Something was buried under her layers.

He was determined to keep digging. Gently. But he knew it was time to back off for the moment.

She moved behind him as the trail narrowed. It wasn’t really a trail, more of a faint, continuous flattening of the dirt. He inhaled the scent of sunbaked soil and junipers. It was a distinctively Central Oregon scent that he associated with his teenage summers. The path steepened and he worked his legs to maneuver around the lava rocks and pines. Their conversation drifted off, their concentration on their foot placement.

“Do you know this area very well?” Mercy was slightly out of breath.

“No. You?”

“Yes. We’re going to come out on a wide ridge about halfway up this peak in a few minutes.”

He wanted to ask her what she’d done in the area as a teenager, but he needed his breath for the climb. Ten minutes later the trail flattened and widened, revealing a beautiful view to the east. Truman stopped to take in the sights. “That’s incredible.” Acres of treetops covered the land in every direction. Owlie Lake was no longer visible. The land seemed to stretch out forever, revealing rolling tan fields beyond the trees.

“Kids came up here to smoke. And do other things,” Mercy said. She studied the area around them. “I don’t see any garbage left behind. I guess this area has fallen out of favor with the teenagers too. Maybe no one wants to hike these days.”

“I hadn’t heard it was a popular spot,” said Truman.

“Where are the hot spots these days?”

“Behind the Ralston barn. Along Milne Creek about a mile past the state campground.”

Mercy nodded. “Much easier to get to.”

“But easier for the cops to check out too. This would have been my choice of place if I was fooling around. None of my patrol officers would willingly make that hike to bust some kids.” Truman studied the face of the solid rock embankment behind them. It shot straight up for about fifty feet. The path appeared to continue to the north, veering away from the rock.

“Maybe the rumors of the cave man kept them away,” suggested Mercy. “Perhaps it’s not just generational laziness.”

“Maybe.” Truman still hadn’t made up his mind about the rumor. “Do you remember any caves around here?”

Mercy wrinkled her nose in thought. “There should be a hollowed-out area that’s a few dozen feet off the path not far from here. I wouldn’t call it a cave. Just a dip in the rock.”

“Let’s look.” He waved her ahead of him, and she followed the path to the north. A few minutes later, she broke off from the path and wound through some brush and rocks back to the rock face. They found Mercy’s hollow in the rock. It was quite deep.

“This is a lot deeper than I remember,” Mercy said. She stepped into the opening and moved her face close to the rock, running her fingertips along its rough surface. “It looks as if it’s been chiseled out more.”

“That’d take decades. I’d say it’s been blasted out.”

“That sounds dangerous.”

“I agree.” Truman pointed at an area of ash and charred logs near one wall. “Someone’s stayed here long enough to build a fire.” He kicked at a few burned logs. “Remnants of tin cans and beer caps.” He stepped back out of the cave and spotted a lazy pile of dried branches. “I guess that’s their woodpile.” If he stared hard enough he could make out a flattened spot on the cave floor where someone might have spread a sleeping bag.

Truman stepped deeper into the cave. The ceiling abruptly dropped and he squatted, peering into the darkness. He pulled out a small flashlight and shone it into the darkness. He couldn’t see the end of the cave. “It’s deep. Crazy low, though. I’d have to crawl to see how deep it goes. I don’t think this part was blasted. I think the blasting revealed this deeper crevice.”

Mercy bent over and peered over his shoulder. The odor of baked lemon bars distracted him. “Holy shit. It is deep. Are you claustrophobic at all?”

He didn’t like the eagerness in her tone. “A bit.”

“Then I’ll take a look. Get out of the way.”

Truman awkwardly backed out of the opening until he could stand without whacking his head. “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. The curiosity is killing me.” Her eyes shone.

He handed her his flashlight as the acid in his stomach protested. “Be careful. Don’t get stuck.”

She grinned and dropped to her hands and knees to crawl in the hole. “I trust you’ll haul me out if I’m stuck.”

“Depends how deep you’ve gone.”

She crawled a few feet and dropped to her stomach, scooting forward. Her boots dragged behind her.

Jesus Christ. Watching her belly-crawl into the narrow opening made him light headed. How far will she go?

“It’s wider back here.” Her voice didn’t echo through the tunnel; it sounded muffled by the rocks and dirt.

He knelt and looked in the hole. A faint glow from the flashlight in her hand outlined her head and shoulders. Her boots were swallowed up in the dark.

“Be careful,” he repeated. Fuck. What if we’re suddenly hit by the once-in-a-lifetime earthquake they’ve been predicting for the last fifty years?

“Maybe you should come out now.” His voice cracked.

She didn’t answer.

“Mercy?” He estimated she was a good fifteen feet down the tunnel. What if there’s not enough oxygen? Can I crawl in and pull her out?

***

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