Author's note: This is a work of fiction; any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Later, when it was all over, Big Tom down at the Greenville garage said he had never seen such a thing. Elder Bennett allowed it was a sign of the end times. Callie Jo Escue, owner of the Eat a Bite Café, said it was just the kind of thing people in this little town needed to unclog their brains.
The whole mess started when Megan Clarkson asked if she could enter her yellow tomcat Earl in the annual Monroe County squirrel dog contest. To say that me and the boys in the Back Creek Tree Dog Club were taken aback would be putting it mildly. Someone said later that when Megan walked up to the registration desk in back of the feed store, club officials Buford Rainey and Bill Stevens got real quiet.
"I want to put my tomcat Earl in the squirrel dog contest," she said a little nervously.
There was a short bark of laughter from the boys loafing in the back of store, but when Buford saw Megan didn't even blink, he swallowed hard and said, "Honey, this is a contest for dogs; you can't put a cat in a contest with a bunch of tree dogs."
Megan is 14 and a little short for her age, but she rose up on her toes, stuck her chin out a little and said, "I looked at the rules, and there's nothing in there that says a cat can't be in the contest."
Buford swallowed hard again and started a rambling explanation to Megan on how this just would not work, and she should best go home and talk to her momma about it and maybe concentrate on her softball team. It was pretty weak, he had to admit. Megan looked at him hard until he had to glance down at his papers, then she did a snappy about-face and marched out of the store. There were some nervous giggles from the loafers, but the laughter died pretty quickly.
That was on a Saturday, and the following Wednesday morning Callie Jo was bringing Buford his usual breakfast of three eggs, sausage, cathead biscuits and extra grits. Callie Jo was an icon at the Eat a Bite Café — and a formidable force in the county. She had been a widow for 35 years, ran the restaurant almost single-handedly and raised a huge garden all by herself. She was maybe most famous for shooting an intruder in the hind parts late one night with a shotgun shell loaded with rock salt and red pepper. She smoked Camel nonfilter cigarettes and usually had one dangling on her lip with at least an inch of ash ready to fall on a plate.
No one messed with Callie Jo.
She slammed the plate down in front of Buford, causing the others in his booth to jump a little, and looked him dead in the eye.
"I want to know what you are going to do about Megan and the contest, Mousey!" she almost shouted.
Buford winced at the use of his childhood nickname. He had tried his best to stamp it out over the years and would have been successful had it not been for Callie Jo bringing it up sometimes. He cleared his throat.
"Well, Callie, it's a squirrel dog contest. You just can't put a cat in the middle of a bunch of squirrel dogs, for Pete's sake!"
Callie glared at him with one eye half-closed from a tendril of cigarette smoke.
"Leave ol' Pete out of this! You and that bunch in your little boys club are going to let that girl in the contest or deal with me!" she said, arms crossed, delivering the last word. Buford looked up with a weak grin, knowing he was beat.
When contest day came, some of the boys were as nervous as a long-tailed cat in room full of rocking chairs. The county fairgrounds seemed packed, and there was no doubt more people than usual were at the contest. Trucks with dog boxes lined the parking area, there was a mess of kids running and playing and dogs were barking everywhere.
A big crowd had formed around the contest judge's booth, and Judge Parker, the county circuit judge was presiding over the reading of the contest rules.
"Now right there in the part about a dog treeing a squirrel and barking on the tree," Big Sam Elliot interrupted, "How in the world is a cat going to bark at a squirrel?"
Big Sam is from the lower end of the county, has some of the best squirrel dogs around and is known for wanting things just so. He's kind of particular. There were murmurs of agreement in the crowd when Megan came walking up with her cat held in her arms. It was quite a sight. Many thought they might have seen a tomcat this big before, but never one any bigger. The cat was spilling out of Megan's arms and seemed as big as she was. Earl would give you a look exactly like Callie Jo — he had "don't mess with me" written all over his bright yellow hide.
Judge Parker looked at Big Sam from under those bushy eyebrows and said, "You really want a ruling on that, or are you just afraid of getting beat by a little girl and her cat?" Well, that chilled the water of anyone who wanted to argue, including Big Sam. Earl the Tomcat was going to be in the squirrel hunt.
In the drawing for the first cast of the hunt, Megan and Earl drew Jimmy Ivey and his feist dog Beau. I saw some of the boys smile to themselves over that. Jimmy may not have the best dog in the county, but he certainly has a good one, so they figured this would be over quickly. I went along as an observer on a day I will never forget.
We parked in a back field on Deke Echols' farm, Jimmy released Beau and the little dog took off like a blue streak.
Megan dropped Earl on the ground. He trotted a few feet away, sniffed a couple trees and looked around. Jimmy looked over at me and grinned. He wasn't worried at all, but both of us were a little surprised when Megan walked over to Earl and said something like "Ssssst! Get 'em!" Earl took off about as fast as Beau did, disappearing into the heavy timber.
We stood at the edge of the woods for several minutes. Beau checked in one time and raced back into the woods. There was no sign of Earl. I saw Megan turn her head as if she was listening for something, and about the time I started to hear it as well, she looked over at Allen Miller, our judge, said "Tree my cat!" and walked away into the timber.
What was I hearing? Could it be?
It was the squalling, caterwauling cry of a tomcat.
TO BE CONTINUED
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.