On A Lighter Note: Friend of Mine Part 3

For the next eight years I lived in a whirlwind of studies at school and summer vacations with Sleepy. Three months out of the year I was free to shed my city clothes for the soft buckskins with water shedding fringe, and lived under the guiding hands of the person I loved most in the world.

Trapping, hunting, fishing, and campouts filled my waking hours during the summer. Studies, tests, and honor grades filled the remaining year. But those three months with Sleepy had me growing straight and strong and every bit a mountain man as he was.

In my eighth year at school my mother took ill and called me home to take control of the farm. At eighteen I had the look of my late father about me; tall and long limbed, wide shoulders, and well muscled. Being skilled with hands and mind, I accepted and shouldered the responsibilities of my inheritance.

Within a year the farm was flourishing again and profits had tripled. And with the help of my aging ramrods, Buster and Renko, not to mention a dandy fistfight which left me bloodied but triumphant, I became undisputed owner-manager of the largest thoroughbred horse farm in the state.

Shortly thereafter my mother died. We buried her on the left ridge in the small fenced plot next to my father. Although we never became close, I did come to understand her better, the passion we shared for the farm helping to mend several old transgressions. I had never known her to be a soft and gentle woman, but always a rock of strength with a ferocious determination to make it in a man’s world. I believe my mother achieved all she set out to accomplish in this world and was able to go to our maker in peace.

Over the next ten years Sleepy and I visited frequently, even managing to get away on a campout every once in a while. The farm kept me busy, but there was always time for the two of us to go fishing at the pond or take a ride up into the hills and just breathe in God’s country. He refused my offer of a home at the farm right from the beginning, claiming a real house, closed in by a town, made him feel shutoff and misplaced from the forest and animals and all the things he loved best.

Secretly, I envied him his freedom.

One hot afternoon a young lad from town came galloping into the main exercise yard, shouting that Sleepy had keeled over in the saloon with barely a chug of beer passing his lips. Demanding a nearby farmhand’s saddled horse, I raced to town to find Doc Potters putting away his stethoscope and closing up his worn black bag.

His long bulk stretched out flat across a good portion of hardwood floor, Sleepy bellowed like a stuck calf to be left alone. “Let me be ya mangy old coot,” he swore at Doc, gratefully accepting my hand and a steady pull to his feet.

I settled Sleepy at the bar with a fresh beer and hurried to stop Doc Potters before he pushed through the swinging doors.

He shook his head. “Heart’s giving out,” he whispered. My eyes pleaded for another answer. “It’s only a matter of time, son. I’m sorry,” he sighed and walked away.

I joined Sleepy at the bar and realized there was no way to make him take things easier. He was going to live his life to the fullest, right up to the end. Part of me wanted to protect him, to set him up in a spare room at the big house. With medication and care he could probably go on living for years. But in my heart I knew if I was to take him away from the mountain, away from God’s country, it would kill him quicker than if I left him to his own.

I had to let him go. But we’d do it together.

It took me a week to set my affairs in order and reschedule appointments. Buster and Renko were left in charge of the farm with the ability to draw money through my assistant from the farm safe, and at the bank if needed. Crofton, the bank manager and an old school chum, was made aware of the new arrangement and promised to keep an eye on the finances. Not knowing how long I’d be gone, every contingency was hopefully accounted for as I intended to spend what remaining time there was with Sleepy.

He jumped for joy when I told him my plans to take a vacation from the farm and just live with him up on the mountain. I never let on that our time was limited, nor ever tried to keep him from doing what he wanted. It was like summer vacation all over again. That sweet old man filled me with such happiness and love. Even God’s country was happy to see the two of us roaming the high country again.

One morning near the end of August, Sleepy said it was time to show me his last secret place on the mountain. We grabbed up a couple of tin pails and our backpacks and started out. After several hours I could see we were headed for the top of Blackberry Mountain. We made camp that night below the steep rise. Sleepy barely slept, suffering from severe pains in his chest due to the hard climb. I made a pot of coffee and we talked through the night. Something in his voice made me realize he knew his time was close at hand.

At first light I helped him up the steep rise to the plateau. There, arm in arm, we shared the splendor of the waking sun. For several minutes we rested, watching the golden rays stretch out across the multi-patterned valley far below. In time his breathing returned to normal and the pain subsided. We picked plump blackberries for the longest time, content in each other’s company. When I grew weary I settled on a grassy knoll and invited him to join me. He stretched out beside me, his shaggy head resting on my crossed legs.

“You’ve been like a son to me, Avery Dutton,” he softly sighed, a content smile creasing his face.

An emotional lump choked my throat at his gruff voice saying my name for the very first time. From the moment we met I had always been Tadpole. Tears filled my eyes as he turned his head to me.

“You are my son and I love you,” he smiled, eyes twinkling. From his shirt pocket he pulled out a folded envelope and handed it to me. “This is for all the happiness you’ve brought to my life. When I go, bury me here in this special place.”

As he had done so often for me when I was young, I pulled him between my legs and hugged him to my chest. Together we rocked in silence and watched the sun climb higher above the mountain peaks. It was too beautiful a day for sorrow. With a soft blue sky above us and the velvet green grass below, I felt him shudder and expel his last breath.

Sleepy Bright died peacefully in my arms in the one place he loved best. I buried a piece of my heart and soul with him that beautiful August afternoon. For two days I camped beside his grave, just remembering all the wonderful times we shared. It was a strange feeling, but as I packed up to go it was as if Sleepy was there beside me. Everywhere I looked, everything I touched, Sleepy was there. I realized I would never be alone on the mountain.

With one last look out at the world below, I pushed my hands into pockets to savor the moment and discovered the worn folded envelope that Sleepy had given me. As his closest friend and son by choice, he had willed me his cabin and Blackberry Mountain. The formal documents were waiting for my signature at the bank in town.

As a boy I had gone looking for my dime novel hero. Instead, I found Sleepy Bright, a man with strength and heart as big as the mountain he loved.

The End




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: