Rabbit was dead.
Cat knew everyone blamed him. The unnatural quiet and the steady stare of the others sent a shiver down his back. No one moved for a long time, Cat included. It was the worst silence Cat could ever remember, and Cat usually enjoyed the quiet.
Suddenly Turtle raised his head, presumably to get a better look at Cat.
“The real question is,” Turtle said slowly. “How did you do it?”
“Yes,” squawked Parrot. “No sign of blood.”
“No cuts, no bites, no holes,” Turtle nodded.
“No ifs, no butts, no coconuts,” said a gravelly voice. “There are many ways to kill. Not just with tooth or claw,” Snake said as he slid from out of the shadows.
“The People kill with things they call weapons,” Snake continued. “Things that are more deadly than rocks or sticks. There are, in fact, countless ways to kill. Almost as many as there are stars in the sky.”
“And how do you think Rabbit died,” Turtle said with a frown.
“A hard blow to the head. Loss of breath. Stopping of the heart. The body shutting itself down. Poison,” Snake said with a gleam in his eye.
“Stop!” Turtle said in a shaky tone. “You’re scaring the others.” Indeed Hamster, Fish, Duck, and Chicken were all displaying acute signs of stress.
“I was only trying to educate,” Snake said with the hint of smile as he crawled back into his place in the shade. “Elucidate. Indoctrinate. Demonstrate. Explicate. Eradicate,” he said, his voice fading away in the darkness.
“He’s certainly an odd duck that one,” Rat said pointedly.
“I resent that remark!” quacked Duck.
“My apologies,” Rat said quickly. “I merely meant it as a figure of speech. Such as ‘free as bird’. Or ‘a fish out of water’. Or ‘don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched’.”
“Enough of these digressions,” Turtle huffed. Rat’s wit always annoyed him. “Back to the matter at hand.”
“The matter at hand,” Parrot agreed.
“Cat,” Turtle snapped. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Cat, who had been licking his paw in embarrassment, stopped and blinked a few times before responding.
“It’s true in the past I have done things for which I am not proud,” Cat began. “But on my honor, as a cat, I did not do this thing.” There was a quiet murmur from the rest. “Some of you know Rabbit and I are friends,” Cat continued. “Or were friends. I may be a cat, and therefore include to stalk and hunt, but one thing a cat will never do is kill a friend.” The second murmur was louder than the first.
“I say we put it to a vote!” shouted Lizard who pictured himself feasting on Cat’s dead carcass when the vote went sour.
“Yes, a vote! A vote!” the rabble called.
“Order!” cried Owl, and everyone quieted. Owl was a big and mighty creature who was not intimidated by much. He often acted as police, judge, and executioner in cases such as this. Cat again felt the shivers up his spine as Owl stepped up to speak.
“As always,” Owl stated. “We need a fair and impartial jury to listen to the case of Cat.” Through a series of questions, Owl chose his jury. There was Weasel, a cunning hunter in his own right. There was Deer, who was much too large to be hunted by the likes of Cat. There was Dog, who was equal to Cat in some ways, better in others, and lesser in others. And there was Dung Beetle, whose stink was something the most of the others had a difficult time abiding.
“Very well,” said Owl. “We are ready to try the prisoner.”
Cat was placed in a box before the jury of his peers. The four animals of the jury stared at him with shining eyes.
Hedgehog was appointed as his lawyer. Songbird was named as the prosecuting attorney. Songbird pranced about, trilling with his persuasive voice. Hedgehog, who was nearsighted, fumbled with his stack of papers. Cat was beginning to feel unnerved.
“Now then,” Owl cleared his throated. “The prosecution may call his first witness.”
Songbird stood up tall and called out: “Bring Mrs. Rabbit to the stand!”
A murmur surged through the courtroom as the sobbing Mrs. Rabbit was gently accompanied to the stand.
“Now Mrs. Rabbit,” Owl said kindly. “We can forgo your questioning if it is too difficult for you-”
“No, no,” insisted Mrs. Rabbit. “I wish to speak.”
“Very well,” Owl nodded in admiration of her bravery. “Your witness,” he said to Songbird.
“Tell us about your husband’s relationship to Cat,” Songbird said.
“They were the best of friends,” she said, eliciting a fresh murmur from the crowd. “They did everything together. They especially enjoyed long walks in the forest. Rabbit use to say he could have no better friend on this green Earth than good old Cat.”
The uproar in the courtroom was so loud that Owl was forced to strike his gavel. “Order, order,” he cried. “We must have no more of these outbursts. Let the witnesses tell their stories without unnecessary outrage.” With that, he eyed the entire assembly which seemed to calm them down.
“Continue please,” Owl insisted.
“Was there ever a time Mrs. Rabbit,” Songbird said. “That your husband made any complaint against the defendant.”
“Oh my no,” Mrs. Rabbit shook her head. “They were just the best of friends. Cat would do anything for my husband. Including…” Mrs. Rabbit hesitated.
“Including?” Songbird prodded.
“I’m not sure it’s my place to say,” Mrs. Rabbit blushed.
“Might I remind you, my dear Mrs. Rabbit, that you are under oath,” Songbird grinned.
“Well,” she said reluctantly. “My husband use to say that Mr. Cat was a very sneaky fellow.”
Cat nearly yowled in defeat.
“Go on,” said Songbird with a gleam in his beady little eye.
“My husband and Mr. Cat use to do business together,” she said almost innocently.
“What kind of business did they have?” Songbird prodded.
“Oh my all kinds of things,” Ms. Rabbit said. “They were the best pest catching team. My husband would dig out the vermin and Mr. Cat would catch them.”
“Catch them,” said Songbird. “And do what with them?”
“Why kill them of course,” said Ms. Rabbit which was greeted by murmurs in the jury. “It is after all his specialty.”
“Exactly,” said Songbird smuggly. “No further questions your honor.”
Owl blinked his eyes as he stared toward Hedgehog who looked like he was half-asleep. Owl cleared his throat loudly.
“The witness is yours Hedgehog,” Owl said. Hedgehog jumped up from his seat as Cat gave a desperate look. He ambled toward Ms. Rabbit who was still in the witness box.
“My good Mrs. Rabbit,” squeaked Hedgehog. “Tell us about these pests your husband and Mr. Cat were tasked with killing.”
“Oh all manner of nasty critters,” Mrs. Rabbit said with a crinkled nose. “Things that bite and suck your blood.”
“Insects, you might said,” Hedgehog nodded.
“I say!” gasped Dung Beetle from his place in the jury box.
“Objection!” called Songbird. “The defense is leading the witness.”
“Be careful of your words Hedgehog,” Owl frowned for he did not tolerate shenanigans in his courtroom.
“So sorry your honor,” Hedgehog bowed. “Mrs. Rabbit, can you tell us what these creatures were.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Rabbit said. “Ants, wasps, mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, chiggers, leeches-”
“Very good Mrs. Rabbit,” Hedgehog smiled. “The court now understands I’m sure. Let it be known that Rabbit and Cat were known far and wide as the best pest control duo in this part of the country. I myself utilized their services several times to flush nasty things from my burrow. I submit that the work good Mr. Rabbit and good Mr. Cat were doing, although involving the nastiness of killing, was necessary to the betterment of everyone. For it is well known that even the worst jobs need to be done by someone. Therefore we should be thanking Mr. Cat for his services. Not condemning him.”
More loud whispers blanketed the courtroom causing Owl to tap his gavel once more.
“Mr. Songbird,” Owl said above the din. “You may call your next witness.”
“Very good your honor,” Songbird peeped. “I call Mole to the stand.”
Mole was known as an unsavory fellow. He spent most of his time hidden underground eating worms and grubs. When he did come up, it was to spy on other animals. He would use any information he found to his own advantage. He was also well known as a notorious liar.
As Mole shuffled toward the witness box, Weasel licked his lips. All those worms and grubs made Mole meat one of the tastiest of all. Deer stamped his foot. Whenever he saw a mole, he was wont to trample it. Dog barked because moles are particularly fun to chase. Dung Beetle merely watched quietly. His kin had often been pray to moles. In his mind, moles were animals to be feared.
“Now Mole,” Songbird began. “I understand you spoke with Rabbit the night before he was murdered.”
“I did,” said Mole with a twitch of his nose.
“Can you tell us about that conversation,” Songbird said.
“If I must,” Mole frowned for he did not like giving up information without getting something in return.
“You are under oath,” Owl said sternly.
“He said he was angry at Cat,” Mole said absently. “That he was thinking of breaking off their partnership.”
A third eruption of murmurs caused Owl to bang his gavel and call out.
“If I cannot have quiet in my courtroom,” he shouted. “I will dismiss the spectators!” Quiet quickly fell again.
“Did he say why he was upset with Cat,” Songbird said pointly.
“Yes, he did,” Mole smirked.
“And?” Songbird prompted.
“He said that Cat was having an affair with his wife.”
The noise of the spectators was louder than ever.
“Order! Order!” yelled Owl. “Bailiff clear the courtroom! Bailiff clear the courtroom!!”
Horse was marching animals out of the courtroom as Mrs. Rabbit cried loud tears. Cat was twitching his tail in his growing embarrass as the jury of animals whispered among themselves. Mrs. Rabbit was doing her best to try to hide. Weasel in particular was very amused by the whole situation.
“No further questions your honor,” he peeped triumphantly.
“Your witness,” Owl said to Hedgehog
“Tell me Mr. Mole,” Hedgehog early took up the inquiry. “Was good Mr. Rabbit distraught when you spoke with him?”
“Oh yes, severely,” smiled Mole for he wallowed in other’s misery.
“Dare I say, brokenhearted,” Hedgehog added.
“About as brokenhearted as one could be I suspect,” Mole agreed.
“And what did he do next?” Hedgehog asked because he knew Mole could not help himself from watching a creature such as Rabbit in such misery.
“He crawled into a ditch and died,” Mole simply said to which members of the jury gasp. Poor Songbird slumped in his chair.
“Mm yes,” Owl said. “I see,” he added sadly. “Very unfortunate.” Then after a short speech about the effects of a broken hear on the average animal, he instructed the jury on how to deliberate. But before he could excuse them to do so, Weasel interrupted him.
“If it please your honor,” he said through his sharp teeth. “We the jury have already reached a verdict.”
“Highly unorthodox,” said Owl with wide eyes. “Very well, I will allow it. What say you?”
“We say, not guilty,” Weasel said quickly. “It was obviously a broke heart that killed Mr. Rabbit.”
“So it was,” Owl said. “The defendant is free to go.” He bashed his gavel one last time.
Cat thought it wise to leave the courtroom as quickly as possible, especially to avoid Mrs. Rabbit. He knew he could never show his face around these parts again, but being a cat that hardly matter. He was independent and solitary. He could make his way anywhere he went. Despite this, the guilt of betraying his friend was a feeling he could not leave behind.