The rest of that day flew by like one of those big skeeter hawks whizzing all shimmer and zoom along the irrigation ditches after its prey. I couldn’t fight down the urge, so I checked my pack a couple more times, cleaned my long gun, and even managed to nod off a bit before joining my mates for bullshit and supper.
After a restless, mostly sleepless night and a subdued and awkward sendoff from my cohort, I found myself standing at the foot of the sentinel tower by the inner east gate waiting for the sentry ten meters above to stop pretending he didn’t notice me.
He diddled around, humming to himself as he swung the barrel of the big hand-cranked gatling gun back and forth, tracing an arc along the tree line about ninety meters off. Next thing I heard was the guard hawking and then spitting over the side of the tower. The gob landed right in front of my left foot. Bastard, I thought, but I couldn’t get into a squabble with him because every minute I spent inside the palisades now was less time to run through the woods to a safe sheltering spot before nightfall.
I let another minute pass before I cleared my throat kind of quietly as though it really needed clearing to get him to pay attention to me. He dropped the gun barrel into its stirrup with a clunk, gave a loud yawn, and looked down at me in a poor imitation of surprise.
“Well, well, who’ve we got here? What’s up, little man?” He wrinkled up his nose like he smelled something bad and grinned, showing his grayish teeth.
“It’s out the gate for me.” He knew this already. Everyone on the farm knew it, but there were formalities to get through before I’d be on my way.
“So, then, walkies is it? And you are?”
He knew my name, too, of course, but I had to say it anyway. “Name’s Travis, Cohort of Summer Aught Three.”
“Travis is it, then? So, what’s been keepin’ ya, Travis? Ya ready to go?”
“Ready to go.”
“So you say. Papers in order, are they? Let’s have a lookee.”
I caught hold of the swinging basket he’d dropped, lifted the lid, put my papers in neat and squared away, and gave a tug on the rope. He clowned and pulled it up hand over hand like it weighed a ton just to mess with me a little more. I paid him no mind and stood there calmly like I had nothing else to do that day but wait for him to get through his stupid act. He disappeared and I could hear him making a show of flipping the papers around. He came back and looked over the wall of sandbags with a frown. “Something’s missin’ here,” he said.
Of course nothing was missing. I’d made double sure everything was in order. Just more messing with me. Play along, I thought. Arguments mean delay, and delay could mean death. “Tell what, sir,” I replied evenly.
“Your brains, for starters,” he said and then laughed like a bellowing donkey. “What the hell you leaving the farm for?”
Well, that was none of his concern, and his asking was a breach of my majority rights. I’d presented my reasons before the farm council, they’d judged it was better for everybody if I left, and that was that. So I answered, “Council business.”
He sneered and then let fly another gob. If I’d been a little slower, it would have landed in my face, but one thing I’m blessed with is quick reflexes, and I dodged it. There was no call for him to fart around like this, but he was one of those jackasses who’d never manage to stay alive for long in the woods no matter how much he tried. If he ever petitioned to take the gate, the council would’ve turned him down flat as a fool whose death they didn’t want responsibility for. Maybe they had, for all I knew. So here he was, like the galley hand, stuck with what he’d probably be doing for the rest of his life and all his bad temper coming out sideways at the likes of me. Let him have his little fun, I thought. I’d soon be clear of him and all the rest of his sort.
“Got your kit fit up proper?” Standard question for anyone leaving the farm for any reason.
“Yep. Fitted up proper.” Standard answer.
“Pack your nappies?”
I ignored that.
“Armed and ready?”
“Armed and ready.”
“Didja say your bye-byes, little man?”
Not standard, but I answered just the same. “Not many to say.” Besides saying so long to my cohort, there had been the obligatory farewell to my birth-mother, and no tears shed there, of course. It’s always matter-of-fact business between parents and kiddies once they’ve been weaned and placed with their cohort. My father had been on field patrol when bandits slagged him just before I’d been born, so no goodbyes there. Oh, yes, there was Teacher, too, the teacher I liked most. Well, actually the older I liked most. I’d stopped by his room at the schoolhouse before reporting to the gate, and we’d had a little chat, pounded each other on the back, and parted well. I’ll admit that I’d choked down a little blub, but after all, I was going to miss Teacher most of all.
“Well, then, Travis, Cohort of Summer Aught Three, if you don’t mind wakin’ up, it does look like it’s time for you to leave. Any last words?”
Very funny. That’s the standard question for olders who are breathing their last and who’ll soon be decomposing under a pile of manure and kitchen scraps. “Nope,” I answered. Damned if I’d rise to the bait.
“Nope? Then here’s what happens next. First, I’m gonna calm the bigdogs down ‘n’ have this here inner gate opened up. Then you’re gonna walk straight out across the yard to the far gate. I’ll signal the guard and he’ll be all ready for you. You just keep on walking until he lets you through…and then you’d better run like a bunny for the woods.”