preload preload preload preload preload preload
0 Comments | Jul 11, 2018

Those Who Speak

Cave1Prelude – The Awakening, October 16, 1637

The morning of their final day arrived biting and redolent of the smoke from the night’s nearly-dead fires. Though only mid-October, the Connecticut winter was announcing its imminence with a verve not experienced in recent years. The denizens of the tiny Pequot settlement regularly rose with the dawn, stoked the fires back to life, prepared breakfast, and set about the chores and challenges of the new day. But today was different. Rather than waking to birdcall and the iridescent purple glow of an easterly sunrise above the distant forest line, they instead arose to the sudden shrill cries of two scouts as their horses sped through the settlement gate. As the men dismounted, their breath and that of their horses rose billowing into the brisk morning air. The riders collected themselves as Escumbuit, the settlement’s aging sagamore, emerged still bleary from his hut to learn what the commotion was about. The scouts sprinted to meet him and gestured their leader to a spot away from where several settlement members had begun gathering, curious at the early morning disturbance. As the others looked on from a distance, the three men spoke in hushed but clearly urgent tones.

“Escumbuit,” one of the scouts said, “they are coming, the villagers. Two hours, maybe less. They are many men and they are riding fast. There is no doubt.”

He explained the situation and the great danger that was about to descend upon the small Pequot outpost. The previous evening, sometime after midnight, when the Dutch villagers who lived ten miles to the east lay in deepest sleep, a small band of Pequot from another settlement far to the west had snuck into a home that was somewhat removed from the center of the immigrant village. The raiders had slaughtered a husband, wife, and two children, and had made off with one of the family’s daughters. It had taken place with such stealth and speed, and was so unexpected, that by the time the village’s defenses had been alerted, the raiders had come and gone and the house was already well on its way to being consumed by flame.

The village was home to more than five hundred Dutch settlers and had grown larger with each new ship that arrived in the rapidly expanding port of Boston. Escumbuit’s Pequot settlement was the closest native outpost to the Dutch village, the two settlements separated by just ten or so miles of intermittent open plain and dense forest, this latter the principal reason the avenging Europeans would be so long arriving. And though Escumbuit’s Pequot had had no involvement in, or knowledge of, the previous night’s raid, the avengers now heading their way would not bother to distinguish between these Pequot and those responsible for the slaughter. There was no way to know how many Dutch militiamen were coming, but the settlement was very large, far larger than the forty-three persons for whom the sagamore was responsible. Of that number, twenty-seven were women and children, leaving Escumbuit just sixteen able-bodied men with which to defend the young Pequot settlement. And that number included the sagamore himself, who at sixty-four years felt less than confident of his value in a fight. Not only would the Dutch outnumber the Pequot, they would arrive bearing muskets, of which the sagamore’s settlement had none.

The native outpost comprised several family cabins, a couple of small storage buildings, a stable, a central longhut for meetings and meals, and an encircling palisade fence of tapered fir logs. There was a single massive gate secured from the inside. But whether all of this could serve as an effective deterrent against what was coming for them was highly uncertain. The defenses had never before been tested in battle and improvements were still being constructed. Escumbuit did not hesitate.

“Gather the women and the children,” he said. “Get them to the cave at once. And return as quickly as you can. We will need every man.” The scouts nodded and quickly moved toward the closest hut.

The Pequot village was barely a year old, the site chosen for its proximity to a large clear stream, nearby forest, and the immense surrounding plain that allowed for easy movement of construction materials and a wide unobstructed view in all directions. The fastest horse approaching from any direction could be seen at least ten minutes before it arrived at the settlement, affording the Pequot precious time to prepare any necessary response. The settlement also lay within two miles of the foot of a range of low hills to the west. And it was during the exploration of these hills that scouts had discovered, shortly after construction of the settlement had begun the preceding year, the narrow hidden entrance to a cave. In the ensuing months, they had explored the cave many times and found it to be vast and complex. It ranged in dimension from barely wide and tall enough in spots for a single man to squeeze through, to chambers so high that the largest torch could not reveal the ceiling. Explorers had walked for many hours inside, but never found an end to the cave’s expanse, only an endless maze of tributaries, dead ends, and underground streams. The tribe had decided months earlier, during the worst of relations with the Dutch colonists, that it might also serve as a place of refuge in the event of conflict. Today would be the first time this plan would be put to the test.

Within ten minutes of the scouts’ initial warning, the women and children had been rounded up and were beginning to stream through the settlement’s main gate, many of the women bearing packs in preparation for what they hoped was the unlikely possibility of an extended stay in the cave. Items already stored there included cut wood, stones, spare weapons, and an assortment of other items, but no foodstuffs, as the likelihood of these going undiscovered by animals had been deemed remote. If the families ended up staying away long enough to require food, it would be limited to what they could carry inside. One scout led the procession across the plain. The residents of the settlement had made enough trips to the cave in the past year to have worn an easily discerned path through the scrub grass. No rain had come in recent days, and as the small procession made its way toward the hills, they left behind them a low cloud of dust that lay unmoving in the still morning air.

The scouts’ initial estimate was that they had at most two hours before the Dutch militiamen would reach the settlement. The Pequot men were aware, of course, that they also had the option of hiding in the cave with their families. But they knew, as well, that abandoning the settlement meant certain destruction for the home they had worked so hard to construct over the past months. With autumn rapidly waning, survival in the caves only to emerge without shelter into the brutal northeastern winter was little improvement on the risk of staying and defending their homes. There was no dissension in this matter among the fifteen men who remained. There was little they could do at this point to make the settlement more defensible aside from gathering their weapons—bows, arrows, battleaxes, and spears—and taking up positions around the perimeter walls. In constructing the settlement, they had built balconies along the inner wall that would allow defenders to shoot from above the palisades down onto approaching raiders. The outer wall was nowhere less than twenty feet tall, each stake the trunk of one of the great fir trees that grew in limitless numbers in the nearby forest. Many days had been spent felling these trees, dragging them to the settlement, cutting them to shape, digging holes to install them, and sharpening the tops. Today would be the first test of the tribe’s work.

The main gate was as tall as the surrounding walls and nearly a dozen feet wide, opening from its center into two sections. It was sealed from the rear with two horizontally placed tree trunks so immense that each required six men to lift it into place. Within half an hour of the scouts’ first urgent cries, the settlement was locked down, the men and their weapons were in place, and nothing remained but to keep watch from the parapets and wait for whatever came next. In the end, the scouts underestimated the zeal of the Dutch militia in reaching the Pequot settlement.

The raid on the Dutch village had come in the darkest hour of night. There had been no sound at that time save for the occasional call of the night bird or the bark of a stray dog. And the half dozen Pequot raiders who stole into the village moved with a stealth born of a lifetime of silence. They chose a seemingly random home near the western edge of the village and they were inside murdering and ransacking the place before any of the five family members knew what was happening to them. The husband, wife, and two eldest daughters died in their beds, while the youngest was bound and carried off with the raiders. The first indication that the village had of anything amiss was the cry of alarm that went up with the first sign of flames bursting through the home’s roof. The only reason the Pequot scouts of Escumbuit’s settlement even knew what had taken place was because an alert night watchman on the forward wall had spied the orange glow on the horizon ten miles distant. He immediately dispatched the two scouts, who arrived at the Dutch village in time to witness the men of the village plotting the revenge raid that was now, with the arrival of dawn, making its inexorable way toward them. The first Dutch horseman broke through the tree line barely one hour after the arrival of the scouts. To the horror of the watchers on the wall, that first rider was accompanied by no fewer than fifty more.

As Escumbuit stood upon the parapet near the gate, gazing out across the plain at the fast approaching militia, his mind drifted. Why had two Pequot settlements been built within an hour’s riding distance of one another? In what strange alternative reality did such a thing make sense? Some of the people in the two communities were even related. In the end, after much belabored and acrimonious discussion, there had emerged two very different Pequot viewpoints regarding life near the rapidly growing European village. For Escumbuit, survival had been a question of peaceful, if occasionally strained, coexistence. We will leave you to your lives if you leave us to ours. But the other Pequot men, who numbered somewhat fewer than Escumbuit’s, regarded the old man as a naïve idealist, willing to be played by the Dutch, until their settlement was pushed and pushed farther westward across the plain, into eventual inescapable oblivion. Escumbuit’s counterpart in the other settlement argued for aggression, for never letting the Dutch relax in their spacious homes behind their high walls. And so they raided, they stole in and out of the village at will. But until now they had avoided killing or kidnapping. Only this time someone had awoken in the house in the midst of the incursion, called out, brought the slaughter down upon them, a slaughter the Dutch were now insane to avenge, even if it meant taking that vengeance on those who had had nothing at all to do with the raid. It seemed the peaceful settlement was about to pay the price for the actions of the aggressors. As the sun slowly rose over the plain, illuminating the tall grass and the tree line and the settlement and the men and horses thundering toward them, all Escumbuit saw was the arrival of darkness.

The lone Pequot scout returned from escorting the families to the cave and snuck through the gate with just two minutes to spare. It was impossible to count the riders in the distant gathering dust cloud, but it was certain that no fewer than fifty militiamen were approaching the sixteen defenders who waited behind the walls of Escumbuit’s settlement. In the end, the invaders would not require even half that number, for their strategy was as simple as it was effective. Most of the Dutch carried muskets, and though these had range that significantly outdistanced the arrows of the Pequot, the musket balls were useless against the thick timbers of the settlement walls. But the raiders had also come bearing their own bows and arrows—arrows tipped with creosote. Flaming arrows were heavier and of shorter range than those of the defenders, but it was a much easier challenge lobbing them over the settlement parapets than it was for the Pequot to hit individual men or horses, even at relatively close distance. After only a few harried minutes spent exchanging arrows—traditional ones toward the Dutch, flaming ones toward the Pequot settlement—half a dozen Dutch raiders lay dead or dying on the plain and Escumbuit’s men were so far unhurt. But numerous fires had taken hold inside the settlement, leaving the Pequot with the awful choice of fighting the growing blazes or defending against their attackers.

In truth, though, there was no choice at all, for the settlement’s only viable means of fighting fire was the water delivered in buckets from a single central cistern. Which meant that very soon, the defenders would face an even more awful choice—remain and burn with the doomed settlement, or attempt to escape through the main gate and into the certain fusillade of musket fire that awaited. Retreat over the back wall offered no improvement on their chances, as the Dutch had by now surrounded the settlement and were lobbing the deadly arrows in from every direction. Within fifteen hellish minutes of the avengers’ arrival, a dozen of the Dutch were dead, but so too were five of Escumbuit’s men. And the settlement was well and truly ablaze, great clouds of gray and white smoke rising above the plain, easily visible from the distant Dutch village, the second nearby Pequot settlement, and the cave. And while the residents of the former exulted, those of the latter uttered only prayers.

Five minutes more and the choice of burn or escape was no choice at all, for the walls themselves were alight as well as every structure. And so a dozen brave but doomed Pequot warriors stormed through the settlement gate and toward the raiders, bows raised, knives and battleaxes at the ready. The best they could manage was to kill another three raiders with well-placed arrow shots. Within forty-five seconds of emerging furiously through the great gates, all of the Pequot defenders lay dead or mortally wounded upon the dun grass of the plain. As the militiamen finished off the surviving natives, the settlement fires raged, the walls fell in on themselves with thunderous crashes, and the horses and other animals in the stable cried out in futile anguish.

“A genuine pity to lose all those fine animals,” Hendriks the militia captain said to a nearby soldier above the roar of the flames. He gestured effusively to the men around him, directing them to gather at a spot removed from the settlement. With his militia collected, it was apparent that their numbers were somewhat diminished.

“How many have we lost?” he asked to no one in particular. In the end they had left the village with fifty-six men, of which thirteen were now casualties. “Find them all,” Hendriks directed the nearest half dozen men. “If they’re dead, get them strapped to their horses. If they’re alive, tend to them best you can and get them back to the village as soon as you can manage it. I need four or five men for the rest of this unpleasant business. The rest may return.” He pointed to those nearby that he wanted to remain and gestured the remainder on their way.

“Now where,” he said to the small remaining group, “do you suppose they’ve spirited their women and children off to?”

“Can’t be far,” another said. “They’ll not have had much warning of our arrival.”

“It will be in those foothills someplace,” Hendriks replied, gazing westward. “They damn sure didn’t bring the lot of them closer to us. Number of men we killed, there’ve got to be at least twenty or thirty of them left.” He trotted his horse slowly to a spot well behind the still burning settlement and raised a hand to his brow. “I’ve got a feeling this is going to be easier than I imagined,” he said lowering the hand. “Their dust trail is still standing there clear as day herself.”

And sure enough it was. The dead calm of the October morning air had done little to disperse the dust that had been kicked up by the scout and the families as they’d made their way westward more than an hour earlier.

“And look here,” Hendriks said as the small group rode slowly in the direction of the dust. “They’ve gone and left us a trail just in case we missed the dust. Most thoughtful.”

He looked back over his shoulder for a moment. “Visser, you’ve got the powder still?” The men had brought a twenty-pound barrel of black powder against the possible need to blow open the settlement gate, a task that had ultimately proven unnecessary.

Visser responded with an affirmative grunt. “You’re of a mind to blow something up, sir? Don’t seem’s though there’s much left that’s worth the trouble.”

“I just like to be prepared is all,” the captain said. “Doesn’t hurt to be thinking ahead.”

The men rode for a leisurely twenty minutes, the western foothills rising up before them with every step. Eventually, inexorably, the trail led them directly to the mouth of the Pequot cave opening.

“Well I’ll be damned, Captain. We could’ve gone our whole lives and never known this was out here. You suppose they’re holed up inside there?”

The captain ignored the question for a moment, instead stood looking back with satisfaction toward the now distant settlement and the still immense billows of gray and white smoke rising against the morning sky. The sun had by now risen higher and it stood in direct alignment with the smoke cloud, a pale white disc that barely cut through the opacity of the conflagration, looking more like moon than sun.

“That, gentlemen, is a fine morning’s work,” he said, as though he’d not heard the preceding question. “I don’t imagine we’ll be having much more trouble from the residents of that particular outpost.”

But he had indeed heard the man’s query. “Yes, sir, I do believe that the families of those recently deceased warriors have taken refuge in this very cave. The question that now faces us is what exactly we mean to do about it.” Hendriks appeared to genuinely ponder this question for some time, dismounting at last and walking about before the cave entrance.

“We could go in and flush them out,” he said at last, “but that would doubtless prove to be a bothersome thing, particularly as we don’t know our way around in there and they likely do. And besides, I’ve never been one for slaughtering women and children, even if they are naught but savages.” He took a few measured steps inside the narrow opening, reappearing seconds later.

“Blacker than hell’s cellar in there, gentlemen, but we can’t take the chance of just letting them be, not if we care for the future of our village and our families. Pequot children grow up to be Pequot warriors—vengeful warriors, no doubt, given the events of this morning—and Pequot women only make more Pequot children. The good lord has called upon us to handle the situation in the here and now, and that is what we shall do.”

“Mister Visser, kindly come forward with your cargo if you will.” Visser led his horse to the cave mouth, dismounted, and carefully removed the barrel and a spool of fuse wire, placing them on the ground at Hendriks’ feet.

“You mean to seal them in,” Visser said peremptorily.

“I do,” Hendriks responded. “Saves us blundering about in that inkwell all damned day. Saves us worrying about any future difficulties with these beasts. And it saves you lugging a twenty-pound barrel of black powder ten miles back to the village and possibly blowing us all to hell if your horse sets a foot wrong.”

“And how do we know there isn’t some back door the lot of them can creep out of?” Visser said.

“Truth be told, we don’t,” Hendriks said. “Which means we can all sleep soundly tonight knowing we’ve killed no one this day save for those warriors who were just as intent on killing us. If by God’s grace they find another way out, so much the better for them. And if they do not…” he shook his head with mock ruefulness, “well then, they’ll be that much closer to the hell that surely awaits them.”

Hendriks stepped to one side of the entrance and gestured theatrically in Visser’s direction. “Mister Visser, as you are the most accomplished amongst us in these matters, we will entrust their completion to you while we stand at a safe distance and observe. Rest assured we will pray not only for a positive result but for your safety as well. Do you require assistance?”

“One additional set of hands would be use, sir,” Visser replied, gesturing to one of the men, who dismounted and stepped with some apprehension toward Visser. Hendriks remounted and directed his horse away from the cave, followed closely by the rest of the group, leaving Visser and his companion alone at the cave opening with the barrel and accompanying apparatus.

“I expect it’ll work best if we wedge the cask against the top of the arch there,” Visser said to his companion, gesturing toward the cave entrance. “Have a look around and see if you can find us a stout branch about your own height, something with a bit of a curve to it.” A copse of small maple stood fifty or so yards to the left of the cave opening, and the man jogged in that direction, withdrawing a small hatchet from his belt as he ran. While he foraged among the trees, Visser unwound several yards of fuse and manipulated one end into an opening in the powder keg. A moment later, as Visser spread the fuse line across the ground and away from the cave opening, his companion returned bearing a forearm-thick tree limb of the length Visser had specified.

“All right,” Visser said, kneeling and wrapping his arms carefully around the barrel. “This here is the part where you and I end up scattered across that plain if we are not careful. I am going to lift the cask and wedge it against the top of the opening. Once it is in position, you will place the bottom of your branch against the barrel and then wedge the other end into the ground so as to hold the cask securely against the roof. Are we absolutely clear on what we are doing?”

The man nodded in assent, the branch held firmly in his right hand.

“And don’t you dare push too hard when you’re wedging the bottom into the ground,” Visser added. “You don’t want to be pushing the top of the branch through the cask, else there’ll be hell to pay.”

He hefted the powder barrel into place and in seconds the branch was placed firmly enough between cask and ground for Visser to carefully release his hold and take a step backward. The two men glanced uncertainly a one another for only a second before their gazes returned to the precariously positioned barrel.

“All right then,” Visser said. “Let’s get on with the show, shall we?” He stepped to the far end of the fuse line and extracted his knife and a bit of flint. “Ought to be enough line here to give us a good two minutes of running time. Once she takes, we’ll see who can make it to the captain first.” He offered a wan smile then turned and lowered the knife blade and flint to the end of the fuse line where he began striking the two together. On the fourth strike, the line caught and the spark began moving up the line in earnest.

“Now,” Visser said with another broad smile, “would be a propitious time to run!”

Which both men did with great enthusiasm, covering the hundred yards to the rest of the men in just seconds.

“It pleases me to see you both still drawing breath,” Hendriks said laconically.

“Not nearly as much it pleases us,” Visser replied.

“And how long before we may expect a result?” the captain asked.

“I would estimate no more than another—,” at which instant a terrific roar split the morning air, immediately followed by a rumble through the ground and simultaneous wave of air pressure that washed over the assembled men, causing two of the horses to rear up in alarm. As the noise of the explosion subsided, a new more prolonged rumble took its place, an avalanche of rock fragments sliding down the hillside and ending in an immense talus of stones where the cave entrance had formerly been. The noise did not fully subside for nearly half a minute.

When it had grown quiet once more, Hendriks turned to face Visser. “It’s possible we may have employed more powder than the job required.”

Visser responded with a shrug and a grin.

Hendriks spurred his horse into motion and back to the cave, followed by the rest of the men. He looked upon the sealed entrance and then back at Visser.

“Excellent piece of work, Mister Visser. Remind me to buy you a drink when we get home.”

With which sardonic remark he turned his horse and headed slowly back down the trail toward the still burning Pequot settlement, the rest of the party close behind.

Deep inside the cave, the twenty-seven women and children heard the thunderous roar and felt the vibration as it traveled through the cave floor. They were gathered closely around what remained of the small fire built from the wood they had been able to bring along. It would be nothing but embers within another fifteen minutes and total impenetrable blackness would ensue shortly thereafter. The women looked at one another in the fast waning light, wondering silently what the noise had meant, wondering when the scouts would return to bring them home to the settlement.

 

The seventeen defenders killed that morning were the lucky ones, because, contrary to the raiders’ speculation, there was no alternative exit from the cave, or at least none the Pequot had ever discovered. There was only utter blackness and near silence, save for the occasional rustle of someone stumbling about near the now dead fire. And as grim as was the prospect of slow starvation and dehydration in a black inescapable cave, something far worse awaited than the simple painful dignity of starvation and darkness. For now, from the farthest reaches of the cave, there came a new sound, faint and low and indistinct, almost a groan. Disturbed, after centuries of dormancy, by the explosion and the rockfall, there was now another life moving about in the darkness, one that knew the environs of the cave system far better than any of those newly buried inside, and one that had awakened with a hunger born of very long and very deep sleep.

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

* Required
** Your Email is never shared
*