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Authors: Jennifer Bradbury

River Runs Deep (9 page)

BOOK: River Runs Deep
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Croghan was bent over Sarneybrook's chest, eyes closed listening. Sarneybrook winked.

And Elias had already eaten the salt pork anyway.

And the cakes were small.

He rescued one from beneath the cloth, tucking it into his pocket before the doctor sat up.

“Better today, I think,” Croghan said to Sarneybrook. “How are you feeling otherwise?”

“Right enough,” Sarneybrook admitted.

“Any more . . . Well, have you heard any more—”

The old man looked at Elias. “The doctor reckons I'm working up a good case of cabin fever,” he explained. “All this lying around in the dark making my mind play tricks on me—”

“It's happened before—”

“I don't care if you think I'm off my nut, Doc,” Sarneybrook said. “Or the boy, neither. And to answer your question, Jonah and me had us a nice visit last ni—”

“Jonah?” Elias erupted.
Jonah!

Croghan spoke over his shoulder. “Keep your voice down, please.”

“Did you say Jonah?” Elias asked, fighting to rein in his excitement.

“It's not uncommon for the mind to play tricks on a body, particularly one that used to be so active. And while the imagined—”

“He ain't imagined,” Sarneybrook insisted. “Got my own personal haint. The cave's lousy with 'em, at least it was years ago when I did the tour. Besides, who else is going to keep company with a fella three quarters of the way dead like me?”

“You'll beat this yet,” Croghan said, though he didn't sound as cheerful about it as Elias thought he might. “And now that you've met Elias, I'm sure he can have one of the hands show him down here to visit some other time. You'd both enjoy that, wouldn't you?”

Elias, too taken with the news that Jonah was friendly with others like Sarneybrook, did not reply. Maybe Jonah had even nicked that chunk of meat for Elias from Sarneybrook's plate when he wasn't looking.

“I think he and Jonah'd get on fine,” Sarneybrook joked, though the doctor's smile seemed forced.

The doctor patted Sarneybrook's shoulder. “I'll have Stephen come down and read to you when he gets time,” he said. “But now I'm afraid I need to continue my rounds.” He stood. “Elias?”

Elias wanted more'n anything to tell Sarneybrook that he'd been visited by Jonah as well. Wanted more than anything to tell him he hadn't imagined it. And he would, he decided, when he came down next time. Soon.

“I read, too,” he told Sarneybrook in a rush. “I can bring a book and read to you when I come again.”

Sarneybrook smiled. “That'd be fine. Or you can just tell me about the ocean. I think I'd like that even better.”

Elias promised that he would.

In the next hut, Pastor Tincher greeted them warmly, but soon was putting the screws to Elias about how the Baptists had it right and how Elias better get his house in order.

Soon they moved on, heading back toward the main cave, Elias only half listening to Croghan telling him about the next set of patients. He was too busy thinking about what he'd just learned about Jonah, trying to decide how he felt about it. And then he landed on it—he felt a touch jealous! How many other patients did Jonah call on?

But at the next little grouping of huts, no one mentioned Jonah or visitors of any kind, really. There was a woman about the same age as his mother called Mozelle, who seemed nice enough and slipped him a withered apple when Croghan stepped out of the room for a moment.

Next door to her lived a circuit lawyer Doctor Croghan kept referring to as the Honorable Mr. Cherry. He offered Elias a wedge of good-smelling cheese, which Elias refused as the doctor looked on approvingly.

But at the third hut, Croghan placed a hand on Elias's arm. “You'd best let me see the widow Patton alone,” he said. “She's quite unwell.”

Weren't they all unwell? Weren't they all here because they were unwell? But there was something in Croghan's look that made Elias understand. It wasn't that he didn't want her to be bothered by Elias. It was that he didn't want Elias to see
her.
See someone dying quite as obviously as she apparently was.

So he waited out in the clearing with Dorothy, one of the nurses who sat in for Lillian now and then.

“You want something?” she asked him, not unkindly.

Elias thought of the treats he'd collected. They seemed silly to him suddenly. Silly to care about an apple or a sweet—things he'd have cared about before he fell ill. He realized he'd almost forgotten why he'd come. Forgotten that he was going to die, and that if he didn't want to, he ought not go sneaking food the doctor thought he shouldn't have. He'd already given in with the salt pork. “No, thanks.”

Mr. Cherry called out for Dorothy. When she disappeared, Elias tossed the apple and the sorghum cake into the fire.

Not long after, Croghan came back out, looking grim, but as soon as he saw Elias watching, forced a smile. “One more to go,” he said, motioning for Elias to follow.

They made quick work of the short walk up to the last hut.

A figure stood in front of the hut, snapping twigs off a shrub that someone had planted outside the door. The man abandoned his little garden when he saw the doctor approaching with the lamp.

“Good morning, Shem,” Doctor Croghan called. “How are—”

“Bring him near . . . ,” Shem said, shuffling barefoot toward Elias. The man was gaunt and pale, sweat beading his brow. Before Elias knew what was happening, Shem buried his nose in the fabric of Elias's coat, right at his chest, and inhaled. Long, deep sniffs.

“That's enough, Shem,” the doctor said gently, prying the old man's fingers from Elias's coat. “Let Elias be.”

The man's eyes met Elias's, full of disappointment. “You're not new,” he said accusingly.

“Elias has been here for weeks,” the doctor explained. “He's come to heal up as well.”

“I can't smell the sunshine on you.” Shem let go of Elias's coat and let the doctor guide him back inside his hut.

“Mat's got a tour coming in later. Perhaps they can visit with you a spell. You can see if they have the scent about them.” He whispered to Elias, “Wait here, son?”

Elias was happy to wait outside. He knelt and scooped up some of the soil from the little garden patch, wondering if they'd had to bring it in along with the plant.

Inside, Shem whimpered as Croghan spoke to him. He heard the clinking of glass against glass, the sound of a dropper against the neck of a bottle.
Laudanum,
Elias guessed. They'd used the powerful drug with Daddy to help him sleep. And by the silence that descended on the hut a minute later, he figured he'd been right.

Croghan stepped out. “Well,” he said. To Elias's ear, that
well
sounded fairly full of things he wasn't saying. But it was fine, as Elias didn't feel much like talking.

“Shall we head back?” Croghan asked.

Elias was ready. If he'd brought the other visitors any cheer, he felt depleted himself, like it had been sucked straight out of him. Croghan seemed worried too, that the benefit of the physical activity might be undercut by low spirits. “I'm eager to see how your lungs have responded to the exertion.”

Elias just trudged on.

“Perhaps your next walk could have you join Stephen or Mat for part of a tour instead of just visiting with me.”

“Whatever you say, Doc.”

As they walked, his mind drifted back to Jonah.

He was trying to work out how to ask Croghan if any of the other patients had ever mentioned a ghost or spirit or visitor called Jonah when it hit him.

Croghan hadn't recognized Jonah's name. When Sarneybrook had said it, when Elias had blurted it out in response, Croghan had only seemed concerned for Sarneybrook.

If Croghan did have a boy called that, wouldn't he have said something?

And if Jonah wasn't a slave shirking work to haunt folks, well . . . who was he?

Elias recalled all he had heard about Jonah so far.

Jonah had left someplace.

Jonah was black.

Jonah was inside the cave, without Croghan knowing, maybe without a lot of people knowing. The facts slotted into place, like the bights of rope in a difficult knot.

Jonah was, Elias realized, a runaway.

Chapter Seven
DOUBLE FISHERMAN' S KNOT

A
week slunk by. A week in which Elias grew sicker still of eggs and foul tea and his little hut. A week in which he stewed on his discovery that Jonah must be a runaway, a fugitive slave. He'd heard Stephen and Mat pass by often enough, their voices echoing as they guided tours, but they'd not collected Elias to go exploring with them again. Nick had been around some, hauling water or firewood for Lillian, and he sat with Elias a little, learning a couple of knots when he had time.

Elias filled his days tying knots and reading—having at last swapped books back with Miss Nedra—and trying to stay awake in case Jonah came by. He'd missed him at least once, awakening to find another of Sarneybrook's sorghum cakes sitting on his windowsill. As good as it smelled, he didn't eat it; instead he broke it into crumbs and let Bedivere peck the bits up from his palm.

He began to wonder if, since the bird was clever enough to be trained to fly home, could he be taught to do other things? He'd taught Charger to fetch, stay, and shake hands. He didn't reckon he'd ever get Bedivere to roll over, but maybe he could get him to do something else.

So he spent hours trying to teach Bedivere to come when he called. He used the crumbs of the sorghum cake, whistling and saying his name softly, imploring the bird to come closer. But Bedivere just cooed and warbled and occasionally hopped over to see what Elias had. He thought wistfully of how easy it had been to call out for Charger, how the big dog would come bounding to him.

After a while, he gave up and slipped Pennyrile's letter from his pocket.

He'd had it too long. Pennyrile had asked him twice if he'd delivered the note, but Elias had not had a chance to get up to the entrance since accepting it. Elias had promised he'd take it as soon as he could, and were it not for the fact that the pigeons were even less reliable, he was sure Pennyrile would have asked him to give it back.

But he hadn't. So for the hundredth time, Elias studied the symbol stamped into the wax seal over the fold. He'd grown more worried over the week about the message it might contain, and he'd tried to lift the edges of the paper, tried to see what might be written there. But they were folded neatly enough to keep him from learning anything. He returned the letter to his pocket.

It didn't matter. He was under Pennyrile's thumb for certain. He'd take the letter. If he didn't, he knew Pennyrile would surely send those other birds out to die in the cave.

Though he told himself there were worse things he could deal with (Sarneybrook's perfect stillness, for instance), he didn't like the feeling of being owned by the man. He kept seeing Pennyrile's words on the slate, kept hearing the scratch of the chalk. And he marveled at how a fella who was near enough to being mute could be so loud inside his own head.

Then he had the strangest thought: he wondered how Stephen and Nick and Mat and all the rest of them stood it. Doctor Croghan seemed kind enough, but even so . . . being ordered around, not being in charge of your own self. Was this what it felt like? Was this what the house girl and their outside man back home felt like?

He shook the thought off and reasoned that it had to be different.

But even so. Another thought came to him.

What about Jonah? Maybe if a slave wasn't treated right, maybe it meant he didn't have to stay. Like his daddy had said, a man who couldn't be bothered to scrape the hull of his ship free of barnacles didn't deserve to have the ship. Maybe an owner who didn't look after his slaves deserved to have them run off.

They were good to their hands back at home, and Croghan was good to his, as far as Elias could see. It could be worse. Mat had even said so.

But for the first time, he admitted that just because something could be worse, it didn't mean it also couldn't be
better
. Didn't mean that a body got used to being treated like a boat, steered and directed and told where to go. Didn't mean that a body gave up, no matter how much it appeared to be satisfied with what life had become.

He thought about the man back home. George? It was George, wasn't it? Or was that his boy who he brought with him to work the gardens sometimes? Did George feel that? Or what about Sally? Did she get tired of cooking and cleaning and answering the door?

His wondering didn't help him a whit with the matter of Pennyrile, though. In the end, there was nothing for it. He'd deliver his letter.

All in all, it was a fine mess.

He was still stewing on it, still trying to get Bedivere to respond to his name, when Nick called softly at the door.

Elias sprang off the bed and burst through the quilt. “Yeah, Nick?”

If Nick was startled by Elias's eagerness, he didn't let on. “You feel like coming out with me?”

Elias brightened. “You bet!”

Nick grinned. “You fancy fishin'?”

Elias figured he was pulling his leg. “Sure. Fishing.”

“You gonna bring that bird?”

“He'll be all right,” Elias said, dropping to a knee and tightening his bootlaces.

“C'mon, then,” Nick said, spitting toward the shadowy side of the hut. Elias sure hoped Jonah wasn't hiding there.

Lillian came to the door. “Y'all can't be turning this boy into some sort of pet—”

“I'll have him back 'fore supper,” Nick said.

“See you do,” Lillian said to Nick, before addressing Elias. “Wear your hat.”

Elias obeyed and followed them out of the hut, smiling at the thought of a new adventure. But the smile faltered when he saw Pennyrile watching from his window. He checked his pocket to make sure the letter was still there.

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