20th century born Marty Melbourne age 67, is lost in 1781 North Carolina, trying to find his way to ‘The Trees,’ the markers for the portal through time.
“Okay, I know this is the right road, I know this is the right road, I know this is the right road,” Marty chanted as he trudged down the familiar path; or so he thought. All the bushes, trees and hills were beginning to look alike.
“This has to be the right road, this has to be the right road, please, Lord, let this be the right road,” he prayed, his lips cracked from the lack of moisture. He didn’t want to take a drink yet; he was conserving the water in his canteen. He had tanked up before leaving the creek and knew that his constant chattering was drying his mouth, but his soul and sanity needed his mantra more than his mouth and body needed water.
“So close, so close,” he babbled softly, suddenly unsure if he was on the right road.
The daylight had faded, but he knew the moon that was full three days ago would be rising soon. Marty stopped where he was and debated with himself, wordlessly in order to save his saliva, about the wisdom of proceeding rather than resting. The afterglow of the sunset was gone. He knew how easy it would be to get turned around without his solar guide. It would be wise of him to sit and wait for moonrise; wise but not what he wanted to do. He pivoted in a tight circle to check the area one more time and suddenly became confused, disoriented, and afraid. “Okay, okay; I hear you, Lord. I’ll sit and wait for your lunar compass to come up.”
Marty plopped down right where he stood, too scared to venture even the scant ten yards to his left to sit beneath the trees. It would be more comfortable to lean up against one of the sturdy sentinels, but he was afraid to venture from where he was. He didn’t want to chance heading the wrong way, or walk in circles, or go back to where he had been robbed. He shuddered. Or bump into Grant and that bone-handled knife of his that he seemed so eager to employ.
He decided it was best to remain where he was; in the narrow clearing between two stands of scrubby locust bushes. He shifted his weight. His bony butt was parked painfully on the sharp, rocky gravel, and there was no way to get comfortable. He accepted his lot, sighed in temporary defeat then carefully slipped off his sandals. He set them in front of him, pointing them, he hoped, in the direction he was to take when he resumed his trek. But, before he went any further, he had to take a short nap. He set his forehead down on his knobby knees and breathed deeply, trying to avert the panic that was sneaking in. “I’ll be okay, I’ll be okay,” he mumbled until he fell asleep, his hands falling lax to his sides, his body gently tumbling sideways to slumber soundly in the fetal position.
Marty slept hard and dreamed of kisses on his cheek. Bibb was giving him quick little chicken pecks, gradually increasing her ardor until she was licking the entire side of his face, leaving his cheek wet with slobber. Marty sucked in a lungful of wet, dusty air and awoke from his surreal dream.
The sky was rumbling with the growling thunder echoing against the low clouds that had rolled in. The firmament was a constantly changing pallet of blacks, grays and whites. The lightning bolts streaked horizontally across the sky, rarely striking the earth, instead stretching and clawing their way across the pulsing panorama. Marty looked over at the trees and briefly reconsidered seeking shelter under them. The heavy rain was now coming in at him sideways, first one direction then suddenly changing course. “Hmph,” he snorted and shook his head, “that’s all I need: to get struck by lightning.”
So Marty, now rested and recharged, stayed where he was and made the best of his situation. He insured his sandals were well anchored by adding a few more rocks so they wouldn’t be turned askew or be blown away completely. He’d need his woven reed direction indicators pointing in the right direction when daylight finally came. He grabbed a few more stones to prop up his canteen, hoping to catch some of the sporadic teaspoon-sized raindrops even if most of them were coming in at odd angles and not ‘dropping’ straight down. He stood up and took off all his clothes, employing his shirt as a wash rag to scrub the stink of the past two week’s journey off of his body. He danced in the rain, glad that he could both stand and move. “Thanks for the shower, Lord,” he sang as he twirled. He gathered as much moisture as he could into the shirt and pants and rubbed them together in a vain attempt at cleaning them.
Marty danced and washed and sang until he was worn out with his praises. “Ah, a good attitude will get you through tough times and woe more than any amount of money,” he gloated. “And I’ll be a bit less gamey when I do get back into town!” he declared positively.
Marty grinned as he remembered that he still had some granola stashed in the pocket of his leather vest. “Thanks for the food, too,” he crowed as he grabbed a couple of morsels and popped them into his mouth.
The brief downpour was a warm summer cloudburst that gratefully failed to chill the air. “Thanks again,” a worn out and satisfied Marty said softly as he snuggled his face and chest into his wadded up clothing, finding comfort in the warm, moist, and musky cotton.
This time it was a foot poking him in his backside that woke him. Marty was too at peace with himself to be frightened by the intrusion so, rather than panic, he stretched out his arms, grinned at the glow of sunrise that was visible in front of him, and slowly sat up. He totally ignored the fact that there had to be a person or animal attached to the fanny prod that had roused him. He looked away from the sunrise and turned around to see his wake up crew: three Indians and four ponies, one of them his stolen mare, complete with saddle.
“Looks like you found my horse,” he said, smiling and nodding to each of the men in greeting. “If you care to help me find my way home, I’ll be glad to let you keep her…” Marty could tell his words weren’t understood. He could just as easily been reciting the months of the year to these braves: they didn’t seem interested. What they were interested in, at least the tallest of the group, were his clothes.
Red Shirt tilted his head in confusion as he kicked the bundle of clothing away from Marty’s feet. He picked up the shirt first, shook it out to examine it, sniffed it, made a face of disgust, then threw it back down. He squatted beside the pants, ran his fingers over the brass buttons on the fly, and smiled. He stood up with the heavyweight tan cotton pants, held them in front of his hips to check the fit, and frowned. He was taken aback by the rivets at the pockets, poking the brass studs with his index finger to make sure that they weren’t bugs, or so it seemed. “Those are to reinforce the seams,” Marty volunteered then employed sign language, pulling imaginary cloth to show how sturdy the stitching was.
Marty turned slightly to see what the other two braves were doing. “My shoes!” he screeched in panic. He had been distracted with Red Shirt and the jeans and now saw that the other two braves each held one of his handmade sandals, turning them over, examining the crude workmanship, chuckling at his primitive efforts. “Where were they?” he asked in dread. “I have to know which direction…oh, bother,” he finished in exasperation, “what difference does it make now. I don’t even know if I was going in the right direction to start with.”
Red Shirt was now smiling. Evidently he figured out that the pants weren’t infested with insects and would make sturdy wear for him. He bent over sideways and untied the knot in the thong holding up his loincloth. He ceremoniously pulled the thin strip of leather away, bowed his knees apart, and let his breechclout drop to the ground. He took two steps away and sat on the ground, trying to put the pants on over his moccasins.
Marty pulled himself in emotionally and evaluated his current situation in a clinical, detached manner, seeing it as it really was. This could play out to his benefit or wind up with his death. The horse and clothes, or lack thereof, would only be a short term inconvenience for him if the Indians ‘appropriated’ them. He could ‘give’ them to them and be on his way with maybe some good directions to The Trees. Or he could make a big stink over a bit of cloth and horseflesh and wind up dead, laid out in itty bitty pieces as a fall feast for the crows. ‘No contest,’ he thought. “Here, let me show you a trick,” Marty suggested as he walked over, still bare butt naked, to become the personal dresser to the Indian brave in charge.
Evidently Marty’s good nature showed through because Red Shirt stopped his struggle and let his paleface valet take over. “Here, take off the moccasins first,” he instructed, pointing to Red Shirt’s moccasins but not touching them lest he find out the hard way that it was an insult. Red Shirt kicked them off then looked up for instructions on what to do next. “Here, stand up,” Marty said, offering his hand to the charismatic red man.
Red Shirt didn’t accept the hand but stood up unaided, cutting his eyes over to his peers to make sure he hadn’t lost their respect in dealing with the white man. If they had, they sure weren’t showing it; both of them were stone-faced, intrigued with the metal studded trousers. “See, you get one foot in, pull it up a little, then put the other foot in…there you go. Now just shimmy them up,” Marty pantomimed, causing all three of the braves to chuckle softly at his getting dressed without any clothes.
“Now the buttons; be careful. You don’t want to get your bits and pieces caught in there.” Marty illustrated by holding his private parts behind one hand while pretending to fumble with imaginary buttons with the other. Now the men were laughing out loud. Red Shirt stuffed his hand down his pants to make sure that he was all inside before pulling the stiff fabric buttonholes around the brass buttons. It took a full minute for him to get them all fastened but everyone cheered when he raised his head with a guttural shout of victory at his accomplishment.
“You look mighty fine there,” Marty complemented then bowed his head briefly to accentuate the remark. “Um, do you think that I might keep the shirt?” he asked, tentatively picking it up, sniffing it like Red Shirt had, and making his own exaggerated look of disgust at the smell: it really was quite rank.
Red Shirt laughed at his antics and moved his hand like he was shooing a bug off a biscuit: yes, Marty could keep the shirt; he didn’t want it. Marty said, “Thanks,” and donned the shirt quickly before anyone else could lay claim to it.
Red Shirt said something in his native language. Marty wasn’t an expert on American Indians but this was Bibb’s ancestor’s land. He was probably speaking Cherokee. But knowing, or making an educated guess at which tongue he was speaking, didn’t make understanding him any easier. Marty shrugged his shoulders in the universally understood, he hoped, gesture of ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
Red Shirt grinned; he knew the man didn’t understand him, but he was fun to watch. Most white men were all the same; this one was different. He’d let him keep his old breechclout and the shirt. He didn’t want to shame him but did want his pants. Red Shirt pointed to the cloth on the ground, offering it to the silly man.
“For me? Really? Now that’s mighty considerate.” Marty picked up the decorated breechclout, very clean he was relieved to see, and nodded, “Thanks!” He bent over, grabbed the leather thong then looked at the men. “Let’s see if I can figure this out…” he remarked as he held up the thong with one hand, the cloth with the other, smiling and shrugging in resignation at what he was sure was to be a one-man comedy show.
Marty bent over to the humiliating task. First, he lifted his shirt, unavoidably flashing the men with his nakedness, then tied the thong around his waist. He hoped he wasn’t making too much a fool of himself attempting to figure out how to weave the cloth up between his legs and in and over the leather waistband in the front and, Lord help him, up his backside. “Well, let’s see if this feeble old white man can figure out how to cover his ass like an Indian,” Marty joked, making broad gestures as he made a show of his lack of skill in dressing Cherokee-style. It was better to make a parody and entertain the men then stress about his lack of clothing and loss of dignity.
Marty fought the fabric and leather then realized that his main problem was the shirt: it kept getting in the way. “I still want this so don’t anyone take it, uh, please,” he asked sincerely then pulled his shirt over his head, the thong still tied around his waist but the butt flap only tucked in under his navel. Marty knew the braves were still laughing at him and now that he had the shirt off, he realized how simple the task should have been. “There!” he crowed in victory as he danced a little two step in a tight circle to show them that he had managed to cover himself adequately, at least as far as he was concerned. “Thank you, thank you very much,” he added in an Elvis Presley voice, “I’ll be here all day.”
His voice changed back to his regular, slight British accent as he asked, “Are you from around here? I mean, I’m lost and need some help getting to the big trees.” Marty was employing his own version of sign language but it didn’t seem to help. “I want to get back to my woman and son,” he said with sadness. He put his arms in front of him and drew a curvy figure in the air then placed his hands on the front of his chest to indicate big breasts then mimed cradling a baby. He realized that tears were falling down his cheeks, but he didn’t care. He wanted to be back with Bibb and to meet the son he never knew he had. And right now, it didn’t look like his chances to be with them were very good. Nope, they were slim to none.
Nope; not none. Marty looked up to the sky and put his arms up in prayer. “Lord, would you help these strong men understand that I need to go home? I don’t mean them any harm but really could use a bit of food, water, and direction. I’d appreciate it. In Jesus name; Amen.”
Red Shirt snorted an order and the youngest of the braves retrieved a bag from his horse. The three men sat down in an open circle and motioned for Marty to sit with them. The young man handed each one a modest-sized chunk of jerky then passed around the canteen of water. It appeared that two out of three of his prayer requests had just been answered. “Just a minute,” Marty said as he rifled through his vest to retrieve his contribution to the meal. “Here.” Marty offered each of the men a cashew nut then took one for himself. “Mmm, good.”
Each of the men sniffed the nut. Red Shirt, being the bravest of the braves, ventured a lick. “Hmph.” Evidently, the salty taste appealed to him because he popped the whole nut in his mouth and chewed away blissfully, grunting to his peers to try theirs.
“I wish I had more to share, but I didn’t plan on being gone this long. Then again, I didn’t plan on being without my horse either. You do know that,” he nodded with his forehead to his mare, “that is my horse.”
Red Shirt didn’t say anything. He knew what the white man was saying. He didn’t doubt that the horse had been his recently. The man he took it from didn’t fit in the saddle; the stirrups were too low for him. He also was mean to her, kicking the mare and racing her in circles just to stir up dust around the woman and child. No, the horse probably belonged to Dances Naked, but now she was his.
“You can keep the horse,” Marty offered although he knew they didn’t understand him. “I’m very grateful for the food and drink, and the new clothes are nice, too,” he said as he fingered the front of the breechclout. “But, what I’d really appreciate is direction. Now you see, there are these trees, they’re very special. You go through them here,” he said as he poked a couple of limb bits into little piles of gravel then ‘walked’ with the first two fingers on his right hand through the tree models, “and then, poof, you come out,” Marty pulled his hand away and brought it out around the other side of him, fluttering his fingers like they were wayward moths.
Red Shirt’s eyes widened. He knew where these trees were. Yes, he’d send Dances Naked in the right direction. He said he wanted to be with his woman and child. If he was willing to go through The Trees to be with them, he’d help him. But, he wasn’t going with him. That was where he lost his brother many years ago. Little Brother went into them to show how brave he was, but he never came out.
Marty saw the momentary look of terror on Red Shirt’s face. He wasn’t sure if the man understood his English or if it was just his sign language, but he knew one thing for sure: Red Shirt knew where he wanted to go.