A Slippery Slope
Isabella Ackerman was going to be in trouble. Big trouble. In trouble with her father. In trouble with her mother. Even her little brother would be upset about this. As she trudged back to the camp from collecting water, everything bore witness against her. Her bucket clanged against her leg...empty. Her walk was particularly hobbly since she was almost certain she’d sprained her ankle. Her dress had not sustained major damage from her run, since she’d tucked it up into Blythe’s trousers, which most definitely revealed the fact. Pulling the folds of fabric that made up her dress, she covered her brother’s mud-caked trousers underneath the skirt.
If her father had taught her anything in her seventeen years, it was to make a plan before acting. For the most part, Bella had mastered this skill, though the current state of her clothes suggested otherwise. Brushing a red wisp out of her face and tucking it back in her braid, Bella slipped off her boots to walk quieter in the softened dirt and sprigs of grass that blanketed the mountainside this cool, spring afternoon.
She needed a plan. In the distance, she could just see the first tent on the perimeter of the camp. She knew the pattern of the men who stood guard on the edge and based on the length of time she’d been gone, Gilbert would likely be just finishing his watch. Gilbert was a friend. If anyone were to see her, she would want it to be him. Creeping between the trees, she spotted him, standing straight and alert, bow over his shoulder and quiver on his back.
Oh dear. How was she going to explain this? Well, first off, he didn’t need to see the trousers. But her hair was mixed with leaves and twigs. She picked a few out and then huffed and straightened her shoulders. There wasn’t anything she could do about it now. Her stride was as confident and solid as she could make it on her twisted ankle in her approach. Her mother had always said she had a manly gait, which Bella didn’t find surprising since she’d grown up in a camp of men. But there were some things her mother decidedly tried to change in her. As of now, Mother was not in sight. Besides, it was only Gil.
She waved with a smile as she drew closer. “Gil….” Her voice was low, however, in an attempt to draw his attention alone.
Gilbert turned. His eyebrows lifted slightly and a grin appeared on his face. “What happened to you?”
Bella glanced down at herself. “Have you ever heard the expression ‘Curiosity killed the cat?’”
Gilbert hooked his thumbs in his belt.“What did you do?”
“I wasn’t killed.” She gave a teasing half-smile, wrinkling her nose a little, looking briefly over his shoulder to be certain her father wasn’t nearby.
Her friend's eyes widened with concern and his gaze passed over her intently. “You’re not hurt?”
She laughed aloud at that. Actually, it was more of a snort of which her mother would not have approved. “No. I’m not hurt. Not physically, I suppose.”
Now, his eyes darkened. He turned her around by the shoulders and pulled her a little ways into the trees. Then he faced her and crossed his arms. “Tell me what happened.”
She couldn’t help the guilty smile. “I was going to get water…I need your help.”
“To get water?” Now a knowing smirk tilted Gilbert’s lips.
“No!” Her hands flew to her hips. “To make it to my tent without Mother or Father seeing me!” She went a little cross-eyed as she noticed a small, leafy sprig attached to the hair at her forehead, she picked it off and tossed it aside.
Gilbert glanced at the sky for a moment, a smile playing on his lips. “Well, we have a limited selection of options. I could throw you over my shoulder and pretend you are grain, but you don’t have any animals at your tent, so I don’t suppose that would work. You could hide behind me but I would walk strangely and draw attention.”
“Gil!” Bella pursed her lips. “Neither of those options are helpful.” Folding her arms, she rolled onto her toes to see past him. None of her family seemed to be on this side of the camp. The tents extended side by side in an orderly fashion through the trees farther than she could see. She wasn’t entirely sure why she was making such an effort to avoid detection. Even if her parents didn’t see her, someone surely would and would feel obligated to tell her father about the mishap. She shook her head at the thought and leaned her back against a tree. Its branches swayed back and forth in the wind as if it wished to wrap its arms around her and shield her from curious onlookers.
Sighing, Gilbert spread his hands. “I’ll try to cover for you if you want to run really fast. But you need to tell me what happened.”
She pushed off the tree and ducked under a low hanging branch, brushing past Gil to see into the camp. “I can run faster than half the men in this camp. If you could distract Mother or Father if you see them, then I think I can make it.”
“Bella….” His voice was laughingly exasperated and tender at the same time. “Stop avoiding me.”
“Avoiding you?” Bella looked over her shoulder and up at him innocently. She was avoiding him, but she didn’t really want to admit exactly what had happened. Even Gilbert, her best friend, may feel obligated to tell her father what had happened if he knew.
“Bella. Come on.”
She gave a long sigh to make it very clear that she did not want to explain, but she lifted her chin to give herself the confidence. “I went to go pick berries with Blythe this morning...and I heard that you can see Kabel through the trees if you climb the rocks on this side of Carpenter Peak….”
“You wanted to see Kabel?” Gilbert’s eyebrows flew up.
“I’ve never seen it before.”
“Bella! What if you’d been caught?”
“I wasn’t caught.” She folded her arms.
Gilbert sighed. “Go on.”
“So...I lost my footing and slipped at the edge and--”
“You what?” he shouted, then hastily lowered his voice. “You what?”
“Will you let me finish? I’m trying to tell you!” Bella looked quickly back toward the camp and gave him a fierce but silent command to keep quiet. Then she rolled her eyes, though deep down she knew he had a right to be frustrated. Getting anywhere near Kabel was extremely dangerous, not only for herself, but for the security of the whole camp.
Gilbert gestured at her. “Finish.”
“I didn’t slip all the way to Kabel. I wasn’t even close to Kabel.” Though, she had run up the mountainside as if she’d slid into the town square of the slave-trading village.
Gilbert clenched his jaw. “I could shake you,” he said through his teeth.
“Gil, please, you’re overreacting. I thought you wouldn’t act like Father.”
“You could’ve put yourself in danger! Not to mention the entire camp. These are lives we’re talking about. Shouldn’t I at least be a little annoyed?”
“But I didn’t put anyone in danger. Everyone is fine and no one saw me.”
“You never know what will happen next time. Sometimes you need to think about what could happen.” Her friend huffed, but then his gaze softened. “You’re too rash.” He spoke softly.
She glanced heavenward with a heavy sigh. “I know. I have plenty of other people who tell me that. I don’t need to hear it from you too. I just need to get to my tent.”
Gilbert leaned a bit forward. “I only tell you that because I care what happens to you,” he said seriously. “And you need to stop hiding. Be honest.”
“I was honest...with you.” What he implied made her nervous. She couldn’t tell Blythe about the trousers before she washed and mended them, or she would never hear the end of it. She couldn’t tell Mother that she’d been wearing trousers in the first place or she’d be punished by doing all the mending for...how long was it last time? At least an eternity. And she couldn’t tell Father that she’d been so close to Kabel unless she was interested in being confined to camp.
“We live our lives in hiding, Bella, not in deceit. Your family deserves your honesty more than I do. I will help you get to your tent, but I know you will make the right decision on your own.” Gilbert’s eyes warmed. He chucked her under the chin and then turned away, walking back towards camp.
Well, this was a fine mess. Bella could defy a person easily enough. Her mother had always blamed it on the color of her hair. But she couldn’t defy her conscience, which seemed to be pulsing in her chest and drawing her closer to the camp and closer to her parents. She followed Gilbert, now much more aware of her dress, pulling at it uncomfortably and watching her bare feet move one after the other, closer to her destruction.
Gilbert paused to wait for her. He put a protective hand on her shoulder and shielded her with his body from the sight of the men who milled around the camp. In what seemed much too long, they reached her tent. As they neared, the flap opening to the tent just beside Bella’s parted in the breeze long enough for her to see her mother inside. An unwelcome sign from God. And how could she reject a sign from the Almighty? She could either vanish inside her own tent or appear to her mother like….this. She spread her arms as she surveyed herself a moment, dress soaked through now with the mud on Blythe’s trousers, all her weight shifted to one foot, favoring the other, and likely enough twigs and leaves in her hair to make her look like a walking bush.
She didn’t have to tell her mother about the trousers.
Her conscience thudded.
Well, she should anyway. She would promise to mend them and suffer through the lecture on ladylike behavior. Even if she disagreed that these matters should be important to her, since she was one of very few women in the camp.
She didn’t have to tell her father where she’d been when she fell.
Her conscience thumped.
But she would...in case anyone had possibly seen her.
She winced at the thought of her father’s disapproval. He would be amused by her adventurous spirit...she’d seen the twinkle in his eyes that he always tried to hide when she had found herself in scrapes like this before. But putting the camp at risk would make him cross. That was entirely different. And he deserved to know.
She wouldn’t tell Blythe anything.
Well, at least not until she’d cleaned and sewed his trousers.
Bella turned to Gilbert and took a deep breath. “Wish me luck.”
Gilbert grinned and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “Good luck.” He gave an encouraging nod before moving away.
Bella hated being a girl in a camp of men sometimes. If she’d been a boy, she wouldn’t have had to borrow the trousers from her brother, wouldn’t have had to go spy on Kabel in secret, and wouldn’t be in such trouble for doing both.
She was going to be in big trouble -- but she’d bear it with a clear conscience. So she lifted the tent flap and stepped inside.
“Mother? I have something to tell you.”