Sixteen-year-old Bodie McCann wormed through a squishy black puddle. An earthy, putrid smell nearly gagged him as slime tugged at his muddy clothes with a sucking sound. He inched out of the muck onto cold, gritty rock, thankful for the pads on his knees and elbows. His headlamp illuminated yet another turn in the cave deep in the Ozark National Forest of Arkansas.
A faint plop, plop echoed from ahead, and Bodie sighed. He adjusted the small pack on his shoulders and then crawled forward, his body grating against rocky walls. Around the curve, water dripped from the low ceiling. Muttering to himself, he crept forward. Water plunked onto his plastic helmet, trickled around his neck, and soaked the front of his shirt. He shivered as he hustled through another murky puddle.
His shoulder pounded into rock, and searing pain shot down his arm. Cursing under his breath, he rolled onto his side. The headlamp lit a low shelf of stone jutting from the cave wall. As he rubbed his shoulder, he fought back tears. After a moment, the pain subsided, and he crawled onward.
A copper-colored, wormlike creature wriggled across the floor. Bodie froze. The creepy, three-inch bug’s tiny legs blurred with motion as it skittered toward a crack in the cave wall. A centipede or a millipede, thought Bodie, wondering how to tell the difference.
He picked up a rock the size of his fist and smacked it down on the bug. He pressed hard, grinding the stone into the floor, then tipped the rock and peeked. Mashed in two, each half of the worm wriggled in a different direction. Bodie slammed the stone down again and again until only tiny body parts remained.
Suddenly feeling guilty for killing the worm—or whatever it was—he whisked the mess to the side with a gloved hand and pressed onward. The worm was insignificant, a meaningless life, he reasoned. Nobody would miss it.
The cave squeezed lower and narrower, scraping the pack on his back and his tender shoulders. The next turn opened to a small cavern no bigger than a walk-in closet. Bodie scooted to his knees, slipped the pack from his shoulders, then sat with his back to the cold wall. He unzipped the small pack, dug through a tangle of nylon rope and extra flashlights, then pulled out a plastic bottle of water. He swiped muddy sweat from his eyes and took a drink. Thirty minutes ago, he had shivered at the coolness of the cave, but now he was sweating despite the chilly air and occasional sprinkles of cold water.
Big chunks of stone littered the cavern floor. Bodie glanced at the ceiling. A cave-in had occurred here. He wondered how far under the surface he was now, and how many thousands of tons of rock were above him. What if … ? He imagined a mountain of rock crushing his body into a bloody pile of goo—buried forever. A chill ran deep through his bones. He groaned.
“Did you say something, Bodie?” asked a mature male voice from farther back in the cave.
Bodie squirmed, his back scraping against rock. He had intentionally hurried ahead of the man and had nearly forgotten him. The old geezer responsible for my being here, thought Bodie. “Nothin, Judge Barnes,” said Bodie. “Just taking a break.” His voice sounded hollow in the cave.
The man crawled into the small cavern and sat against the opposite wall. When he had first seen the judge in court, Bodie had nearly laughed. Dressed in a black robe, the button-nosed, curly white-haired, white-bearded man had reminded Bodie of a panda bear.
“Isn’t this great?” asked the judge. “Not a bad way to serve out your time, is it?”
The question reminded Bodie of the sentence the man had imposed upon him—fifty hours of community service. Later, after learning that Bodie was an experienced camper, the judge had suggested this trip as an alternate way to fulfill the sentence. At first Bodie thought he was getting off easy. Backpacking in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and exploring caves had sounded like fun. Now he wasn’t so sure. Bodie faced the judge and forced a big, toothy grin.
The man chuckled. “We’re almost there, Bodie. And I promise, you won’t be disappointed.”
Yeah, right, thought Bodie. I just want to get this weekend over with and go home. He took another sip of water. Not that home is so great, either.
The headlamp on the judge’s helmet went dark. He pulled several items from his own pack and laid them on the cave floor. Like Bodie, he had extra flashlights, rope, and various items in case of emergency.
“They sure loaded us down with a lot of stuff, didn’t they?” said Bodie as the judge replaced the battery in his headlamp.
The man smiled. “One of the things I like about camping with firemen and police officers is that they’re very safety conscious. We’re each carrying a lot of equipment we probably won’t need. But if we ever got separated or cut off, we’d be glad we had it.” The judge took another swig from his water bottle. “The others are probably there already. Let’s catch up, shall we?”
After a few minutes, excited voices echoed from ahead. In addition to the judge and Bodie, the expedition included three adults and four teenage boys. To Bodie, the men seemed okay, but the boys were creeps. He ignored them as much as possible and kept his distance.
The passage opened high and wide. Bodie stood for the first time since entering the cave, his boots crunching on gravel. Flashlight beams crisscrossed in a large cavern. Excited chatter echoed around them.
Bodie ignored the voices and the other lights and concentrated on the beam from his own headlamp. A long, icicle-shaped rock hung from the ceiling. As he turned to the side, the beam revealed dozens of cone-shaped formations. His light stopped at a huge taper that stretched nearly halfway to the cavern floor.
Directly below it stood another formation. A drop of water plunged from the pointed tip of the higher rock to the tip of the cone several feet below it. The inverted icicle of stone glistened with moisture all the way to its base, nearly three feet wide.
Bodie had seen pictures of caves in magazines and on TV, but was unprepared for the impact of seeing the real thing. He had to admit, at least to himself, that despite the musty smell the cavern was worth all the trouble of getting there.
Judge Barnes’s flashlight beam rested on one of the hanging formations. “Do you know what those are called?”
Bodie thought for a second, sure he knew the word. “Stalac—something, right?”
“Close. It’s a stalactite. How about the one poking from the floor?”
“Stalagmite,” said Bodie, pleased that the term had resurfaced in his mind.
“Very good. Do you know how they’re formed?”
Bodie scanned the glistening stone from top to bottom. “The dripping water leaves behind mineral deposits that become rock.”
“Excellent! Any guess as to how long it took for those two to grow that big?”
Bodie thought about the crusty mineral deposit on a showerhead and shook his head. “It had to take hundreds of years. Maybe thousands.”
“Look at this one.” The judge pointed to a massive pillar of stone. It stood nearly four-feet thick at the base, narrowed to only a foot thick halfway up, then widened again.
“Kinda reminds me of an hourglass,” said Bodie.
“They’re called columns when the stalactites and the stalagmites grow together,” said the judge.
Excited young voices drew Bodie’s attention. Flashlights illuminated glittering rock on a wall of the cavern. The judge stepped ahead, and Bodie followed. The glittering rock was a patch of milky-white crystals that sparkled in the light.
“Judge Barnes,” asked one of the other teenage boys, “what kind of crystals are those?”
“How did they get here?” asked another.
The judge stepped forward for a closer look. “Guys, I’m not a geologist, but I’d guess they’re calcium or gypsum. I’m not sure how they’re formed, either. You might want to visit the library back home and learn a little more about caves. Maybe the next time we go spelunking, you can tell us all about it.”
For a moment Bodie thought it might be interesting to learn more about geology. Then he caught himself and smiled. He knew what the adults were trying to do. The big idea behind this trip was to take a bunch of guys out in the woods and let them experience nature—to open their eyes to the world and to encourage each of them to turn his life around before it was too late. Right, thought Bodie. Like these losers are going to turn into regular library patrons. The adults were chumps, but he would play along for the weekend.
“Look!” yelled an excited young voice. “Look up there!”
Bodie turned to the pool of light on the ceiling. At first all he could see was a large, dark spot. Then he noticed movement.
“Bats!” shouted one of the boys.
Dozens, maybe hundreds, of brown bats hung upside down from the rock.
“Do they bite?” asked a worried young voice.
“No,” answered a soft-but-mature voice Bodie recognized as belonging to Mr. Catrell, the only black man in the group. “These bats won’t bite you unless, of course, you catch one and it has to defend itself. They usually eat flying insects.” Catrell was a fireman but also acted as the group’s chaplain. Bodie couldn’t see it in the dark, but the short, plump man usually wore a gold chain with a big cross around his neck.
“What about those blood-sucking—vampire things?” asked a boy.
Several young voices snickered.
“Don’t worry,” said Catrell. “We don’t have vampire bats in this part of the world. These are as harmless as sparrows.”
“I thought they were blind. I can see their eyes reflecting in the light.”
“Oh, they have eyes all right,” said Catrell. “They just don’t like bright light. Does anyone know how they can fly and catch insects in the dark?”
“Radar, right?” said an adolescent voice.
“Well, it’s more like sonar,” said Catrell. “They navigate with tiny bursts of sound that bounce back to them from obstacles and their prey.”
“Pee-ew! What’s that smell?”
Bodie had noticed it, too—a rancid, ammonia-like odor.
A light shined on the mud-covered floor. Bodie leaned closer and sniffed. He coughed and gagged as a stench surged through his nostrils. Bodie tiptoed back until he felt gravel under his feet, then wiped his boots on the rocks.
“What is that?” asked a boy.
“Congratulations, guys,” said the gentle-voiced black man. “You’ve just discovered guano. That’s what they call bat manure. Very concentrated nitrogen. Makes great fertilizer. In the old days, they even used it to make gunpowder. Today, it’s used to make mascara. Try not to think about that when you see a girl bat her eyes at you.”
A small rock shot through the flashlight beams toward the little creatures. It smacked into the ceiling. Several bats flapped their wings and then settled again.
“Kill’m!” yelled a boy.
A flurry of rocks sailed toward the bats. Bodie stooped, grabbed a rock, and pitched it upward. The cave echoed with the sound of stones striking the ceiling, then tumbling back to the floor.
“Stop it! Right now!” yelled the deep voice of Sergeant Hernandez. “If you have a rock in your hand, drop it. Now! And don’t pick up another one!”
Feet shuffled, and several rocks clattered on the cave floor.
“Everybody over here!” Hernandez yelled. Bodie could easily imagine the brown-skinned, barrel-chested former marine stalking the enemy through a jungle or through the streets of a third-world city. “Sit!”
When everybody was seated, the sergeant continued. “We’re here to learn and appreciate nature—not to destroy it. You men have an opportunity to redirect your lives onto a more positive course. Don’t blow it!” The brief silence was broken by the sound of several boys squirming on their rocky seats. “Officer Roth,” said Hernandez, “would you be so kind as to show us the rest of the cavern?”
“Certainly, Sergeant.” The trim silhouette of a cocky little policeman stepped forward. “The Ozark Mountains are riddled with caves. And guys, this is one of the neatest I’ve ever seen. It could easily be developed into a tourist attraction if it weren’t so far from the highway. Before we explore any farther,” Officer Roth continued, “can anyone tell me how this cavern was formed?”
After a moment, Bodie grew impatient. “Water erosion from an underground stream?”
“Right, Bodie,” said the policeman. Some of the other boys grumbled. Bodie wished he had kept quiet.
“In fact, the stream is still here.” The man’s flashlight lit a pool of water to one side of the cavern. “The water comes in from there.” Roth pointed to a dark opening to the right and traced the course of the stream. “And it goes out that way,” he said. “Anybody want to guess where the cave ends?”
After a moment of silence, one of the other boys spoke up. “Does it flow into a river?”
“Maybe,” said Officer Roth as he strutted before them, “or it might flow to the surface as a spring. Or join an underground river system until it eventually reaches the ocean.”
“Hey,” said a young voice, “what’s this thing we’re sitting on?”
Flashlights shined on a stone column lying across the cavern floor.
“That’s a stalactite that’s fallen over,” said Roth. He chuckled. “It takes a pretty big earthquake to knock one of those babies down.”
A dark object flashed across the beam of Bodie’s flashlight. He ducked, then leaned back. Something fluttered across his helmet and brushed his cheek. Leathery, fur-covered wings flapped his face. Tiny claws grasped his lip as a small, furry body clung to Bodie’s mouth for a moment, then leaped away. Bodie spit and brushed his face with his hands.
Shafts of light crisscrossed overhead. One of the boys shouted. The cavern swarmed with bats. One whisked by Bodie and fell to the ground, wings flapping frantically as it wobbled in circles.
“Oh, no!” said Roth.
Goose bumps shivered down Bodie’s spine. The bats gathered quickly and headed toward a dark spot high on the side of the cave. They swiftly flowed out of the cavern, like water down a drain. After an eerie moment of silence, everyone started chattering.
“This place gives me the jump’n jitters.”
“Man, that was weird!”
“What spooked them?”
“Where’d they go?”
The adults huddled, whispering. Then the towering silhouette of Sergeant Hernandez approached.
“I’m sorry, guys,” said the sergeant. “We’re going to cut this trip short. We need to get out of here. Officer Roth, would you lead the way? Move as swiftly and safely as you can. We’ll be right behind you.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” asked a worried young voice.
Suddenly, the stone floor tilted under Bodie’s feet. He lost his footing and toppled to the ground, his helmet pounding on rock. Flashlight beams crossed and recrossed as their owners fell or staggered to stay upright. A small stalactite wobbled, then plunged to the floor with a crash. Something hard hammered Bodie’s thigh. Another smacked his helmet.
Boys and men shouted as more bits of rock tumbled onto them. Wavering beams of light revealed a cloud of dust. A massive column wobbled and snapped at the narrow midpoint. The upper section tipped toward Bodie. He jumped to his side and collided with Mr. Catrell. A stone column pounded down beside them with a thud that rocked the floor.
Bodie coughed and braced for another tremor. He searched the ceiling for more falling stalactites, hoping the whole cavern wouldn’t collapse. A few moments passed with an occasional stone falling through the dust-filled, dimly lit air. Rocks clattered and echoed amid spasms of coughing.
“Okay, gentlemen, let’s try this again,” said Officer Roth. “I’ll lead the way. Remember to stay close together. Let’s exit in the same order as when we came in. Adults, would you spread out in the middle, just like before? Judge Barnes, would you be the caboose again? Take care of each other, guys. Now, follow me as quickly and safely as you can.” The bantam-sized police officer turned and disappeared into the dark passage.
Bodie wondered if the man really felt that calm, or if he was just pretending. Either way, Bodie felt a little better. He started for the passage entrance.
Several of the boys pushed forward to follow Officer Roth.
“I’m gittin out’a here now!” said a young voice. “And y’all ain’t gonna stop me.”
“Back off, butthead,” said another boy. “I’m first.”
Two boys scuffled. A body pushed past Bodie. He shoved back. Almost immediately a fist pounded into Bodie’s abdomen, right below the ribs. The air rushed from his lungs, and he doubled over. For a moment, Bodie couldn’t breathe.
A large silhouette stepped forward. “Knock it off!” said the former marine, his drill-sergeant voice booming in the cavern. “This isn’t the time or the place for that crap.” The boy disappeared into the cave with the sergeant right behind him. Another boy followed. Finally, it was Bodie’s turn. He crouched behind the boy in front of him, crawled on hands and knees for several yards, then on his belly as the passage grew tighter. Judge Barnes crowded behind him.
The earth around them began to rumble and shake.
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