New Mexico Territory, 1895
The rage burned within him. From betrayal. From abuse. From being locked up in prison for a lifetime. He fed on the rage, clung to it, until rage was his one desperate link to sanity.
He sat on the cold floor of his underground cell, his knees drawn up, his back pressed against the wall, darkened from the blood of nameless inmates before him. He listened.
It was happening again.
Voices. In the middle of the night. Heavy footsteps. The creak of the iron grate opening over one more cell.
Missing prisoners. Never seen again.
The rage pulsed inside him. His brain sifted through the muffled sounds. The moans and grunts. The chink of ankle chains from one more victim dragged away. Foreboding settled over him. Black and ominous.
He could be next.
A grate whined on its hinges, then clanged shut. Silence fell. A grim, gruesome silence.
The cell closed in on him. Lack of ventilation, his own sweat and filth, choked the air in his lungs.
He stared up at the grate, nine feet above. Unreachable. He fought the claws of despair, refused to give into its mastery.
Instead, he nurtured the rage, stoked it, kept it pulsating inside him.
He’d find a way to escape. Or die trying.
Christmas Eve, One Week Later
Their song filled the monastery chapel with a reverence that rivaled the seraphim, and for each of the eighteen good Sisters kneeling in the pews, the words came from deep within their hearts, pure and fervent.
But none more so than Hannah Benning’s. She had much to thank God for, and even more to ask of Him, and thus she sang the Latin hymn with all the piety she could muster.
She was trying very hard. It had not been in her at first to pray like this, almost all day every day, to sing and be meek and silent to those around her, but it suited her now. She would live this life forever. She had to, for Pa’s sake.
“Te Deum Laudamus,” the ancient hymn of praise and thanksgiving, ended. The chapel plunged into complete darkness. Hannah closed her eyes and savored the silence.
The midnight Office was her favorite of the Vespers. The most dramatic. A fitting welcome to the new day when once she’d been afraid of the dawn. But she wasn’t afraid anymore. She was safe here as a newly-vowed novitiate, loved and protected.
But safe, most of all.
Sister Evangeline nudged her gently, and Hannah’s eyes opened. Mother Superior emerged from the vestibule carrying the Paschal candle. She held its flame high, and guided by the flickering light, strode solemnly down the length of the chapel to the altar. She enshrined the candle and lit a smaller one, then turned toward the front pew, passing the flame to each Sister holding candles of their own. Soon, the chapel glowed with golden candlelight, with the joy of prayer and peace, and the air filled with their lyrical voices, praising and rejoicing the glorious season of Advent, the birth of the Christ Child.
Too soon, the ritual ended. Hannah tried not to think of Christmas, her first without Pa, but instead blew out her candle and left the pew. Her knee touched the cold stone floor in a deep genuflect. She crossed herself and stood to leave.
Mother Superior led the Sisters in silent formation from the chapel, their single line practiced, perfect. The block walls, bare from adornment except for a simple crucifix, cast a chill into the dim hall, and Hannah shivered beneath her brown wool habit.
The corridor angled past the main door to the monastery and wound toward the Sisters’ sleeping quarters. Over the hushed shuffle of sandal soles, the outside bell tolled unexpectedly, sending a startled ripple through the women. The toll announced someone at the gate; an oddity, for the clock had not yet chimed the first hour of the new morning. Hannah exchanged a puzzled glance with Sister Evangeline.
The tolling grew more forceful. The iron gate rattled. The bell clanged again and again.
Mother Superior pushed aside the muslin curtain covering the window. “It’s Father Donovan.” She made the Sign of the Cross. “Thank our Lord he is safe. He should have been here hours ago.”
She lifted the latch and tugged the door open. Cold air drifted inward. The clanging stopped, and she rushed outside. The gate squeaked, and within moments, she reappeared with the priest, aged well into his fifties and breathing heavily from his exertions.
Black robes flared about his ankles; a knotted rope wound about his plump waist. The wisps of hair remaining on his balding pate stood in wild disarray.
His arms were laden with baskets filled with fresh-baked bread and jars of preserves, holiday gifts for the less fortunate. Hannah herself had helped fill them. He set the baskets aside.
“Forgive me for my tardiness, but-.” He paused to catch his breath. A ruddiness colored his cheeks.
“Slow down, Father. Has Lucifer been chasing you?” Mother Superior’s eyes crinkled, and she patted the priest’s arm.
“Lucifer has no time for me, it seems,” he said. He cast a hesitant glance toward the sisters, their perfect line hopelessly gone awry in their curiosity. “He’s been busy elsewhere.”
Her humor gone, the abbess frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“It’s the prison. Something is wrong. Graves are being dug. Now. At this very hour. Too many to count.”
“I first noticed them on my way to deliver our baskets,” he said. “The sight troubled me, and I had to return for a second look.” He shook his head in puzzlement. “More graves have been added. I knew I must come back for help.” He emitted a slight moan of dismay. “I can’t help feeling the warden has engaged in some form of illicit behavior.”
The abbess pursed her lips. “Warden Briggs has a heart of stone, it’s true, but I can’t imagine him doing anything that would jeopardize his position at the prison. Surely the inmates suffer from an ailment. Influenza or stomach poisoning, perhaps. The food served there is atrocious.”
“If it were a treatable illness, what wasn’t a doctor called? Or me? And why the secrecy? Lord help us, digging graves at midnight!”
“You must go back, then.” Mother Superior’s decisive tone indicated Father Donovan had convinced her of the seriousness of the situation. “Those men deserve our prayers and compassion. And the Last Rites, if nothing else.”
“Yes, yes. I quite agree.” He skimmed a glance over the group. “Sister Evangeline, you have an understanding of medicine. I’d like you to accompany us. Bring what medical supplies you have.”
“Yes, Father.” As if he had only suggested a stroll through the garden instead of an uninvited late-night visit to the notorious penitentiary, the young nun lowered her wimpled head without argument. She was Hannah’s age, in her twentieth year, and Hannah marveled at her obedience.
“I’ll fetch my prayer book and holy water,” he said. “I’ll be but a moment.”
After he left, Mother Superior turned toward the group of nuns. “We shall return to the chapel to offer more prayers this hour. Sister Mary Margaret, begin the rosary, won’t you? I shall join you shortly. Hannah, I’d like a word with you.”
Hannah halted in mid-step. Sandaled feet scurried toward the chapel amidst a clatter of rosary beads, leaving her behind and wary of what the abbess might ask of her.
“Sister Evangeline, you’d best fetch a cloak,” Mother Superior suggested. “And please fetch an extra one, as well.”
“Yes, Mother,” she said and departed toward the sleeping quarters.
In the dimness of the hall, Hannah waited with her gaze to the stone floor.
“Sister Evangeline cannot go alone to the penitentiary, even with Father Donovan as her escort. I would like you to accompany her, Hannah.”
Hannah’s eyes widened, and her head lifted. “But, Mother–.”
“Hear me out, my child.” Though they spoke in hushed tones, firmness laced every word. “You have not left the monastery since you joined us. This is an opportunity, a test of sorts, to help others in need and to assure us of your calling.”
In the low, even voice she had learned to emulate, Hannah dared to protest. “There are other novitiates far more worthy than I to do this kindness at the penitentiary. I-I am not ready.”
“There is no other better suited.” The abbess hesitated. “Your past has prepared you for this act of mercy. You have been-shall we say-hardened for what you will see there.”
“Mother, I seek only to forget.”
“You are not here to avoid the world, my child. You are here to embrace it, to pray for others and help them when they cannot help themselves.”
Dread draped Hannah like a suffocating blanket. “Please. I ask for only a little more time.”
A gentle smile hovered upon Mother Superior’s mouth. “You have taken the name Sister Ariel. ‘Lioness of God.’ When you speak your final vows, you will no longer be Hannah, but Ariel. A lioness. Strong and proud.” The smile deepened, as if she approved of what Hannah must face. “Tonight will be a chance for you to learn if you are worthy of such a beautiful name.”
Miserable, Hannah lowered her gaze. “Yes, Mother.”
A slender finger tilted her chin up again. “You will be safe with Father Donovan and Sister Evangeline. Try not to worry so. Warden Briggs, for all his sinful ways, will not harm you. He is like the devil who withers in front of Jesus’ Cross.”
The softly spoken words did little to salve Hannah’s apprehension. With Father Donovan at her heels, Sister Evangeline hurried toward them and thrust a wool cloak into Hannah’s hands. Silently, she slipped into its folds.
“Take the baskets,” the abbess urged. “The men will need decent food to eat as well as our prayers.”
“Of course,” the priest said, taking one and handing another to Sister Evangeline. He left the last of them for Hannah. “We will return as soon as we can,” he said and hurried outside.
The abbess’ head inclined in a deep nod. “God be with you all.”
For the briefest of seconds, Hannah met her glance. Beneath the starched wimple, the abbess’ smile faded, and concern creased her brow. Sister Evangeline stepped out into the night’s chill. Hannah swallowed hard, slipped the basket’s handle over her arm and followed.
With the clang of the iron gate echoing throughout the hall, Mother Superior clutched her rosary beads and began to pray.
The New Mexico Territorial Prison loomed like a black monster on the horizon. Darkness enshrouded the grim structure; the air hung heavy with the scent of death, and the grisly silence sent shivers of unease down Hannah’s spine.
She had not thought she’d be near such a place again in her lifetime, and yet fate had thrown her back when she’d sought only to escape, to leave the memories of a life peppered with evil behind. She did not want this ‘test’ of her calling. She did not want the uncertainties of the next minute or hour to keep her from the haven she’d needed in recent months. She stared hard at the imposing penitentiary. No, she did not want this.
Too many times Pa had dragged her with him into escapades not so different from this one. In the end, she had survived when he had not. It had cost her dearly, and just thinking of what laid ahead clogged her throat with the bitter taste of an ugly premonition.
The carriage drew closer, the wheels growling over the rocky ground in warning of their approach. But it seemed their arrival went undetected. The rig rolled to a stop.
“See them? Over there.” Father Donovan pointed to a far corner of the penitentiary grounds. There, on a rise of land, mounds of earth took the shape of newly-dug graves. In the meager spray of moonlight, Hannah deciphered an assortment of shovels and spades strewn about, as if the time had not come to put them away, that they would be needed again soon. She gripped the plain wooden cross hanging from her neck and shuddered.
“The burial place is not easily seen from any road,” she murmured.
“Odd the warden would go to such lengths, don’t you think, Father?” Sister Evangeline asked.
“Yes. Definitely so.” Abruptly, he crossed himself. “May God have mercy on all we find here.” He sat up straighter. “Let’s hear what the warden has to say about those graves.”
Hannah exchanged a troubled glance with Sister Evangeline. She chafed at what laid ahead, but the meek obedience Mother Superior had instilled in her forbade the protests she longed to make.
With a slap of the reins, the priest urged the team of horses into a wide circle, and, after a short drive, brought the carriage to a stop at the front entrance of the penitentiary. After setting the brake, he jumped down and offered Hannah his hand. She was grateful; she feared the queasiness in her belly had turned her knees to mush.
After dismounting, Sister Evangeline huddled beside her. “The men harbored here have the blackest of souls, Hannah.”
“Yes,” she said and tilted her head back to peruse the front of the prison, two stories high, harsh and unyielding. She knew the brand of men locked inside. The swiftness of the knowledge, the clarity of the memory, surprised her. Hannah hooked her arm with Sister Evangeline’s and squeezed. “We must have faith.”
Father Donovan knocked once, twice. They stood on the top step and waited. After the third knock, the thick door jerked open, and a uniformed guard appeared.
“Who goes there?” he demanded, squinting into the darkness. He lifted the kerosene lamp in his hand higher. A badge emblazoned with name “Titus” was pinned on his chest. He ran a sharp glance over them.
“Father Donovan, sir. We must speak with the warden. Immediately.”
“Briggs? What for?” A jagged scar slashed his cheek. His eyes narrowed in suspicion of the baskets.
“We have gifts for the men. But more importantly, there’s a matter that concerns us.”
The guard grunted. His gaze darted behind them, in the direction of the graveyard, then back again.
“He’s busy,” he snapped and moved to slam the door closed.
In a bold move, the priest’s arm shot out and held it open. “We insist.”
“Oh, do you now?”
“We’ll not leave until we speak with him. Only a few questions, if you please.”
“Yeah?” Titus seemed skeptical. “Briggs ain’t gonna like bein’ interrupted.”
“Something is amiss here. An illness?” the priest demanded. “Perhaps it is treatable. We want to help. Nothing more.”
The guard glared.
“Do you truly want the deaths of more men on your conscience?” the priest asked, pulling no punches about the penitentiary’s secret. “Who knows? Maybe you will be next. Have you thought of that?”
The taunt hit its mark. The guard swore and yanked the door open wider. “He’s in the infirmary. If’n Briggs asks, it wasn’t me who let you in, y’hear?”
“God bless you.” The priest bustled inside. “God bless you, indeed.”
Sister Evangeline scuttled in after him. Hannah hurried to follow, but Titus’ large hand clasped her elbow, forbidding her to take another step.
“Well, look-ey here,” he drawled. “Reckon we ain’t never had no Ladies of the Cloth in here before.” He raked her with a lecherous glance, his scarred cheek quivering, his words floating toward her on puffs of stale breath. “Hell, we ain’t never had no ladies at all.”
Hannah’s stomach churned. Father Donovan hastily pushed the guard’s hand away. “I insist upon respect for the Sisters while we are within the confines of this penitentiary. They are here to do God’s work. If any insults are delivered, deliver them to me instead.”
Titus chuckled. “Reckon I don’t find you as appealin’.” But he released Hannah’s elbow and stepped back, allowing her to pass.
Sister Evangeline’s arm locked with hers. Hannah clung tightly and drew in a slow breath.
With a confidence that bespoke his convictions, the priest led the way. Hannah took a measure of comfort in his presence. They were safe enough. Mother Superior had promised, and if there was little else Hannah had learned in her time in the monastery, it was Mother Superior never lied.
They plunged into the deepest bowels of the penitentiary.
A clinging, choking stench reached them from within a deserted hall, a mixture of sickness and filth and despair, and Hannah fought to keep from gagging. From the depths of the shadows, someone moaned. In others, a man wept. A damp mustiness chilled the air, and Hannah was certain there’d never been a place more miserable than this.
Sister Evangeline kept the front of her cloak pressed to her nose, her gaze darting furtively to the dark corners. Father Donovan appeared less affected. Clearly, he’d known what to expect. His brisk stride slowed.
“Here is where the men sleep,” he said quietly, pointing toward the floor. “In cells beneath the ground. One after another. See them? Nothing more than archaic dungeons.” He clucked his tongue. “An abomination.”
“God have mercy,” Hannah murmured.
Keeping her skirts snug about her, she peered downward at an iron grate, two feet square, nestled in the wooden floor. No light shown through the grate, only a dank and wretched darkness, and an eerie silence from within.
“The men are lowered into their cells by ladders,” he continued, his tone hushed. “Once inside, the guards remove them until it’s time to let the men out again in the morning.”
She scrutinized the orifice. “Has the warden no compassion?”
“Very little, Hannah.”
“There’s no light. No fresh air!”
“The cells are primitive, with packed earth floors and damp walls to let the cold in. They’re the warden’s version of solitary confinement, an experiment he’s–.”
“Hey!” A man’s shout leapt upward from the grate. A loud clatter, a solid object hurled against the iron, startled Hannah out of her wits.
She jumped back with a squeal.
The priest grabbed for her. “Who’s up there? Hey! A woman? Let me outta here, honey!”
Father Donovan dragged Hannah away from the cells.
“Forgive me,” he rasped, his hold on her revealing he was as shaken as she. “I should have taken more care. Sweet heaven, let’s hope he doesn’t incite a riot.”
Hannah pressed a hand to her thudding heart and strove to regain her composure.
“The infirmary is just around the corner. We’re almost there,” he continued and drew a calming breath. “Are you all right, Hannah?” At her nod, he patted her shoulder. “The men can do us no harm while in their cells. Rest assured on that.”
“I’m fine, Father. Truly,” she said and adjusted her wimple on a wave of dismay. She had acted like a frightened rabbit. Where was her courage?
“Come, then. Let’s hope the warden is in a talkative mood.”
Her voice reached him through the darkness. The silken sound filtered down from the grate over his cell. Drifted over him. Surrounded him.
He strained to hear more. Words of concern, soft, edged in velvet. And then, from the cell next to him, Sol hurling something at the grate, scaring her away.
The silence returned. He sat very still, waiting, his mind working, always working.
They knew about the graves. That’s why they were here.
Sol began the code, the tap of his chains, one link against another, spreading the news of a woman in the house. Down the line of cells, the inmates picked up the rhythm, and the tapping grew louder.
But he didn’t take part.
Not this time.
He would use her, this woman.
His fingers found the weakened link holding his own length of chains, the one he’d been saving for just this moment. The muscles in his arms tightened, and the link inched apart, the chains gave way, and he was free.
The tapping increased in intensity, a smokescreen for what he was about to do. He crawled to the darkest corner of his cell and clawed at the dirt, softened from the rest of the floor. He withdrew the pair of broom handles, tied together with strips of cloth, and tested their strength.
He stood and studied the grate above him, knowing the handles would reach, that the chinks he’d made in the earthen walls provided the toeholds he’d need to climb up.
She was his only chance.