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




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 . . .




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 . . .





On A Lighter Note: Young At Heart

For the intellectual there are books and debates to stimulate and entertain. While the workaholic lives for boardroom dominance and late hour deadlines. But for the young at heart there is only the open road and the sound and feel of a motorcycle in motion.

Certainly there are other pursuits that offer an equal mixture of relaxation and fun. But only those of similar heart would understand when I say there is nothing quite like sitting astride a powerful two-wheeled machine, the wind a constant companion, the twist of the throttle sending a primal sounding vibration down deep like some soothing meditative mantra.

Ah, to know the uplifting joy of a long gliding lean into a wide curve. Or the spirited thrill of a side-to-side switchback dance along some empty rural road. Yes, for these indulgent pleasures we silently give thanks for a freedom no enclosed vehicle could ever hope to provide.

The curious watch us ride by with our polished chrome and custom paint gleaming. They see a romantic breed in fitted black leather and tailored full-face helmets. From behind my tinted black shield I watch their yearning eyes, can almost hear them wondering if a big bike of their own could free a soul yoked with too much hard time.

Swallowed whole inside their cheerless vehicles, I wave to those who smile and nod and wish they could know the comfort of my two-wheeled Cadillac with its cruise-control, adjustable suspension, and built-in intercom/stereo. We may crave the bareback freedom of an endless highway but comfort and beauty will always be a priority. After all, my kind is only human.

Magic happens when riders and machines come together. The world takes on a new perception and moments in time seem to hang forever.

Like an early summer morning, with the sun just breaking free of the distant horizon. And all your cares and worries have been left at home to fend for themselves for a few hours. When over the intercom you hear the rally cry,” We’ll stick to the back roads and stop for breakfast after an easy two-hour ride.”

The day may come when strength and endurance no longer abound. When our gleaming two-wheeled beast brings about more strain than pleasure. Not to worry though, we’ve planned ahead. A trike kit, if you can believe, will see us into another new riding era.

Young at heart, motorcycles, freedom. We’ll look for you on the open road.