The dewy calm of dawn was splintered by the sound of big dogs barking. I stepped outside to see what had happened, and there were two of the largest dogs I'd ever seen, trying to leap up the trunk of a tree. High in its branches, a small black cat gazed down at them impassively.
They weren't neighborhood dogs. (I would remember these creatures.) Quickly I estimated that if I could lead them down around the corner, they might remember where they'd come from and go home. Striving for a tone of authority while also trying to make myself heard over the racket of their barking, I told them my plan. Probably because they recognized the futility of their efforts to climb the tree, and no doubt because they were tired of their game anyway, they gradually quieted down. They were good dogs, obviously accustomed to following directions.
They trotted alongside me, tails wagging, and we headed toward the corner. Everything was going according to plan until one of them sensed something, alertly sniffed the air, and suddenly streaked back toward the tree. Dog No. 2 and I dashed after him. The scene, ear-piercingly noisy again, showed what had happened. The cat had descended the tree and started for safety; the dog had raced up, and she'd ducked under a parked car. It was a small sports car, and under other circumstances it would have been comical to see the huge dog trying to scrunch himself small enough to get under it. Now both dogs were barking, thrusting noses and paws under the car, and scrunching with all their might.
Things didn't look good for the cat. She'd never make it back to the tree. It was just a matter of time before the excited dogs would be under the car with her, or their big paws would scoop her out. The two-legged creature standing there helplessly wouldn't be able to talk them out of it this time.
So the cat made her move. Regally, she stepped out from under the car - fur bristled up to make herself appear as formidable as possible - and indicated that she intended to defend herself.
All three of us stepped back in surprise. The dogs sat back on their haunches, confused, and I saw my opportunity. I told them to come with me. Meekly, without even glancing back, they did. We walked home and sat in the shade a while, enjoying the dawning summer day. When I brought them a bowl of water they welcomed it and then stretched themselves out for a snooze, as comfortable as if we were old friends.
Their collars revealed nothing about their identity or their owner. But the first animal shelter I telephoned already knew about them. Their owner had called and described his missing dogs, and I gave directions to where they could be found. Within half an hour a car pulled up and the dogs rushed to it rapturously. Thankfully, I noticed that their anticipation-of-a-ride-in-the-car bark was not as raucous as that for a treed cat.
Their apologetic owner said he lived a few blocks over, across some open fields, and that the dogs had never gotten out before. As they drove away, the neighborhood seemed unnaturally quiet.
I searched for the little black cat, but she was gone. I never saw her again. But I like to recall her decision to come out and stand tall, whatever the odds, rather than cower. More often, I ponder how she could have remained in the tree, uncomfortable, anxious, and lacking a certain feline dignity, but safe. If she had stayed put, however, she never would have witnessed the power of a simple act of courage. Or looked directly into the eyes of her adversaries and seen what a splendid cat she was.