The Boy & His Ribbon Page 2

It was my backpack.

A mewling, muffled cry came again, sounding alive and not at all like water and cheese.

The noise was familiar. I’d heard it as I’d run, but I’d been too focused on living to notice it came from the very thing I’d stolen.

The heavy rucksack was ex-army canvas with faded green stitching and buckets of room for bed rolls, ammunition, and anything else a soldier might need.

I’d barely used any of the available space with my meagre supplies, yet it sat squat and full in the dirt.

Another wail sent me scrambling into a squatting position, ready to bolt.

Leaning forward with shaking hands, I tore the zipper open and fell backward.

Two huge blue eyes stared up at me.

Familiar blue eyes.

Eyes I never wanted to see again.

The infant bit her lip, studying my face with a furious flicker of attention. She didn’t cry louder. She didn’t squawk or squirm; she merely sat in my backpack amongst canned beans and squished cheese and waited for…something.

How the hell did she get into my bag?

I hadn’t put her there. I definitely wouldn’t steal the natural born daughter of Mr. and Mrs Mclary. They had sixteen children working their farm and only the girl in front of me was theirs by blood. The rest of us had been bought like cattle, branded like a herd, and forced to work until we were begging for the abattoir.

The baby wriggled uncomfortably, sticking her thumb in her mouth and never taking her eyes off me.

“Why are you in my bag?” My voice was far too loud for my ears. Something small scurried off on tiny feet. Bending closer to her, she leaned back, wariness and fear clouding her inquisitive gaze. “What the hell am I supposed to do with you?”

A stream gurgled not far in the undergrowth. My thirst made my mouth water while merciless practicality made me think up other uses for the river.

I couldn’t take her back, and I couldn’t take her with me.

That gave me no option.

I could leave her unattended for a wild animal to make a meal of, or I could dispatch her humanely by drowning her just like her parents had drowned a boy three weeks ago for not latching the gate and letting three sheep escape.

She twirled a faded blue ribbon around her teeny fist as if going over the conclusions herself. Did she know I contemplated killing her to make my escape easier? Did she understand that I would treat her no better than her parents treated me?

Slouching in the bracken beneath my chosen bush, I sighed heavily.

Who was I kidding?

I couldn’t kill her.

I couldn’t even kill the rats who shared the barn with us.

Somehow, she’d crawled into my backpack, I’d stupidly ran with her even though I’d known something was wrong, and now my impossible task at staying alive just got even harder.

CHAPTER TWO

REN

* * * * * *

2000

I’D KNOWN I might face death if I ran.

If not from a bullet, then starvation or exposure.

That was why I’d waited far longer than I should have. Why I’d lost weight that I needed and strength I couldn’t afford to lose. I’d been sold to the Mclarys two winters ago, and I should’ve been smarter.

I should’ve run the night they filled my mother’s fist with cash, stuffed me in a urine-soaked car, then shoved me in the barn with the rest of their kiddie prisoners and introduced me to my education the very next day.

The night I was sold was hazy, thanks to a strong cuff to the head when I’d dared to cry, and these days, I couldn’t remember my mother, which was fine because I never knew my father, either.

I only knew that we’d been made to call Mr. and Mrs Mclary Ma and Pop.

I’d obeyed out loud, but in my head, they were always the hated Mclarys. Just as hated as their blood relative currently foiling my escape plan.

I glowered at the baby girl, adding another level of intensity, doing my best to work up enough rage to kill her and be done with it.

Just like I didn’t know my father, I didn’t know how she’d ended up in my backpack. Had she crawled in by herself? Had another kid put her there? Had her mother even placed her inside for some reason?

The bag wasn’t mine. The scuffed-up thing belonged to Mr. Mclary who filled it with booze and thick sandwiches when it was harvesting time. It sat bold and dusty by the door, hanging out with its friends the musty jackets, broken umbrellas, and well-worn boots.

I scratched my head for the hundredth time, trying to figure out the riddle of why my carefully plotted escape had somehow ended up with an unwanted passenger.

A passenger that couldn’t walk or talk or even eat on her own.

Tears pricked at my scratchy eyes.

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