Leatherman's Cave

There was this Frenchman back in the late 1800s who, because of his peculiar mode of dress, became known as the Leatherman. Clad entirely in leather, from hat to boots, Jules Bourglay made a routine trek along the East Coast annually. Along the way he stayed in caves, and there are still many such shelters named after him. There were special houses where he stopped for food, and isolated farm folk anticipated his visits and warmly received him.

It was to one such Leatherman's Cave, our own local landmark, that we brought Tyler on a colorful November afternoon. The maples were just past their peak but still lovely, and the oaks were burnished copper-red in the slanting sunlight. Various shades of yellow, from ash trees and beeches, were outstanding against a backdrop of evergreens as we embarked on the narrow trail.

We scrunched under the bar that stopped vehicular traffic and kicked through the fallen leaves carpeting the path. Tyler pulled off his hat and opened his jacket as he raced on ahead into an expected adventure he as yet knew nothing about. Bob and I, being placid grandparents opting to relish our memories, walked with more measured paces and no less pleasure.

At first we weren't certain we could locate Leatherman's Cave after so many years away from it. But somehow we took the right fork and leaned in the proper direction. We came to a spine of gray rocks shouldering up left of the trail, which kept narrowing, and we began to sense the old feeling of being there. Bob took another left turn just to make sure, while Tyler and I forged ahead, keeping alert for some opening in the rocks.

Bob was soon back, pushing ahead to the lead again, searching with fresh eagerness for the old cave entrance. A couple of times we almost found it but on inspection realized our misjudgment. Ty dashed through the dry brush - beggarlice, burdock, and other stick-tights, powdery goldenrod, and tangles of briery vines - to be hooked back by our pronouncement: ''No, that's not it, either.''

Finally Bob stumbled on the entrance - unmistakably there - remembered from our days of scouting and hiking through those overgrown fields. The huge gray slabs of rock tilted and leaned, as they'd always done, making a sloping flat roof over an irregular entrance between the bottom rocks. Quickly Tyler headed into the shadowy mouth, almost disappearing in spite of our calls to ''wait, wait for us!''

Then: ''Here's where he sat. Here's where he kept his supplies - where he kept things dry,'' we agreed. There was the shelf, there the stone seat, the dry-dust floor, the many side-niches where - today, perhaps - small animals found shelter. But there, remnants of a recent fire - charred embers in a makeshift stone circle! And off in the tall grasses an incongruous picnic table!

Then we recalled how, as earlier foragers, we had come through this woodland in groups. How grand it might have been had we been able to toast weiners and marshmallows over such a small fire as was here suggested. I remembered a neighbor who had come with his Scout troop and actually slept out in front of the cave in a bedroll. He wasn't concerned about lurking foxes or skunks or screech owls, curled up beside his leader close to the fire. Yes, the picnic table might have been an anachronism - but it wasn't entirely unappreciated.

We sat and looked out on the peaceful autumn vista, as the Leatherman undoubtedly did a century back. ''What did he do, though?'' Tyler wanted to know. ''Why would he live like that?''

''Nothing that we know of.'' Perhaps he enjoyed the wildlife all around him, the changing seasons, the serene and leisurely moods of nature. The legend didn't contain many facts, only that he came from France after a business failure and disappointed love affair. ''He never talked to anyone, just chopped a bit of wood for his dinner, maybe, and then moved on. There were berries along the way, and he could drink from any running stream - they were all pure then.''

Tyler kicked at a soft stone that crumbled beneath his deck shoe. It had pink sand in it and glittered with mica.

''Do you think these stones were here when he was?''

''They could have been. Maybe he sat here and looked out on some of those big old oaks. Or had his own favorite nut tree. Or made friends with wild things, like deer or rabbits.''

''I don't think he was lonely here. Or sad. Do you?''

Bob's eyes met mine over Ty's head. We gazed off into the Indian-summer haze, watching a red-tailed hawk in the windy sky.

''No,'' I said, ''I think not.''

Tyler yawned and leaned back, his seven-year-old energy momentarily drained by one moment of perfect peace. It didn't last, of course. Shortly he was up and , with Bob, exploring another, smaller gap in the rocks to the right of the main entrance. ''Here's where he actually slept!'' Bob determined. And - yes - hadn't I, a skinny tenderfoot, crawled through that opening once? It was pungent- smelling and muddy at the entrance, then went dry as you slithered through.

Now, tree roots were splitting the rock, and the entire cliffside seemed to have slipped forward. To distract Ty from eel-ing in, I presented a shiny McIntosh from my pocket. He crunched into it as we began to retrace our steps, his eyes still bulging with excitement as the apple juice sprayed out.

''Boy! Wait'll I tell Todd about this!''

Here was the world of computers, the world of Superman, the world of Little League, and piano lessons come face to face with the ethic of the Leatherman's Cave - and guess who won out?

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