Read an Excerpt
Sugar Creek Gang 36 The Case of the Missing Calf
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1999 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
This was the third worried day since Wandering Winnie, Little Jim Foote's white-faced Hereford calf, had disappeared. Though almost everybody in Sugar Creek territory had looked all over everywhere for her, nobody had seen hide nor hair of her. And as far as we knew, nobody had even heard her high-pitched, trembling bawl.
Different ideas as to what could have happened to the cutest little calf a boy ever owned had been talked about and worried over by all six members of the Sugar Creek Gang and by our six sets of parents. My own parents were doing maybe as much or more worrying than the Foote family.
As I said about a hundred words above this paragraph, today was the third worried day since Winnie had dropped out of sight. It was also the beginning of the third night. In a little while now, the Theodore Collins family, which is ours, would be in bed—just as soon as we couldn't stand it to stay up any longer.
Charlotte Ann, my little sister, had already been carried to her bed in the downstairs bedroom just off the living room, where Mom and Dad and I still were. Mom was working on a crossword puzzle, and I was lying on the floor piecing together a picture puzzle of a cowboy at a rodeo. The cowboy was trying to rope a scared-half-to-death calf. Dad was lounging in his favorite chair, reading the part of the newspaper Mom didn't have.
All of a sudden she interrupted my thoughts, saying, "Maybe we're all worrying too much about Winnie. Maybe she's already been found and is in some farmer's corral somewhere. If we wait long enough, somebody will phone for them to come and get her."
Dad, who must have been dozing, came to with a start and yawned a lazy answer. "Leave her alone, and she'll come home and bring her tail behind her"—which any boy knows is what somebody in a poem had said to somebody named Little Bo-Peep, who had lost her sheep: "Leave them alone, and they'll come home, bringing their tails behind them."
It was almost ridiculous—Dad's quoting a line of poetry like that at a time like that, because right that second I was on my hands and knees on the floor by the north window, looking under the library table for the part of the picture puzzle that had on it the rodeo calf's hindquarters. In fact, that last part of the calf was the very last piece of my puzzle. As soon as I could find it and slip it into place, the picture would be finished.
"What," Mom said to Dad from her rocker on the other side of the hanging lamp he was reading and dozing under, "is a word of seven letters meaning forever? Its first letter is e, and the last letter is l."
Dad yawned another long, lazy yawn and mumbled, "What are the other five letters?" Then he folded his paper, unfolded his long, lazy legs, stood up, stretched, and said, "How in the world can you stay awake long enough to worry your way through a crossword puzzle?"
"I've got it! I've got it!" Mom exclaimed cheerfully and proudly. "The other five letters are t-e-r-n-a. The whole word is eternal."
Dad, not looking where I was lying, stumbled over part of me but managed to keep from falling ker-ploppety-wham onto the floor by catching himself against the bedroom doorpost. He sighed a disgusted sigh down at me, saying, "What on earth are you doing down there on the floor! Why aren't you in bed?"
Looking at my picture puzzle, which Dad's slippered feet had scattered in every direction there was, I answered, "Nothing. Nothing at all. But I was looking for half a lost calf."
It seemed a good time for us to get ready to go to bed. When anybody is so tired that he is cranky-sleepy, he might lose his temper on somebody. And we had a rule in our family that everybody had to go to bed forgiven to everybody else.
Because, ever since I was little, I'd been giving Mom a good-night kiss just to show her I liked her, even when I was sometimes too tired to know for sure whether I did, I reached out my freckled left cheek for her to kiss. Looking at Dad, I gave him a shrug of both shoulders—which is a good enough good night for a father who has scattered his son's picture puzzle all over—and in a little while I was on my way upstairs to my room.
The window of that upstairs room, as you may remember, looks south out over the iron pitcher pump at the end of the board walk, over the garden to old Red Addie's apartment hog house, and beyond it to Little Jim's folks' farm. And over there was an empty corral with a whole calf missing, which calf might never come home again and bring her tail behind her.
I was too tired to say very much of a goodnight prayer to God, but I knew that the One who made boys understood a boy's tired mind well enough not to expect him to stay on his knees beside his bed very long. Besides, anybody knows it's not how long anybody prays that counts with God, or what kind of words he uses, but whether he has honest-to-goodness love in his heart for his folks and for the Savior, who had first loved him enough to die for him. That was the most important thing my parents had taught me.
One of the very few things I prayed for before I clambered into bed was that Little Jim wouldn't have too hurt a heart because of his lost, strayed, or stolen white-faced, white-eyelashed calf.
And that—my last thoughts being about Wandering Winnie—is maybe why I had a crazy, mixed-up dream, the like of which I had never dreamed before in all my half-long life.
Honestly, that dream was so real it scared me half to death. It also seemed it wasn't a dream but was the actual truth. In fact, right in the middle of my dream, I dreamed that I woke up, and the rest of the dream seemed to be happening for sure.
I guess maybe the half calf I'd lost on the floor of our living room was part of the reason I dreamed what I did. Maybe the other reason was that on the way to the stairs, which was through the kitchen, I had stopped to eat the second half of a piece of peach pie that I had left over from supper and which Mom had promised me I could have for a bedtime snack.
Right in the middle of eating that very tasty piece of peach pie, I heard the radio going in the living room, and somebody's voice galloping along about all the things that were happening "in the world and here at home."
That was one of the last things Dad did every night—listen to the news, some of which was full of excitement and some of it not.
Just as I tucked the last bite of my piece of peach pie into my mouth and was starting upstairs to tuck myself into bed, I heard the news reporter say, "This program is being brought to you by the Kangaroo Sales Pavilion of Tippecanoe County. Remember—Saturday at one o'clock, thirty head of sheep, seventeen Hereford calves, fifty-three shoats, and ..."
On the way to the top of the stairs, where the moonlight was streaming in through the south window, I was still enjoying the taste of peach pie and was thinking what a good pie maker Mom was.
It took me only a few fumbling minutes to get undressed. When I finished my bedtime prayer, I yawned one of Dad's kind of long, lazy, noisy yawns, flopped over into bed, pulled Mom's nice fresh-air-smelling sheet over me, sighed a sleepy sigh, and started to sail off in a wooden shoe.
Did you ever have in your school reader the poem called "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod"? We'd had to learn it by heart when I was in the fourth grade. And it seemed that nearly every night, when I was getting into bed, a part of the poem would start yawning its way through my mind.
That very interesting poem tells about Wynken, Blynken, and Nod's getting into a big wooden shoe and sailing off on "a river of crystal light into a sea of dew." When the old moon saw them sailing along, he called out to them, asking where they were going and what they were looking for. And they answered, "We have come to fish for the herring fish that live in this beautiful sea."
Anyway, the writer of the poem—somebody I had never heard of, named Eugene Field—explained in the last verse of the poem that "Wynken and Blynken were two little eyes and Nod was a little head," and the wooden shoe was a trundle bed—whatever that was.
Anyway, after memorizing the poem, I'd always thought of going to sleep as sailing off in a wooden shoe.
In seconds, I'd climbed into my own wooden shoe and taken off. And that's when my crazy, mixed-up dream began spinning round and round in my mind.
First, I saw myself standing in our living room, looking into the long mirror on the wall above the library table, under which, as you already know, I had been looking for half a lost calf. All of a sudden then, while I was combing my red hair, I was seeing in the mirror not a red-haired, freckle-faced boy but a hornless, white-faced Hereford with long white eyelashes.
Quicker than a firefly's fleeting flash, in my dream I was over at Little Jim's place, and I was a red-haired heifer named Wandering Winnie, standing at the Footes' corral gate.
Racing toward me from behind was a cowboy on a pinto pony, swinging a lasso. And as calves do at a rodeo, I whirled and started to run like four-footed lightning to get away from him.
Then, in another fleeting flash, I wasn't a calf anymore but was Theodore Collins's only son. And the cowboy had turned into a masked rider, whose horse was big and black and had thundering hoofs.
"Help! Help! Help!" I yelled as I ran.
And then that masked rider's rope settled over my head and shoulders, the black horse skidded to a dusty four-footed stop by the iron pitcher pump on our farm. And right then in the dream, the big black horse whirled and started to run, dragging me head-and-shoulders-and-face-and-neck-and-ears-first across a whole barnyard full of peach pies.
"Help! Help! Help! Help!" I kept on yelling. I couldn't get my breath. Also I couldn't turn over in bed, where suddenly it seemed I was, in my own upstairs room being choked half to death. I was screaming, but I couldn't scream very loud.
Well, right that crazy, mixed-up second, there was a voice coming out of somewhere up the stairway. It was my mother calling, "Bill Collins! What on earth are you yelling about up there? You having a nightmare or something?"
It seemed I was still out in our barnyard, being dragged headfirst through a thousand peach pies, while I was also still in bed, trying to turn over and wake up and couldn't.
Right away, though, I did wake up on account of my father's thundery voice joining in with Mom's worried one and ordering me to go back to sleep. Also he ordered me to turn over, as I was probably on my back—which I was and which most people are when they are having what is called a nightmare.
I made myself turn over, and pretty soon, without knowing I was going to do it, I set sail again for the land of Nod, and the next thing I knew, it was morning.
* * *
It was one of the most sunshiny mornings I ever woke up in. And the smell of bacon and eggs frying downstairs in our kitchen made me hungry—not for peach pie, though, which for some reason, it seemed, maybe I wouldn't want any more of for a long time. I wanted something salty instead.
Even while I was shoving myself into my shirt and jeans, I was looking out the south window to the grassy barnyard, where Dad, carrying our three-gallon milk pail, was coming toward the pitcher pump. Mixy, our black-and-white mother cat, was following along with him, meowing up at him and at the milk pail all the way.
At the pump, Dad stopped, lifted the pail out of Mixy's reach, and, shading his eyes, looked toward the sky. Then he called to Mom, who was maybe standing in the kitchen doorway right below my window, "Turkey buzzards are all over up there! Must be something dead somewhere!"
I stooped low, so that I could see under the overhanging leaves of the ivy that sprawled across the upper one-third of my window, and looked out and up toward where Dad had been looking. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but seven or eight wide-winged birds sailing like Wynken, Blynken, and Nod in a sea of dew—except that there probably wasn't any dew that high up in the sky on a sunshiny day.
I knew from the different buzzards I had seen on the ground at different times, gobbling down dead rats or mice—or a possum or coon or skunk some hunter had caught and skinned—that buzzards were what Dad called "carrion eaters."
Did you ever see a buzzard up close, maybe only fifty feet away? If you ever get a chance to see one on the ground, you will notice that he is twenty or so inches long from his ugly head at the top of his long, naked, wrinkled, scrawny neck to the tip of his tail. And if while you are watching him, he decides it's time to take off on a trip to the sky again, you'd see that his wingspread is maybe as much as six feet—as far from the tip of one black-feathered wing to the other as my tallish father is tall.
A turkey buzzard is the biggest, most awkward bird in the whole territory. He is also one of the most important. Many a time I had looked straight up into the straight-up sky and seen one of those big black vultures soaring in a silent circle, sometimes so high above the fields or woods that he would look as if he was maybe only ten inches from wingtip to wingtip.
Then, all of a sudden, he would come shooting down in a long slant and land with an awkward ploppety-plop-plop, ker-flop-flop-flop away out in the field or maybe even close by.
In less than three minutes, another buzzard and then another and still another—as many sometimes as five—would land plop at the same place like black-winged arrows. And I knew they had come slanting down out of the sky to do what their Creator had made them for in the first place—to have breakfast or dinner or supper on a dead carcass of some kind. It could be a rat or a mouse or a possum or coon or skunk or even a horse or cow that had happened to die or get killed. So turkey buzzards were as important as any birds in the whole Sugar Creek territory.
"Don't you boys ever kill one of them," Dad had ordered the gang one day when he was also talking to us about being careful never to kill owls, because they were helpful to farmers by eating cutworms and mice. "A buzzard," he explained to us, "is one of nature's scavengers. Its business is to clean up the country and not allow any germ-breeding dead animals to smell up the clean, fresh country air and spread sickness or disease of any kind.
"Seagulls are scavengers, too," Dad went on.
But we didn't know anything about seagulls, there not being any in our territory, and nobody in the gang ever saw a seagull.
Well, because I was hungry, I quick finished shoving myself into my clothes and in a few minutes was downstairs.
At the breakfast table, Dad looked across at me, studying my face with a question mark in his eye, and asked, "What was your nightmare about last night?"
"It wasn't a nightmare," I answered, trying to be funny and maybe not being. "It was a night calf!"
It seemed all right to tell my folks what I had dreamed, which I did. We also talked to each other about different things. It was a happy breakfast for the whole family except Charlotte Ann, my little sister, who wasn't in a good humor for a change.
And do you know what? My dream wasn't so crazy after all. Right that very minute, Dad reached up and turned on the radio, which was on the mantel beside our striking clock, just in time for us to hear the announcer say, "The Montgomery County sheriff's office reported late yesterday that two more calves were stolen in the area. The rustlers drove the calves out a gate near the Stonebergers' barn and down the lane to a parked truck where they were loaded on. This is the second case of livestock rustling in the county. Eighteen head of hogs were taken from the George Ranger's ranch last week ..."
The news reporter went on then about something else, which gave my grayish brown haired Mom a chance to cut in and say, "Whatever is the world coming to—people stealing cattle and hogs right in front of your eyes on your back doorstep!"
Dad's answer wasn't exactly a surprise. It was what any boy who goes to church is supposed to know anyway, and it was: "The world isn't coming to anything, Mother. The world without God, which most of it still is, is already bad. The Bible says in Romans three twenty-three ..."
And then the phone rang. Dad quick left the table to go answer it and started talking tosomebody about a Farm Bureau meeting where he was going to make a speech about nitrogen and alfalfa roots—stuff like that.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 36 The Case of the Missing Calf by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1999 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.