Gabriel Hunt’s grip on his pickaxe was slipping.
He had been in worse scrapes before; it’s just that he didn’t particularly relish the thought of dying while caving for fun and practice. That would be an embarrassment. When it was truly his time to check out, Gabriel would much rather have his obituary say that he’d been eaten alive by an angry tiger or felled by gunshots from enemy assailants. Or old age. That wouldn’t be so bad.
But to fall into a gaping pit because he had slipped on bat guano? Preposterous!
Gabriel called down to his friend and caving partner, “How you hanging, Manny?”
Horizontal and belly-down, Manuel Rodriguez dangled in mid-air on the end of the static nylon rope, fifteen feet below Gabriel’s legs. His only hope for survival was Gabriel’s grip on the pickaxe.
“Is that a joke, amigo?” Manny shouted. He was trying to keep the terror out of his voice but wasn’t doing a very good job.
It had happened quite innocently. Every two or three years, Gabriel made an excursion to one of various caves around the country so that he could hone his exploring skills. His travels sometimes required that he perform a bit of spelunking—an outdated term, but Gabriel liked the sound of the word. It had a certain romance to it.
Dangling within an inch of one’s life over a dark abyss, though, didn’t have any romance to it at all.
Manny lived in New Mexico near Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Besides the exceptional landmark that was open to the public to tour on a daily basis, there were several other caverns in the park that were available only to experienced cavers. All it took to access them were a small fee and a license. Gabriel had done it many times, very often with Manny, a fifty-eight-year-old former ranger at the park and an expert spelunker.
They had been in one of the more “challenging” (as Manny had described it) caves for a little more than three hours when Gabriel and Manny—secured to each other by a fifteen-foot-long buddy rope—sat down to rest on a ledge above a black pit that supposedly led to a chamber of noteworthy formations. The hole was ninety-six feet to the bottom. They had come equipped with all the right gear. They each wore the necessary helmets, grubby clothing, knee and elbow pads, sturdy boots. Both men carried plenty of light sources and extra batteries, as well as water, snacks, trash bags, empty bottles in which to urinate, and a first aid kit. For the vertical descent, Manny had brought along an assortment of tools such as carabiners, rope, waist and chest harnesses, Petzl stops, rappel racks, handled ascenders, pitons, chocks, hammers, and a couple of pickaxes. The goal, however, was to accomplish the journey without damaging the cave at all. Hammering pitons into the rock face was to be avoided if possible. It was best to use non-invasive tools such as Spring-Loaded Camming Devices that wedged into already-existing cracks or in between stone protrusions. “Leave nothing but footprints” was the motto amongst serious cavers.
Gabriel had finished eating a power bar, coiled a long section of rope around his shoulder and back, and stood on the ledge to locate a convenient spot to install a chock or SLCD for what was called an SRT—Single Rope Technique—descent into the hole. The plan was that Manny would follow him, staying tethered to him throughout the excursion. But when Gabriel had stooped to examine a possible position, his boot slipped on something wet and slick. He slammed hard into the ledge, face down, and continued to slide across the slimy ridge until his body was falling through space. He must have plummeted twenty feet or so before he realized that he had pulled Manny off the ledge as well. Another dozen feet shot past before Gabriel swung the pickaxe that was, miraculously, still in his right hand. He chopped the rock face in front of him as hard as he could—and broke his fall. Hanging on to the axe’s handle was another thing altogether. It had a ridged rubber grip and a lip at the bottom against which the side of his right hand collided painfully—but it was enough to enable him to hold on. He gripped the axe handle as tightly as he could with both hands, but already he could feel the strain in his fingers and arms. Making matters worse, his palms were moist from the sudden shock. And when Manny reached the end of the tether with a violent jerk, Gabriel really did damn near lose his grasp.
Then Gabriel was presented with the ultimate insult—he smelled the stuff he had slid across. It was all over the front of his pants and shirt.
“This is the last time I go caving with you!” Manny called. His added weight dangling at the end of the line was slowly pulling Gabriel’s shoulders from their sockets. “I’m a fool for letting you talk me into this again!”
Gabriel resorted to an old ploy—bravado could cover up genuine terror every time. “Come on, Manny,” he yelled down, “you know you have to stay on top of the game. Sharpen your skills every now and then.”
“I’m nearly sixty years old. I don’t have anything left to sharpen.”
Gabriel attempted to flex his arms and pull himself up, but with the extra load hanging below him it was impossible.
“What the hell do we do now?”
“Relax, Manny. I’ve got it under control.”
In fact, Gabriel had no idea how to get out the predicament they were in. The rock face sloped inward in front of him, so there was no foothold within reach. The more serious problem was that he had only two hands, and they were busy holding on to the pickaxe for dear life.
After a few seconds of silence, Manny asked, “Anytime you want to start letting me know how you’ve got it under control is okay by me.”
“Your light’s still working, isn’t it?”
Manny had a light affixed to his helmet. As he twisted slowly on the end of the line, the beam traced the pit’s circumference.
“It’s the only part of me that isn’t failing,” Manny answered. “My bowels are gonna be the next to go.”
“Hold on, Manny. Take a look around you. Is there a ledge you’d be able to stand on if you could get to it?”
During his next 360 degree turn, Manny replied, “Yeah. Over on the other side. Behind you. But I can’t reach it.”
“All right. Let’s see if we can get a little swing going, okay?”
“We need music for that, amigo.”
Sweat poured off Gabriel’s forehead beneath his helmet, ran over his brows, and stung his eyes. Another problem on the rapidly expanding list.
“Shut up, Manny, and see if you can swing over to the ledge. Slow and easy. I’ll try and get you started with my legs.”
Gabriel managed to grip the taut tether with the insteps of his boots. He then strained to wiggle the rope enough to send some movement down to his partner. At the same time, Manny flapped his arms and legs as if he were trying to fly—anything to propel himself back and forth in the air.
“You look real graceful,” Gabriel said through his teeth. It was becoming much more difficult to hold on.
“Not half as graceful as we’re going to look when we’re flat as tortillas on the bottom of the cave.”
Gabriel was glad that Manny was keeping his sense of humor. A good sign. But as his friend attempted the circus feat, the pickaxe started to squeak. As if it were about to come out of the rock. Gabriel needed to lessen the weight on his body in a big way. The sooner Manny got over to the ledge, the better.
He tugged on the rope with his legs some more and felt his partner’s momentum increase a little. Manny was now a human pendulum, swaying feet first toward the target ledge, back and forth at a 20 degree angle...which soon increased to 30 degrees...and finally to 35 degrees. And then Manny’s boot touched the edge of the stone outcropping.
“Almost there, Gabriel!”
The pickaxe creaked again.
Manny swung back to the ledge and came close enough to push off from it with his legs. The maneuver gave him more speed and force—but it also placed much more strain on Gabriel’s wrists and the pickaxe. The metal lip at the bottom of the handle was deeply embedded in the flesh of Gabriel’s hands. Then the axe slipped a few millimeters with a wrenching, painful creak.
“One more push and I think I can make it!” Manny announced as he swung away from the ledge.
Gabriel was unable to speak. He simply closed his eyes and willed his partner over to the other side of the pit.
Anytime, Manny, anytime...
Manny returned to the ledge and pushed off hard. He swayed so far to Gabriel’s side of the hole that he was able to touch the wall there. Then, on the way back to the ledge, he hurtled himself up and over—and fell onto the ledge with a smack.
“I made it!” Manny rolled and came to a sitting position. He panted for a few seconds and said, “Pardon me while I say a few Hail Marys.”
The subtracted weight relieved the pressure on Gabriel’s arms. He was now able to concentrate on the next problem at hand—saving himself. Manny was on the opposite side of the cave from where Gabriel hung and a couple of yards lower. The two men were connected by a fifteen-foot tether. Gabriel could simply let go, fall, and hope that Manny was able to pull him up to his ledge. But then they’d be stuck there. Most of the ascending equipment was back at the top, on Bat Guano Ridge.
He had some tools in his pack and in his trouser pockets. A few pitons. A couple of ascenders. A rappel rack.
Gabriel thought that if he could place an anchor in the rock face, he just might be able to attach his rope and a carabiner. He could then use the assembly to raise himself a few feet. Then he’d have to plant another...and another...all the way to the top. If he ran out, he could pull out one of the lower ones and re-use it. The trip would be slow-going and painfully tedious...but it could be done.
Now if he could just grow another arm or two...
“So now what?” Manny called. His voice echoed in the well. “Dying from the fall would’ve been better than starving to death here.”
“Don’t be a pessimist, Manny,” Gabriel growled. “I’ll get us out of here. Trust me.”
He took a deep breath. What he was about to do required concentration.
Gabriel squeezed the axe handle harder with his right hand...and let go with his left. Hanging by only one arm, he reached back with his free hand and dug into his pack. His fingers found one of the pouches—he hoped it was the correct one—and wormed them into it. He felt something cold, hard, and metallic. A piton! The angle was awkward, but he managed to grasp it. The next step was to pull it out of the pouch without...dropping it...
The piton fell into the darkness below.
He and Manny heard the clang when it hit bottom.
Gabriel rarely cursed, but he did so—loudly.
Let’s try that again...
Still clinging to the handle with a very sore right hand, Gabriel reached back to the pack a second time. He dug into the pouch and took hold of another piton. This time he made sure he had it firmly in hand before removing it.
His right shoulder and upper arm were killing him. The strain was becoming unbearable.
To hell with not damaging the rock.
With the piton in his left hand, he eyed the rock face in front of him. A small crack ran diagonally across the limestone. Aiming as best as he could, Gabriel jabbed the piton’s point into the crack. The first attempt only chipped some of the stone away. The second try created a small hole. With the third stab, the piton stuck.
Gabriel grabbed the axe handle with his left hand to relieve some of the tension on his right arm. Then, with his weakened but now free arm, he reached for the small hammer that hung on the right side of his belt. He succeeded in pulling it out of its sheath...but since the piton was to the left of his body, he now had to switch it to his other hand. He’d never be able to hammer it with his right hand.
Only one thing to do, and Gabriel knew he had only one shot to do it. There would be no second attempt.
Okay, the left hand is holding the axe. The right hand has the hammer. Let’s do it...Ready?...One...two...THREE!
Gabriel tossed the hammer into the air and grabbed the axe handle with his right hand while simultaneously releasing the handle with his left. The hammer had reached the top of its arc while he was making the exchange and was now plunging downward. Gabriel’s left hand shot out and snatched the hammer out of midair as it fell.
He had to stop and breathe for a moment after that little stunt. Compared to it, hammering the piton into the limestone was easy.
Still using one hand, he unwrapped the rope from his shoulder and stuck an end in his mouth. He gripped it with his teeth, and then dug a carabiner out of a pocket. It was yet another awkward operation to secure the end of the rope to the ‘biner with a bowline knot one-handed, but he did it. He then hooked the carabiner into the eye on the exterior end of the piton. The rope was now fixed and safe to use.
Then his cell phone rang.
“What the...?” He looked back at Manny. “You mean to tell me there’s actually service down here?” With enormous relief, Gabriel took hold of the rope with one hand and his legs, let go of the axe handle, and hung there, suspended.
The phone rang again. Gabriel’s ring tone—annoying to everyone but him—was Jimmy Dorsey’s 1940 big band rendition of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”
“You gonna answer that?” Manny asked.
He couldn’t help it. Gabriel hated cell phones the same way he hated most modern technology—but that didn’t stop him from feeling compelled to answer the thing when it rang. He fished it out of his trouser pocket and brought it to his ear.
Gabriel immediately pictured his younger brother sitting at his desk back in the luxury of his clean and comfortable New York office. He’d rarely envied his brother his stay-at-home life—but at this moment he came close.
“Are you sitting down?” Michael asked.
Gabriel grimaced. “Not precisely.”
“It’s Lucy, Gabriel.”
The urgency in Michael’s voice gave him pause. Lucy—short for Lucifer—was the youngest sibling in the family. Their imaginative parents had named each child after one of the archangels in the Bible. It didn’t seem to matter to them that their daughter would have to bear the ignominy of her moniker for the rest of her life. In an attempt at kindness, her brothers called her Lucy, but ever since she’d run away from home at age seventeen, she’d insisted on calling herself “Cifer.” Pronounced like cipher, it made a fine name for the scofflaw computer hacker she’d turned herself into.
“What about Lucy?” Gabriel asked.
“Are you sitting down?”
“No, Michael, I’m not sitting down! Just tell me!”
“She’s in terrible danger. You need to come back to New York as quickly as you can.”
“How is she in danger?”
“Well... it looks like she’s been kidnapped.”
He wasn’t sure he’d heard Michael correctly. “Say that again?”
“She’s been kidnapped!”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. And there’s a ransom demand.”
“How much do they want?”
“They don’t want money, Gabriel. They want you. ”
Copyright © 2009 by Winterfall LLC.