Ginseng and Sassafras Tea: Chapter Twenty
written by Sugarberry

Passing the time while waiting for Shasta's return, Hood continued to monitor Bilberry's condition; he didn't like the looks of the right back leg that had swollen considerably since he had first come down into the deteriorating basement. His supply of cold water was dissipating, and he could only hope he was doing the right thing for the injured stallion as he again bathed Bilberry's face and tended his wounds. Then he switched off the flashlight to conserve the battery and began a monologue to fill in the empty minutes. The light from the moon filtered into their prison enough for them to see things in muted perception

Hood prattled on about different things, always trying to draw some response from Bilberry; but for the most part the young stallion remained distant and uninterested, staring up at the glimpse of sky through the yawning doorway. But Hood continued his therapy, hoping to keep Bilberry's mind off the pain he must be feeling... not only the physical pain from his injuries but also the mental anguish of having failed at whatever it was that he had been trying to accomplish along with his sister in this forsaken ancestral home. Whatever they had done, Hood was sure that the two ponies must have had a very good reason for the actions that had landed them in this tenuous position.

Hood talked about his early days growing up in Grayton, and about his move to Woodlawn. All this succeeded in doing was to cause Bilberry to close his eyes and feign sleep. Hood changed his tactics. "I saw the wildflower haven where your mother was laid to rest." This, at least, got a reaction; Bilberry opened his eyes and stared at Hood. "The blue spruce you added was from my back lawn." The eyelids drooped closed once more. But Hood didn't stop.

"If you and Shasta grew up here, you must have wonderful memories to think back on. I would imagine a colt growing up in the middle of the woods this way would have learned a lot about plants and animals and nature in general. It's easy to see that Shasta has a way with those herbs of hers; what was your main interest as a colt?"

No answer was forthcoming, but Hood did hear a rustling from overhead; he flipped on the lantern and focused the light beam upward, catching the reflected stare of two yellow eyes glowing in the darkness; they were surrounded by a furry black mask and a brown nose busily sniffing the night air. "A raccoon," Hood said in surprise, temporarily startling the visitor and causing him to scuttle backwards.

"Tanglefoot?" whispered Bilberry while feebly attempting to lift his head.

Hood watched in wonder as the fat little animal followed a broken railing down at an angle until he could drop to the floor where Bilberry lay. He darted to his wounded friend and began chattering in his peculiar language while nosing through the stallion's mane as if searching for something.

When satisfied that nothing was hidden there, he came around to face Bilberry and chatter some more, almost as if scolding. Bilberry tried to smile, but his grimace revealed to Hood the pain he was feeling. But he did manage to speak. "I'm afraid I've got no corn tonight, little fellow."

"This striped-tailed critter is a friend of yours?" Hood asked in fascination as the raccoon continued to explore the rubbish that surrounded them, apparently finding some insects to his liking.

But Hood didn't get an answer as the sound of voices reached their ears; the raccoon took off for cover. Bilberry painfully moved his head, and groaned. "That's Shasta!"

In a matter of seconds, two ponies peered over the edge of the foundation wall. "Shasta!" Hood called in relief. "You made record time!"

The stallion at the filly's side pointed a powerful flashlight on Hood and Bilberry. "I'm Searcher from the Woodlawn Police Force. I'll be down there in no time." He unrolled a rope ladder over the edge of the wall and anchored it securely before descending into the rubble. Once down, he held the swaying ladder steady as Shasta joined them with her first aid kit clutched in her hoof. She rushed to Bilberry's side, and Hood gladly moved away to accommodate her.

Hood walked over to Searcher, and the two exchanged information. "He has a bad bump on the head and a deep cut along his left thigh, plus a swollen leg. Is medical help on the way?"

"Yes. I've radioed to headquarters. They'll be here as soon as possible."

"How'd you get here so fast?" queried Hood as the officer surveyed the damage to the building's structure. Shasta was capably administering her healing touch to her brother.

"I've been on stake-out, watching the place... the fisherpony at the creek."

"That was you!" Hood realized that the grey stallion with the bright blue hair was the one he had shied away from at the riverbank.

"Luckily, the mare here took the river path to get help, so she ran across me and didn't have to waste time running all the way in to Woodlawn."

Motioning to Searcher to move away from Shasta and Bilberry, Hood asked, "Why hadn't you apprehended them sooner, rather than just keeping an eye on them?"

Searcher raised an eyebrow, and peered at Hood before responding. "Chief Checker confides in his brother-in-law, does he?"

"As if this won't be front page news in tomorrow's edition of the Ponderings!" A brief glimpse of Dreamy flashed through Hood's mind, causing the stallion to flinch.

Searcher, too, grimaced and decided to relent. "You're right," he admitted. "We were watching to see where these two were moving their operation. The thing is, only the stallion would actually carry their supplies off, and once he melted into the woods, he was gone. He must be part panther, that one!"

"So you haven't traced them to a new location?"

"No. If we could, we'd have all the evidence in one spot, nice and neat."

By this time, Shasta had cleaned and dressed Bilberry's wounds; and the brother and sister were engaged in a one-sided conversation with Shasta asking questions and Bilberry responding with monosyllabic answers.

"You'll let them help you, won't you, Bilberry?" the stallions overheard as they approached the two again. If Bilberry responded, they didn't hear his reply.

Shasta looked up at Searcher with a troubled expression. "What are you going to do with him?" She put her foreleg across his body as if to shield him from whatever onslaught they had planned.

"Is he strong enough for us to move him out of here?" the officer asked, surveying the disintegrating structure once more under the beam of his light.

Standing up, Shasta shook her head. "His right back leg is broken; it would be better to wait until the paramedics arrive."

Searcher looked at the watch on his foreleg. "Chief Checker and the crew should be here in another ten minutes. We'll wait until then." Hearing that, Shasta returned to her brother's side.

Moving what timbers and rotted boards as they could safely attempt, Hood and Searcher worked to clear an area large enough to accommodate the rescue team until the approach of several beams of light signaled the arrival of help.

"What's your status here?" Checker's voice rang out.

Searcher responded with a succinct account of Bilberry's wounds and the condition of the collapsing substructure of the building. The medical ponies and officers were soon descending the ladder that Searcher had provided, and knowledgeable ponies immobilized Bilberry's broken leg. Many hooves and strong backs lifted him onto a stretcher and raised the gurney up out of the crumbling basement and onto what had once been a front lawn. Shasta hovered over the paramedics, not interfering but watching their every move as if she did not trust them to do the best they could for her brother.

Searcher had just exited the basement for the last time when an eerie creaking sound sliced through the night as yet another tired timber released its hold on the old house and fell with a groan into the garbled heap where Bilberry had lain. The thump of its landing was followed by the cascading onslaught of more lumber as the floor overhead, deprived of its support, was swallowed into the depths of the self-consuming structure.

"Your timing was good," Checker called to Searcher as they watched the basement belch out the dust that accompanied the latest destruction.

Hood turned to see what effect this had on Shasta, and saw her head drop in sorrow as if she had just seen her-- and Bilberry's-- dreams disappear. Hood moved toward her and laid a hoof on her shoulder. "Is there anything I can do for you, Shasta?"

She looked up into his face with a tired, empty expression, at the same time shaking her head. How could one explain the lose of a lifetime of plans and memories, rotted away like the foundation of the house that had once been the lifeblood of her family. All she had now was the recollection of a happier time when she and Bilberry were young and in the company of their parents.

Checker informed them that the group was ready to start for Woodlawn through the shadowy and silent night. Sparky headed the unusual parade that moved off along the trail, with the medic ponies carrying Bilberry on the gurney; Searcher followed, keeping a close watch on Shasta whom he kept within foreleg's reach as if anticipating a sudden bolt for freedom.

"Shasta won't leave her brother," Hood counseled Checker. "Searcher doesn't have to treat her like a criminal."

"He's only doing his job," Checker rationalized. He swung the flashlight over the area, making one last review. The yellow "no entry" tape placed around the portals to the farmhouse swayed in the breeze like a spectral being, but everything was quiet for the moment.

Suddenly a rounded shape crossed the beam of light. Recognizing the raccoon that had approached Bilberry, Hood told Checker to keep it in sight. The inquisitive critter went directly to the point in the grass where Bilberry had rested; his noise sniffed out every blade of grass, and his black leather feet felt every square inch. Then rising on his haunches, he faced the direction that the convoy had disappeared and proceeded to emit noises that sounded disarmingly like crying. The forest creature turned and held his gaze on the two stallions for a brief moment, dismissed their ability to aid him, and dissolved into the night.

"Cute little thing," Checker commented, going back to his inspection.

Thinking back to Bilberry's exchange with the animal, Hood explained that the raccoon was a pet of the green pony. He found himself worrying about the masked mammal even though it obviously was able to take care of itself. It had been looking for food from Bilberry. Maybe he was hungry even now. I'll come out tomorrow with some corn, Hood decided.

Finding everything to his satisfaction, Checker's voice brought Hood back to the present moment. "We've got to get you to the hospital!"

Hood turned his head to check on the bandage Shasta had applied earlier in the day. It was coming loose, but was still doing its job of covering the wound. "I don't need any medical help," he informed his brother-in-law. "Shasta did an excellent patch-up job."

Checker scoffed. "I'm not worried about you, buddy! But you do want to see your newborn niece, don't you?"

Hood's eyes opened wide. "Moonglow gave birth during this whole escapade?" he asked unbelievingly.

Throwing his foreleg around Hood, Checker laughed. "Just like a mare to pick the most inconvenient time for something like this, huh? Come on! You've got to see the little beauty!"

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