The Expedition

Part III

The Cave

In the late afternoon, clouds began to build in the western sky. As we know, Grenby had predicted the possibility of thundershowers this week. Bartholomew hoped they would reach the cave before any rain reached them. It was not to be.

The storm gathered quickly. As they walked, they watched the growing thunderheads in the distance. Eventually, lightning appeared in the clouds and occasionally made contact with the ground. Dark sheets of rain appeared. The storm was headed towards them! The southwest wind increased as clouds rolled overhead. Even though they were tired, they walked faster and tried to reach the cave before the storm. They almost made it. About two hundred yards short of the entrance, the rain came in torrents. Most were thoroughly soaked in the remaining two minutes it took to reach shelter. The bluebirds chose not to be martyrs and flew to the cave ahead of the others. Bartholomew stayed with the group.

Once inside, they immediately noticed that the cave was very, very dark. Bartholomew unpacked the torches and lighted three of them. Now, they could settle down and dry off. Conveniently, there were many sticks and small pieces of wood lying around. They gathered the fuel and soon had a toasty, warm fire. What a difference that made! Everyone huddled around it to dry off. Also, it was a good time to eat the berries they had picked and packed in the morning. They were tired but exhilarated at having reached their goal, the location of the puzzle.

Bartholomew observed that the smoke from their fire was not going out the entrance but back into the cave. That could mean there was another entrance. Curious, he thought.

He spotted the flat stone described in Cyrus’s letter. It would take some effort to move that rock and dig down three feet. It was best done after they were well rested. He suggested that the retrieval of the box wait until morning. Most of the animals agreed. The weasels and Finn did not.

Once the stormy weather had begun, it stayed. The animals made their beds as best they could on the hard dirt floor. The adventurers eventually fell asleep as the fire threw dancing shadows on the rock walls and ceiling.

Finn was the first to awake in the morning. He hardly knew it was morning because so little light came through the cave entrance. He hopped over and looked at the one-foot square stone. Obviously, it was not there naturally. It had been placed by Cyrus and others to mark the location of the box. Digging it up shouldn’t prove too difficult. Nevertheless, it had been settling in for ninety years.

“How do you think we should proceed?” asked Bartholomew, who had come up to stand behind him.

Finn had been thinking about that. “I think we should use a rock and stick to wedge up the stone. Then, we can slide it over and start digging.”

“Right! That is exactly what we will do right after breakfast.”

Finn smiled. He was having a great time on the adventure. More importantly, he appreciated the confidence Bartholomew was showing in him.

Shortly thereafter, everyone woke and ate breakfast so fast that they probably didn’t even chew. After breakfast Bartholomew found a suitable rock and a pointed stick. The squirrels dug the dirt from the edges of the stone. Then, the weasels wedged it up a little with the stone and stick. They slid the stone sideways. The dirt was softer underneath, but it would still take some time to dig down the three feet. The squirrels dug the first foot. Robbie and Birch went one foot deeper. The weasels made the hole three feet deep. No box yet.

Bartholomew said, “A little deeper.”

Wilde yelled, “I hit something hard.” He had!

The top of an old wooden box began to appear after its ninety years of darkness. They brushed the dirt away and dug around its sides. The wood had decayed and its hinges were rusted, but it was still in one piece. Wilde carefully lifted it from the hole and gave it to Wilder. He set the old box on the cave floor.

No one said anything.

Bartholomew examined it, unlatched the rusted clasp, and opened the lid. Everyone bent over, trying to see inside. They saw a small, yellowed envelope resting on top of some pieces of wood. The unsealed envelope was addressed to:

The Residents of Ballymore

He carefully picked it up, opened its flap, and slid out a piece of thick, yellowed paper. The neat writing on it had faded but was still readable:

In the bell tower of the church, at the south wall, at the floor, behind the stone: a box.

Cyrus Owl,

Midsummer’s Eve, 1801

“What does it say?” asked Sofie.

“It is the directions to the location of the next box from Cyrus Owl,” answered Bartholomew.

Before the next question was asked, he said, “I will not reveal its location now but will wait until it’s time for the next expedition.”

Then, everyone’s attention returned to the wooden pieces in the box. Bartholomew picked up one of them. It was beautifully polished in a rich mahogany finish. It was in the shape of a piece of a puzzle and about two inches square. Bartholomew turned it over. Engraved in the wood were three gold letters: QUV. He placed the wooden piece on a blanket. The remaining six pieces of the puzzle were placed next to the first. Their condition was excellent, considering that they had been buried for so long.

After moving them around, Bartholomew found that they interlocked with each other to form a line of writing:

MLSE QUV ZAILSD QUFQ

He looked at the letters and said, “It is part of a coded message that will tell us where the gift is. The decode key will be given later, I assume. Congratulations, everybody! We have completed the first step in solving the puzzle.”

All of the animals applauded.

Bartholomew carefully wrapped the wooden pieces and note in a cloth and put them in his pack. He then asked Sedgewick to see that the box was reburied, the hole closed, and the stone replaced.

Then, Robbie yelled, “Hey, where’s Finn?”

After the box was opened, Finn had quietly slipped away to explore the back of the cave. He took a candle with him. His curiosity had gotten the best of him, and he couldn’t resist.

Finn found a small tunnel at the back of the cave and followed it a short distance. After about ten feet the tunnel turned to the right. He went another ten feet and thought he saw some kind of opening in the rock wall. He hopped over to it and leaned in closer with the candle.

Suddenly, he started to slip and slide downwards. He let out a brief yelp, but no one heard him. There was nothing to grab onto, even though he tried. After about twenty seconds the curvy ride ended, and he found himself on a ledge, facing a wall. He had dropped his candle on the ledge but, somehow, was still able to see. The rock wall was smooth and seemed to be reflecting light. He slowly turned around and was absolutely amazed.

He was in a large luminous cavern. The walls were bathed in a thousand hues of violet and blue radiance. In many places they sparkled. Hundreds of slender long fingers of rock hung from the ceiling. Some of them were dripping blue velvet water. The translucent drops fell about thirty feet into a large, blue pool and rippled its surface. Each drop, when it hit, created an echo. In one place swirling columns of bubbles came from below and seemed to jump out of the water. The bubbles fizzed as they broke. The slow movement of the water was reflected on the walls and ceiling of the cavern and animated everything.

This magical atmosphere was made visible by diffuse light that was, somehow, filtering in from above.

Finn was bedazzled. He had never even dreamed of an adventure this extraordinary. The ledge he was on was ten feet above the pool. To his left, were rock steps that led down to the water. To his right, the steps rose about twenty feet and then disappeared from view. He picked up his candle and carefully edged his way down the steps.

Cave

Luminous Underground Lake


The crystal-clear, blue water seemed to have no bottom. The walls under the water also glowed but much less bright than above. He dipped one leg in the water. Oh, my! It was warm! That was as far as he dared go. He stood there amazed.

“Finn, Finn, where are you?”

Bartholomew had sent the weasels to locate Finn and bring him back. At first the sound from above startled him, but he soon recognised Wilder’s voice.

“I’m down here,” he yelled. “I found an underground lake!”

A minute later, Wilde and Wilder crept down the stone steps and saw the amazing sight, also. For a while they said nothing.

Eventually, Wilder said, “Are we dreaming?”

“No, this is real,” answered Wilde. “Everybody should see this. I’m going to tell them about it. Stay here, and don’t go in the water.”

He climbed back up the steps and returned to the main cave. The animals were waiting for the weasels’ return with Finn. They hadn’t expected the incredible story Wilde brought back with him. Upon hearing it, everyone started to run towards the tunnel that led to the steps.

Bartholomew yelled, “Stop! Wait!”

“I would like to see this cavern as much as anyone, but let us not rush. I will lead the way, slowly.”

The animals agreed and let Bartholomew and Wilde go first.

Wilde led them to the steps, which they carefully descended. Each of them gasped as the underground lake came into view. They stood on the ledge and steps in silent awe. Branna and Brie briefly flew out over the water.

“Bartholomew, what this is?” asked Sedgewick.

“I believe it is an underground cavern with phosphorescent rock. When the light hits the minerals in the rock, it creates the colors. I have read about this but this is the first time I have seen it. The pool may be very deep and, probably, is not safe. The water could be warm.”

“Yes, it is warm! I dipped my foot in,” said Finn.

“It is incredibly beautiful, isn’t it,” said Bartholomew. “This alone makes our trip worthwhile.”

All continued to gaze at something they’d never seen before and probably wouldn’t again.

Finally, Bartholomew said, “I’m sorry, but we must be going. This is something we will never forget, but we have to take the puzzle pieces back to everyone in Ballymore.”

“Can we take some of these rocks back with us to show everybody?” asked Birch.

“No. This is a spectacular example of the universe at its most magnificent. We should not alter the perfection of the Creator,” answered Bartholomew.

Reluctantly, everyone climbed the stone steps and returned to the cave entrance. They packed up their belongings and left the cave much as they had found it. As they walked from the cave, everyone looked back. Once again, it cloaked its magnificent secrets in darkness.

The first part of their journey home was downhill. It was a nice day for the hike to the second campground. The cave remained on everyone’s mind and there was much discussion. Finn finally changed the subject.

“Do you think the bear will bother us again?” he asked Bartholomew.

“I don’t believe so. However, if he does, we have two very good weapons to protect us,” answered the owl. Of course, he was referring to Wilde and Wilder.

“No need to worry.”

After a while they reached a point where berry bushes lined their path. Wilder got an idea for a game. He was near the front of the line and began throwing berries backward over his head. The game was to see who could catch one in their mouth. Most missed. Then, someone began throwing berries back at Wilder. That was fun until two berries plunked Bartholomew right between the ears. He stopped and turned around.

He had a fake scowl on his face. The animals put a sheepish grin on theirs. Satisfied, the owl resumed the hike. No more berries were thrown.

Around midday, they approached a creek they would have to cross.

Bartholomew said, “This is a good place to stop for lunch.”

It was another pretty location with birch trees and berry bushes everywhere. They had lunch and rested for an hour.

After lunch they began crossing the creek. Unfortunately, the rocks in the creek were covered with moss and slippery. Robbie fell and cried out in pain. The weasels immediately lifted him from the creek and lay him on the grass. Bartholomew examined his leg.

“Your leg does not appear broken, but your paw is badly sprained,” he said.

Swelling had already begun.

“You won’t be able to walk, and you are too heavy to carry all of the way back. I think we should get the ambulance to pick you up and take you to Dr. Brigit’s.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Robbie as he winced.

Bartholomew put his wing around him and said, “No, no. It’s all right. Accidents happen. This is not your fault. Let’s just get you better.”

“Yes, sir,” answered Robbie.

Bartholomew called Branna over and said, “Please go to the swans, and tell them what has happened. Ask them to bring the medium ambulance here. Before you lead them back, go to Dr. Brigit, and let her know that Robbie will be flown in within the hour.”

The swan ambulance was a specially fitted stretcher for air transport of patients. It had harnesses front and back for the swans. It was also equipped with belts to keep the patient safe. There were three different sizes from which to choose, depending upon the patient.

“Yes, sir. I’ll leave now.”

Branna had instantly switched to her professional mode. She flew directly to the swans’ cottage on the island. It was only a one-half hour flight. Both swans were home. She told them of the situation, and they went into action immediately. The ambulances were kept in the spare room. The swans carried the medium one outside and hooked up to it. The three birds took off and landed next to Dr. Brigit’s cottage. Branna informed Dr. Brigit about Robbie and asked her to let Robbie’s family know of the accident.

Then, Branna led the swans to the group. Everyone at the creek had been watching the sky and easily spotted the ambulance coming. It was not something you saw everyday.

The swans chose a landing path that was parallel to the creek and landed within ten feet of Robbie. Bartholomew welcomed them and again, explained the situation. The weasels loaded Robbie onto the ambulance, and the swans made sure he was secure. Bartholomew gave Stoddard the cloth containing the puzzle pieces and note. He asked him to keep it safe until his return. Only ten minutes later, the swans were back in the air with their patient.

They were at Dr. Brigit’s in less than one-half hour. Robbie’s family was already there, and they carried Robbie inside. Dr. Brigit did a quick examination and confirmed a sprained paw. She wrapped a cold water bandage around it and gave him some herbs to minimize the pain and swelling. She advised him not to walk on it for one week and predicted a 100% recovery.

The swans then placed Robbie back on the ambulance and flew him to his cottage. They waited for his family who had to use the slow raft. There was no special service for them.

Back in The Hills, the remaining eleven adventurers resumed their hike homeward. There were no more falls or thrown berries or storms or bears. They emerged from the woods at Bartholomew’s treehouse late on the sixth day of their trek. The group was happy but tired and eager to return to their own homes.

The following day, they assembled again to present their “treasure” to the residents and tell of their adventure. Everyone wanted to see and touch the wooden puzzle pieces. Of course, the luminous cave was the most popular subject. It had been a fantastic trip. They didn’t see any fire breathing dragons, but what they did see and experience was almost as good.