Land Owner Relations

by Paul Steward

Paul and John drove up the long driveway in silence. They parked the car and stared at the large blue farm house in front of them. This was where the owner of White's Indian Cave lived. It was a well known fact that Mr. White did not like cavers. They had never met Mr. White or been in his cave. This cave was one of the last on their list to check. The rumor was that this cave had over a mile of passages, and had been used by Indians and the Underground Railroad.

"Well, let's do it," John said.

They got out of the car and made the nervous walk to the front door. Meeting the owners for the first time is always hard, and meeting one that doesn't like cavers is harder yet. They knocked on the front door and waited. A dog barked from inside the house and foot steps were heard coming to the door. The door opened and there stood a large, elderly man.

"We would like to talk to Mr. White," Paul asked.

"I am Mr. White. What can I do for you?"

"My name is Paul, and this is my friend John. We're from the Central New Jersey Grotto. We are in the process of updating the database for all New Jersey caves, and verifying the locations, the land owners, and the descriptions of all the caves. We would like permission to enter your cave and survey it."

Mr. White stepped out onto the porch, and gave them both a curious look.

"You must be mistaken. There is no cave on my property," said Mr. White.

In his most innocent voice, John said, "The name of the cave we are looking for is White's Indian Cave. Since your name is Mr. White, we thought the cave would be on your property."

Mr. White stared at them for quite awhile after John said that. Before Mr. White could talk again, John pulled out the book The Caves of New Jersey. He opened to the page on White's Indian Cave and read the description and how to find it.

Finally, Mr. White spoke. "Well, you two look like good kids. I'll be honest with you. I do own that cave, but I don't let anybody in there anymore."

"Do you mind if I ask why?" John asked.

Mr. White was quiet for a minute before he spoke again.

"I used to let cavers in that old cave all the time. Little by little, more and more cavers came. They came at all hours of the night, making noise, and always waking up me and my wife. In the morning, I would find garbage all over the place. Sometimes the gates would be left open, and the cows would get out."

As Mr. White talked, he got a far away look in his eyes. He stared up into the sky as if he were talking to the clouds. His eyes didn't blink and his words came slower as if he had just been hypnotized.

"One time cavers even broke into our house. So we finally stopped everyone from going into the cave."

The color drained from his face, and his voice got lower.

"One night we were getting ready for bed. Helen smelled the smoke first, and ran out to the barn. I looked out the window and saw the barn engulfed in flames. I called out to her as she ran into the barn to try and save the horses, but she never heard me. As I ran out to get her, the barn roof collapsed. I couldn't get near the place with all the heat. That was the last I saw of her. They never did find her body in all that mess. They said it was probably caused by one of those carbide lamps you cavers wear on your head. They found one in the ashes."

Paul and John looked at each other with a look that did not need words. Let's get the hell out of here, they thought. After hearing that story, they would rather wait until Mr. White died, and then come back and talk to the new owner.

"We're sorry to hear about your wife. We can come back another day," said Paul. "Thanks for your time."

Mr. White just stood there and stared for a while. Paul and John said good-bye and turned towards their car. When they were a few steps away Mr. White called to them.

"You two boys want to see the cave?"

They turned and looked at Mr. White. He was back to normal.

"That's not necessary. We can come back some other time," said John.

"No, no, no," said Mr. White. "Please, let me show you the cave."

He took them by the shoulders like they were his two lost sons. He walked them through his fields towards the cave. He told them that after the fire he filled in the cave, but he could open it up for them with his backhoe. He brought them to a small, filled-in sinkhole in the middle of the field.

"Well, here she is," said Mr. White. "The entrance is about 20 feet down. If you two want to come back next weekend, we'll open her up."

"You really don't have to do that, Mr. White," John said.

"No, it's about time I open that cave again, and get on with my life. It should only take about an hour or two of digging. But listen, I don't want you guys telling anybody about this. This will be our little secret. After we open it, you can survey it and gate it. It can be your own personal cave. You can dig in it all you want, and who knows, maybe you two will find that mile of passage they say is down there."

Paul and John both thanked Mr. White as they walked back to the house.

"I'll see you two next weekend, and remember, don't tell anybody you're coming here. It's our secret."

They said their goodbyes again, and got into their car. Mr. White's words echoed in their heads. "It can be your own personal cave." All was forgotten how Mr. White went weird on them when telling the story of the fire and his wife's death. All they cared about was that they were going to open up White's Indian Cave next weekend. Nobody had been in that cave for years. Mr. White wasn't so bad after all.

They returned the following weekend. And, as promised, they didn't tell anybody about the cave or where they were going that day. They found Mr. White already at the cave, working the backhoe. Paul and John jumped down into the sinkhole and started digging with their shovels. In a few minutes they broke through into the cave. John bent down and stuck his head into the hole. He quickly climbed out of the sinkhole and got sick. Paul and Mr. White both looked worried.

"What's wrong, John?" Paul asked

"It really stinks bad in that cave. I'm not going in there."

Mr. White laughed. "Before I sealed up the cave I threw in the dead horses from the fire. I'm sure the smell will blow out quickly."

For years the smell of the dead rotting horses was trapped in the cave. The skin and hair had long since rotted away, and all that remained now were their bones. After several minutes the smell faded. John made Paul check this time.

"It's OK," said Paul. "I'm going in."

John jumped in right behind Paul. They crawled for a short way and soon were in a tall walking passage.

"Look at all these bones," said John.

At times they couldn't see the cave floor through the bones. Hundreds of bones broke and crunched under their feet. After several hundred feet of walking passage, the ceiling became low and they had to crawl. A little farther and the cave ended.

"Well, this cave sure don't go for no mile," said Paul.

John noted to Paul that the walls looked like people had been digging with their hands.

"Why would someone dig all this with their hands?" Paul asked.

"I don't know about you, but this cave gives me the creeps," said John. "Let's survey and get out of here."

They went back to the entrance to start the survey. Suddenly they both froze. A human skull lay on the floor in front of them.

"Maybe it's from an Indian," Paul said.

As they looked around they saw more skulls. They counted five from where they were standing.

"There may be more buried under the bones on the floor too," said John.

"I don't think these are all horse bones either," Paul noted.

With that said they both ran towards the entrance. In a few minutes they were at the other end of the cave.

"Where's the entrance?" Paul yelled.

"We must have missed it," said John. "Follow me this way."

Twice they did this, back and forth from one end of the cave to the other. The entrance could not be found. They stopped to try and calm themselves. Their heavy breathing fogged the air. In the sudden silence, they heard the last pile of dirt and stone falling on the cave entrance.

Mr. White had sealed the cave shut once again. After filling in the sinkhole Mr. White shut off the backhoe and walked over to a nearby tree. There, he opened up his pen knife and skillfully carved two more notches in the truck. There were now 12 notches. It was a tree he planted in memory of his wife. He could still remember the faces each notch represented. He smiled at a job well done. Back in the cave, Paul turned to John.

"The S.O.B. filled in the entrance! What should we do now?"

"I'll start digging in the back of the cave," spoke John.

"You go back through the cave and try and find anything we can use. I have a feeling some of those bones are from other cavers, and there might be some packs buried in there too. Look for food, water, batteries, clothes, anything that we can use. Then start digging at the entrance. Maybe one of us will get lucky."

The chill of the cave was already penetrating their bodies, and hypothermia would set in quickly. The digging would use up most of their energy. It was only a matter of time until they were dead.

Several weeks later, a small car drove up the long driveway to the blue farm house. Two young men got out of the car, walked up to the door and knocked. Mr. White opened the door.

"Hello, were from the local cave club, and we're looking for White's Indian Cave. According to the directions in this book, it should be around here somewhere. Do you know of that cave or its whereabouts?"

"My name is Mr. White, and that cave is on my property."

The two cavers grinned from ear to ear, as if they had just found gold.

"We have been out all day, looking for that cave."

"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you boys, but I filled it in years ago. Nobody has asked to see that cave in a long time."

"Could we at least see where the cave was?"

Seeing where the cave had been was better than finding no cave at all.

"I'll tell you what boys, I'm a bit busy now. I have a backhoe in the barn. You two come back next Saturday, and we'll open up that cave. But please, don't tell anybody you're coming here. It will be our little secret."

This story and many others about caving are available in:
Tales of Dirt, Danger, and Darkness
by Paul Steward

For sale at:
Barnes And Noble

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