The late afternoon sun ignited the meadow grass with a golden fringe of light in the gentle hills above the little town of Rainier, that sits on the bank of the mighty Columbia river. Maikitty, the big’s large black cat, listened to the voice of the big – who carrying a pail in his left hand and swinging a coal oil lantern from his right arm, was whistling and calling Mellow, the cow.
“Wa… wallow, wallow, wallow (Here Mellow, Mellow, Mellow), Wa wallow, wallow, wallow (Here Mellow, Mellow, Mellow),” he sang.
Mellow welcomed the sounds that signaled the final milking of the day. For her it meant that a delicious meal awaited her in the gray, weather-beaten barn.
Maikitty had spent a large part of her day having fun chasing grasshoppers, though she preferred go after the flying ants silhouetted against the deep blue near-sunset sky. She could never figure out where they were going or why they flew at this time of day.
Flying ants were a challenge for her. To reach them in flight she had to leap high into the air … a game she called, “Jumping Cat”. When she did manage to swat one and knock it to the ground, it would try to say something to her. Maikitty didn’t know what. Its tiny voice was barely audible even to her sensitive ears… ears that could hear the tiptoes of small a mouse. But never mind, she was fairly certain that she wouldn’t be able to understand what it was saying anyway. She never intended to hurt the ant… They were just a necessary part of the Jumping Cat game. Almost always the stunned ant would crawl over a clod or two and then flutter its gauzy winds and take to the air and disappear.
She enjoyed creeping through tall grass scaring up a flock of pheasants, surprising skittish garter snakes slithering through briers and scaring ugly moles digging tunnels under the turf. Other bugs inhabiting the weeds and underbrush were less of a challenge for her. She was content to catch them and let them go.
Now, she lounged by the artesian spring that bubbled in the shade of the Douglas fir growing not a hundred feet from the barn. She called this game, “Lounging Cat.”
As Maikitty heard the singing, she opened one eye enough to see the big approaching the barn. She yawned, rose to her feet and stretched – arching her back like a Halloween cat ready to scare whatever was near. But she was not Halloween and she had no intention of scaring anyone. She was just arching her back to take the stiffness out the vertebrae.
She’d done her pouncing earlier in the day, isolating and catching Beep the tiny gray mouse, who lived in the barn. But, Maikitty didn’t hurt Beep either. She just played a game with him over and over again that she called, “Run-and-Catch.”
Beep pretended he didn’t like the attention Maikitty paid him, but he did. He and Maikitty were really quite fond of each other. And, Beep did a lot of thinking of ways he could get back at Maikitty. Once he managed to tie Maikitty’s whiskers together and it took Maikitty a long time to get them untangled. At first, she was angry at Beep and wanted to punish him, but she remembered that he had done it in fun and justice demanded that he get away with it.
Another time, while Maikitty lay slumbering in the haymow, Beep tickled her nose with one of Browse Owl’s feathers. And, once he sneaked onto Maikitty’s back and held on while she ran helter-skelter trying to dislodge him. Beep was sore for several days after that though, because he ended up landing in the wild blackberry patch.
Maikitty stretched her four legs one at a time then began floating toward the barn. Mellow was already at her stanchion where, sure enough, small bundles of sweet fescue awaited her. Cracks between the boards in the western side of the barn admitted shafts of bright sun that fell in a regular pattern on the barn wall a few feet beyond the gentle cow. Above a bale of hay in the corner, a spider web was etched in brilliant light against the dark shadows. Amber the resident spider, rested near the web’s periphery anticipating a visit from an unsuspecting insect.
Maikitty entered the barn in time to see the big set his lantern on a low bench against the back wall. He closed the stanchion, settled on his three-legged stool and began milking Mellow.
The agile cat padded past the big and jumped on the bale of hay. In doing so she dislodged Amber’s web anchor causing it to collapse and encase the annoyed spider in it. It would take Amber half a day to extricate herself and rebuild her formidable trap. Maikitty called this game, “Bother the Web”.
“If it isn’t the clumsy cat, it’s the pesky mouse,” Amber mumbled with displeasure. Someone or something was always damaging or destroying her handiwork. Still, the dark haunts of the barn were all she had ever known and all she ever wanted. Bigs, cats, cows, rats, mice, sparrows, owls and roosters were familiar creatures to her. As annoying as it was to have to keep repairing her web, she would continue do so.
Encountering Amber’s labyrinth wasn’t exactly pleasant for Maikitty either. The steel like strands of web latched onto her whiskers and wrapped across her mouth and eyes. Maikitty called this part of the game, “Annoy the Cat.”
“Why can’t you put your pesky web up in the rafters?” Maikitty asked.
“You see any flies up there?” Amber answered waiting for Maikitty to get out of the way so she could re-secure an anchor point.
Maikitty jumped down from the bale and moved next to the big’s left leg knowing he would soon let her have it with a stream of milk, and she wanted to be there. She didn’t know whether the big squirted her for fun or to make sure she got her share of milk … whichever… it didn’t matter to her because she loved the taste of warm milk. No matter that the squirts went all over her face, into her ears, down her front paws, on her back – well – everywhere. When it was all done, she could leisurely lick herself clean. Maikitty called this game, “Squirting the Cat.”
The barn was Maikitty’s queendom. She hadn’t planned it that way, it’s just that she was a cat and being king or queen is what they do. And, since she was queen, it made sense that every other creature living in the barn be treated as her subjects.
Docile Mellow was no exception. Even though the big cow gave Maikitty queenly respect, Maikitty knew how to spook Mellow, especially when she was in the barn… Mellow came into the barn only at milking time or to get out of inclement weather. All it took was for Maikitty to emit a sudden screeching meow or a severe arching of her back in front of the unsuspecting cow would send the big animal loping for the exit or make her freeze in place. Maikitty called this game, “Spooking the Cow.”
Beep put up with Maikitty’s roughing ups and merciless teasing. His funny squeaks let Maikitty know he was confident she wouldn’t hurt him. Owl called him the court jester – Beep thought that must be good. He was fairly certain that he could live in the barn as long as his antics pleased the queen.
Amber complained about having her webs constantly mutilated and having to stay clear of Maikitty’s paws, but having the big cat in control made Amber feel secure.
Maikitty didn’t much like having Karl, a scrounge rat, occupying space in the barn. He was sneaky. He always showed his teeth, which made him look like he was grinning.
“He’s grinning at me,” Maikitty concluded. “Well, if he is… and worst comes to worst, I know how to handle Karl.”
Well, Karl was too big to play “Run an Catch,” but Maikitty chased him anyway… just for fun. Karl enjoyed teasing Maikitty too. He could slip along the base of one side of the barn and disappear into a crack and out of sight as quick as Maikitty could swish her tail. Maikitty called this game, “Tail the Rat.” No, she didn’t like Karl much, but he was part of the barn family. Most of the time he remained hold-up in his cozy nest behind the tool storage box in one corner of the barn.
Browse, the noisy horned owl, occupied a perch on one of the rafters. She bothered Maikitty only in the early mornings when she couldn’t resist hooting. Still, Maikitty itched to get at her and rough her up like she did Beep, but never could. Maikitty called this game, “Sneak up on the Owl.” Owls are smart. Browse’s mouth watered when she saw Beep or Karl out in the open on the barn floor, but she never went after them. They were part of the barn family. She found her food and sport elsewhere.
The three sparrows, Flutter, Buzzer and Snatcher, flitted here and there near the apex of the roof. Quite often they deliberately attempted to bomb Maikitty with distasteful and unsightly droppings. Occasionally they hit their mark, but most of the time they missed. Maikitty tried her best to get to the sparrows and to get them to discipline themselves, but so far she only managed to get a mouthful of feathers.
“Some day!” Maikitty growled. She called this game, “Watch out Birds.”
Scratch, the scrawny rooster, strutted around outside the barn clawing at the dry ground in search of tasty seeds. Occasionally, he would forget he was not always welcome in Maikitty’s domain – he never knew how the bossy cat would react to him. He would stroll through the gaping opening looking for more fertile pickings, especially, bugs. Most of the time when Maikitty spied him, a hissing confrontation followed. Scratch would vigorously flap his wings, helter-skelter, in an attempt to avoid the claws of the annoyed cat and most of the time he did. Maikitty called this game, “Ruling the Rooster.” Even when Maikitty caught Scratch, she didn’t hurt him. She just mauled him a bit to keep him in line… dutifully subservient.
The barn family had carried on their familiar routines day after day as long as any of them could remember. Although they never talked about it, it was clear that each would be confused to have his rituals changed very much.
Cats are known to be fastidiously clean, and Maikitty was no exception. Several times each day she settled into a shady spot somewhere and lick her fur coat until every speck of dirt was gone. It annoyed her that most of the other barn residents didn’t feel the same way. Amber and Beep seemed to be clean enough. But Karl and the sparrows were especially dirty. Maikitty was glad the big cleaned the barn floor once in a while.
The sun had sunk beneath the crest of trees to the west. The shafts of sunlight coming through the cracks had disappeared. The light from the big’s lantern provided a soft dancing yellowish glow. Beep joined Maikitty to await the avalanche of milk. There would be enough in pockets on the ground for the tiny mouse to drink his fill.
Suddenly the big burst into song, “A dag e glippet slandorine … a dag e glippet dune… gliley blubernn queel dunne. (Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day… everything’s going my way).”
Maikitty opened her mouth knowing that, when the song was sung, the milk would flow.
Sunset was Scratch’s roosting time. He’d soon be heading for his favorite fir branch and falling asleep. If he worked it right, he could sneak into the barn and gobble up specks of food while Maikitty was preoccupied with getting milk. His timing had to be just right. He strutted into the barn. He didn’t want himself to get squirted, but he loved watching the cat and mouse getting a milk bath. He knew that Maikitty’s attention was on getting her milk and that she wouldn’t notice him scratching for specks of food in the barn floor dirt.
“A yell du dell, e dell e mmmmen, (The mist of May is in the glooming …)” the big sang.
Maikitty and Beep got their fill of fresh milk. As the big was nearing the end of his milking, the voice of another big sounded through the semidarkness.
“Wawa wa wawa wa wawa,” the voice yelled and even more forcefully, “Wawa, quwa!” The big sprang to his feet, patted Mellow on the rump and dashed out the barn door swinging the pail at his side. The barn inhabitants looked at one another. They didn’t know what the distant big had said, but apparently it had alarmed the milking big enough to make him suddenly leave the barn. Not just leave the barn, but leave without taking the lantern.
Ordinarily, the big would have opened the stanchion and let Mellow out, but in his haste he even forgot to do that. With the milking done and the fescue devoured, Mellow expected to be released and sent out of the barn to spend the night sleeping on a patch of sword fern at the edge of the forest.
“Hey, Maikitty. Can you get this yoke off me?” Mellow asked.
“I don’t know… I’ll try.” Maikitty said moving around behind Mellow and jumping onto the hay bale. In doing so she came face to face with Scratch. The encounter surprised them both. Maikitty let out an involuntary hiss, which sent Scratch fluttering into the air, his wings flapping violently. He had little control over the trajectory of his flight. He flapped backward into the lantern and knocked it over. Coal oil splashed over the hay bale and onto the barn floor. Flames immediately shot up the side of the barn, catching the hay on fire. It began to spread rapidly.
Scratch flapped his way out the barn door complaining all the while. Maikitty, Beep and Karl looked at one another. Mellow said, “Moooooooaw, moooooooaw!” which this time meant, “Get me out of here!” Mellow’s cry of distress brought Maikitty to her senses. “Karl! Beep! Get out of here and take Amber with you, I’ll take care of Mellow!” though she had no idea how she would get the frightened cow out of the stanchion. For the sake of the others, she pretended that she did.
Karl scooted up a supporting beam to where Amber’s web was attached. He coaxed Amber onto his back, then, he dashed back down the beam to rejoin Beep. The three barn residence raced through the barn door and away from the burning structure.
Maikitty was relieved that, at least, everyone but Mellow, was out of danger. She then jumped up onto a two-by-four supporting the structure of the haymow, but her paws couldn’t grasp the rope that held the movable stanchion timber in place. If she had hands like the bigs, she could easily do it. But her paws were not enough.
Browse and the three sparrows fluttered in the rafters in frightened confusion. Smoke from the fire, rose from the joists to the peak of the roof.
Maikitty looked back at the fire. It was climbing higher and higher up the north barn wall. She could feel the heat. Mellow felt it too on her hindquarters. She bellowed loudly … hoping loudly enough for the big to hear and come running. Maikitty tried to lift the rope loop with her mouth but could get it only half way up.
If something weren’t done soon, the entire barn would explode into flames and consume them.
Maikitty decided that she had no choice but to dash for help. She hoped she could make the big understand that he must return quickly. As she started for the door, she abruptly stopped. She had an idea.
“Owls can fly faster than cats can run,” she thought.
“Browse!” Maikitty shouted. “Fly to the big’s nest! Tell them to come … quickly!”
“But I don’t talk big!” Browse protested.
“Fly over there! Just get their attention!”
“And then what?” Browse asked.
“Fly around … just don’t act like an owl,” Maikitty pleaded. “That way they’ll know something’s wrong.”
“We’ll go with Browse!” Flutter cried in her loudest voice, which wasn’t very loud. Maikitty and Browse didn’t hear it, but Buzzer and Snatcher did and shot out the moon shaped opening near the barn’s peak and headed up the hill for the big’s nest.
“What good will that do?” Browse asked flapping her wings to clear the air of smoke.
Maikitty yelled in her loudest meow, “Quit quibbling and get going. Just act crazy … and then fly here! … Now, get going!”
Browse nodded, took flight and disappeared out the familiar opening into the gathering darkness.
Maikitty tried once more to gnaw the rope restraint in two, but no luck. She again tried to lift the rope from the post, but it was hopeless. She jumped down and ran to the barn door. She had to do something. In desperation she dashed out the barn door and to the spring where she filled her mouth with water, dashed back and into the smoke filled barn. She sprang onto Mellow’s back and spit the water on the cow’s tail attempting to cool the growing inferno. Maikitty quickly dashed back to the spring for another mouth full and then another and another and another. Her heart pounded and her mind raced. Despite her effort to save Mellow, Maikitty knew that her feeble efforts were hopeless.
She was on her way for yet another fire quenching load of water when a huge bird landed on the ground beside the spring. It was Rusty Eagle.
“Hey, Maikitty… that you? What’s happening?” Rusty asked scrambling to keep up with the disconcerted cat. “I spotted smoke from way up… smoke coming up through the trees, isn’t good.”
“No time, Rusty… no time!” Maikitty cried. “The barn’s on fire… Mellow is trapped in her stall … can’t get her out… I’m bringing water to put out the fire… not enough.” She scooped up another mouthful of water and dashed away.
Rusty followed Maikitty into the barn. He stopped near the door and watched Maikitty leap onto Mellow’s back and spit the pathetic squirt of water and jump down and dash out the door for another mouthful. It was clear to Rusty that Maikitty’s efforts to quench the fire wouldn’t do the job.
Rusty wondered why Mellow didn’t leave the barn. Then he saw that her head was trapped in the stanchion. He hopped onto the supporting boards near the rope that held the restraining board in place. If he could lift the looped rope over the holding board, Mellow would be released and escape the burning structure. It seemed a simple thing to lift the loop of the rope over board, but trying with all his might he still couldn’t get it quite high enough to clear the blocking timber.
He was about to give it one more try when a big dashed through the barn door. The big seemed surprised to see an eagle straining at the stanchion rope. Rusty fluttered to the floor out of the big’s way. Within seconds, the big was at Mellow’s side, had the stanchion open and was leading Mellow out of the burning barn. Rusty followed.
Mellow had a singed tail and some blisters on her rump and down her hind legs, but otherwise she was glad to be alive and safely out of the burning barn. Maikitty, Beep, Amber, Karl, Browse, Flutter, Snatcher, Buzzer, Scratch and now Rusty, gathered around Mellow to comfort her.
It was clear to everyone that there was no hope of saving the barn. The animals all lined up sitting on a fence rail watching the bigs set about hauling buckets of water to pour on the dry grass surrounding the barn.
“Pa dua la duffer go gig dube akkhon, (go get buckets and get to work),” the tallest big said fetching another bucket of water to toss on the grass. After seeing that the fire wouldn’t spread, they all sat for a long while watching the barn fall into itself and finally turn to glowing embers.
“Deff… clagert mofe dellun… jab sin u niff. Gill well am genter (It’ll die down now, but it wasn’t smart leaving that lantern),” The tallest big said as he led the bigs away from the scene and into the night.
“Good Job, Browse, Flutter, Buzz and Snatch!” Maikitty said when calm nerves had returned to the frightened animals.
“Yeeaah!” Mellow mooed softly, “You saved my life … thanks.”
Maikitty asked, “Yeah, Browse … how did you get the bigs to know that something was wrong?”
“You should have seen it,” Snatch answered, “Browse hovered above the tallest big’s head while Buzz, Flut and I flew in circles around him, and …”
“Yeah,” Flutter interrupted, “big’s arms went up and he ducked to get away… but we wouldn’t leave him alone… Browse hovered and we circled him until finally he tried to run away…”
Buzz interrupted, “and we followed until we had him running in the direction of the barn.” Buzz laughed a tiny sparrow laugh.
“Then, when the big saw the glow of the fire , we didn’t have to chase him any more. He ran like he was crazy….” Browse said and added, “You okay Mellow?”
“Yeah, thanks to all of you … but now what are you going to do … with no place to live … what are we all going to do?” Mellow asked sorrowfully.
“We’ll help each other out … that’s what we will do,” Maikitty said confidently. “We’ll find holes in trees, fallen logs, thick foliage in the trees … safe places … for Karl, Beep, Browse, Buzzer, Flutter, Snatcher, Amber. That’s what we’ll do, right everybody?”
“What about me?” Mellow asked turning her big head toward Maikitty and looking at her with soft round eyes, “I’m too big for a woodpecker’s hole.”
“You give milk…” Rusty injected. “The bigs will take care of you … you can bet on that.”
“Hey, Rusty!” Browse said finally noticing him. “Good to see you. When did you get here, anyway?”
“I was about a mile up on my way home when I spotted smoke so I dropped down to take a look,” Rusty said. “I tried to get Mellow’s head lock open, but it was too much for me. It’s a good thing Mellow has friends like you.”
“Yeah … thanks again everybody for saving my life.” A tear rolled down her long nose and dropped to the ground near Maikitty’s paw.
“Hey, it’s dark – let’s bed down here for the night,” Maikitty suggested as she kneaded a bed of leaves beneath a maple tree not far from the smoldering barn. “Hay Rusty, won’t you stay the night with us and tell us some stories about some of your other animal friends you have here and there?”
“I’ll do it and then I’ll head back home in the morning,” Rusty said. “You won’t believe the fun Gruff Bear and his family have been having with the Nehalem bigs …”
While Maikitty checked out interesting noises throughout the night, the other animals settled down to sleep. The next day Rusty said good-bye and headed south.
Sure enough, a month hadn’t passed before lumber had been hauled to the site and the bigs began rebuilding the barn.
It was interesting for the animals to have a nice, new abode, but – though they never let the bigs know – they secretly preferred the old one.
“It’s okay,” Maikitty said reassuringly, ” Before you know it the new barn will be full of webs, fir needles, secret holes in walls, straw nests, and owl, sparrow and rooster feathers. She looked around at her friends and added, “And, of course, squirts of warm milk.”