The thirteenth unicorn, p.10
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       The Thirteenth Unicorn, p.10

           W. D. Newman


  Casey awoke bright and early the next morning. She was so excited about seeing Joey again, and Grandma had promised to help her bake the cake to take to their fish fry. However, when she came running down the stairs, she was surprised to find Ben already up. He was sitting at the table with Grandpa, munching on a bowl of Captain Crunch, while Grandpa was having his coffee and toast. Grandpa had coffee and toast every morning for breakfast. Nothing weird about that. But Grandpa liked to dip his toast in his coffee. Now that was weird.

  “Good morning, Casey,” said George, over his saucer. George dipped his toast into his coffee cup, but he drank his coffee from the saucer.

  “Good morning, Grandpa. Morning, Ben. Where’s Grandma?”

  “Grandma’s sleeping in this morning. She’s a little sore from hoeing out those tomato plants yesterday. I hear you kids are having a fish fry over at the Langstons’ today. That Joey Langston is a handsome little devil ain’t he?” Grandpa winked at Ben and Casey began to blush.

  “He’s nice,” Casey said, avoiding her Grandpa’s eyes, “Jenny’s really cool too and I’ve never been to a fish fry.”

  “What time are you going over there?”

  “We’re going for lunch. Grandma told us how to get there by going through the back pasture. We’re going to leave here about eleven-thirty. Ben, where’s the Captain Crunch?”

  “In the top cabinet, by the fridge,” Ben replied, with milk dribbling down his chin.

  After breakfast, Ben and Casey went up to the goat house to pet their goats. Grandma showed up later on and told Casey it was time to get started on the cake, because it had to cool before they could frost it. Ben, not interested in any baking, strolled down to the barn where George was greasing the fittings on his mower.

  “What are you doing, Grandpa?”

  “I got a little bit left to mow in the goat pasture. Want to get it done before it gets too hot. You ever drove a tractor before?”

  “I’m twelve, Grandpa. I don’t even know how to drive a car yet.”

  “Well, we are going to have to do something about that. I’ll be cutting hay in a couple of weeks and I’m going to need you to drive the truck in the field for me.”

  “Are you serious?” Ben asked, with wide eyes.

  “Dead serious. Why, I was driving when I was eight years old.”

  “No way. You really drove a truck when you were eight?”

  “No, when I was eight we didn’t have a truck, or a tractor for that matter. We used horses to do our work. I used to drive the hay wagon for my dad.” George laid the grease gun down on top of a barrel, wiped his hands on the front of his overalls, then climbed up onto his tractor and motioned for Ben. Ben grabbed the handle on the fender over the big rear tires and scrambled up onto the side step, then George helped him climb into his lap where he could reach the steering wheel.

  “Let’s take her for a spin around the house,” George said as he turned the switch and pushed the starter button. The tractor’s engine turned over three times, then roared to life. George put it in low gear and pulled the throttle down a couple of notches. “Put your hands here, in the two o’clock and ten o’clock positions.”

  Ben grasped the steering wheel as George eased off the clutch. The tractor pulled out of the barn and Ben wrestled the steering wheel to the right. He drove the tractor around the house and back to the front of the barn, where George brought it to a stop and shut it off. Ben carefully climbed down to the ground, grinning from ear to ear.

  “Thanks, Grandpa. That was awesome. When do I get to start learning how to drive the truck?”

  “Maybe Saturday, when I get back from the cattle sale. You want to go with me?”

  Ben remembered the little experiment they had planned with Grandma on Saturday. He felt bad doing something behind Grandpa’s back, especially since Grandpa was going to take the time to teach him to drive this summer. However, he was dying to know more about the Merlin Tree and the magical place called Camelot.

  “Gee Grandpa, I got plans this Saturday. Can I go with you next time?”

  “Absolutely. I’ll be taking some more calves in a couple of weeks. You can go with me then. We’ll stop at Hardees and get us a sausage biscuit on the way.” George looked at his watch. “Morning’s getting away from us. I’d better get busy and you’d better skee-daddle to the house and get ready for that fish fry.”

  Ben took off for the house as George fired up the tractor again, to finish the mowing. In the kitchen, Louise was washing some pans at the sink while two yellow cake layers were cooling on a wire rack on the kitchen table. Ben heard the hairdryer whirring away upstairs and knew that Casey would be preening for at least another fifteen or twenty minutes. He sat down at the table and sniffed the cakes.

  “What kind of icing are you putting on these, Grandma?”

  “Chocolate. Isn’t that what Casey said she’d bring?”

  “Yeah, I guess so.”

  “Well, I soon as I get these pans washed up, I’m going to make some.”

  “You make your own frosting?”

  “Ben Alderman!” Louise said, planting her hands on her hips. “You know I don’t use any store bought frosting on my cakes.”

  Ben laughed and then realized that if Grandma was making the frosting, then there would be beaters and bowls to lick when she was finished. Louise read his thoughts.

  “You can lick one beater and Casey can lick the other one. If you want any more after that, then you both can lick the bowl too. Now, why don’t you go get ready while I finish up in here?”

  “I am ready,” Ben replied.

  “Then go watch TV. I’ll call you when the frosting is finished.”

  Ben flipped through the channels and settled on Sponge Bob Square Pants. It was a cartoon he and his dad loved to watch together. He hadn’t had much time to think about his dad since he arrived here, and even though his dad had only been gone for a little while, Ben missed him already. Sponge Bob just didn’t seem as funny today, so Ben turned the TV off and picked up an Outdoor Life magazine that was laying on the end table. He flipped through the pages and found a story about a grizzly bear and some very unfortunate campers. He was really getting into the story when he heard Casey come bounding down the stairs. A few minutes later, the blender began singing loudly in the kitchen and Ben hopped up and ran to the table to wait patiently for one of the chocolate frosted beaters. After he and Casey licked both beaters and the bowl, Casey picked up the cake (which Louise had placed in a plastic carrier with a handle on top) and kissed her Grandma on the cheek.

  “Thanks for the cake, Grandma. Are you sure I can’t help you wash up?”

  “No, no, I’ve got this under control. You kids run along and have a good time today. Just be home in time for supper.”

  “Oh, wait one second,” Ben told Casey. He raced up the stairs, taking two steps at a time and when he came back down he had the knife his dad had given him hanging from his belt.

  “Oh good grief,” said Casey rolling her eyes.

  Outside the dew had long since burned off, and the purple and white morning glories, along the edge of the yard, were curling up and hiding their faces from the warm sunshine. Ben and Casey walked to the gate leading to the back pasture and climbed over. Grandpa’s cows were in the middle of the pasture grazing, and although both kids were a little afraid of walking through an open field full of cattle, the cows did not seem to mind at all. One or two of the cows raised their heads briefly to look at them, but after a long winter of eating nothing but dry hay, nothing could tear the cows from the tender green grass. In no time at all they were across the field, to the fence on the other side. Ben put his foot on one strand of the barbed wire and pushed down, while he pulled up on the next strand with his hands. This allowed Casey to slip between the strands without snagging her clothes and Casey repeated the action from the other side for Ben. Their
grandpa had shown them how to cross a fence like this. Most kids just grab onto a fence post and use the strands of wire like rungs on a ladder. He told them that was not good for a fence and if a staple popped out while someone was crossing that way, they could be hurt very badly. Once they were safely through the barbed wire, they scrambled down into the ditch that Louise had told them about and followed it alongside the fence, until it veered away into the woods. Eventually, the ditch petered out, and soon after that, the woods ended too at another fence. This was the Langstons’ pasture, and across the field, they could make out the tops of the big water oaks in front of the Langstons’ home.

  “You think they got any cows in here?” Casey asked, as they made their way across the field.

  “It’s not cows you should worry about,” said Ben, with a mischievous grin. “You should worry about the bulls with all that red hair of yours. You know red makes them angry.”

  “That’s not true,” Casey said.

  “Of course it is. Why do you think bull fighters use red capes?”

  Casey looked around anxiously. “What do we do if a bull comes after us? We can’t outrun a bull.”

  “I don’t have to outrun the bull, Casey. I just have to outrun you!” Ben yelled, as he took off across the pasture. He knew Casey was carrying the cake and could not run fast for fear of dropping it. He won the race across the pasture, but only by a slim margin. But a win was a win, and Ben took them anytime and anyway he could get them. They entered the Langstons' yard through a stile; a place where the fence splits into a V shape on one side, while the other side runs into the center of the V. The two sides never meet and this allows people to walk, in a zigzag, through the V, while cows are too large and too long to navigate the turn.

  Joey and Jenny were in the front yard. Jenny was sitting in a tire swing that hung from one of the massive lower limbs of the oak tree and Joey was spinning her round and round. The rope was all knotted up and wound tight. Casey sat the cake down on the picnic table, where the other food had been placed, and then walked over to join Ben.

  “Are you ready?” Joey yelled.

  “No, you’ve got it wound too tight!” Jenny squealed.

  “Hold on then,” Joey replied. He twisted the tire one more time and then gave it a fling with both hands.

  As the rope began to unwind, the tire spun faster and faster while Jenny screamed louder and louder. When all of the knots were out of the rope, the tire continued to spin and the rope began to knot up again. Eventually, the tire came to a stop and slowly started to spin in the other direction, as the rope began to unwind again. All of them took a turn on the tire before they ate. Ben couldn’t imagine doing this after eating. Especially after eating fried fish.

  Joey’s and Jenny’s mom had brought out a turkey fryer earlier and, by the time the kids were finished playing on the tire swing, the grease was good and hot. She had already cleaned the fish and battered them with corn meal. All that was left to do was to place them in the basket and drop them in the oil. Once the fish were sizzling, Rebecca brought out a big bowl of coleslaw, a huge platter of golden brown hush puppies and two milk jugs full of ice cold sweet tea. The fish were done in just a few minutes and everyone plowed into the food. By the time they finished eating, Ben did not think he had any room left for cake, until Casey started slicing it. The cake turned out to be a big hit and, when Ben told Joey that Casey had made it just for him, Joey commented on how good it was and asked for a second slice.

  After helping clear the table and putting the food away, the kids ambled down the path to the fish pond, to sit on the dock and dip their feet into the water. Jenny and Casey were chattering away about school, boys and the latest fashions, when Joey interrupted them.

  “Casey, what’s the deal with the bamboo? Is Ben pulling my leg?”

  Casey glared at Ben. “What are you talking about?”

  “Ben says you have some kind of magical tree growing in a patch of bamboo at your Grandma’s house. Says it’s some kind of portal to another world.”

  “Ben watches too much TV and reads too many fantasy books,” Casey replied.

  “Ah, come on Casey,” said Ben. “Let‘s let them in on it.”

  “Let us in on what?” Jenny asked.

  “Ben thinks the bamboo patch, behind Grandma and Grandpa’s house, has some kind of magical doorway to some kind of magical world. How dopey can you get?”

  Ben felt the heat rising in his neck and he knew that his ears were probably turning bright red. He put up with this kind of teasing at school, but dog-gone if he was going to put up with it over the summer, especially from his own stupid sister. He stood up from the dock and rolled his pants legs down, then pushed his glasses up on his nose.

  “Alrighty then. Let’s go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house and I’ll prove it.”

  “We’re not walking all the way to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for you to make a fool of yourself,” Casey yelled.

  “Whoa! Calm down,” Joey said. “We don’t mind walking over. It’s not that far and besides, I want to see the baby goats Ben was telling me about.”

  “Well, we can go see the goats, but we can’t go into the bamboo. Grandma said it’s full of snakes.”

  “Sure,” Joey said, “I don’t want to go climbing around in an old itchy bamboo patch anyway.”

  Casey, now relieved, was suddenly excited about showing Joey and Jenny their little goats. Ben, however, felt dejected and as Casey and Jenny walked past him, Casey shot him a warning glance that said, “Ha-ha, I won and you’d better keep your fat mouth shut.” But as soon as the girls had their backs to them, Joey punched Ben in the arm, winked at him and mouthed the word ‘bamboo’.


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