Peter heard it first, a faint but steady cry in the thick woods 200 feet behind the house. The 8-year-old boy hiked with his brothers and sisters to the base of a sweet gum. The crying grew louder. Eighty feet up, high above the orange groves and rooftops of San Antonio, a small gray cat dug its claws into the bark. The Huron family had seen coyotes near their property and figured one had chased the cat. They also figured it would come down soon enough. They were wrong.
On Day 2, July 9, the sky blackened and the wind bent the sweet gum and surrounding pines. The cat screeched as lightning crackled and rain beat down on his fur. Still, it hung on tight.
The next morning, Anita returned to the tree with a bag of cat food. At 26, she's the oldest of the 14 Huron children, a cheerful leader who sings beautiful hymns with her four sisters at the church down the road where her father is pastor. She loves animals. If anyone could coax the cat down, it would be Anita.
No luck. The cat just meowed and that night endured another thunderstorm.
Anita returned the next day, and the next, and the next. She shook the bag of food and talked to the cat.
Night after night, the worried family lay awake as the cat cried.
"By the end of the week, it was really starting to take an emotional toll,'' offered Ana Huron, the mom. "We were so afraid the cat would die.''
They checked the bulletin board outside the tiny post office in the town square. Every now and then, somebody asks for help locating a lost pet. Not this time.
They called the fire department, across from the Mexican restaurant and next to City Hall. "The captain said he'd never seen a dead cat in a tree,'' recalled the Rev. Santiago Huron. "Sooner or later, he said, they find their way down.''
They called the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative, which has a fleet of trucks nearby. No luck again.
Meanwhile, more storms passed.
The Rev. Huron had tried not to get too involved in the crisis that now gripped his wife and children. Surely the cat would come down, and then he would be stuck with it — just like the gray and black tabby that showed up on the doorstep last May and never left.
"We don't have much money,'' he said, "and I have a lot of kids to feed. I love animals, too, but we can't afford them.''
Santiago and Ana have known each other since middle school in Lakeland. Her dad retired from the Air Force; his family had been migrant farmworkers. They married in 1984, Santiago became a minister and Ana started having babies — every year. "We agreed God will determine our family size,'' she said. And along came Anita, Joshua, Luke, Alexis, Cilicia, Olivia, Benuel, Treasure, Paul, Santi, Jon-Michael, Peter, Samuel and Titus (the youngest at 4.)
With all but Joshua still at home, survival depends on everyone pitching in. Every penny counts.
Still, as the cat endured a second week atop the sweet gum, the Rev. Huron softened. The family didn't know, but he went out back with wood, hammer and nails and constructed a crude 47-foot ladder that would take several people to move.
Would that be tall enough? Maybe, he thought, he could prop the ladder against the tree, climb to the top and convince the cat to crawl down to him.
Before taking that desperate action, he remembered attending San Antonio City Commission meetings where officials approved tree-trimming jobs. They hired Jim Storch, who has lived in town all 47 years and had his own business since 1992. The Rev. Huron called him.
Storch agreed to come by and have a look. It was July 22. His hydraulic bucket only reaches 57 feet, but Storch looked at the Huron kids and pledged to give his best effort. He showed up early on Saturday morning, parked his truck next to the sweet gum and slowly rose skyward as the Hurons and their neighbors watched.
Storch had done this before. And despite what the fire captain had said, he had found cats dead on branches. He couldn't believe this one had lasted so long. The rainstorms might have been a blessing, he said, as cats lick their fur. "That kept him going,'' Storch said.
At 57 feet, Storch began talking to the cat. "I wanted to get him used to me,'' he said. Storch held his hands upward. The cat wasted no time jumping into Storch's arms.
"This cat wants down!'' he hollered as the gallery cheered.
Anita gathered the exhausted animal in her arms. It was a male, about 2 years old. No tags. Skin and bones. "A sack of feathers,'' Anita said.
The cat had spent 15 nights in that tree, so the family named him "Quince'' — Spanish for 15.
• • •
A week after the rescue, Quince (pronounced keen-say) had the run of the Huron house. He had spent most of the time sleeping and eating but by Friday felt energetic enough to play with Ana's knitting yarn.
The Rev. Huron, pastor at Heritage Bible Church for nine years, worked on today's sermon. He had plenty of material. Everyone was glad he didn't attempt to use that homemade ladder.
This poor cat had taught the children important lessons. "Hang on, don't give up,'' their mother said as Quince rubbed along her legs and purred. "Maybe it's silly to get inspiration from a cat, but that's certainly the case here. He's a survivor. This is also a story of human kindness — Mr. Storch.''
He wouldn't take payment. Olivia made him chocolate chip cookies.