Pale and leaden in the predawn light, the spring looked like nothing special, like a pond of rainwater standing in the tan limestone basin. It was only when a body got close that you saw what made it different: the surface of the water all dancing and rippling from the flow surging up from the depths, a small run draining the overflow into the tea-brown waters of the Itchetucknee.
Jonah Winslow paused, gazing at the rippling headpool, and dragged his threadbare sleeve across his forehead. The spring looked as it had when he’d first seen it, a full four decades earlier.
He shifted his burden, a Confederate Army foraging bag, thick canvas sagging with the weight of what it carried. Then he turned and looked back at the slender young woman who was picking her way among the tree roots, planting her slippered feet with care.
She came to a halt beside him and her face was white in the halflight, a striking contrast to the blackness of Jonah’s own, white and finely featured, like the china dolls the old slave had watched her play with as a child.
“Oh, Uncle.” She shook her head and looked up at him, blue eyes wide. “Let us go home. This is far too dangerous.”
“Now, child.” He kept his voice low, the voice he’d used to calm her through all the hard years. “If I’ve done this once, I’ve done it a hundred times. Wasn’t I just in there yesterday, getting things ready?”
Cecilia Donohue blinked and said nothing.
“Besides,” Jonah said, “after tomorrow morning, we won’t have a home. Carpetbagger’s coming. Time to do this chore.”
He set the bag at his feet and stripped off his faded chambray shirt, his chest still damp from the walk. Next, he untied the rope that he wore as a belt and stepped out of his patched cotton trousers.
Jonah Winslow made no pretense at modesty. Nor did the young woman avert her eyes. Jonah knew that Cecilia Donohue loved him like family, yet it no more upset her to see him naked than it would have to see any of her father’s cattle or horses just as nature had created them. Jonah didn’t blame her for this. It was how she’d been raised, who she was.
Cecilia glanced down at the forage bag.
“It will be safe here?” It wasn’t the first time she’d asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” Jonah Winslow turned and met her gaze, careful not to glance away as he spoke. “I wrapped it in cheesecloth. Crimped a sheet of lead foil ’round it—last sheet we had. Then I coated the whole thing with beeswax. It can lay there for years if it has to. But it won’t have to.”
He turned and walked down into the spring, wading deeper and gasping just a bit as he stepped off a ledge and the cool water rose to his waist. He kept going until he was shoulder deep, and then he turned and looked back at Miss Cecilia, standing there with the sky growing gray behind her.
“Hurry back, Uncle Jonah,” she whispered.
“Two minutes.” Jonah’s throat felt thick, his words gravelly. “Won’t take no longer than that, Miss Cecilia.”
He turned back to face the boil of the spring and the two dark openings that gaped at the bottom of the pool. Slowly, deeply, he began to pull in great, long draughts of air.
One breath . . . two . . . three . . .
Jonah’s shoulder ached from the forage-bag strap, and he thought about the first time he’d done this, the summer of his fifteenth year, when even the work of loading an entire wagon with water barrels could do little to tire him. He and young Master Cameron, the boy who would one day be Cecilia’s father, had come here in the midst of a drought to fetch water. Afterward, they’d gone swimming to escape the heat, and the young master had dared Jonah to dive down into the dark opening that yawned beneath their bare feet.
Jonah had known what the other boy must have been thinking.
Most of the plantation’s slaves were deathly afraid of the springs, of the “haints” said to live there, waiting to draw swimmers to their doom.
But while Jonah had listened carefully to every circuit preacher who had ever come through and knew there was a devil and evil within the world, he also knew talk of haints was foolishness. Even so, when he’d first dived down, he no sooner touched the rim of the cave than his lungs were burning for a breath. He’d gone gasping to the surface, and the other boy’s laughter had so angered him that, on the next try, he had not only gone into the cave—he had swum far back in it, found the junction that led to the other spring opening, and come rocketing out the other side.
It had been a clever trick, one that had sparked an idea with young Master Cameron. The very next Sunday, the plantation owner’s son had enticed twenty neighbors to pay a nickel apiece to watch “Donohue’s buck”—that was what they’d called him— perform his daredevil feat. And once they’d figured out how to prolong the excitement, Jonah and the young master had been able to coax as much as two nickels apiece from the pockets of their audience.
Four breaths . . .
The eastern sky was getting some color now, the fairest shade of pink, the sailor’s color of warning. Jonah squeezed his eyes shut and resisted the urge to shake his head. Fifty-three summers—too old for this foolishness. He glanced back at Miss Cecilia, standing there at the spring’s edge. Known her all her life, raised her after her momma passed. I’m her only hope.
It was a simple proposition. If the men from up North found what was in the forage bag, they’d take it. Take it and its secret and doom Miss Cecilia to a life of poverty. Got to do it; got to hide this thing.
Five breaths . . .
It wasn’t that Jonah Winslow was afraid to die. He knew by heart the Scriptures that promised him heaven, and if heaven was better than this world for white folk, it was even more so for a man raised a slave. Master Cameron and his family had been as good to Jonah as the times would allow, but they had still treated him as property. Jonah had seen his brothers grow stooped and bent from long hours in the fields, seen his only sister sold away up to Georgia.
Six breaths . . .
Jonah loved the young woman at the spring’s edge like his own blood, more than that, if such a thing was possible.
Seven . . .
He took this one as deeply as he could, held it, and dove for the bottom of the spring.
Springflow pushed and tugged at the fringe of Jonah’s hair, the water feeling heavy around him, the weight of the forage bag pulling him down like an anchor. Shifting the bag around to the small of his back, Jonah crawled along the boulders on the bottom of the spring basin, snaking across the flats and into the dark, gaping mouth of the cave.
Pig bladders. That was the trick that had allowed Jonah to stay down so long on those two-nickel Sundays: pig bladders, like what they’d blown up to use as kick-balls when he was a boy. He and Master Cameron had pumped the bladders full with a bellows, pumped them close to bursting because the water would shrink them at depth. Then they’d tied them to window sash weights and hidden them in the caves on the morning before a dive. That gave Jonah air to breath. It let him bide his time underwater, exploring the darkness while he breathed down first one bladder and then the next.
Now, groping in the flooded blackness some forty years after he had learned that trick, Jonah found the four bladders he’d brought into the cave the evening before. He wasted no time as he untied the first one and sucked down a deep draught of air, welcome even with the biting taste of the bladder on it. He gathered the rawhide thongs that held the other three bladders and struggled back into the darkness, the haversack trying to slide off his back, the sash weights bumping on the bottom, and the bladders tugging in the current like invisible, runaway kites.
It was on one of those long-ago dives, biding his time down in the underwater darkness while all the white folk waited up above in their Sunday-best, that Jonah had first found the side passage.
Its entrance was low and overhung, easy to miss for a body finding his way by feel, but wide enough that he’d felt comfortable about going in. And there, ten feet back in that passage, his hands had fallen upon a flake of rock that pulled away easily, revealing a shallow, natural limestone shelf—the perfect hiding place for something small and valuable.
It was the first place he’d thought of when Miss Cecilia had come to him with her secret.
Jonah’s lungs burned again for air. He let his breath go in a single whoosh, untied another bladder, and breathed it down in two deep breaths. This time, he was still hurting afterward. He thought through what he had to do, how the current would help push him back to the surface. One breath’s all I’ll need . . . all it’ll take to get me back to the light. He gulped down the air from the third bladder, as well.
The last bladder in tow, Jonah found the side passage, dipped under the overhang, found the slab, and moved it away from the wall. His hand landed on the ledge, and he pulled the forage bag over his head and placed it in the hiding place. Checking to make sure it stayed, he pivoted the slab back and rested his hand there for a moment. Please, Lord, keep this safe.
Done. That was done. Now it was time for Jonah to get himself out; he was the only man in North Florida—maybe the only man in the world—who could come back and retrieve this thing for Miss Cecilia.
Jonah kicked his way back, one hand up to find the overhang and guide himself beneath it in the dark. He felt the tug of a stronger flow—the main passage. Time to breathe the last of his air.
Jonah exhaled through his mouth and nose, feeling the bubbles whisking across his stubbled face in the darkness. He reached up to the bladder, found a rawhide thong, and pulled it down.
The bit of leather went slack in his hand.
No. His heart plummeted. No! He must have left the tag end long when he’d tied the slip knot to secure the bladder—and now he’d grabbed the wrong end in the blackness, pulling the knot free.
Arms flailing, Jonah groped with both hands in the jet-black water, but he knew it was useless. The current would have the bladder thirty feet down the passage by now.
Fighting panic, empty lungs screaming for a breath, he kicked out into the flow and swam for all he was worth—kicking and clawing for the cave entrance and the sweet summer air just beyond.
Oh, Lord. Oh, please. Please, sweet Jesus. Just get me there . . .the entrance.
With nothing in his lungs, Jonah’s lean body sank, bumping the stone and clay bottom of the passage. He scrabbled, floated up, and then sank again.
Keep going. Can make it. He urged himself forward. Heavy as he felt, the current had the power to flush him from the cave mouth and back to the surface. Red dots, flaming blossoms of color, swarmed before his eyes.
His lungs screamed for air.
Little bit more . . . not far . . . not far at all . . .
He saw traces of light now, tinges of purple and rose on the rough, scalloped wall of the passage. Gettin’ there. Close. He gritted his teeth, stifled the urge to breathe. He could already picture himself crawling out of the headpool like a half-drowned muskrat, Miss Cecilia tsk-ing over him, and weeping; telling him he shouldn’t have tried, both of them weeping and happy.
Then there was the whisper of a touch, like a tentacle, at his ankle. It went tight, ensnaring him. Gripped fast, he stopped, the outflow rushing all around his naked body in the gloom. No! Ain’t no haint in this cave. Ain’t no . . .
Jonah tugged again and felt something thin cutting into the skin above his ankle. He stifled a scream, and water seeped past his clenched teeth. He probed along his leg for the snare that held him fast.
One of his discarded air bladders must have lodged in a rock or a crack, and a loop of floating rawhide thong had snagged him.
He gripped it with both hands, yanked with the full strength of fear, and pulled free. His foot was still caught in the cord, but the bladder and its attached weight were moving with him now, drifting down the center of the passage. He reached down for the cord, then shook his head.
Don’t go messing with that now. Tend to it later. Got to get out. Already his vision was darkening; dizziness was creeping in on him. The sash weights bumped along below him, the deflated bladder catching and rolling rocks on the passage floor. His chest muscles rippled as they tried vainly to draw in . . . something. Anything.
He turned a corner. Ahead, dimly, he could see the entrance to the cave, a purple sky gleaming through the darkness.
His throat throbbed now as he tried to gulp down air that simply wasn’t there. He bit his lips and thick blood spread across his tongue. The entrance loomed before him, close—so close that one good kick would see him through.
Jonah pushed, and the surface of the headpool roiled not twenty feet above his head. Treetops beckoned through an oval window of clear water: treetops and clouds and a dawn-pink eastern sky.
He sprang for the light—and stopped short.
Jonah tried once more, but again his leg was tethered. He reached down and yanked with both hands, but all he did was pull his body down. A waterlogged tree limb and chunks of limestone lay at the foot of the cave entrance, and one of the sash weights he was dragging had lodged there. It was stuck, wedged deep, down between two huge rocks. And it held him fast, like a man clapped in irons.
Jonah pulled again, but it was no good; he was weak as a kitten now. He reached down to free himself, but the outflow of the cave, strongest in the closeness of the entrance, blasted his arms up, high above his head. Then it kept him that way, like a man shouting “hallelujah” in a church.
Jonah’s clenched teeth slacked, and water coursed into his nose and mouth. He swallowed, and spring water, so sweet on the hot days of summer, burned like molten metal in his throat. He tried to scream, but nothing came out—only the tiniest of bubbles that wobbled up and around the little sunfish darting in the clear water above him.
The sun, big and bold and blood-red, had risen. A shaft of crimson sunlight speared through the water and reached Jonah Winslow’s face.
He was sad now. Sad that he had ever taken Cameron Donohue’s teenage dare. Sad that he had ever gotten up the nerve to explore the flooded cave and its darkness. Sad that he had come here, a weakened, old, work-broken man, to try and do something that would have tested a young man in his prime.
But mostly, Jonah was sad about Miss Cecilia, waiting up there, not fifty feet away. He had failed her, left her all alone in a world for which she had not been prepared.
Tears flooded his eyes and melted into the cool, fresh flow of the spring. Then the first ribbons of water trickled into his lungs, and he felt the joy of release, the bright, expectant warmth of homecoming.
His eyes went wide as the sunlight flared yellow and the headpool dissolved into blackness.