Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Accident

     The next morning, we went out on our morning rounds, dressed to the nines. Schnapps in her pretty blue sweater with the heart on the chest, and me in my tough, don't-mess-with-me red hoodie. As soon as we stepped outside, I knew something was wrong. The sky was dark grey, and the wind was filled with desperate scents: loss, defeat, sadness. 
     Without the sun, the temperature was colder, as though the air was made of ice, and it hurt to breathe. Even though I had reservations about my hoodie, I was actually glad I had it on to cut the bite of the wind.  
We trotted up the hill, which was made more difficult by the nasty weather blowing in. The snow had been covered by a sheet of ice, and it made climbing up to the top of the hill seem impossible. But we dug in our claws and soldiered on.
     Charles was at the top, swinging his head, and stomping his feet impatiently.
     "Oh, Schnapps, Fritter," he said with anguish when we reached him. "It's awful, totally and utterly awful."
     “Vat is wrong," Schnapps asked. "Did something bad happen during the bone heist?”
     Charles raised his head and whickered. He pounded his hooves against the frozen ground, sending shards of ice into the air.
     "I knew dat bone job was doomed," Schnapps said.
     "Do you know what happened," I asked.
     "Freckles and Sammy rounded up Baylor and Cubby and they all went out, following the rancher as he went to feed the cattle. I guess when they arrived at the spot, everything was normal. They started loading the bones into the back of the truck when a pack of coyotes showed. The feral cats tipped the coyotes off, and that's when everything went haywire."
     Schnapps and I listened intently as he talked. He spoke so fast he had developed a case of the hiccoughs.
     "So, hic. The rancher, hic, hearing the coyotes, hic, and the other dogs fighting, hic, went and got his rifle. Hic, hic, hic.
     "Oh no," Schnapps murmured, and she gave me a mournful glance. 
     "Did he shoot off some warning shots, to scare away the coyotes," I asked.
     Charles' hiccoughing became more rapid, so much so he had difficulty talking.
     "The rancher has a thing about coyotes," Schnapps filled me in. 
     "But this time, hic, it's much worse. Hic, hic, hic." Charles took another breath and held it for a count, before continuing. “From what Sammy says, it was total chaos. Coyotes, dogs, cats, all running from the rancher's wild shots. In the confusion, the rancher got into his truck, and Freckles was still loading bones, and…he… he…“ 
     "He what,” Schnapps and I said in unison.
     "It was dark out, and the rancher didn’t know he was there, and he backed over Freckles.”
     ”He hit Freckles with his truck,” I said. The news didn't sound any better coming from my mouth. A pit opened up in my belly, and ached with despair. "Poor Freckles."
     "Did he get hurt badly," Schnapps asked, serious and all business like.
     "He was hit on his hind leg, and is at the vet now. He had to have surgery, and I heard his hip was shattered. It will be a long recovery. Sammy is beside herself. It’s so sad.”
     “That Rancher needs to be stopped!” My hackles raised and my emotions bubbled up and got away from me, and I fought to keep myself under control. Schnapps gave me another look that said to simmer down.
     “Hopefully, nothing else vent wrong,” Schnapps said, cocking her head to the side.
     “Well, there was something else, but I don’t think it is relevant to the case,” Charles said.
     “Nothing should be overlooked,” Schnapps said. “You never know if it vill be related or not.”
     "One of the feral kittens went missing."
     "Which one," I asked. I hoped it wasn’t Horatio. He seemed the most sensible out of all the kitties.
     Charles gave me a glancing look. "What does it matter? They look all the same to me."
     "It matters a lot," Schnapps added. She was on the same thought that I was on.
     "That one that is always prancing around here, humming."
     “That would be Bublé,” I said. 
     "Thank you for the information. Ve vill check into it," Schnapps said and turned to go down the hill.
     "Thanks Charles," I said and turned to follow.
     "Fritter," Charles called out, and I looked back over my shoulder. "I'm glad you decided not to go. I don't know what I would do if the Rancher hurt another sweet dog like you."
     "You mean besides Freckles?"
     "I mean like Schnapps’ former partner, Sassy."
     "What are you talking about," I asked, but Schnapps yelled for me to come. I hesitated, I wanted more answers from the horse, but he also had turned away and was returning to his stable.
I met up with Schnapps in front of the outbuilding. She raised her eyebrows.
     "Did the horse have anything else to say," she asked.
     "He said he was glad I didn't go on the bone heist. He didn't want to see me hurt, too."
Schnapps gave a thoughtful nod. "Yes, dat Rancher has hurt many animals."
     “Including your former partner, Sassy?" I knew I was overstepping my bounds, but I had to know what happened to Sassy.
     Schnapps glared at me and snarled. "Never speak of her."
     "I'm sorry. Forget I said anything." I lowered my head.
     She snorted and continued towards the Wood Pile. I followed but still couldn't get the thought that the Rancher had something to do with Schnapps' partner being gone. What happened? Why did Schnapps get so angry when I asked her? What did it have to do with her injury? 
     Stella and Mac were roughhousing outside of the Wood Pile. They stopped and hissed as we approached.
     “Vere is your mother,” Schnapps asked.
     "What is it to you," Mac asked with a sneer. 
     “Ve heard dat your brother, Bublé, has gone missing. Ve want to ask her a few questions."
     "It's none of your business," Stella said, smoothing out her puffed up fur, back to its sleek coat. 
     "Still, if you have made an alliance with de coyotes, it does involve us. Coyotes are a threat, dey cannot be trusted."
     I remained silent so far. I didn't want to interrupt Schnapps, who knew more about these kinds of things. Plus I didn't want to irritate her any more than she was. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a blur of movement. Horatio appeared on the roof of the outbuilding, balancing on the edge of the gutter. 
     "There's Horatio," I whispered to Schnapps. “Above us, at your ten.”
     Schnapps barely moved, just a slight flicker of her bushy eyebrows told me that she had glanced up to see. 
 "Be good kitties and go and fetch your mother for us."
     "Cat's don't fetch," Mac said with a boisterous laugh. "Only disgusting dogs do tricks."
     "And wear stupid sweaters," Stella added.
     Horatio jumped down from the gutter onto a large stack of logs, just outside the Wood Pile. He studied us for a moment. His keen blue eyes scanned every inch of us, and I suddenly got very warm and uncomfortable.
     "I heard that rancher hurt his dog," Horatio said narrowing his eyes.
     "An unfortunate result ven dealing with coyotes," Schnapps said.
     "Coyotes are just mangy, skinny dogs," Horatio said. It wasn't a challenge, or a snide remark, he said it matter of factly. He kept his gaze steady on us, then called out. "Hey, ma? The house dogs are here to talk to you."
     A tortie-tabby cat came out, a mirror image of Meowjolina. Her eyes were watery, but her face was pinched tight.
  "What do you want," she demanded.
     “Ve heard dat one of your kittens has gone missing. Ve wanted to see if you were all right," Schnapps said, softening her usual gruff way of speaking.
     "Good riddance," said Mac. "He was always getting in the way." 
     "And his stupid singing, argh," Stella added.
     "Go inside," Meow Ferral hissed and swiped her paw in their direction. All three kitties ran into the Wood Pile. But soon, I could see them peeking through the logs.
     “Ve are sorry for your loss, Miss Ferral," Schnapps said as she bowed her head in respect. I mimicked the gesture.
     “Why would you care,” Meow Ferral said, giving us a frosty glare. “Anyways, like they said, that kid wasn't cut out for this kind of life. Always was humming like an idiot, never watched where he was going."
     "You don't seem too concerned about his disappearance."
     "He was more trouble than he was worth, if you really want to know." Meow Ferral sat down and began to groom herself. She licked her paw and passed it over her head and ear, then repeated the process.
     "Could you tell us who you think could have done dis,” Schnapps pressed on.
     "Who knows. Could have been a hawk looking for an easy meal."
     "Or a coyote,” Schnapps suggested. 
     Meow Ferral gave us a vicious scowl. "What are you insinuating, dog?"
     "Someone mentioned dat you may have made a deal with de coyote pack dat has been roaming the area." Schnapps began to pace in front of Meow Ferral. "I'm thinking dat you told dem de Dawg gang was planning a hit on the deer carcass. Something vent wrong, and dey took your kid as punishment."
     "I don't know who may have told you that," she growled, "but the cats hate the coyotes as much as we hate you. How would striking a deal with them benefit us?"
     Schnapps ceased her pacing and stared down Ferral. "If de coyotes take down enough of de Dawg gang, de cats would have a bigger territory."
     "You have an active imagination, Schnapps." She gave a breathy chuckle. "If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at the rancher. Or better yet, put an end to The Sweater. If he didn't send those dogs out on such a dangerous assignment, that brown cow dog would still be alive."
     "Freckles was only wounded," I said.
     Her eyes went wide, then she regained her cool demeanor. "Oh, well that's a relief," she said, unconvincingly.
     "So what about your son, are you not concerned for his welfare," I asked, ignoring Schnapps warning looks.
     "Like I said," Meow Ferral spoke with a low purr, "that kid was destined to be hawk feed." She stood up and with a flip of her tail, she went back into the Wood Pile, where we couldn't follow. 

     "So now what," I asked giving Schnapps a helpless look.
     "Now ve grill De Sweater, and see if ve can get him to unravel." 

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