1. THE WARNING OF THE WHIPPOORWILL
Years later, when the ghosts of his childhood had long since faded, Patrick would remember the wooden box as clearly as the night he and his sister had found it. He remembered every detail: the pieces of scrap wood it was made of, the broken hinge that didn’t quite hold the lid, the frayed twine that was wrapped around it. It seemed strange that he would remember such an ordinary thing because, like every box, the box itself was not important. It was what was inside the box that mattered. The same was true of this box. Its contents sent Patrick and his sister off on an unexpected—and unwelcome—adventure.
It began with a warning in the small hours after midnight on July 3, 1876. Patrick nudged his sister across the bed. “Sissy, are you awake? Sissy?”
Sissy was fourteen, just two years older than Patrick, yet she had been a continued source of comfort to him since their mother died, when he wanted her to be, that is.
“What is it Patrick?” Sissy asked, still half asleep.
“I heard something.”
“I don’t know . . . a noise.”
“What kind of a noise?”
“I don’t know . . . . Did you hear the whippoorwill?”
“The whippoorwill? That’s just a dumb bird.”
Patrick didn’t think so. The Native Lenape believed that the bird’s call was a bad omen, a warning that it intended to capture someone’s soul to carry it to the spirit world.
“Well, I heard something,” Patrick said.
Sissy propped herself up on her elbows and listened. She heard only the sounds of the sleeping mountain: crickets, an owl, a distant loon. “I don’t hear anything, Patrick.”
Patrick sighed. Bothered, Sissy listened again. Still silence. “It’s nothing Patrick—probably that ol’ black bear down from the mountain to scratch at the smokehouse again. Papa will scare it off. Now go back to sleep.”
I won’t be able to go back to sleep, Patrick thought. I’m sure I heard something—maybe it was a banshee. He pulled the blanket close to his nose, his eyes widened. Papa’s room lay just beneath their bedroom loft. If there were something outside, surely Papa would have heard it, he thought.
A cool mountain breeze moved the curtains and cleansed the cabin of the thick summer air. Their family’s cabin lay deep in the folds of Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains, in the heart of the eastern coal region. Patrick and Sissy’s grandfather named the wooded hill where they lived “Shannon’s Hill” after the river in Ireland where he had made his living before coming to America during the Potato Famine of the 1840’s.
Patrick tried to quiet his thoughts. Moonlight filtered through the dirty windowpanes, illuminating the loft with a pale blue light. I’ll never fall asleep, he thought. It took me forever to drift off the first time. This will make it especially hard. With just one day left until the Fourth of July, Patrick was just too excited. How could he not be?
It was the Centennial year, and Patrick had been giddy with anticipation for weeks. Just one hundred miles to the South, large crowds had gathered at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia to commemorate the one- hundredth anniversary of America’s independence. The exhibition featured the latest advances in science, agriculture, and the arts from around the world.
Patrick’s papa had promised he would take them to visit the Exhibition to celebrate the Fourth. He had been giving Patrick newspaper clippings about it for months. Patrick carefully pasted each one in his journal and read them over and over. There were fascinating accounts of the Corliss Steam Engine, which was bigger than a house; a strange box that talked called the telephone; and a giant skeleton from a dinosaur that stood over three stories tall. It was going to be a fabulous trip and Patrick could hardly wait.
Patrick’s thoughts turned back to the sound that had woken him. He was sure he had heard the whippoorwill, but there was something else, too. What was it? He closed his eyes and snuggled into the pillow, his face bathed in moonlight. It was probably noth—
A voice boomed from the valley road and echoed across the mountain. It sounded so out of place that Patrick sat up and covered his ears. “Sissy, did you—”
“Keep still,” she said, scrambling to the window. “There are men coming.”
“What do they want?”
“Shh, hush up,” she said, pulling her dress over her head. Papa stirred in the bedroom below. “What’s happening, Papa?” Sissy said, leaning out from the loft.
“You two stay up there, now,” Papa said, grabbing his rifle from the mantel. He released the lever and loaded several cartridges.
Patrick jumped from his bed and pulled on his trousers. “Papa, I’m goin’ with you.”
“No, you’re not. I said stay put—and don’t come down till I get back.”
“But Papa wait!” Papa would not have a chance to answer.
The sound of splintering wood and shattering glass fractured the night. It sounded as if the whole cabin were being ripped apart. Two men broke through the front door, tearing it from its hinges. Two others smashed the front windows. Their hands were stained black, their faces ghostly pale.
As they rushed into the cabin, Papa raised his rifle and squeezed the trigger. One of the men grabbed the barrel just as it fired. The shot missed its target and hit the ceiling, showering debris over Patrick and Sissy. Papa released the lever action on the rifle and ejected the spent cartridge from the side. It clanged on the floor. He fired another round. This too missed, splintering the cabin wall.
The deafening blast and flash from the end of the muzzle muffled Patrick’s senses. His ears rang and the room became a blur. His instincts told him to run, yet he stood frozen and stunned. He staggered to the edge of the loft. Sissy grabbed him and yanked him to the floor.
The men swarmed Papa and wrestled him for the rifle. One of the men knocked it out of his hands and hit him with a heavy two-fisted blow. Papa fell to the floor. Two more men rushed in. Papa was no match for the sheer number of them. They grabbed him and dragged him outside.
Patrick and Sissy hid in the loft, unnoticed by the men. They listened as the men beat their Papa. They called him a traitor, a bootlegger, a Molly.
Patrick’s mind raced. He wanted to help his father. He tried to crawl to the window to see what was happening and again Sissy pulled him back. With the sound of breaking glass the house was illuminated in a reddish- orange glow.
“Fire! Fire!” Sissy screamed.
The two kids scampered down the ladder. The flames ignited the curtains and blocked their path to the front door. Black smoke filled the air. Patrick tried to breathe and choked on the noxious fumes. He covered his mouth with his nightshirt. He wanted to dive under the kitchen table, except his legs wouldn’t move. He was frozen with fear. His sister pulled him to the floor and dragged him to the rear of the house.
They found the back door and pulled down on the metal latch. It released and sent them hurtling to the moist ground outside. They sucked the cool night air into their lungs. While Patrick lay there fighting for his breath, Sissy scrambled to her feet. “Papa, Papa!” she screamed, stumbling toward the side of the cabin. Patrick followed.
As Patrick and Sissy rounded the front of the cabin, the men were heading away from them, back down the valley road. The desperate kids sprinted toward their papa who lay curled-up on the ground in front of the cabin, left for dead, his head and neck bloodied.
Papa’s breathing was quick and labored and the two kids struggled to turn him over onto his back. He seemed to weigh as much as both of them put together. His body was stiff and rigid, and his right hand clinched his left arm.
“Breathe, Papa! Breathe!” Sissy pleaded, cradling his head in her lap.
“Don’t worry ‘bout me,” Papa said, gasping, “get yourselves out of here before they come back . . .”
“No Papa,” Sissy said, the tears streaming down her face. “We won’t leave you.”
“Go,” he said, wincing in pain, “Go to Uncle Kurt’s.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Patrick asked.
“I don’t know—get some water.”
Papa turned his head toward the cabin, flames and smoke billowed from the windows. His eyes grew wide. The orange glow reflected off of his face. He shook his head vigorously and tried to get up. “Patrick . . . get back,” he said. “Get back to the house!” He fell back gasping for breath.
“What?” Patrick asked, confused.
“Papa, it’s on fire,” Sissy said.
“Patrick, you must get it . . .” Papa’s eyes grew wide and his face more tense with the growing flames. “Under the floorboards of my bed . . . there’s a box . . . a box, you hear? You must get it. Get it, Patrick. Hurry!”
“Papa, I don’t understand.”
“Do it, Patrick. Get the box. Take it to Uncle Kurt. Keep it safe. Keep it hidden. You hear me? Hurry, Pat—” With his strength spent, Papa breathed his last breath and fell.
Patrick grabbed his father by the shirt and tried to rouse him, just like he did in the middle of the night after waking from a bad dream. It was no use. This time the nightmare was real and his papa would not wake.
Sissy rocked her father, cradling his head in her lap. Tears streamed down her face. Patrick’s whole world was burning to ashes. He felt like he was falling, except the ground was moving, too. Time slowed and the night sky spun around him. It was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope; everything was small, distorted, and distant.
He surveyed the scene: Papa lay dead; flames engulfed the house; Sissy dissolved into tears; his world twisted and turned. He tried to decipher his papa’s last words. What did he say? Get the box? Under the floorboards of his bed?
Patrick darted off toward the house and Sissy let out a piercing scream. Flames poured from the windows and lapped at the roof. In Patrick’s new world, the distant and distorted one, this did not register. He ran through the flames and into the burning cabin. The heat hit him in the face like a hot blanket. It dropped him to his knees.
Patrick’s throat burned. He fell to the floor, trying to find some cool air. He wrestled his nightshirt over his mouth to filter out the smoke. The fire raged all around him. It had spread through most of the first floor and climbed to the loft. What did Papa say? Under the bed?
A wall of flames stood between him and his father’s bedroom. He grabbed the tablecloth and draped it over himself. He knew he would have to hurry to keep it from catching on fire. He crouched down and lunged forward through the flames. The tablecloth was no match for the inferno. He discarded it and sent it flaming to the ground.
Patrick dove under his father’s bed to escape the flames. Under the floorboards, he thought. He clawed frantically at the floorboards trying to pry them up with his fingertips. He was desperate to get a grip. He scrambled beneath the bed clutching at the floor for any handhold, yet he could not find a way to lift the boards. Patrick panicked. I’m trapped, he thought, I’m going to die here!
The fire consumed the oxygen in the room. Patrick put his face to the floor and tried to suck the air from the cracks in the floorboards. He pulled his knees close to his chest and covered his head with his arms. With his back against the bottom of the bed he made a cave with his body. He breathed hard what he was sure would be his last breaths. All he could do was close his eyes and wait for the flames to take him.
A strange calm came over him as he accepted his fate. He opened his eyes and stared at the floor in front of him. Then he saw it: a small hole in the floorboard where a knot had been. He fit his finger into the hole and rolled onto his back, lifting the board as he rolled. It left a narrow opening. He pulled the other boards up and clambered into a small crawlspace under the cabin.
The air in the crawlspace was cooler. Patrick hunched on the ground breathing in the moist air. His eyes adjusted to the light. That’s when he saw it. In front of him on the dirt floor lay an ordinary wooden box, wrapped with twine. Get the box, he thought. He grabbed it and started searching for a way out.
Pinpricks of light shined through the stone foundation on the far wall. He crawled toward them and grasped at the stones trying to pry one loose. He dug at the dirt mortar with his fingernails creating a small hole then pulled out a large stone the size of his face.
“Sissy! Sissy!” he screamed.
Sissy ran to him and desperately pushed and pried at the stones. She made a hole just large enough for Patrick to squeeze his arm and head through. She pulled on his arm frantically. “Come on!”
Patrick burst through the wall in a small avalanche of dirt and rocks. He collapsed on the ground, clutching the wooden box to his bare chest. He had made it out alive, yet his relief was brief. Three men had returned from the valley road.
“Hey you!” one of them yelled. The men ran toward them.
“Run Patrick!” Sissy screamed.
“What about Papa?”
“Papa’s dead—and we will be too if we don’t go.” She pulled him to his feet. “Now let’s move it!”
Patrick tucked the box under his arm and followed Sissy to the back of the cabin. They ran toward the woods. Their legs were young and fast, yet could they outrun the men? They sprinted toward the cover of the tree line and put some distance between themselves and the men. As the three men cornered the house, Patrick stopped and looked back.
Two of the men had pale faces, dirty hands and oil- covered suits—miners. One had a jagged, blue scar on the left side of his face, the other, a red mustache that framed his chin.
Then Patrick locked eyes with the third man and his heart sunk. Patrick knew him. He had visited his father the day before. He was well dressed with wire-rimmed glasses that accented his steely eyes. His thick black mustache curled at the ends and his hair was slicked straight back.
It was James McKenna and he had forgotten about the two kids.
“Shoot—get that kid,” McKenna ordered his men. “He knows me!”
The two miners ran toward him. Patrick raced into the woods and found Sissy. He dodged trees and jumped over logs. He knew theses woods well. He could navigate them blindfolded.
The men entered the woods, too. They’re going to try to cut us off from the valley road, Patrick thought.
“Come on!” he said, grabbing Sissy by the arm as he ran by.
He cut through the underbrush, the low limbs swatting him in the legs and poking his bare feet. Sissy followed close behind. They changed directions several times to try to confuse the men, yet the men gained on them. Patrick stuck to his plan. Once they hit the hillside, instead of going west toward the valley road, Patrick and Sissy jumped into the gully and headed east toward Martin’s Creek.
They zigzagged down the rugged path into the darkness. Patrick’s plan had worked. The men had lost sight of the two kids and were heading back toward the valley road. They searched for Patrick and Sissy, but they would not find them. They were heading in the wrong direction. The two kids didn’t stop to see if the men were still following them. They just ran. They were too scared to look back.