Authors: Zilpha Keatley Snyder
The Ghosts of Rathburn Park
E WAS LOST. MATTHEW
Hamilton, known as Matt or the Hamster, was hopelessly lost in an endless forest. And, as usual, it was all his own fault.
This particular disaster was his own fault because it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been doing something he’d thought he’d pretty much outgrown and had promised to quit doing. Promised himself, that is. It wasn’t the kind of thing you would promise your folks not to do anymore, because most of the time nobody knew he was doing it, at least not exactly. What the family thought was…Well, the way his brother, Justin, always put it was “The Hamster is weirding out again.”
Of course, if you really were looking to blame it on something else, you might say the forest itself was partly to blame. The thing was, it was the kind of forest that you read about and see fantastic pictures of, but that, if you were from a place like Six Palms, you’d never seen up close and personal. Back home in Six Palms, a hike might take you to where you could see a few scrawny palm trees and a lot of prickly cactus, but here in a place called Rathburn Park, enormous trees marched away into the distance in every direction like endless armies of green giants. And far above, row after row of needle-fringed fingers pointed toward a faraway blue sky. A heroic forest every bit as wild and mysterious as…When Matt thought back over historic forests he’d read about and imagined, what immediately came to mind was—
That’s what had done it. Remembering Sherwood had started Matt thinking that the forest all around him must be as incredibly dense and mysterious as Sherwood. Mysterious, that is, to everyone except Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
Robin Hood had been one of Matt’s favorite historical heroes back in Six Palms, and this certainly wasn’t the first time he’d done the Robin Hood thing, but somehow sagebrush and cactus hadn’t been nearly as inspiring. This time there was not only this real, honest-to-God forest, but also a sturdy walking stick that he’d just happened to pick up near the beginning of the trail. A walking stick that was almost as big and strong as—a quarterstaff, maybe.
So there he’d been, leaning on his walking stick/quarterstaff while letting his mind surf back over all the fascinating stuff he’d read about Robin Hood and seen in movies and on TV About a guy who’d robbed rich bad guys and helped poor people, and who knew every inch of an enormous forest the way an ordinary person would know his own backyard.
Remembering the quarterstaff fight with Little John, Matt had twirled his stick and sliced the air once or twice, and one thing had led to another. Before long, although he’d promised himself to stop doing that kind of thing, he began to morph into—Robin himself. So there he was, a tall, good-looking guy, dressed in Lincoln green, running down the rough trail with a speedy, surefooted stride. As he ran, he paused only long enough to whistle a signal to his Merry Men, or to listen, hand cupped to ear, for the approach of the evil King John and his dangerous gang of knights.
Somewhere along the way the trail rose, wound along the side of a hill, and then dropped again, crisscrossing a network of smaller pathways. Pathways worn into the forest floor by deer, perhaps? Or packs of bloodthirsty, ravenous wolves? As Robin picked up his pace, his eyes searched the underbrush for the gleam of white fangs.
Flecks of light filtering down through the branches looked almost like snow. And suddenly wolves were everywhere. Robin was forced to stop again and again to fight off their attacks with his trusty quarterstaff. He swung the heavy staff fiercely and the wolves yelped and cringed before they faded back into the snow-covered underbrush.
As he ran on, the wolves and the snow were followed by an even more dangerous attack. Warned by the distant thud of hooves, Robin hid beside the trail, his longbow ready. As King John’s men appeared, he released arrow after arrow and then, as the few remaining knights turned and fled, he sped on.
But in the end it was just Matt again who staggered to a stop, his imagination as exhausted as his muscles. Just eleven-year-old Matthew Hamilton, propping himself up with a stick as he struggled to catch his breath. The sturdy walking stick that had been a quarterstaff and then a longbow was once again nothing more than a prop to lean on.
But at that particular moment, a prop was exactly what Matt needed. As he gasped for air, he told himself he’d overdone it for sure this time. He’d really let his imagination run away with him. He grimaced again as he realized that his runaway imagination had somehow managed to cover up some unpleasant realities, like a blistered heel, aching calf muscles and—he swallowed painfully—a tongue-shriveling thirst. Turning back the way he’d come, he began to retrace his steps.
He moved more slowly then, glancing from side to side as he looked for something familiar that would prove that he really was heading back the way he’d come. But one tree trunk looked pretty much like the next, and a vine-covered stump was only one of many vine-covered stumps.
He wasn’t lost, he told himself. Not really. How could he be, while he was still on the path he’d been following since he’d left the parking lot? On the same path—or not? It was a trail, all right, but could it be a different one? One that started somewhere else and led to who-knows-where?
The trail climbed again, and Matt began to notice other, narrower pathways intersecting it from time to time. What if he’d taken the wrong turn somewhere along the way? Maybe that was why the trail he’d been following had never passed the old Rathburn mansion, the way the guy in the parking lot had said it would. Which might mean—and this was a pretty scary idea—that he had been off course for a long time.
As the awful truth began to sink in, Matt’s forward progress slowed and finally stopped altogether. Leaning on his stick, he shook his head in disgust. He really was lost, and it was his own fault—nobody else’s. He grinned ruefully, imagining what Justin would say, or even his sister, Courtney. It was easy to guess what anyone in the family would say if Matt tried to blame it on Robin Hood. No way. Robin was long gone and, as always, Matthew Hamilton was on his own. On his own in another embarrassing, and this time maybe even dangerous, mess. And he’d done it on what was supposed to have been a really important day for the whole Hamilton family. A day when Gerald Hamilton, Matt’s dad, was being introduced to all the important citizens of Timber City at their especially historic, traditional Fourth of July picnic.
IGHT THEN, WHILE HE
was still waiting to catch his breath and decide what to do next, Matt couldn’t help reminding himself about the importance of this particular day, and this particular picnic. He tried not to, but it wasn’t an easy thing to forget.
The Timber City Morning Star,
the town’s Fourth of July picnic had been going on since 1929, and it had always been famous for its great food, as well as for all the important people who attended. People like lawyers and doctors and politicians and businesspeople and members of the city council. Important people who were the ones, according to Mom, who had decided to hire Dad as their new city manager.
“But in July. A picnic lunch for stuffed-shirt types in the middle of July?” Justin had asked Mom that morning at breakfast. “Why not in some nice air-conditioned restaurant?”
Mom had laughed. “Because, as I understand it, it’s an old tradition that celebrates the founding of Timber City after the original town burned down and was rebuilt in its present location. Besides,” she went on, “it probably won’t be terribly hot. You’re forgetting we’re not living in Six Palms anymore.”
“As if,” Justin had said. “That particular fact doesn’t happen to be something I’m going to forget anytime soon.” Justin, who was sixteen and about to be a junior in high school, and who had been on at least a half dozen All-Star teams back in Six Palms, wasn’t a bit happy about having had to move to Timber City, and he didn’t care who knew it. Giving Mom his famous sarcastic sneer, he went on, “How about letting me stay home?”
“That’s enough of that kind of talk, young man,” Mom had said, and then she’d gone on to lecture Justin and Courtney, and Matt, too, on how the picnic was the community’s first chance to get a look at the new city manager’s family, and how important it was for all of them to make a good impression.
Dad had put in his two cents then, going on about how this picnic was held in an area that had a very unusual history, which he was sure they would all find very interesting. “Especially you, Matt,” Dad had said. “Sounds like it’s right up your alley. And, Justin, I hear that the food’s great and there’s always a baseball game or two. That ought to make you happy.”
Justin had muttered, “Sure. Right,” and sulked out of the room, but when they were getting into the car, Matt noticed that he did have his mitt buckled to the back of his belt.
It turned out that Rathburn Park was up a narrow valley only a short drive from the part of Timber City where the Hamiltons were living. Matt hadn’t seen much of the scenery on the way there, however, because he was, as usual, stuffed into the middle of the backseat between Justin and Courtney. But from what Mom and Dad and Courtney were saying, it was pretty spectacular country, with lots of big trees.
“Just look at that,” Mom kept saying. “Look at those enormous trees. And oh, look, kids, a deer.”
“Oh, a deer!” Courtney squealed. “I see it. I see it.” Matt didn’t say much because he didn’t get to see much of what was being commented on. And Justin, who was still sulking, didn’t say anything at all.
And then they were there, at a shady park area with lots of barbecue pits and picnic tables and, off to one side, a nice, grassy baseball diamond. A pretty ordinary park as far as Matt could see, except for the size of the trees and the way they absolutely covered the hills that rose up on each side of the park.
While the food was being unloaded and the barbecue pits fired up, Matt had looked at all the cars in the parking lot. Not that he was all that interested in cars, but Justin was, and for once he actually let Matt tag along with him and even talked to him some. Justin pointed out the Mercedes and Jaguars and even an Alfa Romeo and told Matt a lot of important stuff about which ones were most expensive and which ones he was planning to buy someday.
Matt liked it because…Well, for a while there, it was almost the way it used to be when Justin wasn’t so busy being a teenager and a high school jock. Back then Justin and Matt used to spend quite a bit of time together, even though Justin was five years older and just naturally a lot better at everything important.
They were still in the parking lot when they ran into this other teenage guy. Justin, who never had any trouble talking to perfect strangers as long as they weren’t adults, started the conversation. The guy, who looked to be about Justin’s age, or maybe a little older, had spiky hair and pierced eyebrows.
Matt went on tagging along when Justin walked over to where the kid with the eyebrow rings was draped over the hood of a beat-up truck. “Yo,” Justin said, and then, “Guess you got drafted too. Like, eat at the picnic, man, or you won’t eat for a week?”
The guy raised a gold-ringed eyebrow and grinned. “Nah,” he said. “I came to this one, like, under my own power.” He patted the hood of the pickup truck. “The nosh at this bash is to die for. Like T-bones and ribs instead of hamburgers and rubber chicken. Picnics are real big around here and most of them are the pits, but this one is top-of-the-line, foodwise.”