Nature Short Story #3 – “Forest Cat” – Part 3

(This is Part 3 of ‘Forest Cat.” See the post dated January 20 for Part 1, and the post dated January 27 for Part 2.)

“There.”

I couldn’t see it. The trees were thick opposite the rock fall, just beyond a flat grassy meadow.
Bess gathered her strength and stood. Slowly, we picked our way across the rocks and then stepped across the meadow. The undergrowth in front of us was thick, but then, it wasn’t underbrush. It was a house.

Bess stooped, pushing a door of twigs open in front of her. I followed, then waited, listening as she moved through the darkness. She struck a match, lit a kerosene lantern. A bright glow filled the small room. A mattress in one corner was covered with an assortment of blankets and furs. A stove in the center of the room held glowing coals and the chimney reached up, disappearing through the low roof of the tiny cabin. Curious, I looked around the room and found that Bess had all the comforts of a very small home, although no modern conveniences.

She sank into a chair next to the stove and motioned for me to sit on a second chair, near a wash basin by the front door. She rolled up her pant leg, revealing an ugly wound. Beneath the wash basin I found rags and strips of cloth, as well as antiseptic cream and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. When I turned back to her with the supplies, her eyes were closed. I started work.

“Did you see who shot you, Bess?” Luckily, the bullet had passed cleanly through her leg without nicking any major arteries or veins. Her eyes remained closed as I worked and her face did not register pain.

“Doesn’t matter.”
 
Her voice was low, I strained to hear it even in the silence of the cabin.

“Do you think he shot you on purpose?” I was convinced in my mind that it had been a case of mistaken identity. The hunter only thought he’d seen a cougar; in reality, it was Bess wearing forest colors, doing whatever it was she did all day out here, alone.

“You really need to see a doctor. Stitches would be a good idea, and you should stay quiet and still until this begins to heal.” I covered the wound with several layers of cloth and then tore a strip to wrap around her leg. “And you’ve lost quite a bit of blood. You can’t heal from this by yourself.”

Her eyes opened. “I’m not alone.”

I looked around the cabin. As far as I could see, she was. There were no signs that any other person occupied the cabin.

“Turn down the lantern, and you’ll see.”

I followed directions. Immediately, I began to see eyes peering at me from all corners of the room. Above the window, below the wash stand, in the branches of the roof, and even on the bed among the blankets and furs.

I turned the lantern up again, and this time I could see them, camouflaged as they were in the environment of the little room. Shivers raced up my arms and down my back. We were far from alone in this room, and I didn’t want to know everything that shared it with us. Even a nature lover veterinarian has her limits.

“Okay. I see you’re not alone. But you’ll need food, you’ll need more medicine. You won’t be able to travel into town for some of these items, at least not for awhile. And then there’s the search going on out there for you. I found you, someone else is bound to find you, too.”

She shook her head. “They won’t. They search all the time. Hunters, rangers, people from town. But they don’t know what I know. They don’t have the companions that I have.”

Looking around the room, I couldn’t argue that. Movement on the floor drew my look down to where a long black rat snake slithered across the floor. He stopped within inches of Bess’ chair and lifted his head, his tongue darting in and out, pulling in sensory clues. I knew the snake to be harmless, but some ancient human emotion made me want to cringe.

“They also don’t have your openness, your lack of fear, your nature love.”

I looked back at her, and saw her smile. “I remember you. Visits in town you were the one who didn’t laugh. Full of curiosity. Full of compassion. That’s why you found me. And that’s why you’re going to go back into town and let me be. I’ll survive. I have plenty of help.”

*******

And so, I left her there. With a clear conscience. I had no doubt she would be okay. She’d lived out there for at least twenty years with no help from me or anyone else in town. I would trust that I would see her again the next time she made it in for supplies. I would make it a point to watch for her, both there and in the forest.

After all, who couldn’t make it on their own with companions like that — snakes on the floor, owls in the rafters and a cougar in the bed?

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