Buttons and Bones

Chapter One

MINNESOTANS refer to any lake in the state as the lake. Since there are actually more than the advertised ten thousand, this can be confusing.

“Say, I heard the Larsons went and bought that cabin up on the lake they were looking at,” Phil said during the crochet class at Crewel World. He was referring to a cabin on Thunder Lake in Cass County.

Claudia’s mother said, “Yes, they did. They’re going to love it. A cabin up at the lake is the greatest place on earth to take kids during the summer.” She was thinking of her own happy childhood at her parents’ cabin on Long Lake near Litchfield.

Meryl’s mother said, “We’re going up to the lake this weekend,” meaning Lake Hubert up near Brainerd.

Betsy, owner of the shop, said nothing, although Jill had kept her abreast of the purchase, as well as the first couple of visits to the cabin.

Betsy was copresiding over a Saturday morning class called Crochet for Kids. Five mothers were present with six children—Claudia, nine, was there with her seven-year-old brother, Andrew.

The children were going to make “cup covers,” double crochet roundels with lacy edges weighted with beads. They were meant to sit on top of opened cans of soft drinks or glasses of lemonade at outdoor picnics to keep the yellow jackets out of them.

The students had begun by making a chain. Lottie was the best at that—her chain grew over a yard long and gained speed with every stitch during that part of the lesson. Andrew was close behind, but poor Chloe couldn’t even master How to Hold the Hook. Of course, she was only three and really wouldn’t have been accepted in the class at all if her mother hadn’t been a good customer and very insistent.

Now they were learning to make a round shape in single crochet. Little fingers thrust the size G hook through loops of worsted yarn, to drape the yarn over it, snag it, and draw it through. Little tongues appeared in the corners of small mouths, and the occasional high-pitched sigh or groan or giggle was heard.

And over the children’s heads, the adults gossiped.

“Someone told me it’s a real log cabin, a hundred years old,” said Lottie’s mother.

“Then they had better brace the walls,” said Chloe. “A hundred years of wood borers can turn logs into paper lace.”

“I heard it doesn’t even have indoor plumbing,” offered Violet’s mother. “Violet, darling, try using your left finger, instead of your thumb. That’s right.” She gave the teacher a look of rebuke for making her correct Violet herself.

Teacher Godwin, who was also the store manager, turned the look aside with a sweet smile. His method of teaching was to tell once, show once, and then wait for the pupil to ask for assistance. Violet had been managing quite well using her thumb.

“It has indoor plumbing,” said Lottie’s mother. “Jill told me that herself just last week, although they haven’t got the water pump up and running yet.”

“I hear the place is a wreck, that it stood empty for a lot of years,” said Phil. An older man, without a child or grandchild accompanying him, Phil was himself a student. A knitter and needlepointer, he was seeking to add crochet to his needle working skills, and too impatient to wait for an adult class. He was using a heavy yarn and a big hook, suitable for his thick fingers and antique vision. He annoyed Betsy by adding, “Right, Betsy?”

She said, “I’ve heard something like that,” and gave Phil a shushing grimace.

Betsy did not wish to be drawn into the discussion because she’d done something against one of her own rules, and helped Jill and Lars acquire the property.

Some years back, along with the shop, she had inherited a small company called New York Motto. The company, established in Wisconsin and run by a partner, searched out and bought houses and small businesses whose owners had gone bankrupt. It could be seen as a sad thing, battening on to other peoples’ misfortune, and Betsy didn’t care to get into a discussion of it.

It wasn’t a difficult business to run, though it took some judgment to decide what properties to buy. The trick was finding them. Not many people knew where to look for these court-ordered bankruptcy sales, as they were usually advertised in obscure legal newspapers. Betsy’s partner in New York Motto was a former paralegal who had worked for a firm specializing in monetary matters. After years of experience, her judgment was honed to a fine edge. All she needed was the capital, which Betsy’s sister—and now Betsy—supplied. Once purchased, sometimes for pennies on the dollar, New York Motto would inspect the properties, sometimes do minor repairs, then use the Internet and ordinary newspapers to advertise and sell them at a profit.

In good times and bad, New York Motto was one of Betsy’s more reliable sources of income; it was the reason she did not have to draw a salary on the profits from her needlework shop. Hardly any of Betsy’s friends or acquaintances knew about the company, and Betsy was reluctant to share for several reasons, one being that some might want Betsy to give them a special deal.

Jill Cross Larson was an exception, though—and while she hadn’t asked Betsy outright to help find her and Lars a bargain in lakefront property, they’d talked about the search she and Lars were conducting in language Betsy took as a hint.

So Betsy had started paying attention to buys the company was making on lakefront property well outside the Twin Cities, and when she found a couple of prospects, she let Jill know about them.

One, six acres with an old log cabin on it, was the more distant, three hours from Excelsior, only two from far-north Lake Itasca, source of the Mississippi River. The property came into bankruptcy court when the last legal owner fell into a terminal illness and mortgaged the place—long unused—to pay for medical expenses. He was, of course, unable to make payments.

The property was in a State Forest and on the shore of long, narrow Thunder Lake. Lars, experienced in buying and restoring property, drove up with Jill for a look and declared it a perfect location and the cabin suitable for restoration. Betsy took Lars’s word for it and directed her partner to sell it to the Larsons with the caveat “as is.”

On the other hand, since Jill was Betsy’s best friend, Betsy sold it to them for what the company had paid for it.

But now, because she was not anxious to start a stampede of requests or rebukes, she allowed the gossip and speculation at the crochet class to wash over her without comment.

Betsy was attending the class because she, too, wanted to expand into crochet. She’d bought a couple of books on how to do it but, as usual, found she needed to actually sit in the presence of people who already knew how and watch how their fingers moved.

She could make a chain, slip stitch, and single and double crochet, after a fashion; that is, slowly and painfully, and with the instruction book propped up in her line of sight. What she couldn’t do was crochet in a circle. It was like back when she could knit but not purl. Reading the instructions didn’t help, even when they were accompanied by illustrations. Nor could she hold the yarn properly in her left hand. She’d wrap it around her little finger, bring it up and over her index finger, and set off, and within four or five stitches the yarn would have slipped off her fingers. Though it was currently easier to crochet this way, she knew that if she was to advance in the craft, she had to learn to do it properly.

Despite his lackadaisical attitude toward beginners, instructor Godwin agreed that Betsy needed to do it right. Talking to her earlier in the week, he had compared it to his golf game: At first he swung at the ball any old way and was happy to reach the green in six to nine strokes. And that was fine—at first. But to get into really playing, lowering his score, and breaking a hundred, he had to learn the odd stances and peculiar movements of the game, practicing them until they became natural.

So Betsy watched Godwin’s hook flashing at top speed as it pulled yarn through the fingers of his left hand for a few moments. Then she gamely rewrapped the yarn through her own fingers and continued circling around her cup topper in single crochet—it had turned out that joining two ends and continuing to circle was far easier than holding the yarn properly.

“I heard they’re going to tear down the log cabin and build a year-round residence—and then move up there permanently.” This tidbit was offered by Meryl’s mother.

Since Lars was a sergeant on Excelsior’s little police department, a job he loved, Betsy doubted that very much. But she bit her tongue, thrust the crochet hook through a stitch, and reached for the yarn with her hook. She pulled it through so there were two loops on her hook, reached for the yarn again, and pulled it through both loops.

All those loops and it was called single crochet!

Of course it was a very solid, attractive stitch. Betsy looked at it admiringly. Just a few hundred more and she’d have a cup topper of her very own.