Warning: Chapters 4 and 5 of this story are not the faint of heart or stomach. If you have deep objections to blood, guts, and unsavory images in general, please don't read this. Consider yourself warned.
Note: This takes place about a month or so after the events in the Parables series, and makes reference to the events that take place in Like Flying, so you should read that first.
The two men had spent the better part of the day outside, riding through the ocean of dust that comprised the desert Southwest. Some of that dust liberally coated both men, and the bright red jacket that one wore had faded to an indeterminate and halfhearted reddish -tan. Unmercifully, the sun beat down on the pair, prompting the younger of the two to remove his hat and pass his hand across his brow. The action did little more than redistribute dust, and the young man replaced his hat with a resigned sigh. Hearing that, the other turned to his companion with a grimace and a request.
"Remind me again why we're doing this, Mr. Dunne."
"Well, 'cause Chris asked us to, Ez."
"Wrong, Mr. Dunne. Mr. Larabee does not ask; he commands. When God called Moses up Mount Sinai, did He give him the Ten Suggestions? The Ten Requests? The Ten Helpful Hints? Did He say 'Thou should probably not covet thy neighbor's wife.'? No, Mr. Dunne, He did not. In the same way, Mr. Larabee did not ask us to escort the stage to Silver Creek. He told us to."
The diatribe paused as the man valiantly attempted to expel dust from his lungs.
"And," he said after moment, "We went."
Ezra Standish halted his tirade against his absent leader and glancing upward, squinted at the painfully bright sun, and for the thousandth time wondered why he had elected to stay and get first the blood and then his soul boiled out of him in this parched little backwater, and why did they call it a 'backwater' anyway? There was precious little water to speak of. The entire area surrounding Four Corners was a backdesert.
Yes, a backdesert. Ezra snickered, drawing a curious glance from his younger compatriot.
"You feelin' okay, Ez?" J.D. asked. They still had two full canteens between them and should be okay for the rest of the trip, but heat did funny things to a man.
"Never better, Mr. Dunne," said Ezra with an enthusiasm he didn't feel - any emotion other than misery had long since drained from him, along with his sweat. "Never better. I do believe the sun has parboiled my nerve endings; I believe that, if you commenced beating me with a blunt object, I wouldn't feel it."
"Oh, good," said a third and entirely new voice, just before two shots rang out, sending J.D. and Ezra toppling to the ground.
John Hansen and his mother stood over the fallen bodies of the two men. John had caught the horses before they'd gone too far, and they still fidgeted nervously, upset by the gunfire and the smell of blood.
"Good work, John," Mrs. Hansen said.
"Thanks, Ma," John replied gratefully. "Right above the collarbone, just like you said. Guess my lucky rifle's getting luckier, huh?"
"That it is, John," Mrs. Hansen told her son. "There ain't much meat right 'bove the collarbone, an' a body don't have to go diggin' for a bullet most of the time, besides. This fancy-man might give us something nice... not too sure about the boy, but we'll see. Now, John, let's get these two into the cellar, shall we?" The woman's bulk lurched forward to seize each man's wrist in a meaty hand, and she began to drag them toward the waiting wagon.
+ + + + + + +
When J.D. came to, blackness pressed against his eyes and he couldn't move. His feet pressed against a wall, knees bent almost to his chest, he felt something hard against his back, and something just as cold and hard hemmed him in on the right. Panic filled him and he almost cried out when he heard a soft cough and a raspy, "Mr. Dunne?"
"Ez?" J.D. whispered, unbelieving.
"Yes, Mr. Dunne," Ezra grated. "Are you able to move?"
J.D. shook his head before realizing that Ezra couldn't see it. "No," he said, almost choking on the word in his fright.
"Neither can I, although I do not believe we are shackled or otherwise encumbered. Is that your leg against my right arm?"
Frowning, J.D. realized that something warm and firm - and, his breath caught with relief, clad in cotton - pressed against his left leg. "Yeah, Ez, it is," he replied, wincing as he became aware of the coppery aftertaste of blood in his mouth.
"Good. I would be loathe to know what else is in here with us, although I believe it is just us two - packed like canned preserves, I daresay. Additionally, I'm fairly certain that I have been shot in the right shoulder; I would greatly appreciate it if you could reach up and ascertain how much space we have above us."
J.D. complied, carefully extracting his right arm from its uncomfortable position against the wall. Slowly, he reached upward, breath coming slow and shallowly, terrified of what he'd find up there.
When his fingers brushed against wood and fumbled on iron hinges, he didn't know whether to cry from relief or terror at being trapped in a box. He glanced in the direction of Ezra's voice and licked his lips, uncertain of whether or not to tell his friend, but decided that any chances of them getting out depended on the two of them having that information - and besides, he didn't want to be the only person knowing they were trapped in a space small enough for a dog kennel.
What was the saying? Misery loves company.
"Ez, we've probably got less than two feet between our heads and the ceiling. There's a trapdoor up there, I think - I could feel the hinges, and the door is made of wood. I think this... this..."
"Box," Ezra interjected. "The word is box, Mr. Dunne."
"Box," continued J.D., "is made of stone."
"You would be correct in your surmise, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said weakly, and J.D. heard the other man's soft gasps between words. "We appear to be in some small cellar, possibly used for keeping jarred perishables cool." The gasps took on a wheezing quality that frightened J.D., but Ezra doggedly continued. "One must... always endeavor to look on the bright side of things... at least we... at least we are out of that damned sun."
"I'd give a lot to see it again, Ez," J.D. said truthfully.
"Come to think of it," Ezra returned, "I would, too."
J.D. nodded to himself. "So, any ideas?"
"Unfortunately, they all involve standing in some way. I don't suppose you could rearrange yourself into a kneeling position?"
Gingerly, J.D. tried to roll over on his side and had just pressed his shoulder to the floor, when the sudden contact of his heretofore-unacknowledged bullet wound made itself known in a jolt of agony. Before J.D. could stop it, a scream issued from his lips, exploding out of his lungs and deafening in the small space.
"Hey, zip it down there!" returned a disembodied and feminine voice, accompanied by two sharp thumps on the door above them. "You're disturbin' dinner with your racket, an' Ma Hansen hates it when you disturb her dinner." Another thump emphasized Ma Hansen's displeasure.
"That's right, Ma. I hate it when your dinner gets disturbed," added another voice. Male, raspy, and compliant. Ezra could almost hear the man nodding a frantic agreement.
"Give Ma Hansen our apologies," muttered Ezra. "Are you quite alright, Mr. Dunne?"
"Yeah... Yeah, Ez. I'm fine," hissed J.D., fighting for breath and trying to ride out the pain. "Didn't know about that one... Don't think I'm gonna be able to turn over without hitting your arm, an' I don't think... Ez!" Panic broke through, and Ezra felt a twinge of pity for the boy. "Ez, I can't feel my left arm."
"Calm down, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said as severely as possible, trying to hide his own fear. "Here, just settle yourself."
He tried not to think of how this could possibly be any worse, and at that moment, his back took the opportunity to remind him that his position was an acutely uncomfortable one. As if that thought were a dam, the floodgates opened, and Ezra felt aches and sharp pains coursing through his body. His shoulder still bled somewhat freely, and he felt the sticky warmth of his own blood spreading down his sleeve. He felt very hot and very dizzy, and wondered why - they'd gotten out of the sun, but what was that buzzing in his ears? And if it was black in this box of theirs, how could he see such brilliant flashes of color?
Ezra thought about asking J.D. what he thought, but decided not to alarm the boy, or even worse, make him jealous. What would the lad think if Ezra got to see such beautiful fireworks and J.D. didn't? He reckoned
(No... no, Mr. Tanner does the reckoning for us!)
Well, Mr. Tanner was conspicuously absent, so Ezra decided he would do the reckoning in his stead. Vin would have wanted that, Ezra figured, and he didn't want to disappoint the tracker. But... what was he going to reckon? Ezra couldn't remember... oh, wait.
He and Mother were leaving a hotel in New Orleans, and his mother had sent him down to pay the hotel bill - the 'reckoning' as the hotel proprietor, Mr. Delancey, called it.
"Have you paid your reckoning with Mr. Delancey, Ezra?" his mother asked impatiently.
"Yes, Mother," Ezra said, handing over her purse.
"Did you bargain with him? You know the man is fond of charging extra for certain amenities."
"No, Mother." His mother's stern gaze took in all of Ezra and his failings, and she shook her head in sorrow.
"Ezra, what have I told you about bargaining? Do you think money grows on trees? Of course it does not, my darling son! You must hunt it, Ezra, and guard it closely. Seeing you part with your money so foolishly, it brings pain to my heart, it really does..."
"I'm sorry, Mother."
J.D. looked over at Ezra, terrified by the other man's delirious mumbling. "Ezra?" he tried tentatively. "Ezra, you with me?"
"Of course I am, Mother. Never draw to an inside straight - you've told me that millions of times." Ezra's voice was petulant and childlike, and J.D. swallowed the knot of fear sticking in his throat.
The day slogged past, time slowed down to frozen-molasses-going-uphill speed. Heat pulled on horses and people alike, the movements of both creatures seeming to drag out in slow motion. One man, heat-addled, stumbled down the street and collapsed in the saloon from heat exhaustion, inches away from the whiskey he'd felt sure would save him. Nathan had gotten Buck to carry the man to his clinic along with Josiah, who'd overheard the man's sun -struck ramblings and had gotten curious.
Which left Vin and Chris to hide in the shade of the saloon. The former sat unconcernedly in a far corner, vigilant yet not seeming so, as did the latter, except that Larabee's capable fingers shuffled anxiously through a deck of cards. Tanner raised a casual eyebrow and asked, "Somethin' buggin' you, pard?"
Chris shrugged. "Just that J.D. and Ezra haven't gotten back here yet."
Vin slanted a look at his friend, and took his time in replying. "Chris," he said finally, with something of admonishment in his voice, "it's a million degrees out - ain't no way Ezra would be out in the heat like this. He probably got J.D. to hole up in Silver Creek for a day or so. Pretty good poker games up that way, I hear."
Some of Chris's worry had infected the tracker, though - Larabee could hear concern creep into Tanner's words. "Might be good to head out come late afternoon, toward twilight," Vin added after a moment, "won't be as much strain on the horses that way."
Nodding, Chris set down the cards, as if Vin's simple proposition had drained all anxiety from him; and maybe, Chris thought, it had. He glanced at his best friend and offered him a quick grin - nothing more than an almost imperceptible teasing of his lips - which was returned in kind. After a silent moment, the tracker stood and strode quietly out the door. Chris watched the young man go, fingers absently running over the smooth, lacquered backs of the playing cards, feeling disquiet of a different sort well up in him.
Vin had been... different lately. Not something big - still reliable, still the best shot and the best tracker for a ways around the town, though he'd taken to pointing out that there wasn't much in the way of competition to be found in either the desert or the forests. Chris couldn't put a finger on it, could only attribute it to Vin's almost -death at the hands of Mercury Jones. It didn't seem like... like a bad thing, Chris reflected, but it didn't seem like a good thing, either.
Some distance had grown between Vin and everything, between Vin and everyone. Chris couldn't touch it, couldn't cross it, this thread -thin chasm that stretched wider than the Atlantic Ocean. He'd seen that ocean once, how it went straight to the horizon and then continued on forever. Vin had it - that distance.
The batwing doors had swished once as Vin stepped outside, and they swished once again as Josiah stepped in. The preacher's large form, silhouetted by the glaring sun, filled the doorway with an ominous shadow. Sanchez's old coat rustled as the man made his way over to the bar; the clink and jangle of Inez handing him a bottle of beer and a glass echoed loudly in the subdued silence of the room. Spying the black-clad gunslinger in his corner, Josiah made his way over and sat down next to Chris.
"Well, how goes it?" inquired the preacher.
"Pretty good, Josiah."
"You sound like you've got something on your mind," Josiah commented, making a point of looking everywhere else in the saloon except for where Chris sat.
Chris felt nettled and wondered why, then took a cautious first step. "You feel there's somethin' going on with Vin?"
Josiah's head swung around, and those pale blue eyes fixed on Chris. "What's making you say that, Brother Larabee?" asked Josiah with deceptive calm.
Shrugging uneasily, Chris wished he could take that first step back, feeling that he'd unknowingly taken a step out onto a rockslide. "Just a feelin' I've been gettin' since that Mercury Jones thing... Well, since he woke up. Don't feel right talking to him about it, though, when all I'm going on is just this feeling. You know how stuff like this sets him off."
He knew that the preacher had sat with Vin for the length of that entire night, and he remembered vaguely that Josiah had been there early that morning, after Chris had gotten back from killing Jones and the others had returned from their patrols. "Did Vin tell you anything? When he woke up?"
Something forbidding crossed Josiah's face, closing it up in expressionless stone. "What passed between me and Vin is his business. I haven't got any call to repeat it to anyone, Chris." His tone softened a little. "He'll tell you on his own time."
Defeat washed over Chris, and he backed down, searching for a change in tack. "How's that guy doin'?" he asked, seizing on the poor sun -mad man and gesturing toward Nathan's clinic in confirmation.
Josiah raised an eyebrow and took a swig of beer before replying. "Not too good, from the looks of it. Nathan's tryin' to get him cooled down, but it's not workin' as he'd hoped. Man rode at a hard gallop most of the way from Silver Creek - horse died just outside town limits." Josiah did not miss the concern that flashed through Larabee's icy green eyes, and he felt an immediate twinge work its way up his spine.
"Get Vin and Buck, tell them to get down to the livery now."
+ + + + + + +
"Mother, why do I have to go with Uncle Richard?" Ezra asked plaintively. He already knew the answer, of course - or part of it, at least.
"Now, Ezra honey, you know why," Mother said, bending down to his eye level and buttoning his jacket. "Uncle Richard has that nice place up in Charleston near that private school I want you to go to. You'll like this new place - St. Mark's School for Young Men, I think it's called. I'm sure you will enjoy it immensely, darlin'. Now look at me - oh, you're such a handsome little gentleman! Now, Uncle Richard will be here in ten minutes to pick you up. Give your Mother a kiss, now..." She offered her left cheek, lips pursed and turned away as if in some sort of denial.
Ezra kissed her, a quick brushing of lips across her soft skin. He had seen lots of other children give their mothers great smacking kisses, but he hardly dared to that with his mother. She seemed so remote and lofty, like the statues of the Virgin Mary at the cathedral he had seen in New Orleans once.
"'Bye, Mother," he whispered, trying to choke back his tears by thinking that this would be just like the time when she sent him off to Aunt Denise's, and then to Great -grandfather Ainsworth. Well, at least he knew Uncle Richard was really his uncle. At least, he hoped the man would really be his uncle - the last one, introduced as Uncle Everett, hadn't been a relation at all.
"Mother, why do I have to call him Uncle Everett? Daisy says I'm not even related to him, and that you aren't either. Daisy says he's just a businessman from Trenton, so why do I have to call him Uncle Everett?"
"Because I said so, Ezra. Please stop pestering me with such unimportant questions, boy." Mother bustled around the small room, fiddling with her makeup and hairpins. Ezra sat on the bed, swinging his legs back and forth in time with a made -up melody.
Da -dum, he recited in his mind. Da -dum, da -dum, da -dee -da -dee -dum... The lilting tune couldn't keep his mind off exactly why he had to go see this Uncle Everett fellow, and he found himself repeating his questions over and over, the two words echoing like the 'da -dum, da -dums' that went over and over in his head.
"But why?" Ezra insisted.
"Because," his mother sighed, turning away from the mirror to regard her child with vexation and disapproval written across her face. Ezra swallowed a bit of nervousness - he hated it when she glared at him, like she could see straight through him. At least she answered his question though, however impatiently:
"Everett Wintergreen happens to own a very profitable fleet of merchant ships, and for his newest venture, he has need of a nephew, and this is all I will say on the subject. Understood, young man?"
"Yes, ma'am," Ezra replied meekly, swinging his legs back and forth.
Da -dum, da -dum...
"Ez? Hey, Ez?"
"Ez, it's J.D.," J.D. said softly. "Can you hear me?"
"Of course I can, Mother," Ezra snorted, his drawl thickening in irritation. "I am hardly deaf you know, although thanks to your expert tutelage, I have become quite adept at the floating king. Care to see?"
"No, Ez," J.D. hissed, "we gotta get out of here."
"Do we have to leave, Mother? Can't we stay here just a little longer? Please?" Ezra begged tearfully.
"No, no. We gotta go, Ez," J.D. forgot about Ezra's injured arm and shook it gently. The scream that broke from Standish's lips tore through the small space. J.D. waited, breath caught in his lungs, for the thunderous reprisal from Ma Hansen, and finally allowed himself to exhale when it didn't come.
"Mother... I don't want to go with Mr. Wintergreen... He, he isn't nice. Daisy said he hits children for no reason, Mother. Please don't make me go with him..."
"You won't have to go with Mr. Wintergreen," J.D. whispered as soothingly as he could. The fear and exhaustion that creaked their way into his words didn't make for much reassurance, especially because J.D. had no idea how to get out of this box... this coffin. He gulped at that thought, tried to force himself to think about... about practical things.
Start: the door would probably open upwards, and J.D.'s cursory investigation of the door told him it was probably heavy -paneled oak or something it would take a lot of strength - and leverage - to lift. Unless he could lie on top of Ezra, or kneel on him, he couldn't get the positioning right. He figured that there'd be a lock on the door, since it'd be the only smart thing for a person to do, if they were trying to keep two people trapped and helpless. Unless...
Unless they figured that 'trapped and helpless' took in being shot in the shoulder, and that being packed tighter than sardines in a can counted, too. J.D. hoped fervently that this would be the case. Taking a deep breath and steeling himself for the spikes of pain that would soon lance through his shoulder, J.D eased himself onto his left side.
The predicted agony came, and he clenched his teeth against it, feeling his incisors grate off each other and the top ones slipped to cut deeply into his lower lip. J.D. tasted blood and his own bile that rose in rebellion against his attempts to maneuver. Red -hot pain seared his vision, crimson like the blood he felt drip down his chin to land hot against his chest where his shirt had gotten torn open.
Focus on something else, he thought desperately, and he blindly latched onto the murmuring man who laid next to him.
"Ez, I... I'm gonna have to crawl over you now... Okay?" The words clogged in his throat, their progress halted by gasps for air taken through gritted teeth.
"Yes, Mother... I'll wait here for you..."
Chris felt momentary surprise when Nathan appeared at the livery, his medical kit in hand and a worried expression on his face. It took only a questioning look from Larabee for Nathan to explain his presence.
"I left Mr. Miller with Mary, Chris - his temperature's starting to come down a bit, and she can manage him on her own, I reckon. And I think... I think Ezra and J.D. are hurt bad. Mr. Miller said something about seeing two men on the trail from Silver Creek to here gettin' shot - he didn't have nothin' but his .45 on him and couldn't do much, so he rode back here for help." Nathan directed a brief, regretful gaze back down the street toward his clinic. "Man killed his horse an' almost killed himself riding here to tell us," he murmured.
"We'll just have to help him out by findin' J.D. and Ezra then, Nathan," Chris said firmly, and received a grateful look from the healer by way of reply before the two men mounted up. The hostler, seeing Nathan's arrival, had swiftly tacked Jackon's horse and brought him out.
The five men headed out on the trail, Vin in the lead and setting a calm pace underneath the beating sun. He had taken off his coat for once and rolled his sleeves up, knowing the price of staying somewhat cool would be a mean sunburn. He kept his eyes to the track before him, measuring the spaces between each footprint, seeing how the toes dragged deeply in the earth, how they pressed down hard as Miller tried vainly to keep going. A sharp swerving - man beginning to stagger with exhaustion, and he'd fallen a couple times, one -two punch of knee and hand against the ground.
Only half his mind followed the trail; the other half wandered much as the erratic, hot breeze did. Vin tried to keep his thoughts on track, but the almost surreal heat of the sun made him want to close his eyes, and when he did close his eyes, that feeling of weightlessness would come back. He could almost feel his body fall away, see the thin clouds in the sky grow larger as he spiraled toward them.
And then he'd shake himself ruthlessly back to earth, with reminders of how two men in the desert needed him to concentrate on them, not on the strange, half -recognized sensations that roiled within him. Vin became acutely aware of Chris riding next to him, and forced himself to pay attention to the trail. He could tell his friend had sensed something wrong with him, and prayed that Chris would bow to the needs of the moment and not ask him what was up.
"Track's leadin' parallel to the Silver Creek trail," Vin said as evenly as he could manage. "I think there's a stand a' rocks about two miles away - could be cover for an ambush, or maybe the guys stopped there for shade."
Chris nodded in silent agreement, and chancing a sideways look, Vin saw the worry still written in the depths of his friend's eyes. Chris caught Vin's eyes on him and said, "When we get J.D. and Ezra back, Vin, you n' I are gonna have somethin' out, okay?"
Vin bristled a little, annoyed both at Chris's faintly paternal tone and the uncanny ability Larabee had to sense that something was bugging him. He didn't particularly want to talk about the feelings that nagged at him - they took in pieces of himself that he never felt right talking about to other people, even Chris. Telling Josiah had been difficult enough. He wished that he didn't have to answer Chris at the moment, but knew his friend wouldn't take kindly to being put off.
"Right, Chris," he said as casually as he could manage before forcing his concentration back to the trail again.
They had passed the dead horse a ways back, Josiah stopping for a moment to collect Mr. Miller's belongings, with the exception of the horse's saddle. Vin could chart the horse's progress towards exhaustion just as he did its rider's; the deep drag -marks of tired hooves, the sudden lightening of the near front hoofprint meaning that the horse had lost its shoe. At length, the riders drew even with a spot perhaps half a mile from the rock stand where Vin had guessed Ezra and J.D. had gotten shot - and saw the expected churning of earth where the horse had stood still, then whirled and bolted at its rider's command.
After Vin brought them to a halt about a quarter -mile from the rocks, Chris began issuing orders. Late afternoon had worn on into the evening, and now the evening itself began to deepen into the half -light between day and night, so they had to work fast to even begin to establish the whereabouts of Ezra and J.D.
"Okay, Josiah and Buck, stay here and keep an eye out for Vin and me as we get close to those rocks. If it looks like trouble, come in and back us up; don't want all of us walking into an ambush. If everything's clear, one of us will ride back and get you guys - we'll make camp by the rocks for the night and start looking again early morning." His expression suffered no refusal, and the four other men nodded their silent agreement with their leader's plan.
For his part, Vin suspected that Chris's plan also included an attempt to draw him out on what had been bothering him lately, and he steeled himself against Chris's questions, automatically beginning to rebuild walls that had built themselves up over the years. He began to sink even more deeply into his thoughts, retreating from Chris and everything else, when Chris broke in on him.
"Hey, you want to circle around the other way?" his friend whispered.
Vin looked at Chris blankly for a moment before replying, "Yeah, sure." He urged Peso off to the left and pulled his mare's leg out, rechecked the rifle in its saddle holster. He skirted the edges of the great boulders, heart beginning to race in anticipation of ambush.
+ + + + + + +
J.D. winced as he eased himself over Ezra, whispering apologies to his friend as he heard the breath whoosh out of Standish's lungs. A steady fire burned in J.D.'s shoulder and scorched the length of his arm, but J.D. ignored it as best he could and tried to concentrate on the door above him.
He worked as quickly as he could, the fingers of his right hand gliding over the margins of the door, feeling where the rough wood ended and the cold stone of his prison began. J.D. ran his hand down the side opposite the hinges - the side closest to Ezra - and almost snarled in frustration when he realized he didn't have enough space to work his fingers into the crack between wall and door.
God, he wanted his guns, but Ma Hansen - or John, for that matter - had taken them from him. A quick, gentle exploration of Ezra's right arm revealed that their captors had taken the gambler's derringer as well. Well, guns were out then, and J.D. clearly remembered tossing his knife in his saddlebags just before leaving Silver Creek to go home. No guns, no knives, no weapons of any kind.
And why was he thinking about weapons? He couldn't see the latch, so he couldn't shoot at it, and a gun or knife wouldn't do him much good unless he could get himself and Ezra out of this Godawful box. J.D. tried to order his thoughts - realizing that Ezra, who still mumbled deliriously beneath him, would be of no help at all didn't aid him much.
Calm down, said Buck, Josiah, Chris, Nathan, and Vin from the back of his mind. Calm down, and remember: first things first.
Right then - first things first, and first thing is to get the hell out of this box he and Ezra had gotten stuck in. He couldn't use his fingers, so he'd have to use something else, and J.D. wondered what he had that could fit in such a narrow space. As if reminding him of its presence, the smooth silver star he wore on the inside of his jacket rubbed coolly against his skin, and J.D. bit back a cry of triumph as he quickly unpinned the badge and, careful of the needle, began to run it along the crack until he felt it catch against something.
His breath froze in his throat.
The star had caught against something that moved, that once he pressed it to the point where it could move no more, gave against the pressure. Something flexible, then. It felt too thick to be string or rope - it was springy, soft... like well -tanned leather used to tie saddlebags closed.
Driven by blind hope alone now, breath racing through his lungs and heart pounding in his chest, J.D. lowered the star and moved it toward the far end of the door before drawing it back up through the crack. The blade of the star met the leather, caught it - J.D. felt the leather begin to move and he could hear it! He could hear it!
The leather thong attached itself to a nail, or a clip of some kind that had been stuck through an eye screwed into the floor. A rude latch, but one that would work if the unfortunate soul stuck in the hole under the door was too crazy -mad with pain and fear, or if he was just plain dead. J.D. Dunne, though, did not count as either, and he could hear the metal of the clip grate against the metal of the eyelet. Finally, the clip slid all the way out, the star slid free of the leather and J.D. pulled it down to him, kissing its smooth silver surface gratefully.
"Hey, Ez, we're almost outta here!" J.D. whispered to his friend as he tried to climb off Ezra's chest and get himself into a crouch. His left shoulder and arm shrieked in fury at being so abused, but the pain faded to a meaningless humming in the face of his near -freedom.
"Mother, please don't leave me again... I hate Mr. Wintergreen..," Ezra murmured pitifully. "Daisy says he almost killed a servant girl last week for dropping a couple dishes on the floor."
"Daisy exaggerates unashamedly, Ezra." His mother glared down at him, unmoved by her son's plea for respite. "I've informed you time and time again, Mr. Wintergreen has need of a nephew for the next little while, and he will reward the both of us quite handsomely for your participation in his plans. And at any rate, there is quite a large difference between a servant and a nephew, however a man may come by either of them."
"But, Mother..." Ezra hated contradicting her, but the thought of going to Mr. Wintergreen's terrified him to the very core of his bones. Daisy had told him all sorts of stories about the man, and Ezra remembered the soul -chilling exhortations of the man they called Father Spelling, a preacher he and Mother had seen once at a revival in Montgomery. He remembered the awful burning of the man's green eyes as he stared right through Ezra and read all the little boy's sins as if he read a book.
"You know what waits for you, if you don't repent, young man?" demanded Father Spelling.
Ezra nodded vigorously. "I do, sir," he said softly, wanting to be far away from the man and his eyes. He edged toward the door and the anteroom, where his mother waited, but the preacher had not finished with him yet.
"Hellfire and damnation, young man," Father Spelling hissed, clawed hand shooting out to sieze Ezra by the jacket sleeve. Ezra froze in the man's grasp, helpless to struggle or run away, held by the magnetism of those eyes. "Demons with hooks and catchpoles to drag you up from the tar in the Eighth Circle and drop you back into it again. It burns, that tar."
"Oh, Richard, do stop frightening the child," his mother said from behind them. Ezra thought his heart would stop - all his breath rushed from him in one huge sigh of relief.
"I'm sorry, Maude," Father Spelling - Richard? - apologized. "How was the haul this time?"
"Well, Richard, we've enough to see us safely to Paris." His mother's laughter resounded, silvery and hollow, throughout the room. Ezra, trapped between the two adults, watched helplessly.
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