It had been snowing all day, the loose powdery kind that makes for great sled riding. This could mean only one thing – kids from miles around would be gathering at Timmy Hunter’s house for a nighttime sledding party. My older brothers and sister, Mick, Bob, and Kathy, were already bundled up three layers thick and headed out the door when I shouted, “Wait for me.” As always, I was bringing up the rear.
I dressed quickly and couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes behind when I reached the end of our lane. From the three sets of footprints and sled-runner tracks I could see that Mick, Bob, and Kathy had gone by way of the road and were already out of sight around the first curve. I paused trying to decide whether to run and try to catch up or take the trail through Bradford’s woods.
The road was the easy choice but it was a good two miles to Timmy’s house, while the trail through the woods was scarcely half that distance, and I wondered why they hadn’t gone that way.
If I hurried I might even beat them to Timmy’s, so without further hesitation I headed across the road and climbed over the rickety gate that blocked the entrance to the old wagon road. Within minutes I reached the point where the old road turned into a foot trail. The sun had set and a crescent moon was starting to take its place but it offered little help in seeing my way along the trail. For a second I wished I’d taken the main road, but turning back now didn’t make much sense so I hurried along kicking the loose snow, which was 6 or 8 inches deep and still coming down.
I had walked this trail dozens of times and thought I knew it well, but the further I got into the woods the less sure I was of the trail’s course. The problem was, all the other times I’d been on this trail I was bringing up the rear, not leading the way. I wasn’t exactly scared but I was getting a little worried so I started talking out loud to boost my confidence. “Yep, I remember that big tree up ahead. When I pass it the trail will turn left.” But when I passed the big tree the trail made an abrupt right turn and opened into a small clearing. Nothing looked familiar but I could see well enough to tell that the woods dropped off steeply just ahead.
As I pondered again whether to turn around I spotted a dim light in the distance. “I think that light’s coming from Hermit Joe’s cabin,” I said out loud. This was all the motivation I needed to press on.
I had heard stories about Hermit Joe but the closest I’d ever come to seeing him was watching him pass by our house on one of his infrequent visits to town for supplies. He always did so seated high on an old buckboard wagon drawn by a mule that looked to be as old as him.
Hermit Joe’s real name was Joe Bradford. He was a great (or great-great) grandson of Tom Bradford who settled the land around there in the early 1800s and built the falling down cabin that this descendant now called home. It was said that Joe Bradford had fought and been badly wounded in a battle somewhere in France during World War I. As evidence of his wounds Joe walked with a stiff limp aided by a self-made walking stick.
Worse yet, the young lady Joe Bradford married before going off to war (whose name I never heard), died in the flu epidemic of 1918, just months before Joe returned from the War. It was not long after returning from the War that he took up squatter’s rights at the old homestead and soon became known as Hermit Joe. For more than forty years he had been getting by on his small veteran’s pension, and by hunting game and raising a small garden.
Until I reached that clearing in the woods I had been pulling my sled, but now I held it under one arm and slowly started picking my way through the trees and down the hillside toward the light of Hermit Joe’s cabin. Somehow a runner of the sled got caught on a tree limb causing me to lose my footing and I tumbled halfway to the bottom of the hill, coming to rest rather painfully against a large rock.
I stood to my feet and looked around for my sled which was nowhere to be seen. Figuring I could comeback for it later, I set my mind and eyes on making my way to the light of the cabin, but before I’d gone another ten feet I caught my foot on something under the snow and tumbled all the way to the bottom of the hill, somehow missing several large trees on the way.
This time I had to struggle to get to my feet. I had sprained an ankle and could barely stand. Suddenly a cold chill ran through my body that was half cold air and half fear. Nobody knew where I was. What if I couldn’t make it to Hermit Joe’s cabin? What if I froze to death and no one found me until spring? The thought of it made me determined to not give up, and in a loud resolute voice I said, “I’ll crawl if I have to.”
“Who goes there?” a voice suddenly shouted from some distance away.
“I’m over here,” I shouted as I fell back in the snow with tears welling up in my eyes at the joy of hearing Hermit Joe’s voice. In a minute He was standing over me leaning on his walking stick. He helped me to my feet and said, “Land sakes boy, who are you, and what are you doing way out here?”
I told Hermit Joe my name and brief story as we shared his walking stick to make our way to his cabin. Safely inside he sat me by the fire and put a wool blanket around my shoulders. Then he reached for his backpack and pulled out a whiskey flask. “Here,” he said, “Take a sip of this. When you’re warmed up we’ll get you home.” He could see my hesitation and said, “Go on, it won’t hurt you, it’ll warm you up.” So I took my first ever sip of whiskey and handed the flask back to Hermit Joe. My face was flush red and I caught my breath, but Hermit Joe paid me no mind as he took an especially long swig, than capped the flask and slipped into a side pocket of the backpack.
Joe left the cabin for a few minutes and when he returned he said, “Come on, let’s get you home.” He handed me a walking stick from behind the door and together we walked stiff legged out the door to where the buckboard wagon and mule were waiting. Joe lifted me up to the seat then climbed up beside me and tugged on the reins. It was a long ride around the low end of the woods to the road and then to our house and neither of us spoke a word the whole way, but I leaned over against Hermit Joe’s side and he put his arm around me.
When Hermit Joe pulled his mule to a stop in front of our house I managed to get down on my own, then turned and said “Thank you, Mr. Bradford.”
In the dim light of the moon I could see a warm smile on Hermit Joe’s face. “I’m just glad I was out checking on old Ben (his mule), else I never would have heard you calling for help. You can keep the walking stick, and here take this too, you might need it sometime.” With that Hermit Joe handed his backpack down to me then tugged on the reins and pulled away.
In the house I told Mom about my adventure, and repeated it again with some embellishment when my brothers and sister got home, but I didn’t tell them about the sip of whiskey and never showed any of them the empty whiskey flask tucked in the side pocket of the backpack.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.