gail and nikki

Time of the Cats

       Introduction


      It is 1883, and Ted Reynolds feels older than his thirteen years. His mother died two years ago, and now Ted has been shipped out west to live on a cattle ranch with his father, a stern man he barely knows. The only time Ted feels at home in his new surroundings is when he is riding his horse, Gypsy. Ted's life changes, however, on the day he catches a glimpse of a powerful mountain lion while out on a ride.

      He tells his Indian friend, Buffalo Horn, about his discovery and learns about cougar folklore and that there is also a female mountain lion that roams the land. But when he returns home to share the exciting news with his father, Ted is horrified to hear that his father intends to kill the lions. Desperate to find a way to save the cats he has put in harm's way, Ted heads out on a secret expedition with Buffalo Horn, who helps him communicate a warning to the cougars. Now only time will tell if it will work -- before his father secures his kill.

      As Ted does his best to figure out what's important, find out who he truly is, and chisel out a place for himself in the world, he risks his life for unexpected friends who may just lead him in the direction he needs to go.

       Chapter 1


      As one big cat moved farther back into the darkness of the cave, he whistled to the other. A smaller mountain lion stepped out of the shadows, coming toward him. When she reached him, she ducked her head and rubbed it against his shoulder, a rumbling purr sounding from her throat.

      He was nervous. Until recently, they had kept hidden from man, but now he and his sister had been seen. It had happened two or three times in the past few weeks, and he was sure it had happened again today. Today was the worst. He shook himself. He didn't understand the two-legged beasts and their killing. He'd seen how they killed - not to eat, but simply to kill. He had seen it when they killed his mother.

      He had watched from hiding when it happened. His sister had been playing deeper in the den, but he saw it in the distance, when the man pointed the long black thing at his mother and made the thunder noise. He heard his mother scream. Then he saw her run a few yards and fall, struggling and twisting over and over in the dirt. When the man made the noise twice more, she stopped moving.
      They tried to lift her onto one of the animals they sat on, but it wouldn't let them. So they cut off her tail, with its shiny black tip that he and his sister always chased in play when they were little, and they let her body fall back to the ground. He ran into the cave then and herded his sister farther back into the depths. When it got full dark, he went out to check. She still hadn't moved, and she never did - not even when the foxes and coyotes came to fight over her.

      After that was a long time of constant hunger. Their mother had been teaching them to hunt before it happened, but they weren't yet very good at it. Their bellies often hurt, especially during the first winter. That winter was hard. Winter was coming on again now, but they were older. They'd fare better this time.

      He paced over to the cave wall and lay down. His sister came closer and sat washing her face in front of him. She was slender now but well-muscled. Back then she had been skinny. It took a lot of mice, lizards, and locusts to feed them. There were never enough. Later they'd caught an occasional marmot or slow-moving bird and once in a while the leftovers from another animal's kill. It was only when they learned to move more silently, to be more patient, and to work together on the hunt that they started to make bigger kills. Then their stomachs were filled more often.

      All this he knew somewhere deep inside. Though he could never actually think these things, all that had happened in his short life determined how he acted now.

      He got up, restless, and paced to the cave mouth and then back. He knew he'd been seen again today by one of the young humans, and it made him jumpy. Man was around this place too often now. He knew he and his sister must leave for somewhere safer, a place where man with the long black sticks never passed.

      There was one place inside their hunting range where he'd seen only the other kind of man. This kind looked like the humans who killed his mother, standing up to walk on two legs just the same, but they were different in other ways. They were quieter and didn't smell the same, and somehow they were not as threatening. A den near them was not as good as a den away from all kinds of men, but it might be safer than staying here.

      Right now he needed rest. With his back in a corner, he curled his muscled bulk into a sleep position and covered his nose with his tail.

      When he awoke, the dark lay damp and heavy in the cave. Darkness was good. He, his sister, and all their kind could see well in the dark when many others were nearly blind. Man's time seemed to be during the day, but night was the time of the cats.

      He lay there for a while, very still and watching with one eye, enjoying the warmth of his own body. His sister stirred in her corner too, yawning and stretching her forelegs with her claws unsheathed. He stood and flexed his own muscles, stiffened by sleep, then arched his back and stretched forward. Pacing to the cave entrance, he paused, turning his ears in all directions while he sniffed the wind. He sifted through the night sounds and smells, determining that all was well.

      He whistled softly back to his sister. When she came up beside him, they trotted together away from the cave toward what would be their new home. They had covered a lot of ground, far past their normal hunting limits, when she stopped and looked around, and then straight at him. She flicked her tail up and down, the quick contractions of the skin on her back showing something was wrong. Then she turned and padded back the way they had come, stopping once to look over her shoulder at her brother but then continuing away from him. She wasn't going with him, because somehow she knew it was time for them to separate and live apart. Confused, he watched her melt into the dark. Then he struck out again, for the first time alone. If only they hadn't been seen...





       Chapter 2


     Ted Reynolds wasn't the first to actually see the big cat that day. Gypsy was. It wasn't until he felt -- even through the saddle -- how the long shiver went through her that he realized something nearby was upsetting the sensible bay mare. It was cooler as winter approached, but not cold enough to make Gypsy feel it. He'd heard a low whistling noise, but thought at first it was another kind of bird he didn't recognize. But that wouldn't scare his horse. Then he thought it must be his friend Buffalo Horn, hiding up there in the rocks, and he scoured the hillside for a sight of him.

      That was when he saw it -- a huge dun-colored cat, so powerful-looking, a graceful almost-shadow that stood there for a moment and then flashed out of sight, quick as a lightning bolt. Mountain lion! It had definitely been a mountain lion! He didn't believe his luck! After all, it was 1883, and there weren't that many of the big cats left around, and he'd always wanted to see one. Three times in the last month he'd thought he'd seen something, and once even thought it might be a mountain lion, but this was the first time he'd been close enough -- or quick enough -- to finally get a good look at it. Now he was glad he hadn't told anyone about the almost sightings because there was no doubt about what he saw this time: a mountain lion!

      Gypsy arched her neck against the reins and danced sideways under him, sideling away from the hillside and making huffing sounds as she moved; it was very abnormal behavior for his usually easy going and reliable horse.

     "Easy girl, easy," he crooned, patting her neck, "nothing there now."

     She was still nervous and Ted didn't understand why. As far as he knew, she'd never even seen a mountain lion, or "puma" as some people called them. His father had told him that though there were still some wolves and an occasional bear in the high country, the biggest animals left on this ranch or any of the neighboring ones were coyotes. It was unlikely Gypsy had ever encountered one of the big cats before. Maybe this was one of those built-in fears horses had, like their fear of fire. He wondered if people had those same kinds of fears.

      He stroked Gypsy's neck again and clucked to her as he turned her away from the hillside, leaning forward to tell her to move on. She started off a little faster than he expected, but he just smiled. Before he'd come to live with his father on the ranch, he would certainly have fallen off, but he'd gotten pretty good at riding in the year since then. For a moment he considered going back there to tell everyone about the cat, but decided against it. Instead, he'd meet up with his friend Buffalo Horn as they'd planned, and he'd tell everybody at the ranch later.

      Buffalo Horn was older than Ted, but only by about a year, and they'd become friends. Ted often wished he could tell his father about some of the things he learned from the Indians, but he knew his father would disapprove of the friendship, so he never told him. He didn't feel as responsible to be completely truthful with his father as he had with his mother. He'd really only known his father a short time. Before that, he'd lived nearly eight years in Massachusetts at his Aunt Abigail's house with his mother. His mother hadn't been willing to take a two-year-old little boy to live in the Wild West when his father bought his ranch, so they stayed back East. But when she died, he'd gone to live with her other sister, his Aunt Mary, for two years.

      Now he was here. In some ways he felt much older than thirteen, but sometimes -- well sometimes he didn't. He still missed his mother, still wished he could talk to her. He wished he could tell her about the Indians, and Buffalo Horn, and the puma. She would have understood. Everybody told him it would take time to get over her dying. But it had already been a long time.

      He kind of wished his mother could see what his father had created here. There had been nothing but the land, and his father Cyrus Reynolds had put together all the rest. The house, bunkhouse, barns, other outbuildings, and corrals, as well as miles of fenced range were all his doing. He wasn't rich, but they were what his mother would have called comfortable, and it all had a solid feel to it. But Ted still felt out of place, like a stranger... except when he was out riding. It was the only time he felt like he fit in.

      Across a stretch of sand and sage grass, he could make out a rider coming toward him. It was a paint Cayuse -- Buffalo Horn's favorite horse. He waved and urged Gypsy into a canter. "Hey!" Ted called, and the Indian waved back, flashing a wide smile that showed one chipped tooth. When he got closer, Ted could see that Buffalo Horn had at least one rabbit and a grouse slung over his saddle blanket. One of Buffalo Horn's responsibilities to the tribe was to help provide food.

      Buffalo Horn brought his horse up beside Ted's. "How is my friend?" he asked.

      Ted stood in his stirrups, pushing back blond hair that the wind kept blowing across his eyes. "I feel great! I saw a mountain lion!"

      "Where?" Buffalo Horn asked him, with one black eyebrow raised.

      "In those rocks we went to above the spring. You know, the ones with the really old symbols carved in them?"

      His friend didn't look at all surprised. "Yes. Your eyes are good." The Indian nodded twice. "My little brother is truly becoming one of us."

      A look of disappointment crossed Ted's face and his tone echoed the look. "You mean you knew about it already?" Buffalo Horn saw the look and said, "A short time only." Then his dark eyes closed. He seemed to be seeing something beautiful behind his eyes. "There are two," he said after a moment.

      The two boys dismounted and led their horses as they walked slowly side by side. Buffalo Horn glanced up at the sky, thinking that it wouldn't be long before snow flew. Then he ran his hand over Gypsy's withers, feeling how her winter coat was coming in. Both of the horses were fuzzier looking than they'd been just a few weeks ago, and they would grow thicker coats as the autumn weather cooled.

      Ted stopped and faced his friend. "Well, you aren't going to leave it like that, are you?" he prompted. "What do you mean there are two?"

      For a moment, Buffalo Horn said nothing, but simply started walking again. Ted followed. Though the young Indian wasn't much older than Ted's thirteen years, he was taller and more solidly built. He considered Ted to be almost a little brother, and liked the way Ted looked up to him. As different as their upbringings and experiences had been, they felt a mutual respect. Ted respected his friend's confidence and his knowledge of the natural world, and Buffalo Horn respected Ted's quick mind and his concern for things that most white men dismissed. He didn't belittle Ted for what he hadn't had the chance to learn, or for the fact that he sometimes seemed younger than his years. Buffalo Horn suspected that it would have been different if Ted had been raised differently.

      When they came to some large rocks, Ted motioned for them to sit and they turned their horses loose to graze on the sparse grass.

      "You ever see them up close? The mountain lions, I mean?" Ted asked when they were sitting.

      "No, but my cousin sees them often. The lions are his totem animal, and he has a bond with them. He told me these two are young, a male and a female."

      "A pair? You mean they might have a litter some place?" The thought of maybe finding a young one and raising it sparked his imagination. He tried to envision what it would be like if he could catch one and keep it.

      "No, I think they are too young to be mated. And even the pair doesn't normally live together after a mating, except for the mother and her kits."

      "Well, how come there's two of them, then?"

      Buffalo Horn looked puzzled for a moment and then answered slowly. "I'm not sure. It could be that they're brother and sister. Usually they stay with their mother until they can hunt well. Two years, usually. There is no old one there, my cousin says, and the mother wouldn't have left them alone so young, so I think perhaps their mother is dead."

      "You're not trying to tell me that what I saw was a kitten, are you? Because what I saw was really big!"

      "Not a kitten, a young cat. Not fully grown."

      "And without a mother?"

      "Yes," Buffalo Horn answered.

      Ted thought for a minute. "Maybe," he said finally. Then he added, to himself, "Like me." He reached down and picked up a small green stone near his boot. It was smooth, as if tumbled in water. He turned it over in his hand a few times and then shoved it into his pocket. "Want to see if we can find them? They're dangerous, right?"

      "Dangerous to those who might harm them, yes. But we believe that the cougar -- that's another name for them -- is gentle by nature, and that it is only extreme circumstances that can make them dangerous. If they are starving, or cornered, then one may have something to fear from them. But our legends say: A child may sleep safely in the open if a puma is the only wild animal near. Enough talk, my friend. Come." He whistled for his Cayuse. When he came running, Ted's horse Gypsy followed. Buffalo Horn mounted in one sideways leap.

      "No, wait. So they have three names -- mountain lion, puma, and cougar, too?"

      "More than three. In times past they lived in so many places that they had a different name in each place," Buffalo Horn explained. Then he smiled. "And that's only in English! Each of the tribes calls them something different, and we even have different names for them at different ages and when they have different colors."

      "And about the 'child in the open' thing. You mean you think they'd be friends to somebody who wasn't trying to hurt them?"

      "Friends? No, not friends." Then he paused and shrugged his shoulders. "But who is to say? Perhaps yes, and perhaps no. But come! My mother said I was to bring you back. She has something for you."

      Ted didn't seem to hear, and instead finally voiced the question he'd been considering: "So maybe a person could keep one, sort of as a pet, if they got it young enough?"

      Buffalo Horn looked surprised, but he saw how serious Ted was, so he didn't laugh. "No. Never. Not like a dog or a horse. Not that way. They have more pride, and they are not to be tamed." Then Buff alo Horn turned to look over his shoulder at Ted and grinned so that the chipped tooth showed again. He shouted, "Race you!"

      Ted mounted and they raced together to the encampment. He always liked visiting Buffalo Horn's tribe. Most of the Indians were very good to him, but Buffalo Horn's mother had practically adopted him. She cooked all sorts of strange things when he was there, things that she said would strengthen him. It was she who gave him his other name - Clouded Elk. He had asked her about that. He thought it was his responsibility to earn a name rather than just be given one. She told him that everyone needed a name to start with, and then they would live their way into their "real" name. She said the clouded part was for the color of his eyes - they were gray like his father's.

      As the tops of the tents came into view, Ted remembered that his friend had said his mother had something for him and wondered what it was.