The light from the dancing electrical wires
faded as the circuit breaker in the main terminal cut all power to the caverns.
Within seconds, we were plunged into a black void.
I held Camille against my chest, listening for our hunters. We’d
scrambled fifty yards before complete darkness enveloped us and the commotion quieted.
I whispered in her ear, “Be absolutely still.”
She nodded and shivered in my grasp. Boots
scuffed along the stone floor, followed by raspy breathing. It was difficult to tell how close they were. I leaned over and spoke with the slightest whisper of breath into her ear.
“Grab my hand and be prepared to run. We have to move!”
I could feel, rather than hear, her sharp intake of breath as one of the youths cursed
when he banged into the wall.
“Scheiße!” he grunted. Werner
quickly silenced him. They were much closer than I thought.
I felt for the bony wall as Camille grabbed my hand.
Werner lit a match as we moved forward into the darkness.
The pale flare of light illuminated the tunnel and simultaneously revealed our backs. We sprinted forward as I ran my fingers along the knobby sides of the walls for guidance. Two shots rang out beside us, chipping 250-year-old bone splinters from the walls.
The match light died and plunged us into blackness again.
Another shot ricocheted on the floor behind us.
We raced faster into the black void. My fingers rubbed lightly across
knee-bones and eye sockets, as I used the skulls and femurs to steer us along the corridor.
The light flared again. We had gained over forty feet. This time, the shots hit further behind as we lost our pursuers around a curve in the hall.
The wall ended abruptly. It threw me off
balance. I recovered and dragged Camille into the tunnel that veered off to our
left. The surface of the floor changed from stone to dirt. From the sounds of our heavy breathing, it seemed as if the corridor was narrower and the ceiling lower. Another match flared, illuminating our backs to our gleeful pursuers.
“Ha! There you are!” screamed
Werner as the trio streaked toward us.
I wondered how many matches were left. Was
he thinking about how he’d return to street level if he depleted his stock?
We pounded through the tunnel with our hunters close behind. Suddenly, it ended in another “T”.
I had to choose. Without hesitation, I felt
my way between match flares into the right hand tunnel. The floor rose in a steep slope.
Breathing the heavy, dank air was difficult and our exhausted lungs ached with each gasp. Another passageway presented itself to the left of my groping hand and I quickly turned into the small
opening. When the next match flared, we were hidden from view completely.
“Wo sind Sie?
Where are you, my
little tunnel rats?”
We stood motionless and breathed hard against each other, fearful of making a sound. My heartbeat echoed loudly in my ears. I
was sure Werner and his gang would hear the throbbing.
He issued directions in German that I thought meant for the men to separate. I could swear I heard him doling out matches. We hastened
along the new tunnel. Suddenly, I slipped and fell, pulling Camille down with
me. Slick mud covered the floor, which now sloped downward. Although the muddy ooze made it treacherous and we wanted to slow down, a match flared in our tunnel and
we heard the sound of Werner closing in behind. We loped along, slipping and
sliding as we progressed down the subterranean hill.
“I’ve got them!” he shrieked as his voice reverberated with an insane
thrill. “This way!”
Thudding feet followed us down the muddy incline.
The walls grew slicker with algae. Another opening presented itself to
my fingers, and I swung Camille behind me, thrusting her into the new corridor. Running water splashed in the subterranean
Werner appeared around the corner. The match
illuminated his cruel features. Without warning, the floor gave way and Camille
and I slid into a deep abyss.
The echoing sound
of Werner’s maniacal laughter mocked us as we tumbled into the darkness.
Through swirling, murky brain images, I drifted toward consciousness. Running water covered my legs. I opened my eyes, but was completely
blind in the pitch-black. I lay on my side in the mud. My body ached in several places and I was shivering with cold.
Both camera cases dug into my left ribcage. I
pushed myself up to a sitting position and listened in the darkness. The sound
of running water was predominant. I listened harder, searching through the splashes
of water for the sound of my wife’s breathing.
I risked a low whisper, unsure how long I had been lying in the blackness. Had Werner given us up for dead, or was he lurking nearby?
“Gus?” Her voice trembled with relief from above.
“Are you all right?” I whispered urgently.
“I’m all in one piece,” she said, “but I don’t dare move. I’m on some sort of a ledge.”
I sat up and turned my head toward her voice, then pulled my legs out of the water.
“Are they gone?” I whispered.
“I think so,” she said, “You’ve
been out for a long time, Honey. The only sound I heard was him laughing and
then their voices became fainter and fainter. He couldn’t see us; we’re
so far down. I think he gave us up for dead.
My God, Gus, I thought I’d lost you.” Her voice trailed off into a soft sob.
I spoke up in a normal voice, relieved to hear that they had given up on us, but alarmed
about Camille’s precarious position. Suddenly, my heartbeat quickened as
I remembered the cameras that hung around my neck.
“Don’t move, Honey. I have an
I fumbled in the darkness with the Canon’s camera case and then opened the clasp
and carefully removed the camera from the enclosure. Feeling around the camera
body, I located the switch that turned the camera to automatic mode, and then felt around for the small LCD monitor button. A dim glow rewarded me as the menu screen lit up in the darkness. I couldn’t see my wife, but the camera’s glow illuminated an area about three feet in each
direction. I pressed the shutter release and a long blinding flash of light filled
the cavern. The millisecond of light exploded in the dark, revealing a grotto
the size of Grand Central Station.
“I saw you, Gus! You’re right
The flash had provided light for such a brief moment that I hadn’t seen her. I looked at the LCD screen on the back of the camera and saw the photo of my feet
and the subterranean riverbed. I pointed the camera in the direction of her voice
this time, watching carefully as the flash went off.
There she was.
She was perched on a ledge thirty feet above me.
I quickly looked down at the photo on the screen to assess the details. Her
back was to the wall. The ledge was only about four feet wide. One side broke off down a steep slope that appeared to fall into nothingness. The other side continued down toward my own location and the rushing river that licked at my feet.
“Honey?” I said urgently, “Don’t move until I say so, okay? Keep your back to the wall and just stay put.
I’m coming up.”
I began to work my way over to the wall of the cavern, using the flash sparingly to minimize
battery drain. I’d read the camera instructions in the airport at Dulles,
and had discovered that we should be able to take about two hundred shots on the rechargeable internal battery. I hadn’t charged them since leaving New York, because the 50 Hz power receptacles in the hotel room
were incompatible with the charger. I estimated that I might have enough juice
left for fifty more shots. The Pentax that was still snug in its own case had
a flash, too. I might get another thirty or so flashes from it.
I flashed one more time as I reached the wall and tried to pull myself up the steep slope. It was nearly impossible. Each time I
reached up, I’d receive a handful of mud as a reward and slide back down half of the distance that I had covered.
“Gus?” my wife said from above, sounding surprisingly calm.
“Yeah?” I panted, gripping onto a stone purchase.
“This isn’t going to work. You’ve
got to let me slide down by myself.”
I paused for a minute, knowing deep inside that she was right, but fearing the consequences
of a bad fall.
“Camille, it’s a long way down. You
might break something, and we’ve got a long walk back.”
“I know, Gus. But you can catch me. Why don’t you climb back down and stand there at the bottom. Flash the camera just before I go.”
I agreed, realizing the futility of my effort to reach her. In all likelihood, we both would have fallen down in the end even if I had reached her precarious perch. I let myself slip back down the hill, catching myself occasionally to slow the descent.
I reached the bottom and caught my breath. A
fresh scrape stung on my right knee. Sticky blood oozed under the knee of my
pants. I braced myself in a position that was directly under Camille’s
ledge, and then shouted up to her.
“Okay. Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she said half-heartedly.
I pushed the shutter button, illuminating the side of the slope. She lowered herself over the ledge. Her legs scrabbled
on the rocks and mud. Darkness filled the cave again.
“Are you okay?” I asked urgently.
“Yeah,” she said, “I just have to let go.”
I flashed again, and she released the edge of the precipice. The sound of her sliding downward rapidly sent my heart into my throat.
I was about to call up to her when she caught herself and stopped the fall.
“Phew,” she said. Her voice trembled.
“How far do I have to go now, Gus?”
I flashed again.
“Not too far, Honey. About fifteen
feet. You can do it, Love.”
She eased herself down the muddy incline. When
she was about eight feet from the bottom, I reached up and felt the toe of her shoe.
“Almost there, Camille. I can catch
She worked her way down a few feet, then lost her grip and plummeted the last several
feet. I reached up to catch her, but we both tumbled over and fell to the ground. She landed on top, knocking the wind out of me.
As we shook ourselves off, we rose and felt around in the dark for each other.
“Right here, Honey,” I said.
We embraced fiercely until we both stopped shaking.
When we had calmed down, she released me and moved back a few inches, still hanging onto my shoulders.“Nice catch, Gus. Thanks.”