THE MENACE IN PIT 19
Follow these seven men on their rescue bid along the strange tunnels from nowhere.
First episode, taken from The Rover issue: 1306 July 8th 1950.
THE MISSING MEN
The dull rumble in the distance caused Dave Oakroyd to jerk up his head.
The electric light flickered as he glared along the narrow gait or road leading
to the coal face. Behind him was one of the main roads running to the shaft, almost
as large and as well-lit as a section of the
Twenty-five years in the pits, and ten of these in Pit 19 at Cragsbank colliery, had taught Oakroyd to recognise any sound that ever occurred in the underground workings. He knew that the rumble did not come from normal blasting operations. He fancied he heard a shout. Dave Oakroyd was the overman of the shift that was working at the extremity of a newly opened level, and now he thrust the soiled report he had been working on into his pocket and began to run. Dave Oakroyd was a sturdy, pale-faced man, with the lightest of blue eyes. Thirty yards further on, he came to two filled tubs on the line. A tub is a very small container for taking away coal from the coal face. The trammers, the youths who pushed these tubs to the haulage road, had turned back. A little further up he encountered a moving cloud of black dust which was drifting in his direction. He coughed, and knew he had been right. What he had heard had been a dreaded roof fall. Now the tunnel was narrower and lower. Wooden props replaced the steel arches of the main “roads.” Then he came to them, a group of five miners, confronting the mass of coal and dirt that completely blocked the way. In the poor light, with their safety helmets, they looked scarcely human, but Dave recognised Bob Cragg, Sam Cowan, and Jim Brett, all hewers, with Noah Dobson and Sim Norris, two of the back-rippers. Their faces were grim under the layer of coal-dust which was visibly thickening. “Who’s through there?” Dave Oakroyd demanded, thickly. “My son, Danny!” answered Jim Brett. “It’s his first day down, as you know. Then there’s Ned Thorpe and Steve Craddock. I’d just come back to tell ‘em to hurry up with the tubs, or I’d have been there too.” “Was there an explosion?” snapped the overman. “None!” It was big Bob Cragg who answered. “There was a sudden cracking of the props up there at the corner, then down came the lot. I reckon a crack along the roof and brought down thirty yards or more. It’s no small fall. The lads on the other side of the fall are walled off. There’s no other way out.” Behind them a phone tinkled sharply. Dave Oakroyd jumped to it before anyone else could move. He had forgotten for a moment that the line had been carried through to the coal-face. It was a miracle that it had not broken. “Yes, yes, who is it?” the others heard him ask. “Ned Thorpe. How soon can you get to us? There’s somethin’ rummy goin’ on here. That fall wasn’t natural. There’s no smell o’ gas, no leakage of water, an’ the pumps were as solid as need be when I came past an hour ago.” “Are you all safe? What about the kid?” asked Oakroyd, for the sake of the listening father. “We’re all safe. The first fall came at the bend. I was workin’ on my side but happened to look back to where Steve was helpin’ the kid load the tub. They both stopped an’ stared. I shouted an’ asked ‘em what was wrong, an’ they pointed. I couldn’t see much past the tub, but they say a huge dark shape came through one side of the tunnel an’ went in at the other. Then the props snapped an’ there was the first fall.” Men were running along the tunnel behind the phone. Dave Oakroyd recognised among them Frank Dingwell the surveyor. “What do you mean by a dark shape, Thorpe?” Dave asked. “Can’t really say,” came the reply. “Sounds daft like, but it’s true, Somethin’ burrowed into the side of the gait an’ brought it down. The kid says it was as big as a pony, or bigger.” Oakroyd tried to keep his voice steady. “Well, we’re starting to dig through to you at once. Start digging from your end, too, if the air supply is good enough. If it gets too bad pack up an’ take things easy. We’ve got enough men here to make a quick job of it.” “Right! Wait!” The man at the sealed end of the tunnel had been about to hang up, but his voice rose shrilly. “There’s somethin’ movin’ down there now—in the middle of the fall. I can see a pointed nose—teeth—eyes. It’s tryin’ to dig through to one side, an’ a lot more stuff is slidin’ down. I’m—” His voice broke off suddenly. Dave Oakroyd called Thorpe’s name again and again, but the line had gone dead. It had broken suddenly. Dave hung up the receiver and turned to Frank Dingwell, a tall, lean man who was responsible for all work connected with layout, surveying, leveling, and measuring in the mine, as well as ventilation and rescue plans. “What’s happened? How many are trapped?” queried Dingwell. “Three of them,” answered Dave. “They were not hurt by the fall, but Thorpe talks of some dark shape—some monster—or animal—which caused the fall. He says they saw it. He was still talking to me when the line broke.” Dingwell drew a deep breath. “That’s nonsense! Just because of the—the other troubles we’ve had he’s got an attack of the jitters. How many men have we got available to dig?” Oakroyd nodded to where the original five were already tackling the great mass of debris that sealed the end of the tunnel. They had not wasted a second. Another dozen men were behind the surveyor. He rapidly organised them to see that the debris was removed as fast as it was excavated, and made sure that a supply of pit props was pushed forward, in order to prop up the roof as the digging advanced. Everyone worked rapidly, because they knew that each minute would decrease the amount of air at the end of the tunnel, where the trapped three were. Everybody was thinking about what Thorpe had said over the phone about a monster. There had been a time, not so many months ago, when any talk like that would have been greeted by a hoot of laughter in the Cragsbank Pit, but queer things had been happening recently. A month ago, there had been a collapse of one of the tunnels near the coal-face on the other boundary of the mine. Ten men had been imprisoned. Gangs had worked twelve hours non-stop until they had dug a way through. They found the men’s safety-lamps still burning, but the ten men and youths had altogether vanished. They had never been seen since. There had never been any satisfactory explanation of that. The miners had refused to work in that level afterwards, and it was now sealed off. Then there had been a fall in Pit 16, the Dollard Hill Pit, five miles away. Only two men had been trapped there, but when rescuers had reached the spot there had only been one man remaining, and he had lost his reason. He had never once spoken a word that could be understood. Search had been made for the body of his mate for several weeks, but without success. The men thought of this as they worked stripped to the waist to burrow through this massive obstruction. There was very little conversation. Men worked tight-lipped and the rumble of the tubs on the rails behind them was incessant. The tunnel they were making was only two feet high, and they propped it up securely as they went on. The under-manager arrived, and approved everything that was being done. He had a few quiet words with Dingwell. “I suppose they’re afraid something queer has happened again?” said the manager. “Yes, one of the trapped men spoke over the phone before the line went. He spoke of seeing a dark shape—an animal of some description,” answered the surveyor. The under-manager pressed his thin lips together. “Everyone’s using his imagination too much,” he said. I’ll get some tea sent to the diggers.” With amazing swiftness, the digging reached the centre of the barrier. There was some trouble because props had fallen crosswise. They had to be sawn in pieces before they could be drawn out and sent back. Dingwell looked at the end of one, and raised his eyebrows. It looked as though it had been gnawed through by huge teeth. He hurriedly hid the fragment. At last a sweating, blackened figure crawled out of the tunnel and groped for a can of cold tea. “Nearly through!” he muttered. “Then let me take over!” exclaimed Jim Brett, and he went and squirmed his way into the hole. “My boy’s trapped in there.”
THE BURROW TO NOWHERE
Not much more debris came back before there was a shout from the further end. Brett was through. A portable fan was fitted up to drive in more air. Dave Oakroyd got down on his knees and was next into the tunnel.
He saw lights at the other end. There were at least two safety lamps besides that of Brett. Oakroyd squirmed past the two short posts that marked the end of the emergency boring, and was hauled to his feet by Brett. Brett’s eyes were staring in horror. He held his lantern high, revealing a length of tunnel quite twenty yards to the actual coal face, where under-cutting had been in progress. “Nobody here!” he gasped, harshly. “Not a soul here.” On the floor of the tunnel lay the tools which the trapped men had used to dig their way back. It looked as though they had dug no more than six feet before they had been stopped. Their lamps were standing on the ground, and one safety-helmet lay against an overturned can of tea. There was nowhere a man could be hidden. There were no other tunnels opening out of the main passage. “It’s impossible!” muttered the overman, and two or three others came through, led by the surveyor and a man with a first aid case. “How are they?” asked Frank Dingwell, then his jaw sagged when he saw nobody was with them. “You don’t mean to tell me—” “Yes, it’s just the same as the other time. They’ve vanished. The earth has swallowed them up,” said Dave Oakroyd. A rough hand gripped his arm and swung him round. It was Jim Brett with wildly staring eyes. “You know that’s not true!” he said. “The earth can’t have swallowed ‘em up. There must be some other reason, an’ we’ve got to find it. My boy’s gone. What am I goin’ to tell his mother?” “Yes, yes, Brett, of course we’re going to investigate.” It was the surveyor speaking. “Such things have an explanation and we’ll find it. I’ve got an idea. Back there on the way through I noted there had been a second and more recent fall just at the limit of the distance reached by the trapped men as they dug out. It’s unlikely that the three men would have been in there at once, but we’ll look for their bodies. Maybe—and it’s only a maybe—they got buried and we burrowed round them. Did anyone see any traces of another fall?” “Yes,” growled Sam Cowan. “I had to drag a short prop out of the way, and I found some sprags in there. I thought they’d been tunneling to one side and that maybe their tunnel had fallen in.” Dingwell nodded. He knew his job, having supervised more than a dozen rescue attempts. “I want volunteers to go back down there to dig at right angles from that spot. Burrow through to the original sides of the tunnel, and see what is underneath.” There was no lack of volunteers. Jim Brett and his two mates at once took over, while two back-rippers stood by to pass in anything that was needed. They had been working in those cramped quarters for about half an hour, while a supply of air was sent through from the other end, when suddenly the overman heard a shout of excitement. At the same time a fresh draught of air could be felt, even at the inner end of the tunnel. “What’s happened?” shouted Dave Oakroyd to the diggers. “There’s an opening—a side tunnel running off to nowhere!” yelled Bob Cragg. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. Wait till we’ve got another two props in place, then come through. The surveyor frowned at Oakroyd. “A side tunnel? How can there be a side tunnel from a narrow gait like this? Who dug it?” A few minutes later he heard them calling to him. Their voices seemed further away. The surveyor crawled through and found that they had burrowed into the gob or goaf, the area behind the worked out coal-face. But they had gone further than that. A tunnel seemed to lead downwards, a tunnel unlike anything dug by colliers, for it was perfectly round and smooth on the inside, about four feet in diameter. Fresh air came through it. It was from here the draught had come. The three hewers were in this tunnel and holding up their lanterns. Jim Brett was holding something in his hand, and his face was twisted in wonder. “My son’s sweat rag! I’d know it anywhere. He passed this way. What kind of tunnel is this?” Oakroyd shouted back for a powerful electric torch to be passed to him, and shone this as far as he could. The tunnel was the same diameter all the way, and ran slightly downwards further than the light carried. It was not propped up in any way, but the sides seemed solid enough. On one projecting stone was caught a tuft of something that the surveyor had taken for a piece of cloth torn from the clothes of one of the missing men, but when he looked at it closely he saw that it was dark grey fur of a silky texture. He looked at it in wonder. No one had seen him pick up this tuft. He hurriedly put it into his pocket. “They spoke of some form of animal or monster!” was the thought that flashed through his brain. Aloud, he said— “This tunnel was burrowed by animals, not by human beings. It’s been newly done.” He could hear the men’s hard breathing as they stood with bent heads and backs, for there was little headroom. Oakroyd shone his torch downwards, and exclaimed. “Boot marks—several of ‘em! Yes, Thorpe and the others came this way. They’ve gone down there somewhere. Let’s give a shout.” The surveyor shook his head. “With this roof unsupported in any way, it would be better not to risk it. Let’s go back into the gait and talk it over.” They crawled out beyond the limit of the original fall, where other miners anxiously awaited them. The under-manager was there again, and he tried to read something from their faces. “Well? Found them?” he asked. Frank Dingwell shook his head. “No, but we’ve found a burrow or tunnel running east. They must have come across it when they were digging into the rubble. They were attracted by the flow of fresh air from it, and seem to have gone down for some distance.” “Fresh air in there! Where does it come from?” demanded the under-manager. “There’s no shaft to the surface in that direction.” The surveyor shrugged his shoulders. “I can make no explanation. We’ve stumbled on something very queer. Over the phone Thorpe spoke of a dark shape, of a “monster.” I thought he had the jitters, but now I’m not so sure.” “We’ve got to find these men!” put in the overman sturdily. Dingwell nodded. “Yes, we’ve got to go and look for them and bring them back if they’re still alive, but it’s a matter for volunteers, and we need to make preparations. We don’t know how far down that shaft goes, or what we shall meet. We need lamps, maybe food and ropes.” “It would be as well to take gas-helmets in case you run into pockets of foul air,” the under-manager suggested. “Only volunteers can go.” “I’m goin’ for one,” put in Jim Brett, stubbornly. “My boy’s down there somewhere. I daren’t go home to my missus without him.” All the original group volunteered, including Cragg, Cowan, Dobson, and Norris. Lamps and ropes were brought and the under-manager sent for gas-helmets. Other men volunteered to prop up the nearer end of the tunnel after they had gone through. The seven crawled back to where the mystery tunnel started and passed their gear through. They took care not to knock their heads or their loads on the low roof. The keeping of a low crouch was going to be the most uncomfortable part of the trip. Jim Brett went first, with a powerful torch. The others followed in single file with their safety-lamps. They did not talk much, but they had plenty to think about. Were there some unknown monsters living underground, which had only recently invaded the district where the Cragsbank group of pits were situated? These were unpleasant thoughts for men following an unknown tunnel. It ran down quite steeply at times. Oakroyd now and then called attention to the fact that there were footprints on the ground. The three missing miners had come that way.
THE UNDERGROUND SEARCH
The miners had gone about a mile, and were nearing the boundary of the coal-field when the dancing light in front showed them the end of the tunnel, and a huge underground cavern. They emerged from the tunnel and straightened their backs, but they stood there in awed silence for some moments. It was like being in a vast, black cathedral.
There was a silence that made heart-beats seen loud. Dave Oakroyd turned from one side to the other with his powerful torch, but the beam could only pierce the blackness for a hundred yards. None of these men was a novice underground. But there was something about this great underground chamber that scared them. Oakroyd shone the torch on the ground. There were blurred marks in the dust of ages, but the very thickness of the dust had blurred and disguised the prints. They began to shout, calling the missing men by name, but echo only answered them. The surveyor wet his finger and held it up. “The draught comes from that direction. Let’s explore over there,” he said, indicating the direction. “Leave one of the safety lamps in the entrance to the burrow to guide us back.” They started across the floor of the cave in the direction he indicated. On and on they plodded, Oakroyd using the torch to watch the ground for holes. It was strangely level, and Dingwell said it had probably once been the floor of an underground lake. It was comforting to look back and see the tiny lamp glimmering there at the tunnel mouth. It was their one link with the outside world. They must have gone a quarter of a mile before they came to a great chasm across the route. They tried to see the other side of the chasm, but failed. It was too deep for them to see the bottom, but by throwing stones and timing the fall. Dingwell judged it to be a thousand feet deep. They turned to follow it to a spot where they might cross, but after half a mile the roof of the cave came down so low that they went no further. They were getting weary, for they had worked hard before they had started this exploration. When Dingwell suggested turning back the others were agreeable. “Maybe if we’d turned to the left we might have made a crossing. Perhaps that’s what the others did,” suggested Dave Oakroyd. “They’ve come this way, I feel sure.” “They were driven this way,” said Jim Brett, and nobody contradicted him. The light at the tunnel mouth guided them back by the most direct way. They were no more than a hundred yards from it when it disappeared. “Gone out!” grunted Sim Norris. “Impossible! It couldn’t have gone out!” snapped Sam Cowan, whose lamp it was. “Then somethin’s standing between us and the light!” suggested Oakroyd. They stood still at that, but listened intently. They heard nothing, but suddenly the light reappeared, burning as clearly and as steadily as before. A low whistle came from one of the hewers. Over by the lamp something was moving and had blocked the light for several seconds. They moved forward together, holding their lamps high, aware that they could be seen, but that the being or creature that had blocked the light was still invisible. Was it watching them from the darkness beyond the range of their lamps? Was it planning an attack? The hewers had their picks, and held these as weapons. Nobody else was armed. The lamp did not wink again, but when they got closer still they saw that it lay on its side. The draught could not have been strong enough to have blown it over. It must have been knocked over. Cowan picked it up, and Oakroyd shone his torch into the tunnel. He had the same thought as the others. Had the thing which had knocked over the lamp entered the tunnel? Would they come face to face with it if they tried to retrace their steps? If they had to encounter it, they preferred to do so in the cave. They heard and saw nothing. “We’d better get back and report what we’ve seen,” said the surveyor, briskly. “The shift will be about over. Someone else will have to timber this tunnel right through to the cavern and we’ll get more powerful lights.” They had a final look round them, but saw nothing stirring in that vast emptiness. Again it was Dave Oakroyd who entered the tunnel first. It was uphill this time, and the battery of his torch was beginning to fail. He managed to see about a hundred feet ahead, and for the first half mile they climbed steadily, sweat pouring down their faces. Bob Cragg suddenly gasped—“There’s no longer any current of air. That’s why it’s so hot. What does it mean?” They realised he was right. That accounted for their perspiration. Oakroyd stared grimly ahead, and presently he called back—“I see something in front—something big!” They stopped, and mopped their faces. “Does—does it move?” whispered Dingwell, and the whisper indicated his feelings. “N-no, I don’t think so. Come up beside me, Dobson. You’ve got keener eyes than me. What’s that dark shape in front, about a hundred feet away.” Noah Dobson stared, then scowled. “That’s not moving. It’s done all the moving it’s going to do. That’s a blockage. The tunnel’s closed.” “What?” They pressed on, and found that he was correct. The roof and the sides of the burrow had completely closed in. “This is why there is no current of air,” growled the overman. “What I’d like to know is whether this was a natural fall, or whether that—that thing came in here and deliberately did this?” Nobody replied. They knew they were now cut off from the outer world, unless there was some unknown route through the underworld. Whether the blockage was too long for them to burrow through with the tools, they could not tell until they had tried. Bob Cragg and Sam Cowan went forward with their picks and warily watched the roof as they worked. There was nothing with which to shore up the roof as they went along. Every moment they dug into the pocket of earth they were risking their lives. The others stood back and watched. They were ready to take their turn when the first pair tired. It was absolutely necessary to find out whether there was any chance of getting back to the mine. If that proved impossible, they would have to turn about and face the perils of the underworld.
The moles leave the pit and make there last stand in a mining village !
MENACE IN PIT 19 – Last episode, taken from The Rover issue: 1313
BEWARE FIRE – DAMP!
When the enormity of his loss dawned on Frank Dingwell, he was overwhelmed with dismay. He looked longingly towards the safety of the lighted cage at the bottom of the shaft. It was not so far away, but between it and the men in the gallery were the giant moles.
Six men were risking their lives in an attempt to rid the Cragsbank group of pits of a colony of giant moles. These moles were burrowing tunnels in the pits, thus bringing all work at the mines to a standstill. Led by Frank Dingwell, a surveyor, the party of six had volunteered to go down the mine and inject one of the moles with a deadly virus. This would cause a disease which would spread to the rest of the colony and wipe out all the moles. This they had managed to do, but in a brush with one of the underground giants, Dingwell had lost his gas-helmet and deadly gases were present in the mine. He turned towards the others, but could not see them in the darkness. They could see him outlined against the glare in the background and Oakroyd’s voice rose again. “Put your gas-mask on, Dingwell. The fire-damp’s rising rapidly. It’s waist deep around here. Better get your mask on or you’ll be suffocated.” “I’ve lost my mask—somewhere back there in the gallery,” said the surveyor, and was surprised to find his voice steady. There were exclamations of dismay, and someone came blundering towards him. It was Oakroyd, and he was taking off his own mask. “Here, have this for a while. We can use it in turn,” he said. Dingwell firmly pushed him away. “No thanks, Oakroyd. With any luck at all, the gas may not rise high enough to harm us before these brutes move away.” As he spoke, he climbed on top of an inverted tub. This brought his head close to the steel girders which supported the roof. The air up there would remain pure for a few minutes longer. The others had now followed Oakroyd, and grouped themselves around him, staring towards the distant cage. The under-manager and two other men had come down to give what aid they could. Evidently they had seen the moles, and were hesitating to leave the cage. Dingwell cupped his hands and bellowed. “Beware fire-damp! We’re coming as soon as we can, but watch out for yourselves, and don’t do anything to cause an explosion.” He could not tell whether his words were understood, although something was shouted in reply. About the same time the moles turned, and two of them ambled towards the cage. The mother mole and he four youngsters moved down the other gallery. But they did not go far. They came scuttling back a few moments later with every indication of terror, and ran towards the bottom of the shaft. “They met fire-damp!” murmured Oakroyd. “They sense danger when they meet foul air. They’re in a panic. Here’s another coming behind us!” There was no cover. They flattened themselves to the side of the gallery, and three of the brutes stumbled past them. The rising gas had driven them to the main shaft. Now all the moles in the Cragsbank Pit were assembled outside the cage. Some of them seemed to be attacking the steel gates with their powerful claws. The cornered miners heard shouts of alarm from the men inside, and, a few moments later, the cage began to rise. It did no go far, but stopped just out of sight. This meant Dingwell and his companions were now left in total darkness. All the time the gas was spreading and rising. Frank Dingwell was offered two more masks, but refused. Then he had an idea, reached up and removed from their sockets two of the big electric bulbs. These he hurled with all his might in the direction of the panic-stricken moles. The bulbs burst with loud reports, and there was a hurried scampering down the other gallery. The moles had been scared from the bottom of the shaft. For the moment, the way was clear. “Come on!” grunted Oakroyd, and reached up to grip Dingwell by the arm. “Run for it. The air will be clearer by the gate.” They ran, and once down from his lofty perch the surveyor realised he was breathing foul air. He was weak and dizzy, but Oakroyd helped him along. They came to the bottom of the shaft without difficulty. They could see the cage no more than fifty feet above them. The men in it were silent. “Hi, there. Tranter—!” bellowed Dingwell. “Bring that cage down quickly. We’re here.” A few moments later the cage came down. It was of the two tier type but the upper floor was empty. Tranter, the under-manager, and two miners, were the only occupants of the bottom section. They flung the gates wide. “What happened to those brutes?” gasped Tranter, as he hauled Jim Brett and Cowan inside. Frank Dingwell started to say something, then he clutched at his throat, and collapsed. The foul air had affected him at last. Oakroyd and Dobson bent to lift him, and, as they carried him into the cage, big dark-grey shapes came moving out of the darkness in the background. The moles were coming back. “Close the gates!” someone shouted, and they were closed just in time. The two leading moles had an advantage over their companions of a little sight. They could detect the light, and sensed that it spelled safety. They jumped and fell awkwardly on the upper platform of the cage. Then the gates clanged to, and they were imprisoned over the heads of the rescued men and their rescuers. The man who was operating the cage hesitated but Dave Oakroyd snapped briskly: “Up with her! Dingwell must have fresh air.” The signal was given, and the cage rose swiftly, nine men in the lower tier, and two giant moles in the upper portion. Frank Dingwell regained consciousness as soon as they started to give him artificial respiration. As for the moles they remained perfectly still on their platform, stiff with fright. Then came the moment they had been waiting for, when the cage emerged into the light of day, and came to rest at the pithead. A great crowd of miners had assembled there, and a cheer went up when they saw Oakroyd, Dingwell, and the others still living. So much noise was made that nobody heeded Oakroyd as he shouted warning of their unwanted passengers. No one troubled to look towards the upper floor of the cage. The steel doors were whipped back and willing hands reached to help the returned men out. Just then, the moles made a sudden dash for freedom, landing in the midst of the onlookers. The crowd fell back in alarm, as the two monsters, each as large and heavy as a grizzly bear, burst out from the pit-head shelter into the open. It was a dull day, but the light to those creatures of the underworld was blinding. They stood there uncertainly for a moment, then made for the nearest of the great pyramid-shaped bings which surrounded the pit-head. Immediately, they commenced to burrow into the foot of this miniature mountain of slack and dirt. To the open-mouthed watchers in the background, it seemed that they had melted into the side of the bing under cover of a cloud of dust and loose earth.
THE UNINVITED GUEST
Frank Dingwell saw little of that dramatic dash, for he was still giddy and weak, but he soon recovered when they got him into the manager’s office. He nodded vigorously when he heard the overman say that the probability was that these two moles already had contracted the disease which Professor Richards expected to kill them.
“The chances are that they’re all doomed,” he added. “Those below will either be killed by fire-damp or will die of disease.” They told their tale in full, while newspaper reporters clamoured at the door of the office and asked for a statement. Those six who had dared so much were in no mood to speak to the reporters just then. All they wanted was a chance to use the pit head baths, and get some clean clothing. They were smuggled out the rear entrance and given every facility for cleaning up and refreshing themselves, but as they relaxed in the steaming water, they could hear the murmur of the crowd which grew bigger every moment. News of the escape of two giant moles from the mine had spread down the entire valley. Instead of feeling nervous, the local folk were coming in their hundreds to try to get a glimpse of these monsters. A force of police had been standing by for some time, and the inspector now sent a car to the town for rifles. He and his men then formed a cordon round the bing where the moles had vanished underground. That was the position when Dingwell and Oakroyd emerged feeling completely refreshed. There must have been at least two thousand people around the pit-head, all waiting eagerly for a glimpse of the giants from the underground. Night was not far off, and when darkness crept down the valley, the crowd returned to their homes. Dingwell and the overman were invited into the general manager’s house nearby for a meal, and to tell their story over again. They did not hide the fact that considerable damage had been caused in Cragsbank Pit by the intruders. “But all that can be put right once the moles are dead,” insisted Frank Dingwell. “There appear to be no more than twenty or thirty of the brutes at the most. They have probably been there for centuries, but recently is the first time they have bothered us. I don’t think we shall have any further trouble once this colony is exterminated.” “I trust not!” said the general manager. “What do you suppose will happen to the two moles that have escaped?” “They’re probably still digging their way back to the mine, or to their own territory,” replied the surveyor, then jumped to his feet as screams rang through the house. “My goodness, what’s that?” muttered the manager, rising swiftly to his feet. “it sounds like Mrs Morris our general servant. The door burst open, and the woman herself appeared, white in the face, her hands twisted nervously in her apron. “There—there’s something in the cellar, sir!” she gasped. “It’s like a great bear.” Dingwell and Oakroyd had brushed past her in an instant. The same thought had occurred to them both. Guessing that the door to the cellar was somewhere near the kitchen, they ran down the passage towards the rear of the house, and were in time to hear the crash of an overturning table within the kitchen. The door was wide open. They pulled up at what they saw. One of the giant moles was in possession of the kitchen, gulping down a joint of meat. The mine manager arrived at Dingwell’s side and stared in dismay. “If we’d a rifle we could put paid to that brute,” whispered the surveyor, and looked enquiringly at the manager. “No, I’ve only got a shotgun in the house, and I don’t know where the cartridges are,” said the other. “I’ll fetch the police. They’re armed,” muttered Dave Oakroyd, and stepped away. Having finished the joint, the mole splintered the door of a cupboard and soon cleared every thing eatable from the shelves. It then moved across to the stove, which was still hot. It’s nose touched the hot metal, there was a slight sizzling sound, and the great beast leapt backwards with such force that it struck the wall at the other end of the kitchen. Apparently in a panic, and believing it was trapped, it then whirled around and attacked the wall with both forefeet. It was amazing to see the way the plaster was ripped away, and the brickwork torn apart under the impact of those steely claws. Within a few seconds, there was an opening wide enough for the mole to pass through. It fled into the darkness as the sound of a car at the front door told that Oakroyd had returned. Two policemen carrying rifles were getting out when Dingwell ran round the corner of the house and shouted the news. “The mole’s got away down the garden. It went out through the kitchen wall. It can’t have had time to go to earth yet.” Panting a little, he led the way. One of the constables had a powerful torch, and used it to try and get some glimpse of the runaway animal. But the nearest they got to it was when they saw a cloud of loose earth and stones flying into the air from behind a boundary wall. They rushed to the spot. There was a six foot hole slanting into a grassy mound, but of the mole there was nothing to be seen. When the police returned to the car, word came through on their radio that the other mole had appeared in a backyard in the nearby mining village, where it had been attacked by dogs. The mole was believed to be still at bay. The armed police started off for the village at full speed. Dingwell and Oakroyd had begged a ride with them, and very soon they had reached the spot. There was a large excited crowd around a low wall from behind which arose yapping, snarling, and the growling of dogs. Three dogs had scented the intruder and had gone to the attack. One of these was a bull terrier and the other two were quick-footed greyhounds. The four men cautiously climbed to the top of the wall and peered over. One greyhound was dead, but the other two dogs were attacking gamely. The remaining greyhound darted in and out to the attack, whilst the bull terrier had hold of one of the monster’s weaker hind-legs and would not let go. That was the position when one of the constables heaved himself into a sitting position on top of the wall and shot the mole three times through the head.
SHORT CUT TO DANGER
It was late the following morning when the surveyor wakened. He heard a commotion in the street outside, and hurried to the window. Men on bicycles, men, women and children on foot, were all hurrying down the hill, pointing and shouting as they went.
Dingwell called out to ask what was happening. “The mole is down by the river!” someone shouted, and the surveyor hurriedly dressed. The road at the bottom of the hill was packed with vehicles and hurrying people. The river twisted and wound its way down the valley to the left. Frank Dingwell realised that he would save himself a lot of time and distance if he took a short-cut across the field to the left of the road. He climbed over a high fence, and started across country. It was rough going, but Dingwell was moving fast until he carelessly put his foot into a rabbit hole which had been half hidden in the grass, tripped, and rolled down a steep slope. Luckily the grass was long enough to form a carpet, and he did not hurt himself. He sat up, rubbed his head, and was about to rise and continue his cross-country journey, when the bushes immediately in front of him parted, and a long, tapering snout protruded in his direction. It was the mole. Quite blind in the strong morning light, it was smelling him out. Its lips were parted, and the surveyor could see its strong, white teeth. For a moment his heart seemed to stand still, then he got up and ran. Immediately the mole charged after him. Frank Dingwell leapt aside only just in time. It nearly grazed him as it passed, then it turned quickly and again came straight at him. Dingwell would never have believed that any blind animal could have twisted and turned in pursuit as quickly as this giant mole. He knew that one blow from its powerful claws would have killed him. His only hope was in dodging its blind rushes. Again the brute rushed, and again Dingwell leapt aside only just in time. He heard those white teeth snap together, then his injured ankle suddenly gave way under him, and down he went. “This is it!” he thought, despairingly, as he hit the ground, but even then he tried to get up. One attempt to put weight on that ankle was all he made, for the agony almost overwhelmed him. He was helpless, and the mole was only a dozen yards away. He turned on his back with some idea of fending the monster off with his feet, then he saw that it had stopped. Almost within spitting distance, the huge furry creature had come to rest, and was slowly sinking down on its stomach. Dingwell sat up and stared. Something was seriously wrong with the brute. It shuddered again and again. Suddenly it dropped its head, and was still. Frank Dingwell levered himself up and balanced on one foot. He found it hard to believe that he was still alive, and that the monster was dead. “The virus—the disease Professor Richards mentioned must have hit it suddenly!” he thought. “Phew, it was none too soon for me.” He hopped to the top of the slope and yelled. The crowd down by the river was larger now. They were beating the rushes on one side. The surveyor’s shouts soon attracted attention, and men came running towards him. Amongst them he recognised Jim Brett and Bob Cragg. Frank Dingwell told his story, and they all crowded round for a sight of the monster. A few days later, volunteers descended into Cragsbank Pit with gas-masks and special gas fighting equipment. They found about a dozen giant moles—al dead. The others had vanished through newly made burrows from the mine galleries. Whether those which had died had been gassed or whether the infection had gripped them, there was no way of telling, but those which escaped into the underworld undoubtedly died as the last mole on the surface had died. No mole was ever seen again in the Cragsbank group of mines. When the fire-damp was dispersed and the ventilating system was in full working order again, repair gangs were sent down to make good all the damage caused by the intruders, and within ten days Cragsbank was in full production again. In the following month, Cragsbank had the best production in the country. Young Danny Brett came out of hospital in time to take park in this drive, but he was never likely to forget his ordeal underground with the giant moles. Work went on as usual in the pit, but, every now and then, Dingwell, Oakroyd and the others who had fought the mole menace, would pause in their work to look at the walls of unmined coal around them, and to wonder what went on in the underworld beyond.
THE MENACE IN PIT 19 8 episodes appeared in The Rover issues 1306 – 1313 (1950)
© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd
Vic Whittle 2007