Buddy left the chubby house cat and the porch behind before dawn, putting some distance between him and the houses before seeking refuge in the woods where there would be no humans grabbing his tail or house cats looking at him with pity.
It was time to hunt. You know how to do this, Buddy told himself. You’re really good at it! Just stay calm and remember all the times you played hunting games with Big Buddy…
Buddy stalked the brush, listening for rodents and watching for the sudden movements of birds and squirrels. An hour passed, then two.
His tummy rumbled. He’d never thought about food so much in his life. Back home, it was just there, reliably plopped down in front of him several times a day. Chicken, salmon, beef, tuna, duck, shrimp and his beloved turkey. Pate, sauce and gravy. A different meal every time. If he didn’t like a meal he was served, he could meow in protest until he was given something different. He actually turned down perfectly good food! It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Now most of his waking moments were dedicated to food: Where to find it, how to get it and where he could eat it in peace. He thought of the dull pain of his empty stomach versus the risk of eating something he wasn’t sure of. His mouth watered at the scent of things he never would have eaten as a spoiled house cat.
There! Up ahead a squirrel crouched low in the brush, focused intently on something at the base of the tree.
Buddy slowed his gait, locking his eyes on his prey. He crouched, butt raised, waiting for just the right moment to…
Buddy was fast. The squirrel was faster. It sidestepped in a blur and was already scurrying up the tree when Buddy belatedly skidded to a halt and hit the trunk, getting a mouth full of bark for his efforts. Above, the squirrel chirped.
“I will have you for breakfast!” Buddy meowed. “Just you wait!”
But after circling the tree for several minutes, Buddy realized the squirrel was gone. It must have jumped to a branch from another tree.
Buddy collapsed in the brush, dejected. He was so hungry. He didn’t need to be picky: He’d eat anything without complaint at this point.
He started thinking of home, then quickly squashed the thoughts. He would not cry. He was a big boy, and big boys did not cry. Was his human out looking for him right now? What would happen if Buddy found his way home and his Big Bud wasn’t there? Would another cat take his place, eat from his bowl, knead on his blanket?
No, he told himself. Not in my house.
His ears pricked up. Beating wings. Slowing. A chirp.
Buddy bounded to his feet, ears swiveling like satellite dishes toward the direction of the sound as he padded slowly and silently.
The bird was plump and gray, and it was standing on a tree stump, picking at something between the crags of wood. Buddy had a light step — not a leaf was disturbed, not a branch snapped as he inched forward.
Just like we practiced at home, Buddy thought. Remember, you’re a great hunter! You have really big muscles! You’ve got this!
The tabby took off in a bolt of speed and energy, building momentum over two or three swift paces before he launched himself at his meal.
The bird panicked, realizing it was reacting too late. There was a shrill chirp, a beak unsuccessfully snapping at fur as Buddy scooped his prey up, and then they hit the ground hard, the birdie held tight with one paw as they tumbled in a cloud of dust, fur and feathers.
Sweet, sweet victory! Buddy thought. The thrill of the hunt!
Then he did what he always does after he wins at hunting games: He bounded up on his hind legs, jumped around happily and bobbled his prey. Except this prey saw its opportunity and took off.
“You’re telling me you caught the bird, then let him go?” Clyde asked, incredulous.
Their paths had crossed again at a joint known in the cat world as Chez Bacon: The bins behind a chain donut shop where cats could sometimes get lucky and find expired precooked breakfast sausages and soggy slices of bacon.
Buddy was defiant. “No! I just thought, you know, I had won and…”
“You were expecting a human to come out from behind a tree, tell you what a good boy you are and open a can for you?” Blackie meowed.
The two strays exchanged glances and laughed uproariously. Just when it felt like the laughter was dying down, one of them imitated a human — “Who’s a good boy? Does the good widdle boy want a can?” — and the howling began again. Clyde was rolling on the ground, slapping his paw against the dirt. Blackie was laughing so hard he was choking back tears.
Buddy considered asking them for help capturing the bird again, but by then he’d amplified the truth and told them he’d taken down a huge, vicious raptor that could have fed all three of them.
Clyde was still giggling when he sat up, wiped his moist eyes with the back of his paw, and coughed.
“We know a nice lady,” he said, turning to Bud. “She always feeds us when we come by.”
Buddy’s eyes lit up.
“But,” Blackie said, “a word of caution. The nice lady’s neighbor has some sort of demon dog.” He shuddered. “We’ll reconnoiter and if she’s there, we’ll lay low until the coast is clear.”
“What kind of food does the nice lady give you?” Buddy asked, his stomach churning.
“Sometimes it’s diced chicken, sometimes it’s scrambled eggs,” Clyde said.
“Love me some eggs, mmmhmmm!” Blackie said, skipping along through the trees.
“And sometimes,” Clyde continued, “it’s that nasty crunchy stuff that tastes like cardboard.”
Buddy stepped around a thorn bush. “You mean dry food? Dry food is good!”
Clyde gave him a pitying look.
“To a house cat like you, maybe,” he meowed. “But to a free-living lion of the jungle like myself, nothing tastes better than a mouse or a bird you’ve caught and killed yourself. You’ll see, kid, if you ever manage to catch something.”
They continued on in silence until Blackie stopped just short of a clearing ahead. He crouched low, scanning the area, then held up a paw.
“Back,” he whispered, retreating into the bushes in slow motion, careful not to give away their presence.
Buddy smelled the beast before he saw it. They were downwind of it, thankfully. It smelled of sweat, pee and tennis balls. And something else too. Something strange. If aggression had a scent, Buddy thought, this would be it.
A shadow moved beyond the clearing, then resolved into the pooch as it stepped out from beneath the leaf canopy. The dog was behemothic, all severe angles and stout muscle, with rivulets of mucusy saliva oozing from its open maw.
“Peggie the Pittie,” Clyde whispered, his dilated gaze never leaving the monster.
Peggie paused and lifted her snout, sniffing the air.
She smells us, Buddy thought. His fur stood up and his tail looked like a spiked club.
Sure enough, the tank of a dog fixed her gaze on the bushes where the feline trio was hiding and let loose a low growl.
One. Peggy’s front left paw hit the dirt, kicking up dust. Two. Her right paw slammed down, followed by thick strands of drool. Three. Her powerful hind legs followed, propelling her forward.
Her growl became a series of vicious barks as she picked up speed.
We’re gonna die, Buddy thought, paralyzed. We’re gonna die!