The Night Watch
(An Ongoing Saga by Steven R. Harrel)
(Taken from concepts found in “This Side of the Whirlwind”)
TS, Carl, Brian and Mike were perched near the top of the Breakdown-Room for nearly half an hour cracking jokes and making light of the perilous sloop they’d just ascended.
Brian groaned as he stood, “Hey guys, let’s get going.”
Everyone was excited to press on in their netherworld adventures.
As they climbed away from the Breakdown Room they stepped through a smooth oval portal which opened into a large columned chamber. In numerous places stalagmites and stalactites filled the room from ceiling to floor with dozens of smaller columns standing like Sentinels in the darkness of this underworld kingdom.
“Hey man, there are a lot of stalactites dangling from that ceiling above.” Brian pointed to a singular spiraling stalactite which he said looked like the end of an old scroll.
Carl responded, “Yeah, and that cadre of stalagmites there, indicating a crowded group which followed the contour of the room, looks like a platoon of Sentinels standing guard over that passageway.”
Mike harrumphed as he pushed past wasting no time admiring The Colosseum, as they came to call it. Brian intended to establish a carefully chosen path through the Sentinels, rolling out a strip of biodegradable tape from place to place, clearly marking where he thought they should follow.
It was in fact a good choice as the group much preferred following a single track rather than creating four separate intrusions through such an unspoiled terrain.
TS reached the far side of The Colosseum first before slogging through a thick section of shallow mud and then climbing over a Pygmy-Wall. The short wall shrouded a descent into a narrow trough-like corridor.
Brian’s protestations phonated loudly throughout the cavern. “TS! Augh, oh – h, stinking mud! TS! You have any more of those blousing straps?” Brian grumped.
“Sorry Bri, no such luck.” TS shrugged and pressed on smirking at Brian’s discomfiture.
Mike and Carl shook their heads before slogging past Brian in his shin deep section of mud.
Once everyone crossed – Brian’s Mire of Despair – their party encountered a steep slump of a passageway narrowing into what they eventually named, The Long-Room.
TS called back over his shoulder, “Yo, Carl, check it out. Doesn’t this corridor remind you of Chiricahua Crystal Cave? You know, that place where I tore my chest open trying to get past the tapered opening; you know, the one just before the cauliflowered fissure.
“Not sure, TS,” Carl said.
“The corridor just before the Pelican Room,” TS reminded.
Carl chuckled, “Oh yeah. I remember. You were about thirty pounds chunkier and I had to push on your fat head to get you back through that narrow opening.” Carl openly laughed, “Yeah, you were so stuck John and I thought we might be trapped forever in that cave behind your fat butt.”
“Ha, ha, too funny,” TS said drolly.
The rooms in both cases were narrow and steep sided, plastered with rock-formations resembling fields of egg-like or cauliflowered protrusions.
In this cave, a fine trickle of water fell from the cracks above splashing over the walls and produced a glossy moist film; this place was so alive.
At the far end of the chamber a singularly large flowstone transitioned into a vertical crawl. To the left of the flowstone, where it started to ascend, there was what appeared to be an opening onto an adjacent pathway; leastwise, it looked like it opened into another passage; therein lay the danger.
“Hey, this is more like it,” Carl said poking his head through the opening.
An optic-illusion suggested a floor where none existed. The pathway simply fell away some twenty to thirty meters below and nearly invited Carl to one last stumble in the darkness. Almost immediately after Carl popped his head through the opening he fixed his headlamp on the far-side of the chamber where a beautiful set of Soda-Strawed Curtains splayed in sparkling glory. Carl was so taken by the glistening site he began to step towards the beautiful rock formation. Fortunately, Brian caught his arm and redirected his attention to the cave floor – far below.
“Holy smokes!” Carl cried-out.
Brian snarked, “That could have mortified, Dude!”
“Interesting choice of words, Bri,” Carl exclaimed as he leaned out over the edge and glanced around the corner.
Headlamps alone couldn’t quite illuminate the floor below so they couldn’t be sure how deep the descent; still, it was deep enough for a one way trip.
The far side of the opening was truly spectacular; as a result, TS commented, “Wow! It’s as if someone planted those rock-formations as a trap; it so perfectly catches your eye the second you look through the opening.”
Mike cut in, “Those formations are right at eye level and hang directly across from the opening. It’s an eye catcher, alright.”
“Yeah Carl, no wonder you didn’t see the floor was missing.” Brian cajoled.
It was a spectacular display. In addition to the Soda-Straw curtains there were luminescent stalactites and three sizable columns which flowed up and out of site. Aragonite clusters filled in a ledge behind the Soda-Straw curtains which added to their glory. There were also several colorful Bacon-strips wrapping two of the columns which continued to flow up the contour of the columns, across the cave wall and out of sight towards the ceiling.
“Spectacular, dudes,” Mike howled accenting the word, dude. “Just spectacular!”
“We should save that drop for another trip,” Carl remarked. “For now, let’s mark it with safety-tape and keep going.” Carl said this as he wiped his brow in acknowledgment of his close call.
Everyone quickly agreed, Brian then marked the opening before everyone pressed on.
“Just glad we didn’t have to fish your broken bones out of that hole, big guy.” Brian stared into the abyss.
When everyone was just about ready to turn back Carl came across another small but interesting crevice which led into another large chamber.
TS and Carl were slaking and coming to the end of their caving ambitions; leastwise, for this trip. As TS was vocalizing his desire to turn back, Mike and Brian decided “One more jaunt!” Quickly setting their gear aside they slither up a section of rock which dominated the center of the room. Both guys simply figured we’d be returning this way soon and saw no harm in leaving their gear just a few yards behind. This too is sort of a caving no-no.
That’s when Mike, with his seemingly endless energy, bound up the rock section in the middle of the room. Brian followed suit ascending the tube which spiraled into a beautiful corkscrew lined on both sides by a steep outcropping resembling a portico. Carl and TS looked at one another and then joined the fun. Though several sections of the climb left the climber exposed and hanging over an edge, there really wasn’t any danger of falling due to the tightness of the crawl. At times, each caver would have to shift his head from one side to the other in order to fit through the constricted conduit. When the crawl finally butted up to the corridor above they had to chimney or free climb hand over hand the last five or so feet to an opening.
Where the corkscrew came to its end, each caver was required to climb over a smooth Camel’s‑Hump and hang suspended some thirty or more feet above the cave floor. From there they chimneyed another six or seven feet straight up and into a hole in the ceiling, which just so happened to be the floor of the terminal chamber above.
When they had gone as far as we could travel in this direction, they reached the proverbial end of the line; as they say.
After entering the terminal chamber Carl, Brian and Mike decided to take a break, gathering at the top of the short incline.
TS was the last to enter this Terminal Passage. It wasn’t a large room by any standards. In fact, the floor was mostly dirt and sloping up hill about eight or nine degrees ascending from the opening in the cave floor about 15 feet to the back wall. Before entering the room TS could hear the guys talking about several tree roots which were protruding from the cave ceiling and walls. TS heard Brian say, “Close to the surface, I guess.”
Squeezing his chest through the tiny opening in the cave floor, TS crawled the remaining ten to fifteen feet up the steep embankment of loose soil, dirt, rock and shale. On the far side of the narrow opening sat his three friends. As he scanned the interior of the room he noticed they’d entered a terminal passage: a chamber without additional entrances or exits; major faux pas for the entire group to be in this kind of a room at the same time.
Immediately TS had several safety issues come to mind; the first of these being, should something happen, the number of hours necessary simply to return to the main entrance of the cave was many. Secondly, they were in an unexplored, hence unknown section of the cave where no one would think or expect to look for them if they didn’t return; definitely another poor choice. Lastly, no one left markers where they entered Carl’s Blunder.
As TS trudged up and over to where the guys were chatting, he joked, “Hey guys, wouldn’t it be wild if that boulder broke loose and sealed us in?”
Right in the middle of the room stood a single, large, four-foot tall, six hundred pound boulder.
Immediately, Carl corrected, “Come on TS! Hasn’t enough happened on this trip already?” Nobody wants to hear that kind of talk right now.”
TS simply smiled and offered another snarky retort, “Ah, come on guys, what’s the odds of this boulder… a rock that’s been sitting here for thousands of years, just breaking free and tumbling down that embankment?”
As if the Gods of Chaos wanted to punish his wise-cracks, the boulder tumbled out from under his touch and rolled tumbling to the cave floor and their only escape below!
All four cavers watched in stunned disbelief!
Fear gripped Brian as this was one of his first spelunking expeditions.
The boulder really was big; tragically so it seemed, larger than the opening in the cave floor.
Ostensibly, they were sealed in like bugs in a jar. Everyone knew it and turned accusing eyes on TS, “TS! What have you done?” Mike shouted!
As they glared at TS he too looked on in disbelief. It was obvious, their chance of escape was going to be slim. The Room, this Terminal Passage was now sealed with a 600 pound boulder and that giant stone sat directly over the only route of escape.
“Son of a…! Crap, TS!” Carl said raising his voice. The group looked from the boulder to TS and back again.
To add to our dilemma, the giant stone was propped at an odd angle; jutting out of the opening and creating little to no room for more than a single person to attempt to remove the massive cork-of-a-stone. It was more than reasonable to assume they were soundly trapped.
TS was thinking it wouldn’t be possible for any of them, even together, to lift the stone; at any rate, not high enough or far enough up hill to uncork this bottle!
The group spent the next hour and a half making dozens of attempts to remove the boulder. Finally everyone decided to take break, maybe give it a few minutes before trying again.
Suddenly, as TS sat back, feeling scared and covered in sweat and filled with a good bit of desperation he heard the voice of the Lord speak into his spirit, “You and Carl lay hold of the stone, rotate it counterclockwise until it falls through to the cave below.”
TS knew how the guys felt about his declarations on hearing from the Lord. Mike, at best, tolerated his literal take on everything God and hearing God’s voice.
Brian didn’t give much credence to TS’ accounts but wasn’t resistant to hearing True-Life events of TS’ life in Christ Jesus.
Carl on the other hand was rather Agnostic to his core. He wanted to believe but needed something concrete to push him over the proverbial line.
“Hey guys, I know this is going to sound weird…” TS began.
“Oh, here he goes,” Mike scoffed.
“No, wait guys!” TS petitioned. “Wait! The Lord said for Carl and I to ‘lay hold of the stone’ and rotate it counterclockwise.”
“What?” Brian scoffed.”
“That’s right. The Lord told me the stone would fall through the hole in the floor and we’d all be able to escape.”
Twenty minutes they argued and debated before the guys made a few more attempts to pull the stone from the hole in the floor. But no matter how they tried they could not uncork the room.
Finally when hope and strength were waning, Carl agreed to help TS rotate the stone.
“I’m not saying I believe you, TS. I just don’t know what else to do, so don’t get all religious on me; let’s just set to it before I change my mind!” Carl cleared his throat, harrumphed one more time before descending to the stone and stealing himself towards the task ahead.
It took Carl and TS another thirty-five minutes and multiple scraped and smashed fingertips to make headway. They finally seemed to be making a little progress when a slice of light from their headlamps passed through the opening in the cave floor and illuminated the Cork-Screw section below.
At last, at last, at last the giant stone began to slide into the opening in the cave floor.
Brian suddenly cried out in a panic, “What if the stone gets even more stuck, TS?”
“It won’t Brian, it won’t.” TS hoped he sounded more confident than he felt. Another prayer passed his lips.
Suddenly the boulder slid into place and caught fast. “Oh no!” Carl murmured, casting a sideways glance in TS’ direction.
Anxiety seized TS and before he could think too much about it he stretched out his hands over the top of the great stone and cried out, “In Jesus name, I command you… get out of my way you big, stupid rock!”
The boulder suddenly surged powerfully downward, paused for just a moment and then fell through the opening in the cave floor! The mighty stone bounded and bounced off the side of the corkscrew and portico below and then crashed unabashedly and loudly into the distance floor below. The boulder’s final resting place was a quaint pool of trickling waters just below the portico of the Cork-Screw.
Everyone’s relief was palpable.
Disbelief shrouded Carl’s face.
TS, simply kept his opinion to himself.
Their trek was quieter on the rebound to the cave’s entrance. They barely took a moment to look at the few places which had colored their adventures. Even at a steady pace and with few breaks the trek took a little more than two hours to return to Stratton’s entrance.
Weeks later Carl commemorated their infamous caving trip by fashioning T-shirts for the group; one for each of them. The shirt read, Cave Stooges of Stratton Cave, marking their trip of renown with the date and a standard caving motif of stalagmites, stalactites, bats and cavers.
TS found it interesting how their cave adventure was enough of a catalyst for Carl to finally move beyond his agnostic roots.
(Watch for the continuing Saga!)