N Is for Noose
calendar of events. I'd missed the big annual trout derby, which had taken place the week before. I was also too late to attend February's big fishing show. Well, dang. I noticed the festivities in April included another fishing show, the trout opener press reception, the official trout opener, and a fish club display, with a Mule Days Celebration and a 30K run coming up in May. It did look like it might be possible to hike, backpack, or mulepack my way into the Eastern Sierras, where I imagined a roving assortment of hungry wildlife lunging and snapping at us as we picked our way down perilously narrow traits with rocks rattling off the mountainside into the yawning abyss.
I looked up to find Cecilia Boden staring at me with a flinty expression. "Yes, ma'am," she said. She kept her hands braced on the Dutch door as if defying me to enter.
I told her who I was and she waved aside my offer of a credit card. Mouth pursed, she said, " Selma said to send her the bill direct. I got two cottages available. You can take your pick." She took a bunch of keys from a hook and opened the lower half of the Dutch door, leaving me to follow as she headed through the front door and down a path packed with cedar chips. The air outside was damp and smelled of loam and pine resin. I could hear the wind moving in the trees and the chattering of squirrels. I left my car where I'd parked it and we proceeded on foot. The narrow lane leading to the cabins was barred by a chain strung between two posts. "I won't have cars back in this part of the camp. The ground gets too tore up when the weather's bad," she said, as if in answer to my question.
"Really," I murmured, for lack of anything better.
"We're close to full up," she remarked. "Unusual for March."
This was small talk in her book and I made appropriate mouth noises in response. Ahead of us, the cabins were spaced about seventy-five feet apart, separated by bare maples and dogwoods, and sufficient Douglas firs to resemble a cut-your-own Christmas tree farm. "Why do they call it Nota Lake? Is that Indian?"
Cecilia shook her head. "Nope. Ancient times, nota was a mark burned into a criminal's skin to brand him a lawbreaker. That way you always knew who the evildoers were. Bunch of desperadoes ended up over in this area; scoundrels deported to this country from England back in the mid-seventeen hundreds. Some reason all of them were branded; killers and thieves, pickpockets, fornicators-the worst of the worst. Once their indenture'd been served, they became free men and disappeared into the west, landing hereabouts. Their descendants went to work for the railroad, doing manual labor along with assorted coolies and coloreds.
Half the people in this town are related to those convicts. Must have been a randy bunch, though where they found women no one seems to know. Ordered 'ern by mail, if my guess is correct."
We'd reached the first of the cabins and she continued in much the same tone, her delivery flat and without much inflection. "This is Willow. I give 'em names instead of numbers. It's nicer in my opinion." She inserted her key. "Each one is different. Up to you."
Willow was spacious, a pine-paneled room maybe twenty feet by twenty with a fireplace made up of big knobby boulders. The inner hearth was black with soot, with wood neatly stacked in the grate. The room was pungent with the scent of countless hardwood fires. Against one wall was a brass bedstead with a mattress shaped like a hillock. The quilt was a crazy patch and looked as if it smelled of mildew. There was a bed table lamp and a digital alarm clock. The rug was an oval of braided rags, bleached of all color, thoroughly flattened by age.
Cecilia opened a door on the left. "This here's the bath and your hanging closet. We got all the amenities. Unless you fish," she added, in a small aside to herself. "Iron, ironing board, coffeemaker, soap."
"Very nice," I said.
"The other cabin's Hemlock. Located over near the pine grove by the creek. Got a kitchenette, but no fireplace. I can take you back there if you like." For the most part, she spoke without making eye contact, addressing remarks to a spot about six feet to my left.
"This is fine. I'll take this one."
"Suit yourself," she said, handing me a key. "Cars stay in the lot. There's more wood around the side. Watch for black widder spiders if you fetch more logs. Pay phone outside the office. Saves me the hassle of settling up for calls. We got a cafe down
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