Twelve Keys

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Poppy Meets Rick

The low sun streaked the sky with pinks and oranges. A welcome breeze wafted through the open doorway where I stood wishing that Stewart and Dale would return soon, but knowing they'd be late. I'd already fastened the shutters for the night and considered locking the door, but noticed the rag rug on the cluttered porch was lying askew. Wouldn't want Dale tripping and breaking that perfect nose of his. I bent to fix it, but Arty took it in his teeth, tugging it from my hands.

"Silly coyote. Give it."

He dropped the rug and pricked his ears. He'd heard something. Straightening, I saw a figure standing just outside our yard. Something clenched inside my stomach.

"Hello," called a gruff voice that I did not recognize. I slipped past Dale's bicycle, which still stood on the porch, and ducked behind the upended, half-built catapult Stewart had abandoned months ago. Its platform hid me from view. My heart beat against my ribs. Please, go away. Arty scampered down the steps, running toward the stranger.

"No," I whispered. Torn between slipping into our cabin and going after Arty, I chewed my lip. "Owl pellets," I muttered, and grabbed the catapult lever lying at my feet. I marched after Arty.

A horse stood on the other side of the gate. The stranger, a man in a shabby coat and hat, crouched down to pet Arty. The angle of the setting sun put his face in shadow until he stood up. Even then, all I could really see was his scruffy beard.

"Nice dog," he said.

"Coyote," I corrected.

"Excuse me." I could hear the grin in his husky voice. Arty ducked back under the fence to rejoin me. It was odd that he'd approached the stranger at all. Usually Arty was skittish. The stranger tipped his hat. "My name's Rick Manderly, ma'am. Perhaps you've heard of me?"

"No." Why would I have heard of a dirty sloucher like you?

He slumped slightly. "Look, I was just passing by--"

"Well, don't let me stop you." I stared him down, tightening my grip on the slab of wood in my hand. He was probably a bandit.

"I uh...could I trouble you for a drink of water?"

"The creek's off that way." I jerked my head without taking my eyes off him. I hoped he couldn't tell how much I was shaking.

"Look, I think I'm supposed to be here, actually." He rubbed his chin. "It's tough to explain."

Crazy sloucher. Something in his hand glinted in the steep, waning sunlight. It was too small to be a gun, but that didn't ease my worry. He turned it over in his palm.

"We don't want any problems, Mister." I didn't want him knowing I was alone.

"Call me Rick."

I took several measured breaths. The frogs down by the creek started their evening croaking session. "My brother doesn't like strangers near the cabin. You'd better be on your way."

"Might I talk with your brother?"

I tried swallowing, but my throat felt tight. I wasn't used to strangers and I was all alone. "No." I squared my shoulders, hoping to look braver than I felt. "Go away."

After what felt like a year, he touched his hat. "Good evening, then." He led his horse away.

No way could it have been that easy to get rid of him.

Inside the cabin, Arty followed me as I checked and rechecked the door lock and the two shuttered windows. I peeked out the "us" window, as I called it. Years ago, Daddy brought home the little square steel door, about the span of a man's hand, in size. He'd gotten it off a traveling trader. Stewart fixed it into the wall of the cabin for a peephole.

We didn't know if it was from the modern or the oldlander times, but Daddy said it was a bona fide relic of the time before the Great Quakes. It had two dials and in the steel of the door were raised letters, "U.S." Stewart said that spelled "us," so I dubbed it the "us window." Peeking out, I saw no sign of the strange man. I shut the us window and pushed two tattered books in front of it. Stewart would be mad as a wind storm if he caught me mistreating his precious books. Well, he could just kiss a skunk because I'd do what I wanted when he was out of the house.

Books meant little to me in those days. I couldn't read and had no interest in learning, or so I told myself. Daddy once said I'd never be able to learn. He used to say, "Poor Poppy, I poured all the brains into Stewart and left none for you."

Maybe he was right.

Daddy took off on Stewart's seventeenth birthday. They'd had a fight. They always fought, but this had been a real earth shaker. After Daddy hitched the wagon, he climbed up, saying to me, "You coming?" All those mysterious trips he'd taken flashed through my head. I yearned to go, but didn't answer. How could I choose between my father and brother?

"Great, two ungrateful kids." Daddy snapped the reins and drove off. We never even heard rumor of him again. At times, I regretted not going with him. Then Stewart wouldn't feel like he had to stick around looking after me.

I squatted down in front of Arty. "What do you suppose that strange man was up to?" Arty licked my nose, making me smile. "Maybe he was okay, but we can't take chances. No telling what crazies might come creeping around."

Still, curiosity nibbled the edges of my imagination. I craved company. Living so isolated meant I seldom spoke to anybody besides Stewart. Stonyville offered the most excitement I had, and we only went there every two or three weeks.

Besides the village folk, there were the Buttons, Dale's family. He lived on a farm about fifteen miles away with his parents and little sisters. Aside from Dale, I didn't like to spend much time with the Buttons. Mrs. Button was like a chattering hen who didn't approve of me. "Girls shouldn't hunt." "Look at your tan. So much sun isn't good for your skin." "Do you actually think adding extra honey to porridge makes up for not leaching the acorns enough?" What did Mrs. Button know? She collected the hatless acorns, and everybody knows the hat only falls off when an acorn swells from having a worm inside.

Mrs. Button thought I was unladylike because I grew up with no mother. After Daddy left, she offered to raise me as her own, but Stewart declined. Flittin' good thing! I'd have run away and lived with the squirrels rather than become like those wimpy Button girls. They'd squeal in fear at the sight of a gopher snake. Me? I wasn't afraid of anything. Almost.

I rechecked the bolt on the door.

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