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Winter House: Chapter 9
Fiction by Christian Shuck
April 13th, 1864
“What the hell is that?!” asked Matthias, stepping back from the cloud of dust. They covered their mouths with handkerchiefs as the foul air swept out of the small cavern.
Edward, his partner, waved his hand against the tiny granules in the air. “Whaddya mean? This is what we’ve been lookin’ for. Boss said we could use this hole to stash supplies.”
Coughing slightly, Matthias leaned forward and held up his lantern. “Not tha hole, you idiot. That stuff on tha walls.”
Edward squatted down on his haunches, wiping his brow. “Prolly just some old Injun markings. They’re all over ‘round here. Don’t worry, they ain’t been through here much since the end o’ the war.”
“Don’t matter much anyhow, now tha KGC’s runnin’ tha South,” said Matthias.
Edward turned his head and spit on the ground. “Let’s unload this shit and get a fire goin’. It’ll be a cold one tanight.”
“Can’t have a fire here you dolt, someone ‘ll see it.”
Ed stood and raised his arms above his head. The ledge above them was at least three feet past his finger tips. “Not down here, they won’t. ‘Sides, someone’s had a fire here before.” He pointed at a set of scorch marks on the ground. “Get up the ladder and start handin’ this shit down to me.”
As Matthias climbed up out of the crevice, Ed shook his head, wondering how the Knights of the Golden Circle could have recruited someone so ignorant as his new found partner. Too many great leaders lost in the defense of the northern aggression, he guessed. If it hadn’t been for the organizational leadership of the KGC, the southern states would’ve lost the war. Instead, the altercation barely lasted a year. Lincoln was forced to resign, President Johnson allowed the southern states to maintain their rights, and the country was allowed to move forward.
Still, the threat of northern opposition loomed. Another organization had risen in response to the KGC. The Guardians of the Pact was rumored to have started at the order of President Lincoln before he resigned. But most of the Lieutenants in the KGC thought it came from a rogue branch of the Freemasons; what was left of them. Didn’t matter to Ed, or the KGC, where they came from. The caches being created in the northern states ensured resources would be available in the event the north tried to force its will on the south again. If that happened, the organization could pin the northern army by attacking from both directions.
“Hey you gonna help me or what?”
Matthias was looking down from the ledge. “Yeah, be careful passing those cases down.” Ed shivered as he waited.
This particular load contained 200 rifles with enough ammunition to keep a soldier stocked for a long battle. Slowly, the first box came down the side of the crevice, lowered by the pulley setup Ed and Matthias made on the side of their wagon. Ed guided the rope as the crate reached the ground. After unhooking it he motioned to Matthias to pull the rope up.
Grabbing the handle on the end of the box, Ed reached for the lantern with his other hand and began dragging the first of their stash to the cavern opening. He had little doubt the cache would be safe. Finding the location of the cavern was hard enough. It took a few days of asking the right people where a place like this wouldn’t be bothered. Only by luck did they happen on a sympathizer who’d heard stories of this particular cave’s existence. Ed felt a chill run up his spine as he thought about the tale of the scouting party that once found a stranger in the same spot. That was nearly fifty years ago, though, and just a ghost story.
Remainders of dust still flitted around in the light of his lantern. He pulled the case up along one of the walls where they could be easily stacked without being seen from outside. As he stood, he took a moment to look at the drawings on the walls. It didn’t look like writing. Lines and squiggles and circles, some of them intersecting and others almost like claw marks from a big animal dragging its paw down into the dark. Ed pushed the front of his hat up his forehead with his free hand and held the lantern up closer.
A slight breeze came up from the dark, and the smell of sulfur stung his nostrils. He turned to look further into the place.
“Hey!” came a shout from outside. “What’re you doin’ in there? Get out here and help me, I’m hungry and I’m cold.”
Matthias’ shout caught Ed off guard and he jumped a little. Spinning on his heels he said, “I’m comin’, I’m comin’.”
Walking out into the open he found another case waiting to be untied, and Matthias waiting impatiently at the top of the ladder. The toe of his boot caught on something and he tripped. The lantern went out of his hand as he fell forward and shattered on the ground. The bit of light it provided quickly extinguished. Ed looked back to see what he’d stumbled on to find nothing there. No rock or crack.
“God damnit,” Matthias said. “You’re lucky the moon is full or we’d be buildin’ a fire right now.” He rubbed his middle and felt his stomach rumble.
Ed, still staring at his foot, said, “There ain’t nothin’ here. I don’t know what tripped me.”
“Just get up and let’s get this finished. I still got a light up here.”
Ed gathered himself and dusted off his pants as he stood. He kicked the broken lantern out of his path before grabbing the crate. The small space in the crevice was visible in the moonlight, inside the cavern was pitch black. He used his to sweep around the earth in front of him to find the first crate. The sound of his boot on wood gave a dull thud. He swung the second crate around and stacked it.
One by one, Matthias lowered the boxes down. With each turn, Ed’s eyes adjusted a little more to the dark. He finally found himself in a rythm so that he knew exactly where he was going each trip into the cavern. His feet seemed to step on their own with growing assurance so that his mind fell into a drift. Box after box he hauled into the mouth of the cave. He imagined it opening and closing behind him after every turn. Its warm, yellow, sulfury breath exhaling into his face as he approached. Its quiet patience waiting for him to make his deposit and exit.
The pattern set in so that he didn’t notice when the boxes shifted from cases of rifles to crates of ammunition. There was no weight to them. He could have pushed them around in the air if he’d wanted, like a feather in the wind. In fact, Ed felt like a feather. The sensation of his feet on the ground no longer concerned him. There was no grinding of dirt under his boots. With a wave of his hand he placed each box among the others, neatly arranged against the wall of the cave. Twenty boxes of rifles and forty boxes of ammunition. It might as well have been a thousand or more. His task was over as soon as it had begun.
After the last box was untied, Matthias pulled the rope up. Muttering to himself about how hungry he felt, he reached into the wagon and pulled out a sack. Slinging it over his shoulder, the pots inside it clanged together. For just a moment, he stopped to check his surroundings; suddenly paranoid they’d been watched the whole time. When all he could hear were crickets, he chuckled to himself at the mistaken fear. His only fear was not being able to eat before finally getting some rest.
There was a crunching sound when Matthias stepped off the ladder in the bottom of the crevice. He realized it was broken glass from Ed’s lantern. Having only one lantern wasn’t an issue. He was grateful the one Ed broke hadn’t landed on a box of powder. And with that thought, he held his own light up. His partner was nowhere to be seen.
“Ed?” Matthias asked to the empty space. He wandered over to the mouth of the cavern, the pots in his sack clanking as he walked. The light in his hand wasn’t bright enough to light up the whole cavern. He could just make out the edge of a stack of boxes. “Ed?”
“Just finishing up.” The response was almost a whisper.
“I’m gonna make a fire. It’s too damn cold and I’m too damn hungry.” Ed didn’t say anything back.
Matthias put the sack down next to the small pile of wood they’d carried down when they first arrived. He smiled at his ability to think ahead, so he didn’t have to go look for firewood in the dark, and tapped the side of his head in self-approval. He put the lantern down and began arranging kindling. With his knife, he carefully scraped down the side of a stick, curling the bark as he went. Then another shallow cut, and another, until the end of the stick looked like it had curly blond hair. He struck a match and lit the feather stick, setting it gently in the center of the rest of the collection of small twigs. Satisfied with his fire, he directed his attention to the more pressing matter of filling his unforgiving stomach.
He was so distracted by food it wasn’t until the beans were nearly cooked Matthias realized Ed never walked out of the cavern. He shifted his weight so he could look at the opening.
“Ed, c’mon out here. Beans are ‘bout ready and you have’ta be hungry by now.” Matthias twitched his nose at the odor lingering in the air. Probably wasn’t the smartest idea to camp there for the night, could be gas coming out of the hole. Just because there’d been fire there before didn’t mean it was safe. No telling what was in there or where it lead. Or, why it was sealed up. With the full moon, they could’ve just as easily ridden back into Basevale. Matthias guessed it was a precaution on Ed’s part. Easier to say they were gone all night than to explain why they were riding in so late. Couldn’t be too careful, moving this type of equipment in secret. He called out to his partner again.
“Almost ready.” The response was the same whisper.
Curiosity got the better of him, so Matthias stood and walked over to the cave. The firelight, being lower to the ground, led into the dark a little further than the lantern. Matthias dropped his spoon in surprise.
“Ed, where’s all those boxes?” He took a step closer and squinted out of instinct, trying to see further. “We unloaded all those crates, where’d they go?”
A silhouette appeared, just at the edge of the firelight.
“Hey, I’m talkin’ ta you!” Matthias shouted. “What’d you do with all them crates?”
“They’re here, further back.”
“They better be in tact, I ain’t answerin’ for lost supplies if you can’t get ‘em outta there.”
“I’ll show you, you’ll see.”
“I’m hungry and you’re jackin’ around. It’s late, get out here and eat somethin’ ‘fore I eat it all.”
The silhouette motioned with an arm, beckoning Matthias into the cavern.
“Come in, I’ll show you. You’ll see.”
Matthias picked the spoon up off the ground and pointed it at Ed. “If I come in there will you quit your messin’ around?”
Ed didn’t respond.
Matthias turned to get his lantern and remembered he’d put it out after the fire burned bright enough. “Aw, hell.” Frustrated, he reached for a log that was sticking out of the fire and hoped it would burn enough to let him see in the dark of the cave. Walking back over he could see a reddish glow, coming from the opening.
“Ed?” he asked as he approached. “You light a fire in there? Could be gas, y’know. Where’d you get the -” Matthias stopped his question after only a few more steps. Broken crates littered the floor. Rifles, some of them broken, were strewn about and worse, bullets and gunpowder. Matthias backed out into the crevice again.
“Ed, you didn’t start a fire in there did you? Not with all that powder out. What the hell’re you thinkin’? Why’d you bust all that shit up?” The pace of his questions revealed the panic in his chest.
Out of the red glow, the silhouette stepped forward.
“Ed…” Matthias whispered. The figure was not his partner. As it stepped into the faint light of his torch, he could see the white, chalky face. Black eyes reflected the orange flickering of fire. Stepping back, away from the thing, Matthias felt warm liquid escape him and soak his pants.
“What...what...wha-” He couldn’t finish his question. Overcome with terror, he turned and made for the ladder. A hand grabbed the back of his shirt. He turned and swung his torch at whatever was holding him. Sparks of ash exploded across the things head and it screamed. Matthias vomited from the adrenaline now rushing through his body.
The thing lifted Matthias off the ground, holding him by the belt of his pants and hurled him at the crevice wall. He didn’t hit hard enough to go unconscious, but it was enough to blur his vision. He spit, blood now mixed with the acidic tinge of his sick. With futility, he scrambled back up against the wall, trying to escape. The thing walked over to him and grabbed him by the hair. It lifted him off the ground and shook him, like a mother shaking out a rug. Matthias felt something snap in his right leg. He screamed as the thing let him fall to the ground. It dragged him to the mouth of the cave.
Desperately, he reached for the wall of the cavern. The rock dug into his fingers, pulling off one of his nails. The light of the fire dwindled as the mouth of the cave closed behind him. Matthias let out a final cry; a cry that only death could long to hear.
Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.