Fiction

Hunting the Red Cat

new-england-colonies-3

It was dead of night in the King’s Commonwealth of Massachusetts, November the 12th going on the 13th in the year of our Lord 1699. The darkness of that night was barely held at by the light of a hundred candles and half as many lanterns. Most slept fitfully if they slept at all in their little homes and in their purchased beds at the Inn and Tavern in the township, if a village of 135 could indeed lay claim to such a title, of Mead in the westerly regions of this wild country. Every child was lulled to sleep with stories of red men dancing and cavorting around their blazing pyres, faces painted with the most remarkable colors of pigment and dye that could possibly be imagined. Was it ironic then that it was these selfsame savages who populated the nightmares of these good Christian children?

            At the aforementioned tavern nightmares were held at bay with the potent tonic of ale and passably pleasurable company. Men sat at benches that had been worn into a begrudging familiarity with their hindquarters, and the few women who ventured from the homes and hearths sat lonesome by the only window staring out into the night they were not ready to embrace. The men were a more cheerful lot and they assaulted the fearsome potential of the darkness with well fermented songs

Wild’s the wood that the red cat roams

A looming shadow’s darkening thy hearth and home

Trepidation’s less than folly

For the red cat’s hungry

Lick’s his chops and sharpens claw

‘pon the Elmwood bark worn raw

Leering eyes the only light

Save for the half-heart moon on winter’s eve night

            Not all of the men at the tavern were so hearty and sociable however. One Remark Danbury, a cobbler’s apprentice, sat alone at a table adjacent to the one occupied by the well lubricated troubadours. He had been nursing the same lukewarm brew for the better part of the evening, silently contemplating whether or not to join in the manly revelries of his neighbors. He could not bring himself to approach these men though; each was a businessman or a community leader in his own right and were not usually in the practice of welcoming apprentices into their midst. They were a hoary but respected bunch these men, and it would take more than a free round to ingratiate them to a near-no-account like Remark Danbury. He knew he had to do something more than noteworthy in order to earn a place at that table. It was then that he first noticed the lyrics of the bar ditty they were singing with such abandon

That old red cat he does growl

At the shimmerin’ Indian Moon

Hungry as a starv-ed wolf

And mean as a preacher’s scowl

He hunts the poor lost soul lost his way

And dines on his tremblin’ bones

            It was here, before the third chorus could be belted out, that Remark Danbury made a terrible mistake. His innate pride and youthful scorn moved him from his seat and forced an ill-starred utterance from his thin lips. “I ain’t afraid of no red cat. I bet you three rounds of ale and a penny that I could bring back his front teeth and his pelt without so much as a scratch on my chin to show for it.” The entire tavern went quiet at this foolhardy declaration. The Innkeeper’s jaw fell open and lay slack against his leather apron. The women by the window whispered to each other and pointed at this strange, stupid young man who had dared to interrupt the elders and their drinking song. The elders themselves seemed the least surprised at this interruption. They had seen a hundred young bucks raise his voice out of place before and they would see a hundred more before they went quietly to their graves. The eldest of the lot, a tanner called John Marks by his peers, and Uncle John by everyone else. He broke the silence with a deep belly laugh, his breath sweet with the dregs of honey mead.

            “Yer gonna bring us the hide and fangs of the red cat? Have you ever even heard of the red cat, boy? You ain’t half grown yet and you speaks of a task that not even Silas Kites over there would undertake, and he’s a full 6 feet tall at the shoulders! Red cat’d rip you up and down like a man would a virgin’s gown on her wedding night. He’d eat you up so fast that all’d be left of you for the constable to find would be yer shoes, and if he were really hungry red cat’d probably go and eat them too. Ain’t no chance you’d be bringing me no part of the red cat tonight or any night. I tell ya what, you’re a stupid fellow, but a brave one. I’ll buy you a round and we’ll all have a laugh over it. Just think of it! Cobbler’s boy gonna bring us the hide and fangs of the red cat! I just wish my grandfather were here to laugh with us. He’d have a good laugh at you and we’d laugh right along with ‘im.”

            The pall of shock having been lifted by the words of Uncle John, the rest of the tavern joined in at laughing at poor Remark Danbury. Men came over and patted him on the back, and to add insult to injury they all offered to buy him a round. Remark Danbury blushed a deep shade of crimson and took his seat back at his table. He struggled to hold back the red hot tears of shame that were welling up in the corners of his eyes. He sat there the rest of the night, tortured by the words of Uncle John and by the ever more boisterous and fulsome singing of those men at the elders’ table. The church bell rang out across the night, telling all who cared to listen that it was well past midnight. The women had long since gone home to their trundle beds and quilts while the singing of the elders had given way to a gentle hum of conversation and shoptalk. Remark Danbury could take no more of it and he stuffed his felt hat onto his prematurely balding head and headed towards to bar so as to settle up with the innkeeper. He slammed two pennies onto the wooden counter and turned to leave. He was stopped by a firm hand on his shoulder. It was the innkeeper.

            “I can see by the look on your face that you are not going to get any sleep unless you at least make an attempt at that ol’ red cat. Now I think it’s a fool’s errand to even consider such a thing, but then again I never was the adventurous type. There’s an old trapper name Blooding who lives out in last house in town, out by the apothecary. He’s the only one I knew whose even seen the red cat, let alone trap him, but I think he can set you right on how to go about it. I suppose you’ve got as much chance at an impossible task as anyone else. He don’t sleep much, if at all, so I don’t think you’d bother him much by knocking on his door. I wish you all good luck and good tidings Remark Danbury.”

            Remark Danbury didn’t say a word, just tipped his hat and headed straight for the apothecary. He’d heard of the trapper Will Blooding before, and he knew that this man was the only one the community ever turned to when a wild beast was making trouble for the flocks or the children of the town. The streets this late at night were deserted, and the only light by which one could make his way were the flickering candles in the window sills of those who choose to while the way the twilight reading or writing letters to loved ones far away in other colonies or townships. It was just enough light to get Remark Danbury where he was going.

            When he saw the wind-battered sign marking the entrance to the apothecary he took a left and headed towards the last ramshackle house he could see. It didn’t take him long to find it as there were few people who chose to live this close to the woods. It could scarcely be called a “house” so much as an old converted smokehouse; three men and a small child could make a ring around the place holding hands. The place was covered from roof to earth in skins and furs. These were mostly raccoon and deer hides but there was a smattering of beaver and even the occasional fox. There were rusted traps and lengths of chain scattered all about the small yard. There was an ancient axe stuck in the stump of a maple tree, and an anvil sunk halfway into the muddy earth by the small pen where the old men kept the half dead old nag he used to pull the cart of skins and furs to market out east.

            He knocked hard on the gnarled wooden door. He knew the old man was half deaf so he wanted to make sure he heard him. No sooner did his knuckles touch the door then it opened up to reveal a wizened and ragged looking man dressed head to tail in skins and furs. He had thin ghost white hair all the way down to his elbows. The hair that wasn’t stuffed under his beaver-pelt hat was knotted and tied into loose braids with twine and bits of string. His eyes were light blue like the sky on a summer afternoon. One was almost completely clouded over with cataracts but he could see quite well out of the other. He was tall and thin and his hands ended in fingers that looked like the roots of a 200 year chestnut tree. He had lost half of his lower lip to a bobcat back when he was barely of age, so he had a strange half grimace that never left his face. He looked Remark Danbury up and down like one would a prize goose at the fair. “You’re the cobbler’s boy.” This wasn’t a question. “Come in I suppose. Mind the step.”

            Remark Danbury walked over the threshold into the little house. The floor was not level with the ground outside so there was indeed a step down of about 4 inches. The floor was patted down dirt covered in fragrant pine needles but even that couldn’t hide the stench of rotting flesh and gun-oil. Remark Danbury breathed threw his mouth so as not to partake of the horrible aroma. Blooding pointed at a three legged stool that looked like it had been carved out of a single piece of wood. He gestured for him to take a seat. Remark Danbury did just that. Blooding took a seat on a work bench just across from the young man.

            “What can I do for you? And before you ask, no I do not sell traps. It’s enough that I have to make ‘em for myself let alone service the whole damn town.”

            Remark Danbury hesitated not for a moment. “I want to hunt and kill the red cat.”

Blooding was equally to the point. “If you’re hunting the red cat you’re gonna want a gun. No trap’ll hold that beast. And you’re also gonna want to leave a last will and testament behind ‘cause sure as the sun will rise in the east we’ll not be seeing you in one piece again. The look in your eyes tells me you are dead serious. If’n you weren’t I wouldn’t be talking to you now. I have an old rifled musket that I think’ll suit you fine as any. I’ll loan it to you if’n you promise to bring me back the pelt of the red cat.”

            Remark Danbury leaned forward on the stool and looked blooding straight in the eye. “I must have the pelt for one night in order to win a bet I made at the tavern. After that the pelt is all yours.”

            Blooding spat into a corner of the hut. “That seems morein’ fair. The gun’s yours for as long as it takes. You been told what to look for? Do you know how to track the red cat?”

            He shook his head. “I’ve heard nothing more than an old song about it and the stories my father and his father told me. I know it is a panther that has fur as red as the setting sun. I know that it’ll kill a man faster than a man can strangle a chicken. I know that it’s never been seen save by a few men who made it out of the woods to tell the story.”

            Blooding nodded slowly. “That’s all true enough. What you probably don’t know is that every one ‘O those men who spied the red cat came out of those woods with one limb less than what he brought in with him.”

            Remark Danbury shuddered. “Have you seen the red cat?”

            Blooding let out a bark of a laugh. “If’n I had I wouldn’t be sittin’ here talking to you. I’d be moldering in that damnable beast’s belly. No, I just know what I been told by other trappers, and by the few men who did see him. None of them amongst the living anymore. I don’t know why you want to take on such a fool’s errand boy. I don’t understand, but I respect your bravery nonetheless. Just remember this: the red cat’ll always let you see him ‘fore he snatches you up. He’s a proud bugger, or so I been told. He wants you to know you’ve made a grave mistake. Wiley that creature is, almost like a man.” Blooding got up from his stool and reached into a dark corner of the hut. He pulled out an ancient match-lock with bayonet still attached. “This blade is from when I fought King Philip and his braves. Killed 13 men I did with this here gun and blade. Ran 10 of them through, and the rest I shot. It’s dead on at 20 paces or less. Not that the red cat’ll ever let you get that close.” He threw the gun at Remark Danbury, who caught it in one hand and inspected it up and down. It was an old gun, but he could see it was a good one.

            Remark Danbury got up and headed for the door of the hut. He paused and turned back. “Do you have any spare ball and powder?”

            Blooding shook his head. “I do but it wouldn’t do you any good. The red cat’ll only give you one good shot at him. If’n you miss he’ll not give you time for a second shit. If’n you hit…Well.” He smiled and revealed a mouth empty of teeth. Remark Danbury smiled back. “Where should I start my hunt?”

            Blooding began polishing an old iron trap. “Just head into the woods anywhere. You’ll not be the one doing the hunting. Good evening to you cobbler’s boy.” Remark Danbury left the hut and walked straight into the dark wood.

***

            The whip-poor-will cried and cried against the drowning dark. The call echoed against the trees, huddled together like old women knitting and gossiping about the going’s on. There was scarcely a space between their trunks to let the moon shine through. Remark Danbury wore the darkness like a cloak, and he marched forth through the trees and brush like a man consumed by a holy calling. He had brought with him the matchlock, his coat, and the satchel he took with him everywhere which contained a skin of water (enough for two days at the most) a small pouch of salt and a flint with which to make fire. He had no plan other than to search until he found the red cat, or, if Will Blooding were to be believed, the red cat found him.

            All around him he heard the voices of the wilderness: utter silence interrupted by the snap of a twig as a deer ran by or by the accusatory hoot of an owl out looking for his supper. The ground was alive with forest mice, voles and other such critters. He was careful to make as little noise as possible. He tried to walk as the Indians always did in the tales his father used to tell him as a boy. He knew he was nowhere near quiet enough.

            The night seemed to not want to end, and that was fine by Remark Danbury. If he were to hunt the red cat he wished to do it with all the prejudices at play against a wild predator: the blackness of night, hunger in his heart, and thirsting for the kill. Such thoughts stirred his blood and raised his darker humors. In this wood he was no more or less a man than any of the men at the elder’s table. Here the crows didn’t discriminate in favor of wealthy corpses. The worms would gladly feast upon an egalitarian supper. No one’s bones were brighter than the rest, and no red cat would care a lick whose blood was bluer. The woods made him an equal. The hunt made him a man.

            For hours he tramped through the woods, and those hours turned to a half day, and then when the morning sun rose in the east he paused for a while and made camp. He was hungry and since he had the sneaking suspicion the red cat had the same attitude about hunting as he did he decided he would look about for something to eat. He could not spare the bullet so that would mean a trap. Luckily he remembered a simple noose-snare trap his uncle had taught him. He quickly gathered some twigs and tied a tiny sapling to a stake he put in the earth. To the end of this sapling he tied a bit of the wire that was helping hold the old bayonet onto the gun. He twisted one end into a little noose and tied the other end to the tip of the sapling closest to the ground. He put a notch in the side of the stake pointing towards the noose. He stuck a bit of flat birch bark in the notch at an angle and loosened the stake from the ground just a smidge. The noose he laid flat on the bark in a circle. The bark would act as the “trapdoor” releasing the stake as the critter stepped upon it. He would be pulled into the air by the springy sapling and strung up right and safe for the hunter to dispatch him. He walked 25 paces back into the wood and lay down flat on his stomach in the soft but scratchy leaves. Now it was time to wait.

            The sun rose in the sky for another four hours and early noon gave way to evening. Still there was nothing. Still the hunter was patient. The evening grew darker and darker as the sun sank towards the horizon. The hunter was hungry. He felt his innards burn with feral appetites. He did not know—And then it was moving. It was darting to a fro between the trees; its ears just barely peaking about the tallest blades of grass. It dodged and weaved over shrub and thatch and thorn until it was a bare yard away from the trap. There, as though it had planned it this way, the creature, a stark white rabbit, froze in mid-step and sat down in the grass. His nose twitched. It caught a whiff of the air. It recognized the smell but could not quite remember. The hunter panicked, thinking for an excruciating moment that the prey was lost when suddenly before he could even blink twice the rabbit had stepped foot onto the bark and into the noose. The sapling was released with a terrible snap and the rabbit was hung by his left foreleg. The creature twitched in midair as it slowly began to realize that it had been caught.

            The hunter came over the creature and cut the wire with the razor sharp bayonet. He held the rabbit by the scruff of the neck. He stood there for a moment, unwilling to move an inch. His mind wandered to dark thoughts of an even darker night. He felt his blood run cold as the mud beneath his feet. He turned the rabbit around an brought it up level to his face. He looked into its coal black eyes and imagined there was something within them staring back. He then took the rabbit by the neck and head and twisted his hands in opposite directions. The rabbit was dead. The run barely peaked about the horizon. It was as red as smiths’ furnace. He built a pile out of twigs and birch bark. He lit it with the flint after half a dozen whacks against the side of the bayonet, which he briefly detached the end of the gun barrel. The birch bark caught and the twigs provided fuel for the small but lively fire. Remark Danbury fashioned a spit out of pine branches and skewered the rabbit onto it after skinning and cleaning thoroughly. He sprinkles some of his salt onto the meat as a way of seasoning it and he placed the whole thing over the fire. It was dark by the time it was cooked through. He took the rabbit out of the fire and took a bite from the haunches. It was tender and wonderfully gamey in flavor. The salt added a nice touch flavor to the already savory skin. All in all it was a fine supper and he had soon eaten his full. He wiped his greasy hands on his coat and stretched out lengthwise in front of the fire. He soon nodded off to sleep.

            He was soon awoken by a growl. He sprung to his feet, but not before he lit the long burning match on his gun. He turned from side to side, his weapon shouldered, his pulse snapping away in both of his wrists. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the light of the moon. He turned in that direction only to find that it had disappeared and in its place was an enormous and fiery red cat with equally blazing eyes. Its face was transfixed in a terribly fanged rictus grin. It extended its claws and gripped the thick branch it was standing upon. It flexed its powerful muscles and jumped right at Remark Danbury. He brought the match to the pan and the gun went off. The red cat screamed and beat Remark Danbury about the head with its massive paws. He fell to the ground, groping for the rifle as the red cat placed its entire bulk upon his prone body. The cat’s eyes grew wide with glee as it bent its head and brought its jaws down to Remark Danbury’s neck. He finally grabbed ahold of the rifle. He swung it, bayonet first, at the red cat. The beast howled in rage and pain. Remark Danbury echoed his quarries screams.

            ***

Three days after Remark Danbury entered the forest at well past the witching hour, Will Blooding opened the door of his shack to find his old rifled gun with a penny and a note tied to the bayonet. Blooding opened the note and read its badly spelled contents

Wil Bluding

Shot ryefull

Hit target

No pellt

Butt A half- peny for the bullit

Remark Danbury

Will Blooding held the half-penny in his hand and laughed for ten minutes straight.

            ***

            It was dead of night in the King’s Commonwealth of Massachusetts, November the 16th going on the 17th in the year of our Lord 1699. The women were once more over by the solitary window, knitting or trying to nurse a child to sleep. The men at the elder’s table laughed and knocked steins and chugged brew. The innkeeper was filling a mug with mulled wine. The elders began to sing…And then the door burst open and in came Remark Danbury. He stomped proudly up to the table. He threw a bloody red paw down on the table. The men gasped and not a few dropped their steins to the floor. Remark Danbury spoke. “He was wily and got away before I could get at his pelt, but I do hope this will do as proof enough of my hunt?”

            The old men gaped, slack jawed at the paw and then at the young man who had produced it for them to see. One by one they reached into their pockets, and one by one they pulled out a penny. One by one they placed theirs onto the elders’ table. Remark Dansbury laughed and called for a round for the entire tavern, on him! After that round Remark Dansbury never had to buy his own drinks ever again.

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