Chapter 30: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Chapter 30

“In my day, people used to shoot claim jumpers,” the man said. “Don’t worry, though. There’s no gold left in that mine.”

Nathan didn’t reply. He tried to look as angry as possible although he was shaking inside. Was it only animals that could smell fear?

“Al, I found him!  Right where we wanted him!” the man said, over his shoulder.

“Perfect,” Another voice said and then Al came into view. He slowly lowered a ladder into the pit. Nathan wondered if he could climb out with his sore ankle. He wondered if he was safer where he was. He didn’t wonder for long.

“This isn’t for you, so don’t get any ideas,” Al said. “Stay where you are and don’t move.” Then he turned to someone else. “You go down and join your son.”

Nanette appeared at the top of the pit and started climbing down the ladder. Nathan was relieved to see that she didn’t seem the least bit scared. She looked angry, but there was something else in her eyes. She was planning something. She caught Nathan’s eye and winked solemnly. He got the message. Don’t be afraid.

Al and Phin pulled up the ladder and laid it on the ground. “That’ll keep you for now. Don’t worry, someone will be back for you as soon as we get that time machine. You’re just the lucky break we’ve been waiting for. C’mon Phin.”

The two of them left and Nathan realized he’d been holding his breath.

“You ok?” Nanette asked.

“Fine,” Nathan said although his voice cracked a bit. He cleared his throat. “Where did they come from? I thought we were supposed to meet Tim. Was this a trap?”

“Apparently the Shrike brothers have been waiting around here for a while. They figured we’d show up at Tim’s cabin eventually.” Nanette snorted, “I guess it was too much work for them to try to look for us at the resorts.

“They plan to use us as hostages to get the time machine, but I plan to stop that, if I can. This pit is deep, but maybe I can help boost you up the sides.”

Nathan started to stand, and sat down again. “My ankle,” he said. “I fell in here and landed on it. I don’t know how bad it’s hurt, but bad enough I don’t think I can climb yet.”

Nanette sighed. “We let our guard down. I can’t believe I was so stupid! And I thought you were going to be careful. What made you climb down here?”

“I didn’t climb; I fell! The top was well hidden by brush.” Nathan left it at that. He knew he should have been watching his step better. “Why is there such a dangerous place so close to the campground?”

“There was a fence,” Nanette said. “Didn’t you see the broken fence posts and the barbed wire on the ground? Maybe the fire destroyed it recently.”

“Yeah, I saw them, but thought they were old.”

“Right now, we need to figure out how to get out of here.” Nanette scanned the tall smooth walls of earth that surrounded them.

“How about the tunnel?” Nathan said. “It’s not like this is the mines of Moria with balrogs and orcs inside.”

“Old mines have other things just as bad,” Nanette answered. “Snakes, poison gas.  And the ceiling could cave in any minute.”

“Shouldn’t we be heroes and check it out anyway?” Nathan asked.

“No,” Nanette said. “Chuck Yeager once said that there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“That unnecessary risks are both unnecessary and foolish. Like going in that tunnel.”

Nathan decided this was turning into a lecture  and he didn’t know who Chuck Yeager was, so he changed the subject. “How will the BGs find Dad if they don’t know where we’re staying?”

“They stole my day pack,” Nanette admitted. “They looked through it and found the key to our chalet. The key chain has the address on it. I’m hoping they’ll get there after everybody’s already left to come here. Do you have a whistle in your pack to help us alert them? We can use it when it’s closer to noon.”

“No,” Nathan said and sighed. “I forgot that. At least we have water and snacks until they come back and get us.”

“Or until we figure out how to get out ourselves,” Nanette said.

“That’s what I meant.”

*  *  *  *

Back at the resort, Peter and Derrick’s game of Monopoly ended in a tie. The Greenes left with some other families to do souvenir shopping.  Aunt Helen and Uncle Andrew took Charlie to spend the afternoon with Robbie and some of the other little cousins at the toddler playground and kiddie pool.

“Dad, does the car need gas?” Peter asked while they were waiting for Ashley to finish changing from the pool.

“Maybe. Why do you ask?” Frank said.

“I was just thinking. Curt said he’d meet us here, but we haven’t seen him yet. How about we stop at the gas station and see if he’s working there. That’s the kind of place we found him last time.”

“Sounds good,” Frank said. “They have a pretty big mini mart there with a couple fast food places attached. We can pick up some lunch too.”

Peter grinned. The fast food was part of his plan too.

Curt was no where to be found at the gas station, mini-mart, or fast food counters. They asked around, but no one had seen anyone of Curt’s description. They ordered some burgers and chose a table where they could easily see people come and go.

Truckers, locals and tourists came and went. Frank caught sight of one red-haired person walking to the mini-mart that they thought might be Curt. It turned out to be a woman in overalls who came in and bought coffee. A tall man wearing a baseball cap and backpack came out of the restroom, and Peter thought he seemed familiar, but when he walked past they could see he had a blond ponytail.

Ashley thought she saw a large black car coming down the road when Peter suddenly interrupted her thoughts. “That looks like a hitch-hiker getting dropped off.” Peter pointed to a truck parked at one of the diesel pumps. A man with a backpack waved back at the driver as if to say good-bye and walked toward the mini-mart. “Too bad his hair is so dark. I would have thought he was Curt.”

All three of the watched the man come in the door and walk to the counter.

“He’s got freckles like Curt,” Ashley whispered.

Frank frowned. Dark-haired people rarely had freckles. He got up and walked over to the counter in time to hear the man ask directions to the Evergreen Resort.

“I’m staying there, maybe I can help you,” Frank said. The man turned to look at Frank, and started in surprise.

“Tim!” Frank said, using Curt’s alias. “You look different.”

Curt grimaced. “I guess it’s not a great disguise if you saw through it. I got the idea from one of my co-workers at the last job.”

Frank chuckled. “I think it works fine. I can’t believe we found you just in time! We’re about to go meet Tim at his cabin.”

Frank offered to buy Curt something for lunch, but Curt said he already ate. His eyes lit up at the mention of Tim, and he was ready to go.

On the way to the car, Peter and Ashley started talking at once, but Frank shushed them. “We’ll have plenty of time to catch up on things in the car.”

Peter and Ashley got in the car, climbed over the backs of the middle seats, and plopped into the back seat quickly. They were anxious to get to the cabin with Curt and find Tim. Even though Charlie and Nathan weren’t with them, they stuck to their assigned trip seats and left the middle row empty. They buckled their seat belts and looked up to see what was taking the grown-ups so long.  Frank and Curt were still standing by the open front doors, but something wasn’t right. Ashley gasped and Peter let out a yelp.

The BGs were outside, one next to Frank and the other next to Curt, so close they clearly had no respect for personal space. To Peter it was as if they appeared out of nowhere. Ashley remembered the black car she’d seen earlier and noticed it parked a couple spaces away.  Why didn’t I remember to look out for it sooner? She thought angrily.

One of the men was speaking.  The children couldn’t hear the words but they recognized menace in the growly tone. They saw tenseness in the way Curt and Frank seemed to have been frozen in mid movement. Peter wanted to dig in his pack on the floor for a confetti gun or a stink bomb, but would that help or hurt at this point?

The bearded man on the passenger side roughly pushed Curt into the middle front seat and climbed in next to him.  He had a red bandanna pointed at Curt’s side. A red bandanna covering the unmistakable shape of a gun.  Ashley screamed and Peter felt frozen.

The man on the other side pushed Frank down into the driver’s seat and leaned his head into the car. “Keep quiet back there!  Al won’t hesitate to hurt your friend there if you don’t do as we say!” He turned to Frank. “Get ready to drive where I tell you. I’ll be right behind you making sure you do.”

The man slammed the driver’s door and opened the rear door. For a moment, he was stymied by Charlie’s booster seat, which was belted directly behind the driver’s seat. He tried to muscle it out of the way, but it wouldn’t budge. Finally he awkwardly sat on and it and scooted sideways until he reached the middle seat, roughly pushing Charlie’s tote of car toys out of the way. One of the electronic toys inside started playing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. He punched the tote hard in annoyance, and then picked something off the floor and held it to Frank’s neck.

“No one better cause any trouble. I’ve got a knife and Al’s got a gun. It’s time to go get the time machine.”

“Wait a minute,” Al said. “We’re outnumbered with those brats in the back. Let’s lock these guys in the shed and then take just one of them. It’s safer that way.”

“Fine,” said Phin.  He addressed Frank, “Turn left out of this place and then turn right where the sign says Lakeside Landing. And no tricks!”

Peter and Ashley made themselves as small as possible in the back seat. Peter was afraid to use his gadgets knowing Curt was being threatened with a gun. He didn’t worry about his dad though. Phin’s “knife” was the rubber one Nathan had bought at Wall Drugs. If Peter hadn’t been so scared, he would have rolled his eyes.

End of Chapter 30

Chapter 31 can be found here: Chapter 31: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

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