The Cat, the Devil, and Lee Fontana
By Shirley Rousseau and Pat J.J. Murphy
The devil arrived at McNeil Island Federal Prison March 8, 1947, bleating like a goat and looking like a goat. He had taken the form of a big buck goat with coarse brown fur, a rank smell, spectacular accessories, and a drool-stained beard. He was looking for Lee Fontana. Fontana, who was considered not immediately dangerous to the other felons, had been made a trusty and put to work on the prison farm, growing potatoes and mutton for the inmates, Satan looked for him there. When he didn't find Fontana among the pens and dairy barns and gardens, he turned his attention to a flock of nubile young sheep and for an hour had his way with them, perplexing and then delighting the young ewes. Afterward, the goat stood in the muddy pasture where it met the shore of Puget Sound, pawing at the salty water that lapped around his hooves and staring back toward the prison, watching through the thick concrete wails as Fontana left the mess hall, wiping the last trace of supper from his grizzled chin. How old he'd grown since Satan had last looked in on him, his tall, thin body ropy and leathered, the lines etched deep into his lean face printing out a sour disappointment with life that greatly pleased the devil.
Galloping along to the prison and melting in through the high concrete walls, the goat materialized suddenly in the exercise yard, big, rough-coated, smelly, and causing considerable interest. He allowed a crowd of amused inmates to touch his thick heavy horns but when they started to touch other, more private parts, perhaps with envy, he butted and struck at them with his sharp hooves. They scattered. The goat disappeared, poof, into nothing, abandoning the form he had taken as he'd moved up through time and space from the flames of earth's fiery and turbulent core.
He was invisible when he entered the cell block, an errant swirl of sour wind pacing unseen beside the debilitated old train robber as Lee hurried along toward his cell, toward the ease of his iron bunk. Though Fontana couldn't see him, an icy aura made the hard-bitten old man clutch his arms around himself in a sudden and puzzling shiver, made him hope he wasn't getting the flu that was going around the cell blocks. That, with his sick lungs, wouldn't be good news. Whatever was the matter, he was aching with cold by the time he reached his barred door; he stood impatiently watching the uniformed guard leave his desk farther up the corridor, watched his rolling walk that accommodated his big belly as he came to lock Lee in for the night. "You look beat, Fontana. You okay?"
"Cold, is all. Be warm in a minute," Lee said, looking hopefully down at his thin blanket.
The guard shrugged, but he shivered, too, "Does seem colder back here." He looked up above the three tiers of cells to the clerestory windows high beneath the ceiling as if to see one of them open or broken but all were shut tight, the wire-impregnated glass smoky with dirt where it caught light from the hanging bulbs. He looked at Lee puzzled, shivered again, locked the cell door and headed back to his desk, his gait rolling like a pregnant woman heavy with her burden. Beside Lee, the devil, too, felt the cold despite the fact that he had generated that unearthly chill, so very different from the normal cold of the cell block--he didn't like the damp cold of the cells any more than Lee did, he despised the chill of the upper world just as he hated its too-bright days and the vast eternity of space that swept endlessly beyond the spinning planet. All that emptiness left him uneasy, though hell knew he'd spent enough time up here on the naked surface enjoying his centuries of tangled and debilitating games. Watching Fontana now, he thought about the many times he'd returned to observe and torment the old cowboy--for all the good it did. Tempt and prod the old man as he might, and though he was always able to manipulate a few uncertain places in Fontana's nature, the end result was the same. Fontana would give in for a while to his prodding, would be drawn to the cruel and sadistic aspects of whatever robbery he was planning--but for only a short time. Then he would go his own way again, ignoring a more interesting treatment of his victims, as hardheaded and stubborn as the billy goat Satan had so recently sent butting through the prison wall.
But the devil wasn't through with the old man. He had infinite time. He meant to change Fontana, he meant to own Lee's soul for his own. Time was nothing to Satan, he moved through the centuries as he chose and wherever he chose, tending to the vast ranks of souls that teetered uncertainly on the cusp between evil and a bland life of virtue--but so many of them, begging to be lost, beseeching him to take them with him on that last and fiery descent.
Lee Fontana, was a harder quarry, but one he didn't mean to lose.
The guard sitting down at the desk crammed into his chair would have been an easier mark, but there'd be no fun in that game, with such a simple target. Satan had watched the round-bellied officer with distaste as he locked Lee into his cell, and when he'd touched the man with an icy hand the fat boy had shivered, hastily bolted the door and hurried away. Now, smiling, Satan slipped in through the bars of Lee's cell as invisible as a breath and stood waiting for Fontana to pull off his clothes, stretch out on his bunk in his skivvies and pull the blanket up, waiting for Fontana to ease toward sleep where his mind would be most malleable.
But as Lucifer watched Lee, he in turn was watched. The prison cat sat observing that dark and hungry shadow, peering out from beneath the guard's desk just as, earlier in the evening, he had watched the rutting goat play hell with the sheep out at the prison farm. The cat had known Satan even in goat form and knew why he was there. His silent hiss was fierce, his claws kneading, every angle of his lean body tense and protective. He didn't like the devil sniffing around Lee again, poking and prodding as he'd done ever since Fontana was a boy, showing up always with the same vendetta, willfully tormenting Lee, wanting what he thought was his due, wanting to get back at Lee for an effrontery that Lee had had nothing to do with. Lee had been only a child when his grandpappy faced off and bested the devil, but Lucifer wouldn't let up, he wouldn't back off, not until Lee gave in to his dark desires or, in death, went free at last, still unbound to the slave maker.
The yellow tomcat had lived at the prison most of his life, he'd arrived there as a tiny kitten in the pocket of a prison guard, had been bottle-fed by the guard and two inmates and, when he was old enough to be let outside, had learned to hunt from the resident prison cat. He had taken over from that aging beast when she passed on to enjoy another life. Indeed, Misto himself had died there at the prison, at a ripe and venerable age. That body, only one relic from his rich and varied incarnations, was buried just outside the prison wall with a fine view of Puget Sound, of its roiling storms and its quiet days cloaked in coastal fog. The very night that a guard buried Misto, as fog lay heavy over the still water, the cat had risen again, appearing as only a tangle of vapor mixed with the mist, and he wandered back into the cell blocks.
He wasn't ready to leave McNeil. The prison was home, the ugly cells, the exercise yard, the mess hall with its ample suppertime handouts, the kitchen with more scraps than a dozen cats could devour, the overflowing garbage cans, the dense woods and grassy fields, with its band of wild and amorous female cats and, out at the prison farm among the dairy barns and chicken houses, a fine supply of rats and fat mice to hunt and tease, and what more could any cat want?
During Misto's lifetime most of the prisoners had been friendly to him. Those who were not had been kept in line by the others. Now, returning as ghost, he had gotten his own back with those men in a hurry, driving a fear into them that would prevent them from ever again tormenting a cat or any other small creature. When, after his death, he'd materialized in the prison yard and let the inmates see him, some claimed another cat had moved in, likely one of Misto's kittens that was a ringer for him. But some prisoners said Misto himself had come back from the grave into another of his nine lives; they knew he wasn't yet done with the pleasures of McNeil, and he soon became a cell-block myth, appearing and disappearing in a way that offered an exciting and chilling new interest for the bored inmates: a ghost cat to tickle their thoughts, to marvel over and to argue about. Lee Fontana observed the ghost and smiled; and kept his opinions to himself. As for Misto, it wasn't the comfort and pleasure of the island alone that detained his spirit there. He remained because of Lee Fontana.
The cat had lived an earlier life in Lee's company, when Lee was only a boy. A willful kid and hotheaded, but there was about him a presence that had interested the cat, a deep steadiness, even when the boy was quite young, a solid core within that had clashed with the boy's fiery nature. Drawn to Lee, Misto had, in the ghostly spaces between his nine lives, often returned to Fontana as he grew up and grew older. He had ridden unseen with Lee during a number of train robberies, greatly entertained by the bloody shootings, the excitement and the terror of the victims--though he never saw Lee torment, nor had he seen him kill with malice. Lee had killed his share of armed men but those shootings were in self-defense, meant to save his own life.
It might be argued that if Lee hadn't robbed the trains he wouldn't have been in a position to defend himself, would have had no reason to kill any man. Maybe so. But however one judged Fontana, the cat saw in him a strain of decency that the devil hadn't so far been able to touch, something in the hard-bitten cowboy that had kept the dark one defeated. If Misto had his way, that wouldn't change. He had watched as Fontana grew older and more stubborn in his ways and as he grew more sour on life, too. He had watched Lee's fear of old age and death settle down upon him, the fear that haunted most aging humans, and he didn't mean to leave the old man now, he would not abandon Lee so close to the end and to his last parole; he meant to stay with the old man to the final breath of his earthly journey, meant to follow Lee in his decline as the dark spirit made a last attempt at Lee's final and eternal destiny.
As ghost, the tomcat had chosen perversely to retain the exact color and form in which he'd lived all his earthly lives: rough yellow coat, battle-ragged ears, big bony body moving with an ungainly clumsiness that belied his speed and power. When he made himself visible he seemed no more than a rangy prison cat lying on the warm concrete of the exercise yard soaking up the last of the day's meager heat or slipping into the mess hall under the tables bumming the inmates' scraps that were passed down to him by one rough hand and then another; the prison cat that lay now unseen on the cold iron shelf in Lee's cell, watching Lee's dark and shadowed visitor that stood at the foot of Lee's bed--waiting for Lee to be discharged in the morning, waiting to make one more try at bringing Fontana into his fold, waiting to play some final and unexpected card in his hungry game.
Out beyond the cell block the prison yard lay deserted, and a thin breeze scudded in off Puget Sound across the green and quiet island, touching the lighted windows of the guards' and staff houses and the small darkened schoolhouse, touching the peaceful and forested hills--while there within the cell block the devil waited. And Misto waited, ready for whatever would occur tomorrow as Lee left the certainty of his prison home, as he moved out into a free and precarious world followed and hazed by that hungry spirit who meant, so intently, to steal the will and the soul of the lonely old man.