by J. B. Hogan
part 1 of 2
Stephen White didn’t think of himself as much of a caver. He had a touch of claustrophobia and the musty, sometimes dusty, sometimes moldy, cave air often made it difficult for him to breathe. He preferred caves in which you could crawl around on your hands and knees — at the very least. He actually didn’t think there was anything wrong with finding a cave where you could walk hunched over in, maybe even stand upright. He knew other cavers thought that was kind of weird — they all seemed to like squeezing through the tiniest holes in the world and then barely being able to get back out. Stephen didn’t like that approach much, even though he knew the reward could be an incredible room filled with crystal formations or some other such wondrous thing, and so he did the one thing most smart cavers don’t do: he usually went caving by himself.
On a quiet Saturday morning in early October, under a clear blue sky and a bright, not very warm sun, the solitary Stephen clambered up a steep bluff above the Marais des Cygnes River in a woody region not so far from the Kansas border and towards what he hoped, and had been led to believe by his work buddy Tom Harris back in Nevada, Missouri, was a seldom disturbed cave far enough away from the normal haunts to not be frequented by the usual crowd of local spelunking enthusiasts.
Tom had told him that there might be Indian points in the cave as well and had sworn he’d seen lots of flint and even some evidence of very old fire remains there on a brief visit to the cave some months back. He had reassured Stephen that the cave was a “primo” spot and that only other opportunities had kept him, Tom, from returning himself.
Breathing loudly, Stephen hoisted his twenty pounds or so overweight body up the rocky, leaf-covered bluff while nearby Jays chattered angrily at his loud progress into their territory. Squirrels hopped around the trees and a few remaining insects occasionally buzzed by his head. He paused for a drink of water from a hard plastocene bottle and wiped the sweat off his pasty forehead with the bottom of his worn sweatshirt.
For a moment he considered digging in his backpack for the raw mushroom and soy cheese sandwich he had brought for his lunch but decided to forego that pleasure at least until he had found the new cave — if he did. Stephen had harvested and thoroughly cleaned the mushrooms himself and was anxious to dig into their meaty texture as soon as possible.
Resuming his scramble, Stephen labored along the bluff, traversing its difficult terrain from east to west. He could feel his big toes straining against the ends of his new hiking boots and knew he had ordered them one-half size too small. He had purchased them online from a site that Lisa Backman, the beautiful software engineer Stephen not so secretly adored at work, had recommended. Now he felt his mind straining against the emotional edges of the regret building in him if he had to admit to Lisa that he would have to exchange the new boots even after she had helped him pick them out.
Chugging across the bluff, imagining Lisa’s green eyes, wavy brown hair, tight buttocks, and full round breasts — breasts that strained against her blouses like his toes strained against his new boots — Stephen perspired profusely. He stopped to wipe sweat beads off his thick wire-rim glasses. When he put the glasses back on, there was the cave. Or at least what looked like a cave through the gray branches of the thick, dying underbrush.
“Hot damn,” Stephen exclaimed out loud, anticipating his discovery. “Old Tom was right. There is a cave.”
With a final burst of energy he quickly made his way towards what looked like the cave’s entrance. And it was a cave. A cave with a wide opening. Stephen scrabbled over rocks, leaves, and small green ferns in his last, puffing approach to the cave.
“All right,” he said, stopping at the cave entrance to catch his breath.
The cave entrance was maybe twenty-five feet across and more than six feet high at its tallest vertical point just off center of the opening. The ground immediately inside was dry and of a bright brown hue. It looked soft enough to easily dig in. Stephen could see back into the cave at least forty or fifty feet before it faded into darkness.
That didn’t trouble him, he had brought his headlamp and, of course, his knee pads. He always had his knee pads. And he had remembered to bring a small pick for digging and a little trowel for fine work. As soon as he munched his sandwich — he had worked up a good appetite from all that hiking — he would explore to his heart’s content.
After eating his sandwich — devouring it was perhaps more apt — and taking a good long drink of water to flush the dry bread and mushrooms down his throat, Stephen donned the headlamp and knee pads. He pulled out the pick and trowel in case he found something promising and set to work. It turned out to be a pretty good cave.
Within ten minutes he had found several intriguing flakes and he cheered with delight moments later when an edge he unearthed with his boot turned out to be the broken end of a human-worked piece of flint so large it must have been a spear point. Invigorated by his find, Stephen kept digging and working his way further back into the cave finding more and more flakes and an occasional broken point. He was sure he was going to find something really good really soon.
Sure enough he did. Near the narrowing, lowering back of the primary cave — Stephen could see there were more rooms beyond this front section — he popped up a small piece of rock and it was a beautiful, fully worked point. An arrowhead. Big enough to use on large animals, or men. Stephen let out an echoing whoop and rapidly rubbed the dirt off the point with his thumb and forefinger.
It was a real beauty, made of a brownish flint and complete with nicely formed notches and finely honed edges. It was, as Tom might say, a primo point, worth the entire trip itself. Stephen, who also was an amateur historian of the area, placed the arrowhead in a relatively recent epoch; when the area of the Marais des Cygnes had been inhabited exclusively by indigenous peoples.
Thrilled with his discovery, Stephen pocketed the arrowhead and adjusted his headlamp in preparation for the exploration of the back room or maybe rooms behind the main cave. Then, just as he reached to click on his lamp it happened. At first he thought he might have gotten some dust in his eyes, but after he wiped them with his sweatshirt he saw it again.
Flashes at first, then shadows. The hair on the back of Stephen’s neck stood up. He froze in his progress towards the back of the cave. The shadows became more pronounced, began to take shape. Stephen felt his throat constrict and his head suddenly felt hot and sweaty. His legs wobbled and he felt nauseous, disoriented. The shadows flitted by, raced by, seemingly in all directions. Stephen slumped down. He felt sick and scared to death.
He closed his eyes hoping to make sense of things but when he opened them the shadows had become forms, forms he began to recognize. They were pigs or at least some sort of wild peccary, and they appeared to be running along the walls. Stephen closed his eyes again and opened them. The pigs were racing by now on either side of him. He could almost touch them but they seemed ethereal, like holograms.
In a moment, the pigs were gone. Stephen shook his head, as if some mental cobwebs had gotten in there and messed up his thought processes. He wanted to stand but found he couldn’t. He simply sat there in the dirt of the cave floor. Then more images came rumbling out of the cave, into the cave. There were other animals, deer, bear, small creatures, too, like raccoon and possum. Then taller images. Upright images. Stephen held his breath. These were men.
Short men came through the cave, hologram-like still, and went about the business of cave living. They built fires, they brought in game, cooked it, ate it. They danced around bent over, whooped silent calls, drew images on the cave walls. Stephen slowly rose at last, stood up, as well as he could there in the back of the cave. The cave people went about their business. He was invisible to them. And then they were gone. Only animal images again and Stephen waited on gradually steadying knees, for what he didn’t know.
After some time, men came again into the cave. Men he could see clearly now. Native men. Men with long hair, men with animal claw and tooth necklaces — and women, too. He saw them chanting without sound, dancing without song, living without solid form. Then they too were gone. The images were gone. But a new sensation began. Stephen was sure he could now hear sounds in the back of the cave. Sounds that were familiar. And smells. He could smell coffee and the aroma of bacon cooked on an open fire. And suddenly they were all around him. Talking, laughing, arguing.
There were maybe a dozen. Twelve young men. Dirty, poorly dressed, ragged, so thin their coats hung on them outsized. He was right in the middle of them. They did not seem to notice him. He pulled away to the side of the cave. Watched. Listened in awe, in shock. Who were they? What were they? They seemed real now, corporeal. No longer holograms or perhaps something in between. He heard them talking. They called one tall, wild-eyed young man Bill. He seemed to be their leader. He gestured crazily with his hands and arms. He appeared highly agitated.
Stephen listened, he was beginning to hear the man’s words ever more clearly, all the men’s words. It was extraordinary. He feared they would see him, turn on him. They were all armed, as he had read described in many books, to the teeth. Every man seemed to have at least four pistols on his person, mostly tucked behind belts or ropes worn as belts. But they took no notice of Stephen, did not seem to see him.
“They took our womenfolk,” the wild-eyed leader was saying, Stephen now hearing all being spoken, and marveling at it. “We’re goin’ to do somethin’ about it.”
“What about Q.?” a tall boy, wearing a hat with a large bird feather in it, asked. “Shouldn’t we wait for him?”
“Yeah,” a short, thick-boned man added, pointing to the boy with the feather in his hat, “Jimmy’s right. We need to wait for Q.”
“William will not be here for mebbe a week,” the one called Bill said. “I’m in command. And I say we are gonna take revenge and take it now.”
“Bill is right,” a broad-shouldered man came forward to stand by the leader, “Q. and Jesse are plumb off near Sedalia. It could be days before they get back. We make these damnable Jayhawkers pay, now.”
“Is there enough of us, Frank?” the thick-boned man asked the broad-shouldered man.
“There’s plenty, Bates,” Bill answered with authority. “And there’s time, if we ride now.”
“I don’t know,” the boy called Jimmy said doubtfully.
“If you ain’t got the stomach for it,” Bill said harshly.
“Jimmy’s got the gumption,” Frank intervened for the boy. “He just ain’t used to ridin’ without Q., are you, boy?”
“No, sir,” Jimmy allowed.
“All you have to do,” Frank added, to ease the boy’s concern, “is keep the extra horses in line. The remuda, like we learned about down in the Indian Territory, remember? Don’t get spooked, or jumpy.”
“Yes, sir, Frank,” the boy said, grateful for the more moderate man’s support. “I can do it, too.”
“You bet you can,” Frank said, nodding his head. “Be sure to bring plenty of extra pistols, powder, and bullets.”
“Yes, sir,” Jimmy said.
“Alright, by God,” Bill said, waving an arm with the index finger pointing at his men. “Get stuff ready. We’re ridin’ now.”
Stephen, still nearly stunned by the scene before him, clung to the wall, watched the marauders, Border Ruffians he knew from his history books, prepare for a raid. The men gathered pistols, gunpowder, caps, bullets, knives, all the necessary implements of war from a box buried towards the back side of the cave opposite where Stephen stood mesmerized by what he saw.
After each man was fully prepared, the group moved towards the front of the cave. Stephen edged along the far wall, still fearful these hard-looking men would spot him. He did not understand what was happening to him but curiosity got the better of him and he followed the group back to the cave entrance.
Outside, the boy Jimmy had brought up the horses, including four extras and a smaller one following its mother, that would make up the marauder’s remuda. The leader Bill circled the men up for a last word.
“There will be no captives,” he told his men, a grim smile on his face. “That ain’t what we intend this time.”
“We cain’t just shoot ’em down like dogs, can we?” Bates, the thick-boned man, asked.
“No prisoners,” Bill countered. “None.”
“This is a war, boys,” Frank said, looking at Jimmy and Bates in particular. “We cain’t ride with captives.”
“Kill ’em all,” Bill growled. “Remember our women.”
“Amen,” Frank agreed.
“Let’s go,” Bill commanded, and the men mounted as one.
Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan