I nodded, careful not to break silence.
"You will sit beneath this tree," Frank continued, indicating a large paper birch that towered over the aspen. "You will not stand or lie down. You will not sleep, eat or drink. Is that clear?"
I nodded again.
"If anyone should come, you are not to speak to him under any circumstances. If you disobey any of these conditions, you will find your own way back to camp and disqualify yourself." Frank drew his blanket tighter around him. "There are no exceptions. Let no threats or coaxing influence you." I nodded again. He raised his hand in farewell and walked off through the woods.
I sat under my white birch and studied the terrain. To my left was an open meadow, where in the twilight I saw a grassy knoll that looked like a ghostly Indian burial mound. To my right, the ground sloped down to what must have been a stream. I leaned back against the tree, then pulled away as if it were red-hot. There was no point in taking a chance on dozing off. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps someone was watching me from a concealed vantage point. It gave me the creeps.
They could not have picked a more uninteresting stretch of woods. Obviously, there had been a fire here years ago, and the birch was the only tree that had survived. Afterward aspen and bracken fern had taken over, as they do after conflagrations in the Adirondacks. No doubt there were blueberries too. Then I remembered that I had not eaten much dinner. The cook's meat loaf was never one of my favorites, and I had planned to buy some candy at the canteen, but I had forgotten to do it.
I tried not to think about food, but my salivary glands wouldn't cooperate. In self-defense, I forced myself to dwell on the story of my life, starting with the first thing I could remember—the time, at age three, when my father and I had our tonsils removed at the hospital together. When I got to the present, I estimated that half an hour had elapsed.
It was pitch black now. No moon or stars. And quiet. I heard a branch snap, and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I froze, hardly breathing. Probably just the wind. Or maybe a bear. Or a man. I couldn't see a thing.
It was quiet again, and I resumed breathing. I thought about Gene. What a great partner he'd been. He'd done more than his share and kept up my spirits. Many times I had been sure that we'd ruined our totem poles. But Gene, who had the vision to see them as they would be, refused to concede failure. Was he too sitting out a lonely vigil? I hoped so.
There was a crashing and stomping off to the right. This time it had to be a bear or something just as big. What would it take to scare me away from my post? I didn't want to die for my second-degree. Someone coughed behind me, and I almost jumped out of my skin. It was Frank. "Scare you?" he asked.