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Title: Watermelon Mystery at Sugar Creek
Author: Hutchens, Paul
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  _WATERMELON MYSTERY
  AT SUGAR CREEK_

    by
    PAUL HUTCHENS

  _Published by_
  Scripture Press
  BOOK DIVISION
  WHEATON, ILLINOIS



_Watermelon Mystery at Sugar Creek_

  Copyright © 1955, by

  Paul Hutchens

  _Third Printing_

  All rights in this book are reserved. No part may be reproduced in
  any manner without the permission in writing from the author, except
  brief quotations used in connection with a review in a magazine or
  newspaper.

  Printed in the United States of America



Contents

    Chapter    Page
          1       5
          2      15
          3      27
          4      37
          5      45
          6      52
          7      65
          8      76
          9      84
         10      97



1


If I hadn’t been so proud of the prize watermelon I had grown from
the packet of special seed Pop had ordered from the State Experiment
Station, maybe I wouldn’t have been so fighting mad when somebody
sneaked into our truck patch 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.

Pop and I had had the soil of our truck patch tested, and it was just
right for melons, which means it was well-drained, well-ventilated,
with plenty of natural plant food. We would never have to worry about
moisture in case there would ever be a dry summer, on account of we
could carry water from the iron pitcher pump which was just inside the
south fence. As you maybe know, our family had another pitcher pump
not more than fifteen feet from the back door of our house--both pumps
getting 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 truck 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, giving names to nearly
every living thing around our farm anyway--and Mom answered, “All
right, let’s call her _Ida_.”

Mom caught hold of the iron pitcher 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, the pail 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 half-long life. Again
and again, day after day, I had 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 over ninety-two per cent 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 other melons grown from ordinary seed, till
we came to the little trough that circled Ida’s vine, and while I was
emptying my pail of water into it, I said, “Okay, 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 _grand_mother 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, then stopped to rest in the shade of the elderberry
bushes near the fence. Pop and I had put up a brand new woven-wire
fence there early in the spring, and at the top of it 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 _real_ fast would be at the stile we were going to build
near the iron pitcher pump half way between the pump and the elderberry
bushes. We would _have_ to get the stile built pretty soon, I thought,

’cause in another few weeks school would start, and I would want to do
like I’d always done--go through or over the fence there to get to the
lane, which was a short cut to school.

I didn’t have the slightest idea then that somebody would try to
steal my melon, nor 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 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 sportsman’s tent which my parents had let us pitch
under the spreading branches of the plum tree in our yard.

       *       *       *       *       *

The way it looks now it will take me almost a whole book to write it
all for you. Boy oh boy, will it ever be fun remembering everything!
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 say! I hadn’t planned to tell you just yet that Dragonfly was with
us that night--which he wasn’t at first. Dragonfly, as you probably
know, is the spindle-legged, pop-eyed member of our gang, who 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 different mothers having
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’ night clothes--two pairs of red-striped pajamas
being the only kind left when they got there.

Little Tom Till’s mother--Tom being the newest member of our gang--had
seen the ad about the sale too, and his mother and mine had each bought
for their two red-haired, freckle-faced sons a pair of blue denim
western-style jeans exactly alike, also two 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 on account of
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 he also 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 Pop had arranged for her to
sleep upstairs in our guest bedroom--that being 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 why Pop 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 on account of 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 which
we pitched in our yard--as I’ve already told you, under the spreading
branches of the plum tree.

Well, here goes, headfirst into our adventure! 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,
as you probably know, are broad-headed, protruding-eyed insects which
some people call locusts and others “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 Pop 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,” quoting aloud to
an imaginary audience out in the barnyard, when Pop 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, Pop added in a still-thundery voice, “I’ve told
you boys for the last time! You’re keeping Charlotte Anne awake--and
you’re liable to wake up your mother, too!” When Pop says anything like
that, 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 two-year-old cute little
brown-haired sister, Charlotte Ann, to be awake, and certainly my nice
friendly-faced, grayish-brown-haired mother would need a lot of extra
sleep, ’cause 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 on Saturday, every Saturday there is.

“Wonderful!” Poetry whispered across to me. “He won’t tell us any more;
he’s told us for the last time. We can laugh and talk now as much as we
want to!”

“You don’t know Pop,” I said. “When he says he has said anything for
the last time he means he won’t say it again with just words--he’ll use
a switch or his old razor strap.”

You see, Poetry didn’t know as well as I did what an expert Pop was in
the way he could handle a switch--beech, willow, cherry or any kind
that happened to be handy--_and_ he could handle a razor strap better
than any father a boy ever felt.

Poetry ignored my warning and tried to be funny by saying, “Does your
father still use an old-fashioned razor that has to be stropped?”

I tried to think of something funny myself which was, “He still has
an old-fashioned boy that has to be--when that boy is too dull to
understand.” But maybe what I said wasn’t very humorous, ’cause Poetry
ignored it.

“I’m thirsty,” he said. “Let’s go get a drink,” his voice coming 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, set
them with a ker-plop on the canvas floor of the tent. I could see him
sitting there like the shadow of a fat grizzly in the light of the
moonlight that filtered in through the plastic-netted window just above
my cot.

A split jiffy later, he was across the three feet of space between us,
sitting on the edge of my cot, making it groan almost loud enough for
Pop to hear.

“Let’s go!” he said, using a businesslike tone.

I certainly didn’t want to get up and go outside with him to get a
drink. Besides, I knew the very minute we would start to pump the
iron pitcher pump at the end of the board walk not more than fifteen
feet from our kitchen door, Pop would hear the pump pumping and the
water splashing into the big iron kettle under the spout and 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, saying 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 like
I was sound asleep.

But Poetry couldn’t be stopped by sighs and yawns. He shook me awake
and hissed, “Come on, treat a guest with a little politeness, will
you?”--meaning 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 Pop’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-eyebrowed, reddish-brown mustached, and with a razor strap in his
powerful right hand!”

“You want me to die of thirst?” asked Poetry.

“Thirst, or something; whatever you want to do it of. But hurry up and
do it, and get it over with, ’cause I’m going to sleep.”

I certainly wasn’t going to get up and go out in the moonlight and run
into Pop’s razor strap for anybody.

That must have stirred up Poetry’s temper a little, ’cause he said,
“Okay, Chum, I’ll go by myself!”

Quicker than a firefly’s fleeting flash, he had zipped open the zipper
of the plastic screened door of the tent, whipped the canvas curtain
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
whispered a half-growl at me, “If you try to stop me, I’ll scream and
you’ll get a licking.”

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--crazier than pumping the iron
pitcher pump and waking up Pop, who, in turn, would start pumping his
right arm up and down with a razor strap on either Poetry or me, or
both.

But you might as well try to start a balky mule as to stop Leslie
Thompson from doing what he has made up his stubborn mind he is going
to do, so a jiffy later the two of us were hurrying past “Theodore
Collins” on our mailbox--_Theodore Collins_ being Pop’s name. A
second later, we were across the gravel road and over the rail fence,
following the path made by barefoot boys’ bare feet through the woods
to the spring, Poetry using 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 through the years. Generally, my barefoot
gallop through the woods is in the daytime, and I feel like a frisky
young colt turned out to pasture. But I had never run down that path
in red-striped pajamas at night when I was sleepily disgruntled like
I was right that minute for having to follow a dumpish 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 the
dark green watermelon floating in the cement pool which Pop 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 was something
the Sugar Creek Gang would rather have most anything else than. It
meant our peace and quiet would be interrupted; that we would have to
wear bathing suits when we went in swimming, and we couldn’t yell and
scream to each other like 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 extra large rectangular plug out of the middle
of the extra large 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.

Poetry had the plug out in a jiffy 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! The melon’s
_green_. See, it’s all _white_ inside!”

That didn’t make sense, ’cause this time of year even a watermelon that
wasn’t more than _half_ ripe would be at least _pink_ inside. My eyes
flashed off the rectangular plug and into the hole in the melon, and
Poetry was right--it _was_ white inside! Then his mind came to life and
he said, “Look, there is something in it! There’s a ball of paper or
something stuffed in 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 didn’t have a right to, even if the melon
was in our spring, I quick stooped and with nervous fingers pulled out
the folded piece of paper, which is what it was--the kind that comes
off a loaf of bakery bread--and which at our house, when the loaf is
all eaten, I nearly always toss into the woodbox or the wastebasket
unless Mom sees me first and stops me. Sometimes Mom wants to save the
paper and use it for wrapping sandwiches for Pop’s or my lunches, mine
especially during the school year.

The melon was ripe, though, 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, and flashlights, and
flickering shadows, and it sounded like a whole flock of people coming.
_People_, mind you! Only there weren’t any boys’ 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.

Say! when you are wearing a pair of red-striped pajamas and your
barrel-shaped friend is wearing a pair of green-striped pajamas, and it
is night, and you hear a flock of girls running in your direction and
you are half scared of girls even in the daytime, you all of a sudden
forget about a plugged watermelon floating in the nice fresh cool water
of your spring, and you look for the quickest place you can find to
hide yourself!

We couldn’t make a dash up either side of the incline to the top,
’cause that’s where the girls were, and we couldn’t escape in the
opposite direction ’cause there was a barbed wire fence there
separating us and the creek, but we _had_ to do _something!_ If it had
been a gang of _boys_ coming, we could have stood our ground and fought
if we had to--but not when it was a bevy of girls, which sounded like
a flock of blackbirds getting ready to fly south for the winter, only
they _weren’t_ getting ready to fly south, but _north_, which was in
our direction.

“Quick!” Poetry’s faster-thinking mind cried to me. “Let’s beat it!”
He showed me what he wanted us to do, by scrambling to his awkward
feet and making a dive east toward the place where I knew we could
get through a board fence, on the other side of which was a path that
wound through a forest of giant ragweeds leading to Dragonfly’s Pop’s
cornfield in the direction of the Sugar Creek Gang’s swimming hole.

In another jiffy I would have been following Poetry through the fence
and we would have escaped being seen, but my right bare foot which was
standing on a thin layer of slime on the cement lip of the pool where
the melon was, slipped out from under me, and I felt myself going down.

_Down_, mind you, and I couldn’t stop myself! I struggled to regain
my balance, and couldn’t--couldn’t even fall where my mixed-up mind
told me would be a better place to fall than into the pool, which
was in a mud puddle on the other side. Then thuddety-whammety,
slip-slop-splashety--I was half sitting and half lying in the middle of
the pool of ice cold spring water astride that long green watermelon,
like a boy astride a bucking bronco at a Sugar Creek rodeo!

From above and all around and from every direction, it seemed, there
were the voices of happy-go-lucky girls with flashlights, probably
coming to get the watermelon, or the butter in the glass jar, or maybe
a pail of drinking water for their camp.



2


There wasn’t any sense to what I did then, because of the confusion
in my mixed-up mind--if I had any mind at all--but the very
minute the light of those three or four--or maybe there were
seventeen--flashlights dropped over the edge of the hill and all
of them at the same time splashed down upon me, hitting me in the
face and all over my red-striped pajamas, I let loose with a wild,
trembling-voiced cry like a loon’s eery, half-scared-half-to-death
ghostlike quaver, loud enough to be heard as far away as the Sugar
Creek bridge. I began to wave my arms wildly, to splash around in the
water, and to yell to my watermelon-bronco, “Giddap!... Giddap! You
great big green good-for-nothing bronco!”

I let out a whole series of those wild loon calls, splashed myself off
the watermelon and out of the cement pool and made a fast, wet dash
down the path to the opening in the board fence, through which Poetry
had already gone ahead of me. I quickly shoved myself through, and a
jiffy later was making a wild moonlit run up the winding barefoot boy’s
trail through the forest of giant ragweeds toward the swimming hole,
crying like a loon all the way until I knew I was out of sight of all
those excited girls.

Even as I ran, flopping along in my wet pajamas, I had the memory of
flashlights splashing in my eyes and some of the things I heard while
I was going through the fence. Some of the excited words were, “Help!
Help! There’s a wild animal down there in the spring!” Others of the
girls had simply screamed like girls do when they are scared, but one
of them had shrieked an unearthly shriek, crying, “There’s a _zebra_
down there--_a wild zebra, taking a bath in our drinking water!_”

That, I thought, as I dodged my way along the path, was almost funny.
In fact, sometimes a boy feels fine inside if something he has done
makes a gang of girls let out an unearthly explosion of screams--most
girls screaming not because they’re really scared anyway, but because
they like to make people think they are.

Where, I wondered as I zig-zagged along, was Poetry?

I didn’t have to wonder long. By the time I was through the tall weeds
and at the edge of Dragonfly’s Pop’s cornfield I had caught up to
where he was. His flashlight hit me in the face as he exclaimed in his
duck-like voice, “Help! Help! A zebra! _A wild zebra!_”

I stopped stock-still with my wet pajama sleeve in front of my eyes to
shield them from the blinding glare of his flashlight. “It’s all your
fault!” I half-screamed at him. “If you hadn’t had the silly notion you
had to have a drink!”

His voice in answer was saucy as he said back, “What a mess you made
of things--falling into that water and yelling like a wild Indian! Now
those girl scouts will tell your folks, and your father will _really_
sharpen you up with his razor strap!”

“_Girl_ scouts?” I exclaimed to him with chattering teeth from being so
cold and still all wet with spring water. Also for some reason I didn’t
feel very brave--most certainly not very happy.

“Sure,” he said, “didn’t you know it? A bunch of girl scouts have got
their tents pitched up there by the pawpaw bushes for a week. Old Man
Paddler gave them permission; it’s _his_ woods, you know.”

And then I _was_ sad. Girl scouts were supposed to be some of the
nicest people in the world--even if they were girls, I thought. What
would they think of a red-haired freckle-faced creature of some kind
that was part loon and part zebra, splashing around in their drinking
water, riding like a cowboy on a watermelon and acting absolutely
crazy? I would never dare show my face where any of them could see me,
or some of them would remember me from having seen me in the light of
their flashlights, and they would ask my mother whose boy I was. I knew
that one of the very first things some of those girl scouts would do
this week would be to come to the Collins’ house to buy eggs and milk
and such things as sweet corn and new potatoes. Some of them would be
bound to recognize me.

“We had better get back to the tent and into bed quick, before
somebody comes running up to use your telephone to call the police,
or the marshal, or the sheriff, to tell them some wild boys have been
causing a disturbance at the camp!” Poetry said.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was a good idea even if it was a worried one, so away we went--not
the way we had come, but lickety-sizzle straight up through Dragonfly’s
Pop’s cornfield, swinging around the east end of the bayou and back
down the south side of it until we came to the fence that goes south to
Bumblebee Hill. Once we got to Bumblebee Hill we would swing southwest
to the place where we always went over the rail fence, which was across
the road from our house. Then we would scoot across the road and past
“Theodore Collins” on our mailbox, hoping we wouldn’t wake up Theodore
Collins himself in the Collins’ west bedroom, and a jiffy after that
would be safe in our tent once more!

The very thought of safety and the security of Poetry’s nice green tent
under the spreading plum tree gave me a spurt of hope, and put wings on
my feet, as I followed my lumbering barrel-shaped friend, not realizing
there would be more trouble when I got home on account of my very wet
red-striped night clothes.

We didn’t even bother to stop at Bumblebee Hill where the fiercest
fastest fist-fight that ever was had taken place--and which you already
know about if you’ve read the story called _We Killed a Bear_. At the
_bottom_ of the hill, you know, is the Little-Jim tree near which
Little Jim, the littlest member of our Gang, killed the fierce old mad
old mother bear; and at the top of the hill is the abandoned cemetery
where the Gang has so many of its meetings. The wind I was making as I
ran was blowing against my very wet 89-pounds of red-haired boy, making
me feel chilly all over in spite of it being such a hot night.

It was a shame not to be able to enjoy such a pretty Sugar Creek
summer night--the almost most-wonderful thing in the world. I guess
there isn’t anything in the whole wide world that _sounds_ better
than a Sugar Creek night when you are down along the creek fishing
and you hear the bullfrogs bellowing in the riffles, the katydids
rasping voices calling to one another: “Katy-did, Katy-she-did;
Katy-did, Katy-she-did!” the crickets singing away, vibrating their
forewings together, making one of the friendliest lonesome sounds a
boy ever hears. Every now and then, you can hear a screech owl crying
“Shay-a-a-a-a!” like a baby loon learning to loon.

Oh, there are a lot of sounds that make a boy feel good all over, such
as Old Topsy, our favorite horse, in her stall crunching corn, the
queer sound the chickens make in their sleep, the wind sighing through
the pine trees along the bayou, with every now and then somebody’s
rooster turning loose with a “Cocka-doodle-do!” like he is so proud of
himself he can’t wait until morning to let all the sleeping hens know
about it--like it was a waste of good time to sleep when you could
listen to such nice noisy music. From across the fields you sometimes
hear the sound of a nervous dog barking, and somebody else’s dog
answering from across the creek. You even like to listen to the corn
blades whispering to each other as the wind blows through them.

Summer nights on our farm _smell_ good, too--nearly always there being
the smell of new-mown hay or fresh pine-tree fragrance which is always
sweeter at night. If you are near the creek you can smell the fish
that don’t want to bite, the wild peppermint, the sweet clover and a
thousand other half friendly, half lonely smells that make you feel sad
and glad at the same time.

Things you think at night are wonderful, too. You can lie on the grass
in the yard and, in the summertime, look up at the purplish blue sky
that is like a big upside-down sieve with a million yellow holes in it
and in your mind go sailing out across the Milky Way like a boy skating
on the bayou pond, dodging this way and that so you won’t run into any
of the stars....

But this wasn’t the right time to hear or see or smell how wonderful a
night it was. It was, instead, a time for two worried boys, including a
red-haired freckle-faced one to get inside the tent and into bed and to
sleep.

Pretty soon Poetry and I were at the rail fence across from “Theodore
Collins” on our mailbox. There we stopped stock-still and stood
and studied the situation, keeping ourselves in the shadow of the
elderberry bush that grew there. It seemed like the moonlight was never
brighter and we couldn’t afford to let ourselves be seen or heard by
anybody who hadn’t used a razor strap for a long time but who perhaps
hadn’t forgotten how--and not on his razor, either.

I was shivering with the cold, and just that second I sneezed. Just
that second also, Poetry shushed me with a shush that was almost louder
than my sneeze, as he whispered, “Hey, don’t wake anybody up! Do you
want your guest to get a licking? Your father has told us for the last
time to--”

“Shush, yourself!” I ordered him.

We decided to go back up the fence, cross the road by the hickory nut
trees, climb over into our cornfield and sneak down between the rows to
arrive at the tent from the opposite side so nobody could see us from
the house, which we did.

We had to pass Old Red Addie’s apartment hog house on the way, which is
the kind of place on a farm that _doesn’t_ have a nice, clean, sweet
farm smell. Pretty soon, still shivering and wishing I had dry night
clothes to sleep in, we were behind the tent waiting and listening to
see if we could get in without being seen or heard.

Right then I sneezed again, and also again, and I knew I was either
going to catch a cold or I already had one. I quick lifted the tent
flap, swished through the plastic screen door, expecting Poetry to
follow me, but he didn’t and wouldn’t. He stood for a second in the
clear moonlight that came slanting through a branchless place in the
plum tree overhead, then he said, “I’ll be back in a minute.” He
started to start toward the house--_in the moonlight, mind you, where
he could be seen!_

“Wait!” I called to him, in as quiet a whisper as I could. “Where are
you going?”

“I’m _thirsty_,” he whispered back. “I forgot to get a drink at the
spring.”

“You’ll wake up my _father!_” I exclaimed to him. “Don’t you _dare_
pump that pump handle!”

Poetry couldn’t be stopped. I knew that if Pop ever waked up and came
to prove he had meant what he said when he had said what he said,
there’d _really_ be trouble. Pop would hear me sneeze, or see my wet
night clothes and wonder what on earth, and why.

So in a jiffy, like the story in one of our school books about a man
named Mr. McGregor chasing Peter Rabbit who was all wet from having
jumped in a can of water to hide--and Peter Rabbit sneezing--I was
acting out that story backwards: I myself was a very wet, very dumb
bunny chasing Leslie Poetry Thompson to try to stop him from getting us
into even more trouble than we were already in.

We arrived at the iron pitcher pump platform at the same time, where
I hissed to him not to pump the pump, pushing in between him and the
pump, blocking him from doing what his stubborn mind was driving him to
do.

“I’m _thirsty_,” he squawked to me.

“The pump handle squeaks!” I hissed back to him and shoved him off the
pump platform. My left wet pajama sleeve pressed against his face.

What happened after that happened so fast and with so much noise it
would have wakened seventeen fathers, as Poetry, my almost best friend
who had always stood by me when I was in trouble, who was always on my
side, all of a sudden didn’t act like he was my friend at all.

We weren’t any more than three feet from the large iron kettle filled
with innocent water, which up to that moment had been reflecting the
moon as clearly as if it had been a mirror--clearly enough, in fact,
for you to see the man in the moon in it.

The next second Poetry’s powerful arms were around me and he was
dragging me toward that big kettle. The next second after that, he
swooped my 89 pounds up and with me kicking and squirming and trying
to wriggle out of his grasp and not being able to, he sat me down
kerplop-splash, double-splashety-_slump_ right in the center of that
large kettle of water.

“What on _earth!_” I exclaimed, my voice trembling with temper, my
teeth chattering with the cold and my mind whirling.

My words exploded out of my mouth at the very minute Pop came out the
back door. “‘What on _earth!_’ is right,” he exclaimed in his big
father-sounding voice. “What on earth are you doing _in_ the _water?_”

Poetry answered for me, saying politely like he was trying to save
somebody from a razor strap, “It’s all my fault, Mr. Collins. We were
getting a drink and I--I shouldn’t have done it--but I _pushed_ him.
I--.” Then Poetry’s voice took on a mischievous tone, as he said, “The
water was so clear and the man in the moon reflected in it was so
handsome, I wanted to see what a good-looking _boy_ would look like in
it. I couldn’t resist the temptation.”

_Such_ an innocent voice! So polite! I was boiling inside as I splashed
myself out of the kettle and stood dripping on the pump platform.

Then I did get a surprise. Pop’s voice, instead of being like black
thunder, which it sometimes is at a time like that, was a sort of husky
whisper: “Let’s keep quiet--all of us. We wouldn’t want to wake up your
mother, Bill. You boys get back into the tent quick, while I slip into
the house and get Bill a pair of dry pajamas. Hurry up! QUICK, into the
tent!”

Pop turned, tiptoed to the back screen door, opened it quietly, while
Poetry and I scooted to the tent. A second later, we were inside in the
shadowy moonlight which oozed in through the plastic window above my
cot.

Pop was back out of the house almost before I was out of my wet
pajamas. He whispered to us at the tent door, “Here’s a towel. Dry
yourself good. Put these fresh pajamas on--but, BE QUIET!” He whispered
the last two words almost savagely.

“Here, let me have your old wet ones. I’ll hang them on the line behind
the house to dry--and remember, not a word of this to your mother,
Bill. Do you hear me?”

“Don’t worry,” I said. It was easy to hear anything as easy to listen
to as that.

And Pop was gone.

In only a few jiffies I was dry and had on my nice fresh
clean-smelling, Mom-washed stripeless yellow pajamas, and there wasn’t
even a sniffle in my nose to hint that maybe I would catch cold.

Boy oh boy, was it ever quiet in the tent--the only sounds being
those in my mind. Everything had happened so fast, it seemed as if it
had taken only a minute. It also seemed like a year had passed--so
many exciting things had happened--crazy things, too, such as a boy
galloping around in a pool of cold water on a green watermelon, and a
gang of girls screaming like wild hyenas that there was a zebra taking
a bath in the spring.

“Wait,” Poetry ordered, as I sat down on the edge of my cot and started
to crawl in. “We can’t get in between your mother’s nice clean sheets
with feet that have waded through mud and dusty cornfields. I’ll go get
the wash pan from the grape arbor, fill it with water, and bring it
back.”

“You stay _here!_” I ordered. “I don’t trust you outside this tent one
minute! I’ll get the water myself.”

Say, do you know what that dumb bunny of a fat boy answered me? He said
in his very polite voice, “But I’m _thirsty_--I haven’t had a chance to
get a drink--I--”

“Stay _here!_” I ordered. “I’ll _bring_ you a drink.”

“After all I’ve done for you, you won’t even let me go with you?” he
begged.

“What have you done for _me_, I’d like to know? You--with your plunking
me into the middle of that kettle of water?”

Poetry’s strong fat hands grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me.
“Listen, Chum,” he said fiercely; “I saved you from getting a licking,
didn’t I? I heard your father opening the back door, and I knew he’d
be there in a jiffy. If he found you all wet with that _spring_
water, he’d have asked you how come, and you’d really have been in a
pretty kettle. So I pushed you in with my bare hands, don’t you see?
Besides--look at this!” Poetry turned on his flashlight, reached over
to the foot of his cot and picked up a long black something-or-other
with a handle on it, and extended it to me. _AND IT WAS POP’S RAZOR
STRAP!_

“He had it in his hand when he came out the door,” Poetry told me. “He
accidentally left it on the pump platform when he went in for the fresh
pajamas. Now, am I your friend, or not?”

Looking at the eighteen-inch-long blackish-brown leather razor strap in
Poetry’s hand, and remembering the last time Pop had given me a few
interesting strokes with it, I decided maybe Poetry really had been
my friend. Besides, if I let him go to get a pan of water for washing
our feet, and if Pop saw and heard him, Pop would probably not say a
word--he not wanting to wake Mom up.

“All right,” I said to Poetry, “but hurry back.” Which he did.

Pretty soon we had our feet washed and dried on the towel, which
I noticed when we got through might also have to be washed in the
morning. In only a little while we were in our bunks again and sound
asleep, and right away I began dreaming a crazy mixed-up dream in which
I was running in red-striped pajamas through the woods, leaving the
path made by barefoot boys’ bare feet and working my way around to the
left along the crest of the hill where the pawpaw bushes were, just
to see how many girl campers there were. Then it seemed like I was in
the spring again, galloping around on a green no-legged bronco which
somebody had stolen and plugged and maybe sold to the girls--or even
_given_ to them--or maybe some of the girls had invaded our melon patch
that very night and stolen it themselves.

I hated to think that, though, ’cause any girl who is a girl scout
is supposed to be like a boy who is a boy scout, which is absolutely
honest. Besides as much as I didn’t like girls--not most of them
anyway--and was scared of them a little--it seemed like there was a
small voice inside of me which all my life had been whispering that
girls are kind of special--and anybody couldn’t help it if she happened
to be born one. Mom had been a girl for quite a few years herself, and
it hadn’t hurt her a bit. She had grown up to become one of the most
wonderful people in the world.

But who had stole my watermelon? And how had it gotten down there in
the spring? It _was_ my melon, of course!

The idea woke me up. Or else my own voice did, when I heard myself
hissing to Poetry:

“Hey, you! _Poetry!_ Come on, wake up!”

He groaned, turned over in his cot, and groaned again. “Let me sleep,
will you?”

“No,” I whispered, “wake up! Come on and go with me. I’ve got to go
down into our watermelon patch to see--”

“I don’t want any more water,” he mumbled, “and I wouldn’t think you
would either.”

“That melon in the spring,” I said. “I just dreamed it was my prize
melon! I think somebody stole it. I want to go down to our truck patch
to see if it’s gone.”

Poetry showed he hadn’t been asleep at all then, ’cause he rolled over,
sat up, swung his feet out over the edge of his cot and onto the canvas
floor, and I knew we were _both_ going outside once more--_just once
more_.

What we were going to do was one of the most important things we had
ever done--even if it might not seem so to a boy’s father if he should
happen to wake up and see us in the melon patch and think we were two
strange boys out there actually stealing watermelons.

Poetry and I were pretty soon outside the tent again in the wonderful
moonlight where now most of the cicadas had stopped their wild
whirrings and the crickets had begun to take over for the rest of
the night. Fireflies were everywhere, too. It seemed like there were
thousands of fireflies flashing their green lights on and off in every
tree in our orchard and in all the open spaces everywhere. The lights
of those that were flying were like short yellowish green chalk marks
being made on a schoolhouse blackboard.

Poetry, with his flashlight, was leading the way as he and I moved out
across our barnyard. When we were passing Old Red Addie’s apartment hog
house, I was reminded again that all the smells around a farm are not
the kind to write about in a story, so I won’t even mention it but will
let you imagine what it was like.

At the wooden gate near the barn, Poetry said, “Listen, will you?”

I listened, but all I could hear was the sound of pigeons cooing in the
haymow, which is one of the friendliest sounds a boy ever hears--the
low lonesome cooing of pigeons.

There are certainly a lot of different sounds around our farm, nearly
all of which I have learned to imitate so well I actually sound like
a farmyard full of animals sometimes, Pop says. Mom also says that
sometimes I actually _look_ like a red-haired freckle-faced pig--which
I probably don’t.

Say, did you ever stop to think about all the different kinds of sounds
a country boy gets to enjoy?

While you are imagining Poetry and me cutting across the south pasture
to the east side of our melon patch, I’ll mention just a few that we
get to hear a hundred times a year, such as the wind roaring in a
winter blizzard, Dragonfly’s Pop’s bulls bellowing, Circus’s Pop’s
hounds baying or bawling or snarling or growling; Mixy, our black and
white cat, meowing or purring; mice squeaking in the corncrib; Old
Topsy neighing; Poetry’s Pop’s sheep bleating; all the old setting-hens
clucking; the laying hens singing or cackling; Big Jim’s folks’ ducks
quacking; honey and bumblebees droning and buzzing; crows cawing; and
our old red rooster crowing at midnight or just at daybreak; screech
owls screeching; hoot-owls hooting; the cicadas drumming, and the
crickets chirping. Yes, and Dragonfly sneezing, especially in ragweed
season, which it already was in the Sugar Creek territory.

There are a lot of interesting sounds, too, down along the creek and
the bayou, such as water singing in the riffles, the big night herons
going “Quoke-quoke,” cardinals whistling, bob-whites calling, squirrels
barking--and when the gang is together, the happiest sounds of all with
everybody talking at once and nobody listening to anybody.

There are also a few sounds that hurt your ears, such as Pop filing a
saw, Old Red Addie’s family of red-haired pigs squealing, the death
squawk of a chicken just before it gets its head chopped off for the
Collins’ family dinner, and the wild screams of a bevy of girls calling
an innocent boy in red-striped pajamas, a _zebra!_

In only a few jiffies we were out in the middle of our truck patch
looking to see if any of the melons were missing. I was just sure that
when I came to Ida’s vine, I’d find a long oval indentation where she
had been--the dream I had had about her being stolen was so real in my
mind.

“All this walk for nothing,” Poetry exclaimed all of a sudden, when
his flashlight landed ker-flash right on the green fat side of Ida
Watermelon Collins, as peaceful and quiet as an old setting hen on her
nest.

I stood looking down at her proudly, then I said in a grumpy voice,
“What do you mean, making me get up out of a comfortable bed and drag
myself all the way out here for nothing! You see to it that you don’t
make me dream such a crazy dream again--do you _hear_ me!”

I felt better after saying that, then Poetry beside me grunted
grouchily, and said, “And don’t ever rob _me_ of _my_ good night’s rest
again either!”

With that, we started to wend our barefoot pajama-clad way back across
the field of vines and other melons in the direction of the barn again.
We hadn’t gone more than fifteen yards when what to my wondering ears
should come but the strange sound of something running--that is, that’s
what I thought it sounded like at first. I stopped stock-still and
looked around in a fast moonlit circle of directions, and saw away
over by the new woven-wire fence not more than twenty feet from the
iron pitcher pump, something dark about the size of a long, low-bodied
extra-large raccoon, moving toward the shadows of the elderberry bushes.

I could feel the red hair on the back of my neck and on the top of my
head beginning to crawl like the bristles on a dog’s or a cat’s or a
hog’s back do when it’s angry--only I wasn’t angry--not yet, anyway.

A little later, I was not only angry but my mind was going in excited
circles. If you had been me and seen what I saw, and found out what I
found out, you’d have felt the way I felt, which was all mixed up in
my thoughts, worried and excited and stormy-minded, and ready for a
headfirst dive into the middle of one of the most thrilling mysteries
that ever started in the middle of a dog day’s night.



3


You don’t have to wait long to decide what to do at a time like that,
when you have mischievous-minded, quick-thinking Poetry along with you,
even when you are in the middle of a muddle in the middle of a melon
patch, watching something the size of a long, very fat raccoon hurrying
in jerky movements toward the shadows of the elderberry bushes.

If things hadn’t been so exciting, it would have been a good time to
let my imagination put on its wings and fly me around in my boy’s
world awhile--what with a million stars all over the sky and fireflies
writing on the blackboard of the night and rubbing out all their
greenish-yellow marks as fast as they made them, and with the crickets
singing and the smell of sweet clover enough to make you dizzy with
just feeling fine.

But it was no time for dreaming. Instead, it was a time for acting--and
_QUICK!_

“Come on!” Poetry hissed to me. “Let’s give chase!” and he started
running and yelling, “Stop, thief! Stop!”

And away we both went, out across that truck patch, dodging melons as
we went, leaping over them or swerving aside like we do when we are
on a coon chase at night with Circus’s Pop’s long-eared, long-nosed,
long-voiced hounds leading the way, trying to catch up with the
dark-brown, long, low, very-fat animal--something I had never seen
around Sugar Creek before in all my life.

       *       *       *       *       *

Then, all of a disappointing sudden, the brown whatever-it-was
disappeared into the shadow of the elderberry bushes, and I heard an
exciting whirring noise in the lane on the other side of the fence. A
fast jiffy later, an automobile came to noisy-motored life, a pair of
head-lamps went on, and an oldish-sounding car went rattling down the
lane, headed in the direction of the Sugar Creek school, which is at
the end of the lane where it meets the county line road.

Poetry’s long 3-batteried flashlight shot a straight white beam
through the firefly-spattered night. It landed ker-flash right on
that oldish-looking car as it swished past the iron pitcher pump and
disappeared down the hill. A few seconds later, we heard the car
go rattlety-crash across the board floor of the branch bridge, the
head-lamps lighting up the lane as it sped up the hill on the other
side in the direction of the schoolhouse.

_What on earth!_

My mind was still on the car and who might be in it, when I heard
Poetry say, “Look! There is our wild animal! He stopped right at the
fence! Let’s get him!”

My mind came back to the long brown low very-fat something-or-other we
had been chasing a minute before. My eyes got to it at about the same
time Poetry’s flashlight socked it ker-wham-flash right in the middle
of its fat side.

My feet got there almost as quick as my eyes did.

“What _is_ it?” I exclaimed, looking about for a stick or a club to
protect myself, in case I had to.

My imagination had been yelling to me, “It’s some kind of animal,
different from anything you’ve ever seen!” so I was terribly
disappointed when Poetry let out a disgusted grunt with a surprise in
it, saying, “Aw, it’s only an old gunny sack.”

And it was. An old brownish--or rather, _new_, light-brown--gunny sack,
with something large inside of it. Fastened to one end was a plastic
rope which stretched from the gunny sack back into the elderberry
bushes.

We kept on standing stock-still and staring at the thing. Whatever was
in the sack wasn’t moving at all, not even breathing, I thought, as we
stood studying it and wondering, “What on earth!”

It was large and long and round and very fat and--!

Then like a light turning on in my mind, I knew what was in that brown
burlap bag. I knew it as well as I knew my name was Bill Collins,
Theodore Collins’ only son. “There’s a watermelon in that bag!” I
exclaimed.

Whoever was in that car had probably crawled out into our melon patch,
picked the melon, slipped it into this burlap bag, tied the rope to it,
and had been hiding here in the bushes, pulling the rope and dragging
the melon to him! Doing it that way so nobody would see him walking,
carrying it!

Was I ever stirred up in my mind! Yet, there wasn’t any sense in
getting too stirred up. A boy couldn’t let himself waste his perfectly
good temper in one big explosion, ’cause, as my Pop has told me many a
time, you can’t think straight when you are angry. Pop was trying to
teach me to _use_ my temper, instead of _losing_ it.

“A temper is a fine thing, if you control it, but not if it controls
you,” he has told me maybe five hundred times in my half-long life. As
you maybe already know if you’ve read some of the other Sugar Creek
Gang stories, my hot temper had gotten me into trouble many a time by
shoving me headfirst into an unnecessary fight with somebody who didn’t
know how to control his own temper.

In a flash I was down on my haunches beside the burlap bag. “Here,” I
said to Poetry, “lend me your knife a minute. Let’s get this old burlap
bag off and see if it’s a watermelon!”

“Goose!” Poetry answered me. “I’m wearing my night clothes!” Both of us
were, as you already know. His were green-striped, and mine yellow, as
I’ve already told you. We both looked ridiculous there in the moonlight.

“Look!” Poetry exclaimed. “Here’s how they were going to get it through
the fence!”

My eyes fastened onto the circle of light his flashlight made on a spot
back under the elderberry bushes and I noticed there was a hole cut in
Pop’s new woven-wire fence, large enough to let a boy through. Boy oh
boy, would Pop ever have a hard time using _his_ temper when he saw
that tomorrow morning!

But we _had_ to do something _with_ the melon. “Let’s leave it for the
gang to see tomorrow,” Poetry suggested. “Let Big Jim decide what to do
about it.”

“What to do with Bob Till, you mean,” I said grimly. Already my temper
was telling me it was Bob Till himself, the Sugar Creek Gang’s worst
enemy, who had been trying to steal one of our melons.

Just thinking that started my blood to running faster in my veins.
How many times during the past two years we had had trouble with John
Till’s oldest boy, Bob, and how many times Big Jim, the Sugar Creek
Gang’s fierce-fighting leader, had had to give Bob a licking--and
always Bob was just as bad a boy afterward, and maybe even worse.

I was remembering that only last week at our very latest Gang meeting,
Big Jim had told us: “I’m _through_ fighting Bob Till. I’m going to try
kindness. We’re _all_ going to try it. Let’s show him that a Christian
boy doesn’t have to fight every time somebody knocks a chip off his
shoulder--and let’s not put the chip on our shoulder in the first
place.”

At that meeting, which had been at the spring, Dragonfly had piped up
and asked, “What’s a ‘chip on your shoulder’ mean?”

Poetry had answered for Big Jim by saying, “It’s a doubled-up fist,
shaking itself under somebody else’s nose--daring him to hit you first!”

Big Jim ignored Poetry’s supposed-to-be-funny answer and said, “Bob is
on probation, you know, and he has to behave, or the sentence that is
hanging over him will go into effect and he’ll have to spend a year in
the reformatory. We wouldn’t want that. We have got to help him prove
that he can behave himself. If he thinks we are mad at him, he will be
tempted to do things to get even with us. As long as this sentence is
hang--”

Dragonfly cut in, then, with one of his dumbish questions, at the same
time trying to show how smart he was in school, asking, “What kind of
a sentence--_declarative_, or _interrogative_, or _imperative_, or
_exclamatory?_”

Big Jim’s jaw set, and he gave Dragonfly an exclamatory look. Then he
went on, shocking us almost out of our wits when he told us something
not a one of us knew yet: “One of the conditions of his being on
probation instead of in the reformatory is that he go to church at
least once a week for a year. That means he’ll probably come to _our_
church, and _that_ means he’ll be in our Sunday school class, and--”

I got one of the queerest feelings I ever had in my life. Whirlwindlike
thoughts were spiraling in my mind. I just couldn’t imagine Bob Till
in church and Sunday school. It would certainly seem funny to have
him there with nice clothes on and his hair combed, listening to our
preacher preach from the Bible. What if I had to sit beside him
myself--I, who could hardly think his name without feeling my muscles
tighten and my fists start to double up?

Another thing Big Jim said at that meeting was, “You guys want to
promise that you will stick with me and all of us try to help him?”

And we had promised.

       *       *       *       *       *

And now here was Bob already doing something that would make the
sentence drop on his head. Whoever was in that car just _had_ to be
Bob Till on account of he had a car just like that--the car being what
people call a “hot rod.”

“Listen!” Poetry exclaimed. I listened in every direction there is,
then I heard and saw at the same time a car coming back up the lane,
its head-lamps hitting us full in the face.

“Quick!” Poetry cried. “Down!”

We stooped low behind the elderberry bushes and waited for the car to
pass.

“Hey!” I said to us. “It’s slowing down. It’s going to stop,” which it
did. The same rattling old jalopy. In a split jiffy we were scooting
along the fence row to a spot about twenty-five feet farther up the
lane. And there we crouched behind some giant ragweeds and goldenrod
and orange-rayed, black-eyed Susans--Pop having ordered me a week ago
to cut down the ragweeds with our scythe, and I hadn’t done it yet.
I nearly always cut the goldenrod too, on account of Dragonfly, the
pop-eyed member of our Gang, is allergic to them as well as to the
ragweeds and he nearly always uses this lane going to and from school.

My heart was pounding in my ears as I crouched there with Poetry, he in
his green-striped pajamas and I in my plain yellow ones.

“Get down!” I hissed to him.

“I _am_ down,” he whispered.

“Flatter!” I ordered him, “so you won’t be seen! Can’t you lie _flat?_”

“I can only lie round,” he answered saucily, which, under any other
circumstances, would have sounded funny, he being so extra large around.

“Somebody is getting out,” Poetry whispered.

“How many are there?”

“Only one, I think.”

Then I felt Poetry’s body grow tense. “There goes one of your
watermelons,” he hissed to me.

I saw it at the same time he did--the brown burlap bag being pulled
deeper into the elderberry bushes--and I knew somebody was actually
stealing one of our melons. In a jiffy it would be gone!

“Let’s jump him,” I exclaimed to Poetry. My blood was tingling for
battle. I started to my feet, but he stopped me, saying, “_Sh!_” in a
subdued but savage whisper. “Detectives don’t stop a man from stealing;
they let him do it first, then they capture him.”

It wasn’t an easy thing to do--to do nothing, watching that watermelon
being hoisted into the back seat of that car. My muscles were aching
to get into some new kind of action that was different from hoeing
potatoes, milking cows, gathering eggs, and other things any ordinary
boy’s muscles could do. I was straining to go tearing up the fence row
to the elderberry bushes, dive through the hole in the fence, make a
football-style tackle on that thief’s hind legs and bring him down. I
was pretty sure, if all the Gang had been there, one or the other of
us wouldn’t have been able to stay stopped stock-still. He would have
rushed in, and the rest of us would be like Jack, in the poem about
“Jack and Jill”--we would go tumbling after, even if some of us got
knocked down and got our crowns cracked.

But the rest of the Gang wasn’t there. Besides it was already too late
to do anything. In less time than it has taken me to write it, the
melon in the gunny sack was in the car. The thief was in the driver’s
seat, and the hot rod was shooting like an arrow with two blazing heads
down the moonlit lane.

Poetry shot a long powerful beam from his flashlight straight toward
the car, socking it on the license plate, and I knew his mind--which is
so good it’s almost like what is called a “photographic mind”--would
remember the number if he had been able to see it.

It’s like having a big blown-up balloon suddenly burst in your face to
have your excited adventure come to an end like that; kinda like a fish
must feel when it’s nibbling on a fat fishing worm down in Sugar Creek
and, all of a disappointing sudden, having its nice juicy dinner jerked
away from it by the fisherman who is on the other end of the line.

There wasn’t anything left to do except go back to the tent and to bed
and to sleep.

Just thinking that reminded me of the fact that I probably would need
another pair of pajamas to sleep in, the yellow pair I had on having
gotten soiled while I was lying in the grass behind the goldenrod and
ragweed and black-eyed Susans. “We’ll have to wash our feet again
before we can crawl into Mom’s nice clean sheets,” I said, as we
started to start back to the tent.

“Maybe it would be easier and cause less worry for your mother if we
just climbed into our cots and went to sleep, and tomorrow if your
mother gets angry at us we can explain about the watermelon and that
will get her angry at the thief instead of at us. We could offer to
help her _wash_ the sheets, anyway.”

It was a pair of very sad, very mad boys that threaded their way
through the watermelon patch to the pasture and across it to the gate
at the barn and on toward the tent. There were still a few cicadas
busy with their drums, I noticed, in spite of the fact that I was all
stirred up in my mind about the watermelon. Thinking about the seeds
in their long, straight rows, buried in the dark red flesh of the
watermelon, like seeds always are, just like somebody had planted them,
reminded me of the stars in the sky overhead, and I was wishing I could
actually look up and see the Dog Star, which is the brightest star in
all the Sugar Creek sky but which, during dog days--which are the hot
and sultry days of July and August--you have to get up in the morning
to see--on account of the Dog Star always comes up with the sun in July
and August and, in a very little while, fades out of sight.

In the winter, in February, the Dog Star is almost straight overhead at
night and is like a shining star at the top of a Christmas tree--but
who wants to go out in the middle of a zero-cold night just to look at
a star, even if it is the brightest one that ever shines?

“Are you sleepy?” Poetry asked me, when we reached the plum tree.

“Not very,” I said, “but I’m still so mad I can’t see straight.”

“You want to go back down to the spring with me?” he asked, his hand on
the tent awning, about to lift it for us to go in.

“Are you crazy?” I asked.

“I’m a detective. I want to go down there and see if we can find the
oiled paper you threw away when we heard those girls at the top of the
hill.”

“My mother has dozens of old bread wrappers,” I told him. “I’ll ask her
for one for you in the morning.”

“Listen, Chum,” Poetry whispered, as he let the tent awning drop
into place and grabbed me by the arm, “I said I’m a detective, and
I’m looking for a clue! I’ve a hunch there was something in that
paper--something whoever put it in that melon, didn’t want to get wet!”

I knew, from having studied about watermelons that summer, that the
edible part of a watermelon is made up of such things as protein, and
fat, and ash, and calcium, and sugar and water and just fibre. Six per
cent of the melon is sugar and over ninety-two per cent is water. You
could eat a piece of watermelon the size of Charlotte Ann’s head and
it would be like drinking more than a pint of sweetened water. I could
understand that anything anybody put on the inside of the melon would
get wet, almost as wet as if you had dunked it in a pail of water.
“Look,” I said to Poetry, “I don’t want to show my face or risk my neck
anywhere near a campful of excitable girls who can’t tell a boy in a
pair of red-striped pajamas from a zebra and who might start screaming
bloody murder if they happened to see us again.”

“I’ll have to go alone, then,” Poetry announced firmly, and in a jiffy,
his fat green-striped back was all I could see of him as he waddled off
across the moonlit lawn toward the walnut tree and the gate.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was either let him go alone on a wild goose chase, or go with him
and run the risk of stumbling into a whirlwind of honest-to-goodness
trouble.

I caught up to him by the time he had reached “Theodore Collins” on
our mailbox, and whispered to him, “What do you think might have been
wrapped up in it?”

Poetry’s voice sounded mysterious, and also very serious, as he
answered, “Didn’t you read the paper this morning?”

I nearly always read the daily paper, part of it anyway, almost as soon
as it landed in the mailbox, sometimes racing to get to the box before
Pop did. Pop himself always read the editorials and Mom, the fashions
and the new recipes and the accidents, and also _worried_ about the
accidents outloud to Pop a little. Mom always felt especially sad
whenever anything had happened to a little baby.

“Sure,” I puffed to Poetry as I loped along after him in the shadowy
moonlight. “What’s that got to do with a wad of oiled paper in a
plugged watermelon?”

His answer as it came panting back over his fat shoulder, started the
shivers vibrating in my spine again--and if I had been a cicada with a
sound-producing organ inside me somewhere, my shaking thoughts would
have filled the whole woods with noise.

Here are Poetry’s gasping words, “Whoever broke into the Super Market
last week might be hiding out in this part of the county--maybe even
along the creek here somewhere!”

“The paper didn’t say that,” I said.

“It didn’t have to,” Poetry shouted back. “It didn’t say where he _was_
hiding, did it? I’ve got a hunch he’s right here in our territory.
Maybe in the swamp or----”

I’d had a lot of experiences with Poetry’s hunches, and he’d been right
so many times, that whenever he said he had one, I felt myself getting
all of a sudden in a mood for a big surprise of some kind.

But this time his idea didn’t seem to make sense--not quite, anyway,
so I said, “Who on earth would want to stuff a lot of money inside a
watermelon?”

Poetry’s answer was a grouchy grunt, followed by a scolding: “I said I
had a _hunch!_ I _know_ we’ll find something important going on around
here ... Now, stop asking dumb questions and hurry up!” With that,
that barrel-shaped, detective-minded boy set a still faster pace for
me as we dashed down the hill to the place where I had just had the
humiliating experience of riding a wild green, legless bronco in a
reservoir full of cold water.

The red-striped pajamas I had been wearing must have made me look
ridiculous to those girl scouts, I thought. I hoped they wouldn’t come
back to the spring again while Poetry and I were looking for what he
called a “clue.”



4


Several times, before that night was finally over, I thought how much
more sensible we had been if we had curled ourselves up in our cots in
the tent and gone sound asleep.

It’s better to be in bed when you have your night clothes on than
scouting a watermelon patch or splashing in a pool of spring water or
crouching shivering behind ragweeds and goldenrod and black-eyed Susans
in a fence row, or searching with a flashlight for a wad of oiled paper
which somebody has stuffed into a watermelon.

Especially is it better to be in bed, like any decent boy should be,
than to be lying on your stomach under an evergreen tree with pine
needles pricking you and you don’t dare move or you’ll be heard by
somebody you are straining your eyes to see, while he does the most
ridiculous thing you ever heard of at the very spring where you
yourself were just an hour ago.

Boy oh boy, let me tell you about what happened, the second time Poetry
and I went to the spring that night.

When we came to the beech tree, on whose close-grained gray bark the
Gang and maybe thirty other people had carved their initials through
the years, we stopped to look the situation over. There was a stretch
of moonlit open space about twenty yards wide between us and the
leaning linden tree which is at the top of the incline leading down to
the spring.

The shadowy hulk of the old black widow stump in the middle of the
moonlit space looked like a black ghost. I kept straining my ears in
the direction of the linden tree wondering if there might be anybody
down at the spring; also I kept my ears and my eyes focused in the
direction of the pawpaw bushes away off to the left where the girls’
camp was. I could smell the odor of wet ashes and I knew that the
girls had had a campfire near the black widow stump--there being an
outdoor fireplace there for picnickers to use for wiener roasts, steak
fries, and for making coffee--and also for giving a picnic a friendly
atmosphere. I was only half glad to notice that the girls had put out
the very last spark of their fire, ’cause I hated to have to admit
that a flock of girls knew one of the most important safety rules of a
good camper, which is: “Never leave a campfire burning, but put it out
before you go.”

From the beech tree we moved east maybe a hundred feet, then made a
moonlit dash for the row of evergreens which border the rail fence that
skirts the top of the hill above the bayou.

“Okay,” Poetry panted when we got there. “We’ll work our way down from
here. As soon as we get to the bottom, we’ll turn on the light and
start looking for our clue.”

And then I heard something--a noise out in the creek somewhere, as
plain as a Dog Star sunrise. It was the sound of an oar in a rowlock.

Poetry and I shushed each other at the same time, straining our ears in
the shadowy direction the sound had come from.

At the same instant, we dropped down onto the pine needles under the
tree.

“It’s somebody in a boat,” Poetry whispered. “He’s pulling in at the
spring.”

I could see the boat now, emerging from the shadow of the trees down
the shore. It had come up the creek from the direction of the Sugar
Creek bridge.

Now the boat was being steered toward the shore. I knew if it was
anybody who knew the shoreline, he wouldn’t stop directly in front of
the spring, ’cause the overflow drained into the creek there and it
would be a muddy landing. Below it, or just above it, was a good place.

“There’s only one man in it,” Poetry said. Even in the shadowy
moonlight, I could tell it was a red boat and one we’d never seen
before.

Then I did get a startled surprise, and my whole mind began whirling
with wondering what on earth in a gunny sack! No sooner had the prow of
the boat touched the gravelled shore than whoever was in it was up and
out and beaching the boat, wrapping the guy rope, which is called a
“painter,” around the small maple that grew there. Then he stepped back
into the boat, stooped, picked up something in both hands--something
dark and long and----!

“Hey!” my mind’s voice was screaming, while my _actual_ voice was
keeping still. “It’s a gunny sack! It’s the old brown burlap bag we saw
in the watermelon patch a half hour ago!”

In a minute the man was out of the boat and disappearing in the path
in the shadow of the trees we knew about. A second later, he emerged
at the opening in the board fence, worked his way through, and moved
straight toward the spring, lugging the burlap bag with the melon in it.

“Let’s jump him!” I whispered to Poetry.

Poetry put his lips to my ear and whispered back, “Nothing doing.
Detectives don’t capture a criminal _before_ he commits a crime. They
let him do it first, _then_ they capture him!”

“He’s already done it,” I said, “at the melon patch!”

“If you’ll be patient,” Poetry whispered back, “we’ll find out what we
want to know.”

We kept on watching from behind the evergreen while the man at the
spring hoisted his burlap bag over the cement lip of the pool and let
it down inside. He stayed in a stooping, stock-still position for
several jiffies, then began doing something with his hands.

“He’s about the size of Big Jim,” I whispered to Poetry.

“Or Circus,” he answered.

“Big Jim,” I insisted--only I knew that neither of them would steal a
watermelon and bring it here by night in a boat.

Just then I shifted my position a little on account of I had been
sitting on my foot and it was beginning to hurt. It was a crazy time
to lose my balance and have to struggle awkwardly to keep from sliding
down the incline, but that is what I did, and for a few anxious seconds
I was looking after myself instead of watching the mysterious movements
at the spring.

When, a jiffy later, I was focusing my vision in his direction, the man
or extra large boy--whichever he was--had left the spring and was on
his way back to the boat. For a split second we lost sight of him in
the shadows, then we saw him again with his back to us at the boat,
heard the painter being unwrapped from the tree.

In only a few more seconds the boat was gliding out into the creek--but
only a few feet, for right away the oarsman steered it toward the shore
and it became only a dim outline in the shadow of the trees that grew
along the steep incline.

Poetry, beside me, sighed an exasperated sigh and said, “Well, it
wasn’t any of _our_ Gang, anyway. Look!”

I had already seen--first the flash of a match or a cigarette lighter,
then a reddish glow in the dark, and I knew somebody was smoking a
cigarette or a cigar. That’s how I knew for sure it wasn’t any of the
Gang.

“I’d like to get my hands on him, for just one minute,” I said to
Poetry. “Both hands--twenty times--in fast succession.”

“You wouldn’t strike a woman or a girl, would you?” he answered.

“What? Who said it was a woman or a girl? He had on a pair of trousers,
didn’t he?”

“Girls wear slacks, don’t they? And lots of girls smoke, too.”

“And shouldn’t,” I answered.

We crept from our hiding place, scrambled down to where the boat
had been beached and looked to be sure the oarsman--or oarswoman or
oarsgirl--was out of sight. Then we slipped through the fence to look
into the cement pool to see the melon and also to look around for the
wad of paper I had tossed away when I had been here before.

I tell you it was an interesting minute--or three minutes, I should
say--’cause that’s all the time it took us to discover some thing very
important--very, _very_ important!

Say, did you ever have a flashlight strike you full in the face and
blind you for a few seconds? Well, the white light from the match or
cigarette lighter and the reddish glow from the cigarette or cigar
fifty yards down the shore, sort of blinded me--not my eyes, but
my mind. I couldn’t think straight for a minute. It was Poetry’s
suggestion, though--that the thief might be a woman or a girl--that
really confused me.

I guess all the time I had had it in the back of my mind that the thief
was Bob Till--but what if the person in the boat was a _girl!_ No
wonder I couldn’t think, I thought.

It was the perfume that sent my mind whirling. We noticed it the very
second we had crawled through the fence. It was so strong it made the
whole place smell as if somebody had upset the perfume counter in
the Sugar Creek Dime Store and half the bottles of cologne and fancy
perfumes had been broken.

If Dragonfly had been with us, I thought, he’d have sneezed and sneezed
and sneezed, on account of he is allergic to almost every perfume there
is.

Well, that was our chance to make a quick search for the wad of oiled
paper which is what we had come there for in the first place. I
remembered just about where I had tossed it and in only a few seconds
Poetry hissed, “Here it is! Here’s our clue!”

His excitement about the thing and his being so sure, had built up my
mind to expect to see something wonderful inside that oiled paper.
Anybody who would go to the trouble to steal and deliver a watermelon
secretly in a boat at night, would probably leave something _in_ the
melon worth a hundred times more than the melon itself.

There in the shadow of the linden tree, to the music of the bubbling
water in the spring, and the singing of the crickets, Poetry held the
flashlight while my trembling fingers unfolded that crumpled piece of
oiled paper, and spread it out.

“There’s _printing_ on it!” Poetry exclaimed under his breath.

And there was--_actually_ was!

“What does it say?” I exclaimed.

“It says--it says, ‘_Eat more Eatmore Bread. It’s better for you. The
more Eatmore you eat, the more you like it._’”

It was disgusting; very disappointing also.

“Smell it,” Poetry exclaimed, which I did, and say!

Boy oh boy, there was _really_ a perfume odor around the place now! If
Dragonfly had been there, I thought again--or rather, started to think
and didn’t get to finish, ’cause all of a sudden from the crest of the
hill I heard a rustling of last year’s dry leaves, saw a flashlight
leading the way and a spindle-legged barefoot boy in red-striped
pajamas coming down the incline to the spring. Imagine _that!_
Dragonfly in his night clothes! What on earth!

Poetry and I slipped behind an undergrowth of small elms where we
couldn’t be seen, and listened and watched as Dragonfly came all the
way down, went straight to the cement pool, shined his flashlight
inside, then his hands began to work fast like he was in a big hurry
and also like he was scared, and wanted to do what he was doing and
get it over quick. He certainly was nervous and he seemed to be having
trouble getting what he wanted to do, done.

Poetry’s fat face was close to mine. I decided I could whisper into his
ear and only he would hear me, so I said, “Look! He’s got a knife! He’s
going to plug the melon. He--”

Poetry jammed his fat elbow into my ribs so hard it made me grunt
outloud.

Dragonfly jumped like he was shot, dropped his knife into the spring,
started to straighten up, lost his balance, staggered in several
moonlit directions, then ker-whammety-swish-splash--into the water he
went just like I myself had done an hour or so ago.

And there he was, like I myself had been--a very wet boy in some very
wet, very cold water, struggling to get onto his feet and out of the
pool, and sneezing and spluttering because he had probably gotten some
of the water into his mouth, or nose, and maybe even into his lungs.

And _now_ what should we do?

We didn’t have time to decide, ’cause right that second there was
a sound of running steps at the top of the incline and two shadowy
figures with flashlights came flying down that leaf-strewn path, and
somebody’s voice that was as plain as day a girl’s voice cried, “We’ve
got you, you little rascal!”

Those two girls swooped down upon Dragonfly, seized him by the collar
and started dunking him in the pool of very cold water, dunking and
splashing water over him, and saying, “Take that--and that--and _that!_
We knew if we waited here, you’d be back!”

Then all of a sudden, there was a hullabaloo of other girls’ voices at
the top of the incline and a shower of flashlights and excited words
came tumbling down with them. It seemed like there must have been a
dozen girls, only there probably weren’t. Like a herd of stampeding
calves, all of them swarmed around our little half-scared-half-to-death
Dragonfly who was shivering and probably wondering what on earth. They
were pulling him this way and that, as if they would tear him to pieces.

Things like those I was seeing and hearing that minute just don’t
happen. Yet they _were_ happening, and to one of the grandest little
guys that ever sneezed in hayfever season--our very own Dragonfly
himself.

I didn’t know what he had done, nor why, but it seemed like anybody
with that many people swarming all over him like a colony of angry
bumblebees, ought to have somebody to stand up for him. If it had been
a gang of _boys_ beating up on that innocent little spindle-legged
guy, I probably would have made a headfirst dive, football style, into
the thick of them and bowled half a dozen of them over into the cement
pool. Then I’d have turned loose my two double-up experienced fists on
them, windmill fashion, and Poetry would have come tumbling after.

But what do you do when your pal is being torn to pieces by a pack
of helpless girls? As I have maybe told you before, my parents had
taught me to respect all girls, kind of like they were angels--which
most of them aren’t--and only one I ever saw in the whole Sugar Creek
territory is anywhere near like one, and she is one of Circus’s many
sisters, whose name is Lucille. Also I wouldn’t have the heart to fight
a weak-muscled helpless creature which men and boys are supposed to
defend from all harm and danger. Right that minute, though, while they
were dunking Dragonfly in the spring and shoving him around and calling
him names, it didn’t seem like girls _were_ such helpless creatures.
Certainly it was Dragonfly who needed the protection from harm and
danger!

I decided to use my mind and my voice, instead of my muscles. I
remembered that when I myself had been the striped cowboy riding a
watermelon, I had scattered the girls in every direction there is, by
letting loose a series of wild loon calls which sounded like a woman
screaming or a wildcat with a trembling voice trying to scare the wits
out of its prey. So, while I was still crouched in the shadows beside
and behind Poetry, I lifted my face to the sky and let loose six or
seven blood-curdling long-toned, high-voiced, trembling cries, making
the loon call, the screech-owl’s screech, and a wolf’s howl, over and
over again, and at about the same time.

Poetry, catching on to my idea, joined in with a series of sounds like
a young rooster learning to crow, and a guinea hen’s scrawny-necked
squawking, screaming song, which made me decide to bark like a dog and
also to let out a half-dozen long-toned, high-pitched wailing bawls
like Circus’s Pop’s hound, Old Bawler, makes when she’s on a red-hot
coon trail.

We probably sounded like the midway of a county fair gone crazy,
especially when all of a sudden Poetry, who could imitate almost every
farm noise there is, started in bawling like a calf, and I went back
to the loon call and the screech-owl’s screech. Then we began shaking
the elm saplings we were under, making them sway like a windstorm was
blowing and a cyclone would be there any minute.

Things happened pretty fast after that, and the noise got even worse
’cause, all mixed up with Dragonfly’s sneezing and Poetry’s and my
eardrum-splitting noises, were the different-pitched screams of the
girls. All of a sudden there was a flurry of skirts and slacks and
running feet, and in a flash of several jiffies the girls were tumbling
over each other on their way up the incline, past the base of the
leaning linden tree, and were gone! In my mind’s eye I was watching
them making a helter-skelter dash for the pawpaw bushes and their tents.

And that is how we practically saved Dragonfly’s life that very first
night of this story, which is only the beginning--and which made the
mystery we were trying to solve seem more mysterious than ever.



5


Poor Dragonfly! I guess he never had been so frightened before in his
sneezing life. Dog days are ragweed days--and nights, too--and he was
not only sneezing but wheezing a little, which meant he might get an
asthma attack any minute.

“The w-w-w-water ...” he stammered and gestured behind him toward the
spring.

Poetry and I were quick out of our hiding on our way to where Dragonfly
was. What, I wondered, was he trying to tell us about the watermelon?

“M-m-m-m-my knife!” he spluttered. “I-i-i-it’s in there--in the bottom
of the pool!”

When I heard that, I _knew_ he had been planning to plug the melon,
which I was sure somebody had left there a few jiffies ago. It didn’t
feel very good to have to believe one of our own gang had been mixed up
with the stealing of melons from the Collins’ truck patch.

“Hurry!” Dragonfly wheezed. “G-g-g-get it for me! I’ve got to get home
quick or I’ll get a licking! My parents don’t know where I am!”

Because all of us were in a hurry to get away from such a dangerous
place for boys to be--which it was, with a colony of bumblebee-like
girls on a temper spree--I exclaimed to Poetry: “Hold the flashlight
for me. I’ll get it!”--which Poetry did, and which I started to do, but
got an exclamation point in my mind for sum when I noticed there wasn’t
even one watermelon in the pool--neither the one I was sure somebody
had just hoisted over the lip of the pool and lowered inside, nor the
long beautiful one I had seen there myself, and which had had the oiled
paper wadding in it, and on which I had had a fierce, fast ride in the
moonlight.

What on earth!

“Come on! Hurry up!” Dragonfly cried. “I’ve got to get home before my
father gets back from town. It’s _his_ knife, and I wasn’t supposed to
have it!”

I quickly shoved my stripeless pajama sleeve up to my shoulder, and
while Poetry held the flashlight for me and Dragonfly shivered and
wheezed and watched, I plunged my arm into that icy water, where in a
few seconds my fingers clasped the knife and only a few seconds after
that all of us were on our way up the incline. At the top, we looked
quick to see if the enemy had retreated, and they had--anyway we didn’t
see or hear them--then we skirted the rail fence and the evergreens,
and started on the run on the way up the bayou, taking the way that
most certainly wouldn’t lead anywhere near the pawpaw bushes.

We would have looked very strange to most anybody--Poetry in his
green-striped pajamas, I in my yellowish, stripeless ones, and
Dragonfly in his red-striped ones--that was the funny thing about it,
that crooked-nosed, spindle-legged, short-of-breath little guy being in
his night clothes, too. When we asked him, “How come?” he panted back,
“I didn’t have time to dress. I had to get here, and get back again
before my father got home.”

It wasn’t a very satisfactory answer. His running around in the woods
in his night clothes didn’t make half as much sense as Poetry and I
running around in ours did. It must have seemed absolutely nonsensical
to those girl campers who must have thought he and I were the same
idiotic boy--which we most certainly weren’t--at least I wasn’t.

Dragonfly was going to explain further when he got stopped as quick
as a chicken’s squawking stops when you cut its head off to have it
dressed for dinner. His wheezy voice was interrupted by somebody in the
direction of Bumblebee Hill calling my name, saying, “_Bill! ... Bill
Collins! ..._ WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE YOU!”

“It’s your father!” Poetry stopped stock-still and said.

And it was.

That big, half-worried, half-mad, thundery voice trumpeting down to us
from the top of Bumblebee Hill was the well-known voice of Theodore
Collins, my reddish-brown-mustached, bushy-eyebrowed father. What on
earth was Pop doing out there waving his lantern and calling, “Bill
Collins, where in the world are you?”

All of a sudden it seemed like wherever I was, it would be a good place
not to be. It would be safer if I could take a fast shortcut through
the woods and be fast asleep in the tent--or pretending to be--by the
time Pop would give up looking for me and come back to the house. I
could tell by the tone of his ear-deafening voice that whatever he was
saying, he had already said it for the last time.

“Come on,” I whispered to Poetry and Dragonfly, “let’s get home
quick--QUICK!” I repeated the last word with a hiss, and lit out for
home--the shortcut that would miss Pop, who was still dodging along
with his swinging lantern toward the bayou, still calling my name and
stopping every few yards to listen. If only Dragonfly could run faster,
it would be easy, I thought.

Right then, to my surprise, Pop swung west and started on the run
toward the spring. We quick dodged behind some choke-cherry shrubs so
as not to be seen, then we scrambled up the hill and into the path made
by barefoot boys’ bare feet, and in a fast jiffy reached the rail fence
just across the road from the Collins’ gate and the walnut tree.

In less than almost no time, we were inside the tent, Dragonfly puffing
and wheezing on account of his asthma, Poetry puffing on account of his
weight, and I, just puffing.

But it wasn’t to any peaceful quiet tent that we had come back.
Dragonfly was as wet as a drowned rat from having been dunked in the
spring water and was shivering with the cold--on such a _hot_ midsummer
night!

We certainly had a problem on our hands. In fact, the whole night was
all messed up with problems. _Who_ had crawled out into our truck
patch, picked one of our melons, slipped it into a burlap bag, dragged
it on the end of a long plastic clothesline to a hole in the fence
under the elderberry bushes, hoisted it into his car, and driven away
with it? Who, quite a while later, had come rowing up the creek in a
boat and left the melon in the spring? And how come there wasn’t even
one melon there a little later? What on earth was Dragonfly himself
doing there? Was he actually looking for his knife, or had he had it
with him all the time? How come he had dropped it in the spring?

I felt like I do sometimes on examination day in school when the
teacher gives me a little slip of onion-skin paper with seven or eight
questions on it, quite a few of which I know I can’t answer. Generally
the slip of paper has a printed note at the top which says, “_Answer
any five._” But tonight’s questions were worse. I’d certainly need to
do a lot of studying, to answer even _one_ of them!

“I have got to get home and into bed, before my father gets home from
town and finds I’m not there, or I’ll get a licking!” Dragonfly whined.

“Doesn’t he know you are gone?” Poetry asked, and Dragonfly answered,
“I climbed out of my bedroom window. I had to get to the spring to get
my knife.”

Then Dragonfly got what he thought was a good idea. “You let me have
_your_ red-striped pajamas until tomorrow, Bill.” He was looking at me
and noticing I had on my yellow ones.

“I can’t,” I said, “--they are all wet.”

He was standing shivering in the light of Poetry’s flashlight and I was
shivering too, from all the excitement. Also I was still wondering how
soon Pop would give up looking for us in the woods and come back to the
tent. Dragonfly and I both had our fathers after us, I thought.

“Your red-striped pajamas are all wet?” Dragonfly exclaimed, and I
answered, “Yes, they just got dunked in the spring!” which, of course,
didn’t make sense to him.

We were all standing in the middle of the tent between the two cots,
trying to decide what to do, when Poetry said, “Listen! I hear a
telephone ringing somewhere!”

I had already heard it. The sound was coming from our house through
the open east window near which our phone hangs on the wall. Who, I
wondered, would be calling the Collins’ at this time of night? I knew
that if Mom woke up and came downstairs to answer the phone, she’d be
within a foot of the open window and she could hear anything we would
say or do in the tent.

But nobody answered the phone. A jiffy later it rang again, and when
nobody answered it, Poetry said, “Maybe your mother’s out in the woods
somewhere with your father; you’d better go answer it yourself.”

I lifted the tent awning, sped out across the lawn to the board walk
that leads from the back door to the pump, slipped into the house,
worked my way through the dark kitchen to the livingroom, hurried to
the phone, my heart pounding from having hurried so fast.

“Hello,” I said into the mouthpiece, making my voice sound as much
like my mother’s as I could, and there came screeching into my ear an
excited woman’s voice saying worriedly, “Hello, Mrs. Collins? I’ve been
trying to get you. Is our boy, Roy, there?”

“Roy?” I asked. “Roy _who?_”--not remembering for a second that
Dragonfly’s real name is Roy Gilbert, the Gang never calling him that.
He was just plain Dragonfly to us.

“Roy--my _boy_. He’s not in his room and I can’t find him anywhere.”

I didn’t have time to tell her anything ’cause right that minute there
was a voice hissing to me from outside the window, saying, “Who _is_
it?”

I turned my face away from the telephone mouthpiece and said to Poetry
whose hissing voice it was, “It’s Dragonfly’s mother. She’s afraid he’s
been kidnapped.”

From behind me I heard footsteps in our dark house, and before I could
wonder who it was, I heard Mom’s voice calling from the bottom of the
stairs, “What’s going on down here?”

Mom certainly looked strange, standing there in the kitchen doorway in
her night gown, her hair done up in curlers, the curlers shining in the
light of the lamp she was carrying.

Right then Poetry’s mischievous mind made him say something which he
must have thought was funny, but it wasn’t ’cause it made Mom gasp. His
squawky duck-like voice was almost like a ghost’s voice coming loudly
from just outside the window: “Everything’s all right, Mrs. Collins.
The phone rang and Bill answered it, ’cause your husband wasn’t
here--but was out in the woods in his night clothes racing around with
a lantern and yelling wildly. The last we saw of him he was running
like an excited deer with hounds on his trail!”

To make matters worse, Dragonfly’s mother was still on the phone and
heard everything Poetry said, and thought he had said it about her
boy--that _Dragonfly_ was running around in the woods with a lantern
and yelling wildly with hounds on his trail. She gasped into the
telephone the same kind of gasp Mom had just made.

“You want to talk to my mother?” I asked Mrs. Gilbert, glad for a
chance to get out of the house which the second Mom took the receiver
I started to do, and would have, if right that minute, Charlotte Ann,
in her baby bed in the downstairs bedroom hadn’t come to life with a
frightened baby-style cry.

Mom shushed me and told me to go in and see if Charlotte Ann had fallen
out of her bed.

In another second, I would’ve been in the room where Charlotte Ann
was, but my eyes took a fleeting glance out the front screen door and
across the road in the direction of the spring, and I saw a lighted
lantern making crazy jiggling movements which told me that Pop, who was
carrying it, was running like a deer in the direction of our house.
I knew that in another jiffy Theodore Collins would be over the rail
fence, swishing past “Theodore Collins” on our mailbox and sooner than
anything would be there in the middle of all our excitement, and want
to know what was what, and how come?

       *       *       *       *       *

Boy oh boy, you should have seen the way Pop flew into action the very
minute he landed in his night shirt and trousers in the middle of our
brain-whirling trouble and excitement. But, for a father, he certainly
didn’t calm things down very fast--not like a father is supposed to
when he yells to everybody to “Calm down!” which Pop sometimes does at
our house, when he thinks I, especially, am raising what he calls a
“ruckus.”

Of course, Pop didn’t know I was inside the house trying to quiet
Charlotte Ann nor that Mom had gotten up upstairs and come downstairs
and was talking to Dragonfly’s mother on the phone trying to calm _her_
down.

The first thing Pop noticed was Poetry who, by that time, was in the
middle of the yard not far from Dragonfly who was not far from the
tent. I could hear Pop’s strong voice not far from the plum tree as he
demanded of the whole Collins’ farm, “William Jasper Collins”--meaning
me--“where on _earth_ have you boys been? And _what_ are you doing with
those wet pajamas on again?”--yelling that exclamatory question at poor
little red-striped, pajama-clad Dragonfly himself, who, of course, Pop
must have thought was his own innocent son.

Seeing and hearing him from the open window near the telephone, I
yelled out to Pop, “I haven’t got my red-striped pajamas on! They
are still out on the line behind the grape arbor where you hung them
yourself!”

You’d have thought Pop’s ears could have told him that his son’s voice
had come from the house behind him and not from the tent in front
of him, but I guess it was like a ventriloquist’s voice fooling his
audience, ’cause Pop was looking at the boy in the shadow of the plum
tree, and in the sputtering light of his lantern. He barked back at
Dragonfly, “Don’t try to be funny!” and demanded an explanation.

All this time Mom was using a soothing voice on Roy Gilbert’s mother
while also all the time I was trying to quiet Charlotte Ann’s
half-scared-half-to-death voice.

And _that_ was the way Pop’s understanding of things began--and the way
the next thirty minutes started.

_What_ a night!



6


An excitement like the one we were splashing around in--squawky-voiced,
barrel-shaped Poetry; red-striped pajama-clad Dragonfly;
night-gown-dressed Mom; crying Charlotte Ann; my confused father, and
his actual son--couldn’t last forever, and this one didn’t!

In not too long a while, Pop began to get things clear in his usually
bright mind, as Poetry and I managed to squeeze in a few words of
explanation, keeping some of the mystery to ourselves to talk over with
the Gang tomorrow, when we would have our meeting at the Little-Jim
tree at the bottom of Bumblebee Hill. The Little-Jim tree, as you know,
is the name we had given the tree under which Little Jim had killed the
fierce old mad old mother bear, which you know about if you’ve read the
book, “We Killed a Bear.”

It seemed we ought to tell Pop and Mom _why_ Poetry and I had been
running around in a beautiful moonlit dog days night in our night
clothes, so as soon as we could, we explained about the watermelon in
the burlap bag and the noisy old car racing down the lane and coming
back a little later.

Pop really fired up when I mentioned how the thief had managed to get
the watermelon through the fence. “You mean somebody cut a hole in my
new woven-wire fence!” he half shouted. “We’ll go down there right now
and have a look at it!” He was more angry, it seemed, that his fence
had been cut than that one of our watermelons had been stolen.

Dragonfly broke in then saying, “I’ve got to get home,” and the way he
said it made me wonder if he knew all about the whole thing and wanted
to get away from us.

Mom decided what we were going to do first, by saying, “I promised
Roy’s mother we’d drive him home right away.”

That did seem like the best thing to do and so in a little while all
of us including Mom and Charlotte Ann, were in our car driving up the
road to Dragonfly’s house. It took quite a few minutes for Mom and Pop
and me to calm Dragonfly’s mother down--she was so upset. I helped as
much as I could, taking as much blame as I thought would be safe--not
wanting Pop to start wondering where his razor strap was. But I
_didn’t_ want that little spindle-legged, crooked-nosed little guy to
have to have a licking for doing practically nothing, which it looked
like maybe his mother was excited enough and nervous enough to give him.

“You know how boys are,” Mom said. “They get ideas of things they want
to do, and they think afterwards.”

Pop helped a little by saying, “Even our own son does unpredictable
things once in awhile. Isn’t that right, Bill?”

It was too dark there in the shadow of the big cedar tree that grows
close to Dragonfly’s side door, for Pop to see me frown, but I decided
to look up the word “unpredictable” in our dictionary as soon as I got
a chance, just to see what kind of things I did once in awhile, hoping
they weren’t as bad as such a long word made them sound.

“It’s my fault, he got his pajamas all wet,” I thought it was safe to
say to Dragonfly’s worried mother. Then I told her a little about the
girls at the spring and how they probably thought Dragonfly was me.
I _didn’t_ tell her I thought maybe her innocent son was mixed up in
our watermelon mystery, or she might have had insomnia that night even
worse than another pajama-dressed boy’s mother.

From Dragonfly’s house we drove back toward ours, turned into the lane
that goes down the south side of our farm and stopped at the place in
the fence where the elderberry bushes were, the very same place where
not more than two hours ago the noisy oldish car had been parked.

Say, when Pop’s flashlight showed him the hole in the fence under the
elderberry bushes, he was as angry as I have ever seen him get. He just
stood there at the side of our car, with the moonlight shining on his
stern face, his jaw muscles working, and I knew every other muscle in
his body was tense.

“It’s hard to believe anybody would be _that_ mean,” he said.

“Bob Till is mean enough to do anything,” I answered, but Mom stopped
me before I could say another word. “You’re _not_ to say that!” she
ordered me. “We’re going to give that boy a chance. We’re NOT going to
believe he did this, until we have proof.”

“How much more proof do you want?” I asked. “We saw his car parked
here; we saw the watermelon being dragged in the gunny sack along the
fence right over there on the other side, and actually saw it being
dragged through this hole and hoisted into the car and we saw him drive
away--Poetry and I both did.”

“Did you count your melons?” Mom asked. “Were there any missing?”

“Were there any--?” I stopped. I didn’t even know how _many_ melons
we had. I’d never bothered to count them. Those smaller melons hadn’t
seemed as important to me as Ida had, on account of they had grown from
ordinary watermelon seed, and not from the packet of special seed from
the State Experiment Station.

The only way I could know for sure if any were taken would be to look
all over the patch to see if there were any oblong indentations in the
ground where a melon _had_ been. “All right,” I said, “I’ll find out
right now. I _know_ there was a watermelon in that gunny sack. I felt
it with my own hands, and it was long and round and hard.”

Pop let me have his flashlight, and I crawled through the fence and
started looking around all over the truck patch to see if there were
any melons missing, making a beeline first straight for Ida’s vine to
be sure she was there and all right.

Poetry wanted to go with me but he couldn’t get through the small
hole in the fence. “At least that proves _he_ didn’t do it,” Pop said
grimly, and Poetry answered, “If I’d been cutting a hole in a nice
new fence, I’d have made it large enough for a man my size to get
through”--trying to be funny even at a time like that!

In only a few barefoot jiffies, I was standing beside the circular
trough in which Ida’s vine was growing, and my flashlight was making a
circular arc all around the place while my eyes were looking for Ida
herself.

And then, all of a sudden, I felt myself get hot inside, as I heard at
the same time my excited, angry voice almost _screaming_ back across
the moonlit truck patch to Mom and Pop and Charlotte Ann and Poetry,
“She’s _gone!_ _Somebody’s sneaked in while we were away and stolen
her!_”

There in front of my tear-blurred eyes was a long, smooth indentation
in the ground where for the last eighty-five days--which is how long it
takes to mature a melon--Ida Watermelon Collins had made her home. I
was all mixed up with temper and sobs and doubled-up fists, and ready
to explode.

Ida was gone! Ida had been stolen! _My prize watermelon!_ The mother
of my next year’s watermelon children, and the _grand_mother of my
year-after-next’s watermelon _grand_children--and my college education!

I tell you there were a lot of what Pop called “stormy emotions”
whirling around in our minds when, a little later, the five of us got
back into the car and drove on down the lane in the direction of the
Sugar Creek schoolhouse, to find a place in the road large enough to
turn around in.

We talked a lot, and tried to make plans, Poetry and I especially in
the back seat. I simply couldn’t understand my parents’ attitude. There
was Pop’s fence with an ugly hole in it, and Ida was missing, and yet
he was very calm and very set in his mind about what NOT to do. “Like
your mother says, Bill, we don’t know that Bob did it. It won’t cost
much to repair the fence--and next year, we’ll raise another melon
that’ll be even bigger and better.”

I stormed awhile there in the back seat until I got strict orders from
both my parents to calm down--Mom making it easier for me to by adding
as we pulled up to Theodore Collins on our mailbox, “We’re Christians.
We don’t take revenge on people. We’re going to commit this thing to
the Lord and see what good He will bring out of it?”

It was quite awhile before things were quiet around the Collins’ farm,
that night, with Pop and Mom and Charlotte Ann in the house, and Poetry
and I in our hot cots in the tent under the plum tree.

Tomorrow, when the Gang got together at the Little-Jim tree, we’d
decide what to do--only it seemed like Mom’s attitude was going to
be like a lasso on a rodeo steer to keep me from doing what I really
wanted to do, which was to hunt up Bob Till himself and face him with
the question of what he had done with my watermelon.

“Listen,” all of a sudden I hissed to Poetry in his cot, and before
he could answer, I went on, “If we can find out what happened to the
melon, maybe we can still get the seed from it. Anybody he sold it to
wouldn’t eat the _seeds_.”

At breakfast table next morning, Pop’s prayer was a little longer than
usual, and seemed sort of meant for me to hear. Right in the middle
of it, while Charlotte Ann, in the crook of Mom’s arm, was wriggling
and squirming and reaching both hands and half-fussing to get started
eating, Pop said, “... and bless with a very special blessing those
who have sinned against themselves and against Thee by breaking the
commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ Help us to love them and to show
them by our lives that the Christian life is the only truly satisfying
life. Keep us under Thy control ...”

That last request bothered me a little on account of it seemed like I
wanted to be under my own control all day, and that if I was going to
be under Anybody Else’s control I might not get to help teach Bob Till
or whoever-it-was had cut the hole in Pop’s new fence and stolen that
watermelon, a good-old-fashioned lesson by giving him a licking.

Mom’s buckwheat pancakes were the best Poetry had ever tasted, he
told her--which was probably his excuse for tasting so many of them.
He certainly knew how to make Mom’s eyes twinkle, Mom liking boys so
well. In fact all the boys of the Sugar Creek Gang liked Mom so well
they stopped at our house every chance they got just to make her eyes
twinkle while they ate some of her cookies or a piece of one of her
pies.

Mom surprised us all, right then, by saying, “Last night while I
couldn’t sleep for a while, I got to thinking about whoever took your
melon and cut the hole in the fence, and it seemed the Lord wanted
me to pray for him or them. I feel so sorry for boys who do things
like that.” Mom sighed heavily and I noticed her eyes had a faraway
expression in them. Just looking at her, made me think it would be
pretty hard for me to be a bad boy as long as I had such a wonderful
mother.

After breakfast and before we left the table we passed around what we
call the “Bread Box,” which is a small box of cards, each one about
two inches long with a Bible verse printed on it and, say! Do you know
what? Just like it had been when Pop had prayed, I felt like a frisky
young steer that has just been lassoed, on account of the card I picked
out of the box when it was passed to me, had on it, “Love your enemies;
do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use
you.”

When I got through reading my verse aloud like we all do every time,
I looked across the table toward Pop, and his grey-green eyes were
looking straight into mine. He had a half grin on his face when he
said, just as if there wasn’t anybody else in the room, “_Your_
watermelon, and _my_ fence!” I could tell by the expression in his
voice that he had been lassoed too!

Poetry and I managed to get through the morning all right, but it was
hard to wait until two o’clock in the afternoon. We did quite a little
work around the place, though, such as helping Mom with the dishes,
helping Pop with the chores and running a few errands for each of
them. Once we stopped in the middle of the barnyard, while I pointed
out to Poetry the boss hen of our whole flock--the one Pop has named
Cleopatra. Cleopatra is a very proud, high-combed, very pretty White
Leghorn who, like all boss hens in a hen flock, could peck all the
other hens any time she wanted to but not a one of them ever dared to
peck her back. She had already proved to them who was boss by giving
every one of them a licking one at a time.

“We’ve got a boss hen, too,” Poetry told me as we stood watching
Cleopatra proudly lifting her yellow feet and strutting around to show
how important she was.

“We have a _second_ boss, too; she pecks every other hen except the
boss hen, and Cleopatra is the only one that can peck her,” I said
to Poetry, which anybody who knows anything about what Pop calls the
“social life of a flock of hens” knows is the way they live and get
along with each other. At the very bottom of the social ladder in
the Collins’ chicken yard is a bedraggled-looking hen Mom has named
Marybelle Elizabeth. She gets pecked by every other hen in the barnyard
and can never peck _any_ of them back.

We liked Marybelle Elizabeth, though. She was one of the best laying
hens we had, even though in a fight she wasn’t any good at defending
herself, and always ate her lunch alone when all the others were
through.

I was standing beside Poetry near our garden fence watching Marybelle
as she foraged around by herself like she didn’t have a friend in the
world. I was feeling very sorry for her and thinking how lonely a life
she had to live--how she had to take all the unfair things the other
hens did to her and couldn’t ever fight back.

Poetry moseyed on toward the house then and I kept on standing not
more than fifteen feet from Marybelle. “Here, Marybelle,” I comforted
her, “don’t you feel too bad. I live a kind of henpecked life myself.”
Taking a handful of corn from my pocket, I tossed it to her. She lifted
her head high, twisted her neck in every direction like she wondered
how come anybody wanted to be kind to her, then started in gobbling up
the grains of corn as fast as she could.

“Atta girl,” I said to her. “Go _to_ it!”

Pretty soon, Mom called us that dinner was ready and pretty soon after
dinner--and after Poetry and I had offered to help Mom with the dishes
and she had surprised us by letting us--it was time for the Gang to
meet under the Little-Jim tree.

It was one of the nicest dog days days I ever saw, with the heat waves
dancing above the fields, short-horned grasshoppers springing up along
the sunny path as Poetry and I moseyed along, not wanting to run and
get hot on such a hot day. I felt kind of sad because of the watermelon
and also on account of our boys’ world had been invaded by a flock of
girl campers. Girls in our woods would be a lasso on a boy’s fun. He
couldn’t go racing wildly among the trees playing leapfrog and yelling
and whooping it up like a wild Indian on account of he would be afraid
they would think he was a wild Indian.

As I was saying, the short-horned grasshoppers were springing up all
along the path, making their funny little rattling sounds during the
short time they were in the air, the rattling stopping the very second
they landed which they generally did only a few yards from where they
took off. Butterflies of a half-dozen families were tossing themselves
about in the air above the wild rose bushes and here and there and
everywhere in the yellow afternoon.

“Hey, look!” Poetry exclaimed. “There goes a milkweed butterfly! I’ve
got to have him for my collection!”--and he started to start on a fast
run after him, but I stopped him with “_Quiet! The girls will hear
you!_”

He stopped stock-still and scowled and the beautiful Monarch butterfly
swung proudly away in the air, starting to stop every now and then and
not doing it, but lifting itself on the breeze and floating away to
another place.

It wouldn’t be long until fall now, I thought, when all the Monarchs
in the Sugar Creek territory would gather themselves into flocks like
blackbirds and crows do, and before winter they would migrate to the
South, flying all the way down to the bottom of the United States and
even into Mexico or South America. Then next spring they would be back
at Sugar Creek to lay their eggs on the milkweeds which grow in the
fence rows or wherever a farmer doesn’t cut them down.

The larva that hatches from the milkweed or Monarch butterflies is
one of the prettiest a boy ever sees, being a long greenish-yellow
caterpillar with crow-black rings around it all along its body from
its head to its tail--only it is hard to tell which end is its head on
account of it has two short black horns on each end of itself.

You can see a greenish-yellow-and-black Monarch larva hanging from a
milkweed leaf most any time in the late summer, if you stop and look
close enough.

Dragonfly was the only one of the Gang who didn’t come to our meeting
that day, and Poetry and I thought we knew why.

We all plumped ourselves down on the grass under the Little-Jim tree
and relaxed awhile, each of us lying in a different direction like we
nearly always do. Big Jim looked around at the rest of us, letting his
stern eyes stop on each of our faces for a flash of a second--Poetry’s
fat mischievous face, Little Jim’s mouselike innocent face, Circus’s
monkey-shaped face, and my freckle-faced face.

Big Jim’s own face was more sober than it is sometimes and I noticed
his almost mustache on his upper lip was _really_ almost now. If it
should keep on growing as fast as it had the last two or three years,
pretty soon, he would actually have to start shaving. For a second my
mind wandered a little and I was thinking if Big Jim should ever need
a razor strap I would very gladly offer him Pop’s discarded one which
Pop hardly ever used anymore except for some unnecessary reason. There
really wasn’t any sense in having a piece of leather like that lying
around our house cluttering up the place and giving a boy’s father the
kind of ideas it’s not good for a son for his father to have.

“Anybody know where Dragonfly is?” Big Jim asked.

And Poetry answered, saying, “He had asthma last night; maybe his
mother wouldn’t let him come today.”

Big Jim’s stern face probably meant he was remembering his resolution
not to fight Bob Till any more, unless he was forced to in
self-defense. Of course, if Bob himself started a fight we’d have to
defend ourselves.

I got an idea then, and it was, “Bob Till has already started a fight
by stealing our watermelons last night. That’s the same as whamming me
in the stomach--on account of that’s where the watermelons would have
been if I had eaten them. And since he’s already _started_ the fight,
I’ve got a right to defend myself, haven’t I?”

“It’s not the same,” Big Jim said grimly, his jaw muscles still
working. His fists were doubled up though, I noticed, and I could see
he didn’t like the lasso with which he had lassoed himself.

Little Jim spoke up then and said, “How’d we feel in Sunday school
tomorrow if Bob came in with a black eye and a smashed nose?”

Right then as I looked into that cute little guy’s cute little
mouse-shaped face and saw how innocent he was, and realized he was so
tender-hearted he’d even hate to swat a fly and wouldn’t if he didn’t
think the fly needed to be swatted--I say, right then was when I
noticed for the first time the rectangular manila envelope Little Jim
had brought with him. It looked about five inches wide and nine inches
long, and had something in it. I couldn’t tell what it was and didn’t
get to find out until later in the afternoon.

Little Jim’s question, “How’d we feel in Sunday school tomorrow morning
if Bob came in with a black eye and a smashed nose?” took some of the
fight out of me, ’cause I knew Bob _had_ to be in church tomorrow--that
being one of the things the judge who had put him on probation had said
he had to do--he had to go to Sunday school and church at least once
every Sunday for a whole year.

I spoke up then with a half-mischievous voice saying, “The judge told
him he had to go every Sunday unless he is sick and unable to. He might
_not_ be able to if--”

“Stop!” Big Jim cut in. “The thing is not funny!”

Not a one of us said a word for a second. Then Big Jim told us in a
serious voice, “We can’t let Bob break his parole. If he does he’ll
have to go to Reform School for from one to ten years, and we wouldn’t
want that.”

“Hasn’t he already broken it, by stealing my watermelons?” I asked.

Again Big Jim cut in on me almost savagely, “You don’t know that. It
could have been somebody else.”

“It was _his_ car,” I countered. “I’d know it anywhere.”

Just thinking about that burlap bag with the stolen watermelon in it
and Ida herself being gone, stirred me all up inside again, and I was
in a whirlwind of a mood to do something about it. I thought about poor
old Marybelle Elizabeth out by our garden fence all alone at the very
bottom of our chicken yard’s social ladder, and how she had to take
all the pecks of all the other hens and didn’t dare fight back. I felt
sorry for her having to live such a henpecked life, ’cause right that
minute if I had been her, I’d have felt in a mood to start in licking
the feathers off every other hen in the whole Sugar Creek territory.

But we couldn’t just lie around and talk all afternoon, and _do_
nothing. _Nothing_ is something a boy can do for only a few minutes at
a time, anyway.

“Let’s go swimming,” Little Jim suggested.

“Can’t,” I said crossly. “We don’t have our bathing suits.”

“_Bathing suits!_” Circus exclaimed. “Who ever heard of the Sugar Creek
Gang using bathing suits in our own swimming hole!”

Nobody ever had, on account of our swimming hole was quite a ways up
the creek and was well protected on both sides by bushes and shrubbery,
and nobody lived anywhere near the place.

“There are guests in our woods,” Big Jim said. And my sad heart told me
he was right. We _couldn’t_ go swimming.

“Girls!” Poetry grunted grouchily and got shushed by Big Jim who asked,
“They’re human beings, aren’t they?”

“Are they?” Poetry asked with an innocent voice.

Big Jim sighed, looked around at all of us again and said, “Little Jim
here has something he has to do this afternoon and it might be pretty
dangerous. He might need our help. You guys want to go along with him
and me?”

“I,” I said, “am going to do something dangerous myself before the
afternoon is over--but I don’t suppose any of you would care to go with
me. You don’t care whether my prize watermelon was stolen or not. But
_I_ do, and I’m going to do something about it!” My own words sounded
hot in my ears and made me a little braver than I had been--reminded
me of Marybelle Elizabeth at the bottom of our chickenyard’s social
ladder, living a henpecked life and not daring to fight back at all at
any time.

“What you goin’ to do?” Circus asked. “I’m willing to go along and help
save your life if you need any help.”

“Yeah, what _are_ you going to do?” Poetry asked me, and I answered:
“First, I’m going down to the spring to see if Ida is there. If she’s
not, I’m going down to the bridge, and across it, and straight to Bob
Till’s house and ask him straight out if he knows anything about a
watermelon thief.”

I caught Big Jim’s and Little Jim’s eyes meeting and thought I saw some
kind of message pass between them.

“You guys don’t have to go along if you don’t want to,” I said,
beginning to feel a little less brave, now that it seemed like I was
doing more than just talking, but was actually going to do what I said
I was going to do.

“We can’t let you be killed,” Circus said. “Maybe we _all_ ought to go
along!”

Pretty soon we were on our way--to the spring first, of course. As we
moved grimly along, I noticed my teeth were clenched, my lips were
pressed together in a straight line, my eyebrows were down. I was
remembering last night’s ridiculous ride on the melon in the spring
reservoir, the screaming girls, and especially what had happened in
our truck patch near the elderberry bushes. But right in the front
of my mind’s eye was the oblong indentation in the sandy loam where
Ida Watermelon Collins had spent all the eighty-five days of her life
from a tiny quarter of an inch long green baby to the huge, dark green
watermelon she now was if she was. Where, I asked myself, was Ida now?

Maybe she was in the spring reservoir. Maybe whoever stole her had sold
her to the girl scouts. When we got there, would we run into a flock of
perfumed guests, and would they recognize a zebra who had changed his
color and shape since last night?

       *       *       *       *       *

Well, we didn’t find any girls there, and we didn’t find any watermelon
either. All there was in the big cement pool was a glass fruit jar
filled with butter, a half dozen cartons of milk and there were girls’
shoe tracks all around the place.

There weren’t any boys’ tracks--not even barefoot ones.

Big Jim wanted to look around where the boat had been moored, so we all
gathered in a huddle by the maple tree, keeping as quiet as we could so
if anyone did come to the spring we wouldn’t be seen or heard.

For a jiffy, Little Jim slipped out of our huddle and began nosing
around over by the board fence where last night Poetry and I had
crawled through in such a fast hurry.

“Hey, everybody!” all of a sudden Little Jim’s excited, mouse-like
voice squeaked to us. “Look what I found! A note of some kind!”

I looked quick in his direction and he was holding up a piece of paper.
I remembered then that that was the exact place where Poetry and I had
been when we had unfolded the oiled paper which said on it:

  “Eat more Eatmore.”

Poetry’s and my eyes met and we grunted to each other. “That’s only an
old bread wrapper. We threw it away last night,” I said to Little Jim.

“You shouldn’t have,” Little Jim answered, and came loping over to
where we were, with the happiest grin on his face you ever saw. He held
the oiled paper out to us. “Look! There’s a note in it. See!” he cried.

You could have knocked me over with a watermelon seed, I was so
astonished. The oiled paper said, “Eat more Eatmore,” all right, but
as plain as day there was something sealed in between two layers of
the wrapping paper. The thought hit my mind with a thud--there was
something _very_ important in that paper!

“Let’s get out of here quick,” Big Jim said. Taking the paper and
ordering: “Follow me!” he started on a fast run up the path which led
through the forest of giant ragweed toward the old swimming hole.

Zippety-zip-zip, plop-plop-plop, my bare feet went in the cool damp
winding path through the ragweed following along with the rest of the
Gang.

The minute we reached the place where we had had so many happy times
each summer, we heard voices from up the creek.

“Girls!” Circus exclaimed disgustedly. “Let’s get out of here!”

I looked in the direction the sounds came from and saw a boat with
three or four girls in it. In less than a firefly’s fleeting flash, we
were up and gone, scooting through the rows of tall corn headed for the
east end of the bayou.

“We’ll have our meeting in the graveyard,” Big Jim said. “They’ll be
afraid to come there.”



7


In almost less time than it has taken me to write these few paragraphs,
we were in the cemetery at the top of Bumblebee Hill, and sprawled
out on the grass near Sarah Paddler’s tombstone--the one that has the
carved hand on it with the forefinger pointing toward the sky and the
words that say, “There is rest in heaven.”

Every time we had a meeting there, I would read those words, and look
at the other tombstone exactly the same size, which had on it Old Man
Paddler’s name and the date the old man was born, with a blank place
after it, meaning he was still alive--and nobody would put on the date
of his death until after his funeral. Also I would always remember
that that kind old long-whiskered old man was an honest-to-goodness
Christian who loved the heavenly Father and His only begotten Son.
He trusted in the Saviour for the forgiveness of his sins, so I was
sure that when he _did_ die his soul would go sailing out across the
Sugar Creek sky to heaven itself where his wife Sarah and his two boys
already were--and the whole family would be together again.

That old cemetery was certainly an interesting place and was very
pretty. I hoped that nobody would ever try to make it look like the
well-kept other cemeteries around the country. It’d be nice if people
would let the wild rosebushes and the chokecherries and the sumac and
the elderberries and the wild grapevines keep on growing there. Of
course, it would be all right to keep the weeds away from the different
markers and to keep the grass cut, but I liked the little brown paths
that wound around from one to the other--and it always seemed like God
was there in a special way.

You get a kind of saddish happy feeling in your heart when you think
about Him, when all your sins are forgiven and you and your parents
like each other. It seems as if maybe He likes boys especially well, on
account of He made such a pretty boys’ world for them to live in.

There was purple vervain all over the place and tall mullein
stalks--and already the sumac was turning red. I hadn’t any more than
thought all these things than from behind the sumac on the other side
of Sarah Paddler’s tall tombstone I heard a long-tailed sneeze and knew
Dragonfly was there. A jiffy later he came pouting into the little
circular open place we were in, saying, “How come you didn’t wait for
me?”

He looked a little guilty, I thought, as, panting and wheezing a
little, he plumped himself down on the ground between Poetry and me.

Everything was so quiet for a minute that he must have guessed we had
been talking about him. “Are the--are the girls still camping up in the
woods?” he asked--and I knew he was remembering last night’s dunking in
the spring and also probably never would forget it.

There was an interrogatory sentence in my mind, right that minute. So I
exploded at Dragonfly, “What were you doing in the middle of the night
down there at the spring?”

My question probably sounded pretty saucy to him.

“I went to get my knife,” he said. “I was there getting a drink
yesterday afternoon when a whole flock of girls came storming down and
scared me so bad I dropped my knife. I was so scared I ran home. It was
my Dad’s knife, and he was coming home before midnight, and I didn’t
want him to know I had it, so I sneaked back to get it, and--”

       *       *       *       *       *

Another of my mystery balloons had burst. Poetry and I looked at each
other and shrugged. That let Dragonfly out. He hadn’t had anything to
do with stealing watermelons. He was as innocent as a lamb. I sighed
a big sigh of relief though, ’cause it felt good to get all that
suspicion out of my mind, and to have him with us again.

We all crowded around Big Jim to see what was between the layers of
the bread wrapper. “It’s a map!” Little Jim exclaimed in his squeaky
voice, and it was--a crude drawing made with indelible pencil. That
was the first thing I noticed, that it had been made with indelible
pencil. The drawing looked like a map of the Sugar Creek territory
itself. In fact, it was a _very good_ map of the Gang’s playground with
the names of important places on it--names that only anybody living
in our neighborhood would know about; a few that only the Gang itself
might know--such as “Bumblebee Hill,” “the Black Widow Stump,” and the
“Little-Jim tree.”

My mind cringed when I realized that maybe whoever had drawn the map
was one of our own Gang--maybe one of us who, right that minute, were
in a football-style huddle in the cemetery.

Then Poetry noticed something I hadn’t--“Look at that red X, would you?
Wonder what _that_ means?”

I squeezed in between Poetry and Dragonfly and looked, and there it
was, a very small red X with a red circle around it, in the upper
left-hand corner of the page. I could tell that the red X and the red
circle were marking a spot on the other side of the creek, just below
the big Sugar Creek bridge.

Boy oh boy, it was like a story book! That was the second map of the
territory we had found--the first one, as you already know, had been
hidden in the old hollow sycamore tree, and that map had been the very
center of the very first mystery we had ever had--but I told you all
about that in the very first story there ever was about the Sugar Creek
Gang, and it’s in a book by that name.

Big Jim must have been thinking the same thoughts I was, ’cause right
that second he said, “Who outside our Gang knows the name of the tree
where Little Jim killed the bear?”

Poetry rolled himself into a sitting position and grunted himself
to his feet. Trying to make his voice sound like a detective’s, he
said, “All right, everybody; don’t a one of you leave this room--this
cemetery, I mean. One of you in this circle is a watermelon thief; one
of you drew this map!”

Before anybody could have stopped him he was firing at us one
interrogatory sentence after another. The first one was, “Who among us
has an indelible pencil? You, Bill?”

“No sir,” I said.

I was surprised that Big Jim let Poetry keep on with his questions,
but he did, and pretty soon Poetry had asked us a half-dozen others,
such as, which of us ate Eatmore Bread at home, what kind of
clotheslines did our mothers use--rope or plastic--and did any of us
smoke? Of course the last question was a foolish one, as far as the
Gang was concerned, but I knew why he had asked it. He was remembering
the man in the boat who, last night, had lit a cigar or cigarette with
a match or a lighter.

Poetry was looking as dignified as any fat boy with mussed-up hair and
mischievous eyes can look. He was all set to keep on talking and asking
questions when Big Jim interrupted, saying, “Look, all of you! There’s
only one other person--or rather two--who might know the names we’ve
given to the important places around here. One is Little Tom Till, and
the other is his big brother, Bob.”

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of Tom before. The very second Big
Jim mentioned his name, I remembered that Tom was very good in art at
school; in fact, he got better grades in it than any of the rest of
us. For some reason, though, I didn’t like the idea of thinking that
Tom was guilty. He wasn’t exactly a member of our Gang but we all felt
he belonged to us anyway. He hadn’t been meeting with the Gang lately,
though, because his brother didn’t want him to, and Tom was very much
afraid of his big brother’s big fists.

“The thing for us to do,” Big Jim interrupted my thoughts to say, “is
to do what Bill suggests--go straight to their house and ask them
point-blank what they know about this map and whether they’ve been
stealing watermelons.”

And _that_ is what we decided to do, only Big Jim cautioned us to watch
our words so as not to stir up Bob’s temper.

“Remember, he will be in church tomorrow--and in our class.”

I remembered it all the way. Our faces were set as we left the
cemetery, moved down the slope of Bumblebee Hill, walking right
through the place where the famous battle of Bumblebee Hill had been
fought and where Little Tom Till had fired the fist heard round the
world. That fist had landed ker-smash right on my nose. I stopped for
a minute, right in the middle of the battleground and looked around,
trying to remember the exact spot where two red-haired, freckle-faced,
fiery-tempered boys, who looked very much alike, most of the time, had
had such an exciting time getting acquainted.

I was glad that Tom was my friend now--or was he? If he had drawn the
map and stuffed it into the watermelon, then _he_ must be mixed up in
our mystery in some way.

We passed the Little-Jim tree and went on to the spring again, then
moved cautiously through the woods toward the rail fence that bordered
the north road, having to pass not more than forty yards from the
pawpaw bushes on the way. Dragonfly managed to sneeze several times
just as we were parallel with the girl scout camp, which proved that
his mind as well as his nose was allergic to perfume, ’cause he
certainly wasn’t close enough to their camp to smell them.

“Girls aren’t anything to be sneezed at,” Poetry was smart enough to
think of to say to Dragonfly; and Dragonfly sneezed again.

At the rail fence, we went through--or under or over--the different
rails--whichever different ones of us decided to do, and in a fast
jiffy were on our way across the bridge, in the direction of the Tills’
house.

The minute we reached the other side of the bridge Little Jim cried
suddenly, “Look! There’s the boat I bet they used last night!”

I looked downstream in the direction Little Jim was pointing and saw
the red stern of a rowboat half hidden under the low-hanging branches
of a willow.

A thousand shivers started racing up and down my spine when I realized
that our mystery was coming to even more life than it had come to last
night when we had seen the boat stopping at the spring.

At that very same instant I saw, back on the shore, half-hidden among
the trees, the forest-green roof of a wall-type tent. What on earth? I
thought. Not only were there a flock of girls camping near the pawpaw
bushes in the woods above the bridge, but here on the other side of
the creek and _below_ the bridge was somebody else camping! I was
remembering last night and the mysterious something-or-other I had seen
somebody carry to the spring from the boat. This very same boat, maybe!

Poetry beside me remarked, “There’s where the woman lives--the one that
was smoking the cigarette last night.”

“There’s where the _man_ lives, you mean,” I disagreed.

Beside the tent was a gun-metal gray pickup truck that looked like it
was maybe ten or fifteen years old. At almost the same instant, there
was the sound of a motor coming to roaring life, and right away the
truck was moving. It went backwards first, then swung left and began
bumping along in the little lane toward the highway.

“Quick, everybody!” Big Jim ordered. “Down the embankment and under the
bridge!”

We obeyed Big Jim like soldiers taking orders from a captain in a
battle. In only a few lightning-fast jiffies, we were all down the
embankment and crouching on a narrow strip of shore underneath the
north end of the bridge, getting there just in time on account of in a
few fast minutes we heard the truck’s wheels on the board floor above
us. And _that was that!_

As soon as the car was across the bridge, we decided it would be a good
idea to look around a little, just to see if we could find any “clues,”
as Poetry was always saying.

We followed a narrow footpath which skirts the shore and is bordered
on either side with willows and ragweeds just like the path on our own
side of the creek.

Pretty soon we came to within twenty-five feet of the boat and the
green tent. “Hello, there!” Big Jim called. “Anybody home?”

There wasn’t any answer from anybody.

“Hello! I say, _Hello!_” Big Jim called again several times, and still
there wasn’t any reply.

While it wouldn’t be right to trespass on somebody’s campground, we
knew we wouldn’t be doing anything wrong if we just walked in the path
which belonged to everybody anyway, past the place where the boat was
moored.

A second later we were there, and what to my wondering eyes should
appear but out in the middle of the boat a gunny sack--an actual,
honest-to-goodness gunny sack--and it had in it something fat and long
and--.

“Hey,” I said to Poetry and to all of us, “look! There’s another
watermelon! In a gunny sack!”

“You’re crazy,” Poetry answered. “That’s not a watermelon; that’s a
water _jug!_” And to my very sad disappointment, Poetry was right.

There was a great big water jug like the kind we used in the Sugar
Creek threshing ring, wrapped round and round with a gunny sack, and
tied on with binder twine.

I remembered then that many a time I had carried drinking water to Pop
from our iron pitcher pump out across the barnyard to whatever field he
was in at the time. First I would soak the burlap bag in cold water. If
you do that to a burlap bag, it will keep the water in the jug cool for
quite a long time.

“That,” Poetry said, “is what the woman in the boat last night was
getting at the spring. She carried an empty jug to the spring, let it
down into the water until it was filled and then carried it back again.”

“I still want to know who drew a map and put it inside that
watermelon,” I said crossly. “And _where_ is Ida!”

After Big Jim had called “Hello,” a few more times and nobody had
answered, we decided to see if we could find any honest-to-goodness
clues, only we wouldn’t go inside the tent.

“Look at that, would you?” Poetry exclaimed, the minute we were on the
other side of the tent. “See that clothesline hanging between those two
trees.”

Most of us had already seen it. It was a brand new plastic line
stretching from a small maple near the tent to the trunk of an ash that
grew about thirty feet away, not more than five feet from a field of
very tall corn. Hanging on the line were two or three pairs of slacks
like women and girls wear; also there were several different kinds of
different-colored other women’s clothes. We didn’t even have time to
try to make up our minds what to do next, on account of all of a sudden
there was a clattering of the boards of the Sugar Creek bridge--and it
was the pickup truck coming back.

“Quick, everybody!” Big Jim exclaimed. “Let’s get out of here!”

And “out of here” we got, scurrying like six scared cottontails into
the tall corn. We didn’t stop running until we knew we were far enough
away so we couldn’t be seen by anybody even if she dropped down on
her hands and knees and looked beneath the drooping cornblades in our
direction.

“I guess this lets Bob and Tom out,” Circus said. It had also knocked
the daylights out of my mystery.

“But what about the burlap bag with the watermelon in it--the one that
was being dragged through our watermelon patch, last night?” I asked.

“It was _dark_ out there, wasn’t it?” Circus asked. “You couldn’t tell
whether it was a watermelon or a water _jug_.”

“But I felt it with my two hands, and it was long and round and----”

“A water jug is long and round,” Little Jim’s mouselike voice squeaked.

“But this one in our watermelon patch didn’t have any spout on it,” I
protested, feeling my mystery-house falling and crashing all around me.

“How do you know it didn’t have? You didn’t feel both _ends_, did you?
You just felt it in the middle!” Poetry argued back. “And besides,”
he went on in a talkative hurry, “your other iron pitcher pump wasn’t
more than twenty feet away when we first saw it. Somebody was helping
himself to some drinking water.”

I felt my jaw muscles tightening with anger. I knew--_knew_ what had
been in that burlap bag last night was a watermelon. Besides, why
would anybody want to get drinking water secretly like that? I quickly
asked the question out loud, and got a quick answer from Poetry, whose
detective-like mind was certainly alert that day: “Sugar Creek water
isn’t safe to drink for anything except a fish in dog days. Look at all
that green scum floating out there.”

       *       *       *       *       *

Poetry was probably right, but his answer didn’t tell me _why_ whoever
wanted the water, didn’t go right straight to any member of the Sugar
Creek Gang’s parents and ask for a jug of water in the _day_time.

“But somebody _did_ take my prize watermelon!” I protested. “Ida
couldn’t just get up and walk away. Somebody had to carry or drag her.”
And a second later, Poetry was juggling a little jingle we’d heard him
use quite a few times, and was:

  “I proposed to Ida,
  Ida refused;
  I’da won my Ida if I’da used ...”

“STOP!” I ordered Poetry and started to start to say something else but
got stopped by Big Jim shushing me, making me swallow my words and my
temper. But I still knew I was right. The whole thing was as plain as a
dog-day day to anybody with half a mind, which it looked like maybe I
was the only one of us that did have.

That was as far as any of us got to talk or think right then, on
account of from the direction of the tent I heard a car door slam and I
knew it was the truck, and my mind was busy trying to imagine who had
probably just climbed out of it.

“Do you suppose it’s anybody we know?” Dragonfly asked, and sneezed and
grabbed his nose with his right hand to stop another sneeze that was
already getting ready to explode.

For a few anxious seconds we all lay there in the nice clean dust of
the cornfield, listening and thinking and trying to decide what to do,
if anything. For a few minutes, even though I was worrying on account
of the mystery, I was hearing and actually enjoying the sound of the
husky rusty rustle of the corn blades in the very light breeze that was
blowing. Overhead I could see the big white cumulus clouds hanging in
the lazy afternoon sky, also the shimmering green leaves in the top of
the cottonwood tree farther down the shore. I even noticed a lazy crow
loafing along in the sky like he didn’t have a worry in the world. It
wouldn’t be long before fall would be here, I thought, and that lonely
old crow would join about five hundred of his black-feathered friends
and spend half the day everyday, for a while, cawing and cawing in his
hoarse voice, keeping it up and keeping it up, hour after hour in the
bare trees. One of the dreariest things a farm boy ever sees in the
autumn, is a forlorn-looking crow flapping his sad wings above the
frosty cornfields.

Nearly every summer there is a crow’s nest in the top of the old pine
tree on the other side of the creek near the mouth of the branch.
About all a pair of crow parents ever do to make a nest for their crow
children to be hatched in, is to build a rough platform of sticks--some
large and some small--and line it with strips of bark from the cedar
trees. Then the mother crow, who is just as black as her husband only
her feathers don’t shine as brightly, lays from four to seven eggs that
are the color of green dust with little brown spots on them. Crows are
always scattering themselves over the new cornfields in the spring,
digging down into the rows where the grains have been planted, and
gobbling up the grains before they have a chance to grow.

Of course, any farm boy knows a crow eats May beetles and grasshoppers
and cutworms and caterpillers and even mice, and he is also a
thief--_but he doesn’t use a plastic clothesline to help him get what
he wants_.

Just thinking that brought my mind back to the cornfield we were lying
in right that minute.

My thoughts got there just in time to hear Big Jim say to me, “Bill,
you and Poetry tell us once more all you know about everything from
the beginning up to now--” which Poetry and I did, rehearsing to the
Gang what we had seen at the spring on our first trip--the plugged
watermelon with the folded oiled paper in it; the long dark thing we
had seen being dragged through the melon patch which at first I had
thought was some kind of wild animal running; the car that had gone
clattering down the lane and back again; the hole in the fence and
the watermelon being pulled through--or the water _jug_, whichever it
was--and hoisted into the car; and then Poetry’s and my trip back to
the spring again, the mystery man or woman in the boat; and Dragonfly’s
coming for his knife and getting dunked by the girls.

“Don’t forget the perfume,” Dragonfly said, “and the pine-scented paper
and the map and--” And then he quickly grabbed his nose just in time to
stop another sneeze.

“And the red letter X,” Little Jim put in.

Big Jim unfolded the map again and we crowded around him to study it.
There was only one person I knew who could draw a map as neat as that.
“We’d better see Tom about this,” I said. “Here--let me have it. I’m
the one who took it out of the melon in the first place.”

I was surprised when Big Jim handed it to me saying, “All right, you
keep it until we find the real owner. It probably belongs to the girl
scouts.”

I folded it and tucked it into my left hip pocket.

“Don’t forget about the plastic clothesline--the brand new one we
just saw,” Circus said, which I remembered right that very minute was
stretched between two trees behind the tent and had a lot of different
kinds of different colored women’s clothes on it.

Things certainly were mixed up. The more we talked, the more tangled up
everything seemed. All this time, Little Jim had been hanging onto his
brown manila envelope like it was very important. I noticed he had a
far-away expression in his eyes right then like he was thinking about
something a lot farther away than the cornfield we were in. Also he
didn’t have any worries on his face, which I was pretty sure I had.

“Let’s do a little more scouting around,” Poetry suggested. “Let’s send
out a couple of spies to sneak up close to the tent to see what we can
see or hear.”

Big Jim shook his head a very savage “No,” saying, “You don’t go
sneaking around a tent where women or girls are camping! There’s even a
law against it. Remember what happened to that Peeping Tom they caught
looking into a window in town, last winter?”

“What’s a Peeping Tom?” Dragonfly wanted to know. And Big Jim, being
the oldest one of the Gang, explained it to all of us. When he got
through, we made it a rule of the Gang that not a one of us would ever
be one.

That knocked out Poetry’s scouting suggestion. We couldn’t go spying
around any tent or any place where there were women or girls.

Just that second, Dragonfly hissed like he does when he has seen or
heard something important. “Listen! Somebody’s coming!”

We all looked and listened in every direction, and sure enough,
somebody _was_ coming. Was it a man, or a woman, or a girl? Or who, or
what?

I stooped low, looked down the corn row I was in, and when I saw what I
saw, I hissed to everybody, “It’s a _woman_; she’s wearing blue slacks!”

That meant that six boys ought to scramble themselves out of there,
which, on Big Jim’s hissed orders, we did, hurrying like a covey of
quail, only instead of fanning out in a lot of different directions
like flushed quail do, we all followed Big Jim down his corn row, not
stopping until we reached the bridge again.

“We’ll go on over to the Tills’ house right now,” he said, and I
noticed that Little Jim’s hands were clasping tightly his manila
envelope as he said, “Yeah, let’s.”

And away we went.



8


As much as I hated to leave the red boat and the green tent and the
brown burlap bags with the waterjugs in them, and the blue-dressed
woman, I was perfectly willing to go on to Big Bob Till’s house--and of
course Dragonfly was, for some reason, extraordinarily willing to get
as far as possible from anybody who was a woman or a girl. I was all
set in my mind for whatever would happen when Big Bob and Big Jim saw
each other. What _would_ happen? I wondered.

       *       *       *       *       *

I certainly was surprised when, just before we reached the Tills’
wooden gate which led to their barnyard, I looked down at my hands and
saw that somewhere on the way--I had picked up a three-foot-long stick
and was carrying it, clasping it so tight my knuckles were white. My
eyebrows were down, my lips were pressed tightly together, and my jaw
muscles were tense.

We looked around the barn first and called “Hello,” a few times, with
nobody answering. Then we went inside and out again, and through their
orchard to the back door of their house. Big Jim and Circus went on
to the small roofless porch and knocked--and again nobody answered.
“Hello,” Big Jim called, and there wasn’t any answer or any sound from
inside the house.

“Hello there,” Big Jim called again, and knocked again. Still nobody
answered.

While Big Jim was doing that, I noticed Little Jim had his pencil
out and was writing something on the manila envelope. My parents had
taught me that it isn’t polite to read over anybody’s shoulder unless
he invites you to, so I had a hard time seeing what he was writing,
having to stand in front of him and crane my neck to read upside-down.
And--would you believe it?--that little guy had written:

  Dear Bob,

  Here’s the Sunday School lesson quarterly Mother promised your
  mother. Be sure to study all the questions so in case our teacher
  asks you any of them you will know the answers. We will stop for
  you at nine o’clock in the morning.

                              Your friend,
                              Little Jim Foote.

I couldn’t have read another line without getting a crick in my neck,
but I remembered all of a sudden that it was to Little Jim’s father,
the township trustee, that Bob had been paroled.

I saw Little Jim slip the envelope between the screen door and the
unpainted white-knobbed wooden door, just as we were leaving.

They had probably gone to town or somewhere, I thought.

In a little while we were back at the bridge again and across it and,
because it was Saturday and we were all supposed to get the chores
done early so our parents could go to town, which most of them did on
Saturday night, we separated, each one going to his own house. Even
though Poetry was going to spend the night with me in the tent, he said
he had to go home for a while so I was all by myself when I got to the
north road and turned left toward the Collins’ farm.

I moseyed lazily along, thinking and worrying and trying to figure
out things. It just didn’t seem possible that the gunny sack under
the elder bushes last night had had a water _jug_ in it instead of
a water_melon_. Even if it was possible, I didn’t want to believe
it. Of course, the woman or several women or girls who lived in the
forest-green tent would have to have drinking and cooking water--even
if they could have used the water from the creek to do their washing.
Sugar Creek water wasn’t supposed to be good for drinking, even when it
wasn’t dog days.

A lot of ideas were piled up in my mind, but it seemed like one of them
was on top, and it was: “If whoever had filled his or her water jugs
at the spring, or at the Collins’ _other_ iron pitcher pump, had done
it _at night_, then whoever lived in the tent must be afraid to go to
anybody’s house in the daytime and ask for water. And if they were
afraid to, _why_ were they afraid?”

One other thing made me set my feet down a little harder as they went
plop-plop in the dusty road I was walking in, and that was: “Was the
oldish car I had seen and heard in the lane last night the same as the
gun-metal gray pickup truck which right this minute was parked beside
the green tent?”

My mind was so busy with my thoughts that I was frightened when I
heard a car coming behind me, the driver giving what Pop would call
“a courteous honk,” like you are supposed to give when you want
somebody to know you are behind them and don’t want to scare the living
daylights out of them.

A jiffy later the car had pulled up alongside and stopped, and I saw,
sitting behind the steering wheel and wearing a watermelon-colored
dress and sparkling glasses, a smiling-faced, dark-haired lady about
twenty years old. “Hello there!” she called in a friendly, musical
voice. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Where have you been?”

Before I could answer she had gone on to say, “You forgot to leave the
map in the watermelon. The girls told me there was nothing in it.”

“Map?” I asked, with an exclamatory voice.

Interrogative sentences were galloping round and round in my mind. Then
my thoughts made a dive for my left hip pocket. My face must have had
a question-mark on it, ’cause she said, “Don’t you remember? You were
going to make us a copy of the one you showed me. We wanted each of our
girls to make her own map, using yours as a model, so that if any of
them should get lost while they were here, they could easily find their
way back to camp.”

Before I could answer--not knowing what to say anyway--she said with
a laugh that was like the water in the Sugar Creek riffle above the
spring, “I hardly recognized you, at first, with your hair cut, and I
see you’ve washed your face since yesterday, too. You certainly remind
me of my little brother. His first name was Tom, too.”

Say, you could have knocked me over with a haircut, I was so surprised.
All of a brain-whirling sudden, I knew who the watermelon thief was,
and my mystery was practically solved. _Little Tom Till and I had red
hair and freckles, and each of us wore a striped shirt and blue denim
western-style jeans! The lady thought I was Little Tom Till!_

Just then I heard somebody calling from the direction of our farm and
it was Pop’s thundery voice saying loud enough to be heard a quarter of
a mile away, “Bill! Hurry up! It’s time to start the chores!”

What little presence of mind I had, told me not to answer because it
seemed like I ought to let the smiling-faced lady think I _was_ Little
Tom Till--for just a little while anyway--so I said to her, “That’s
Theodore Collins. He’s probably calling his son to come and help him
with the chores.”

“You know the Collins family?” the voice that was still like the Sugar
Creek riffle, asked.

When I swallowed again and answered “Yes,” she surprised me by saying,
“I met your mother in town this afternoon. She seemed like a very nice
person. You must be very proud of her.”

“Uh--my mother? Which one?... I mean--you _did?_”

“She and Mrs. Collins were together shopping. They invited our troupe
to church tomorrow. You go to Sunday school, I suppose?”

I swallowed a “Yes, Ma’am,” which she managed to hear, and before
Theodore Collins called his son again about the undone chores, I said,
“If you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll run over and see if I can stop him
from having to call again. I think I know where his boy is.”

My hip pocket seemed to have a fire in it which ought to be put out, so
just before I started to start toward Pop to help put out a temper-fire
which probably was ready to burn a hole in his hat, I handed to the
lady the map Poetry and I had found last night in the watermelon in the
spring, saying, “Is this what you wanted?”

She unfolded the “Eat more Eatmore” wrapper, spread out the map and
studied it. Her face lit up as she said, “Why this is _good_--_very_
good! It’s even better than the one you showed me yesterday.”

I liked her friendly voice and her smile so well, that for a second
I wished I was actually Little Tom Till, himself. Then she tossed
another question at me, and it was “This red X in the circle--does that
represent any special location?”

“The red X?” I asked innocently. “Why, that’s--that’s--that’s where the
green tent is pitched. I--it’s straight across the creek from the mouth
of the branch, and just--uh--about fifty yards above where the current
divides, and one part goes down the north side of the island and the
other the other.”

She smiled a spoken thank you and added, “You do have a fine sense of
humor, don’t you?”

I wasn’t sure _what_ I had, but there was one thing I wanted to know,
and very much. I felt I _had_ to know it. What _did_ the red letter X
stand for? Of course I knew the tent was there, but who lived in it and
why? And why, if Tom had drawn this map for the girl scouts, _why_ had
he put the red X there?

I must have been frowning my worry and she saw it, ’cause right away
she added, “The girls’ll be intrigued by your story that an old witch
is camping there, but I’m afraid instead of their wanting to stay away,
they’ll be more curious than ever.”

Then my whole mind gasped. The lady in the watermelon colored dress
not only thought I was Little Tom Till, but that little rascal of a
red-haired boy had told her there was an old witch living in the tent,
and that the girls ought not to go anywhere near it. _What_ on _earth!_

Just then Theodore Collins’ thundery voice called again for his son, so
I said, “I’d better go now,” which I did. Away I went in a galloping
hurry to let a reddish-brown-mustached, bushy-eyebrowed father know
where his son really was--if he _was_ his son.

I found Mr. Collins in a better humor than I expected. Panting and
running fast like a boy who is late for school, I arrived at the barn
door just as Pop came out with a pail of Purina Chow for our old
brindle cow who was standing at the pasture bars looking at us with
question marks on her ears as if wondering why her supper had to come
so early--but that it was all right with her.

“Why didn’t you answer me when I called?” Pop asked, and I remembered
an old joke our family had read in a magazine and which we had laughed
over, so I said, “I didn’t hear you the first _two_ times.”

“Bright boy,” Pop answered, and I answered with another old joke,
saying, “I’m so bright my parents call me ‘son.’”

Pop grinned and when I asked him how come we had to get the chores done
so early, he explained, “There’s a special prayer meeting for the men
of the church. That’s why your mother’s in town now--she went in to get
the shopping done this afternoon--she and Mrs. Till.”

It was a good thing we _did_ get the chores done early--a _very_ good
thing--because there were a lot of important other things that had to
happen that day to make this story even more mysterious, and to clear
up some of the cloudy questions in my mind. Nearly everything had to
happen before sundown, only of course I didn’t know it at the time, or
I’d have hurried even faster with my part of the chores.

I was up in our haymow alone throwing down alfalfa hay when I looked
out the east window and saw our car coming down the road, with Mom at
the steering wheel and Little Tom Till’s Mom with Charlotte Ann in her
lap in the front seat with her. Only a few minutes before I had been
thinking about Mrs. Till in a very special way, so when I saw her in
the car with Mom, I got the queerest feeling.

Throwing down hay was something I always liked to do because it is like
a man’s job; also there was something nice about being alone in a big
wide alfalfa-smelling haymow where a boy could think a boy’s thoughts,
talk to himself, and whistle, and even sing, and nobody could hear him.

Sometimes when I’m in the haymow, I climb up on the long, axe-hewn beam
that stretches across the whole width of the barn from one side to
the other, and imagine myself to be Abraham Lincoln who had split so
many logs with an ax. I raise my voice and quote all of his Gettysburg
address, feeling fine while I am doing it, and important, and glad to
be alive. Maybe I would be President of the United States, some time,
myself.

I always hated to stop when the last word was said, and I would have to
be Theodore Collins’ son again, with years and years of growing yet to
do before I would be a man.

Well, I had just said in my deepest, most dignified voice, “... that
this nation under God may have a new birth of freedom, and that
government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall
not perish from the earth,” and was still standing listening to my
imaginary audience clap their hands, and thinking about the part of my
speech which said, “all men are created equal,” and was also thinking
of the Till family--old hook-nosed John Till himself; his oldest boy
Bob, and Little Tom, his other son, who wanted to be a good boy and
was, part of the time. I was remembering the manila envelope which
Little Jim had left at the Tills’ back door and was thinking about Mrs.
Till who had such a hard time just to keep from being too discouraged
to want to live....

Then is when I heard our car coming and saw Mom with Mrs. Till beside
her. I quickly threw down another forkful of hay, hurried to the ladder
and climbed down, leaving Abraham Lincoln to look after himself--and to
get off the log the best way he could.

It seemed like Mom, by being a friend to Bob and Tom Till’s mother, was
helping to prove that “all men are created equal.”

“All men are created equal,” was still in my mind when I reached the
bottom of the ladder. For some reason, though, it didn’t seem right
that Little red-haired, fiery-tempered, freckle-faced Tim Till was as
equal as I was. We might look a lot alike to anybody who saw us dressed
in the same kind of clothes, but I was _not_ a watermelon thief--and he
was, I thought--and the first chance I got I was going to prove to him
that even though all men, boys especially, might be created equal, when
one boy sneaked out into another boy’s melon patch, stole a melon, and
sold it to a girl scout troupe, the other boy was equal to giving him a
sound thrashing.

I was wondering whether I ought to tell Pop about what the girl scout
leader had told _me_, when I heard Mom’s voice calling from up near the
walnut tree, “Is Bill out there somewhere?”

I almost jumped out of my bare feet when I heard Pop answer her from
just outside the barn door, “He’s helping me with the chores!”

Mom called back to say that she wanted me to take care of Charlotte Ann
while she drove Mrs. Till on home.

It wasn’t easy, taking care of that wriggling, impatient little rascal
of a sister. Whatever makes a two-year-old baby sister so hard to take
care of anyway? And why do they always want to run away from you and
get into dangerous situations the very second your back is turned? I
hadn’t any sooner sat down in the big rope swing under the walnut tree,
and started to pump myself a little, than I heard Pop yelling from some
direction or other--in fact from away up at the pignut tree--and how in
the world did _he_ get that far away so quick?--yelling for me to “Run
quick and get Charlotte Ann away from Old Red Addie’s fence.”

I swung out of the swing in a scared hurry, ’cause my eyes told me that
that cute little reddish-brown-haired baby sister of mine was not only
near the hog-lot fence but was actually trying to crawl through it to
get inside--Charlotte Ann not being afraid of a single animal on our
farm--not even one.

I scattered our seventy-eight hens in even more directions than that
as I flew to Charlotte Ann’s rescue. Mom would have a conniption fit
if I let that little sister of mine get her clean dress soiled and her
best shoes muddy in Red Addie’s apartment-house yard--especially if she
decided the mud puddle was a good place to walk in, which she probably
would.

I got there just in time. _Honestly!_ That _child!_ You can hardly
do anything else when you are looking after her. Mom calls it
“baby-sitting” when she asks me to take care of her, but it isn’t! It’s
baby-_running_, and keeping your eyes peeled every second or you won’t
even have a baby sister. She’ll be gone in a flash, and you have to
look all over for her--like the time she got lost in the woods and a
terrible cyclone roared into our territory and trees were uprooted and
fell in every direction and--But you know all about that if you’ve read
the story, “The Green Tent Mystery at Sugar Creek.”

Well, after what seemed like too long a time, Mom got back from
driving Mrs. Till home, and I went to the car to help her carry in the
groceries and other things, and that’s when we found the brown paper
bag with oranges in it, which Mrs. Till had accidentally left on the
floor in the back, and Mom hadn’t seen it.

“Yes, that’s hers,” Mom said. “I’d better drive right back with it. Her
doctor wants her to have fresh orange juice three times a day.”

“I--it’s almost time to start supper,” Pop said, looking at his watch.
He explained to Mom about the special prayer meeting for men at the
church, then gave me a quick order which was, “Bill, you take your bike
and ride over to the Tills’ with these oranges while your mother starts
supper.”

And that’s how come I ran into a situation that gave me a chance to
prove in several, very fast hair-raising adventures that Little Tom
Till and I were actually created equal.

I got to find out, also, who the old witch who lived in the green tent
really was--and also why she lived there.



9


When I knocked at Mrs. Till’s back screen door, she was in the kitchen
ironing something with an old fashioned _iron_ iron with an all-iron
handle. I could see it was a pair of Little Tom Till’s old, many
times-patched jeans.

As soon as I’d given her the oranges and she had thanked me, she said,
“You have such a nice mother, Bill. _Such_ a nice mother.”

I shifted from one bare foot to the other, swallowed something in my
throat which hadn’t been there a second before, and wished I could
think of something polite to say, and couldn’t at first, then managed
to think of:

“Tom has a nice mother, too.” I noticed Little Jim’s brown envelope
with his awkward handwriting on it, lying on the other end of the
ironing board. She’d probably read it, I thought, and then I got a
little mixed up in my mind as I said, and was sorry for it afterward:

“_Bob’s_ got a nice mother, too,”--and I knew she knew _I_ was thinking
how come such a nice mother could have two boys, one of which was a
good boy and the other was a juvenile delinquent?

There were tears in her eyes when she looked at me with a sad smile
and answered: “But I love them both--and some day God will answer my
prayers for them.”

I forgot for a minute that I had actually been thinking Tom was just
as bad as his very bad big brother, Bob, because he had stolen my
watermelon.

“Where’s Tom now?” I asked, and she said, “I think he’s down along the
creek, somewhere. If you see him or Bob on your way home, tell them
it’s chore time.”

She thanked me again for the oranges, and I swung onto my bike,
pedalled through their barnyard and out their open gate and on toward
the creek.

At the bridge I stopped, looked downstream again at the green tent,
and without even straining my eyes, I caught a fleeting glimpse of
a boy just my size, wearing blue western-style jeans and a gray and
maroon striped T-shirt. He was at the edge of the cornfield behind the
green tent not more than ten feet from the clothesline which had on it
different colored different kinds of women’s clothes.

“Right now, Bill Collins,” I heard my harsh voice saying to me through
my grit teeth, “right _now_, you’re going to find out what is what, and
why ... RIGHT NOW!”

I was down the embankment and under the bridge in a jiffy, and out in
the cornfield scooting along in a hurry, like one of Circus’s Pop’s
hounds trailing a cottontail--only my voice was quiet.

Closer and closer I came to the place where I had last seen Tom,
shading my eyes to see what I could see.

Right then I heard a whirlwind of flying feet coming in my direction
straight down the corn row I was stooped over in. In only a few
fast-flying jiffies whoever was coming would be storming right into the
middle of where I was, and if they didn’t happen to see me and I didn’t
get out of the way, they’d bowl me over like a quarterback getting
tackled in a football game.

There were other sounds than flying feet and the husky rusty rustle of
the cornblades. There was an angry mannish-sounding voice, shouting
exclamatory sentences and saying, “Stop you little rascal! Come back
here with that! Do you hear me! I’ll whip the daylights out of you if I
ever catch you!”

There was also a smallish, half-scared-half-to-death voice yelling
“Help! Help! HELP!”

       *       *       *       *       *

My muddled mind told me the small frightened voice was Little Tom
Till’s and the angry voice was his big brother Bob’s--’cause it sounded
just like his--and that Bob was chasing his brother and if he caught up
to him he would give him a licking within an inch of his life.

Even as I glimpsed Little Tom flying ahead of whoever was behind him,
I noticed again that he was dressed the same way I was. Being dressed
like that made us look like twins, although, of course, he looked more
like _me_ than I did _him_, which means he was a better-looking boy
than _I_ would have been if I had looked like _him_.

For some reason when I realized that Tom was crying and running to get
away from having to take a licking, in spite of the fact that I thought
he was a watermelon thief, it seemed like I ought to do something to
save him.

Closer and closer, and faster and faster, those flying feet came
storming toward me. Then without warning Tom swerved to the left and
dashed down a corn row and at the same time part of Abraham Lincoln’s
Gettysburg address came to life in my mind and I knew I was really
going to do something quick to help save Tom.

The thought was lightning fast in my mind: I was dressed exactly like
Tom; my hair was red like his, and we were the same height, and would
look so much alike from behind that whoever was chasing him wouldn’t
know the difference. So I waited only a second until I felt sure Bob
had seen me, then like a young deer I started on a fast gallop down
the same corn row. I was sure I could run faster than Tom ’cause I had
beaten him in a few races, and it would be quite a while before Bob
could catch up with me. When he did catch up, he’d stop stock-still and
stare, and Tom would be safe--for awhile anyway.

A second later the chase was on, and I was scooting down the row like a
cottontail, running and panting and grinning to myself to think what a
clever trick I was playing.

But say, that big lummox of a boy whom I hadn’t seen yet but had only
heard, seemed to be gaining on me. Within a few minutes he would have
me, if I didn’t run faster.

“_Faster!_” my excited mind ordered me. But I quickly realized I
couldn’t save myself by just being fast. I’d have to be smart too, like
a cottontail outsmarting a hound.

Remembering how cottontails disappear in a thicket if they can, then
circle and go right back to where they were before, I turned left like
Little Tom had done and raced madly back toward the tent and the creek
and the plastic clothesline.

But it wasn’t a good idea. The big bully of a boy heard, or saw me,
or something. I hadn’t any sooner shot out into the open and dashed
between a pair of brown slacks and a pink lady’s dress of something
hanging on the line than I heard panting and flying feet behind me and
knew I would have to be even smarter than a cottontail.

“You dumb bunny!” a savage voice yelled at me. “I’ll make short work of
you. Stop, you little thief! STOP!”

Right then was when my world turned upside down for a while. _That
fierce, very angry voice yelling at me was NOT the voice of Big Bob
Till, but of somebody else!_ I realized that it was somebody who, if
he caught up with me, might not know that I _wasn’t_ Tom Till and I
would get one of the worst thrashings a boy ever got. “What,” I asked
myself, as I panted and dodged and sweat and grunted and hurried and
worried--“what will happen to me?”

I made a dive around the wall-type tent, planning to dart into the path
that went through the forest of giant ragweeds to the bridge. At the
bridge I would rush up the incline on the other side and gallop across.

As soon as I would get across the bridge, I’d leap over the rail fence,
hurry through the woods to the spring, swing into the path made by
barefoot boys’ bare feet, and in only a little while after that I’d be
across the road from “Theodore Collins” on our mailbox and would be
safe.

I took a fleeting glance over my shoulder to see who was chasing me,
and say! my pursuer was not only _not_ Bob Till but wasn’t a boy at
all--instead he was a woman wearing brown slacks and a woman’s hat!

Boy oh boy, was I ever in the middle of a situation! In that quick
over-the-shoulder glance I noticed that her hat was straw-colored and
looked a lot like the kind Little Jim’s Mom wears to church. Even in
that quarter of a jiffy while I was seeing her over my shoulder, I
noticed that the hat was the same color as the ripe wheat on Big Jim’s
Pop’s farm and that there were several heads of wheat slanted across
its left side instead of a feather like lots of women’s hats have on
them.

What on earth! Why was I, Bill Collins, a husky hard-working farm boy
with muscles like those of the village blacksmith--“as strong as iron
bands”--running from just one helpless woman--_just one!_

But I hardly had time even to wonder “what on earth?” because in that
fleeting glance over my shoulder my eyes had seen something else--I’d
seen Little Tom Till come storming out of the cornfield behind the
forest-green tent, shoot like a blue-jeaned arrow toward the opening,
and disappear inside.

Glancing over my shoulder like that, was one of the worst things I
could have done. I had seen one red-haired boy dashing into a tent,
and I knew where he was right that very second, but I didn’t know
where I, myself, was. When my eyes got back to the path I was supposed
to be running in, I wasn’t running in it at all. I had swerved
aside, stumbled over a log and was making a head-over-heels tumble
in the direction of the creek. If the red boat hadn’t been there,
I’d have landed in the water. Instead I fell sprawling into the boat
itself--that is, that’s where I _finally_ landed when I came to a stop
after rolling down the incline.

Looking up from my upside-down position, I saw the woman’s face was
hard and had an angry scowl on it. I realized with a gasp that in
another jiffy she would be down the incline herself and I would be
caught in what I could see were very large, very strong hands. Even
though I was saving Tom Till from getting the daylights whaled out of
him, I probably would get the _double_-daylights thrashed out of _me_.

If it had been winter and Sugar Creek frozen over, I could have leaped
out of the boat and raced across the ice to the other side, but there
isn’t a boy in the world who can run or walk on the water in the
summertime. There was only one way for me to escape that fierce-faced
woman, who in another few jiffies would be down that incline herself
and into the boat and have me in her clutches.

Quick as a flash I was up and in the prow of the boat unfastening the
guy rope. A second later, with one foot in the boat and the other
against the bank, I gave the boat a hard shove, and out I shot into the
stream.

“You come back here, you--you little red-haired rascal!” the woman’s
gruff, angry voice demanded.

For the moment I had forgotten Little Tom Till--I was in such a worried
hurry to save myself. Then what to my wondering ears should come
sailing out over the water but Tom’s own excited voice, calling, “Hey!
Wait for me! WAIT!”

Little Tom’s high-pitched voice coming from behind her, must have
astonished the scowling-faced woman. She turned her head quick in the
direction of the tent and her eyes landed on Tom who was waving at me
and yelling and running toward the creek, looking exactly like me in
his western-style blue jeans and maroon-and-gray-striped T-shirt. She
must have thought she was seeing double, or that there were two of me:
I was out in the nervous water in her red rowboat floating downstream
toward the Sugar Creek island; I was also on dry land running like a
deer toward the creek, waving my arms and yelling to me in the boat to
“Wait for me!”

The situation certainly couldn’t have made sense to her. For a minute
she stayed stopped stock-still and stared while Tom scurried down the
shore to a place about thirty feet ahead of me where there was a little
open space, half climbed and half skid down the embankment, plunged
into the water and came splashety-sizzle toward the boat.

It was then that I noticed he was carrying something with him, which
was making it hard for him to make fast progress. If my mind had had a
voice I think I could have heard it screaming an exclamatory sentence:
“_He’s got another water jug with a burlap bag wrapped around it. WHAT
on earth!_”

That woman in the straw hat with the little bundle of imitation wheat
straw across its right side, came to life and started on a fast run
toward the place where Tom had plunged in, like she was going to splash
in after him and try to get to the boat first, or else to stop him.

In almost less than no time Tom had hoisted his waterjug over the
gunwhale and set it down into the boat at my feet, then he swung
himself alongside and climbed in over the stern--which is the way to
climb into a boat without upsetting it.

“Hurry!” Little Tom Till panted to me. “Let’s get across to the other
side!”

I didn’t know what he was worried about nor what he wanted but I
figured he would tell me as soon as he could--that is, if he wanted to.
Besides I was in a hurry to get across myself.

I reached for the oars--and that’s when I got one of the most startling
surprises of my life. There weren’t any oars in the boat--not even
one! Not even a board to use for a paddle! All there was in the boat
was a water jug with burlap bags wrapped around it, one very _wet_,
red-haired, blue-jeaned, maroon-and-gray-T-shirted boy, and one _dry_
one. And all the time our boat was drifting farther downstream toward
the island.

In fact, right that very minute, the boat, which I had discovered was
an aluminum boat painted red and was very light, was caught in the
swift current where the creek divides and half of its current goes down
one side of the island and the other half down the other. There wasn’t
a thing we could do to stop ourselves from going one way or the other.

Swooshety-swirlety--swishety! Also _hissety!_ Those half-angry waters
took hold of our boat and away we went down the north channel, between
the island and the shore.

We weren’t in any actual danger as far as the water was concerned,
though, ’cause it was a safe boat. After awhile, we’d probably drift
close enough to an overhanging willow or other tree and we could catch
hold, swing ourselves out and climb to safety--or to the shore anyway.

BUT--say! We _were_ in danger for another reason.

       *       *       *       *       *

That woman wasn’t going to let us get away as easily as that. She
leaped into fast life and began racing down the shore after us, yelling
for us to stop, which we couldn’t.

“What’s she so mad about, anyway?” I asked Little Tom Till.

His answer astonished me so much I almost lost my balance and fell out
of the boat: “There’s hundreds and hundreds of dollars in this water
jug. It’s the stolen money from the Super Market!”

Boy oh _boy!_ No _wonder_ there was a cyclone in that woman’s mind!
And no _wonder_ she didn’t want two red-haired boys in blue jeans and
gray-and-maroon-striped shirts in a rowboat to get away!

“She’s as mad as a hornet!” I said to Tom when, like a volley of rifle
and shotgun shots a splattering of very angry, very filthy words fell
thick and fast all around on us and on our ears from the woman’s very
angry, very harsh mannish-sounding voice.

“She’s not a _she_,” Little Tom Till answered. “She’s a _he_. He’s
been hiding out in the tent pretending to be a woman, wearing women’s
clothes and earrings and hats and using fancy perfumes and stuff.”

Every second the fast current was swirling us downstream closer and
closer to an overhanging elm, one that had fallen into the water from
the last Sugar Creek storm, and its top extended almost all the way
across the channel from the north shore to the island. I could see our
boat was going to crash into the leafy branches and we’d be stopped.

I knew if we could manage to steer around the tree’s top, we’d be safe
for quite awhile on account of there was a thicket that came clear down
to the water’s edge there and if the fierce-faced man wanted to follow
us any further, he would have to leave the shore and run along the edge
of the cornfield for maybe fifty yards before he could get back to the
creek again.

If only we had even _one_ oar, we could steer the boat near the island
where there was open water. We could miss the fallen elm’s bushy top
and----!

And _then_, all of a helpless sudden, we went crashing into the
branches _and there we stopped!_

That was when Little Tom Till came to life and proved that he had been
created as equal as I had, and maybe even more so. The very second we
struck, he scrambled to his feet, grabbing up the jug and the coil of
clothesline which was fastened to it and yelling to me, “Come on! Let’s
get onto the island!”

It certainly was a bright idea, ’cause the very second our boat hit the
tree, the current had whirled it around and one end struck and _stuck_
against the sandy bank of the island, and all we had to do was to use
the boat for an aluminum-floored bridge the rest of the way, which in
an awkward hurry, we did. In only a few jiffies we were across and out
and clambering up the rugged shore of the island into its thicket of
willows and tall weeds and wild shrubbery.

“We’re straight across from the sycamore tree and the cave!” Little Tom
Till cried. “If we can get across the channel on the other side of the
island, and into the cave and go through it to Old Man Paddler’s cabin,
we’ll be safe. Bob’s up there helping him cut wood this afternoon--only
he’s mad at me about something.”

The trouble was, the boat that had made such a nice bridge for us to
cross on, was the same kind of an aluminum-floored bridge for the
woman--the _man_, I mean. He could climb out onto the elm’s horizontal
trunk, drop down into the boat and get across as quick as anything.

Even as I scrambled up the bank behind my blue-jeaned,
red-and-maroon-shirted friend, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw
the brown slacks with the woman in them--the _man_, I mean--on the
trunk of the tree working his way along through the branches toward
the boat. In another second he would drop down into it, and in another
would be across and onto the island racing after us.

       *       *       *       *       *

The chase was on--a wild-running, scared, barefoot-boy’s race ahead of
a short-tempered thief dressed in woman’s slacks, wearing a woman’s
straw-colored hat, dodging our way across that island which was a
thicket of willow and wild shrubbery, with here and there a larger
tree, and dozens of little craters hollowed out by the flood waters
which nearly every spring went racing across it. Banked against nearly
every larger tree trunk were piles of driftwood and cornstalks and
stuff the creek had carried from different farmer’s fields farther
upstream and deposited there.

I guess I never had realized what a jungle that island was. I had
been on it many a time when I was just monkeying around, looking for
shells, or with my binoculars studying birds. Once in awhile at night
in the spring or summer when it was bullfrog season, we would wade
in the weed-grown water along the edge of the riffles with lanterns
and flashlights looking for the giant-sized brown and dark-green
monsters whose eyes in the light were like the headlamps of toy
automobiles--bullfrogs, as you probably know, having long hind legs
with bulging muscles, which when they are skinned, are snow-white, and
when Mom fries them, they taste even better than fried chicken.

But _such_ a wilderness! And so many rough-edged rocks for a boy’s bare
feet to get cut or bruised on, so many briers to scratch him and so
many branches to fly back and switch him in the face when another boy
has just gone hurrying through ahead of him.

If we had been running from a real woman, or if only he had been
wearing a dress instead of slacks, he wouldn’t have been able to take
such long steps, and there would have been the chance he might get the
skirt caught on a branch or a brier and slow him down while we dodged
our way ahead of him in our mad race to the other side.

“We’re almost there!” Little Tom Till cried to me, panting hard from
carrying the jug as well as himself.

I could see the other side of the island now and the nervous, excited
water in the racing riffle between the island and the shore. I could
see the sycamore tree at the top of the bank and the mouth of the cave
just beyond.

Another few seconds and we would be there--and would be out in the fast
current on our way to safety. It had been a terribly exciting race, I
tell you, with Tom not letting me help carry the jug at all.

“It’s not heavy,” he panted. “It’s made out of plastic, the same as
the clothesline, and it’s as light as a feather. The money in it is
in little rolls with rubber bands around them. I saw him stuff ’em in
myself.”

The bottle’s mouth and neck weren’t more than an inch and a half in
diameter, I had noticed.

There were about a million questions I wanted to ask Tom, such as, how
come he knew the woman was a man? how’d he find out about the money in
the first place?--and several other things which my mind was as curious
as a cat’s to know.

And then, all of a sudden, we burst out into the open at the water’s
edge, with our pursuer only a few rods behind us, panting and cursing
and demanding us to stop.

And then I learned something else from that fierce-voiced villain as he
yelled at Tom, “You little rascal! I’ll catch you and your brother,
Bob, if it’s the last thing I ever do. He’s broken into his _last_
Super Market!”

_That_ was one of the saddest, most astonishing things I had ever
heard. It startled me into feeling a lot of other questions: Had Bob
Till himself broken into the Sugar Creek Super Market last week? Was
the man in woman’s clothes maybe a detective or secret agent who had
been camping out along the creek, watching Bob’s movements--his and
Tom’s?

Things were all mixed up even worse than ever. For a few jiffies, my
watermelon mystery wasn’t even important in my mind, as--quick as a
firefly’s fleeting flash--Tom, holding onto the jug’s handle with one
hand, plunged into the fast riffle without even bothering to look or to
ask me where the water was the most shallow, and a second later was up
to his waist and losing his balance and falling down.

Up he struggled, and down he went again, sputtering and wallowing
along, with me doing the same thing beside him.

And then all of a cringing sudden, Tom let out a scared cry, saying:
“Help! h-h-h-help!” as he lost his balance and went down--_really_
down, I mean. The coil of rope in his hand flew into the air like a
lasso straight toward me who, at that minute, was quite a few yards
from him. Part of the clothesline caught around my upraised hand with
which I was trying to balance myself, the line tightened as Tom went
down, still holding onto the jug’s handle--and then down I went myself,
like a steer at a rodeo, the water sweeping me off my feet.

And there we both were, struggling in the racing current--two
red-haired boys, one on each end of a brand new plastic clothesline.

Even as I went down I saw the willows on the island part and the
maddest-faced man I ever saw in my life came rushing toward us. Also,
I saw a puzzled expression on his face like he was wondering what on
earth, which one of us was Tom and which was me, and which of us had
the water jug with the money in it.

Just that second also, his woman’s hat caught on a branch, and off it
came and with it a wig of reddish-brown hair, and I noticed the man had
a very short haircut.

The woman was an honest-to-goodness man, all right--or _boy_, rather,
maybe about as old as Bob Till himself. He had dirt smudges on his
rouged cheeks like he had fallen down a few times in his mad race
across the island after us. He was panting and gasping for breath and
his woman’s blouse was torn at the neck.

Tom and I must have looked queer to her--_him_, I mean--with me like
a calf on the end of a lasso, and Tom now fifteen feet from me, with
the jug in one hand, struggling to stay on his feet, on account of I
was downstream farther than he and being sucked along with the current
while my feet fought for the pebbly bottom.

Right away, the mean-faced oldish boy seemed to make up his mind who
was who and what was what and what he ought to do about it. He made a
rushing plunge out into the water and a series of fast lunges straight
for Tom, who began to make even faster lunges toward the other shore
and the sycamore tree.

“Run! Swim! HURRY!” I yelled in a sputtering voice to Tom--which
he couldn’t on account of right that very fast-fleeting second,
his feet shot out from under him and he went down again
ker-flopety-splash-SPLASH!

I knew I could never wade back against the swift current to get to him
in time to help him. I’d have to get to the other shore QUICK, race
along the bank to a place fifteen or twenty feet above him and plunge
in again and hurry out to where he was, which I started to start to do,
and got stopped.

The current was stronger near that other shore and the water deeper. My
feet were sucked out from under me and again I went down, feeling as
I was pulled under, my end of the rope still wrapped around my hand,
which, also, without my hardly noticing it, I was holding onto for dear
life.

Right that second the bully caught up with Tom, made a lunge with his
right arm for the jug, seized Tom with the other, and there was a wild
wrestling match with water flying and curses and fast flying arms and
it looked like Tom was going to get the living daylights licked out of
him for sure.

Tom was trying to fight back, and couldn’t with only one hand and
because of the swift current. He was as helpless as Marybelle Elizabeth
in a chickenyard fight with Cleopatra.

Right then is when I remembered something important, and it was that
when a bevy of furious girls had been beating up on Dragonfly at the
spring, I had screamed bloody murder, given several wild loon calls,
bellowed like a bull and made a lot of other terrifying bird and animal
noises, and it had saved Dragonfly. Before I knew I was going to do it,
I was yelling and screaming every savage sound I could think of in the
direction of the one-sided fight, crying for help at the same time,
hoping some of the Gang might be somewhere in the neighborhood and hear.

And that’s when I heard Big Bob Till’s voice answer from the sycamore
tree side of the channel. A second later I saw him standing in the
black mouth of the cave. He held his hand up to his eyes, shading them
like he had been in the dark quite awhile and the afternoon sunlight
was too bright for them.

Then he seemed to see his little red-haired brother, Tom, getting
a licking within an inch of his life by a butch-haired bully. And
_that_ is when Bob Till, the fiercest fighter in all Sugar Creek
territory--except maybe Big Jim--came to life. It was like the cave
was a bow and Bob was a two-legged arrow being shot by a giant as big
as the one in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. I lost my balance
then and went down, the rope in my hand went taut, and the other end
was torn from Tom’s grasp, and the water jug, like a jug-shaped balloon
wrapped in burlap, plopped to the surface, swung away and came on a
fast downstream float toward me.

All I could see for a jiffy was Tom defending himself like a savage
little tiger, and Big Bob Till shooting through the air like a man from
a flying trapeze from the high bank out across the ten feet of excited
air down and out toward where Tom was in the clutches of the thief--and
then I was fighting to save myself from drowning because I was in water
over my head. My right hand still clung to the rope on the other end
of which was the floating, plunging water jug with stolen Super Market
money in it.



10


Before even another second could pass, Bob Till landed feet first
in the swift current, and even quicker than that was storming his
way through the six or seven feet of open water toward where his
little brother, Tom, was holding on for dear life to the very same
powerful-muscled overgrown man-sized boy who a little while before was
wrestling with him trying to get the water jug away from him. Say, that
little guy knew what he was doing.

“Oh no, you don’t! You great big bully!” Tom cried. “You don’t get
away so easy. Come on, Bob! It’s him--the thief! Help!... Help!...
_H-E-L-P!_”

And Bob helped.

Talk about a fierce, fast fist fight. That was one of the fiercest,
fastest ones I ever saw and heard. I mean _really_ heard in spite of my
own battle to keep myself from losing my own balance in the deep, swift
water I was in. If the rock bass and minnows and redhorse and other
fish that were down in the water somewhere had been watching that water
fight they’d probably have wondered what on earth--only they maybe
wouldn’t know very much about the earth but only the water, that being
where they lived.

Wham! Biff! Sock!... Wham ... wham ... wham!... Splash!... _SPLASH!_
Double-whamety ... _Pow!_

“You great big lummox!” Bob yelled at his opponent. “You _will_ try to
drown my little brother! I’ll teach you right now!”

The bully staggered backwards, his hands and arms waving in a lot of
fast directions as he tried to steady himself from falling. Then he
struck the water and went down--_and under_.

Bob seemed to know he had his man licked. He quick turned to his little
brother and half sobbed to him: “You poor little guy, fighting that big
bully all by yourself!”

“Big Bully,” as Bob had just called the fierce-faced man--who wasn’t a
man at all, and certainly wasn’t a woman, but was a powerful muscled
boy the size of Big Jim--came up from under the water with a bounce
like a cork plops back up after you’ve pushed it under. He came up
sputtering and shaking his head and struggling to keep his balance in
the rapids.

Spying the water jug floating on the surface down near where I was, he
started on a fast half-run, half-swim toward it and me.

One reason the jug hadn’t already floated on far beyond me was because
one end of the rope was still wrapped around one of my hands, and
I was holding onto it for dear life. The other reason was that the
middle of the rope which was down under the water was tangled up with
and wrapped around the bully’s legs. I knew it for sure when I felt
the rope tighten around my arm, and then felt myself being jerked off
balance--and then down I went again.

It certainly wasn’t any time to be thinking funny thoughts right
then--what with all the dangerous excitement I was in, and might not
get out of without getting badly hurt--but a ridiculous idea plopped
into my mind and stayed there for a fast flying second, and was: “I’m
like a cowboy at a Sugar Creek rodeo. I’ve just lassoed a wild steer
and my bronco has just thrown me off into a racing riffle, but I’m
going to hold onto him!”

Grunt and groan and puff and sputter and yell and scream and tremble
with excitement and hold on tight and fight and just about everything
else you can think of--we four were really in a struggle for
life--almost anyway.

I don’t know how many times I lost my balance and went down, nor how
many times I thought the bully was going to get the water jug away from
us and get away himself.

And then all of a sudden, right in the middle of everything, I saw
Bob’s powerful right arm swing in a long wide arc, and the fist on the
other end of it catch the painted faced tough guy on the jaw--and he
went down--and stayed down, and that part of the struggle was over.

I say _that_ part was over. We had another and a harder job on our
hands--and that was, to save the bully from drowning, ’cause Bob’s
hard-knuckled, experienced fist knocked him completely out.

I saw the scared expression on Bob’s face the very minute I heard his
frightened words come crying out of his mouth: “I--I--I’ve _killed_
him! What’ll we do _now!_”

“Keep his head above water!” I yelled back. “He can’t drown as long as
his head is above water!”

Bob made a lunge for the villain, clasped him the best way he could,
and began to struggle with him toward the sycamore tree side of the
channel--with Little Tom Till and me struggling along beside and behind
him, bringing the water jug filled with money.

       *       *       *       *       *

Well, here I am quite a ways from the end of this mystery about the
stolen watermelon with only a few pages left, on account of the
friendly people who will make it into a book for you, might think it is
too long already.

I can’t take any more time now anyway on account of I have to get
started quick on the next story.

But it was just like it says in the Bible which our minister is always
quoting--and also my parents--where the words are: “_Be sure your sin
will find you out._” That is what the thief’s sins had done. The very
rope he had stolen, along with the money, had accidentally lassoed his
feet, making it easy for us to capture him.

The two gunny sacks which had been wrapped around the water jug came in
handy, too, ’cause we used them to make a litter to carry our prisoner
on from the sycamore tree to the tool shed in the woods behind Poetry’s
Pop’s barn. We unwrapped the wet sacks from around the jug, spread them
out on the ground, cut two poles, using Bob’s axe with which he had
been helping Old Man Paddler, slipped the sacks over the ends, making
a hole in each of the closed corners--and we had one of the finest
stretchers you ever saw.

Bob carried one end of the litter and Little Tom and I the other.
Boy oh boy, did we ever feel proud, even though we were worried some
because our prisoner was still unconscious. We knew he wasn’t drowned,
on account of he was breathing all right, but he was as pale as a sheet
of gray writing paper, except for the rouge on his cheeks.

Little Tom puffed out his story to me as we struggled and grunted
along, with me helping as much as I could by asking questions that had
been worrying me for quite a while: “How did you know he was the Super
Market thief?” I asked him, and he said, “I didn’t, at first. I wanted
to make a lot of money to get a present for Mother’s birthday tomorrow,
so I thought up the idea of selling a map to the girl scouts--so the
girls could draw a map apiece like we do when we go on our up-north
vacations. The green lady worked out a scheme for me to leave the map
in a big watermelon they had in the spring.” Tom’s face was as innocent
as a lamb while he was puffing out his story to me.

“Then what?” I asked him, and he said, “When I saw the melon--how big
it was, and how pretty, as big and as pretty as your Ida--I got a
sinking feeling in my stomach, wondering where they got it, and if it
might be yours, so I scooted up the hill, and hurried to your truck
patch to find out.

“I was feeling fine when I saw Ida was still there. I beat it back
to the spring, plugged the melon like I promised I would, put my map
inside and went home.”

“But how--” I began, wondering still how come he knew our prisoner was
a Super Market thief, but he cut in on me, adding, “I didn’t know till
this afternoon. I saw all the women’s clothes on the line behind the
tent, and thought she was a woman of some kind, so I gathered a dozen
eggs and went down to see if I could sell them to her. I was kinda
scared, on account of being afraid of strange women and girls, so I
sneaked up on the cornfield side, and accidentally saw her doing it.
That’s how I found out.”

“Saw her doing what?” Bob asked, and Tom answered, “She was rolling
paper money into small rolls and stuffing them into the spout--it
looked like hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

“I was so scared, I couldn’t move. I don’t know what kind of a noise
I made but she heard me, jumped like she was shot, quick squeezed the
last roll of paper into the jug, shoved it behind a suitcase, and
yelled at me, ‘What do you want?’

“‘That’s an awful lot of money,’ I said; ‘where’d you get it?’ And
that’s when the chase started.”

“But somebody _did_ steal Ida,” I said, and wondered what Tom would say
about that. “Somebody sneaked out into our truck patch last night and
took her,” I added.

Right that second our prisoner regained consciousness, opened his eyes,
and began to struggle to get his hands and feet free, and to sit up and
get off our litter, which made us drop him ker-plop onto the ground.

We were busy for the next few minutes, but between grunts and groans
and our thief’s filthy language flying thick and fast against our
ears, Tom managed to say, “Your prize melon’s all right, and still not
plugged. I saw her in the tent back over there by the cornfield, when I
dashed in for the jug.”

That’s when our big bully of an overgrown boy growled into the middle
of everything that was happening and said, “Maybe I took it myself. I
was going to use a watermelon for a piggy bank instead of the water
_jug_--now are you satisfied?” And he started in twisting and fighting
and trying to get away again--and couldn’t.

But now I _do_ have to quit writing.

Several nights later, when Poetry and I were in our cots in the tent
under the plum tree, while the drumming of the cicadas was so deafening
we could hardly hear ourselves talk, we had one of the happiest times
of our lives telling each other everything that had happened.

“Who’d have dreamed Muggs McGinnis would have been hiding out right in
our territory?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I answered across the moonlit four feet of space between our
cots, “imagine me being a good enough detective to capture him all by
myself--Tom and Bob helping a little, of course.”

When I finished saying such a boastful sentence, it seemed like maybe I
_had_ been a pretty important hero. It felt fine to be one. But Poetry
spoiled my puffed-up feeling by saying, “It was Little Tom Till’s keen
mind that solved your mystery for you. That guy, Muggs, actually _was_
getting his drinking water from your iron pitcher pump and from the
spring with his jug. I, myself, thought of _that!_”

Poetry yawned, rolled over and sat up on the edge of his cot in the
moonlight, looking like the shadow of a big fat grizzly, yawned again
and said, “I think I’ll go get a drink. I can’t seem to remember
whether I got one the other night or not. Want to go along?”

I quick was sitting up on the edge my own cot, and demanding “Oh no,
you don’t!”--saying it so loud it could have been heard inside the
Collins’ downstairs bedroom--_and_ was, on account of a second later
a thundery voice boomed out across the lawn from the window near the
telephone, “_Will you boys be quiet out there? You’ll wake up your
mother, Bill. I’ve told you for the last time!_”--which is one of the
most interesting sounds a boy ever hears around our farm.

Poetry was still thirsty, though, so I said, “I’ve had years of
experience pumping that pump. I know how to do it without making it
squeak. I’ll get you a drink, myself.”

With that, I crept out of bed and moved out through the moonlight
toward the pump platform.

That’s when I heard Pop talking to somebody--to Mom, maybe, I
thought--and moved stealthily over to the living room window to see if
maybe he was saying anything about Poetry or me or about the exciting
experiences we had had capturing Muggs McGinnis.

But say! Pop wasn’t talking to Mom at all, but to Somebody Else--to
the best Friend a boy ever had and the Most Important Person in
the Universe, the One Who had made the stars and the sky and every
wonderful thing in the whole boys’ world. I’d heard Pop pray many a
time at our dinner table and in prayer meeting at church, but only once
in awhile when he was all by himself.

It seemed like I ought not to be listening but I couldn’t move now or
Pop’d hear me, so I waited awhile--and part of his kind of wonderful
prayer was:

“... Pour out Thy love upon Muggs McGinnis, and upon all the lost boys
in the world. Help them to find out in some way that Christ loved them
and poured out His blood upon the cross for the forgiveness of their
sins....

“Bless our son, Bill, and our precious little curly-haired Charlotte
Ann, so filled with play and mischief, and help Mother and me bring
them up to love Thee with their whole hearts, and to always try to do
what is right....”

Mom must have been right there beside Pop, cause when he finished, I
heard her say, “Thank you, Theo. I can go to bed now without a worry in
the world. I’ve given them all to Him.”

And Pop answered, “I’ve decided you’re not going to have even one hour
of insomnia tonight--not even _one_.”

Mom yawned then, and said while she was still doing it:

“The way I feel now, I may not even have one minute.”

I crept away then and moved out through the drumming of the cicadas
and the cheeping of the crickets toward the moonlit iron pitcher pump,
feeling fine inside and glad to be alive.



Seems like there’s always a mystery popping up at Sugar Creek. This
exciting story is no exception as it lands the Gang right smack in the
middle of some peculiar happenings in a watermelon patch in the middle
of the night. Author Paul Hutchens is the happy friend of all Young
America.

[Illustration]

  _Be sure to read all the books In the SCRIPTURE PRESS series_:

    THE SUGAR CREEK GANG GOES NORTH
    ADVENTURES IN AN INDIAN CEMETERY
    THE SUGAR CREEK GANG DIGS FOR TREASURE
    NORTH WOODS MANHUNT
    LOST IN A SUGAR CREEK BLIZZARD
    SUGAR CREEK GANG ON THE MEXICAN BORDER
    GREEN TENT MYSTERY AT SUGAR CREEK
    10,000 MINUTES AT SUGAR CREEK
    BLUE COW AT SUGAR CREEK
    OLD STRANGER’S SECRET AT SUGAR CREEK
    THE SUGAR CREEK GANG AT SNOW GOOSE LODGE
    THE SUGAR CREEK GANG GOES WESTERN
    WE KILLED A WILDCAT AT SUGAR CREEK
    THE HAUNTED HOUSE AT SUGAR CREEK
    TRAP LINE THIEF AT SUGAR CREEK
    WATERMELON MYSTERY AT SUGAR CREEK
    DOWN A SUGAR CREEK CHIMNEY
    WILD HORSE CANYON MYSTERY

  Other thrilling stories about the Sugar Creek Gang may be ordered
  from your Christian bookstore.

  _Published and Distributed Exclusively by_

[Illustration]

  SCRIPTURE PRESS
  SCRIPTURE PRESS PUBLICATIONS, INC.
  1825 College Avenue · Wheaton, Illinois



Transcriber’s Note:

The Contents has been added by the transcriber. Variations in hyphenated
words has been retained as in the original publication; punctuation has
been standardised. Changes have been made as follows:

  Page 12
    having to follow a dumbish barrel-shaped boy _changed to_
    having to follow a dumpish barrel-shaped boy

  Page 75
    go on over to Tills’ house _changed to_
    go on over to the Tills’ house





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