One day, as the scorching heat of the summer sunshine settled into the soft warmth of late afternoon, a traveler came, thirsty, to the gate of an ancient town. Anxious to find shelter and draw and drink from the town well, the weary walker passed under the decrepit portcullis and knocked firmly at the guardhouse door.
“Sir, may I come in for the night?”
There was no answer.
Traveler pounded with his fist, but even as the sound echoed from the crumbling stone walls, no answer came.
Shrugging, Traveler walked on into the square.
The town was in ruins.
In the center of the square, a few stone blocks, worn and strewn, surrounded a pit half-filled with dirt. Traveler threw his hands in the air
“So much for the town well!” he complained, licking dry lips. He turned slowly around, surveying the broken walls, the rusted portcullis defenses, the roofless houses, and the empty streets. “What happened here?”
Traveler spun around. An middle-aged man faced him, a small spear quivering in his hand.
“I’ll say! Are you the guard?”
The man nodded.
“Well, aren’t you going to ask what I’m doing in your town?”
The man shook his head. “Anyone who wants comes in here.”
“Including Trouble,” snorted Traveler.
The guard glanced at the gate, eyes wide. “Don’t say it,” he whispered, “or he’ll come!”
“Who?” asked Traveler, taking a step toward the Guard.
“Trouble,” hissed the man warily. “He comes by any time he’s in the neighborhood, but if someone asks for him, he’s bound to show up sooner, and I just don’t think I can take any more Trouble around here!”
The Guard began to weep.
“Oh, stop sniveling,” ordered Traveler. “If you don’t want Trouble inside, drop the portcullis!”
“I can’t,” bawled the man. “It’s too complicated!”
“Posh,” said Traveler, his annoyance making him forget the thirst that burned at his throat. “Show me the chains.” He stalked across the town square and waited by the gate until the guard, wiping his nose on his sleeve, caught up with him.
“Over here,” he pointed to the wall beside the gate.
Traveler glanced up at the tangled chains dangling above them. He jumped up and caught the lowest. It was twisted and rusty. “Get me a barrel to stand on,” he ordered. The Guard hustled away and returned several minutes later with an old wooden stave barrel. Traveler stood on it and reached into the mess of chains and rust.
“Do you have oil here?”
The guard said nothing, but scuttled into the guardhouse. After several long moments during which Traveler heard clanking and banging, a thud, and several curses, the man emerged rubbing his head. He handed Traveler an oil can with a long spout. Traveler shook it.
“There’s plenty of oil in here. Why haven’t you been using it to oil the gate?”
“It’s not my job.”
“You’re the Guard,” snapped Traveler, “of course it’s your job. Here, get up here and oil every link of these chains. I’ll find a ladder, and then you can start on the drums.”
“Drums?” squeaked the guard, “I don’t know how to play!”
Traveler muttered something inaudible and impolite before hoisting the man onto the barrel and staring until the protesting guard began to work. “Someone else should do this,” he whined. “I can’t.”
“Then practice until you can,” growled thirsty Traveler. “Maybe I can find something to drink around here.”
“There is no water in the stone jar behind the door in the guardhouse!” the guard yelled, spraying oil in a shower as he spun around on the barrel top to face Traveler. The motion unbalanced the barrel, and sent the guard toppling to the ground, oil can flying.
Traveler turned away, groping behind the guardhouse door until his fingers found a stone jar. He lifted it to his cracked lips and drank deeply.
Setting the jar back on the wooden plank floor, he waited while his eyes adjusted to the dim light. Piles of trash covered a chair and table. A warped trapdoor caught his attention, and he lifted it. A ladder disappeared into darkness, and swinging lightly onto the treads, Traveler groped his way down to an earthen floor. There, by smell and feel he located a box of apples, a jar of lamp oil (this he nearly spilled, but saved it with his elbow as it fell over), and a barrel containing cheese of an unrecognizable variety.
Traveler helped himself.
When he made his way up the larder ladder, he cocked his head to one side. It was silent. Too silent. He took another swig of water from the stone jar, and wiping his face with the sleeve of his stained leather jerkin, let out a comfortable belch.
“Guard!” he yelled, stepping out into the darkening evening. “Guard! Confound the fellow. Where has…” Here, Traveler tripped over something bulky on the ground. There was no doubt what it was.
“Get up, you lazy lout! Did you finish oiling this thing?” He glanced upward and saw the strands of chain more tangled than before.
“Owwwww,” groaned the Guard as Traveler kicked him.
“What on God’s green earth happened to you?” he demanded. “I was gone for ten minutes!”
“Trouble,” wheezed the Guard, rolling over and sitting up as if the effort was very painful. “Trouble came as soon as you left. He did that -” the man pointed to the tangled chains, “and that.” Traveler followed the man’s pointer finger in the direction of the town square.
Hoof prints everywhere, like a galloping circus had come through, pirouetted, dumped a wagon load of dirt on the old well and left again.
“Why didn’t you stop this Trouble? Why didn’t you bring down the portcullis? You were standing right here!” Traveler stabbed his finger at the chains.
“Ohhhh, my head! Ohhh, it’s just so complicated. So complex. I don’t know how.”
“Learn,” said Traveler without compassion, “or the beast will be back again.” And again, and again, as he’s been doing for a long while, by the look of things, he thought to himself.
“Who will teach me? Every day, I ask the Great Eagle Stone to teach me, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t care. I’m alone in the world guarding a town against an enemy who won’t stop coming to bother me! It’s not fair.”
In answer, Traveler picked up the oilcan and banged it on the stone wall until the clanging carried around the square, and the Guard clutched his head.
“Stop! Stop! I’ll do anything! Just stop it!”
“Fine,” said Traveler, stopping. “Oil.” He held out the can to the groveling Guard.
“Ohhh, I’m sure I can’t do it.”
After some three hours on a ladder, the chains oiled and un-kinked, Traveler showed the Guard the bolt which held the metal portcullis up.
“Pull the chains taut, then use your foot to loosen the bolt. When it moves, lower the gate slowly using the chains.”
On Guard’s first try, he didn’t hold the chains firmly enough, and released from restraint, the portcullis roared to the ground and slammed with a noise that shook stones loose from the aging walls.
“Again, you numb-head, and this time don’t let it get away from you!”
When it was fully dark, Traveler scrounged for torch making materials and in a few minutes held one aloft to light the Guard’s work.
Up and down, up and down. Finally, about midnight, Traveler called for a halt to the proceedings, fairly certain he had earned his filched food and provided for his own protection.
“Good. Now let the gate down one more time and leave it there.”
“How long?” panted Guard, exhausted from the first work he had accomplished in much too long a time.
“Until morning, Dull-wit.”
“But then it will be closed if anyone wants to come in!”
“Yes,” replied Traveler shortly.
“But then how will they get in?” the Guard persisted.
“But what if they want to?”
“They have to wait. You can open it up again in the morning.”
“They’re all going to hate me,” wailed the unhappy man.
“Yes, but at least I can sleep,” retorted Traveler, settling into the cot in the Guardhouse and leaving the Guard to sleep on the plank floor.
They were awakened by a thunderous rattle of chains. The Guard curled up in the fetal position and moaned softly. Traveler got up and stood in the doorway of the guardhouse.
“Who’s there?” he called.
For answer, the portcullis shook and rattled, raining down dust and crashing in its housing.
“I said who’s there?” insisted Traveler, louder.
An annoyed, teenager voice responded. “Where’s the Guard? Get this gate up! Right now!”
Traveler laughed a belly laugh, and turned back to the guardhouse. From his cot, he heard the angry voice making threats.
“Now you’ve done it,” squeaked the Guard from under the cot.
“Made Trouble angry. Now, he’s going to come in and hurt me just as soon as you’re gone! Thanks a lot!”
“Keep the portcullis down,” yawned Traveler. He turned on his side and slept soundly through the rattling of the gate and the muffled complaints of the Guard.
In the morning, Traveler again raided the larder, filling his pockets with cheese and apples, which he ate with relish. The Guard stood morosely, staring out the gate.
“Look at all those hoof-prints. But he didn’t get in, did he?” He turned around to stare hopefully at Traveler.
“Nope. Didn’t get in. Get me a shovel.”
“Why? What are you going to do with a shovel? You’re not going to hurt me, are you?”
“Shovel!” roared Traveler, staring hard at the Guard until the man disappeared into one of the nearby houses and returned with a broken-handled shovel. Traveler grunted his thanks. “Pull up the portcullis,” he called over his shoulder as he sauntered away into the town square.
“But then Trouble will get in, and now he’s really mad!” whimpered the Guard.
“Put the thing down when you see him coming! You can see a mile away in every direction. Even you can get it down before he can travel a mile.”
“What if I get scared and can’t move?”
“Make yourself.” With that, Traveler wrapped his belt firmly around the handle of the shovel, splinting it a the break, and fell to the task of cleaning out the town well.
At noon, he stopped, wiping the sweat from his forehead and climbing out of the pit. He looked toward the gate in time to hear the Guard squeak and the rattle and hum of the well-oiled portcullis fall.
Traveler sauntered over for a better view and a drink of water, and saw the Guard hauling up the portcullis to admit an old lady. “My mom,” he whispered sheepishly.”
Traveler watched the old lady take in the scene.
“You’ve finally got this gate working, Arthur. And about time, too. Now give Mummy a kiss and if you’re feeling brave, come to my house for dinner.” She kissed him and set out purposefully down the road.
“Won’t Trouble attack her?” inquired Traveler.
“No. She just scolds him, and he runs away.” He shook his head sadly. “I didn’t inheirit that trait.”
“You didn’t choose it, you mean.” Traveler corrected, “stopping Trouble from ripping up your town is your choice. Your mother chooses. You don’t.”
“But,” said the Guard, about to overflow excuses. Traveler turned away. “Get me the ladder,” he grunted, “and then put down the portcullis.”
The Guard turned quickly and saw a cloud of dust on the horizon. He paled and lowered the portcullis. Then carried the ladder to the well.
All afternoon, Traveler dug dirt from the well while the Guard raised and lowered the portcullis against the onslaughts of Trouble.
When evening fell, Traveler judged him proficient.
“Put it down when the sun goes down, and don’t open it for anyone. Not even your mother. Raise it again at dawn so people can come in. You’re the Guard. When you see Trouble, drop the gate!”
The Guard nodded firmly. “Your boots are muddy,” he observed.
“Almost back down to water in that well. You’ll have to finish it up. When there’s water, people will come back here.”
“But, but, but,” stammered the Guard, “you’re not going to leeeeave me?”
Traveler ignored him, took some food and drink from the larder and settled into a sound sleep.
When the Guard woke at mid-morning, the gate was open. Traveler was gone, and there was a cloud of dust on the horizon.
He lowered the portcullis.