Summary: After sixteen-year-old Adam discovers a mysterious cave, disturbing events follow.
5940 words Rating K
Written for the 2017 BoNaNo.
It sure was hot!
Adam took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his face with his arm. Too hot to be riding around looking for strays. Too hot to do anything, except maybe lie by the lake with a fishing rod and a good book. Why hadn’t that been on Pa’s list of chores for the day?
He straightened his back to ease out the kinks, ran his hand through his damp hair, and pushed his hat back down on his head with a sigh of resignation. Strays. That was what he was supposed to be doing. He scanned the area around him with an obligatory glance: grass, brush, rocks, but nothing moving.
A shadow among the rocks caught his eye. For a moment, the dust and heat and boredom of the day was forgotten. He had just turned sixteen and there was still enough of the boy in him to be excited by the prospect of a cave.
Leaving his horse to graze, he clambered up the rocky slope. The opening in the rocks was more visible now, bigger than he’d thought, high and narrow. Cautiously, he examined the ground in front of the cave—he had no desire to find himself face to face with a bear or a lion—but there was no evidence of tracks of any kind. Loosening the gun in his holster, just in case, he slipped between the rocks. Instantly, the day became cooler. He paused just inside the entrance and cast his eyes around.
His excitement evaporated. The cave’s interior was no more than a tall, shallow indentation in the rock, about eight feet deep. Never mind, he consoled himself, at least he was out of the glare of the midday sun, if only briefly. He leaned back against the stone wall, savoring the contrast between his shady refuge and the bleached brightness of the world beyond. Reluctant to head back into the relentless heat straight away, he let his eyes wander over the walls and ceiling of the little cave. Rock. Just bare, gray rock. Except….
He pushed himself upright, peering hard into the rear of the cave. What was that, just up there? About three feet off the ground. A smudge of darkness in the shadow of the back wall. Was that another opening, leading deeper into the rock?
He moved closer. The wall was solid to the height of his waist; above that was a shelf and a vertical slot, not large, but plenty wide enough for a slim youth.
He didn’t hold out much hope that his discovery would yield any more than a narrow niche, but in the heat of the day, cave exploration was a more appealing occupation than riding around looking for strays, so he put his hands to the rock shelf and levered himself upwards till he was kneeling on the ledge.
In front of him was a passage with plenty of headroom, and just about wide enough that he could slide into it sideways. He’d had the foresight to bring with him the matches from his saddlebag. He took one out now and struck it. The narrow passageway stretched away in front of him as far as the light of the match showed, which wasn’t very far.
He wasn’t a reckless boy, but the tunnel didn’t look dangerous or particularly difficult, so he slid into the gap and inched his way along sideways, convinced that the passage would soon narrow down and become impassable. The match expired. He could still see the bright slit of the cave opening behind him, but in front was blackness.
With his left hand extended and his heart beating fast with excitement, he felt his careful way along the cold rock. After a few feet, the passage curved left and the ground went down beneath his feet. The reassuring slit of sunshine was lost to view. He took out the matches and struck another.
He was in a second cave, bigger than the first, but still small enough that his lighted match showed him walls all around. The floor was surprisingly even, although it sloped down towards the back of the cave, and in the limited light from the match, he spotted what looked like several clay pots lined up against one wall.
He took the few strides needed to cross the cave and dropped down on one knee, just as the match burned his fingers.
“Ouch!” he muttered, but his mind was on the thrill of his discovery rather than his scorched thumb. He struck a third light, and there on the ground in front of him were half a dozen crude ceramic jars of different shapes and sizes. A couple were empty but had obviously held liquid once from the stains and tide marks around the insides; one wide-necked jar held a collection of miniature bones and tiny skulls, seemingly those of small birds and rodents; another was half-full of ash; a fifth held an assortment of stones, all small and unremarkable except for the fact they all had holes through them; and in the final pot—he had to light a fresh match for the last jar—was a carved, cylindrical object, no more than four inches in length, and a pale ivory-white in color. He picked it up and turned it over in his hand. Not ivory; bone more like; and carved all the way around with an intricate coiled design. Just as his match burned out again, he realized the carving represented the skeleton of a snake.
Pocketing the little curiosity, he straightened up in the darkness, fishing for his remaining matches. There were only three left. He struck a light and jumped back, startled. There in front of him on the cave wall, at head height, was a strange image.
He’d seen cave paintings before, mostly animals and hunting scenes, but this creature resembled a man, with a skull for a head. Its long white robe was painted white and there were black feathers at its waist. Empty sockets where eyes should have been gaped at him above the grim leer of a fleshless mouth.
It was only a crude painting, but as he stared at it, a gust of cold air passed by him, snuffing out his match. His heart froze. As blackness engulfed him, the image of the strange creature burned in his mind and came alive, so that he was certain he sensed its presence in the cave. A strange rattling sound filled the cavern, like hundreds of dry bones tapping one against the other.
The hairs rose on the back of his neck. Blind in the darkness, he stumbled back across the cave and collided with a wall. Groping across the rough surface, irrational panic gripped him. Where was the passageway? Panting with fear, he almost sobbed with relief when his hands encountered empty space. Scrambling and stumbling in the narrow tunnel, he banged his head, elbows and knees, and scraped skin from both sets of knuckles, but he had no thought other than to get back into the light.
Ahead of him, a sliver of light grew wider. He all but fell out of the tunnel into the first chamber, scurrying like a hunted animal out of the mouth of the cave into the welcome warmth and brightness of the sunshine.
It wasn’t until he was back in his saddle that his racing heart began to slow. Reluctantly, he turned his head to look back at the cave entrance, but there was nothing there. In fact, it looked unremarkable, almost hidden from view unless he looked closely enough.
“Idiot!” he chided himself, and tried to make himself smile at his own foolishness, but that fool side of him still had the upper hand, and the terror had not yet departed. Not completely.
There was nothing to be frightened about, he told himself sternly. There was a logical explanation for everything. The cold draught that blew through the cave, there was probably an opening elsewhere in the rock and that gust of air had simply been a through-draft. And the rattling sound? He frowned to himself. Snakes maybe. The thought was disturbing, but at the same time unconvincing. He knew the sound of a rattlesnake. What he’d heard in that cave was not that sound.
When he got home, he showed the carved stick to Pa and Marie.
“It’s bone,” said Pa, confirming what Adam had thought.
“Pretty.” Marie turned it over in her hand, admiring the snake design. “Where did you find it?”
“A cave,” he told her. “There wasn’t a lot there. Just a few old pots with animal bones, stones, that kind of thing. And this.” For some reason he couldn’t explain, he didn’t mention the painting. He’d imagined he would, but when it came to it, just remembering made him shudder inside. Nor did he tell them of the childish terror that had driven him from the place. Embarrassed by his own foolish behavior, he had no intention of humiliating himself further by sharing it with anyone.
“Let’s go back,” begged Hoss, eyes shining with excitement. “We can take a lamp and a rope and explore it real good. There might be hidden treasure.”
Little Joe’s eyes grew wide at the idea of treasure. “I want to come,” he insisted, scowling when his mother laughed at the absurdity of a four-year-old exploring hidden caves.
Adam shrugged the idea aside. “Not sure I can even remember where it was,” he said, although he remembered perfectly well. “And it wasn’t very exciting, really. Apart from this bone, there was nothing else particularly interesting.”
He was barely sixteen, yet he’d been grown up for a long time. He’d had to be. His early years, traveling west with his father, had exposed him to hardships and experiences most children never had to face. And when Inger died, there had been a baby to care for too. Then a home to build in the wilderness, food to be found, money to be earned. It had made him into a tough, pragmatic, sensible young man, not one prone to flights of fancy or fits of hysteria, so why that night was he visited by a dream so vivid he woke in a cold sweat, trembling with fear?
He didn’t recall most of the dream; just the last part, where he was in the yard, unloading supplies from the wagon. Pa was there, and Hoss and Hop Sing. First, he had heard the strange rattling noise, and then, just as in the cave earlier that day, a cold breath of wind stirred the dust at his feet and seemed to penetrate straight into his belly. He turned his head, and there in front of the corral stood the creature from the painting. Long robe of dirty white, belt adorned with black feathers, and a necklace of small bones around its neck. On its head was a mask, fringed with more black feathers, and painted in the crude representation of a skull. In its left hand it cradled a human skull, and in its right, a wooden rattle.
It didn’t speak or move, yet all happiness evaporated from Adam’s soul and he was filled instead with dread and desolation. That was when he awoke, distraught, bedewed with the cold sweat of terror. And even after he had reminded himself repeatedly that it had been just a dream, it was a long time before the panic abated and his heart ceased to pound like a frightened child’s, and he dared risk closing his eyes again.
The hot weather continued. If anything, it grew warmer. The heat made even the simplest jobs twice as tiring. The ranch had expanded rapidly the last few years, and even though they had taken on more hired hands to help with the workload, they were still busy from dawn to dusk. He was used to hard work, but still Adam found his gaze lingering longingly over the small pile of new books that had arrived for him weeks before and still lay unread on his desk. He had long harbored a secret hope that one day he might go to college, but with the ranch growing the way it was, he could only sigh regretfully as his dream slipped like sand from his grasp.
He didn’t complain. They lived comfortably. The ranch thrived, and in spite of his young age, he was his father’s right-hand man, with a special bond between. They had endured so much together in their years of traveling, and they had worked shoulder to shoulder to build what they now had. Adam was proud of that. Proud of his father. Proud of himself too, for what they had achieved. And now his father had Marie, and there was Little Joe to tie them all together; life should have been complete. But for that unfulfilled dream.
He was fixing the wagon bed in the yard. It was as if Pa read his thoughts because he came out of the barn and clapped his arm around Adam’s shoulder.
“Good job, son.” He released his hold and leaned over to inspect Adam’s handiwork, testing the boards with his hands. “That should do the job.” Looking back at his son, he smiled. “You look hot.”
Adam shook drops of perspiration from his hair and grinned, as if to prove the point.
“Why don’t you take your brothers down to the lake and cool off for an hour or two?”
Adam thought about the list of chores he still had to tackle. Once again, it was as if Pa saw what he was thinking.
“There’s nothing here that can’t wait. You’ve been working flat out these last few days, you deserve some time off. And Hoss and Little Joe will be over the moon if you take them with you. Go on, have some fun.”
He needed no second telling. Within an hour, the three of them were up to their necks in the deliciously cool waters of the lake. On a hot day, there was no better place to be, for sure, even if there was no peace because Hoss and Little Joe enjoyed no game so much as trying to sink their older brother under the surface.
“Right!” he hollered, emerging from the depths after Hoss had sprung out of the water beneath him and tugged him down. “My turn to duck you now!”
The watery battle that ensued wasn’t as one-sided as it might have been considering the differences in their ages and relative sizes. In these contests, it was always two against one: Hoss, stocky and strong for his ten years, and Little Joe, small but agile, and a master at the art of squirming, especially when wet. United against their wily older brother, they were a formidable team, and by the time he’d succeeded in submerging them both, they were all out of breath and weak from shouting and laughing.
They flopped in the shallows to recover their breath, then Adam stretched out on the beach, the sun on his chilled skin no longer a trial but a pleasure, while Hoss entertained Little Joe by dipping his face in the water and gurgling songs.
He must have dozed. He had no idea for how long, but he was jolted back to wakefulness by a sudden awareness of a faint, clacking rattle. He jerked upright to a sitting position. There on a boulder, twenty feet away, stood a figure masked and gowned, arms raised, eyes blank and staring in its painted skull of a face. Eyes as empty as death.
His skin prickled, despite the heat. He sprang to his feet. The scorching sun was still high overhead. In the lake, back to the shore, stood Hoss, waist-deep and still, absorbed by something only he could see. A few feet behind him, face down in the shallows, floated the motionless body of Little Joe.
He plunged into the lake, seized the unresisting child around his middle and hauled him, limp and dripping, clear of the water. Joe’s body slumped in his arms, a deadweight, as lifeless as a sack of grain.
He thought of Marie. He thought of Pa. Despair, like grief, rose in his throat.
“Joe, don’t you be dead!” he cried aloud, thumping his brother hard between the shoulder blades as if to reprimand him for being drowned.
Water spurted from Joe’s nose and mouth. To Adam’s surprise and eternal relief, he took a gulp of air and sprang back to life. The world that had closed in around them, once more expanded, and Adam saw the lake again, the mountains, the pine trees. Once again, he felt the heat of the sun on his back. And there was Hoss, white-faced and frozen in horror.
It was a few seconds before Adam could speak, and when he did, relief exploded out of him in an outburst of vitriol.
“He was right behind you, Hoss. Why weren’t you watching him? Didn’t you see him? He could have drowned!”
He set Joe down on the beach, took him by the shoulders and shook him, so that droplets of water flew out in a small shower around him. “What were you doing, you idiot? You can swim. Why were you just lying there?”
Little Joe rubbed water from his eyes and stared mutely.
Hoss, who’d followed them to shore, said in a shaky voice, “I was looking after him, Adam. I was. I promise. I was just watching the fish, that’s all. I didn’t know he was under the water.” His mouth trembled, tears brimmed in his frightened eyes.
Adam looked at them both and saw their misery. He rubbed at his own face and realized his hands were shaking. Lifting his eyes, he looked behind his brothers to the boulder where he’d seen the masked creature, but the rocks were empty. For a few moments, no one said anything, then Hoss’s small voice said, “Sorry, Adam.”
He looked down at his ten-year-old brother and the anger evaporated.
“It’s all right,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault. I should have been watching him too.” He turned his gaze on the youngest member of the family. Shoulders drooped, hair dripping, Little Joe eyed him warily, no doubt braced for further reprimand. Adam dropped down on his haunches in front of the boy. “Come here, Little Joe. Are you all right?”
Little Joe gave a nod and let himself be embraced. He seemed oblivious to the drama that had caused his big brother’s outburst, but cowed by Adam’s anger. Holding the child made Adam feel better. Over Joe’s shoulder, he addressed Hoss.
“Did you…did you see anyone?”
Hoss looked blank.
Adam gestured with his head. “Over there, by those rocks. Did you see…anyone…over there?”
Hoss brushed the tears from his face and shook his head. Adam breathed in deeply and gave a little nod. “It’s all right,” he told him. “I’m sorry I was angry. I didn’t mean to be. I was just worried, that’s all. Don’t cry; it wasn’t your fault. Come on, let’s get dressed. Time to head back.”
Hoss and Joe bounced back from their fright with remarkable resilience. Adam couldn’t quite shake off the shock as quickly, but it was comforting to see the younger boys returning to their normal selves, Hoss laughing when Joe buttoned his shirt all wrong. The shirt was a hand-me-down and way too large, and even Adam had to smile at the copious fabric draped crookedly around Joe’s small frame.
By the time they were mounted on their horses and heading away from the lake, it seemed to Adam only he was still troubled by what had happened. Even for him, relief was fast overtaking horror, and he could laugh again and join in the silly banter of his brothers. But always, at the edge of his mind was a shadow, shrouded and masked. And when he thought about that shadow, he shivered. Had the dread he felt been a premonition of Joe’s death? Was that creature there to warn him of his brother’s doom, or had it come to claim the small boy? Adam looked over at the child, giggling now at one of Hoss’s jokes, as full of bubbling energy as he had ever been. Whatever that figure had meant as it stood on the shore of the lake, Little Joe was alive and well, and for that he had to be thankful. A small surge of jubilation warmed his middle, and for a moment the lingering fear was banished. Maybe he had overreacted, after all. Joe hadn’t drowned. Maybe he hadn’t even been close to drowning. Maybe he’d only gone under the water seconds before Adam awoke, and there had never really been any crisis, except in Adam’s mind. The kid had offered no sensible explanation. Once he’d gotten over the immediate trauma, he’d shrugged off any further probing, as though he genuinely had no understanding that he’d been in any danger.
He wouldn’t mention the incident to Pa, decided Adam as they neared home. Pa would only be worried, and maybe cross, and if the incident had been more in Adam’s imagination than for real, what was the point? He’d allowed that apparition to unnerve him, back at the lake, and maybe that had been no more than the tail end of a dream after all. It was time to take control of his imagination. His brothers were just fine. There was nothing to worry about; there never had been.
There was a rig in the yard. Hoss looked round at Adam, a little frown of curiosity on his face.
“Someone’s here,” he said.
Cold fingers clawed again at Adam’s insides.
“It’s the doctor.”
Hoss was old enough to understand the significance of the doctor’s presence. “Someone must be sick,” he said.
Little Joe, not yet old enough to appreciate the implication, slid down from his pony, and said, “Who?”
For some reason he didn’t fully understand himself, Adam took the small boy by the hand. Joe didn’t seem to mind. He was singing a nonsensical song he’d made up on the way back from the lake about what he’d like for dinner. Later, Adam remembered that, but at the time, it was as if he were walking into a tunnel, and the bright sunshine, and the yard, and Little Joe’s childish trilling were all part of a distant memory. A grayness closed around him and the air grew thin, tight and hard to breathe.
The front door was propped open. Adam’s feet felt oddly heavy, as if they didn’t want to take him over the threshold. Inside, the great room was empty. Upstairs, a door opened and shut again, and beside Adam, Joe’s voice called, “Mama?”
Then Pa was coming down the stairs. The look on his face made Adam’s insides shrink into a cold, hard ball.
“Hey, Pa,” said Joe, “we went swimming in the lake.”
“Did you?” said Pa, in a voice oddly bereft of interest.
The doctor came down the stairs, bag in hand, face grim.
“Boys,” said Pa, “there’s something I have to tell you.”
Afterwards, Adam realized he had known. Ever since the moment he had seen the masked figure on the lake shore, he had known; he just had not allowed that knowledge to take on form in his consciousness. Not Little Joe drowning in the lake, but Marie, thrown from her horse.
Hoss cried, silent, inconsolable tears. Joe cried too, tears of bewilderment, then stubborn denial.
“Where’s Mama?” he would ask, over and over, dissolving into petulant tantrums when she refused to appear.
Even Pa cried. Not openly, but Adam, sleepless in his own bed, would hear Pa’s choked sobs in the loneliest hours of the night.
Only Adam did not cry. The fear in his heart would not let him grieve. Instead, he struggled manfully to lessen the burden of grief weighing down Pa’s hunched shoulders, to distract Hoss from his misery, all the time bearing patiently with Little Joe’s defiant peevishness.
They buried Marie in a grave beside the lake, and Adam wondered how any of them would survive a sadness that seemed too great to bear. Friends had been calling by the Ponderosa in the three days since Marie’s death, and before they went to the lake for the burial, everyone had gathered at the house to eat and drink and share condolences. Once it was all finally over, they were tired, Pa especially. He didn’t argue when Adam told him to go to bed and get some rest. Even Little Joe had finally succumbed to exhaustion and ceased his relentless demands for his mama. Hoss, somber and suddenly very grown-up for his ten years, put his little brother to bed and climbed in beside him.
“I’ll stay with him tonight,” he told Adam, “just in case he wakes up, upset.”
Adam felt a pang of envy as he watched Hoss and Joe snuggle down together, for an instant half-tempted to clamber under the quilt with the two of them, just to feel that touch of human comfort. But he didn’t. He went instead to his own room and sat down at his desk, numb of mind and soul.
His eye rested on a small object at the back of the desk, like the stub of a stick, pale in the gathering dusk. He reached out and picked it up, his face contorting as he did so. His fingers tightened around the object and he saw that his hand was shaking. A strange sound emerged from his throat, a cross between a grunt and a whimper. He rose from his chair, ran out of his room and down the stairs.
There was no fire in the grate. He’d forgotten that. The day had been warm and once they’d got back from the lake, no one had bothered to light a fire. He bit back a cry of frustration and teetered there, next to the empty grate, for several long moments, before making for the front door.
Outside, it was all but dark, no more than a hint of residual light in the sky to the west. He stopped on the front porch, the bone-stick still clutched in his fingers, fighting back the panic that gripped his chest and made his breath come in shuddering grunts. The ball of grief that had been swelling inside him for the last three days suddenly became too much to suppress. He sank down on the porch step, dropping his head onto his knees. Tears finally spilled over. Deep, painful sobs racked his body.
Hop Sing’s voice so close surprised him. He hadn’t been aware of anyone approaching.
“Sorry,” he gulped, trying to swallow his grief. Still the tears came.
Hop Sing sat down on the step beside him. The cook’s hand touched his arm. “No need for you to say sorry. We all sad about Missis Cartwright.”
Adam kept his head pressed to his knees. The hand on his arm remained steady. It was surprisingly comforting to feel it there, as though its touch gave him strength to manage his grief. Finally, he could lift his head, but it was a few minutes more before he could trust himself to look at the man who sat beside him on the step. When he did, he saw there were tears on Hop Sing’s cheeks too.
“We all miss her very much,” said Hop Sing.
Adam nodded, still not trusting himself to speak.
The light was all gone from the sky. A rectangle of lamplight spilled out from the kitchen door. Adam swallowed hard and rubbed at his face with his left sleeve.
“I think…” he began, his voice wobbling dangerously. He swallowed again and made a fresh attempt. “I think…it might have been my fault.”
He couldn’t bring himself to look at Hop Sing, yet he sensed the Chinaman’s eyes boring into him.
“Why you think that?”
“This.” Adam held out his hand and uncoiled his fingers, revealing the bone-stick, small and pale in his hand.
It was too dark to see details. Hop Sing hesitated, then reached out for the object. He got up from the step and crossed to where the light shone out from the kitchen door. Adam watched him examine the small stick, turning it over in his hands and frowning. Finally, he returned to the step and sat down, once again shoulder to shoulder with Adam.
“Where you find this?”
“There was a cave,” said Adam. “There were a few things there, stones and pots. And a painting of a figure with a skull head. This is all I took with me, but ever since I did, I’ve had this weird feeling at the back of my mind, as if something bad was about to happen. Then, the other day, the day Marie…” He paused, took a deep breath and tried again. “Hoss, Joe and I were at the lake and I saw…I saw the figure from the painting in that cave, and I knew—I just knew—something bad was going to happen.” He hesitated again. He hadn’t mentioned the incident with Little Joe at the lake to Pa or anyone else. Now, unbidden, he told Hop Sing all that had happened that fateful day, and Hop Sing listened silently and made no judgement.
“I thought that was why it was there,” he finished, “the figure in the mask. I thought it was there…for Joe. But then, we came back here and…well, you know the rest.”
Hop Sing held up the bone stick. “And you think you responsible for Missis Cartwright’ accident, because of this?”
It should have sounded ridiculous, Adam knew that, yet he found himself nodding, and his throat tightening dangerously.
Hop Sing was quiet for a moment, then he shook his head and sighed. “Missis Cartwright, she ride too fast. She always ride too fast. I tell her that, Mister Cartwright tell her that, you tell her that. We all tell her, but Missis Cartwright, she stubborn lady.” He took Adam’s hand and put the bone stick back in his palm. “That is why Missis Cartwright fall from horse. Not Mistah Adam’s fault, not Hop Sing’s fault, not Mister Cartwright’s fault. Just accident. Sad, sad accident.”
Adam’s eyes burned. He wasn’t sure if it was thinking about Marie that caused the tears to well again, or simple relief at Hop Sing’s good old common sense.
“So,” he said, still troubled by uncertainty, “do you think I imagined the figure at the lake?”
Hop Sing snorted. “You not imagining kind of boy.”
“Then,” Adam frowned, “you think the figure in the mask is real?”
Hop Sing considered the question. “Hop Sing think,” he said at last, “you have…premonition.”
“About Marie? But what could I have done? I was too far away. I…”
“Not Missis Cartwright,” said Hop Sing, interrupting his wail of despair. “When you saw man in mask, you save Little Joe in lake.”
“Yes, but…” Adam’s protest faltered.
“Bad thing happen that day,” went on Hop Sing, “but good thing happen too. You pull Little Joe from water. You save brother’s life.”
Adam stared through the gloom at Hop Sing. “You’re saying that’s what it came for, that creature? To warn me the Little Joe was in trouble?”
Hop Sing shrugged. “Mistah Adam always ready to blame himself. Maybe you have good premonition. If you not save Little Joe…”
He left the sentence unfinished. He didn’t need to say more. A chill went through Adam just contemplating the other tragedy that might have happened that day. If they’d lost Little Joe as well as Marie….
They sat for a while longer, shoulder to shoulder, then Adam rose from the step.
“Thank you, Hop Sing,” he said.
Hop Sing got up too and brushed his tunic straight. “Good night, Mistah Adam.”
Dismounting from his horse, he looked up at the rocks above him. Now that he knew where to look for it, the cave entrance was easy to spot. The day was hot again, the sun still climbing to its midday peak. Everything around him looked the same as it had a week earlier, when he had first come by this place —hazy sky, dusty earth, sun-baked rocks—yet it was not the same. He was not the same. At sixteen, he had rubbed shoulders with death too many times, and each time something inside him hardened. When he had fled this place only days before, his heart had been weak with fear, and he had not dreamed he would ever return to face the nameless horror that lurked in the blackness of that cave. Yet here he was, and though cold claws clutched at his entrails, tragedy had steeled him. He set off quickly up the rocks, allowing himself no time for hesitation.
Once again, he entered the cool dimness of the cave entrance and made his way to the back where the darkness brushed his warm skin with chilled fingers. Once again, he clambered onto the shelf and edged his way along the narrow tunnel till he reached the blackness of the cavern beyond. There he paused. This time he was prepared. From his pocket he took out the stub of a candle and struck a match to light it.
Everything was as he recalled. The clay jars were still there, undisturbed on the ground, and there on the wall the painting of the masked creature stared at him from its hollow eye sockets. But, this time his heart didn’t jump into his mouth when he saw it, even if it did pound a little harder. He took a deep breath and crossed the cave swiftly, pulling from his pocket the snake bone. Crouching down, he placed it carefully back into the pot in which he had first discovered it.
The air stirred around him. A coldness seeped through his skin and seemed to permeate his very bones. He cupped his hand around the candle flame but it sputtered and died in spite of his efforts. He stood up, neck pricking, heart racing. He had determined he would not succumb to childish panic, but it took all his strength of mind not to cry out and stumble blindly backwards. Light the candle, he told himself, yet he found he did not want to see what else waited in that place with him.
In the cold darkness, something rattled, like wooden beads—or bones—in a jar. His breath caught in his throat. Swallowing his fear, he moved cautiously back the way he had come, hands outstretched, feeling his way through the inky blackness to the tunnel. Behind him, the rattling grew louder. In spite of all his brave intentions, he found himself scrabbling to get out of the tunnel and through the cave to the welcome light of day, bruising his knees and losing his candle stub in the process.
It was done. A sense of relief surged through him as he scrambled down to his waiting horse, like the touch of the sun as it warmed his chilled blood. He paused only briefly before he climbed into his saddle, glancing back at the rocks behind him, half in defiance, half in dread, but there was nothing to be seen. From this angle, even the mouth of the cave was hidden.
He climbed onto his horse and turned its head homewards. Behind him, the faint rattling of bone on bone grew ever fainter, and finally faded into nothingness.