"Mrs. Hildebrand!" The head spelunker's impatient shout ricocheted off the wet limestone cave walls. "Stay with the group, please. We don't want to lose you."
"Tying my shoe, be there in a -- Wha--!" With a squeal of outrage Susa whipped around, her headlamp and flashlight stabbing the blackness in search of the sleaze who'd goosed her. All she saw, though, were the fans of light of her fellow explorers jiggling up the passage.
He'd escaped, but not for long. She'd recognize the lewd snicker and disgusting spice cologne of that genetic failure anywhere. She unhooked the water flask from her belt. When she found him, she'd empty it in his lap. The others would think he'd wet his pants.
Why on earth had she let herself be talked into spelunking, anyway? Especially in a slimy, boring cave like this one -- never mind the glorious room of crystalline stalactites promised at the end of the trail, hundreds of feet below fresh air, sunshine and cedars. So what if it was off the beaten tourist track? So what if it was discovered only twenty-five years ago? If God had wanted her be a root vegetable, he'd have planted her in somebody's garden.
It was all Barb's fault. Coaxing her into a slippery tromp through one of Missouri's thousands of partially explored caves. "It'll be fun," her friend had urged. "We're in a rut, and now that you're free of mother-duty, you might meet a man. An interesting one."
"Just because Terry suffers from couch-rot doesn't mean he's never stimulating," Susa said, rising to the defense of her significant other.
"Sure," Barb said. "But you're well-preserved for thirty-six, and how long's it been since you swapped a prime-time TV show for a Terry Peak Performance?"
"Never mind. It's still better than any Roger Hildebrand performance. How a guy that low-cal ever fathered twins is a mystery. I must be a world-class fertility kit."
So here she was, roaming the bowels of the earth, and instead of meeting Mr. Right, goosed by Mr. Scuzz. She quickened her step as her peripheral vision registered motion near headlamp level. Not that she gave a damn what caused it -- the leader had assured his pack there were no snakes or bats in this cave -- but the twinkling lights ahead had shrunken. Treading as fast as she dared over the slippery, lumpy cave floor, she followed the lights and hollow voices of her companions.
But then, one by one, the lights winked out, leaving only a faint glow reflected on the shimmering wall. Her throat tightened in primal fear, and she broke into a clumsy run.
"Mrs. Hildebrand! We're waiting."
"Coming," she yelled, wincing as her own voice clattered back at her. Simultaneously the lug sole of her left boot seemed to touch glass and fly sideways. With no time to catch herself, she sprawled face-first on the wet cave floor, twirling on her stomach like a human pinwheel. First the lens of her headlamp cracked, then the flashlight sprang out of her hand and crashed. The world went black, and her brain wiped out. "Help!" she screeched. "Help, help, HELP!"
Seconds later her brain kicked in. Don't panic. You're not alone. Use the other flashlight.
Winded and a little dazed, she detached the back-up flashlight from her belt and switched on its powerful beam.
Thank God. I'm not dead yet.
She got to her feet and stumbled toward the lighted bend in the wall. As she rounded it, instead of being greeted by the lights and disapproving stares of her companions, she discovered they'd gone around another bend. And then another.
"Wait up!" she howled, shifting her anger from Spice Cologne and herself to her careless leader. She didn't hear any answering shout, but ahead, the light grew stronger, meaning she was closing on her fellow cavers.
Except that it didn't. She rounded another corner and skidded to a halt.
Ahead, a rough oval of sapphire sky in a limestone matrix glowed at the end of a short, dead end passage. Angling upward, the opening, little more than a foot in diameter, was big enough to admit a cougar, and certainly snakes. Susa's hair stiffened. Then, hearing movement in the main tunnel, she scurried back to the bend in the curving, featureless black alley and shouted. "Wait. I made a wrong turn . Come back!"
This time the rock seemed to absorb her cries, muffling them along with the sounds of her harsh breathing and scraping boots, the pounding racket of her heart. She stopped, strained to listen, and heard the soft pattering of water droplets onto the cave floor. "Help!" she called, again. "Anyone -- I'm lost!"
The after-echo silence boomed in her ears.
Mustn't panic, mustn't panic... Mouthing the mantra, she ripped off the useless headlamp and tossed it aside. The team would miss her, come back for her any minute, most likely were on their way right now with Barb leading the pack. Like she'd taught Alison and Mark when they were little: If you get lost, stay put. The others will find you.
At least it was lighter here. No way was she going into that pitch black nothingness with only one flashlight, not counting the tiny penlight in her pocket. Apparently, she'd turned herself around when she fell. Another wrong turn and she could die in the cave, maybe not even under Missouri .
If the others didn't show up soon, hips permitting, she'd climb through the hole at the end of the passage and wait for them at the cave entrance. Then she'd deal with the smelly creep. In this case, plotting revenge wasn't just sweet, it was therapeutic.
And next year, she'd head for a sensible vacation in the mountains. Barb couldn't stand heights.
It was warmer near the opening than in the passageway. She yanked off her son's wool ski cap and stuffed it in the pocket of her denim jacket. What would her offspring say if they knew her predicament?
"Oh, Mom--" that would be Alison, of course -- "why didn't you at least rope yourself to the guide?"
And from Mark, "Don't just sit there, Mom. Either hunt down those jerks or climb out the back way."
"You're right, Mark," his mother muttered, and snapped the flashlight onto her belt. "I'm getting out of here before I develop bat-breath."
It took her less than a minute to wriggle through the cave opening, plant her boots on a cedar covered hillside, and take a joyful breath of crystal-clear, pine-scented Ozarks air. The fragrance seemed more pungent than she remembered, but in contrast to the dank air in the cave, a barnyard wouldn't smell so bad. Now, emerging from the black hole, she didn't think she'd ever seen such a gloriously blue sky.
Turning her back on the cave exit -- she wouldn't go back in there if it meant life without modern plumbing -- she made for the nearest climbable tree, an enormous oak.
Scrapes and scratches later, from her perch on the fourth limb she scanned what appeared to be virgin timber, except that it had to be several generations removed. Hillsides rolled off in every direction, densely covered by deciduous and pineforest giants occasionally interrupted by a grassy patch or outcropping of rock. The early June air was clean enough to see halfway into Arkansas, and yet there wasn't a human or even a grazing animal in sight. The only landmark was a limestone crag across the valley, its profile reminding her of an Indian head nickel. Even the bird twitter seemed louder than usual.
The spelunkers had entered the cave around two o'clock. Her watch now said three-thirty. Lost for over an hour, she glanced at the sun, computing direction. It had been raining when they'd entered the cave so she didn't have a clue what direction the entrance faced, but there'd been a microwave tower on the highest hill opposite it.
The isolation gnawed at her. Where are the farmhouses wepassed on our way to the cave? For that matter, where are the roads and power lines?
"Okay, Mark," she said crossly . "This was your idea. Now what?" There wasn't much point in asking Alison, who'd suggest something useful like, "Tie your shirt to the top of a tree, Mom. Somebody's bound to get curious."
When neither Mark, St. Francis, nor Mercury answered, she tightened her thigh-grip on the oak limb and leaned over to check the inhospitable slope fifteen feet below. Staying put might mean sleeping in the tree. As for yelling for help, she'd already shouted till she was baritone. So she scrambled frog-like down the oak trunk, its scaly bark roughing her up some more. Once on the ground, she stuffed her gloves into her jacket pockets and retrieved her canteen and flashlight from the base of the tree where she'd left them.
Leaves shifted near her feet.
"Yikes!" Dropping the gear, she sprang for the nearest oak limb, and glimpsed the glittering flights of the metal canteen and flashlight. Seconds later the canteen buried itself in a bush, while the flashlight ricocheted off a rock and disappeared into a gully.
Arm sockets screaming, she dangled from the limb and scanned the quiet leaves inches below her toes. After what seemed like an hour, she had to let go. On the ground again, she peered over the edge of the deep gully into a foreboding cover of weeds, bushes and possible poison ivy.
Scratch the flashlight.
She scraped her cheek while retrieving the canteen from its bristly hiding place. "So help me, Barb,you're getting a box of broken glass for your birthday . "
A flip of a mental coin sent her eastward. By deliberately moving in a circular direction, she'd eventually see the microwave tower and locate the cave entrance. Preferably before her hoarded packet of raisins ran out. What she knew about surviving in the wilds she'd learned from Zane Grey novels.
It was hard walking on side slopes in the dense timber. Only patches of sky showed through the tree canopy, and she soon gave up on the microwave tower and turned downhill. By the time she spotted a creek, dusk had closed in. Following it should eventually lead her back to civilization, unless she was destined to be some cougar's midnight snack. Spurred by that thought, she jogged downhill, skidding on some loose pebbles. In a frantic grab, she caught hold of a low tree limb, and jerked to a halt. Winded, she hauled herself onto the limb to rest out of snake reach.
* * *
Bickford Pelletier squatted on his haunches in the fading light and considered his problem. If he didn't find a replacement soon for the old rummy he'd picked up in Springfield yesterday and given the boot five minutes ago, his chance of a quick marriage to a fat dowry was akin to that of a pig-fry in the White House. And without a fat dowry, he hadn't a hope of seizing the opportunity of a lifetime -- unless he wanted to help some renegade outfit loot and kill farmers along the Missouri-Kansas Territory borders.
From what he'd seen and heard, even most slaveholders didn't hold a candle to the bastards who robbed, raped and burned families out of their homes.
Such detestable activities and the trouble brewing in this country weren't the affair of a Canadian, though. He just wanted to finish his job, collect his pay, and move on, preferably to the challenge of investing the money.
Frustrated and angry, he hurled a pebble into the trees, startling a squirrel. A fat dowry wasn't much to ask, considering his bride would be getting a virile, reasonably presentable husband of thirty-three who knew how to read, write and do sums. He wouldn't even complain if she was long in the tooth and lank in the rump. A woman didn't have to be beautiful to make a good wife, but if he were really lucky he might locate a rich father with more daughters than suitors. Bound to be at least one comely one waiting for a fellow to sweet-talk her into doing what she wanted to do all along.
He shoved the thought aside. Just thinking about pretty girls made him itchy, and right now he needed to think clearly.
There had to be a farmer nearby --
Somewhere on the hillside above him a branch snapped. A second later a banshee screech stung his ears. As he reached for his rifle, his lungs deflated. "Uuuuugggoooff!"
Lying winded, dumbfounded and spread-eagled on the rocky ground, he pushed weakly at the boulder that had plummeted into his lap, perhaps crippling his manhood forever. Then the boulder stuck a knee in his belly.
God help him, it was a woman, flapping and floundering atop him like some one-winged goose too stunned to find her way off .
A draft of air rushed into his starving lungs. Summoning all the leverage he could manage from his flattened state, he shoved at the firm round bottom astraddle his thigh.
"Suh -- wheet, simmering succotash. Get off me, you cow!"
"Cow?" The dark-haired boulder sprang to her feet, snarling and spitting fire. "You talk like Sylvester the cat, and you call me a cow?"
Bick cautiously rolled over on one hip, raised up on an elbow and glared up at the female in men's clothes glaring down at him. "Well," he admitted, "you don't look like a cow, but you sure as hell felt like one! You must weigh twelve stone."
"I don't know how much a stone weighs, mister--" the woman's angry expression softened until it was almost contrite. " -- but I didn't choose you as a landing pad. The limb I was sitting on broke, and I fell." She rubbed a hip encased in tight pants. Very tight pants. "My ride down the hill was pretty spectacular , too."
Bick got gingerly to his feet. Squinting in the twilight, he looked over his outlandishly dressed surprise visitor. Male clothing hid most of her frame, except the bottom he'd already experienced. She was shorter by a head, and well past girlhood, yet good-looking enough to interest a man with juice in his loins. Her hair, tumbling full and free almost to her shoulders, was the kind he liked to bury his face in. And her speech, too flat and crisp for a hill-bred Southerner, sounded educated.
Intrigued by her expression, he tried to identify the thoughts behind it. Failing, he frowned.
Her dark-fringed eyes narrowed.
Go slow, he told himself. She was considering being frightened, and there was more he wanted to know . He smiled.
She responded in a feminine manner, moving her feet slightly as if preparing to flee a pursuer...or run breathlessly into his arms. "I'm really sorry if I hurt you," she said, sounding uncertain. "I got lost. In a cave."
As though that explained her near ruining him. He snorted. "You're out now."
She shook her head. "The entrance is opposite the microwave tower. Can you direct me to it?"
"I wouldn't know about the cave. What's a mikerwave tower?"
Her face blanched white as hominy at his innocent question. Then she wet her lips -- nice, full ones, if a bit wide for real beauty -- and croaked, "How about jet trails? Seen any jet trails lately?"
"Never heard of a jet. Some kind of Ozark animal? I'm from Canada."
The guy's crazy words sent Susa staggering backward as if he'd kicked her in the stomach. "My God! Where am I?"
He shrugged."Southwest Missouri. Not far from the White River."
At least they agreed on that much. Susa scanned the rocky earth around them, hoping to catch sight of a bit of convenience store litter. No way could she have crawled out of a cave into...the past?
Get real, Mom, her son would say. That sort of thing only happens in romance novels.
So what had happened? Maybe a tree fell on her.Maybe she was dead. Checking, she pinched her wrist. It hurt, so this wasn't Heaven. Which left --
"No! No, no..." Her moan faded to a whimper as the ground tilted toward her. Plunging into space...dark, hard, yielding space that smelled...male.
Maybe this is Heaven, after all.
The light came back on with a jarring thud.
Bick leapt forward to catch the woman, caught his toe on a root and crashed with her to the ground. This time, though, he was on top.
At least the jolt had halted her swoon. Inches from his, her eyes were wide and terrified, and her mouth working on a scream that was bound to deafen him. Rolling off her in a flash, he jumped to his feet and backed two paces, palms open. "Don't be afraid, ma'am. I wouldn't hurt you. I just tripped and fell. Like you did."
At first he wasn't sure she heard him, but although obviously shaken to her man-boots, she surprised him by popping to her feet. "I-I -- know. That is, I wasn't afraid of you."
"Then what?" He let the question hang while he tried to gauge whether this strangely alluring woman had all her wits.
Her eyes tilted up as if she might swoon again, but then she shook herself like she'd been out in the rain and needed warming all over. "C-can you tell me -- what y-year t-this is?"
Well, now I know. The poor thing was addled all right. He sighed; it was a downright shame. "It's eighteen-fifty-nine, ma'am. Or it was the last time I checked the Almanac." Yesterday, he might have added.
Slowly, like a collapsing balloon, she sank down on a rocky outcrop, muttering. "It isn't possible." She stared at her toes. "I must've--" Lifting her gaze she seemed to look through him, as if he were invisible.
He moved closer, eager for any word that might indicate where she belonged.
"I fell inside the cave, too," she said dully. "I don't know exactly what happened, but since then everything's been different."
Bick scratched the back of his neck, shuffled his feet and cleared his throat a couple of times to give himself time to think. Minutes ago he'd had problems. Now, a new one had tumbled right square into his lap.
The light was almost gone. He couldn't just head back to camp and leave the woman. She'd never find her way back to her cave in the dark. Some things just didn't add up, no matter which way you turned them. He lifted his hat and scratched his head. Why me, Lord? I try to follow your Path. Most of the time. As usual, he didn't get an answer.
The woman fidgeted like a nervous filly about to bolt. Realizing he'd been staring at her, he retreated a couple of steps. "I wouldn't worry about being lost, ma'am. When I was a boy, my mother used to say dusk was the scariest time of day because it made everything look cob-webbed." He smiled reassuringly. "I'll bet you'll see everything fine in the morning. Even your -- er -- mikerwave tower."
To his relief her trembling lips curved into a smile. "I'm sure you're right. I just have to get through the night."
"You're welcome to share what I have. It isn'tmuch, but it'll keep us going."
In the near darkness he heard her whooshing breath of relief. "Again, I apologize for hurting you."
"Oh," he said, shrugging. "Once you've been kicked by a Missouri mule, you don't notice much else."
Copyright © 2003 by C. J. Winters