The cat slowly put the rope in between his legs and held on while he used his tail to bring the rope to his paws. He used one to hold onto his lifeline, then the other, as he wrapped the rope around both legs like a harness, and then around his chest and the upper rope.
He tied two knots when he ran out of room. He dropped the rest and dangled from the rope limply as he was carried further north.
Arnold drifted in and out of consciousness, surfing the margins of lucidity. It felt like he had been carried to a place of warmth. The scent of family and home cooked meals mingled with the delicious aroma of a crackling wood-fire. It smelled of a happy world; a world of fairy tales; a world the cat had never known. Through one half closed eye he saw no less than a dozen faces peering at him with a combination of concern, curiosity and revulsion.
“What be he, Ma?” Arnold heard. “He looks like a lynx ‘septin’ he be as big as a man.”
“We be lookin’ at a Moreau, we is.” said another male voice. “A genuine abomination, he be.”
“Hush up yer mouth Cleetus.” came a young woman’s voice with a reproachful tone. “Them kind has feelins just like ye ‘n’ me.” The young lady sounded indignant.
“Daisy, ye ain’t never been the same since we done spent the winter down in that hoity-toity, nose-in-the-air Babbage Town.” the voice identified as Cleetus replied.
“Watch yer mouth boy.” said an older man’s voice reproachfully. “We don’t talk about that sorta behaviour here.”
“It be true though, Pa,” Cleetus whined, then lowered his voice to a level befitting scandalous gossip. “Daisy even took ta goin’ ta Moreau bars ‘n’ such.”
“Cleet, I done told ye, they play the best music in those bars and ye knows very well I just like ta dance is all.” Daisy replied.
“Lookit!” said the voice identified as Ma. “He be a stirrin’.”
Arnold opened his right eye fully, the left one bandaged shut, and brought into focus the eighteen faces he would later learn belonged to Ma and Pa Zebadiah, and their children, Cleetus, Daisy, and their fourteen brothers.
“Do them kind talk, Daisy?” Pa whispered from behind his hand.
“We do,” replied Arnold quickly assessing the situation. They didn’t appear to be particularly threatening, just curious in a mostly harmless sort of way. Besides–they could have just left him for dead.
“He talks Ma,” said the farmer Zebadiah, with a hint of excitement and wonder, as he turned to his wife.
“What be yer name, mister?” asked Daisy.
“You can call me Arnold,” The cat replied, making an effort to sit before collapsing back in pain upon the mattress.
“Ye just stay put, Mr. Arnold.” Ma admonished. “Ye ain’t in no state other ‘n to just lie still. I be goin’ a get ye some tea with plenty a cream straight from the cow’s utter.” Ma paused a little uncomfortably before adding, “Do ye fancy it in a saucer or a mug?”
“A mug would be fine,” replied Arnold, adding a late, “Thank you.”
“Here ye go, Mr. Arnold.” said Ma, smiling as she handed Arnold a small bowl wrapped in a cloth handkerchief. “It be some boiled mutton ‘n’ savoury gravy with cheese ‘n taters.”
“…thank you.” He said awkwardly, but with a genuine sense of gratitude as he accepted the bowl. The unexpected welcome he’d experienced over the past two days with this unusual, but decent, family had been a much needed reprieve.
It was just past dawn. The light of the early morning sun set sparkles dancing across the dew-laden fields of the Dairy Cooperative. Arnold was standing by the edge of an old barn surrounded by the entire Zebadiah clan awaiting Cleetus to bring around something they called the ‘ass-cart’ that would convey him back to New Babbage.
Arnold tried to hold the bowl Ma had given him in one hand while leaning on a cane he’d been given by Pa with the other. “Ye gots ta hold ‘er upright like so.” said Daisy, placing her hands over his paw and righting the bowl. “Elsen the gravy be a spillin’ over the sides.”
“I thoughts ye might be a needin’ some vitals te keep yer strength up fer the ride back down ta Babbage Town.” said Ma, “Especially after hearin’ a all yer adventures and such.”
“That’s very kind of you.” said Arnold, who wouldn’t call them ‘adventures’.
“Speakin’ of adventures,” Ma suddenly said with a twinkle in her eye.“Do you know the gallant Sir Emerson?”
Arnold’s ears flattened slightly. “He’s calling himself ‘Sir Sir’ Emerson Lighthouse these days.” replied the cat, his nose beginning to twitch. “And yes, I know him.”
“Did ye hear that Pa!” said Ma turning to smile at her husband. “A single ‘Sir’ weren’t enough fer brave Mr. Emerson.” She turned back to Arnold. “That man is a saint don’t ye think, Mr. Arnold?”
Arnold’s tail began to swish back and forth. “I’m sure he would agree with you.” Arnold muttered.
“Hope ye don’t mind hogs, young feller.” said Pa picking his teeth with a bit of straw.
“Hogs?” repeated Arnold narrowing his one free eye.
“Cleetus be takin’ a biggun down to Babbage town ta sell to that Rusty feller.” the old farmer explained, turning his head to spit.
“Pa!” Daisy and Ma complained simultaneously. “It be rude te be doin’ yer expectoratin’ in front of the company.”
“My apologies, Mr. Arnold,” explained the old farmer. “But I gets me the phlegm build-up in the mornin’ and it ain’t healthy te be a keepin’ it in.”
“Here be Cleet now.” said Daisy, indicating the arrival of the small wagon harnessed to a single skinny donkey.
“Hop yerself aboard, Mister Arnold.” called Cleetus as he pulled up. He then turned to swat at an enormous hog occupying no less than three quarters of the wagon. “Scoot over Wilber.” he hollered at the hog. “Don’t mind the pig,” Cleetus said to Arnold. “He be a gentle ‘un.”
Moments later Arnold had settled into the little wagon next to the hog who seemed not to mind the presence of the cat in the least. He raised his hand and waved to the family as they stood upon the little dirt track singing out their well-wishes. As they receded off into the distance, Arnold wiped a small tear from the corner of his right eye. He shook himself afterwards, wondering if he was starting to get a fever, and then lost himself to the rhythm of the rocking cart as it bumped along on the road back home to New Babbage.