Sally Slick and the Steele Syndicate

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Chapter 1

The racing tractor’s name—Calamity—arched over its body in perfect yellow letters. Sally Slick stepped back to get the full effect, a dripping paintbrush clutched in one hand. She frowned and tilted her head this way and that, trying furiously to figure out what was missing. After all the time she’d put in building the tractor, everything needed to be perfect for Calamity’s maiden voyage. Too bad the paint job wouldn’t cooperate. The whole thing was so frustrating that Sally kicked over the metal bucket holding her precious tools. They spread across the dirt floor of her workshop with a clatter.

“You okay?”

A timid voice came from the back of the old crib barn Sally had taken over after Pa moved all the livestock over near the east field. Someone must have entered the rarely used door tucked behind towers of wooden crates. She whirled around, brushing at her eye. A dust mote must have gotten into it, because it was all watery. If one of her brothers found her weeping like a mush, they’d never let her live it down. Thankfully, it was just Jet.

Her neighbor and oldest friend stepped into the light, showing his teeth in an uncertain grin. His hair stuck out in about twenty-seven different directions simultaneously, and his wrists extended a few inches too far from the sleeves of his hand-me-down shirt. But he was still a couple of inches shorter than Sally, gangly in a way that suggested his arms and legs might be growing faster than the rest of him and he hadn’t quite figured out how to handle that.

“Hey, Jet.” Sally turned back to the tractor and sighed.

He edged a little farther into the room, eyeing the corners with the kind of reflexive caution developed by the kids at the bottom of the food chain. “Is it safe?” he asked.
She huffed despite herself. Did he think she was going to leap up and bite his head off ?

“Are you afraid of random cutthroats or me?” she asked archly. “Of course it’s safe, silly. Come over here. I need your opinion; I’m think- ing this doesn’t look scary enough.”

He stepped up beside her, took one look at the inscription, and whooped. “Wait a minute. Her name’s Calamity?! That is the cool- est thing. Remember that time we played that adventure where Jet Blackwood and Calamity Sue got captured by the natives on an Egyptian dig, and Blackwood had to pick the locks of their shackles with the bones of pharaohs, and—”

“Of course I remember, goof. I was there. That was a good one.” Not that she’d admit it to anyone but Jet. It was one thing to read adventure tales. A lot of people did, and some of the kids at school swore the stories were true. She wasn’t so sure herself, but she knew that the Adventures of Jet Blackwood and Calamity Sue was a kids’ game. They’d started playing the made-up adventures when they were eight, and it had been okay back then. But now they were fourteen. That was too old to be climbing up trees and pretending they were rope ladders into an ancient civilization, solving mind-bending puzzles left by the ancients, and beating imaginary bad guys into desperate submission. They were misfits, all right. He thought he was an action hero, and she didn’t fit in with any of the other girls at school—they were all into talking about boys and staring at boys and—if they were particularly daring—kissing boys. Sally had six—no, seven, if you counted the baby—brothers. She’d had enough of boys, thank you very much.

In short, she didn’t fit in very well with the girls, and she was careful to keep her head down. Naming the tractor after her character was okay, especially since no one knew about the connection. But Jet took things much further than that, and he got picked on for it. He couldn’t stop pretending to be an adventure hero, even going so far as to insist that everyone call him by his “hero” name. Although Sally had to admit that if she had a bum first name like Jackson, she might stick with an alias too. She’d been lucky name-wise—her great-grand- parents changed their last name to Slick because no one could pronounce Slusarczyk. So she could understand the reasoning. She just didn’t have to like it.

Jet responded the same way he always did when she gave him a hard time, shaking it off and continuing on like nothing had happened. “Yeah, it is missing something, isn’t it? You should add a man with a whip jumping over the words, and you on the racing tractor in hot pursuit, and me swooping in on a vine.”

“A vine? Okay, Tarzan.” She poked him playfully, nearly knocking him over.

“And maybe some flames! Flames are dangerous!”

His voice cracked in excitement. They both ignored it.

“I could do flames…” she trailed off thoughtfully. Fire had the intimidation factor she was looking for, and she’d seen enough wildfires to know how fast they could move. That was exactly the kind of thing she needed for Calamity: something that suggested speed and danger. “Fire it is. Thanks, Jet.”

He nodded happily. “Don’t mention it.” Then he hunkered down in the dust to watch her as she painted. It had always been that way— Sally in the lead and Jet following dutifully along behind. Although Sally wouldn’t have admitted it in public, she wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

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