The Dead End

By Peter Billingham

"The entrance is at the bottom of this depression" said Guy, stamping his heavy climbing boots into the soft turf as he scrambled crabwise down the slope of the limestone ridge into a short valley that appeared to lead nowhere.

Richard Lamborne thought it was rather like climbing into a giant bath, the similarity accentuated by a 'plug-hole' at the deep end. It was with some misgivings that he watched Guy make his way directly to this hole.

"Ready?" Guy waited, adjusting the lamp on his caving helmet.

"What happens if we bump into the 'white rabbit'?" asked Richard, putting on a brave face as he slid the last few feet to join his friend. "Do we yell for Alice?"

"Expect no help from her," replied Guy with a laugh, "if you get stuck, just pray the Mad Hatter turns up with a jack-hammer."

"Its all right for you to laugh, but my wife is a good cook and I've filled out a bit since university days. Of course now that she's going on tour, I'll have to cook for myself. We'll have to see what a diet of baked beans does for me!"

"You ever hear of a starving farmer? I've put on more than you. In spite of that, I'm chairman of the caving club and not just because this cave is on my land." He took a quick look at the blue sky, gave a satisfied grunt and turned back to his friend. "Don't worry, it's like riding a bicycle; you never forget." It was Richard's turn to grunt but he didn't sound convinced.

"This entry hole goes down about ten feet" continued Guy, suddenly serious. "You'll find plenty of footholds. When you reach bottom, there's a right-angle bend. I suggest you curl up and turn yourself around so that you can continue head-first. That way you might just avoid the large pool of rain-water that gathers there."

Without waiting for a reply, Guy disappeared between two enormous boulders.

Richard, who hadn't been into a pot-hole in years, sat on the edge, dangling his feet into the blackness and wondered how he had let himself be talked into this mad caper. It had been great to see his old room-mate again after so many years and the welcome had led to the inevitable celebration. Obviously he had celebrated a little too much he thought ruefully.

His mind swung back to the present and inexplicably he shuddered, icy fingers running down his spine. But pride wouldn't let him back out, and, with sudden resolution, he dropped into the hole almost missing his footing in the process. The precarious toe-hold prevented his fall, however, and gave him time to look for something better. The near miss served to remind him that caving could not be taken lightly and he resolutely banished all further thoughts of doom from his mind, concentrating instead on searching for those vital footholds.

As his boot squelched gently into the muddy bottom of the drop, he realised Guy was right, you never forget.

Mindful of Guy's warning, he turned and pushed his head into the entrance of the gently sloping crawl, advancing crabwise along the muddy passage. Unlike Guy, who had a light on his helmet, he had to make do with a hand held torch passed to him during the previous evening's revelries. Now, tied to his belt by a string, it swung to and fro, casting confusing shadows and adding to his difficulties as he held himself spread-eagled over the dreaded pool of water. It may have been years since he had gone caving, but he had not forgotten the discomfort of crawling around in wet overalls.

As the passage turned the corner, it rose gently and the floor dried. Richard's legs were quivering with the unaccustomed effort and he was thankful he could crawl on all fours, even if the loose stones dug into softened hands and knees.

"You all right?" called Guy, and at Richard's affirmative added: "You were so quiet I began to think you had fallen down the hole."

"What hole?" said Richard, his fevered imagination conjuring up a shaft as big as 'Gaping Gill' waiting to swallow him up.

"Just ahead of you, at the end of this crawl," called Guy, "you'll have to step across a three-foot chasm. It's more scary than difficult, but it is about twenty feet deep, so try not to fall in."

But when he reached the gap, Guy was waiting and held out a hand to help him across. "Let's rest for a few minutes while you get your breath back," he said, turning to his left and leading the way across a relatively level area to a cluster of flat rocks. "We have only to climb down this steep slope ahead of us and we'll be in the main cavern" he said, lighting a cigarette and a short length of candle which he secured to a ledge with a few drops of melted wax.

As Richard lowered himself gratefully onto the rock, his torch banged the edge and he quickly grabbed it up, thankful that it still shone.

"That looks to me as though you've ended up with a rechargeable" Guy said with a disapproving shake of his head. "We don't like those too much because they tend to go flat all of a sudden."

Richard took a critical look at the torch in his hands as Guy continued. "I suggest you turn it off whenever you can. It's a bit nasty to have to exit these caves in the dark. No need to worry though, we won't be down here long enough for that!"

They sat in companionable silence, broken only by the occasional drip of water and Richard was reminded again of the peace and tranquillity to be found by the side of a friend in the depths of the earth. Memories of past expeditions they had made together came flooding into his mind as he sniffed the distinctive smell always found in caves; musty but not mildewy. He tried to analyse it but a wisp of smoke came his way, as Guy flipped his cigarette into the blackness and the opportunity was lost. With sudden alarm, Richard watched the flaming red trajectory arc down and down until it disappeared beneath his feet.

"Hell," he said "how deep is that slope?"

"Only about 40 feet" replied Guy unwinding a stout nylon cord from around his waist, "We don't really need this but I brought it to help steady you."

Heartened, Richard set out after his friend, holding the rope in one hand while grabbing projections with the other. But it was slow and cumbersome and he soon abandoned the rope altogether, preferring to use both hands on the rugged descent.

"This is known as Collie's Cavern," said Guy, rewinding the nylon cord around his waist. "It was named for the man who found it, back in 1893, though how he got here by candle-light defeats me. It's over 400 ft long and up to 50 ft high in places." Richard shone the powerful beam from his torch upward and around, but the light could not penetrate to the end.

"That cleft leads to the bottom of the chasm you jumped over earlier" he said pointing to the left where Richard could just make out a huge rift in the rock. "The club has been exploring the passages leading off this cavern for the past fifteen years. So far we have cleared and mapped 32 of them."

"Not bad!" Richard's voice was full of admiration but his torch was exploring the rocks within reach. "Not much in the way of calcite formations," he said.

"No. The stalactites here have long since been broken off. Souvenir hunters, no doubt. But the cave I'm going to show you, the one I told you about yesterday, has got everything," his voice was suddenly filled with enthusiasm. "I'd say it's the most beautiful I've ever seen. Come!"

With that Guy set off down what was for him a familiar route across the cavern, and Richard had difficulty keeping up as he clambered around the huge boulders that littered the floor of the cave.

"Down here," Guy called over his shoulder, and vanished.

Richard, who at that moment had been struggling through a gap at the base of two giant rocks, emerged to find himself alone in the vast cavern. He quickly suppressed a wave of panic as he shone his torch around. Where had Guy gone?

"Where are you" he called, feeling abandoned, and was surprised to hear the reply coming from near his feet. A beam of light flared out in front of him and he saw that Guy had gone down a hole that was, if anything, smaller than the original entrance.

"Can I fit into that?" he gasped.

"You're smaller than me. Don't worry, there's an even narrower place a bit further on, and I get through that all right."

Silently berating his boasts of the night before, Richard gave a deep sigh and lowered himself gingerly into the hole. Spreading his arms wide, he hung suspended while he groped around with his feet, feeling for a toe-hold. Then, slowly raising his arms, he bent his knees and let himself down. His fingers held the rim, his foot found another hold and he descended further.

It was not as bad as it had looked and he realised that his fears had been groundless. At the base of the shaft there was a confusion of large boulders with numerous dark gaps and holes leading to possible passages. Once more Richard was thankful that Guy was there to guide him and focused on the soles of his boots as they disappeared.

For the next fifty-feet, the two men crawled along a tunnel, little better than a large rabbit hole. Occasionally other tunnels led off to left or right and even upwards. Sometimes the roof lowered and they had to wriggle flat on their bellies, but Guy obviously knew the way. Richard was beginning to wonder if they would ever reach the end, when the tunnel opened into a small cave, just large enough for them to sit, squashed together, and rest.

Richard could see no exit to continue and thought they had come to the end of their journey. He shone his torch round expectantly but could find no spectacular formations; nothing of beauty sufficient to justify Guy's raving. Trying not to show his disappointment, he turned as his companion spoke.

"This now, is what we call a 'sporting squeeze,'" said Guy and chuckled as he pointed to a thin horizontal gap under a rock. Richard had not even considered it as an entrance. "You'll find it easier if you keep your arms by your side" he continued and demonstrated, bracing his feet against the sides of the chamber. Suddenly his legs pushed hard and he disappeared through the gap.

Impossible, Richard thought in despair, looking round the tiny cave. Reluctantly, he wriggled his head into the hole and felt for the toe-holds his guide had used. The two rock faces were smooth from aeons of running water and as he straightened his knees he slid in quite easily - and then stopped. Hell! I am fatter than Guy, he thought, and now I'm jammed. Desperately he tried to hook his toes around something to pull himself back out.

With a feeling of utter hopelessness he realised that his hands, in this position, were out of action, and his feet just skidded on the smooth rock. There seemed no way he could pull himself back. His lungs were bursting. He couldn't breathe. A claustrophobic panic was rising and he wriggled frantically, but to no avail. He was wedged firm. He would die here, he thought, jammed for ever between these huge boulders. He gasped again, frantically searching for air, but his lungs would not expand further. With a start he realised that, in his anxiety, he had been holding his breath. His lungs were already full. Perhaps with his chest expanded, he was too big to go through?

But dare he let it all out? He forced reason to conquer his rising terror and deliberately expelled all the air from his lungs. If this doesn't work, I'm a goner, he thought as he willed his legs to push. Almost like a cork coming out of a champagne bottle, Richard felt himself slide free into a short wide tunnel, large enough to crawl in.

As he lay for a moment, gaining control of his ragged emotions, a picture of his well-endowed wife struggling through that hole, flashed through his mind and he suddenly gave vent to a near hysterical laugh. The relief it brought made him feel almost light headed.

Ahead, Guy's lamp was like a reassuring beacon and he suddenly couldn't wait to join his friend, almost falling out of the end of the tunnel. Rolling on the soft dust of the floor, he came to rest on his back and his eyes opened in astonishment as he looked up at the sparkling limestone formations that adorned the roof and walls. Guy's light moved to highlight a cluster of small crystalline facets set in a shallow depression, glittering like jewels.

"Better than any jeweller's display" Richard breathed in wonder.

Guy laughed in delight. "Worth the wriggle eh? I've seen it half a dozen times already and every time it amazes me."

"Just look at those straws," breathed Richard as Guy's light pointed to a forest of fine stalactites hanging from the roof at the far end of the cave. "Some of them must be over two feet long and barely half an inch in diameter."

"My favourite is the 'church organ' over there" said Guy. directing his light at a massive concretion occupying the whole of one wall of the cave.

"To make all these, there must have been a pretty steady seepage of water," said Richard, "how come the cave is so dry?"

"We looked for an extension tunnel, but the outlet over there is only a few inches in diameter. We have no idea where the water goes."

"You can't widen it?"

"The outlet is a solution cavity. There's no hope of enlarging it without dynamite. I'm afraid this cave is the end of the line. There's only the one entrance."

Righting himself, Richard brushed ineffectually at the dust on his overalls. "Boy what I wouldn't give for a beer" he said.

"Sorry," Guy laughed, "too fat to carry more than a boiled sweet." He produced a couple from the depths of his pocket. "Tried bringing spare batteries once, but got hopelessly jammed and had to abandon them."

The two friends sat, quietly sucking, in relaxed contemplation as their lights played on one formation after another. Guy lit the candle and they doused the lights, enchanted afresh by the new beauty drawn out by the softer flame. Peace, such as Richard had not experienced for years, suffused his heart. The silence was broken only by the occasional drip falling into a pool of water. Again he tried to analyse the smell: wet; clean; fresh and yet musty; limestone, yes that had to be it - the smell was wet rock.

Finally, with a glance at his watch, Guy reluctantly stood up.

"'Fraid its time to go. Do you want to lead?" he asked.

Richard waved his hand to signify 'after you' and Guy entered the tunnel leading back to the 'squeeze.' Realising that he could be left behind if he dawdled, Richard took a last quick look around before following.

He caught up with Guy at the squeeze, and waited for him to push himself through.

"Anything wrong?" he called. There was no reply. Shaking Guy's leg, he called louder. "Hey, Guy, what's up?."

Still no response. With a shock he suddenly realised that even the limb had offered no resistance to his shaking. A heart attack was the thought that flashed into Richard's mind and, suddenly alarmed, he reached for his friend's foot and heaved.

Guy must be jammed in the 'squeeze' he thought. I've got to get him out before he suffocates. Grabbing his dangling torch, he examined the situation. Pulling Guy's legs could lead to his arms, which were at his side, opening, and becoming jammed. Wondering what to do, he remembered the rope. Feeling around Guy's waist, he managed to find an end and pass it under the legs, slowly working it free. He found the other end and did the same, tying them round the wrists so as to prevent the arms from spreading.

Quickly retreating out of the narrow tunnel so as to turn himself around, he re-entered feet first. He braced his feet against the rock and, grasping Guy's ankles, pulled as hard as he could. There was no movement.

If it had needed the strength of Guy's legs to push his body through, Richard reasoned, he didn't have much chance of pulling him out. On the other hand if he didn't do something quickly, his friend would surely die. With sudden horror he realised that Guy was blocking the only exit. He wasn't just fighting for Guy's life, but for his own as well.

Once more bracing his feet against the rock, he hauled on the limp ankles with every ounce of strength he could muster. But his friend remained firmly jammed in the exit. With the strength of desperation he pulled once more, the muscles in his neck standing out as his breath came in short gasps. Was there a slight movement or had he imagined it?

He paused to catch his breath, and tried again. He turned his toes in so he could use them to lift his friend's hips a trifle and with a sigh of relief, felt him move. A short pause to get his breath and the next time he pulled, Guy slid back out of the slot. As quickly as he could, Richard dragged him into the cave, rolling him onto his back and feeling for a heart beat. There was no sign of life.

He shone his torch on Guy's face. In that instant he knew there was nothing he could do for his friend.

His throat had been cut from ear to ear.

* * *

Richard sat in the dust, his feelings numbed with shock. The horror of Guy's death and the grief of loosing an old friend, so recently rediscovered, slowly turned to fear for himself. Where was the killer now? Was he lying in wait on the other side of the squeeze?

His next thought was more subtle but no less terrifying. How did the killer know which one of them would emerge first? Had Guy been the intended victim or should it have been himself? Then he realised that it didn't really matter. Two bodies in the cave would have the police out in force looking for a killer. But if one got out alive, they wouldn't bother to look any further. Here he was, deep underground, with the body of a murdered man, and blood all over his hands. How could he ever prove his innocence?

The knife, he suddenly thought. Where was it? But his momentary relief evaporated seconds later when he realised that the killer would have wiped all his fingerprints off the knife and dumped it on his way out, in a place where Richard might not find it, but the police certainly would.

Then again, why should he even bother to hide it? In his mind's eye he pictured himself on the way out of the cave spotting the knife on the ground in the middle of a passage. If he touched it he would leave his bloody fingerprints on the haft and seal his fate for ever. If he didn't, well it didn't really matter either way.

Then another terrifying thought hit him. Before anything could happen, he had to get out. He was deep in the bowels of the earth. Before him was a cave with 32, no 33, exits and his guide was dead. There was a very real possibility that he could roam the maze of passages till he starved to death.

A wave of depression swept over him and, for a few moments, he succumbed to the hopelessness of his position. But as he looked up, he saw his friend lying there, his body covered in blood and grime and contrasting horribly with the beauty of the glittering fairy grotto. His killer must not go unpunished.

As if to emphasise the danger he was in, his nickel cadmium torch dimmed momentarily and he gave it a bang with his hand. He remembered the light on Guy's hat. It was probably in the little cave beyond the 'squeeze'. He must retrieve it. He reached into Guy's pocket to find the lighter and what was left of the candle. His finger touched a couple of sweets and he took them too but left the cigarettes. After a moment's hesitation, he decided to take the rope.

"Rest in Peace my friend" he said out loud. "Enjoy, a little longer, the beauty of the cave you loved so well." With a final pat, he turned and left.

Richard shone his torch into the passage, but could see no one. Before entering the squeeze, he examined the little cave beyond, but that too appeared to be empty. The silence was absolute.

He pushed his torch through the hole before expelling the air from his lungs and pushing himself through the narrow gap. With his mind busy elsewhere, he had no trouble - but that only came home to him later.

As his head came clear of the rock, he could see that the ground below was stained with Guy's blood - and his torch sat in the middle of it! By dint of spreading his knees wide, he managed to pass over the top without disturbing it further. Carefully he drew the rope through, and tied it round his waist as Guy had done.

Half into the long tunnel, he turned to retrieve the lamp from Guy's helmet, but saw with horror, that it was no longer attached. His eyes quickly searched the cave, anticipating that the lamp must have fallen off - but it was not there. The killer, he realised, was one jump ahead of him. Hesitantly, he reached for his torch, keeping his mind blank as he scraped the bottom clean and, with teeth clenched, crawled off down the tunnel. He met his first problem when he rounded a bend to be confronted by a choice of three routes.

Tossing a coin would be no better than Russian roulette he thought with a grim chuckle, but decided the best way to keep his mind sharp, was to treat this challenge like a game, a competition. The stakes were high he reflected - his life versus that of the killer.

Examining the ground minutely, he was disappointed to see signs that all three passages had been explored. The sandy bottoms bore the marks made by crawling boots, however, one slightly raised rock surface in the centre of the right-hand passage, appeared to have been polished very smooth. Richard reasoned that, if the club had opened up this cave, the bulk of the traffic would have been along one particular route. He decided to trust the polished rock.

At the next junction he was lucky. There was a clear shoe print in the dirt and, seeing it, he recognised the distinctive pattern he had been following on the way in. He remembered that Guy had stood up to look into a vertical cleft. He had wondered why at the time but forgotten to ask. He examined the passage now, taking care not to obliterate the print and discovered minute crystals encrusted down one side. That must have been what had caught Guy's eye, he decided.

It was easy to work out the way the shoe had come and he confidently followed that path. Nonetheless, he was pleased to have his decision reinforced by a polished ledge of rock a little further along the tunnel.

He had vaguely considered using the rope to prevent his getting lost but so far he had had no doubts. Crossing the cavern would test his skill. Just as his spirits rose, the light dimmed further and gave out completely as he came within sight of the 'place of many boulders' at the foot of the shaft leading up to the large cavern. No amount of jiggling could restore the light and he resignedly placed it in the mouth of the tunnel from which he had just emerged. At least it could act as a marker till he found the shaft.

The darkness was absolute. It engulfed him like the waters of a dark pool and he could feel the rock walls closing in on him. Don't be stupid he told himself sternly. They've been like this for a thousand lifetimes.

He was about to reach in his pocket for the candle when a small stone cascaded from somewhere above. Richard froze. He had been so intent on finding his way out, he had completely forgotten the killer. He had even forgotten to keep a sharp look-out for the knife. What if the killer still had it?

But he dismissed the thought almost as soon as it came. He reasoned it would not be in the man's interests to kill him by such means. That would implicate a third person. Should he realise Richard had already got free, he would use subtler tactics, trying to make it look more like an accident. The authorities would consider he had got his just deserts and look no further.

He held his breath and felt that in the oppressive silence, he should have heard the other man's heartbeat. Not like the quiet of the night which was always punctuated by the scratchings of small creatures, the ticking of a clock or the sound of a distant vehicle. That was the silence of life. This, he thought with a shudder, was the silence of the grave. A sudden splash made him jump but it was only a drop of water falling from the roof of the cave.

The sound of a foot slipping followed by a muffled curse came almost as a relief and Richard was quick to used the noise as cover to dive between the two nearest rocks. Silence returned and he was about to lever himself out once more, when, with a loud click, a torch was switched on and a column of bright light probed the shaft. The light circled the area, stopped and swung back to illuminate the dead torch. Richard silently cursed his error and heard the man above emulate him, but not so quietly.

The light disappeared and darkness returned. But it was not that oppressive blackness as before because the person above was using the torch to move around in the cavern. Richard dared not lose the chance to share that light; it had already shown him the shaft and might guide him to the exit. The reflected light was just enough to climb by, and he grabbed every available handhold, pulling himself up in record time.

So intent was he on climbing fast, that he failed to analyse the movements of the person above. As his head emerged over the rim, he froze. The man was returning. A second look and he realised the man's attention was focused on a large stone which he was rolling along the ground. His torch sat on a nearby rock. Richard quickly climbed out and dived into the shadow of a large boulder. With a jolt he recognised it as the one which had caused him that moment of panic on the way in.

He wondered if he had been seen, especially as, on peering anxiously out, he could see the stone rolling towards him, gaining speed as it came. But it carried on past, coming to rest against a cluster of small stones. In doing so it settled exactly over the hole, effectively blocking the entrance from which he had just emerged. Had those little rocks been there before? Richard decided it was too much of a coincidence. The man must have had to place them there and it was this that had gained him the time to climb the shaft. He shivered as the implication hit him.

Confident that he had entombed the survivor, the killer set off across the cavern. Richard followed as quietly as possible but his boots had been chosen for durability, rather than silence, and the killer, obviously nervous, stopping frequently to listen.

Richard's only advantage was that of surprise. Initially he had assumed that the man was a member of the caving club but changed his mind when he saw him winding up a roll of twine as he went. The need for stealth meant that Richard found himself falling behind. He still had no plan and feared the murderer might yet get away from him.

His quarry stumbled and Richard wished he had been close enough to take advantage of the mishap. He was heartened to see that the man appeared to have hurt his leg and was now limping. He was not in trim himself but had the anger that was boiling within him to stimulate and sustain him. The swinging light momentarily lit up the forty foot climb and Richard knew that at least he need no longer fear remaining lost.

The figure, a dark silhouette against the illuminated rocks, started up that gruelling slope but, within minutes, paused to rest. It was at that moment that an idea came to Richard. On all fours he sneaked among the shadows at the base of the climb, searching for the cleft Guy had pointed out. That gully cut by Nature through the side of the ledge, might give him the opportunity he needed.

Shielded from view, he felt it safe to light his stub of candle to enable him to hurry along the chasm. Speed was important. He had taken a gamble and if he was too late, it would fail and the man would disappear before he could catch up with him.

Unfortunately the ground under his feet rose sharply and Richard was obliged to blow his candle out again. He cursed the delay till his eyes got used to the faint illumination from the man's powerful beam above. He used short flashes from his lighter to penetrate the dark shadows in the cleft. Thankfully he noticed a distinct narrowing above, and guessed that he had found the place they had stepped across the chasm.

He started to climb. Footholds were hard to find and he was becoming reckless in his eagerness for speed. As he reached the top he gingerly raised his head till his eyes could peer over the top. He spotted the man leaning over the stones where he and Guy had sat to rest. What could he be doing? But as he stood upright, Richard saw he was just winding up his string.

Deciding on the optimum position, Richard wedged his feet securely and waited with mounting tension, as he watched the light approach, probing the darkness to either side. He ducked down as it neared his exposed head.

This is it, thought Richard as he crouched down below the rim, watching the gap above. As the light illuminated the far edge and a foot began to reach across, Richard's hand shot out.

"Gotcha" he yelled triumphantly as he yanked the man over the edge. There was a brief scream and a most satisfying thump as his body hit the bed of the gully some twenty feet below. Falling in a spectacular arc, the torch crashed against the wall and total darkness once more enveloped the scene, but the silence failed to return. The agonised screams made it easy to pin-point the killer as, with the light of the candle, Richard slowly approached.

"Henry" he exclaimed in stunned surprise as he recognised his wife's singing teacher. "Why the devil did you want to kill Guy?"

1995 © Peter Billingham