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  • "This is the house? I hope she doesn't charge you admission."

    The other side of the mottled grey and white picket fence was a maze of bright garden ornaments and weather vanes.

    "Sarge said we couldn't miss it." Trish slammed the car door shut on her side. "I mean, not everyone has to plant flowers. I thought you were all for different strokes for different folks."

    "Aw, Trish," her father began.

    "Come on Trent." Trish knew the look her parents were sharing. Just one of her moods. They might as well go ahead and shout it out for the whole neighborhood to hear. And why not after their performance last night? Mrs. Fleming, raving, like she’d been violated. Finger pointing straight at two of them. Just because they were kids. Easy targets. And what for? All that fuss over some map her father had scribbled back in the days `when children knew their proper places'. Oh, please. And her parents ready to believe her. And then that creepy Professor acting like it was all some kind of funny mistake. The map and his jacket pocket just happened to be in the same place. Fuck it. An adult has a problem, hey, that's an issue. But a kid? Just a mood swing.

    Trish lifted her chin.

    She crossed the road without looking back.

    She stopped at the open gate, arms folded across her chest.

    Trent grinned at her. “What are you waiting for. Sarge said go right on in." He rested his dark hand on the gatepost but for once he didn’t push past her.

    It wasn’t a lawn. It was big enough to be a lawn. The house was set well back from the road. But it was all clumps of rough grass and wildflowers and it wasn’t empty at all.

    Trish considered the small field for a moment

    They aren’t windmills and you couldn’t call them weathervanes but whatever they were, the yard clattered and clicked and whirred and spun to face every breath of wind. Woodmen chopped. Birds flapped. Elves did endless jumping jacks. Fat hens pecked. If Mary Poppins ever retired, Trish thought, this would be the place.

    "You like my collection?"

    Trish wondered if the tiny, dark haired woman had opened the door or passed through it. She looked at Trent. He shrugged as if he needed to be comfortable inside his clothes before going through the gate.

    "My nephew makes them. For the tourists you know," she added, talking over her shoulder carelessly, letting them in on a private joke. "I always get the first one. When he tries out something new. Mechanical weathervanes, he calls them. I call `em wind toys." She smiled almost as though she'd been expecting them and was relieved they hadn't been delayed. "I was just about to have a cup of tea and a cookie. You have a seat here on the porch. I won't be minute." She smiled and every line and wrinkle in her face curved happily. Behind thick glasses her sharp eyes blinked sleepily and knowing all at once. Like an owl, just awake and hungry. Her apron swirled as she whisked through the door and vanished into the house.

    The bench and the stool on the porch must have been picked instead of constructed. Trish couldn't see that the polished branches were fastened together at all. It was more like a spiderweb than furniture. Trent perched on the stool. Trish did her best to sit lightly on the bench. The faded green recliner that faced them wore its owner's imprint as clearly as a monogram.

    Mabel Starr glided through the door and across the porch. Trish was quite sure that if there had been any dust on the porch it wouldn't have been disturbed in the least.

    "Well, will you just look at yourselves," Mabel Starr chuckled as she fitted herself in her seat. "Crouched up over your seats like you was using the privy for the first time. Don't you be like that pesky know it all with his rubber neck tie. I don't know but that if he didn't have it cinched down as tight as he did his swole head would have drifted off on its own. A Professor he called himself. Hmf! More like a nuisance I'd say."

    "The Professor!" Trent burst out of his seat. "What is it with that guy. Every place we go he's already been worming his greasy old self. He's after something."

    "Oh I guess probably. But he didn't get it here. Stunk up my house something wicked with that dratted pipe of his. Never took the time to listen to anything I said. Now, you just sit back down. I just baked these feel-betters this morning. New cookies and new friends. I'm sure I don't know what could be nicer."

    Blue square rigged sailing ships sailed round an emerald sea on the rim of Trish's teacup. Trent's had flattened pine trees draped with fog growing on steep gray cliffs. Mabel Starr drank out of a chipped orange and black Garfield mug. Her fingers traced the curve of his tail as though reassuring an old friend.

    Trish considered beginning by discussing the weather. As far as she could tell they had skipped the usual first steps of conversation. She nibbled her cookie. Adjusted her tea cup just so beside her. All the time she felt bright eyes tracking her. Sensed Mabel Starr leaning forward. Ready. Waiting for Trish to announce, well, certainly not that it was a very fine day. Nothing about Mabel Starr suggested that she wanted to hear about sun, sea breeze or chance of rain by the end of the week.

    "Sarge said we ought to come see you." Trent brushed cookie crumbs from his lap. "Those sure were good cookies."

    "Well! Have some more. There's no appetite like a young one." Mabel Starr smiled past Trent. Trish had the oddest feeling that she was seeing someone else eating her cookies.

    "You see we're staying in Captain Austin's house, out on the island," Trish stopped, surprised at herself. Already it was The Island, like what other one could there
    be. Mabel Starr smiled and nodded. It's almost as if she knows what I'm thinking better than I do myself, thought Trish.

    "Trish found Kat Austin's diary. The Captain's aunty. There was a statue too. A gold cat. This guy, the Cowboy, he gave it to her." Trent glanced over at Trish. Trish realized she had no idea what they wanted to know. TV detectives didn't sit around drinking tea and eating feel better cookies. She wished they'd thought to rehearse.

    Mabel Starr nodded slowly as if she agreed with everything that hadn't been said. Her eyes never left Trent. "Now he, he didn't see nothing but a foolish old woman. So, that's just what he got. But I could have told him a thing or two. Why I remember those days like they was yesterday."

    Mabel Starr's soft words drew them closer. The dusty shadows hung like curtains between them and the road. The bright rush of early summer faded. The wind toys clicked and whirred like the ticking chatter of clocks calling out different times.

    "It was a day just like this he showed up. The Cowboy we all called him, though I don’t know why. He fit in like it was home and he'd never been gone." She looked at them sadly, one at a time. "I expect you know by now that this old world ain't always an easy place for them to live what's different. It don't take much, I don't expect it ever has. But he never showed it. He always walked easy."

    "You knew him? Did you know Kat?"

    "Where did the Cowboy come from? Why did he leave?"

    "Was he really a soldier?"

    "Why did he come here?" Trent fired one last question.

    "That’s the difference between you two and that smooth talking Mr. Know It All." Mabel Starr nodded firmly. "He didn't care nothing about the man. Just, `now Miss Starr where was he accustomed to land his boat', and `Miss Starr, exactly where was his house in relation to his landing site'. Hmmf. He didn't care nothing about the man. Sounded to me like he couldn't wait to haul his butt out there and root around see if maybe our Cowboy might have left a handful of change on the table before he set out that last day." She slid off her glasses, folded them carefully and laid them in her lap. "All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see him stepping out from the shadows among the spruce. So proud and straight there in the sunlight of that last summer. He never forgot us kids. I expect he knew well enough what a treat it was for us to have something bought from the store." She stopped. Her eyes didn't open and Trish wondered if maybe she drifted off to sleep.

    "Why was that the last summer Ms. Starr," Trent's question punctuated the easy silence.

    Mabel Starr's eyes flew open. "Ms.? Ms.? My name is Mabel child," she said firmly. "And it was the last summer because it was. The people left. So many poor souls got took by the terrible flu. We just knew. The world turned and our time
    passed. I finally got in the habit of going out one day each year with Sarge, just to honor an old home. But we never went back. Not the way we used to."

    "Isn't there any good part to the story? Didn't anyone end up happy?" Trish struggled to breath against the force that pressed in all around her. It was silly. She didn't know them. Just strangers. It was all so long ago. History was something you read from books that had to be dusted before they came off the shelves. Dry words. But the Cowboy and Kat weren't pressed flat between a book's pages. Trish felt their presence just behind her. Mabel Starr fumbled for her glasses. Behind the thick lenses her magnified eyes softened. "I don't know about anyone's happiness but my own. I hold the memories that make me happy. I see young Kat, course she was practically grown to me then, but I see her young, running barefoot. That long braid flying out behind her. Holding her skirts with one hand and the milk pail in the other. Right at the edge of our camp she'd stop. Just like a deer at the edge of a field she was. `Look the other way,' Daddy would say, `else she'll bolt.'"

    "And the Cowboy? What about him?" Trent's eyes gleamed.

    "He had something. He was waiting. We never knew what it was. `In his own time, Daddy would say, he'll get to it in his own time.' Course he never did. Maybe it weren't nothing but his travels while he was a soldiering back in the Great War. Why he'd been to Egypt. Seen the Pryamids. Even had a little carved box of sand from there. Could be just knowing where he had come from was all it was. I was such a little girl then. Everything had to be grand and mysterious." She laughed gently as if reassuring a child but she leaned forward eyes shining like she was about to blow out the candles on a birthday cake or tell a long kept secret.

    Trish hardly dared to breath. One word. The harsh scrape of her foot on the porch. A sound. And the mystery would slip away, just a wispy figment of a wide eyed little girl.

    "I knew," the old woman continued softly. "I always knew. He had something real. Something he could take out when he got back to that God forsaken island he chose. Take out and touch. Hold it in his hands. Plenty of days I knew he couldn't hardly wait to get back. Why it was like we were holding him back."

    "You mean," began Trent.

    "I'm not sure what I mean. Momma always laughed at me. She said plenty of men came home from the war and didn't want nothing to do with the rest of humankind for a spell. She said he could have seen things that made it hard for him to be around folks."

    "Like Viet-nam Vets," Trent said matter of factly.

    Trish wondered if he had someone in mind. Her mother had a big poster in the kitchen about war being bad for children and flowers . Something like that. She had seen it so often that it kind of blended in with the notices posted on the refrigerator and ancient examples of her art work. Veterans, Trish wasn't sure she'd even met one.

    "Yes, that's right. Like them poor boys. But the Cowboy he wasn't like that. I heard him tell Daddy once that over there he was treated like a man. He kept that uniform just as sharp and shined like he was ready to look a general straight in the eye and never blink. No, he had something. Something he couldn't share with no one just then. He was waiting. I seen him go through the mail. Like an old dog that just knows he buried a bone someplace in the yard. I always thought he was just out on that island till he got word."

    "But when he died, didn't they go through his house?" Trish asked.

    "That little house of his was just as neat as could be. Daddy went out there. Oh, not to look for nothing. No, just to say good-bye. He said everything The Cowboy owned wouldn't fill a duffle bag. Just as bare and spare as a cell he told Momma."

    "So there wasn't anything after all," Trent sighed.

    Mabel laughed. "Look at yourself why don't you. Your face is near as long as that weasly little professor when I told him."

    "You told him all that? I thought," Trish couldn't bear to finish her thought. There was something. And he was after it.

    "Yes. And that's where I left him. But I'll tell you something more. Cowboy had a place where he hid his boat. Wouldn't show nobody. There were them that looked later. Now you can't even see where the house was. Nothing out there but birds and seals and fog and wind. But days I walk to the shore I still see that strange sail he rigged on his peapod. I seen it in the encyclopedia years later, lateen they called it. A-rab rig we called it then. I know he's keeping watch on what he left behind."

    A truck slowed as it passed the house. The driver hit his horn and waved. Mabel smiled and waved back.

    Trish felt sunlight warm on her back. The morning must be almost gone. Mabel lay back in her recliner and yawned. She looked suddenly frail and tired.

    "We said we'd meet your Dad at the Town Dock." For the first time Trish didn't feel irritated by Trent's solemn responibility. He was right it was time to go.

    "Don't be strangers now," Mabel called after them. "And mind you watch out for that weasel fellow. Anyone who won't eat my cookies I don't trust."

    Trish didn't know how or even why but she was sure that she and Trent had joined forces. Maybe, she thought, as they hurried down to the Town Dock all you need is an enemy.
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