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Authors: Jennifer Bradbury

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BOOK: River Runs Deep
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“Huh?”

“Whatever happens now, you and Jonah did good,” Stephen went on. Then he ducked out before Elias could respond.

Nick cocked an eyebrow at Elias, then he doused their light.

In the darkness, Elias whispered, “Don't know what Stephen was thanking me for. All I did was tie some knots.”

Nick huffed. “You give us a chance,” he said. “Thinking quick like you and Jonah did—that's worth heaps more'n a knot or two.”

Chapter Twenty-One
FINGER TRAP

E
lias fiddled with the end of the rope, tying and retying it, barely finishing one knot before starting the next, all neater and easier to work out than the knot in his stomach.

It was awful, the waiting. The dark pressing in from every side Elias had grown used to. The waiting and the worrying that the plan might fail, the wishing something would go ahead and happen, those feelings were new. And unbearable.

He thought of all the runaways down in Haven. The months they'd spent waiting, worrying that they might be discovered or that they wouldn't ever get away. He wondered how they could hold up under the constant gnawing, expectant feeling that ate at him now.

And now maybe it would all be for nothing. But no! That couldn't happen. Still, the hoping and the worrying and the fretting set his leg to bouncing, and he couldn't have stopped it even if he'd tried.

Nick, however, seemed as still and quiet as dead seas. “Settle down, 'lias,” Nick whispered, resting a hand on his knee.

“Sorry.” Elias tried, but the leg wouldn't obey. “Maybe I should stay on the other side,” he offered. “Round up the lanterns when they drop them.”

Nick was resolute. “If they don't break or roll into the pit, Mat or Jonah'll kick 'em in. And you can't go in the dark like them. 'Sides, I need your strength here on the rope.”

Nick was three times as strong as Elias, and they both knew it, but Elias let it pass.

“It'll work, won't it, Nick?”

Nick lifted his hand off Elias's knee. “Don't know,” he said honestly. “Hope so.”

Elias hugged both knees to his chest to try and quiet that jittery leg. “I—”

“Shh!”

Elias's hands grew clammy. He listened. And then he heard the soft pattering footfall.

Jonah.

“They're a few minutes behind, maybe less,” he whispered breathlessly. “Y'all ready?”

Elias said they were. “They seen you?” Nick asked.

“No,” Jonah said. “They're keeping the lights in front and staying bunched up tight.”

“That's good, ain't it?” Elias said. “If they're up there together, we can likely get 'em at the same go!”

“Can you hide o'er that side?” Nick asked Jonah.

“Reckon,” Jonah said. “Got a little spot I can tuck myself.”

“Get in it and get ready. Mat may need you when the lights go out,” Nick ordered. Jonah complied without another word, and the silence settled back in. Just as it began to be unbearable again, the sound of a cough echoed toward them.

“Look sharp,” Nick warned.

Elias made himself smaller behind the boulder and peeked out through the little crack between the rock and the wall. He tightened his grip on the rope, his heart pounding so loud that he was sure it must be echoing across Smiley. Light began to dance off the ceiling and the walls.

The two men holding the lamps came into the clearing first. Elias saw them take in the pit, saw their eyes grow wide. The men behind them began to crowd the passage, edging forward, but the first two weren't coming closer. Mat was in the middle of the group, glancing around like he was looking for someone, but even Elias could tell Mat didn't notice the rope or see them hiding.

So far so good.

“Careful now, pit's up there,” Mat said halfheartedly, like he didn't care if they fell in or not.

“Hold it,” a voice called out. It was the same one that had done most of the talking earlier. Elias could see the speaker now in the light; he was a healthier version of Pennyrile. His brother, for sure. That explained the seal on the letter at least.

Then came the telltale scratching on the slate. “He says to send the lights ahead, to show the way over and what's on the other side,” Pennyrile's brother said. Elias's grip tightened on the rope to the point that it felt like his knuckles were fit to split out of his skin.

The two with the lamps edged slowly forward, side by side.

Bells! They were going too slowly. The rope wouldn't trip them up if they were creeping that way.

“Hurry it up, you Lily-livers!” Pennyrile's brother barked. Luckily, the two men seemed to be more afraid of Pennyrile and his brother than they were of falling into Smiley, because they quickened their steps just enough. Elias watched as they drew nearer and nearer . . . one more step . . .

“Now!” Nick whispered. Elias and Nick heaved, leaning back as the rope sang through the bolts, drew taut, and held.

And then Elias felt it. The rope quivered and shook. He braced his feet against the rock as the rope took the weight of the two men getting snagged up in the lines.

“What—” one of the men cried out as he fell, the other making a noise that was almost a scream. They both began to tumble forward, arms windmilling. Almost falling, but not quite. The men were used to the pitch and roll of a boat, and would have better balance than average, but their arms still spun, they still faltered. Elias saw both of them staring in horror at the pit, and the fear of falling in made the difference. One of them let his lamp fly out of his hand in order to steady himself. It sailed up, crashed against the ceiling, and then dropped like an ember into Smiley's gaping maw. Elias almost whooped with joy. Then the second man gave up fighting his fall, deciding it would be better to drop hard short of the pit than risk rolling in. As he went over, he hugged the lamp to his chest, trying to protect it. But unable to twist in time, he landed belly first on top of the lantern, snuffing it out.

The tiniest spell of silence followed. No breath, no noise—nothing but the quiet. But it was long enough for the fear and the understanding of what had just happened to swell up and crash over the pirates.

“Hey!”

“What—”

“The devil!”

“Tarnation!”

There were other words, saltier ones that Elias had heard, and plenty he hadn't. Elias himself was near enough to panicking, near enough to forgetting where he was, even though he knew he was secure beside Nick. Jonah called above the roar. “Up and out, Mat!” And Elias knew that already they were making their way along the walls out of the passage. Then there was more scrabbling, the soft thudding sound of a kick or a punch landing, and the sharp cry of pain that followed, and then the shouts swelled up again.

“Grab him!”

“Get back here!”

The volley of foul words and awful curses that flew up brought a small smile to Elias's face.

Then Pennyrile's brother bellowed, “Quiet!”

And then a voice that sounded like it was carving the words with a rusty knife broke in. “Easy, men,” it said. There was only one man who could sound that crooked, that out of practice with the art of speaking.

“Grab on to the man next to you,” Pennyrile said. “I expect we'll find our guide has slipped us.” Elias let the line go slack. He hadn't thought that Pennyrile could frighten him more, but that
voice
. And if anyone was crafty enough to figure a way out of the mess they were in, it would be Pennyrile.

And they had no more traps to spring.

Then came the sound of a match striking. Of course Pennyrile would remember matches! Pennyrile's mean smile appeared in the light. “Porter?” he called out.

“M'lamp's busted,” Porter—apparently—answered, holding the crumpled tin up to catch the match light.

“The oil?” Pennyrile leaned close.

Porter shrank back. “Spilt. Most on the rock, but m'coat's soaked.”

“Dawkins?” Pennyrile asked.

“Lost mine. Could be on the other side. Or down that hole.”

Elias could almost see the wheels spinning in Pennyrile's mind. He had to remind himself to breathe. The match sputtered, burning right down to Pennyrile's fingertips. The darkness closed back in.

A few of the men began to work themselves up again.

“The light!”

“Please, boss!”

“Stop your caterwauling!” Pennyrile rasped. He waited, almost as if he wanted the men to obey him before he struck the next match. Finally a white burst of the phosphorous flared from Pennyrile's hand like a conjurer's trick. “Give me the coat, Porter.”

Elias felt Nick, tense, lean across him to look through the crack in the rock as the light moved closer to the edge of the pit, closer to their hiding place.

“We're not finished yet,” Pennyrile said. “One of you dogs find me something long enough to make a torch.”

A torch? But how?

Elias's heart sank. The coat. Soaked in oil.

Pennyrile could use it to make a torch.

Bells! The devil himself might have hunkered down and waited for rescue, but not Pennyrile.

The men stared at Pennyrile. “Well? A stick, anything!” he demanded. The pirates stayed put, but they cast about halfheartedly. Stephen had swept the area clean. There was nothing on the other side to help them.

“Someone has to have
something
!” Pennyrile was losing patience, the match nearing its end. How many did he have?

“I got my Bowie,” said a ratlike little fellow on the left, his eyes wet with worry. He drew a knife that was not quite a sword from a scabbard inside his coat. The Bowie blade shone wickedly as the man flipped it in his hand to extend the grip to Pennyrile. Pennyrile dropped his match, then struck another.

“We have to go back, boss!” whimpered the big fellow who'd slugged Mat.

Pennyrile didn't respond; he simply passed the knife to his brother. He took the coat from Porter and hurled it at another of his crew, a man with lank black hair hanging like seaweed around his face who began wrapping the coat tightly around the blade Pennyrile's brother held.

“Back?” Pennyrile sneered. “No.”

“We ain't got no guide!” another voice called out.

“The guide we had led us on a fool's chase. But I've been on Gothic Avenue before, and I know the way from there,” Pennyrile said. “No, we won't go back. Not now.”

The completed torch came forward to Pennyrile. Pennyrile kissed the match to its surface in several places. Elias prayed that it wouldn't light, his hopes growing each time Pennyrile had to try another spot, but they sank when the flame caught, tongues of orange and blue licking up the sides of the coat.

Elias noticed Nick's lips were moving silently, but his eyes were on Pennyrile.

“What
can
we do, Victor?” his brother asked. The pirates around him seemed emboldened by the success of the torch. Elias knew it would burn itself out soon enough, but it might give them the time they needed.

“We press on. Find the colony ourselves.”

An uneasy silence followed as the pirates looked from one to another, each one thinking the same thing, each afraid to say it. Finally a voice from the back asked, “But how we gonna find our way out?”

“Fools! We have a map,” Pennyrile said, holding up Stephen's book.

“I ain't goin' near that hole!” The biggest one, his face pocked with scars, pointed at Smiley.

Pennyrile sniffed and edged nearer. “You can clear it in a stride, Jones. We're going.”

Elias almost bolted up from his hiding place, but Nick's firm hand on his shoulder kept him anchored. Pennyrile seemed to sense the movement, for he stalled, his eyes flickering across the pit. When no other noise or movement came, he went on, one step closer. Now he was less than a foot from the edge. “It can't be far from here if they bothered with a trap. And if need be, we'll rook one of the runaways into leading us out in exchange for his freedom once we've found the colony.”

“We don't know that! It could be miles from here!” the rat-faced one said. “And that torch won't hold us long.”

Pennyrile was clearly fuming but didn't bother to respond. His eyes were drawn to something else. He took a step closer to the pit. “We may not need the torch much longer after all,” he said, looking over the edge.

The next thing Elias knew, the rope moved in his hands. He watched in horror as Pennyrile pulled it slowly until it was drooping from his grip, exposed. Pennyrile traced the rope to the bolt anchored in the wall. “Well, well,” he said as he spied the other bolt on the opposite wall. Pennyrile gazed across the pit, following the rope to the point where it disappeared behind the rock Elias and Nick hid behind.

“Not long at all,” Pennyrile said, taking a step nearer the edge.

“I don't reckon I'd keep walking,” Nick called out without preamble. Surprised silence fell again.

Then Pennyrile gave what might have been a laugh. “See, boys? They're even closer than I expected.”

“Best stay put and wait for Stephen and Mat to fetch the law. That's th'only way you lot are walking out of this cave alive,” Nick said.

“That's Nick, isn't it?” Pennyrile sounded almost cheerful. “Well, Nick, I'm a fair cardplayer, no mistake. And I can hear a bluff as easy as I can spot one with my eyes. And I'd lay money on something else: you'll not have stranded yourself without light.”

The torch flared hot for a moment, the edges of the coat peeling outward. A chunk of the fabric burned off and floated down into the pit.

“Show yourself now, Nick, and maybe we won't tell Croghan you knew about this little batch of runaways.”

“Tell Croghan what you want,” Nick fired back. “But wait till he come down here with the law and haul you out himself.”

BOOK: River Runs Deep
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