The door to the loft opened and Jim wiped his hands on a dishcloth.
"Hi, Uncle Jim, we're baaack!" Becky singsonged. A significantly less enthusiastic Blair followed her. He was carrying two large burlap bags.
"How'd it go?" Jim asked, as he took the bags and leaned down to give Blair a quick kiss. His partner looked tired and cold.
"It went great!" Becky answered. "We found so many pinecones. Look!"
Jim pulled one out, surprised to see it was closed. "Is this ripe enough?" he asked.
"Apparently if we wait until they're open, it's too late,"Blair answered. "Heat the oven to 375, please. They have to roast for 30-45 minutes. I'm going to wash up."
"Chief, that's going to smell up the place," Jim objected, imagining how long cooked pine sap would linger.
"Well, the alternative is letting them air-dry for three weeks. We don't have the time." Blair headed off to the bathroom as Becky removed her jacket and gloves.
Jim thought back to how they got into this situation. It started with a phone call from his brother.
"Bro, I need a big favor. Big."
Jim rolled his eyes, even though Steven couldn't see him. "What is it?"
"Joyce is out of town taking care of her mom--"
"Oh, yeah, that's right. How's her mom doing?"
"They put her in a walking cast today and start PT tomorrow. Joyce thinks they'll need to stay another two weeks."
"That's good. So, what do you need?"
"Joyce has Brandon with her, but Becky's here since she can't miss school. I need to go out of town, just for a few days. Can you and Blair take her? I'll owe you big time."
"Friday. She has to go to school, do her homework and that's about it. Oh, and a small 4-H project. I haven't had a chance to look at it, but she's got all the paperwork. I can drop her off Thursday night."
"You're a lifesaver. Becky's going to be so excited."
Friday, Jim dropped Becky off at school then swung back to the loft to pick up Blair, who was staring at the 4-H paperwork. "Did your brother tell you about this?"
Jim frowned. "Well, he said she had a project and he hadn't had a chance to look at it. What is it?"
Blair waved the pages at him. "She has to make a batch of Christmas cookies called pignolias which, according to this, is like a macaroon covered in pine nuts."
"Doesn't sound too hard."
"Yeah, but she has to harvest the pine nuts herself. There's about ten or twelve steps involved just to get the little suckers ready for the cookies."
"Yeah. It's going to take all day tomorrow, if we're lucky."
"Babe, I've got that commitment at the Academy…"
Blair glared. "Of course, 'Nature Boy' would be tied up." He sighed. "Okay, we'll do the hunting/gathering. But you'd better have dinner ready. And you owe me something special for this."
Jim put on his cheesiest smile, "Name it. Your wish is my command."
By the time Becky and Blair took showers and changed into clean clothes, the pinecones had opened and were cooling on the counter. The pine smell was competing with Jim's spaghetti sauce, but everyone was too hungry to care. While they cleaned the dishes, Becky entertained Jim with a blow-by-blow description of their day in the mountains.
"Okay," said Blair, once the kitchen was clean of everything but the pinecones, "Jim, I guess you can start pulling out the pine nuts and we'll make the dough."
"No, Uncle Blair," Becky protested. "I have to do everything. You can help, but I have to do it."
Blair ran a hand through his hair, thinking hard. "Okay, how about the three of us work on harvesting the nuts tonight and we can bake tomorrow?" She nodded and he smiled in relief. He opened a drawer and pulled out a package of vinyl cleaning gloves. "Sorry they're a little big, but they'll protect you from the sharp pine scales and the sap." Blair handed a pair to Jim, then picked up a cone and started to pull it apart.
"Wait a minute, Chief. Let me try something." Jim pulled out a cast-iron skillet, laid it on a pinecone and slowly crushed it. When he lifted the pan, the nuts were lying in a litter of brown scales. Blair and Becky separated them. Shortly they had a respectable pile.
Blair pulled out a bowl. "Next, we put them in water. Any that float are bad." Fortunately, most of the nuts sank. Becky delightedly clapped her hands. Blair referred to the instruction sheet. "The last step is removing the shells."
Blair put the nuts in a plastic bag and laid it flat on the counter. He handed Becky a rolling pin and she rolled it back and forth several times until the shells cracked. They pulled the white nuts free of their shells, putting them in a bowl. Becky picked one up, looking at it curiously before she put it in her mouth. "Oh, it's good!" she declared, a little surprised.
"They'll be even better once they're toasted," Jim said. "Okay, clean up and then a little TV before bed?"
Within minutes, Becky was slumped against Jim, asleep. He picked her up and gently deposited her on the bed in Blair's old room. He sat back down and raised his arm. Blair immediately moved over to snuggle. "Was today really that bad?"
"Nah," Blair admitted. "She's a real trouper. It reminded me it's been a while since we've hiked. We should go while the weather holds."
"Mm, I'd like that," Jim murmured as he kissed the top of Blair's head.
"But you still owe me," Blair teased.
"Your wish is my command," Jim said quietly and he used the remote to turn off the TV, stood and pulled Blair up into his arms.