Part Nineteen: Wanderer
“Here,” said Uncle Al, planting a boot on a handy rock with the air of a conqueror. “Take a load off, boys, and put your feet up. We’re home.”
Marcus surveyed their new campsite with an eye toward defensibility—high ground, good footing, excellent view. “Nice.”
“We’re going to sleep in a cave?” Ransom asked incredulously.
“For two nights,” Al confirmed. “Unless you object …?”
“Are you kidding? We’re gonna sleep in a cave!”
“This place barely counts,” said Marcus. “It’s more of an overhang.”
“I’m putting this down as a cave,” Ransom said as he reached up to touch the ceiling. “Stone walls, dirt floor. This definitely counts.”
Ransom had followed through on his plan to start a new list. Taking a proverbial page from Aleff’s book, the makeshift record of their travels was mostly written on the backs of placemats. Strange stuff, silly stuff, and whatever other stuff Ransom never wanted to forget.
Marcus pressed his palm to cool, damp stone, which offered a welcome shelter from the heat and humidity. Moss softened the edges, and a natural shelf lined the back wall, just long enough for two sleeping bags if they unrolled them end-to-end. “Yep, this counts.”
Uncle Al said, “Stow your gear, and we’ll take a closer look at that river. Days like this are made for swimming.”
“For a city boy, Ransom’s certainly gotten the hang of running wild,” remarked Aleff.
Glancing Ardon’s way, Marcus said, “He’s open to new things.”
Jedrick hummed. “That may work in his favor … or prove disastrous.”
Daichi picked up the T-shirt Ransom had left crumpled on the ground, shook it out, and draped it over a bush before quietly saying, “Ransom is running wild, but he does not run alone.”
“Nope.” Marcus peeled out of his own shirt and tossed it at Daichi’s feet. “You coming?”
“I will follow.”
Aleff winked, “We’ll be along shortly. Go play.”
Marcus easily picked up his friend’s trail. Ransom had dumped his shoes and socks along the side of the narrow path. Bare footprints in the fine dust led straight to a tree that leaned out over the river bend below.
Ransom beckoned from his perch among smooth branches. “What took you so long?”
“Just making sure Daichi comes, too.”
“Awesome.” Ransom’s gaze lingered briefly on the zigzags of color decorating Marcus’s shoulders. “Your uncle mentioned swimming, but how are we supposed to get to the water?”
Ransom eyed the fifteen-foot drop. “Think it’s safe?”
“Hard to tell.” The river moved sluggishly, with barely a ripple on its dark surface, but Marcus couldn’t guess its depth. “We better wait for Uncle Al.”
They ranged upward instead, climbing until slender branches bowed beneath their weight.
Marcus was working his way back down when Aleff called, “Catch!”
Leaning out, Marcus snagged a spinning bundle.
“What’s the rope for?” asked Ransom, causing leaves to rustle as he hurried to join Marcus.
Aleff grinned broadly. “That branch there.”
Ransom’s gaze turned speculative. “Are we setting up a swing?”
“That’s the general idea. How are you at knots, Marcus?”
He shook his head. “You better do it.”
Uncle Al shed boots, socks, and shirt before swinging easily into the tree limbs with them. With impressive balance, he crouched on his chosen branch and began a complicated knot. He called, “Daichi, be a dear and make sure there aren’t any nasty surprises in the river.”
“Whoa!” muttered Ransom. “Smooth.”
All Marcus caught was the tiny cascade of droplets Daichi displaced when he knifed cleanly into the water.
Ransom frowned at the spreading ripple pattern. “Isn’t head-first a bad way to check for problems?”
Aleff chuckled. “Daichi isn’t a careless person. That was a shallow dive. And this knot should do the trick.”
Daichi surfaced and shook hair from his eyes. “All is well. Come.”
Ransom’s grip tightened on an overhead branch. He gulped audibly.
Treading water, Daichi called, “Where is your courage, young warrior? Jump.”
Quirking a brow at Marcus, Ransom said, “You first?”
“Yep.” With a smirk, he added, “Watch me.”
Marcus skipped the rope, running lightly along their branch until it began to bow. With a spring, he flung himself into the air, entering the water feet-first. He surfaced to the sound of his best friend whooping and hollering encouragement.
Swimming back to make room, Marcus beckoned. “You next!”
Ransom edged out and held his nose. He seemed to be counting, but Aleff rolled his eyes and helped him along with a casual shove. Ransom’s yelp was followed by a mighty splash. He came up grinning. “Let’s go again!”
“But how do we climb up?”
Back on the riverbank, Aleff pointed upstream. “A second rope is already in place. Daichi can show you where. But first …!”
“Back up, boys,” warned Daichi.
Tying a knot at the end of the rope swing, Uncle Al rode it out over their heads. At the highest point, he let go, tucked his knees to his chest, and hollered, “Cannonball!”
Marcus sprawled bonelessly atop his sleeping bag, drained after spending most of the day in and out of the river. Feels like I went through a long sparring session with Taweel and Tamaes. A smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth as he imagined sending them a postcard.
Ransom’s fist bumped his. “How high are we?” he asked quietly. “Does this count for a mountain?”
“Don’t think so. It’s more of a ridge. Or a hill.”
“Too bad. You had mountaintop on our list.”
“Yep.” Marcus rolled onto his side and checked on Aleff, who appeared to be sound asleep. He’d probably entered dreams. “We’ll see mountains out west.”
“We should still climb this one, though.”
“Gonna be dark soon,” Marcus said. “Let’s wait until tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” Ransom agreed, then raised his voice slightly. “Hey, Daichi. How much longer?”
While Uncle Al was in charge of locating food in the form of diners, whenever they were roughing it, meals were Daichi’s responsibility.
“That’s not a straight answer,” Ransom grumbled, crossing to Daichi’s side.
The man poked into their fire pit with a long metal skewer. “It is the truth.”
“Can I help?”
Daichi raked coals aside and pulled free several ash-covered lumps. “Please set up the rack.”
Marcus stayed where he was while his older brother quietly coached Ransom through last-minute preparations for their meal. The ember-roasted sweet potatoes released puffs of fragrant steam. Skewered onions filled their shelter with a savory aroma, and Daichi added pinches of salt and herbs to the fish he’d brought up from the river.
“Seriously. How’d you catch them without a pole?” Ransom asked for the fifth time.
Suddenly, something zinged through the air. Marcus barely had time to register the throw before a peach smacked into Daichi’s palm.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Ransom. “How’d you know that was coming for your head?”
Daichi smiled faintly. “Let us say I am accustomed to Uncle Al’s antics.”
“I was simply demonstrating your excellent reflexes.” Aleff sat up and sniffed appreciatively. “And I am fully prepared to appreciate your ninja cooking skills.”
Ransom grinned crookedly. “A ninja who cooks?”
“Right before your very eyes,” said Uncle Al. “Though if you blink, you’ll miss it.”
“Miss what?” Ransom looked between them. “Marcus, what are they …?”
Marcus knew this game; he’d played it many times. All he could do was point back at Uncle Al, who’d found a few stray leaves on the ground. Lifting them by their stems one after the other, he slowly said, “One … two … and three!”
His countdown mostly covered the soft fwish-tap that accompanied the disappearance of each leaf.
“They vanished!” Ransom goggled at Aleff. “Where’d they go?”
“Over here,” said Marcus, indicating to a tangle of exposed roots near the corner. Three gleaming skewers pinned Al’s missing leaves into place.
“How …? You mean …?” Ransom’s attention swung back to Daichi, who calmly divided food onto four plates. He groaned, “Aw, man! I didn’t see a thing!”
Uncle Al smugly said, “I warned you not to blink.”
Early the next morning, Marcus followed Ransom along the winding trail leading to their ridge’s summit. Looking back, he caught the shine of water between the trees. Day would break soon, but clouds were building to the west. The heaviness in the air promised rain.
“Looks like someone beat us to the top,” said Ransom.
Daichi sat with his back to a broad tree trunk, writing in a pocket-sized journal with thick pages.
Once they were close enough, Marcus could see the spare lines of a sketch that captured the essence of a lone tree leaning out past the verge, clinging tenaciously to crevices in the bare stone.
“You’re an artist?” asked Ransom.
“Let us say I am a poor photographer.”
“What are you writing about?” he persisted.
Turning the book slightly, Daichi showed them a page filled with vertical rows of characters.
“Might as well be written in code,” said Ransom. “Is that Japanese?”
“It is.” In measured tones, Daichi explained, “My thoughts are not clear to me until I see them written. These are wandering thoughts, captured in ink.”
“Did you write anything about me?” asked Ransom
Daichi beckoned him closer and turned back a few pages.
Ransom leaned into the man’s broad shoulder. “What’s it say?”
With a faint smile, he translated the spare lines.
A young warrior
Eager to taste adventure
Rides out—his first quest.
“No kidding? How come you keep calling me and Marcus warriors?”
Daichi’s voice warmed. “Let us call it an endearment.”
Marcus tilted his head to read the part Daichi hadn’t read aloud. His final lines that turned the haiku into a tanka.
If God Most High be gracious,
Ransom will find great treasure.
Next Month: Angel Unaware, Part 20: “Happy Camper”
Collect the other Threshold-based serials now available in print and digital formats: