Mark, Logan, and Becky looked at one another. They suddenly realized that the cowboy was right. Being greater in number does yield them a natural advantage. They could work together and get Diane out of here faster.
A bloodcurdling shriek stopped them cold. They turned around and saw the cowboy curled up tightly on the floor. He was screaming in agony. Again and again.
Andrew’s face was ghostly white and the pain in his injured arm seemed to be more than he could endure.
Andrew went at George with both fists. But before he could aim a punch at George, his face was twisted in pain. He screamed and collapsed on the floor, cradling his injured arm and moaning.
Mark, Becky, and Logan surrounded Andrew anxiously. They wished the cowboy had not been so foolhardy and reckless.
Mark looked at him with concern. “You alright?”
George laughed. “I hope you learn your lesson well, Wimp.” Jennifer sniggered.
At this the cowboy looked up, his face pale and wan. Clenching his fists and gritting his teeth, he began to crawl toward George again.
“Y’all git Diane and git out of here,” he called over his shoulder to the other three. “I’m goin’ to git to the bottom of this!”
“Stay out of this, Wimp,” he spat. “Or else, you are going to regret it.”
Andrew growled. He knew he ought to act indifferent to insults. It wasn’t easy, though, when you’re being nicknamed as “Wimp” in school.
The cowboy’s face turned crimson with fury. “Or else what?” he snarled at George. “I ain’t afraid of ya. Ya big, ugly bully!” Andrew held his fists in front of him belligerently. “What ya goin’ do?!”
Mark was alarmed. “Andrew, don’t,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
Andrew wasn’t listening. He was already charging toward George, who merely stood with his arms crossed.
Meanwhile, the cowboy was staring at Diane’s tattered shirtsleeves and her scraped elbows. He was relieved that Diane was alive, but he didn’t like what he was seeing.
“That ain’t a bargain. That’s a threat!” he snapped at Jennifer. “Y’all better release her at once!”
Andrew wasn’t sure what he might do if they don’t release Diane. Still he was determined to do something and set things right.
Jennifer narrowed her eyes at the cowboy. But it was George who spoke.
Mark could feel anger rising up from his chest, but he tried to keep his feelings in check. This was not the time for him to act on feelings.
“I need to know what you’ve done to her,” he demanded, hoping his voice sounded steady.
Jennifer sniffed. “That’s beside the point,” she answered. “I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you, Mark.”
His throat tightened. “What exactly do you want?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” she said irritably. “Show us the treasure room and she’ll be yours. It’s a good bargain.”
Mark was too terrified to speak. He had a sick feeling that he might not be able to save Diane.
George reappeared. Behind him, Diane shuffled in with her hands twisted and tied behind her back.
Mark heard several gasps, including his own.
Everyone recognized the rope that tightened around Diane’s wrists at once. It was the same one that Andrew had dropped into the hole by accident.
“Diane!” Mark called out.
For some reason, Diane did not speak. She appeared petrified, and her large, glassy eyes stared blankly into the air. His heart sank.
“What do you say, Mark?” Jennifer sneered.
“You want to go on and pretend you don’t know.” She smiled. “That’s perfectly understandable – considering all the fortune there is. But I’m a person of patience. In fact, I’ve got all the time in the world for you to make up your mind. So take your time.” She made it sound as if she were being nice and doing him a great favor.
Mark did not know what to say. He’d only heard about treasure rooms in tales.
Jennifer smirked. “Oh,” she went on as though she just remembered something else important. “Maybe this will help.” With that, she snapped her fingers.
Worst yet, Jennifer began to stalk around him in a strange manner. With a penetrating look, she asked, “Where is the treasure room?”
“What? What treasure room?” He wondered if this was a dream.
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Mark suddenly had an urge to laugh. “Does anyone here know what she’s talking about?” he asked no one in particular. “Because I sure don’t.” He chuckled nervously.
Jennifer did not look pleased. A brief, terrible silence followed as she continued to stare at him intensely.
Mark looked away. For a moment, he was unsure if he wanted to know what she was up to.
“So that’s how it is, isn’t it?” Jennifer said finally.
Mark stared at her in confusion.
Mark was shocked and speechless. Was Jennifer trying to reject Logan? If that was the case, she was definitely succeeding. But calling George my lord? This was all too strange. He wished someone would tell him what was going on.
“Do not exhaust yourself, my lord,” Jennifer went on, her face as hard as stone. “Let me take care of this.”
George nodded, rubbing his temples as though trying to alleviate a headache, and left the room without a word.
“Aye,” answered George with a sigh. “Jen, love.”
The others, he saw, were also gaping at the newcomer, who turned out to be Jennifer Harrison from school. The one Logan brooded over and talked most often about. Mark didn’t know what to think. What’s she doing here? And what’s all that “Jen, love” nonsense about?
Logan was staring at Jennifer disbelievingly, his ears reddened – either in embarrassment or in fury, Mark couldn’t tell. “Jenny?”
“Has he told you yet?” Jennifer asked George coldly without giving the redhead a glance.
George put an arm around her and gently patted her hand.
“Not yet, love,” he answered in a strange, subdued voice. “Be patient. He will.”
A thin and shrill voice startled Mark. “You summon me?”
Mark turned toward the sound and was taken by surprise.
A girl, tossing her dark and lank hair, strode into the room through the charred doorway, followed by a small bat.
She walked over to George, while the bat, flaring its small wings, flew up to join the others and swung lazily upside down. The girl took no notice of the others’ presence in the room, which Mark found very odd.
Terror forbade him to move.
Mark felt his stomach churning and turning into a knot. What were these bats doing here? Roosting? Mark couldn’t help but thinking of the other bats he’d met in the Dark Woods. He only hoped that these bats were about as meek as they seem.
Then he thought, no, the bats on the ceiling could not have possibly been roosting here. The entire room was sparkling clean when they walked in and there were no signs of droppings anywhere. They must have flown in only a moment ago. But why?