Summary:The friends travel, meet a Cougarberra, and the boy gets a better name.
Part five- Owing
If you take the long view on it, having his people reject him in such a final and undeniable way helped my friend (who I try never to call Mudboy anymore). Point of fact, his spirits been improving with each and every mile we put between ourselves and his old village. By the end of the second day, we were back to the language trading we’d made our habit way back- he’d point to something or mime out some action and show me the sign for it, then I’d tell him the English for the same thing. We’d each practice our new vocabulary for a while, going back in forth- he in his broken but quickly mending speech and I in my skill-less signing.
That very thing is what we’re getting up to just now and I think I might have got the hang of the sign for pine tree when my friend smacks me on the shoulder with the back of his hand to get my attention.
“Trav! See,” he tells me quiet but excited as he points a little distance through the woods we are trudging through. I follow the angle of his finger, figuring he’s found something new for us to trade names of, but boy howdy, am I wrong!
What he is pointing at through the trees is some kind of animal. It is large, with yellow-brown mottled fur- it almost disappears into the shadows of the forest floor, and it looks mean- mean and hungry. And, even worse, it spotted us before we spotted it, so it’s crouched down and ready to spring on us at its leisure.
“Trav, come,” he says, stepping carefully sideways and tugging me along by the elbow. I don’t know if he knows what he’s doing, but he does know a might more about the flora of this time than I do. I bet he’s the same about the fauna- all that time he used to spend alone in the woods outside his village. Besides, I’ve got nothing better to offer up for a suggestion. We sidle along for almost a minute, the predator following us with his eyes, what looks like amusement in his expression as he watches his food dance- some pre-dinner entertainment.
“I do believing this is not going to pass muster,” I say through gritted teeth, knowing that I’ve used words my friend don’t understand, but reckoning that my shaky tone and the situation should get my meaning across just the same.
“Yes, Trav,” he assures me in a hiss. “Just there.” He tilts his head a tiny bit in the direction that we’re heading and I risk taking my eyes off the beast to glance at what he means.
Through the trees I can see a place, about twenty-five yards away, where both the trees and the underbrush stop abruptly. At first I think it’s a clearing, which doesn’t seem like much of a help, all things considered, but then I see that it isn’t a clearing, so much as it’s a cliff. There doesn’t seem to be any thing beyond it and I can’t quite work out how going over a possibly deadly drop is going to do anything but help the big-teethed thing’s side of things by tenderizing his meat.
“We run off,” my friend instructs, just to make sure I know how bad the plan is.
“What? Un-uh, no way, not this sucker. There had to be another way,” I plead.
“This way!” He yells it this time- an order, and the beastie picks that moment to spring at us. We run for the cliff, Mudboy still dragging me by the arm, the growls of our pursuer getting louder and closer.
The animal is almost on us when we make the cliff and, without any other choice, I jump along with my friend (who I will apparently follow anywhere). It feels like we hang in the air for a moment as if we are in an old cartoon or a too stylized action flick before we fall. My stomach is in my throat and the wind is in my ears. I’ve been through worse- the flashitty-nashitty to point to one example, but gonna die is gonna die and it ain’t no fun no matter how it happens.
Then we hit bottom and I’m surprised at how death feel like- well feels like anything, because it seems like it shouldn’t, but it does. It feels like smacking against a brick wall (which makes sense) and being chilled to the bone (also sensical) and not having any air (sort of expected). What it don’t feel much like is redemption (nor punishment neither)- no welcoming pearly gates or fiery pit, just pain, pressure and cold. Cold, except for the one warm spot where I can still feel my friend’s hand clutching at my elbow.
I open my eyes, which have been closed since that last doozy of a step, thinking of how I really shouldn’t still feel like I even have eyes, never mind expecting to be able to open them. I see grayness and- are those bubbles? I turn my head to see Mudboy swimming beside me, trying to pull me up towards the light. For a half second more I still figure I’m dead and he’s my guide to heaven, but then I connect it all up and know that we’re in water.
We swim up, gasping for breath as we break surface. My friend, my savior points behind me. I turn around, treading water (but only just) and see that the creature is in the water, too. It is darned unhappy about that fact and swimming for the closer bank instead of for us. We swim to the opposite bank from the animal and as we make land, I can see the beast pacing on the other side of the river, still hoping to find a way to make us its dinner. From this vantage, it looks like some kind of cross between a cougar and a bear. A Cougarberra, I think to myself, but I don’t share the joke.
We lay on the shore of a fairly large river, panting and flailing for a few minutes as we recover from the recent glut of fear and lack of oxygen. When we can finally sit up, I look over at my friend, whose smiling wide and certain with the good thing he’s done in throwing us off a cliff.
“All right, smart guy, now tell me how you knew there was a river down here?”
He shrugs at me. “Saw it before.”
“Before when? I been with you constant the last two months,” I ask him as I run my hands through my hair to get out the sandy pebbles that are sticking in it from me being down on the dirt just before.
“Not when we pee,” he says with that same bright smile, and he gets to his feet. I reluctantly do the same (I’d rather spend a few more quality minutes resting on the dirt).
He wades into the water to retrieve his sopping wet bundle which is about the onliest thing of his that made it through the wildfire on account of it having been hanging from his shoulder at the time. He takes a gander at the contents, dumping out the soaked through herbs and well smushed berries he’d had inside.
“No good- all no good,” he mutters and dunks the cloth bag back in the water to empty it completely.
“Small sacrifice. We’ll find more.” I start walking towards an open bit in the tree line that begins a little way from the river, where the dirt must be more hospitable to trees than the shifting, sandy bank. My friend doesn’t answer, but he does follow my lead, so I take that for a sort of agreement.
“Man, I have to thank you,” I say a few minutes later, when I remember that I haven’t yet. We are walking along what might just be an overgrown path from somewhere to the river, or it might not be. I can’t rightly tell yet. “If you hadn’t sent me over that cliff, I’d be a goner, for sure. I’m owing you big time for that. You know what? That’s not the only thing I’m owing you for. I’m owing you for the good food that we eat, and the good deodorizing thing you taught me with the mud and the fact that the same mud keeps me from having sunburn on the back of my neck, not to mention how I owe for you my sanity just because you’re someone to talk to who will listen and understand at least half of what I’m saying. My friend, I am owing you- I am owin’- no.” I pause a minute suddenly hearing what I’m saying in a new light. “No- you’re Owen.”
“Trav?” he asks in that way that I know to mean he wants clarification.
“Ha- ha! That’s your new name- you’re Owen.”
“Name is Mudboy,” Owen insists, uncertainly.
“Nah- Mudboy’s not really a good one- Owen, Owen’s a really good one,” I assure him, because it is. I’ll not forget what I owe him if he’s got Owen for a name, which is somehow mighty important to me just now.
“Owen?” He says it slowly, like he’s trying it on for size.
“Take it. It’s a good name.”
“Owen.” This time he sounds satisfied with it- and he’s wearing that same good smile of his again and I know he’s gonna keep it.