It was a quiet October day, drizzling and cold as dusk edged its way over the hills. In southwestern Wisconsin, out in the hollows far from any civilization, a small cabin renovated into a viable home stood by an outcropping of trees. Smoke was billowing from the chimney while chickens scuttled around the wet grass. A glass storm door was the only thing preventing the cold breeze from seeping its way into the house. Through that glass door, a woodstove squatted low to the floor, casting heat to fight back the cold of the crisp autumn day. However, this wasn’t just any October day. Excitement and anticipation could be felt in the air of the holler. This was Halloween. A time for stories, goosebumps, and spooky things.
At the base of the storm door, an orange and black tortoiseshell cat was perched quietly, looking with strikingly sea-foam green eyes outside. As the cat looked out at the woods and passing birds, she saw tall grass rustling near the trees. Four kittens emerged from an overgrown path that led through the woods to the bottom of a ravine. They marched over the lawn, onto the porch, and sat expectantly near a cushioned patio chair.
Seeing this, the tortoiseshell cat stretched and then stood up on hind legs to reach the handle of the door. Once outside, she nimbly jumped onto the patio chair and settled into a comfortable position facing the kittens. Almost immediately, the kittens began to meow.
"Come on, Ms. Pickles! Tell us a story!"
"Yeah, yeah! Tell us a good one!"
"Nice and scary!"
"Come on, Ms. Pickles! You gotta! It's Halloween! It's your tradition!"
The entirety of Pickles’ face held a look of profound wisdom through years of experience while the younglings had barely experienced a year of snow. This weathered old cat was idolized by the kittens of this southwestern Wisconsin holler for the worldly knowledge she held. It was with a stern look that the kittens’ giggling faded into smiles. With her glare and their grins, it was evident how aged Pickles looked next to the kittens. The colors and markings on her face were faded from years in the elements. White hair now speckled her once orange hair around her eyes. Her aching paws were tucked close to her body to keep them from moving too much. The contrast of ages was significant, but it was the stories of those years that brought the cats together.
Pickles closed her eyes, as if she was embraced with a thousand memories, lost in every one of them and then after a moment, sighed as she opened her eyes. She had lived all these years with stories of great adventure and trials, eventually coming to terms with those memories. She had a storied history starting back in the Yukon, to the Great War, and then into the rushing wooded rivers of the Midwest. Yes, Pickles had endured much that few knew about.
"So, you all want to hear a truly frightening story?" Pickles asked as the kittens nodded their heads. "Well, as you say, it is tradition,” she said, a voice as weathered as an old captain who’d spent his life out at sea.
“I’ve a tale for you that’ll make your tails puff up to the size of a broom.” The kittens initially shrank back with fearful thoughts of a menacing broom sweeping the floor but then settled in closer with the promise of a story. These were always good stories.
Pickles took a deep breath. “This tale takes place back in the dark days when Prairie du Chien was little more than a tavern for drunk fur traders to get into bar fights, and a couple stores eked out an existence by selling any last supplies to those brave enough venturing into the wild. Back before little kittens like yourselves had civilized homesteads to go back to at night. This was the time of adventure in the wild. Where the hunters became the hunted….”
Bold Cats Breed Bold Adventures
It was early November when we landed our birch canoes at the McGregor, Iowa ferry, the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. The current was strong at the intersection of the two rivers, so the price of a beaver pelt was worth the cost of the ferry ride into Praire du Chien just a few miles north of Mcgregor. We’d been fortunate to even get that pelt as the Wisconsin had been tapped dry from the traffic going down to the Mississippi. With the winter approaching, most cats were headed south for final supplies or to escape the incoming snows.
Back then, it’d been me along with my three other fellow woodsmen and trappers. We were a tight-knit band who traveled the frontier and states trapping the finest pelts to get rich. Those cats were reliable, and I was fortunate enough to call them friends.
There was John, the Siamese trapper, whose parents worked on the railroad laying track. He grew up among the railroad camps that slowly inched their way across stretches of Alberta and British Columbia. This kind of lifestyle led John to yearn for the wild frontier and vast wooded lands of the new world. In his youth, he’d learned the language and stories of the native Loons and Geese who passed through the rail camps. He was my oldest companion in the trapping business and brought a wealth of knowledge to our adventures. Not only a great hunter, John was a smooth-talking interpreter.
Then there was Earl. Oh boy, Earl. He was a British shorthair that made his way to the states after we met him during the great war over in Europe. We’d shared stories of the hunting and exploration of the frontier with him, so when the armistice was signed, he soon shipped to the states to join us. He had the thickest accent and was the worst outfitted trapper I’d ever seen. He arrived to meet us on the Kickapoo River with nothing more than some knickerbockers and a walking stick. His family was a distant cousin to the crown, so we tended to call him The Earl or The Duke, depending on how little we could glean from his pronunciation. He was quick as a whip, though, and read all kinds of books on plants, which came in handy.
Lastly, there was Ida May. Being a Maine Coon, she’d mostly kept to herself and didn’t say much more than the occasional, enigmatic statement. Words like yes or no and curt nods were the extent of her conversations. She’d joined our group after I’d found her reading a bit of poetry in a tavern one night as we made our way through the final trading hubs on the frontier. If I remember it correctly, it went something like this:
Ida May where are you going?
Outside to take a stroll
Ida May was like a mammal
With a nose like a digging mole
Ida May got in a birch canoe
Ida May paddled off the wooden dock
Mercy me, that boats made of bamboo!
As I recall, a confused and inebriated crowd silently stared at Ida May as she stood on the stage. None of the locals had ever heard her say more than twenty words to anyone. It struck me as unique, so I talked with her afterwards about our trapping business. She was quick to accept my offer of joining, excited to be out in the woods where she could work on her poetic verses. I heard her mutter under her breath something about leaving these heathens who couldn’t differentiate a good stanza from good whiskey. Apart from poetry, she was an excellent tracker who knew every footprint of animals west of Milwaukee.
So, our little band crossed the Mississippi into Prairie du Chien for one last stop before heading north and then west. The plan was to get a few more provisions and hire a guide as far northwest as the Root River. It was going to be one hell of a time finding a guide as few smart people would venture that far west into uncharted woodlands this late in the season. However, we had it on fairly good authority that the best pelts could be caught up that way and this deep into the fall. We were here for two simple reasons: get quality pelts to sell for a lot of money and have an adventure we could tell and retell to our families and friends for generations to come.
How naïve we were at four years old, thirty-two years old in human years. We mistook our folly for boldness. Even if the winter snows held off for a month’s time, we’d still be paddling our way back in potentially blizzard conditions. Ah, but we were prepared, or at least convinced ourselves we were. Our jackets were thick, our packs were laden with provisions, and our purses were nearly empty, so our confidence swelled. We figured we could paddle the slower moving parts of the Mississippi and portage the remainder of our way to the Root River. Allowing for a week of travel so we could lay some traps, we weren’t at all concerned. Determination on the cusp of recklessness.
After a few hours of paying for drinks at the tavern, I finally secured ourselves a guide named Wayne. He was a gray-coated tabby with even darker gray stripes. He’d demanded seventy-five percent pay now, the remainder when we got to the mouth of the Root, and, on top of that, a fifteen percent bonus if he did it in under a week. Walking away from the deal feeling swindled, but otherwise content with our escort, I told the others to get some sleep. We would meet him by the river before dawn.
Sweat and Tears
I stayed up for one more drink. These were the days when alcohol didn’t affect me the way it does now. Maybe it was a sign that I was drinking too much, and my body had a higher tolerance. Maybe I needed more whiskey those days to quiet my thoughts. Either way, I found myself in a corner table sipping on some cheap booze and soaking in a hazy blue cloud of tobacco smoke.
My thoughts strayed towards my past experiences and how they’d led me here. A smile lit up my face every now and again thinking about the crazy things John and I got into. Then, how Earl and Ida May had come to join our group. But mostly, I was thinking about what brought us here for this specific trip. How we found ourselves close to winter, going out on an ill-advised trapping excursion was what kept me up this night.
In the days of trapping and hunting the frontier, cats needed sponsors. Back then, wealthy cats out east, or business cats who’d rather not risk their necks in the wilds, sponsored trappers. Those sponsors were the lifeblood of trappers and hunters like us. We were able to purchase the top equipment in exchange for discounted and first selection of our pelts we’d bring back.
So that was how we’d found out about the untapped potential of the Root River. We’d been in a tavern near Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, after coming back from the north, toasting another successful trip. Beaver Dam was well known for its hospitality towards trappers and traders, so when a boisterous cat was challenging trappers to take his sponsor, we were only half listening. I was personally more interested in my drink but couldn’t help but hear him preach about an under-explored river south of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Most of the cats scoffed at the sponsor. The most profitable trappers went north for furs. Nevertheless, he was adamant on this uncharted river being a gold mine for furs.
The sponsor was an American shorthair by the name of Marcus who wore an expensive beaver fur hat. He’d claimed previous expeditions had yielded hundreds of pelts and thousands of dollars. When asked where these trappers who’d gone on these adventures were now, Marcus repeatedly dodged the question. Often, he’d say they’d “settled down” or “gone elsewhere.” When asked further why everyone didn’t trap this great and prosperous river, he’d pause a moment and stare into their eyes as if trying to read them. He’d cryptically say, “Not everyone was built for sweat and tears.”
With rather more bravado than I care admit, I sought Marcus’s endorsement. I sat down at his table, waiting for him to settle down after some ragdoll cats were heckling him; he was sitting, a smile curled at the corners of his lips when he saw my serious look. I bought him a drink and pelted him with questions.
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, over that way.”
“Where is ‘that way?’”
“Are you an experienced trapper?”
“Can you prove it?”
“I’ve got three badger pelt cloaks in my room. Is that good enough?”
“Maybe. How did you find out about this Root River?”
“From a colleague in the trade.”
“Can you pay?”
The beaver fur hat precariously perched on top of his head wobbled as he chuckled. His eyes gleamed mischievously, yet with a hint of intrigue. Dammit, I was hooked by his dodgy attitude.
After more whiskey and rum consumed than necessary, I staggered out of that tavern with a map and a letter, both from Marcus. The letter was a form of credit we could show any store owner and supplier this side of the Mississippi. It told them the nature of our business and who to bill for the gear. Regardless of the other trapper’s dismissal in the tavern, it seemed that a fair amount of store owners knew Marcus. After seeing the letter, they were eager to part with as many provisions as we could carry. They knew Marcus would reimburse them quickly and perhaps with a tip. The suppliers’ enthusiasm upon seeing the letter improved my confidence in the success of this voyage.
The next day, Marcus saw us off early and cheerily. He puffed out his chest as he gloated to the other trappers who’d refused to take his sponsorship. As we sold off our recently tanned pelts, we heard him talk about the fantastic game we would surely hunt. When his trappers returned to Beaver Dam, Marcus claimed, he’d be the richest sponsor this side of the Mississippi. However, in all his bragging, he rarely mentioned us, the cats who’d be doing all the work.
As we headed west towards the Wisconsin River loaded with new gear, we were feeling happy with our choice of sponsor, despite the lack of acknowledgment from him. The one problem was: I couldn’t stop thinking why Marcus had been so dodgy when it came to the history of the Root River. We knew next to nothing about our destination and solely relied on the testimony of a business cat who gave little detail. I decided to inquire as we headed west.
At the little towns of Portage, Praire du Sac, and Boscobel, I asked the tavern owners and traders about the Root River. My questions were met with blank stares from cats who’d apparently not strayed far from the Wisconsin River. No details emerged from my little investigation, which was unusual for locals to have no knowledge of a river not far away. No hunter or trapper I talked to had ever explored that river.
Usually, we were briefed by a veteran or any cat who’d been to the area if we hadn’t been there before. Except this time, we were heading into this voyage completely blind. Each town we stopped at along the Wisconsin yielded the same blank stares and minimal information. While John, Ida May, and Earl became more excited, I did my best to hide my growing concern all the way to the Mississippi.
So, while in that bar in Praire du Chien, I thought about how spry and adventurous we felt heading here. I took the last swallow of alcohol, hoping it would let me forget Marcus and his damned sponsorship for one night. Just one night of peaceful sleep before we embarked on this trip that gave me a hint of a disquieted feeling. Hopefully, the drink would help me forget that feeling as well. I dragged myself to the bedroom I shared with John and threw myself onto the mattress.
That night I tossed and turned as I slept. My dreams were manic and random. Maybe it was the lousy whiskey or maybe it was the thoughts of concern I’d been having. Regardless, I got little sleep, but I remember how bizarre those dreams had been.
During one part of the dream, Ida May, John, Earl and I separated into some thick woods, all going after something different. I couldn’t quite tell where we were headed, but when I emerged from the woods, Earl was bathing in a tub of brandy. Then, a giant cottontail rabbit started chasing him. Thinking nothing of it, I moved on.
Next, I saw our sponsor Marcus at a table, cradling luxurious looking pelts. As he saw me walk towards him, he furrowed his eyebrows and yelled, “Shoo, there! Get back out there and get me more pelts!” He then began kneading them before curling into a ball to sleep.
Leaving Marcus, I was crouching low through the trenches of eastern France. John and Earl were behind me as we made our way down the line pulling our helmets tighter over our ears. Artillery shells exploded around us, showering us in dry cat food. We filled our helmets with the food and quickly moved through a short bunker.
As I approached the end of the bunker, I saw a dark brown pelt running away over a field. I sprinted after it. I got hotter the longer I ran. Beginning to sweat, I tried to take off my bison fur jacket, but when I looked down, the pelt I’d been chasing after was wrapped around me. I struggled harder and harder until I felt engulfed by the fur and fell over. That was when I woke up.
My room in the Praire du Chien tavern was stiflingly hot. I tried to stand but quickly squirmed around realizing I had gotten wrapped up in my blanket and fell off the bed from my agitated sleep. John was snoring on the bed next to me while the fireplace blazed with a fire that was too much for a room like this. Untangling myself, I grabbed a cool drink of water and removed a couple of logs from the fire.
I quietly whispered to myself as I looked into the fire, “I gotta stop drinking that cheap whiskey.”
Walking over to a window, I opened it and let the cool night air in, chilling my sweat-drenched fur. Some parts of that dream were too real when I revisited the war I had tried to forget. This left me with an unease that was becoming uncomfortably familiar lately. After a minute, I closed the window and lay back in bed, fortunately having no more dreams that night.
At dawn, John, Earl, Ida May and I marched down to the docks to pack the canoes with traps, hardtack, whiskey, and canned food. Wayne, our guide, was already down at the docks, muttering under his breath about having to guide in sub forty-degree weather. To be fair, it was cold and getting colder. I remember strapping my bison fur coat a little tighter and trying to push the thought of being snowed in as far from my mind as possible. With a forceful push of a paw and a grunt, our canoes broke free of the freezing mud latching to the hull and were off into the ice-cold waters.
Much of the trip up the Mississippi was uneventful. The currents were strangely weak, which allotted plenty of time for exploring the tributaries, sandbars, and islands of the river. Along the banks, Ida May found several tracks of fox, which was surprising given the human traffic on this part of the river. We set up several traps along the way in hopes of having a few quality pelts on our way back home. The real prize was deep in the Root River and the surrounding woods where there were miles of untapped land with unsuspecting game.
Each day north we laid more traps as Wayne the guide became more anxious. Ignoring his tense behavior, I smiled thinking about the future pelts we’d be collecting here and up in the Root River. From what Marcus had said, these pelts would sell for premium prices back east. He claimed that cats he had connections to across the Atlantic were interested in American furs. Hell, I didn’t care who bought ‘em. As long as I got to spend some time in the woods and make money off some furs, I was happy, and this thought helped shake any doubt I’d previously had about this trip.
Late upon the fifth day, we made it to the delta of the Root River. As we neared the river junction, Wayne insisted we camp opposite the shores of the Root and on the eastern banks of the Mississippi. While we were pitching our tents, I caught Wayne out of the corner of my eye sneaking glances at the entrance to our destination. For the rest of the night, he never turned his back on the river, almost acting as though it would jump out and attack him. I thought he was just one of those old, superstitious cats you find in small towns, so I just let him be.
That night as we sat around the campfire, I took caution to hold off on the alcohol. I was still a bit wary of the strange dream induced by the cheap booze from the previous night. Instead of drinking, I sat and studied the entrance to the Root River. I thought about the adventure that lay before us in the coming days. I imagined the hundreds of different ways this trip, if successful, could impact my life. Perhaps, I could even retire and find a nice cabin to settle down in. These thoughts slowly drifted away as I fell into a, thankfully, dreamless sleep.
The next morning, Wayne had already unloaded the extra gear he’d carried for us and nervously shifted from paw to paw. From the night before, we could tell that he was troubled by the river and was impatient to be away from here. I asked him why he was so quick to be gone.
“I’ve just heard stories about this river, is all.”
“What kind of stories?”
Wayne hesitated, then shook his head rather than respond.
“Go on, Wayne. Tell us what you’ve heard.”
“I’d rather just take my final pay, then be on my way back, if you don’t mind.”
He reassured us he’d check the traps on the way down to Praire du Chien, as we gave him the bonus for the curtailed guidance. It was a custom of ours to share a final drink with any fellow travelers or guides on our expeditions, so I reached into one of our packs for some mead. It was a fine thing to share our best beverage; however, when I went to pour five glasses, Wayne was in his canoe slicing down the river. He was well on his way home and away from the Root River before I opened the bottle. We should have taken his quick exit as a caution. Regrettably, the selling price of pelts overshadowed the warnings.
Moccasins and Warnings
Before we broke camp after Wayne had left, we stood around smoldering coals drinking thick coffee, talking about the details of the trip. So far, we’d spent less than a week getting to the river. From here, the plan was to trap aggressively as we navigated the Root River inland for roughly six days. Next, we’d find a place to camp from where we’d hunt and trap for six more days. Then our return out of the Root and down the Mississippi was expected to only take nine, maybe ten days. Overall, we concluded the trip should be twenty-six to maybe twenty-seven days and, hopefully, find ourselves weighted down with so many furs that we’d have to fashion a raft for the surplus.
John, Earl, Ida May, and I were feeling good as we made our way up the Root River. I found the black mirror-like water initially tranquil and gorgeous as we easily paddled against the current. The way the dark trees canopied over the river and slowly shed their leaves made for a stunning experience as we traveled this new waterway. Occasionally, we passed under red and white pine trees that jutted out from the eroding banks of the river. Whippoorwills called out as we passed and threw us into a heated bird mimicking and whistling contest. We took pleasure in how untouched this river was. Overgrown pines leaning over the water and birds singing close to the banks were not accustomed sights in our past travels. We ate our hardtack and took soul-warming sips of whiskey as our canoes continued to make good time upriver.
A clearing emerged on the south side of the river later that morning, about a mile upriver. John was the first to notice loon and geese nests scattered around the opening. When we approached their camp, we noticed how few birds there were. Of the loons and geese who waddled around their camp, most looked ragged and haphazard. Some even looked as though they’d had the down feathers kicked out of them in a brutal fight. A few had some makeshift-cloth slings supporting a wounded wing or two. Who would attack these docile birds?
From John’s days growing up on the railroad, he knew these native birds were friendly traders to cats. Sure enough, they greeted us welcomingly with their indigenous honking and motioned for us to share their fire. We happily welcomed a break off the icy waters to warm our paws by a flame and stretch our legs. We were all anxious to trap; however, a little break never hurt a cat before.
Despite the recent influx of cats into the frontier, the geese and loons that called this place home didn’t mind us on their land. They’d come to grow fond of cats and the benefits we brought westward. Our mutual species relationship opened paths of trade and travel for both animals. Knowledge was another key component to the bird-cat friendship deep in the frontier. Technology from the east traded well for the thousands of years’ worth of instinct these birds had accrued from the new world. Hoping to capitalize on their familiarity with this river, we had John talk to them.
I had to admit, I was personally hoping John could trade for a pair of moccasins in addition to learning about the river. About the fourth day of the trip, I had been fooling around and lost my moccasins in a swamp I had no business being in. It was rather embarrassing; however, this was fortunate of us to come across these birds. Loons were famous for the moccasins they handmade and traded to cats. So as John went to talk to the birds, I reminded him of the moccasins as I pointed to my cold paws.
At first, we thought the conversation was going well between John and the birds as we stood by the warmth of the fire. However, the longer John communicated with the loons, the more his face became distraught. Being just out of earshot, we tried to catch some of more jumbled translating once we noticed something was amiss.
“Hello friends! How goes it?”
Quiet honking. Once or twice a wing flapped excitedly.
“I see. Why is that? What’s up there?”
The honking quickened, too soft to be heard from where we were.
“Wait. Can you repeat that? Why shouldn’t we?”
After a few more minutes of rough squawks and flapping of wings, John turned away from the birds with a notable lack of moccasins and a frown. We were all huddled around the fire idly chatting amongst ourselves when John joined us wordlessly. John was usually a chipper cat; however, he avoided our eyes and stared into the flames with an unsettled look and furrowed eyebrows.
I leaned to the side of the smoke to look at John and asked, “What news from the birds? Any moccasins? My paws are frozen!”
John ignored the latter of the two questions with an irritated shake of his head.
Slowly exhaling, John spoke calmly and softly. “The loons asked where we’re going. I told them. They immediately became restless. I thought perhaps I mistranslated something, so I tried to rephrase. Still they were restless and began to squawk amongst themselves.” He spat a wad of tobacco into the fire, watching it sizzle. I didn’t like his tone and overall feeling of apprehension. Something was wrong.
“The birds began to honk nervously about upriver, especially the loons,” John continued. “They said it would be wise to go no farther and we were welcome to stay with them and hunt from here. But if we must, there’s a freshwater stream about a mile west of here on the northern bank. They advised to go no farther than that.
“Anything past the stream is unwise. This is the part where the translation became more colloquial. They used honks I was unfamiliar with.” John kept his gaze on the fire, making his yellow eyes glow brightly from the flames. I noticed how uncharacteristically he shifted nervously from paw to paw and slashed his tail about anxiously. “What I think they said was there is only evil up this river. You will meet your death if you go on west from here. You have been warned.”
Earl, Ida May, and I glanced at each other uncomfortably. John was one of the most confident and experienced woodsman and trappers I’d ever known. Not much ever perturbed him, so seeing him this bothered was particularly unsettling. The air remained tense for several minutes after John had finished talking.
Discussion regarding the rest of the trip began slowly and with hesitation. Given the ominous warning, staying with the birds and their camp seemed pleasant. However, the prospect of pelts that would sell at a high price seemed unlikely here. The point of this excursion so late in the season was to get the premium pelts that no other trader or hunter would seek this close to winter. Staying with the geese and loons was just not going to profit us as much as if we headed upriver.
After some back-and-forth conversation, we all elected to stay the course. Throughout the debate, John refused to have any part of it. He would only mutter softly that he would do what the group decided. He came for adventure, furs, and money. With that, we all toasted the loons and geese a farewell drink of whiskey. We bid them thanks for the warm fire, and I cursed under my breath for the bad luck of not getting any moccasins.
Back at the canoes, I snuck a quiet moment away with John. I needed to know what was wrong and why he had been so silent about our next move after the warning.
“John, do you really want to go upriver? What’s holding you back? I’ve known you for years and you’ve never let a bird scare you like this. Do you think we should continue west?”
John looked me in the eyes and shrugged. What he said next made the fur on the back of my neck stand up. John had never said anything like this, and it shivered me to the end of my tail. I’ll never forget that moment as it was some of the most frightening words anyone has ever said to me before.
“It’s your funeral.”
So, we went up river.
The Water Isn't That Deep
A few hours of easy paddling brought us to the flowing freshwater stream. However, a stream wasn’t quite an accurate description as it was nearly eight feet wide and two feet deep. The size of the stream allowed trees to spread gnarled roots from the banks out into the water, which offered coves for us to land our canoes. It seemed as good as any area to scout out the land.
We decided to spend half of the remaining daylight exploring the area to determine if we should make camp here or continue upriver, disregarding the bird’s warning. Ida May disappeared into the woods doing most of the searching for tracks and trails. John, Earl, and I took inventory on supplies while listening to Earl talk about the local plants he had read about.
It turns out that the black walnut trees that were frequent in this area were rich resources. The husks that littered the ground contained nuts that we could harvest to supplement our food provisions. I turned one crumbling husk over in my paws and grunted to myself as the sticky sap clung to my claws.
“Well, I’ll be damned, John. It seems the Earl has learned a thing or two from those books he never takes his whiskers out of.”
I narrowly dodged a couple of black walnut husks that sped towards me from Earl. John finally emerged from his gloomy mood from the earlier meeting with the birds and let out a few chuckles. It was good to have a carefree moment during this trip. Times like those made what we were doing easier given the time of year and nature of trapping. I found myself smiling as I searched the ground for more husks.
With a couple of canvas sacks filled with black walnuts, we noticed Ida May scampering through the brush back to the stream. No matter how long Ida May tracked, she never looked fatigued. Trapping and tracking was what she was made to do. It’d take more than just one scouting trip to make her sweat.
“It seems there’s plenty of tracks coming to the stream,” Ida May said, her long-haired face remaining expressionless.
“So, you think it’s worth staying put for trapping and hunting?” I asked.
Ida May hesitated for half a second. “The tracks only stop here momentarily. Then they head west. Most of the game appears to be going upriver.”
I was watching Earl meander around the bank, chasing some painted turtles. They quickly dove into the water and bubbles floated to the surface as they swam away. The Duke turned his attention to some plants near the bank. I looked back at John and Ida.
“If everyone else agrees, following the game west seems to be the smart thing. We came here for pelts and I want the best chance at them.” I said this, looking around at everyone.
John had that somber look back on his face, the Earl was looking at some increasingly larger bubbles in the stream, and Ida May was unreadable as ever. While I loved these cats, sometimes they were frustrating to work with when they wouldn’t say anything. I sighed, rubbing my tired eyes.
After a minute, I said, “We don’t have to go that way. We can make camp and hunt here. We may be able get plenty of pelts to make enough money to get through the winter.”
My frustration and anxieties were growing as I felt like I was rambling. This wasn’t the first time I had to take charge and lead the way. However, given my already shaken confidence in this trip, the more I talked, the more unsettled I became. Finally, after a minute, Ida May nodded once while John only blinked and flicked his ears in response. The Duke was too busy being fixated on the increasing bubbles where the turtles had jumped into the water.
I exhaled loudly and was about to make a choice when the bubbles Earl was watching erupted into a geyser of water. We stood paralyzed as a monstrous, dinosaur-like figure surfaced violently from the water and landed on the bank next to Earl.
For just a moment, I saw the monster as the water splashed around us. I immediately recognized the hooked mouth and archaic-looking claws of a snapping turtle.
The monster scuttled towards Earl within seconds of emerging from the stream as we watched like frightened kittens. The giant snapping turtle grabbed Earl by the scruff of his neck and dragged him under the surface of the water in one quick movement. Just as quickly as the monster had appeared, it vanished, casting waves onto the rocky shores of the stream.
The attack that lasted only seconds left us frozen with fear. It took us minutes to bring ourselves out of the shock of what we had just witnessed. John, Ida May, and I staggered to the shore, screaming for the Duke. A minute passed. Then two minutes. The waves left by the turtle slowly turned to ripples and bubbles, then finally, an eerily calm surface.
We frantically scanned the water that was, only just a few moments ago, what we thought to be a safe, freshwater source. Five minutes passed. Then something slowly floated to the surface. John extended a branch at the floating shape, hoping if it was Earl, he could grab hold.
John gave a cry as the branch snagged onto the object in the water. He pulled the branch back to us, and we crowded around in case it was Earl needing help. Sadly, it was only Earl’s soaked squirrel- hide vest—the last remnants of the Duke any of us would ever see.
I was overcome with a sense of hopelessness. Our dear friend Earl, who’d been with us in the dark days of the war, then from the early days of our trapping business, was gone. He’d been a loyal partner and an even better companion. It was with heavy hearts that we bowed our heads for several silent minutes out of respect.
Still shaken, but needing a distraction, I looked at the other members. John was on the verge of tears from what I could tell. No doubt his thoughts were on his family and what they would do had it been him instead of Earl. The risks of the frontier were always in the back of our minds, yet it takes a tragedy to remind one about the potential loss of life and the effect that has on your loved ones. Even Ida May seemed to be wrestling with the thought of her own mortality. The wild was not for the faint of heart.
After looking at John and Ida May, I was still unsure of what to do and couldn’t bring myself to speak. Ida May finally took a deep breath and was the first to speak after the long silence.
“What now? Does the Duke die for nothing?” John and I were taken aback at what Ida May said. Was she implying that we keep going in search of pelts and glory? Perhaps she knew that the wild game did not stop for the death of a cat. Maybe she understood better than us that this was a cruel world and cats like us had to persevere. Possibly she just wanted to get moving and not freeze out here.
I croaked out a response in a hoarse and dry voice. “You intend to continue on?”
Ida May stared blankly and then nodded once.
“I would also rather not have this trip be for nothing. I have a family to feed and parents that need looking after,” John said and shrugged. “This voyage was going to get my litter of kittens a bigger home. Perhaps a fireplace to lie in front of.”
“Yes, Earl would have wanted us to finish this out no matter what happened,” I said, reluctantly agreeing with the two. I then went on. “The least we can do now is trap us some premium pelts and send money back home to his family. They deserve that much at least. Let him know he died a hero out here on the frontier.”
Before we left, we made a makeshift grave marking the final resting place of Earl, the Duke. The rocky shore offered little in the way of a cemetery, so we climbed over the banks to a muddy patch of land. We drove a wooden stake into the ground and placed his squirrel-pelt vest upon it. Not much of a tombstone, but that vest said more about old Earl than any epitaph ever could.
Reluctantly, we left one by one back to our canoes in a sad, cat funeral procession. It took an hour for us to load all the supplies and hitch Earl’s canoe to the back of mine. None of us talked any more than we had to that night. Each cat had to come to terms with our loss.
Once again in our canoes, we paddled farther up the ever-darkening forested river, calculating the cost of a beaver fur hat to that of a cat’s life.
By the time dusk was starting to set in, we paddled another two miles upriver before stopping. Most of the ground was frozen solid, but we managed to find a patch of dried grass that was tolerable for making camp. After the events of the day, we were exhausted and barely had the energy to put up our tents.
That night was cold. Not just cold where a cat shivers before grabbing another blanket. A frost settled in that seeped through our coats and sleeping rolls after we made camp that night. We had to take three-hour shifts tending to the fire in case it died out and our only source of heat was extinguished. During my round, it seemed no amount of wood I threw on the fire produced enough heat to thaw the pads on my paws. I cursed under my breath at the cold weather and rubbed my feet hoping friction would warm them.
This was the first of many fitfully cold nights of sleep to come. That night, during each of our shifts, we all grappled with thoughts of whether we’d left on this trip too close to winter. Were we foolish to have trusted such a dodgy sponsor like Marcus? Should we have heeded the warnings of the birds? Cold weather like that has a way of making a cat regret most decisions. Thankfully, dawn quickly found its way through the thick overgrowth of trees.
We broke camp the next morning, eager to get the blood flowing into our frozen tails. After a disappointing meal of hardtack and frozen salted pork, we quickly converged on a plan for the day. The goal was to hopefully find evidence along the river of potential trails and hotbeds of otter, beaver, and perhaps even some minks. Ida May’s previous scouting was encouraging, but we needed results and a distraction after yesterday’s tragedy.
We drew our attention to the meticulous daily work of scouting and setting up traps. As we paddled farther upriver, we stopped frequently, hoping to find the promised gold mine of game Marcus had raved about. Thankfully all these tasks such as tracking, setting up traps, and keeping inventory of supplies kept our thoughts from Earl; though when night came around and we set up camp, the distractions faded and our friends’ death was on our minds.
Every night around the campfire we shared stories of Earl. It didn’t matter how small or insignificant they were. It was our only way of coping with the loss of our good companion. Each passing night brought up stories of Earl we hadn’t thought of in years. Somehow, the heartwarming stories of our friend helped fight back the bitter cold, if not only for a little while.
Stories like these were common ways trappers went about remembering their fallen brothers of the trade. Trapping crews across the frontier told tales of lost comrades to everyone and anyone who would listen. If it only held back the sorrow and emotion of losing a friend for a night, it was worth it to us trappers to continue telling stories. So, for a few moments of the day, we talked of Earl to help us mourn and keep his memory alive in our hearts.
By the fourth day upriver, the rigors of our tasks and travel were making us weary. The seemingly endless weaving and bending of the river was exceptionally redundant. It didn’t help that our canoes often got stuck in the adhesive-like mud slowing us down where the river got shallow. Also, trees had fallen into the river, forcing us to portage a few hundred yards at a time. Exhaustion was now becoming a factor sooner than we’d hoped it would.
On top of the daily struggles, the canopy of trees overhead was thick and endless. The sky, sun, and moon hadn’t been visible for more than a few yards at a time due to the still leafy-covered branches. I didn’t like the feeling of being engulfed by trees. While I loved being out in the frontier, there was something unnatural about the way the branches twisted and constricted any view of the sky. I remember a feeling of slow, creeping claustrophobia whenever I looked up to hopefully see the stars or moon. That claustrophobic feeling soon turned into a sense of something ominous, as if the claustrophobia would take physical form and reach out and grab me when I wasn’t looking.
I’d heard about the fear that gripped the minds of cats and drove them wild out in the new world. However, it was another thing to experience it through the paranoia my mind made up while under those trees that caused the air to feel so thick. Thankfully, Ida May and John kept me from fully losing my mind, whether they realized it or not.
While I was about to be suffocated by claustrophobia, John and Ida May distracted me by finding some little enjoyments almost daily. The branches from the willow trees that reached over the river looked like the string on stick toys we all had loved as kittens. It provided us with entertainment, albeit fleeting, as we paddled in the slow-moving water to bring a smile to our faces. It was a welcomed reprieve from the dread we all felt yet didn’t acknowledge to one another.
Later on the fifth day upriver, we set our last trap which signified it was time to look for a campsite. At that point, I was grateful when the landscape around the river started to transition from thick forests into deep bluffs and valleys of oaks and maples. Seeing more of the sky was a gratifying sight and, collectively, we felt as though we could fill our lungs with fresher air. That fifth night as we looked for a campsite, I kept glancing up to be sure I could see all the constellations and north star. My bearing was pleasantly back while the claustrophobia eased.
These open valleys and bluffs also were alive with the scent and tracks of critters. Ida May quickly spotted prints of beaver and even found a beaver dam not too far from there. The land was ideal for giving chase to our prey, and our anticipation soared. Marcus wasn’t crazy, after all, for sending us up this river.
We found a perfect piece of land to make camp, north of the river, near a wall of rock that jutted out into an overhang. With a dry piece of land under our paws, we were delighted with the shelter protecting us from the elements. The site was also far enough from the water to hide our presence and canoes from any potential foes or prey. Our spirits were rising at the thought of being off the water and near a fire. Nothing like a dry camp and a warm fur to forget our deceased friend.
On the last haul to the canoes for supplies, I noticed movement on the south side of the river, about a quarter mile up into one of the valleys. I dropped and crouched low to the ground, watching the movement. I chirped at the other two to look towards the south, and once they saw the activity, their eyes went wide open.
“Dear God, is that a wolf?” John asked excitedly.
Surprised with how enthusiastic I was to see a wolf this close, I vigorously nodded my head.
“Marcus could sell a wolf pelt for hundreds on the fur markets and maybe even more overseas,” Ida May quietly said.
John added, “Imagine it. Some rich aristocrat strutting around with a collar of wolf pelt or a wolf fur-lined box to sleep in.” He licked his lips just thinking about all the cans of wet food he could buy for him and his family with a sell like that.
“No wonder our sponsor called this an untapped land.”
“There haven’t been any wolves around here for fifty years!”
I must admit, I didn’t have the foresight to realize the inherent dangers of this situation. There was a lone wolf less than a mile from our camp. None of us thought anything of seeing just one wolf. There were no follow-up questions after our brief discussion on the pricing of pelts. Was there more than one wolf? Was it with a pack? Why would the wolf make itself so visible? Could three cats like ourselves hunt a beast like that? Our bellies, pride, and greed took over any sensible part of our brain. We would pursue the beast. We would overcome it. We would be heralded as heroes when we returned home to our families and sponsor.
So began four days of the chase. We were constantly scouting for tracks, getting a lay of the land, and remained cold the entire time. Our group adhered to a rigorous rotation of two cats going across the river while one remained in camp preparing the next meal and tending the fire.
This rotation led to some lonely days for the cat that was left back in camp. The day I remained back, I tried to occupy myself with making a rabbit stew. The game was so abundant around this area that I killed four rabbits before midday and had the stew practically done. I tried to collect firewood, ready the tanning supplies, and clean up the camp to pass the time. However, nothing is more boring than being left behind while your friends go off on a thrilling hunt. The best I could do was sit down and write to my mother and family while I waited for John and Ida May to return.
On the second day, John and Ida had two wolf sightings. They thought there was possibly a difference between the two wolves seen. Perhaps there were two separate wolves out there. We dismissed the thought and continued to believe ourselves the hunters of one wolf. Wolves had been so sparse to begin with there was no way we could convince ourselves of the possibility of there being more.
Hunter and Quarry
On the fifth day we still hadn’t come close to the beast. We would see it on a ridge up a bluff. By the time we got within striking distance, it would be gone. Next, we would see the wolf four hundred yards away, coolly getting itself a drink from a spring that fed into the river. We did this day after day until all the paths and trails looked the same while the wolf seemed to guess our every move. We tried every tactic we could think of, but nothing seemed to work. Our exhaustion was mounting, and we quickly needed to come up with a better strategy.
After a few days of being fiercely frustrated, I said to hell with the rotation and all three of us crossed the river for a final pursuit of the beast. As if taken from a thousand cliché stories and movies, that night was a full moon. A hunter’s moon. Once again, thinking ourselves the pursuers, we took it as our advantage. We truly thought this was a good omen. We truly were naïve.
We took what supplies we could carry and abandoned camp in the hopes of returning the victors soon. Our thought was to stay out all night hunting the animal, no matter how long. In preparation for the long night, we brewed some thick coffee and spiked it with our remaining whiskey for some added warmth in lieu of a fire. I crushed up some hardtack into my drink, making a sloshy mix of alcohol, caffeine, and calories. It didn’t taste good, but it kept me energized.
We marched over the river and into the hilly terrain for one last hunt of the beast. Its pelt was worth a fortune, and we’d had enough of this fruitless chasing. Once we got into the bluffs, we’d follow the paths up to a high vantage point to scout out the next move. Unfortunately, had we been thinking less about money and more about strategy, we would have realized how these bluffs made an ideal place for an ambush on unsuspecting prey. With well-rested and focused minds, maybe we would have realized that we were the unsuspecting prey.
With clouded and fatigued minds, we trekked well into the night through the wooded paths going south through the hills. Since we’d recently explored these trails, we felt confident in our knowledge of the terrain. Looking back, we knew we didn’t know those paths half as well as we thought we did. Alas, disillusioned ideas of grandeur filled our minds. As I was taught by my mentor in the Yukon, the hunter must always keep a sharp mind, thinking always of how the prey will react. However, that night, our minds were not sharp, nor did we think like a hunter.
Ida May was the first to notice the wolf dashing through some thick cedar trees on a trail at the base of one of the bluffs just in front of us. Perhaps it was the hours of hiking through these unforgiving bluffs or lack of a good bed and square meal that caused John to react how he did. Whatever the case was, John put his ears back and sprinted off the path into the trees. Something he’d never have done without thought. He was a calculated hunter.
“John, no!” I yelled hopelessly as the moon illuminated the disturbed cedar branches.
We waited a moment to listen. Hearing light pounding of paws and twinges breaking, we froze in place. After a minute, we heard a hiss and a low growl. Then a howl. Then another slightly different pitched howl. A third howl. Soon there was a chorus of wolves sounding off in the general direction John had sprinted. A cacophonous symphony in a moon-lit wooded stage.
Thrashing and clamping of jaws echoed throughout the bluffs. I still remember feeling my heart beat thunderously in my ears as we listened intently. Ida May crouched wordlessly with eyes pointed towards the ruckus. Suddenly, silence. Unyielding silence fell over the forest. The noises of struggling stopped so abruptly it reminded me of a dream where you fall or trip. Then, right before you hit the ground, you forcefully wake up. The silence was that startling to me.
To this day, that is the most frightening lack of noise I have ever heard in my life. I am more than comfortable with silence. But the absence of sound that blanketed over us and the entire stretch of wilderness that night will forever haunt me.
Now, it is almost indescribable to explain the reversal of roles between being the huntsman and the quarry that we experienced during those dreadfully silent minutes. From the perception of being in control of the hunt to the sheer horror of becoming the prey was terrifying. In a single moment, we instinctually knew the wolves were now to hunt and we were to be hunted.
Ida May felt it too, judging that all her hairs were on end and her tail was motionless. I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me knowing that this situation was no longer in my control and that we’d lost John.
Even though it was mere seconds, I felt paralyzed for an eternity from the shock of John’s being killed by a pack of wolves. We knew he had been; there was no mistake. There was also no fooling ourselves that we were now exposed, weak prey, ripe for the hunting. Trying to talk myself down from the panic of our situation, I realized I had been holding my breath during the entire exchange of events. I exhaled painfully and gasped in cold air as my breath steamed into the clear, moon-illuminated night.
Ida May slowly leaned towards me, not removing her eyes from the place where we heard the fight. “We have to go. Now.” I was already sprinting down the path before she finished her sentence.
The two of us hadn’t even made it half a mile when the howls began. If the goal of these eerie howls was to send a shiver of fear so far down my spine that I would feel it for years after, well, then, they succeeded. The first howl was on our right, somewhere in the woods. So, we moved left a few hundred feet to put some distance between us and the wolf as we headed back to the river.
A second howl came from the forest on our left and was much closer than the first howl. We shifted back over to the right, feeling packed in and scared. I began to pant from fear, my bison fur coat, and the heavy canvas pack filled with supplies I’d brought along for the futile hunt. Even Ida May seemed distressed despite never having seen her show any emotions since those long-ago days of her poetry reading.
Ida May and I were making good time back to the river despite our shuffling away from the close-by howling. It was only around a mile to the river when bright yellow eyes leapt out in front of us. A large black wolf stood in our path. The sight of the monster kept the steady pumping adrenaline swiftly moving through my body. The wolf caused us to turn westerly along the river.
While the wolf was frightening, it was odder how it just stared at us as we ran away. It felt as though it meant to push us that way. Were we being herded parallel to the river? We didn’t have the time to consider such questions.
Our flight continued longer upriver than we had hoped. Short of breath from running, we both had intermittently gestured that we wanted to get back as close to the river as possible. Much to our dismay, every time we tried to move towards the river, we’d hear howls close to the bank or saw yellow eyes staring out at us from the thick undergrowth.
After fifteen more minutes of running and panting, the woods opened. A shear rock wall appeared on our left that wrapped around to the river on our right. At first, this rock wall seemed to only be a temporary obstacle. However, when we got closer to inspect the wall, we realized it was too high to climb. Perhaps at a different spot along the base, we could find a ledge to climb up, but time was running out as we heard howling and movement in the woods.
Quickly, we inspected the river hoping we could make our escape through a shallow spot. Our investigation found it much too deep to cross, especially in our exhausted state. Perhaps we could fashion a raft from some wood lying around the clearing and get to the northern side where our camp was. That was when we saw the wolves.
There was a large gray wolf perched on a ledge of the rock wall ten feet up. The large black wolf we saw earlier emerged from the trees and was accompanied by two other wolves that were a muted brown color. Another large wolf with a coat of fur as white as snow stalked up to us from the river bank. Instinctually, we both removed our packs, put our ears back, and brought out our claws.
These woods and wolves had already taken two of our friends. What we thought was going to be a drop-in-the-bucket trapping and hunting trip had faded away. This was now survival. Any hope for flight was gone. The choices were simple: fight or die.
The large black wolf took a few steps closer as the gray wolf on the ledge nimbly hopped down to the ground. I heard Ida May speaking very softly as we both readied ourselves.
"Ida May where are you going?”
Deep growls in the throats of the brown wolves set my hair back on end.
"Outside to take a stroll.”
I hissed as aggressively as I possibly could under the circumstances. My throat was raw from the cold air.
"Ida May was like a mammal.”
The white wolf silently stepped between us and the icy-cold water, cutting off any last second escape.
"With a nose like a digging mole.”
The gray wolf began rabidly foaming at the mouth in anticipation of us for a meal.
"Ida May got in a birch canoe.”
I felt bile reaching the back of my throat but fought it down. Now was not the time to look weak.
"Ida May paddled off the wooden dock.”
The wolf’s muscles showed easily under their thick fur coats as they closed in. All of them looked lean. Not the kind of lean look from working out, but the lean look of animals who haven’t had a decent meal in weeks.
"Mercy me, that boat's made of bamboo!”
All the wolves lunged at once.
Pickles looked down at the kittens. Big-eyed and big tailed, none of them spoke. Waiting a minute to let the final part of the story sink in, Pickles’ face remained stoic. Standing and stretching, Pickles hopped down from the chair with far more agility than any of them expected. She quickly disappeared back inside the storm door leaving them to fully come to grips with the scary story.
Moments later, Pickles returned to the porch and jumped back up on the chair carrying a few items. She had a canteen covered in wolf fur and a necklace with several canine teeth on it wrapped around a large hunting knife in a leather sheath. She unwrapped the necklace and put it on, revealing possible wolf teeth strung together. Pickles continued to handle the items she’d brought as the kittens didn’t utter the faintest of meows.
As Pickles took a long pull from the canteen, the drink’s aroma filled the crisp autumn air. The kitten’s noses crinkled at the smell yet kept quiet. After whipping a trickle of strong-smelling liqueur from her whiskers, Pickles capped the canteen and absently started to clean her face for a minute. The kittens saw several faint scars underneath her black-and-orange cheek fur. Their eyes went wide at the sight of some of the more grotesque scars and built-up scar tissue.
The kittens thought to themselves, Did she get those scars from the wolves? Pickles’ scary stories were always true, weren’t they? They held their breath waiting for Pickles to continue with her tale.
Clearing her throat, Pickles began, “When I was younger, I’d been in the army fighting over in Europe against the German Rex cats in waterlogged trenches. I’ve also fought a grizzly bear near Skagway, Alaska, over a rotten caribou corpse when I hadn’t eaten for three days. I’ve even been charged down by a moose when I was helping guide some friends through the frontier.
“But I’m telling you all, I’ve never been more afraid than that day deep in the woods near the Root River. We were intrepid fools thinking ourselves the hunters. You may claim to be fearless hunting kittens now, but if you learn anything from me, know this: The wilderness doesn’t give a damn about how many mice you’ve killed or treats you’ve stolen out of the human’s cabinets.” Pickles’ words had a firmness that left the kittens knowing she wasn’t joking.
A while later, the four kittens left the porch and slowly meandered down through the woods, back to their homes. None of them wanted to admit how frightened and shaken they were by Pickles’ story. However, they did admit it was another fantastically scary story told once again by the famous Pickles.
The trail through the woods to their homes took them to a deep stream at the base of the ravine. Stopping for a drink, the kittens saw Pickles silently slink through the trees down to the bank of the stream. She uncovered four sturdy birch canoes which looked well used and old. Diligently cleaning one out, the trapper and huntsman prepared for her annual autumn trip downriver.