The cover is also nearly done--except that part where I remembered I needed a blurb for the back cover, for advertising, etc. I've obviously waited too long between books, to be forgetting that sort of thing!
I'll be doing a cover reveal in a couple of weeks, and if you'd like to participate, drop me a PM. By then I should have all the pre-order stuff set up, and have polished that all-important blurb. The cover was a struggle this time, but I think among us (that would be my cover artist, Danielle English, my co-worker Laurie, and yours truly) we came up with a good one. It will be a match for the first two, so that the trio (oh no! have I written a trilogy? I might have to write a fourth book after all, just to avoid the trilogy thing) will look great on your shelf.
|In case you've forgotten, Stinky and Stinklet show off books 1 & 2|
Now, since it is Friday and I promised you a story on Fridays, I'm going to share an all-new story from Skunk Corners--told by Crazy Jake Jenkins. This one isn't part of any of the books, though it maybe fits in around the time of Return to Skunk Corners. It's just under 2000 words, so settle down with your coffee and enjoy!
Crazy Jake and the Boy from the Train
When Big Al set out to teach me and Wild Harry Colson to read, I thought she was wastin’ her time. Yeah, we’d been tryin’ to learn, and we’d even got our strange Librarian to help us out, but much as we hankered to learn, I figgered it was way too late for the likes of us.
And I admit I never really figured some female could teach us, especially not some crazy female who dressed and acted like a boy. Truth was, when Al come to town, she never let on she was a girl, and folk got to thinking of her as a boy and didn’t much heed her ways. But that’s neither here nor there to our story.
But Al not only taught us to read, she fooled us into learning to figure, too. Next thing you know, we was hankering for a job on the trains. And we got that job, though I’ve always suspected the Librarian of pulling some kind of magic to do it. Or Tess. She wanted us out of town bad enough to call in a favor or two, I reckon.
Well, we’d thought to ride the trains and see the world, but we ended up on the run up and down our own Skunk Mountain, and didn’t never see much else. Thing is, there was a lot to see on that run. Gold Camp, Carter’s Mill, Lupine, Pine Knot, Two-Bit, Skunk Corners, and Endoline. That gave us maybe enough look at the world for now, and plenty of tales we ain’t told no one, least of all Harry’s scamp of a brother, Tommy.
Things just seem to happen around me and Harry. It’s a gift, I reckon. Take the time we were on the hill between Lupine and Pine Knot. There’s a real steep bit there, and Engineer encourages the young and energetic to get down and walk. We allus say it’s so’s they can stretch their legs, but really it’s on account of the railroad’s too cheap to give a second engine so’s the train can climb the hill fully loaded.
Harry and me, we was sort of junior conductors, taking out the trash and sweeping the cars, and one of our jobs was to make sure folks didn’t lose themselves on the walk, and everyone was back aboard and accounted for at the top.
This time I’m thinking of, folks piled off, happy enough, near the bottom when the train slowed to a crawl. There was a whole party of boys from someplace down in the Valley, coming up for fresh mountain air. Maybe they’d find some when the train was gone, but I have to say that there were clouds of smoke from the engine choking us all the while we climbed. A train is a powerful thing, but it makes an awful smoke.
We’d not been afoot long when one of the ladies who escorted those boys scurried up to me.
“Oh, Mr. Conductor!”
That was a promotion for me, but I let it pass. It felt kind of good, truth to tell.
“Mr. Conductor, that bad boy Frankie Murphy has disappeared again! Can’t you find him?”
Well, I looked at Harry, and he looked at me. I didn’t like the sound of that there “again.” And we already knew Frankie. Twice we’d caught him exploring the brake van, and just the other side of Lupine he’d pulled the emergency stop. I’d threatened then to string him up by his heels, but some boys just can’t be held down.
Sorta like Tommy, come to think. I dunno, maybe Harry and me made folk feel that way, too. Tess has threatened us within an inch of our lives, more’n once. So I had some sympathy for the scamp. But I also kinda sorter wanted to let him stay lost. Either way, the little rascal was like to cost me my job.
Any road, Harry and I stuck our heads together and, upshot was, he kept on with the rest of the passengers and I went off after our one strayed lamb, as Preacher Dawson would have said. He never did have a very clear view of how folks is. Not much like lambs, if you ask me.
So off I went, trying to figure what a boy like Frankie would do. I stopped and listened, now the train was pulling enough ahead to hear something besides that. Off to the right I heard Skunk Creek. The tracks follow the creek right up the mountain, and if I knew boys, water would draw this one like wasps to rotten apples. I headed for the creek. Back down the line just a little, a sort of path led over there, and I trotted back, guessing he’d been tempted to check it out “just for a minute.”
That’s how it always is with boys like Frankie, see. They don’t mean to be bad, but stuff interests them, and off they go to see what they can see. I reckon a boy like that needs someone like our Ninja Librarian to teach him stuff, and keep his brain busy. This fellow, as near as I could make out, lived in some sort of orphanage down in the valley, where they probably made them all go everywhere in lines and do the same stuff every day.
The train was making pretty good time up the hill, and I picked up my speed a bit, slithering the last few yards down the bank to the creek.
I didn’t see hide nor hair of any boy, but there was plenty of sign. He’d been there, alright. He’d stood by the water and thrown rocks at a log for a bit, then—you didn’t have to be a good tracker to see this—he’d turned and started following the water up the hill. At least he’d had the brains to go up, I thought.
Trouble was, there’s no path or nothing along the creek. I could see here and there where he’d pushed through the bushes, and prints when he’d come to the wet banks to throw more rocks. But it was a chore to follow him, and I was taking too long. That train wasn’t even close enough to hear now, not over the sound of the waterfall ahead.
Maybe he’d be at the fall. That ought to keep a boy, right? I pushed ahead faster.
Frankie was at the falls, sure enough. He was standing right under the fairly gentle stream—it was summer, and our creek gets pretty small in the dry season, once the snow’s all gone from up high. And he was nekkid as the day he was born.
I almost hated to do it. He was laughing and having a great time, and probably getting the best bath he’d had in a long time, with no other boys around to make fun and maybe pick on him, since he was smarter than they were.
But I had no choice. I scooped up his clothes, and shouted at him, “You come along fast, or you’re walking the whole way. That train won’t wait!”
He hadn’t seen me arrive, nor heard me of course. I took a bit of satisfaction from making him jump, and turned back toward the tracks. There wasn’t any path here, save a bit of a deer trail, where they’d come down to drink from the pool. I noticed there were shoes in the mess of stuff I was carrying, and I grinned to myself. That would teach the squirt to run off—he could run on up to the train barefoot.
“Hey!” I heard him shout, but when I didn’t turn around I heard a bunch of splashing and pretty soon he was panting along behind me. “Give me my shoes, anyhow!”
“Nothin’ doing,” I puffed back. I was pushing the pace, both to make sure we caught that train and because I wanted him to suffer a bit. “We’ve no time. I’m sure not walking all the way to Pine Knot, and maybe beyond.”
“My shorts, then,” he wailed.
I chanced a glance back, and he was running well for someone in bare feet. I guessed he’d not worn shoes all that much anyway. But he was red all over, and I thought maybe it wasn’t from running. Now he was out of the water and out of the woods, I guessed maybe he’d had second thoughts about getting naked. I glanced ahead. The train was nearing the top of the hill, and people were clustering there.
It was one of the hardest decisions I’d made. If we stopped for him to put his shorts on, we’d surely make everyone wait—if Engineer would wait, which he might not. But if we didn’t, well, Frankie would have to run up and get on the train in front of everyone, wearing nothin’ but a smile, as Pa used to say.
I compromised. I dropped the shorts, calling, “you get those one and run like crazy to catch up, because I’m not waiting!”
I didn’t even look back to see what he did, though I didn’t expect him to catch me, and I didn’t really expect the train to leave without him.
Nor did I expect what happened.
I was sorta jogging up the hill, giving him a chance as you might say, when that boy, shorts now mostly in place, came speeding up behind me. Frankie could run! And what’s more, he could run farther and faster than I could. He’d been holding out on me! I looked ahead. Folks were mostly loaded back onto the train, and Frankie was well ahead of me. I could see the engine was getting up a good head of steam, ready to continue on, and I tried to run a bit faster. It looked like maybe Engineer would leave us after all.
The cars began to move, and I knew we were doomed.
Only Frankie, he put on a bit more speed, and managed to catch the back rail of the brake van as it pulled away. Like a squirrel he just sorta jumped up on that platform, and waved to me as the train picked up speed. I stopped running and threw my hat on the ground in disgust. Looked like I was in for a long walk, and maybe I’d lose my job, too.
Then, hanged if that little rascal didn’t go inside the van and pull the emergency brake. The train squealed to a stop again, I staggered the last few yards up to the back of the van and swung aboard, and Frankie met me with the sort of grin that makes you want to slap a boy silly, or else elect him president.
I handed him the rest of his clothes, and went to check the connections, pretending there really had been a problem. I met Harry coming back the other way.
He tipped me a wink, and said, “the rotten kid beat me to it! I was gonna pull the brake for you, and he got there first! Man, that kid can run! Left you in the dust, sure enough. Reckon he’ll go far.”
I didn’t comment. Frankie might well go far, if he didn’t get killed first.
Maybe we should keep him in Skunk Corners. Seems like he might fit right in. But I wouldn’t want him and Tommy getting together.
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