On A Lighter Note: Friend of Mine Part 2

I awoke on a bed bundled beneath soft furs. It was dark except for a comforting fire burning in the stone fireplace across the room. My head ached something fierce as I tried to sit up, a weak groan escaping my parched lips. His gentle hands pressed me back down into the pile of furs.

“Whoa there, Tadpole,” chuckled a deep gravel-bottom voice. “You’ve got a knot the size of my fist on your head and enough cuts and bruises to keep you laid up a while. But I reckon you’re better off that that bear.”

He stood, a giant dark outline looming over the bed, and bellowed his gruff laughter up at the beamed ceiling. Knowing I was safe, I quickly drifted off into dreamless sleep.

It was several days before I could get out of bed. My first steps were pitiful. But my benefactor had warm broth and biscuits waiting on the table. He was largely built, stocky, and well over six feet. Shoulder-length graying hair and a trimmed beard framed his rugged face that always seemed on the brink of a smile.

My mood brightened when I noticed his buckskin shirt, mended pants, and well worn moccasins laced up to below his knees. Like a child on Christmas morning I stared at the long fringes hanging from tight leather seams and beamed with absolute joy. Standing before me, bigger than life, was my storybook hero, Mountain Man Jake.

His sides shook with that deep rumbling laugh at my youthful declaration of worship. “I ain’t this Jake fella,” he admitted. “Name’s Sleepy Bright.” My gaping grin and adoring eyes dimmed with disappointment. “But I am a mountain man and this here’s my cabin.” He chuckled again as my eyes doubled in size with unbounded pleasure.

From that moment I became his shadow, determined to learn everything I could about living on the mountain.

His patience was limitless as I plied questions and talked endlessly of my dreams of becoming a mountain man, just like him. He taught me how to clean and cook what we hunted and fished; how to lay traps and tan hides to make them soft for clothes or warm and odor-free for blankets and such. The fact that I had a mother and another life never entered my mind, until one night several weeks later.

Sleepy drew me before the fire and gave my head and body a good looking over. “Well, Tadpole, you look sound and fit to me,” his deep voice stated matter-of-factly. “I think it’s time I took you back to your people.”

I was devastated. Tears bubbled up in my eyes, my lower lip quivering uncontrollably. I flung my arms around his neck and hung on for dear life. His strong, callused hands were warm against my back and held me close. No words were spoken between us. But I knew he would miss me as much as I was going to miss him.

Back home again my mother, although at first overjoyed to see me, quickly became madder than a perturbed hornet and soundly beat my backside, then banished me to my room. It was several weeks before life on the farm returned to normal and I was once again allowed to come and go as I pleased. My every waking moment was taken up with talk or daydreams of Sleepy Bright and mountain life. Finally my mother forbid me to mention his name again in the house.

That day Sleepy paid a call to the farm.

In front of everyone, he gathered me up in his arms in one of his big bear hugs and booming laughter. The special bond between us was apparent to all. The only one hardened to our display of affection was my mother. Sleepy was allowed to stay the morning; Buster and Renko were given the task of informing Mr. Bright not to come again due to his bad influence over an impressionable young boy.

At that moment I hated my mother, the farm, the whole damn town.

I took Sleepy down to the fishing pond and was content to sit between his legs, propped up against his thick chest, under the old apple tree. There we talked and fished the morning away. At noon Renko came to take me home. Before leaving, Sleepy pulled a bundle from his backpack. A gift from our bear, he chuckled at me, the twinkle dancing in his eyes. Laid out on the grass was a fine hooded fur coat with matching pants, waterproof against any rainstorm, just as God had made it.

Overwhelmed with joy and misery, I clasped my arms around his waist as far as they could reach and buried my tearful face into his soft hide shirt. He smelled of smoke and the forest and all the things that I loved.

He stroked my hair for a moment, then gruffly cleared his throat and pried me loose. “Time to go, Tadpole.” His eyes glistened as we stared silently at each other.

“I don’t care what my mother says,” I rebelled. “Don’t be surprised if I show up for a visit someday soon. She’s got no right to keep us apart. You’ll see, Sleepy,” I shouted. He stood and watched as Renko pulled me along the path. “I don’t care how many beatings I get. I’m gonna see you again.”

My life changed from that moment on. I became secretive and withdrew inside myself, spending a great deal of time in my tree fort, planning my next trip up to the cabin. I kept Sleepy’s gift there for fear my mother would take it away and anything else I accumulated during my times with him.

And to my good fortune we did meet again, not more than a fortnight later in town.

Sleepy was down from the mountain to trade in summer hides and stock up on winter supplies. Soon the snow would come to the highlands, keeping him cabin bound. Until then, we made a vow to meet as often as we could at the fishing pond or in the foothills behind the farm. I was never happier than when I was with him.

Chores at the farm were completed as quickly as possible; even on days when there was no chance of seeing him. Then I was off to the fishing pond or the tree fort to practice my new skills and experiment with traps of my own invention. I was determined to put my alone time to good use until I could discuss my successes and failures with Sleepy.

At the first sign of snow in the highlands, Sleepy and I parted company until spring. I was intent on taking it like a man and shed not one tear at our goodbye. Not before I was safely shut away in my tree fort did I let the tears gush until I was exhausted.

Winter had never seemed so long or empty before.

By the time spring arrived I was another year older. Each day I travelled further and further up into the foothills, testing the trails for clearing, until I knew I could make it all the way to the cabin. Carefully I stocked my fir pack in the tree fort with food and clothing and tools. Early the next morning I left my mother a note that I would be with Sleepy for a few days and not to worry. It ended up being two weeks while we prepared his travois with winter hides and waited out old man winter’s final snowstorm.

When I returned home my backside blistered for a week. But no matter the punishment, it was never enough to keep me from meeting Sleepy at one of our secret places. My school work suffered terribly until summer vacation when once again I was free to disappear into the mountains for days on end, making token stops at the farm for a beating and to prevent my mother from convincing the town that I had been kidnapped by some crazed mountain man that needing shooting.

As summer drew to a close my mother had finally had enough. One morning she announced that I would be shipped north to a private school where I would stay for the next eight years of my life. A compromise was reached. I agreed to give my best effort and complete my education at boarding school. Summer holidays would be mine, free to travel with classmates on school tours or come home and spend as much time with Sleepy as I pleased.

What other choice did my mother have after I threatened to disappear into the mountains forever.

So it was agreed.

Even Sleepy, although saddened by our long periods of separation, was pleased to have me receiving a proper education. His philosophy may have rankled at the time but had a practical side when I was in the mood to be sensible. A man needed to know both sides of the fence to better decide where he wanted to spend his life.

To be concluded in Part 3 . . .





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