It took all of Hood's willpower the next morning not to trot over to the police station to discover what headway Checker had made in solving the mystery. Instead, he called Moonglow. It was Laser's voice, however, that met his ear. "Hey, kid!" Hood greeted his nephew. "What's for breakfast?"
"Hi, Uncle Hood," Laser replied. "Aunt Stardrift is baking some chocolate muffins."
"How's your mom?"
"She's fine. Aunt Stardrift stayed here last night 'cause Dad was busy at the station."
"Has your dad been home yet?"
"He came in long enough to grab some breakfast, but he's gone again now."
"Could I speak to your mom?"
"Sure." Laser was gone, but it wasn't long before Moonglow came to the phone.
"Hood? Is that you?"
"Yes, and I'm home worrying about you. Everything going okay with you and the baby?"
Moonglow giggled. "Admit it, Hood. You're looking for a free breakfast!"
"I'll take that to mean you're feeling good this morning?"
"As well as can be expected. Why don't you come on over?" she invited. "If you can make it in ten minutes, the muffins will be fresh out of the oven."
"I'm on my way!" verified Hood with genuine anticipation. Chocolate muffins were one of his favorite bakery items. Leaving by the back door, he took a minute to check on a small, two-foot high blue spruce that Lacewing and Laser had helped him plant in the spring. The evergreen had put out tender blue needles after planting, and now stood proudly flaunting its new growth which had grown sharp and sturdy. Hood was proud of this tree-- the first and only effort he'd ever made to raise something himself. Seeing the tree healthy and strong lifted his spirits, and he hurried off to join his sisters for breakfast.
Arriving at the house, Hood could hear the raucous sounds of the foals playing in the backyard. He circled around to catch sight of them-- Blush, Crush, and Puzzle, along with Laser and Lacewing-- busy with a game of hopscotch. Or at least the four older ones were; Puzzle seemed more intent on playing in the dirt around the flowerbed.
Hood's timing was perfect, as Stardrift came to the door to call everyone in to eat. "Come on in," she smiled at her brother. "I made a second batch of muffins when I heard you were coming." Under her breath, she added, "Moonglow's mood has taken a down-swing, though."
Hood ruffled Stardrift's mane as he entered the house. "You take good care of me, Sis!" Spotting Moonglow across the kitchen, he noted her worried expression. He hurried to her side. "You look like you have a problem. Can I help?"
Moonglow smiled, but the worry lines remained. "Checker was out all night, and this morning he was off to Scoopville first thing. Dr. Fleethoof says the foal could come any time, and I'd kind of like his or her dad to be here." She leaned her head against Hood's shoulder, and he hugged her to him.
Catching Stardrift's eye from her position by the table where the herd of foals was fighting over who would get the biggest muffin, he raised his eyebrows as if to ask, "What do I say here?"
Stardrift came to his rescue. She guided Moonglow to a chair at the table. "Sit down and relax. We will get word to Checker when you need him, and Hood and I are here now. Stop worrying!"
"Mom, I'm here, too," reminded Laser, ready to take on his responsibility as the oldest foal when needed.
Looking at her son as though realizing for the first time that he was capable of handling things for her, Moonglow visibly relaxed. "You're right," she admitted. "I'm over-reacting. With all you around, I've nothing to fear."
Breakfast took on a party atmosphere as the adults abandoned themselves to the innocent chatter of the foals. But all too soon, the realities of life crept in as Moonglow began to clear the table, Stardrift ran the dish water, and Hood left for the ice cream shop to order new supplies.
Moonglow's worry had transferred to Hood; and as he walked to the shop, he mulled all the events of the last few days over in his mind. "The sooner Checker resolves this mess, the better!" he said out loud; and just at that moment, he saw Checker and Sparky round the corner into the street ahead of him. He hurried his pace to catch up with them. "Wait up, guys!" he said from behind them. As they turned, he continued, "What's the good word?"
Before responding, Checker instructed Sparky to go directly to the station and begin a computer search on the information they had uncovered. When Sparky was on his way, Checker informed Hood of the progress they had made.
"Buttercup's intelligence seems to have been the turning point, Hood," Checker began with renewed energy. "I checked the records and found the marriage of one Sassafras to a local stallion by the name of Meadow Minder. He owned a tract of land five miles east of Woodlawn, bordering and including some of the woodland. It's still in his name."
"What about their offspring?" questioned Hood.
Checker shook his head. "There's no record of births. But their isolated location and the fact that Sassafras was a midwife might account for that."
"Did you question Buttercup's mom?"
"First thing this morning. She couldn't add anything to what Buttercup had already told us, yet she is positive that Sassafras and Meadow Minder had at least two foals. She calculates that they'd be in their late teens by this time."
"Scoopville's east of here, too, I believe," Hood suggested.
Checker snickered. "Yes, it is. And yes, Sparky and I planned our route back to intersect with Meadow Minder's farm site." He shot a sidelong glance at Hood. "It's scary to realize that the humble ice cream parlor owner presumes he can out-think the cops!"
Hood grinned. "Hey, who got you the lead? But don't leave me in suspense. What did you find?"
"We found the farm, all right-- what's left of it. A place really gets rundown fast once no one's living on it."
"Were there any signs of someone about the place now?" Hood quizzed his brother-in-law.
"Nothing out of the ordinary."
"The farm is in a peculiar location," explained Checker. "It's secluded and rough, making it a difficult piece of ground to cultivate."
"Which would explain why Sassafras and Meadow Minder had to move to the city," reflected Hood.
"Exactly," verified Checker. "The land is more suited for recreational pursuits like hiking and fishing; and as the land stands abandoned, it appears that the outdoor types have been making the most of its benefits."
"So what you are saying is that even if someone was using the farm as a base of operations, it would be difficult to spot his activity?"
Checker nodded in assent. "Hiker trails crisscross the property and even cut through the homestead itself. This morning, Sparky and I saw two stallions and a mare on the trails." He grinned at Hood. "And, no, none of them met the description of our suspect."
Hood scratched his head. "This isn't going to be easy then, is it?"
Checker concurred. "Not as easy as I'd like it to be."
They walked in silence for a few minutes, pondering the possibilities. When they reached Hood's Place, Hood invited, "Care for a cup of coffee?"
Looking up and down the street, Checker declined. "I'm afraid Free Lance would pop out and be on my case if I did," he confessed.
"What's your plan from here?"
"Sparky's running Meadow Minder's name through the computer; he should know by now where he went from the farm," Checker updated Hood. "That will open a lot of doors for us."
Checker continued on his way while Hood unlocked the shop and went to his office to place orders for the needs of his business. Before he knew it, Drumstick appeared, ready to open for the day.
"Another week and I'm history, Boss," he tormented Hood. "I'll be off to Derby and university life."
"Don't rub it in. I haven't found a replacement for you yet."
Drumstick grinned. "I always told you I was irreplaceable."
Hood smiled as memories flooded him of his first days in Woodlawn. The building he had purchased on Main Street needed a complete overhaul, and he had welcomed the help of the brash schoolboy who had showed up day after day to assist him. When the shop was ready to open, it only seemed natural that Drumstick would share that work as well. Now he was ready to move on to college.
"I suppose you couldn't recommend someone?" hinted Hood.
Drumstick thought for a minute, but Hood got no answer as a group of customers came into the shop; both stallions became busy with the creation of ice cream cones, sundaes, and shakes.
William soon made his appearance, and ensconced himself in his favorite seat at the counter. "'Morning, Hood!"
"What can I get you, William?"
"Let's start with one of those sandwiches you're making these days," William ordered, "and some of that sassafras tea for a change."
Hood looked sharply at William. He'd never ordered anything but coffee to drink for as long as Hood had known him-- and William had been his first customer here in Woodlawn. Was William aware of the search for Sassafras' family?
But William seemed unaware that he'd said anything revealing, so Hood kept quiet. William spread his unread newspaper out on the counter to peruse the news as he waited for lunch. "Ha!" he chuckled. "That Free Lance is at it again!"
"What now?" questioned Hood as he set William's lunch in front of him.
"Pretty much the same," William conveyed as he picked up his sandwich while still reading the newspaper. "She's harping on Chief Checker for not rounding up that suspect now that he has a description."
"Figures," muttered Hood. He himself refrained from reading the latest criticism from Dreamy-- no sense to get riled-up when he knew Checker was getting closer to solving the mystery with each passing hour.
William took a sip of his tea. "This stuffs not too bad, considering it's not coffee," he admitted.
Hood grinned. "I knew a filly named Sassafras once," he baited innocently.
Chewing down a bite of sandwich, William was silent. But once he swallowed, he was quick to respond. "There was a Sassafras in Woodlawn years ago, too, come to think of it." William smiled as if the remembrance was a pleasant one. "She was a pretty thing, lavender with those purple butterflies on her sides-- double fancy, or whatever they call that."
"Were you sweet on her, William?"
"Gosh, no!" declared William. "She was just a filly when I was already a confirmed bachelor. But I noticed things," he winked.
"What was this Sassafras like?" prompted Hood.
"Well, I'll tell you this much. She didn't have eyes for any of the local stallions around here, try as hard as they might to get her attention. Her favor went to a farmer outside of town somewhere east of here."
"Did they ever marry?"
"Oh, yes! A quiet wedding though. She was always quiet... more at home with the plants and animals than with her own kind."
"What was Med..." Hood caught himself, "her husband like?" he finished.
"Hmm... I didn't know him well. A loner, too, he was."
Hood waited on a young mother and her two foals before returning to William. Hood was considering how to continue the conversation about Sassafras without sounding overly snoopy when William saved him the trouble.
"I was just thinking back to the last time it was I ever saw Sassafras and her family," mused William.
Hood was immediately alert at the mention of family. Would he find out from William what Checker was relying on his high-tech computer to find for him?"
"It was at a county fair over in Derby. They were there-- Sassafras and her mate and the foals."
"Foals?" asked Hood. "So she had children."
"Two, if I remember correctly," pondered William. "But that was years ago. I imagine they'd be all grown up by now." After a pause, he continued, "It's funny what a fellow remembers. I thought when I saw them that it was too bad the colt ended up with the butterfly, and not the filly."
So there were two-- a son and a daughter, thought Hood. He would have liked to learn more, but several of the foals from the neighborhood who knew William's kindly nature had surrounded the grandfatherly stallion, and Hood was soon busy filling orders for each of them as William's treat.
Before another break came in the flow of business, William had left the shop, and Hood had to be satisfied with the information he had already gleaned. So Sassafras had a colt with a butterfly pattern on his rump, reflected Hood. And the age is right, too. I wonder how Checker is doing? But Hood would have to wait to find out as business was brisk all afternoon. He put his questions behind him, and catered to the customers.
But the image of a purple butterfly never completely left his mind.