Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Decker #8

"Ah cain't say as I have been to, uh, crapshoot did you call it?" Cletus lifted his hat and scratched his head.
"It's Cradsell 4, you-"
Decker cut the irate duck off before something offensive slipped from her bill. "I think he's got it now, Aida. So which way from here?" They'd done a fair bit of walking while under the influence of psychedelic fish; it was time to nail down a direction and make tracks. "I have a vague recollection of a sign post near the top of the stairs. Did anyone read it? Cletus, did you see it? It looked all runny to me at the time."
Cletus shuffled from one foot to the other. "Unh, no, no I didn't see no consarned sign. But I think it's back that way if'n you wanna have a look at it."
Aida was fluffing her feathers and chattering nervously; she didn't seem entirely coherent. Decker thought she might still be under the influence. Degren stood morosely, occasionally casting a sideways (longing?) glance at Decker. He mumbled something about blurry vision, all the while picking at a protuberance in the wall.
"Okay, let's head back the way we came and have a look at the sign." Decker tried to gather the group, but only Cletus seemed ready to move. "Degren, will you get Aida, see if you can talk her into heading back?"
Degren wouldn't meet his eyes. "Decker, um, maybe it's better if I, you know, just wait here. What with you and I...well, you know, I get so muddled..."
"Imagine how I feel, bub!" Decker took him by the shoulders and shook him gently. "What if we get lost, and can't get back here? You have to come along. You've got to get home, too!" He saw the way Degren looked at his hands, so he pulled back. "C'mon, man! We're gonna do this thing!"
"I-I guess you're right. What do you want to do?"
Maybe they were all still muddled by the fish. "Um, let's try to find the sign post. Cletus says he think it's that way." Decker pointed the way they had come. "Degren, I need you to lead Aida until she comes back to her senses. I'll handle Cletus for now. Okay?"
Cletus was scratching a horseshoe shape and an arrow in the wall with one of his knives. "We a'ready?" Decker nodded and Cletus tucked the knife into the top of his boot.
They'd come further than Decker had thought. He counted lamp posts as they retraced their steps; there were a hundred and sixty between there Cletus found them and the signpost. They passed many offshoots of the cave, some with little trickles of murky water slithering along erosion-carved cuts in the soft stone. By the time they got back to the top of the stairs, they were all coherent but terribly thirsty. The stream here looked a little greenish and murky, so they decided not to take their chances.
The signpost was there, a little faded but readable. Cradsell 4, according to the inscription, was up along the main body of the creek. All they had to do was follow it to where it dove underground. Putting the complaints of their deprived bodies aside, they made their way single-file along the creek.
The lamp posts had given way to bare bulbs hanging from the cave roof, and it was starting to be a pretty stiff climb. Also, Decker noticed that the lights were getting further apart, and were more often dead. After an exhausting hour of climbing, often grabbing for purchase with fingers and toes, the cave leveled off and they could walk again. After a time, the ceiling got low enough for Decker to touch, and the shale of the cave floor got slipperier as the shallow stream spread over the stone. Soon they were groping for long periods, as the lights disappeared almost altogether.
"We've got to take a drink out of the stream," Degren croaked. "We've got to take the chance."
"Ah'll test the water," Cletus asserted. "I said I wuz doin' my duty by yuh, and this here's another way I kin do thet." He didn't wait for any protests, he just dove down, stuck his lips in the creek and slurped with gusto. They sat and talked for a while, and when Cletus showed no signs of "alteration", they all took a long, satisfying drink and fumbled on up the slow-climbing cave. Sometimes they'd benefit from a stretch of bioluminescence, and every once in a while they'd come to a bulb that still burned, but mostly it was absolutely dark.
Decker wondered if they'd taken a wrong turn after all. For a long time, he didn't want to voice his doubts. Just as he was about to, Aida burst forth with a similar sentiment. "This can't be the right way," she quavered, "I don't remember anything like this!"
"Aida," Decker asked, "Is it possible that there weren't so many burned-out bulbs last time you came this way?"
"I don't know, Decker! It's been so long..."
"Mebbe she come down a differnt way," Cletus said.
"I sure didn't see any other paths once we got on this stream," Degren noted.
"Well, we'd better just keep going, then," Decker concluded. "The water's got to come from somewhere, and anywhere's better than nowhere, which will definitely be better than here!"
Not much further up the stream, they came to an area where all the lights were working. The slippery shale floor was replaced by what appeared to be freshly laid cement sidewalk, and there was a different smell in the air; something alive and fresh; something that suggested sunshine and green shoots. Decker's heart thudded powerfully in his chest, and a sense of elation washed over him. "Do you feel it?" He looked around at his comrades; they were flushed of cheek and wide of eyes. They felt it.
They proceeded up the walk at an ever-brisker pace until they were jogging, the slap of their feet on cement echoed from the walls, and harsh panting turned to rumbles of relieved laughter. There was a brightness ahead that shamed the hanging lights. It was glorious and yellow-white, and the warmth of it tinged the air that now rushed past them as they came around a slow bend in the cave. It was the sun, shining in and nearly blinding them; the glorious, welcoming sun!
But it shone through a tight grid of metal bars, and there was a closed metal gate at the center of the grid. Hearts still pounding, laughter slowly dying on their lips, they approached it in sudden trepidation.
"This is where Tut brought me down, I recognize it now," Aida said, uncharacteristically succinct.
Decker grabbed the gate and shook it, then scrutinized it as his eyes adjusted to the blaring radiance of the sun. There was a latch, but there was also a huge padlock stuck through it on the other side. The grid of the gate was too small for him to get his fingers through to shake the lock. "Damn, shit and fuck me green!" Decker was blown-up furious and dead deflated at the same time. "What the fuck and fuck and FUCK now?"
It was either early morning or late afternoon, judging by the way it shone directly down the soft-sloping tunnel. If it was morning, maybe there would be a gatekeeper coming soon. He looked around at his companions, "Well, I guess we could sit and wait a while."
"Ta hell with thet," Cletus said, drawing his big Colt out and pointing it at the lock. "We're gettin' the dad-blamed ding-dang outta here right now!" He squeezed the trigger as he uttered the last word, and the gun let loose a belch of fire and noise that deafened them. The lock still hung intact, so he pulled back the hammer and blasted it again. Three shots later, it sprung into several pieces. "Thet'll teach them yella-bellied slickers to lock the gate on US!"
Decker went to open the gate, but the latch still wouldn't operate. He looked through the gate; the hoop of the lock still hung in the latch. "Well, we need one more little trick done before we can get out of here. Cletus, I need your skinniest knife."
"Whut....oh, I see," the miner yelled, his ears still ringing from shock. He reached around to the back of his waistband and drew out a long, slender stiletto. "Yuh think this here'll do the trick?"
"Well, let's give it a try." Decker slipped the blade between the bars and started poking at the bottom of the metal "c" that was still lodged in the latch. After much cursing and fumbling, he heard the half-hoop hit the concrete on the other side of the grating. Dropping the knife on the sidewalk, he grabbed for the latch and pressed. There was a satisfying "snick!" and the gate opened. "YEAH! SHIT YEAH!" he roared as Aida and Degren applauded, while Cletus tried to remind them that it was he who'd shot the lock off in the first place.

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