"Good point," she said.
"You know," Sarah said looking vacuously up at the trees, "I hear tweeting."
"Of course you do," America said patting Sarah on the shoulder and looking knowingly at the others, "and, if you'll just sit over there quietly and look way down the road, you can see Russia."
"What does Russia look like?" Sarah asked.
"Like a bear, "America said rising up in a menacing pose.
"Ohhhh," Sarah said shivering with delight, "like a grizzly?"
"That's right," America said leading Sarah to an area about fifteen feet away, "now sit right here and look way down the road for Russia." "You might also see your friend and ally, Mr. North Korea."
"Oooooo, this is too much," Sarah giggled.
"It sure the hell is," America mumbled under her breath as she walked back to join her friends.
"Pitiful," said Barack, "that has to be the dumbest scarecrow this side of Alaska."
"The other side too," Mitch said looking over at Sarah, "but you better be careful what you say, Mr. Wuss. She'll go rogue on your ass."
Barack trembled and eased over behind America.
"Please don't talk like that," America said glaring at Mitch. "You know Barack frightens easily."
"Yes," Mitch said grinning widely, "I've come to appreciate that about him."
America moved closer. "Mitch," she said glaring at him, "you are easily the most heartless tin man I've ever met. There's not a drop of compassion in that metallic body of yours."
"Well, little missy," Mitch replied, "isn't that why we're off to see the Wizard of Ahs in the first place?"
At that point, the mist cleared and I found myself back in my kitchen with Old Blue kissing me on the face. "Cletis, your supper's getting cold," she said. Boy, that woman can cook; cornbread and beans just the way I like em'.
Sarah smiled coldly at Mitch, then cupped her hand, and squeezed like she was crushing a couple of English walnuts.
"Got it metal man?"
Mitch swallowed hard."Got it," he said.
"Good," America said glancing over at Sarah, "now get Einstein up and let's move out before it gets too dark to travel." "There are more bandits on this road than there are on K Street."
America glanced over at the cowardly lion."Let's go, Barack," she yelled out.
Barack closed his book, got up, and walked over next to America.
"Well," he said energetically, "that was a wonderful respite." "Let's get moving. I'm fired up and ready to go."
America rolled her eyes.
"You might want to lose that slogan, Barack." she said looking around for her water bottle. "I don't know anybody who's still buying into that one."
"America," Barack said quietly, "I thought we were friends."America took a deep breath and willed herself to relax.
"Barack," she said looking into his eyes, "friends stand up for each other and lately you haven't done a very good job of that." "Stop letting Mitch push you around. Back in Kansas, I had an uncle who lived down the river in Missouri. If someone had treated Uncle Harry the way Mitch and Sarah treat you, he would have shown them the road; face down and up close."
Barack dropped his head. "But, America," he whispered, "isn't that why we're going to see the Wizard, so I can ask for courage?"
America smiled softly and put her hand on Barack's shoulder.
"Come on," she said, "get your things." "It's getting dark and there are wolves in these woods. You know what happens when Sarah sees a wolf."
"Cletis," Old Blue yelled breaking the spell and bringing me back to the couch, "wake up and help me carry these groceries into the house." "I got you some pork rinds and a couple of six packs." Lord, all mighty, what a woman in love won't do for a handsome man.
"That won't be necessary," a soft voice whispered from the woods. "It wouldn't do you any good anyway."
America watched in amazement as a large serpent slithered up to the fire.
"Ahhh, that feels good," the creature hissed. "These woods get cold at night this time of year."
America could only stare.
"Oh, all right," the creature said impatiently, "is this better?"
With a flash of blue light, the serpent disappeared and was replaced by an attractive, dark-haired woman sitting quietly by the fire.
"Well, say something dear," she said. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
America shook herself back to reality. "What are you?" she managed to get out.
The woman leaned closer and smiled.
"I am known as Shelly by some and Batscat by others. I am the Witch of Minisoda and I have come to offer you an alliance."
America reached out and stirred the fire and watched the flames rise higher.
"What kind of alliance?" she asked turning her eyes back to Shelly. "I can think of nothing we need from you and what could we possibly do for a powerful witch like yourself?"
Shelly looked through the fire at the three figures on the ground.
"I know who you are and what you desire," she said soothingly, "and I can give it to you." "I can give the Scarecrow the brain she desires and I can give the Tin Man the heart he is missing," she leaned closer, "and for you America I can return you to your beloved Kansas."
"And Barack?" America asked.
A brief moment of rage passed over Shelly's face but she quickly composed herself.
"Why do you care what becomes of him?" she asked. "He is not like the others. Accept my offer and be gone from this place."
America leaned forward, and stirred the flames higher.
"Why are you afraid of Barack?" she asked quietly. "Is he somehow a threat to you?"
"Threat," Shelly hissed. "What possible threat could a cowardly lion pose to a witch?"
"I'm not sure," America said pulling a burning branch from the fire and standing up, "but there's something about him that you fear and I will never betray his trust." "Now, witch," she said thrusting the flames toward Shelly's face, "begone before I burn you to a cinder."
With a shriek of fear, Shelly recoiled from the flames and fled the clearing. "Not my face, "she screamed as she ran, "not my beautiful face."
"I've got news for her," a voice said sarcastically, "she doesn't look all that damn good to begin with."
America looked through the flames and saw Sarah brushing the hair back from her eyes.
"Well, don't look at me like that. I may not be the smartest person in the world but I know an ugly bitc...er, witch when I see one."
For the first time, America felt a measure of respect for Sarah. She smiled and went back to tending the fire.
"Cletis! Cletis! Why you lazy dog I thought you was going to catch us a mess of catfish for supper. You've been out here for hours and ain't caught a thang. I guess you'll be eating out of a can again tonight." Dang it, just when things were getting interesting. Oh well, that's my girl and I love her like a hog loves mud.
"What was that thing?" Sarah whispered easing next to America.
"I believe it's called "The Donald" Mitch said. "I remember hearing about it aways back when we were in that village getting supplies. Aparrently, it's the only creature in Ahs that consists entirely of mouth and hair."
"Are there more of them?" America asked.
"I don't think so," Mitch said, "it's some knd of mutation." "Rather unusual lifeform even for Ahs."
"Well, it sure is ugly," Sarah said. "Whoever styles that mop should be sent to Siberia, wherever that is."
America turned toward Barack.
"What set you off, Rocky? One minute you were sitting under a tree reading and the next minute you were pounding that hairball into the road. What happened?"
Barack took a deep breath and calmed himself.
"He said some mean things about my heritage," he said quietly, "but I shouldn't have lost my temper." "Anger only begets more anger."
"That's probably true, Barack," America said, " but some things warrant anger." "I'll tell you one thing, buddy" she said glancing over at Sarah, "I sure don't want you going rogue on my ass any time soon.
America picked up her backpack.
"Now," she said glancing at the forest, "let's move out before anything else decides to drop by for a visit."
Mitch glanced at Barack and shook his head.
"Not good," he mumbled under his breath, "this is not good."
I floated a few steps behind and watched. As the day wore on, America led her small, hardy band down the road toward the Emerald City. Eventually the road came to a small bridge which crossed a gently flowing stream. As America approached, a large, red troll emerged from under the bridge and blocked her way.
"That will be fifty gold Wizards," he croaked at America.
America stopped and looked at the troll. "What" she asked cautiously, "are Wizards and who, sir, are you?"
"Who am I?" the troll laughed. "I'm the keeper of the bridge, of course, and don't even pretend like you don't know what Wizards are. Everyone in Ahs knows the coin of the Realm."
"Well, that explains it," America said looking around at the others, "we're not from Ahs." "We're strangers in this land and are on our way to see the Wizard."
The troll was taken aback. "Not from Ahs. Why I never heard of such nonsense...," he hesitated then looked slyly at America and reconsidered his opportunity, "but since you're foreigners the fee to cross my bridge is 100 Wizards...each."
"Well," America said, "50 for all or 100 for each we have never heard of Wizards and so it looks like we're at an impasse."
At that moment, a large, beautiful carriage pulled by four magnificent horses bore down on the bridge from the opposite direction. The troll immediately dropped to his knees and lowered his eyes. America, Mitch, Sarah, and Barack stepped quickly to the side and within seconds the magnificient animals and the carriage roared across the bridge and vanished into the distance.
"My goodness, "Sarah said, "what was that all about?"
The troll rose to his feet. "That, my pretty," he said with a trembling voice, "was the carriage of Lord Charles and Lord David of the Koch Dynasty." "You are fortunate you were not slain for your insolence."
"What insolence?" Sarah asked. "All we did was get out of the way."
"None may look upon the face of a Koch and live," the troll said.
"Well, anyway," America said, "we don't have any Wizards so what else will you accept in payment?"
The troll licked his lips and leered at Sarah. "I'm sure we can come to terms," he said.
America reached for her gun but before she could do anything Mitch tossed four shiny coins at the feet of the troll.
"Here," he snapped coldly, "now get out of the way before America blows your head off and believe me, buster, she'll do it too."
The troll's eyes grew wide at the sight of the gold and he scooped the coins up and vanished back under the bridge.
"Mitch," America asked with surprise in her voice, "where did you get that money?"
Mitch looked at Barack and held up a large purse filled with coins.
"When Mr. Whupass here was beating the stuffing out of "The Donald" a ways back, this fell out on the ground. I thought it might come in handy. I've never been much of a talker," he shook the bag in America's face, "but I long ago learned how far you can go if you have a good supply of this stuff."
The last thing I remember before I woke up back in the cabbage patch leaning on the hoe was Sarah easing closer to Mitch.
"Mitch," she whispered seductively, "can I hold your bag for a while tonight?"
"You're right," Barack said, "and I fear something is amiss." "By the way, what happened to the Emerald City? I swear I remember seeing the towers in the distance. What's going on here?"
"Shelly!" America snapped. "This has to have something to do with that witch."
"My guess is you're right about that," said a brightly arrayed Leprechaun stepping from behind a nearby tree. "
America reached for her gun.
"Ryan's me name," he said, "and you won't be requiring your gun." "I'm here to help and I have everything you'll be needing to reach the Wizard."
With a wink and a wave of his hand, Ryan uttered an incantation and a large green bag appeared at his feet.
"Ah," he said reaching in and taking out a small silver whistle, "you'll surely be needing this."
"And why would we need a whistle?" Mitch asked sarcastically.
"Oh, it's not just any whistle, me boy" Ryan explained, "this is a Friedman whistle."
"Oooooh," Sarah said moving closer, "a Friedman whistle."
The Leprechaun was impressed.
"Oh, you be knowing Friedman's work then, do you?"
"Oooooh," Sarah said again, "a Friedman whistle."
"Oh, for God's sake," Mitch snapped, "what in the hell is a Friedman whistle?"
"Well," Ryan said handing the whistle to Mitch, "there's some debate about that but, the truth be told, one or two toots on this baby and the God of the Market will answer your every prayer."
"That's bullshit," America said.
"Is it then?" Ryan asked. He turned to Mitch. "Think of something you'll be needing and give it a try."
"What's it going to cost?" Mitch asked.
Ryan waved his hand and dismissed the question.
"We can discuss that later. The first one's always on the house."
Mitch looked at the others.
"Well," Barack said cautiously, "I don't think it will work but we could sure use a boat."
Mitch looked at America. She shrugged her shoulders.
"Give it a shot," she said. "I don't see how it can hurt anything.
Mitch turned toward the river, put the whistle to his lips (what there were of them) and blew two shrill blasts. Within seconds, a boat appeared out of the mist and settled gently against the bank.
"Oooooh," Sarah said jumping up and down, "I knew there was a Market god." "I knew it. I just knew it."
Mitch turned to the Leprechaun.
"That'll be a hundred of those gold pieces you're a carrying," Ryan said, "but I have one more thing you'll be needing as well."
Everyone crowded closer.
"You can't be getting to the Emerald City without this." Ryan said reaching into his bag and bringing out a road map.
"We already have a road map," America said.
"Not like this one," Ryan said smiling. "This is a Friedman road map."
"Oooooh," Sarah said, "a Friedman road map."
"We'll take it," Mitch said. "How much?"
Ryan scratched his beard then put out his hand.
"You know, Mitch, I like your style. Take the whistle and the map for 180 pieces of your shiniest gold coin and we'll be calling it a deal."
Mitch took Ryan's hand and pumped it up and down.
"Done," he said."
America herded everyone on board the boat and shoved off into the river.
"Good bye, Ryan" Sarah called from the boat, "tell Mr. Friedman we said thanks."
The boat vanished into the mists so Sarah didn't see Shelly step from behind a large tree and join Ryan at the edge of the river.
"That went well," she said. "That Friedman nonsense was a stroke of genius." "How did you come up with that?"
"Me darling," Ryan said turning to Shelly, "I'm ancient beyond reckoning and one thing I've learned is that desperate people will buy a boat with a hole in it and, that for many of us, gold is all that matters."
He put out his hand.
"Now pay up."
to be continued
When Barack hit the water, he knew he was in trouble. The river was far swifter than he had anticipated and there was a strong undertow to the right which pulled him steadily away from the more peaceful water to the left. He put every ounce of his energy into the effort but soon lost his bearings and found himself at the mercy of the current. In the far distance, he thought he could hear America calling his name then his mouth filled with water and he disappeared into the depths of the river.
Barack was not sure how long he had stayed with the Elves of the Green Mountain. Time was suspended and it seemed as if he had simply drifted. When he found himself back on the banks of the river, he was no longer even sure his stay with the elves had not been a dream. The river was still clothed in mist and the dark forest loomed in front of him. There was no sign of America, Mitch, or Sarah and he was concerned the leaking Ryan boat and those aboard had been claimed by the raging waters. He stood for a long time looking into the mist then with a heavy heart turned and walked into the forest.
"America," said Mitch as he stirred the fire, "Barack has been gone for three days and I'm sure he's lost. I believe we have waited long enough and we need to move forward in order to find the Wizard. "
America looked through the flames at Sarah. "Do you agree?" she asked. "Well," Sarah said, "it was a brave thing Barack did and without his sacrifice I doubt if we'd be here talking about it. But, Mitch is right, we need to move on. This forest frightens me."
For a long time, America looked quietly into the fire. "I agree," she said, "let's get some sleep and we'll break camp and head out for Ahs in the morning."
Hours later while the others slept peacefully Sarah was awakened by a whisper from the nearby brush. "Sarah," the voice whispered softly. "Sarah," it whispered again.
Sarah looked into the brush and saw a small Fox standing just inside the circle of light cast by the campfire. She had never seen a more beautiful creature. "Sarah," the Fox said softly, "why would you want to cast your lot with these fools?"
"The Wizard can offer you nothing I cannot offer. This concern regarding your intelligence is of no consequence to me. Your great beauty and charm is far more important to those who follow the way of the Fox. Come with me and I will exalt you above all others. You will receive riches untold and you will be revered by those who follow me."
Sarah's eyes flamed. "What would I have to do?"
"Just come with me," cooed the Fox, "and be who you are."
"Now?" whispered Sarah.
The Fox considered the question. "Yes, there's no point in waiting. We have much to do."
Sarah looked toward the others. "Shall I wake them and say goodbye? I don't think it would be fair to leave without saying goodbye."
The Fox smiled. "Sarah, on balance the followers of the Fox don't worry very much about being fair. Now, gather up your things and come on. We have to get you a new wardrobe."
"Can I have all the shoes I want?" she whispered.
"Certainly," smiled the Fox.
"Prada?" Sarah asked.
"Is there any other?" smiled the Fox.
"Versace too?" Sarah giggled.
"Closets full," the Fox whispered.
Sarah smiled broadly, quietly gathered her things, and followed the seductive creature into the dark forest.
When America awoke, she sat up, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and bolted to her feet. Mitch was curled in a ball sleeping peacefully by the now dead fire but Sarah was no where to be seen.
"Mitch," America snapped, "get up." "Sarah's gone."
Mitch rolled over, yawned deeply, and sat up. "I don't suppose we could be fortunate enough for a hungry bear to have strolled by last night," he said looking around the clearing.
America ignored him and walked slowly around the perimeter of the campsite; pausing here and there to study the ground.
"Not a thing," she finally said walking back to Mitch, "Not a damn sign of anything."
Mitch stood up, cupped his hands to his mouth, and called out, "Saaaaarah! Saraaaaaah!"
His voice rang through the forest but there was no reply.
"Break camp and pack up everything," America said picking up her gun and heading toward the woods. "I'll be back before noon."
Mitch smiled slyly and began to break camp as America vanished into the forest. Things couldn't be any better. With Barack and Sarah out of the way, he felt confident America would learn to see things his way.