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Sugar Creek Gang 34 Locked in the Attic
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1999 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
The Sugar Creek Gang was having one of the most exciting, adventurous summers ever. When we killed the fierce, savage-tempered, twenty-eight-toothed wildcat, we never dreamed that the very next week we'd have a hair-raising experience in a haunted house.
It had been quite a while since the gang had visited the haunted house, far up in the hills above Old Man Paddler's cabin. In fact, we hadn't visited Old Man Paddler himself for some time. And in a way, that kind, long-whiskered old man was responsible for our running into the brand-new, very dangerous, haunted-house mystery.
Big Jim, the leader of our gang, had seen the old man that morning and had an important story to tell us when the gang met the afternoon of that ordinary day—ordinary, that is, until we heard what Big Jim had to tell us.
The part of the story that had to do with me, Bill Collins, started at our house. That's because it was very important that I get to go to the gang meeting down by the swimming hole, and whether or not I could go depended, as it usually does, on Mom or Dad or both.
It also depended on me. And on that day I wasn't very dependable. My parents didn't think so, anyway. It never feels good to be on the outs with your parents when it's your own fault, and they seemed to think it was my fault.
Dragonfly, the crooked-nosed, allergy-pestered member of our gang was going to start on an out-West vacation the very next week to get away from the ragweed pollen, which always gave him hay fever and asthma. His folks had bought him a pair of beautiful cowboy boots and a very fancy broad-brimmed Stetson cowboy hat.
Now, I had saved money that summer toward a new suit I would need in the fall, but I had decided that I needed a pair of cowboy boots and a cowboy hat worse—a whole lot worse. And I was sure that I needed them right now.
Both Mom and Dad had said no and meant it the first time. But I wanted that hat and those boots so much that I thought it was worth taking a chance on getting into trouble. That very week I'd said in a tone of voice that my parents called fussy, "Dragonfly's parents like their son. They want him to look like a Westerner. My parents want me to wear overalls and go barefoot and stay home!"
I had to miss my supper dessert that day and go to bed without getting to listen to the Lone Ranger program.
That was pretty hard on me because for a week or more I myself had been the Lone Ranger. I rode my big white stallion, Silver, over our farm and up and down the creek, capturing rustlers, saving stagecoach passengers from getting robbed, bringing law and order to the whole territory, and ordering around my imaginary faithful Indian companion, Tonto, as if he was a real person.
It seemed that Dragonfly was to blame for my half-mad spell even more than my parents. If he hadn't been wearing his fancy boots and his swept-brim hat, I wouldn't have wanted a hat and a pair of boots like them. I was mad at my folks, but I was madder at Dragonfly.
The weather that day was hot, hot, hot. The sun poured down yellow heat all over everything and everybody, making all our tempers quick, our muscles lazy, and our minds—mine especially—a little more stubborn.
Every few minutes that sultry morning, a whirlwind would spiral from the direction of the south pasture, sweep across the barnyard, and lose itself in the cornfield. Whenever I could, if the stormy little spiral came anywhere near where I was working—or was supposed to be working—I'd leave whatever I was doing, make a barefoot beeline for it, toss myself into it, and go zigzagging along with it whichever way it went. Sometimes it seemed to go in every direction at the same time.
One of the most pleasant experiences a boy ever has is to go racing and dodging along, trying to stay in the eye of a whirlwind, enjoying the wind fanning his face. Sometimes I get dust in my eyes and can't see and have to let the happy little spiral go whirling on without me.
The gang meeting was supposed to be at half past one that afternoon in the shade of the Snatzerpazooka Tree. That's the little river birch that grows at the edge of Dragonfly's father's cornfield near the sandy beach of our swimming hole. We had named that friendly little river birch Snatzerpazooka right after we'd had a Western-style necktie party there and strung up a ridiculous-looking scarecrow from its overhanging branch to keep the crows from eating up the new shoots of corn. Snatzerpazooka was the name we'd given the scarecrow.
I was surprised at how easy it was for me to leave our house that afternoon without having to do the dishes. I am maybe one of the best dishwashers and dryers in the whole neighborhood from having had so much experience doing them. Sometimes I even do them without being told to.
"Run along to your meeting," Dad ordered me from under his reddish brown mustache. "Your mother and I have some important things to discuss. Things you might not be interested in." Dad's right eye winked in Mom's direction.
I couldn't let myself worry about whether or not they really wanted me to stay and help with the dishes and were just pretending they didn't. It looked like a good time to be excused from the table and get started for the Snatzerpazooka Tree.
Pretty soon I was just outside the east screen door, going kind of slowly, since it would be easier to be stopped if I wasn't going so fast.
"Hi, there!" I said to Mixy, our black-and-white house cat, stooping to give her a few friendly strokes just as I heard Dad say to Mom, "It didn't work that time."
Her answer wasn't easy to hear, because the radio with the noon news program was on in the living room and my mind was listening to both at the same time.
The newscaster was racing along about somebody who had escaped from jail somewhere. He was armed and should be considered extremely dangerous. I didn't pay much attention, because it was the kind of news we were getting used to. Whoever the fugitive from justice was, he wouldn't be anybody around Sugar Creek. And besides, whoever he was, the jail he had broken out of was probably a long way from here.
Hearing the news did give me an idea, though. Dad's order to run along to the meeting was like unlocking the Collins family jail and letting his boy out.
In a few minutes my bare feet had carried me past the hammock swinging under the plum tree and all the way across the grassy lawn to the high rope swing under the walnut tree near the front gate and our mailbox.
It was too early to meet the gang. It was also too hot to run, and I was half angry at my folks for wanting me gone so they could talk about something I wasn't supposed to hear. Besides, any minute now they might wake up to the fact that their prisoner had escaped, and Dad's voice would sail out across the yard, lasso me, and drag me back. I might as well hang around a while and wait for his gruff-voiced lariat to come flying through the air with the greatest of ease.
In a flash I was standing on the board seat of the swing, pumping myself higher and higher before sitting down to "let the old cat die." That is what a boy does when he quits pumping and lets the swing coast to a stop by itself.
While I was enjoying the breeze in my face, the flapping of my shirt sleeves, and the rush of wind in my ears, I was quoting to myself a poem we had learned in school. It was by Robert Louis Stevenson, who had also written Treasure Island.
How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!
I was still letting the old cat die—it was half dead already—and my voice was singsonging along on the second stanza of the poem, when I was interrupted by a long-tailed sneeze not far away.
I knew whose sneeze it was. There wasn't another boy in the world that could sneeze like that. Only Dragonfly Roy Gilbert could do it. Anytime, any day, anywhere around Sugar Creek you could expect to hear him let out a long-tailed sneeze with some ridiculous word or half-dozen words mixed up in it. One of his favorite sneezes was "Kersnatzerpazooka!"
Dragonfly was especially proud of his sneezing, except in hay fever season, when he had to do too much of it. This summer, though, as you already know, he was going to the Rockies to get away from ragweed pollen.
Maybe I ought to tell you that being interrupted is one of my pet peeves. I don't like having my thoughts interrupted when I'm in my world of imagination, dreaming about something a boy likes to dream about. In fact, it's sometimes a lot more fun to dream about doing things than it is to actually do them.
I certainly didn't enjoy being exploded back into such an ordinary world as it was that day, especially when I might get called in to do a stack of dishes. I wanted to go on swinging to the tune of the dying cat, quoting the poem all the way to its end. Just in case you've never read it or heard anybody read it, this is the way the rest of it goes.
Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—
Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!
As I said, Dragonfly's ridiculous sneeze interrupted me in the middle of the second stanza.
I looked in the direction it seemed the sneeze had come from and saw across the road, standing beside our washtub birdbath in the shade of the elderberry bush that grew there, a spindle-legged, crooked-nosed boy, Dragonfly himself. I could hardly see his face, though, for the broad-brimmed cowboy hat he was wearing. His jeans made his legs look even skinnier than they were, which is what jeans sometimes do to people.
Half angry because of the interruption and because of who it was, I started to yell out to him the rest of the verse I was in the middle of.
I didn't get very far, because he interrupted me again to boast, "I'm going to ride on the longest chairlift in the world when I get out West, clear up to the top of Ajax Mountain! We can look out over thousands of square miles of mountains! The people below us will look like ants and the cars like toy cars!"
"Oh yeah!" I yelled back across the dusty road to him. My dying cat came to life again as my temper and I both went higher and higher.
"Yeah!" he called back in a bragging voice.
It was the way he said what he said that stirred up my pet peeve, not just my being interrupted two or three times. I was used to all the members of the gang bragging a little, doing it just for fun, the way most boys do. But this seemed different. After all, he needn't act so uppity just because of his fancy boots and hat.
Besides, our rope swing was the highest in the whole Sugar Creek territory, and you could see a long way when you were up in the air on it!
"Hey!" I exclaimed to him all of a sudden. "Don't empty out that water! That's for the birds!"
I was really mad now. That washtub had been left there on purpose. I kept it filled with clean water for the birds to bathe in and for them to get their drinking water, so we'd have more birds in the neighborhood and they wouldn't have to fly way down to the spring or to the creek every time they were thirsty.
But do you know what? That sneezy little guy had swept off his wide-brimmed hat, plunged it into the tub of water, and lifted it out with its crown filled to the brim! "Here, Silver!" I heard him say. "Have a drink! You're plumb tuckered out after that wild ride across the prairie from Dodge!"
And in my mind I saw what was going on in his. He was imagining himself to be one of the most popular cowboys of the Old West, the Lone Ranger himself, and was giving his white horse, Silver, a drink.
Anybody who knows even a little about a Western cowboy probably knows that his hat and his boots are the most important part of his clothes. He's not too particular about what he wears between his head and his feet. He buys an extrafine hat with a stiff brim so it won't flop in his eyes in the wind and blind him when he is in danger. He chooses an extrawide brim so he'll have it for a sunshade when it's hot, and it makes a good umbrella when it rains or sleets or snows. He also uses his hat to carry water to his horse from a creek or water hole.
Getting his hands wet must have started a tickling in Dragonfly's nose, because right away he let out another long-tailed sneeze. This time the tail was a trembling neigh, sounding like a worried horse crying across the woods to another horse.
Ever since Dragonfly had found out he was going to get to go to the Rockies for the hay fever season and his mother had bought him that fine Stetson, he'd been strutting around in his also-new, high-heeled, pointy-toed cowboy boots. Watching him that week, anybody could have seen that cowboy boots were meant for show-off and for riding more than for comfort. They certainly weren't meant for running, and they weren't easy to walk in.
Imagine an ordinary man or boy wearing high-heeled shoes! Of course, a rider has to have high-heeled, pointed-toed shoes. They fit better in the stirrups, and the high heels keep his feet from going on through. What if a rider should accidentally get thrown off his horse when one foot was clear through the stirrup? He'd be dragged head down and maybe lose his life.
But it wasn't any use to stay mad at Dragonfly.
It seemed a waste of bad temper I might need some other time. His imaginary horse couldn't drink much water anyway. So I killed the old cat's ninth life, swung out of the swing, and crossed the road to where he was still talking to my horse, Silver.
Pretty soon Dragonfly and I were on the way to the gang meeting.
We stopped for a few minutes at the bottom of Bumblebee Hill where the Little Jim Tree grows. "Here," I said to him, "is where Little Jim killed the bear."
"Whoa, Silver! Whoa! You big restless critter, you! Stand still!"
I could see Dragonfly was having a lot of fun pretending he was the famous masked marshal of the Old West. Because, as I've already told you, it would have been a waste of bad temper for me to stay really angry with him, I made a dive for his horse's bridle, went through an acrobatic struggle to stop him from rearing and plunging, and quickly tied his reins to the trunk of the Little Jim Tree.
But in my mind's eye I was seeing again the fierce old mother bear that had been killed here when Little Jim had accidentally rammed the muzzle of Big Jim's rifle down her throat and pulled the trigger. He had saved his own life and maybe the rest of our lives also. That was why we'd named the tree the Little Jim Tree.
Because it was getting close to the time we were supposed to meet the gang at the Snatzerpazooka Tree down by the swimming hole, I got a bright idea. I quickly rolled to my feet from where I'd been lying in the grass, made a dive for Silver's reins, untied them from the tree, and sprang into the saddle.
With a "Hi-yo, Silver!" I started off on a wild gallop for the bayou rail fence, with Dragonfly racing along behind me and yelling, "Come back here with my horse! After him, Tonto! Shoot him down!"
Tonto shot a few times with Dragonfly's saucy voice making him do it, but I knew Tonto and I were supposed to be good friends, so I didn't let any of his imaginary bullets hit me and tumble me off my big white stallion.
It took us only a little while to get to the river birch, where the scarecrow was still hanging, swinging in the breeze and looking like a bedraggled skeleton wearing dirty, faded, ragged clothes. His matted floor-mop hair still covered his face, and he looked pretty fierce.
We'd been panting there only a few minutes, resting on the long, mashed-down blue-grass, before I heard flying footsteps coming up the path from the spring. It was Poetry first, the barrel-shaped member of the gang. Right behind him were Circus, our acrobat, and Little Jim himself with his mouselike face and his tattered straw hat. The second Little Jim got there, I noticed that he had beads of perspiration standing out all over his forehead.
He stopped, looked down at us, grinned, and reached his forefinger to his forehead. Leaning over at the same time, he wiped off all the drops of sweat. The wind blew some of the salty drops onto my face.
Soon Big Jim, carrying a flashlight and a roll of burlap gunnysacks, came swinging along from the direction of the bayou, and we were ready for our important meeting. It was important because—well, because. I'll tell you why in just a minute.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 34 Locked in the Attic by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1999 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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