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Sugar Creek Gang 23 The Killer Cat
By Paul Hutchens
Moody PublishersCopyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson
All rights reserved.
The first time anybody around Sugar Creek knew for sure there was a bloodthirsty, savage-tempered wildcat in the territory was when one of them sneaked into Harm Groenwald's pasture and killed three of his prize lambs.
I never will forget the hair-raising chills that ran up and down my spine the morning I heard about it.
We had just finished breakfast at our house when we got the news. It had been one of the most peaceful breakfasts we had had in a long time. Charlotte Ann, my mischievous-minded, usually-hard-to-manage baby sister had been being especially well behaved, not fussing or whining but behaving like most babies don't in the morning.
My grayish-brown-haired mother was sipping her coffee quietly and had a very contented look on her face as we all waited for my bushy-eye browed father to finish reading the Bible story he had just started.
As I listened, I didn't have any idea that part of what he was reading was going to get mixed up in the excitement of a wildcat hunt before the summer would pass.
The short Bible story was about a grown-up boy named Jacob, who had had a quarrel with his brother, Esau. To save his life he left home to go to another country where his mother used to live.
The first night of the long journey was spent in very rocky territory with steep cliffs and outcrops and different-shaped boulders piled on each other. It made me think of the rocky hills above Old Man Paddler's cabin. In fact, the hills in that part of Sugar Creek territory were not far from the haunted house we all knew about, and they were the best place in the world for wildcats to live and hunt and raise their families. Of course, I didn't think of that while Mom was sipping her coffee and Charlotte Ann was playing with her cute, pink, bare toes and Dad was reading along in his deep, gruff voice.
Anyway, while Jacob slept outdoors that night—using a stone for a pillow—he had a dream about a stairway leading all the way up to heaven. In the dream he saw angels going up and down on it.
In a minute Dad would finish reading, and then we'd have what Mom calls a Quaker prayer meeting. That means we'd all be quiet a minute and each one would think his own prayer to God just before Dad or Mom or maybe I would pray with out-loud words, and our day would be started right.
Then is when, all of a sudden, the phone started ringing in our front room.
I listened to see whether it was going to be our ring or somebody else's. I knew all the gang's numbers by heart: two longs and a short for Little Jim; two shorts and a long for Poetry; three shorts for Circus; two shorts for Big Jim; four shorts for Dragonfly; and ours was one long and one short.
Different other neighbors had different other numbers.
On our phone system, all anybody on our seven-phone line had to do if he wanted to talk to any other family on the line was to go to the phone, lift the receiver, and ring whatever number he wanted.
Of course, everybody on the party line could hear the phone ring in their own house and would know who was being called but not who was calling —unless they lifted their own receiver and did what is called "eavesdropping." Nobody was supposed to do that, but different people sometimes did and made different people mad at each other.
There was also a special ring, which was hardly ever used. It was called an "emergency ring," and nobody was supposed to ring it unless there was an actual emergency, such as an accident or a death in the family or somebody's cow had run away and couldn't be found. That emergency ring was two extra long longs and two very short shorts.
Well, our heads were all bowed at our breakfast table, and in my imagination I was up in the hills not far from the haunted house, lying on a stone pillow and watching angels moving up and down a golden stairway, sort of like people riding up and down on an escalator in a department store. And that was when I heard the jangling of the telephone. My mind was jarred all the way back to our kitchen table, and I was hearing the extralong ring, followed by another just-as-long long and then two short, sharp shorts.
"Emergency!" Mom, sitting beside Charlotte Ann's high chair, exclaimed, jumping like a scared rabbit that had been shot at and missed. A startled look came over her face, and she was out of her chair in a flurry, accidentally knocking over her chair to get across the kitchen floor as fast as she could, into the living room and to the phone to answer it.
All that excitement brought Charlotte Ann to baby-style life. Her arms flew out and up in several directions. She knocked over her blue mug of white milk, which spilled over the edge of her tray and splashed onto the floor. Mixy, our black-and-white house cat came from her box of straw by the kitchen stove and started lapping up as much of the spilled milk as she could before anybody in the family could mop it up and it'd be wasted.
In the living room Mom's voice gasped, "What! A wildcat! Who said so? How do you know?"
I was out of my chair even faster than Mom had gotten out of hers. I stood beside her at the phone, straining my ears to hear whoever's voice was on the other end of the line, but I couldn't. That is, I couldn't hear any one voice. Instead, because Mom had her receiver about an inch from her ear, I heard a jumble of what sounded like a dozen women's voices. Everybody was talking to everybody, and almost nobody was listening to anybody.
I tell you there was a lot of excitement around our house after Mom hung up and explained what the emergency was. It was Harm Groenwald's fast-talking wife who had rung the emergency number. They'd had three of their prize lambs killed last night. Their carcasses had been torn in the same way that two of their other lambs had been a year ago.
"This time I'm going to find out what killed them!" Harm had told his wife. "I'm going to call Chuck Hammer."
Mrs. Groenwald said the Sugar Creek veterinarian had hurried out from town to have a look at the dead lambs. He used to live out West and had seen kills like that before. He turned the bodies over a few times and said grimly, "We've got either a mountain lion or a monster wildcat on our hands. They both kill the same way. See here?"
He showed Harm what he meant. "They always crush the neck bones in front of the shoulders, then tear into the carcass behind the shoulders and eat the heart and liver first."
"But whoever heard of a mountain lion or a wildcat around here?" Harm objected. "They don't live in this part of the country!"
"One does," Chuck said, "and he's a big one! Huge!"
They found its tracks in a muddy place, and Chuck said, "Wildcat! I'd say thirty-five pounds, anyway. Maybe forty-five!"
Harm Groenwald's fast-talking, high-pitched-voiced wife told all that to all the people who had answered the emergency ring—told it in less than a minute and a half. It took Mom almost three minutes to tell it to Dad and me.
Dad quick got on the phone then and asked the vet, who was still at Groenwald's house, to stop at our farm on his way back to town. Addie, our red mother hog, had given us a litter of six pigs last night, and Dad thought Chuck ought to look her over and maybe suggest a better diet for her so that her babies would grow stronger fast.
I helped Mom clean up Charlotte Ann's spilled milk and finished just in time to go out to the hog lot where Dad and the veterinarian were talking about the monster of a wildcat and also where Chuck was giving Addie a physical checkup.
"She's all right," he told Dad. "She's given you six of the healthiest pigs I've ever seen. Not a runt in the litter."
Poetry, my best friend, had heard the emergency ring and was on the way to our house to talk it over with me when he'd hitched a ride with Chuck. So he was there, too. That was one reason I didn't quite finish helping Mom clean up the kitchen. I needed to get out where all the excitement was.
Standing by Addie's gate, Poetry started a singsongy little ditty he'd learned somewhere:
"Six little pigs in the straw with their mother,
Bright eyes, curly tails, tumbling on each other;
Bring them apples from the orchard trees,
And hear those piggies say, 'Please, please, please.'"
I told Poetry it was a cute rhyme, and that started him off in a singsong again.
In fact, right that minute there was a glad singsong feeling in my mind. There had been ever since Harm Groenwald's wife had told Mom and Mom had told Dad and me that it was a wildcat that had killed Harm's two lambs last year as well as this year's three. It had been a wildcat and not a dog that had done it!
You know why I was glad if you've read the story The Bull Fighter. I never will forget those 10,000 minutes—which is how many minutes it took for a week to pass. Wally, my city cousin, had spent the whole 10,000 minutes at our farm. And Alexander the Coppersmith, his ill-mannered, city-bred dog, had been with him, the most uncontrollable dog there ever was.
Anyway, the night Harm Groenwald's two lambs were killed was the same night Wally's nervous mongrel had unleashed himself. It was my fault that his collar was too loose. My fault, I had thought again and again, that two innocent lambs had been killed!
I hadn't told anybody. One reason was that, if they ever proved it was Wally's dog that had done it, then Alexander would have to be shot, and I'd be to blame for his death, too. It'd be a shame for a city dog that didn't know any better to have to lose his life.
So I'd put off telling anybody, but I shouldn't have. I should have told what Alexander did before Wally took his dog home to Memory City with him.
But now I'd never have to! Feeling glad in my heart toward God for making everything work out the way it had, and because I was in the habit of talking out loud to Him anytime I felt like it, I all of a sudden said, "Thanks! Thanks a lot!"
Poetry, not knowing what I'd been thinking, answered with his squawky, ducklike voice, "I'm glad you like it. I'll sing it again." And he was off in another half-bass singsong about the six little pigs in the straw with their mother.
We were all interrupted then by the sound of dogs' voices coming from the direction of Harm Groenwald's pasture. I'd heard those same long-voiced hounds before. My mind's eye told me it was Jay and Bawler, Circus Browne's dad's big coonhounds. I was sure they were on the trail of the wildcat. Already Harm Groenwald had called on the best hunter with the best hounds in the whole territory to help him catch the wild beast that had killed his sheep.
Many a time at night I'd heard those dog voices hot on a coon trail along the bayou or the swamp or in the rocky hill country above Old Man Paddler's Lincoln-style cabin.
Jay is a big, long-bodied, hundred-pound bluetick with a deep, hollow bawl. Bawler is a lanky black-and-tan only about half as big as Jay. She has a high-pitched wail that sends chills up and down your spine when she's excited and going strong on a trail.
"Let's go join the hunt!" Poetry exclaimed.
And I answered, "Sure! Let's go."
Dad stopped us, though, by saying, "No, it's an organized hunt. The men have guns, and they won't want any boys along."
It didn't feel good to be stopped, but we weren't the only boys who didn't get to go. Circus, the best athlete and the acrobat of our gang, Dan Browne's only son, didn't get to go, either.
In a few minutes, there he was, coming through the orchard toward us. On a leash, running all around him in a lot of excitement, was his new hound pup he had named "Ichabod," one of the cutest black-and-tans you ever saw.
"The hounds are coming this way," Poetry cried. "Listen! That means Old Stubtail came this direction last night after he killed the lambs. I'll bet he's got his home down in the swamp or maybe along the bayou!"
"Or in the cave," a voice behind us piped up. It was Little Jim, the smallest member of the gang, who had come without making any noise.
Old Bawler and Jay were really coming our way. Already they were in the lane at the south side of our pasture—over the fence, through the pasture and watermelon patch, and straight for the pignut trees at the north end of our garden.
That was enough to scare me. It meant that last night after Old Stubtail, as Circus called him, had had his lamb dinner at Groenwalds', he had come across our south pasture, through our farmyard, and had been only a hundred yards from our henhouse and—
I got my thoughts interrupted then by the hound pup on Circus's leash going simply wild with excitement because Bawler was his mother, and he wanted to get into the excitement, whatever it was.
The pup was at the end of his leash, pulling and tugging and struggling wildly. And then his collar was over his head, and he was off toward the pignut trees to join in whatever kind of dog game his mother and old Jay were playing.
And that's when I heard the pup's hunting voice for the first time. It was a high-pitched, wailing tremolo, like the highest tone on the organ at our church. It was also the longest wail I'd ever heard.
Now there were three hounds, and I never saw hunting dogs more excited. They were as excited as if it had been only a few minutes since the big cat had gone through our orchard. They were over in the orchard now, heading through it toward Poetry's dad's woods and the mouth of the branch beyond and the cave beyond that and Old Man Paddler's hills beyond that.
Mr. Browne let out a yell when little Ichabod joined the chase. He ordered him to stop, but Ichabod wouldn't. It was too much fun. He was also using his own sense of smell to tell him where to trail.
At the orchard fence, though, the pup scared up a rabbit and went off in a different direction, giving chase with an even more excited voice than before.
Bawler and Jay were over the orchard fence and on their way toward the Sugar Creek bridge, and Ichabod was heading toward the place where he'd last seen the rabbit, which was near the beehives in the orchard.
Circus made a dive for his hound when he circled near, grabbed him, and soon had him on leash again. He also gave him a good scolding, saying, "Don't you ever do that again! Never leave one trail for another. Do you hear?"
Well, it was a long, hard chase for Dan Browne and his hounds. Finally, somewhere in the hills in dry, ragged outcrops above Old Man Paddler's cabin, the dogs lost the scent, and the hunt was over.
Thinking maybe Old Stubtail might come back to finish eating one of the lambs he'd killed, Circus's pop set a number three double-spring steel trap at a place in the fence where it was easy for a large cat to get through. He tied a feather on a string and hung it on an elderberry bush close to the trap so that the wind would blow it. The cat, belonging to the same family as a house cat, which would be attracted to anything like that, might see the feather, smell the bait near the trap, and get caught.
That night a farmer three miles down the creek lost a calf. The kill was the same kind—a broken neck in front of the shoulders, a hole behind the shoulder, and the heart and liver eaten out.CHAPTER 2
Dan Browne tried the dogs again, and again they lost the trail in the hills above Old Man Paddler's cabin. He tried setting traps in everyplace that looked like good cat cover, but always it was no use. Old Stubtail was too smart to let himself get caught.
Then for a week there were no more kills—not even one—and it began to look as if the big cat had moved to safer territory, maybe clear out of the county.
Two more weeks passed, and still nobody reported any livestock being killed. We all began to breathe more easily. Dan Browne felt sure the cat was gone, especially when Harm Groenwald reported that some wild animal had eaten a batch of special cat poison he'd put out in a likely place. After that, the reports of raiding stopped altogether.
Then the Sugar Creek county fair week came, and most of us got to go for a day. It was always fun to go where there were so many people and so many exhibits to see. Some of the gang won prizes for their lambs or pigs or calves.
It was while we were watching an acrobat doing stunts on a flying trapeze that Little Jim got the idea that he wanted to be a trapeze artist. There was almost no living with him for a while. He'd talk it, sing it, pretend it, and also act out all kinds of dangerous acrobatic stunts when he was with us.
Excerpted from Sugar Creek Gang 23 The Killer Cat by Paul Hutchens. Copyright © 1998 Pauline Hutchens Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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