Ginseng and Sassafras Tea: Chapter Twenty-One
written by Sugarberry

It was turning into a long night. Hood sat in the quiet cafeteria clutching a cup of strong black coffee. The fact that it tasted terrible didn't seem to register with him as he continued to gulp the hot brew.

After Bilberry had been turned over to the medical personnel at the hospital for attention, Checker had taken Hood quietly into the maternity ward to look briefly on his niece. With a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye, Hood looked with wonder at the delicate creature, her tiny hooves resting lightly on the blanket. "She's gorgeous!" he whispered to Checker, who grinned widely and nodded in agreement.

Checker had returned to his duties while Hood collapsed in the lunchroom looking back over the events of the day. He shook his head in contemplation. How had such an ordinary day turned into the adventure that ensued?

The sound of hoofsteps caused him to come alert as a nurse guided Shasta into the room. Hood stood up and pulled a chair out for the weary filly. Shasta hesitated, but finally sat down. The nurse, a white and blue earth pony, brought a mug for her and set the carafe on the table. "Enjoy," she said in a soft, pleasant voice; and for the first time, Hood noticed her name tag: Angel. He looked quickly at Shasta who met his eyes briefly, then turned away.

"I'll let you know when your brother is settled in his room," Angel told Shasta before leaving. Her voice had a musical quality that helped sooth Hood's tired psyche.

When they were alone, Hood studied Shasta's face as she absently stirred her coffee. What was she thinking? he wondered, yet he hated to disturb her any further by asking pointless questions. He refilled his cup, and compared the exhausted, worried filly before him with the vivacious, confident pony he had first met earlier in the evening as his benefactor in the heap of rubble at the old farmhouse.

His train of thought reminded him of his battered hip; he finally broke the silence between them. "I never thanked you for your medical attention after my fall. You have a natural knack for easing pain."

"I learned that from my mother when I was just a foal," she said quietly without raising her gaze from the coffee.

And from his time in the meadow where Sassafras now lay, Hood knew that the mare had been a very special pony; her legacy of healing now rested with her daughter's talent. He was sure that Shasta would prove herself to be an exemplary care giver.

Hood was about to question Shasta concerning her family when Checker and Searcher came through the doorway. Checker lost no time in stating his business. "Shasta, you'll have to come down to headquarters for some questioning."

Hood began to complain, but Checker raised his hoof for silence. "We just need a few gaps in the story filled in."

"I'd hoped to stay here to be with Bilberry when the doctor is through with him," Shasta pleaded with the police chief as she stood to face him. Hood quickly went to her side to lend his support.

"Couldn't this wait until morning, Checker?" Hood asked.

"Hey!" Checker responded. "I'm the good guy, remember? But there are a few questions that need answers yet, and the sooner the better." He nodded to Searcher, who guided Shasta from the room.

Setting his hoof on Hood's foreleg, Checker softened. "She'll be back soon to see her brother, Hood. I'm not going to lock her up." He turned to leave, then looked back. "If I were you, I'd go home and get some sleep. You look awful."

Realizing that Checker was probably right, Hood headed for the exit, only to be met by Dreamy coming in.

"You look awful!" she smilingly informed him. Catching sight of his bandaged hip, she suddenly grew serious. "You've been hurt!"

"Just a scratch," Hood disclosed.

"You never showed up for our date," she reproved.

"I got a little caught up in other things."

"Do I get the story?" she queried as she held up her tape recorder. "I hear that you were instrumental in catching the villain."

Hood shook his head. "Always the reporter, right, Dreamy?" He started around her for the door.

"Can't blame a mare for trying," she grinned. "At least you can give me a few facts." But Hood was already out the door, and on his way home.

* * *

Hood thought he would sleep until noon when he had crawled into his bed after a quick shower, but he came suddenly awake at seven and jumped out of bed. His last thought before falling asleep had been Shasta; she had looked so forlorn and friendless when he had last seen her, and now his first thought was of her. He had to get to the hospital to see how she-- and Bilberry-- were doing.

After grabbing a stale donut and a glass of milk-- no time for coffee!-- he set off for the hospital at a brisk pace. As he walked, he realized that he would have to buy a gift for Moonglow and the new foal, and he looked forward to holding the little filly for the first time. But his concern for Shasta and her brother overwhelmed his thoughts, and he began formulating plans to help the siblings in whatever way he could.

Arriving at the hospital, he was pleased to see that Checker was there, too, using the phone in the main lobby. The chief motioned Hood to wait for him as he finished the call. "Come say good morning to your sister, Hood. She can't wait to see you." As they walked down the hall, Checker cast a sideways glance at the stallion. "Well, you look cleaner this morning, at least."

They found Moonglow just finishing breakfast; the foal was awake, entranced by the sunbeam flowing through the window. After a hug for his sister and the explanation of his escapade at the farmstead, Hood went to the bassinet; he picked up the foal gingerly and reveled in the beauty of the precious newborn.

Suddenly, something came to him. "What's her name?" he asked, realizing he had been too distraught during the night to even wonder what the foal would be christened.

"Rosebud!" both parents said in unison.

"Perfect," Hood endorsed their decision. The dainty foal in his forelegs was a soft pink color, with darker pink mane and tail. Her symbol was a pure white rose, just beginning to open, with a lone dewdrop glittering on the petals.

A soft knock at the door was followed by the entrance of Candystripe who worked at the hospital. She took the food tray from Moonglow and advised the two stallions that Dr. Verve was coming in soon, and possibly the visitor should leave the room-- this said with eyes on Hood who handed Rosebud to her mother and held the door for Candystripe as she left, and asked her a question once they were in the hallway. "Can I visit the patient admitted last night-- Bilberry?"

But Checker had followed him from the room. "I knew you wouldn't be able to wait to get the latest news," he grinned. "Wait for me in the coffee shop, and I'll give you all the details."

Hood followed the corridor until he located the cafeteria where he had sat with Shasta during the night. He picked up a cinnamon roll and a cup of coffee and chose a table in the back corner. As he ate, he surveyed the other ponies scattered about the room: Some were nurses on break; one mare with a worried expression on her face was probably awaiting uncertain news about a loved one; a young stallion with a circle of relatives around him was celebrating the birth of his first foal. Hood was so absorbed in his pastime that he didn't see the stallion approaching his table until Sparky stood in front of him.

"Waiting for the chief?" the deputy asked as he set his pancake breakfast on the table and seated himself.

"Yes, I am," Hood replied briefly.

"What a night!" Sparky continued. "You got yourself caught in the middle of a sticky situation. How are you doing? You look kind of haggard."

"You don't look so hot yourself."

Sparky shoveled another forkful of syrup-laden pancake into his mouth. "Haven't slept yet. Waitin' to report to the chief."

Seeing his brother-in-law getting his coffee, Hood said, "He's on his way."

The electric blue stallion dropped heavily into a chair. "I'm bushed!" He took a hefty swallow of coffee, then asked Sparky, "What did you find out?"

"It's just like you figured. The ginseng farmer over in Trevor admitted that he'd dug-up a big bed of ginseng in that area several years ago and transplanted it onto his own farm."

"He's the biggest producer of ginseng in the area," Checker added. "That explains how he got his monopoly on the market."

"So what's with this talk of ginseng?" asked a confused Hood, looking from one to the other.

"Shasta told us her dad had planted ginseng on his place before he left. He planned on it maturing-- it takes four years before the roots can be harvested-- and thought he and the youngsters would be back by then to reap the profits."

Sparky picked up the story at this point. "Things didn't work out as well as they'd hoped when they got settled in Shore Town, and the dad had to stay longer at his job there."

"So you're saying someone stole the ginseng while they were gone?" Hood interjected.

"The chief sent me over to Trevor early this morning on the hunch that the biggest ginseng grower in these parts might know something about the matter." Sparky finished off the last of the pancake. "Golden Prairie says he always added to his ginseng beds with wild plants that grew naturally in the woods around here."

Checker raised an eyebrow. "He didn't stop to consider that this particular ginseng was planted in orderly fields?"

Sparky nodded in agreement. "I thought that, too. But he says that the fields had grown up so in the years during which no one was there to tend them that he thought he'd walked into the mother lode of wild ginseng."

"So why is this ginseng so important all of a sudden?" Hood wondered out loud.

"Bilberry and Shasta moved back to the home place after Bilberry finished high school this spring. Their dad had died the autumn before. The two thought the ginseng would be there waiting for them-- get them financially started in their own plans for raising a variety of medicinal herbs on the farm," Checker filled him in on the details.

"Shasta says her brother took it real bad that his dad's investment in the future for the two of them had been pilfered, so he began lifting produce from the residents of Woodlawn to try to make up some of the loss," Sparky added.

Checker looked at his deputy's empty plate, and his tired eyes. "Don't you think you should go turn in for a couple hours, Sparky?"

Grinning, Sparky acknowledged that would be a good idea; he pushed back his chair and wished the other two a good day.

"So tell me the rest of the story," Hood prompted when they were alone.

"Bilberry would come into Woodlawn..."

"Why Woodlawn?" Hood questioned. "Why not Trevor?"

Checker enlightened him. "The farm is closer to Woodlawn than to Trevor, so he placed the blame on the residents of Woodlawn. Plus, the hiking trails that crisscross the farm now are frequented most often by our folks. He made a logical assumption that someone from our fair town had dug up or otherwise destroyed the inheritance left by his dad."

"So he declared himself the bearer of justice by exacting an equal value of produce from the ponies he saw as guilty?" Hood questioned. "How'd he unload the stuff?"

"That's where Shasta came in. She took the goods he swiped over to Trevor's farmers' market; that's why no one ever saw Bilberry. His sister says he grew up with the animals of the woods and learned their ways of stealth and cunning."

"So why the job with the lawn service?" inquired Hood. "Why did he take the chance to go public, so to speak?"

"I need more coffee, Hood," Checker interrupted. "Let me grab you a refill, too, even if it isn't as good as the brew you sell."

When the two stallions were again comfortably ensconced with their coffee, Checker went on.

"Summer was winding down, and Bilberry realized that he and Shasta were ill-prepared to face a winter at the farmstead. Their sales hadn't brought in the jangles as quickly as he'd hoped. So he figured that a salary from the mowing job would be beneficial, and he could still collect on his vendetta at the same time."

"I guess it would have worked if Rosy Bells and Laser hadn't noticed some discrepancies that day at your place," Hood surmised. He sat in contemplation for awhile before asking, "And how's Shasta doing?"

"After our questioning, she wanted to come straight back to her brother. She sat up with him all night, even though he was resting comfortably. The doctor says his leg will heal with no lasting effects."

"Can I go see them?" Hood spoke up.

"Sure. Why not? You're the closest thing to a friend they've got right now."

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