A Lion in the Woods

I

It was nearly dark when 10-year-old Tommy Tucker zipped around the corner of the old train station on his bike to witness the cougar atop its prey. Startled by the squeaking brakes and the bike’s headlight, the huge cat retracted its claws and fled across the tracks, disappearing behind an abandoned warehouse. There on the side of the tracks was the limp body of a small girl, face down in the rocky dirt. Her shirt was ripped open and there were jagged claw marks across her back and shoulders.

This was the latest of a string of attacks from the mountain lion that had escaped the Erie Zoo a month ago. It turned out that the girl was luckier than the other victims; the carcasses of more than a dozen deer (easy prey in these suburban jungles) along with several dogs were clear evidence of the cat’s prowess.

Tommy Tucker’s sudden arrival at the scene turned out to be fortunate for the girl. Despite his poor eyesight and speech impediment, the white-haired boy managed to find someone to call 911. The quick and intuitive response from the EMTs, despite their never having been trained in giant cat attacks, saved her life.

The girl, Jasmine Johnson, lived a few blocks from those tracks in a small, under-furnished house, part of a projects development in which drug dealing and turf battles were becoming a way of life. Recent layoffs at the nearby Electric General plant had exacerbated the situation as many young adults now had too much time on their hands. Jasmine was the stereotypical child in those neighborhoods – absent father, over-working mother, and an older brother who, despite having shown promise in school as a talented athlete and artist, was running now with a gang.

Jasmine was a curious, wide-eyed little girl who wore her hair in twisted braids with pink picks on top. With so little supervision, she became more and more prone to wandering far from her home. It was her misfortune to have been hunting for specimens for her bug collection by the tracks the evening that the cougar passed by.

I came to Erie to investigate the cause of the escape, which was the subject of much debate when I arrived. My agency had instructed me to initiate a plan, in conjunction with zoo officials and local police, to capture the cat alive. Zoo spokespersons had tried to downplay the urgency of the situation, fearing the sensational media response and accompanying outcry from animal rights organizations. They had hitherto been successful in convincing police that the animal was born in captivity, was relatively young (just a year and a half old) and small (110 pounds). It would certainly avoid contact with humans.

That was until the attack on the girl, after which everything changed. Now there was extensive news coverage, with broadcasters repeating conspiracy theories from the locals about how the animal got loose and why the zoo officials were not forthcoming. Then there was talk of a big reward for bagging the cat, and despite warnings from the police, local vigilante groups gathered behind closed doors to oil their guns and plan their strategies.

II

The railyard where the girl was attacked was just three miles from the zoo. After WW II, Electric General, the giant power factory on the shore of Lake Erie, anticipated the need for more rails as the city population grew and demand for energy increased. The company bought thousands of acres of unused land. However, as the city highway system expanded during the ‘60s, more and more tractor trailers were being used for transportation of supplies. Roads were built, and the localized spurs became less used. By the end of the next decade, most of the rails had become obsolete. They had rusted over and were now subject to the relentless encroachment of weeds and brush. The result was more than five square miles of ragged, unchecked wilderness separating the factories from the suburbs of Erie. Scrub forests of sumac, locusts, water willows and silver maples, with their attendant grape vines and poison ivy patches, now dominated the landscape. The rusted tracks and dilapidated warehouses stood among them as symbols of wasted ambition.

Farther away from the tracks and interspersed across the acres of the brush and dwarf woods were several stands of larger, older trees that had escaped the original commercial land development of the Electric General. These were mature forests of oak, beech, birch, tulip, red maples, and evergreens indigenous to the Lake Erie coastal region, now looming above the landscape like dark fortresses.

During the eighties, the state government purchased much of the abandoned property from EG. It was a sweet deal for the city and for the company. The EPA somehow overlooked the numerous chemical spills that had occurred in the yards, and both state and federal grants were readily approved to expedite the development. In what was heralded as a progressive move by the city council, portions of the area were razed and redeveloped as residential areas for low income people, who would move there in hopes of escaping urban crime. It was named Bainesville, after the Pennsylvania House Representative Harvey Baines, who advocated most vocally for the project. However, because of their relative isolation and recent defunding of the city police department, the neighborhoods gradually became a breeding ground for gangs.

What added to the volatility of Bainesville was its proximity to a town at the other edge of the wilderness: Pleasantville, once a rural village before the city’s expansion, was now a largely white, lower middle-class suburban community. There was one long rail spur connecting the two towns, along with several dirt paths intersecting the woods and fields between. Tensions had grown between the communities over the years. Bainesville had become a real bane in the eyes of Pleasantville citizens. Every crime that occurred there was blamed on someone from the Bainesville. Now, with a vicious wild animal on the loose, along with a $2000.00 reward for its capture dead or alive (recently authorized by zoo officials), the wilderness separating the two communities had become a whole new jungle, and racial tensions were growing.

As I perused the google earth maps of the area covering Bainesville, Pleasantville, the zoo, and the Electric General Plant, it occurred to me that, if I were a fugitive seeking refuge, it would be within those greater forests that blotted the map in dark green. But that would come later. My first job was to interrogate the staff that worked at the zoo.

III

I began the interrogations with Head Keeper Harold Comden, who was under much duress, and incredulous as to the unnatural course of events. It had happened at night with the animals locked inside their cages, when only the nonprofessional workers were on duty to clean the outdoor areas. It was clear that there was meddling, that someone had opened the latches to the cage. The only clue I had to go on was the fact that the lights by the cat complex and front entrance had been knocked out by someone throwing rocks. Surveillance showed little more than the indistinguishable shadows of two vague figures.

“I have no idea how or why someone would have opened that cage,” said Harold Comden. “It doesn’t make any sense. I know my professional staff, and they are all highly trained men and women. Even if they are not particularly compassionate about the animals, they are reliable and ethically sound, or I wouldn’t have hired them. I can’t think of any reason someone would want to harm them, or to put the community in danger. As far as the support staff goes, they have no access to the entry codes. The whole thing is just plain crazy.”

Comden informed me of the cougar’s history: Bellatrix was pure cougar – or mountain lion or puma, the only cat with three official names for the same species. She was born two weeks prematurely eighteen months ago. It was in the early morning hours, with the skeleton crew of night-shifters on duty and only one in the cat complex. Because the night shift veterinarian had recently been fired for reckless behavior, they were without medical assistance, and by the time an emergency crew arrived, the mother, Medusa, had managed to birth three kits, all females. One was stillborn.

Medusa was wild-caught. She was an ill-tempered cat, even for a puma, and showed signs early that she was reluctant to nourish the cubs, at times appearing to pose a danger to them. Consequently, the cubs were taken from her in less than a week. One was sold to the Buffalo Zoo, the other, Bellatrix, was kept here in Erie and reared by staff members. Temperament-wise, she was very much like her mother. Despite being raised by humans, she had grown into a dangerously restless and moody cat.

After interviewing all the professional staff, including behaviorists, biologists, nutritionists, and veterinarians, I had to agree with Comden; these were professionals, knowledgeable specialists in their respective fields, and all seemed equally baffled by the breach of security.

The nonprofessional staff was not as cooperative. Their job description included feeding the animals according to prescribed diets, facilitating their movement among the different sections of their confined areas, cleaning their excrement, and assisting the professional staff in sedating or anesthetizing the animals for medical or behavior issues. They were acutely aware of the difference between their near minimum wage and the bloated salaries of the specialists, and they understood that their jobs were never quite secure in this environment where so much of what goes wrong can readily be blamed on those at the bottom. They were defensive, ready to deliver stock answers in anticipation of becoming somebody’s scapegoat.

I gleaned little from them, but was intrigued by one young man named Jimmy Tucker, the older brother of the white-haired boy who witnessed the cougar attack. Normally Jimmy worked the day shift, but had volunteered for overtime, and was alone in the cat complex when the cubs were born. He was 18 years old, very thin, freckled, with bright red hair and flickering green eyes that would not meet mine. He said that he was nervous watching Medusa and the newborns, but that there was nothing he could do but call the zoo hotline. When asked about the night of the escape, he claimed that he was not on duty. However, my intuition told me that if anyone knew something, it was Jimmy Tucker.

On Tuesday morning I phoned the mother of Jasmine requesting an interview with her daughter to learn more about the incident and any bits of information that might serve us in our efforts to capture the cougar. At first she was angry, going off on some rant about how irresponsible the zoo, the police, and the whole city had been. She told me there was no way for her to get to the zoo any way, and that the best thing I could do was make sure someone shot that cat dead soon. However, she softened as I questioned about Jasmine’s health after what must have been a traumatic experience. Eventually she agreed to let me come to her house that evening.

As I drove from the city at dusk, the October sunset over Lake Erie was magnificent; a thin, darkening ribbon stretched across the far edge where sky met water. Orange and purple cirrocumulus clouds hovered above, covering the lake like a glowing warm blanket. The horizon faded, then intensified into a deep red ember, all to be extinguished in a fleeting moment of ubiquitous green light.

It was dark when I exited the freeway and headed south on Baines Road toward the Johnson home. The road ran parallel to a spur of old tracks. There was inadequate streetlighting in Bainseville, a piece of civil engineering overlooked by the ambitious developers and their pursuit of shortcuts to completion within budget restrictions. Yet I could see the housing projects that sprawled north and south along the road – mostly two-story quads surrounded by parking lots and grassy lawns adorned with saplings and small playgrounds for the children.

The woman who answered the door introduced herself as Jade Johnson. She appeared nervous, impatient, perhaps embarrassed as she invited me into her apartment. She was still in her uniform from the nursing home where she worked, but I could see that she was a very attractive woman, with a full figure, huge round eyes, and skin the color of caramel. She brought me a bottle of water and instructed me to sit in the living room while she fetched Jasmine from the back yard. The room was clean and neat, but barely furnished, with only a couch, a chair, a TV, and a couple end tables, each with a jade plant. On the walls, however, were two remarkable oil paintings. One was of an old locomotive resembling the Union Pacific, with dark clouds of steam billowing from the stacks as it roared toward the stormy mountains. The other was very different in mood: a sunset, with two unusual vessels.

As I perused the paintings, a strikingly handsome young man of 16 or 17 years old, hair in long dreadlocks, emerged hurriedly from a bedroom. It was clear he had urgent business to tend to, as he barely acknowledged my presence. He grabbed a jacket from a closet and, closing the door quietly, was gone into the night.

A minute later Ms. Johnson returned with her daughter. Initially, Jasmine was timid and reluctant to speak with me. But she warmed gradually as I questioned her about school and friends, and she especially brightened when I asked about her older brother Robert, to whom she seemed deeply connected. At length, she revealed the basic situation of her encounter: she was searching for bugs by the tracks when she suddenly was pinned down face first by something heavy and strong. Then she felt the pain – stabbing sensation in her back and arms. It all happened in seconds. She never saw the beast, and was in a state of shock when the ambulance arrived.

IV

It was about 7:00 when I said goodbye to Jasmine Johnson and her mother. On my way back to my rental car I noticed someone across the street on a bicycle racing past the house and turning right onto one of the cross streets. In the glow of a dim streetlight, I caught glimpse of bright red hair flowing from beneath the helmet; the rider was Jimmy Tucker, probably on his way home from the zoo and apparently in a hurry. He was riding one-handed, carrying a large paper bag in the other. I decided to follow him.

The street lights became sparser as we headed west on Myrtle Lane, and eventually there were none. Jimmy had reached the outskirts of town and was heading into a dark and unpopulated area. At that point I pulled onto what appeared to be the last side street, realizing that my headlights might make him suspicious. I followed on foot under the light of the waning moon down the dark street, which had now turned into little more than a dirt bike path. The moon wavered behind gathering clouds as I entered into a deeper forest. All was silent, until an owl hooted, then departed in a rush from its high perch, gliding acrobatically through the tall trees and into the deepening blackness.

Ahead I could see the soft golden glow of a single light, perhaps a quarter mile up the path. I followed along what had become a narrow hiking path that seemed to head directly toward the light. Suddenly I was jolted violently and thrown back, off the path and into the tangled, thorny undergrowth. I must have lost consciousness for some time, for when I awoke, the moon had crested the forest and drifted toward a horizon I could not see. By the little flashlight on my key chain, I discovered I had walked into the thin cables of a powerful electric fence.

I figured that if I had screamed during that moment of shock, someone would have found me by now, so I decided to try to get across the fence somehow. Walking along the edge, I felt suddenly something like a false floor beneath feet. On further inspection, I uncovered a long wooden frame, like a makeshift stretcher, camouflaged with leaves and branches. Pulling it away from the fence, I discovered a short, narrow ditch leading to a five-foot deep hole in the ground next to the fence. At the bottom of the hole was a short, wide tunnel leading under the fence to a door on the other side. I followed down the ditch and through the tunnel to discover that, in his haste to get home, Jimmy Tucker had neglected to close the padlock. I managed to release the latch and pop open the door. I then crossed under the fence and into the heart of the woods. 

I had walked only a few yards toward the gold light when I tripped over some limp, bulky object. My flashlight revealed half-eaten carcass of large racoon. It was then that I sensed something else directly behind me. Dreadfully I turned to face two small lights, glints of fire inside a black furnace: staring at me was a giant cat crouched low on the path.

V

In those moments when one’s life seems about to end, there is a strangely familiar lucidity. It’s as if one finds oneself in a theater where the stage has suddenly gone nearly dark and silent, but there is a recognition of one’s true self as a mere actor whose gig is suddenly up; the audience and fellow actors have evaporated, and there is nothing but the soon-to-be former self there in the face of the Reaper. Yet ironically, what I heard in that moment was not the great primal yawp of the Beast, but rather a deep and vibrant purring.  

“Loco!” a voice called out. From the light ahead came running the red-haired boy. “Loco! It’s OK. Time for supper.”

An incredulous Jimmy Tucker recognized me right away. “Mr. James. Oh my. I had a feeling you were suspicious of me…I know what you must be thinking, but please let us explain.”

With the great cat following along, sometimes like a faithful dog, other times like a wild monkey leaping from tree to tree, Jimmy led me toward the gold light, which emanated from a large cabin built upon the branches of three great oaks. We climbed a spiral staircase to the deck area (the cat preferring to use the tree trunk and branches) where we were greeted by an older black man with silver hair who sat drinking a beer. “Well, looky here, Jimmy. What did you find in woods today?” he said gruffly.

“Uncle Pete,” replied Jimmy, “This is inspector James. He’s here investigating the missing cougar.”

“Well, then I guess the cat’s out of the bag!” Uncle Pete exclaimed. It was hard to tell at the time whether he was laughing or crying, and I discerned a deep sadness in the old man there drinking in the golden light. His tired brown eyes seemed to have scanned great oceans. “Would you like to come inside –  getting kind of chilly isn’t it?” he asked. “Can I offer you a beer, or even a bit of moonshine if you promise not to tell?”

Considering the recent chain of incredible events, I accepted both offers and entered the surprisingly spacious home. Out on the deck I could hear the cat purring and growling simultaneously as it ate from a large bowl. From a separate room came sounds of gentle snoring. “That’s little Tommy,” said Uncle Pete, pouring me a small glass of some crystal-clear liquid.  “He’s had a long day.” Then he settled back into his rocking chair and began to explain.

Peter White graduated with honors from Bucknell University in 1980, and was touted as just the seventh African American to ever graduate from their prestigious veterinary college. Soon after, he returned to Erie and set up a practice near the zoo. Later that year he married his secret high school sweetheart, Priscilla Campbell. Priscilla was a Scottish Catholic girl, whose parents would not have approved her dating a black person. It would take a long time for them to accept the marriage.

 A year later, the Electric General company anticipated a change in transportation infrastructure and decided to put some of their outlying territory up for sale. Peter bought fifty acres of old forest for cheap. He fenced the property in, and later applied the electric barrier. This was the beginning of the realization of a dream he and Priscilla had nurtured since high school: they began to design their own personal research and a nature preserve for rare and endangered species. However, a few years later, during the especially harsh winter of 1986, Priscilla fell ill with pneumonia. She died of fluid in the lungs in March.

Peter was a widower at 30 years old, and he would never fully recover from his heartbreak. He gave up on the nature preserve along with his private practice, and then went to work for the zoo, where he lasted almost 30 years. His tenure was terminated after a dispute with the new head zookeeper, Harold Comden, over budget issues. When funding was reduced by the state, Comden had chosen not to cut from the bloated salaries of the specialists, but rather from direct care cost for the animals, which meant reducing or freezing the wages of the nonprofessional staff. After several shouting matches with Comden, Dr. Peter White was demoted to night shift “management” duties, and two years ago he was fired for drinking on the job after one of the behaviorists found an empty beer bottle in the trash can outside the monkey complex.

The boys, Jimmy and his little brother Tommy were nephews of Priscilla, the sons of her brother James, who was killed in Iraq. James’ wife, Amy, remarried within months, and took the boys to Pittsburgh where her new husband worked. The boys never adapted. Jimmy was rebellious and spiteful. Tommy, who was afflicted with Albinism and a speech impediment, had difficulty coping in a normal public-school environment. After numerous episodes with school officials and police, she gave up. The boys had always been very fond of Uncle Pete, and at her behest, he adopted them and brought them to the forest.

Moreover, I learned that Jimmy Tucker was not the only person in the cat complex the night Bellatrix was born; his little brother Tommy would often sneak away at night, ride his bike to the zoo, and enter through a small gap in the steel fencing that surrounded the facilities to keep Jimmy company. On that night, Uncle Pete woke up and discovered Tommy was missing. Having kept the entry code to the zoo after being fired, Dr. White followed and was also present at the birth of the cubs.

The truth is that there were four cubs in that litter, not three as Head-keeper Comden had told me. There were the three females – the still-born, the one sold to Buffalo, and Bellatrix. The fourth was a male, and the mother cat was abusive toward him. The doctor determined that the male was in grave danger, and instructed Jimmy to distract Medusa with the long-stick while he entered the cage. When the mother cat realized what was happening, she swung around and lunged. Uncle Pete had barely escaped with his life and the infant cub.

And so they took him away as a new born lion cub whose eyes had not yet opened. No one else would ever know, until now, that Loco even existed. It was here in the barn behind the treehouse that Uncle Pete and his nephews nourished and, as much as possible, trained the playful young cougar. At seven weeks, Dr. White anesthetized and neutered him, with slim hopes that he would remain docile, at least long enough to formulate a new plan for his future. 

“So that’s my story,” sighed Uncle Pete as we had another drink. “That night last year was the last time I set foot in that zoo. And on the night of the escape last month, Jimmy was here with me. We did not let that cat out.”

There was a long silence as Dr. White finished his story. Then he asked if I’d like to meet Loco, another offer I couldn’t refuse. He opened the door and called Loco, who entered leisurely. The animal was magnificent – over seven feet long from head to tail and at least 130 pounds, its tawny brown fur glistening over powerful shoulders beneath the last remnants of black spots on his chest and forehead. His eyes, like fiery diamonds, looked warily at me before he gently took a Milkbone from Uncle Pete, who then shooed him back out into the night.

Suddenly, we heard in the distance the sound of several gunshots. “Things are getting pretty crazy around here, Mr. James,” said Uncle Pete. “Lots of fools with guns these days. No doubt there’s trouble ahead.”

He continued. “So, Mr. James, what shall we do about all this? I suppose you’ll need to write some kind of report about our little family here in the woods”

After some thought, I told him that as far as I was concerned, there was nothing there to report regarding the escaped cougar. But I gave him my cell phone number in case he heard anything.

With a sigh of relief, he replied, “Thank you sir. Though I don’t think this will be our last meeting, do you? And I was thinking, perhaps you’d like to spend the night on the couch here, as opposed to making that nasty trek through the woods in the middle of the night after drinking some of this potion of mine? There might be wild animals out there!”

This was another offer I chose not to refuse. After a slow beer, Uncle Pete brought me some blankets and retired to his room. As I lay back on the couch, amazed at the day’s events, I could hear a little choir of the boys’ gentle breathing interrupted by stuttered bursts of snoring from the good doctor in the next room. Somewhere in the woods, the great cat kept vigil while I dreamed of stars, like raining spears through the night.

VI

In the morning Jimmy accompanied me on his bike back down the path, through the fence, and out to my car. On my phone, which I’d left in the car, were two text messages. The first was from the agency, a cryptic directive about how I must continue with the original plan and that help will be found on the northern horizon. The second was from the Erie Police Chief informing me that we need to meet ASAP: there was trouble brewing in Bainesville.

I arrived at the Bainesville precinct to find a small army of officers. There had been an exchange of gunfire last night between a local gang and a platoon of white “hunters” from Pleasantville.

“It happened before midnight along the tracks that run from Bainseville to Pleasantville, at the border of Big Don Danforth’s land,” explained the chief. “A hunter was shot in the shoulder by one of the gang members. He’s in stable condition and will survive, but Big Don, who owns the property where it all went down, is smoking mad…”

A pickup truck came roaring up the driveway. A huge man – at least six feet six inches tall and over 300 pounds – strode up to the chief, followed by a smaller fellow with darting, beady eyes.

“I’m telling you Chief right now,” hollered Big Don, “if you don’t keep them bastards away from my land, there’s gonna be a war! And if you or your men get in the middle of it out there, I aint accountable for your safety, cuz who knows which direction the bullets be coming from. It’s time to put up the damn wall, all across the border, and I aint paying for it. That’s the county’s job to keep them sons-o- bitches where they belong”

Big Don stormed out, followed by his partner with the mischievous eyes, and sped down the road. The chief then set the agenda: there would be three units of four officers each stationed at various locations along the tracks near the border until dark. Anyone with a gun and no license would be arrested immediately. Regarding the shooting, investigators already had a lead on a person of interest. A rival gang member had identified a Robert Johnson, of the Da Vinci gang, as the one who shot the hunter. Robert was on the lam.

The day progressed with no further incidents. There was an apparent détente as the hunters returned to their houses and the gangs to their projects. There were, however, several anonymous threats of “Anglo-retaliation” called in and aired by local TV stations. In that uneasy truce, I drove back to the Johnson home.

Ms. Johnson was anxious to see me. Robert had been gone for two days, and the local police had been to the house three times that day asking about him. She invited me to sit down in the living room. Breaking an awkward silence, I asked her about the paintings.

“Oh, those are Robert’s. He was always so emotionally far-away as child. But when something got hold of him, some idea or vision, he clung to it like a dog with a bone. When he got to painting, or writing, or reading about something, you couldn’t break him away from it. You see, that locomotive picture, he loved trains as a boy. When they studied the history of the railroads at school, he just couldn’t get enough. This was when we lived in the city, and he’d stay up at night just to hear them rumble down the tracks behind the house, coming in and then heading out, blowing that whistle…

“I think he loved the idea that people built these rails and these locomotives so that they could have the means to get away, move on, start something new in a brand-new place, you know, live the American dream…” She stopped short, suddenly aware that she was talking so much. “Anyway,” she continued, “he was a beautiful young dreamer, and, you know, with no regular father he had plenty of time to dream.  His father was not a bad man – we were so young and not ready. Before he died of cancer, he would come around once every week or two to take Robby fishing out on the lake in this little boat he had…” 

She paused, shaking her head. “And now Robby has taken up with some local gang. They call themselves Da Vinci’s, probably my son’s idea. But I have no idea what they do or where they go.” She shifted her gaze to the other painting, which I recognized as something similar to what I witnessed on my drive here yesterday. His version of the Lake Erie sunset, however, featured a dark fishing boat that appeared greatly diminished under the image of a large, dreamlike sailboat that seemed to hover above the water like a great bird – its bow appeared as the head of an osprey, the stern spread like tail feathers, and the two unstayed masts were like great white wings carrying it into a kaleidoscopic horizon.

 “Now that one is a real mystery, isn’t it?” said Jade Johnson. “I have no idea how he comes up with those ideas. But tell me, Mr. James. What kind of trouble is Robby in? The police have been here so many times over the past year…”

We talked for a long time, enjoying each other’s company as the night wore on. We agreed on a course of action to help Robert find a better path. I left Ms. Johnson’s house in a blaze of a Great Lake sunset. Soft, dark red and violet clouds hung like a plush canopy over Bainesville, casting the entire town an eerily beautiful glow.

Having slept fitfully the night before in the forest of the giant cat, I was thankful to be in the comfort the hotel room. I fell asleep easily, but again strange images haunted my dreams. It seems the fear of the giant cat has infiltrated the collective subconsciousness of man. The dread we feel is somehow inherited, transferred from generation to generation, and, especially regarding the Tiger, our creative instincts have placed this image on a pedestal as a symbol of awesome power. The most beautiful and magnificently-endowed creature on earth is also the most terrible and dangerous.

Most of the following day involved futile negotiations among police, gang leaders, and some folks from Pleasantville. It was clear that the different gang leaders had become tenuously united due to a common enemy. However, a common enemy does not always make for friendship or cooperation. There were so many conflicting accounts of yesterday’s shooting that it was impossible to know the truth.

On my way back to the hotel I received an urgent call from Dr. White: Little Tommy Tucker had disappeared. He was deeply concerned, given all the guns that were out there in the hundreds of acres of wilderness adjacent to his forest.

 

VII

An hour later, I met Dr. White at the ditch by the fence where I had entered three nights ago. He had locked Loco in his cage in the barn, fearing that he would follow as we breached the borders of the forest in search of Tommy. “Loco is getting smarter every day, and more curious about the world,” said Uncle Pete. “And you know what curiosity does to the cat!”

Following a deer path, first west and then south, Dr. White stopped abruptly at the edge of a ditch, smaller but similar to the one at the front entrance. We climbed into and through the tunnel, where he unlocked the small door leading to a similar ditch that rose to a thatched cover.  

On the other side the great forest quickly diminished to a sparser growth of mixed vegetation – sumacs, locusts, silver maples mixed with young evergreens. The undergrowth was a dense, tangled mass of black raspberry thorn bushes, wild grape vines, and ivy. There were no discernable paths here, so we returned through the tunnel and proceeded north to the third egress.

It was nearly dark when we passed through this last tunnel onto the property on the other side. There we discovered a narrow path leading into a dark forest of tall evergreens. Inside all was so still, silent, tranquil. Yet it occurred to me that, if this was the trail Tommy had taken, he was headed in the direction of the recently militarized zone near Big Don’s property.

Just then a shot rang out. I sprinted ahead of the doctor up the darkening path toward the opening into the field. Twenty yards out I saw a young dark-skinned man, or boy, with his hand on the throat of Tommy Tucker. “You stupid little fucking kid…I should have shot both of you!” he was screaming, shaking Tommy like a doll.

“Robert! Stop, right now,” I yelled. He swung around toward me, pointing a pistol at me.

“Calm down,” I said.  “I have talked with your mother. We can fix this. But we need to get away from here right now!”

Robert was defiant at first, but he complied. As the boys approached I ushered them back into the cover of the evergreens, where we met an out-of-breath Uncle Pete who had struggled to follow me. “We’ve got to get out of here fast,” gasped Pete. “That shot has been heard by all the wrong people, and they will come. It’s not safe here!” Robert hesitated, but I assured him that he could trust us, and that his mother and sister were very worried about him.

It was night by the time we made it back to Dr. White’s treehouse. Robert explained that he was in those woods not to shoot at the hunters, but rather to hunt down the animal that had nearly killed his sister. His mother, he told us, worked hard but had bills she was barely able to pay. The $2000.00 would help with the medical bills and Christmas presents for his sister. It was his right to kill that animal.

He had the cougar in his sights, sitting right there across the field at the edge of the spruce woods, a perfect shot. But just as he was ready to shoot, Tommy came running out of the trees in front of the cat. At the last split second, Robert shifted his aim and shot wide into the air. It could have been a tragedy.

Then the doctor sighed, deeply troubled. “Tommy, what were you doing in that field today? You know I have told over and over again never to leave this property without Jimmy or me with you, especially after you found that girl last month. Tommy, you could have been killed!”

Then Tommy spoke up, nearly crying with frustration. “It’s not fair. Jimmy has Loco. I want a cougar too. I could take good care of her, but now she won’t let me. I used to feed her at the zoo, and she liked me better than the rest. She never growled at me. But now she runs away every time I try to give her Milkbones!”

Uncle Pete knelt beside the boy. “Tommy, did you let Bellatrix out of her cage? How in the world were you able to…”

“It’s my fault,” said Jimmy. “I stole the master code from you, and I gave it to Tommy so that he could bring me supper one night when I was working the double shift. I didn’t want you to have to get up in the night…I had no idea he would use it to release the cat”

So it was Tommy who had thrown the rocks to douse the lights near Bellatrix’ cage and the zoo’s exit gate. He had coaxed her with cold-cut sandwich meat, but once he was on his bike, she followed only for the first few hundred yards, then went rogue, running away from the road and into the woods. Tommy had been looking for her ever since. He’d been skipping school for a month but the attendance people never bothered to contact Uncle Pete.

It was near midnight when I arrived with Robert at his mother’s house. She was relieved, and very grateful. I urged them both to keep a low profile during the critical days ahead, and that I would be in touch soon.

Driving back to my hotel, I received a new text message from the Agency: A large package has been sent to your hotel. You’ll need to rent a van. You’ll also need someone, maybe more than one, to help you, people you can trust. Oh, and you’ll need a live rabbit.

VIII

Early the next morning I exchanged my rental car for a van. By the time I returned, there was a package outside the hotel the size of a freezer but remarkably light in weight. I loaded it into the van and found a pet store where I purchased an adult male rabbit, white as snow. That evening I drove straight to Dr. Whites preserve, entered through the front ditch, and found him and Tommy in the barn working on a scale model of his property. Loco lay quietly in his cage. He yawned and wagged his tail once as I entered.

“Hello Inspector James. We meet again so soon. Tommy and I are playing with some ideas about a little zoo of our own. How can I help you?”

I asked about Loco being in the cage, and he explained that Loco had been up to some mischief lately. Since he turned a year old, his wanderlust was getting the better of him. It would be necessary to keep a closer eye on him as he matured.

I told the Doctor about my orders to catch Bellatrix alive. First, I needed to get the vehicle onto his property and unload the package. He agreed, and within a half hour he had shut down the electricity and rolled the fence back enabling me to pull in far enough to be out of sight from the dirt road.

The package contained what appeared to be some kind of cage, one made from transparent, glass-like cables, nearly invisible. There were two handles on the top, and as I pulled on them, the cage expanded and a trap door appeared on top of the front side. Inside, at the back end there was a much smaller cage made of the same of the same material. Above it was a curious device that looked like a radio; I pushed a button and a strange mixture of sounds and scents emanated from it – soothing strings and various animal calls blended with a pungent aroma I could not identify. Loco sat up in his cage immediately. I shut it off.

“I have heard about these new traps,” said Dr. White. “State of the art, if trapping animals can be considered an art.”

We determined that the best time and place to set the trap would be after dark in the area outside the evergreen forest where Robert had nearly shot Tommy. That evening at dusk Jimmy and I dragged the trap down the path through the ditch and into the evergreen woods. Tommy carried the sacrificial rabbit (which we assured him would not be harmed) and Dr. White brought his old-school veterinarian medical bag, which contained, among other tools of the trade, the gun he would use to tranquilize the cat once we had trapped it. 

I turned on the radio, set the trap door, and placed the bunny inside the small cage. The soft drone of music filled the silence as we waited anxiously by the tunnel door, which we had left unlatched in order to gain quick access home if we managed to trap Bellatrix. It was early October, and the height of the season of comets and meteorites was past. However, as the night wore on, I spotted several stars shoot across the sky like fiery spears.

Suddenly from behind we were ambushed by a powerful figure that raced right on past us! It dug down into the ditch and clawed wildly at the door until it opened onto the other side. Loco had escaped from his pen and the woods and was now heading to the trap!

As we scrambled to get through the door, there was a sudden unearthly scream from ahead, then another. Then there was a savage exchange of hissing and yowling and screaming. As we came to the trap, we saw Loco and Bellatrix tangled together in a territorial battle. Bellatrix, though smaller, was the fiercer of the two, but Loco defended himself, and would not retreat.

Then there was the muffled sound of shot, followed by another. Dr. White had managed to shoot Loco with a tranquiller dart, then Bellatrix as she tried to run away. Now both beasts reeled in circles as if drunk, then slumped to the ground. Within a minute they were motionless.

Now with two doped cougars and one empty cage, we scrambled to recover. “Hurry!” cried the Doctor. “We’re going to have an audience soon.” After removing the small rabbit cage from the large one, Jimmy dragged Bellatrix’s limp body to the cage and managed to shove her inside. Dr. White instructed Tommy run and bring back the thatched ditch cover outside the door, which we would use as a sled/stretcher to transport Loco. Now with both mountain lions secured we began to drag them toward the tunnel, Bellatrix first. I managed to get her and her cage through to safety inside while Jimmy and the doctor struggled behind getting Loco onto the stretcher.

Jimmy and Loco had just reached the ditch when there appeared the shifting beam of a flashlight. Suddenly a very large figure – a mountain of a man wearing camouflage hunting attire – emerged from the evergreens behind, his rifle pointed straight at Jimmy and Dr. White. He was then joined by another hunter with a rifle. “Drop what you’re doing right now!” said the big man. “What’s goin on here? What the hell…” He stared incredulously at Loco’s limp body, and then at Uncle Pete. Well, will you look at this, Johnny. It’s the Witch doctor, all the way from Africa, poaching on my property.”

“Yeah, Donny,” laughed the smaller man, whose small button eyes shifted rapidly. “Must be Dr. Doolittle out on safari.”

“That cat there is on my property,” said big Donny. “That means he’s mine, and so is that $2000.00 reward. What do you say, Johnny?” Johnny smiled, flashing single-digit teeth.

Just then, a dark figure came speeding out of the dark pine woods straight at Big Donny, knocking away the rifle and taking him to the ground, then raining down blows to his fat head. Johnny was startled. He aimed his gun but couldn’t take the chance of shooting his partner. Instead, he jumped on top of the attacker, striking at him with his rifle stock.

Then Jimmy rushed at Johnny, taking him down, and there was a full-fledged brawl happening at the woods’ edge. Dr. White shouted to me, “Take Tommy and the cats now. Get them out of here!”

I managed to drag Loco through the tunnel and we lifted him on top of the cage. Then we mounted the cage on top of the thatch cover, which we used as a sled, and began pulling the pumas down the path toward the barn. I minute later I heard a gunshot. Fearing the worst, I continued on in a last-ditch effort to complete my mission and get the cougar out alive.

Two minutes later Jimmy appeared, breathless, clothes ripped, his bare chest scratched badly from the thorns. “Someone was shot — it was one of the men. Uncle Pete is helping him. He told me to tell you to carry on, and that you would know what to do.”

Fifteen minutes later we were back at the treehouse. I went to the barn and gathered together supplies: two emergency flares, a gallon jug of water, disinfectant, and a large lighter, and a jug of moonshine. Placing it all in a wheelbarrow, I told Jimmy to take Tommy with him and deliver these supplies to Uncle Pete. Then I called 911 and gave them the general location. They would need a helicopter to get there, and it might be a few hours before they found him.

I took Loco’s cage from the barn and placed it at the edge of the van, securing the latch he had broken in his escape with heavy wire. I then lifted the heavy mass of limp lion and shoved him inside. Next, I hoisted Bellatrix’ still cage, pushed both forward, and closed the doors. The doctor had left the electricity to the fence shut off, and I was able to roll back enough of it to pull the van out onto the dirt road. Just as I was about to turn away, my headlights flashed across the road, revealing a figure leaning face-first against a tree, trembling, dripping with blood, his head buried in his arms.

It was after midnight when we arrived back at the Johnson home. Jade was awake and waiting in the living room, while Jasmine slept in her room. Aside from scratches and a sprained wrist, Robert had come away from the fight unharmed. Jade told him to go take shower and to change into warm clothes. Then she and I discussed what would come next. When Robert returned, she presented him with a large suitcase packed full of his belongings, along with an envelope containing a letter. “Read that once you have arrived safely,” she said firmly. “You must go with Mr. James.”

IX

I learned later that the medics did arrive at the scene by helicopter and that Big Don took a bullet from his own gun to his right bicep. Dr. White had disinfected and covered the wound while cutting off circulation at the forearm. The emergency crew took over from Uncle Pete, and Big Don survived, but would have little use for that arm for the rest of his life.

At the scene of the emergency, no one was concerned about the cougar. It was all about getting Don to the hospital. Afterwards, the news reporters struggled to fashion a plausible story as to the cause of the shooting. Moreover, there was no word about the lion having been shot. So Big Don and Johnny became close-lipped about their incident in the woods. There would be no mention of the cat. They would stay with the more believable story of being jumped in the woods by someone of color. They were promised a full investigation, but as time went on, Big Don decided to drop the case – to let sleeping cats lie, I suppose.

I also learned later about Dr. White’s clever ruse to put the fugitive mountain lion story to rest: he had a close friend, Mr. Green, who was not only the head of the local branch of the Erie County Animal Control Agency, but also a taxidermist. He happened to have a full-grown cougar preserved in a crouching position, as if preparing to strike. It was not a piece of work Mr. Green was especially proud of, and he was willing to sacrifice it for the greater good. By applying a quantity of blood (to which he had considerable access given his day job) to the model lion’s body, along with a few last-minute contortions, he was able to produce a mountain lion that appeared to have been hit by a car.

The good doctor took credit for this last act – the unfortunate accident that dented his front bumper. The taxidermist was first on the scene, covering the beast in a bloody blanket and loading it into the service truck. The police chief, much relieved to have heard this news, arrived promptly, and after taking several photographs of the impostor, he instructed Mr. Green to either dispose of it or keep it for stuffing. Later that day, with only a trace of regret, Mr. Green saw to it personally that the fabled beast was reduced to ashes at the county incinerator. The reward money was donated to the local SPCA.

One more detail: Tommy recovered the white rabbit and took it safely back to the barn.

X

At the farthest eastern reaches of Presque Isle there will be a light due north. Flash three times and wait. This was the last message from the agency, which came as I turned onto Lake Shore Drive heading back to Erie. It was 4:30 am.

Presque Isle during October is a quiet place, all but deserted after the tourist season. The ghosts of another harsh winter were already stirring as we entered the State Park. As I pulled off the road onto the northern most beach of the peninsula, wind driven waves hurled themselves at the shore, their white knuckled hands clamoring one after another, higher up the beach, snatching sand and stones back in the undertow. It was hard to imagine that, across these unfathomable, dark waters and no more than 70 miles, was Canada.

In the back of the van, one of the cats let out a pathetic moan. Time was now of the essence.

I positioned the van to face due north and flashed my headlights three times. Shortly after a single gold light appeared in the distance. There was no moon above, and the constellations were brilliant. Orion was directly above us, with Cassiopeia settling just above the western horizon. Then I witnessed something truly ineffable: the sky filled suddenly with a dozen shooting stars all at once, like a stream of gleaming arrows across the sky.

The wind calmed as the boat arrived – a large cabin cruiser named Gaia. Robert was surprised to see two beautiful young female crew members of Asian and Indian descent dressed in emerald green, gold, and black uniforms. Their directions were clear: get the cougars aboard, keep them moderately sedated, and take them away immediately. When I told them about the boy, they looked at each other, uncertain. The Asian woman went below to make a call, and after a minute, she returned, instructing the boy to board the vessel. For the first time, Robert looked directly at me, his eyes filled with sadness and resignation. I assured him that he would meet his mother and sister again someday.

Dawn broke as the Gaia returned to the high waters. As I watched her fade into the morning light, it seemed she could have been a mere fishing boat now, a dark speck, perhaps ready to be reborn into sailboat, and then a great bird that would rise above the sea.

***

Pete Howard works as an English teacher, a musician, a writer, and a house painter.

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