Just a side-note: Caleb is name chosen by the author, not me. I'm not a fan and would like to change the name to Christopher because for some reason that is better for me, but - this was an entry in progress.
Cresta McGowan, Eve
The horse walked with an uneasy gait carrying all three of us. Arden hugged close behind Caleb leaving me to undulate on the horses’ ass; a sobering thought seeing how that is the very impression I had of Caleb upon meeting him. He was so smug and confident the way he just assumed we were helpless without him. It pained me to realize he was right. He sat strong and tall in the saddle, as if he’d won some sort of battle. The rabbits swung from the neck of his horse and storm clouds loomed overhead threatening our every step.
I hated my lack of survival savvy. There was nothing in the pages of Fitzgerald that had prepared me for this except knowing when to duck if my “Gatsby” had one too many. I shuddered at the thought of feeling like Daisy, dimwitted and dependent on a man, taking help from the proverbial knight on a horse. Mine just didn’t carry a sword, nor was he as debonair as I’d read him to be.
The wind died down and the sunflowers returned to their upright bloom, but that did not stop the rain from falling out of the sky. Caleb picked up the pace to a canter and shouted a half-hearted, “Hang on back there!” When we arrived on the edge of his settlement, my fears of his earlier prowess were somewhat assuaged. He had not lied. A deer hung stretched from a tree, and a boar was posted on a makeshift roasting spit. Caleb swung down from the horse in one graceful motion and extended his hand to Arden. Arden grabbed for him quickly and he lifted her gently to the ground.
“Thank you,” she said and her face filled with a rosy flirtation.
“Oh, please,” I muttered and Caleb and Arden looked at me. He extended his hand in my direction, but I brushed it away. I could get off a horse by myself, that much I knew. Yet, as soon as I slid off the back of the beast, it lunged forward leaving me sitting in a fresh puddle of mud from the rain shower.
“You really do have trouble with a helping hand, don’t you?” his hand extended once again. Begrudgingly I took it this time, but not without damage to my pride.
His camp was small but clean and it was obvious he’d hidden here successfully for a while now. In one pull of his palm on a lingering rope, pulley’s and twine began to jut from the braches revealing a crude house. The surface was rough but sturdy and he clamped each corner down to the ground giving it shape and life. Windows were cut high to let in bits of the morning sunlight and traps extended from the bend to catch small prey. I had to admit, his habit of impressing was hard to ignore, but he didn’t need to know that, not yet.
Arden gushed over his ingenuity like she’d never heard of such great accomplishments. We both had read how Huck Finn and Jim survived the trek down the Mississippi, and even if only in books and stories, men were told as skillful creatures. I never quite understood in the pages of books why men were painted as such necessary beings when we were supposed to loathe them, fear them in real life. I wanted to ask my teachers, but I knew this type of question would result in a thrashing. Caleb continued setting up the home he’d made for himself, now shared with us. I supposed the confirmation of a man’s capability was somewhat fascinating, but I found myself still leery of him; trusting too easily could be one’s demise. Skill of survival is certainly a worthy attribute, but man’s cruelty and manipulation often lay deep beneath the surface, like an itch you can’t scratch, but will go mad trying.
“Where did you learn to do all of this?” I asked interrupting Arden’s locked gaze.
“You’d be surprised what you can get done, what you can learn, when your life’s on the line.”
“I supposed that’s true.”
“It is.” I wanted to learn more about him, try to have faith in the goodness he showed.
“Have you always been alone out here?”
“No.” His reply intimated that no more would be said about the subject. I wanted to press him, ask questions about his former campmates, but his green eyes shifted from glistening grapes to a deep jilted jade. The look made me wary, made me remember all we’d been taught about men and their malicious ways.
Caleb moved back to his horse, clucking softly in his ear as he removed the rabbits from the neck. He nuzzled the horses’ muzzle with great affection and love; two qualities I was quickly learning he was capable of. The tree he tied him to held a worn path past its trunk. I wondered where this path led and who traveled it, Caleb to leave or others to enter? He gave the horse an apple and stroked his long mane with a loving hand. I’d always found in life those that love animals, love others. He may prove this to be true, too.
Arden was sitting on a tree stump watching him work with his horse and appreciating his nimble fingers as he pulled the rabbits from the line, her eyes were lost in his muscular frame, jaw agape. I was embarrassed for her.
“Close your mouth,” I snapped and sat down next to her, but she stayed lost in her daydream.
“Do you really think all those things they told us about men are true? I mean, so far, he’s been nothing like what we learned in school.” Caleb lifted the horses’ saddle and blanket now and I found myself sucked into Arden’s stupor. His tattoo of the New American Crest glistened against his shoulder in a mix of water and sweat.
“Close your mouth,” Arden said and rolled her eyes at me. My jaw now snapped shut and I tried to get my wits about me.
“So, what would you ladies like for dinner tonight?” he asked, “Rabbit, deer, boar?” He pointed at each choice like we’d been invited to the King’s buffet. My mouth watered at the thought of real meat. It’d been days since Arden and I had a real meal. The world does provide, but berries do not last long. My mind drifted back to the days of school where a real feast was laid out on tables before us, three times a day. Roasted meats and steamed vegetables, fruits, salads, and sides all for our taking. Life outside the compound had been harder than I anticipated and the wait for real nourishment had only fed the idea of starvation. Arden was eyeing the deer, her mouth practically watering over its form. She looked at me and started to speak. I knew what she wanted, she was so transparent. And I knew we could never, ever kill a deer.
“Rabbit’s fine,” I said and stared Arden down until she created a full pout on her face. “It’s the only animal we have a chance of returning to you someday.” I didn’t want to be in his debt, I barely wanted to be in his camp.