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Out of the Cage book cover

Out of the Cage
Wes Boyd
©2010, ©2016

Chapter 24

Over half a century before that fiery August night, a community-spirited Spearfish Lake club woman by the name of Donna Clark came to the realization that there were going to be times when a family was burned out of their home in the middle of the night. Sometimes they might only have the clothes on their back, and maybe not even that. Although Donna had her detractors – and they were many – she was the kind of person who didn’t talk when she could take action. Within days, she’d pulled together a collection of clothing, put it in a suitcase and given it to the fire department, along with a fund to refill it when needed.

Ever since then, the same suitcase had ridden around on one or another of the Spearfish Lake fire trucks in case of need. It wasn’t needed often, but was there when it was needed. The firemen still called it “Donna Clark’s Suitcase,” even though she’d been dead thirty years and more, and it was Donna’s suitcase that they opened that evening so that Frenchy, Monica, and the kids didn’t have to stand around in their underwear and pajamas while they watched the house burn.

With all the fire trucks and hoses from three different departments that were soon playing on the fire the house didn’t burn to the ground, but it was the next thing to it. Before long the firemen had the flames knocked down, and they could see that all that was left was some of the walls. If there was anything that could be salvaged from the place, Frenchy had no idea what it could be.

They were still standing around watching the firemen hopelessly play hoses on the fire when a strange middle-aged woman came up to them. “Are you the family who got burned out?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Frenchy said, still holding onto Monica, who had her face buried on his chest, not able to stand and look at the scene.

“I’m Susan Schneider,” the solidly-built graying woman said. “I’m from the Spearfish Lake chapter of the Red Cross. Do you have a place to stay?”

“No, nothing,” Frenchy told her.

“We have an arrangement with the Spearfish Lake Inn,” she told him. “I can take you over there and cover your staying there for a few days, until you can figure out what you’re going to do. There’s probably other ways we’ll be able to help you out too.”

“Thank you,” Frenchy said in relief. He had been wracking his brain trying to think of a place they could go, even for the rest of the night. The only real possibility that had come to his mind was to go to his mother’s and, speaking for himself, he’d have found a tree to sleep under before he’d do that. But he couldn’t do that to the kids, and he’d been steeling himself to have to ask. Now he wouldn’t have to.

“Maybe I ought to take you over there now,” Susan said. “I can tell you that it’s not going to help anything to stand around and watch.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” Frenchy said. “We might as well get out of here. There’s not much we can do here now.”

Mrs. Schneider led them up the street to where her van was parked – a big white van with a Red Cross on the door. It was a couple miles out to the Spearfish Lake Inn on the state road, and soon they were left at a room with two double beds. “I’ll come over in the morning and see what else I can do for you,” she said. “It won’t be real early. Try to get some sleep, even though it’s going to be hard. When you get up, just go over to the dining room and have breakfast. Sign the check with your name and ‘Red Cross’ and I’ll take care of the bill.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Schneider,” Frenchy said. “I don’t know what we’d have done tonight without you.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” she smiled. “And I’m sure there’ll be more we can do in the morning.”

In a few minutes Monica and Frenchy had the two kids in one of the beds, Peter still cuddled close to Cindy, of course. “Uncle Frenchy,” Cindy said in a small voice. “Would you read to me?”

“Sure, Cindy,” he said softly as she handed him her precious copy of Peter Rabbit – the only thing besides themselves and Peter that had been saved from the fire. “Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits,” he began as she held her heroic little Peter tight. Tears helplessly came to his eyes; Peter had more than repaid the favor Frenchy had done him when he’d rescued him from the hawk.

Soon enough the kids were asleep, which Frenchy thought was just fine; he was having trouble seeing the words on the page, although he’d read the book to her enough that he pretty well knew them by heart. Monica sat on the bed and watched, tears in her eyes too. Frenchy put the book on the bedside stand, gave Peter a final pet, and walked around the bed to Monica. “Guess we have to sleep together tonight,” he said softly, not able to think of much else to say.

“Guess so,” she agreed listlessly. “My God, I can’t believe how lucky I am to have you and have Peter. You saved our lives about as much as he did.” She let out a sigh and added, “Frenchy, what are we going to do?”

“We’re going to survive,” he told her flatly. “We got through this night, and that counts for a lot. It could have been a hell of a lot worse, and would have been if it hadn’t been for our little Peter Kittentail. Like I told you earlier, I still have a job and I still have a little money from that. We’ll just have to start from that.”

“It’s something,” she said. “Frenchy, you don’t owe us anything. I mean, you’re just a friend, a boarder, and people have been treating us like we’re a family.”

“For now, we are a family,” Frenchy told her. “And we’re going to face this together. I’m not going to let you face this on your own. We’ll get out of this, Monica. I don’t know how and it may take us a while, but we’ll come up with something.”

“God, am I lucky to have you,” she sighed, “instead of a prick like Lonnie. Jesus, how could he do such a thing?”

“Hell if I know,” Frenchy said as he started to pull off the ill-fitting clothes he’d been given from the Donna Clark Suitcase. “I’d be willing to bet that he was high on something, so whatever he did didn’t have to make sense. What I want to know is what he was doing out of jail in the first place. Jesus, I was so pissed it was all I could do to only beat him up. I thought about throwing his useless body into the fire, but I decided it might not be the best idea.”

“Too bad you didn’t,” she said. “But at least you’re not going to jail yourself. At least we made it this far.”

“Yeah, Monica, we did,” he said, lying down on the bed beside her. “We’re going to make it, don’t worry about it. I don’t know how, but we will.”

“God, I’m glad you’re so confident,” she said. “I’m just a bundle of nerves, and I don’t know how I can handle much more.”

“Just relax,” he said. “Hold on to me and try to get some sleep. There’s a good chance that things will look better in the morning.”


“I don’t know, but at least it won’t be tonight.”

They were still pretty tired when they woke up in the morning. It was late for both of them, but after the night they’d had they needed their sleep. The kids were stirring by then; while both Frenchy and Monica took badly-needed showers, they took turns getting the kids dressed in the clothes they’d been given the night before. “We’re going to have to get Peter some cat food,” Cindy said as Frenchy helped Chad get dressed.

“I guess we’ll have to bring him something back from breakfast,” Frenchy said. The thought crossed his mind that he could go up the street to a nearby convenience store where they might have some cat food, but the thought didn’t last long. He didn’t have a dime, and his wallet had been one of the things that had burned up, along with about forty-five dollars. He literally didn’t have a cent.

It was only a short walk over to the dining room, but that walk reminded Frenchy that he didn’t have his truck any more, either. It had been old and he’d always worried about its reliability, but it had gotten him where he wanted to go the last couple months. He still owed Sven some money on it, and maybe Sven might help him get another one, he thought. It was hell to have to even consider going back to being without wheels.

The restaurant was past the morning rush, and they found a table back in the corner where they could be a little alone. They didn’t talk much, but there was one question that Frenchy had on his mind. “Cindy,” he said, “how did you manage to rescue Peter Rabbit?”

“I don’t know,” the little girl said. “I was reading last night after you read to me, and I guess I fell asleep with it. All I know is that I had it in my hand when Mommy handed me down to you.”

“Well, at least that’s something,” Frenchy said. “If I’d seen you with it before she handed you down to me I’d have told you to drop it so you could run quicker, but I guess it worked out.”

“I’m glad I saved it,” she said. “That way you could read to me last night. I like it when you read to me, Uncle Frenchy.”

“Well, I like reading to you,” he smiled.

The waitress soon brought their food. It was a good meal, and all of them were hungry after the night before. They were just finishing up when Sergeant Piwowar came over to them, along with Mrs. Schneider from the Red Cross. “Got a minute for us?” he asked.

“Sure,” Frenchy said, but nodded in the direction of the kids. “We might want to be a little careful, though.”

“Sure thing,” Piwowar said. “I understand.”

“If you like,” Mrs. Schneider said, “I could take your kids back to your room and watch over them while you talk with Fred.”

“Sounds good,” Monica said after thinking it over for a minute. “But can I ask a little favor? We need to get some cat food for Cindy’s little cat, and we owe him big time. He saved all our lives last night.”

The woman from the Red Cross asked how that had happened, and Monica gave her the short version of the story. “That’s some little kitty you have there,” Mrs. Schneider said after Monica finished. “I saw you with the cat last night and I thought he might be hungry, so I stole a few cans of cat food from my own cats to bring along.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Schneider,” Monica said. “You’re very thoughtful.”

“I try to be,” she said. “I don’t think Fred will be very long, so come back to your room when he’s done with you.” She was gone in a couple minutes, taking the kids with her.

The waitress brought coffee refills for Frenchy and Monica, and a fresh cup for Piwowar. “So,” he said after she left, “how are you kids holding up?”

“We’re hanging on,” Monica said. “I don’t know how I would have made it so far without Frenchy.”

“He’s been good for you, and that’s no doubt,” Piwowar said. “Frenchy, I’ve told you and I told Monica that I had my doubts about you when you first started seeing her, but I’m pleased to say that I was dead wrong. You are not the cocky little badass you were a year ago, and it’s better all around.”

“I’ve tried not to be,” Frenchy said. “But I have to admit that I enjoyed pounding that little fuck last night. He had it coming if anyone did. So have you figured out what he was doing out of jail?”

“Yeah, and it’s not a pretty story. They had him in jail down in Camden until yesterday when they let him go, sentence completed. He must have hitch-hiked up here and stolen a can of gas somewhere along the way. They should have called up here and had someone pick him up, but some idiot down in Camden couldn’t be bothered to make the phone call to us. They let him go, and figured he’d get picked up on a warrant.”

“On the subject of someone needing his ass kicked,” Frenchy scowled, “do you know who it is?”

“No, and don’t be thinking about it,” Piwowar warned. “I want to tell you that Chief Wexler has been eating some serious ass this morning trying to find out, and he means to find out who it was and have his ass. But we’ve got Lonnie now, and we’re not about to turn him loose to those idiots again. Rather than haul him down to Camden, we hauled him over to the jail and had Doc McMahon come over and take a look at him. He’s still hurting, but tough shit.”

“I saw them haul him off in the ambulance,” Frenchy said. “I figured he was down in Camden again by now.”

“Not on a bet, not after last night,” the officer said. “We’ve got him stone cold on arson of an inhabited building and attempted murder along with some other things. I doubt there’s going to be much room for a plea bargain, especially with his confession, and his fingerprints all over the gas can and a broken Molotov cocktail bottle the fire marshal found inside. My guess is he’ll get twenty to thirty, but we won’t know until Judge Dieball gets through with him. That’ll probably take a while and there might be a trial, so we’re going to need your statements.”

It took a while for Piwowar to go through the statements from both of them. “OK,” he said finally. “That should wrap that up. I might as well head on back to the office, get these typed up and knock it off for the night.”

“I thought you got off at eight when you had the overnights,” Monica said.

“Usually that’s what happens on the overnights, but last night shoved us into overtime. We haven’t had a night like that around here for a while, and that’s just fine as hell with me.”

“You get a good day’s sleep, Fred,” Monica said. “As always, you’ve been a big help. Now all Frenchy and I have to do is to figure out how to get the rest of our lives back together.”

“I’ll tell you this,” he smiled as he polished off his coffee and got up to go. “It may not be as bad as you think. People around here are usually pretty good to families who have been burned out, and you may get a few pleasant surprises.”

“Just knowing that Lonnie isn’t going to be a problem again for a while is a nice enough surprise,” Monica said. “Thanks again, Fred. As always, you’ve been a dear and I appreciate your support like always.”

“You take care,” Piwowar said. “And Frenchy, you take care of her and the kids.”

“I’m doing my best,” Frenchy said as the gears ground in his head. Apparently he’d been looking after her for a long time too. In a way, that was sort of comforting. “She and the kids are worth it.”

“They sure are,” Piwowar smiled, as if to answer Frenchy’s unspoken suspicion. “I’ll see the two of you around, and if there’s anything I can do to help, call me.”

“We sure will,” Monica told him.

As he left, Monica turned to Frenchy and gave him a knowing grin without saying anything. It was too bad he hadn’t been around the night Frenchy beat up Lonnie a month before, he thought, or maybe last night would never have happened. But there was no way of telling, not now.

The two of them finished their cups of coffee, signed the check, and headed down to the motel room where Mrs. Schneider was waiting with the kids. Apparently Peter had finished his breakfast, because he was back in his usual position on Cindy’s arm while she read a book to him – not Peter Rabbit; Mrs. Schneider had obviously brought some other books and toys for the kids. “You two sure have a nice pair of kids here,” she said. “It’s terrible that they have to go through a trauma like last night, but they seem to be holding up well. Very often when they’re that young they get through it more easily than adults do.”

“I sure hope so,” Monica said. “It’s us who’s been going through the trauma. I’m just worried how we’re going to keep going.”

“Well, one of the things we do at the Red Cross is help people get back on their feet after a disaster like this,” Mrs. Schneider told them. “And, of course, that goes for you. We can’t keep you here at the Inn forever, but we can until we can help you make other arrangements. Now, I need to ask you a few questions. You were the owners of the house, not renters, right?”

“I was the owner,” Monica replied. “I got the house in my name before Frenchy came on the scene.”

“Did you have it mortgaged?”

“Yes, with the Spearfish Lake State Savings Bank.”

“Good, that’ll simplify things a little,” Mrs. Schneider said. “Was it insured? I know that at the bank they usually tack the insurance right onto the mortgage payment.”

“As far as I know,” Monica said. “I don’t have any paperwork on it, though.”

“The odds are that it is,” the older woman replied. “I know one of the officers there. He’s on our board. I can call him at home, so we should be able to settle that quickly.”

“I don’t know how much the house is actually worth,” Monica told her. “When I bought the place I bought it at a very low price, and I don’t think I’ve been able to pay down the value very much.”

“Well, if it is insured, and it probably is, then you’ll at least see something out of it,” Mrs. Schneider said. “It may be enough for a down payment on another place for you. Right now the market is way down and you may even be able to come up with a better place.”

“You’re kidding!” Monica gushed. “I never thought that would happen.”

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Mrs. Schneider pointed out. “But there’s a pretty good chance that it will be the way it goes, but some of it may not be able to happen over the weekend. I’ll pull what strings I can for you, though.”

“Just a question,” Frenchy said. “Is the insurance going to hold up? After all, the house didn’t burn from natural causes or something. It was torched.”

“I don’t know for sure, but since it was an outside party, my guess is that it will. Now, I take it all the contents of the house were destroyed.”

“Yes,” Monica told her. “We never had a ghost of a chance to get anything out. The only thing that was saved was Cindy’s copy of Peter Rabbit, and I’m still not sure how she managed that. The clothes we have on were given to us by the firemen last night.”

“Ah, the Donna Clark Suitcase strikes again,” Mrs. Schneider smiled. “Did anyone tell you the story about that?”

“No,” Monica said. “One of the firemen just pulled a suitcase out of a truck and started handing us clothes.”

“That was the Donna Clark Suitcase,” Mrs. Schneider said, and told them the story behind it. “Mrs. Clark was quite a wealthy individual,” she went on. “She owned a big part of Clark Plywood many years ago. When she died, her will stipulated setting up a foundation, the Donna Clark Foundation. One of her stipulations in her will was that the foundation was to help out people that lost everything in house fires. The Clark Foundation has over the years allowed us to administer that part of the foundation’s activities. The amount of the grant is based on need, of course, but once you have the housing part of the problem figured out, we can work on what you need to get housekeeping set up again. That includes clothes as well as household furnishings and things of that nature. I’ll have to warn you, the amount of the grant will probably be generous, but it won’t be unlimited, so you might want to do some careful shopping, buy at the thrift store, and like that.”

“This . . . this is unbelievable,” Monica replied, tears coming to her eyes again. “How can I ever thank a woman who died long before I was born?”

“You thank her by helping out someone else who’s in need, just the same way she did. She had money to work with, of course, but there are times that putting time and effort and love into helping someone out is more important than money. Mr. LeDroit, before we came over here Sergeant Piwowar told me about what you’ve done for Monica the last few months. All I can say is keep it up and help out someone else where you can. That’s all Mrs. Clark would have asked. Now, if you don’t have any questions, I suppose I’d better get out of here so I can start pulling some strings with the bank.”

“Mrs. Schneider, I don’t know what I can say to thank you,” Monica said. “Even a couple hours ago I was afraid the kids and I were going to have to be living in a cardboard box or something, but you’ve turned everything around.”

“Well, that’s sort of what I’m supposed to do,” Mrs. Schneider smiled. “I think that’s what Mrs. Clark would have wanted me to do. I never got to meet her. She died long before my husband and I got married and I moved to Spearfish Lake. From the stories I’ve heard about her, she could be both generous and opinionated, but she always appreciated people who were trying to make a go of it. Now, Fred Piwowar is an old friend, and he told me a lot about you before we came over here this morning, and I know you’ve had a rough go of it the last few years. But you’ve done your best to make a good home for your children and raise them right, and I can see it in the kind of good kids they are. That tells me that you’re worth the effort, and I hope things will go better for you in the future.”

“Thank you again,” Monica said. “I’ve tried to do my best for the kids. Some of the time, well, most of the time I haven’t had a lot to give them, but I’ve tried to give them what I could. It’s been a real struggle at times, but things have gone a lot better since Frenchy came along.”

“Just keep working at it,” the older woman replied. “Maybe things will get better from here. Now, I really should be going to work at pulling those strings I was talking about, but I have one thing I’d like to ask you. Cindy told me about how her kitten managed to save all your lives, and she also told me how Peter managed to come into your life. That’s a story that really will tug at some heart strings, and if you don’t mind I’d like to ask Mary Lou Walton down at the Record-Herald to come over so you can tell her that story.”

“Sure,” Monica said. “It really is a nice story in more ways than one.”

“I’ll admit,” Frenchy smiled, “that when I found Peter out in the woods, I wanted to kick the . . . uh, something out of the joker who left him there,” he said, pointedly watching his language. “Right at the moment I’m pretty glad that he did. That doesn’t mean that I still wouldn’t like to . . . uh, well, you know what I mean, for doing it in the first place, but whoever he was, he sure missed a bet with that little guy.”

“I love cats too,” Mrs. Schneider grinned. “If you ever find out who it is, save a piece of him for me.”

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To be continued . . .

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