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Buster’s Tale

Something is wrong. While returning home up our long country driveway, the overview of the ranch house and yard disturbs me. Something’s amiss that I can’t quite finger. Out of the car and looking around, I spot it. Two breakfast cereal bowls are beside the garage apron that none of us had put there. On our door I find a note left by some friends who had dropped by.”We found this starving cat while visiting the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Zoo folks said they’d ‘take the stray to be put to sleep.’ Too nice a cat for that. We can’t take him home with us and with your ranch and all, thought you might like him.”I’m annoyed. “If we wanted a cat, we’d have a cat,” I say crisply to no one in particular. Striding around outside with stern countenance and sharp gaze, I find the stray. Rack-of-hide-covered bones with pelvis prominent, a huge black cat regards me with apprehension. Arms crossed, I give him my best tight-lipped, level stare. A submissive cat slowly looks down, but his wasted sere muscles are tensed for flight.Quietly lowering to my haunches I call to him. Hesitantly, silently he comes. He’s all black and two-feet long from nose to rump, not including tail. Quite a large tomcat, emaciated or not. He rubs my hand and starts purring, then sits facing me with his front feet about 5 inches apart. A chesty fellow. I stroke his back gently. Getting up, I turn on my heel and return to the house. Such a tough guy. Moments later I return to ply him with a can of tuna.That night, our cat-dropping friends call. “He’s such a nice cat, but we couldn’t keep him. We hope you’re not annoyed.””Annoyed – ha! You bring a stray cat to our house unannounced, then let yourselves in to get our dishes and tuna to make sure that the stray hangs around! Annoyed? This is beyond annoying, this is amusing!” They start mumbling apologies. I ask them to stop, it’s alright.Ilene, ever practical, interjects: “If they’re going to dump a stray on us, it has to be adoptable. Ask them if they’ll pay for neutering, worming and shots.” And so arrangements are made.The cat seems to prefer the company of people, and our kids love him. Jessie, 4-year-old, announces without hesitation that she shall call him “Buster,” and so Buster he is. Ilene rustles up a cat carrier and takes Buster to the vet to get “fixed.” (Well, broken, actually when you think about it.) As a very large Buster calmly exits the cat carrier on the examination table, the vet exclaims: “Goodness! How long is this cat? From the zoo, you say? Maybe he’s an escaped panther!”We are told that Buster is young and really quite healthy, aside from his starvation. His healthy weight we soon discover is 20 pounds. Well mannered as he is, Buster does have a problem. He sheds profusely and constantly. Summer or winter, Buster manufactures surplus cat hair. Consider the surface area of a 20-pound cat.Banished from the house, Buster accepts being an outside cat with aplomb. Unflappable, he is my constant companion while I do ranch chores. Running a noisy circular saw? That’s fine, Buster sits and watches. Under the tractor or truck with a grease gun or changing oil? Expect purring head-butts from a large silent fellow. I find that any ranch chore I do, Buster shadows me just wanting to be near. Usually I can tell when he’s nearby from his rumbling, 20-pound cat’s purr. Friends tease me about being a “cat person.” I just smile. Buster helps with rodent control and his personality is worth more than any teasing I might endure.Years pass and other barn cats are acquired. They all have names, all are “fixed” and all get along because of big, gentle Buster. They use him as a sofa and he is the hub of the wheel of their cat society. The barn cats may not all like each other, but they all love Buster, who is invariably calm and gentle.We rescued a tiny orange kitten. Her new surroundings and the hissing barn cats leave her rigidly afraid and confused. Fearing she might be run off, I find Buster lying on his back in the sun and place the kitten on his chest. Without a moment’s hesitation, he enfolds her in huge paws and begins purring and licking her ears. One day a chicken absently crowded Buster away from his food bowl. Stupid chicken. Cats are pointy in five different places! With one swipe of a huge paw, Buster could loft that chicken sailing in an arc, like a feathered volleyball over the roof of the barn. A squawk and puff of plumage slowly drifting to earth would be the only evidence that the chicken had even existed! Buster just sits benignly and watches the chicken eat.Sunny spring ranch days and the songs of meadow larks give way to the sough of tall summer grasses. Calves are born before the golden hills of autumn each year. Then winter’s icy blasts and drifts of pristine snow come covered in crystals to scatter the low sunlight of deep blue-shadowed short days. The seasons link and surrender gracefully, one to the next. Our 4-year-old little girl has turned 14.An old cat now, Buster’s mousing days are done. These days, he’s a danger only to miller moths and grasshoppers. Still my constant outside companion, I notice his breathing has a wheezy rumble. Buster is sick. The vet says no pneumonia, just an old cat with a cold. We give Buster some pills and set him up in the cat’s dog house with a heating pad under his bed.I never was a cat person. I’d always looked upon animals that don’t earn their keep on the ranch as a needless burden. A realization dawns within me that Buster isn’t just an animal. Buster is a friend. And my friends don’t have to earn their keep with me. In this often nettlesome world our animal friends just love us. They’re not mad because they have to live outside or miffed if my busy-ness means they’re ignored for days at a time. There is no guile to their love. “Let me be near you,” they seem to say. A kind word, a touch is all they want.Ilene and the kids are already asleep. I finish up some paperwork and close down the house for the night. Outside, the barnyard glows softly under cold blue-white starlight and a silvery, curving crescent moon riding high. Stepping out into the cool still night air, I check on Buster and the kitties that still use him as a couch. Satisfied all is well and slipping into bed quietly next to my sleeping bride, I drift off with a smile. Buster is warm tonight. He’ll be OK.Tom

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