Note: Having a three-year-old in a story is not great. Real three-year-olds can be so cute and charming with their imitations of adult speech and their special way of seeing the world. You just want to hug them and remember them forever. Fictional three-year-olds, and their lisping speech patterns, tend to be cloying and saccharine. Not to mention that unless they are pivotal to the action, the author has to spend some boring prose moving them around the story and making sure someone is taking care of them. I’ll try not to be annoying with my depiction of ‘Charlie,’ but no promises.
Around lunchtime the family neared the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee. Frank wanted to see the famous “doorway to the West” through which thousands of pioneers passed on their way to the untamed land of Kentucky.
At the visitor’s center, the kids were excited to buy their first souvenirs of the trip. Ashley bought a prairie cabin sticker book. Peter bought a deck of cards with Civil War generals on them. Unfortunately, as punishment for last night’s midnight stroll, Nathan forfeited his souvenir money for the day.
Each day of the trip, Frank and Nanette apportioned some money to each of the older children to use as they wished for souvenirs or treats. Anything more expensive would have to come out of their own savings. They could save up money if they didn’t spend the day’s allowance, but future money could be forfeited for bad behavior. “Held as ransom” is how Nathan felt about it.
“If I had that time machine now,” he thought, “it would be a perfect time to go to the future and get some money.”
Nathan looked longingly at the wooden rifles, the animal books, and the three-cornered hats. He tried on a coonskin hat and called out, “Hey, Peter! Do I look like Daniel Boone, ready to lead the settlers west?”
“Not in the least,” Peter said flatly. He was too interested in examining other souvenirs to join in Nathan’s fantasy.
“Liar,” Nathan answered quietly.
“Not really,” an unfamiliar voice joined the conversation. Nathan turned to see a ranger standing nearby. She continued, “Unlike the TV-show Daniel Boone, the real Daniel Boone mostly wore felt three-cornered hats. They gave better protection from the rain, and coonskin hats had a tendency to smell bad when wet.” She wrinkled her nose.
“Oh,” Nathan tried to be polite, but was never sure what to say to adult strangers. This stranger, at any rate, was clearly no danger.
Nanette joined the conversation, “That’s very interesting. I’ve never heard that before.”
The ranger continued, “Did you ever hear that the area here around Middlesboro, Kentucky was formed by a meteor?”
“Really? Cool!” Nathan perked up.
“Middlesboro is the only town in the US that is known to be inside a meteor crater. You can get an excellent view if you go up to pinnacle point and look down at the town.”
“I’d really like to know more about the settlers that crossed through the Cumberland Gap in the late 1700s and early 1800s. What was it like traveling through the wilderness? How did they manage without McDonald’s and Motel 6?” Nanette chuckled at her own joke.
Nathan rolled his eyes and edged away from the conversation and closer to the souvenir rifles. He stayed within earshot to listen to the ranger, but he wanted to be able to leave if she started in on a long boring lecture. To his surprise, he found her explanations of frontier life to be fascinating. Soon he returned and started asking question after question about the details of Daniel Boone’s expeditions and the American Indians that used to live in the mountains.
The ranger eventually said, “You all should have been here a couple months earlier. We used to have a ranger here who told such vivid tales of the Gap that you would have thought he had first hand experience. We sure miss Tim.”
“That was his name. Tim Trave.”
Frank, Nanette, and Nathan were taken off guard and couldn’t hide their astonishment. Peter, who was not really listening to the conversation, caught the familiar name and snapped his head around to see what they were talking about.
The ranger was surprised. “You look like you’ve heard of him.”
“We knew someone with that name,” said Nanette. “Can you describe him?”
“Oh, he was about 6 feet tall, with strawberry blonde hair and freckles. Looked a little like a grown up Huck Finn—at least the way I always thought of him. He had an odd way of talking and seemed to be forever asking questions about normal things. But he really knew his history.”
Frank and Nanette exchanged quick glances. The description didn’t fit Tim at all, but it did fit Tim’s description of Curt Hopewell. Was Curt using Tim’s name as an alias? Or was Tim disguising himself as Curt?
“Do you know why he quit?” Frank asked.
“Not really. He left while I was on vacation. I think he said he was saving money to travel west. Or maybe that was just a joke since he worked here.”
The Hales didn’t get any more helpful information and were soon back on the road. They took a quick detour across the Virginia border to take a photo just to show they had been there, grabbed some fast food to eat in the car, and continued on their way.
Their next stop was Lexington, Kentucky and the Kentucky Horse Park. They didn’t have enough time to make a proper visit, but did stop to pose for a photo by a statue of “Supreme Sultan” in front of one of the museums in the park. They asked a bystander to take the photo and asked him a few questions about horses—specifically about mustangs in the “Old West.” He knew a bit about thoroughbred racehorses, but but that was all.
The family pressed on to Cincinnati, Ohio. By the time they reached the Ohio river to take a family photo, Peter announced they had now seen PT Cruisers of every color of the rainbow, plus gold, black and white. None of the cars was the least suspicious.
Another couple hours brought the family to Indianapolis. Everyone was hungry, tired and cranky. They made several wrong turns trying to find the International Speedway, and then Peter refused to put on his shoes for the photo.
The mood in the car was ripe for an argument, which soon started among the kids about where to stop for dinner. Finally Frank just turned the car into the first place they came to, which turned out to be a fast food taco restaurant. Nathan and Ashley, who didn’t like tacos, sat at the table and pouted while the rest of the family got the food. Charlie sat with them, or more accurately, walked back and forth on the benches of the booth, stopping now and then to point at nothing and say, “It’s a Suburban!” or “Motorcycle!” as he had heard the kids do all day.
“Cool, check this out!” Peter said as he brought a tray of food to the table. He was happy because he loved tacos. “They gave us extra Burrito Bingo cards! On account of the contest only lasts until Tuesday.”
“Great,” Nathan said with the enthusiasm of a garden slug.
“No, really. It is great! See this picture on the tray liner? You match up the cards to the different sections like a puzzle. When you fill in a section, you win a free drink, or free nachos, or whatever. If you find them all, you win $24,000!”
Nathan rolled his eyes.
“Twenty-four thousand dollars!” Charlie repeated.
“Let’s see,” Ashley said, and moved closer to Peter. “Let me help open these cards.”
For a moment the two were quiet except for the sound of tearing paper. Nathan tried to ignore them, but curiosity got the better of him and he glanced over at the picture. “Oh, no!” he groaned after a moment.
“What’s wrong?” Peter asked. “We’ve almost won an ice cream taco!”
“Look at this!” Nathan reached into his pocket and pulled out the weather-beaten card he found with the black Suburban. He leaned over and placed it on the picture. It matched perfectly with the sunset scene and the words, “Left behind in the western sky, the purple clouds wave a fond good-bye.”
“Oh,” Peter scowled at the card in disappointment. “It’s only a burrito bingo card! It looked so old. I thought for sure it was more important than this.”
“I guess being caught in a car door all day can be tough on a card.” Nathan observed.
Frank and Nanette arrived with the rest of the food and drinks. “Why so glum?” Nanette asked.
“This ‘clue’ turned out to be nothing but a Burrito Bingo card!” Nathan whined.
Frank and Nanette laughed. “Lesson number one in detecting,” Frank said. “Most clues are red herrings.”
“This isn’t just a red herring,” Ashley said. “It’s a red ‘South-of-the-Border’ ice pop! At least it’s the last card we needed to win one.”
“There you go,” Nanette said. “Eat your dinner, Nathan, and the ice pop can be yours. It was your clue after all.”
Nathan managed a small smile. “Yeah. But I really wanted it to be an important clue. Especially after all the trouble I got into after finding it.”
Frank frowned. “You got in trouble because it’s important to follow family rules. I, for one, would be glad if all the clues you got through disobedience were red herrings.” He took a long sip of soda and then continued. “However, I will tell you that I made a phone call to our friends, the Martins, who we’re going to stay with Sunday night. I gave them the phone number and name of the motorcycle shop Evan Albert told us about. They’re planning to check it out, so maybe something will still come of that clue.”
Nathan smiled. Then he scowled as he bit into his taco. He would have preferred a burger, but at least he had the ice pop to look forward to.
End of Chapter 10
The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 11: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle-Graders)