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Sugar Creek Gang 12 Screams in the Night
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1997 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
I guess I never did get tired thinking about all the interesting and exciting things that happened to the Sugar Creek Gang when we went camping far up in the North. One of the happiest memories was of the time when Poetry, the barrel-shaped member of our gang, and I were lost out in the forest. While we were trying to get unlost we met a brown-faced Indian boy, whose name was Snow-in-the-Face, and his big brother, whose name was Eagle Eye.
Little Snow-in-the-Face was the cutest little Indian boy I had ever seen. In fact, he was the first one I'd ever seen up close. I kept thinking about him and wishing that the whole Sugar Creek Gang could go again up into that wonderful country that everybody calls the Paul Bunyan Playground and see how Snow-in-the-Face was getting along and how his big brother's Indian Sunday school was growing, which, as you know, they were having every Sunday in an old railroad coach they had taken into the forest and fixed up as a church.
I never had any idea that we would get to go back the very next summer. But here I am, telling you about how we happened to get to go, and how quick we started, and all the exciting things that happened on the way and after we got there—especially after we got there. Boy, oh, boy! It was fun—especially that night when we ran ker-smack into a kidnapper mystery, and some of us who were mixed up in it were scared almost half to death.
Imagine a very dark night with only enough moonlight to make things look spooky, and strange screaming sounds echoing through the forest and over the lake, and then finding a kidnapped girl all wrapped in an Indian blanket with a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth and—but that's getting ahead of the story, and I'd better not tell you how that happened until I get to it, because it might spoil the story for you. And I hope you won't start turning the pages of this book real fast and read the mystery first, because that wouldn't be fair.
Anyway, this is how we got to go.
Some of us from the Sugar Creek Gang were lying in the long mashed-down grass in a level place not far from where the hill goes down real steep to the spring at the bottom, where my dad is always sending me to get a pail of cold fresh water for us to drink at our house. We were all lying in different directions, talking and laughing and yawning and pretending to be sleepy. Some of us were tumbling around a little and making a nuisance of ourselves to each other. Most of us had long stems of blue-grass in our mouths and were chewing on the ends, and all of us were feeling great. I had my binoculars up to my eyes looking around at different things.
First I watched a red squirrel high up in a big sugar tree, lying flat and lazy on the top of a gray branch as though he was taking a two-o'clock-in-the-afternoon sunbath, which was what time of day it was that Saturday. I had been lying on my back looking up at the squirrel.
Then I rolled over and got onto my knees and focused the binoculars on Sugar Creek. Sugar Creek's face was lazy here, because it was a wide part of the creek, and the water moved very slowly, hardly moving, and was as quiet as Pass Lake had been up in Minnesota in the Paul Bunyan country on a very quiet day. There were little whitish patches of different-shaped specks of foam floating along on the brownish-blue water.
While I was looking at Sugar Creek with its wide, quiet face and dreaming about a big blue-water lake up North, I saw some V-shaped waves coming out across the creek from the opposite shore. The pointed end of the V was coming straight toward the spring and bringing the rest of the V along with it. I knew right away it was a muskrat swimming toward our side of the creek.
As I looked at the brownish muskrat through my binoculars, it seemed very close. I could see its pretty chestnut-brown fur. Its head was broad and sort of blunt, and I knew if I could have seen its tail it would have been about half as long as the muskrat, deeper than it was wide, and that it would have scales on it and only a few scattered hairs. I quickly grabbed a big rock and threw it as straight and hard as I could right toward the acute angle of the long moving V, which was still coming across the creek toward us.
And would you believe this? I'm not always such a good shot with a rock, but this time that rock went straight toward where the muskrat was headed. And by the time the rock and the muskrat got to the same place, the rock went kerswishety-splash right on the broad blunt head of the musquash, which is another and kind of fancy name for a muskrat.
Circus, the acrobat in our gang, was the only one who saw me do what I had done. He yelled out to me in a voice that sounded like a circus barker's voice, "Atta boy, Bill! Boy, oh, boy, that was a great shot! I couldn't have done any better myself!"
"Better than what?" nearly all the rest of the gang woke up and asked him at the same time.
"Bill killed an Ondatra zibethica," Circus said, which is the Latin name for a muskrat. Circus's dad is a trapper, and Circus has a good animal book in his library. "Socked it in the head with a rock."
Everybody looked out toward Sugar Creek to the place where the rock had socked the Ondatra and where the two forks of the V were getting wider and wider, almost disappearing into nothing, the way waves do when they get old enough.
"Look at those waves!" Poetry said, meaning the new waves my big rock had started.There was a widening circle going out from where it had struck.
"Reminds me of the waves on Pass Lake where we spent our vacation last summer," Poetry said. "Remember the ones we had a tilt-a-whirl ride on when Eagle Eye's boat upset and we got separated from it? If we hadn't had our life vests on we'd have been drowned because it was too far from the shore to swim!"
"Sure," Dragonfly piped up, "and that's the reason why every boy in the world who is in a boat on a lake or river ought to wear a life vest, or else there ought to be plenty of life preservers in the boat, just in case."
"Hey!" Little Jim piped up, squeaking in his mouselike voice. "Your On-onda-something-or-other has come to life away down the creek!"
And sure enough it had. Way down the creek, maybe fifty feet farther, there was another V moving along toward the Sugar Creek bridge, which meant I hadn't killed the musquash at all but only scared it. Maybe my rock hadn't even hit it, and it had ducked and swum under water the way Ondatra zibethicas do in Sugar Creek and as loons do in Pass Lake in northern Minnesota.
"I'm thirsty," Circus said. He jumped up from where he had been lying on his back with his feet propped up on a big hollow stump. That hollow stump was the same one his dad had slipped down inside once and had gotten bit by a black widow spider that had had her web inside.
Right away we were all scurrying down the steep hill to the spring and getting a drink of water apiece, either stooping down and drinking like cows or else using the paper cups that we kept in a little container we had put on the tree that leaned over the spring—in place of the old tin cup that we'd battered into a flat piece of tin and thrown into Sugar Creek.
All of a sudden, we heard a strange noise up at the top of the hill that sounded like somebody moving along through last year's dead leaves and at the same time talking or mumbling to himself about something.
"Sh!" Dragonfly said, shushing us, he being the one who nearly always heard or saw something before any of the rest of us did.
We all hushed, and then I heard a man's voice talking to himself or something up there at the top of the hill.
"Sh!" I said, and we all stopped whatever we had been doing and didn't move, all except Little Jim. He lost his balance and, to keep from falling the wrong direction—which was into a puddle of cold clean water on the other side of the spring—he had to step awkwardly in several places, jumping from one rock to another and using his pretty stick-candy-looking stick to help him.
We kept hushed for a minute, and the sound up at the top of the hill kept right on—leaves rasping and rustling and a man's voice mumbling something as though he was talking to himself.
All of us had our eyes on Big Jim, our leader. I was looking at his fuzzy mustache, which was like the down on a baby pigeon, wondering who was up on the hilltop, thinking about how I wished I could get a little fuzz on my upper lip, and wondering if I could make mine grow if I used some kind of cream on it or something, the way girls do when they want to look older than they are.
Big Jim looked around at the irregular circle of us and nodded to me, motioning with his thumb for me to follow him. He stopped all the rest of the gang from following. And the next minute I was creeping quietly up that steep incline behind Big Jim.
Little Jim also came along, because right at the last second Big Jim motioned to him that he could, as he had a hurt look in his eyes as if maybe nobody thought he was important because he was so little.
I had a trembling feeling inside of me. I just knew there was going to be a surprise at the top of that hill and maybe a mystery. Also, I felt proud that Big Jim had picked me out to go up with him, because he nearly always picks Circus, who is next biggest in the gang.
I didn't need to feel proud, though, because when I heard a little slithering noise behind me, I knew why Circus didn't get invited—he was halfway up a small sapling that grew near the spring. He was already almost high enough to see what was going on at the top of the hill. Circus was doing what he was always doing anyway, climbing trees most any time or all the time, looking like a monkey even when he wasn't up a tree. The only thing that kept him from hanging by his tail like a monkey was that he didn't have any tail, but he could hang by his legs anyway.
When we had almost reached the top, I felt Little Jim's small hand take hold of my arm tight, as if he was scared, because we could still hear somebody walking around and talking to himself.
Big Jim stopped us, and we all very slowly half crawled the rest of the way up. My heart was pounding like everything. I just knew there was going to be excitement at the top. And when you know there is going to be excitement, you can't wait for it but get excited right away.
"Listen!" Little Jim whispered to me. "He's pounding something."
"Sh!" Big Jim said to us, frowning fiercely, and we kept still.
What's going on up there? I wondered and wished I was a little farther up, but Big Jim had stopped us again so we could listen.
One, two, three—pound, pound, pound. There were nine or ten whacks with something on something, and then the pounding stopped, and we heard footsteps going away.
I looked back down the hill at the rest of the gang. Dragonfly's eyes were large and round, as they are when he is half scared or excited. Poetry had a scowl on his broad face,
since he was the one who had a detectivelike mind and was maybe disappointed that Big Jim had made him stay at the bottom of the hill. Little red-haired Tom Till's freckled face looked very strange. He was stooped over, trying to pry a root loose out of the ground so that he'd be ready to throw it at somebody or something if he got a chance or if he had to. His face looked as if he was ready for some kind of fight and that he half hoped there might be one.
And if I had been down there at the bottom of the incline at the spring and somebody else had been looking down at me, he would have seen another red-haired, freckled-faced boy, whose hair was trying to stand up on end under his old straw hat and who wasn't much to look at but who had a fiery temper, which had to be watched all the time or it would explode on somebody or something.
Maybe, in case you've never read anything about the Sugar Creek Gang before, I'd better tell you that I am red-haired and freckled-faced and do have a fiery temper some of the time—and that my name is Bill Collins. I have a great mom and dad and a little baby sister, whose name is Charlotte Ann, and I'm the only boy in the Collins family.
I whirled around quickly from looking down the hill at the rest of the gang and from seeing Circus, who was up the elm sapling trying to see over the crest of the hill but probably couldn't. Big Jim had his finger up to his lips for all of us to keep still, which we did.
The pounding had stopped, and we could hear footsteps moving along in the woods, getting fainter and fainter.
Then Big Jim said to us, "He can't hear us now. His shoes are making so much noise in the leaves."
We hurried to the top and looked, and Little Jim whispered, "It's somebody wearing old overalls," which it was, and he was disappearing around the corner of the path that led from the spring down the creek, going toward the old sycamore tree and the swamp.
Big Jim gave us the signal, and all of us broke out of our very painful silence and were acting like ourselves again but wondering who on earth had been there and what he had been doing and why.
All of a sudden, Dragonfly, who had been looking around for shoe tracks with Poetry, let out a yell and said, "Hey, gang, come here! Here's a letter nailed onto the old Black Widow Stump!" which was the name we'd given the stump after Circus's dad had been bitten there.
We all made a rush to where Dragonfly's dragonflylike eyes were studying something on the stump, and then I was reading the envelope, which said, in very awkward old handwriting:
To the Sugar Creek Gang
(Personal. Please open at once.)CHAPTER 2
I just stood there with all the rest of the members of the Sugar Creek Gang, staring at the envelope and the crazy old handwriting on it that said, "Personal. Please open at once."
Big Jim, the leader of our gang, reached out and tore the envelope off the nail that had been driven through the corner where the stamp would have been if there had been one. He handed it to me. "Read it out loud to all of us," he said.
I couldn't imagine what was on the inside. I didn't recognize the writing and couldn't even guess who had written it.
"Stand back, everybody," Big Jim ordered, "and let him have plenty of room."
"Yeah, let him have plenty of room. It might explode," Dragonfly said.
I tore open the envelope in a hurry, and this is what I read:
Members of the Sugar Creek Gang—Big Jim, Little Jim, Poetry, Circus, Dragonfly, Bill Collins, and Tom Till—as soon as you can after reading this, make a beeline for Bumblebee Hill, climb through the barbed-wire fence at the top, and stop at the tombstone of Sarah Paddler in the old abandoned cemetery. There you will find another letter giving you instructions what to do next. It is VERY IMPORTANT.
G U E S S
I read the letter out loud in a sort of trembling voice because I was a little scared. Then I looked around at different ones to see what they were thinking, but couldn't tell.
"What'll we do?" Little Jim piped up.
Little Tom Till swallowed hard as if he had taken too big a bite of something and was trying to swallow it. Then he sort of stuttered, "M-maybe a ghost wrote it."
I looked quickly at Dragonfly since he believes there is such a thing as a ghost, because his mother thinks there is, and right away he had a funny expression on his face. His dragonflylike eyes looked even larger than they were. "My mother told me to stay out of that cemetery," he said.
"Aw, fraidy-cat," Poetry said, "there isn't any such thing as a ghost. Besides, ghosts can't write."
"Oh, yes, they can," Dragonfly said. "I saw it in the newspaper once that a senator or somebody's speech was written by a ghostwriter and—"
"That's crazy!" Poetry said. "A ghostwriter is a person nobody knows, who writes something for somebody else, and nobody knows it. But it's a real person and not a ghost."
Poetry read an awful lot of the many books his dad and mom were always buying for him, and he was as smart as anything.
Tom Till spoke up then and said, "A ghost wouldn't know that Bumblebee Hill had its name changed from Strawberry Hill to Bumblebee Hill, would it?"
And right away I was remembering that hill where the gang had had a fierce fight with a town gang, when Little Tom had still belonged to that other gang. We had all stirred up a bumblebees' nest and had gotten stung in different places, which had hurt worse than each other's fists had, and the fight had broken up. We'd given that hill a new name.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 12 Screams in the Night by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1997 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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