Discovering the hero

Under Jake’s Disguise

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of a chicken squawking and running all over the place.

“What the heck?” I said aloud. Miner never chases chickens. I’ve seen Miner and the chickens eat out of the same pile of food.

I pulled a flannel shirt over my pajama top and ran down stairs and out onto the porch. While I was pulling on my boots, the terrorized chicken ran by, pulling behind it a twelve foot piece of fly-trap paper. Jake came out behind me and burst out laughing.

“Stupid chicken!” he exclaimed, running off after her in his bare feet. The chickens are allowed to free range around the farm but there are fences to keep them out of the garden area. Unfortunately, this one had obviously found a way into our straw bale garden area.

Flies like to lay eggs in wet straw bales so after the rain, the kitchen garden had become an intolerable swarm of flies. And flies can carry diseases dangerous to both humans and animals, so we had to do something to reduce the growing population. Dad bought foot-wide fly paper and laid it out in long strips on top of the straw bales. It caught thousands of flies and to a chicken, that fly paper must have looked like a table spread with a feast.

By the time I got my boots on and ran around the corner, Jake had managed to step on the corner of the fly paper, abruptly halting the sprinting chicken. She was still flapping and squawking and every second, more of her got stuck to the fly paper.

“Oh, man. What a mess!” I said, laughing, in spite of the poor chicken’s distress. Jake’s toes were stuck to the fly paper as well.

“Just hold onto it for a second until I catch her,” I said, walking very slowly up to the yellow hen. She had stopped flapping and was laying on her side. I gently took hold of her around her wings, pinning them to her sides. The fly paper was mostly stuck to her belly and butt. I felt her relax in my arms.

“It’s gonna be okay,” I told her. “I’ll get you free of this mess in just a minute.”

“Well,” said Jake, trying to detach his toes from the fly paper without getting his fingers stuck instead. “That’s the first time in history a chicken ever got chased by a swarm of flies.”

When we came back around to the front of the house, Will and Daniel were there, dressed and waiting to see what all the commotion was.

“Wow, you guys are—somehow,” Daniel said, quoting Grandpa.

I suddenly realized how ridiculous we looked. I was wearing pink pajama shorts and a green and black flannel shirt. I had slipped on my ranch boots, which came halfway to my bare knees. My hair was still a tangled mess from bed and in my arms was a chicken attached to twelve feet of fly paper. Jake was in his boxers and nothing else. He gingerly held the other end of the fly paper. We looked at each other and silently agreed not to laugh.

“Don’t be too impressed,” I said haughtily, “it took far less time to get ready than you could imagine.”

“Oh, I can imagine,” Daniel said, as we came up the steps.

Will came out with a pair of shears. It took a couple minutes to trim the fly paper away from the hen. I was imagining how distressed she must be when she turned her head and started pecking flies off the paper nearest her.

When we finally got her free, there was quite a bit of downy belly feathers on the fly paper, but the hen looked just fine. You’d never know she had just had a serious trim.

Mom came out on the porch and we told her what had happened.

“It would be nice to think she learned her lesson,” Mom said, “but you know she didn’t. Which means we’ve got to figure out how she got through the fence and make sure it doesn’t happen again. We don’t want anymore chickens stuck to fly paper.”

“After the fly paper is full of flies, we could dust it with sand so that it isn’t sticky anymore and let the chickens eat the flies,” Jake suggested.

“Good idea,” Will said. “I’ll go check the garden fence right now, while you put the hen back with the rest of the chickens.”

Jake set the chicken free back on her side of the fence and returned to the porch, looking very self conscious in his boxers. He headed straight for the door with a red face. I got up to return to my bedroom as well.

After chores, we had pancakes and beef sausage for breakfast with dandelion coffee and whipped cream.24

When we were all full and just sitting there talking and sipping our hot coffee, Mom announced, “I’m going to town with Daniel to the thrift store. Anybody else want to go?”

We all did and Daniel seemed relieved to have us enthusiastically joining his shopping trip. I wondered if he’d ever been in a second-hand store before. Even Dad joined us and he almost never goes shopping.

I ran down to Grandpa’s cabin to tell him we’d be back in the afternoon and to invite him to come up for dinner and dancing if he wanted. Then I helped mom put together a venison casserole that would only need a few minutes in the oven when we got home.

The truck was full. Dad had put Jake, Daniel, Sue and I in the back seat. Mom sat in the middle of the front and Will sat by the window with Anna in his lap.

“Well, Daniel,” Dad said, when we were off the bumpy road and on the highway, “you’ve been with us for most of the summer now. What do you think about it all?”

“I like it here,” Daniel said, a little awkwardly. “At first, I thought it was pretty weird but now I’m used to it, and I like it—a lot.”

“You’re a hard worker. If you want to come back next summer, you’re welcome.”

“Thanks,” Daniel said, seriously. “Thanks. I’d like that. I—if, my dad will let me.”

Jake and Susanna started talking to Daniel about next summer and when he would be out of school, how he would get back to the farm and what his friends would think.

But my mind wandered ahead in time and I began to think about the future. My future. I would turn fifteen in a few months. Will wanted me to help him start his own farm. But what if Will got married? I glanced over at him, feeling a flutter of fear.

It’ll be years before Will gets married, I told myself.

I looked at Daniel. He was leaving. He might come back but people don’t always return to the places they used to know. I thought of Fort 51. Would Daniel outgrow us?

Daniel looked across Jake and Sue at me and smiled questioningly. I think my return smile must have been sad because he raised his eyebrows and tilted his head. I shook my head and turned to look out my window.

Maybe Jake will grow up a little, and we’ll get along better, I thought to myself, turning back to glance at him. He had a cow lick on the top of his head that was standing straight up and when Daniel said something funny, Jake started snorting and laughing at the same time.

Doubtful, I sighed.

It’s funny how worried I had been at the beginning of the summer about Daniel coming to stay with us. I had wanted everything to stay the same. I had liked my life the way it was. And now here I was again, worrying about the future, wanting life to stay the same.

Mom and Dad dropped us off at the second-hand store and then went to run some errands. Later on, they regretted that decision.

Shopping at the thrift store turned out to be more entertaining than anyone expected. Daniel did his best to make shopping for second-hand clothing a privileged experience.

“Oh my gosh, holy cow—look what I found!” I heard him exclaim again and again. He found a vest like the one Grandpa wears and a cowboy hat that desperately needed to be steamed and reshaped. He wore them both while he kept shopping.

Jake and Will got into the thrift store spirit and joined him. Will found a coat he liked and wore while shopping, even though it was hot as heck. Jake put on an extra large pair of overalls and carried around a baseball with a smeared signature on it. Susanna found a feathered boa and floated around talking in a fake British accent that occasionally sounded Navajo.

Whenever Jake or Daniel found a ludicrously large and gaudy dress, they would hold it up in front of me and say, “How hot would you be in this?” and then Susanna would exclaim, “Definitely you, darling!”

I saw the store manager laughing with one of the check-out girls as they watched us from afar.

“Well. . . . Hello, Ramona. Are those your brothers?”

I turned around and saw a man I recognized as one of my Dad’s cattle customers in the fall. The year before, he had bought a couple of calves from us. I couldn’t remember his name, only that he had been overbearing and talkative.

“Yeah,” I laughed, not bothering to explain Daniel’s place in the family. “They don’t get out very often.”

“Hmmm,” he commented with marked disinterest while working his way closer to me. “You’re looking grown up, Ramona. Do you have a boyfriend?”

“Uh. No.” I curbed my smile and started to move away, wondering uneasily where the conversation was headed.

“Oh, I see: your dad is keeping you locked up. Not ready to lose his little princess yet, is he? It’s got to happen someday. Doesn’t he know that you’re all grown up?”

Steve. I remembered his name was Steve-something. Steve-the-Troll, I thought.

Jake was coming toward me with another huge dress covered with sequins, so I nodded courteously at my Dad’s cattle customer and moved toward Jake, glad for his timely arrival.

“How hot would you be in this?” he said cheerfully, holding the sparkling blue tent in front of me for a split second before striding away again.

“Hot enough for me,” Steve-the-Troll said in a low voice behind me. Unfortunately for him, Jake has incredible hearing. He wheeled around again and stared at my admirer.

“That’s my sister,” he said emphatically and I was amazed at the aggression in Jake’s voice.

My little brother isn’t so little after all, I thought and smiled broadly at Jake.

I glanced back at Steve-the-Troll and was alarmed to see he had walked up behind me. As I turned to move away he took my arm, not tightly, but firm enough to frighten me.

“Hey,” he said, “I just want to talk a minute. Why are you rushing off? Was I too forward? Sorry about that—I couldn’t help myself.”

He was a big man, tall and broad, and when he bent over me, I felt like I was standing in a closet with the door closed.

“Let go of her.” Jake’s voice broke on the word her.

“Run off and play, I’m talking to your sister.” Steve-the-Troll didn’t even glance at Jake.

Meanwhile, I was getting mad. He might act sugary-sweet but I could see that this man was a bully underneath his slippery words.

“Let go!” I wrenched my arm away just as Jake hauled off and threw the baseball in his right hand. As if in slow-motion, I watched it cross the ten feet of distance between him and his target and then hit Steve-the-Troll right in the temple. Frame by frame, I watched his big body crumple and fall to the stained carpet floor.

Jake ran forward a few steps and we stood there side by side, staring down at the groaning man on the floor.

“He deserved that,” Daniel spoke from behind us. Jake and I turned around.

“I—I didn’t expect to actually hit him,” Jake stammered.

“Holy crap, what happened here?” Will walked quickly up to the guy and knelt beside him to see if he needed help. “Why, it’s Steve Knoll! What happened?”

The cattle farmer on the floor pushed Will away and let out a stream of profanity that included quite a few words I’d never heard before. All I could think of was how funny it was that his last name rhymed with troll.

He had a raised, red lump over his ear that I could see right through his pale hair. He looked up through tear-filled eyes and saw Daniel, Will, and Jake all standing over him. Then he scrambled to his feet and stumbled toward the front glass doors, passing Mom and Dad on his way out.

“Well hello, Mr. Knoll!” I heard Dad say.

“Go to hell!” Steve-the-Troll replied.

“I—I didn’t expect to actually hit him,” Jake said again. “He just—he grabbed Mona. Did we know that guy?”

“You hit him? With what?” Will was incredulous.

“He threw the ball at him,” Daniel said. “But Will, that guy totally deserved it. He was holding Mona’s arm—not letting her go. That was freaking awesome, Jake!”

“Then it’s a job well done.” Will said, and pounded Jake’s back in congratulations. Jake looked around at us with a dawning smile on his face.

“Thanks, Jake,” I said, handing him back the baseball, which had bounced off Steve-the-Troll’s head to land at my feet.

I looked at the cow lick on top of his head and the baggy overalls that stood out on either side of his body like a clown’s costume.

Inside of his disguise, Jake was my brother.