The wild one

He first came following the great Armistice Day blizzard of 1940 -- a sudden explosion of wild wind and thick, blinding snow.

As I hung the lantern in the cowbarn at milking-time, I glimpsed an unfamiliar movement halfway down the horizontal row of two-by-fours to which the tops of the stanchions were fastened. Peering into the gloom, I saw a cat: big, dark-gray, crouched in a tense immobility as he watched me. I'd never seen him before. He'd evidently sought refuge in the barn from the punishing cold and deep-drifted snow.

I started toward the cow I always milked first. At my second step, the cat uncoiled and flashed up into the hayloft. Wild!

Milking progressed. While stripping my last cow, I glanced at the place where I'd spotted the cat. He had returned - as silent, as tensely immobile, as suspiciously scrutinizing me as at first. I finished, rose, and walked to the milk-can by the door to empty my milk. As I lifted the cover of the can, I looked back at the cat again. He's hungry, I thought. He probably hasn't had anything to eat since the blizzard hit.

I searched that corner of the barn and found a bent old pan. After wiping it out with a handful of hay, I set it by the milk-can, picked up my pail, and poured the pan full. ''There, kitty,'' I announced. ''That's to let you know you're welcome.''

At milking-time next morning, I found the pan empty. The cat crouched where he had been the previous evening -- still silent, immobile, unblinkingly watching me -- but less tensely than at our initial meeting, I judged. Still, when I approached, he unleashed himself to scramble up the hay-chute and disappear. One pan of milk wasn't going to win his trust. Bitter experience may have taught him that milk in a pan did not necessarily equate with human kindness.

He maintained that distance for over a week. Although he seemed to regard me as a nonbelligerent, it showed no sign of his having intended to consider me as a friend. Not once did he in any way answer my greetings or goodbyes, allow me within ten feet of him, or desist from keenly watching my every move.

Then, one evening as I moved to milk my first cow, he did not scurry to the hayloft, but stayed atop the stanchion-bars, though plainly doubtful about the prudence of doing so. I walked past without a glance at him. Later, when I came to the cow above whose head he perched, he rose but did not flee; and I got my first closeup look at him.

Beyond a doubt, he was a wild cat, not just some stray from a neighbor's farm. The scars of battle his gaunt body bore testified to encounters more dangerous and desperate than the usual donnybrooks of domesticated cats. A mere six-inch stub of tail remained. His left forefoot was pawless (snapped off in a trap?) and the top quarter of his right ear had been bitten or chewed off.

Close to another week passed -- until, as I milked one morning, I heard an unfamiliar sound behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw the cat standing on the floor two feet away -- and meowing! At least, I surmised that that's what he was doing, for the sound resembled none I'd ever heard from a cat before: much lower-pitched, growly almost, and more sustained than the usual feline's vocalization, but plainly conveying a note of gruff goodwill. As if to prove my conclusion valid, he cautiously edged nearer until he was alongside me, then rubbed back and forth against the cow's leg -- and commenced purring!

As final proof of his willingness to establish amicable relations with me, he followed me to the milk-can when I'd finished milking and waited while I poured his panful of milk. That he stood four feet away while I poured, and that he remained at that distance until I had left the barn, did nothing to diminish my delight.

Amicable he would be; but intimate, no. The winter finally waned; the sun returned with warmth instead of just light. And one morning the gray cat was gone. Now and then, through the greening of spring and on into the hot harvest-time that at last mellowed into autumn, I'd wonder if I'd ever see him again. Back in his chosen wilderness, he knew, I supposed, that he'd better think wild, act wild, and be wild if he wanted to survive. He couldn't take time for an occasional sociable call.

Winter, '41: snow, wind, cold. And one morning, when I swung open the barn door, I heard again the wild gray cat's gruff greeting and saw him sitting in his usual place on the stanchion-bars. He did not remain there, however, but jumped down and advanced along the row of cows with the peculiar lopsided, lurching gait that his shortened forefoot dictated. His purr rumbled; and, although he stopped short of me, his stubby tail waved in genial greeting. I noted with relief that he had come through the months since he'd left without further physical damage. And I hoped that more than the memory of warm milk and a snug bed in the hay or straw during sub-zero weather had drawn him back.

I derived a curious pleasure from the cat's presence. He was company while I milked, and he made one additional gesture that showed me he now considered me a friend. When I was milking or when I was pouring his pan of milk, he would come and rub against my legs, purring all the while. But never would he allow me to touch him.

Come spring, he again disappeared without forewarning or farewell. I was not surprised, or disappointed, when no welcoming meow greeted my entering the barn one morning.

The next winter, the cat did not return. I never saw him again. The wild world that exists in fields, pastures, and woods knows what happened to him; I do not. But I do not think that he took to wintering in someone else's barn. I do not think that he was alive when winter came. If he had been, I like to think that he would have come back to the place where he knew he had found not just a winter habitation, but a home. . .

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