Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
OUR FOURTH OF JULY AT THE DEN
FARM work as usual occupied us quite closely during May and June that year; and ere long we began to think of what we would do on the approaching Fourth of July. So far as we could hear, no public celebration was being planned either at the village in our own town, or in any of the towns immediately adjoining. Apparently we would have to organize our own celebration, if we had one; and after talking the matter over with the other young folks of the school district, we decided to celebrate the day by making a picnic excursion to the "Den," and carrying out a long contemplated plan for exploring it.
The Den was a pokerish cavern near Overset Pond, nine or ten miles to the northeast of the old Squire's place, about which clung many legends.
In the spring of 1839 a large female panther is said to have been trapped there, and an end made of her young family. Several bears, too, had been surprised inside the Den, for the place presented great attractions as a secure retreat from winter cold. But the story that most interested us was a tradition that somewhere in the recesses of the cave the notorious Androscoggin Indian Adwanko had hidden a bag of silver money that he had received from the French for the scalps of white settlers.
The entrance to the cave fronts the pond near the foot of a precipitous mountain, called the Fall-off. A wilder locality, or one of more sinister aspect, can hardly be imagined. The cave is not spacious within; it is merely a dark hole among great granite rocks. By means of a lantern or torch you can penetrate to a distance of seventy feet or more.
One day when three of us boys had gone to Overset Pond to fish for trout we plucked up our courage and crawled into it. We crept along for what seemed to us a great distance till we found the passage obstructed by a rock that had apparently fallen from overhead. We could move the stone a little, but we did not dare to tamper with it much, for fear that other stones from above would fall.' We believed that Adwanko's bag of silver was surely in some recess beyond the rock and at once began to lay plans for blasting out the stone with powder. By using a long fuse, the person that fired the charge would have time to get out before the explosion.
Our party drove there in five double-seated wagons as far as Moose-Yard Brook, where we left the teams and walked the remaining two miles through the woods to Overset Pond. Besides five of us from the old Squire's, there were our two young neighbors, Thomas and Catherine Edwards, Willis Murch and his older brother, Ben, the two Darnley boys, Newman and Rufus, their sister, Adriana, and ten or twelve other young people.
Besides luncheon baskets and materials to make lemonade, we had taken along axes, two crowbars, two lanterns, four pounds of blasting powder and three feet of safety fuse. My cousin Addison had also brought a hammer, drill and "spoon." The girls were chiefly interested in the picnic; but we boys were resolved to see what was in the depths of the cave, and immediately on reaching the place several of us lighted the lanterns and went in.
At no place could we stand upright. Apparently some animal had wintered there, for the interior had a rank odor; but we crawled on over rocks until we came to the obstructing stone sixty or seventy feet from the entrance.
We had planned to drill a hole in the rock, blast it into pieces, and thus clear a passage to what lay beyond it. On closer inspection, however, we found that it was almost impossible to set the drill and deal blows with the hammer. But the stone rested on another rock, and we believed that we could push powder in beneath it and so get an upward blast that would heave the stone either forward or backward, or perhaps even break it in halves. We therefore set to work, thrusting the powder far under the stone with a blunt stick, until we had a charge of about four pounds. When we had connected the fuse we heaped sand about the base of the stone, to confine the powder.
The blast was finally ready; and then the question who should fire it arose. The three feet of fuse would, we believed, give two full minutes for whoever lighted it to get out of the Den; but fuse sometimes burns faster than is expected, and the safety fuse made in those days was not so uniform in quality as that of present times. At first no one seemed greatly to desire the honor of touching it off. The boys stood and joked one another about it, while the girls looked on from a safe distance.
"I shan't feel offended if any one gets ahead of me," Addison remarked carelessly.
"I'd just as soon have some one else do it," Ben said, smiling.
I had no idea of claiming the honor myself. Finally, after more bantering, Rufus Darnley cried, "Who's afraid? I'll light it. Two minutes is time enough to get out."
Rufus was not largely endowed with mother wit, or prudence. His brother Newman and his sister Adriana did not like the idea of his setting off the blast — in fact, none of us did; but Rufus wanted to show off a bit, and he insisted upon going in. Thereupon Ben, the oldest of the young fellows present, said quietly that he would go in with Rufus and light the fuse himself while Rufus held the lantern.
"I'll shout when I touch the match to the fuse," he said, "so that you can get away from the mouth of the cave."
They crept in, and the rest of us stood round, listening for the signal. Several minutes passed, and we wondered what could be taking them so long. At last there came a muffled shout, and all of us, retreating twenty or thirty yards, watched for Ben and Rufus to emerge. Some of us were counting off the seconds. We could hear Ben and Rufus coming, climbing over the rocks. Then suddenly there was an outcry and the sound of tinkling glass. At the same instant Ben emerged, but immediately turned and went back into the cave.
"Hurry, Rufe!" we heard him call out. "What's the matter? Hurry, or it will go off!"
Consternation fell on us, and some of us started for the mouth of the cave; but before we had gone more than five paces Ben sprang forth. He had not dared to remain an instant longer — and, indeed, he was scarcely outside when the explosion came. It sounded like a heavy jolt deep inside the mountain.
To our horror a huge slab of rock, thirty or forty feet up the side of the Fall-off, started to slide with a great crunching and grinding; then, gathering momentum, it plunged down between us and the mouth of the cave and completely shut the opening from view. Powder smoke floated up from behind the slab.
There was something so terrible in the suddenness of the catastrophe that the whole party seemed crazed. The boys, shouting wildly, swarmed about the fallen rock; the girls ran round, imploring us to get Rufus out. Rufus's sister Adriana, beside herself with terror, was screaming; and we could hardly keep Newman Darnley from attacking Ben Murch, who, he declared, should have brought Rufus out!
At first we were afraid that the explosion had killed Rufus; but almost immediately we heard muffled cries for help from the cave. He was still alive, but we had no way of knowing how badly he was hurt. Adriana fairly flew from one to another, beseeching us to save him.
"He's dying! He's under the rocks!" she screamed. "Oh, why don't you get him out?"
With grave faces Willis, Ben, Addison and Thomas peered round the fallen rock and cast about for some means of moving it.
"We must pry it away!" Thomas exclaimed. "Let's get a big pry!"
"We can't move that rock!" Ben declared. "We shall have to drill it and blast it."
But we had used all the powder and fuse, and it would take several hours to get more. Ben insisted, however, on sending Alfred Batchelder for the powder, and then, seizing the hammer and drill, he began to drill a hole in the side of the rock.
Thomas, however, still believed that we could move the rock by throwing our united weight on a long pry; and many of the boys agreed with him. We felled a spruce tree seven inches in diameter, trimmed it and cut a pry twenty feet long from it. Carrying it to the rock, we set a stone for a fulcrum, and then threw our weight repeatedly on the long end. The rock, which must have weighed ten tons or more, scarcely stirred. Ben laughed at us scornfully and went on drilling.
All the while Adriana stood weeping, and the other girls were shedding tears in sympathy. Rufus's distressed cries came to our ears, entreating us to help him and saying something that we could not understand about his leg.
As Addison stood racking his brain for some quicker way of moving the rock he remembered a contrivance, called a "giant purchase," that he had heard of lumbermen's using to break jams of logs on the Androscoggin River. He had never seen one and had only the vaguest idea how it worked. All he knew was that it consisted of an immense lever, forty feet long, laid on a log support and hauled laterally to and fro by horses. He knew that you could thus get a titanic application of power, for if the long arm of the lever were forty feet long and the short arm four feet, the strength of three horses pulling on the long arm would be increased tenfold — that is, the power of thirty horses would be applied against the object to be moved.
Addison explained his plan to the rest of us. He sent Thomas and me to lead several of our horses up through the woods to the pond. We ran all the way; and we took the whippletrees off the double wagons, and brought all the spare rope halters. Within an hour we were back there with four of the strongest horses.
Meanwhile the others had been busy; even Ben had been persuaded to drop his drilling and to help the other boys cut the great lever — a straight spruce tree forty or forty-five feet tall. The girls, too, had worked; they had even helped us drag the two spruce logs for the lever to slide on. In fact, every one had worked with might and main in a kind of breathless anxiety, for Rufus's very life seemed to be hanging on the success of our exertions.
A few feet to the left of the fallen rock was another boulder that served admirably for a fulcrum, and before long we had the big lever in place with the end of the short arm bearing against the fallen slab. When we had attached the horses to the farther end, Addison gave the word to start. As the horses gathered themselves for the pull we watched anxiously. The great log lever, which was more than a foot in diameter, bent visibly as they lunged forward.
Every eye was now on the rock, and when it moved, — for move it did, — such a cry of joy rose as the shores of that little pond had never echoed before! The great slab ground heavily against the other rocks, but moved for three or four feet, exposing in part the mouth of the cave — the same little dark chink that affords entrance to the Den to-day.
Other boulders prevented the rock from moving farther, and, although the horses surged at the lever, and we boys added our strength, the slab stuck fast; but an aperture twenty inches wide had been uncovered, wide enough to enable any one to enter the Den.
Ben, Willis and Edgar Wilbur crept in, followed by Thomas with a lantern; and after a time they brought Rufus out. We learned then that in his haste after the fuse was lighted he had fallen over one of the large rocks and, striking his leg on another stone, had broken the bone above the knee. He suffered not a little when the boys were drawing him out at the narrow chink beside the rock; but he was alive, and that was a matter for thankfulness.
Thomas went back to get the lantern that Rufus had dropped. It had fallen into a crevice between two large rocks, and while searching for it Thomas found another lantern there, of antique pattern. It was made of tin and was perforated with holes to emit the light; it seemed very old. Underneath where it lay Thomas also discovered a man's waistcoat, caked and sodden by the damp. In one pocket was a pipe, a rusted jackknife and what had once been a piece of tobacco. In the other pocket were sixteen large, old, red copper cents, one of which was a "boobyhead" cent.
We never discovered to whom that treasure-trove belonged. It could hardly have been Adwanko's, for one of the copper cents bore the date of 1830. Perhaps the owner of it had been searching for Adwanko's money; but why he left his lantern and waistcoat behind him remains a mystery. Our chief care was now for Rufus. We made a litter of poles and spruce boughs, and as gently as we could carried the sufferer through the woods down to the wagons, and slowly drove him home. Seven or eight weeks passed before he was able to walk again, even with the aid of a crutch.
Our plan of exploring the Den had been wholly overshadowed. We even forgot the luncheon baskets; and no one thought of ascertaining what the blast had accomplished. When we went up to the cave some months later we found that the blast had done very little; it had moved the rock slightly, but not enough to open the passage; and so it remains to this day. Old Adwanko's scalp money is still there — if it ever was there; but it is my surmise that the cruel redskin is much more likely to have spent his blood money for rum than to have left it behind him in the Den.