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Riders of the Purring Sage

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Sally Boone was a tough young woman in a tough old land. Long days in the saddle had tanned her skin and bleached her hair until she was as golden-brown as the desert itself, and had some share of its harsh and wild beauty. She wasn't much for admiring herself in the mirror, but whenever she happened to glance at one, she longed for the day when the smooth skin of her face would be marked with the scratch scars that are the brand and price and pride of a cat herder.

Sally’s parents had a ranch. Sally’s parents also had another daughter and two sons, all older than her. She would never inherit their land, and she knew it, and she was glad of it. Not for her was the steady hard work and daily comfort of a ranch, with hot coffee waiting in a cozy kitchen at the beginning and end of every day. Sally wanted a wilder life, a life as challenging but less certain. She wanted to lay down her aching bones in a different place every night, warmed by a mewing furry blanket of cats.

The cat herders were men and women forged on the unforgiving anvil of the desert and hammered into shape by soft-furred paws. Their souls were tough as the leather of their tack, their hands lightning-fast with a gun or a ball of yarn. They feared no danger and laughed at pain, hardened by the daily slash of claws.

There was a wild playfulness among them, as if they held not merely their own lives but life itself as a game and a joke, a mouse whose greatest value was not in mere sustenance but in the joy of the chase. Perhaps they had learned that from their cats.

That was the life that Sally Boone longed for. That was the woman Sally wanted to be. And so she signed on with the Purring Sage, and rode out on her first cat drive with fifteen cat herders and a thousand head of American shorthairs, plus a handful of Persians and Siamese, not to mention the odd Maine Coon and Manx. There was even a halfbreed Pallas Cat, long-fanged and yellow-eyed and fluffier than any cat had a right to be.

The Purring Sage rode out into the desert on a pearly dawn in November, herding their cats past the white flowers of towering yuccas and the twisted copper branches of manzanitas. They were led by Scritch Masterton, a tall man with strong brown hands and a feather in his hat that only the boldest of cats ever leaped for, and a woman by the name of Tortie Marie, who had eyes hard enough to stare down a rattlesnake. With those two old hands in charge, the cats ran as one through the chaparral, so smoothly that Sally wondered if herding cats was easier than she’d been led to believe.

As always happens, when the cats stampeded, they did so in all directions. Sally never did learn the cause. She only saw a batch of kittens skittering toward an arroyo to the west, while two more groups of cats bolted east, yet another bunch fled south, and a sly old tom named Fishy Paws leaped onto a scrub oak and began to climb.

Sally froze for an instant, not knowing which to pursue first. But Bloody June Johnston shouted at her, “Take the kittens!”

And then Sally’s training took over. She wheeled her mustang toward the arroyo, avoiding the dangerous edge and cutting off the kittens’ escape route. They scattered every which way, but Scratching Post Hardin was there to the north and Tabby Tex stopped them at the south. Together, they rounded up the mewing kittens and herded them back.

Sally was amazed to find that all the cats were back in the herd by the time she returned, with the cat herders not even seeming out of breath. Bloody June Johnston jumped down lightly from the scrub oak and into her saddle, Fishy Paws in her arms and blood running from her left hand.

“You’re hurt,” said Sally.

“It’s nothing,” Bloody June Johnston replied. “Just a scratch.”

With that, she gently set down Fishy Paws and went on riding. Sally watched her go, and thought of the price of cat herding. Some day she too would get her first scratch. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe the next day, or the next. She looked down at the tanned skin of her hands, and felt a thrill of mingled fear and anticipation at the sure knowledge that by the end of the cat drive, she would have her very first scars.

There were no more stampedes on that first day of riding. When the sun sank down over the hills, lighting the mesas in red and orange, the cat herders set up camp, and fed and watered and groomed the cats and horses. They lit the fires, then played with and stroked the cats until the bell rang for dinner.

The cook, a hardbitten man named Kibble Jim, turned out a feast of manzanita cider, seared steaks, biscuits, gravy, and fried pies filled with stewed apple. The cat herders ate with cats in their laps and perched on their shoulders, sometimes feeding them tidbits, sometimes getting their own bites snatched away in a deft swipe of a paw. Only then did Bloody June Johnston sit down to get her scratch doctored, bearing the sting of cleansing whiskey without a murmur.

When Sally lay down beneath the starry sky, cats eagerly crowded round to share her warmth. It was one of the few luxuries of a cat herder. They might live a hard rough life, but they never slept cold.

She woke to a sudden pain slashing across her face. Startled, she let out a shrill yowl as she instinctively reached for her gun. Then she heard a hiss and felt a cat launch off her head, and she relaxed. It was only cats fighting on top of her. Sally buried her face in her blankets and went back to sleep.

In the morning, she poured herself a cup of water and held it very still to see her first scratch. It was emblazoned across her cheek, clean and red. She chuckled, thinking how sure she’d been that she’d get it by snatching a cat from the jaws of danger or catching one as it bolted across the plain, rather than by simply being asleep when a fight broke out. But it was still a badge of honor. She hoped she’d bear it well.

Sally got more scratches as the days passed, and some bites as well. She ate biscuits and bacon, drank the strong coffee, herded cats across plains and over rivers, and learned the songs and lore of the cat herders. And every day that she squinted at the dawn through a fringe of fur, she knew that this was the life for her.

They were three weeks out when the thunderstorm struck. Thunder boomed like cannon fire, rain struck hard as bullets, and cats bolted in all directions. It took all the speed and tenacity and hard-earned knowledge of the Purring Sage to round up their cats and get them beneath a quickly-rigged shelter of oilcloth.

“‘Ware flash floods!” shouted Scritch Masterton, his deep voice barely audible above the shattering crack of thunder. “Those arroyos will fill up quicker’n a cat can pounce.”

Sally knew he was right. She’d seen those deep gouges in the landscape become raging rivers overnight. A cat who leaped or fell into one would be instantly swept away and drowned, and like as not their body would be carried so far away that it would never be found.

Tortie Marie stood before the shelter, doing a head count. She looked up and shouted, “Rawhide’s missing!”

Sally scanned the desert for the fluffy palomino. A bolt of lightning struck no more than a yard away, splitting a scrub oak. She felt the thunder in her bones as well as her ears, so loud that it left her briefly deaf but for a ringing like the breakfast bell. But in that white flash she saw a stray cat, sopping wet and wild-eyed, crouched beneath a trailing dodder vine.

Sally had dismounted to help Tortie Marie count, and had no time to jump back in the saddle. She ran out toward the frightened cat. Rawhide bolted, dodging wildly from side to side, approaching an arroyo. Sally put on a burst of speed, and reached the arroyo first. She ran alongside it, meaning to cut Rawhide off from danger.

The lip of the arroyo, weakened by rain, crumbled beneath her feet. Sally flung herself forward, but to no avail. She let out a piercing yowl of shock and fear as she tumbled into icy water.

A ferocious current instantly seized her. Sally fought to keep her head above water, but no human is a match for nature’s fury. She was sucked under before she had time to take a breath and tumbled until she no longer knew which way was up.

I hope Rawhide is safe, she thought. And then her head struck something hard, and she knew no more.

 

Sally awoke bruised and battered, with her face buried in sand. She coughed, and water ran out of her mouth. Her head ached fiercely, and her throat and chest hurt.

She sat up, wincing, and looked around. She was at the bottom of a muddy arroyo. The sky was bright blue, and the sun was hot and high overhead. Her clothes and hair had already dried, and all that remained of the flood that had swept her away was a few small and shallow puddles. That was the way of the desert: storms blew up, then vanished as if they had never been.

Sally was alive. But, she realized, maybe not for long. Sound carried far in the desert, but she heard no human calls or cat’s meows; nothing but the whistling wind. The cat herders would have searched hard for her, but the fact that they hadn’t found her in a night and half a day told her that the flood had carried her far away. They had probably given her up for dead. And she could die just as easily from a lack of water as from too much of it.

She lay down on her belly to drink from the puddles. To her dismay, she quickly drank them dry. She paced up the arroyo, searching for more, but only found a few. Very soon, there was nothing left but quickly drying patches of cracking mud.

Sally climbed out of the arroyo and peered around. She saw and heard no sign of the cat herders. The arroyo she had climbed out of was part of an immense network of them, splitting and intersecting like the threads of a spiderweb. There was no way she could trace it back, for she had no idea which turns she’d taken. All she could do was head east, the same direction the Purring Sage had been headed.

She gauged the direction by her shadow, and set out. Sally knew she had little hope of survival in this dry land, but she would persevere. It was not in her nature to give up, no more than a cat can resist rubbing against a newly cleaned jacket.

Sally walked all day in the steadily increasing heat. There was no water to be found, nor any cacti that might contain drinkable liquid. Her coat had been torn from her shoulders, and the sun burned her unprotected face and arms. Her mouth grew dry, and her tongue felt like sandpaper in her mouth. She sucked a smooth pebble to coax out some moisture from her mouth, but there was little to be had. Her head throbbed so hard that it was difficult to think clearly, but she was grateful for that. Thought would only distract her from the necessity of putting one foot in front of the other.

Nightfall brought relief from the heat, but also the knowledge that an entire day had passed with no water. She could walk through the night, and perhaps another day. And then she would die, leaving her bones to bleach under the killing sun.

Sally’s head swam with dizziness and pain. But she walked on, first through the black night and then under the rising moon, hoping for no more now than to die on her feet, like a cat herder should.

Meow.

Sally stumbled to a halt. Incredulous, she stared at the cat before her.

For a moment, she thought it was one of the Purring Sage cats. But she knew them all. This cat was none that she recognized. It was a small neat calico with a black mask across its eyes and a great plumed tail that curved proudly over its back. The mask made its yellow eyes seem even brighter as it raised its head and mewed at her again.

“Here, kitty kitty,” whispered Sally. Her voice came out in a barely audible rasp.

She sank to her knees, offering her hand. The calico cat cocked its head, but didn’t approach her. Instead, it turned and began to trot away.

Sally staggered to her feet and followed the cat. It had to be a stray from some other cat drive, and it seemed to knew where it was going. If she followed it, it might lead her to a camp.

She lost all sense of time as she stumbled after the little calico. The moon shone bright on the white plume of its tail. Sally fixed her eyes on it as a beacon, praying it would guide her home.

Then she heard footsteps. The snort of horses. The mewing of cats.

A camp! She was saved.

As she stood swaying, watching the cat herders running toward her, she realized with bewilderment that it was her camp. The calico had led her to the Purring Sage.

“Hey, kitty,” Sally whispered hoarsely. “Little stray. Let me get you some water...”

But the calico was nowhere to be seen.

And then the running cat herders, followed by their cats, reached her. Cats rubbed against her ankles, stood up with their front paws on her tattered jeans, and batted at her bootlaces. Old Paint butted his head against her leg, and Rawhide took a flying leap from a scrub oak branch and landed with a thud on her shoulders, digging in his sharp claws. Sally winced.

“Sally!” hollered Kibble Jim. “We thought you was drownded.”

“We searched and searched,” said Tortie Marie, her hard eyes shining bright and wet. “We finally had to call it off. Flash floods don’t give up their dead.”

“That yowl you let out as you tumbled in,” said Whiskers Pete, shaking his head. “I thought it’d haunt me till my dying day.’”

“Welcome back, Yowlin’ Sal,” said Scritch Masterton.

And with that, she was no longer Sally Boone, a young rider hired on for a cat drive. She was Yowlin’ Sal the cat herder. And she would be Yowlin’ Sal till the day she died.

They took her to the campfire and gave her water, instructing her to drink it in sips. Once she’d finished enough to ease the pain in her throat and take away her dizziness, they poured her a cup of coffee, strong and black and near thick enough to make a spoon stand upright. She sipped it and was glad of it. With the gray tabby Bullet and his black sister Midnight curled up in her lap, she told them her story.

“I reckon the calico was a wild cat, not a stray,” she said at the end. “Sweet little thing. I’d have liked to have kept her. But I guess some cats just aren’t meant to be tamed.”

Then she saw the cat herders look at each other in the manner of men and women who knew something she didn’t.

“What?” she asked.

“That was no wild cat,” said Whiskers Pete in a low voice. “A little calico with a black mask and a huge plumed tail—that’s Outlaw, the greatest mouser ever to cross the plains. My own Rebel is her great-great grandson.”

“But…” Yowlin’ Sal tried to work out the sum, but couldn’t get it to make sense. “She couldn’t have been old enough to have that many descendants. She moved like a young cat.”

“Outlaw died of old age long before I ever herded a cat,” said Bloody June Johnston. “She was before my time—before any of our times. But they say she still walks the old trails, looking for strays and leading them safely home.”

Yowlin’ Sal glanced over her shoulder. The moon rested huge and yellow atop the mesa, so low it looked like a cat could leap and catch it. And on the mesa, silhouetted against the golden disc, sat a small neat cat with a great plumed tail. As Yowlin’ Sal watched, the cat’s hindquarters twitched in a hunter’s quiver. She leaped for the moon, and vanished into its brightness.

“I say so too, now,” said Yowlin’ Sal. And though she didn’t know if she’d be heard, she said, “Thank you, Outlaw. Thank you for herding me home.”

As she stroked the cats in her lap, she thought she heard the echo of a far-off purr.