Ginseng and Sassafras Tea: Chapter Fifteen
written by Sugarberry

Running as fast as he possibly could, Hood tried to elude the ponies chasing behind him. Sweat rolled off his face and sides, and his breath came in painful gasps. Following closely on his hooves, the ponies' speeds converted them into spiraling images of moving color as Hood turned his head to check their progress.

The blur of orange was doubtlessly Dreamy; the red he knew for a fact to be Flame; and the azure blue he could only guess to be Sparky. They were in the forest now, and the three fiends were gaining on Hood as they sped through the green expanse of trees, when suddenly-- immediately ahead of him and blocking his escape-- appeared a large purple butterfly...

Hood's eyes popped open as his dream burst into reality. A beam of sunlight was shining directly across his bed. Sitting up at the edge of the bed, he groaned and supported his head with his hooves. He was shivering and sweating at the same time; he stood and fumbled his way to the shower.

As he stood in the soothing flow of water, he felt the nightmarish aura melt away from him. By the time he exited the shower, he could even grin over the inflated horror his subconscious had exposed him to.

The grin faded quickly when he caught sight of his bedside clock. "Ten-thirty-five!" he yelped in surprise. "Blast it! I forgot to set the alarm!"

Rushing to the kitchen, he choked down a bowl of cereal, then placed a call to Moonglow's number. It was Stardrift who answered. "Oh, Hood, I'm glad you called; I was just going to try to reach you," the mare chimed.

"Is it time for the foal?" Hood's heartbeat began to race.

"No, no. Moonglow's fine. Everything's still a waiting game," Stardrift calmed her brother. "It's just that we were wondering if Laser and Puzzle could come spend some time at the shop this afternoon?"

"No problem with that," agreed Hood. "Send them over any time."

"Thanks! Was there a reason for your call?"

"Just wondered how things were going with Moonglow... and with Checker's investigation," Hood admitted.

"Well, he is still on the trail of that Victor stallion, but he hasn't been too willing to communicate."

"Okay, sis. Give my love to Moonglow, and..." Hood hesitated. Should he get into his personal problems now? He was going to be late for opening the shop as it was, yet Drumstick could handle that.

"What is it, baby brother?" Stardrift's voice became concerned.

"Oh, nothing much," Hood fibbed. But after a pause, he blurted, "I'm just warning you that I have a dinner date with Dreamy tonight."

"Well, well. So the two of you have kissed and made up?"

"I wouldn't go that far, sis. Let's just say we're waving the white flag."

"Hmm. I think I'll keep this tidbit of information from Moonglow until after the foal is born," Stardrift reflected. "She may not be too happy with you cavorting with the enemy."

"Who said anything about cavorting?" mumbled Hood. "I'm having second thoughts about asking her out as it is."

"Go for it, Hood! Who knows, maybe she's the mare of your dreams after all."

Thinking back to his nightmare and the panic he had felt with Dreamy closing in on him, Hood shivered. Not liking the direction this conversation was taking, he changed the subject. "By the way, Stardrift, the stallion of the purple butterfly got that blue spruce the foals and I planted."

"You're kidding!"

"Wish I was. But the tree's gone... Hey, I'm late for work. Gotta go! I'll be watching for Laser and Puzzle later."

After hanging up the receiver, Hood dashed out the door and trotted off to Hood's Place. Drumstick had arrived first and had the shop open and awaiting business.

"Late night, Hood?" speculated Drumstick as his boss appeared fifteen minutes late.

"Someone heisted a tree out of my yard." Hood filled his helper in on the events of the night before.

"So this stallion is still on the loose," observed Drumstick. "I'd have thought he'd have been apprehended by now."

Hearing the door open, the two looked up to see William and several other customers entering the shop. William headed straight to the counter and thrust a newspaper under Hood's nose.

"I told you that lady reporter was trouble," he grumbled as he sat down. "She's meddling in affairs that are none of her business!"

Hood read the lead-in to Free Lance's article... "Woodlawn library needs revamping to meet the twenty-first century."

"So?" asked Hood, his eyebrow raised in a questioning manner.

"She wants computers installed!" frowned William. "I hate computers! They are taking over the world and I want no part in them!"

Clucking sympathetically, Hood commiserated. "Change, William. Everything's changing!"

"You got that right! And its not changing for the better!"

Tapping the newspaper ahead of him, Hood considered William's dilemma. "You like the newspaper, don't you, William?"

"Lot's better than that television news," William disclosed.

"There are lots of computers over at the newspaper office," rationalized Hood.

"Humph!" snorted William. He picked up the paper and opened it to the comics, shutting Hood's face from view.

Hood only snickered and went to help Drumstick serve lunch to the waiting ponies. One in the crowd, Marquee, motioned Hood to his table.

"Dreamy called this morning, Hood, asking for donations to the library to cover the purchase of computerized card catalogs."

"That sounds like a feasible plan."

Marquee took a sip of soda. "She's supposedly calling all the business people in town. Has she approached you yet?"

"On this subject? No."

"Well, be prepared. That mare comes on strong and won't take 'no' for an answer," Marquee cautioned.

"Thanks for the warning," Hood answered. "I'll keep that in mind." As he continued his work, he digested Marquee's news and wondered if Dreamy's attempt at healing old wounds was directly related to her library fund drive.

Still sulking behind his paper, William remained quiet, finally leaving when the lunchtime crowd thinned out. Hood regretted having betrayed the elderly stallion's dislike of the electronic age and vowed to be extra sympathetic to his rantings the next time he came in.

It was early afternoon before Laser and his little tag-along cousin arrived at the shop. Hood welcomed them with ice cream cones at the counter. Little Puzzle immediately began swiveling his stool, causing the scoop of chocolate ice cream to fall to the floor; this led to a volley of tears that was only quenched when Hood lifted him over the counter and allowed him to concoct his own ice cream creation-- a caramel-covered scoop of raspberry ice cream. Puzzle was satisfied to sit at a table and lick away.

Shadowing his uncle as Hood continued working, Laser filled Hood in on his boring day. "Lacewing and Blush decided they wanted to make a quilt for the new foal, and Mom and Aunt Stardrift got all caught up in it and decided to make a party of it. They invited Dewdrop and Rosy Bells over."

"Gee," lamented Hood. "A whole houseful of mares!"

Laser wrinkled his nose in disgust. "And if that's not bad enough, Crush and I had to keep Puzzle out of trouble."

"Where is Crush now, by the way?"

"He got to go to soccer practice." Laser looked so forlorn that Hood stopped what he was doing and put a question to his nephew. "How about you and Puzzle and I go for a walk later on when Patchwork Petal shows up for work?"

His face lighting up, Laser asked, "You mean it, Uncle Hood.

"Sure I mean it!" Hood tousled Laser's mane. "In the meantime, how about washing some dishes?"

Even that job sounded like fun knowing that a walk with Uncle Hood was in the near future; Laser was soon in sudsy water up to his elbows. Puzzle joined him and began busily playing with the suds while Laser buckled down to serious work..

Later, Patchwork Petal made her appearance, and Hood beat a hasty retreat with the foals. "Where do you two want to head?"

"More sprite caps!" Puzzle yelped.

"That okay with you, Laser?"

"Sure! Let's go!" Just to be out on a trek with Uncle Hood was all Laser needed-- the destination didn't matter.

Leaving the town behind them, the trio was soon enjoying the freedom of the open meadow. Puzzle chased grasshoppers and butterflies. Laser smelled the wildflowers and chattered about the myriad variety of plant life.

"You'll be a botanist when you grow up," Hood predicted as he did every time Laser astounded him with his knowledge of all green, growing things. He pointed out the bergamot with its minty smelling purple flowers and the fragrant-leaved yarrow. As they reached the fringe of the woodland, the plant life changed subtly; Laser identified hedge bindweed, nightshade, agrimony, and lopseed.

Soon, Hood and his nephews were in the part of the woods where the trees were dense and the sounds hushed. A snippy little red squirrel chattered his disapproval of strangers in his world. "'Curl, Uncle Hood!" squealed Puzzle as the hyper little animal danced on the overhead bough. With several shakes of his bushy tail, the squirrel disappeared into a hole in the rough trunk of the shagbark hickory.

Hood led Laser and Puzzle into the timber until he found an opening where the trees thinned out a bit; and more vegetation was able to grow on the forest floor. He lowered himself to the ground at the base of a giant oak tree and leaned against the trunk.

"Okay, troops, here's the plan." Hood instructed his loyal followers. "Laser, I want you to locate and identify two species of plant life that you are currently unfamiliar with."

Laser stood tall and saluted. "Yes, sir."

"And you, Puzzle, must find and bring me one sprite cap."

Puzzle saluted and giggled. He turned and ran in the direction of a clump of birch trees off to Hood's left; Laser rolled his eyes as his little cousin blindly passed over any number of "sprite caps" under the parent oak.

"As long as he's happy," Hood apprized lightly.

Watching Laser searching out a new botanic specimen, Hood began to dwell on Sassafras whom William had labeled as at home with plants and animals. Sassafras and Meadow Minder had lived east of Woodlawn. What had Checker said... five miles? Hood wondered how far he and the foals had traveled in their easterly hike from town.

Trying to piece together a picture of Sassafras' life, Hood imagined her gathering herbs and berries and blossoms which she could use in the care of her family. Had she walked through this very grove of trees where Hood now sat? It struck Hood how nervous Moonglow was over the birth of a foal, whereas Sassafras would have delivered her two offspring in the isolated seclusion of Meadow Minder's homestead. Somehow, Hood felt Sassafras had chosen the better way.

Hearing Laser's voice, Hood came back to the here and now. His nephew approached bearing a sprig of green in each front hoof. "See, Uncle Hood?" He held out the plant in his right hoof. "I've never seen this for real before, but I'm sure it's ginseng. This one," and he thrust forward his left hoof, "I have no idea what it is."

"It's not poison ivy, is it?" Hood had a sudden vision of returning an itchy, welt-covered foal to his sister.

Laser scoffed at the suggestion. "I'm not stupid, Uncle Hood."

Laughing, Hood checked over Laser's specimens and only then realized that Puzzle was nowhere in sight. "Have you seen Puzzle?" he asked anxiously of Laser while jumping to his hooves.

"No, not since he went over by the birch trees," Laser responded, unperturbed. "He's probably still digging under leaves for his sprite cap." Laser reached down and held up a little acorn cap.

"I'd better find him quickly," Hood worried. "I've got to be at... town by seven." His date with Dreamy had slipped to the back of his mind as he had relaxed in the comfort of Mother Nature.

He and Laser took off for the white barked trees which had attracted Puzzle, but there was no sign of the mint green foal anywhere. Beyond the birch trees, the bushes and undergrowth formed a dense thicket. "He surely wouldn't have gone in there, would he?" Hood questioned Laser.

"Who knows?" Laser responded. "He's just a dumb little foal."

"Puzzle!" Hood called and waited for a reply.

Laser, too, tried his luck. "Puzzle? Where are you?" A faint whinny reached their ears, the sound coming from within the heart of the coppice. Hood pushed his way into the bramble, Laser following closely behind.

"Puzzle? Are you in here?" Hood's voice sounded worried.

"Me here," they heard the little voice reply. Moving quickly to pinpoint the location of the missing foal, Hood found him contentedly digging in the soil under the bushes, his hooves coated in rich humus.

"What are you doing?" Hood none too tenderly asked.

"Me lookin' for sprite caps, Uncle Hood," Puzzle replied as if wondering how an adult could be so forgetful.

Laser snickered. "Guess you haven't found one yet."

"Nope," Puzzle verified.

Hood helped the foal to his hooves and led him out into the open area before brushing the dirt from his body. "Your mom's going to get me for this," he muttered under his breath.

"She no care," Puzzle offered helpfully. "Me always dirty."

Hood grinned at the philosophic little guy. "I'm sorry you didn't find a sprite cap."

Puzzle looked up at Hood with big blue eyes. "Me see purple butterfly."

His attention riveted to his nephew's words, Hood quizzed him. "You saw what?"

"The purple butterfly." Puzzle meandered off again still pursuing his quest for the elusive cap.

"Laser," Hood asked as he stared into the depths of the thicket from which they had just come. "Have you ever seen a purple butterfly?"

"Only in the museum," Laser answered. "Why?"

"There are no purple butterflies in this area," Hood responded distantly. "So if Puzzle saw one, it had to be..." Shaking his head, he turned to Laser and told him to round up Puzzle for they had to get home.

Laser groaned, but went off obediently. Hood stood watching the green leaves that covered the bushes. Could Puzzle have stumbled upon the stallion hidden in the bushes and seen only the identifying butterfly pattern that marked him as Sassafras' son?

"We're ready," Laser called, standing hoof in hoof with his cousin.

"Okay. Let's get going. It's time for you two to get home for supper." The three of them walked homeward, and Hood resisted the temptation to look back. He sensed that a pair of eyes was watching them, and his first concern was to get the foals to safety.

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