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Sugar Creek Gang 31 Tree House Mystery
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1999 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
It was one of the rainiest days I ever saw.
If it hadn't been a rainy day, I might not have been browsing around in our big Merriam Webster International Dictionary, which we keep upstairs in the alcove of our south bedroom.
And if I hadn't been browsing around in the dictionary just to give my mind something to do—and also to keep from losing it—I wouldn't have stumbled onto the very exciting idea that was to give the Gang a flying start into one of the strangest experiences we'd ever had.
Without that exciting idea, we wouldn't have built the tree house I'm going to tell you about right now. I'll also tell you about the mysterious stranger who moved into it one night—without our permission—and landed us into the middle of one of the saddest stories there ever was. Part of it actually happened to us but most of it to the old stranger himself.
Before there was any sadness, though, there was a lot of gladness, and the six members of the Sugar Creek Gang were right in the middle of everything—all the mystery and hot-tempered action, the disappointments, and the brand-new kind of danger. It would be the kind of danger that makes a boy feel fine to be in the middle of—the way a boy feels fine to be racing along in the center of a whirlwind, dodging this way and that, running in zigzag fashion out across the pasture, not knowing where he is going or when he will stop.
Actually, it took two ideas to get things really started. The first one came flying into my mind from page 2,386 in the dictionary, and the other came in through my left ear when I answered the telephone about seven minutes later.
It had been thundering a lot and lightning all kinds of the prettiest lightning you ever saw. Some of it was what Dad calls just plain "sheet" lightning and some of it "chain" or "forked" lightning, tearing like mad across the Sugar Creek sky.
About fifteen minutes after the thundery part of the storm was over, the rain settled down into a lazy drizzle that anybody who knows his rain knows is the kind that sometimes lasts all day. It's hard to keep from feeling grouchy in that kind of weather.
Well, as our family does with nearly everything around our place, we had given our dictionary a name, calling it "Aunt Miriam." Its actual name, as you know if you have one like it, was The Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary, Second Edition.
Many times when Mom is wondering where Dad is and can't find him anywhere else, she makes a beeline for our upstairs south bedroom and finds him in the alcove with Aunt Miriam, working a crossword puzzle or just moseying from page to page, picking up new things to think about.
"My mind gets awfully hungry," Dad often says to her and then adds jokingly, "and my wife is a bad cook!"
Mom herself spends quite a lot of time with Aunt Miriam every week when she is studying her Sunday school lesson. She is the teacher of the Gleaners' class. Maybe a thousand times I've heard Mom say, "Miriam has the most interesting ideas to make the lesson come to life."
I guess I was feeling especially grumpy that rainy afternoon, not being able to go outdoors or be with any of the gang as I wanted to. Mom was sitting sewing near the east window in our living room, getting as much light as she could from the murky sky. Charlotte Ann, my sometimes-cute baby sister, was pestering me to give her another piggyback ride, and I didn't want to do it. I'd already walked and run and crawled all over the whole downstairs with her on my back—and also on my shoulders—maybe a half dozen times that afternoon.
Now I wanted a little peace and quiet for my mind, which was very hungry and trying to get something to eat out of a new book my parents had bought me for my birthday.
So when Charlotte Ann kept on fussing and tugging at me, I yelled at her, "Scat, will you! Leave me alone!" I swung around in my chair, turning my back on her and starting to let my mind sink down into one of the most interesting books I had ever owned. It had in it more than a hundred colored pictures of American birds with interesting facts about the bird families they belonged to. A lot of the birds were the kind that lived and moved and made their nests around Sugar Creek.
There were quite a few long words in the book, and it was fun to learn the meaning of them. Two of the words were especially important to anybody who wants to learn about birds. One of the words was altricial and the other precocial, and Aunt Miriam knew exactly what they meant.
The precocial bird babies, such as ducklings or chickens or grouse or shorebirds, are born with down or fuzz on them and are able to run around to find their own food soon after hatching.
But most baby birds are those called altricial. They are hatched completely naked, and all their food has to be carried to them, they are so helpless.
I was thinking, as I sat straining my eyes in the dark room, that Charlotte Ann was like an altricial baby bird. She'd had to be waited on hand and foot ever since she was born. She still had to be, almost two-thirds of the time, or she wasn't happy. She just couldn't be baby-sat with but had to have something doing every second, and I had to do it. If what I did seemed funny to her or made her happy, I had to keep on doing it, over and over and over again.
If only she would quit pestering me, I could do a little thinking, I thought. That's when I whirled around in my chair, and that's when I had to stop reading.
As I whirled, my left foot struck against her chubby little legs, bowled her over, and sent her sprawling onto the floor. She let out a shriek and started to cry, her voice sounding like a loon choking on a half-swallowed fish. It sounded only a little bit like a human baby crying.
Well, that unearthly cry coming from Charlotte Ann shattered Mom's peace and quiet and brought her voice to excited life. "Bill Collins! What on earth is the matter with you today! You certainly don't act very sociable!" she exclaimed, probably meaning she thought I ought to stop reading my interesting book about American birds and become a baby-sister-sitter by giving Charlotte Ann another piggyback ride around the house.
The word sociable was new to me, so I decided that as soon as the chance came, I'd go upstairs to the alcove to see what Miriam had to say about it—to see what kind of boy I wasn't and Mom wished I were.
Well, I baby-sister-sat for another half hour, and Charlotte Ann still wasn't satisfied but got fussier and fussier. Being on my hands and knees at the time, I tumbled her off my shoulders onto the floor—sort of accidentally, maybe—and exclaimed to her, "You are the most altricial bird I ever saw. What on earth's the matter with you, anyway? Why don't you grow up?"
But, of course, a toddler only three years old couldn't get any older all of a sudden.
Mom decided she was "fussy-sleepy" and needed her nap, so we put her into her pink Scottie-dog bed in the downstairs bedroom and shut the door. And I was free to do what I wanted to do for a while.
"Where are you going?" Mom asked when I started toward the kitchen to go through it to the stairway.
"Up to see Aunt Miriam," I answered, which is the same thing Dad always says when he is going up to look up something. "My mind is half starved, and my mother is a bad cook."
"Can't you stay down here to keep me company?" Mom asked with an accusation in her voice. "It's a very gloomy day."
"I'm sorry," I said back to her, "but I don't feel very sociable this afternoon," thinking maybe I already knew what the word meant. I kept on going toward the stairs, expecting that Mom's voice would lasso me any second and make me come back to mother-sit awhile. But when I climbed all the way up to Aunt Miriam's alcove without being stopped, I decided she wasn't going to be a helpless mother who had to have attention on a rainy day.
I stood looking down at Miriam on her little roll-away table and thought how nice it was that she was always ready to let a boy know almost anything he wanted to know.
Miriam was always open, even when nobody was using her, because that was part of the instructions that had come with her when Dad bought her. We were always to leave her open with about the same number of pages on either side. It was better for such a large book to be kept like that.
First, I lifted the purple scarf Mom had made for her so that her staying open like that wouldn't make her a dust catcher, because dust is not good for an open book.
In a minute now, I would know what kind of boy I was supposed to be and wasn't. I'd find out what Mom had meant when she said, "You certainly don't act very sociable."
Before looking up the word, I rolled Miriam's table over to the rain-spattered south window, where there was more light, and stood for a long minute looking down and out through the curtain of falling rain at the puddles in the barnyard. Then I looked up at the excited clouds, still scudding across the sky as if they were disgusted with life and didn't care who knew it—as if they would rather be sailing around high and dry, far up in a beautiful sunshiny blue sky. Even the clouds looked grumpy and felt so bad that they were crying about it, I thought.
Grumpy clouds and a grumpy boy with grumpy memories! That was the way I felt that very minute. Through the window that was catching all the rain's tears it could and draining them off onto the ivy leaves below, I noticed the pignut trees up at the end of the garden. They were tossing around in the half-mad wind, and I remembered something very exciting that had happened in the clover field up there.
That topsy-turvy experience had been caused by a new boy who had moved into our neighborhood, a boy named Shorty Long, whose blue cow had upset the calm of the whole territory. I had fought several times with Shorty. In at least one of the battles—in which he had bashed my nose—I had given him a licking. I had also been licked myself at the end of that same fight.
"Ho hum," I sighed through the window at the rain. "At least I won't have to worry about the short, fat Long boy this summer!" His family had moved away. Shorty's blue cow, Babe, was also gone, and as far as we knew there wasn't a single boy enemy left to cause us any trouble.
But, I thought right that second, what boy wants that? What he really wants is to be in the middle of some kind of excitement.
Still not ready to look up the word I had come to look up, I lazed to the unpainted cedar attic door and opened it just to listen to the rain on the shingled roof. That was one of my favorite sounds—rain on our attic roof or on our barn roof when I'm up in the haymow. Rain on a shingled roof makes a boy feel sad and glad and lonesome all at the same time, like seeing and feeling a baby rabbit trembling in the palm of his hand.
Pretty soon I was back in front of Miriam, turning her big pages to the word sociable.
"So that's what I'm not," I said aloud when I saw what Miriam said Mom had said I wasn't very. "I'm not very 'friendly,' I am not 'inclined to seek or enjoy companionship with others of the same species.'"
"Mom is wrong," I said to me. "I'm one of the most sociable people in the world—when I'm with the Gang."
My mind reached out its arms and gave a great big sociable hug to every other member: Big Jim with his almost-mustache and powerful biceps; Little Jim, the littlest member; Dragonfly, the spindle-legged member, who is allergic to ragweed in hay fever season and sneezes at almost every strange smell; Poetry, the barrel-shaped member and my almost-best friend, who likes poetry almost better than most boys like blackberry pie; and Circus, who has a beautiful singing voice and, when he grins, looks more like a monkey than any of the rest of us.
Right then my eyes stumbled onto something especially interesting. It was the picture of a bird perched on a branch of what looked like a large toadstool, except that it wasn't a toadstool. It was, Miriam explained, a huge bird's nest. The bird was what is called an African sociable weaverbird, "which breeds in colonies, nesting in one great umbrella-shaped structure of grass placed in a tree."
I looked in Dad's encyclopedia, then, and learned that sometimes as many as a hundred or even two hundred pairs of sociable weaver-bird parents work together to build a giant-sized grass house with hundreds of small nests in it. And the birds all live together without fighting.
For some reason, right that second it seemed I ought to be willing to give my own sister a few extra piggyback rides without complaining. Maybe I could even help the whole Collins family build a more friendly home.
Just as I was wheeling Miriam back to her place in the alcove, I heard the phone downstairs ring, and my mind leaped into hope that whoever was calling would be one of the gang, one of my very own "species."
I hadn't any sooner reached the end of the banister at the head of the stairs, getting ready to plunge down, than Mom's cheerful voice came singing up to me. "Bill! Telephone!"
I was out of breath when I reached the phone, after a stormy dash down the steps, through the kitchen, into the living room, and across its many-colored rag rug to the east window, where the phone was fastened to the wall.
"Who is it?" I whispered to Mom.
And she whispered back with her hand over the phone's mouthpiece, "He sounded very businesslike." Her eyes had a twinkle in them that said the person on the other end of the line was one of the Gang. Mom liked all the members almost as well as I did.
I used a very businesslike tone of voice myself as I spoke. "The Theodore Collins residence. William Jasper Collins speaking."
A second later I knew who had called me. It was good old squawky-voiced, mischief-minded Poetry himself, my almost-best friend. He was in a cheerful mood. "Is this the Sugar Creek Tent and Awning Company?" he asked.
"It's the Sugar Creek Everything Company," I answered, using an even more dignified voice than he had and feeling proud of myself for thinking what I thought was a bright remark.
"This is Leslie Thompson's father's boy. I'm speaking for his son. Do you repair old lawn umbrellas? The storm has ripped ours to shreds, and we have only the metal ribs left."
And that is when the second idea hit me—the one that was to get this story really started. With my mind's eyes I saw the whole thing: the Thompsons' large lawn umbrella converted into the roof of a grass tree house for the gang to meet in. We would cut the top out of a young sapling down along the creek or the bayou, lash the umbrella's center pole to its trunk, then interweave bluegrass and timothy and some of the tall marsh sedge near the swamp, tying everything together with binder twine and maybe covering the metal ribs of the umbrella with chicken-yard wire first. When we were finished, the roof of our house would look like an African sociable weaverbird's monstrous nest.
To keep out the rain and wind, we'd have to have sidewalls, which we could make out of pieces of old canvas from some of our dads' harvesters.
"We certainly do repair old lawn umbrellas!" I almost screamed into the phone. "We certainly do. Bring it right over as quick as you can!"
And that was the beginning of the Sugar Creek Gang's new grass-roofed hideout, which we actually built, using the skeleton of Poetry's folks' old lawn umbrella for the framework of the roof. When we finished it, it didn't look any more like an African sociable weaverbird's hundred-family tree house than the man in the moon looks like a man. It was a pretty nice house, though, and was a good hideout for us to hide in from our imaginary enemies. Its roof was actually rainproof, and whenever there was a rain coming up and we knew it, we would run helter-skelter for its shelter and stay as dry as a feather in the sunshine. We even outfitted it with some old furniture.
We used our tree house for our headquarters for all kinds of explorations into what we pretended was wild Indian country. Also we acted out the Robinson Crusoe story we all knew so well.
But it was only make-believe, and a boy can't be satisfied all the time with a lot of let's-pretend stuff. Once in a while something has to come to some kind of life, which nothing did except that a lot of birds—some altricial and some precocial—thought our nest was full of wonderful material for making their own smaller nests. They kept stealing the straw and sedge and stuff, which we had to replace or our roof would leak.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 31 Tree House Mystery by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1999 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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