Vasco placed his front paws on the edge of the crate and stuck his head out. His snout raised, he happily breathed in the smells of the harbor--salt, fuel, burnt rubber, and rust--all of which indicated the presence of freighters. There is no better place in the world than this for a young rat, he thought as he stretched out his body. Each day humans dumped enough trash on the wharf to feed the entire tribe. Since his birth, Vasco had never known hunger. Life was easy for him. Eating and sleeping were all that he required.
Yet as the sun rose on the horizon, glimmers of dawn began to redden the harbor waters. The bustle of men would soon make this place too dangerous to linger around. It was time to go back.
His belly heavy with food, Vasco clumsily clambered up and passed through the hole in the crate. He fell onto the other side and scurried between the steel cables coiled on the wharf. Although he had never left the docks of the harbor, he felt more daring each day. This past night he had gone a little farther than usual from the nest. And who knew? Soon he might find the courage to go beyond the last landing dock, straight toward the city.
For the time being, though, he hurried along, impatient to rejoin his tribe and the safety of his nest. His mother, brothers, and all the others were waiting for him. He cleared a gangway, slipped through the moorings of a tugboat, and zigzagged between the huge legs of cranes. He could see the warehouse now and covered the last stretch at full speed. He coasted along a wall and turned at the corner before finding the twisted sheet of metal that his kind used as a door.
When he reached the opening, Vasco stopped, on the alert. A strange silence hung about the warehouse. Vasco sniffed the air with worry, on the lookout for danger. Picking up no particular signals, he ventured inside.
In the warehouse, everything was quiet . . . too quiet.
Vasco cautiously approached the opening in the pipe that led to the burrow. He sniffed an unfamiliar smell. It was not that of a cat, or of another rat, or of a human. It was a new smell, not altogether unpleasant.
Vasco hesitated and stood on his hind legs. Finally he slipped into the pipe and reached the corridor that had been dug under the warehouse. The unfamiliar smell was still there. But Vasco didn’t detect the morning commotion that usually prevailed when he returned from hunting. Why weren’t the females scurrying in all directions to feed their little ones?
Vasco grew increasingly concerned. Going deeper into the burrow, his snout forward, he explored each nook and cranny. He recognized the foul smells of urine, of droppings, and of food remnants. But where were the rats of his tribe? Vasco emitted a short cry and pricked up his ears. An icy silence made him shudder. His heart began beating madly. He let out another squeak, running this way, then that way, until he reached the end of the burrow. Now he had to acknowledge what he saw: there was no one around.
Vasco was seized with fear. He ran in circles, unable to make a decision. He thought of his mother and brothers and wished they would appear so he could take refuge among them. But nothing happened. The mysterious and frightening silence continued.
Panic-stricken, Vasco rushed toward the exit, knocking against the elbows of the pipe and hurting his flanks on the metal mesh installed by men to keep rats from going through. When he finally reached the ground floor of the warehouse, he ran outside to search for a sign, any trace, of his family.
Men were busy at work on the ships, but Vasco sprinted toward the end of the wharf. All of a sudden he noticed a small ball of gray fur lying between the wheels of an idle loading machine. His heart thumping, Vasco slipped under the vehicle. The ball of fur did not move. Vasco came nearer, sniffing at it. It was Memona, the oldest rat of his tribe. Full of hope, Vasco licked her snout and nudged her. She moved slightly. She wasn’t dead! Vasco tried to calm his pounding heart by huddling close to her.
Memona was very weak. A strange dull smell emanated from her body. Vasco rubbed himself against her, trying to warm her up. She groaned and raised her head. At the sight of Vasco, a little bit of relief came to her half-closed and sad eyes.
“Where are the others?” Vasco asked.
Memona turned her head toward the warehouse. She no longer had the strength to speak.
“The nest is empty!” Vasco tried again. “Where are the others?”
Memona’s head fell down, as heavy as a piece of wood. Vasco rubbed his snout on her panting flanks. She was breathing with difficulty. After a while, she opened her eyes again and raised her head. By the way she looked at Vasco, he understood that something awful had happened.
“Men . . . ,” gasped the old rat.
Vasco leaped to his paws. Men had come! They had caught his tribe! But how? And why? He ran in circles around Memona, uttering squeaks of despair. But Memona seemed to ignore his cries. She was already somewhere else.
Gathering all her strength, Memona dragged herself across the paving stones, gripping the uneven surface of the ground to inch forward. She puffed. She groaned. Distraught, Vasco followed her. He didn’t understand what was going on. Seeing Memona in pain made him feel helpless. He could only watch as the old rat crawled past the wheels of the machine and, in full view, made her way toward the edge of the wharf.
A few steps from the water, Memona’s body stiffened. She could no longer move. Vasco brought his snout closer and gently nibbled her. Memona jerked slightly and extended her neck toward the water. An opaque veil came over her eyes, as if she were looking at the world through a thick glass window. She opened her mouth suddenly, showing the two worn canines of her lower jaw.
“They are all dead,” she said. “And so am I. You’re the last one.”
Vasco shivered. He felt as if the ground had opened under his feet. “No,” he murmured. “You can’t leave me!”
Memona gave him a vacant look. “Be cautious of men. Of the steam . . . ,” she warned.
Then the old rat sighed deeply and let her head fall down on the paving stones.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Vasco, Leader of the Tribe by Anne-Laure Bondoux; translated from the French by Y. Maudet. Copyright © 2007 by Anne-Laure Bondoux. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.