The original Dink Wardlaw cat was acquired by means of a card game. The cat arrived in style, in Big John’s old Ford truck. Now, if you knew Big John, you’d know it mighty unlikely he’d take a cat for a passenger, but honest-to-God, he did. Just that one time. This was back in Depression days, Sonora in drought, and money tight.
Big John ran across Dink in town. The two got to talking, and Dink extended a social invite.
Big John drove out to the Wardlaw’s, young John Allen tagging along. As the men sat down to cards, John Allen went out to the barn. He discovered alitter of kittens. Good thing too, since the card game went on a good long time. Best two out of three, then three out of five, a stiff whisky and a lot of swappin’ stories.
As they got in the truck to go home, ol’ Dink trotted up with a kitten under his arm. Big John spied it. “Uh oh,” he sighed. Back in those days, on account of hard times, you never refused a gift. When a neighbor did a good turn, all you could say was thanks. So when John Allen, eyes shining, pleaded, “can we keep it?” Big John had to answer, “yes.”
Thus the orange and white striped cat arrived at Casa Piedra, taking up residence in the barn, since Big John wouldn’t let it in the house. John Allen fretted that the cat might leave and try to make its way back to its old home at the Wardlaw place, but it never did.
Kitty turned out to be a “she,” and she must’ve gone off to town a time or two and found herself a Tom. The very next year, a litter of kittens appeared. Stripes were dominant—telltale orange stripes. The cat herd thrived and multiplied through the years. They fended mostly for themselves—no store-bought food, and no particular veterinary care. Fights were frequent, noisy affairs, waged tooth and nail on the roof and in the broad-branched live-oaks…but not a single mouse or rat was ever seen at Casa Piedra, and any self-respecting snake knew to steer clear of that posse of cats.
Big John liked to take his coffee in the yard. He’d drag a chair out and sink into it, wiggle his bare toes in the grass and look way down the road towards the draw. The cats would creep up, half-wild, never too close. He’d drain his cup and fling it in their midst. They’d scatter, and he’d laugh. Heh, heh, heh, declaring with satisfaction, “Scat, cats! …ain’t never hit one yet.”
Now and then, he’d shoot a jackrabbit, dropping the carcass by the barn. Cats crowded round like lions, the pecking order apparent from who got first dibs, who fought whom, and who had to sit and wait. Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom had nothing on these cats!
Fast forward to the 1980’s, when the cats feasting on store-bought food. The cat population exploded. Thirty-two could be seen at one time, most orange and white, a few with black-tipped bobcat ears. This wasn’t counting the shy ones, hiding back in the barn. Some showed signs of inbreeding—short, stubby tails and kinky fur. Johnny Fields, the vet, agreed to neuter and spay as many as could be caught.
Now, the game was on! Barn cats versus rancher, and the cats won every round. After a few cat rodeos, John Allen began to set traps, (the “have-a-heart” kind), baited with Friskies Buffet. Thirty-five or so were caught “fixed,” and transported back to the ranch. Plus we caught a skunk. Nobody knows how John Allen was able to spring that trap and let that stinker loose without getting sprayed, but somehow, he did. Cat after neutered cat, sprang from captivity to the safety of the hayloft. John Allen paid a substantial bill to Johnny Fields, and received for his pains an envelope of thirty-five shiny pet vaccination tags. Those tags never left the envelope, since none of the cats wore a collar.
We were never sure we caught them all. We might’ve missed a few. But from then on, things quieted down. Still, after all these years, the Dink Wardlaw cat remains a legend. If you spy an orange and white-striped cat at Casa Piedra, you know to thank ol’ Dink.