Back when the man of the ranch had to run the place without my sheep, milk cow, donkeys, or chickens, he did still try to keep cats. As is the case on most ranches, these were barn cats, not pets. And like most folks, he had a tough time keeping them around. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “like most folks.” Barn cat populations seem to go in one direction or the other -- too many, or too few -- and once a trajectory is established, it’s hard to reverse the course. So, for several summers in a row, the man of the ranch got a box of kittens from someone that had too many. By fall, all the kittens would be gone.
Disheartened by the lack of success, the man of the ranch eventually stopped getting his annual box of kittens, but against all odds, one cat survived that final box. Yellow Cat. Yellow Cat was a gold tabby kitten, with bright, blue eyes, but from the start he was mangy and cross-eyed and mean. How he survived was anybody’s guess, but it probably wasn’t from being soft. Months would go by with no sightings, then he would reappear with a new tear in his ears or a subtle limp -- more world weary every time.
When I arrived on the scene, Yellow Cat had been gone on walkabout, but the addition of my two pampered pet cats brought him back in a hurry. Fortunately for them they had strength in numbers, otherwise there is no way Yellow Cat would have let them stick around. An uneasy truce was reached, however, with Yellow Cat patrolling the barns and corrals, my two cats sticking closer to the house and the field to the west.
It never even occurred to me to try and tame Yellow Cat. First of all, he just looked really, really scary -- even from 10 feet away, which was as close to him as anybody ever got. Second of all, I had the sneaking suspicion if I got much closer he might just claw my face off, so I kept my distance.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you already know about Roxy, the teenage runaway who appeared one spring evening, and the love affair that began between her and Yellow Cat. Now Roxy was relatively easy to tame, and since I stopped by the barn often to hang out with her, I inevitably got closer to Yellow Cat, who was always lurking nearby in the shadows. The fact that I was out there twice a day with bowls of kibble did not soften him up at all, and he scratched me more than once when I put said bowl of kibble too close to one of his hiding spots. Yellow Cat, even in love, was not about to become friendly with the likes of me.
Roxy and Yellow Cat’s romantic relationship ended tragically with the birth of Roxy’s kittens, who appeared to be direct descendents of one of my house cats, and not Yellow Cat’s after all. Roxy still tried to snuggle up to him at meals, but he would turn his back, hissing and spitting at her advances. His heart had been broken, and he could not forgive her.
Now here is where the story takes a strange turn. This crotchety, old cat, having opened his heart only to have it shattered, must have learned a little something about love. After experiencing the sweetness of companionship, he could not go back to his stoic bachelor ways. But who was there for him to love?
Turned out a tumbling, bumbling Great Pyrenees puppy fit the bill; Yellow Cat fell for Ellie like a bag a bricks. He would follow her around the yard calling out in a mournful tone, until she would wheel around and bound back, body checking him into the ground, and covering him with puppy slobber. She loved to playfully chew on him like his was a juicy bone while he purred, and we would regularly see her carrying him across the yard, his whole head in her mouth. This set up a terrible precedent with the kittens, who she also took to mauling and chewing till they were just muddy balls of fur, but the kittens would run away as soon as they could escape. Yellow Cat, on the other hand, would cry out, “Come back, come back!” if Ellie grew tired of the game.
You have to marvel sometimes at the way things turn out. Roxy disappeared over the summer, leaving her kittens behind. Of course I fed the kittens, and snuggled with them from time to time, but the bulk of kitten care was taken over by Yellow Cat. These days, when Yellow Cat isn’t chasing Ellie, or being dragged by the head, we spot him sunning himself with the kittens by the barn, or resting with them in the shade of the lilacs by the shed. At mealtimes, he always lets them eat first, standing back just a little, watching carefully. It’s been months since he was gone for any length of time. He has mellowed, that’s for sure.
I’ve always believed love can transform and heal us if we let it. Sometimes I think it might be the only thing that really can. Perhaps it’s true, even for wild, rugged tomcats. At any rate, Yellow Cat is different -- maybe wiser, maybe happier, a certainly a loner no longer. We are lucky to have him as part of our quirky clan. It is a good reminder that it's never too late to for an old cat to learn a few new tricks.
**Now that it is deep winter I feed the barn cats with mittens on. This has given me the opportunity to try petting Yellow Cat with some padding to protect myself. I can’t say he likes it, but he tolerates it. Assuming I have already poured the food in his bowl. Meanwhile, Ellie’s cat wrangling tactics have become routine for the next generation and they seem even to like it. It is a rare day tone of the kittens isn’t sighted being carried around the yard, and yet, when we try to distract Ellie, they no longer run away! Ah, the mysteries of animal friendship…**