ERNEST E. BLAU
MOTHER always parted her hair in the middle and combed it back to a soft knob. It was raven-black until that night, but shortly afterward I noticed that some of it had become white near the roots at the forehead.
Within a month, a broad streak of white was showing through, down the middle of her head. By the time I was twelve and my sister Octavia three, my mother’s hair was snow-white. This caused a lot of comment in Leeville, because she was only thirty-two.
Ordinarily, I can’t help feeling, Mother would have lived out her days with hair as shiny black as it was fhe first eleven years of my life if it had not been for that night. She was not a woman to be easily upset.
For all her quiet manner, Mother got obedience from me with very little effort. She got it, if need be, by just, a slight tightening of the lips and calling me by my full name, Andrew.
As a result, I was a good boy. People would tell Mother I was the best behaved boy in town.
Of course, there was not much opportunity in our town for a boy to be really bad. There was no street-corner loafing. There were, in fact, hardly any real street corners. Leeville was just a few hundred houses, some barns and two white churches, scattered along red clay roads. The sidewalks on Main Street were big slabs of grey stone, many of them tilted and uneven because of the great elm tree roof s knotted beneath them.
Leeville’s five-block Main Street was pounded flat and hard by hoofs and iron wheel rims. Halfway down Main Street was Dickie’s general store.
This store, and in particular its new penny candy case, was really why the events of this narrative took place.
DICKIE’S was not a large store but it was a marvelous place to me, even before the penny candy case was installed. I can see the worn wooden porch almost level with the ground, with its spindly posts, soiled and shined by the hands of customers. Across one window were the letters, SALADA, with an A missing. The open door
breathed out the smell of coffee, dried fruits, tobacco, ginghams, stale vanilla cookies and other fragrant merchandise on shelves and in open bins. Although I seldom had any pennies to spend, I used to linger at the big, glass-lidded, brass-edged biscuit and cookie boxes tilted forward on the floor at the end of the counter.
But my interest in these was nothing compared to the excitement of going into Dickie’s after the penny candy case was installed.
Some big city candy company had persuaded
Mr. Dickie to take the plunge. They had placed the case in the back of the store, beside the redwheeled coffee grinder. They had filled it with items which made my shortage of funds almost unbearable. For how could a boy with a single occasional penny choose between highly glazed chocolate cigars . . . black, ribbed licorice belts studded with bright sugar buttons . . . braided licorice whips . . . yellow marshmallow bananas . . . candy fried eggs in their own tin pans . . . boxes of sugared popcorn with little lead prizes . . . squares of white wax chewing gum with a picture pasted on each piece . . . gumdrop men dusted with sharp sugar . . . “Mexican” balls that changed color while you sucked them?
I tried to convince Mother that I should have an allowance of ten cents a week. I saw her lips tighten and she said, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, Andrew.” I did not press the subject. I knew Father did not earn much. He was a carpenter and most people did their own repair work in our town. They did their own chores, too, or had their own kids do them.
Continuing down Main Street past Dickie’s, you came to the feed store. You stepped through the doorway into the sweet, dry smell of hay and walked along a straw-carpeted corridor formed by stacked, hard bales. At the counter in back you could buy yellow and white cracked corn by the sack, or a peck of wheat screenings for your pigeons. Across
the street from the feed store was the blacksmith’s shop, where I often would stop in the wide doorway, breathing the odor of coke fires and burned hoofs, to watch the sparks struck out by the clanking hammers fall on the dark, charred floor.
A little farther down the street was a small lumberyard. With this, the town stopped and Main Street became the road to Montgomery. A little wooden gateman’s shack, with a stovepipe sticking out of the roof, stood about a mile down the Montgomery road, where the road crossed the railroad tracks. The gate man, Mr. Rocco, had a box of red-fire signal flares and on holidays he would give one to us boys to burn on Main Street.
Beyond the edge of Leeville, all alone in the centre of eight or ten acres, stood the lonely old Todd house. The Montgomery road went right through the property and past the house, which made a disgraceful and rather fearful entrance into the town.
The Todd house was the great mystery of Leeville. It had not been occupied for as long as I remembered. Nobody in town knew who owned it, although somebody, somewhere, must have been paying the taxes on it, because the county never tried to auction it off. There were a lot of rumors about the house, but the one I liked best was that there had once been a murder there. The story was that Mrs. Todd had killed her sleeping husband in the tower bedroom, with a flatiron.
What was behind the fence at the old Todd place? We found out the day terror raced through the streets like a rumor
ONE Saturday afternoon in late spring a surprising event happened.
The other boys and I were wandering along a small gully near the Todd house, when Scat Martin suddenly cried out, “Look!” and pointed toward the house.
A man was walking slowly across the porch, studying the yard. He wore brown canvas trousers and a plaid shirt, from the pocket of which dangled a tobacco tag on a yellow string. He didn’t see us because we were in the gully, but we were close enough to see every detail of him. He had bristling black hair and his face had a heavy, brutal look that reminded me of an animal. It was sunburned, unshaved and deeply lined. The eyes were narrow and wary and they darted from place to place without much turning of the head. Three livid streaks or scars, like old, deep knife cuts, started up in his hair and ran down his left cheek to his chin.
Without question, he was the most unpleasantlooking stranger we had ever seen in Leeville.
The man turned at last and went into the house, leaving the door open, and we could hear his feet clumping through the dusty rooms. Suddenly a loud, harsh woman’s voice came out of the house. A window in the house’s castlelike tower opened with two spasmodic jerks and a woman leaned forward from it, looking down straight at us. Her hair was deep yellow. She must have been watching us from upstairs all the while, because she shouted, “Get out of there! Go home, you brats! And don’t you come back!”
We scrambled out of the gully and ran nearly all the way back to Leeville. I ran up our steps all out of breath, calling to Mother, “There’s some people in the Todd house—an ugly man and an awful woman!”
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Mother looked at. me and said quietly, “Someone must have bought the place. I’d stay away from there, Andy.’’
If she had said, “Don’t ever let me catch you going there again!” I would have stayed away. But the way she said it, I figured she wasn’t ordering me, but just advising me. So I went back with the other boys the next day and many days after. But I didn’t talk about it at home. That wasn’t necessary anyway, because the town was talking plenty about what the strangers were doing.
Bags of cement and a lot of lumber were being delivered there. The two strangers were plenty busy. While the woman replaced broken windows, the man began to build a board fence all around the big back yard. It was no ordinary fence. It was terrific, made of fourteen-foot boards set on end. They had been milled to lap along the edges, so there wouldn’t be any cracks between them to see through.
But the amazing thing about the fence was that it sloped inward ten or fifteen degrees, almost as much as the face of the dam down on the river. The man set the posts into holes at that angle and worked alone and hard and seemed to be in a big hurry. As the fence grew, it looked more and more like a wooden fort.
It took a long time to build, in fact, well into my summer vacation. It enclosed the whole yard, including the barn and ran flush to the house on two sides. But the man didn’t close it all the way. He left a ten-foot gap near the house and through the opening we could watch him ripping out the stalls in the barn and laying concrete on the floor.
Then one night when I had gone to bed unusually late I heard Father say it sounded like something big was being moved into the Todd place. I jumped out of bed and ran to the open window, where I could hear the faint sound of a wagon and voices far down the quiet street. Next day Mr. Rocco, the railroad gate man, told Mr. Dickie he had seen it all.
He was walking home toward Leeville when he saw lanterns a quarter mile down the road ahead. A big dray wagon was backed up to the gap in the fence and some men seemed to be carrying tremendous crates into the yard. But by the time Mr. Rocco got there, the wagon with the men was turning back toward Montgomery. The stranger already was starting to nail up boards to shut the fence opening. He left no gate in the fence at all.
The next morning the other boys and I went over there and stared at the newly closed fence. Other people in Leeville, too, went down to the end of Main Street and talked and wondered what big equipment had been delivered in the dead of night. Father, with a carpenter’s eye, pointed out that the slope of the fence made it awfully hard for anybody to look through any little cracks or knothole. Because if a man stood with his toes right up to the fence, his eyes still would be two or three feet away from the boards.
This shrewd idea made us fear the strangers more than ever. It convinced everybody, beyond question, that they were up to something the sheriff ought to know about.
ONE evening I heard Father talking about the strangers with Mother. He said, “I believe they’re counterfeiters. I think those were printing presses they moved in the other night. The barn would be just right for the
presses. And—” he added shrewdly, stroking his mustache, “I’ve got a pretty good reason for thinking so.”
“Why Charles! That’s terrible!” Mother exclaimed. “What kind of a place is Leeville for growing children? Can’t something be done? You ought to go right over to Montgomery and tell the sheriff! He would find out what they’re up to!”
“Now take it easy,” Father advised. “It’s their house and yard. They’ve got a right to build a fence a mile high and as crooked as lightning if they want to! We’ll find out what their game is, soon enough. The time to do it is after they start operating. Give them some rope to hang themselves.”
Mother’s eyes rested on me doubtfully and she shook her head at Father. “I don’t like it, Charles. Why do you think they’re counterfeiters?”
Father was silent before he replied. Because he never earned much he may have been doing some wishful thinking when he said in a low voice, “I’ll tell you—and if I play it carefully there might be some money in it for us. You know, this man has some long scars on his face. When I was down in Montgomery last week I noticed a Government bill posted on the bulletin board at the post office. It showed a man with long scars down his face. He was a convict from Atlanta. He was wanted for counterfeiting. He looked like this fellow’s twin brother. The reward—” Father paused to let his words sink in —“is five hundred dollars!” Father turned to me frowning and wagged his forefinger, “Don’t you mention that to anybody, Andy!”
Five hundred dollars! Supposing Father got that reward! My dream expanded: Supposing I helped him get it—or got it myself! The thought staggered me. A vision of Dickie’s flashed across my mind, as it did every time I thought of money. I could see myself, followed by all my friends, marching into Dickie’s with paper money—my money—to buy everything in the case.
A few days after the stranger had closed up the fence he stretched a lot of barbed wire to a height of six or eight feet all round the top of it. He wasn’t taking any chances on intruders. One day Scat Martin said to me, “Let’s get your father’s wood drill some evening after dark and bore a couple of holes in the fence. Then in the morning we can lean up against the fence and look in.” Father had an auger that would make holes the size of a quarter, but I was scared to take it. Everybody would know whose son had made the holes. So the mystery remained and the summer grew hotter and passed into July.
We almost never saw the woman, but about once a week the man would come into Leeville to get groceries and tobacco. He was surly. He didn’t shave often and the color of his face reminded me of the red-brown, greasy, weathered hams which Mr. Dickie had hanging in the back of his store. Everybody would sort of ease away from him, so he always stood or moved in a small empty circle. He didn’t have the look or speech of a farmer; he never talked about the weather, fertilizers or condition of the soil. In fact, he spoke to nobody except Mr. Dickie and then only a few syllables in a deep, rough voice.
Father, meanwhile, kept watching him and thinking about the reward posted in the Montgomery post office. At last he went to Mr. Dickie and told him what he suspected. He asked Mr. Dickie to look closely at all the greenbacks the stranger paid him. If the storekeeper found one that didn’t look right, Father said he would take it
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down to Montgomery to have it examined. Father agreed to share some of the reward with Mr. Dickie and warned him not to mention it.
So Mr. Dickie would put aside the greenbacks the stranger paid him and would study them later with a reading glass. Once he thought he saw something the matter with a crisp, brandnew ten-dollar bill, so Father drove all the way to Montgomery to have it examined at the bank. But they couldn’t find anything wror.g with it.
One sunny morning in mid-July 1 finished my breakfast early and started out barefoot along the slab stone sidewalk to Dickie’s. Already the heat ; was heavy and Main Street drowsed under the great elms. It was a special morning for me; big events were brewing. I had not slept too well the night before, so anxious was 1 to get up early and be out ahead of the other boys. 1 had a penny in my hand for Dickie’s. Even more important, 1 had a plan which made me tingle all over.
I wanted to share neither the penny nor the plan with anybody.
1 hopped across the warm, splintery porch of the store and through the sweet-smelling open door. Mr. Dickie was alone, sweeping the store. I hurried back to the candy case and walked slowly back and forth in front of it, while Mr. Dickie stood behind the case, put on his glasses and patiently turned his head from side to side to follow me. I had to choose with special care that morning because what I bought had to last all the way to the Todd house.
1 had just laid the penny on top of the case and received from Mr. Dickie a durable black licorice whip, when the drowsing street outside suddenly awoke with a shout and the sound of fast wheels and pounding hoofs.
We saw a horse and buggy tear past, leaving the red dust from the dry street floating in the sunlight. Then a panting man leaped across the porch like a deer and stared into the store.
“Leopards!” he shouted, pointing back. “There’s leopards loose in the streets!”
He was gone. I stumbled over a box of dried apricots and ran out on the porch, where I stood petrified, dangling my little licorice whip. People’s heads were showing at windows, all looking in the same direction. All the doors along the street toward the Montgomery road, excepting those of the feed store and the blacksmith’s shop, were shut tight.
1 felt Mr. Dickie’s hand grip my shoulder. He kept saying, “Leopards? Leopards?” as if he hadn’t heard correctly.
THEY were leopards, all right, free and on the prowl. I counted three . . . four . . . five . . . six of them, loping toward us — hugging the buildings and picket fences half a block away. They kept their heads and bellies low. They flowed around trees and hitching posts like molten light and shade.
Sometimes a couple would veer away from the buildings or fences in a sudden nervous sortie and flash brilliant orange and black in the sunlight. Then they would slink back to the narrow strip of shade and become dun shadows again, where their pale, fearful eyes seemed to glow. I could see the flattened ears and broad, heavy noses, the rapid wrinkling of their faces as they spat with hair-trigger frequency.
My scalp felt tight. My licorice whip became slippery with sweat and came off black on my hands. But I couldn’t move. Neither, I guess, could Mr. Dickie.
A white terrier was surprised in a doorway as the cats came on. He ran out foolishly and began to yelp at them. A leopard sent him spinning into the street with an almost invisible swipe of her paw and he didn’t move again. A man appeared out of the shadow of an alleyway a few houses in front of them, with a half brick in each hand.
He took hurried aim and threw a brickbat, which whirled in a flat arc and thudded on a beast’s back . . . With an explosive snarl the leopard leaped sideways into the street and little puffs of dust rose where its angry claws dug into the clay. It crouched there a moment, tail switching, its head drawn back, baring its teeth almost to the eyes, then turned swiftly and leaped into the open door of the feed store.
A moment later, Mr. Willis the feedstore man came running around the side of his store from the back door. He ran up Main Street as far as Dickie’s, where he turned and looked back with his mouth open. As he stumbled up on the porch, the other leopards scattered and filtered between houses, down alleyways, around corners. When I looked for the man who had thrown the brick, he had disappeared, too.
I DIDN’T know what to do. I thought of Mother. I knew Father had been repairing a porch near home and hoped he had heard about the leopards. Our house was at the other end of Leeville, but the leopards were moving fast. I looked up at Mr. Dickie. “I want to go home!” I whimpered.
He held my arm so tight it hurt. “You stay right here, Andy, or you might meet up with them! Just think of it!” he exclaimed and pushed his specs up on his forehead, “Leopards all over town! So that’s what he was keeping behind the fence! And he let them get away! He ought to be strung up!” Mr. Willis agreed.
By that time there was a lot of shouting along the street and men were showing up with long-handled pitchforks. One had a butcher knife tied to a pole. There were some shotguns, too, and a small, blue .22-calibre rifle. But nobody had a heavy rifle. There wasn’t one in our town.
Two men with shotguns moved cautiously to within twenty feet of the feed store, where they stood and watched the door the cat had jumped into. Meanwhile Mr. Dickie was trotting in and out of his store, lending out his stock of pitchforks, with the paper labels still bright on the handles. Some men had paired off and were running down the cross streets yelling, “Get in the house! Everybody get in the house! Leopards! Leopards!”
But most of the men ran toward their own homes. While we watched the dust settled and only the two men near the feed store and the three of us on the porch were left.
Then I saw a lone man jogging up the Montgomery road toward us. In one hand he swung a heavy, coiled black whip, in the other he carried a nickle-plated revolver that glinted in the sun.
It was the stranger from the Todd house. Half a block behind him his woman followed, carrying a whip and revolver, too. She wore trousers and for a moment the sight of a woman in trousers took my mind off the leopards.
The stranger slowed down to a fast walk when he got to the lumberyard and stopped right beside the open door of the feed store. He spotted the two men with the guns and his eyes darted around the street. “Where'd they go?
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Where are the cats?” he bellowed hoarsely. One man yelled, “Look out beside you, mister! One’s in there!” We all pointed at the open door almost at his elbow.
The man whirled and ran along the front of the store. He pushed his head cautiously around the frame of the doorway and we heard a sudden burst of snarling. The leopard must have been crouching on top of the hay bales because the stranger kept his eyes raised as he reached in slowly, grabbed the doorknob and slammed the door. The feed store, like most buildings in town, had slatted wooden blinds to keep out the midday heat. The woman came up and ran from window to window around the store, slamming the blinds shut.
“Where’s the others?” the man shouted, running over to us on Dickie’s porch. His shirt was so wet you could see right through it and he was breathing like a locomotive. Nobody was sure just where the leopards had gone.
“We got to move fast! We got to grab them!” the stranger panted. “Tell people to stay in! Cover every house! Get the cattle and horses in! But look inside the barns first, be sure to look in them lofts!” He glanced at the makeshift weapons. “If you ever got to use a pitchfork on a leopard,” he said sourly, “remember—don’t let go the handle! And don’t never use a shotgun if you can help it, unless she’s cornin’ at you. Then both barrels right in the face at three feet!”
The woman came over to the porch then and she wasn’t a much prettier sight, close up, than the man. He said to her, “See if you can round up some men. We need lots of men. Tell ’em to work two or three together. When we corner a cat we’ll fetch a crate and try to get her in.” He turned to Mr. Dickie, “I need somebody to make crates, fast. Six of’em!”
“Well,” Mr. Dickie said, looking up the street, “you’re lucky. Here comes Mr. McDonald, thecarpenter, himself.”
Sure enough, it was Father, all excited, running toward us with his shotgun. When the news had reached him he had rushed home and found I was missing, so he was looking for me. He came up and grabbed my wrist, exclaiming, “Thank heaven! Now let’s get home!”
Just as he turned, the stranger blocked him. “I need crates, mister!” he growled. “Six crates. Four by four by seven. Board floors, board tops, heavy slats on the sides, a door on one end. Strong enough to hold a leopard. How fast can you build ’em?”
Father’s face went blank and he kept breathing hard and holding me tight by the wrist. The stranger shook his elbow. “I’ll pay you twenty dollars apiece, over materials. I’ll pay an extra ten for every crate you have ready when 1 find a cat!”
Father said, “All right. I’ll make them in the lumberyard and maybe I can get some help. But first I'll take Andy home.”
So we hurried home and my heart leaped to my throat more than once when I thought I saw yellow and black patterns move in the shadow-flecked yards. We saw no leopards but it was a big relief to be safe inside our house. Of course, Mother didn't want Father to go out again, but he said the beasts had to be caught or there would be no more living in Leeville. So he took his gun and tools and went back toward the lumberyard.
AT HOME all day long our lower jf\. shutters were kept closed, like all the others in town. At the upper windows I chewed my licorice whip and looked out on the street. The men
were hunting for the leopards in small groups. Sometimes a party would come back and then you could hear some news called between the upper windows along the street.
The leopard scare had reached Sayerton and they were sending men to scour the country toward Leeville. A rider had gone to Montgomery to get the sheriff and a posse with some heavy calibre rifles. Montgomery wouldn’t feel safe in a few hours, either. There were small woods to beat, barns, woodpiles, shrubbery to investigate, so much territory to cover that the hunt had to be pretty scattered.
As the day wore on, Mother became more concerned about Father and wished that he would come home. “It seems to take him quite a while to make a few crates,” she would say now and then. It was the first time I had ever seen Mother act at all nervous and it was contagious. I kept going to the window, too, and looking out in the direction of the lumberyard.
Toward evening a woman who was watching from the house in back of ours called out that she saw something sneak into the bushes behind her pump house. But when some men got there they couldn’t find any leopard. About the same time, the exciting news spread through the window grapevine that three leopards had been accounted for.
Two had been caught and crated right outside of Leeville. The third had been shot and killed near Sayerton. Since one leopard was still locked in the feed store, that left only two on the loose.
It was growing dusk when most of the men who had gone out of Leeville began to straggle back into town. No one knew, for sure, where the strangers from the Todd place were. They were still out hunting. We heard some of the men say that the Montgomery posse had found a calf that had been killed and partly eaten. Not far away they had found one of the leopards drinking at a creek. They had killed her with heavy army rifles.
So that left just one leopard—and the men figured it was far away from Leeville by that time.
As the deep twilight crept into our street and it began to grow real dark under the elms, Mother sat for a long time at the front bedroom window watching for Father. Although the room was unlighted, I could tell she was worried. But this time she tried to hide it from me by humming. I sat beside her. The coming of the dark made everything a lot scarier than in the daytime.
The street lamps had been lighted but their dim gas flames seemed to add a further touch of fearfulness to the empty street, with its deep porches, ominous yards and great, soaring cover of black trees. At an upper window here and there I would sometimes see the flare of a match or glow’ of a cigarette. On one porch roof I could dimly make out a man with a beam lantern, trying to poke its rather feeble finger of light into the branches of the elm that almost touched his porch.
Suddenly Mother dropped the scrim curtains with a quick breath and stood up. “Thank goodness! Here he comes now!” she exclaimed, smiling. “I’ll go down and put the steak on!”
I looked out the window and could see Father’s stooped figure pass under the lamplight about a block away. He lugged his shotgun, his saw and his box of tools as if he w’ere tired. He must have worked awfully hard on those crates.
As he disappeared into the shadows again, Mother called from downstairs,
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“Andy, come here a moment!” I felt my way through the dark hall and down the stairs to the kitchen. Mother stood by the kitchen table in her big gingham apron, with a strange, puzzled look on her face.
“Have you seen the steak, Andy?” she asked. “I’m sure I put it here on the broiler.” I had, in fact, seen her pull the broiling pan out of the stove, place it on the kitchen table and lay a steak on it, a big, thick T-bone, ready to shove in the stove when Father came home.
“I saw you put the steak right here!” I said positively, pointing to the broiling pan. “Look ! There’s still some red where it was lying!”
Mother stared at me. “But it couldn’t walk away!” Her hand went slowly to the throat of her dress. I saw all the color ebb from her face. Her eyes grew so big that the whites showed almost all around and as I looked at her I grew very frightened. She glanced at the dark, open stairs to the cellar, seized my arm and thrust me outdoors. “Run!” she said in a faint, tight voice. “Run! Tell Father I think the leopard’s in the house! I’m going to Octavia’s room!”
I met Father coming into the yard. As we ran up the porch steps a scream came out of the dark windows above— such a scream of stark terror that my heart stopped and then I thought it would burst from pounding. I hardly recognized Mother’s voice as she shouted, “Getout! Getout!—Charles! Charles! It’s in Octavia’s room ! The leopard’s on Octavia’s bed!”
Father dropped his tools, bowled me over and bounded up the stairs with the shotgun. I stood trembling and listening at the bottom newel post. I could hear a hideous, throaty snarling which never stopped for a second. I climbed the stairs until I could look through the hall railing and in the dim light of the hall gas jet I could see Mother and Father frozen in Octavia’s doorway. Father was speaking low and breathlessly. “He hasn’t touched her.
I can see—she’s still asleep. I can’t shoot without more light. Go get help! Put a ladder up to the window! Puta lantern through the window! I’ll wait here.”
Mother and I ran down the stairs just as men with forks and shotguns were coming into the hall. Mr. Jackson, the blacksmith, carrying a shotgun, jumped past me and up the stairs. He was the best shot in Leeville, but Father was pretty good, too.
“Don’t let any more come up!” Father said to the blacksmith. “Don’t let ’em block the hall. Give him a chance to run out. Get that ladder up, will you!”
If it had not been the first and soundest hour of my little sister’s sleep, the noise would certainly have awakened her. But it annoyed the leopard. We could hear deep, menacing growls rattle in its throat like loose fiddlestrings.
Mother and the men got the ladder from our barn and put it up to Octavia’s window and a man climbed up with a lighted kerosene lantern. He held it above the sill and looked in. “Holy smoke!” I heard him whisper. As he cautiously set the lantern inside on the floor, Mother started for the ladder, but a couple of men got in front of her. “It won’t do no good goin’ up there, Mrs. McDonald,” one said. “This man’s cornin’ down now and your husband’s goin’ up. He’ll take care of the kid. She’ll be all right!”
Then Father showed up out of the darkness and began to climb the ladder with his shotgun. When he reached the window he poked the gun through and looked silently at the leopard and
Octavia a long time. In the stillness the beast’s voice rose and fell and sometimes we could hear a long, ugly hiss from the back of its throat. Father called “Git!” a couple of times, then looked down at us desperately, with the sweat glistening on his forehead. “I can’t shoot. He’s lying too close to Octavia. It might scatter and hit her. If only she don’t wake up!”
A man held Mother’s arm as she stood grasping the ladder and looking up. She never took her eyes off the window. She seemed perfectly calm but the strain must almost have been tearing her apart.
A man called to Father, “Do you want to use my .22 rifle, Mr. McDonald?” I could see Father’s eyes measuring the size of the cat before he replied, “I don’t know—I don’t know what would happen,” he said, passing the back of his hand over his forehead. “It’s such a small slug. He might thrash around and claw Octavia. I don’t know what to do! If I could only get him off the bed!”
Then for some reason, maybe from seeing the lantern light on Father’s face, I thought of those signal flares which the railroad gate man kept down at his shack. I called. “Couldn’t you scare him off with a red signal fire, like the gate man gave us? He’s got some down at his shack. You could tie it to the end of a pole—”
Father said sharply, “That’s a good idea! That’s worth trying!” and the men around me said, “The boy’s right! You’ve hit it, Andy!” I felt pretty good.
AMAN saddled a horse fast and galloped off toward the Montgomery road to get a flare. Father waited on the ladder, motionless as a statue, watching the leopard and Octavia, with the gun stock in his armpit and the barrels pointing into the room. Meanwhile, Mr. Jackson left the bedroom doorway and came downstairs. He lit the gas jet at the foot of the stairs and got behind the davenport in the living room with his gun, where he could watch the stairs.
At last we heard hoofbeats down the street and a minute later the man with the flare rode up and tossed it to someone in the crowd. It was the kind that had a pointed stick at one end and a head of compressed red-fire powder at the other.
They wired the stick to the end of a clothes pole and passed it up to Father, who grabbed it and laid his gun across the sill. He felt hurriedly for a match. “Fetch me some matches, Andy— quick!” he called. I ran into the kitchen, snatched a handful of the big, yellow-tipped matches and scrambled up the ladder. While Father was trying to light the fuse in the little breeze that was blowing, I squeezed up one more rung and looked over the sill.
The leopard was crouched on the bed almost at my eye level, not more than ten feet away. It stretched the length of the bed—a great, lithe, terrible shape, tawny yellow, spotted with black rosettes. It was watching me with narrow eyes, eyes shot with sudden lambent greens that shone like phosphorus. The flattened head was drawn back, the whole face continually wrinkling away from its teeth. Even at the window I could smell the catty odor. I watched the end of the heavy tail rise like the head of a snake and move in little jerks, and saw its distended claws puncture the bed sheet.
Nestled beside the leopard in the dim light, still fast asleep and breathing easily, lay my little sister Octavia, with one small arm thrown carelessly across the big cat’s flank.
I was almost scared off the ladder by a blinding red glare as Father lit the
flare. You couldn’t look directly at it. Everything was lighted up for a block around and Father’s face glowed incandescent. He moved the hissing flare toward the window and told me to get down off the ladder. I turned and took a last look at the leopard.
It was blood-red. Its head, with its bared red teeth and bristling quills was the fiery head of a demon. The blacks of wild, startled eyes were like pin points as it stared at the red fire.
Father elbowed me down and pushed the pole slowly into the window. We could hear the cat spitting like small, flat explosions as Father pushed the pole farther and farther in, until the cruelly bright light must almost have been touching the beast’s nose. We waited tensely with upturned faces. All at once, Father shouted, “He’s off the bed ! He’s out of the room ! Watch out below!”
Everybody except Mother scattered for shelter. While Father climbed through the window into the room and slammed the bedroom door, I watched Mother from my perch in a tree, as she climbed up the ladder. She raised her heavy skirts over the window sill and jumped down into the room. Then we heard Octavia begin to cry.
A moment later there was a terrific explosion downstairs and Mr. Jackson walked out on the front porch patting his gun. “I got him!” he grinned, “I blew his dern head off!”
Father came downstairs then and the first thing he did was to call me and give me a fifty-cent piece for thinking of the red fiare and for being such a helpful boy through it all, although all I did was to fetch the matches.
Next morning I noticed Mother’s hair. It had a small white streak near
the roots, where the part separated it.
The leopard man came back to Leeville the following afternoon and crated up the cat in the feed store. But when he saw the dead leopard, which we had dragged out into the back yard, tears came into his eyes and rolled down his leathery cheek. “She was my best cat,” he said. “Such a beautiful cat. She wouldn’t harm a mouse.”
He went on to tell how he raised leopards, mostly from kittens, and trained them and sold them to circus people. But nothing like this had ever happened to him before. He had bought the Todd place because it stood all by itself and not far from the slaughterhouse, where he could get cheap meat for his cats. He would let them run loose in the big yard every morning and would drive them back in their cages later on, using only a whip.
He told us the leopards got out through a big hole under the back end of the fence. “If I could only lay my hands on the man who dug that hole!” he kept saying. Everybody in Leeville, however, thought the leopards had dug the hole and I made believe I thought so, too.
But the fact is, I had dug it. I had heard so many rumors about the strangers and I was so sure I would discover something inside that fence of mystery which would bring me the big reward, that for one thrilling hour I threw discipline to the winds.
I had sneaked over there with a trowel after dark, the evening before. I worked like a beaver and scooped out an observation hole as wide as my shoulders. I would have had a fine look the next morning, then filled up the hole.
But the leopards were curious, too. if