Adventures of Harley the Cat

About fifteen years ago, my family adopted a cat. Actually, my Mom adopted her, and, since what she said almost always became law in our house, none of us could do anything except tease her about becoming an old cat woman. The cat was maybe a year and a half old, calico, and had extra toes. She also had the misfortune of possessing a naturally very round belly, so her previous owners threw her out their car window thinking she was pregnant.

The night the cat came home from the shelter, I took my 4-H club to a children’s concert by singer and storyteller Bill Harley. Later, when it came time to name the new cat, there were so many votes for “Harley” that Mom finally gave in.

So, Harley started her days on our dairy goat farm living in a crate, wearing an Elizabethan collar so she wouldn’t take the stitches out of her incision from being spayed. She lived in the same barn as all our baby goats, and she was very shy. You couldn’t pick her up, and we all were read the riot act about leaving the barn doors closed so she wouldn’t escape. Farms are tough places: You either survive, or you don’t. But my mother was going to give this cat as many chances as she could.

When the stiches were healed, she started leaving Harley’s crate door open. Harley took a liking to the baby goats and would curl up with them, or just sit on a fence rail and watch them. We kids had a theory that Harley actually liked the heat lamp hanging over the newborns to keep them warm rather than the kids themselves, but …

One day, I went down to feed the kids their morning milk. I was bent over, a bottle in each hand and a third held between my knees to feed our newest set of triplets. Suddenly, I had something with claws and velvety fur on my head, yowling and hissing like a banshee. I screamed. Bottles dropped and spilled milk everywhere. The baby goats bleated in protest at an interrupted breakfast, and I stood up fast, expecting the worst, but only bonked my head on the heat lamp in my hurry.

It was Harley, and, in the fuss, she had leaped onto the nearest fence rail. Now, all I could do was laugh. We had a guard cat!

She took her guarding seriously from then on, although she soon learned I was the “Source of Warm Milk” and gave up her head-crashing tricks on me. That didn’t mean she spared others, though.

As Harley grew, we all fell in love with her. She soon figured out that I wasn’t quite like the other children. I didn’t always succeed in catching her when I wanted to, where the other kids always did. She must have also noticed that I never looked at her eye to eye.

When spring came and her babies graduated to the big barn, which was further from the house, she took to meeting me at our back gate every chore time and going ahead of me on the path, meowing and making soft trilling sounds in the back of her throat. If I didn’t come fast enough, she’d throw herself on the ground and roll around, making rustling noises in the grass or dry leaves until I almost stepped on her. Then, she’d scamper a little further down the path and do the whole routine again, leading me to the barn and her baby goats.

One night that summer, we had a huge windstorm. It blew so hard that a hundred-year-old grandstand at our local fairgrounds was blown down, then caught fire and was completely destroyed.

That night, we all ran all over the farm, closing up barns and securing some old cars in preparation.

In the morning, all was well. No trees had come down and we still had power. But Harley was nowhere to be found. She wasn’t there to greet me for morning chores, or for evening chores, or for any of my trips to the barn the whole next week.

After the second week without her, we all resigned ourselves to the fact that, as many barn cats do, she had gone off somewhere away from us and died.

Three days after that, I was cleaning stalls. The walk to empty wheelbarrows led me past lots of bushes and an old Volkswagen van that my Dad had closed up tight for the storm.

As I walked by, I heard something that sounded like “Meow”. I stopped. It was too soft to be a catbird.

“Kitty, kitty, kitty?” I called out.

“Meow,” came the reply. I thought I recognized the voice.

“Harley, is that you?” I could hardly breathe, and tears pricked the backs of my eyes.

“Meow! Meow! Meow!” She must have recognized my voice, too. I ran to the house.

“Mom, Mom, come quick! It’s Harley!”

She came, and we found her in the Volkswagen, very thin and dehydrated, but overjoyed to see us.

On a farm, you either survive or you don’t. Well, Harley had survived for seventeen days, licking water out of little cracks and crevices in the van, perhaps catching a mouse or two. Whatever any of us had initially thought about Mom going to the cats, we were all in love with the calico with extra toes now.

The winter after her ordeal in the Volkswagen, I got my second guide dog, Kiefer, and he began making all the trips with me to do chores. Harley didn’t take kindly to an intruder in her realm, least of all a DOG! If I was feeding baby goats in one of the front barns, which has a Dutch door, I’d have Kiefer sit and wait for me (he wasn’t very good at holding bottles). Harley would walk back and forth across the top of the door, easily in his view but just out of reach, daring him to chase her, teasing him mercilessly.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth she’d go, flicking her tail slowly. He never moved, but she was stubborn. For weeks she tried to tempt him.

He never gave in. Instead, he learned to find gates, show me where pails were in pastures so I could bring them in for washing, and even learned to keep groups of goats together when we went for walks in the field behind our house. What he never learned to do was chase Harley. She sulked for awhile and wouldn’t go to the barn until I was already out there milking. But when she realized that the dog wasn’t going away, she resumed her daily greetings, as well as her version of guiding a blind person.

She may have never had kittens herself, but her maternal instinct was strong. When Mom brought home a “house cat” from another shelter, Harley made daily deliveries of a freshly dispatched mouse, probably figuring the poor thing couldn’t do anything for herself, trapped as she was behind our big glass door.

The following year, when my Mom brought home two barn kittens, the yowling and tree-scaling and hissing that accompanied their forays into Harley’s domain were titanic. She made sure all the other cats knew who was queen. After that lesson was thoroughly learned (with occasional updates and reminders), she taught them to be formidable hunters in their own right. Now, there is a “guard cat” in all three of our barns, and one of the kittens even learned Harley’s grass-rustling and trilling tricks for escorting me to the back sheds where our male goats are kept.

Harley lived at least another seven years after that, and by the end of her life, she was almost completely deaf and toothless. But if you caught her on a spring day when she was feeling good, you could still follow her, meowing and trilling, rolling in the grass along the path to the barn and whatever crop of baby goats she was watching over at the moment.

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3 Comments on “Adventures of Harley the Cat”

  1. the old cat woman Says:

    I am glad you are back at this site. Just finished reading and remembering it all about Harley and the last year she was acrually a house cat…or house queen. I am thankful that all our animals, no matter where they come from, give and accept the 7 ingredients of caring with us!!!

  2. the old cat woman Says:

    Just thought you would want to know that Harley was working for me and keeping me informed about Keifer and if he was doing his barn duties the right way. I would look kind of funny pacing on the top of a dutch door. Thanks Harley…..the old cat woman who believe in you and wanted you out of that shelter.

  3. halfnotes Says:

    Old Cat Woman,

    Figured it was something like that … I had more four-legged chaperones growing up than I can count.


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