The mile long trek around flourishing umbrage and rushing, white waterfalls brought the group of five hikers to the base of the mountains. A quincunx, they stood staring at the mountain peak shading their eyes from the bright sun.
“That’s it,” Justin pointed. “That’s the red cave.”
“Wait a minute.” Tarin extended a flat palm facing the ground. “How do you know that’s the red cave? It doesn’t look red.” She was shaking her head.
“I’m sorry, I thought I was the Science teacher…” Justin scowled at her. “It’s iron oxide – it’s not gonna be a true red – why is my knowledge always questioned?”
“So,” Tom interrupted. “The flyer instructs us to find the red cave…I guess we climb now?” He shrugged his shoulders.
“Duh,” Jason mocked. “How else are we gonna find the Cardia Stone? We have to climb.”
“Cardia Stone, Que es esto, Master Reading Teacher? Lily asked.
Rolling his eyes, Tom sighed. “Cardia, like cardiac arrest, means heart.”
“Ay caramba!” She continued in a taunting tone. “Gracias, I hope I didn’t bother you too much with my little question.”
“All right morons, it’s a heart stone so let’s go find it!” Jason insisted.
“Hey, who are you calling moron? Hispanics are not morons!”
Tarin tackled the mountain. “It’s only about thirty feet at most.”
Lily scooted away from Jason to follow. “I’m right behind you!”
“You sure you can lead the way, Tarin? I once lead a hiking group – it’s a lot of work looking out for others and what lies ahead.”
“Shup-up!” She yelled over her shoulder.
Justin rolled his eyes at him, bringing up the rear while Tom and Jason flanked the center group.
The path of rock was both slippery and loose. Some rocks slid beneath soles with every other step and in other cases, feet slipped off rock.
Lily continued shakily to climb, slide, climb and slide again. The silence of no one offering a word of support was piercing. Of course, their prospective concern for her would be tantamount on her concern for them. But how could she bring herself to do anything more than ignore people who are arrogant know it – alls and lazy? She was not about to.
Half way up the mountain, within a moment’s notice, Tarin came crashing down. She collided into one of Lily’s stable arms, making her sway sideways. Tarin broke the silence of the still day with sharp squeals as she slid from one rock to another, all the way down the hill. The band of educators only watched her as she passed them one by one. Jagged edges of rock caught and snagged several areas of skin on her bare forearms, elbows and knees. Her fingers clawed an edge of stone just before she was thrown to the trail below. Immediately remounting, she pivoted her footing and tried catching her breath and calming her heart.
She hollered a bit of sarcasm up the mountain. “Gee, thanks for having my back, guys!”
“De nada!” Lily answered, assuming the position as leader.
“Skank,” Tarin mumbled.
“You’re not alone!” Jason volunteered. “You know I once plummeted to the bottom of a mountain on a hiking trip in Montana?”
Tom interrupted. “Do any of your stories differ from ours?”
Jason rolled his eyes and continued climbing.
“Hey, where do you guys think the coordinator is?” Tom called out.
Justin taunted him. “What, is it too much trouble for you to read the flyer again Master Reading teacher?
“Yeah,” Jason joined in the attack. “Doesn’t it say on the flyer where the coordinator would be?”
“Who cares?” Lily yelled from the top. “Let’s just find the stone!”
In that instant, if Tom’s gaze could bite, Justin and Jason would need a rabies shot.
A hurt Tarin spider-crawled the mountain slowly.
Lily mounted the landing that lay just before the opening of the cave. “Eureka! See you inside suckers!”
Only seconds after she entered the cave, the group, still latched onto the side of the mountain, were startled by Lily’s echoing and shrieking screams. They began to scramble faster. Within seconds of each other, they each mounted the landing one by one – creeping into blackness. Until now, the beauty of the day had disguised all prospects of peril. The crew retrieved flashlights from their backpacks. Following Lily’s shrieks, they gathered into a small recess of the cave that lead to a pit. They illuminated the abyss where they found a whimpering Lily hanging on by her fingers to sharp edges of rock that protruded from the lining of the hole.
“Ayuda me – Help me!” She yelled.
“Uh-huh, who’s the sucker now, beaner? Justin taunted. “This is a hiking trip sweetheart – nobody has rock – climbing gear to get you outta there.”
Lily yelled back. “That’s right, leave the Hispanic dangling to use her work ethic to get herself out – I can’t keep holding like this!”
“I have rope – keep it on hand ‘cause I was trapped like this once.”
“Of course you were,” Tarin murmured.
Jason turned to go for his backpack when a great thud rang through the corridor followed by something of a gurgled yelp. Thanks to the flashlights, he was suddenly in a resplendent spotlight. Jason held a bleeding forehead that had collided with something hanging from the ceiling of the cave. He staggered, feeling for a place to sit.
“Stalactites,” Justin announced. “I’ll get the rope…where in the bag is it?”
Jason found strength and just enough retrieved memory to direct Justin. Seconds passed and Justin found himself at the pit – tossing rope down.
“Got it!” Lily said.
Justin and his three helpers pulled and tugged on the rope until Lily threw her arms over the top edges of the pit. She was just as badly scraped as Tarin. Grateful to be “topside”, she sat with the other injured who worked on themselves using first – aid kits.
The other two simply sat still, catching their breaths and sipping from water bottles.
Tom flashed his light down one of the two passageways and stared as if something held his attention. “Hey you guys…I think I saw something…hurry-up, we need to go.”
“What did you see?” Justin asked shinning a second rod of light down the tunnel.
The injured stood together slinging backpacks over their shoulders.
“I’m not sure,” Justin said, dropping the water bottle into the bag. “But we’re about to find out.”
The crew moved cautiously through the shaft. At the end of the tunnel, Tom startled everyone with a wail and flailing arms when a thud landed on top of his head.
“What’s that?” He screamed. “Get it off me!” His body was full of twists and turns, his arms flapping at nothing.
“Hey, calm down!” Tarin commanded when a monkey’s high pitched shrieking shot a jolt of fright through everyone. Their flashlights brightened the path in which the baby chimp took flight toward the exit. They sighed in relief.
A cool, wet trickling sensation caught Jason’s attention. He withdrew bloody fingertips and dabbed his head with gauze.
“I haven’t seen one gem in this place.” Tarin mumbled.
“An Oklahoma cave like this? I think we’ve seen all the rock we’re going to see.” Jason answered.
The hollowed path of occasional conglomerates and limestone encased some jagged edges protruding through the walls of the cave.
“Hey Tarin,” Lily began. “What’s this I hear about you taking off next week Thursday and Friday? The students said…”
“Yeah, I have a date in Vegas with this cute guy.”
“And you told the students this?”
“Hey, they like it when you’re real with them.”
“Sounds like you should have been a little fake on that subject.”
The motley team walked an hour further into tubular trails when they arrived at a fork in the path. Ignoring the common sense safety rule that states: ‘we should band together against the unknown and frightening’, the educators immediately split the group. Each drawn by their own curiosity, they wanted to explore the different tunnels. Justin, the head strong loner, entered one of the three tunnels. Tom followed Lily into one and Tarin and Jason took the third.
Now completely alone, Justin managed to see a kind of black, empty space ahead. He could not believe his eyes. He squinted, craned his neck and blinked, straining his eyes that grew very dry. The stone he treaded upon seemed to vanish into the floating abyss. He could not make it out. He explored for many more yards until his discovery was made – he went over a cliff and crashed to the ground below.
He growled, “Ahhgh!” From the lower extremities of the cave.
Lily marched on in the cave she and Tom had chosen. Her eyes danced all around her but no cardia stone was found. Tom yelled in fright behind her, knocking his flashlight to the ground.
“Tom, que paso?”
“Something’s got me! Something’s got me!” He pulled and tugged.
“Nothing has you! Lily shined her flashlight in the area of concern. Tom tried catching his breath but his heart raced. “Nothing’s got you – it’s just you and your stuff got wrapped up on this stuff in the walls.” He exhaled heavily and she cut him free with her hunting knife. “C’mon, let’s keep going.”
They continued along the winding, descending path.
Tarin announced to her tunnel partner, “I see something down there…” They too had come to a cliff of some sort. But Jason only watched, holding his head. He had to dab it again. Though it only trickled, the bleeding seemed to be continuous. One by one, they scooted away from the slippery slope, knelt down and turned backward so that they faced the rocks as they climbed down. They banged their toes against rock, in search of proper footing in order to land each tread. Tarin was first. Arriving at the bottom, she fell to the stone ground. Surveying her surroundings, she gasped at Justin in the distance, in a sitting position. Jason followed, moving slowly until his feet touched solid surface.
His partner was nowhere near him. “Tarin?” He called out when he finally glanced to his left and saw her at someone’s side. “Who’s that?”
“It’s Justin! He can’t walk!”
Without a second thought, Jason quickly hobbled to Justin’s side and began to help him to his feet. Tarin assisted by flanking him on the other side.
Approaching the mouth of the cave, they met Lily and Tom as they exited their downward spiral.
Lily eyed the group of three. “Well, “She started in her heavy, Hispanic accent. “I can’t believe the mighty, arrogant Justin has toppled.”
“Shut-up!” He gritted his teeth at her.
A group of five once again, the corridor led them into a brick construction painted black. They paused in the midst of their odd surroundings.
“Is this a room?” One of them asked.
“Is that a fireplace?” Someone else pointed out the square recess in one of the walls.
They inched to a window, eyes full of wonder like children approaching a tree on Christmas morning and peered out. Parapets lined the perimeter of all that they could see and to their right, a steep stair case seeming to have only five inch treads over eight inch risers.
Jason dabbed his head. “Ahh…a faux castle…wonder who built this…”
Tarin mumbled under her breath. “How do you know it’s faux?
Justin explained, “Because it doesn’t extend anywhere – real castles are large with twenty foot walls in width – you do forget I teach Social Studies don’t you?
Tarin rolled her eyes.
They proceeded to walk toward the landing attached to the castle that ran down to the sidewalk – a scraped Tarin and wounded Jason assisting Justin with his wounded leg, Lily with her scarred limbs and Tom carrying a few other backpacks than his own. Just as they arrived midway, a voice rang out.
All five heads turned toward the sidewalk to see a stout gentleman with white wiskers.
Tom immediately inquired. “Are you the coordinator?”
“I am…coordinator of Mysterious Hiking Adventures and Company. We make it our business to know all hikers in the area although we try not to get too personal. That’s why we placed the flyers in your mailboxes at work. By the way, congratulations on finding the Cardia Stone!”
The teachers looked at each other.
“What?” One of them asked.
Tarin yelled. “We found no such stone! What are you talking about?”
Tom explained. “There aren’t any such gems in that cave!”
“Isn’t the term cardia Neo-Latin/Greek for heart, Mr. Tom Leary?”
“And haven’t you all returned arm in arm – full of assistance for one another?”
The teachers looked at each other once again.
The gentleman continued. “Don’t you see? Once back-stabbing enemies, you all have ascertained the Cardia Stone – a heart, compassion for each other. If you hadn’t, it would have been every man for himself in those tunnels – but neither one of you could leave the other in times of distress.”
Together, the educators gasped in surprise, frowning.