The Cat, the Devil, the Last Escape
By Shirley Rousseau and Pat J.J. Murphy
The cat prowled the prison rooftops invisible to human eyes, a ghost cat, a spirit cat unseen by anyone living. He could make himself visible when he chose but that wasn’t often. A big, rangy tomcat, long and lank, his golden ears ragged from past battles during his earthly lives. Now, floating free between those lives, his mission was keen as he searched for his quarry, for his dark and indestructible adversary.
Padding across the shingles he paused at a noise from the walk below, dropped to a predator’s stalk and slipped to the edge, to peer over.
But it was only a guard passing between the buildings with a pair of inmates, the men’s shadows cast tall by the lowering sun. The shadow that Misto sought was not among them. When, in the softening light, some unease made the men glance up to the roofline they saw only wind-scattered leaves dancing across the shingles.
The men moved on and so did the ghost cat, scanning the walks below him, alert for that errant shade, for the demon that, unlike the cat himself, harbored no trace of goodness. For the wraith that haunted his human companion, that tormented Lee Fontana. In the windows of the prison offices warped reflections moved about as prison staff finished up for the day. He heard the casual click of a door closing but not a stealthy sound. Across the roofs the prairie wind scudded, tickling through his fur, turning him suddenly so giddy that he ran in circles, tail lashing, his yellow eyes gleaming. He played and raced unseen until the light shifted, far clouds dimmed the dropping sun and, sobering, the cat turned steady again and watchful.
Away at the far reaches of the prison grounds the vegetable gardens shone bright green in the sun’s last rays. Ears sharp forward, he surveyed the dim corridors between the young fruit trees that the prisoners tended but nothing stirred there, he saw no foreign presence. Tail twitching, he looked up past the gardens, out past the prison wall to the blowing wheat that rolled to the horizon. The ghost cat had, earlier in the day, sailed weightless on the wheat’s flowing crest diving and somersaulting, giddy with play, forgetting his quarry as he reveled in his ghostly powers, in his weightless and windblown freedom. Now, he could see nothing spectral waiting there within that golden pelt. Nor did anything unwelcome move among the farm buildings or within the fenced paddocks where the cows and sheep browsed, casting their own docile shadows. The animals remained content, nothing evil lingered among them. They would know, the animals always knew.
The scent of the farm beasts, carried on the wind, comforted the ghost cat, Their warmth and familiarity, their steady and incorruptible innocence were as balm to Misto’s restless nature. He turned away only when the stink of the prison pig farm reached him; he wheeled away then, his lips drawn back in a phlemen grin of disgust.
Galloping across the roofs, he paused to study the lighted factory windows where the inmates produced clothing and shoes and furniture. Nothing seemed amiss within those busy rooms, only the usual whine of machines, the pounding of hammers, and warped movement beyond the glass as the men went about their work. He watched for a few moments more, his ears down to keep out the wind, then he headed for the roof of the hospital. There he settled on the shingles, his paws tucked under, to wait for his human cell-mate, for crusty old Lee Fontana to finish his daily session with the prison doctor and return to his solitary cell.
But even here, peering down through the hospital windows, still Misto watched for the dark presence that had followed Lee these many years, intent on his destruction. Had followed Lee long before he was transferred here to Springfield Federal Prison. The dark spirit that had followed him across the country from California and, months earlier, had shadowed him as he departed McNeil Island Federal Prison on parole, had followed Lee down the coast of Washington State and Oregon, down into California’s southern desert. Tenacious and devious, hell’s spirit sought to possess and destroy the vulnerable old man, in a vendetta that ranged back three generations of Lee’s family. Back to the time of Lee’s grandpappy when train robber Russell Dobbs, late in the last century, made a wager with the devil and won it.
Satan didn’t take kindly to defeat, he hadn’t liked losing that bargain. Russell Dobbs, having miraculously bested the devil at his own game, had brashly stirred Lucifer’s rage. The curse Satan laid on Dobbs’s heirs led the dark spirit, long after Dobbs’s own death, to return again and again into Lee’s life attempting, with each visit, to suck away Lee’s soul, to establish final victory.
So far, Lucifer had not won the battle. Often enough he had masterfully tempted Lee, but still he could not possess him. Always, one way or another, Lee resisted. When recently in the California desert Lee had outmaneuvered Satan so stubbornly in a clashing of wills that the devil had drawn back, the cat thought Lee had won at last, he thought that was the end of the devil’s harassment, that Lee would face the haunt no more.
This was not the case. Fairness was nothing to Satan, the devil keeps his own rules. Though there in the desert Lee had clearly bested Lucifer, the wraith wasn’t done with him. The ghost cat had fought beside Lee, as much as one small cat can defy hell’s forces; sometimes they had watched Satan falter but the battle was far from ended.
The yellow tom had been with Lee for all this present ghostly interval between his earthbound lives, but he had known Lee far longer; Misto had known Lee Fontana before the cat’s previous life ended, the two of them, both loners, had been close at McNeil Island. Misto, the boldest of the motley collection of cats that roamed the prison, grounds, had moved as he pleased within the compound, strolling the dining room, demanding food from the friendlier inmates, slipping in and out of the cells as he chose, Though most of the time he remained in Lee’s company, spending his days on the prison farm where Lee had worked as a trusty caring for the milk cows and chickens and sheep, a job Lee much preferred to working indoors in prison industries where dust and sawdust from the machinery irritated his sick lungs.
When at McNeil, Misto died from the quick but painful complications of old age, Lee, one of the guards, and a cortege of prisoners had buried him outside the prison wall, But even during the ceremony, before the first shovelful of earth tumbled down on his carefully wrapped body, Misto’s spirit had risen up from that somber grave light and free. Riding the breeze above two dozen mourners he had watched his own funeral and listened to his friends’ rough eulogies, and the ghost cat had smiled, touched by the men’s awkward sentiment.
As ghost he had remained on McNeil with Lee until Lee was paroled. The old man might be a thief and a train robber, but Misto saw something more, he saw a vulnerability in Lee Fontana, a tenderness that Lee, all his life, had tried to conceal. The ghost cat saw qualities within the old convict that made him purr, that kept him close, determined to shield Lee from the fate the dark prince held in store for the crusty old train robber. When Lee was paroled, Misto followed him off the island. Balanced invisibly on the rail of the prison launch that carried them across Puget Sound, amused by the icy spray in his face, the ghost cat raced along the rail as the boat plied the rough, deep waters drawing near to the small town of Steilacoom, to the railway stop where Lee would board his train for California.
Once Lee settled on the southbound train, claiming a long bench seat for himself, the ghost cat had moved invisibly through the rocking cars staring up at the passengers and nosing into their lunch bags. But soon enough he had returned to Lee to curl up beside him on the cracked leather seat. It was a long journey, Misto had napped close to Lee but then, when he grew bored, he would drift up through the iron roof to ride atop the train; galloping the length of the racing cars in the gusting wind; Misto was part of the wind. As ghost, the small spirit was far more frivolous than ever he had been as a living, earthbound tomcat.
That had been only a few months back, in early March when Lee headed down the West Coast to take a job in the Coachella Valley at the parole board’s direction, working one of the vast vegetable farms that fed half of California. Leaving Steilacoom, their train had swayed along beside the sea through green pastures and through small cozy towns dwarfed by Washington’s snowcapped peaks. When, along the ever-changing coastline, flocks of birds exploded away the cat leaped after them into the wind, diving and banking, gulping the small, winged morsels as a hawk or eagle might feast,
Only near the end of their three-day journey did the land abruptly change. Moving south through green miles of orange and avocado groves, suddenly the groves ended. They were racing across pale, dry desert. As they descended a rocky, parched mountain, the ghost cat crowded between Lee and the window, watching the flat desert, dry as bone, stretching to the horizon,.
But, soon, startling them both, the sandy expanse was broken by green farms laid out in emerald squares on the pale bare desert. A patchwork of vegetable fields, each as lush as a jungle, where river water fed the land, water piped in from the great Colorado. They could see men with trucks and tractors working the fields, harvesting rich crops of beans, melons, strawberries, and produce Lee couldn’t name—but the ghost cat, ascending again to the top of the train for a wider look, was suddenly engulfed in blackness. Darkness hid the sun and from it a man-shape emerged towering over him, its eyes gleaming.
Hissing, the cat stood his ground, ears back, teeth bared. “What do you want?” He had no physical power over the wraith, he had only the power of the spirit—his will, against Satan’s eternal and devious lust. “You’ve done your work,” Misto growled, “or tried to. You’ve made your pitch too many times over the years. Every time, you’ve failed. At none of the crimes you’ve laid out have you succeeded in corrupting Lee. Whatever robbery he undertook, he did it his way, not yours.”
His yellow eyes raked the devil. “You think the curse you laid on Lee’s family is still to be won? No,” the tomcat rumbled. “You’ve failed in your vow to take down the heir of Russell Dobbs. You’re the loser. Go torture someone else, you have no business here.”
Satan’s smile made the cat’s fur stand rigid but the next moment the wraith was gone, vanished, his lingering look of promise stirring a shiver along the tomcat’s spine.
It was only a few weeks later that Lucifer appeared on the farm where Lee was working. Again, after weeks of sparring, Lee refused to commit the crime Satan pressed on him.
It was that refusal that had led Lee here to Springfield. Lee had chosen, against the devil’s seduction, a robbery that, instead of maiming and destroying lives, would harm no one. Scoffing at the devil, he had devised a foolproof alibi that would remove him from the crime scene but leave him with a wealth of stolen cash. And that would burden him with only a few months prison time on a less serious misdemeanor.
But even then, the wraith continued to torment Lee. And, as well, to ply his evil on the little child back in Georgia who was the other half of the puzzle that so fascinated the ghost cat, the child about whom Lee knew nothing.
Though, in a previous life Misto had lived with Sammie, had been her own cat, she was still a mystery to him; he knew only that there was, somehow, an inexplicable connection between nine-year-old Sammie Blake and Lee Fontana.
Lee, nearly all his life, had carried with him the small framed photograph of his little sister Mae, taken some sixty years ago on the Dakota ranch. Mae was eight then, and Lee was twelve. He carried the picture when he left the ranch, a boy of sixteen setting out to conquer the world. Setting out to learn, on his own, to rob the steam trains as skillfully as Russell Dobbs could ever do. Lee didn’t seek to join Dobbs or to find him, Dobbs would have had none of that. To him, Lee was only a boy.
Lee hadn’t seen Mae since he’d left the ranch, had seen none of his family again, and didn’t know if they were still alive, except for his granddaddy. The legends and stories he heard of Dobbs’s feats, and the newspaper headlines, were fodder to his young mind. But, like Dobbs, Lee was a loner. He had gone his way, and the rest of his family had gone theirs. Still, he thought about Mae often, and always he carried the small tintype wrapped in cloth, bent from being stuffed into a saddlebag or in his pocket.
It was only the ghost cat who knew, and worried over, the likeness between Lee’s little sister of some sixty years gone, and the child now in Georgia, the child Misto loved and had so recently lived with. The uncertain relationship between the two children teased at the tomcat. But even now, as a ghost with his wider vision, he was not all-seeing. This puzzle was as stubborn as a knot of tangled yarn.
Was there a connection between the two children? How could there not be when they were so alike, and when fate had put them both so close to Misto as he moved through time and space? It seemed to him that Lee, and present-day Sammie Blake, were being inexorably drawn together, he felt himself part of a drama that was only beginning to play out. A pattern was forming within the vastness of eternity, but he didn’t know why. Were these events driven by the will of the dark one? Or were they happening in defiance of Satan’s efforts? That was the heart of the question.
Misto’s short life in Georgia occurred between the moment he died at McNeil Island, and the instant that he, moving back in time, rose from his own grave as a ghost cat. A whole life lived outside the linear view of time. He was given to Sammie when she was five, when her daddy first went in the navy. Now, as a spirit, he saw his various lives floating on the realm of eternity as fishing skiffs might float rocking and shifting on an endless sea.
Now, stepping off the hospital roof, Misto rode the wind floating along peering in through the rows of windows, one window to the next until he found Lee in a small examining room. There, he rested on the fitful breeze, watching.
The old convict looked so vulnerable sitting on the metal table with his shirt off his thin, ropy shoulders, his chest ivory white and frail. But his lower arms, his neck and wrinkled face were hard-looking, tanned to leather. Dr. Donovan, stethoscope in hand, was listening to Lee’s lungs. Ed Donovan was young and lean, short blond hair, deep blue eyes. He was a runner, Misto would see him of an early morning circling the paths inside the prison complex, his pale hair mussed, his pace easy. He was patient with Lee, and at each visit he seemed to read precisely Lee’s state of health, even before he examined the old man. He could tell by Lee’s expression and the way he moved precisely how Lee felt, though he always did examine him, designing Lee’s treatments according to what he observed. Under Donovan’s guidance, Misto thought Lee would grow as healthy as he could ever expect to be, considering the debilitation caused by the emphysema.
The cat thought about Lee’s hope that within a few months, under the good care at Springfield, he would be pronounced healthy, would be discharged from the federal medical facility, would be back on parole heading for Blythe to retrieve the stolen money and then down to Mexico beyond easy reach of the feds.
Misto didn’t think so. Trying to see the future, he felt his fur crawl. He sensed a far longer journey ahead, a more complicated and dangerous tangle than Lee dreamed before he reached California again to claim the treasure. Misto’s fragmented glimpses into the future were, often, like the abandoned skiffs in high water, visible for only an instant; the shadow of a prow or of a coiled line obscured by engulfing waves. Now the yellow tom prayed for the old train robber in the journey that lay ahead, he prayed that Lee might find a new kind of treasure, more tender than Lee would ever imagine.