JOSIE RUNS AWAY
THE DAY JOSIE RAN AWAY was the beginning of everything—the bones in the canyon, the haunted mountain, the buried treasure, the town full of secrets—but the Barker boys didn’t know it then. All they knew was that Josie was missing, again, and they had to find her. It would be harder here, in this strange place in the middle of the desert. But they had no idea how hard, or what else they would find while they were looking.
Josie and the Barker boys had just moved to an old brown-shingled house in Superstition, Arizona, a town in the shadow of an enormous, craggy mountain called Superstition Mountain. So far, the Barker boys didn’t much like it. The house itself was all right. It had belonged to their great-uncle, Hank Cormody, or “crazy Uncle Hank” as Mr. Barker called him. Uncle Hank was a former cattle wrangler, gambler, and scout for the U.S. Cavalry, who had shockingly left the house to Mr. Barker in his will when he died at the ripe old age of eighty-six. The timing for a move was good. Mr. Barker’s stonemasonry business in Chicago was slowing down—cause for many worrisome, muffled, late-night conversations between Mr. and Mrs. Barker when they thought the boys weren’t listening. Since Mrs. Barker was a medical illustrator who could paint pictures of arthritic hips and diseased kidneys anywhere, a hasty decision had been made that a free house in a cheap part of the country was exactly what the Barker family needed.
Which, mostly, it was. The house had a bedroom for each of the boys and a big finished basement, one side of which was crammed full of Uncle Hank’s belongings (taped boxes and musty furniture that Mrs. Barker had banished from the upstairs). On the wall was a dartboard, which was a nice surprise because Mrs. Barker never would let the boys get a dartboard, but she could hardly say no when one was hanging right there, with a fistful of pointy darts in the center. Another good thing: Uncle Hank’s backyard didn’t end in another backyard, or a street, or a driveway, like other backyards. It ended in a vast, rolling nothingness of hills and fields. The boys liked that—the sense that there were no limits, and if somebody hit a ball over the scrubby border of trees and bushes, it might go sailing on forever.
But … well, there were lots of buts. The house was far from their friends in Chicago. It was far from the park where they played baseball. It was far from the hill where they used to sled and have snowball fights in the winter. Why, Arizona didn’t even have winters! What kind of place didn’t have snow? Worst of all, their new house was in this strange town, full of strange people, where nobody looked or talked or seemed the least bit like the people back home.
“It’s just because you don’t know them yet,” their father said. But even their mother, who was annoyingly upbeat about nearly everything, had to admit the town of Superstition lived up to its name. When the middle Barker boy, Henry, said, “The people here are shifty,” she laughed—because she always laughed at Henry’s funny words—but after a minute, she nodded and said, “You know, that is a very good word for it.”
There were three Barker boys. Simon, the oldest, was eleven. He had spiky brown hair and a curious, science-y personality, which led to many interesting ideas and experiments. But he could be an annoying know-it-all, and greedy at times. Jack, the youngest, was six. He was hands down the bravest, not just about little things like spiders, but about crashing his bike and jumping from high places. Jack, however, had a temper and would rather take a swing at somebody than work things out peacefully.
In the middle was Henry, age ten, a year younger than Simon and four whole years older than Jack. But because Henry was small and slight and Jack was big and sturdy, people always assumed Henry and Jack were around the same age. This was quite embarrassing to Henry … almost as bad as when he was five and his long, curly hair had led everybody to think he was a girl. Henry loved to read and to use the strange words he found in books, though not always the right way. Also, while Henry got along with nearly everybody, he had never had a best friend. (Mrs. Barker said, “Oh, Hen … look at your father! He’s forty-one and he STILL doesn’t have a best friend.” Somehow, that wasn’t very comforting.)
One last thing about Henry: he was named for Uncle Hank, who was really Henry Cormody, though how the name Henry got turned into Hank was a mystery to the boys (doubtless following the same strange logic by which Sarah became Sally or Margaret became Peggy). Mr. Barker had idolized Uncle Hank when he was young, marking time between his rare visits, eagerly soaking up stories of his adventures, and much later, proudly passing along the name Henry to his middle son. Even at the best of times, Henry felt the weight of this inheritance quite heavily. His great-uncle had been a wild one. He roped cattle, gambled away his money in gloomy saloons, fought bandits with fists and guns, and explored the roughest and most remote stretches of the West on his big spotted Appaloosa horse for the army. Henry, in addition to being small and occasionally mistaken for a girl, was not wild at all. Which made him feel that he should have been named something more regular, like John or David.
The final member of the Barker family was Josie. Was she the boys’ sister? No. Their nanny? Definitely not! In fact, Henry often thought that if you were to compare Josie to Nana, the dog nanny in the book Peter Pan, you would quickly see that there was no comparison. Josie was the Barkers’ cat, and she had little interest in taking care of anybody, least of all the three Barker boys. She had been with Mr. and Mrs. Barker for a very long time, and she was vaguely put out that the boys existed at all.
Josie was mostly black, with a patch of white on her neck shaped like Florida. She did not enjoy being squeezed or picked up (though that didn’t keep Jack from squeezing and picking her up). Henry liked to say she was dextrous, which meant she could open doors and grab things with her paws. Most importantly, she was good at leaping and climbing.
On the day Josie ran away, the boys were sitting on their deck after lunch, staring glumly at the pebbly stretch of backyard, trying to think of something to do. Superstition did not have much to offer. The town center consisted of a library, a grocery store, a gas station, a diner, a town hall with the police and fire stations, a post office, and Coronado Elementary School, which went all the way up to the eighth grade. There were a couple of businesses, too—a car repair place and Mr. Barker’s masonry shop. But that was it. Rows of houses sprang up in a square grid around the main avenue through town, and surrounding them? Only barren desert. Even the high school was miles away, in the town of Terra Calde.
This was the first week of summer, and half of the Barkers’ neighborhood appeared to have left on vacation. Not that it mattered, as Henry pointed out; the boys hadn’t made any friends since they moved in at the beginning of June, happily missing their last week of school back in Chicago. Here in Arizona, they were on their own.
“We could play cards,” Henry suggested.
“Too boring,” said Simon.
“We could play Frisbee,” said Jack.
“Too windy,” said Simon.
“We could go see Dad,” said Henry.
Simon shook his head. “Remember what happened last time?”
Mr. Barker’s work involved building walls, patios, and walkways. Most of his big jobs were in Phoenix, but he had a few projects in Superstition and the neighboring towns. The boys liked to visit him while he was working, especially whenever he needed help with the cement. But the last time that hadn’t turned out so well … Jack’s sneaker ended up permanently cast in a stretch of sidewalk.
They sat and thought a bit longer.
“I know,” Simon declared. “Let’s play Mexican prison. Jack, you crawl under the deck. Henry and I will be the guards—” He was just starting to elaborate when Josie, who had been lying peacefully in the warm sun, leapt to her feet and darted across the yard, straight through the clump of scraggly trees, in the direction of Superstition Mountain.
“Where’s she going?” Jack demanded. “Josie!” He jumped up and ran after her.
Henry glanced at the house. Technically, they were not supposed to leave their yard. And they were especially not supposed to go up Superstition Mountain. Their parents were very strict about the mountain.
“Jack!” Simon warned. He looked at Henry and shrugged. “Josie doesn’t know her way around here. She might get lost.” He ran after Jack, calling over his shoulder, “You tell Mom.”
Henry scowled. He was often put in the position of breaking bad news to one or the other of his parents, because Simon considered it beneath him to relay information and Jack couldn’t be relied upon to get the message right. Henry yanked open the sliding glass door and yelled in the vague direction of his mother’s study, “Mom, Josie ran away and we’re going after her!” He slammed the door to her faint, “You boys stay close to the house.”
Henry crossed the yard, then trotted up the rough slope of the foothills. Giant saguaro cactuses rose from the sandy ground, their prickly arms held upright, like soldiers saluting. The reddish brown peaks and bluffs of Superstition Mountain loomed in the distance. Henry could see Simon and Jack—and Josie far ahead, a black streak against the light earth. Where was she going? That was the thing about Josie. You never knew what she was thinking. Sometimes when Henry stroked her head, she’d purr with lazy pleasure and then, a minute later, hiss and bat his hand with her claws.
He caught up with his brothers, who’d stopped running. June in Arizona was fiercely hot, not like Illinois. At least there was a wind today … even if it blew dry dust in their faces. Simon and Jack were yelling for Josie, but Henry couldn’t see her anywhere. She never came when they called anyway.
“Where’d she go?” Henry asked, squinting into the hills, past the spiked grasses and bright yellow clumps of wildflowers. The strong sun made crisp shadows on the ground.
“She climbed over those rocks.” Simon ran his hand through his hair till it stood up even more. The boys gathered in an uncertain huddle, staring at Superstition Mountain.
They all knew Superstition Mountain was off-limits. But it wasn’t clear why. Their mom had said something about mountain lions and rattlesnakes. Their dad just said they could get lost.
Jack scrambled on top of a boulder. “I see her!” he said. “She’s way up there. Come on!”
Text copyright © 2011 by Elise Broach
Illustrations copyright © 2011 by Antonio Javier Caparo