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Fort and Night
“Hello, -ello, -ello, -llo, -llo.”
You stop mid-step. The shout fades until only silence surrounds you but you’re sure someone just hollered from within the old fort.
With a slow turn, you look back at the barracks of the war monument. The park ranger is shutting the gate and you’re one of the last people to leave as the sun sinks behind the concrete walls of the fortress on the river. You spent the last several hours exploring the dripping tunnels of the place, enjoying the history described on the small placards placed throughout the monument, but now that dusk is quickly laying its fingers across the place, you don’t really want to hang out.
“Hello, -ello, -ello, -llo, -llo.”
This time you’re sure it’s a man’s voice, echoing out of the fort. When you glance back toward the gate, the ranger’s swinging it closed. It’s not a big deal. You’re parked on the other side and there’s a footpath for visitors to bypass the gate on foot, but with the clank of the metal latch sliding home, it becomes chillingly clear that you’re the last one in the park and the ranger didn’t hear the voice.
“Hello?” you call into the fort.
Unlike with the echo, your voice doesn’t seem to travel far into the structure.
“Shine the light, -ight, -ight, ght.” Comes the clear reply.
Intrigued, you retrace your steps to the closest, heavy metal door into the barracks. It’s cracked open, so you duck your head through to peek inside. Beyond is pitch black, so maybe the man is talking about needing light to get out. Maybe your phone light with work. You switch on the built-in light on your cell phone, and squeeze between the heavy door and the wall to enter the damp room beyond.
You stumble. Not because your foot catches something but because the world around shifts with a stomach jarring blur. After blinking half a dozen times, your vision clears and you give a surprised gurgle in your throat.
The light in your hand is no longer a phone but a heavy, old-fashioned flashlight. Instead of a pitch-black barracks room, you’re surrounded by metal-framed beds covered with thin mattresses, and along the ceiling hang lights with metal cages around them.
“Shine the light, -ight, -ight, ght.”
This time your ear tunes into the source of that echoing voice. On the far wall is a small, hollow tube. From it comes the voice like in the child’s game played with tin cans and a string except it actually seems to project the voice into the room.
With five strides, you stand before that hollow tube. “What?” you ask into it.
“There’s a boat on the river. Get up top and shine the light, -ight, -ight, -ght,” comes the reply.
To the left of the tube is a dark hallway. You know from your earlier exploration that at the end of that hallway is a ladder up to the observation deck that gives a clear view of the river beyond the fort.
Curious, you head down the hall, passing a man who’s lighting the stove in the small kitchen on the left just before you head up the ladder. It’s kind of a relief when your head emerges into the cool night air at the top. Unlike with your earlier exploration, however, the fort is alive with activity on the observation deck.
Seeing you, a man shouts, “what orders?”
“Um, light?” you say.
Instantly, the man translates this into, “BOAT!” His shout sends the hive of activity into chaos as men scamper to respond.
“Get up here!” he hollers. “Get that thing lit.”
It’s only because he points that you know what he’s talking about. To the left on a high platform sits a lighthouse with a massive, unlit lantern inside. When ignited, the mirrors around it allow a person to shine a solid beam of light across the river.
Responding to the command in his voice, you scamper off the last rung of the ladder and toward the light tower. About halfway there, you realize you’ve only your small lighter in your pocket to work with.
On instinct, you reach into your pocket and find, just like your cell phone-turned-flashlight, the light in your pocket is now a rattling box of matches.
The lit wood stove in the kitchen below flashes through your mind. You could run below for a brand from the stove or you could try the matches in your pocket.
As the choice looms before you, movement out on the river catches your eye.
“It’s a Jolly Roger,” says one man closer to the observation deck railing. He cups a hand around his ear and, as you listen, you hear the sharp snap of a flag being caught by the wind.
Do you light the lantern with…
A brand from the kitchen?
Fort and Light- Your Matches
There’s no time to lose. You pull the rattling box of matches from your pocket as you approach the lighthouse. A winding staircase takes you up to the lantern at the top of the structure.
As you open the box of matches, your hands shake and you barely manage not to lose the five pieces inside. The first match head breaks off when you strike it against the box. With a growl, you pull out another one and, with careful fingers, grate the match to life. The tiny flame flares bright in the dusky night. When you hold it to the lantern wick, it sputters for a second before catching the oil soaked material. It gives a soft whoosh.
The multifaceted lenses surrounding you catch the light and a beam shoots out across the river from the lighthouse.
“PAN LEFT,” shouts a now familiar voice.
There’s a wheel next to the lantern for turning it. You give it a twist and the beam of light glides up the river to land on a ship that’s flying a dark colored flag. There’s a brief moment in which you get to stare at that ship, taking in the rows of oars moving it along the river at an alarming speed, and the round barrels of four cannons that line the ship’s side.
The first cannon bucks hard enough to rock the ship. It spouts a grayish cloud and then a boom reverberates through the fort. The lighthouse rattles as your ears go momentarily numb of sound.
Just as your ears start ringing, you hear, “FIRE!” from the familiar voice of the man leading the men on the fort wall.
The stone beneath you shudders and your ears go dead again but in the beam of light on the river, you see the giant splash as the fort’s cannon ball narrowly misses the bow of the ship.
Shouted jeering accompanies the angry fists of the pirates as they yell at the fort but they’re far enough away you can’t really make out their words or their gestures.
You give the wheel a slight turn.
This time, both the ship and the fort fire at the same time. You clap your hands over your ears but then something makes you look up. You’ve been in a car accident before. At the time, everything seemed to slow down and even as you remember the accident later, the events happen in slow motion in your memory.
This is exactly like that. There’s a round shape hurtling toward you. The beam from the lighthouse seems to be swallowed by that dark shape as it draws closer. At the last moment, you turn away and launch yourself down the stairs of the lighthouse.
Glass shatters. The ground shakes and sharp chips of stone bite into your back. The lantern, and any other source of light, simply disappears.
Light gilds the backs of your eyelids. It shoots pain into your skull, and all you want is to keep your lids closed, but there’s an insistent tugging at your sleeve. When you crack your eyes open, you find your hands tied together.
There’s another tug at your sleeve. With a soft groan, you look right to see the man who was shouting orders earlier. He’s a shorter man but the heavy, gray beard covering his face lends him an air of age.
“Shhh,” he cautions as he points toward the river.
It’s then you realize you’re sitting on the riverbank with your back against the remains of the fort wall. The pirate’s ship bobs on the river, highlighted by the rising sun. Beyond the gray bearded man sits the group of pirates eating their breakfast around a fire they’ve lit on the rocks.
“They’ll finish soon,” the bearded man whispers, “and then they’ll decide what to do with us.”
You try to lean forward to get a better look at the motely crew but sharp pains run through your body, particularly down your back.
“Careful. You don’t want to draw their attention.” He shoots a look at the pirates and, reassured they’re not looking, continues, “We need to warn the town. If we’re to escape, the time’s now.”
“Escape?” you ask.
“River’s probably our best bet. You ready?”
Even sitting on the riverbank, it’s chilly. You cringe to think of getting into the water, but the man’s probably right. If you’re going to get away from the pirates, now is the time to do it. Your back twinges as you shift a little. Can you even swim? You’re not sure the extent of your injuries. The man might have a better chance of getting away without you.
Fort and Light-Escape
One of the dozen pirates stands up to scrub his breakfast bowl clean, and you know your time to decide on a course of action is running out.
“Let’s go,” you tell the gray bearded man beside you.
He grunts in approval, glances at the group of pirates, and then rolls to his feet to run for the river. Right behind him, you stumble when your numbed feet hit the ground. You hadn’t realized how long you’d been sitting in the same position and your legs are stiff. You pitch headfirst toward the riverbank and, at the last second, tuck your shoulder into a forward roll that brings you awkwardly back onto your feet. Pain radiates up your back and shoulders when the pressure of the ground touches those areas, but your momentum keeps you moving.
You ignore the shout as your feet hit the water. Instantly the icy chill sends splinters of shock up your legs and then it steals the breath from your lungs when you dive into the current. With your hands still tied together, you struggle to swim. A hand grabs your arm and you almost lash out, thinking it’s a pirate, until you see the gray hair of your companion.
With deft fingers, he gets the rope off your wrists.
“Follow me,” he says. It might have been a shout but his voice is breathy like your own from the chill of the water.
A quick glance at the shore shows a rowboat of pirates putting into the water. Needing no more incentive, you flip over in the water with your head downstream and swim hard. The cold of the water blessedly numbs the pain in your back but it does nothing for the ache of trying to breathe. It’s not long before you’re gasping.
“Keep going,” your companion hollers.
You focus solely on the brown of his wet jacket and just keep swimming. By the time he angles for the far shore, you’ve no idea how long you’ve been in the water. It’s with shuddering relief that you crawl onto the sharp stones and flop down to simply breathe. The smell of your wet clothing, a heavy odor of wool, reminds you that everything you left the house with that morning has recently changed. You were wearing jeans when you dressed for the day. Considering the wool still retains some of your body heat, you’re thankful for the change at the moment.
“Ha,” chuckles the bearded man, “hahahaha. Never thought we’d make it beyond the pirate’s boat.”
“Good thing you kept that to yourself,” you admit. “I might not have agreed if you’d shown doubt earlier.”
He grins and winks. “Question now is, how do we warn the town? We damaged some of the rigging with a cannon ball. The pirates might pause long enough to fix it but I doubt it since they know we’re free to warn people downriver. If we float the river again, we might be able to get there before the ship does but it’s a ways in the water. The only other option I can think of is to search for the old signal tower. It’s been out of use for awhile, so I’ve no idea if it’ll light, but if it does, the town and anyone else for miles will know there’s a threat coming.” He hums as though thinking through everything. “I’m not thrilled with either choice,” he admits.
“So let me understand this,” you say. “One way we’re getting back into the freezing river,” as you talk, your teeth chatter, “and the other way we’re hiking through unknown forest in search of a signal tower?”
“Yup. We know the tower’s uphill that-a-way,” he points, “but that’s about all the direction I know.”
Float the River?
Search the Forest?
Fort and Light-Search the Forest
Even moving around to help the blood flow to your limbs, your shivering doesn’t subside for another half an hour.
“I’m thinking another soak in the river would be dangerous,” you tell your companion, who you’ve started to think of as Gray Beard.
He hums. “You’re probably right. It’s not a warm day.”
“Let’s aim for the Signal Tower,” you say.
Gray Beard simply nods. After another few minutes in the sunshine, you both head into the trees in unspoken accord. The long branches and dark trunks of the forest close around you in an almost claustrophobic fashion, like a living cave with moss acting as a heavy, green blanket.
“We’ll get lost unless we orient ourselves somehow,” Gray Beard says.
You both stop. You’ve done a certain amount of hiking and orienteering in your life, so after a few minutes of looking around, you think you’ve got it.
“Signal Tower’s that way,” you point in the general direction where, when you were at the river, you could see the land rising slightly from the rest of the landscape.
Gray Beard nods.
“The river should then always be to our right.” You point again but it’s the dull roar of the river that really speaks of its direction. “Which places the sun to our left and slightly behind us.” You point again but the forest obscures most of the direct light from the sun. “We’ll have to pause anytime we get a break in the canopy and make sure we’re still on course.”
Gray Beard gives a soft chuckle. “I like you,” he says. “I’m not sure anyone else at the fort could have figured that out so easily. Okay, so river to the right and sun to the back of our left shoulders. Perfect.”
You head out again and before long, you’re both covered in a thin layer of sweat. Any chance you get, you pause to check the direction of the sun but the dull ache of hunger starts pinching your belly long before Gray Beard calls a halt. He groans as he lowers himself to sit on the large exposed root of a nearby tree.
“We should be close now,” he says with a look around that communicates his worry. Unlike before, he’s making no effort to hide his true feelings.
Somehow, that worry makes you want to be more positive to help keep his spirits up.
“We’ll find it,” you say. “There’s a small patch of sunlight over there. I’ll go take a quick look while you rest.”
He gives an appreciative smile as you head for the patch of sun.
The gesture was more to show encouragement than for anything else, but when you reach the small bit of light, you give a surprised, “Ha!” at what you find.
“Come here,” you call. “I’ve found something.”
When Gray Beard reaches the spot, you point out the slightly overgrown trail on the far side. What truly encourages you is the uphill slant to it and the cut logs on the sides that the moss hasn’t completely buried yet.
Gray Beard slaps your shoulder and you wince at the sharp pound. Your companion doesn’t notice in his excitement. He heads straight for the path.
In following it, you quickly rise up out of the forest to a cleared hill, and at the top sits a square wooden tower.
The ladder creaks when Gray Beard places his foot on the first rung, but it holds up with loud protests as he ascends. You say a quick prayer and follow him.
By the time you crawl through the trap door, Gray Beard’s already got a heavy metal box open and is emptying its contents across the floor. An old rope, a shovel, two small lanterns, and a bedroll occupy the space. Next he pitches an empty burlap sack and then comes up with a triumphant, “ahha!” In his hand is a small wooden box that rattles like your small matchbox.
He hands it over. “Above us should be the signal platform.” He points to the flat ceiling. “Tinder and all that should be up there. Go for it.”
Maybe he assumes because you were the one to light the lighthouse at the fort that this is your job, but whatever the reason, you don’t protest. Instead, you pocket the box and climb the short ladder to the platform above.
From this high up, you notice the break in the trees and the rooftops of the town farther down the river. It seems peaceful but when you scan the river, your stomach sinks at the tall masts sliding along. It won’t be long before the pirates reach that calm, unaware town.
Turning to the waiting fire platform, you indeed find the kindling Gray Beard spoke of along with a stack of cut wood to add to the fire. A small, oiled canvas slants over the pile to keep it dry from any rain.
Just as with the lighthouse, this fire starts after a few tries but it smokes terribly from the moisture that’s slowly crept into it from the general atmosphere. Blowing gently, you coax it slowly to life until you’re sure the logs will light. A quick glance at the river tells you the pirates must be pushing their oarsmen because they’re moving at a steady clip.
“Hurry, my friend,” Gray Beard calls as though you can’t see the ship. From his vantage point below, he probably just noticed it.
Finally, the fire gives a whoosh, and the logs light with an acceleration only accomplished with gasoline. You fall back on your rump in your hurry to get out of the way. Whoever set up this platform must have soaked the logs. Time and moisture had hidden the smell from you.
Within seconds, an answering orange flame springs up from the town. Although the signal tower is decrepit, apparently the town still mans their watches. Good. They have time to prepare.
Gray Beard gives a whoop of excitement at your success.
It’s the last thing you hear as everything fades to black.
Something’s tapping metal on glass. You groan and open your lids to find the light of a flashlight hitting your eyes. In a moment of total disorientation, you look around to find yourself in the driver seat of your car. It’s dark outside except for the directed light in your face.
Rolling down the window, you see the hat and narrow face of the park ranger who closed the gate today…yesterday…a while ago.
“You can’t sleep in the parking lot,” the ranger says. “Go home.”
You just nod, still disoriented, but when you reach into your pock, you find the chatter of your keys at your fingertips.
It’s only later that you check the history books to see what they say about the fort and the signal tower. Although they don’t directly mention you, there is one report from Captain Murphey Montgomery about escaping pirates with one of the fort’s personnel. It’s a very military report, so he doesn’t exactly say the person disappeared immediately after the signal fire ignited, but the account does suspiciously ignore any more mention of said person. Captain Montgomery was awarded a medal for saving the town. When you find a picture of the Captain, you just smile. Well done, Gray Beard, well done.
Well done! You survived and warned everyone of the pirates =)
Thank you for joining in with this adventure. We’ll return next week with a brand new adventure to explore!
(If you liked this story and are interested in more adventures, you can find my book, The Adventure, on Amazon.)