Secrets of the North Country – The Hobo’s Story
When Jake is accused of a crime that he didn’t commit, he becomes a fugitive running from the law.
Since Kat’s father is working out of town for a month, her insufferable Aunt Betsy moves in. Meanwhile, Kat’s friend, Randy, and brother, Dave, find Jake wounded in the forest. After hearing his story, they decide to help him hide from the police and their aunt.
When the secret is revealed, circumstances force Jake and Kat to flee into the wilderness on her horse, Stormwind. When they return home, she and her family begin fighting against a corrupt cop who is determined to serve justice. As Kat witnesses the best and worst in the people she meets, she discovers who her true friends are, and just what it takes to keep them safe.
Can Kat and her family prove Jake’s innocence and expose the true criminal…without becoming his next victim?
Cast of Characters:
Jacob Drake: “Jake,” early 50’s. A modern-day hobo who is accused of a violent crime that he didn’t commit. He’s Randy’s best friend, whom he considers his father, who had raised him for five years.
Katherine “Kat” Normith: age 14, narrator of the story. She is uncharacteristically rude to Jake, whom at first she believes committed the crime. However, when she realizes she was wrong, she remorsefully becomes his protector.
Randy Stillwater: age 15. Kat’s best friend. However, their friendship is threatened when Kat reveals that she told Emily about Jake.
Emily: age 14. Kat’s former best friend, whom she tells about Jake to try to win back their friendship.
Dave: age 11. Kat’s brother.
Luke: early 30’s. Kat and Dave’s father, and Randy’s legal guardian. An auto mechanic and lead singer in his local band, “The Skimmers.”
Aunt Betsy: mid-40’s. Kat’s overbearing, wealthy aunt, Luke’s older sister, who comes to stay when Luke is out of town for a month.
Pierre: Aunt Betsy’s handsome but gruff French chauffeur.
Carson: A cruel and corrupt local police officer who is determined to find the suspect. Against all evidence, he believes that Jake is guilty.
Dr. Strats: A court-appointed psychiatrist who accepts Carson’s bribe to get Jake convicted of something. He twists the things that Kat and Randy tell him in order to make Jake look bad.
Sarah Brock: early 20’s. An assault and robbery victim whom Jake finds in the woods. She later dies of her wounds.
Matthew Bence: Sarah Brock’s attacker, “the red-haired man in the plaid coat.”
“Sprucewood,” a small town in the Adirondack Mountains. Kat’s house is on a remote mountain road. It is a former boardinghouse from the mid-1800’s, with a secret room and underground tunnel that leads to the barn. The old house is on 500 acres of fields and forests, with several miles of trails, and an abandoned log cabin deep in the woods. The secret room, tunnel, and cabin play an important part in the story.
Excerpts from Secrets of the North Country:
I was already fed up with Aunt Betsy and her stupid rules. I took one last longing glance outside at the sunny morning, then turned and fled up the stairs. Instead of turning down the hall to my room, though, I continued straight to the thick, locked upstairs door into the back wing.
My house had been built way back before the Civil War. Although Luke had restored the main house with its five bedrooms, the back wing had remained empty and unused for years. He had no idea that there was a secret concealed back there: a tiny room hidden behind a fake wall panel in one of the bedrooms. A bootlegger had once hidden his whiskey in there during Prohibition, and before that, it was part of the Underground Railroad, where they hid escaped slaves from the South. Now it was Dave’s and my top-secret hideout.
I slunk down the back wing’s staircase, the creaky old banister wobbling under my hand, and continued down the musty hall to the last bedroom on the right. I was glad that I was finally alone to think about the news report on TV, and I remembered the last time I talked to Sarah Brock.
I didn’t know her very well, but we had a lot in common. Although she was older than I was, she was fun to talk with. We had first met at the farm that had rescued Stormwind and two other mares from the stable down the road from my house. They had been imprisoned there for years, starved and abused.
I leaned back against the crumbling plaster wall, staring at a peeling flap of wallpaper that fluttered in the breeze from a drafty window. Sarah had been so happy and excited the last time I saw her, showing me her golden Pegasus necklace and pretty blue engagement ring that her boyfriend had just given her. We had talked and laughed as we rode our rescued horses along the roads, beside snowy fields that stretched to the Hudson River.
“Vince told me about this really great snowmobile trail that he likes to ride,” Sarah had said. “He said that it goes all the way to Lake George. It sounds like a good place to ride the horses this summer. I’ll check it out!”
I wondered if that’s what she had been doing when she was attacked. I felt a little guilty. If it hadn’t been for me and how I’d first brought attention to the horses’ plight, she never would’ve gotten her mare, or met me, or been anywhere around that trail yesterday.
I sighed and began playing with the latch that shut the secret panel. I just wanted to hide away for a while, far from my meddling aunt and her snooty chauffeur, fugitive muggers, and bad news on TV.
I pushed open the warped panel and screamed. There, in the light of a kerosene lantern, a man stared right back at me through this black ski mask that he was wearing. He gasped. “Kat!”
“How’d you know my name?” I shrieked as I turned and bolted. Criminals wear ski masks, I thought. The fugitive!
I was halfway across the room when I heard soft footsteps behind me. A long, leather-covered arm encircled my body, pinning my arms to my sides. I screamed again as the man picked me up and put his other hand over my mouth. As he carried me away like a football, I kicked at empty air and bit at his hand, but it didn’t even seem to bother him.
Don’t you dare cry, I ordered myself as he dragged me into the secret room and pushed the door shut with his foot. I can’t let him have the satisfaction.
The man did nothing but sit on the built-in bunk and hold me against him so I couldn’t escape, his huge muscular hand still clamped firmly over my mouth. With my ear pinned against his chest, I could hear his heart beating through his leather jacket, and heard his panicked breathing above me.
“Calm down, Kat,” he said in a shaking voice. “I’m not going to hurt you...”
I wasn’t so sure about that. Aunt Betsy had always told Luke that the abandoned back wing would attract people that she called “weirdoes,” like escaped convicts or burglars or axe murderers who would kill us all in our beds. For once, she was right.
Meanwhile, the man continued trying to calm me down. “…Shhh, Kat, it’s just me. It’s Jake.”
“Jake?” I dared to look up at him to find him staring back down at me. His deep, soft voice was familiar. But the Jake that I knew was living down south for the winter…wasn’t he?
“Hey, I’m sorry,” he said. He took off his ski mask. “I didn’t mean to scare you. It’s cold in here – I forgot that I had that on.” The wrinkles at the corners of his dark eyes deepened as he grinned, showing a row of straight, very white teeth.
He finally took his hand off my mouth and I stared at him. He was Jake, Randy’s friend who had saved his life, and then lived with us last October! He had seemed like such a kind person then. Now I didn’t know what to think of him.
“Jake? What are you doing in here?” I cried. Then I remembered. “You’re him,” I said slowly. The one on TV, the one who attacked Sarah…AUNT BETSY! PIERRE!”
Instantly, his big hand was over my mouth again. “Get a hold of yourself, kid!” he said gruffly, shaking my shoulder. “I didn’t attack anybody!” Then the expression on his face softened and he let go of me. “Look, kid, I’m sorry I shook you like that. You scared me, that’s all.”
“I scared you? Well, did you ever have a man pop out of a closet and grab you?”
He sighed. “Kid, if you calm down, I’ll tell you the whole story…”
I put on the cross-country skis that Luke had bought me for Christmas, and I slid out into the field. Dave had laughed at me the first time I tried them out, and told me what a klutz I was. He was a good one to talk. He should see himself when he tries to walk on snowshoes.
Hesperus and I headed down Parson's trail, and again, I couldn't take my mind off Jake. Maybe he really was trying to help me this morning, I thought. Maybe I was the one who was out of line, not him. I shook my head and told myself not to be so naïve. He just wanted to win my trust so he could hurt me, the same as he hurt Sarah Brock. I had to keep on being rude to him so he wouldn't think that I still liked him, or anything. If my family ever heard the way I talked to him, they'd be horrified. Aunt Betsy would probably faint, my grandfather would wash out my mouth with soap, and Luke wouldn't say a word. He'd just give me one of his disappointed looks that never failed to make me feel ashamed of myself.
Hesperus and I reached the old cabin at the edge of our property, and I sat on the porch to rest. It was my most favorite place on all of our land, over a mile from home, on a hilltop clearing surrounded by the deep forest. I thought about the night last fall when the five of us - Jake, Luke, Randy, Dave, and I - had a bonfire in the clearing. Jake had been living with us at the time. Luke had brought his guitar and played us some new songs he wrote, and Jake and Randy joined in with their harmonicas. Then Dave told a really dumb ghost story that didn't scare any of us. Before we hiked back home under the full moon, we all helped to stack the unused firewood in the cabin. Luke and Jake both said that it was good to have it there for emergencies.
I scowled and shook my head, trying to forget about Jake. I stood up and called to Hesperus, my breath puffing a little cloud into the icy air. My fingers felt as stiff as raw carrots inside my gloves. My lungs burned, and I realized how out-of-shape I had gotten. Now that I rode Stormwind everywhere, I rarely hiked or snowshoed the way I used to. It was a long way home, and I forced myself to start back.
By the time I spotted my house, I was too tired to worry about Jake. I looked down the steep hill at the frozen farm pond below. Dave and I had always gone sledding down that hill; we could slide clear across the pond and into the yard. I grinned and decided to try it.
I didn't know what went wrong. Maybe I had hit something under the snow. But I knew that I went down faster than I expected, and my ankle gave out from under me with a sharp twinge of pain. I fell hard on my shoulder and tumbled toward the deep end of the pond.
The ice cracked in a jagged circle and the freezing water closed over my head. A heavy pain jabbed deep into my chest as I flailed under the ice, trapped in a strange blue light from the sun glowing through the frozen snow. I held my breath as I searched for the open hole somewhere above, but the water that I'd swallowed felt like a brick in my lungs. My house was only 100 feet away…so close…
Stop it! I almost shouted. You'll get out of this like you do everything else. But I couldn't hold my breath much longer. From somewhere far away, I heard Hesperus barking. It sounded like something from a whole different world.
My heavy clothes seemed to pull me to the bottom like anchors. My whole body was numb from the water; even my eyes ached from the cold. My hat had come off and floated away somewhere under the ice.
I looked down in desperation and saw that one ski had wedged itself under a rock. So that's why I couldn't swim up, I thought dumbly. I reached down and pulled my boot off of my good foot, then gritted my teeth as I yanked my already swollen foot from the other boot. Then I swam for the surface.
I gulped in the fresh air as if it were the most delicious meal in the world. Then I coughed up the water I swallowed, and I lay on the ice, my legs still dangling in the pond, too tired to pull myself to shore.
A warm snout poked the back of my neck, as teeth clamped my collar and a pinch of skin. I didn't care, though, as Hesperus dragged me, inch by inch, to the pond's edge.
"Hesperus…" I choked out. I flung my arms around her neck and started to cry, feeling like a fool. I was out of the pond but not out of danger, yet. I couldn't blubber; I had to calm down and get to the house.
But it was so cold. My shoulder ached where it had hit the frozen ground. I tried to stand up, but couldn't put any weight on my foot. I lay there sobbing like an idiot - like a girl, Dave would say in his brattiest voice. He had been right, I thought miserably. I was a klutz, and I had no business being on skis. Luke had paid a lot of money for them, and now they lay at the bottom of the farm pond.
Hesperus licked my face and whined, then took off toward the house, barking all the while. "No," I croaked. "Hesperus, come back!" I flopped back down in the snow and curled into a painful, shivering ball. I had been warming my hands in her black fur as I rested up for another attempt at walking, glad that another living thing knew of my plight. I didn't know when Randy or Dave would be home. Aunt Betsy wouldn't be back until later. Then I thought of Jake and wished that I hadn't covered the trap door. What a jerk I was. If he decided to play hero, he couldn't get out through the trap door, and it was my fault. I pictured him in his room puffing on his stupid harmonica, or something, totally oblivious to anything but himself.
I heaved myself onto my hands and knees and tried to crawl back to the house, but my shaking arms just crumpled beneath me. I decided it would be easier to just lie there in the snow and go to sleep for a while…
It felt like it took Stormwind forever to reach the beginning of Parson's Road, as Jake and I leaned into the wind that numbed our faces. We didn't speak. We just huddled together on Stormwind's back as the falling snow crusted on our clothes.
The lump on my head hurt. I wondered if Jake was right, and I had gotten a concussion when I fell down the stairs. Warm in his leather jacket, and his furry hat that I didn't think was so silly now, I slumped back against him and tried to stay awake. I knew that he wouldn't let me fall off if I went to sleep, but he didn't know the way to the cave. I wondered, too, if Stormwind would cross the river that had almost drowned us last summer. It wasn't deep if we crossed where the trail led to the water, but any misstep could send us plunging into water far over our heads. And what if she balked at the river crossing, and threw us? We would never find her in the blizzard.
“Do you want me to take over for awhile?” Jake said softly. I nodded and let him take the leadrope, glad that I could stuff my frozen hand in my pocket.
“The cave,” I mumbled. “Cross the river…follow it a mile off the trail…”
I didn't know how much he heard, because soon after that, I finally passed out.
“Kat…wake up…” Jake's voice sounded far away.
I was so tired. I tried to open my eyes, but instead, I felt myself slowly flop forward and slide sideways off Stormwind's back.
“Kat!” Jake gasped. My raw face brushed against Stormwind's mane as Jake grabbed me and set me gently on my feet, helping me to stand. My legs quivered as I looked around the twilit forest, not sure of where we were. I heard nothing but the wind that drove the snowflakes against us with a whispering sound.
My toes were numb. I looked down and saw that I stood in snow up to my knees. It didn't reach too high on Jake, though.
“I wish I could get you into town, Kat,” he said grimly. “You should see a doctor. Do you know that you've been unconscious for the past half-hour?”
I was surprised that I hadn't felt him get off Stormwind. “How far are we?” I mumbled.
“We're not going to the cave. It's not safe in this weather. Look, Kat, I think I'm too big for her to carry up this hill…” Jake picked me up and set me on Stormwind's back as if I were a little kid. He looked up at me. “You just sit tight, ok?”
I shrugged and clutched Stormwind’s mane in both hands, as Jake led her up the steep hill. At the top stood the old log cabin. In the summer it was a cheerful place, its yard overgrown with prickly raspberry bushes and wild roses. But now I could barely see the cabin's squat dark form through the swirling snow.
I couldn't help but think about how this was the second time that Stormwind and I had gone camping there. When I had run away from home last July, it had been our first night’s stop on our journey into the wilderness. But I wasn’t alone this time, though - and I was glad that Jake and I had escaped my panicked aunt and that madman, Pierre. But I knew that we couldn't stay there. We were still too close to home…and the police. I was in big trouble now, even bigger trouble than the time that I had stolen Stormwind. I had defied both Aunt Betsy and the law, fleeing into the woods with a man everyone suspected of murder. Of course, Dave, Randy, and I knew the truth. Jake had seen the real criminal. But none of that mattered now…
…I knew that I was safe with Jake, but our situation was enough to make Aunt Betsy and the police accuse him of doing unspeakable things to me. I was the one who got us into this entire mess. I was the one who had to get us both out.
Aunt Betsy sighed. “You know, your father made a big mistake by encouraging you to be an outdoor girl. I never imagined that you would take it this far. It’s a little ridiculous.”
“I am ridiculous? This idea is what’s ridiculous! Aunt Betsy, don’t spend your money on me. I don’t want a makeover. I’d rather have nothing.”
Her voice hardened. “Then consider it punishment for your recent actions. I will not tolerate any more arguments now; it’s already been settled. Your appointment to the beauty salon, and the opera tickets -”
“Then drag Pierre in with you! I don’t care! I don’t want to go to an opera on my birthday!”
“Don’t be silly, Katherine. I cannot invite my driver into the theatre with me; that simply is not done.”
“Why not? He’s good-looking. And he already wears a nice suit, so he’s all set to go. I’m sure he won’t embarrass you -”
“It’s settled, Katherine. Tomorrow morning, I will pick you up to go select a dress, and get your hair and nails done. I expect you to be ready and waiting for me.”
“I have school. And I’ve missed too many days already.”
“Then missing just one more day surely wouldn’t matter -”
“It surely would!” Although I didn’t like school, it was better than spending the day with Aunt Betsy!
“Young lady, now you’re just being stubborn. I will never understand you. Any other girl would be excited about shopping for a formal dress and shoes, riding in a limousine, and spending time at the beauty salon.”
“Then don’t try to understand me. Just leave me alone.” I slammed the phone back on the receiver, seething.
“Dad!” I cried as I stalked into the kitchen where he was making dinner. “How can you let her do this to me? And on my birthday?”
He turned to me. “Listen, Kat, I -”
“What happened to ‘she’s not you, so stop nagging her?’ Did you forget about that already? She thinks she runs our house! And she’s not my mom! Why can’t you just tell her to mind her own business?”
“Look, Kat, I tried to talk her out of this. I said that you wouldn’t be interested, and told her that she should buy you that new saddle you’ve been wanting, instead. But she has her heart so set on this, and she won’t listen to me. Maybe if we humor her, just this once, she’ll get this out of her system and leave us all alone.”
“Or maybe it’ll just encourage her to do it all the more!” I wailed. “She doesn’t care about giving me a birthday present! She just wants to harass me and make me do boring things I would hate! I don’t want to spend the day with a bunch of old women, gossiping like a…like a flock of hens…”
“Look, I know that you’re not crazy about this idea, but you will speak to your aunt with respect. And tomorrow, you will apologize for hanging up on her.”
I stopped short. How did he know that? I hoped that he hadn’t heard our whole conversation, especially the part about marrying Randy. I’d be so embarrassed.
“Kat, can’t you please just do this one time…for me? It’s not going to kill you. Maybe it’ll get your aunt off our backs for a while. Just think of it as another adventure, and then you can come home and laugh about it the next day.”
I sighed in defeat. “Well, I suppose I can handle lunch with a bunch of women, especially if there’s some good food,” I admitted. “And an opera might even be interesting, even if it’s just to see what it’s like. But I really, really, really don’t want a makeover!”
“Well, it could be worse. She had wanted to bring you in for body waxing, but I told her, absolutely not.”
I shuddered. Whatever might happen at Bence’s hideout on Saturday morning couldn’t possibly be worse than body waxing. I was glad that at least Luke refused to let that happen to me.
As I went back upstairs, I wondered why I couldn’t have a nice, quiet birthday like other people had. Now I had to worry about Randy and Jake, alone at Bence’s place, and I wondered if Dave and I could show up to help them, after all. Of course, that plan was now thwarted by Aunt Betsy’s silly parties and shopping spree. I scowled. If Aunt Betsy was going through all this now, I wondered what she’d do next year, when I was “sweet sixteen.” I didn’t even want to think about it.
I knocked on my brother’s door and told him my disappointing news. “Dave…there’s been a change of plans.”
“That’s the truck,” I whispered, pointing out the red pickup in the driveway. “But there’s no sign of Randy or Jake. If they’re here, we would’ve seen them by now.”
“Well, that’s what they wanted, wasn’t it? To catch Bence? Maybe they’re busy.”
“Shhh. Now, get off. And stay low.”
We dismounted and hurried Stormwind behind the shed. I really had imagined ourselves joining Randy and Jake in their great adventure, catching the bad guy, but figured that it would be just another long, uneventful stakeout. Now that our quarry was finally here, I wondered if we made a big mistake.
“Stay here,” I told Dave as I tied Stormwind’s leadrope to a nearby tree. I could barely hear a muffled male voice coming from the cottage, where the front door had been left wide open. “Dave, don’t move…no matter what happens. But if I tell you to run, just do it. I don’t care where. Just go.”
“But Kat! -”
“Shhh!” I opened my backpack and handed Dave a walkie-talkie, tucking the other one under the bow around my waist. “You promised you’d do whatever I tell you,” I reminded him.
I squatted and crept toward the cottage, glancing back at Dave and Stormwind. He looked at me and backed out of sight behind the shed.
The big picture window was just ahead, hidden by the cedar hedge. I stood and parted the thick branches, straining to catch a glimpse inside. A familiar red-haired man paced restlessly around the living room, the tear in his coat gaping wide open. Bence!
Even though I had seen his yearbook picture, I was surprised at how young he looked, up close. He sure didn’t appear to be a villain…yet there he was, holding a rifle leveled at Randy and Jake, as they cowered on the couch.
“You thought you were being cute, didn’tcha, old man? You and your little sidekick, here. Tryin’ to haul me in to the sheriff like a little western posse. Well, I know who you are, Jacob Drake. I saw your face all over the TV, tellin’ the cops that…Bench did it.” The man chuckled. “Well, you have no proof of that. As far as they’re concerned, you killed her that day. You’re the only witness…but you won’t be for long.” He shook the rifle menacingly at Jake, and gestured at Randy. “And Blondie over here is a fool to believe you. So’s that kid with the white horse. The girl. I caught her pokin’ around here one day.”
I ducked back behind the hedge, ready to run back to Dave and Stormwind and get help. There were usually policemen doing business at the Town Hall, but after what happened with Carson, I was afraid to get them involved. Not until they could see the evidence against Bence – the stolen jewelry and torn jacket – for themselves. Not until Jake cleared his name.
Taking a deep breath, I stood up again and spied on Bence and his captives.
“Son, you should just put the gun down, and cool off a little,” Jake said calmly. “Look, how old are you, anyway? Twenty-two? Twenty-three? You’re about to make a mistake that could ruin the rest of your life.”
“No, you made the mistake, old man. Stickin’ that big nose of yours where it don’t belong -”
“Then just let the boy go. He has nothing to do with this.”
Bence smirked. “He does now.” He laughed as Randy gasped and shrank back closer to Jake.
I didn’t need to see any more. Randy was the bravest person I knew. It was a shock to see him huddled against Jake like a little child. I knew that no matter what happened, I couldn’t leave him and Jake alone here. Crouching behind the hedge once again, I scuttled around a rusting oil tank beside the back door, crept up on the deck, and tried the doorknob. It was unlocked.
I pulled out my radio. “Dave! Dave!”
“Kat? You better come back here. Stormwind keeps trying to untie her rope -”
“Dave, listen to me. Jake and Randy are in a lot of trouble; I have to get them out. Look, I’m at the back door of the house. I need you to distract Bence. Wait until I tell you, and then get a rock and throw it in the front door. Hide behind his truck. Think you can throw that far?”
“Kat, I’m the pitcher for my baseball team. I’m sure I can throw a rock across a driveway -”
“Then do it,” I snapped. “Then…just hide. Or run. Just be careful.”
I doubted that Bence would come out the back door, but squatted behind the oil tank, just in case. I took a deep breath and tried to calm my rattled nerves. I never imagined that Bence would be so…ruthless. Or that guns would be involved. I thought this would be just a lark, a fun adventure with my friends. If anything happened to Dave, I would never forgive myself.
I stood up behind the tank, ready to move, and listened. “Dave,” I whispered. “Now!”
“Hey!” I heard Bence shout. “What the -”
When I heard him stomping across the front porch, I jogged up the deck stairs and pushed open the back door. A handful of bullets glinted on the kitchen table, and without a second thought, I scooped them up and tossed them under the back deck. I looked down the hall and spotted Bence out the open front door, standing in the driveway, scanning the yard with his gun ready. I flinched as he shot in the air, hoping that Dave was OK…and well-hidden. I dashed across the kitchen, down the hall, and burst into the living room, out of breath.