Eric Marlow closed the fence gate and wrapped the chain around the metal post.
"I don't get why we're riding the horses instead of taking dirt bikes. It's going to take twice as long to get there," complained his younger brother Haeden as he shifted his weight in the saddle.
"Because dad wants them to get a workout," answered Eric.
"You should have told him no."
Eric grabbed the reigns and climbed onto the black and white painted mare. "I like your thinking little bro. Let's head back to the house and you can do just that. Give the old man a piece of your mind."
"Shut up. We need to get moving."
The brothers headed north down the gravel road for half a mile, then cut east across a grassy plain toward Bedlow mountain.
"We should at least have brought dad's pistol. What if we run across a bear or a big cat?" said Haeden.
"You know he doesn't want us taking it without permission. And besides, the last thing we need is you firing a gun inside of a cave and having it ricochet off of the cabin walls and hit one of us," replied Eric
"So we're supposed to protect ourselves with air horns and pepper spray? Why don't we just blow whistles and yell rape?" asked Haeden with practiced sarcasm.
"Those air horns will scare the hell out of anything with ears, especially inside of a cave. And I bought the good pepper spray from the gun store, not that cheap stuff," reassured Eric.
"If anything gets close enough that I have to use pepper spray, the smell of me shitting my pants should deter it."
After a five-mile ride, the boys left behind the late-summer sunshine and entered the hole they had found the previous afternoon, in the side of Bedlow Mountain.
"Haeden, slow down," Eric cautioned. Reining in his younger brother on these expeditions was a sizable responsibility. Eric believed that somewhere, there was a sixteen year old with absolutely no enthusiasm, for surely Haeden possessed his own share and someone else's.
"Hurry up Eric," Haeden urged. "This place is awesome. I'll bet we're the first people ever in this cave."
"Not likely," said Eric. "Look up there." He shone his flashlight at the dark spots on the ceiling of the entrance. "Those are carbon smudges, probably from torches."
"Torches!" Haeden exclaimed. "So it's been hundreds of years since anyone has been here. Maybe this place was used as a hideout for pirates or bandits. What if there's treasure buried here?"
"Pirates, in Georgia? I don't think so, more than likely runaway slaves or Confederate soldiers." replied Eric
Eric finally convinced Haeden to take up a position behind him. Now in the lead, Eric moved slowly and carefully through the ever widening path that led, finally, to a very large chamber. He moved the beam of the flashlight up and down, from floor to ceiling, until he could no longer clearly see the roof of the cave. The rock that comprised the walls and floor was damp and glistened as the light reflected off of it.
As they neared the far wall of the chamber, they became aware of a large wooden object. Eric moved toward it, all the while straining his ears for any sounds other than the constant dripping of water. Haeden, now quiet, was very close behind him.
"What the hell is that?" Haeden whispered. "It looks like a coffin."
"I'm not sure," Eric answered. The empty box was about three feet wide by six feet long, its lid opened and resting against the back wall of the cave. Eric reached out his left hand and rubbed the dark, brown wood between his thumb and forefinger. It was cold and damp and crumbled somewhat at his touch. He shone the flashlight on his fingers. The wood had decayed to the point that it was impossible to tell, with any degree of certainty, how old it was or what kind of wood it had been.
"Okay, this is creepy. There's no way anyone carried this thing through the path we just took," Haeden said.
"There has to be another way in or it could have been built in here. Who buries someone in a cave?" Eric wondered out loud.
The same curiosity that led him to explore caves in the first place made him question why a casket would be left in such a remote and secluded location. And, of course, he wondered what had happened to the body. He moved the light to his right, following the rear wall of the cave for about twenty feet, until it came to rest on a section of rock that had very obviously been scratched with something heavy, perhaps a metal object. He eyes followed the marks up their path, even as his flashlight began to dim slightly.
"Did you put new batteries in these flashlights like I asked you to?" asked Eric
"Sorry, I guess I forgot." replied Haeden.
"That's great, Haeden. Good job!" Eric scolded.
As the marks continued their rise up the face of the wall, Eric slowly began stepping backwards. Haeden, now pressed against his back, moved with him. About thirty feet above the cave floor, the scratches ended at an opening in the wall.
"Give me your flashlight for a second," commanded Eric.
"I don't think so," Haeden answered.
"Fine, then shine your light up there," Eric continued.
As the beam from Haeden's light scanned the opening, they were both startled to see what appeared to be a white-skinned creature with bright, red eyes, reflecting off of the light. As the boys continued their backwards retreat, Eric instinctively pulled off his backpack and removed the air horn. He pointed it toward the creature and pulled the trigger. The sound, which echoed throughout the cave, was deafening.
"Damn man! Next time tell me before you do that," said Haeden.
The figure in the opening, not as startled by the sound as Haeden, merely cocked its head to one side. Eric felt inside the backpack for the pepper spray and removing the cap, readied himself; Haeden did the same. The boys moved backwards more quickly, until something slimy on the floor beneath them, caused them both to fall. Their flashlights, now emitting only a soft orange glow, revealed a puddle of reddish, brown goo, inside of which were pieces of something that looked like flesh.
"Go. Now Haeden. Run!" yelled Eric.
They both began running toward the opposite side of the cave. Eric kept his light on Haeden's feet so that he was able to watch the floor, and at the same time, make certain that his younger brother was in front of him. He became aware of an intense pain in his back even before he hit the ground. The flashlight and the can of spray both fell from his hands, and then, something was on him. He could feel the warmth of its breath on his cheek and a stench filled his head. As he lie helpless on the ground, the pain slowly left him and he became aware of the warm, wet feeling of something running slowly down his sides. He could see the dimming figure of Haedon against the light of the cave entrance some distance away. At least Haeden was safe, he thought. Finally, his eyes came to rest on the flashlight in front of him, which flickered, then died.
Haeden was nearly out of breath when he reached the cave entrance. He paused to look behind him for Eric, who wasn't there. He shone the dimly lit flashlight into the darkness, trying to discern the figure of his brother, and not seeing it, started back down the path, his can of pepper spray at the ready. When he had moved about twenty feet, he saw the white creature that had been in the hole, crouching over, and resting partly on, the motionless figure of Eric. The thing turned its head toward Haeden and hissed loudly. Every fiber of his being told him to run, but instinct overtook fear and Haeden yelled, "Oh, hell no!" as he charged forward, his right arm, extended in front of him, holding the can of spray. His legs were shaking so badly that he nearly lost his footing, as the creature that had been on Eric climbed off and faced Haeden, assuming a defensive posture. Haeden began spraying before he reached the creature and got some of the liquid in his own eyes and nose. The effects were almost immediate, as his eyes began welling up with tears and his nose began to gush. No longer being able to see clearly, he continued spraying, yelling, and swinging both of his arms wildly from side-to-side in front of him. Then, he tripped over something and fell hard against the rock floor. The burning in his eyes and nose was excruciating and he fully expected to be attacked; but the attack never came. He urgently wiped his eyes and nose with the sleeves of his jacket, set his flashlight down, then quickly reached inside his backpack for a bottle of water. He poured the water over his head with one hand, letting it wash over him, while he rubbed his face with the other hand. Now able to see, somewhat, he picked up the light and began to search for Eric who, as it happened, was right next to him and had been the thing over which he had tripped. He quickly looked back into the cave, trying to detect the creature in the darkness, and seeing nothing, moved to where his brother lie.
"Eric!" he yelled, pushing with both hands on his brother's shoulders. "Eric!" he repeated. Gently, but firmly, he rolled his older brother onto his back, which caused Eric to emit a pain-filled moan. Realizing that his brother was still alive, Haeden quickly rose to his feet and grabbing Eric by both wrists, began pulling him toward the light of the cave entrance.
"Come on Eric. You gotta help me. Eric, wake up!" he pleaded. After dragging his brother a few feet, Haeden once again knelt at his brother's side. He patted Eric on the cheek trying to revive him. "Come on buddy, little help here." he urged. "I can't do this by myself." After a few moments, Eric moved slightly, wincing with pain. "Good boy." said Haeden, "Let's get you up."
Headen looked once more into the darkness and again detecting nothing of the creature, grabbed his brother by the arm and slowly helped him to his feet. Holding his brother close to him and supporting him with both arms, Haeden managed, with great difficulty, to help Eric reach the entrance.
The sunshine caused Haeden to squint, his eyes still recovering from the effects of the pepper spray. The brothers made their way down the gentle slope for about thirty yards before stopping. Haeden carefully lowered Eric into the tall grass to rest, feeling certain that the creature from the cave would not venture into the bright sunlight. He knew they could not stay here for long. It would be dark in a few hours. The sunlight that was protecting them would be gone, and they would once again be vulnerable. Haeden's only thought was of getting Eric to safety. Only after he had done that, could he think about returning to the cave. Whatever that thing was, it had to be destroyed. Next time, he would be better prepared and not alone. Haeden managed to get Eric onto his horse and the two brothers made their way back to the ranch.
Word Count: 1949