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Now...on to the story.
Underground Electric (Warnings to the Curious #2)
S. Anderson Laatsch
Underground Electric - the second episode in the historical fantasy adventure series Warnings to the Curious.
Fort Charles, Missouri
“No one dares enter the pirate caves anymore, not since the river woman set up there. Rumors say she’s the woman Faraday brought back from the dead when he electrified the whole of the Mississippi and killed almost a thousand people up along its shores. He got his just punishment. Never lived as a free man past that day. But the woman carries on, cursed by those thousand souls in her after-life. She glows with dark light. She walks the river, haunts the caves, hair like seaweed, mouth full of mud. And when the true living approach, she gets angry and shoots lightning bolts from her fingertips.”
“You’re trying to scare me,” said Lila, pulling her bonnet back from her face, “but you don’t, you know. You never did.” She wiped her sleeve across her brow. “Anyways, I’m too hot to be scared.”
Riverside, the slanted sun warmed the wet air past toleration. Our green summer morning burned off by breakfast and left us awash in a white-heat afternoon. Tower Bluff would have given us shade before the noon hour, but now threw off heat like a stone oven and baked us like biscuits. Still, Lila and I pushed ahead in our plan to sneak away to the caves. We’d made it thus far down three miles of muddy riverbank and overgrown weeds, me telling tales of the river woman, Lila complaining of the heat. I strained my neck for sight of the entrance and with relief saw it in the short distance.
“Look, there it is.”
I pointed twenty yards ahead to the shadow of an opening in the rock wall. From river or land, no person would see it unless he was looking straight for it.
Lila exhaled at length. “Praise Almighty, get me out of this sun.”
“Wait.” I touched her arm. ““I know I don’t scare you. I aim to warn you, that’s all. Can’t tell what’ll be waiting for us in that cave. You sure you want to see what’s inside?”
“Are you sun sick? I’ve walked all the way here, haven’t I? Shade is what’s inside. Now let’s go.” She stomped on ahead. “I’ve got to get back before evening service or Mama will set every deputy in town searching for me.”
I followed her. “She thinks you’re sewing with my sisters. We’ve got all afternoon. Watch it!”
A snake coiled in the mud under Lila’s boot. She jumped back. Three feet long with reddish-brown stripes, the covert devil slipped through the mud and into the river with nary a concern of us. Lila fell back against me, and I wrapped an arm about her waist. Her thin summer frock was damp against her back, and she smelled of rose tonic, like my house on Saturday evenings when my sisters all have baths. She leaned against me for a moment, steadied herself, and then, just as quick, sprang back.
“Come on, then. If I’m not in that pew by five, I’d better be murdered by the river woman. That’s the only excuse that’ll satisfy.”
She parted the weeds to make a path, for the growth was thicker as we climbed the steep bank up to the cave. Two thin-trunked trees marked the entrance, a jagged half-circle peaked at the top, tall enough to walk in upright. The sun reached inside only a few feet. I passed the edge of shadow and sat down in the cool sand.
“You can sit a minute,” I said. “I’ve got to find the light.”
“I can’t get dirty. Mama’ll know.”
“Sit on that rock there. It ain’t dirty. And quit worrying about your mama.”
She did not sit but consented to lean back against the cave wall and close her eyes. Blonde hair damp at her temples, cheeks flush, her chest rose and fell as she caught her breath. The bonnet hung against her back, and its ribbon dug a bit into the soft fold of her neck. She opened one eye. “Quit staring. And quit bossing me around.”
I examined the crust of dirt beneath my fingernails. “I’m not bossing. Only saying don’t worry.”
She opened both eyes, pushed away from the wall. “Like you never worry about getting caught.”
“No, I don’t. Not by your mama.”
“The captain, though.”
I shoved up from the ground and stood, glaring at her. “He don’t worry me, either.”
She stood and glared right back. “I’m only saying don’t get on me about worrying when you’ve got your own worries.”
“It’s different. I hate him.”
She softened a bit, leaned back again. “Is he really so awful?”
What could I tell her? The truth, I suppose. He really was awful. A cross word and he’d cuff an ear, knock me sprawling. But I was too old now to cower at a raised hand. What made him so awful? I tried with effort to formulate a hate so vague into words. “He calls me Casper,” I said, finally. “Just to goad me. Just to get a rise.”
“Or maybe because it’s your name?”
My face went hot. The teasing smile dropped right off her face. “Sorry,” she said, but I wasn’t letting her off easy. I plucked a jagged rock from the loose sand and threw it with all my might against the cave wall. I stomped back outside and squinted in the sun.
Shortly after my mother married the captain, I ran away one cloudy afternoon. That’s how I found the cave in the first place. I stole a log raft tied carelessly at Hyde’s inlet and meant to wend downriver far enough to feel I’d never go back. Past sight of town, the river widened to scant over a mile. The shores reached distant enough on the horizon to pretend I floated on a calm endless ocean. I spent an afternoon basking in the plans of my independent future. I’d had enough of school, and if I could find labor for a summer, I might save enough to apprentice to a riverboat pilot.
But long before I’d reached the next town, Tower Bluff appeared. Sitting up on my vessel to admire it, I spotted the pirate cave, the one I’d heard about only in stories my father told me. The first time I stepped inside, I knew I wouldn’t go any farther. No such sacred place can be passed by unappreciated. Besides, with a secret as balm and courage, a person can tolerate most bad situations.
For two summers since, I’d thought to show Lila the caves, and now, finally, here she was. Despite my attention to her, I was the one scared. Scared she’d be sore-mad I kept such a secret for so long.
“Jack?” yelled Lila. Her voice echoed from the shadows. “I said I’m sorry. Go on and boss me, if you want.”
I went back inside. She was sitting on the rock now, feet tucked up under her.
“I don’t want to talk about the captain,” I said, “that’s all.”
“Fair enough.” She reached up to the gold cross hanging around her neck and lifted it to her mouth, a nervous habit. Staring into the cave where the tunnel turned and led into the depths of the earth, sloping downward, she asked, “You sure we won’t get lost?”
I searched behind the rock where she sat and found the torch I kept there, buried in the loose sand. “I know this cave like I do every alley in town. It’ll be all right. You’re with me.”
She huffed, but one corner of her mouth lifted in a half-smile. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of. Mama’ll find out I was with you.”
“Why? What’s wrong with me?”
“Nothing, except you’re a boy.” She stood and smoothed her skirts, knocked the mud from her boots against the rock. She sighed. “Look at the state of me. Mama is never going to believe I was sewing.”
From inside my boot, I dug out matches stolen from the captain’s tobacco box. The torch caught, and I turned it to even out the flame. “Tell her you picked rhubarb, too. We got some my sisters left in the garden.”
“And she’s already in a temper ’cause of this fever’s going ’round. Daddy’s not been home three days, there’s so many that’s sick. He sent word he went all the way to Fuller County yesterday.”
“She won’t find out. She hasn’t found out about the book yet, has she? Or the hiding place under the porch?”
“And she won’t find out about this. Now…you ready?” I held out my hand.
She merely stared at it. I felt a fool standing there, my hand open while she considered it at length, taking her sweet time like we were on the porch contemplating a walk down to the post and back. I about let it drop. A thousand pounds weighed on the sweaty palm of my outstretched hand, and then, praise all saints, she took it. My fingers laced in hers, and I led her into the tunnel.
A stream branched off the river and entered the tunnel with us, and we walked along its path. The ceiling was just high enough to walk without stooping, and we followed the water, bound by the orb of orange torch light. When we’d gone on far enough that dark swallowed us, I brought up the tall tale again.
“Say we come across the river woman somewhere along here?”
“Stop it, Jack.” Our voices echoed, and we fell to whispering.
“Honest to God. What if there’s some truth to the tale?”
“You want me to believe a ghost haunts these caves?”
We walked on, hidden from the known world, and I considered my answer. I remembered my first time in the cave, nothing but a few wrapped matches with me, watching each one burn down to my fingernails, then feeling my way along the rough walls in complete black, not knowing if I had enough matches to ever find my way back out, not even caring if I did.
“Not a ghost,” I said. “A woman. Pirates hid out in these caves once. Why not that woman?”
“Because they would have found her. They searched for her long enough.”
“These tunnels go on a long way. Plenty of hiding places.”
“You’re trying to scare me again.”
Lila’s hand squeezed mine, hard. She didn’t shake nor tremble. I squeezed back. I pressed the soft part of my thumb to her wrist and let it move up past the delicate bone there, and then down, all the way to her thumbnail. And she let me. She didn’t squeeze back again, but she didn’t flinch, and she didn’t let go of my hand.
“You know what?” she said. “I hope we do see her. I’d ask her what electricity was like, to feel it in your bones. Daddy saw an electric light once, at an exhibition in St. Louis before the Restriction. Said he could touch it and everything. Said he couldn’t cast his eyes on it long, or they’d burn and see red.”
“Did he get a shock? When he touched it?”
“Don’t know. Mama told him to quit filling our heads with tales. She won’t condone even a mention of electricity. Still herds us down to the cellar in lightning storms.”
The ceiling dropped to make a narrow space, and Lila let go of my hand to crawl through. She was braver now, used to the place.
“What would you ask her?” she said when we went on past the obstruction. She walked on ahead, swinging her arms, like we were on a Sunday stroll. “The river woman?”
I cleared my throat. “Don’t know.”
Lila turned, walking backward. “Oooh…we could ask her what it’s like to be dead.”
“Maybe she don’t want to talk about it.”
Lila laughed and walked forward again. She was enjoying herself now that she was out of the heat. A little adventure suited her, long as it was under comfortable conditions and fine weather. “Probably not,” she said, reaching out and running her fingers along the damp rock. “Guess I’d be rude to ask a question like that straight away. I’d better wait until we’re more acquainted.”
Ahead, a limestone wall appeared in the torch light. The stream dipped and disappeared into a gap in the ground, and a crack split upward through the center of the wall into a crevice about a foot wide.
“This here’s the keyhole.”
Lila nodded. She didn’t understand.
“We go through it.”
Her eyes popped liked a squeezed weasel. “This? Jack, no.”
“I’ve done it plenty a times. You can, too.”
“No, Jack.” She backed away.
“It’s no different than our hiding spot under the porch. You remember the first time you squeezed in there?
The dogs won’t go under that porch it’s so low-built, but you punched in there like nothing.” I leaned over to meet her eyes, made her look at me. “And I followed you.”
Her brows furrowed, but she wasn’t shaking her head anymore. She wasn’t backing away.
“Look, it ain’t even that far.” I stuck the torch through the keyhole so she could see how it opened up right on the other side.
“Jack, that snake I stomped outside wouldn’t slip through this.”
“Push all the air out of your lungs, all the way out, and hold it like you’re going under water,” I said. “And don’t get scared. That’s the secret. If you get scared, you’ll gulp in air and puff up and get stuck.”
I pulled the torch back through. Lila stared into the dark crevice.
“It’ll be all right,” I promised. “I’ll be right here, right behind you.”
She didn’t move.
“I followed you under the porch, didn’t I? And that was no spring picnic.”
Finally she nodded and, turning to me, we exhaled together. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and wedged herself into the opening.
She almost made it. She would have if she hadn’t seen the light appear far down inside the cave.
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