Chapter 21: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note: I know Curt should probably sound like he’s from a different century. Perhaps I will go back and read some Mark Twain to try to give Curt more of an 1800s voice. Right now, I’m trying to move the story along without getting too bogged down in the details.

 The first half of this work of fiction I wrote about 13 years ago and I really enjoyed re-writing and playing with the plot and characters this year. This second half of the story is all new, and I don’t have as much time to work on the “polish”. For example, I realize that calling the watch company “Taschenuhr” (literally German for ‘pocket watch’) is kind of lazy, but if this is ever going to be finished, I’ll have to decide on something more believable (gasp-maybe I could find something historically relevant?) later.

I’m also having more trouble picking a point a view for each chapter. Something else to think about improving when the story is done.

I originally planned to take the story through the Hale’s entire three week vacation, but it is clear to me that I need to wrap things up by the time they finish their stay at Bass Lake, California. Maybe sometime I’ll write another story for the return trip?

Chapter 21

Five members of the Hale family immediately stood up from their chairs and started running after the waiter. Nanette stopped herself halfway to the door and turned back to get Charlie. Curt barely got out of the door when Frank, Nathan, Peter and Ashley had him surrounded.

“Wait a minute!” Frank said. “We don’t want to hurt you!  We’re friends of the real Tim Trave!”

Curt looked around nervously. Then he looked at Frank. “You’re not friends of Al and Phin?  You’re not police out to arrest me?”

“Not at all. Come in and talk to us. We’ve been looking for you. Tim Trave is really worried about you and wants to get you home.”

“I hope you’re telling me the truth. The only way you could have found out my real name is from Tim or from my enemies.”

The five of them walked back into the truck stop diner. A few people looked at them oddly, but no one interfered.  “Listen, I just got this job today, so I should probably get your drink orders and go back to work.”  Frank noticed Curt’s eyes shifting as he said this.

“Don’t run off!” Frank said. “We really are friends of Tim Trave and we want to help you. We know about the time machine and that you were kidnapped and we want to help you get back home.”

Curt relaxed a bit. “Let me get your drink order. I’ve been working most of the day, so I’ll ask if I can take my break now and join you at the table.”

Curt brought back their waters and Cokes, and then got their dinner orders before starting his break and joining them. He pulled up a chair next to Frank and Frank introduced the family.   Then he explained about their meetings with Tim Trave, their trip around the country, and their search for Curt and the thieves.

Curt also told them about his life since arriving in the 21st century and how he came to be on his own. He directed most of his conversation toward Frank.  Nanette figured that as a man from the 1800s, he probably felt more comfortable talking to another man, so she mostly listened.

Curt told them that the thieves’ real names were Albert and Phineas Shrike and were brothers. Curt was taking care of Tim’s chickens and cows when he surprised the thieves in Tim’s shed.  They had been trying to figure out how to work the time machine, and when they saw Curt, they held him at gunpoint and forced him to use the back-up time machine and take them to the future by threatening harm to him and his family.

“I took them more than a hundred and thirty years into the future,” Curt said, his voice catching a bit. “I wanted to get them as far away as I could, but I never expected how strange the world would have become.”  Curt stared into the distance for a moment and then resumed his narrative.

“I tricked them, though. Our first night in the 21st century, I sabotaged the machine so that it could only move within two years of our our arrival date. That way they could never get back to the 1860s and harm my family.”

“Why didn’t you break it entirely?” Frank asked.

“I thought it was my only way home,” Curt replied. “I wasn’t sure Tim would ever be able to find me. I removed some gears and jammed the dial, but I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to fix it if I did too much damage. I am something of a jack-of-all trades, and I’m a good smith back home, but I don’t have all the mechanical knowledge Tim has.

“Once they realized something was wrong with the machine, they ordered me to fix it, but I claimed I couldn’t. I told them it needed some new gears from a Swiss Taschenuhr pocket watch. Which is true—Tim used parts from Taschenuhr watches to construct his control panel—but very few of these watches were made and that company went out of business in the 1850s. I don’t believe they could ever find one now, and I certainly didn’t let them know that the gears they needed were sewn into my socks.”

Nathan’s eyes lit up as he thought about the thievery from the museum, but his mouth was full of burger so he only made a sort of grunting surprised noise. Nanette winked solemnly and nodded at him because she had the same thought, but they kept quiet and let Curt continue.

“Once I knew my family was safe, I looked for my chance to escape. I eventually got away when they were in Virginia looking for relatives—descendants who might believe their story and help them in this new, strange world that the United States has become.”

“Why do you call yourself Tim Trave?”

“It’s kind of risky, I know, but I wanted to get Tim’s attention, if possible. The Shrike brothers told me that they had reported me to the police as a dangerous thief. They said if anyone in this time found me, I would land in jail, probably for life. It was another way they tried to keep me from running away.  I don’t dare use the name ‘Curt Hopewell’ for fear of being arrested.”

“Using Tim’s name certainly did get our attention.”

“Ever since I got away I’ve been picking up odd jobs here and there and hitchhiking west. If I can get back to California, near the location of Tim’s house, it might be easier for Tim to find me and take me home. Even if I don’t find Tim, Al and Phineas have a cabin there too, and I’m hoping sometime I could sneak in and steal the time machine myself.  But  if all else fails and I am doomed to stay in this century, then at least I can be near familiar territory.”

“If the Shrike brothers did get a hold of an old Taschenuhr pocket watch—do you think they could repair the machine themselves?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t think so. I hope that never happens!”

“I think it did happen,” Frank nodded at Nathan. “Nathan saw them steal a watch from a museum exhibit.”

“Let’s hope they are too fat fingered and clumsy to get those small parts replaced. That could be disaster! I don’t think they know which gears to use or where to attach them. But that is very troubling to think they would try.” Curt’s shook his head.

“Perhaps they’re planning to catch you first, to do it for them.” Frank suggested.

“I’d die first,” Curt said firmly. “But I’m trying hard to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Can we show him the photo of the map, Dad?” Nathan asked. “Maybe he can tell us if we’re right about the markings.”

Curt studied the photo for a few moments, his face looking sad. Nathan wondered if he was remembering his past with the BGs or if he was missing his family and the world as he used to know it.

“I think I can help you a little,” he said. “These places that are starred—these are places Al and Phin were planning to look for family members and places they planned to hide some of their stolen goods. They like to travel light and they thought if they had multiple hiding places, they couldn’t lose it all at once. I don’t know how many places they have visited or actually used.

“I was with them in Salt Lake City, Chicago, and Virginia. They left a cache of money hidden near the Great Salt Lake by a rundown old resort, but that’s all. The only place they found relatives among those three places was Chicago. They found a great-grand-nephew who seemed to be similar in temperament and eager to help them if he could get some profit from it. I escaped in Virginia, like I told you before, and I don’t know what they’ve been doing since then, except for seeing them two days ago in South Dakota. I couldn’t take the chance that they would catch me, so I hitchhiked here.

“Why Cokeville?”

“Because that’s where the trucker was going. Why are you here?”

“We’re on our way to Utah to visit friends. See these places circled in pencil? We think the BGs—I mean the Shrike brothers—stole a list of places we were going to visit and marked them on the map like that.

“We’re not sure about the places circled in pen. Do those mean anything to you?” Frank asked.

“The great-grand nephew—his name was Bent—he helped them sell some of their 1860s gold and jewelry at the store you mentioned before—Josie’s. From Josie we found out about her sister’s store in Wyoming and a cousin of theirs who sells jewelry near Lake Tahoe in the summer.”

By now the family was mostly finished with their dinners. Everyone’s eyes were on Curt, but Charlie was getting restless and was trying to escape from his wooden booster chair.

“You should come with us and we can talk more,” Frank said. “We are on our way to Bass Lake and should be there by Sunday.”

To Frank’s surprise, Curt shook his head decisively. “No! The Shrike brothers know the route you’re taking and they might be following you. I can’t risk them catching me now, especially if they have a Taschenuhr watch.  I’ll make my own way to Bass Lake, and meet up with you there.”

Frank argued with Curt, and Nanette  and Nathan chimed in too. No matter how much they protested and promised to keep him safe, Curt stubbornly refused to go with them.

“I am a pioneer and the son of a pioneer. I know how to take care of myself. The only thing I fear is harm to my family, and the Shrike brothers know how to use that against me. You have a nice family, too, and if I’m with you then you’ll be twice the target. They may be mad at you for thwarting some of their plans, but if they know I’m with you, they’ll stop at nothing.”

Curt stood up. “My break is over and I have to get back to work.  I promise I will leave in a day or two and meet you in Bass Lake by Sunday or Monday.”

“I really wish you would reconsider!” Nanette said.

“Please don’t think I’m ungrateful, ma’am. You’ve given me new hope.  But sometimes caution is sometimes the better part of valor. I’ll see you soon, I’m sure.”

It was hard for the Hale family to leave Curt after such a long search. Nanette was especially frustrated after first having to leave Chicago sooner than she wanted and now having to leave Curt just as they found him.

“I know that Tim made a point of prioritizing the capture of the time machine over finding Curt,” Nanette said after they returned to the car. “But it just doesn’t feel right!”

“Why couldn’t you make him stay with us?” Nathan asked.

“Would you keep him as a prisoner, like the BGs did?” Frank asked.

“I like Curt more now that I’ve met him,” said Peter. “Before it seemed like all I heard about him was his running away from places and it made me think he was a coward. He’s actually pretty bold, just not stupid.”

*                    *                            *                          *                     *                         *                        *

They reached Randolph, Utah around 7:30 in the evening. With a population of less than 500 people, the town was dwarfed by the surrounding farm fields and ranch lands that covered the valley stretching between the foothills of the Monte Cristo range on the west and the Crawford Mountains on the east.  Many of the houses had been built in the 1930s or earlier and some had horses or calves or chickens in the backyards. For four children who grew up in Eastern suburban sprawl, this open, rural landscape was utterly foreign.

“Are you sure we haven’t gone back in time?” Ashley asked, voicing the thought of all the kids.

Unlike the children, Frank and Nanette were excited to be back in familiar surroundings. Fifteen years ago they had spent three months here working on a mystery they now referred to as The Mystery of the Circle J Brand. They had a lot of fond memories of the people and places in this valley.

They pulled into the dirt driveway of a house with a small porch and a detached garage that had horseshoes ringing the garage doors.  A calf watched them solemnly from a fenced in area out back. Frank’s college roommate (and second cousin) Harry Jameson and Harry’s wife Laurie came out of the house and greeted everyone effusively. They were followed by two equally effusive medium sized dogs, who seemed anxious to sniff everyone from top to toe.

Harry and Laurie were house-sitting for Harry’s Uncle Rich and Aunt Pearl, and taking care of their animals while they were on a month-long trip to Europe.  When the Hales planned their cross-country trip, Harry and Laurie insisted that they stop in for a visit.

Nathan, Peter and Ashley were restless after a long day in the car, so after they brought their suitcases in,  Harry offered to drive them over to an area where they could climb around some low bluffs and release some energy. Frank went with them to show them some of their old stomping grounds. Charlie was busy running up and down the stairs and exploring the house and Nanette had made friends with a calico cat now asleep on her lap, so they stayed home and visited with Laurie.

Before they left, Frank parked their Suburban in the detached garage, displacing some buckets and garden tools. If the BGs did show up in town, he didn’t want to make it easy for them to figure out where they were staying.

Twilight was deepening when they returned. Nathan ran inside and yelled, “Come outside, everybody!  There’s an owl in the tree. It’s almost as big as the mosquitoes we met while we were climbing!”

“I think the mosquitoes were bigger,” Peter said. “I was using cans of insect repellent like laser guns!”

“If you’d been more careful to put on repellent before you got out of the car, it wouldn’t have been so bad.” Ashley couldn’t resist needling Peter, although she, too, was scratching.

A great horned owl sat silently in a tree, closer than any of the children had seen outside of an aviary. Nanette wasn’t superstitious and was thrilled to see such a beautiful bird so close, but she couldn’t help feeling like the fierce face with its sharp beak, piercing eyes, and two horn-like tufts was an omen of danger. She shook her head trying to get such a silly thought out of her mind. She knew the owl wasn’t really an omen.

Nanette had seen a black Suburban pass the window earlier, but by the time she  reached the front door  it was gone.  She didn’t need an omen to know that danger really was close by.

End of Chapter 21

Chapter 22 can be found here: Chapter 22: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

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