Kitten watched the car pull away from the farm. He’d sensed his people’s sadness, and initially it had made him nervous about this abrupt change, but he’d tried to assure them once they arrived that there was something familiar about this place. He didn’t know what to expect of course, but he also wasn’t overly worried about it. The air had so many interesting scents. It was difficult to pick them apart or define them. And there was that sense, like a forgotten memory at the edge of being rediscovered, that gave him confidence that he’d be just fine here.
He spent the day discovering with his nose, whiskers and careful paws. A number of cats surfaced but they mostly seemed busy. The cows barely gave him their notice and Kitten thought it prudent to afford them respectful distance. A few naps were had. One snooped-out frog gave him a piece of her mind and a cricket supplied an excellent game of chase. In all, Kitten’s first day living on the farm went as well as could be expected. Soon the sun melted on the horizon and starlight invigorated his bones. From the shed with the maze of hay bales came telltale sounds of cats in conversation and Kitten slinked in through a wide gap between two hay bales to investigate.
The cat holding the attention of the others was a big, lean tabby with notches carved out of his ears. Kitten thought he was probably the toughest looking cat he’d ever seen. His leadership was obvious.
“Southern patrol report,” the leader was saying in a gravelly voice.
A wiry gray and white cat stiffened to full posture.
“The dogs were routed,” she said, a smug undertone in her voice. “They won’t test the territory line for a while.”
Several cats behind her snickered and winked.
“You have more faith in canine intelligence than I do Twinky,” the leader growled. “Patrol the territory line again tomorrow, just in case they forgot your lesson.”
“Happily, Torty sir,” Twinky purred.
“How are the fields?” the leader, Torty, asked.
This time a cat that looked like a tuft of thistle seeds rose up to speak.
“Ah, it’s the best Torty,” he said enthusiastically. “I’ve never seen so many mice for the catching, and yesterday Rubbytums caught a nice big rat.”
A large ginger cat, presumably Rubbytums, blinked happily at the memory.
“Good,” Torty growled. “Good to hear. Now I don’t want you all going nuts and eating up our winter supply. Keep it steady. But if Snowbell says the numbers are up, I suppose we can all afford extra dessert tomorrow.”
A round of happy yowling followed this good news.
“Now,” Torty said, turning his eye on Kitten for the first time, “we have a newcomer. Introduce yourself and list your qualifications, son.”
Kitten tensed. He’d never had to address so many cats before. He felt their gazes on him, studying. Sizing him up. He walked forward.
“I’m called Kitten,” he said. “I lived with a family, but I uh… I never was able to behave the way they uh…”
“Cough up the hairball son, what’d you do?” Torty asked.
“They weren’t happy with the biting,” Kitten admitted. “I tried,” he added quickly, “I gave it an effort, but I don’t know. I couldn’t help myself sometimes.”
There were nods and blinks all around and for the first time Kitten wondered if this problem he’d had all his life wasn’t so outside of normal as he’d thought. Torty’s gaze hadn’t wavered.
“Kitten, eh?” he said finally. “Aren’t you a little old to be called Kitten?”
“I em… I never thought about it much,” Kitten said. “It’s just my name.”
The voice that spoke came from the shadows of the highest hay bales. An ancient black and white cat leaned into the dim light, his blind eyes blinking slowly.
“I know your scent,” he said, “and your name isn’t Kitten, it’s K10.”
A gasp traveled around the small enclosure and so many whispered conversations erupted not one of them could be made out.
“The K batch of kittens disappeared,” Torty said gruffly. “You sure, F8?”
“Sure as my supper,” old F8 said.
F8 did look well fed. Not in the round house cat way that Kitten knew of, but in another way less definable. Despite his age, F8’s coat had a good gloss to it. His muscles were thick and well defined. Kitten remembered the food bowls he’d spotted in his exploring earlier and figured that maybe that was why F8’s dinner was a guarantee, but something about the old cat made him think that he ate well because he hunted well. Certainly, the high perch the others afforded him spoke of some earned respect.
“Well,” Torty said, scouring Kitten with a scrutinizing eye, “that remains to be seen. If you are one of the missing K batch, that would explain the biting.”
“How?” Kitten asked.
“Elite hunters were never meant to be domesticated,” F8 said, dropping down a level and making his way toward Kitten. Cats relocated silently to make a path for him. “Your instincts are sharp. You’re a hunter, in your blood. Bred from the best of the best.”
F8 drew up to Kitten, his nose working vigorously. Kitten held still for the inspection, daring to hope. An elite hunter? Now that sounded like something that made sense. He’d tried. He had. He’d had a good home filled with love and children and dogs and lizards and he’d liked it, he had. But deep inside he’d struggled with his differences. This, finally, felt right.
“He may have been born in the K batch,” Torty said thoughtfully, “but he hasn’t been trained. He’s been cuddled and fed his whole life. What good is that to us?”
“Give me a week,” F8 said. “I wager a juicy bird that K10 will be ready for a river mission within a week.”
Another buzz of excited conversations washed over each other.
“Impossible,” Kitten heard them whisper. “…Out of his mind.”
“I look forward to eating well this time next week,” he growled.
F8 nodded for Kitten to follow him and they slinked into the evening shadows as Torty’s meeting continued behind them.
“Do you really think I’m this missing K10?” Kitten asked hopefully.
“I know you are,” F8 said. “I don’t see so well anymore but my sense of smell is better than ever. I know the scent of elites. You’ll recognize it too, someday. Come on now, keep up.”
He was difficult to follow, though Kitten was fast and had excellent eyesight. It was like the old cat blended into the night.
Before long the scents of a river washed over them. Mud and insects. Wet green growth and the exhales of fish. It was nearly too much. These were scents of Kitten’s dreams. He’d thought them figments of his imagination, yet here they were at the water’s edge, breathing the richness into their lungs. Everything, every step of his life had been worth it to get to this single moment.
“River patrol is the most difficult patrol,” F8 said quietly, “because everybody comes to the water one way or another. You have to be alert and ready to catch what comes your way or defend from what tries to take you down. Got it?”
“Yes,” Kitten said breathlessly.
“Use your senses,” F8 said.
Kitten frowned. Something had been wrong with F8’s voice, as if it had come from a distance. He turned. The old cat was gone.
“F8?” he whispered as loudly as he dared. The sounds of the riverbed had gone ominously quiet. “Um, F8?” he tried with a little more volume.
“He’s stalking you,” a breathy voice said from above.
It took Kitten a full minute to locate the owner of that voice. A large barn owl had him fixed in its round gaze. Kitten shrank down, muscles tensed and ready to run. There was a fallen sapling trunk he was hopeful he could reach before the bird had a chance to swoop down on him. He felt his heart hammering in his chest before a quiet calm stole over him and the river bed took on a clarity that it hadn’t had before. He saw the owl, the fallen tree, the insects and bats and ripples from unseen stories unfolding beneath the surface of the water. He couldn’t see him, but he felt F8. The old cat wasn’t far away, though where he lurked was anyone’s guess.
The barn owl left its perch and thrust its wings wide. Kitten didn’t wait to see if the owl was headed in his direction. He sprinted to the fallen tree and slid into the narrow space underneath it. A second later talons plucked a squirming rat from the tall grass unsettlingly near where Kitten had been moments before. He heard the owl chuckling as it flew off with its bounty.
Suddenly, a sharp nip on his backside sent Kitten scrambling out from under his log. F8 sat on the other side looking self-satisfied.
“We’ll work on your awareness,” F8 said, “but your reflexes were good with Gordon. With the exception of letting me sneak up on you, you passed your first test.”
“I suppose the owl is named Gordon?” Kitten asked, licking his back to make sure all was in order.
“You guess right,” F8 said. “He’s alright. He’ll tease you some but he’s actually a big softy. Come on, we have work to do.”
That night and every night after that for a week, Kitten followed F8 like a shadow. There were plenty of tests, and Kitten began to pass them more frequently by the end of the week. Torty met him with growls and snorts, taunting F8 each day with requests for different birds he planned for the old cat to catch. F8 merely smiled and blinked. Kitten, on the other hand, had to struggle against the impulse to go give Torty a piece of his mind.
“Listen to me,” F8 advised on the night before their deadline. “You focus on the hunt and the patrol, and nothing else. Understand?”
“But I don’t like the way he talks to you,” Kitten objected. “Or me, for that matter.”
“We’re all good at something,” F8 said, “and Torty is especially good at winning fights with other cats. Makes him a good leader, and a bad idea for a grudge. Know what you’re good at?”
Kitten indulged in a minute of sulking before asking, “what?”
“Your reflexes, kid!” F8 answered as if that should have been obvious. “You want to get Torty to stop taunting us? You clear your mind tomorrow and trust those instincts that got you in trouble all your life. Understood?”
Kitten nodded. He slapped a mosquito out of the air and licked it from his paw.
F8 smiled. “That’s the spirit,” he said. “Now here’s what we’re going to do…”
The next evening, Torty’s meeting was to be found at the river bed. The audience of so many cats was unnerving, especially Torty’s cold unwavering gaze.
“Well Kitten,” he growled, settling down into a maddening posture of ease, “time to convince us that you’re capable of handling river patrol. You know the qualifications, right? Only the best can handle river patrol. Fastest reflexes. Unerring precision of movement. Unshakable nerves,” he added with a smirk and an insulting flick of his tail.
Kitten could feel anger rising up in his veins. Torty was laying around as if his safety was guaranteed. Kitten could be on him before he knew what was happening. Kitten’s muscles tightened. His gaze slid over F8 and he paused, remembering the old cat’s warning. Studying Torty more closely, he realized that his posture wasn’t as relaxed as it seemed. Torty was ready to spring.
Kitten took a breath. It was time to show them all that F8’s trust hadn’t been misplaced. He turned away from Torty’s knowing smirk and twitching tail and focused his attention to the river. He could feel the eyes of the cats, and other eyes, too. Owls dotted nearby trees. A beaver watched him steadily from the other side of the water. His senses took it all in and refined the information. Made it clear and precise. There was movement under the water.
Kitten melted into the shadows as F8 had taught him to do. He heard a couple of gasps from some of the younger cats. He’d worked out a perch over the water and there he went now in the perfect silence he’d learned over the last week. There, he waited.
He heard the cats growing restless nearby. Several owls took flight in search of their evening meal. Torty started describing again what kind of bird he’d like as his prize. Kitten let none of it pull him from his mission. Finally, the slip of movement he’d been waiting for. He pounced.
In truth, the fish was bigger than he’d bargained on and put up a fight that had Kitten worried in a few splashing moments. He heard the whispers of concern coming from the cat gallery. They couldn’t see what he was doing but they heard the commotion.
“Did something get him?” he heard. “Do you think we should go check on him?”
The fish pulled free from his mouth and began folding itself toward the water again. Kitten’s strength was nearly spent. He wanted to yowl in exasperation. He really hadn’t intended to catch a fish this large. F8 had recommended something modestly sized, big enough to impress Torty. This was well past modest. This was also the only way he was going to get Torty to stop being terrible to F8, he reminded himself. Kitten’s resolve hardened.
In the years that followed, the story of K10 emerging from the river, half drenched and pulling a fighting salmon along by its tail would grow. Generations to come would argue over details until it was a salmon twice his size, and eventually not a salmon at all but the fabled river monster itself.
In the moment, it was no less impressive a sight. Kitten had the satisfaction of watching Torty’s jaw fall open. He pulled on the last of his strength to drag the twisting salmon straight up to Torty’s paws then sit, his back held straight and proud.
Torty cleared his throat.
“Well,” he said, his gravely voice carrying across the water, “I do believe we should start calling you K10. It’s good to have someone on river patrol again. You’ve earned a night off, and then when you’re feeling up to it, I’ve got some river-related missions I’d like to run past you.” He hesitated, then added, “Welcome to the farm, son.”
The night air sang with feline voices congratulating their new elite hunter and welcoming him into their family. F8 blinked proudly and began discussing the type of bird he might like Torty to catch for him.