A Sneek Peak at Mary Jo Putney's Upcoming Release of Once A Soldier
The tunnel was lined with damp stones and the part Will could see in the dim light slanted upward with horizontal grooves on the bottom to provide traction to anyone crawling through. His eyes narrowed as he evaluated it. An average-sized man could fit in there, but Will was broader than average. Keeping that thought to himself, he said, “Now it’s time to discover if this goes all the way to the surface.”
“And if there are rats, scorpions, or dead bodies,” Duval said dryly. “I’ll go first. I’m not so large as you great hulking Englishmen, plus I speak the French of a native if I emerge outside and encounter a soldier.”
“Those are good reasons.” Will gestured at the tunnel. “Good luck!”
“I don’t envy you going blind into that tunnel,” Gordon said as he offered the Frenchman a curved, broken piece of pottery. “This isn’t much, but it might be useful against those rats or guards.”
Duval accepted the impromptu weapon with a nod of thanks. “I shall return to tell you what I find.”
Will was sure that he wasn’t the only one praying for success as Duval climbed into the tunnel and began to crawl forward on his belly. The four remaining men waited in silence, listening to the faint sounds of Duval inching upward. He muttered a French curse or two at different times, and then the sounds faded away completely.
“It must be a long tunnel,” Gordon said. His gaze was on the floor, concealing his expression.
“The longer it is, the better chance we have of leaving safely.” Chantry rubbed at his side. “I’ve cracked a rib or two. I didn’t think it was worth binding them when I was going to be shot, but I’d better do something or I won’t be able to crawl.”
Gordon stripped off the shabby greatcoat he was wearing. “I’ll cut this up for the binding.” He used another piece of broken pottery to saw the heavy fabric into strips.
They all worked together to bind Chantry’s ribs, the activity a welcome distraction. Will had just tied off the last bandage when they heard sounds in the tunnel.
A few moments later, Duval’s head emerged. “We are saved!” he said jubilantly. “The tunnel ends in an old stone shed that is one of a cluster of outbuildings. When I looked out, I saw no soldiers near. It is raining, so wise men stay inside.”
As Will helped the muddy Frenchman get his feet safely on the ground, Hawkins said tersely, “Then it’s time we made our escape. Chantry, will you be able to make it up there with your cracked ribs?”
“What’s a little pain compared to fast-approaching dawn?” Chantry replied with a twisted smile. “I’ll make it.”
“The rest of you go first,” Will said. “If the tunnel is too narrow for me, I don’t want to block anyone else from getting away.”
Duval frowned as he studied the width of Will’s shoulders. “It will be difficult but not, I think, impossible. Perhaps you should remove your coat and shirt. A small difference might be enough. I will carry your garments up the tunnel for you.”
“Good idea.” By the time Will had removed his coat and shirt, Gordon, Chantry, and Hawkins were crawling toward escape. Chantry gasped with pain as Hawkins helped him up into the tunnel, but he didn’t complain, just started inching doggedly upward.
Duval wrapped Will’s garments in a tight, flat bundle, then used his cravat to tie them to his lower back. “The tunnel is tight and somewhat damaged in places, but I do think you will be able to get through. I will not be far ahead. If you get into trouble, call. We will find a way to bring you to freedom.”
Will had his doubts that would be possible, but he appreciated the sentiment. “If I become impossibly stuck, for God’s sake, get away! There’s no point in all of us dying.”
“I am not so easily dismissed, Masterson,” Duval retorted. “I shall see you on the surface.” He climbed into the tunnel and began working his way up again.
Will took a deep breath, then followed. He was not fond of confined spaces at the best of times, and the climb out through stifling blackness would haunt his dreams for years, assuming he made it out. Even without his coat and with his bare torso slick with water and mud from the damp, there were times he thought he was lethally stuck. He learned how tightly his shoulders and chest could be compressed, and it was barely enough.
The tightest place was the very end, where the tunnel opened into the shed. After two attempts, Will grimly accepted his fate. “I can’t make it,” he said flatly. “Leave without me.”
“You damn well will make it!” Gordon retorted. “Back up a couple of yards and cover your head while we widen this hole.”
Will summoned enough strength to back down a few feet and wrap his arms over his head before debris began falling on him. It took only minutes before Gordon said, “All clear!” Then he extended a hand into the tunnel.
Grateful for the help, Will managed to crawl the short distance out onto a cold, muddy floor. He lurched to his feet, then pulled on the shirt and coat Duval had carried for him, grateful for any slight warmth.
“Quickly now,” Chantry said. “The night is almost over and we must get away. We’re in luck. The building to our right is a stable and Hawkins has liberated five horses. I know roughly where we are and can lead us to open country. As soon as we step outside, we must be swift and silent. Ready, Masterson?”
After Will nodded, Chantry opened the door of the shed. The heavy rain made the darkness almost impenetrable, but Will could make out the shapes of the horses just outside. Hawkins had managed to bridle and saddle the animals, after stealing them.
The men swiftly mounted, Hawkins helping the injured Chantry into his saddle. They saved the largest horse for Will. Chantry led and set the pace, a slow walk so as not to attract attention. Will was sure the other men shared his desire to gallop away at full speed, but he knew Chantry was right to be cautious.
Occasional lights started showing in windows as people rose to begin morning chores. But the houses thinned until finally they were out of the city. Chantry increased their pace to a trot, then a canter. Cold, wet, and uncomfortable as the ride was, Will much preferred it to the escape from the cellar. If he was shot now, at least he’d die free.
By the time they’d put several miles between themselves and Gaia, the sun had risen and the rain had ended, though it was still heavily overcast. Chantry led them into a protected thicket and came to a halt. With effort, he dismounted, one hand rubbing his ribs. “Time for us to go our separate ways, gentlemen.”
The other riders also dismounted, gathering in a circle as they held their horses. Looking up at the sky, Gordon murmured, “I never thought a wet, cold day could be so beautiful. Knowing I should be dead adds savor to the morning.”
“We all contributed to our successful escape,” Duval said pensively. “Facing death creates an interesting bond of brotherhood, does it not?”
Indeed it did. As Will looked at the faces of his companions, he realized how unselfishly they’d worked together. He knew almost nothing of any of them, yet he truly did feel a sense of connection from shared danger. “Though we may be self-proclaimed rogues, you’re all men I’d like at my side in any future tight places.”
“Rogues may be more useful in tight places than honorable men,” Hawkins said, amused. His voice turned serious. “Facing death was simple, but now we face hard reality again. How many of us will attempt the redemption we discussed? I intend to.”
Gordon gave a twisted smile. “I’ll make a start at it.”
Chantry looked gray-faced from pain, but his voice was firm. “I said I would take up my long-neglected responsibilities, and I like to think I’m a man of my word.”
Duval sighed. “What is done can’t be undone. Perhaps there can be reconciliation, if not redemption. I should make the attempt.”
After they had shared a dark night and imminent death, it was strange to think Will would not see any of these men again. Strange and wrong. “If this war ever ends,” he said tentatively, “perhaps those of us who survive may meet again in London and exchange lies about our heroic deeds and redemptions.”
“The Brotherhood of Rogues Redeemed!” Duval said grandly. “I like the idea, but we shall need a point of contact in London for sending messages so we might find each other.”
Will thought a moment. “Hatchard’s bookstore in Piccadilly. I know the owner.” In fact, Will was a major customer. “I’ll ask him to keep any letters he receives that are addressed to the Rogues Redeemed, and that they can be read by any of us that call at the store. I’ll give him the names we’re all using tonight.”
Chantry grinned. “Because we might be lying about our identities? I like your suspicious mind.” Wincing from pain, he stretched a hand into the center of the close circle of riders. “May we meet again in more auspicious times!”
Will clasped Chantry’s hand. The others did the same in a five-way handshake that made their agreement somehow more real. When they released their grips, Will swung back into his saddle, thinking he was grateful to have met these men in these circumstances.
He hoped they all survived to meet again someday