When the Northwestern Circus train derailed in the woods outside of Leonard, Alabama, and a traincar carrying three Bengal tigers overturned, it took five hours for the first one to find its way into town. It appeared in the hardware aisle at Jonathan’s General Goods when it crashed through the ceiling onto a display of discounted screwdrivers and ratchets. Later it would be revealed that the tiger came in through the ventilation system, crawled through the aluminium shafts above the fluorescent lights and fell through an air-conditioning duct.
In the hour preceding the incident at Jonathan’s, it had been decided by City Hall that someone ought to capture the tigers alive, rather than just shoot them, on account that the circus was offering three hundred dollars for each one returned. The tigers were young, barely adults, the circus- men said. There wouldn’t be any real danger.
At the time the only one in town who seemed qualified to capture them was the dog catcher, since he had the snare-on-a-pole contraption, the noose, he called it, and he knew how to use it. The mayor himself, a sweaty, bald man in a too-small sports jacket, called the dog catcher into his office, put the question of the tigers to him and shook his hand when he accepted.
The dog catcher captured the first tiger at Jonathan’s after it fell through the ceiling and the second six days later, a hundred yards from the slaughterhouse. For each tiger, the circus gave the three hundred dollars to the city, since the dog catcher was a city employee and was only operating within his job description. Still, the dog catcher’s acts didn’t go without payment; before the tigers came everyone knew him only as the dog catcher, as in, I just saw the Ramseys’ beagle over on Pine Street again. Better call the dog catcher. But after the incident with the tigers, the children called him Mr. Juniper, the men called him Bill, and the women called him William, sometimes breathily.When the townspeople ran into William at the diner, where he often ate, or at Jonathan’s General Goods, where he bought weed killer for his garden, they’d invite him over for dinner. He usually accepted and always turned up on time with in-season flowers for the lady of the house. She would personally show him to his seat, and everyone would talk until the meal was served, and if it was a praying household they would pray. Once everyone had a plate and the children’s meat had been cut for them, William would be asked, casually, to tell the story of the tigers.
‘I was late to work that morning,’ William would say. Invariably, the story began like this. William would say it as he chewed his first bite of whatever had been served. After he swallowed, he’d lay down his fork, look at his plate and say, ‘Now that, ma’am, I don’t know what you did, but that is just delicious’. And the lady of the house would smile and blush and sometimes look at her husband. William would take up his fork again and continue.
‘Anyway, it was the third of August, and I was in a hurry getting into town. I was sure I’d get pulled over, driving like that, but of course all the cops were already at the train wreck. Anyway, I made it into town fine and took Highway 4 out to the pound and when I got there I came through the door apologising to Mr. Ernickle, thinking his temper would be up. Well, you know it was.’
Here, William would look at the husband, who would already be smiling into his plate, mopping gravy or grease with green beans or cauliflower. The husband would sometimes laugh a little as he chewed, or take a drink, because it was true. Every husband in town knew Wayne Ernickle, and his temper was always up.
‘Ernickle was yelling about a train, and a circus, and some animals, and throwing his hands all over the place. He knocked over his coffee and said some things I won’t repeat here – ’
The wife would smile, say thank you with her eyes.
‘– and while he cleaned it up he shouted that the deputy wanted to see me. So I went and saw the deputy, and he told me the mayor wanted to see me. So I went and saw the mayor, and he told me the whole thing. Of course, I asked him why the tiger handler from the circus couldn’t catch the tigers, but I guess he broke his leg in the crash and all the other trainers were too busy corralling their own beasts.’
He would stop there to have a few more bites of whatever was served. Beef stew with cornbread and butter, sirloins with slow-baked potatoes, ribs with collard greens. The proximity of the slaughterhouse made meat cheap and plentiful, and his hosts were usually experts at cooking it. He always told them so before going on.
‘I guess I got lucky with the first one,’ he would say, chewing. ‘It falling through the ceiling like that. After everyone ran out the building they called me and I went in. The tiger was smaller than I expected, all hackled up in a corner, growling and spitting and swiping at me, but I sang Swing Low to it and got the noose around its neck.’
At this point in the story William usually took a drink. The husband would always watch him do this. He would watch until William set his mug or his glass or his jam jar down and then he would look away. There was a specific reason for this.
After the incident with the tigers was all over William had found himself in a small poker group composed of field hands and ranchers. No one questioned his skill with dogs or tigers, but as a poker player, William was transparent. His poker buddies found out that William’s tell was to sip his drink when he bluffed, and months later, when he came to a man’s house for dinner, there he was, drinking just the same way. Within a few weeks almost everyone knew that, in fact, William was probably lying about this part of the story. They were right. The tiger was dazed from the fall when William found it, and he only slipped the noose around its neck and walked it out, easy as a poodle. No one, however, ever called him on it. Either way he’d done the job, and he was therefore owed the courtesy.
William would eat for a while, and then he would go on to tell about how, in order to capture the second tiger, he had slipped horse tranquiliser into a side of prime rump and left it in the tall grass on the southern side of the slaughterhouse. The men who worked inside had been nervous, he said, because they often left work covered in blood. William told with due respect how some of the men didn’t come into work that day, and half the others went home sick when the sun was high. He didn’t fault them.
William had done his best to reassure the rest and, sure enough, in just ten hours the tiger was sleeping quiet, back with the circus.
That part of the story was a formality – everyone knew it already because most of the men in town worked at the slaughterhouse or on one of the ranches. But William told it anyway, slowly, because it took twenty or so minutes to tell and let the tension take root for the third tiger, which was the part of the story everyone at the table was actually waiting to hear. The aftermath of the third tiger had been all over page one of The Leonard Hornblower, but the details were William’s alone.
Usually, by this time, the meal was over and everyone was having coffee or ice cream. William nursed it. Sometimes he would go quiet for a long time and just let it all roll up inside them, the sound of mugs clinking in saucers and the green-glow lightning bugs out the window in the falling dusk. He would wait while the quiet settled onto the table and onto the shoulders of everyone around it.
Eventually, when the children could no longer keep their eyes on their spoons, he’d sit up straight and begin again, saying, ‘Now, the third tiger. I spent three weeks looking for her’. Everyone brightened and flushed when he said this, as if they thought maybe he was just going to leave the good part out all along. Relief blotched their cheeks.
‘At first,’ he said, ‘I tried the trick with the meat again, but it didn’t work and after the first two days I knew it wasn’t going to. She was smarter than the others, maybe older, maybe seen those tricks before. I went to the library and I read about tigers in the encyclopaedia, but I didn’t find out much. I couldn’t bait her and there were a million places she could hide.’
Someone would excuse themselves quietly, ask if anyone wanted more dessert (the children always did) and then sneak off to the restroom. When they returned it was usually when William was asking if the family ever had a pet cat go missing. The children obliged him, brothers and sisters talking over one another, growing louder in their haste to tell all about the cat. They told its name and where it had slept, what it looked like. William would listen. The children always found their way to stories that ended in blood: the time the cat dragged a dead Pipit bird into the wood room, or the time it gave birth and the howls kept everyone up all night, or the time
Dad crushed it with the car. When they got to the messy part, their mother would step in and William would smile at them and go on.
‘You end up looking all over the neighbourhood for a cat,’ he said. ‘Under cars, up trees. You put up posters. Sometimes he doesn’t come back for days and you give up completely before finding him at the bottom of the clothes hamper, asleep.’ Even if the family hadn’t ever had a cat he said it all anyhow. It was part of the story, telling them that the point with cats, and with tigers, too, was that if they don’t want to be found, they won’t be.
‘Two weeks and no luck. The circus left a big crate and moved on, saying to wire them when I’d captured her. The tiger had already eaten seven chickens and a calf, and the mayor told me that if I didn’t get the situation under control he’d have to call in a specialist, which would have been fine, except that the money it would cost to bring a tiger hunter from who- knows-where to Leonard, Alabama would probably eat up the year’s dog catching budget and then some.
‘Plus, I was still catching strays full-time. I’ll admit I was getting down about the whole thing. So on a Friday – it was the twenty-sixth – I went down to the tavern on Milton to think about what I should do.’
Husbands often chimed in with: I do a lot of my thinking there.
‘I guess I didn’t leave for a few hours,’ William would say. ‘It’s funny. Nothing made me leave when I did. Maybe I was tired, but when I got outside, it was real nice out. It was warm and there was a breeze. I thought maybe I would walk home.’
Often, at this juncture, the mother would tell her children to go brush their teeth, which was always met with argument. The children usually won out, claiming that when Mr. Juniper had been at so-and-so’s house, his mother had let him stay up for the whole story. One boy, once, had said, But Mom, I thought the rule was never to leave with a guest at the table? You told me it was rude. His father had laughed and said, He’s got you there, Lillian.
When the argument ended, William went on: ‘I crossed down Crane Avenue and into the park towards the library. I remember the clock tower was white up through the trees. It was quiet out and warm. I walked on the path. I was feeling good, and I was singing to myself a little to pass
the time. I guess I was drunk, but I was happy. No, don’t look like that – I was happy, and I don’t mind saying so. Anyway, I crossed the lawn and I guess I went under big Elm by the benches. Then this weight hit me and I thought for a second I’d been struck by lightning. But it was heavy. It was crushing the air right out of me, and it was chewing through my shoulder.’ He stopped and drank and sometimes asked if there was more dessert. He would wait while it came.
‘Well, I started fighting, and while I was fighting I had this brainwave that, hey, this whole time I was looking for her, maybe she knew it – that was the idea, that maybe she knew it all along, and had been waiting for me, instead. Of course, by then, I had figured out it was her on top of me, but I wasn’t angry, or even that scared, really. I knew I was going to die but this little shred of me kind of admired her for it. I never saw her coming. I remember thinking she would make a great dog catcher.
‘I don’t know how long all this took but at some point I remembered about the pen-knife in my pocket. I managed to get it out and start stabbing. I was stabbing with the one hand and holding her jaws with the other, trying to keep them off my neck. I did okay, but she was strong and she got some of me.’
Here, he held up his right hand and wiggled the nubs that were left of index and middle fingers. There were white, crumpled scars across the palm and the wrist. Sometimes the younger children shied into their mothers when they saw.
‘I was hot and sticky all over. I guess it was blood but I didn’t know it at the time. Anyway, I stabbed and stabbed, and then, after a while, she just rolled off. She made a sound like air going out of bellows. She rolled off and away from me and we just lay there on the sidewalk. I hurt all over but I wasn’t angry.’
Sometimes someone would ask why not, but William would only say that he didn’t know. He just wasn’t. Then he would say how he had got up and walked to a payphone and woke up Mr. Ernickle at home.
If it was a drinking family they got out the bottled lightning and toasted him. They thanked him on behalf of themselves, their families – on behalf of the town of Leonard. William drank with them and the children sometimes asked questions like, Could you hear her crunching the bones? Did she roar? What did her breath smell like? He smiled and answered the questions – Yes and no to the first two, Cat food to the third, with a wink. He showed them his hand up close if they wanted to see, and he let them touch if they wanted to touch.
Occasionally he would tell the part of the story that he usually left out. If they just sat there, waiting for more story, sometimes he would tell how afterward he had still been able to see the clock tower through the trees where he had fallen, and how he had hurt all over, and how he had reached out and stroked the tiger as she died. How he had scratched her behind the ears like a pet dog as her breath went out. Sometimes, when he told it, the wife would get weepy. Once, a husband had risen from the table, claiming he had something to see to in the kitchen, and he went away wiping his eye.
Most of the time, the woman would fetch a pie to send home with him. When she handed it over, she sometimes would take his good hand and squeeze it. He told the family that everything was all right, that in the end he’d been given a third of the money paid by the circus as compensation, plus he’d been given a plaque by the mayor to commemorate his Service in Outstanding Circumstances. He told them all not to worry, that he was still happy, and that pretty soon he would come back to catching dogs. He always thanked them for the meal more than once.
They would see him to the door and thank him for coming. He could see in their faces that their hearts were fuller. He was right. Hours after he’d gone, children dreamt of adventures in the dark heart of Africa. Husbands and wives went to bed and spoke about him in the dark, lying closer to one another than they had in months or maybe years. Sometimes they made love. Invariably, when they met their friends at the diner, or at Jonathan’s General Goods, they would tell them that the dog catcher had come around to eat, and how polite he was, and what an inspiration. In this way, William Juniper was able to eat one, maybe two free dinners a week, for almost four years.