In order to write the following scene from my post-Civil War historical, A Man Like That, I had to allow (i.e. force) myself to experience three of my hot-button fears: heights, caves, and being overpowered.
In this excerpt, Morgan and Jessy are searching for his pregnant sister, who has run away:
He reached back. “Take my hand. I’ll go first. The trail gets steep up ahead, with lots of loose rock underfoot.”
She entrusted her small hand to his and followed him. Morgan was right. A few yards into the woods, the trail began a steep descent toward the rushing cataracts of the river. The trees barely muffled the splashing sounds of water racing over rocks, fallen tree trunks, and any other impediments nature had the nerve to throw in its path. Several times her feet slipped on loose pebbles, but Morgan’s strong grip held her upright.
“Where are the caves?” she asked, trying to subdue her panic. The incline was so steep it seemed they were sliding down the face of a tree-covered cliff.
“The caves are above the river on this side.” He squeezed her hand. “We’re almost there.”
They skittered down another short section of trail before coming to rest on a ledge of solid rock. The sounds of the water were very close now. Hesitantly, Jessy stepped toward the edge of the rock ledge and peered over. About twenty feet below, the river coursed through the wide gorge it had carved in the rock. An unfamiliar fear of heights assailed her at the sight of the sheer drop, and she jumped back.
Morgan clasped her hand, drawing her toward him. “Don’t worry. I won’t let you fall.”
“That’s very reassuring,” she replied, trying to sound unconcerned as she regained her footing.
He tugged her hand. “The caves are over here.”
She turned to follow but stopped short when she spotted the gaping black maw in the side of the hill. A prickly chill raced up her arms. The dusky mouth of the cave was ominous enough, but the striped limestone walls soon disappeared into an inky blackness that appeared to descend straight to the center of the earth. She held back at the entrance. “How can you search in there? It’s too dark to see anything.” She tried to mask her anxiety with logic. “There might be
animals in there, a bear or something.”
“What’s the matter? Lost your nerve?”
His teasing voice raised her hackles. She jerked her hand from his grasp. “It just seems like a waste of time if we can’t see.”
Morgan slid the small pack off his shoulder. “Unlike you, I came prepared. I brought a candle.” He struck a match.
She crossed her arms. “I’ll wait for you here.”
He reached out a long arm, snagging her elbow and pulling her with him toward the cave. “You’ll be safer with me. You’re more likely to be eaten by a bear out here, anyway. It’s too early for the bears to hibernate. They’re out hunting for food, fattening up for the winter.”
At his mention of bears, Jessy grudgingly ceased her resistance. She had managed to avoid meeting a bear for twenty-one years, and she didn’t want to spoil her record this morning. At least Morgan was armed if they should encounter any hungry wildlife.
The entrance of the cave was tall enough to stand in. She glanced at the rock walls lit by the candle’s yellow glow. Strange markings and drawings covered the walls, and the ceiling near the entrance had been blackened by smoke. She shivered. “Someone’s been here, but I don’t
think it’s Sally.”
“These caves have been used as long as there have been people in these hills,” Morgan replied. “Those drawings were made by the Indians long before white men moved into this part of the country, maybe even before they came to
the Indians left, the caves have been used to hide all sorts of things. Caleb
and his friends used to hide whiskey and counterfeit money here.” America
“Well, Sally’s not here, so I think we should go back outside.”
“I want to check a couple of smaller chambers in the back. I might be able to tell if she spent the night here.”
He held the candle closer to the back wall, and Jessy saw a smaller opening, just big enough to crawl through. Her heart began to pound, and she couldn’t seem to draw a full breath. “If you think I’m going through that hole, you can think again.”
He crouched near the entrance to the smaller chamber. “You want to stay out here by yourself?”
“I’m not moving from this spot. If a bear comes, I’ll scream. I promise.”
He cocked a brow. “Suit yourself. I won’t need my rifle, so I’ll leave it with you. Try not to shoot yourself.” With that ringing vote of confidence, he laid the weapon on the floor of the cave and disappeared through the hole, taking the candle with him.
Although her eyes had partially adjusted to the dim light, Jessy inched back toward the entrance. If she stayed just inside the mouth of the cave, she would be keeping her promise, but she would also be able to see out and breathe fresh air. Maybe that would help fight the feeling that the walls and ceiling were closing in on her.
Suddenly, the light dimmed, and a dark outline filled the entrance, the outline of a man with a gun. Jessy gasped. With a speed belying his size, the man reached in, grabbed her, and clamped a filthy hand over her mouth, stifling her cry. She struggled in his grasp, but he was huge, huge and unkempt and as malodorous as fetid swamp water.
“Stop wiggling,” he growled low in her ear. He pinched his meaty fingers together for emphasis, grinding her soft inner cheeks into her teeth. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth, and she fought harder. She struggled to form sounds in her throat. She had to make some kind of noise. She had to warn Morgan.
“Shut up and hold still, or I’ll have to knock your head into the wall,” the giant threatened. He lifted her off her feet and made a motion to follow through on his words. Jessy stopped struggling. She couldn’t do Morgan any good if she were unconscious or dead.
“We’re going to wait here quiet-like ’til he comes out,” her captor whispered. His hand pinched tighter, and her eyes watered from the pain.
“You understand?” he asked.
She nodded the best she could. Who was this monster, and what did he want? He must have watched them enter the cave, because
he obviously knew Morgan was with her and intended to capture him, too.
“There’s no sign of her here, but I did find a sizeable stash of corn liquor.” Morgan’s voice echoed from the smaller chamber.
Jessy struggled and tried to cry out, but the hand across her mouth tightened brutally.
“I wonder if it’s part of Ethan’s supply,” Morgan continued. His head reappeared through the opening.
At that moment, Jessy gave a sudden, sharp kick backward into the shin of the man who held her, catching him by surprise.
“Yeooww!” he howled, but his grip remained as
tight as ever.
Morgan’s hand shot forward toward the rifle he’d left on the floor of the cave.
“Drop it, Bingham, and come on out of there,” the monster growled. “I got your lady friend here, if that’s what you call this hellcat in pants. If you want to make sure she don’t get hurt no worse, you’ll come out real careful-like.”
What about you? Do you like to be scared when you're reading, or writing? What scares you most?