Runt of the Brood

By Chad Broughman

Clicks and chatter rang through the hollow den and beyond. A frolicking litter, to say the least. And soon, the kits began to grow into cubs, slipping outside for some close-by scouring, sometimes following Mama on her nightly excursions. They were wild and meddling, their masks dark and full.

Mama provided well, sturdy shelter in a fallen oak and a wide-range of sustenance. From acorns and insects to berries and corn—and the occasional fish from Devil’s Pond—depending on the season and the circumstance.  However, no matter the time or situation, Mama always counseled her babies.  For the lighter advice, such as “Only forage at night,” she’d purr, softly; yet with perilous matters, she’d heighten her pitch, “Claw and rasp if you’re cornered!” But dealing with human cruelty, Mama would lose control, every time. Deep and gravelly, she’d growl about “trophy hunters and poachers,” then rear up on her two hind legs and mew about Farmer Thompson’s boys. Their metal traps, shiny guns and—since the oldest son got his license—their heartless games of hit-and-run. “If you see that truck coming, don’t scuttle. Take cover and hunker low.” Mama would survey her young, making sure the fur on their backs stood on end before she simmered down.

Though Mama loved all her cubs, she favored one in particular, the runt of the brood. His tail was thin and ring-less, but he was vibrant, even more curious than his siblings. One cool autumn night, he and Mama trekked to Farmer Thompson’s field of sweet corn, just past the highway. As he was taught, the measly cub crouched behind the raised rumble strips, and waited. He marveled at his Mama’s courage as she scurried across the thoroughfare. Like it always did when she ventured out for nourishment, the cub’s heart began to skitter. Then he’d see her thick fur, glossy in the moonshine, as she made her way back, and breathe easy.

The headlights of the approaching truck looked like the eyes of a monster. So hearing Mama’s nimble claws strumming the concrete made the young cub clack with delight. She’d done it again—tramped across the wide lanes, pilfered the crop, and scampered back to where he was perched. Safe. But the clunky pickup barreled ahead; yellow light pouring over the coons.

One of the Thompson boys whooped, “There’s one!” his voice shrill and jubilant. The truck jerked like a slingshot and stormed the road’s shoulder. Mama leapt in front of her cub, and the front bumper struck her head with a low, awkward thwack, then spun her like a top. Cheers sounded out from the truck’s open windows as the Thompson boys fled. The red taillights shone bright at first but grew smaller and smaller, melting away, till they were nothing more than dots. Only carnage in their wake.

Mama’s eyes were wide, full of fear. The runt cub knew she would die, so began to prattle off the life lessons she had preached. Over and over. He wanted her to know that he had listened… “Never trust a human. Strike if you’re cornered.” Mama started to flop and twitch. The thuds were loud, rude amidst the quiet. She seized. And the stray cub pushed against her matted coat, burrowing into its broken keeper. For a while, he moaned. Then bore his teeth.

After the first snow fell, the litter thinned out, each of the coons finding its own way. The runt of the pack had grown strong—bushy tail, wide mask and nimble claws—but reckless. Eventually, his venturesome spirit led him face-to-face with a prowling bobcat. In the end, he managed to thwart the ravaged beast, though not before suffering an infectious nip. Having nested in the loft of Farmer Thompson’s pole barn, the rabid coon grew weary and bewildered, hunting the pastures mid-day and charging inanimate things, like the pitchfork leaned against the barn. That’s when the youngest Thompson boy tracked him, sniggering at his jerky gait and foaming mouth.

On its final night, the mad coon huddled in a bed of straw. He was disoriented, and his legs had begun to numb. As the boy crept up to the loft’s edge and peeked over, muzzleloader in tow, the coon managed a final swat, slow but nocuous. While the child wailed—hands over his bleeding eye—the pitiless varmint seethed, then lay down its weary head.

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Chad Broughman

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