DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction.  No profit involved. Come on...don't kid yourself. No one's gonna pay me. It is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, Showtime Extreme, Trilogy Entertainment Group, TNN, The Hallmark Channel,  The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.  I write for the heck of it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
RATING: PG for Language
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Josiah and Nathan
SUMMARY: Ezra is totally in the dark as he searches for two lost girls in a mine
SPOILERS: small spoilers for Ghosts of the Confederacy, Penance
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The name of Ezra's horse was supplied by Kristen.
COMMENTS: Yes, please! Drop me a note
DATE:  Finished June 10, 2000. 

Toward the Light
By NotTasha... not entirely in the dark

Part 1:

Three riders made their way across the arid plain. The tall dark-skinned man rode beside the huge man. Both of them chatted amicably in the heat of the day. Slightly behind them was a rider in a bright blue jacket who took off his black low-crown hat from time to time and fanned himself with it. The healer, preacher and gambler were heading home after delivering a set of prisoners to a distant town. Now, tired and sore from the long ride and the heat, they journeyed alongside a mine-pocked hillside.

Josiah glanced back at Ezra and shook his head. Standish always makes his way to the back, the preacher thought. He could just as easily ride along side. Jackson had pointed this out to Sanchez some time ago. The healer's theory was that the gambler preferred the protection provided by having extra bodies in front of him, but the preacher wondered if that was the actual case.

When any of the Seven road together, the preacher noticed that the gambler often started off near the front, but with the jostling for position and movement of the horses, he usually ended up in the back. People would pair up and start conversations and the con man would drift toward the end. It was just the way of things. Even now, with Josiah aware of the situation, he found himself engrossed in a discussion with Nathan, and Ezra disappearing behind them.

After all the time that the Seven had spent together, Ezra still considered himself the odd man out, Josiah thought. The preacher had attempted to correct the situation, but it seemed that whenever he did try to draw the southerner in, it only worked to make Standish more defensive and cause him to withdraw. A curious thing really. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the gambler would have thought him to be a very gregarious man, quick to enter a conversation, well-mannered and witty, but it was only after you spent some time around him that his reticent nature became more apparent.

Nathan and Josiah had been discussing plans for the church and when they came to a pause in their conversation, a voice spoke. "A moment, gentlemen," Ezra said. The two turned around to see the gambler smiling at them, his hands casually draped over the pommel of his saddle. "It appears that Chaucer is thirsty and would like to pause for a cool refreshment."

"Ezra, we gotta make up some time," Nathan said tiredly. "Buck and JD will be waiting for us in Ferris and we're not gonna make it there 'til tomorrow. I mean, we stopped not that long ago."

Ezra dismounted and moved until he was in front of the horse. "Chaucer, old friend, are you thirsty?" The horse nodded its head expansively. "Would you like to take advantage of some refreshment?" Ezra pointed to a meandering creek -- little more than a trickle really -- and the horse again nodded. "Do you believe that this is an unreasonable request that will throw our schedule into unmitigated chaos?" The horse violently shook his head and snorted. Ezra raised his gaze and grinned at the two riders.

Josiah shook his head and laughed. "I do believe that horse is the only one who can understand you," he said. Josiah could never catch the signals that Ezra used with the horse. "You should join a circus with that trick-pony of yours, Ezra." He turned to Nathan and caught the healer's disgusted look.

"Circus? No." Ezra frowned. "Perhaps an accredited university would be more proper." When Chaucer nodded again, Ezra pointed at the horse and smiled.

"Enough of the tricks, Ezra," Nathan said. He had only recently learned about the 'sick horse' ploy that Ezra had taught Chaucer and was fairly certain that the conman had used this more than once to get out of patrol duty. "We gotta get moving," Nathan said. "Remember that rumble we heard? Sounds like a storm a'comin'." 

Ezra glanced about at the cloudless sky and Nathan continued, "Water your horse and stop foolin' around."

Ezra knelt by the creek and set his hat to the side. He washed his face and ran his hands through his hair while the three horses took time drink. The gambler was hot, dusty and sweaty from the ride, and was more than happy to take a moment to clean up. He hated being dirty. 

Ezra Standish, he thought as he sat back on his heels, what are you doing with your life? You should be sitting on a riverboat on the Mississippi right now or perhaps relaxing in a casino in St. Louis instead of getting so hopelessly dusty. He patted at the sleeves of his jacket and sighed at the cloud of dust that was raised. No fine fabric deserved that sort of abuse.

"Intolerantly sweltering today," Ezra muttered glaring toward the sun. What the hell am I doing here, he thought. This is not the life I had planned. He frowned at the golden disk in the sky. He was meant for much more than this. He considered removing his lightweight jacket, but it at least provided some protection from the sun.

He idly gazed at the water, looking for the telltale flecks of gold. Nothing.

"Come on, Ezra," Nathan said again. "We gotta get a-move on."

Ezra splashed a handful of water against Chaucer's legs. "Yes," he said. "We wouldn't want to keep Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Dunne waiting. There is no end to the trouble they might find."

Nathan watched as Ezra started to stand. The healer furrowed his brow as he suddenly noticed something in the water, just coming into view. "What's that, Ezra?" Nathan asked, pointing.

Ezra quickly returned his attention to the stream, thinking that maybe Jackson had spotted what Ezra had missed. Instead he saw a dark liquid flowing in the water...muted and disappearing as it mixed in the stream. He turned back to the healer. "I believe it's exactly what you think it is."

Nathan nodded. "Blood," he said thoughtfully.

Ezra quickly mounted his horse. "Do we investigate?" he asked.

"It's probably a mountain lion's kill," Josiah said, his eye tracing the narrow path of the creek -- up the side of the hill, where it twisted into unseen places.

Nathan nodded. "Probably right, but, we'd better take a look. Someone may be hurt." He pulled his rifle from its scabbard and said, "We'd best be cautious. Don't want to surprise a grizzly or mountain lion durin' its feeding."

Part 2:

The three headed upstream, seeing the water still ribboned with darkness.  It seemed to come and go. Josiah kept his eyes forward, looking for whatever possible danger lay ahead as they continued upward. 

A feral cry stopped them in their tracks. They held their weapons ready and listened. It took a moment for them to recognize the sound as human, an anguished voice screaming out, "No! No! No!"

They drove their horses onward, rounding a bend and came upon a disaster. A woman lay beside the creek, bloody from head to foot, and a man was frantically throwing himself onto a wall of rocks. He was shoving his weight against a boulder -- nearly as large as he was -- desperately trying to propel it aside.

Nathan was off his horse and at the woman's side as Ezra and Josiah headed toward the man.

"What happened?" Josiah called.

The man turned, his eyes huge with terror. He didn't seem able to take in the three strangers. His mouth fell open. 

Something suddenly snapped in place and he shouted, "Thank God! Thank God! You gotta help me. My girls are in there!" He was a miner, a huge man, covered in dust and sweat. His gaze fell upon Nathan and the woman. 

Nathan felt hopelessly for a pulse as the miner said, "Mavis, she's..."

Nathan sighed and stood quietly over the woman for a moment. Then he carefully moved the woman further from the creek and pulled her hands over her chest. "She's gone," Jackson said. There was no hope for the woman. Her skull was crushed.

"It just came down. The whole cursed thing came down," the man said. "Help me!"

Josiah stepped alongside the miner as Nathan joined him. Josiah nodded to the man. "I'm Josiah, that's Nathan and there's Ezra."

The man looked dumbfounded for a moment, as if introductions were the furthest thing from his mind. "Sam Abbott," he said as he again started moving the stones.

Nathan threw himself into the work, trying to shift the insurmountable pile. He too was sweating in a matter of minutes in the oven-like heat. He glanced over at Ezra, who was standing apart, watching them with a critical eye.

"You ain't gonna tell me that you refuse to do any menial labor?" the healer growled.

Ezra walked slowly around the scene. "Perhaps that would be accurate," Ezra said thoughtfully, fanning himself with his hat. "I'm afraid that your efforts'll be to no avail. It's doubtful that the four of us would be able to move this mountain."

Josiah had to agree. It appeared that this wasn't a small cave-in. The whole front of the mine was gone. 

"Where were they? The girls?" Josiah asked Sam

"They were about a hundred yards in," Sam told. "They didn't get hit by this. I'm sure of it."

"Mr. Abbott, are you aware of any other entrances, or perhaps an air vent?" Ezra asked.

Sam stopped and looked at the gambler who stood quietly waiting. Abbott nodded. "Yeah, yeah, we got a natural chimney." He stood suddenly. "We can get down it!" 

Abbott moved quickly, grabbing a pair of lanterns and pointing. "Get those ropes. We'll need 'em," he spouted before he took off at a run up the hillside.

Josiah picked up one of the coils of rope and grinned at Ezra. "Good thinkin', Ezra," Sanchez commended as headed after the miner, with Nathan close behind, with the second coil.

"One must always be on one's toes," Ezra replied.

It took some time to make it to the top of the steep hillside. Then they traveled a respectable distance before they reached a small fenced off area. Sam pulled the fence down and lifted a board. "There!" The hole was a black smudge on the ground. "It leads into one of the outer tunnels," he said.

Josiah looked downward into complete darkness. The cold breath of the mountain breathed through the hole, creating a luxurious chill in the heated air.

Sam checked the lanterns. "It's a good thing that one of these is full," he said. "Elsewise, I'd have to go back to the cabin for more kerosene."

Sam lit one of the lanterns, tied it to the end of a rope, and then slowly dropped it into the shaft. The four men watched as the lantern illuminated the passageway. They were silent. The shaft was narrow -- very narrow. When the lantern hit the bottom, they sat back and summed each other up. Sam was not as tall as either Josiah or Nathan, but he was a man of prodigious girth. 

Ezra gazed back down the hole, gauging the diameter and realizing that he would be the only man who could fit.  He wasn't a slight man, but he was narrower than his companions.  He sighed. "I do suppose it'll fall to me," he said as he pulled off his jacket. 

"Think you can fit?" Josiah asked.

Ezra cocked his head and pulled off his hat. "I shall endeavor to try." He looked back to Sam. "Mr. Abbott, how exactly will I locate your offspring?"

Sam looked puzzled. "Your girls," Josiah supplied as prepared the ropes. "How's he gonna find 'em?"

"Might I hope that your mining expertise created a straight path?"  Ezra drawled.

Sam bit his lip. "These caves are natural in this part."

"Natural formations?" Ezra said, unstrapping the derringer from his arm, with Sam watching the activity in suspicion. "Then it shall not be a direct route?"

"Ah, no," Sam said.

Ezra set the small weapon and its rigging beside his jacket and started to unbuckle his shoulder harness. He waited a moment, wondering if Abbott would catch the clue. "Perhaps you can tell me the way?" he asked finally, realizing that he wouldn't.

Sam nodded and said, "Okay, when you get down there, you'll go this way," he pointed vaguely northward, away from the main entrance. He met Ezra's skeptical glance. "It doubles back. You'll go that way until you come to a tunnel to the ... left. You take that until you get to this down-slope. Go down that and head to the.... right. That'll go for a bit. Stay to the right 'cause there are about three or four tunnels that branch off of there. It'll narrow down a bit, then you'll reach the main tunnel."

"I take it you have not been pursuing this profession for very long," Ezra said with a sigh. God, how he hated amateurs. "Three or four tunnels? You can't be more specific, Mr. Abbott?" The gambler set his gun belt with the rest of his weaponry.

"Just go 'til you get to the main tunnel! " Sam snapped. "It's the wide one. You'll go up that about a hundred yards that's where you'll find Prue and Dor. There's this nook off to the side that we got set up for sleepin'."

"Off to which side?" Ezra asked.

"It's damn obvious. Listen to me, it's the only room on that tunnel! They were sleeping in the mine 'cause of the heat."

"Very well," Ezra said. "Northward, left, down, right, right, right, right and possibly right again, left to the large tunnel until I reach a 'nook' approximately a hundred yards later..."

"Sounds like a long way," Nathan interjected.

"Not that far. The whole thing won't take more than an hour if he does what I told 'im." He turned to Ezra and said, "Just do like I say, cause the tunnels twist every which way. That's why I haven't been mining all of 'em. They're a bitch. Can't get my equipment over the lake anyway."

Ezra waited a beat. "Lake? I don't recall you mentioning that before."

Sam shook his head in frustration. "Damn it, it doesn't have anything to do with how to get to Prue and Dor! It's hardly more than a puddle."

"Mr. Abbott, if I'm to be crossing a lake it'd be of use to know when I'll encounter it."

"It's after the down-slope."

"Before or after the right turn?" Ezra inquired, taking one end of the rope from Josiah and shrugging the loop over his shoulders.

Sam frowned and said, "No, it's a left turn. Didn't you listen to me?"

Ezra stopped trying to position the rope. "You most certainly said 'right'."

Sam stomped about in a small circle in frustration. "It's a left! Ya gotta go left!!"

"Is the lake before or after the left turn, Mr. Abbott?"

"After, damn it! Why're you making this so hard? I'd be down there already if I only fit. It's my own damnable luck that you're the only one who can git down there."

Ezra looked back toward Nathan and Josiah in concern. 

"You okay with this, Ezra?" Josiah asked.

"Northward, left, down, left, a body of water, right, right, right and possibly right again, left to the large tunnel until I reach a 'nook' approximately a hundred yards later. I believe that I'll be capable."

Nathan pulled the lantern out of the chimney to clear the way. It was going to be tight. They needed nothing in the way. 

"Ready?" Josiah asked.

"As I'll ever be," Ezra replied. "I'll enjoy the cooler climes in any case. Shall we begin?" The three men grabbed hold of the rope and Ezra stepped out over the hole. He braced one foot against the side of the pit, then let the others take on his weight. They lowered him slowly.

"How ya doin'?" Josiah called out as Ezra disappeared into the blackness.

"Your assumption was correct. The quarters are rather tight."

"Don't get yerself stuck," Nathan shouted down as they let out the rope. He felt the cord slacken. "Ezra?" he called, unable to see what was going on.

"A moment while I maneuver around this rather...ungainly...obstruction..." Ezra called. For a few moments the cord remained limp and then following a grunt, the weight on the rope increased again. "It appears I'm clear of it," Ezra drawled from below. They continued to lower the gambler into the pit until finally the rope slacked again.

"I made it. Give me a moment to get out of these ropes, then perhaps you'll and return my jacket and the light."

The rope was pulled out of the hole and Josiah grabbed Ezra's jacket. He regarded it for a moment before he shouted, "You gonna be warm enough in this, Ezra?"

"It's rather refreshing," Ezra replied. 

Sam lowered the lantern again and Ezra retrieved it when it reached him. He brushed at his shirtsleeves irritatedly when he noticed how filthy they were. Josiah lowered Ezra's jacket and hat along with a canteen. The gambler smiled up at them. 

"How's it look down there?" Josiah asked. 

"Dark mostly," was the reply.

Sam leaned over the pit. "You gonna find 'em. You'd better find 'em."

"I shall indeed," Ezra promised, as he settled his hat -- wondering if he even needed it in this sunless place.  With a shrug, he figured it would keep his head warm.

"You be careful, Ezra," Nathan said. "Don't get lost."

Ezra pulled a card from his pocket. "I'll mark my path, thus there'll be no difficulties." He set the Ace of Spades down on the ground where he was standing.

"You don't come back without them!" Sam suddenly shouted into the hole. "Don't you dare come back without my girls!"

"I assure you, I will not return without your children," Ezra said touching the brim of his hat. "Good day, gentlemen," he said and stepped out from under the hole and disappeared from sight.

"Ezra," Josiah called down. "Ezra!" He looked up at Nathan and Sam. Didn't they hear what he just said? "Ezra, you come back if you can't find them!" Josiah shouted into the vent.

Part 3:

The cavern was a relief, so cool, dark and close. Ezra found it all rather relaxing. He was a night-person and was never afraid of the dark as a child and not the least bit claustrophobic. 

The endless nights spent in casinos and taverns, learning his trade, would eventually wear out the young Standish. He'd end up seeking out tiny dark places to sleep, where he wouldn't be stepped on or used as a 'lucky charm' by any cretin that felt the need to rub his head. As a child, he would wedge himself into cupboards and onto the shelves under the bar, under benches, into closets. Once he found a loose board and a refuge beneath the flooring. He would fall asleep to the casino cacophony. He would awaken the following morning in his hide-hole and step out into an empty saloon. With any luck he would be able to find something to eat and then would spend hours practicing with cards while he waited until his mother hopefully returned to claim him.

Ezra paused, removed his hat and rested his head against the cold rock that surrounded him. His head ached from the heat he had just escaped from. He studied the short distance illuminated by the light. The ground was uneven and sloping both downward and to the left. No time to tarry, he'd have to find the children. They had been in here, alone, for too long. No one should be left alone in the dark, he thought.

He adjusted the canteen on his shoulder and started walking again. He came to a fork in the tunnel and pulled a random card from his pocket. He set the Three of Diamonds at the entrance to the tunnel on the right, and then turned to the left. 

Ezra sighed, hoping that this was correct. Abbott's confused directions did not sit well with the gambler. He was heading into the darkness without the ability to trust the instructions he was given. "Dor?" he called out softly, knowing that he was still some distance from the girls. "Prue?" Who in their right mind would name children such unbeautiful names? 

The slope increased. That boded well. He set down another card, the Eight of Spades and continued walking. He ran one hand along the wall as he walked to keep his balance. The odd shadows thrown up by the lantern and the uneven floor were somewhat disorientating. He kept a quick pace as he continued down the tunnel.

Part 4:

Sam paced near the pit. "Oh God, Mavis. I should do something for her -- my dear Mavis."

"We'll see to her," Nathan said as he quietly stood.

"She tried to go back," Sam muttered. "We heard the cave-in start and she tried to go back to the girls. I had to dig her out." He rubbed the back of his hand across his face. "She was tryin' t'save them."

Sam stopped his endless movements and said, "When I bought this mine, I thought it was gonna be a godsend. It was gonna make us rich."

"Didn't happen?" Josiah asked.

Sam shook his head. "It's pretty near played out. We ended up selling nearly everything we had. All we got left is a cabin. And now, and now... my Mavis is gone and my dear girls are trapped. Oh God, I may never see them again."

"Ezra will find them," Josiah said reassuringly.

Sam frowned. "What does he know about mines?"

"I think he knows a thing or two," Nathan replied, remembering their rough beginnings with Standish.

Sam said nothing. He didn't trust the gambler. Standish didn't look like the kind who could carry out this plan. Sam had seen a lot of folk like that fancy-dressed fella. He remembered one in particular, the one that had sold him this mine. He gritted his teeth remembering the fast-talking snake who promised a rich gold mine and delivered a hole in the ground.

Nathan looked to the sky and said, "It'll be getting dark soon. Maybe we should get a fire started. Those girls will be cold."

Josiah touched Sam on the shoulder and said, "Let's get some supplies. We'll go see to your wife, too. I can say a word or two for her if you like."

The miner nodded. "Gotta take care of her."

Josiah glanced back to Nathan as the two of them moved down the hill. "Give us a holler when Ezra comes back."

Nathan watched the two men depart and turned back to the pit. With any luck, Ezra would be back before Josiah and Sam were finished. He sat down beside the hole to wait.

Part 5:

As Ezra walked, he scrutinized the walls of the cave. "What in Heaven's name were they mining here?" he asked aloud. He had seen no trace of gold, hadn't even seen the proper rock formations to signal its presence. He shook his head slowly. It looked as if Abbott had been sold a bum claim.

"I wonder which scam they pulled," Ezra muttered, keeping a good pace.

When he reached the end of the down-slope and found the disputed fork in the tunnel, he paused. He hoped Abbott had provided him with the correct path. Ezra pulled another card from his pocket -- Jack of Diamonds. He set it at the turn and headed down the left fork. Apparently the direction was correct because he came upon the promised lake shortly after that.

"A rather impressive puddle to say the least," the gambler said as he squatted at the edge of the underground pool. It was at least twelve feet across and clear as glass. It filled the cavern, making fording it the only possible means of continuing. He squinted at the crystal-clear water for a moment, trying to gage its depth. It looked as if it could be three feet deep in the middle.

His hopes of staying dry had been dashed. At least he could keep his boots from being ruined, he thought as he pulled them off. After thinking a moment, removed his socks and trousers as well. He carefully folded the pants and then his jacket. He pulled another card out of the pocket -- Queen of Clubs. He took a moment to position it at the side of the pond before he turned back to the water

"Well, I had best get on with it," he said as he stepped slowly into the cold water. Not too bad, he thought he tested the rocky floor. He picked up his clothing, in one hand and the lantern in the other. The crossing was fairly easy. The water only came up to his thighs at the deepest point, but he was chilled by the time he climbed out on the far side.

He wished he had something to dry off with, but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. He dressed again and pulled out another card and set it strategically on the ground -- Seven of Hearts. Mentally he backtracked the cards he had left to this point -- Seven of Hearts, Queen of Clubs, Jack of Diamonds, Eight of Spades, Three of Diamonds, Ace of Spades.... easy.

He gazed down the tunnel, wondering at the distance of his destination -- shouldn't be too much further. Abbott had said the total trip should take no more than an hour. 

Ezra hoped nothing went wrong. Something always seemed to go wrong when others were counting on him. He looked back across the underground lake and wished that the vent had been a bit wider, that perhaps Nathan or Josiah would have been able to fit as well. Nathan and Josiah wouldn't fail. The two of them were made of far nobler material than he could hope to aspire to. He smiled thinking that if Josiah could fit, maybe they could have brought the horses, too. Well, if wishes were horses... he reminded himself.

Somebody will have to find those children, he thought, and it will have to be you. No sense wishing for miracles. You were the only one who fit. You're the only one.

He rubbed his legs through his trousers. His skin was numb under the fabric. The water must have been colder than he thought. Good thing he'd only had to cross it twice. He wanted to avoid that chill as much as possible. Damn, he was starting to shiver. There wasn't much of a chance to warm up in this sunless place. The best remedy would be movement.

He picked up the lantern and frowned as he held it. He shook it slowly and listened to the hollow sound of kerosene sloshing. The tank sounded almost empty.

"Good Lord," Ezra muttered, "And damnation."

Part 6:

Nathan was standing, holding a lantern when Josiah and Sam returned with firewood and blankets. "How much fuel was in Ezra's lantern?" the healer demanded.

Sam paused and looked to Nathan. His face was somber from the task of burying his wife. "What?" Abbott asked, unable to find an answer to such an insignificant question.

"The lantern that he went down there with," Nathan restated. "How much fuel?"

Sam finally seemed to grasp the question. "It was full."

"When you brought up the equipment, you said that only one was full."

Sam nodded. "Yeah, that's right."

Nathan shook his head slowly and extended the lantern in his hand. "This one's full."

"What are you saying?" Josiah asked, startled. He dropped the firewood and stepped forward to grab the lamp from Nathan. He shook it, feeling the weight. "We sent him down there without a full tank?"

The miner didn't seem to understand for a moment, and then his mouth dropped open. "I, I, I meant to give him that one." Sam looked frantically between the two. "I meant to use the other one to survey the pit and the full one was supposed to be the one he used." Abbott's lip quivered. "Oh my girls!"

Josiah gazed down into the dark pit. "How much kerosene was in that other one, that lantern that Ezra has right now? How much time?"

Sam's face distorted in agony. "Oh Dor... Prue,"

"How long will he have light?" Nathan demanded.

"I don't know," Sam shook his head. "Should be enough. Should be, as long as he doesn't get lost or screw around too much."

 Part 7:

Ezra moved quickly in the meager light. He had turned the wick down as low as possible and now the lantern emitted only a pale glow. He calculated that he had enough kerosene to last the hour...longer if he kept the light to a minimum. He saw no sense in wasting time by returning for more fuel before he found them. He was almost there. He had no idea if the second lantern was full either. If Abbott needed to return to his home for more kerosene, it would only further delaying the rescue attempt.

No, he'd have to push on. Make due with what he had.

He counted the branching caves as he kept to the right, and marked each new entrance with another card. He named the side tunnels, using the cards: Two of Clubs, Ace of Diamonds, King of Hearts. The tunnel he was following was becoming progressively narrower and soon he was crouching to move onward.

"Where have you led me, Mr. Abbott?" he asked the darkness as he reached the fourth off-shoot and still saw no sign of a larger tunnel. He pulled another card and set the Four of Clubs at the conjunction. 

"The man can neither count nor hold a simple set of directions in his head," Ezra drawled. Now what? Abbott did say that the tunnel would narrow before he reached the larger one, but by how much? 

Continue onward, he thought, Abbott had not been specific on the number of right turns. Perhaps he meant five instead of three or four. The tunnel could open up again at any moment.

He continued on, using his hand to help guide him. He was still cold from crossing the lake -- funny because he was so hot just a short while ago. He had been more than happy to step out of that heat and bright sunlight. Now all he wanted to do was get back into it. He walked until it became obvious that he would have to crawl soon. 

Ezra set down the lantern and crouched down for a moment. He peered down the dark passage, noting that it would continue to diminish in both width and height. This was ludicrous. He was obviously on the wrong path. Another senseless endeavor, he thought. 

He would have to backtrack now. Test some of the side tunnels, see if he could find the way. Damnation, how was he supposed to do this? If the others had been with him, they could have split up to better search this cave. Now, it was obvious that he had chosen the wrong way and had done nothing but delay his discovery of the children. He shook his head in frustration at his own incompetence.

He pulled another card and left the Nine of Diamonds to mark his furthermost point and headed back toward the Four of Clubs.

Part 8:

Nathan started a fire, ready to warm the children after spending so much time in the caves. Josiah kept watch over the pit. They had lowered the second lantern into it, hoping that the light might provide some direction to the wayward gambler.

"Come back, Ezra," Josiah said quietly, his eyes on the Ace of Spades that marked Ezra's starting point. Find those girls and come back. Or, at least, realize that your lantern is low on fuel and return for more. Don't stay out there. Come back.

Damn fool's gonna keep on going, Josiah thought. Ezra promised that he wouldn't come back without them. He knows he's the only one who can get them out. I just hope he considers comin' back for some help.

Josiah mused on the Ace that lay beneath him. Of course, the gambler would have chosen the highest card as his own -- the show-off. But, Sanchez thought, depending on the game, the Ace could also have the lowest value. A contrary card, both high and low at the same time. 

Ezra was always taking stupid risks. Well, maybe one should say... well-calculated risks. Of course, that there was always some sort of a goal in mind whenever Ezra suddenly became heroic. The only problem was that the gambler didn't always weigh the risk in a reasonable fashion. He risks too much, Josiah thought. Doesn't consider his own life that much of a wager.

Josiah looked up to see Sam pacing anxiously, rubbing his hands together and sighing. "My girls, my girls. What's going to happen to them? What if he forgets what I told him?"

"Ezra will find 'em," Nathan reassured. "Don't worry. He's got a memory like a steel trap. He'll find 'em."

Josiah checked his pocket watch. "He should have been back by now." The preacher returned his attention to the hole in the ground. It was so dark in there, he thought. What would happen when the fuel ran out?

Part 9:

Ezra tried the tunnel where he had left the Four of Clubs, following it until it came to an end approximately 50 yards from where it started. He slammed his open hand against the rock in frustration. Damn it, wrong again!

He drew another card. "Five of Diamonds," he said out loud as he set it down. There was no need to mark the end, but it helped him to keep track of where he had been. He could play back the cards in his head, as if it were a poker game, watching where every number fell.

He backtracked to the King of Hearts tunnel and glared into it. Should I try it? He tried it.

After continuing down the King of Hearts tunnel for several minutes, he came across another branch, on the left. Ezra pulled a card -- Six of Hearts -- and set it at the opening before continuing to the right. He followed the King tunnel to its end.

"Another wall," he muttered, running his hands along the surface as if he could find a secret opening if he tried hard enough. He jerked another card out of his pocket and left the Three of Spades before doubling back to the Six.

The gambler sloshed the lantern again as he gazed down the Six of Hearts tunnel. He was running out of time. The fuel would be spent before too long. The Six didn't look promising. He decided against trying it. He continued along the King of Hearts tunnel, then back in the direction he had come from, and arrived at the Ace of Diamonds.

"Ace of Diamonds, will you be lucky for me?" he asked as he gazed down the offshoot.

"A moment," he said and sat down again. He was growing tired from walking over the uneven floor, of having to feel along the wall to keep his balance, of hurrying through the dimness. He was cold and hungry, and time was growing short. "Just a moment while I catch my breath."

"Dor?" he called, "Prue?" There was no reply. He picked up the lantern to step into the Ace of Diamonds tunnel. As soon as he lifted the device, the light sputtered and was gone.

"Ah, hell," he grumbled in the blackness.

Part 10:

Nathan spread the blankets out near the fire to warm them. Night had fallen and the desert air quickly cooled. He glanced over at Josiah who continued to sit beside the pit, keeping his eye on the light below. The preacher's face was filled with concern.

The healer shook his head slowly, wondering what Standish would think if he saw that look. Nathan chuckled as he decided that the independent con man wouldn't like it. No, not one bit.

He looked to Sam, who stood beside the fire, staring at the dancing flames. The man was trying to grieve the loss of his wife, but he was so tied up in the anxiety over his missing children, that he couldn't quite decide what to feel.

Ezra will find them, Nathan said to himself. He had no doubt about that. He and the gambler had their differences, that was certain. Jackson found that Standish was one of the most exasperating people he had ever known. There were times when he couldn't even deal with the smooth cardsharp. Standish had such unconscionable morals.

Nathan knew that couldn't trust the gambler with certain things -- money for one. Couldn't trust him to be honest. Couldn't trust him at cards -- the man had to be cheating to win so often. But without a doubt, Nathan could trust Ezra with his life. Could trust him with something like this.

Nathan knew that the gambler would return with the children. Come hell or high water, he'd do it. They would only have to wait.

Jackson stood for a moment beside the fire, warming himself, before turning toward the darkness in search of more wood.

Part 11:

Ezra stood for a moment, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the new level of darkness, and then he realized that they never would. This was complete blackness. He held his hand up before his face, almost touching his eyes, and not seeing anything. 

Now what?

He glanced over his shoulder, as if he could see in that direction any better than in his current position. Could he find his way back? Well, yes...probably.

He faced forward again. But those children were still out there somewhere. If he were to go back now for more kerosene, it would only delay their rescue even longer. He could just as easily continue on a bit further. He had to be nearly there. See if he could find them at the end of this tunnel.

Ezra reached along the wall and moved his foot forward slowly, trying to find a place where the ground was even enough to stand easily. He reached and stepped again and continued along. He had gone an appreciable distance when his head almost coming in contact with a rocky formation; he felt the coolness against his temple, and stopped before he hit it.

He lurched back, having to fight to keep his balance. This was not going to be easy. He set down the worthless lantern and put his left hand before his head as he reached out with his right. At least he wasn't going to crack his head open, he thought as he stepped forward again.

Where he had been able to move relatively quickly before, he found his speed greatly reduced. Faster, you have to go faster, he thought. This will do no good at all. They're waiting for someone to help them.

He tried to press himself to increase his speed but it was frustratingly difficult. The ground was too uneven, the walls of the tunnel twisted back and forth, the ceiling would come down unexpectedly, causing him to stoop.

Never had he known such absolute blackness. He was stumbling into the unknown, completely blind. He reached out from time to time with his left arm, feeling along the opposite wall. He paused when he realized that he reached another branch. Thoughtfully, he pulled another card from his pocket and laughed. He squinted at the card and held it directly in front of his eyes.

Finally, he pressed it against his forehead and divined, "Seven of Spades!" He had no way of telling, but at least it gave him a name to ascribe to the new tunnel. He set the card at the entrance to the offshoot and continued to the right.

It was getting easier, as he became used to the strange blindness. He found that he was able to move a little faster as he gained confidence. Just keep moving along the wall. You can handle that, can't you?

Ezra reached out, stepped forward and tried to put his foot down. He couldn't find a decent footing so he moved his foot further and tried again. There was nothing to step onto. The ground disappeared from beneath him, pitching him forward.


He fell. He threw his arms over his head, and curling himself into a ball as he dropped into the black.

He slammed hard against the rocks, knocking the wind out of him. Pain jolted through his arm and hip. White stars flashed through his head... almost welcome in the darkness. He gasped, as he lay on the cold stone.

...oh God.

Ezra blinked into the black and then closed his eyes.

 Part 12:

"We could get a gang together and move that debris out of the front of the tunnel," Josiah said hopefully.

Sam shook his head slowly. "We're a day's ride from the nearest town. There are a few of other miners in the area, but they're scattered."

"Then we'll get 'em at first light," Josiah said. "We'll get anyone we can lay our hands on and move that mountain."

"We should be down there right now, movin' what we can," Sam moaned.

"We gotta keep at least one man here," Nathan reminded. "And two of us ain't gonna make more than a dent on those rocks."

"Can you think of anyone nearby who can fit through that vent?" Josiah asked.

Sam pondered the question. "The Fergeson boy is kinda slim. No wait, he left for the East Coast. His pa is a big man and his ma would never make it. The Klein brothers wouldn't. Let's see..." He tapped his head as he thought.

Ezra had disappeared into the cave five hours ago. The day that had been so unbearably hot, had turned cold with the darkness. The three men sat near the fire and considered their options.

There weren't many. 

Josiah grumbled in frustration and got to his feet again. "Something must have happened. We've gotta get him out of there. It's been too long."

"My daughters, my girls..." Sam said, looking up at the big man. "He's gotta get my girls out of there."

Josiah nodded. Yes, the girls would have to be saved, but Lord, he wanted to get Ezra out of there... now. Five hours is an awful long time to be in such a cold dark place. Sam had been unable to give him any idea of how long the fuel in that lantern would last, but Josiah was rather sure that it had gone out by now.

Josiah had knowledge of mines, having traveled with his missionary father almost everywhere. Miners were always in need of salvation. His father was eager to provide it.

Josiah could still remember the breathless fear of the time he had traveled deep into one of the caves with a torch. His father had been preaching to the men as they worked and little Josiah had wandered away. He had been pretending he was a fearless explorer, discovering a magic cavern.

Then, his torch had gone out plunging him into blackness.

His father had been near. Josiah had seen the lanterns of his father and the miners, but the lights had been distant points of brightness --- far from him. Young Josiah had stood and screamed in that blackness until his father had come running to him and lightly scolded him.

"You only needed to come to the light, boy," his father had admonished. "Just come toward the light."

Josiah smiled, remembering how his father had taken that moment to begin a sermon to the miners that had also heeded the cries of the young boy. "If we would only come to the light, we shall be saved. If we remain in the darkness, like this poor child, we shall be just as lost as he was."

Josiah still remembered the joy he had felt in seeing the light come toward him, of finding his father beside him. That was before things had become so difficult between them, when uncertainty could be brushed away as easily as tears from the face of a child.

He looked back down at the lantern at the end of the rope. They had to find Ezra, then get him and those girls out of there. Josiah knew that their chances of quickly finding someone to help would be difficult -- a nearly moonless night, too dark to go searching for the scattered neighbors.

And how would they be able to find Ezra? If he was wandering around in there without any light, there was no telling where the gambler was by now. How in God's creation would they find him?

Ezra was probably the only one who would be able to get Ezra out of there.

Come toward the light, Josiah thought, looking at the lantern, because I'm afraid it's not going to come for you. 

Sam stood beside Josiah and stared angrily into the pit. "He'd be here by now if he just followed the directions I gave 'im."

Part 13:

Get up, Standish.

No, no, I'd really prefer not. Thank you for your suggestion.

Get up! You must get moving again. You'll never get out of here unless you get up.

But it'd be so much easier to remain. 

Don't be such a child. You're the only one who can help yourself. Do you think that anyone is going to come after you? Would anyone bother?

Maybe, after a time. They may think it worthwhile.

Don't kid yourself. Of what worth are you anyway?

But I can't see in this blackness....so frustrating. I'm so terribly cold. I don't think I can move my arm. It hurts.

Your legs aren't broken. You can manage.

My head hurts. Bleeding, I think. Perhaps I have a concussion. Really, I should remain still.

If you stay here, you'll die.

That's possible, but it'd be easier than moving.

What about those girls?

Ezra slowly pushed himself into a seated position, gasping as he pulled his arm close to him.

"I'm up," he told himself. He leaned against the cold stone and tried to get his bearings. How far had he fallen?  Where had he fallen from?  The blackness was so complete, he could almost feel it pressing against his eyes. His whole left side ached, his arm was the worst. He moved his feet tentatively. He was correct about one thing... his legs weren't broken -- the left one just felt like hell. His arm, well, it was in bad shape.

He stood slowly, trying to keep his weight off of his bruised side, steadying himself along the wall with his good hand. His head swam for a moment as he caught his balance. He breathed deeply, trying not to get sick. 

Damn it to hell, he thought.

He figured he must have fallen from somewhere behind him. He felt along that rock and decided that it wouldn't be too hard to scale the wall, there were handholds at least.

I guess that means I'm going to be climbing.

Now what? He tried to wiggle the fingers on his left hand and was rewarded only with pain. He ran his right hand along his left arm. The whole arm tingled. Every time he tried to move it, he felt a jolt of pain travel through his shoulder.

Not again, he thought. 

He'd have to do something about this before he continued.

He sat down with some difficulty and carefully removed his jacket, suspenders, waistcoat, and then removed his shirt. Each layer was painfully difficult to get over his injured arm, which he kept cradled in his lap. Once he removed the shirt he fashioned it into a makeshift sling and did his best to secure his left arm to himself.

He shivered as he pulled on the suspenders, using them to further secure his arm in place. Then he tugged the waistcoat and jacket back over himself, able to pull only one arm through. He buttoned the jacket up one-handedly, glad that he had the dexterity to perform the task.

He took a moment to feel around for his hat and the canteen. The canteen was found fairly quickly, but despite his efforts, the hat remained missing. Ezra scowled into the darkness. Damn, he liked that hat. It was perfect. He'd probably have to go back to Baton Rouge to get a decent replacement.

Baton Rouge, he thought wistfully. What I wouldn't do to be there right now. There was this lovely little tavern there, The Bluebird. I did fairly well in that establishment. I wonder if Miss Monique is still the proprietor. She had such lovely copper-colored hair. She thought I was quite the scoundrel and had me thrown out on... what was it?...three occasions?

He shook his head. No time for this nonsense. Those children are counting on me. I must be on his way.

He felt around one more time for the hat and then stood slowly, aware of how much his left side ached. He waited a moment to get his balance again. His stomach seemed to be settling at least.

He touched his head softly, feeling the sticky wetness of blood. With a little exploration he found its source, a long cut near his hairline.


You'll survive. Time to get climbing.

He stood at the base of the wall for a moment and then reached up to find a handhold. He wedged his right foot into a crevice and pulled himself up a few inches. His left leg seemed reluctant to follow suit. Damn, this wasn't going to be easy. He leaned his left elbow against the wall, sucking in his breath at the almost electric pain and found a new handhold with his right.

"Miss Monique," he said alloud.  "Yes, she was quite the beauty. Remember her smile? Of course you saw enough of her other expressions. Now, what did she call you? 'Damn cheatin' cardsharp;' 'detestable worm;' 'slithering no-good no-account trouble-maker;' 'foul blight on the continent.' that was a good one. Threw you out three times."

He moved his right foot to a new ledge and leaned again against his left elbow. He quickly reached to find a new handhold with his right. Damn! He couldn't find anything fast enough and his left arm just wasn't going to give him any help. With a groan of disgust, he slid back to the beginning. 

Damn! Damn! Damn!

Try again.

Reach and step and lean and step and reach and step and lean. Just keep going. You'll get out. Doesn't matter that you can't see a thing. Doesn't matter that your left leg doesn't seem to want to bend, that your left arm is no use at all. Doesn't matter that your hand is so cold you can barely feel the rocks. Doesn't matter.

He seemed to be doing better this time. Just reach and step and lean.

Yes, Miss Monique threw you out three times. Why did she keep allowing you to return? Maybe she appreciated the fact that you helped out from time-to-time with the rabble-rousers. Hard to figure people sometimes. Yes, you never know what people will do.

Why did Larabee let you stay? Now that was a puzzler. 

He leaned against that annoyingly painful arm and reached again. Ow!

Why in Heaven's name did Larabee give me a second chance? I wouldn't have done the same in that position. No, if someone were to run out on me like that, well, I'd cut him loose in no time. Relieve myself of that blackguard, that dead weight. Can't trust someone like that. And yet...

His left foot couldn't find a ledge and he slid back down again

Ah hell!

He had been able to make an appreciable distance that time and now he was back where he started. He stood for a moment, scowling at the unseen wall in front of him. He rubbed his hand along his side. Damn, he was cold. He touched his shoulder tentatively. Yeah, that hurt.

What the hell was expected of me?

Try again.

He found himself scaling the wall once more. Doing better now...gaining some distance...creating a rhythm he could deal with. He found a way he could use his left arm without causing too much aggravation. If he didn't try to bend the left leg he could use it for leverage more than anything. This just might work.  He just hoped he was heading in the right direction.

I guess I just don't understand, he thought as he fought his way upward. Larabee and the others were just a mystery to him. This whole blasted existence he found himself in.. well, it made no sense at all.

Baton Rouge...wouldn't it be nice to be in Baton Rouge right now? Why wasn't he in Baton Rouge? Or St. Louis? Or San Francisco? Or Sacramento? Or hell, anywhere...

Could somebody please explain to me why I have remained with these six unwashed gunslingers? I can't even begin to fathom the amount of money that I have lost by remaining here. I was earning a fairly decent living before I stumbled upon this group of men... these six.

Reach and step and lean and step and reach and step and lean and step and don't stop. Don't break your rhythm.

What kind of living was that anyway?

He had no idea of how much time had passed... all in all, it was probably minutes -- the distance covered was likely little more than seven or eight feet, but felt like forever.  Finally found the top of the wall. He scrambled over the ledge and lay against the cold stone floor of the upper cave, breathing heavily.

Made it.

He didn't move for several minutes, letting himself catch his breath. Finally he rubbed his one hand against his face miserably. He pulled back the hand, disgusted at the stickiness of his face. His head ached, his arm was barking with pain, he could hardly move his leg, his whole left side hurt...and he'd lost his hat. 

Damn, that was an exceptional hat.

Come on now, you must get moving again. His eyes strained to see anything. Time to get moving.  

Part 14:

The night dragged on. Josiah pulled the lantern out of the pit when it eventually ran out of fuel. Sam had returned with bottle of kerosene and the device was refilled and lowered again.

The preacher checked his watch. "Eight hours," he said out loud.

Nathan sighed. "We should'a sent him down with a blanket, a better coat or somethin'." 

Josiah nodded slowly and looked out beyond the light created by their fire, toward the sky -- with its stars and pale sliver of a moon. He remembered his few moments of terror in the blackness of a cave. More than anything, it was the aloneness that had frightened him. He had been so terrifyingly alone.

"I hope he's found those girls," Josiah said aloud. Not just for the sake of the children, but for Ezra as well. He shouldn't be alone in that place.

Sam, who paced like an animal beside the fire, stopped and said. "If anything happens to them...If he comes back without them..." Abbott waved vaguely as if he hadn't quite decided what to do. "He's probably just got himself lost out there, just sittin' there waiting for someone to get him out. If he only listened to what I told him, my girls would be safe by now. God, I never should'a listened to him in the first place. If we just kept at it, we'd probably have the front of the cave cleared. Hell, I could'a done that by myself."

Abbott stared into the flames and said, "That gambler is the same sorta lowlife that sold me this damnable mine. Makin' promises he got no thought o' keepin'."

Josiah stood quickly and took three quick steps toward Sam, catching him by his collar. "I think it's time you shut up," he growled into the miner's face.

Sam's eyes went wide with fear. "I dinnent mean nothin'." He struggled against the preacher's grasp. "Just worried is all. I.. I... just don't know what I'm gonna do if he doesn't come back with 'em."

"You got no right to bad-mouth Ezra," Josiah said darkly, pulling Abbott to his feet.

Nathan grabbed Josiah's arm and said, "Let 'im loose, Josiah."

Abbott turned frantically to Jackson since Sanchez didn't seem ready to release his grip. "They mean so much to me. It tears my heart to think that they're in danger. That they're alone in there. I'm s'pose to be watchin' for 'em. I'm the one responsible for 'em.  I'm their Papa." 

Josiah, with a groan of disgust, dropped his grip on Abbott and turned away.

Sam sniffed loudly and rubbed his nose. "I can't do nuttin' for 'em right now. It just tears at me."

"Ezra's down there lookin' for 'em. Probably with 'em by now," Jackson assured. "Don't worry none. He'll get 'em out."

Josiah shook his head as he moved back toward the pit. If it weren't for Nathan he might have taken as swing at the miner.

"I'm just worried is all," Abbott continued. "They're my children."

Yes, his children, Josiah thought. Sam had every right to be worried, to be making rash statements. No, Josiah couldn't blame him.

The preacher looked again at the card that lay at the bottom of the pit, illuminated by the lantern. People will say crazy things when their children are in danger. The preacher sighed, worried about the gambler, lost in those tunnels without any light. Josiah felt that he knew what Sam was going through, with Ezra lost as well. Sanchez shook his head slowly. When did he start thinking of Ezra in that way?

Josiah had had enough of 'family' in his youth and his young adulthood. He had sworn off all vestiges of it as he grew. He saw to his sister's wellbeing and little more. But, since he had joined up with the lawmen at Four Corners, his opinion had changed. They had become the family he thought he would never want again.

JD was everyone's younger brother, everyone's surrogate son. The loss of the young man's mother was still so fresh, he needed this sort of attention. Of course he often bridled against it, but Josiah could see a look of gratitude under the sheriff's protests.

So why did Josiah feel so paternal toward Ezra and not JD? Because Ezra needs a parent. It was funny that the one of them who still had a mother was the one who seemed to require parental guidance so badly.

Maude is a magnificent woman, Josiah thought with a warm smile, but I doubt that she was much of a mama for Ezra. No, Josiah doubted if Maude ever taught 'right from wrong'... more likely it was 'how to make wrong look right.' She could tell a good story about young Ezra's shenanigans... but the stories rang strangely false at times. Sanchez wondered if anything Maude had told them about Ezra was true.

Josiah thought again about his own father and how the missionary had always tried to keep his son on the straight and narrow, on the path toward the light. It seemed that the path Maude had chosen for Ezra was somewhat different.

Ah Ezra, Josiah thought, looking down at the lamp below, come on back.

Nathan stood beside Josiah, and lay a hand on his shoulder. "Get a little rest, okay Josiah?" The healer said softly. "We'll take shifts. It's time someone else watched for a while."

Josiah nodded, not wanting to give up his vigil. He moved away from the pit and back toward the fire where he met Abbott's gaze.

The miner smiled sadly before dropping his head. Abbott looked haunted. He'd lost his wife and was in danger of loosing his children. No, Josiah couldn't blame him.

Josiah stared out into the night again, remembering how very dark the darkness could be.

Part 15:

Ezra slowly found his way back along the cave, leaning his weight against the wall the whole time. When he found a side tunnel, he felt about until he grasped the card he had left earlier. "Seven of Spades," he said confidently. He could still picture the network of twisting caves, could see them like a map drawn in three-dimensions in his head -- carefully labeled with the cards he had left to mark them.

All right, now what? He should go back to the beginning. He wasn't going to be of much use in this condition. He couldn't even stay upright without leaning against the wall. 

But he hadn't found those children yet. Wasn't that the whole reason for him being down here? He had to be close. If he went back now he would only prolong this damned fool mission. Yes, he could refill the lantern... if he could find it... but he would only have to return to this very juncture. He'd probably only be kicking himself later when he discovered how close he had been when he'd turned back.

It wasn't as if he could quit. Nobody else could fit through the vent. Going all the way back and forth would not do him any good in his present condition. Nathan would probably throw a fit when he saw what had happened... and... well... there was another problem he didn't want to consider at this moment. The best thing would be to press on.

He cautiously entered the Seven of Spades tunnel -- into the unknown again. Every move was deliberate now. He did try to hurry, but his body rebelled. It wasn't just the pain that the movement caused -- his legs seemed unwilling to step forward until they were undoubtedly sure that there was going to be something to support him. His hand crawled forward timidly. He moved his head judiciously, unprotected; his head was on its own.

He did his best to keep his left arm immobile. As long as he didn't bump into the walls, it was okay. As long has he didn't jar it, the arm wouldn't hurt too badly. Of course, that was hard to do when he couldn't see where he was going. The fact that he felt a little dizzy didn't help either. He found that he was trembling, too.

"Just the cold," he said to himself. "You're only shivering due to the cold. You are not afraid. There is no reason to be afraid."

You could be on the Gulf Coast this very moment, on a nice warm beach, listening to the sound of the waves lapping the shore. You could be on a riverboat, taking advantage of the gaming tables, making your fortune. You could be in St. Louis or Boston or New York or Paris or Vienna or hell... Baltimore.

He felt the wall turn out suddenly and he stepped in a new tunnel. He reached across and tried to find the far side, and couldn't. Ah, he thought, the main tunnel at last. 

He pulled another card from his pocket and thought blindly -- Ace of Clubs. He set down the card at the entrance to the tunnel he had just vacated. Then he stepped into the main part of the mine.

Suddenly a sound invaded his senses. Funny, he hadn't noticed the absence of sound until this moment. He had been so long in this quiet cold darkness, that the return of noise startled him. It was a timid call, like the coo of a dove. It took him a moment to realize that it was the sound of a child crying.

"Dor, darlin' is that you?" Ezra called. " Prue? Your father sent me."

The crying abruptly ceased. "Who's there?" a quiet voice asked, the voice of a small girl.

Thank God! Oh, thank God! "My name's Ezra," he called into the blackness. "I've come to get you out." He'd found them!

Standish could hear them making little noises and scrambling around. It was hard to tell how far away they were.

"Stay perfectly still and I'll come to you," he said. Two voices tearfully agreed. He moved as quickly as he dared, scrabbling along the wall toward them, shaking. Don't be so childish, he told himself. 

"Tell me, dear hearts, which one of you is Miss Prue?"

"I'm Prue," a voice answered in the black. She couldn't be more than five or six years old. Ezra homed in on the sound and headed toward it.

"Would that be short for Prudence? Prunella?"

"It's Prudence but nobody calls me that."

"Ah, it is a lovely name. It means 'the prudent'."

"Yeah?" the voice sounded unsure.

Ezra continued to feel his way toward them, through the almost tangible blackness. "It means you are very wise, very smart."

He heard the voice giggle.

"And am I to suppose that the other of you is named Miss Dor?"

"That's me!" The second voice sounded younger than the first.

Good Lord, Ezra thought, the younger one couldn't have been older than three or four years old. "I do suppose your name is actually somewhat longer than that. Would it be Dorothy? Dora? Isadora? Doris?"

"It's Dorette! Wazzat mean?"

Ezra racked his somewhat sluggish brain. "It means that you are a gift. A little gift," he said, hoping that the name translated from Greek.

"I'm a gift!" the younger voice said.

"A lovely gift, for certain," Ezra said, trying to hurry, but his left leg just didn't want to comply.

"My name mean's that I'm smarter than you," Prue said to her sister.

"Yeah, but I'm a gift. That means I'm special."

And almost at once, the voices were just in front of him. "I'm here now, dears," Ezra said. He reached out with his one hand, feeling in the blackness. He touched something, a narrow shoulder. The body jerked away from him for only a second and then the child came at him, wrapping her arms around him. He gasped as the young child pressed against his arm. 

"You came! You came!" 

He felt the second grab onto him, chirping, "You're real!" They latched onto him as if they had no intention of ever letting go.

"Clearly, I'm real as are you." He could easily feel that the younger child was wrapped in a blanket, but the elder seemed to be wearing nothing more than a summer shift. She must be cold, he thought. " Miss Prudence. Don't you have a blanket?"

Prue sniffed and said, "We waited and waited for mommy and dad but they dinnent come so we started looking for a way out and Dor forgot her blanket in the nook and so I gave her mine," she took a breath, "and then the lantern went out and we were too scared to move and we couldn't find the nook and we dinnent know where we were and we were all alone." She finished with a sob.

"Well, you're no longer alone. Miss Prudence, darlin'. I've a favor to ask of you," Ezra said, touching the larger child's shoulder.

"Yes, Mr. Ezra," the girl responded.

He carefully shrugged the children off of himself and unbuttoned his jacket. He slid it off his shoulders, then found Prue and wrapped it around her. "Miss Prudence, you must take care of my jacket for me."

"Thank you, Mr. Ezra," Prue said and grabbing onto him again, much more gently this time. "I'll take good care of it." Then she added as she felt the sling over his arm. "Are you hurt?"

"I took a bit of a tumble," Ezra explained. "So you must be gentle with me."

"We will," Dorette said, carefully finding his good hand in the dark and holding it tightly. "You come to get us out?"

"Yes indeed, we shall begin our journey almost immediately. Are either of you fine young ladies thirsty?"

"Yes please, Mr. Ezra," Prue said.

Ezra picked up the canteen and placed it into Prue's hands. The two drank their fill and returned it to the gambler. "Shall we begin?" he asked.

"But it's so dark," Prue said, her voice sounded haunted in the blackness.

"No matter." He smiled reassuringly, even though they could not see him. "We only need to follow the path I've marked."

"I can't see any path," Prue said.

"But I can," Ezra replied. "You must understand, I can see it clear as day, and will have us free from this detestable quarry in no time at all." He heard the girls laugh at the sound of his words. "Are you ready to depart?"

"Yes, Mr. Ezra," Prue said, leaning her head against his chest." 

"I wanna get out of the dark. Can we please?" Dorette said timidly.

He patted her back and said, "Of course, Darlin'. We'll be back in the light in no time at all."

CONTINUE onto the Second Half