THE SURPRISE IN THE BACKPACK
“CAREFUL! She might hear you.”
Henry glanced at his open bedroom door, but there was no sign of their mother lurking in the hallway. He and his brothers were clustered in front of the closet, where Delilah’s neon pink backpack had been stowed for two entire weeks, untouched.
How he’d managed to accomplish that still astonished Henry. Simon and Jack were dying to see what he and Delilah had found on Superstition Mountain, and Henry was dying to show it to them. But after the hullabaloo of their adventure—their forbidden trip up the mountain to retrieve the three skulls on the ledge in the canyon; Delilah falling and breaking her leg; Henry staying behind with her while Simon and Jack went for help; finding the ancient saddlebag with the map and pouch of coins, the mysterious gunshot, and Henry’s discovery of a small, secret canyon—they had to be extra careful not to arouse the suspicion of their parents. Officially, they were grounded for two weeks … which meant there was no escaping Mrs. Barker’s watchful eye. Simon pointed out that while it was not a particularly imaginative punishment for flouting the warning to stay off the mountain, it wasn’t an unreasonable one either. Henry was just glad their parents hadn’t said a month.
Anyway, the timing was good, since Delilah’s mother was sufficiently unnerved by Delilah’s injury to have whisked her away to her grandparents’ condo complex in Tucson, which, according to Delilah, couldn’t have been more safe or boring. She and Henry had talked on the phone twice since she left. “Don’t show Simon and Jack what we found in the saddlebag,” she’d begged. “I want to be there. Can’t you wait till I get back?”
So despite the impatient demands of his brothers, Henry had promised to save the backpack’s revelations for Delilah’s return. And now here it was Monday afternoon. Delilah was home again, off crutches, in a new walking cast, and coming over momentarily. And, hooray! They weren’t grounded anymore.
“But can’t you just show us the coins?” Jack complained, more softly this time. “You said they’re just like the ones Uncle Hank collected in his coin box. Delilah won’t care if you do that.”
Hank Cormody, for whom Henry was named, had been their father’s favorite uncle—a cattle-wrangling, gambling, hard-living former U.S. Cavalry scout with a taste for adventure that Henry longed to find an echo of in himself. The Barkers had inherited his house here in the strange little town of Superstition, Arizona, a few months ago, when Uncle Hank died after a very long and eventful life.
Jack leaned forward on his knees, tugging the backpack out from the closet’s morass of shoes, board games, and balls. Jack was six, but he was almost as big as Henry, who was ten, and far bolder. Simon was eleven, full of interesting ideas, and given to concocting schemes and issuing orders. Henry was the imaginative, bookish one. He got along with everybody and liked to use big words (though not always exactly the right way).
“No, Jack,” Henry repeated. “I promised Delilah.”
Jack groaned and turned to Simon for support, but luckily, since Henry had been the one to carry the backpack down the mountain, even Simon seemed willing to defer to him.
“We can wait,” Simon said. “She’ll be here any minute.”
So they sat on the floor of Henry’s room, with the sun streaming through the window and a feeling gathering in the air of something about to happen. The craggy bluffs and peaks of Superstition Mountain huddled ominously right outside.
Just then they heard the doorbell and, a moment later, their mother’s voice, welcoming Delilah into the house. “Oh, honey! Look at your leg. How are you doing? Are you getting used to walking with the cast?”
Henry jumped up and ran to the bedroom door. “We’re back here!” he called. Delilah appeared, clunking unevenly on her white cast, brown braids slapping her shoulders. Henry, who hadn’t seen her since that strange, scary night in the canyon, felt suddenly shy. But Delilah thumped eagerly into the bedroom, grinning at all of them. “Hey,” she said.
“Wow!” Jack stared at her cast. “Cool!” He knocked on it with his fist.
“Jack,” Simon said, “her leg’s broken! Don’t pound on it.”
“That’s okay,” Delilah said. “I can’t feel anything.”
“It doesn’t hurt?” Henry asked. He thought of Delilah cringing in pain on the canyon floor, her bruised, cut leg propped awkwardly in front of her.
“Nope,” Delilah answered cheerfully. “It’s like walking around on a block of wood.”
“Like a pirate!” Henry exclaimed. “A peg-leg pirate. Like in Peter Pan.” Henry remembered books he had read as vividly as if he had lived through them, as if their characters and events had been part of his real life.
“Yeah, like that,” Delilah agreed. “Except I can’t take it off and bonk people over the head with it.”
Jack grabbed a handful of markers from Henry’s desk drawer and squatted next to Delilah’s cast. “Can we draw on it?”
Henry noticed that, unlike the casts of kids at school, this one wasn’t covered in colorful cartoons and flowers and messages. It had a few shaky cursive signatures running across it and one “Get well soon!” That was it.
“Sure,” Delilah said. She sat down and propped the cast in front of them. “My grandparents signed it, and some of the old people they play cards with, but they just wrote regular stuff.”
Jack eagerly set to work, brandishing a blue marker as if it were a spear. Simon rolled his eyes. “Don’t draw something dumb, Jack,” he said, but Henry could tell he wanted to write on the cast too.
Delilah held her foot still while Jack printed his name in crooked letters and drew big arrows around it.
“What are the arrows for?” Simon asked.
“They make it look good,” Jack replied. “Like my name is FLYING.”
Simon smirked and proceeded to sign his name boldly in black. He drew a skull and crossbones next to it.
“Ha!” Delilah said. “Like the skulls in the canyon.”
Henry sighed. Why didn’t he think of that? Simon always had the best ideas. Henry wrote his name carefully in green, then made a neat paw print for Josie.
Delilah smiled. “Aw … Josie. Where is she?”
“Probably outside,” Henry said, “hunting something.” Josie had managed to catch a ground squirrel last week and had carried its tiny carcass to the back deck in triumph, held gingerly in her mouth the way she transported all her most prized possessions, from squeaky cat toys to the crunched wads of paper she liked to pilfer from the wastebasket. She’d set the dead squirrel proudly in front of the sliding glass doors for all to see. “Ugh!” their father had protested at the time. “That puts me off my dinner.” Their mother had calmly scooped it up and dumped it in the garbage can. “Cats are predators. She’s just following her natural instincts,” she said. Now, in the early mornings and evenings, they often saw Josie stalking across the yard, clearly hoping for a repeat of her good fortune.
“Okay, okay,” Simon said impatiently, gathering the markers and tossing them back into the desk drawer. “Can we finally look in the backpack? I want to see the coins and this map you’ve been telling us about. We’ve been waiting forever.”
“You really didn’t show them?” Delilah asked Henry in surprise.
Henry blinked. “I told you I wouldn’t.”
“I know, but I figured you were just saying that to make me feel better.” Delilah pulled her backpack smugly into her lap. “Good! Now we can all look at them together.”
Jack bounced on his knees. “Show us! Show us!”
“Keep it down,” Simon warned. “Mom’ll come.” He quietly closed the bedroom door.
Henry looked at Delilah. “Now?”
She nodded, patting the pockets until she located the one where Henry had placed the map and coin pouch that they’d found two weeks ago in the old leather saddlebag on the canyon floor.
Carefully, she took out the small brown sack with the coins in it. She cupped it in her palm for a moment, then passed it to Henry. “You do it,” she said.
The pouch felt heavy and lumpy in Henry’s hand. He untied the rawhide string and tugged open the fragile neck of the sack, sending a shower of dust and leather fragments onto the stretch of carpet between them.
“That looks OLD,” Jack commented.
Henry reached in and pinched a coin between his fingers. Its surface was cold to the touch. He drew it from inside the bag.
Simon took it from him and scrutinized it in the sunlight. “Look … it is the same. Just like the ones from Uncle Hank’s coin collection.”
“It has the guy with the long hair and the girly ribbon!” Jack crowed. He grabbed the pouch from Henry and turned it upside down, shaking it, “Let’s see how many coins there are.”
Coin after coin tumbled out, dark with age. They clinked softly against one another as they landed in the middle of the carpet.
“Jack, careful,” Henry told him. “They’re so old they’re … decrepit.” He was just appreciating the sound of that fancy word leaving his mouth when he froze.
“Oh!” Delilah gasped.
There in the jumble of ancient coins was something that didn’t look like a coin at all.
Something small and jagged, the size of a berry.
Something that glinted in the sunlight.
Even Jack was completely silent, his eyes huge.
“Hey…” Simon picked it up, and Henry thought it almost seemed to glow.
“Is that…?” Delilah whispered.
Henry stared in amazement.
Text copyright © 2012 by Elise Broach