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Sugar Creek Gang 27 The Brown Box Mystery
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
It might have been a long, hot, boring summer for the three members of the Sugar Creek Gang that were left—and there were only three of us left, Poetry, Dragonfly, and me—if all of a sudden one of the most interesting, exciting, and dangerous experiences hadn't exploded like a Fourth of July firecracker right in front of our eyes.
That stormy, mysterious, dangerous, and upside-down experience came to life the first week after Big Jim, Circus, and Little Jim left Sugar Creek territory to be gone for two whole weeks. Big Jim and Circus were to work on Big Jim's uncle's farm in Tippecanoe County, and Little Jim would visit a cousin in Wisconsin.
The mystery started the week the new Bay Tree Inn Motor Court was finished and had what is called "open house." Our family as well as maybe everybody else's family in the neighborhood went to see it. Well, not all our family went—just Mom and Dad and me—because Charlotte Ann, my chubby little cute-nosed sister, had been left to be baby-sat at Dragonfly's house.
There wasn't anything Charlotte Ann would rather do, anyway, than be baby-sat by Dragonfly's mother, who nearly always gave her a new toy. She also let her play house with a set of pink plastic dishes and do almost anything in the world she wanted to do that wasn't dangerous.
I never will forget what my mother said to my father when the three of us were alone in Unit 17 at the Bay Tree Inn. That neat little cottage had been named Cliff Cottage and had been built by the management for people who wanted to stay quite a ways away from the sounds and sights of tourists in the sixteen other units. It sort of hung on the rim of a sandstone cliff overlooking a deep ravine, the same ravine, in fact, through which flows the small stream the gang calls "the branch."
Except for Sugar Creek itself, we liked the branch better than any other stream in the county. You could follow its sometimes lazy, sometimes nervous and excited and noisy, way from its source all the way through Harm Groenwold's woods and pasture, then into and through Thompsons' woods to where it finally empties at the mouth of the branch, where most of the time the gang keeps its boat tied.
Poetry, who is always reading interesting things and thinking up different ideas to make people laugh, has said maybe a hundred times, "The branch can lie in bed all day and run all over the county at the same time."
And Dragonfly, who also has a keen mind, nearly always answers him with: "It doesn't just lie in bed, it runs in bed—and not just all day but all night and, like a certain friend of mine, it's also all wet."
Anyway, standing near the picture window of Cliff Cottage's air-conditioned living room, Mom looked out and across the footbridge that spanned the ravine and said, "You couldn't find anything more picturesque at Turkey Run State Park, or at The Shades, or even in Brown County."
Brown County was the beautiful hill country Mom had been born and brought up in and where she had been a schoolteacher and a secretary before Dad had found her and married her to make her a farmer's wife.
Dad was standing beside Mom with his left arm halfway around her. Looking out that same window, he remarked, "If anybody taking a walk out there on the overhanging porch, or across the footbridge, should accidentally lose his balance and topple over, he would land like a ton of bricks on the rocks below and break a lot of bones. It's a good thing they have that iron railing all the way across."
Mom's answer was: "Not a ton but only one hundred forty-seven pounds. And not of bricks but of a hot, tired, and worn-out housewife who would like to spend a few days' vacation here away from washing, ironing, cooking, looking after the chickens, answering the telephone, canning cherries, raspberries, corn, and beans, and keeping her patience with two noisy children."
I was standing behind my parents near the fireplace at the time. I had just come in to ask an important question that Poetry Thompson, my almost best friend, who was just outside the door, wanted me to ask. It was a very important question—one of the most important questions I might ever ask.
Hearing Mom say she needed a vacation from her two noisy children, I accidentally on purpose cleared my throat.
She turned a startled face in my direction, grinned, and remarked, "My first and worst son excepted, of course."
Being called their "first and worst" son by my parents was their way of saying I was the only son they had and that they liked me. So I grinned back at my first and worst mother and answered, "Your first and best son agrees with you. You do deserve a vacation, and I know a way I can help raise money to help your first and worst husband pay for it."
That seemed a good way to get to do what my mind was all excited about getting permission to do—in fact, what Poetry and I already had our minds made up to do. And all that was needed was to get our parents to agree to it.
When for a minute neither my mother nor my father answered me, I managed to say, "Of course, if you wouldn't want the money, I could save it for a very badly needed two-week vacation for myself, just as soon as Big Jim and Circus and Little Jim get back. In fact, you could take your vacation right here in Cliff Cottage while the gang is having a north woods camping trip, which we haven't had for quite a few summers—if I can remember that far back."
Dad answered my suggestion by reminding me that six boys he knew had had a winter vacation not so long ago. "You do remember when the gang flew to Palm Tree Island, don't you?"
For a few seconds I let myself remember the gang's wonderful trip to the West Indies. First, our plane had sailed high out over small islands called the Florida Keys. As we'd looked down at them, Poetry had said that they looked like the "disjointed vertebrae of the backbone of the skeleton of a giant, hundred-mile-long dinosaur."
Then, after only a hundred or more or less minutes in the plane, we had landed at the Palacia airport. Palacia was the capital of Palm Tree Island. There we were welcomed by a missionary friend of Old Man Paddler's and by hundreds of excited, friendly, Spanish-speaking people.
It was while we were on that vacation on Palm Tree Island that we found Seneth Paddler's long-lost twin brother, Kenneth.
For another few seconds, while I was still standing by the fireplace in the Cliff Cottage living room, my mind's eye saw Kenneth Paddler, long-bearded and looking exactly like his brother, riding down one of Palacia's cobblestone streets in a small cart. He was driving a billy goat, an honest-to-goodness billy goat.
My father's voice broke into my memories of the gang's West Indies vacation as he leveled his gray green eyes at me. "Was there something special you wanted to say about how you could earn a little extra money this summer to help make it possible for your hardworking father, who never gets a vacation, to go with your mother when she goes on her vacation?"
What on earth! I thought. Imagine a boy's father needing a vacation. "You mean you get tired of planting and plowing corn, feeding hogs, making speeches at Farm Bureau meetings, milking cows, and building fences? Or are you just tired of having to put up with a son you wouldn't have to put up with if you would send him off to camp somewhere—maybe in the north woods?"
"Good try." Dad grinned and added, "But I believe you were talking about your first and worst parents' vacation."
I came out then with what was on my mind, beginning with, "Do you like fried frogs legs?"
Mom whirled around from the picturesque view across the gully, looked at me with an exclamation point in her brown eyes, and asked, "What kind of question is that?"
Maybe I should have told you—for about a week at our house we had been having a lot of family fun pretending we were actors in a play, having listened to what is called a "mock trial" the week before at the Sugar Creek Literary Society.
Sometimes I was a lawyer and Mom was the jury. My smallish sister, Charlotte Ann, was being tried for such crimes as spilling her milk, pulling up a petunia instead of a weed, or leaving the screen door open and letting our old black-and-white cat in. Things like that. Nearly always my father was the judge, and he would do what is called "pronounce sentence."
So when my brown-eyed mother asked me there in the Cliff Cottage, "What kind of question is that?" I could feel my father's gray green eyes boring into me from under his reddish brown brows, asking the same question.
"If it please the court," I began, "I am not the criminal in this case. I am the defense attorney, and my client is an honest boy."
For a minute I actually felt I was a lawyer, as Poetry's father had been in the mock trial. I swaggered over to the picture window that overlooked the limestone cliff on the other side and said, "See that little thread of water away down there at the bottom of the gully? That friendly little stream laughs and dances like an innocent barefoot boy through Harm Groenwold's woods and on through his pasture, through Thompsons' woods, and finally empties into Sugar Creek at the place known as the mouth of the branch, sacrificing its happy, carefree life to the larger, well-known creek shown on the map as Sugar Creek. Now, Your Honor, it so happens that the boys of the Sugar Creek Gang keep their boat tied there—"
In my mind I was back at the mock trial. It felt good being able to think on my feet, better than it does sometimes when I am alone in the woods yelling out Lincoln's Gettysburg Address to the trees and birds and frogs. I swung around then to my parents, who in my mind had just become the jury, and went on.
"Last night, while Leslie Thompson and his friend, William Jasper Collins, son of the famous Farm Bureau speaker, Theodore Collins, were sitting in their boat fishing for catfish, they noticed that over on the island among the willows and pickerel weeds maybe a hundred bullfrogs were having a Farm Bureau meeting, bellowing and croaking and having the time of their lives.
"In the frogs' meeting, one big shaggy-browed father frog stood up and bellowed: 'Fellow members of this convention, the Bay Tree Inn Dining Room has listed on its menu at a charge of ten dollars per dinner, chicken-fried Sugar Creek frogs legs. I have just learned that two of the boys of the Sugar Creek Gang have read that menu and have decided to go into business as the Sugar Creek Frogs Legs Supply Company. The Bay Tree Inn management has offered them fifty cents for every pair of frogs legs they bring in—a paltry sum, for legs as large as ours.'"
I stopped in my speech—it was a little hard to be my father and a bullfrog at the same time. But it did feel good to have my parents listening without interrupting, so I quickly went on, hurrying a little to get in what was on the frog speaker's mind. "'One of the boys of the gang, the first and worst son of Theodore Collins, wants to earn enough money to pay for his parents' vacation, and it is up to the citizens of Frogs Legs Island to stop him. If the boys do organize their company, they'll row their boat over here every night, shine their flashlights all around, blinding us, and fill their gunnysacks with us, and we'll all be chicken fried.'
"The big, handsome bullfrog father finished his speech, let out a scared croak, and sank like a submarine into the shallow water. The maybe one hundred other frogs at the convention went ker-plunk under at the same time, because maybe Leslie Thompson or William Jasper Collins had thrown a rock over toward the island and scared them all half to death."
Right away I turned myself into the judge. I swung back from the picture window I had been looking out of and asked, "Lady and gentleman of the jury, have you reached a verdict?"
The gentleman of the jury, who was also the foreman, answered, "We have, Your Honor. We find the defendant guilty!"
Quicker than a frog's croak, my father became the judge, sentencing me with lowered eyebrows and stern words. "You, first and worst son, are hereby sentenced to membership on the governing board of the Sugar Creek Frogs Legs Supply Company. When do you begin operations?"
From behind me, a boy's voice broke in to say, "Tonight, sir." It was the friendly, ducklike voice of Leslie Poetry Thompson, who had come in while the frog was making his speech and who maybe had been listening to the whole thing.
Mom broke up the meeting then, saying, "We'd better hurry on home. The mail will be there in—" she interrupted herself to look at her wristwatch, then finished her sentence "—in another thirty minutes."
"What's the rush?" the judge and gentleman of the jury asked. "I thought maybe you'd like to run on into town and shop around for that vacation lounging robe you've been looking in the catalogs for."
The lady of the jury gave the gentleman of the jury a smallish frown and said, "Oh, you!"
Then Mom added, "I'm sorry, but I won't be able to take any vacation this year. Not while my boss is on his own vacation."
"Your boss? Is that what I am to you?" Dad asked.
It seemed a good time for Poetry and me to go outside and discuss plans for our first trip to Frogs Legs Island that very night.
I knew what Mom meant about her "boss" being on vacation. Old Man Paddler had finished the last chapter of the book he had been writing, and my mother was typing it for him. The old man wasn't on a vacation exactly. He was in California visiting his nephew, who was on his vacation and wanted his uncle to come out and go fishing with him in the Pacific Ocean for codfish off the coast of Santa Cruz and for mackerel off the barge near Santa Ana.
Mom had been working every day during her spare time to get the book finished before the old man would get back. He had been gone for more than a week.
Being secretary for Old Man Paddler meant also that she had to look after his mail, which our mail carrier, Joe Sanders, left in Theodore Collins's box every day instead of in the old man's box up in the hills.
Nearly every day there had been a letter, and sometimes quite a few, from people who had read the old man's first book, The Possible Man in the Impossible Boy, and wanted him to explain something or other. And sometimes there would be a letter from somebody with a heavy heart who wanted him to pray for him or her.
Nearly every day, also, there would be a letter from missionaries, thanking him for praying for them and for helping pay their missionary expenses.
Being a private secretary, Mom was supposed to open all the mail to see if there was anything important enough to have to be forwarded to California.
One thing, especially, Mom was supposed to watch for—any news from Palm Tree Island about Kenneth Paddler. Soon after the Sugar Creek Gang found him, he had disappeared again, and the missionaries didn't know where he was. He had written one letter to his brother, Seneth, saying he hoped to come back to Sugar Creek as soon as he felt able to. But then, just as many years before when he had had amnesia, he'd just disappeared.
Anyway, while Mom and Dad were still talking inside the Cliff Cottage living room, Poetry and I took a walk across the narrow footbridge toward the other side of the ravine. We stopped about halfway across to look down at the very happy little branch, threading its way around among the rocks.
"Your big bullfrog father was right," Poetry remarked, leaning over the railing and focusing his eyes on the rocks the saucy little stream was tumbling around and over and through. "Anybody falling over the edge would really get hurt and—"
He stopped himself, exclaiming, "Listen!"
I didn't have to listen to hear what I was hearing, which was the sound of a motor way back in the woods somewhere. It sounded a little like an electric saw cutting down a tree or cutting a tree into fireplace wood.
We looked out into the dense woods and saw two motorcycles driving like crazy toward us along the path that bordered the branch. At the farther end of the bridge we were in the middle of, the riders slowed down, skidded to a stop, and looked across to where we were. It seemed that they weren't seeing us, though, but were looking past us to the large living room window of Cliff Cottage where Mom and Dad maybe still were.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 27 The Brown Box Mystery by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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