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COLIN AND THE KEY

DANIELLE FRANCES DUCREST

VOCABULARY

Coulee - a large ditch used to collect rainwater

Grandmère - French word for grandmother

Grandpère - French word for grandfather

PRONUNCIATION

Coulee - COOL-y

Grandmère - Grahnd-MARE

Grandpère - Grahnd-PAIR

Duhon - DEW-hon

Richard - REE-shard

*****

When Colin Richard was taken to his grandparents' for the day, he made sure to bring a few toys with him. He liked his grandparents, but they never wanted to do anything and basically gave him free reign of the entire plantation. Grandmère and Grandpère Duhon lived along the Lafayette-Youngsville border. They owned a few acres of sugar cane fields, but they never worked on them themselves. They had hired field hands who did all the work. Since it was December, the workers were at their homes. The last of the cane had been harvested two weeks before, and the fields had already been burned.

Colin was told to go around the empty fields in order to avoid getting dirt all over his clothes. Other than that, he was allowed to go wherever he pleased, as long as he stayed within hearing range of the bell so he'd know when to come back for lunch and supper.

Colin was supposed to spend every day that week with them, and his mom would come pick him up and drop him off every morning and evening. The second day was a warm day for December. As soon as he arrived at his grandparents' house, Colin changed into his swim shorts, grabbed a towel and took off for the coulee that separated each field. A cool breeze blew across the field as he ran past it, but Colin didn't mind. He liked the cool weather.

When he reached the coulee, he jumped in. It had rained recently, and the water came up to his chest. It was dirty water and he had to be careful not to stub his toes on a loose pebble lying at the bottom of the big ditch.

He swam up and down the coulee for a bit before he started to get bored. Then he started diving. He'd pick things up off the floor of the coulee, swim back up to the top, and see what he'd caught. It was on the third try that his hands brushed up against something hard and smooth, so unlike the leaves and rocks he'd already found. When he emerged out of the water, he held it up to get a good look at it. His eyes widened when he realized he was holding a brass key.

He looked it over, checking for some clue of where the key had come from. He found that clue on the handle. An inscription was embossed in very fine script. It said: Property of J. K. Daihen. He ran a finger over the inscription.

There was a flash of light in the corner of his eye. Colin looked wildly around but couldn't spot the source. He realized that he no longer held the key, although he couldn't remember dropping it.

He heard footsteps. They were running footsteps, accompanied by distant shouting. Instinctively, Colin retreated to a niche in the coulee, a section of the ditch that was hidden behind a large tree branch, and crouched as low as he could in the water. He strained his ears to hear more.

The footsteps were getting louder. Suddenly, he heard a splash. He glanced around the tree root and stared. A dark-skinned boy, at least eight years older than Colin, stood in the middle of the coulee. Another dark-skinned boy was making his way down the side of the ditch. A moment later, he was also wading his way through the water.

Both teenagers were dressed in strange, white clothing as if they'd just stepped out of an old south movie. Colin watched as they started up the other side. That was when he realized something else. A length of chain ran between the two boys. The chain was connected to handcuffs locked around their wrists.

He heard the one in the lead curse. "What is it?" the other one asked.

"Chain's stuck," the first teenager answered. Colin leaned even further out of his hiding place to see what he was talking about. Sure enough, the chain had gotten caught beneath a protruding tree root.

They yanked at it but couldn't get it loose. The shouts coming from the direction the boys were fleeing were getting louder. "Try the key again!" the lead boy told his friend.

The other boy fumbled in his pants pocket for the key. Colin recognized it, even from several yards away, as the same brass key he just found at the bottom of the coulee. How that was possible, he didn't know.

It took several tries to unlock the cuffs, and by the time that they were all off, the shouts sounded much closer. The two boys scrambled out of the coulee and disappeared into the tree line. Before the second boy left, he dropped the key into the coulee.

Light-skinned men appeared on the opposite side of the coulee. Two of them lifted pistols and started shooting at the fleeing teenagers.

There was another flash of light, and suddenly, Colin was once again standing in the middle of the coulee, holding the key in his hands.

He glanced around. The teenagers and the men had disappeared. Colin cautiously got out of the coulee and glanced around at the treeline and the fields, but as far as he could tell, he was alone.

He frowned down at the key. "What was that all about?" he asked himself.

He heard a bell chime in the distance, and recognized it as his grandmother calling him back for lunch. Colin gathered up his things and ran back to the house. He forgot all thoughts of fleeing teenagers and instead thought only about the food waiting for him.

*****

It wasnít until Thursday when he was digging through his bag that he found the key again. Colin had completely forgotten about it. He ran his fingers over it, careful not to touch the inscription. He didnít know what had caused those flashes and that vision of those runaways, but he didnít want to take any chances.

When his grandmother called him for lunch, Colin took the key out of his pocket and showed it to his grandfather at the dinner table.

"Whatcha got there, Colin?" Grandpère asked. He took the key from his grandson and examined it. He turned it over and saw the inscription. For a minute, Colin feared that he would touch it, but his grandfather only looked at it. "J. K. Duhon," he muttered. "That sounds like my great-grandfather, Johnathan Keith Duhon. Whereíd you find it?"

"It was in the coulee. I found it when I went swimminí on Monday. What was the key used for?"

"Well, from what my grandfather told me, his father would always color-code his keys. Silver-colored keys were for the main house, iron keys were for the sheds and the slave cabins, and brass-colored keys were for other locks, like for cabinets or chests."

Colin hesitated a moment before asking, "What about chains?"

"Chains?"

Colin nodded.

His grandfather shrugged. "I guess so."

Just then, Mrs. Duhon walked in with the main course. The conversation ended for a moment while they helped themselves to some food.

Half way through the meal, Colin attempted to push the conversation back toward the key. "So the Duhons used to own slaves?"

Mrs. Duhon looked up sharply from her meal. "Rob, what have you been telling him?"

"Nothiní, April," her husband assured her. "He was just askiní about a key he found the other day."

"I found it in the coulee," Colin explained. He handed the key to her. "Itís got Johnathan Keith Duhonís name on it."

"Well, what do you know," April Duhon remarked, mostly to herself. "Itís Jimmy and John's Key."

"Whatís that?" Colin asked.

"Jimmy and John's Key? You sure, April?" Robert Duhon asked her.

She shrugged. "If he found it in the coulee, what else could it be?"

"Guess youíre right about that," he consented.

Colin was feeling annoyed at being left out. "Whatís Jimmy and John's Key?" he repeated.

"Back when the Duhons owned slaves," Colinís grandfather began, "my great-grandfather bought two slaves from his cousins in Missouri. The two slaves were supposed to be troublemakers, and their names were Jimmy and John. My great-grandfather went up to get them, and he took the chains with him in case heíd need to restrain Jimmy and John."

"Jimmy and John didnít cause any trouble on the journey down because they knew my great-grandfather was keepiní an eye on them. The minute they arrived here on the plantation, and my great-grandfather was distracted, the two of them ran off."

"They made it over the coulee before J. K. Duhonís men shot them," Colinís grandmother continued. "The story doesnít end there, though. Every night since then, a member of the family or a field worker would hear something dragging on the ground just outside their bedroom windows. They would also hear what sounded like two young boys talking to each other. At least, they claimed to hear those noises. Itís all just talk as far as Iím concerned."

"Just because you havenít heard the ghosts of Jimmy and John passiní under our window doesnít mean theyíre not there," her husband countered. "You see, Colin, Jimmy and John had struggled to get out of the chains while they were escaping. They had barely managed to get out of them when they were shot. One of Ďem dropped that key in the coulee, and now their ghosts are cursed to wander this plantation forever, trapped in those chains, and they wonít be able to rest until they find that key."

Colin gazed down at the key in awe and excitement. He'd found a key that two ghosts had been searching for years! He wondered if the ghosts really were haunting the plantation and wished he could find out.

*****

His wish was granted two days later when his mother had to go out of town overnight on business. Colin would be spending that night at his grandparent's plantation, and he couldn't have been happier.

He stayed up late listening to his grandfather talk about the war and life as a sugar cane farmer, and didn't get to bed until around ten that night. Although he felt very tired, he couldn't fall asleep. He was too excited. He kept getting out of bed and glancing out of the guestroom window every time he heard a noise. So far, he hadn't seen either Jimmy's or John's ghosts, but there were plenty of more hours until sunrise.

After an hour and a half, however, he felt his eyes getting heavy. Finally, he gave in and allowed himself to drift off to sleep.

It wasn't until around three in the morning when a noise woke him up. Colin laid in bed for a moment, listening to the sound of something passing just beyond his window. It sounded like a chain being dragged across the dirt, accompanied by footsteps.

Colin shot out of bed and to the window. He pulled the drapes back and almost jumped, startled.

Two pairs of eyes in dark-skinned faces gazed in at him.

Colin recognized them immediately as the two teenage boys he'd seen in the vision he had when he touched the key's inscription. That meant that they had to be the dead spirits of Jimmy and John.

"That's him, John," he heard Jimmy say through the glass.

"He's the one that's got our key?" John asked.

Jimmy nodded. "Heís the one."

Colin opened the window and leaned out. "Hello," he said. "Are you Jimmy and John?"

Jimmy nodded. "Thatís right, boy. Whatís your name?"

"Colin," he answered. He could feel his excitement growing. "Are yíall really ghosts?"

"Thatís right," John growled, looking impatient. "Youíve got the key, boy?"

"Yes-"

"Well? Where is it?" John demanded.

Colin fumbled in his pants pocket for the brass key, but apparently he was going too slowly for Johnís tastes. John lunged forward and tried to grab onto Colinís shirt, only for his hand to pass straight through Colin.

Colin felt chilled where the ghostís hand had passed through his body. He could feel his teeth chattering as he took out the key and held it out the window to the ghosts.

Johnís expression changed from one of impatience to one of hope. He tried to grab the key, but his hand passed through it, too.

Both ghosts looked at the key with longing and despair. "Itís right in front of us, and we still canít touch it," Jimmy said. He looked up at Colin with hopeful eyes. "Maybe Colin could unlock the cuffs for us."

John shook his head. "Itís no use, Jimmy. Our chains are as corporeal as we are, while that key isnít. Howís he supposed to unlock incorporeal handcuffs?"

"I can try," Colin volunteered.

Jimmy and John exchanged a look. John held his wrists up and Colin reached down to them. He found the keyhole and placed the key in the lock.

The key inserted into the lock as if both objects were solid. All three of them stared at it in excitement. "Keep going, boy, keep going!" John said.

Colin turned the key and the lock clicked open. He unlocked the cuff on Johnís other wrist, then he unlocked Jimmyís wrists.

The chains fell to the ground as the two teenagers rubbed their wrists. Colin watched, surprised, as the chains seemed to disappear the second they touched the grass.

"Weíre free. Finally, after a hundred and seventy years, weíre free, Jimmy!" John exclaimed.

Jimmy grinned and tipped his hat to Colin. "And itís all thanks to you, Colin. Weíre very much obliged to you."

Colin watched, alarmed, as both spirits seemed to fade away.

A moment later, they were gone.

Colin Richard pushed the window back down before climbing back into bed. He wondered if he should tell his grandparents what had happened, but decided not to. After all, Grandpère Duhon would figure it out when he didnít hear Jimmy and John passing by his window tomorrow night.

THE END