Read an Excerpt
Sugar Creek Gang 30 The Blue Cow
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
I'd been hoping and hoping all through that long, slow winter that when spring came the gang could happen onto a new kind of adventure, one in which I myself, red-haired, more-or-less-fiery-tempered Bill Collins, would get a chance to use my muscles and my presence of mind to save myself or somebody from danger.
It's not that there generally wasn't plenty of excitement around Sugar Creek, especially when the gang was together. We were able to stumble onto more topsy-turvy, hair-raising adventures than you could shake a stick at. But—well, who wants to have such ordinary experiences as getting his nose bashed in a fierce, fast fistfight? Or taking a wet pet lamb to school on a rainy, muddy day to see if it really would make the children laugh and play? Or killing an ordinary black bear at the bottom of Bumblebee Hill?
Besides, it was Little Jim, the littlest member of the Sugar Creek Gang, who had killed the mad old mother bear, and he had done it with Big Jim's rifle, which he accidentally had at the time. All I had gotten to do in that tense excitement, while Little Jim was being the hero, was to watch and cringe, feel scared half to death, scream, and a few other things any ordinary boy could have done.
What I really wanted to do sometime was to kill a bear myself, take a picture of it, and then have it mounted—or maybe have it made into a rug for our living-room floor like the one Old Man Paddler has on the floor of his old clapboard-roofed cabin in the Sugar Creek hills. He had killed it himself, as a boy, with an old-fashioned muzzle-loading gun.
"So you want to kill a bear yourself, do you?" Dad asked me one sunshiny spring day when there was a lot of farmwork to do and I couldn't even go fishing. We were sitting at our kitchen table at the time, eating lunch. Mom was at her place at the side of the table nearest the stove, and Dad was near the water pail behind him and also near both doors, one of which I would have to use if I wanted to go outdoors in a hurry to get in a little play before the afternoon's work would start.
I was sitting on the long wooden bench opposite Mom and against the south wall of the kitchen, and Charlotte Ann, my mischievous, cute little sister, was in her high chair between Mom and Dad, wiggling and squirming and eating with the best toddler table manners I ever saw.
"Yes sir," I replied in answer to Dad's question, making my answer short because I was at the same time trying to make short work of a piece of Mom's cherry pie. She had baked it that very morning, since most mothers hadn't anything exciting to do to get their pictures in the paper. They only did such ordinary things as ironing and washing and patching a boy's and his father's clothes and cooking their food and keeping the house clean seven days a week and, in the summertime, making garden and setting hens and stuff like that.
And Dad said, not realizing how I felt at the time, "You wouldn't settle for some ordinary wild animal such as a wildcat or a timber wolf or even a moose?"
"Kids' stuff!" I said and frowned down into my plate, knowing that if I had had a mirror and had been looking into it, I would have seen not only my reddish hair and freckles and a pair of reddish brown eyebrows like my father's, but there would be a wrinkle in my forehead like the kind our leader, Big Jim, had when he frowned about something. And if I had looked close enough, I could actually have seen what, if it kept on growing, might become a mustache on my upper lip.
"How old are you now?" Dad asked.
Before I could answer, Mom answered, "The question is wrong. It should be, 'How young are you?'"
And then I knew there would have been a Big Jim frown on my forehead, because if there is anything a boy doesn't like more than he doesn't like anything else, it's for somebody—especially one of his parents—to remind him he is as young as he is.
"I'm just a child," I said, having that very minute made the last of the short work I was making out of her pie, "probably too young to help with the dishes today—if I may be excused." I slid out of my place on the long bench as easily as pie, saying at the same time, "I'll be down at the barn if you need me for anything."
Dad's long arm, with a strong, calloused left hand on the end of it, stopped me by the overall suspenders before I could get to my feet and my feet could get me to the door. His voice helped a little as he said, "Not so fast, sir."
"I can do it slowly," I said. I stayed stopped, shutting my right eye and trying to push my upper lip out far enough to see it by looking straight down the left side of my nose.
"Should you make such a face?" Mom asked. It seemed from the tone of voice she had used that she was glad Dad had stopped me.
Because Dad and Mom and I liked each other extrawell most of the time, and were always trying to be funny to each other, and sometimes not being very, I said, "I didn't make it—I inherited it."
Mom was really quick on the trigger then. She tossed in a bright remark: "Poor boy! Your father shouldn't be blamed too much, though. He inherited his own red hair and complexion from his parents."
I felt myself grinning. "You're cute parents, but personally I think I look like a meadowlark's egg with a face on it which somebody tried to draw and didn't quite finish."
I was remembering a nestful of eggs I'd seen once right after a mother meadowlark had exploded off it while I was running through the south pasture. Each egg was white with a lot of reddish brown freckles all over it.
It was Poetry, my barrel-shaped friend, who had given me the face idea. He had once said to me when he had been trying to count the freckles I had on only one side of my face, "You look like a meadowlark's egg with a half-finished face drawn on it by a boy who gets poor grades in art in school."
Dad was still holding onto my suspenders, and I didn't dare to go on outdoors for fear he would be left holding an empty pair of overalls at the kitchen table. He said, "I believe you're right, son. Now you can run along to the barn. You might like to get the posthole digger, take it up to the pignut trees, and run that corner posthole down another fifteen or so inches. We'll have to get the fence up as soon as we can—or even sooner. You know how Jersey Jill likes new clover—and how dangerous it is when she eats too much."
"Yes sir," I said, glad to dig postholes or most anything that I could use my muscles on rather than do something around the house. Whoever heard of a boy developing strong muscles or even growing a mustache faster by carrying a dish towel around somebody's kitchen?
On the way to the barn I stopped at the iron pitcher pump for a drink, skinned the cat twice at the grape arbor, and chinned myself eight times to strengthen my biceps. Then I went on out to the barn, stopping twice more on the way.
One time was to speak to Old Addie, our red mother hog, who was grunting around the gate as if she wished she could have breakfast, dinner, and supper fifty times a day. Addie lived in a new apartment hog house over on the farther side of her pen, where nearly every spring she gave the Collins family seven or eight nice little red-haired piglets.
"Good afternoon," I said down to her. But she only grunted a disgusted reply as though it was still too early in the day to talk to anybody and she hadn't had her cup of coffee yet.
"Such a face," I said to her. "Should you be making such a face?"
And do you know what? She grunted out a nasal sort of answer that sounded like: "I didn't make it. I just inherited it." And because I had said it first in the kitchen as Dad was holding onto my overall suspenders, it sounded kind of funny.
The second time I stopped was when I reached the hole just below the north window of the barn, where Mixy, our black-and-white cat, goes in and out a hundred times a day and which she uses for a refuge when some neighbor's dog is chasing her. She must have heard me talking to Old Addie, because she came out stretching and yawning as if she had just awakened from a nap. Then she made a beeline for my overall legs. As I stood looking down at her, she arched her back and rubbed herself past me two or three times.
"You're a nice cat," I said down to her. There was something nice about having old Mixy do that to me, making it seem she liked me a lot—and anybody likes to be liked, better than anything else.
Pretty soon I had the posthole digger out of the place where Dad kept it in the corner by the cabinet where he keeps his different stock medicines and tools and things for working around the barn.
Just as I reached for the digger, which was standing beside a shovel, I noticed that Dad had added a new book to his little farm library. He was always adding a book every now and then, anyway. This one was called A Veterinary Handbook for the Average Farmer, or What to Do Before the Doctor Arrives.
The big book was standing on the shelf beside a dozen others with long names such as Farm Work Simplification and Soil Microbiology and a few with ordinary titles such as Vegetable Gardening, All About Field Crop Insects, and one that sounded as if it ought to be on the shelf in our kitchen. That one was How to Feed a Hungry Man.
I quick leafed through the new book, just to see what Dad had been studying.
Sometimes when we were working together in the garden or in the cornfield, he would start to explain something to me, and I always liked to say, "Sure, that's right. Now you can go to the head of the class." And then, before he could start to tell me anything else, I would tell him first and try to ask questions he couldn't answer, so that I could say, "Sorry, Theodore," calling him by his first name as if I was a teacher in our red-brick schoolhouse and he a boy in maybe the fifth grade.
It took me only what seemed six minutes to read a half chapter on what to do if your cow or calf gets what is called "bloat," which was where Dad had left a bookmark and maybe was where he had been reading last.
Then I quickly took up the posthole digger. It was the hinged type with long steel blades that could take a big ten-inch bite of dirt in its six-inch-diameter jaws. A man or boy using its five-foot-long handles could dig a fast hole most anywhere on the Theodore Collins farm.
Then I was out the barn door, stepping all around and over Mixy to keep her from getting smashed under my feet. And in a minute I was up by the pignut trees, working and sweating and feeling fine, with my powerful biceps lifting big bites of yellowish clay out of the post-hole and piling them onto a yellow brown mound beside me.
Several blackbirds, thinking maybe I'd unearth a grub or a night crawler or something, came flying and walking around excitedly. But I wasn't interested—not much, anyway, until I happened to think what they were there for. For some reason that made me think what else night crawlers were good for, and all of a sudden I remembered I hadn't gone fishing for almost two days. And the sun was shining down so warm and getting warmer every minute. In fact, it was getting hotter every minute. It would be a shame not to go fishing.
I hardly realized what happened after that, but in almost no time I had left the posthole digger down in the hole with a big bite of yellow clay in its jaws. I had gone to the barn and come back with the shovel and was over by the garden fence, not far from a pile of boards, digging up some of the nicest fishing worms that ever tempted a sunfish and was putting them into a tin can I found close by. The reason I hardly realized what I was doing was that in my mind I was already down at the mouth of the branch, where Poetry, my barrel-shaped friend, and I nearly always could catch quite a few fish.
I soon found out what I was doing, though, because suddenly out of nowhere there was a voice behind me saying, "I didn't want the post-hole dug there, Son—over here where the fence is to go up. And you can't dig a posthole scratching around on the surface with a shovel!"
I felt my face turn as red as my hair, and with quick presence of mind I said, "Take a look in the hole over there. See if I haven't dug it deep enough. No use to dig it too deep and have to fill it up."
Dad picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it at several blackbirds, not because he didn't like them but because he was still a little like a boy that had to throw something at something every time he saw something to throw something at.
Then he took a squint down into the hole my biceps had made and, taking the digger by its long ash handles, brought up a big yellow bite of clay and emptied it onto the top of the mound beside the hole. He absolutely surprised me by saying, "If you can wait till the bass season opens, I'll take two days off, and we'll run up to Little Wolf and catch some big ones. We really ought to get the fence up first, though, don't you think?"
It was hard to believe my ears, and it was also hard not to get to go down to the mouth of the branch right that very minute. But I knew Dad was right. I gave up and helped him finish setting the big corner post, but not till I had tried another idea that came to my mind, which was: "That's a long time to ask Mom to wait for a fish supper, when she likes sunfish and goggle-eyes just as much as she does bass. She could have fish for supper tonight if anybody would just say the word."
But Dad wouldn't say the word. And I could tell by the way I felt that it wouldn't be a good idea for me to say even one more word about it. So I started in strengthening my biceps again, using the posthole digger, while Dad got busy with a saw and hammer and nails, making a crossbar on the bottom end of the big cedar post we were going to set in the hole.
As soon as we had the hole finished and the crossbar on the post, we carefully eased the heavy post in, piling big rocks onto the crossbar in the bottom of the hole and tamping gravel and hard clay all around the rocks. Finally we filled the hole all the way to the top, tamping it hard all the way.
It took us nearly all afternoon to get it all done, but it was fun. And Dad learned quite a few things he pretended he didn't know before about what to do before the doctor comes in case old Jersey Jill, our fawn-colored milk cow, ate too much dew-wet clover some morning on an empty stomach, and gas built up in her paunch, and she couldn't belch, and the gas got worse and worse, and she swelled up more and more, and her left flank bulged so badly it looked as if she was twice as big as she ought to be.
"That," Dad said after I'd told him, "is what to do after you've called the vet and while you're waiting for him to come, or if he can't come right away."
But it wasn't only fun. That information about cows was also something every farmer ought to know, because he could lose an expensive cow or heifer in just thirty minutes after she started to get the bloat, if something wasn't done to save her.
"But this that we're doing right now is what to do so you won't have to call the veterinarian," Dad explained. "A good fence will keep your cattle out until you're ready to let them in. And never, never let a hungry cow loose in a field of white clover or alfalfa or ladino clover or even crimson clover when the dew is on it, or in any pasture with a high percentage of legumes. The very minute you see your cow or sheep beginning to bloat, get after her; make her keep moving, chase her up a hill—anything to make her belch."
"Right," I said to Dad. "You can go to the head of the class."
"You go," Dad said with a joke in his voice. "I've been there so often and stayed so long at a time that it would be nice for the rest of the class to have a chance."
I had the handle of the fence-stretcher in my hands at the time, strengthening my biceps by pulling on it and stretching the fence at the same time. I was wondering—if I had my shirt off—if anybody could see the muscles of my back working like big ropes under the skin as I'd seen Big Jim's do.
I answered Dad by saying, "I'm not so much interested in going to the head of the class as I am to the mouth of the branch."
I didn't look up when I said it but kept on making steady, rhythmic movements and feeling fine, not expecting my remark to do more than make Dad grunt like Old Addie and make a face like the kind a father shouldn't have to make too many times in one day.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 30 The Blue Cow by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.