The early morning glade was sleepy, motionless and for the most part quiet, except for the intermittent sounds of a soft crackle coming from deep within the woods. Unlike the soothing rustle of a forest's familiar breath, this crescendo of pops and snaps hung in the air, like the splintering of enormous dry bones. The noise lasted several seconds gathering strength with each passing moment. Finally, a whoosh swept through the tree leaves culminating in a crashing thud. In an instant, all fell once again silent and still.
"You're probably all wondering why I've called this emergency meeting this evening," Mr. Quigley said, pacing back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back.
I ventured a guess without raising my hand.
"Sshhh!..." He spun around before I could finish my question. We all wanted to know: Who was responsible for the toppling? Suspicions had been whirring day and night, but when the camp leader tells you to be quiet, you do as he says. Especially, if you believe the rumors.
Louie 'Doughnut' Dawson must believe those rumors, because no one has seen him since yesterday and some of us are beginning to wonder if Ol' Quigley had something to do with it.
"Can you really trust someone with such hairy ears and pale legs?" Teddy whispered into my ear. "It's as if he only goes out at night. Like he's hiding something."
I poked him in the ribs to shut him up. I didn't want to get stuck chopping firewood tomorrow while everyone else was having fun at the lake catching fish or shooting spitballs at squirrels.
"I heard about a guy in England once," Teddy was relentless, "who was a high school track coach and he looked normal and all, but he was actually a werewolf! He'd send the cross country kids out for a long run through the hills and then he'd sprint around the other side and wait for 'em. Then when the time was right he'd pounce, drag 'em back to his tree, string 'em up on a high branch 'til they dried like beef jerky and eat 'em whole. My brother said it was in the papers and everything."
"Werewolves don't live in trees, dummy."
Teddy persisted, "Anyway, how can you be so sure Mr. Q isn't in on this. I ain't seen Louie in two days!"
I couldn't argue with him there. Louie earned his Tracker badge last summer, so it's not like he just ventured off and couldn't find his way back. He knew these woods better than anybody. And if it wasn't our rival camp across the lake who chopped down our tree house and took Louie, then who else could it have been?
"Maybe it was cannibals!" shouted Augie, a pint-sized peanut with oversized glasses and an even bigger imagination.
"Boys! Please." Ol' man Quigley put his finger to his mouth, his eyes yellow from the flickering flames of the campfire. The light of the moon was so faint that you could barely make out the shapes of the trees as they watched over our circle. Quigley extended both hands in front of him as if he was about to conduct a symphony. We piped down and sat with our legs crossed.
"As you may have all heard, around daybreak yesterday our historic and beloved tree house collapsed after fifteen years of standing proudly at the lake's edge." Quigs leaned forward, "I'm here to assure you that we are looking into this and if there was any evidence of foul play, the criminals will be severely punished." His yellow eyes slowly scanned the group as if surveying a line-up. "We've been in touch with our neighbors to the north, Camp Windyvapors and they too, are assisting us with the investigation."
From the corner of my eye I could see Teddy shaking his head at what he knew to be a conspiracy: either Old Quigley worked the graveyard shift as a big hairy beast, or he traded 'naughty' kids to flesh-eating tribes who lived in the trees. Either way, we had to save Louie.
You see, Louie's dad was The Doughnut King. Yep, you know the commercial where a guy dressed up as a Bear Claw dive bombs into a giant tub of hot chocolate and pops up wearing a crown made of Churros? That one. If there was one thing that made waking up before dawn worthwhile, it was the Doughnut King's pillowy doughnuts with cream filling and powdered sugary goodness at breakfast time. Every summer Louie's dad donated a truckload of goodies to our camp. If it wasn't for Louie's dad, we'd all be stuck eating oatmeal and yogurt, which we all know is code for twigs and swamp water. Am I right?
"Hey! You coming?" Teddy waved his hand in front of my face; the others were already several yards away marching back to the cabins.
It was lights out for the others, but for us the night was just getting started. Augie plopped his pack on his bed and stuffed it with a poncho, flashlight, compass, a pocket knife, a whistle and some bubble gum. "The natives can't eat us if they're busy chewing," he said. Meanwhile, Teddy had spread out a map of the camp and was highlighting our route into what he called "the wolf's den." I gathered some rope, water and other essentials and before heading out, we formed a triangle in the middle of the room and whispered our secret pledge:
"Forever Glazed, or Boston Cream
We won't give up our Goal
To save our Friend, remain a Team
Fritter, Twist or Roll."
We wiggled our fingers as we raised our arms, forming a pyramid, finishing with
The canopies of the trees shrouded the forest in darkness. Even the moon was oblivious to what was happening down below. Along one of the many narrow trails, there was a clearing. It was there, that a carpet of leaves was being positioned over one of many deep holes scattered throughout the field. Implanted at its bed were crudely sharpened spikes made of fallen tree branches.
Several yards away, there was movement at the base of a tree. Another shadowy figure perched on a tree branch stirred the underbrush with low-hanging vines.
The traps were being set.
Whack! Augie slapped the back of his neck. The mosquitoes were especially surly tonight. Not a good time to forget my bug spray.
"It's f-f-f-f-freezing out here," Teddy said as we slopped through the mud, "maybe this isn't such a good idea."
"You could have said that an hour ago, I'm starving," Augie said.
I inspected Teddy's map with Augie's flashlight. "Hang in there guys, only about 45 minutes more 'til we get to the den."
"Yeah, assuming the cannibals don't get to us first," Augie said. "I saw a show about them once; they live in tree houses high up in the sky and hunt with spears and bows and arrows and they're really good tree climbers. I bet they cut down our tree house thinking we were the enemy." All three of us walked with our heads tilted up toward the sky. "You know what they call outsiders?"
"What?" Teddy asked, forgetting about the cold.
"Ghost demons!" Augie said. "Heck, they're probably watching us right now!"
"Hey, dju hear that?"
Augie and I looked at Teddy frozen in his tracks. "I heard a howl."
The three of us looked like mannequins in a department store.
We craned our necks to the left as if another half inch would make the sound crystal clear.
"There it is again," Teddy said.
"Kinda sounds like a bugle," I said.
We stood there for another minute with only our eyes zipping up and down and side to side, but heard nothing. Just as we stepped forward that same sound burst through the trees much nearer to us than before. All together we shouted "Run!" Panicked, we ran off the trail, leaping over boulders and nearly tripping over fallen logs. Our hot breath looked like steam from a locomotive. If something was after us, cannibal or werewolf, it had to be riding on the back of a cheetah, piloting a rocket ship, if it was going to catch us.
Unless of course, we encountered something unexpected.
"Aack, help!" Augie's feet were stuck and he was shrinking by the second.
Teddy and I turned around to look back. "Quicksand!" Teddy said.
I quickly fastened a bowline around a nearby tree and threw the loose end at Augie, nearly knocking off his glasses. He pulled it tight, tied it around his waist and Teddy and I pulled with all our might, but the cold air made gripping the rope difficult. On the count of three, we jerked the rope with the last bit of strength we had left and Augie sprung up onto solid ground. Unfortunately for Teddy and me, the momentum threw us back several feet, head first into a deep, narrow hole hidden under a pile of dry leaves.
Augie looked up. "Hey, where'd you guys go?"
Teddy and I unfurled ourselves as best we could, with me sitting on top of him. "Augie, down here!" I threw up another rope and told him to tie a "grapevine" to the other end. Eventually, I climbed out using the back of Teddy's leg as a footstool. Teddy made his displeasure known, before unpretzeling himself and finally scrambling up too.
"Guys, these are traps. Whoever set them can't be far," Teddy said.
We quickly brushed ourselves off and repacked our supplies when we noticed Augie picking something off the ground and putting it in his mouth.
"Augs, if you're really that hungry, I have a granola bar in my pack."
He picked up two more bits from the ground and ate those too.
"I think he's delirious," Teddy said.
"Augie!" I shined a spotlight on his beaming face.
Augie held out his hand to show us what he found, "Donut crumbs."
That was the breakthrough we needed to get our second wind. We followed the crumb trail for miles zig-zagging between the trees. Every so often, we'd call out Louie's name, crossing our fingers that we weren't attracting unwanted attention. Then we'd pause and listen, but never heard a reply. Although my tracking skills weren't nearly as good as Louie's, I could have sworn we were going in circles. So we plunked ourselves onto a couple of boulders near the river to catch our breath. We scraped off the mud, sticks and pebbles wedged in our shoes and stuck in our hair.
"What now?" Augie asked.
Teddy was hunched over a rock, Augie was laying on the ground and I stared blankly at the nothingness in front of me when we heard the crunch of leaves a few feet behind us. The three of us squinted through the darkness, spinning our heads like a trio of nervous owls.
"Hey!" Teddy called out to what looked like two figures running behind a tree. He jumped up and ran after them.
"Teddy!" Augie and I ran after Teddy.
Dodging mud puddles and getting smacked in the face by low-lying branches, we sprinted wildly through the brush, crossing streams, not really knowing where we were headed. The figures Teddy was after had vanished when we caught up to him, but we kept on running.
"Do you see 'em?" I asked, ducking under a bundle of leaves.
Teddy just kept running.
"Wait up!" Augie said.
I looked back to see where he was. Augie caught up and the three of us ran alongside matching each other stride for stride when one of us must have kicked a stick or tripped a vine, because instantly we were swept off our feet and hurled high into the air bundled in a giant net.
"Aaaahhh...heeeeelllpp!" we screamed, writhing uncontrollably like fish in a bucket. Visions of werewolves and cannibals roasting us over an open fire came to mind.
"They're coming!" Augie pointed through a hole in the netting as two silhouettes raced toward us.
I could hear their heavy breathing as they desperately sliced through the rope. I couldn't see if they were gnawing at it with their teeth or using their nails, but I knew it would all be over soon. The rope snapped and we fell hard onto the ground, tangled in a web of thick twine.
One of the figures reached out his hands and unraveled the mesh.
"Hey guys. What are you doing out here?"
Turns out Mr. Quigley recruited Louie to help him catch whoever was responsible for tearing down our tree house. Aside for a couple of rabbits and three whiz kids with a deep appreciation for sugar, they never did catch the delinquent party, even though the search went on until the start of Fall.
It wasn't all for nothing though. Louie earned his Trapper badge that summer.
The evening began to cool earlier than usual, signalling the arrival of Winter. As time past, a light frost formed on the tips of the tall grasses down by the lake where a "tap-tap-tap" could be heard as a family of beavers applied mud to their newly built lodge; the final touches of a summer long endeavor. Their good fortune and hard work would once again ensure a peaceful season free from predators and a sound supply of food. •
How did I get here? That's what was on Trolley's mind when he opened his eye and found himself dangling 200 feet above the forest floor. It's not the first place you'd expect to find a Spanish-speaking frog with an eye patch, but when you owe money to Thimbleweed, anything is possible.
How did he get here? It all started with a small pearl, a red summer hat and a coconut.
It was a new day. The sun's rays crept through the cantina's doors, smuggling long shadows across the sticky wide plank floors of El Lobo. Outside, the dust had settled overnight. Sitting at the far end of the bar, Trolley nursed his coconut juice, while picking at a bowlful of stale crickets (the only luxury he could afford with the few pesos he had left from yet another disappointing afternoon at the Turtle Track). Perhaps today would be different.
The double doors swung open and for the moment, things did indeed start looking up. In sauntered the most captivating creature Trolley had ever seen. Peering out from beneath her red summer hat were large brown eyes and thick, long lashes that seemed to be calling him over with every blink. Her silk sleeves sparkled against a gown that was perfectly fitted around her shapely bustle. This creature had more curves than the infamous one-lane mountain road El Espinazo Del Diablo. But, Trolley would bet everything he had even fewer men survived her spells.
That was reason enough for him to lay low and mind his own business.
As Olinda swayed past the bar, Trolley dipped his head in his coconut juice and from the corner of his eye, saw one of her feathers float to the floor. Gentleman that he is, he picked it up and casually made his way toward the booth in the back room where Olinda was preening.
"Pardon me, miss." Trolley cleared his throat. "You dropped this." He handed her the feather hand over arm, the way a waiter presents a fine chablis.
"Oh, my," Olinda said, blushing and acting surprised. "Thank you." She blinked three times.
Now Trolley was nothing if not amicable. The least he could do was be neighborly and offer to buy her a drink. So, he called out to the bartender and signalled a V with his his fingers.
The next several minutes Trolley and Olinda shared compliments, giggling and teasing one another as they sipped their coconut juices. It appeared that Trolley's luck was turning after all.
For the worse. Amid their witty banter and light touches, a great beam of light spread across the room as a pint-sized Caiman in a Panama hat burst in through the front doors. His silhouette was unmistakable. Squatty legs, tiny hands, long, bulbous snout. This could only be...
Olinda and Trolley both gasped and ducked under the table, very nearly bumping foreheads. As the figure shuffled toward the bartender, Trolley whispered, "Rats! He found me!"
"What? Who?" Olinda said.
"What are you talking about?"
"That ugly reptile that just walked in," Trolley said, scratching his head.
Olinda turned her head to one side, wondering how many juices Trolley had before their encounter. "That's my boyfriend, Oleander."
"You're what?!" Trolley bumped his head on the table.
"It's almost eight thirty. Our train's leaving soon. If he sees us together...well, you don't want to know what happened to the others."
It was all becoming clear now for Trolley. Goddess sashays through the door. They instantly hit it off. As charming as Trolley thought himself to be, it was simply too good to be true. And now, here he was, huddled under a table with this guy's girlfriend. Did she know that her boyfriend had an alias? Or that his chosen vocation involved the seedier side of things? Trolley had no intention of sticking around to find out. Together, they peeked out from under the tablecloth and slipped out the back door just as the bartender pointed Oleander/Thimbleweed toward the back room.
"Over there!" Olinda pointed to the train platform where the Sur Express to Panama was waiting. When they reached the bottom stair, Olinda hugged Trolley so tight that her pearl necklace snapped. The train whistle blew long and hard. Trolley quickly gave her a boost and she planted a kiss on him before jumping on board and disappearing around the corner. He remained there, frozen for a few seconds, when the clanging of the bell woke him from his trance. On the ground, he saw that one of her pearls had fallen off. He picked it up and hopped along the platform peeping through each window, but there was no sign of Olinda. He did however, hear some familiar voices approaching the train. It was Thimbleweed and his entourage. So, he sidestepped under the train and scampered off.
With a final whistle, the train blew its top, billowing a funnel of white steam toward the sky. It pulled away from the station, its steel wheels grinding against the rails as it forged slowly ahead.
Trolley could feel the branch giving way as the steel teeth of the saw blade continued to grind against the bark. Alas, his only choice was to hang on for his life. When he looked down, Thimbleweed was nothing more than a tiny dot; small enough to crush between his thumb and forefinger.
"You've crossed me one too many times, amigo!" Thimbleweed said, brandishing his steel-tipped cane in the air. "First, the racket with the bananas. Then, the stunt with the bumblebees. And now, this? It's time to pay the peeper!"
Even with death staring directly at him, Trolley managed to shake his head in disappointment.
"You will learn once and for all that when you do business with Señor Thimbleweed, you meet your obligations."
Trolley wished he'd never jumped on the that train back in Mexico.
"Wooohhh...woooohh, ding, ding, ding, ding...Wooohhh...woooohh."
"Final stop! San Miguel!"
Trolley woke up, eyes bloodshot, legs cramped, and covered in soot from head to toe. He had no idea where he was, but he did see Olinda enter the second cabin on the left, back in Honduras. It was since then that he spent the next day and a half folded up in between train cars, being pelted by stray twigs and desert dust.
"Chk, chk, chk, chk, pssssshhhhhhhhh..."
As the train pulled into the station, he popped his head up through the compartment's window and saw Olinda gathering her things. His eyes grew wide and he tapped on the glass. Unable to get her attention, he tapped again, only harder. At that very moment, Thimbleweed stepped out of the bathroom, adjusted his suspenders and looked to his right. The two were face to face, with only a thin piece of glass separating them.
Trolley didn't even bother to wait for the train to come to a complete stop before jumping off and stumbling onto the platform. A few bumps and bruises were nothing compared to what Thimbleweed and his henchmen were capable of, and right now they were closing in on his tail. As Trolley turned the corner, he spotted a pickup truck piled high with coconuts, rumbling down the street. He raced to catch up and dove in head first.
"Stop, you filthy toad!" Thimbleweed and his gang squeezed into an old taxicab in hot pursuit.
For a brief moment, Trolley was distracted by a red blur, followed by a trail of dust cutting through the trees below. The blur was making a beeline straight toward them. It was Olinda. Her gown was dirty and frayed, as if she'd been running for miles.
"Ollie, stop!" Olinda said, trying her best to adjust her bodice, which now hung loosely, as if held by tattered shoelaces.
"Olinda?" Oleander stood bewildered. His thugs were pleased to see her. Even disheveled, she was a vision to behold.
Catching her breath, she said, "you're making a big mistake. He's no criminal, he's a hero." She proceeded to weave a thrilling tale of how Trolley's bravery had saved her from a large menacing bandido who tried to steal her pearl necklace back in Mexico. Apparently, through Trolley's quick thinking and juggling proficiency (acquired during a stint in a traveling circus), he managed to fight the thief off by hurling coconuts at him with tremendous accuracy.
She reached into her bustier and presented Oleander with the broken necklace. Thimbleweed squinted up at Trolley with deep skepticism that this two-bit con was ever capable of such a courageous feat. But, he knew deep in his heart that his sweet Olinda would never intentionally lead him astray. She blinked twice in Oleander's direction to reassure him.
"Is this true, frog?" Thimbleweed said.
Trolley swallowed hard and quickly nodded yes.
Thimbleweed turned toward his colleagues on the ground and up in the tree, "What do you think compadres?"
The burly one on the ground simply shrugged and repositioned the toothpick in his mouth from left to right. The smaller, more nimble associate, leered at Trolley with suspicion while plucking bits of bark from the chainsaw resting on his lap.
All Trolley could do was regret his sweet tooth for crickets, because the added weight gain wasn't helping his cause. As the tree branch was succumbing to the strain, Thimbleweed said "Then prove it, sapo."
Trolley reached into his pocket for the missing pearl and held it out triumphantly. As everyone leaned forward to get a closer look, Trolley closed his eyes tight with the knowledge that his luck had run out. His life line, the tree branch, finally snapped in two. •