Don't Call Me Susie
The girl with the red hair was city-bred, but she’d fight anything.. even a hungry one-eyed cougar
WHEN Ric Jensen’s Boomer grumbles in his throat that way, you can bet he’s found something pretty important. He’s almost as old as me, a black-and-tan with the saddest eyes and the droopingest hound-dog ears you ever saw, and Ric boasts that he has more sense than most humans. So when he rumbled again, low and deep, I forgot what my pop had said about keeping off Mr. Porter’s place and wiggled under the barbed wire after Boomer.
He stopped at the edge of a fireweed patch and looked up at me once, as if to say, “How about this, Neis?” Then he turned his head and stared off across the logging burn toward the green timber.
Right away I knew this was important. It was one of Mr. Porter’s sheep, lying torn open behind a stump. While I was still gawking at it, my fish pole
in one hand and my string of cutthroat trout in the other, the dry autumn fireweed rustled behind me.
“Get out of here,” a girl’s voice told me. “Take your dog and go away fast!”
She was a grown-up girl in a faded green dress with a flour sack apron over it. Her hair was curly, and so red it almost hurt your eyes. After a second I remembered where I’d seen her before—she was Delsey Porter, the girl who’d slapped Ric Jensen’s face Saturday night down at Tamahous Bay.
“Hurry,” she said. Her legs were city white, scratched as if she’d been running through wild blackberry vines, and she sounded anxious and out of breath. “Please go away !”
There didn’t seem much reason for hurrying. Anyway, Mr. Porter was coming down from the cedar-shake shed he calls a barn¿ with a shotgun in bis hand, and if there’s one thing interests me, it’s a gun. Boomer didn’t pay him any attention, just stood over the dead sheep with a bit of fireweed fluff stuck to his muzzle, studying the green t imber. If Ric had been there, he’d have said Boomer was thinking this business out.
Then I wished Ric Jensen were there, because Mr. Porter grabbed me by the shoulder and gave me a shake that nearly rattled my teeth loose. You wouldn’t believe a fat man’s face could got that mean.
“You logging camp brat,” he said, “it isn’t enough you pick on my kids at the school. Now you turn your mangy sheep killer loose among my ewes.” He gave me another rough shake. “He killed 12 of them last night. Twelve, you hear me?” I heard him right enough—he was fairly hollering at me—but that didn’t mean I believed him. Boomer never ran a deer or killed a sheep in his life. He never runs anything but cougar.
“He didn’t either,” I said, trying to keep my voice from squeaking. Mr. Porter cuffed me then, alongside the head. “Don’t lie to me,” he bawled. “There’s wool on his jaw!”
I wanted to tell him it was only fireweed cotton, but I couldn’t even get a squeak out, and I guess I began to cry. :
“Dad, leave him alone,” the girl put'in. “You may he wrong, and he’s the camp superintendent’s gon. We’ll have trouble—”
“I don’t ’liare whose boy he is,” Mr. Porter hollered. “Delsey, you gat on up to your ma. I’ll make the trouble this t.im>?!”
He pushed me so I tripped and went sprawling. I hoped Boomer would go Yor him then, but that old hound didn’t so much as turn his head, not even with Mr. Porter trying to shake loose from Delsey’s arms so he could aim his shotgun.
I thought what Ric would say if I brought Boomer home to camp full of buckshot, and grabbed him by the collar and highballed out of there. We were under t he wire and into the burn before I even looked back. Mr. Porter was breaking my fish pole over his knee. I’d lost my trout, too, that I was counting on for mother’s breakfast.
You wait, I said to myself, snuffling along the skid road and getting madder every minute, If / had my birthday rifle I'd let the wind out of your big fat belly. You wait till Ric Jensen hears about this.
I was plenty sore at Boomer too. “Lot of help you were,” 1 scolded him out loud where he mooched along beside me. “You’re too dumb and lazy even to scratch.” But Boomer only gave me one of his wise, sad looks, telling me plain as can be, “Unless it’s cougar business, sonny, I’m not interested.”
I nursed my mad all the way down the skid road and over into the slash at the top of our claim where they were yarding logs on a slack sky line with Ric Jensen tending hook. Ric was busting out a hangup, so I had to wait fill he yipped a “Go ahead” to the signalman and came running down a butt log into the clear. Boomer padded along the stick to meet him, and Ric hunkered down and roughed Boomer’s ears with his rigging gloves.
“How was the fishing?” he asked me. Then the grin went out of his brown face, leaving it smooth and tough, and he said, “All right, kid, spill it. What’s happened?”
“Mr. Porter knocked me down and called Boomer
a sheep killer and tried to shoot him,” I said all in a rush. Hearing it that way made me so sorry for myself I began to snuffle again.
“He did, eh?” Ric said, soft and kind of to himself, and got up in one easy lift. He’d sweated a wave into his hair, and it shone like copper in the sun. The girls at Tamahous Bay are all the time kidding Ric about his hair, but I never yet heard any logger crack off about it. He isn’t musclebound like some of the fallers, or even very big, but he can lift a tail block by the goose and heave it over his shoulder in one flip.
He flagged the rigging slinger with his gloves. “Take over, mister,” he said. “1 got a call to make up t he grade.” And he said to me as we headed out for the railway, “l don’t so much mind Porter slugging you. Chances are you deserved it. But when a hay foot tries to shoot my dog, that’s something else again.”
1 bad to stretch my legs to keep up with him, and it was odd how I’d got over being mad. Ric is a better battler even than most red Norwegians, and for him to tangle with Mr. Porter would be like a cougar jumping a fat sheep. By the time we were into the burn and heading down it toward the stump ranch, I’d begun to wish 1 hadn’t been so quick to shoot my mout h off.
Away back behind us 1 heard a donkey engine blow for quitting time. Ric wasn’t saying a word, and it was awful quiet in the burn. Evening seemed closer here somehow, maybe because the green timber was only half a mile or so off. The Porter shack looked little and lonely where it. sat among the stumps.
Mr. Porter must have spotted us coming up the skid road. He was standing in his doorway with his shotgun in his hands.
“Stay here, Neis,” Ric told me grim and quiet; but I tagged right along behind him. Boomer had moseyed off somewhere on his own— gone back, I figured, to where we’d found the dead sheep in the patch of bloody fireweed.
IC walked up to the doorway casual as if he was just calling to take Delsey Porter to a Tamahous Bay dance. Mr. Porter hoisted the gun halfway to his shoulder. It was a cheap doublebarrel rig, and the way he held it you could tell he hadn’t had much to do with guns.
“You keep away!” he called. His voice was thinner than it had been when he was giving me heH that afternoon, and I judged he was scared clear down to his boots. Ric kept on walking toward him up the red-dirt path.
“I warn you,” Mr. Porter said in the same high voice. Buf. I could see the shotgun jittering in his hands.
Ric reached out and slapped the muzzle aside. Still not saying a word, he gathered a fistful of Mr. Porter’s bib-front, overalls in his right hand, and I could see his left in the big jagger-torn rigging glove, cocked level wit h bis belt.
The darnedest thing happened to me then. I started feeling real sorry for Mr. Porter!
But Ric didn’t throw his left. He didn’t get a chance to. Delsey boiled out of the shack with her red curls flying, and her hand popped against Ric’s face in a smack you could have heard clear down to the barn.
“Stop that,” she told Ric. “Take your hand off him, you big bully!”
She reminded me of a
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Don't Call Me Susie
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mother blue grouse, the way they’ll whir up in your face when you tramp too near a chick. Ric fell back a step, rubbing at his jaw. He looked like he’d been slugged, not slapped.
“Susie,” he said, “that makes twice. You swing on me just once more and I’ll hike you over my knee and spank you.” And the way he said it, 1 knew he sure enough meant it.
“My name’s not Susie,” she snapped at him. Her eyes were a real dark blue, and what with being so mad, her face was as pink as summer fireweed. “Now get off our property, Mr. Ric Jensen. And take your worthless dog and this— this nasty little boy with you.”
That was me she was talking about. I was sucking in wind to cheek her back when right over my head someone chuckled quick and gruff, and said, “Good girl !”
I didn’t need to swivel around to know it was my pop. He’s built like a bulldozer, and he seemed to push us all ahead of him into the shack. He had Mr. Porter’s gun in his fist too, and I watched while he broke the breech. It wasn’t loaded.
He clicked it shut. “Here,” he said. “Stand it back in the corner.” There may have been a grin behind his big cornsilk-colored mustache, but it didn’t show in his voice.
"Do your hell raising on your own time,” he said to Ric, “not on the company’s.” And to me, short and sharp, “I’ll tend to you when we get home.”
That meant the razor strop, sure as shooting. But even with my seat tingling already, I felt a lot better. It’s always like that when my pop steps on to a show -you know everything will be spliced up right and proper, and no monkeydoodling around. I guess that’s how he got to be a boss logger.
The shack didn’t have much furniture in it and just curtains shutting off the other two rooms, but everything was neat and clean. The Porter twins were giving me dirty looks from over by the stove, and Mrs. Porter was standing in front of them, kind of white in the face. She’s a little wispy woman, wouldn’t come up to my mother’s shoulder hardly.
“Now we’ve all got our hackles down,” my pop said, “we’ll straighten a few things out. Porter, you’re new in this country. We don’t beat up on kids here, and we don’t point guns at our neighbors, and we’re mighty careful about pointing them at dogs.”
“1 didn’t punch your kid,” Mr. Porter said. His voice was big again, but still not what you’d call blustery. “1 just gave him the cuff he needed. But I’d have shot that dog. He’ll be taken care of, 1 tell you, or I’ll have the law in. He savaged my sheep.”
“Like hell he did,” Ric said, and Delsey gave him a look out of her blue eyes would raise blisters.
“It’s always the same,” Mr. Porter said. “It was like (hat at the shipyards in Vancouver, and that’s how it will be here.” He could have been making a speech, the way he rolled it out. “The little man hasn’t a chance, he just gets his feet under him, then along comes some big powerful greedy eorporalion . .
Delsey said, angry and kind of helpless, “Oh, Dad!"
My pop’s mustache was starting to bristle like it always does when he hears people talk that way. He was swelling his chest for a blast when Ric Jensen said: “Hold it . . . Listen!”
The door was closed, but we heard it again, and a queer, cold shiver ran along my spine. It was Boomer, sound-
ing off from somewhere away down the burn, with his rusty voice that seemed too big and deep and mournful for any one hound.
We all stayed right where we were, Delsey by her mother and the twins, Mr. Porter in the middle of the floor, with his feet spread and his stomach pushed out, Ric leaning his shoulder against the doorjamb, a half-rolled cigarette between his fingers. Then I saw a look go between Ric and my pop; and Ric crumpled his cigarette slowly and flipped it into the wood box.
“Sounds like he’s back for more,” he said.
My pop said, soft and puzzled, “Boomer could be haywire.” He turned, with his boot caulks crunching the plank floor, and said over his shoulder to Mr. Porter, “We’d better have a look-see. Bring your gun, mister. This time, load it.”
Mr. Porter picked up his shotgun. He was trying to fumble shells into if when Ric took it from him and closed it wit h a snap.
“Delsey,” Mr. Porter said loud and important from the door, “this is man’s business. You stay here with your ma and the children.” Delsey didn’t pay him any attention. She was snugging her hair into one of those beret rigs, and she’d pushed a flashlight through the belt of the ratty old t weed jacket she had on over her green dress. It was the same jacket the biggest twin wore to school; 1 guess the Porters were even poorer than we’d heard tell.
11’ WAS cold outside, and even without the smell of burning slash in the air you could tell winter wasn’t far off. Tramping behind Ric 1 thought about my birthday rifle I’d be getting next week, and wondered whether my pop would take me deer hunting with him at Thanksgiving. Then Boomer cut loose again, farther away this time, and put the thought out of my head.
We could hear the creek tinkling through the hollow behind the barn. It was dark down there, and Delsey switched her flash on and moved up heside Ric.
“Shine it this way,” he said. “No, not ahead. Into the creek bed.”
We poked along, the circle of light bobbing in front of us. After a spell Ric said to Delsey, “All right. Hold it here.” He slid down into the creek bed, and for what seemed an awful long time he squatted on his heels, studying the sand har in front of him.
“Was that hound of yours lying?” my pop asked him. “Those killings sounded a lot more like bear work to me.”
“No,” Ric said slowly, and in a very odd voice. “He wasn’t lying . . . Bergman, take a look here.”
My pop got down too, grunting a little. “Closer with that light,” he said to Delsey. And to me, “Quit wheezing in my ear!”
“What is it?” Delsey whispered at me.
“Cougar tracks,” 1 whispered back. “Big ones!”
My pop heaved himself up, but Ric still squatted at the edge of the sand bar.
“That cat’s dead,” my pop said. “Government predator hunter shot him three years ago. Dropped him off a ledge into Quinnat Canyon.”
“Maybe so,” Ric said. “But ghosts don’t go around slaughtering sheep. There’s only one cougar I know has half a left hind paw shot away. That’s the Tantalus cat.”
The cold rippled along my spine again. Plenty of nights I’d sat huggled up to an oil-drum stove in one of the single men’s bunkhouses and heard them talk about the Tantalus cat. And I’d run home after, thinking about
that Tantalus ranch kid, and hearing things rustle in the slash, and wishing I had eyes in the back of my head and a rifle in my hand.
The slash rustled across the creek. 1 jumped a foot, and Delsey gave a little gasp and swung her flashlight. But it was only Boomer, padding out of the dark with his ears drooping either side of his old-man face, and his tongue hanging out.
He came to Ric, and Ric: dropped a hand on his head. Then Ric climbed out of the creek bed and stood facing the limber. The full moon was rising across the burn. It sat on the jaggedy tops of the firs, and the smoke in the air had turned it red as blood.
“Just so the old devil sticks to sheep,” Ric said, and left the words hanging there.
Mr. Porter picked him up, prompt and too loud. “Now what do you mean by that?” he asked. “I’ve lost too many sheep already.”
“This cat has eaten other meat,” my pop said.
“1 may be new here, Bergman,” Mr. Porter said, “but you needn’t take me for a fool. If you mean that cougar would tackle a human, 1 don’t believe it.” He’d swung into his speechmaking voice. “Those beasts are the biggest cowards of the forest. The books say they’ll run just at the scent of a man—”
“Sure,” I chipped in. “Only the Tantalus cat don’t read books.”
“Hold your tongue,” my pop told me. “At that, he’s probably cracked as many books as you have.” He said to Porter: “'This cat is a rogue. He lost an eye and part of a paw to the same bullet six years back. Year after that, in a hard winter, he took to hanging around the Tantalus ranches. He killed a few pigs and sheep. Then one evening he jumped a boy hunting up stray cows in the burn, lad about the age of my Neis here.” He looked at me, and his voice got sort of gruff. “They found what was left next morning, partly covered with brush the way a cougar does, and a set of tracks with half a hind pad missing.”
“But couldn’t they catch him?” Delsey Porter asked. She’d taken my hand; her fingers were cold.
“We tried,” my pop said. “We did our best, but he was too smart for the dogs, even for Ric’s Boomer. He got clean away, with a thousand dollars on his nose, and he wasn’t heard of again till a government man hit his trail back in the Tantalus foothills three years ago.”
“This time,” Ric said from where he stood making himself another cigarette with Boomer beside his knee, “he won’t get away. I’m going after him in the morning, Bergman.”
“If you do,” my pop said, “you can get your time first. You’re hired to tend hook, not hunt cougar. I’ll phone the game warden at Tamahous Bay tonight.”
We were halfway back to the shack, with Delsey still hanging onto my hand, when she asked, “What did your father mean, Neis? About the Tantalus cat getting away with a thousand dollars on his nose.”
“Reward money,” 1 told her. “That government hunter couldn’t show proof of a kill. So far as I know the reward’s still waiting to be claimed.” I’d started to like Delsey Porter pretty well, in spite of what she’d called me at the shack, and 1 figured there was another thing it wouldn’t hurt her to hear. I began, “Now about Ric Jensen calling you Susie—” but she whisked her hand away as soon as 1 mentioned his name.
“I don’t want to talk about him,” she said, and started to walk faster.
At their door my pop said, “Those were last night’s tracks, Porter, bul by the way Boomer acted, that cat’s still
skulking around. You might sleep wit h one eye open.”
“If he comes here again,” Mr. Porter said, loud enough so his wife could hear him inside, “I’ll fill him full of buckshot.”
“Better let your daughter take care of him,” Ric said. “She’s good with her hands.” Delsey already had the door half shut. Ric called to her, light and cheerful, “Good night, Susie,” and she closed the door the rest of the way with a bang.
M/TY POP had come out on his IT J. speeder to the end-of-steel after Ric’s rigging slinger told him what was up, so we were able to ride home. Ric jogged off to his bunkhouse with Boomer at his heels, and we walked across the tracks toward our house at the end of the married quarters.
“That Porter,” I said. “Is he ever the old windbag!”
“Is he?” my pop said, and stopped right there in the middle of the grade. His voice was quiet, but it stung worse than any razor strop. “Look, son, if you’re going to act like a man, you’ve got to make a full-time job of it. You can’t go strutting around like a staky logger one minute, and run bawling to Ric Jensen the next with a windy about how Mr. Porter slugged you.”
1 didn’t know what to say, so I kepi my mouth shut.
“Things get around,” my pop went on. “Did you know your mother cried when she heard how you’d made fun of those Porter kids for the old clothes they wear to school? You ever think that when Mr. Porter talks big he’s maybe whistling in the dark, like you would if the Tantalus cat were on your trail? He’s been kicked around a lot. He’s a city dude trying to make a go of it in pretty tough country. Neis, that girl of his is more of a man than you are.”
He started walking up the grade, me beside him, my face feeling kind of numb. “1 won’t whip you, Neis,” he said. “But until you can act like a man as well as talk like one, that gun stays in the case.”
That was all he said. My mother had kept supper hot for us, and while we ate she gave us soft, worried looks from where she sat with lier knitting. Me, I had to force every bite down. I’d been almost counting the hours till 1 got my birthday rifle, but losing that little .32 Special didn’t hurt anything like as much as remembering every word my pop had said and knowing it was all true. I got up from the table and went and kissed my mother quick on her cheek, and dragged off to bed.
Most times I sleep real sound, but this night I kept dropping off and waking up, and each time it got harder to shut my eyes again. The wind had grown stronger, and it sounded sad and lonely, running past the house in the dark. I thought about the Tantalus cal out there somewhere in the timber or the burn with his one green eye and his three pads that made a track bigger than if I’d knuckled my fist into the sand bar, and his fourth pad that was half shot away. I thought about the thousand-dollar reward too, and about Ric and Delsey, and I wondered if there’d ever be any way of showing my pop I was really man enough to have a gun.
Sometime toward morning, when the wind had died and it was very quiet, two of those thoughts all of a sudden ran smack into each other in my head. They made one idea so big I just lay there for a while, scared of it but not able to get away from it no matter how I tried.
That would sure enough prove it!
My pop sleeps like he really means it.
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He was still snoring when I eased down the stairs with my boots in my hand. The hall closet door squealed once as I opened it, and I heard my mother stir, and held my breath till she sighed and turned over. I knew right to the inch when* my birthday gun was hanging in its canvas case, and reached for it cautious and slow. The cartridges would be on the top shelf, left-hand side. Pop had got two boxes, not just one as I’d thought. I slid the nearest box off the shelf and jammed it into my hip pocket.
The front door gave me another bad minute, then I was out and heading down the grade through camp. I turned off by the single men’s bunkhouses and gave one low whistle. The moon had set and I couldn’t see Boomer, but after a bit I heard the soft scuffing of his claws, and then he pushed his cold nose into my hand. It was as if that old black and tan was telling me: “Hell, Neis, I know you’re a man even if you don’t always act like one.”
1 stripped the rifle out of its case and shoved the case under the commissary steps where I could pick it up later. Then we drifted west out of camp toward the old burn.
It was strange, the feeling that if I let go even for a second I’d be too scared to take another step. That was a hard winter, I told myself. Deer were scarce and there was lots of snow, and he was starving. This is just full, and if he comes back there's those dead sheep he can eat. Cats are cowards, most times they'll run from a man . . .
And I had to be a man if it killed me. All right, I said to myself, you're darn well going to be brave. You aren't even going to load up till you get to the Porter place.
The sky behind me was greying just a shade when I crawled under Mr. Porter’s barbed wire. I steered wide of the house, remembering how jittery he was with his shotgun, and circled toward where the barn roof showed black against the stars. Boomer had been slouching beside me, but now he moved to the front. I figured he’d pick up the scent somewhere along the creek.
1 almost tripped over a sheep, a live one. It stirred and heaved up, and let out one quavery “maa-a-a.” While my heart was still settling back into place, something moved 50 yards or so ahead of me, close by a tall stump.
It's only another sheep, I told myself while I clawed the box of cartridges out
of my pocket. But it wasn’t a sheep, or the Tantalus cat either. It moved again, and I saw it was Delsey Porter.
I went to her, picking my way among the bedded-down ewes with my hand through Boomer’s collar.
“Neis Bergman,” she said in a sighing whisper, “You’ll never come closer to being shot. 1 thought . . .”
“Me too,” I whispered back. “What in thunder are you doing out here?”
“Waiting,” Delsey said. “Waiting for a cougar with a thousand dollars on his nose.”
She had her father’s shotgun in her hands, and both of its squirrel-ear hammers were cocked. 1 was mad and glad and sorry for her, all together. Now that I wasn’t alone in the dark, I knew there wasn’t a thing to be nervy about. It wasn’t likely the Tantalus cat would come back to the stump ranch with the air full of dog smell and man smell, in spite of what my pop had said.
“You’ll have a mighty long wait,” I told her.
“Something was near,” Delsey said. “I heard the sheep stirring just after midnight.”
“You’ve been out here alone since then?” I asked her, surprised at any girl being that brave. “What’s the matter with your father?”
“He’s fast asleep,” Delsey said. “I didn’t wake him. He’d just have fired at shadows or maybe at the sheep. Dad gets—excited.”
The stump behind us was a big old fir, burned so it dished in on the side facing the timber. We stood close together in its hollow. Delsey was shivering, and somehow that made me feel better. I eased the rifle into the crook of my arm and opened the box of cartridges. If the Tantalus cat did just happen to be crazy enough to come hack, it’d be a job for my .32 Special, not a haywire old scatter-gun.
It was good to feel the cold brass cases and the copper jackets, and the soft lead noses that would mushroom to the size of a quarter when they hit. I pushed a cartridge against the loading slot. But it wouldn’t slide into the magazine, not even when I set my thumb against it and really shoved.
I knew then what I’d done, and felt all of a sudden small and foolish, and kind of sick to my stomach. M v pop must have brought a box of shells home from the commissary for his old .44-,40. That was the box I’d hooked off the closet shelf in the dark. If Delsey was right, and the Tantalus cat was really
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prowling around, 1 might just as well he laying for him with a stick.
AYBE Boomer knew something was wrong. He looked up at me now, patient and kind of puzzled, as if to say: “This isn’t the way to hunt
I whispered to Delsey, “It’d be sort of nice if Ric Jensen were here.”
She stiffened, and for a minute I thought she wasn’t going to answer. Then she said with her mouth close to my ear, “No, it wouldn’t. Not for me. I hate him!”
“Pete’s sake, why?” I asked her. “He likes you a lot. He’s still trying to puzzle out how come you slapped him at that Tamahous Bay dance.”
“If he wanted to think about some other girl while he was out with me,” Delsey whispered, “that was all right. But he didn’t have to keep calling me by her name. Then, without any reason at all, he told me I was catty. That’s when I smacked his face.”
If l hadn’t been feeling so low, I could have laughed. “Look,” I told her, “you’d better learn how loggers talk. When Ric called you catty all he meant was you were a good dancer, real light on your feet!”
1 felt Delsey take a sudden sharp breath. “Neis,” she said, “the way a girl is dressed has a lot to do with how she feels. A girl at a dance in a threeyear-old dress and mended stockings can imagine things too easily.” She was quiet for a spell, then she whispered, “Just the same, he needn’t have called me by that other girl’s name all evening.”
“Susie?” I whispered. “I tried before to tell you about that—”
Boomer rumbled low and deep in his throat. He stood away from my legs; I reached down to him, and the hackles were stiff on his shoulders. His muzzle was lifted, and as I laid my fingers on his nose he rumbled again. The sheep were getting up all around us, not making a sound, but shifting from their beds in the fireweed, pulling closer together. Something white moved on a down hemlock that slanted into the creek bed from the far side, the side nearest the timber.
I stared at it, trying to make it out through the grey ground mist. It moved again, and this time I saw him plain. My backbone turned into an icicle. The white was the fur on the inside of his legs. He was creeping down the hemlock, and in this dim light he looked 10 feet long. He was back again, the Tantalus cat!
Delsey stood perfectly still beside me, not even shivering. I pressed harder on Boomer’s muzzle. The wind blew toward us from the timber. He was stalking the sheep—he hadn’t yet got our scent.
He seemed to flow along, into the creek bed and up to our side, his belly to the ground. I barely breathed at Delsey, “Be ready with that gun!”
The Tantalus cat was maybe 40 yards off, and still she hadn’t made a move. I shot a look at her, and knew she wasn’t* able to move. She was frozen there, in the hollow of the stump. I reached an inch at a time for the shotgun.
You’d think the sheep would run, but they just huddled closer. Pie wasn’t much more than 80 feet away now, drifting in like a grey shadow.
Maybe he saw my arm move then, or maybe he winded us at last. He bellied closer to the slash with his ears laid back on his flat skull. I took my hand off Boomer’s muzzle and Boomer walked out, one stiff-legged step at a time, making steady, low’ thunder in his throat.
Eighty feet. Close enough for a
buckshot load. I cuddled the shotgun butt into my shoulder, and steadied the bead under the Tantalus cat’s ear, and squeezed the rear trigger.
What happened then was like something you dream and wake up from in a cold sweat. My ears were ringing from the explosion, and the Tantalus cat was off the ground and in the air, and Ric’s Boomer was roaring straight at his throat. They came down together in a tangle of black and tan and tawny grey that bounced and rolled so you couldn’t tell which was dog and which was cougar. I ran out with the shotgun halfway to my shoulder, just as Boomer flew end over end out of the scuffle. The Tantalus cat was crouched again, gathering himself in, the muscles humping behind his shoulders, and I could see his one green eye and the crease over his scalp where the government man had nicked him, and his wicked side teeth. I gave him the other barrel, and saw fur puff off his back.
Boomer sailed past me. tSomething crashed right in my ear, and the Tantalus cat settled into the slash, his shoulders flattening, his whole body seeming to loosen. The tip of his long tail twitched once, and that was all.
I turned around, my knees all of a sudden so weak they’d hardly hold me up. Ric Jensen was standing not 10 feet behind me, his Winchester carbine across his forearm, and my pop was with him.
“Sorry, kid,” Ric said. “But you were making that cat pretty snuffy, dusting him off with bird shot."
My pop grabbed the gun from me and opened it. One look was all it took to tell me those weren’t buckshot loads.
“You young fool,” my pop said, and something in his voice put the stiffening back in my knees. “You pair of crazy young fools!”
Boomer was sniffing at the Tantalus cat. He had five red-raw claw rakes down his side, but he looked only a shade sadder than usual. The cougar, 1 saw now, wasn’t anything like 10 feet long. His claws and teeth were all blunted down with age, and you could tell he was in poor condition. Boomer took one more sniff and turned away. 1 could almost hear him rumble, “So much for you!”
Mr. Porter was highballing down through the stumps with his nightshirt bagging over his pants, but I didn’t pay him any heed. There was something I had to tell Delsey.
“He’s your cat,” I said. “Unless Ric wants it different, you can lift that thousand dollars right off his nose. And about that Susie business, it don’t mean a thing—every girl he likes, he calls her Susie.”
“You could get more sheep,” Ric said softly. “Fix this place up. Maybe even buy yourself a new outfit to go dancing in with me, Susie.” He was smiling down at her white face, and she smiled too. She reached out and gave him a slap wouldn’t have bruised a butterfly.
“Saturday night,” Ric said, “I’ll be around to spank you.”
My pop snorted. “Yank your nose out of this,” he told me. “Pick up your rifle and come along.” He didn’t speak to me again till we were well down the skid road. Then he said, “Fine hunter you are. We were on your tail all the way. You woke your mother, oxfooting around below. She roused me out.”
His voice was stern, but he was grinning under his mustache. He took a box of cartridges out of his raintest coat and slapped it into my hand, and I saw they were the shells for my birthday rifle.
“Here," he said. “Hang onto these. You’ll need ’em when we go deer hunting at Thanksgiving.” +