The cave was deep and little was known about it. That’s the thing with quiet little states like Indiana, nobody realizes the secrets it holds. I knew simply because I was, for the most part, alone. What else did I have to do than read books and listen in on conversations?
I hate the summer heat and to this day I lay low when summer is at its zenith. I suspected that the small cave near the river was not just a small cave. John Wilkie would take foolish girls there and so it began to have a reputation. I suspect that John Wilkie, tall and good-looking as he was, really didn’t know what to do with a girl, so he took the doe-eyed ones to the small cave by the river just to get the girl to sit close to him and shudder. There were a few fathers and elder brothers that didn’t weep at his memorial service but still, he has his name in bronze over at the courthouse square on the World War I memorial.
John Wilkie, Salem Schultz, and Nathanial Barrow were the river rats of the town and on hot summer afternoons, they would take a raft up and down the river and spear carp and catfish. Every once in awhile they would put a line in and pull up bluegill. Salem’s father was a whiz at smoking fish and I even had the honor once or twice to try the delicacy as my father and Salem’s father were fairly good friends. One such night, my hands greasy from smoked fish, my senses were deadened by the drowsy conversation between my father and his friend. They spoke of their own fathers and their memories of the civil war, which to me, in 1914 seemed eons ago. I was fourteen, wore wire-rimmed glasses and had grown at least two inches that year. I stuck close to home, the library and anyplace relatively cool.
“Let’s go to the cave.”
“No, I don’t want to go to that stupid cave.”
“Why not? It will be great at night.”
I spoke up, amongst the whispered conversation of the boys who never took any interest in a bookworm like me. “You know, I think that cave is probably connected to a much larger cavern or cave system.”
There was a dead silence and I felt myself grow red. The heat along my neck and face positively burned. What had made me open my mouth?
“Who asked you worm?” I couldn’t tell which one whispered that in my ear but all three chuckled as if the words were unique in the annals of slights and rudeness. Perhaps that was what prompted my boldness, they were such dullards.
“Actually, I’m sure that cave is part of a larger cave. There is even a possibility that an underground river is involved.”
I was practically drug to that cave with the words, “prove it, know-it-all, and smarty pants,” filling the air as we walked down the dirt road, and down the narrow path to the river. The darkness was complete as the town’s lights disappeared behind the steep bank of the river. We felt our way along the bank with the swift water just at our feet and the gleam of fast running river expanding out before us. I was relieved when we all managed to crowd into the narrow cave opening. To actually get into the cave we had to belly crawl. I didn’t like it as I wasn’t fond of small places but the natural stone walls quickly gave way to a fairly large cavern. Nathanial lit the lantern and the cave walls lit up with the spark of tiny quartz and dripping wet stone.
I had been in the cavern before and seen the impressive glitter. There had even been some geologist down from Chicago to examine the cave. It was from over hearing those men talk in my father’s store that they suspected the cave was part of a larger cave system. The bought supplies from my father intent on exploring the cave in greater detail but were at the last minute called back to Chicago.
They never came back.
“It’s cold in here.”
“Hush, did you hear that?”
“Stop it, Salem, nobody wants to hear your ghost stories.”
“No, Nate, really, I think we should go.”
The cave did seem unusually cold. I was delighted. Perhaps this was where I could escape to occasionally from the heat.
“Hey, I think I heard it too.”
I moved to the outer line of the light. Nate had held up the lantern but his hand was shaking and the light shook with him. Suddenly we were in complete darkness and what shattered me was that I heard nothing. Absolutely nothing. There was no sound from the boys, no teasing or angry words and I heard nothing hit the stony ground.
I am pretty good at keeping my bearings and I felt that if I followed my left hand straight ahead I could reach the small opening that led to the river. I knew that I had been duped but still it was terrifying to be left alone in that cave. I moved ahead swiftly and bumped into something soft and warm. It bounced off of me and then seemed to swing back and forth a darker shadow than the blackness about me.
I fell to the ground. The ground was wet and smelled of urine. I scrambled forward and bumped into a soft lump that shuddered and cried softly.
I crawled over him and he grasped my foot following me forward. I heard a soft scratching and some whispering overhead. I moved faster and John Wilkie nearly crawled over me. I felt the fresh air and so did John because he pushed me aside and pulled himself out. As I crawled out I felt a stabbing pain in my right foot and I shouted out in agony. I made it to the small cave at the river and found John standing at the edge weeping.
My foot and leg were never the same. I wasn’t fit for active duty when the war came. My parents spoke in whispers near my sick bed and to me, they were always a little distant from that time on. I was ill for a very long time. I even had to complete my first few weeks of school at home.
I was never a popular boy so I can’t say I was bothered by the solitude. The whispers were what bothered me the most.
“He’s poisoned. What got Salem and Nate got a piece of him too. He can see in the dark and his eyes flash red.”
You see, it’s important now that I stay incognito, I’m not so changed I need a cave to hunt in.