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The Yakwawi’s Revenge
In the 1780s a powerful Shawnee leader named Chief Black Fish roared across the Ohio River Valley, attacking the forts of the Europeans who were invading his tribe’s territory. Although he took back the land which had been stolen from him, eventually he came to realize that the Europeans coming would be like the stars – too many to hold back forever.
In an effort to understand and influence the throngs of invaders, Chief Black Fish began to adopt a few of the white children he had taken prisoner. The test for the children he thought of adopting was a simple one. His warriors would roll the boys down a hill and the ones who cried were killed. But a handful of the boys stood up defiantly, and these few were taken into the tribe as sons of the great chief.
One of the boys who stood up and was adopted was named Jacob Ruddell. He was renamed Sinnanatha, meaning Big Fish, so called because he stood head and shoulders among the native children his age. Being only 12-years-old, he accepted his new role, eventually becoming a Shaman then a chief.
A decade after being captured, Sinnanatha showed up on horseback at his father’s fort accompanied by six warriors loyal to him. He was welcomed back into the white man’s world, but brought with him strange tales of events he had experienced while living among the Shawnee people.
When Sinnanatha turned sixteen he was allowed to stand guard during Shawnee ceremonies, because he was almost a man. So when his tribe journeyed to a ceremonial center in the hills of Indiana, he was honored to wait at the bottleneck of the Cave of Spirits, making certain enemy warriors didn't sneak up on the tribe’s warriors while they performed sometimes bloody rituals in the furthest branches of the cavern.
He sat in total darkness at the top of the cave’s earthen steps, listening for the sound of approaching footfalls. Although his eyes had adjusted to the cave over the course of an hour, he was still in total darkness, hearing only the small stream ten feet below him. He was wedged into a tight, natural niche in the cave wall, which dulled the drumming happening deeper inside the cave. He hoped that eventually he would be allowed to take part in the ceremonies but – for now – he had the important job of being one of two lookouts.
“Stay alert, Running Fox,” Sinnanatha whispered to his friend who sat on the gravel bar near the base of the steps. “I hear footsteps.”
“Are they coming from the entrance? Perhaps it is someone sneaking up!”
“I don’t think so - I think I hear Tecumseh’s voice.”
The two waited in silence in complete darkness, focusing, trying to discern the direction of the voices as the distant sounds echoed off the cave walls.
Eventually the two boys saw the torches of the men of his tribe being reflected off the water in the cave stream and Sinnanatha scrambled down the steps to join his friend.
The approaching torch light appeared to be a wavering sunrise, the light appearing first as golden streaks reflected off the stream and then making the fog from the stream grow brighter as the men got closer. A dozen Shawnee warriors came into the cave’s room that was guarded by Sinnanatha and Running Fox, walking through the cave’s shallow stream. The warriors surrounded a shaman who wore a breastplate, a box helmet, feathered cloak, fringed clothing, and beaded bracelets around his upper arms.
His adopted father, Chief Black Fish, nodded to the young men as he came into the room and passed by, noting the physical difference in the boys: Running Fox’s skin was dark and his eyes were black, but Sinnanatha’s skin was white with large blue eyes that looked at the line of men with respect and curiosity. The white youth was almost six inches taller than his native friend.
As the men in the tribe passed by, Tecumseh was the last warrior to enter the room and he stopped to talk to Sinnanatha, his adopted little brother. “You have both done your job keeping us safe.” He smiled as he touched the shoulders of each boy. “Soon you will become part of our circle of warriors. Remember: stand strong and be brave.”
“We will, brother,” promised Sinnanatha.
“I can almost smell the deer meat cooking from here," said the man. “I’m sure your mothers can use your help with the chores.”
“I want to stay here and explore a little,” answered Running Fox. "I want to show Sinnanatha the white crawfish further back in the cave."
Tecumseh looked at him with doubt but finally shrugged. “Each river must carve its own course,” he said, handing Sinnanatha a torch. “But don’t be long and stay out of the branch of the cave where the spirit wall is located. I hope that I trust you to keep Running Fox out of trouble."
“We will be out soon,” he promised.
As soon as the last voices of the warriors faded downstream, Running Fox’s black eyes suddenly glistened with mischief. “He said we can’t go into the sacred branch - but he didn’t say anything about the mud room.” The boy pointed to an opening near the cave’s ceiling, just beyond the edge of torch’s light.
Sinnanatha laughed nervously. “That’s the worse idea I've ever heard! The most ancient of the cave's spirits live up there, we don’t want to disturb them. Just standing this close to their den is dangerous because it might draw them out and they will eat you in one gulp!” He chomped his teeth to add emphasis to his statement.
“You heard what Tecumseh told us: Be brave! You were born English so I don’t expect you to understand a true native’s bravery, but I am not afraid of anything - especially old legends and ancient spirits.”
Sinnanatha clenched his fists in disagreement but Running Fox suddenly began to scamper up the boulders towards the breach in the cave wall. The only thing the larger boy could do was follow him, trying to keep up.
The teenagers climbed upwards from the cool stream, their muddy moccasins scaling the many slippery boulders until they came to the tear in the cave wall. In spite of his reservations Sinnanatha couldn't help but be curious as well as he held the torch.
“Look at these markings,” said Running Fox excitedly. On both sides of the breach, on every inch of the mud walls, there were lines and hash marks and holes scratched into the hardened mud with stones and sticks. When the Shawnee had found this cave, the markings were already there, already wearing away. “I wonder what these signs mean?”
“They probably say: ‘Stay out running foxes!’" answered Sinnanatha, trying to warn his friend without being too harsh.
The passage was only four feet wide and ended in a natural room, large enough to crawl through, but just barely. On one side of the passage Sinnanatha noticed a tiny hearth with charcoal and red clay pebbles inside a circle of stones. “That’s where the ancient spirits cook dead men’s bones…” he whispered, trying to scare his friend into turning around.
But the teenager's warnings fell on deaf ears as Running Fox quickly crept into the tiny room at the end of the passage. Sinnanatha could see his friend crawling over a dirt mound, almost falling head-first into a bowl-shaped area large enough to sleep and eat in. “You should see this, Sinnanatha! There is a hearth in here and more lines all over the walls and…”
Sinnanatha could see his friend pulling himself further back into the room, beyond the rays of the torch light. As Running Fox disappeared from sight the white young man was becoming more and more frantic.
“There are a lot of round white stones on a ledge back here. I wonder why these are here? What makes them so special?”
“Don’t touch them!” hissed Sinnanatha, becoming enraged. He knew he was too large to squeeze into the tiny room, so grabbing his friend wouldn’t be possible. “If we leave now maybe the cave spirits won’t smell our scent and kill us for trespassing.”
Without any warning, Running Fox’s smiling face unexpectedly popped out of the hole in the cave wall. “Relax, my tall friend. I’m coming out.”
Sinnanatha sighed, breathing deeply a few times to calm himself, running his fingers through his long blond hair. “Let’s get out of here! We should never have come up to begin with.”
The two boys quickly scampered over the boulders down to the gravel bar by the cave stream.
“Give me the torch,” insisted Running Fox.
"Only if you promise to go back to the camp right now. I don’t want to get in trouble."
"I didn't mean to spook you, my friend," said Running Fox with a smirk. "We can go back now, if you insist."
"I do," replied Sinnanatha handing the torch over quickly, happy to be leaving. There were many twists in the narrow passage leading to the entrance and the boys had to watch their footing on the slick, muddy stones as Running Fox led the way out.
As they were wading through the water, Running Fox suddenly let out a yelp. “Hey! Stop it!” he whined, slapping the back of his neck with his free hand. The words were quickly swallowed up by the sound of rushing water. He turned to his friend, shooting him a menacing glance.
“What? I didn’t do anything.”
“You threw a rock at me!” insisted Running Fox. “Don’t do that again, it’s not funny!”
“It wasn’t me. Go on! I just want to get out of here,” ordered Sinnanatha.
Running Fox turned around, still holding the torch, trudging through the water that seemed to be rising. The boys waded on, entering and leaving another twist in the corridor, when something stung Running Fox on the back of his head, harder this time. “I told you it’s not funny!” he screamed at Sinnanatha.
“I swear it’s not me!”
“Well then you take the torch and walk in front so I can watch you!” demanded his native friend.
Sinnanatha angrily snatched the torch out of his friend’s hand and headed towards the entrance with frustration. In the distance the boys could see bursts of light reflected off the walls as they got closer to the entrance. “It must be storming outside,” he shouted to his friend. The bursts of light were followed by deafening booms that echoed through the passage, rumbling into the cave depths. In spite of the storm raging outside, both of the boys would be happy to be anywhere else besides this hole in the earth.
They hiked past one turn and then another, the water in the once gentle stream steadily rising. It wouldn’t be long before the cave would begin to flood. The boys saw the grey, dim light which meant the entrance would soon appear when Running Fox suddenly screamed out in pain. “Someone is throwing rocks at me!"
Sinnanatha waved the torch light behind them to see who might be following them - perhaps one of the other boys had sneaked in - but all he saw was handfuls of stones flying through the air, pelting the two boys again and again. He grabbed Running Fox, putting his own body between the onslaught of rocks and the native to protect him. The taller boy put his hands on the other's shoulders, staring down at his friend. “I told you not to go into the spirit’s den, but you wouldn’t listen. What did you do?” he shouted, demanding the truth.
Running Fox hands were trembling as he reached into his fringed cloth bag and pulled out five white, perfectly round smooth stones, holding them up so Big Fish could see them.
“You took these? You stole these from the spirits? I told you not to touch anything and now look at us! I promised Tecumseh I would take care of you!” His friend’s face was white now, his eyes blank with fear. “Give me the stones,” Sinnanatha shouted over the roar of the rising water and Running Fox immediately dropped the stones into his outstretched hands.
The taller boy turned to face whoever or whatever was following them. “Spirits of the cave, we meant no harm,” he shouted into the darkness. “Running Fox is young and stupid. We return these stones to your care.” He threw the stones deep into the darkness; he could hear them hit the side of the cave walls, pinging onto a gravel bar. The boys waited a moment before backing up against the cave wall, trying to make themselves blend in to the lines of the cave as much as possible, waiting to see if their offering had been accepted.
Suddenly a barrage of rocks flew directly at Running Fox, causing him to lose his balance and fall into the roaring water that was now up to their knees. He quickly got up, scrambling over to where Big Fish stood, hiding behind him for protection, but a quick movement drew his eyes upwards into the crevasses in the cave's ceiling. He immediately started pointing upwards, trying to show Sinnanatha something that only he could see. Running Fox’s eyes were huge as he appeared to be watching something up there in the large crack that ran through the stones overhead. “It’s a Yakwawi! I can see it!”
Suddenly Running Fox broke free, pushing Sinnanatha out of the way in his panic, rushing into the darkness, running deeper into the heart of the cave.
“That’s the wrong way!” shouted Sinnanatha as his friend disappeared from sight. What had Running Fox seen? He took the torch, holding it as high as he could, and finally in the flickering light he could see a creature crawling overhead like a wide shadow emerging out of the darkness. It quickly and unstoppably spread itself across the walls of the cave, flowing like a lizard over the ledges that formed the walls. The creature blocked the way to the entrance and then turned to face the man, almost out of reach of the torch light. Summoning all his courage Sinnanatha took two steps closer to the monster so he could see it clearly. As the light from the torch fell on the heinous deformed creature, it began to growl as if deciding whether to attack or keep its distance.
The giant hairless creature had skin that was transparent and Sinnanatha could see blue veins running over its bearlike skull and powerful body. Its eyes glowed a bright crimson, like the blind salamander’s eyes the boys had found in the furthest reaches of this immense hole in the ground. It had gnarled hands that seemed to melt onto the cave walls, suctioning its cold flesh fingertips onto the ridges of the walls, holding it securely. The only thing solid on its rippling body were its yellow teeth and fangs that appeared to be powerful enough to crush bones or even the rocks around it.
Sinnanatha could hear his friend’s yelps of pain now as Running Fox must have been crawling his way over the sharp stones, continuing to struggle deeper into the blackness of the cave. He knew he had no choice but to follow his friend and try desperately to find him. He grasped the torch even tighter and turned his back to the demon, sensing that the creature's fight was still with Running Fox. “Running Fox! It’s me. Where are you?” he began to shout as he fought his way through the rising water.
The blue-eyed boy trudged back deeper and deeper into the heart of the cave. His feet were beginning to go numb from the coldness of the cave water and it seemed that the further back he went, the thicker the fog in the cave became. The mist was like a curtain that bounced back the flickering glow. He wanted to look around but each time he stopped he could hear the demon run up behind him, causing him to go on, giving him no choice about which way to turn.
Sinnanatha had gone hunting often enough with the men of his tribe to know he was being herded by the monster. But where was he being herded to? What waited for him at the end of his troubled path?
Against all odds, Sinnanatha finally saw his friend huddled inside an opening in the cave wall. He rushed over to Running Fox, who sat terrified on a gravel bar, his back against a boulder.
Running Fox slowly looked up into the face of his friend, but the native's eyes were completely white having rolled back in his head, as though in a trance. Sinnanatha put the torch down and began to violently shake his friend with both hands trying to bring him back into the world of the living. He noticed there were wounds on his friend's arms and legs that seemed to be bite marks perhaps, or maybe claw marks. He knew he couldn't carry the native boy out, in spite of the fact that he was smaller - especially with that snarling monster patrolling up and down the passage.
He finally gave up, turning loose of the native boy, allowing him to fall back into his nightmare. For the moment the demon that had chased both of them here was staying outside this branch of the cave for some reason. Sinnanatha grabbed the torch and stood up, looking around at the walls inside the large room. There were carvings here - elaborate etchings in the stone walls of weapons and faces and spirals. He suddenly realized he was staring at the Spirit Wall. This was where the demon had wanted them to end up, but why? Why here?
Running Fox had buried his face in his hands, whimpering, blood running onto the pebbles where he sat. His body was shutting down, going into shock. Sinnanatha had to do something, but what? He shoved his torch into the darkness of the room wondering what had bitten his friend and saw a stack of what looked like branches wrapped in cloth on the other side of a large rock fall. He went over to it. What kind of terrible place was this? What secrets did it hold?
He inched slowly over the gravel bar, his feet growing steady now, his light reflecting off the ancient symbols on the spirit wall, the engraved faces seeming to shout at him. There were dozens of wrapped bundles, each as long as a...He grabbed the cloth off the top of one of the bundles and jumped back when he saw a leather covered skull jump out at him. The eyes had been plucked out, or maybe they had rotted out. The skin was pulled tight over the sunken jaws and the dried lips were shriveled up over the gums of the teeth.
The sound of footsteps behind him almost made him drop his torch. He turned to see Chief Black Fish staring at him, and raced to stand in front of the his father.
"I thought the spirit guardian may have herded you two in here, Sinnanatha. There are things about this place that you'll understand someday - grim secrets of a time long before our tribe found these valleys. There are rituals depicted on these walls that are sometimes needed to defend our people. This is the branch in the cave's heart that leads to the underworld, and it is patroled by the spirits who guard the doorway to death itself."
The chief looked over at Running Fox who still sat huddled by the entrance to the room. "You can explain all of this to me later but right now we must get Running Fox out of here. Grab his feet.”
The tall boy did as instructed, picking up the boys legs in his left arm as Chief Black Fish grabbed the boys torso. Navigating the roaring stream was the most difficult thing Big Fish had ever done, holding onto his torch with his right hand, but they had to escape this seemingly unending abyss. Running Fox had stopped trembling: his body was cool now and growing colder with every step they took.
As if all that wasn’t difficult enough, the Yakwawi spirit had found them again, slowly chasing them through one room after another. Their only advantage was that the great Chief had come here every year for forty years and knew the way out of the rock labyrinth.
As the desperate trio passed the mud branch from where Running Fox had stolen the stones,Sinnanatha noticed that his friend’s body was getting heavier… or perhaps he was just growing weaker. Soon they would be out of danger, he just had to keep carrying the boy and everything would be okay.
But the body was even heavier now, as if being pulled downwards into the stream. The roaring stream was trying to push his feet out from under him. He slipped and his friend dropped into the rushing water.
By now the only thing that Sinnanatha and the chief could do was push Running Fox onto a gravel bar, but even that was almost impossible as the body was stiff and as heavy as…stone.
The Shawnee chief placed the torch over the wounded boy’s face and it was as gray as the boulders around them. “He is turning to stone,” the chief told his adopted son. Sinnanatha put ear against Running Fox’s chest, only to find it was rigid. The white son and the Shawnee Chief looked at each other over the stone body of the boy, staring into each other’s eyes with shock and astonishment. How could this be?
Then Sinnanatha noticed the wounds on the boy’s face – the claw marks of the demon – were beginning to crack the boy’s cheeks and nose – as though the body was crumbling before their eyes.
There was a snarl behind them, a growl demanding that the two move away from the boy. In the wavering light of the torches, the demon was demanding access to what was left of the boy’s body. Although the chief and his son turned their torches towards the demon, by now the creature had grown wild with boldness and raced onto the dead boy’s body, standing on his solid chest. He roared wildly, swiping at the humans, yellow, luminous teeth lunging at them until the two backed off.
Sinnanatha wanted to look away but he found he couldn’t. Was he turning into stone as well? He forced himself to step backwards, leaving the demon to do whatever was next.
Seeing that it was now safe to enjoy its meal, the Yakwawi took its claws and plucked out the white, round eyeballs of the corpse, holding them out in its palm towards the humans, showing them the stones as they huddled in the torchlight. As if satisfied, the demon spirit began to slither back over the rocks leading up to its mud den in the tiny attic room near the ceiling of the cave. The clear-skinned fiend only turned to look once more upon the humans shivering with fear in the cave stream before finally evaporating into the mist of the cavern as though it had never been there at all.
In the years after Sinnanatha returned to the world of the Englishmen, he would talk sometimes, late at night before the fireplace in his cozy cabin, surrounded by friends from both the white and Shawnee nations. Occasionally he would tell his friends about returning to the visit the cave as he grew into a man, and viewing the stone body of his friend, who eventually became just some pink colored pebbles which eventually disappeared, probably washed away in a Spring flood.
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