Towering like royalty above the prairie thicket stood a mysterious grove of aged cottonwoods. The area was rumored to hold some kind of curse resulting from spells once cast by nomadic gypsies. Rumor also had it that a nasty old witch toting a black powder shotgun loaded with rock salt kept a nightly vigil over the surrounding area. For a group of nine-year-olds the grove seemed more curious than it did frightening, so we hiked out to see it with our own eyes.
A strange phenomenon appeared to have taken place at one time. Several huge trees looked to have been yanked roots and all from out of the ground and tossed into a heap. The pile formed a bizarre labyrinth of passages and secret chambers. Spells or no spells, the natural jungle gym was too impressive to ignore.
A large part of that summer was spent hanging from those tree limbs. Perched there in our own personal “fortress of solitude”, my friends and I pretended to fight off invading armies, shoot down enemy aircraft, and soar across The Milky Way. Hidden under the protective cover of the grove’s canopy, we plotted, schemed and dreamed as we enjoyed life from a squirrel’s perspective.
The witch story, however, was always in the back of our minds. What we knew about her was derived from tales spun by the older kids in town. Climbing to a higher elevation revealed what looked like an abandoned shack—we saw no witch. Nevertheless, as twilight approached the thought of a rear end full of rock salt was enough to send us packing.
When asked, my mom said she didn’t know anything about witches or curses, but when she was young gypsies did in fact camp near the cemetery east of our tree fortress. Somehow I interpreted her response as acknowledging the possibility of a witch living out there.
After spending the majority of the summer mustering up the courage to take a closer look, we belly crawled through the prairie and into an apple orchard less than fifty yards from her weatherbeaten shack. We spotted a stack of fire wood next to a large iron cauldron resting over a fire pit. It appeared to be the perfect setup for rendering the bodies of young boys into a witch’s stew.
We surveilled the place for ten minutes or so with no sign of her. Off to the side of what looked like a garden stood a small, lopsided shed. We figured it had to be where she kept the shotgun and rock salt.
They say great minds think alike and we were all simultaneously struck with the same idiotic thought—what if we snuck up there and grabbed that gun? Can you imagine how we’d be received back in town? Why we’d be heroes—legends!
That was the incentive we needed, so we crawled up another twenty yards. Now this is where we’d see what we were made of.
Which one of us had the nerve to sneak up, open the door, grab the gun and bolt for safety? Apparently none of us; so we opted to settle the matter using the only fair choosing method we knew of—rock, paper, scissors. First one out was our man—okay, two out of three.
Our arguing over the proper hand-sign throwing etiquette was abruptly interrupted with the crack of a slamming door. We looked up and there she stood. The stories were true!
She had something long in her hand. Someone screamed, “She’s got the shotgun!” We jumped to our feet and ran. Of course being the fat kid of the group, I was left eating the dust of my fellow accomplices who ran like jackrabbits through the brush. All I could think of was a double barreled blast of rock salt filling my britches and making me the featured ingredient of her evening stew.
I took cover under a small evergreen, but my heart was beating so fast and loud I thought for sure she’d find me. I laid there for hours—or at least ten minutes before realizing she wasn’t chasing me. I crawled out to see if the coast was clear and saw her working in her vegetable garden. That wasn’t a gun she was carrying, it was a garden hoe.
Those older kids in town were just yanking our chains. She wasn’t a nasty old witch, she didn’t look much different from my own grandmother. She was probably just an ordinary old lady, growing vegetables, baking apple pies and living all alone. I kind of felt bad for her. Just because she lived as a recluse didn’t mean she was evil. I should have know better.
Odds were that she’d be grateful to have someone to talk with. I stood up and hollered “Hello!” She turned to look at me and I gave her a big smile followed with a friendly wave. She shook her hoe at me and screamed, “You damn kids, stay away from here or I’ll…”
I didn’t stick around to hear the details of her threat, I bolted back to the fortress.
Okay, so I was wrong. Apparently she was a nasty old witch…or at least an old women tired of yet another batch of nine year olds intruding on her privacy. I wouldn’t be making that mistake again.
The following year a farmer plowed up a good part of that prairie and planted crops. The tales of gypsies and witches faded away with our childhood; after all, we were ten now. Besides, we still had the legend of Al Capone’s secret hideout to explore!