Joe’s hands came in contact with the fur of the cat’s back. He gently stroked the animal, murmuring:
“Come on now, Peter! Let go! Loosen your claws! I’m not going to hurt you. Let me pick you up!”
Again it is hard to say that the cat knew what Joe was saying, but it certainly made its body less tense. The claws were loosed. Joe straightened up, holding the cat in his arms. He could feel its heart beating like some overworked motor.
A roar arose from the crowd, but it was instantly hushed. The throng seemed to realize that the return journey was infinitely more perilous than the outward one had been.
Joe could not turn. He must walk backward to the window, carrying the cat, which at any moment might become wild and scramble from his arms, upsetting his balance.
Yet Joe Strong never faltered.
THE FIRE ACT
Realizing that he must use every caution, Joe Strong had two things to think of. One was himself, and the other the cat. He could not carry the creature in his arms, as he needed to extend them to balance himself. He had walked short distances along slack wires without doing this, but in those cases he had been able to run, and his speed made up for the lack of balancing power of the extended arms. Now, however, he needed to observe this precaution.
What could he do with the cat?
In that moment of peril a boyhood scene arose to Joe’s mind. He recalled that on the farm where he had lived there was a pet cat which liked to crawl up his back and curl on his shoulders, stretching out completely across them and snuggling against the back of his head.
“If I can get this cat to do that I’ll be all right,” thought Joe. “I’ll try it.”
Balancing himself, he changed the cat’s position and put it up on his shoulder. Even if it rested on only one it would leave his hands free and he could extend his arms and balance himself. But Peter seemed to know just what was wanted of him. With a little “mew,” the animal took the very position Joe wanted it to—extended along his back, close to his head.
And not until then did Joe begin to step backward. Breathlessly the crowd watched him. Step by step he went, feeling for the wire on which he placed his feet. And each step made him more confident.
The crowd was silently watching. It was reserving its wild applause.
Step by step Joe walked backward until he heard the low voice of the woman at the open window.
“Shall I take Peter now?” she asked.
“Can you reach him?” asked Joe. He knew he was close to the building.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Then do,” said Joe. “He may try to spring off when he sees himself so close to you. Take him. I’ll stand still a moment.”
He felt the cat stirring. The next instant he was relieved of Peter’s weight, and then, with a quick turning motion, Joe himself was half way within the window and sitting on the sill.