Slim Sanderson looked up in surprise as the guard handed him his day’s clothing allotment through the bars of his cell. The worn jeans and chambray shirt he’d been wearing when he was arrested were clean and folded. A new pair of socks and boxers completed the set. Wondering what had happened to his boots and belt, he dressed and was escorted to the warden’s office.

“Here’s a bus ticket to Springfield. You’ll be met by someone from the halfway house, where there’s a job waiting for you.” The warden looked over his half-moon reading glasses, before handing him a bus ticket and several paper bills. “This is your gate money; seventy-five dollars now, and you’ll get another seventy-five when you report to your parole officer in two weeks.”

“Uh-huh.” Slim nodded and made an effort to look pleased. Even one hundred and fifty dollars wouldn’t go very far, he thought. And life at a halfway house in the city of over 150,000 people would be suffocating. He would much rather have gone back to the Ozark hill country, where he would have been able to retreat into the backwoods and subsist on his own. Better than prison, though, an inner voice reminded him.

“Here’s your belt and boots, along with a change of clothes and a basic shaving kit.” The warden lifted a small suitcase and pushed it across his desk at Slim. Grabbing the belt and boots, Slim pushed off the cheap slip-on shoes he had to wear when not working, and pulled his boots on before slipping his old belt through the belt loops on his jeans.

“The state of Missouri wishes you the best. The bus will be here in one hour. You’ll wait for it out front.”

20 sentences

Slim Sanderson’s step was jaunty as he made his way along the overgrown trail to what he thought of as his own private entrance to Shelta Cave, in Huntsville, Alabama. Unlike other local caves that were tourist attractions, Shelta was almost exclusively used for speleological research. The minute he’d learned of the discovery there of a species of ghost crayfish thought to be extinct, he’d decided to find some way to capture one, and sell it to one of the other North Alabama caves that were open to the public.

After his release from prison two years earlier, the Show-Me state had shown Slim that he was unwelcome. Crossing the Mississippi River into Kentucky, he drifted from place to place in the cave country of southern Kentucky. At Mammoth Cave, he’d briefly snagged a job as a cave guide, but the people there were about as unreasonable as those in Missouri. In one way or another, he, Jethro Eustis Sanderson, would show Andrew Belden and his show-off niece and nephews, that he was somebody. Somebody who was both smart and successful.

When Kentucky didn’t pan out for him, he made his way to northern Alabama, where he landed a job on the marina at Lake Guntersville. During winter, when lake usage was lower, he had a part-time job selling tour tickets at nearby Cathedral Caverns. The jobs gave him walking-around money, but his income fell short of what he believed he needed and deserved.

Northern Alabama was rich with caves as well as recreational lakes—not so different from the Ozarks, if a bit less hilly. Unfortunately, quite a few of the caves weren’t open to the public, but he’d managed to find ways to sneak into most of them, and do some exploring on his own. If not for the masses of gray bats that inhabited the caves, he could have enjoyed it more, but if you didn’t bother the bats, they didn’t bother you.

He’d discovered the secret entrance to Shelta Cave last fall, and used his own private system to mark its location. Fortunately, it seemed undisturbed since his last visit, over two months ago. He whistled a rather tuneless air and smiled as he reflected on the large payoff he intended to collect within days. Scribbling a brief note to state his time into the cave and expected time out, he laid it on the ground and placed a brick-sized stone on top of it. It won’t be too obvious if anyone comes poking around, he thought. But no one can say I was cutting corners on safety. And when I “discover” that the ghost crawfish lives in Cathedral Caverns as well as Shelta Cave, I’m going to make bank.

When he entered the cave, its main entrance was closed, and employees were gone for the day, except for the night security staff. It was a good time to slip into the cave without being noticed. Although there was plenty of daylight left outside, it wouldn’t matter anyway, once his eyes were accustomed to the darkness.

After he’d made his way far enough into the cave that all light and noise of the outside world were completely muffled, Slim stopped to light his helmet’s carbide lamp and test the flashlight at his belt. Satisfied that he could see whatever he needed, he made his way along the stream that cut its way through to the lower levels.

He didn’t worry when the first drips of water fell onto his helmet with a plonk, plonk, or when he felt the wetness on his shoulders. This part of the cave was often damp. After all, that was how the cave formations known as stalactites and stalagmites formed. As his steps began to slosh, he simply widened his stride. His helmet’s lamp illuminated a couple of the blind fish that lived in this dark, wet part of the cave. He ignored them after a cursory glance. He was after a different kind of critter. He flicked the switch on his flashlight to help him catch the movements of the creatures that occasionally skittered and paddled near the stream’s edge.

As a cluster of bats loosened themselves from their perch in a ceiling crevice and fluttered over his head with a rustle of wings and a series of faint squeaks, he jumped a little before remembering it was probably their feeding time. Swatting the air above his head to scare the creatures away, he gave himself a quick talking-to.

“I ain’t no city slicker,” he reminded himself. “This cave ain’t as big as the ones back home, and those bats are more skeered of me than I am of them.”

Perhaps it was the momentary distraction caused by the bats, but the next moment Slim found himself thigh-deep in water.

“Dang, I musta stepped into a sinkhole,” he muttered as his boots—and pants—filled with water. As he floundered to find footing on the slippery rock, he reached out to grasp the edge of the opening, but couldn’t get a grip while holding his flashlight.

Cursing, he tossed the light as far as he could, praying it would land somewhere dry. But, although he heard a dull clunk as the flashlight hit something solid, he also heard a faint splash as it apparently rolled into the stream, which was after all at the lowest point of the cave’s floor. The faint glow from the flashlight flickered and then went out.

Slim felt his heavy, water-filled boots pulling him down into the water, even as it seemed to be rising. With both hands now free, he scrabbled again for a solid grip on the edge of the sinkhole, but the edge was slippery and somehow he couldn’t find a handhold or foothold.

“I still got my rope,” he told himself, tilting his head back to ensure his nose and mouth stayed above the rising water while he freed the rope from his belt. After what felt like hours, he held one end of the rope in each hand, and tied the other end into a slip knot. He glanced around, directing the carbide lamp around the cavern in search of a big, solid-looking stalagmite he could lasso with it. Those formations might be delicate, but it was his only chance at this point. Up to now, he hadn’t panicked, but he also hadn’t planned on stepping into a sinkhole that was quickly filling with water.

His first five throws were unsuccessful, and Slim was getting colder and colder. He was wet from head to toe, and his strength was ebbing. Finally, he managed to lasso a thick stalagmite about ten feet away. With the last of his strength, he pulled himself forward, one hand over the other. A ghost crayfish scuttled by him, less than a foot away from the water’s edge, but he knew he couldn’t let go of the rope to collect it in his bucket—a bucket that was probably now floating to the bottom of the sinkhole.

He had managed to pull his shoulders and chest onto the rocky bed of the stream when a cracking sound signaled the stalagmite had given way. As the calcite column toppled over, Slim’s rope came away from it, and he slid backward into the water again.

It was mid-morning on Saturday. The Bob-Whites were gathered around the large dining table of the Wheeler cottage at Lake Guntersville in northern Alabama. To celebrate the girls’ college graduation, Jim and Honey had convinced their parents to allow the group to stay by themselves at the cottage. They’d arrived last night by ones and twos from their various locations, and ended up staying awake, talking, until nearly three in the morning. Everyone was still half-asleep—everyone except Jim and Brian, of course.

The two oldest Bob-Whites had risen at dawn and driven into town, stopping at a mini-mart for a newspaper and fresh donuts. While they were gone, Dan had gotten up and set up the coffeepot; in moments, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee drew the others from their beds. Now, the various sections of newspaper were scattered over the table and everyone sipped coffee while trying the fresh pastries.

“Holy batcave, Batman!” Mart suddenly sat up straight, sloshing his coffee onto the table. “Did anyone read the second section yet?”

“How could we? You’ve been buried in it ever since Jim and Brian got back,” Dan reminded him.

“Listen to this,” Mart continued, barely pausing long enough for Dan to finish speaking. “‘Man dies in Alabama cave while hunting rare blind cave creatures.’ Who do you suppose the man was?”

“I don’t know, brother dearest,” Trixie retorted. “I don’t think I know anyone in Alabama except my old roommate, Tricia.”

“I’ll just remind you, this was a man who was spelunking—alone—for rare cave wildlife,” Mart explained.

“That horrible Slim Sanderson was awfully interested in the rare ghost fish—but that was in Missouri,” Honey offered.

“He also got sent to prison,” Jim said with a frown. “I can’t forget the deliberate way he killed the cave bats for fun, set the fire that nearly burned down Mrs. Moore’s cabin—”

Trixie broke in. “He burned her outbuildings to the ground, tried to hurt Mr. Moore, stole our cave fish, and endangered all of us.”

“I’m surprised he was already out of prison,” Honey said with a frown.

Diana gasped in distress. “Oh, my goodness! I’m glad I missed out on that adventure! Isn’t that the time you nearly drowned, Trixie?”

“One of the times.” Jim slipped an arm around Trixie’s shoulders. “It sure was scary.”

“I’ll never forget how your eyes looked blue in the light from my helmet’s carbide lamp.” Trixie shuddered. “That was my own fault for not being as careful as I should have.” Her face flushed. “I’ve learned a lot since then. Looks like Slim never did.”

“I’m glad I missed out, too,” said Dan. “Give me the mean streets of the city any time over a dark, wet, underground cave.”

Mart continued reading the article. “It says here that Slim was released from prison two years ago. He wasn’t able to find work in the area of White Hole Springs, and moved to Kentucky and then north Alabama, where there’s a well-known cave system. Recently, a rare ghost crayfish was identified in Shelta cave; it had been thought to be extinct. Slim had a part-time job selling tickets for tours of another cave nearby, and evidently decided to spend his free time exploring on his own.”

Brian spoke up. Reading aloud from his phone’s screen, he said, “A coworker at Lake Guntersville told WHVL-TV that Sanderson liked to brag on his experience and skills in spelunking. Here’s the coworker, who declined to be identified.”

Brian held his phone up so everyone had a view of the screen. It showed a young-looking man with sandy hair, but his face was pixelated and his voice was also distorted. “Slim usually did his cave exploration alone, and at night. Sometimes he left his lodging house without telling anyone where he was going, and would show up the next day at work looking like he hadn’t slept. He talked a lot about looking for secret cave entrances, and how he was a real experienced cave guide. I guess most of us thought he was tellin’ a tall tale, but maybe we should have paid more attention. Ever since the news story about the ghost crayfish broke, he’s been obsessed with finding one himself, said he was going to sell it to a scientific researcher. He wanted to be rich and famous for his discoveries.”

The news clip on Brian’s phone ended, and he muted the sound and frowned. “I’m surprised no one reported him, since so many of these caves aren’t open to the public.”

“But apparently, he did his spelunking alone, often at night,” Mart reminded him. “Probably didn’t tell anyone when he was going, either.”

Trixie nodded. “He didn’t believe in that sissy stuff.”

“They say karma’s a cruel mistress,” Dan remarked.

2020 words

Missing Missouri native’s body found in Shelta Cave after flash flood; spelunking alone in search of rare ghost crayfish specimen.

20 words


back   next


Author’s Notes

Thank you to my fabulous editor, Trish!  Your comments and corrections are greatly appreciated!  Any errors remaining are my own, and not her fault.

Thank you to all of my readers.  You all are the best!

Apparently the quote about karma being a cruel mistress is most often attributed to author Kelley York.

I did a fair amount of research on Shelta Cave and other caves in the region, although I'm not posting any hyperlinks. Shelta is basically exclusively used for research, but there is another nearby cave that is more of a tourist attraction: Cathedral Caverns. Lake Guntersville is also a real resort lake in the area.

Also looked up some information on carbide helmet lamps. Apparently although the technology is pretty old, many recreational caving enthusiasts continue to use carbide lamps instead of LED helmet lamps. The carbide lamps do produce a very bright light. I theorized that the bright light could have washed the color out of Jim's eyes, especially since Trixie was close to physical exhaustion in the sinkhole.

Although the exact items and amounts vary from state to state, prisoners do receive small amounts of money in either cash or debit cards upon their release, and often a one-way bus ticket to a halfway house if they don't have a family member who is taking them.

This will meet requirements for CWE #5 Karma Bites Back,#12 Die, Villain, Die!, #21 20/20/2020, #24 Read a Book or Watch TV? Fixed it! (Jim’s blue eyes)

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. All other material on these pages copyright 2007-2030 by MaryN/Dianafan. Images obtained from; manipulated by Mary N in Photoshop. Graphics copyright by Mary N 2022.

Story copyright by Mary N, 2022.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional