A. M. Stickel
“Off…offa me, Felicity!” Keeper
Will removed Father Joe’s fat brindle cat from his chest. “Ah-choo,
ah…ah…AH-CHOO!” For a second Napper’s Holler’s newest citizen almost regretted
trading in his scratchy wool revenuer’s suit—now lining Felicity’s basket—for
homespun. He didn’t miss his old lowlander handle of ‘Agent Will Throckmyer,’
though. Will sat up in bed and groped for a kerchief.
Edwin Thomas leaned over in his
hammock, wiped the sleep from his own eyes, and admonished his housemate,
“Felicity knows her place and her place knows her. By Holler standards she has
a fine pedigree. Her great-grandsire was Felix, our ship’s cat. He mated with
Felicia, whose feral ancestors welcomed the Holler’s first humans.”
“Why does the little minx so
favor St. Elmo’s stone holy water font? Instead of crossing themselves when
they come into church, folks are forced to pet her—she hisses and growls at
anyone who forgets!” responded Will, mopping his dripping nose.
“My friend,” said Edwin, “she
claimed her special spot as a kitten. Overcome by a summer’s day thirst, she
lapped up every drop of blessed water and laid herself down for a well-deserved
nap. Ever since, she’s made regular church attendance a habit. The children
assume her one sacramental quaff bestowed upon Felicity unusual powers. She always
knows which of them hides a slingshot or a snowball, and can evade the
miscreant by vanishing instantly.”
“Those same children keep the
myth of your piracy alive, Edwin. This pest’s only power is riling me in any
way she can, purring all the while,” retorted Will, shaking his finger at the
cat, who blissfully wadded his tangled, paw-muddied sheets.
“I’d watch what you say about
his cat to Joe. He claims all of his sermons have to pass the Felicity Test. He discards any that put her to sleep, or even make her yawn.
In her he finds the ideal critic, most especially because of her fascination
with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit hovering over or behind or next to him, he’s
sure, always receives her undivided attention. No mouse or fly can distract her
when thus enraptured.”
“Oh, pish and tosh, Edwin! If
Felicity were reverently inclined, she’d stop eating the wafers for Communion
I put out to cool. I
can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to bake another batch on account of
her.” Will dumped the cat off his cot and rose, purposely splashing water on
her as he washed his face at the basin. Thus rebuffed, she fluffed her colorful
coat and exited the window with an indignant swish of her tail.
Edwin Thomas laughed and
proceeded with his own ablutions. “Mark my words, Will. One of these days,
she’ll gain your favor. Felicity is one talented, persistent puss.”
With Father Joe away on another
of his home visits to a distant stead, Will was hard at work honing his skills
over a hot stove. His cooking had improved since coming to Napper’s Holler, and
he was unashamed to reap the benefits. Eggs and bacon sizzling in the skillet
and a bowl of hot biscuits fresh out of the oven made up for the previous hour
spent mopping the chapel floor. He didn’t notice Father Joe’s cat pad into the
rectory kitchen with her latest plaything, until…
Felicity released an eyeball
from between her teeth, watching it roll across the pine floor, and stop
between Will’s bare feet. When he continued to ignore her, she darted between
his legs to paw the bloodshot thing back and forth between her paws. Then her
gleaming gaze took in his panic as he caught sight of her toy…and recognized
to whom it belonged.
Once Will stopped dancing, he
collected himself enough to relocate the food safely to the counter and cover
it with a towel. This done, he bent down and carefully lifted the eye with a
spatula to drop it into his second fresh kerchief of the day, and then his
pocket. “Well, Felicity…?” he began.
Satisfied, Felicity rose and
ran toward Saint Elmo’s chapel with Will in pursuit. Paws covered in gold dust
left a shiny trail across both the rectory kitchen and the chapel floor he’d
sweated so hard to clean. Grabbing his broom and sweeping as he went, Will
followed cat tracks outside to the late Ella June’s cabin near the rectory,
where he found the eye’s owner…and another cat perched on the man’s unmoving
Felicity’s lean, orange-eyed
brother, coal-black and as tall as his sister was wide, crouched lower and
glared at the territorial interloper, a growl rising from his throat. The yowl
waiting behind the growl, however, was stifled by the eye Ferocious mouthed.
“Mooney?” asked a stunned Will,
already sure the old miner—who’d claimed the cabin by simply moving in—was
dead. The body sprawled in the center of the room’s gold-dust-coated floor.
Several lumpy bags, one clawed open, lay in the corner beside Ella June’s old
cot. A chair was overturned, and the miner’s gear was missing. Will walked to
the window and noticed Nudge, Mooney’s scrawny mule, was not out back as usual.
Ferocious growled again,
distracted by Felicity, who’d clambered onto the open gold-dust bag and rolled
in it, purring. Will cautiously backed up, clutching his broom and thinking, One bash
over the head, and this Satan’s
spawn’ll spit out the eye.
Will wasn’t sure what to do
with the second eye once he recovered it, but common decency urged him on. He
waved the broom at Ferocious, urging him off of his perch atop the prone miner.
The animal spat out the eye, his pupils dilating in a demonic glance from Will
to Felicity. While the tom decided whom to bite first, he paused long enough
for Will to take a closer look at the body.
From the gaping chest protruded,
not human innards, but an assortment of springs and wires resembling
clockworks. A huge ruby sat in the position where the heart would normally be.
Will ignored both cats, who’d definitely decided to fight each other; the
siblings circled and cursed, their yowls and hisses rising and falling enough
for an entire herd of cats at war.
Will, however, turned his
attention to the eye, a close inspection of which revealed it to be artificial.
When his trembling fingers removed the companion eye from his pocket, he
discovered it matched. Time to let
Sheriff Lightfoot, Doc Starr, and Edwin in on this mystery, thought Will,
fearlessly swinging his broom at both cats. “You two, out…out…out! I can’t have
you destroying evidence. GIT!” Will picked up the wash basin from the stand
beside the cot to put an end to Felicity’s dispute with her brother. As the
liquid flew, he noticed it was not water, but oil the color of Ferocious’ fur.
When the stuff hit their coats, the two cats lit out as if their tails were
Will, conscience and stomach
complaining, headed for Doc Starr’s.
“Keeper, what brings you along
so early in the day? My hound got in trouble, and it upset April so much her
water broke,” began Chet Lightfoot. He and his very pregnant wife sat sipping
tea in Doc’s parlor. April Lightfoot was quiet, her usually tan cheeks pale. Her
stoic expression evidenced she regretted agreeing to give Chet even one baby,
let alone the dozen he wanted. Chet, who had no idea what else to do, simply
patted her hand and poured her tea.
“I need you and Doc and Edwin
to check out a situation Felicity led me into—one I don’t like the look of,”
said Will, knowing it had come out all wrong, but hoping the sheriff understood
“What’s more important than Our First, Keep?” Chet said,
part of the Our.
“These,” said Will, pulling the
wrapped eyeballs from his pocket, and failing to notice April’s swoon. Chet,
who did notice, merely adjusted April on the couch cushions and studied the
objects nestled in the cloth, which seemed to look right back at him.
Will quickly refolded the cloth
when Doc Starr stepped out of his exam room grinning, Chet’s bloodhound, Lulu,
cradled in his arms. The droopy-eared dog’s front paws and jowls were bandaged,
her face more melancholy than April’s. “I warrant Lulu will avoid porky-pines
from here on out,” offered Doc, taking in his visitors’ (especially Mrs.
Lightfoot’s) states. “We’d better see to your missus next, Chet… And your complaint, Keeper—another cat
“Go on ahead with Mrs.
Lightfoot, Doc. I can wait. Felicity’s been up to no good again, and I can’t
make any sense of something weird she’s found.” Will gulped and flushed.
Everyone knew how crazy Father Joe’s cat made him, Doc included. The doctor
smiled, shook his head, and motioned Chet to carry his wife into the exam room.
He handed the whimpering hound to Will, giving her one last pat on the head.
Will sat back on the sofa with
a lapful of Lulu. She rolled soulful eyes up at him, and, even though he
thought about showing her the eyeballs to see what she’d do, he resisted. When
he pictured the poor thing limping along the track of an insoluble mystery, he
realized Chet might not take kindly to this abuse of his Lulu.
By the time Will returned to
the rectory, the ruins of his breakfast, except for the biscuits, lay on the
floor where Felicity and Ferocious—allies long enough to steal food—had left
them. With him were Chet’s fifteen-year-old brother, ‘Deputy’ Jim Bob
Lightfoot, and the sheriff’s second-best hound, Lily. While Lily, still a pup
and always hungry, cleaned the floor, Will and Jim Bob polished off the
biscuits with some mint tea and home brew to wash them down.
Jim Bob offered Will a chaw,
which he politely declined. “We’d best go to Mooney’s cabin, and I’ll show you
the rest of Felicity’s discovery,” said Will.
The youngster had tried to act
cool when shown Mooney’s eyeballs. But, on sight of the body, his eyes went
wide and he took a swig from his pocket flask. His hound pup skittered and
sniffed, more excited by the cat spray and the bits of black and brindle fur
than the body. “This can’t be Mooney,
Keeper. It’s some kind of machine. Whoever took the mule left this here, I’ll
warrant, but why’d they leave the gold?”
“Felicity knows, but she can’t
tell us, Jimmy. I wish she could,”
said Will. “I want Edwin’s help to solve this. He interprets strange matters
like no one else, and can usually make sense out of them.”
“Teacher Thomas is a sharp one.
He always knew what I was up to before I did,” said Jim Bob. “Father Joe ought
to be here too; yonder contraption might be the devil’s work.”
“Maybe we can talk Edwin into
letting school out early,” said Will, reinserting Mooney’s eyes into their
“I’m already here,” came a
familiar voice from outside the cabin window, “thanks to Felicity. She joined
my class with Ferocious not far behind, both of them covered in scratches and
oil, and minus some fur. I thought you might’ve finally tried to tar and
feather those two like you’re always threatening to do, Will.”
The cat sat on a corner of the
window sill, preening, and Edwin Thomas’ scarred face appeared behind her.
Espying the body, he boosted his lanky frame through the window. “My, my, what
have we here?”
“Dunno,” said Will and Jim Bob
Felicity gave the leashed hound
pup a warning hiss—convincing Lily to remove her tender nose and wriggling body
from under the window. Once the dog was out of her way, the cat jumped to the
floor, regally padded to the open bag of gold dust, and began to roll in it and
“Come to think of it, Ol’
Mooney never was much of a talker,” mused Edwin.
“Nor an eater…in fact, I never
saw him eat,” added Jim Bob, counting off the miner’s oddities on his fingers.
“He ignored wimmin and likker.” (The lad’s voice resounded with the sincere
disbelief of one who had only recently been initiated into the latter two, yet
considered himself an expert on both.) “He never went to church, n’ he hated
Will decided to steer the
conversation away from his favorite pitfalls—women and cats. “Right! I never
knew a man to keep so close to his own company, even to the point of ignoring
his mule. Poor Nudge had to feed and water himself. What kind of miner would
neglect his most valuable ally?”
“An inhuman one,” said Edwin,
“although it wouldn’t surprise me if there was an actual person involved. The
situation doesn’t bode well for the Holler. There could be other machines
resembling people…or even animals…undiscovered as yet…among us.”
Felicity hissed. “All right,
Felicity, I take back the part about animals.” Edwin stooped to give the cat a
few comforting strokes. His efforts seemed to have the opposite effect, for her
hackles rose, and she turned her amber gaze toward the ceiling. Everyone else
did likewise. The air crackled with static and an almost subsonic hum, then
stank with the ammonia stench of bladders emptying, only one of them feline.
“Think she’s seein’ what’s invisible to us,”
whispered Jim Bob, “like, maybe this here machine’s spirit?”
Felicity glared at the lad,
edged over to the pup and batted her tail with sheathed claws. Lily turned, and
found herself eye-to-eye and nose-to-nose with Felicity. A flash of
understanding passed between them, and the cat sniffed, launching herself
through the open cabin door, Lily hard on her heels. The three men were forced
to follow the cat’s lead, spooked by her actions and the cabin’s vibrations.
WHOOSH! Ella June’s old haunts went up in
glorious chartreuse-and-indigo flames. The group, luckily already several yards
away, turned as one and stared. A huge silvery object, larger than both the
nearby chapel and rectory put together, hovered silently over the charred
remains, out of which molten gold trickled.
A tin bucket lying in the yard
popped and pinged as it caught and held most of the golden stream. When they
looked back up from this distraction, the strange flying machine was gone, and,
with it, all evidence (including the eyeballs) of Mooney’s true nature.
Surprised to be alive, the
animals and their humans paused to breathe summer’s sweetness. Ferocious,
purring raggedly, padded from the underbrush and startled Jim Bob by rubbing
against his legs in male-to-male recognition.
“Well, Felicity, you’ve outdone
yourself this time,” said Edwin, helping the cat down from the tree branch
where she’d managed to levitate herself while the men were gaping at the sky
and the gold.
Lily, from a lower branch of
Felicity’s tree, gave a deeply heartfelt bay of agreement.
Will put the mystery aside for
later pondering and walked over to the bucket. “Looks like Father Joe’s going
to get his new bell after all. I don’t suppose you can mop those floors for me
“Purr-row?” said Felicity, safe
in Edwin’s arms. And then the cat who knew her place winked at him.