Little Corban has grown up at Libertas, and now he's ready to be a helpful man around the camp.
Corban pushed back a mass of brown curls and stuck out his tongue to one side as he
focused on the task at hand. Palms down, using his dirt-tipped fingers to spread the rope into a perfect circle on the ground, he grabbed his pile of dried leaves and placed them carefully over the ring, then stepped back, lowering the long tail of rope as he knelt behind a tree.
This would be the perfect surprise for Mama. Patiently, he waited. The few leaves that still stuck to the tree branches rattled together and there was a thud, thud, thud, like soldiers marching that seemed to come from somewhere near. Corban couldn’t quite peg the source of the sound. He looked around. Trees everywhere. Not a soul. He was far enough away from camp that people wouldn’t disturb his trap until he was ready. Where was that marching coming from? Then, he felt the pounding in his chest and glanced down.
Oh. He put a finger to his lips to tell his heart to calm down and be quiet or it might
scare the creature away. It didn’t listen right away, so he just rolled his eyes and went back to watching, hoping whatever animal wandered into his ring didn’t hear his heartbeat.
The woods were quiet -- except for the wind at the tops of the trees, but it was high enough that it didn’t make him too cold. Corban shivered. Well, it was a little cold. He pulled his coat snugly around him, even though it was already tight. Mama had made it for him two years ago when he was only five and he’d grown a lot since then! But he didn’t want to complain and make her upset. Making clothes was expensive at camp because people had to sneak into the villages and buy fabric and that was dangerous too. Besides, pretty soon he would be able to pass his coat down to Annie, his little sister, and then he would get a bigger coat of his own. Maybe one with sleeves that were even too long! One he’d have to grow into. Maybe Mama would finally let him have Papa’s old coat.
Corban chewed on his lip a little. He could picture the black stitches across the hole where the king’s men had stabbed his Papa. But he puffed his chest out. He would wear it proudly, and he wouldn’t even care if a little breeze went through it.
At that moment, a sharp mountain wind ripped through the trees and blasted against Corban. He hunched down, making himself as small as he could, to keep all the warmth in his body, but the wind still surrounded him and prodded him like a big bully. When it finally died down, Corban hesitantly looked up, as if the wind would punch him again if he showed his face. That’s when he noticed a small creature right in the middle of his ring.
On instinct, he yanked his rope, which he’d kept securely between his hands while the wind howled. By some miracle, the little animal jumped at the last minute and Corban’s ring closed around its foot.
“I got it!” Corban cried, letting go of his rope. The animal bounded, pulling its extra long tail with it and sending Corban sprawling after it across the ground. Grabbing a hold of it and spitting out the leaves that had blown in his face, he pulled the struggling creature closer to him.
Quinton would be so excited to have an extra bit of game for the supper tonight! Ian would be so proud! Just wait until he told Blythe that he’d caught it all by himself! He beamed at the thought, still pulling the rope. And he would save a special bowl of soup just for Mama so it might help her with her terrible cough.
Finally, he pulled the little thing to him and grabbed at its feet. He stopped when he took hold of it and looked. It was a rabbit. A brown rabbit. Its nose twitched with fear and its eyes were big and wide. His coat wasn’t too thick. Corban cocked his head. Usually the animals’ fur coats had gotten thicker by this time of year. He shivered a little and he noticed, he thought, maybe, the rabbit shivered too. The animal had stopped struggling for a few moments. It was probably waiting to see what he would do. It looked cold. And scared.
Corban knew what that was like. Its long ears were laid back and Corban shifted, grabbing it by the scruff of its neck. It curled up as much as it could, just like Corban had done when the wind blew on him.
And just like the wind, an immense feeling of pity swept over Corban. It didn’t make him feel cold, but it did make him feel like he couldn’t really give up the little creature. He was probably cold and lost and looking for food, just like himself. Maybe he even didn’t have a Mama and Papa to take care of him. Maybe he was all alone too. Corban frowned and pursed his lips.
With a sigh, he began to put the rabbit back on the ground. Then he froze. If he let the rabbit go, then maybe Annie would be hungry. He couldn’t let that happen. But the rabbit looked so scared. . .
Corban scrunched up his nose, then brought his head up with a grin spreading on his face. He’d ask Ian. Ian would know what to do.
Hugging the rabbit close, he took off through the woods, back in the direction of the camp. Through a blur of endlessly similar trees he ducked and twisted, running until he heard the clamor of voices in the distance. Puffing, he picked up his pace, but just before he reached the first tent, he ran into something.
With an “oof,” he landed on his tailbone, which gave a sharp stab of protest. “Ow!” Corban looked up to see what had knocked him over. Or rather, who had. He narrowed his eyes at his cousin.
“Blythe!” he protested. “You almost made me lose my rabbit!”
Blythe was getting up off the ground too and dusting his trousers. “You caught one?”
He stared at the furry thing tucked close to Corban.
Corban held it up. “I need to take it to Ian.”
Blythe reached for the rabbit. “Quinton showed me how to do it. We can surprise them.”
Corban imagined the little animal, now trembling inside his too-small coat, as a hunk of meat that he’d present to Ian. He swallowed. He’d done it before. He’d helped Quinton with the meal preparation many times. But this time just seemed . . . different.
“Come on, Corban. I’ll show you how.”
“What?” Blythe’s eyebrows furrowed.
“I--I don’t--” Corban stopped.
“You don’t what?” Blythe folded his arms impatiently. Just then, Quinton came around the corner, carrying an armload of dried vegetables. Corban knew that the camp had been running low on the vegetables they'd planted that year. Vegetables would probably go really good in a rabbit stew. At least, Quinton would think that. But as the moments ticked by with Blythe there waiting for Corban to decide what to do, his nose got wrinklier and wrinklier. Rabbit stew sounded worse and worse.
The little rabbit had burrowed beneath Corban’s coat, under his arm, and settled there quite comfortably, trusting him. Corban frowned and huffed a little. This was supposed to be an easy job. One that would make everyone happy and their bellies full. But truly, this one scrawny little rabbit couldn’t make anyone really full, could it? It would practically be one bite for someone as big and tall as Uncle Robert.
“Corban!” Blythe snapped him from his thoughts, waving his arms. “There goes Quinton. Let’s just give it to him.”
“No.” Corban’s firm voice must have startled the little rabbit, for it jumped in his arms. Keeping a tight grip on it, Corban looked around warily and jerked his head in the opposite direction of Quinton and the big black cauldron that would mean death for his new friend.
Blythe followed, tilting his head curiously, but mimicking Corban’s cautious gaze. “What are we doing?”
“Shh.” Corban commanded, hunkering down between a couple of bushes and trees. He knelt down, rising high on his knees to see if anyone had seen their getaway, then lowering and pulling the reluctant creature from within his coat.
“It’s a little thing, isn’t it?” Blythe inspected, reaching forward to pet its head.
“Not enough for anyone’s supper.” Corban nodded. “And look how it’s not even got a thick coat.”
“We don’t either.” Blythe shrugged.
“And nobody catches us and eats us for supper.” Corban paused philosophically, squinting his eyes heavenward.
“I guess so. But...there’s a lot of men who are really hungry right now. They have to eat something. I heard Ian say that they’re going to have to start going to the villages to get food. And that’s dangerous.”
Corban nodded. He knew it was dangerous. Their whole lives were dangerous. He looked down at the rabbit, who was sitting in his lap contentedly, nose quivering. He didn’t look afraid anymore. His ears had even perked up a little.
There were hungry men at camp. A lot of hungry men. Corban’s stomach grumbled and growled, which startled the rabbit. It leapt from his lap and bounded off, away from camp.
“Hey!” Even if Corban had decided he wasn’t going to surrender his new friend to supper, he didn’t want it to run away either.
The rabbit bounded back and forth in a zig-zagged pattern and the two boys scrambled to their feet in pursuit.
It was fast.
So were the boys. They played tag a lot during the afternoons to keep themselves warm.
It leaped over sticks and stones.
They leaped over sticks and stones.
Suddenly, the ground slipped away under Corban’s worn shoes. The slick, dry leaves on the hillside slid out from under him and he found himself sliding down, feet first.
He tumbled and rolled to try and grab onto something.
Blythe yelled from behind, “Corban! Stop!”
How was he supposed to stop? He happened to glance over as he slid and realized that he had passed his rabbit friend, who looked at him with curious, black eyes.
When Corban finally made it to the bottom, he grunted as he pushed to his hands and knees. The little rabbit hopped up lazily beside him and sniffed at his hands.
Corban sighed and lifted his dirty, empty palms. “I don’t have anything for you to eat. Remember, I was supposed to eat you.” He shook his head and dropped his hands. He’d have to find something else for Mama and Ian and Quinton and Uncle Robert and all the other men at camp to eat. That would take a lot of rope traps...and a lot of waiting. But he had to do his part.
Blythe slid to his side, getting his trousers all muddy as he did. “Are you all right?” He was breathing hard but not doing a very good job at hiding the smile on his face.
“Fine.” Corban ran his hands over his pants to get the dirt and mud off and looked around at the base of the hill which was actually two hills tucked very close together like a wide “V” shape. A letter which Ian had just taught Corban how to read. Corban’s eyebrows drew down into the same kind of letter as he looked around. Something was very strange here. There was too much...green.
The autumn had been especially cold this year and the gardens at camp had had some difficulty even with the fall harvest. The leaves from the trees were dried and brown and blanketed the mountainside, forest floor. Of course, there were the evergreens, which were always green, but this was a different kind of color. This was a leafy, spring green.
“Blythe, look.” Corban pointed to the sea of green on the ground. “What is it?”
Without saying a word, Blythe cocked his head and crawled over to a sprout. “It looks like….”
The rabbit had hopped away and was nibbling on some leafy greens.
Grabbing a rock, Blythe started to pound and scrape away the hard dirt around the plants. Corban moved forward to help, using his fingers to pull away clumps of dirt and reveal the roots of the plant.
Blythe grinned and leaned back when they got to the bottom of the root, then he grabbed the bunch of green leaves and yanked it up out of the ground. Wild carrots!
Corban’s jaw dropped open in excitement and he ran both his hands through his tangled curls.
“There’s so many of them!”
He immediately set to work digging out another cluster of the vegetables and Blythe set his aside in a pile. When they both had enough carrots and turnips and radishes to fill an armful, they laughed and tossed the extra dirt in the air in their excitement. They’d even forgotten just how cold it was and that the sun was beginning to set.
“Let’s take these back!” Blythe took his armful. Corban bounced up next to him and noticed the rabbit sitting at a distance, nose wriggling all the while, ears perked up tall.
Just behind him, a bigger rabbit peeked its nose out of a hollow in a tree and Corban’s little friend hopped inside.
“Corban!” The boys heard off in the distance.
“Coming, Mama!” Corban lifted his own bundle of vegetables and grunted as he and Blythe climbed the hill back toward camp. He looked over his shoulder one last time and called to the rabbit.
And from his home in the tree, next to a circle of greens that the boys had left just for the rabbit and his family, the creature looked out with its nose wriggling. Corban grinned. Tonight, they’d both be warm and safe.