He was a barn cat, half wild, half tame. When his life hung in the balance, which half saved him?
As usual, I let the cats out a few minutes after sunrise on that Sunday last July. We live at the end of the old town road on a hilltop surrounded by the area’s last great forest. Until recently, that seemed like a blessing. But only two of the three cats came back that day. Rufus didn’t show. That same afternoon our closest neighbor called to say he saw a coyote cross the road at the bottom of our hill. The dogs and I tramped through the woods looking for Rufus until way after dark, until the bugs and a sinking feeling drove us home.
We were never cat people until we plucked a pair of red kitties from my wife’s family’s 200-year-old barn in northern Maine six years ago. Much later we added a third barn cat to the menagerie. The toughness of a barn cat, plus his loyalty if you’ve earned it, is something to behold. I felt lousy that Rufus, the sweetest, most gentle of the gang, had come to his end as something’s supper.
That night I heard a noise in the woods got up, and went outside on the deck in my undershorts. I had my grandfather’s .22 with me. I knew that if a coyote had dispatched Rufus, he was only following his instincts. Yet we’d cleared this land, and these cats belonged to us. Whatever was out there had attacked the sanctity of our little fortress — it had crossed a line. I called at the darkness and got no answer. I sat out there for two more hours waiting to get a bead on the killer. My wife finally talked me back to bed.
We did the usual things, put up signs, asked around. Then, three days after Rufus had vanished, I noticed the dogs and cats sitting by a bush looking at something. I went out and found Rufus, apparently taking a nap in the shade. I picked him up. The stench almost leveled me. His chest was completely ripped open, shoulder to shoulder. One leg dangled by a loose muscle. I could see his heart beating beneath his ribs.
The vet, when she saw him, went pale. She’d never seen an animal so savagely attacked survive. At best he would lose the leg and probably die of the infection. We talked about putting him down. In the end Rufus went into surgery and I said my good-byes.
Four days later the vet called to announce a miracle – her word exactly. They’d pumped Rufus full of antibiotics and sewed him up, and he was walking around the hospital charming the pants off the attendants. Two weeks later he came home, shaved, scrawny, sewed up like a football, a rubber drainpipe dangling from his chest. The leg had been saved. He limped into the kitchen, exchanged an obligatory sniff with his pals, then jumped onto the counter to be fed.
We still have no idea what Rufus met in the woods or how he escaped it. More intriguing to me is this: Was it his toughness or his gentleness that finally saved him? Beats me. On summer nights, though, with everyone safe and asleep, I confess I still lie awake listening. A line has been crossed. I’ll rise and go out there with the gun hoping for a glimpse of the truth. But I really have no idea if I’ll have the right, or the nerve, to pull the trigger.
Excerpt from “Rufus Resurrected,” Yankee Magazine, July 1991.