(A short draft of fiction inspired by 1) the true story of a cougar that had wandered all the way from South Dakota through Wisconsin only to be shot by police in Chicago and 2) the song “Panther in Michigan” by Michael Smith)
Looking down at the pile of feathers next to his chicken coop, Ben’s first thought was coyotes again. Coyotes are very common around here; if you listen, late at night, you can often hear them, yipping and yapping at the moon or in response to some distant police or fire siren. They live in the remaining farm fields and little patches of woods that carve up the urban sprawl, and it isn’t uncommon for people who raise chickens to wake up to find a trail of feathers and hair (you’d be surprised how many suburbanites raise live chickens) from an undetected nocturnal raid. Some people who have small dogs are nervous about coyote attacks, but I’m not familiar with any documented instance of somebody around here losing a dog to a coyote. They primarily feed on small rodents, field mice and moles and shrews, and cottontail rabbits.
So when the young couple across the street woke up that January morning to find a pile of feathers outside of their coop, they presumed the culprit to be a coyote. Or foxes. We’ve had a family of red foxes denning in the neighborhood for the past couple of years. One year they seemed to be living in the culvert under the driveway of the house three doors to the north of us.
Then Ben saw the tracks of a large cat in the mud.
For the past three months or so, we’d been hearing the stories about locals seeing a cougar in the farmlands around the Illinois border, to the west and south of here, about twenty or thirty miles away. Then one late afternoon in December it made the local Chicago television news, how drivers on the Illinois toll way saw a cougar chasing a deer in a forest preserve field.
Ben seeing the tracks meant the cougar had been just across the street from me. I walked the two and a half acres of my property, looking for sign in my back and side yards. Just to the south of my barn, in the patches of un-melted snow, I saw the unmistakable tracks of a large cat. There were small traces of blood on the tracks, and I followed them, stopping when they led into the barn, through the open door that years ago horses were let out of their stalls through. The stalls, three of them, were still there, but empty for the past five years, ever since we sold Bessie, my wife’s quarter horse mare. There were still about a dozen old bales of hay stacked in the spare stall. I looked at the blood speckled tracks of the large cat leading into the barn and didn’t see any leading out, and I thought, what if it’s still in there, what if it’s wounded and angry.
I backed away from the barn and crossed the side yard and went inside and called the local DNR agent, a big guy named Andy who was just out of college. It was dark by the time he made it out. He was carrying a service revolver and a big flashlight as I took him to the tracks. “Well, you got a cougar, all right,” Andy said, his flashlight illuminating the tracks. We followed them into the barn. He asked if there were any lights, and I explained that the switch was on the other side, the front, of the barn. I walked across the darkened barn, my heart pounding, waiting for a mountain lion to leap out of the darkness at me, until I finally reached the front of the barn and the light switch. I turned it on and everything lit up.
Andy was still inspecting the area, having followed the tracks into the spare stall. He looked at the stack of old bales of hay and said, “Looks like he used this for his daybed. You can see here on top of the hay where it’s flattened out a little bit. And there’s traces of blood up here – see?” He showed me where the blood was and where the hay was matted down.
“What about the blood?
“My guess is it’s from a superficial wound, maybe he stepped on a nail or something. Anyways, I’ll take a sample back with me and see if they can do DNA testing. Plus there has to be some scat somewhere around here.”
“Is this the same cougar that’s been on the news?”
“Almost undoubtedly, yes.”
“Will he come back to my barn?”
“That’s hard to say. He might show up again, but for some reason we haven’t figured out yet, this guy’s on the move. He doesn’t stay in one place very long. We have reason to believe he’s come all the way from South Dakota. But he did bed down in here yesterday, after killing your neighbor’s chicken. If there is easy food available around here, he might use your barn as home base for up to a week or so. But my guess is he’s already gone.”
Andy collected a sample of blood and some fine hairs he found in the hay. He asked me if he could mount a trail camera in my barn, saying that he didn’t expect the cat to return but just in case. I said sure, and he promised he’d be out every day to check on whether it picked up anything or not.
I went to bed that night thinking about the cougar in my barn. Thank God my kids were grown and out of the house. Thirty years of being a parent conditions you to think about your kids when something like this happens.
I fell asleep and dreamed about the cougar, about me stepping into the barn in the middle of the day and it leaping off of the hay onto me, its claws ripping into my coat, its teeth penetrating my neck. I woke up in a cold sweat and went to the window. There was a full moon that lit up the night, my yard was a series of white patches of snow and hard gray turf, and from my second story view I looked down on it, on the shadows cast by the trees, and I looked for the cougar. I imagined what it’d look like, its shoulder muscles rippling and flexing as it walked that slow cat walk, its eyes glowing green in the dark.
In the upcoming weeks and months, there was no word about any other sightings until mid-April, when it was seen carrying away a small dog in its mouth in Lake Bluff, Illinois, about twenty five miles south of me. I never saw any more sign of the big cat, and after a couple of weeks, Andy came by and removed the trail camera from my barn.
Then in May came the news accounts about the Chicago policeman who shot a cougar that was trapped in an alley in the middle of the day. Andy called me the next day to tell me that DNA testing confirmed that it was the same animal that had spent a day in my barn, and that it had, incredibly, come all the way from the badlands of South Dakota to end up shot to death by a police officer in a Chicago alley.
Three years later, and I’m still reluctant to enter the old horse barn. I still see, in its darkened corners, the glowing green eyes of a monster that could rip me to shreds, the same eyes that visit me from time to time in nightmares.
My wife says we should tear the barn down if we’re not going to use if for anything, but for some reason I silently resist.
Sometimes, late at night, I get up and I look out my bedroom window, and I swear I can see the black shadow of a large cat, stealthily stalking its unsuspecting prey.