ABOUT THE MYSTERIOUS TREASURE OF JERRY LEE THORTON
What does a guy do when his best friend starts doing things that are completely out of character? In the case of Luke McAllister, you can’t do anything – until you figure out exactly what it is that is different.
The fact that his best friend is a girl complicates matters a heap. Nothing makes sense when RaeNell Stephens, the girl that has “the best curve ball he’s ever seen”, starts blushing and acting like a durned female. All of this at the beginning of the ‘summer to end all summers’ too. This is the summer that Luke, RaeNell, and their friend Farley Midkiff set out to locate, and cash in on a rogue Civil War soldier’s stolen one million dollar Union payroll.
Undaunted by thousands of scholars and fortune seekers having looked unsuccessfully for the treasure for a hundred years, the three twelve-year-old friends search diligently for themselves. What they find is an adventure that leads them on a spiraling path of discovery.
They discover newness in themselves, their families, and the closeness of a small southern community in the process. Luke wrestles with his morality, ethics, and his slowly emerging awareness of the difference between boys and girls. He also discovers that his late father left him an incredibly large legacy of duty, fidelity and caring for those around him.
The telling of the story takes place in imaginary New Caledonia County, NC in 1966. The deep rural traditions, vernacular, and ways of life of the region and community are portrayed in great detail as the story unfolds.
This is an adventure story, but it is also a story about making good decisions whether you want to or not… It is also a story of relationships. Family and community are underscored, but there is an underlying theme of male/female relationships. It’s really okay for boys and girls to be buddies without always having to be boyfriends and girlfriends. It is also a story about innocence. NOT innocence lost, but innocence maintained.
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Nearly everything in my life changed the summer that RaeNell Stephens started growing up.
Up to that point life had been simple, unadorned, and, well, regular. The two of us had been buddies since we met on the playground in first grade. We had spent most of our life since then running and ripping across the fields, playing in the river all day, and sitting on top of Nugene Phillips’ barn staring at the stars of an evening.
It never occurred to us to examine the nature of our relationship because we didn’t have a relationship. RaeNell and me just were.
It’s sort of hard to explain. She was the daughter of the local undertaker, who happened also to be the mayor of our town. She was an only child, and most of the time didn’t have to do work or chores like I did.
I was the son, grandson, and great grandson of farmers. I worked in that world and she played in hers, but when we came together it was a different world entirely. The rest of everything else seemed to go on hold while we were together. We argued and wrestled and laughed and cried, and have mercy, we talked about everything under the sun. Of course, she mostly talked and I listened. Jawing wasn’t something she was real shy about.
When she came home from her granny’s house that summer though, she had changed. I had run across the dusty, sharp edges of Ruben Hawser’s plowed fields to meet her when she got off the bus. Mr. and Mrs. Stephens were there to greet their daughter dressed in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
Mrs. Stephens half smiled at me as if maybe she was expecting me all along. Mr. Stephens paid no mind, because I was just another kid in a town with a bunch of kids. He knew who I was, and who my family was, but that wasn’t on his mind right then.
RaeNell stepped off the bus, half tripping, as always, and smiled at her momma. In the seconds that she greeted her folks, and before she noticed me being there, I saw that there was something changed.
She was still sort of thin, but not skinny. Her shoulder-length hair, usually up in pigtails or a braid to keep it out of her face, was down and flowing below her shoulders. It was near about the color of a setting sun’s sky. There was gold with hints of red, and a few streaks of platinum white shot through her auburn brown color.
She was the type that could sometimes make a preacher cuss with her stubbornness, but most of the time she was sweet as pie. One of the things I admired about her was how she could switch from stubborn to sweet in about two seconds when she was a mind to.
There ain’t many in town that wouldn’t call her pretty. I never did think of her as pretty though, because she was RaeNell. I didn’t think about what she looked like no more than thinking about what a chair looks like when I sit in it. She was near about my height, with knobby elbows that could gouge an eye out during a wrestling match, but was pleasant in the face.
I had seen the blue flowered dress she was wearing that day many a times in Sunday School, and once at a social that the Presbyterian Women sponsored to send food to the boys over to the war at Vietnam. The dusty black patent leather Mary Janes were the same as she had worn when she left, but when she looked up and saw me, she blushed.
I had never seen her do that before. This was a girl that could spit farther than I could, and had a right good snap on her curveball when she took a notion. In fact she had taught me wrestling holds and a bunch of guy stuff over the years that I might not of learned otherwise.
Blushing was beyond anything I was prepared to understand.
I mumbled, “Hey, RaeNell.”
She looked down at her scuffed toes, and with equal mumbling said something that sounded like, “Hey, Luke, how you been?”
I don’t know why it was, but suddenly I was through with talking, and wanted to be anywhere else other than staring at the dirt in front of Spillman’s Gulf station, and trying to make small talk with this girl. I made some fumbling excuses and bolted.
That was the first time I ever really thought of her as a girl. More importantly it was the LAST time I thought of her as just plain old RaeNell too.
I had never given much thought to the difference between boys and girls because at twelve years old there weren’t any differences that you would pay much attention to. Sure, I knew that there was a physical difference without being told, but it didn’t matter. Or at least I didn’t care.
I walked toward home, a bit embarrassed and a whole lot confused as to what had just happened. I was absently kicking a tin can, not really noticing what was in front of me, but letting my subconscious drive me along as I studied on this new mystery of life.
The sound splitting through the late afternoon told me that Farley Ray Midkiff had finished his chores and was ready for the day. He made a small cloud of dust as he ran across the fields to meet me.
Farley was my best buddy and lifelong companion. Born only two weeks apart, there was nothing we hadn’t shared or many days we had spent apart in our twelve years.
He fell in beside me without speaking. We walked back toward my home in a silence understood only by the closest of bosom buddies. I think he probably knew that something was on my mind, but knew that I would eventually talk about it. We always talked about everything.
Me and Farley agreed on most everything except stupid stuff. He and I were about the same height, but the similarities ended there. I was broad across the shoulders to his ultra-thinness. That was because he mostly worked with his folks at the family hardware store, and baby-sat, so he didn’t do as much laboring work as I did.
His white-blond hair was average, and barely noticeable to most, while everybody not only noticed my orange-red head, but also pointed to it or rubbed it as they passed. I had no length to my legs much because I was what Granny called long-waisted. Farley had nothing but arms and legs. Most of the time they were moving in all directions while he was big into a story or trying to make some goofy point of his.
He talked up a storm when he was with me and RaeNell, but with everybody else he didn’t make a peep hardly. He weren’t shy or nothing; he plain didn’t like to talk just to hear his head roar. He listened pretty good, and had a powerful smart head on him, and he could use it. He just didn’t show it to nobody but me and RaeNell, and then only occasionally.
He was a New York Yankee fan. I was an Atlanta Braves fan. He loved the Giants football team, and I followed the Falcons with a passion. We neither one knew nothing about hockey, and didn’t care.
How somebody that grew up in Caledonia, North Carolina, could be a New York fan still amazed me. I sometimes thought he rooted for the northern teams just to be a pain in the rear. If that was his intention, it worked. The new sports teams down in Atlanta were exciting, but he didn’t see it. Our biggest arguments, and twice fights, had come during playoff races.
Now it was summer, two weeks after the end of school, and baseball was something only to follow on the radio. We would occasionally meet, and do battle on Mozzell Pettigrew’s front field, but right now, we had other fish to fry.
This summer was the planned summer of all summers. The three of us had used up the last half of the school year plotting, scheming, and finally developing a foolproof plan to locate, dig up, and get rich off of the hidden treasure of Jerry Lee Thorton.
My mind weren’t on treasure now though. I was still puzzling over my brief, but confusing, encounter with my other best friend, RaeNell. I wanted to tell Farley about it all, but I hadn’t quite figured everything out for myself.
Farley and RaeNell were buddies too, but not like I was with them. Me and Farley done stuff together, and me and RaeNell did too. It was a rare thing though for the two of them to hang out together without me. They liked each other fine ’cept when they was fighting one another, and they did that a right smart.
Me and Farley did what we usually did in the afternoon after our chores. We crossed over the ankle-high grass of the back ten of our place, picking our way through the junkyard home of Rafe Gunnell. There were some new junked-up refrigerators and a TV that had all the knobs missing, but nothing much else to interest us.
We headed on up the long hill leading to the banks of the Caledonia River. Although we all lived in houses with our families, this is where we called home during the summer.
That old river wasn’t much to look at there at the going-in place, but it held more mysteries than anybody could count, and we felt like we owned it.
The river wasn’t big enough for commerce, so was largely ignored by the adults around these parts. Except for the occasional layabout doing some fishing, we could of stayed on the banks, and in the water, for days without seeing anybody else.
Farley and me just stood under the three-hundred-year-old oak trees watching the sluggish muddy waters roll by some twenty feet below, trying to decide if we was going swimming or not. We were comfortable in our silence, but something was missing. We both knew what it was too. RaeNell was back home sure enough, but she wasn’t here with us like she shoulda been.
“What’cha wanna do, Luke?” asked Farley.
“Heck, fuzzy, I don’t know. When I went to meet RaeNell over to the bus station a little while ago, she acted all funny and girl-like and all.”
“Well, golly, Luke, you doofus, what the heck’s got into your noggin? She IS a girl, you stoopid head.”
Leave it to Farley to be able to cut right to the heart of a subject, and get in two insults in less than twenty words.
“Yeah, she’s a girl all right, but I ain’t never seen her act like one before. Danged if it ain’t a mite scary a thinking about it.”
“Shoot, Luke, I don’t rightly see what’s so blame scary about it. I think she’s allus been a girl, but for some reason today you just noticed it.”
“Of course she’s been a girl, idiot, but I’m telling you today she was different.”
“How you figger?”
A bizarre sound started somewhere nearby, interrupting my thoughts. It began as a low warble and built to an ever-widening crescendo of scream that froze me and Farley in our places.
It was the voice of devils, the baying of the Hounds of the Baskervilles, all the rogue apes living with Tarzan beating their chests and screaming, and the wail of the banshees of the worst horror movie ever.
The hair on the back of my neck stood out, and I could feel the first hoary frost of the year forming down my backbone. I had the sudden urge to go to the bathroom, and was about ready to moisten my blue jeans when a dark shape formed in the tops of the trees and began an almost slow-motion swoop toward me.
I glanced at Farley and could see he saw what I saw. His already light complexion had lost what little color he had, and had gone a chalky, sick-looking gray. His mouth formed a perfect ‘O’ as his eyes beheld the top of the trees.
I looked back toward the horror just in time to see the dark shape begin to take form some few feet in front of me. Continuing its arc, and before I had time to properly wet myself, I was struck full force in the chest with the scrabbling claws of some demon.
The world went black as I felt myself launched backward. I had a fleeting thought of my closeness to the banks of the river, just as I felt myself spiraling downward in almost slow motion toward what now appeared to be the rushing waters of the river below. The twenty-foot fall seemed real slow, but wickedly fast at the same time.
I barely had time to take a gulp of air before the murky waters swallowed me whole. The slap of the water on my back stung like a swarm of wasps, but was instantly relieved by the coolness of the water. I felt myself sinking, fast at first, but then slower as the river took hold of me and gently laid me on the bottom—some twelve feet below the surface.
My first thought was “I’m alive!”
The second thought was “Not for long if you don’t swim.”
I pushed myself off the muddy bottom, my lungs most near busting and panic tugging at the edges of my mind. I cut and swam toward the sky.
My face broke the dark surface, and I could instantly feel the bright sun on my face. A loud choking, gasping breath cleared half the water from my nose, mouth, and throat. The other half tried to go into my lungs.
I was treading water in the very same river that was at that moment trying to choke the life out of me. After a few long moments, I finally cleared my windpipe enough to give thought to whatever ghost or demon that had put me there.
I was concerned for Farley’s fate, and swiveled in the water to see if I could locate him. I looked upward to the bank and could see his pale face peering over the edge at me, grinning sheepishly.
Standing beside him was RaeNell, hands on hips, triumphantly grinning at me and my predicament. She had swung out of the oak trees by a muscadine grapevine, swooped down upon us, catching me in the chest with the bottoms of her feet. The effect had been to launch me like a cannon ball into the river.
Anger started to build in me, but even as it did, I could feel nothing but pure joy at seeing her standing there. She was dressed in the uniform of the day, cut-off blue jeans, barefoot, and a plaid shirt knotted at the waist. Her hair was in pigtails, and she was sporting the most evil of grins. Evidently the recent awkwardness we had was, for the time, gone.
Lord a mercy, it was good to have her back. It was now time for summer to officially begin.
ABOUT MIKE THOMAS
Mike Thomas is a southern writer. He grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina where he learned a lot about family, traditions, and the genteel lifestyle most southerners enjoy. The richly eccentric folks of his youth have become his characters in today’s books and stories.
Mike began as a newswriter, editor, columnist, reporter, and speechwriter before switching to the role of Critical Care Registered Nurse. He traveled nearly every corner of the world as a vagabond contract nurse before resettling in North Carolina a few years ago.
He lives with Bobby, his desktop computer, and Rachel his laptop, in Halifax County, NC.
“That’s all I need,” He says, “Just my computers and a bit of focus. Then we can make up worlds we could only have dreamed of last week.”
You can visit him at www.mikethomas-writer.com
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The Mysterious Treasure of Jerry Lee Thorton Virtual Book Publicity Tour Schedule
Monday, August 5 – Book featured at Margay Leah Justice
Wednesday, August 7 – Book featured at Between the Pages
Friday, August 9 – Book featured at Book Marketing Buzz
Tuesday, August 13 – Guest blogging at Beauty in Ruins
Wednesday, August 14 – Guest blogging at The Writer’s Life
Friday, August 16 – Interviewed at Pump Up Your Book
Monday, August 19 – Book reviewed at Hezzi D’s Books and Cooks
Tuesday, August 20 – Guest blogging at The Story Behind the Book
Wednesday, August 21 – Guest blogging at Literarily Speaking
Friday, August 23 – Interviewed at Literal Exposure
Monday, August 26 – Book featured at Plug Your Book
Tuesday, August 27 – 1st chapter reveal at As the Pages Turn
Wednesday, August 28 – Interviewed at Between the Covers
Friday, August 30 – Interviewed at Review From Here