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A black family living in the house of long-dead abolitionist Dies Drear must decide what to do with his stupendous treasure, hidden for one hundred years in a cavern near their home.
The cool days of October descended upon the region. Thomas Small and his papa had taken to the woods to hunt or hike for hours on the hill above the bleak house of Dies Drear. But then, suddenly, it turned cold. Mr. Small had little free time from teaching at the college. On weekends he cataloged the wealth that had belonged to the long-dead abolitionist Dies Eddington Drear. There was a stupendous treasure hidden for a hundred years in a secret cavern within the hillside. Thomas left his rifle at home. He spent the time playing with his little brothers, or by himself, or with his friend Pesty Darrow.
Today he had on a sweater and his fleece-lined jacket over it. The air was brisk. The Drear house seen from the hilltop reminded him of a giant crow frozen on its nest. He wasn't sure yet whether he liked living in that house. He was usually on his guard. Sometimes he felt something strange was near.
Something unseen but listening behind the walls, he thought. He wasn't afraid, just wary whenever he was in the house by himself.
Scaring away mean neighbors, Darrow men, before they had the chance to discover the treasure hadn't rid him of the feeling either. But what was the use of worrying? It was his papa's dream to live in a house that had been a station on the Underground Railroad.
Pesty Darrow was with him today. They'd become friends even though she was a Darrow. Darrows had adopted her when she was an infant. Thomas supposed she was loyal to them since they were the only family she'd known.
She's loyal to us, too, he thought, and to Mr. Pluto.
Mr. Pluto had been the caretaker of the Drear house until the Smalls moved in eight months ago. Old Pluto lived in a cave on the other side of the hill. He and Pesty had kept the secret of the great cavern from everyone. Pesty had known about the secret treasure long before Thomas had. She'd kept it from her brothers and her father, even from her youngest brother, Macky, who wasn't as mean or sour as the others.
But how long can she be loyal to two sets of folk who are like day is to night? Thomas wondered. How long before she makes a slip or the older Darrow men figure out there is treasure deep under the hillside?
Darrows had been hunting for hidden treasure in the maze of underground slave escape tunnels of the region's hills for generations.
Papa's worried they will get bold again, Thomas thought, and try some way to get us off Drear lands. He's afraid there might be cave-ins, too.
"Be quicker if we use the backyard of Drear house," Pesty said.
Thomas had to smile. She was talking about the quick way to her home. Whenever they were out tramping together, she would want Thomas to come see her brother. Every now and then she told Macky, "Mr. Thomas wants to see you." Macky snorted and said, "Don't you call no boy mister, Pesty. He's just Thomas, like I am just Macky."
Thomas was careful not to be seen by Darrow men out in the open close to their property. He might overstep their boundary and give them a clear excuse to chase him or to cross the Drear boundary.
Instead of the Drear backyard, he took the longer, out-of-the-way route over the hill because he did want to run into Macky in the woods. He had a vague hope that they might still get to know each other. After school he would see Macky going off in the trees. Lately it seemed that Macky allowed Thomas to catch up with him, almost, before he sauntered away.
Today it had started snowing again. Light snows came now one after the other to the hillside, to the woods and all the land.
"You be glad your grandmom is coming?" Pesty said. "Mr. Pluto told me she was."
"Well, she's not my grandmom," Thomas said as they tramped smartly single file. "She's my great-grandmother Jeffers. First name is Rhetty. And she's coming to stay. I'm glad of it, too."
"Is she where you used to be?" Pesty asked.
"In North Carolina, yes," he said.
"Do you miss her?"
"Well, it won't feel right here until we're all together again," he said.
"Does she know about the house of Dies Drear?" Pesty asked.
"Pesty, you haven't told anyone about the you-know-what, have you?" he said, meaning the cavern of treasure.
"No!" she answered.
"Not even Macky. No one?"
"No!" she said. "I haven't told a soul. I wouldn't." But she sounded anxious. Her voice whined uncertainly.
What was it about Pesty lately? Something Thomas couldn't put his finger on. They were together so much, and he thought he knew her well.
On weekends they often helped his father and old Pluto in the great cavern, where they polished the priceless glass. Pesty, who had taken care of the glass from the time she was five or six, suddenly had butterfingers. She'd dropped a glass spoon and a rare nineteenth-century bottle. Both had smashed on the cavern floor.
Now Thomas made a zigzag trail around trees. Snowflakes slapped thinly, like tiny footsteps around them. He was heading east toward the Darrow- and Carr-owned parts of the woods. Carr people had been friendly when Thomas's family first arrived. Their land bordered Darrow's to the south. They bordered Drear lands on Drear's southeast corner. Darrow land was right by Drear lands, bordering them on Darrow's north and west.
Thomas had been thinking so hard he hadn't noticed that Pesty's footsteps had stopped. He recognized an absence suddenly, and he felt lonely for his great-grandmother and the high mountains of home.
Tired of these long, flat days, he thought. His brothers, Billy and Buster, were too small yet to roam with him.
All at once a voice came out of the trees: "You never can figure when a good day for huntin' will come."
Thomas went cold inside.
"Where's your gun at, friend?" the voice continued. "Tell you one thing, this sure is not a day for huntin' in the woods."
It came to Thomas whom the voice belonged to. He'd wished for this day all these months. There stood M. C. Darrow, called Mac or Macky, the youngest Darrow.
Pesty was nowhere to be seen. She led me here, Thomas was thinking.
He and Mac Darrow gazed at each other. They both stood in fog to their ankles; it made them appear to be floating just above the ground.
Friend or foe? Thomas thought vaguely. Neither one of them smiled.CHAPTER 2
Mac Darrow stood among trees on Darrow land just beyond where Drear lands lined up against it. There was a great old maple tree right on the Drear property line. It had an iron spike deep in the tree trunk, a sure mark of a boundary.
Mac Darrow had grown bigger over the months. Thomas grew lean and wiry and not overly tall yet. But Mac Darrow had grown burly, looking older than his fifteen years. Macky admired Thomas, Thomas could tell in one swift judgment.
After all, Thomas thought, we were smart, Papa, me and Pesty and Mr. Pluto's son and Mr. Pluto, scaring his brothers. They never knew Pesty was there.
But Macky wasn't a part of the Darrows's trying to steal, Thomas went on. They didn't even know what they were after. Just something the old grandfather Darrow came to believe was his. I guess they learned there might be riches somewhere on Drear property from word of mouth handed down from long ago.
Slowly, cautiously, Thomas floated nearer to Macky and Darrow land.
He sighed inwardly and thought: One of the slaves or Indians hiding in the great cavern the night Dies Drear died had to be an ancestor of Macky and his brothers. That had been more than a hundred years ago. Probably an Indian, Thomas mused.
He and Mac Darrow stood watching each other. Every now and then a seeping gray flow of mist would come out of nowhere to ride Macky's shoulders. Then Mac Darrow would appear to be moving.
Wasn't Macky's father's name River? Thomas wondered. Yes, name of River Lewis. And his grandfather was River Swift. One ancestor was River Thames. And one of Macky's brothers was River Ross. Probably part Indian, at least.
All was still in the woods. Snowflakes, slapping and scraping thinly. And trees, dark and dripping, unmoved by the excitement Thomas felt at seeing Macky up close. The two of them, alone together after so long.
Thomas glided through the snow, not lifting his feet out of it until he had reached the old maple. There he stopped and leaned against the tree trunk. Macky hadn't moved, being, as he was, at the edge of his family land.
"What are you doing out here?" Thomas called. They were maybe fifteen, twenty feet apart. His voice sounded flat and heavy to him.
"Just ... out here," Macky said. "Huntin', like I thought you was until I saw you got no gun."
"Oh," said Thomas. "Well. Did you catch anything?"
"Guess you didn't hear what I said before," Macky said.
"What was that?"
"That this ain't a day for man nor beast. For huntin' nothin'."
"Oh," Thomas said.
"You can see the trails of them beasts, though," Macky said. Shyly he looked down and to the side, not quite able to meet Thomas's gaze. "You want to come over, follow the trails?" Said so softly Thomas almost missed it.
Thomas thought about going over. Oh, he wanted to. But he had to say, finally, "I can't come over there."
"Well, you might could, anytime you wanted," Macky said. "Nobody over here's gonna stop you. But if you think your daddy would mind ..."
Thomas slid down, his shoulders touching the tree, and sat with his back against the trunk. Thomas knew his papa would mind. Macky's dad would mind, too.
"You'll get your britches wet sittin' in the snow," Macky said.
"What? Oh, my pants, you mean. I don't care about any britches!" Thomas said.
Mac Darrow crouched low with his hands folded between his knees. His gun was cradled against his chest. "What you so mad about?" he said.
It was true, Thomas was angry. He didn't know how to put it into words. "I'm not mad at you," he said at last.
"At my brothers, though." Macky studied his hands.
"I didn't say that," Thomas said. "But they weren't too nice, you know. Sneaking around, messin' up our kitchen ..." He remembered it as if it happened yesterday. Food spilled everywhere, spoiling milk. Macky's big, dumb brothers, entering the house and doing damage. At last he and Macky were talking about it.
Macky nodded, as Thomas listed the devilment the Darrow men had done.
" ... sneaking in the house at night through the hidden passage and slapping those triangles on the walls."
Mac Darrow stared. "What?" he said.
"You know," Thomas said, "those triangles, like the ones the slaves used to find their direction north. Really a cross reading. Only we found the ones your brothers made and put there, trying to scare somebody. And they're grown men, too. But we got them back for it."
Macky studied Thomas for a long time. One minute he looked as if he wanted to apologize for his brothers. The next minute he seemed astonished about something; then, confused. He looked and stared so long Thomas began to get a notion about something. But then he was reminded of something else he wanted to talk about. "Guess what?" he said, "My great-grandmother is coming to live with us. She's almost ninety." It sounded friendly, to say that.
Macky must have thought so, too, for he nodded, interested. He got up, saying, "You mind if I come over there? We can follow trails of beasts from over there just as easy."
"Why do you call them beasts?" Thomas asked as Macky came over.
"Mama calls them beasts. You never met my mama."
"No. I don't think I've seen her, either, all these months. Have I?" Thomas said. "At church?" It seemed odd now that he hadn't met her.
"Nope. She's an invalid," Macky said. "She stays in bed mostly."
Thomas tried not to look surprised. He'd never heard of anyone's mother being an invalid. Maybe if Macky's mother was eighty years old, she might be one. He would've liked to have talked about it right then, but Macky went on.
"My mama likes to tell old-timey stuff," he said.
"Really?" Thomas said.
"Yeah. Not much else to do when you are lyin' down, being sick, then gettin' well over and over." He sighed. "King beast of the woods is one she tells."
"One what?" Thomas said.
Macky gazed at him. Serious and burly he was among the trees. He had a smooth, expressionless face. "Just about who in the woods is smartest. It changes," he said.
"I've never heard about anything like that before," Thomas said.
"It's old-timey stuff," Macky repeated. "Mama says, in olden times there was an Indian maiden girl always used to run through here. She had long black braids and a dress made out of buckskin, too."
Macky crouched down again, a little away from Thomas. He still may have been on Darrow land. But an invisible line was hard to read. Thomas was uneasy without a gun when a Darrow had one.
"Really?" Thomas heard himself saying. "An Indian girl?"
"Well, it's what Mama says," Macky said. Then, slyly, he grinned at Thomas. "And the story goes, not one man Indian could catch her. She'd come upon you in here, and like a breeze, she'd blow on by. Time you try to overtake her, she'd be so far ahead couldn't nobody catch her."
"She had a head start then," Thomas said.
Macky pursed his lips. "A young Indian man hid around, watching for her. He saw her and started to race her," he said. "She looked at him once, and he couldn't catch her. Others tried, but none ever could catch her."
"Why couldn't they?" Thomas asked, getting into the story. "An Indian man was used to running, I bet, and could outrun any woman."
"You think so? Well, she wasn't any woman. Turns out she was a ghost."
Thomas caught his breath. The slow grin spreading across Macky's face didn't register. A ghost! he thought. Slave ghosts were said to haunt the "crow" house of Dies Drear, but he'd never seen one. Old Pluto said he had, though. Said he'd even seen Mr. Dies Drear himself. Thomas noticed the silence then. He shivered all at once. "That's a ghost story," he managed to say.
"Well, might could be it is," Macky said mockingly. "It's what Mama told me."
"Is an invalid someone who is sick all the time?" Thomas asked. He was asking before he knew he would.
"My mama's not sick so much," Macky said. "Mainly it's how she acts sometimes." He seemed to ponder this. "She gets out of bed once in a great while, but we never know when."
"You mean, she won't get up every day?" Thomas said.
"Maybe two, three times a year," Mac Darrow said. "'Casionally every two months or so."
"Well, that's really too bad," Thomas said. He wasn't sure what to believe.
"Oh, we don't mind it much," Macky said. "Me and Pesty walk Mama down along the highway when she gets up. She likes that."
"That's right, she took Pesty in.... How could your mother take care of a baby if she was an invalid?"
Mac Darrow smirked. "She's not invalid all the time. Just sometimes when she lies down for six months."
"Well, I never heard of anything like that," Thomas said. "Pesty never once mentioned it." It finally came to him that Macky might be putting him on just to be important. "Maybe your mother's not any invalid," Thomas said.
Grinning, Macky got to his feet. He seemed to Thomas to tower above him. The grin never touched his large gray eyes flecked with yellow. "You callin' me a liar?" he said softly. "My mama is too an invalid. But there—look behind you! There's the Indian girl running!"
Thomas whirled around. "Ahhhh!" escaped him. He held on to the maple, terrified. The fog was rising. Snow, falling. How did it happen that the woods was pale with failing light, gloaming light? Dusk. The fog was ghostly white now. It danced and swayed. He almost thought he saw...
He looked to Macky for safety and found only the stillness and mist. He heard laughter—"Ha-ha!"—a ways off. Trees dripped snow fell lightly where Mac Darrow had been. Only Macky's empty tracks were left.
Where ... Macky!
But Mac Darrow had vanished. Thomas scrambled away from the great maple. He tore through the woods. He half believed the Indian maiden was somewhere near. He knew that Macky had been playing with him, but still, his fear rose on the twilight. He almost got turned around. Almost lost his way. They say ghosts walk at dusk. Run!
The crest of the hill had to be right before him. Was it? And the house, just down the hillside. Was it still?
His breath was ragged. He thought surely something was running after him, breathing down his neck. Oh no!
Excerpted from The Mystery of Drear House by Virginia Hamilton. Copyright © 1987 Virginia Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted February 16, 2002
Posted October 21, 2014
This is a great mystery novel for young adults. The most interesting part was Drear House itself. It’s a labyrinth with secret tunnels and hideouts. The pace is quite fast, and the main character Thomas is the kind of protagonist kids can easily relate to. An intriguing, quick read. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.