***Down and Out***

Chapter 1. Buried Alive

The terror continued after the rumbling of the earth stopped. A thin keening assaulted the ear, it seemed there was more dust than air to breathe, and absolute darkness surrounded them.

Reginard Took took stock of himself. His arms and legs seemed to be working correctly, he could breathe after a fashion, and patting his pocket he found to his relief he still carried flint and steel. The first thing he needed to deal with was the noise, it robbed him of coherent thought.

He felt his way across the floor towards the sound, bruising his knees on fallen rocks, but finding the way clear enough for all that. His hand grasped a foot, and he felt his way up the body until he grasped shoulders, which he shook vigorously, to no avail. Guided by the sound, he slapped hard with an open hand back and forth across someone's cheeks. The sound stopped abruptly.

'Whyever did you do that for?' Ferdinald Took said in an aggrieved tone, seemingly unaware that he had been making the keening sound up until now.

'Are you all right, Dinny?' Reginard asked hoarsely.

'Fine, couldn't be better,' the other answered. 'Why do you ask?' He was obviously in shock.

Reginard decided to take stock of the situation. 'All right, then,' he said, raising his voice. 'Who's here? Sound off. Reginard, Dinny...'

'Alengard,' came a weak voice off to his left.

'Lesethal,' and 'Ferritand,' two voices said together.

'Anybody else?' Reginard said after a pause. He named the other four who'd been with them. 'Aldebrand?' No answer. 'Samenthal?' No answer. 'Everard?' His brother, no answer there either. He hesitated. 'Thain Peregrin? Can you hear me?' No answer. 'Pippin?' He waited several breaths. 'All right, Len, Seth, Andy, are any of you hurt?'

'I think my leg's broken,' Len answered. The others chorused that they were all right.

'Stay put, then, Len.' Reginard ordered.

'I'm not going anywhere, Regi,' Len answered, trying to sound cheerful.

Reginard continued. 'The rest of you, feel around, see if you can find a lantern or a torch. I've got flint and steel; we can make a light and see what's what.'

He heard moving and scraping sounds, then Andy shouted, 'Got a torch here!'

'Fine,' Regi said. 'Follow my voice, bring it over here. Crawl, mind you, we don't need any more broken legs.' He could hear Andy moving towards him, then a hand touched his ankle. He could smell pitch and smoke from the extinguished torch. 'Good lad.' He reached down to fumble for the torch. 'Now let us see what we can see...' He put the torch between his knees, working the flint and steel patiently. He didn't want to drop one or the other in the inky blackness.

The sparks seemed overbright, hurting his eyes, but he struck repeatedly, with unending patience, until a spark finally ignited the end of the torch. A cheer sounded from the other four hobbits.

He held the torch up, but the light was hardly more reassuring than the darkness had been.

Andy gave a long, drawn out sigh. 'Ahhh, it's all come down then.'

'Guess there's not much doubt about the quality of the shoring timbers now,' Regi grunted. 'How much has come down, d'you think? How far do we have to dig, to get out?'

'No way of telling,' Andy answered. 'Aldebrand would probably know, he engineered this dig, or the Thain might, but they're not with us.'

'Aldebrand was heading back towards the entrance,' Reginard thought aloud. 'The Thain was over there...' he waved the torch towards the cave-in, staggered to his feet, weaved drunkenly towards the crumpled timber and piled dirt and rock. He gave a shout, whirled to hand the torch to Len. 'Hold it high as you can,' he ordered. 'The rest of you lot, come dig. There's feet here!'

'Whose?' Len said.

'Can't tell,' Regi answered. The four hobbits dug frantically to unearth the buried hobbit. When they pulled out the limp body, Regi tried to breathe life back into the assistant engineer, to no avail. He sat back, shaking his head. 'I'm sorry, Samenthal.' The hobbit would never see his first child, due to be born sometime this month.

Dinny began digging again at top speed. 'I feel another foot,' he cried.

The others joined him, until Reginard held them back. 'Wait,' he said, 'there're some timbers here, holding off rock and dirt. We must go carefully or they'll fall and crush us and whoever is under them.' Cautiously they moved dirt and rock away from the body.

Dinny felt the body twitch under his hands. 'This one's alive!' he said.

'Must be an air pocket near his head, probably thanks to these faulty timbers,' Regi said. 'Go carefully, lads.' They continued to shovel dirt away with their hands until Regi stopped them. 'Now then,' he said, 'I think we can haul him back out from under, if we're careful. Ready? Now...' They pulled the body into the open and turned it over. It was the Thain.

'Pippin? Can you hear me?' There was no response. 'Well, at least he's breathing. That's something, anyway.' Regi looked up. 'Dinny, can you crawl under, carefully, mind, and see if anybody else is there?'

The other hobbit swallowed nervously, then nodded. 'Just dig me out as fast as you can if it comes down,' he said, then turned and wormed his way into the space. Soon he was wiggling backwards again. He turned around and sat up, shaking his head. 'I couldn't feel anything but rock and dirt,' he reported.

'All right, then,' Regi said. 'Let's look around and see what we can find. Torches, lamps, water bottles, food, anything useful. Shovels, too, something to dig with. I don't fancy digging our way out with our bare hands.' He looked down at his bleeding hands and torn fingernails. Too bad he hadn't thought of looking for a shovel earlier, but then they'd been in a tearing hurry to try to get the buried hobbits out in time to save them. Worked for one, at least.

***

A breathless hobbit skidded into the kitchen where Diamond was consulting with the cooks. 'Mistress!' he gasped. 'There's been a cave-in at the new diggings!'

'Is there anybody hurt?' she asked.

He shook his head. 'Don't know, but there are hobbits missing.'

'Who?' she asked.

'The chief engineer, his assistant, several others, we're not quite sure yet just who.'

'The Thain had gone down to consult with the engineers,' Diamond said urgently. 'Was he there?'

The messenger shook his head. 'I'm sorry, Mistress, I don't know. It all happened so fast.'

'Very well,' she said, even though it wasn't. 'I'm coming down. I want you to find Reginard and Ferdibrand, O, and Meliloc Brandybuck, he's probably with Pervinca, tell them to round up as many as they can to dig. Send someone for Healer Woodruff, tell her to get all her assistants down to the dig since we don't know how many casualties we're dealing with. ' She turned to the head cook. 'We'll need sweet tea for starters, better make up plenty of sandwiches for the rescue workers,' she said. 'I'll be at the New Smials.'

'Yes, Mistress,' the cook said with a bob, then turned to shout directions at her assistants, standing aghast. 'Come on, you lot! There's work to be done!'

A pall of dust was still hanging in the air over the entrance to the New Smials. Diamond shouted out, 'Who's in charge here?' A grimy faced hobbit came up to her and she recognized the foreman of one of the digging teams.

'Yes, Palagrim, what can you tell me?'

'We'd just come off duty when the engineers came with the Thain, they wanted to inspect the timbers, seems there've been cracks appearing where they shouldn't. They ordered the next shift to wait until they were done. Next thing you knew there was a roar and a shudder and a wall of earth and rock where the new corridor was being dug...'

'The Thain was inside, then?' Diamond asked, her voice icily calm.

'O aye, Mistress, and the engineers. I've got lads digging now but there's no telling how much of it has come down. We've got to shore it up as we go or we'll be having to rescue the rescuers.'

'Tell me if there's anything that you need.'

He scratched his head. 'We could use an engineer,' he said soberly. 'I'm afraid the best heads we have in Tookland when it comes to tunnel digging are buried at the moment.'

Meliloc Brandybuck came jogging up to them. 'What can I do?' he asked breathlessly. He'd only been in Tuckborough a month, since his wedding to Pervinca.

'Wait a moment,' Diamond said, laying her hand on his arm as a shout came from the workings. Four filthy hobbits came out bearing a limp body. Diamond stumbled forward as they laid the body down and a healer knelt beside.

'Everard? Can you hear me?' the healer was saying. He looked up. 'He's breathing, at least.'

'He was near the entrance,' one of the rescuers said. 'We were able to get him out quickly enough, I hope.'

'Where's Healer Woodruff?' Diamond asked.

'She's off on a visit in Tuckborough,' the healer's assistant said. 'I've sent for her.' He bent back to the injured hobbit. 'Broken arm,' he said. 'Ribs might be cracked. Get a stretcher and let's get him to the infirmary.'

'If he was near the entrance, then the others...' Diamond began.

The rescuer nodded. 'They're still digging in there.' As they looked, another body was brought out. There was no shout this time, and the rescuers bore their burden in grim silence. It was Aldebrand, the chief engineer.

The foreman had been consulting with the rescuers. 'That's all they could find,' he said now to Diamond. 'There's a solid wall of rock and dirt beyond. No way of telling how far back the rest were, or how deep they're buried. They might be still alive, trapped in an air pocket. Without an engineer, we've no idea how to find out, or reach them without bringing the whole works down on their heads, or the rescuers' for that matter.'

Diamond swung back to Meliloc. 'There are engineers at Brandy Hall,' she said.

'It's too far,' he said helplessly.

'Not by the pony post,' she answered urgently. She'd laughed at the idea when Pippin and Merry had come up with it. They'd placed fast ponies at inns along the road between Buckleberry Ferry and Tuckborough, and were paying the innkeepers to feed and exercise the beasts and keep them ready should a message rider gallop in, to change to a fresh pony and gallop on with an urgent message.

'What could be so very urgent?' she'd teased.

'O, I don't know,' Pippin had answered. 'Perhaps birthday greetings from Hall to Smials might be.' They had laughed together, but the Thain continued to pay for the ponies on his half of the route, while the Master of Buckland paid for the ponies on the other half.

Now Diamond blessed her husband's foresight. 'They could have an engineer here in a few hours,' she said.

'Right!' Meliloc answered. 'I'll see to it at once!' He ran off in the direction of the stables.

Diamond turned back to the foreman. Reading her look, he said, 'We'll keep digging, carefully as we can, and shoring up the sides as we go. I'll keep you posted on what we find.' He patted her arm. 'You might as well find yourself a comfortable spot, Mistress. It's going to be a long day.'

==== Dana, you get your wish. Here's another story, just popped out of nowhere. Sorry, couldn't find any rope. Will a cave-in do instead?