RISK is Always a Gamble

(Even at Christmas)

 

 

 

“Merry Christmas!” a jovial Edward Lynch bellowed as he waved to the traffic that passed by.  Car owners honked their replies, while some drivers and passengers even rolled their windows down to wave back.  Branson’s famous highway 76 “Strip” was busy for a December weekday morning.

 

“Come on, ‘Santa,’” Caroline Lynch prodded as she reached up to straighten the Santa hat that was now askew on Edward’s head. “We need to make a decision on what show we will attend tonight.”

 

The couple strolled, arm in arm, across the parking lot to the porte-cochere of the hotel.  The Lodge of the Ozarks proved to be very convenient for their stay.  The rest of the party was in deep discussion of their evening plans.

 

Matthew Wheeler addressed the Bob-Whites, “So, you all are going to head on to Uncle Andrew’s lodge, and we will join you tomorrow on Christmas Eve.”

 

Brian answered, “Yes, we are going to pack, load the Mercedes and head out.”

 

“We will need to stop for supplies at Wal-Mart, along the way,” Honey reminded him.

 

“We will need snacks and other necessary provisions,” Mart added.  Di rolled her eyes in frustration behind his back. 

 

Trixie poked Mart in the stomach. “My brother and the never-ending stomach,” she teased.

 

Dan suppressed his laugher by pretending to cough.  He then leaned toward Jim.

 

“It looks like the anniversary passed by without a hitch.”  It had been just over a year since the predator had made an attempt on Trixie in her dorm.

 

“It appears so,” Jim answered cynically. “That pharmacy of meds her doctor put her on seems to help. Although, according to Honey, she does have her periods of depression, she seems to be able to bounce right back.”

 

“I like having our old Trixie back,” Dan admitted.

 

Jim agreed, “Me, too.”  Although I’m not too sure that medications are the solution,” he thought to himself.

 

Grace Wheeler giggled at Trixie’s comment, cleared her throat and announced, “We’ve decided to see Andy Williams tonight.  His Christmas show is supposed to be the best.  We didn’t even have to twist our husbands’ arms to agree to go.”

 

“Of course it had nothing to do with Ann Margret being his special guest,” Helen Belden smirked.

 

Peter Belden harrumphed, “No, not at all.  I grew up watching Andy’s Christmas specials on television.  It is going to be impressive to see him in person.”

 

Unconvinced, Helen patted him on the shoulder and added, “Of course, dear.”

 

“Well, if you folks are going to see Andy, where are the youngsters going?”  Bill Regan wondered aloud.

 

“I don’t like spiders and snakes,” Bobby Belden began singing.  “Does that give you any clue?” 

 

“Jim Stafford!”  Larry and Terry Lynch said in unison, as they pointed to the theater that was located across the way from where they were standing.

 

“No, spiders!”  Andrea Lynch cowered and hid her eyes.

 

“No, snakes either!”  Angela Lynch added as she hurried to hide behind her father.

 

Bobby shook his head and assured the younger Lynch twins, “It will be safe and fun.  That is just a song that he sings.”  But, Bobby was a bit concerned.  He had heard that the comedic singer had used fake snakes and spiders as special effects in some of his shows in the past.  Parts of his performance had even been in 3-D.

 

Regan grinned broadly, “I’m looking forward to this show myself.  Plus, we can walk to it.  I don’t have to drive since Jim Stafford’s theater is located across from the hotel.”

 

Marge Trask had been watching the families’ exchanges, silently.  She finally spoke, “Would it be alright if I skip both Andy and Jim and go to a show that I’ve selected?”

 

“But, of course,” Grace answered.  “We are all on holiday.  This is your special trip, too.”

 

Marge gushed, “Thank you!” 

 

“I’m curious; what show are you interested in?”  Jim asked.

 

“The Liverpool Legends,” Marge beamed with excitement. “They are a Beatles tribute band.  The Beatles were just before my time, but I do love their music.  I hear that George Harrison’s sister hand picked the members.  They are playing at the theater next to Mr. Stafford’s.”  She motioned to the theaters that were located across the highway.

 

Regan stared down at his cowboy boots for a few seconds, as if he were contemplating.  “That’s another show that I was thinking about going to.”  This drew nervous looks from the Lynch twins and Bobby.  “But I won’t let the youngsters down.”  A collective sigh of relief was heard from the five.

 

The families had already visited Silver Dollar City for the Christmas Festival.  There wasn’t a dry eye when the Christmas story was presented during the train ride.  From the decorations and the light parade to the Living Nativity, it was made very clear just what the real focus was - the Reason for the season. 

 

The two groups soon split up, after warnings to be careful and the promise that they would regroup at Uncle Andrew’s lodge.  There they would spend the remainder of their Christmas vacation. 

 

The Bob-Whites departed in the SUV, while the parents and younger siblings were off to experience more of Branson’s offerings.  

 

After a visit to Wal-Mart to stock up on snacks and personal items, the Bob-Whites were soon headed toward Uncle Andrew’s lodge.

 

“I’m amazed at just how much this area has improved since our first visit,” Brian noted from the passenger seat.  “The paved roads, the bridges, the electric lines - none of that infrastructure was there before.  It is such a drastic change.”

 

Jim agreed. “The tax revenue from tourism came as a big help, I am sure.”

 

Dan sat silently.  He could only imagine what the area looked liked years ago.  When the Bob-Whites first visited, it was rustic.  From their descriptions, the roads were washboard, and there was no electricity.  It sounded quite primitive.  When they came back to the area for their summer tour of the Buffalo National River and Branson just a year and a half ago, they didn’t get to visit the lodge.  Uncle Andrew had been called out of state.  That and the renovations to the lodge were in the beginning stages.

 

He had gotten to meet Linnie, though.  He smiled at the thought of Andrew Belden’s long time employee, who, along with her mother and father, lived in a cabin on his property, serving as caretakers.   In the short time that they were there and were able to visit with the young lady, he had become fond of her.  Like his living on the Wheeler Preserve, she had to work, almost constantly to support herself through college.  She was working that summer, full time, at the College of the Ozarks to help pay her room and board the next year at the private college, affectionately known to those who attend as Hard Work U.  The next fall and spring semesters, she would work the required hours on campus to cover her tuition, fees and books.  The college’s philosophy was that no one will attend nor graduate being in debt when they leave.  Her desired field of work study was with the farm and dairy production.

 

She was also allowed to work a few hours at Silver Dollar City as a tour guide for Marvel Cave.  There was a special connection between the college, the Presbyterian Church and Silver Dollar City as the college is tied to the amusement park through the cave.  In 1972 Genevieve Lynch (no relation to Di’s family), the last of William Lynch's daughters, died and bequeathed the land under Silver Dollar City which included Marvel Cave to the College of the Ozarks and Branson’s  Presbyterian Church.  The Herschends, the family that founded Silver Dollar City, continue to operate it.   Linnie was given permission from the college finance department to put in the few extra hours at the park.  After hearing how scared and superstitious she was in the past of caves, Dan admired her even more for taking the job as a cave guide.  Apparently something had happened to break her from those irrational fears, he deduced. 

 

He then recalled the antics of the park’s resident bluegrass group, The Homestead Pickers.  Linnie was invited to join them when she could, during her breaks, to play guitar and to sing along.  The show was a nice blend of home spun humor and music.  The members were versatile with many instruments.  Their songs ranged from Irish folk and jig to bluegrass to Gospel.  The Bob-Whites’ favorite song had been Shenandoah.  They made it as a special request each time they stopped by for their show.  They got their money’s worth with the two day passes that they purchased.

 

Linnie will be a bright spot this week,” Dan thought to himself.  He would still miss seeing Amber, but at least he would have a companion as the others are very well paired off.

 

Di glanced at Dan, as if she were reading his thoughts.  She, too, had lost out on the Bob-Whites’ first visit to the area.  Mart had aptly described the country side and its people.  It was as if she had been there herself.  The contrast and the improvement impressed her as well.

 

As Jim pulled into the lodge, the changes were noticed immediately.

 

They had heard that Uncle Andrew had made renovations and updates to the grounds. It became more apparent the closer he pulled to the building.  It looked as if the lodge had doubled in size.  There was a scattering of outbuildings added - a spread of cabins and maintenance sheds.  The Moores’cabin had been through a complete remodel as well.

 

Mart craned his neck to look up as they stepped out of the vehicle.  “Electricity!” he cried, upon noticing the satellite dish on the side of the roofline.  “TV!  We won’t miss any of the bowl games.”  He was practically jumping for joy.  Di merely shook her head and grabbed him by the belt loop in an effort to calm him.

 

Trixie paused to peer longingly across the lake to the opposite shore where Bob-White Cave was hidden away, secluded.  “Sorry, Trix.  No can visit,” Mart informed her.  “Due to the Pseudogymnoascus Destructans, caves are now off limits, shuttered down and barred in order to protect the native Chiroptera species.”

 

“The white-nose syndrome has put a moratorium on visiting almost all caves, especially wild or un-commercialized ones.” Brian translated.

 

Jim took one of Trixie’s bags from her hand and motioned toward the lodge with his head. “Let’s get our things inside now.  We can talk more later.”

 

“There’s cell reception?”  Dan asked, amazed as he held out his phone.  “Well, sort of…I have one bar,” he clarified.

 

Wide-eyed with wonder, Mart took it all in.  “They really have stepped out of the dark ages.”

 

Honey followed alongside her best friend as they ascended the steps onto the porch together.  The dropped their bags, mouths gaped, as they stopped into the foyer.  Uncle Andrew had kept the rustic charm of the lodge, while, at the same time, adding updates.  The oil lamps were now electric, although there were a few of the older lamps left as decorative accents.  There was a flat screen television on a far wall.  The dart board and billiard table remained.  New, also, was a small bar near the gaming corner.

 

“Kids!”  Uncle Andrew welcomed them.  He stopped, pondered and corrected himself.  “Young adults,” he chuckled.  “My, you have all grown.”

 

He gestured toward the stairs as he handed out keys, being mindful as to which matching keys he had given to whom.  He had been requested, warned by the parents, to segregate the male and female population of Bob-Whites.  It was a conscientious decision that he had already made.

 

“Go ahead.  Get yourselves settled in,” he encouraged.  “I’m going to have to step out for the evening, but I’m not going to head out until after a bit.  Hopefully, we are going to dodge any of the wintery weather that has been predicted.”

 

Their rooms were similarly updated.  There was a shared bathroom between each set of rooms.  Running water and plumbing were other nice added features.  Mart and Dan took one side of the suite across the hall, with Jim and Brian sharing the other.  The three girls shared one room, as to not have anyone feel left out. 

 

After putting away their things and becoming familiar with their room, they headed down stairs.  Uncle Andrew met them, wearing winter gear.

 

He apologetically explained, “I’m afraid that I’m going to have to leave earlier than planned.  The weather is not going to cooperate.  I want to give myself enough time to make it to the community hall.  This meeting is imperative.  It is important to the preservation of the area.  I just hope folks have better sense to make it quick and not spend most of the night bickering.”

 

“What’s up?” asked Brian.

 

His uncle let out a heavy sigh, placed his hands in his coat pockets and answered, “Gambling.  There is a faction that is pushing to allow gambling in the area, along Lake Taneycomo.  They want to put three river-boat casinos between Branson and the town of Rockaway Beach.”  He shook his head in disgust.  “Most all the Branson businesses are against it:  the mayor, the council, the theater owners, the owners of Silver Dollar City….  They know what made Branson become the vacation destination that it is today – the family friendly attractions and laidback atmosphere.”

 

Jim wanted clarification.  “So, just who is for it?”

 

Rockaway Beach and the merchants there are pushing for this the most.  There are a few outlying interests.  The majority of the merchants are not from Branson.  The Rockaway area has gradually lost its consumer base over the years.  The appeal of vacationing near the water has been lost to the bright lights, shows and go cart tracks of The Strip.”  He smiled a grim smile.  “I’ve been elected sort of the leader of the anti-movement among those out here in the county.  I’ve made a few enemies as a result.  Thank goodness Branson is holding strong to not allow it.”

 

“I would hate to see gambling come and ruin the family atmosphere,” bemoaned Honey.  “There is so much more that goes on than just gambling.  I’ve read it brings in crime and other undesirable activities.”

 

“And that is what we are hoping to avoid,” concurred Uncle Andrew.  “God, country and family are what built Branson’s tourist industry.  They want to keep it that way.  I’m counted in that voice, too.”

 

“We love the improvements you made with your place,” Trixie quickly added, inadvertently changing the subject.

 

“The renovations were necessary if I’m going to compete with the ‘big boys.’  I can thank the county for their help with having the utilities connected - the road improvements too.  We barely have cell reception.  The Moores were able to improve their little cabin.  Matthew Moore was a big help with the transformation here.”

 

“Where are they?  Are we going to get to meet the Moores?” wondered Di.

 

“Sorry, Matthew and Annie decided to spend Christmas with relatives in Kentucky.  Linnie should be here later, though. She still owed hours at the college,” he answered.

 

Jim gave a start, as he had a sudden recollection.  “Slim.  Slim Sanderson?  Where is he now?”

 

Uncle Andrew huffed in disgust.  “He will be away for a long time.  They found the remains of a meth lab at one of his hideouts, stolen goods at another.  They decided to charge him as an adult.  Couple that with the charges he faced from the crimes he committed here, and he won’t be out for five more years, and that is with good behavior.”

 

“There is no chance of that happening,” was the wishful prediction that ran through everyone’s mind.

 

“I’d better hit the road.  You all keep an eye on the weather.” He motioned to the television.  “This is Taney County, if you want to keep up with the advisories.  Right now, we are under a Winter Weather Watch with chances of freezing rain. If it looks like the weather is going to get ugly, I’ll leave the meeting and head back here.”

 

He started out the door and turned to add, “I’m sure that you can find your way around the lodge.  Have fun, but stay away from sinkholes and caves,” he added, with a wink in Trixie’s direction.

 

The friends stepped onto the grand porch to watch Uncle Andrew as the taillights of his truck crossed the top of the hill, disappearing into the forest-lined road.

 

Dan peered at the sky; clouds were starting to pile in.  A slight drizzle was beginning to fall.  There was a discernable fog starting to form.  It appeared that they may be in store for a dreary night.  “The weather does seem to be changing,” he observed as he pointed to the Heavens.

 

As they meandered inside toward the television and game area, Brian reminded them, “It probably wouldn’t hurt to bring in some more wood, maybe store some on the porch.  I have a feeling we will want dry logs, later.”

 

Jim nodded in agreement.  “The fire could use a few logs added.  We don’t need to let it go out.  Even if there is electricity and central heat, if we lose power, none of that will help.”

 

“You can always crank up the generator,” spoke a soft voice from the kitchen.

 

Startled by the sound, they all turned toward the direction it came.

 

The double doors leading to the new, modern kitchen opened.  Out stepped Linnie.

 

The three girls rushed the Missouri native, formed a circle around her, held hands and began bouncing.

 

“It is so good to see you!” exclaimed Trixie.  Honey gave the young lady a tight hug, while Di clapped her approval.

 

The native Ozarkian appeared overwhelmed, “Gosh, I appreciate the welcome, but shouldn’t it be the other way around, me welcoming you?” 

 

She gave a slight wave to the male Bob-Whites situated nearby.  She and Dan exchanged head bobs, with Dan mouthing a “Hi.’

 

“I see Mr. Belden has already left.  I brought a care package from Mrs. Hawkins.  She knew Mamma was going to be away.  She didn’t want y’all to be without something to eat.”  She reached behind her, just beyond the kitchen door and produced a covered basket.  “I told her that there was a covey of you Bob-Whites.”

 

“Food?” Mart asked, as he hurried to help Linnie carry the basket into the dining area and place it on the large, common table.

 

Di could only stand by and shake her head at her boyfriend’s actions.

 

He began taking items out, placing them on the table.  “This looks better than anything Hickory Farms could put together or even that Harry and David place we went into at the Tanger Outlet Mall back in Branson.”

 

“So, are you off for Winter Break?”  Dan asked as he faced Linnie, pulling them slightly away from the others.

 

She smiled appreciatively.  “Yes, thank goodness.  I completed my final exams last week.  I had a few hours of work study to catch up on.  I need to make sure that I keep up with my required hours in order to cover my tuition for each semester.”

 

Jim praised the idea.  “I love their concept.  A student can attend, work, graduate and leave debt free.”

 

Linnie concurred, “That is the philosophy.  I qualified for federal grants and other scholarships, along with their financial program.  I’ll graduate free and clear.”

 

“What are you majoring in?” asked Honey.  “Last summer you were undecided.”

 

“Music,” Linnie professed proudly.  “I’m majoring in music with an emphasis in Ozark folk music, the people and legends behind it. I would love to teach music as well.”

 

The Bob-Whites took turns filling Linnie in on their college majors and activities. 

 

Trixie had a brief memory flash, which she shook off.  Jim mistook it for a chill and put a comforting arm around her.

 

Nice, but if he only knew,” she thought as she pushed the tormenting memory aside. “I can’t keep reliving the past.  Move forward,” she resolutely repeated to herself.

 

Suddenly, one of the front entry screen doors began shaking and slamming against the frame.  The group hurried to the opening to see what the commotion was.

 

“It was just the wind,” Brian pointed out. 

 

It was obvious that the weather was taking a turn for the worse.  The wind had indeed picked up.  There was a sprinkling of sleet beginning to fall.

 

The men took this opportunity to gather fire wood and place it under the protection of the porch.  They also added the much needed logs to the dwindling fire.  The ladies stood by to hold open the doors and help arrange the logs in the fireplace.

 

“Aren’t you glad it wasn’t a ‘haint’?” Mart teased as he and Linnie backed away from the now roaring flames.

 

Linnie rolled her eyes and answered, informing Mart, “There is no such thing as ghosts.”

 

That remark drew raised eye brows from the others.  The first time they visited, Linnie was very sure of ghosts, spirits and other unexplained phenomena.

 

She quickly apologized and explained.  “Mamma and I have both been enlightened, so to speak.  We went to an evangelism conference at the Branson Variety Theater.  The pastor that spoke drove the point home.  To believe in ghosts and have superstitions was living in a fear that we are not supposed to be consumed with.  It is all nonsense and is from who we really should be leery of, the Devil himself.”

 

Jim quirked an eyebrow.  “There is usually a logical explanation.  We can let our imaginations get the best of us sometimes.” 

 

“Amen to that!” Linnie agreed

 

Impatient to get started with their meal, Mart suggested, “Well, now, shall we explore the tantalizing morsels that the neighor Hawkins sent to us?” 

 

Dan placed a hand to his stomach.  “I am kind of hungry myself.”

 

“I think we all should be.  We missed lunch.  An early supper would be nice.  There looks to be plenty,” Brian observed.

 

Linnie retrieved plates and utensils from the kitchen, producing a jug of ice tea and glasses as well.

 

Trixie marveled at the amount and variety of food.  “This is so much better than any store-bought goodie basket.” 

 

There were cheeses, slices of ham, turkey, homemade bread, pickles, deviled eggs, apple butter, jellies, crackers, venison summer sausage, condiments…  Most all the items Mrs. Hawkins had produced herself, with the help of her small brood of children.

 

Linnie asked to be excused and, disappeared momentarily into the kitchen to come back with not one, but two desserts.  “She didn’t know if you all liked cake or pie better.  She made one of each.”

 

“Yes!”  Mart replied.  His outburst drew groans from the others.

 

“There’s Karo nut pie and apple cider cake,” she announced as she presented the two desserts.  “Oh, and I brought a fruit cake from the college.  We make them on campus to ship and sell, worldwide.  We can have it, too, if you like.  I left it back at the cabin.”

 

Honey leaned to give Linnie a hug.  “I don’t know where we are going to put all of this.”

 

In an effort to catch up on girl talk and to not have Linnie alone at the cabin, they invited Linnie to take the extra room.  Di’s offer to move to keep her company was accepted.  As Di and Trixie moved Di’s things to the empty room next to theirs, Honey and Linnie hurried over to the Moores’ cabin so that Linnie could retrieve some of her personal items. 

 

Meanwhile, Dan took the opportunity to make a pot of coffee, in anticipation of the desserts.  Mart offered to assist while observing, “It looks like you have it all well in hand.”

 

“Yeah, I’ve made coffee before, many times,” Dan answered curtly.

 

Mart felt the snap.  “Is something bothering you?”  There were times in the past few days that his friend seemed more aloof and detached than usual.

 

Dan sighed.  “Amber.  I hoped she would be able to join us at some point.  She lives only a couple of hours from here.  Her winter break is also going on now.”  He paused a bit before continuing.  “I know I shouldn’t be jealous of her doing a good thing, but she and some of her church members went to Mexico on a medical mission trip.  She is assisting with the younger patients.”

 

“That sounds admirable,” Jim chimed in.  He and Brian had joined the two while they waited on the girls to return.

 

“Is someone other than my brother being admirable?” Honey teased as she and Linnie entered, shaking off the sleet that had accumulated on their coats.

 

Brain gestured to Dan as he helped the girls with their coats.  “Dan.  He is sacrificing seeing Amber to some needy children in Mexico.”

 

“Let me put the Karo nut pie in the oven to heat a bit.  It is always better when it is served warm,” Linnie interrupted kindly.

 

“I have to ask,” Honey puzzled.  “Just what is Karo nut pie?” 

 

Linnie gave a good-natured giggle.  “I guess that name is an Ozark thing.  I think it is known in other parts as a pecan pie.”

 

“I love pecan pie,” Trixie proclaimed as she bounded into the room, buzzing with excitement.

 

Di rested a friendly hand on Linnie’s shoulder.  “I’m happy that you and I are sharing a room.  I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.”

 

“It will be a regular slumber party!” cheered Trixie.

 

The guys exchanged glances of amusement at the girls’ enthusiasm.

 

With the food basket wares and desserts ready, the feast began.

 

Soon, they were all quite stuffed and sat, enjoying the cheery flames of the fire.

 

Trixie, mesmerized by the blaze, wondered aloud, “What time did Uncle Andrew say he would be back?” 

 

Brian checked his watch, “He really didn’t say exactly, just after the meeting, but the weather could be holding him up.”

 

The television had been turned on, volume muted.  Weather watches and warnings were scrolling across the screen. 

 

“Well, while we have time, why don’t we try some of the local vino?” Mart suggested.

 

Jim shot him a warning glare.  “Most of ‘we’ are under age,” he reminded, sternly.

 

Mart pshawed the admonition.  “We have wine all the time at the Wheelers’.”  He motioned to Di.  “The Lynches’, too.”

 

“Besides,” he continued, “We had to sit through that long spiel at the winery, and then all we could have was the grape juice.”

 

He persisted with his monologue as he removed bottles of wine from the newly added bar area.

 

He was greatly ignored until he made an announcement.

 

“Here are the rules.  You will try a sampling of each local wine, reserve judgment and give your final opinion at the end.”  He scrutinized the arrangement that he had made on the counter top.

 

“It appears we have two Missouri wines and three representing the great state of Arkansas.”  He had assembled a line of small glasses as well.  “You will be able to test each and give your honest assessment at the end.”

 

He poured a sample from each bottle, handing a glass to each person in the room.

 

Linnie quickly placed hers to the side, pushing the glass far away, as if to signal that she was not going to participate. 

 

Most of the others accepted their glasses, with reservation. Mart had made his point, and he would persist until they gave in anyway.

 

Trixie took one sip and Jim fluidly took the glass from Trixie’s hand and tossed the liquid into the nearby fireplace.  Flames shot up momentarily from the alcohol content.  “Sorry,” he mouthed to the others as he did likewise to his own, not before giving it a quick, cursory taste.  He shrugged.  “That wasn’t too bad,” he whispered to his favorite girl.

 

The remaining Bob-Whites participated in Mart’s demonstration, with Dan excusing himself after the second round.

 

As he left, he could hear Mart explaining what a Muscadine was as he displayed a bottle of Muscadine wine from Arkansas.

 

He pulled out his cell phone and began checking for missed calls and signal strength.  He ascended the stairs, lost in thought, oblivious to the person following him.

 

“The best reception is from the second floor hall window,” Linnie advised.  “Folks say that the signal is affected by the direction of the wind.  I think they are exaggerating a might.”

 

He turned after giving a slight start.  “Thank you.  I don’t want to take a chance on dropping a call.  There aren’t that many bars showing from down below.”

 

Embarrassed that she intruded, Linnie backed down a few steps and began to excuse herself.

 

“When I’m finished, I’ll come back downstairs and join you all.  We can watch Mart make a fool of himself on that cheap wine.”

 

Dan’s first call was to Amber.  As expected, she had her phone off.  The charges from Latin America would be astronomical.  Heaving a heavy sigh, he attempted a call to Hallie.

 

“Hey!”  He smiled warmly into the phone.  “Merry Christmas.  Thanks for my Survival Bracelet.” He held out his arm to admire the braided accessory.

 

Laughter filled the ear piece of the cell.  “Well, you’re welcome.  I figured you could always use a little ‘rope’ now and again,” she drawled.

 

“I received your gift, but I don’t plan on opening it until Christmas Day.  I like the idea of having more patience than that short, blond and blue eyed cousin of mine,” she explained.

 

Dan chuckled.  “You two are different, that is for sure.” 

 

After several minutes of chit chat, with Dan describing the families’ visit to the area, he finally confessed his feeling a bit melancholy over Amber’s absence.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  I’m talking to you, and I’m bringing up another girl.”

 

“Not a problem,” she assured him. “It sounds like she is doing a good work.  That is something to be proud of.”

 

“What did you get her for Christmas?” Hallie asked, carefully.

 

Dan hesitated before answering.  “I got her a ring.  It isn’t much.  It’s just a friendship ring.”

 

Hallie continued her line of questioning.  “And she got you…?”

 

“Nothing, yet.  She promised she would pick out something while away.”  The disappointment in his voice was obvious.

 

“How does one get that stuck on someone that they only met for a few days, and haven’t seen since?  Oh, yeah, I know how, Hallie reminded herself.

 

They ended the conversation on a high note, promising to talk on New Year’s.

 

He began descending the stairs when he thought he heard a sound over head.  He paused for a moment and made a mental note to mention it to the others.

 

Back in the great room of the lodge, Jim noticed that the flames in the fireplace were moving, as if there were a draft.  With the recent renovations with vinyl windows, new doors and such, there shouldn’t be any leakage.

 

“Watch,” Jim pointed toward the flames.  “It keeps moving, back and forth, as if there is something pulling it.”

 

Brain stepped closer to get a better look.  “The smoke also seems to be not completely drawing up the chimney.  There could definitely be a draft somewhere in the house, an open door or window.”

 

Jim stood and made a suggestion.  “How about we check this out?  We could split up, do a quick search and see if we can find any openings.”

 

At that moment, a loud pop and crack could be heard from outside.  Honey suppressed a shriek.

 

Jim and Brian hurried to the front doors and opened them just in time to see what was causing the noise.

 

The weather had worsened, indeed.  They were in the midst of an ice storm.

 

Tree limbs had begun falling.  The group assembled on the porch to watch in wonder as another limb, weighed down by the covering of ice, began bending to the point of breaking off.  Then, it broke with a loud snap.

 

A collective “WOW” escaped their mouths.

 

In a few moments, the transformer for the lodge complex began arcing; they stepped back as a reflex and conscious precaution

 

“I suggest that it is time to go in,” Jim advised, as he led Trixie into the house by placing a protective arm around her.

 

As they entered, they noticed that Mart had stayed behind.  He pointed out that the lights had begun flickering. 

 

“I stopped to watch the television.  I turned it up in time to hear that they were announcing an alert for Taney and Stone counties.  This area is under emergency status.  Up to an inch of ice is expected, along with a couple of inches of snow after that.  No one is to travel.  The roads are becoming impassable.  They were warning of widespread power outages, trees and power poles down.  It sounds like it is going to get worse.”

 

At that moment, the transformer outside made a horrifying noise.  They lost power altogether.

 

Darkness enveloped.  There was gasp. 

 

“Just give the generator a few seconds,” Linnie announced calmly.  “It is set to detect a power outage and to come on automatically.  Mr. Belden tests it monthly.”

 

The few seconds went by. 

 

“I don’t understand.  It should have come on,” fretted Linnie.

 

The light from the fireplace cast a small amount of light.  The emergency lights, attached to the new fire detection system, had kicked on.  Otherwise, it was quite dark.

 

“Well, that’s it,” Dan announced with great drama, waving his hands for emphasis.   “This group has been though hurricanes, blizzards, floods, tornadoes…and now…an ice- storm.  I have had enough.  The Bob-Whites are jinxed.  I need to call it quits and get away from you people.”  Dan added, in mock disgust.  “The only thing left is an earthquake and, since we aren’t in California, at least that can be ruled out here.”  He was kidding, of course. 

 

“Actually,” Mart corrected him, “The New Madrid fault is just a few hundred miles to the east of here, in Missouri’s boot heel.  One of the strongest earthquakes recorded hit that area in 1811.  There have been tremors since.  A ‘big one’ could be expected any day now.”

 

Trixie punched him in the arm for his unnecessary history lecture.

 

Ow, I’m only telling him what I know,” Mart protested.  “I could mention the fracking that has been occurring south of here is also stirring up tremors of its own.”

 

“No more scary science reports,” Di chastised him before silencing him with a kiss.  Works every time,” she thought to herself.

 

“I think we should check on that generator,” Jim decided.  Brian joined him after they put on their coats and stocking caps that had been hanging near the entry.

 

A raw wind forced its way in as they quickly opened and shut the front door.

 

Dan remembered the noise he had heard previously.  “I’m going to investigate the upper floors.  I heard a noise earlier.”  He pulled a small flashlight from his pocket.  “Never leave home without a flashlight,” he reminded the others.

 

Linnie started toward Dan’s direction. “I’ll help.”

 

The pair took off for the stairway.

 

“I suppose someone should check the basement?” Honey reluctantly volunteered.

 

Di and Trixie readily agreed.  Mart, however, excused himself for a moment.  He felt around the cabinetry until he found a six volt lantern underneath the bar.  “It is a good thing I noticed this earlier.”

 

“I don’t think we need to go without some type of weapon.”  He produced an opened wine bottle.

 

“What do you plan to do with that?” inquired Trixie.  “Throw it at them?”

 

Honey snickered and added, “Force them to drink it?”

 

Mart brushed off the sarcasm and led the way to the basement. 

 

As the four stepped foot on the cellar floor, Mart raised the bottle, holding it by the neck in a defensive posture, only to have the remaining contents spill out and down his arm.  His sleeve was now soaked by the red liquid.

 

His embarrassment lasted only a moment when they discovered the source of the draft.  A window was open.

There was a puddle of water below.  It was hard to tell how long the puddle had been collecting.  Any frozen precipitation would have been melted.

 

He handed his glass weapon to Di long enough to close and latch the window.

 

By the time they made it back to the main room, the others were there to report their findings.

 

Dan and Linnie discovered the noises were from a limb that had been scraping against one of the dormer windows in the attic.  The weight of the ice was enough to cause it to bend and touch the glass.

 

Brian and Jim hurriedly moved inside, shaking sleet and snow off of their coats and caps.  Their report was not as assuring.

 

They found that the emergency generator had been sabotaged. 

 

“We were able to make a quick repair, and it should running again in no time,” comforted Brian.   

 

Jim‘s eyes were wide with excitement. “It was definitely tampered with.  The responsible party had the opportunity to do a lot more damage. They could have rendered it inoperable.  Instead, they had simply turned off the gas at the meter.  We were able to turn it back on.  It shouldn’t be too long before it kicks on.”

 

As if on cue, the electricity was restored.

 

“Could it be a prank?” Trixie queried, as she put on her mental detective’s cap.

 

“Maybe,” Honey answered slowly.  “Unless… someone is trying to send some type of message.  Your uncle did say that there were people that weren’t happy with his stance on the gambling issue.”

 

Di produced a crudely written note.  “Do you mean a message like this?  I found it lying in the foyer.”

 

“Keep you’re nose out to were it don’t belong,” Mart read aloud from over her shoulder.  “The grammar and spelling don’t speak well for the education system of Missouri, do they?” 

 

After a swift elbow from Di, he quickly apologized to Linnie.  “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking.  I let my mouth run before my brain had time to filter.”

 

Linnie smiled and accepted his hastily given excuse.  “No offense taken.  There has been a lack of educational opportunities, in the past.  With the improved roads and utilities, the schools in this area are stepping into the twenty-first century.”

 

Jim took out his cell phone and shook his head.  “There is ‘no service’.  I guess the weather must be affecting the signal.”

 

Dan motioned toward the stairs. “You can try from one of the upper levels.  I was able to get a signal earlier.  I’ll show you where I got the best reception.”

 

As Dan and Jim headed up the stairs, Brian led Mart to the bar area and insisted that he begin cleaning up after his ‘experiment.’

 

A slight scratching at the front doors drew Trixie’s attention.  She cautiously opened the door to be greeted by a very wet and thankful young pup.

 

“How did he get loose?” Linnie asked in alarm.  “He was safe, sound and asleep on the back porch earlier.  Daddy put a heat light in his cage to keep him warm.”

 

The happy black and tan puppy eagerly gave kisses to the girls while Linnie disappeared for a moment to find a dry towel to soak the moisture off of the jubilant animal.

 

Brian left his cleaning supervision and asked for clarification, “Did you say he was at your house?  On the porch?” 

 

Linnie began nodding vigorously.  “Positive.  I let him out for a bit earlier to do his business.  I made sure the cage was latched.”

 

Brian grabbed his coat once more and instructed Mart to stay and keep watch in the event any more strange occurrences happened.

 

“He is such a sweetie,” gushed Honey.  “What is his name?”

 

“Well, he is supposed to be a Christmas present.  Since losing Jacob, we’ve needed another dog.  We decided to name him Wenceslas, in honor of the Christmas song.  We are going to call him ‘Wence’ for short.”

 

“Brian rushed back into the great hall, excited, “Mart, get Jim and Dan.  I think I know where the intruder is.”

 

Jim and Dan hurried down the stairs at the sound of the commotion.  “We barely got a signal.  I was able to get in contact with the county sheriff’s department.  They are going to try to send someone out as soon as the precipitation stops.  Now, what is going on?”

 

Brian began explaining his findings as Jim and Dan donned their coats.

 

Mart moved closer to the girls.  “I’m going to continue to stay here to keep watch.” 

 

The five moved to the fireplace area, taking seats on the various couches and glider chairs.  Wence trotted toward the warm flames, wound himself before plopping on the rug in front of the hearth, giving out a contented sigh.

 

Linnie’s eyes were closed, lips moving, in a state of prayer.

 

They all waited in silence.  Minutes passed like hours when shouting could be heard.

 

Dagnabbit!  You’re going to break my arm,” an angry voice bellowed.

 

There were sounds of a scuffle on the porch and both front doors flew open, the screen doors smacking behind.

 

The suspected saboteur had been found and captured.

 

Dan had a firm grip around the suspect’s neck and was holding one of the man’s arms behind his back.  “If you don’t be still, mister, I’m going to do more than break your arm; I’ll break your neck,” warned Dan, in his official-sounding police officer voice.

 

Brian and Jim had their hands full, as well, with bags.  Jim lifted one of his and announced, “Spray paint.  Brian has …um….how do you pronounce that?”

 

“It’s called Sorghum, you blasted Yankee,” the stranger smugly informed.

 

“We found him in one of the cabins.  He’s been having quite a time with the spray paint and pouring this nasty, sticky, stuff on the floors and such.  It looks like he got to the first two.  He didn’t have time to get to the others,” Brain reported.

 

The man huffed.  “I wasn’t hurting no one, just a little funnin’, trying to throw a scare.  I aimed to turn that Belden man’s fool mind so he would quit his talk about stopping them casinos.”

 

Linnie pointed at the man.  “You’re Mr. Gibbs.  You live in Rockaway.  You run a guide service on the river.”

 

“Yeah, and it don’t pay that much no more. I stood to make a pretty penny on selling my river front land to the casino people.  But, I can’t do that if the blasted owner of this place can’t keep to hisself and his own business.”  

 

Wence stood, stretched, yawned and pranced over to Mr. Gibbs, as if greeting an old friend.

 

Git that varmit away from me.  I seen a cage on the porch.  I wanted to see what it was that were in it.  I just barely had the door cracked and the confounded thing busted loose and wouldn’t come back.  I seen it ran to here. I just knowed that is what give me away.”

 

Mart bit his lip and stifled a laugh at the man’s backwoods language. “Boy, he could benefit from an improved education system, for sure.”

 

His hands occupied, Dan pointed his chin toward the foyer closet.  “See if there is any rope in there or anything similar.  We can tie him and keep him until the authorities arrive.”  He considered using the cord from his Survival Bracelet, but he wanted to preserve the special, thoughtful gift.

 

Jim reached for his phone. “I’ll go back to that spot and inform the county that we caught the guilty party.”

 

With Mr. Gibbs tied and secured in a windowless storage room, the Bob-Whites and Linnie were able to breathe a sigh of relief.

 

“He was too big to fit in the basement window,” Dan told the group.  “He left the window up, in an apparent attempt to flood the basement with the precipitation.”

 

After several minutes of debate, it was decided to leave their prisoner as he was until morning.  He had no chance of escape.  The Boy Scout training of the Bob-White men had taught them well in how to tie knots and secure cargo.  They could sleep safe and sound.

 

Honey stood and stretched.  “I’ve had enough excitement for one night.  I’m going to head upstairs and try to get some sleep before morning.”

 

“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve,” beamed Di, her violet eyes twinkling with joy.

 

“We do need to get some rest.  There is a mess to clean up tomorrow, too.”  Brian reminded them.

 

Dan crossed his arms and declared, “I vote we make Mr. Gibbs clean his own mess, at least until the sheriff arrives. We can take photos of the damage and save as evidence. ”

 

Jim raised his hand. “I second that.” 

 

As the others headed to their rooms, Dan had second thoughts about leaving Mr. Gibbs unattended and volunteered to stay downstairs, just in case their captive attempted to escape. He said that he had been working alone, but Dan wasn’t totally convinced.  “I’ll be fine.  The couch is long enough for me to sleep on.  I can keep the fire going while I’m at it.”

 

-----------------------------

 

 

The next morning, the weather had made a one-eighty.  It was a cloudless day, and the temperature was beginning to climb well above freezing.  The ice that had accumulated was quickly thawing, thanks to the sun’s strong rays.

 

After a hardy breakfast, they lead Mr. Gibbs outside and gave him an ultimatum:  start cleaning the messes that he had made and they would offer that as some penance to the sheriff. They would have the photo evidence to preserve the damage that occurred.

 

It was just after noon when the sound of an engine broke the silence.

 

A tractor soon appeared from around the bend, a blade shovel doing good work on the ice, sleet and snow.

 

Behind the tractor was the fleet of Mercedes SUVs that Mr. Wheel had rented after arriving at the airport.

 

“My, what a beautiful area,” Mrs. Wheeler marveled as she exited the passenger side.  “The lodge charming.”

 

“Thank you, my good man,” Mr. Lynch said exuberantly as he addressed the tractor’s operator.  “It was very kind of you to clear the roads for us.”  Edward produced a rather large bill from his wallet and handed to the county worker.

 

“Um…sir?”  The confused man attempted to hand the money back.

 

Mr. Wheeler joined the two.  “Nonsense.  It is Christmas Eve, after all.”  He handed the man an even larger sum of money.

 

Mr. Lynch slapped the newcomer on the back.  ‘That’s right.  Here, take this and have a Merry Christmas.”  He presented even more cash.

 

Peter Belden watched in amusement.  “You hang on to your wallet.  There is no way you can compete with those two,” Helen advised him.

 

Nearby, Bobby and the younger Lynch children had dropped their bags to start an impromptu snowball fight, with Ms. Trask serving as referee as the snowballs were more ice than snow.  Someone had to make sure that no eye was put out.

 

Two sheriff’s cars and Uncle Andrew’s truck pulled up.

 

“Police?” Caroline Lynch asked, her eyes wide with concern.

 

“That is what we were going to tell you before Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Lynch got into the tipping war.” Brian answered.  “We had some trouble last night and had to call for the sheriff.  The tractor must have been clearing the way for them.”

 

“Trouble?” Helen Belden was looking around, counting and checking that all the Bob-Whites were accounted for.

 

Brian put a reassuring arm around his mother.  “We will explain it to you all later.  For now, we need to talk to the sheriff.”

 

Dan, Jim and Trixie emerged from one of the closest cabins, their prisoner in tow.

 

They stepped over to hand him off to one of the deputies who promptly handcuffed Mr. Gibbs and placed him on one of the porch steps.  He pointed his night stick at him as a warning to not move.  He also rested a hand on his Taser as well.  The message had been sent.  Don’t attempt to run.

 

Uncle Andrew approached, bewildered, and asked for an explanation.  “I didn’t leave as quickly as I planned and was held up by the road conditions.  What happened?  Why are the police here and WHO is that man?”

 

After a brief reunion with Sheriff Sam Owns, the Bob-Whites took turns detailing the events of the night. They arranged to send the pre-cleaning, photographic evidence to the Sheriff’s email address.  He stepped away for a few minutes to get a visual of the cabins, taking notes and gathering evidence of his own as well.

 

When he returned, the sheriff shook his head in disgust at Mr. Gibbs.  “We can charge him with criminal mischief, vandalism, terroristic threatening.  You say he had cleaned most of the mess?”

 

“The paint is going to take something stronger than what we had on hand.  He did manage to clean most of that sor….sticky…. substance from the floors.  The upholstered furniture will need to be dry-cleaned.” Brian reported.

 

“Sorghum! Can’t you Yankees talk right and pronounce a simple word like that?” Mr. Gibbs sneered.  “I just hope that Belden gets some sense in that head of his and come to know that you can’t stop progress.  He is ruining my chance to make a passel of money.”

 

Linnie and Wence had been observing silently, nearby.  She took this time to introduce herself to the rest of the families.

 

“We have heard so much about you,” Mrs. Belden said as she hugged her.

 

Regan’s attention was diverted for a moment by the sight of the barn.  “You have horses?”  He had been thrilled to be able to tour the horses and draft animals’ stables prior the Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede.  The variety of Quarter horses, palominos, Appaloosa and Paint breeds were impressive, even to him.  They, along with pigs, chickens, ostriches and American Bison, were all used in the excitement-filled dinner show.  He could never get enough of his favorite four legged beasts.

 

Linnie promised to introduce him to their small collection of stock later.

 

“Well, I guess I have everything I need, for now,” the Sheriff announced.  “Come on, Gibbs.  I’m going to book you and get back to my family before our Christmas is completely ruined.”

 

Mr. Gibbs reluctantly allowed himself to be led to the cruiser.  “I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for them meddling kids and that dog.”

 

Later that evening….

 

Supper was prepared, the fire stoked, an evergreen tree trimmed and decorated.  Presents were now stacked under the tree and overflowing into the middle of the great room floor.

 

After inspecting the Ozark Cedar, Mr. Wheeler declared, “I’ve never seen a cedar used for a Christmas tree.  It does work well.”

 

“That is all we have ever used,” Linnie informed him.

 

The tree had been cut from the woods behind the lodge that afternoon.  Linnie shared her family decorations.  Since her parents were going to be away, they had not bothered in putting up a tree.

 

“By the way, that was a nice meal,” Andrew complimented.

 

Caroline Lynch smiled and thanked him.  “I miss cooking meals regularly.  It looks like I haven’t forgotten how.”

 

Trixie waved her hand for recognition.  “We all helped.”  Embarrassed by her outburst, she added, “It was fun having all us females in the kitchen, together.”

 

“I think I did a rather good job with the potatoes,” Grace Wheeler proudly proclaimed.  “Marge’s dessert was simply divine!”

 

Linnie turned to Andrew.  “It’s a good thing Mamma had that meat in the deep freeze.  She will be proud to know that the vegetables she canned were appreciated as well.”

 

“I just wish they could be here to celebrate with us, but I know your family in Kentucky is happy to see them,” Andrew commented.  He got up from his spot on the sofa and went to the bar and declared, “I’m standing firm on my position on the gambling initiative.  The actions of Mr Gibbs has solidified that I’m doing the right thing.  What some people will stoop to amazes me. The others at the meeting are also going to stand in solidarity against the initiative.”

 

He began opening cabinet doors, It was apparent that he was searching for something.  “Um, well…I was going to offer the adults some local wine, but it seems to have disappeared.”

 

Mart gave a start and hurried to the front door.  “Hey, kids!” he stopped long enough to address the youngest in attendance. “Why don’t we go outside and look for Santa?  It’s a clear night.  We should be able to spot him right away.”

 

His fellow Bob-Whites and Linnie chuckled at his hasty exit, very aware of just where the pilfered wine had disappeared to.

 

Jim reached for his coat.  “Why don’t we all go outside and leave the adults to their conversation?” 

 

Soon, they were assembled, standing in the yard - the remnants of the icy precipitation crunching under their feet.

 

The star-lit sky was wondrous.  The absence of city lights allowed the stars to come through and seem even brighter.

 

“Hey!  I think I see Santa’s sleigh,” shrieked Andrea Lynch.  “We need to go to bed, now.”  She hurried to the lodge, her siblings following.  Bobby paused long enough to give Mart a knowing wink as he passed by, keeping up the pretense of Santa’s arrival.

 

“Merry Christmas,” Jim whispered into Trixie’s ear.  One by one, each Bob-White couple embraced, savoring the moment with Dan asking permission from Linnie if he could put his arm around her.  She agreed.  After all, it was quite cold and they were fast becoming good friends.

 

Brian interrupted the silence.  “I hate to break this up, but I’m certain that those youngsters are going to be up at the crack of dawn to see what “Santa” brought them.”

 

“Speak for yourself,” Mart interjected.  “I’m anxious too.”

 

The adults were also preparing to retire for the night.  Helen Belden wasn’t the only one that had ‘stretchy walls.”  The lodge had just enough room to house the bunch.

 

In the stillness of the night, by the light of the Christmas tree’s bulbs and the glow of the fireplace, it was a peaceful, almost reverent, scene.  Uncle Andrew took the opportunity to read the Christmas Story from the Gospel of Luke. 

 

After a round of Merry Christmas and goodnights, they all parted. The morning would bring a different type of excitement for the Bob-Whites and families.

 

As they ascended the stairs, Dan’s thoughts went to Mexico.  Merry Christmas, Amber.”

 

************************************************************************************

 

 

 

 

First, I was to give a HUGE thank you to Lisa Morris for serving as my editor.  Commas are EVIL!  They do not like me.  I don’t care too much for them, either.  Lisa, I appreciate you hanging in there.  You are very patient.  Your encouragement means a lot.

 

Any mistakes made are my own.

Now… for some more notes, comments and rambling.

 

It was ironic that, as we were bouncing this back/forth to prep it for posting, Arkansas was hit with an ice storm of its own. We dodged it in the NW corner.  The areas south of us were not that lucky. We got sleet and snow.  They received the ice. I think Lisa got some of the Wintery weather, too.

 

I want to give a shout out to Stacey Dozier Thomas.  She gave me my first Trixie Belden for CHRISTmas one year. (Thanks, Cousin)  It was “Bob-White Cave.” Were it not for her, I would never have read the series.  Neither would I have had to opportunity to join such a marvelous on line community, or the message boards, that is dedicated to the mystery series. 

 

I used “Gibbs” as homage to “Wash Gibbs” from the Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama.  He was a scoundrel in that, too.

 

Shepherd of the Hills outdoor drama… gosh, so similar to Bob-White Cave, with: a mysterious ghost, a missing son/father, a mountain lion that is shot by an unknown shooter, a burning cabin, a party with food and music…  It takes place in the Branson area as well.

I had thought that it would be a neat Trixie Belden Convention activity.  Alas, they had to shut down at the end of this season (after over fifty years), due to low attendance and high cost of maintaining the cast. A visit to Silver Dollar City and the Showboat Branson Belle though, those would be doable.

 

Silver Dollar City has the cave tour.  The Homestead Pickers are a real group.  Steve and I love to stop, visit and listen to their performances.  It is never the same. We have too many “favorite” songs to list. They are very talented.

 

The park is beautiful at Christmas time.  It is one of the top-rated Christmas destinations for the beauty, lighting and atmosphere.

 

We would, of course, have to tour the College of the Ozarks campus, including the museum, chapel and dining at the student run restaurant.

 

Andy Williams has since passed from when I first started on this.  Steve and I had the pleasure of seeing him twice.  Once was for his Christmas show.  Mom was able to attend that one.  Ann Margaret wasn’t with him at that time.  She had been in the past.  I added her for the sake of the men.

 

Jim Stafford and the Liverpool Legends both are still appearing in Branson.

 

There is a Lodge of the Ozarks.  It is across the street from Jim Stafford’s and another theater.  We have never stayed there though.

 

Dixie Stampede is an awesome and exciting show.  We were blessed to be able to take Mom to see it.

 

There is so much to see, do and experience in Branson.  I feel happy to know that we were able to take Mom to all that she was physically able to.

 

(Boy, I hope that I am not leaving anyone or anything out)

 

Did y’all catch a few nods to the original series?  There might have been another Easter Egg or two as well.