The crow gang that hangs around White Cedars had been racketing away for about an hour before a smudgy blur of sun crawled up over the far treetops of the Big Woods and I finished up my last-ever stretch on the Quaker Hill lookout tower. They sounded crazy-happy and drunk, the way they get when they’re having fun mobbing an owl or hawk. Or maybe they were just making a whoop-it-up for their own entertainment. Either way or something else, they were not helping my jitters any.
It looked to be another steamy day that the sun would be dragging along behind it. I was already beaded up and licking sweat off my upper lip as I ran the white banner up the tower’s flagpole. When the watchers on the Daw’s Hill and Piney Hill towers flew theirs, too, I lowered the white and raised the green all’s-secure banner for the south gate sentinels, rang the bell three times, and then set about pacing the upper deck walkway while waiting for my relief.
Usually I enjoyed the solitude of night watch. On quiet nights, I’d fill the empty hours reading by my candle lantern. But I’ll admit to always having been more than a little bit glad to move on to a different assignment after a two-week watch rota. The local rovers never cause the farm problems because they depend on it for trade. When the hot season set in, they’d hole up in their dens way deep in the Big Woods and along the shores of Huron and Georgie Bay, and we’d rarely see them again until late autumn. But if bandits came breezing through on their way to who-knows-where and up to who-knows-what, well, that could be a whole different story. True, White Cedars has a long history of busting up raiders without raising much of a sweat, but bandits from far off might not know that and think it worth their while to have a go at getting inside the palisades for an easy grab. That’d happened only twice that I can remember, and at the end of a loud, bloody ruckus both times, our farm boys were left with a bloody mess to clean up and story-worthy reputations as true bad-asses–which around here it always pays to have. In the past couple of weeks, visiting locals reported that they’d ducked a small bandit camp about ten klicks southwest of the farm. But since there are far easier pickings than White Cedars to be had, the bandits had steered clear of the farm, and I’d had an easy time of it on watch.
It wasn’t long after I’d flown green that I heard the south gate watchers ring the come-home bell, and I soon spotted my relief double-timing down the lane. I unlatched the trapdoor, dropped the rope ladder, and scrambled down. Once he stopped huffing and puffing, he told me the day’s watchword, and then he shot up the ladder, pulled it through the trapdoor, slammed the door shut, and threw the bolts. I waited until he leaned over the wall and waved me off before I slung my gun and ditty bag over my shoulder and set off for the gate.
I didn’t leg it as fast as I usually did. I took my time and enjoyed the colors of the wildflowers along the sides of the lane, the sweet honey smell of the farm’s compost heaps, the sparrow song in the thickets, the thrumming of the windmills, and even the rowdy cawing of the crows. They were all a welcome distraction that kept me from overthinking my fast-approaching trek and the details I still had to nail down before next morning when I’d head out the east gate and start running down the Brucie Trail through the Big Woods.
After the perimeter fence guards settled their bigdogs and let me by, I hustled to the main gate. I made the open-up sign, and the guards unlatched the heavy wood doors and swung them out enough for me to pass through sideways after I gave them the watchword. Once inside, I strolled down the farm’s center lane to my barracks to wash up and sack in for a couple of hours. I knew I ought to rest up because I had a long day coming, but I couldn’t make my eyes stay closed, what with thoughts of my trek swirling around like chaff in a dust devil. I knew I’d just keep on tossing around sweaty and sleepless, so I jerked myself up to check my pack. Again.
I dumped the contents on the floor for at least the fifth time in the past couple of days. I knew full well that I had everything in order, but the one thing I might carelessly leave behind could make the difference between life or death, so another few minutes checking my kit once more wasn’t completely daft.