Richard and I found another cave—one far more practical—that summer by accident. In fact, we found it because of one of our interminable fights.
It was a very hot summer afternoon. Richard and I had been assigned the chore of hoeing weeds in the kitchen garden—the “truck patch.” We each had a hoe and were chopping away at the endless chore. I never did figure out why weeds grow so much better than things like tomatoes, onions, watermelons, cantaloupes, and other good stuff—even eggplant—but they sure do.
The sun was beating down and I was wishing that I had been smart enough to put on my clodhopper shoes even if it was summer. The dry dirt and sand rocks were hot enough to almost burn my feet through the calluses. Richard had put on his shoes. Each of us were wearing just overalls with no shirts and we had on our battered straw hats.
With a totally monotonous job like hoeing weeds, you had plenty of time to think about things. I always went off into a fantasy world daydreaming about things I would like to be. I was an avid reader of dime pulp magazines about the west, WWI flying aces, and the like so I always had plenty of things to dream up.
Old Richard, on the other hand, seemed to spend a lot of time thinking up ways to get my goat. It always delighted him to make me mad. Along with my reddish hair, I had inherited a quick trigger temper and could really fly off the handle at times.
This particular day, just as I was getting on the tail of a red German triplane with the Hisso engine of my Spad roaring and my machine guns chattering, Richard jerked me back to that dusty Ozark garden, “Hey numb nut, you tried getting into ol’ Mary Catherine’s pants lately?”
I could feel my face and ears turning red under the straw hat. Unfortunately, he knew about one time some years before when I had got caught “playing house” with our cousin. The fact was that, even though I had thought about it from time to time, I had not had the chance to try anything with her recently.
“You just shut up about Mary Catherine! Ain’t done nothin’ with her!”
“Maybe not lately,” he went on relentlessly, and obviously enjoying my discomfort, “but I know you have tried more than once. Got caught, too, didn’t you?!”
He leaped back nimbly when I took a swing at him with my hoe and jeered, “Well, wouldn’t make no difference even if you did get into her pants. Your little old dinkus is so small that she would even feel it!”
My temper exploded—just as he intended. “You shut up!”
I took a wild swing at hime with my hoe. He simply ducked, chuckling gleefully. My hands were sweaty and I lost my grip on the hoe. It went flying across the garden and twanged against the hogwire fence.
I scooped up a large clod of the dry hard red earth. My arm and my aim were good and the clod took Richard right in the pit of the stomach. He let out an “OOF!” and fell down.
My anger evaporated as quickly as it had come and I thought I might have really hurt him. I stepped toward his recumbent and silent form.
“Jeeze,” I said contritely, “I didn’t mean to hurt you!”
Of course I had simply knocked the wind out of Richard. He made a sudden lunge for my ankles. “You little sonamabitch,” he gasped, “I’ll get you for that!”
I dance away from him, feeling a sudden flush of fear. Richard was still a bit bigger than me, and he sometimes got the better of me in combat. He came up off the ground, his blue eyes slitted with anger. His hoe was still in his left hand.
I knew the time had come to bail out so I turned tail and ran. I lost my straw hat as I sailed over the hog-wire fence and shot across the county road toward a patch of brush on Bertha Beck’s farm. As I dived for cover, I could hear his shoes hit the road and knew he was right behind me.
We were both familiar with that brush patch form trapping rabbits and I knew it would not conceal me for long. I weaved my way through and out into a wheat field beyond, running for my very life.
Maze Creek was about a half mile away and I headed in that direction, my bare feet scattering grasshoppers as I fled across fields and pastures, vaulting barbed wire fences as I went. I could hear Richard’s clodhoppers pounding in pursuit. I was glad of that because, barefoot, I could outrun him and I knew I was gaining on him.
Richard was nearly a hundred yards behind when I reached the trees and brush along the creek, but he was coming on strong. I cut to my left past our favorite swimming hole that we called the “Big Rock Hole” because there was a large boulder at the edge of a deep pool where we could dive. Unfortunately, there were sharp flintrocks along the base of the low sheer cliff that bordered the bend in the creek. I hit one that was sharp as an Indian arrowhead and cut the instep of one foot.
Now I was in trouble. I knew Richard could catch me easily if I was hobbling on a sore foot. I could not see even a brush pile that would offer cover for me to go to ground. Just up the creek a way I saw a mat of wild grapevine growing up the face of the sheer cliff. I hobbled to it and desperately squeezed my way between the vines and the rock.
Just as I heard Richard’s footsteps pounding along the creek bank, there was suddenly no rock against my shoulder and I fell sideways into empty space. Richard went on past heading upstream.
I rolled over and looked around. I was in a dimly-lit cavern about three feet high and four feet wide, the walls of damp limestone. It led back into the cliff.
As usual, I had a few kitchen matches in the bib of my overalls. Cautiously, I inched forward, alert for any possible snake. After a slight bend, the cave opened out. I struck a match and found myself in a “room” about ten feet across and high enough that I could stand up. I saw only two small openings down low before the match went out.
I lit another match and crawled across to one of the openings down against the dirt floor of the cave and, lying on my belly, peered into the hole. Panic set in—the light of the match was reflected by two beady amber eyes!
Both the case and my sore foot momentarily forgotten, I rolled over then shot headfirst out of the cave, plunging straight through the mat of vines and rolled toward the creek on the rocky ground. Richard was sauntering back down the creek bank—apparently having given up the chase. He halted in amazement when I came flying out of apparently a solid rock cliff and exclaimed, “Where in the world did you come from?”
My words came out in a machine gun sputter, “You win. I hurt my foot and I can’t run anymore and I found a real cave in there only there is an animal in there, too!”
His anger and the chase forgotten, Richard parted the vines and peered into the low dark opening. “Hey,” he said, “there really is a cave in there! Got any matches on you?”
I fumbled at my pockets. “No—used the only ones I had.”
“What did you see in there?”
“Well, there is a room in there not far back but there is a little hole down low and I saw two yellow eyes looking back at me. There is an animal denned in there!”
“Shoot,” he said scornfully, “probably only a possum or a coon—maybe just a rabbit. Wouldn’t hurt you.”
“Well, you go see if you want. I ain’t goin’ back in there without a proper light and the twenty-two.”
Richard squatted there, a calculating look in his blue eyes and chewing reflectively on his lower lip. “Never heard anyone say anything about a cave along here—bet not many know about it. We’ll keep it a secret so don’t you tell anyone about it.”
He carefully re-arranged the vines to conceal the opening. “We can come back later and chase out or kill whatever is in there. It will make a dandy hideout.”
He got to his feet. “Come on now, bird brain. We got to bet back to hoeing them weeds.”