Stripes, an orange barn cat, would keep scarce, the barn’s owner, a middle-aged woman told me. The woman, fed up with Colorado winters, had packed her horse trailer for Florida. She pointed to the rafters where she had spotted the feline’s ears. I cat lurked, nestled in the pink blanket of insulation that separated the horse stables from an attic. Stripes had climbed a steep ladder to achieve the cozy loft, so steep I wondered if the ladder wouldn’t tip back if I attempted the same climb.

Three months later, early February in Colorado’s crotch of coal-country, here I am, housesitting on the howling plains of nowhere (thanks Poe Ballantine.)

I’ll check on Stripes, I decide on Day 1.

I have grown unaccustomed to winters at 6,200 feet in the West so I need some reason to get outside. To the barn and back. A great start.

***

I have checked the barn daily now for three weeks and have seen evidence.

Evidence of something.

But no cat.

The food in the cat food dish, replenished from a galvanized pale locked shut with a bungee, disappeared regularly until we moved the desk from underneath it.

I needed a desk. I scrubbed every surface and took it into the living room.

I moved the cat food dish to a cat-accessible corner shelf. I even shifted the filthy padded office chair so Stripes might have used to reach the food. Stripes must have made some effort to shed on this vile step-stool, so thoroughly had this task been accomplished.

But the cat food remains untouched.

In the farthest section of the barn, the part that has a door open wide enough for a small pony to enter, I found a dead rabbit. The least edible parts of a dead rabbit, I should say. Subfreezing temps had kept it fresh.

Daily I checked. Daily the rabbit remains dwindled.

Could a cat even catch a rabbit? Locals informed me it must be a jack rabbit, no small bunny.

***

When temps get above 40, the time odiferously comes to employ the snow shovel to remove the rabbit, which I noted, had been white. By now, it was really hard to know that it had been a rabbit. Even the ears were gone.

Still. Cat food remains untouched.

A few more inches of snow allow me to examine tracks in and out of the barn.

Surely this is a fox, I conclude.

Maybe the fox has eaten Stripes too.

I hike the back 20, all I can muster without snow shoes. I sink in to my knees, sometimes deeper. I find a den with tracks radiating to distinct points: a distant tree, a closer bush, the barn. But I can’t figure out to whom the tracks, fuzzed over by hoarfrost, belong.

Prairie dogs?

Skunks?

Badger?

***

The warm temps make the deep snow even harder to get through. Then the sky clears and the temps drop to single digits. Suddenly, not only can I walk on water without getting snow on even my bootlaces, I can walk the fence of the entire back 40. So that’s what I did today.

I quickly spotted the rabbit tracks.

Then I confidently confirmed that Stripes still lurks … but the certainly-cat-tracks head straight for the horizon, the distant horizon where I often see minuscule black cows forming a line where hay is daily distributed.

But I also found at least three other distinct tracks—not to mention the ones that appear, wander around for about 20 feet then disappear. Birds.

I found hair, coated in hoarfrost, clinging to the barbs on the wire fence. White hair, brown hair, long hair, short hair. No recent tracks for clues.

I paused in thought. This, maybe this is MY hair from last summer, the last time I visited this fence. No, it is too thick and brown. Elk, antelope, deer all frequent the neighborhood. But this hair is almost 12 inches. I remember reading in the paper that someone hit and killed a wild horse on a local highway last week. Hmmm.

The tracks interact with each other and I wonder who is following whom. Some cross a slope, ignoring the barn. Some approach then wander away from the barn. One set seems labored, the creature dragging something, maybe a dead something, maybe just its tail.

I know what you’re thinking.

No. I’m not going to install motion-sensor cameras.

That would be cheating.

Besides, then what would get me out of the house?