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The Mystery Cave
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1997 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
The things that happened to the Sugar Creek Gang that dark night we all went hunting with Circus's dad's big, long-bodied, long-nosed, long-tongued, long-voiced dogs would make any boy want them to happen all over again, even if some of them were rather spooky and dangerous.
Let me tell you about our hunting trip right this minute—that is, as soon as I get to it. As you probably know, Circus is the name of the acrobat in our gang. His dad, Dan Browne, makes his living in the wintertime by hunting and trapping—catching animals whose fur is used to keep people warm and to trim hats and collars for women's coats.
Anyway, the Sugar Creek Gang were all invited by Circus's dad to go hunting with him that Friday night. We expected to have a lot of fun, walking by the light of kerosene lanterns through the dark woods along the creek, listening to the mournful bawling of the hounds on the trail of -well, most anything, such as raccoons, possums, and even skunks. We also all hoped we might run into another bear. Remember the one Little Jim killed in one of the other stories about the gang?
Friday night finally came, which is the best night for a boy to be up late, because there isn't any school on Saturday and he can sleep late in the morning if he wants to. And if his parents want him to, which some parents sometimes don't.
Right after chores were done at our farm—we did them in the dark by lantern light as we always do in the late fall and winter—the Collins family, which is ours, ate a great supper of raw-fried potatoes and milk and cheese and cold apple pie and different things. Boy, it was good!
I looked across the table at my baby sister, Charlotte Ann, who was half sitting and half sliding down in her high chair. Her eyes were half shut, and her little round brown head was bobbing like the bobber on a boy's fishing line when he is getting a nibble, just before he gets a bite and kerplunk it goes all the way under and the fun begins. Just that minute Charlotte Ann's round brown head went down a long way, and my grayish-brown-haired mom, who has a very kind face and the same kind of heart, stood up, untied the cord that held Charlotte Ann in the chair, lifted her carefully, and took her into the bedroom to put her into her crib, which I knew had a Scottish terrier design on its side.
I felt proud to think that I knew nearly every kind of dog there was in the world, certainly all the different kinds there were in Sugar Creek, which is a very important part of the world. I even knew the dogs by name, but for some reason we had never had a dog in the Collins family.
Well, for a minute Dad and I were alone, and the way he looked at me made me wonder if I had done anything wrong, or if maybe I was going to and he was going to tell me not to.
"Well, Son," he said, looking at me with his blue eyes, which were buried under his big, blackish-red, bushy eyebrows. His teeth were shining under his reddish-brown mustache, though, and when his teeth are shining like that so I can see them, it is sort of like a dog wagging his tail. That meant he liked me, and there wasn't going to be any trouble. Yet trouble can happen mighty quick in a family if there is a boy in it who likes to do what he likes to do, which I did.
"What?" I said.
Dad's voice was deep, as it always is, like a bullfrog's voice along Sugar Creek at night, as he said, "I'm sorry, Bill, to have to announce that —" He stopped and looked long at me.
All of a sudden my heart felt as if some wicked magician had changed it into a lump of lead. What was he going to announce? What was he waiting for, and what had I done wrong, or what was I about to do that I shouldn't?
Just that minute, while Dad's sentence was still hanging like a heavy weight of some kind about to drop on my head, Mom came in from having tucked Charlotte Ann into bed. "I'll fix a nice lunch for you to take along in your school lunch pail, Bill. Apple pie, warm cocoa, sandwiches, and—"
My dad must have been thinking about what he was going to say and not hearing Mom at all. He went on with his sentence by saying, "Sorry to have to announce that Dr. Mellen called up this afternoon and said he would be ready for you to get your teeth filled tomorrow morning at eight. I tried to arrange some other time for you, but we had to take that or wait another week, so you'll have to be home and in bed a little after eleven.
"I've made arrangements for Dan Browne to leave you and Little Jim at Old Man Paddler's cabin, where Little Jim's daddy will pick you up. Little Jim's piano lesson is at nine in the morning anyway, so his mother —"
Well, that was that. Little Jim and I couldn't stay out in the woods as late as the rest of the gang. My heart was not only lead but hot lead, because I didn't like to go to a dentist and have my teeth filled, and I didn't want to come home till the rest of the gang did.
I felt sad and must have looked sadder.
"What's the matter?" Mom said. "Don't you like apple pie and cocoa and sandwiches?"
I was thinking about a cavity I had in one of my best teeth, and I was thinking about how I would look with a little piece of shining gold in one of my front teeth, so I said to Dad, "What kind of filling?"
And Mom said, "Roast beef and salad dressing."
And Dad said, "Gold, maybe, for one and porcelain for the others."
And Mom exclaimed, "What in the—" and stopped just as we heard the sound of steps on our front porch, and I saw the flashing of a lantern outside the window and heard different kinds of voices at different pitches. I knew the gang was coming.
In a minute I was out of my chair and into my red crossbarred mackinaw, with my red corduroy cap pulled on tight. I was making a dive for the door when Dad's deep voice stopped me by saying, "You forgot your manners again."
So I said, "I mean, excuse me, please. Where's my lunch, Mom?" Maybe I didn't have any manners at all for a minute.
My lunch wasn't ready, so I went outside and waited for it and for the rest of the gang to come. Our house was the place where they had all agreed to meet.
I say the rest of the gang because only two were there: Poetry, our barrel-shaped member, who knows 101 poems by heart, and Dragonfly, the spindly-legged member, whose eyes are too large for his head and whose nose is crooked at the bottom.
Dragonfly's teeth are also too large and will be until his face and head grow some more. And he is sometimes "seeing" things that are not there. The very minute I saw Dragonfly with his big dragonflylike eyes shining in the lantern light, I knew that something new and different was going to happen on our hunting trip—nothing to worry about, of course, but just to wonder about. I had enough to worry me by thinking of the dentist and the next morning at eight o'clock.
I had no sooner gotten outside than there was a whimpering sound at my knees. Looking down, I saw a tan long-muzzled dog with curly rough hair. It was sniffing at my boots to see if it liked me enough to wag its stumpy tail at me, which it did, only it didn't waste much time on me, because right that minute our black-and-white cat, Mixy, came arching her back along the side of the porch, looking for somebody's legs to rub up against. She and that tan dog saw and smelled each other at the same time.
The next thing I knew, a streak of brown and a streak of black-and-white were cutting a terribly fast hole through the dark on the way to our barn.
Dragonfly let out a yell. "Hey, Jeep! Leave that cat alone!" It was Dragonfly's new dog, which his parents had bought for him somewhere.
Just then Poetry's squawky, ducklike voice began quoting one of his poems. It sounded funny, and his round face looked funnier in the light of his lantern, which he was holding close, trying to see what was happening to the cat—or maybe to the dog, because old Mixy cat was a fierce fighter if a dog ever caught up with her. The poem went:
Hey! diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
"The dog ran away with the cat, you mean," I said.
Just then we heard a banging out in the barnyard, which sounded as if one of our cows had tried to jump over the moon and hadn't been able to make it on account of the barn or a hog house being in the way.
"You certainly aren't going to take that Airedale along with us on our hunting trip!" I said to Dragonfly.
"I certainly am!" he replied. Then he added, "And why not?"
It was Poetry who answered squawkily, "'Cause any dog that is nervous like that and goes shooting like a torpedo after a cat wouldn't be worth a picayune on a hunting trip. He'd have the hounds off the trail half the time, barking at rabbits in a brush pile or up the wrong tree or chasing somebody's house cat."
"What's a picayune?" Dragonfly wanted to know.
And because I'd had the word in spelling that week and had looked it up, I said, "A picayune is 'a person or a thing of trifling value.'"
Well, that little spindly-legged guy was peeved on account of what Poetry had said about his Airedale. He said saucily, "Here, Picayune, give me that lantern a minute, and I'll go out and save the cat's life."
He snatched the lantern, which Poetry let him have, and started off to the barn lickety-sizzle, leaving Poetry and me alone in the dark, with the light from the house shining out across the porch on Poetry's green corduroy cap and his brown leather jacket.
The light also shone on his round face and his very big feet. Poetry had the longest feet in all the Sugar Creek Gang. He was wearing leather boots with rubbers on them to keep his feet dry because it was muddy in places and there would be plenty of wet grass and leaves and maybe puddles to walk and run in on our hunting trip.
The weather was just right for hunting, though, because when the ground is damp like that, the hounds can smell better, and the coons and possums and things leave their scent on the leaves and grass or wherever they walk or run or climb.
I had learned all that from my dad and from Circus himself. Besides, any boy on a farm knows these things.
Just that minute we heard galloping hoofs and a snorting horse. And then Circus came riding into our lane and up to our back door. The minute his pony slid to a quick stop, Circus kicked his feet out of the stirrups. In a split second he was standing on his hands on the saddle with his medium-sized feet balanced in the air, before he swung himself out over the pony's heaving side and landed on the boardwalk beside Poetry and me.
"Hello, gang," he said. "Where's everybody?"
"I'm right here!" a new voice called from the path that ran through our orchard. Looking behind me, I saw a flashlight bobbing back and forth like the pendulum on our kitchen clock. It was two people, a tallish boy with his cap on sideways, and a short-legged little guy with his cap on backwards and with the bill turned up. It was Big Jim and Little Jim. Both were wearing rubber boots, and all of us were wearing mittens or gloves.
That was all of the original Sugar Creek Gang except for Dragonfly, who just that minute came galloping up from the barn, swinging Poetry's lantern. His Airedale dog was beside him and in front of him and behind him at almost the same time. The light of the lantern made so many shadows in different directions that Dragonfly looked like three boys with four dogs jumping around him.
There was one other member of our gang, Little Tom Till, who lived across the creek a half mile or so away and whose big brother, Bob, had caused us so much trouble. Tom Till had red hair and freckles like mine and wasn't ashamed of it. He and I didn't have any more fights, because I'd found out he was a better guy on the inside than showed on the outside, as lots of red-haired, freckled-faced people are-including maybe me, some of the time.
Just as I was wondering if red-haired Tom was coming, Little Jim, who is my best friend in the whole gang except for maybe Poetry or Dragonfly, sidled over to me and, tugging at my arm, started to tell me something.
I leaned over and listened, and he said, "Tom Till's daddy is gone again, and nobody knows where. My daddy says we'd better—we'd better—"
"Anybody seen anything of Tom?" Big Jim wanted to know. Big Jim and Big Bob Till had been terrible enemies for a year or two, you know, but weren't anymore although they still didn't like each other very well and maybe never would. Big Jim was kindhearted though, and he was especially kind to Little Tom.
Big Jim's question stopped Little Jim from telling me the rest of what he was about to tell me.
"Tom can't come," Little Jim said.
Little Jim, I'd better explain, wasn't Big Jim's brother. They just happened to have the same first name.
Then Little Jim tugged at my arm again, and I leaned over again, and he started to finish his sentence again, and it was, "John Till is in trouble with the police, and Daddy says we'd better—we'd better—"
Just that second our back door swung open wide, and the light came splashing out across the porch and into all our faces. And my mom called, "Your lunch is ready, Bill! Oh, hello, everybody! They're all here, Dad!" she called back into our house.
My big strong dad came out onto the porch and looked us over with eyes that were almost buried under his bushy brows. He said, "Well, gang, have a good time. I'm sorry I can't go along, but I have some letters to write. When you get to Seneth Paddler's cabin up in the hills, tell him I'll be around to see him about Palm Tree Island tomorrow sometime."
"We'd better get going," Circus said. "Dad told me to tell you all to hurry up. That's why he sent me over—to tell you to step on the gas. The hounds are almost crazy to get started, and it may either rain or clear off or turn cold, and if it turns cold and freezes, they can't trail very well."
That was that, and Little Jim still hadn't told me what his dad wanted him to tell me—or us.
In a few minutes we were ready. Little Jim was riding on the pony behind Circus, and the rest of us were scrambling along behind. Dragonfly's crazy Airedale shuffled along all around and in between us. Dad's last words were ringing in my ears, "Don't forget, Bill, to tell Seneth Paddler I'll be over to see him tomorrow about Palm Tree Island."
That didn't interest us much except that we all knew that Old Man Paddler, who is one of the greatest old men that ever lived, had probably asked my father to send some money down there to some missionaries. Old Man Paddler was much interested in things like that.
Just then Dragonfly's Airedale darted in between my legs on his awkward way across the road to give chase to a rabbit. I stumbled over him and over myself and went down into a small puddle.
"That crazy dog!" I exclaimed from somewhere in the center of the road. "What on earth do you want him to go along for?"
"That's what I say!" Poetry huffed from beside me. And—would you believe it?—he was getting up off the ground at the same time I was.
"He's a wonderful dog," Dragonfly said defensively. "Just you wait and see. He'll maybe catch a bear or a lion or maybe save somebody's life or something. I read a story once about—"
"Hurry up, you guys!" Circus called back to us from his pony, and we did, all of us starting to run to try to keep up with him.
Poetry, puffing along beside me, said between puffs, "I just know that curly-haired mongrel is going to get us into trouble."
"He's not a mongrel!" Dragonfly exclaimed behind us. "He's a purebred Airedale."
"He's a picayune!" I told Dragonfly. "He's a thing of trifling value."
"He's a person!" Dragonfly cried. "Here, Jeep! Here, Jeep!" he called. "Come back here and leave that rabbit alone! We're going coon hunting!"
Pretty soon we came in sight of Circus's sort of old-looking house, where there was a light in an upstairs window with somebody moving about, maybe turning down the covers for some of Circus's many sisters who lived there. He was the only boy.
Excerpted from The Mystery Cave by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1997 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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