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Sad day in real life 

click to enlarge Warren, a retrieving cat, never returned after slipping outside.
  • Warren, a retrieving cat, never returned after slipping outside.
In the past 15 years, I've seen the death of too many dear pets. There were big dogs named Maxwell and Max and Doc and McDuff and the gentle Jennifer, who died in my arms on a cold winter day. There was Gray, too, a 17-year-old cat who is buried beyond the house in a field of wild grass in a spot marked with a wooden cross. It's next to the gravesite of Roy, my daughter's first Colorado pet from the early 1990s. Roy was a lop-eared rabbit who came when you called his name, lived in the house and behaved like a cat.

With each passing I let a tear or two roll down my face. Pets can hit you pretty hard.

But I wasn't ready for Warren.

He and the goofy name came to us from a shelter two years ago a kitten, soft and black with little white feet and a white snout.

Warren made us laugh. A lot. There were normal cat things, such as leaping into the bathtub and batting at the drops of water we'd let trickle from the faucet.

But there was also plenty of very non-cat behavior. Example: With little coaxing from us, Warren transformed himself into a full-fledged retriever, marching triumphantly across the living room, back to us, his eyes wide, head up, with a tattered fake mouse clamped in his small mouth until he'd drop it at your feet and sit down, waiting for the next toss. He would do this until the humans got tired. It was the darnedest thing I'd ever seen. He looked like a tiny little Labrador retriever. With a tiny little duck.

Each night, when his energy seemingly ran out, he would curl up onto a favorite chair and sleep, his seven-pound body pressed against his friend, a giant old loveable cat named Spike. The pair would often break up the long and boring nights by chasing each other around the house, their soft padded feet somehow mimicking the sounds of a stampede as they thundered across the wood floors at 3 in the morning.

"Buffalo," my wife would mutter.

"Goddamn cats," I would mumble.

But soon all living creatures would drift back to sleep.

In October, on a night when the first snowstorm of the year rolled across the Colorado mountains and the golden aspen and cottonwood leaves of autumn rustled in the gathering wind, Warren and Spike snuck out of the house through an open door, likely into the forest where we live.

We had always been diligent about the doors. Spike had escaped just a couple times in nine years. But this was Warren's very first time outside, out into the moonlight and the shadows in a place of mountain lions and bears and foxes and always always a pack of prowling coyotes.

In the morning, we found a shaken and rattled Spike on the porch, meowing and scratching at the door. Warren never came back.

My wife made "missing" posters with his picture and our phone number.

"Just breaks your heart," she whispered.

A week later I walked alone out into the woods near our home. I stood in the quiet among the trees and I said goodbye. It was harder than the goodbyes to any of the other pets, and I wondered why. I settled on this: Warren was barely more than a kitten. The others, well, they had long lives. Warren didn't get much time.

Each morning now I pass the front windows and stare out onto the porch, believing, somehow, that he'll be sitting there. At the end of each day, after dinner, in the twilight, I wander outside for a minute or two and listen for the soft, distinct meow that I know I won't hear again.

But still I listen.

The other day I went back to the shelter. I found just about the cutest kitten I'd ever seen and I brought him home. We've named him Kenny, I think. He's just terrific. He sleeps on my shoulder.

But I don't think he'll ever nudge that little black cat with the white feet out of my heart.

Because Warren, well, he was a retriever.

Rich Tosches will emcee Urban Peak's annual fundraiser, Building Futures Building Lives, at 6 p.m. on Nov. 8 at Bigg City Event Center. For more information, call 630-3223.

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