“I know all this. Like I said, I’m ready to go.”
“Yep, you know all this,” he said scornfully, “but I’ll bet you don’t know that Meeks were spotted a few crow’s klicks south of here last night, do you?”
Shit, I thought. There hadn’t been any of them that near the farm for months, and they had to show up the night before I was to start my walkies. He wouldn’t be joking about them. Nobody did. Bastard that he was, he still was giving me fair warning.
“Kinda makes you think, dunnit, that maybe it’d be better to leave after they clear out, yeah? Too bad you can’t.”
That’s the way it works. Once the council sets the day for your leave-taking, there are no take-backs. That’s a rule drummed into you from the first time you learn you’re free to leave the farm once you reach your majority. Didn’t matter to me, though. I’d known for a long time that I wanted out, and I had no regrets about it, Meeks lurking about or not. But it didn’t brighten my day to hear this news.
I wasn’t going to let the guard see that he’d finally managed to wind me up, so I put on a sneer as though I didn’t fear Meeks or anything else in the Big Woods, living or not, of this world or not, even though I did. Teacher told me that feeling fear was more likely than not a sign of a healthy respect for the reality of your surroundings. I strolled coolly to the gate and said, “Ready.” I didn’t look back at him or say another word–just in case my voice might quiver. Even if you are afraid, you do your best not to show it Teacher told me, too.
The guard spat again, but not at me this time. He lifted his whistle and gave three sharp blasts which brought the doggies from the east sector of the farm’s defenses racing in from wherever they’d been zigzagging. They were all growls and choppers, and if you’ve never seen one of them take down an unexpected or unwanted visitor to the farm, you’ve missed a spectacular execution. He gave them the stand-down call, and they wiggled onto their rumps, quivering, waiting to get the call to jump into action. I’ll have to say that I was tempted to look back to see if the guard was enjoying himself, but I held myself steady. The other guard, a kindly-looking sort, came out of his hut beside the gate and pulled back the bolts that secured the heavy doors. “Don’t pay that prick no mind,” he said mildly. “He wishes he was you, that’s all. Them dogs won’t bother you any if you go easy to the outer gate. Don’t dawdle, don’t make any jerky moves, don’t look right at ’em…and no matter what, don’t run, ‘k’ dokey?”
“Yep. Thanks and g’luck t’ya. If anyone asks, tell ’em I went out head up, will ya?”
“Will do.” He gave me a pat on the shoulder and swung the gate open and out just enough for me to pass through. The dogs’ ears went straight up stiff. They stopped shifting around, their dark eyes locked with mine for a sliver of a second, and I quickly dropped my gaze to the ground. I took a deep breath, counted to three, and started for the outer gate. I expected the dogs to growl, but they didn’t make a peep, which in a way was worse. As I walked past them, my bowels went all loose, but I fought down the urge to shit myself or start running or both and kept on at a steady pace until I reached the gate. One of the guards there called me over and said, “Farm sent out a coupla heavies and their bigdogs a little while ago to check out the woods far’s the footpath you’re gonna take away from here. All clear, they said, so you prob’ly won’t get bushwhacked right away.”
“Prob’ly won’t?” I asked.
“Lot better’n prob’ly will, don’tcha think,” he answered. “Best you head out before somebody that’ll tip the odds shows up out there. Now go–and good luck t’ya.”
I didn’t waste any time once through the gate. I ran off full-tilt, head down, eyes sweeping left and right and up into the trees. I paused a few seconds by the big shagbark hickory that stands at the start of the trail to the footpath and allowed myself a final look back at the farm. Of course, there wasn’t much to see, the main compound being hidden behind the high palisades. I made out the forms of the watchmen, but not their faces, and I heard the dogs barking madly at me as they raced back and forth along the outer fence. I wished I could’ve taken one of them along with me for protection, but that wasn’t allowed. It was all on me alone to use my training and wits to stay in one piece.
I don’t know exactly why, but I raised my arm and gave a wide, sweeping farewell wave. The perimeter guard waved back and jabbed his finger in the direction of the woods as if to say make tracks. He was right, of course, and I did.
I whipped around and plunged about thirty meters into the cool dimness of the Big Woods before I turned sharply and shot off another thirty to the south and then quick-timed it through the undergrowth parallel to the trail. I ran low and quiet, talking in as much of the surroundings as I could on the move. Getting through this part of my trek without being waylaid was a good part luck. If someone was lurking off the trail, I wouldn’t have much of a chance to avoid a nasty confrontation, but the likelihood was slim. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but it’d be a waste of a baddy’s time to sit around laying for a single somebody who probably wouldn’t be carrying much of value. After I reckoned I’d put enough distance from the farm behind me, I stopped to have a look and listen. I made for a tangle of wild apple and vines, unslung my gun, drew my knife, squatted down and waited. Nothing stirred, but that didn’t necessarily signify much. It was a breezeless day, so there was no rustling of leaves I’d have to filter out which made it easier to concentrate on other woods sounds. Pretty soon, the birds that had hushed when I’d been hurrying off-path through the woods started up their calls and songs again. I heard the wick-wick-wick of a flicker first. Then I heard the fee-bee-bee calls of chickadees closer by. When I heard the eeohlay of a wood thrush, always shy and elusive, I knew for sure no one was trailing me, at least not nearby. I gave myself a good fifteen minutes, waiting in silence, taking in the play of light and shadow and birdsong before I stood again and made my way to the footpath.
Once there, I jogwalked along for maybe an hour. I’d studied my maps carefully for weeks before I took the gate, and I knew that before long the path would veer off along Colpy Bay toward Wiretown and the Old 6 roadway, so I moved off into the undergrowth again to avoid the bend and anyone who might’ve heard me coming. I felt less uneasy now, having survived my first couple hours in the woods, but I didn’t let myself get too cocky. I still had some klicks to cover before calling it a day, so I forged ahead on and off the footpath, getting farther and farther away from all that I had ever known.