I’ve read a lot of books over the years, and in so many of them, little girls are asked who their hero is. They always answer, “Daddy.”
I want to say Daddy is my hero. I want it to be true. At least, I used to want it to be true. And no offense to Daddy, but he just wasn’t around when I needed him. It wasn’t really his fault; he was a military man, and he went where he was sent. I suppose that makes him heroic, but it didn’t make him my hero.
I do have a hero, and his name is Morty. (It’s really Mortimer, but let’s spare him that humiliation, shall we?) He’s a little guy, just over five feet tall, and was therefore refused entry into the military. Their loss. This man is a true warrior, stealthy and quick, smart and instinctive.
He came to our base on the 4th of July to see why no one had shown up in the city. He saw me through the window of our little duplex–nearly frightening me to death in the process–and he told everyone I was alive.
Yes, there were others involved. Yes, Daddy showed up in time to be part of the rescue. But no one would have ever found us at all, if not for Morty. No one else could have made his way through the base without getting caught that night. Morty can run like the wind, and he’s great at making himself nearly invisible when he needs to.
It wasn’t any wonder that I chose to tell Morty about the culvert we’d found. It led us to discovering a little village of some sort, and I knew he’d be able to get down into the area without being discovered, if it turned out there were people there somewhere.
We had returned from our little adventure after bagging a doe, a half-dozen rabbits and about three pounds of wild blueberries. After dropping the game off with Aaron, the butcher, and the berries with Celeste, we’d gone in search of Morty.
“Well, well,” he said, once we’d told him about our discovery. “I thought we’d mapped out all the small towns around here. How far did you dingbats wander, anyway?”
None of us had a real answer to that, except that it was pretty far off our usual path.
We were below ground, in the area that Morty had fashioned into a little apartment for himself and Sid and Ash. He wasn’t much of a joiner, he said, and preferred not to eat in the main dining area with everyone else at breakfast. So, over time he claimed some extra space–not much, maybe a 10 foot by 10 foot area–and set up a table with 8 chairs, where we’d often gather for a snack and conversation.
Sometimes, this was the gathering place for planning adventures.
Dawn and Danny had joined us, which wasn’t unusual for a meal and conversation, but if you think Morty isn’t much of a joiner, that’s because you haven’t met Dawn. My baby sister does not go out much at all. If not for Danny’s great love of the sun, I don’t think she’d go to the surface. It was odd to have her in on an adventure planning session, and even odder that she’d declared her desire to join us.
Danny nearly fell off his chair, and Mae gaped at her, astonished. “Are you sure, Dawn?” she asked.
“I want to go,” Dawn repeated. “Put your eyes back in your heads.”
We all made a conscious effort not to stare.
Morty cleared his throat and got up. He went to the file cabinet he’d set in a corner, and pulled out some hand-drawn maps. They were quite elaborately done, and the artist responsible was Dawn. Morty had made little sketches for her, and described the areas to her, and she had done an admirable job of making them based on that.
He spread a couple of them out on the long table top, and we all looked them over. Sid pointed to the area we’d been in before getting off track and moving further north. “This is where we started marking our way,” he said. “We left the marks. So…” He finger-walked his way to the edge of that map and made a falling whistle noise.
“Highly amusing,” Morty sighed, shaking his head.
“New maps,” Dawn said. “I want to see the place this time.”
“Okay, okay,” I agreed. “You can go, if you really want to. But, Dawn–it’s far. And it’s not always shady, so you’re going to have to wear your long sleeves and floppy hat.”
Dawn spends most of her time underground, so she is pale as a ghost, as you might imagine.
“It’s too late to go anywhere now,” Morty decided. “It’ll be dark soon.” He slapped his hand lightly on the table top. “We meet here at breakfast. Mum’s the word.”
By the time we reached the moss-covered tunnel that Mae had dubbed “Dragon’s Lair”, Dawn was looking a little worse for wear. She wasn’t used to long walks in the woods. Her cheeks wore rosy splotches on skin that was usually white as milk, and she was out of breath. Her huge hat kept sliding down her forehead, blocking her vision, and although it was keeping her from getting sunburnt, it was giving her a good workout, trying to get it to stay in place. The redness of her skin came from exertion, at least, and would fade once she was rested.
Morty called for a break, and Danny helped Dawn to a seat on a mossy log. She leaned to peer into the entrance, which was roughly truck-sized. “What is it?” she asked. “A cave?”
“Dragon’s Lair,” Mae said.
“Culvert,” I said, at exactly the same time.
Morty nodded thoughtfully. “Some sort of drainage system, it looks like. But…” he moved closer, and with less caution than I would have liked.
“Mort,” Ash said, his voice lowered unconsciously. “Bears?”
“Nah.” He snagged the backpack off his back and dropped it at his feet to search inside. Pulling out a length of nylon rope, he announced, “I’m going in!”
“Morty, no!” Mae cried.
“I’ll go with you,” I offered.
“Penny–” Sid began, but backed off when I glared at him.
Morty pulled a second rope from his pack and passed it to me. We tied one end around our waists. I gave my other end to Sid, and Morty tossed his to Ash. Then we moved into the mouth of the tunnel.
Morty had a flashlight, and pointed the torch inside as we tip-toed closer. He tapped his feet as he walked, while I was taking pains to make no noise at all. I hissed at him, “What are you doing? Be quiet!”
“Sounds like concrete,” he replied. “I sort of expected metal pipe.”
I nodded, still disgruntled.
We didn’t get far before the floor sloped drastically, and we backed up quickly so we wouldn’t fall in. “Good Lord!” Morty cried. He shone the light down into the drop, and we leaned carefully forward to stare into a literal black hole.
Back in the sunshine, we blessed the light and announced to Mae that there were no dragons or bears in there.
“There could have been bats,” Danny suggested, and I jerked my head to gape at him. “Well, there could!” he added, defensively.
“So nice of you to bring that up after we went in,” I grunted. Bats! Dear God, no!
Dawn giggled, and reached into the backpack at her feet. “I brought us some lunch,” she said. “I ground some corn yesterday and made tortillas so we could have tacos! The venison is delicious.”
God bless my little Dawn! The tacos she’d made were indeed delicious, with venison, fresh lettuce and tomatoes from the garden and just a sprinkling of dried cilantro. We ate with gusto.
Bellies full, we hurriedly followed our markers to the bridge. Now that we were moving consistently downhill, Dawn was doing better. I could tell she was drinking in the sights, probably planning out the new map she’d be drawing. Her other maps are works of art, certainly, but they’ve been drawn to reflect the descriptions of others. I was excited to see what she’d do next, having seen everything first-hand.
The bridge was in terrible condition. It didn’t take a genius to figure that driving across the thing would collapse it. We had walked alongside yesterday until it led us to the dirt road that took us to the little settlement, even though I’d been sorely tempted to walk over it to the other side and look for any sign of a culvert that may or may not have been the end of the moss-covered tunnel.
I guess none of us were surprised that Morty would tempt fate–and rotten wood–to do that very thing. He knotted his rope tightly around his waist and tossed the other end to Danny. “You’re a big guy,” he said. “Think you can yank me back if it gives up the ghost?”
Danny grinned. He had outgrown us all by the time he was ten, so he was indeed a big guy. Added to his height, he was all muscle, and the best wood-chopper in camp, although he was still a couple of years shy of being a teen. “I won’t drop ya,” he promised.
Gingerly, Morty inched his way to the far side of the bridge. “Whoa!” he said. “Hoo-whee! I don’t think I would like to drive over this thing, even on it’s best day. That’s quite a drop!” He leaned over the railing, careful not to put his weight on it, but he was too short to do much more than incline his head to look straight down. “I can just see where that culvert comes out,” he told us. “It’s dry now, but there’s water down below. It must be quite a waterfall during spring runoff!”
“I want to see!” I cried.
“Penny!” Sid protested.
“Penny, wait,” Morty added. “The wood’s really spongy. I don’t think it will hold both of us.”
Well, as I may have mentioned, Morty is a small man. He calls himself “compact”, and it’s a fitting enough description; probably no more than 120 pounds, he’s still solid as a rock, strong as an ox and quicker than lightning.
I am not quite as tall as he, maybe five feet, but I’m pretty sure I weigh more. I’ve been cursed with curves, like Momma.
(For the record, Sid says my curse is his blessing. What a cad!)
I didn’t protest having to wait for Morty to return to our side of the bridge. I tied the rope around my waist and double checked the knots. Sid fidgeted, but didn’t argue with me. I saw Mae and Dawn exchanging exasperated glances and ignored them.
Respectful of the danger, I removed my boots before making my way to the far side of the bridge and looking over the edge. The wood was indeed spongy beneath my feet, and I tested each step carefully. Craning my neck to look over the side without touching anything, I could see that the mountainside dropped sharply about five feet out from the built up pilings under the bridge, and the mouth of the culvert was a good hundred feet below. It jutted out of the side of the cliff, looking for all the world like a pouting lower lip. I grinned. It felt good to see proof that my theory was correct.
At least another hundred feet down, there was a pool of water, deeply blue-black and certainly good sized if it looked so big from this height.
Tall fir trees, pinion pines and ash grew abundantly along with scrub brush and grasses. The view was both breathtaking and terrifying.
I hurried back to the other side of the bridge, shaken and awed. I looked Morty in the eye and said, “I don’t know how anyone ever had the nerve to drive over that!”
Sid tipped his head to the right. “The trucks over there are big ones,” he said. “Someone had the nerve.”
“Hmm.” Morty looked thoughtful. “I wonder how long they’ve been there? This bridge didn’t get to be in this bad shape in a decade. It was pretty well engineered.”
“Maybe there’s another way in,” Ash suggested.
Morty shrugged. “I guess we’ll see.”
Mae and Dawn were huddled together, Mae holding her compass and Dawn making notes in a small spiral notebook I’d scavenged for her. Coordinates and little sketches, no doubt. Dawn’s skill in art has never ceased to amaze me, and I could hardly wait to see what she’d come up with. Possibly, she’d do more than just maps.
We all had some water before resuming our walk along the side of the bridge and the adjoining dirt road. I could hardly wait for Morty to see the little place we’d discovered.
To be continued…
Author’s note: Penny, Mae and Dawn began this series in my novella Starting in the Middle of The End.
Since that time, they have kept showing up in my short stories. Part 3 of this one is coming soon.