Emotion wrenched Bear’s features into those of an old, pained man. “Then bring me with you.”
Bear grabbed his coat from a hook by the door. “And you’ll never find the mine without me.”
“Then make tracks, old man.” Billy stormed out the door with Bear on his heels, moving faster than he’d ever seen him.
They sped to the trailhead, with Bear glowering in the seat beside him. “There’s one thing I don’t get,” the old man said. “Damien drunk? This time of day? Doesn’t sound like the kid I know.”
Billy had to agree, but for different reasons. He’d bent his own elbow with the guy and knew from experience it’d take a hell of a lot to get Damien drunk.
“Let’s just hope he had his wits enough to send us to the right place.” The dirt road degraded until he could go no farther and his wheels spun and spat rocks against the vehicle’s undercarriage. He slammed it into Park. “This is as far as she goes.”
Bear peered out the window. “We’re not close enough. You using your four-wheel drive?”
“I know how to drive in the mountains.” There was no time for this. He unbuckled, jumped from the car, and leaning in, demanded, “Are you going to show me the mine, or do I need to find it myself?”
“Damned if I let you get all the glory.” Bear hopped out, looking spry for a man half his age. Sure, he struggled with a limp, but he was keeping up remarkably well for someone who’d given up on good health.
The trail was slow-going, and Billy was going crazy with frustration. But Bear had been right, the mine would’ve been impossible to find without help.
He stopped to let Sorrow’s father catch up. The pace was maddening, his fear for Sorrow consuming, and he found himself speaking unchecked. “You want to know what I think?”
“I think that you’re not as feeble as you worry you are.”
The man didn’t lift his eyes from the trail as he grunted, “I’m not feeble.”
“I didn’t say that. I said you think you’re feeble. I think that stroke scared the hell out of you,” Billy pressed. “I think you’re afraid of testing your limits. But you were lucky. Many people don’t survive it. You’re lucky as hell you’ve got a kid like Sorrow who knew the signs and got you to the hospital early. You need to think on that, on how much you have, instead of focusing on what you’ve lost.”
“Son, here’s what I think: I think I’m done hearing your claptrap theories.” The man looked like he’d swallowed a lemon, but his brow was furrowed in thought, and Billy had to hope his words had sunk in. Bear grumbled to himself, “I’m not afraid of you or anything, Sheriff.”
A hill rose up beside them, and rather than continuing on the trail, Bear turned to face the steep incline, sighing heavily. “This is it.”
Billy surveyed the rise, picking out a path of roots, rocks, and footholds in his mind’s eye, “Up it is, then. I’ll go first.” What he didn’t say was that he’d haul Bear up as he went.
Bear was trembling by the time he got to the top. “That way.” He pointed along the ledge, trying to catch his breath. “You’ll see it. On the right.”
The man needed to gather his strength, but Billy couldn’t wait. “You’ll be fine here?”
“Right behind you,” Bear said. “I told you. Not feeble.”
If Billy hadn’t been looking for the mine, he would’ve hiked right by it. Just a small black hole, etched into the rock face, it was no wonder folks had forgotten it through the years.
He shouted for her and strained his ears for a reply. Sorrow’s answering yell came quickly, but her voice sounded strained and far away. Relief swamped him. She was alive. It was enough.
Billy burst into a run—it was a stupid, precarious thing to do, but he couldn’t stop himself. He was desperate to get to her.
He burst into the mine, stopping short to let his eyes adjust. The air was close, cool pine breezes of the woods at his back mingled with the still scents of dirt and the abandoned nests of wild animals.
“Sorrow!” he shouted again, and bats exploded from inside the mine, a burst of shrieking and flapping.
He ran toward the sound, eyes scanning the ground. He’d been careless, but it’d be unforgivable if he fell to his death. “It’s okay. Just bats. They won’t hurt you.”
“Easy for you to say.” Her voice wavered, but her attempt at humor gave him hope.
He spotted the broken railing in the shadows, a timber skeleton holding vigil over a narrow black hole in the ground. He edged closer, not trusting the ground beneath him. It was a mineshaft, narrow as a well.
He dropped to his belly, scooting forward. “I’m here, babe.” A ladder led up to the surface; she’d climbed halfway up, and he was startled to see her closer than he’d imagined.
“Help me,” she said, and his relief turned to alarm.
He’d heard her pain and distress and assessed the situation, his eyes accustomed to the dark now. At least half the ladder rungs had crumbled to dust, and she held one arm tucked painfully at her side.
“Stop,” he ordered. “Good God, Sorrow. What are you doing? You’re going to kill yourself.”
He eased over the ledge as far as he could go, stretching his arm out to her, but it was no good. She was just out of his reach.
He ran his hand down along the ladder rails. Between him and where Sorrow had managed to climb, there were only a couple of nubs where rungs should be. “Looks like you can’t go any higher. Can you ease yourself back down?”
She gave a tight shake to her head. “A bunch of rungs snapped when I stepped on them.”
And she was too high up to jump back down. Her arm was broken, and God knew what else. He couldn’t risk further injury, which meant the only way for her to go was up.
He looked around frantically. The fragments of an old pulley system hung overhead, but the ropes had rotted decades ago. Why didn’t he keep rope in the car? When they got out of there, he was going to do some serious reassessing of the safety gear he kept in the SUV.
Bear’s scuffling footsteps announced his arrival. “You sure ran off half cocked,” the old man said.
“I’m here, girl. We’re getting you out.” Bear came and stood at the edge of the shaft, sucking on his teeth, deep in thought. “We’ll need something for this.”
“I could ease down the side maybe, if it weren’t so tight.” Billy considered the drop. He didn’t care that he might break a leg—his concern was hitting her on the way down. He peered up at Bear. “Any ideas?”
“Be right back” was all the man said in reply.
Sorrow made a tiny whimpering sound, and as much as he wanted to soothe her, he knew the only way to handle it was to get her mind on other things. “Hold on,” he said in a firm voice. “Talk to me, Sorrow.”
She made a sound that was half laugh, half sniffle. “Talk to you?”
“Yeah, babe. You can start by telling me how you managed to get halfway up a mineshaft with a broken arm, using nothing but a decaying ladder.”
She was silent for a moment, her breath echoing in the narrow passage. “A lot of shimmying,” she said finally, her voice wavering with emotion.
She was trying, so he’d try, too. He kept his voice light as he said, “I’d like to see that sometime.”
But rather than playing along, when she spoke again her voice was fragile, cracking as a child’s might. “My dad really came?” But then she was quick to brush it off with a weak laugh. “I bet he’s just worried I won’t get the roast in the oven in time to feed the early birds.”
Her doubt in her own lovability broke his heart. “Aw, hell, babe. Of course he came. He loves you. We all do.”
The words had rolled off his tongue without thought, but he felt Sorrow hold her breath. She looked up at him, and her face glowed in the shadows, pale, beautiful, and dirt-smudged. “You do?”
“You know it,” he said, his voice strong. “I do, Sorrow. I love you. And the moment we get you out of here, I’m going to show you just how much.”
“Cool your jets,” Bear grumbled from behind him. “Son of a gun, Sheriff, can’t you control yourself for two minutes?”
Billy felt like slugging the guy. Until he turned and saw the giant branch Bear had dragged in behind him. His eyes goggled. “Where the hell’d you get that?”
He rolled his eyes. “A tree, he says. I figured that, old man. But…how?”
“Just used my belt to pull it down.” Bear tried to look nonchalant, but Billy read the pride in his eyes. “Back in my timber days, we called it tree fishing. Best way to clear the deadwood. We used rope, but a belt works just fine.”
He gave the man an admiring look. “Apparently.”
Bear went to the ledge and shouted down to his daughter, “Got to get you back for the early birds. They think you’re making pot roast.”
“Told you,” Sorrow exclaimed, but Billy saw the humor in her eyes. It’d been just what she needed.
Billy lowered the tree limb down the hole—the thing must’ve been a good twenty feet long, and it scraped along the ceiling of the mine as he shoved it down. Dust and bits of rope showered onto Sorrow, and she looked away, shutting her eyes tight. Debris pelted his neck and back, but he didn’t budge—he refused to take his eyes from her.
He worried the branch might snap, but it was dead not rotted, and thankfully still had enough resilience to bend. Unfortunately, that also meant it’d be too spindly at the top to support Sorrow’s weight. But, leaned against one side of the ladder, it offered enough traction for her to shimmy up. He didn’t need her to go far, just high enough for him to grab hold. She scrambled, and he held his breath. Finally she was within reach.