What Price Freedom
Chapter 11
by Marc Carlson
Copyright 1992 by Marc Carlson
 
 

 Chapter 11

      A short while later, they sat on a bench behind a shed near the north edge of town.  There was no one around, but them, and so Helena had taken out a cigarette and had begun to relax again.  The town lay behind them, out of sight.  A mountain began a gradual rise up before them, all beige and gray rock, grass and brightly colored wild flowers.  Helena felt an overwhelming urge to find a large flat rock and take a nap in the afternoon sun, snakes notwithstanding.

     Yuvon was describing the religious aspects of medicine in ancient Egypt.  Helena had never really been interested in either foreign lands or history before, but there was something about the way he described the scenes, an intensity to his voice and expression almost tempted her to think that he'd been there.

     "... And there was supposed to be a spell on the legendary but forbidden Scroll of Thoth that was able to bring the dead back to life, but ..." he paused, and it seemed to Helena as if he were trying to listen for something.

     He stood abruptly. "What do you think, are you up for a walk?"

     Helena looked up at him lazily.  "Well, I had thought to take a nap, but I suppose a walk will have to do instead.  Did you hear something?"

     "Why, did you?" he said as he took her hand to help her to her feet.

     "No, but then I was fully occupied losing myself in the richness of your voice."

     He laughed and started walking toward the road, "That's pretty good.  Tell me does anyone actually buy that twaddle?"

     Helena tossed her cigarette off to the side and walked quickly to catch up with him. "What twaddle?"

     "That solicitous ego feeding prattle."  His voice was cheerful, but still somehow intense.  Helena got the feeling that he was thinking about something else.  As it was, the walk he wanted to take kept threatening to break out into a run.

     "Certainly, women have been using it to get men to do the dirty work since Eve told Adam that a real man wouldn't be afraid of a little piece of fruit."  She stopped, already getting a bit out of breath. "Yuvon, where the hell are you going."

     He stopped and pointed toward a hill off to the left.  A shape had just crested the hill.  Peering, it seemed to be a boy running toward them and yelling.  She listened for a moment, not quite able to make out what he was yelling, then it came to her,

     "Hey! Anybody! You gotta come quick!"

     Yuvon had already leapt across the low ditch that lay across the landscape, and was running toward the boy.  Helena followed a moment later, and, with her body aching, struggled to keep up with him.  They met the boy in the middle of the grassy meadow.  He looked like he was about nine or ten years old.

     "What's happening, son," Yuvon said, his voice exuding confidence and assurance.

     "He fell into the hole, You got to help him."

     "Who has?  Where is he?"  Helena gasped as she caught her breath.  She noted with irritation that while Yuvon might differ in many ways from most of the other men she had ever met, shyness about assuming the role of leader in a crisis was not one of those differences.  In many ways, he was the most domineering man she'd ever met.

     The boy was panting from having run so fast.

     "It's my brother Owen.  He fell into a pit."

     "Where?" Yuvon asked calmly, but firm.

     "Over there," he pointed back the way he had come.

     "That's fine," Yuvon patted the boy's arm.  "You go run and find a constable, or sheriff, or marshal, or whatever you have in this place.  We'll go up and see to your brother."

     The boy nodded, and ran off without another word.  Helena looked at Yuvon.

     "Don't you think that is might have been a little bit more helpful to get some more details?  Or did you get more from that exchange?"

     "Not really," he started walking briskly up the hill.  Helena pursed her lips with impatience, took a deep breath, then shrugged.

She caught up to him.

     "So?" she asked.

     "So, it was obvious that we weren't going to get much more out of the boy."

     "And now you are going to back trail him, right?" she said with a touch of sarcasm.

     "Exactly."

     Helena stopped, and watched Yuvon for a minute, then followed.  He was walking up the hill side as if he were taking a brisk stroll through a park.  Now and then, he would slow then speed back up again.  Helena didn't know all that much about tracking, but it seemed to her that he was taking a somewhat cavalier approach to the process.

     She commented on it.

     "Oh really?" he replied and stopped.  "Look here, the child left a trail that even I can follow."  He pointed out the faint dotted line of scuffed dirt and bent grass stretching back up the hill side.

     As they followed the line up the hill, Helena started to pant as she felt the cumulated effects of the exertion and the thinning air.  Although her lungs hadn't begun to hurt yet, she knew from experience that if they didn't find the boy soon or slow down, she would be in real pain.  Of course, she smiled to herself, she had been in fairly continuous pain since meeting Yuvon, what with all the horse riding, stream swimming,and tree climbing.

     Her legs were leaden and her breathing was coming in sharp painful gulps when Yuvon finally called a halt.  It seemed to Helena that they had run halfway up the side of the damned mountain.

     A curious wooden erection lay before them, a collection of boards laying strewn over a shaft sunk vertically down into the face of the hill.  The wood seemed to be in relatively good condition though, weathered but not rotten.  Several of the boards had been pulled away from their place covering the shaft.  The pit was about five feet wide, and a dusty smell arose from its shadows.  The whole area surrounding it was overgrown with grass.

     To one side, a battered sign lay face down in the grass.  Helena kicked it over.  White maggots still clung to the rot faded lettering.  She could still make out;

                        "Angelique Mine

                  Brownsville Mining Company

                           operator"

 

     There was no sign of an actual mine entrance.  When a mine failed, it was usually too expensive, or too much of a bother to remove the disjecta, the physical remains.  But here, there were no piles of tailings, there was no scaffolding, no old pulleys, no buildings other than a small ruined old shack some distance away.  Helena wondered how long this shaft had been abandoned.

     Yuvon leaned over the shaft, peering down into the darkness.

     "Hello! Are you all right?"  he called.

     Silence answered him.

     Yuvon repeated himself.  After a moment, he turned to Helena, "I hear some crying, so I think we can assume that he's still alive."

     "I didn't hear anything."

     "Of course you didn't.  But then you weren't leaning over the pit listening intently now were you?"

     "I suppose not.  So then, how are we going to get him out?"

     "Obviously one of us shall climb down and fetch him back out."

     "Obviously."  Helena looked down into shaft.  Running down one side of the shaft was an old wooden ladder set into the wall.  "But I am not at all certain that I want to trust that ladder.  It looks as though several of the rungs have broken off."

     "Yes, there is that ..." he murmured.  He squatted down on one knee and stared off for a moment.

     "You know, Yuvon, it looks to me as though the boys, being boys, had wanted to explore around the shaft.  It's obvious that they had cleared away the boards, then, seeing the ladder, they tried to climb on down.  The rung broke and ..." she shuddered.  Some of those mine shafts went down for thousands of feet.

     "Are you certain that you heard crying?" she asked.  Her voice sounded weak to her ears.

     "Sobbing, in fact."

     "I suppose then, what we need is some sort of plan."

     "What we need," he said, standing, "is a rope."

     "We'll just have to go back and fetch one," Helena said.

     He nodded, still peering into the pit.

     "Or perhaps we should just wait for others to arrive, and send them back for one."

     He looked up at her sharply, for an instant.  "Okey Docky. That's fine by me."  He stood still for a moment, then started walking toward the ruined shack.

     "Where're you going?" She asked.

     "I'm going to have a look around.  I mean, it's not as if we can do damn else while we wait."

     Helena watched him stalk off and frowned.  He seemed frustrated by something.  She was herself frustrated by their inability to do anything helpful here, but with him ....  Her thought drifted off.

     She moved one of the displaced boards to one side of the pit and sat down so she could watch the trail back to town.  She rolled a cigarette and lit it.  A ward, comforting tingle flowed around her head, relaxing her.

     Yuvon returned a few moments later carrying a yard long steel spike and a coil of rope wrapped around his shoulder.

     "Where'd you find those?" she asked.

     "Over there," he nodded toward the shack.  He stopped and looked at the ground near the pit.  Then, in one fluid motion he jammed the spike into the ground.

     "Do you mean to tell me that somebody left a perfectly good rope like that out here?"

     He shrugged, and started to tie one end of the rope to the spike.  "It's either that, or I pulled it out of my magic pocket, take your pick."

     "Yuvon, you are an irrepressible wise acre."

     He took the rope and, holding a portion of the loop in one hand, casually dropped the rest down into the well.  Helena heard a muffled clattering noise a moment later.  Yuvon carefully fed the rest of the line down.

     From his inner coat pocket, he removed a pari of black leather gloves, then he took off his jacket and shoulder holster, and casually dropped them next to the spike.

     "So you are just going to climb down there and save him?" she asked dryly.

     "That's the idea."

     "Is there anything I can do to help, or should I just stand here, finish my cigarette and admire you."

     "That sounds admirable."

     He coiled the rope around in an odd fashion, almost knotting himself in, then stepped over to the pit.  He looked at Helena, and with a pleasant smile stepped backward off into the shaft.

     Helena threw her cigarette and hurried to look down the mine.  She peered over the edge.  He was gliding down like a spider on a thread.  He appeared to be controlling his rate of descent by controlling the rope around him, as if he were in the center of a giant slip knot.  He disappeared in to the shadows, all too quickly for her tastes.  She could hear him humming a song to himself as he went.

     Helena straightened up and turned stiffly around.  She made and lit another cigarette, and smoked it tensely.  She hated waiting, and now she felt like a particularly useless appendage while He was off down there, almost certainly getting into all kinds of trouble.

     She was about to roll another cigarette when she noticed a number of people coming up the hill.  She tossed the one she was still smoking onto the ground and stepped on it.

     There were about twenty or thirty people in the mob.  She recognized a few of the faces, including Father Dunham, Beatrice, and Kyle Cousins.  They were being led by the boy.

     As the crowd grew nearer, Helena noted a rhythmic jerking on the rope.  She checked the spike and saw that it was holding firmly, then looked down into the pit.  She saw with some relief that Yuvon was pulling himself upwards hand over hand.  But there was no sign of a boy.

     The mob swarmed up to the area around the pit barraging Helena with questions, commands and confusion.  Helena ignored as much of the babel as possible and focused her attention on Father Dunham.  He was shouting at her, trying to make himself understandable.

     "What's happened here?"

     Helena tried to explain as much as she could.  The roaring chaos grew more intense as Yuvon began to climb out of the hole.  Helena bent down to help him out.  When he was seated on the edge, she looked back at the crowd.  She leaned over to Yuvon's coat, next to the spike, and pulled his Lemat from its holster, aimed it sky ward and pulled the trigger.  A roaring blast slammed through Helena's body, and silenced the crowd.

     "May we have some quiet please?" Helena turned towards Yuvon. "Well?"

     "Thank you," he said, peeling off his gloves.  "The child is still making noise, so he must be alive."  The crowd's relief was apparent and quite vocal.  When they had quieted down somewhat, he continued.

     "Unfortunately, about seventy feet down, there's been a partial collapse ..."

     "Happen back in '72." came a voice from the crowd.

     "That's why they shut down the mine," came another.

     "Really? Thank you." Yuvon's voice was dry both in texture and in tone.  "In any case, he appears to have struck the collapsed area, and punched right through it.  The hole he left is too small for me, and the rock around it is too rotten for me to risk enlarging it."

     "So what do you want to do?" asked a beefy giant in a ridiculously small miners cap.

     "I intend on sending someone else down there.  Someone smaller than I."

     "I'll go," Helena said tiredly.

     The crowd erupted in loud complaints and criticism.  The air was filled with cries of "Impossible!", "Can't send a woman in to do a man's job", "My boy's small enough, send him in."

     Helena looked at Yuvon.  He merely looked at her, as if waiting to see what she wanted to do.  His gaze held a sense of confidence in her, as if he had expected her to volunteer, knowing that she could do this.

     "Listen to me," she turned to the crowd.  She tried to steel her voice.  "That boy is very likely injured.  I am a doctor."  She turned to on the townspeople who had spoken, a scrawny man, not much larger than Helena, with a beard that grew sprouted in irregular patches. "Would your son know what to do about a broken leg? Arm? Ribs? Would he even recognize internal bleeding if he saw it?  Would you?" She poked at his chest with every word.  He stepped back away from her.  There were a few nods of assent from the crowd.

     "My child," Father Dunham stepped up to her. "Please don't do this.  These gentlemen are perfectly capable of handling this.  After all, they spend most of their lives underground.  I'm sure that if the boy is injured, then they can send for you."

     Helena felt a flash of stubborn anger, and choked on a number of replies, most of which questioned the gentlemen's capabilities in finding a hole, let alone delving into it.  None of her thoughts would have been appropriate to say to a man of the cloth, and she turned stubbornly toward Yuvon.

     "Well?" she asked looked at him, then the rope and back again.

     Yuvon quickly showed her how to wrap the rope around her, the manner of which drew more derision from the onlookers, and how to use the rope to control her descent.

     "... remember to squeeze the rope."

     "As long as you don't expect me to climb back out as you did."

     "Don't you worry, little lady.  You just tie that noose around your neck and we'll pull you right back on up," from the laughing crowd.  Yuvon squoze her shoulder.

     "Don't worry, I'll pull you up."

     "How will you know?"

     "Just give two sharp pulls when you are ready, and I'll know."

     She nodded.  "Well, here goes."  She took a deep breath and swallowed her nervousness.

     "Here, put these on."  He handed her his gloves.

     "Thank you."  She slipped them on.  They were far to large for her, but they should keep her from stripping the flesh from her hands.

     "Hey wait a minute."  It was the giant miner.  He took the greasy cap from his head and slipped it on Helena's.  "It's dark down there.  You may need this."  He lit the candle that was set in the lamp over the cap's bill.

     "Thank you." She stepped over to the pit, took a deep breath and stepped backwards into nothing.  She was overcome with a deep terror as she fell into the darkness.  They she remembered to squeeze the rope to slow herself.  She squoze.  The rope burned through the gloves, but not badly. She jerked to a stop,and slowly opened her eyes. Instead of falling thirty or forty feet, she had only dropped five or so.  She was hanging in the cool shadow under the lip of the mine entrance.  The rope wrapped around her hips supported all her weight, and, though not pleasant, was not uncomfortable.  She discovered that by loosening her death grip on the rope she began to descend once more.  Yuvon hadn't lied to her, she could control her speed by just squeezing.  It wasn't so hard as long as she kept her mind off the bottomless pit yawning up beneath her.

     She was all alone in the darkness, the silence around her broken only by the faint hissing of the rope slipping through her grip.  Her world was only that section of the walls around her that fell within the feeble circle of light shed by her lamp.  Looking up, she could see a square of blue sky, framed by the faces of the people watching her. Yuvon stood to one side.  A cold shiver of dread ran down though her spine to lodge in her gut, a dead lump of fear.  She looked back down into the darkness, trying to concentrate on what she was supposed to be doing.

     The farther down she went, the more nervous she became.  Helena had no idea what rotten stone looked like, but she knew that if she'd had to bet, this is what she would have put her money on.  The stone around her was cracked and crumbling, as if consumed with some form of dry rot.

     Then the wall disappeared, and there was only a gaping dark space.  Helena stopped her descent and looked carefully around her.  It was only a large empty space that had been cut from the wall.  She assumed that it was a tunnel or gallery, which lead off the main shaft and deep into the mountain.  She could almost smell the ghosts of dreams and hopes in the soft dead breeze that sluggishly flowed from that empty hall.

     She renewed her descent.  She noted four more of the mouths of deeper darkness, but she shied away from their fetid tendrils, hinting at the comforts of abyssal slumber.

     She finally reached the section of the collapse that Yuvon had mentioned.  A mixture of rock, dirt and wood had jammed together to make some sort of floor stretching from wall to wall.  It looked to Helena, dangling a few feet above the "floor" the some one had tried to make a lateral cut from the shaft, probable to create a new gallery.  They had failed, and something had collapsed.

     There was a hole in the floor beneath her, though a few feet to one side.  The rope she was sliding down lay piled beneath her.  Looking up to the light in the distance, then at the hole in the floor, Helena wondered what Yuvon could have been thinking about, saying that the boy was still alive.  She doubted anyone could have survived such a fall.

     She stained to listen, and heard a faint sound, as if a dry sobbing coming from below her.  She slowly lowered herself until she could just touch the rubble with her toes.  Barely touching the debris, she inched her way over to the hole. Then bracing herself, with one foot in the hole, she nudged the pile of rope over to her.  As she reached down to pick up the line with one hand she discovered that her hands and arms had stiffened into position.  She leaned her head against the rope and considered crying.  She was tired and sore, and really wasn't sure if she had the energy to continue.

     Her fatigue allowed her frustrations and doubts to bubble to the surface.  Perhaps she had erred.  Perhaps she had been too stubborn about this.  Those men were trained to be down here, and she was just a woman.  All she would have to do is tug on the rope, and Yuvon would pull her back out, and she could say that she couldn't get through.  Nobody expected her to succeed anyway, and the child was more than likely dead, killed by the fall ...

     At that moment, a crusty throated cry for "Help" crawled through the dusty air.  Helena banished her self doubts.  The boy was alive and sounded fairly close by.  She reached down, forcing herself to move, picked up the rope and gently fed it through the hole below her.

     It took her a little work to worm herself through the crust of debris.  The hole was only slightly larger than she was, and the whole structure was threatening to collapse with the slightest pressure.  She didn't even want to think about what could happen when she tried to get through coming back up.  As her head finally sank to the level of the blockage, the rubble softly dribbled around her, and every poe story, every premature burial horror story she had ever heard came back to her.  Her heart was thudding so loudly with the thought of it, she knew that they should have been able to hear her on the surface.

     Then she was through.  Looking down, she saw that the shaft continued down for another thirty feet, or so, then ended in a steep slope.  The actual floor of the shaft took up only half the area.  The whole thing glistened wetly.  Below her and just off to one side lay the boy.  He moved slightly.

     "Help?" he asked with a feeble hope.

     "That's why I came, boy."  She realized as the reached the bottom of the rope that it was five feet too short.  She thought about it for a moment, whether she should go back up and get more  rope or what. The boy answered the question for her.

     "Oh God, it hurts.  Please help me."

     Helena reasoned that if Yuvon could hear the boy crying, then he could most assuredly hear her.  "Yuvon! I need more rope!" she yelled.  She realized that loud noises were a mistake as her shout dislodged more of the debris.

     The boy groaned in pain as some of the dirt and pebbles struck near him.  Helena let go of the rope and, slipping out of the knot, dropped the rest of the way.  Every bruise and abused muscle in her body screamed at her as she struck the slope and sank into it.  The entire floor seemed to be cold, stiff mud.

     Helena quickly discovered as long as she didn't try to stand on the mud, or crawl on her hands and knees, she wouldn't sink into it.  She rolled over to the boy.

     Lying next to him panting, she asked him, "Is your name Owen?"

     "Yes," he groaned.  "How did you know?"

     "Your brother told me that I could find you down here.  My name's Doctor McCoy."

     "You a real, for sure doctor?"

     "Yes sir, I'm a real, for sure doctor."

     "But you're a girl.  Girls can't be doctors."

     Helena laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation, and fought to sit up.  "I really don't believe that this is either the time or the place to argue over my credentials.  So where does it hurt, Owen?"

     "I don't know as I ought to tell you, ma'am.  I don't think my pa would like me talkin' to a lady doctor."  Helena could hear fear hiding behind what he was saying.

     "Owen, I am the only one up there who was small enough to fit through the hole you made.  if you don't let me help you, then you will be trapped down here forever and die.  Now do you want me to help you or not?"

     He nodded.  "It hurts here and here."  He pointed to his chest and leg.  Helena examined him very carefully.

     "It doesn't seem too bad.  You have a couple of broken ribs and a broken leg."

     "Oh?" his voice cracked.

     "Sure.  You know this fall should have killed you.  You are a very fortunate young man."  Helena looked around them.  There were few enough bits of wood for splints, and nothing whatsoever for tying one up.

     "What are you going to do?"

     "First of all, I have to immobilize the broken bones.  Preferably without injuring you further.  How's that sound?"

     "Good, I guess."

     She slumped back on her knees in the mud, sighed, and frowned.  There was nothing to be had.  Then an idea struck her.

     She took off her hat, with its lantern, and set it down on the mud.  Then she pulled a box of matches from her pocket and set this atop the hat.  After carefully memorizing the hat's location, she blew out the candle.  It was suddenly very dark.

     "Ma'am."

     "Yes, Owen?"

     "I don't very much like the dark, ma'am."

     "It quite alright.  I'm not extremely happy about it right now myself, either.  But remember, darkness has its uses."

     "Like what?"

     "Don't you worry about that."

     She quickly stripped off her shirt, corset and chemise.  She cringed when she put the shirt back on, as the cold mud caking the  garment caressed her skin.

     She carefully relit the candle.

     The splints were easy enough, using her chemise to tie them in place, but the ribs were a bit more tricky with him lying on them.  She eventually got the corset around him and began to retie it.

     "Ma'am, I really wish you wouldn't do that."

     "Why not?"

     "Well the fellers just ain't gonna let me live it down," he sounded more than just physically uncomfortable. "You know, bein' seen with a lady's, er, well, you know."

     "Listen, would you prefer to die?"

     "I guess not."

     "Of course not, now don't argue."  She was firm but gentle.  At that moment, the rope began to sway, and fifteen more feet snaked down towards them.  Helena smiled at Yuvon's timing.

     Helena gave the exit some consideration.  She knew that if she sent Owen up alone, they might have some trouble getting the rope down to her again, with the hole off‑center as it was.  Obviously she and Owen would just have to go up together.  She considered a number alternatives.  Finally, she tied the rope in a loop under Owen's arms, then around her own.

     "Are you ready?" she asked him.

     "Yes, ma'am."

     "Good."  She gave the rope two sharp tugs.