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 4: 'Cave-in!'
"I'm stuck," Mr. Hot Dog grunted.
Ben turned. Sure enough, the man was stuck halfway in the coal mine entrance.
"Maybe you should stay outside, Mr. Hot Dog," Ben said. "It's pretty tight in here."
"No way," the man huffed. "I've waited too long for this. Name's Phil, by the way."
With a sigh, Ben grabbed hold of the foam suit and yanked. Phil came free, sending them crashing to the ground.
"I hope this isn't just some kind of college prank," said the photographer, Anne, as she slid into the mine.
"It's no prank," Ben said, his face burning as he climbed to his feet. Brilliant. The beautiful photographer obviously thought him nothing more than a college kid.
The homeless man climbed into the mine and pushed past them, making both Ben and Anne stagger to the side. At the same moment Maverick lunged toward the homeless man, barking. The chicken squawked, writhing under the homeless man's shirt as Ben pulled Maverick back.
The homeless man shot a look at Ben. "Keep your dog under control. This chicken's my dinner, not his." He turned and disappeared into the mine.
"Hey, wait," Ben called, wanting to ask why the man was following them, but he was already gone.
"Tell me you brought a flashlight," Anne said, looking around.
Ben's face burned with heat again. "I used my iPhone," he said defensively. "It died."
"Perfect," Anne responded sarcastically. "How are we supposed to see in here?"
"I've got one," Phil said.
Ben turned to him and was surprised to see him in normal clothes, the suit discarded. He sighed silently in relief at the sight. "You do?"
"Yep," Phil said as he pulled one from his suit and handed it to Ben. "You'd be amazed at how many times I've needed it."
Choosing not to comment, Ben headed farther into the mine, Maverick by his side. When they reached the split, Ben shone the flashlight on the ground.
"My wallet," he said happily, scooping it up. "I must have lost it when I hit my head." Ben gestured to the side shaft. "This is it."
Before he could move, Phil rushed ahead. Anne rushed after him, her camera ready.
Ben started forward, but Maverick whined and refused to move.
"C'mon, Mav," he said, pulling on the leash. Reluctantly, Maverick followed him into the side shaft.
Rounding the last corner, Ben stopped in surprise. The homeless man was standing in front of the dead Chinese man as if protecting him. But from what? The flash of Anne's camera momentarily blinded him. He blinked the spots away in time to see that Phil had moved closer to the homeless man.
"Let me by," Phil shouted.
The homeless man shook his head. "This is foolish. It's nothing more than a legend."
" It's not a legend," Phil huffed angrily. "There's a curse on this town."
"Curse?" the homeless man repeated. "You've been watching too much TV."
"What are you two talking about?" Ben asked, confused.
"There's a legend," Anne supplied as the camera flashed again. "Some Chinese miners were caught in a cave-in. Before they died they placed a curse on Bellingham. Anyone who lived here would never be able to leave."
"Exactly!" Phil exclaimed. "I've been stuck here because of it. I'm going to destroy everything the Chinese left behind and finally get rid of this curse."
"You will do no such thing," the homeless man said, his voice rising with authority. "This is a historic sight. It deserves to be preserved for the world to see, and I'll be damned if I let you touch it."
Ben's mouth dropped open. Where had that come from? The homeless man sounded almost like he cared.
Phil lunged for the homeless man. The two fell against the mine wall with a loud thud. Ben started forward, shocked. The rumbling of a train going by made him glance to the ceiling. At the same moment, Anne's camera flashed, illuminating the room.
He did a double take. The ceiling was cracking. That was no train!
"Cave-in!" he shouted. Desperate, he grabbed Anne, who was still snapping photos, and began to run toward the mine entrance. They had only gone a few feet before the world crashed down around them with a thundering roar. Anne screamed. Ben instinctively threw himself on top of her.
Finally, the earth stopped shaking. By some miracle, he was alive.
"Anne," he asked. "Are you alright?"
"I would be if you'd get off me," came her muffled reply.
Relief washed over Ben. He grabbed the flashlight and shone it around, catching Phil and the homeless man rising from the rubble.
"Well," the homeless man said. "I guess we're all having chicken for dinner."
"We?" Ben asked.
The homeless man pointed to the entrance of the shaft. Ben swung the light around. Debris completely covered the entrance. They were trapped.
Next week: Are they doomed in the mine?