Last week we announced that Ben Woodard’s A Stairway To Danger (A Shakertown Adventure) is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:
Now we’re back to offer a free Kids Corner excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!
by Ben Woodard
1923. An eyeless body. A menacing stranger. And a tangled mystery.
If Clive Cussler and Lee Child wrote a teen book featuring a deadly gang, resourceful boys, and nonstop excitement it would be A STAIRWAY TO DANGER.
Fourteen-year-old Tom is learning farm life from his older cousin, Will, when they stumble on a deserted barge—or is it? The boys smell a mystery and snoop around, but what they find is bigger and more dangerous than anything they could have imagined.
A STAIRWAY TO DANGER is a fun, page-turning thriller with a dark side.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Will used his boot to roll the body over. An arm flopped in the water and the face pointed directly at Tom. A face with no eyes. Tom sucked in a breath and staggered back. He slumped to his knees staring at the ground.
“Fish ate em,” Will said, toeing the body.
Tom raised his eyes to see Will studying him, his head cocked. Tom turned away. His stomach rolled like the back of a hay wagon, and the taste of bile filled his mouth. His breath came in short gasps as his mind went back to that narrow staircase four years ago. He felt those walls closing in again. Sweat rolled down the nape of his neck. He bent over, gagged, and threw up. Not just because of the eyeless body. He wanted to empty out all his guilt and self-loathing onto the rocky hillside.
“Never seen a dead body before, huh?”
Tom glared. “No. Not that.”
A flash of remembrance crossed Will’s face. His head dropped and he turned back to the body. “You reckon that’s the Deputy?” Will asked. “He’s been missing a couple of days. We better tell the Sheriff.”
Tom didn’t answer. His only thought was running. Running and not stopping. Running north until he collapsed somewhere on the way to Cincinnati. He had to get away. And not later. Now.
Will slipped his arm under Tom’s armpit and hefted him up like a sack of potatoes. “Let’s get outta here. I’m getting kinda sick myself. We’ll follow the river back. That’s the quickest way.”
The yellow sky darkened to purple as they edged around the body and moved along the bank back toward Shakertown. Tom looked away from the bloated corpse and tried not to breathe. The stench filled the night air suffocating the musty smells of the river and forest. Will first said the smell was a dead cow until they spotted the body. Tom didn’t recognize the Deputy, but he recognized death. He had hoped coming to the farm would help him forget what happened at Grandfather’s. But reminders were everywhere.
This wasn’t what Tom had expected to find. They were searching for Shaker gold. Ever since Will mentioned the story of the Shakers hiding their gold during the Civil War, Tom had pestered him to hunt for it. They had started down the creek after finishing their farm chores hoping to be home before dark. But caves and crevasses took time to search and now it would be after ten before they reached Shakertown. Then they’d have to find somebody in the village with a phone to call the Sheriff. Mr. Glancy at the corner store had one, and Tom’s uncle did, but his house was further away. Few people in the small village needed, or wanted a telephone.
Will interrupted his thoughts. “What’s on your mind, little cuz? The body or the gold?’
“Both. But seeing the body sure got to me. Could you tell what killed him?”
“Naw, I didn’t look that close. I only seen one other body. Feller fell off a barn roof. Nobody found him for half a day. He wasn’t eat up like this one, but he stunk bad. I had to help carry him to the wagon.”
“Forget bodies. I want to get that out of my mind. Talk about the gold,” Tom said.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Will said. “The story of Shaker gold has been around for years and lots of folks have searched for it. They say that the Shakers hid it during the Civil War so none of the armies could get it. Strange people, the Shakers, not marrying or nothing, but good businessmen and they made a bunch of money. Daddy said he and your daddy looked everywhere when they were boys. Nobody found nothing.”
“That don’t mean it ain’t here. You got ideas. Mostly crazy ones, but sometimes you’re right. If anybody could find the gold, you could.”
“I don’t know,” said Tom. “There’re no clues, no maps, nothing. And all the Shakers dead. Only stories left. Even if there is gold, why would the Shakers hide it this close to home?”
“No telling, but most of the old tales say it’s somewhere along Shawnee Run. Tonight was one of a dozen times I’ve walked it and I found nothing. But like I said, you spot stuff nobody else does.”
“Didn’t see anything. Only the mills. But the old one is just a bunch of stones and the new one is still used sometimes.”
“I thought about the old mill too. Dug around in it a bit, thinking there might have been a basement, but couldn’t find any way in. You’d have to get a steam shovel to dig out the rubble.”
They both got quiet again concentrating on their footing in the dark. Debris from the river and rocks from the palisade cliffs above littered the ground. Tom grunted and groaned as he climbed through fallen tree limbs and logs wiping the cobwebs off his face. Finally, the sound of water pouring over the lock dam reached them. Shaker Landing and the road to Shakertown were near. As they passed the lock, Tom noticed a large, dark shadow on the other side of the river.
“Is that the barge?” he asked.
“Must be. Ain’t seen it before. Heard people talking about it. Nobody seems to know if it was brought here or if it’s a derelict.”
“And nobody tried to find out?”
“Everybody ain’t as nosy as you.”
Tom chuckled. “Curious. Not nosy.”
“Whatever you want to call it.”
Tom stiffened. “Look,” he said. “A light.”
“On the barge. It’s gone now.”
“I didn’t see nothing.”
An icy chill wormed its way down Tom’s spine. “Will,” he said, “there’s something about that barge.”
“I…,” Tom hesitated.
Will grabbed his arm. “Spit it out. What did you see?”
“Only some kind of light, but it made me nervous. Don’t know why. Do you think that barge could have something to do with the Deputy’s death?”
“Huh? That’s crazy. Another one of your hunches?”
“Maybe. Standing here I got a cold feeling about it.”
“Most of the time you’re wrong.”
Tom bit his lip. “Probably this time too, but I’d like to find out why that rusty old thing is here.”
“Not much chance of that. We got too much farm work to do.”
Will brushed aside branches and moved again toward the Landing. They stopped as nearby bushes rustled. Too loud to be an animal, thought Tom. Will poked his shoulder and guided him behind a boulder. The two scrunched low and watched a silhouette emerge out of the murk in front of them. A huge man, heading downstream to the dam. Tom couldn’t see his face as he passed them, but got a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach as the dark figure lumbered by. They waited until they could no longer hear a noise above the sound of the dam, and scrambled away from the man. Will led, hustling through the debris.
“Who do you think that was?” Tom asked panting.
Will stopped and let out a soft whistle. “Never seen anybody that big around here. He made me nervous. Probably up to no good.”
Tom exhaled softly. “Scared me too. I guess the Deputy’s body spooked me even worse than I thought. But you felt something weird too, huh?”
“Sure did. I’m just glad he didn’t see us.”
“You think that giant had something to do with the Deputy’s death?” asked Tom.
“I don’t know. Why would you say that? First the barge, and now this guy. Forget it. It was just an accident.”
“You’re right, but there’s lots of strangers around. Something’s happening.”
“A new business, Daddy said. He didn’t know what.”
“Why start a business in this backwater?” asked Tom.
“Why not. I’ve told you before, Shakertown’s not a bad place. You ain’t been here long. Give it a chance. And, think about it, we have the river and the railroad. The Shakers thought it was a great place for their business.”
“See what it got them. They’re all gone. Your family owns a big part of their old land.”
“What do you mean, your family? It’s yours, too, you know.”
Tom was quiet. “Yeah,” he said softly. But it didn’t feel like it. Only Will seemed like family. Will’s father, Uncle Davis hardly spoke to him, and he never saw Aunt May. In the two months he’d been on the farm, he and Will had worked every day after school and spent their nights in the attic of the West Lot house. And unless he could get a hold of a little money, that was going to be his life. Will liked it. He didn’t.
“Here’s the road,” said Will. “Let’s get outta here before that guy comes back.”
They left the river bank and started up the hillside. Tom glanced toward the dark shadow of the barge. A light blinked. The chill in his bones returned. He didn’t say anything to Will, but something was going on there. Something bad. And he was planning to find out what.
Barely able to keep his eyes open, Tom yawned as he shuffled along the next afternoon. The sun was still high, but Uncle Davis let the boys off work early.
After reaching town the night before, they had pounded on the door of the Glancy General Store and woke Mr. Glancy who lived in the back. The storekeeper called the Sheriff for them. The Sheriff then rounded up some men to go get the body.
The lawman stayed at the store past midnight asking the boys questions. Tom was surprised by the way the Sheriff looked. He had seen the officer in Nicholasville a year or so before. The man looked different now—worse. Crows feet framed his eyes and his lips were set in a tight grimace. And he picked at his fingernails while talking. Neither boy had mentioned the mysterious stranger. Tom wasn’t completely sure why they didn’t tell the Sheriff. He had a feeling the man wouldn’t believe them.
Tom jerked wide awake as the two cut across the field behind Shakertown towards their house. Laughter and yelling in the village grabbed his attention. A husky boy in mud-covered overalls was shoving an old Negro man while two other boys stood by laughing.
“Junior Baker is acting up again,” said Will.
“Why are they picking on that old man?”
“Because they can. Junior is a bully and a coward. Just like his dad Leon.”
“Come on, let’s stop them. We can handle those guys.”
“Nah, don’t get involved. Can’t go helping out a Negro against a white man no matter what he’s doing. People wouldn’t like it.”
As they watched, a redheaded whirlwind in a blue dress charged out of a nearby house and rushed up to the tall boy and jabbed her finger in the big kid’s chest.
“That’s Helen,” said Tom staring. He had seen her once before in the general store, but she hadn’t acted like this.
Will chuckled. “Yeah, Junior’s met his match now.”
The three boys backed away from the girl’s onslaught, and the elderly man limped down the street.
“Who was the old man?” asked Tom.
“Is that his first or last name?”
“I don’t know. Everybody just calls him Jefferson.”
“I’m glad Helen stopped them.”
Tom gawked at the girl, then noticed Will’s smirk. Tom’s ears reddened.
“Why don’t you ask her out?” said Will.
“Don’t give me that shit,” said Will. “I know you’re sweet on her. You look at her like a wide-eyed puppy staring at a steak bone.”
“Yeah, she’s pretty, but she doesn’t know who I am.”
“There’s a way to take care of that. Ask her out.”
“Haven’t got time. Your dad will be working me to death the next three months with school out. And I’ve got to do a good job.”
“Don’t worry, he ain’t gonna kick you out. He loves having another unpaid hand, but we got to figure out some fun things to do. He’ll let us off work on Sunday. Go visit her then.”
Tom shook his head.
“Well, it ain’t likely she’d go out with you anyway, since she’s always turning me down.”
Helen spotted them, turned and waved. They waved back, and she started toward them. Tom’s heart went to his throat.
Helen’s red face mirrored her hair and both her fists were clenched.
“That Junior Baker,” she said. “One of these days…”
“Gonna hurt him, are you?” Will grinned at her.
Her face got redder. “I didn’t see you doing anything.”
Will glanced down. “Daddy wouldn’t like it if I beat up Leon’s boy.”
Helen rolled her eyes.
“You know Tom, don’t you?” said Will. “He’s from Nicholasville and is living with me in the West Lot house and working on the farm. He’s a Wallace too.”
She smiled and nodded at Tom.
“Hey,” she said. “I just heard about Deputy Roland. You found him?”
“Yeah,” said Will. “We were hiking down Shawnee Run. He’d washed ashore there.”
“You were there too?” she said looking at Tom, her eyes wide.
Helen’s eyes teared. “Nell Roland is in my class.”
“Yeah,” said Will. “What a shame.”
The three stood lost in their thoughts as a flock of crows in a nearby tree squawked their complaints.
“So what are you two doing?”
“Just headin’ back to the house,” said Will. “Got the rest of the day off.”
Helen pointed to Tom, and said, “Does he speak?”
Tom’s face burned.
Will laughed. “He don’t get out much. But as far as I know he can talk.”
Tom scowled at Will. “Hi Helen,” he said.
She laughed. A friendly laugh.
“I think he’s just awed by your beauty,” said Will.
“You’re full of it, Will. I’m going home before I need hip boots to get out of here. Oh, did you know Daddy bought a new car? A brand new 1923 Dodge.”
“Wow,” said Will. “You think he’ll let me drive it?”
Helen shrugged. “Ask him. See you later.”
As she started away, Will said, “Hey Helen, you want to go down to Shaker Landing and look at the old barge with us?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Us, both of you? And why do you want to look at the barge?”
“We’re curious why it’s there. It was Tom’s idea.”
Tom tilted his head and stared at Will.
She gave Tom a smile he swore lit up the village. “I have to ask my mother first.”
“Your mother knows me,” said Will.
“That’s why I have to ask her,” she said with a wink to Tom.
The three ambled to Helen’s house where her mother pushed open the screen door and frowned at Helen’s request. “Dear, a lady doesn’t go off with two gentlemen.”
“Aw, mama, you know Will, and Tom is his cousin. And besides they’re not gentlemen.” She grinned.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said her mother sternly but with a twinkle in her eye.
“I knew your family, Tom. Your mother and father were fine people. I’m sorry for all the tragedy you’ve had.”
Tom swallowed, and he mumbled, “Thanks.”
Helen’s mother nodded and went back into the house.
“I need to change my clothes,” said Helen. “Just come back in a bit.”
As the boys walked away, Tom asked, “What was that all about?”
“We were trying to come up with something to do, and it just popped into my head. You wanted to see the old barge in daylight and now you get a chance to spend time with Helen. I knew you weren’t going to ask her yourself.”
“You lie darn good. Telling her it was my idea, but you didn’t do it for me, did you? You wanted to be with her.”
Will grinned. “I’ll take care of you, little cuz, but I don’t understand you. You act like you’ll try anything, but you’re afraid to talk to a girl?”
“Girls make me nervous.”
“Haven’t been around many of them, have you?”
“Not like Helen.”
Will laughed. “Yeah, that one grew up fast. And not only does she look good, but she’s sweet too. She won’t be able to resist me much longer.”
Tom snickered. “The eighth grade girls in town didn’t look, uh, that grown up.”
“That’s one healthy heifer. We raise em good here in Shakertown, but be a little more subtle. I thought your eyes were going to burn a hole in her dress.”
Tom shuffled his feet eyeing the ground.
“What’s the matter? Afraid she won’t look at you with me around?”
Will smacked Tom on the shoulder.
“Cut it out.” Tom drew back his fist.
“Whoa, I’m just kiddin’ you. What set you off?”
“Why’d she have to say that?” Tom said.
“Mrs Hardy, about my family.”
“She didn’t mean anything.”
Tom glared at Will and yanked open the door to the West Lot house.
The boys trudged up the three flights of stairs in the old Shaker-built house to their room under the eaves and pulled on clean work clothes. Tom dug out a brass spyglass his father had brought back from Cuba during the Spanish-American War. They told Aunt Bessie they’d be back in time for dinner.
They picked up Helen, and the three wandered down the gravel road toward Shaker Landing. Dark cumulus clouds rolled into the river valley from the West causing shadows to creep across the placid river. As they reached the river, Tom noticed a dead carp washed up on the bank, bleached white by the sun. His heart raced thinking of the Deputy’s body. Will was almost right. Even living in the graveyard with his grandfather, he had never seen a dead body—until that one Sunday morning. His stomach churned and he looked away from the fish.
The barge was anchored a quarter mile downstream from the landing but on the opposite side. A lockmaster’s house, now abandoned, sat beside the closed lock. The road to the house went past the barge, but the passageway had been blocked for some time due to landslides from the cliff above. Tom wondered about how the barge had appeared two months ago. Out of nowhere. And why was it there? Nobody seemed to know.
Tom eyed several abandoned houses along the dirt road. Others, having escaped high water damage, were still occupied. At least until the next flood. The Baker family lived in one, and Tom was glad to see Junior wasn’t around.
When the rough road ended, the three picked their way along the bank through the trees and briars until they got opposite the barge. A large flat rock overlooking the river provided them a perch to observe the barge. Turkey vultures circled in the cloud-splattered sky, and crappie drew circles in the water.
Tom slid the spyglass open and focused on the floating scow. Rust covered most of the metal hull, and the steering house tilted precariously. Just as he saw movement alongside the barge, a voice boomed behind them.
“What are you kids doing here?”
They spun around to see an immense man in dirty overalls and a floppy hat. A single gold tooth gleamed in the sunshine. He leveled a rifle at them.