Short Story by James Strauss
The forest abided. The spring fed the stream that gushed downhill toward the lake with the gurgling sounds of coming warmth penetrating everything on both sides of it. The stream was the winding arterial graft that wrapped the heart of the forest in its continuous beating and eternally moving embrace. The snow was gone. Worms surfaced for whatever reason worms surface, and the crows fought for dominance as the hard-bitten robins and mean-beaked Blue Jays dove down to pluck sweet meats from every exposed surface. The birds were all heard, but ignored. The animal activity that made the forest meaningful had begun to return to a level of activity not seen since the late fall days of the preceding year.
Harvey picked out Right Claw, Left Eye and Nothing Crow from among all the aerial activity winging back and forth above, and then down upon the surface of the wet mud below. The surface of his normal viewing rock at the bottom of the driveway was wet enough that he was forced to keep picking his front paws up to let them dry in the sun for a bit. The sun wasn’t warm yet, but its light definitely gave a feeling of warmth to everything rising up from the enforced inactivity of winter.
Bad Taffy inched slowly through the undergrowth, damaged head shiny with whatever the human females had slathered it with. How Taffy had submitted to such enforced indignity escaped him. When hurt Harvey took to hiding until he was healed enough to face what he had to deal with in life again, whether it was in the forest or inside the house. Why humans wouldn’t leave him alone was beyond him, even though he knew in the very back recess of his mind that Taffy had badly needed some sort of help. The injuries she’d suffered were not Harvey’s fault, and the results of the encounter were not his responsibility. He knew without thinking about it that cats didn’t have responsibilities. Good Christ had been injured, as well. But that was Good Christ’s problem to deal with.
Harvey looked at the lower forest across the road. The stream was filling with the results of the spring thaw, and the noise of its rushing water was growing to the point where other necessary warnings the forest normally offered might not be heard, possibly at a cat’s peril. It was none of his business but Harvey needed to remove himself from his exposed position anyway. He sinuously sidled down the rounded surface of the huge rock and crossed the road. He looked up the road to see Bad Taffy allowed inside by Little Floyd. Would the female of that house be making another trip somewhere with Taffy was not a question Harvey wanted to think about? The shiny metal monster was parked in the driveway, but once Little Floyd struggled a bit to get Taffy to go inside there was nothing moving around outside the house.
Harvey moved through the damp underbrush. The high humidity, and cool air devoid of wind, allowed for total silence. Finding Good Christ’s lair wasn’t difficult. The fox used a narrow path along the western side of the stream to come and go from a den that was a barely organized pile of twigs, branches and grass. Harvey easily followed Good Christ’s scent which was mixed with the metallic smell of blood. The forest contained no predator superior to the large red fox or no shelter made of such flimsy materials would have served as any kind of protection. Harvey hunkered down by the stream, just up from Good Christ’s haven, having checked to make sure there was a nearby log stretched out that could be used to cross the icy moving water if escape became necessary. There was also a nearby oak tree rising up above the surrounding pines, should a nearly instant safe haven be required.
He had to make sure. If Good Christ was going to have special privileges inside Harvey’s territory, then Good Christ, wounded or not, would have to accept the fact that Harvey would have to enjoy identical rights inside the fox’s territory in the lower part of the forest.
Good Christ slowly became visible, crawling out from under the debris pile. She moved toward the stream, not far from where Harvey lay crouched. The fox dragged one rear leg along, before uncomfortably nestling down several body lengths away, ignoring Harvey’s presence. Obviously, Holy Moly’s brief claw strike had been deep and damaging. Harvey knew there would be no attack from the fox and no surprise moves. Predators launched from powerful rear legs. Front legs and paws were for guidance, steading, holding and claw work. Rear legs, as evidenced by the strength of Thumper’s attacks, were where a predator’s power truly originated.
Harvey lay watching Good Christ while she watched him back, only redirecting attention to occasionally lick Holy Moly’s inflicted wound. His point had been made. The fox’s territory was now as shared as Harvey’s own. He got up, stretched to show his comfort with the agreement between predators, and then moved up the stream by crossing over the leaning branch, and making his way out to the winter grass beyond the edge of the forest.
The three crows descended but didn’t land, their alert cries deafening Harvey’s sensitive ears. He stopped to look up and wait. Usually the crows alerted the entire forest to Harvey’s movements and then rested nearby to study the effects of their awful work. But not this time. Right Claw, Left Eye and Nothing Crow flared out just above where Harvey sat, exposed to the entire forest. He wasn’t hungry anyway. The crows bunched and flew off to land silent in the high branches of the towering oak that rose above the dense stand of pines that composed the far edge of Harvey’s lower territory.
Harvey immediately moved back under cover. The alert squawked out by the crows had nothing to do with him. They were complaining about something else. Since Thumper never received even the most passing of comments from the birds their sounds meant that something else of either a predatory or curious nature was attracting their attention. Harvey worked his way back through the damp brush and then moved up the stream, carefully waiting and watching before he crossed the exposed road that divided his and Good Christ’s territory. The three dominant crows had taken the trouble to fly first to Harvey’s position, complain loudly and then return to where they sat looking down at something that couldn’t be seen from Harvey’s position.
The crows could fixate on anything, but their strange behavior sent only one message into Harvey’s brain. Holy Moly was back, or had never left. The tough, fast and hard predator had taken hits from Harvey, Good Christ and finally Thumper. It had to be injured in some way. Possibly it was weakened enough for Harvey to successfully attack and survive. If it was there, and uninjured, then the contest for Harvey’s territory was about to become an unavoidable battle, quite possibly to the death.
Harvey slowed his approach to become as silent as possible. There was to be no hope of help from Good Christ, and none likely from the giant violent rabbit either. What Thumper was doing out and about beyond his normal small territory near his den before was a mystery. There was no evidence of any creature about except the three crows overhead and their waiting for road kill, or cat kill.
Harvey crouched down near the culvert that ran under the busy road above. Vaguely, he could see an orange shadow above, over the thin concrete lip of the culvert. The orange predator was seasoned and smart. An open area favored the quick and the strong while combat down in the brush favored older and weaker.
Harvey could either wait Holy Moly out, or take the battle up to the side of the road above. He stared into the gaping hole of the drain where the stream gushed forth. The moving water only took up a small amount of the concrete pipe’s wide opening. There was room for an adroit cat to mount the concrete step, avoid the pouring water and maneuver above it, using both sides of its curved surface to get to the other side. The only advantage Harvey might have would be total surprise if he came at the orange beast from the other side.
The trip through the pipe was harrowing and tiring. Harvey got to the other side of the road and then climbed up into the thick brush just back from the black asphalt surface. Big metal monsters rushed both ways along the road, but between them the form of the poised and waiting orange cat was clearly visible. The predator lurked over the edge of the concrete support above the drain, head inserted through a hole in the wire fence. Harvey studied the scene. There were no trees near the stream where it came out of the pipe. There was nothing to hold onto if the orange cat plummeted out from the edge, but there were plenty of rocks and sharp-edged foliage strewn below. It was his only chance. Watching the traffic carefully and waiting for a break, Harvey wished he’d not lost one bottom tooth earlier. That single missing tooth might prevent an incisive penetration of the other cat’s spine, but there was nothing to be done for it. The stage was set as it was.
The three crows brazenly flew down to line themselves up further down the fence from where the two predators waited. They made no sound after taking up their viewing positions until something further down the stream startled them. They squawked at the nearly inaudible sound, but did not move. Holy Moly went to full alert. Harvey stared across the road at the orange predator’s muscled back. He knew he was no match for the younger cat in a fair fight. There could be no delay.
Harvey springed between two passing cars, the noise of their passage masking his attack perfectly. His front paws, claws fully extended struck and penetrated Holy Moly’s back before the full weight of his thirteen-pound body hit. Holy Moly exploded out through the fence into the open air. There was no chance for Harvey to sink his remaining teeth into anything. He was barely able to brake in time to prevent himself from following Holy Moly over the edge. Using the fence wire to stop himself, Harvey thudded to a painful halt only to see Holy Moly plunge not onto the sharp rocks below, but directly into the chest of Harvey’s alpha male.
The human had come looking for Harvey without calling out, and taken Holy Moly’s plunging body right in mid-chest. The cat screamed, the crows screamed and flew down, while Harvey tried to extricate himself from the wires of the fence. Holy Moly’s extended claws caught in his human’s thick chest covering causing the big alpha male to clutch the cat closely before violently jerking it to the side. Holy Moly plunged fully into the deepest part of the ice cold pool formed at the base of the pipe. The human backed right into the full branches of a tree making unrecognizable sounds, and trying to pull together his torn clothing.
Harvey peered down with Right Claw, Left Eye and Nothing Crow standing at his side, stunned into silence by the violence below. Holy Moly rocketed up from the bottom of the pool and shot skyward back up to the road so fast that even fully alert Harvey saw only a fast-moving orange flash. When he turned to scan the road in case of attack there was nothing to be seen. The crows flew back up to a branch overlooking the scene to take in Harvey’s human pulling himself from the tree and through the mud. He moved slowly and then faster as he closed on the edge of the forest. Once out on the grass he turned.
“I don’t know what’s going on in there but I’m not coming back,” he said, pointing at the trees surrounding the pipe basin. “Maybe I’ll just pave over the whole damned area.” Harvey jumped down to the stream bank, and then sauntered along toward the huge rock near the cul-de-sac, his territory intact and firmly under his control once again.
Holy Moly had been vanquished by the forest’s ultimate alpha male. At least temporarily that orange threat could be ignored. The condition of Bad Taffy would have to be looked into. Although the killing brutality of deep winter was past. Little Floyd’s human female would have to be watched closely.
Harvey moved downstream, thinking about Good Christ’s wound. The three crows flew overhead from branch to branch, warning of the forest predators movement. Harvey stopped to look up and observe them. He’d never eaten crow before. He wondered how crow might taste.