Uncle Joe and the Eyes Out of the Dark

© James J. Doyle 2012

 

“They say the big animals move this time of year,” Charles said as he stepped down from the driver’s seat of the pickup. Uncle Joe was already out of the cab and walking across the corn stubble to the combine. “With the crops gone,” Charles called to his brother, “there’s less cover. So, the bigger animals start moving to more remote areas where they’re not so exposed. That’s when you can spot ‘em.”

“Can you call the elevator?” Uncle Joe asked as he climbed up to the enclosed seat of the John Deere Harvester. “See if they have space for this next load of corn.”

“I will, Joe.” Charles answered. “And keep an eye out for anything strange.”

“I always do,” Joe said, cranking the engine of the combine to life.

* * *

The sun sat low in the western sky.

The combine was safely parked and the brothers were heading home.

Charles drove the pickup across the field, bouncing over the furrows and onto the dusty surface of the dirt road. For a second, the rays of the setting sun glared into their eyes and blinded the brothers. They reached up to pull the visors down.

“Not so fast, Charles.”

“Why?”

“Slow down. There’s something ahead in the road.”

“I see it.” Charles lowered his voice. “But I don’t believe it.”

“It’s a cougar, isn’t it?” Joe said, awe in his voice. “Never seen one so close in my life.”

The large yellow-tan cat strolled down the center of the lane about fifty feet in front of them. The puma walked with a slow muscled gait as if it owned the road.

“It must be eight feet long, nose to tail,” Joe said. “Prob’ly weighs 250.”

Charles slowed the pickup to a stop.

Turning, the mountain lion looked back at the two men. The big cat yawned, licked its lips and leaped off the road. In a flash, it sprinted to the trees by the creek and disappeared into the brush.

The brothers stared at the spot.

“That was the biggest cat I’ve ever seen,” Charles said finally.

Joe nodded.

* * *

 “I know the location,” Uncle Joe said into the phone. “It’s by the creek where we were combining today.” Joe hung up.

“What was that?” asked his mother who was picking up the supper dishes. Joe and his mother lived in the old farmstead, just down the road from Charles and his family.

“There’s a water leak, Mom.” In addition to farming, the brothers ran the local water district. When there was a problem, day or night, they were called to fix it. “I’ll take the Gator,” Joe said. “It’s not far.”

“Be careful,” his mother said. “That’s where you and Charles saw that cat.”

* * *

Uncle Joe drove the John Deere utility vehicle along the creek bank, scanning with the spotlight for the break in the water system.

Stopped under a clump of trees, Joe pointed the light through the bushes at a length of pipe stretching across the creek bed below him.

“I see you,” he said aloud.

The drips were obvious. More tools and materials would be needed for the permanent fix, but he could slow down the leak with a couple of stop-gap tricks for the time being.

* * *

Climbing onto the bank, Uncle Joe walked to the back of the Gator, put the tools away and pulled out a rag. The “quick” fix had taken about an hour.

As he wiped his hands, Uncle Joe realized that the usual night sounds, the sounds he’d known all his life, were not there. This was an overgrown section of the creek, the trees hanging down and touching the bushes, climbing vines reaching up and forming dense barriers of vegetation. It should be busy with sound. Tonight, no insects buzzed. No critters rustled and slithered in the undergrowth. Nothing pawed and scraped at the dirt. No birds flew in and out of their hidden nests. An abnormally quiet evening, he thought.

Joe shrugged, put the rag away, got into the utility vehicle, turned it on and backed around.

Then, he did hear something. It sounded like a rush of little feet. He put the Gator in “park” and peered over his shoulder.

A drove of about fifty feral pigs broke from the underbrush and ran straight at the Gator. The herd pushed against the tires and sides of the vehicle, rocking it like a boat. Black hairy heads rotated back and forth. White gleaming tusks scraped metal and dug the soil out from under the wheels.

Uncle Joe jumped onto the seat, grabbed the roll bars with his hands and lifted both feet to escape the flashing tusks.

The wild pigs were spooked and they kept shoving at and around the four-wheeler.

Then, on some unheard cue, the entire herd stopped, raised their snouts into the air as if one animal, turned together and rushed over the bank into the creek.

In a matter of seconds, the pigs were gone.

Uncle Joe climbed out and studied the damage.

The vehicle was drivable, no wheels punctured. He would need something under the back tires to get traction out of the soft, newly churned dirt.

Joe gathered an armful of fallen branches. Kneeling on the ground, he wedged the dry wood under a tire. With his back bent and his head almost under the four-wheeler, he once again heard something.

This was a different sound.

It was a deep, growly “Purr, Purrr, Purrrr.”

Uncle Joe slowly turned his head and within his vision stood a big tree overgrown with vines and bushes. About eight feet up, a heavy, shadowed shape draped over a branch, its back rising and falling in slow rhythm to the sound.

“Purr, Purrr, Purrrr.”

Two large green eyes opened and stared directly at him.

Uncle Joe let go of the branches, stood up slowly and edged back against the utility vehicle.

The eyes out of the dark followed his every movement.

They never blinked.

Feeling behind him, Uncle Joe found the steering wheel. He turned quickly and jumped into the Gator. In the distraction with the piggies, he had not turned off the utility vehicle. He had it in gear and lurching forward in the soft dirt before he took another breath. The Gator found traction, stood on its back wheels, launched into the air, crashed down and sped off.

Franticly but expertly, Uncle Joe steered to avoid trees, rocks, bushes and the creek bed. Glancing back, he saw a tawny shape loping after the Gator. Bouncing off a large rock, Uncle Joe pulled his eyes forward and focused on driving. Next time he looked back, the cougar was gone.

* * *

At the house next morning, Uncle Joe prepared to go back to work on the leak.

“Here’s your lunch, Joe,” his mother said, a curious tone in her voice.

Joe opened the brown paper bag, as he always did.

His mother had packed two ham and cheese sandwiches, an apple and Girl Scout Samoa cookies, quite a few Girl Scout Samoa cookies.

“You know I like them, Mom, but why so many?” he asked.

“The extras are for the cat,” Ms. Christine said with a little twinkle in her eye.

“Don’t worry, Mom. I’m meeting Charles, not the cat.”

* * *

Lunch bag in hand, Uncle Joe walked toward the Gator parked outside the door to his repair shop.

He chuckled to himself, thinking about the cookies.

“Samoas for a mountain lion,” he said aloud. “What will Mom think of next?”

Without looking down, Uncle Joe reached to set the bag on the front seat.

His hand touched something soft and furry.

“Purr, Purrr, Purrr.”

“Oh, no,” Uncle Joe said lowering his head.

The big cat smiled up, yawned, showing long sharp white canines, and licked its lips with a large pink tongue.

Joe dropped the sack and ran for the shop door.

* * *

“You say the lunch bag was gone?” Charles asked.

“Yes, Charles, the bag was gone, not torn up and eaten. When I got back with the rifle, the cougar and the bag were both gone.”

Loading gear into the back of the Gator with one hand, Uncle Joe’s other hand held the strap of the rifle slung over his shoulder. The leak was fixed and their work was done.

“Toss me the keys, Joe. I’ll drive.”

Joe lofted the keys high into the air. Charles reached up, missed the toss and the keys landed on the front seat.

Charles reached down and said very slowly, “You’d better see this, Joe.”

Joe edged around, rifle at the ready, to get a clear shot.

“I don’t think you’ll need to shoot the paper sack, Joe.”

Setting the rifle down, Uncle Joe carefully picked up the lunch bag. He opened it and peered inside.

“Joe?” Charles asked.

“The sandwiches are gone,” Joe answered. “The apple is gone. Most of the cookies are gone.”

“Most?” Charles asked.

“There’s one left.” Uncle Joe reached into the bag, pulled out a cookie and held it up. For a full minute, he stared intently at the single Samoa.

This was an Uncle Joe look that Charles had not seen before. It was curious, worried, concerned, pleased and friendly all at the same time.

Charles wondered what would happen next.

* * *

Uncle Joe’s nieces, Katelyn and Finley, rushed into the shop.

“Uncle Joe, Uncle Joe,” they said together. “Will you take us for a ride in the Gator? Please. Please. Everyone says it’s OK. Will you? Will you?”

Uncle Joe is a strong man but he is no match for two pretty young girls.

At his desk, Joe opened a file drawer. He handed a box and a paper bag to the girls.

“Put some cookies into the bag. We’ll take them for a treat.”

“Are these the Samoa’s you bought from my Daisy troop, Uncle Joe?” Katelyn asked. “You sure bought a bunch. Where’s the award?”

“Right here on the wall, front and center.”

With that, Katelyn and Finley rushed him from each side and gave him a big hug.

“Enough,” he said, raising his arms and patting the girls on their heads. “Let’s get going before we lose the light.”

* * *

“What is this place, Uncle Joe?” Finley asked.

The utility vehicle tracked along a creek bank into an area of large trees with low hanging branches, creeping vines and close-packed vegetation. Birds made strange cawing sounds and flew off. The sun sat low behind the trees. In the fading beams of light, a damp evening fog rose from the ground.

“It looks spooky,” Katelyn said.

“It’ll be okay,” Uncle Joe assured the girls. “We won’t be long, and we’ll stay in the Gator.”

Joe turned the vehicle so it was pointing back the way they came.

“Is this where the piggies almost turned you over?” Katelyn asked.

“It is. That was one bunch of spooked piggies.”

“Uncle Joe,” Finley said. “I have a strange feeling.”

“Listen to me,” Uncle Joe said in a low voice. “Make no noise. Do not talk. Do you understand?”

The girls nodded. They both looked scared.

“Finley,” Joe said under his breath, “take the bag of cookies in your hand. Do not let go of that bag until I tell you.” Finley lifted the bag from the floor board, gripped it in one hand and nodded at her uncle, her eyes as big as plates.

“Now, both of you turn around and look back at that big tree, the one with the low hanging branch. Hold on very tight to the back of the seat.”

The girls fixed their eyes on the tree, holding the seatback with clenched fists.

“What do you see?”

“Something big is on the branch,” Katelyn whispered.

“Very big,” Finley added.

“Watch,” Uncle Joe murmured.

The girls concentrated, squinting, staring at the shape.

Two large green eyes popped open and stared directly back at them.

The girls screamed and shook the seat with their hands!

Uncle Joe deliberately moved the Gator forward.

The mountain lion leaped to the ground.

The girls screamed louder!

“It’s following us!” Finley yelled.

“It’s going to eat us!” Katelyn screeched.

“Throw the cookies, Finley,” Uncle Joe shouted. “Throw them high.”

Finley has a good arm, and even though she was scared, she tossed that bag of cookies high into the air directly toward the cougar.

The big cat stopped, looked and jumped. It leaped straight up and caught the bag in its mouth.

“Good toss,” Uncle Joe said, glancing back for a second.

“Hold on. We’re getting out of here.”

* * *

The Gator approached the shop.

The girls had not stopped talking since that mountain lion grabbed those cookies right out of the air.

“Can we tell our parents, Uncle Joe? Can we tell at school? Can we? Can we?”

Uncle Joe could not tell who was asking what.

“Ask your parents, and what is okay with them is okay with me.”

Joe paused for a second.

The girls quieted and watched Uncle Joe.

“Make sure you tell Grandma and Charles,” he said, “especially the part about the Samoas.”

Then he nodded his head to Finley “That was a great throw.”

He gazed into the air, “And that was a great leap. I didn’t know a cougar could jump that high.” A pleased and friendly smile was on Uncle Joe’s face.

The girls turned to each other and then back to their Uncle.

“Did you set this up?” Finley asked.

“Do you know that cat?” Katelyn added.

“Well,” grinned Uncle Joe. “It is always good to see an old friend, especially one with a shared sweet tooth.”

At that, the girls reached over and punched and pinched Uncle Joe, not too hard, not as much as he deserved. They all laughed, as Joe wiggled to avoid the blows. He stopped the Gator and raised his hands.

“Enough, you win. I apologize.”

“I almost stopped breathing,” Katelyn said.

“I thought my arm was going to freeze up,” Finley added.

“You were safe,” Joe said as they got out of the utility vehicle. “I’d practiced the throw myself, Finley, but I never threw the bag that high.”

“We’d better go into the house,” he said. “You can tell your story and do your asking.”

Uncle Joe stood still for a second, looked longingly at the shop door, slowly smacked his lips and said in a bright tone, “Before we go in, what do you two young adventurers say to a quick snack?”

In response, the girls ran and grabbed their uncle from both sides and gave him a double big hug.

It is something special to have an Uncle Joe who likes Girl Scout Samoa cookies and who also just happens to know a friendly mountain lion who likes them too.

The End