For me, the summer season ends too quickly each year. Just as the leaves begin changing, we pack up and winterize the cottage in Clayton, NY, pull the boat, and head south to Pennsylvania. This Thousand Islands story, however, begins on Halloween.
When I was a kid, a television commercial for a popular candy, often handed out for Trick-or-Treat, boasted that it featured two great tastes (chocolate and peanut butter) that taste great together. That's what I'm aiming for here; a somewhat scary (but fast-paced and fun) mystery set in the heart of the Thousand Islands.
And what better setting? The St. Lawrence's scenic beauty is an excellent backdrop, along with charming river towns, ancient forests, granite cliffs, castles with towers and secret passageways, ghost stories, and legends of all sorts!
However, I do have an admission to make. As I write this introduction, I'm not entirely sure where this story is going. My 9-year-old son, Lee, and I talk about it. He has contributed some pretty good ideas. During this strange COVID-19 year, I have made writing this story and enjoying Halloween a priority, as traveling along this road seems to make everything else seem a little less weird by comparison!
So please join us on this journey and together we will find out where it leads! . . . By Patrick Metcalf
Chapter 6, No Turning Back
"We should go back in," said Pete, staring through the windshield toward the side entrance of the diner.
"What would that accomplish?" asked Sarah.
"Someone in there either planted those coins, or knows something about it!" said Pete.
"We can’t be sure. Let's think about this for a minute." said Sarah. "Whoever drew the symbols under the beds, and whoever went to the trouble to make sure we ended up with the pennies, did so in a very subtle way. They didn't want us to be aware. But why?"
"I have no idea, but we have to start somewhere," said Pete impatiently. "We need some answers."
"We shouldn't ruin this lead," said Sarah. "The diner holds a clue. But we don't know what to look for, or what questions to ask. I think we should leave it alone until we have a better idea of what we're dealing with."
"I disagree," said Pete as he opened the car door and began to get out. "Let's go in there and . . ."
Pete was cut short by a blood-curdling scream.
"It came from behind the diner!" exclaimed Pete. "Let's go!"
Sarah threw open the car door and followed Pete as he sprinted around the corner of the building. Pete stopped short and Sarah came up beside him. They stood and stared, each panting and a bit out of breath, both from running and from the shot of adrenaline. Standing there by a large, green, commercial trash dumpster was a young waitress they hadn't noticed before. She was about their age. She looked a bit comical with her blonde ponytail and pink apron, her eyes wide open, staring back at them with an expression of surprise and confusion.
"Is everything ok . . ." asked Pete. ". . . Katrina?" he added, after reading her name tag.
"We heard some commotion back here," added Sarah. "Are you hurt?"
Katrina blinked a few times, seeming a bit stunned, and then suddenly snapped out of it.
"Oh, yes, of course. I'm sorry." She smiled, glanced at her right hand and then pressed her knuckles against her lips for a second. "I threw a trash bag into the dumpster and accidentally bashed my fingers against the edge. It really hurt. I feel so stupid for yelling." She smiled at Pete and genuinely looked embarrassed.
"Well, sure, I've done that myself a few times," said Pete sympathetically. "Happens to the best of us." He smiled back at Katrina. A few seconds went by. "Do you need a Band-Aid or something?" Pete asked.
"No, I'm ok." Katrina smiled. "But thank you!"
"Alrighty then . . ." said Sarah, staring at Pete sternly. "I'm glad you're ok," she said glancing over to Katrina, "but Pete and I need to get going."
"Yep. We sure do," said Pete, but he didn't move. He just kept smiling. Eventually he glanced over at Sarah and saw her annoyed expression, which made him feel self-conscious and a bit foolish. He blushed a little, then took a quick step backwards and waived. "Nice meeting you, Katrina! Bye!"
"Good-bye!" said Katrina. "Sorry I startled you guys!"
Pete and Sarah walked back to the car and got in. Pete smiled.
"She seems nice," he said. "I wish we could've talked a little more."
"I wish you weren't so awkward, Pete," said Sarah.
"What do you mean?"
"You look a little bit psychotic when you smile that much." Sarah had a knack for being brutally direct at times.
"Yep," said Sarah. "I'll snap a pic next time so you can see yourself."
"You're exaggerating," said Pete.
Sarah laughed, and then gave Pete an intensely toothy grin. She crossed her eyes and said, "Hi pretty lady, I'm Pete. May I offer you a bandage?" She looked completely deranged.
"Oh come on, it's not that bad," said Pete defensively.
"It kinda is," she said laughing. "That poor girl may need therapy now."
As they drove back toward Fishers Landing, Sarah called the curator at the Thousand Islands Museum again, to ask what connections there may be to the Civil War in the region, and more specifically, to the Confederate States of America.
"What's the scoop, Sis?" asked Pete, after Sarah got off the call.
"Well, two things," said Sarah. "The first is that there was a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who resided in Clayton."
"Oh yeah," said Pete. I think I remember seeing a black and white photo of that guy with Teddy Roosevelt at some veterans parade or something. But he was a Union soldier, so I don't think that helps us at all."
"No," said Sarah. "But the other connection might be more relevant."
"Ok," said Pete. "Let's hear it."
"There is a story about a man named John Payne who was murdered under mysterious circumstances. He was found with his throat cut, and with three crosses carved into his chest. Does that sound familiar?" she asked.
"Doesn't ring a bell," said Pete. "What's that got to do with the Confederacy?"
"He was apparently a Southerner, based on his accent. He arrived in the area the summer after the war. None of the locals knew him. He had a small cabin built for himself, which was hidden from view on Maple Island. He came into town from time to time for supplies, and had plenty of British coins to buy whatever he needed."
"So he was robbed?" asked Pete.
"Something like that," said Sarah. "He was some sort of treasurer for a group called the Knights of the Golden Circle. He double-crossed them and took off with their money. I guess when his old friends caught up with him, they weren't too happy that he’d skated off with all their gold coins."
"Knights of the Golden Circle . . ." said Pete. He looked uncomfortable.
"I know they were linked to the Confederacy, but who were they exactly?" Sarah was confident Pete would know since he was a history buff.
"They were the secret organization responsible for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln," said Pete. "To say they were bad dudes would be an understatement."
"Oh . . . So John Wilkes Booth . . ."
"Yep," said Pete. "And 1865 was the year the war ended and the year of Lincoln's assassination."
"And the murder on Maple Island," said Sarah. "Same as the pennies." They sat in silence, trying to make sense of it all.
"It would have to be a lot of money to risk getting killed over," said Pete. "And the fact that they cut him up like that, they really wanted him to suffer. And I hate to say it . . ." Pete frowned and hesitated for a minute. "But I bet he screamed quite a bit."
"That's really horrible," said Sarah. She shuddered at the thought of it.
"Maple Island isn't that far from the Narrows," said Pete.
"What are you thinking?" asked Sarah. "Are we dealing with a screaming ghost, eternally searching for his stolen treasure, a treasure that he feels he pilfered fair and square?" She smiled, acknowledging that her question was a bit of a jab at Pete, who enjoyed pontificating on outlandish subjects.
"I know you don't believe in that sort of thing, but we can't rule it out," said Pete. "None of this makes any sense."
"Did the Knights of the Golden Circle use witchcraft?" Sarah asked. Her brain was churning, but to no avail. The dots were simply not allowing themselves to be connected.
"I don't think so," said Pete. "This whole thing just keeps getting weirder and weirder. Maybe we'll find some answers when we get to the museum."
"No, I don't think we will. Those were the only significant connections to the Civil War the curator could think of, and she already told us who we should talk to about the symbol." Sarah looked over at Pete, who was still deep in thought. "And if we wait much longer, we won't have time to make the long trip to Dark Island today."
"Alright!" said Pete. "We're storming the castle!"
"Just knocking politely on the door," corrected Sarah. "Like crazy people . . ."
It was roughly a 20 mile boat ride down-river from Fishers Landing to Dark Island. The long ride created an opportunity to ponder all that had happened over the past two days. They passed island after island, some big and some small, seemingly in slow motion. A veil of thin clouds drifted out of the southwest, giving the daylight a tired and bleak quality.
Sarah couldn't escape the feeling that they were sinking deeper and deeper into this mystery, with nothing to show for it. There was not a single clue or piece of information that they possessed that shed any light on what was happening to them. Sarah wondered if it might be better to just go home and forget the whole thing. They would still have some great stories to tell, but she knew that neither she nor Pete was prepared to give up while so many questions remained unanswered. Sarah wondered if they possessed any ability to influence or control upcoming events, or whether they were caught in an irresistible current pushing them toward an uncertain fate. All Pete and Sarah could do was to press forward and hope for the best.
They came to the first segment of the Thousand Island Bridge, which spans the narrowest part of the American Channel, and allows Interstate 81 to cross Wellesley Island and onward into Canada. Pete and Sarah were no more than tiny ants below the tall and graceful arch, built high enough for ocean-going cargo ships to easily pass beneath. On this increasingly dull and dreary day, the bridge resembled the partial skeleton of a gigantic sauropod. Looking up, they could see cars and tractor trailers passing overhead, seemingly miniaturized due to the distance, up where the seagulls gracefully fluttered. The scale of it was enough to make most anyone feel small and humbled. Sarah thought about that for a while after they had passed under it, as they travelled steadily on toward their destination.
"Hey, do you wanna take a practice run at knocking on a castle door?" yelled Pete over the noise of the outboard motor. He smiled and pointed to his left over at Boldt Castle, which sat on an island across the channel from the town of Alexandria Bay. It was a magnificent and elegant structure, abandoned just before its completion in 1901. Everything stopped when George Boldt, the millionaire hotelier of New York City / Waldorf-Astoria fame, learned that his beloved wife had passed away. The castle was meant to be a gift to her. Heart broken, he had a telegraph sent ordering all the workers to lay down their tools and walk away. Sarah thought about this sad bit of history, and thought that it would feel like sacrilege to go knock on the door as a prank.
"No thanks," said Sarah. "We'll just have to get it right on the first try."
Dark Island first appeared as a tiny speck, far ahead in the haze, where the November afternoon sky and the river seemed to meet. As they drew closer, Singer Castle began to take shape the way that a vague idea materializes from a dream. To say that it was intimidating would be inadequate. It was borderline terrifying. Every scary movie or story with a monster or a madman had a castle just like it. The thought of getting out of the boat and simply walking up to the door and casually knocking struck Sarah as being completely insane. And yet here they were, and that was their exact plan.
"I don't know, Pete," said Sarah. "I'm having second thoughts."
"It's fine," said Pete happily. "Just think of it as a normal house . . . except a hundred times larger, full of suits of armor and secret passage ways, completely isolated on its own island, and of course, ridiculously creepy." He was clearly enjoying seeing his sister so uncomfortable.
"I hate that you like this so much," said Sarah flatly.
"I would apologize, but that would be dishonest." Pete smiled. "Race you to the door?"
"You're pushing your luck, buddy."
"Kidding. Geez . . ."
The fact that the castle was a tourist attraction during the summer season made it seem even stranger. The "Welcome To Singer Castle" sign was jaundiced and faded, clearly in need of repainting in the spring. The long docks were meant to accommodate large tour boats and multiple personal crafts. Pete and Sarah's boat tied off there all by itself made the place seem even more abandoned and lonely. The small gift shop was shuttered and unwelcoming. Their memories here were far different, everything sunny and bright, stepping onto the dock with so many other excited and curious guests. But they had just been kids then. It seemed like a million years ago.
"If I remember correctly," said Sarah, "The tour guides always took us to the left and up that walkway."
"Yep, I think you're right," said Pete. "Let's go!"
As they walked up the steep and curving brick path, Sarah looked to her right. There was a story behind the broken clock tower, the hands of which were forever frozen at a little past the five o'clock hour. Try as she might, she couldn't remember what it was. Sarah glanced at her watch and saw that the actual time was eleven minutes before three. Even still, they didn't have much time to complete their mission at the castle. It was a long journey home, and the sun was already beginning to lean heavily toward the west.
They approached a stone landing and massive wooden door, which when open would have been large enough for two horses with riders entering side by side. Sturdy iron hinges held the door in place, and Sarah imagined it groaning horribly when it was opened.
"Let's hope the size of the door was intended for grandeur, and not as a practical accommodation for what will come out when we knock," said Sarah.
"Wow, your mind is really not being kind to you today, Sis." Pete laughed and shook his head. "It's fine. There's just some eccentric caretaker inside, we'll ask him our questions, and be on our way. Piece of cake."
"Yeah, he's probably up there in the spire above the door looking down at us now," said Sarah warily.
"I doubt it," said Pete. "I'm pretty sure that's the dungeon."
"Fantastic," said Sarah. "At least when we're prisoners we'll be able to see who's been invited as dinner guests when they arrive."
Pete and Sarah walked the last few steps up to the door. The moment had arrived.
"You can do the honors," said Sarah, motioning for Pete to go ahead and knock.
"Alright," said Pete with smile. He drew back his fist. "No turning back now!"
By Patrick Metcalf [All rights reserved ©2020]
Patrick Metcalf began vacationing in the Thousand Islands, more than 20 years ago, when his grandmother and her two sisters rented three houses for a week, each summer in Fine View on Wellesley Island, and invited their families from Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. Patrick spends as much time as he can each summer, on the River, near Clayton, NY. He began writing to entertain his son Lee, who is now nine years old. Patrick resides in Shippensburg, PA, holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration, and is a Marine Corps veteran. See all of Patrick Metcalf's TI Life works here..
Illustration for The Witch of Wellesley Island: Chapter 6, "No Turning Back" is by Marie-Anne Erki ©2021, Kingston, ON.
Chapter 1: The Scream
Chapter 2: A Brush with Evil
Chapter 3: A Narrow Escape
Chapter 4: What Pete Forgot
Chapter 5: Unlucky Penny
Please click here if you are unable to post your comment.