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An Unexpected Adventure  by KathyG

(Co-written by KathyG and Dreamflower.)  In the spring of 2012, four American children find themselves thrust into an unfamiliar fantasy world and part of an unexpected adventure. This story is AU and blends Lord of the Rings book-verse and movie-verse.  This story also contains a lot of spiritual and religious content as a part of the AU elements.  It's also in the process of being posted on Fanfiction.net, Archive of Our Own, Many Paths to Tread, and LiveJournal.  (Posted here with permission from the admins of SoA.) 

Disclaimer: The world of Middle-earth and all its peoples belong to the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien; the three films of The Lord of the Rings belongs to New Line Cinema and to Peter Jackson.  This story is not for profit, but is a gift for the enjoyment of those who read it.

Citations: In most chapters, there will be some quotations directly from both the books and/or the movies.  Quotations from Tolkien's books are in italics, and quotations from the movies are underlined.  Occasional quotations from other sources as well as silent dialogue, words spoken in emphasis, and passages from the Bible will also be in italics, and those citations will be footnoted at the end of each chapter in which they occur. We will also footnote research sources and credit the ideas of other people.

Thanks: We would also like to acknowledge the invaluable help of our beta, Linda Hoyland, another well-known and prolific LotR fanwriter, whose many wonderful stories also grace this site.

Prologue

“Kaylee!  Joey!  Megan!  Come on, children, it’s time to go!” Gail McCloud called.

The three younger children, who were in the backyard playing with their new Cocker spaniel puppy, Lucy, raced toward the gate leading into the front yard; Kaylee, age five, grabbed hold of Lucy en-route and lugged her to the car.  Already, the minivan was loaded with camping supplies and the family’s personal belongings.  One of Kaylee’s favorite dolls, Baby Alive, was already sitting on the middle seat; Joey’s video game lay next to it; and three-year-old Megan’s baby seat was ready for occupancy.

The older children, Kevin and Jennifer, stood leaning against the car trunk, their backpacks dangling from their backs.  Mr. McCloud came out the front door of their one-story ranch house, car keys in hand, and approached the minivan in the driveway.

“Your backpacks are in the trunk, children,” their father Steven said, as he swung the driver’s door open.  “In the car, everybody.  Time to go.”

“What about Uncle Ryan and Aunt Janet, Daddy?” Jennifer asked.

“We’re swinging by their place, and they’re going to follow us in their car,” Gail said, as she opened the middle passenger door on the minivan’s right side, to fasten Megan into her baby seat.  Turning around, she noticed that Joey was the only child who was wearing his white sneakers.  She shook her head at him.  “Young man, I want you to go back inside and put on your hiking boots now!”

“Mom!” Joey whined.  “Do I have to?!”

“Yes, Joey, you have to,” his mother said firmly.  “Your boots will protect your feet from snakes and sharp rocks and things like that much better than your sneakers will.  Now go inside and put them on.  Your backpack’s already in the car.”  Grumbling, Joey did as he was told.

Minutes later, he returned outside, his feet clad in his brown hiking boots.  Gail surveyed the children’s feet with satisfaction; all of them were wearing their hiking boots now.  However, Kaylee’s boots had come untied, and so her mother knelt to re-tie them.  As soon as Megan was strapped into her car seat, the family piled into the minivan, and Steven McCloud turned on the ignition.

“Everybody got your seat belts on?” he asked.  His wife turned her head to scan the four children.  The backpacks were lying on the floor of the back seat.  Kaylee snapped her seat belt on with Joey’s help, and Gail smiled her approval.  Her husband backed out onto the residential street and drove toward the intersection.  Joey picked up the nine-week-old puppy and rubbed her silky head; Lucy licked his fingers and then started chewing on them.  The afternoon sunlight poured into the minivan.

Gail glanced back at Joey and Lucy.  She had been uncertain about taking the little puppy with them, but since Ryan and Janet were going along, there was no one they could ask to dog-sit a puppy that wasn't even housebroken yet.  They couldn't afford to board her for the length of time they'd be gone.  Gail was a little worried, since the pup was too young for her shots yet.  Still, they would be in an isolated part of the park.  Lucy should be safe there. 

Several minutes later, they pulled to a stop by a one-story brick house.  Mr. McCloud’s brother, Ryan McCloud, and his wife, Janet, were waiting by their car.  Mr. McCloud rolled down his window and extended his left arm toward Ryan.  “Hey, bro, ready to leave?”  He laughed.

Uncle Ryan chuckled.  “Ready and waiting for you, little brother!”  The two men grinned at each other, and Ryan and Janet climbed into their car.  A few minutes later, the two cars were speeding down the street toward the intersection.

“Daddy, why are we going camping now?” Joey asked, as he cuddled Lucy against his chest.  “School’s not even out yet!”

“I’m under orders from my supervisor, son,” Mr. McCloud said.  “My supervisor wants me to go to one of the state parks and collect as many different kinds of soil samples as possible, so that the other Department of Land Conservation and Development scientists and myself can run some tests on them.  I’ve gotten permission from the park manager to collect them at Wallowa Lake State Park,* where we’re going.”

“That’s right,” Mrs. McCloud added.  “Your father’s going to be very busy for the next several days.”

Mr. McCloud nodded agreement.  “I did some thinking, and it was clear that I had a choice.  I could either spend the entire time at Wallowa Lake State Park separated from my family while I collected the samples, or I could take my family on a campout while I was at it, since it’s Easter break.  Your mom and I talked about it, and that’s what we decided to do.”

“I can’t wait to play on the swings!”  Clutching her doll to her chest, Kaylee started to bounce, only to find herself restrained by her seat belt.

Her mother chuckled.  “You’ll have to play in other ways, sweetheart.  We’re not going to the public section of the park for this camping trip, so there will be no playground this time.  We’re going to camp in one of the more isolated sections.”

“That’s right.”  Their father nodded.  “Your uncle’s camped in that section before, so he knows what to find there.  Perhaps he’ll take you exploring, if you ask him—you’ll have to wear your backpacks if he does.  And since Lucy’s going to be there with us, you can always play with her.”  He smiled.  “Don’t worry, children—even without a playground or a swimming area, you’ll still have fun.  And when school’s out for the summer, we’ll have another campout in the park—this time, in the public section, where the swimming area and the playground are.”

Behind the younger children, Jennifer exchanged a glance with her older brother, Kevin.  “Yes, Daddy.”  Handing Lucy over to Kaylee, who immediately began to cuddle the puppy alongside her blonde-haired Baby Alive doll, Joey turned on his Gameboy and began to play a video game.  Megan stuck her thumb into her mouth while holding her own doll.

“Are we going to Disneyland, too?” Kaylee asked hopefully.

Her father chuckled.  “Yep, Kaylee.  This summer, we’re going to Disneyland, too.”

“Oh, goody!” Kaylee squealed, kicking her legs against the car seat.  “We get to go to Disneyland, Lucy!” she told the wiggling puppy.  Her parents laughed, and Kevin and Jennifer exchanged amused grins.  Joey glanced at his younger sister and looked up at his parents, and then he turned his attention back to his video game.

“I wanna go Diseeand,” said Megan.

Mrs. McCloud smiled ruefully at her husband.  “You know, I’m surprised the park manager gave you permission, dear, seeing as it’s against park rules to collect plants or any other natural resources on their grounds.”

Mr. McCloud chuckled.  “I know, hon.  But remember that my geology work is for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development.  The samples I will take are meant to check the health of the soil in the park, and make sure that it hasn't been affected by pollution or other harmful things.  He knows that, and that I know how to do it without damaging the site."  He glanced at his watch.  “If all goes well, we’ll be arriving at the park shortly after four o’clock.  That’s check-in time for campsites.”

“Are we gonna have full hook-up, Daddy?” Jennifer asked hopefully.

Mrs. McCloud answered for her husband.  “No, sweetheart, not this time.  As your daddy said, we’re going to camp in one of the primitive sections of the park this time, in tents.  It’ll be only a tent site with a stream nearby, a picnic table, and a paved parking area not far from the campsite, but no utilities.”

Jennifer grimaced.  She much preferred the full-hookup sites, where she could have running water, electricity, and ready access to a bathroom with plumbing, as well as a paved parking area nearby.  The complaints she wanted to utter died on her lips, however, as she glanced up at her father’s expression in the mirror.  It would do no good to complain, she knew; instead, she exchanged a scowl with Kevin.  At least, Jennifer thought, she had packed her silver-colored baton, and so she would be able to spend some time every day practicing her majorette routines while they were at Wallowa Lake State Park.  She had been twirling the baton ever since she had been just seven years old, and as the assistant leader of the Portland Optimist Youth Band Baton Corps, it was necessary for her to keep up her skills for when the corps marched in parades, and performed during halftime at sports events.

“We’ll camp in a full-hookup site this summer, Jennifer,” her father promised.  “For this camping trip, we’ll all just have to make the best of it.”

Jennifer sighed.  “Yes, Daddy.”

Grimacing in his turn, Kevin glanced at his sister, and then looked at the back of his father’s head.  “Uh, Dad, I don’t suppose there’s any chance there’ll be Wi-Fi at the park?”

“No, son, there’s not,” Mr. McCloud answered.  “None of the state parks are set up for Wi-Fi.”

“We’ll just have to do without Internet access until we’re back home,” Mrs. McCloud added.

“Yes, Mom.”  Sighing, Kevin shook his head, and he and Jennifer exchanged more grimaces.  It was going to be a long six days.  There would be no Internet access until they were back in Portland on late Saturday afternoon.  They’re probably not set up for cell phone access either, he thought ruefully. I wonder if we’ll even be able to text!

Suppressing a sigh, Kevin picked up his Android tablet and turned it on, and Jennifer pulled out her iPhone.  They fully meant to enjoy their Internet before the family was out of the range of its signal.  Jennifer sent a quick text to her best friend, Nicole Adams, explaining that they were on their way to the state park where they were going to camp out and would not be back until late Saturday afternoon, and Kevin emailed one of his basketball buddies.  Joey continued to play his video game, and Kaylee cuddled her doll and Lucy, singing and talking to them both.  Megan soon fell asleep in her baby seat with her rag doll in her arms.  Soon, the two cars were speeding west on the freeway.  As soon as they were out in the countryside, both Kevin’s tablet and Jennifer’s cell phone lost the signal, and so they shut them off and slipped them into their backpacks.

Jennifer leaned her head against the back of the car seat and sighed.  If only I could have brought a boyfriend with me, maybe this trip would be easier to tolerate.  Or if Nicole had been free to come with me!  Too bad she couldn’t have invited a boy from school to come with them; she might have been able to, if she had a boyfriend.  I’m fourteen; surely, I’m old enough to date!  There’s a high-school junior at school I would really love to date, if only he’d ask me.  He’s so cute, and he’s nice.  Thank goodness he’s in our church’s youth group, too!  Shaking her head, she closed her eyes and thought about the discussion she’d had with her mother the other day.

-oo000oo-

“But why can’t I go on a date?” Jennifer argued.  “I’m fourteen now; I’m not a child anymore!”

Her mother shook her head, smiling ruefully.  “Jennifer, remember what your father says?”

Jennifer sighed.  “‘You have to learn to be a friend with boys before you can be a girlfriend,’” she quoted dully.

“And he’s right.”  Gail patted her shoulder.  “When you’re fifteen, we'll allow you to go on double-dates, as Kevin does now.”

Jennifer shrugged.  “Double-dates, huh?”

“That’s right, and then single dates when you’re sixteen,” her mother said firmly, but fondly.  "You are too young to be dating yet, Jennifer.  You'll have many years ahead of you for dating."  

Jennifer sighed again.  “Yes, Mom.”  She looked into her mother’s eyes.  “When I am allowed to date, would you pray that God will give me a boyfriend?”

Gail laughed.  “Certainly.”  She ruffled her daughter’s hair.  "If you need a boyfriend in your life, then I am sure He will have someone for you.  But you know that He will work in His time, not ours…''

-oo000oo-

Jennifer grimaced.  If only she could start dating now!  Even if Tim were to ask me out, Mom wouldn’t let me go out with him till I’m older.  I’d have to say no.  She shook her head, gazing down at the car floor.  I’ll have to find some other way to endure this camping trip.  It’s gonna be a long week!  She scowled, and then removed a book from her backpack to start reading.  She started reading Little Women.

A few hours after the McClouds had left their home, the two cars pulled up into Wallowa Lake State Park’s paved parking area within easy walking distance from the campsite.  Jennifer slipped her book into her backpack.  Steve and his wife stepped out of the minivan, followed by their four older children.  Joey stuffed his Gameboy into his backpack and scrambled out of the car.  Gail unfastened Megan from her baby seat and set the little girl on her hip.  Under her mother’s eagle eye, Kaylee unzipped her backpack and thrust her doll into it; as soon as she had zipped her backpack back up, she clasped the wriggling puppy to her chest and followed her older brothers and sister.  Meanwhile, Uncle Ryan and Aunt Janet stepped out of their own car and joined the others.

For a long moment, they all scanned the campsite.  As Jennifer’s father had told her, there was a running stream close to the campsite, and a picnic table stood in the center.  Cottonwood, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir trees surrounded the campsite.

At last, Steve cleared his throat and glanced at the back of the minivan.  “Well, everyone, before we do anything else, we’d better get everything out so we can get started making camp.  We need to have the tents all set up when we start supper.”

“Right.”  Uncle Ryan strode toward the back of the minivan and opened the back door.  With his brother’s help, he pulled out the tarpaulins, one at a time.  With the help of their wives and the three older children, the two men dragged each tarpaulin to the middle of the campsite, and then Steve and Uncle Ryan returned to the minivan to get the tent posts, the mallets, and the rest of the tent equipment.

At one point, Kevin picked up his father’s rifle and examined it for a moment.  Then he laid the rifle back in the car trunk, careful to make sure that the weapon's safety was still on.  As he walked away, he overheard his parents talking.

“Did you have to bring your rifle, Steve?” his mother said, with a sigh.  “It’s not hunting season, and surely it’s too early for wild animals to be out and about.”

“Not necessarily.  Since it’s the first week of April, some of the bears have come out of hibernation,” his father said.  “And since we’re more isolated here, we can’t be sure that some bear won’t come nosing through our supplies at some point.  I won’t take the chance of one of us being mauled by a bear, Gail, not when I have the means to protect my family.”

“It’s too dangerous around the children,” Gail argued.

“Kevin knows how to safely handle a gun.”

“Yes, he does, but the other children don’t.”

“Which is why I have forbidden them to touch it when I’m not there to keep an eye on them.”

Shaking his head, Kevin approached the barbecue grill his Uncle Ryan was setting up; the camp stove had already been removed from the back of the minivan and set up.  Surely, there won’t be any bears here, he thought.  Good thing Dad’s been taking me deer-hunting in hunting season, for the past few years!  At least I know how to shoot and handle a gun safely.

As he walked past the camp stove and the grill, he looked toward the others.  His parents were busy at the moment, helping Aunt Janet to arrange the tarpaulin.  Kevin sighed.  I really wish I could ask Mom and Dad's advice, he thought.  I know Gene knows I caught him cheating the other day on the history test.  If I tell, he’ll hate me.  He shook his head.  If I ask Mom or Dad to pray for me, they'll want to know why.  He's one of my best friends.  I'd like to ask him about it, but ever since he saw me notice, he's been avoiding me.

Kevin looked at his mother and father.  They’re too busy right now, but when I have a chance, I’m gonna ask them to pray about it, even though it’s gonna mean telling them.  I guess I really do need their advice.

He glanced at his watch.  It’s past four.  Kevin paused to look into the trunk and smiled.  I’m glad I brought my guitar!  At least, we can sing some songs at night, when Dad’s got the campfire going.  I hope Joey brought his harmonica.

“Kevin?” his mother called.  “Come on now; we need your help!”  Nodding, Kevin hurried toward the others.

“I wish I could have brought my Spider-Man backpack,” Joey grumbled, as Jennifer handed him his backpack.

“It’s not waterproof, Joey,” his mother pointed out.  “We didn't want you children bringing any backpacks that could get ruined, in case it rains.”

Jennifer ruffled her little brother’s hair.  “Anyway, Star Wars isn’t so bad either, is it?”

Shrugging, Joey carried his backpack to the campsite and dropped it on the ground next to Kevin and Jennifer’s backpacks.  Kaylee’s own backpack still lay in the back seat of the McClouds’ minivan.

Smiling at him in amusement, Jennifer turned to approach the pile of backpacks, where she picked hers up.  For a moment, she smiled ruefully at its weight; she had packed so much in there, it was heavy.  I was going to pack four of my books in it, but then Kaylee came in, wanting me to put in some of hers.

Closing her eyes, Jennifer looked back over the events of that morning, while everyone was still packing…

-oo000oo-

Jennifer was trying to decide which of her favorite novels to put in her backpack: did she want A Wrinkle in Time or Anne of Green Gables?  She had room for both, but she also had Little Women and a historical novel for teenagers which had come out in 2010, the last book of The Squire’s Tales series: The Legend of the King.  She had read none of the four yet, and she was hoping to get started on them during spring break.  If she kept her backpack with her in the car, she would have time to get started on them while they were on their way.  It looked like there was room for them all, but would she have time to read while they were camping?  She had already promised to read to Kaylee during their camping trip, and she was determined to practice her majorette routines as well, so she wouldn’t get rusty.

Suddenly, she was interrupted by Kaylee's soft voice.  "Jennifer?"

Her little sister stood in the doorway of the bedroom that the two of them shared, with some books in one arm and the straps of her backpack hanging from the other one.  Jennifer sighed.  "What do you need, Kaylee?"

"Mommy's busy with packing up Megan's stuff.  She said I could take some books.  I got some of my 'Little Goldens' in, but my pack is too little for these.  Can you help me?"  She held up to Jennifer her Big Book of Fairy Tales, her illustrated paperback of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which Jennifer had started reading to her three nights before, and her copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Of course, they wouldn't fit into Kaylee's little backpack!  While they were not especially thick or heavy, the books were larger in size than the small paperbacks Jen was taking.  Well, she thought, I guess I'm only taking two books for myself.  I’m already reading her The Wonderful Wizard of Oz anyway, and I know she wants me to continue.  Quietly, she packed her little sister's books in with her own.

"Now, you're all set," she said as she zipped up Kaylee's pack.  "That's all you can take, Kaylee; no room for more."  She packed The Legend of the King and Little Women in her backpack along with Kaylee’s books and laid the other two books back on her bookcase, and then she smiled at her little sister.  “Just think: we’ll be getting back home just time for the Easter bunny to pay us a visit!”

“Goody!”  Kaylee smiled broadly and raced down the hall ahead of her sister…

-oo00000-

Smiling at the memory, Jennifer shook her head, and then she watched the adults unloading the tent equipment.  When all of the tent equipment lay in a pile on the ground several feet from the fire ring, the family just stood there for a moment.  Kaylee set Lucy on the ground, and the puppy began to sniff around.  “We may as well wait a few minutes to catch our breath, before we get started setting the tents up,” Steve said, “but not too long.”  He glanced at his watch.  “It’ll be too late to start looking for soil samples when we’ve finished setting up the tents, so I’ll have to start that tomorrow after breakfast.”  Gail nodded agreement.

“Can we play?” Joey asked, hopping from one foot to the other.  He scanned the woods surrounding the campsite.  “I wish there was a swing set.”

“Me, too.”  Kaylee jumped more than once.

“What can we do?” Jennifer asked.

Uncle Ryan smiled at her, and then scanned the children’s faces.  “Well, you know, kids,” he said, “several years ago, one summer, your Aunt Janet and I spent a few days at this very campsite.  And while we were here, I did a little bit of exploring at one point.”

He glanced toward the dirt path beginning at the other end of the campsite, and then turned back to the children.  “Just a short distance away from here, down that path, is a cave.  Just a tunnel, really, that extends into a steep hill.  But—”  He turned toward his brother, and then Gail.  “—I believe it would be quite safe for you children to explore, if your parents give you permission.”

The children exchanged eager glances of excitement.  “Please, Mom.  Please, Daddy!  Can we go see the cave?” Joey begged.  “Right now?”

“Yes, can we?  Please?” Jennifer added.  Kevin nodded agreement as he gave their parents a pleading look, his own face eager and anxious.  Kaylee jumped twice in eager anticipation.  Megan, at three, was the only child who seemed to be more interested in playing in the dirt than in the prospect of exploring a cave.

Their parents exchanged amused glances, and Gail shook her head at her brother-in-law.  “You would have to put ideas in the children’s heads, Ryan!” she reproved.

Uncle Ryan laughed.  “It’s safe, Gail.  Quite safe,” he assured her.  “I went clear to the back of that cave while we were here, and encountered no danger.  I would not recommend anything to my nieces and nephews unless I knew it was safe.”

“I know you wouldn’t, Ryan,” Steve agreed.  “And I’m sure the cave was safe back then, but several years have since passed, and we don’t know what has changed in the meantime.  And don’t forget that some of the bears are out of hibernation.”  He returned to the minivan, where he pulled out his backpack.  Returning to the campsite, he unzipped it and removed his flashlight.  “I want to see that cave for myself before I say yes or no.  I also want to make sure there are no signs of bears on the way.”

Ryan nodded agreement.  “I’ll go with you.”  He turned to his wife and sister-in-law.  “We won’t be gone long.”  After they had slipped their backpacks on over their backs, he and Steve strode down the dirt path, soon disappearing around the corner.

Several minutes later, Steve and Uncle Ryan returned.  “It’s all right.  It’s quite safe,” Steve assured his wife, as he removed his backpack.  “Ryan and I have investigated that cave quite thoroughly, to its very end, and there’s nothing in there to endanger the children.  Nor did we come across any signs of bears on our way there or back.”

“All right.”  Gail nodded toward Kevin, Jennifer, and Joey.  “You older children can explore the cave.  Don’t be gone long, now.  We’ll need your help to set up the tents when you get back, and then we’ve still got to cook supper.”

She glanced down at the fire ring on the ground and then turned to her husband.  “I’m so glad we brought our camp stove and our barbecue grill, Steve.  A campfire’s good enough for roasting marshmallows and wieners, and singing campfire songs around, but I much prefer a camp stove or a grill to cook our meals on.  I’ll need your help getting it out of the car, honey, when the tents are set up.”

He nodded, and then turned to the older children.  “Run along."

“But I wanna go see it, too!”  Kaylee pouted.  “I wanna see that cave.”

“It’ll be all right, Gail,” Steve assured his wife.  “There’s nothing in that cave to endanger a little girl.”

Gail sighed.  “All right, but Megan’s staying here.”  She glanced down at the three-year-old, who was fully occupied with digging in the dirt, and chuckled.  “She’d rather play in the dirt anyway.  Kevin, Jennifer, look after Kaylee and Joey, will you?”

“Yes, Mom,” Kevin promised, as he crouched to make sure that his shoelaces were fastened tightly.  Steve and Uncle Ryan laid their backpacks back in their cars and began to get out the tent poles and mallets while Mrs. McCloud and Aunt Janet commenced unrolling the tarpaulins.

Kaylee peered up at her parents.  “Go with us, Mommy?” she begged.

Gail shook her head.  “It’s not far to the cave, honey, and your daddy and I aren’t going anywhere.  We’ll be right here when you return.”

“Besides, you’ll be with us, Kaylee,” Kevin added.  “You won’t be alone.”

For a moment, Kaylee looked back and forth from her parents to the dirt path, a mixture of longing and apprehension etched on her face; clearly, she was torn between her desire to see the cave and her fear of leaving her parents behind even temporarily.  However, her yearning to explore the cave soon won out.  Without a word, Kaylee picked up Lucy and snuggled the wriggling puppy against her chest.  “Kay-LEE!!  What on earth are you doing?”  Jennifer sounded both amused and exasperated.

“Lucy wants to see a cave, too!”  Kaylee glared up at her older sister, who rolled her eyes and exchanged a look with Kevin.  Shaking their heads, the adults watched in amusement as the three older children donned their backpacks and stuffed their flashlights in their jacket pockets, and as all of them hurried down the dirt path.  As the children disappeared around the bend, none of them noticed that Kaylee had left her own backpack behind in the minivan.

“Look!”  Squealing, Kaylee bent over to drop Lucy and darted toward the edge of the path, followed by the puppy.  An oval-shaped, tannish-brown pebble lay on the edge.  The little girl picked it up.  It was nearly flat, and it was about two inches in diameter.

“Look, everybody!”  Smiling broadly, she showed it to her brothers and sister.  “It’s so pretty, see?  I’m gonna keep this!”

Kevin and Jennifer laughed.  “All right, Kaylee, if Mom and Daddy don’t object, we don’t,” Jennifer said.  “Put it in your pocket and let’s go.” 

Nodding, Kaylee slipped it into her jeans pocket and picked Lucy back up.  Reaching up to his shoulder, Joey slipped his fingers underneath the right handle of his Star Wars backpack and pulled it forward, scowling at it.  “What’s the matter, Joey?” Jennifer asked him.

Joey sighed.  “I wish I had my Spiderman backpack.”  He shook his head.  “I really wanted to bring my Spiderman backpack.  But Mom wouldn’t let me, because it’s not waterproof.”  He scowled again, thrusting his lower lip out.

"Are you still on about that, little bro?" asked Kevin, rolling his eyes.  "You'd be even more ticked off if you'd brought it and it got ruined by rain.  Mom knows best, so just drop it."

With another scowl and a shrug, Joey turned loose of the handle and dropped his hands at his sides.  The children continued to follow the dirt path until, several minutes later, they came to the bottom of a steep hill that sharply rose to the left of the path.  A tunnel opened into that hill; at the far end, the children could see a bend in that tunnel curving towards the right.

“Look at this!” Joey cried out, as they paused at the entrance to the cave tunnel.  His bad mood had vanished.  “Cool!”

“Yeah!”  Kevin grinned.  “Come on, guys, let’s go see what’s around that corner up ahead!”

“Uh, hadn’t we better get out our flashlights first?” Jennifer pointed out.

“Oh, yeah.  We just need one, though.  Good thing we put them in our jacket pockets before we left!”  Kevin reached into his deep right jacket pocket and pulled out a flashlight.  He switched it on and grinned.  “OK, let’s go spelunking!”  Jennifer laughed, but Joey and Kaylee stared up at their older siblings, puzzled.

“What’s spe—spe—lunk…?”  Kaylee’s voice faded.

“Spelunking,” Jennifer said.  “To spelunk means to explore a cave.  And that’s what we’re doing, Kaylee.  We’re spelunking.”

“That’s right,” said Kevin.  “Let’s go.  Joey, Kaylee, stay close to Jennifer and me, and Kaylee, hold onto Lucy.”  The little girl nodded, and the four of them approached the bend in the tunnel.

“There won’t be much to see,” said Jennifer, as they rounded the bend.  “I don’t even see any stalactites or stalagmites.”

“Neither do I.  Not yet, anyway.  There might be some further down, near the end.”  Kevin shined his flashlight on the cave wall to his left and then on the wall to his right.  “Just as well, though, since Mom told us not to stay gone long.”

“Look, Lucy!”  Kaylee held Lucy up in front of her neck, turning the puppy to face toward the end of the tunnel, which was too dark to see without a flashlight aimed at it.  The puppy whined and wiggled, and Kaylee clasped Lucy back against her chest.  The puppy immediately commenced licking Kaylee’s neck, making her giggle.

Suddenly, just as Kevin started to aim his flashlight at the far end of the tunnel, the entire cave went pitch-black; even the flashlight seemed to go out.  In the same instant, the cave floor started shaking.  Kaylee screamed, and Jennifer grabbed hold of her.

“Stay close, you all!  Don’t move!”  Kevin’s voice shook.  Joey threw his arms around his older brother in a viselike grip, and Kevin held him and Jennifer tightly while Jennifer clutched Kaylee.

“Mommy!  Daddy!” Kaylee screamed.  “I want my mommy!!  I want my daddy!!”  She buried her face in Jennifer’s stomach and clutched Lucy tightly to her chest, whimpering; the puppy whined.  Jennifer held onto her little sister for dear life.

A moment later, the earth stopped shaking, and the thick darkness disappeared.  The four children gaped at their surroundings.  “What—what is this?”  Jennifer gasped.

“The cave’s changed!”  Joey couldn’t stop shaking.  “It’s—it’s different!”

The cave certainly did look different.  Instead of the grayish-brown walls that encircled the tunnel on all sides, including the ceiling, there was a narrow opening lining the roof that let the sunlight in.  That opening stretched as far as the children could see.  And the cave walls were much more jagged than the previous cave walls had been.

“C—come on,” Kevin stammered, his voice shaking.  “Let’s get back to the entrance pronto!”

Switching off his flashlight and shoving it back into his jacket pocket, he led the way around the bend and towards the entrance.  As it came into sight, Kevin and his siblings halted and froze in shock.  This entrance wasn’t level with the cave floor and the ground outside; it was a steep incline!  A huge boulder led upwards from the cave floor to the entrance.  And there were no trees beyond the entrance that they could see from where they were standing!

Jennifer took a deep breath and exchanged a glance with Kevin.  They must not panic; they must not frighten the children.  Please, God, don’t let me panic! she silently prayed.  Out loud, she asked, “What—what is happening, I wonder?”  To her relief, her voice remained steady.

“I—I don’t know.”  Kevin had regained control of his own voice; it did not shake that time.  He swallowed.  “Let’s climb this—this rock; I don’t know what else to call it—let’s climb it up to the entrance, and see what’s out there.”

“OK.”

Kevin turned to Kaylee.  “Give Lucy to Jen, Kaylee, and get on my back.”  Nodding, the little girl handed Lucy to Jennifer.  Kevin crouched on his knees, and Kaylee wrapped her arms around his neck.  Kevin rose to his feet.

“I want my mommy,” Kaylee whimpered.  “Where’s Mommy?  Where’s Daddy?”

Kevin reached up to pat her right arm.  “It’s going to be all right, Kaylee,” he told her soothingly.  “You’re not alone.  Mom and Dad aren’t with us, but we are in this together.”  In response, the little girl tightened her hold around his neck; when he tapped her arm, she loosened her grip slightly.  He patted her lower arm and began to climb the huge, jagged boulder, accompanied by the others at his side as they all climbed together.

As the children reached the entrance at the top of the incline, they again froze in shock.  Instead of the dense woods surrounding the level entrance into the other cave, this entrance was surrounded by what appeared to be some kind of prairie.  Huge, isolated boulders jutted out of the gently-rising hills here and there, and while evergreen trees did grow in every direction, there were not nearly enough of them to form a forest.  There was no path leading from the cave entrance that any of the children could see.

“Wh—where are we?”  Jennifer made a vain attempt to keep her voice from trembling.

Before any of her siblings could answer, a ferocious growl from somewhere nearby, outside of the tunnel entrance, startled them.  Kaylee screamed, and her brothers and sister slid back down the boulder to the bottom of the cave floor as the little girl clutched Kevin’s neck.  “Run!” Jennifer shrieked.

Still bearing Kaylee on his back, Kevin darted back in the other direction, followed by Jennifer and Joey, who ran in single file.  Lucy whined and yipped in Jennifer’s arms, but she clutched the puppy tightly to her chest.  Kaylee whimpered and trembled as she clutched her brother's neck in a tight grip; at the same time, she tried very hard not to choke him.  Sunlight poured through the tunnel roof’s wide crevice throughout the whole distance of the meandering tunnel.

At last, the children came to a narrow, very shallow waterfall that poured out of another crevice in the left wall of the now-widening cave tunnel.  “What—what was that?”  Joey’s voice shook, and he trembled.  “What was that vicious animal?!”

“Good question.”  Still holding Kaylee’s legs as she clung to his neck, Kevin peered toward the tunnel that they had just rushed through.  “A—a wolf?  A bear?  A cougar?  The way it sounded, it’s hard to tell.”

“No kidding!”  Jennifer wrapped her arms around her chest.  “At least it didn’t chase us, whatever it is, so we’re safe now.  Right now, we need to find out where we are.”

Nodding, Joey paused to drink from the waterfall in the same way that he would from a water fountain; as soon as Kevin had set Kaylee back on her feet, he and his sisters did the same.  Jennifer set Lucy on the ground at the edge of the stream, so that she could also have a drink; the delighted puppy lapped it up.

When puppy and humans had all quenched their thirst, Kaylee picked up Lucy and the children gazed around.  They had come to another bend that turned to their right.  “I believe we’re getting near the entrance.”  Kevin pointed ahead of him.

Jennifer nodded, then turned to Joey and Kaylee.  “Better be careful, you two; there’s stairs up ahead.”  She smiled wryly.  “Or I should say down ahead.”

“Stairs?”  Joey stared at the path ahead in disbelief.

“Nature-made stairs,” Kevin said, with a laugh.  “Not man-made.  God made these stairs, but He didn’t include a railing, so we’ll have to watch our step.  They lead downward, as you can see.”  He pointed forward.  “The stream from this waterfall behind us goes down these stairs, so we’ll have to be careful, so we won’t slip.”  Jennifer nodded agreement.

Slowly and carefully, the children picked their way down the stone steps, Jennifer holding on Kaylee so the little girl wouldn’t slip and fall, Kaylee clutching Lucy against her chest.  Kevin kept a hand on Joey’s shoulder.  The cave walls spread out at the entrance, and the cave floor ended at a ledge just a little way ahead of the entrance.  The stream poured over the edge of the ledge.  Once again, the children froze in shock.  “Whoa!” Joey cried out.

A steep, beautiful valley surrounded them from all sides.  Waterfalls poured down the edges of precipitous cliffs, and an extensive forest spread far ahead of them.  A huge, elegant complex of buildings appeared to jut out of the side of one of the snow-capped mountains across the valley.

-oo000oo-

A/N: *Wallowa Lake State Park is a real state park in Oregon.  However, we have taken the liberty of adding a convenient cave to the park.  No such cave exists in the real Wallowa Lake State Park.





        

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