He reached the end of the wall as the steps were getting faint and sounded as if they were descending. We searched for a basement door but there was none. Remembering something I had seen at the front door, there were some panels of wood that were different than the others, they looked to have been repaired but not painted. After finding the spot and moving the wood to the side, an interior wall entrance was revealed. We could see that the entrance led to some type of wall walkway. Since I was much smaller than my friend and could fit much easier into the tiny space, I volunteered to follow it to the sound.
I took care in passing through the narrow regions of the inner wall, reached the point where the path started to descend and began to follow a set of rickety stairs down. "These must lead to the basement." I thought. But the steps kept spiraling deeper downward until finally the wooden steps gave way to those of stone that were carved from solid rock of the foundation.
Reaching the bottom, I could see that the room I was now in was more like a cave. I paused to look around before going further.
I could barely see the boundaries of this dark chamber. The walls glistened as a thick liquid oozed from the top of the cavern down its black moist walls. I continued to hold my light fixed into the darkness of the cavern as my eyes began focusing on a figure standing in the distance.
I stood motionless, watching, my eyes growing more accustomed to the light as more figures appeared. At first they were just eyes reflecting the illumination that flooded from my flashlight. But soon I could see that people surrounded me on all sides.
A sudden chill ran across my entire body as now my eyes started to adjust and came sharply into focus. I could not believe it and called out for my companion to come down. In a few seconds he was at my side staring into the darkness. When his flashlight joined with mine, they both illuminated the room and fully revealed all of its ghostly inhabitants. And ghosts they seemed with gray ashy skin, sad solemn eyes and faces that spoke silently of malnutrition. I could not believe what was standing before me. One could tell that the dirty shredding rags they wearing were once white cotton. They looked to be Slaves! "Slaves"? I blurted. Without any hesitation some of the older inhabitants nodded yes.
"I think they are former slaves, or maybe they think they still are in some way" I said. "Slaves, how's that possible" Wiley questioned. "I don't have any answers right now but I do know that we've got to get them out of here! Can't you see they are scared stiff"? I walked among them towards a light that could be barely seen towards the very rear of the cavern.
"Well, buddy, I'm not sure but I think I have some bad news for all of us. While I was topside, I could see some woods rustling about as if some one was coming this way maybe they do have security here? I can imagine that if what we're seeing is really what we think it is they won't want any of this to get out. If we don't get the hell out of here right now we'll probably be in big trouble."
I took a moment to absorb what he was telling me and agreed with his evaluation of the situation. "We'd better not go back that way then lets see where this path goes first", I said, pointing towards the rear of the room. "Guh way" said one of the slaves, touching me on the arm it sounded like he was trying to say "the way". Leading us towards the light we walked through the amazing labyrinth these people had created. There were caves dug right into the living rock and they'd fashioned fire pits to stay warm and cook. There were, crudely strung wires here and there, old light bulbs hung along the way. But who'd strung them?
As we made our way along, Wiley and I attempted to make sense of the predicament we were in. "This is the way I figure it." I said. "Being so far back here in the woods and with no real neighbors", the Crawford family owned pretty much all of this whole mountain, at the end of the war..." "Are you trying to say he just kept them"? Wiley interrupted. I paused for a moment and replied " Yes, it looks like he just kept them and no body was the wiser." "But at some point something must have happened. The slaves were just abandoned and they built this underground cave system to hide and survive." "But why leave people this way? Why were they not told of there freedom and then released"? The circumstances seemed so surreal that it drained my brain and made it hard to think rationally. "We may have just happened upon a tribe of ancient slaves while searching an old mansion for a power drain. On top of that, we may be committing suicide by trying to lead them out of here instead of driving to a phone and getting police out here. Even if we hadn't forgotten our phones, what were we going to say to the police? They would only think we were crazy."
Suddenly a sound erupted from behind us and we were startled back into the reality of the moment. This horrible thing was really happening and now we were being followed. We could hear heavy footsteps and I knew that the group could not make it away safely. What ever it was, it was coming up too fast. Thinking quickly, we started piling anything that could burn up into a narrow part of the corridor. One of the slaves poured something onto it and waited for my order to light it. I gestured for him to wait while Wiley and I tried to get a look at our pursuers. We squeezed past the pile of debris and waited quietly. After only a minute we saw something, they looked to be some kind of large animals. There were three of them and they walked upright; they had to stoop in order to enter this part of the cave. As they rose to full height they stood at least eight feet tall. Totally covered in wet dripping fur, one of them put its face towards the floor and franticly sniffed about. It stopped and looked directly toward our crouching position and emitted a thunderous roar. In a burst of fury, it leapt towards us.
We scrambled through the dried debris with the giant men directly behind us. We could hear them tug and toss debris as they closed in after us. "What the hell are they?" Wiley babbled as we quickly made it back to the chamber. I was petrified and frantically threw a match onto the pile and stood back. " Man I don't know what those things were but I'm sure they are not old slave masters", Wiley said. "No I said, but I can bet you they are who made those tools and that they must be what is keeping these people here. They were probably the giants that you saw a few days ago" I added as we turned to catch up to the others. Just then, a nightmarish sound came from behind. The fiery pathway exploded and there stood one of the giants.
He had pushed his way through the fiery barrier and was wrapped in flames. He was in great agony. He wandered, in a mass of pain, from wall to wall for a few moments but then slumped to the floor, still burning. Animalistic screams of anguish rang from the torrent of flames and we knew how close they had come to over taking us.
But now, it seemed, we had an advantage. Fearing that there could be more of them, we took as much as we could carry of the wood debris. We quickly pushed forward to another point in the cave and repeated the process. Only this time, I stayed back to light the next fire. It gave the rest of us at least a moment to run ahead to possible safety. When everything was ready and the others were at a safe distance, I lit the fire. I had heard nothing from the burning cavern. I waited for any sign of movement but nothing came.
Turning the next corner, I could see the others standing in the sunlight. We were finally out. When I reached the outside, I could see off into the distance. There was a dense bushy area followed by an overgrowth of trees about a half-mile away. We had to reach it quickly and I knew we'd need more time to make it. The slaves were way ahead of me and had already instinctively begun packing dried brush and branches into the entrance of the cave. Wiley and I lit the fire and we followed the people to the relative safety of the woods. When my friend and I had also reached the temporary shelter, we found that the woods were extremely quiet and still. The people had vanished deep into the forest.
We looked for them for a short time but gave up. We wanted to make it back to find the truck before dark. Neither of us spoke on the way back but a few weeks later we did get in touch. We had a few beers at a favorite college watering hole; we talked of the event and discussed the need to not talk about it with anyone else. We decided to let the whole experience lay. Besides, those poor people had been through enough. They will be found one day but until then, they will experience true freedom: no taxes, no rent, and no politics... heaven. Since then, we have made contact and visited with them from time to time. We bring food, clothing, tools and medical supplies but they are rarely ill. But by no means will we ever tell a soul of them or of that day.