A little contribution to the Furry Friends challenge – such a great idea. Thanks to Sprite for the title!
I’m basing this on my cat, Cassie, aka Miss Sausage. I hope there’ll be a few episodes – she’s had quite a few adventures! But not directly – she and her brother were my retirement present. Just about the best present ever. Anyway, here it is.
Word count: 13,154
Part 1: Meet and Greet
When you know a creature from its first explorations in life, feel its heart beating against your ear, hear it purr so loudly you can’t hear anything else, a very special bond forms.
Johnny hadn’t meant for it to happen. He’d been what his father had called “under the weather”. A puzzling phrase but yes, he was certainly under something. Not that it made any difference to the amount of work he had to do, but at least his father had noticed.
So, for that matter, had his brother.
“I’ll finish up here,” Scott had said, urging the last of the cattle into the new pasture.
“Thanks,” Johnny had said, and had taken himself off to the barn to nurse his under the weather kind of feeling. He’d polished Barranca until the horse was sick of him, moved a few hay bales to where they’d be needed in the morning – and in moving them, had discovered the barn cat’s nest and one kitten.
“Hey there,” he said, automatically reaching out to the pair.
The mother cat eyed him suspiciously, hissed at him once and then took off, running lightly away along one of the beams then jumping down into a patch of sunlight. The kitten looked at him inquisitively then reached one paw out towards him.
Johnny knew something of the way of cats. As a child he’d badly wanted a kitten; but however many he brought home his mother would simply gather up the purring bundle and take it back out onto the street. A lecture every time about taking them away from their mothers too young just went over his head.
So he held out one finger in cat-greeting and was rewarded with a small nose bumping his finger.
“You have a job to do here, so I have to leave you,” he told the kitten seriously, then caught himself and ducked his head. “Now I’m talking to kittens. Must be even more under that bad weather.”
“Talking to yourself there?” Scott walked past the mother cat, who skedaddled into a dark corner. He led his horse into the stall.
“Kitten,” Johnny said, waving his hand at the object of his conversation. The kitten, a pretty tabby with a white chin, took another step in his direction.
“Oh yes?” Scott said, removing the saddle. “Really?”
“Really. You suppose Murdoch ever had a pet cat?”
“You thinking of taking that one as a pet?” Scott peered at the kitten, which was now close to Johnny’s hand. “I could see having a dog around the place – one to help move those cattle would have been advantageous. But a pet cat? Aren’t they unlucky? Grandfather would never allow one over the threshold.”
“No – no,” Johnny said, as his hand drifted to the kitten’s head and he began to pet its ears. “Not – no.” The kitten shook its head but seemed to be enjoying being petted. “Would Murdoch really think a cat in the house would be unlucky?”
“You’ll have to ask him, brother. Just don’t expect him to be happy if it shreds the sofa.”
Part 2: The Naming of Cats
It took Johnny a couple of days to get out from under the weather, during which time Murdoch’s sympathy had increased and his demand for Johnny to “work through it” had diminished.
He hadn’t felt much like leaving the house or even his bed the first day. The second, and a bit of lazing around not doing much except bothering Maria and Teresa had put him right back on his feet.
So the third day he went into the barn to saddle Barranca, only to find his horse moving restlessly around in his stall, lifting his feet and placing them again carefully, flicking his tail and showing other signs of being bothered by something. Johnny called to him and his horse twitched his ears but otherwise ignored him.
“What’s bothering you?” Johnny asked, going to inspect the area for stinging insects. Instead, he found the kitten backed into a corner, hissing and spitting yet still staying
in the stall, though it would have been easy enough for it to climb out. Maybe it was just doing it for the hell of it? Johnny thought about the way he’d bugged the womenfolk and pulled a face.
He opened the stall and went to pick up the kitten. Expecting a fight, he had pulled on his gloves and moved slowly, but his precautions weren’t needed. The kitten ran up to him, tail straight up like a flagpole, miaowing enthusiastically and coming to rest on his foot. From there, the kitten hauled itself up his pants leg, across his chest and then settled over his heart. He put his hand on the kitten to hold it steady, forgave it the needle-sharp attack on his skin and leaned back against the stall to enjoy the warm, purring company for a moment.
Barranca mosied over and began to sniff at the kitten, then to nuzzle it, until the kitten turned and batted him on the nose.
“Hey! Be nice!” Johnny told them both, to no effect.
Scott came into the barn, went to his own horse and started saddling with all the precision the army had drilled into him. “Are you having another lazy day, or are you going to saddle that horse at some point?”
Johnny detached the kitten from his shirt and held it out wordlessly for Scott to admire.
“Ah,” Scott said. “And have you spoken to Murdoch about it in all those hours you had doing nothing?” The grin on Scott’s face softened the barb considerably.
“I forgot all about …” Johnny paused to inspect the kitten closely. “All about her. Seeing as I was sick, that is. And only just recovering.”
“Well, put her back in her nest and let’s get to work before Murdoch decides we both need to put in an extra hour just to catch up. I want to get to town this evening.”
Sighing, Johnny parted with the kitten, putting her back in the place her mother had chosen as her nest.
“You have to have a name,” he mused. Sudden inspiration struck him. “Felipa. You’re Felipa.”
Since Scott’s knowledge of Spanish didn’t extend to the meaning of names, Johnny translated for him. “A woman who’s friendly with horses.”
Scott laughed, took hold of the lead rein and headed out into the sunlight. Johnny took a moment longer to bump his finger on his kitten’s nose, then strode out with Barranca for another long day’s work.
Part 3: A Bowl of Water
Late that same afternoon, just the sun was dipping down towards the earth – or, as Scott knew, the earth was rising to cover the sun – the brothers walked their tired horses and their tired selves back into the barn.
Scott watched his brother pause for a moment before leading Barranca into his stall. Then Johnny leaned forward and picked something up from the straw. The kitten.
“You really think you can make her into a house cat? And that Murdoch will agree to that? The last cat that tried to ingratiate itself was shown the door pretty rapidly.” Scott was too tired to mince his words.
“Maria with a broom. I remember. But there has to be a way…”
“So you are considering it.”
“Doesn’t she look hungry to you? And thirsty?” Johnny was still holding the kitten in one hand and the leading rein of his apparently forgotten horse in the other. He and the kitten were looking at one another. Then the kitten reached out one paw and touched his wrist.
“Seems she knows all the kittenish ways into a man’s heart,” Scott said, turning to the task of seeing to his own horse.
When there was no reply, he glanced over his horse’s back. Johnny was doing his best to hold the kitten and take off Barranca’s saddle. Since that was an impossible task, he set the kitten back on the straw and got to work on his restless horse.
“It’s nearly time for Murdoch to start shouting for us to get to the evening meal or do without,” Scott offered, though that was far from the truth. There was always something to eat even if they were late.
“Hmmm?” Johnny responded. He was done with his horse, the kitten was back in his hand and he was unbuttoning his shirt. When the kitten was safely tucked away, he did up his shirt again. “What?” he said to Scott’s raised eyebrows.
“You truly think she won’t be noticed?”
Johnny winced, though whether in response to the question or to Felipa moving around inside his shirt, Scott couldn’t tell. “If I can just get her past Maria,” he said, a note of optimism in his tone.
They set off towards the house, Johnny obviously planning to enter through the front door, but Teresa caught them and, after a few words about muddy boots and washed hands, they had no choice but to go in via the washroom and the kitchen.
“Well, Teresa didn’t notice,” Johnny said, pulling his boots off carefully.
“She was dealing with wet sheets. She didn’t even look at us,” Scott said, washing his hands. “And before you ask, it’s what she always says – she didn’t need to look at us.” Scott dried his hands and went through to the kitchen, pretending to ignore Johnny’s hissed, “Distract her!”
And so it came to pass that Maria, being the sharp-eyed woman that she was, and well acquainted with the antics of one Johnny Lancer, shrieked, grabbed a towel and waved it at him ferociously, until Johnny was forced to dance backwards while extracting the wriggling kitten from his shirt.
If he had hoped the kitten would soften Maria’s heart, his hopes were quickly dashed. But she did make one, telling, compromise. She took a dishpan, filled it with warm water and said, firmly, that he was to wash the kitten. Immediately. And then himself. Fleas were mentioned. Dirt from wherever he’d found her.
He and Felipa retreated to the washroom, with Scott following loyally with the dishpan and an old towel over his arm, in a pretty good imitation of his grandfather’s butler. Except that the butler would have suppressed his grin.
Felipa did everything in her not inconsiderable power to avoid being washed. Johnny was careful, considerate and had big hands, and discovered that turning the kitten on her back seemed to calm her, marginally. She then just looked miserable, and he took to consoling her – but it was all a ruse on her part, and he nearly lost hold of the slippery kitten.
His language wasn’t pretty. It was to the point, but it wasn’t pretty.
Finally, a kitten with no dignity left was washed, rinsed, inspected for fleas (two) and clean paws (four), and Johnny bundled her tightly in the towel.
“Thanks, brother,” Johnny managed, sucking his thumb where she’s (had)scratched it. “Couldn’t have done it without you.”
“You’re welcome. Now all you have to do is tell Murdoch.”
Johnny grimaced. “I’ll get Felipa dry first. Then she’ll be looking her best for the occasion.”
“Inquisition,” Scott muttered.
“Yes, the occasion,” Scott said, tipping away the rinsing water. “Why don’t you take her into the great room. Murdoch isn’t back yet. Then you can dry her in front of the fire.”
“Great idea!” Johnny said in an unusual display of gratitude. He went through the kitchen – holding Felipa up for inspection as he went – and on into the only other room with a guaranteed fire that wasn’t the kitchen. He didn’t want to push his luck.
So it was that Scott was sitting in his favourite chair, holding a drink and Johnny was sitting cross-legged in front of the fire holding his bundled kitten, now mostly ears and eyes, when Murdoch strode into the pleasant domestic scene, worthy of depiction by any painter worth their salt.
Part 4: Little and Large
Well, that was Murdoch putting his foot down. And given their past success in persuading Murdoch to do something he didn’t wish to do, Scott would have given up hope immediately. Johnny was apparently not willing to learn from past experience.
Johnny kept his head down, but that couldn’t hide his body language.
Murdoch went to pour himself a drink. Someone else trying to hide what they were thinking.
Felipa was bound by no such compunction and miaowed. It was a loud noise in the silence and she made no bones about doing it again, several times.
“Good set of lungs,” Johnny ventured, clearly echoing what he’d heard women say about babies with no knowledge of social rules.
Scott watched for a twitch in Murdoch’s expression – and yes, there it was, but it was just as quickly suppressed. Having seemingly mastered himself, Murdoch turned to sit in his favourite chair, with his favourite drink.
“No, son,” he said, the “son” softening the edict somewhat. “It’s a barn cat. How do you even know it’d like to be a house cat?”
“How do you know that’s what I was going to do? Maybe she just needs feeding and then I can turn her loose again.”
Scott could see even Johnny didn’t believe what he was saying – mainly because his brother had brought the kitten close to his face and was speaking to her, not to Murdoch.
Murdoch sighed. It was an expansive, fatherly sigh, such as has been sighed by fathers all through the years.
“No. Take her back, Johnny. Do you know how much work she’d be, for no reward. She’s needed in the barn and she’ll do a fine job there.”
Scott took note of the change of pronoun. Any minute now it’d be Felipa.
Johnny didn’t reply. He apparently preferred to play with his kitten, which was looking much fluffier and had obviously forgotten the indignity of being washed. He had unwrapped her and put her on the carpet. She was rushing his fingers, which he was wriggling on the floor for her, as if they’d known one another for days. Weeks, even.
“I suppose you’ve got a name for her,” Murdoch said, staring at the interaction between the two.
Knew it, Scott said to himself.
“Felipa,” Johnny mumbled. Then, in a cunning stroke, he picked her up and began to climb to his feet. “I’ll take her back. She’ll learn to catch mice and stuff in time, I guess. If she doesn’t die before she learns.”
Scott had to put his hand to his mouth to stop himself laughing out loud at Johnny’s outrageous melodrama.
“She’ll learn,” Murdoch said, faltering very slightly. “She is a cat, after all. Felipa? That’s an unusual name.”
“She likes Barranca,” Johnny said, now standing, with Felipa gnawing the toggle on his shirt. “Felipa means woman who likes horses.”
“Is that right? And Barranca likes her. How do you know that?”
Oh, well played, Murdoch, Scott thought to himself.
Johnny seemed beaten for a moment; but he was too quick-witted for his father. “I asked him,” he said.
So this was going to go one of two ways, Scott knew. Barn cat or house cat. Felipa was now busy climbing up Johnny’s shirt onto his shoulder.
Then Murdoch laughed. Not a big, uproarious laugh. More a resigned kind of a laugh, with an acknowledgement that Johnny had won at least part of a victory. But his father was not ready to concede the whole battle just yet.
“Feed her. See if she’s fit and well. Then you can let her choose where to live. I’ll talk to Maria – you know she won’t have her in the kitchen.”
Johnny picked up Felipa and, much to her consternation, held her aloft, breathing, “Yes!”, like any boy who’s got what he wanted. “You want chicken? I bet there’s some chicken in the pantry. Here, Murdoch, hold her while I get it.”
Johnny dumped the kitten directly onto Murdoch’s knee. Scott thought for one moment that it was enthusiasm to get her some food that led Johnny to trust Murdoch with the kitten – until, that was, Johnny winked at him as walked away.
But Murdoch was well up to the task of kitten-wrangling. When Felipa tried to turn round and lost traction in one paw, Murdoch’s large hands encircled her, protecting her progress up his thigh. She settled herself against his stomach, placed her front paws on his arm and that was that.
He smiled at Scott. “Your brother,” he said, “has powers of persuasion I underestimated.”
“He does,” Scott agreed. “And so does she.” He indicated a kitten, now purring so loudly Scott could hear her from where he was sitting.
Johnny came back in with food, which proved much to the kitten’s liking. She sat up, jumped over Murdoch’s protective arm, and, before he could grab her, leapt off his leg, leaving pinprick marks in his pants and a pained expression on his face. She galloped over to Johnny, who had put down a plate of something tempting for her.
“Did I ever tell you about the time…” And Murdoch was off, ready with a fund of cat stories to entertain both his sons and the new house kitten.
Part 5: Rules and Regulations
When the large crate of books arrived from Boston, Scott surveyed it with interest, noting the various date stamps and places through which it had travelled.
Johnny’s question was, of course, inevitable. “Well, aren’t you going to open it, then?”
“I’m enjoying the anticipation,” Scott said, thinking about the best way to open the crate without damaging the contents.
Johnny snorted. “There’s a hammer in the kitchen. I used it last week to fix that cupboard Maria was complaining about.”
“Hammer?” said Scott, pretending to be appalled. “This requires a delicate touch, not a sledgehammer!”
“It’s a very delicate hammer,” Johnny said, playing along. “It wouldn’t hurt a fly let alone a great strong box like this.”
Felipa sauntered in, looking for Johnny as always. She had become his shadow in the last week. She sniffed at the crate then rubbed her head against the nice rough edge, marking it as hers.
“All right. You get the hammer and we’ll see what Grandfather has sent this time.”
Johnny saluted his elder brother and walked across the great room, his kitten now trotting at his heels, tail up, clearly anticipating food or games.
Half an hour later, there were books all over the floor, the crate having yielded its contents to Johnny’s hammer. Both of them were reading titles, browsing books and sharing first sentences of books on accounting, books on business practice, books of philosophy and government and all kinds of other topics Harlan had deemed fit and proper study for his grandson.
Johnny put down the book he was holding. “I thought you’d already done all your studying back east,” he said, straightening the pile of books he’d looked through.
“Grandfather thinks I need to be aware of all the latest developments so that I can be ready to – so that I can assist Murdoch…”
“You think he needs assisting?” Johnny said, looking askance at his brother. He obviously hadn’t missed Scott’s little slip. Taking over the family business was not something Scott was going to be doing on his own, even if he was the first born.
Scott was saved from having to answer by the kitten’s discovery of the inside of the crate which had lost one side in the attempt to open it. She bumbled around inside it, nosing the corners then falling with a thump onto her side and finally reaching out with all four paws.
“Whatcha doing, Felipa?” Johnny enquired, though he knew perfectly well what that invitation meant.
Scott stood and started to move the books to a small bookcase he’d emptied earlier. It was conveniently near the chair he’s adopted as his own, so that he could study whenever he had a few minutes away from other duties.
When that was done, there was the crate to move – but Felipa had tired of the hands- are-coming-to get-you game, and had curled up and gone to sleep, with her tail neatly curled over her nose.
“Well, I’m not going to move her,” Scott said. “She has far too many claws and teeth.”
“We’ll leave it here. She’ll follow me out to the barn in a few minutes anyway.”
Murdoch chose just that moment to stride across the great room to take his hat from the hat stand.
“Johnny,” he said in passing. “Get that crate moved. We have visitors later.”
“Why do I have to move it? It’s Scott’s crate!”
“Because it has your kitten in it,” Murdoch said, actually grinning back at his younger son.
Later that same day, Johnny was sitting in front of the fire fiddling with a pile of feathers and a needle and thread, and talking about the funny thing that happened to him with that bull, you remember, when his brother interrupted the flow of the story.
“Johnny,” said Scott. “Remove your kitten. She is impeding my study of this tome Grandfather sent.”
“Tip her off,” Johnny said. “She bounces.”
“I tried that. This is all that happens.” Scott gently encouraged the kitten off his knee and onto the floor, where she did indeed bounce, after a moment’s pause for thought – straight back onto his knee. There she resumed rubbing her head on his book with what seemed to be perfect satisfaction.
“I bet you don’t even know the title,” Johnny said, twisting round to admire his kitten, which was now squeezing under the book and right up into Scott’s face.
“Accounting For Men,” Scott offered, trying hard to pretend he was still reading.
“Not even close. And what about chapter two – what’s that about?”
Scott resisted the temptation to turn back a page to glance at the title of the very chapter he’d been trying to read for the last ten minutes or so. “About accounting only in more detail?”
The brothers shared a laugh, which disturbed the kitten. As soon as Scott abandoned his book she slid off his thigh and ran over to where Johnny was now dangling what he’d been making – a bundle of feathers attached to some elastic tape he must have liberated from Teresa’s mending basket.
Felipa first leaped to catch the feathers then, when she missed, crouched down flat on the carpet, watching it intently as Johnny flicked it this way and that. She paddled with her back legs, readying herself for another leap and this time, Johnny let her catch the feathers. She ran away triumphantly with them in her mouth, trailing the elastic and disappearing under the table.
“She won’t be bringing dead things into the house,” Murdoch offered. “Or, even worse, half dead things.”
“Might as well start as we mean to go on. No kittens in the kitchen.”
“Maria’s already waved a towel at her three times. I think she’s got that message.”
“She has to stay off my desk.”
“And off me when I’m trying to read.”
“And no kittens upstairs.”
Johnny sighed. “Might as well not have her in the house at all if she’s got to follow all these rules. Don’t know I have enough time to teach her all that.”
Neither Murdoch nor Scott seemed sympathetic to his problem. But his kitten trotted back from her lair and slumped at his feet, and he gave her one of the treats he’d been using to train her.
He looked at her then reached to stroke her soft head. “Muchacha, we have work to do.”
Part 6: Little Cat Lost
After a long day in the saddle, it was always good to come back to the ranch house, ready for a meal and a sense of satisfaction that everything had gone well, the day’s work was done, and tomorrow was far enough away not be of any concern.
And a little bonus these days was a small cat, sitting on the gate post, or balance-walking across the corral fence, or stretched out in a sunbeam, or snoozing in a stall, so that when Johnny dismounted and called, she’d stretch, jump down from the gate post or the fence, or slide over to him from the sunbeam or the stall, and rub up against his boot.
Then he’d pick her up and put her onto Barranca’s croup, and she would ride into the barn with all the dignity of the Queen of Sheba.
“She looks like Helen of Troy,” Scott offered one day, clearly intent on showing off his knowledge of beautiful women.
Johnny was tempted to do the “Helen-of-where?” routine, just to play along, but restrained himself. He’d been waiting for this moment ever since he’d taken note of the book Scott had been reading. He’d even given it a cursory glance himself and done a little preparation.
Scott pursed his mouth. “Helen of Troy was supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world.” Apparently Scott was peeved that his ploy hadn’t worked. “She was married to Menelaus but stolen away by Paris. Or went willingly.”
Johnny waited to see if there was more but Scott was busy dismounting. Now seemed the right moment. “‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,’” Johnny said, straight-faced, reaching up to Felipa’s head and waiting for her to rub his hand . And, before Scott could cap the line, Johnny was ready. “‘And burnt the topless towers of Illium.’”
Scott, leading his horse resolutely away, did manage the final words. “‘Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.’ You’re not going to try to make Felipa immortal with a kiss, are you? And when did you read Doctor Faustus? And why did you learn those lines?”
Scott seemed to have forgotten he’d left the book on his chair three evenings running. Suppressing a grin, Johnny answered as casually as he could, which was pretty casual, though he did say so himself. “Came in that crate of books. Pretty good read. That part was marked by someone – it said, “learn by heart” so I did. And no, I’m not kissing Felipa any time soon.”
Later that week, they rode in as usual. It was a slightly chillier day, grey clouds, even some light rain, but it had gone well and they were both ready for some down time.
But there was no kitten there to greet Johnny.
“Felipa! Felipa!” he called gently, expecting a rush of paws. Even Barranca seemed to be looking for her. “Felipa!”
“You don’t think she’s gotten into the house, do you?” Scott asked, finishing up his chores.
“I don’t see how she could. What with Maria and Murdoch chasing her out of there unless I’m around to supervise.” Johnny unsaddled Barranca and started to rub him down.
“Johnny, you don’t supervise. You just let her do what she wants.”
“She’s a kitten, Scott! You can only train ’em so far. I got her to sit when I tell her to, most of the time anyway, and she’ll fetch if she feels like it. I think that’s pretty good going for a kitten. I wonder where she is…”
Half an hour later he still had no idea, despite both of them searching the barn, asking Jelly, who didn’t take no notice of no kitten, and having a cursory look around outside.
“Maybe she’s wandered a bit further this time. She is getting stronger now.” Even Scott seemed somewhat concerned that they’d not found Felipa.
The evening meal was ready and neither brother was willing to forgo a good meal to find a wayward kitten, although Johnny looked a little more pensive than he usually did.
After supper, coffee in hand, he settled on the floor and picked at a loose bit of rug – loosened by Felipa, although Murdoch didn’t need to know that.
His father sat at his desk, writing and signing and reading, until the light faded away and he had to light the oil lamp to see.
Johnny watched him search the desk top, which was covered in piles of papers. He didn’t ask what his father was looking for – he was still busy thinking where else he could look for his kitten. But it seemed a bit foolish to call her when it was absolutely silent in the room. She was, after all, just a kitten. His kitten.
He was just about to get up and have a little scout around when his father suddenly pushed back his chair, exclaiming, “Well, I’ll be – how did you get in there?”
There was a sleepy sound Johnny knew very well.
“Come and look at this, son.”
He uncurled himself from his place on the floor by the fire, and wandered over. And there was Felipa, just beginning to wake, one eye open, the other hidden by her tail, comfortably settled in the bottom drawer of Murdoch’s desk.
And his father wasn’t making any fuss about it at all.
“How on earth did she get in there?” Murdoch asked.
“Did you leave the top drawer open?” Johnny responded, reaching down to stroke his kitten’s soft, warm fur.
“I suppose I did – when I went to pick a book off the shelf an hour or more ago. But she’s in the bottom drawer, son. How did she … oh.” Murdoch paused. “I went out to speak to Jelly. Must have left the front door open. Only gone for two or three minutes. But that still doesn’t explain…” Murdoch wordlessly indicated Felipa, who was now thoroughly awake and seemed to be aware she was the centre of attention.
“I thought you knew all about cats,” Johnny said, parking himself on the edge of the desk so that he could comfortably stroke his kitten. She stretched up her head to meet his hand and slowly closed her eyes in bliss.
Murdoch leaned back in his chair and smiled gently at his son. “Ah. Yes. Very flexible, cats. And she’s small enough to creep to the back of the top drawer …”
“… and drop down into the drawer underneath,” said Scott, stepping forward to look into the drawer. “Good thing you didn’t squash her when you shut the top drawer again.”
“I think she’d have let me know if she was being squashed,” Murdoch said, watching Johnny with his kitten. She was still in the drawer, playing with his fingers. Then she stood, stretched hugely, jumped down onto the floor and trotted across to the front door.
Johnny let her out before he settled down back by the fire, leaving the front door open.
“She’s a fine-looking kitten, son. But I’ll make sure I close the drawers from now on. She’s left a considerable present of fur in here.”
“She does that,” Johnny said. “I found hairs in my wash basin this morning. And she’s not even been upstairs.”
He glanced at his father to see if he’d noticed the little white lie, but Murdoch was busy blowing fur off his papers.
But when Felipa returned and settled to giving herself a good wash and brush up, Johnny noticed his father watching her with a wry smile.
She was Johnny’s cat all right, but he knew for sure now that she was welcome.
Part 7: Locked Down (in the cellar)
Johnny didn’t know whether to be pleased to be left on his own in the house for a week, or displeased to be given two lists of “Things that need your immediate attention” (Murdoch) and “Items in need of repair” (Scott).
Oh, and the one from Teresa, but that was mostly stuff about remembering to take his laundry to Gabriela the washerwoman, and his mending to Gabriela’s sister – well, everything he already knew in all honesty, but he couldn’t fault her for that. At the end of the list it said “and keep That Kitten out of the wool”, which puzzled him. But the list was short in comparison to Murdoch’s, so he was grateful for that.
Maria had left a list of what he could eat for each day, and a reminder that her youngest granddaughter, Isabel, would be happy to do the washing up and a bit of simple cooking. Maria knew he could cook up a bit of something for himself when required but after a long day getting through lists, it would be good to have food waiting.
And, well, there was the one from Jelly about what to feed all the animals and when, but he knew all that already.
So here he sat, in Murdoch’s chair, with Felipa asleep on his lap and a bottle of Murdoch’s best wine, half-finished, at his elbow. Plus a glass. He had some manners. It was windy outside and there was a door banging but he couldn’t muster the energy to go and shut it.
Everyone would be back the next day and he was feeling immensely self-satisfied, having just spent five minutes ticking everything off everyone’s list. The ranch hands had got on with their jobs without much guidance from him, and he’d delegated several jobs to Frank in proper ex-ramrod style, so he had to give Frank credit for seeing to Scott’s list, but he’d done pretty much everything else himself. And without major injury, either, which was even more reason to be pleased with himself.
He looked down at Murdoch’s list, then at the three mysterious letters at the bottom of the page, puzzling again on their meaning. “PTO” it said. He’d tried all day to decipher the letters, but nothing sensible had come to mind. Perhaps one more effort.
The first word was most likely “please”. It seemed an unusual word for his father to choose, but, well, it fit with the rest of his idea. “Please turn over”. It didn’t really make any sense – unless – he suddenly cursed his work-addled brain, startling Felipa awake. He’d known it all along, had just forgotten that he knew it.
He turned it over. On the other side of the sheet of paper, it read, “And above all else, do not forget to clear up the mess in the wine cellar. It looks as though a herd of men went through there, intent on having a party. (Which was true, Johnny thought). And fix that door hinge while you’re there. Love, Your Father.”
What Johnny said next was unprintable. It was already 10.30, the ranch hands were all tucked up in their bunks and there was absolutely no one else to give him a hand. There was nothing for it but to remove the kitten from his lap, sigh hugely and head outside for the toolbox.
He spent at least five minutes trying to find said toolbox, then he remembered he’d left it in the kitchen just in case there were any other jobs. He must have known there’d be other jobs. This was his father he was dealing with.
Carrying the heavy box he marched down, well, sauntered would be closer to the mark after half a bottle of wine, to the cellar door, followed by his kitten.
Whoever had last closed the door had been a little too forceful, more forceful than one of the hinges could manage. He set to work with the screwdriver, tightening up first one screw, then the next, all while balancing somewhat precariously on the top step. He had to stop to yawn a couple of times, and yes, the job was not made easier by the pleasantly relaxed sensation induced by the wine, but he was making progress and just testing to see if the hinge needed oil when a gust of wind tore from the open kitchen door, along the corridor and straight into the heavy cellar door, slamming it shut and sending him toppling backwards, trying to avoid Felipa as an extra complication.
It was one of those moments in life when you know something terrible is about to happen, and then it happens, and it’s too late to go back. There were moments like that all too often in Johnny’s experience, and this was definitely one of them. He tried to balance on the next step down while still hanging onto the door but his usual cat-like responses had been washed away with the wine and he stepped backwards, again and again, losing more and more of his balance until he reached the floor of the cellar in a heap.
There’s that moment after it’s been too late to go back when you start to check yourself for damage. He hadn’t blacked out, that was one good thing. He tried sitting up – no problems there, with back or legs, which he flexed experimentally. Not a twinge. Yet.
Then he reached up left-handed to check his skull and the sudden pain in his forearm made his heart sink.
He cursed Murdoch and Murdoch’s lists, he cursed the wind, he cursed his luck then he stopped cursing. There was a small greeting miaow and a furry head rubbed against his hand. Then Felipa landed on his chest and bumped his nose with hers. It was damp but comforting.
He didn’t want to move but it had to be done. The ranch hands would be around early tomorrow, but who would think to look for him in the wine cellar? He had to try the door but he had a bad feeling about the chances of it opening. He eased to his feet as the pains from other parts of his anatomy began to report in, so it was slow progress back up the steps, with Felipa at his side. And at the top, disappointment. The effect of him pulling on one side while he fell and the wind on the other had broken something, and he couldn’t get it to open no matter how hard he tried.
So back down to the bottom of the steps he went, with little paw sounds following him.
What other options did he have? The full moon was shining cheerfully through the large window to the outside world. A window his father had told him he’d climbed through to save Scott from the guys who’d thought Scott was him because Scott had told them he was him. Johnny’s head spun a little trying to work that out. Still, if his father could climb through it he certainly could.
It was only a few steps across the floor of the cellar to reach the spot where, only the month before, three large barrels had been handily placed for Murdoch to step onto. But they’d had a bit of a celebration after Violet and co had left, and hadn’t replaced the top barrel (had that been on his list?) so there was a good six feet between him and the windowsill, and another three feet or so before he could snag the window catch and get the window open.
However, there were still two barrels, and they’d be easy enough to climb onto. But with a broken forearm – he was pretty sure it was broken – and that gash on his elbow that was still bleeding, maybe a little first aid was in order.
He searched for something to bind it up and found one of Maria’s best tablecloths. What it was doing down there was a mystery – it was one of her most brightly-coloured, and he’d watched Teresa lay it on the table and then take it off again, rubbing her eyes. Maybe a little too bright? Anyway, there it was and he managed to cut it in two with the knife he kept handy in his belt. Binding his elbow using his right hand and his teeth wasn’t too difficult. Getting a sling organised was trickier and he was gasping with the pain when he’d settled his arm. It was worth it, though, the pain receding to a dull throb. He settled back onto the floor, his back against the wall and contemplated the next steps.
Felipa, meanwhile, had been nosing round the whole cellar and came back to him with her head covered in cobwebs.
Johnny reached out and brushed the cobwebs off her ears and forehead but she didn’t like him touching her chin and nipped him.
“Well, at least Murdoch can’t say we didn’t try to clean up down here,” he told her, inspecting his finger. “Now what? You got any suggestions how to get out of here?”
She had settled herself lying full length on him with her tail in his face. One ear rotated slowly when he spoke but that was her only contribution to problem-solving. She was providing quite a bit of heat and Johnny felt himself falling asleep in her warm comfort, but he knew his elbow was still slowly leaking blood. He needed to get out of the cellar, and in the not too distant future.
“Maybe…” he told her. She was purring loudly so he was encouraged to go on. “Maybe if I broke the window someone might hear it.”
Someone, for example, like the two ranch hands currently riding in, singing at the tops of their voices. Vance and Red. Johnny had already warned them twice not to go to town, get drunk and be late to work the next morning, but so far they didn’t seem inclined to listen to his instruction. Now at least their disobedience might help him out of a spot of trouble.
He didn’t want to move Felipa, but he nudged her anyway and she jumped onto the floor and followed him as he trailed across the cellar floor. He grabbed an empty bottle from the floor and threw it as hard as he could against the window. It bounced back and nearly hit Felipa, who squeaked and jumped hurriedly sideways.
“Sorry, sorry!” Johnny said to her, then, “Help! Help!” to the guys outside who were both still singing. Finally they shut up, and Johnny grabbed the nearest big, full bottle he could find and threw it hard against the window. It broke with the most satisfying crash, but it scared his kitten off into the darkest corner, underneath one of the wine racks.
Outside, there was a sudden silence.
Then Vance, his deep voice more than somewhat slurred, asked, “Did you drop the bottle?”
“What?” said Red.
“The bottle. Did you drop it?”
“No. I think I have it here – yeah, look, I’m holding it.”
Johnny imagined Red waving the bottle in the moonlight.
“Well let’s have it.”
“Let me get off this here horse first,” Red said, and Johnny snorted, amused in spite of everything. He’d almost forgotten he was trying to attract their attention and then suddenly it was too late. They were both walking away, talking loudly and giving him no chance to butt in. He tried a “Hey!” and a “Help!” but it did no good. They didn’t even stop to puzzle over the third voice in their conversation.
Johnny sat down heavily on the barrel, stood up again, removed three pieces of glass then sat down more gingerly. Things were not going so well.
Felipa trotted over from her hiding place, delicately avoiding the broken glass that twinkled in the moonlight. She miaowed interrogatively.
“Can’t give you a hand up, Pickle,” he told her but she could manage pretty well on her own, climbing his leg, his right arm and up onto his shoulder. She rubbed herself ecstatically against his hair.
That gave him considerable encouragement. One last throw of the dice – or, more specifically, a gentle nudge of a kitten.
He reached for the list Murdoch had written and for the stub of pencil he kept handy for making notes of whatever needed noting, and wrote a brief but pointed plea for help and his location. He took the bloodied piece of cloth he had used as a sling and, with a groan that make Felipa look at him askance, pushed one end of the cloth through a hole in the paper. At least the fingers of his left hand had some strength in them. Then he tied the whole thing round Felipa’s middle, with the hope that she wouldn’t strangle herself when he made her go through the window.
What would happen after that was in the lap of whatever gods were looking down at him and having a good laugh at his expense.
He climbed down again and found a sturdy wooden box, enough to give him just a little more precarious height. Next he grabbed Felipa by the scruff and lifted her up onto the window ledge then, with a “Sorry, Pickle,” shooed her away. She was unimpressed at first but eventually got the message and jumped through the shattered window and ran out of sight.
Johnny sank back onto the floor. He couldn’t think of one more thing to do apart from setting fire to the place, which didn’t seem like a smart idea. Then he heard her.
A little way away, a small cat was yowling, making an unearthly kind of noise, a wild song that had little of the domestic cat about it. She kept at it, too, until there was a voice telling her to be quiet, then a moment’s silence, then the miracle happened.
“Johnny? Johnny? You in there?” It was Frank, friend to Felipa and saviour of a very tired and sore Johnny.
It took Frank only a few minutes to force the door open and hurry down, lamp in hand.
“Johnny? How’d you do that?”
“Don’t ask, man. Just get me out of here. Might need a doc. Can wait till morning.”
“Sure thing. You want a hand there?”
So with Frank’s help, Johnny made it back to the sofa in the great room, and Frank sent a hand for the doctor, since the gash on Johnny’s elbow still wouldn’t quite stop bleeding and the bump in his arm didn’t look right at all. He didn’t even wait until morning.
And in the afternoon, as his family poured into the house, all relaxed and cheerful after their little holiday, Johnny looked over the back of the settee and said hi, in a rather laudanum-laced greeting.
“What was it this time?” his long-suffering father said. He was standing in the middle of the room and hadn’t even set down his valise. Scott stood further back apparently unable to decide whether to look concerned or to grin.
“Murdoch,” Johnny said. “No more PTOs. Thank you.” He lay back, his arm a numb weight on his chest and Felipa lying along his legs. She wore a slightly bloody bit of highly-coloured cloth round her neck, and guarded him in a truly heroic manner, looking as serious in this task as a small cat could possibly be.
Part 8: Knitting
Somehow, whatever Teresa was trying to knit was growing. Johnny wasn’t sure how, since she wielded the needles with all the skill of a newborn kitten trying to walk, but there had definitely been slow growth over the last week.
The evening he first noticed Felipa’s fascination with the wool, he was sitting on the floor by the fire, nursing a cup of coffee and watching his kitten surreptitiously. She wasn’t in trouble yet but he was ready to call her to him (the treat was ready in his hand) if she looked as if she was going to leap into one of the spaces in the bookcase, or rub her face too enthusiastically on Murdoch’s boat. Ship. Brigantine. Clipper. Whatever the darn thing was called.
He suddenly realised Felipa was interested in the wool. She’d trotted over to inspect the basket of wool balls, shoving her nose into the softness and looking up at Teresa, who’d made the mistake of rolling up a small ball for her. Felipa had immediately grabbed it and had been pouncing on and scrabbling at it with her back feet for several minutes.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” he asked Teresa, nodding at Felipa and her new toy.
“It’s only a spare bit of wool. What harm can it do?”
“Indeed,” said Scott, but he winked at Johnny, who smiled back. “Just a bit of wool. She can’t do any harm with that.”
“What?” Teresa said, trying to move the knitting needles more quickly. “Oh, now look what you’ve made me do!”
Johnny had no idea what they’d made her do, since he’d never mastered knitting. Knotting, yes, but that was sensible, manly stuff, with ropes and so on. Knitting was for females.
Teresa was looking disconsolately at her knitting. “I’ve dropped a stitch. And don’t you dare say pick it up! No!” She looked at both of them, huffed, folded up the knitting and stuffed it into her basket. “I’m going to do this in my room!”
“Aw, honey, don’t get mad. You’re right. She’s too small to do much harm. And it is only a bit of wool.” Johnny knew Teresa was more annoyed with the knitting than with either Scott or himself, but he liked a quiet life in the evening, and Teresa being mad wasn’t conducive to that.
Mollified slightly, Teresa pushed the basket under her chair. “I’m tired anyway. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Night, honey,” Johnny said, relieved.
“Good night, Teresa,” Scott said. “Are you wanting to go to Green River tomorrow? You could come with me if you want.”
“Thanks, Scott. I will. I think I need a few more knitting lessons and I know just the lady to call on.”
So the evening ended peacefully. Felipa had fallen asleep with the wool within easy reach, Scott reading and Johnny scratching thoughtfully on the bandage supporting his arm.
Murdoch had put him on what he laughingly called ‘light duties’, which mainly consisted of him doing whatever he’d done before he’d fallen down the cellar steps, except he had to be a bit careful with his left arm. The conversation had run something like this:
“…and when you’ve finished up cutting out the beeves for shipping, then you can…”
“But old man – er – Murdoch! Arm!”
“You rode all the way back from that Jessamie woman with a bullet hole in your arm and a silly grin on your face – you can manage a few chores. No! Don’t argue. You’re keeping Scott waiting!”
“He doesn’t have a broken arm!”
“It’s not very broken. Go on with you, boy. Can’t have you getting lazy.”
In truth, Murdoch hadn’t said it that way at all – in fact, he’d been quite understanding, but when the day was hot and the cattle were ornery, that’s how Johnny had re-cast the conversation as him pleading and Murdoch being grouchy.
Then he smiled at the remembrance of Jessamie and her boy, when the cost of a couple of bullet wounds had been nothing set against the reward.
Those biscuits were good. And Grady had a chance at a good life now. And …
Scott’s yell brought him back down to earth with a bump, very nearly literally, as Barranca shied away from his duty in the face of a steer that didn’t want to become beef. It cost him a moment’s agony setting things to right.
“Thanks!” he shouted across to his brother, who was doing a good job of persuading the steers to do what he wanted them to do. Focus, Johnny. Focus.
At the end of the day he rode in with Scott, hot, dirty, tired and ready for at the very least a nap, well, a change of clothes, anyway. As he dismounted, Felipa galloped over with something in her mouth. She stood looking at him expectantly, clearly hoping for praise.
“What you got there, Pickle? You been rat-catching?” The object in her mouth looked distantly like a bedraggled rat that had lost its tail. He reached down and tried to persuade her to drop it but all she did was hang on harder.
“What’s she got there?” asked Scott, unconsciously echoing his brother. “Odd colour for an animal.”
It was a sort of treacly yellowy browny sort of colour, the exact colour of … oh no! Teresa’s wool!
In a panic, Johnny tried to wrest the wool from his kitten but she held on firmly and used her considerable fire-power against his hand to hang onto her prize, leaving him sucking the gash in his thumb.
Then, suddenly and with great aplomb, she dropped her prize at his feet.
Heart beating a little faster, Johnny squatted down and picked up the wool. The neatly-wound ball looked somewhat fuzzy, and was pretty damp. It also had a veneer of different colours of dirt. She’d evidently been playing with it for quite a while. And it was far too big to be the ball Teresa had given her to play with.
“Oh dear,” Scott said helpfully. “Perhaps if you washed it?”
“You think Teresa won’t notice? Where does she get this stuff anyway? I’ll get some more next time I’m in …”
“You’re joshing me.”
“No. She got it last time she was there. Her friend taught her to knit and she brought it back with her.” Scott seemed to know a good deal about the knitting wool.
Johnny sat back on his heels and looked up at his brother. “You think Murdoch would let me go as far as …”
“Not after last time, no.”
“No, I guess not.”
There was silence for a moment. Felipa sat patiently waiting for her human to decide what to do about her gift.
“You don’t need to go to San Francisco in person, you know,” Scott offered.
“We do have a moderately efficient mail service, I believe.”
“And where exactly do I write? You know the address of the store?”
“Well, no. But I do know the address of the friend. Cynthia and I have been corresponding for some weeks now.”
Johnny grinned and reached out to pet Felipa’s ear, much to her satisfaction. “Cynthia,” he said, “Interesting name.”
“The name has a connection with the moon,” Scott said, turning away from Johnny and reaching to undo his horse’s cinch.
“Cyn – thia,” said Johnny, still grinning. “Is she a lady of the night?”
Barranca’s sudden snort muffled Scott’s response.
Johnny didn’t get to the bottom of how Felipa had managed to steal the ball of wool until he noticed Teresa sighing over her knitting that evening, then packing it away and shoving it under her chair again, with more than a hint of annoyance. It seemed the lessons from her friend in Green River hadn’t helped solve her dropped stitch problem.
He watched Felipa approach from behind the chair, dive underneath it, without Teresa noticing, and emerge triumphant, another ball of wool in her mouth. She then stashed it (or possibly lost interest in it) and it ended up under another chair.
Johnny glanced across at his brother, who seemed also to have been watching the wool-stealing in progress. They grinned at each other. It didn’t matter. The letter would go off the next day. Cynthia would purchase more wool and Felipa could have a couple of balls of it without Teresa even noticing. And Johnny could always retrieve the ball of wool after Teresa had gone to bed.
Ten days later, during which time Teresa had remembered to take her knitting into her room again, a parcel arrived addressed to Scott. It was squashy so there was little doubt that it was the wool. Of course, Johnny didn’t know it had arrived, since he was out doing any number of the small tasks that had been gathering like a dark cloud on the horizon. His arm was feeling a whole lot better so he felt able to tackle them on his own.
By mid-afternoon, he happily crossed off the last item on his mental list, settled his hat and pushed Barranca into a canter on the way home. He’d checked the water troughs – all full, one leaking. He’d given all the new foals some treats, checking for any cuts that needed doctoring. He’d been round every gate near the house, greasing a couple of hinges and noting a gate post that needed reinforcement. Then he detailed off Frank to do that job, since he was still hindered by his forearm. So, having done all that and several more not too strenuous tasks, he wondered if he deserved to have a few minutes in the kitchen with a good big cup of coffee and maybe something to eat. And decided that he did deserve just that.
Maria put the coffee in front of him the minute he went into the kitchen and sat down, and she soon pushed a plate of cold meat and bread in his direction, with the usual comments about him spoiling his appetite for the evening meal, or being too thin, or some such, he wasn’t really listening. He savored the coffee, ate the meal and enjoyed the peace.
So when the shriek came from great room, it was a very unwelcome interruption to the break in his day. But since the shriek sounded like Teresa’s shriek, he got up and went into the room to see what disaster had befallen her.
He’d never seen anything like it. Felipa had knitted the house. He knew that because there Felipa was, sitting in the middle of room, surrounded by wool that had been strung round every available piece of furniture, up and over the desk, round and round each chair, over the tables and, most worryingly of all, decorating Murdoch’s precious ship.
And standing by the door was Teresa, open-mouthed, white-faced and now staring at Johnny with as much shock rapidly turning to pure anger as he’d ever seen.
She managed a strangled, “Johnny!” just as he shouted, “Felipa!” His kitten looked up and miaowed. Triumph was the word that came to Johnny’s mind.
But it was strange – she wouldn’t have just picked up all the wool and chased round the great room with it for no reason.
Peeping out from under Murdoch’s desk was a black kitten, about the same size as Felipa. It was lying on what looked like the remains of Teresa’s knitting. Ears back, it eyed the two humans then made a run for the door, and with a last flick of its tail was gone.
Teresa had only had six balls of wool, well, four after Felipa had stolen two, but with the four sent from San Francisco, that made a great deal of wool, as Johnny discovered. It must have been fun for the two cats chasing each other around, wool unravelling as they went. There was not one moment of fun trying to sort it all out again, especially with a weakened left hand.
Scott laughed at the idea of helping until he realised staving off Murdoch’s wrath might be a good idea, not to mention Teresa’s muttered threats about cold meals and no coffee for a month.
“And don’t even dream of cutting the wool! It’s perfectly all right, it just needs rewinding. You have at least a couple of hours before Murdoch gets back. And get that kitten out of here!”
Johnny tenderly picked up his kitten. “Barn, Felipa. If we’re quick, no-one but Teresa will know and we have you back in here in no time.” He hurried out with her, hearing his brother’s exasperated sigh. Teresa meanwhile had taken off her wide-brimmed gardening hat and chased after him, slapping him with the hat. It was all most humiliating.
He put Felipa in Barranca’s stall and hurried back to the extremely tedious task she had set him.
It took, by Scott’s careful timekeeping, exactly one hour, forty-three minutes for them to untangle the last cats’ nest and pack the balls of wool into Teresa’s basket. There wasn’t much they could do about her knitting but it didn’t look much worse than it had done, so Johnny tucked it into the basket too and took the whole lot to the door of her room.
“Look at this,” his brother said when Johnny came back downstairs. Scott was holding up a tattered package. “She dug right through to the wool. Seems as though she has a taste for the stuff.”
Johnny scratched his chin. “Going to make it difficult to have Felipa back in the house. Unless we can persuade Teresa to stop knitting.”
“That, brother, is a problem you’ll have to solve yourself. I need to go and finish my chores before Murdoch gets back.”
“I’ll help you. If he’s feeling pleased with us he won’t notice the broken bit on his ship.”
“Spar,” said Scott.
Johnny thought about rising to the challenge but in the end, decided it was more fun not to.
“You’re no fun anymore,” Scott said, in a passable imitation of his brother.
“I have a kitten that can knit a house. How much more fun do you want?”
Part 9 The Birds
with apologies to Daphne DuMaurier
“Right!” said Murdoch, setting his coffee cup down on the kitchen table amid the remains of their breakfast.
Johnny cringed inwardly a little. The force of his father putting down his cup usually indicated he had an Idea or, worse still, a Plan. And they usually involved work. A firm thump of the coffee cup meant lots and lots of heavy work.
“Yes?” he said, hoping for the best and preparing for the worst.
“Johnny. Since your arm is fully mended, it’s time to build up your muscles again.”
Johnny flexed his left arm experimentally. It didn’t seem that much different to him, nothing that a little light, ordinary ranch work wouldn’t cure.
“It’s not been six weeks yet,” he offered, hoping to put off whatever Plan Murdoch had dreamed up overnight.
“We’ll go gently,” Murdoch said, looking firmly at his son. How Murdoch managed to look firmly at people, Johnny didn’t know, but it was a very useful weapon in a boss’ arsenal. He used firm looks himself when he couldn’t beat some sense into someone with his hat.
“Where are we going?” Johnny asked, trying to play with Murdoch’s words and divert attention from The Plan, whatever it might be.
“The forge,” Murdoch said, pushing his chair back and standing. “A good hour’s work in there will strengthen your back and exercise your left arm, and you’ll learn some useful skills. Where’s your brother?”
“I think he had a late night. He was dressing when I came down.”
“Ah. I think he should watch. Might as well kill two birds with one stone.”
Johnny toyed with responding that he wasn’t a bird when his father treated him to another firm look. He tried, “Right!” instead.
Murdoch nodded and went back into the great room. “Twenty minutes, young man. And you’ll need those heavy leather gloves I gave you.”
“Sure,” Johnny said, wondering where he’d put them last.
Just as he was hurriedly eating the last of his breakfast, his brother wandered in, looking a little pale and – what was that word? Oh yes – wan. Wandered in looking wan. Johnny smiled at his own little joke.
“What’re you grinning at?” Scott said, sounding somewhat cross. He thumped out a chair and called for coffee, more than somewhat ungraciously.
“Don’t tell me Trixie didn’t …” Johnny asked, hoping to needle his brother into a better mood.
“No, she didn’t, but Susie did and boy, does that girl drink! I could hardly keep up with her!”
“Looks like you didn’t keep up with her. Bet she’s all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning, ready for another customer who can’t hold his drink!”
“Boys!” Murdoch said, striding back into the kitchen. “Save that talk for the saloon, please. You’re upsetting Maria.”
Who didn’t look upset, but Murdoch had made his point. He strode purposefully out of the kitchen door.
“What’s the plan for today?” Scott said, leaning his head on his hand. “Please tell me it’s something quiet.”
“You mean The Plan. That’s what I call it. The Plan.”
“With capital letters? That kind of plan?”
“Yup. And I don’t think it’s going to be quiet. I think it’s going to be noisy. Lots of clanging. And thumping. And blowing.” Johnny imitated the action of the bellows. Scott groaned.
“It’s the forge, isn’t it. He told me last week he was going to show you everything you needed to know about the forge.”
“I don’t need to know anything about the forge! I pay other people, usually large, very well-muscled people not scared of fire…”
“You’re scared of fire?” Scott looked up. He seemed to be thinking he’d found a weakness in his brother.
“I’m scared of ruining my good looks with scars on my face from the sparks, that’s what I’m scared of!” Johnny said, heading Scott off at the pathway to another fount of teasing.
“Your good looks? You look …”
But whatever Scott had been about to say was cut off in mid-stream by Felipa, who choose that moment to leap onto the table top – a physical skill she had just grown into – which startled Scott into spilling his coffee.
“Don’t do that, you little pest!” Scott said, brushing coffee off his shirt sleeve.
“She’s not a pest – she’s a pet,” Johnny said, inviting his kitten over and bumping her nose with his finger. She reached up for her morning greeting, shivering her tail and then bumping his hand. He pulled at her ear and she dipped her head into his hand ecstatically. And for that, she earned a scrap of his breakfast ham.
“I swear, she has you twisted round her paw,” Scott said, giving up on his sleeve.
“You’re just jealous. Maybe you should get yourself a pet. A puppy, maybe, or a caged bird or something.”
“NO!” Maria’s cry from across the kitchen alerted them to her feelings about kittens in the kitchen – and most definitely about kittens on the kitchen table.
Johnny picked up his kitten and put her on his shoulder. “We’re going, we’re going right now!” he said, backing away from Maria, who had her broom in her hand. Felipa miaowed pitifully, perhaps hoping to arouse Maria’s motherly side but it was no good. Maria was firm.
Outside, the fall air was at last a little cooler. Johnny, who’d picked up his hat as he’d retreated from the kitchen, sauntered over to the forge. He set Felipa on the ground and she ran off on a mission of her own. Johnny watched her galloping across the ground for a moment before turning his attention to the forge.
“Here,” his father said, holding out a leather apron. “It should be the right size for you. It’ll save your clothes. Where are those gloves?”
Playing with Felipa had driven all thoughts of gloves from Johnny’s head. Fortunately, he remembered where he’d left them. “I’ll just fetch them. Be right back.”
He went into the barn and saw Felipa playing with a mouse. The black kitten from the Knitting Incident was watching her. The mouse ran around, trying to escape, but Felipa’s attention was completely focused. It stood no chance – until, that was, she simply let it run away.
Johnny found the gloves on a bench at the side of the barn, where he’d put them before he’d broken his arm. He held the apron up to himself. Clearly at some point Murdoch had bought or had it made in his size, since it was the right length, and the ties he wrapped round his back did up neatly at the front. Putting on the gloves, he began to feel he could do justice to any forging his father set him to do.
So it was a bit of a disappointment when his father set him to working the bellows.
“Watch carefully,” his father said. “This will exercise your arm – no, use your left arm. How can you hold the iron in the fire with your right hand if you’re using it to pump the bellows?”
Johnny pulled on the lever with his left arm and was surprised at the amount of effort it needed.
“All right – now, watch the colour of the metal.” Murdoch thrust the bar of metal he was holding into the coals, which glowed brighter and brighter as Johnny worked the bellows. “Red hot,” Murdoch commented, and Johnny saw how appropriate a term that was. He continued to pull on the lever, fascinated. “Now it’s white hot – I can start to work it.”
Murdoch pulled the rod out of the fire and moved it quickly to the anvil. He hit it with a strength and accuracy that came from years of experience, moulding it to the shape he wanted with ease. Johnny had stopped pulling the bellows handle and was absent-mindedly rubbing his left forearm.
Murdoch moved the metal from side to side, hitting it with a pure skill Johnny admired. It was a pleasure to watch the man work. He was so absorbed he didn’t notice Scott walking across to the forge. His brother’s eyes narrowed with every beat of the hammer his father was wielding.
“Er – Murdoch,” Scott said, standing with his hands behind his back as if awaiting punishment. Murdoch stopped hitting the metal to look up.
“Is it all right if I go and round up the cattle from the pasture?”
“No, it is not all right. That’s tomorrow’s job. Today, both of you will begin to learn this very important skill.” Murdoch sounded quite cross, as if The Plan to execute The Idea was being deliberately spoiled by a son with a hangover.
“But sir…” Scott began.
“Take over the bellows,” Murdoch said, ignoring Scott’s plea. “Johnny, come and hold the bar in the fire to heat it up again.
Johnny looked at his brother. “No more clanging,” he said. “Nice peaceful fire.”
“Humph,” said his brother, pulling on the bellows handle in his turn.
Johnny found it took both hands to hold the bar, which was clamped in some large tongs. It was a different kind of exercise for his arm, one that hurt in a different place so it must have been doing some good.
“What colour is it?” Murdoch asked.
“White!” Johnny said, lifting it clear of the coals and moving it to the anvil.
“Hold it firmly!” Murdoch instructed. “Scott, come here and watch!”
Scott had retreated as far from the noise as he could, but that wasn’t going to work with Murdoch in this mood. He stepped up closer.
Holding the bar while Murdoch pounded it took all Johnny’s concentration, especially when he had to move it according to instructions he was hard put to hear with all the clanging. And then, gradually, he became aware of another sound beyond the regular hammering. At first it was just the familiar sound of crows cawing and honking to each other, probably spreading the news about some food, or gossiping about the weather or whatever it was crows cawed and honked about. Smart birds. Johnny enjoyed watching them steal food from right under the horses’ hooves.
He put the now re-shaped bar – shaped into what, he couldn’t make out – back into the coals and held it there while his brother went back to pumping the bellows. Between each loud puff of air, and each answering roar of the fire, he could still hear the crows – and then, very faintly, a different sound, one he couldn’t at first place.
He moved the metal once more onto the anvil. This time, between each clang of metal against metal he heard a distinct, high yowl – clang – yowl – clang – yowl…
Suddenly he dropped the tongs, ignored the yelp from Scott and the cry from Murdoch and raced off, shouting, “Felipa!”. He was hindered by the apron but anxiety for his kitten and desire to kill all crows spurred him on.
He stopped by the fence. There was his kitten, cowering and miaowing, while ten or so crows sat on the fence shouting, well, honking at her. One was on the ground trying to creep up on her, and reaching out with its beak, evidently intent on pecking her. The mob took one look at Johnny, cawed to each other and lazily took off, one by one, leaving the boldest near his kitten. He reached in, grabbed her by the scruff and scuffed his boot into the dirt, sending a shower of dust over the bird.
It looked at him once with its beady black eye, and hopped a little further away, shaking the dust off its back.
Felipa was fluffed up and shaking. He put her on his chest and tried to calm her but she was all claws and fear, and seemed likely to run at any moment, so he sat down where he was and held her close. It was good fortune that he was still wearing the thick leather gloves and apron.
He only looked up when his father was towering over him. Sheltering Felipa carefully, he waited for his father’s judgement to fall.
“Is she all right, son?” his father asked kindly.
“I think so. I think she’s just scared.” He lifted her up carefully. “Oh. It pecked her paw. There’s a bit of blood.”
“Bring her inside. We’ll see to her. And Scott.”
Johnny looked up and winced as he remembered the yelp from his brother. “I dropped something on his foot, didn’t I.” he said.
“Fortunately just the tongs, not the white hot metal bar. That could have been really nasty.” His father held out his hand and Johnny took it, easing himself up so that he didn’t scare Felipa again. She was still trembling miserably.
“Johnny Madrid, heroic rescuer of kittens,” Johnny said as they walked back to the house.
“Took real courage facing down a murder of crows,” his father agreed.
They took her inside and doctored her right on Maria’s table. Even Maria was sympathetic, though more genuinely so when Scott limped in and removed his boot. She brought him a cold compress and he bore up bravely.
“Sorry about that,” Johnny said, keeping Felipa in the circle of his arms while she assiduously cleaned herself all over.
“Oh, that’s quite all right. Any time. Have to put the kitten first,” Scott said. Johnny was pretty sure he meant the opposite but, well, he was entitled to a bit of self-pity.
“Scott. Remind me not to have any children.”
“Why’s that, brother?” Scott reached down and lifted the compress. “Ouch. Doubt if I’ll be fit for work for a couple of weeks at least. Can’t get my boot on.” Scott rubbed his sore foot and Felipa licked her sore paw.
“Because,” Johnny said, looking at his kitten, “how are you supposed to keep them safe? There’s so much out there to kill them. Crows. Coyotes. Snakes. Any number of critters who’d make short work of her. Wolves.”
“Wolves?” his father said. “We don’t get many wolves round here. But yes, children. They can be …” He seemed stumped for words.
Johnny looked across at his brother, who was looking sympathetically at his father.
And in the middle of the impending conversation on the subject of children, which none of the men wished to start, Felipa at last settled down in the safe circle of her brave protector’s arms. She curled herself round, tucked in her tail, and went to sleep.
Felipa’s time in the house came to an end with her first nest of kittens. It had to be said she wasn’t the best mother in the world, and seemed more puzzled by the two furry bundles than anything. It wasn’t really a surprise to anyone when she lost them. It was a relief to everyone when another mother cat, with older kittens, found them, assumed they were hers and took them on board.
Johnny was there the next time, watching each kitten being born – three of them this time, two black and one tabby – and made sure Felipa cleaned them up and that they started suckling. No problems at all. She was very protective of them, only allowing Johnny to stroke her and pick them up one at a time to check on their health.
Murdoch sat down that evening with his favorite drink and, for the first time, inspected the model ship.
“There’s a spar missing,” he said to no one in particular. Scott looked up from his book on stock market trading to share a quick grin with his brother.
“There is?” Johnny said, with all the innocence he could muster. “When did that happen?”
“I don’t know,” said Murdoch slowly, with, ‘how would I know that when I’ve only just noticed’ unsaid.
“Perhaps I could make a new spar,” Scott offered.
“That would be – thank you,” Murdoch said, raising his glass to his older son.
Johnny, sensing a further improvement in his father’s mood, raised his own glass to Scott, then broke his good news. “Found a home for one of the black kittens,” he said, leaning forward. “Lady I know in town’ll take him. She needs a good mouser in the store.”
“Is that the lady you were talking to for an hour last week?” Scott asked, grinning.
“We weren’t just talking about the kittens,” Johnny responded. “Anyway, she needs one. The mice are winning and people are starting to complain.”
“Two to go, then,” said Murdoch, revealing for the first time he’d been following the fate of the kittens.
“One to help out Felipa in the barn,” Johnny offered. “So just one left. The runt. Not sure she’ll make it.”
Murdoch smiled, as if he’d been waiting for the hint. “You’d better bring her in the house, then,” he said, smiling gently. “Maybe make sure she keeps out of the wool,” he added.
“I will,” Johnny said. “I will.”
“Call her Felisia,” Murdoch said. “Give her a good start in life.”
There was quiet for a moment, as each of them thought about starts in life.
“Having luck in life,” Johnny said, translating the name. “Yes. I’ll make sure she does.”
“I know you will, son. I know you will.”
And so, a couple of months on, a small black kitten was allowed in the great room for the first time, fully weaned and full of life.
And Felipa? She survived much longer than most barn cats, occasionally riding on Barranca, often coming at Johnny’s call, and regularly providing tabby and black kittens – and the occasional white one, too, and supplying all the local farms with new bloodlines, excellent mousers and just one or two with a taste for human laps.
Completed August 2022
PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT
Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment. Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here. You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Cat directly.