I was mildly surprised, but not concerned when Willis was not on the front doorstep when I came downstairs. I've sometimes wondered if he has an internal clock which has him waiting for me each morning, or if perhaps he hears my measured tread on the 14 stairs to the main floor and hurries from one of the blanket-lined 'beds' on the side porch to pose on the doormat, face up-tilted to the window in a beguiling reminder that he needs his breakfast served before any other concern can claim my attention.
We realized, with heavy hearts, what had likely happened. Willis, from kittenhood, has had a fascination with vehicles. We have many times had to extract him from a visitor's car or truck. He once slipped into our van when Jim was loading building supplies, hunkered down, invisible and unnoticed beneath a length of insulation batting, then popped out between the front seats after he had ridden with us several miles down the road. He stowed away in the tool compartment when an acquaintance came by to install a water purifying system. He was discovered at the next stop in Columbia and returned home by the kindly man and his sons in time for supper.
Jim was to deliver the purchased tractor on Monday. When he phoned to confirm the details he inquired if, by chance, the men had found a cat in the back of their truck. Of course they had not.
I didn't share the news of Willis's disappearance with our daughter until the third day of his absence. Her response was one of grief for the loss of 'the greatest blue-grey bear cat in Kentucky."
I told myself sternly that the era of Willis was over, but a dozen times a day I found myself looking for him--in the snug basket on the back porch, on the lumber stack by the shop door.
Jim was only half awake when I dumped Willis on his pillow. "See who has come home!" Jim, startled, rolled over to find himself nose to nose with Willis who was fairly vibrating with enthusiastic purring and excited meows.
It wasn't until he had eaten, washed his face and settled his whiskers that we noticed the injury to his right hind leg. Willis started off the porch on three legs: hop-hop-rest. Hop, hop, rest. We felt carefully for broken bones. There were none. No cuts, no visible swelling, but a very definite limp as though his hip was slightly out of place.
We think we've reconstructed the 'rest of the story.' Willis, overcome by curiosity, jumped into the back of the visiting men's truck, sniffed about, poked through the assortment of things I recall being there, curled up comfortably for a snooze and rode off into the sunset. We suspect that he was awake and rather alarmed by the time the truck stopped at the junction of Sanders Ridge Road and Rt 206. Looking for a way out of the truck bed he likely was pitched abruptly onto the blacktop landing heavily and wrenching his hip. His homing device was working well, but it took him 4 slow and painful days and nights to hobble home. Did he shelter in a shed or under a porch, burrow into a leafy ditch while the rain pelted down?
The details we'll never know. Willis stayed close to the front porch during those first days at home. He ate well, hopped along the drive, stretched on the sun-warmed concrete of the south porch floor. He managed limited patrol duties bouncing along with the injured leg tucked up. By his second week at home he was putting all four feet on the ground, but using only three legs when he wanted to put on speed. The first few attempts at leaping to sit on the retaining wall ended in an undignified fumble.
With his adventure now a month behind him, Willis is almost back to normal. His gait is slower than in the past, but his balance is good, he can land fairly gracefully on the garden wall to supervise and get in the way as I prod at emerging perennials. He ambles behind me down the lane to wait crouching at the bend, camouflaged in his tweed coat, popping out of a tangle of dried weeds and dusty leaves with his familiar "Aha! Gotcha!"
Mindful that this painful experience was unlikely to teach Willis what he ought to know, we are more diligent than ever to locate his where-abouts when a vehicle leaves the dooryard. The UPS truck is suspect, as is a neighbor's vehicle left unattended with the window down or the door partly open. When one of Jim's tractor customers rolls in I round up Willis and shut him into the back entry where he lurks with flattened ears showing his annoyance.
We scold Willis and remind him of the trouble he has caused.
We tell him that his recent escapade may have permanently impaired his agility, taken a few cat years off his life. We note when a damp morning chill seems to stiffen his hip joint; we see him carefully calculating a leap that until a month ago would have been smoothly automatic.