He stood up and with a smile every bit as charming as my grandpa Elliott after he had finished one of his funny stories said, "Are you ready, Jimbo? Once we walk out of this cafeteria there's no turning back for you."
Even though I had already given him my word, I thought it was pretty nice that he was giving me an out again. The truth was the thought of leaving ma and the family with nary a good bye was giving me second thoughts. I looked at him for a second, thinking, and again just had that feeling that this was something I was meant to do, and that if I didn't I would regret it for the rest of my life. "Yeah, I'm sure," I said with as much conviction as a twelve-year-old can muster. "By the way," I added, "Just what do I call you? You obviously know my name even though I never told you -- it's only right that I know yours."
He laughed and it sounded musical, so much so that I actually smiled, and I have to tell you, this was a pretty tense thing for me to be doing. My smile turned into a laugh and it released tension, laughing with him. The thought came into my mind just then that it was but the first of many we would share together. "For now, you can call me Ridge Walker. When the time is right, I will tell you my name, how's that?"
Well it was good enough I guess, because it had to be. I felt I was being charmed by him and I remember wondering if all Ridge Walkers could charm people like he could. "Ok Ridge Walker, let's go."
He nodded his head in agreement and said, "Jimbo, we're off." As we walked out the front door I saw him hand an envelope to Miss Lizzy. I thought nothing of it, though part of me wondered what was in it. By the time we were at the edge of town I had forgotten all about it.
As we walked, he started talking to me. I was filled with the excitement of knowing I was starting the biggest adventure of my life. This was bigger than even last summer when Skeeter and Tommy and I went exploring the gulch on the other side of the hill from town and found what we were just sure was buried treasure. It wasn't, and all we had done was get covered with red dots from stinging nettles, but it was still the best thing any of us had ever done. "Jimbo," he said for the second time. "Pay attention here. I'm going to give you your first lesson in being a Ridge Walker. I want you to match my stride as best as you can. Take each step at the same time I do, with the same foot, the same distance. Try and match my every movement exactly. Do you think you can do that?"
I nodded my head, the final traces of thoughts of home fading away. They wouldn't return for a very long time. I know it was his doing, too. I of course had no idea just what a Ridge Walker was, I just knew I wanted to be with this guy. He seemed magical to me, and in that I was not far from the truth. I wasn't sure if I was afraid or excited, or both.
"One final thing, you're doing good walking Jimbo, one final thing. You must remain completely silent, can you do that?"
Again I nodded my head and since he was all serious I spoke, "Yes."
With that he started to sing. Now I don't know what I was expecting but you can bet your last dollar it wasn't that this guy was going to start singing what sounded like church hymns. I stifled a laugh. We were walking the trail to Gazzem lake. I knew it well, as it was a hang out for all the local kids, even ones as young as I. The trail started out for the first mile or so going through the Grand Forest of Bainbridge. The underbrush was dense and brushed against us as we walked side by side. I'll be honest here, all my attention was on walking just like he did so it took me some time to notice what was happening.
We were no longer on the trail to Gazzem lake. It was -- but it wasn't. It looked the same but the underbrush had started to change. It grew first taller, and then thinned out, and finally changed to tall ferns, taller than both of us. The whole time he was singing. It sounded absolutely haunting but not in a bad way. It was spooky, though. The trees grew thicker and taller and part of me knew we were now far, far away from the Lemon Tree and the Bloody Bucket. In fact, I had no idea where we were. It seems we had been going about an hour, maybe more, when we came on a clearing in the middle of the forest. Thick lush grass carpeted the area, and I'm telling you, it looked like something out of a fairy tale book. It was beautiful.
"Let's rest here for a bit, Jimbo. You have done an excellent job walking with me. You really have a knack for this, you know. One day you will be a Ridge Walker." He said it like he was giving me a huge compliment, which I knew he was.
Me? I was dying with curiosity so I said nothing to acknowledge the compliment. I had a hundred questions I wanted to throw at him, but had this feeling that I shouldn't just yet. I can't explain it, really. I did manage to let one slip through though, and his answer chilled me to the bone. "How far from home are we?"
He looked at me calmly and put his hand on my shoulder and replied. "You mean how far and when? Both are a long ways from home."
* * *
Two days had gone by and there was a commotion outside the bloody bucket like no one had ever seen and there in the center of it all was old man McCartle and Mrs. Miller. She was laying into him and looked for all the world like she was going to haul off and hit him any moment. A crowd had gathered around them to see what was going on that was getting larger by the minute. Everything fell silent though, when Miss Lizzy walked right through the crowd and up to Mrs. Miller and said, "Mabel, I was asked to give this to you, I'm sorry it took me a couple of days, I hope it was nothing important." She turned to leave and old man McCartle had the presence of mind to gently place a hand on her shoulder.
"Hold up there a minute Miss Lizzy," he said, "Let's all have a look at what's in that envelope you brought." Truth be told he was glad to get Mrs. Millers attention off of him and onto the envelope. All eyes were on the envelope and Mrs. Miller. It seemed as if she had just noticed there was in fact a crowd around her, because she blushed and muttered something no one could hear. She carefully ripped open the envelope at the end and turned it on end. A shiny gold coin rolled out and into the palm of her hand. A collective gasp came from the crowd. No one had ever seen gold before let alone a coin as large and as bright and shiny as that one. It barely fit into her hand. It had to be worth a fortune. She just stared at it along with everyone else for several long seconds. A voice from the crowd voiced a question that would seem to have an obvious reply, asking what it was.
Old man McCartle cleared his throat to get everyone's attention and then spoke calmly, "That's a Morning Star." It was vintage McCartle. He spoke something that meant absolutely nothing to anyone and then left them hanging. All eyes turned to him and his head tilted slightly and the barest of smiles crossed his face. He was once again in control and Mrs. Miller even had calmed down, for the moment at least, and was looking at him expectantly. He let them all look at him, letting the silence draw out, waiting for someone to say something. Someone would eventually, it didn't really matter who. This time it was Mrs. Miller, which was, in fact, perfect.
"What's a Morning Star," she asked? Her voice had softened a bit but you could still see there was fire in her eyes. She was just looking for answers to where her son had disappeared to. As long as she was finding answers or thought she was, she seemed to be under control.
"Well now," McCartle spoke. He measured his words, parsing out the information slowly as only he could to make the moment last, but not so much as to make Mrs Miller lose patience. He really did have a sense of timing in telling a story and he did love an audience. "It's the answer to what happened to your son. You see, that there coin you're holding in your palm is the calling card of a Ridge Walker. I haven't seen one of them in years and years. The only time anyone ever sees one of them though is when . . ." and there he stopped seemingly lost in thought.
Seconds dragged and the fire flared in Mrs. Miller's eyes as she reached out to grab McCartle but he lightly took a step back and held his hands up. You wouldn't have thought someone that old could have moved that quickly. She almost screamed at him, "When what man! For God's sake speak."
Normally McCartle would love letting his information go a bit at a time, but he knew Mrs Miller had gotten far too worked up to get any more enjoyment out of this. He spoke with an uncharacteristic calmness, compassion even. "Mrs Miller, what it means is that your son is going to become a Ridge Walker. It means it's going to be a long time before you see him again. It means you don't need to worry about him any more. If you look in that envelope you will most likely find a letter that will explain everything to you." Mrs. Miller collapsed right where she was standing onto the street and began sobbing uncontrollably.