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Sugar Creek Gang 18 On the Mexican Border
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
Long before we left Sugar Creek for our winter vacation along the Rio Grande River, I had been sure that when we went fishing down there we'd catch a fish as big as a boy.
I was so sure of it that I started telling nearly everybody I met about it. Why, that great big fish we were going to land might be as big as Little Jim, the smallest member of our gang, or maybe as big around as Poetry, the barrel-shaped member and the most mischievous one of us, who, because he wants to be a detective someday, is always getting us mixed up in some mysterious and exciting adventure.
But when, instead of a big fish, we caught something else just as big and had to pounce upon it and hold onto it for dear life or it would have gotten away—and also had to keep on holding on or we'd maybe have gotten our eyes scratched out or ourselves badly slashed up—well, I just couldn't have imagined anything so excitingly different happening to a gang of ordinary boys.
Of course, our gang wasn't exactly ordinary. Anyway, Circus, our acrobat and expert wrestler, wasn't. Big Jim, our fuzzy-mustached leader, wasn't either. Neither was Dragonfly, the pop-eyed member, who was always seeing exciting things first and also was always sneezing at the wrong time because he was allergic to nearly everything.
Certainly Little Jim, the smallest one of us, wasn't ordinary. He was an especially good boy, which any ordinary boy knows isn't exactly ordinary. He wasn't any sissy, though, as you'll see for yourself when I get to that part of the story where Little Jim joined in the struggle we were having with a very savage, wild, mad some-thing-or-other one moonlit night on the American side of the Rio Grande.
Even I myself, Bill Collins, red haired and freckle faced and a little bit fiery tempered part of the time, wasn't exactly ordinary. My mother says that most of the time I don't even act like what is called "normal"—whatever that is.
Well, here goes with the story of the Sugar Creek Gang along the Rio Grande.
The Rio Grande is a wet boundary between Mexico and the United States and is a long, wide, reddish-brown river that the people who live down at the bottom of Texas have harnessed up and put to work for them—kind of the way Dad harnesses old Topsy, our mud-colored horse, and drives her around all over the Sugar Creek territory wherever he wants to.
The way they harnessed the river was by digging miles and miles of ditches for its water to flow all around through the Rio Grande Valley to irrigate their orange and lemon and grapefruit groves and patches where they grow cabbage and lettuce and carrots and other garden stuff. They also purify some of the water to make it safe for drinking and cooking.
Of course, a lot of interesting things happened to our gang before that last exciting night—but I'll just sort of skim over those so I can get to the most dangerous part in less than maybe a couple dozen pages. Soon I'll be galloping with you right through the—but you wait and see what.
"Maybe my dad will decide to buy a grapefruit grove down along the Rio Grande, and maybe we'll move down there to live," Dragonfly said to me sadly about two days before we left for Texas.
He had come over to my house to play with me that snowy morning, and he and I were out in the barn cracking black walnuts and gobbling up the kernels as fast as we could. Every now and then his face would get a messed-up expression on it, and he would sneeze, which meant he either had a cold or was allergic to something or other in our barn.
Hearing him say that didn't make me feel very happy. Even though he sometimes was sort of a nuisance to the gang, he'd been one of us as long as any of us had, and it would make a very sad hole in our gang if he left us for good.
"Daddy says we'll have to try out the climate first to see if we like it," he said, still sad in his voice and sad on his face. Then he added hopefully, "I hope I have to sneeze every five minutes after we get there."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I'd rather live up here at Sugar Creek where I only have to sneeze every seven minutes"—which would have been funny if it hadn't been almost true.
Just that minute Mom's voice came quavering out across our cold, snowy barnyard the way it does when she is calling me to come to the house for a while for something. So in only a few jiffies, Dragonfly and I were both diving headfirst through the snow to our back door.
When we got inside the house, Dragonfly started sneezing again like a house afire, and it wasn't because of the good-smelling dinner Mom was cooking on our kitchen stove, either.
It was after we went into the living room, where Mom and Charlotte Ann, my baby sister, were that Dragonfly let out those stormy sneezes, six or seven of them in fast succession. Right away he exclaimed, "I smell somebody's powder!"
I quick looked at Mom's friendly, motherly face to see if her nose had any shine on it, the way it sometimes has when she's been working in the kitchen and hasn't remembered to powder it. It was a little bit shiny, so maybe Dragonfly was mistaken, I thought.
"The doctor says I'm allergic to some kinds of face powder," he said. He screwed up his face and sneezed three more times in even quicker succession than he had the other time. He looked with worried eyes first at Mom and then at Charlotte Ann.
My little sister, I noticed, was over in the corner, sitting on the floor. And she had Mom's face powder box open and some of the powder had spilled out, making it look as if somebody had scattered peach-colored dust over about three square feet of the rug.
Right away, Dragonfly and I were out of doors again, getting there quicker than our old Mixy-cat could have gone if Dragonfly's Airedale dog had been chasing her.
All of a sudden, I got what wasn't a very bright idea. "You don't have to stay down South if you don't want to," I said to him.
"If you can really sneeze a lot while you're there, your folks won't move down to stay, will they?"
"No, but what if I can't? I can only sneeze when I'm close to something I'm allergic to." He scooped up a double handful of snow, made a ball of it, whirled, and threw it across the barnyard through the fast-falling flakes toward Topsy, our old horse, who was standing on the east side of the barn with her tail to the wind, the way horses do if they're standing outdoors in a storm.
"Look," I said, "let me fix you up a little box of Mom's face powder. And when you get down there, you—well, you'll know what to do with it."
He looked at me with a sneezy expression on his face and said, "I couldn't fool Dad. Besides, my mother would smell the powder on me and wonder if I was turning into a girl or something. She might even be allergic to it herself. She says I inherited the sneezes from her."
I knew several other things Dragonfly had maybe inherited from her, such as believing it meant bad luck if a black cat crossed your path or if you broke a looking glass, and good luck if you found a horseshoe. He also had a hard time not believing in ghosts, even though he went to our church and had become a Christian one day when he was sliding down a sycamore tree along Sugar Creek, like Zaccheus in the Bible. Because his mother believed in ghosts—or almost did anyway—it made it hard for him not to.
Dragonfly had a nice mother though, but he being her only boy, she worried about him too much, and that worried him.
Well, even my dad got what Mom called the "warm climate bug," and because Mom hadn't had any vacation for years, they decided we'd take our car and drive down to the bottom of Texas, too. That meant that with two cars going, there'd be room in the backseats for six boys to go along—which is how many of us there are in our gang except for little Tom Till, the seventh one of us, who had to stay home and help take care of his mother. He also was going to help his father do the chores for us while my family was gone.
Before I go any farther, maybe I had better explain to you how in the world a gang of school-age boys could get to go on a great warm-climate vacation in the middle of winter. If I don't, nearly every mother who reads about us getting to go will wonder, What on earth—and why? And some of them might even start to worry about us.
Well, it just so happened that a lot of coal miners in the United States, not even knowing how bad we all needed a vacation from school, went on what is called a "strike." They didn't work for so long that the schools around Sugar Creek got low on coal, and most of them had to close for a while.
You could have knocked us over with a snowflake when we found out that the Sugar Creek School was going to close, too. Of course, the school could have burned wood, but the school board decided not to do that, so we almost had to go on a vacation to show the coal miners how much we appreciated their not working.
My parents, especially Mom, felt sorry for the coal miners' wives, who might not have enough money to buy their groceries, and she hoped the miners' little children wouldn't have to go hungry.
Dad didn't say much except that coal mining was very hard work and any man who had to work all day in a mine, wearing out his muscles and sometimes his lungs away down under the earth, certainly ought to have good wages—as much as his boss could afford to pay.
But anyway, the coal miners' strike was good for the Sugar Creek Gang, for as soon as our school closed, we quick packed up, and away we went.
On the way to the Mexican border, we stopped to see some interesting places, one of which was Turkey Run State Park. In the summertime it is one of the most beautiful places in the world, having deep canyons and gorges cut right through sandstone rock.
"We'll have to come here sometime in the summer," Dad said, "when old Sugar Creek isn't all chained with ice and snow."
"Sugar Creek!" Dragonfly exclaimed. "Is that Sugar Creek?"
"Sure," Poetry said. He was in the backseat of our car with Dragonfly and me. "Don't you know your geography?"
"What's geography got to do with Sugar Creek?" Dragonfly asked. He was not very good in that subject.
Poetry answered, "Don't you know that Sugar Creek is the very center of the geographical world? Anybody knows that!"
Sometimes Poetry used such an argumentative tone of voice that it made me want to talk back even when I agreed with him, but this time I didn't let myself. I said to Dragonfly, "Sure, anybody knows that"—which anybody does.
The next place we stopped was at one of my cousins' houses, not very far from Turkey Run. There we left Charlotte Ann so that the coal miners' strike would be good for Mom as well as for the rest of us. When Charlotte Ann's around and not asleep, there isn't a moment of peace for anybody. She is what is called a "normal" two-year-old girl, which means it is very hard on her nerves to have to be quiet.
As soon as Mom and Charlotte Ann had finished crying, we started on, and Dad drove a little faster to make up for lost time, which Mom said wasn't lost.
When we were going through Vincennes, Indiana, Dad reminded us that it was the first capital of what our history books call Indian Territory.
Then we crossed a big river to go into Illinois, and Dragonfly looked out and down at the water and said, "Old Sugar Creek's water certainly looks good this far from home."
"You're crazy," Poetry said. "That's the Wabash River."
"I know it," Dragonfly said, "but our geography book has a map in it that shows Sugar Creek emptying its water into the Wabash away back up there somewhere not far from Turkey Run, so some of that water down here is Sugar Creek water."
It kind of pleased me that Dragonfly was smart enough to think of that. And of course he was right. Some of the water in the Wabash River had been given to it absolutely free by good old Sugar Creek.
At a smallish town called Samburg in Tennessee, which we drove out of our way to go through the next day, Dad stopped while we looked at a terribly big lake and told us, "That's Reelfoot Lake, boys. It was made by an earthquake in 1811—supposed to be the biggest earthquake America ever had."
It certainly was the strangest-looking lake I ever saw. It looked as if there were maybe ten thousand old tree stumps sticking up all over it. There were also a lot of whole trees, especially cypress, making it look like a forest growing in a lake. Part of it looked like a Sugar Creek cemetery with a lot of black ghosts standing around in it.
"That's probably some of Sugar Creek's water, too," Dragonfly said. "Let's go in swimming."
"Don't carry a good joke too far," Poetry said, scowling.
But Dad heard what Dragonfly had said. "You're right, Roy"—that being Dragonfly's civilized name. "At the time of the earthquake, the Mississippi River had something like an epileptic fit. Its water backed up and filled all the huge cracks and crevices which the earthquake had made. Some of that water was probably Sugar Creek water, because Sugar Creek flows into the Wabash and the Wabash into the Ohio and the Ohio into the Mississippi. Yes, that's probably partly Sugar Creek water."
All of a sudden Little Jim, who had been standing beside me, broke away, made a dash down to the lake, scooped up a double handful of water, and, with a grin on his mouselike face, tossed the water up in the air over our heads. A second later some of it spattered on my freckled face, while he yelled, "Hurrah, it's raining Sugar Creek water!"
It was time to drive on, so we did, not stopping at any place very important. And then we came to Houston, a big city in Texas, where there was a natural history museum and a zoo, called the Hermann Park Zoo.CHAPTER 2
It had been a long time since any of us had been to a zoo, and because most of us were tired almost to death of riding and wanted to take a walk, our two sets of parents drove us out to Hermann Park. There we walked around the grounds and saw a lot of wild animals and snakes and strange-looking birds. It was more fun than a barrel of monkeys to see everything —especially the different kinds of monkeys. There wasn't any snow on the ground here, so we walked around with our coats off like everyone else and felt as warm as if we were in the middle of a Sugar Creek summer. Dragonfly wasn't sneezing a bit and felt wonderful.
I noticed that lots of people were walking around looking at the different exhibits, but the thing I liked best, for a while anyway, was a very small lake with palm trees and a banana plant growing on a little island in the middle of it. All around the shore and on the island, big, ugly-looking alligators were sleeping in the sun.
That reminded Poetry of a poem, which he started to quote:
"Lazy bones, sleepin' in the sun,
How you 'specs to get your day's work done?"
Some of the alligators were sleeping only a few feet from us on the other side of a low fence, which they could have knocked down if they had wanted to. Maybe they would have if they had been hungry for fresh boy meat.
Circus yelled down at one that was about eight feet long and said, "Wake up, you lazy, good-for-nothing mississippiensis!"
"Wake up what?" Dragonfly wanted to know.
And Circus answered, "That is the scientific name for him."
Mississippiensis certainly was a terrible-looking animal. It had a very broad head with a rounded snout and was black all over except for some dull yellow markings the color of a boy's faded straw hat after it has been in the sun and wind for maybe five summers.
"How would you like to get a fish like that on your line when we go fishing down in the Gulf of Mexico?" Big Jim asked Little Jim.
That little guy looked up from where he was standing beside me and said, "That is no fish; that is a crocodilian reptile," which I happened to know it was, from a book I had in my library at home. "Besides," Little Jim added, "alligators don't live in the Gulf of Mexico but in swamps and rivers"—which I also knew, probably before Little Jim did.
"How about the Rio Grande River?" Poetry asked. "We might go fishing there too."
None of us knew for sure whether there were alligators in the Rio Grande. But I sort of hoped there wouldn't be, because a wild alligator might be hungrier than one that was sleeping in the Houston sun, acting the way my dad does sometimes when he has just had a chicken dinner and wants to take a nap and Mom wants him to help with the dishes and I get to help instead.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 18 On the Mexican Border by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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