All right, so it’s going to be quite a bit confusing now if you don’t start at the beginning, so here. ; )
I have to go back out there.
From the safety of the crevasse Eugene can see his pack, papers strewn about. He cannot see if the hooded man also lingers about, waiting to see if his quarry emerges from hiding. After a little under an hour with no signs of movement, he takes a deep breath and starts to worm his way outside. The mid-morning light lends even the skeletal white trees some semblance of warmth, and the mist has cleared. There are no signs of animal life or otherwise, not even a bird in the lightly-clouded sky, simply the unnatural quiet that has reigned since his entry into the forest. Poking his head out, the silence is reflected in his surroundings. Twisting until he is free from the stone coffer, he walks over to his scattered cargo and looks at it, hands on his hips, then glances back at the hole.
“Well, would have probably had to take it out to squeeze in there anyhow. No way I’m climbing over these peaks.” As if to echo this sentiment, there is the sound of rocks falling in the distance. Eugene raises an eyebrow. “Guess I shouldn’t really be surprised at this point.” He gathers up a stack of papers, stops for a moment, eyes angled upward, snaps his fingers, and grabs a match as well. It takes a bit longer, but once inside he lights the match and stares at its flame. It leans toward the back of the cave. The cave itself is littered with fragments of stone, slate walls smooth where not lined with diagonal ridges. He moves further down the passage, eyes upon the crumbling floor. The thin line of light from outside is now barely visible and he once again holds up the tiny matchflame, its stick now half the length it was. This time the flame leans toward Eugene, who sighs, extinguishing the match.
“Oops.” There is the sound boots upon rock and light floods the area.
“Hey, what the hell are you doing in here?”
Eugene starts and drops the stack of paper he was holding and turns to face the glaring man who has stepped out from a barely visible side passage. He holds up his now-empty hands, palms facing out. “My apologies, is this your cave?”
“It’s mine and my partner’s gold mine, I’ll have you know. You’d best vacate it if you know what’s good for ya.” It becomes apparent that the man is holding a sharply pointed pickaxe, the haft of which he smacks against his palm.
“I’m sorry, I had no idea. I’m simply trying to get to Fencepost and, well, I didn’t want to go over the mountains. Am I right in assuming that this is a tunnel that leads to the other side?”
“Yep, it leads right out… hey, how did you know that?” He points the less threatening top of the pickaxe at Eugene in what is obviously meant to be a more threatening gesture, seemingly unaware that a pickax is much less dangerous when the pointy bits aren’t aimed at you.
“Ah, well, I’ll show you.” He repeats his match experiment, and the flame bends obligingly away from the depths of the tunnel. “See? You can tell by the air that’s flowing and causing the flame to lean towards the opening of the cave. I read about this technique in one of my books.”
“Well how about that! All I know is breakin’ rocks, none o’ that science business. ’S long as you’re not after the gold I’ll show you the way through. But how did you get in here, anyhow?”
“Well, if you see over there,” he gestures with one hand toward the light coming from the entry crack, “your cave has an alternate entrance, though I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Are you serious? Even if I’d know about it I wouldn’t have thought it were possible to fit through that pinhole, though you are a skinny one.”
“I was also a bit desperate at the time,” and he tells Robbie about the hooded man.
“No kiddin’? I thought the most dangerous things in these parts were the wolves, and they mostly keep to themselves, ‘specially if you keep a fire going.” Eugene raises an eyebrow but makes no comment. He follows as they walk through the much more hospitable, if a bit lengthier, main tunnel. “And you said you’re delivering papers to Fencepost? Once you pass through here you’ll be about halfway there.”
“Thank God. I’m well-tired of these parts. You’re sure nothing strange has happened to you and… was it Jim?”
“Only strange thing is the trees, but who knows. Probably some tropical breed that took over. That, and how little gold we’ve found, curse this mine. Our buddy John said he was sure this was a prime spot, though where he got that information I don’t know.”
They emerge into the afternoon sunlight, each squinting at the abrupt change from the dry darkness of the tunnel. Eugene gathers up what’s left, puts it into his now-deflated pack, and they head back into the tunnel. Once inside he stuffs the rest in as well, a mishmash of books, paper, and wrapped food, which goes on top.
“What’re they gonna do with all that stuff in Fencepost?”
“My father seems to think there are people there who have an interest in printing. I’m simply the errand boy.”
“Ha! Sound like you’re going to have about as much luck as me and Jim’ve had.”
Their progress is marked by a rapid decrease in the level of light. This time it is Robbie who starts rummaging in his satchel. The crusty, gritty hand emerges with two thick sticks, the end of each wrapped in fabric that stink of sulfur and lime. He holds one out to Eugene.
“Torch for ya,” Robbie says and passes it over, quickly lighting his own and using it to light the other. The light struggles against the confined space, throwing the pick-scarred walls in sharp relief. Further and further they go, descending on a gentle slope, the moisture and the walls and ceiling steadily expanding. Occasionally a drop hits one of their torches, which has much the same reaction a cat would have to water, hissing and spitting. After around twenty minutes of walking, the tunnel becomes a true cave, angular rock replaced by stalactites, tips gleaming in the unwelcome light. “This space here gives me hope. There’s still a lot of explorin’ to do. Gotta shine our light on those gold veins!”
“I wish you all the luck with your endeavor.” Myself, I’ll stick with less luck-based prospects, he thinks as he surveys the expansive subterranean cavity.
“Appreciate it. I’ll not bore you with that now, though. Let’s lean a bit to the right, that’s where the connecting tunnel should be.”
They both walk in that direction, hopping over the cracks of varying widths and depths that criss-cross the fragmented floor. Just as the light of the torches reaches the far side of the cavern there is a low moaning. Eugene halts and stands up straight and stiff, looking all around.
“What is that.”
“Could be some wind or an air pocket, pretty common,” but as Robbie says this the moaning becomes louder and more pronounced, and is now accompanied by trudging, heavy footfall. “Uh…” A liquid growling slowly fills up the room and then becomes a deep screech.
“I knew it! I damn well knew it! Every bloody time!” Eugene’s cries echo all around as he runs yelling and disappears into an opening on the far side of the cavern.
“Wait! Wait, ya bleedin’ idiot!” Robbie calls after him in vain. “That’s the wrong tunnel!” The screech cuts off and is replaced by coughing and then the sound of someone spitting and laughing. “Jim! Is that you?” A curly-haired man emerges from the shadows, a wide grin upon his stubbly face.
“Aye, ’twas me. That was me best howl yet, and you didn’t even react. But who was the flagpole walkin’ with ye’?”
“Oh ye’ know, just some traveler you’ve sentenced to a slow death with your silly spookery.”
“Hey, a man shouldn’t be that scare-able anyhow!”
“Be that as it may, we gotta go find him. Though I didn’t see that passage over there before. Did you know about it?” They walk over to where Eugene was last seen.
“No, never saw that one before. Maybe flagpole will lead us to luck.” They walk together over to the wall, hopping over the cracks and avoiding the numerous water-slicked patches.
“What in the…”
The smooth stone of the wall is unbroken and impassible, and there is no sign of Eugene.
( ©2018 Sean Dorsey )