[Collaborative Project with C. Willison of ImagesByCW]
“Get it off me! The stupid thing’s stinging me!”
It was not at all like Sammie to scream like that. Preston, in his haste to help her, managed to kick over and extinguish the other lantern, leaving only the moonlight to see by.
“Where? Where is it?”
“On my back – I can’t reach it!” she yelled, frantically flailing her arms, trying to reach between her shoulder blades.
Preston could see not much more than a silhouette in the moonlight, but he clutched her on the upper arm, felt his way to her shoulder and then her back. He grasped at a handful of cloth with his left hand, and tried to shake it.
“Is that it? Did I get it?”
“Almost; more towards the middle,” she said, regaining her composure a little.
He patted down her back with his right hand.
“Ack! That’s it! It stung me again.” She jumped and slapped at her back, hitting Preston on the ear.
He grabbed another handful of cloth in his right hand and shook it vigorously.
“That’s it. I think it’s fallen out through my dress. Thanks.”
Sammie took a deep breath. The initial pain of the stings was dissipating, and she was a little embarrassed for reacting so strongly. The moon, which had been so dominant just a few moments ago, disappeared behind a cloud bank, and with their two lanterns out they were left in almost total darkness. They should be able to find their knapsacks once the moon came out again, but locating something small, like their lanterns would be a problem.
“Hey Preston, you’ve got those bugs in a jar, right?”
“Yup, right here.”
Sammie could see motion in Preston’s silhouette, but couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing.
“Let’s see if we can find the lanterns,” said Sammie.
The two of them searched under the tree on their hands and knees for half a minute when Preston yelped.
“One of them stung my hand!”
Sammie glanced up a the shadowy mass of foliage above them, and suddenly realized where there were.
“Those bugs; they’re everywhere under here… forget the lanterns and get away from this tree!”
Sammie’s head went fuzzy as she stood up, causing her to stagger clumsily backwards, but she made it out from under the tree before collapsing to the ground.
“What’s wrong, Sammie?”
“I really don’t feel so good. Let’s get out of here and go home.” Sammie paused for a moment. “Say, do you have any candles in your knapsack?”
“Uh-huh. And I grabbed your knapsack too.” Preston paused for a moment. “But the candle stumps are no good in the open – the wind’ll surely blow them out.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” said Sammie, groaning in pain.
“Say Sammie, lemmie have a look where those things stung you.”
“Thanks, Preston. They got me on the back.” She turned her back to him, and unbuttoned the back of her dress as Preston lit a candle.
A closer inspection by candlelight revealed half a dozen nasty looking welts… and one parasite that had affixed itself above her right shoulder blade. Preston tried to brush it off, and was stung for his troubles.
“That hurt! What are you doing?” barked Sammie.
“You’ve got one stuck on yer back!”
“I do? Get it off!”
Preston hesitated as he took out his prized jackknife. He didn’t want to try to cut if off, but there seemed to be little choice. He hadn’t yet mastered the fine art of shaving, let alone surgery, and certainly didn’t want to hurt Sammie. He thought trying to shave it off would be less risky than trying to cut it out. With the candle in his left hand, he gingerly sliced at the stem of the parasite.
Sammie screamed. “What are you doing? That burns like fire!”
Hurting the parasite seemed to hurt Sammie too.
“I don’t know if I can get it off here. I need something sharper, and I can hardly see by candlelight.”
Sammie pondered a moment. “How about if we go to the barbershop. It’s next to my family’s general store, and there’s a connecting door.”
The barber shop would have sharp straight razors, scissors, and lots of jars of alcohol to sterilize everything. Sammie put her arm around Preston’s shoulder to steady herself and the two of them set off across the moonlit field.
It took a lot longer to get back to town than it had on the way there. Sammie leaned on Preston quite heavily on the way back, and although he was glad he could help her for a change, it slowed them down a lot. The town square was strangely dark as the two of them approached it. Preston had never seen it this dark – the street lamps were out, and every house he could see was dark. Was something wrong? Or was it just so late? They approached the general store from the back by the stable. The stable was small, serving only to house the family’s draught horses, and as a storage room for bulk goods. Sammie knew the spare key was hidden under the box of brushes next to some old barrels, but in the windowless stable they had to feel around for several minutes to locate it. Sammie paused a moment to calm the horses, and they proceeded into the general store. After the foul-smelling stable, the general store should have been a welcome change; but all of the strange and fascinating objects there that held so much interest during the day cast myriad weird shadows in the moonlight, which made Preston a bit uneasy. Sammy on the other hand was more worried that they would accidentally knock something over; although there were no houses nearby to hear the sound, Sammie’s family kept an exact tally of the store’s inventory, and would surly notice if they broke anything.
The connecting door into the barber shop was locked, but the key for that was hidden in a picture frame behind the main glass display case. The treasures inside that wonderful glass case would have either of them distracted for several minutes during the day, but now they had to get to the barbershop. The connecting door hadn’t been used in many months, and Preston had to put his shoulder into it, and shove hard to free it. The shop seemed stark and foreboding at night and smelled faintly of wood alcohol that was used to sterilize the collection of scissors, combs and razor blades. Preston lit one of the kerosene lamps, and was shocked at how bright it was. It would surely be visible through the glass storefront, but he hoped nobody would be around to see it.
Sammie’s injuries were worse than what Preston had seen before by candlelight. Not only were there three parasites affixed to her back, but half a dozen more around her feet and ankles.
“Stop gawking and cut them off,” barked Sammie, who seem unconcerned by the number of parasites they now had to deal with.
Preston had read stories of field surgery; off in the wild west, or back during the civil war. He had even dissected a frog before, but he wasn’t sure he was ready for this. No matter – no more yearning for adventures; now he would be put to the test. He quickly gathered a straight razor, a jar of alcohol, and a couple towels. He poured a bit of alcohol on one of the parasites to try to sterilize the area – and the parasite seemed to shrivel a little. Finally some encouraging news. He grabbed it with a towel, and gently pulled. To his relief it was only attached at a small spot in the center – not larger than the diameter of a pencil. He began slicing gingerly at the edge of where it had attached to her back. Sammie winced in pain. Preston was sure he would be screaming if the situation were reversed. Fortunately it had not burrowed too deeply in her flesh, and he was able to cut it out with a minimum of bleeding. He inspected the wound with his trusty magnifying glass to ensure that he had gotten it all out, and then proceeded to the next one. With practice it went a bit quicker, but still it took a solid hour to cut them all off.
“That’s all of them. How do you feel?” asked Preston.
“Hot,” said Sammie, “and my back and ankles are tingling.”
“The tingling is the alcohol. I hope. Those bugs weren’t in too deep.”
“Say, what time is it?”
Preston had completely lost track of the time. The barber shop’s wall clock read 4:10 AM. They would have to hurry – the floor of the barber shop was strewn with alcohol and blood stained towels. They did their best to straighten things up, but would have to take the towels with them to destroy them – Sammie hoped that the barber wasn’t as fastidious with inventory as her family. Preston took a jar of alcohol that he had collected the parasites in. He hoped he could learn something from them.
Sammie made it back to her bedroom without anyone noticing, and after changing into her oldest nightgown; just in case her wounds bled, collapsed into bed.
Preston, after seeing Sammie home, took a few minutes to hide their incriminating evidence from the barber shop. He snuck through the back door of his house and closed it gently behind him. Barely did he breathe a sigh of relief, when the clang of his father’s alarm clock jolted him back to his senses. His father’s room was between the back door and his own room. Had he cut things too close this night?
…to be continued
The Miltonville Mine Mystery is a creative collaborative project (a fictional short story with photo illustrations) between David and Claudia Willison. I think you can tell who does what. Although actually we share a little of everything in this story. Stick around and see where the story goes!