CHAPTER Nine: THE NEW RECRUIT

   On Sunday, it was decided that Greg would be the one who met their new employee – Venita Jo Brown was her name – at the bus station. It was also decided that Vic and Mandy would ride to town with him, saving them the long school bus ride. Alice called Carol, the bus driver, to tell her that she wouldn’t need to come all the way to the refuge on Monday.

   As the girls were walking toward the truck, Vic whispered to Greg that she had “dibs” on the seat next to him. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Vic. I think I would find you too distracting.”

   That interested her. “Why would I distract you?”

   He seemed to be thinking. “Well, you talk so much and so loud that I would have to strain to hear what Mandy was saying, and I wouldn’t be paying attention to my driving.”

   She seemed to pout, as if he’d hurt her feelings. Still, when all three were settled in the truck, she was in the middle next to him.

   Mandy was excited about the upcoming prom, and talked about little else all the way to school. Vic was rather quiet, and Greg began to wonder if he really had hurt her feelings. But when they reached the school, and Mandy turned away to exit the truck, Vic leaned over and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.

   “Good luck this week. I’ll be thinking of you every minute.”

 

   Greg arrived at the depot just minutes before the bus arrived. It wasn’t hard to spot his passenger, as she was the only non-white person to appear. As he had expected, she looked about his age. She was fairly tall (but not quite as tall as the Anderson girls), pretty, and dressed casually in jeans and a sweater.

   “Hi, Venita. I’m Greg, from the wildlife refuge.” They shook hands. “Thanks for meeting me,” she said. “And you can call me Jo; most everybody does.”

   She had just one suitcase, and Greg grabbed that for her. “I didn’t have breakfast this morning. Shall we stop at the diner, and fill up?” Greg had been aware that most of the people in the station had been staring – or trying not to stare – at her. When they started for the door – with a White man carrying a Colored girl’s suitcase! – the stares got more pronounced. Jo seemed to ignore them; Greg tried to do the same.

   As they entered the diner, Greg asked if she drank coffee. “Mormons don’t drink coffee, but they have to make it for their non-Mormon customers. They don’t really know how to brew it, so it usually isn’t very good. But it’s drinkable, if you want some.” She didn’t.

   The sneaky stares continued all through breakfast. As they left the diner, Greg wanted to say something, but didn’t know what, so he didn’t.

   “My God,” Jo said, after a mile or two of driving. “It is so flat, and so open. I don’t think I’ve seen a real tree since maybe somewhere in Colorado, and there hadn’t been many in the states before that. Maybe Missouri was the last place I saw any forest.”

   Greg laughed. “Yep, when they talk about ‘the wide open spaces,’ this is them. We do have our own little forest at the refuge, though. You’ll appreciate it, I bet.” Making conversation: “Have you ever been West, before?”

   “I’ve hardly been out of Arkansas – born, raised, schooled, all within not too many miles of one another.”

   “That’s somewhat like me. This is the farthest I’ve ever been from California, where I was born, raised, and went to school. California is a big state, so the distances were probably longer than yours, but same idea.”

   As they drove “the miles and miles of miles and miles” out to the refuge, he remembered his first trip. He had an idea what she must be thinking. The sudden view of the refuge compound and the forest must have been a real relief to her, as it had been to him.

   Chuck and Alice came out of the office as they arrived. After the usual introductory greetings and small talk, Chuck suggested she might like to take some time to rest up. “I’ll let Greg show you to your quarters. Two days on a bus must be about as wearing as anything can get. If you want to take a nap or anything, feel free. Paperwork can wait for tomorrow. Oh, we want you and Greg to have supper with us this evening.”

   Jo thanked him, and let Greg lead her across the compound to his house. “Home, sweet home,” he announced. “I think everything is ready for you. Most of the food is over in the bunkhouse, though. You want a sandwich or something?”

    “I think I’ll just clean up a bit, and then maybe take a nap.”

   “Sure. I think there are enough snacks around if you get hungry. Come on over to the office whenever you’re ready, but, as Chuck said, paperwork can wait.”

   Greg made his way back over to the office. Alice was still there, waiting for first impressions. “Not much to say. She seems nice. We chatted about this and that, but not about the job.” He paused. “The way people stare would drive me crazy, but she seems to take it in stride.”

   “Probably used to it,” said Chuck, “Which is a pretty sad commentary on life!”

 

   Jo didn’t show up at the office before quitting time, so Alice walked over to the house to see how she was doing. She was just getting on her feet, after sleeping all day.

   “I’ll bet you really needed that, honey, after your last two days.”

   “Yeah, I did. I can’t believe I slept so long, though.”

   “Well, I’m going to go back home, and start preparing for dinner. You could come over and visit and help, if you like. If not, just come whenever Greg gets ready.”

   “I think I’ll be along in a minute,” Jo replied.

 

   Alice and Jo bonded readily over dinner preparations and, by the time Chuck and Greg got to the dinner table, were interacting like old friends. The dinner was good, the conversation comfortable. It seemed too early to explore racial issues, or how Jo’s move had transpired, so little personal information was shared. Afterward, Greg and Jo walked together back to their houses.

   “Come over to the bunkhouse when you’re ready in the morning, and we’ll make breakfast. He had an impish thought that they might share a jug of red wine before retiring, but he wisely let it pass without it reaching his mouth.

 

   In the morning, they handled a little necessary paperwork, then Greg and Jo walked down into the woods. There were a lot of warblers, but Greg didn’t see any other migrants. He did quickly find four mourning dove nests, each with two eggs. Jo agreed that the woods were the closest thing she’d seen to home since she left, but noted that there wasn’t much of them. Greg agreed.

   After that, they spent the day touring the marsh areas. The duck situation seemed the same as on his last trip. At noon, they stopped and had lunch with the Johnson brothers at the fencing project. The Johnsons reacted as Greg suspected they would with any pretty woman, with gentle, impersonal banter. Jo returned it easily. They hoped that her college education had made her a more useful citizen than it had their assistant refuge manager. Greg didn’t comment.

   They arrived back at headquarters near quitting time. Greg dropped her off at the house, before driving over to the office. “Come over to the bunk house after a bit, and I’ll see what I can whip us up for dinner.”

   Jo adopted what Greg assumed was a Deep South female voice. “You know, us Southern gals is well known for our cookin’ skills. Why don’t I fix you all somethin’ special, tonight?”

   Greg became Rhett Butler. “That would be a pleasant treat, miss, I’m sure.”

   Chuck was still in the office. “How did it go?” he asked.

   Greg sat at his desk. “It went fine. We toured the area, and had lunch with the Johnsons. They treated her like any other girl; she seemed to enjoy it. She’s nice to talk with, and was attentive to everything I showed her, or talked about. Having said that, I was struck by her lack of obvious interest in anything. She liked the woods, but didn’t seem enthralled with the ‘dicky birds’, like I am. She thought the ducks were okay. We saw two marmots and a porcupine; she had never seen either, before, but barely looked twice. I mentioned maybe starting a herbarium; she didn’t bite. I even talked about banding ducks later in the summer, without obvious reaction from her. Certainly, nothing here is clicking with her, yet.”

   “That is a little odd for a wildlife biologist,” Chuck agreed.

 

   Just after midnight, a violent storm struck. The wind howled, the thunder was almost continuous, and there were almost no intervals between lightning flashes. Greg had been reading, and was just getting ready to quit and go to bed. If anything, the storm seemed to be intensifying. He went to the door to look out. The rain was already making deep puddles near the house, and hail was now falling heavily. He turned to go back inside, when he thought he heard his name being called. He heard it again – and then once more – coming from Jo’s. He rushed over there, and knocked on the door. Jo answered immediately, and almost threw herself into his arms. She was visibly shaking.

   He backed her inside the house, closed the door, then eased her into his comfortable chair. He took a blanket from the bed, and wrapped her in it. He pulled a kitchen chair over near her, sat, and held her hand. She still looked a little wild-eyed, but her breathing was calming down.

   “I think the storm is about over,” he said. “Can I get you some cocoa – or maybe some herbal tea. I have some here that I bought for Vic – Victoria, one of the Anderson girls – but she hasn’t had any, yet. There’s lemon-ginger, and a little zingier one.”

   “Tea sounds good,” she said, a little shakily. “Lemon-ginger.”

   Greg started the water heating, and found a clean mug. He didn’t really want tea, but he made himself a cup, too,  just to be sociable.

   “Thank you,” she said, after a few sips. “I didn’t mean to call you out in the storm, but I got really panicky all the sudden, and didn’t know what to do.”

   “That’s okay. I’m glad I heard you.”

   “It wasn’t really the storm, you know. Storms like this are almost daily occurrences in Arkansas in the spring. Tornadoes come with them a lot of the time. I’ve lived with them all my life, and hardly ever thought twice about them. I certainly never had a panic attack.

   “I think this had something to do with me being here, in strange circumstances and in a strange situation. We live in the trees in Arkansas, and the storms – no matter how big they really are – are pretty much confined for us to our immediate location. Here, everything is so wide open – there’s nothing to stop them coming, and... I don’t know. I just felt really alone and vulnerable.”

   “Understood. You seem to be okay, now.”

   They sipped in silence. “So, Vic – Victoria. You bought tea for her, and it’s here. This is your house, isn’t it?”

   “Yes, I moved over to the bunkhouse, so you could have a place to yourself. The Johnsons stay there quite a bit – they aren’t right now; they’re spending more time at home, helping their folks with chores – but we thought it would be good to have a boys’ dorm and a girls’ dorm. I didn’t have much to move, so it was an easy decision.”

   “Thanks. I do appreciate it, my frantic call in the night notwithstanding.” They both smiled at that. ‘Now, about Victoria. Alice said that the two girls stay in town during the school week, so they don’t have to do the long bus ride every day. So, she drinks tea with you...?”

   “Well, she doesn’t at all, yet. We’ve developed a little Saturday morning ritual of sitting on my front steps and talking for an hour or so, the only times we ever see each other. I drink coffee, which she doesn’t like. So, I bought her some tea, but there hasn’t been a Saturday yet for her to drink any of it.”

   “So, you like Victoria?”

   “Sure. She’s pretty smart, and we have some fun conversations.”

   “So, you like Victoria?”

    He looked at her. She was smiling.

    “I’ve only been here a month...”

    “So, you like Victoria?”

     “Yes. Now, having exhausted that topic...” They both laughed. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep. The storm does appear to be about over, but I’ll sit here for a little while, until you get relaxed.”

    “You don’t have to. I’m okay, now.”

    “Well, I’ve dozed in this chair many a time. Let me do it, now.”

    Without demur, she went to the bed,  and pulled the covers around her. In only a few minutes, she was breathing easily in sleep. Greg stayed about an hour, then went back to the bunkhouse. On the way out, he wrote her a brief note. “Come over whenever you’re ready, and we’ll make breakfast.”

 

   At breakfast, she scrambled some eggs with cheddar cheese and onions, while he cooked some link sausage. She seemed okay, but maybe a little preoccupied. Greg asked her.

   “I’m fine, after last night. Thanks so much for being with me. I do have something serious we need to talk about.”

   “Okay.”

   “I need to go home, back to Little Rock, and I’d like to go right away.”

   That was a surprise. “Why, has something come up?”

  “No. I just realized that I’m not supposed to be here. I come from a place of trees, and brooks, and little hills – and nearby shopping malls. I’m a city girl, and always will be. These ‘wide open spaces’ are much too wide for me.

   “But there’s more to it, than that. I think there’s been a serious mistake sending me here. I like birds and flowers and such, but not to study. When I told the placement people that I wanted a job in biology, I was talking about medicine, or academia, or laboratory work. That’s where I’ve always wanted to be. Suddenly, I was on a bus, headed to the great outdoors!”

   “Wow! Wow. Well, that explains some things I’d wondered about. You really want to leave right away? Two more days on a bus?”

   “Yes. As awful as that sounds, yes.”

   “Well, let me go talk to Chuck before you come over..”

   “He’s going to be really mad at me.”

    “He’s probably going to mad, all right, but not at you. He knew something was wrong with this from the start, but he wasn’t given the chance to discuss it. Don’t worry; you’re okay with us.”

   Chuck was stunned, but he wasn’t sure whether he was upset or relieved. “Well, let’s get her on a bus as soon as we can. You make the arrangements, and charge the ticket to the refuge. We may have a fight about it later, but so what?” He paused. “You know, this is not going to get us gold stars on our report cards.”

   “No, but there might be a little applause in Heaven.”

 

   The next bus was at midnight that very night. If it was on schedule, it should get to Little Rock at about the same time in two days. She said that was okay; someone would be there to meet her. She packed her few belongings; spent some time with Alice; and then the four of them had lunch together. With nothing that needed doing, Alice suggested she sleep for a few hours. She did; she cooked dinner for Greg; and then they were on the road to town.

   “I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet the girls. From what their mother said, they are both pretty great.  And from what you didn’t say, I think Vic must be very, very special.”

   “She is. She really is.”

   Later, in the bus depot, he gave her a piece of paper with his address.   “I want you to be sure to write and tell me how things are going. I really want to know.” With the paper was a $20 bill. “And you must be just about out of emergency money. Please take this for ‘just in case.’”

  She didn’t want to take it, but she knew it was a good idea – “just in case.”

  The bus was loading. “And I want a hug.”

  She wanted one, too, but she looked around at all the White people watching them. “I don’t care, Jo. I want to hug my friend!”

   And then, Jo and the bus were gone.

***

   It was after 2 a. m. when Greg got to bed in the bunkhouse.  He slept poorly, and was awake with the sun at about 6:30. He decided to see what was happening in the woods. With binoculars and notebook, he took the roundabout way past the compound, and down to the edge of the woods. As he approached, it seemed to him that the leaves on the trees were moving - pretty unlikely since they were just starting to appear and unfurl. Still, something was causing the illusion. He stopped, and scanned with his binoculars. It wasn’t leaves moving; it was birds! What he had hoped for was happening.

   Every tree was hosting dozens – sometimes hundreds – of songbirds: vireos, warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks… just about every small bird type he could think of. He checked out tree after tree; it was impossible to count the individuals, because they were in constant motion, but in no time at all, he had identified at least 30 species. It was hard to stop looking, and he thought of the stories he had heard about “gold fever” – find one nugget, and suddenly you can’t stop searching for the next. It was kind of like a fever.

   Most of the species seemed to be ones that should – or, at least, could – be there, but several others weren’t. He saw at least three redstarts and two black-and-white warblers, both Eastern warblers that he didn’t think usually migrated through Idaho. More surprising was that there had been at least a dozen red-eyed vireos, probably more. He knew from past reading that they were one of the most abundant songbirds in America but, again, they belonged in the Eastern forests, not here on the Idaho plains. He’d never seen one before, but he’d seen plenty of pictures and also some preserved study skins, in the college museum. There wasn’t any question about what he had observed.

   . What he guessed were probably common visitors - lazuli buntings, robins, and western tanagers - were present in large numbers. Some species he thought were less likely there - evening grosbeaks (apparently not leftover winter visitors), warbling vireos, Swainson's thrushes, and red-breasted nuthatches - were everywhere. Black-headed grosbeaks were almost as common as the evening grosbeaks.

   He wanted to keep looking, but thought he better give Chuck the final details of Venita’s stay with them. He walked back to the bunkhouse, ate breakfast, and cleaned up a bit. He decided it was time to move “home,” so he gathered up his few belongings and moved them back to his house. Then, he went to the office. Chuck arrived at the same time.

   “I heard you come in around 2 o’clock, so I was surprised to see you out early. Couldn’t sleep?”

   “Not very well, so I decided I’d check for migrant dicky birds in the woods. I’m glad I did. We have a really major migration going on right now. It might have been triggered by our storm the other night.”

   “How does that work?”

   “Well, this is the normal spring migration time, so a lot of birds would be headed north. Usually, they’re spread out over a wide area, and you don’t get big influxes in one place. However, if there’s a big enough weather change, it can force birds into unusual areas, and maybe make them wait out the weather in some favorable place – like our forest.”

   “You may have something, there. We didn’t get much of a storm, just what seemed like one of our usual springtime disturbances. But I heard on the news that what we got was just the edge of a major weather front that covered parts of several states. Some places had heavy rains,  flash floods, strong winds, hail, and lots of lighting and thunder.”

   “That would be the kind of event that might have caused our situation. It’s pretty exciting down there.”

   Greg gave him the details of the trip to the bus. There really wasn’t much to tell. She was here, and now she was gone. End of that particular part of the story, but probably just the start of a lot of heated talks with the Regional and Washington offices, with lots of recriminations, blame, and second guessing. Greg didn’t want to handle it. Chuck told him to go watch the ducks. He did.

 


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