Arturo was nearly an old caver and dreaded becoming like the men who would drink rum and share their own legends throughout the night. When Arturo was younger, they’d say to him that with every cut or bruise, with every broken bone, a caver slows down a step or two, until eventually they only move slowly and with caution. Arturo didn’t believe that in his twenties, but at thirty-five, his margin for error was shrinking fast. He was tall for a man of Mayan descent and had a lean and sinewy frame, but his age was beginning to show. He was Mexican but had married into a well-off Belizean family and had the luxury to choose to become a tour guide in San Ignacio.

Arturo moved quickly to keep up with Leon and Emil. Emil, a born-and-raised local, led the way, illuminating the trail with his headlamp. For two hours they had been hiking through the dark jungle, listening to the howler monkeys’ deep groans with hopes of reaching the cave before the early-morning mist cleared and the air became hot and sticky.

“Here’s where we leave the trail,” Emil said with a Belizean Creole accent. “Follow close to me, guys.”

Emil was the youngest of the trio, but he led the other men with confidence, certain their direction was proper. Arturo had known Emil since they started working together a few years prior. Emil had the perfect compact build for caving. On his left arm was a tattoo of a warrior climbing a temple and on his right arm was writing that Arturo could not discern, and beneath that was a half-naked Mayan princess.

“I don’t think we got a whole lot longer to go,” Emil yelled back to the other men. Arturo could barely hear him over the volume of the jungle. He was ceaselessly amazed by the forest’s choir, which seemed to occupy the entire sonic spectrum in the hour before dawn.

They walked a while longer before Arturo noticed the sun creeping over the eastern horizon, dripping blood red into the Caribbean. The mountains looming to the west were still partially shrouded in mist, but the birds were already screaming overhead. As light descended upon the vegetation, the night rain that sat on the leaves shimmered like diamonds over emeralds. The frogs, ranging from teal to tie dye, hopped at the men’s boots, narrowly avoiding their footfalls. Emil sped up, and Arturo could see that Leon was struggling.

“Hey, Arturo, you good back there, man?” Emil shouted.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“What?” Emil shouted, this time turning his head back toward Arturo.

“He said he’s fine,” Leon relayed gruffly. Leon, an American, was far bigger than the other two. He too had tattoos, a tribal sleeve on his right arm and a Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor on his left.

“So, how do you guys know each other, Leon?” Arturo asked. “Emil never said.”

“It was a couple of weeks ago when we met. I’d only been in Belize a few days and did a tour of Actun Tunichil Muknal where he was the guide. I didn’t know anyone in Cayo and I’ve always liked this kind of shit, so I thought I’d ask him if he knew of any other good caves to check out.”

When Arturo was younger, they’d say to him that with every cut or bruise, with every broken bone, a caver slows down a step or two, until eventually they only move slowly and with caution. Arturo didn’t believe that in his twenties, but at thirty-five, his margin for error was shrinking fast.

“You said you done a bunch of caves and other shit back home, right?” Emil asked.

“Yeah, I love exploring the caves in Tennessee,” Leon said, then shouted back at Arturo, who was starting to fall behind in the thick bush, “Do you need us to slow down?”

Arturo shook his head.

“Huh, man?” Emil asked.

“No, I’m okay,” Arturo said.

“If you want us to slow down, we can slow down, you know,” Emil yelled. “But I think we’re pretty close — like ten more minutes.”

“I’m fine.”

“Weren’t we trying to make it before dawn?” Leon asked.

Emil stopped and faced the two men. “Yeah, we shoulda kept a faster pace,” he said, then turned back around. They kept walking through the humid, dank air.

Arturo skidded to a stop in the thick mud. “Wait,” he shouted. In front of him, coiled up, head reared back, was a fer-de-lance. Leon and Emil halted and turned around. Arturo moved his right foot behind his left and gripped his machete, keeping eye contact with the snake. Most snake bites occur as a result of a human acting aggressively and trying to kill a snake, but Arturo didn’t see any other way out of that encounter. Then, as he was about to lunge toward it, its head was lopped off clean by Emil’s blade.

“Fucking yellow jaws,” Emil said then kicked the head off to the side. He grabbed the wriggling body, held it up, and looked it up and down once. “I’d say a couple meters,” he said before tossing the corpse back into the woods.

They walked until they came upon a stream. “Here we go, boys,” Emil said. “We’re gonna follow this for a kilometer, then we’ll be there.”

“Hell yeah, man. I’ve been looking forward to this,” Leon said.

“Just follow me, you know, and wherever I put my hands, you put your hands, and wherever I put my feet, you put your feet and you’ll be fine,” Emil said. “Ever been in a cave with low oxygen?”

“Nope,” Leon said. “But I’ve hiked at high altitudes before and been fine.”

“Remember to breathe steady, you know, and sit down if you get dizzy.”

“Sure,” Leon said.

After a brief silence, Leon asked, “So has anyone ever been inside this cave?”

“Yeah,” Emil said. “Some local folks found it a couple years back, but people have only gone into one chamber, you know. They said they think it’s pretty deep.”

“Nice,” Leon said, then took a breath as though he wanted to say something more before falling back into silence.

They came upon a steep rock face where the river pooled up. Where not moved by the current, the water was milky light blue. Emil dropped his pack and Leon did the same. Arturo, head high and eyes scanning, came in behind them, moving methodically along the path Emil had hacked through the undergrowth. Once Arturo caught up, they each emptied their packs onto the rocks and sorted everything out. They took the essentials — their valuables, a couple granola bars, some water, iodine capsules, batteries, canned oxygen, first aid kits, and their knives. Then they took off their shirts and boots and put on their neoprene tops and aqua socks. They stuffed everything else into a large bag, and shoved it under some leaves.

Emil surveyed the area with a sweeping glance and said, “You know, if there’s a flood here, all this shit’s gonna get washed away, so if you got anything important in there, you know, your keys or phones or whatever, you guys might wanna put them in your dry sacks.”

“The caves here don’t flood very often, do they?” Leon asked.

“Sure they do,” Emil said as he tested his headlamp against his hand. “Sometimes the water level can rise three or four meters all at once during a downpour. Sometimes more, you know. You guys ready?”

Arturo nodded and Leon let out a whoop.

Emil jumped in. “Whew! Fuck, that’ll wake you up,” he shouted toward the canopy, which was thick and shaded the pool.

Emil surveyed the area with a sweeping glance and said, “You know, if there’s a flood here, all this shit’s gonna get washed away, so if you got anything important in there, you know, your keys or phones or whatever, you guys might wanna put them in your dry sacks.”

The stones receded near the center of the rock face. The men swam over and into the cave. By the time they’d made it in, the sun had engulfed the landscape and the howler monkeys had retired for the day.

“You know, Leon” Emil said, bobbing in the water, “My ancestors called the underworld Xibalba, but the word means cave now. That’s why they always sacrificed outsiders in these caves, you know. They thought they were delivering people to the underworld.”

“Shit,” Leon said.

They treaded water for a minute and shot their headlamps in every direction, trying to get a feel for their new environment. The light frightened the bats, causing them to cast a frenzy of erratic shadows that jumped and fluttered across the walls. Emil motioned with his head to the other men, and they followed him through the water and up onto some jagged, exposed rocks. Leon shined his headlamp on the wall, about two-thirds of the way to the chamber’s ceiling where the rock went from a textured golden-brown to flat grey.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“That’s where the water comes, you know. When it floods in the cave.” Emil said, then lowered his headlamp a foot. “You see how shit’s different lookin’ down there.”

“Sure,” Leon said.

“There ya’ go.” Emil laughed. His voice echoed off the walls.

Arturo moved toward the far wall.

“Have you ever mapped out a cave, Emil?” Leon asked.

“I’ve discovered a few, mapped out a couple.”

“How many undiscovered caves are there around here?”

“Must be a hundred in these mountains that ain’t never seen a person since, I don’t know, before white folks were here, and probably a hundred more that ain’t been mapped.”

“Wow,” Leon said, now swinging his headlamp from side to side. The light from Arturo’s headlamp remained on the rocks where he thought the entrance to the next chamber was.

“Well,” Emil said, “Time to get moving, you know.”

They climbed out of the water and walked to the edge of the chamber, avoiding the sharpest rocks while trusting the bats to avoid them. Emil hopped quickly from rock to rock. Leon followed right on his heels while Arturo trailed carefully. Arturo stopped on a flat area and watched Leon quicken his pace. Then, Leon slipped, and when he tried to catch himself, he opened up his right hand.

“Fuck,” he said, grabbing the gash.

Emil turned around and laughed. “That’s what we call bloodletting.”

“We need to get somewhere I can bandage this goddamn thing,” Leon said.

“Come on,” Arturo said. “Let’s get to a place where we can lay our bags down and clean that up.”

Emil scowled at Arturo.

“How’s it look?” Arturo asked Leon.

“It’s not that deep, but it fucking stings.”

“Can you keep going?” Emil asked.

“Yeah. It’s not bad.”

“Let’s figure it out once we get somewhere flat and dry,” Arturo said.

“Fine, follow me,” Emil said, hopping onto a ledge. “The entrance to the next chamber looks like it’s underwater. Let me see if I can find where the water is flowing.”

Arturo and Leon said nothing. Emil jumped into the water. “It’s deep,” he said. He dropped his head below the surface and came back up a few seconds later. Then he dove back down, this time for longer. When Emil reemerged, he said, “There’s an entrance to another chamber down there. You’re gonna have to get your hand wet, Leon, but you gotta get back in the water either way, you know.”

“It’s fine,” Leon said then slid into the water. Arturo sat on the rocks for a few seconds, then propelled himself gently into the water, making sure he didn’t snag his skin on any rocks.

“K. Take a deep breath and look about a meter down. There’s the hole. You’ll be able to see it,” Emil said.

“Go ahead,” Arturo said to Leon.

Leon sunk down, then Arturo followed. Arturo had no issues getting through the large gap. When he got to the other side, Emil was standing on dry ground helping Leon up onto the rocks. Arturo swam over to them and pulled himself out of the water.

The chamber was small, and the water skirted the edge nearest to them before disappearing behind some rocks. The ground was sharper and less even than in the previous chamber. There was a small crack in the wall in front of them. One by one, they wedged themselves between the rocks and contorted their bodies as necessary to get into the next chamber, where the floor was soft, brown clay.

Leon sat down and breathed deeply. “Much better,” he said.

Emil looked around the chamber, which was bigger than the other two. Arturo dropped his bag, took off the dry sack, and rifled through. He took out some gauze, a wrap, a chamois cloth, and hydrogen peroxide.

“Let me see your hand,” he said to Leon.

Arturo dabbed away the moisture with the shammy cloth. Then he poured peroxide on the wound, washing away the blood, before putting gauze and a wrap over it.

“You’re good to keep going, right?” Emil asked.

“Yeah, it’s not that bad,” Leon said.

Emil walked quickly to the middle of the chamber. “Seems like the air is getting thin,” he said. “And the rocks are a bit sharp again. Careful.” Leon took a couple more deep, but more rapid breaths.

Arturo and Leon followed Emil’s lead, struggling to keep up. They stopped once they made it to the center of the chamber where the clay was the softest. Leon stumbled a bit as he slowed down but caught his balance.

“Time to eat something,” Emil said. “Go ahead and sit down.”

Arturo sat down on the clay.

“Come on, Leon, sit down,” Emil said. “Your hand hurt or something?”

“I’m fine,” Leon said, bending over with his hands on his knees.

Arturo got out a granola bar and a bottle of water.

Leon breathed heavily. “Actually, I don’t feel so good,” he said.

Emil ignored him, and Arturo extended to him a bottle of water. Before he could grab the bottle, wavering and wobbling, Leon toppled face-down onto the clay.

“Ahh, what the fuck,” Emil said. He jumped over to Leon and flipped him onto his back. “No blood. And he’s breathing. Fucker couldn’t handle the low oxygen. Let’s carry him back.”

“You should stay with him. I’ll go get help,” Arturo said, putting everything back into his pack.

Emil spat. “Fuck that,” he said, then stuffed his and Leon’s backpacks into his dry sack.

“Okay. If you want, I’ll stay with him and you go.”

 Leon breathed heavily. “Actually, I don’t feel so good,” he said. Emil ignored him, and Arturo extended to him a bottle of water. Before he could grab the bottle, wavering and wobbling, Leon toppled face-down onto the clay.

“No, we should carry him back. At least to the chamber with the water.”

“There’s no way we can fit him through the gap.”

“We can do it. If he needs more air, we should at least get him back to that chamber.”

They put their packs back on.

“Okay, I’ll get his arms,” Arturo said.

“No, I can get his upper body,” Emil said, hooking his elbows under Leon’s armpits. Arturo grabbed his legs and they began moving, Emil shuffled backward and Arturo walked forward. Arturo tripped, but caught his balance without letting go.

“Come on, man,” Emil said.

“Just take it easy,” Arturo said.

Emil quickened his shuffle, so Arturo lengthened his stride. Then, when they hit the jagged rocks, Emil stumbled and landed on his back. He didn’t yell, or even speak. He just sat, staring at his right leg. A bone protruded a few centimeters out of the skin above the ankle, the wound pumping a dark red stream onto the rocks. Arturo looked over at Leon and noticed bright red oozing from the back of his head, which had hit a rock when Emil dropped him.

Arturo grabbed his wallet, his phone, his car keys, and his water. Then, he got out the first aid kit and tied a rubber tourniquet midway up Emil’s quivering thigh. He attempted to place the rest of the chamois cloth under Leon’s head, but when he lifted the skull, the flesh clung to the rocks like melted cheese.

Arturo left the two men and moved with a quickness he’d never known, even in his most reckless days. He travelled swiftly through the narrowest gap, emerging with ripped neoprene and a dozen cuts on his arms and legs, then dove into the water, swam outside, and got back on land. He ran over to the bag under the leaves, tossed his neoprene shirt, took off his aqua socks, and put on his boots so quickly that he didn’t notice, curled up in the right one, a small Coral Snake.

Follow Kyle Perrotti on Twitter @kyle_perrotti.

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Eight years ago, I left my home in Virginia for a temporary life in Texas. This is the unabridged story of that 1,300-mile trip.

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