By J. Speer
(This story was written for a summer writing contest on the theme of “summer vacation”. It had to be 1,500 words or less.)
It was summer of 1996. It was also Frontenac Homecoming, a weekend of wonder for little ones and a weekend of celebration, or rather, inebriation for adults. George thought of the carnival in that moment back at the outskirts of town. How he wished he and his friends could turn back. But a dare had been made to enter the old mine and a dare was a challenge kept.
The entrance had been found by Steve’s dad earlier in the Spring as he ventured out to the strip pits around Mulberry for some fishing. After school had gotten out in mid-May, Steve and his Dad had crossed by the mine entrance a few more times as they lazily enjoyed the beginning of summer break. Steve played travel team baseball and this was one of the few times in their family’s busy, hectic Spring baseball schedule that he could take a bit of a break.
The boys circled the abandoned entrance in the light of the moon. It appeared to be a deep shaft, a remnant of the pre-strip mining era of southeast Kansas in the early 1900s. Steve tested the wood around the entrance by kicking a board and it broke in half, rotted from the inside by years of weathering. The boys looked at each other hesitantly.
George had the brains enough to bring his father’s hunting headlamp on the excursion. There was four of them, standing with curiousity tinged with fear together near the entrance: Steve, George, Grayson, and Bill. Steve was the oldest and so dominated most discussions with confidence. George was the smart one. Grayson was the comedian and then there was Bill, the tag-along younger brother to Grayson.
“Is it safe to go in?” ventured Grayson hesitantly.
“Hell ya, it’s safe,” said Steve with a bit of bravado to hide his insecurities. He pushed back the rotted wood even further. George switched on the neon yellow glow of his headlamp. One. Two. Three clicks to the brightest beam. Then he placed it squarely on his forehead. The bright beam shone into the darkness beyond of the little mine entrance.
“Hasn’t been touched in years looks like,” confirmed Steve. There was nothing at the entrance just a deep hollow in the earth that disappeared into the beyond. There was a staleness to the air and a smell of old rocks and dirt. Steve stepped gingerly into the entrance, cracking the old wood and hoping he did not step on a rusty old nail. He didn’t relish the thought of a trip to the hospital for a tetanus shot. Nor did he want to think about a nail going through his beat up old sneakers.
The other boys one by one switched on their flashlights while looking around in the dark at the silent, thick woods and nearby water pits. Bugs of all kinds gravitated towards the lights and circled here and there in the dark evening around them. Bill swat at a chigger or mosquito on his bare leg.
Steve stepped further into the entrance, praying that his feet would not give way. He had a sinking nightmare image of falling into the deep earth and being buried never to be found again. He squelched the fear and pushed the bad thoughts from his mind.
“Come on in, it’s safe you chickens!” he motioned and the other boys promptly entered behind him. Bill was the last to enter but not out of effort, just that he was the runt of the litter so to speak and got pushed to the back. He was, however, bound and determined to show the other boys he was part of the group. He wanted to look brave.
“Dad said these mines are from the 1920s when Al Capone’s mafia ran Frontenac as a bootlegging operation,” Steve said with authority. “They used to distill liquor during the Prohibition here in these secret places….a place the cops would never look at. Pretty clever.”
“Al Capone used to come to Frontenac to hunt on his way down to Hot Springs for gambling. They said he’d eat at the little Italian restaurant nearby here. Chicago boss man in this little Kansas town….who knew?” Steve continued.
“They say..he buried his gold here too…..somewhere in this little Italian town.” Steve’s voice trailed off. Grayson and George looked around at the rock walls in curiousity while Bill just gulped peering into the dark. The boys began walking hunched over deeper and deeper into the shaft until the moonlit entrance nearly faded away. Steve led the way with his little headlamp. As they rounded a sharp corner and the entrance disappeared Steve stopped to look back at the others with a finger to his lips.
“We don’t want to disrupt anything or make any loud noises, ” he warned the others with a whisper. “You sure you wanna do this?” He pointed to the way back out. “Last chance.” The others said nothing. Steve half-hoped they would.
He turned to the cave ahead in search of Al Capone’s buried treasure. It was one heckuva a way to start the summer vacation of Steve’s 14th year…the year that he would forever remember as Bill’s last.