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If I hadn't been so proud of the prize watermelon I had grown from the packet of special seed Dad had ordered from the state experiment station, maybe I wouldn't have been so fighting mad when somebody sneaked into our garden that summer night and stole it.
I was not only proud of that beautiful, oblong, dark green melon, but I was going to save the seed for planting next year. I was, in fact, planning to go into the watermelon-raising business.
Dad and I had had the soil of our garden tested, and it was just right for melons, which means it was well-drained, well-ventilated, and with plenty of natural plant food. We would never have to worry about moisture in case there would ever be a dry summer, because we could carry water from the iron pitcher pump that was just inside the south fence. Our family had another pitcher pump not more than fifteen feet from the back door of our house. Both pumps got mixed up in the mystery of the stolen watermelon, which I'm going to tell you about right now.
Mom and I were down in the watermelon patch one hot day that summer, looking around a little, admiring my melon, and guessing how many seeds she might have buried in her nice red inside.
"Let's give her a name," I said to Mom. The Collins family, which is ours, gives names to nearly every living thing around our farm anyway.
She answered, "All right. Let's call her Ida."
Mom caught hold of the pump handle and pumped it up and down quite a few fast, squeaking times to fill the pail I was holding under the spout.
"Why Ida?" I asked with a grunt, as the pail was getting heavier with every stroke of the pump handle.
Mom's answer sounded sensible. "Ida means 'thirsty.' I noticed it yesterday when I was looking through a book of names for babies."
I had never seen such a thirsty melon in all my life. Again and again, day after day, I carried water to her, pouring it into the circular trough I had made in the ground around the roots of the vine she was growing on. And always the next morning, the water would be gone. Knowing a watermelon is more than 92 percent water anyway, I knew if she kept on taking water like that, she'd get to be one of the fattest melons in the whole Sugar Creek territory.
Mom and I threaded our way through the open spaces between the vines, dodging a lot of smaller melons grown from ordinary seed, till we came to the little trough that circled Ida's vine. While I was emptying my pail of water into it, I said, "OK, Ida, my girl. That's your name: Ida Watermelon Collins. How do you like it?"
I stooped, snapped my third finger several times against her fat green side, and called her by name again, saying, "By this time next year you'll be the mother of a hundred other melons. And year after next, you'll be the grandmother of more melons than you can shake a stick at."
I sighed a long, noisy, happy sigh, thinking about what a wonderful summer day it was and how good it felt to be alive—to be a boy and to live in a boy's world.
I carried another pail of water, poured it into Ida's trough, and then stopped to rest in the shade of the elderberry bushes near the fence. Dad and I had put up a brand-new woven wire fence there early in the spring, and at the top of it we had stretched two strands of barbed wire, making it dangerous for anybody to climb over the fence in a hurry. In fact, the only place anybody would be able to get over really fast would be at the stile we were going to build near the pitcher pump, halfway between the pump and the elderberry bushes.
We would have to get the stile built pretty soon, I thought. In another few weeks school would start, and I would want to do as I'd always done—go through or over the fence there to get to the lane, which was a shortcut to school.
I didn't have the slightest idea then that somebody would try to steal my melon or that the stealing of it would plunge me into the exciting middle of one of the most dangerous mysteries there had ever been in the Sugar Creek territory. Most certainly I never dreamed that Ida Watermelon Collins would have a share in helping the Sugar Creek Gang capture a fugitive from justice, an actual runaway thief the police had been looking for for quite a while.
We found out about the thief one hot summer night about a week later, when Poetry, the barrel-shaped member of our gang, stayed all night with me in his green tent, which my parents had let us pitch under the spreading branches of the plum tree in our yard.
Of course, everything didn't happen that very first night, but one of the most exciting and confusing things did. It wouldn't have happened, though, if we hadn't gotten out of our cots and started on a pajama-clad hike in the moonlight down through the woods to the spring—Poetry in his green-striped pajamas and I in my red-striped ones and Dragonfly in—
But I hadn't planned to tell you just yet that Dragonfly was with us that night—which he wasn't at first. Dragonfly is the spindle-legged, pop-eyed member of our gang. He is always showing up when we don't need him or want him and when we least expect him and is always getting us into trouble—or else we have to help get him out of trouble.
Now that I've mentioned Dragonfly and hinted that he was the cause of some of our trouble—mine especially—I'd better tell you that he and I had the same kind of red-striped pajamas. Our mothers had seen the same ad in the Sugar Creek Times and had gone shopping the same afternoon in the same Sugar Creek Dry Goods Store and had seen the same bargains in boys' nightclothes—two pairs of red-striped pajamas being the only kind left when they got there.
Little Tom Till's mother—Tom was the newest member of our gang—had seen the ad about the sale, too, and his mother and mine had bought for their two red-haired, freckle-faced sons blue denim jeans exactly alike and maroon-and-gray-striped T-shirts exactly alike. When Tom and I were together anywhere, you could hardly tell us apart. So I looked like Little Tom Till in the daytime and like Dragonfly at night.
Poor Dragonfly! All the gang felt very sorry for him because he not only is very spindle-legged and pop-eyed, but in ragweed season—which it was at that time of the year—his crooked nose, which turns south at the end, is always sneezing, and also he gets asthma.
Before I get into the middle of the stolen watermelon story, I'd better explain that my wonderful grayish brown haired mother had been having what is called "insomnia" that summer. So Dad had arranged for her to sleep upstairs in our guest bedroom. That was the farthest away from the night noises of our farm, especially the ones that came from the direction of the barn. Mom simply had to have her rest, or she wouldn't be able to keep on doing all the things a farm mother has to do every day all summer.
That guest room was also the farthest away from the tent under the plum tree—which Poetry and I decided maybe was another reason that Dad had put Mom upstairs.
Just one other thing I have to explain quick is that the reason Poetry was staying at my house for a week was that his parents were on a vacation in Canada and had left Poetry with us. He and I were going to have a vacation at the same time by sleeping in his tent in our yard.
It was a very hot late summer night, the time of year when the cicadas were as much a part of a Sugar Creek night as sunshine is part of the day. Cicadas are broad-headed, protruding-eyed insects, which some people call locusts and others call harvest flies. In the late summer evenings, they set the whole country half crazy with their whirring sounds from the trees, where thousands of them are like an orchestra with that many members, each member playing nothing but a drum.
I was lying on my hot cot just across the tent from Poetry in his own hot cot, each of us having tried about seven times to go to sleep, which Dad had ordered us to do about seventy times seven times that very night, barking out his orders from the back door or from the living-room window.
Poetry, being in a mischievous mood, was right in the middle of quoting one of his favorite poems, "The Village Blacksmith," speaking to an imaginary audience out in the barnyard, when Dad called to us again to keep still. His voice came bellowing out through the drumming of the cicadas, saying, "Bill Collins, if you boys don't stop talking and laughing and go to sleep, I'm coming out there and put you to sleep!"
A few seconds later, he added in a still-thundery voice, "I've told you boys for the last time! You're keeping Charlotte Ann awake—and you're liable to wake up your mother too!" When Dad says anything like that, I know he really means it, especially when he has already said it that many times.
I knew it was no time of night for my cute little brown-haired sister, Charlotte Ann, to be awake, and certainly my nice friendly-faced mother would need a lot of extra sleep, because tomorrow was Saturday and there would be the house to clean, pies and cookies to bake for Sunday, and a million chores a farm woman has to do every Saturday.
"Wonderful!" Poetry whispered across to me. "He won't tell us anymore. He's told us for the last time. We can laugh and talk now as much as we want to!"
"You don't know Dad," I said.
"I'm thirsty," he said. "Let's go get a drink." His voice came across the darkness like the voice of a duck with laryngitis.
Right away there was a squeaking of the springs of his cot as he rolled himself into a sitting position. He swung his feet out of bed and set them ker-plop on the canvas floor of the tent. I could see him sitting there like the shadow of a fat grizzly in the moonlight that filtered in through the plastic net window just above my cot.
A split second later, he was across the three feet of space between us and sitting on the edge of my cot, making it groan almost loud enough for Dad to hear.
"Let's go!" he said, using a businesslike tone.
I certainly didn't want to get up and go with him to get a drink. Besides, I knew that the very minute we started to pump the iron pitcher pump at the end of the board walk, not more than fifteen feet from our kitchen door, Dad would hear the pump pumping and the water splashing into the big iron kettle under the spout. He would come storming out, with or without words, and would start saying again something he had already said for the last time.
I yawned the laziest, longest yawn I could, sighed the longest, drawn-out sigh I could, and said to Poetry, "I'm too sleepy. You go and get a drink for both of us."
Then I sighed once more, turned over, and began to breathe heavily, as though I was sound asleep.
But Poetry couldn't be stopped by sighs and yawns. He shook me awake and said, "Come on, treat a guest with a little politeness, will you?"
He meant I had to wake up and get up and go out with him to pump a noisy pump and run the risk of stirring up Dad's already stirred-up temper.
When I kept on breathing like a sleeping baby, Poetry said with a disgruntled grunt, "Give me one little reason why you won't help me get a drink!"
"One little reason?" I yawned up at his shadow. "I'll give you a big one—five feet eleven inches tall, one hundred seventy-two pounds, bushy-eye-browed, reddish brown mustached—"
"You want me to die of thirst?" asked Poetry.
"Thirst or whatever you want to do it of. But hurry up and do it and get it over with, because I'm going to sleep."
That must have stirred up Poetry's own temper a little, because he said, "OK, pal, I'll go by myself!"
Quicker than a firefly's fleeting flash, he had zipped open the plastic screen door of the tent, whipped the canvas flap aside, and stepped out into the moonlight.
I was up and out and after him in a nervous hurry. I grabbed him by the sleeve of his green-striped pajamas.
But he wouldn't stay stopped. He growled at me and whispered, "If you try to stop me, I'll scream, and you'll be in trouble."
With that he started off on the run across the moonlit yard, not toward the pump but in a different direction—toward the front gate!—saying over his shoulder, "I'm going down to the spring to get a drink."
That idea was even crazier, I thought, than pumping the iron pitcher pump and waking up Dad.
But you might as well try to start a balky mule as try to stop Leslie Thompson from doing what he has made up his stubborn mind he is going to do. So a minute later, the two of us were hurrying past "Theodore Collins" on our mailbox—Theodore Collins being Dad's name. Then we were across the gravel road, over the rail fence, and following the path made by barefoot boys' feet through the woods to the spring. Poetry used his flashlight every few seconds to light the way.
And that is where we ran into our mystery!
Zippety-zip-zip, swishety-swish-swish, clomp-clomp-clomp, dodge, swerve, gallop. It's nearly always one of the happiest times of my life when I am running down that little brown path to the spring, where the gang has nearly all its meetings and where so many interesting and exciting things have happened. Generally, my barefoot gallop through the woods is in the daytime, though, and I feel like a frisky young colt turned out to pasture. I had never run down that path in red-striped pajamas at night or when I was as sleepily disgruntled as I was right that minute for having to follow a not very bright barrel-shaped boy.
So when we had passed the Black Widow Stump and the linden tree and had dashed down the steep grade to the spring itself and found a dark green watermelon floating in the cement pool that Dad had built there as a reservoir for the water, it was as easy as anything for me to get fighting angry at most anything or anybody.
A watermelon there could mean only one thing—especially when right beside it was a glass fruit jar with a pound of butter in it. It meant there were campers somewhere nearby. And campers in the Sugar Creek woods were something that which the Sugar Creek Gang would rather have most anything else. It meant our peace and quiet would be interrupted, that we would have to wear swimsuits when we went in swimming, and we couldn't yell and scream to each other the way we liked to do.
Poetry, who was on his haunches beside the spring, surprised me by saying, "Look! It's plugged! Let's see how ripe it is!"
Before I could have stopped him even if I had thought of trying to do it, he was working the extralarge rectangular plug out of the middle of the extralarge melon's long fat side.
It was one of the prettiest watermelons I had ever seen. In fact, it was as pretty as Ida Watermelon Collins herself.
Then Poetry had the plug out and was holding it up for me to see.
Somebody had bitten off what red there had been on the end of the plug, I noticed.
Then Poetry said, "Well, what do you know! This melon's not ripe. See, it's all white inside!"
That didn't make sense. This time of year, even a watermelon that wasn't more than half ripe would be at least pink inside. My eyes flashed from the rectangular plug to the hole in the melon, and Poetry was right—it was white inside!
Then he said, "Oh, there's something in it! There's a ball of white paper or something stuffed inside it!"
I felt curiosity creeping up and down my spine and was all set for a mystery. Hardly realizing that I was trespassing on other people's property and most certainly not having a right to, even if the melon was in our spring, I quickly stooped and with nervous fingers pulled out the folded piece of paper. It was the kind that comes off a loaf of bread and which, at our house, I nearly always toss into the woodbox or the wastebasket unless Mom sees me first and stops me. Sometimes she wants to save the paper and use it for wrapping sandwiches for Dad's or my lunches, mine especially during the school year.
The melon was ripe, I noticed. The inside was a deep, dark red.
While my mind was still trying to think up a mystery, something started to happen. From up in the woods at the top of the incline there was the sound of running feet and laughing voices. There were flashlights and flickering shadows, and it sounded like a whole flock of people coming. People! Only these weren't boys' voices or men's voices but girls' voices. Girls! They were giggling and laughing and coming toward the base of the linden tree just above us. In another brain-whirling second they would be where they could see us, and we'd be caught.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 28 The Watermelon Mystery by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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Posted April 19, 2015
Posted June 30, 2010
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