CATRUNNERS, Chapter 3
By Ken Swift
(A Make-Believe Adventure for Youth of All Ages, Human and Feline)
Ann Randolph Green’s annual harvest party was the most widely anticipated social event among progressives in the western Adirondacks, year after year. This year, 2019, was to be extra special; for local farmers had enjoyed the first really good year since 2014. The summers since had alternated between drought and flood, and several of the CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture operations) had survived only because Ann and a few of her business friends had made no-interest loans to the young farmers, to get them through the lean years. This year, though, seemed like the good old days, when growing season weather was dependable and crops ripened abundantly.
Several of the “Ivy League” farmers (as Ann affectionately called them, since so many had gone to elite colleges) were ready to repay their loans. Ann said to just give her food credit, not cash, and put the money away safely, against future hard years.
Ken and Rosy and Greer and their wild bunch also supported the local organic farmers, in smaller ways – buying the CSAs’ food whenever they could afford it, helping with the harvest when there was more food than workers. Archy Spring, for his artistic part, occasionally strayed from his usual wild themes and painted bucolic scenes of local farms and donated the sales to upgrade the farmers’ markets. Wood and Bear cut firewood for several of the farms each year, in exchange for food. The busy young farmers seldom engaged in work for wild places, since they were overworked just keeping their domestic operations going. The little bit of tension caused by this apparent favoritism of food over wildlife was annually defused on the playing field (the acre Ann had hayed in mid July and late August to feed her riding horse), with the Wild Bunch (Wildeors, for short) and Young Agrarians squaring off in a different athletic event each year. On paper, the Agrarians looked dominant, for they were both more numerous and younger. On the field, the Wildeors were holding their own, with Wood (though nearing 40) and Gordy (same generation as the Agrarians but more interested in big trees than in leafy vegetables) leading their team to as many wins as losses.
This year was not only a banner one for crops, but a tie-breaker on the sports field. So far, the scores were these: 2013, soccer, Agrarians 4, Wildeors 3; 2014, softball, Agrarians 7, Wildeors 6; 2015, lacrosse, Wildeors 11, Agrarians 6; 2016, basketball, Wildeors 50, Agrarians 48 (KBob swishing a fifty-foot hook shot at the cowbell!); 2017, volleyball , Agrarians over Wildeors 4 games to 3 (though Wildeors scoring more total points, despite averaging two inches shorter); and 2018 baseball Wildeors 6, Agrarians 0 (Wood’s ambidextrous fastballs mowing down the farmers). This year the contest was football, American style.
A good-natured, socially-cautious debate began weeks before the game, as to whether it should be touch or tackle or flag, whether it could be touch for the girls and tackle for the boys (without being sexist!), or whether separate games for girls and boys should be played. Eventually it was decided, rather uneasily, the girls would play the first and third quarters of the one game, two-hand touch; the boys would play the second and fourth quarters, tackle.
This tie-breaking game was a cliff-hanger. Vivian Green was easily the fastest woman on the field, and ran short passes for hundreds of yards and three touchdowns. The Agrarians’ quarterback Kris, though, was a model of steady efficiency, and matched the Wildeors’ touchdowns with short crisp passes to her sure-handed and fetching tight-end Halley.
The boys got almost too rough to keep the peace; and twice Ann had to step in and remind everyone this was just a game for fun. Wood threw unerringly but his offensive line – big-hearted all, but big-muscled only Bear and Ken — could not give him enough time for more than short passes; and many of these his receivers dropped, tight-ends Gordy struggling with carpel-tunnel syndrome and KBob strong but completely new to this game. Wood resorted to running several times and scored two touchdowns this way. The second time, the Agrarians plowed into him five-strong at the end-zone line, and he only just managed to push across before they knocked him down hard. Hearts sank when he did not get up. Ann and Vivian rushed to him, pulled off his shattered 1980s helmet, and revived him with their comely visages, behind the flask of Green-family brandy.
With the score tied 35-35, the Agrarians were advancing steadily toward a game-winning touchdown. With 15 seconds on the clock, the Agrarian quarterback threw to an apparently open receiver in the end-zone. Appearing out of nowhere like a Puma on an unsuspecting deer, Wood reached the ball first, and was off like a cat. Deftly dodging four big farmers near the goal line, then running over two smaller ones a few yards out, he sprinted the remaining 90 yards untouched and in veritable Cheetah time. He reverently placed the ball on the winning side of the goal-post maple just as the cowbell sounded.
After hugging Ann and all his teammates – Vivian with special warmth – Wood slipped into the trees to lie down in the shade till his head stopped pounding. Worried he was more hurt than he’d admitted, Vivian tracked him down, and gently woke him, asking: Wesley, dear, may I ask Heather to check your head and eyes? I’m afraid you have a concussion.
Wood opened his eyes and smiled at the woman of his dreams: Thank you for caring, Viva; but I’m fine now. I just needed to sleep away a little football fog. Those pastoralists are rough, and maybe in the future we should avoid contact sports with them.
Vivian concurred: Aunt Ann and I have already resolved to keep all future contests physically safe, Wes. We are all proud of you, and proud to have the Wild win over the Cultivated, but we cannot afford to risk you or any other Catrunners getting hurt in a game. The farmers who piled on are all eager to apologize to you, and pour you their favorite homebrews. Are you well enough to rejoin the party?
Only if you’ll walk me there, Viva …
I guess you’ve earned at least my supporting arm, Wesley! Their walking arm in arm back to the group was the first such open affection Wood had ever enjoyed with Vivian, and since he dared not suppose it would happen again, he savored every second.
A Bigger Campfire
After everyone had removed football gear and jumped in the lake to clean off grit, the beer and cider kegs and a barrel each of the Greens’ house red and house white wines were tapped, a bonfire lit, and the revelry began. Ken quickly and quietly summoned all the Catrunners to a shadow, affectionately addressed them as Wily Beasts, and reminded them: no sharing secrets, no boasting of cat-running plots; but do innocently raise questions of other friends about their views on recent reports of nearby Panther sightings. Greer understood much more than had been told him (and appreciated his younger friends keeping him innocent), and circulated with Rosy to monitor conversations and keep everything safe. Archy, too, by design crafted with Ken, circulated on the periphery, making sketches of various pods of handsome fit people and listening for rumors.
Though Greer and Rosy were a calming influence, the Catrunners soon grew nervous at the intensity of the conversations surrounding reported carnivore sightings. Rumors of big wild cats and even bigger wild dogs grew into tall tales, with some ending in mysterious disappearances of livestock. Ken signaled with his eyes that he’d like Vivian to bring some real science into this discussion; and Viv signaled with her eyes that she’d like Sara to help.
Vivian respectfully corrected a few misunderstandings, reminded the farmers that in the unlikely event of predation on livestock by wild predators, the farmers could legally kill the “problem” animal and could apply for compensation for any financial losses. Ann firmly added that she would personally compensate any local farmer for losses to native carnivores but only if they allowed those carnivores to live.
Sara then spoke authoritatively for nearly an hour, her listeners held rapt by her charisma and the various fine brews, on the sad losses of native carnivores in this region, how to tell various carnivores apart by their tracks, the rarity of conflicts between native carnivores and people, the real benefits restored populations of Cougars and Wolves could have in this region, and the great beauty these wild neighbors bring to our homelands. She noted the ironic tragedies of predator persecution: Killing carnivores can upset their social dynamics and make conflicts with people more likely, as adolescent carnivores lose their role models and their hunting teachers. Plus, Coyotes are more numerous where their larger cousins, Wolves, have been eradicated; and Coyotes are more likely than are Wolves to prey on livestock. The Catrunners were all quietly thanking Sara and their lucky stars that she was doing their homework for them – whether or no she suspected their plot.
By evening’s end, Sara had most of the farmers agreeing to shoot with cameras rather than guns, if any big carnivores appeared on their lands; and had enlisted several of them in tracking courses. Ann had redoubled her commitment to a compensation fund for any valid livestock losses associated with native carnivores. The Catrunners, who had mostly watched quietly and thoughtfully as young farmers more and more excitedly told of wild animals they’d seen, gained some understanding of the power big wild animals still have in the hearts and minds of people on the land.
Sleeping With Rivals
Slightly wounded still, albeit more emotionally than physically, Wood stepped out of the firelight. He’d seen Vivian look at her cell phone, and correctly guessed that her latest suitor was about to arrive, from his Hudson Valley estate.
You know it’s not for lack of love, Vivian told Wood as she pulled away from him after walking him to his tent. Wood’s head really was hurting again, and he’d slipped away when the campfire conversation turned from carnivores to crops. He’d gratefully accepted Viv’s arm as she gently walked him to the pine knoll where he liked to pitch his tent when the guest cabin was taken – this time, he rightly feared, by Vivian and her dapper lover.
I’m truly grateful for your saying that, Viva; but as you know all too well, I wish you could love me like I love you, not just as a close friend. I wish you could see as much in me as you see in these sons of the rich and powerful. Still, I’ll take whatever of your time and attention I can get, even if it’s all for the sake of other creatures! Goodnight my dear friend, and don’t worry about me. My head is only bruised, and my heart will be kept beating by the wild forces we both revere. I’ll love you always, even if you do marry a stockbroker!
Vivian kissed him quickly but warmly on the cheek, and returned to the campfire, where her current boyfriend, scion of a land-baron family from Peekskill, NY, had just arrived. She hugged Adrian Ford pointedly, and hastened to pour him a glass of the Greens’ best red, which bottle she pulled stealthily from a hollow Red Oak. From across the fire, though, Ann could see in her niece’s face a cloud of doubt and regret, as if Vivian knew she’d just left the better, wilder man behind for the wealthier, easier man ahead.
In his tarp-tent, cozy for two but occupied only by one now, sadly, Wood slept uneasily. His imagination and dreams bounced between pictures of the magazine he’d facetiously told friends he’d one day found –DUNGHEAP CHRONICLES: Stories from the Lonely, the Jilted, and the Forlorn – and happier images of Pumas stalking the forest.
He was awakened well past midnight by a female form, crawling quietly, if a bit drunkenly, into his tent. He recognized her commanding figure as the statuesque Stanford-graduate trust-fund dairy farmer, Halley, who had nearly carried the day for the Agrarians with her great catches of many passes. Her scantily-clad silhouette in the moonlight was plenty alluring, and Wood did not resist, but the words that jumbled through his mind as he reached for the stash of Endangered Species Condoms in his backpack were, I end up embedded not with that wildest of biologists, but with a debutant cow-herd, a pampered pastoralist!