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 2: 'Troubling find'
For the second time that morning Ben woke up to a dog's tongue on his face and a pounding pain in his head. It took him a few seconds to regain his bearings. I'm in the mine shaft, he thought.
It was pitch dark. He felt around for his iPhone, found it and turned on the tiny beam from its flashlight app. Maverick looked pleased with himself and Ben knew why. The dog had a long bone in his mouth.
"Fine mess you got us into," grumbled Ben, scratching behind the dog's ears. "That bone better be worth it."
Ben struggled uncertainly to his feet, leaning heavily on a nearby beam for support. He suddenly remembered a flash of gold. His headache disappeared in a rush of adrenaline. Could it be? He surveyed the floor of the tunnel with the feeble beam of light. It didn't take long to find it, next to Maverick's front paw. A gold coin!
Ben picked it up. His hand trembled, his heart pounded. He wiped off the mud and saw the coin for what it was - an 1881 gold sovereign.
"Cha-ching!" he exclaimed, before pocketing the coin and resuming his search for more treasure. Where there's smoke there's fire, he thought. His search would have made an archaeologist proud, but all he saw on the ground were Maverick's paw prints leading down a narrow side shaft.
He knew he was pushing his luck. The power on his iPhone wouldn't last much longer, and he didn't like the looks of the rotting beams holding the tunnel together. He pointed the light at the dog with the bone.
"We better get going ... " his voice trailed off.
Ben kneeled in front of Maverick, reaching for the bone. The dog warned him with a low growl, but Ben didn't need to touch it to confirm his fear. He already knew - it was a human bone! And he knew enough from human anatomy classes to know that it was a tibia, someone's shinbone.
"Holy smokes," he whispered.
The young man directed the light at the trail of paw prints leading away. He knew he should get out as soon as possible, but his curiosity had already gotten the best of him.
"Gotta do it," he said, shaking his head. He got to his feet, walked across the open space and entered the side tunnel.
It was soon clear that the tunnel had flooded recently, which didn't surprise him. The rains had been heavy over the last several weeks and the forecast called for more. He reasoned that the coin had been washed out by an especially powerful flood, and he was not anxious to get caught in a new one.
Ben was just about to give up and turn around when he reached the end of the narrow shaft. It was there that he saw the leg bones of the skeleton sticking out from under the rubble of the cave-in.
"Stay, boy ... sit," he said. Maverick did as he was told. Ben knelt next to the skeleton. The tattered remains of the victim's trousers and the bottom of his coat still covered most of the body. He recognized the design of the silk clothing. He had seen them in kung fu movies.
The victim had been Chinese, and from the looks of it he had died a long time ago. Ben recalled that many Chinese had migrated to the area in the late 1800s; he guessed that the victim might have been one of them.
And then he saw the second coin. It was stuck in the hem of the coat, about to fall out. When he pulled out the coin, several more poured out onto the ground. The victim had hidden the coins in the hem of his coat.
Ben felt around until he was satisfied that there were no others. He had recovered seven gold sovereigns in total. Ben took several photos of the scene.
"Time to get the heck outta Dodge," he said.
The phone light died just as Ben reached the entrance to the mine. He put Maverick back on the leash. The dog sniffed at the bone in Ben's hand.
"Wouldn't be right," he said, "chewing on a human bone. Come on, I'll get you another bone at Haggen."
As they trudged up Harris Avenue, Ben pondered the situation. Was the man's death an accident? He sure wasn't dressed to work in the mines, he thought.
He felt the coins in his pocket. The feel of them made him smile. The feel of the bone in his other hand wiped the grin away.
Next week: Will Ben solve the mystery of the skeleton and the coins?