Gear, Grills, & Guns
Book 13 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Welcome to Normal, Kentucky~ where nothing is normal.
Mae West is bound to prove she deserves the seat she was appointed to on the National Park Committee when she brings a big car show to Normal during the slower fall month.
But, when Wendell Holliday’s body is found dead in one of Happy Trails Campground bungalows and one of the rentable campers is burning to the ground, Mae along with the help of the Laundry Club Ladies once again put on their sleuthing caps to figure out who is trying to sabotage Mae and her new position on the committee.
Gear, Grills, & Guns
Book 13 in the Camper & Criminals Cozy Mystery Series
Gear, Grills, & Guns
“Whose brilliant idea was it to go hiking?” Mary Elizabeth had not worn sensible shoes to make the nine-mile hike.
She bent over and used her walking stick to pluck the rocks from the soles of her tennis shoes, which were meant for concrete, not walking over muddy paths, fallen leaves, or damp ground.
But her clothes were on point as were her nails, even though the fall rainstorm we’d just had in the region had blown the leaves off the trees, and they stuck to the muddy path, making a mosaic on the ground.
“I told you to wear some hiking boots.” I couldn’t help but smile at the pair of designer khaki pants, white buttoned-down blouse, and the red bandana she had stylishly tied around her neck though not too tight so the pearl necklace would show. The red cardigan knotted around her waist was the perfect shade to match her bandana.
Since I was on the National Park Committee, I’d signed us up to explore the new trail opening. There was no doubt in my mind that as soon as I told her, she’d gotten online and ordered the outfit because there was a little red linen around the tennis shoes that also matched perfectly. There weren’t any stores in Normal, Kentucky that would match Mary Elizabeth Moberly’s hiking style.
“Things your mother does for you.” She stood back up and dug her walking stick into the damp ground. She ran her hand down her blouse then reached up to skim her fingers along her pearls to make sure they were still there.
I’d asked her to consider leaving the pearls at The Milkery, the dairy and bed-and-breakfast she owned with Dawn Gentry. She lived there too.
“A true southern woman is always seen with lipstick and her pearls,” she’d told me and quickly followed up with how I should apply a little color to my lips too.
“And I thank you for coming. It’s just a few more miles,” I said, happy we’d gotten really close since she’d come to see me then decided to live in Normal.
I’d been adopted by Mary Elizabeth as a teenager after a fire engulfed my family home, leaving me an orphan. Even after treating Mary Elizabeth poorly and hightailing it out of her house in the middle of the night on my eighteenth birthday, she was still eager to treat me like a daughter and continued to love me unconditionally. It wasn’t until now, in the early years of my thirties, that I truly appreciated all she’d done for me, and I’d spent the last couple of years making up for it.
“From what I understand, there’s going to be a series of cascades where Cat Camp Creek and Tear Trace Trail meet.” From what I’d heard, the new trail was going to be one of the prettiest, and it started at the Old Train Station Motel.
Coke Ogden, the owner, had been trying for the past year to get a new trail for her guests, one that wasn’t just woods, and she’d been making her own tracks to get to the cascades. The cascades from her motel were about six or so miles away then another two miles to make it to the shelter she’d paid the national park to install, which was the reward for her guests at the end. I was eager to see if it truly was the spectacular view Coke had claimed it to be, and since I wasn’t on that particular board of the committee, I had no idea what to truly expect once we hiked there.
If we made it there.
“Plus, I heard there was some good trout fishing once we make it to the shelter.” I knew that would get her goat. I pointed to the small flowing stream that’d run along the entire trail. “Coke said she knew when she found the stream that it had to lead to a bigger body of water. She kept hiking deeper and deeper. That’s when she found the cascades.”
“Great. Smelly fish and wet the entire hike.” She groaned and straightened her shoulders. “Let’s get on with it so this excursion can be over.”
Instead of coddling her, I decided to forge ahead, even if she truly wanted me to continue to ask her if she wanted to go back, turn around, or sit down.
Every step I took, I couldn’t believe how gorgeous the trail was and what a gem Coke had happened upon. Granted, the park committee had come in and made the trail nice and clean for the hikers, and safe, but none of the amazing foliage was touched.
“It’s like entering a different world.” Mary Elizabeth looked around, taking in the mountain laurels in full bloom with their hot-pink and pale-pink flowers, soon to be long gone as the winter set in.
She reached out and touched it.
“Gorgeous.” I stopped behind her and scanned the various cliffs and rock formations.
Some hung over our heads, making a nice canopy, while others were off in the distance. The trail was partially covered in the golden, red, orange, and yellow leaves that had organically started to fall off the trees. When I looked above my head, the canopy of the same colors was a visual fall explosion as fireworks were on a warm summer night.
These were the sights I took for granted and didn’t appreciate about Kentucky or the state park when I was a child. Now I didn’t take anything for granted.
“Oh my, Mae.” Mary Elizabeth was a few feet in front of me when she stopped, her mouth wide open as she stared off into the distance. “You aren’t going to believe this view.” She lifted her walking stick and pointed it in front of her.
Before I could even get close enough to catch her, her feet slipped right out from underneath her, and down she went.
“Are you okay?” I rushed over in my hiking boots with the good-grip soles and stared down at her.
It looked like she’d slipped on a pile of wet leaves and landed right in the middle of a mud puddle left behind from the fall rains we’d been getting.
“Well, hell.” Mary Elizabeth let out a rare curse word, making me laugh. “What’s so funny?” She put her hands out for me to grab in order to help her up.
“You.” I couldn’t stop laughing. “You were so cute walking out of the bed-and-breakfast this morning, and I asked you to change your shoes.”
“Are you trying to say I deserve this?” There was some anger spewing from her eyes.
“No. I’m hoping you’re okay, because there isn’t any cell phone service out here.” I hadn’t told her that little fact because she liked to have her cell on her in case Dawn needed her for something about The Milkery.
I wanted her to enjoy the few hours it took to walk the trail and back. She’d been working so hard the last few months at the dairy farm, which included the cows, that I’d not been able to spend any more than a few minutes with her.
Right then, I was rethinking how we should spend our time together.
I reached my arms out, crossing them at the forearm so I could get better stability to pull her to her feet.
“Dear me.” She looked down at herself once she was on solid footing. “I’m a mess.”
We dropped hands, and she tried to brush off the dirt, which made it spread since it was mud.
“You’re not going to get that off by just a damp washcloth,” I teased, knowing that was how she’d handled me getting dirty when I was a child after I’d come in from playing outside.
“Are you mocking me now?” Her brows lowered. The lines around her mouth creased.
“No. I’m not. I’m just thinking we should turn back around and go on home.” I shrugged. “I’m hungry anyways.” I turned around to go back. “Besides, I forgot my camera, and the board asked me to take photos on the hike.”
I looked over my shoulder to see if she was coming.
“Oh no.” She’d taken a step and stopped. She immediately planted her hand on her lower back.
“What?” I walked the few feet back.
“I can’t move.” She groaned and rubbed her back with her hand. She was slightly bent at the waist. “This feels better. We can go.”
“You can’t walk all humped over with your face to the ground.” I put my hands on my knees. “We’ve got a few miles to walk back.”
“I can do it.” She took one step. “No, I can’t.”
“What if you sit down against the tree, and I go get some help?” I asked.
“We can just wait for a hiker to come by, and maybe they can go get help while you stay with me.” I could hear the fear of me leaving her side in her voice.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any hikers because the trail isn’t open yet, remember?” I jogged her memory about the reason why we were here.
“I guess I can put an arm around your shoulder, and you can let me gimp alongside you.” She wasn’t about to let me go get help.
I tried to reason with her. “I can go much quicker alone.”
“May-bell-ine Grant.” She said my entire name. “I will not stay here, deep in the Daniel Boone National Forest, alone. Don’t you know there are bears in here? Wildcats and savage raccoons?”
“Fine.” I adjusted my backpack to one shoulder so it wouldn’t be bulky for her arm to go around my neck. I reached around for the water bottle and quickly unzipped the front pocket to get her some ibuprofen.
I went to her side and butted my hip up against her hip. “Here. Take these.” I handed the pills to her free hand, giving her the water bottle to wash them down after she popped them in.
With a lot of grunting and groaning, she began to straighten, barely getting her arm around my neck.
“Okay. Small steps.”
She nodded and looked forward.
The trail was obviously not made for two people hiking side by side, but somehow, we did it, even when the rock formations got so narrow, we moved sideways together.
About every half mile, we’d stop and rest against a tree, because sitting was too hard, to take a little drink and eat a nibble of something we’d brought.
“How’s the pain?” I asked, knowing we still had a fair piece to go.
“Fair to middlin’.” She used an old southern saying to let me know she wasn’t so good but didn’t want to fully complain.
A few branches in the woods snapped, making her jittery as all get-out.
“Is that a bear?” she asked. “I didn’t bring my gun. I knew I should’ve brought my gun, but Dawn took it from me as I was walking out the door.”
“I’ve got bear spray.” I patted the dangling backpack, silently thanking Dawn Gentry for stopping Mary Elizabeth from bringing the gun.
Who knew what would’ve happened by now if she had brought it?
“I’m telling you, something big is out there. And hungry.” Her eyes widened.
Her adrenaline from the fear must’ve kicked in better than the ibuprofen. She pushed off that tree trunk and moved along the trail at a snail’s pace, without putting her arm around my neck.
A woman with long red hair, olive skin, and gray eyes jerked back after she practically ran into us as she emerged from the woods. “Whoa!”
“We don’t have nothing.” Mary Elizabeth put her arms up. “Do we, Mae? But we do have a backpack with food. You can have that.” Mary Elizabeth held out her hand. “Give it to her, Mae.” She winced in pain.
“I’m sorry for my mother’s behavior. She fell and hurt her back. She’s a wee bit on the irritable side.” Not that explaining to the hippy was going to make up for Mary Elizabeth’s poor judge of character, but at least it made me feel better trying.
“Mae West?” The woman was vaguely familiar.
“Yes.” I vaguely recognized her, but there were so many people who came in and out of Happy Trails Campground, the campground I owned, that I couldn’t remember them all.
“It’s me. Glenda Russel. Jay Russel’s daughter.” She jogged my memory.
“You’re pulling my leg.” Mary Elizabeth’s southern twang was even more so when she just couldn’t believe it was Glenda.
Truth of the matter, I would’ve never pegged the woman to be her either.
“I know it’s been a year or two, but I embraced the life.” She put her hands out. “But it’s really me.”
“Good Lord.” Mary Elizabeth put her hand to her head. “If this happens to you living out like this”—she pointed to Glenda—“you’ll be orphaned again.”
It took me a few minutes of conversation to realize Glenda Russel really hadn’t changed much in personality, just lifestyle. Man, had she changed.
“After my dad died. . .” She didn’t need to go into too much detail about her father’s murder, because Mary Elizabeth and I already knew about it. “I knew I wanted to really explore the great outdoors.” She scoffed. “I guess I’m more like my mom than I realized.”
“Let’s hope not,” Mary Elizabeth muttered under her breath and shifted her weight a little bit. “You look good, honey.”
“Thank you.” Her eyes drew up Mary Elizabeth. “You don’t. What’s going on?”
“I fell on my keister and hurt my back.” She rubbed her lower back. “Mae and I cut our hike short, and she’s helping me back to the Old Train Station.”
“That’s like miles away.” Glenda turned away and stared down the path. “And curvy. Not to mention somewhat rocky.”
“It’s our only choice.” I forced a grin on my face to try to give Glenda the signal to hush.
“You have a choice, but I’m not sure you’d want to do it.” Glenda looked over at Mary Elizabeth like she had something up her sleeve but was unsure whether to say.
“Anything.” Mary Elizabeth groaned, her face turning a little more colorful with anticipation of what Glenda’s idea might be.
“I have a friend who might be able to help.” Glenda shrugged.
“Unless your friend is on this trail, I might as well wait and go see a doctor when I get back.” I could see the hope Glenda had given her falter.
“Just beyond the woods this way.” She pointed to where she’d come from.
“You mean you’re truly living your mom’s lifestyle?” I questioned, knowing her mother had lived the hippy lifestyle of camping and all sorts of crazy homeopathic things.
“Yeah.” Glenda snorted. “Who knew?” She shrugged and walked over to put Mary Elizabeth’s free arm around her shoulder. “Now, you can put all your weight on me and Mae.”
Mary Elizabeth started to hobble at first, and we practically carried her through the woods as Glenda and I got caught up.
“I’m now on the national park board, so when Coke put in a permit to have a new trail leaving the motel, I told them I’d walk the trail before it opens,” I explained to Glenda.
“She dragged me along with her,” Mary Elizabeth said.
“It’s the shoes. I told her to wear hiking boots, but she insisted on matching.” I didn’t want to argue with Mary Elizabeth, but it came naturally. Just like a mother-and-daughter relationship. “Look at her. A walking ad for a catalog.”
“You ain’t too big for your britches. Stop that sassing me.” Mary Elizabeth didn’t like it when I talked back, even at my age, and in front of company.
Glenda and I looked at each other over Mary Elizabeth’s head and smiled.
“I can’t believe the park board passed the trail.” Glenda was right. It was hard to get all the regulations checked off and have anything not natural happen in the forest. I did agree with all the rules imposed because it kept the Daniel Boone National Forest in its natural state.
“She had to go through some hoops by walking the trail, marking it off, and getting a good natural path to the cascades. She had a great selling point that it would give a good reason for tourists to pick the motel when the campground was busy so they’d have something to do.” I’d talked to Coke on several occasions about the idea, and she was right about the tourists using the motel for mainly weddings and various other family gatherings.
Coke had refinished the old barn on the property and made it into a hospitality venue. It was great, too, because brides and families were into the farm-style get-together, and you couldn’t get any more farm than the Old Train Station, which was a nonworking train station built on a farm years ago that Coke had transformed into a motel.
“She did open the stables up for riding lessons and really wants to get some sort of trails for the horses.” I shouldn’t have mentioned that and quickly clamped my mouth.
Sometimes I talked too much, and right now, it was one of those times.
“Horse trails?” she questioned. “I’d not heard that.”
Glenda was one of Coke’s silent partners in the Old Train Station, and I didn’t mean silent. I meant like mute. Glenda had left her father’s horse, Rosa, to Coke since her father had used the stables to train children to ride competitively. Glenda had come to town after he was murdered, and that was how I got to know her.
That was also how I found out she was Coke’s very mute partner, and Rosa was really her horse.
“But then again, I’ve not checked up on Coke in a long time. The reason I did pick this place to live is because it is so close to Rosa.” She stopped, making me stop, with Mary Elizabeth dangling between us.
I looked where she looked, noticing a clearing ahead of us.
There were several pop-up tents. One was bright blue, another sunshine yellow, a red stop sign–colored one, a dull purple that’d been sun bleached, and another with an orangish color that also looked to have been left out in the sun a long time.
“I go see Rosa every day.” She shifted her eyes back to me. “Which was where I was going when I ran into you.”
“This is where you’re living?” Mary Elizabeth straightened her back a smidgen and took in the makeshift campsite with fear in her eyes. “I. . .”
“Do you trust me?” Glenda asked. “Well, don’t answer that right now. Do you want to walk right on out of here by yourself?”
“Of course I do.” Mary Elizabeth smirked. “What kind of question is that?”
“Texas!” Glenda hollered to the group of hippies around the fire, strumming their guitars. “I need your assistance.”
A shirtless man, very tan from the sun and probably could’ve been advised to use sunscreen, gave a nod with his chin and got up. He set his guitar on the ground and took his sweet time walking across the clearing.
I wondered if it was the snug, cut-off shorts that were cutting off the circulation to the veins in his legs, or the muscles that looked pretty heavy to carry around, that were making him slow.
“Tex, this is a friend of mine, Mae, and her mom, Mary Elizabeth.” Glenda performed the introduction. “Mary Elizabeth slipped and fell on a trail. Her back seems to be out of whack. Do you think you can adjust it for her?”
“Oh no.” Mary Elizabeth wagged her finger. “I’m not letting anyone who is on that wacky tobaccy in who-knows-what state of mind think they can adjust anything of mine.”
“Whoa, little mama.” Tex put his hands out in front of him. “I’m a licensed chiropractor and know much about the trails, and camping can do a number on my friends. It’s my purpose to be here among nature to help my friends enjoy the oxygen.” Tex extended his arms to the sides and took a big, deep breath, letting it out slowly. I wanted to believe he was putting on a show, but Tex definitely was the real hippy deal.
“No sweat off me, little mama.” He turned around and meandered back toward the group.
“Let’s go.” Mary Elizabeth grabbed my hand and tried to take a step.
Glenda looked at me and shrugged. I rolled my eyes.
“Help me,” Mary Elizabeth demanded and tried to get her arm back up over my shoulder. “Fine. Fine.” She groaned, the pain radiating on her face. “I’ll let the hippy try it. I’m desperate to get out of here.”
“Texas!” Glenda put her fingers in the air to gesture him back over.
Tex lifted two fingers and stuck them in between his lips, whistling to the group. A couple of people got up and met him halfway. They discussed something I couldn’t hear but glanced our way, obviously saying something about us or, at the least, Mary Elizabeth.
They came over, and in one big swoop, the other two picked up Mary Elizabeth.
“I’m not gonna be taking none of your devil pills or smoking anything funny,” she warned them as they carted her off. “Do you hear me?”
Tex followed right along next to them.
“And do you think you can put a shirt on? It’s not fittin’ for a real doctor to be shirtless,” Mary Elizabeth demanded as they took her over to a table in the open field that looked like a chiropractic table. It had the hole in the middle and the adjustment pieces up near the shoulder area.
“That is, if you’re a real doctor!” Mary Elizabeth gave one last shout before the two people flipped her on the table.
Stunned at the situation and unable to fully understand what was going on, I stood there.
“Don’t worry.” Glenda nudged me. “Texas will fix her right on up. I guarantee if she ever has problems again, she’ll be begging you to bring her back here.”
“So you stay here all the time? This one spot?” I asked.
“Me and Tex.” She nodded. “Originally, I was going to roam after I got enough time with Rosa, but the old girl is part of my soul. I slip in there when no one is around and give her some timothy hay, carrots, loving. You know, pet-owner stuff.”
“Why do it so secretly?” I asked. “I’m sure Coke wouldn’t care.”
“It’s not that it’s secret. I just don’t want to explain my lifestyle to anyone. Besides, it’s kinda like my little secret with Rosa. Sometimes I do bring her out in the middle of the night, and we do go in the woods.” She smiled. “So when you mentioned Coke wanted to do some horse trails, I’ve already got them done for her.”
“I think you need to see Coke and get some sort of job doing what you love with who you love.” I followed her a little closer to the table where Mary Elizabeth was being worked on.
Tex continued to run his hands, bare chested and all, up along her lower back, every once in a while pushing a little more as he adjusted whatever part was necessary. Mary Elizabeth gave a few groans then a sigh of relief.
“Little mama, you’re good to go.” Tex took a step back and looked over his handiwork as Mary Elizabeth sat up.
In silence, we watched her ease off the table, move her head to the right and then the left, before she took her first step.
“Oh,” she said in a delighted tone. “Ah.” She took another step, and a smile grew across her face. “I feel better than this morning getting out of bed.” She hurried over to Tex and gave him a giant hug.
She must’ve felt really good because she’d never give a man a hug who was shirtless, much less one she didn’t know.
“What do I owe you?” she asked him.
“Another hug and we’ll call it good.” He winked, and they embraced again. “You come back and see me anytime, little mama.”
“You got it.” She did the gun gesture with her fingers.
“I told you.” Glenda winked and nudged me again, this time a little harder. Both of us laughed.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Mary Elizabeth high-stepped it past me. She was a lot spunkier than before. “We’ve got a car show to help Coke set up.”
“Car show?” Texas asked.
“Coke is hosting the car show at the Old Train Station. We told her we’d help her set up when we got back from the trail. I also have to give the trail the thumbs-up and write the report to turn in to the committee so the parks department gives her the go-ahead to open it and so the car-show folks can also take the opportunity to hike while here.” I left out how this was all a great marketing tool for Coke to bring in a lot of money for her so she could stockpile it for the winter, since winter was a slower time in Normal, though not for Happy Trails Campground, the place I owned and lived. I’d been able to establish activities for the tourists over the past couple of years. The campers I’d fixed up in the rentals and bungalows were booked for at least a year in advance.
“That means we’re going to get a lot of traffic up through here.” Glenda’s brows furrowed. She looked at Texas as if he had something to say.
They stood there, seemingly pondering what I’d just told them.
“All righty. I don’t mean to be rude, but we’ve got to go.” Mary Elizabeth had taken a couple of steps back to me and pulled on my shirt.
“Let me know if you need more help,” Texas called out as we disappeared back into the woods.