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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Claustrophobic and Scared of Heights


Scratch... Scratch... Scratch… “Come on, Come on, Light…Crap!”
Scratch... Scratch... Scratch… “Come on light you piece of… Oh Crap!”
It was probably “crap” number nine. Dan had been trying to light a fire outside the tent for the last half hour.
What kind of swear word is crap anyway.
Alex had woken up to the crashing and breaking of branches and twigs. At first, his mind dreamily wondered what kind of animal could make such a racket. As the mental gears in his head began to gain momentum, he realized Dan’s blue mummy bag was empty. Dan was the disruptive beast.
            “Alex—lazy butt.” Dan murmured under his breath as if Alex’s name was a curse.
Guilt for not getting up, infested Alex’s body—not enough to leave the cozy red puffy sleeping bag—Not yet anyways.
Alex was replaying his dream. Mostly standard stuff—the stuff he dreamed about every night for the last two years—his father. The dreams were the only way to be with him now.
Cancer ended his father’s life. Alex knew that cancer was nothing more than a generic word encompassing thousands of types of cancer. His father had pancreatic cancer. There was even a subset name to that—a complicated name that Alex never could remember. In truth, Alex didn’t care what the name was. He didn’t care about all the scientific workings of the cancer. That was the doctors’ job. Cancer was a demon that chose to take his father—a father that was also his best friend. The demon had eaten his father from the inside. In six months, Alex’s father transformed from the rough outdoorsman that few men could keep up with to nothing more than a skeleton with skin loosely hanging from bones. Alex held his hand when the last breaths came. His father’s body seemed to sink even more into the white bed sheets that day.
Alex didn’t cry then. He had cried already. In Alex’s mind, his father had died weeks before when his father lost rational thought. Perhaps that is why Alex never dreamed of that day.
Alex’s dreams were always about fishing and hiking with his father at Moon Lake. Last night’s dream was still vivid in Alex’s mind as he lingered in the half-awake state. He knew the moment his eyes opened his memory of the dream would fog.
Last night Alex was ten-years old. He’d just caught his first fish. Alex struggled to hold up the wiggling creature. He could feel his face muscles almost cramping from the smile of triumph stretched there. Alex’s father cheered and took pictures of Alex holding the small rainbow trout. His father lowered the camera to his side and smiled a proud smile down at Alex. Warmth flowed from Alex’s heart out to the rest of his body and warmed even his cold wet fingers.
The dream was a replay of one of Alex’s favorite memories. Then the dream changed. It was no longer a memory. The sky went dark, the air cold and wet. Alex wrapped his arms around himself—not the arms of a ten year old—his seventeen year old arms. Alex’s father didn’t tower over him. They were eye to eye. It was as if he grew a couple feet in five seconds. Alex stretched out his hands to look at them. The fish was gone. Behind his father, the moon climbed over the far mountain ridge.
The smile left his father’s face and his blue eyes radiated sadness. He swept the gray hair out of his eyes and slowly turned to his left. Alex followed his gaze. A human figured moved from shadow to shadow toward the edge of the lake. The figure stopped at a large boulder and turned her head to look up and down the length of the lake. A light breeze swept down the mountain swirling her long hair. Seemingly satisfied the coast was clear she headed to the lakeshore.
 Alex was about to call out to her to see if she needed help, but his father clamped his hand over Alex’s mouth. His father’s eyes darted around with anxiety and fear. A heavy fog fell into the valley and hid the lake, the woman, and then his father. His father’s hand evaporated and Alex found himself in his sleeping bag listening to Dan’s grumblings.
Alex shook his mind back to the presence and pulled his arms out of his mummy bag into the cold morning air. Late August should be warmer but fall had come early to the high mountains. Last night’s downpour was a contributor to the lower than usual temperature and probably left everything outside the tent saturated, making “crap” Dan’s fashionable word for the morning.
The hike in was hard and Alex’s calf muscles were tight when he stretched them. There wasn’t much of a trail to follow and Alex and Dan’s gear was bulky and heavy. The Park Ranger glare at them as they hoisted the oversize packs onto their shoulders. He probably thought they were moving into the Uinta Mountains permanently rather than just camping for a few days. There was good reason for the gear, and today they would put it to work.
The prospect of today’s activity helped speed Alex’s circulation and pulled him out of the lethargic state. Alex’s vertebras cracked as he sat up. He winced from the stabs of back pain. The packs were overloaded enough without adding the thick yellow foam pads. They slept on the hard earth last night.
Alex ran his hand through his unruly blond hair trying to diminish the number of stray hairs. His hair always won the boat hair, camping hair or whatever messy hair contests that happened to be in process. The sooner a hat concealed it, the better.
“Crap! Crap! Crap!” Dan growled.
Three in a row, sounds like some kind of constipation ritual. It was hilarious to hear Dan using “crap” instead of more customary swearing. Dan’s new respectable girl friend was reforming his language.
Dan was getting frustrated now because his next three words would probably send his girl friend into shock.
It took Alex a couple seconds to squirm free of the mummy bag. He moved to his knees and straightened his back. His head brushed the top of the orange nylon tent. Alex pushed the sleeping bags around and found his old holey tennis shoes, which were difficult to pull over his thick wool socks. There, a perfect model of camping fashion.
The morning air bit despite his gray sweatshirt and sweat pants. He finished the fashion statement with a heavy black parka.
This morning will suck without a fire. Alex thought.
Alex’s pack contained a lighter and a pint size aluminum fuel tank for refueling the camping stove, both of which he slipped into the parka’s oversized pocket before putting on a ball cap and poking his head out of the tent.
 The sun hadn’t broken the mountain crest yet, but it was light enough to see the beautiful surroundings. They were high up on the mountainside. Alex gazed out over the valley and peer down on a circling hawk that was looking for his morning breakfast. He had a bird’s eye view, yet the trees were thick enough he couldn’t see down to the crescent moon lake.
Alex’s lungs involuntarily took in a deep breath and relished the aroma only obtainable by hiking into these remote areas. Pine was the strongest smell seasoned with sage grass and columbine.
I love being up in the mountains, Alex thought.
A gentle breeze rustled through the nearby pine trees and gnawed at his cheeks.
Dan was kneeling next to the fire pit—obviously trying to start a fire. Dan’s broad shoulders, amplified by his puffy green parka, pretty much shielded the fire pit from view.
Dan’s hair had a good chance of winning the camping hair contest. The right side was well behaved. Dan had probably slept on his left side. That half of his head had brown hair sticking out in all directions, giving his head a lopsided appearance.
“Good morning Dan.” Alex said cheerfully.
 Dan grunted indicating the morning wasn’t so good and Alex’s cheeriness was annoying.
“Well it could be worse. You have to admit camping in the mountains on summer holiday is much more enjoyable than Dr Toscano’s high school chemistry.”
Alex walked around Dan to observe his fruitless attempts. Dan had constructed the perfect miniature tepee for making a fire. A few large sticks lied on the outside while progressively smaller twigs continued to the center of the tepee where a pile of wood shavings laid.
Dan’s grandfather would have been proud.
Under normal conditions the fire should have lit. Last night’s rain was the culprit having left everything wet. The morning breeze wasn’t helping matters either.
“Can I help you Dan?” Alex asked.
“Grunt”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
Alex knelt down on the left of Dan and stared at the pile of twigs craning his neck in a thoughtful manner.
“Ah ha, there is the problem.”
Alex pointed at a twig in the center of the pile. Dan leaned forward trying to make sense of this pronouncement. In a fast fluid movement, Alex pulled out the fuel can and proceeded to dump it on the twigs. Dan jumped back cursing as Alex lit a piece of paper with the lighter and threw it into the pile. The fuel ignited at once with a roar of flames. Any moisture on the twigs instantly evaporated and allowed a nice size fire to catch hold. Dan’s facial expression was priceless—a mixture of frustration and humor. In the end, a smile won out.
            Breakfast was pancakes and chocolate bars, which means they chopped the chocolate bars up and sprinkled them into the pancake batter. The pancakes cooked quickly—well perhaps too quickly—the edges were burned. The chocolate melted nicely. The modification to the stove’s fuel jet and air vents improved the stoves performance. A large blue flame pulsed loudly from the jet making the steel rack glow red, which was great when trying to boil water—not so great for pancakes. The stove lost some of its heat control with the modification.
            They inhaled the meal and packed the gear for the day by the time the sun broke the mountain crest.
The plan was to leave as much stuff as possible at this base camp and only take necessities. Unfortunately, the gear needed, was the majority of the weight.
 “Alex, the cave—well I guess it’s a horizontal mineshaft—is that direction, right?” Dan asked standing up.
Dan’s tall stature caused his hair to brush against a pine tree’s lower branch.
Alex glanced up at Dan.
“Yes, we will have to make our own trail through the brush. It is too cold for rattlesnakes now. We will have to be careful once it warms up. Here is some tick and mosquito spray.”
Dan sprayed his clothes and wiped some on his face.
            They knew the way to the old mineshaft—well sort of—this was their third trip there. Without a trail, they would have to thrash around in the high growth to find it. The first trip there, was five weeks ago. Their route to the old mine had been so indirect it wasn’t going to help much with today’s navigation. Embarrassingly, the second trip wasn’t more direct.
            Alex knelt down and tied his shoe. “I still can’t believe we found the mine in the first place. Your idea to use your stargazer telescope on the far ridge to scout the area was brilliant. Even so, we shouldn’t have found it. If the lighting had been slightly different, it wouldn’t have been visible.”
            Dan swung the heavy pack onto his back. The climbing anchors clanked inside. Even with Dan’s massive size the weight of the pack caused Dan to stumble once.
“Thanks Alex, but you’re the one who found the map—a nameless map at that. The lake drawn on it could’ve been anywhere and you just happened to know crosses on old maps refer to Spanish mines.”
            Alex hoisted his pack on. His shoulder ached under the weight until he properly fastened the packs waist belt and transferred the load to his waist.
“Actually Dan, we have my father to thank. Dad told me about the crosses, the Spanish occupying and mining this area, and as I told you, I found the map in his study. I only thought about it being Moon Lake because dad took me here so often. Dad must have had more information, but I haven’t found anything else.”
            Alex replayed, in his head, their first two trips to the mine as he and Dan trudged up the mountain. The first time, they arrived at what they had thought would be a small cliff—turned out rather large. The entrance wasn’t visible from the ground. Dan climbed a pine tree until he could make out the bottom edge of the opening. Alex searched for several minutes and eventually found a faint cross carved into the cliff close to the ground.
A week later, they returned with climbing gear. The purple and green speckled rope was new, having purchased it last year along with some fluorescent green nylon webbing straps. Alex inherited most of the carabineers clips and anchors from his uncle Ethan. Some of the gear was quite outdated. A few of the carabineers were made of steel instead of the new lightweight aluminum alloy.
             It was a difficult climb up to the three feet by three feet opening. Dan shined his flashlight inside revealing the chisel marks that had made the mineshaft. The narrow tunnel ran far back into the mountain before veering to the left. It would be a tight fit in the best places and in some areas, little more than wiggle room. It would be worse for Dan with his muscular build. If at any point the cave became smaller than what was visible, Dan would get stuck.
             There were a few other issues. Claustrophobia. Large caves, no problem. Wiggle room only? Alex felt sick just thinking about it. His body shuddered involuntarily.
Alex spent a few minutes building adrenalin to overcome his fear and was about to enter when he saw—Bat droppings. The mine was home to other creatures he would have to wiggle past.
An hour of hanging on the cliff in indecision proved the need for a better plan. Today was the better plan.
It was about 10:30 AM when they reached the mine. The air temperature had increased. After an early lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, Dan unpacked the climbing gear, sorted it, and untangled the rope.
“You lead the climb Alex.”Dan suggested. “It’s too bad Ryan couldn’t be here. After all, he did build the T.F. He wouldn’t have had to carry a pack. Maybe we could have split it into two days of hiking.”
“I know Dan—and I know Ryan said he didn’t want to slow us down, but that’s not the real reason. He can only hike for a short time before he starts hurting. That stupid drunk driver.”
Alex’s temper flared and his fore head scowled as he thought about the accident that had almost killed his friend a year and a half ago. Ryan could walk despite the odds against it, but with a crutch. Dan was right. He should be here. He built the T.F. Named it too. T.F. for Treasure Fetcher. Stupid name really. Ryan was the gadget master. He obviously inherited it from his parents—both were engineers and owned a small home machine shop.
Alex stepped into his harness, fastened it around his waist, attached it to the rope, and clipped on various climbing anchors.
“Ready Dan. Belay on.” Alex said indicating he was about to climb and Dan needed to ready himself on the safety line.
The first good hand hold was just out of reach. Alex jumped and managed to cling to the hold with three fingers of his right hand. The tendons and veins in his forearm strained and bulged through his skin. Alex swung to the left, found a crack for his left hand to grasp, and pulled himself up.
Alex continued to climb until he reached the over-hang, which proved difficult until he located the deep crack used on their previous climb. Alex slid his left hand in and made a fist so his hand wouldn’t come out. Placing his feet just below the anchored hand, Alex pushed off with his legs and leveraged against his anchored fist. He extended his body out horizontally from the cliff, reached around the outcropping with his right hand, and found a crack to grasp.
Relaxing his fist, his left hand slid out of the crack and his body swung out. Alex’s legs dangled in mid air as he hung from his right hand. His left hand found purchase on the rock near his right and Alex pulled himself up. His biceps burned from the strain. Hand over hand, Alex pulled himself up along the mine entrance.
Sweat poured down his face and into his eyes. It burned. The sweat soaked his tee shirt so the fabric clung uncomfortably to his chest and abdominal muscles. Alex held his body tight against the cliff and secured three anchors into the rock.
 “All right Dan, I’m anchored to the cliff, belay off.” Alex said indicating he was no longer dependent upon the safety line.
 “Good climb Alex—Belay off.”
Dan tied the backpack with the T.F. to the end of the climbing rope. Alex hauled the T.F. up and anchored to the cliff. After which Dan made his way up with Alex belaying the rope. Reaching the entrance, Dan anchored himself to the opposite side of the mine opening. Sweat dripped down his forehead and neck. Dan pulled the T.F. out of the backpack and placed it in the mineshaft opening.
 It was a good design. Ryan sacrificed two remote control trucks, four flashlights and an old security video camera. The T.F. was a track driven platform with a motorcycle battery for power. Two flashlights mounted on the front and two on the rear provided lighting. An arm and claw that extended from the middle of the platform with a video camera attached, provided manipulation and visibility.
Originally, it was going to be radio controlled until Ryan remembered that the radio waves were unlikely to penetrate the mountain once the T.F. was out of view. The T.F. became a tethered vehicle. Ryan’s father owned a box of old phone line from when he wired his house. It was perfect for a tether.
The robot contained little weights with fishing line eyelets in which the phone line passed through. At each turn, the T.F. would lift a weight out of the cargo bay and place it on the ground, preventing the cable from snagging.
Dan placed the coil of phone wire, which was wrapped around an extension cord-wrapping wheel, in the mouth of the cave behind the T.F. Alex removed the laptop from the pack and plugged it into the center of the coil of wire. Ryan was extra smart and mounted a metal loop to the laptop case so Alex could attach the laptop to his harness to keep the laptop from falling.
             Alex found that if he leaned back, allowing the harness to support his weight, his legs extending out from the cliff, the laptop would rest on top of his thighs.
Lifting the computer cover, Alex depressed power, waited a few seconds for the computer to boot-up, and clicked on “T.F. 12b”. Two windows popped up on the screen, the right one black and the left listing commands and T.F. status.
Alex pressed the “L” key and the forward lights came on. A picture of the cave came up on the right screen.
            “Looks like we are ready to go.” Alex said.
Dan just nodded. He did his best to suppress it. Dan was slightly scared of heights. Normally, Dan had a talkative nature. When they were up on a cliff, he became silent and a few times when climbing something particularly difficult, he started shaking and had to come down. This trip wasn’t any different, not much said. He did control the shaking.
Dan looked at his watch.
“Better get a move on Alex, it’s already 1:00.”
 Alex pushed “T” for track mode, then the up arrow. The T.F. started forward at about one inch per second—a snail’s pace. There weren’t any points for speed, just for being able to torque its way out of trouble.
 It took ten minutes to maneuver to the end of the passage that was already visible, at which point, the cave turned left.
Alex pressed “C” for claw mode and with the arrow keys, managed to drop a fishing eyelet weight. Transferring back to track mode and depressing the left arrow key, the T.F. slowly turned. The lights pierced the passage where darkness had probably enjoyed full dominance for a few hundred years. Alex and Dan looked at the screen puzzled. It was all blurry.
“What happened to the video?”
“I don’t…” Dan started to say. Then they heard it.
“ALEX! MOVE!” Dan yelled.
 Using his feet, Dan pushed off Alex with such force Alex swung to the left side of the opening and Dan to the right. At least a hundred bats came streaming out of the cave, their wings and screeching making an amazing amount of noise for several seconds while the creatures vacated their premises.
            Dan started laughing once the bats had left.
“That would have been real exciting had you climbed in there Alex, all those bats and your body.”
Alex’s mind involuntarily visualized the bats franticly flapping and crawling over his skin. His stomach started to twist making him nauseated.
Alex and Dan swung back to the mouth of the cave and Alex repositioned the laptop.
“What a mess,” Dan said.
The video picture showed the tunnel becoming slightly larger and lined with bat feces. An exceptionally large amount lay at the bottom of the cave.
“Don’t be so critical Dan, a little carpet, maybe one of those lounging sacks and we could have dates over.”
Dan laughed and Alex keyed the up arrow. The T.F. moved forward and for a moment, Alex feared the T.F. might become stuck in the dung heap, but it plowed through.
“So, who gets to clean it when it comes back?” Dan asked.
Dan and Alex looked at each other and in stereo said “Ryan.”
            The next nine corners were uneventful and now there were only five weights left, after that the T.F. would have to return.
“It must have gone at least a couple hundred feet. We should have counted the revolutions of the wire wheel.” Dan said.
Corner eleven was coming up. The T.F. rounded the corner and a large mound in the tunnel came into view—well, large compared to the T.F.
“What’s that Alex?”
“It looks like a huge dung heap.”
“No… well yes there is allot of that. But look there, that looks like a strap.”
Alex changed to claw mode and maneuvered the arm to grasp the strap. Alex proceeded to do a number of lifts and tugs on the strap before the bag slowly started to move. It was too big to put on the platform.
“I guess we will have to pull it all the way out of the cave.” Dan said.
“Yes I guess …so.” Alex’s voice trailed off as he looked up at the sky. He could hear a distant thunderstorm and dark clouds were rolling over the mountain peaks. Alex thought he heard it earlier, but was too busy driving the T.F. One thing about the high Uintah Mountains, if it is obnoxiously beautiful and sunny just wait five minutes, it will change.
            “You better get a move on Alex, I don’t want to be on this cliff when that storm hits.”
It took two excruciating hours to get the T.F. out and by that time, the wind was coming in powerful gusts that buffeted them against the cliff. Alex looked down and watched the wind scream through the trees below. Some of the branches bent so far, Alex thought for sure they would break. The temperature was dropping—his body shivered.
Dan repelled down first. The T.F. was so disgusting, there wasn’t any way Alex was going to touch it. He tied the end of the rope to a carabineer and clipped it to the T.F. Touching the rope only, Alex lowered the T.F. ,the dung ridden moldy bag, and the backpack. Pushing away from the cliff, Alex repelled down. Once on the ground, Alex just pulled the rope through the anchor and carabineer left at the top. Sacrificing them to get out of the storm quicker was worth it. Besides, they would be back tomorrow. Not wanting to spread the dung and musty odor to their packs, Alex and Dan put the T.F. and the moldy bag into garbage bags before putting them into the packs.
Alex and Dan started walking and then it hit. The torrent of rain pelted them and soaked their clothes through. Alex could hardly see. Water poured down his face and into his eyes. The wet undergrowth stuck to their clothes as if plastic cling wrap and the heavy loads slowed their progress to a trudge. Water permeated every piece of clothing and even their skin by the time they returned to camp.
Not wanting to extend the deluge to the dry tent, they dropped the packs outside and stripped down to their boxer shorts. The cold rain beat against their bare backs. Alex shivered and then climbed into the tent.
A half-hour later, Alex and Dan were in dry clothes and filled with chocolate bars and peanut butter sandwiches. Dan had his hands through the tent door ringing out his shirt.
Dry and out of the rain was a much nicer scenario. There was a problem. The T.F. and the bag were so disgusting they didn’t want to pull them out of the garbage bags inside the tent. But, outside the torrential rains, wind and darkness made opening them impossible.
 “I really want to open that bag.” Alex said.
“I’m not sleeping in dung Alex.” Dan replied stiffly.
“No, No I agree, I’m just anxious.”
“Tomorrow, what time can we get to the cliff by?” Dan asked.
Alex took a second calculating the distance before answering. “Oh, we should be able to cut an hour off now that we know the way unless mud from the rain slows us down.”
Alex yawned. Exhaustion and sleep were weighing on him. Sleep would bring the morning faster. Dan shut off the flashlight and they quickly dozed off.
Somewhere in the night when Alex’s body desperately wanted to be asleep, fear enveloped him and pulled his senses to the alert. His brain was unable to determine what triggered the unconscious alarm until the sound of squelching footsteps on the muddy ground reached his ear.

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