“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.” Shakespeare
“Isolate her, and however abundant the food, the queen will expire in a few days—from loneliness.” M Maeterlinck
I mentioned at the start, Harlin Adams, our sole Episcopal Minister/all-round nice guy, was July’s victim. There’d been a Bingo Game that night. Proceeds were going to Vic #2’s family, the Warner’s. Herman Warner had been the family’s sole supporter. He left behind a wife and two small children. Herman worked the day shift full time at Basha’s, my favorite groceria, and moonlighted 2-3 nights a week at the Circle K. His body was found on a chilly February morning by two of the Deborah’s, though I didn’t know these women were part of the Deborah Beehive back in February. The ladies told Sheriff Rohrer they were headed over to the spot where Jon Mack’s desecrated body had been found, bringing fresh flowers and dozens of white candles in tall glass containers. The candles would be lit for that night’s memorial ceremony. Herman was also killed on Tuxedo Tails property, about a ¼ miles from where Jon Mack died.
One thing I didn’t mention. Harlen’s death was the most gruesome one thus far. His innards had been ripped asunder. So much so it was hard to make out the carvings on his chest. This gutting is what a queen bee often does to a drone. Can you imagine the acrobatics required? The virgin’ish queen leaves the hive to copulate with up to a dozen drones all trying to out compete each other and mate in mid-air 30 or so feet high. Their sperm gets stored in one of the queen’s glands, and she returns to the hive, where she’ll produce (in theory) her weight in eggs every 24 hours for the rest of her life. If she doesn’t, the hive’s in jeopardy. July was also the month we had our first swarming incident. I suspect it was a flyby of what we presumed were vulture bees, heading to a new home base.
I wondered how much a bee queen was like the sword wielding Highlander character, since there could be only one. I came across a Scottish Highlands saying in one of the books I’d bought that was rather strange: ‘Ask the wild bees what the Druids know.’ How those oak loving robed figures knew what they knew is still a mystery. The saying seems rather silly. Bees don’t speak, they hum. The only person that might understand their language was our absent expert Cerrie.
Compared to the life span of the rest of the bees, the queen was pretty near immortal. The entire hive slaved for her. The queen’s health was conveyed through pheromones. If she was doing poorly, worker bees fed royal jelly to a few larvae cells to help birth the next queen. The first new queen to emerge duked it out with the old queen and killed potential queens still in their cells. Yep, there can be only one.
It’s all speculation, of course, but some scholar’s claim Druids copied and imitated the bees dance. Their secrets were encoded in what was called a waggle dance. Their movements, if understood correctly, described the health of the hive, and could, in effect, predict the health of the land. In Ireland, they made laws, ‘bech bretha’ to protect the bees. They created some special kind of mead drink that brought on visions, having been gathered from plants like Petunias, Passionflower, Datura, and certain rhododendrons that produce a neurotoxin of sorts. Those Druids would whisper words to the bees they wanted to be conveyed to the old gods. A response would come in their dreams.
I needed some mighty important answers, so before I turned in, I hiked over to our wildflower meadowlands where our cook, Teoni Craig, kept a few beehives, and grew herbs and yucca plants. She made one mean batch of yucca fries and an awesome mashed Malanga Yuca. Teoni was married to our resident blacksmith and critter vet, Huestus Craig.
Most bees are diurnal, though after my recent text reading, I learned some do make reconnoiters after dark to forage or scout, and have decent night vision. They have to watch out for bats, moths, and other parasites, and know where to look for night blooming flora. Our busy bees typically get 5-8 hours of sleep. I was hoping to have a chat with non-active, drowsy bees. I’d never been stung before, but I had been electrified a few times by fences and faulty electric boxes.
I spoke my piece and thanked the bees by leaving a few teaspoons of sugar outside the hive. The air felt heavy, like it was going rain soon. There was a scent of ozone. The stars weren’t as bright as I was used to seeing either. Up on the hill to my right I spotted a dark figure. It wasn’t one of my jean clad ranch hands. Besides I’d told them to buddy up and patrol in pairs. This lone figure was wearing a long robe or blanket. I hightailed it back to the main bunkhouse and alerted the men. Most were still up, playing cards or watching TV.
Outside, I pointed to where I’d seen the figure above the butte, though it was gone now. It was mighty peculiar. The stars were shining again and the air felt lighter. I could smell normal ranch odors, horse manure, floral traces, hay and the dusky smokehouse scent I never tired of inhaling. Rob 3 Feathers and a seasoned ranch hand were patrolling that night. I radioed them to be on the alert.
That’s when we saw it. A dark swarm on the horizon. At first we figured it was bats or blackbirds, but as it got closer, the swarm hummed. Would it swoop and attack? We had all kinds of critters in pens outside; they sensed danger and did their own waggle dance. Teoni came running out of the trailer she and Huestus shared. She carried two smoke cans and gave me one. She didn’t have to tell me what to do.
The swarm came closer, it seemed to hover above us. Huestus came running towards us with a large galvanized pail from which dense, dark smoke was pouring. He set the pail in the dirt between the pig sty and the yard where the goats were kept. It fanned out and rose, causing the goats to bleat and buck. Several ranch hands had made makeshift torches and waved them as they ran between buildings. Teoni yelled to the men to lower their torches; she said we don’t want to irritate or melt the bees.
I asked her if she could tell what kind of bees they were. She couldn’t say but warned us we should all take shelter inside if they attacked. She asked if anyone had been bumped by a loose bee and told us not to move, talk, or swat at them. A J picked up a garden hose and cranked the spigot to the right for maximum output. Teoni dropped her can and tackled A J. She screamed no water. It would anger the bees and cause the swarm to attack. She was surprisingly strong for a 5’1” tall woman from Guatemala, maybe 100 pounds soaking wet.
The dark figure I’d seen earlier appeared atop the butte again. It did cross my mind the figure could be my brother’s ghost. I dismissed that thought as we watched the swarm rise, turn, and head towards the draped figure, who edged backwards. Travis wasn’t fond of bees, swarms, or crowds of anything, unless you counted congregating critters. The swarm separated into two groups, one flanked either side of the robed figure. From a distance, it looked as if the swarm scooped up and carried the figure off into the night.
Now that I reflect back, it was round ‘bout July folks started calling our fancy dude ranch for the pampered uppercrust Hellacious Acres. Its ranch hands, some of whom didn’t exactly have their papers in order, or couldn’t produce a legitimate green card, started leaving by the time March’s vic #3 Ray Jennings made it apparent a serial killer was on the rampage.
For a NY minute, one person of interest was Tuxedo’s deputy foreman, Rath Tarosa. He was well liked, a real ranch Renaissance man, but kept to himself. His alibis for the nights in question checked out. The night of the first murder, Rath was at the Jiminez Hacienda, babysitting a sickly cow and helping to birth a mare’s first foal. The night Herman Warner died, Rath was 15 or so miles away, helping to put out a fire at a local rancher’s grain crib. The fire spread to adjacent grasslands. Rath led the effort to dig a trench line, douse, and contain the fire. It was presumed to be an act of vandalism, though we never discovered who did it. My bet was on young Jessie Miller or one of his ruffian buddies—Booker Foxgrove or Elbert Strand, AJ’s kid brother.
There were Deborah Ryder Hive sponsored memorials in March and April, also held at the same location. After that, Tuxedo Tail’s owners put the kibosh on holding future get-togethers on their property. By then, the Deborah’s focus began to be more about our ailing bee community. They held their meetings at random locations: covered picnic areas of nearby parks; the field next to the high school…
You could have knocked me over with a greased goose feather when the whole damn county leaned into our unfortunate circumstances. Certain members of our town council decided to hold a mid-summer phallic festival. Now they didn’t call it that exactly. They said the town was holding their annual Tallywhacker Trimming festival in honor of our bighorn sheep. The name originally referred to a length of rope used to count and control sheep. A shepherd would tie a knot to tally every 10 sheep in the flock. Sheep that lagged behind the rest might get whacked. I’m not sure when the term became slang for a man’s private parts. By the way, we’d never had a Tallywhacker festival before, but I was outvoted when I told them to leave the word ‘annual’ off the sign or at least add the word ‘first.’
The powers that be, and specifically the owner of The Dude Drop Ranch, decided to hold the festival the first weekend in August, which was also, in pagan and druid circles, Lughnasadh. They picked this date despite the fact most of the sheep had been sheered back in June. I guess they couldn’t come up with a phallic sounding word for the celebration that once marked the beginning of harvest season. The citizens of Ryder County were beginning to act like the folks in that old shark movie Jaws. Except in the movie, they refused to close the beaches during 4th of July celebrations. Those New Englander’s were misled because a shark was caught, just not the right one. Here in Ryder, I couldn’t even catch a break.
All the book learning I’d been doing made me aware how important those ancient festivals once were. Some were held on or after a full moon. Others occurred the first week of the month. I couldn’t find any western world festival held during each full moon of the year except for witches esbaths and werewolf meetups. In the isles, something similar to Olympic Games were held the beginning of August. Maybe the ancients were on to something honoring such a fierce and festive time of year.
This time of year, you got your brutal white hot dog days, hard labor harvests, reaping after sowing, and big bonfire gatherings. On the ides of August, Romans saluted witchy Hecate and Diana and enlisted their aid to ensure bountiful harvests. Towards the end of the month, there was a mess of virgin Virgo celebrations, including a ritual honoring Ceres, the Roman counterpart to the Greek’s Demeter. If you want to go even further back, they worshiped Hathor and held a big old end of the month party at the temple of Dendera.
I’d gone to college to study agriculture initially, to learn everything about seasons, soil, weather patterns and connections between man and the land. Maybe I should have stuck with just being a rancher, and left the crime fighting to someone else. Seven months into the year, as an officer of the law, I was nothing if not agri-vated.
Then again, July wasn’t a complete loss. There were three new Cerrie sightings, two in town and one a county over. Rob 3 Feathers was coming along nicely as La Fonda’s foreman, taking over Travis’ job and adding a native love of the land to his efforts. There’d been no more cattle killings so I was able to concentrate on sheriff’ing duties. Tourists got wind of our upcoming Tallywhacker Trimming festival and began trickling back towards the end of the month. Arrests for drunk and disorderly went up, as did vehicular accidents.
The Deborah’s filed for and were granted a booth permit, and set up a BEE-utification tent near the sign that said WELCOME TO RYDER, where canyons and cactus wrens call to you and the sun seldom sets. I never thought the sign was representative of what Ryder was all about. I’d heard the mayor’s wife came up with the slogan. We had several more sightings of bees swarming but not attacking, so more than ever I needed to talk to our alleged bee expert Cerrie.
Though I told myself it was to discourage the rowdy element, I began visiting our Easy Ryder Saloon several nights a week in July, ordering a burger or burrito suprema, and staying for two sets of live music while nursing a single long necker and several Agua de Jamaica. That’s basically sweet tea made with hibiscus flowers and a chunk of lime.
You could ah bowled me over with a humming bird feather when I raised my empty glass to catch my server’s attention and practically knocked it into Cerrie. She was decked out in tight fitting khaki jeans, a shimmery turquoise halter top, and a barely there matching khaki vest held together with a big silver and crystal brooch. Her hair was braided and looped in circles, pulled back off her face. She was a vision.
She didn’t exactly look pleased to see me, but made a quick recovery and said “Peter Dan, what a delightful surprise.” Her smile was tentative, and didn’t exactly match the enthusiasm in her voice. However, it quickly enlarged into a mischievous grin, revealing a perfect set of pearly whites and full pink lips.”
I reached out and lightly grabbed her silky, pale hand. “We need to talk. For starters, what’s your full name? Where’ve you been?” I stammered on, and added I was asking in an official capacity. “Just how long have you been enjoying your stay here, and why did you scribble some of the symbols carved on the recent murder victims chests on this napkin? You’re aware we’ve had a death every month since January—right around the full moon?”
She deftly retrieved and glanced at the napkin, then tossed it back to me. “Oh that, I read an article in Ryder’s Dark Sparks. You know, the alternate newspaper published by your fringe art community. It’s really quite amusing. Several of the images they published reminded me of something I may have seen in my travels to Egypt or Crete, or perhaps it was Budapest.”
“You’ve been to Egypt? So that’s how you knew about Ra’s tears?” I stood up, but let go of her hand, and asked her to sit down. “Or, we can mossy over to my office and do this official like.” There was a barely perceptible intake of breath and a bit of a staring contest before she decided to comply and sat down opposite me. My server came over with another Agua de Jamaica and asked Cerrie what she wanted. Cerrie waved her away.
“Ya never gave me your name, so for the record please…I also need to see your passport, and an address would be appreciated.”
“My name, yes…” Cerrie gazed off into the distance, in the direction where the band was regrouping for another set. “Why don’t we make one up? That’s ever much more fun. You first, tell me who you think I am. Who do you want me to be?”
“Well, let’s see. You’re as evasive as a politician, as forthcoming as a leprechaun with a pot of gold, and…now look here, Cerrie, Circe, or whoever you are, I need your full name, passport, and the address where you’re staying. And while we’re at it, our townsfolk would be mighty beholden if you could enlighten us about why the bees are swarming in July, but haven’t stung anyone yet.”
Bee on the lookout for Chapter 5: Beeing and Becoming, in which the honey pot thickens and a killer is nearly caught…