We were in the woods collecting sap from donors. The Forest Service likes to maintain a well-stocked sap bank for emergencies, in case a tree gets injured and needs a transfusion. Most of the trees are happy to donate a pint for the annual Sap Drive, especially when they each get a cookie afterward.
“We should volunteer to help,” you had insisted. “We know those woods.”
“Do we get cookies, too?” I figured it doesn’t hurt to ask.
It was early spring, when daytime temperatures had crept above freezing and snow still covered much of the ground. We dressed warmly. You brought your woolen mittens, knitted for you by a great aunt. I had my old ski gloves, bought at a thrift shop. We hardly wore them though, since we needed the dexterity of bare fingers to do our job.
The procedure was simple: Get the health form signed — you had some on a clipboard — slip the needle up under the bark, let the sap drain into the container, and it’s done. Hand over a cookie and remind the tree to absorb plenty of fluids.
Easier than tapping sugar maples for syrup. They can get rather touchy about the whole thing, as I learned one March in my youth. “You want what?” they’d protest. “For your pancakes?” Then I’d tell them about milking cows, to offer some perspective. But that’s another story, from long before I met you.
By mid morning we had already collected a few gallons, which we pulled behind us on a wooden sled with the rest of the supplies.
“Why did you skip that pine?” I asked.
“It’s afraid of needles.”
I chuckled. “Well that’s a bit ironic.” You didn’t see the humor.
We thought it would be pleasant work — walking through peaceful woods, working for a good cause, and chatting with a lot of nice trees. We hadn’t counted on being accosted by sap bandits. I mean, who ever heard of sap bandits, until now? But everything of value has its thieves, I suppose.
“Wait a second,” you said. “There are people about.” I sensed it too. We paused and listened.
A bearded man in a greasy winter coat and moth-eaten cap stepped out into the open. He was followed by a dozen ragged bandits who circled around us, clutching an assortment of crude weapons — long kitchen knives, rusty farm tools, a broken pickaxe, an antique revolver. The gang looked mean enough, in spite of their shabby appearance.
“We’ll be taking that now,” the leader said gruffly.
You and I looked at each other, confused. “What?” I mouthed silently to you. You shrugged.
“Hand it over!” he bellowed.
You dramatically held out your clipboard to him. “But it was my mother’s,” you said, with a perfect note of pathos in your voice. I almost broke out laughing.
“No. Not that. The sap! We want all you got.”
“Sap?” we both said. I whispered to you, “Who steals sap?” Another shrug.
“Right. Let’s have it.”
“What could you possibly want it for?” you asked him. “It’s not meant for syrup.”
“We’ll be the judge of that,” one of them replied, brandishing his weapon threateningly, a pitiful gesture given its dilapidated condition. Still, I wouldn’t want to be skewered by a rusty pitchfork.
I noticed the anxious rustling of trees around us. We just needed to distract the outlaws for a moment.
“Look,” I said, diplomatically, “we’re here in a lovely forest. The sun is shining, the day is bright, birds are… well, we haven’t seen many birds, but they’d be singing if they—”
“Just shut yer trap!” He didn’t care for my picturesque narrative.
You caught on to my stalling tactic, as the trees grew more restless, and chimed in, “We really don’t have that much yet. But if you wait a while, I’m sure we’ll have—”
“You too! Stay quiet, please.” Why was he polite to you and not to me?
The axe-wielding thief took a step toward the sled. “Let’s just see what we’ve got— Hey! Who did that?” An impatient blue spruce had laid a branch on the fellow’s shoulder and shoved him aside, knocking him into a snowbank, where he stared wide-eyed at his attacker and cried, “Keep away from me!”
The bandits were so focused on acquiring their loot, they forgot to heed the elements around them; namely, an entire forest eager to assist our cause. Nearby trees suspected something was wrong — we had stopped approaching them about donating sap. And they wanted their cookie.
A grove of trees crowded in, sweeping back the bothersome thieves, who tumbled onto the ground or staggered out of the way, unable to resist the force of nature that separated them from their unattainable treasure.
“Sorry!” I called out through the dense cluster of trunks. Why was I apologizing? “You picked the wrong people to mess with!” That made me feel better.
“Not like we did anything,” you said.
No, but we did have a special relationship with the trees not shared by others. That counted for something.
“We’ll be back! We’ll get you!” came the leader’s reply, as they picked themselves up and scampered off. Get us? More likely they’d be pounded into mulch if they returned. This forest doesn’t like troublemakers.
“That was a bit harrowing,” I said.
You brushed aside my lingering concern. “How many more can we do before heading back?”
I checked our supplies. “We have a few dozen cookies left, and three empty gallon containers.”
“Well, as long as no one wants to steal those, we’re good for a while.” You turned to the group of waiting trees and waved your clipboard. “Who’s next?”
I looked around uneasily, worried now about cookie bandits.