Today’s story is about a cat. Some of it is interpolated and presumed, but of the start and finish no doubts exist.
My family come from the Flint Hills of Kansas, which I still call my homeland. I miss home. We drove back there once, and as we crossed the line from Nebraska into Kansas, I wept. Something about that limestone and black gumbo must be in my body chemistry.
Now, to outsiders, the Flint Hills look mostly like dull, quiet rolling pasture with rock outcroppings and not a whole lot going on.
If that’s what they see, they’re hoodwinked. The Flint Hills seethe with life, a constant food chain battling for survival in what can be a hard land. All sorts of varmints: mice, rats, voles, and whatever else crawls under the ground. Kingsnakes. Prairie rattlers. Raccoons. Rabbits. Coyotes. Deer. Bobcats. Hawks, owls, eagles, prairie chickens, birds of prey and prey birds. Badgers. Impound reservoirs full of fish. Turtles. It is no place for an unguarded baby animal unless you want it eaten by morning. When you walk in the Flint Hills, you keep an eye out. Something might happen.
One day some years back, a terrible thing occurred. The neighbors’ cat over east had eight kittens, and all was well until one afternoon when the neighbor was driving his SUV down US 50, heading west toward Strong City. The family ranch is about a mile and a half north of the highway. The neighbor saw some sort of movement in a mirror, things evidently fallen from the vehicle, and pulled over. The whole clutch of kittens, turned out, had crawled up into the engine compartment before he left home. They were falling out all over the highway.
He accounted for seven, mostly dead. He never found #8. No idea what the hell happened to that cat. Word got around, of course, and it was unfortunate, but that was that. The Flint Hills are hard on cats. It’s cattle country, and a dead kitten is less of a big deal than a dead calf.
About one week later, my Uncle Mike was pulling up out front of the carriage-room (it is still called that) around dusk. There was a cedar tree out front of the old stone ranch house in those days. Mike, who along with my Aunt Jaque has loved and adopted animals as long as I’ve known him, heard a high, faint, thin mewing nearby. By long reflex, he froze. (One time we were just getting out of the car after coming home and there was a huge kingsnake climbing that tree.)
Pretty soon Mike identified an emaciated grey kitten up in the tree, needle claws dug into the bark. It could only be #8. The little cat was starved, dehydrated and unlikely to survive the night. Over the course of the week, he had traversed a mile and a half of pasture and woods, somehow finding ways night and day to evade the dozens of creatures to which a kitten looks like the Pizza Hut truck–and the nocturnal hunters are the deadliest. What did he find to eat? How did he survive showing his whiskers at the creek or pond, which draws prey and predator? How’d the cat know to come to the one surest place in Chase County to care for him?
We can’t know. What was obvious: he had proven his survival skills and instincts to any standard of satisfaction you might concoct. Mike called the neighbors, who said he was welcome to keep the kitten. Otis, as my relatives dubbed him, quickly became a feisty little feline, bothering and pestering the stately elderly lady cats of the house. He would lie in wait to pounce on them, and when they’d had enough, they’d just give him the facepaw and let him flail at the air. I could tell from his agility (amazing even by the elevated species standards) that Otis was going to be a barn cat. We have three large stone barns, and they are patrolled by half-wild cats who mostly catch their own food. You need barn cats. Varmints like barns.
The next time I saw Otis, he was a grey spectre up near the barns, a huge wily tom with the self-assured air of survivorhood and prairie-smarts. He must be getting older by now, but I suspect he’s still up there hunting varmints, scoffing at raccoons and confounding coyotes. Otis is a survivor, and has been since the day he fell or jumped out of an engine compartment to make his own way in the world.
Two years later… Otis has passed on. I’m glad I got to see the old boy a few more times before that happened. Farewell, Otis, as you take charge of barns in a different world.
© 2013, J.K. Kelley
Addendum: as an editor who has since had a good conversation with Uncle Mike about the subject of Otis, I remembered a detail or two slightly wrong, but not many. Otis was a fantastic cat who spent his last year in semi-retirement, mostly in the house. I am glad I knew him as a feisty kitten.