By Margaret P.
With thanks to my beta, Terri Derr.
The things I do for that old man. Johnny dropped his gun belt on the grass and tossed his hat on top. Spitting on his hands, he grabbed hold of the branch above his head and with one foot on the lowest limb hauled himself up. Muscles protested as he climbed, the bark rough under his hands and leaves brushing his face. About half way up, he stopped to catch his breath.
I’m getting too old for this sort of thing—and too big. Once upon a time he climbed like a squirrel. More to avoid a good whopping than to gather nuts, but that was beside the point. He wasn’t a kid anymore and those friggin’ acorns were damn high up.
He used the back of his hand to rub grit out of his eyes and squinted upwards. Small bunches of acorns hung high above his head, just visible in the moonlight. Well, at least the kid was telling the truth.
Sidestepping, he reached for the next branch.
“Shoot.” It snapped off in his hand, and he fell back against the trunk.
Dead wood—he tossed the branch aside and looked more carefully for the next handhold. Wedging his boot into a notch, he climbed another few feet until a twig caught on his shirt.
“Damn.” Teresa was already in a pucker with him; he didn’t want to add a third shirt to her mending pile. Easing back he wriggled it free and continued to climb.
“Ouch.” Now what? Sucking a splinter out of his hand, he spat it out in disgust.
At least he was finally level with the nuts. All he had to do was work his way along the branch and he should be able to reach what he needed. Back pressed against the trunk he pulled a calico bag out of his back pocket, and then holding it open from one edge with his teeth, he inched his way towards Running Nose’s supper.
Soon the bag was too heavy to carry that way. He looped the draw string around his left wrist and moved his aching jaw from side to side—it had seemed like a good idea at the time. Now if he could get those acorns up to his right, he should have enough. Adjusting his grip, he leaned and stretched and leaned some more.
“Sheesh!” His feet went out from under him and he crashed through twigs and leaves until his boots found purchase on a branch below. Panting, he clung to the limb he’d been standing on seconds earlier, his left elbow aching, and his right fist clutching a handful of acorns.
Dang moss—he glared at a skid mark in front of his nose.
A crow cocked its head and cackled at him from a neighbouring tree.
“Yeah, yeah, very funny.”
The bird flapped its wings and took off.
Johnny scowled. Wish it was that easy.
Gingerly, he lowered himself to sitting. He sucked his grazed knuckles and added the last acorns to the hoard. Then tightening the draw string he shifted backwards along the branch to the trunk and scrambled down to the ground. That little girl will have to eat oatmeal if these aren’t enough. No way was he climbing another goddamn oak tree.
Grabbing his hat and rig, he headed for Maria’s place. It was late for house calls, but it was one thing to collect the raw materials and quite another to make something edible from them. He hadn’t a clue how to turn acorns into mash. Teresa was visiting friends in Stockton so she couldn’t help. Not that he thought she’d know what to do with acorns any better than he did. With luck, the housekeeper would.
Maria opened the door with surprised concern. “Señor Johnny! Look at you—what’s wrong?”
“Nothing, Maria.” Johnny picked a twig off his sleeve and frowned at a small rip on his elbow. “I just need your advice. Murdoch’s brought some Indian kids home and they’re hungry.”
“I will come.”
“No, there’s no need. This is your time. I can whip up steak and eggs for the older ones, but the youngest only eats acorns mashed.” He screwed up his nose. It sounded horrible. “I’ve got the acorns.” He held out the bag. “But I don’t know how to cook them.”
Maria took the bag and looked inside. “These are fresh picked.”
“Yeah, I had to climb a tree to get them.”
Maria blinked and clamped her lips tight shut. She was trying hard, but the corners of her mouth kept flickering upwards and her eyes gave her away completely.
“Oh, Señor Johnny, you are very kind, but you can’t cook these.”
“Wait here.” She disappeared inside and moments later returned with a large clay pot. “Here.”
Johnny lifted the lid.
“Acorn meal—I make it every fall. It goes into the brown bread you like so much.”
“Well, shoot, you mean I climbed that oak for nothing?”
“Not for nothing, but the nuts must be dried and ground, then soaked and dried again. It takes a few days. I can turn your acorns into meal, but you will need this for tonight.” She took a wooden scoop from her apron pocket. “Use this. Mix one part acorn meal with three parts water or milk and boil for half an hour. I add dried fruit and honey, but your little friend might prefer it plain.” She smiled and patted Johnny’s hand. “Don’t be cross. This is practice for being a papi one day. I know you will make a good one.”
Johnny laughed, ducking his head. He was kind of pleased and embarrassed; she sounded so sure.
“Gracias, Maria. Buenas noches.”
He headed back to the hacienda. Making the kids’ supper took a lot less time than collecting the acorns, and eating it took even less. The little devils demolished everything in five minutes flat.
Running Nose gobbled down a Murdoch-size bowl of acorn mush with a spoonful of honey drizzled over the top, belched her satisfaction and yawned.
Johnny glanced at the grandfather clock. Shoot, it was nearly ten o’clock.
“Hold still.” He pulled out his handkerchief and found a clean corner. “Blow.”
The little girl snorted into the cloth and Johnny wiped her nose clean. She hugged his legs, but he pried her arms away and took her by the hand. “Bed time.”
Sticking her thumb in her mouth she allowed him to lead her upstairs to Murdoch’s bedroom where Running Fox had insisted on sleeping. Johnny opened the door to find Scott had set up a second bed in the room. Guess in Boston little girls and boys didn’t sleep in the same bed. Seemed like a lot of effort for nothing to Johnny. Murdoch’s bed was plenty big enough for the three of them, and these kids would already think they’d died and gone to heaven to sleep in a bed at all.
He lifted Running Nose up onto hers and tucked her in. “Warm enough?”
She stared up at him with big brown eyes and kept sucking her thumb. He’d take that as a ‘yes’.
Her brothers scrambled up onto Murdoch’s double bed, jumping and wrestling.
Running Fox and Dull Knife stopped mid-swing and a feather floated lazily to the bedspread.
“In.” Johnny pointed at the covers and tried to look like he expected them to obey. “Now!”
The boys dropped the pillows. They dived under the blankets and came up giggling.
They rolled over and lay still. All Johnny could see were two untidy mops of black hair on the snow white pillow cases.
He tugged the drapes closed across the windows, shutting out the moonlight, and turned down the lamp.
By the time he reached the door the boys were snuggling into each other and small whistling snuffles told him Running Nose was asleep. He shut the door softly behind him and smiled.
The things I do for my old man.
- Links to Lamp in the Wilderness, Series 2, Episode 20
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