Once, many, many Saturday mornings ago, long before Powerpuff and Johnny Bravo, before even The Smurfs were born, in an obscure region of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon world, in a Southern county near the Georgia-Florida border, there lived a little raccoon. He liked nothing more than to cause havoc, this raccoon, especially for one Buford bloodhound. But not long after the Buford Files series was cancelled, that little raccoon’s mischief finally got him in over his head with the Dog of Purple.
This is that story…
THE SWAMP PHANTOM
Part 1: Donkey Ears
"C'mon, Buford" yelled Cindy Mae. "Or we'll be late for the Pinocchio play at Fenokee Theatre. "Oh yeah? Oh okay." mumbled Buford, the lavender bloodhound, as he stretched lazily out on the steps of Boggs' Landing. Woody was already in the Boggs' twins' pickup revving the engine. Both Woody and Cindy Mae had looked after the place, when old man Boggs had passed away a few years ago. The twins and Buford spent most of their time solving mysteries involving local highjackings, robberies, kidnapping, scams, and other shady activities. Cindy Mae got in and slammed shut the door. Buford gallomphed across the dusty drive and lept into the back of the pickup. Almost as soon as the three were on their way, Buford was asleep once more. As usual, Buford began to dream. His head filled with thoughts of the Pinocchio play, in the dream he became a barker for Pleasure Island. In the dream-world, Buford stood behind a reception desk, in a gloomy corridor, flanked by deep purple vellum curtains. Buford wore a deep blue frock coat, and a matching coachman's hat, much like the Pleasure Island coachman in the story. A huge banner hung overhead, advertising, in vibrant red letters:
WELCOME TO PLEASURE ISLAND! ALL RACCOONS WELCOME,ESPECIALLY THOSE WITH SMALL BLUE HEADBANDS! ALL THE SWEETCORN AND SHOO-FLY PIE YOU CAN EAT!! WREAK ALL THE HAVOC YOU WANT!! NOBODY HERE WILL STOP YOU!!!!
The other side of the circular room was hung with contrasting red vellum drapes. Someone drew these curtains apart close to the floor, and from behind them stepped Buford's longtime nemesis, the Little Raccoon." Mu-saaaw!" the Raccoon exclaimed, giving a low oriental bow. He approached the desk, and his masked face peered up at Buford. The Raccoon's eyes grew wide as he read the extravagant banner behind the desk. "Me want Pweasure Iswand!" he piped up excitedly, and began leaping up and down in front of the desk, in an effort to grab himself a ticket. Since he was too small to reach the desk, Buford reached down, and with a sneer presented the Raccoon with a red ticket with Admit One printed on it. The Raccoon's nimble fingers snatched up the ticket."Hey! Let me tear it." Buford mumbled, though he suppressed another sneer. The Raccoon's eyes were now agleam with mischief. He held out the ticket for Buford to tear, but when Buford tried to take it with his clumsy paw, a mild jolt of static, passed through him, causing his eyes to google. His head slumped on the desk. He shook his head to clear it, and then glowered at the Raccoon, who held out his hand, displaying a tiny joy-buzzer on one finger. "I shut off!" said the Raccoon quickly, as Buford began to growl at him. But as he touched a small switch on the joy buzzer, a jet of black ink squirted from it onto Buford, ruining his blue suit. G-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r- Buford began ominously, as the Raccoon fell on his belly emitting peals of shrill laughter. But then he remembered that this time he would have the last laugh, and he stopped growling and smiled wickedly. All at once, the Raccoon's small ears morphed into flaring donkey-ears. The Raccoon stopped laughing immediately. He knew something was dreadfully wrong, but he didn't know what. Buford was starring at him, starting to snicker evilly. The Raccoon began to feel up the sides of his masked face. When his fingers touched his ears, his eyes widened in shock and dismay. This soon gave way to horror, as he ran his hands up the extremities of his ears. "Bonzai!!! The Raccoon cried in terror. Buford, his face a mask of deviltry, held out a small clear vial of pink fluid, labeled antidote, tauntingly."Give me! Oh, pwease, pwease pweeeease!!! begged the Raccoon pathetically. Why don't you just steal it, you no-good pie-thief! Buford thought to himself. He snatched the vial away with an evil chuckle as the Raccoon made a flying leap for it. But even as he did so, the Raccoon's clever hands changed into hooves, which slammed clumsily against the desk. Splayed on the floor, the purple dog's evil laughter in his ears, the former Raccoon looked back to see his beautiful, banded tail shrivel into a ratty donkey's tail. Then, even his masked face became that of a donkey, and only his blue bow-knot remained to identify him. He opened his mouth to plead some more, but all that came out was a bray like a donkey. Buford grasped a golden pull-rope. At last it as pay-back time for the Raccoon.The former raccoon then noticed that he was standing directly over a trapped door. When Buford pulled the chord, he would slide down into the darkness to a barge where he would be shipped away to a hard job hauling loads somewhere. No more pranks or shoofly pie for him! But before Buford could pull it, his dream poofed out of existence. He raised his head and looked around. He was still in the back of the pickup, and the truck had stopped. But they hadn't arrived at Fenokee theatre. The were still in the swamp somewhere, and some distance away, over the side to the pickup, Buford could see the flashing blue lights of the sheriff. "Woody, it's the Sheriff!" Cindy Mae exclaimed. "Wonder what's wrong?"
"Let's check it out." said Woody.
The Stolen Heffer
As they drove closer, they saw that the Sheriff was at Clarence Huffsteader's place. Woody turned off the paved road, and headed to where the Sheriff was parked. In the flashing light, they could see Sheriff Muletrain and deputy Goofer talking to Clarence Huffsteader, and his two sons Bert and Morton Huffsteader. Goofer looked back over his shoulder when the Boggs pickup approached. "Sheriff!" Goofer exclaimed, "It's those pesky Boggs kids again!"
Sheriff Muletrain looked in the same direction, as the twins and Buford got out of the pickup. "Well, my grits and gravy. So it is!"
"What's up Sheriff?" asked Woody
"Something broke into the Huffsteader stockade last night, and made off with one of his heffers. I called some animal control men to take care of it, ‘an we’re supposed to meet ‘em here.”
"Yep." said Clarence Huffsteader. "somethin' big. Took out one of my year old heffers an' dragged 'im off clean as whistle."
"What do ya reckon it was?" Cindy Mae asked.
"Well, from the looks of them tracks," Bert Huffsteader said. "I reckon it had to be the work of a panther!"
"A panther!" Woody exclaimed, shocked. "No way!"
"Panther?" echoed Buford, his long purple ears going straight up.
"Yep!" confirmed Clarence. "'An there's only one swamp panther could make paw prints like them. Old Woundfoot!"
"Who?" asked Cindy Mae.
"Woundfoot. The biggest, meanest ornriest swamp panther in Fenokee!"
"Well, by now I think he's probably the only swamp panther in Fenokee." replied Cindy Mae. She knew of course, that years ago, there had been many swamp panthers in Florida. But now, after bounty hunters had nearly whipped them out, they were very few. The notion that one had raided the Huffsteader stockade left her skeptical.
"Anything we can do to help?" Woody asked.
Clarence looked about to answer, but the Sheriff beat him to it. "Now you Boggs kids keep your noses out of this, ya, hear?" Muletrain said. "I've already got this whole entire situation under control!"
"Yep. that's right!" joined in Goofer. "The Sheriff just hired the best conservation officers in the state. Well, glory be! There they are now."
Everyone's eyes turned toward the Huffsteader's gravel drive, where a huge, dark green van was driving, its headlights slicing through the night. As the van pulled up, they could see the white letters on the side which read Florida Department of Conservation and Animal Control.
The van parked, and two young men in conservation uniform got out. One man had reddish hair, and wore an orange bill cap. The other was darker haired, with a mustach. "Howdy folks." one man said. "Hear you might have some kind of situation? I'm Steve Tarkins of the Florida Department of Conservation, and this is my brother Bill."
"Please to meet ya, and welcome to Fenokee County." the Sheriff said, pumping Steve Tarkins’ hand. "I think you might be able to help us. Mr. Huffsteader here swears a panther broke into his stockade and made off with a heffer, reckon he's right?"
"Well, let's have us a look see." Bill Tarkins said.
"Wait, hold it." Cindy Mae said. "If you don't mind, we'd like to look at those tracks too."
The Sheriff shrugged. "Suit yourself. But like I told you kids, I already have this situation under control."
"That's right." said Goofer. "You kids better listen to the Sheriff! He knows exactly what he's talking about. He's the one knows how to deal with differcult situations like this. Just like the last time when-"
"Shut up Goofer!" snorted the Sheriif quickly, before Goofer could say more. "Don't remind me!"
"Oops, sorry, Sheriff." ammended Goofer, as all of them followed Clarence, Bert and Morton around to the back of the barn. It certainly looked like something had broken in, all right. Half the barn door was splintered, and hanging on its hinges.
"Yep, think you're right, Mr. Huffsteader." Steve Takrins said "Those do look like puma tracks."
"Well, Gol-lee, Sheriff!" said Goofer, bending over to look at them. "They look peculiar small panther tracks to me! Recken he's a mighty small feller."
"Let me look!" said Muletrain, bending over to look himself. The Sheriff shook his head in mild disgust. "You mellonhead, Goofer. Can't you tell panther tracks from swamp rat tracks!"
But Buford already had his nose to the ground, flashing bright red as he examined the prints.The scent left by the prowler was not that of a swamprat-and neither were the prints. It was definitely that of opossum, and Buford, who had lived all his life in Fenokee, knew it well. "Them's not swamp rat tracks!" he announced sleepily.
"What was that, Buford?" Cindy Mae asked. Buford was always unintelligible to her.
"He says they ain't swamp rat tracks!" said Woody, to whom Buford was always perfectly clear.
"He's right." Cindy Mae, as she examined them closely "Them's ‘possum tracks!"
"Oh," said the Sheriff. “Right. I knew that."
Cindy Mae noticed Bill and Steve Tarkins exchanged worried glances, at mention of the possum tracks. This struck her as odd, especially since there was what appeared to be a genuine set of puma tracks-and big ones leading in and out of the bar, with the drag-marks of what could only be the stolen heffer carcass.
"Well, no blamed ‘possum made off with my heffer!" said Clarence. "that was a panther for certain, an' my boys are gittn' the hounds togather to go git 'im come sunrise! You kids and yer dog are welcome to join us if ya like." he said to the Boggs twins.
"No you won't, Mr. Huffsteader." said Bill Tarkins. "If this here's a genuine swamp panther, and I'd say it is, then it's an endangered species. And if it's really a black puma,like you say, it could be a unique specimen."
"So the Sheriff told you, eh?" said Clarence. "Well, Woundfoot happens to be black as midnight! My pa seen him hisself a few years back. Got 'is name from the bullet someone put in 'is right paw, 'bout four years ago. I don't think he's ever shown up in this part of the swamp before, though. He used to live South of here-over the county line. But I swear it's him! He's come back to raid all the livestock in Fenokee!"
"Now don't be like that!" said Tarkins. "often when animals get older, they take to killin' livestock. That cat's paw does look wounded. But don't fret. We'll take care of your panther problem. Just leave things to us."
"By the way", said Steve "We already know about your local panther legend. We did some checking with the locals herebouts, and an old lady name of Jenna Crowley told us all about him. Swears it's a true story. She told us how to catch him and everything."
"Jenna Crowley?" asked Cindy Mae. "You mean-"
“Yep. said she's the sister of a fellow lives round these parts name of Jebedia Crowley."
"Jeb Crowley has a sister?" asked Woody "I never did know that!"
"Yep. Keeps her a secret pretty much, so she says. Think the familys' ashamed of her of somethin', sos you might not have heard of her. We met her at the Community center when we came in, and told us she wanted to help. Says she lives out in the swamp,and makes her living telling fortunes and stuff. If you kids want to know more about Woundfoot yourself, I think you should look her up. You'll find her 'bout five miles from here, just make a right turn at Moccassin Hollow, then head due east into the deepest blackest part of this here swamp."
Buford was eyeing the two officers with suspician. Humans didn't pay him much attention,so they didn't notice, but there was definitely something false about the man's story, and it caused a growl to rise in his throat. He didn't know what it was, but somehow he didn't trust these two men.
"Well, I'll be a horney toad, Sheriff, I never did know that either, said Goofer.
"Neither did I, Goofer." admitted the sheriff. “But these guys must know what they're talking about."
"What are you going to do?" Cindy Mae asked.
"Why, we're gonna set a baited trap for him, where he's sure to look. Them we'll set him loose in a wildlife santuary. 'Preciate your concern, kids. Let's go Bill. We've got us a panther to catch."
The two officers got into the van and drove off.
"Ya know, there's somethin' mighty peculiar about those two officers.I'm not sure they're from the wildlife department at all!" said Cindy Mae.
"What makes you say that?" asked Woody.
Cindy Mae shrugged. "Well, if Jeb Crowley has a sister, how come they found out about her, and we never even heard of her! And we've lived in Fenokee all our lives! You sure you trust them, Sheriff?"
Sheriff Muletrain almost jumped. "Trust them? Now look here, Cindy Mae. I hired those two myself!"
"No buts! I happen to be an excellent judge of character!"
Buford groaned, and wagged his head in disgust when he heard this . "Sheesh!" he mumbled. Sometimes he couldn't believe Muletrain's arrogance.
"Well, Goofer." said the Sheriff. "let's get a move on. We've got important work to do."
"Yessir, Sheriff." As the sheriff and Goofer were getting in their car, the others jumped as they heard the sound of Goofers pistol go off by accident. This time the bullet had punctured the the oil tank, and a jet of dark oil gushed out onto the drive.
"GOOFER!!" roared the Sheriff. The twins, Buford, and the Huffsteaders could hear the commotion from where they were. Finally, the Sheriff's car drove off, leaving a trail of fresh oil in its wake.
"Do you mind if we take a look around the barn, Mr. Huffsteader?"
"Can if you want, kids." said Clarence. "But ya ain't goin to find nothun' though."
"We'll see." said Cindy Mae. "let's go Woody."
Buford was already well ahead of them. His ears were up like radars, and his nose was blinking as he sniffed around othe perimete of the door.His eyes googled as he noticed something peculiar about the door. It had been splintered into, but the hinges looked like they had already been loosened, with a hammer maybe, or a crowbar. He tapped the door with his paw and it gave slightly. He was right. there was definitely something amiss here. He them turned his attention to the panther tracks. Yes, they did carry the scent of some kind of cat, only magnified several times over. "Something strange is going on here!" he muttered.
"Buford says something strange is going on." said Woody.
"Yeah, he's right." said Cindy Mae. "These hinges- they look like they've been pried off!"
"By Golly, they do! But how could that be, if an animal broke in here?"
"I don't know. But ya know what? I think we should investigate that Jenna Crowley."
"Do you think she could tell us who or what did this?"
"Not really. But I'm curious to see if she's really who she says she is! And now that I think about it, it seems I know those two Tarkins characters somewhere before."
Meanwhile, Buford had lain down to rest. All at once, his nose picked up another scent...his eyes snapped open. It was a sharp pungent se smell The lanky hound got to his feet, as his every sense went rigid. He knew by instinct that he had stumbled upon yet another clue. He began to follow the scent.
"Hey, Buford's on to something again!"
"He shore is! What's up, Buford?"
Buford was poised straight forward, red nose flashing like a traffic signal. "What's this?" he mumbled lethargically.
Woody bent down and picked it up. It appeared to be a cloth of some kind. "It's just an old hankerchief. One of them conservation guys must have lost it."
"It smells like paint." Buford pointed out.
"Buford says it smells like paint."
Cindy Mae took the cloth,and looked it over. "It is paint. Spray paint of some kind. Looks like black enamel."
"What do you make of it, Sis?"
"I'm not sure. But we'll keep it as evidence. Right now, let's take the swamp buggy out to Moccassin Hollow. I've a hunch we'll find more clues out there."
"Sure we need to?" Woody asked shakily. Mocassin hollow was a dangerous place fill ed with sinkholes, quicksand and gators-not to mention some eerie legends, of folks who had vanished in the swamp without a trace. Perhaps someone could have remained hidden out there.
"You guys ain't scared are you?" Cindy Mae asked, giving them each a stern look.
"Scared?" snorted Buford "Humph!", even though a shiver rippled up his spine.
"How 'bout you, Woody?"
"Scared? Er, no! But what about the play?" asked Woody.
"We can still see it later. Our tickets are good all week. Right now we've got a mystery to solve."
All at once, a low, keening sound wafted over the swamp, through the cyrpess trees. But it was very faint, and at first, only Buford heard it. His right ear sprung up like a radar, cupped itself, and pointed due east in direction the weird sound had issued. Buford listened intently, waiting for the sound to come again. For what seemed a long while there was only the sighing wind through the drifts of Spanish moss. And then....
The cry sounded eerily over the swamplands, at last dying away into the moaning of the wind. Lavender goosebumps sprouted crazily all over Buford's hide. He fell into a crouch, holding his paws over his eyes, and shuddering, his ears no tucked securely beneath him.
Woody and Cindy Mae had heard it too this time. "Glory be!" exclaimed Woody, once he had found his breath. Shivers were racing up and down his spine. "That ain't no bobcat, that's a panther for sure!"
"Well, it's something, that's for sure!" admitted Cindy Mae. "C'mon, ya guys."
They drove back to Boggs' Landing, and set out once more, only this time, they took the swamp buggy. it was now pitch-dark, and the moon was obscured by heavy clouds, a fact for which the twins were grateful. They didn't want Buford alerting anyone to their whereabouts. The cypress trees loomed stark and black in the gloom, their drifts of Spanish moss blowing like graveshrouds. The eerie calls of night herons and other swamp birds sounding in the darkness, causing Woody to gulp nervously. The croaking and chirruping of bullfrogs and peepers sounded all about them. And from the distant bayous sounded the full-throated calls of bull gators.
The twins knew practically all of Fenokee Swamp, but they were now headed into a region few had dared to venture. Mocassin Hollow was a place very close to the deepest part of Fenokee, that fabled part of the swamp some said could swallow a man up forever. Buford was stretched out lazily on the prow of the swamp buggy. He had been almost as nervous as Woody when they first started out, but as usual, sleep took care of that pretty much. He knew they were safe as long as they were together, or Woody or Cindy Mae would give an alarm. So he just allowed himself to enjoy the cool rush of swamp air past his face, and the rich miasma of marshy scents it brought with it. The myriad scents of Fenokee swamp at night--it soothed his razzled nerves, and allowed him to drift into a semi-comfortable sleep. But thoughts of what had pillaged the Huffsteader farm, and what they might now be heading into, still flirted darkly through his mind.
"There it is," Buford heard Woody say, and one of his ears shot up. "Mocassin Hollow."
"Mocassin Hollow?" Buford echoed drowsily, as he lifted his head, and stared ahead through a grove of cypress trees. Someone had long ago posted a wooden sign that read MOCASSIN HOLLOW : PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
"Golly!" said Woody. "Don't ya think maybe this ain't such a good idea, Sis?"
"We have to go on, Woody. If we want some answers, that is."
"Oh, alright, Sis." He swerved the buggy to the right, cutting a wide swath through the dark water, and headed on through the cypress trees. It wasn't long before they'd left the open areas of the swamp completely behind them. The cyrpess trees slowly closed behind them like a dark, forbidding wall. The weird croaks of frogs ,and the bellowing of the bull gators seemed much louder here, and more ominous. Buford no longer felt like sleeping. There was something about the section of swamp they had entered that demanded his every sense be on the alert. His ears were up, and pointed straight ahead, straining for the faintest possible trace of oncoming danger. Woody gulped in fear, as he looked around in the gloom, and even Cindy Mae looked nervous. By now they were indeed into the deepest, blackest part of Fenokee Swamp, farther than they had ever been before.
Then Buford's ultra-sensitive olfactory senses snagged onto the smell of something cooking-something that smelled like frog stew, and his nose flahsed bright red. The sudden sound of its beeping caused Woody to jump.
"What's up, Buford?" he asked.
Buford sprung to his feet, and his lanky form pointed straight ahead."Somethins' cookin'" he mumbled.
"What did he say?" Cindy Mae asked.
"He said something's cooking. But what is it?"
"I think he meant something's is cooking, Woody. I mean, someone's has a cookfire burning up ahead."
Buford, his nose still flashing like a red lightbulb, said, "There's light over there."
"Buford says there's light over there, right through them trees-I see it too!" Woody announced in a shaky voice.
Woody pulled the swamp buggy in closer, and eased up on the engine. The soft whirring of the blades died down, and they could all see it now. There was a soft, whitish-gold light seeping between the trunks of the bald cypresses.
They approached cautiously, weaving their buggy through the grove. At length,they could see where the light was issuing. Hoisted above the water on wooden stilts, as where most of the buildings on the edge of Fenokee, was a strange wooden dwelling. But this building was deep in the great swamp's heart, far from any human habitation. Woody gulped again when he saw it. The place had a peeling, dilapidated roof, and the boards were, crusted with greenish-gray mold, and thick with drifts of shaggy moss. But smoke curled up from a metal smoke pipe,and the windows glowed with warm light. The dwelling was clearly inhabitated, but by whom or what, he didn't want to guess.
"Mah grits and gravy," Woody said. "That's one uuugly place, Cindy Mae! It shore gives me the creeps!"
"Me too, Woody," Cindy Mae admitted. "But we've got to check it out, after we've come all the way out here. You guys up to it?"
"Er, uh, yeah, right, we sure are, Cindy Mae."
"Yeah, " agreed Buford, although he didn't sound all that convinced either.
"C'mon, then, let's get a move on!" said Cindy Mae, sounding as confident as ever.
They parked the buggy, and went up the wood stairs, and knocked testily on the frame door of the bizarre dwelling. For a while, nobody answered.
"Doesn't look like there's anybody home." Buford mumbled.
"Buford doesn't think, there's anybody here." said Woody. "Let's go."
But just then, the door did open up a crack. The weathered, grayish face of an elderly woman peered out. She had a cloth like a bandanna wrapped around her head. Her eyes glinted like black opals.
"What do you youngn’s want?" she demanded in a sour voice.
"Excuse us, ma'am, said Cindy Mae. But are you by any chance Jenna Crowly, Jeb's sister?"
"That's none of yer business. Now be off with ya!"
She started to shut the door, but to the dismay of Buford and Woody, Cindy Mae stopped her. "It's about some kind of wild animal that's been raiding the farms around Fenokee. Some outsider folk told us you might know what it was."
This got the old lady's attention. "So...you met 'em did you? Well, that's right. I did tell some outsider folk about ol' Woundfoot. What's that to you."
"We'd like you to tell us more about Woundfoot, ma'am."
"I told them outsiders 'cause my powers told me what was happening at the Fenokee farms, and that some outsider folks was a-comin' in. I didn't want that mean old panther to be shot. He's lived to long to deserve that! So that's why I helped the outsiders. But I can't tell you folks nuthin', ‘less you give me somethin’ in return."
"What do you want?" Cindy Mae asked "Money?"
"Only if you're willing to do business. I read fortunes, and help people solve any problem they may have. But you must be willing. Shorely, there's something I may help you with?"
Cindy Mae didn't believe that for an instant, but she said,"Alright, fine, how much will it cost us for you to read our fortunes?"
"A buck each." replied Jenna Crowley tartly, if that really was her name.
Woody started to reach in his wallet for the money he and Cindy Mae had made at the local grocery. But the hag held up a boney hand. "Don't bother paying-not yet! Let me look yougn’s over first. Which of you has a problem that needs fixing?"
"None of us!" started Cindy Mae, "we just want--"
But the old woman's eyes bore into her, and she fell silent. The woman's eyes panned over each of them, one at a time. Her face didn't change when she looked at Cindy Mae and Woody. But a strange, cold light came into her eyes when they fell upon Buford. "You!" she hissed through her corroded teeth, pointing a boney finger at the dog.
"Me?" said Buford, eyes going wide.
"You have a problem."
"I do?" Buford muttered, confused.
"Yes! A small, saucy little problem. Tell me, isn't there someone in your life who's your sworn enemy, someone you're out to get?
For several seconds, Buford looked confused as ever, but then the cold light of pure rage came into his eyes. His short fur bristled, and he growled in menace."
"What's she talking 'bout? Old Buford ain't out to git nobody!"
"Yes he is, Woody!" said Cindy Mae, sounding vaguely worried. "Don't you know who?"
Woody gasped, as suddenly he did know.
"You two stay out here." Jenna said to the twins. "Buford and I have business togather." She led Buford inside,and shut the door.
Buford looked around. The inside of Jenna Crowley's house made him shudder. There were some rude wooden furniture, including a table and some benches, in the middle of the room, rather the same as old Jeb's place. There was a kerosene lamp burning on the table, but there was also a large array of lighted candles packed in the windowsills. The room was illuminated eerily, in shades of vibrant yellow and orange. There was a stuffed 'possum, fangs abristle, on one of the tables, and from a wood shelf on one of the far walls there were arranged rows upon rows of tarnished glass jars and containers. Some of these held some kind of weird-looking fluids, like potions of some kind. Others held what looked like the mummified remains of animals of all sorts and species. One held what looked like preserved batwings, another filled with dully staring eyeballs packed tight as olives.
And in the rude stone fire place there actually sizzled and bubbled a frothing iron cauldron that looked like it really belonged to a witch!
It was all almost enough to make Buford make a yelping run for the door. But then Jenna said, "I know you want revenge on someone. I can give it too you."
Buford's eyes shut suddenly, then drew open again, as Jenna peered into then. Reflected in both of Buford's eyes was the masked, headbanded face of the Little Raccoon, his eyes shining with mischief, a face that said You'll never catch me, I'll always get away. I can get the better of you one hand tied around my back!
Buford shut his eyes, then opened them again, and the image was gone. Jenna Crowley hugged Buford's face,pinching his lavander hide in her boney fingers. "Yes, that's right. I can see it now. He always outwits you doesn't he? He always comes out on top. Except in your dreams. In your dreams you always trap him, isn't that right? Well, I can make those dreams of yours come true."
"You can?" Buford asked skeptically. He wasn't really sure he could ever catch the Raccoon.
"All it takes is minor potion. A potion for revenge. Revenge on mischief-makers!"
Buford remembered the time the Raccoon had tricked him into falling into a water trough. Could Jenna really help him? He wasn't sure, but it was worth taking a chance. He remembered that he hadn't always actually hated the Raccoon. It had however, always been in him to chase raccoons, partly because he instinctively recognized them as a natural enemy. But unlike some hounds, Buford was too lazy and good-natured to really want to harm the Raccoon with anything more than a nip on the tail. But that was before the incident at Jeb Crowley's. The twins and Buford had just managed to apprehend two escaped bankrobbers named Billy and Luke Scroggins, who had their loot buried out in the swamp. After the adventure, Jeb had treated them to his best shoo-fly pie. Feeling generous, Buford had offered the Little Raccoon a piece when he showed up. But the greedy little raccoon had stolen his pie and gobbled it up, leaving Buford holding the one piece. Having his pie flitched-and by a raccoon-was one thing Buford just couldn't let go. Thereafter, it was as though his natural animostiy for the raccoon was awakened, and he was out to get him. It didn't matter anymore that the Raccoon was merely being playful, even though he relished foiling his traditional enemy, a hound dog, or that his pranks were always harmless.
"Come, look into my cauldron." Jenna Crowley said. Buford peered over the lip into the greenish, churning liquid. Whatever it was he wasn't sure he wanted to know. "Now-let me fetch the proper ingredients." Buford watched as she gathered some glass jars from the shelf and set them on the table.
"Potion for vengeance!" she crowed. She screwed off one cap,and extracted a preseved batwing. "First, the wing of a swamp bat."
"Yuch!" Buford mumbled, and stepped back, as Jenna tossed the ingredient into the cauldron, causing it to fizz. She then retrieved the other loathsome ingredients, and touched them in as well. "Eyeball of a gator, oil from a river otter's fur, wart from the toe of year-old 'possum, pus squeezed from a swamp-rat's liver, seven venomous toadstools, the newly plucked fangs of a mocassin, and--" she looked around. "Oh, yes, there is one more ingredient we need.I must have a possession of the party whom you desire vengeance on."
"Possession?" Buford mumbled.
"Yes. Something that belongs to him. Some hairs from his tail would do just fine.”
For several seconds, Buford was stumped. He didn’t have any hairs from the Raccoon’s tail. Then, something told him to look down at his right paw. Sandwitched between two white toes he saw a wad of chewing gum. It had to be a wad of the hot chewing gum the raccoon had given him for a prank, and it was still stuck between his paws. "Here" Buford said. He held out his foot to Jenna, who looked it over, then plucked out the wad of gum
Jenna looked the gum over in the candlelight, turning it between her fingers. "Ahhhh..."
She quickly tossed the wad into the cauldron with the other ingredients. To Buford's amazement the liquid in the cauldron began to sizzle,and then to visibly churn, as though the gum had caused an intense chemical reaction. Then the swirling liquid changed from deep green to blue, to deep purple, finally fading to pale green, and simmering down. Jenna Crowley fetched a new jar and scooped out a volume of the contents. She screwed on the lid, and gave the weird greenish stuff a violent shake.
"Now...." she said, "drink this, and you'll be able to trap him next time you see him. Just like in your dreams."
Buford looked uncertain. Likely old Jenna was merely a charlatan, and was only tricking him. And that stuff in the jar certainly looked vile. But if there was just a chance he could get that ornery, good-for-nothing raccoon..
Buford siezed the jar, quickly screwed the top off, squeezed shut his eyes and forced himself to drink. He gulped loudly until he had swallowed it all. The liquid was thick as syrup, but very sour. Still, it didn't taste horrible. "Gee, that wasn't so bad," Buford mumbled.
Then both his ears sprung straight up, as he felt an itching and churning inside his stomach, as though he had swallowed a whirlpool. Blue smoke jetted out his ears, with a low scream like a steam whistle. Buford's eyes goggled as he suddenly turned from lavender to bright blue. A terrible burning sensation caught in his throat. His eyes turned carnation pink, and steam shot out of his mouth, jet-propelling him across the floor to slam into the far wall, his hindquarters slumped a meter up the wall, his head on the floor. His Confederate cap did a final summersault on his head. Then the deep indigo drained from him, and his normal color returned. Buford slumped to the floor, and shook himself. "That's some drink !" he muttered, and laughed slightly.
Jenna had already opened the door to let Woody and Cindy Mae in. "Buford, are you awright?" Woody exclaimed rubbing his friend on the back.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine." mumbled Buford.
"Well, here's yer money, Ms. Crowly," said Cindy Mae. "now what can you tell us about what broke into the Huffsteader place. You figure it really was a panther named Woundfoot?"
"Ah shore do, youngn's. From what I know, Woundfoot is the last of the swamp panthers in these here parts, after the hunters killed the rest of them. But he don't come from Fenokee originally. He came up from over the county line ' bout five years ago. That's when a farmer by the name of Mule Johnson shot 'im, 'an that's how 'e got 'is name. He's had a bad right foot every since. You can always tell Woundfoot from his paw print. He mostly stays away from people like you'd expect 'im to. In fact, most folks think he's a myth 'an that Mule Johnston had too much to drink wjen he claimed he shot a genuine black panther. But folks over the border know he's real. The way I figure it, he thinks the farms here in rural Fenokee are easy pickings, and he aims to make this his permenate hunting ground."
"Well, that's all very interesting, Ms. Crowley," said Cindy Mae."but-"
"One more thing, " she said with a crooked smile smile. "Woundfoot always travels with his lacky, a 'possum called Slyface. Them two is tighter then a flee on a hounddog. Slyface cleans up on 'is kills, 'an he uses the ol' possum to spy for him, incase hunters are around.
"Woody," Cindy Mae said, "You thinking what I'm thinking?'
"Yeah! Them possum tracks, back at the Huffsteader barn. Golly! It must really have been that panther after all."
"But why were the hinges pried off."
"Well, I've told you all I know." Jenna said.
Meanwhile, Buford had slumped on the floor, and had started to dose off. But then suddenly a strange scent came to him, and all at once he was alert. His nose beeped red, and he followed the scent into a corner of the room, where he came upon a large, iron device. Buford, examined it curiously at first. The he ventured to sniff at it. Just what is was he wasn’t sure yet, but somehow it smelled suspicious….like it didn’t belong here. He touched what looked like a lever jutting out. Then all at once he knew, and not a second too soon. In a flash, he retracted his nose, just as the steel jaws of the trap slammed shut. “Yikes!” he exclaimed.
“What’s that, Buford?” asked Woody.
“A trap, a trap!” Buford slurred, pointing at the cruel-looking device.
“Yeah,” said Cindy Mae. “The kind they use to catch animals with.”
“I use it to catch animals for my ingredients.” Jenna Crowly said quickly.
“Well,” said Cindy Mae, eager to change the subject, “I guess what we need to know is if that panther is raiding the Fenokee farms, where do you think he’s going to strike next?”
Jenna shrugged. “Can’t really say where he’ll strike next. But I’d say he’d keep to the same territory around eastern Fenokee. If you ‘spect to find ‘im-e’en though ah don’t recommend you do-you should check out that area, where I sent those Tarkins boys.”
There seemed to be an inordinate amount of bugs in and about the old woman’s house, especially crickets-their chirruping came from everywhere. One cricket leaped onto Buford’s nose, causing the hound to go cross-eyed. The little insect starred at Buford amiably, rubbing his legs to give off his tune. “Shoo-shoo” said Buford, flapping his right paw. The tiny green insect sprung off the dog’s nose, causing it to vibrate. He landed on a shelf overhead. Buford gazed up after him. The cricket’s leap dislodged a small object from the shelf, which tumbled down in front of Buford. “What’s this?” the hound muttered. He sniffed at it, then picked it up. It appeared to be a small whistle of some kind, so Buford placed it in his mouth. He shut his eyes and blew down hard on it. The shriek that barreled out of the tiny whistle, caused Buford’s ears to fly straight up with fright. He leaped a foot up into the air, legs pinwheeling, to crash backward into the shelf. Jars, vials, and bundles of herbs clattered over him. Buford starred out in confusion from beneath the pile, his head ringing, still holding the whistle in his teeth.
Jenna and the twins looked over at him. They had been alarmed by the clatter, but hadn’t reacted to the whistle at all.
“Hey, what’s Buford found ?” asked Cindy Mae.
Woody went over and Buford handed him the whistle with his teeth. “Well, I’ll be hornswaggled. Know what? I’ll betcha this here’s a dog whistle. That’s how come Buford heard it ‘an we didn’t. What you figure, Cindy Mae?”
“I reckon yer right.” said Cindy Mae. “ultra- high frequency, that humans can’t hear. Only there’s other animals can hear it too besides dogs. Animal trainers use them sometimes to-“
“You kids have overstayed your welcome!” snapped Jenna suddenly. “I gave you what you needed. You paid me. You must leave now. Look what that dog of yours has done to my collection!”
“Hey! Buford didn’t mean it.” Said Woody.
“Thank ya all the same, Ms. Crowly.” Said Cindy Mae. “C’mon guys.”
“Be careful, if ya run into Woundfoot!” called Jenna after them. “Hear he don’t care too much for hounds!”
As the three sped back the way they had come in the swamp buggy, Woody and Cindy Mae pondered over the events at Crowley’s.
“I still wonder what’s up with that dog whistle, Woody.” said Cindy Mae. “What would an old hermit lady need with one?”
“You got me, Cindy Mae.” said Woody. “Not to mention that old trap Buford found
“Could be she used it to catch her own meals, and stuff for those potions of hers.” Cindy Mae said. “But it looked more like something trappers would use-people who sell animals for their furs.”
“Hey!” said Woody suddenly. “Ah found somethin’ else!”
Buford , splayed out on the prow of the swamp buggy as usual, was suddenly roused as Woody plucked something that had come stuck in his collar. “What?” he said in surprise.
“What are these?” Woody asked. “They must have gotten themselves stuck in Buford’s collar when that stuff fell on him. They looked like playing cards. But they’re double-sided! They must be trick cards, like the ones magicians use.”
Cindy Mae took the cards and looked at them. They were larger than normal cards, one with 7-of-diamonds on each side, the other with 8 –of-clubs.
“Maybe she uses them to tell fortunes or something.” Woody said.
“Could be.” said Cindy Mae. “But fortune-tellers usually use Tarot cards. These look more like something a professional magician would use. Strange they’d be in a place like that!”
“Hey, look there!” Woody said. “It’s some kind of boat.”
“Over there, parked over by that there island.”
“Let’s get closer.”
Woody slowed the buggy down as they approached the other boat. It was much larger than theirs, and had four search-lights attached. But the lights were off, and the boat appeared to be abandoned. On the side were the words Florida Department of Conservation.
“Ya know Woody,” said Cindy Mae. “There’s somethin’ mighty fishy ‘bout that.”
“What makes you say that, Sis?”
“Well, the Tarkins boys were headed in the other direction when they left Huffsteaders. And not only that, Jenna Crowely said that Woundfoot would still be in that area. She said she told Bill and Steve Tarkins the same thing.”
“So what’s their boat doing here?”
“Right!” said Cindy Mae. “Let’s check it out!”
At the Fenokee County Sheriff’s office, Deputy Goofer McGee lounged back in his chair, enjoying the latest issue of Captain Good. The Captain’s winning smile and gleaming white teeth were displayed prominately on the cover.
“Goofer!” yelled Sheriff Muletrain, as he entered from the front door. “Ah told you to finish up on those reports. Git back to work.”
“But Golly, Sheriff, this is important. This here’s the issue ah’ve been a-waitn’ for. The one where Captain good is on the planet of no-goodnicks ‘an-“
“Goofer! Go git me a cup of coffee. ‘An be careful while yer at it! I’ll
handle the paper work for now!”
As Goofer went to the coffee machine, Sheriff Muletrain squeezed his overweight body into the chair. He cast one eye at Goofer then picked up the comic, and started reading where Goofer had left off.
There was a sudden knock at the door. Muletrain quickly shoved the comic under a pile of documents. “See who that is, Goofer.”
“Rawt away, Sheriff”, Goofer, who was just returning with a cup of coffee, quickly turned toward the door, accidently throwing the entire contents of the cup onto the sheriff, drenching his uniform, and ruining some of the documents.
“Oops. Sorry ‘bout thet, Sheriff!” Goofer opened the door and gasped to see that it was Tom Jenkins. Jenkins, like the Huffsteaders owned a stockade near Fenokee swamp.
“Well, if it aint ‘ol Mr. Jenkins from over Sassafras Creek. How ya doin’ Mr. Jenkins? Anything we lawmen can help ya with?”
Tom Jenkins didn’t seem at all pleased. “Howdy, Goofer. Yep, I got some trouble all right.”
“What kind of trouble?” asked the sheriff.
“Same kind other folks is having. I’ll be straight with you, sheriff. Somethin’ made off with one of my hogs tonight. ‘An ah thought you had this situation under control!”
“He does have it under control!” said Goofer. “Why, the sheriff hired the best animal control officers in the state!”
“That’s right, I did. They should have captured the critter by now.”
“Well, they’re not doing it fast enough.” said Jenkins. “The way I figure, there’s two dangerous critters on the loose. I’d ‘preciate it if you’d investigate.”
“We’ll be right on it, sir. Don’t you fret. C’mon Goofer.”
“Just follow me in my pickup.” said Jenkins.
“Goll-ee Sheriff!” exclaimed Goofer. “Think there really are two critters?”
“I’m not sure, Goofer. But I think maybe those kids were right. There’s too many animals going missing. ‘An Jenkins’ place is a long way from Huffsteader’s. Something strange is going on here.”
Back in the swamp, the kids and Buford landed their buggy on the island, some distance from the Tarkins’ boat They landed on a bar surrounded by tall reeds they hoped would hide them from suspicious characters. Buford got off the prow, and jumped onto the bar. At once he began sniffing for more clues.
“We’ll backtrack around to that boat,” said Cindy Mae. “and try to find out where those men went.”
Before long, Buford struck onto a trail. It was the scent of two men, and it was fresh. The men had passed this way not more than an hour ago. The scent grew stronger until Buford hit on a fresh set of footprints.
“Hey! Buford’s found a set of tracks. Must be them Tarkins’ characters.”
“Bet you’re right, Woody. Let’s see where they lead.”
Buford was well ahead of them. He shuffled along through the darkness of the swamptrees, sniffing the prints, until his nose detected the scent of corroded metal. Following the odor, he pulled back a thick cluster of swamp-weeds to find an array of steel traps, just like the one at Jenna Crowley’s! But these traps looked far older, and were partially rusted, like they had been set out for some time. They also looked as though they had not been set to catch animals, but that someone was trying to hide them.
“”Buford’s found some more of them traps!” said Woody, bending over Buford, to give them a look.
‘An look here, Woody.” Said Cindy Mae, who was standing some distance from them, pointing to the ground. “There’s another set of prints here. And look at this! Those are the tracks of a big cat, like the ones at Huffsteaders.”
“By gum yore right, Sis,” said Woody as he joined her to gaze at the ground. “That means there’s three men! An’ they must have caught the panther. But what are they doing, leading him on a lease?”
“But lookee here! These panther prints are different!”
“Take a look. This cat’s paw doesn’t look damaged, like the one at Huffsteaders!”
Buford, meanwhile was still examining the rusted tangle of traps when someone handed him a short, cylindrical object. It looked like some kind of small, plastic spyglass. Almost without thinking Buford put it to his right eye to better examine the clues. Shrill, mischievous laughter erupted behind him. Buford looked at his face in a nearby pool of swamp water. The spyglass had left a black circle around his right eye. Angerly, Buford splashed water from the pool onto the black ring, washing it away. He glared behind him, growling in menace.
Not more than three feet away from him, snickering like a Japanese imp, was the Little Raccoon.
As Buford glared at him, preparing to spring, the Little Raccoon stuck his thumbs in his ears, and waved his clever little hands mockingly. “Naw-na-naw-na-naw-naw!” the Raccoon taunted, wagging his tiny pink tongue.
Buford was scarcely able to control himself. He charged the Raccoon in a lavender blurr. The Raccoon zipped away, still snickering, with the hound’s breath hot on his tail. Buford snapped his jaws but the quick-witted little ‘coon managed to stay just beyond his reach. Buford was so intent on quashing the little headbanded hooligan, that, as usual, he didn’t realize until it was too late that he was heading for a trap.
A grove of bushes lay ahead, directly in their path.The Raccoon, being very small, managed to zip under and through the grove with ease. Buford, however, though he realized the trap in the last instant, was unable to stop in time and crashed headlong into them. Then he realized the bushes were chok-full of burrs, which now clung all over him.
That infuriating, impish look still on his face, the Raccoon made a low martial-arts style bow, as though to some unseen audience. It was a self-congratulatory gesture, one that said, Aren’t I something?! I can outwit any hound dog five times my size! Then he was gone, with a wide flourish of his magnificent tail.
Buford heard Woody and Cindy Mae calling him. Ordinary, he would have forgotten about the Raccoon, and gone back to sniffing clues. But then he remembered Jenna Crowley’s words: Next time you will be able to trap him.
“Humph!” Buford said to himself, thinking that Jenna must be only a charlatan after all. But maybe not….if could just catch up with the Raccoon this time. Of course, the Raccoon’s prank had not backfired, at least not yet.
He could get back to the mystery later, he decided. Buford squeezed free of the brambles, and shook the burrs loose. Very quickly, he picked up the Little Raccoon’s trail. Nose flashing with the leafy scent of the Raccoon’s fur, the hound set off. Before long, he again set eyes on his small quarry. The saucy little Raccoon was sitting smartly upon a log, fastidiously grooming his overlarge tail.
When Buford snarled at him, the Little Raccoon’s tail went straight up, every individual hair on it going stiff with fright. “OOO
-Saw!” he exclaimed in fright, and forgot about fussing with his tail. It was clear that he hadn’t expected Buford to follow him, and Buford noted this with a gleam of malicious triumph.
Once again, the Raccoon streaked away, Buford in hot pursuit. He still managed to stay ahead of his pursuer with ease, as he scampered around tree trunks, under bushes and through logs. Buford, however, managed to remain on his trail this time, in spite of all the Raccoon’s efforts to throw him off. No opening or orfice was too narrow for the hound to pass through as well. Every once and a while, the Raccoon would glance over his shoulder in shocked fright, to see Buford still ready to pounce on him.
The chase led deeper and deeper into the island. The swamp trees grew black and thick here, but always Buford managed to stay on his ringtailed, headbanded prey, guided at times by only the scent of his quarry.
Suddenly, they burst out into a clearing. The Raccoon dashed out across the clearing through the tall grasses, having been unable to loose the hound in the trees. Buford streaked after him. Then the dog heard a sudden crashing off to his left, and one ear went up. Buford slid to a halt in the marsh grasses to see a deer-a young buck with two knobby growths that would bud into antlers-bounding off toward the trees. Somehow, the sight of the deer filled him with apprehension, though he didn’t know why. He shook his head to clear it, then sniffed around for the Raccoon’s scent. For a moment, he feared that he had lost it. But there it was again, and Buford renewed the chase.
The woods grew deep and thick on the other side of the clearing, but before long, Buford was hot on the Raccoon’s trail again, and could see the bushy tail of his small nemesis flashing through the boles of the trees ahead of him. Again he tried to snag that vulnerable tail, but still the raccoon was able to outmanuver him.
Then the Raccoon seemed to have disappeared. Buford looked around through the gloom, but saw no sign of him. Then he realized that his scent stopped at the bole of a large cottonwood. His ears pointed above him, and he looked up.
There, with his tail curled protectively about his small body, the little masked hooligan crouched, flinging some unintelliglble, Japanese taunts at him. Buford snarled up at the treed ‘coon, realizing that the little mischief-maker had outfoxed him once more.
Then something unbelievable happened.
There was a tremendous crash, as a bolt of white-hot Southern lightening cleft the humid air, and split the tree in which the Raccoon was perched perfectly in twain. Buford leaped back in shock, as the wood splintered, and one half of the entire cottonwood-the one in which the Raccoon still clung-came crashing down. For several seconds the dog did nothing. The pungent scent of burnt wood was sharp in the air.
Then he realized what this meant. Old Jenna was right! He could get that #@*///^!#@*!// raccoon after all! Whether or not that potion had caused this, he didn’t care. All he cared was that the Raccoon was where he wanted him. He felt suddenly very sure that the Raccoon was his this time.
Buford needed no urging to run up the length of the downed tree. He found his prey lying dazed and stunned on the branch where he thought he was safe, eyes rolling in his masked face. Buford noticed a number of vines and creepers lying about, and these gave him an idea. Snickering in wicked triumph, he seized the vines with his paws. Paws working with fiendish speed, he bound the Little Raccoon with them to the base of a thick branch that had broken off. He made sure to tie them very tight, so his captive couldn’t get away.
Then he jabbed the Raccoon with a fiendish giggle. All at once, the Raccoon snapped out of his stupor and the eyes in the little masked face went wide in shock and horror, as it dawned on him that he was trapped. He realized he was bound so tightly that he couldn’t even move, and that the hound he had so relished playing pranks on was looming over him, sneering at him horribly.
“Oh, spare me pwease!” cried the Little Raccoon, trembling with fright.
Buford pondered what he should do with the little good-for-nothing now that he’d captured him. He could end the Raccoon’s life right now, with a swipe of his paw. Then maybe Clarence Huffsteader could make a ‘coon pie out of him. The thought made Buford grin. That would be a fitting reward for a pie-snitcher.
“No ‘coon-pie!” cried the Raccoon in terror, as though reading Buford’s thoughts. Buford whipped back his right paw with a fiendish sneer, ready to finish the Raccoon for good.
The Raccoon hung his head and shut his eyes, whining in a misery of fright, as he waited for the end.
Then someone tapped Buford on the shoulder. The dog’s eyes went wide. He whirled around. And his every nerve went stiff with fright.
Crouched on a thick limb directly above them was a perfectly enormous swamp puma. Buford knew without guessing exactly who it was, for his glossy black coat shone like midnight oil. The cat’s emerald-green eyes bore into his, paralyzing him.
And on the same limb in front of the puma, crouched the largest ugliest, mangiest opossum Buford had every seen. “Is that him, Slyface?” the cat said, not taking his eyes off Buford.
“Yep, that’s him, my lord.” answered the ‘possum. “He did it! He frightened off our week’s worth of venison!”
Sheriff Muletrain and Deputy Goofer drove down the dirt road east of Sassafras Creek, toward the Jenkins hog farm. Jenkins’ headlights shone on a broken beer bottle in the center of the road, and his truck swerved to avoid it.
The sheriff had made the mistake of allowing Goofer to do the driving, and Goofer didn’t have as much foresight. The sheriff’s car ran clean over the bottle, with a crunch of broken glass followed by the gunshot sound of the vehicle’s right front tire being punctured. The car ground to a halt as the air escaped like a steam whistle.
“Goofer!” roared Sheriff Muletrain. “You peanut- brain! Can’t you watch where you’re driving!”
“Golly, sheriff, I’m just following Jenkins.”
“Didn’t you see him make a swerve? Never mind. Just get out, and put on the spare. Jenkins is stopping I think he knows we got an emergency here.”
“’Course we do you-‘GOOOOOOFER!!!!”
Goofer pressed the emergency button on the stearing wheel, releasing the airbags. The bags ballooned out, filling the front seats, pushing Goofer back against the upholstery, and cutting off Sheriff Muletrain’s words entirely. Goofer squeezed out the door. “Don’t worry, sheriff, I’ll git you out.” He unholstered his pistol, and aimed it at the airbag. The Sheriff tried to yell frantically for him to stop, but Goofer didn’t hear and fired anyway. The air went out and the bag deflated. Muletrain angerly threw the bag off and got out of the car. He nearly turned crimson for an instant, then said “Git the spare-‘an be quick about.”
Just then Jenkins walked up. “Got a flat? I can help you with that later if you like, sheriff. But can you take a look at my hogshed first? We’re almost there.”
“Well,” said the sheriff. “Ah ‘spose we could at that. Come on, Goofer. We’ll change the flat later.”
Then from the sheriff’s radio came the staticy voice of Stu Willard, the chief dispatcher. The Sheriff reached into the car, and picked it up. “Sheriff Muletrain here. What’s up?”
“It’s them Tarkins boys.” Said Stu. “They just said they got that panther that’s been raiding the Fenokee stockades. He’s a real black panther, sure enough!”
“Yeah?” asked the sheriff, confused.
“That’s what they say.”
“Well, not a second too soon. I’m calling from the Jenkins place. Says that panther just made off with one of his hogs not more than an hour ago.”
“Listen. You tell them Tarkins boys to meet me at Jenkins farm. “An bring the panther with ‘em. Somthin’ peculiar is going on here”.
“What’s that, sheriff”.
“It’s Tarkins. Says they got the panther”.
“Told ‘em to meet us here. Let’s go.”
Goofer slammed down the lid of the trunk, and the three of them walked the rest of the way to the Jenkins farm. As with the Huffsteader stockade, the Jenkins hog shed had been broken into earlier in the night, and in almost the precise same manner, with the hinges on the doors hanging loose.
“Humph! Well, it shore looks like something got in here awright. Possibly the same critter as robbed Huffsteaders. But we’re a long way from there.”
“What do you make of these tracks, sheriff?” said Jenkins, shining his lantern on them.
“Well I’ll be! They do look like some kind of big cat tracks. But they’re not as big as ones we saw before. Maybe there are two big cats runnin’ loose in this county.”
“Well, if those guys you hired are gonna meet us here with that varmint in tow, care to step inside fer a spell?” Jenkins asked. “Marlete can whip us up some swell flapjacks while we wait.”
“Gol-lee” said Goofer “that shore sounds swell to me. Ya’ no my Aunt Grace used to make the best flapjacks in Fenokee County. Used to visat her all the time up at Pike road. She’d get ‘em just right, ‘an thet maple syrup she used to pour on ‘em. Ummm-ummm! I remember the time that-“
“Shut up Goofer.” said the sheriff. “Yeah we’d be rightly honored by yer hospitality, sir. Come on, Goofer.”
Buford crouched on the branch, as the eyes of the huge cat continued to bore into him. There wasn’t any room for doubt in his mind. These were the raiders who had stolen from the Huffsteader farm! “Who’re you?” He managed once he had found his voice, though he knew perfectly well who it was.
“My name”, the puma said, “is Woundfoot. And these are my hunting grounds from now on. I won’t tolerate any no-account hounds on my territory!”
Buford remembered the deer he had frightened during the chase through the island, and realized that had caused the puma to miss his kill. As he stood staring goggle-eyes, unable to even move, the cat swept back one enormous paw, claws unsheathed. In less than a second, the cat would tear into him.
But the blow never fell. The cat’s paws resheathed. For the first time, Woundfoot took notice of the Little Raccoon, still bound and helpless, eyes tightly shut, whining for whatever Japanese spirits protected mischief-makers to save him.
The cat flicked his paw in the direction of the Raccoon. “Let him go.”
Buford couldn’t believe what he’d just heard. “What?”
“The raccoon. Let him go. You heard what I said.”
Let the Raccoon go? Buford wasn’t about to do that. The words made him bristle in anger, and all at once he was fearless, even confronted by the puma. He glared straight into the cat’s eyes, growling in threat. “Now listen here!” he snarled.
But the green fire of Woundfoot’s eyes glared back with an anger that was even more intense. “No, you listen, hound-dog!” demanded the puma. “What did he do to you? Play you some harmless prank? Steal your master’s pie?” Buford gulped with the realization of just how close that was to the truth. “Well, I trailed that buck for more than a mile on my bad paw,” Woundfoot continued, “before your ‘coon chasing Frightened him off! I’ve had my fill of the likes of you and your masters coming into our swamp, killing us, and stealing our game! You cost me a week’s worth of fresh venison, and I demand that you pay for it! You will let the little ‘coon go, or I’ll tear your face off!”
“Tear your face off!” echoed Slyface from beneath him.
To make certain the puma meant what he said, Buford reached one paw toward the Little Raccoon.
Again, the cat’s paw whipped back, sprouting sickle-like claws as it did so. Woundfoot was serious. Quickly, Buford retracted his paw.
The puma resheathed his claws. Then he swiped his huge paw out and under Buford’s feet, knocking him clean out of the tree. He crashed through broken branches, and fell slumped on the side of felled cottonwood.
Buford shuddered, and shook his head to clear it. He sprang to his feet and looked up, half-expecting the puma to come barreling down upon him.
But the Swamp Phantom was gone, and Slyface was gone with him. They had vanished without a trace.
No…not quite. The cat had been down wind of him before, but now Buford caught his scent, and that of the ‘possum. His nose flashed, and there were their tracks, where they had come upon the fallen tree just moments before.
“Buford! Hey Buford!”
Buford recognized the voices of Woody and Cindy Mae calling him in the distance. The beams of their flashlight pierced through the darkness of the trees. Buford howled to alert them.
Before long, his two friends came crashing through the thickets. “Where you been, Buford?” Woody asked.
“The panther!” explained Buford “Ah seen him!”
“You saw him?” asked Woody, stunned.
“He-he almost-“ Buford shuddered.
“Hey, take it easy, Buford.”
“But I found his tracks!”
Woody shone his flashlight on the puma’s tracks. “Well, glory be!”
“What did I tell, you Woody? These here tracks ain’t the same as the ones with the men’s tracks. They look like the one at Huffsteaders! See how that right paw print is softer than the others.”
“Yeah, Sis. But where’d he go?”
“Maybe you should ask Buford that.”
Buford only shook his head “Huh-huh.” He could probably pick up Woundfoot’s trail, but he’d had enough of him for one night.
“I guess our flashlights must’ve scared ‘im away.” Cindy Mae said. “Let’s go find the sheriff and tell him what we’ve found.”
The started in the direction of the swamp buggy. Buford made one fearful backward glance into the surrounding trees before they moved off.
On the limb of the downed cottonwood, the Little Raccoon realized suddenly that he had somehow been saved. The hound that had been playing with him was gone. And not only that, the vines the dog had tied him up with had been slashed clean through. Whatever had done that had left deep claw-marks in the wood.
The Raccoon leaped to the ground. And immediately saw the huge pawprints left by the puma. The Raccoon knew then who his rescuer had been, and he fell on his masked face and kissed the indentation Woundfoot’s injured paw had made in the sandy loam. He knew now that he was honor-bound to repay the cat for saving him from the hound. But he also knew that pumas sometimes ate raccoons. His life might be imperiled once more if he sought the puma out. But then he realized that if the puma had wanted to do that, he could certainly have taken him. He began following the tracks.
Trouble at Jenkins’
Sheriff Muletrain and Deputy Goofer sat at the kitchen table in Jenkins farm house scarfing down syrup-covered flapjacks. “My-my Ms. Jenkins” ,said Goofer, licking slurping the stickiness off his mouth. “Yah shore do make the finest flapjacks this side of Pike road.”
“Why thank ya kindly, Goofer.” Said Marlete Jenkins.”Care for another plate?”
“Ah shore would, Ms. Jenkins”, Goofer said, as he tightened his bib. “This shore brings back some mighty fond memories.”
“Don’t ferget we’re on business, Goofer,” Muletrain snapped, as he stuffed his mouth with another syrup-rich forkful.
Just then the telephone rang. “Hmm.” Said the sheriff “that could be for us. Answer it Goofer.”
Goofer answered. “Well it shore is, sheriff, he said after a minute. “It’s the Boggs boy.”
“Oh, those pesky kids” grumbled the sheriff, as he got up and took the phone. “Hello? Woody? What’s goin’ on.”
“Sheriff!” said Woody’s voice. “I think we found some stuff you might be interested in.”
“Where you at?” asked the sheriff.
“I’m callin’ from a payphone outside the Drummond caffee. The dispacther said you were at the Tom Jenkins’ place.”
“That’s right,” said the sheriff “It ain’t too far from where you are. Tell you what. You kids meet us at the Jenkins farm. I think I got some stuff you’d be interested in too!”
The sheriff hung up and returned to the table. “The Boggs kids are goin’ to meet us here.”,he said.
“What’d they find, sheriff?”
“I figure we’ll know soon enough, Goofer. When the Tarkins boys git here, maybe we can finally start to sort all this stuff out.”
It wasn’t long before a pair of intensely white headlights cut trough the night outside the kitchen. The sheriff, deputy, and Tom Jenkins went outside to see the Tarkins’ van pull up the drive. Bill and Steve Tarkins got out.
“Well, we got ‘im.” Steve Tarkins announced.
“Ya, did, huh?” said Muletrain, with a slight note of suspicion in his voice.
“Yup.” Said Bill. “Care to take a gander at ‘im.”
“Don’t mind if we do, sir.” Said Steve. He unlocked the back of the van and slid open the door. There, right enough was a full-grown swamp puma, pacing nervously in his cage. The animal’s fur was black as night.
“Well glory be!” Goofer exclaimed “A fer-real black panther! Ah never seen in these here parts before!”
”Humph!” said the sheriff. “Well, looks like you boys been right all along. I must admit I was having some doubts. But looks like yah got ‘im.”
“Told ya we’d take care of him for you, sheriff.” Steve said. “No more worrys, Mr. Jenkins. This here cat won’t be breaking into your stock no more. Now all’s we got to do is set him free in a wildlife refuge far from here. Take it easy, sheriff.” Steve and Bill were about to get into their van and drive off when another set of headlights came up the road. They all looked to see the Boggs’ pickup come up the drive.
“What’s up, sheriff?” asked Woody.
“What’s up? These two guys got the panther, that’s what.”
“Yeah, that’s right kids.” Said Goofer. “An’ he’s one mean-looking rascal, too!”
The kids and Buford went up to the cage and examined the panther. “See for yerselves, kids.” Said Steve.
“Well, shore looks like yah got ’im.” said Woody. “So thet there’s ‘ol Woundfoot hisself!”
Buford, however, was far from convinced. He had had a run-in with Woundfoot, and this didn’t look like the same cat at all. He was smaller for one thing. And not only was his scent different, there was another, stronger scent about him that did not smell like anything natural. But he couldn’t quite place what it was. When Steve Tarkins’ saw the hound’s nose flash red, he quickly shut the doors.
“Well, thank ya much fer yer concern, kids. Time we this animal to where he belongs.” The Tarkins got in their van and drove off.
And suddenly Buford realized what the smell was, and where he’d smelled it before. “Paint!” he exclaimed “Ah smelled paint!”
“Paint!” exclaimed Woody “You mean on the cat?”
“Well, I’ll be hogtied!” exclaimed Woody.
“Ya’all know what this means, don’t ya?” asked Cindy Mae.
“Ah think so, Sis.”
“What do you mean?” demanded the sheriff.
“Ah mean,” said Cindy Mae. “That their cat ain’t the real Woundfoot!”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, we found the Tarkins boat parked not far from here, on an island. ‘An the panthers prints were there too. But they were smaller than the ones at Huffsteader’s. And now Buford says he smells paint on the cat. I reckon it’s the same paint he found back at the Huffsteader place.”
She took out the rag one of the Tarkins boys had left at Huffsteader’s. “Sniff this, Buford.”
Buford sniffed at it, and his ears went straight up. “Yup!” he said.
“Well I’ll be!” said the sheriff. “You reckon that cat’s not fer real?”
“Ah do, sheriff.” said Cindy Mae. “I think them scalywags spraypainted an ordinary panther, to use as a distraction, while they try to catch the real one. C’mon, ya guys.” She said to Buford and Woody. “It’s time to make sense of this mystery. I reckon we’ll find some more clues ‘round this farm.”
They began by searching around the Jenkins hog shed. Cindy Mae examined the hinges. Sure enough, they appeared to have been loosened, just as with the Huffsteader barn. There were the tracks of the puma, with the expected drag-marks of his kill. But there were no possum tracks this time. Buford sniffed around and detected no sign of Slyface. The cat’s scent, while faint, was not that of Woundfoot, and appeared to be like that of the cat the Tarkins officers had supposedly captured.
“Let’s see where the tracks lead, Woody,” Cindy Mae said. They followed the puma’s tracks up the dirt path from the shed, to where they became lost in the wide, grassy field which spread out east of the Jenkins place. Buford however, quickly discovered the cat’s scent. His lanky legs tilted forward, nose beeping, his tail forming an arrow that pointed straight ahead.
“Buford says he went that way”. said Woody. “C’mon.”
The twins followed the hound through the tall, dew-wet grass, Buford shuffling along with his nose to the ground beeping loudly, still hot on the panther’s trail. He led them across the field, and into the thick trees on the other side. They knew the woods on this side of Jenkins’ field eventually merged into Fenokee Swamp. It wasn’t far from the island where they had found the men’s tracks. Buford continued following the trail until it led them to a thick screen of vegetation. Buford looked up, suddenly confused by a new scent. “What’s goin’ on” he mumbled. Then he realized. It was the scent of the Tarkins van!
He squeezed in and under the branches, and the twins followed him. “Look!” said Cindy Mae, switching on her flashlight.The paw prints ended here, and the booted prints of the three men were visible in loamy soil as well. But what astonished them all the most were the broad set of tire tracks.
“By glory, Sis!” said Woody. “Yore right! I think someone staged that raid on Jenkins’ hog farm. I’ll betcha it’s the Tarkins’ van.”
“Let’s where they went.”
Buford sniffed the tire tracks, and they followed him through the woods, and out to a road.
“Wow!” said Cindy Mae. “Let’s head back to the farm and tell the sheriff.”
They circled back to Jenkins place, but by then, the sheriff and Goofer were gone. The twins and Buford got back in their pickup, and headed back towards Boggs’ landing. “Ah think we’ve got this mystery ‘bout sown up, Cindy Mae.” Said Woody. “If we can just find a way to prove them Tarkins characters are phonies. They may be longone by now”.
“Ah don’t think so, Woody.” replied Cindy Mae. “They’re staging these attacks on the Fenokee farms for a reason. ‘An since they shorely aren’t really conservation guys, I think they could be locals.”
“You think maybe they’re really trying to catch the real panther.”
“I sure do. But there’s some things that don’t make since. Like Jenna Crowely, ‘an those cards Buford found at her house. How does she fit into this?”
“Wish ah knew, Sis. I think we should take another look at that swamp.”
“We’ll take the swamp buggy once we get back home. If we could have followed that third man’s tracks before Buford started chasing that raccoon he’s always after-“
“Wait! What’s that up ahead?”
They were nearing the Fenokee fairgrounds. In the field which served as the parking lot, a number of cars, vans, and one large semi were parked. The lights were on, and field blazed with light. They could also see a number of people moving about.
“Glory be! What’s gonin’ on.”
“Let’s find out.”
Woody drove closer, and to his astonishment recognized one of the cars-a long, white limosine. “Holy mackeral!” Woody exclaimed. “Ain’t thet Duchess’ car?”
“Why I do believe it is, Woody!” exclaimed Cindy Mae. “But what’s it doin’ here? I thought Duchess was in New York!”
In the back of the truck, Buford’s sensitive ears shot straight up. “Duchess?” he exclaimed. Duchess was a famous showdog Buford had fallen in love with ever since the first time he’d seen her photograph. She had visited Fenokee two times before, once during a movie shoot, and another time for a guest appearance at a circus. Both times Buford had come to her aide against crooks.The first time, he’d helped Duchess escape from dognappers. At the circus, Buford had risked his life to capture the criminals who had stolen her diamond-studded collar. Duchess was very grateful, and had returned Buford’s love. Buford and Duchess had remained penpals ever since, and every once in a while Buford would receive an autographed movie photo of her. But it always saddened him that Duchess had to be away most of the time.
But Buford was terribly excited by the suggestion that she might be right here in Fenokee, at this very minute. At once, all thoughts of the current mystery evaportated for him. Just the thought of her caused Buford to feel woozy with love. He scrambled madly to his feet, and hung his paws over the front of the Boggs’ truck.
“Duchess? She’s here?” he asked, excitedly.
“Ah think she might be, Buford.” Woody said. “And we’re gonna find out!”
A Strange Bargain
The Little Raccoon followed the tracks he believed belonged to whomever it was that had liberated him. He believed in his procyonid soul that he was on a constant quest to cause as much mischief and mayhem as possible, especially for bloodhounds and coon dogs, and most especially for the purple hound with a Confederate cap who was out to get him more than any other hound. And also to claim as many pies and sweets as possible for himself and to eat them. The thing was, he could never cause enough mayhem, or eat enough pies, so his quest never ended. But this time his quest had almost ended, when lightening struck the tree he was in, and the hound captured him. If it hadn’t been for whoever had come along…
The trail belonged to huge cat with a damaged foot. It led the small mischief-maker into the very deepest part of the swamp-ringed island. Here the trees formed a dense screen overhead, shutting out any available light. When he entered a particularly dense thicket, the sounds of fangs tearing flesh come to his small ears.
Taking care not to snag his bushy tail on a briar, he crept through the thickets, until his eyes peered out at a sight that caused his tail hairs to stiffen, and his small body to tremble.
In a small space, roofed by impenetrable thorn barrier, lay the carcass of a year-old heffer-the same one that had gone missing from the Huffsteader stockade. Woundfoot and Slyface were busily munching on it. The Raccoon nearly turned tail and fled at the sight of them. But the ‘possum sensed his presence.
“Well, lookee who’s here.” Slyface grinned. “The little masked ninja who bit off more pie than he could chew. Can we eat him, my lord? Ah here tell ‘coons is mighty good eatn’, especially if they’ve stuffed themselves full of shoo-fly pie. Ah here thet makes their meat all firm ‘an juicy sos-“
“Shut up, Slyface, you idiot!” said the puma, even though the ‘possums words had already caused the Raccoon’s eyes to widen terribly. “He doesn’t have half as much meat on him as you do!”
That shut Slyface up. The ‘possum resumed feeding on the stolen heffer.
Woundfoot turned a cold glare on the Little Raccoon. “What do you want?” he demanded.
Though intimidated by the cat’s stare, the Raccoon crept forward and sat before Woundfoot, then threw himself down in kow-tow position. “You save me!” he cried. “Much thanks!” His face to the ground, the Raccoon squealed a few high-pitched Japanese phrases for servitude.
“You think you owe me something?” the puma asked with scorn.
The Raccoon looked up, nodding vigorously.
“I didn’t do it for you. I did it because I can’t allow hound dogs on my hunting grounds! Now go away and wreck havoc somewhere else, before I change my mind and take Slyface up on his suggestion. GO!”
The Raccoon looked up pathetically, then turned to leave.
“Wait.” said the puma. The Raccoon turned around and looked at him expectantly. “I just might have use for you after all. Slyface, remember the bakery we found yesterday when we were hunting?”
“Well, yeah, yer lawdship, but-“
“Go there now, and fetch the best shoo-fly pie for our small guest. Take the causeway to the mainland, and be quick about it! Don’t mention where it is, or he’ll follow you.”
“But my lord-“
“Move it!” The ‘possum was off. Woundfoot turned his cold stare back to the Little Raccoon. The Raccoon perked up at the mere mention of shoo-fly pie. He wished he could eat it right now.
“Now, small one,” said the puma, ”here is how I want for you to serve me.”
The Raccoon looked up at him, all ears. “Slyface tells me that the farmer called Clarence Huffsteader is coming after me tonight with his hounds. Before they can pick up my trail, I want you create a diversion. Those hounds will chase a raccoon over anything else. Meanwhile, Slyface and I will head in the other direction, and cover our scent by swimming Mocassin Creek. Do you think you can manage that?”
The Raccoon, eyes now gleaming with mischief, nodded swiftly. He made a low bow to his new master.
“Very good.” replied Woundfoot. “And another thing- meet us at the edge of the woods near the fairground when you are done. There you shall have your reward. But don’t paint yourself in a corner again. We’ll be too far away to intervene this time, and we will be too busy saving our hides to bother with yours. And remember to serve me faithfully-no double crossing.”
“Honor!” the Raccoon piped up, bowing again, but as he straightened, he crossed his fingers behind his back.
Woundfoot eyed him carefully. Briefly, he considered what it would be like if he made the Raccoon replace Slyface as his servant. It was clear he had a barrel full of more wits about him then the ‘possum ever had. He doubted the hound could ever have gotten the upper paw on him if lightening hadn’t happened to strike the tree he was in. But he quickly dismissed the notion. For all his martial-arts pretense, he could tell just by looking at him that the Raccoon was far too unruly to be his servant, and was really only loyal to himself and to no one else. There was no way he could be trusted for long. Grateful he undoubtedly was. But the puma could tell just by the look on that little masked face, that his “honor” would only last until he discovered some new way to create havoc, or until his craving for sweets got the better of him.
Still, he was counting on his mischievous nature for him to lead the hounds away.
As the Little Raccoon gazed up at Woundfoot, he felt safer than he ever had before. The purple hound dog might have nearly gotten him, but now that he was under Woundfoot’s protection, no hound would ever bother him again-they’d better not! His mind already starting to fizzle with naughty, mischievous thoughts, he imagined how much fun it would be if he got that silly hound to chase him now, and watch his face when the dog came racing at him, only to see him standing smugly next to the sleeping puma. He would have almost given up a shoo-fly pie to have seen the look on ’ol Buford’s face when he first encountered Woundfoot back there in the swamp.
He turned to go waylay the Huffsteader hounds, already starting to conceive what pranks he should use. Then realized he was pinned. He huddled in sudden fright, stared up into the puma’s gaze. The cat’s face was directly above him, and those emerald orbs bore into his. Like Buford, he was unable to move. The cat had placed one paw down on his tail, anchoring him. “Remember,” said Woundfoot, “you wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t come along. Don’t do anything except lead away the hounds. If you betray me, you don’t want to know what will happen”.
“What?” the Raccoon squeaked, chained by the smoldering eyes.
“Well,” the puma smiled slyly. “I could always do what Slyface wanted. But I prefer to handle things differently. This tail of yours, for instance. Oh, I wonder how long it would take for it to grow back if it were shredded to pieces!!” Woundfoot released the Raccoon’s tail, and held up his paw, claws flashing out.
The Raccoon jumped back with a sharp squeal, terrified by the very thought of having his extravagant tail damaged.
“Just some extra assurance.” The puma smiled. “Now off be with you!”
The Raccoon was about to dash off on his new quest, then he remembered what Woundfoot had said to the ‘possum “Shoo-fwy pie?” he inquired.
“Ah, yes.” Said Woundfoot. “Slyface will be returning soon. You may wait here is you wish”.
The Raccoon curled up and dozed for a few moments, before the opossum returned, dragging a pie he had stolen from the bakery at the Fenokee fairgrounds. Likely it had been baked by Jeb Crowley himself, who was always a contributer to the Fenokee County Fair. “Got it, yer worship. Cen we eat it now?”
“It’s for him, you marsupial moron.” Woundfoot snarled, indicating the Raccoon. He pushed the pie with his paw in the Little Raccoon’s direction.
At once, the Raccoon fell to. He began scarfing down the pie, getting his masked face all sticky and stained in the bargain. Shoo-fly pie was one thing he would practically sell his soul for, that is, if couldn’t steal one first.
“I did all the work!” complained Slyface to his master. “Why can’t I have my share? Ya jest gonna let little knot- head here have it all?”
“No.” said Woundfoot, “I’m not. Just be patient, Slyface.”
The Raccoon had finished nearly a fourth of his pie, when Woundfoot swatted the pie away with his paw. “You’ve had enough. Eat anymore, and you’ll never get your job done.”
The Raccoon looked up pleadingly, but the puma was unfazed. “Lead the hounds away from us. Then meet us outside the fairground, and we’ll show you where you can have all the pie you want. Think how good it will taste then.”
The Raccoon whined, but Woundfoot only glared at him. “Now, go! Off with you!”
The Raccoon was off. Slyface snirked as only ‘possum could and burrowed his muzzle into the pie. “Ya shore you trust ‘im, yor worship?” Slyface asked through his full mouth.
“Not entirely, Slyface.” The puma answered. “But I think we’ve given him all the motivation he needs. Now hurry up with that pie! It’s time we were well gone from here!”
The Wonder Dog
As the Boggs twins and Buford approached the fairgrounds, it became clear that Duchess was here after all. The large van read Duchess: Wonder Dog of the Movies.
“Well, Holy Moses!” exclaimed Woody. “What do ya think of thet, eh, Buford?”
Buford, his heart thumping wildy, let out a long howl of pure, lovesick joy. The howl lasted a full minute before fading into the night. Then Buford’s eyes bulged, as his pupils became two throbbing red valentines. A garland of canine cupids spun round his woozy head, making him even more dizzy.
“Why, thet crazy ‘ol lovesick hound.” said Cindy Mae. “Guess ‘ol Buford ‘ain’t gonna be quite himself fer awhile.”
“That’s fer sure.” said Woody. “But what is Duchess doing back here in Fenokee?”
“Search me, Woody. Well, there’s only one way to find out.”
The twins parked in the grass lot and got out. As the three of them approached, they could see that some of the men were the same ones that had been to Fenokee before when they were shooting one of Duchess’ movies. Then Woody recognized Duchess’ agent, Mr. Martin. He busily talking to one of the camera men.
“Pardon us, Mr. Martin,” said Woody.
Mr. Martin looked at the two teens in surprise, and then especially took note of Buford. “Say, aren’t you kids the some folks that saved Duchess’ diamond collar at the circus?”
“Well,” said Woody, “Ah’d say it was Buford done thet.”
“Hey, right.” said Mr. Martin. “I know. Got to give the credit where credit’s due, eh Buford?”
“Ah, shucks, it weren’t nuthin” replied Buford modestly.
“How come ya’all’s back?” asked Cindy Mae.
“Well, it’s kind of freaky,” said Mr. Martin, scratching his balding head. “I don’t know quite how to say it.You see, we had Duchess New York tour booked, but she was all depressed, and got so she didn’t want to perform when we got there. Oh, a couple nights were okay, but then we had to cancel the rest of her appearances. It was like she was sick.”
“Sick?’ asked Buford, ears shooting straight up in alarm.
“Golly-gee!” said Woody. “is Duchess okay?”
Mr. Martin chuckled. “No need to worry kids. Duchess is fine now. Her condition really improved once we agreed to fly her back to Fenokee. It’s her career I’m more worried about. You see, the reason Duchess wouldn’t perform is she kept on thinking about Buford here. She tried to act, but she just wasn’t her old self. I figure the love bug had bitten her something fierce. I talked my boss about the possibility of flying back to Fenokee. He said the tour was prearranged of course, and even if we had cause to come back here, we’d just have to leave again. Well, maybe that’s so, but I talked to some producers I know, and I told them Fenokee county is a swell place to shoot one of them adventure flicks they’re making. I told them that I thought there was a part in it just right for Duchess. And since she’s so madly in love with Buford, I thought maybe might be able to work him into the movie too. It took a while, alright, but finally everybody agreed, and that’s how come we’re here.”
Buford’s ears were up like radars. He could scarcely credit his good fortune. Duchess was back, and they were making another movie? Duchess was madly in love with him? They might even be able to star in the same movie together? The thoughts caused his head to spin crazily.
“Well, can we see her, Mr. Martin?” asked Cindy Mae. “Ah bet Buford’s jest dying to!”
“Surely!” said Mr.Martin “Step right this way, folks.” He opened the back of the limosene, and there was Duchess the Wonder Dog, lying curled on a nest of pink silken pillows.
“Duchess!” exclaimed Buford.
Duchess raised her head. “Buford?” she murmured dreamily.
“Buford!” she exclaimed with a rush of sudden overjoyed excitement. Duchess sprang out of the back of the limasine and into Buford’s arms.
“Oooooh, Duchess.” Buford said. Paws around each other, Buford and his sweetheart began kissing and licking each other in a flurry f joy.
“They shore do like each other,” said Cindy Mae.
“It’s great you and Duchess bein’ back ‘an all,” said Woody. “But rawt now we’ve got us another mystery to solve.”
“Yeah,” said Cindy Mae. “Something’s been raiding the Fenokee livestock, ‘an we think some rather shady characters are in on it.”
“C’mon, Buford,” said Woody.
But Buford and Duchess just looked at him with pleading expressions on their faces. Then they looked at each other.
“Buford,” said Duchess, “Don’t let me keep you from sloving your mystery. But can I come with you?”
Buford was confused at first. He felt worried for Duchess’ safety if she went with them. But at the same time, to have Duchess at his side-and to maybe get a chance to protect her if any danger should threaten them. It anyone tried to harm Duchess in any way, he would be there. They both looked up at Woody again, and then at Mr. Martin.
“Do you think she can, Mr. Martin?” Woody asked. “It might be even better with two hounds on the trail.”
Mr. Martin scratched his head again, through his sparse gray hair “Wellllll, kids, I really don’t know. I know how much Buford means to her, and Buford’s done a great job helping her before. But I can’t risk Duchess, even if Buford is with her. If you kids are going back into that swamp-“
“We ‘bout have to, Mr. Martin.” Said Cindy Mae. “it’s the only way we can find more clues.”
Mr. Martin was silent for a few moments, as he looked at the kids, and then at the two dogs. Then he said, “Tell you what. I’ll have a chat with some of the producers here, and I’ll see if they can’t work something out.”
Mr. Martin walked away, then returned after five minutes. Buford, Duchess and the kids remained where they were. “Well, Mr. Martin?” asked Woody.
“We’ve agreed it’s okay if Duchess goes with Buford into Fenokee swamp,” he said. “As long as we have two camera men in another boat behind you. The producer of this film says we just might shoot something we could use for this here movie.”
“Can you stay far enough behind us sos you won’t alert the crooks?” asked Cindy Mae.
Mr. Martin nodded. “We’ll just stay close enough to keep an eye on Duchess. And we’ll move in if anything exciting happens.”
“Great,” said Woody. “You guys and Duchess meet us at Boggs Landing. C’mon, Buford.”
As he climbed back in the twins’ pickup, Buford thought suddenly of Woundfoot, the Swamp Phantom, and of the time he’d met him before. He remembered how the puma had thrashed him, and how embarrassed he’d be if Duchess knew. And what if he were to meet up with Woundfoot again? And suppose Duchess were there? But then the thought of Duchess in possible danger from the cat, caused Buford to bristle in sudden rage. He had been terrified before upon meeting Woundfoot, perhaps rightly so. But with Duchess there for him to protect, Buford’s fear diminished. If he and Woundfoot did cross paths again, this time he felt he would be ready.
The Poaching Camp
At Boggs’ Landing, the four of them set out to solve the mystery once and for all. Buford and Duchess were perched on the prow of the buggy, as they headed out into the black waters of Fenokee.
The cameramen and Mr. Martin took a larger boat they had rented, equipped with headlights. They started out after the twins once their swamp buggy was far enough ahead, keeping their lights dim.
“Let’s head back to that island first.” said Cindy Mae.
“Good idea.” Agreed Woody.
By the time they reached the island, they noticed that the Tarkins’ boat was gone. Again, they parked the buggy and got out. Woody looked back where the cameramen’s boat was. “Think they’re still back there?” he asked.
“They’ll catch up with us before long.” said Cindy Mae. “Let’s get a move on. There’s something I want to check out. Buford, d’ya think you can find them tracks again?”
“Uh-huh.” Buford immediately began sniffing. The scent of the two men had gone rather stale by now, but still his ultra-keen senses picked it up. He began following the tracks of the two men. Duchess followed Buford’s lead, her own nose to the ground. Her city-bred senses weren’t as keen as Buford’s, but being a bloodhound, they were keen enough, and soon she picked up the scent as well. The hounds followed the trail until they came to the place where the two men’s tracks were joined by the tracks of another man, along with the tracks of a puma. And even though the scent was faint, Buford could tell it was same cat the Tarkins had shown them at Jenkins farm, and not the real Woundfoot.
He followed the tracks of the tree men and the cat, expecting them to lead back out to where their boat had been parked. Instead the trail made a swerve deeper inland. The trail was leading them deeper, into the core of the island, and Buford began secretly to get nervous.
And then he picked up an even stranger scent-or rather a curious mixture of different scents very close by. Buford’s nose flashed bright red, sirening loudly as it did so.
“Sound’s like Buford’s really onto something this time, Sis.” said Woody. Buford’s ears went straight up, he followed the scent of the men, and strange mixture of smells grew stronger until it stopped by a large grove of cypresses. The miasma of scents carried with it the scents of different species of animals, along with that of men, mixed with an assortment of sharp, unnatural odors. Buford noted that the grove had been purposefully screened off with branches and clippings, as though whoever had done that was attempting to hide what ever lay within.
He turned to the twins and pointed with one paw toward the grove. “In here! In here!”
“We’re raht behind ya, Buford!” said Cindy Mae.
Buford poked his head into the grove. Duchess craned her head around him too, sniffing curiously in the gloom. To the showdog, all the scents were unfamiliar and frightening. To Buford, who had grown up in Fenokee, most of the scents were familiar, but in much concentration. Woody and Cindy Mae stuck their heads in as well. scanning the place with their flashlights.
“Glory be!” exclaimed Woody. “This here’s a poaching camp!”
“No doubt about that, Woody.” said Cindy Mae, her voice trembling.
Their flashlights fell on stretched gator hides, some of them looking freshly skinned. There was a canvas tent and some rude wooden tables. On these tables were skinning utensils. There were the hides of other animals as well, two river otters, and no less than four bobcats. There were rifles, bullets, and also assorted cooking materials. There were several cages with trap-spring doors. As Buford and Duchess were sniffing around at the assortment of material, Duchess began sniffing some corroded steal. When Buford saw her do this he flashed to her side and pushed her away. “Stay back!” he mumbled.
Duchess looked at him in surprise, though she realized Buford must have a reason for doing that.
“What?” she asked.
“A trap.” mumbled Buford. “See here!”
He picked up a stick and jammed it into the steel jaws of the poaching trap. The jaws smashed themselves together, snapping stick, and causing Duchess to jump in fright.
“Oh, Buford,” sighed Duchess.
“Never fear, my dear.” said Buford. Then an even stronger scent reached Buford’s nose, and it went off flashing unexpectedly. It was the scent of men—and they were very close by! Maybe this camp wasn’t deserted after all!
He followed the scent until it stopped at large canvas screen. Buford hesitated at first, then pulled it back. His eyes went wide in shock at what the canvas revealed.
Two men sat tied and gagged uncomfortably. Woody and Cindy Mae came over to take a look at them.
“Well, holy jumpn’ tree toads!” Woody exclaimed. “Are they who I think they are?”
“They are, Woody,” answered Cindy. “Them’s the Tarkins’ boys!”
Sheriff Muletrain and Deputy Goofer drove up the dirt road to Jeb Crowley’s hut deep in the Fenokee swamp. “You sure ‘ol Jeb cen tell us anything sheriff?” Goofer asked.
“Well, he ought to,” said the Sheriff. “If Jenna Crowleys’ really his sister, like Steve Tarkins said. They went up to Jeb’s porch and knocked on the door. For several minutes, no one answered.
“Looks like no one’s here, Goofer.” The sheriff said. “ol Jeb musta gone frog hunting. We’ll check back later.” He turned to leave when the door opened a crack. The sheriff and deputy looked around to see Jeb’s face peering out.
“Well hallo, sheriff, Goofer.” Said Jeb Crowley. “Fancy seen’ you this time of night. Care to come in for some conrpone and shoo-fly pie?”
Goofer was about to answer, but Muletrain said, “No, thet won’t be necessary, thank you all the same. Don’t mean to disturb you, Jeb, but we’re working on a case, and we thought you might be able to help us out. See there’s this critter been plundering the Fenokee stockades. Yesterday I hired some conservation guys to take care of it. Well, them Boggs kids stuck their noses in again, and they think they might not really be conservation guys at all! What’s bothern’ me is how they said thet an old hermit lady told them where to find the ornery critter.”
Jeb shrugged. “Sos what do you think I know about it?”
“Well, it just so happens,” said Muletrain. “That they mentioned that this old lady was your sister!”
“Mah sister!” Jeb exclaimed. “Pre-posterous! Them boys must have swamp fever or somethin’”
“Gol-lee!” exclaimed Goofer “You sayin’ ya ain’t got no sister, Jeb?’
“Ah didn’t say thet.”
“Well, do ya, or don’t ya?”
For the first time, Jeb Crowley looked visibly angered. “I ain’t saying no more.” He turned his back on the sheriff, but didn’t close the door yet.
“Jeb,” said Muletrain,” Ah know you may not like talkin’ ‘bout yer sister. But we think this may be important. Them kids went into the swamp tonight lookin’ for clues, ‘an likely as not they’ve gone back. They could be in real trouble. They already had a talk with this sister of yours ‘an-“
Jeb turned around and starred at the sheriff wide-eyed. “huh?”
“I said the Boggs twins were at your sisters’ tonight, an-“
“Then there’ pullin’ yer leg, sheriff. Or somethins’ mighty peculiar gonin’ on.”
Jeb still seemed reluctant to talk. “Now’s it’s not like I’m ashamed of her myself.” Jeb said finally. “But folks used to give us trouble all the time ‘saying how Jenna was a witch ‘an stuff. Ah suppose she came across as one, reading folks’ fortunes, and stuff, but she always kept much herself, even more then me.”
“Is that’s what’s peculiar?” asked Goofer.
“Uh-uh.” Answered Jeb “What’s peculiar is thet ‘ol Jenna’s dead. Been dead last ten years. Ah buried her myself out behind the smoke house!”
Cindy Mae removed the gags from the two men, and she and Woody untied them. The two Tarkins’ brothers got to their feet. “Much obliged, kids.”
“You the Tarkins’ boys?” Cindy Mae asked.
“Why, yes. I’m Steve Tarkins, and this is my brother Bill. We’re form the Florida Department of Conservation. How did you know?”
“You mean we haven’t met before?” asked Woody. He was dumbfounded at first, then realized that the man’s voice wasn’t the same.
“I don’t believe we have.” said Bill, equally puzzled.
“Well, don’t tell me.” said Cindy Mae pertly. “Sheriff Muletrain hired you to take care of some large animal raiding the Fenokee stockades. But some guys jumped you, ‘an stole your van and yer uniforms. Then they tied you here. Is that about right?”
“That’s the story, right enough.” said Bill. They captured us in our boat out here in the swamp, and then they took us to this camp and tied us up. They must’ve stolen our van after that.”
“An’ we happen to know they’ve already pulled the wool over the sheriff’s eyes.” Cindy Mae added.
“Those two are poachers, just like we figured.” said Woody. “But how-“ he started, still wondering how the poachers and the real Tarkins’ boys looked identical.
“Don’t you know, Woody?” said Cindy Mae. “They’re wearing latex masks, just like them scallywags tried to rob the Fenokee bank!”
“Glory be!” exclaimed Woody.
“An ah reckon, they’re really locals. Just look at is place. They’ve been at it fer a long time. ‘An look at this.” She picked up a small object off one of the tables. It was a small whistle, just like the one Buford had found at Jenna Crowley’s. Cindy Mae blew on it sharply. Almost at once, Buford and Duchess looked in her direction.
“Yep that’s a dog whistle awright.” Said Woody.
“Ah bet they use these whistles to train the cat that broke in at Jenkins.” Cindy Mae said. “While all the time, they’ve been after the real Woundfoot!”
“They’re poachers all right.” agreed Steve Tarkins. “And they said there’s a genuine black puma in Fenokee swamp, like we’d heard. They’re out to catch him, and when they do, they’re gonna bring his carcass back to this camp to skin and sell his hide on the black market, like they’ve been doing all along with these other critters. There’s no telling how much the hide of a cat like that will bring!”
“Gosh sakes!” exclaimed Cindy Mae.
Buford’s left ear went up at the mention of Woundfoot. As embarrassed as he felt about his last encounter with the cat, he really didn’t want the poachers to skin him. Part of him wanted to get even with the puma, but he wasn’t angry enough to want the cat dead. After all, Woundfoot, at least, wasn’t a raccoon, and no animal could irritate him the way a raccoon could!
But still, the thought of running into him again filled him with dread. Would he be able to stand up to him this time, especially with Duchess around?
“You’ll protect me, Buford.” he heard Duchess say beside him, she rubbed against him. Once more, Buford felt renewed confidence. But now, here in the deep swamp, he still felt a twinge of fear. The puma seemed to consider Fenokee swamp his own territory now, and Buford had never met anyone so arrogant. Not even Sheriff Muletrain could approach the supreme arrogance he had seen in those smoldering orbs. But arrogant or not, there must be some way to get the better of the cat, if he met him again. If there was, Buford determined to find it.
“Let’s get a move on ‘afore them poacher guys get back.” said Woody.
“Raht.” Said Cindy Mae. “We’ll walk you guys back to our swamp buggy, then we’ll go find the sheriff ‘an tell him the real story.”
The all started in the swamp buggy’s direction. When they got there, Steve Tarkins said “look- what’s that yonder?”
Lights blazed out over the swamp. Lights from a large swamp boat. But it wasn’t Mr. Martin’s boat, as Woody first thought.
“It’s our boat, kids,” said Bill. “It’s them poachers.”
“Quick, let’s hide!” said Cindy Mae. They all took cover among some bulrushes and cattails.
But just then the full moon drifted out from behind a cloud.
“Uh-oh” said Cindy Mae. “The moon’s coming out. ‘An ‘ya know how the moon affects Buford.”
“Doncha do it, Buford.” Cautioned Woody.
But the hound was already mesmerized by the scintillating beam of frosty moonlight that engulfed him. Caught in its silvery glow, Buford’s eyes spireled crazily. A long howl was threatening to burst from his throat. Entranced though he was, Buford realized the presence of the poachers, and reflexively clapped both paws over his mouth. But the dizzying effect of the moon was relentless. At last, eyes bugging out of his head from his own efforts to contain himself, Buford let loose with a long, full-throated howl at the shining disk above.
And out on the moon-bathed bayou, the poacher’s boat swerved in their direction.
Then, slowly, the moon crept back beneath the thick veil of clouds. But it was too late. “They’ve seen us!” said Woody.
“In the swamp buggy, everyone!” yelled Cindy Mae.
They all clammered into the buggy. Buford, still shaking the effects of the moon from him, was the last to get in. Woody pulled the lever, as the engine and propeler roared to life. They cut away from the island heading for the open bayous. Cindy Mae looked back to see the larger craft also swerve. “Step on it, Woody.”
They sliced through the black waters of Fenokee swamp, cutting a wide swath of water in their wake. The poachers also increased their speed. “They’re gaining on us.” said Buford.
“Buford says they’re gaining.” said Woody. “Maybe I can head ‘em off!” He cut back toward the island, then swerved widely around its eastern flank.
“They’re still coming, Woody.” said Cindy Mae.
Woody them zoomed down a narrow channel, around a sand bar, and out into another bayou. Still, the poachers were in hot pursuit. Woody tore across the bayou, then raced down another channel. He knew his way around Fenokee swamp as well as anyone and better than most, but the poachers were still flagging them. In fact, they seemed to be catching up.
“It’s no use, Woody,” Cindy Mae said. “They’re still raht on our tail.”
“They’ve got a more powerful engine then us. “ said Woody. “I don’t know how much longer we can keep ahead of them.”
Then, suddenly the swamp buggy was yanked to a halt. “What’s wrong!” Woody exclaimed.
“They’ve got a grappling hook.” mumbled Buford.
It was true. The kids’ buggy was held fast by a long steel cable attached to a metal hook.
“They’ve got us, alright.” Said Bill Tarkins. “And thy’re reeling us in.”
“’Friad yore right.” Said Cindy Mae, wishing fervently that Buford could have kept his mouth shut. The buggy was reeled in until it was flank to flank with the poachers’ craft. They could see two shadowy figures on board, but there was no trace of the mysterious fourth man whose tracks they had come upon in the woods. The shadowy forms raised a huge net and hurled it over the Tarkins brothers, Woody, Cindy Mae, Buford and Duchess.
A few minutes later, the six prisoners found themselves being hoisted in the net by the boat’s crane. One of the poachers bound the ends of the net’s rope to the over hanging branch of a cypress tree, so that the net and its captives were suspended just over the dark bayou water. As the captives peered down through the net, they could now see the faces of the two poachers clearly. They weren’t wearing rubber masks this time.
They were both young men, like the real Tarkins brothers, but one was bald on top, and other had dark hair and a beard.
“Ah do know them two scallywags, Woody.” said Cindy Mae.
“Ya do, Sis?”
“Ah seen ‘em around before. But ah didn’t know they was poachers! They’s Mitch Crathers ‘an Lou Danielson. They used to see ‘m at the Drummond cafe, last time we worked there. Remember, Woody?’
“Yeah, ‘ah shore do. Mitch used to into some kind of illegal gambling over at the old Foggart place. Ah wasn’t shore ‘bout thet till now. Looks like he and Lou were into some real shady business all along.”
“Thet’s raht, son,” laughed Mitch Crathers. “We been poaching these waters some time now. It’s always been worth the pay. But this time, we mean to git ourselves a panther!”
“Right.” agreed Lou. “ This time we’re in for some real cash dollars, the kind you won’t see in a lifetime. You can’t imagine how easy it was to fool that sheriff and his pickle-brained deputy. But we always heard the stories around town how it was you Boggs kids who were really solving the cases. Sos we were prepared ‘case you meddlesome brats and thet hound-dog of yers ever caught onto us.”
“And now that you’ve done it, congrats!” said Mitch. “Only we’ll bag that ornery painter ‘an be long gone afore you can git out of thet there net. Thet is, if you get out. I’ll bet some good cash on Lou here that them gators’al git ya’all first.” The two men laughed and drove off in the stolen conservation boat.
“Thanks again for saving us, kids.” said Steve Tarkins. “But looks like we’re in for it now.”
“Maybe the sheriff’ll find us first.” Woody offered.
“I hope so Woody.” said Cindy Mae. But she didn’t sound very hopeful.
Just then, the moon slipped out behind the clouds once more. And once more Buford went google- eyed as the moon’s radience hit him square in the face.
“Oh no!” exclaimed Woody. “Not again!”
“Wait!” said Cindy Mae, “Maybe someone’ll hear him!”
Buford, making no effort to stifle himself this time turned his muzzle to the sky and howled long and loud. The howling lasted for several more moments, until the moon once again vanished behind the cloud bank. The night once again fell into eerie silence. There was only the sound of the chirruping crickets and peepers.
“I think we’re still stuck here, Cindy Mae.” said Woody.
Then they heard it. A churning and splashing some distance away near a grove of gaunt cypresses, Spanish moss waving like strands of gossamer.
“What was that, Woody?” asked Cindy Mae. “Ah cant’ see-“
“Gators!” Buford exclaimed suddenly, ears flying up in alarm.
“Gators!” said Woody “Buford says its gators! Sorry ‘ol buddy, but looks like thet howling of yours has done it again!”
Sure enough, they could all now make out dark, ominous shapes churning through the stagnant bayou water—coming in their direction. There were three of them at least—maybe four!
“Glory!” exclaimed Cindy Mae. “Looks like this could be the end, Woody.”
The long sinister shapes glided ever closer. Now they could see the elongated jaws rear out of the water to sniff the air, and white teeth flash in the starlight. The alligators swam nearer, until they were right beneath them. Their savage heads peered up at the enshared humans and canines. But somehow, the attitude of gators seemed to be more one of friendly curiousity then hunger. Then they noticed that these alligators were small, not yet full grown.
“Sis!” exclaimed Woody. “Ah know these gators!”
“You do?” Cindy Mae asked confused.
“Ah sure do, and so does Buford!”
“Huh?” asked Buford.
“Don’t ya recognize ‘em, ‘ol buddy?” asked Woody. “Thems ‘ol Gertrude’ babies, all growed up.”
Cindy Mae gasped in surprise. It was true. Buford looked down without at the four half-grown alligators, all looking up at him with fondness. “Awwww, shucks!” said Buford, peering back at them. “The ‘lil fellas remember me.”
The twins and Buford remembered the time that Jeb Crowley’s pet gator, Gertrude, had gone missing, and they had helped track her down. It turned out she had gone off to lay her eggs, and when the babys had hatched they took to Buford immediantly, and Buford had served as a surregate father to the hatchlings. Or maybe an uncle, since the little gators referred to him as their “Uncle Buford”.
And now the hatchlings, nearly grown, had returned to get their uncle Buford out of the poachers trap. The young gators raised their muzzles and began chomping at the ropes of the net, taking care not to harm any of the captives. Their toothy jaws snapped and rended, until the twins, the hounds, and the Tarkins brothers were free. Buford leaped onto the back of one of the young alligators. Duchess, still clinging to the torn net, looked at Buford, fearful and unsure. But Buford nodded to her that everything was fine. At length assured, Duchess followed Buford’s lead, and jumped down onto the back of another of the gators. There weren’t enough gators for all of them, though, and the humans grasped hold of the other two gators tails, and allowed the reptiles to lead them to the kids’ swamp buggy, which was still parked nearby.
When they had climbed in. They all waved farewell to the gators who had rescued them.
Gertrude’s heirs smiled appreciatively back at them toothily before swimming away.
“Well I’ll be a horny toad.” Said Woody “Guess that howling of your saved us after all, Buford!”
“Awww, it weren’t nothin’” said Buford.
“Buuuford.” sighed Duchess, and planted a big wet one on Buford’s right jowl, causing the hound blush from lavander to deep violet, and his eyes to spin crazily in a dilirium of lovesickness.
“Well,” said Cindy Mae. “It’s time we all got moving. Them boys said they was goin’ to bag the panther, and ah wouldn’t count on the sheriff this time!”
A Debt Repaid
Miles away, at the Huffsteader farm and commune, Clarence, Bert, and Morton Huffsteader had gathered their hounds for the chase. “Ready boys?” asked Clarence.
“Yeah, pa.” Said Bert. “Ah figure we can tree that cat afore sunrise.”
“Sure pa.” Morton said. “The hounds sure are raring to go!”
“Now don’t be too sure.” cautioned the senior Huffsteader. “Ol’ Woundfoot’s one mean critter. ‘An plenty smart, too, ah hear tell from folks in Tecusah. He jest might git the better of the dogs if we let’im.”
The hounds, who had been yelping for the chase to begin, now growled in anger at Clarences’s words. No critter, no matter how mean was gonna make fools of them!
“Don’t you be too sure, either, Bruiser,” Clarence told the leader of the dogs. “You ain’t never hunted nuthin’ like ‘ol Woundfoot before”.
Bruiser still growled, and muttered “we’ll git ‘im”. Under his breath.
“Ah reckon we will”. agreed Bert. “At least, ah figure we got a better chance then that Sheriff and Deputy. By the way, you heard from hired two guys from the government caught the cat yet? Don’t think so!”
Clarence laughed. “Ya know, ‘ah think yous right son. Ah been thinking, ‘an ah bet them Boggs kids was right all along, an those two conservation guys probly ain’t conservation guys at all. Or least ways mighty poor ones. Get things done, ya gots to do ‘em ourselves.”
“Rawt, pa!” said Bert and Morton. Hoisting their rifles, they released the hounds and set off.
“Stay with ‘em boys.” Hollered Clarence. “Figure we’ll git thet ornery panther before sunup!”
The tracks from the barn had long since grown stale, but Clarence was right; it wasn’t long before the hounds struck onto the fresh trail of the cat, and Bruiser gave the men and dogs a long, howling signal. Bert whistled and called Bruiser and pack to a halt as the men examined the tracks. “That’s him.” said Morton.
“Yep, it’s our boy. Just look at the size ‘o them prints, ‘an this here paw’s damaged. Oh, thet’s Woundfoot alright.”
“An look here’s thet ‘ol possum’s tracks. Figure its the same one the kids found at the barn. Let’s go!”
The hounds renewed their chase. The men followed as the baying pack led them deeper and deeper into Fenokee swamp.
At length, they came to the south side of Mocassin Creek, where the puma’s trail seemed to have stopped. Bruiser and his hounds sniffed around for it but found that the cat’s scent, as well as that of the ‘possum, had utterly vanished. There was, however, a fresher, more recent scent, that was clearly that of a raccoon. Then they noticed the little hand and footprints by the water’s edge. Bruiser growled deeply. Even the scent of raccoon was enough to drive any of the hounds’ rage. And this one, it seemed, had not only been here recently, but was still nearby! The pack looked about questing the air with their nostrils.
A short distance from the bank lay a fallen tree. From behind this tree peered a little masked, bow-knotted face, grinning mischievously. The Little Raccoon had lain in wait here, after cleansing the shoo-fly molasses from his face in the creek. The hounds had yet to take notice of him, but he didn’t care to wait. He leaped onto the log and mouthed a shrill barrage of taunts at the dogs. Bruiser and others looked in his direction. The Raccoon needed nothing more than that. He pulled back a thick rubber band with his small fingers, and let it fly straight at Bruiser’s face. The band struck the pack leader squarely between his eyes, causing him to yelp, then growl with rage at the little ‘coon who stood on the log waving his hands at them.
“Get him!” ordered Bruiser. He charged the Little Raccoon, the rest of the pack in tow. The Raccoon snickered heeheehee and dashed.
After a few minutes, Clarence and his boys arrived at the creek. “Something’s fishy here.” Said Bert. “The cat’s tracks stop here at the creek.”
“Right,” said Clarence. “I’d say he’d swum it.”
“So how come them hounds are going the other way?”
“Look here!” cried Morton “Take a look at these.”
The other men joined him and examined the tracks. “’Coon tracks!” exclaimed Bert. “Them crazy hounds is chasing a ‘coon! And a mighty small one at that!”
They whistled to call the hounds back, but Bruiser and his pack were beyond listening. They were hot on the trail of the rascally little varmint who’d had the audacity to flick their leader with a rubber band. They were bent on tearing him to pieces once they caught him.
Ahead of them, the Little Raccoon raced for his life. He was confident though that he could outmanuver them. The flung himself forward, racing over and through logs, over stumps and around trees. He ran on and on, a small, ringtailed blurr, leading the Huffsteader pack further and further away from Woundfoot’s trail. The pack raced on, but never managed to keep up. Their quarry stopped only once to secure a thin vine across the trail, using it as a tripwire. The Raccoon knew he should race on but peered around a tree some distance ahead to watch as Bruiser fell over the trip-vine followed by the remainder of his pack, who lay in stunned heep.
The Raccoon flung some more taunts at them, before zipping off once more. The pack was onto his trail again in no time.
The chase now led out of the swampy area of the woods, toward the higher country near the Fenokee farms. Directly ahead of the Raccoon was the Samuels farm. Samuels raised sweetcorn and potatos, as well sheep and rabbits, which he took to the Fenokee County fair each year. The Raccoon raced around the perimeter of the homestead, to the back gate. He sat before it and looked up. There was a lock on it that Merv Samuels had made certain was raccoon-proof, so that his sweetcorn patch would not be ravaged.
The Little Raccoon reached up, stuck one finger in the lock and picked it with ease.
He pulled open the gate door, and carefully entered, taking care to pushed the door wide, so that the dogs chasing him could enter as well. Any other night, he would have loved to lay siege to all that lovely sweetcorn, gorging himself with relish until his belly was stuffed full, but he remembered his mission, and made at once for the rabbit hutches.
There were row upon row of these confining wire enclosures, at least one rabbit in each of them. They were all white, fluffy, albino bunnys with bright pink eyes, each of them roughly the Raccoon’s own small size. Looking at them in their tight little cages made the Little Raccoon feel sorry for them. But he needn’t for long, he reminded himself. That was why he was here. He leaped on the first of the hutches, reached down and quickly picked the lock and through the door wide. He then picked the locks of each of the other hutches, until rabbits were leaping out in droves.
“Hey, chums!” cried one of the rabbits, pointing up at the Raccoon. It was the first rabbit he had let out. “Look who’s set us free! Let’s hear it for him! Yiiiiipeeeee!!!”
The Raccoon shut his eyes, and bowed once to the hordes of rabbits gazing up at him in reverence. “You free now.” He piped up. “But hounds are chasing me. When they catch me, I will torn to pieces. You stop them!”
“Tear you to pieces, will they?” sneered the rabbit. “We’ll see about that! C’mon guys!” Already the baying of Bruiser’s pack had reached the open gate. Ordinarily, the rabbits would have scattered before the hounds, but this time they had the Huffsteader dogs outnumbered six to one. The charged leaping and hoping toward the hounds, who scudded to a stunned halt, as the white, furry battalion barraged over them, cover the dogs in their sheer weight of numbers. The dogs snapped at them, but the rabbits kicked and pummeled them with their feet. At length the white horde streaked for the door and freedom. “Lets go guys!” cried the leader of the rabbits, as they made for the woods. The hounds sniffed around, but the place was so infiltrated with the scent of rabbit, that the ‘coon scent had been completely covered. Finally, Bruiser gave it up, and led his confused pack in the direction of Huffsteader’s.
In the woods that resumed east of Samuel’s, the Raccoon lost himself. He was certain he had given those silly old dogs the slip, but he made for a nearby creek, and swam it for good measure.
Then he made for the Fenokee fairgrounds to wait for Woundfoot. A slight rain had begun to fall, and he found a hollow log in the woods at the edge of the fairgrounds, and crawled in. He shook the wetness from his fur, and sat huddled there, waiting for the puma and his cowardly cohort to arrive. And as he did, his thoughts drifted back to when the dog of purple had captured him. Unbeleivably, it had actually happened! Once, the Raccoon had thought he could outwit any hound, especially that one. But the dog had gotten the upper paw, and the Raccoon remembered how powerless and terrified he had felt. And all once a wave of gratitude like nothing he had felt up to that moment washed over him. True, he had led the Huffsteader hounds away from Woundfoot, but he knew suddenly that all that time he’d really just enjoyed causing mischief, just like always. But now, maybe for the first time in his self-centered life, he realized just how much he wanted to show the cat how grateful he was. The puma only saved him to spite the hound, of course, but what did that matter to him? His life had been spared, and that meant more to him even than the reward he had been promised. If only there was some way to show his gratitude….
Suddenly, the sound of voices reached his small ears, and the Raccoon perked up. The voices were human, and they were coming from the trees deeper into the woods. Though he wasn’t sure why, he decided to follow them.
In the woods close to the Fenokee fairgrounds, Mitch Crathers and Lou Danielson were stalking the puma. They had come across his trail on the narrow bridge of land connect the mainland to the island where the cat dragged his kills. They followed the tracks until they led here, close to the fairgrounds.
“What do you think that cat’s doing here?” Mitch asked.
Lou shrugged. “Dunno, Mitch. Could be he’s after some of the stock they have at the fair. They’re already getting stuff ready. 4H started setting up stuff the other day, ‘an Jeb Crowley sent some of this pies over for the bake sale”.
“Not to mention the Fenokee annual pie ‘eatn’ contest.” Laughed Mitch. “Remember the time-”
“Not now!” said Lou. “We got to git us that varmint. Sos be quiet sos he don’t hear us comin’
“Right.” Mitch amended, but then he said. “What about them nosey kids, and their snooper hound?”
“Forget ‘em,” said Lou. “They’re probably makin’ a fine meal for the gators right now!” He chuckled evilly at the thought.
But Mitch wasn’t convinced. “Ah think we should have snuffed ‘em, just to make sure”.
“Oh, shut up. Them pesky brats won’t give us any more trouble. Even if they get away, we’ll be long gone by then. With a quarter-million dollar panther hide!”
“What about the sheriff?”
“Sheriff!” snorted Lou. “Thet dumb sheriff couldn’t catch a flea on his ear. Now be quiet—ah thinks I hear something!’
“The panther?” Mitch had a note of fear in his voice.
“I don’t know—shhh!’
Both men listened intently into the pre-dawn darkness. They heard what sounded like a low coughing some distance ahead. “I think it’s him.” Said Lou. They crept through the thicket, rifles at the ready. They went ten more paces into the brambles, but still they saw nothing. The noise did not sound again. Then they came clearing.
“Look, Lou.” Said Mitch. “I don’t think the cat’s here. Why would a panther come this close to the fairgrounds? He must have doubled back.”
“He’s here, ah tell you!”
“Yeah, right.” said Mitch. He sat down on a log, and lay down his rifle. “I don’t know ‘bout you, Lou, but ah need me a drink.” Mitch undid the leather pouch around his waist, unstrapping his flask of beer. He unscrewed the cap, and took one sip before Lou stormed over, and angerly snatched his bottle away.
“You as plumb crazy as a mad hog!” said Lou. “Drinkin’ booze when we’re trackn’ thet animal?”
“Shucks, Lou, ah was only—“
“Shet yer trap! Fine time you picked to git liquered up!”
Neither of the men noticed the small, clever hands that flipped open the cartridge of Mitch’s air rifle, and took out the bullets.
“Hey, take a gander et this!” Lou exclaimed. “The painter’s tracks. “Found ‘em again. Told yah he was here!” They bent down over the panther’s trail. Mitch retrieved his rifle and joined him. “Looks like yer right.” He agreed.
“’Course ah am! Jest look at the size ‘o them prints! “An this paw’s damaged. He did come this way!” As the men were examining the print’s, Lou’s rifle fell victim to the same vandal.
“Well, where is he now?”
Lou frowned in confusion. “They look like he’s going toward the fairgrounds again. What the hay!”
They got to their feet and began following the tracks. “Keep quiet, Mitch”. Lou warned. “He’s ‘round here somewheres, you mark my words”.
“Same to you”. Mitch grumbled under his breath.
They crept stealthily forward through the trees, their every sense on the alert. Not more than ten paces in front Lou and Mitch, Woundfoot and Slyface were approaching fairgrounds. Lights were visible from the parking grounds on the other side of the ampitheater. These were of the remaining people who were arranging a movie shoot for Duchess the Wonder Dog. The lights were a long way off, but they made Woundfoot and his companion nervous, since they indicated the presence of humans. The rest of the fairgrounds were dark.
“I don’t think that ‘lil ringtail ruffian’s here.” said Slyface. “Little hooligan probably figured out where them pies were, and made off with them hisself!”
“I wouldn’t put that past him, Slyface.” Woundfoot purred. “But he did lead the hounds from us, just as promised. Whatever his motivations, he’s entitled to his reward”.
“But you already saved his skin, my lord.” Answered Slyface. “Ah think we should just—“
“Silence!” Woundfoot commanded suddenly. “We’re being hunted.” The cat suddenly became intensely alert.
“Who’s hunting us?”
“Men, you fool.” Woundfoot hissed. “They must have been trailing us ever since we swam Mocassin creek!” Slyface peered fearfully into the trees, and edged closer to his master for protection.
“Where are they?” the ‘possum asked.
“I don’t know, but I heard them. They’re very close, somewhere through those trees”.
“What do we do, lordship?”
“Just keep moving. And don’t make a sound. Once we’re far enough away, make a run for it.”
But the poachers were already peering at them from a screen of foliage, not more than ten feet away.
“Glory, ain’t he a beaut!” whispered Mitch Crathers as he stared through the brambles at the puma.
“Fetch a mighty fine price, ‘e will”. Lou aimed his rifle at Woundfoot dead-center and squeezed the trigger.
“This danged rifle’s clean out of bullets!” Lou cursed under his breath. “What did you do with ‘em, Mitch?”
“Me? It’s yer gosh-danged rifle!” Mitch shot back. “Never mind. I’ll take car of ‘im.” He aimed at the cat and fired.
No bullet exploded from the gun. Instead there was a burst of reddish pink fluid that looked like berry juice from the barrel. It exploded out with a pop and splattered back on the two poachers, as the recoil from the sabatoged rifle threw Mitch Crathers back into some thorny brambles. He got to his feet cursing loudly.
“Someone sabatoged our rifles!” Mitch complained.
“Ah cen see thet, ya idgit!” said Lou. “better not have been-“
Then peals of shrill laughter alerted both men to the real culprit. There, perched on a tree limb a short distance away, the Little Raccoon sat jeering at them.
“A ‘coon!” said Mitch. “Rawt over there with the blue headband! He did it! He let that danged painter git away!”
“What do we do now?” Slyface asked.
“We leave.” Answered the puma. “He may have his reward later. Come!”
The Final Confrontation
Sheriff Muletrain and Deputy Goofer were in their swamp buggy, searching for the Boggs kids and Buford. Already, they were venturing into the deepest part of the swamp. Goofer stood on the prow, aiming his searchlight through the gloom. “Woooody! Cindy Mae!” he hollered.
“They probly can’t hear you, Goofer.” said Muletrain,”but keep searching. I’m certain those kids went this way. They said the island they found those tracks on was right about here someplace.”
“Hey sheriff!” yelled Goofer. “Ah see something!”
“Over there, by them cypresses.” He shone the brilliant beam in that direction.
Sheriff Muletrain looked, and saw that, for this once at least, the deputy was right. A large net hung suspended from one of the cypresses, and he could see struggling figures within. He couldn’t make them out very clearly, but there seemed to be four of them. There was an empty swamp buggy nearby, but it looked like one of the rentals from the Fenokee Recreation Department.
“Think it’s them kids, sheriff? Looks like they got two other fellas with’em”.
“I ain’t sure, Goofer. Let’s take a closer look.”
As they neared the net , they soon saw that the captives were four men. The Boggs kids were no where in sight. These people didn’t even look like locals. Then the sheriff recognized one of them. It was Mr. Martin, the agent of Duchess the Wonder Dog.
“Holy crabapples!” exclaimed Goofer “Ain’t thet Mr. Martin, the showman?”
“I cen see thet, Goofer. C’mon, ya lunkhead, let’s get ’em down”.
“We’re sure glad you guys showed up.” said Mr. Martin, once he and the camera men had been freed. “Some poachers snagged our boat, and captured us”.
“Poachers, eh?” snorted the sheriff. “Just like ah figured”.
“Yeah,” said Goofer “like Cindy Mae said—“
“Never mind that, Goofer!” reprimended the sheriff, “Mr. Martin, mind telling us why yore back in Fenokee in the first place, ‘an out here in this swamp?”
Mr. Martin told the story of how they had flown Duchess back to Fenokee after her New York tour was cancelled, and how they had agreed to follow the Boggs kids and Buford out here in the swamp, hoping to get some shots for their new movie.
“Holy cow! So Duchess is with Buford and the Boggs kids right now”?
“That’s what we hope. We promised to keep an eye on her, but then those poachers nabbed us, and we think they might have gotten those kids as well”.
“Then there’s no time loose. Goofer, let’s go. Mr. Martin, you and the rest of you, come with us”.
A few miles distant, Woody, Cindy Mae, Buford, Duchess, and the Tarkins Brothers had landed the swamp buggy, and were heading inland through Fenokee. They had seen the direction the poachers had taken, and before long, had located the stolen conservation buggy. Buford and Duchess, had no difficulty picking up the men’s trail.
They continued to follow the men’s tracks deep into the swamp, when at last they heard the men’s voices.
“Everyone, down!” said Cindy Mae. They all ducked behind a screen of thorny briars. And peered out. The voices grew louder. Before long, the two poachers stepped into the clearing beyond. Sure enough, it was Mitch Crathers, and Lou Danielson. They had backtracked, and apparently had not been able to bag the panther, as they had so recently boasted. Cindy Mae breathed a sigh of relief at this.
The two men came to a halt in the clearing. “Well, what do we do now, Lou?”
“Right now we wait for Mando to show up. I know he wants his payment, but we’ll have to tell him we didn’t get the cat”.
It was just then that they heard someone else coming through the woods in their direction. The group crouching behind horn barrier almost drew a collective gasp as none other than Jenna Crowley stepped out of the bushes.
“It’s Jenna!” whispered Woody. “What does she want with those guys?”
“Just keep watching Woody”, smiled Cindy Mae. “Ah think we’re all about to find out”.
The old swamp hag paused in the middle of the clearing. “Well?” she asked. But her voice was deep, sly, oily—and though the sinister secretive tone was not lost, the voice was this time definitely that of a man—just as Cindy had expected. And they saw that s/he was carrying a rifle too.
“Well, we didn’t git ‘im Mando.” Lou explained. “We had the varmint in our sight, but someone sabotaged our bullets.”
“What?” replied Jenna/Mando “How? Never mind ---I’ve done my part, leading those nosey kids and their hound away. They just had to get involved, just like you said they would. But remember you promised me a third of the loot you get from that panther’s hide, and I mean to collect! Here, take this rifle. Then meet me at Jenna Crowley’s shed if the sheriff doesn’t catch you first! Then we can make our escape. But next time, be sure you bring the cat’s hide with you.”
Mando took the men’s rifles, and gave the poachers his. Mando had a strange accent that sounded almost foreign. Lou Tarkins gazed at the man disguised as a hag sourly. “We’ll git ‘im this time. Count on it.”
“Make certain!” snapped Mando, before he turned and disappeared into the trees.
“Think we can pick up that panther’s tracks?” said Mitch
“Shore we cen! You heard the man! C’mon!” They turned back the way they had come.
The group behind the briars remained in hushed silence for several minutes, before Cindy Mae spoke.
“Gosh sakes!” You know what this means?”
“Ah think so, Cindy Mae.” Said Woody.
“We’ve got to find thet panther before they do!”
“We’ll come with you,” said Steve Tarkins.
“But what about those poachers?” asked Bill
“Ah think maybe we can lay a trap fer them scallywags”. Woody said.
“Right!” said Cindy Mae. “ But first, we got a special job for Buford.”
“You do?” asked Buford, puzzled.
“We’ll circle around them guys”, explained Cindy Mae, “An see if we can’t find that panther’s trail first. Think you cen do thet, Buford”.
“Uuuuh. Ah think ah can.” mumbled the hound.
“Ooooh, sure ya can, Buford.” Duchess nuzzled Buford’s jowl.
“Awwwwww.” said Buford. But then his canine brain snapped full alert. Here it was, the moment he had been anticipating and dreading. Following Woundfoot’s trail meant that he might end up face to face with the puma once again. It wasn’t likely, he reminded himself, but it was possible nonetheless. And with Duchess near him he would have to be very brave—after all, both her life and his might actually depend on it!
“Get goin’ Buford.” Woody said. “Sniff ‘ol Woundfoot out”.
Buford began sniffing. And as he had both hoped and feared, Duchess began sniffing too, right along side. The others seemed to think that was right swell, having the two of them onto the trail, but it did not relieve his initial worry any.
About a half-mile distant Woundfoot and Slyface were heading back toward the center of Fenokee, but neither one had guessed that the poachers were back onto their trail again.
“Where do we go now, my lord?” Slyface asked.
“We keep going until we reach the bayou”. his lord answered. “Then we follow the water’s edge back to where we can reach the bridge to the island”.
Then they heard the unmistakable sounds of men back in the woods. The two poachers had found the cat’s tracks again, and figured where he was headed. But this time they hurried onto his trail, and were a bit careless at first, snapping twigs and branches as they came.
“It’s them men with guns!” said Slyface. “They must have figured where we were!”
“Those fools are back!” snarled Woundfoot. “Come on, let’s move it!’
They made in the direction of the nearest bayou. They were headed toward a narrow triangle of land at the tip of the forested peninsula they were on, flanked on either side by wide banks.
As the trees thinned out, the poachers got a glimpse of Woundfoot as he dashed across a grassy clearing. “There ‘e is!” Lou hollered.
“Shoot ‘im!” yelled Mitch.
Lou aimed in the cat’s direction fired. It was along way off, and the shot wasn’t clear, but the shot managed to graze the puma’s left shoulder. Woundfoot screamed.
The men crashed in cat’s direction certain of an easy kill.
“Lawdship!” cried Slyface, terrified of his master winding up marketable skin. “They got you! Oh, they got you!”
Woundfoot only hissed at him. Blood was streaming down his side, as ran, the ‘possum scampering to keep up.
But hot onto his trail in the other direction were Buford and Duchess, followed by the twins and the Tarkins boys. Buford had struck the cat’s scent a while back. It was still faint, but the scent was most definitely that the same cat which had accosted him on the fallen tree. He could barely make out the scent of ‘possum as well. Woundfoot was close by. His nose began flashing loudly. “This way.” he said to Duchess.
Duchess caught onto Woundfoot’s scent as well. She began following it eagerly, right beside Buford. Then one of Buford’s ears went up as he detected the sounds of men. He turned his nose in their direction, and again his nose flashed with a new scent. It was men, all right, and he could tell they were the two poachers. They must be closing in on the cat. Buford threw up his muzzle and howled, hoping to warn Mith and Lou.
In a nearby grove of trees, Mitch and Lou stopped. “A bloodhound!” exclaimed Mitch. “Someone’s onto us!”
“You fool! We ain’t turning back now! We’re bagging that feline!”
“It could be them kids ‘an their dog! Ah told you they’d escape!”
“So we’ll go a little slower. But thet panther can’t go far now! Ah got ‘im good, ‘an I ain’t lettin’ ‘im go!”
Buford and Duchess continued in the cat’s direction. At last, Buford happened onto the puma’s fresh tracks. From the scent, he’d been through here not more then five minutes earlier. And something else. Buford smelled fresh blood. The cat had been wounded! At that meant he could be very dangerous. He realized that they dared go no further.
Buford sat down on the path next to tracks to wait for the others. “We’ll wait here.” he mumbled to Duchess. “Too dangerous to follow ‘im”. Then with shock he realized that Duchess was no longer beside him.
She was dashing up the path, straight in Woundfoot’s direction. Upon smelling the puma’s tracks, she had gotten excited, had rushed in a headlong chase. Buford looked after her in horror. Did she think Woundfoot was just some overgown alley cat? It occurred to him that Duchess had lived all her life as a city-bred hound surrounded by showbiz people. She probably had never heard of a bobcat, let alone a swamp panther! Maybe she had seen the lions and tigers at the circus, but they were safely under control. Here in Fenokee swamp---
Buford wasted no further thoughts. In a lavander blurr he dashed after his canine sweetheart. “Duchess! Wait! Come back!”
Buford galumphed down the path in Duchess’ direction, calling to her. But she was already far ahead of her. Buford increased his speed. Then, in the trees ahead, came the drawn-out scream of a wounded panther! Followed by a yelping, fear-choked cry from Duchess. The sounds combined to cause Buford’s heart to freeze in sudden horror. He sped down the path and crashed out into a loamy bank looking out over the bayou. The first rays of the new sun were already streaming through the drifts of Spanish moss across the glimmering water.
And before him, Buford saw Woundfoot, coat glistening blue-black in the dawn’s fresh light. The puma had been wounded, plain enough, grazed by a bullet on his left shoulder, from which fresh crimson streamed. The cat’s lips were drawn back snarling and spitting with insane fury. Slyface was there too, a few feet away, cringing on the sandbar. And straight in Woundfoot’s path was Duchess starring wide-eyed in helpless terror at the cat, backed up against a tree. Starring into the cat’s gaze, she was unable even to move.
Buford felt as another of his dreams had sprung to vivid life—this time the one where he had imagined himself as the World’s Strongest Dog, and had saved Duchess from a hungry lion. Only now he wasn’t the World’s Strongest Dog, and there was no way he could pull Woundfoot inside out like he had that lion in his dream. But he had to do something, and fast.
Duchess whined in terror, as Woundfoot crept upon her, the look of madness in his eyes. The cat sprang for Duchess. In another moment, he would sink his fangs into her throat.
Buford wasn’t even fully aware of what happened next. Like a flash of enraged purple lightening he exploded into the cat, catching Woundfoot in midleap. Duchess gasped in fright, as Woundfoot was knocked off balance and thrown back by the sheer force of the hound’s assault. The puma landed stunned on his back on the sandbar, Buford standing over him, snarling in fury.
Dazed, the puma blinked in confusion. Then he registered who it was that had dared attack him. Woundfoot was astonished. When he had found Buford before, terrorizing the hopelessly outmatched little raccoon, he had thought him something of a coward. Now he wasn’t so sure. Never before had anyone attacked him with such ferocity.
But the puma recovered quickly. With a savage swipe, he threw the hound off. Buford yelped in pain, as Woundfoot’s talons raked furrows down his flank. The cat regained his feet, hissing savagely at the hound.
“You…you dare lay your paws on me!?!” Woundfoot screamed. “This time I’m going to tear you limb from limb!” He charged Buford in fury, hissing and spitting with rage. But this time Buford returned his attack, barking savagely, and rushing in to tear at the cat’s hide. He was even more maddened than the wounded puma had been.The sight of Duchess in peril had driven all concern for his own safety from him. He only knew he had to defeat this cat who was threatening her.
The combatants circled each other in a raging blurr of purple and black. Woundfoot slashed and tore at Buford with his claws, and the hound returned the favor with his teeth, fighting with a fury he had never known before, while Duchess watched the battle in stunned awe.
As the sun rose pink and golden over Fenokee swamp, the cries of herons and egrets signaled the dawn of a new day. Sheriff Muletrain and Deputy Goofer, along with Mr. Martin and the other showmen, following in their own buggy, had heard Buford howling in the nearby cypresses.
“That’s Buford”, the sheriff said. “Ah bet them kids is right over there. Ah think this could mean trouble. Step on it, Goofer!”
“Right, sheriff.” Goofer yanked the lever with such force that Muletrain was knocked clean over on his back. “GOOOOOFER!!!!!” he yelled.
“Sorry, sheriff. But ya told me to hurry.”
They were off across the bayou at a furious pace. “Awright, awright, sos ah did!” grumbled the sheriff. “make fer that land”.
Buford was fighting more furiously than he ever had in his life. But Woundfoot outweighed him by several pounds, and the cat was slowly winning. Duchess, though still terrified of the puma, realized that Buford was fighting for her very life, and that she had to do something and now! Growling in threat she rushed the puma’s flank, and barreled into him, knocking him off balance.
Buford, though weakened, renewed his attack, and slammed into the confused cat from the other side. The puma, too, has weak from battle, and the two hounds were together able to back him to the edge of the sandbar.
Buford and Duchess snarled at him. Woundfoot snarled back, the pure light of hate shining from those firey green orbs. Though cornered, he hissed at them shrilly “You think you can defeat me? This swamp is my hunting grounds from this day foreward! I take whatever I want, whenever I want it! Every stockade in Fenokee will be my larder!! And no hound-dog will ever stop me! Do you hear?!!”
Buford heard, but he wasn’t listening. He snarled over at Duchess, “Let’s finish him.”
He saw in Duchess eyes that she was still somewhat intimidated by the cat’s words, but the look in Buford’s eyes gave her the confidence to do what they did next. Both hounds looked back at the cat. And for the first time, the light of uncertainty came into those supremely arrogant eyes.
The threw themselves into the cornered puma with all the strength they had, propelling him back and into the bayou with a splash. The cat rose to the surface hissing and spitting. Like most cats Woundfoot despised the water.
Through the trees behind them came the shouts of Woody and Cindy Mae. “Buford!” they cried. “Buford!” The hounds turned and ran weakly to them.
And then a blinding white light shot through the trees in their direction. Woundfoot, realizing the humans and hounds had him outnumbered, spat once more in protest, then began swimming toward the far shore.
Right before Sheriff Muletrain’s buggy came tearing through the trees!
The Last Knots are Tied
Goofer, pulling the lever back as far as it would reach, made no effort to stop on the shore. Sheriff Muletrain was shouting frantically for him to hurry, so he simply kept on going until the buggy careened out of the water and into the woods. Goofer then tried to halt the craft, but the buggy kept on crashing over shrubs and saplings.
“Goooooofer!!!” hollered the sheriff, holding on to his hat, barely able to contain himself, before they came crashing to halt into the bole of large cypress tree. The Tarkins, the Boggs kids and the two hounds threw them selves out of the way.
“It’s Goofer!” yelled Woody.
“And the sheriif!” yelled Cindy Mae.
Goofer had managed to hold onto the lever when they had crashed. “Howdy, kids.” Said Goofer, getting out of the swamp buggy. Mr. Martin and the two cameramen got out of their own buggy, and came through the trees.
“Where’s the sheriff?” Cindy Mae asked.
Goofer looked around, but there seemed to be no sign of him. “Yoo-hoo!” Goofer called. “Sheriff Muuuuletrain! Where in tarnation did you get to?”
“Up here, Goofer, you pimple-brain!” said an angry voice from somewhere above them. They all looked up. Goofer shone his searchlight up in the cypress. There was the sheriif, his overweight body slung over one branch.
“Oops, sheriff. Sorry ‘bout that”.
“Not as sorry as you’e gonna be, if ya don’t git me down from here, Goofer! Yer gonna be pullin’ desk duty for a month!”
As usual, the sheriff had spoken without thinking. “Don’t worry, sheriff,” said Goofer. “I’ll git ya in no time rawt away.” He aimed his revolver at rotten place near the base of the branch and fired.
Muletrain started to protest, but it was too late. As the wood cracked, the sheriff fell into the brambles below. “Gooooofer!!!!” he shouted again.
“But ya jest told me to—“
“Never mind!” said the sheriff, getting up, and dusting himself off. “What in tarnation is going on here.”
“I’ll tell you what, sheriff.” Said Cindy Mae. “Take a look there.”
They all did. Pinned under a sapling, a few feet away, were the two poachers, Mitch Crathers and Lou Danielson, trapped under a small tree, that the sheriff’s buggy had uprooted when it had crashed. They were still wearing the conservation uniforms they had stolen.
Those are the poachers, been trying to catch the real Woundfoot, sheriff”. Cindy Mae explained. “And these are the real Tarkins brothers!” She introduced the two men who had been captured.
“That’s right, sheriff.” Said Steve Tarkins. He explained as best he could what had happened.
“You cant’ prove nuthin’ “ yelled Steve.
“Oh, yes we can,” said Cindy Mae pertly. “Buford, take a look a sniff in their pockets.”
Buford did, red nose flashing. Sure enough he scented the sharp odor of latex. The hound pulled a rubber mask from Lou’ s pocket, and then did the same with Mitch. He brought both to Cindy Mae, who showed them to the sheriff.
“Well, mah grits and gravy.” Said Multrain. “So that’s how they fooled us
“Right.” Said Cindy Mae. “After they kidnapped the real Tarkins brothers, they stole their boat, and then their van. They already had a trained panther they’d sprayed black to make him look like the real Woundfoot. They staged the raid on the Jenkins farm, by prying the doors open. Then they used a dog whistle to get the cat to steal into the shed and make off with one of Jenkins’ hogs. They’d tried to do the same thing at Huffsteaders, but before they could get back to their van and get the trained panther, the real Woundfoot struck!”
“Golly!” said Goofer. “Yah mean thar really is a swamp panther runnin’ loose?”
Cindy Mae nodded. “Uh-huh. It was him that was responsible for raiding the other Fenokee farms. These poachers wanted to catch him and sell his hide, sos they just took advantage of the situation. They impersonated the Tarkins brothers so they could get the real panther, an bring him back to their camp in the swamp we found. They was gonna skin him right there. They’ve got all kinds of poacher stuff and aimal hides. Ah figure they’ve been at it fer along time!”
“An we would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddlesome brats!” snorted Mitch.
“Aw, shet up!” said Lou.
“But what about old Jenna Crowley?” Woody asked. “How does she fit in with all this?”
There was the sound of snapping branches as someone approached. “Ah believe we all’re gonna find out, sheriff.”
All heads turned in the direction of the sound, as Jenna Crowley stepped from the woods. “What’s going on here?” Jenna demanded in a masculine voice. “I heard the commotion, and headed—holy god!”
Jenna—or whoever he truly was—turned to run. “Sic ‘im Buford!” said Woody.
Buford, though weakened with his fight with the puma, dashed across the clearing, easily overtaking the man in drag as he made a cluimsy effort to escape. With a single pounce, Buford had him pinned to the ground. “Get off me, you crazy dog!” Jenna yelled.
“Now—“ said Cindy Mae. “Let’s see who ‘ol Jenna really is!”
She reached down and pulled off the rubber mask she knew was there. Every drew a collective gasp. The face beneath the mask was that of a slickly handsome, aristocratic-looking man. He had somewhat swarthy complextion, a small trimmed mustash, and slicked-back, oily looking blue-black hair. He retained Jenna’s piercing black eyes that had so mesmerized Buford.
The sheriff gave him a good long look. “Ah know this rascal. This here’s Boris Mando, ‘an he’s been wanted in four states for years.”
“Boris who?” asked Woody
“Mando. An ex- professional magician.” explained the sheriff. “Claims he could really read folks minds. But then he got into some real shady activities. Charging people money saying he could change their futures.”
“Ah-hah!” said Cindy Mae. “So Mando here musta been financing those two crooks for their poaching operation. They was probably gonna pay him half the profit in return. ‘An he tried to distract u ine we got involved, by impersonating Jenna Crowley. That explains the playing cards Buford found in her hut.”
“That’s correct.” snapped Mando. “They wanted me to get you kids off their trail if you ever got involved. And we nearly pulled it off too!”
“Well, Mando.” said the sheriff “Ah got you a new place fer your tricks. Mah jail!” Buford stepped off Mando, as the sheriff hauled him to his feet and snapped on the handcuffs. “Same goes fer you two scallywags!” he told the poachers. Goofer and Muletrain ushered the three crooks into their buggy, once they had managed to push it off shore.
“Sheriff! There’s one more thing ah think you should know!” said Woody.
“An what might that be?”
“Duchess! Buford saved Duchess, sheriff! He fought ‘ol Woundfoot hisself jest ‘afore you showed up, ‘an plumb saved Duchess life”.
“Buford saved Duchess life?” Mr. Martin asked. He and the camera men were standing nearby.
“He shore did, Mr. Martin.”
“That so Duchess?” Mr. Martin asked. Duchess nodded eagerly. He looked at Buford, and with shock noticed the long red furrows marking his flank. “Well I’ll be---It looks like we really owe dog of yours this time kids! Look at those scratches. You better get our hero to a vet –and fast!”
Buford was slumped on the ground still weak and dizzy with the effort of fighting. The rage he had felt when defending Duchess from the cat had now all but vanished, replaced by a lazy kind of inner peace. Duchess came over and kissed him.
“Mah hero, Buford,” she whispered. “You really are my hero. More now than ever.’
“Awww, shucks, it weren’t nuthin’” Buford said, very weakly, before his head sank back to the loam. As badly as the cat had torn him, Buford couldn’t have been happier at that moment.
Suddenly, his nose flashed red. Buford blinked rapidly, and saw a smallish, furry object lying not more than a few feet away. Curious, he got to his feet, wobbling slightly, and shuffled toward the object. He saw then that it Slyface. During the heat of battle, the ‘possum had fainted dead away. Only Buford knew ‘possums well enough to know that Slyface was far from dead. He sniffed at the “corpse” and growled slightly. But Slyface didn’t twitch.
Goofer looked over his shoulder at them. “Well, whatcha got there, Buford.” He came over to take a look. “If it isn’t some ornery ‘ol possum. Looks dead to me, sheriff. Ya know ‘possum ‘an sweet taters is mighty good eatin’. Did ah ever tll you ‘bout the time when—‘
That was enough for Slyface! He sprang to life at the sound of Goofer’s words, causing Buford to yelp in astonishment, as the ‘possum raced for the shore. He dived in and began paddling across the bayou in the direction his master had gone.
“Well I’ll be a three-toed tree frog, sheriff.” said Goofer “Thet there ‘possum wasn’t dead, after all.”
Buford slid off his feet again, feeling like nothing but sleeping.
“Golly!” Woody said. “We do gots to get him to the vet, Sis.”
“You can take our buggy, kids.” said Mr. Martin. “Come with us.”
But then Buford remembered something. The sheriff and Goofer were already getting in their buggy, Mando and the poachers in tow.
He raced toward the buggy and threw his front paws onto Mando, growled ominously.
“Get off me, you cursed dog!” shouted Mando. But Buford’s eyes bore into his. Mando was supposed to be a charlatan, but what did Multrain know? Buford wasn’t so sure. How could he have known about him and the Raccoon, back at Jenna’s hut? The thought of his first encounter with Woundfoot made the hound bristle with anger was he starred into Mando’s eyes.
“You said I’d git thet raccoon!” Buford growled.
Then a strange light came into Mando’s eyes making them shine with black luster. “Well, so I did.” He smiled. Mando gazed into Buford’s eyes with his glinting black ones. “Ah, I see. You did get him, didn’t you? Just like in your dreams.”
Buford gulped suddenly, realizing that in his dreams he always captured the Raccoon, but he woke before he could do him any harm.
“Of course I said you’d get the raccoon.” said Mando with oily mirth. “I never said what would happen after you got him!” Mando through back his head and laughed in his darkily haunting voice. As the buggy sped away over the bayou in the morning light, the dark laughter continued to ring n Buford’s ears, long after he collapsed to the ground again, and his friends had loaded him into Mr. Martin’s buggy.
The next night, Woundfoot and Slyface had circled back, and were now approaching the east end of the Fenokee fairgrounds. “Ya think he’ll be here, my lord?” the ‘possum asked.
“I don’t know, Slyface. Be careful, while we check the bakery. Then we’ll both be gone from this place. You are certain there are no humans?”
“No, my lord. I searched the entire perimeter. But I found no sign of the little head-banded one either.”
When they examined the bakery, they found that the shoo-fly pies for the local bake-sale had been totally pilfered and gobbled up. The Little Raccoon, his debt repaid, had not waited for them. He had located the pies himself, and had eaten was many as he could hold. Then he had doubtless found a hollow stump or log somewhere, and spent the day sleeping it off.
“There’s nothing further to keep us in this swamp”. Woundfoot said, as they departed the fairgrounds. “We must find fresh hunting grounds elsewhere.”
“But my lord—“
“There’s too many humans here. That swamp was swarming with them. They know about us, and will hunt us down. There are other communities we can steal from safely. And another thing. The hound I fought with did so bravely. I could still have killed him, if the humans hadn’t shown up, but he wants us gone from these parts, then I believe he has earned that right. Come.”
That very night, on the porch at Boggs landing, the kids, Buford, Duchess, the Tarkins brothers had gathered, along with Mr. Martin, and some of his crew. Buford had just spent a whole day at the Fenokee veterinary clinic getting a dozen stitches for the gashes Woundfoot had put on him. It was an ordeal to say the least, but Duchess had been there all the time telling him how brave he was. He knew it could have been much worse.
“Ah tell you again, we’re very much obliged to you kids.” said Steve Tarkins.
“We’ll still track that panther down ‘an catch, if he’s still in Fenokee.”
“He isn’t.” mumbled Buford.
“What’s thet, Buford?” Cindy Mae asked.
“He said,” Woody informed her. “That ‘ol Woundfoot ain’t comin’ back!”
And somehow Buford knew he wasn’t. He knew the swamp panther had left Fenokee for good. Maybe it was because the sheriff and Goofer had frightened him off, but deep down, Buford knew the reason. He had fought so ferociously with the cat, that Woundfoot had allowed a special truce to pass between them. In Woundfoot’s mind, Fenokee swamp now rightfully belonged to Buford—a right the hound had earned. But really, it now belonged to him and Duchess. At least, that was how Buford wanted to think of it.
“Well, ah guess our business here is over.” said Steve. “But keep in touch, ‘an let us know if he shows his face in this swamp”.
The Tarkins brothers got in their truck. “’Bye, kids! ‘An thinks again!”
“’Bye!” Woody and Cindy Mae called.
“Well kids,” said Mr. Martin. “We’re all very obliged to you too. And Buford especially”.
“Hey, where thet crazy hound-dog get to anyway?” Cindy Mae aaked. They all looked around, but Buford seemed to have vanished. Then a long mournful howl cut through the night. No—it wasn’t really mournful. They all knew it was meant to be happy. Then it was joined by another.
A full moon had risen over the waving cypresses. Together,Woody Cindy Mae, and Mr. Martin walked across the law to where they could see a small knoll, not far from their pickup.
Buford and Duchess were perched on it each taking their turn howling at the moon, their outlines clearly visible.
“Ya have to admit,’ said Cindy Mae, “They really are beautiful together. “’specially after all Buford and Duchess have been through.”
“You shore got thet right Sis.
All of them stood listening to the love-chorus of the two hound dogs, as it played through the cypresses, over the moon-drenched bayous, and away into the night.