Authors: Jennifer Bradbury
Sending out a pigeon later. Want to watch?
Elias looked at the two remaining in the cage. “But what if it gets lost too?”
Pennyrile shrugged, then scribbled:
Elias couldn't stomach it. He didn't like the thought of more poor birds getting hurt or killed trying to find their way to the entrance. “I could maybe carry the bird out for you, if you wanted? So it had a better chance of making it home?”
Pennyrile made a face to show he was surprised and pleased at the offer.
“I wouldn't mind,” Elias continued. “Doctor wants me to come walking with him soon, anyhow.”
Pennyrile considered. Then he erupted into a frenzied scratching at the slate.
On second thought, best reserve birds. And have another way.
“Another way?” Elias asked as Pennyrile swiped the slate and wrote even more.
Tree at entrance where I used to walk when stronger. My friend leaves letters there for me. You could leave my note for him there instead of sending out bird
“If he's near enough to leave a note for you outside, then why doesn't he just come the rest of the way in?”
Pennyrile's smile faltered just a step, like he wasn't pleased to have Elias questioning him. But then he wrote.
We value privacy.
Still puzzled, Elias looked toward the loft and the two birds still within. Pennyrile might send them out. They'd only get lost in the cave like the others. And no wonder. They weren't made to fly around in the dark, and he'd seen enough of the cave to know it was an easy thing to lose one's sense of direction. It had to be even trickier for a bird used to flying in the daylight. “I don't know, sir,” Elias began. “Seems a heap of bother when you could just use the regular post. Or Croghan's hands to go back and forth to your tree.”
Pennyrile shook his head, clearly losing patience now. He flipped the slate and wrote on the other side.
Can't trust. Some of them read. Don't like it. Only you.
“Butâ” Elias began before Pennyrile held up the other side of the slate, pointing a stubby finger at the word
Even though Elias was standing perfectly still, he felt the wheeze begin to grow from that tiny whistle that was almost always there to the rusty gate Lillian had described. The cough would come on soon if he wasn't careful. “I don't knowâ”
Pennyrile wrote again.
You carry for me. I give you feed for the bird.
Elias thought Pennyrile's expression would not have been out of place carved into a jack-o'-lantern sneering from a fence post. And those words written on the slate sounded more like an order than a request. He was beginning to get an odd feeling about the whole business when Pennyrile added:
A friendly arrangement?
Elias hesitated, but he didn't have much choice, did he? Besides, what harm could it do in the end? “All I have to do is carry a letter?”
Pennyrile lifted one shoulder as a yes.
Elias heard voices coming up the path. Pennyrile jutted his chin toward the sound and held a finger to his lips.
“All right,” Elias whispered, the cough in his lungs like a boat straining against its mooring lines. It would escape him soon. “But I don't know when I can do it.”
Will have letter ready by time you need more grain for bird. Take then.
“I won't do nothing wrong,” Elias backed away as the voices outside drew nearer.
Pennyrile waved a hand at Elias like it was the silliest notion in the world. But it didn't make Elias feel any better. “I'm going now,” he said, sliding out the door.
The dried corn rattled in the cup as Elias ducked into his room just as Nick came over the rise with another man, carrying a big kettle between them.
Elias nearly fell against the wall as the cough erupted, shuddering through him in weak waves. Despite how weak the strength of his cough was, it still was almost too much for Elias. He sank to the bed and held a handkerchief to his mouth. When he finished, he pulled the fabric away. Nothing in it, at least. Bedivere cooed at him.
“I know,” Elias said, pinching out a measure of the corn and dropping it onto the floor. Bedivere hop-flapped from the back of the chair to the seat and then to the floor and began pecking up the feast. Elias collapsed in the chair, listening to the sound of Nick and the other slave talking and working, and the sound of Bedivere's beak snapping greedily around each kernel of corn. But somehow the sound of that chalk on the slate, that scratching, still echoed in his head.
he sharp tangy smell of onions lingered hours after the day's poultice grew cold and was taken away. It was still there after supper when Elias heard footsteps coming up the path. He didn't recognize the gait, but as it drew closer to his door, Lillian called out, “Evening, Mat.”
“Elias in there?” a man growled, tugging the curtain across the door without waiting for an answer. The man was lighter skinned than either Nick or Stephen, the hair poking out from underneath his cap nearly straight. He was tall, too, narrow in the shoulders, with a pair of braces holding up pants that gapped at his waist.
“You Elias?” he asked, lips hardly moving inside his beard. “Get your gear. Stephen said to fetch you.”
Elias didn't have any gearâany that might be useful, anyway. But he pocketed his length of rope and tightened the laces of his boots. “Who're you?”
“Mat Bransford. C'mon, we ain't got all night.”
Elias grabbed the cup of corn and scattered some for Bedivere.
“What in blazes is that?” Mat asked, jabbing a finger at the bird.
Elias hesitated. “It's aÂ .Â .Â . a pigeon?”
Mat seethed. “I know it's a pigeon. You don't need to get fresh! But what are you doing with it?”
Elias stroked the top of Bedivere's beak. “Mr. Pennyrile give him to me. He's got a lame wing, so I figured onâ”
Mat glared at the bird like it was a snake he might crush if he met it in the road. “You best be careful about the friends you make.” Then he ducked out the door, not bothering to hold the quilt aside for Elias. Lillian intercepted them.
“Where you taking that boy?” she whispered as she tucked herself between Mat and Elias.
Mat groaned. “Stephen took a notion he'd be useful. We won't hurt him,” he said, adding, “much.”
“The doctor wants him resting.” Lillian crossed her arms. “He won't be pleased if you wearing him out tonight.”
“Naw, I expect he won't, but he ain't gonna hear it from me,” Mat said, giving Lillian a look. If Elias weren't so eager to get out of his room, he might have been afraid to go with him.
“Hop to,” Mat said to Elias. Lillian threw up her hands and waved them off, muttering to herself.
Elias had to work to keep up with Mat, but he actually felt a little better. Winded, sure. Legs weak, yes. But not wheezy, and a coughing spell seemed wonderfully distant. Maybe the poultice had helped after all.
“I never seen you before,” Elias said when he trusted his breathing to let him speak.
Mat only grunted.
“You new here too?” Elias wanted to show that he was friendly, to show this Mat fellow he had plenty of good reasons to trust Elias, just like Stephen did.
“I been here five years. You been here a month, but you're asking if I'm new?” He stalked off quick again down the path.
“I just haven't seen you, like the others, that's all.”
Mat walked faster. Elias knew he ought to save his breath; Mat seemed to like making him walk too fast. But he couldn't help it.
“You and Nick are brothers?”
“Why'd you ask a thing like that?” Mat said, squeezing through a narrow cut of rock.
“Y'all both got Bransford for last names,” Elias explained as he squeezed after him.
Mat humphed. “Called Bransford 'cause our old master was Bransford. He leased us up here to the man owned the cave afore Doc Croghan.”
“You're better off here, I reckon,” Elias offered quietly.
Mat laughed bitterly. “Could be worse.”
Elias was sure it could. Croghan seemed kind. And he seemed permissive enough, letting Stephen and Nick and Mat roam around exploring the cave when they weren't working. He couldn't see what Mat had to be so growly about, why he seemed so resentful toward Elias, why he was so put out with Pennyrile.
“Why'd you say that about Mr. Pennyrile before?” Elias asked.
“Trouble a mile off, that one.”
“But he's dying,” Elias pointed out. “How much trouble can he be?”
Mat stopped, held the lamp up, and waited until Elias met his eyes. Elias noted their unusual colorâa pale greenâand how they caught the light like a possum's.
“Had a fellow on a tour once. He told me about going over out west to the territory. Hunted some of those great grizzly bears. Said when they finally got near enough to shoot at the thing, it took a dozen rounds of shot to bring it down. And said every time they hit it, the bear got tougher and madder and meaner. Killed one of the horses before it gave out.”
Elias sure would've liked to talk to
“Sometimes animals is most dangerous when they're right at the end,” Mat finished.
Elias wondered if that could be true, recalling how helpless his father had been in his last days. As he was thinking on this, he saw lights in the distance. Moments later they came upon Nick and Stephen looking into a cleft nine feet up near the low ceiling.
“There he is,” Stephen said, looking over at Elias, sniffing the air. “You smell like onions.”
Elias's hand wandered to his shirt. “Doc's been having 'em do poultices on me. Ramps and goose fat.”
Nick made a sound that might have been a chuckle, and he spat a stream of tobacco over his shoulder. “Be good and greased up for it, any road.”
“Greased for what?” Elias asked.
Stephen patted the rock wall. “We've been at this spot for a while now. Trying to figure out what might be over there. Trouble is,” he said with a frown, “none of us can fit through.”
Elias looked at the spot again. It might have been sixteen, eighteen inches across at its widest. He swallowed hard but kept his voice steady. “How far you get?”
“Stephen got farthest, not quite up to his hips,” Mat offered. “So he thought maybe you might try.”
Stephen had half a foot on Elias in height, but was broader by more. Part of Elias couldn't wait to try. But the other part was hollering that he could die right there in that hole in the wall.
“You willing?” Nick asked, holding up a loop of rope knotted in something terribly like a noose.
“After I get throughÂ .Â .Â . what then?”
Stephen took over. “We fetch up a light for you. And then you go as far as you can before the rope gives out. If you still can go farther, we splice another rope on. That way you can find your way back out.”
“Or if you fall in a pit, we might be able to catch you,” Mat added, eyes flashing wickedly.
“Might?” Elias took a step backward.
“We'll hold fast on it,” Stephen said, shaking his head as Mat lowered the loop over Elias's head, then shoulders, finally securing it around his waist.
“You mind if I retie this?” Elias asked, looking at the almost-noose. It might hold fine, but a bowline would be better, less likely to snag on something.
“Go on then,” Mat said, crossing his arms and rocking back on his heels.
Elias steadied his hands, took one end of the rope, measured out an arm's length, and twisted a bight to tie a bowline. His daddy's words echoed in his head.
Send the rabbit up the hole, then around the tree, and then back down the hole.
Satisfied, he tightened and dressed the knot.
“Is it pretty enough for you, or you want me to find some flowers to stick in there too?” Mat asked, annoyed, but Elias could tell by the way his eyes stayed locked on the knot that he was admiring it. Figuring out how to do it himself.
“Here,” Stephen said, handing Elias a lighter weight of rope, “fix this to your waist rope. Then if you need something, we can tie it on and send it up to you.”
“What am I going to need?” Elias asked, his voice breaking on the last word. Stephen leaned down to catch Elias's eye.
“More light or a pry bar or something. That's all.”
“Okay, then.” Elias studied the cut in the rock he was meant to shimmy through. It looked smaller suddenly. “I suppose I'm ready.”
“You want to climb it, or you want we should boost you?” Stephen asked.
“I can get up there.” Elias reached for the rock. It was cold beneath his hands, but it was dry, and that was something. He gripped a couple of the biggest knobs and then lifted one foot onto a good solid chunk jutting out of the wall, testing it to be sure. Then he stood himself up, his left foot still floating in the air till he found another good edge up near where his knee was before. He balanced, then brought that other foot higher and reached up with his left hand at the same time. Before he could say “Jack Robinson,” he was looking into the edge of a black hole.
“There's a good little seam in there,” Stephen said from below. The rope at Elias's waist felt heavier than before. But he ignored its weight, and soon his hands scrambled in and found the spot Stephen described. Elias slid his fingers in to the second knuckles and heaved himself up. His head scraped the side of the passage as he got his shoulders inside, and his knot dug in at his waist as he began to crawl.
Stephen called out, “Good, now,” and Elias could tell he'd made it farther than Stephen had. The space grew tighter and Elias had to lie down, arms in front of him, in order to squeeze through. He used his knees and toes to push forward, staying on his belly, bumping now and again against the walls of the passage. But he didn't feel any rock above him yet.