When young Gus LeGarde befriends a cranky old hermit in the woods who speaks to an Oneida Indian spirit named Penaki, he wonders if the man is nuts. But when Penni rattles tin cups, draws on dusty mirrors, and flips book pages, pestering them to find evidence to avenge her past and free her from earthly bondage, things change.
What Gus doesn’t understand is why his mother hates Tully. His relentless digging reveals a hint of scandal about Tully and Gus’s maternal grandfather, Marlowe Wright. Can his natural compassion help him accept the not-so-normal facts about Tully and Marlowe?
On horseback, Gus and his friends ride through woods overlooking Conesus Lake, following Penni’s trail to an abandoned house reportedly infected with the deadly Genesee Valley Fever from the 1700s. Unafraid, they enter and make an astounding find that could rewrite history.
Can Gus convince his mother to forgive Tully? Will the proof he finds free Penni’s spirit?
Gus summons courage beyond his years in this poignant and powerful telling of the sultry summer of 1965.
We crept toward the old shack on our bellies, crab-crawling over moss and oak leaves. Elsbeth breathed softly to my left, just out of sight. Siegfried took the lead, several feet ahead of me. Behind us, the horses stood tethered to maple saplings; they munched steadily on the sweet leaves with a rhythmic crunching sound, their tails swishing against the sting of deer flies.
“Gus?” Elsbeth’s whisper glanced off the air. “Do you think anyone lives here?”
I pressed a finger to my lips. “Shhhh. I think I heard something.” I was glad I’d left Shadow at home. That little beagle would’ve betrayed us, running all over the woods, baying at every new scent he found.
Siegfried raised a hand signaling us to stop. He’d heard it, too. It was a keening sound, a high-pitched wail that was speech but not speech, closer to song, but with no melody I recognized.
Ice crawled down my spine and tingled in my toes. My heart pounded against the soft earth beneath me. I chanced a look at Elsbeth, whose eyes had gone wide with what some people might think was fear. But I knew better. Excitement lurked behind those big brown eyes. She didn’t scare easily now that she was eleven.
Wood smoke escaped the chimney in a lazy tendril, spreading into gray softness that filled the air with the aroma of campfires on cold winter mornings. Whoever lived inside this remote, ramshackle cabin must have just started a cooking fire, for the scent of wood smoke was soon followed by the clanging of a cast iron pan and the distinctive aroma of bacon.
Siegfried glanced back at us, motioning toward a tumbled down stone wall. He hopped to his feet and scrambled toward the cabin, chest tucked tightly to his knees. Although I was a full year older than the twins, I often let Siegfried lead. He was the one with the compass and the navigational skills, and took us on excursions into the forests behind the Ambuscade.
While we lay on our bellies watching the cabin, I couldn’t help but remember snatches of Mrs. Wilson’s history lessons last year. Even though we’d often played around the Ambuscade monument, I really hadn’t appreciated the importance of the area until she started telling us the story.
She said Washington sent John Sullivan and his men to fight for the settlers in 1779. They’d attacked the Indians. Burned villages. Cut down apple orchards. Destroyed families. It had been a real slaughter.
But it was hard to know who to root for, because some of Sullivan’s men had been later ambushed by British troops and some Iroquois Indians. Fifteen men were massacred very close to where we lay. Two of the officers, Boyd and Parker, were captured and tortured in Little Beard’s village, in a town we now know as Cuylerville.
A plaque stands there today, marking the spot where they were tortured. Now, in 1965–a hundred and eighty-six years later–I stared at it in fascination whenever my father drives us past it on the way to Letchworth State Park.
Siegfried poked my side and pointed to the house, where a shadow crossed the window. I nodded and watched.
Elsbeth lay snug against me behind the stone wall. She nudged me in the ribs and whispered so close to my ear it tickled. “Someone’s in there!”
A conversation had started up inside the cabin. I strained to hear, trying to calm the heartbeat in my ears that pounded over the words I couldn’t make out.
One side was a deep male voice. Gruff and playful, he seemed to be discussing plans for the day. The other side was silent.
I scanned the area. Siegfried noticed and followed my gaze. No telephone poles or wires. No electricity. Unless he had one of those walkie-talkies like they used in the war, he must be talking to a deaf person or to a very soft-spoken person.
I noticed several cracked windows and wondered why the man inside hadn’t fixed them. The front door looked solid, made from rough planks, but the roof dipped and waved near the chimney. I imagined when it rained it probably dripped from the ceiling into buckets. Globs of tar and different colored shingles plastered the roof in various spots. A beat-up Ford pickup was parked under the trees in the back.
Siegfried crawled around the edge of the wall. We followed him, creeping closer to the side of the shack until we were right under the window with two cracked panes.
Now we could hear better. The man’s rumbling voice gave me chills.
“Why don’t you want me to go?”
“Okay. So come with me. What’s the big deal?”
The man groaned. “Nobody will see you. You can wait outside.”
The twins and I exchanged puzzled looks and moved closer to the window.
The deep voice spoke again. “What? Who’s outside?”
Siegfried’s eyes grew round as fireballs. I tensed. Elsbeth grabbed my arm and squeezed. Heavy footfalls thundered across the floor and the window above us flew open. The atomic blast of his voice came seconds before his head poked out.
“What in tarnation are you kids doing?”
Frozen in place, we stared at the man whose grizzled face twisted in fury. The white tangled beard hung six inches beneath his chin, resting on a red-and-white checkered flannel shirt. Black suspenders looped over his shoulders, and his gnarled hands batted the air in front of his face. He yelled louder this time. Three crows cawed and abandoned their perch in the giant cottonwood overhead.
“Well, speak up! What the hell’s going on here?”
Elsbeth spoke first, shocked into her native language. “Es tut mir leid.”
When the man squinted his eyes in confusion, she recovered.
“Um. Sorry, sir. We didn’t think anyone lived here.”
We scuttled backwards on our hands and feet, our backsides scraping the earth like bouncing bulldozers. Siegfried jumped up and pulled his sister to her feet.
I stumbled back against the wall, ramming my spine against the stones. I winced, scrambled to my feet and stared at the ground. “We’re sorry, Mister. We were looking for a fort.”
The sound of a rifle cocking made me look up again. A long barrel poked out the window, aimed at my chest.
“If you kids aren’t gone by the time I count to five, you’re dead meat. Now scat!”
I don’t know if he actually counted or not. The blood rushed in my ears and drowned out all sounds. We raced to our horses, swung onto their backs, and galloped down the woodland trail to safety.
Pancho thundered beneath me in a steady one-beat gallop, close behind the twin’s mounts, Frisbee and Goldenboy. Branches whipped my arms and face. I leaned down on my horse’s neck and twisted my fingers into his thick black mane. Heat prickled beneath my bare legs. I gripped harder. The woods flew by in a blur.
Pancho passed Siegfried’s piebald, so close Sig and I bumped elbows. When we blew past Goldenboy, Elsbeth shot a smile at me. It was then I realized she wasn’t scared at all—she was enjoying herself.
Pancho had taken the bit before, but this time we were in the direction of home, and he took full advantage. Lowering his head, he hardened his mouth and pulled the reins out of my hands.
Somehow, I didn’t care. The faster we got away from the bullets I was sure were flying toward us, the better.
When we reached the clearing near the Ambuscade, I regained control of my horse. I slowed him to a walk, slipped off his back, and flopped to the ground. I dropped the reins on the grass and my trusty black gelding began to graze, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. I rolled onto my back, breathing hard. “Holy mackerel! I’ve never been so scared in my life.”
Elsbeth slid from Golden Boy’s back and tied him to a fencepost. Sig did the same with Frisbee, and they joined me on the grassy hill.
“Mein Gott! How did he know we were out there?” Elsbeth propped herself up with one elbow and turned to me. “And who was he talking to?”
Siegfried was quiet for a moment, but I could see his brain working furiously behind half-closed eyes. “Maybe he has a prisoner in there. And his mouth was gagged. That’s why we couldn’t hear their answers.”
I sat up. “But he heard the answers, right? He was really talking to someone.”
Sig’s mouth twisted. “Ja. I guess so.”
When Elsbeth turned on her stomach, her dark brown curls fell forward, nearly obscuring her face, her cheeks still flushed pink from our gallop to safety. “I think it was a psychic child, his only daughter who can read minds and make spoons bend. She sensed we were outside and told him. Maybe she told him in his head. She didn’t even need to talk.” Her eyes flashed with excitement, even though Siegfried seemed to dismiss the theory with a half headshake.
“It could be.” I rolled onto my stomach beside her, finally feeling my breath come under control. “Or maybe he was talking to a ghost. What the heck was that weird singing sound, anyway?”
Siegfried snorted and ignored my question. “Let’s face it. It’s more likely he was delusional. He imagines a friend is with him. He is so lonely he had to make one up. And he has conversations with them on a regular basis.”
“That would make him nuts,” I said.
Siegfried looked at me as if I were a slow student. “Ja, precisely.”
Elsbeth combed her hands through the deep grass, looking for the elusive four-leaf clover. “There’s just one problem with that idea.”
Sig sat up and challenged her with his startling blue eyes. “What? It’s a perfect theory.”
She pulled her knees close to her chin and narrowed her eyes as if she were about to reveal a secret. “If he’s crazy, how’d he know we were out there?”
Siegfried and I exchanged a glance. I sat up and brushed dirt from my knees. “She’s right. He came right over and found us. And we hadn’t even made a sound. We were so quiet.”
Siegfried was reaching now, and his hesitant words betrayed his doubt. “Maybe he had a trip wire somewhere. We might have crawled right over it and set an alarm off inside.”
Elsbeth knew she had him. “Nein. We were sitting under the window listening to him talk with whoever it was for quite a while. We didn’t move, remember? And it took at least five minutes for him to realize we were there.”
I looked at Siegfried, who had gone silent. “She’s right. But I still don’t get it. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as psychic abilities.”
Elsbeth jumped to her feet and headed for Golden Boy. She untied his reins, grabbed a fistful of mane, and swung onto his broad back. “We’ll find out next time, anyway.”
Siegfried got up and headed for Frisbee, who skittered away from him for a few feet. Even he seemed nervous. “Next time?”
“Ja. When we go back to investigate.”
I chuckled and vaulted onto Pancho’s back. Although I didn’t relish the idea of returning to the shack, I wasn’t surprised at her bravado. She’d been showing signs of feistiness over the past few months that made my heart swell with pride.
I turned Pancho’s head and squeezed his bare sides with my legs, leaning forward to urge him into a canter. “Come on. We’ll be late for dinner. Race ya to the road.”
We covered the ground where Boyd’s men had been slaughtered, and I almost thought I heard the screams of the men as they were ambushed by the Indians and Brits. I squeezed his sides tighter and pushed him into a gallop. I didn’t want to linger where ghosts walked.