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Authors: Jennifer Bradbury

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BOOK: River Runs Deep
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“We got it in hand,” the deputy called back. “Coming your way.”

Croghan, watching in disbelief as the prisoners filed past him, thundered, “Where is Stephen?”

“Here, sir,” Stephen said. “We tried to find you, but there wasn't time—”

“Explain this at once!” Croghan said. “Lillian told me there was trouble, and then I saw Mat running with a shotgun—”

“Seems the morning tour was really a band of pirates,” Stephen said quietly.

“We ain't no pirates! We're bounty hunters,” one of the men said indignantly. “Came down here to collect runaways.”

Croghan made a face. “Runaways? These men are not—”

“Not them,” Pennyrile's brother said. “The ones down deep in the cave. The colony—”

“Colony?” Croghan looked from him to Stephen. Elias caught something in that look, a slight narrowing of the doctor's eyes, a moment of recognition, before he recovered and asked, “What nonsense is this?”

“My brother, Victor—”

“Pennyrile?” Croghan stepped closer, peering at the man. “Extraordinary, the likeness . . . Do you know where he is? He is gravely ill and—”

“They killed him,” Pennyrile's brother choked out. And Elias almost felt bad for him.

“Killed?”

“Your boys set a trap and we lost our lights, and now my brother's dead in the bottom of some hole down there.”

“Tol' him not to move,” Nick said calmly.

Croghan's mouth opened and shut like he was trying to find the right question to ask next. “Explain!”

Nick hitched his pack up on his shoulder. “We penned 'em up, blinded 'em without light. And I told 'em to stay put till Stephen came back with the law. They'd been safe as eggs under a hen, but Pennyrile had his own mind about it. Got himself tripped up and fell down Smiley.”

Croghan's eyes darkened. “And Smiley is . . .” He waited. He didn't know about Smiley. Stephen and the others hadn't mentioned it to him.

“Good and deep,” Nick confirmed.

Croghan let out a sharp breath like he'd been slammed in the belly. “Oh, dear. Poor soul—”

“He knew,” Pennyrile's brother insisted. “He'd been here months, and he knew of the colony. Got himself in here to look for it.”

“But . . . your brother . . . He was terribly sick . . . His scrofula,” Croghan said, still not comprehending. Elias tensed, looked back and forth from Nick to Stephen. For all his high ideas and for the way he had his head in the clouds all the time, talking about frontiers and his cures, Croghan was no fool.

Pennyrile's brother charged on. “ 'Course he was sick. Had that King's Evil for near three years. It didn't pain him much, so we figgered on using it to get him down here, get him looking for that tonic water and that den of runaways we heard—”

Croghan held up a hand and raised his voice over Pennyrile's brother. “First,” he began, “I'm sorry for your brother's death, no matter what kind of man he was, or what kind of man you are.” Croghan stole a look at Stephen and chose his words with care. “But tonic water and runaways . . . I'm afraid that the disease had begun to affect his mind.”

Elias gave Nick a sidelong glance, but his face was as blank as ever.

“That's a stinking lie!” the brother said.

Croghan's voice was gentle. “I'm very sorry, but it's true. He was losing his faculties. And when he disappeared, I feared the worst.”

“We have proof!” Pennyrile's brother shouted. “Maps he stole,” he said, whirling around to look for Stephen. “Off that one there!”

Croghan cut his eyes toward Stephen. “Maps?” he asked, the question sharper than a whittling knife.

Oh no! Croghan had pestered Stephen about the maps, and Stephen had said he'd get around to them, never owning to the notebook he kept.

“I don't have any maps,” Stephen said evenly and, Elias realized, technically, honestly.

Croghan waited for Stephen to say more. When he didn't, he addressed himself to Pennyrile's brother. “Produce this proof,” he said, holding out a hand. “Show me these maps.”

A murmur went through the column of men. Then Pennyrile's brother cursed softly. “My brother had them when he . . . fell.”

Croghan kept his eyes fixed on Stephen, studying him for some reaction. But Stephen might as well have been carved from the walls of the cave for all he gave up.

“How convenient,” the doctor said.

“It's true!” Pennyrile's brother shouted. “We all saw them!”

“But you never saw him take them from my man Bishop, did you?” Croghan pressed.

The brother gaped, furious, but had to shake his head.

“So . . . ,” Croghan began, sounding like he was puzzling out a diagnosis. “Under the command of an invalid with an addled mind, a band of pirates first kidnapped innocent children belonging to a neighboring farm, then came into the cave under pretenses that they wanted a tour. They then proceeded to blackmail the father of those children—
my
man Mat Bransford—into leading them to some mythical underground colony of runaway slaves?”

“I'm tellin' you—” Pennyrile's brother began.

Croghan held up a hand. “But I'm still unclear how Mat sent out the cry for help. How did Nick know to lay the trap?”

Elias swallowed and stepped out from behind Stephen. “That'd be me, Doctor.”

“Elias,” Croghan said like he wished he were wrong. Before he could scold him, Elias spilled out the nearest version to the truth he could without giving up Jonah or Haven. He told him how he'd caught Mat's tour, hung back and saw the trouble he was in, and heard the pirates say they'd taken Mat's kids. How he rounded up Nick and Stephen, and they made to bail out Mat.

“I daresay this is more activity than I prescribed when I sent you out this morning,” Croghan said, almost smiling now.

“Reckon so.” Elias hung his head, trying to look good and ashamed of himself.

“Well,” Croghan said, “I believe you men have completed your tour. Nick, please escort the deputy and the rest out to the main entrance. I suppose the marshal will be along directly. I'll come up and wait with all of you.” Nick started walking, yanking hard on the rope that led to the first man in the column.

Stephen and Elias made to follow them, but Croghan held up his hand. “A moment.”

Out of the frying pan . . .
, Elias thought. Croghan waited until the men had moved off, then he slowly followed, motioning to Elias and Stephen to join him. “A strange turn of events, wouldn't you say so, boys?”

“Yes, Doctor Croghan,” Stephen said.

He gave them each a look. “Funny that Pennyrile managed to convince them of the existence of a whole hidden colony of runaway slaves.”

Neither Stephen nor Elias responded.

“But if they've heard doings of some sort of haven—” He paused and looked at them both pointedly. Stephen's jaw twitched. Elias felt his face go white. After all they'd been through, after managing to stop Pennyrile's gang, what if it still wasn't enough? What if Croghan knew?

And then Croghan did the darndest thing. He grinned. Just for a second. But it was enough. “Then I'm certain others of their ilk might be looking as well.”

“You could be right,” Stephen said, his voice trembling high.

Adrenaline raced through Elias's limbs. Was the doctor going to help them?

“So we must set the world at ease that such a mythical place does not exist. And what better way than with you finally completing your maps.”

“Yes, sir,” Stephen squeaked out.

“I think it's high time you took a sojourn to work on those maps,” he said, motioning for them to follow as he started back up the path. “I should think a fortnight cloistered at my father's estate in Louisville will afford you enough time to complete the work?”

“Should,” Stephen said.

“You can ride out with Elias when he goes,” Croghan added.

“Goes?” Elias asked.

“There was a letter from your mother waiting at the hotel this morning. She's sent the money for your fare. There's a stage tomorrow from Cave City. You'll both be on it.”

“Tomorrow?” Elias croaked.

“Tomorrow,” the doctor confirmed. “Unless you've other business in the cave I should know about?”

“No, sir!” Haven was safe.

At the entrance, Nick and the deputy and his posse spurred the pirates up the slope. On the ridge, more men waited, hands on their hips, staring down. Elias could make out a six-pointed star glinting from the shirtfront of one of them.

“I'll go on from here without you,” Croghan said, waving to the marshal. “I must ask if I can do anything to see Mat's children recovered”—he caught himself—“for the sake of Parthena's master, of course.” He headed off, leaving Stephen and Elias stunned. Croghan glanced back and found them still gaping. “Go on, then,” Croghan said, almost smiling. “You both have packing to do.”

“Yes, sir,” Elias and Stephen chorused.

“And, Stephen?” Doctor Croghan said over his shoulder as he climbed up. “Do take care with your mapping. We wouldn't want anyone stumbling anyplace they didn't belong, now would we?”

Stephen smiled broadly. “No, sir, we wouldn't.”

“I didn't think so,” the doctor said, springing up the slope.

Elias watched him go, marveling that, for the ways the cave had awed and surprised him since he arrived, he could never recall feeling quite as dumbstruck as he did now.

Chapter Twenty-Three
SQUARE KNOT

S
tephen and Elias weren't the first ones to leave. Elias, exhausted, had forgone his packing to take a short nap, and woke to find it late afternoon.

He looked around his room again, the room that had been his home for . . . how long? He checked the marks on the wall, even though he'd stopped tracking them days ago. Forty-three. So, around two months, he guessed. Two months he'd lived in this narrow hut, slept in this bed, watched the fire at the grate.

And he would go home tomorrow.

He heard Nedra cough across the way. Maybe it was the guilt that he was leaving, or the guilt of having not sat with her more, but he walked over to look in on her.

“Squire,” she said when he appeared at her door.

She sat on the edge of her bed, wrapped up in a traveling coat and hat. Her trunk, packed and wrapped with twine, waited on the floor next to her.

“You're going?” Elias was stunned.

She didn't respond at first. “Squire Elias,” she repeated. “Can you feel the spring coming?”

Elias felt awful. Awful that Croghan hadn't been able to help her.

“Will Brandstrom know me?” she asked him before she fell to coughing, holding a linen handkerchief to her mouth.
Brandstrom?
Elias wondered. He guessed he must be the fiancé. Nedra reached for a bottle of water sitting beside her on the table. Elias uncorked the top and held it out to her. She let the handkerchief fall to her lap. Elias saw the blood sprayed there like cinnamon scattered on a pudding.

“Nobody could forget you, ma'am,” he said as she drank deeply.

The bottle trembled as she passed it back to Elias. “Pennies,” she said.

Elias fitted the cork back in. Pennies? Nedra was given to odd talk, but usually he could follow the thread. “Miss?”

“Tastes of pennies,” she said, still not looking anywhere in particular.

Elias's eyes fell on the bottle in his hands.
Tastes like pennies.

“Who brought this?” he asked, looking around for the pitcher and cup that was usually here. They were already gone.

Nedra smiled at him. “You wore your scarf.”

Elias noticed two other bottles of water waiting on top of her trunk.

“Did Lill give you these?” he persisted.

“Brave Squire Elias,” she went on. He was too pleased to see the bottles to care that he couldn't keep up with her talk. Stephen and Nick and Mat had given the water out, pure and strong, to all of them.
When there isn't much you can do, you want to do what you can.
Wasn't that what Stephen had said?

There was something Elias could do too.

He slid the chair over. “You know those stories we both like, Miss Nedra? 'Bout Arthur and Lancelot?”

Her eyes seemed to clear briefly.

“Remember what they were after in the end? Their greatest quest?” Elias leaned in, clutching the bottle tighter.

“The Holy Grail,” she whispered, the flash of the beauty that had been hers, that still was there, Elias decided, almost startling.

“Remember what the Grail could do?” He found himself whispering too, like they were sharing a secret. “If you drunk from it? It made you well, didn't it, Miss Nedra? It healed anything, made a body whole again. That's why they searched so hard and so long for it, didn't they?”

“Through kingdoms and ages,” she murmured.

“Yes!” Elias could barely keep his seat. “But this,” he said, holding up the bottle, “this would have launched a thousand more quests! This water's magic, miss. And if you'll drink it, and you'll believe—”

She studied the bottle, the water almost cloudy as it sloshed inside.

“Pennies,” she repeated.

“Hope,”
Elias insisted. “Promise you'll drink it all?”

She took the bottle, cradled it in her arms. “Promise.”

Lillian cleared her throat. Elias wondered how long she'd been standing there. “Mat's here to fetch your trunk up. And Doc Croghan's had the sedan chair sent down. They ready for you.”

“Ready,” Nedra repeated.

Stranger things had happened down there than people taking miracle cures, Elias figured. And Stephen and Hughes and the others were right—a little extra hope never hurt.

BOOK: River Runs Deep
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