On A Lighter Note: Friend of Mine Part 1

Sleepy Bright was a bear hunter and a very good friend of mine. We had just finished climbing Blackberry Mountain to pick his favorite blackberries for the last time. Sleepy always said the best berries grew on top of the mountain—not that they were any larger or sweeter—but because they grew on top and were hard to get to. Sleepy taught me a lot of clever things about life and living.

I’ve always considered myself very fortunate to have met Sleepy, even though the townsfolk thought him an oddball, an old hermit better ignored than encouraged. I remember, as if it were yesterday, all the hours I sat under that gnarled apple tree down by the fishing hole, listening to his stories of legendary mountain men and the old west.

Because of that friendship my backside suffered many a beating from my mother when I was a child. But no matter how often she locked me in my room or tied me to the clothes line, I always managed to get loose and spent many pleasant afternoons watching Sleepy work his magic with a bone needle and leather hide, or be off trapping together in the high mountains.

“God’s country,” as Sleepy always said.

The more time I spent with him the more I came to believe it.

I literally stumbled over Sleepy one cold, rainy day in September nearly twenty years ago. As a young lad of seven I had decided to punish my mother for what I perceived to be an unjust consequence of eating all the decorations off the birthday cake she had made for my cousin, Agatha.

Oh how I loathed that girl in my youth. Her constant nattering and spying made me swear, even at that early age, to forever hold out against women and marriage; to conduct my life in manly pursuits and pleasures like my storybook hero, Mountain Man Jake.

As usual I had escaped the confines of my room and punishment. And with nothing more than a small bundle of clothes and food tied to the end of a sturdy stick, I struck out across the back fields and headed into the hills.

The hazy sun was just cresting the twin peaks, the long stretching rays encroaching closer to the quiet, sleeping town below me. Early morning mist rose like ghostly figures, yet I was not afraid. The foothills were as familiar to me as my own backyard. Birds and forest animals scurried to and fro, unconcerned by my presence, and went in search of their own breakfast before the day commenced.

Although I grew tired I forced myself to continue walking until the sun was high overhead. By now I had begun the gradual climb up onto Blackberry Mountain. Only the sound of the wind rustling the leaves in the trees or the long grasses stirring across the open meadows could be heard. My animal friends had abandoned me to the blinding sun and its heat. I paused a moment to get my bearings and heard the soft gurgle of a mountain stream coming from the next hollow.

I decided it would be safe to eat my meager lunch by the stream. Even if my mother had sent our top farm hands, Buster and Renko, in search of me, there was no way for them to know which direction I had taken. At the time the farm was all consuming for my mother. It was highly doubtful that she would even know I was gone, let alone interrupt the workday for one small overactive boy.

With my belly full and the ache of the morning’s journey easing from my slender body, I settled back against a grassy knoll, content in the warmth and quiet and slept. Had I been alert to the shifting clouds or the terrible storm approaching, I probably would have returned home. However, as a seven-year-old I was unaware of intangibles like the future or that danger could be lurking everywhere. I only knew that in the present I was safe and eager to begin my new life of freedom, once I had finished my nap.

It was late afternoon by the time I awoke. Once again the birds and animals went about their business around me. I found their presence to be comforting and set off at a steady pace for the next rise. As the sun crouched lower in the sky a cool wind bumped and jostled its way down the mountain from the snow-covered peaks. Occasional heavy gusts had the tree branches whipping about in a feverish dance.

Experiencing my first moments of fear, I withdrew my wool sweater and cloth coat from the tied bundle. Once protected from the elements I felt my courage bolster and my curiosity ignite. What would Mountain Man Jake do in a situation like this?

Dusk was blanketing the mountain fast. All hopes of reaching the next rise were forgotten. It was time to find a safe dry place for the night. I realized I had been too eager to achieve my ideal location for the adventure to begin and had neglected to think about food for supper or making a camp before nightfall.

I hurried across a narrow valley, searching out clumps of trees and small recesses in the hillside. At last I stumbled onto an old blackened tree, hollowed out by lightning. It rested lengthways across several other fallen evergreens that simulated steps up to a tree fort. It never occurred to me that ferocious animals could be living inside, or that they might approach during the night to get out of the storm. With my trusty fishing knife I whittled several large branches to block the entrance and settled down for a long night.

At dawn I awoke with a start. The wind and rain were howling like demons from hell. For the most part I am a person without fears, although there are some things I prefer not to associate with—my mother’s big leather strap, washing the sheep dogs after they’ve challenged a skunk, having to be nice to Agatha—but this storm had me feeling small and vulnerable and very alone. All during the morning it raged. Inside my little tree-home I stayed dry and warm.

And yet a sense of the world coming to an end pervaded my mind.

Trees and dead limbs crashed down around me while the swirling winds were choked with leaves and dirt from the forest floor. A heavy gray provided some light but without the sun I could not tell what time of day it was. My belly grumbled at the forced hunger and my body ached from its cramped position. I dosed on and off during the day, making up plans in my head for preparing a shelter and trapping food.

Even at seven I had trapped my share of rabbits and hooked plenty of fish. But cleaning and cooking would be a new experience. As the hunter it was my job to bring the food home; it was Carmelita’s job to clean and cook it. As my mother’s housekeeper, Carmelita always treated my small offerings as if they were the main feast. Thoughts of her had me remembering tasty thick stews or the mouth-watering smells of piping hot bread fresh out of the oven.

I tried to re-focus my thoughts but everything always led back to food.

The storm eventually let up a little. It was apparent that it was not going to dry up completely, so I donned my oil-slicker and continued on my journey to the next rise. To take the edge off my hunger I found wild berries and root vegetables along the way. My mind, however, kept craving pork chops, pot roast, or beef steak.

What seemed hours later, I crested the next rise and started down. For so long my goal had been to reach that hilltop, and, now that I was finally here, it was disappointing to see that it didn’t look any different than the last rise. How far I planned to go, or what my seven-year-old mind was looking for, I honestly cannot remember.

Fortunately, fate intervened and took the problem out of my hands.

The rain was still coming down, but much softer. The wind and thunder had dropped to within human tolerance, kicking up every now and then as a reminder of who had the power. On weary legs I slowly descended the hill. At first I thought it was the wind moving the branches and didn’t pay much attention. Then another loud crack sounded just behind a wall of bushes. Curiosity got the better of me and I stuck my head through a small opening and came almost nose to nose with the biggest brown bear I had ever seen.

A terrified scream tore from my throat. The startled bear rose up on its hind legs and bellowed a roar that filled the small meadow below.

Although my mind was frozen with fear my body responded instinctively and started running as fast as my short legs could carry me down the hill. I didn’t have to look back to know the bear had liked what it saw. Breaking branches and deadly paws crashing through the underbrush sounded almost on top of me. There wasn’t time to shinny up a tree nor did any hiding place present itself. I continued darting in and out of the trees and prayed that the bear would give up the chase.

However, I greatly feared I would live long enough to experience the rending of my flesh by those long, dagger-like claws.

All of a sudden the ground shifted in front of me. Unable to stop my careening downhill momentum, I tripped over the rising mound of grass and bushes and found myself tumbling out of control before coming to a thudding stop against a tree. The breath expelled loudly from my lungs as blackness closed in around me. The sound of two explosions echoed loudly in my ears before darkness pulled me completely into unconsciousness.

To be continued in Part 2 . . .






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