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.
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Chapter 6: 'Stuck in Bellingham'
Maverick squeezed through the small hole, mindless of the four captives anxious for their escape from the coal mine. His tail swept loose dirt into Ben's face as Maverick trotted over to Dean and deposited the damp chicken at his feet.
"She's dead!" Dean cried, kneeling down to examine the feathery corpse.
"Don't be a moron, the girl's fine," Phil said, clawing at the hole in a desperate attempt to expand it.
"He's not talking about me," Anne replied scathingly.
Phil turned to face the others. Aided by light from the setting sun that seeped through the opening, Phil was able to make out the body of the chicken.
"You were going to eat the thing anyway," Phil said, gesturing at Dean and the bird. "What difference does it make to you if it's already dead?"
"You have been against me and my chicken this entire time!"
"Guys," Ben interrupted, "big picture please! We have an escape route; can we all just focus on getting out of here?"
Dean, heedless of Ben's words, continued with his rampage. "If a certain hot-dog vendor would just shut his mouth and stop causing cave-ins, then we wouldn't be stuck here in the first place!"
"You're the one who tried to protect the skeleton! If you'd just let me destroy it, then none of this would've happened! This curse has trapped us in Bellingham and even tried to trap us in this mine!" Phil took a step closer to Dean, preparing for a fight.
"Will the two of you just ...," Ben tried again, jumping between the two of them.
Dean ignored Ben, instead taking Phil's bait. "This is all your fault, you and your stupid curse that doesn't even sound plausible - why would anyone be stuck in Bellingham? Why would anyone care about being stuck?"
Anne let out an exasperated breath and charged forward, climbing up the damp wall toward the opening.
"Finally, someone has the right idea!" Ben exclaimed, enthusiastically following her lead.
"Maverick, come!" he commanded. The dog let out a cheerful bark, trailing behind Ben.
Phil and Dean squinted at each other for a few seconds in the dim light before their fighting spell was broken by the long-awaited promise of escape.
Anne reached her arms through the hole, bracing them against the ground as she hoisted herself out of the mine. The opening was tight, barely wide enough to accommodate her.
Ben struggled as he squeezed his wide shoulders through the earthy exit. A cascade of rubble pelted Phil and Dean, much to their mutual annoyance, as Ben freed himself from the mine.
From where they were standing, Ben could still make out the train tracks and the bay, but it was a good thirty feet from the original entrance. He turned to face Anne, who was staring out at the bay, clearly relieved to be able to see it once more.
"So, was that a good enough story for you?"
Anne just looked at him and smiled.
"Here, you have a ..." Ben started, reaching to pull a small root out of her hair. His other hand was met with a rough tongue and a hot breath as Maverick signaled his emergence from the hole, followed by Phil and Dean.
"Thanks," Anne said, plucking the root out herself.
Dean was the first one to break the ice.
"We need to figure out something to do with that skeleton. It's a historical artifact and deserves to be protected. Especially from things ...," Dean glared at Phil, "... who want to destroy it."
"With good reason," Phil grumbled.
"Not just the skeleton," Ben said, reaching into his pocket and producing the six gold sovereigns. "Phil has the seventh one. I found them with the skeleton."
"Wow!" Anne exclaimed. "Those definitely belong in a museum. Do you think Whatcom Museum would take them?"
"Well, the museum did host that event about remembering the Chinese expulsion. The mayor made a formal apology." When Dean's declaration was met with questioning looks, he added, "What? I read it in the Herald!"
"You guys are more than welcome to give up your coins to support the greater good, but fat chance if you think I'm giving mine up," Phil said as he took a long stride backward, preparing to leave the group for good. "If some curse is going to continue to trap me here because you three all insist on preserving a skeleton, then I may as well get some gold out of it."
He was walking away before any of them could protest.
"I've got to go find a new chicken," Dean said in lieu of a goodbye, leaving Ben, Anne and Maverick alone. They stood silent as the fading sunset reflected on the outgoing tide.
"Maverick's owners are going to be worried," Ben said at last. "I was supposed to return him a few hours ago."
Anne nodded, but didn't respond. Her eyes were fixed on the sunset.
"Maybe ... maybe we could return him together? Or meet up somewhere?" Ben offered. "There're several good places on Railroad, if you want pizza or burgers, or ..."
"Ben, I have a boyfriend," Anne said. "I'm really not interested. But it's been real. Don't get yourself stuck in any more coal mines, OK?"
Anne gave Maverick a few pats on the head and waved to Ben as she started walking away. Before she was out of earshot, she turned back and said, "If Phil's stuck here for the rest of his life because he refuses to return the last coin, then maybe he deserves it."
But as the two acquaintances parted ways, they silently agreed that being stuck in Bellingham was in no way a cruel punishment.