A story of an ancient Indian burial ground hidden within a cave
"Cave is a good word.... The memory of a cave I used to know was always in my mind, with its lofty passages, its silence and solitude, its shrouding gloom, its sepulchral echoes, its fleeting lights, and more than all, its sudden revelations...."
--Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad
"Lucas?" Sal hollered. "Where are you, boy? Lucas?" Now where the hell did that lame-brained teenager get off to?
He paused to listen as he stood at the mouth of the cave.
Damnit! Where is he?
Worry creeped into his old bones, and his sweat-soiled face wore a thunderstorm of emotion.
I never should've brought that kid up here. Damn rookie! He has no idea of the danger.
Sal met Lucas through a spelunker website where he advertised himself as a guide to more than a dozen caves located in California. From the very beginning, Lucas was overly enthusiastic and begged Sal to teach him everything he knew. He reminded Sal of himself when he was that age -- a severe case of spelunker fever.
On a summer vacation to Sequoia National Park, Lucas visited Mammoth Cave and was bitten hard by the caving bug. When he graduated from high school with honors, his parents agreed to pay for a one week cave expedition.
"I'll pack you into a little known spot," Sal told him, mysteriously, "it's an old Indian burial ground called, Crying Mountain Cave." The arrangements were quickly made, setting up a rendezvous in Oakhurst, California, a small mountain town located in the Sierra Nevada's.
Sal Nolan had been crawling in and out of caves all of his life. He was gaunt of bone and body, and unusually slender, which allowed him to get in and out of some very tight places while exploring. When Sal graduated with a Master's Degree in Geology, he set out to conquer all the caves of the world. But his travels were costly, and eventually what little money he had saved finally dwindled away. His friends at school used to jokingly say that Sal must have crawled out of his mother's womb with nothing on but a hard-hat and miner's lamp.
He ultimately settled down in California and eventually hired himself out as a professional guide: canoeing, rappelling, caving, he did it all. He immersed himself in his fascination for hidden subterranean worlds-within-worlds and the labyrinth of tunnels that connected those realms together.
"See that?" Sal said as he stopped and pointed at a sheer granite cliff with two streams running down its face. "That's where we're going. The Indians used to call it the Crying Mountain. They brought their dead here to be buried. We'll enter the mouth of the hill and follow the creek bed down into the very belly of the Earth."
They followed a large stream for hours under a canopy of Ponderosa Pines. And as night approached, the last of the glow of the sunset waved orange and gold across the face of the mountain like an affectionate farewell.
The cave entrance was located exactly where the two tearful streams converged at the foot of the mountain. There was an overhanging granite spur that created a shimmering umbrella of fresh snow water across the entire length of the cave opening. They camped alongside it and ate a light supper.
"You're on the brink of an awesome adventure, Lucas. You'll see things beyond imagination which will either make you or mar you," Sal told him. "Stay close to me at all times and do as I do, and you should come out just fine."
The next morning, Lucas had wandered off just after breakfast while Sal had busied himself stowing away the sleeping bags and metal pots and pans from their makeshift encampment. The boy had been gone for over an hour.
Well, there's only one thing for it, Sal thought, with a dour expression. Packing all the gear on his back, he adjusted his hard-hat and turned on its lamp. Sal entered the cave and followed the old, winding creek bed that ran through its center.
"Lucas? Where are you?" The darkness murmured in his ears like the distant rumor of an avalanche. "Lucas?"
"Here! I'm here!"
Sal faintly heard the echo of the boy's voice. In suspense, he stood hushed, hardly breathing in an atmosphere of stillness.
"Come on! This way!"
Sal slightly smiled and let out a sigh of relief. Finally! He's somewhere just ahead. "Lucas? Keep calling, boy! I'll find you!"
It was louder this time and definitely coming from up ahead. The last word caught in Sal's chest, "Hurry!" He quickened his pace even though his instincts told him to slow down and be careful. The tunnel unfolded in front of him, twisting and turning, heading deeper into the bowels of the earth.
"I'm coming, Lucas! Are you hurt?" Sal searched the cave floor ahead of him with his lamp, his throbbing eyes staring through the darkness that seemed to ooze like sweat around the dim beam of light. Where the hell is he? He hurried forward. "Lucas?"
"Up here, come quick!"
The voice sounded farther away now. What the...? Did I pass him? Sal felt desperation slowly creep into his chest. "Stay put! I'm coming!" He backtracked about twenty paces. "Lucas?" He stopped and listened again.
The voice was directly above him. Sal played his lamp across the ceiling. There was a small hole there that Sal had never noticed before. His heart trembled and he drew in a sharp gasp. A new chamber entrance. The boy has discovered a new chamber!
The hollow was just large enough to accommodate his head and shoulders but not much more. Shedding his backpack, Sal used it as a footstool and tentatively stuck his head up through the hole.
What he saw stole his breath. It was a large, highly decorated room that stretched off into the darkness, containing beautiful white columns and vertical fissures.
"Lucas?" His voice echoed throughout the room, then silence flooded back into the darkness. "Lucas? Are you up here?"
"Yes! This way!"
Sal climbed, crawled and squirmed through the opening. As he stood upright he examined the walls and vaulted ceiling. The immense chamber was magical, sparkling with giant crystal formations, and filled with twisting helictites, delicate soda straws, large stone draperies, flowstones and stalactites. Sal grinned from ear to ear with a renewed passion he hadn't felt in years.
As he looked to the ceiling, he stumbled upon a rattling pile of debris. Shining his light to the floor, Sal could make out the scattered bones of the dead. So this is where they put them. After all these years of remaining hidden and undisturbed, he thought, the actual Indian burial site has finally been discovered. "Lucas?"
"This way, hurry!"
The voice was closer now, but still a ways off. Another tunnel ran to the north sloping drastically downward and narrowing. Sal could hear the sound of running water. As he began his descent again, he wondered just how far he would be able to follow the passage before it became too narrow to continue -- his head was already scraping the ceiling and the walls were close enough to touch with either hand.
What was once a trickle of water had become a thick river of mud. And Sal, now nearly knee deep in cave clay, reached for the wall to steady himself as he waded through. "Lucas?" A distinct feeling of dread overwhelmed him as he passed through, as if he were being watched. He could feel the oppressive weight of the stone all around him as he tried to ignore it, then finally stepped out again upon hard rock. "Lucas?"
He sounded like he was right up ahead. Sal hurried forward. The tunnel was now so narrow that Sal found himself bending over--eventually having to crouch down to navigate further. "I'm coming, boy! Are you all right?"
There was no response.
Sal was now on his hands and knees, quickly scurrying down the tunnel like a rabbit. He noticed the walls were unnaturally flattened as if something had actually burrowed its way through here, but he did not stop to investigate. His lamp beam jumped to and fro across the smooth rock wall ahead of him in a maddening dance. "Lucas?"
"Where? Where are you?" Sal saw something about twenty yards ahead. It was the boy's boots. "I see you! I see you, Lucas! Hang on, son!" Sal's voice sounded desperate, fear gripped his throat.
In order to reach him, Sal had to lie completely flat and crawl the last few yards on his belly. There was a flicker of white as the lamp shone on his hands. "Everything's gonna be okay, Lucas. I'll get you out of there."
Lucas appeared to be pinned in at the very bottom of the hole. He sat lumpishly and awkward, bent in half as if he was doing a classic toe touch--his head crushed into his knees. The tunnel was so tight Sal could barely reach the boy's hands. He gripped his wrists, and started to pull. "I gotcha, Lucas! I gotcha!"
Sal tugged with all his might, frantically dragging the boy toward him, but the position of his body made it nearly impossible. Sal grabbed the boy's pant legs and yanked hard -- then the hands again, alternating back and forth with every pull. The work was hard and tedious, and the time passed like the hurt of a wound. The entire time Sal soothingly talked to the boy. "I'm here, Lucas. I gotcha. Don't you worry none, Ol' Sal will take care of ya."
Sal stopped to catch his breath, finally able to lay Lucas flat upon his back. He attempted to check the boy's injuries. "Lucas, you okay?"
But Lucas didn't answer.
Damn, he must've passed out. God, please, let this kid be all right. Sal was on the verge of panic. He put that energy to good use and roughly dragged the teenager back another ten feet. He was now able to crawl alongside Lucas and examine him.
Sal immediately reached up to check the boy's neck for some sign of a pulse -- nothing. He slapped the boy's face to try and rouse him. There was no response.
"Lucas? Lucas, goddamnit! Don't you die on me! Come on, Lucas! Lucas?"
Sal shook the boy's body out of sheer desperation, knowing in his heart that it was too late. Lucas was dead.
He shined his light on the boy's face. He was as pale as a sheet, yet his eyes were wide open--an expression of utter terror. Sal could only imagine how the end had come. It looked as though something grabbed Lucas from behind and tried to drag him down the hole. The poor kid must have died scared out of his mind.
Sal sat up with his back against the wall, gently cradling the boy's head in his lap. He began to sob, helpless to stop the tears that ran down his face. "Oh, Lucas.... Please forgive me."
Then it struck him, and he spoke the question outloud. "What in the world could have done this, Lucas?"
The silence of the cave was suddenly shattered.
"I'm here! This way! Hurry!"
"What the hell . . ." Sal bolted upright, smashing the lamp on his helmet into the low ceiling and leaving him in pitch dark.
"Please hurry! This way!"
Sal pressed himself against the cool rock wall willing his body to move even as the thick darkness seemed to be muttering all around him.
"Hurry!" the voice said. It was very close to him now--loud and clear.
Sal removed his hat and banged desperately on his lamp trying to get it to work. It blinked, then flickered momentarily just as he saw something rush toward him from out of the dark.