Her lip trembled when she saw the footprints in the
soft ground of the chicken yard. Her hand flew to her mouth
to stop herself from crying out, but eleven-year old Penelope
Andrews had to admit to herself that she was badly
frightened. There it was, no mistaking the signs this time:
three footprints, long and narrow. No animal made those
signs as he prowled around looking for a meal. She followed
the blurred prints with her eyes to the fence, noticing the mud
on the lower rail. Hints of disturbed ground-cover began on
the other side and disappeared into the woods. Were they
really footprints, she asked herself? And if they were, did
they have to belong to a stranger? Maybe her father had
walked over to the fence for a look at something earlier in the
She squinted her eyes and tried to peer beyond the
rain-darkened trees, but all was still and quiet. Maybe too
quiet. She watched and listened for a while, hearing only her
own breathing and nothing else except the faint rustle of wet
leaves and the sighing of an early morning breeze coming off
the mountain. To be honest, Penny felt a bit disappointed;
she’d hoped for a little excitement in her dull life and the
discovery of strange footprints near the hen house sounded
like it had the makings for some dramatic happenings. She
shrugged and turned toward the barn.
As Penny was walking away the woods erupted
behind her. Something big crashed through the brush, making
branches snap and the ground shudder. She spun around so
quickly that an egg flew out of her basket. But the noise
ended as suddenly as it had begun. An aspen quaked, a few
leaves fluttered to earth; the forest, heavy with old growth
timber, gave up no more clues. Penny could hear only her
own blood pumping hard and the rain splattering on her
Penny stood with her eyes wide and her heart tripping
over itself. What was it? She could imagine eyes looking out
at her from the gloomy woods, and heavy breathing.
Penelope turned cold and shivered. She walked abruptly into
Inside, the light was on and the air smelled of sweet
hay and warm, moist animals. The horses nickered a soft
greeting, causing the man to look up from milking
Esmeralda. The dog next to him thumped its tail on the wood
"Got a problem outside? You look like you've seen a
"No... it’s just that the noise startled me."
"Which noise?" He worked calmly on, half smiling at
the streams of milk tinkling into the shiny pail.
"Didn't you hear that crashing around in the woods?"
"Can’t say that I did," her father said, "I can’t hear
anything much from inside this old barn when the rain’s
hitting the tin roof. What was making the noise you heard?”
He was looking up at her, a quizzical look on his face,
as he ran his fingers down the cow’s teats, the muscles
bunching and jumping in his forearms.
“I don’t rightly know. I didn’t see anything.”
“Well, don't let your imagination run wild, girl. Even
a small animal can make an awful racket if it’s running fast in
heavy brush. You probably scared up some critter."
Her fear seemed silly now in this familiar warmth,
near the security of this calm, confident man. So she said
nothing about the footprints. Instead, she went to the house
for a shower and a change of clothes. The family talked about
the homestead chores over breakfast and planned to start the
garden on the weekend. Penny often pretended that she liked
doing work around the homestead – after all, she was the
only child her parents had and they deserved to think that she
liked their kind of life as much as they did – but she didn’t
have to fake it about gardening. She loved planting seeds and
watching the plants grow. And she really loved tomatoes, fat
and juicy and fresh from the vine.
Peter Andrews drove his daughter Penny to school
where there were happenings more important than obscure
noises in the mist and vague outlines in the mud. At least her
sixth-grade teachers thought so. Penny might have disagreed
if she'd had time to think about it, but by lunchtime she was
talking with her friends in the cafeteria was about the new
gym teacher and the upcoming vacation. She let the prospect
of an investigation about the mysterious visitor to her farm
drift from her mind. She knew she’d be able to recall it at any
time and, more importantly, she didn’t have any sort of bad
feeling about the footprints. Even though the noise in the
wood had scared her, she was more curious than worried.
Penny Andrews had a flair for detecting some events
that were about to happen. Most times it was just a feeling
she got, good or bad. Her mother called it her gift; Penny
wasn’t sure about that, but she was sure that she wasn’t
feeling anything now.
It wasn't until she was walking back home under gray
afternoon skies that the reality of her discovery began to
dawn on Penelope. The forest she was passing surrounded
the little homestead where she lived with her folks and their
retriever, Campy. They had borrowed the money to buy the
ten cleared acres and barn nearly three years ago, in 1978,
when Penny still wore her dark hair in braids. They'd lived in
Ryan’s Gap, a village in the western North Carolina hill
country, for another full year while her mother and father
built the house after work and on days off.
That golden summer day when they had finally
moved in was still the highlight of Penny's young life. She
had helped repair the barn and build the coop with all the
energy of her youth. Now she loved the place dearly. Her
family never seemed to have any extra money from all their
hard work. Penny thrived on the life, though, despite the fact
that she’d rather loaf around more often than homesteading
permitted. Still, any potential threat to her way of life had to
be taken seriously.
She studied the woods as she walked along the dirt
road. It was a thick and wild place, hundreds of acres deep. It
was inconceivable that anyone would try to travel through it
or live in it, especially at this time of year, early spring, when
the nights were still cold. But someone, or something, had
walked on their land last night or early this morning. Even
though the rain had blurred the edges of the prints, they were
very obviously humanoid in shape. She had seen them near
the chicken coop. The chickens were housed on the back
perimeter of the property, as far as possible from the road.
The only tracks Penny had seen were heading from the
chicken yard into the woods. All the chickens and the rooster
were accounted for, but of course, she had no idea of exactly
how many eggs were laid by the flock. That number could
vary by as many as five from day to day. There were no signs
near the road that anyone had come or gone. If someone, or
some thing, had raided the Andrews chicken coop last night,
it had come from the forest. She hurried home to change,
determined to scout out the area before dinner. She burst into
the house, flung her backpack down in the hall and sang out
“hey” to her mother.
“And hey to you, girl. What’s the rush, Penny? You
full of energy now that school’s out?”
“Yes, ma’am. I got an idea to have me a little
“I’m afraid that may have to wait a while.”
Her mother was smiling as she spoke, but she was
also covered with flour up to her elbows. It was baking day,
and Loretta Andrews had other plans for her daughter. Penny
muttered under her breath - but not too loudly - and hauled
her book bag upstairs. Five minutes later, she was back down
in the kitchen cutting butter into flour instead of tracking her
unknown egg thief. The early darkness of March had slipped
over the hills and was edging down to the flatland of their
farm by the time the bread and pie were put in the oven.
Penny decided to postpone her excursion into the forest until
The next day was Saturday. It dawned clear and
bright. John Eargle rode his pinto up the firebreak trail to the
high meadow and turned him loose to graze where the sun
had melted the thin patches of snow. He shouldered his rifle
and limped quietly into the woods. He'd been taking a deer
out of this country each spring and fall for nearly fifty years
now, so it didn't take him long to find a game trail and a
downwind thicket to hide in.
Old John sat like a stone for an hour and ten minutes.
His breathing and heart rate slowed and stayed that way until
he heard tentative footsteps approaching. He raised his gun
and his stiffened body, and waited silently. These wooded
hills up behind the Andrews' place were part of a government
forest preserve, left natural and inhabited only by wild
creatures. Hunting was strictly forbidden. This weathered old
woodsman didn't worry about hunting laws, though. He
figured that they weren't meant for a man like him. He lived
on wild berries, the eggs from his scraggly flock of semi-wild
chickens, and the crops he grew around his ancient cabin. A
successful hunt meant a roast dinner plus six months worth of
He followed the Indian tradition of explaining to the
prey why he had to take its life before he shot, and maybe
"I feel no affection for the sport of hunting, friend. I
do need my protein, though, and God seems to have
designated you to provide it this year. So, I have to take your
life. The least I can do is to make it quick. I will endeavor to
Eargle said all this in his mind, without issuing a
sound from his hideaway. He could not yet see what was
moving through the woods. But if it was not a deer, then
what could it possibly be? It was still a tad early for bears to
be up and about, and no other wild critters around here were
as big as this one sounded to be. Of course, a man might be
making this kind of noise, but no people walked around in
the forest this time of year either – and none he knew was as
careful as this critter seemed to be.
It stopped and started, either nervous or browsing.
The needles of the pine trees here kept the early daylight
diffused. Also, the predominant color on the forest floor was
brown, rotting limbs and pine straw, so a deer could expect a
good deal of natural camouflage. But old John's distant
vision was still good and his aim steady. And he stood very
It was a large animal he was hearing, no doubt about
that. It was moving very close, almost as if it were unafraid.
John Eargle would see his prey in a second or two. He was
certain that it was a deer.
Suddenly it showed. A buck, not quite big enough to
rule a herd yet too much of a competitor to live peacefully
with the leader. He had been chased off by that leader and
was now forced to roam alone until he acquired the strength
and wisdom to challenge the leadership. A loner. The ideal
deer to kill since he wasn't part of a family unit.
John felt a twinge of sympathy, or maybe it was
understanding, for he himself was a lone man without a
family. But he squeezed the trigger and the big gun roared
and jumped against his shoulder. The deer staggered and
made to run. It was numbed from the shock of the lead that
had thudded into its chest and was afraid for a few seconds.
Then it collapsed as its legs gave out and was dead by the
time John walked up to him. The woods were unnaturally
quiet after the crash of the gunshot.
The old hunter propped his rifle against a tree and
gutted the deer with a long knife, working quickly without
seeming to hurry. The forest stayed silent. He fashioned a
harness out of a rope he carried tied around his waist and
began to slowly drag the carcass out to the meadow where
the painted horse waited, using his own body like a draft
mule until he could tie the harness to the horse. He struggled
along for a few minutes, stopped when he remembered his
gun leaning on a tree. Shaking his head at his own
forgetfulness, he stepped out of the harness and plodded back
to the scene of the shoot. He stopped suddenly and
straightened. He was staring at the tree where he had left his
rifle; something was terribly wrong. The gun was gone.
About the Author:
Paul A. Barra is a decorated war veteran, a teacher and a freelance journalist. He previously was a reporter for local newspapers and won numerous awards from the South Carolina Press Association. He was the senior staff writer for the Diocese of Charleston and won numerous awards from the Catholic Press Association, a national organization. Earlier publications include four independent science readers (Houghton Mifflin), a novel (“Crimson Ring,” Eagle Press) and a nonfiction book about the formation and success of a Catholic high school, despite diocesan opposition (“St. Joe’s Remarkable Journey,” Tumblar House). He is under contract for the publication of a historical novel called “Murder in the Charleston Cathedral.”(Chesterton Press).
His latest book is the children’s/middle grade novel, The Secret of Maggie’s Swamp.
Visit Paul’s website at www.paulbarra.com.
About the Book:
In this middle-grade mystery-adventure, a twelve-year-old girl discovers a grave injustice in the 1980s South when a neighbor is convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Penny must find the courage to use her unique gift – her uncanny ability to foresee the future – to thwart a crazed desperado and find a treasure that will prove her neighbor’s innocence.
Poor Penelope Andrews. Her neighbor is being hunted, her friend is comatose after encountering a rogue alligator in a black-water swamp, and her mother has formed the wild impression that Penny has some sort of special gift from God! What else could go wrong? Oh yes: the FBI wants to speak with her. And, a dangerous criminal is stalking her.
The Secret of Maggie’s Swamp tells the story of young Penny and the courage she shows in dealing with these dynamic issues.
It is an exciting read for children ages 8 through 12. It’s a pro-family story that will absorb young readers. Available in bookstores, on Amazon.com and from Brownridge Publishing.
The Secret of Maggie’s Swamp Tour Page: