Reaching the edge of the meadowland, Hood stopped and put his hooves on Laser's shoulders. "Laser, I want you to take Puzzle to your house now, alone. I've got something I have to do."
"What's that, Uncle Hood?" Laser looked at his uncle in some anxiety.
"I need to search for the mysterious purple butterfly," Hood stated matter of factly. "But you've got to promise me that you'll go straight home, right now. Do you promise, Laser?'
Feeling a knot begin to form in his stomach, Laser whispered, "Yes, Uncle Hood. I promise."
Hood gave the foals an encouraging smile. "I'm counting on you two to make record time crossing this meadow. On your mark, get set, go!"
With a bewildered glance at his uncle, Laser grasped Puzzle's hoof tightly in his own, and started off at a lope across the flower-strewn plain.
Watching until the foals were well on their way, Hood turned his own path in a north easterly direction. "Checker says the river runs across Meadow Minder's land," Hood calculated softly to himself, "and the river is north of here. If I can intercept that, I'll just have to follow the river east."
He trotted determinedly, progressing diagonally back toward the forest, yet staying on the prairie until he caught sight of a rather lazily-running stream ahead. Upon reaching the bank of the river, Hood began following its melodic run of water away from town.
The stream eventually neared the woodlands, but skirted them to the north. Hood kept one eye on the river and one on the trees to his right. Was the stallion still watching him, or had he moved on to another venture?
Continuing to follow the course of the river, Hood began to question his purpose for this unplanned side-trip. What did he hope to accomplish out in this Arcadian countryside? Would Victor resent his presence so near his childhood home? For a moment, Hood hesitated; but he shook off the feeling of doubt. "I only want to see this old farmstead that Sassafras called home," he convinced himself and kept on walking.
The scenery was beautiful; Hood made a mental note to bring the foals along this route one day soon. The land closest to the river remained fairly level; but across the pasture the land began to rise, and hollows which were already falling into shadow carved themselves out of the hillsides. Trees rimmed the gently undulating contour of the land.
Rounding a bend in the watercourse, Hood was startled to see a fisherpony casting his line into the stream. Even though Checker had said that this pastoral ground was frequented by hikers and sportsponies, Hood himself had seen no one since he had sent Laser and Puzzle on their way. The whirring of the reel seemed out of place in this serene setting; and as Hood was not inclined to strike up a conversation, he skirted the area of the creek from which the pony was fishing.
Winding his way ever deeper into total isolation, Hood felt more and greater respect for Meadow Minder and Sassafras facing a life together far from the convenience of the town. He admired their ability to survive the hardships that must have made their lives harsh at times and envied their closeness to nature and all it had to offer.
Looking toward an open flat area that lay overlooking the river basin, Hood caught sight of a white-tail deer standing alert, ears stretched and eyes bright. The thin-legged doe retained her statuesque pose, as if mesmerized, as Hood drew closer. It wasn't until Hood accidentally stepped on a brittle branch across his path, shooting a reverberating snap as it broke, did the reddish-brown animal spring around and leap for cover on the tree-strewn hillside rising behind her. Hood watched, fascinated, as the deer, with white tail flashing, disappeared.
Scanning the tree-enclosed meadow where the deer had stood, Hood was overwhelmed with the variety and magnitude of wildflowers. It was as if all the species common to the Woodlawn area had congregated on this one piece of solitary prairie and taken up residence. Laser's got to see this, Hood told himself as he walked slowly through the sea of undulating flower blossoms. Some he could identify-- the pink clusters of milkweed, the pale pink bells of dogbane, and the delicate white Queen Anne's lace-- others he could only wonder at.
Taking a step towards the outside edge of this floral clearing, Hood's hoof sank into freshly turned soil at the same time that sharp, bristly points scraped across his leg. Looking down, Hood gasped. Unbelievingly, he was staring at the little blue spruce that until last night had been growing in his back lawn. Now, here it was, replanted in this veritable Garden of Eden. Hood lifted his head and searched the sweep of trees, but no movement, no glimmer caught his eye. Why would anyone steal a tree from a yard in Woodlawn and pack it this distance to simply plant it in this wild place?
And then, Hood knew. For standing but a few feet from him, he noticed a cross fashioned from hardwood nearly invisible in the wealth of blooms that encompassed it. "Sassafras is buried here," he whispered to the wind. The cross, the spruce, the expanse of wildflowers were all a memorial to that brave and self-sufficient mare whose existence revolved around these very gifts of nature.
Sassafras, whom he had never seen, had become very real to Hood. She must have died even before Meadow Minder had moved to the city, and he had buried her where she most loved to be-- with the flowers and the wild things. Now her son was adding his own touch to her earthly resting place. Hood felt himself to be on holy ground.
Wishing to linger in this peaceful spot, Hood had to force himself to continue his journey. It was getting late, and he still had to get back to Woodlawn for his dinner date with Dreamy. The thought of her wrath if he were late induced him on.
"The homestead must be close by," Hood theorized. He angled his direction to take him through the woods. Trying to think like a woodspony, he envisioned where the best location for a house would be; and to his humble surprise, there it stood-- a once white frame house with green shutters at the windows and a wide, welcoming front porch. The paint was peeling, the shutters were falling, and the porch was sagging. "But this..." Hood breathed, "this was Sassafras' home."
He walked around the house which seemed to lean a bit like a tree buffeted in a brisk wind and came across the paths worn by hikers that now crisscrossed what had been a front lawn. An even more dilapidated barn rested tiredly on its foundation; several outbuildings sat forlornly surrounded by wild grasses and burdock. Hood surveyed the place carefully, imaging what it was like when Sassafras and Meadow Minder lived a happy existence here and gave life to two foals. He sensed the sorrow that Meadow Minder must have felt at the loss of his beloved wife and the added tragedy of leaving his farm behind.
What had become of Sassafras' children? What had driven Victor to come back to haunt Woodlawn with his stealthy deceit? Hood yearned to learn the answers.
Swinging in its western arc, the sun was slanting long, glancing rays down onto this lonesome homestead. Knowing he had to get moving if he expected to pick Dreamy up on time, Hood still couldn't break away from the captivating effect this place held for him. "I've got to see inside the house," he bartered with himself, "and then I'm out of here."
Testing each step before applying his weight, Hood gained the porch which was relatively solid. A wooden swing hanging from the porch roof by rusty chains creaked as the breeze fanned it. The front door, drooping open because of a missing hinge, beckoned him, and he entered the haven of Sassafras' life. The room stood empty; the only accessory was a worn, moth-eaten rug on the floor. Acorns and hickory nuts lay about as if little forest rodents had taken up shelter in this forgotten abode.
The walls and ceiling were pealing to the extent that large sections of plaster were hanging haphazardly as if ready to drop when the next gust of air caught them. Where the ceiling beams were exposed, Hood could see extensive damage to the stability of the framework, and he trod ever more carefully over the rotting floorboards while considering how quickly a house without inhabitants began to disintegrate. It was almost as if the building knew it was no longer loved and needed, and it began a steady decline into oblivion.
"I'm getting way too sentimental," Hood smiled to himself as much to ease the tension that gripped him as to express any happiness he felt; for as of this moment, he felt no joy, only a sense of emptiness and loss over the family that had found no solution to a problem other than abandoning what must have been a precious home.
The ravages of summer storms and frigid winter temperatures had done their work and would continue to deteriorate the dwelling until nothing remained except for the supporting foundation walls; and someday, they too would crumble and collapse.
Passing into the next room, Hood discovered an antiquated kitchen. This room that had probably been witness to the happiest occurrences in Sassafras' family had suffered the harshest fate; for here, too, time had not been friendly. A battered ice box still sat heavily in the corner, and a cracked and encrusted sink was watched over by a rusty pump handle. The old cast iron stove dominated the room like an ancient throne.
As Hood peered intently around the shabby space before him, a chipper grey animal stuck his head out of one of the openings in the stove. After sizing-up this alien in his domain, the pert creature climbed into full sight and Hood recognized a larger cousin of the earlier red squirrel. This cavalier fellow did not hesitate to scold and vent his displeasure; but as his sermon got him nowhere, he turned tail and exited through a broken windowpane behind the sink.
The floor was worn and weak, with several spots that were actually broken through. Hood gingerly crossed the room and envisioned Sassafras' busily preparing meals, preserving produce, churning butter, and washing dishes. It had been a rough life, Hood was sure, but redeemed by the love the family shared.
He stood solemnly for several minutes in his silent contemplation when a clop on the floor in the first room warned him of approaching hooves, followed almost simultaneously by the thundering collapse of a splitting timber somewhere within the house. The floor quivered from the impact, and Hood braced himself for what was to come next.