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Authors: Gloria Skurzynski

Running Scared

RUNNING SCARED

A MYSTERY IN CARLSBAD CAVERNS NATIONAL PARK

GLORIA SKURZYNSKI AND ALANE FERGUSON

To Tom “Boomer” Bemis,
a true hero and an inspiring role model

Text copyright © 2002 Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson
Cover illustration copyright © 2008 Jeffrey Mangiat

All rights reserved.
Reproduction of the whole or any part of the contents is prohibited without written permission from the National Geographic Society, 1145 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Map by Carl Mehler, Director of Maps
Map research and production by Joseph F. Ochlak and Equator Graphics

Mexican free-tailed bat art by Joan Wolbier

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to living persons or events other than descriptions of natural phenomena is purely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Skurzynski, Gloria.
Running scared / Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson. p. cm.—(Mysteries in our national parks; #11)
Summary: While lost in a tunnel at Carlsbad Cavern, thirteen-year-old Jack, eleven-year-old Ashley, and their eight-year-old foster brother, Sam, think bats and darkness are their worst problems, until they stumble across thieves.
ISBN: 978-1-4263-0974-8
[1. Lost children—Fiction. 2. Bats—Fiction.
3. Carlsbad Caverns National Park (N.M.)—Fiction. 4. Foster home care—Fiction.
5. National parks and reserves—Fiction. 6. Mystery and detective stories.]
I. Ferguson, Alane. II. Title. III. Series.
PZ7.S6287 Ru 2002

[Fic]—dc21
2002005277

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The authors are grateful to those at
Carlsbad Caverns National Park who shared
information and their expertise with us, especially Bob Hoff,
Park Historian;
Myra Barnes, Wildlife Biologist;
Stan Allison, Cave Resource Specialist;
David Roemer, Biologist;
Laura Denny, Park Ranger, Law Enforcement Division; Stacey
Haney, Park Ranger,
Interpretive Division;
and of course Tom Bemis

 

T
he light from his head-lantern cast deep shadows along the cave walls. Ink-black phantoms seemed to dance across formations like evil spirits, but the man wasn't afraid. Nothing scared him, except, perhaps, the thought of running out of money. Well, he didn't have to worry about that, not now. His flashlight felt heavy in his hand as he aimed it at the delicate cave balloon, as fragile and translucent as a soap bubble. It always amazed him what people would pay for a tiny thing like this. He'd have to give part of the payoff to the rock surgeon, but he'd pocket the rest. Easy money.

It was then that he heard the sound.

“You hear that?” he demanded.

Ryan looked up, the blade of his tool glinting in the lamplight. “Hear what? Hey, the Hodags got you spooked? You know, we're pretty deep in the belly of the cave, all alone in the bowels of the Earth. Legend has it that when the Hodags slither out from their hiding places to—”

“Just shut up and get back to work,” the man snapped. “I'll tell you one thing—I learned a long time ago to make sure there ain't no witnesses. If a Hodag-thing is down here, watchin' what we're doing, I'll kill him dead.”

“Yeah. I'm sure you would.” Ryan just shook his head.

CHAPTER ONE

“I
can't wait! How much longer until it happens?” Ashley asked, squinting into the desert sky streaked orange by the setting sun. In front of them, the cave entrance loomed large and dark, like a gigantic, yawning mouth. Jack tried not to notice the pungent odor that wafted from Carlsbad Cavern and concentrated instead on adjusting his camera lens, focusing in, then out. Hundreds of park visitors were seated in the stone amphitheater, watching, pointing, waiting for the first wave of bats to spiral out of the entrance. Shifting to get a better view, Jack snapped a picture of cactus that seemed to bubble up from the rock itself. Perfect. With the play between light and shadow, he knew he could get some real quality shots.

“Hey, save some film for the bat flight,” his sister, Ashley, told him.

“I will. I've got another roll.”

“Aren't you excited for them to come out? 'Cause you don't look too excited.”

“I'm excited,” Jack answered, zooming in on a rock squirrel.

Leaning back on her elbows, Ashley cocked her head and gave him a knowing look. The amphitheater benches were deep, almost three feet of stone and concrete still warm from baking in the day's sun. With her head tilted that way, Ashley's dark braids curled like question marks. “Come on, Jack, admit it. No matter what the rangers say, you're still afraid of bats. You think the bats'll suck your blood and leave you shriveled up like a raisin.” Pointing a finger, she said, “Remember how you used to try to scare me every time we went camping? You'd say bats always go for girls with long, curly hair. But it was really you who was scared.”

“No way!” Jack snorted. Now that she was 11, Ashley had a little more attitude, but, being two years older, Jack could handle it. Turning to their newest temporary foster child, Jack said, “Sammy, you've got to ignore all this blood-sucking stuff. You heard the ranger. The only blood-sucking bats live far, far away from here. The ones in Carlsbad are Mexican free-tailed bats. Free-tailed bats eat tons of bugs, so they're good bats,” Jack declared. “And I was never afraid of any bats.”

“Liar,” Ashley laughed. “So who do you think is telling the truth, Sammy? Me, or my mean brother, who used to terrify me with spooky stories when he was really the one who was scared?”

Ducking his round, blond head, Sam whispered, “I d-d-don't know.” He began to fidget with the end of his dirty shoelace so that, Jack guessed, he wouldn't have to look at either one of them. Although he'd been with their family for three weeks, Sam still didn't know the Landons well enough to understand the way Jack and Ashley teased. Well, from what Ms. Lopez, Sam's social worker, had told them, there hadn't been much in the boy's life to laugh about. That was why Jack's mother and father were glad Sam could go with them all the way to New Mexico to see the magnificent cavern of Carlsbad. “If anyone deserves a break,” Jack's father, Steven, had said, “it's this kid.”

Jack looked up to see a watery moon appear like a ghost in the sky, faint and silvery in the twilight. The clouds seemed to blaze even brighter as the last rays of sun set them on fire. If the bats flew out soon, Jack would have a perfect canvas to frame them. Focusing his lens, he snapped a picture of the clouds, double-checking that his flash was off. The ranger had instructed all of the visitors to turn off their camera flash attachments, since the sound from a flash—even though humans didn't notice it—might throw off the bats' sensitive navigation system.

Barely tapping his shoe with the edge of his worn sneaker, Sam looked at Jack with large eyes. His hair was clipped ragged, as if he'd trimmed it himself. But what kind of eight-year-old would cut his own hair? Not anyone who lived in the Landons' Jackson Hole neighborhood, where all the kids had their own bikes and computers and enough money in their pockets to buy fast food whenever they wanted. Although Sam hadn't told them much about his life, Jack could tell he came from a different world, a world Jack was glad he didn't live in.

“So J-Jack, you're not really s-c-c-ared? Of the b-b-bats?”

“Nah. Ashley and me, we're just kidding around. Don't take us seriously.”

“OK. I'm not s-s-scared, either.”

Mmmm, maybe not of the bats, Jack thought. But ever since they'd had him, Sam had seemed, if not frightened, at least nervous all the time. Did some unknown fear make Sam stutter the way he did? The poor kid couldn't get out two words without stuttering. Sometimes he'd start to say something and then just give up, as though whatever he'd wanted to say simply wasn't worth the struggle to force it out. Ms. Lopez had said that although Sam's school grades were poor because of his stuttering problem, inside he was really a bright little boy.

Just then Ashley grabbed Jack's arm and pointed excitedly at a small black object streaking by. “Is that one? Quick—take a picture! It's right there—see?”

“Duh. That's a cave swallow,” Jack replied. “It has a beak. Bird—beak. Bat—ugly gargoyle face. Get the difference?”

“If you call them ugly, they'll hear you and stay there in the cave all night and they'll never come out,” she declared.

“Honest?” Sam worried.

Jack assured him, “No, Sammy, Ashley was only joking again.”

“But we've been waiting an awful long time,” Ashley said, sighing. “Mom, do you think they're ever going to come out of the cave?”

“Hmm?” their mother, Olivia, murmured, barely looking up from a stack of papers. A yellow highlighter was poised in her hand, and every few minutes she underlined a sentence or bracketed a paragraph until the paper seemed to glow neon. A wildlife veterinarian, Olivia Landon had come to New Mexico to study the decline in the number of bats occupying Carlsbad Cavern. Mountains of scientific papers had been faxed to her before they'd left their home in Wyoming, which meant that for the entire trip on the plane, she'd been nose-deep in study. Jack had never seen her read so much so furiously.

“Earth to Mom,” Ashley cried, cupping her hands around her mouth. “You're the expert. Do bats ever stay inside the cavern and just skip a night? Because I think that might be what they're doing here.”

Looking up, Olivia blinked. “Skip? Oh, no. Don't worry, sweetheart, they'll fly. You just have to be patient. Remember, bats are wild animals, not a circus act trained to appear on cue.” Taking off her reading glasses, Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose. “What makes them swarm is one of the great bat mysteries. Even the latest research—” she tapped her glasses onto the paper—“even this can't explain why they fly out the way they do or why they choose the particular moment they decide to emerge.”

Olivia's dark, curly hair had been pushed up under a baseball cap, although strands escaped in tendrils that wound past her shoulders. Her hiking boots, scarred from years of climbing over rough terrain, were the same tan as her legs. Ashley was a smaller version of Olivia, with the identical olive skin that just grew darker throughout the summer. It was Jack and his father who had to slather on sunscreen or risk burning to a crisp. Jack, Steven, and now Sam, who shared their fair coloring.

“By the way,” Olivia said, “can any of you kids see where your dad's gone off to?”

Scanning the crowd, Jack looked for a tall, blond head, but it was useless. So many people had crowded together on the benches that it seemed as though a giant handful of confetti had been tossed into the amphitheater. He was about to say that there was no way anyone could spot

anyone in that place when Sammy announced, “He's over th-there, with that r-ranger.”

“Way to go, Sammy! Could you go get him for me?” Olivia asked. “He's not too far from here. I'll watch you the whole time.”

Sam shook his head no.

“OK, how about if Ashley goes with you. Would that be all right?”

Without answering, Sam nodded. Following Ashley, he made his way toward the ramp, his sturdy legs pumping hard to stay right behind Ashley as he climbed the stone steps.

“At least Sam went with Ashley,” Olivia said to Jack. “He's becoming far too dependent on you, Jack.”

“Hey, Sam's OK,” Jack countered. “He's doing better.”

“Better with you,” Olivia reminded him. “Not better with your dad or Ashley or me. You're the only one out of all of us he feels really safe with.”

That much was true, and all of the Landons knew it. When Ms. Lopez had arrived with Sam, he'd clung to her, big-eyed and silent.

“Sam, remember what we talked about,” Ms. Lopez had said in her gentlest voice. “Since your mother is so sick, the Landons are going to take care of you, just until your own mom gets better.”

“Hi, Sam,” Olivia had said. Bending down to eye level, she'd reached out her hand, but Sam had shrunk back behind Ms. Lopez's green dress until only half of his body could be seen. Ms. Lopez shot them all a concerned look as she gently pulled Sam forward, saying, “This is Steven. And this is Ashley.” Sam tried to slip behind her again, but she held him firm, her scarlet nails pressed into his shoulders. “Now I want you to meet Jack. My, would you look at that!” Ms. Lopez broke into a warm smile. “Do you see it? You two could pass for brothers. Same blond hair and blue eyes, and the same chin. An amazing resemblance, don't you think?”

Since Jack didn't know what to do, he said the first lame thing that popped into his mind. “Yeah, I guess we do look alike. So Sam, how 'bout if I call you Mini-Me.”

He could hardly believe it when the barest smile crept across Sam's face. The boy's lids had fluttered up, revealing light blue eyes the color of a robin's egg. He really was cute, with his pale blond hair and moon-shaped face. Encouraged, Jack said, “Hey, Sam, I was in the Everglades a while back, and I shot a picture of an alligator eating a turtle. Would you like to see it?”

It took a moment for Sam to respond. Finally, he gave a slight nod, edging to the front of Ms. Lopez.

“Jack,” Olivia broke in, flashing him a look, “maybe that picture isn't the right one to show him. It's a little…graphic.”

Jack was about to answer when Sam gave a tortured, “I don't c-c-care. I want to see the t-t-turtle.”

Although they'd been warned Sam was a stutterer, Jack wasn't prepared for how hard Sam had to work to get those words past his lips. Sam's whole face flushed as he looked back at the floor, the color deepening as it spread down his neck like a red stain. Pretending that he didn't notice, Jack said, “Tell you what, I'll show you my camera and teach you how it works.”

“You m-m-mean I can try the c-c-camera?”

“Sure. Just don't break it or anything.”

That had been the start. And now, three weeks later, Sam seemed to be more attached to Jack than ever. He followed Jack's every move, as if the two of them were pedals on a bike that worked in tandem. And Jack didn't really mind. It was nice finding out what it would have been like to have a brother. Although having a sister was fine, a brother definitely would have been different. Sam had dived into the box of Tonka trucks Jack kept in the back of his closet for old times' sake; he never got tired of shuffling through Jack's football cards or leafing through Jack's photography magazines; and he seemed fascinated by Jack's pictures, taking a roll of passable shots of his own. Although he didn't say much, Jack could tell how much Sam liked him. There were worse things than sharing a house with this kid.

Now, as Sam and Steven and Ashley returned to their seats, Jack realized the crowd was buzzing. Somewhere behind them a cell phone played a tune but was quickly silenced as the anticipation grew. And then, as suddenly as a puff of smoke, the first bats emerged to a loud
ooohhhh
from the crowd. They spiraled out of the cavern's mouth, past its rock lip and up into the sky like a whirling coil. Sam watched wide-eyed, his neck rolled back, his mouth slightly ajar, fists clenched.

“You OK?” Jack asked, wondering if the bats might scare Sam.

“Uh-huh. Are y-you?”

“Who, me? Yeah, sure. Of course.” Why did Sam ask that? Jack knew that he was quite safe as the creatures streaked overhead like tiny black missiles, guided by their perfect sonar system. They were not going to land in anyone's hair—that was only a myth.

Never would he admit it to Ashley, but something deep inside Jack chilled at the thought of what was erupting from the cave's inky blackness. That explosion of almost half a million swarming bats, hundreds of thousands of bizarre-looking creatures mushrooming from the depths of that enormous cavern, really did make his pulse rate rise. Jack pictured what it would be like to descend into one of the smaller caves in the vast network of Carlsbad Caverns. The Big Room wouldn't bother him, he knew that, not with its gigantic spaces and spectacular formations and columns. But the thought of some of those smaller, tighter, more confined spaces, dark as pitch and bristling with bats, made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Sam had seen a map of the hidden rooms that snaked though the cavern, and in his halting way he'd begged Jack to take him on the deeper trails, one called Left Hand Tunnel. Well, it couldn't happen before tomorrow, so there was no use worrying about it now. But how could Jack explain to an eight-year-old that the idea of a narrow, deep, dark tunnel full of bats left Jack less than enthusiastic? Sam's life had already spooked him enough as it was. No, let him believe Jack wasn't afraid of anything. He didn't need Jack's fears to add to his own pile.

More bats began to wheel up and out in a clockwise formation until it looked as though a column of smoke rose from an abyss. They came in bursts of black, fits and starts of bats, hundreds of them, thousands of them. In the dusk, he could see Sam watching, riveted and fascinated. Jack shook his head in amazement. After three weeks with the Landons, Sam still wouldn't say ten words to Olivia or Steven or Ashley, and yet, when faced with bats and caves, he didn't act scared at all. Only people seemed to frighten him.

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