The Depression has ruined Henry Dafoe's life: his father has left the family farm to look for work, his mother is sick and now she's decided to send Henry to Nova Scotia to work on his uncle's fishboat. But Henry has other ideas. He runs away from home to join his father, which proves more difficult than he imagined. Alone and scared in a strange city, he befriends an old hobo named Clickety Clack, who agrees to take him to find his father. As they make their way across the country, Clickety Clack teaches Henry about the Secret Signs that hoboes use to communicate with each other.
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Copyright 2006 © Jacqueline Guest
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Secret signs / Jacqueline Guest.(Orca young readers)
Electronic MonographIssued also in print format.ISBN 9781551436012(pdf) -- ISBN 9781554697106 (epub)
PS8563.U365S42 2006 jC813’.54 C2006-903446-X
First published in the United States, 2006
Library of Congress Control Number: 2006928964
Summary: During the Depression, Henry Dafoe makes his way across the prairies, guided only by an old hobo and a series of secret signs.
Free teachers’ guide available: www.orcabook.com
Orca Book Publishers gratefully acknowledges the support for its publishing programs provided by the following agencies: the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Province of British Columbia through the BC Arts Council and the Book Publishing Tax Credit.
Cover design by Doug McCaffryCover & interior illustrations by June LawrasonSecret signs by S. N. Harvey
In Canada:Orca Book Publishers PO Box 5626, Station BVictoria, BC CanadaV8R 6S4
In the United States:Orca Book PublishersPO Box 468Custer, WA USA98240-0468
www.orcabook.com09 08 07 06 • 6 5 4 3 2 1
Joy, laughter and magic, all in one tiny person.
Here’s a book full of trains just for you.
The author would like to thank the Alberta Foundationfor the Arts for its support in the writing of this book.
Chapter 1 A Kindhearted Woman Lives Here
Chapter 2 Hit the Road Quick!
Chapter 3 There Are Thieves About
Chapter 4 Well-guarded Home
Chapter 5 A Cranky Man Lives Here
Chapter 6 An Officer of the Law Lives Here
Chapter 7 Be Quiet!
Chapter 8 Road Spoiled
Chapter 9 Generous People
Chapter 10 Doctor Won’t Charge for His Services
Chapter 11 Man With a Gun Lives Here
Chapter 12 Here You Will Find Friends
Chapter 13 A Good Place for Sit-down Food
Chapter 14 Don’t Give Up
Chapter 15 A Good Road to Follow
Key to the secret signs
The air grew strangely still, and the hair on the back of Henry Dafoe’s neck stood straight up. He sucked in his breath. Marching toward him across the parched prairie was a towering black wall that blotted out the sun.
He and his little sister, Anne, were walking home after school on the path that skirted a shallow lake, now nearly dry. The baked mud at the edge of the water was cracked and lined like the face of an old man.
“Come on, Anne, we’ve got to run!” Henry yelled as he grabbed her wrist.
“Stop it, Henry! You’ll crinkle the picture I made for Mama.” Anne jerked her arm out of her brother’s grasp.
Henry hated babysitting his sister, especially when she wouldn’t listen, which was nearly all the time. He pointed at the dark curtain that stretched across the horizon. “If you don’t get a move on, you’ll be swallowed up by that dust cloud, and then what will happen to your precious picture?”
Anne’s blue eyes grew wide with fear. She scanned the shore, then darted away, running toward an old boat stuck in the mud at the lake’s edge. “Henry, let’s take the rowboat! It’s only ten minutes across the lake.”
“We’re not taking any stupid boat. We have to make a run for it!” He tried again to grasp his sister’s arm, but she was too fast for him.
“It will take us a million years to get home along the path,” she argued, tears welling in her eyes. “The boat is right here! Why can’t we take it? Henry, I’m scared!”
“Don’t be such a big baby,” Henry growled. “You think you can turn on the waterworks and get whatever you want? Well, think again. Now, come on!”
He lunged for her arm, missed again and accidentally knocked his sister backward into the shallow slough. Her dress immediately became the same dirty gray as the stagnant water that swirled around her. The picture of the bright red flowers sank to the silty bottom and dissolved in a slurry of wet paint and mud.
“Serves you right for not listening.” Henry glared at his soggy sister. The breeze had picked up, and he glanced at the darkening sky. “Stay if you want, but I’m leaving.” He turned to go.
Henry wanted to run, but he knew his mother would be angry if he abandoned his sister, so he waited while Anne struggled out of the water, her wails carried away on the howling storm. Gripping his sister’s muddy hand, he dragged her to the safety of their farm.
The wind was a black fist hammering their house. Henry doodled in his journal and tried to ignore the moaning gale. Even though the windows and doors were closed tight, fine dust drifted in and settled on the picture he’d drawn.
The drawing was of something his pa called a hobo sign—a symbol usually written in chalk or coal on a fencepost or gate. The signs directed tramps to a meal or a place to sleep or warned them of trouble in the area. His father said that a lot of hobos couldn’t read, so the signs were a good way of communicating.
No one had ever told Henry what the signs meant, but he was sure he’d figured out some of their meanings. He prided himself on being extremely clever and wasn’t shy about letting folks know just how smart he was, but his quick tongue often got him into a lot of trouble. Grown-ups were always telling him he was too smart for his own good. Henry studied the hobo sign he was working on. He’d seen it scribbled on the fence near Mr. Fitzwilliam’s house. It looked like a gentleman’s top hat, and since Mr. Fitzwilliam was an undertaker and wore a tall black hat, Henry assumed the symbol meant that you were in the right place if you were planning a funeral.
“Henry, put that away, dear,” his mother admonished as she dished up the soup they were having for supper.
“Yes, ma’am.” Henry slid the journal under his behind. He looked into his bowl and sniffed, then wrinkled his nose in distaste. Cabbage soup again! He knew money was tight and they had a lot of cabbage down in the root cellar. Waste not, want not was his mother’s motto, and they sure weren’t going to waste any money… or cabbages either.
“Is there any bread?” he asked. Henry knew that unless Mama had baked more, the only two pieces in the house were the ones he’d hidden yesterday in the bottom of the empty pie safe.
His mother shook her head, then smiled at him. “I’ll bake more tomorrow. Now eat your soup.”
Henry felt bad about hiding the bread, but he needed the extra food. He was the man of the house now that his father had gone to Winnipeg to find work. He was the one who had to do the chores around the farm, especially since his mother had gotten sick.
Of course, chores weren’t like they used to be. It was 1932, and he was only twelve, but even he remembered a time when the crops weren’t being burnt up every year in the never-ending drought. Back then, he and Pa had worked together to bring in the harvest. He’d helped run the big belt-driven threshing machine, but since they hadn’t planted this year, there wouldn’t be any crop to harvest. His father had said the whole country was in something called the Depression. Henry didn’t know exactly what the Depression had to do with them, but he did know that they didn’t have nearly as many nice things as they used to.
“Mama, guess who I saw today?” Henry ignored the wind clawing at the windows. “The Thompsons—and you should see what they’ve done to our car.”
“That car isn’t ours anymore,” his mother reminded him.
Their shiny black car had been sold to the neighbors, but the Thompsons had fallen on tough times. “They’ve cut the roof off,” he continued, “and rigged that car up so their team of horses can pull it down the road without the engine running. Can you believe it?”
His mother looked thoughtful. “I heard they’d turned it into a Bennett Buggy. That’s too bad, but gasoline is expensive. You have to feed horses whether you use them or not. They may as well earn their keep.”
With the car gone and only their unreliable pickup left to drive, they were stuck on the farm, another thing Henry hated. Mama said they had no money for frivolous things like candy or store-bought clothes, so going into town was pointless.
“It seems strange to name that crazy contraption after the prime minister.” Henry gave his sister a superior smile as he pushed his thick brown hair out of his eyes. He enjoyed showing off his abundant knowledge.
“I know the prime minister’s name, so there, Mr. Know-it-all Henry Dafoe.” Anne stuck her tongue out at him. There was a stringy piece of cabbage stuck to it.
“That’s a surprise, since you’re such a baby!” Henry sneered.
“Am not,” said Anne, her lower lip trembling.
“Stop your bickering, both of you! Anne, finish your soup.” His mother pushed her bowl away and sighed wearily. “Henry, I expect better of you. Honestly, some days I’m at my wits’ end with you two.”
Henry glanced at his mother. She hadn’t touched her soup, and her face had an alarming gray tinge that reminded him of his grandma’s skin right before she died. His mama had been coughing a lot lately, and she was always tired. Henry wondered how sick she really was and when she was going to get better.
This was not how he’d imagined today would go. Henry had hoped his mother would stop treating him like a child now that Pa was gone and he was doing all the chores, but that wasn’t happening. In fact, Henry thought he should get a reward for all his extra work, but that wasn’t happening either. It just wasn’t fair.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny with not a cloud in the sky. Henry pulled on his clothes and did his morning chores. When he came into the kitchen carrying the egg basket, his mother had breakfast waiting. He washed his hands and sat down at the table.
“Just in time, dear. Hot porridge—with a little brown sugar I found to sprinkle on top.” His mother set a steaming bowl in front of him.
It wasn’t porridge weather, but that didn’t stop Henry from gobbling down first one bowl and then another.
His mother waited while they ate, then looked at him and Anne. “I have some news,” she began. “Yesterday the doctor stopped by to tell me the results of those fancy tests he did.”
Henry leaned his elbow on the table and listened, just as his papa would have done if he were here. After all, as the man of the house he should know just how sick his mother was.
Anne shot Henry an angry glance. “I painted a picture to make you feel better, Mama, but it got wrecked when Henry pushed me in the lake yesterday.”
“It was your own fault,” he snapped back.
“Now, children,” his mother interrupted tiredly. “Anne, I’m sure Henry did what he thought best. He’s the oldest and you should mind him.”
Henry grinned at his sister.
His mother continued, “The doctor says I have to go into a special hospital for folks with bad lungs. The hospital’s a long way from here.”
“How far away, Mama?” Anne asked, her voice small and anxious.
Their mother’s brow furrowed. “It takes us an hour to drive to Winnipeg, and the hospital is another two hours farther south. I’ll be there for a long time—many months.”
Henry and Anne stared at her.
“What’s going to happen to me?” Henry burst out, then glanced guiltily at his little sister. “I mean, who’s going to take care of us?”
His mother sighed. “I’ve worked it all out. Anne, I’ve made arrangements for you to stay with the Sisters of Mercy in Winnipeg.”
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