From the Children’s Friend, May 1938 –
The Danger Zone: A Story for Boys
By Ezra J. Poulsen
Dale Weatherby was in a mood for adventure. Throwing out his spindle legs to miss the blackberry briers, he leaped from the top rail of the pasture fence. “Hey, Skinny, how’s that fer a jump?” he crowed, as he sped through the air. Landing in a heap in the short clover, however, he gasped for breath, while Skinny, his tall, shaggy yellow dog, began barking over him anxiously. “No – nobody’s hurt, Skinny,” he laughed as soon as he could recover form the shock. “But – but I guess you’re right. It’s not good to jump too far. A fellow might get hurt.”
Circling his arm around the dog’s neck, he struggled weakly up. “Ouch, my feet sting.” For a moment his sunburned mouth twisted with pain. Bur recovering himself, he started dashing across the pasture, his dark eyes sparkling with excitement. “You didn’t know, did you, Skinny, that the gang’s waiting down by the creek. Well, it is.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth before a shout, then a series of shouts broke through the early autumn sunshine. And three other boys came into view waving their hats. “There they are; Billie, Ollie, and Gussie.”
Dale swung his hat, too. He was thrilled at meeting the other boys. Within a few minutes they were all four gathered under the beech tree overhanging the big bend in the creek. as usual they were all talking at once. And as usual Gussie Harker, the largest of the group, was squinting his adventurous gray eyes at the others and taking the lead. “Let’s go down to the cabin by the railroad track,” he proposed. “I got an idea we’ll have some fun.”
“Yes, let’s do,” seconded Ollie Dykes, his fat face beaming.
But Dale’s eager face clouded. “I don’t want to go down there,” he objected. “Let’s go somewhere else. The cabin belongs to the railroad company, and I saw a sign on it that reads, DANGER; KEEP OUT.”
At this little blue-eyed Billie Hansen caught his breath. “I don’t want to go either,” he exclaimed. “I know what,” his fair cheeks were flushed with his own idea. “Let’s play Knight and dragon!”
Gussie scoffed. “Listen at Pewee. Knight and Dragon, that’s sissy.” And turning to dale, he added, “That danger sign don’t scare me. It just makes me think there’ll be some special fun down there. Of course we’ll be careful. We won’t take anything.” He appealed to Ollie who was munching on some dried corn. ‘Isn’t that what you say, Fat?”
“Sure, let’s go,” shouted Ollie, swinging his cap and starting down the bank to the nearest crossing. “I’m for taking a look anyway.”
“I’ll go you that far,” declared Dale, “but no farther. Come on, Skinny. You don’t need to think you’re so smart, either. I can beat anyone across the creek.” Dale sprang over the bank and with Skinny barking gaily at his heels, began jumping from one high rock to another, reaching the other side before Ollie was half way across, and before Gussie and Billie had started. “Hi, there, Ollie, look out, your feet are slipping,” he tormented form his position of safety on the opposite bank. Dale was always glad to tease.
“Shut up.” Ollie’s fat body began to sway, and he became red in the face as he lost his balance and splashed into the cold water. “Whou!” he yelled, making the rest of the distance in several big jumps.
The boys had a good laugh, and the challenge was promptly thrown out to Gussie and Billie to cross without touching water, if they could. “You can’t make me slip,” cried Gussie, setting his determined face to the task, and a moment later he leaped triumphantly from the last stone to the bank with Billie at his heels.
“Come on, let’s go!” It was easy for Gussie to give orders. And heading toward the entanglement of willows, he took the lead. “I’m a general, and the rest of you are my soldiers,” he declared in a big voice. “We’re scoutin’ for the enemy, now. Keep low and be careful. We’re likely to run into them any time.” He crouched low and began running at top speed along a damp, shady trail, half hidden in the willows. “The cabin is their headquarters,” he whispered.
“You don’t say,” laughed Dale, dashing eagerly into another trail. it was always hard to resist Gussie for long.
“Yes, I do say.”
“Well, I can beat you there, enemies or no enemies.”
“Oh, not so fast,” objected Ollie.
“Come on. This is better’n playing Knight and Dragon.” Even Billie Hansen was stretching his legs to keep up.
It was a quarter of a mile through willows and across stretches of pasture clover to the mysterious cabin. And the farther the boys ran, the more excited they became. Here and there the cows, startled from their resting places, looked at them questioningly. And a bunch of crows, chattering in the willows, flew away, angry at being disturbed. But these things only made their surroundings seem more delightful.
Presently they came in sight of the cabin half hidden by weeds and elderberries growing against the fence. It had a queer forbidding appearance. “Here we are,” cried Gussie. “The enemy’s camp, just as I told you.” He dropped flat on his stomach in the grass. “Soldiers down on their stomachs,” he ordered, crawling toward the fence.
The other boys dropped – Ollie with a groan. “I can’t crawl on my stomach,” he protested. “It’s too full.”
“Try rolling, Fat,” snickered Dale.
“Charge,” boomed Gussie’s voice. They scrambled through the grass until their knees and elbows were bleeding. But nobody complained, not even Ollie, who invented some motions of his own. another breathless minute, and they all reached the fence with a yell. Then soberly they stared across into the forbidden territory.
“Huh,” grunted Dale. “There it is, now. Take a good look.”
Even Gussie was impressed. “There’s no windows. I bet it would be dark in there.”
Suddenly a faint rumbling shook the ground, then a roar, and finally a wild screeching blast startled their ears as a fast passenger train sped past on the tracks just beyond.
“Gee,” muttered Billie half scared, as the monster disappeared, “no wonder they want you to keep away from there.”
In reply Gussie started to climb the fence. “You don’t have to get on the tracks, Pewee,” he said scornfully, as he sprang down on the property belonging to the railroad company.
“Come back here,” warned Dale angrily. “You said you were just going to look.”
“Right,” sang Gussie. But he was half through the weed patch.
The fence squeaked and Ollie’s plump form bounded over, whereupon Dale turned questioningly to Billie. There was no question in his mind that it was wrong to trespass on the property of the railroad company, but he was fearful of Gussie. Gussie never knew when to stop. “Maybe we’d better tag along,” he said half to himself, and in another instant he and Billie were running through the weeds with Skinny barking at their heels.
The door of the cabin was half open, revealing a dark interior. “Some section men have been here today,” whispered Gussie. “They left it open.”
“Well, that’s a good reason for us to vamoose,” warned Dale. “We should have stayed away in the first place.”
“Oh, is that so?” There was a note of defiance in Gussie’s voice as he disappeared into the dim light. “I mean to explore the whole thing.”
“Ugh,” murmured Billie, holding back. But in a moment Ollie was also in the cabin, and Dale unwillingly close behind him, so Billie followed.
Breathlessly they stared about them in silence. Their eyes, which at first saw nothing but darkness, began to adjust themselves so they could see dimly around the cabin. Several barrels of railroad spikes were piled in one corner; in another were some picks and crowbars. But their attention was quickly drawn to some mysterious red packages on the floor.
“What are they?” demanded Gussie. before anyone could object, or even answer, he was examining them. One of the packages which had been broken open, revealed the fact that they contained small shining discs of brass.
“Better leave them alone!”
“Aw, shucks, what’d you care. Funny little things, aren’t they?” he demanded, putting several of the curious objects in his pocket.
“That’s not right,” Dale’s voice was now hard with determination. “I’m going. You fellows can do what you like.” He turned toward the door but was startled by a sudden growl from Skinny. Then the sound of wheels singing on the rails reached their ears, and all the boys sank back in the darkness very much afraid. There was no sound of an engine, however, and at first they were puzzled.
“Golly,” whispered Billy in a hollow tone. “I believe the section men are coming in their hand car.”
“Right!” All four of the boys scrambled in terror for the open. The wheels on the rails were now unmistakably loud, and Skinny’s barking was sharp and angry. They sprang through the weeds, climbed the squeaking fence, and dashed off into the pasture, scattering in every direction like startled ants. But it was too late. The wheels of the car ground to a stop, and men’s warning voices commanded them to halt.
Dale Weatherby had always been a boy of courage, even one with courage to stand up for the right. But now he found his feet carrying him in wild retreat against his will, against his better judgment. Almost quicker than he could think, a man sprang the fence and chased him. Closer and closer he could hear the heavy footsteps. Yet the faster his own feet flew, the more he tried to figure out a way to make peace and surrender. fear, however, had complete possession of him. He dashed through the creek, and up the opposite bank.
“Stop! you young rascal,” ordered his pursuer in a breathless voice.
He was surprised that the man’s voice seemed more pleading than angry, but he kept going until he was stopped by a rough hand on his neck.
“Where’s those caps?” asked the man sternly.
“Caps – what caps?” Dale was puzzled, but a grin flashed to his lips. He never liked to be taken in by a practical joker. “Er,. er, mine’s on my head,” he declared with great sincerity.
“But you don’t understand.” The man’s face was worried. “Those dynamite caps in the red packages. Some of them are gone, and don’t you know they’re terribly dangerous. One of them’ll blow your hands off or your eyes out if you fool with it.”
“Oh!” In one long gasping breath Dale understood. Gussie had some in his pocket. Possibly Ollie had some too. They were both ind anger. “I haven’t got any – not even one,” he insisted. “Want to search me?” But Dale’s eyes pleaded his innocence.
“No,” replied his captor. “I want you to help me find the other boys as quick as possible. It just won’t do for them to be carrying loose dynamite caps around. When such a thing happens someone nearly always gets hurt. Understand me now, I’m doing this for your own good and not for anything else.
Dale liked the man. “Come on,” he invited. “We’ll find the other boys. In a few minutes they were back across the creek, and Dale was calling eagerly to his companions. At first there was no answer. He was worried. Every minute made him feel that an accident might happen, especially to Gussie, whose recklessness had never seemed so glaring as now. He called again and again. Then a snort of laughter came from behind a willow-bush and Gussie and Ollie marched out.
“Hi, Dale, thought you’d got eaten up. He took after you.” Gussie’s jaw dropped, as he saw the man a short distance behind and he stood speechless, staring first at his friend, then at the stranger. “Looks like we’re all caught,” he muttered half under his breath.
Then he remembered Billie. “Hi, Billie, come out,” he commanded. “We’ve surrendered.” It was not Gussie’s nature to let anyone scape when he was caught. And Billie, equally true to his loyal nature, came.
The dynamite caps were given up in a hurry. “Golly, I don’t want them if they’re dangerous,” said Gussie. “And I see we did do wrong to take them.” Ollie did and said likewise, and Dale breathed a sigh of relief.
“Now, watch,” invited the man from the section. he took one of the caps and placed it on a rock some distance away, while the boys stayed close to the willows half afraid. he then put something under it and lighted a match and ran off a distance. “This will show you how dangerous such things are.” A loud explosion shook the pasture.
The long shadows were creeping out from the willows and trees along the creek when Dale and Skinny, after saying goodby to the other boys, got back to the pasture fence where they had jumped over. “Huh,” said Dale, looking down at his faithful dog, “it’s a good idea to mind the signs and keep out of the danger zones. Even Gussie and Ollie believe that now.”
He sprang from the fence, but not so far he knocked his own breath out. Coming to a perfect landing on his feet he smiled triumphantly, and patting Skinny’s head affectionately, walked on up the street.