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What choice does she have? If she wants to be a ranger, even a volunteer one, she will have to get into the dirty and dangerous, right? Besides, was there really ever a choice? Helena grins and grips her shovel tightly with both hands.
“You coming?” Fred calls as he makes his way through the field towards the gully.
To say it is muddy would be an understatement and a total neglect of the opportunity to use words like sticky, soggy, sloppy and downright swampy. The only reason it isn’t a swamp at this point is the fact that she can still walk upright in it without sinking her boots in the mire up to her knees. So it must be a field – to some degree. Nevertheless Helena is half expecting frogs to jump onto her thighs and mentally prepares herself not to scream if that happens. She plows onward while trying to divide her attention between listening for Fred’s reaction to whatever he found there before her arrival, sudden attacks of a lupine nature, and not losing her rubber boots.
The silence around her is stifling. It lies on the land around her like a sheet, a thin layer of fabric that lets the light through but does not allow you to actually see anything. Yet at the same time everything looks sharp and defined but with little depth. It is like her senses are leaving out all the unnecessary details and give her nothing but a basic sketch of her surroundings, like a sensory map or outline. A chill runs down her spine that has nothing to do with wolves. She shivers.
“Okay,” the sound of Fred’s voice cuts across the silence and makes her jump. “Not a wolf then.”
Helena stands still to concentrate on talking without falling over. “Why is that, Fred?” A little disappointed. Wouldn’t it be great to have a wolf in their park?
“Wolfs don’t burrow, for one thing. And it doesn’t exactly smell of wolf either.”
She can only see the back of his hunched behind as he bends over to peer at something in the gully. His jacket has pulled up to reveal his light green shirt underneath.
“What does wolf smell like?” she asks and continues her soggy walk with slightly less apprehension.
“Smells of wolf. Nothing else like it,” Fred mutters as she gets close enough to see into the gully herself.
It is an overgrown shallow affair with a few narrow tracks through the wet grass around it. About halfway up the bank Helena can see a small burrow that was kept dry from the rain by a small sandy overhang. Helena spots some dry grass and something that looks like mould. Or fur.
Swallowing her question about how Fred knows what a wolf smells like, she asks: “What is it?”
Fred shrugs. “Don’t know yet but a wolf won’t fit in there, that’s for sure. Let’s find out more, shall we?” He has taken his hand off his gun by now and puts the leather strap back over the safety. He walks slowly and cautiously on. Helena follows him at a close distance at first, then stands still. Fred’s boots scraping through the wet grass is the only sound she hears. Nothing moves in the area, not even a bird or one of the scurrying little creatures that she has gotten so used to while working alongside Fred.
She stays still for a moment and bends down. Her back twinges. Drat it, she should be doing yoga more. She listens intensely for sounds from the grass. Then she burrows a few fingers into the soggy ground and pulls up a few strands of grass. Then she drums her fingers on the ground and waits.
Fred has reached the edge of the gully now and squats down to peer into the little burrow. He lets out a reedy whistle.
“Why now, will you look at that?”
Helena straightens up, the blades of grass rolling through her fingers. “What is it, Fred?”
“See for yourself! You may like this sort of thing, I don’t know. I know I sure don’t.” He pulls himself up again and starts to look around him. For what, Helena doesn’t know.
She walks over and squats right next to the ranger. A clot of light and fluffy fur can be seen in the burrow but she does not recognise it at first. Then, something moves. A tiny claw extends from the clump of fur and stretches. Two pointy ears spring up and twitch.
“Wha… kittens?” Helena asks incredulously.
Fred sounds grim. “Yeah. And the last thing we need in a natural park like this. Cats. Feral too, I have no doubt, although they could be from an escaped pet from the town.” He indicates the general direction with his chin. Lights can be seen on the edge of the horizon in the early twilight. “Murdering bastards is what I call them. They’ll kill my birds and other small prey like there is no tomorrow. And for much of our park, there won’t be. Not unless we stop them.”
“Woah Fred,” Helena laughs, “for a moment there you sounded like that guy, what’s his name, Liam Neeson! Like “I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what you want, if you’re looking for ransom…’” She grins up at him. “Gonna hunt the terrorists down?”
The look Fred gives her shuts her up immediately and she looks back at the clump of tiny creatures that is now waking up. More little furry feet and twitchy ears have emerged. There must be at least three of them.
“Sorry” she mutters.
“We are, in a way, yes” Fred says gravely. “We can take care of those little critters now easily” he nods to the burrow in the gully, “but then we’ll have to find the kitty mama, which I am sure will be a lot harder to do.”
“What will you do with the kittens? Kill them?” Helena asks shocked.
“Nah.” He actually looks sorry. “If that is the offspring of someone’s cat then I am sure there will be objections and the last thing I need is a fuss with the town people.”
Helena grins again. “Stephan will mind.”
Fred says nothing.
When Fred said that it was going to be easy, he had no idea. This is what is going through Helena’s mind as she tries to make her way into the gully. It is deeper than she thought it was. She can easily hide herself in it without even having to bow down. The edge is wet earth that crumbles under her hand and her fingers slip on the wet grass as she tries to lower herself in. She had intended to dangle on the edge first to drop lightly down but gravity decides her timing for her and a frantic scraping with both hands and feet results in a rather graceless fall. She scrambles to find a proper foothold on the messy and extremely muddy floor and gazes around for the burrow. Everything looks different from this angle. Where is it? She grabs her flashlight and scans the walls just under the overhang. There! There is even a little ledge that no doubt the mother cat uses to get to the nest, something they didn’t see from the side. Helena makes her way towards the nest and pulls the blanket they got from the car off her shoulder. This will have to do for shifting this little family.
The wall of the gully is tilted at this point and does not allow Helena to get much closer. She rests her gloved hands against the sides to get a closer look inside the burrow. A little ‘meew’ greets her, the first animal sounds she has heard in this place. “Hello there little ones” she mutters, despite herself, “Wanna come with me to someplace warm and friendly for you?”
Apparently the answer from the universe is a resounding ‘no’ because at that point her foothold on the bottom of the gully gives out and she smacks full-bodily and face first against the wet and sticky ground before sliding slowly but surely towards the bottom.
“Going well down there, I hear?” Fred.
“Grngh” Helena starts through teeth full of grey mud. She hoists herself up and looks around for the blanket. Her gloves have made deep grooves in the gully walls as she was scrambling for a hold.
Suddenly, a little glint catches her eye. It is quick and small and Helena hesitates. Was there something there? It was further along the gully to her left, in the direction of the mill. As she stands there moving her head, scanning the mud to catch the glint again, Fred’s voice comes from above. He sounds worried.
“Helena? You okay down there?”
“Yeah!” she yells back, slightly annoyed. The glint, that little shiny moment, where is it?
“Did you get the cats?”
“What? Oh. Yeah. No. I mean I didn’t get them yet.” She casts around. The blanket is plastered to the mud underneath the nest. That is not going to be very comfortable for the little ones. Still, it is better than having your arms scratched to bits and losing kittens all over the place.
The first grab into the nest reveals a tiny white creature with red and grey spots. Its eyes are barely open so they cannot be more than ten days old. It tries to look around and constantly gives a high-pitched ‘meew’. The second grab yields another but this one is a dark grey with white tips to its ears and toes. Helena presses them gently to her chest as she makes another grab into the nest. “Ow!” A tiny claw seems to have pierced the seam of her glove. Helena instinctively pulls back but the little one now seems to try to hold on for dear life and dangles dangerously from her hand. She very quickly scoops it up and puts it with the others. Now one more time to make sure the nest is empty…
“Look out!” Fred yells from above. Helena barely has time to look up – which turns out to be a good thing because a few kilos of raging mother cat descends upon her like a small-scale tiger. Helena clutches the kittens to her chest with one hand and tries to shield her face with the other. The mother has landed on the side of her head and right shoulder. With a great sweep Helena tries to dislodge her but the cat will not let go so easily. Nails dig deep into Helena’s neck and she can feel the skin tearing along the long scratches. Another swipe sends the cat flying across the gully where it lands on four paws in the mud. It growls, ready to strike again. Helena pulls the blanket further up her chest as a kind of live shield, minding that it also contains claws – albeit much smaller ones. The mother cat advances, still growling. She won’t back off as long as her kittens are still in her arms, Helena knows, but this is also an excellent opportunity to catch the mama along with the little ones. “Fred? A little help here?”
“I’m on it!” He sounds muffled.
Next thing she knows, his jacket comes flying down the gully and lands squarely on the cat. “Catch it while it’s covered!”
“Wait what?” Bleeding from the side of her face, with three kittens clutched tightly (but gently) to her chest, her feet slipping in the wet mud, Helena makes a jump for it.
tl;dr Helena joins ranger Fred to check out something unusual. They find a nest of kittens, that obviously needs to be removed. While doing so, the mother cat appears and fiercely defends her kittens. Does Helena catch the mother cat?
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