My husband Cecil Maitland has gotten himself stuck behind a rock fall down in Three Needles Cave and this whole town it seems has turned out to watch him die. I have done so much crying over these past four days that now all I am is angry as I look around the clearing. The Mexicans are squatting beside a campfire, chewing on tobacco, watching their chilli bubble away in a huge black cooking pot. Others have picnic hampers, rugs laid out with all manner of fine fare, like fourth of July on the lawn outside the courthouse. Children run through the crowds, squealing as they play. A group have set up camp out by the cherry copse and are performing their own rescue with ropes slung high over the tree branches, lowering each other down into a make believe cave entrance fashioned by flattening down the center of a rhododendron thicket. There must be close to a hundred people all told; all here to watch the rescue.
My torment began last Tuesday just before nightfall when Cody came running onto our front porch, breathless and covered from head to foot in dust. He rapped on our door with such force that I immediately knew trouble had come. Cody had first appeared in our lives, dressed as for church, holding a carefully cut newspaper clipping with details of my husband’s latest adventure, brimful of such excitement that my husband simply could not resist. He recognized a kindred spirit you see. And so despite Cody being only thirteen, my husband felt he had no alternative but to let him become his partner. He could pay him nothing and Cody did not ask. But I would retire to bed each night, leaving them heads together in the lamplight, bent over some map or laying out equipment for their packs by the fireside.
But as I pulled Cody inside the house and wrapped his shaking body in a blanket, it was evident that his excitement had turned to fear and that my husband was in very grave danger. They had left that morning before sunrise and I had risen with them, sliced some bread and salt pork and filled their canteens with water. As I stood on the porch watching them disappear off towards the creek, I recall thinking what an unlikely pair of adventurers they made. My husband, tall with a loping stride, hat atop his head pulled down low; Cody, small, shock of sandy hair, ruffled and unkempt, barely half my husband’s height. The entrance to Three Needles Cave lay several miles out of town through a pot hole cut into the bank of Stonewash Creek. They had found it by chance the previous summer as they returned from a trek in the Western Hills where they were looking to find a navigable pass that could link us to the cluster of towns that had sprung up around the tin mines to the north. The entrance was only accessible when the creek ran dry so after the first rains came in the Fall, my husband and Cody had no choice but to abandon their explorations for the winter. But as Spring came around my husband became obsessive. Each morning I would find him outside, eying the clouds settling over the hills, praying against rain. After a few weeks without rainfall he further added to this ritual, dusting off the same small square of earth and splashing on a dribble of water to gauge whether the ground would yet have sucked away the creek’s flow. April and May were dry, June grew hot and humid, and after a particularly wilting hot week, my husband announced one evening at supper that it was time. Over the weeks that followed, Cody and my husband set up camp in the clearing by the cave entrance, figuring it saved them the time spent walking out and back from town each day. I saw little of them during the week, but each Saturday evening my husband would return, exhausted but elated, filled with tales of the ever expanding network of tunnels and underground vaults they had discovered. He would wash in the tub by the fireside and I would listen while he lathered and rinsed, competing shadows cast across his shining body from the flickering fire and the lamp hanging from a hook on the door jamb. After a good night’s rest we would dress and head to church where, after the service, the townsfolk would knot around my husband to hear the latest of his adventures. My husband would unroll his chart and trace with his finger the new routes, explaining what he had found and its significance. Cody of course would provide a more colorful commentary, each underground river became deeper and more frenzied, each tunnel narrower, each rock climb steeper and more hazardous. As the weeks passed the crowds grew and in addition to the thrill of the tales themselves, the townsfolk wanted to know one thing above all others: had my husband found any evidence of anything mineable. We had all heard tales of Arthurstown and New Antwerp which had grown fat in recent years through mining and there had been recent reports that a rich vein of iron ore had been discovered further south beneath the dust plains. I watched all of this from a distance for I am no lover of attention. But I worried even then that this particular adventure had turned into something different for my husband. He had beaten new paths through dense mountain forests, scaled rock faces so tall and sheer that they appeared like waterfalls to the eye from below. He had even shot the rapids in a makeshift canoe all the way from Soaring Point right back to the waterwheel in town. But these endeavors had all been for the excitement. The lure of metals and the riches they might bring created a whole different motivation and one of which I did not wholly approve. I smelled trouble even then. I only wish I had acted on my instincts and this circus I now see before me would never have come to town.
Cody told me they had spent the day exploring a tunnel network which led out of the main vaulted cavern from its southernmost tip. They had followed a passageway along a fault line cut by a long ago dried up underground river. The layers of rock had cleaved cleanly and shifted to open up a narrow shaft, wide enough only to snake through. They had shed their packs and my husband had gone first, tying a length of rope around his waist which Cody had let play out as he watched my husband’s boots disappear from sight. When the rope became taut, my husband would tug three times and Cody would follow, coiling the rope in front of him as he crawled. They had reached a second chamber, smaller than the main one but still large enough for both of them to stand. And it was there as the pale glow from their lamps illuminated the darkened crevices of the chamber that Cody heard my husband let out a low gasp, like the first breeze of steam from a kettle of just boiling water. Because captured in the half light they saw a twinkling, running along one particular stratum of rock about half way up the cavern wall, like a band of stars peppered against a big night sky canopy. Not one star, but a sky full of stars. And as my husband swung his lamp in a wide arc around the chamber, Cody told me that all around them they saw the same sparkling chips, too many to count, a hundred, a thousand, maybe more. And Cody said my husband gave a huge rasping laugh, right from his belly, his moustache quivering as he threw his head back, the sound echoing in the hollow cavern miles below ground until it rumbled away, escaping back through the winding tunnels and gone.
I keep my distance from the crowds although I feel eyes on me as I pace up and back along the dried up creek bed. My mother watches me from the bank. She has been a true comfort over these past few dreadful days. Her skirts, usually so immaculate, are dusty at the hem, her parasol wilting above her head. At the pot hole entrance the men of the town have erected a winch. They hauled the gear by horse and cart from the trail head and erected it by lamplight while morning broke on the second day. Mr Latimer McLeod cranks the winch handle and the gear turns slowly. There is a shout from below ground and he stops cranking. This is how it has been for days now. Painfully slow work; inch by inch, messages sent in relays back to the surface. The men have been working in shifts, five hours at a time, hacking away with picks, scraping and hauling away smaller rocks by hand, trying to get a hitch around the larger rocks so that they can run a line back to the winch gear at the surface for traction. Cody and my father have been down there since the beginning, resurfacing only infrequently for brief rests. My father appears now, first head then shoulders then waist, hauling himself out through the entrance hole. I had not noticed how old he has grown with the passing years. He is still stout and sturdy, not yet suffering the onset of old age, but no longer embracing middle age either. He is almost entirely grey now, his moustache and sideburns less bold and bushy, his face less full than I remember. He is caked in dirt, his shirt sleeves rolled above his elbows, one suspender drooping off his shoulder. He talks with Mr McLeod who nods briefly. My father sees me and walks over. There is such tiredness in his gait and he runs his hand thorough his hair, shaking off dust in a plume. Dusk is beginning to fall and the clack of crickets is just beginning. The crowds are starting to pack their belongings and the Mexicans have dealt a hand of cards, their chilli bowls scraped clean. I even see a bottle of bourbon being passed around, although when they catch me looking they underhand it quickly from view. My mother gets up and follows my father and we stand on the dry river bed together. The first firefly is flitting in the clearing. He asks me how I am feeling and I just shrug. I feel little. I ask him about progress and he gives me a look like I would be better not knowing. The men are working like dervishes he tells me. The smaller rocks are being moved quickly but the bigger boulders are troublesome. It will take too long to try and break them up by hand. While he does not say so, we both know this is a race against time. Once the first rains come from across the plains and the river starts to run again, we will be lost. The chambers will flood quickly and there will be no alternative but to abandon the rescue. It is early September and realistically the rains could come any day now. I know this. Everyone knows this. Back in town, Preacher David has held a special candlelit service at the chapel. They all prayed for the rains to hold off. Miss Mary Wainwright had told me about it earlier in the day when she left her picnic rug and wandered over, flicking away the flies and heat with her lace fan. It was lovely she sighed; most lovely. I asked her to thank the preacher and the townsfolk for their prayers and then. after an awkward silence had enveloped us, she smiled, patted me gently on the arm and carefully picked her way back across the clearing, stopping only to admire Miss Laurel Steinworth’s new bonnet.
I ask my father if they can still hear my husband tapping and he tells me they can, This is a relief at least. The one thing I know about my husband is that he will never lose faith. He possesses a spirit that is indefatigable and I think of him, sitting alone, listening to the chink of pick blades, and the creak of the winding gear, waiting for a crack of lamp light to appear that he can crawl towards. I ask him how Cody is faring. He is close to exhaustion my father tells me but he will not rest. He continues to work away with a pick and lifts what he can with his bare hands. My mother presses some food into my father’s hand and tells him to eat half and send the rest back down to Cody. My father nods and begins to eat. He asks me how the weather is looking. This time it is my turn to shrug wordlessly. I have been watching the plains from where the clouds will eventually come. Over the past few days I have seen them on the horizon, bulbous and grey tinged. They are distant still but if the winds pick up they will move in fast. I toe gently at the river bed and watch the dust rise. I have become as obsessed as my husband had been the previous spring, watching nature’s every move. After he has finished eating, my father wraps what remains in a muslin and tucks it into his shirt. I hug him and he holds me close. But he avoids my eyes and I can sense from the way he grips me tightly that he does not see this ending well. Finally he releases me and, without a word, walks back across the dry river bed to the cave entrance. My mother folds her arm around my waist. Come get some rest she says. I have been out here now for two days without sleep and she feels my exhaustion. Our neighbor Mr Renshaw has brought his cart and she waves over to him. We can return at first light she tells me and although I do not concur, she gently leads me and I do not resist. Mr Renshaw flicks the reins and we jolt into motion and as we head back along the rutted track, I feel myself dragged towards sleep by the slanting evening light slicing between the trunks and branches of the trees which line our route home.
The rock fall came without warning Cody told me. He had gone first on their return, shuffling like a lizard back along the tunnel while my husband fed out the rope. When he reached the end, Cody gave the rope three sharp tugs and felt it go slack as my husband started out along the passageway. But then, somewhere from way above, Cody heard the rumble. Faraway at first, Cody told me he initially thought it was a thunder clap, but the sound continued and grew in strength; and then he felt the first sprinklings of dust falling on him and the significance suddenly filled Cody in a rush, like icy water shooting from a pipe. At first he stood still, unsure whether to run or hide. Then he ran. Fast, away from the tunnel and back into the main cavern, his feet ringing on the rock surface as he scrambled back towards the main down line which they had tied off back at the surface. Cody told me that he made it about halfway back before the shower of dust turned into a hailstorm of rock fragments and he had no choice but to slide to the ground, ball up, with his hands pressed hard down around his head until the noise finally stopped and the air cleared. Cody had carefully picked his way back to the tunnel but it quickly became clear that the rockfall had completely blocked my husband’s route out. Cody called to him but there was no sound, so he started to dig away the rocks by hand, tossing them behind him carelessly as he worked. After a short while he paused for breath and again called out. This time he heard a faint tapping: one, two, three, pause, one, two, three, pause. Cody worked for more than an hour scraping, hauling, tossing. But he gradually slowed and then finally stopped, sliding down against the cavern wall, sobbing silently. After a while, he heard the tapping once more and he raised his head. Then, taking a deep breath, he stood uneasily, and made his way back from the rock fall and towards the down line to climb for help.
Mr Renshaw takes my mother and I back out along the track as sun rises. As we ride in silence I look out across the plains at the sky. The morning is noticeably colder and the clouds that yesterday were framing the horizon have moved closer. When we reach the clearing I am encouraged to see there is activity once more. The winch is turning albeit slowly and with many stops and starts. I notice Cody has made it back to the surface and he lies asleep by the side of the campfire which the rescuers have kept burning all night. I take off my shawl and drape it over hm. He looks tiny, his limbs like saplings, caked solid with dirt. He somehow seems to resemble a brown fox sleeping in the flickering firelight. The crowds start to arrive again, slowly at first and then in packs, some walking, some on horses, dragging their belongings into the clearing and laying them out. Most avoid my gaze, some smile sadly. I notice a gaggle of ladies, fresh smelling, standing beneath the canopy of cherry trees looking up at the sky. They are sensing the end I think and I move away. However I cannot help but notice a slight breeze now rustles the trees, mild and warm here in the clearing, but out across the plains I know it will be growing fiercer dragging with it the clouds, bellies full of rain.
It is just before noon when Mr Clark Brindley cuts his way through the crowds. I have not seen him up here before and as he passes each group of picnickers he raises his hat; impeccably dressed with impeccable manners as always. Miss Wainwright intercepts him and as he converses with her she touches his arm lightly. I do not hear what they are saying but at one point Miss Wainwright casts a glance in my direction then, with an elaborate flourish, takes out her handkerchief and dabs her eyes. Clark Brindley is this town’s most eligible bachelor and he and I were childhood sweethearts for a time. Most folks assumed we would end up married and we would probably have done so had I not met Cecil. They tell me Mr Brindley has never gotten over that particular loss and though he is by now a very rich man from his linen businesses and has premises in four towns in the area, he has never wed. He removes his hat and greets my mother first with a little bow. She smiles at him coyly. Like everyone around here it seems she is charmed by Mr Brindley. He then turns to me and wishes me good morning. I acknowledge him with a nod but offer no pleasantries. He asks me how the rescue is proceeding and I tell him that we continue to hope for the best. He nods again, thoughtful. He repeats back to me that we should indeed hope for the best. The breeze I had noticed earlier, gently ruffles the tail of his coat and he cannot help himself from looking up at the skies. The clouds are close now, encroaching further each hour. He looks troubled, unsure what to say. He understands that this hope we all talk about is set to leave us. He knows that the rains will wash it away in a gushing rush when they come. His eyes roam my face as we stand on the dry river bed. Unlike most in this town he is able to meet my gaze and I see in him a genuine sorrow. He is not here for the sport, but instead to see what comfort he could possibly bring. Suddenly, there is a noticeable murmur which rises from the crowd in the clearing and we both turn to look. And then I feel them on my cheek, so imperceptible at first that I cannot tell if they are real. But they are real alright and I gently extend my upturned palm and feel the first sprinkling of rain falling from the leaden sky above. The crowds begin to stand, rugs are folded and picnics begin to get repacked into baskets. Clark Brindley looks at me and I shudder. I ask him how long he thinks it will be until the river starts to run once more. He shrugs. An hour or two he tells me. Already I can see some of the men emerging from the cave entrance although the winch keeps turning slowly. The wind is gustier now, tugging rather than rustling the leaves of the trees around the clearing. Mr Brindley looks pained. There is something he wants to say but he cannot find the words. And then I understand. Despite his money and his fine manners I suddenly see the boy I knew all those years ago and I understand. He is here to court me. He is here to court me even at this most desperate hour. More men appear from the cave entrance . The rain is falling hard now. The crowds have retreated to shelter underneath the trees. It will not be long now. Farther upstream in the hills I suspect it has already been raining for some time. Clark Brindley hovers, the rain trickling down his cheeks. The final men folk from the village squeeze out of the pot hole, pulling on their jackets as they move wearily across the clearing towards the cherry copse. Mr McLeod remains on the winch, slowly turning the handle but he looks uncertain.
Finally Mr Brindley speaks: “I am truly sorry for your loss Mrs Maitland”.
He says it in a low voice, so low that I do not even think my mother who is standing just a few feet away catches it. But I hear him alright. And his words make me strangely defiant. Drenched now from the rain, I stand helpless on the dirty river bed, like some actress on stage surrounded by the crowd watching from the edge of the clearing. They are expecting the finale, wondering even perhaps if I will stay rooted until the waters pick me up and send me tumbling downsteam as the cave entrance floods.
I see my father’s head emerge from the pot hole. He is animated.
“Keep turning the winch Latimer”, he urges, but Mr McLeod hesitates. He is soaked through, water pouring from the brim of his hat. He knows he needs time to move the winch gear back off the river bed and he looks away up the river solemnly. My father shouts to the men who are sheltering beneath the trees.
“Give me some more time” he shouts, “just a little more time. We are close. So close”.
I look at Mr Brindley and he looks back at me. “Well I thank you sir”, I say. “But if I am not very much mistaken my husband is about to emerge any moment now so I must ready myself to greet him”. I say it boldly, more boldly than I feel. And then I turn abruptly and walk away leaving the water coursing off him, pooling around his boots on the river bed beneath his feet.
I march towards my father who remains half emerged from the pot hole. He looks lost and defeated and I know now what I must do. I must relieve him of this responsibility he feels. I know he still sees his little girl standing here on this river bed and he will expend every last ounce of strength trying to ease my pain. But it is too much: too much. I need to tell him that it is all right and that he should go get Cody and come to safety. They have tried. I can expect no more of him and neither would my husband. But as I walk purposefully towards him, I am overtaken by Clark Brindley. He has taken off his jacket, dropped his hat and is running towards the cave entrance. And as he runs I see the first rivulets of water starting down the river bed towards me, sliding around the bend from upstream.
“One hour more” says Mr Brindley as he slides into pot hole entrance. “And then we are done”.
I look back upstream. “I will call to you,” I say as he and my father disappear from sight. “And when I call you, you must come”.
The men are already hauling the winch gear away from the river bed. They work wordlessly, feeling I suppose that this is a betrayal. I just watch them from where I am perched now at the very edge of the pot hole entrance. The rope which is tied off around the trunk of a nearby tree disappears below ground into the blackness. I have no clue if they will hear me even if I do shout. The rain is falling in a sheet now. I can barely see the watching crowds in the trees it is falling so heavily. Water is now flowing steadily down the center of the river bed. As each minute passes I watch how it strengthens and widens, like a lengthening shadow on a summer evening. Soon it will reach my feet and once it does so it will begin to pour into the cave entrance. My mother comes over and sits beside me. She is agitated too. It is my father after all who is down there risking everything. She wants to call down to him to climb back up the rope to safety but she stays silent. I tell her that once the water reaches us I will call them. Time passes slowly on the edge of the river bank. We are drenched now and cold. The water is pounding around the bend in dirty brown streams, inching further across the bed. One tiny rivulet breaks free and trickles out like a tree branch onto my foot. My mother and I watch it as it reaches out from the main flow to touch me, so gently but with such finality. She looks at me. It is time her eyes implore me, call them home. But, as I lean forward towards the darkness to shout down, the rope suddenly twitches violently. And again, jerking away, tugging against the tree trunk around which it is tied. Someone is climbing the rope. Water now runs freely over my feet and also begins to cascade over the lip of the pot hole. The rope twitches some more and as I look into the blackness I see a circle of light bobbing below, getting closer. The water is up to my ankles and flowing freely into the pot hole. Finally I see Cody, he is climbing like a monkey, hand over hand and I reach down to haul him up the final few feet to safety. He is exhausted but as he collapses on the river bank I hear him, horse, almost in a whisper “We got him” he says.
And then from the blackness my father emerges also, soaked through from the water which is pouring downwards in a steady stream. As he emerges he turns and immediately begins to haul on the rope.
“Help me” he urges and both my mother and I tug with him. The rope is heavy and slippery in our hands but we do our best, leaning back with all our weight, half submerged in river water. Two or three times it slips from our grasp and falls back. But we re-gather ourselves and tug again. Then with one final effort out of the entrance appears Clark Brindley, hanging one handed to the rope, scrabbling away with his boots to get traction. And lashed to him, waist to waist is my husband, hanging off at an angle with his arm draped around Mr Brindley’s shoulder. He is alive. They are alive.
It is now two months since the rescue and we sit around the campfire, the final embers of autumn disappearing into winter. My father is growing stronger now, the effort of the rescue left him exhausted and bedridden for almost two full weeks. My husband walks still with a limp, his right leg having been pinned under the rock fall. Cody it seems though is unscathed, his pioneering spirit still unfettered. Mr Brindley too I sense has found the experience strangely cathartic. He is courting Miss Evangeline Rees and the two of them sit with us in companionable silence, watching the flames dance in the cool night air. As we sip our tea I watch my husband as he takes a lump of rock from his coat pocket and turns it over in his hand. He dug it from the cavern wall while he awaited rescue and I can still see the seam of shining metal running through it. He turns it again and it twinkles in the light. Cody watches him silently and I see him shuffle in his seat, his eyes transfixed on the rock as it rotates in my husband’s palm. But then my husband catches me watching him and he smiles gently, turns the rock over one last time and then tosses it gently forward onto the fire.