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THE WILDCAT

By Erik L. Smith

Fritz was lounging peacefully on the warm golden sand when he first caught sight of it It stood far, faraway out to sea, on an island so remote it seemed unreachable Fritz knew that only an old, experienced hunter, such as himself, could have determined exactly what that creature was. The movements of its head as it hunted and scrounged for its nourishment and the peculiar folding of its legs were the only things that gave its identity away. It was a Praying Mantis!

But as Fritz spied the creature from his distant spot, with his aging--yet still superior--eyesight, he noticed this was no ordinary mantis. It wasn't green like other mantidae, but black, ugly--and very big. And Fritz knew what that meant: lots of meat!

Just how big the mantis was Fritz couldn't say. But to judge from the distance, the slow lumbering, rhythmic movements of its body, and of course, from Fritz's almost innumerable cat years of hunting experience, it had to be the biggest he'd ever seen. This had to be the largest, most powerful mantis on the face of the earth!

I must have it, Fritz thought. What would it mean to bring it back to the neighborhood? I would be a hero. No longer just an aging Tom past his prime. No longer accused of lounging in the sun while other cats hunted! And the females--ahh, the stud I used to be so many cat moons ago.

To bring this mantis home to his masters and his kin would mean more than just honor and pride for Fritz. It would mean food for everyone. The end of fighting, the end of scrounging, the end of poverty and fear. He and his clan would be wealthy! Able to buy anything to help or protect them! In short--lifelong security.

This in mind, Fritz rose to meet his destiny. With the lighted island paradise in sight, he began a slow trot toward the water's edge--that same water's edge where no cat had ever gone before. That same water's edge where cats, who didn't like water, were told never to go; and until now a place he had never had reason to venture As Fritz neared the cold reality, he trotted faster and faster, reaching a full sprint as he lunged into the first breaking wave.

It was an excellent start and in minutes he was several meters off shore stroking determinedly toward the island that seemed a lifetime away. Fritz was more motivated now than ever before. He did not feel the coldness of the water. He did not fear the possibility of dangerous fish, perhaps sharks, who would just love to munch on something new He did not sense the fatigue that would inevitably befall his elderly body.

Instead, his previously sagging jowls felt buoyant, his claws strong and his muscles, not tired and lazy, but numerous and taut. He fought courageously against the current as wave after wave crashed upon him, sending cold salt-water over his ears, into his eyes, over his face, and throughout his whiskers. The lack of comfort did not bother him.

His determined strokes soon took him further from shore than anyone, any cat at least, had ever dared to go. Fritz was not concerned. He gave no thought to the lazy, mortal beings on shore. His only goal was the island and the huge, lumbering preying mantis waiting to be conquered and brought home.

He swam well into the night, passing the halfway point and by the time he was within jumping distance of the island shore the dawn had already begun to break Fritz did not stop paddling until he felt the stone-cold shore of the glorious island And he did not rest upon reaching his preliminary destination. Instead, quickly, with alternate sweeping motions of his paws, he wiped the excess water from his eyes and head. This done, he saw the creature mere meters away. His instinct told him to do a shivering headshake to rid the excess water, but he refrained in fear that this might scare away the beast.

Fritz's heart began to pound, for he knew that he now stood on the edge of immortality He knew that only the easy part was over, and that the real fight--the fight of his life--was soon to begin. The matching not only of brawn, but also of wit between two earthly creatures, both of whom somehow bigger than life: Fritz, and the world's largest mantis!

Fritz approached his prey carefully from the rear, stopping only a few feet from his victim. The big, black mantis was perched on its relatively short, folded legs for support. Its head bobbed rhythmically as it feasted on a rich and luxurious meal. The beast was so engrossed with what it was doing that it did not notice Fritz's preparative stalking--not that it would have noticed anyway, so instinctive and refined was Fritz's skill. Moreover, as probably normal for preying mantises of this size, the creature made hissing sounds as it ate; sounds which, Fritz determined after a few keen observations, grew louder as the mantis' head went down and softer as the head came back up. These factors, combined with the quickness of the launch, made the huge predator totally unaware of the attack.

Fritz timed it perfectly. After the third time down with its head, Fritz lunged atop of the creature, piercing the back of its neck with what should have been a deadly assault. Time would tell.

The mantis, so unprepared for what must have been the first attack ever on its well being, began a vigorous effort to shake Fritz off. Fritz hung on tenaciously as the creature, with seemingly more and louder hissing sounds than before, reared its head again and again to send Fritz crashing to the ground. But Fritz did not crash to the ground. He knew that if he could hang on long enough to wear out his foe, or perhaps snap the nerve, he would win. Fritz knew that he could eventually conquer the mantis, for the beast was so big and so heavy and so implanted that it could not create the inertia necessary to roll over and crush the ferocious feline. It was evident, at least in the beginning, that Fritz had the upper hand.

What Fritz did not realize, however, was the inexhaustible energy of the great mantis In clearly a fight for its own life, the great beast showed not even the slightest sign of tiring. It kept fighting on and on. After a point, Fritz's fatigue was only overcome by willpower. And great willpower it took.

Each time the mantis raised up, it took more effort for Fritz to hang on--much less to kill the beast. Fritz's paws were stretched to the limit. Even then his arms did not reach the head of this monster. He locked his powerful jaws, with their razor sharp teeth, as firmly as possible around the impenetrable skin. This was the strongest, most invincible--most imperialistic!--creature on the face of the earth.

As the mantis went down once more, and with the usual momentum, snapped its head up to expel the annoying foe, Fritz started to slip. In a gallant effort to hang on, Fritz sprung out even further with both of his powerful paws. He managed to get a grip and save himself, but not without the loss of his important outside claw--the one that gave him strength and balance in critical situations. Fritz meowed, hissed, and growled in agony, blood flowing into the crevices between his other barely intact claws and their hard-cased membrane enclosures, then spreading throughout the fur along the entire length of his front arm. His paws were totally worn, and they burned and blistered. With yet another merciless jerk from the beast, Fritz bit so hard into the creature's iron-like neck that a front fang broke clean off. For the first time since the battle had begun, who knew how many hours ago, Fritz started to wonder if he might not make it. The huge mantis showed no sign of slowing. With everything he had, Fritz gave one last effort and lunged directly for the head of the machine-like beast.

Unbeknownst to Fritz, two men ran up to the commotion.

"God almighty!" one blurted, "that's a cat up there!"

"What's he doing?" the other asked. "He'll get crushed!"

"How did he get to the islands?"

"I don't know, but you better go into the control room and put a stop to this!"

The first man disappeared.

Fritz however, barely conscious now, and oblivious to the two men, was still fighting and hanging on, hoping for victory.

And for Fritz it came. Suddenly, the lights went out on this island paradise. His eyesight, usually so keenly adapted to the dark, was now fuzzy and Fritz felt more than saw his prey break in its relentlessness. It came in a jerk so sudden, hitting Fritz's locked jaws so hard, that yet another tooth broke off. Only the enormous natural momentum of the beast's weight kept its rigid limbs still bobbing after its neural circuits had been cut. Finally, the dead beast came to its last grinding bob of a halt; and Fritz's wet, tired body slid slowly down the enormous neck of the fallen mantis.

By now, the second man had made his way over to the previously fighting pair and, arms outstretched, waited to catch Fritz at the end of his oil-induced slide.

Fritz felt a human hand go under his back legs. A second later another hand went up to support his front paws and body. Fritz did not fight at all, for the fight was over, and he felt sure he had won--at least in some way. Besides, the mantis was his enemy today, not man.

As the man gently lifted Fritz off, he carefully turned him around so that the incredible, old fighting feline was facing him directly. Face-to face, eye-to-eye, the man, in total amazement, agape in disbelief, looked at the contentedly suspended Fritz, at the glazed eyes, the worn, puffy, blood-colored jowls, the by now whiskerless face, the broken, mangled teeth, the body covered only with patches of fur, and the dirty, grimy arms that led to raw blistered paws and said, "you silly kitty--crazy wildcat!--what are you doing so far from home, climbing on the oil pumps?"

Copyright 2006 Erik L. Smith

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