Monday, January 1, 2018

RT Mac Story Chap's 21-current

Chapter 21

Redtail startled to wakefulness at the cackling of a pileated woodpecker very near her tent.  She did her best to interpret what it might have said and gave a reply.  “And good morning to you, too!”

She got up and set to getting a fire going.  The sky was still quite overcast and the air smelled heavy.  It was going to be a lighter sort of fire, rather than flint or lens.  Redtail turned over a piece of sheet metal under which she kept a stash of kindling.  Like the woodpecker startled Redtail, she startled a meadow mouse who’d taken shelter in her kindling.  Redtail laughed and growled at herself at the same time.  “I’m turning into Little Bunny Foo Foo.”  But she now had more for breakfast.

Redtail skinned the mouse and set aside the lungs and digestive tract for fishbait.  She got her fire started and felt secure enough with it she took the mouse innards and fishpole and ran up to the pond.  One cast and in less than two minutes, she had a nice fat bluegill.  She headed back to camp.  By the time she arrived, the fire had burnt itself down to a friendly cookfire.  She cleaned the fish and even kept the egg sacks for breakfast.  She smiled to herself as she thought, “Fish eggs aren’t that bad, except they’re kind of hard to turn without breaking the yolks.  But I guess I don’t need to worry about that since I’m roasting breakfast on a stick.”

With breakfast finished, Redtail continued her food hunt with only a minor adjustment in her routine.  She collected with the intent of sharing with others.  She’s always eager to share, but, today, she kept a special eye out for particularly appealing stuff.

Redtail’s target plants were thistle, green brier, dandelion flowers, violets, chickweed and other mild-flavored or texturally friendly plants.  She also included a clear plastic jar in her burlap sack for those live critter examples she was also alert for.  She watched for snails, worms, special caterpillars, crickets, roaches and other favorite snack critters.

Mr. Ziffel came to assist in the forage and Redtail was reminded of the importance of thorough rinsing.  “Mr. Z, you stick to rinsing those near the trees and I’ll take care of these, myself,” said Redtail.

After not long, George joined Redtail in the broke ground patch.

George said, “Good morning!  Stockin’ up?”

Redtail replied, “Actually, I’m collecting more with today’s program in mind.”

George said, “Well thank you.  Hopefully, we’ll have plenty of leftovers for you.”

George and Redtail foraged through lunch, but they didn’t miss out.  They snacked along the way.

Redtail asked, “Do you have favorite references for your edibles studies?”

“I pretty much love browsing them all,” said George, “but three in particular, popped into mind and more are trickling in.”

A moment or two passed and Redtail asked, “Are you going to keep me in suspense, or tell me what they are?”

George put on a face of innocent ignorance, but it wasn’t very convincing. “Oh, sure, you wanted to know, that, too?”

Redtail smiled, rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated sigh. “Oh yes, please.  Do tell.  Do tell.”

George let a smile crack his innocent look.  “Sorry ‘bout that.  I like playing with words.”

Redtail lowered and toughened her voice. “Yer just lucky Ah wuz in a good mood!”

George gave a shiver. “That’s almost beyond imagination –you, not in a good mood.”

Redtail said, “Yeah, kinda scary, huh?”

“OK, there’s a real early book I got about when I started sharing the harvest,” said George.  “I think it’s still a good starter book: Bradford Angier’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants.  Then there’s the out-of-print Wild Edibles of Missouri by Jan Phillips.  Then when you get familiar with plant ID, Francois Couplan’s The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America: Nature’s Green Feast is excellent.  It’s almost all-inclusive.  Like the title implies, it’s not a field guide.  It assumes the reader has a good plant ID background to begin with.  One of my favorite reviews I saw on it was a negative review.  It said it was ‘too encyclopedic.’  I rolled my eyes when I read that and thought, ‘Read the title, ya dope.’  Then there’s the others that trickled in.  Sam Thayers’ books are good.  I like his ‘beware of other authors who simply regurgitate what others have written’ attitude.  “Wildman” Steve Brill got a fun style and the drawings in his Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants: in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places are excellent.  There’s more, but these are my stand-outs.”

Redtail asked, “I wonder if the library’s got all those?”

George said, “They probably have some of ‘em.  If they don’t have the Phillips book, you can always get on a computer and get the PDF version free from the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website.  Hey, if they’ve got any, we gotta check ‘em out so they don’t send ‘em to recycling.”

“Is the library on the way to Midtown?” asked Redtail.  “We could check out the books and have them for display.”

George said, “That’s not a bad idea.  The meeting’s at the Midtown library and it’s also part of the Trials Library System.”

Redtail said, “Trials is an odd name.  It’s certainly been no trial for me to use the library.”

George almost interrupted, “Oh! If you’re going to The Bumpy Log with Lena tomorrow, you might see if our County Judge, Noyugo is there.  He loves to talk about county history, specially where trials and the courts are involved.”

They almost got back to the house when it started raining.  Both quickly put on their rain gear.  George started laughing.  Redtail gave him a challenging look as she asked, “What!?”

“No no no!” said George.  “It’s not ridicule. It’s admiration for your creativity.  Is there anything you don’t make out of cat food bags?”

Redtail said, “Well, the bath towels and rags didn’t turn out so good…” and her attempt at keeping her straight face fell apart.

George said, “I don’t think we’d be so good as a poker team.”

“Yeah,” said Redtail, “the thought of socks and underwear from cat food bags sort of choked me up and I figured I’d better not go there.”

George said, “So, we didn’t see any bunnies out here, did we?  Wow, you even got pockets with flaps!”

Redtail proudly stuck her thumbs in her flaps and spun around, saying, “Pretty impressive.”  Then she almost slipped in the mud. “Actually, they’re not that exciting.  They’re just flapped slits so I can access other pockets.”

“I still think it’s pretty impressive,” said George, “but, rain gear or not, we better get inside.  I’ll probably even want to back the truck in for loading.”

Into the house and onto the kitchen table they flopped their forage bags. 

George said, “I think I’ll make four piles for greens and in the butter tub we can put the onions.  By the way, feel free to hold back what you need.  You can also take all the leftovers if you want.”

“I think I’m stocked up OK for the wet weather,” said Redtail.

George said, “And I planned on stopping on the way for sandwiches, so we shouldn’t need to ‘officially’ eat before we go.”

Redtail asked, “Same place we had lunch the other day?”

“I thought we’d drop by the Three Maidens Pub just this side of Higginsburg,” said George.

Redtail said, “That sounds pricy, but interesting.”

“The prices are really pretty decent,” said George.  “The food’s great and they don’t scrimp on serving sizes, either.  The twins used to live here in Wilder until they opened the pub.  OK, a thistle pile, a curly dock pile, dandelion and pungents pile and a mild stuff pile.”

Redtail asked, “You want the peppergrass and other mustards in the pungent pile?”

“You got it figured out,” said George.  “Then we’ll take ‘em downstairs and rinse ‘em in the big sink.”

Redtail said, “You said ‘Three Maidens’ but only mentioned twins.  I know my math ain’t all that…”

George broke in, “The third’s their cousin from Baldspot.   They’re a couple months apart in age.  Lots of people think they’re triplets.  I can sometimes tell ‘em apart.  Krystal, Krystin and Kayla.  Any of ‘em will answer to “K”, and Kayla’s slightly shorter than the twins.”

As they wrapped up the sorting, George spotted Redtail’s bottle.  “Whatcha got in the bottle?

Redtail smiled and proudly held up the container. “I got some mobile munchies.  Mostly bug worms with a few crickets.”

“What do mean, ‘bug worms’,” asked George.

“They’re not earthworms, but a mix of beetle grubs and moth caterpillars,” said Redtail.  “I got cutworms, a couple wireworms, June-buggy grubs, geometer moth caterpillars or inchworms, and I think that’s it, besides the crickets.  I didn’t get a lot, but enough to show ‘em if you want.”  She handed George the bottle.

“Wow, these are some fat cutworms,” said George.  “I wonder what I’ve been feeding them?  Yeah, we’ll show these guys off.  It’s adults today, so we won’t have kids demanding we eat ‘em.”

“I’ll eat ‘em,” said Redtail.

“Yeah,” said George, “but I don’t want to show eating uncooked.”  He set the bottle down on the table.  They finished sorting and each picked up two bags of greens.  George also grabbed the onion tub.  They headed to the basement.

Redtail fussed, “Ow! These thistles are trying to escape through the sides of the bag!”

George said, “I’ll have to find a handling stick for ‘em.”

In the basement, the only light was what came through the back door and down the white-painted staircase.  George pulled the string for the light over the laundry sinks.  Then he pulled another and a set of eight-foot fluorescents lit up a broad expanse of laminate countertop.

Redtail exclaimed, “Wow, what a beautiful food processing center!  Oh, and I love that huge colander in the sink!”

George said, “I made the colander to fit.  Stainless mesh don’t come real cheap, but I didn’t want galvanized or aluminum for the chemical leaching.  I think we’ll put about six inches of water in the first sink and stir and thrash around the greens in there.  Then we’ll scoop ‘em out and put ‘em in the colander for a good spray rinse.  They’ll drain while we stir and thrash the next batch.  We’ll shake and re-rinse the ones in the colander a couple times before packing them.”

“Thistle and pungents last?” asked Redtail.  “Reusing rinse water probably won’t affect flavor as much as if it was boil water.”

George said, “We’ll do the thistle last.  It’s got a mild flavor, but I’d hate to get stray stickers in anything else.  We’ll show how to process thistle on-site.”

They washed, rinsed, sorted and cut into finger-food lengths, all but the thistle.  Then they put their processed goodies into bread bags.

“I’m thinkin’ we’re ready to load up,” said George.

They packed up the bags and bowl and headed upstairs to the kitchen.

George said, “Here comes sort of a hard part of program prep and closure: loading.  Set-up can be awkward, too.  This is the part where lots of people like to help, and I’m thinkin’ you’re a helper, too.  I’ve been doing this alone long enough it’s almost a science.  I won’t claim it all looks neat or flows smoothly.”

Redtail said, “I’ll just watch and help as requested.”

“That’s the thing,” said George.  “I got it so mechanical it’s hard for me to direct.  I’ll just think out loud as I go through all the motions.  You just sit back and watch as you like.  You’ll catch on pretty quick to what I’m doing.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love help and the company.  It’s just not easy for me to give directions.”

“Well, I’ll try to be a good student,” said Redtail.

George began to think out loud.  “My program pack usually consists of four plastic tubs: the props tub, book tub, serving equipment, and miscellaneous.  Then it all stacks on the dolly: heaviest on the bottom, of course.”

George’s programs, at least the ones with wild edibles concentration, are pretty typical.  Arrive at the site and check in.  Find the set-up location and begin set-up.  Tables are often provided, but George can also provide for himself as needed.  Table cloths from the service box go first, then the serving gear.  Then comes the books, then the props to arrange as the location allows.  Food comes out last, but he likes to keep that wrapped ‘til it’s close to start time.  George is usually introduced, then gives a short bio, followed by frequently asked questions with answers, then a brief intro to wild edibles and why people should check into them.  George then opens up for questions fielded by the group, then comes the hectic part with serving the samples and addressing questions as people are tasting the goodies.  This is the part he has often enlisted the aid of what he calls, “Lovely Assistant.”  The program slows down, and then when pack-up time seems right, he packs up the gear.

Books get packed first, then props.  The food gets packed next to last, and the used serving gear goes into the miscellaneous box, as do table-cloths if they got spilled on.  George loves doing these programs, still, after teardown and back in the truck, the drive home seems so peaceful.  It’s almost like finishing a long bout of mowing and shutting off the mower and taking a couple nice long, deep breaths.

Today’s packing would be a little different.  It was raining, and George didn’t have his camper on his truck.

George already had the tubs in the bed of the truck, but he laid a long tarp on the floor of the bed fairly close to the front.  He put two chests on the edge of the tarp and set the other two snugly against the front pair.  George folded the tarp over all and tucked the edges under the cases on the three remaining sides.  He wrapped a set of straps around the cases like a big belt, then laid the dolly across the top of the pile.  George criss-cross strapped the pile down to the floor.  “That oughtta keep things secure and dryish,” said George as he clapped the dust off his hands.

Redtail asked, “Weren’t we going to pack the food into the miscellaneous bin?”

George stopped dusting off and looked at the stack.  “Yeah, I guess we were.  I’ll pretend I intended all along to put that in the cab with us.”

Redtail smiled, “So, we all ready to go except for the food?”

Thinking it was too early to leave yet, George said, “Looks like it, but we’re about…  No, we can head out now and browse library books on the way.” 

So they finished loading and off they went. 

Their first stop was the library in Wilder.

“I’m going to check out what I donated and turn them in at Midtown,” said George.

Redtail asked, “Should I get some field guides?”

“Yeah, and grab a garden pest book if I don’t get one first.”

Linda-Jean popped out of the restroom.  “Oh, good!  You’ll save me a stamp.  Redtail, your card came in on today’s run.  Now you’re official.  You guys act like you’re on a mission.”

Redtail said, “We’re getting books for a wild edibles program in Midtown.  It’ll be my first time past Wilder.”

George had four books in hand and glanced at Redtail’s books.  “I’ll grab a pest book.  We’re gonna try to sell people on the library while we tell ‘em about all the neat stuff to eat out there.”

Linda-Jean asked, “What time is your program?”

George said, “It’s at 7:00, but we got this stop, dinner at Three Maidens, then a browse of Midtown library’s books for display at the program.”

“If those books are for display, don’t bother with the check-out,” said Linda-Jean.

Redtail said, “We don’t want to see them deleted from Trials”

“Yeah, that policy’s usually OK,” said Linda-Jean, “but they apply it to all the circulating books.  Sometimes, I think non-fiction should have a longer time –well, except for all those fad diet books.  Oh!  Here’s your card, Redtail.”

George and Redtail got their books checked out and headed on their way.  Every now and then, George had to take the wipers to ‘low’, but most of the time the drizzle only necessitated an occasional manual-on of the wipers.

Redtail said, “I almost asked why you didn’t just put the wipers on intermittent.  What year is this truck?”

George said, “It’s a ’58.  No AC, but it’s got floor vents and these nice little wing windows.”  He flipped the latch and pushed open the little window.  “I miss those floor vents and wings in the  newer vehicles. Of course, in vehicles this old, 80,000 miles is a ripe old age, too.”

“Yeah, it seems you can go almost that between oil changes these days with the synthetic oils,” said Redtail.

George gave her a glance and squint. “OK, maybe a slight exaggeration,” she added.

They rode a bit farther and Redtail commented, “This is some pretty rocky hilly country, isn’t it? Not much industry or income-property I’ve noticed.”

George said, “The east and southeast third of the county is scenic that way but the western part has got lots of wonderful flat farmland.  There was an old lead mind fairly close to where we’re at, and sheep and goats do pretty nice.  I think you’ll like the Three Maidens if you like critters.  They’ve got a real retro UK feel to their place.”

Redtail almost interrupted, “Oh wow!  That’s beautiful, what is it?”

“That’s Rainy Island Prison.  Some old Spanish noble is said to have built it as a castle way back in the 1500s.  The swamp around the  place used to attract folks who wanted to dump metal, old cars, appliances and stuff.  It almost always sunk to just out of sight, so it’s almost impossible to cross if you’re not on the one road that connects it to our highlands.  I know I’d hate to try to cross with all that sharp rusty stuff to impale myself on.”  George gave a shiver and shook his head.

“It sure is a pretty place,” said Redtail.

George said, “You oughtta see it on a clear, gently breezy evening at sunset.  It’s in silhouette and the water’s all sparkly.  It looks pretty cool.  Still, there’s some weird stories floating around about that place.”

“An old castle turned prison on an island in a swamp sort of asks for stories,” Redtail said with a smile.

***     ***     ***

Chapter 22

“There’s lots of stories about Rainy Island Prison and the manor house,” said George.  “But I should tell you about the Three Maidens –the pub, not the girls.  You can get just about any kind of sandwich you want.  They bake all their own bread and buns and you get a choice of stuffed potato skins, potato wedges, hash browns or salad.  The servings are pretty hefty.  If you don’t want a sandwich, they’ve got a wonderful potato and salad bar.  They call it a pub, but they don’t serve alcohol except on Fridays and during their Highland Games week.  Otherwise, they’ve got a great selection of near beers and sparking juices along with the usual lineup of sodas.”

After about a mile, the road ducked back in to some fairly thick trees.  Redtail said, “Ooo, we’re in the forest now!”

They got to the S-curve and there was the sign: Three Maidens Sandwich Shop and Pub 500 Feet.  The sign was red with white-edged black letters in the perfect sort of font you’d imagine for a Highland-themed cozy pub.  500 feet farther was a wide red-bricked driveway with another sign.  This sign was in a heavy stone frame.  The red background had a high gloss polish and the white-edged black lettering had as flat a finish as could be.  The sign was very clear to read, “Three Maidens Sandwich Shop and Pub”.  As they pulled into the drive, Redtail noticed what appeared at first to be a green border around the sign was an intricate tangle of gold-edged green vines and leaves, punctuated with tiny red berries.  She craned her neck as they drove by.

“That is a MOST-beautiful sign!” Redtail said.

“Believe it or not,” said George, “it got vandalized a few years ago.  That was fun when they went to court.  At first, the kids only felt bad because they got caught.  Those three sweet little maidens were way meaner to the three young vandal boys than I was with Dave at the restaurant when he got caught nearly dumping.  The three girls know they’re pretty and they used it on those boys in court.

One of the boys was 15 years old and the other two were 16.  One had just gotten his license and they were all spreading their wings of independence.  All those little boy hormones trying to act what they thought was tough or manly.”  George paused and laughed.  “Oh boy, I wish I’d’ve seen it!  Those three girls didn’t say a thing.  They poured all they had into looking sad and hurt –those big eyes and long wavy red hair and they figured out how to look on the verge of crying.

Those boys didn’t stand a chance as Judge Noyugo explained all the work the girls had put into that sign and how the boys ruined it with a few seconds of thoughtless meanness.  Two boys were in tears and the other was fighting his so hard everyone thought he was going to pass out.

Anyway, they had to wash off the egg and re-paint or repair any staining or damage.  They ended up having fun.  Two started a sign-painting business and the third is pursuing a commercial art degree.”

“That’s sad and funny all at the same time,” said Redtail.

“Yeah, the judge set it up with the girls beforehand.  He knew the boys were sorry they got caught, but those boys were devastated when they realized they’d hurt the feelings of those poor sweet pretty girls.  I’m glad we’re here now, so I can quit.  I’m almost starting to feel bad for ‘em too.”  George added, “You’ll probably get to meet the judge tomorrow at The Bumpy Log.”

George parked, shut off the truck, and they exited.  The lot was quite big for an off-the-beaten-path business.  George opened one side of a big wooden double gate, which, with the four-foot-high stone wall, separated the parking lot from a step back in time and geography. 

A couple chickens clucked peacefully as they cleared the path for George and Redtail.  Sheep were bleating behind the stone pub building.  One little lamb bounded out from around the corner as if to say “hi” to Redtail and George.  It gave a little ‘baa’ and bounced back behind to the others.

Redtail asked, “Are you sure about this place?  I mean, it looks like it’s got to be very expensive.  It’s a really cool place, but, wow!”

“The girls were pretty well off when they got the place and friends and family helped a lot, too.  I even hauled a couple trailer loads of rock up here.  I think even two of the girls married into some money,” explained George.  “They don’t pass a lot of their overhead on to customers, and their atmosphere almost guarantees return trips.”

They stepped inside.  “Oh wow, it smells wonderful in here!” said Redtail.

Out from the kitchen came one of the three maidens.  “Hi George!” she said.  “I see you’re accompanied today, and it’s not Sarah.  Oh my gosh!  You must be the Scotsman that couldn’t be!”  She looked back to the kitchen and yelled, “Kayla, Redtail’s HERE!”

A pan clattered to the floor as a near-clone to the first maiden ran out of the kitchen with an excited smile.

Kayla said, “Welcome, welcome, welcome!” as she vigorously shook Redtail’s hand.  She gave Redtail a hug, then a quick apology. “My husband told me about you, and I reallyreallyreally wanted to meet you!”

Pictures of all the men Redtail recently met flashed through her mind as she tried to figure out who Kayla’s husband might be.”

The third maiden walked in the front door with a basket of eggs.  She squeeled, “Uncle George!” as she set down the eggs and ran up to throw a big hug on him.

“This is Krystin,” said George, “which makes maiden number one, Krystal.  I still can’t tell y’all apart without a hint.”

Kayla said, “Oh, we’ve been used to that all our lives.  Redtail, the reason I got all excited to finally meet you is it sounds like you’ve got a really cool story about yourself.  My husband only heard snippets from a guy he works with.”

George said, “That’d be Frank.”

Redtail said, “OK, I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out who your husband might be.”

George said, “I feel really bad.  We gotta place a to-go order and head on out pretty…” 

Kayla reached over and put her finger on George’s lips to continue what she started saying.  George looked surprised and Redtail laughed.

Kayla said, “We absolutely love stories here and have a weekly Bard’s Night on Saturdays.  I think you’ve got a tale people’d like to hear.”  She smiled at George and removed her finger.

“I’m not much of a story-teller and my memories don’t go back all that far,” said Redtail, “but I love to hear stories and…  George, could you bring me back out here Saturday?”

George said, “Yeah, we can do that.”

Krystin jumped and giggled, “Oh good!” She threw in an almost, embarrassed-sounding, “Sorry.  I’ve just missed Uncle George.”

Krystal said, “I guess, since I’m on waitress duty, I’ll take your orders.”

George groaned again, “Argh!  I really wish we could stay longer, but I got a program to do in Midtown for their Garden Club.”

“Oh cool,” said Krystin, “Billy’s in that club now.”  She looked at Redtail and said, “He does the plantings around our signs.”

George asked, “Is he the commercial art student?”

Kayla said, “Yeah, he’s trying to plant pictures that change with the seasons.”

Redtail asked, “Is he one of the three boys who…”

Krystal started to laugh, “Yes, did Uncle George tell you that story?  It was a fun one to be part of.  The judge read those kids’ attitudes perfectly and came up with a great plot to help ‘em learn.  We even made new friends out of everyone involved.  Not to shorten the visit, but do y’all know what you want to order?”

Redtail said, “I’ll just duplicate what Grandpa George orders.”

Krystin chirped, “Oh wow, we’re family, too!”  And she threw a hug on Redtail like one with which she greeted George.

George smiled and ordered.  “I guess we’ll each have a BLT on toasted pumpernickel, with wedges.”  He added, “Oh, and melt a slice of cheese over the bacon if you could, please.”

Krystal said, “Will do, and I’ll get a menu to send home with our new cousin so she’s not always stuck with Uncle George’s toasted pumpernickel BLT with melted cheese.”

Krystin picked up her egg basket and said, “It’s wonderful seeing you again, Uncle George, and to meet Redtail.  I gotta get these eggs washed and refrigerated.  I hope to see ya Saturday!” 

George said, “We’ll sure give it a good shot!”  Krystin gave a little skip and she waved as she disappeared into the kitchen.

Kayla said, “I want Redtail to see Storytime’s not at all scary.”

George looked at Redtail and said, “I’ve even been here as the teller a few times.”

Krystal came out of the kitchen with the sandwiches in a brown paper grocery sack and handed it to George.  “That’ll be family price for you.”

“Well, I’m much obliged  girls,” said George.  “I tell you what, you use this to help maintain that nice sign and driveway then.”   He stuffed a wad of bills in the tip jar.

“Oh!  I’m sorry,” said Krystal, “Do you want drinks with the sandwiches?”

George said, “We’e got water in the truck.”  He looked at Redtail, “Did you want something different?”

She waved her hand and smiled, “Nah, I’m fine.”

George and Redtail reluctantly departed the Three Maidens and headed out to finish their journey.  George stopped at WalMart for gas. 

Redtail asked, “Have I got time to run in and grab a few things and meet you back out here?”

“I guess so,” said George.  The truck’s fairly low on gas, so it’ll take a while.”

“OK, I’ll be right back.” Redtail ran off across the parking lot.

Several minutes later, Redtail was crossing the lot back to George and the truck which was running and ready.  Redtail hopped in.

“It seems weird.  I knew right where stuff was.  Pop! Pop! Pop! And I was outta there.  I must have WalMart in my past,” said Redtail.

“Hmm,” pondered George. “That doesn’t narrow down your past geography much.”

Redtail laughed and took another bite of her sandwich.  “This pumpernickel is good!  Oh, Krystal and Krystin called you ‘Uncle George.’  Did you find them in your woods, too?” 

George chuckled, “No.  That story’s sorta sad, but it was great for me and Mae Mae.  Krystal and Krystin were about nine years old.  Their parents dropped them off the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, and we were going to entertain them –babysit, actually, and Dad and Mom would pick them up from church Sunday morning.  I think they went to Kansas City for some shopping and a movie.  They ended up getting in a wreck and we kept the girls ‘til after New Year’s while their parents recuperated.  That’s the short tale without the gory details.  Krystal would jump on every chance she could to help Mae Mae in the kitchen, otherwise, she’d read anything she could find in the house.  Krystin was a reader, too, but almost like an affectionate kitten, she seemed to watch for every time I sat down, and she’d hop up into my lap.  We’d both read something or she’d read to me or I’d read to her.  I can’t tell the girls apart on sight at first but Krystin usually gives it away with a hug or snuggle.  They’re fun kids.”

They left WalMart and headed west to Midtown.  The sun tried to poke through the clouds occasionally and was still fairly high in the sky.  George put down his visor.  Redtail closed her eyes and slid down in the seat with her knees up on the dash.

Redtail sleepily asked, “Do they ever have trouble with guys misinterpreting the friendliness at Three Maidens?”

George began, “Did you notice the photos on the wall?  Those tough-lookin’ critters are the girls’ husbands.”

“But ‘Three Maidens’ sounds like three single girls.”

“They named the place when they bought it.  The husbands came later.  Krystal’s husband once saw a guy give Kayla a pat on her rear. He went over to the guy’s table and sat down all friendly-like.  He said, with a cool tone, ‘See that series of pictures on the wall?’  He pointed to the massive guy in a kilt, carrying what looked like a telephone pole.  The photos showed the carry, the toss and an impressive distance before it landed.  He said, ‘That’s me.  I’m also married to one of the girls here.  I sure hope I don’t see you touching ‘my’ wife inappropriately.  Probably best not to touch her at all.’  The guy saw two of the girls at the same time, then the third through the kitchen window.  Then he looked confused.  Krystal’s husband added, “And I ain’t tellin’ which one.’  He got up and gave the guy a pat on the shoulder that probably felt like getting’ smacked by a flour sack.  I guess Kayla later saw him studying the pictures on the wall.  There were the kaber toss photos, and some fancy axe and knife-throwing competition shots of Krystin’s husband, and some formal photos of Kayla’s husband in uniform.  The guy stayed very self-controlled and civil after that.  Krystal’s and Krystin’s husbands work the farm here, and Kayla’s husband is with the Donowutt County Sheriff Department.”

Redtail smiled and said, “Sounds like things are in pretty good hands at the Pub.”

About ten miles out, Midtown came into view.  Midtown’s population is only about 1500, but it’s got the big agriculture-related store.  Midtown also has the county’s Garden Club.

***      ***      ***

Chapter 23

Just into Midtown and past the farm store, George pulled the truck into the library parking lot.  The rain stopped almost an hour ago.  They left the boxes in the back of the truck and went in to get more display books.  George asked the librarian if he could get into the meeting room to set up for the program.

George and Redtail found a few more books.  They adjourned to the meeting room, pulled some tables together and brought the gear into the library.  Redtail watched as George began the set-up. 

“Table cloths come first,” said George.  “I do enough outdoor programs I sometimes absent-mindedly weight the table ends with stuff first to keep the cloths from blowing in the wind.  Ain’t no wind in here, so I didn’t need to put those books all over the place.”  He gave a laugh.  “Which cloths I use depends on the audience.  It really doesn’t matter what cloths I use for an adult program like this, but I like to use the prints for kids’ programs.”

Redtail jumped in and helped spread out the cloths George put out.  The books and bookends went out, then the props, spread out to take about half the spaxe.  On the rest was displayed the samples buffet, covered to await the program attendees.

George gave a relieved slow breath.  “Here’s that quiet peaceful time between ready and showtime.”

A woman poked her head in the door and asked if the Garden Club was meeting there.  George said, “That’s what we’re here for.  Is this the room you usually use?”

The woman stopped in the doorway and said, “I really couldn’t tell you.  This is my first meeting and I didn’t want to be late.”

Redtail glanced at the wall clock and saw it was 6:40.   “Are we usually this early, Grandpa George?”

“Oh, usually between 40 and 10 minutes early.  If it’s any closer, I feel rushed and I don’t care for that,” answered George.

The new member set her things down at a table and approached George and Redtail’s set-up.  “Mind if I snoop a little,” she asked.

Redtail looked at George, who said, eagerly, “Oh sure, go ahead.  Feel free to ask questions, too,  if you like.”

The woman looked at the display and asked, “Is this on pest control?”

Redtail answered, with  a smile, “I guess that’s one way to look at it.”

George glanced at the window.  “OK, everybody, behave.  The boss is comin’.” 

Mary-Ellen, the Garden Club president, was in her mid 70s, but still made her way around the garden areas of Donowutt County.  Over the years, some settling had occurred.  Despite her roundness and age, she bubbled with energy.

George got the door for Mary-Ellen.  He bowed and said, “Greetings Madame President.”

As she walked in the door, Mary-Ellen gave a quick curtsy and cheerfully answered George’s greeting, “Professor Peterson.”

Mary-Ellen said to George, with a competitive edge to her voice, “That’s the fourth time in a row you beat me to my own club meeting.”

Meanwhile, Redtail and Elaine, the new member, exchanged introductions.

George said to Mary-Ellen, “We even tried to give you a chance today.  We stopped at the Thistle Dew Library, the Three Maidens in Higginsburg and even at WalMart on the way here.”

“Well then, you must just drive too fast,” said Mary-Ellen.

Redtail jumped to George’s defense, “Oh no!  We don’t knowingly exceed the speed limits.”  She laughed, “George often finds himself thrust into leadership positions on the road.  We get quite a few followers.”  Then Redtail gave George a puzzled look, “Professor!?”

George laughed, “Professor is a title conferred on me by Mary-Ellen a couple years ago.  I’m pretty sure she’s the only one who uses it.”

“And although I am the Garden Club President,” said Mary-Ellen, “the Professor is the only one who calls me ‘Madame President’.  I noticed y’all had been saying ‘we’.  Who are these young ladies you brought with you today, George?”

George said, “Well, Redtail here is my granddaughter, and this is the first time I’d seen…”

Redtail answered, “And this is Elaine.  She’s here for her first Garden Club meeting.”

Elaine said, “Yeah, I think I want to be a new member.  I’m not with them –not that I think they’re unworthy of my fellowship, but I came alone.”

As they discussed all that important stuff, more people came into the room.  Mary-Ellen deemed it a fit and proper time to give the meeting a formal start.  She rapped the butt end of the garden trowel on the bottom of a flower pot.  That might sound silly, but that was the official Garden Club Presidential Gavel Set.  The pot has been replaced twice.  Mary-Ellen introduced George as an expert on organic pest control.

George began, “My topic for Garden Clubs is really wild edibles, since most of your garden pests and weeds are.  A big drawback in using harvest as pest control is you probably don’t want to wait ‘til your pest critter gets to a food-worthy size.  They can inflict lots of crop damage by then.  Plants are lots easier as they’re usually still harvestable small, and are often more tender then.

George told the group about proper ID of wild edibles and stressed it again.  He told about lamb’s quarter, Queen Anne’s lace, cutworms, Japanese beetles, stink bugs, purslane, flower-of-an-hour, June beetle grubs, squash bugs, cabbage and corn ear worms and more.  Again, he stressed proper ID.  Then came the questions and answers.

Many answers were of the standard sort.  ‘No, I don’t eat like this all the time.’ ‘Yes, they’re real bugs.’ ‘Unlike for plants and mushrooms, there really aren’t any decent field guides on edible invertebrates.’  ‘For plants and mushrooms, shake off the dirt and rinse well.  Cook or eat raw as needed.  I say ‘as needed’ because some mushrooms must be cooked to neutralize the toxins.  Kill insects by freezing.  Boil at least 3 minutes or otherwise cook.  I like to boil for five, then marinate overnight and dehydrate to a crispy crunch.’

The youngest of the men raised his hand and George called on him.  “This question is really for your granddaughter.  Do you do the wild edibles thing, too?”

George gestured to Redtail.  She stood up and said, “Yes,” and waited for an expected silence.  She got her silence and her “please go on” looks and she smiled.  “Actually, I live in the woods: a little more seriously than just camping, so yeah, wild edibles is a regular thing for me.”

George added, “I was barely able to coax her indoors to help prepare the samples buffet we brought you.”

The young man said, “Cool!  I’ve got one more question for Redtail.  Are you single?” He smiled and sat down.  The club gave scowls and laughs.

Redtail answered, “Oh absolutely.  There’s only one of me.”  She played the startled silence for a second or two and then pretended to realize what he actually meant.  “Oh, you don’t mean as opposed to plural.  You meant single as opposed to spoken for.”

George put his head in his hands.  The club had head-shakes, eye rolls and laughs.

Redtail continued, “You know,” and she looked at George and puzzled.  “That’s the first time I recall having to consider that question.  I really don’t know.  So, like with wild edibles, I better err to the side of caution and act betrothed or married.  By the way, are you Billy?”

Billy gave a startled smile and said, “Now I’ve got lots of off-topic questions for you that’ll have to wait ‘til later.  And yeah, I’m Billy, but…” and he smiled thoughtfully and quit talking.

Mary-Ellen asked a question.  “With so much out there at our fingertips to eat, why did we ever get into agriculture.”

“Long long ago,” began George, “people learned about seeds and planting and domesticating animals.  Staying put is easier than moving.  Thag learned how to make pots and Grogina learned how to spin goat hair and plant fibers.  Grog learned how to make carrots out of Queen Anne’s lace and Thagette grew thicker seed heads on her grass and turned it into barley.  They settled together and begat little Thags, Grogs, Inas and Ettes and shared what they specialized in, and our first cities were born.”  George heard a sigh from one of the club members and laughed.  “Speeding things up, we learned bulk agriculture and bred out stuff we didn’t want and specialized in other non-agriculture stuff and we forgot how to forage.  Wild edibles aren’t quite as easy to gather and process as domesticated human-altered stuff.  Flavors and textures might take some re-adjustment of our now-discriminating culinary tastes.  Wanna try some?”

First up to the table were Elaine and Billy.  Elaine knew where she was headed, based on her pre-program browsing.  Billy wanted to find out how Redtail knew who he was.  Soon a crowd of most of the members had gathered into an undulating mass of inquisitiveness.

“Oh wow! These are good!”  “I never thought I’d eat a bug on purpose.”  “Wild greens are packed with vitamin A.”  “Do you catch all these yourself?”  “Eww, it’s looking at me!”  “Insects are supposed to be really nutritious.”  “Lamb’s quarter is related to quinoa.”

George answered most of the questions while he and Redtail served the samples.  Redtail answered a few questions but talked mostly with Billy.  He got the story how she knew who he was, without having to re-live the ordeal.  Redtail complimented him on his gardening, and answered his other question: “No, I don’t even HAVE a phone.”

The crowd around the edibles table began to break up, so Mary Ellen called the business portion of the meeting to order.  George and Redtail leisurely packed up and they headed out.

On  the way home, Redtail broke the wonderfully peaceful post-program silence.  She didn’t break it beyond repair and it healed itself pretty quick when she finished.  “I like Billy.”

George asked, “You plan on seeing him regularly?”

“Oh no, not that,” said Redtail.  “He’s barely out of high school.  Besides, I’ve gotta act married, at least until I know.  He’s just a nice kid.”

“He sure wasn’t subtle,” said George.  “You made a pretty big impression on him.”

They both laughed and the silence resumed.

***     ***    ***

Chapter 24

Redtail awoke Tuesday morning to a gentle rain: almost a mist.  “Wow,” she thought, “it feels later than my usual wake-up.  Then again, I did stay up pretty late.  Tonight’s probably going to be another late one.”

Redtail peeked outside, gave a little groan, then put on her rain gear.  She went outside and picked up a 5-gallon bucket.  She headed up to the house, ran a couple inches of water into the bucket and wandered out to the lawn.  She thought, “This is really cheating.  I need to build me a water collection and purification system.”  She squatted down and picked a couple hands full of dandelion flowers.  Even though they weren’t open in the rain, they were quite easy to find.  She dropped them into the bucket.

Mr Ziffel was fascinated at the way Redtail waddled about on her haunches, but not enough that he came out from under the porch and into the drizzle to join the fun.

George was already up and gone someplace.  Redtail went back to the tent with her bucket of dandelions sloshing about.  “They oughtta be rinsed enough by the time I get home.”

She arrived at her camp and was a bit frustrated at how wet her shoes were feeling.  “I need some rain boots and an extra pair of shoes.”  She determined to wander around a bit more since her shoes were already wet.  Redtail put the dandelions in her burlap sack to drain and air while she poked about under the leaf litter for food ideas.  She didn’t want to eat her dried fish unless she had to, but she also didn’t like the idea of starting a fire for cooking.

It didn’t take long for Redtail to see the rain had driven lots of worms out of the ground and into the leaves.  “I wish I liked worms more, but here goes anyway.”  She filled her bucket about a quarter full of leaves she shook off and shredded.  She then commenced to worm-collecting.  Redtail smiled, “If I don’t eat these myself, I can at least use them for fish bait.  I’ll let these guys purge in the leaves overnight and maybe shoot for a fire tomorrow.”

Redtail returned to her tent and took off her shoes.  She spread them open and hung them on the ends of some of her clothes rods.  Late morning, but uncomfortably damp outside, so Redtail reclined on her mattress.  She’d propped the head end up on her supplies to make sort of a day lounger.  She closed her eyes, dozed lightly and thought about what her day had in store.  About an hour later, something gave Redtail’s foot an odd tickle.  She dreamily opened her eyes and looked toward the tickle.  Instinct startled her and made her foot recoil.  After the sudden movement she gave a sigh of relief and an eye roll.  “Oh you,” she said with a smile.  “I guess you can prowl around here for mice.  I don’t want any in my food stash.  But if you find any outside, we gotta share, OK?”  The black rat snake flicked its tongue and slowly went on with the hunt.

Redtail got a slab of dry fish, mouse meat and the bag of dandelion flowers.  She nibbled and relaxed until she settled on what to do next.

Redtail didn’t think George came across as a gardener, but wondered if Mae Mae was, and if there might be a remaining volunteer herb bed as evidence.  Redtail hadn’t noticed much that looked cultivated on the south or west sides of the house, other than a small patch of lily of the valley.  She set her goal on the east and north of the house.

Between the east side of the house and the drive didn’t offer much diversity in plant life, though the other side of the driveway was fairly heavily foliated.  The north or road-side of the house was really the front, but it was seldom used.  Redtail didn’t focus today on edibles, but on aromatics.  She was going out tonight, and to a social club.  Redtail didn’t think she had any personal odor problem, but she thought she ought to use good smellies anyway.

Redtail had to go slowly, since her feet weren’t used to being out of shoes.  When she reached the front of the house, she spotted some mints.  She didn’t bruise the leaves to find out what kind.  She made a mental note of them and went on to other things.  She spotted some cooking herbs, but left those alone, too.  “I gotta explore this more, but a different day.”  Suddenly her eyes lit up and she scampered across the driveway.  “Yes!” she said, as she yanked up one of several foot tall common ragweeds.  “Most people don’t give these credit, but, they’ve got such a fresh smell when bruised.”  She rolled a bit of leaf briskly between her fingers and sniffed the mangled leaf and smiled.  “This will work quite nicely!”

Redtail headed down the driveway to her camp.  She hopped a few times due to rocks and shifted her route a couple feet onto the grass.  Her feet needed some more breaking in, but not breaking.  She took a few more steps and gave a short, delighted squeal.  “This’ll be even better than the ragweed!”  She pulled about half a dozen pineapple weeds and gave them a sniff.

Redtail reached her site and stashed her forage.  She grabbed the new under clothes, rag and towel she picked up at Walmart and the new clothes George got her.  She rolled them all up neatly and shoved them into a catfood bag.  She also put her drying shoes in the bag.  With bag in hand, she carefully barefooted it back up to the barn.  She went in and quickly noticed how dusty the floor was.  She took all her things into the milkhouse.  With her rag, she wiped a spot on the counter by the sink and emptied the catfood bag there.

With shoes in hand, Redtail scurried off for a broom.  The dust on the floor sucked up the moisture from Redtail’s feet quickly.  She left tracks to the sink but not all the way back out.  Out in the darker, but bigger part of the barn, Redtail found a broom and spotted a tiller.  She hung her shoes on the ends of the tiller handle.  She figured there was more dry air in the barn than in her tent.  Maybe stuff would dry faster there.  Redtail snooped around until she found a couple longish pieces of electrical conduit.  She found places near the tiller to poke the ends so she could hang her damp and wet stuff.  She swept a path back to the milkhouse.

Redtail gave a satisfied smile and walked to the window.  The window let in lots of light, but was too dusty to see through.  She wiped a tiny peephole through the dust and watched.  The only sign of life she saw was Mr. Ziffel strolling toward the barn.

The rain stopped for a while and Mr. Ziffel somehow sensed he was needed on guard duty.  When he got to the barn, he laid down by the door and watched.  Redtail smiled and began what she’d come to the barn for.  “I should have checked this first,” she thought as she turned on the water at the sink.  It sputtered some air out of the line, and soon ran clear.  “Good! Running water.  I wonder if there’s hot?”  She turned on the hot and it gurgled a bit, ran clear, and she heard the little on-demand heater make noise.  Soon the water heated.  It started getting cooler, so she slowed the flow so the heater could keep up.  She filled one of the deep milkhouse sinks to about half full of almost hot water.  While it was filling, she looked in the nearby cabinet and got out a dusty bottle of antibacterial hand soap.  She turned off the water and studied the surroundings through the peephole again.  Nothing except Mr. Ziffel on guard.

Redtail quickly undressed down to her underwear and washed her hair using the antibacterial soap.  She gave it as hot a rinse as the heater could muster.  After a squeeze dry and towel wrap, she thought it felt quite good, especially for using hand soap.  With her hair all wrapped up, she gave her arms and legs a wash with the rag.  She wrung out the rag tightly several times and used it to dry her limbs.

Redtail watched again through the peephole and ran back to the sink.  She hurriedly stripped down and finished the sponge bath, except for her feet.  She unwrapped her hair, dried off quickly with the towel and slipped into the clean underwear.  Redtail walked around some on her swept areas to more thoroughly dry.  She then slipped into her clean slacks and shirt.

She drained the sink, refilled it and hand-washed her laundry.  Redtail wiped off the wooded chair in the milkhouse and did her feet as her last act of washing for the day.  She sat down and propped her feet up on the sink until they dried.

A few minutes passed and Redtail twitched back to wakefulness.  She took a deep breath and thought, “I sure hope I can stay awake tonight at the Bumpy Log.”  She got up and hung her laundry on the ends of the conduits.  The shoes were just about dry.  She packed them into her bag and headed back to camp.  Mr. Ziffel saw his guard duty shift was over and got up to let the door swing open.  Redtail gave him a vigorous rub and praised him for the excellent sentry job he did.  Mr.Ziffel wagged his tail and ambled back under the porch.

Redtail, now back in her tent, stuffed the shoes with dry rags and hung them back on the clothes rack.  She nibbled more dandelion flowers and dried meat.  Redtail reclimed again on her bed and picked up her Bible for a read.  She smiled as she thought, “This laundry-drying is hard work.”

In Galatians 3, where Paul reminded his audience we’re redeemed by faith, Redtail heard Mr. Ziffel announce a guest’s arrival.  She marked her page and stepped outside to investigate.  She got a bit closer to the house and spotted a familiar car and soon spotted Lena trying to figure out which direction to look first for Redtail’s place.  Redtail made it lots easier by calling out to her.  “Hi, and welcome!  What time is it?”

“I’m early,” said Lena.  “The water got shut off at the plant, and they let us all go before quitting time.  I got the dishwasher loaded and started and laundry sorted, brownies baked, and a batch of rice krispy bars made for tonight, and didn’t figure there was a whole lot else to do before the Log, so I headed out here early.  Wanna get the place set up for the others, or did you have more plans?”

“They’ll let us in this early?” asked Redtail.

Lena answered, “If we’re there first, we get to do the letting in.”

Redtail asked, “Is there a stove or microwave I could use there?”

“There’s a full kitchen,” said Lena.  “The only rules are be safe and clean up.”

“Great!  Can I run up to the pond and catch a couple fish?”

“Sure, and if you have a knife for me I can even clean while you fish.”

Redtail said, “OK, we’re gonna eat tonight!”  Redtail handed Lena an old steak knife blade –no handle, just blade and full tang.  Still, it was sharp enough for shaving.

Lena accepted the blade and commented, “Ooooo!  You got a nice edge on this.  Did you do the sharpening?”

“Yeah, I got some files, a broken stone and some ceramic cups.”

Lena asked, “Ceramic cups?”

Redtail said, “I use them to finish the edge.  The bottoms are as good as any ceramic sharpener.”

Lena asked, “You got a special way you clean your fish?”

“I just gut ‘em and cut off the heads.  I eat the eggs, too, if there are any.”

They arrived at the pond and Redtail casted.  Lena asked, “Did something happen to your shoes?”

Redtail laughed, “Yeah, they got wet.  But they should be dry enough for tonight pretty quick.  THAT was pretty quick, too!”  Redtail reeled in a nice pan-sized fourteen inch bass.  She unhooked it and gave the thrashing fish to Lena.  Lena took it by the lower jaw as Redtail slid her bait back down the line and re-secured it to the hook.  She casted again and Lena dispatched the fish and began cleaning.

Redtail said, “It looks like you’ve done this before.”

“Oh yes, I love fishing.  I’m surprised at how easily this knife works, even without a handle.”

Redtail asked, “About ready for another one?”  She hoisted a fat bluegill out of the water.

Lena wiped the body cavity of the bass out with a handful of grass.  “Bring it on!”

Redtail picked up the bass innards and pinched off the stomach and about an inch of intestine.  She started to put it on the hook and asked, “Do you want any fish?  I’ve easily got enough now for me.  I don’t want too much, but I want to have plenty.”

Lena said, “I got no problem cleaning more.  Fish would taste good.”

“As hungry as these guys seem, it shouldn’t take long to get enough for good sharing.”

As she finished her sentence, the fishpole was almost yanked out of her hands.  Redtail concentrated more on this fish.  It was putting up quite a fierce fight in comparison to the 14 incher.  Redtail said, “If this guy’s fight is any indication of his size, we oughtta have plento to share tonight!”

After the fight, Redtail said, “OK, so it’s not huge by tournament standards, but still, an 18 incher isn’t too bad.  We’ll get some nice chunks tonight.  I think I’m done fishing.  Want me to take the knife?”

Lena said, “Oh no.  I said I’d clean ‘em.”

Redtail smiled and gathered up everything but the last bass and the knife.  Lena finished cleaning the fish and wiping out the body cavity and they headed back to the camp.  Redtail led them to the water spigot on the side of the house.  “Let’s give ‘em a good clean rinse.”

Redtail and Lena arrived at the campsite.  Redtail dried off her feet and put on the shoes.  “Oh good!  They’re almost totally dry.  They only feel a little cool.”  She grabbed her umbrella and they headed to Lena’s car.

Lena pulled out of the driveway and headed east on ZZ.  “I sure hope the judge comes tonight.  He doesn’t hear cases on Wednesdays so he often stays late here on Tuesday night.”

Redtail said, “I’ve heard from several that he’s an interesting guy to listen to.”

Lena said, “Yeah, he’s the authority on local history and an eager story-teller.  He says he listens all day and that’s why he likes to talk at night.”

After almost two miles of straight road, ZZ turned into hilly twisty ups and downs.  This eastern part of the road is where bikers and kids sometimes like to play.  You might even catch an old man from time to time testing out his sports car on this end of the road.  Lena drove responsibly, but also with confidence.

“There’s a fair number of wrecks out here,” said Lena.  “Mostly single vehicle and kids.  Frank spends quite a bit of time out here on ZZ.” 

The road leveled out and straightened slightly as they approached a hilltop.  Redtail gave a short quiet giggle as she saw the hand-painted place name sign, black on white, which said, ‘Nowhere’.  ZZ had stop signs and County Road E did not.  To their left, on the northwest corner was EZ’s Treasure Shop.  Across E and to the right, on the southeast corner was low wide building with a sign over the door which read, ‘The Bumpy Log Social Club.’ 

Redtail said, “Another place name comes to mind, ‘Why Here?’  I’ll bet there’s fun stories behind these names.”

Lena began as she pulled across E and into the Bumpy Log’s parking lot, “I kind of like the stories behind Now Here and EZ’s places.  Technically, The Bumpy Log’s not a managed club.  The owner really only provides the facility and most of the furniture and conveniences.  We regulars know where stuff is and how to fix drinks and food if it’s not already available.” 

They stopped the car and got out and Lena said she’d run across the road to get the key and be right back.  Redtail looked around and smiled at the place’s seeming charm.

Lena got back and started back into the story as she unlocked the door.  “Imagine in your own home a huge living-dining room with a big kitchen and restrooms attached.  One of the first things you’ll notice on entering, besides being asked if you know the secret password, is the d├ęcor.    It features lots of rough cut, gnarly, burly, knotty woods.  That’s where The Bumpy Log gets its name.” 

***   ***   ***
Chapter 25

Lena stepped into The Bumpy Log first, then swung around barring the entrance for Redtail.  She said, “I gotta ask if you know the secret password.  It’s sort of a formality.”

Redtail said incredulously, “I don’t know the password!  This is my first time here.”

Lena laughed, “Good.  That means it’s still secret.  We just want to make sure it stays secret.  C’mon in.”

“Do you know the password?” asked Redtail.

“I’m not sure anyone does.  I sure don’t.  Maybe EZ might,” said Lena.  “It’s been a secret for as long as I can remember.  And now I’ll tell ya of the origin of The Bumpy Log Social Club.  It’s sort of a fun story.” 

The story goes something like this.  Ever since Desert Storm, Ezekiel Dossett had shied away from people.  He could have been called a recluse, yet he loved friends and family.  He was in a rough spot.  He loved to talk to new people, but he was anything but a social butterfly.  You probably know the type.  You might even be that type, but you don’t strike me as such.

Ten or so years ago, EZ, as Ezekiel’s friends called him, was out cruising the yard sales for treasures for his flea market booth in Warrensburg.  He’d dreamed of one day owning his own second hand store.  EZ drove up to the intersection of two roads he’d never before traveled.  He spotted beat up, weathered, barely readable “For Sale” signs on opposite corners of the intersection.  In his imagination, he saw the rainbow ending right over that junction.  He even thought he heard harp music.  EZ knew these places were meant for him.  The junction already had his name on it: County Road E and County Road ZZ –E-Zs.

EZ got the places for about the price of a new car.  Both needed paint, so they got paint-free vinyl siding instead.  The place that became The Bumpy Log had to be re-roofed after replacing a few boards.

It turned out EZ got more from the deal than he expected.  He thought he was buying just the two corner lots, but they happened to be part of a 160 acre farmstead within which laid his intersection.  He owned all four corners and down the road a bit all four directions.

Ezekiel set to work clearing brush to make his new buildings more visible and in doing so, uncovered old signs at three of the four approaches which read, “Nowhere.”

“Oh great!” he thought, “I bought business property, but in the middle of Nowhere.”  So he set out to discover that story.

Long ago, while the settlers were still picking out plots of land, a largish family came through the area.  One of the dads finally got fed up with the kids’ fussing, “Are we there yet?” He stopped the wagons and yelled, red-faced and spitting out the very deliberate words, “NO!  WE ARE NEVER THERE!  WE WILL NEVER BE THERE!  WE ARE ALWAYS HERE!  WE WILL ALWAYS BE HERE!  NOW, HERE!  NOW, HERE!”  And Dad muttered loudly as he yanked a top sideboard off a wagon and scrawled a sign saying, “NOWHERE” and drove it into the ground.  The kids and the rest of the people stared in silence.  The dog wasn’t even sure how to respond.

Of course, we know original records to places in Donowutt County got lost in Quantrill’s courthouse fire, so we really don’t know how true all this is.

The woman who previously owned EZ’s new property died and willed it to her nephew in Kansas City.  He found ownership irritating so he jumped on the $30,000 Ezekiel offered in jest, rather than keep “those two run-down buildings in the middle of nowhere” insured, mowed and taxes paid.

It was a burden off the nephew and a dream come true for Ezekiel.  The store boasted a wide roofed porch on both road-facing sides and an old general store inside.  There was even a small apartment upstairs.  EZ moved in there from Holden, MO, after a couple years’ work on the junction of E and ZZ.  The two places became EZ’s Treasure Shop and The Bumpy Log Social Club.

“Here’s the kitchen,” said Lena, “and make yourself at home.  Snoop around, and let’s get that fish cooked.”

Redtail asked, “You got the key from the Treasure Shop?  How’s that?  Do you, like, work here nights?”

Lena said, “No, whichever of us locals get here first can open up, if EZ knows us.  He keeps the key there, for just a little bit more security than leaving the place unlocked.  I better run the key back –unless you’d like to, and introduce yourself to EZ. ”

Redtail said, “I’ll let you, so I don’t surprise him too much.  And is EZ related to Ted at church?”

“EZ’s Ted’s brother.  Also, if you want,” said Lena, “While I’m gone, you could set bags of chips and bottles of nuts out on about half the tables?  We’ll let the guests open them as needed.”

“That sounds great, and I’ll watch the cooking fish,” said Redtail.

Lena took the key back to the Treasure Shop and returned in a couple minutes with EZ in tow. 

EZ spoke first.  “Howdy Redtail!  And welcome to Nowhere, The Bumpy Log and to Donowutt County.”

Redtail had just put the fish in the oven, so she grabbed a rag, wiped her hands and extended one for a handshake.  “Thank you for the warm welcome.  You’re not so shy as I was expecting.”

EZ laughed.  “Oh, no, I wouldn’t call myself shy.  I like people, but I also like staying busy with stuff, so I don’t really come across as a gregarious beer-commercial partier.  I sometimes get wrapped up in what I’m doing and seen as shy.”

Lena flopped her arm over EZ’s shoulders and said, “Yeah, EZ’s got his moments.  We all love him.”

“I better head on back to the Shop,” said EZ.  “I’ll be back after I close up.”

EZ departed and Lena took out her phone to check the time.  “It’s only 4:30, so it’ll still be a while before anyone else shows up.”

Lena started cutting the bars she brought and the door opened.  Redtail and Lena exchanged surprised glances as a young man who looked to be in his late teens came in.  He was wearing black new-looking, but dirty clothes, a grungy black backpack and he reeked of after shave.

Redtail looked at Lena and said, “I’ll get this.”  She walked over to the Log’s third guest and asked, “Excuse me, sir.  Do you know the secret password?”

He gave Redtail a scowl and asked, “Whaddo I need a password for?” 

He started to walk in farther and Redtail matter-of-factly stepped in his path and sighed.  “That’s not what I asked.”

“I don’t know no stupid password.  Is this place open yet?”

“OK, that’s better.”  Redtail turned to Lena and said, “He’s cool.  The password’s still secret.”

“You’re weird.”  He walked to a couch along a wall and flopped his backpack on it, claiming his territory.

Redtail found a stack of whipped topping and margarine bowls in a cabinet.  “Do we put these out?” she asked Lena.

Lena was starting to put on coffee.  She answered, “Yeah, but check ‘em for clean.”

The scented guy walked around nervously checking things out.  He spotted the plates of Lena’s bars and asked, “How much?”

Lena swished her hand and said, “Go ahead.”

He took a bowl, and two each of the bars.  He slowly looked around and made eye contact with Redtail again.  She asked, “Want some fish when it comes out of the oven?”

He glanced around with a sneer, asking in body-language, “You talkin’ to me?”  He then said aloud, “Does it cost anything?”

Redtail sat down at a table, shook her head and said, “That’s the second time I asked you a question and you replied without answering.”  She pulled out the chair next to her and patted the seat.  The boy looked even more nervous but he cautiously sat down.  Redtail saw a pretty thick wall of defensiveness on him, but she was determined not to let that deter her from being social.

“This your first time here?”

“Uh… Yeah.”

“Mine too.  It seems to me you’re trying to project an aloof, don’t-mess-with-me image, so I’ll apologize in advance if my attitudes clash with yours.  To answer your question, Yes.  The fish cost something.”

Hw fidgeted a little and Redtail continued. “It cost me time collecting bait and catching the fish.  It cost Lena, over there, time cleaning them.  It’ll cost me a little more time re-honing and cleaning the knife, and it cost the time, gas and clean-up to cook and serve it here.  That answers your question, but probably not what you were asking.”

By  now, Lena had sat down in the background to watch.

Redtail continued, and still sounded quite cheerful, without tones of lecture.  “I just thought since I had plenty, that I’d like to share it with you and Lena.  Your only cost would be to say, ‘Yes please,’ or ‘No thank you.’”

There was a couple seconds of silence. Then the boy softly said, “Yes please?”

Redtail happily chirped, “Oh good!  And it’s probably just about ready.”  She hopped up and skipped to the kitchen.

Redtail brought the baking pan, paper plates and plastic forks and put them all on the table where she and Mr. Aftershave had their short discussion. 

“I usually cook these with skins and bones, so I don’t lose any meat.  Baking in a real oven is even better, ‘cuz none falls in the fire.” Said Redtail.

Lena sat down next to Mr. Aftershave and Redtail sat on his other side.  Redtail said, “By the way, I’m Redtail.”

Lena added, “And I’m Lena,” as she extended a hand to Mr. Aftershave.

Redtail said, after a slight pause, “And you are?”

Mr. Aftershave shook hands with Lena and said, softly, “My friends call me AJ.”

Lena said, “Cool, Redtail!  He didn’t give us an option.  Looks like we’re friends.  AJ it is.”

Redtail started, “Lord, we’re often quick to count our hardships and too slow to see how wonderfully You provide for us.  Thank You for being You and for sending Your son.  Thank you also for your wonderful provision.  And it’s only in Jesus’ name I can talk to You, Amen.”

Redtail looked up and Lena was smiling.  AJ looked puzzled, then asked, with an almost superior sneer, “If God’s supposed to love us so much and provide for us, how come there’s so much starvation in the world?”  He followed with a look with attitude that said, ‘Ha! There’s a stumper for your religious crap.’

Lena raised an eyebrow at Redtail.

“Oh, but He does!” replied Redtail with a smile. “And He provides most-abundantly. We’ve just forgotten how to look.  Oh! Do you want a salad with your fish?”  Redtail waited a moment and said, “Well, I’m good to go without.”

She cut the big bass down the along the fins, lifting the slab of meat with fins, backbone and tail.  Her half of the ribcage came out with her slab and she lifted the ribs out of the remaining slab and set them aside.  Redtail pointed to the half on her plate, saying, “Also be careful ot this little strip of bones running down the thick part.  I used to cut that strip out when I’d filet my fish.  Wow, how did I know that?  Bits and pieces of my past are slowly, but surely trickling back.”

Lena said, as she sliced open the other bass, “I wondered about that.”

AJ asked, “What? Like you got amnesia or something?”

“Probably something,” said Redtail.  “My memory only goes back a few weeks.  So really, I’ve been living out in the woods for as long as I can remember.” 

Redtail tried to summarize in her mind what she did know about herself.  ‘I think I come from sandy pinier country, and my voice sounds more southern than lots of the locals –maybe from Mississippi?  I’ve got a Christian background, and a background that gave me lots of wild edibles and camping experience.  I’m a social person and seem to love interacting with kids.’

Redtail noticed AJ and Lena staring at her.  “Oh, sorry.  I was trying to think of what I actually know about myself.”

AJ asked, “You live in the woods?  Are you a drifter, too?”

“I live on Grandpa George’s place,” said Redtail.

“Oh, so you’re living with family,” concluded AJ.

“Not really,” said Redtail.  “He informally adopted me as his grand daughter.  He made up an ID for me, in case nothing else comes up and he gave me permission to stay at his place as long as I need to.”

AJ scanned Redtail up and down quick and gave a cynical smile.  “Yeah, I’ll bet so.”  He followed the  comment with a short sneering laugh.

Redtail pretended to be oblivious to his implication, but Lena jumped to their defense.  “Wipe that thought outta your head.  I’ve known George for many years and Redtail for almost, well, as long as she can remember.”

AJ interrupted, “Right.  Right.  Like what gives your opinion any clout?”

Lena asked, “How long have you been in Donowutt County?”

AJ sneered, “A whole lot longer than Redtail.”

Lena said, “George’s best lady friend is a county police dispatcher.  My husband is on law enforcement, and I, have been on the sheriff’s Posse for over 10 years.  We’ll even ask Judge Noyugo if he trusts my opinions when he comes in, let’s see,” she looked at the wall clock, “in about 45 minutes.”

AJ just about choked on his bite of fish, and with an almost scolded puppy attitude, softly said, “OK, I believe ya.  I’ll probably be gone before the judge gets here anyway.  I gotta be someplace.”

Redtail looked at Lena and Lena smiled back.  She also noticed AJ’s plate was almost clean.  Redtail shrugged and asked him, “Want some more? Some people like the sunfish better.”

He said, quietly, “Nah. No thank you.  I’m good.”  He finished, glanced back and forth and said, “Thank you.  That was good, but I gotta be movin’ on.”  He still tried to sound in-control-casual, but he’d lost his composure.  With a bit more urgency in his movements, he headed to the couch, threw his pack on his arm and said softly over his shoulder, “Be cool.”  He slipped quietly out.

Redtail shook her head and said to Lena, “Wow, something you said got him all discombobulated.   He didn’t flinch about Sarah or Frank, but something you said about you and the Posse put him on edge.”

“Donowutt County’s whole organization is kinda odd, with us being lost, but, our law enforcement community, and it really is a community, is truly unique,” began Lena.

“But ‘Posse’ sounds so wild west,”  said Redtail.

“Yeah, but what comes to mind when you think, ‘posse’?” asked Lena.

“Oh, I suppose Black Bart just shot Jeb in cold blood and rode outta town laughing maniacally with Jeb’s girlfriend tied up and screaming.  The fine upstanding townsfolk amass a makeshift army to bring Bart to justice: The Posse.”

“That’s a fair start, but imagine the makeshift army of do-gooders with today’s technology, and organized.  The Posse isn’t just town by town, but one big county-wide disciplined unit who knows it’s always on standby.  This Posse communicates with smart phones, Internet, HAM radio, landlines and all the county’s law enforcement knows they can be relied on for dedicated help.  That’s sort of what The Posse is here in Donowutt County.  The drifter/panhandler/opportunist element hears about us pretty quickly.”

Redtail said, “Wow, that sounds almost like a government-sanctioned militia –an armed volunteer fire department.”

“We’re not so much volunteers as we get volunteered.  Sheriff and police departments do the inviting and recruiting.  The presiding judge approves or disapproves the recommendations and approvals can accept or decline, knowing it’s an important obligation.  AJ’s been here long enough to know he didn’t want his behavior to get on The Posse’s radar.  He knew he’d be watched wherever he went.”

Lena continued, “Our job is to serve and protect, like our law enforcement, but a cool thing is sheriff, police and judicial aren’t in our chain of command so we don’t get coerced into politics.  Donowutt County Law Enforcement only serves as part of Posse communications.  Of course, most of our missions originate from their offices.”

Redtail said, “But it seems odd you invoked The Posse over AJ’s smarminess.”

Lena smiled, “Aren’t reputations worthy of protection?  Just doin’ my job.”

The gravel crunched in the parking lot and both girls looked at the door. 

Two guys and a girl, all in their mid-30s  walked in.  One guy said, “Hey Lena, the password’s still secret.”  All three filed into the kitchen with big drinking mugs.

Lena told Redtail, “They’re after the special spigot: ice-cold spring water after a day of tree-trimming and mulching.”

The bigger of the two guys came out telling Lena and Redtail, “Jo was quite the basket case today.” 

Jo was just behind him.  She took off her bandana and shook her hair loose. “I love it when we get the cherry picker and I get to work from the basket.”

The three sat at the table next to Lena’s and Redtail’s.  They breathed with long, leisurely breaths and sipped their cold water.

Redtail said, “I gotta try that water spigot!  If it’s half as good as they make it look, I could almost move my camp, but I like George’s place.” 

Lena and Redtail got up and Lena showed Redtail to the fountain of liquid joy.  Redtail filled a glass with the spring water and took a big sip.  She said, “This is good stuff and will likely be my drink of choice when I’m here, but, I probably won’t move my camp..”