“I’ve always wondered where that goes,” is a fairly common thought about roads we encounter while traveling. What’s down that road just might surprise you. A whole county in west central Missouri went missing. Donowutt County is thought to be somewhere between Kansas City and Columbia, and between the Missouri River and the old 351st Strategic Missile Wing’s Golf and Hotel Flight area, or just north of Stockton Lake. What brought this whole situation of the missing county to light is the tale of a young woman who lost it. No, she didn’t lose the county. Circumstances in her life led her to take a summer trip to ‘get away from it all’. On the way, she lost it. She snapped. She lost her sense of reality. In her effort to get away from what caused the snap, she got herself into Donowutt County. So really, this girl, through getting lost, found the missing county for you readers.
How I stumbled across her story and Donowutt County is a convoluted route which this writing isn’t going to travel. Suffice it to say, I’ve somehow become the Donowutt County recorder and historian. As County Recorder and Historian, I should share with you my findings thus far.
Native legend (Osage? We’re not certain.) has it that long ago, The Spanish Nut came to what is now Donowutt County and built his Great Rock Lodge on the Great Rock which forms most of Rainy Island on Horseshoe Lake. He finished his great lodge and as he planted a flag bearing his arms on the high tower, he was struck by lightning and killed. His entourage went home. There is a ring of truth to it, as in the 1540s, Coronado’s nephew, Steve, wanted to make a name for himself and took a fair-sized expedition farther east. This was in opposition to warnings that the Englishman said, “It’s cold out there,” and not “There’s gold out there.”
The Osage found the rock to be about worthless. They couldn’t dig in it. They couldn’t drive a stake into it and there was no game or even soil up there. They knew the view was nice, but also going up there to admire that view was a complete waste of time. So they called Steve “The Spanish Nut” rather than “King Steve the First,” which Steve preferred.
A page of what is thought to have come from the journal of an expedition member states,
…and the local people would bring lawn chairs and set them up on high ground while others
would sit in their canoes on the water. They would all eat popcorn, pointing and laughing as
we built the castle for His Majesty Steve.
One historian has suggested the reason we don’t have more of this document is the writer’s typewriter ribbon may have broken or run out of ink. The Natives soon called the castle “Shaking Head Rock” since that is what they did as they passed the place and thought of all the wasted effort. That effort went wasted until the late 1600s when French explorers under Francois Derche stumbled across the castle.
The French quickly realized the castle walls and towers formed an excellent base from which to launch their characteristic taunts at the indigenous peoples or far more often at turtles, swamp birds and mosquitoes, which were frequently mistaken for swamp birds. They lost interest in exploring the land and became possessive of the castle, wanting it to remain their secret. The castle remained undocumented until now. The French explored the castle to find a basement (probably called “dungeon”) full of research tools designed to extract information from human subjects or to convince them of the error of their ways. The tools are said to be typical of those employed by many early Spanish military “missionaries”. Literacy seems to have become a preferred proselytizing tool in more recent years.
The French and Indian Wars broke out and the French abandoned the castle to fight those evil English. The English were still bitter over that incident with French Vikings in 1066 and the French were still bitter over the English being bitter. It remains a bitter affair.
Not much is recorded, even copied from oral native history, until the 1800s. The early 1800s witnessed an explosion in settlement –actually, more of a pop. The settlers’ departure was delayed by their search for a suitable manufacturer of droves, in which they could arrive. They soon realized they could build their own, simply by traveling in groups. The settlers settled (which is what settlers did) on Shaking Head Rock, but farmed farther east, and out of the usual flood plain. One year, after extra heavy rains, Derche Creek ate the land bridge to Shaking Head Rock. The people moved away from the castle and closer to their fields. Higginsburg was born. Shaking Head Rock also became known as Rainy Island. Subsequent settlement and growth followed fairly ordinary paths. Nothing noteworthy really happened except the getting lost thing.
How Donowutt County really got lost will probably never be known. If it was, the county would be recovered, but it doesn’t look like that will ever happen. Missouri became the 24th state in 1821. Many counties were recognized as official counties around then. The confusion occurring from the activity in processing and creating names and surveys and paperwork and such very likely contributed to Donowutt County’s loss.
“Obscured” is probably a better word than “lost.” Donowutt County’s incorporated cities have Post Offices. The Department of Conservation has an office in Big River. 4-H recognizes Donowutt County, but the Boy and Girl Scouts do not. County government and legal systems are almost never recognized outside the county. City police departments are interconnected to outside the county, but the court system almost never goes higher than Donowutt County.
Usually, a verdict from a Donowutt County court is final. Higher appeals are usually met with “From Donowutt County? What kind of joke is this?” and they get denied. So if you visit Donowutt County, behave yourselves, because a stay at Rainy Island Prison is no fun at all. That, however, is quite another story.
Time went on and the Donowutt County populace adapted to its rather unique obscurity. They found many benefits to the isolation and they got accustomed to the irritations. Donowutt County lived in its near-forgotten state until our afore-mentioned young lady stumbled across our mystery county. Here is her story.
She was usually a very cheerful girl: truly joyful, --friendly and personable to everyone. Recent circumstances weighed heavily on her. Having finished her second to the last term before graduation from Augusta University in Georgia, she was anxious about her final term and future. School stress with election year politics and the associated hostilities convinced her to take a summer get-away trip.
Seeking comfort, she thought, “I am sick and tired of the bickering and outright fighting! Why do people have to be one extreme or the other and then argue and fight about it! I hate election years. All my friends think I’m on ‘the other side’ just because I won’t rabidly adhere to theirs. I’m fed up, and also with all the school work of this past Spring Term! I’m tired of it, and just tired in general! I’m gonna take me a long trip to chill and maybe it’ll all go away! By bus, and to Seattle should be peaceful. I’ve never been there. That should give me plenty of time to think. I’ll just tell my parents I’ll be incommunicado for the summer. I need this escape!”
So she took a trip, but was still bombarded at every bus stop --every media source –Trump this, Cruz that, Clinton another thing, Sanders another. Part way into her trip, she thought, “I can’t take it anymore! I’m taking this trip to get away from all that, but I can’t seem to!” She got off the bus at a stop and stretched her legs. It was just night. She grabbed her head and walked until she couldn’t hear any media, and she sat down. She cried. She cried a little longer and stood up, looked around, wimpered and just walked off toward darkness.
She walked and walked. If a road looked darker, that's where she headed. She finally stopped. Except for the nearby night creatures and gentle breeze rippling the leaves, silence reigned. Sounds of what called itself "civilization" were distant enough it was almost impossible to discern their sources. She looked around in the near silence and smiled for the first time in what felt like months. Then the distant patches of light on the horizon reminded her of the loud peopley white-noisy places where the loudest and angriest thought they were most important or most right. She stepped off the road a bit, sat down, and sobbed herself to sleep.
The next morning --or was it still morning? --it didn't really matter. She felt like a new person after her roadside sleep. It was a nice day for walking and that's just what our traveler did. Through the woods and across an overgrown stubble field, eat a couple hands full of chickweed and dead nettle. She walked through a tiny town, not even noticing what it was called. It had a little park with a drinking fountain, so she stopped for a drink. She ate one of the candy bars she had in her bag. She took a longer look at the bag and wondered, "I thought I had more stuff than this?" She had a suitcase packed for the trip, but forgot it back somewhere. "Oh well, it doesn't matter. It's hard to miss something when you don't know what it is." She smiled as she thought, “I’ve gone through the woods, but not over the river, so I’m probably not headed to Grandmother's House. There's another woods. I'll go through that." And she walked and walked all day.
It was almost dark when she came to a clearing. “That pile of concrete pipes should allow ample shelter for the night,” she thought. The pipes were almost 3 feet in diameter and she could see out the other end. She crawled into one and fell asleep.
When she awoke, the sun shined brightly, and she heard an odd scratching sound at the pipe’s opening. She opened her eyes wider to see a big hawk’s head, upside down, peering into the pipe. She jumped, smacking her head on the pipe. Out she scooted. She straightened up and as she stretched, she saw the hawk fly away off a nearby power pole. “Stupid redtail,” she muttered as she scrunched her eyes shut and squeezed her head in her hands. “Good, no bleeding.” Looking around, she saw nothing to help her get her bearings. The pile of pipes, however, was at the edge of a graveled area which connected to a driveway leading to a gravel road. She started walking again.
Up one road and down another, she hiked. She turned one way and walked and turned another. Hours passed and she arrived at a small parking lot with a couple cars and restroom facilities. The structure was heavily painted in brown, and the signs featured routered letters filled in with yellow paint. “This must be a park of some sort, but where –why don’t I know where I am?” Then she sat down on a short bit of fence, with a wide-eyed stare and said aloud, “Where am I? is a good question, but who am I? is pretty important, too.” She jumped when a crackly old voice broke the near-silence of the outdoor air.
“Maybe I can help. Let’s examine the evidence,” the old man said.
She took a look at the old guy and thought, “At least he’s someone to talk to.” She guessed him to be close to 80. Wispy hair on a nearly bald head. He walked slow and with a cane.
He looked at her and said, “Ya might wanna speak up. I don’t hear so good, and I’m nearly blind, too.”
She began, “Well, I… Wow! I hardly remember a thing. I spent the night in a drainage pipe and woke up to a big redtail hawk staring me in the face. Oh wait! I’ve got a wallet in my bag!”
The old guy said, “Wouldn’t do me no good anyhow. I can’t see good enough to read.”
She glanced around and sighed, “I must’ve left my plaid bag in that pipe I slept in. There’s no way I could find my way back there.”
Confidently, the old guy said, “I might just have enough to go on. Plaid, bagpipe, well, shoot! Yer a Scotsman! Yer Redtail Mac… Mac… Mac somethin’ or other, --a Scotsman, anyway.”
Another voice broke in as a woman with two kids emerged on the parking lot from a trail. “Grandpa! Leave her alone. Oh, we’re sorry. Did he try to solve a crime for you? He often thinks he’s an investigator of some sort. He wanders off when we turn our heads. C’mon Grandpa. Let’s get in the car. Oh, I hope he didn’t bother you.”
Redtail answered, “Oh, no. He’s actually been most-helpful.”
The family got into their car and Mom rolled down the window saying, “Enjoy your day, and the wonderful weather.” The car started and they backed out.
“Well, until I hear otherwise, I guess I’m Redtail MacSumpneruther, the Scotsman.” Redtail smiled and waved as the family drove off.
Alone again, except for the single car in the parking lot, Redtail took advantage of the restroom and drinking fountain. She wished she could take the fountain with her as she continued her quest for whatever it was she was looking for. Redtail spotted a 2-liter bottle in the trash. “Yes! It’s still got its cap!” She unscrewed the cap with a slight hiss and she smelled the contents. “Oh good, this isn’t someone’s spit bottle,” she thought. Redtail almost skipped the few steps back to the drinking fountain. After a thorough rinse, she filled the bottle and capped it. Then she set off.
Some way down the road and a couple hours of twists and turns brought her to something which caught her eye. Rusty ‘stuff’ and muted weathered colors said she might find some survival goodies off the road and a bit into the woods. “An old dumping spot. That’s sure to have some stuff I can fashion into tools,” she thought. After poking around the junk pile for some time, she sat on an old 55 gallon drum and thought, “Wow! That’s a lot of cool stuff.”
Different people have different ideas about “cool stuff,” and at least for now, Redtail was about as different as they come. Her pile of “cool stuff” she collected from the junk heap consisted of a 5/16” steel rod about 2 ½ feet long with a flattened drilled end like it had served as a brace of some sort, a plastic Folgers’ coffee can with lid, 4 spiral notebooks with damp moldy wrinkled pages, a garden shovel blade, a 2 quart saucepan with no handle, a 20 pound catfood bag full of empty 20 pound catfood bags, and a metal toolbox, crushed on one side and stuck shut.
Redtail laid the box on its hinge and took the nearby, football-sized rock in both hands. She squatted by the box, with a knee on both ends. She raised the rock over her head and slammed it down on the latch side, breaking the rusted seal on the box. The toolbox was broke, but still not cooperating with the opening. Redtail took her ‘new’ steel rod and poked it into the box. After some twisting and prying, the box opened far enough to be able to shake out the contents.
Redtail flipped the toolbox hinge-side up and began shaking. Soon she had a pile of rust dust, old nails, a ball-peen hammer, prybar, straight utility knife blades, reciprocating saw blades, a slipjoint pliers, a common pliers, an assortment of very well-used screwdrivers and fist full of metal files. Redtail proudly stood up near her pile of cool stuff and another item in the junk pile cried out, “Look at me!” Right under where the toolbox had been stuck, appeared to be a very-thin piece of drilled barstock, about an inch and a quarter wide. Redtail took hold of the rusty bit of metal and gave it a tug. She pulled it from the pile and it gave a hard-steel ring as if a nice sword was being unsheathed. What she discovered was a machete blade, and in not too bad shape, either. The handle had fallen off, but that would be easily repaired. “What a find! All this wonderful stuff, but no home.”
Redtail brought the machete to the cool stuff pile and gave the toolbox a toss back into the trash heap. A tight wad of something fell out as the box hit the heap. She went over to what she’d missed and picked up the dusty wallet and counted out $72.34. She sat down, sighed and smiled. Her stomach growled. Priorities had reared its ugly head.
“Oh! Oh oh oh oh oh! I crossed a little creek down the road a little way back! I wonder if there’s anything in it,” thought Redtail. “I’ll bring the steel rod for a spear and the notebooks for line.” She chuckled to herself, thinking, “It’s lined paper, after all. Bait! There’s worms under some of these boards.” She rounded up a handful of worms, put them in the coffee can and off she went.
Redtail peered over the rail to a clear, nearly-still pool of water. Water striders zipped across the surface, while at one edge of the pool a big herd of whirligig beetles meandered back and forth. The pool seemed to be about 3 feet deep at its deepest, and Redtail didn’t spot any fish except some tiny minnows. Two concrete culverts took what little of the stream that flowed, from one side of the road to the other. Only one culvert trickled. Redtail wondered if she might have any luck with crayfish. She pulled the wire from a notebook and straightened it as best she could. She threaded a worm onto one end and bent the wire to secure it. She laid down on her belly in the dry culvert and worked the wire like a stiff dropline. Luckily, the crayfish seemed hungrier than she was. She jiggled the worm by the edge of a rock and a crayfish would rush out and grab it with its pinchers and hug it to its mouth, usually refusing to let go as she gently lifted it out of the water and snatching it to put it in the coffee can. In about an hour, she had 20 crawdads and used only three of her worms. She sat up and looked in the can. She wondered how she was going to cook these. Redtail packed up and headed back to the junkyard, thinking about her options the whole way. The sun was still high, but well into the afternoon. She grinned and broke into a trot to her treasure trove.
She set her dinner down and quickly went to a plastic wastepaper basket bag. She pawed past the spent Kleenex and snack wrappers and triumphantly held up a broke pair of glasses. She looked at them, wiped them off and figured she might just have herself a fire-starter –weather permitting.
Kindling was easy, as she’d moved quite a few mouse nests while exploring the junk pile. She got the sunbeam focused as best she could on the mouse fuzz and began to wonder if the lens would be strong enough. She popped the second lens out and put both together to try again. She just about gave up when a tiny hopeful plume of smoke appeared. She held the lenses steady until more and more smoke formed and finally, a tiny flame. She gently blew on the flame and it got big enough she set the lenses down. Slowly, she fed the flames bigger and bigger sticks until she knew it would stay lit until she could gather more fuel. With the help of the machete, she got a cooking-worthy fire going. It didn’t take her long to realize she’d need a better handle than an old shirt sleeve wrap, if she was to use the machete much at all.
Redtail balanced the pan between some rocks near the fire and poured in creek water from the coffee can. It took a while, but before dusk, the water came to a boil. One by one, she dropped the crawdads into the water, watching as they flipped their tails a couple times then tip sideways as they turned red. Figuring for dinner, more is better, she tossed the remaining earthworms into the water as well. She even found a few tiny wild onions, which didn’t amount to much added substance, but she dropped them in, too. Redtail thought, “I’m going to let this cook a while, since everything was dirty to start with –pan, water, worms…”
She took the slipjoint pliers and lifted the pan from the fire. While it cooled, she collected more fuel to make sure the fire stayed burning a while longer. With the fire re-built, she tested the pan to see if it was cool enough to dig out the food. She tapped the side with the back of her hand, and it didn’t feel too hot. Then she touched the side with the palm of her hand. Redtail stuck a finger into the hottish water and drew out a bright red crayfish. She peeled the shell off the tail, and extracted the ‘vein’ (actually the intestine) and ate the ball of meat –and the strip of meat off the top of the vein. The pinchers were big enough she broke them open, too, and ate the meat from them. Redtail smiled, thinking of her first camp food being seafood. She wondered about all the ‘stuff’ inside the head portion of the crayfish. She’d heard it, or at least parts were edible. But with a frustrated sigh, she thought, “Shoot. I’m not really sure, so I better deprive myself of trying.” She kept cracking shells and eating. Some pinchers were tough enough she had to use a pliers to gently squeeze to get them cracked. Worms. Hesitatingly, Redtail looked at the remaining worms. She ate the onions, which were nicely sweet and flavorful by themselves.
Redtail poked her fingers around the pan to get a couple worms. She squeezed her eyes shut and popped them into her mouth. “Hmm. Sort of earthy, but then again, they ARE earthworms.” Chew “…yuck, gritty, but that calamari texture’s got potential!” She chewed gently, and tried as best she could, to separate the grit. There was a fair amount of spitting, but Redtail finished her meal and even drank the water, or most of it. She drank slowly to avoid the sediment. She wanted to save the clean liter of water she had left in the bottle. Almost dark. She’d better find somewhere to sleep.
Redtail got up from dinner and took a few steps and stumbled on something in the ground. She reached down and unearthed a block of steel. It was heavy and about 5 or 6 inches square and nearly an inch thick. She had no clue what she might use it for, but thought it’d be cool enough to include with her cool stuff. Around and around the heap she walked, and off to one side and under a mass of dirt and leaves, she found a sheet of half-inch plywood with the corners rotted off. She wondered, “I don’t know why I gotta sleep ‘under’ something, but it just feels better. It don’t look like rain at all tonight.” She slid the 55 gallon drum farther out of the heap and propped one side of the plywood on it. With the leaves, she made herself a bed for the night.
As she stirred the ashes and dug the fire out, she pondered hygiene, clean utensils and other food-ware, and wondered about starting fires without sunlight, or in wetter conditions. Then she rebuilt the fire, using a couple glowing embers to get it restarted. She cleared all the potential accidental fuel away and went back down to the creek to refill the pan and coffee can with water.
She stoked the fire back up and hoped she’d have enough spark left by morning to get more water boiled. And she crawled into bed and fell asleep.
“WHAP! Tinkle tinkle tinkle!” went something out on the road. Redtail woke with a start. She listened for a bit and smiled, thinking at least she didn’t bump her head or get greeted by a big hawk. But what was that noise? She kicked the plywood sheet off, and caught it with her foot, as it tried to close back over her. Standing up and giving a big stretch, she thought, “Eww! These clothes are getting grodie!” She walked out to the road to where the noise came from, and spotted a tiedown strap that must’ve snapped off a passing truck or car. She grabbed it, thinking, “More cool stuff.” She really wanted to look at that creek some more. “Maybe there’s a place with real fish.” She rolled up the strap and wandered back down to the creek.
“Upstream or down? I’ll try down. Maybe I can find a deeper hole than here by the bridge.” Into the woods and along the creek she went. She’d gotten far enough downstream the passing car was barely heard. A short while later, she came across a bend in the stream with a beautiful rocky, deep, clarity to the water. OK, maybe 4 feet’s not deep, but a pleasant change from the riffles of earlier. She climbed to the high side of the bank and found a spot to lie down to study the pool. There’s some pan-size fish in this creek! She stood back up and looked around and listened. Nothing but Nature, and the road is quite a way away. I think I just might come back here to do some laundry and get a bath. Then she spotted ripe raspberries! What a wonderful, relaxing day in store. She grabbed a bunch of raspberries and headed back to her camp.
Still enough spark to get a fire going for cooking, so she loaded on more fuel and put the pot on to boil. While the pot boiled, she remembered for the boiling to do her any good, she’d have to find more storage containers. She dug around more in the heap. She found a couple baby food jars, three quart canning jars, and more lids than she needed. She took the steel rod and used it to drop the jars into the boiling water. The water cooled, and she poured it into the jars. She sort of felt guilty pouring any out for lack of containers, but she did a little after drinking more than she felt comfortable with. She saved her drinking fountain water in case she felt a need for a clean rinse, should she ingest something nasty. Redtail took a quart bottle with her as she headed back to the pool she found. She took a step and a truck started heading for her junk heap.
Redtail got excited as she thought of human interaction, and she started toward the truck. They made eye contact, and the driver gave a panicked look and slammed on his brakes. He threw the truck in reverse and stomped the gas to back out of the overgrown access road. She called for him to stop, but when he hit the blacktop, tires squealed and the truck sped out of sight. She wondered why he left in such a hurry, and then thought, “Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be there, and thought he was caught. I guess I’ll head off to the pool then.”
At the pool, she stopped and sat for a while, listening and watching. Only Redtail and Nature out there. She silently went down to the water’s edge and slipped off her shirt and began a thorough rinse. She wrung it out and hung it on a nearby branch. She stopped and listened again. Nothing. She took off her pants and did the same thing. Then she noticed the gentle current cleared the water between washings. “Well now, that’s cool,” she thought. Then she sat down in the water for a soak. It was on the cool side at first, but she quickly got used to the temp. She slid into the water ‘til she was up to just about her chin and waited and listened. Still just the woodsy silence. She felt some odd tingles, then an occasional pinch sensation. She jumped and looked, to realize it was a whole school of little sunfish nibbling ‘stuff’ off her. She settled back into the soak. She almost dozed off. Thinking she was getting too comfortable in the water, she gave herself a rub-down and scooted to clearer water for a rinse.
She stepped from the water and hand-squeegeed herself nearly dry. Her clothes were still uncomfortably damp, so she cautiously did some exploring to air-dry after turning the clothes right side out and re-hanging them. She ate some more raspberries and found an embankment that offered a place at which she could make a new camp. She went back to her hanging clothes to find they’d dried. Getting re-dressed, she felt quite refreshed, and planned to rebuild her camp at the embankment.
Redtail figured she needed a map, and there might be enough useable paper in the notebooks to do that. She arrived back at the junk pile and began packing the catfood bags. Four bags would be rough to carry in one trip. Then she remembered the tiedown strap. She tied two bags together at one end of the strap, but figured all four bags would be a bit heavy, so she tied only the third to the other end of the strap. She slid her head under the strap and stood up. That would work quite nicely. She carried her load to her new site, with only one car driving by. They gave her some odd looks. The girl in the car even sneered, she thought. She went back for the fourth bag, but spotted another item she thought would go good with her cool stuff. It was a big chunk of some sort of ceramic pot. She knew that piece of smooth bottom would make an excellent sharpening stone. There was still room in the bag. As she carried the last bag off, she looked at the sheet of plywood and gave a sigh.
With all four bags at the embankment, she smiled and then grumbled, trudging back to the junk heap to try to get the sheet of plywood to help her in shelter-building. She tipped the sheet on its side and tried to lift the whole thing. She tried to drag it flat. This just wasn’t going to work. She tipped it back on its side and dragged it, while it scuffed its corner. She made it back to the embankment and saw the little trench it left in the ground where it scraped. She walked back to the junk pile for her last time that day, while trying to cover up the line leading anyone to her new camp. She got back to the pile and grabbed several longer boards to also help in her shelter-building. Back to the embankment she trudged. She was getting a little tired by now, but the day was still young.
Redtail sat down and dug out the best-looking of the notebooks. About half of it was useable, even though the lines had faded off through moisture damage. She flexed the notebook back and forth a few times and most of the pages separated. Then she realized she had nothing to write with. Another sigh, knowing there’d be another trip back to the junk pile to hunt down a pen or pencil. Redtail figured the shelter was more important, so she set about trying to figure how it should be built.
She had nails. She had crude cutting tools. She had a hammer. She had very limited lumber, but a woods full of trees. Redtail picked out two tall thin trees of about 5 inches in diameter at the base. She wrapped the machete handle with a catfood bag and began chopping. Redtail massaged her shoulder with her un-worn arm after she got the trees down, but she was happy to have gotten them down. She set the narrow tips on the embankment and got the plywood rolled end-over-end onto the saplings. She wondered why trees aren’t called saps if young ones are saplings. She slid the plywood up to the tops of the trees and felt stuck. How does she keep it from simply sliding back down the trees? Then she gave up and let it slide back, while she got the nails and the hammer. She got back under the sheet and slid it back in place, held it with her hip, placed a nail in her mouth, one in her left hand and the hammer in her right. She placed the nail where she wanted it and hit her thumb on her first swing. She winced, but was lucky she wasn’t experienced with a hammer with full power behind the swings. She took the second nail from her mouth and tapped it into place with a bunch of little taps. Hesitatingly, she released pressure from her hip, and the board held. She grabbed another nail and braced the board while she tapped the next one in place.
Redtail was convinced she had an OK shelter for the night, and decided to make that map of her surroundings. She grabbed a handful of raspberries and headed back to the junk heap. By now, she hated multiflora rose and the way it grabbed at everything. The heap almost felt like home, and she knew her way around it pretty well, but she had to dig into places she hadn’t been before. She poked her steel rod into holes and pried stuff as she could. One poke gave her a hollow sound. Redtail pried and dug. She soon realized it was a plastic tub. She pried and pulled, then broke the side of the tub out and reached inside to see what might lurk within. Wonderfully, it seemed like it was full of office supplies. Stapler, ruler, Post-It notes, but no pens or pencils. A coloring book came out, then a set of safety-scissors. But it wasn’t empty. She reached in again and found a make-up kit. And again and got a box of used crayons. That was enough for Redtail to complete her mission. She headed back to the embankment.
On her way back, she picked any greens she thought looked dandelion-like, since she’d read there are no toxic dandelion look-alikes. She got some dandelion, and lots of chicory. She sat down when she got back and took a short nap. The sun was high when she awoke, so she figured it was a good time to start a fire. The fire was going, and she went down to the creek for a pan of water to boil. Water on the fire, she sat back down to begin her map. She only had a few points to draw out, but it would be a start in trying to figure out her world. She drew out what she called: Home, The Berry Patch, The Laundry Room, The Crayfish Hole, and The Supply Depot, which is what she decided to call the junk heap.
The sun was starting to get low, and Redtail gathered more firewood. She took out her slab of metal. She got the hammer and her steel rod. She thought she ought to make herself a fish spear, and began to hammer the tip flat. Tink Tink Tink Tink And the tip got flatter and flatter. Tink Tink Tink Tink And she took out a file and started tuning the tip more finely.
Meanwhile… Into Redtail’s woods, farther than she’d explored, at another encampment, George listened and puzzled. “Dang! I smelled smoke yesterday, and now, I got me a woodpecker sounding like a blacksmith out in my woods. It’s getting on ta dark, so I’ll see what I can find out in the morning.”
George retired from the mainstream workforce recently. He and his wife spent much of their adult lives preparing for a minimalist lifestyle. Pure off the gridding self-sufficiency had been the goal. George’s wife passed away several years back and they had no children. It was just George on their 200 acre place that backed up to the huge conservation area. George still had power, water and a retirement check. He also made a little money on the side through donations as he taught survival classes. He’d been striving toward this nearly reclusive lifestyle long enough stories had begun to circulate among the local youth about the scary old backwoodsman. Despite the tales, old George was about as friendly and helpful a guy as you’d ever meet.
“Tink… Tink… Tink…” again came from the woods.
George heard a rustle in the leaves and a grunt as Redtail slipped on a slick spot on the bank between the pool or Laundry Room and her home. George dropped to the ground and winced, but didn’t let out a grunt. His knees weren’t what they used to be. He watched and a couple seconds later, spotted movement and soon saw Redtail come up from the creek and her morning forage. All kinds of thoughts started running through his head.
George thought, “What’s she up to? Is she alone? That’s quite a make-shifty site. She doesn’t appear to be armed or ready to fight.” A pang of concern ran through his head as he pondered, “She seems so fragile to be out here all by herself. What is she up to?” He watched quietly as Redtail held the lenses together and started her fire.
Redtail put the pan of water on the fire and placed two hands full of greens in to simmer. She grasped a utility knife blade with a pliers and slit open the bellies of the three little sunfish she caught. She gutted them and slid them onto the metal rod and propped it over the fire with rocks and sticks. The greens were finally done and she hoped the fish were, too. She pliered the pan off the fire and jerked her hand back when she touched the rod holding the fish. “That was dumb! Might even leave a mark,” Redtail thought. Slowly, so as not to startle Redtail, George got up. His knees poked him and this time he grunted. Redtail looked his way.
They both paused when they made eye contact and George broke the awkward silence. “Hello, young lady.”
Redtail said, with no surprise in her voice, “Hi, have you been there long?”
“I heard some noises last night and thought I should come down here and check up on you this morning. I’ve been here a little while. That’s quite a fire-starting system ya got there,” George said as he approached her camp.
“I’m just happy it’s been sunny this week. I don’t know what I’d do if it was cloudy,” replied Redtail. “That was nice of you to come down and check up on me. Thank you,” she continued.
George paused to catch his thoughts and said, “Yeah… I tell you what. I don’t smoke and I got another lighter back at the house. You want this one?”
She gave the lighter a wide-eyed look and with a knot in her throat, said, “Oh, thank you so much!” And she reached to accept the gift.
“Would you like some tea?” Redtail asked.
“Ah… sure,” George said, “What kind is it?”
“Mostly dandelion and chicory, I think,” she said.
“Well,” George said, “at least it’ll be interesting.” Redtail smiled with delight as she got the two babyfood jars for tea cups. She scooped one into the pan and handed it to George, warning that it might be hot. He accepted it and waited for her to scoop her ‘cup’. He sipped the pale yellow-green liquid and thought, “Yep, it’s dandelion and chicory.” George said, “You got a nice place here. You lost or something?”
Redtail replied, “Oh no! This is home.” She jumped up and went into the ‘house’ (under the sheet of plywood) and returned proudly with her map. “Nope, I’m not lost. See? Here’s Home, where we are, the creek, the Laundry Room, the Crawdad Hole and the Supply Depot.”
George raised an eyebrow at the Laundry Room hoping she wasn’t soaping up the creek, but gave a chuckle at the Supply Depot. He said, with a smile, “Your Supply Depot, years ago, used to be my garbage dump.”
Redtail put her hand to her mouth in worry and slowly asked, “You mean,” as she looked around the site, “All this stuff is yours?”
George chuckled and said, “Oh, it can all be yours if you like.”
“Even the money?” she asked.
“I don’t remember it, so, yeah, even the money,” George said. George finished his tea and complimented her on her cartography skills. He stood up, stretched, and said, “Well, I gotta head out. I got me some fish calling my name today. If you need anything at all, my camp is that way, over a couple hills –pretty much straight north, according to your map. It was nice to meet you. By the way, my name’s George. You are?”
“Oh, I’m Redtail MacSumpneruther or maybe it’s Scot. It’s kinda fuzzy. Anyway, I’m told I’m a Scotsman.”
George looked at her, smiled and gave a little head shake. He started back to the house. He had a few out-loud chuckles over the conversation. “That’s one screwy little girl, but I like her already. She’ll be a fun neighbor.”
Redtail peeled her fish out of their skins and scooped the greens from the pan. She, too, thought about the conversation. “It’s gonna be nice to have someone to talk to. I like George.” She looked at the lighter, hugged it and smiled. With a tear in her eye, she looked skyward and yelled, “Life is wonderful!”
George stopped and wondered, “Did I hear what I thought I heard?” He smiled, too.
While old George was out fishing, he thought about just how he was gonna handle this whole Redtail situation. She needs more supplies, clean water and better ways to cook. Hmm. I might even let her have one of the tents. George caught some decent bass and as he cleaned them, thought, “I bet Redtail’d like a fill of dinner, rather than just a few bites.” Instead of throwing the fish in the freezer when he got home, he baked two. He rounded up a set of camping plates, a couple extra pans (with handles), some flatware, and some plastic pails. He stuck that and a 10x12 tarp with rope in a backpack. He wrapped the baked fish in some foil, then in some towels and put them in a bucket. Then George got a couple gallon water jugs full of clean tapwater, hooked ‘em on his finger and took the whole load out to the woods and down to Redtail’s camp.
“Redtail”, he called softly. He didn’t want to be too loud incase she was stalking something. He walked around a little, calling her name.
Soon, from off in the woods a bit, Redtail called back, “Hi George.”
Her face was all smeared up with dirt, so George asked, “What happened to you?”
Redtail said she’d been deer hunting. She explained she’d been standing very still and quiet by a tree, waiting for a deer to wander by, and she’d lunge out with her sharp stick and get it that way. George started to smile then he spotted the hair tufts on the tip of the stick. She said, “I guess I didn’t lunge hard enough.”
George said, “It looks like you almost got one! You know, deer season ain’t open. Gittin’ one could be pretty risky.” He asked if she was hungry, and she assured him, indeed she was.
Redtail proudly told George of her new fire-starting idea. She found a raccoon on the road, and one of its hind legs was still good, so she ate that for lunch, but she got all the fat she could salvage from the animal and soaked a bunch of mouse nests in it after she heated it in the pan, to use as future fire-starter. Very pleased, she smiled and waited for some approval.
George nodded, and said, “Now that’s some creative thinking. While you were out doing all that, I got some fish, and brought you some stuff I thought you might be able to use. He pulled the fish from the bucket and unwrapped it. She was eager for dinner.
As they ate, George mentioned the water he’d brought, and told her some other stuff was in the backpack. He planned to leave it all there. Then he asked, “Have you been living down here very long?”
Redtail said, “No, I only moved in the day before yesterday. Before that, I lived at the Supply Depot, and before that, at the Pipes. It’s sort of a blur before that.”
“Redtail MacSumpneruther is a different sort of name.” George said.
Redtail answered, “Oh, the investigator at the park told me that’s my name.”
George paused and said, “I’ve got stuff to do in town tomorrow, but would you mind if I dropped by with some dinner tomorrow night? Could I bring another friend with me, too?”
Redtail thought a short bit, then said, “I think that’d be great.”
George said he’d bring something other than fish.