Chapter Three: In Good Times and Bad
That afternoon the rain returned. Water had begun to collect in lower-lying areas, so once again the cats gathered in the barn to keep dry.
"Look what I found," Sam said as he entered. Between his teeth was the sruff of something dead, something larger than a mouse but smaller than a crow, with longish legs and mottled fur.
"It's a rabbit," he said, dropping his prize to the floor. "A young rabbit, still tender."
Jaz pretended to yawn.
Sam felt his blood begin to boil, but he forced serenity into his tone. "The field is full of these," he continued. "There are enough for all of us. We can hunt and eat whenever we want, and we don't have to wait for the man in the house to take care of us. Do you understand? We should move away from the house and the barn, where we can take care of ourselves and be happy."
"Young rabbit does taste good," Oliver conceded. "But if we leave, who will keep the master's house and the barn free of rodents?"
"Let the master be about his own business," Sam spat, "and let us be about ours."
"But he depends on us. He cares for us."
Sam shook his head. "He doesn't care for us. We work for him, keeping the mice out of the barn, and it's a pitiful job with little pay. Nothing has proven that more than this incessant rain. We deserve a better life."
Oliver looked to Molly and Jaz. "Anyone feel the same? Has the master been cruel to you?"
Molly opened her mouth to speak, but Jaz interrupted. "Certainly not," she said. "Let the fool do what he will. Yesterday he complained about the dampness of this roof, and now he wants to live where there is no roof at all. Imbecile! Is there no rest for stupidity?"
Sam's ears laid flat against his head. "As sure as I live, the one who stays to do the master's bidding is the fool! Do your own work and support yourself! Lazy freeloading-"
"So this isn't about cruelty and neglect, you just despise all forms of submission!"
"Stop!" Oliver ordered, inserting himself between Sam and Jaz.
"And who put your big orange butt in charge?" Jaz hissed at him. "You're not the oldest, nor the wisest!"
"But I am the largest," Oliver answered loudly. He glared Jaz down until she grudgingly looked away. Then he relaxed his stance. "Listen, we don't all have to agree. Sam, if you want to leave, you have that freedom. There is no fence around the master's house, no lock and key to keep you in or out." His eyes narrowed on the smaller tom. "But know this... That if you leave, it will break his heart and mine."
Sam steeled himself under his brother's gaze and was silent. Then he turned and left, disappearing into the sweeping rain, his prize still lying on the floor.
Jaz released an aggravated sigh. "Should I go after him?"
"Maybe," Oliver said after giving it some thought. "But not now. My brother won't listen to anything we have to say until he's had time alone."
Molly stepped forward cautiously, her tail and head down. "Oliver?" she said in a quiet voice.
"What if Sam is right?"
Oliver blinked. "What?"
Molly's heart beat nervously. "What if...we would be happier out there? If there is food, and certainly plenty of water... Surely we could find shelter somewhere..."
"Molly, the field may be full of game now but that will only last for a season. What will you do when winter comes? When it's so cold outside that the only warmth comes from the master's heat lamp that he arranges for us in the barn, then what?"
"Well, then... Maybe then we could come back."
Oliver drew his lips thin and glared. "Leave on a selfish whim and come back only when it's convenient. That's a wonderful plan, isn't it?"
Jaz perked up her ears. It was a rare thing to see Oliver upset with Molly.
"I only meant that..."
The tom's glare intensified. "I know what you meant. Shame on you, after the way the master held you this morning."
Molly couldn't bear to look at him, so she looked to the ground instead. "I'm sorry, Oliver. Really I am."
Both the orange tom and the elderly gray watched in stunned surprise as Molly, beloved of her master, also left the barn.