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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Defence of a Subterranean Stronghold

By Daniel Pierce Thompson (1795–1868)

[Born in Charlestown, Mass., 1795. Died at Montpelier, Vt., 1868. The Green Mountain Boys. 1840.]

IN a few moments Captain Hendee, who, nearly ready to sink under the fatigues of the day, had retired to the inner room in the interval of quiet which followed the repulse of the enemy at the western entrance, had made his appearance. A glance at the ceiling, now visibly shaking in two different places under the rapidly progressing operations of the foe above, enabled him, with the hasty intimations just imparted by his daughter, to comprehend at once the situation of both besiegers and besieged.

“This is a strait to which I both feared and expected we should be finally reduced,” he remarked coolly, after a momentary pause, “but let no man despair; I have been in situations more hopeless than this, and yet escaped.”

“We can at least sell our lives dearly,” responded Selden.

“True,” replied the old veteran thoughtfully, “even in the method of defence which I see, from your arrangement, you propose to adopt,—that of shooting the assailants as they attempt to enter the breaches that they may make. But will you be able thus to repel them long? Every foot of this earthy covering, which now protects us from their bullets, may be removed, or beat in upon us, before we can bring our guns to bear upon them with effect. And every surrounding tree-top will, by that time, conceal a foe, ready to send us death from above; while firebrands and combustibles will be hurled down upon us by those remaining on the ground. And if we retreat into our narrow passages, as we must, the same game will follow us there.”

“All these hazards, Captain Hendee,” replied the young leader, “I am fully aware we may encounter. But what other mode of defence can we adopt?—A sally from the western entrance, which is now doubtless closely guarded by the enemy, with the expectation that we shall soon be driven to make it, must prove fatal to all who shall attempt it; while the entrance at the other end of the passage is blocked up by a red mass of burning ruins. What other expedient, then, is left for us.”

“I had thought of one,” said Captain Hendee, with some hesitation. “I had thought of one, as our last resort, in an emergency like this. It may not be without risk to ourselves, I am aware, but,” he continued, with fiercely flashing eyes, “but it must be swift destruction to the accursed gang above, who are thirsting for our blood!”

“In the name of heaven, declare it, then!” eagerly cried Selden, casting an uneasy glance at some fresh demonstrations of the progress of the foe in the covering above.

“I will—here, this way,” replied the former, as, stepping across the room, he opened the concealed recess in the wall, and disclosed the widow’s magazine to the wondering gaze of Selden and his men, who, ignorant of its existence, did not at once understand the nature of its contents, or perceive the old gentleman’s object in displaying it. “There!” he added, significantly pointing to the heads of the casks thus brought to view, “there, that explains my plan.”

“How? What do those barrels contain?” rapidly demanded Selden, with the very expression of doubt, surprise, and alarm.

“Gunpowder!” was the emphatic reply.

“Good God! Captain Hendee, do you consider our case so desperate, that, Sampson-like, we should all perish with our foes?”

“It does not follow that we shall perish with them. I have seen somewhat of the operation of exploding mines, and cannot believe that the effects in the proposed one can reach far into that winding passage, to the further end of which, if thought safer than the inner room, we can all repair.”

“I’ll be blest if I don’t think the old thrash-the-devil is about right, Captain Selden,” exclaimed Pete Jones, leaping about and snapping his fingers in great glee. “Jest place them in that corner beyond the fire there, and it must be a sort of powder that I’m not acquainted with, if it turns at a right angle very far into that passage after mischief. Well, now, the Lord be thanked for putting this into your noddle, old friend. I had about agreed to say gone dogs for us all, but now I can see a considerable sprinkling of hope through them barrels of thunder yonder.”

“And you, Mrs. Story, whose stake is the greatest in the result,” said Selden, turning to the widow, after hastily running his eye over the different parts of the room, as if calculating the probable extent to which the explosion would affect the earth laterally,—what do you say to the measure?”

“I don’t know—I don’t know,” replied the distressed mother, who had been mutely listening to the startling proposition, in a sort of wild amazement. “The work of the element will be terrific—perhaps fatal to us—but the work of the exasperated foe, unless thus destroyed, will be, I fear, for all we can do, no less dreadful. I leave it to you, and may God direct the course which shall be for our good,” she added, with a shudder.

“It is a fearful experiment, but it shall be tried,” said the young leader, turning away to begin the required arrangement.

At that instant a large fragment of earth was suddenly ruptured from the ceiling, and fell heavily to the floor, scattering dirt in every direction around, and disclosing in the place from which it had been detached, the point of a huge sharpened stake, protruding several inches into the room; while the wild and exultant shouting of the foe above, as the stake was drawn up, and the redoubled fury with which they renewed their exertions, all loudly warned our band that there was no time to be lost in preparing for the execution of their purpose.

“Clear the room, instantly!” cried Selden, in low, but startling accents, “back! back! every man of you, but Jones, to the further end of the passage—no remonstrance—no offers!” he continued, as urging them with drawn sword from the room, several began to persuade him to permit them to incur the hazard of exploding the fatal mine, “not a word! the match shall be applied by my own hand.”

As soon as the room was fairly cleared, Selden turned, and, with rapid steps proceeded to the recess, drew forth the barrels, and, carrying them to the corner opposite to the entrance of the inner passage, placed them firmly, and pulled out the bungs, allowing a quantity of the powder to run out from each on to the ground. He then laid a small, continuous train of dry powder, extending from the barrels across the room into the entrance in question; while the scout, by his orders, after having removed the lights to a safe distance, wet a cartridge from the contents of his canteen, and hastily converted it into a slow match, to apply to end of the train.

“There! now leave the rest to me, Jones; take care of yourself, and see that the passage is kept clear for my retreat,” said the leader, receiving a torch which was brought him by the other, and taking his station to await the fearful moment of firing the train.

The enemy, in the mean time, were making rapid progress. Two breaches were already made through the earth into the room, and these, as was evinced by the almost constant falling of heavy masses of dirt, were every moment widening; while from the trampling of feet, all gathering up to the spot, the mingled shouts, curses, and commands of the infuriated gang and their leaders, it was obvious that an attempt to descend was about to be made. At this moment, they seemed to perceive that the besieged had deserted their room, and retreated further into the earth. Grown madly desperate by being already so long baffled and doubly infuriated by the discovery that their intended victims had still a further refuge, they were now heard hastily throwing aside their tools and resuming their arms, preparatory to entering the breach to follow up the pursuit, little dreaming, in the hellish joy of their anticipated revenge, that the torch was even then suspended over the train, and waiting only their first movement, to send them, in an instant, with all the passions of fiends raging in their bosoms, unannealed into the presence of their God. But while the foe-trampled earth was jarring to the hideous tumult above, the silence of death prevailed through the hushed vaults beneath. The agitated mother was breathing hurried ejaculations over her clasped children. And near her might be seen the huddling forms of her shuddering female companions, with their fair hands tightly compressed over both ears and eyes, as if to shut out from their recoiling senses the noise of the now momentarily expected explosion; while the men in the dark passage beyond, stood motionless and silent, listening in the attitude of intensely excited expectation for the awful denouement. Selden, in the mean while, hesitating between his fears that the train would get disturbed by the entrance of the foe into the room, and his anxiety to have the band gather over, or so closely around it, as to bring them all within the reach of the explosion, still held the torch suspended in his extended hand over the train, now lowering the point of the low flickering brand nearly to a contact with the powder, at some indication of the expected descent, and now hastily withdrawing it, as other and less decisive sounds reached his ear. His hesitation, however, was soon ended: at that instant, a loud yell at the western entrance, and the sounds of thickly-trampling feet that followed, told him that the enemy had forced the barrier at the end of that passage, and were rushing into the room; while another hurrah from the tories above, and the heavy, and quickly repeated jar of feet striking upon the floor, which accompanied it, further announced that the latter were beginning to leap down the breaches to join the former in the assault. At this critical instant, and before the mingled war-cry of the savage and tory had died away in the echoing vaults beyond him, the young leader applied the brand to the fuse, and rapidly retreated along the passage towards his friends. Having reached the curtained recess containing the women and children, and here encountering Captain Hendee and Jones, he turned round, and with them awaited, with palpitating heart and suspended breath, the fearful result. With the low, hissing sound of the slowly burning match, came a cry of horror from the scrambling foe, over whose minds, now for the first time, seemed to flash the dreadful truth. But too late. The next instant, with a concussion that almost threw Selden and his companions from their feet, the earth yawned and opened along the passage overhead nearly to the spot where they stood; when through the long vibrating chasm, was displayed to their appalled vision, the broad space of tree-covered earth over and around the room beyond, leaping, in disrupturing masses, into the air, along with the diverging column of fiercely shooting smoke and flame, in which were seen, commingling with rocks, earth, and the limbs and trunks of uprooted and swiftly revolving trees, a score of human forms, wildly throwing out their arms, as if for aid, and distending their mouths with unheard screeches, as, with blackened and distorted features, and dissevering limbs, they were borne upwards with amazing force in the flaming mass to the heavens. The chasm slowly closed over the astounded but unharmed band, and shut out from their reeling senses the deafening din that was breaking in crashing thunders above. A momentary stillness ensued; when the returning shower of ruins came thundering to the earth; after which, all again relapsed into a death-like and unbroken silence.