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The Legend Beneath the Coal Bin
The Legend Beneath the Coal Bin
"Do you really expect me to believe that this is going to work?"
"That's what the book said." I grinned at my cousin, Mandy, as the four of us held the feather-covered rods out in front of us. "If the rods cross on their own then there's an Indian buried right where we're standing."
We inched further into the coal bin, small clouds of dust billowing before us as we shuffled across the floor, when suddenly the two rods crossed.
"Oh my God!" It was only supposed to be a joke to scare my sister and our younger cousin, but I never suspected that the legend I created would change our lives forever.
In the twelfth summer of my youth, stranded at my grandparents" house with nothing more to do than to play with the old wig in the attic, I devised a plan that I knew would surely scare the girls. Rifling through the dusty encyclopedias that lined the stairs, I settled upon the dark story of the Shawnee Indian, Tenskwatawa. In his day he was known as "The Prophet", a holy man who preached of the "Great Spirit" and condemned people of witchcraft, including an old woman that he slowly burned at the stake for four days. He was finally routed at Tippecanoe by future President, William Henry Harrison, but that's where my story changed. In my story, Tenskwatawa was brutally killed in the same small town that my grandparents lived. In my story, President William Henry Harrison died in office by the curse of Tenskwatawa.
With the help of Mark, the ten-year-old that lived next door, we crafted cryptic messages on remnants of old scrap paper and strategically placed them where the girls would discover them. We laughed in secret when my sister, Tammy, ran to us, panting, with the first scrawled note in her hand.
As the mystery deepened for Tammy and Mandy, we needed more information about the Indian Prophet than the encyclopedia could provide. Mark helped us with a raggedy leather-bound journal that he stumbled across at the library. The pages were ancient and crackled when we turned them, but they let us see through another's eyes the fire that Tenskwatawa brought with him. Near the back of the journal was the strange description of finding the buried body of a fallen tribesman. By taking two rods an arm's length long, each with six feathers attached to it, and holding them out from the body, the grave seeker patrols the area where he suspects the body to be. If the rods cross, the journal states a Shawnee Indian is buried there. Naturally, we told Tammy and Mandy that the body of Tenskwatawa was buried beneath our grandparents' basement and we were going to find him. I just hadn't suspected that I might actually be right.
I stopped dead in my tracks and stared open-mouthed at the rods but continued to play along. "Did the note say anything about being buried in the coal bin?"
Mandy trembled. "No, it just said underneath the basement."
Tammy frowned. "But I thought Indian burial grounds were supposed to have a lot of bodies. This is just one."
Mark quickly countered, "Maybe that means he was important and was buried in a special place."
Mandy began biting her nails. "Maybe it's Tenskwatawa."
Tammy scowled. "Maybe it's just some dumb guy that got lost in the woods."
"I know how we can find out," blurted Mark. Everyone stared at him, afraid of what he may actually suggest.
"We're not going to dig him up," Mandy stammered.
"No, the journal." Mark nodded his head in the direction of the floor above us where the book had been laid. "At the end of it is a ritual for raising the spirit of an Indian. It's supposed to send them on their way to the Great Spirit."
No one said anything. We all continued to simply stare at Mark, unable to fathom what would be involved with raising a restless spirit hundreds of years old. He elaborated, "We'll need the feathers from these rods, a handful of earth, and a drop of blood. I guess one of us could prick their finger with something. Then there are some words we're supposed to say. Won't this be so cool?"
Still, we just stared at Mark as if he were some sort of bizarre creature from another world. Suddenly, something fell against the far wall and we all jumped out of our shoes. Mandy crept towards the door and clung to the frame, ready to bolt to the safety of upstairs. Mark shot me a bewildered look as if he thought I had done something to create the noise. I shrugged and inched towards the wall to see what had fallen.
The replacement of the old coal furnace decades before I was born had left the coal bin destined to be a junk storage room. It was filled with broken sets of golf clubs, crumbling furniture covered with dust, and jars of something grandma had cooked up before the war. When I prodded through the golf clubs, something darted across the floor into an old bowling shoe and we all screamed.
"It's just a mouse," Tammy spat. "I'm outta here." She stormed away with Mandy right on her heels. Mark and I gave the coal bin one final look and we reluctantly trailed behind.
"Let's do it tonight," Mark insisted later that evening after dinner. "I'm sleeping over anyway. It's the perfect time."
"No way." I closed the door to the bedroom so we could discuss in secret. "We were only doing all of this for a few laughs."
"But what if it is Tenskwatawa?"
"Then we'd better leave him there. He wasn't exactly a nice guy."
Mark dropped the subject after that but something told me that he wasn't really done with the matter. In fact, as we went to bed that night, I could have sworn I saw him tuck the old journal under his pillow.
I rolled over in bed and groggily squinted at the clock. 3:02 A.M.
"Aw, who left the T.V. on?" I wearily called out into the darkness.
"You hear that, Mark? Mark?" I rolled back over and peered at the other bed where Mark was supposed to be sleeping. He wasn't there.
My mind started racing, trying to place the sound as the thumping became steadier, like the repetitious beat of a -- drum!
Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump.
It was a leather-skinned drum like the ones Indians would beat on as they prepared for war. I leapt out of my bed as the thumping grew louder, threw on my robe and was about to grab the doorknob when a blood-curdling scream ripped through the entire house.
I threw open the door and dashed down the stairs, nearly plowing over my father who had also awoken to the beating drum that had now suddenly stopped. Lights were being thrown on everywhere in the wake of the nerve-racking scream that still echoed through the walls. My father and I tore through the kitchen and down the basement steps, the rest of the household barreling along behind us.
What we saw down there was unimaginable and has been left as a scar upon my very soul. A blue light dazzled from the coal bin and an Indian danced within its rays with a fresh scalp in his hand. He chanted words we didn't understand as he spun around, then stopped and stared at us, holding out the scalp. He shrilled out an ear-splitting laugh and in a flash he was gone.
No one knows how long we stood motionless on the steps but it seemed like hours. Finally, my father slowly ventured into the coal bin and returned with six feathers speckled with blood and the old leather-bound journal.
Mark was never seen again and to this very day the police still believe he ran away. The coal bin was boarded up and my grandparents placed an old heavy dresser in front of the door so no one would dare try to enter again. My family never talks of that night and the tragedy that fell upon it. But sometimes on a hot and hazy summer night, when the destitute wind is still, one can distinctly hear the thump-thump of a drum echoing from the dark recesses of the old coal bin.
Copyright 2001 by Mike Ricksecker