It was hard when the cows left Wade’s Ranch. For all the fundamental difference between my vegetarian heart and Gene and Sharon’s cattle ranching heritage, never once had I questioned their love for those cows, the land, the wildlife they shared it with, the life that had begun for them when their parents were homesteading ranchers of North Park.
It was Sharon who taught me how to cook on a wood stove, do laundry in a wringer washer, to save plate scrapings for her sister’s pig. It was Sharon who would call from down below to let me know when a herd of elk or a pair of moose were headed my way to be sure I got up from my desk to see them. It was Gene who taught me how to ride into the gullies to find a lost cow and calf, who explained that a cow bawling for days on end was grieving the death of her baby, who would stop on the spring cattle drive to pick up tired calves and carry them the rest of the way to summer pasture slung over the front of his saddle.
But advancing age was moving in with a great deal of unwelcome baggage. Gene’s eyesight and hearing were becoming a dim memory. It was time to figure out how to rewrite 80 years of daily scheduling that began before dawn and ended after sunset with unrelenting chores determined by the season. From tending the irrigation ditch to midnight calls to calving; from branding and castrating to moving the herd on horseback 12 miles to summer grazing and back again two months later with putting up tons of hay in between; from weaning and shipping to feeding through eight months of snow by horse drawn sleigh and snowmobile, in temperatures commonly well below -20°F.
No one could imagine what it was going to be like for the cows to be gone, but we all silently dreaded it. Once my llama herd took up summer residency on the eastern slope of the ranch, and a neighboring rancher leased the hay fields and the west slope for his own cows, it seemed possible that summer chores of checking on the new tenants and repairing fences would fill in some of the gaps. It was winter that we all worried about. A few horses, a couple of little donkeys and a barn cat were not going to fill the days. During that first cowless winter, Gene and Sharon experienced boredom for the first time in their lives.
As promised, summer was better. There were still pelicans to be chased from the fishing ponds, and irrigation headgates requiring maintenance. But as August rolled around, the nights became bitter cold with the announcement that winter was on its way home. I began to worry about the quiet stretch ahead again for Gene and Sharon.
Then came the call from Sharon asking me what to feed a newborn kitten. I knew she didn’t mean what kind of formula should she buy at the local pet store. First of all, the nearest pet store was 60 miles away. Secondly, it was unlikely she had a commercial product in mind.
And then there was that other issue. Cats are not enormously popular among ranchers in North Park. Don’t get me wrong – the value of a barn cat or two for controlling the mouse population is recognized. But cats as pets or companions or something worth saving from death is not typically part of the ranching mentality.
“A newborn kitten?” I asked.
“Maybe a couple of weeks old,” she said. “It’s eyes are open, but it’s just skin and bones. Gene was helping out with haying down in Coalmont, and they were complaining about some dying cats. We went looking for them. When we found them, the mother was gone and the entire litter was dead except one, which is barely alive.”
Sharon had that tone in her voice. The one that disapproved of whatever had happened at the Coalmont ranch that left a litter of kittens for dead.
“Gene and I were not about to leave it there to die along with the rest.”
Her disgust at cat mistreatment delighted me, but my heart sank. It isn’t easy to save the life of a pre-weaned kitten under the best of circumstances. To do so with homegrown remedies makes it harder. But I loved the steely resolve coming through the phone. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that chances were high the kitten wouldn’t make it.
Thank goodness for the electronic booster that gives me Internet access, and for the breadth of knowledge floating around in cyberspace to supplement my own personal experience with being a kitten nursemaid. Without ever getting off the phone, I was able to find Sharon a kitten formula that could be made with ingredients any self-respecting rancher would have in her pantry. And while I was searching it out, I gave her a list of things she needed to do for this feline orphan that included frequent feedings clock round and genital stimulation with a warm wet cloth after every one of those feedings, to prevent constipation that would prove fatal.
That was it. I called the next day and the day after that to learn that the kitten was still alive. My own schedule was tight, so even trips up to the mountain to check on llamas didn’t give me time to actually see the kitten for almost a week. Finally, after one of those checks, I made it off the mountain as the sun finished setting.
A bitter breeze pushed me through Gene and Sharon’s back door. The small house was warm and quiet, the television humming softly from the main room. I called out, took off my boots, and headed inside. Gene said hi and Sharon got up immediately to make me a cup of tea. I sighed at the stillness of the room. I didn’t want to hear about how the kitten had succumbed to its fate, so I didn’t ask. I took a seat at the kitchen table and summoned up some conversation.
Just as I began to talk about the cold and the shrinking daylight, up popped a tiny gray head over the sill of the sunken bedroom beside me. All head and ears and eyes, his body still working on catching up, the kitten scrambled through the doorway and charged across the room.
“He’s alive!” I was stunned.
“Oh yes,” Sharon said, as if there had never been any doubt he would be. “We named him Sammy.”
Sammy careened around the cook stove, crash landed in the sitting area, then clawed his way up Gene’s pant leg to land in his lap and begin chewing on his shirt buttons. Gene laughed, Sharon scolded, I sipped my tea in wonder. Just a week after being plucked from death, the kitten’s belly was round and taut, he could drink and eat on his own, and faced everything around him with big cat importance.
That’s how everything changed. Gene and Sharon’s quiet home of retirement exploded with new, unexpected life uncommon to a common ranch house in North Park. Flying to the door to greet every guest, racing around the house and attacking every shoelace, Sammy the kitten loves people unabashedly, having no concept of the human race’s culpability in his near-death experience or his orphaned status.
But of course, he’s not orphaned. He has Gene and Sharon. And they have him. And while he isn’t a herd of cows, he brought enough energy back to Wade’s Ranch to almost feel like a full time job. Young and old, fast and slowing down, it’s all so unlikely — and utterly meant to be.