Some days it was hard to tell if Buddy, the Hanson’s collie, had amazing herding instincts, or if he was just a jerk. When he spotted Buddy nipping at a cat in the middle of the yard, Dale’s first instinct was to give the dog a cuff. “Cut that out, Buddy! You’re six times the size of that cat.”
Later, when Dale, his son Jeff, and Jeff’s four-year old son Connor were walking from the cleaning plant to the shop, Buddy did it again.
“Guess I didn’t smack that dog hard enough before,” Dale muttered.
Jeff considered lecturing his father about dog training, but he knew that as much as Dale complained about them, he liked having animals outside on the farm. Dale’s idea of a “cuff” was probably something most people would see as a gentle swat.
But then Jeff saw another reason not to lecture Dale.
“Hang on, Dad,” Jeff said. “I think Buddy’s herding that cat.
“What?” Dale said.
“Watch. Every time the cat gets out in the open, Buddy tries to turn him back toward a building.”
Connor let go of Jeff’s hand and ran for the weigh scale. Buddy ran after him and gently tugged on the sleeve of the boy’s red snowsuit.
“Daddy!” Connor hollered. “Buddy’s got my arm!”
“Buddy, get over here,” Dale called, and the dog came running, leaving Connor on the scale, laughing at the metallic sound it made under his snowboots.
“See?” Jeff said. “That dog’s protecting Connor and the cats. Haven’t you heard all those coyotes howling the last couple of nights? I think they’re pretty close to the yard.”
“Huh,” Dale shrugged. “You might be right.”
Intrigued as they were by the idea of Buddy being so useful, because it was 30 below, Jeff and Dale didn’t stand outside to see if the dog would do it again. They took Connor into the heated shop.
With no barn or livestock on the farm, the Hansons didn’t have a large herd of free-range cats like some farmers. While Dale could see the value of having a few cats around to keep the mice under control, he wasn’t interested in running a cat shelter in his heated shop. He kept their herd down to three or four cats — enough to do some hunting, but not so many that they couldn’t have names. If anyone asked Dale, he told them it was annoying, having cats underfoot when you were trying to work, and disgusting to have to keep a litter box in his shop for those cold winter days. But when he was working alone, he’d sometimes look down and realize he was accidentally petting one of the darn things.
“Blackie, come and play,” Connor yelled when the friendliest of the three current cats on the Hanson farm poked its head through the hinged cat door. “He’s my favourite,” Connor said, running with the cat while Dale made coffee.
“Good thing someone likes these cats,” Dale said.
The next morning, Dale was telling his neighbour, Brian Miller, about his amazing herding dog over coffee at Dale and Donna’s kitchen table. “Not that the world would notice if a coyote ate one of two of those cats.”
But by that afternoon, Dale and the rest of the Hansons realized that one cat would indeed be missed.
“Blackie!” Connor’s little voice was hoarse from calling for his favourite cat. He was starting to cry, and his nose was running.
“Come inside, before those tears freeze on your face,” said Connor’s mother, Elaine. “We’ll find Blackie tomorrow.”
They didn’t. By noon, Connor had worked himself into a full blown crying fit.
“I knew I should have done something about those coyotes,” Dale said to his wife.
Dale found the old cat carrier at the back of the shop, drove to the local Humane Society and picked out a cat that looked enough like Blackie, he thought, to fool Connor. At first he felt lucky to be able to see the vet right away to have the cat neutered. He felt less lucky when he got the $180 bill. “At least it included ‘complimentary IV,’” he grumbled to himself.
When he got home he phoned Jeff. “Come out to the shop,” he said. “Bring Connor.” But Jeff wasn’t home. “I’ll be about 15 minutes,” he said. “I had to run down to Estevan.”
Then Dale heard another car drive in the yard. “That’s Kym,” Dale’s wife Donna said. “Let’s go.” Donna called her daughter-in-law. “Bring Connor out to the shop,” Donna said. “Tell him we’ve found Blackie.”
“What?” Dale said.
“Kym had some extra cats. One’s black, so she said she’d bring it over.”
Dale fumed, wondering if he might be able to get a refund from the vet. They put on their parkas and went outside.
When Connor and Elaine got to the shop, Kym let out the replacement cat. The cat took one look at them, then bee-lined to the top of the highest shelf in the shop and refused to come down.
“Come on, Blackie,” Donna coaxed.
“That’s not Blackie, Grandma” Connor said. “It has white on its tail.”
Sure enough. They could see the impostor tail hanging down from the shelf. Buddy stood underneath, barking at the cat.
Kym fled the scene, just in time to wave to Jeff on his way in. “I found him,” Jeff told his young son. “Blackie was just taking a little vacation.”
Jeff reached into the backseat of his truck and pulled out a fully black cat. “Found him on Kijiji,” he whispered to Dale. “Down in Estevan.”
“Is that Blackie?” Connor scrutinized the cat.
Before Connor could decide, this cat darted off into a corner, ducking behind some standing shovels. Connor tried to reach it, but he knocked over the shovels and hit the cat. The cat howled and burrowed deeper into the corner. Buddy ran back and forth between the two cats, unable to decide which to bark at first.
It was Dale’s turn to save the day.
“That wasn’t Blackie, Connor,” he said, pulling the newly neutered cat out of his truck. “I’ve got him here.”
But as Dale pulled him out, the new cat clawed Dale’s wrist, drawing blood. Dale dropped the cat. Jeff tried to grab it, but the cat scratched Jeff’s thumb hard enough to make Jeff bleed too. The angry cat hissed and hid under Dale’s truck. Buddy came over to bark at this cat too.
“Blackie’s gone for good,” Connor started to cry, big tears rolling down onto his red snowsuit.
Then they heard a knock on the shop door. Brian Miller came in, holding up a black cat.
“Missing this guy?” he asked.
“Blackie!” Connor yelled. The cat leapt out of Brian’s arms and ran to the boy.
“He must’ve climbed up underneath my truck to get warm,” Brian said. “Rode all the way to my place. Just noticed him today.”
Buddy gave the cowering cat one more loud bark, then ran to Blackie and licked his head.
“Damn cats,” Dale said. “We’ll have to bring the dog into the house and let a couple of coyotes spend the night in the shop.
Leeann Minogue is the editor of Grainews, a playwright and part of a family grain farm in southeastern Saskatchewan.