Tag Archives: kansas prairie

Notes from the carriage-room, #4

It has rained all day tonight, conferring muuuud upon the ranch. And welcome, too, all over Kansas. They have had an eastern Washington summer minus the irrigation. No more starscapes; overcast but no chance of serious thunderstorms. This isn’t twister season. Many comments about us bringing rain from Washington to Kansas. I’m willing that we might have done so. I went out to the rain gauge, .33″. Hope it rains all night so we get more.

Reflecting on the many odd juxtapositions of the carriage-room, as Deb watches Dance Moms on a TV sitting six inches below a rack of well-used saddle blankets. Horses came down from the pasture this afternoon and Deb rushed out to see them, like a girl of seven. Deer in the vineyard today, and she zipped out along the muddy driveway to try and photograph them. A little too swiftly, causing the deer to make their “stay the hell away from us, you faecolith” noise. It’s kind of a brief low sputtered moo. I wisecracked to Uncle Mike that they were fed up with paparazzi.

Tonight was Deb’s night to probe Aunt Jaque and Uncle Mike for their knowledge of the cattle industry. They described one time they took exception to a group of cowboys who treated the stock too roughly during loading. Remember, these aren’t their cattle, though it is their property and they don’t have to tolerate behavior they find unbearable. The cowboys weren’t allowed back. Looks like some family principles traverse many generations.

The power just cycled, probably to do with the rainstorm. Common event out here. Kept right on typing. Laptop battery power is a win.

A lamed old part-Dalmatian named Rowdy is having weird dreams on one of the rugs in here. He is the current beneficiary of Aunt Jaque’s Ad Hoc Homeless Animal Shelter, in which any dog or cat who can achieve this sanctuary and doesn’t belong to someone else is granted automatic lifetime employment slaying varmints (cat) or patrolling the premises and barking at everything (dog) or running the barn (cat of great agility and survival skill). I can’t even keep track of ’em all over the years.

I never gave the stone walls of this place a just description. They are limestone, a light creamy color, held together with gray mortar. Kansas limestone comes in several hues, but nearly all of it is found in strata of the same thickness. Most of the rocks are either 4″ or 8″ thick, depending on whether the rocks were quarried with care, or just picked up nearby. They make mosaics that look like state county maps if the state had a bunch of fairly elongated counties. It is routine to spot an ancient seashell in a piece of the wall, a fossil from the days when this was a massive seabed. They contrast oddly with the perfect light beige 1′ square tiles of the floor, a fairly apt metaphor for the room overall. Notice I said all four walls. Some of the interior walls of the house are stone as well.

Limestone construction is not rare in Kansas, and in the 1800s and early 1900s was quite the norm. A good many old churches, civic buildings, and the bulk of Kansas State University are built from limestone. It is an emblem. It means a great many cream-colored buildings, often in very stately and appealing architecture. And they last. Here is a good example, sitting approximately four miles from me.

This one has lasted 126 years, and it shows zero sign of failing. If in 1898 I sat where I sit now, I’d have a big horse-drawn carriage pretty much blocking the TV and harness case.

I could live with blocking the TV.

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Otis the Terrible

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 5o, 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 coming home and there was a huge kingsnake climbing that tree.  If you hear something that ought not to be there, you stop and figure it out.)

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.

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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