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We had fished with Buzz at his secret fishing spot on his buddy Rex’s land several times before he chose to disclose that there’s an old saltpeter cave in the area. Native Osage Indians had occupied the cave. Centuries later it was used by Confederate troops during the Civil War to make gunpowder and as a hideout and storehouse. Buzz tells me the cave also served as a poker hall in the region during the early 20th century. One might discover arrowheads, old coins and old bullets while exploring. The cave is on private property, but through Rex, whose thousand-acre ranch runs adjacent to the cave and who has some sort of understanding with his neighbors, we are granted access.
My husband Garrett and his brother Noah are excited to explore the cave, and so is Buzz, a man with a sharp wit and a blunt tongue, who is wearing a T-shirt with a large image of an alien head. We meet Rex and his wife Norma, and they guide us in an all-terrain vehicle to the cave site, which is close to the creek we fish along. We hike up a hill, and Rex locates the cave’s entrance, which looks like a wide crack in the layers of a bluff. Dead leaves collect inside, drily skittering with what little wind makes it into the cave’s recessed mouth, their sound as unpleasant as nails on a chalkboard. Rex and Norma will wait here.
As we trek deeper into the chilly cave, our visibility is quickly stripped away. Noah and I use the flashlights on our smartphones, and Buzz and Garrett use small tactical flashlights. My hand brushes the ceiling as I adjust my hat, and I feel something dry and papery: the ceiling is covered with cave crickets. Noah climbs a wall, and a bat startles from its place and rustles past our heads. I nervously braid my hair back in case of another bat occurrence, clasping my iPhone in my teeth as I use both hands. When I finish, I have been left behind and hurry to catch up but come to a large cavern with rimstone dams in the floor. It splits into two routes.
I head down one tunnel in pursuit of echoing voices, and suddenly I’m splashing through ankle-deep icy water. The water leads to a small underground lake where Garrett and Noah have discovered salamanders. I get prickles up my spine thinking of fishy creatures and riddles in the dark. When the water deepens, we turn back and take the other tunnel off the cavern chamber. This path narrows until we have to duck. When it decreases to 2 feet in height, Noah begins to crawl until I almost can’t see him.
“It drops down on the other side,” he tells me when he returns. “There’s a lot to explore, and so many places where something could be hiding or someone could live.”
“Like the creatures from The Descent.” Garrett suddenly appears in the dark behind Noah and startles him, eliciting a high-pitched shriek from Noah that rings throughout the cave.
Returning to the cavern from which the path forks, we notice the walls all around have writing on them: dates, names and messages. One date reads “1880.” A cluster in messy large paint streaks is easy to read, but what it says doesn’t make sense. I concentrate on it, trying to figure it out, moving closer, stretching out my free hand for balance—suddenly, I brush a body.
I leap back.
The beam of my flashlight falls on Buzz. He says lightly, “Looks like it was written in blood, doesn’t it?”
I feel relief as we return to the entrance of the cave. Rex and Norma are waiting for us, wanting to discuss our visit. As I look over my photographs, I realize I had accidentally bumped the capture to black and white; all of my pictures appear grainy or blurred. One picture I took of Noah shows him with glowing eyes, and the picture Noah took of Garrett and me has an alarming bright discoloration in the corner.
“Who did you say owns this land, again?” I ask, still inspecting my pictures for ghostly images in the background. Rex starts to answer, but a sharp disembodied voice interrupts. We freeze. It isn’t any of our group speaking. Belatedly, my heart still pounding, I realize it is my phone’s hiking app telling us our speed and distance of travel, and as I turn it off the others begin to depart the cave. I scamper out after them.
“I’m sorry, Rex—you were saying? Who owns this land?” I’m out of breath. I have a sense of urgency that I might never get an answer, especially now that I can barely hear him over the roar of the all-terrain vehicle he just started up. He replies, and I strain to hear him. I repeat what he says in an attempt to better understand, and with a jolt I hear myself say: “He’s missing. He’s missing? What do you mean?”
“The man who owns this land,” he says, “is missing. Months ago he took his gun and drove his truck out to the bluffs and left a note in it that he meant to kill himself where no one would find him. Rescue parties, wildlife rangers, two local police departments with hounds, helicopters and the Red Cross looked for him in here. I hunted for him myself. No one has found him.”
“These bluffs where we’ve been fishing? Do you mean we could encounter his body as we are fishing and hiking around here?” Not to mention spelunking in the dark cave with all its crevices.
“Oh, you’re not going to find him.”
Rex and Norma leave us, and we head to Buzz’s favorite spot by the bluffs to fish. Buzz casts a line and catches a fish immediately while the rest of us are still baiting our hooks. My thoughts are haunted by corpses, creepy cave critters and mysterious spectral images in photographs.
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