Night of the big cat

An Excerpt from my new book, “Little Home on the Piney,” the true story of my father’s boyhood:

In November of 1938 I was 11 years old and soon to be 12. Pop showed me how to set a deadfall, and how to bait them and run up to 40 at a time without forgetting where they were. With deadfalls you would catch lots of possums, and skunks and a weasel now and then. Weasels were small, their pelts about one-third the size of a possum, but they were worth more than a possum or skunk.

A skunk was worth more the less white he had on him. Once I caught one that was coal black except for a white spot on his head. Pop was tickled with that. He said it was a pelt that fur buyers called a “starblack” and worth as much as $2.

For some reason, a skunk killed outright and quick under a deadfall didn’t spray anything and didn’t smell unless you cut the scent bag while you skinned it. I never skinned nothin’ as carefully as I skinned a skunk. Pop taught me to skin everything as I went, and bring the pelts back in a burlap bag.

I would head out with the bait in another smaller bag, usually a rabbit head or the heads of suckers Pop had gigged. I guess I would cover a couple of miles in a half day, and I would usually return with no bait in the sack, but at times, enough furs that I would have to drag the bag.

Several wild house cats were roaming around in the woods on that stretch of the Big Piney, and back up Arthur’s Creek. I would catch one now and then in a deadfall, and furs of those cats, all different colors, were worth 25 to 50 cents. I wondered if there were ladies out there somewhere wearing fur coats made out of cats and skunks, thinking they had something really valuable.

Pop said there was no greater killer in the woods than a wild house cat. He said a wild house cat had no inclination to stop killing when it had enough to eat, and it would kill every bird and rabbit and chipmunk it could catch. Pop was so smart about things like that and he was always teaching us what he knew.

He had told me too, how big cats like mountain lions could jump on top of a deer and rip through the jugular vein. I wish he hadn’t.

When it was snowy or cold, Pop saw to it I stayed warm while running deadfalls, with old clothes of his, and boots to go over my shoes. Well, they were sort-of boots. He took burlap sacks and wrapped them around my feet way up above my shoes, then tied with binding twine. I could walk all day long and they never came apart, but after a couple of days I would wear holes in them under my shoe soles.

I always had matches and carbide along, in case I needed to start a big ire in a hurry. The little handful of carbide needed a small amount of water to make the gas, which blazed up high and strong when you lit it. You could pour water on it and the lame just got bigger. Pop taught me to start out with really small twigs and crushed leaves, and even if they were wet, the ire would dry them and they would begin to burn. Then you added bigger twigs and bigger pieces as the ire grew. But of course you had to have enough brains to know where to build it – not out in the open but sheltered a little by a rock outcropping or a big tree that leaned out and made for a little dry spot.

I got a late start for some reason or another one memorable day, and by mid-afternoon I think I had skinned a young coon and a skunk and three or four possums. Then way up Arthur’s Creek where the high ridges surrounded it on both sides there was a deadfall back up in a small canyon of the creek with a dead possum beneath the rock, and there wasn’t much left to it, just blood and hair. It had been ripped to shreds.

When you realize how heavy those deadfall rocks are, and how much I strained to lift them when I reset one, you realize that it took something big to get under it and pull that possum out. I looked around, and that’s when I saw it – a distinct track of a big cat, about twice the size of the track of a bobcat. There wasn’t any doubt about what it was, because cats are so much different than a coyote or dog or wolf. The claws are held up in the toes, so they do not show in mud or sand or snow, like the claws of a wolf do.

In that deep ravine, where the creek ran north toward the Piney River, it was getting dark quickly and I was better than two miles from the cabin. I shuddered, looking at the blood and hair, and I just left that deadfall as it lay. I threw the bag of furs over my shoulder and I lit out down that rock-strewn creek, leaping from ledge to rock to gravel, traveling faster than I ever had. I could feel him coming, behind me.

Getting close to where the creek ran into the river, I made a long jump across it and my burlap boots caught on a clinging vine. I plunged headlong into the rock and gravel and shallow water, jamming my elbow and knees and both hands into the creek bed. I stood up and looked at my stinging, bleeding hands, and wet trousers and as I did, I heard the most horrible scream up on the ridge behind me, something awful and hideous and blood-chillin’-horrible in the gathering darkness. The cat was following me and he wanted me to know it.

I was gosh-awful scared, the first time I really knew what terror was. I thought to myself that I would not likely get much older than I was. He would make me look like that possum soon. I thought of leaving the furs there. But I couldn’t do that. We were so poor, and Pop needed those furs.

I rounded the mouth of the creek and began to run as hard as I could run, dodging brush and trees, back up through the wooded bottomland. I was a mile north of my home. I could feel that cat behind me, and as fast as I ran, I knew he was much faster than me. I would never make it!

I had my skinning knife, and I figured that before he got me I could sink my knife blade somewhere in that killer. I did some praying like I never did before, as I raced up across the bank into the little clearing. I promised God I would do better at being 12 than I had done whilst I was 11.

The praying helped keep my mind of of what it would feel like to get eaten, but I knew I’d soon feel his claws and teeth ripping me apart. In my imagination could hear his rapid footsteps. Truthful, I don’t know if he was ever there, but that night you couldn’t have convinced me he wasn’t.

Then I could see the lantern light through the windows of the cabin before me, and finally I lung open the door to fall down by the stove, exhausted and bleeding. Mom fussed over me and washed my skinned places and wrapped me in a blanket.

Pop told me it took some intestinal fortitude to do what I had done. He had learned that term from one of those western magazines Mom’s folks had brought him. And he was amazed at the sackful of furs, bragging on me somethin’ awful.

I felt proud to have contributed so much. But I wasn’t near as proud as I was happy to be alive, there in our little home on the Big Piney.

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