Ryan Chartrand

The anticipation of breathless existence crept close. Beneath the rock ceiling, thick globules of cold mud seeped into the porous and tattered rags of Darwin. “Hold on Darwin! Keep your head up! Don’t let go!” screeched the echoed voices of Sam and Kieran. The two feverishly sang in unison desperately attempting to rescue a fellow soldier. All that could be heard now was the garbled pleas of resistance as tongue bit cheek and the hand of a fallen companion began to slip…

Dust pillows erupted as Kieran shuffled his worn canvas sneakers down a gravel path. The trail snaked down into a canyon following a river where Kieran had spent many summers trying to beat the heat of dry July. Summer had drawn near to a close this year and autumn would soon be breaking on the horizon.

Casting light from a golden sun suspending low in the river canyon, Kieran descended further down and he could feel a chill in the shadows. Looking up, he could see that the sun was about to rest for the day. Off in the distance where the trail opened up he could barely sketch out two figures blurred against the pine dotted canyon barriers.

Wondering to himself who the other person may be, Kieran continued to follow the path into the clearing. “It’s about time. We’re losing daylight,” shouted one of the figures. As Kieran drew closer, he could see the look of excitement and urgency on the face of his childhood friend Darwin.

“Hey, man, I’m sorry. I got a little hung up at Crane’s yard. That old man makes damn sure he gets his seven bucks an hour outta me.” Darwin responded with a sigh, “Well, let’s get a move on.”

Looking over, Kieran saw that Sam was awaiting acknowledgement. He shouted, “Hey Pits, I didn’t know you were coming along!”

Sam reluctantly responded, “I told you to quit calling me that.”

Most of his adolescent life in the small foothill town of Arrowhead, Sam had a little perspiration dilemma. Thus, he acquired the nickname “Pits” on account of the sweat circles that soaked through his tight cotton shirts.

“Well . whatever then Pits, I mean Sam. I’m excited, let’s get going,” chuckled Kieran.

The three turned and looked back up the trail where they had come down. Nothing was said and they continued forward through the clearing.

The matter of daylight was no longer an issue. All knew that this expedition required an artificial means of light and all came prepared, although some more than others. Expressing his knowledge of the area, Darwin led the pack to the opening of the cavern.

“Through here?!” screeched Sam with a tooth chattering resistance.

“Yeah, through here, what did you expect?” snapped back Darwin.

Looking with the glare of second thoughts, Kieran also begun to question the tactics. “I dunno, Darwin. How are we even supposed to squeeze through there?” Like frigid air blasting from a freezer box, the entrance to the cave exhaled a chilling draft.

“Give me the flashlight and follow me. I thought you all wanted an adventure? Well here it is dammit,” mumbled Darwin.

Only about the width of small drainage pipe, the entry to the cave was not going to be an easy feat. Darwin went in first having to suck in all the dust-ridden air he could just so his body would shimmy through the opening.

One by one, they funneled down into the cave. The cave air soon drew dense and moist. Kieran could see that light became a pinprick above as he looked back to where he had descended from. All slid down into a cave that looked a mile deep with an opening only a few feet wide. This was their only link to the outside world.

The boys dropped down from the chute and finally set foot upon the slated surface of the cave. Light from Darwin’s flashlight darted around aiming down a long corridor that extended further than the light could shine.

As Darwin panned up with the light along the cave walls, a sudden sense of awe struck all. “I never imagined,” gasped the echoed voice of Kieran.

The vaulted ceiling of the cave rose up as if they were standing in a grand concert hall. Also stunned by the magnificence of the cave, Sam whispered, “I’d swear I was in the Sistine Chapel if these walls were painted.”

Leading the way, Darwin continued to trek down through the dark corridor. Thinking quickly, Kieran grabbed a chalk-like stone and began to mark the walls of the cave to ensure an exit strategy. Without the rays of the flashlight, the cave would have become darker than night itself.

Once again questioning the quest further down into the cave, Kieran tried to get a read on the situation. “Where exactly are we going, Darwin?”

“Well Mikey Fritz told me about this underground waterfall that I have been wanting to check out,” responded Darwin. “He said that it was just about a half hour down into the caves.”

Seeming that Darwin had an aura of confidence about him, Kieran and Sam looked at each other with a shrug and became quite enthralled with what to expect next. The first corridor quickly ended with a puzzling fork.

“Mikey didn’t mention this,” muttered Darwin. Now debating what passage to take next, the boys were perked by the faint sound of rushing water.

“I think I hear running water down that way,” said Sam, as he pointed down to the left in the fork. Without question, they headed toward the gurgled sounds of water in hope of reaching the great falls.

The new passageway winded for quite some time. Cutting back and forth, it slithered further down into the depths of the cave. Every now and then the boys could see that the corridor broke off to many other tunnels leading to who knows where but they continued on the chosen path.

Soon they could see a body of water crossing the underground cave trail. The sound of rushing water heard earlier was not exactly a waterfall but a raging river cutting through their heading.

Rolling his eyes and now glaring at Darwin, Kieran spoke through his gritted teeth, “Let me take a wild guess – Mikey didn’t mention this either, did he, Darwin?”

Looking up and down the ferocious river, Darwin swallowed his tongue. “Well . yeah he didn’t say anything about a river.”

About to give up on the underground journey, Kieran glanced over at Sam who was bent over in the shadows fiddling with something on the ground. “What have you there, Sam?” questioned Kieran.

Glancing back around, Sam motioned for Kieran to come over. “Since when did a river ever stop us from anything, Kieran?” said Sam with a smirk plastered across his face.

Coiled down in the dirt reaching high to the ceiling of the cave was a ragged piece of rope with a nice sized knot at the end. It was not clear where the rope was tied off nor where it had come from or who had hung it there, but at this point, no one cared.

Pulling down on the rough rope with all the strength he could muscle, Kieran looked optimistic. “I actually think that this may work, Sam!”

It didn’t take long before the first crusader of the group took hold of the rope and stepped back with a running start. As if he were Tarzan, Darwin made the giant leap of faith over the river making good use of the rope swing.

Darwin landed safely on the other end of the river and was quickly followed by Kieran, who let out a bellowing “wah hoo!” as he swung across.

Anxiously awaiting his turn, Sam grabbed the rope and begun the swing across. “You can do it, Pits!” screamed the boys on the other end.

With the rope at its most tension, a loud crack was heard like a tree splitting in the forest. In stunned disbelief, Darwin and Kieran helplessly watched their friend plummet down to the waters with a splash.

“I can’t see him! Where did he go?” shouted Kieran. Racing down the narrow sides of the underground river, Darwin and Kieran attempted to catch up with Sam as his body floated faster and faster away from safety. Sam tried with all his might to keep his head out of the water and could barely cry out screams for help. Soon enough Sam was out of their sights.

Still racing to catch up to him and with little breath left in their lungs, the other boys finally found their opportunity. The river eventually spilled out into a magnificent lake that appeared untouched for centuries. Lying motionless on the shores of the subterranean lake, Sam suddenly gasped for air.

“Sam! Are you OK?”

The boys shouted running up to him hoping that he could still scream out. Without any hesitation Sam pointed out past the other end of the lake before he could be helped up.

“I think we found your waterfall,” coughed up Sam.

Looking out to where he was pointing Darwin and Kieran could see the crystal like waterfall pouring down into the still waters of the lake. Smiling down at Sam, Darwin grabbed his hand and brought him to his feet.

“Let’s go get a rinse off, why don’t we?” said Darwin with a sense of accomplishment.

In a matter of no time, the boys were trudging across the oddly shallow waters of the lake. The floor of the lake was like walking on cake batter as they struggled to lift one foot up after another.

“Ugh! I have never seen mud like this before,” said Kieran with a disgusted look on his face.

Eventually, after mucking through the shallow waters, the boys had made it to the infamous waterfall. Laughing like little kids on a hot summer day, who had busted a fire hydrant; they splashed around in the falls for an hour forgetting all that had occurred.

“Wow, we’ve been down here for a long time. I think we should make our way back up,” pleaded Sam, wanting to go home.

Scratching his chin, Kieran seconded the motion and lead the group back across the muddy waters. Like the last soldiers remaining from a bludgeoned battle, the three trekked in single file through the lake with Darwin bringing up the rear. It didn’t take long before trouble found them again in an unbelievable fashion.

While Sam and Kieran recalled the river incident, Darwin was heard in the shadows with a wavering voice lacking reassurance, “Guys . Guys!”

Already down to what appeared to be his waist in a sinkhole, Darwin was covered in sticky mud. Sam and Kieran raced over to grab his hands, but by the time they reached him, his body was practically consumed by mud.

With adrenaline pumping, the other two boys pulled as much as they could on Darwin and found themselves only sinking up to their knees.

Darwin’s face smothered in brown batter, he yelled, “Don’t let go!” It was then as if divine intervention took place as Darwin’s body miraculously popped out like a cannonball from the mud pit and toppled down on top of the other two.

Stunned, it seemed like an eternity before any of the boys spoke. Darwin wiped the mud from his lips, “Congratulations. You passed!”

“Passed what?” Sam and Kieran both chimed immediately with furled brows.

“This isn’t my first time down here, nor is it my first time in the pit,” replied Darwin with little hesitation.

Left speechless, Sam and Kieran just looked on. Darwin lied there still with hand to forehead. “What’s the big deal guys? I just wanted to see if you were really my friends.”

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