The Red Pine Chronicles – Book One E.R.Fox
It was a lazy day on the St. John’s river. Oliver Phrogg sat with his legs propped up on the pilot wheel of his small steamboat holding it steady, his chair leaned back, his cap over his eyes, he enjoyed the feeling of the warm morning sun on his green skin. The distant sounds of crows calling back and forth to each other lulled him into an easy mood. Things were warming up now after a hard winter, and the soft sounds of the boat moving through the water at a slow pace moved him along in his daydream. It was starting out to be an easy day as the boat coasted along with the current when all of a sudden the silence was interrupted by the loud calls of several Blue Jays waking Oliver from his day dream. They were excited about something, and as you know, Blue Jays are the watchdogs of the forest so Oliver sat up in his chair and pulled his cap straight and looked out ahead of the boat. He saw two of them fly out over the river, circling around and back after seeing him. They landed on the roof of the small pilot house above him.
“Be aware….be aware!!!” The call was loud with their jumping about in great agitation.
“What is it?” he leaned out of the door and looked up.
“Rats and Weasels…..River Pirates, River Pirates!!”
Now this in itself was not an unusual thing, except that they were always a nuisance and tended to stay more to the north on the river these days.
“What of it?” he asked.
Still hopping about on the roof, in even greater excitement at being the first to tell him,
“They have taken Francis Mouse!!!”
He came out of the pilot house to face the birds.
“What do you mean?!” He asked. They leaned over to him, their beaks almost at his face.
“They broke into her little pine house at night, with torches, and pistols and swords. They forced her into their long black boat waving their red flag with the bones on it. They went to the north…and took her away!”
“Oh dear!” was all that he could say. Oliver sat back down in the chair and was deeply upset. The Jays had moved to the side rail of the boat beside him:
“Oliver…Oliver, you must find Bingo Jed, he knows the north river!” And with that, the two birds flew off in another loud chatter chatter to the woods to tell anyone they could of the news.
Oliver knew this to be true, Jed did know that part of the world. And not that he himself, a master of the river, could not find follow their trail, only Bingo Jed really knew the Okefenokee swamps where the Pirate headquarters lay.
Oliver started up his boat and turned it around to go south to a place on the river called Horse Shoe Point where he knew Bingo Jed lived. Upon reaching the place south of an old trading post town called Palatka, he piloted his small steamboat into the hollow of a great oak tree that sat on the edge of the river. The roots of the tree spanned far out into the water, far enough to be used as a natural dock. He hurriedly tied down his boat then balanced his way along those slick roots to climb the loose sand embankment overhead, pulling himself up by way of a wax myrtle branch that snagged his shirt as he fought his way through. He stopped himself to cautiously clear the material from the grasp of the bush, but only long enough to move on through to stand in a clearing surrounded by magnificent live Oaks with great hanging tassels of old Spanish Moss. There were tall ancient Palmettos that have stood high since Spanish explorers of centuries ago and the echoing buzz of the Cicadas that seemed to come from every direction. A pair of Rhyming Woodpeckers, with their reds and whites on black wings, chased each other about, tapping out their trademark sounds in chorus upon barks of nearby trees, they noticed Oliver and flew close to him in his haste and troubled procession:
“Oliver, Oliver, what is the matter, why are you coming ashore in such a breathless clatter?”
“Francis has been kidnapped!,” he said, out of breath and shaking his froggy fist in the air.
The Woodpeckers flew about him, chip-churring their calls as he walked along a worn path in the grass.
“Francis, Francis, our dear little Mouse? The same innocent friend who lives in a Pine house?”
“Yes! She has been taken by River Pirates…for a ransom I fear!”
“River Rats, the Pirates, they are rascals, we are sure!”
“River Rats AND WEASELS!” Oliver shook his froggy fist again.
“Oh dear, oh dear, such kith and kin, they took away a relative, for some money to win?”
“Indeed,” Oliver replied, and quickened his pace to go find the friend that he knew who lived in the ravine forest.
“Bingo, Bingo, that is your friend, will you find him in time to start and begin?”
Oliver said nothing, and sped on into the thickness of stout palmetto to find the path to Bingo Jed’s house. The Woodpeckers followed him through the woods, going from tree to tree, tapping out in Morse code the news of Francis Mouse, and then left him after a while to go rhyme on the river once more and watch over Oliver’s boat.
Oliver soon found himself in a forest of tall pine trees surrounded by thick clumps of bristly palmetto shrubs embedded in piles of white sand everywhere. The trail itself was mostly of the sand and no more than perhaps four feet wide with the thick carpet of pine straw, the heavy pine scent filled the stillness around him. Acorns popped under his shoes as he walked under a canopy of scrub oak. He once happened upon a Rattlesnake sunning himself on an upturn of granite rock. Yet it payed him no mind and Oliver slipped quietly by. It was much cooler out on the river than here in the deep woods and he found himself sweating under his cap.
Oliver Phrogg was a tall thin green fellow, sporting a river boat captains cap along with a plain white t-shirt. His jeans were faded blue and his white canvas sneakers showed some wear on the sides where his toes were beginning to poke through. He was a river Frog. His mother had been a Chorus Frog from Central Florida, and his Father had been in the Sebastian Navy along the Indian River. The river was in his blood and Oliver himself was a master of the tides and currents. He was a master of his boat, his talents enormous and a frog of sable conditions. He was someone you could count on. But his heart was heavy now as he reflected, here deep in the quiet of the woods. Alone on the trail with the tall trees towering over him, he felt small and almost hopeless. Yet he knew he had great friends and stood in a good position to save poor Francis. The sounds around him on the the trail somehow comforted him as a soft breeze blew and rustled the leaves on the trees with the smells of the plant life around him, and as he realized this his courage began to swell and he quickened his step.
The woods tended to vary here and there from sandy thick oak and scrub, to vast areas of grass dotted with full palmetto hammock and tall spindly palms, aged to degrees of bending here and there in all manner of up and down in directions of growth. You would see communities of Heron and Egret among them with the coming and going of great white wings over the tall grass. In the distance, the heat moved, shimmering the air in ripples as it rose from the savannas of the greens and yellows of marsh grass. The trail continuously led him straight through and once again the sounds of Oliver’s shoes along the path gave away his presence and an occasional turtle would raise his head. After a long afternoon of walking these paths, the forest became a deep ravine with large Azalea shrub, big pine and magnolia trees.
This is where Bingo Jed was to be found, living in and under one of the biggest and oldest of great oaks in this part of the country. So big, that it housed the legend that was he; magician, artist, seer, with rooms on different levels of the great roots. In fact, it was said that one could get lost inside the great oak for days and not be able to tell where one had been. Bingo Jed, a tall, slender Mississippi Red Fox, got his name when he worked in a traveling circus. People called them Gypsies, the families of Foxes, Beavers and Stouts were rovers for sure. His name came from the fact that he ran the Bingo Wheel every night amidst the wagons of card sharks and crystal ball readers. The name stuck, and he soon learned to play off of that name and perform magic tricks and read the cards for those who dared the trip into the deep woods to find his oak.
Oliver Phrogg had met Bingo Jed during the great battle of Red Pine. Fighting to stop the great invasion of River Rats and Long-tailed Weasels bent on taking over the Indian River in the east. It was a big three day battle with the two armies fighting it out to the last day at a well known place of tall trees on a hill known as Red Pine Bluff. In those days forwarded by a great victory over the Rats and Weasels, there were those brave troops that fought under a green flag with a red pine cone in the middle. This group started a watchdog division to forever guard against another invasion. They were known as “The Sacred Order of the Red Pine Flag.” Oliver and his friend were members and Jed himself had been elected to keep charge of one of the flags. He kept it in his home. Bingo Jed knew the North River, and, he specifically knew the vast Okefenokee swamps and the interior midlands where the Pirates no doubt had taken Francis.
The thin dirt trail soon became a winding ravine, an up and down sort of maze among tall azalea bushes and honeysuckle vine among more pines. The sides of the path loomed up over him with the growth and roots of great trees that grew down the slopes to form patterns of twisted shapes that in different angles revealed small openings with secret tunnels. The plant life grew thick and pine cones seemed to be everywhere as the trail continued on. He had only been to the tree once and it took Oliver quite some time before he thought he could recognize what Jed’s tree looked like, yet he couldn’t for the life of him remember. And there, beside a big pine tree and right in the middle of a victorious clump of honeysuckle vine, wrapped around a tall pole with an old wooden sign, was exactly what he was searching for. On that sign, in big faded red letters painted on in all capital letters read: B. J. R. F. R. F, a large gold star was positioned underneath that. Oliver stopped in his tracks and said out loud: “ Now what in the world does THAT mean.”
“Bingo Jed Renard, Famous Red Fox,” said a voice behind him. Oliver turned around to see the tall red fox carrying two metal pails in each hand filled to the rim with blackberries. He was wearing a long sleeve t-shirt with large blue and yellow stripes. He had on a pair of black faded jeans and blue canvas sneakers. On his head, he sported an old top hat.
“Well how do you like dat!…its Oliver Phrogg!. Dey said you was comin to find me.”
“Who said?” Oliver replied, remembering now that Jed had a thick Cajun accent.
“Oh, its been all aroun de pine wood an’ de marsh, seem you make a sensation coming ashore the way you did.”
Oliver shook his head…”Woodpeckers!”
Bingo Jed laughed and dropped one of the pails of berries down onto the ground and pulled a large skeleton key from his pocket.
“Lets go on inside an’ you can tell me all bout it.” Bingo Jed turned to his left and pushed aside a large branch of Magnolia to reveal a big door in the middle of large roots of an oak tree that had been blown over on its side. It was a massive thing, and one could easily stand up inside, which was what they did as Jed pushed the large key into a ridiculously large fancy lock, which he called a “Hurricane Lock” and led the way inside. When the big door was closed behind them, the twang of his accent echoed out again as he led Oliver deep into the neatly hollowed out tree holding a flat candle stick, down, it seemed, deep underground. An opening to another dark lit tunnel appeared on their left and Jed’s voice echoed out as he gave Oliver the tour.
“Dat dere, my frien, is where I discourage anyone to go lookin about, dat tunnel only go roun’ an’ roun.’
Oliver peered to his left and had no doubt about his warning. There seemed to be many strange tunnels along the way. Some for winter storage, and some to be misleading on purpose in case of invasion. Invasion? Oliver wondered about that, but kept up close behind his eccentric friend.
The temperature grew cooler, which meant that they were a good ways underground when they approached another great door…with another ridiculously big lock. “Here we go.” Jed said, the lock clicked loudly as he turned the same key and pushed the door forward. It was a most amazing sight, Oliver thought that he had entered a great mansion with high walls and patterned wallpaper. Rich crimson upholstered furniture in front of a great old fireplace.
As soon as Oliver’s eyes adjusted to the lights of all of the candles that filled the great room, placed on the tops of many old antique dressers, writing tables, and long legged coffee tables, he watched as Jed put the two pails of berries beside the mantel of the fireplace. It was a lot to take in at once and he was amazed to see many cooking pots in groups in certain corners of the vast room. In those pots were great quantities of Blackberries. Bingo Jed had a large supply of berries that he collected from the brambles alongside the surrounding trails. He kept them in those big pots to cook down into cobblers. He was a cobbler fanatic, yet his greatest and newest project was in making a Blackberry Hot Sauce that he called: “Bramble Fixin’s”.
There were also long strands of dried peppers hanging in corners here and there, red peppers and green peppers by the dozens. It was an interesting thing to see to be sure. And this tree – this hidden home world that he had created for himself, secluded from the outside by the many mazes of tunnels created naturally by the tree roots, this massive collection of misleading directions had fooled many an intruder into traps set by the wary fox. And where did he get such elaborate antiques? The velvet Queen Anne style, camel back couch and wing-back chairs? In beautiful rich velvet crimson colors, faded in some areas due to wear, it is still a mystery. Book shelves dominated one side of the considerable fox den. Books on all subjects in row after row, shelf upon shelf. Great old books, dusty and worn. His family history among them, he was well known for his knowledge of this area as well as his home along the Mississippi River.
Antique tables with cane back chairs in comfortable places before a great fireplace completed the essence of his personality – unless you noticed the great collection along the wall by the entrance, the many rifles, pistols and swords. Old Flintlocks, Cutlasses, Spanish Swords, and an interesting collection of his own hand-made hand grenades. A different view of Bingo Jed comes to mind accompanied by his narrative of when his great, great, Grandfather, Pappy Couyon Renard fought alongside the Pocket Gophers and Grey Squirrels at the Battle of New Orleans. His family background made him a colorful personality indeed. Yet, he was kind and moral in his dealings with others. Eccentric? Yes, Bingo enjoyed pulling legs with his reputation of magic and illusion, he had a crystal ball which he used with great enjoyment upon curious imaginations of those who dared navigate his maze of traps inside his tree.
“Eenie meenie, chilli beenie, spirit come out dis Hallowe’enie.
Let dem rumble, let dem ride, click dem broomstick, moonlight tide.
Now we mus conjure, now we mus see, de magic numbers,
1 2 Tri.”
This was his favorite rhyme to inspire awe among his clients and with his Cajun accent, there was no doubt it worked. Most of his clients were old chickens, old hens who clucked nervously at him waving his arms over his crystal ball reciting his rhyme. He would tell them their fortunes then he would sell them cobbler or his hot sauce and send them on their way, with a good supply of magic and superstitions. But could he use his crystal ball to find Francis?
The Royal Order of the Red Pine Flag
“Francis Angelina Mouse, dat is her full name?” Jed asked.
“Yes,” Oliver said as he settled into a worn cane chair. They sat across from each other at a pine table. A bowl of blackberries sat in the middle with a small plate of biscuits, beside that a small pitcher of milk.
“How many dem Pirates dey saw…was there a fight?”
“I do not know, I only know what the Jays told me, I came straight through the woods to find you.” Oliver fixed himself a busquit.
“I see. Most likely der was five or six, dey always go dat way. I know dat boat dey use…its a big river longboat, dey call it a Billy Boat. I know dat flag dey use too, I got one on de wall dere…look.”
Jed pointed to the wall over a book case. And sure enough, hanging there was a red flag with the skull and bones on it. Next to that flag was a flag he knew well. It was the green flag of the Order of the Red Pine.
“So…de Mayor’s daughter, eh, dey kidnap for de money. But I garontee dat dere is more dan dat!” Jed said.
Oliver nodded his head. Knowing that the Mayor was a member of the Order of The Red Pine, Oliver also recalled that the leader of those pirates that had long been a problem on the river had been a member himself. He had been kicked out.
Francisca, Francis for short, is a pretty little Spanish mouse adopted by that Mayor; Benjamin Bright, a large White-Tailed Jack Rabbit with great eyebrows furrowed by deep intelligence. She had been adopted by him and his wife after her Father, Francisco and mother, Angelina had been lost at sea during a great hurricane. She was known as always wearing wooden shoes until they made her change because she would wake up the household with her clop-clopping on the wood floors early in the morning. Her new father made for her a little pine house that sat next to the big house. She was a happy little mouse, with a smile and a hello to everyone. She loved her little house. Flower beds and newly planted Dogwood trees dotted her front yard here and there in a lovely display. Purple Cone Flowers, Azalea, Lantana, Black-eyed Susan, there were many colors in her garden. She was a treat for everyone – especially Oliver. But he kept that to himself, he had been introduced last spring during the “Great Oak Festival” of last year. A welcoming of the new warmth and joy of beginning summer. Others called it May Day, but along the river it was known as the “Great Oak Festival.” Oliver had danced with Frances that day and it made a lasting impression. And now, he had to go and find her and bring her back. “It was something that he had to do,” he said to himself.
Those pirates, the many multitudes of slippery river rats, along with the collection of crazy weasels, lived in the deep middle grounds of the great swamp known as Okefenokee. On several occasions they had ventured south along the St. John’s river to pick and choose which settlement of innocent folk they would terrorize into giving up their food stuffs, valuables or confiscate a fine boat to add to their collection. Their leader had ordered the taking of Francis for a ransom and perhaps for other such reasons – such as revenge.
The candles burned low as Oliver and Bingo Jed made ready their plans to rescue little Frances. In the morning they made the long journey back to Oliver’s boat. They brought with them two of the flintlock rifles with powder and shot. Each had a cutlass stuck into his belt and around Oliver’s neck, hung a good pair of binoculars. The decision was made to carry the green flag – its purpose would soon be two-fold. Jed had worn his fancy silk Top Hat with a purple ribbon tied around it and a red bandanna tied around his neck. Oliver’s travelling wardrobe was on his boat and his own sword hung in the small pilot house waiting for him. So he led the way back through the piney woods and palmetto marsh to the spot on the river where the two Woodpeckers would be waiting. There were no rattlesnakes along the way, sunning and daydreaming upon outcrops of warm rock, only the sounds of their footsteps in the silence of the deep woods. An occasional meeting of a squirrel or deer would offer a chance to find any news upon the issue of the kidnapping. The best they could hear was that a large group of citizens had gathered in town and the leaders were in great deliberation as to whether or not a great army should be employed to take action. Oliver and Jed both knew that this was not a good idea and sped on in haste to get there to persuade the Mayor to let the Red Pine Guards get her
When they finally reached the river and Oliver’s boat, they were surprised to see one of their old friends sitting on the bank. Chalmers, a gray tabby Cat – another member of the order, and a great friend of Oliver’s. He had been waiting for them and had been subject to the endless chatter of the question and answer games of the rhyming woodpeckers.
“Chalmers…Chalmers….oh say can you can see – Oliver Phrogg’s boat – it is tied to the tree.”
“No kidding!!” He answered the rhyme.
“Hear kitty-kitty, will you wait for them, meow.…Francis must be saved, we know that but how?”
“How irritating!” He said to himself. And that moment was when Oliver and Jed showed up. Just in time it seems, walking up to him as he rose and shook Oliver’s hand.
“Not much, just chitter chatter from squirrels and these two.” Oliver pointed to the woodpeckers who were by now much in the business of tapping and rapping against a great tree.
“Hello Jed, long time, no see.” Two hands met in an energetic handshake. Bingo Jed always liked Chalmers for his grumble and no nonsense.
“Hello, cher, (that meant “dear friend” in Jed’s vocabulary.) I see you bring de pistol you use in de war, it look good shape – indeed. An it good dat you come wid us!”
“ I see that you brought the flag.” Chalmers noted that a folded flag was bulging out of Oliver’s knapsack.
“We have, and I have a pole to hang it on the boat.”
“Good…do we have a plan?”
“We must get to town. We must get Mayor Benjamin Bright to make the call and not let things get out of hand.” Oliver said, as they made the slippery path along the tree root out to the boat.
“When did you fine out bought de mouse go missing, cher Cat?” Jed asked, standing beside Chalmers.
“I was on a boat heading for Jackson’s Crossing. It was Captain Hale who told me. He said we should find each other and collect the flag.” Chalmers answered, he was helping Oliver in putting that flag upon the tall pole that stood high over the pilot house.
Captain Hale, was a Great Blue Heron, the leader of the troop and a strong influence on the ways and means of defense for the district.
“Yes, de great leader Captain Hale – is he to meet us soon?”
“ He will be waiting for us alongside Mayor Bright.” Chalmers and Oliver stood and noticed with great pride how the flag, once mounted high, began its glory, catching the wind and “snapping to” with a pop from the breeze. All three stood and reflected with pride, their experiences serving under that emblem.
Chalmers used to work with Oliver on his boat a few years ago as his first mate and knew the river as well as his green friend. He also probably knew Oliver better than anybody else, so he noticed his friend’s mood. Chalmers himself was a slender fellow, gray tabby with green eyes. He never wore a hat, just white jeans and a black t-shirt. He and Oliver were fond of plain white canvas sneakers as they were easier to deal with a slippery boat or dock. As Jed had noted about him, he was a no nonsense sort of Cat. A lot of times grumpy because he didn’t trust a situation or could tell someone was hiding something. For that, Oliver depended on him greatly, back in the days when he and Chalmers spent their time going up and down the river carrying supplies and an occasional passenger to a destination.
Chalmers untied the boat and cast away, pushing the boat from the tree, and so it was…Oliver Phrogg, Bingo Jed, Chalmers, then joining them would be Benjamin Bright, Samuel Barlow; all in order of a common goal…. to save Francis Angelina Mouse. They would turn north and begin a great adventure. One that would be about friendship, loyalty, and devotion to a dream.