“Do you think you can climb out, if I put you on my shoulders?”
“I can try,” she said, letting her head lull over and rest on his shoulder for an instant.
A rush of need washed through him as he put his arm around her, pulling her closer. “We’ll get out of here,” he said, stroking her hair even as he did the math. Their combined heights plus his arm length would still leave them ten feet short of the top.
He stared up at the opening. If he could get her close, maybe she could use the tree roots to climb out.
“Let’s give it a try.” He helped her to her feet. “I want you to use the roots once you stand up. Jerk on them first, make sure they’ll hold you.”
Baylor bent over. “Climb on my shoulders.” He braced himself, watching her pull off her shoes and shove them into the back waistband of her pants.
Caution wiggled along Mariah’s spine and settled in her gut as she put her leg over Baylor’s shoulders and sat down on his neck. He put his hands on her thighs and slowly raised her up.
She worked to keep her balance. Reaching out, she caught hold of a root and steadied herself. “Get as close to the wall as you can.”
A spray of dirt rained down from the wall where she splayed her hand against it.
“Go easy,” he warned. “The whole thing could come down.”
Anxiety bit into her nerves. “Okay, I’m going to stand up.” Balancing, using Baylor’s raised hands, she put her left foot on his left shoulder.
“Come on, babe. You can do it,” he coaxed as she wobbled, put the majority of her weight down on her left foot, and pushed up into a standing position, catching his other shoulder in the process.
“If you ever decide to quit chasing cows, we can join the circus.”
He chuckled, and she felt the vibration through the bottoms of her stockinged feet. Reaching out, she took hold of a root, pulling at it like Baylor had told her to do. It held fast.
Stretching her other arm up, she gauged the distance to the opening. Eight feet, maybe ten. Searching, she locked her hand on another root, this one much larger. She felt it give when she jerked on it, and another shower of grit rained down on Baylor’s head.
“So many of them are loose.” She pulled on another one; it held. “If I can just find a couple that’ll hold my weight.”
She balanced, wobbled and regained her balance, feeling Baylor put his hands on her calves to steady her. “I think I can reach the top.”
Feeling with her right foot, she found a toehold and put pressure on it. It held. Gingerly, she grasped the two tendrils she’d determined would hold, and stepped up off Baylor’s shoulders.
Holding on for dear life, she felt the root give slightly, then hold fast. She caught her breath, and remained perfectly still, making sure it would continue to hold her before she searched for another foothold.
Focused on the opening, she climbed upward an inch at a time. Hope coursed in her veins and she could feel the sun’s warmth on the top of her head.
She reached the top, grabbed a root and started to claw her way out of the hole.
A bullet pierced the tendril above her thumb and fingers. The root snapped and decomposed in her hand.
She lost her balance, and launched backward, a scream ripped from her throat.
Baylor braced for the impact, watching Mariah fall toward him in a hail of dirt and debris.
He caught her in his arms.
The earth dropped under his feet from the catch.
Before he could move they were falling again, to the floor of the shaft in a haze of dust and rock.
Fighting to hold on to her in the chaos, Baylor locked his arm around her waist.
They hit with a thud. The air rushed out of his lungs. He lay still until the dust cleared and opened his eyes in the darkness, still holding on to her.
“Are you okay?”
She shuddered. “Yeah. What happened?”
“The floor of the shaft gave way. We’re in the tunnel below.”
Baylor released her, sat
Jessica Coulter Smith, Jessica Smith