The Night Watch


The Terminal Tomb

(An Ongoing Saga by Steven R. Harrel)

(Taken from concepts found in “This Side of the Whirlwind”)


Squeezing through the tiny opening in the cave floor, TS crawls the remaining ten to Nightwatch Terminal Tombfifteen feet up the loose soil of the cave’s steep embankment. The slick surfaces of rock and shale made the forward climb slow.  As TS enters the tiny cavity of a room he sees his friends taking a much needed respite at the upper reaches of the small cavern.  It had been a hard trek thus far and everyone was ready for the break.

After climbing into the room it became obvious they had entered a terminal passage: a chamber with a single entrance and no other determinable exit; major spelunking blunder.

Immediately TS had several safety issues come to mind: first, it was more than a two hour trek to the main cave complex; second, as they were exploring a new section of cave, Cavers on rescue crews wouldn’t know where to look for them even if they’d previously explored this cave and third, no one thought to leave markers indicating a new crawl.  Three major caving errors and there they were sitting in a terminal passage.

If something happened… if their troupe were somehow trapped in this uncharted cavern… no one would know where to search for them and they’d likely be trapped for several days at best.

As TS walked up the incline to where the guys were resting he jokingly quipped, “Hey guys, wouldn’t it be wild if this big boulder broke free and rolled down the hill and sealed us in?  Oooh scary!”

Immediately, Carl squawked, “Bad joke, TS.  Haven’t we had enough hard luck for one trip?  Come on, right now, none of us wants to hear that kind of talk.”

TS just smiled and offered a retort, “Ah, come on guys, what’s the odds of this bolder… a rock that’s been sitting here for thousands of years, just breaking free and tumbling down the hill?” As if by the powers of the gods of chaos, TS lightly pats the large boulder and sends it tumbling to the cave floor below!

All four Cavers watched in stunned disbelief as the bolder slid out from under TS’ hand and tumbled to the room’s entrance.  As the bolder was larger than the opening in the floor, the group was ostensibly sealed in like bugs in a jar.  As TS and his friends looked on, each one knew their chances of escape were slim.  The room was now sealed with a 400 to 500 pound bolder, sitting in a small hole in the cave’s floor, propped at an odd angle and jutting out of the opening with little to no room for more than two individuals to move.   It was reasonable to assume they would be utterly trapped if they couldn’t remove that large cork from that very small opening in the cave floor!

Three hours earlier.

It was 9 a.m. on April 6th 2016 when Carl, Brian, Mike and TS entered Stratton Cave just outside of Tucson, Arizona.  The entrance to Stratton Cave could be found on the north-face of the Catalina Mountains, tucked deep within a crevasse facing the rising sun.  Carl, who organized the trip, dropped carefully beyond the entrance of the cave’s mouth and descended silently into the forever night of its darkness below.  A few minutes later, Brian, Mike and TS followed suit slipping gracefully if not quietly inside the cave’s foyer.  Head‑lamps sparked to life as safety checks were made, harnesses adjusted and notes taken.  Each Caver had his own backup lights, water supplies, extra batteries and even several foods and snacks.  Though TS and group were not planning a protracted trek or deep incursion into this netherworld, they were hoping to spend at least eight or nine hours just tooling around and exploring this curious cave system.

When all was made ready, TS took the lead for the first section of the cave casually pointing out any low hanging outcroppings, fragile rock formations or potential safety issues.  As they traveled into the blackness an eerie silence enveloped the dank underworld.  The cool dampness of the cave sponsored a familiar excitement.  Carl, Brian and TS occasionally sang-out colorful tones into the darkness attempting to find those unique chambers which would echo complimentary resonances to their discordant melodic notes.  TS fully enjoyed this unique quirk among caving musicians.  It was a pleasant something rarely found among other Cavers who were not musicians.

“Very cool!” Carl noted, indicating an unusual Bacon-strip snaking up and around and behind an inaccessible fissure.  Other than the harmonics of the caving trio echoing thru the darkness, the only other sounds to be heard was the occasional splunking of waters dripping or gurgling in distant and often inaccessible chambers, quietly, slowly bubbling and ever-trickling in the lonely gloom.

The group was carefully moving between columns in an isolated field of totems where stalactites and stalagmites formed into what some said looked like miniature Roman baths.  Each section fashioned over millennia creating amazing parodies which gave these formations their nicknames.  These particular formations gave the illusion of a mysterious watery gauntlet created over eons  and eons of time.

Suddenly, a voice ignominiously cried out in the dark!

“Awe crap,” came the disembodied voice! A singular light speedily presented a loud penumbral form dashing and bashing through the cave’s darkness.  Carl’s shadowy specter helplessly careened headlong into the gloomy shadow worlds below.  With nothing more than the illumination of a large translucent flowstone, a section Brian charged only moments before, Carl and his silhouetted form sped past as he collided repeatedly with one dark rock-formation after another until he finally crashed into the inky shadows below.

Carl had somehow stumbled over an outcropping causing him to plummet thru the crevasse above.

Carl’s sallower expression rang out again, “Awe crap!  I can’t believe I broke it!  I just can’t believe it!  Come here, guys!”  Carl loudly lamented his supposed careless destruction of one of the cave’s small beauties.  “I have never before damaged anything in a cave, never!  This makes me wanna puke!  TS!”  His mournful, piteous cry summoned TS to his side.

As everyone rallied to Carl’s inconsolable aid, the group celebrated Carl’s lack of personal harm.  Carl felt wretched, unable to assuage his own sense of guilt.

“It was just an accident, Carl,” Mike offered, “It couldn’t be helped, buddy.”

Carl fumed, “I’ll heal, but that rock formation will not!”

Brian added, “That shield will regrow into something else, Carl, probably something more amazing than it was before.  Lighten up, Man.”

Carl paused, “You know that formation was thousands of years old and will likely never be the same.  Don’t you get it!  It was my fault! I was too careless crawling around up there in the heights.”

Carl continued his stroppy tirade as Mike examined the broken rock formation, but it was too late, the damage was done and the group, though disturbed by its destruction, was ready to move on.

Suddenly, Brian howled, having noticed something wonderful, a benefit of Carl’s tragic accident.  Carl’s mishap produced a new and previously unknown crawlspace right behind the broken shield formation. The new crawl looked navigable, as if it could go on for at least thirty or forty yards.

With an excited hopefulness coloring his voice Mike called out, “Guys, guys! Carl may have opened up a new section of the cave.” Mike’s excitement caught on immediately, infecting the entire group within moments. “Carl, you could have found a completely new section to this cave, Buddy!”

“Well,” Carl said, “What are we waiting for?  No sense crying over a little spilled Cave-Milk, right guys?”

(Watch for the continuing saga!)