Marsh Mayhem
Chapter one–The Truth About Tout 

After months of planning, scheming, hoping and wondering whether she would ever be able to keep her promise, fourteen year old Mariah Prindle finally had a plan. And it had come to her in a dream. It went without saying that a plan conceived by virtue of a dream was a pretty flimsy premise to go on.

            It was all that she had.

            It was better than nothing.

            And in this case flimsy would have to be enough.

            So as she finished stuffing her backpack with everything she could think of plus a few things more, Mariah ran through her mental checklist one final time.

            Again.

            She had already amended the written checklist so many times that it was no longer legible. That being the case, she finally gave up and just threw it away. If she hadn't thought of it by now she either didn't need it, didn't have room for it, or when the situation presented itself, would somehow find a way to do without it.

            It was so much more difficult this time around.

            Two years earlier, with no advance preparation, she had followed an alicorn into the woods and ended up in Mr. Tout's Magical Forest. It was a simple come as you are situation.

            Going back was going to be an entirely different story.

            For starters, she was no longer naïve to the ways of the forest.

            This time she knew what to expect.

            This time she had to be prepared.

            And that's why filling her backpack was proving to be so difficult.

            She knew what to expect. Well, sort of. She had been to the magical forest before, so that had to count for something. And she knew about the talking trees and animals, the singing statues and the mysterious portals. Likewise she knew about the lurkers and the brewers, the hedgerows and the walkway, and she knew all about ole Shorty and the croquet society. And while she hadn't faced either of them, she knew all about the dangers of the cagey whirlcats and the dreaded quadramorph.

            Yes, she knew a lot about Mr. Tout's Magical Forest, likely more than anyone in her world.

            But all of that paled in comparison to what she didn't know.

            And that's what was driving her anxiety.

            Toddathon Tout and Owen Wells were the men of mystery and the wildcards she could not account for in her preparations. She could anticipate what she might need to survive in the forest. When it came to the forest master and his apprentice, things were not so cut and dried.

            For the better part of two years she had tried to find her way back into Mr. Tout's Magical Forest. The fact that she had put that much thought and effort into it was almost laughable.            Almost.

            After all, it had taken a small miracle to escape the last time she was there, and what were the chances she could pull that off again? Of course, in order for that to happen she first had to find a way back.

            Too many times to count she had headed out into the woods behind her house in the hope of finding a clue, any clue, that would send her back into Mr. Tout's strange land. The result was always the same—she had nothing to show for it.

            That all changed a few weeks earlier.

            And she had her friendly neighborhood public librarian to thank for it.

            Thanks to the persistence of Miss MacDonald, the long awaited breakthrough finally arrived. She thought back to the phone call that Saturday morning that sent her darting out the door and onto her bicycle. Of all the days in the year it was her birthday, which Mariah took as a very good omen.

            When she arrived she bolted past the stone lions and up the library steps. In her haste she nearly ran over a woman and her small child who were attempting to leave just as she came barging through the front door. A quick apology later she stood breathless at the main desk, the effects of peddling two miles overriding the adrenaline rush that carried her there.

            "Here you are Mariah. It took some digging, but I found the information you were looking for. I've made copies for you since the original newspapers are on microfilm."

            "Thank you Miss MacDonald," she said to the librarian. "I know it wasn't easy finding this stuff, and I really appreciate it."

            That was an understatement.

            For months she had been trying to track down something, anything regarding the mysterious Mr. Tout. It had taken so long that she nearly gave up hope of ever learning more about the man, and for that matter her friend Pauly Wells.

            Yes, Pauly. This was all about Pauly.

            She wondered if he was safe, whether he was still in the magical forest, and if he had ever been reunited with his brother Owen? The newspaper articles weren't going to reveal the answers to any of these questions, but with a little luck they might shed some light on the dark and evil man in question.

            "Nice things for nice people" the petite librarian answered with a smile. "I'm just glad I could help you out. By the way, what's your interest in all of this? It seems pretty obscure."

            "Just something I came across and wanted to know more about. I have a friend from the Buffalo area and he got me interested in it. Thanks again and have a nice day!"

            "And the same to you..." Miss MacDonald began in a vain attempt to reply to the young girl. Before she could finish Mariah was already out the door, bounding down the large steps between the stone lions and back onto her bicycle. 

            It didn't take long for the birthday girl to pedal herself home. Then, despite her mother's offer of her favorite cookies, she retired to her room and wasted no time spreading the long-awaited articles on her bed. The first thing she noticed was the sheer number of times Toddathon Tout was mentioned. Several of the newspaper clippings noted the numerous problems he and his carnival encountered in the early 1920s during their various stops at the small towns and villages in the area. Some referred to him as a circus master, while one newspaper columnist called him nothing more than a carnival sideshow hustler.

            As she paged through the articles, accidents and missing children emerged as a common pattern. She stopped and stared in disbelief when she came across one particular story. It was right there on the front page of what eventually became the local newspaper, the Cayuga Courier-Freeman. The byline made her shudder—it was written by Leon Henry, her great-grandfather. She had seen copies of the old newspaper in the local historical society offices, but she had no idea her great-grandfather worked there as a reporter.

            According to the report, Tout and his troupe had snuck off through the woods after what was simply described as an "incident." Her second big surprise came when she realized where the incident in question took place. It was the field—her field—the one she and her father always slid down during the winter. And the woods behind it? This was the same wooded area where she once followed an alicorn named Achilles during her first trip into Mr. Tout's Magical Forest.

            There was also an article about the mysterious disappearance of the Wells twins at Niagara Falls in 1999. It made her sad to read about her friend Pauly and his twin brother Owen. The fact that she knew he was still alive made it all a little easier to deal with.

            To her surprise, a man with the same last name, Wells, was also mentioned in one of the earlier articles about Tout. While mayor of a small village outside of Buffalo he reportedly banned Tout's group from performing. According to the article, the old carnival boss made a pledge to get even. The article mentioned a similarly mysterious event a few years earlier when a set of twins named Tomson vanished while visiting Boldt Castle. She had been there once a few years earlier and recalled that it was near Alexandria Bay in the 1000 Islands region along the St. Lawrence River.

            It wasn't a very nice thing to do, but the sight of the girls names made Mariah laugh. Tomson twins—isn't that a band my dad listens to sometimes? She dismissed it as a mere coincidence. After all, Tomson or Thompson was a fairly common name.

            Things were starting to make more sense to her now. As she studied the copies of the old newspaper articles she noticed the emergence of a pattern. Article after article noted Tout's continual trouble with the law and the local authorities. Along with that there always seemed to be some mention of him threatening retribution. Miss MacDonald had arranged the articles about Tout in chronological order, which made Mariah smile. Not only was she nice, she was incredibly organized. While most of them were short, the final one was considerably longer. She had never seen stacked headlines, which were popular in old-time newspapers. It also surprised her to see how much attention Tout's final performance had garnered.

 

DIES IN NIAGARA BARREL PLUNGE

Ringmaster Perishes in Steel Bound Cask

TOLD TRIP WAS "SUICIDE"

Circus Owner Never Feared Death

in Long Career of Adventure

Niagara Falls, N.Y. June 23-The self-proclaimed "Master of Mysteries," Toddathon Tout of Bolton, Ontario, died today in an attempt to go over the Horseshoe Falls in a barrel. The barrel was broken by the fall and pieces of it were recovered about three hours after Tout made the fatal plunge. Nothing has been seen of the body. It is expected to appear in the whirlpool, about three miles below the falls, within a week or ten days.

                  The cask, though built of stout Russian oak staves and bound with steel hoops, smashed like an egg shell on the jagged rocks at the base of the cataract.

                  Robert "Bobby" Larkin, who made a successful barrel trip over the Horseshoe Falls in 1911, stood at the Ontario Power intake as the barrel drifted down the river. He had warned Tout that the trip would end in disaster. "He'll never make it in that barrel," Larkin told those who stood around him. "It's suicide, that's what it is."

                  Only a handful stood at Table Rock, overlooking the brink of the Horseshoe, as the barrel took the plunge. It went over at practically the same place as Larkin went over and that Mrs. Anna Edson Taylor made her successful drop in a barrel in 1901.

                  Until it was midway between the crest and the foot of the falls the barrel was plainly seen by those ashore. Then it dived into a dense cloud of spray and was not seen again.

                  It was 8:55 o'clock when the barrel went over the Horseshoe. Shortly after noon pieces of the broken barrel were picked up at the Maid of the Mist landing. Until then river men hoped to find Tout alive in a barrel. They believed the barrel had been thrown behind the falls and held there by a wall of water. 

                  Before he left Snyder's Point in the barrel Tout shook hands with Mayor Harry P. Stanley of Niagara Falls, Ont. and turned over to him until "I see you again," a bright red plush vest, on the breast of which were a dozen or more medals Tout had won for daring death.

                  Tout, whose actual age is unknown, was the former owner and ringmaster of "Mr. Tout's Magical Circus," a small operation that was recently forced to close after encountering numerous problems with the local authorities. It is believed that Tout's attempt to go over the falls was a bid to revive interest in his circus. 

 

            Mariah's reaction to the final article was immediate. This explains so much. It also made her wonder about the connection between Tout's forest and Niagara Falls. Her friend Pauly had mentioned being at the falls when he and his brother Owen were mysteriously catapulted into Tout's world. It was no stretch of the imagination to believe that the two were related, especially given her discovery that the old circus master's body was never recovered. If their capture was part of some form of retaliation against Mayor Wells, maybe Tout's problems with her great-grandfather had resulted into her unexpected trip into the magical forest.

            She wasn't any closer to finding a way to return there or to defeat the evil man, but this was a start.

            Opening her tiny keepsake safe, Mariah pulled out the small flashlight Pauly had given her just before she followed the alicorn into the Mirror of Miracles. Sure enough, it still lit up when she tried it. If Pauly was right that meant he was still somewhere in the forest. All she had to do now was figure out a way to get back there, and a plan was already formulating in her head.