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Sugar Creek Gang 35 Runaway Rescue
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1999 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
It was a very lazy, sunshiny early summer afternoon, and I was sitting on the board seat of the big swing under the walnut tree, thinking more or less about nothing. I never dreamed that, before the week would pass, I'd be head over heels in the middle of the red shoe mystery.
My reddish brown mustached father had just climbed down our new extension ladder, which had the Collins name painted on it. He'd been checking the top of the swing to see how safe it was, and he said, "Well, Son, you don't need to worry. Everything up there is all right. Just don't let the whole Sugar Creek Gang swing on it at one time."
He took the ladder down, slid the two sections of it together, and carried it toward our truck, which at the time was standing in the shade of the plum tree near the iron pitcher pump. There he lifted that ladder as if it was made of feathers instead of aluminum and laid it in the back of the truck. He was very proud either of our new ladder or of his powerful biceps. I couldn't tell which.
He climbed into the truck's cab then, started the motor, and began to drive toward the gate that leads out onto the gravel road.
"Where you going with that ladder?" I called to him. He was just driving past the mailbox that had "Theodore Collins" painted on it when he called back to me, "One of our neighbors wants to borrow it for a few days."
With that, he was off down the road, a cloud of white dust following him.
I stood up on the board seat of the swing and pumped myself one- or two-dozen times and then sat down to coast, enjoying the feel of the wind in my face and the flapping of my shirt sleeves. Swinging like that gives a boy one of the finest feelings he can have—even if he hardly ever gets to have it very long if his folks are at home.
In fact, that very second Mom called from the east window of our house for me to come and help her with a little woman's work. She wanted the house to have a good cleaning before she left for Memory City tomorrow to spend a week at my cousin Wally's house.
It was while I was dusting the lower shelf of our lamp table that I noticed the birthday book in which Mom keeps a record of all the names and birthday dates of people she sends cards to every year. Just out of curiosity, I leafed through to see whose birthday would be coming soon and gasped in surprise when I saw Mom's own name. Then I remembered her birthday was next Saturday, the day she would be coming home from Memory City.
That meant I'd better set my brain to working and think of something nice to get for her—something extra special.
Mom must have heard me gasp, because she looked up from the kitchen floor where she was spreading wax on the linoleum and said through the open door, "Anything wrong?"
I started whisking my dustcloth a little faster and whistling and hardly bothered to answer, saying with a half yawn, "Oh, nothing. Just something I thought of." And I watched for a chance to put the book back where it had been.
Anyway, it was while I was on my way Saturday afternoon to get a birthday present for Mom that Poetry and I stumbled onto the mystery—the red shoe mystery, that is.
The very special entirely different kind of gift I had decided on was up in the hills not far from Old Man Paddler's cabin. We were trudging happily along when what to my wondering eyes should appear but somebody's red leather slip-on shoe lying in the mud at the edge of the muskrat pond.
That spring-fed pond, as you may already know, is about halfway through the swamp. The sycamore tree and the mouth of the cave are at one end, and the woods near Old Man Paddler's clapboard-roofed log cabin are at the other end.
Even from as far away from the shoe as I was at the time, which was about thirty feet, I could tell it wasn't anybody's old worn-out, thrown-away shoe. It looked almost new, as if it had been worn hardly at all. It had a low heel and was the kind and size a teenage girl might wear.
I was so surprised at what I was seeing that I stopped and stood stock-still, and Poetry, who was walking behind my red wagon in the path, bumped into it with his shins.
For a few seconds, Poetry staggered around trying to regain his lost balance. Then he lost it completely, upsetting the wagon at the same time, and scrambled, rolled, and slid down the slope toward the pond's muddy bank. And also toward the red shoe.
"What on earth!" his ducklike voice managed to squawk at me. "Why don't you let me know when you're going to slam on your brakes like—"
"Look!" I exclaimed. "Right behind you at the edge of the pond! There's a red shoe. There's been a murder or a kidnapping around here somewhere!"
As soon as I said that, I began to think that probably that was what actually had happened. Somebody had kidnapped a girl and was taking her along the path through the swamp—maybe to the haunted house far up in the hills above Old Man Paddler's cabin. When they stopped here to rest a few minutes, the girl had broken away from him and started to run. She had stumbled over something, maybe her own feet, had fallen, and, like Poetry, had rolled down the slope. Her shoe had gotten stuck in the mud and slipped off when she tried to pull it out. But she had kept on running.
I suppose one reason my imagination was running away like that was because the swamp was a very eerie place, even in the daytime. That spongy, tree-shaded, sometimes-flooded tract was where the six members of the Sugar Creek Gang had had quite a few exciting and dangerous adventures in the past.
I never will forget the dark night Big Jim's flashlight spotted old hook-nosed John Till's head lying out in the quicksand about thirty feet from the high path we were always careful to stay on when we were going through. That is, we thought it was his head lying there but found out a split second later that the rest of him was fastened to it. Somehow he had gotten off the only path there is and had been sucked all the way up to his chin in the mire.
That was a feverish time, I tell you. His calls for help and his scared eyes in the light of the flashlight were enough to make any boy's hair stand on end.
And it was in this very swamp that Dragonfly, the pop-eyed member of our gang, had first seen a fierce mother bear wallowing in the mud on a hot summer day the way hogs do in a barnyard wallowing place.
One of our most nerve-tingling experiences happened right here at this muskrat pond when my cousin Wally's copper-colored mongrel, Alexander the Coppersmith, had a fierce under-the-surface battle with a snapping turtle—the biggest turtle there ever was in the Sugar Creek territory.
So, with these adventures in the history section of my mind, it was easy for me to imagine a screaming girl's frantic struggle with a fierce-faced kidnapper, maybe on the grassy mound I myself was on right that second.
With my mind's eye I could see her wrestle herself out of his clutches, stumble, and roll down the bank, where her shoe came off in the mud. She didn't dare stop to get it and put it back on but kept running on through the swamp to the woods and on to Old Man Paddler's cabin or in the other direction to the sycamore tree and the cave.
That was as far as I got to think along that kind of scary line, because Poetry, who had picked up the shoe and had a different feeling about it than I did, started to quote one of the hundred and one poems he knew by heart:
"For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of a horse, the rider was lost."
I'd memorized that poem myself when I was in the fourth grade.
There were quite a few things in our school readers that were supposed to teach us things that were good for a boy to know. This one taught us how important little things could be. If the horse's owner had noticed when the horseshoe had lost a nail and had a new nail put in, the horse wouldn't have lost the shoe and wouldn't have gone lame and stumbled and fallen, and the rider wouldn't have gotten killed. A boy ought to be careful about little things such as having his mother sew up the small torn places in his shirt and not dropping lighted matches anywhere.
That lost-and-found shoe wasn't very large, but it could be a very important clue. "Be careful!" I called down the knoll to Poetry. "Don't wipe off or smudge up any fingerprints!"
"Who cares about fingerprints?" he called back. "Come on down and take a look at these footprints!"
I left my upset wagon where it was and clambered backwards to where Poetry was. "What footprints? Where?" I asked him, not seeing anybody's tracks.
"Right there!" he said. "At the edge of the water!"
I looked again and saw what he was stooped over and pointing at with his right forefinger. "That," I objected, "is a muskrat's track!"
I was looking at a three-inch-long, web-footed track—several of them, in fact—at the water's edge, and I knew that the webbed tracks had been made by the hind feet of one of the cutest wild animals there is in the Sugar Creek territory, a chuckle-headed, beady-eyed, stocky-bodied, nearly naked-tailed rodent.
Next, my eyes searched all along the bank of the pond where we'd found the red shoe. I saw only muskrat tracks—not one single human being's tracks anywhere.
"I guess we have stumbled onto a mystery," Poetry was willing to admit. Then he yawned, as if it wasn't too important, and, handing the red leather shoe to me, he added, "Let's get going. We have to get the tree dug and balled and back and set out before your folks get home."
Now my mind was divided. An hour ago, when we'd started from home, pulling my red wagon along, it seemed I was on the way to do one of the most important things a boy could do—plan a big birthday surprise for his mother.
In fact, Dad and I had planned it together and had managed to keep it a secret for a whole week. It had been easy to keep the secret that long because Mom had been away from home that long. And when she would get back to the Collins place late this afternoon, the surprise would be waiting for her in the backyard just outside the dining room window.
The cute little two-foot-high blue spruce tree Poetry and I were on our way up to Old Man Paddler's to get would be standing green and straight and proud halfway between the two cherry trees at the end of the row of hollyhocks that grew along our orchard fence. Would my wonderful mother ever be pleased!
That's why Poetry and I were taking the path through the swamp instead of the shortcut through the cave. The cave actually comes out in the old man's cellar, but we never could have pulled the wagon through the cave.
As I said, my mind was divided. I had a birthday surprise to hurry up and get for Mom, and maybe I had a kidnap mystery to solve. Somebody somewhere—maybe close by—needed a boy's help.
"How," I demanded of Poetry, as if he knew and didn't want to tell me, "how in the world did the shoe get here? There isn't a human being's tracks anywhere except ours!"
"It fell here, of course. How else?"
"From where?" I asked and looked up at the overhanging branches of a big elm. "Shoes don't grow on trees!"
"All right," he said loftily. "I'll get going on the mystery myself. Somebody's got to solve it, and it may just as well be the best detective in the whole county."
He meant himself, Leslie Thompson, which, even though I knew he was joking, was almost the truth. His mind was always ferreting out the answer to some knotty problem.
"First things first, though," Detective Thompson began, and the tone of his ducklike voice told me he had taken charge of the mystery and I was to take orders from him from now on. "You carry the shoe. I'll pull the wagon this time, and you follow behind. Keep your eyes peeled for anything suspicious such as a red dress with a girl in it and another red shoe with a girl's foot in it."
Of course, Poetry was right about our needing to get going. We had to get going to get done what we had to do, shoe or no shoe, girl or no girl.
Even though in a few minutes we were quite a way from where we had found the red shoe and were hurrying along on the winding narrow path, leaving the pond behind, mymind was still back where it had been. Who, maybe last night, maybe early this morning, maybe only a few hours ago, had been in such a hurry that she had lost a shoe and hadn't dared stop to get it?
Also, Poetry's little ditty was repeating itself in my mind:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
I wasn't thinking of a lost horseshoe, though, but of a lost, left red shoe and the girl who had been wearing it.
I kept my eyes peeled in a circle of directions as we hurried along, looking and hoping to see a red dress with a girl in it. Whoever she was, did she need the kind of help two boys with work-and-play-hardened muscles could give?
Where was the other shoe, and why had this one been tossed away, if it had? I decided to wipe off the mud, using the gunnysack we'd brought along in the wagon for balling the tree.
The shoe, as I'd first decided, was almost new. "Hey!" I gasped to Poetry. "Look at the sole! It doesn't have any mud on it! Only on the side! She wasn't wearing it when it got left in the mud! It wasn't even on her foot!"
But Detective Thompson wasn't impressed. "Like I said," he called back over his shoulder, "it fell or was thrown from somewhere!"
Ahead of us I could see more light through the trees. That meant that soon we'd be through the swamp, into Old Man Paddler's woods, and on the way to his cabin and the stream behind his woodshed where the spruce tree would be waiting for us. In a little while, I started to think, we'd—
And that was as far as I got to think. At right that second, as plain as a white cloud in a clear blue sky, I heard a bloodcurdling scream, the kind a wildcat makes when it's hunting or maybe like a mountain lion makes. It was that loud.
"Wildcat!" I whispered to Poetry, who'd stopped stock-still so suddenly that I whammed into the wagon with my own shins, and we almost had another upset.
"Not a wildcat!" he corrected me. "They do their roaming and hunting in the morning and evening twilight. In the hot afternoons they sleep. Besides, last summer we killed the only wildcat there ever was in this part of the country. Remember?"
I remembered, all right, one of the most dangerous adventures we'd had in our whole lives. But right then I thought of something I'd not thought of for a long time. "She had two little kitten wildcats, didn't she? And we took them to the zoo in Memory City?"
"That's what I said," Poetry countered. "First, we killed the mother, and then we gave her babies away."
"Yeah," I came back, "but whoever heard of a family of wildcats without there being a father as well as a mother! Old Stubtail's babies had to have a father!"
Already I was cringing at the idea, and my eyes were alert for a reddish brown fur coat with a wildcat in it. "There! There it is again!" I half whispered, half yelled to Poetry. This time the sound wasn't a scream, though. It was a wolflike cry that was half howl and half laugh with a little mournful wail all through it.
"It's a loon!" Poetry decided emphatically.
"But it can't be. We've never seen any loons around here. Only when we've been on camping trips in the northern lake country!"
But sounds such as the two bloodcurdling howls we'd just heard had to come from something or somebody. I wished Big Jim were with us with his rifle. Or Circus with his bow and arrow. Or even Little Jim, with his long walking stick, which he'd made himself and always carried. Or Dragonfly, who was good with his slingshot. Anybody, just so there would be more of us if we accidentally did run into a situation that would need the whole gang to solve it or to fight it out.
I was actually trembling inside as, with the red shoe in my hand, I hurried along after Poetry. I just knew there was something wrong somewhere. Somebody somewhere needed our help.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 35 Runaway Rescue by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1999 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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