Chapter 6: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note: This is the sixth in a series that starts with Long Fiction for Middle Grades: Cross-Country Mystery Chapter 1.

Chapter 6

Rain, rain, rain. The first week of summer vacation and nothing but rain, rain, rain in the forecast and in actuality. Nathan and Peter were getting nostalgic for last summer’s drought.

Ashley didn’t mind the rain. She liked playing in her room, setting up houses and villages for her dolls, drawing pictures, and organizing her things. She was also rereading all her Historical Miss books in preparation for the trip.

Nanette and Frank had discussed the mystery with the whole family on the first day of summer vacation and had given each person a job to do. Frank started the meeting at supper with a significant look at Nathan. “I have something to bring up that involves our summer trip. Our family has been asked to help solve a mystery and we need everyone here to help.” Frank paused. “Maybe I should let Nathan tell you what it’s all about.”

During the ensuing awkward pause, Nathan tried to look as innocent as possible. Then he asked, “What are you talking about? I don’t know what you mean!” Nathan was 99% sure what his dad meant, but that tiny percentage of doubt was enough to convince himself that he wasn’t really lying to his parents.

“Nathan, you are 99% sure what we are talking about,” Frank said. “I don’t want any of your quibbling.”

“No quibbin’, Nathan!” Charlie pointed his finger to emphasize his words. Charlie loved to copy people. Everyone laughed except Frank. “You know what I mean even if Charlie doesn’t,” he said evenly. “Call it what you want, but eavesdropping is not acceptable in this house.”

“But it was an accident!”

“Maybe the first few minutes were an accident, but not all.”

Nathan tried to think of something to say to defend himself, but couldn’t think of anything. Instead, he decided to go on the attack. Turning to Peter he said, “You promised not to tell!”

Peter’s mouth dropped in an exaggerated expression of surprise. “I didn’t tell!”

“Then how did they find out?”

“You forget, Nathan,” Frank said, “That your mom and I are good at putting together details and coming up with a fairly good deduction as to the whys and wherefores of your actions. There was a time when each of us was moderately well known as amateur sleuths. Sometimes it takes time, but we usually piece the story together. There were several clues…”

As Frank talked, Ashley sighed and slowly started to slide her chair away from the table.  The conversation had been interesting at first, but now Dad was rambling. She was sure he was going to repeat some speech she had already heard a million times. Slowly she slipped some leftover fatty bits of roast beef to Watson, whose thumping tail and smacking lips would have given her away had her parents not been so intent on talking to Nathan about his breaking of the family rules.

Dad continued to talk, and then Mom took over, but Ashley was thinking about visiting her friend Kristy tomorrow and playing with their Historical Miss dolls. All of a sudden, something her mom said pierced the daydream and caught her attention. “A what?” Ashley interrupted. “Did you say we’re going to time travel on our vacation?!”

Nanette frowned. “Ashley, you haven’t been listening. We are telling you about the mystery Nathan overheard us talking about with our friend Mr. Trave. A time machine is involved, but we won’t be using it.”

Ashely’s eyes got round. “Really? You’re not joking?”  Ashley expected Nathan and Peter to start laughing at her for being gullible. Surely she had misunderstood and spoken too quickly. Yet no one laughed, and Mom continued, “No, sadly, we’re not joking. We are going to help capture stagecoach thieves who traveled to our time and bring them to justice for a robbery they committed in the 1800s. We are going to take their time machine away from them. And we are going to find Mr. Trave’s friend, Mr. Hopewell. I can’t emphasize this last point enough—we are going to stay safe in the process! Any questions?”

Of course, the children had lots of questions and Nanette and Frank answered them as well as they could. Then each of the children was given a job to help prepare for investigating the mystery while they were on their trip. Ashley was going to read up on the history of the Old West—including rereading her Historical Miss novels as well as other books on the settlement of California and the gold rush.

Peter would read up on the history of science and inventions of the 19th century and maybe plan a few helpful gadgets for the trip. Frank and Nanette weren’t too sure about the gadgets, but they knew Peter would try to make some anyway.

Nathan had what he thought was the most difficult job. He was to write up a page of facts on each of their travel destinations, including information such as famous landmarks, the history of the area (especially their condition in the mid-1800s) and any connections to the mystery.

Even Charlie had a job. With the help of the older kids, he was expected to memorize some phone numbers and addresses in case of emergency.

Frank and Nanette had their hands full planning the logistics of the trip from a 21st century perspective—setting the itinerary, planning the routes, and researching hotels and scenic attractions—all while continuing their normal work and chores.

So here it was, the first week of summer vacation, and instead of swimming with friends, Nathan was stuck inside on a rainy day with a set of encyclopedias.  “Mom, can’t I just copy these pages on the copier?” he whined for the third time.

“No. I told you before; we just want some bare bones facts, not the whole encyclopedia.  Here–“ Nanette took the paper where they had written down a list of the kinds of information they were looking for.  She went to the computer and drew up a one page template with “fill in the blanks” for each locale and printed it off.  It looked like this:

just the facts

“You can copy this and fill it in for each location. That should give us some easy-to-access information on the road.”

“This feels a lot like homework,” Nathan observed.  “I guess I should be glad for the rain, because I sure wouldn’t want to be doing this inside on a sunny day.”

“Paperwork and research is a big part of detective work, Nathan.”

Nathan turned back to the encyclopedias and sighed. The C-Ci encyclopedia. Chicago. He started to read. He looked out the window. He listened to the rain.  Then he felt something hit his ear.

“Ouch! Mom, Peter just hit me with a super ball!”

“Did not,” Peter responded by habit.

“Did too.”

“I mean, I didn’t mean to.  Sorry,” Peter said. “I was trying to get the ball to go around your arm tied to this ribbon, attached to this spring…”

“Peter,” Nanette said, walking back into the room and quickly surveying the situation. “Will you please stop what you’re working on for a while and help Nathan. He’s having trouble getting started and we only have three weeks left before the trip.”

Nathan rolled his eyes. To him, three weeks seemed like forever, but Mom acted like it was no time at all.

“But Mom–“Peter started.

“No, Peter, this is final.  I need you two to get some work done without fighting or we won’t be able to go bowling this afternoon.”

“We’re going bowling?” Both boys’ eyes lit up.

“Yes—I meant to tell you earlier.  That’s why I need you to work on your own without fighting. I have a lot to do before we go.” She left the room and the boys instantly became more attentive to their job.

After a while, Peter said, “I want to make a device that fits in your pocket that would carry all the information that’s in these books. Like the computer, only smaller.”

“Mom would still make us to do these pages, I think,” Nathan replied. “She wants “just the facts” and not all these long timelines and paragraphs of explanation.  But what are the chances we pick out the best facts out of all this information?”

“There’s nothing here in the ‘M’ encyclopedia on Merrillville, Indiana, where we’re stopping to see Uncle Carl.  What do you suppose we do about that?” Peter asked.

“Well, ‘Chicago’ has pages and pages.  Maybe we just call it a part of Chicago since it’s so close.”

“Or let Mom do that one since he’s her uncle.  I guess I’m finished,” Peter added impishly.

“Oh no! You don’t get out of this that easily! Next is the Badlands of South Dakota. You could start on that one.  There’s not much in the encyclopedia but Mom’s got all this informational stuff from their auto club.” He passed Peter a pile of brochures.

Working together turned out to be a good way to keep Nathan and Peter both interested in the task. They interrupted each other every time they found an interesting fact:

Nathan: “Hey, Peter, did you know the Chicago River flows backwards!?”

Peter: “What does that even mean?”

Peter: “Nathan, guess what?! They’ve found fossils of prehistoric camels and rhinoceroses in the Badlands!”

Nathan: “I don’t think the time travelers went that far back in time!”

Rather than slowing things down, their discussions kept the two of them interested enough to finish several of the “Just the Facts” pages—as they now called them—before lunch.

“Not bad,” Frank commented when they showed him their pages at dinner that evening. They didn’t show him their bowling scores. They had fun at the bowling alley, to be certain, especially in the arcade, but no bowling luck. At least, they called it luck, although Nanette called it skill, but they didn’t want to think about that. Especially since tomorrow was supposed to be rain again.

End of Chapter 6

The next chapter in the series can be found here: Chapter 7: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

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