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Authors: Jennifer Bradbury

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BOOK: River Runs Deep
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“Now see here—”

“Just take it.” Stephen was firm. “If you want to come out with me, you'll learn to do what I say.”

Elias huffed. He wasn't used to being spoken to this way by colored men, slave or free. Still, the promise of a chance to go exploring was worth a little wounded pride. “Fine.” They walked back up the little slope of the tunnel, Elias feeling like a dumb cow being led back to the barn.

“You haven't been this far before, have you?” Stephen asked him as they entered the big room Elias had passed through a few minutes back.

“Only just now. When I was following . . . well . . .” Elias trailed off.

“Watch this.” Stephen walked to the wall of the chamber, stuck the handle of his lantern in his mouth, and climbed up a pile of loose rock. He set the lantern on top and came back down. “Look up there.” He swept his arm at the ceiling. For a second, Elias forgot to breathe.

There were stars. Hundreds of them. Twinkling up in the black. “How?” he whispered. How indeed? How had they managed to poke a hole in the cave all the way to the sky?

“Something, isn't it?” Stephen asked, bending down and picking up a rock. “Some kind of shiny rock up there in the ceiling. Not gold or anything valuable. But it glints in the light. The smoke's blackened it up so you see it only in patches.”

“Like stars,” Elias said. He gave a tiny little sputter of a cough, but it didn't catch.

“Exactly. That's why we call this the Star Chamber.”

Elias just gaped, wishing it wasn't what Stephen had described. That it was instead an actual window to the outside.

“You much at throwing?” Stephen asked.

“Huh?”

“Here”—Stephen placed the rock in Elias's palm—“heave it up there good—if you chip off some soot, you'll make a new place.” Elias tested the rock's weight in his palm and tried to gauge the distance to the stars. He had no idea how far it really was, but he wound up and hurled the stone hard and fast at a steep angle. It clinked against the ceiling immediately.

“Good throw,” Stephen said, grabbing the lantern. “I charge fellas on my tour a quarter to do that.”

“A whole quarter? Just to throw a rock?”

“Not just to throw a rock. To make a
star
. And name it for their sweetheart. And if that sweetheart happens to be right there with them, you bet they pony up that quarter right quick.”

Elias grinned. He couldn't help but picture his daddy hucking a stone up there for his mama. He once saw him skip one nine times. He'd have made a whole constellation.

Stephen slowly led Elias back up to the ward, pointing out things as they went. Elias expected the pace was on account of Stephen having slipped into the role of tour guide. That, or he was aware of how winded Elias had been on the trip down. Even now the air whistled and scraped over his throat as he drew breath.

It was clear Stephen was proud of the cave, loved it even, and couldn't help talking about it because of that. And Elias liked listening to him, but he kept thinking about the voice at his window, how it had warned him to go back, how it must have passed right by Stephen Bishop. Stephen had been awfully quick to decide that the voice and the footsteps Elias had heard were merely his imagination. Wouldn't anybody else have asked more questions? Tried to explain away what Elias thought he saw and heard?

“You sure you didn't see nobody sneaking by you in that tunnel?” Elias interrupted Stephen as he was explaining how the old Indians used to light their way in the cave.

Once again Stephen's reply was almost too quick. “I told you to forget about that,” he said, sounding for a moment as if he didn't disbelieve Elias so much as he didn't want to talk about it. Stephen caught himself, checked his tone. “Look, you got turned around, and your imagination ran off with you. But if you keep thinking on it, you're likely to get the doctor worried the sickness is creeping into your mind—”

“I ain't crazy!”

Stephen's voice dropped lower. “I didn't say you were. But then again, I'm not the doctor.”

“I ain't,” Elias repeated.

“I know,” Stephen said, apologetic now. “So just forget about it, all right?”

They walked on a ways before Elias understood that they weren't returning to the ward. “Where we goin' now?” he asked as they rounded a huge chunk of rock that lay to the side of the main path.

“Something you ought to see,” Stephen said.

“What is it?” Not that Elias really cared. He was just glad that Stephen wasn't taking him back yet.

“Something,” Stephen said simply. They walked in silence, the path clean and smooth, so Elias reckoned this was at least part of the way Stephen and the others led their tours. It emptied into a little rounded chamber with other paths branching off.

“Where're we?” Elias asked, looking around at the different tunnels. He could imagine a knight standing there where he stood, hunting a dragon hiding up in any of these passages.

“Wooden Bowl,” Stephen said. “C'mon.” Elias followed him to one of the tunnels, and they began to climb back up.

After they'd gone a few dozen yards, Stephen held up a hand. “Shh!”

Elias stood stock-still.

“You hear something?” Stephen whispered.

Elias listened. At first he heard only the sound of his own breath, the faint hiss of the lamp burning up the oil. But then he heard the warbling, cooing noise he'd been hearing from Pennyrile's hut the last few weeks.

“Pigeons!” Elias said.

Stephen followed the sound.

What was a pigeon doing down here?
Elias wondered.

When they finally found the bird, he saw why.

It huddled up against the wall of the cave, perched on a tiny shelf of rock. As the light found it, the pigeon craned its neck outward, and Elias saw the iridescent flashes of green and purple as the pigeon twisted its head to look at them.

“Hey, fella.” Elias inched a hand toward the bird. The pigeon didn't peck at him, but it rumbled a little and made as if it would beat his hand away with its wings. But only one wing opened, the other trying but giving out halfway.

“It's lame,” Stephen said.

Elias made soft cooing noises, ventured closer with his hand, and waited there until the bird lowered the good wing. “You think it got free of that Pennyrile man's hut?”

Stephen pointed to a scroll of paper wound tightly around the bird's leg, tied off with a piece of twine and a neat square knot. “Looks to me like he sent it out and it got lost.”

“They carry messages?” Elias asked, beginning to understand. Stephen nodded.

“He used to walk them up nearer the entrance to let them go. But he can't manage it anymore. We offered to do it for him, but he seems disinclined to trusting. I found a dead one even farther in, and told him so, but he still sends them out.”

Elias edged his hand closer. Soon he found the bird would let him stroke its gray breast with the back of his finger. “Got lost, didja?” he asked, gently cupping the bird in his palms. It answered with a trilling coo.

“You plan to carry him like that?”

Elias could imagine no other means to carry the bird. And he ought to take it back to Pennyrile. Even if the man were a spook, it didn't mean the bird ought to starve down there in the dark. “I can tie the rope around my wrist if that's what you want—”

Stephen sighed, but he looped the rope over his shoulder. “I won't make you. Just keep up.”

Elias had spent his whole life carrying animals—turtles, bullfrogs, geese, Charger as a pup—and the bird seemed used to being handled, seemed to know staying with Elias was better than staying alone in the dark.

It wasn't long before they reached another chamber. “Wait here,” Stephen ordered.

Elias stopped and stroked the pigeon's back with his thumb. He liked the feeling of the bird in his hands, the tiny heart hammering against his palm.

The feel of something warm and alive was blessedly familiar.

Stephen walked ahead to where another lantern hung and lit it with the flame of the one he carried. The light caught and burned bright as the room came into focus.

Elias saw the bridge first, a rickety-looking thing. It was little more than a narrow walkway, maybe the width of both of his feet together, with rails rising up and flaring out. It looked more like the skeleton of a ship back in dry dock, stripped down to the ribs, than it did a bridge. But it was a bridge, spanning a dark sea of nothingness, still and deep and deadly. He found his heart racing in time with the bird's.

“That's Bottomless Pit, ain't it?” Elias asked. The pit was famous. The nearer Elias got on his journey from Virginia, the more often he'd meet a body who'd been to the cave, or heard tell of its wonders. And this was one Elias had heard spoken of often.

“Yep.” Stephen motioned Elias over. Elias joined him and peered down, holding the pigeon off to the side.

He studied the bolts that anchored the bridge to the rock, mainly to avoid looking into the pit itself. It made him dizzy, that drop. “Drilled those myself,” Stephen said, pointing at the bolts.

“With what?”

Stephen slung his pack around and withdrew a hand drill. “This. Bit's goin' dull, but it does the work. Rock's pretty soft anyhow. My first way over was a couple of ladders lashed together in the middle, but we couldn't bring folk across it, so we worked this one up.” He stepped onto the bridge. “C'mon.”

“I can see good—”

“Get on out here,” Stephen insisted. Elias riled against the order, but he didn't want Stephen to think he wouldn't be helpful, or that he was yellow. All the same, he found it impossible to not look down as he placed his feet one in front of the other, wishing he had his hands free to grip the railing on either side. Stephen faced Elias when they came to the middle. “That's sixty feet to the bottom down there,” he said.

Elias felt his insides drop, and the pigeon gave an alarmed coo as Elias's grip tightened. Sixty feet. He'd climbed the rigging on his father's ships, but that wasn't nearly so tall. And even that had given him fits when it was time to come back down. “Mercy,” Elias said.

“And not the only one like it,” Stephen said. “There're pits and falls all over the place out here. No bridges on most of them.” Elias was beginning to see why Stephen had brought him here.

“You remember what I said when I first fetched you into the cave?” he asked.

Elias did. He recited Stephen's first warning. “ ‘Don't go wanderin'.' ”

Stephen's voice was stern. “You think you can heed that now?”

Elias barely managed to whisper, “Yes, sir.”

*  *  *

At the ward, Lillian stood up quickly when she saw Elias climbing the slope with Stephen. She tightened up the shawl she wore over her trim shoulders like she was adjusting her armor, long cotton skirts churning around her ankles as she bore down on Elias. “What are you doing out of your hut?” She felt his forehead, leaned in and listened to his breath. “Clammy head and soundin' like a rusty gate.”

“Easy, Lillian,” Stephen said. “I was just showing him something. He's all right. And he won't tell Doc Croghan about you letting him sneak out.”

She planted a hand on her hip and made her eyes so wide that her brows disappeared beneath the hem of the gray cloth she wore wrapped around her hair. “You know he sick, Stephen Bishop. Find somebody your own age to run about with.”

Stephen took a step closer to Lillian and smiled, teeth flashing bright in the firelight. “I plan to, ma'am.”

Elias suddenly started to feel out of place, wondering if maybe Stephen had ever thrown a rock at the ceiling for Lillian. Luckily, he had a good reason to slip aside.

He walked to Pennyrile's hut and used the toe of his boot to knock on the doorframe. “Sir?”

At first there was no reply. Then Elias heard a shuffling within, the other pigeons stirring and cooing. And then the man appeared, pushing back the curtain across the door. His eyes were dark, all pupils in the low light. A heavy mustache bristled over his lip, like a squirrel had left its tail parked there. A bright red scarf was tied up at his neck, the bulk of it bulging out oddly to one side. Other than the scarf, he wore only a dressing gown and a pair of heavy woolen socks. An oily, fishy smell hung about him.

Elias tried and failed not to stare at the bulge on the man's neck, and in his failure couldn't help noticing that the wrap was topped off with a neatly done lighterman's hitch and finished with a pair of half hitches. It was a tricky knot, one the men used to moor a boat up to the dock and then cast off easily.

Then Elias remembered himself, remembered how much he was always told not to stare, and he managed to tear his eyes away from the knot and the bulge it covered. “I . . . uh . . . I found your bird.” He held the pigeon out.

Pennyrile scowled, then his eyes grew wider as he roughly took the bird from Elias. He palmed the body of the bird upside down in one hand and checked its legs. For fingers so meaty, he deftly untied the message, freeing the roll of paper and tossing it onto the bed behind him.

“I think his wing is—”

But Pennyrile had already righted the pigeon and was testing the wings. Working at the left one set the bird grunting and cooing.

“That's the one.” Elias winced. “He doesn't seem to be able to fly, but—”

The rest of his words caught in his mouth as he recognized what Pennyrile was about to do. He'd changed his grip, holding the bird by his head in one hand and by the body with the other. He'd seen the house girl back home hold chickens that way right before they ended up on the table.

“Stop!” Elias hollered as Pennyrile began to twist the pigeon's neck. “Please!”

The man waited, silently watching Elias, hands still ready to snap the beautiful green-and-purple neck. The bird didn't move but to blink once at Elias.

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