Tim and Curt both looked more relaxed and healthy than the Hales had ever seen them. Their faces had lost their pinched look and their clothes didn’t seem so baggy and rumpled. Had they gained weight?
“What kept you?” Nathan wanted to know.
“Yeah,” Ashley added. Peter just raised his eyebrows.
“Sorry we took so long,” Tim said. “We had a lot to do back in our own time. Before we knew it a month had passed and…”
Curt interrupted, “You said we would be arriving only two days after we left!”
“Oops, so we did. It hasn’t been that long! What are you all complaining about?”
“We weren’t complaining, we were just impatient,” Nanette explained with a wry grin. “We weren’t sure if you would break your time machine and we’d never see you again. Not knowing makes the time seem to pass more slowly.”
Frank said, “You actually picked a good time to catch up with us. We can go out on the lake and have a nice private conversation.”
“Here,” Nathan said, tossing a life jacket to Tim and one to Curt. “You should put on PFDs.”
“What’s this?” Curt looked around and saw that everyone else was wearing one of the puffy orange vests. “We have to wear certain clothes to go boating in the 21st century?”
“PFD stands for ‘Personal Flotation Device’, also known as a ‘life jacket’” Nanette explained. “If you fall in the water, it will help you float so you won’t drown. The resort requires everyone to wear one on the boats.”
Nathan helped the two men adjust the sizes of the straps and fasten the buckles.
“I can swim, but I’ll wear it if I have to,” Tim said with a sigh, but Curt stared at the vest with a surprising intensity.
“What’s wrong?” Nanette asked Curt. “Is it uncomfortable?”
“No, no, it’s fine. What a wonderful invention,” he said quietly.
By now Frank had steered clear of the docks and was headed toward the middle of the lake. He glanced at Curt and asked, “Are you sure?”
“It’s nothing,” Curt said, and then he changed the subject. “I just had to come here and thank all of you in person! You don’t know how it feels to get back to your family when you thought you would never see them again!
“I know this sort of thing happens to people who stay in their own time, too. People travel. They meet dangers. They get sick. But I was almost 150 years in the future! Who had ever heard of such a thing? It seemed worse somehow. If I thought about it too hard, I realized everyone I had ever known was dead. I was frustrated and losing all hope until I met you and realized Tim was still looking for me.”
“Kind of like how we felt when we were waiting for you,” Nathan said.
“But you would have felt about a million times worse,” Nanette quickly added.
“Exactly,” Curt said.
“And you…” Curt turned to Peter. “You gave me that locator. And I had been ignoring you and treating you badly. I don’t know how I can thank you! I was going to get as far away from Bass Lake as possible. Tim would never have found me without it.”
Peter felt his cheeks grow hot. “It’s nothing.” He mumbled. “I mean, you’re welcome. I’m glad it worked out like I hoped.”
“I wanted to bring you a gift, but we don’t have much,” Curt said. “I brought you this. Again, it’s not much, but it was important to me. Tim said you can sell old things here…”
“Antiques,” Tim said.
“So maybe you can get some money for it.” Curt pulled a cylindrical metal item out of the cotton bag. It was about 8 inches tall and six inches round. It had a lid with a wire handle. In the middle of the lid was a smaller cylinder that looked like an upside down cup.
“This is one of the lunch buckets that my dad and uncle brought with them from England. They had been coal miners in Cornwall before coming to the gold mines of California.” Curt took off the lid and lifted out the tray that fit neatly in the top part of the container. “The bottom here is where they would put tea. At lunch, they could warm it up over a candle in the mines and then pour it into this cup.” Curt took the cup off the lid where it fit perfectly on a metal cylinder that stuck up from the center.
“In this tray…” Curt replaced the tray. “…They used to put Cornish pasties for lunch. In California, the fare was a simpler than that.”
Peter was entranced. “Wow!” He said, taking the lunch bucket and examining the pieces. “This is fantastic! It’s not made of lead or anything poisonous is it? I love this!”
“It’s made of tin,” Curt said, surprised at Peter’s reaction.
“You wouldn’t know, but Peter loves clever gadgets,” Nanette said. “Even though this is simple, it’s the kind of multipurpose tool he enjoys. But are you sure you don’t still need to use it in your own time?”
“I have another one. Like I said, both my father and uncle brought one with them and they are both gone now.”
“Oh,” Tim murmured. “Now I remember. Your uncle drowned, didn’t he? No wonder you stared at the life jackets.”
Curt bowed his head. “It was a calm day and a calm lake, but his heavy clothes and boots pulled him down.” Curt looked at Tim. “Do you think I can take a couple of these orange vests back with me? I worry about my kids. They love the water, but I still have nightmares about my uncle’s accident.”
“Whatever we decide now has already happened. The 21st century seems none the worse for your choice.”
Nanette felt her head spinning hearing that weird time logic. “These vests belong to the resort, but we could buy you new ones later.”
“Or if for some reason you can’t stay long enough, you can take these and we’ll pay the resort. But Nanette’s plan is better,” Frank added.
“One more thing!” Curt brightened. “I also brought the family a gift. I can’t spare many of these, but I brought a few more pieces of gold ore like the ones that Tim said he left for you at his old cabin.” He pulled out some yellowish stones from the bag.
“But I thought the pieces Tim gave us were fool’s gold!” Nathan said looking at Tim. “Your note explicitly said they weren’t real gold.”
It was Tim’s turn to blush a little. “I lied in the note in case Al or Phin found it instead of you. I certainly didn’t want to share any treasure with them! I thought Frank would catch my fib because I expected him to remember the gold ore and fool’s gold we examined when we were working on The Secret of the Pirate’s Medallion.”
“I did think that they looked like real gold, but I wanted to take it to a professional to make sure. It was almost 20 years ago that we worked on that mystery,” Frank said.
Tim sighed. “It was only a year ago in my timeline. I really should give up this time machine. It’s my pride and joy, but it has caused a lot of trouble.”
“But we’re not done with the mystery!” Ashley blurted out unexpectedly.
Everyone turned to look at her. “Remember the map? The BGs had places marked that we haven’t been to yet. We need to check them out and report back to you!”
“Yeah, and aren’t you taking the BGs back with you?” Nathan asked.
Tim and Curt glanced at each other.
“About the Shrike brothers,” Tim said slowly. “For a lot of reasons, we feel that they are better off staying here.”
The Hales were astonished at this news. Everyone was silent as they turned over this thought in their minds. Nanette finally spoke for all of them, “But…Why?”
“Lots of reasons,” Tim began. “For purely practical purposes, it would be very hard to get to them while they are in prison. I would have to touch them to take them back, and I don’t think I can take just ride the time machine into the building. Plus someone is always guarding them.”
“We could figure that out, I’m sure,” Nathan said.
Curt spoke, “I have a purely personal reason for not wanting them to come back. With them here, I never have to be looking over my shoulder, wondering if they are going to take revenge on me or my family. That is, if, well…”
Tim cleared his throat. “To speak plainly, the third reason is that if the Shrike brothers come back to our time they have a good chance of being hanged. Everyone around our area knows they were complicit in a stagecoach robbery and they have scammed many people. With the limited law resources we have many folks take justice into their own hands.”
“We could drop them off somewhere else. Like Virginia or Indiana where they started out,” Frank suggested.
“And let them continue their thieving ways and maybe get back to California in a year or two? I don’t like it,” Curt said.
Tim added, “I’ve heard that the prisons in your century are no picnic. But they are luxury compared to what the Shrikes would face in our time, even if they escaped vigilante-style justice. Albert and Phineas are still young men. Perhaps they have a chance to turn their lives around for good if they spend some time here.”
“I’d like to think so, but still…” Nanette said. “It just seems wrong to trap them here forever.”
“Maybe we can compromise,” Frank said. “Let’s keep them here for now, but you should check back with us from time to time. We can keep in contact with them and see how they’re doing. We want them to stop hurting people, but we don’t want them to lose all hope.”
Curt’s temper started to rise. “You’re too nice to those sons of tarnation! I say they should get a taste of what they put me through!”
“They will, Curt,” Tim said. “I’m making no promises about those low-lifes. Frank’s compromise will give us all a chance to think over the whole situation and change our minds if necessary. Besides,” he added with a grin. “It gives me an excuse to keep the time machine running for a while.”
“What about Ashley’s question?” Frank asked. “What about the places marked on the map?”
“That’s another loose end we can tie up, if you want to,” Tim said. “I fear I’ve asked too much of you all already. You should just forget it and enjoy the rest of your trip.”
“Oh, no! We want to check out those spots if we can. Maybe we’ll find more treasure!” Nathan blurted out. Everyone laughed.
A wake from a passing boat set the patio boat to rocking side to side and everyone hung on to a railing or their chairs.
“We’ve spent enough time just sitting out here on the water,” Frank said. “I say we introduce you two to tubing on the lake.”
“Can I go first and show them?” Peter asked excitedly.
“As long as everyone gets the same amount of time!” Nathan said.
Tim looked at Curt. “Why not? By my calculations we can still get back before sunset yesterday. For once, I think we have the time.”
End of Chapter 37
The epilogue can be found here: Epilogue: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)