Daniel Mangan finished pouring the last of the corn into the deer feeder and wiped the sweat from his brow. The Sleepyside area had been enjoying an unusual heat wave during the latter half of October, but though the days were warm, the nights cooled quickly. It was tricky weather for working in the preserve, because though he worked up a sweat while checking the stations, his body temperature invariably dropped as soon as he mounted Spartan to ride to the next station. He was just about to pull on his black leather jacket when he heard the sound of hoof beats. As familiar as he was with the horses in the area, he easily recognized Susie's distinctive gait, and smiled.

"Hey, Trix," he said, smiling as the horse and rider came into view.

Trixie's face lit up as she beamed back at him. "Dan! Fancy running into you, here," she teased. "Filling the feeding stations?"

Dan nodded. "Last one," he said, giving Spartan a solid pat. "The deer have been gobbling up the feed. Maypenny and I have been filling them every other day." Spartan nickered as if in agreement. "Don't you complain," he murmured to the horse. "I happen to know that you've been getting extra warm mash."

"Jealous?" Trixie questioned, grinning impishly.

"Not when I have Maypenny's hunter stew waiting for me," he tossed back, knowing that Trixie loved the hearty fare. As he'd predicted, her face fell.

"Oh, gleeps," she complained. "Now I'll be thinking of hunter's stew while I cut up Bobby's meat. Why does Moms only seem to make meals that need forks and knives?"

"Yes, eating your Moms' cooking is a real hardship," Dan said in mock sympathy. "Tell me, will you have to suffer through apple pie for dessert?"

"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped, even as the corners of her mouth tipped up into a grin. "It's October. It's pumpkin pie."

"Of course," Dan said, rolling his eyes. "What was I thinking?"

Susie and Spartan fell into step, travelling along the familiar path. The sun had dipped below the horizon and the shadows of trees merged and grew to a nebulous black mass. "So you're done for the day?" Trixie questioned. "That's great! I was thinking we could—" Susie stopped abruptly and Trixie frowned at the normally placid mare. "What's wrong?" Trixie asked, hoping to soothe her. "Are you getting hungry? Did hearing about the warm mash waiting for Spartan make you jealous? I'm sure Regan—"

But a tiny black animal flashed across the path directly in front of the skittish horse and Susie's ears flicked back. She shied, backing up a step and crowding Spartan. Spartan blew out a breath in protest and began his own awkward dance to put more room between them.

"Steady, now," Dan said, using the low tone that tended to quiet the horses. "Take it easy, fella."

Susie shuffled a few more steps and then surprised Trixie by neighing loudly and rearing up on her back legs. When she came down, she broke into a gallop, and Dan could only watch in horror as Trixie lost her seat and was summarily ejected from the panicked horse.

"Trixie!" he exclaimed, and dismounted to run to her side. She was lying on the path, looking more shell-shocked than injured, but… "Are you okay?" he asked, dropping down to kneel beside her. "Where are you hurt?"

"I'm fine," she said. "I think." She looked down the path. They could no longer see Susie, but they could hear her as she galloped further away from them. "Susie!" she gasped, and struggled to sit up. "We have to—"

"She'll be fine," Dan said firmly, placing his hands on her upper arms to prevent her from sprinting after the horse. "Susie knows her way home better than you do, and Uncle Bill will take care of her."

Trixie nodded, but bit her lip. "I suppose so."

"You suppose so?" he questioned, raising one eyebrow before running his hands lightly over her arms and legs to make sure that she really was okay. "Trix. You got lost on the way to Maypenny's just last week!"

Trixie flushed and scrambled to a standing position. "That's not fair!" she protested. "It's not as if I was going straight to Mr. Maypenny's from the stables, or even Crabapple Farm. Honey and I had been to Mr. Lytell's and then we exercised the horses for a while and—"

"I know," Dan admitted, relieved that she was obviously uninjured. "But I still think it's safe to say that Susie has a better sense of direction than you do."

Trixie flushed again but didn't argue. "What do you suppose spooked her?" she wondered. "I thought I saw something run across the path right in front of her, but she's usually not that skittish…"

In his worry over Trixie, Dan had almost forgotten the small black animal. He glanced at the tree line on the side of the path where the animal had disappeared and frowned when he spotted what appeared to be a pair of small eyes trained on him.

"I think, whatever it was, it's still here," he said. He wasn't entirely sure why he had the impression that the eyes were feline. The animal that had crossed the path in front of Susie could have been almost anything, really. The preserve was home to an astonishing variety of small animals. There was something about the eyes that spoke of domestication, though he couldn't explain why he thought so.

"What are you doing?" Trixie asked when he stepped toward the tree line. "Dan?"

He thought about telling her to stay put. It would be the smart thing to do, since he had no idea what the animal lurking in the shadows was. But ordering Trixie about was more likely to produce the opposite effect of the one intended, and he knew it. Wordlessly, he motioned for her to follow him, and he took another few steps towards the eyes.

In an instant, the eyes disappeared, and Dan heard a faint rustling.

"Well, it's gone now," he said, though he had a strange sensation of being watched.

"What do you think it was?" she asked curiously. "Porcupine? Squirrel?"

Instead of answering, he turned away from the trees. "Probably nothing," he said, though the words felt like an uncomfortable prevarication. "Well, Spartan? What do you say to an extra passenger?"

Spartan tossed his head, but seemed to accept the news with good grace. Trixie, however, didn't react with the same degree of complacency.

"Oh, I couldn't!" she protested. "I'll walk. We're not that far out, are we?"

Dan winced, realizing that Trixie, as usual, had no idea where exactly she was in the preserve. "It's no trouble," he said. "Spartan is—"

Spartan's panicked nicker interrupted him, and both Dan and Trixie whipped about to face the horse. Instead of responding to Dan's calm voice, the horse pawed at the ground, his eyes rolling wildly.

"Steady, now," Dan coaxed, but Spartan would have none of it, shuffling away from him. "What's the matter?" Dan asked, astonished by the horse's actions.

A black shadow streaked across the path, this time in the opposite direction, and Spartan made a break for freedom, neatly dodging around both Dan and Trixie as he followed in Susie's wake.

"What in the name of—" Dan said, staring after the horse in disbelief.

"Dan!" Trixie exclaimed. "Look!"

"I am looking," he said, frowning at the empty path.

"Not Spartan," she said, her tone expressing how utterly stupid he must be to even entertain the idea. "Look!"

Dan followed her pointed finger and saw the black shape sitting calmly in the middle of the path.

"A black cat," he said blankly.

Trixie nodded.

"Susie and Spartan were both scared off by a black cat."

She nodded again.


The cat regarded them silently, then calmly and deliberately turned its back on them as it settled itself nonchalantly, still in the middle of the path.

"What is a black cat doing in the middle of the preserve?" Trixie wondered aloud. Dan thought about mentioning that they weren't technically in the middle of the preserve—more like the northeast corner—but thought better of it.

"It's tame," she continued. "But look at its fur! The poor thing hasn't been groomed in ages!"

The cat's black fur was rather matted, Dan realized. And he was certain that the problem was only compounded by the fact that the cat's hair was longer than his own. And Trixie's. Put together.

As if aware that the topic of his fur was under consideration, the cat began to groom himself, still ostensibly ignoring the humans. Trixie took a step toward the cat, and Dan waited for him to bolt, but the cat remained in place.

"We can't just leave him here," Trixie decided.

Dan raised an eyebrow and wondered if Trixie had any concept of the nature of cats, domestic or otherwise. "What do you suggest?" he asked cautiously.

"Well, we could—"

She stopped short as the cat suddenly hissed and rose, his back arched in a feline curve of grace. Every strand of his long black hair stood on end, and he took on the appearance of a much larger animal. For a fleeting moment Dan wondered if he wasn't actually just a smaller specimen of one of the wild mountain cats in the area, but the long hair, despite its matted and dirty state, was too uniform to be the winter coat of a wild cat.

The hoot of an owl broke the silence, and the cat darted up the nearest tree in a flash of lightning fast black.

"Well, that's that," Dan said, feeling a slight twinge of relief. Surely Trixie wouldn't expect them to coax the cat down or, even worse, climb the tree.

It wasn't the first time he'd been wrong.

Trixie stared at him. "We can't just leave him!" she said, aghast.

They couldn't?

Dan turned back to the tree and stared at the cat. He was still sitting in the same place on the branch. The sun had fully set and his silhouette was clearly outlined against a deep blue sky.

"Honestly?" Dan said. "He looks happy."

Trixie's jaw dropped. She looked from him to the cat, and then back again. "His back is arched," she said, slowly and plainly.

Dan shrugged. "And?"

"He's scared!"

Dan paused. "And?"

Trixie threw up her hands. "Dan!"

He raised one eyebrow.

"Fine. I'll get him myself," she huffed, and strode cautiously and deliberately toward the tree.

Dan groaned to himself. If she'd batted her eyes or pouted he'd have had no trouble saying "no". As it was, he couldn't fight her raw determination, not when he knew that she wasn't trying to manipulate him. She had every intention of rescuing the cat whether he helped her or not.

And he couldn't help but admire her for it.

With a sigh he joined her in staring up at the cat in the tree. It seemed to have relaxed somewhat, but Dan wouldn't exactly describe it as friendly.

"Maybe if I—" he began, but Trixie wasn't listening to him. Instead, she had already extended a hand and was allowing the cat to sniff it cautiously. Dan watched as the animal seemed to respond cautiously to her overture. Just as it looked as if Trixie was going to be successful in luring it toward her, lightning flashed, illuminating the sky. The roll of thunder was almost simultaneous, and the cat leapt from the branch, landing first on Trixie's shoulder and then dropping to the ground. Dan fully expected him to tear off into the woods, but he froze, attempted to run, but only succeeded in hobbling.

"He's hurt!" Trixie exclaimed, and Dan groaned, knowing that there would be no stopping her now. There was absolutely no way that she would leave an injured animal behind. Sure enough, Trixie managed to reach the cat and scoop it up before it could reach the trees again. Dan watched in chagrined amusement as she ignored the hissing and cradled the cat to her chest.

"Now stop that," she demanded softly, and Dan shook his head as the cat complied.

"Unbelievable," he muttered. "Can we head back now?" he asked, looking up at the sky. The thunder and lightning that had spooked the cat hadn't resulted in rain yet, but he was certain it was only a matter of time.

"Oh! Right," Trixie said, blinking as if she'd forgotten that they were stranded in the preserve. Nodding resolutely, she set out down the path.

In the wrong direction.

Dan shook his head and wondered just how it was that neither Honey nor Trixie had ever been lost for an appreciable amount of time.

"This way," he said, touching her arm briefly and avoiding the cat. The idea of inadvertently brushing against the dusty, dirty, and most likely unfriendly animal was less than appealing. Trixie frowned, but followed him when he led the way in the opposite direction.

"You're a trouble maker," Trixie informed the cat. "What were you thinking, running in front of Susie and Spartan? You scared them silly!"

Dan looked over to see the cat staring up at his mistress with wide green eyes.

"Trouble Maker," she repeated. "Maybe that should be your new name."

"New name?" Dan questioned. "You're giving it a name? Why? Are you planning on keeping it?" He stared at Trouble Maker, trying to decide why anyone would want to keep him. He was obviously, well, a trouble maker.

"I can't just keep calling him Cat," Trixie protested, flushing, but Dan knew that he had the right of it. Trixie was determined to keep the animal, even though Helen Belden had decreed that four children and a dog were more than enough permanent residents at Crabapple Farm.

When the first drop of rain landed on Cat's back, he yowled in protest, and Trixie hissed when he dug his claws into her arms.

"Stop that!" she commanded sternly. The cat scowled—Dan had never seen a cat scowl before, but there was no other way to describe it—and meowed piteously, as if asking Trixie why she would allow such an awful fate to befall him.

"It's just rain," Trixie told him. "And it isn't as if you're made of sugar. It'll be good for you! Unless you'd prefer a bath? It looks like you've been rolling in pine cones and dead leaves and—" she sniffed. "Ew! I don't even want to know what all else."

Cat blinked slowly.

"You don't want me to call you Stinky, do you?" Trixie pressed, but Cat's answer, if there was one, was lost as the intermittent raindrops suddenly developed into a heavy, steady rain.

"Stinky?" Dan questioned, but the offended yowl of the cat cut him off.

"Stinky!" Trixie exclaimed. "What are you doing? That hurts!"

Dan reached to help her with the squirming cat but only received a scratch down the length of his arm for his efforts. How the cat had managed to scratch him underneath his leather jacket was a mystery.

"Stupid cat," he muttered.

Trixie gasped.

The rain began to fall even harder, and the cat began to wail. Sighing, Dan slipped out of his jacket in order to hold it over Trixie's head to shelter both her and Cat. "Follow me," he instructed. "There's a place just ahead…"

Not a good place, he thought to himself, but any shelter was better than no shelter. Trixie was already soaked to the bone, and he didn't think he'd ever seen an animal more miserable than Cat. He led them through the preserve, trying not to think about the fact that he was only wearing a lightweight white tee shirt, and that it was now clinging to him like a second skin. If anything, his jeans were even more uncomfortable as the heavy fabric absorbed the rain. His sneakers were soaked and he was certain that blisters were already forming because of the water swishing in the sole.

He couldn't remember the last time it had rained so hard. The summer had been unusually dry, so it wasn't as if the precipitation was unwelcome, but it seemed unfair for the skies to make up for the rain shortfall in one fell swoop. He grimaced as Trixie stepped in a puddle, somehow managing to send a cold spray of water up his pant leg.

"Sorry!" she gasped, her teeth chattering against the wet cold.

Instead of responding, he pulled her off the path and forced a trail through the soggy underbrush. Seconds later, he spotted the landmark he'd been hoping for and heaved a sigh of relief. A small outcropping of rock opened to a larger hollow, and they ducked inside, panting with exertion.

"Not made of sugar?" Dan finally questioned. "Are you sure? Cat looks like something even Reddy wouldn't hunt."

"Hey!" Trixie protested, holding the bedraggled animal to her chest. "He just has too much fur!" she decided. "Of course he's miserable! There's more of him to get wet!"

Dan stared at her. "More of him? What about us!"

Trixie's eyes raked over his body, and he thought he saw her cheeks flush. "Oh!" she exclaimed. "I'm sorry, Dan."

"Sorry?" he asked, crossing his arms in front of his chest and preening just a little.

"Well, yes," she said, eyes wide. "Look at your arm!"

Sadly, she didn't seem to be commenting on the muscles he'd put on while working in the preserve.

"Hissy Fit scratched you!" she said, and he realized that his arm was stinging painfully. Looking down, he saw that the skin around the scratch was already raised and red.

"Hissy Fit?" he questioned.

Trixie shrugged. "You saw how he attacked you."

Dan narrowed his eyes at Cat, but Cat merely flicked his soaked and filthy tail and looked away.

"I'm fine," he told Trixie, but she bit her lip.

"I hope he isn't diseased," she worried. "He doesn't look as if he has rabies, but I don't know what other sorts of diseases he could have picked up living in the wild."

"I'm fine," he repeated, wondering if the tetanus shot Doc Ferris had given him was any protection against wild animal scratches. Probably Brian would know…

"I'm sure The Claw is really sorry," she continued.

Dan eyed the animal, who was purring contentedly in Trixie's arms. Cat opened one eye to glare balefully at him, and Dan knew that he wasn't sorry in the least.

The animal was soaking wet, filthy, and filled to the brim with haughty demeanor. The three fell into an easy silence, however, listening to the wind, rain, and thunder as the storm raged around them.

"Do you think it will let up any time soon?" Trixie asked, staring into the darkened preserve.

"Hard to say," he said with a shrug. It wasn't, though. Not really. The steady downpour had all the markings of an hours-long deluge, not a brief but furious storm. He was hopeful, however, that the rain would abate long enough for them to make it to a more sheltered location. Or at least a less dangerous location…

His thoughts were interrupted as Cat squirmed in Trixie's arms, causing her to jerk as she struggled to keep him contained.

"Stop that, Mr. Wriggly Pants!" she scolded, but Cat meowed loudly and squirmed even more. A sudden flash of brilliant light blinded them, and was followed by a crack that was not thunder.

Dan threw himself in front of Trixie and pressed her against the rock outcropping, shielding her from the massive tree now blocking the entire entrance to the cave. Cat was trapped between them, but was surprisingly calm, as if sensing that he was in the safest location possible at the moment. The branches of the tree scraped Dan's back, and he wished that he'd had the forethought to put on his black leather jacket again after holding it over Trixie's head as they raced for shelter. It seemed to take the tree forever to settle, the wind lifting the branches and transforming them to gnarled and grasping hands that continued to claw at him.

Another flash of lightning lit the sky and was quickly followed by a roll of thunder that went on for what felt like forever, and Dan knew that they wouldn't be making a break for better shelter any time soon. Trixie twisted in his arms, impatient as always. Cat, however, nosed the hand that Dan had left on Trixie's upper arm, and gave his finger an experimental lick.

Since it was better than hissing or clawing, Dan didn't complain.

"Careful," Dan warned. "You don't want to get scratched up on the branches."

He manoeuvred them so that Trixie could see the tree more clearly.

"Gleeps!" she exclaimed, her jaw dropping as she stared at the felled tree. Even Cat seemed stunned as he sat motionless in Trixie's arms, taking in his surroundings. Dan thought he might be tempted to inspect the tree, but, for the moment at least, he appeared to be content. His tail twitched briskly, sweeping against Trixie's stomach.

"What on earth..." Trixie said, her eyes wide.

"We're trapped," Dan told her grimly.

Holding Cat awkwardly with one hand, Trixie pushed ineffectually at the branch nearest her, but couldn't move it at all.

"But—" she said. "But we can't be trapped!"

Dan resisted the urge to point out that it most certainly was to be possible to be trapped, because they were.

She pushed at the branch again, but this time Cat meowed impatiently and batted at her hands. As Trixie leaned closer anyway, Cat struggled to leap out of her arms so he could give the tree a paws-on inspection.

"Stop that, Nosy Parker," she scolded, but Dan was relieved when she straightened and the cat quieted. The last thing they needed was for Cat to escape through the gaps in the branches. Trixie would be beside herself with worry while they waited to be rescued.

Because really, Dan couldn't think of any way other than a rescue for them to escape from the cave. Moving the tree would require a chainsaw, which was something most definitely not included in the survival packs they all carried.

"Did you bring your cell phone?" Dan asked, chagrined at forgetting the other item they habitually carried.

Trixie's face brightened, and Dan allowed himself a moment of hope, but it was dashed when she frowned. "Mart took it," she groaned. "He needed to call for a ride after his basketball game. What about your radio?" she questioned, referring to the walkie-talkie he kept in one of the saddle bags.

Which was now most likely in the stable.

"Unless Spartan has figured out how to use it…"

"Gah!" Trixie exclaimed, and Dan was certain she'd have been pulling at her hair if she hadn't had an armful of cat. "What's the point of even having—"

"They most likely wouldn't have worked. Not in this storm," he interrupted, hoping to stave off a tirade.

"That's right," she agreed glumly. "Mr. Wheeler says the cell phone reception in the preserve is spotty at best, and I don't suppose the radios would be much better, not with all the rain and wind."

She stared at the tree, and then past it into the black preserve. "They'll discover we're gone and start looking for us soon," she said confidently.

Dan looked away. Maypenny and Uncle Bill would notice. Eventually. But if Maypenny was still wrapped up in his volume of Shakespeare, as he had been when Dan had left to fill feeding stations, and if Uncle Bill was watching the wrestling matches with Miss Trask…

Surely Mrs. Belden would notice.

"Moms is sitting with Mrs. Ruiter this evening," Trixie said, dashing his hopes. "She broke her leg last week and has a hard time managing in her old house. All those narrow staircases, you know. Brian's studying, so there's no telling when he'll notice I'm not home. If he notices. And Mart won't get back from his game for a while yet. It's only Daddy and Bobby at home right now, and I'm sure that Bobby is keeping Daddy from thinking about anything other than him."

It was left unsaid that Jim, Honey, and Diana would have no idea that Dan and Trixie were even out of their homes.

"At least we have shelter," Trixie said, obviously trying to find the best in the situation. "And the tree is actually acting as insulation, isn't it? Keeping the wind and rain out?"

Dan nodded.

"And we're perfectly safe," she continued. "I mean, I don't think too many animals are going to be out and about in this rain, and there's nothing in the cave to hurt us, right?"

Dan's jaw tightened.

Trixie frowned.


"We should be fine," he said.

"Should be?" she questioned. "What do you know that—" Her question trailed off as she searched the cave for the source of Dan's unease.

"This looks familiar," she said slowly.

This from the girl who'd thought they were in the middle of the preserve. The girl who could actually cause a compass to malfunction.

The girl who managed to somehow succeed in whatever she decided to do, despite her limitations.

"You've been here before," he told her. "But it was winter, then."

He could almost see her rifling through her mental catalogue of events.

"No," she gasped, eyes darting around the cave.

He figured silence was the best answer.

"This is where—" She pointed vaguely at the dark corner of the small cave.

"This is where Bobby chased his 'kitty'," Dan agreed.

They both stared at the corner where Bobby had lain, trapped. Putting the pieces together, Trixie's eyes snapped to the other corners, finding what he'd hoped she would miss.

"More animal bones," she breathed. "And they're not very old, are they?"

Dan shook his head. Maypenny had mentioned only the other day that he thought there might be another catamount in the area. He hadn't seemed overly concerned, but then, Maypenny rarely did.

Trixie shivered, and Dan wasn't sure if it was from the cold and wet, or the memory of the terrible night when she'd discovered her baby brother trapped in a cave and had been forced to beg help from a former gang member.

He still wasn't exactly sure why he'd chosen her over Luke. In retrospect, it was the best decision he had ever made. At the time, however, it certainly hadn't been the obvious choice.

Back then, it hadn't been second nature to him to drop everything for the blonde spit-fire.

Not the way it was now.

"You're cold," he said, when she cuddled Cat closer to her. From Cat's less than enthused look, he was certain that the shared body warmth was for Trixie's benefit, and not Cat's.

She shrugged in response, which was as good as a ten-minute whine from anyone else. "Mr. Motorboat is doing his best to warm me up," she said, giving Cat an extra squeeze. Despite his obvious annoyance at being restrained, Cat was, indeed, purring loud enough for Dan to hear him.

"He may be wet," Trixie said, "but he's like a hot water bottle when he starts purring."

Cat glared at him, as if daring Dan to mock him for doing what he could to warm Trixie.

"He's a good cat," Dan said.

Cat blinked at him, and then looked away.

"We may as well sit down," Dan suggested, though he felt a little uneasy at the idea of not being poised and ready for whatever threat might follow them to the cave.

"I guess," Trixie said. "There's not much point to standing and keeping watch, is there? Not when we can't see more than a few inches."

Dan thought about the flashlights attached to both Spartan's and Susie's saddles. They wouldn't have done them a whole lot of good, other than advertising their location to the many predators in the preserve, but they would have provided a small measure of comfort.

Speaking of comfort...

Dan tucked his jacket loosely around Trixie's shoulders as she lowered herself to the damp and dirty floor. Cat sniffed the black leather as it bumped against him, but after a long moment of consideration, appeared to approve. He snuggled into Trixie's lap, causing her to cringe as he kneaded her legs with his claws.

"Okay, already!" she griped. "Settle down, Mr. Squirmy Pants."

"I resent that," Dan said, sinking to a seated position beside her. "I'm not squirmy at all."

She rolled her eyes. "Maybe you should take Mr. Claws for a while."

Cat's eyes narrowed, as if daring him to take Trixie up on her offer.

Dan got the distinct impression that the mostly harmless clawing that Cat had given Trixie would be nothing compared to what he would do to Dan, should he deign to oust the creature from his throne.

"I like my mostly unclawed body just fine," he told her, crossing his arms over his chest instead of rubbing his upper arms, as he was tempted to do. Part of the secret of not giving in to the cold, he knew, was refusing to dwell on it.

"You're freezing!" Trixie exclaimed. "Why did you give me your jacket? I have a sweater on, at least, but you only have a tee shirt!" Her eyes dipped to his chest, and Dan couldn't be certain, but he thought that her gaze might have lingered a little longer than was strictly necessary.

"I'm fine," he said firmly, his voice a little lower pitched than it had been a moment previously. Trixie's observant nature was always a mystery to him—she seemed to notice seemingly insignificant details when she was solving a mystery, but she was often clueless when it came to noticing details about herself, or how those around her felt. Whenever she noticed something about him, in particular, Dan couldn't help but wonder what else she was picking up on.

"You're not fine," she retorted, and began struggling to dislodge the jacket he'd placed around her shoulders.

"I don't need the jacket, Trix," he protested, no longer bothering to maintain that he wasn't cold. It was a lie and they both knew it. He placed his hands on Trixie's shoulders to keep her from shedding the jacket, and two things happened. Trixie wriggled even more, attempting to shake off Dan's hands without dislodging Cat, and Cat became annoyed by the movement and bolted from Trixie's lap, heading straight for the tree blocking the entrance of the cave.

"No!" Trixie exclaimed.

Trixie and Dan both scrambled to their feet, but Cat disappeared through the branches of the tree before they could reach him.

"He's gone!" Trixie said, as if she couldn't believe what had just happened. "Gone! Just like that! He didn't even warn us!"

Dan stared at her. Had she expected a Dear John letter?

As if recognising the absurdity of her words, Trixie flushed. "I just—what if he gets hurt? He's so little! And helpless! Anything could happen!"

"He could always dart out in front of another horse," Dan offered. "It worked for him tonight." He paused. "Twice."

Trixie sniffled.

"Are you… cold?" Dan asked, though he had the uncomfortable feeling that Trixie was closer to tears than he'd ever seen her. Because of a cat that had spooked their horses, gotten them trapped in a downpour, and deserted her when she only wanted to care for him.

Stupid Cat didn't know how good he had it.

She sniffled again. "No," she said, but Dan could hear the hint of a smile in her voice. Trixie was never one to take herself too seriously, and it was obvious that she knew she was reacting more strongly than the situation warranted. After all, they'd known Cat for only an hour or so.

"He might come back," Dan offered.

She stared at him, an incredulous expression on her face. "You think he'd be able to find his way back?"

He resisted the impulse to inform her that not everyone was quite as directionally challenged as she was. Even if Cat was, as he expected, at least partially domesticated, he most likely was capable of finding his way around the preserve without too much difficulty.

Dan shrugged. "It's possible he hasn't gone far at all. He's probably waiting for us on the other side of the tree, wondering why we're not chasing after him."

Trixie brightened. "You think?"

No. Cat was most likely long gone, and they'd probably never see him again. Domesticated animals didn't tend to do well in the wild.

"Sure," he said. "Who knows?"

After all, stranger things had happened in the preserve. Cat surviving long enough to find them again wasn't out of the realm of possibility. Not when 'possibility' included unicycling poachers and a plethora of abandoned shacks.

As if comforted, at least a little, by Dan's words, Trixie slouched against the wall and yawned. "How late do you think it is?" she asked.

He automatically looked down on the wrist where his watch ought to be. It was a good watch, a present from Uncle Bill. Unfortunately it was sitting on his dresser, waiting for a fresh battery.

"Probably only about 8:30," Dan guessed. "It gets dark early now."

Trixie nodded, staring out into the gloom so intently that he wondered what she was seeing. He knew what he was seeing. Unrelenting rain, occasional flashes of lightning, and, most noticeably, the absence of feline eyes. Which wasn't entirely bad, he reminded himself. As much as he would have preferred Cat to stay with them (for Trixie's sake, of course), he was grateful that he hadn't seen any evidence that the catamount which had claimed the cave was on its way home.

He shifted restlessly, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the catamount returned. It might have been hunting several miles away and taken shelter where it could, but he highly doubted they'd be fortunate enough for the cat to stay away all night. As soon as the rain slowed, the catamount would head for home. And they had no way of knowing how close or far away he was.

If the tree weren't so wet, he'd break off enough branches to start a fire. It would serve to warm them and deter animals from finding them. With the wood wet and the entrance mostly blocked, though, the cave would fill with smoke and they'd suffocate if they couldn't fight their way through the fallen tree.

His jaw tightened as he struggled with an overwhelming sense of helplessness and guilt. He'd done everything wrong. He should have gone after Susie as soon as she bolted instead of checking on Trixie. Or he could have hoisted Trixie onto Spartan and insisted on leaving sooner, so that Spartan wouldn't have a chance to be spooked by Cat. Failing that, he should have kept them moving and gotten them to safety instead of taking shelter in the home of the largest predator in the preserve. Trixie could have been safe at Crabapple Farm, watching the rain from the warmth of the kitchen instead of huddling in a cave, soaked to the bone and shivering with cold.

He had never subscribed to the theory that black cats were bad luck, but Cat wasn't making a terribly compelling case for himself.

His thoughts were interrupted when Trixie edged a little closer to him so that the sides of their bodies were in alignment from their shoulders to their ankles as they sat with their backs to the cave wall and stared into the darkness.

"Gleeps, Dan, I'm sorry," she finally said. "This is all my fault."


"If I hadn't let Susie get away from me none of this would have happened," she said dejectedly, answering his silent question.

"You didn't 'let Susie get away from you'," Dan corrected her. "She threw you. There's a difference."

"Well, I shouldn't have let her throw me, now should I?" Trixie retorted, coming dangerously close to snapping. She took a deep breath and sighed. "I just mean I'm always getting into tight places. I'm sorry that you got stuck with me this time."

There were so many things wrong with her statement that he didn't know where to begin.

"But we'll be okay," she said, determination eclipsing her momentary guilt. "I know we will." Despite her assured tone, she glanced around the cave, taking in every detail. "The catamount is going to come back, isn't it?" she asked, biting her lip. "As soon as the rain lets up."

There was no point in denying it. "Yes."

Her eyes tracked over every inch of the cave again. The interior of the cave was dark, but it was illuminated by lightning so frequently that it was almost as if a dim light had been left burning.

"There isn't another exit," Dan told her, suspecting that he knew what she was searching for. "Mr. Maypenny inspected this cave thoroughly after Bobby's incident."

Her shoulders sagged in defeat. "And you don't think we can break off enough branches to squeeze through the entrance?"

"The branches are too thick," he said, shaking his head. "There's no way to get through that without a saw of some kind."

They stared at the tree in silence. The rain continued to fall at a furious rate, and Dan idly wondered if the sudden torrential downpour would cause any flooding. The Manor House was safe, of course, perched as it was on the top of a substantial hill, but Crabapple Farm and Maypenny's cabin were significantly lower. If the deluge didn't let up soon, there was bound to be overland flooding since the ground wasn't capable of absorbing that amount of moisture.

Not that flooding would much matter if the catamount returned before he and Trixie could leave the cave…


If they couldn't get out, how exactly was the catamount supposed to get in?

Dan closed his eyes and resisted the urge to smack his forehead in penance for his own stupidity. He'd been nearly beside himself with worry, trying to figure out how he could protect himself and Trixie from a large predator rightfully defending his home, and it was all for nothing. The catamount could sit at the entrance and complain all he liked, but he wouldn't be gaining entrance until the tree was cleared.

Body sagging with relief, Dan let out a long, slow breath.

"What?" Trixie demanded, levering herself away from the wall so that she could stare directly at him. "What is it? Have you thought of something else? Did you hear an animal? What?"

"Nothing like that," he assured her, wondering if there were any way to explain his revelation without sounding as stupid as he felt. "I just realized that the tree keeping us in is also the tree keeping Mr. Catamount out." He added the silly name hoping that it would distract her from his epic mistake.

Trixie stared at him. "So we're safe?" she demanded, her expression intent. "Really?"

Dan shrugged. "As safe as anyone can be when they're trapped in a rainstorm in the middle of the preserve." Or the northeast corner. Whatever.

To his surprise, Trixie launched herself at him, wrapping her arms around him and burrowing her face in his chest. In a reflexive response, Dan caught her, enfolding her in a close embrace.

"I can't believe it," Trixie was mumbling, her words muffled by Dan's chest. "I was so worried!" Her body shook, and Dan sincerely hoped that she wasn't crying again. Expressing emotion over Cat when he'd run away had been one thing, but this was something different. His fears were allayed as she kept up her nonsensical rambling. After all, if she could still talk she couldn't be crying too hard.

When she finally fell silent, Dan became acutely aware of the fact that she was sitting in his lap, and that her breath was ghosting over the fabric of his wet tee shirt.

Should he move, he wondered? Shift her so that sat beside him? Before she realized the physical effect her proximity was having on him? (And emotions, but he wasn't about to go down that road.)

On the other hand...

She shifted, and he felt a curious combination of relief and disappointment as he waited for her to move off him. Instead, he found that her movements only succeeded in her drawing far enough back so that she could look in his eyes. His chest felt strangely cold, bereft of her warmth.

"I was so worried," she repeated in a whisper, and instead of ghosting over his chest, her breath was now warm against his cheek, and she was closer than she had been (or had he moved?), and he no longer cared that he wasn't hiding his reaction to her.

Later, he would learn that they'd spent two, almost three hours in the cave. To Dan, however, it felt like mere minutes before they were interrupted by a blood-curdling yowl and the sound of an animal fighting its way through the tree blocking the entrance to the cave.

Before Dan had time to do more than shove Trixie off his lap and stand, towering over her in an effort to protect her, a flash of black fur landed squarely on his chest and bounced off, only to land delicately next to Trixie.

"You came back!" Trixie exclaimed, and immediately gathered the still wet, still filthy feline into her arms. "What a good cat you are, Prodigal!"

Dan attempted to calm his shattered nerves and racing heart. He could think of several descriptive names for Cat. Prodigal was not one of them. The delight on Trixie's face, however, made him feel strangely at peace, and he found himself giving Cat a nod of approval. If nothing else, he made Trixie happy. That was a good enough reason to keep him around.

"Why did you come back, I wonder?" Trixie mused. "Did you get lost? Did you miss us?"

More like he realized the cave was drier and warmer than the outdoors, Dan thought wryly. But it wouldn't do to say so.

As if responding to Dan's unspoken thoughts, Cat leapt from Trixie's arms and stood at the blocked entrance, meowing loudly.

"I'm sorry," Trixie said, "but I can't move the tree for you." She attempted to soothe Cat by petting him and speaking softly, but Cat continued to wail.

Dan felt a frisson of unease. What was Cat meowing at? The animal obviously knew that he could enter and exit the cave at will, so he doubted that he was pleading with Trixie to move the tree. He might, however, be meowing to warn them about something on the other side of the tree.

"Stand back," Dan ordered, grasping Trixie's arms and pulling her beside him. He kept his arm around her shoulders even as he attempted to see through the tree. "There's no telling what Cat is meowing at."

Cat glared at him, as if offended that his intelligence was being insulted, but continued to yowl. Seconds later, Dan heard the unmistakable sound of approaching humans.

"He went this way," a familiar voice shouted.

"Bobby! What did I tell you about leaving the path?"

Dan's shoulders slumped in relief as he recognized the voices of Peter and Bobby Belden. "We're here!" Dan called, rattling the branches of the tree in the hope that it would help the search party locate them. "In the cave!"

He thought he heard a muttered "What on earth?!" before another set of hands began tugging on the branches.

"Are you hurt?" Mr. Belden asked, still struggling futilely with the tree.

"Daddy!" Trixie exclaimed, pressing herself against the branches. "We're fine." She bit her lip. "Well, we're trapped, but other than that…"

"You won't be trapped for long," Mr. Belden assured her, and Dan felt himself relax a little more. As much as he enjoyed solving his own problems, this was one instance he didn't mind help in the least. The sooner the better, in fact.

Not that he hadn't enjoyed the time alone with Trixie…

He sneaked a glance at the object of his thoughts and couldn't repress a smirk. She was perfect. Hair tousled, cheeks flushed, eyes snapping with excitement.

Lips swollen.

Yes, she was perfect in every way.

Her eyes snapped to his, and she coloured further, no doubt picking up on his silent approval. She bit her lip, and Dan had the mad urge to pick up the activities that Cat had interrupted, even though her father and younger brother were mere feet away from them, separated from them only by the fallen tree.

Probably it was for the best that Trixie turned away.

But it was also for the best that she stood close to him, her hand tucked in his.

Dan heard the sound of Peter Belden speaking loudly, and then being answered by a voice almost unrecognizable through static. Radios, he realized, relieved. At least someone had the forethought not to be caught without a means of communication.

"Regan will be here with a chainsaw in a few minutes," Mr. Belden informed them, returning to stand directly opposite them. "We'll have you out of there in no time." He paused. "Mr. Maypenny said to tell you that he went hunting today, and there's a new catamount rug for your room if you want it," he continued.

Of course. Maypenny must have spent the day hunting. And since he'd been engrossed in his reading when Dan had returned home from school, he hadn't thought to pass on the news of his bounty before Dan had set out to do his own chores.

"Where did the kitty go?" Bobby wanted to know. "Is he in there with you?"

"Little Lassie's right here," Trixie assured her little brother, holding the animal close to her chest. Dan grimaced at her latest choice of an appellation for Cat. To his satisfaction, Cat looked just as miffed at being likened to a dog, however famous and virtuous he might have been. "How did you find him?" she wondered, frowning.

"He found us," Mr. Belden said, attempting to snap some of the smaller branches. It didn't make much of a difference, but Dan definitely understood his urge to be doing something about the situation.

"What?" Trixie gasped. "He went all the way to Crabapple Farm?"

"No." Mr. Belden gave up on the branches and leaned against the tree, causing it to creak.

"The kitty ran across the road!" Bobby blurted, obviously anxious to be a part of the conversation. "Right in front of our car! Daddy said a bad word and then he stopped real fast. The kitty waited until we got out to check on him, and then he led us into the preserve!"

"He led you into the preserve?" Trixie questioned, flabbergasted. "How did he do that?"

"He pretended to be injured," Mr. Belden said. "I moved closer to see if I could help him, and before I knew it, he was leading us to you."

"You're such a good kitty!" Trixie cooed, holding Cat up so that she could rub her nose against his. Cat looked at Dan, as if begging to be rescued, but Dan only shook his head.

"You don't know how good you've got it," he muttered under his breath. Cat turned back to Trixie, apparently resigned to his fate.

"So you didn't even know we needed help," she said thoughtfully.

"I assumed you'd taken shelter in the stable," Mr. Belden said somewhat sheepishly. "The phones are out."

"Well, no harm done," Trixie said brightly. "But Mart's going to be awfully mad that you kept him waiting so long to be picked up."

Dan heard a muffled grumble and then Bobby's high-pitched giggle. "Daddy said another bad word," he informed them.

The next sound was Mr. Belden on the radio, arranging for Tom to pick up Mart from Sleepyside, where the school bus had dropped off the members of the basketball team.

"Do we get to keep the kitty?" Bobby asked hopefully. "He's a real good cat. He rescued Trixie and Dan!"

"He's a very good cat," Mr. Belden agreed, his tone so even and sympathetic that it was obvious to everyone except Bobby what was coming next. "But Moms has said no more pets, and it's not fair to pressure her when she's the one home every day and who would be taking care of him."

"But I'd help!" Bobby pouted. "Lots! I'd even give the kitty baths!"

Dan's suspicion that Cat had, at some point, been a pet, was confirmed when he hissed at the mention of a bath. Further argument was forestalled by the arrival of Regan and Maypenny, each of whom carried a chain saw. Cat flinched at the sudden noise, but stayed in Trixie's arms, obviously smart enough to know that it wasn't a good time for him to attempt escape through the tree.

Maypenny and Mr. Belden cut quickly and methodically, making a narrow entrance for Dan, Trixie, and Cat to use. Dan urged Trixie and Cat through the opening, grateful to be leaving the cave and its piles of bones behind.

Bobby was half asleep, struggling to keep his eyes open as he watched them toss the branches away from the cave and into the undergrowth. Since Trixie was still carrying Cat and Maypenny and Mr. Belden were toting the chainsaws, Dan scooped up the little boy to give him a piggy back ride.

"Where's the kitty?" Bobby mumbled, his eyes half-closed.

"Shh… Trixie's got him," Dan said, hoping to avoid another episode of whining and begging. Now that Bobby was exhausted, it would be that much worse.

"He's a good kitty," Bobby replied sleepily. "I'll miss him."

Dan sighed, pursed his lips, and prayed that Maypenny would forgive him. "I'll hold on to him for you," he offered. "Cat can stay with me until Moms says it's okay for him to live at Crabapple Farm."

Which meant that Cat would be a permanent addition to the cabin.

Maypenny glanced back, one eyebrow raised.

"What?" Dan questioned. "He's a good cat."

"Kitty'll like it at your place," Bobby agreed, his head resting on Dan's shoulder. "What are you gonna call him?"

"Cat, of course," Dan answered with a grin. Cat looked up at him, flicking his tail rapidly.

"I think he likes his new name," Trixie giggled.

"Of course he does," Dan chided, moving so that they could walk side by side on the path. "You've been calling him names like Squirmy Pants all night."

"And I suppose you think you're clever," Trixie pressed, her tone teasing. "What's Cat short for? Catastrophe?" She snuggled the animal in her arms.

"Don't be ridiculous," Dan said, leaning close and whispering in her ear. "It's short for Catalyst," he informed her, making sure that he lingered long enough for his breath to tease her as it drifted just below her ear.

Trixie blushed, obviously thinking about the actions in the cave that Cat had proven to be a catalyst for.

"I guess Cat's a pretty good name after all," she grinned impishly. "But I plan to call him 'Lucky'."

Dan chuckled. "Close enough."

Author’s Notes

This story was written for the Annual Halloween Challenge. It's one of the highlights of my year to work with the lovely Mal—thank you for all the fun, my dear!

Thank you to MaryN and Bonnie for editing. You ladies are light(e)ning fast and amazing!

These totally awesome graphics are courtesy of MaryN. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Cat's physical appearance is based on Jack, a cat who has been gone for many years but who still makes me smile every time I think of him.

Disclaimer: Characters from the Trixie Belden series are the property of Random House. They are used without permission, although with a great deal of affection and respect. Story copyright by Ryl, October 2013. Graphics copyright 2013 by Mary N.

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