Nature Short Story #3 – Forest Cat – Part 1

Outside the window of the vet hospital, the sun glistened on what remained of the last big snow of the spring. The main roads were clear, and so was our parking lot. A few miles away the snow was six inches thick under the trees of the National Forest even though it was nearly June.
I’d just finished neutering a young pitbull lab mix when Doc Shiner called me into his office.

“Shea, I’ve had a call from Jim out at P ranger station. Someone wounded a cougar up by Lost Lake after it raided a couple of campsites. Animal headed into the forest, toward Bess Milton’s place. You want to go up there and help find it?”

I blinked. Bess Milton was still alive? “Sure. You got some tranquilizer darts?”

He unlocked the tall gun cabinet next to the window. “Never have much cause to use them except when the rangers need some help or something goes rabid.” He handed me the rifle and a box of darts. “Good luck.”

I waited, but no other information was offered. “Where’s Bess Milton live?”

He shrugged. “Show up at Ranger Station P. I’m betting they know.”

I had first seen Bess Milton  – The Witch of the Forest – when I was about eight years old. All you had to do was look at her clothing – mismatched combinations of ragged skirts, blouses, vests, worn with leather boots and her unkempt hair flying around her head – to know that she was a witch. 

By the time I was in high school, most of us were no longer afraid of her. She’d never put any spells on anybody that we knew of. She kept to herself. She didn’t  talk and even though she looked you in the eye, she would not smile. She appeared in town sometimes and bought stuff. Weeks went by before she was seen again.

The older I got, the more I wondered about her. Who was she? Why did she live in the forest alone? What had happened to turn her into a hermit?

I looked forward to seeing her, but rarely did. And now, nearly twenty years later, I was going out to where she lived.

I’d come home for the summer just a week ago. Although I’d had two job offers, on opposite coasts, I had never thought about living anywhere but around here once my veterinary education was complete. I couldn’t imagine leaving the area for work, but there was no zoo within two hundred miles. And there weren’t any wild animal parks or private exotic animal refuges either. So much for my zoo speciality.

I took a parttime job with the local small animal vet while I tried to get my head straight. Mostly spays and neutering, and just yesterday I had assisted with surgery on a German Shepherd that had tried to bust through a barbed wire fence to go after a farmer’s barn cat.

I stopped by the house to get my hiking boots, some thicker jeans and a long-sleeved denim shirt for protection against brambles and nasty greenbriar vines. Almost as an afterthought, I grabbed my hiking backpack. I kept a few emergency tools in there, plus a compass, matches and a signal mirror. I grabbed a couple of energy bars and took to the road in my SUV.

An hour later I was at P Station. A lone Jeep sat in the parking lot with the National Forest Service, USDA logo on the side.
A  voice crackled over the station’s short wave radio as I opened the door. “No sign of the cat here. Lost the blood trail. Heading west of Lost Lake, then back to the station before sunset. Out.”

The Ranger at the desk spoke as I shut the door. “Help you?”

“I’m Shea Maroney. Doc Shiner sent me to help with the cougar.”

He squinted at me and the gun slung across my shoulder. “You know how to use that, then.”

“I do.”

He took a step or two closer. “Shea Maroney. I remember you.”

But I didn’t remember him. I scanned his face, checked out his eyes and his smile. Something registered. “Erick Parsons.”

“Mind like a trap.” He grinned. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m from here. Taking a few weeks off, so I’m at home with the folks. What are you doing here?” I’d last seen Erick at a party just before we’d graduated with our Bachelor’s Degrees.

“Joined the Park Service. Did your basic grunt work and summer internships for a couple years till I got on here last winter. Full time as a ranger. My dream job.” His grin widened. “Great to see you.”

I felt the same, but there was a cougar out there somewhere that needed attention. “I’m worried about the cat. Doc said it was wounded? It’s out there hurt and mad. I can help catch it.”

“You finished vet school then?” He wasn’t done with old home week.

“Yeah. Zoo medicine. If I can work on lions and tigers, I think I can handle cougars. They’re smaller. How far from here was the animal shot?”

He pointed up at the wall map of the forest. “Five miles or so. Right about here, southwest of the Lake. Hunter thought he hit her in the leg. She disappeared into the brush. Ranger Macready met him up there, followed the blood trial for awhile, but lost it.”

“It’s a female? Maybe it’s gone to a den. Maybe there are cubs. Anyone else searching?”

“Mike from Q Station was with Macready.”

I studied the map, looked at the roads and the land topography, and tried to think like a cat. I’d been all over this part of the forest when I was in high school but eight years had passed. “Doc mentioned Bess Milton. Her house around there?”

Erick Parsons put his finger on the map. “West of Lost Lake, a few miles north of where the hunter shot the cougar. You know Bess?”

“She was a legend when I grew up here. Didn’t know she was still alive.”

“We run across her once in a while. I’m worried about how she’ll get on with that wounded cat. She doesn’t have any common sense. Calls these animals her ‘pets.'” He shook his head. “One of them will kill her and that will be the end of that.” He grimaced.

I could picture her, older, clothes much rattier, hair gray. Walt Disney’s “Snow White” came to mind, her standing in a clearing with birds landing on her shoulders, skunks sniffing her shoes, butterflies playing with her hair. But I knew that the possibility that some wild creature might kill her when she assumed friendship was real. I had dealt with wild creatures every day during my zoo internship months. As tempting as it was to pet their thick fur and stare into their beautiful predator eyes, I had always been aware that lions, tigers, bears, and wolves most likely thought of me as nothing more than a good meal.

“I better get going.”

Check back for Part 2 next Friday—–

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