A Black Cat on Grandfather’s Land

A strange black cat follows as I walk over wheat stubble to the breaks. My grandfather homesteaded this piece ofMontanaprairie almost 100 years ago. My Cousin now farms it.  Winter wheat, grown on the place without irrigation, supported grandmother and my mother and two of my uncles from their infancy until adulthood. Today the grandkids own it. This black cat has no claim on the land.

The cat is a mystery. A friendly gal, it greeted us when we arrived at the ranch house. No one lives here this time of year so the cat was alone. It readily took baloney meat from my sister but otherwise showed no sign of starvation.  It only longs for companionship. This morning the cat greeted me at the door then followed me onto the stubble field. Now it walks along beside me if in imitation of Aki. Unlike that little dog, she ignores the small birds trying to distract us from their nests in the wheat field.

It is near sunrise and pearly pink light peaks out from under the otherwise universal cloud color. Summer is late in coming this year. It should be warm, if not hot, and the ground of this stubble field should be sun baked brick hard. Instead green weeds grow between rows of six inch high dead wheat stubble and a moist strip of open ground meanders across the wheat field.

Normally I stay out of the wheat until harvested but none grows on this moist strip. Others have walked the strip before us.  We follow the diminutive tracks of a single pronghorn antelope and heavier ones of a mule deer. Yesterday I saw a gang of six or eight deer cross the road to the ranch but only one tracked this path last night. The tracks lead us to a small raft of mallard ducks floating on a tiny pond where Coyote tracks cross those of the antelope.

The ducks fly off before we reach the pond. I still stop to examine it for even small pools of standing water are rare here. Except for two wheat stalks breaking the surface, the pond is sterile. The path continue beyond the pond and It only takes a minute to pass through the wheat field to another one of stubble. My cousin planted winter wheat here the previous fall and harvested it last summer. Now it rests as a stubble field for a season after harvest. Alternating fields of pale yellow stubble and green growing wheat run to the horizon to produces checkerboard pattern on the flat bench land.

Daylight breaks through briefly to illuminate Square Butte, a weathered flat topped volcanic plug dominating the western horizon. Cat purrs and rubs against my leg as I struggle to focus the camera before the sun leaves. Nothing much makes sense about the cat.  She lives alone in a wild place but is not feral. She ignores small birds but takes food from my sister. She follows along like a dependent dog not the aloof cat she is. I begin to wonder if she is more spirit than corporal.

Walking on the stubble parallel to the wheat field we eventually reach a barbwire fence that borders still untilled breaks beyond. While the ranch spreads over a flat bench of land, a series of converging dry channels forms the breaks that eventually leads to theMissouri River.

A meadow lank sings from its perch on a fence post. Another meadow lark sang during our father’s internment at a nearby cemetery while a small group of pronghorn antelope grazed nearby. Together they softened the pain of burial. Today’s lark song offered similar comfort as I think of those who walked before me to this border fence.

The wind rises on my return to the ranch house , now a tiny white box half hidden by the green wheat filed. I continue on the stubble field to the road rather than using the muddy detour through the wheat field. Rain falls in sprinkles at first then turns into heavy wind driven drops. The cat disappears. I expect to find her at the ranch house begging for entrance but she is not there. Maybe a coyote got her or she cut across the fields to another farmstead where she lives. Maybe she really is a spirit, driven away by the Meadow Lark’s song.

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