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Chapter 11     

Close Encounters

Teancum led his men through the jungle. The Nephites were a strong, physically powerful race. But, Teancum and his men were unusually large and muscular, even for Nephites. They looked and acted as formidable warriors, but with hearts set on the needs of others and their quest for liberty. They progressed at a steady pace. The front soldiers hacked at vines and small trees with their swords literally cutting a path in a straight direction toward the land of Desolation. Monkeys chided overhead as the army passed through, but kept a safe distance. Teancum and his men ignored their chatter as they continued onward.

The path they cut became broad and distinct with logs and branches flung to the sides in the wake of the army's fast-paced advance. Teancum and his men ignored the humidity and heat. They bore stern, determined expressions. None of them had any degree of tolerance for either power mongering or treason. Morianton had chosen to commit both. They were determined to stop him before his aligning with others of his ilk could do more damage. 

~~~ - ~~~ 

Morianton led his men over hills and across rivers that snaked along the base of the hills. The men began to dread the rivers. Too often a crossing of the deceptively peaceful looking, murky-green, lazy-flowing waters were interrupted by the agonizing screams of men encountering the jagged, unrelenting teeth of the piranha who thrived in the area. Morianton insisted on speed, but finally relented to his men's demand that they fell trees to be used as bridges over the upcoming rivers. Swords used as axes made for slow work, but Morianton put several men into motion.

The first three trees felled were stripped of branches and hastily lashed together parallel to the river on the near bank. A long rope was tied to the far end of the makeshift bridge. Two additional, shorter ones were tied to the center area. Stakes were pounded into the ground at the base of the free end. The long rope was stretched across the length of the three-tree bridge, the stakes, and beyond. A dozen men heaved on the rope and slowly dragged it taut. Half as many others stood at the base of the bridge ensuring that it stayed within the bounds of the stakes.

As the far end of the forty-foot bridge began to be pulled upward, more men grabbed hold of the rope and added their muscle to the struggle. Soon the bridge was wholly vertical. The men on the long rope worked carefully to keep their structure slightly off-balance, letting it lean to the far side just enough to allow their ropes to pull back and fight the gravity pulling on the opposite side.

Two other groups of men now jumped into action. They grabbed the two loose ropes dangling from the center of the now-vertical bridge. They spread outward in opposite directions. They pulled their ropes taut and began to circle the lashed trees in a manner reminiscent of some ancient May Pole, using the ropes to help turn the bridge. The men at the base awkwardly stepped over the stakes as they fought to help turn the beast. They struggled successfully to turn it, keeping it between the stakes and the river. More stakes were added to be parallel with the river.

Finally, the proposed safe passage was ready for its drawbridge descent across the lethal, meandering waters. The men on the short ropes attempted to help keep it steady, but as the bridge lowered, the shorter ropes lost any form of strategic benefit and the men's tugs became meaningless. They let go of their ropes and allowed them to droop into the river. The loose ropes then began to be gently tugged by the casual flow of the river. The men on the long rope sweated and strained, to keep the bridge's descent slow and controlled.

They dug their feet into the earth, fighting to keep from losing their footing, and their grip, while also attempting to stay out of each other's way. One misstep by any individual would pose a chain reaction stumbling block for the others. The men at the stakes continued to push the base downward, forcing it to stay in line with the stakes. The descent quickened unexpectedly. The men on the long rope let out a fierce groan and pulled back.

The rate was slowed momentarily. But, just as it was believed to be controlled, the front rope man lost his footing and fell forward. His feet tangled with those of the men behind him. They fell and inadvertently released their grips. The far end of the bridge tumbled the last dozen feet and collided with the far bank with a loud, but muffled thud.

Some of the rope men had not managed to let go in time and were dragged forward at a tremendous rate. They slammed into those who had tripped. The front man was forced forward and bodily pressed into the vertical stakes that had temporarily held the bridge at bay. His shoulder was dislocated, but they were able to pop it back into place. He survived in spite of the pain.

Morianton, who had stood by simply supervising, gave the order to cross. The men were relieved to finally cross a river without wading into it. They were admittedly a little excited to try out their new bridge, as well. They shouldered their gear and stepped onto the bridge in single file groups of three. The slender logs could not handle much more weight than this.

Even still, the bridge bowed under the weight. The men noted how it seemed to bounce with each step and took it a little more slowly than they had at first planned. After the fifth of six groups had crossed, Morianton's patience was taxed to its limit as he saw his men gingerly crossing at too slow a pace for his liking. He urged them to step up the pace.

As they did so, the sagging bridge bounced even more abundantly. The middle man in this group was the same man who had dislocated his shoulder during the lowering of the bridge. He had shouldered his allotment of equipment, but was trying to keep its weight on his good shoulder. On one particularly large shudder of the bridge, his bundle shifted onto his tender shoulder.

He stiffened suddenly with the unexpected, searing pain and instinctively heaved his bundle away from the shoulder and off of his back. It swung backward and took the man to his rear off guard. The man first tried to catch the bundle, trying to steady it, but lost his own balance in the process. He teetered momentarily, then, dropping his own bundle and swinging both arms in large circles as he fought to regain his balance, he tipped off of the safety bridge and fell face first into the warm, brownish waters.

He probably would have been all right, but as he fell, one of his struggling feet became entangled in the strap of his pack. The weight of the equipment pulled his foot to the bottom. Entirely submerged, he reached for his ankle and frantically worked to free himself of this unanticipated anchor. He had only been in the water for a matter of seconds when an angry school of sharp-toothed fish moved in on their prey. The man's efforts quickly gave way to panic. Gurgling shrieks of pain escaped his lips in large blasts of bubbles.

Up above, his two companions on the bridge called in vain for their fallen comrade. The one nearest, with the dislocated shoulder, hesitated diving in, out of concern of being able to lend much assistance. His guilt for having been the cause of the fall had added to his hesitancy. The man who had been in the lead was only now figuring out what had happened. His offer to help was stopped short as he saw the once-calm water begin to churn voraciously at the spot of the plummet. Soon the telltale sign of red liquid rose to the surface and began to slowly drift away with the lazy current. Their friend was now beyond their help.

All of those who had witnessed this sad event were left with somber thoughts. The remainder of them took even greater care as they finished porting their equipment across the river. Morianton was much more patient. Within a handful of minutes the place was again vacated. The makeshift bridge lay across the river, abandoned. Its center ropes continued to skim across the top of the water like snakes forever winding left and right.

Deep footprints and scrape marks on the bank where they had successfully struggled to lower the bridge, were all that remained. The entire ordeal of cutting, lashing and lowering the bridge was repeated again and again as they continued to ford rivers. The men silently agreed that the strain was preferable to the hidden terrors of the devil fish.

The rivers, however, posed only one obstacle for the advancing army. The mountainous terrain also taxed their strength and resolve as they hefted their gear up steep hillsides, hacking their way through the distressingly dense growth as they climbed. The summits provided little reprieve, as many simply descended again after only a few dozen yards. The base of most of these hills more often than not were bathed by yet another river forcing the need for what had become an all-too-common felling and lashing of trees.

Finally, the descent from one hill, and the crossing of the river led to a welcome sight. The jungle and the terrain gave way to an appealing clearing. It appeared the men would receive a respite from their laborious and ill-intentioned march. Their mood brightened as they emerged from the jungle and into the clearing. Their relief was quickly quelled, however, when they saw Teancum's army standing on the far end of the clearing. Morianton shouted hastily-contrived orders to his men. They lunged forward against their former brothers.

Teancum and his men were unaware of the near proximity of their foes until the very moment that Morianton ordered the attack. Morianton's army obeyed and charged Teancum's men. Teancum attempted to prevent the pending battle. He shouted several times for Morianton, attempting to establish a peaceful negotiation, but neither Morianton nor his men would respond or acknowledge their countryman. They simply charged forward with fire in their eyes and swords held high.

Within a moment, both armies were engaged in mortal combat. The sap stains on their swords from trees and vines were quickly concealed by blood and sweat. The tranquil area was filled with the clinging and clanging of swords and the shouts of the aggressors, the defenders, and the dying.

Morianton's men were weary, but determined. They had endured too much to have their quest end in some forgotten clearing. They fought with aggression bordering on frenzy. To his wicked delight, Morianton noted that his army was not just holding their ground, but pushing forward. Teancum's army was now decidedly losing ground. Morianton flashed an evil smile and urged his men forward.

With the suddenness of a cloud burst, the second half of Teancum's army charged into the battlefield from the north and joined the fray. Morianton and his army were dismayed to learn that there was still a great number who had not yet reached the clearing when their attack began. Morianton's army became wholly surrounded and quickly lost confidence. Teancum and Morianton fought hand-to-hand.

Teancum turned to deflect a blow being laid on an already-wounded fellow soldier. With Teancum's back to him, Morianton took full advantage and raised his sword high above his head intent on bringing it down and snuffing the life out of Teancum. As he brought it down, Teancum turned swiftly and stuck his knife into Morianton's belly. Morianton had not counted on Teancum using his other hand. Morianton froze, then slumped and tumbled to the ground clumsily.

With the felling of their leader, his treasonous, overwhelmed and weary army dropped to their knees begging for mercy. Teancum raised his sword high above his head, signaling the cessation of fighting. His men obeyed. Teancum looked about him. He saw the dead and the dying Nephites and those who were now holding back from further carnage. He was incensed at the disruption of peace, society, and lives, which their quest for unearned power had generated.

""You men disgust me! You're worse than fleas on a dog's back! How can you turn so quickly from the standard of truth to follow the lies of an arrogant and greedy man? Throw down your swords and step in line! You're going back to Zarahemla where I'm certain Moroni will have you swear allegiance to the Title of Liberty, or die. Either way suits me just fine," he shouted.

The kneeling men stood, leaving their swords at their feet, and slowly backed up. Teancum's men picked up these weapons and marshaled the captives into a line five men wide. They headed back into the jungle toward Zarahemla. They followed the path Teancum's army had recently cut. The going was considerably easier than that which Morianton's men had undergone previously. 

~~~ - ~~~ 

Teancum had given his accounting of the death of Morianton to Moroni, Lehi, and Helaman. Before he left the strategy room, Moroni offered his gratitude for a grizzly job done well and swiftly, "Thank you, Teancum, I knew we could count on you to settle this quickly."

"I only wish he'd have given us the chance to reason with him. To not even talk before attacking... How can a man become so filled with hate?" Teancum bemoaned.

"Some men put pride and passion for power ahead of their senses, their people's welfare, and their God. This is what this whole conflict is all about. You did the right thing, Teancum. It's unfortunate, but it was right," Moroni reassured him.

"I guess you're right. No, I know you're right. It's just not an easy task," Teancum said.

"If you thought it was, I'd be concerned about you. Why don't you take a day or two to clear your head?" Moroni counseled.

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir," Teancum nodded appreciatively.

Teancum turned and left the room. He made his way through the stone hallways that led to the outer area of the central building. As he worked his way through the building, his thoughts were on the senseless struggle with Morianton. His frustration unintentionally caused him to quicken his pace as he went.

He reached the outer door and opened it quickly as he made his exit. His timing was impeccable, for he bumped a passerby with the sudden opening of the door. The passerby was taken off guard and lost her balance. Teancum peered around the door and found her sitting on the ground in the alley that passed by the building. Her hair was draped over her face from the fall. He stooped to help her to her feet.

"I'm terribly sorry. I didn't see you," he offered.

The young woman sat on the ground and pulled her long, brown hair from her eyes as she looked up. It was a face Teancum had seen before, but much changed from the ragged, swollen appearance she had had the last time they were together. It was Morianton's maidservant, Sephara, who had come and warned Moroni of her master's treachery. Then, she was a ragged mess after a three-day flight through the jungle. Now, she was clean and freshly dressed. He was stunned by Sephara's natural beauty.

"Well - why - it's you!" Teancum stammered, inadvertently retracting his hand in surprise and standing upright again.

"Well, of course it's me! I am who I am. Who would you expect?" she said sarcastically.

Teancum regained his composure and slipped into stride with her sarcastic lines.

"I don't normally expect wayward waifs to be wandering the streets. But, I see you've graduated from that school," he said still staring down at her with admiration.

"Thanks. Are you all talk, or are you going to give me a hand up?" she quipped.

Teancum was so taken by her appearance he had forgotten that she was still sitting on the ground. He reached out his hand and helped her to her feet.

"There you go. Back on your feet again. Anything broken?" he asked, attempting to bring about some manners.

"No, thank you. Don't overestimate your own strength," she responded dryly.

"Morianton certainly did," he pointed out under his breath.

The two began to walk down the alleyway together.

"Yes, so I heard," she acknowledged.

"He didn't even give me the chance to negotiate. The moment he saw my men, he instinctively attacked," he said somberly.

"He wasn't exactly a gentleman," she added, referencing her own experience with the man.

Her inference was not lost on Teancum, "Yes, I know. I remember what he did to you. You looked so, so - so horrible." He looked at her with renewed pity for the pathetic state she had been in when they first met.

"Thanks a lot," she repeated with renewed sarcasm.

"No, that's not what I meant," Teancum added attempting to present a better impression. "I just can't imagine a man treating a woman that way."

Teancum paused, then added in a more subdued tone, "Especially one so beautiful."

Sephara was caught off guard by the compliment and blushed. She responded with intrigued surprise, "Why - thank you."

In an attempt to change the topic somewhat, but not totally, Teancum added, "So, where were you off to, when I so rudely interrupted you?"

"To be honest, I was on my way to the market to get some food. Eating has become a habit I've grown somewhat fond of." Sephara had managed to regain her composure and returned to her sarcastic emotional defense.

"That's a habit I tend to enjoy myself, although there are times out in the field when it can be somewhat difficult to fully indulge in it. And, we rarely have good company. Do you mind if I join you?" Teancum had a fondness for her use of language and was finding that he was gaining a fondness for her as a person as well.

"Oh, I suppose a little companionship might be tolerable," she conceded. She found this Nephite somewhat intriguing herself.

"Thanks. I'll take that as a compliment. I get the feeling that might be as close as I'm going to get," Teancum surmised with a wink.

"You never know, now do you?" she responded as an irrepressible grin brightened her face.

Teancum laughed and offered her his arm. She linked her hand inside his elbow and the two continued down the alley together looking at peace in each other's presence. This was a feeling neither had experienced in quite some time. 

~~~ - ~~~ 

Teancum and Sephara sat together at a small, round wooden table near the city's center square. Fruit vendors and vendors of other types of foods and goods milled about in the background hawking their wares. This new couple was oblivious to the many people walking back and forth or haggling boisterously with the vendors. Teancum and Sephara barely touched their meals. They were deep in discussion.

Teancum gesticulated with his hands and arms to illustrate the words of his current story. Both smiled in a way that those who knew them best had not seen in many a year, if ever. Both had lived adventurous, but lonely lives. They found this to be a strong, yet unspoken bond between them. As unlikely as it may have seemed to them both as they awoke that morning, a new relationship was being solidified. 

~~~ - ~~~ 

Teancum's cup was once filled with a bright, purple liquid. Now, it sat empty, having been drained sip by sip during only infrequent pauses between stories and topics, or during the time he eagerly listened to his new friend's tales. The two remained wholly engaged in conversation, not noticing how dark it had grown. Nor did they notice that the once-bustling city square was now nearly empty. Carts and baskets were gone. Torches had been lit.

Teancum, still in mid-story reached for another sip, picked up the cup and found it empty. He reached for the pitcher to pour more drink, and found it was empty too. He looked from the pitcher to Sephara.

"Well, we seem to have run dry," he said.

He took his eyes off of Sephara for the first time in hours, looked around and only now noticed the lateness of the hour and the lack of other people.

"And the people all seem to have run off. I'm sorry. I hadn't noticed the time. I must have held you captive here for hours!" he apologized.

"I've been a very willing prisoner. I haven't enjoyed a day like this in - I don't think I've ever enjoyed a day this much," she stated with sincerity.

"Nor have I. It's a pity the sun has called it to an end. I'd better see you safely home," Teancum replied.

"Yes, thank you," she accepted.

Teancum rose and helped Sephara up. They continued to walk arm in arm.

"Now, which of these paths leads to your noble abode?" he asked with mock dignity.

Sephara laughed and pointed.

"'Modest' is a much better word. It's down this way," she offered.

They began their walk again arm in arm. They passed by many homes with torches in their windows. Here and there they could overhear parents tucking their children into bed, or saying their nightly prayers. It was a peaceful, clear evening. The stars provided a surprisingly bright light as they walked through the streets of Zarahemla. For the most part, they remained oblivious to the world around them and were still engaged in conversation when they arrived at her door.

"This is the place," Sephara declared.

"And a wonderful place it is. May I see you again tomorrow?" Teancum asked.

"I'd be terribly disappointed if you didn't," she admitted.

"Good, because I'm afraid you'd be seeing me nonetheless. Good night, sweet fair one!" he vowed.

He smiled, bowed with exaggerated politeness, and gave her a wink as he stood up again. Sephara laughed as she went inside and shut the door. Elated, Teancum whirled around with a big smile. As he sauntered off, he passed a large, clay pot and slapped its lid with his hand. The lid fell off and shattered. A dog barked. A voice from within the house with the pot called out.

"What's that? What's happened?" the voice queried.

"Nothing of any concern. Go back to sleep, dear world," Teancum reassured everyone and no one in particular.

He continued to head home. The most splendid day - and evening - of his life had come to a close. Fortunately, there was a strong prospect that even better days were near at hand. For the first time, he was beginning to fully understand just what it was Moroni had been saying about fighting for the liberty of their loved ones.

©1999, 2003 by Douglas V. Nufer

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