"Well, this just about lives up to the sack of dog dicks this day promised to be." Tim wiped a hand across his forehead and then looked ruefully at his blackened fingers.
"Speak for yourself," Rachel shot back as she threw another half-rotted board onto the pile that was slowly accumulating off to one side of the overgrown and boarded-up mine entrance. "I was having a perfectly fine day—ugh—until you boys came along and pulled me out here on your wild goose chase, sorry, I mean manhunt."
She dropped another board on the pile, wiped her hands on the seat of her slacks, and regarded the exposed mouth of the mine, a dark slash against the vivid green of the hillside. She couldn't help thinking that it looked like a hole in the world, too black to be real.
Tim picked a splinter out of his thumb with his teeth. "So where exactly did Deputy Davy Crockett Givens get off to—oh, there he is."
Raylan appeared from the direction of the road, where their cars were hidden from this vantage by dense underbrush. "Flashlights," he said, and passed them around. "Change of batteries too. No sense taking chances."
"Yep, that's us, playing it safe at all times," Tim said, flicking his light on and off, with a glance at the mine entrance.
"You call it in?" Rachel asked Raylan.
Tim snorted. "Course he didn't call it in, who do you think you're talking to?"
"Art knows the plan," Raylan said.
"Right," Rachel muttered, and keyed her radio. "Hey, boss, we're at the mine shaft that Deputy Givens says hooks up to the one where Albertson is holed up, about to head down. It's a—how long, Raylan?"
"Twenty-minute walk?" Raylan said. "Maybe half an hour. Approximately."
"You get that? Over."
"Copy," Art's voice said. "You ain't back by breakfast, whoever I hire to replace you gets their choice of desk."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Rachel said wryly.
"I have utmost confidence in you. Go get your man, deputies, and if Raylan gets you lost down there, I reserve the right to say I told you so."
"I know these mines like the back of my hand," Raylan said, as she put away the radio and replaced it with her flashlight.
Rachel traded a look with Tim.
"Yep," Tim said. "We're gonna die down there."
Raylan pushed hanging foliage back from the mine entrance. After a moment, thoughtfully, he took his hat off and tucked it under his arm. "You want to sit this one out at the car, be my guest."
"Let's say if you give it to us straight, not being a dick about it, which I know is hard for you, how dangerous is it, really?"
Raylan's voice came back to them as he slipped through the opening they'd cleared. "Just don't go off after any voices down there, or sounds of crying babies, that kinda thing. You'll be fine."
"Lord almighty, Raylan," Tim muttered. He drew his flashlight and gun, and ducked through the mine entrance. "This is bad enough without you bringing ghost stories into it."
But Rachel had seen Raylan's face, right before he stepped into the mine ahead of Tim. She wasn't entirely sure he was joking.
She stepped inside on their six and shivered. "It's cold in here."
"Just the contrast with the heat outside," Raylan's voice floated back to her. "Hotter'n Satan's butt crack out there. Cold's like heat, you stop feeling it after a while."
"Maybe some sonsabitches haven't got the good sense to feel it," Tim muttered. He shone his flashlight around at the sides of the tunnel. "You sure this isn't gonna fall on us?"
Rachel was wondering the same thing. The tunnel sloped steeply downhill, and the sides were shored up with ancient timbers, cracked and unstable-looking.
"Nobody's died in a mine cave-in since, oh, last week or so," Raylan said.
"As always," Tim said over his shoulder to Rachel, "I can't tell if that's Raylan Givens being a shit just because he can, or Raylan thinking he's being reassuring because he's Raylan."
"Little of both," Raylan said from up ahead. "By the way, talking in a normal voice is fine, but nobody yell if you can help it."
"Let me guess," Rachel said. "Cave-ins."
"Doesn't that mean guns are out too?" Tim inquired. There was an echo down here; it came back a second or two after each of them stopped talking, like bad CB reception.
"I mean, if you gotta choose between getting shot by an escaped convict or gambling on a cave-in, one of those is a lot more likely to be an immediate problem," Raylan said.
"I'd call a cave-in an immediate problem," Tim said.
By now she and Tim had caught up to Raylan, and the tunnel had widened far more than Rachel was expecting. Raylan put his hat back on. This was no narrow shaft; it was at least twenty or thirty feet wide, the ceiling supported with a row of wooden pillars. There were a few pieces of rusty old equipment around, ore carts and the like.
And it was definitely cold. Cold, and close, and utterly pitch dark, of course, a darkness so oppressive that it seemed to swallow their flashlight beams. But mostly, she wondered if it really ought to be that cold.
Raylan was probably right; it felt this chilly because it was ninety-eight degrees and a hundred percent humidity up top. Wasn't it a consistent temperature underground at all times of year? She remembered reading that somewhere.
"So where's this fabled cross-shaft to the other side of the mountain?" Tim said.
"Has anyone ever told you that you're an impatient man, Deputy Gutterson?" Raylan asked, sweeping his flashlight across the wall.
"Odds that he has no idea what he's doing are going up," Tim said to Rachel.
Rachel started to answer, but instead she gave a sharp gasp and spun around. For a minute she could've sworn she saw something moving in her flashlight beam, right on the edge of sight.
"Rachel?" Raylan said. "You see something?"
"No," she said, her heart rate settling down. "Just jumpy. If we can get over there, Albertson can make it over here, right?"
"Theoretically, but not likely," Raylan said. "You seriously saw something, Rachel? Yes or no."
"No," Rachel said, because she definitely hadn't. It was the edge of Raylan's moving flashlight beam washing over the support beams, the interacting shadows splayed out behind them. It had only looked pale and swift-moving; it was an optical illusion.
"You're absolutely sure." Raylan sounded serious.
"It's not Albertson, Raylan, all right? Just show us which way to go."
"Okay, huddle up, boys and girls," Raylan said. "Before we get any deeper, mine safety 101. Y'all listening?"
"I like how he waits until we're down here before he tells us how dangerous it is," Tim said. As they made their way over to him through the pillars, he gave Rachel's arm a reassuring pat, so understated that she hardly realized it was happening until he'd already done it.
"No loud noises," Raylan said. "No open flames. Stay together, which means, stay close to me. If the air gets bad, we don't push on, we go back. With me?"
"Yes, sir, Scout Troop leader," Tim said.
"And do not—I repeat, do not look at anything weird you see down here. Nothing's gonna hurt you if you don't look at it."
Out in the daylight, Rachel would have laughed. Here, in the dark, with her nerves still jangling, it was all she could do not to look over her shoulder. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
"Like what sort of weird thing?" Tim said. "Are we likely to see anything weird? What's in this mine, exactly?"
"Nothing," Raylan said. He smiled slightly, but it was tight. "There's nothing in the mine, and if you keep that in mind, you'll be fine."
"You know, I've got a thought," Tim said. "We go back up top, seal this mine shaft up again, maybe with concrete this time, and wait for Albertson to get hungry and come out on his own."
Raylan shrugged a little. "Works for me. I'll cut across down here, since I know the way. You two—"
"No, no, no," Rachel was saying, as Tim said, "Fuck that, Givens."
"So what do you suggest?" Raylan said.
"I suggest we get through this fucking mine and never go into one again," Tim said, shining his light ahead of them into the dark tunnel yawning in front of Raylan.
"Works for me," Raylan said. "Stay with me."
The deeper they went, the jumpier Rachel got.
It was nerves, she told herself. It was nerves, and it was the dark, and most of all it was Raylan's incredibly unhelpful briefing. Way to make everyone edgy and jumping at shadows, Raylan.
But she couldn't shake the creeping feeling of something behind her. It was right on the edge of hearing, of sensing—a faint skittering that could be footsteps, or the echo of their own; a feeling of presence that had occasionally saved her in the past while clearing a crime scene, but more often had turned out to be nothing but nerves. A dozen times she started to glance over her shoulder, then thought of Raylan's admonishment not to look at things down here, and wished she hadn't even tried to look at whatever she thought she saw back in the chamber near the surface. Maybe if she hadn't looked at it then, it wouldn't be following them now.
Okay, that was ridiculous, superstitious, kids-around-a-campfire sleepaway talk. Thanks, Raylan.
However, she was starting to really regret bringing up the rear. In fact, as the tunnel got narrower, the sides closer, she found herself trying to think of a pretext to switch with Tim for a little while.
From up ahead, Raylan said, "Shit."
"That's what I like to hear," Tim said.
It was too narrow for all of them to stand together, so Rachel leaned past Tim to see what had made Raylan stop.
The tunnel split here. The right side was clear for just a few feet and then, in the beam of Raylan's flashlight, rubble filled it; Rachel could clearly see where a reinforcing timber as thick as her waist had snapped, allowing rocks and dirt to slough into the tunnel.
The other way sloped slightly down.
"Lemme guess," Tim said. "We need to go right."
"Yeah, but I can get us around it," Raylan said. "It'll be a little longer, that's all."
"You're sure," Rachel said. "One hundred percent."
"One hundred percent. Pinky swear if you want me to."
"Raylan, I do not plan to die down here," Tim said. "And if you get me lost in a mine and we start to starve, I do plan to make sure you go first."
"And I for one am confident that you will," Raylan said. "Means I have every incentive to get us out of here, right? Conversely, we could just go back."
Rachel swallowed. She could feel her shirt sticking to her back; it was sweat from up top, but she'd also been sweating down here. Cold sweat. "I'm not entirely sure we can," she said.
There was a dead silence; the other two looked at her, both pale in the flashlight beams. Then Tim said, "Shit. I really hoped I was imagining things."
"There something back there?" Raylan asked. He said it matter-of-factly, like it wasn't objectively crazy.
"Yes," Rachel and Tim said together.
Raylan nodded, a slight little movement of his head, as if it was confirming something he already knew. "Left it is, and we need to get moving," he said. "Do not stop walking, and for fuck's sake do not look back."
He started forward. Rachel and Tim all but scrambled to keep up.
"Trade places?" Tim murmured to Rachel.
She wondered how much of what she was feeling showed on her face. Her heart felt like a triphammer. Not looking back was the hardest part. "No," she made herself say. Having it happen incidentally was one thing, but switching places because she was afraid, because Tim knew she was afraid—no.
And anyway, part of this job was watching each other's backs. Having Tim back here in her place wouldn't be an improvement.
"Just sing out," Tim said under his breath. They were both walking fast now, but still having some trouble keeping up with Raylan.
"I will. Thanks."
"Fucking mines," Tim said. "Fucking Harlan County."
"Tell me about it."
It was much worse after that. It was one thing when it was just her imagination, or at least she could convince herself of that. Acknowledging it, bringing it out into the open, treating it as something real made it a thousand times harder to ignore the way that the echoes of their footsteps lingered a little too long (and a little too close, and with the wrong cadence) whenever they paused.
Someone whispered "Rachel!" behind her in the dark. She took a skipping step forward and stumbled into Tim.
"You okay?" he asked softly, catching her. "Something happen?"
"No," she gasped out. They were all out of breath now; without talking about it, they'd been automatically picking up the pace, and already there was a gap widening between Raylan and them. "No, it's—"
There's nothing in the mine, and if you keep that in mind, you'll be fine.
"—nothing," she breathed out. "Nothing. Let's keep moving, before Raylan goes and leaves us behind."
"It'd be just like the sumbitch," Tim said, and he gave her a steadying hand on her arm as the two of them hurried forward, half walking, half running. "Get us lost down here, duck out and go back and have a drink and wait for us to find our way out on our own."
"I heard that," Raylan said from up ahead. He was out of breath, too.
"The paperwork, though," Rachel panted. "Think of the paperwork if you abandon us down here."
Think of the jokes, think of warm well-lit places, definitely do NOT think about the way the footsteps behind us are distinct from ours now, not an echo but with a dragging cadence all their own; try not to to think about the whispering susurration with every side tunnel we pass, as if someone is talking just out of hearing, or the cool breeze on the back of my neck, as if something just passed behind me in the dark, almost close enough to touch ...
"Jesus," Tim muttered, falling out of step for a moment and causing her to stumble into him.
"What?" Rachel asked. Her voice sounded much too loud.
"Nothing, just—" He didn't look at her. "Are we sure it's Raylan we're following?"
"What?" Rachel said again, with a note of true alarm. They'd fallen behind again; all that was visible of Raylan now was the flashlight dancing up ahead.
"I said, we need to catch up," Tim said, and took off with a burst of speed that she could barely keep up with.
They were all running, all three of them, when they burst out into afternoon sunshine and lush greenery. The light had been growing around them for the last couple of minutes, so it wasn't a complete surprise, but the change was so abrupt and complete that Rachel felt dazed; it was like walking through a door onto an alien planet.
They stumbled to a stop among the trees, knee-deep in leafy foliage, and Tim burst out a relieved, "Jesus Christ!" while they all leaned on trees and tried to catch their breath.
"It's not usually that bad," Raylan said, sounded profoundly shaken.
"No shit!" Tim gasped out, hands on his knees. "If it was like that all the time, you'd have to force people to mine coal at fucking gunpoint!"
"How many times have you had something like that happen?" Rachel asked, looking at Raylan. Her hands were shaking, but it was almost worse that Raylan was being so matter-of-fact about it. She tried not to think about Tim's question—
Are we sure it's Raylan we're following?
—especially since she wasn't entirely sure it had been Tim asking the question. It was definitely Raylan and Tim now, of that she was sure.
As sure as you can be, some tiny voice threaded through her subconscious. Despite the heat of the day, she felt cold.
"Just twice," Raylan said, and it took her a moment to remember what she'd asked. Then she thought, Twice. Fuck. Especially since it would've had to be when he was basically just a kid.
She wondered how much those experiences had to do with the way he'd run as far and fast as he could from Harlan County. The worst part was thinking that it had very little to do with it, that a haunted mine was really the least of the problems that had driven Raylan as far away from his old hometown as he could get.
At least these ghosts stayed underground.
Or they'd better stay underground.
"Whew," Tim said, straightening up. He ran a hand through the sweaty mess of his hair. His face was smudged with cave dirt. "Well, that was fun, Raylan, remind me to invite you to my next backyard barbecue for sure, and does anyone know where we are? Because this definitely is not the mineshaft where we lost Albertson."
"Took a shortcut," Raylan said. He coughed and wiped his mouth. "I figured coming up anywhere, didn't matter where, was better than staying down there. We're about half a mile above the highway, couple miles from where we left the cars, I guess."
"Anybody else get a text from Art?" Rachel asked, holding her phone up to improve reception.
"Aw, shit," Raylan said, reading it.
Hey cavers, Albertson's in custody. Came up on his own, scared out of his mind and babbling about shit. If you three are still down there and we have to send dogs after you, the department is personally charging you for it.
Rachel texted an acknowledgement and tucked her phone back into her pocket. Then they all looked at each other.
"Another job well done," Tim said. "Go team."
Raylan flipped him off.
"I'd say Raylan's buying the drinks tonight," Rachel said.
"Raylan's buying the drinks for the rest of the week, if not the year," Tim said. He jerked a thumb downhill. "Come on, I don't feel like being out here after dark, don't know about the rest of you."
Nobody actually acknowledged the point, but nobody dallied, either.
As they started the hike downhill to the road, even in the golden heat of sun and afternoon, where nothing could possibly touch her, Rachel was still all too aware of the mineshaft behind her, hidden though it was though a curtain of trees. And she didn't look back, not even once.