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Authors: Jennifer Bradbury

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BOOK: River Runs Deep
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“Um, Nick?” Elias said when they were out of earshot.

“Hmm?”

“I was wondering,” Elias said. “I mean, I was hoping, that is . . .” He hemmed and fussed with his words, but Nick stayed patient. “I was wondering if I could take a peek up top,” Elias said finally.

Nick slowed. “Up top?”

“I ain't seen the sun or anything in over a month. And I promise, it won't have to be long, just a single second, and Croghan won't have to know—”

“Croghan gone over to Cave City,” Nick said. “But he wouldn't like it. Naw, I should—”

“Please,” Elias begged. “I just need to see light that don't come from a candle! To sniff some fresh air.”

Nick bit the inside of his lip. “Only for a minute,” he decided. “And we best hurry if I'm to check the traps and get you back on time.”

Elias almost hugged him with relief. If Nick could take him this one time, Elias would be sure of the way out. And then he could do the other letters by himself. “Thanks, Nick. I promise to be quick.”

Nick was quick too, setting a relentless pace toward the entrance. Elias took stock of the landmarks, mapping the route in his mind so he could find his way back by himself if he needed to. He was so busy making his mental map and so busy trying to keep up with Nick that he didn't even notice how good he was feeling. How strong his lungs felt. But when he caught Nick staring, he asked him, “What?”

“You lookin' better,” Nick said. “Ain't got that ashy look you had when you first come.”

“Eggs and tea and cave air, I guess.” Elias took a deep breath, feeling his lungs expand and collapse again without cracking or popping or experiencing the bits of needlelike pains that he'd gotten sometimes when he tried to draw in too much air. Nick was right. He
was
better.

“Sump's workin',” Nick agreed. The breeze kicked up around them as they passed through an opening about the size of a barn door.

“Why's it blow like that?” Elias asked, remembering how the wind had been at his back when he'd first come in with Stephen. Now it was stiff enough that he had to lean into it. Nick left the lamp behind, sheltered from the breeze.

“Cave's Breath,” Nick explained. “Indians called it so. Blows in like this when it's cold outside, out just as quick when it's warm.”

“But how?” Elias asked, wondering at a cave big enough to make its own weather.

“Just do,” Nick said. “No 'countin' for it.”

Soft gray light made him forget the wind. It took everything Elias had not to run toward it.

The sun was high, the air clear and cold. He hadn't noticed before how beautiful it was here in these woods, the canopy vaulting impossibly high above the cave entrance, bare branches like fancy brocade against the sky. He whipped off his hat, let the light soak his hair and face, shut his eyes, and tilted his chin up toward the treetops, the rim of the cave.

“Nice day,” Nick offered, biting off a fresh plug of tobacco and settling it between his cheek and his gum.

Elias laughed just for the joy of it. “Perfect.”

“I knew it'd be a good one when I walked over this mornin',” Nick said.

Elias opened his eyes. “You live out here,” he said, realizing he'd sort of imagined him living somewhere in the cave. But why would he when he wasn't sick? When he could be out here with sunshine and blue skies?

Nick pointed out to the east. “Not far.”

“All by yourself?”

Nick spat, staining a rock a good six feet away. “Naw. Got me a little room halfway 'tween the hotel up there and the place Mat share with his wife—”

“Mat's married?” Elias was incredulous.

“Met Parthena not long after me and him came up here. Got some little 'uns, too.”

“You never met a girl?” Elias asked. Nick seemed more the type, he reasoned. He couldn't imagine Mat sweet on anybody or putting up with children.

“Someday,” Nick offered.

There was a lot in that “someday,” Elias guessed. A lot he didn't understand, but he heard one thing he did recognize: hope.

Elias walked farther away from the overhang forming the arch of the cave. “We got traps to check,” Nick said. He wasn't often in a hurry, but Elias sensed he was now. Then he remembered the letter he was meant to deliver, the reason he'd begged Nick to bring him out here in the first place.

But not even the letter in his pocket could curb his joy. He didn't know if it was the sunshine or the sneaking about or if Croghan's treatments really were working, but he felt good. Strong. Really strong. He eyed the slope that rose up sharply from where they stood to the ridge above them. He remembered coming down that slope, leaning heavily on the rope handrail to keep his balance. It had worn him out then. He couldn't wait to try it now.

“Please, Nick . . . ,” he began. “Let me get up and down the hill. Just once, just to see if my lungs'll hold up.” He meant it. He really did want to see what he could do.

Nick took a deep breath. “Go on then,” he said at last. Elias didn't wait for him to reconsider. He ran to the rope handrail and began hauling himself up quick. The rope flew through his hands, his feet striding out, taking great big bites out of the hillside. He was up top in no time at all. Elias whooped when he gained the ridge, then he leaned over, hands on his knees, panting.

He glanced behind him at the entrance.

The cave gaped wide. He thought of the story of Jonah from the Bible, being swallowed by the great fish. From here the mouth of the cave looked exactly that: a mouth set to swallow up the whole woods and the world beyond. Loose rock of all sizes made a fencerow of crooked teeth. Ferns—still green most of them—fringed the entrance like whiskers.

Nick hollered from below. “Don't you go that fast coming down,” he warned. “You're liable to tumble and snap your own neck. Then the doc'll have mine!”

Elias waved him off and wandered a few steps until he was out of sight. The ground was drier than it had been the day he'd arrived, wagon ruts starting to crumble at the peaks. He fished the letter from his pocket, studied the symbol printed on the wax, and began to search.

Nick called up for him to hurry, and as he shouted back that he'd be right down, he spied the tree. The beech's silvery trunk was stout at the bottom, but about two feet from the soil it forked, sending two trees growing off in opposite directions. And right where they split, at the base of the V, he saw the emblem from Pennyrile's letter cut neatly into the bark, small enough you wouldn't notice if you weren't looking for it, big enough to make out all the detail and know it had been put there on purpose if you were.

Elias rushed to the tree and brushed the dried leaves at the base out of the way. Someone had hollowed out the space between two of the roots, and in it was an old glass jar. Elias fished it out and popped off the rusty tin lid.

Just as Pennyrile said, there was something inside.

Elias unscrewed the lid of the jar and removed the letter. It was sealed the same way Pennyrile's was, with the same symbol, only this time done up in green wax. He peeled the corner back a hair and saw the top part of the first page.

Dear Brother,

Brother? Pennyrile had a brother? Pennyrile had a brother to whom he couldn't send a proper letter out in the post with the rest of the mail? A brother who was near enough to correspond with him this way? But had Pennyrile ever had a visitor? Maybe he had a brother he didn't want anyone to know about? Or maybe he was party to one of those churches where they all called one another brother even though they weren't any relation at all?

“Elias!” Nick called up again, his voice insistent. Elias swapped the notes and stowed the jar back in its place, covering it up with leaves again. He studied the symbol carved on the tree one last time. What was Pennyrile up to? He'd work it out later. Right now he had fish to catch. And Nick had waited long enough.

*  *  *

Back on the path inside the cave, Elias matched Nick's strides. They took a jog without warning off to the left of the main path into a passage Elias had never been in before. They found themselves in a low-ceilinged room, the rock above them smooth and nearly flat. A cairn of loose stones had been built up in the middle like some sort of pillar, though Elias expected it was just for show and didn't really hold anything up. But on the ceiling, all over the room, he saw names, dozens and dozens of them.

Some were written in black soot, others in chalk. Names and dates, too. Some of them more than fifty or sixty years old. Elias scanned them as they walked. Even noticed an advertisement for a miracle tonic cure scratched in among them.

“Tourists like to write they names in here.”

“Like you and Stephen and Mat do when you go exploring,” Elias said, reading all the while.

Nick's head see-sawed as if to say they weren't the same, but he didn't explain.

“But why are some of them backward?”

“Lots of 'em use a candle tied on the end of a stick. They hold the flame up close to the rock to blacken it, bit by bit. But they don't want the wax dripping in they faces, so we put a mirror on the floor. They look in that, make the name by looking in the reflection, and sometimes they forget to switch the letters round to make 'em look proper.” It seemed right to Elias, somehow, that the images were reversed. His mind leaped to Nedra's poem, the lady weaving, her mirror.

“You want to write your name?” Nick asked. Ladies' names crowded up next to fancy ones with words like
Honorable
before them, or
Esquire
after them. Elias wanted to. Something about putting your name up on a wall was irresistible, sort of like you couldn't stand long in front of a river or a pond without eventually tossing rocks out into it.

But when he looked at Nick, he found him watching expectantly. And something about the way he stared told Elias he wanted him to say no.

“Nah,” Elias said. “Thanks anyway.” Nick smiled like Elias had said something right, and he started walking back down to the main cave. Elias couldn't help but glow a little, feeling like he'd passed some kind of test.

“Stephen showed me this,” Elias said a few minutes later as they reached the Star Chamber. Croghan's office was empty and dark.

“Star Chamber's good for more than just gawking. Got half a dozen tunnels that take us where we need to go.” He led them across the room as Elias lifted the light higher, trying to set some of the stars twinkling. He felt lucky indeed to see stars and sunshine within the span of a few minutes.

They tucked into another tunnel where the floor sloped down sharp. They descended rapidly.

“We going fishing now?”

“If they any left to catch,” Nick said, and Elias could almost hear him smiling as he said it.

“Why you want to fish down here?” Elias asked. “Best part of fishing is sitting on the pier or out in a boat. Can't nothing that grows underground taste good, can it?”

“Fish ain't for eating,” Nick said. They dropped farther, and here and there Elias had to use the sides of the walls to steady himself. His foot splashed in a puddle, and he heard the sound of water lapping against stone for the first time. Nick offered Elias a hand now and then, or told him where to step to avoid a hole or a puddle. Elias was fairly certain they weren't on the tour.

“What are they for, then?” Elias asked once the walking became easier again.

“Sellin'.”

“Sellin'?”

“You'll see.” And a moment later he did. A fine vein of water cut through the floor. Elias figured it must have been deep, it ran so smooth, but he could straddle its width with ease. Downstream, it collected in a little basin before it tipped slowly over a wash of rock and into a seam in the wall. Nick hung his lantern off a spur of rock.

“See that?” Nick pointed to a basket sort of thing, a few inches of it poking out above the water. The reed was woven tight and true, and when Nick lifted the trap out of the pool, the water drained from it slow like seawater through sailcloth. The trap was bigger than Elias expected it to be based on what poked up through the surface of the stream. By the time Nick had cleared it from the water, it stood nearly as tall as Elias, and about two feet wide. Nick had made it specially to fit. There was a slot cut into the side that yawned like a mouth.

“Yessir,” Nick said as he laid the trap on its side. Elias heard a sound that could only be a fish flopping. Nick unhinged the bottom and three lily-white fish flipped out.

Three lily-white fish that didn't have any eyes.

“Frogs and stars,” Elias whispered.

It was . . . it was . . . Why, it was like the time he went to the sideshow with his father down at the parade grounds. They had seen a bearded lady, a two-headed calf, and all sorts of things that defied imagination. That was what these fish did—defied imagination.

“Cave fish,” Nick said, holding one up carefully. Its fins were like lace, or fairy wings, hardly anything there at all. Its snout angled sharply up, but there was nothing like an eye anywhere on its head. Elias could see right through its skin, the heart pumping away.

“I sell 'em to the tourists on the sly.”

Elias watched Nick open the waterskin—the very one he'd had Elias drinking from the first time he came out—and slide the fish inside. “Why?” Elias asked, though he wasn't sure if he meant why did Nick sell them or why did people want them.

“Folk pay a whole dollar for 'em,” Nick said.

“A
dollar
?” Elias asked, stunned. Nick scooped up the other two fish.

“I mean to buy my freedom with these fish.”

“How many you need?”

Nick hesitated. “Not sure, really. They don't go round telling us what we're worth. But once a man tried to buy me offa Bransford, offered four hunerd fifty. And Croghan leasing me and Mat for near a hundred dollars a year.”

BOOK: River Runs Deep
10.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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