Jimmy hated life here at the Sullivan farm in South Carolina. He missed the independence and the control over his own fate he exercised in New York. Here he was being pushed from one activity after another, and it seemed to him he had little say in the decision-making. The morning chores had been completed and after lunch the boys had free time. And one bright spark had decided they were going to the caves and so that's what they were all doing, like it or not. Jimmy had no great desire to visit a cave. He guessed his very distant ancestors, a hundred thousand years ago or more, might have lived in one, but he had no great yearning to renew that acquaintance. Besides caves were dangerous places he knew. He had watched the news reports of that Thai soccer team, about his age, who had got lost in one. They got stranded when heavy monsoon rains flooded the exit and trapped them in a chamber some 2.5 miles (4.02 km) from the cave's mouth. What fucking idiot thought that was a good idea, no one ever asked. Even here, Tom had made the suggestion over lunch (he would never call it dinner as they did in the South) and Uncle Jack thought it was a first-rate proposal. When Jimmy suggested he'd be happier playing with the Xbox 360, the only response was,
"Nonsense. I won't hear of it," pronounced the man emphatically. "A boy needs to be outside in the summer having adventures. Too many children waste time in front of those infernal machines these days. It's not healthy! Sue is going to her pony club, but you boys can have fun at the caves. Who knows, you might even find more arrowheads. It's perfectly safe Jimmy. My boys know those caves like the back of their hand."
As usual around here, what he wanted hardly mattered.
Preparing for an afternoon's adventure in the local caves appeared to be a much bigger production than Jimmy imagined. However, the Sullivan boys seem to know what they were doing, and that at least brought some comfort.
Two backpacks were produced and slowly filled with contributions from everyone. There were ropes, flashlights, batteries, a lighter, and 2 battery powered lanterns. The twins started filling thermoses with hot chocolate and the two youngest boys went to the kitchen and came back with packets of cookies and bottles of water.
"What about the Walkie Talkies?" Damien asked. He had fallen in love with the devices since coming to the farm. Even though he had a top of the line mobile phone back in New York, he rarely appeared to use it. But at the Sullivan farm, he was constantly talking on the radio to whichever twin was out of his sight at the time. Even if they weren't, there always appeared to be some urgent need to communicate by short wave. Damien had been chatting with both twins at the same time last night in bed until Tom put his foot down and told them to shut up. Uncle Jack had found two older machines in the attic for the Bukland brothers. Unfortunately, the only call Jimmy had received so far was from Junior that morning, asking why he was taking so long cleaning up the cow shit in the barn.
"Wireless communication is difficult because rock, being conductive, absorbs radio waves," Tom explained. "We'll bring them. We never go anywhere locally without them, but they'll be useless once we're inside the mountain.
"But thanks," said Tom, "That reminds me, Jimmy and Damien, can you guys help me look for more flashlights inside the main house? Everyone needs to have at least one each."
The three boys were back 10 minutes later with extra flashlights and spare batteries.
Most of the stuff the boys were packing made sense to Jimmy. However, there were two things he wasn't sure about.
"I have a question," said the 12-year-old.
Tom looked up from what he was doing. He seemed to be making something that looked like necklaces.
"Sure, what's up Jimmy?" There was no longer any anger or disappointment in his voice.
"I understand most of the stuff, but what are you doing and what's up with the plastic bags?"
Tom reached down and put one of the necklaces around his neck before offering one to Jimmy. "Their glow sticks. In case your light goes out, you just got to crack this a little and it will start to glow. It's just a precaution. We usually use them when we go fishing at night. It's a lot easier on the eyes."
"And the plastic bags?" Jimmy inquired as he slipped the glow-stick necklace around his neck.
This time Tom chuckled. "Well, if you leave something in the cave, there's a good chance it'll still be there for a long time." Tom raised his eyebrows, but when Jimmy clearly wasn't getting it, the older boy filled him in.
"If you need to poop in the cave, it comes out in the plastic bag."
Despite shoveling shit all morning, Jimmy felt a little nauseated as that image flashed into his brain. He would visit the bathroom before they left.
The entrance to the cave was at the foot of a large hill or small mountain. Jimmy wasn't exactly sure when one became the other. He recognized the area. They were close to the swimming hole he guessed. On the other side of the hill, maybe? There was a small stream running from one side of the mouth of the cave. The entrance itself was mostly smooth stone with moss growing on some exposed outer rock. Even standing close to the entrance, you could appreciate how much cooler the air was here. It was bound to be more comfortable out of the heat and humidity once inside.
Although it didn't exactly look inviting, Jimmy followed his cousins. They had to crouch down to get through the small opening. Even the smallest boy, 5-year-old Stevie, had to bend a little. But once inside, the cave expanded into a big open area where they could all stand upright. The open cavern was about 30 feet (9.14 m) wide and 10 feet (3.05 m) high. On the far side away from the entrance were three tunnels leading off in different directions. But what he noticed most of all was the dark. It was much darker here than he could have imagined. They still had the light from the cave mouth, but away from that, there would only be blackness. He had never really experienced that before. In New York, even in the dead of night, there was always ambient light from somewhere - street lights, other buildings, advertising billboards, flashing neon signs and a million other sources of illumination. Even in his bedroom with the curtains drawn, you never really needed a flashlight to see well enough not to crash into things. Here! It scared and excited him at the same time.
Tom and Junior turned on the battery powered lanterns and the other boys all switched on the flashlights they were holding. The rock was a dark gray, almost blue in color and there were a few spots here and there where parts of the ceiling had fallen down. But the rock-falls had been piled together and pushed to one side.
"The rock in this part of the cave is basically granite. A thing they call granitic charnockites, which is metamorphosed volcanic formations," Tom explained.
"Yeah, Bill added authoritatively. "What he said."
"You'll see other kinds of rock further in," Tom continued, ignoring his brother's comment.
"When did those fall?" Jimmy asked.
"What?" said Junior, looking around to see where Jimmy was pointing with his flashlight.
"I don't know. They've always been there."
"We're not the first to find the cave," Tom said. "The cave kind of branches off as you can see. Some tunnels go lower into the mountain and others go higher. You'll see the remains of fires in places. We don't know if they were part of some Native American ritual or just early settlers."
"We found some arrowheads in here once," Harry confirmed.
"Yeah, and an old tin can," Bill piped up.
"We think it was part of the Underground Railroad at one time," said Tom. "That little stream there feeds into the Runaway Creek. You know, the creek at the swimming hole. That creek was named after some slaves they found living round here in the 18-somethings. They say runaways used to hold up in here for a few days, before moving north. A lot of bad shit went on around here back in the old days."
"Was our family part of the KKK?" asked Damien.
"No, not our lot. Most white people in South Carolina are Southern Baptists, but many people in this part of the county were Roman Catholic. The KKK hated Catholics and Jews almost as much as African Americans."
Tom pointed his lantern in the direction of the three tunnels. This cave system gets really complicated the further you go back. We haven't even explored it all, and some parts of it are cut off by water. So stick with one of us."
"Our swimming hole was probably part of the cave system at one point, before it collapsed," said Junior, his tone meant to alarm.
"Junior, stop trying to scare the cousins," Tom said. "Do you two want to go further in, or should we take you back home?"
"I want to see it all!" Damien proclaimed loudly.
"Yeah, me too," Jimmy added, with a little less enthusiasm than his kid-brother. He knew any other answer would appear cowardly, and he sensed his cousins were already developing a low opinion of him. But he had a plan to change that. He wasn't a chicken-shit. He would prove that, even if it killed him.
Tom took out a long rope from one of the backpacks and tied one end around Stevie's waist and attached the other to a thick metal carabiner attached to his belt.
"Do you have 'ta do that?" The little boy complained.
"Sorry buddy. You know what Dad said. Until you can swim the entire length of the swimming hole, I gotta do it."
"You've all got a flashlight and glow sticks if needed. Junior and me will carry the backpacks, and the main lanterns. I'll lead the way and Junior will look after the stragglers at the back. Stay close together, and step where I step. A lot of the rocks in here are very slippery. We don't need anyone falling over and breaking an arm or leg. We'll go to the main cavern first. Okay, let's go then."
"Have you ever found any skeletons in here?" Damien asked as they made their way over some long fallen rocks. "I heard animal sometimes go into caves to die."
"We never have," Fred said with a little grunt. "But it would be awesome if we did."
"Yeah, especially if it was something extinct. Like a Cave Bear or something like that. A skeleton from one of those things would be worth a lot," Bill declared excitedly.
"Yeah it would be better than finding ginseng," Harry said, rather bitterly. "I haven't gotten over losing that," he added to no one in particular.
"What's ginseng?" Damien asked.
"It's an herb. People take it for their memory and for other reasons. It's really expensive," Jimmy explained, proud that he could add something to that conversation. He didn't like that he was feeling so much like an outsider when his cousins talked. He was in their world and it was nice to show he wasn't ignorant of at least the finer things. "But I thought that came from China or Korea or somewhere?" he questioned.
"No, it's native to eastern North America, but it is also cultivated in China. However, it's very rare this far south," Tom said.
"Yeah," added Bill, sounding like he was a little caught off guard. "We found some last year. But when we went back to get it, somebody had ripped up everything. You're not supposed to do that. You're only supposed to harvest the big stuff and let the little stuff grow. Probably would have been worth a couple of hundred dollars. We could have bought a TV for the bunkhouse. The worst part is I think it was on our land. I bet it was Ricky's dad who grabbed it."
"Careful what you say," Tom warned. "You shouldn't accuse people without evidence."
"Why? Everyone knows ginseng hunting is one of the things that guy does. That and his stills. He's a drunk. Everybody knows that," Bill grumbled.
Jimmy followed the conversation. Was Fred going to defend his friend? He waited to see, but when there was no follow-up, he threw out a cautious question. "I thought you and Ricky were friends?"
"He is," Fred said aiming his light downwards. "It's a little slippery here. Ricky's a great friend. But his dad's white trash and so is his brother. Right Tom?"
The oldest boy was helping Stevie down some rocks and took that as an excuse not to answer straight away. "You know, dad and Ricky's dad used to be friends. But the guy's going through a rough spot these days," said Tom.
"Well is older brother is just an ass. I think he's probably the only kid in the community who's on a first name basis with Sheriff Riley," Fred said with a little more anger in his voice. Then just as suddenly, he chuckled and pointed his light over at Jimmy. "That's not to say Ricky doesn't have a temper. He does. And you're on his shit-list you know?"
Jimmy raised his hand to shield his eyes. "What did I do?"
"He doesn't like anyone using the Q word," Fred said with a smile. "You called him a queer."
"Oh yeah," Jimmy confessed. "I hope I don't have to fight him too. I'll apologize for that when I see him. I was just so shocked."
"Jimmy, have you played Red Dead Redemption 2?" asked Fred.
Jimmy looked over at his cousin. "It was the biggest game of last year. Yeah I have. How could you have played it?" He hadn't intended it to be a dig, but he realized it must have sounded that way. A flash of annoyance raced across Fred's face.
"Sorry, I didn't mean anything by that. Call me a prick."
"You're a prick," said Fred smiling.
The other boy laughed back. He had that coming, he knew.
"I played it with a friend from school," Fred explained. "Anyways, doesn't this place remind you of the mission in that game? You know, where you have to go into the cave to collect the pelt?"
Jimmy looked about as they emerged from the left-hand side tunnel into another huge cavern. This was actually a much bigger space than the one at the entrance of the cave complex. It reminded him of the large open spaces in many of the churches and cathedrals he'd seen on their European vacation. Nothing like the open space of St. Patrick's in New York of course, but big nonetheless. Even the light from the lantern didn't quite reach the far side of the cave. The other thing that stunned him were the alien shaped rocks slowly coming into focus on the far side of the cavern.
Tom and Junior flashed their lanterns in that direction. "Those are called stalagmites and stalactites," the older boy explained. "This part of the cave here is limestone. They are formed over thousands of years by water, mixed with limestone rock, dripping from the ceiling of a cave, or seeping up from the floor."
Jimmy and Damien went over to look at the stalagmites and stalactites in closer detail. For both boys, it was the most incredible thing they'd ever seen.
"This place is amazing," Damien shrieked in a loud excited giggle. When his words and crazy laugh echoed half a dozen times around the cavern, the two city boys just stared at the walls in wonder.
"Yes, there's a spectacular echo in here as well," added Junior.
"Yeah," said Tom. "It's because the sound waves are being bounced off the smooth walls of the cave just like a rubber ball bounces off the ground."
"Echo! Echo!" yelled Harry. Bill and Damien took up the chant and before long everyone had joined in. But Tom and Junior covered their ears and before long, the other boys did likewise. The reverberating sound was actually starting to hurt.
For the next twenty minutes the New York brothers looked around what Tom called the big cavern, as opposed to the little cavern at the entrance.
The Sullivans showed their cousins the stalagmites and stalactites and everyone got to put their hands around the structures that almost appeared alive.
"They are alive," Tom pointed out as if reading people's minds. "Not literally, like animals or people of course, but they are growing. If you come back here in five hundred years' time, this stalagmite will probably reach the top of the cave."
Everyone stared at the tapering mound rising from the floor. It was already taller than Damien and the twins. None of the boys could imagine life in 500 years' time. They would all be long dead, and no doubt forgotten.
They splashed in the small stream of water that ran along the floor, down the tunnel they had come down and out the cave mouth.
Luke and Stevie proudly showed them the ancient campfire site and the various signs of past human habitation. The best was an ancient series of cave paintings in a side tunnel leading back towards the entrance. Some were red, but fading badly. Others were just scratches into the wall that looked like deer and birds. There was one with a stick figure holding a spear, ready to throw at an animal.
"The men from the College came here one time and said these were done by the same Indians that did the ones in Tennessee," Luke said proudly.
"You mean Native Americans," said Tom. "But he's right. They think they are about 600 to 800 years old. Long before Columbus ever stepped foot on this continent."
"This is all so amazing," said Damien several times. Even Jimmy had to admit he was glad he came.
"You guys go exploring. I'll hang back with Luke and Stevie," Tom said slowly undoing the rope around the youngest boy.
"Let's see if you guys can find some more arrowheads," he said.
Curiously Jimmy came closer, "Have you really found arrowheads in here?"
Tom lowered his voice, "Those two will find any sharp rock and call it an arrowhead. I think we have found two genuine ones in here. Ask to see them sometime. They keep them in a box under their bed. If you're a real expert, you can tell how old they are by how they look. They don't always look very aerodynamic. Not like modern-day arrows. They tend to be thicker because they are made of stone. The real one's taper to a point, but that's because they're made with stone tools. The part past the tip it's almost like a dodecahedron. You know a lot of little flat surfaces."
"I wonder how they got in here?" Jimmy asked looking around the cave.
Tom fell silent. "I'm not sure. If an animal was hit and crawled in here to die, I would think we would find a skeleton, but maybe not. I like to think someone came in here after a wounded animal once. This part is big enough I think. You could fire an arrow, and if you're not using a flashlight, it would be difficult to find it if you missed."
Jimmy wondered what the cave might have witnessed over the years. Millennia of slow erosion followed by brief moments of excitement.
As Luke and Stevie busied themselves searching for arrow heads and other possible ancient tools, Fred and the twins went into a private huddle at the far side of the cavern.
"We want to show the cousins the pool that leads to the swimming hole," Fred announced when they came back to the central area.
"Okay," Tom agreed. "Junior and me will look after the littl'uns. Y'all go. But nobody is to push anyone into making 'the swim.' Understand?"
"No problem," answered Fred and the twins in unison.
"What's the swim?" Damien asked.
"Come on. We'll show you," said Harry excitedly grabbing Damien by the hand.
"Take Junior's lantern," Tom yelled as they headed back up the rocks to the way out.
When the five boys got back to the place they called the 'little cavern' at the cave entrance, Fred stopped and pointed out the three tunnels with his lantern.
"The left tunnel takes you to the 'big cavern.' That's where we just were. The one on the right takes you up higher into the mountain. There's lots of different passages in there and it's easy to get lost. So be careful if you go in there. This middle one ends in an underwater stream that leads directly into the swimming hole where you were yesterday. But you need to be good at holding your breath before you try it."
"Yeah," Harry added. "You swim to the far side of the stream in there."
"The water's real cold, even in the summer," Bill said.
"Yeah," Harry continued with an annoyed look at his brother. "Anyways, you swim to the far side of the stream, then dive down about 10 feet (3.05 m) and there's a ledge about 2 feet (0.61 meters) wide. So you swim under that and then you'll see light and you head up. There's light because you're in the swimming hole outside of the caves."
"Wow!" exclaimed Damien. "Did you guys ever do it?"
"Yeah, of course," Bill responded. It's real scary the first time you try, but it's okay after that."
"How long does the swim take?" Jimmy asked.
"The fastest time is way less than 2 minutes from this side," Fred explained. "It takes longer going from the swimming hole back into the cave. The underwater ledge is harder to find from that side. And the stream is flowing out from the cave, so it's like swimming against the tide."
"Wow!" Damien said again.
"The kids around here have a rule that unless you can hold your breath for at least 3 minutes, you can't try it," said Harry.
"So you two can't do it. Besides, it's way too dangerous for city kids, said Fred smirking at Jimmy. "You have to live round here first."
"So let's go and see," the New York boy smirked back.
"Okay Jimmy. You want to be a hero. You lead the way," said Fred, and he handed him the large lantern.
Without a further word, the 12-year-old city boy turned and headed down the middle pitch-black tunnel.
"How far is the stream?" Jimmy shouted back over his shoulder as they reached a narrow spot where the ceiling height was reduced to about 4 feet (1.22 m).
"You have to crawl here, but it opens up again in a little bit," said Fred who seemed to be falling further behind. "It's not that far. Less than a quarter mile."
Jimmy pressed forward, forgetting the others for now. He was real pissed with Fred and wondered when they'd fight again. He knew they would. Nothing had been settled so far. The "way too dangerous for city kids" was the last straw as far as he was concerned. They were treating him like a wimp and a coward. He was neither.
Jimmy got to a section where the tunnel got wider and higher again. It actually opened up like a third cavern he thought to himself. That was just as well as there were large boulders and piles of rocks everywhere. Maybe parts of the roof had collapsed here. He was glad he wasn't crushed under one of those boulders. The others were crawling through the narrow area and Jimmy continued on as the tunnel made a slow but steady right turn.
Damien crawled along the narrow part of the tunnel with Harry in front of him and Bill behind. Each boy carried his own flashlight. Jimmy had got too far ahead for the lantern to provide much illumination. When they emerged into the open area, he was surprised when Fred put his hand over his mouth and whispered into his ear,
"Damien, follow us."
The twins grabbed an arm each and pushed him into the direction of 4 huge stones. Fred flashed his light around and motioned,
Behind one of the boulders was another, hidden tunnel, and he was now pulled in that direction. He turned around and saw the light from the lantern his brother carried as it disappeared around a bend in the main tunnel.
Fred, Harry, and Bill pulled Damien along this new passageway. It was high enough for them all to stand. They started running, and within seconds the New York boy saw bright light in the distance. They kept going and in less than a minute emerged onto the hill overlooking the swimming hole. The Sullivan kids slapped each other on the back and started laughing.
"That couldn't have worked out better," Fred snickered as he bent over catching his breath.
"Yeah Damien, that prick of a brother of yours will be wandering around in there for hours," snorted Bill.
But Damien wasn't happy. Not happy at all. "That was a real mean trick to play. I know Jimmy can be a pain in the ass at times, but what's he ever done to you?"
"He punched me and got me spanked. And got me extra chores as well," Fred complained.
"Yeah well. He can be a pain like I said. But he's my brother and I know stuff about him you don't. Are you guys gonna just leave him there alone?" asked Damien.
"Don't worry Dib. We'll give him 10 minutes and go and rescue his ass," Fred explained. "There's no other passages off that main tunnel down there, so he can't get lost."
"Jimmy is claustrophobic," Damien yelled at the others. "That means he hates tight spaces. He's been hiding that fact from you guys all afternoon, but I'm scared he'll start to panic if we leave him alone. I'm going back to get him."
"Okay Damien. Keep your shirt on. We'll go with you," responded Fred a little sheepishly.
The four boys went back through the alternative cave entrance and made their way along the main tunnel towards the stream. Damien kept yelling Jimmy's name as they went, but got no response.
When they arrived at the underground stream, they found the lantern and walkie talkie and the shoes, shirt and shorts the boy had been wearing, but no Jimmy.
"You don't think…?" Fred started to say, but stopped.
"Tom will kill us," moaned Harry.
"Forget Tom, little brother. What's Dad gonna do if the silly fucker gone and drowned himself?" said Bill.
Then they all looked over at Damien as he started to cry.
"Sorry, Damien," Bill splattered. "I didn't mean to …"
Fred looked around unsure what to do. But he was the oldest, and he knew he had to take charge.
"I'll take the blame. Bill, run back and get Tom up here fast. Harry, you race out to the swimming hole and look for floating … anything in there. I'll look after Damien."
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