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Authors: Jennifer Bradbury

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BOOK: River Runs Deep
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Chapter Six
THIEF KNOT

Y
ou're quiet this morning, young man,” Dr. Croghan noted as he took Elias's pulse.

Elias said nothing. He was always prone to saying little when he felt guilty.

He'd eaten the salt pork.

Sometime in the night he'd woken up famished. He'd retrieved the little wrapped chunk of meat and had only meant to smell it. But his belly was so hollow and the bacon smelled so good and one tiny bite couldn't hurt, he reckoned. And even though it was cold and starting to dry out, it was delicious. That first bite was so good, he figured if he'd undone the doctor's remedy, one more little bite wouldn't matter, would it?

And then there was really only enough to make up one last tiny taste.

So he'd eaten the whole piece. He felt awful about possibly messing up his healing.

But he also knew if he had another piece, he'd have eaten it on the spot, maybe in a single bite.

So with his stomach slightly fuller but his conscience heavy, he tried to sleep. But between the guilt and the puzzle of what Stephen had been doing with those books in his pack, and wondering who Jonah really was, and wondering what Pennyrile needed him to carry letters for . . . well, he spent more time thinking than he did sleeping.

“I'll perk up,” Elias said. “Just takes me a while to get my oars in the water.”

Croghan seemed satisfied enough with the explanation. “You've had your breakfast?”

“Three boiled,” Elias said. “Drunk my tea.”

Croghan slapped his knee. “Good. Then I expect we're ready.”

“Hold on.” Elias scattered the last few kernels of corn on the tabletop, slung the pan of water out his window, and filled it with fresh from his jug. “Ready.”

Outside, Lillian was at the fire, waiting expectantly for Doctor Croghan to emerge.

She intercepted them halfway across. “Doctor, I can't get Miss Nedra to swallow that stuff you brung down. She just gets to retching—”

Croghan held up a hand. “I'll be right there,” he said to Lillian, then to Elias, “We'll be off in a moment. Check in with Mr. Pennyrile—get a little more grain for that bird.”

Elias had been hoping to put off getting more feed longer. Not that it would have mattered: Pennyrile was watching them from his window.

“A few minutes, no more,” Croghan said, following Lillian into Nedra's room.

Elias sighed, ducked back into his hut, and grabbed the little cup. When he emerged, Pennyrile was holding back the curtain, waiting for Elias to come in.

Pennyrile let the curtain fall shut behind Elias and shuffled over to the bed, breathing hard and whistling a little with each exhale. The birds ruffled in the loft.

Pennyrile immediately handed Elias a thick fold of paper, done up with a wax seal.

“Mr. Pennyrile . . . ,” Elias began. “I feel funny about this. If it's all the same to you, I reckon maybe we ought to just let the doctor or the slaves carry your letters. I won't put you out anymore getting feed—the others can bring it in for me, so—”

Pennyrile snatched up the slate and wrote in quick, jagged little letters.

Bargain is a bargain.

“Yes, but—”

Pennyrile was already writing again.
Take the letter.

“But, sir, I—”

Again the man wrote. When he flipped it back around, it read:
Think doc would like to hear the liberties his hands are taking with one of his patients?

Elias tensed. “What's that mean?”

Pennyrile wrote.
Hate for your new pets to get themselves whipped for overstepping.

And suddenly the whole thing had turned around on Elias. He'd suspected before that this was more than a favor, that he was getting roped into something he wanted no part of. And now he knew it.

This was an order. And if he refused, Pennyrile would make trouble for Stephen, Nick, and Mat.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” Elias asked through clenched teeth. He dared a look up as Pennyrile erased the message and began writing more. He'd changed the scarf and knot covering the scrofula. The thief knot was one of Elias's favorites. Anybody who didn't know would think it was just a plain square knot, but if you looked close enough, the ends of the rope ended up on the same side of the knot—not opposites like a square. People used it to tie up important things they didn't want seen, because they'd be able to tell if they had been snooped at. A thief might go to the trouble to tie the square knot back, but they likely wouldn't have noticed it wasn't a square knot in the first place.

Pennyrile knew his knots. Now he turned the slate around.
Outside the entrance. Tree. Jar buried at roots. Symbol on tree.

“Fine. But what symbol?”

Pennyrile indicated the letter in Elias's hands. Elias lifted it into the light, inspecting the great glob of wax that sealed it up, the color like the purple wine stains bubbling out from underneath Pennyrile's scarf. Stamped in the wax was a perfect circle containing two letter
P
s that slanted away, back-to-back, stems crossed at the bottom, like twin branches of a forked tree trunk.

“Just look for this?”

Pennyrile held up a finger and wrote more.
Bring back correspondence inside.

“How d'you know you got mail waiting up there?” Elias asked, skeptical.

Pennyrile wrote underneath his last message.
Haven't checked in while. Will be one.

What a lot of trouble, Elias reckoned. A bird when you could just mail a letter. A tree when whoever was delivering it in the first place could have just walked in easily enough. Pennyrile had said they valued privacy, but what did that signify? Unless he really had something to hide.

That might account for using the birds—maybe they were flying someplace secret, someplace the post wouldn't carry.

Elias thought it through one more time. Pennryile sent the pigeons out with messages tied on. Homing pigeons were trained to fly in only one direction, so whoever wrote back would have to send their letter a different way, which was why Pennyrile picked up his own letters at the tree.

But what was Pennyrile hiding? What did he have to be so private about? Maybe it was all a big lark, Elias thought. Something to pass the time. There was fun in it, Elias admitted. Messenger pigeons, sneaking about, a secret tree. Maybe the whole thing was an amusement, a means to occupy Pennyrile, like Nedra's knitting or Elias's knots. There was a touch of fun in it, wasn't there?

But the notion of fun and Pennyrile didn't seem to get along.

Something still didn't figure.

“I ain't one to pry, sir,” Elias began, “but if you could walk up there before to fetch your mail, why don't you just leave your notes for your friend in the same spot? Why'd you have to go through all them birds?”

Pennyrile narrowed his eyes, acted like he wouldn't reply, but then he wrote.
Speedier
.

Elias considered. Provided the bird made it out of the cave, it would be quicker to deliver the message than the post, quicker than waiting for someone to come and look in the jar to see if there were a message waiting. But what was urgent enough to go to all the bother?

“If your friend's near enough to drop the letters, wouldn't it be a whole lot faster—”

Pennyrile's face went as purple as the blotches on his neck.
Enough questions.
He wrote the words slowly, underlined them twice.

Elias knew he'd been dismissed. He didn't like the feeling, but he tucked the letter in his pocket. “Suit yourself,” he said, going to the grain bag and scooping out a cupful. “But I don't know when I'll get it done.”

Pennyrile's eyes seemed to burn as he kept them fixed on Elias, all the while writing on the slate. When he finished, he held it up.
Sooner the better.
Elias didn't have to ask if he was being warned, and when Pennyrile broke his stare and wrote again, Elias wasn't surprised by the words that appeared.
Hate to have any more birds die just because you can't be counted on.

Elias drew himself up taller. “I'm good for it,” he said just as Croghan called out for him. Elias left without another word to Pennyrile.

“Miss Nedra's all right?” Elias asked as he and Croghan began to walk.

Croghan made a sympathetic noise. “Bit of a fever blew up in the night. But the draught should help,” he said. “She is a dear girl. Excellent chances.”

Elias thought he sounded unsure.

“How do you find Mr. Pennyrile?” Croghan asked as they headed for the Star Chamber that Stephen had shown him the other night. Elias saw the hut that served as Croghan's office tucked in next to the wall.

“All right, I suppose.”

“He's a fascinating fellow,” the doctor said. “Quite the waterman—like you, you know.”

“I wondered,” Elias said, thinking of the knots.

“When he wrote to me, he introduced himself as an accomplished river pilot. Seems he's been up and down all the big rivers of the East and West.”

“Never said boo about it to me.”

Croghan's foot slipped on a wet spot. “He was kind enough to let you keep one of his pigeons, so he must have taken something of a shine to you.”

Elias didn't want to spoil Croghan's notion of Pennyrile's niceness. “I like the pigeon,” Elias said noncommittally.

They walked under the twinkling heaven of those fake stars, past what Elias thought might have been the tunnel where he'd followed Jonah and found Stephen. Then they were in a new area of the cave. Around the bend he saw the lights from two other huts, smelled the smoke from their fires.

Croghan dropped his voice. “Mr. Sarneybrook is in the one on the right, Pastor Tincher on the left. Tincher's a good sort, a preacher. But we'll start with Sarneybrook. I think you'll like him, and the stillness cure can be lonesome, so he'll be awfully glad of a visitor.”

A young woman perched on a stool before the fire. “Good morning, Hannah,” Croghan said. “Have your patients been fed?”

“Yes, sir,” the girl squeaked.

“Anything to report?”

“No, sir.”

“The pots emptied?”

“Yes, sir. Nick come round and took 'em out.”

Elias studied his boots. He was embarrassed enough about the pot he had to keep under his bed, which the slaves were meant to empty for him. He'd have given anything for a privy.

“The water is hot?” Croghan gestured to the kettle. Elias could see the steam wisping from the spout.

“Yes, sir.”

“Prepare the compresses,” he ordered. “And bring them in as soon as they're ready.”

Hannah fetched a bundle of rags and got to work.

Croghan stalked toward the hut on the right and paused briefly at the door. “Mr. Sarneybrook? I've brought you a caller. May we come in?”

Without waiting for a response, Croghan led Elias through the door.

“Doc,” said the man lying on the bed. He was sunk into the mattress, like he'd begun to melt into it.

“How are you this morning, Sarney?” Croghan asked, pulling the chair up by the man's bedside.

Elias hung back, wondering what he was meant to do, where he should stand.

“Who's that you got with you?” Sarneybrook asked, raising his head to try to get a look at Elias.

Croghan gestured to Elias, coaxing him forward. “This is our newest patient.”

“Elias Harrigan, sir.” Elias started to offer his hand but stopped. Was the man allowed to move even that much? Elias figured he'd better be safe than sorry. “Very pleased to meet you.”

“Come closer so I can get eyes on you, son.”

Elias didn't want to. The stink of Sarneybrook's night sweats was sharp in the close hut—the same awful smell had hung around his father, no matter how often they changed his nightshirt or his sheets.

The smell was bad enough, but knowing
he'd
reek that way one day only made it worse.

Still, Elias came alongside Croghan at the bedside and awkwardly leaned over so Sarneybrook could get a look at him.

“Where d'you hail from, Elias Harrigan?” Sarneybrook seemed ill used to speaking, seemed to have barely enough energy for the words.

“Norfolk, Virginia, sir,” he said.

“M'wife's people come through from Virginia,” the man said. “Always meant to visit. Wanted to swim in the sea.”

Elias wasn't sure the man would ever see anything beyond this cave again in his lifetime. While he was no expert on the disease, he could tell that the light was dimming in Sarneybrook's eyes, the way it had with his father at the end. Pity and grief leaped up in his chest.

Croghan lifted the blankets and gently rolled Mr. Sarneybrook on his side. The man sort of flopped over. “I miss moving my own self about. I used to love tramping up the mountains. Went up and down Black Mountain in the same day, just for sport. Now look at me.”

“Makes it worse that Doc's got cold hands,” Elias offered.

Sarneybrook laughed softly, but the laugh withered to a weak cough. “Boy's not wrong,” he said when Croghan laid him back down. He lifted his eyes to Elias, then flicked them toward the table, where there sat a pail covered by a red cloth. “Have one of them sorghum cakes. Blanche—my wife—she was over yesterday morning. Brung me more'n I can eat,” he said. Elias lifted a corner, and the smell of molasses and cinnamon nearly knocked him down.

“Elias is on a careful diet,” the doctor said, leaning close to listen to Sarneybrook's breathing. “I'm afraid sweets aren't part of it.”

Elias said thanks to the man anyway, who seemed disappointed. “I wish somebody'd enjoy 'em. I can't bring myself to want to eat anything no more. I think it'd do my wife good to see somebody had one,” Sarneybrook said, something like a smile playing at his mouth.

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