The Hidden Mine - Cover

The Hidden Mine

Copyright© 2023 by Joseph A. Altsheler

Chapter 23: A Mysterious Danger

Bonneau had prepared a plentiful supper for us, and we ate with the appetite which only hard toil gives. Our supply of provisions was so large, thanks to our recent hunting expeditions that we saw no reason to spare the steaks. As we ate Pike cast occasional glances through the loopholes. He announced, by and by, that a drizzling rain, was falling, and the indications pointed to a dark night.

“I’m sorry uv it, too,” said Pike, “fur ef Halftrigger means to attack us the darkness will help him.”

“Do you anticipate any demonstration from our enemies?” asked Mr. Sheldon.

“Kain’t say,” replied Pike, making use of his favorite expression; “but I rather think they will try suthin’. I kain’t figure out jest how they’ll come at us, an’ that’s what bothers me. I guess, however, we’d better keep on with the tunnel to-night, ez soon ez everybody is rested good, fur ‘twon’t hurt to hev it ready jest ez soon ez possible.”

Pike looked uneasy, and I asked him if he really thought the outlaws would be able to storm and carry our fortifications.

“Things ‘pear to be in our favor,” he replied: “but thet Halftrigger, though an infernal villian, is a mighty shifty feller, an’ I don’t think he’s been so quiet all fur nothin’. Anyway, we’ve got to keep a mighty sharp watch to-night.”

As soon as we had taken our rest and had given our suppers a chance to be digested a little work was resumed in the pit. I was excepted, however, from the list of laborers at Pike’s request.

“I want you to help me watch through these loopholes, Joe,” said Pike. “I guess you’ve got about the keenest eyes in the party, next to mine, and we need sent’nels to-night.”

But it came on so dark that we could not see twenty feet from the hut. Pike growled more than once and by the sputtering light of the torch that we had ignited I could see his face express great dissatisfaction.

“I don’t like this a bit—not a darned bit,” he said. “It gives them fellers too great an advantage fur thar tricks and schemes. What tools did we leave down thar at the mine when we made the break fur the cabin!”

“Four picks, three shovels and two axes,” I replied.

“I’m sorry fur that,” said Pike. “I wish we’d thought to bring them things away with us.”

I wondered what he had in mind, but, as he seemed inclined to be taciturn, I asked him no questions.

The rain was still falling in a fine drizzle, and a wind which sprang up whipped it about. Occasionally a dab of spray was driven through the loophole and lashed me in the face. Pike was glum and silent. The only noise in the cabin came from the tunnel where one man cast up the loose earth that the diggers threw back. Their faces were smeared with dirt and they looked in the imperfect light like so many ghouls toiling in a graveyard.

“What time do you think it might be?” asked Mr. Sheldon, poking up his head from the pit.

“‘Bout ten, I should say,” replied Pike. “Thar’ ain’t no moon nor stars to-night to go by, but I guess I ain’t fur wrong.”

“Well, we are making good progress,” said Mr. Sheldon. “If we keep on this way, we will reach water ahead of time.”

“Any signs of rock in the way?” I asked.

“None,” he replied, “and, after thinking it over, I must admit that it is rather strange, for we would have right to expect rock at less depth than we have gone on a hillside like this. Probably the washings of earth from the hilltop have been accumulating at this spot for centuries. But, however it may have happened, it’s a piece of good luck, which will offset some piece of bad luck.”

“I hope that offset uv bad luck won’t come soon,” said Pike.

He spoke in a gruesome tone, which was very unusual with him, for Pike was one of the most courageous and hopeful of men. Mr. Sheldon noticed it as quickly as I did.

“You speak like a prophet of evil,” he said. “Are you fearing some disaster?”

“I’m feelin’ ez ef somethin’ wuz goin’ wrong,” said Pike. “I know it’s tarnation foolish in me to talk like a skeary young gal, but I kain’t shake off thet feelin’.”

“Just watch our engineering operations, then,” said Mr. Sheldon, cheerfully, “and you’ll be so much struck with our skill and progress that you will forget your premonitions.”

“It’ll pass off directly,” replied Pike. “I guess it’s like a chill; stays with you fur a while an’ then off it goes. Mebbe that’s what’s the matter with me. Guess I’ve got some malarry in my system an’ it’s gone to my head.”

The big hunter struck his head as if to indicate his dissatisfaction with himself for a feeling that he considered unmanly.

“It’s a tarnation bad night,” he said, peering out at a loophole, “the wind’s lashin’ the rain aroun’ and it’s turned cold enough to give a feller the shivers. What in thunder wuz that?”

There was a dull whirring and rushing through the air, followed by a heavy thump, and a tearing noise among the bushes down the hill side, below the cabin. Pike had his eye glued to a loophole.

“Do you see anythin’?” he cried, his voice betraying an excitement that was uncommon for him.

“Nothing but the darkness,” I replied, without removing my eye from my own loophole.

“Neither kin I,” said Pike. “Thunder, but thar it is agin!—”

Whir-r-rr, swish-h-h-h went something through the air. Smash it came against the earth, and then there was a tearing noise in the bushes below the cabin like that we had heard before.

I was puzzled and alarmed.

“Perhaps it’s your premonitions coming true,” I said to Pike.

“Mebbe it is,” growled the hunter, “but it beats me whut makes that noise. I’ve tramped plain and mountain many a year and seen some strange things, but this caps ‘em.”

“Shall I tell them of it?” I asked, nodding my head towards the pit where the others were at work so far below the surface that the sounds could not reach their ears.

“No,” replied Pike. “Let ‘em work away. They kain’t tell any more about it than we kin, an’ ef we need ‘em we kin call ‘em quick enough.”

He went around to the various loopholes and tried to pierce the darkness with his keen eyes. But he could not see any more than I could, and that was nothing.

“Confound such a pitchy night, anyway,” he growled. “It comes jest at the wrong time. Thar’s devilment afoot an’ no way to tell what it is. What do you think it wuz, Joe, that made them ar noises that we hev heard twice?”

I shook my head and Pike turned again discontentedly to a loophole.

“I’ve more’n half a mind,” he said, “to take my gun, go outside and do some scoutin’.”

“Don’t do that,” I urged, “for we’ll be sure to need you here. Whatever may be the danger that menaces us, we’ve got to hold this fort, it seems to me.”

Pike appeared to be impressed by my words.

“I guess you’re right,” he said. “We’d better stay here an’ face it together, whatever it is. Listen; thar it goes it agin!”

We heard the whir and the swish and then as we listened for the thump down the hill side there was a rending and crashing over our heads, a heavy mass of something smashed through the roof of our cabin as if it had been made of paper, dashed down upon a heap of earth beside the entrance to the pit, extinguished the torch that we had stuck there, and then rolled with a heavy thudding sound into the pit.

The loose earth had been dashed into our eyes by the impact, and gusts of cold rain whipped through the hole in the roof and into our faces. A bit of earth had also been driven into my mouth, and I strangled and coughed and spluttered.

“Are you hurt, Joe?” came Pike’s eager words. “Hev you been hit? Whar in thunder is thet tarnation torch? I thought somethin’ wuz going to happen an’ it’s happened, but it beats me yet what it is.”

I sought to answer, but I still coughed and spluttured, because of the mud stuck in my throat and I was unable to make articulate reply. Pike scrambled around in the darkness after the extinguished torch, and there came a hubbub from the pit. Some one struck against a hard object and fell, uttering a cry of pain.

“Confound it!” cried a voice that was Mr. Sheldon’s. “I’d like to know in the name of all the saints what I’ve hit against. I believe I’ve broken my leg, too. Say, you fellows, what’s happened? Why is the light out and the pit mouth half blocked up?”

Then the voices of Henry, Bonneau and Sam were heard chiming in, and just then I got the dirt from my throat and recovered the use of my vocal organs.

“Something strange has happened,” I replied, “but we don’t know yet what it is. Wait till we get a light.”

But Pike had found the torch, and as I spoke he ignited it with his punk and steel. It burned in a feeble, sickly way, but it cast enough light to show the interior of the cabin and our pallid faces.

The mound of earth beside the mouth of the pit had been dashed about as if it had been smitten by a thunderbolt. In the roof was a hole big enough to admit the bodies of two men at once, and the rain sweeping through it had already turned a part of the loose earth on the floor into mud. All the boys had crawled out of the pit and stood rubbing their ankles and staring at each other.

“I guess we’ll see now what in thunder thet wuz thet come through the roof like a tornado,” said Pike.

He held the torch over the mouth of the pit, and there, lying on the bottom we saw a huge round stone or boulder that would have weighed at least fifty or sixty pounds.

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