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CrossroadsPub.Com
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Publication date August, 2000
Cover art by D. Lee



Episode One
Heartwood Knowledge


Chapter One


       Carline looked at the small man and wondered what he'd used to make his skin seem sort of silvery. Not silver, it was creamy white with a slight blush of rose that said he was just plain healthy. The silver was a sheen that was just... silvery in the lights. She decided bold was becoming and sat down across from the redhead with gorgeous green eyes.
       "Hi, I'm Carline."
       "Hello."
       "I've never seen you before, so you've probably never come to Sparks before. Like the band?"
       "I think so. My ears haven't decided if the music is good or they're being assaulted. It's very loud."
       "Won't seem so when the place gets packed with bodies in about an hour. You've got an accent I can't even begin to place and I'm pretty good."
       "This language was learned from another who had also learned it from another. The accent probably carries several within it."
       "Probably explains it. You're not going to tell me your name and where you're from?"
       "I'm called Mand. My full name is difficult for a speaker of this language to pronounce. Mand is enough. I will know you call me if you say it."
       "How did you get your skin to shine sort of silvery?"
       "I slept in the branches of a tree with silvered leaves."
       "Uh, huh. All right, you don't seem to want company. Sorry to bother you."
       "Wait. Please, I did not mean to make you feel unwelcome. The answer I gave was without thought. It's a question I didn't expect any would ask and I should have. The silver sheen does come from a tree. It's not exactly a secret, but I can't really explain the process and it's not something one can purchase. It also wasn't for this place. I came here after."
       "Some kind of religious ceremony? Sorry, that just popped out and I'm not sure where it came from."
       "By very broad definition, the answer to the question is yes. There is music and an open place, but no one dances."
       "They will. Somebody will start and a bunch more will decide they're ready. A lot of people are shy about being first on the dance floor. You?"
       "I want to see how people in this place dance before I attempt it. Why is this place far from others and nearly in the forest?"
       "It used to be a park recreation hall, but they built a new one. It had everything from parking to a stage, I guess, so some people bought it to give kids a place to dance."
       "Children?"
       "Not exactly, young people not old enough to drink alcohol. It's not far from a couple big housing developments and the parking lot is watched so the kids don't sneak out to drink in the cars and then come back in. Bill, the tall guy behind the bar, has proved he has one eye on the windows behind it often enough very few try it, or drinking before they come. He notices that too."
       "You like him."
       "I like everyone who works here and the people who got together to buy it. They don't charge more than it takes to keep the place open and pay the band and the help. They could probably all make more working other places, but they all believe kids need a place like this. They get a lot more people who are over twenty-one than they expected when they opened it. There are lots of bars where you can buy drinks in the area, but they don't have terrific bands and big dance floors. That's what I want and I don't need a drink to enjoy it. This is about five minutes from my place and I'd have to drive a half hour or more to go someplace where I could get band, dance floor and a cocktail. I don't like alcohol that much."
       "I've never had it."
       "Under age or religious reasons?"
       "Neither. I just haven't. Your expression tells me you find that odd. I like water and fruit juices. I also like herb teas. I usually choose something I know I like."
       His explanation seemed to satisfy the young woman. Mand was surprised by how pleased he was she had just sat down and begun talking to him. He resisted the impulse to touch her silky-looking light brown hair. Then he resisted the impulse to arrange himself in the tight pants. He wondered how the young men around him arranged themselves. The 'jeans' they wore were as tight. He'd found his. They evidently chose theirs that way. He smiled and looked into Carline's pretty green-brown eyes.
       Mand learned many things that night. He learned to dance like the young people. He learned some young women were uncomfortable dancing with a man not as tall as them and others weren't bothered by it at all. He learned to use money, and that what he'd found in the pocket of the very dirty jeans wasn't a great deal. He learned the 'cover charge' the waitress collected the first time she came to the table was 'pretty low for a place for a good band' and drinks were 'cheap', and that those who could 'tipped'. He learned he liked orange juice, and why many bought water in bottles even though glasses of it were free. He learned the room the men went into contained things designed for urination. When he left the place that night, he slipped quickly into the forest.
       Carline kept thinking about the gorgeous man she'd met. He was only about five-four, but he was all man. The faded T-shirt and jeans had shown a lot of muscle. She went to Sparks three nights in a row. He wasn't there the second or third, but she didn't stop thinking about him. The third night she dreamed about him and murmured the name he'd told her. It would have surprised her a great deal to know he'd heard.
       Mand carefully cleaned the jeans and shirt again and hung them on high branches for the sun and breeze to dry. The jeans were of sturdy weave, but the shirt was thin and he doubted it would remain whole much longer. He began to think about getting money. He wondered if he had any skills people would pay him to use. That evening he put on the jeans, shirt and the sandals he had woven of dried grasses and journeyed farther from the forest than he had ever gone before.
       Mand followed the rough map and stood on the step in front of the door with the numbers that matched the ones on the bit of paper Carline had given him. He was there, but he had no idea what to do next. An elderly man showed him. He walked to a door in the building facing the one Mand stood before. The man rapped sharply on it and it was opened. Mand smiled and knocked just as he had. Carline looked quite surprised when she answered.
       "Have I done wrong in coming here?"
       "No, not at all. You just surprised me. Come in."
       Carline told him she'd looked for him at Sparks. He explained he didn't have much money and didn't know if he had a skill that someone would pay him to use. When she pulled out a newspaper to help him check the want ads, she learned he couldn't read English.
       Mand got his first ride in a car. Carline took him to a video store. She picked up three videos to help children learn to read. She'd begun to realize there was some type of deep mystery about him. She wasn't quite sure what had gotten into her when she made up her mind to help and not question. The help was just how she was. Not asking questions was very unusual.
       Mand left at the time Sparks closed. Carline had given him three T-shirts she didn't wear and his mind danced with letters and words and with all the wonders he'd seen. She'd told him to come back when she got home from work the next evening. He was on her doorstep when she got there. He'd brought her a gift. She'd liked his sandals. He'd made her some.
       Carline really looked at the sandals. They were woven of grass, braided very tightly and then the braids were woven together. The straps were the same. She wasn't really surprised they fit perfectly. She'd begun to just not be surprised. It had started when he'd been amazed by the VCR, then she'd been amazed by the speed with which he'd learned what was on the tapes. That evening she gave him a dictionary and a book.
       Mand went to Carline's the next evening too. He had the small pack in which he'd found the blue jeans and shirt. It was filled with the foods of the forest. He told her they were "salad." She learned he didn't eat meat. He wasn't bothered that she did, but he didn't. She was delighted with the wild foods he'd brought. He cautiously told her he lived in the forest. She cautiously asked if he had identification. The answer was no.
       Mand sat down at the base of a big tree and leaned against it. He couldn't get the work he wanted because he couldn't prove he had a right to it. Too many came to the United States seeking its opportunities and the work must be given to those who had been born there, or who had asked to come and been granted permission. How could he prove he belonged in the land? Even Carline had been upset that he was an "illegal alien." He wasn't. At least not as she'd explained it, but he couldn't tell her why. He knew she wouldn't be able to accept it. He calmed himself and wrapped himself in patience. He was disturbing the forest with his aggravation and frustration.
       It was Saturday and Carline didn't have to work. Mand arrived before she quite got moving and she supervised while he made pancakes and coffee for them. He provided the berries to go in the pancakes. He'd decided he liked coffee by then. Carline was sure that was an understatement. He'd gone from making a face to hunting a cup as soon as he walked in the door in a two day span.
       "This is my day off and I've decided we're going to just play today."
       "Play?"
       "Yes. We're going to my boss's place. The family is out of town on vacation, but I've got the keys to the boathouse. There will be swim trunks you can use in it. I think we'll just stay there until tomorrow. The pontoon boat has comfortable mats and a sort of kitchen my boss put on it, including a coffeepot. We'll take food with us. We'll sleep out on the lake. I'll teach you to sail today and water ski tomorrow. You can swim?"
       "Oh, yes, that I can do. Is the lake in the forest?"
       "Not exactly. It's too well-developed to be called natural anymore. The property owners did do something nice though. Part of their association dues go to buying land that isn't developed and preserving it as wilderness. They've added quite a few acres to the state park. Well, preserved the land adjoining it as forest anyway."
       "I like these people I haven't met."
       "My boss is pretty special. He grumbles about how high the homeowner's association dues are, then gives his annual Christmas bonus to the forest preservation fund. His wife says he's sweet and their three kids put on backpacks and go hiking in 'the forest Daddy bought for everybody.' They sometimes take other, younger, kids and teach them how not to damage the forest. The oldest girl is going to Colorado State this fall to study environmental engineering. She says she plans on helping people find ways to live in harmony with the natural world around them instead of pushing it out of their way."
       "They don't just push. They destroy it."
       "We've begun to understand we must stop that and are working to help the forest recover. For thousands of years, humans had to carve their homes out of the wilderness and battle to hold the land that fed them. Now our numbers and tools have increased to the point the battle has become one to save it. We have learned it MUST exist or we too will die. The forests are... the lungs of the world."
       "This is... why I am."
       "Why you are?"
       "I am a child of the forest. I'm not an illegal alien, Carline. My home has always been the forest. I can't tell you of those who have always lived within it. It is they who taught me and carefully learned the language you speak to teach me. My accent is strange because the people who spoke my first language are gone from the world now."
       "A native tribe?! Indians?! You're too fair, Mand."
       "I am not... born of the ones who once lived with this land, but I am still the last of them. I thought of going to the government and trying to explain, but I envisioned a hundred archeologists digging in the forest for the remains of its people. I also envisioned not being believed, or being followed and badgered by those who seek the shy and few you call sasquatch. They do exist, but they have never been many and they too are going from the world. My forest is now empty of them. They have gone north. The cold suits them and there are still places man has not set his foot upon in the northern forests."
       "Yeah, you'd be followed, and the vision of archeologists is about too true. If... If you were found in the forest, maybe we can find out who you are."
       "What?"
       "Mand, if you were lost as a small child, there will be a record of it."
       "I was called gift, not foundling."
       "Oh, boy, if you were just deserted, that's more difficult. Well, we can do a look-see and maybe come up with something. Mike Frank might help. He was a park ranger for twenty years. He'd remember if a little boy was lost about... twenty years ago."
       "Carline, I'd still have to tell of the many years and those who taught. It would still bring the diggers and the followers."
       "Not necessarily. Why don't you turn on the TV for a bit while I make some very careful phone calls?"
       Mand was very nervous. He'd told no untruth, but Carline had gotten a very mistaken idea from what he'd said. He couldn't show where and how he'd lived. He couldn't explain himself. If believed, he would be feared and so would the forest. More likely he would not be believed and placed in treatment for mental disorder, and carefully watched to see if he was dangerous. Carline's wide smile when she walked in and sat down beside him surprised him.
       "Mike remembered a lost child. The boy was not quite three years old. He had red hair. His mother was one of a group who went into the forest to 'commune with nature.' The boy was never found, but she didn't seem very worried. She told people she'd had a vision that he had been adopted by the forest. Mike also remembers seeing a very old man he was sure was an Indian a few times. There are reports of him and the belief he was a hermit who lived in the forest. One of them includes the story of a woman pulled out of a river by a 'not dressed man' who spoke to her in a language she didn't understand then ran into the forest. That was over fifty years ago. The boy's name was Mandrake. He was just beginning to talk."
       "This is... coincidence, Carline. I don't believe I'm that child. Mand is part of a many syllable name you would have much difficulty saying. I believe the lost child died peacefully in the forest and, as all life does, became part of the great cycle of death and rebirth."
       "Mand, it doesn't really matter, does it?"
       "I don't understand."
       "There's no way to prove or disprove the possibility. There aren't even footprints on file. The birth was in a commune and registered by a midwife. The woman whose child wandered into the forest is only listed as Flower Heart. There's no father listed and the birth certificate names the boy Mandrake Heart. Mike remembers it well because the authorities were so frustrated that they couldn't get a 'solid' identity on the mother and she just left the second day of the search. Mike says she went from tears and worry to smile and statement the forest had adopted her baby in a five-minute span."
       "You think I should... accept the name and the past."
       "Mand, existing in this society without them is not impossible, but it's a limited existence and puts you outside the law. I've got Mike thinking about how to do this without a big stir. Nothing more can actually be done until Monday anyway, so he, me and you all have some time to think about it. Let's get some groceries and head for the lake. My boss would be disappointed if I didn't accept the special treat he gave me when he handed me his boathouse keys. I just know better than to go alone and you're the first I've wanted to take with me."
       Mand didn't know Mike lived in the condo two north from Carline. He met them at her car. Mand was very nervous and shy. The strong-looking man with silver hair told him they would find a way to keep his reappearance from becoming a media event. He warmed to him when he realized he had tears in his eyes. He believed the child he'd helped search for so long ago in his life had been found. His tears were the reason Mand decided to accept the identity of Mandrake Heart. He would not take the deep joy of belief from the man who had spent a third of his life protecting the forest he so obviously loved.
       Mand did learn to sail, but he and Carline spent a great deal of time in the water. The little two person sailboat was, thankfully, quite easy to turn right side up. Carline told Mand he swam like an otter and he said yes. She taught him the crawl and side stroke. He liked them and sailing. That night, on the pontoon boat in the middle of the lake, beneath a full moon, she taught him to make love. It was a wonderful surprise to him.
       Sunday, Carline taught him to water ski. He needed about three minutes of instruction on how to get the skis on and two minutes of it were probably unnecessary. He needed a bit more instruction on how to drive the boat so she could ski. That evening he asked her to stop near the forest and let him out. It surprised and disappointed her a bit. He kissed her gently and told her he had a need for its shelter and peace because he had so many new things to think about and the day would bring more changes. He smiled and told her she knew she'd see him very soon because she knew he'd liked one thing he'd learned very much.
       Mand carefully folded his jeans and shirt and laid down in a moonlit clearing. The forest welcomed him home, but there was a sadness to it. The last child of the forest had chosen to become a man. It was inevitable, but so was the sadness. In the morning, Mand ran through the forest, bathed in a cold stream, breakfasted on the plenty around him, chattered with the squirrels and birds, then went to the condo complex. He knocked on Mike's door.
       "Hello, I hope you have time to talk to me and have a pot of coffee on."
       "Both and you're most welcome. Come on in. My wife is playing golf, lunching with the girls and shopping afterward. This is a good time to really talk."
       "Mike, I can't say much. I don't remember anything but the forest. I just can't talk about the people who are now gone from it. They didn't want to be known. They were of an ancient race and the forest was home to them before great tribes followed the buffalo across the plains. At one time, people sought them out for their knowledge of plants and animals. Then came those who followed legend and hunted them for their knowledge of where gold and silver could be found. It was then that they retreated to places where no person would find them, but they knew some of what transpired in the world. I was taught English because I am the last and... too curious to always remain away from people. Now I am the only child of the forests of my kind."
       "A tribe we didn't know about. It's even reasonable."
       "The tribe isn't unknown, Mike. It's spoken of in stories and legends. It's just that the speakers are quite sure they're just stories and legends, myths people created to explain things they didn't understand."
       "There's a grain of truth in every legend, like the grain of sand of which the oyster makes a pearl."
       "The oyster isn't nearly as pleased about the process as humans are. It works hard to stop the grain of sand from rubbing it raw, and just when it's gotten the irritating thing nicely wrapped, someone cracks it open to get it."
       "You don't want this cracked open."
       "You believe I'm a lost child and was raised by one who lived in the forest. You don't have a NEED to find out who, where, who came before, how they lived, how many there once were, what they ate, how long they were there, why they died out and where, or if, they buried their dead to believe. Some would not believe without that proof and some would hunt for it to convince them."
       "How did they bury their dead?"
       "They didn't. They became part of the forest in hidden groves in its heart. There are no bodies or remains to be found, Mike. There are no tools or utensils and no ancient campfires. They didn't use fire, hunt animals, or build structures. Those were choices they made. They knew how, but they didn't. No remains of a wintering were left in caves. No evidence of their presence was left behind. No track was left in soft soil. I scatter the shells of nuts. I don't step in soft soil. It can be avoided."
       "Not easily."
       "It does require learning. The mark of the people is in the places of rich life in the forest. You can feel the peace of them there. It's the only mark they chose to make. Look at my sandals and understand how it is possible. When they become worn, I will scatter the grass of their making. I don't know where any evidence of them exists, except within me. I was given a gentle touch and know I can't find the bones of the one who touched me last. I know I'm not meant to do so. I know I will seek the peace of the forest and its hidden heart when it's time for my spirit to depart this world. I want to be able to live among you. I want the identification I need to get a job. I want to learn everything, but I will return to the forest and never leave it again if I can't do that without breaking the trust I was given."
       "The people are gone."
       "I'm the last and you're sure I'm a lost child named Mandrake Heart. I don't know that, but I know I don't look much like those who nurtured me."
       "We'll start with Betty Goldstein. She's an authority on ancient native cultures, Mand. She's who you need to verify one could exist without leaving evidence if they worked at it. I'll swear her to secrecy even if she decides not to help before I tell her anything."
       Betty asked for one proof. Mand smiled and spoke four words in an ancient language, then handed the phone back to Mike. Betty believed. The ancient tongue was "in the right language group." Mand didn't tell her the others were descended from it.
       Carline was called. Mike told her Mand was there and they were "working on it." She was obviously delighted and made a few suggestions. Mike agreed with two. Betty agreed with one. Mike left a note for his wife and took Mand to meet Betty and a gentleman she knew and respected. They met for lunch. Mand carefully chose foods that contained no meat. He didn't know that caution convinced the man from the Department of the Interior to help. Three hours later, Mand had a faxed copy of a birth certificate, that said he was twenty-six, and a Social Security card. Mike was teaching him to drive when Carline got home. He told her it was the fastest way he could think of to get him 'picture ID.'
       Mand went home to the forest late that night. He was in turmoil. He had documents saying he was Mandrake Heart and somewhere people were looking for his "mother" to tell her he was alive. A "young man had been identified" as her missing child. He knew he wasn't. The choice he'd made was too clear in his memory. He had known it was irrevocable. He had also known he would have moments he regretted it. He hadn't known he would need to live a lie.
       The forest asked him if he would be other than himself. He let the peace his answer brought soak into him. He would be himself and the name others had needed to give him would not be tarnished by his bearing of it.
       Mand met Mike's wife Laura Tuesday afternoon. He helped her transplant nasturtiums around her flowerbeds. She told him she didn't expect them to work as well as the ladybugs she'd used before, but she'd learned the 'imported' ones were becoming a real problem. He was delighted she'd chosen a 'natural way' instead of spraying insecticide. She told him Mike "hates the stuff." Mike gave him another driving lesson and surprised him when they stopped and got him a post office box, then went to where the driver's test was given. Mike verified Mand was a "temporary resident" at his home both places.
       Mike grinned and pointed out neither had asked how temporary and he didn't think he needed to volunteer that temporary was the afternoon. He said the post office just wanted to make sure he was a local resident and the license bureau just wanted to be sure he was a state resident. Mand agreed he was both.
       Carline was delighted when Mand showed her his driver's license and post office box key. She decided they should celebrate. Mike loaned Mand a blue shirt that "about reaches your knees," but fit him in the shoulders. He had a great deal of difficulty getting it all tucked into his jeans without lumps. Finally, Carline helped. He'd have never thought of leaving the bottom button undone and "spreading it a bit for convenience." He thoroughly agreed not having to pull it up and re-tuck was a good thought.
       Mand had his first beer that evening. It took exactly two to get him drunk. Carline thought it was hilarious. He got cuddly. He wanted to curl up in her lap. She took him home, poured coffee into him and was very pleased he still felt cuddly after he stopped feeling dizzy. She was rather tired when she went to work Wednesday, but she didn't mind at all.
       Mand decided he was ready to look for a job. He had coffee with Mike and Laura, then ran home to the forest. He had to do some thinking. The simplest job to get, and do, to start was busboy and dishwasher. It had one large drawback. He was rather sure working where meat was served and cleaning up after those who had eaten it would bother him.
       He accepted humans were omnivores and ate meat. He was just sure he'd dislike having to work around the proof of it. He started to run past Sparks and then stopped. Why was someone in a car in the parking lot, with the engine running, on a Wednesday morning?
       Mand didn't know why he got suspicious and cautious. He carefully circled the building until he found an open window. He didn't even think of not going through it. He was sure something was wrong. The blue car belonged in the parking lot. The brown one with the man in it did not. He'd liked Sparks and admired the people who had decided kids needed a place to dance and made them one.
       Mand carefully looked in the open office door. He saw the woman on the floor, the blood and the man stuffing money into a bag. He didn't even notice the gun. The man didn't have time to use it. He barreled into him and slugged him when slamming into the file cabinet didn't knock him out. He dialed nine one one and got an ambulance coming for the woman and police coming for the man in the parking lot and the one he'd slugged. He noticed his hand stung. He'd never hit anything before. He checked to make sure the woman was alive, then called Mike and waited. In about two minutes, two police officers, with drawn weapons, ran in the door. He raised his hands.
       "I'm the one who called."
       "What happened?"
       "I was headed for a place in the forest I go to think. The car with the engine running was just wrong. I started looking for the reason I was sure it was wrong. Officer, she's hurt."
       "The ambulance is right behind us and the EMTs will know how badly she's injured. We wouldn't. You were looking for a reason."
       "I found an open window. I just went through it. I don't think it was supposed to be open, but I didn't think about it then except I got more sure something was wrong. That door was open. I looked around the corner, saw her on the floor and him putting money in that bag. I just ran and slammed into him. Then I slugged him and called you. I'm surprised at myself, I think."
       "Mark, there's a gun over here. I'd say he hit her in the head with it, probably from behind."
       "He had it in his hand. Officer, I need to sit down."
       Mand just sat down on the floor right where he was. The police officers smiled. They were quite familiar with the sudden 'it's all over wobbles.' The EMTs arrived at a run right after Mand sank. One went straight to the woman and got on the radio to the hospital to relay vital information. The other checked the man. Mand winced when she said his jaw was broken. The police officer stooped down beside him and softly told him they believed he'd stopped a third robbery by two who had killed a man during the first.       The 'owner' of Sparks arrived just as the police let Mike through to check on Mand. Mike was the one who noticed his knuckle was bleeding. The EMT checked it, cleaned and bandaged it and told him he "threw a nice solid punch." Mand asked about the woman and the man. The EMT said the woman would be all right and the man was in good enough shape to face a judge.
       "Mand, breaking his jaw put him out and gave the police time to get here. Less and he might have awakened and gone for that gun."
       "That's why I hit him, Mike, not the gun. I didn't really notice it at the time. I wanted the police to get him for hurting her. This is a nice place. I know that money is needed to keep it open. The kids need some place they can come and dance. They need to know alcohol isn't necessary to have a good time."
       "You think this place teaches them that?"
       "Yes, sir, or at least it helps. The other night I heard TWO people say they had to have a couple beers before they'd be ready to dance. Both GROUPS ordered more pitchers of beer. Kids who have been here know they don't 'need' a couple beers to dance. You're one of the owners?"
       "You even know 'one of.' I don't think I've ever seen you before."
       "I've only been here once. It's a nice memory. This is where I met Carline. If I find a job, I'll come here again. I was headed into the forest to try to figure out what kind of work I can do."
       "Are you a US citizen?"
       "He is, and was raised not far from here. English just wasn't his first language. He's got an anthropologist who'd like to trail him around to record what he says if he stubs his toe. Offer him a job. He's a good example, likes the place, doesn't know how NOT to do a good job, is PAINFULLY honest and already proved he thinks and moves fast if there's trouble."
       "Mike! Actually, I moved first and hunted a place to sit down when I started thinking."
       The man, Bob Wallman, laughed and offered Mand a job. They'd actually been looking for someone to "work the door," stay until the night's receipts were counted, then drop them in the night deposit slot of the bank branch about a half mile away. He said it was obvious too many had learned they were being counted and deposited the next day and Monday and Tuesday went in on Wednesday.
       "Jolene is off Monday and Tuesday and Andy and Shelly clean the place on Saturday and Sunday while she's here. Wednesday isn't the biggest deposit of the week, but it's good size and Jolene is here alone."
       "It won't hurt her job?"
       "No, the books still have to be done. She just won't have to make the deposit. After today, she may not want the job. At least I can tell her she'll never be here alone counting money again."
       "Thank you. I would like to work here, and it will help Shelly and Bill not to have to try to watch for people coming in the door too. Are ear plugs supplied?"
       Bob laughed and told him it wasn't quite as loud at the door. Mand filled out the application and learned he'd make seven-fifty an hour before he left with Mike. Mike took him shopping. He said he could pay him back for three pairs of jeans, two packages of briefs, four nice T-shirts and two sweatshirts from Walmart. Mike warned him to buy the jeans big because they would shrink.
       Carline heard the story when she got home. It was also on the news that night. Mand smiled. The newscasters hadn't gotten it quite right. He hadn't been an employee until after the incident. Jolene Hernandez was in good condition and Mandrake Heart had thwarted a robbery and helped in apprehending two men wanted in connection with two other robberies and a murder.
       Mand learned to use the washer and dryer in Carline's condo. She said twice through wash and dry would "take the new out" and shrink the jeans to fit properly. The pair he wore to work that night were still a bit damp in spots.
       Bill, the bartender and manager, was setting up a place for him in the entryway when he arrived. He set a 'cash box' on the small table, then leaned on the table and 'looked him in the eye' when he sat down behind it.
       "People usually at least ask for a job before they go to work. Sure glad you didn't. If that chair isn't comfortable, I'll BUILD you one that is. She could have been laying there until I came in to prep at five-thirty."
       "The chair is comfortable and my friend Mike asked for the job for me. I needed one, but asking to work here wouldn't have occurred to me."
       "The night you were here wasn't real busy or it might have. On some Fridays and Saturdays, I just stuffed the cover charge in a box under the bar and HOPED I didn't get mixed up and stuff it in the register. You here will make everyone's job easier. Watch for kids who have been drinking or you think are on drugs. They don't come in. Adults you think have had too much don't come in either. They're a bad example. That little button rings a bell behind the bar. Use it if you need anything, including a 'backup' for YOUR decision someone doesn't come in. That's another reason it's good to have someone here. Shelly will come out fairly often to see if you need change, something to drink or time to run for the john."
       "Thank you."
       "Oh, you're welcome, very welcome."       
       The people who worked at Sparks all welcomed Mand. Each one of them, including the members of the band, found a time to say thank you. Most of the kids who came that evening did as well. "Hey, hero! You did great!" was the most common expression of it. He was just beginning to get comfortable when the entry suddenly filled with people carrying microphones and cameras.
       The two men had been positively identified and the one who had been in the car was loudly telling everyone that was all he'd done, and listing every time he'd done it. He was being very cooperative in hopes he wouldn't be charged with homicide. It was now a national news story. The list included Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, as well as Colorado.
       Carline rescued Mand. Bill had seen the news crews arrive and knew he'd need help. She told the reporters he was working and didn't know answers to any questions about the two men or their crimes. He'd seen odd, checked it out, slugged a robber and called the police. She told the reporters she thought he was cute and sweet, but she had doubts his "pretty face" was enough to boost their ratings. She got the reporters to "get professional" and Mand shyly told them exactly what he'd told the police. He added one bit to it.
       "Then I just sat down. The owners had already decided to change when receipts are counted and deposited. If I hadn't been passing by, it would have been more than almost too late. I get scared thinking about it. It's possible no one would have known Jolene had been hurt until Bill came in to prep for the evening. From now on, there won't be ANY money here when she's here doing the books and I may just pass by several times a day until I'm sure everyone knows it."
       "Why were you passing by, Mr. Heart?"
       "I love the forest. I go there to think. I pick up trash if I see it, check to see if deserted campfires are out when I pass them and breathe the air the plants and trees enrich with oxygen."
       "Do you do a lot of hiking and camping?"
       "Not like you mean. When I go into the forest, I take me. I don't eat meat, so I don't need equipment to cook. I know the plants, so I don't carry food. It's summer and the branches of a tree make a nice cradle, so I don't need a bedroll or a tent. I don't recommend it to others. I tell them to prepare well because they are going into a different environment. I also tell them not to overestimate their knowledge or their physical condition, make sure their campfires STAY campfires and take out what they carried in, especially trash. The big one this time of year is DON'T toss a cigarette on the ground. Put it out and put the butt in your trash bag AFTER you've made sure it's out. Also don't make a campfire larger than you need. If you don't NEED a fire, don't make one. I know sitting around a fire is some of the pleasure of camping for people, but keep it small and contained and put it out if the wind carries ANY sparks from it. Fires in the forest, IF started by lightning, are part of the natural cycle. Those fires are rare. Forest fires started by people are far too common."
       "Mr. Heart, thank you. Channel Two will see that your reminder to take care of our forests is seen and heard."
       The 'reminder' was seen by a great many people. One of the national morning shows broadcast it. A national newscast director decided it didn't make the segment too long. An outdoor show showed the clip. The local stations all broadcast it on both their evening and nightly news. A group of local forest rangers showed up at Sparks Saturday evening and presented Mand with a 'Smoky the Bear' hat. Mike was with them. An old friend had called to let him know what they planned.
       Mand ran the deposit to the bank Saturday night. He didn't consider it very far. He dropped it into the slot, then froze. He called Mike first, then nine one one. He ran for where the smoke had to be coming from, in the forest.
       Mike knew exactly who could find "twelve degrees south of the moon on a straight line from." The ranger yelled she had a mark on the call and people moved out. They were on their way before an excited camper yelled, "Fire!" on his cell-phone.
       Mand got there first. He did what he alone could do. He carried birds' nests and baby animals to safety. Firefighters watched in amazement as he ran by with a nest with a bird sitting on it. Two just stopped and watched as he ran by carrying a bear cub, its mother and a half dozen other animals trailing him. Then he grabbed equipment held out to him and went to work fighting the fire. One of the firefighters told a ranger what he'd seen. She smiled and said, "He doesn't eat meat. They all know it." The firefighter nodded and went back to work beside the small man who fought a very personal battle against the fire.
       They beat it. They'd gotten to it fast enough and with enough people and equipment to get it completely out in seven hours. Mand quietly went from person to person and thanked each one, then walked into the forest. He walked into a particular glade and climbed into the branches of an ancient tree. He undressed and wrapped his arms around the trunk as far as he could get them. He held to the tree tightly and wept.


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Copyright 1999 Sharon L 'Spinner' Reddy
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