The brothers have made it perhaps a hundred yards when a tree of lightning and a blast of thunder announce the storm's return. The rainfall arrives with a force that drives them to their knees. In wind-whipped sheets that try to wash them from The Wall. At times, it takes all their strength simply to stand.
Another fifty feet, and they skate to a stop, water-blinded. As Lee examines the way ahead, his blurry gaze travels down the stinging rain … down the waterfall cliff-face … to the tiny rivulet river six hundred feet below. With a yell, he draws back. By a suspender, he jerks Mitch back to the rockface.
For the second time, the ledge has come to a dead end!
The boys embrace at the drop-off, shivering, searching the cliff for shelter. Run-off falls in discolored cascades, large and small, all down the cliffside, so many the cliff seems windowed. Here and there, from projections on the rockface, water falls in six-hundred-foot ropes to the river below, palpable enough, it seems, to aid in their escape.
But as they watch, the wind gusts, and the water ropes shatter like icicles.
Lee looks back the way they came. From the end-on perspective, he can see behind the waterfalls. There is a small one thirty feet away that falls in a sheet from the shelf above. It seems to hold as little promise as the others, till a sudden gust blows it away, streaking, and behind it, Lee sees the box-sided crevice. He grabs Mitchell's hand and pulls him toward it.
Inside, the brothers huddle, shivering, teeth chattering, and stare out at the storm. From the shelf above, rain falls in a translucent waterfall. With each thunderclap, the granite shudders, and rubble clatter-splashes on the ledge before them.
Again, lightning strikes the escarpment, and the bolt lights their little room with eye-aching brilliance. Through the waterfall, they watch as rock and moss and bits of shrub rain past them like debris from a bomb blast.
Now lightning strikes the pinnacle with a sizzling crack, and seconds later, a tree floats by dreamlike in a rush of foliaged limbs, fragrant of steaming sap, clods raining from its roots.
Again, lightning strikes the cliffside, blinding as a photographer's flash, and this time there is the shuddering rumble of major movement from above. The boys scramble deeper into the cleft. Spherical boulders, one side mossed, and angular slabs of cliff-face strike the ledge before them, gouging the granite white and spraying them with stinging slivers of stone. The chemical smell of cloven rock fills their little room.
Arms up, heads down, the boys kick backward into the crevice. Ten feet, twelve feet, fifteen feet. It is then that Lee glances over his shoulder and sees that the crevice has no back. Staring deeper into the room, squinting, he sees a boxy corridor disappear into blackness …
"Okay, let's go! Giuliani, D'Amato, on your feet! Georgie, help him up. Move it! Now! How you doing, Messina?"
"Okay, Tony. I think I found my second wind."
Giuliani snorts. "Yeh, in a oxygen tank maybe."
"Yeh, yeh, I ain't followed you yet today."
"Knock it off. Roselli, you gone make it?"
"I don't know, Tony. Check it out."
Roselli lifts his pants leg and shows Tony his enormous foot. Running on the granite has retarded the circulation and magnified the swelling. The foot has engulfed his toes, visible now only as yellow nails. The leg is as big at the ankle as at the thigh and has split the seam of his pegged pants. Roselli has seen pictures of Africans with elephantiasis, and he remarks the similarity. The only difference is that his foot and calf are bright purple, and there is a worrisome blackening above his ankle around the two punctures. He feels a twinge of fear as the others gather in learned consultation.
"Oh, wow, man!" Milano tells him. "That looks bad, Roselli!"
"Frigging A!" D'Amato says.
Giuliani leans close. "Looks like gangrene. Sure hope you don't lose it."
"How could it be gangrene?" Buttafuco says. "The sumbitch is purple."
Messina groans. "Jesus, Fatty! How'd you get outta high school? A handgun?"
"All right, all right, enough already! You can make it till dark," Tony tells Roselli. He looks away with a gulp of distaste. "We'll make camp soon."
"Sure, Tony, sure."
"Okay, saddle up. Patrol formation. Eggar, lead off."
With Eggar on point, the men set off along the ledge. At the end of the line, Roselli humps after them, carrying a wingtip in one hand and his pistol in the other. Beyond the rainbow, he sees the Interstate bridge. In the evening light, a few cars already ride their parking lights, and atop the central spire, the winking beacon is faintly visible. Roselli looks at the bridge wistfully; then shaking his head, crossing himself with the pistol's two-inch barrel, he picks up his clubfoot's humping gait. There is no going back now; Tony is locked on; when he is like this, it doesn't do to cross him. For the first time, Roselli looks forward to the killing of the boys. It is, after all, the only way home.
At a crouch, Lee moves warily down the narrow passageway. Mitch follows closely, gripping his brother's shirttail. The mountain has cracked; the bottom settled; the way box-sided as an aqueduct. The fault-line has cleaved along seams of mica, and the walls and floor glitter isinglass-green; the passage lit by a shimmering undersea light. The green deepens as the entrance recedes so that the boys seem to be cave divers, descending. Twice, the roof dips so low they have to crawl on hands and knees. A moment later, the passage narrows vertically, and Lee notes with unease the fur on the outcrops there. It is too dark, the light too strange to make out the color, but the passage is wide enough so that it has to be something big, bigger than a boy. Lee is careful to keep his discovery to himself. His little brother has had all he can take for one day.
For a time, they can see the sunlit entrance behind them; but then the passage makes a hard right-angle turn, and they are plunged into blackness.
Lee stops, winded. Beyond the turn, the air is foul. The eye-watering reek of male cat more powerful than a dirty litterbox. Underneath is the sweet stink of decay. He feels the walls on either side, foursquare as a hallway and wet to the touch. It takes most of an arm-span to reach them now.
"Man, it's dark! Cain't see nothing. Jist hope they ain't no snakes."
"Me too, Lee." Mitchell's voice trembles. "I cain't take no more snakes."
"Huh! You and me both. Jist watch a old big painter wid kits be denned up in here. That'd be something, wouldn't it? You'd think snakes! Ain't no room to turn around."
Again, they start off, and deeper in the cave, their words acquire an echo. Mitch wrinkles his nose in distaste. "Pew! It sure stinks in here."
"Yeh, bats, most likely."
On hands and knees again, they crawl deeper into the mountainside, negotiating the square-walled fault-line entirely by feel. Deep in the mountain, the heat of day is gone, and the granite sweats an icy condensation. Beneath the stench, there is the mossy mildewed fragrance as of a springhouse, and from somewhere up ahead, Mitch hears the cistern clicking of water. Then he hears the creaking rustle—like slack sails taking the wind—of bats waking for a night on the town, and a rabbit runs over his grave.
Trapped behind Lee, in a passage no larger than a culvert pipe, in total blackness, Mitch is fighting a rising panic … when gradually the tunnel's clammy walls begin to widen … the dripping ceiling begins to rise. Another fifty feet and the boys are duck-walking at a crouch, legs cramping. Mitch holds tight to his brother's back pocket. The knots in his calves feel as hard as baseballs.
Five minutes later, Lee bumps into a wall. Slowly, feeling above him, he stands to his full height. On tiptoe, he reaches high into the blackness, then spreads his arms wide on either side. When he feels nothing within reach, he sighs with relief.
"It's some kinda room, feels like. Must be seven, eight foot high. At least."
He reaches out in the blackness and touches his brother's face. Startled, Mitch shrieks.
Lee giggles. "Velcome to my home," he says in a Bela Lugosi voice.
"Funny," Mitch tells him. "Hilarious."
He releases Lee's overalls and gropes toward the side of the cave. Where the floor dips suddenly down, he stumbles and recoils at a dry rattle. He kicks it and feels it give way.
"Here's some wood and stuff, Lee."
"Good. Rake you up a pile. Watch where you put your hands."
Mitch is at work with the fire-drill. Though Lee can see nothing, he can hear the rhythmic rumble of the drill. The rumble decreases as the drill smoothes the dry-rotted wood. Soon, it is replaced by a shrill creaking as friction scorches the rough drill-hole.
"I'm real thirsty, Lee." Mitchell's voice echoes in the chamber. Clearly, it is larger than they first thought.
"I know. Me too."
"I'm hungry too."
"Me too, Mitch. Don't think about it. Maybe we'll find something in the morning. Oughta be some blackberries on the sunny side of these cliffs. Up top."
Now Lee sees a soft red glow as the tender begins to warm. In the eerie light, he sees a wisp of smoke, and for the first time, he can make out his brother, kneeling barefoot, bowing the drill. Mitchell's laceless tennis shoe lies nearby.
On and on, the fire-drill creaks. While Mitchell bows the drill, Lee kneels over the punk, blowing gently, fanning the fragile spark with his cupped hand. Sitting back, he smiles as he watches his little brother expertly bow the drill. Mitch sees the smile and basks in his brother's approval.
All around them now, bats answer the creaking drill. In the faint red light, the very walls seem to move. And now, in a rush, almost as one, thousands funnel, screeching, into the passageway. The brothers hit the floor. For nearly a minute, the shrill exit goes on. Flattened on the damp cave floor, the boys feel a urine-smelling wind at their passage.
At last, the way is wider, wide and flat as a city sidewalk—there are even sheets of standing water—and at home again, the men pick up their lumbering pace. Tony has joined Eggar on point, and twice now he has bumped the man's snakebitten arm. The pain is intense, the wound bleeds afresh, and after the second collision, Eggar falls behind, walking Tony's slack.
The mood of the company is sombre. They lost Chelli and Molino in the encounter with the black birds, and all of them now stink to high heaven. The bird attack was as bad as the snakes, and twenty minutes later, they are still breathless with fear and exertion. Not even the men with shotguns had the will to take revenge. Two, in fact, lost their scatterguns in an effort to save their eyes.
As for Buttafuco, he made it around the outcrop wearing a full-length coat of crow, and as though to complement his dress, he screamed like a woman. The pitch and volume were such that his plumed headdress took flight. At the middle of the column now, sweat-drenched and bloody, his asthmatic wheezing is loud as a punctured squeezebox—but not one of the men remarks it.
Even Roselli is too tired for one-liners, too hungry. Since midday, visions of pasta have danced in his head; his fantasy life turns on food—Italian, at first, lasagna, ziti, chicken pesto—though by now, a lowly Hardee's would suffice. Fast food is what he requires, emphasis on fast. The image of a mountainous Big Mac brings a twinge to the pit of his stomach that joins the pain of beak and claw on his back.
The sun is in the gorge now, notched in like a luminous bead-sight. Far downriver, they see the matchbox bridge, pasted black against the orange wafer. The great center parabola bestrides a river of fire; the winking Cyclops eye one color with the blazing sky. Already, a river chill is in the air, and to the men, sunburned and dehydrated, it seems positively wintry after the heat of day.
They stop, breathing hard, when they come up to the dead end. Whirling, Tony looks high and low; looks up the sheer cliff-face with an open mouth.
"Where the hell!" he says, blowing. "Where the hell!"
Eggar leans against the cliffside, trying to catch his breath. Without water to flush the venom, he has taken the full load. Sweat films his gray face, and the blue workshirt clings to his meatless frame. The throb in his arm has spread across his chest and into his head. Through furry vision, he watches the bats snake, elongating, thickening, elongating, across the forest-fire sunset and behind the mountain. The movement is like the slow-motion stroke of a long black whip.
Eggar steps away from the cliff. "Beats the hell outta me," he tells Tony.
He pretends to examine his gigantic forearm—already Roselli has nicknamed him Popeye—as he looks at the crevice in the cliff. With the sun down, it lies in shadow.
Tony looks up the vertical rockface. "Could you climb up there?"
Listlessly, Eggar's gaze follows. "Nah," he says and spits. "But I ain't twelve years old."
At the response, Tony gives him a long look. Snakebit or not, the hillbilly has been foot-dragging all day.
"Hey," Messina says. He is looking toward the crevice.
"I heard something."
"Screw you! 'Tony, I heard something.'"
"Nah, man, I did! Listen!" He holds up his hand. "You didn't hear that? Hold it, Eggar!"
"I don't hear jack," Tony tells him.
"They musta went higher," Eggar says. He indicates the summit with his bristly chin. "Only way they coulda. Old game trail up there."
"'Less they frigging flew." Giordano chuckles. "Wouldn't put it past 'em neither."
Tony gives him a dark look. "You ain't funny worth a damn."
Abruptly, the men's laughter dies.
Tony removes his flask and takes a slash, head back, Adam's apple working. He wipes his mouth with the palm of his hand.
"Dammit! I had 'bout enough of this happy horseshit. Hear me? These here kids is making monkies outta us."
Messina is still staring at the crevice. "And I tell you I heard—"
"It's getting night," Eggar says, looking up at the purple sky. "Don't know 'bout y'all, but I ain't wanting to get my tail caught out here attar dark." He spits. "I say we go back a ways to 'at shelf yonder and make camp. Them little punks ain't going nowheres—not 'less they got wings, they ain't."
Tired and hungry, the men nod their assent. With a final survey of the cliffside, they stumble back down the ledge. Messina is last in line. For a long moment, he stands at the crevice, eyeing it with suspicion. Then, still frowning, he turns and falls in step with the others.
Inside the cave, the brothers have the punk afire and are feeding it dead leaves. Now, kneeling over the smoldering leaves, blowing softly, tousled heads touching in the smoke, they begin to feed the sudden flame pencil-size sticks of wood.
Mitchell's nose is still wrinkled with distaste. The stench in the cave is terrific. And here, beyond the narrowing, the smell of decay has overpowered the cat. "Man, it sure stinks in here," he tells his brother for the third time. "Must be somethin' is dead."
"I know. Cain't be me. I lost both shoes."
The brothers get a giggle out of that.
Now the pencils take flame, and they add larger sticks. Crackling, the fire flares up, and in the sudden light, squinting, they see that they are burning an abandoned eagles' nest. It still holds the shards of tan eggshell and burns with a foul uric reek.
Carefully, the boys feed the fire larger and larger wood, and the flames grow higher and higher, illuminating the cold granite dimensions of the chamber; the glittering green mica walls with guano streaks, yellow and white, below the cornice ledges. As the fire grows, they see that the room is immense; at first, reaching higher than the firelight, taller than wide, and foursquare as an atrium; a fat book turned on end.
There is animal spoor in the sand around the fire. Lee sees the smeared pugs of bobcat and the delicate embroidery of cave mice. Fox and raccoon scats contains bits of undigested fur, splintered bone, persimmon seeds and crayfish shell. Nearby, a bear has purged his hibernal bowels in four pancake stools that still hold blades of grass and bits of elderberry. They are not yet dry, and Lee notes with unease the saucer-size tracks around them. The claws score the sand a full three inches in front of the pads. A big solitary male, no doubt, but unlikely to return if they keep the fire going.
With relief, he sees that unaccountably, driftwood has been brought to the cave and piled against the back wall. An algae fan of ground-water seepage stains the wall high above it. In summer, the dry season, the algae is blistered and brown.
Across the fire, Mitch glances at the side-wall and absently notes a figure on it. As his eyes move along the granite, he sees that the wall is adorned with drawings: a mural of stick buffalo and deer and panthers; stick men in feathered headdresses with bows and arrows ride canoes through a river gorge. The drawings are done in vivid reds and yellows and blues, and where the paint has flaked away, the petroglyphs beneath show the outlines like paint-by-numbers. Somehow, the flickering firelight seems to animate them. Even so, they barely register on his perception. More immediate concerns possess him.
When the biggest logs have taken flame, the boys sit back, smiling wanly at their success. But as he settles himself, squirming out a seat in the sand, Mitch happens to glance across the room. At once, his eyes grow wide, and he lets go a piercing scream.
Lee whirls and a look of mortal terror comes across his sunburned face.
Wide-eyed and trembling, the boys stare together at the far wall, where a human mummy—a grinning near-skeleton in gallused overalls and a red-plaid coat—reclines against the granite!
As he stares at the wizened yellow-toothed face, Mitch lets go another echoing scream and leaps into his brother's arms. Lee embraces him with back-breaking passion.
Again, here's the book's link: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B002T44I1C