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Time for a story down at the Old Hollow Log.
By Ken Mulholland.
The old hay wagon lurched toward the summit, both horses straining in their traces. The sun had gone and twilight was passing into a balmy night. All about, the sweet fragrance of the earth swept up to meet them.
' Will he be there tonight, Dad?' asked young Ben, his eager face turned toward his father.
' I figger there's a good chance, Tad. Weather's fine enough, stars are twinkling and we got us a full moon on the horizon.'
' I hope he's there. He tells a story even better than you do, Mister Cleaves,' said one of the kids from the group perched, rocking, behind.
' Hey Jimmy, my Dad's a great storyteller.'
' Yeah Jimmy, Mister Cleaves is one of the best,' said April, leaning forward, her arm around the timber railing of the wagon.
' I know, I know, but there's something about Lucky. He kinda seems like he comes outta a story himself. You know what I mean Lynda, don't you.'
' Yes Jimmy, and so does Tad, he just likes to stick up for Dad.'
' Somethin' you should do now and then, Sis...'
' That's "something" Tad, don't drop the g. It's a bad habit.'
' Alright already, big Sister. Jeepers Kathy, Marty, see what I have to put up with.'
' Oh I don't think she's so bad Jimmy,' answered Kathy. Kathy and Lynda were best friends at school and spent a lot of time together.
' You wouldn't cos...because you're a girl!'
' Well spotted Son, but if you guys can hold up your bickering and take a look down there...'
' We're here! The Old Hollow Log!' Marty shouted, and the horses pricked up their ears as the going fell away easily before them.
' And there's the campfire,' said little Timmy, excitedly pointing toward a welcoming bright, orange yellow glow.
' And that sure looks like Lucky,' cried Ben. ' Hello Lucky!'
' Hello yourselves! Hi Bill, just come over this side o' the log, good grazing for the horses and they can stay hitched up till it's hometime. Bring your rugs and cushions over to the fire when you all climb down, and don't forget the hampers and thermos flasks; say you guys did remember to bring 'em didn't you?'
' Sure we did, Lucky. Gee it's good to see you again,' said Ben, first to scramble down as the wagon rolled to a halt.
' Been awhile young Ben. Seems like I almost might not recognise some of you. Let's see now, well I definitely know Mister Cleaves here, how's Missus Cleaves, Bill?'
' Mary's just as right as rain, Lucky, and she said to give you her best,' answered Bill Cleaves, hitching a tether rope to a weather-worn stump that was once a mighty branch of the long fallen giant. ' Now what about Ben here? Hardly call him Tad anymore, grown an inch or two, and Lynda's sprung up some as well.'
' Yep,' said Lucky, checking the halter line of his own horse, where it stood quietly cropping sweet grass. ' Why I do declare that you all have: Kathy, April, Marty and Jimmy over there and...say, what's your name little feller?'
The boy, no more than seven years old, turned a pale face toward the firelight. ' Tim.'
' Timmy's a bit shy, Lucky. It's his first time,' said Lynda, taking up Tim's hand, 'and you know we often come out here, even when you can't.'
' His first time away from his folks too,' added April, feeling as if she should throw in her two cents worth.
' That so, April. None of you his kin?'
' Nosir, he was an orphan. Come all the way over the ocean from England with his new family. They said it'd be alright so long as he was with us.'
' And I expect it will be too. Guess what I brought along with me tonight, Timmy?'
' Your horse.'
' Sure, I got old Buck over there, and I got somethin' else as well. Here kids, take a look inside this sack.'
' Wow, marshmallows!' shouted Jimmy, getting a first peek into the bag.
Ben clapped his hands, ' We got some toasting forks along with our stuff!'
' Kinda looks as if Mary might have known something, hey Bill?' said Lucky, nodding lazily in his direction.
' That she might've, Lucky. Now have we got everything out of the wagon?'
' All done, Mister Cleaves,' said Marty, carting the last of their gear and provisions over to the fire.
' Thanks Marty. You sure are a beaver. So now I guess we can all settle down, do some cooking, get some plates and cups out and pass around the eating tools.'
' What's on the menu tonight kids?' Lucky asked, as he threw a couple of logs onto the flames and embers flew into the night, to vanish like so many fireflies.
' We got toasting loaves, fresh baked from my Mom,' Ben answered, unwrapping bread that smelled as if it had just come out of the oven.
' And three kinds of pie: cherry, pecan and apple, all from my Mom,' said April.
' And honey from my Dad,' said Jimmy, proudly, lifting up a large glass jar.
' And cookies and hot chocolate!' Kathy said, holding a basket with several flasks and a large tin container inside.
' Lantagoshun!' exclaimed Lucky. 'Seems like a real feast. You folks won't be worth a holler after you get through all that.'
' Being as it's Friday night, they've got the whole weekend to get over it before school on Monday, Lucky.'
' Just as well for all of us, Bill. Now while you guys get things rollin', I expect you'll be wantin' a tale to see us through?'
' A ghost story! Something with ghouls and headless horsemen and goblins!'
' Maybe not tonight Marty,' laughed Bill Cleaves. 'After all we do have to think about little Timmy here. Right, Lucky.'
' Sure as shootin' Bill. Although I do have to say that sometimes when I'm sittin' here all alone, lookin' out across the flames into the shadows, with just old Buck for company, I seem to see faint figures...'
' What sort of faint figures, Lucky?' asked Ben, his gaze sweeping the dark outlines of trees and rocky outcrops beyond the firelight.
' Yeah, werewolves, vampires, pixies, zombies?'
' Well no, Ben, nothin' as excitin' as all that; they seem to be the shades of the old movie cowboys: Buck Jones, Rocky Lane, Monte Hale, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, fellas like that.'
' Are they all dressed like you, Lucky?'
' Oh sure, Kathy, some are in jeans and checked shirts. Except Hoppy, of course.'
' Who's Hoppy?' said a tiny voice, that made everyone else turn and stare, because it seemed so small and overawed.
' Who's Hoppy? Timmy, he's just about the greatest of them all. He could shoot straighter, and fight better then most any other cowboy there ever was. His name was Hopalong Cassidy and he always wore black, why even his hat was black.'
' I don't know any of them,' said Kathy, trying to make Tim feel more at ease.
' Me either,' added April and Lynda together.
' Well kids, they were all around a long time before you were born. And just sometimes, I get the feeling that they're still around.'
' I...I'm getting a scared...'
' Oh now Timmy, just you go and sit with Mister Cleaves. There's nothin' here that can do you a harm. We're at the Old Hollow Log, and everybody is safer than if they wuz tucked up in their own beds. Anyhow... I'll take a slice of that toast when its done, Jimmy... I'm not going to tell you about cowboys tonight.'
' What then Lucky. Fairies?'
' No Lynda, I'm going to tell you all about Qox.'
' About what?'
' Thought I'd got somethin' caught in my throat did you? Try saying it after I spell it out: Q. O. X. Rhymes with socks. Got it?'
' Oh, Qox. I think so,' nodded Lynda, trying to shape the word and make sense of it.
' Good, then here we go. There were these two cats who lived together with a very nice family in a house at the edge of a big, wooded park. And one day the cats decided to go for a stroll out into the park. Now that was a little bit unusual...'
' Why, Lucky?'
' Well Marty, cats are territorial and mostly stick around their own patch, but just sometimes they roam, and this was one time that they did.'
' What were their names, Lucky?'
' Glad you asked that Kathy. The little ginger boy-cat, who was long and lean and very smart was called "Brrrt", because that was the sound he made when he jumped or ran, and the other large, fluffy black and white girl-cat, was called "Neow-Neow" and her folks came from a far land across the ocean.'
' What land. A place like where Tim has come from?' Ben piped up.
' Well no. A place called Austria, Ben. And like so many folk of all kinds, including Timmy here, they found a new life.' Lucky took a big bite out of a slice of toast covered in honey and chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. ' Now, while these two cats were out prowling amongst the shadows of the park, they came upon a little pond, and there at the edge of the pond they spied a tiny green critter and being curious, as cats mostly are, they strolled up to it.
" What kind of crreature arre you?" said Brrrt, padding around the small, shiny, still figure. The little creature followed them both with its eyes, but didn't say a word.
" Vas iss das?" said Neow Neow, gently touching a velvet paw to the very still critter. " Ist goot for dinner?" she enquired of Brrrt, who was regarding the creature with a steady gaze, prepared for any sudden movement. " Purrrhaps," whispered Brrrt, his tail beginning to creep slowly across the stones that separated himself from the unmoving green figure. "And purrrhaps we should assk it." He thrust his pointed face closer to the creature and said, " What iss your name?'
"Qox," said the little green critter.
"Quacks?" said Brrrt. " Arrre you a duck?"
"Qox," it repeated, blinking its bright yellow eyes.
"Purrhapps a foreign duck, mein liebling. Allow me. Guten Tag, sprecken sie duetschs, mein kleine?" queried Neow-Neow.
"Qox," it said once more.
Neow-Neow tried again, " Hable Espagnol? Italiano?"
Brrrt's tail flipped about impatiently. 'Purrhaps a little prrrodding will get some action." He took a swift pace forward, and even though he was himself a smallish cat, he seemed to tower over the tiny green creature where it looked up into his gleaming, unblinking eyes.'
Lucky paused in his story for a moment to take the cup Bill offered him and sip at the hot coffee. ' What do you think Qox is, Timmy?' he asked, smiling at the boy and holding up a hand to still the other kids who were all making 'I know, I know' noises.
' I think he's a frog,' replied Tim, faintly.
' And I think he's gonna be the cat's supper,' said Tad brightly.
' Ben Cleaves! That's "going to be", not gonna,' whispered Lynda fiercely in his ear.
Tad heaved a loud sigh, 'Going to be the cat's supper. Alright bossy-boots?'
Lucky took another good pull at the coffee and smiled. 'Well, just as Brrrt was reaching out toward the trembling frog,' and here he nodded at Tim, 'a voice from behind the two cats said, "Don't ya so much as lay a paw on dat little fella!" Heck, both cats almost jumped outta...out of their skins,' Lucky corrected, grinning at Lynda, who looked at Ben with a superior expression on her face.
' Who was it Lucky?' Marty asked, swallowing a mouthful of pecan pie.
' Who were they, you mean?' said Lucky. 'Because when the two cats turned around, they found a couple of kinda curious looking creatures standing there. The foremost said, "Ah you city-slickers. Ya been indoors too long. Don't cha know a frog when ya see one?"
" Prroww," said Neow-Neow, taking a look over her shoulder at the frog, "Ja, vous parlez Francais?"
" Qox," said the frog.
" And who exactly arrre you," asked Brrrt suspiciously, feeling outnumbered and surrounded, and remembering the pond at his back. " Yerch, I hate water," he thought.
" I'm Nutta da squirrel," said the one at the front, bushying up his tail, and dis here is Dingle Goldmyer."
" Pleased to make your acquaintance. Master Dingle of Dingle Dell at your service," said the second creature, peering over Nutta's shoulder.
" And you arre a...What?" Brrrt asked, a feeling of wariness creeping over him, as if he somehow knew the answer already.
" I Sir, am a Rodent Scholar," replied Master Dingle, with a flourish and the hint of a sniff.
" A Rodent Scho..."
" He means ta say dat he's a water rat," said Nutta, wiping at his whiskers and showing his teeth.
" A water...Charr!" exclaimed Brrrt in horror. " You dirty rat..."
" I beg your pardon Sir. Why if I was not a Gentle-rat I should take that as an insult, and be forced to seek satisfaction!"
" He means he'd have ta rub yez out," said Nutta, matter-of-factly.
" Donner und Blitzen!" exclaimed Neow-Neow, arching her back, and looking for some way to escape.
" Easy Sister," Nutta held up his front paw. " I just told ya didn't I? Dis here is Dingle Goldmyer. THE Dingle Goldmyer. He comes from good stock. He ain't no ruffian. Why his family came over on ships as long ago as before da Great Depression years. They were big on Wall Street until da crash. Den they went inta da restaurant business."
" It's a living," murmured Dingle, who might have blushed, if rats could blush.
" Prowww!" said Neow-Neow, suddenly impressed and relaxing a little.
" So you see," hissed a smooth new voice from behind Dingle and Nutta, "everything is not always as you think or first expect it to be."
The two cats watched, fascinated by the slow emergence of another creature they'd never laid eyes on before. And speaking of eyes,' Lucky winked at the kids, who were all munching and listening eagerly, ' this creature had very large eyes which swivelled independently of each other, so that it seemed to be looking backwards as well as forward while it approached ever closer to Neow-Neow and Brrrt, who both shrank back toward the water behind them, until they were on either side of Qox at the very edge of the pond.
" Who...What arrre you?" asked Brrrt nervously, feeling his tail sliding into the water and slowly easing it out, trying not to make any sudden movement, as he gazed at the creatures' crested head and long tongue sliding in and out of its scaly mouth.
" I am Kenny," said the creature, and to the astonishment of Neow-Neow and Brrrt as they watched, he began to change colour all over. Who knows what kind of critter he is?' Lucky asked, snapping everyone out of their trance, and taking the chance of biting into a good sized piece of apple pie.
' He's a snake?' wondered Jimmy, scratching his head.
' Is he a lizard?' asked April, with her hand in the air.
' Kinda,' said Lucky through his mouthful of pie.
' Is he a whatcha-ma-callit? You know Sis, a thingummy, a Camellia!'
' That's a flower Tad,' said Kathy laughing, while Lynda ruffled Ben's hair, and he went red in the face, trying to get the right word out. ' A Camel-lion, a Chamilodeon...' He halted exasperatedly.
' Your almost as good at changing colour,' chuckled his dad Bill, skewering a slice of bread and holding it over the flames.
' Is he a Chameleon, Mister Lucky?'
Lucky turned to Tim and held out his arm, ' You got it, young man. Yessir, Kenny Chameleon is right. How did you know that?'
' I like to read. Specially books like the encyclop...enclyclope...You know, that book that has lots of different things in it.'
' And how far have you got through the encyclopaedia, Timmy?' asked Bill, a faint smile on his face.
' Just passed C to D, Mister Cleaves.'
' Lucky you went that far,' Lucky grinned.
'So what happened then?' asked Marty, loosening his belt a notch to make way for some cookies and milk.
' Well then, as I was saying; Kenny began to change colour, going from yellow to red to grey to brown, and finally ending up a dark inky blue. Both cats were pretty impressed by this, but still plenty nervous.'
' But I heard tell that animals can't see colours, Lucky,' said Jimmy.
' Can't see colours, eh Jimmy. That so? Next thing you'll be tellin' us is that they don't understand what we say to them.'
' Sure they do Jimmy, they just can't answer back in English, but they know what we say alright,' said Kathy, thinking of her own dogs and cats and horses.
' Go on with the story, Lucky,' waved Bill, quieting the others.
' O.K.' nodded Lucky. 'So as I was saying, "Everything is not always what it looks like to begin with," hissed Kenny Chameleon. "Take me for instance..."
" Neo thanksss," said Brrrt hastily.
" I seem to be one colour, but I can be many colours," Kenny replied, ignoring Brrrt's comment, "and," he said, winking the eye facing them, "it could be said by those who don't know me very well, that I am a rather fearsome creature." His other eye swivelled round to stare at the cats, who both now found much comfort in the form of the little frog sitting between them.
" Yeah, o'course they might see ya dat way," chimed in Nutta, looking straight at the two cats, "but it's like dis see, ya gotta get ta know someone foist, before ya go makin' up ya mind. Udderwise ya can make a very big boo-boo. Take my drift?"
" He's absolutely right," chirped the tiniest voice from somewhere above. A moment later, a bright blue bird, no bigger than my thumb, alighted on Kenny's crest, and fixed both cats with a watchful eye as she danced about.
" Who's thisss?" asked Brrrt, puzzled at the antics of the bird.
" Dis here is Bodkin, and ya know what she is; probably spend a lotta yer time chasing 'em around yer garden," muttered Nutta, somewhat uncharitably.
" Nein, nein!" said Neow-Neow, " vee are not in zee business of chasing anything, my dear Strudel-Schnitzel."
" Methinks she protests too much," ventured Dingle, the late sunlight glinting off his sharp front teeth, as if they were gold-filled.
" Now, now, Dingley dear," said Bodkin, "It's getting late in the afternoon, and perhaps we should be saying goodbye to our new-found friends. Maybe they will think the kinder of us here in the park from now on. And perhaps they will come back to visit again."
" Like when dey've gotten over dis foist visit?" suggested Nutta, grinning broadly.
" Purrhapsss," said Brrrt, waiting to see if anything else was going to happen. " I mean to ssay that it's been quite an afterrnoon...meeting new frriends..."
" And you will be welcome back, now that we have all gotten to know each other somewhat better," said Dingle, a little more kindly.
" Yes," Kenny Chameleon agreed, "and do remember our advice. Tolerance isss the watchword, for even when we seem so different, we can be so much alike."
" It's all in how ya see da woild, and right now, it's just about time fer us ta get back ta our homes. What da ya say Qox?"
Much to the cat's surprise, Qox suddenly leaped into the air and summersaulted backward out on to the lilypads. "Oi!" he called out, so that Brrrt and Neow-Neow turned around. "Ta answer yer question, Oim an Oirish frog."
" Why didn't you ssay sso before?" growled Brrrt, surprised and also a trifle confused.
" Would it ha' made any dufference? Ya stull would'a had me fur lunch," said Qox. "Just be remumber'n thus, it's nut easy being green, or orange, fer that mutter. Stull and all, Oi think ye both ha' had ya lessun. Best ya mend yer ways. May tha finest o' tha day still be before ye, and gud evenin' ta ya both. Tull next toime!" With a plop, Qox jumped into the water and was gone.
" I think the frrroggy is rright, Herr Brrrt. Ve must be going home neow," purred Neow-Neow, turning away from the pond. "Oh!" she cried, so that Brrrt jumped, as only cats can do, ending up facing in the opposite direction. Where the others had been, there were only the oncoming shadows of twilight and the drooping of trees, dotted over the fading green of the park.
Brrrt began to trot forward at a brisk pace, Neow-Neow hastening at his side. "It will be good to get home again," he said as they went along. "Home to a warm fire and a bowel of Whisskerss Besst, the Cat food of a Nation. Maybe we will come back to ssee our new frriends again, but our basketss sseem verry inviting."
"Neow, neow," said Neow-Neow approvingly, as they slid away into the night.'
Lucky threw the dregs of his coffee mug into the fire. Sparks and smoke billowed up into a sky that was littered with stars, as if some vast hand had strewn them randomly across the vault. The moon was a huge white orb overhead, glowing with a strong pale light that lit the Old Hollow Log with an unearthly glow.
' Wow, Lucky. That sure was a good story,' said Ben, breaking the silence.
' Glad you liked it Tad...Well not Tad anymore, I guess you best be called Ben these days. Anyway, did you guys get anything out of the story?'
' Sure we did, Lucky,' answered Lynda, her chin cupped in her hand. 'It's about being fair with folks, treating everyone fairly.'
' It's also about bullying,' said Marty.
' And about the colour of people's skin,' added Jimmy.
' Well, I think it's about where people come from, and that they really are just like us, no matter what,' said April, chewing thoughtfully on the last fragment of a vanilla cookie.
' It's also about changing,' Kathy suggested. ' Sometimes you have to change your attitude to something different, something new. To look at things again with clearer vision.'
' What about you, Timmy. What do you think?' asked Bill Cleaves, his arm around the little boy.
' I think it's about friends, Mister Cleaves. Even if you're little like me, you can have folks around you that help when times are bad,' whispered Tim, twisting his fingers together.
Lucky laughed. It was a good, open, hearty laugh that seemed to peal away into the night. ' Say, young feller, you and your pals here have about summed the whole thing up in a nutshell. And I figger it's just about time fer me and Buck to head off home too. Got to get back to the ranch; things to be done, and it don't stop because we got a weekend comin' on.'
' Where is your ranch, Lucky?' April asked, poking a stick into the campfire.
'Oh, quite a way over yonder,' Lucky indicated beyond The Old Hollow Log.
' And what's its name?'
'What's its name Jimmy? Why, I think I've told you before. It's The Bar Twenty. Been in the family for...well for many, many years.' Lucky smiled down at them, 'Oh I almost forgot, Bill, the sack there; my treat for the kids. Fire's just about right for toasting marshmallows.'
With a combined yell, the children all jumped up, reaching for forks and scrambling over to the sack where it lay against the ancient hollow trunk.
' So long Bill, might be some time. You know how busy it gets. Say hello to Mary for me.'
' That I surely will do, old friend,' Bill said, reaching out a hand.
When the kids had finally worked out who was going to cook and who was going to eat, they suddenly realised that Lucky had gone.
' He didn't even say goodbye,' said Lynda, reproachfully, nibbling at a marshmallow.
Then, on the night air, they heard the faintest sound of singing.
'Back in the saddle again, back where a friend is a friend. Whoopi-ty-aye-yay, I go on my way, back in the saddle again...Back in the saddle again, back where a friend is a friend...' The words drifted away on the evening breeze.
' Golly,' exclaimed April. 'Sort of sends a kind of thrill right through you, don't you think Lynda?'
Lynda could only nod, her eyes shining brightly in the firelight as she watched Ben and the others.
' Do you think he'll come back another time Mister Cleaves?' asked Jimmy.
William Cleaves took a long breath of the bracing night air that seemed to rise from the desert of the Rio Pecos, many miles away. 'I hope so Jimmy. I've known him all my life, since I was just a little kid. And you know what?'
' What's that Dad?' said Ben, ambling up with Marty in tow.
' He's never changed. Been just the same good old steadfast friend.' A cinder from the fire seemed to have caught in Bill's eye, and he wiped it away. 'Anyhow, looks like you guys are as crammed full as you can get. Near time to douse the fire, climb aboard and head ourselves for home. What do you say little Timmy?'
' What do I say,' said Tim, bobbing into the firelight, his face flushed with the joy of the evening. ' I say, God bless us, everyone. And a grand goodnight to us all.'
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