Chad woke to something warm and wet covering his face. He groaned and rolled over.
“Go away.” He mumbled. When whatever it was didn’t stop, he reluctantly opened his eyes.
“AHHHHH!” The noise he emitted was anything but manly. He was face to face with a now frightened baby cougar.
“Move, Cat.” Chad was angry at his awakening. The door flew open and Mitch stuck his head in.
“You okay, Chad?” His brow wrinkled and his eyes swept the room. When his gaze lit on the cougar, he bit his lip to hide his laughter as he guessed the situation.
“Get this cat off me, now, Mitch.” Mitch couldn’t hide the chuckle at the growl.
“It’s not just a cat, Chad. It’s a baby cougar, and it has a name. Not to mention your little sister thought it very important that you have it.” Chad rolled his eyes.
“Kitty doesn’t fit this creature. If I didn’t think I would offend her, I’d drop it at Andi’s door this afternoon.” Mitch gently picked up Kitty and turned to Chad.
“I’ll take this little fellow outside with me so you can cool off and get ready. How’s the house for you and Ellie coming?” A few months ago, a raging fire had taken out Chad and Ellie’s house. Soon after, they had begun construction for another.
“Pretty good. We gotta expedite the process now that the baby is here.”
“Mother won’t mind a little longer with her new grandbaby.” Chad shrugged,
“Ellie needs her own space too.” Mitch nodded and walked out the door.
“This little fellow will be waiting for you outside!” He called over his shoulder. He laughed at Chad’s loud groan. Soon after, Chad exited the house to chaos. Mitch ran by toward where the chickens were ranging. He then screeched to a stop to turn and bolt the other way. The normally calm horses in the corral were bucking and making a huge fuss. The chickens were clucking and flapping their wings; creating a impressive ruckus.
“What in the world is going on here, Mitch?” Chad’s bellow only caused more ruckus. Mitch paused for a split second.
“Your pet, that’s what! The horses got the scent and went crazy, then scared your cougar so much he ran and scattered the heard. The big animals sent him runnin’ even more scared and he ran straight into the chickens. I’m still tryin’ to find the pesky critter! Now quit gawkin and come help unless you want this pandamonium to grow!” Mitch’s explanation set Chad into action. He thought about the best plan of action.
“Mitch, if you were a scared baby cougar, where would you hide?” Mitch snorted.
“Now is not the time to become a counselor, Chad. I’ve no idea! I’ve never been a scared baby cougar!”
“Check all the buildings! He probably ran in to escape the noise!” Chad headed toward the barn and Mitch toward the open shed.
“Here, Kitty, Kitty.” Chad crept along the aisle through the stalls, when a flash of yellow caught his attention.
“Aha! There you are.” Chad sprang and picked up the cougar before it could dart. He walked out of the barn hollering for Mitch.
“I found him! I’ll be back in a bit.” Mitch exited the barn and gave Chad a confused glance.
“Where are you going? You better not shoot that thing, Chad Carter! Andi will never forgive you!”
“Who said anything about shooting it? Saddle Sky for me, I’ll be right back.” Chad headed toward the house.
“Chad! Where are you going?”
“Mitchell Carter, the longer I stand out here, the more likely we’ll have another explosion that you, little brother, will get to deal with all yourself!” Mitch shut up. Chad grabbed a basket and asked Lusia to fill it with food for the little cub. He then jogged upstairs and gathered everything he’d used for Kitty and headed back down. He grabbed the basket with a heartfelt,
“Thanks, Lusia.” He hurried outside with his little companion and shoved all the cat’s belongings into his saddlebags. He mounted and held Kitty securely in his lap.
“He’s going back to your sister.” He tossed the remark to a very befuddled Mitch. Tipping his hat, Chad kicked sky into a gallop and headed for Riley and Andi’s ranch. Arriving at Memory Creek Ranch, Chad dismounted and climbed the steps to the door. After rapping sharply, he stepped back to wait. Nobody came to the door. He knocked again and was met with the same results.
“Well, Kitty. I guess you’ll just have to surprise them when they get home.” Chad searched his saddlebags and found some rope. He looped it around a porch column, then around Kitty’s neck. He set food and a bucket of water well within reach, and made sure the cub had shade easily accessible. Scrambling in his saddle bags, he managed to find a piece of paper he’d used for calculations. He turned it over and scribbled a hasty note with his broken utensil.
“I’ll see you later, Kitty. Make sure to tell Andi I’m sorry I missed her. Behave yourself!” Chad left before he could let himself feel guilty.
“Riley, thank you for the wonderful day in town! I had a blast!” Andi licked sticky fingers, then the peppermint stick. Riley laughed at the mess she was making.
“Anytime, Andi. I enjoyed having you with me all day. You know Mrs. Evans stopped me and told me what fine parents we would make today. She also said she couldn’t believe your dress hem was that high.” Andi immediately looked to her dress hem.
“Just because my dress doesn’t touch the floor, does not mean I’m unladylike! It completely covers my ankles! Why did you talk to that old busybody anyway?” Riley laughed at her defense, and Andi blushed as she realized what she’d just said. Thankfully, the buggy turned up the path to their ranch at that exact moment. Riley stopped the buggy in front of the house, assuring Andi he would carry her purchases. He leaped from the buggy and crossed to help Andi down, but he stopped short.
“Uh, Andi, Darlin’, I’m afraid your brother and his four-legged partner didn’t see eye to eye.” Andi followed Riley’s gaze to the porch and gasped. She leaped down and ran to the cub.
“Aw, Kitty, did mean old Chad leave you all alone?” She loosed the animal and gathered him in her arms. She scanned the surroundings, and reluctantly silently complimented Chad on his planning. Food, water, and shade were easily reached by the little cub, and the rope left plenty of room for him to play.
“Now, Andi, we don’t have the ability to take care of--”
“No, Riley. We will be keeping him. You wouldn’t want the poor fellow to be out on his lonesome! Besides, I shot his mother! It would be heartless of me to leave him!” Riley sighed, he knew when he wouldn’t be winning. Deep inside he also wanted to keep the critter.
“Okay, Andi. Let’s get him a little room built in the barn--”
“No, Riley! He’ll stay in the house.”
“Until I get another appropriate place for him.” This battle, Riley was going to fight.
“Okay. I’m gonna get him some blankets! He looks exhausted!” Riley shook his head. This animal wasn’t going anywhere. Andi rushed back and picked up the cub in a warm blanket. Riley followed her into the kitchen and watched her prepare a bowl of warm milk. That night, as Riley fell asleep, he had the strange sensation something small and furry had just visited them in bed. As the next few days passed and Andi grew fonder and fonder of her small pet. Riley did as well, albeit grudgingly. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the trouble came.
Riley was out on the range when a knock came at the door. Kitty rushed to Andi’s side as she went to answer. The cub had grown at a surprising rate, and, of course, was still in the house. Andi swung the door inward and was staring into a very angry face. A rumble came from low in Kitty’s throat, and a hint of uncertainty crossed the man’s face.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah. You can tell me why you’re keeping such a creature! We’re getting tired of it killing our sheep! The stupid thing should be shot! In fact, I may do it myself!” Andi drew back in shock at the accusation. Her voice shook with controlled anger.
“That, sir, is a very absurd accusation. This innocent cub has barely gone outside of our ranch and has been under constant supervision! If that untruth is all you have come for, I’m going to have to ask you to kindly take your leave.” The man was breathing hard and red faced.
“That cub of yours, woman, is fast approaching a grown cat! I will find somehow to get it killed! Whether I can find a legal way through the city, or if I have to arrange it. I will have plenty of help, we are through with these money losses!” Andi lost her temper at the threat.
“Get out! Get out now and never come back! Kitty has done nothing, absolutely nothing to your animals!” Sensing the anger, Kitty growled louder and and moved closer. The man turned and stalked off tossing threats and curses over his shoulder. Andi collapsed in relief, and hugged Kitty.
“You are getting rather large. I need to speak with Riley about this. You haven’t been alone, have you? You wouldn’t kill a sheep, would you?” A finger of doubt tickled the back of Andi’s mind and she sighed. Why, oh, why does life have to be so complicated? She shook her head, and went to fix supper. Riley entered the house to a marvelous aroma. Everyday Andi was becoming a better cook, and boy was he enjoying it!
“What’s for supper, Darlin’?” He leaned down and kissed Andi. She smiled up at him briefly, but her wrinkled brow didn’t leave.
“Uh biscuits and gravy. There’s some steak and eggs as well.” Her remark was absent minded, and Riley’s concern grew.
“Andi, what’s wrong?” Andi didn’t want to ruin his supper, so she put on a fake smile.
“Nothing! Absolutely nothing.” Riley took her by the shoulders and lowered her into a chair.
“Andi, you can’t fool me, Darlin’. There’s something you’re worrying your pretty head about and I can’t help unless you tell me what it is.” Andi heaved a sigh and poured out today’s events. Riley comforted her, and hid his own concern.
“He’ll realize. He’s probably just hot-headed about losing the money. He’ll come to his senses soon.” After convincing Andi she was safe, the couple ate a slightly burned supper, then headed to bed. The next morning, Riley requested Andi not answer the door, and keep herself and Kitty indoors, then rode to the Circle C to speak with Chad.
“Chad, How are you?” Chad immediately knew something was wrong, but greeted Riley and waited for him to spill the beans.
“Chad, I’m worried Andi’s in danger.” Chad’s anger grew as Riley expressed his concerns.
“Riley, get ranch hands watching your house day and night. I’ve always said sheep ranchers aren’t to be trusted! I wouldn’t put anything past Zeke Hollister!” Riley listened attentively as Chad told him to stay close by his home in the coming days. After making plans to keep Andi and Kitty safe, Riley headed for home at a fast trot. He rode into the yard, and saw Andi on the front porch wringing her hands. His anger boiled. Had he not told her to stay inside for her own safety?
“Andrea Rose! What are you doing?” Riley certainly didn’t expect the response he received. Andi took the four steps in one leap, and charged toward him. Riley barely had time to dismount before Andi hit him like a freight train babbling incoherently.
“Shhh, Darlin’, shhh. Slow down and tell me what happened.”
“Kitty’s gone!” Riley sucked in a breath. That, he was not expecting.
“What happened, Darlin’?”
“Kitty was in the family room, and I went to the kitchen to get us something to eat. I came back about five minutes later and he was gone and the front door was open. I thought maybe he just slipped out, but I’ve checked everywhere! He’s gone!”
“Calm down, Andi. We’ll find him. We’ll get a search party and he’ll be back soon.” Andi just nodded.
“JEM?” Riley shouted for his foreman’s son. The boy could run fast as greased lightning, and right now, that was what he needed. No response.
“JEREMIAH!” A dark-headed young man charged around the side of the barn.
“Sir? What did I do this time? Just please don’t tell my pa! You can whip me if ya want just please don’t tell my pa!” Riley couldn’t resist teasing the boy.
“And just why should I not tell your pa, Jeremiah?”
“Well...well, you see...um.”
“Spit it out, boy.”
“Pa said the next thing I got in trouble for would put me in the bunkhouse for a week. Please, Mr. Prescott just handle it yourself.” The boy looked absolutely miserable.
“Son, you aren’t in trouble. I just need your help. Your automatic assuming though makes me wonder if you did do something.” Riley drilled the boy with a piercing look. Jem’s gaze dropped and his face turned bright red.
“Jeremiah.” Riley warned.
“Well, Mr. Prescott, I hid Caleb’s, Zach’s, Josh’s, and Jeff’s tack and this morning they got yelled at because they weren’t ready to go. They kinda couldn’t find their tack, they had to borrow some.”
“Looks like you’ll be making some apologies tonight. We’ll talk about it later though. Right now, I need you to run get the men from the pastures. I’ve got a different job for them.”
“Yes, sir!” With that, Jeremiah was gone.
The search party searched unsuccessfully until darkness settled and forced their search to come to an end. Andi went to bed with a heavy heart. Sure, it was only an animal, but she had grown rather attached to the cub. The next morning, after necessary chores, another search party headed out. They searched for a week, but it appeared Kitty was gone forever. The next day, Andi was alone in the house, when there came a hard knock. Andi crossed the room quickly and opened the door. Zeke Hollister stood there looking very uncomfortable. It wasn’t Zeke, but rather what he held that caused Andi’s mouth to drop.
“Mr. Hollister, I--”
“Mrs. Prescott, I came to apologize and return your cat. I took him last week, and I was all ready to kill him when he scared away a couple o’ critters that were tryin’ to kill my sheep. Turns out he wasn’t killin’ ‘em, he was saving them. Your cougar is a hero, Mrs. Prescott. I’m sorry for takin’ him.”
“Of course I forgive you, Mr. Hollister. The Bible says to forgive seventy times seven, and that’s what I’m gonna do.” Zeke nodded and with that, set the cub down and turned to leave. Andi watched him until he disappeared, then turned to pick up Kitty. She couldn’t be sure, but when she mentioned the Bible, she was pretty sure she saw Zeke’s face gain a little hope. God did work in mysterious ways!