Short Story


James Strauss


Movement through the base of the forest isn’t difficult, not if you’re a thirteen-pound cat with fur the color of the darker flora. Harvey moved sinuously inside the brush next to the nearby flowing stream. By sticking close to the water, he could avoid the giant jackrabbit still occupying a part of the bracken against the wall, holding up one side of the road. Thumper the rabbit was aggressively unfriendly, but posed no real challenge to Harvey’s territorial imperative, or to the overwhelming arsenal of attack weaponry Harvey possessed, and was ready to apply at the slightest provocation.

Harvey moved to the outflow where water cascaded down from the tube built under the road. It was a huge tube, and it was also Harvey’s access to the bigger forest on the other side. He sniffed the fresh water as it sparkled and roiled at the base of the low falls formed at the end of the tube. The flowing water level was too high to allow entry. Rain had fallen for four days in a row. In order to use the tube, and travel under the road, Harvey’s paws would have to be fully submerged and tread right through the shallow, but fast-moving water. That was not something his cat sensibilities could allow. Crossing the road by going over the top was also problematic. It was a busy road, and a very young Harvey had learned all about squirrels crossing between the cars racing back and forth everywhere. Their carcasses dotted the roads in even the less developed areas. The fast-moving noisy heaps of metal traveling atop roads were to be respected and avoided, if possible. They never attacked, but any contact with their speeding bodies was fatal. Harvey knew the distinctive sounds of his pride’s own vehicles by heart, though, and could hear their approach from far off in the distance. He gave those great clearances, too, although when he heard one approaching he almost automatically headed for home to greet the returning occupant.

Cars passed unceasingly. Harvey sat in the bush, just above the tube, peering up and down the road. He had a hunter’s patience that almost no human could comprehend. He did not sense the passage of time as the passage of time, at all. It was a part of life, like everything else. He knew that he needed an opening big enough to slip across the road risk. He knew that an opening would eventually appear, as it always did. He watched, while occasionally glancing back to make sure the giant rabbit did not appear behind him, or any other kind of threat.

When the opening occurred Harvey darted out, making his best speed to the other side before disappearing into the brush there. Once inside the brush he stopped to lick one front paw. All of his paws were sending pain messages to his small brain. The asphalt road had been too hot. It had burned his paws. Harvey had never tried to cross the black stuff so late in the afternoon. His previous home had been situated between concrete roads that were much more amenable to sensitive paw pads.

He lay on his side in a bush to recover. There was nothing to be done for his paws. He would simply have to ignore the pain. The upper forest had dogs. Generally, Harvey only crossed over to take things in on the upper side of his own territory. There was only one dog, Leo, in Harvey’s lower territory, and they had come to terms soon after Harvey moved in. Leo kept to his yard or the road, and never ventured into the forest. If Harvey appeared, Leo made believe he wasn’t even there, and Harvey ignored him. The agreement worked.

Deuce the DogBut the upper forest was another matter. A huge brown and black hunting dog raced about that more open area. Without heavy brush, it was not easy to remain undetected by the overly large predator. Upon meeting the animal for the first time, Harvey had barely escaped with his life. He’d entered the upper forest many times since, but had been able to remain undetected by the larger yet dumber predator.

“Deuce, what are you after out there?” a man’s voice yelled through the trees, coming from a house invisible from Harvey’s position. Deuce was the name of the predator. Harvey heard crashing from far away as the animal ran toward the sound of his master’s voice. Harvey flicked an ear in annoyance. He himself never responded immediately to being called, no matter how close or far away he might be when he heard his name. Grudgingly, he’d wander toward home, or toward the caller, if he wasn’t eating, hunting or examining something interesting. It was beyond disgusting to witness the fawning idiocy of dogs towards their owners.

Harvey moved back into the forest, staying close to the water, where the bushes were thickest. The mindless dog barked almost continuously, allowing his position to be dependably pinpointed. There was a school at the very top of the forest. It was sometimes interesting to peer through the chain link fence and watch the children. Adults of the human population were invariably boring, but children did interesting things that could draw his attention for long periods. They often played by crawling all over one another, which was very cat-like, although Harvey himself never had any physical contact with another of his species unless it was to fight for territory. Children also offered smiling attention if they saw him, which was rare, as he always kept the fence and some concealing brush between them.

There were no children at the school today. Not a child to be seen anywhere. Harvey considered his options. He could forage for mice or smaller tidbits along the stream (keeping constant tabs on the giant mental midget “Deuce”), or he could climb the fence and move across the open grass of the schoolyard to the far forest beyond. He’d never been to that place, although the density of its pine trees gave every hint that it might contain interesting secrets and delicious prey.

The violent appearance of a brown cat changed everything. It came from nowhere at high speed. It moved so fast Harvey didn’t have time to get out of its way. It ran right into him and knocked both of them flying. Harvey bounced to all fours and confronted the other cat, which was bigger, with mottled, ugly whitish spots on a fur of dirty brown. Everything about the creature screamed unkempt and feral. Harvey slouched down, preparing his attack on this violator of his territory, until his mind processed the sound of a dog’s approaching bark. The dumb brown mess of a cat hadn’t run into him in order to challenge him over his territory. It’d collided with him in its pell-mell flight from a dog, which was closing in fast from behind.

Harvey made his decision instantly, dismissing the presence of the brown member of his own species, and racing down the muddy bed of the stream, his paws still hurting from being burned by the hot asphalt earlier. He ran at his top speed, risking more damage to his paws from passing contact with downed branches and hidden rocks. The risk had to be taken, however. He had to reach a point far enough down the stream that he could beat the dog to the end of the tube. The tube was too small for the huge dog to get through, so all Harvey had to do was get there first.

Deuce was not barking. The only sound Harvey could pick up behind him was a faint swishing of the brush as the hunting animal traversed it at high speed; a speed equal to Harvey’s own. He pushed himself to a maximum final effort, as the stream wound into the mouth of the tube just visible ahead of him. He came around the last bend and arrived at the edge of the water pool gathered below the bottom edge of the aluminum tube. Harvey had never entered the pool, so he had no idea of its depth, but that didn’t cause him to hesitate for even the slightest instant. He leapt. He put everything he had into the jump, thrusting with his powerful back legs, feeling, but ignoring, a shot of pain from his damaged rear paws.

He cleared the pool and landed right on the outward-extending flange of the tube. He hit with a big splash, as the water gathered there was several inches deep and flowed into the channel. He slid to a stop, gathered himself, and then turned before plunging into the faster current rushing into the end of the tube. Again, out of nowhere, the ugly brown and white cat landed right on top of him and sent him crashing flat into the water. The other animal instantly disappeared into the tube. Harvey recovered himself, and looked back to see the dog. Deuce didn’t bother to leap the water in pursuit. He simply ran through the chest high water at top speed, almost grabbing Harvey in his giant jaws, before Harvey could recover and scurry into the opening.

Through the shallow driving current, running up nearly to his chest, Harvey worked to speed through the channel. He could not turn his head, and fear raced deeper into him as he heard the dog behind him. Somehow the monster dog had inserted itself into the tube. Harvey ran faster, the water level dropping as it accumulated behind the dog. Despite his size, Deuce was somehow squeezing himself through the tube to its other end.

Harvey burst from the end of the tube, landing in the bushes beyond the spill pool, where the stream curled down through the lower part of the forest. He landed with a softened thump, encountering a warm body before bouncing free. The bedraggled brown and white mess of a cat lay at his feet. It slowly rose up to sit and stare at the end of the tube. The dog had made it almost all the way through the tube, but a dent just at the end of the thing hadn’t allowed him to squeeze fully through. Harvey and the interloper sat in fixed wonder, staring at the pawing dog. Deuce’s front feet and head were through, but the rest of him was stuck somehow so he could not move either forward into the pool, or back into the tube. Water cascaded from all around him. He lay transfixed, several feet in the air, looking like a dog diving out from a spraying waterfall, but frozen in mid-flight.

Suddenly a giant jack rabbit burst from the undergrowth. Harvey hadn’t even seen it launch; the rabbit was so fast and it’s attack so shocking. The Jackrabbit runningrabbit struck the dog with both back feet before bouncing right into the spill pool, and then leaping at least ten feet in the air and back into the bushes from whence it had come. Deuce howled in shock and pain. Harvey had been hit with those rabbit legs once himself, and understood the dog’s pain. The rabbit was a true predator, not some child’s pet, and its appearance of fluffy softness was nothing more than effective camouflage for it’s underlying deadly musculature. Neither Harvey nor the brown cat moved. Both were wet through, and resembled big rats more than cats. Harvey’s paws actually felt better sitting there, the lapping cold water of the stream taking away the pain. He licked his front paws, then some of his wet fur. He ignored the other cat. Somehow they’d survived together, and a momentary truce common to prey overcame them. Both were also frozen in place by the action occurring right in front of them.

The rabbit again leapt from nowhere, from deep within the brush by the side of the stream, and struck again. Deuce howled pitifully. The rabbit didn’t let up this time. It kept bouncing from the bushes, and then back, hitting the dog’s head. Each hit elicited a new howl from the suffering animal trapped in the tube.

“Where are you boy?” a human called from across the road. The dog’s cries of pain had alerted its’ master to its fate.

“Deuce, Deuce, Deuce,” the man continued to yell, his voice growing louder with each call.

The dog began to bark, between strikes from the rabbit. The human appeared on the top of the wall, above the end of the tube. The rabbit instantly disappeared back into the impenetrable brush. The man clambered over an old rickety barbwire fence, half-fallen down from neglect, and climbed carefully down the muddy incline.

“What in hell has happened to you?” he said in amazement, after coming to stand at the side of the spill, and began to work him free from the end of the tube. Both Harvey and the foreign cat stayed absolutely still, barely visible, only inches deep inside the heavy bracken near the water. Harvey’s eyes went from the man freeing his dog, to examining the brush for any further appearance of the rabbit. The rabbit was not above attacking humans, as Harvey had witnessed last summer when the alpha human male member of his own pride had been attacked by the thing while out looking for him.

“What could have attacked you?” Deuce’s owner asked aloud, as he moved to the mewling animal and worked to release the dog. It took several minutes for him to free his pet. The animal’s head was noticeably damaged with one ear not pointing the same way as the other. Harvey felt no fear at all. Deuce, the brown and black predator from the upper forest, had met his match. The giant rabbit had once again vanquished anything that challenged it. Harvey’s hard-bitten respect for the big rabbit grew. The rabbit had demonstrated value, and would be allowed to remain undisturbed in his small patch of Harvey’s territory. When he’d been attacked the summer before, Harvey’s alpha male pride leader had called it Thumper. So Thumper it would be.

Thumper the Jackrabbit

Harvey turned his head almost imperceptibly to look at the brown and white cat that’d brought so much trouble to him. The animal was licking away, attempting to clean its fur, which reminded Harvey of his own sad condition. Harvey then turned back to see the man trying to gently ease the injured, struggling dog from the end of the pipe. Finally Deuce burst loose, and man and dog together landed with a splash in center of the collection pond. When the man staggered up, he spotted Harvey sitting nearby.

“Deuce! Beaten by a cat,” the man said, his tone one of complete disgust, “I’m not telling anyone this story.” The man half-carried the dog from the area, having to work their way in the stream all the way down to the next road, to do it. Both cats ignored his passage as best they could, making sure to be out of the way, without passing near where the rabbit guarded its’ warren. Harvey moved to a spot inside the lessor bracken where he could watch the man attach a lease to Deuce’s collar, and then lick his own fur in the sun. The brown and white cat moved to sit next to him. Harvey occasionally looked over at the other animal and knew that somehow his territory had changed, and his whole life with it.