This story is by CD Coffman and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Martin’s Mammoth Cave, Destiny
The saddle was slippery, Chipper soaked, and Martin Birdsong was miserable. He had plenty of time to think about the arguments he and Nanny May had with his mother. At first, his mother refused even the thought of Martin riding alone on his father’s gaited horse from Louisville to Mammoth Cave, KY.
Nanny May said, “Long before 18, Jeffery and me, we did jump the broom and had two babies.”
Martin argued, “Stephen Bishop was 17 when he started as a cave tour guide.”
Martin won that argument. Three sore days later, he regretted not taking his mother’s offer to ride the stagecoach. Martin stayed on the highway as he had promised the women.
Reminiscing, Martin relived that cold, terrifying day in 1842, when he and his mother walked down into Mammoth Cave Consumption Hospital for a visit. Consumption was a killer disease.
“When I saw father sleeping on that cot with old blood matted in his beard, I knew that he would never come home.”
The many rock formations mesmerized eleven-year-old Martin. He never forgot the stories that Stephen Bishop told the tour group. And when Stephen touched Martin’s shoulder and said, “Come back, revisit us after this disease.”
That first night south of Radcliff, Martin met a farmer. He allowed him to camp in his woods close to the highway.
“Son, you look mighty young on this highway alone, with that good-looking horse. You need be careful some highwaymen would kill to get their hands on that gelding.”
“Mr. Harris, I’ve graduated and ready for the University. I carry a new pistol and will use it. Chipper and I are on a journey to visit and mark my father’s grave. I will meet the famous Mammoth Cave explorer, Mr. Stephen Bishop.”
Mr. Harris said, “I’ve read about him in the newspapers.”
The next morning, Martin arose early, ate the last of May’s bread and jerky. It was noon when he saw a one-horse farm wagon pulled off to the road’s side. A woman was franticly waving a white handkerchief.
“Sir, I need help. My husband, Joseph Hobbs, was unhitching our mare, and she kicked him in the leg. It is a broken, bloody sight. I wrapped it up tight. We need help to get him to a Doctor.”
A loud cry came from the wagon. Mrs. Hobbs leaned over and picked up her baby. She patted his back, and the crying continued.
“Please help us! First, our baby is sick, and now Joseph needing the doctor in Elizabethtown.”
Martin said, “Mr. Hobbs, stand on your right leg? I’ll support you under your arm.”
“Yes, thank you. First, tie my lame mare to that tree and be careful she was skittish. Can we use your horse to pull my wagon to town?”
“Chipper has never pulled a wagon. We can try it.”
Martin and Mrs. Hobbs slowly helped Joseph climb into the back of the wagon.
“Please unloose the mare, and I will send my brother out here to get her.”
“Come on, Chipper, you can do this.”
Mr. Hobbs groaned with every bump. Then the bleeding started again. Mrs. Hobbs held his head on her lap, praying, and the baby on a pallet crying.
“Good boy Chipper. I know this is hard with that leather on your back and a screaming baby.”
Joseph was unconscious when they arrived at the doctor’s clinic, and the baby was still crying. Mrs. Hobbs slipped a 50-cent piece into his hand. Tearfully, she said, “Thank you, Mr. Martin. Take good care of yourself and this fine horse.”
Chipper shook, relieved to be out of that harness. Martin ensured his horse had a good feed and brushing at the livery for a job well done.
A large stack of flapjacks covered with sorghum molasses filled Martin. Rested, they headed down the highway at a steady clip towards Hodgenville. The slow drizzle started early, and despite Martin’s new rubberized raincoat, he was wet. He spent a dry night in a small inn and decided the next morning to continue traveling south. It was another damp day. Martin stopped at a roadside inn used by the stagecoach line. It was full of travelers waiting out the rain and mud.
The owner gave him a mattress on the floor in the far corner of the dining room. Halfway through the night, Martin started scratching his neck and ankles. It was full of fleas!
He heard laughter from the other side of the room. Two men were sitting at a table, playing cards, drinking, and watching him.
The stout one said, “What did you expect from a fleabag hovel like this, a feather mattress? Come on and play some cards. Where are you headed?”
The tall one asked, “Is that your horse out there in the shed?”
Martin was alert and remembered what farmer Harris told him.
“Yes, that is my father’s horse, and we are going to Mammoth Cave.”
“This road is impassable. Follow us in the morning, and we will show you a shortcut over to the cave.”
Martin said, “I have a stop to make in Munfordville, and this road is a straight shot.”
“You got a lot of flea bites. You might need to pour some strong Jim Beam on them.”
Martin said, “Not for me.”
He laid his pistol out on the table and kept busy cleaning and reloading his handgun. He rearranged the saddlebag contents as they watched. Reading a newspaper and scratching bites kept him alert, making sure they didn’t steal his horse.
The clouds cleared out a few hours before Hardyville. The Green River flooded and was dangerous. Martin stayed at another roadside Inn and treated his bites. Desperate to stop the itching, he used horse liniment. Jefferson, who cares for the family horses, uses it on everything.
He waited for two days. When the stagecoach moved out, he followed them across the river. Traveling southwest, then he turned due west on the well-marked cave road.
Martin arrived at Mammoth Cave Inn, and a young lady was the desk clerk. She gave him a friendly smile. He secured a room for three nights and asked about a tour with Mr. Bishop the next day.
“Mr. Birdsong, is your family the owners of the Apothecary in Louisville?”
Martin said, “Yes. Miss, I am at a significant disadvantage. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
“I am Opal Croghan from Louisville. Dr. Croghan was my great uncle, the former Mammoth Cave owner, who died last year.
“Miss Croghan delighted to make your acquaintance, but sorry for your loss.”
“Would it be possible to meet Mr. Bishop before my tour tomorrow?”
“Mr. Stephen is here for the evening meals. He eats in the kitchen with the other slaves. Show up there after six. Knock, and someone will let you inside.”
“The world-famous spelunker and explorer is still a slave?”
Opal said, “Yes, for now. They are safe here from The Fugitive Slave act.
The delicious aroma of fried pork chops and onions mixed with collard greens and cornbread filled the kitchen.
“Mr. Bishop, I am pleased to meet you again. I was here as a boy in 1842. My father, Mr. Birdsong, was a patient in the Consumption Hospital. He was one of the five that died inside the cave. I told my mother I would find and mark his grave. You invited me back to visit the cave, and here I am.”
“Have a seat on that bench, Mr. Birdsong.”
“Call me, Martin.”
“Here in my satchel are the newspaper clippings I’ve saved. I have read everything about you and your cave discoveries. I am determined to take one of your tours.”
“How did you get here?”
“With God’s great provision and care, my father’s horse and I had a grand adventure. I am an eager young man as you were when you started exploring deep into the cave. My father’s geology books inspired me, and I read others from the library. Rock collecting has been my hobby since my first trip to Mammoth Cave. I am convinced that you will have the answers to my many questions about this cave.”
“Mr. Martin, was your father a geologist?”
“No, he was a Chemist in Louisville.”
“Well, Mr. Martin, you appear to have boundless energy, curiosity, and determination. I will take tomorrow and explore a new tunnel, and Nick will lead the tour. You and I will have a private tour instead. You can help me identify some unique formations I found a few weeks ago. Will you meet me here at six dressed for a long trek? We can eat breakfast while Charlotte packs our lunch. I was saving those rocks for the next geologist that wandered in to visit our cave, and here you are.”