Buck and his gang soon ran into difficulties as they wandered through town. During one terrible moment, they were chased by feral dogs and Jim was almost nabbed by them because of his ponderous weight. Only the timely appearance in a vacant lot of an abandoned automobile saved the portly cat’s life. Fortunately for Jim, the big dogs couldn’t climb into the window he had scrambled through. He sat on the ruined front seat, hissing and humping his back in the fashion of cornered cats. The dogs barked and growled around its perimeter for a while until turning their attention to the other cats that had shimmied up a tree.
As Buck, Tom, and Ed looked down from the sycamore serving as their refuge, a troop of unruly teenagers discovered Jim’s plight and chased the dogs away, but, so typical of carefree of boys, began teasing him by shaking and pounding on the abandoned car.
“Here pussy, here pussy-pussy-pussy!” a tall, freckly blond-haired, buck-toothed adolescent called to Jim.
In his scrawny hand were the remnants of a jumbo-jack, which he now used as bait.
“Don’t eat it Jim, you’ll catch AIDS!” Tom broadcasted from the tree.
“No, you can’t catch it that way,” scoffed Ed.
“Yeah, Tommy,” Buck bumped him playfully, “who ever heard of a cat catching AIDS? But don’t take the bait Jimmy. He’s not going to give you his food.”
Jim edged closer to the window, reaching out with his fat little paw in the hopes that the boy would, in fact, toss it into the car. The other three boys, a muscular black lad and two Latinos who were identical twins, began to taunt the cats in the tree with their burgers and fries, as the first boy dropped his burger suddenly into the car.
“Bless you my son!” Jim cried, leaping ravenously onto the food.
“What did you do that for Billy?” The young black snarled. “You hate cats. You’ve always hated cats!”
“I never said I hated cats, Kareem,” Billy replied, flashing Jim a toothy smile. “I said I hated your stinking cat!”
“I don’t hate cats,” one of the twins chimed. “I think they’re cool! My Aunt Consuela’s got twenty or thirty cats running around her house!”
“Your Aunt Consuela is loco!” Kareem snarled.
Inexplicably now the boys set their food down a moment and joined the first boy as he began shaking the tree. Fortunately for the cats, the sycamore limbs were sturdy enough to withstand the jolt. All that the foursome succeeded in doing was shake down a few dried leaves.
“When you’re done eating, Jim, stay where you!” Buck ordered from his limb. “…. Lord, those fries look good!”
When it appeared that they were having little effect, three of the boys backed away as Billy continued shaking the tree.
“Come on Billy, leave those poor cats alone!” Kareem became irritated with his friend.
Buck, Tom, and Ed, if they had not been so hungry, would have laughed at his efforts now. The blond-haired, freckly-faced boy was a parody of themselves. Not so long ago Buck and his friends had idled their time away in such a way. Now it was them up the tree. A new respect for life grew in the minds of the cats as they shared Buck’s thoughts.
Almost as suddenly as they appeared in the lot, the four teenagers exited the scene, the sound of their banter a haunting refrain. Below the cats refuge, Kareem, in spite of his tough talk, had left the remains of his burger and the twins had left them their fries.
“Gentlemen,” Buck looked back at Tom and Ed, “let’s eat!”
On their way across town, the cats discovered a quirk in their feline anatomy. Although they had excellent night vision and much greater binocular and peripheral visual range than human beings, they had trouble focusing on street signs. It was, Buck grumbled, like being nearsighted and farsighted at the same time. He found, after trial and error, that if he stood long enough and stared unwaveringly at a road sign, he could bring it into focus, but it gave him a headache and made him dizzy. Tom, Ed, and Jim would take their turns reading signs until they too were stricken with this strange affliction.
Unfortunately, Buck was no longer certain he was even on the right street leading to the hospital. He remembered a certain boulevard that ran directly into the county hospital complex, but the name of the boulevard or avenue, which should intersect this main thoroughfare, had not yet appeared. Since Shadowbrook Arms was on the outskirts of town, common sense told him to move directly west until they found the right road, but their last efforts at reading road signs had not been encouraging. They all had headaches and queasy stomachs. In spite of their efforts, they could not be sure of the street’s name. Buck was familiar with enough of the city’s landmarks, and he was certain that the street’s name was a number and began with an F, but that could be the First, Fourth, Fifth, Fourteenth, or Fifteenth Avenue. After an hour of trudging across town, the foursome had only reached Ninth Avenue; there was, Buck realized, as they continued down the main boulevard, an indeterminate number of intersecting avenues and side streets ahead of them, with portly Jim stopping continually along the way. At this rate how long would it take to reach the hospital? At what point would they collapse from exhaustion or, after continually reading the signs, have their heads explode? What if, wondered Buck, his feline brain had been deceiving him all along and the county hospital was really on Fourteenth or Fifteenth Avenue, not First, Fourth or Fifth? That would mean they had been going the wrong way all this time and should have turned due east, not west, at the stop light on the corner of Thirteenth and Main near Shadowbrook Arms.
Buck looked around at his trusting friends and heaved a sigh. That moment, as they stopped at a red light and stared blurry-eyed up at the sign, Jim once again passed into harm’s way by walking directly into the path of an oncoming truck. Fortunately, the driver, who honked his horn and wrung his fist, had enough time to stop. It was, Buck recalled his parent’s pet, a natural tendency of cats to dart across the road, and yet he was shocked to see his friend bolt ahead that way.
“Don’t do that again!” His thoughts shot into Jim’s head.
The portly cat retreated from the crosswalk but stared vacantly at his friends, exhausted and delirious in his search for food. It was actually the second time in less than an hour that Jim had tempted fate and, including the incident in the vacant lot, the third time he came so close to death. Earlier Jim had veered off the sidewalk into traffic to sniff out a discarded morsel of food. He either lagged behind them and made them wait until he caught up or behaved erratically as he had this hour and startled Buck out of his wits. It seemed quite apparent to Buck that, in addition to looking like a cat, Jim was thinking like a very stupid cat too.
Buck’s rush of emotion was naturally picked up by Tom and Ed, who were acting very feline, themselves. In companionable affection Tom rubbed Buck’s side, a deep purr rumbling from his chest, while Ed began to self-consciously groom himself, as would any ordinary cat. Reflecting upon these feline traits, Buck, as leader of the foursome, felt a measure of responsibility for their predicament now. Had he not talked his friends into attending the Halloween party instead of attending a football game as they planned? Had he not encouraged them to pursue Wanda and Neva and also been the chief heckler against India at the ill-fated party Saturday night?
He had decided, with Sam’s encouragement, to fight the effects of India’s spell, although he disagreed with Sam on how this should be done. You don’t play games with your enemy, he confided to Tom earlier, you kill it! He had always been a physical person, deciding back at Shadowbrook Arms to use his competitive energies against India’s spell. The only thing that came to mind as he sought to undo her spell, however, had been the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, whose death resulted in her subjects being transformed immediately back into human form. It had seemed so logical to him this morning, so simple, and perfectly clear: Kill the witch and you break the spell!
Now there was a long, hazardous journey ahead of them in which he must constantly look out for Jim and bolster everyone’s spirits. He was, as Sam Burns and Sheldon Griffith, a shepherd, who must continually guide and prod his friends.
Sam’s way, though wrong, was much easier, he decided as he led them across town. All they had to do was wait in the apartment until Sam’s bimbo girlfriend arrived. All of Buck’s instincts told him that waiting for Alice Wagnall to do something was a futile waste of time, but after only a few hours of navigating these cats, he longed for the warmth, food, and safety at Sam’s place. No longer was he totally convinced they were doing the right thing.
Tuning in to the others’ thoughts, Buck grew self-conscious of his own thinking as he glanced around at his friends. Had they read his troubled thoughts? It appeared as if Jim was too great a distraction for them at this point.
“Oh, that’s disgusting,” he heard Tom say to Jim, “that’s someone’s food droppings. You’re gonna catch something! We just ate an hour ago, Jim, what’s the matter with you?”
“He’s not a cat,” snickered Ed, “he’s a pot-bellied pig!”
“Jim can’t help it,” Buck explained to Tom, gently nudging him away. “He’s turning into a beast. We’re all turning into dumb beasts. Remember what we were going to do those female cats back at the apartments?”
“Yeah,” Tom nodded gravely, “how could I forget?”
“Wanda! Neva! Oh, sweet mamas!” crowed Ed and Jim.
Jim and Ed, to Buck’s surprise, now joined in friendly banter as Buck took Tom aside. On the subject of feline “pussy,” as Jim put it, the two adversaries had found common ground. Their dialogue served to camouflage what Buck had to say, reaching the foulest limit either of them had gone. Buck felt relieved that his own negative thinking had not affected the Maine coon. He had always seemed to be the most levelheaded member of Buck’s gang.
“Listen Tom, I know where that hospital is,” he said, wincing at Jim’s wit. “Although I’m not sure of the street’s name, I delivered pizza there often enough. But it seems like a million miles away!”
Wrinkling his pink nose, Tom reflected on Buck’s thoughts. “…. You think we should split up?”
“Well, we can’t very well leave Jim behind,” Buck looked back at the big calico, “not by himself anyhow. Ed’s kind’ve crazy right now. You know what I mean? I was thinking I could use that craziness to get the job done, while you and Jim could hole up somewhere safe!”
“Nothing doing,” Tom shook his head. “we’re a team—all of us! Jim and I will wind up in the animal shelter if you leave us behind. I can’t control that clown!”
“I suppose he’d be a handful,” sighed Buck, glancing back at Jim, “I just wish we’d left him at Sam’s as he asked. That was a close call with the truck, and he almost got chewed to pieces in that vacant lot. The fact is, Jim’s too slow. He’s slowing us down!”
“You know it’s scary,” Tom replied reflectively, listening to Jim and Ed, “I want to believe they’re kidding, but the truth is we’re all thinking like cats. They think Wanda and Neva are babes. We all did, until Sam woke us up. That’s disgusting, Buck. We still have our minds.” “…. I don’t think about cats as I did before,” he reflected dreamily after a pause. “Too many of them are homeless, discarded creatures, searching for handouts and shelter in a dirty city or the outskirts of town…. They’re someone’s daughter, son, mother… or pet.”
“Come on Tom, admit it, you’re a cat too. As far as cats go, Wanda and Neva are beautiful. How can that be disgusting if we’re cats?” “…. And that’s why we have to fight this,” he searched for just the right words. “…. Our bodies are cats, but our minds are still human. Unfortunately, Tom, we also have cat glands. We got to kill that witch, Tom, but we got to do it right. There’s too many people depending on us now. You gotta promise me that if Jim begins to slow us down too much you’ll stay back with him and let us get this done!”
Reluctantly now, Tom agreed, impressed with Buck’s sense of duty. He had never seen Buck filled with such purpose. The two cats walked back toward Ed and Jim, Buck wondering if Jim had caught the gist of their conversation. There seemed to be a limit to telepathic range. After a certain distance, Tom observed, the conversations in their heads began to break up as would a bad reception on a radio or, viewed nautically, as a submarine going out of sonar range.
“Listen, you’re my best friend,” Buck gave the Maine coon a nudge, “but I don’t trust Ed. The way he’s thinking now, he might abandon Jim. This is only a contingency plan, Tommy. I want us to pull this off together. We’ll always be a team.”
“I hope so,” thought Tom, glancing over at Jim. “I can’t manage him by myself!”
The four cats were getting used to their new bodies, moving as homeless alley cats toward their goal: the county hospital, where India Crowley, the Shadowbrook Witch lie. Ultimately, do to their small size and their problem with reading road signs, they began feeling as if they were on an endless road and were, in effect wandering aimlessly through a giant maze. Buck had been certain they were heading in the right direction. After finding the correct road, turning right and then heading north, they should run smack into the hospital. But the trip was wearing them down, especially poor Jim, and the mental strain on Buck, their leader, was felt by them all.
“Let’s face it, we’re lost,” Ed was the first to think, a snarl twitching on his canine snout. His expression almost broke the big yellow tabby’s heart, for the once stoic Ed Montez wanted to weep, an act that seemed impossible for a cat.
Jim was the slowest, but Ed was the worst. Time was running out for them all.
“Come on, I know you’re all tired, but we got some walking to do,” Buck coaxed his friends.
Trotting ahead a few paces for emphasis, he noticed that typical feline detachment again. It was almost as if they had not heard him at all.
“Come on, let’s stay together,” he snapped irritably, stomping his paw. “No straying off to chase bugs or birds Ed. No more sniffing at garbage Jim. Tom, you were holding on pretty well until you started all that scratching and itching. Give me some support!”
“I think I got fleas,” Tom complained, suddenly chewing his rump.
Looking back in disbelief, Buck was deeply disturbed by this latest example of feline behavior. Tom, who reminded him very much of his parent’s cat, was his best friend and greatest support. He didn’t know what to say. He wanted to cry and scream as had Ed, but these were human actions impossible for him to display. In the most human expressions he could muster now, Buck cursed angrily and shook his head at their fates as he watched his friends scratch, sniff and groom themselves as common cats. Unfortunately, due to his own regression, Buck’s attempt at human emotion degenerated into typical cat-like behavior. The big yellow tabby, hissed, humped up his back and let out a long, angry feline growl.