Welcome to "Mystery Lode," a six-part serial adventure written by Whatcom County residents.
The adventure runs July 11 through Aug. 15, with a new chapter in each Monday's edition of The Herald.
In our story so far, college student Ben Avery, a man in a hot-dog suit, a black Lab, a Herald photographer, a kidnapped chicken, and a homeless man who doesn't believe in ancient curses find themselves trapped by a cave-in at an old coal mine near Fairhaven. Could the Chinese curse be true?
Next January we will invite readers to write chapters for our 2012 serial story. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy "Mystery Lode." Send any comments to Dean.Kahn@bellinghamherald.com.
Chapter 5: 'Fresh Air'
Everybody knew there was little hope of digging through the rubble of the cave-in. To top it all off, the flashlight flickered, then faded black.
"Quiet! Where's Maverick?" Ben strained for any sound of the dog.
"We need to figure out how to get out of here," said Anne. "Let's think. The way we came in looks impossible. Maybe there's another way ..."
"But what about Maverick?" Ben cut in.
"Forget the dog. How about people? Everybody OK?" chimed the homeless man, whose name no one had bothered to ask. "Name's Dean, by the way. That's right, homeless folks have names, too. We have families and other human stuff. You'd be surprised."
None of his companions volunteered their own names in response to his rant. "We've got to start thinking and get moving."
"Says the homeless man with a chicken for a friend," mumbled Phil, only slightly under his breath.
Dean fought the urge to take a swing. Why play into Phil's prejudices? he thought. In an effort to redirect his energy, he held the writhing chicken and said, "Maybe this little friend can help."
"A chicken? Please," snorted Phil.
"Wait," said Anne, "why not try? Maybe the chicken will follow its instincts. We're all thinking too much, but the chicken ... all she knows is how to survive."
"I don't have any better ideas," sighed Ben.
"OK. Maybe the darkness will force her to follow her natural inclinations. Let's see what she does," Dean agreed.
"Guess I don't have much choice," said Phil.
Dean placed the chicken on a level spot and whispered, "Everybody be still and quiet, give her some room."
Alternate senses of smell and hearing heightened for the trapped party. In the depth of the cave-in, no one could see much of anything, but they could hear every click of her claws.
"She's moving," said Ben.
"Shhh," was Dean's curt response.
Anne leaned to where she thought the chicken might be. Only she leaned too close. Her face bumped the chicken's head. The bird squawked, flapping its wings as it tried to take flight. Anne screamed. Everybody else reacted with flinching movements and startled sounds.
Before they could catch their breath, the chicken scrambled away, disappearing into the darkness.
"She's gone," said a dejected Ben.
"This can't be real," Dean lamented.
"Oh, it's real," said Phil. "No one knows we're down here, and when it comes to survival skills, I think we'd all score a zero. Also, our last hope of food just disappeared."
"No use panicking or giving up," said Anne. "We're here together, and if we get out, it'll be because we worked together."
"Somebody's watched too much Oprah," snapped Phil.
Dean jumped in, "You can either help us or leave us alone, Phil," he said, exaggerating the hot dog man's name, even though he hadn't introduced himself formally. "Your choice. But quit making it harder for the rest of us."
At best they had been in the cave for minutes, certainly not yet an hour. But the lack of light and their gathering fears increased tensions. Tired and uncertain of when they would next enjoy a meal, pettiness began to fill the enclosed space.
"Arguing won't help," said Anne. "Let's rest. Maybe we can clear our heads enough to get some new ideas."
"Good idea," agreed Ben.
Everybody settled in as best they could.
It wasn't long before Anne broke the silence, whispering, "There's got to be an opening. Maybe small. But it was enough for the animals."
"You're right. Has to be something," Ben said. "Let's look." Even in the darkness, Ben could tell that Anne was shooting him an incredulous glare. "OK, we can't actually 'look,' but our hands can be our eyes."
Silently, the four unlikely companions began running their hands up and down the mine walls. There were spots of damp dirt, cold coal, rough timbers, and occasional bone fragments. They all picked up nasty slivers, but there were no complaints, even from Phil.
They had started with a sense of being at opposite sides of their enclosed space, reaching high and low, and moved toward an unseen middle. Their knees were scraped and their necks ached.
They were cold from crawling through mud and puddles. It took all they could muster to hold back despair.
Ben stopped. "Listen, hear that?"
The others froze and focused on the distant sound. Anne, Phil, and Dean raced their hands along the rock wall to the same soft spot as Ben, only to find a cool breeze seeping into their underground prison.
Four pairs of hands clawed at the dirt, rocks and other debris to expose a possible exit. There really was an opening. It was different than how they'd gotten in, but it was a possibility. The hole quickly grew.
Ben decided it was time to go for it and thrust his head into the opening, crashing into the incoming Maverick who, although no one could see it, happened to be carrying a limp, drool-covered chicken in his mouth.
Next week: Is freedom near?
Jim Schmotzer of Bellingham is one of six Whatcom County residents writing a serial adventure story for The Bellingham Herald. Schmotzer, who has a background in education and the ministry, has lived in Bellingham since 1979. You can find his short stories and poems at thefaithfulskeptic.blogspot.com.