Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1718
First published: 1949
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Symbolic allegory
Time of work: Early twentieth century
Locale: Sierra Nevadas
Arthur Bridges, a dreamer
Harold, his brothers
Grace, his sister
Mrs. Bridges, the mother
Mr. Bridges, the father
Joe Sam, the Indian hired man
Gwen Williams, Harold's girl
Arthur Bridges, dreaming that he was caught in a blizzard in the Sierra Nevadas, could hear a loved one cry out to him, but he could not recognize the voice. He was afraid to move for fear he would fall off an icy cliff. He realized dimly that his left hand was bare and cold. As he put it in the pocket of his red and white cowhide parka, he felt the half-finished carving of a mountain lion that he was making for Joe Sam. Every year, he carved a cat for Joe Sam because the old Indian believed a black cat brought death with the first snow unless he could make medicine against it. This year the first snow had come early in October, and the carved cat was not finished. The black cat must be stalking some prey through the stormy night. As Arthur heard the scream again, he tried to get off the cliff. Falling, he screamed and woke himself up.
Finding himself in the bunk room of the ranch house, Arthur listened for a sound in the wind. When he heard it, he awoke his brothers, Curt and Harold. Curt thought Arthur was only dreaming until he also heard the scream of cattle being attacked somewhere in the storm. He rushed into his clothes to go out to the cattle.
The mother, having heard the screams, was making breakfast by the time the boys were dressed. Since it was dark and they could not see what was attacking, they ate while they made plans. Harold, the youngest, was to stay at home. Curt, always the boss, would take charge, but he would take Arthur along because he had dreamed that a black painter was at the cattle.
Arthur got out his whittling as they waited. Harold told him that Joe Sam had been up to his tricks that night. When something worried Joe Sam, he was likely to fall into a trance and go without eating or sleeping for days. Joe Sam always made medicine to his gods before the first snow and carried one of Arthur's carvings of a mountain lion in a little bag under his chin. The black cat was, to him, the height of evil. Bullets went through it so that it could never be killed. It was as big as a horse. It made no tracks; but it could kill viciously. The early October storm had caught them all unawares, with Joe Sam's cat still unfinished.
The mother had also dreamed something which she would not tell. She wanted Curt to take Harold with him instead of Arthur. But Harold's girl, Gwen Williams, had come to visit the night before, and Arthur thought Harold should stay with her. When the mother asked Harold his plans for marrying Gwen, he claimed that he had not gone that far. Arthur figured the valley could hold more stock out of which Harold could take a yearly cut. They all realized that Curt would object if he did not get his own way or if he saw money going outside of the immediate family, even if it were to a brother's family. Harold said he would arrange the matter with Curt when Gwen went home. They all knew the father, who lived now only to drink, would have no say in the matter.
Before Curt and Arthur left, the father and the girls, Grace and Gwen, came to breakfast. The father immediately started drinking. To spite Harold, Curt tried to impress Gwen. Although he made fun of Arthur's half-belief in Joe Sam's black cat, he admitted when he got the horses ready that they were spooky that morning.
Curt and Arthur took only one gun because Curt was sure the cat was in a box canyon where he could easily find and kill it; Arthur would not need a gun for his kind of cat. In the canyon, Curt found some of the cattle newly killed, obviously by a mountain lion. There were tracks nearby, but in his high-heeled boots he could not follow them through the snow. Leaving Arthur and the gun to hold the trail, Curt went back to the house for tracking boots and food.
Arthur, leading his pony, slowly followed the cat's tracks toward a half-dome where he had often sat, whittling his figures and admiring the view. Suddenly his pony neighed fiercely and jerked, throwing Arthur sprawling into the bushes nearby. As he looked up over his shoulder, Arthur saw the black cat leaping at him.
Curt dawdled at home. Trying to get a rise out of Gwen, he promised to bring her home the skin of the black cat to use as a blanket, or, if it should be a yellow one, to wear as a costume. Harold brought him a frisky horse. Curt, nearly trampling the Indian, asked Joe Sam whether he still believed in the black cat. Joe Sam only replied that the hunting would not be very good because of the heavy snow.
On the way back to the canyon, Curt saw Arthur's horse heading home. Disgusted because he thought Arthur had forgotten the horse as he daydreamed, Curt followed the tracks until he found Arthur's body. While he exchanged his coat for Arthur's heavy parka and packed the body on his own horse, he swore to get the cat if he had to trail it to the Pacific. Then he headed the horse toward home with the body.
Arthur's death greatly upset the mother and Grace. Harold and Gwen had to keep things going at the ranch. The father was drunk and Joe Sam practically hypnotized. A heavy snow settled in, delaying the burial. Afterward, they made a huge bonfire in front of the house in case Curt needed direction. He had been out more than two days since Arthur's body had come back on the horse. The mother told Harold he would have to go out after Curt and that he should take Joe Sam along to track.
The horses became spooky when Curt and Joe Sam came near the box canyon. Each man tracked one side of the creek. Harold found dead cattle, one heifer so freshly killed that the blood still spurted. Working carefully, he tracked the cat so closely that he was almost surprised when he saw it. As he shot, Joe Sam's bullet came from across the creek. The cat sprang away with a scream, but the men followed it and finished their job. Although it was almost all black, Joe Sam said that the cat was not his black painter. His was a devil killing all the time.
Harold found Curt's crumpled body under a cliff. Tracing back from the place above the body where the snow had been broken off, he guessed that Curt had rushed wildly about after leaving a fire and a pile of cut boughs higher up. There, where the fire had been, Harold found Curt's gun and snowshoes, but he could find no tracks except Curt's in all the clearing. Puzzled and a little terrified, Harold guessed that the dead black painter might as well be blamed for Curt's death after all.
Like his earlier novel, THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, Walter Van Tilburg Clark's THE TRACK OF THE CAT is a tragedy laid in Nevada, his adopted state. It is a long, psychological, and symbolic study of the effect of evil on a ranch family. The black cat means the end of everything to the Indian Joe Sam, whose animism, apparent in his recognition and acceptance of the primitive, mythic nature of Evil, affects the whole Bridges family for whom he works. Clark writes his story with his usual vivid contrasts between dream and fact, white man and Indian, tragedy and hope.
The novel falls into four parts: one for the testing of each of the brothers, and a fourth to show the state of life at the novel's psychological center, the ranchhouse kitchen. The kitchen, too, becomes a proving-ground for Gwen and Harold's love and, in a sense, a further test of Harold as a man.
The panther, the force against which each of the brothers is tried in turn, changes shape to meet the character of each antagonist. For Arthur, the mystic, it takes the form of malevolent reality, whose onslaught might easily have been parried by the most elementary precautions—reloading his gun and "keeping his eyes peeled." Practicality, however, is foreign to a man whose interior life is richer, more beautiful, and more hopeful than reality. For Curt, the cat assumes the mythic shape of the "black painter"; it means despair, a sense of the death of gods, or, as Arthur says, "the end of things." It means Curt's gods are his own strength and skill; when these fail him, he has no psychic resources on which to fall back and so falls into the grip of an egoistic mirage and dies. Harold, whose nature shows both mystical and practical elements, sees the panther complexly, both as wantonly destructive and harmful to the life of the ranch, but as beautiful in itself, a mysterious life force. He stalks it circumspectly and kills it reverently.
The novel seems to make the point that Arthur, identifying the cat as a brother-creature, is unable to kill it, while Curt in his self-absorption is unfit to kill it. Only Harold, whose compassion succors all the people of the ranch, and whose sense of human superiority and responsibility nurtures all the animals, is both fit and able to gain a victory over the wilderness of which the panther is a symbol. Fittingly, the cat's pelt will deck the marriage bed of Harold and Gwen, whose union is to renew the life of the ranch. The "end of everything" for Joe Sam, made all the more awful by being accomplished by the likes of Curt, is to some degree mitigated by this union of strong, earthy, yet sensitive natures.