Chapter 17 – I Smell Cat!
That night we rested peacefully under a star-studded sky. Anxious to make good time on the morrow, we turned in early and were on the road just after first light. Before noon, the road carried us again, into dark and deep woods. Dorothy looked up at the thick forest canopy and sighed. As it blotted out the warm and peaceful sunshine that we so enjoyed, its oaken giants cast heavy shadows upon our spirits. There were few birds in this part of the forest and Dorothy summed it up when she said with a great sigh, “How sad, for days I scarcely noticed their happy songs until now when they no longer sing.”
Skewed and crumbled cobbles continued to worsen, requiring an attentive step as we kept well to the middle of the road to avoid the bearded hunchbacks that reached for us with their gnarled and knotty oaken fingers. Moss dripped from their twisted limbs the way a rotted and haggard burial gown clings to the frail arm of a reproachful spectre. Now and then there came a deep growl from some wild animal hidden among the trees, a deep growl that drew ever closer.
“What is it Toto?” Dorothy asked as she craned with wide eyes and knitted brow.
Its growl was ferocious and large, very large. I tasted the air, but the listless shift of a deep wood chill drew our scent toward the creature instead of sending its spoor our way. Fearing a beast as large as its growl, and dangerous, in silence I walked by Dorothy's side and struggled to keep my tail up.
William sensed something too. She was usually indifferent to her surroundings, but her intelligent eyes were alert and watchful; she even paused in her chewing periodically. The wind shifted and a breeze carried its scent our way. I sniffed deeply as did William. Our eyes locked as we tried to assess danger and the motivation of the beast that tracked us.
“I smell cat,” William said.
“Me too, but not like the barnyard ratters that kept me company at the farm,” I replied. “Do you remember the horn sign, William?” I made the horn sign with my ears. “It means charge, gore, defend…”
After a frown from William, I changed the subject. “It makes no sense, Scrobins, Dorothy, William, all of you heard Boq. He described our journey as an easy and pleasant walk – a skip and a hop in the sun. This road worsens by the day.”
"How long will it be," Dorothy asked the Metal Woodman, "before we’re out of the forest?"
"I don’t know," he replied, "I’ve never been to the Emerald City or this far north. My father went to there once and said that it was a long journey, but he never told tales about it being dangerous. Father did say that as he neared the city where Oz dwells, the country is beautiful.”
The Woodman continued in a reassuring tone, “don’t be fearful, Dorothy, the Kiss of the Northern Witch will protect you from harm and it glows as we speak. My greatest fear, however, is rusting, but I have my…butter-filled oilcan. Nothing can hurt Scrobins other than our ignoring him, and William weighs near half a ton with horns capable of…"
"But Toto," Dorothy replied with a frown. "What will protect him?"
“That would likely be meeeeee...,” mooed William, “It’s my fault that he’s gotten too fat to fight or run. Perhaps we should unsaddle him more….”
In that instant, there came from the forest a terrible roar and a fearsome lion-like creature bounded onto the road. With one swipe of his paw, he sent Scrobins spinning. In the flip of a flea, the lion-beast then struck the leg of the Woodman with extended claws. Though his blow caused no harm to the metal woodman, the creature struck with such force that the Woodman fell to the road and struggled to regain his footing.
Instinct thrust me from the sling. With a deep growl, I curled my lips back, and gnashing my buckteeth, I waddled swiftly between the huge cat and Dorothy. This was no ordinary Kansas barnyard brawler; this was a super kitty. With a thunderous snarl, it curled its lips from its teeth. As I stared into a mouth large enough for me to nap in, the raging beast charged.