The day had been amazing. Best of all, it had been a total fluke, the kind of day you dream about, but you never think of happening to you. You read other people's trip reports, but they always seemed fantastical and unlikely to ever happen in your own reality. Ridge walking was usually fruitless, an excuse to wander around in the woods or the fields with your friends while sweating heavily. But not on this day, today everyone got reminded of why you did all the ridge walking, on the odd chance, no matter how slim, that you might score.
Score they most definitely had; cavers went to bed dreaming of this kind of thing. Under a tree at the bottom of a long defunct sink hole, they had found a small opening, no bigger than a gopher hole, but sitting in a likely-looking spot. They took turns hand digging at it a bit, feeling the air come rushing out as the work increased the size of the aperture. Jerry, one of the younger members of the team, had carried everything but the kitchen sink out into these woods, it had turned out to be a good idea. Everyone was happy for the folding shovel he had brought along, even if what it was really good at was folding unexpectedly between shovelfuls.
Within a half an hour of scrabbling work, as all five of them busied themselves helping and taking turns digging, the gap expanded, the air became more steady, the surety was in all of them. They had a major league score on their hands! The dream of every caver was about to come true, big, virgin cave, theirs for the taking! Gopher holes and mud plugs did not blow this much air out, it had to be big!
After a few more clumps of mud and rock everyone stood back to look at the result: they were gawking at a pit, a free fall from where they stood, of at least forty feet. They had all taken turns shining their high powered headlamps inside as well, and they could see a massive room, the floor covered in enormous blocks of stone stretching down from directly below the pit into the distance. It ate the light up! It was large enough, that even with the highest settings on their lights, they could not see the end of just the chamber below them, the big score!
All of them knew they should probably call someone and give an exact location, but really, they didn't have signal, and it was RIGHT THERE. Nobody wanted to drive all the way back to where they had a signal again, mainly because it was right there, staring right at them! By the time they got to a signal they'd have to wrap up, they'd never get in today, and anyway without enthusiasm, winning over caution, we'd still be eating our food raw it was opined. It was only about a forty foot drop, after all, they'd all done bigger drops, they had all taken bigger risks, they went ahead with tying off rope and getting ready to drop the pit.
That had been hours ago, and the cave was everything they had hoped, and more, they had yet to bottom the thing out. While they might have been bending the rules of surface contacts, they had kept up with one other rule, mapping as they went, and that consumed time. Four of them, Ben, Jerry, Tara, and Allen had been doing the mapping and had gotten two enormous rooms, the entrance and another chamber that they found through a down climb in the boulders. Jessica, who was the smallest member of the team, had been checking leads, which is what she usually did on a team, owing to her small size allowing her to squirm into areas others would be loath to attempt. As they had been wrapping up the second room, she had come back to report that she had found a lower stream passage with a waterfall, the little streamlet they had skirted in the passage leading to the second big room. They had considered following it, but had agreed easily that they had already pushed their luck pretty hard, being under this long and going this far without a surface contact, and now was the time to head back for daylight.
Back in the gigantic front room, Ben had taken out his photography rig and was posing the members of the team to try and fill the well-decorated chamber with light and people for reference. At the back of the room, it ended in an upslope which was practically polluted with calcite formations, long poles of rock stretching from ground to ceiling; stalactites shimmered, mounds of calcite flowstone coated the walls mounding down to the floor, ribbons of rock hung from the ceiling. Ben wanted to get as much as he could on a card to show off what they'd gotten today when he got home. They were all covered in mud. Their coveralls, which had been brightly colored when they had entered hours ago, now a uniform brown, their faces gleaming with sweat. Exhaustion was hovering over everyone, but you needed to have proof of what you had found. Showing off was much better when you had more to show than, "Trust me, it's awesome."
Jerry was not with them; he'd been getting antsy and just wanted to get out. It had been nagging at him this entire time that they were in here without a surface contact. No one knew where they were, and he knew it deeply, and it worried the hell out of him. Jerry hadn't noticed as much when they had been mapping, he'd been busy, his mind occupied with the task at hand. But now, now all he could think about was getting back out of here. He always wanted to get out when the trip was over, his heart raced when they entered a cave, and it raced just as hard when it was time to get out, this time was just much more intense.
The glow from the outside filled the belled pit they had dropped down to enter the cave. Jerry wanted to keep looking at it, reminding himself that he was almost out of here. Instead, he had to keep reminding himself not to stare directly at it and lose his night vision which he still needed to climb the boulders sloping up to the rope. There was no point in getting this close and breaking your leg after all. That was why he didn't notice it until he got right under the entrance. The coils and coils of rope, all lying on the floor of the cave under the heavenly entrance, and none of it trailing up to the light!
"What in the HELL are we going to DO?" Jerry moaned when the rest of them had gathered in the light from above, examining their rope. Allen and Tara had both checked the pit for any kind of handholds to get out by. Hope was dying there in the bright light of the surface, there was nothing that any of them could see, a belled out entrance hole that led to a sheer drop.
"Well, for one thing, we won't panic," Ben said as he was running rope through his hands trying to see what happened.
"We all checked the rope, and the knots," protested Tara.
Ben grunted before he held up the end of the rope he had been looking for, "Don't think it mattered much if somebody came by and cut it."
Allen, who was a little younger than Ben, a short, and square forties grunted, "Probably kids, either that or a hunter came through and cut it because they were worried about kids using the rope."
Jerry's face was a mask of terror, but he said nothing, mentally he kept waiting for somebody to come up with a solution. Jessica, an accomplished caver in her thirties, pulled her helmet off to wipe her sweaty brunette hair from her eyes, "Well, what do we do now, Ben?"
Ben looked thoughtful for a moment before replying, "Well, we've still got leads to push, the lower level has a stream passage we haven't pushed. It most likely comes out somewhere, we just have to hope that it comes out above ground, and doesn't hit into the valley drainage even further below ground."
Jessica, who had been pushing leads, chimed in, "Look, I was kind of soloing, so I really didn't push that hard ... for all we know it booms right through to the other side of the mountain."
Allen nodded to Ben, "We're not getting out of here this way anytime soon, so unless we've got some better ideas, I guess we push it."
They all took the opportunity to get some water and a snack from what they'd been carrying in their packs. It was mainly of the Cliff Bar variety; Ben had a couple of cans of food and a Sterno for some extra food later if they needed it, though he hoped they wouldn't. All of them tried to just concentrate on his or her food bar and water and avoid panicking. Sitting where they were doing nothing but letting their fears work at them served no purpose, they were going to get out, they just needed to push the cave further. Big systems like this usually had another entrance somewhere, they just needed to find it. Despite that resolve, or maybe even because of it, nobody talked; there was nothing to say really.
Snack over, they began the slow climb back down the massive slope, carefully stepping from muddy boulder to muddy boulder, working their way to the small hole that led to the rest of the cave. The sound of the stream that entered the cave in the passage below through an impassable horizontal crack became louder and louder as they got closer. The pounding noise echoed up to them through the breakdown that led down into the cave's lower depths.
"All right, remember as soon as you get your feet down, you're gonna want to get across the stream, it goes over a fall. This comes out pretty far back from it, but if you slip, you're gonna go on a hell of a ride," Ben said as he squirmed down through the hole between two enormous boulders that had stacked up to leave exactly enough room to slip down through to the stream.
Once Ben was through into the stream himself, he found a safe spot and stayed in place so he could direct their feet into the tumultuous noise created by the turmoil of the stream and waterfall below them. It was so loud that they could barely hear each other making Ben indicate with hand gestures that they should follow him. His memory of their first trip was rock solid, he had been mapping the entire way, so he had had to pay close attention to detail as they went through before. Just as he remembered, a small distance from the stream, there was an up climb taking them up and around the falls and out of the water.
Since Ben was back in the lead he slowly, and carefully found his footholds and scrambled up. This led into a tight crawlway they had found quite by accident the first time through. It had been Jerry who had noticed it. Jerry really didn't want to rig the waterfall to continue and had been looking at high leads when he had hit this one. The crawl was tight; squirming and banging your knees and elbows a lot was going to happen -- it was unavoidable. Thankful for knee and elbow pads, each of them had to go one at a time to give the other one crawling through room to slowly maneuver their way.
After roughly twenty or thirty feet of claustrophobic writhing, it opened out into a small room. This was the juncture, an up climb here led to a huge well decorated upper chamber, where they had already mapped. According to Jessica, a squirm through the far side of the room led to the top of the slope that led to the river passage. She had told everyone that it was free climbable, and would drop them in the stream past the waterfall. They knew where the up climb went, now their hopes lay in the direction of the stream passage below them.
Ben killed his light to wait for Tara, who was coming in behind him. He'd been doing this long enough, and he was more than old enough to know, when you had a chance to rest in a cave, you took it. You just had to hope it wouldn't be long enough for you to stiffen up. Just as Tara's light swung into view down the crawl way, Ben caught a glimpse of something up above him. Light? But they'd been in there already. They had mapped the room all the way to the end!
He had no time to consider it. A moment later, Tara slid into the room like a child being born, gasping, "God, I think that's a little harder than I remembered it!"
Any thought of what was in the upper room was forgotten for the moment. "Wait until you have to do this stuff at my age," Ben grinned at her, leaning back against the muddy wall, listening to the scrambling movements of the next person coming down the crawl.
When all of them were back in the room and resting for the next part of the trip, Ben remembered something, "Hey everyone, kill your lights, just a second OK?"
"Are we gonna rest that long we need to conserve juice?" Jerry asked sounding worried.
"Humor an old man," Ben said with a grin.
There was a little grumbling, but everyone did as they were asked, plunging them into total darkness. Almost total darkness. Ben said quietly in the dark, "Look up towards the upper room."
Now they all saw what Ben had noticed, there was light flickering up there!
Jerry practically leaped to his feet. "Dude, light! We're out of here!" he exclaimed excitedly.
"Hold on, that isn't sunlight, I don't think," Allen said, peering up towards the upper room.
"Still, if someone's down here, it means another way out, right?" reasoned Tara.
"Guess there's one way to find out," Ben grunted climbing slowly to his feet.
The climb was steep and slightly technical, but this was a relatively seasoned group. It wasn't very long before they were standing at the top of the slope looking for the source of the light. Their own lights bounced off the enormous formations this room housed. When they had been here earlier, they had been ecstatic at the finds in here. Large columns fused stalactites and stalagmites running from ceiling to floor, enormous ribbons of calcite, mounds of white flowstone, the room was more calcite than it was mud or limestone. The other room was decorated, this room was fairyland. They had never named the room, it was hard to come up with anything that didn't sound hackneyed while at the same time projected the enormous grandeur of what was in front of them!
It was unmistakable now, there was someone in here as well. Ahead, where the room bent off to the right moving out of sight between a large flowstone mound on one side, and a cluster of ribbons on the other. This wasn't the bright white light of an electric source, this was reddish and orange, it could only be an open flame.
"You think somebody's running a carbide lamp in here?" whispered Allen.
"Well, a few people still run them, I suppose," Ben replied, "I guess we'll find out."
None of them could say why, but for some reason, they had all begun to move cautiously forward. Usually, when you ran into someone else in a cave, it was a "Hey, how are you?" sort of affair. A shaking of hands, how are you doing, where are you from, trade notes on the cave experience. This didn't feel that way, and none of them could admit to it, or say why even to themselves. Even Ben, who was the most experienced of the group, moved practically on gloved feet through the formations towards the open flame around the corner.
They couldn't have said what they had been expecting as they rounded the corner, but none of them would have suggested it was what they found there. In the middle of the cave floor, a fire burned, a campfire that had been carefully set, turning the entire chamber orange with its light! Seated on the far side of the blaze, was a hunched figure, its long matted hair white with age hanging in strings over the face they couldn't see. A blanket of some kind was draped around it, hiding any indication of the figure's sex.
"Umm ..." Ben said quietly.
The head snapped up and glared at them for a moment, black eyes gleamed in the firelight, peering at them with the intensity of the truly insane, deeply sunk in the heavily wrinkled face that held them. But only for a moment, a moment so fast no one would have sworn they had even seen the naked hostility that had shown there. Instantly replaced by a smile that cracked the wrinkled face, the eyes softened with laughter.
"Ah! Guests in my cave!" the crackling old female voice said. "It's been so long since I had guests."
Allen quickly said, "Oh, umm, we're sorry. We didn't know, we were sure this was National Forest land, we didn't know it had an owner."
The old woman cackled a bit at that, "Oh anyone can forge their name to a deed, it's all an illusion anyway. But trust me, you are in my cave."
"Really, if we had known the cave belonged to someone, we would have gotten permission. Umm, my name is Allen, this is Ben, Jerry, Tara, and Jessica," Allen said quickly, trying to cut off recriminations with introductions.
The old woman looked down at the fire and chuckled at something that amused her, before looking up. "I doubt most would want to pay my price to come into my cave," she said, peering intently at them, "but now you are in the cave of Tatah Kleah, yes? What can be done about these things after the fact?"
"Well, we'd be happy to leave," Jerry interjected, "if only we knew the way out."
"I would assume the way you came in, that's often how exits go, you find them where you entered."
Ben stepped a little forward now, "That's the problem, we came in using rope, it seems like someone cut it. If you could just tell us how you got in, we'd really be thrilled to be on our way at this point."
The old woman laughed uproariously at that, her face twisting to a bundle of wrinkles, even her glittering eyes vanishing for a moment in the folds of her face. It took more than a few increasingly uncomfortable moments before she finally settled down, saying, "Well, it would appear you have gotten yourselves into quite a fix, haven't you? Stuck down here at the mercy of one of the owl women?"
"What do you mean?" Jerry demanded, his panic beginning to overtake them.
"Don't you worry, I'll give you some advice, young buck, may it do you any good. If you like, you can try the river, might be a way out there. Yes, there very well might be. If you've given up on that, I'll carry all of you out of here," her eyes suddenly took on all the glittering hostility they had when they had first seen her, "all but one, who is gonna stay down in this cave, to feed an old woman who ain't seen even a babe in many a year, and is sore hungry now!"
Tara pulled at Ben's coverall's, her voice was barely audible over the crackle of the fire, "Come on, let's go check the river."
Ben didn't need to be told, he was already beginning to back away, "All right, um, we, we'll go check the river passage then. Sorry to have troubled you."
They all left this part of the room, and were scrambling up the mud slope that led back to the rocky climb down to the junction room, when they heard the old woman's voice calling out after them, "I'd hurry if I was you, feels to me like it's gonna rain to me, how about y'all?"
The woman's cackling laughter followed them in the dark as they hurried away.
"What in the hell was THAT about?" Jerry gasped as they were all back in the little room above the falls.
Allen responded, "Don't let that get to you too much, bud. You get pretty far up in these mountains, you get some weird ones. Granny witches, all kinds of weird things. Some of these people are so isolated by the mountains, they don't even know who the President is. It can get pretty weird. Well, what am I saying, it got pretty weird just then!"
All of them laughed at that, the laughter was as much relief to be away from the bizarre woman as anything. She had given them some hope though, the river passage could get them out of here. Back to the light, back to the surface, back to their cars, back to a warm meal, and some cold beer at a restaurant, and most importantly, away from the crazy old woman. She had gotten in somehow after all.
Ben got up and went through the quick crawl to look at the climb down for a moment. Close to the edge like this, he could see the waterfall off to his right, the noise of it was practically deafening. He could view the stream below him, about twenty feet down. He was pretty sure he could free climb this, at least down pretty easily, but getting back up would be a bit of a problem. He went back to where the others waited.
"OK kids, it's like this, I'm going to tie some webbing. It looks pretty free climbable, but I'd hate to climb back out of it without a hand line. Here's hoping we don't have to climb back out of there, but if we dox..." he let the thought hang there.
Ben had been right about the climb down, the way down was a mix of rock and flowstone, but since it had moved down the slope gradually over time, nature had provided numerous small ledges and bumps to hook their boots into until finally reaching a spot where they could safely slide down to the stream. He had also been right about the potential for the climb back up, the dampness of the room had caused the calcite cascaded mound to be slick, which would make for a nightmare trying to climb back out of the stream.
Down in the river, Ben and Allen looked around for their options. There were two streams entering this part of the cave. There was the section back toward the cave entrance, coming in from the waterfall from above, but for all the noise it made in the enclosed area, it was probably the smaller flow, and part of that seemed to vanish down a churning white siphon a few feet in front of the falls, where years and years of the pounding water had eroded the very rock away. Closer to where the group had come down, there was another much stronger stream coming in through a thin passage that moved off at an angle. Allen flashed his light between the gap in the wall, only to shake his head, it was far too thin to even consider sending a person down. Upstream was not an option.
Downstream looked more promising, it would involve crouching and wading in the stream, but it seemed like a traditional stream passage with smooth walls, fluid and polished by the force of the waters rushing through. Allen poked Ben and pointed up, wedged into cracks near the top of the passage were wet leaves and sticks, washed in from the distant surface. It was an important thing to note, it meant that this passageway spent time completely submerged. They hadn't seen rain in the forecast, not that it meant much, where squalls could blow in out of nowhere and park in a valley for a full day, they just had to hope the crazy old woman was just trying to freak them out. In these mountains, caves could be the drainage system for a whole ridge or valley, all the water vanishing from the surface to their depths. All of them needed today not to be the day for it!
Ben shrugged, yelling over the pounding noise of the falls, "Let's hope it doesn't rain out there then!" before beginning to wade forward down the passage.
The group worked their way into the stream passage; everyone except for Jessica had to stoop a little to continue. Between the drag of the water around their boots and the stooping, the way was soon sweaty and tiring. Ben could feel his back threatening to cramp; between the stress, his own exhaustion from caving all day, and the mist filled air chilling his joints, he could only hope that it didn't try to lock up on him.
At least the noise was less, they could talk if they wanted to now. It was a shame the hard labor of moving forward left them too short of breath to even try. Exhaustion was beginning to show in all of them, stumbles were becoming more common. It had seemed no time at all before Allen called a break, and it seemed to all of them that not enough time to rest had possibly passed when Ben said they needed to keep moving.
The passage twisted and turned not unlike the bed of a surface stream weaving its way instead of through the ground, through the solid rock of the cave. Tara could hear Jerry groan audibly as they came around a corner, it was readily apparent why. All of them were staring directly at a curved wall of limestone! The passage ended!
"Hold on, hold on, don't panic!" Ben called out, "let me look." A few seconds later, "Down there, it goes down under a lip." Ben got down in the water on his hands and knees and flashed his light down under the jutting rock the stream vanished under. "Look at that, I think it goes!" he called back triumphantly, "Jess, come here and give this a look!"
Ben sat up, and leaned back, with a bright smile on his face. Jessica knelt down and took his place shining her own light down the low wide crawl way. "Whaddya think?" he asked.
Jessica sat back up smiling herself, "Yeah, it doesn't look that bad really. I mean it's a bit long, but it goes alright. Really, it's only an elbow crawl after the pinch, and the water isn't that deep."
"You good to check it?"
"You kidding? This looks easy, I'll call back when it opens up," she said ducking back down.
All of them found a spot to try and sit, as Jessica wormed her way under the gap in the wall of rock. The only noise, the scrape of her coveralls, as she worked her way under the lip. Within minutes, only her boots were visible, waving back and forth in the water as she pulled herself forward, a moment later, those vanished as well.
With nothing to do but wait, Ben found himself zoning out, just staring down at a rock sticking out of the stream bed. Time passed, but something was niggling at him as he stared at the one spot. Something screamed in the back of his mind, trying to get him to pay attention to it. He frowned a little at the mental annoyance before, it registered in his conscious brain what his subconscious had been trying to tell him.
He leaped for the entrance that Jessica had vanished down. "JESS, GET BACK HERE! GET BACK NOW!"
A muffled, "What?" came back to all of them.
"JESUS CHRIST JESS! GET BACK RIGHT NOW!"
"THE WATER! IT'S RISING!"
There was silence for a moment before they heard the muffled rustling of Jessica's coveralls through the rock, "I don't have room to turn around!"
Ben climbed down into the water and poked his head back in the entrance way. He could see her boots already some distance from him. "Just back out Jess! But for god's sake hurry! I'll keep my eyes on you so you don't get hung up!"
He could just see her feet moving in the distance as she began to work her way back. This low, though, he could also begin to feel the water rising rapidly! Every foot, she seemed to move back, seemed like an inch of water filling the passage she was stuck in!
"Oh my god! Ben! I can feel the water rising!" Jessica gasped.
"Just keep moving, no matter what you do, just keep moving!" Ben called back trying to keep panic out of his voice. Over his shoulder, he called back, "Al! Get down in here, if we gotta yank her outta there, it might take more than just one old man to pull!"
"Ben! I'm running out of airspace! I don't want to die in here!" Jessica sobbed.
"Keep moving! Don't be afraid to go under for a second if it helps you move, take deep breaths, and keep moving! Come on Jess, you're almost in reach!" Ben called, trying to be reassuring, but also beginning to try and do the math with current and the available water if she'd make it!
Ben couldn't even look down the passage anymore, the angle wouldn't let him look and still be able to breathe himself. He kept his hand thrust into the passage, now beginning to hope against hope that he would feel Jessica's boot and leg, Allen was doing the same next to him! Both of them counting in their head and trying to figure out how long it would take Jessica to reach them, both of them hoping that she was only tantalizingly within reach, both of them terrified that she had already been swept down the passage!
A wave of water made a loud "bloop!" noise as it washed up to the top of the passage! "Shit!" Ben cursed, "Allen, keep a hand on me!"
Not even waiting for an answer Ben dived down and thrust out his arm as far as he could! He wondered almost in a detached, clinical manner, how waterproof this headlamp was, he couldn't remember what the rating on it had been when he bought it. He waved his arm about frantically, and found, her leg! Ben grabbed on for all he was worth, and pulled hard!
Getting his head back above water, Ben gasped, "Allen, she's right there, quick, grab her other leg!"
Allen thrust his own arms as deep as they could go, and found Jessica's other leg,"Got her Ben! One ... two ... three ... PULL!"
The first tug pulled Jessica's legs into view, Jerry and Tara leaped into the water to grab at them, while Ben and Allen moved their hands further up Jessica's still struggling form. Allen called out again, "One more for all the money, ONE ... TWO ... THREE ... PULL!"
With the second tug, Jessica's helmet came in to view her light shining underwater, creating a weird green and blue nimbus below the surface, Ben barked, "Quick, get her up!"
Jessica came above the surface coughing and spluttering, her eyes wide with terror! For a second she looked dazed and unsure where she was, finally, she gasped, "Thank ... you ... so ... much!"
"Thank god," breathed Tara.
That seemed to snap Ben out of his own relief, "Don't thank him yet, we have GOT to get out of here ourselves!"
"We got her out, right? She's OK, right?" Jerry demanded, not comprehending the haste.
"Jerry, there were leaves in the ceiling joints, this whole passage floods! We gotta move!" Ben barked, urgently, "Allen, Jessica's gassed, help me carry her out, but we gotta go now or all we've bought her is a stay of execution!"
Nobody argued, they just began trudging back the way they came. Ben was right, the water that had barely covered their shoes when they had first come down this passage was now lapping at their knees. Most importantly, it was still rising, and rising quickly. If anybody even went down in a fall, the way the current was picking up, they might instantly be swept away!
All of them were gasping for air, slumped over, exhausted by the time they reached the first up climb. The webbing line was now
trailing back down river in the force of the current, the water was up past their waists and still rising! Tired as they were, they still needed to hurry.
"Allen, climb up, I'll try to boost Jessica up to you," Ben gasped
"Let me go up, I'm less tired, I'll pull her," Jerry interrupted.
"Hurry," was Ben's only reply.
Jerry lunged out of the water exploding in a rush on to a ledge on the rock. He made a point of wrapping his hand with the webbing to keep himself up. He teetered for a moment, before regaining his balance, and climbing the rest of the way up. Pulling himself over the last little bit, he lay there for a moment, gasping for air, before turning around to look down at them, "All right, Allen, Ben, let's get Jessica up here."
Jessica smiled wanly, "Come on guys, I'm not dead here. I can help out a bit." With that, she tried to get out of the water only to fall back in with a splash. "OK, maybe a little help."
"It's OK kid!" said Allen, as he and Ben got on either side of her and lifted her out of the swirling waters. From there, Jessica was able to get a foothold and the webbing to help herself up until she was within range of Jerry's grasping hands who pulled her up the rest of the way.
"Tara, you're up next," Ben announced.
"All right, but hand me your packs, I'll throw them up the rest of the way to Jerry!" Tara yelled back down as she climbed out of the water and on to a ledge. Ben quickly fed up their cave packs so she could toss them the rest of the way up to Jerry and Jessica. Once they were up, Allen went next, needing a bit of a hand from Ben to get his first foothold due to his squatter stature.
Even with both hands on the webbing, it took all of Ben's strength to pull himself from the water as it tugged and sucked at him. When Ben finally pulled himself up over the edge, he thought to himself that he had never felt so exhausted in his life, but there was still no time to waste. He stood up as quickly as he could, gasping, "We gotta keep moving, kids, most of the water comes in from the side, but I'm betting the other stream has risen a bit itself!"
One after the other, the team vanished down the crawl. Ben stopped for a second and looked up the up climb to where they had all seen the crazed old woman. He could still see the light from her fire flickering up there. As he began to work his way through the crawl, he heard her cackling laughter echoing down to him to send him on his way.
They had gathered up every little bit of wood they could find that had fallen down the entrance from the surface over the years. Thankfully, Ben still didn't fully trust electric lamps, even now, and had a spare carbide lamp in his pack which he quickly fired up. It had taken patience, holding the old miner's flame lamp to the wood and leaves they had managed to find until he could get them lit. Now all of them huddled in the thin silver thermal blankets they had in their packs around the fitful flame. Ben had also brought along a small Sterno stove and some tea bags; he had been on enough of these long trips to prepare for eventualities. Jessica was especially thankful for all the hot liquid he could dole out, she was soaked through and through, heat was in short supply for her, and Ben worried about the possibility of shock or a fever setting in still.
No one really talked, no one really wanted to. Nobody could come up with a comforting lie, and nobody would have believed them if they had. The only thing they had going for them anymore was, they were alive, even how long that would last was in question. Jessica was at risk from exposure, so was Ben for that matter, for all of his vigor he was a retiree who had pushed himself beyond endurance. They had no way out, and no route out. The food, they had was minimal, and the fuel they had for warmth even more so. It wasn't the kind of thing that was improved by talking about it, "Hey, it might take us days before we die!" didn't put a better shine on anything.
One by one, torpid and cold, they huddled in their thermal blankets and fell into an exhausted dreamless sleep until only Allen and Ben were still awake.
The two had known each other the longest, and with the others asleep, Allen felt he could talk honestly, "So, you think there's any chance of anyone seeing the smoke?"
Ben looked up from flipping through the photos he had taken during the day on his digital camera, "You want an honest answer, or you want me to lie to you?"
"Yeah, I didn't think so either, even now you can see it, the smoke's dissipating around the mouth before it even exits the cave," Allen shrugged.
"Well, maybe things will look better in the morning, "Ben tried to smile reassuringly.
"Hope springs eternal, "Allen grunted, rolling himself into a tighter ball to go to sleep.
Ben waited until he heard Allen begin to snore. Once he was sure his old friend was asleep, he dragged himself to his enervated feet and began to slowly stumble his way down the slope to the river.
Jerry slowly woke up. He didn't want to, he felt so tired, and sleep felt so good. But it couldn't be helped, his bladder was full, and the sun was irritating him.
A moment later, his still sleeping brain registered that thought, the SUN! His eyes snapped open.
What his eyes saw didn't register right away, it was so unexpected.
They were on the surface!
His aching body snapped up, and he looked around him. Tara seemed to be just waking up, Allen and Jessica were still asleep, but they were all on the surface! "Guys, yo! Guys! Get up, you'll never believe where we are," he yelled excitedly.
Joy lit up Tara's face as she woke, and even Jessica mustered a wan smile.
Allen noticed it first. "Where the hell is Ben?"
All of them glanced around looking for a sign of the trip leader, but not seeing one. Tara called for him, but there was no answer. Jerry noticed something else lying on the ground between where they lay, "Hey, is that his notebook? Maybe he left us a note."
Jerry snatched it up, as he began to page through it, a memory card slipped in his lap. He paged through the rite-in-rain waterproof book to where he thought it had fallen from. First, he saw the rough sketched map of the cave, so he flipped the page again. "He left a note! Here, let me read it!"
Well, I got you out! Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be joining you. I ever tell you about a cave I went to in Pennsylvania? Celversburg Sink? Cave can fill up with water, and not empty for years. Seems there's some kind of plug somewhere in the cave, it gets stopped up, and then just fills up, until boom, it empties out one day, no rhyme or reason to it. After you all fell asleep, I went to check the water, it was almost up to the top of the climb down. I don't think we had the time to wait, Jessica was already getting a fever. As is you're going to have a hard time hiking out of here.
I did some caving in Washington when I was younger, lava tubes, that kind of thing. Sometimes, the Yakama would come along, act as guides. I'd talk to them, they'd tell the old tales, of the old world before the white man. That's why I recognized the name the old woman called herself by. Tah tah kle' ah. The owl woman monster, it's a myth, right? I decided to check, turns out it wasn't so much of a myth as you'd think. I made a deal with the old fiend.
This was my trip, I was leader, I put this together. I did the only thing I could do, I calculated the dreadful algebra of necessity and I bargained my life for yours. Don't bother to hunt for me, just like she had no way she could have got to where she was in the cave, you'll never find us now if you look. You all have more important things to do, get back to the cars alive, I'm an old man, I made an old man's bargain. Don't waste my gift to you.
It was over a year later. Jerry was hiking alone. He rarely talked to the others, they all had a secret that each of them didn't want to be reminded of. So he hadn't mentioned this hike to anyone. But it burned in his mind. It harried his dreams and dug in its heels. Jerry had to know if it had been some fever dream they had mutually shared or had the cave been real. Had they really seen it all?
Allen had been closest to Ben, he had the map and the photos. Jerry had never asked to see them again after they had gotten to the road. At the time he had wanted nothing so much as to forget. As time had gone on, he was just afraid to ask, what if Allen had even destroyed them? What if he just said, "What pictures?"
There was one way to find out, and he was doing it today. He remembered well enough where the cave had been. Rather than let his doubts torment him as much as his memories, he'd go see for himself. He'd go find the spot, just to know for sure. It was weird, but he felt better about this than just talking to the others about it, that was the reality of it. Maybe it was the fear of having them saying, "That's not what I remember at all, Ben wasn't even with us. We got lost." If one has faced madness, no one wants to find out, it was only in them all along.
It had taken hours to get anywhere near where he wanted to be. Jerry could see the hill sloping down exactly how he remembered it. As he moved down the slope, he could see the dip in the hill caused by the sinkhole. This was it! This at least had been real!
He had to swing around to get to where they had found the cave. There was a sheer drop from the tree they had tied the rope to, to the pit they had been able to open. He certainly didn't want to risk just plunging down to the entrance. As he came around a copse of trees. He saw it. Not gaping open, not what they had dug out that day, but their rope, like a marker on the spot. The rope that had been cut, that had fallen deep into the bowels of the earth, trapping them inside, still tied to the tree! Plunging through a tiny opening in the earth itself!
As if in a daze, he walked the final distance to where the rope vanished through the ground. Jerry fell to his knees and pawed at the hole, pulling it back open. Pulling up clots of earth with his hands in a frenzy! The entrance slowly opened enough, he could see the gaping depths below him when a rock pried loose by his hands fell, he listened to its resounding echoes as it bounced along in the Stygian depths.
He heard the old woman's laughter! He heard her mad cackling chortling filling the very air below him, and then he knew! He knew what this was! He could hear the echoing voice calling up from the depths, "And what have you brought to bargain with, boy?"
Jerry got to his feet and walked back to where the rope was tied to the tree. Seeing that the knots had tugged themselves so tight they would never come free, he took out a boot knife and began to hack away at the rope! When he felt it was ready to break, he began the task of pulling the rope back up from the hole, foot by foot of sodden, rotting rope now coming up to the surface to coil up behind him.
When the last of it was on the forest floor, he cut the rest of the way through the rope, he planned to take it out with him. But first things were first. He climbed back down the dip below the tree and began pulling out rocks from the forest floor, and from the buried collapse under the tree itself. These he painstakingly placed, over the hole to obscure it from view, before taking leaves and dirt to obscure that there had ever been any disturbance. The old woman's insane laughter rang up at him the entire time!
For now, he knew! Just as the songs came out of the fogs, to lead adventurers of old to their deaths on the rocks, this was a new siren's song for a new adventurer! The Tah tah kle' ah, had learned of this world somehow, and used the cave for far more than her home in these modern times. The cave was the bait with which she set her trap!