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DEAD MAN'S CAVE Jake stopped on the narrow, shadowy trail that led to Dead Man's Cave. He turned around to face his younger brother Peter, who was following close behind. Peter's eyes looked scared, and his brown freckles stood out against his pale, sweating skin. "Where are we going?" Peter asked, his eyes nervously darting from one side of the path to the other. "You know," Jake answered, staring at him long and hard. "Come on, Jake, you're just kidding, aren't you?" Peter asked. He looked as though he might start crying at any moment. "No, I'm not kidding," Jake said. "We're going to Dead Man's Cave." He reached up, snapped off a branch from an overhanging tree, and switched it back and forth in the air. "But, Jake," Peter pleaded. "You know those stories about Dead Man's Cave. . . ." "I don't believe those old stories anymore," Jake snapped. "There aren't any ghosts in that old cave. Nothing's going to come out and grab us. Parents just say those things to scare kids." "Well, if the stories aren't true, then why's it called Dead Man's Cave?" Peter asked. "Because a bunch of miners were killed there in a cave-in years ago," Jake said, starting down the trail again. "Come on, let's get moving." He glanced back to see if Peter was following. Peter was right behind him, same as always. Ever since they were little kids, Peter had been like Jake's pet dog, following him everywhere. Jake hadn't planned on going to Dead Man's cave today. He had just woken up that morning knowing he was going to do it. Summer vacation was almost over, and when he went back to school, he wanted to have something to brag about to his friends. Most of all, he wanted to do the thing that his father had forbidden most. Jake stopped again to get his bearings. The trail had led into a stand of fir trees that blotted out the sun overhead. A wind came out of nowhere, stirring the branches up and down like huge flapping arms. "How do you know where we're going?" Peter asked in a trembling voice. "This has to be the way," Jake said. "Dad warned me enough times to stay away from here. And I found an old map at home. Dead Man's Cave is marked on it in dark red ink. We're going in the right direction . . . I know it." Jake picked up the trail again on the far side of the clearing. He thought it was strange that the trail even still existed. After all, no one was supposed to come to Dead Man's Cave anymore. Jake motioned Peter to hurry up and then set off down the narrow trail that twisted into a gully. Behind him, Peter was whimpering, "Jake, let's turn back." "Go ahead, if you want," Jake answered. He knew Peter would never go back alone. He was too scared, and he was sure to get lost. The path was getting harder and harder to see now. Even Jake wasn't sure what direction they were going in anymore. The trail leveled out in a heavily wooded forest at the bottom of the gully. The plants on the ground had changed from a bright green to a sickly greenish yellow. Toadstools grew around the thick tree trunks, some of them speckled with dark orange spots. Jake looked up at the twisted branches of the dark trees overhead. They twined together like a spider's web over the path. There was a heavy, sickly sweet odor in the air, like the smell of something rotting, and strange insects crawled across the damp forest floor. For the first time, Jake felt a current of fear pass through his body. He thought of the nightmares he'd had about Dead Man's Cave, ever since his parents had first told him about it. He wiped his hand across his forehead and noticed that his fingers were trembling. Before he could be tempted to turn back, he quickly walked through the trees toward a wall of brown and yellow ferns. "Let's go home," Peter whimpered again from behind. But it was too late. Just beyond the wall of ferns, Jake came to a sudden stop at the edge of a dark, deep hole. It was Dead Man's Cave, yawning down into the earth like an evil mouth. Jake felt Peter's cold fingers wrap around his arm. "This is it," Jake whispered. He stared down into the deep pit that led to the mouth of the cave. There was something down there that he was determined to find. His father had told him about it. Something was just inside the cave that nobody had ever brought back. Jake didn't know what it was . . . but he planned to find out. "Okay, we've seen it," Peter whispered. "Now let's get out of here." He tugged on Jake's arm and tried to pull him away from the edge. "No, I'm going down," Jake said. "There's something I've got to get." He jerked his arm out of Peter's grip and grabbed hold of a bush that grew along the edge of the pit. Then he started climbing down toward Dead Man's Cave. Peter leaned over the edge and yelled, "Get out!" Deep, ghostly voices echoed back out of the pit, Get Out Get Out Get Out. For a moment, Jake froze. He told himself that the voices had to be an echo. But they didn't sound like Peter. They sounded like the voices he'd heard in his nightmares. Jake looked up at Peter's face, peering over the edge of the pit. It was bleached white as a sheet. "Go away!" Jake yelled at him angrily. The voices breathed the words back at him, over and over, GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY. Jake was too scared to move. Then something cold and slimy crawled over his hand. He looked down and saw a striped snake slither into a crack near his arm. With a scream, he jerked away his hand and fell down onto a ledge five feet below. Scrambling to his feet, he searched the rocks around him. He had never thought about snakes in Dead Man's Cave. Not even in his nightmares. Another snake slithered across his foot. Jake jumped to the side and fell, twisting his leg under him. Painfully, he picked himself up and crept down toward the cave. From the top of the pit, Peter shouted down another warning. "Don't do it!" Jake froze, waiting for the voices. This time, they screamed at him, DON'T DO IT DON'T DO IT DON'T DO IT. Jake was too close to turn back now. He ran on toward the mouth of Dead Man's Cave with the echoing voices chasing after him. Finally, he reached the cave and fell on his knees in front of it. It was pitch-black inside, like an invisible curtain had been pulled down over it. Jake reached out his hand into the cave. He felt cold air, like a dead man's breath, creep over his skin. He dropped his fingers to the cave floor, but all he felt was a squirming mass of baby spiders. Jake jerked away his hand in disgust; then, steeling his nerves, he searched the cave floor again. His fingers closed around something hard and cold. Trembling, he pulled it out into the light. It was a skull -- a human skull -- covered with green mold. The eye sockets were empty holes and the yellow teeth were set in a weird grin. A crawling beetle was coming out between one of the open gaps where a tooth had rotted away. With a shudder, Jake held it up for Peter to see. "It's mine," he yelled in triumph. A strange silence hung over the pit. Jake looked around, waiting for the echoing voices. "It's mine!," he shouted again even louder than before. But Dead Man's Cave was as quiet as a tomb. Jake looked back at the moldy skull sitting in his shaking hands. As he stared at it, the eyes began to glow a neon green and the yellow teeth suddenly opened wide into a deathly grin. Then the skull whispered at Jake in a mocking voice, "No,YOUR mine!" The last thing Jake heard was the skull's demonic laughter echoing over and over against the walls of the pit. Then a ton of stones came crashing down, burying Jake forever in Dead Man's Cave.

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