth cover thee, Is but the seemly raiment of my
heart, Which in thy breast doth live, as thine in me: How can I then be
elder than thou art?” And so he continued, until Joshua was asleep and then
some.

The End

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