“Once upon a time,” Aunt Abby started.
“Is this a fairy tale, or a western,” Jules asked. She squealed as a giant, Texas sized, grasshopper landed on the quilt.
“It’s a western,” Aunt Abby said watching Bruce and Joshua stalk the grasshopper. “Chase that away from the quilt, please.”
“Are there fairy tale westerns?” Constance asked chewing on the end of her braid while she looked up at the wide-open sky filled with puffy white clouds.
“Of course there are,” Aunt Abby said. “But their stories are darker and you’ll have to wait until you’re older to hear those.”
“Darker?” Ellie said. “Is it night there?”
“Well, sometimes,” Aunt Abby said. “But there’s also lots of bad men, war, suffering, and death.”
“Is there blood?” Joshua asked with a gasp.
Imogene wrinkled her nose.
“Yes, sometimes. That’s why we have to wait till you’re older.
“I’m old,” said Bruce.
“Me too,” said Jules.
“Not old enough, and don’t rush growing up. Now, everyone settle in for a story.”
The seven cousins splayed this way and that on the quilt, closed their eyes, and listened.
Once upon a time, seven cousins, three cowboys and four cowgirls, spent several happy days at Grammie and Grandpa’s little ranch with Clyde the Donkey and Hobbes the golden Labrador. They arrived every October from all over the country just as the pumpkins started turning orange and Texas cooled down. Grammie sent them to play outside and rid themselves of excess energy with the instruction to stay in the field or yard and not leave the property.
Bruce, Joshua, and Jude set about exploring the wide-open field for bugs and the old racecar track they built last fall. Julie searched for wild flowers to give to Grammie. Ellie took Imogene’s hand and ran with her through the tall, dry grass. They giggled as they chased an early autumn monarch. Constance followed the little path down to the pond searching under the willow for signs of fairies and little folk.
“I thought this was a western,” Constance hissed.
“Maybe it’s a fairy tale western,” Ellie said.
“Ohhh,” Bruce said. “It might get scary.”
“It’s not scary, is it Aunt Abby?” Jules said.
“No it’s not,” Aunt Abby said.
“I’m scared,” Joshua said with a grin.
“Me too, ” chimed in Jude.
“I’m not,” said Imogene.
Aunt Abby hushed everyone and continued the story.
Hobbes watched the children from the wide back porch with his ears perked for trouble. Clyde moseyed further out with a swish of his tail. He cocked his ears back to listen to the gales of screaming laughter coming from the happy cousins.
Suddenly out of the grass popped a boy with dark eyes, dark hair, and a dark smile.
“Is he bad?” Jules whispered.
“Wait and see,” Aunt Abby said.
“I bet he’s bad,” Constance said.
Ellie held Imogene’s hand harder. The red-headed child crowded in close to her. Constance looked up from the willow. She hadn’t found any fairies but she had found a perfect rock. Jude growled making Bruce and Joshua look up from the horned lizard they hunted in the tall grass. Hobbes trotted off the porch. He didn’t recognize the boy and decided he better check him out. Clyde tossed his head and decided the same thing. They were on the case.
“Who are you?” Jules asked.
“I’m Jethro Cagen,” the boy said with a small bow.
Jules giggled. “I’m Jules,” she said with a bow back.
The others gathered in around her.
“Are all y’all brothers and sisters?” Jethro said mocking them.
“No,” Bruce said. “We’re cousins.”
“But some of us are brothers and sisters,” Constance said fingering the perfect rock in her pocket.
Hobbes arrived and gave the boy a good sniff.
“Get your dog away from me,” Jethro said. “I don’t like dogs.”
“You don’t like dogs?” Joshua could believe his ears. Who didn’t like dogs?
“That’s rude,” Ellie said. “Hobbes is a good dog.”
Hobbes wagged his tail and licked Ellie and Joshua right across the cheek. Imogene laughed at them and Hobbes licked her too until she squealed.
“That’s gross,” the boy said.
The seven cousins looked at him unsure of why he was so mean.
“Well,” Jules said. “We’re going to go see our Grammie and Grandpa.”
The cousins and Hobbes turned away from the rude little boy.
“Hey, do you want to come play in my yard?” he said.
“Which is your yard?” Jules asked
“We can’t,” whispered Imogene.
“Grammie said stay on her property,” Bruce said.
“That’s my yard,” the boy said.
Across the street, a green yard perfect for picnics rolled up to a two-story house. No itchy grass grew up taller than Jude. No giant bugs jumped on little girls’ shoulders. A bright yellow slide rose up into a pecan where a tree house waited for adventure. Blue swings rocked gently in the cool Texas breeze.
“I have every Hot Wheel ever made up in my tree house and cap guns,” he said. “Are you sure you don’t want to come play?”
Bruce, Joshua, and Jude started forward.
“Grammie said to stay here,” Jules said.
“Yeah,” Ellie said.
“I also have a box of dress up clothes. You can play pirates.”
The girls hurried after the boys.
Hobbes barked. All seven cousins stopped. Hobbes barked again.
“Cars and pirates,” the boy said with a smile.
The cousins looked back at the golden dog sitting beside the gray donkey in the itchy field filled with bugs. They looked at the pretty green lawn, bright slide, and tree house. Field or tree house? Field or tree house?
“We have to go home,” Constance said.
“He has cars,” Bruce said.
“Grammie said to stay on her property,” Ellie said moving up beside Constance.
“Yep,” Jude said. He took Imogene’s hand and they moved closer to Ellie and Constance.
Bruce, Jules and Joshua stood between the boy with the tree house filled with cars and their cousins. They gazed at the house, longing to feel the soft green grass, to slide down the slide, and play pirates in the tree house.
Clyde hee-hawed. Hobbes barked.
Bruce glanced at Jules. She sighed.
“We can’t, can we?” Joshua said.
“No, we need to obey Grammie,” Bruce said.
“Yep,” Joshua said.
“Come on, Jules,” Bruce said.
Jules nodded. “We need to obey.”
The cousins linked hands.
“Thanks for inviting us. Maybe we can play later,” Jules said.
Ellie dropped Constance and Imogene’s hands, rushed to the boy, and gave him a big hug.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Thank you,” all the cousins yelled. They tramped through the tall grass back to Hobbes and Clyde leaving Jethro behind.
The dog danced around them barking, licking, and wagging his tail. Clyde followed them back to the house nudging the slower ones in the shoulder with his nose to hurry them along.
“Kids,” Grammie called from the front porch. “Cookies!”
She held out a plate piled high with cookies. The seven cousins shared a glance and then raced to the front porch. Grammie made sure that the cousins with shorter legs still had cookies to eat when they reached her.
“Boy am I glad we didn’t disobey,” Bruce said.
“Yeah, we wouldn’t have gotten cookies,” Ellie said.
Hobbes barked in agreement.
“The end,” Aunt Abby said.
“Aunt Abby was he rude?” Bruce asked sitting up.
“Yes. He wasn’t very nice. You should never encourage someone to disobey what Grammie says.”
“Do we always have to obey Grammie?” Jules asked.
“Yes. Even if there’s a tree house, you should obey Grammie. And you should obey her even if they’re aren’t cookies when you do.”
“What about Grandpa?” Joshua said.
Aunt Abby laughed. “Grandpa even more.”
“Why?” said Imogene.
“Cause he’s scary!” Aunt Abby said making her voice quiver.
All the cousins giggled.
“Scary Grandpa,” they yelled.
Grandpa laughed and laughed as he came out from behind the house.
“Grandpa’s scary!” Imogene said with a grin.