5. The Rescue

OR
“Yule Be Feline Fine By Christmas Time”

By Calico

Monday 22nd December 1862

Samuel Heyes snuck quietly away after lunch. He would not be missed right off. Mama was feeding his baby sister Amy in the back parlour and Grandmamma had gone with her. Uncle Thomas was minding the store. Aunt Brigit was washing up. Grandpapa had David on his lap in front of the kitchen stove and was talking to Papa. Samuel would not be surprised if all three, not just David, were close to napping.

Samuel closed the storeroom door softly behind him.

“Han’bul,” he hissed, quietly. “Jed. Where are ya?”

He felt real sorry for Hannibal and Jed. His Grandmamma would not allow them into the warm kitchen, nor the cosy parlour. Samuel could see his own breath on the air in the chilly stockroom.

“They’ll be real col’ din there, Gran’ma,” he had said.

“They have coats on,” Grandmamma told him.

“Han’bul,” Samuel whispered, again. Hannibal came out from behind the barrels. He had ears like a lynx! Samuel grinned, broadly. “I’ve brung a snack for ya!” He fished out the chicken leg and slices of ham he had managed to hide under his vest. A guilty glance was shot over his shoulder. He was not supposed to bring food out to Hannibal and Jed.

“One meal a day is more’n enough for them,” his grandmother said, firmly. “They are there to WORK! They work best when they’re good ‘n’ hungry!”

“You works real hard anyhow, huh, Han’bul?”

Samuel sat down on the floor and smiled at Hannibal, who was now enjoying his snack.

Jed appeared, eyeing the chicken leg.

“Don’ you snatch!” warned Samuel, raising an admonitory finger. “Greedy Jed! You’se not to bully Han’bul!” He divided the chicken and ham, giving some to Jed, together with a little push away. “No! Greedy Jed! No more!” Samuel liked Jed just fine, but he could not be allowed to filch Hannibal’s share. Hannibal was Samuel’s favourite.

“Dunno though, Han’bul,” smiled Samuel. “Maybe I SHOULD let Jed have it! You’se getting FAT! Look at that tummy! Fat Han’bul!” Hannibal had finished his chicken now. He began to wash his face. The ink black paw was licked by the pink, pink tongue and passed over and over the glossy dark head. Then, purring with contentment, Hannibal draped two front paws over Samuel’s leg and rested his chin upon them.

“Good Han’bul!” said Samuel, stroking the silky ears very, very gently. Hannibal was SO soft! The green eyes began to close in bliss. The purring rumbled on. Samuel reached over and ruffled Jed’s ebony fur. “Good Jed! Good boy!”

The door from the store swung open. Hannibal’s eyes shot wide and his ears flattened as Kurt strode in.

Kurt looked down at Samuel.

“You’d better not be feedin’ them dang fleabags,” he grumbled. “Ma’ll have some’n to say if you are! They ain’t pets – they’re workin’ mousers!”

“Don’ HAVE fleas!” protested Samuel, loyally, although – possibly not accurately. “Sides…” he went on, tucking the chicken bone out of sight, “…they DOES catch mice! Spesh’ly H…” he stopped. Only HE knew Hannibal and Jed’s names. He had given them their – wonderful – names! Kurt might laugh. “Spesh’ly – this’un!” he finished, stroking the sleek coat.

“’S’not a bad mouser,” allowed Kurt. “’Course – getting slower, now the kittens are so close.”

“Whad kiddens? Where?”

Kurt squatted down and poked Hannibal in the tummy. Hannibal yowled and scuttled away behind the grain sacks.

“Don’ Uncle Kurt! Don’!” Samuel scowled up. “You’se scared ‘im!”

“A few more days ‘n’ that cat’ll drop a litter…”

“Litter?”

“Kittens. It’s havin’ kittens!” A sparkle came into Kurt’s eyes as he looked at the wide-eyed youngster. It was so, SO tempting. Fifteen years old is not an age highly resistant to temptation. Kurt succumbed. He bent closer. “AND – d’you know what we’ll do with ‘em?”

A blond head shook, trustingly.

“Drown ‘em!”

Sparkling blue eyes widened.

“No!”

“’S’what you always do with kittens! Tie ‘em in a sack…take ‘em down the creek…”

“NO!” A bottom lip began to wobble.

“Not enough mice in here to feed more’n two cats…”

Wobble, wobble, wobble.

“’Course – we could drown these two instead! Keep the kittens!”

“No! T’isn’ true! I’se’ll ask Papa. He’ll say – t’isn’ so!”

“’Course he will! So will Gran’pa! They’ll tell you it’s not true – then…once you ain’t lookin’…” Kurt mimed holding a struggling bag under water. “Yeooooow! Meee-oooowl! Weee-aoooow!” he yowled. Hannibal whose whiskers had begun to peep out from behind the sacks gave a plaintive whimper. A sinuous black tail disappeared amongst the barrels.

The door opened again.

“Kurt!” came Uncle Thomas’ voice. “When I said, ‘Fetch out a fresh box o’ candles,’ – I kinda meant – today!”

Samuel watched Kurt leave hefting a box holding two gross of candles. Samuel gave a big sniff and rubbed his sleeve across a damp little nose. Jed nuzzled his own wet nose into Samuel’s hand.

“Good Jed! Good boy!” said Samuel, stroking him. He twisted round and peered into the corner. “Han’bul! Han’bul! You’se can come out! He’s gone!”

Hannibal did slink back out. He snaked over to Samuel, elegant as always and allowed himself to be fussed over.

“Is you really havin’ kittens?” cooed Samuel. “Clever Han’bul! Good boy!” He dropped his voice, so Jed would not overhear and be jealous. “Clev’rest boy in the world! Ain’t ya, Han’bul?” A soft head butt reminded Samuel of ‘fair shares’! “You’se clever too, Jed!”

Samuel looked at Hannibal’s fat tummy. Uncle Kurt must have been teasing about drowning the kittens. He DID tease. But he might NOT be teasing. He would ask Hannibal. Not THIS Hannibal. His big brother, Hannibal. Samuel’s big brother Hannibal knew everything in the whole wide world!

No. No. He would not ask Hannibal. Because… because if it WAS not teasing, he would have to do something. And – if Hannibal did anything with Grandmamma’s cats, she would be real mad at him. Grandmamma got madder with Hannibal than with anyone else. Instead, he would ask Papa. Papa knew most everything too. But…Kurt had said his Papa would – lie. Papa did NOT lie! He might – he might not let Samuel know something upsetting, though. Sometimes he heard Mama and Papa whisper – ‘Shush! Mustn’t upset the children’.

Samuel thought hard. He would do what Hannibal – the brother one – would do. He would ask Papa a good – nonshlan – question. IF it turned out Uncle Kurt was only teasing – fine. If not… Samuel squared his small shoulders. He was a Heyes, huh? He would just have to come up with a plan!

—oooOOOooo—

“Papa,” began Samuel, keeping his voice low so as not to wake Grandpapa or David.

“Huh?” Alex blinked a little, as his son climbed into his lap. It would not be entirely fair to say he had been napping in front of the stove. Not ENTIRELY fair. Thinking with his eyes shut, while digesting a large lunch – sure. Very relaxed – sure. Not exactly – napping.

“If’n I’d heard some’n – say in a story – ‘bout tiein’ kiddens in a sack…” Papa nodded, waiting for more. “Why might ya do that? I means – in a story? Put kiddens in a sack?”

“Well, I guess to drown them,” said Alex, yawning. He was used to random questions on varied subjects and did not spot this one as ‘non-hypothetical’.

“Drown ‘em?” Samuel gulped. Uncle Kurt had NOT been just teasing.

“Uh huh. It’s what some folks do when they get too many cats.” Alex sighed, “I remember when I was about your age, I found my father drowning our cat’s kittens in a bucket. I was real upset. I guess he must have thought it the best thing to do – though of course I didn’t see that back then.”

Samuel stared hard at the top of his father’s vest. He would NOT let his lip wobble. Did Papa mean he saw it was OK NOW? Surely not! Though, you never knew with grown ups. He could not imagine his Papa holding a sack of kittens under the water until… But, would he stop Grandmamma making Grandpa or Uncle Thomas do it? Maybe. Another gulp. Maybe not.

“It’s where the old nursery rhyme, ‘Ding dong dell, Pussy’s in the well’, comes from,” went on Alex, informatively. No answer. He squinted down at his small son snuggled against his shirtfront. All very quiet. No more questions. The white-blond head was tipped forward so Alex could not see if the blue eyes were open or shut. Alex checked the clock. No need to move for another half hour or so. Brigit had disappeared into the parlour with her sister and mother and young Amy. A soft hum of feminine voices drifted through the door. Alex closed his own eyes and went back to important, serious, masculine, contemplation of the state of the world. NOT napping!

Samuel waited until Papa was contemplating so deeply, his breathing went all slow and even. Then, he slid down, being real careful not to disturb the thinking and tiptoed back out. He looked at the boxes of provisions waiting to go on their wagon. He thought hard. Would anyone notice just one more?

—oooOOOooo—

“Shush, Amy,” soothed Alex. “We’ll be home real soon.”

“She’s not makin’ a sound, Mister Heyes,” said Beth, who was holding the baby. “She’s bein’ good as gold.”

They had picked up Hannibal after school and were dropping the Curry children (minus Nate who had ‘plans’) and Mrs. Curry’s provisions back at their place.

“Uh huh?” said Alex, giving his head a tiny shake. “I could have sworn I heard crying.”

Samuel cast an agonised glance at the ‘extra’ box. He had told ‘Hannibal’ to be real, real quiet. But, he guessed the movement of the wagon was pretty scary if you were not used to it and could not see out.

“Maybe – maybe it’s a squeaky wheel, Papa?” he suggested, loudly. Loudly enough to drown out feline distress.

“Well…”

“I can make a noise like a squeaky wheel! I can! Lissen!” Samuel lifted up his voice, “Weeowww, weeowww, weeowww!”

“Mweeoooow,” pleaded the ungrateful refugee.

“Weeowww!” echoed Samuel, shrilly.

“Hush, Samuel! You’ll wake Amy!” warned Beth.

“WooooWooooo! Lissen! Me too! WooooWoooo!” giggled David.

“I reckon that sounds more like a ghost … not a wheel, David,” said Jed, kindly. “Whoooo…hooo!” He held up his arms in ‘haunting’ position. “Whoooo…hooo!”

“Shush!”

“She’s due to wake up soon anyhow, Beth,” put in Louisa, mildly. “Else we’ll get no peace tonight.”

“Weeowwwww!” yowled Heyes son two.

“Mweeeeee-oooowwwww!” attempted the genuine article.

“Woooeeeeoooow!” tried Heyes son three, copying hard.

“Mweeeeeeooooowwwww!” Scratching of claws.

“For Pete’s sake!” grumbled Heyes son one. “Will you two shut up? It’s like riding with a menagerie!”

“If’n David sounded like a ghost – I reckon Samuel sounded more like a cat! Not a squeaky wagon wheel!” said Ruth. Samuel froze. A guilty look was shot at Papa. No. It was all right! Papa was just smiling at Ruth. “A squeaky wheel goes…. Eeeeeeeh! Eeeeeeeeh! Eeeeeeeh! …Don’t it, Mister Heyes?”

“That certainly sounded squeaky, Ruth,” agreed Alex, excellently refreshed by his early afternoon – think.

“SHE could shatter glass anyhow, huh?” joshed Zach.

“Mweeeeeoooowww!” beseeched ‘Hannibal’.

“Wweeeeeoooowww!” covered Samuel.

“Ain’t nothin’ LIKE a squeak!” scoffed Ruth. “Weeeeoooow! That’s a CAT!”

“Nah!” argued Jed. “A cat goes…” he drew breath, “…Mmweeeeoooooowllll!”

“That was real good, Jed,” admired Samuel. A wily look appeared in the cherubic blue eyes. “Do it ‘gen!”

“…Mmweeeeoooooowllll!” complied Jed, ignoring the glare directed at him by Hannibal (human not feline).

“…Mmweeeeoooooowllll!” agreed the expert.

“…I think that’s enough,” said Louisa. Unlike her husband, she had NOT had a refreshing ‘think’. She had been listening to non-refreshing maternal advice most of the afternoon.

“Bwahhhh,” concurred Amy. “BWAHHHHH!” She mustered the full power of her tiny lungs. “BWWWWWAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!” she explained.

Samuel relaxed. He had done his best on the diversionary tactics, but – he was not a patch on his sister.

—oooOOOooo—

“Lemme yelp! Han’bul! Papa! Pa! Lemme yelp! Lemme carry this one!”

Alex looked at his small son.

“Some are kind of heavy, Samu…”

“Naow! This ‘un ain’t! Look! Look!” Samuel, keeping the box level as he could, lifted ‘Hannibal’ carefully into the air. “Look! Look! Easy!” He kept talking, just in case ‘Hannibal’ started crying. But, ‘Hannibal’ was smart. He was real quiet now.

“Let him help, Pa,” murmured Hannibal, sotto voce. “I’ll watch he doesn’t heft anythin’ too heavy.” Out loud, “You’re getting real strong, huh, Samuel? You’ll be able to do ALL my chores soon?”

“Uh huh!” the silky blond fringe nodded, eagerly.

“Alright,” Alex agreed. He swung a sack over his shoulders. “I’ll get this feed into the barn. You two get the boxes down into the root cellar.”

—oooOOOooo—

“Don’ worry, Han’bul!” whispered Samuel, setting the box down gently. “I’se not goin’ leave yer in near! Soon as we’se all unloaded an’ Pa an’ Han’bul – I means the OTHER Han’bul – goes in, I’se’ll say I hasta go to the ouddows!” He put his face real close to the box and gave a soothing chirrup. He was answered by a tiny lamentation, which tugged at his heartstrings. “Poor boy!” he sympathised. “Not long now! I’se’ll make you all snug an’ warm inder barn. Up inder loft!” He wriggled. “I’se not really ‘llowed climb up there,” he acknowledged. “But I will!” A barely audible whimper of poignant pathos. “Hold on, Han’bul! You’se’ll be safe there. An’ – an’ so’ll your kiddens!”

—oooOOOooo—

“ALEX!” Louisa, looking pink and cross, came into the kitchen. “That glazed ham in the storeroom was for Christmas! AND the raised pork pie!”

“Huh?” A pair of dark eyes glanced up from the newspaper.

In unison, a pair of sparkling blue eyes looked up from a fistful of playing cards. Samuel gulped and looked down again, pretending to concentrate hard. He had chosen those things because Mama had covered them up. He thought she would not notice for a while. Besides – ‘Hannibal’ really liked ham.

“You know I want ev’rythin’ to look real nice! It’s all hacked about! If you couldn’t wait – least you coulda done is cut it straight! What did you use? Your axe?” She clicked her tongue. “Tchah! Men!”

“Hey! Not guilty!” protested Alex. “Would I DARE? I spent long enough in the doghouse for helping myself to an early slice of pumpkin pie before the Thanksgiving Dance last month.”

“Oh! Sorry!” Louisa’s eyes moved to the rug in front of the kitchen stove. Hannibal was stretched out on his stomach half reading and half acting as ‘referee’ over Samuel and David’s game of snap. “Boys!” she said. “You have remembered what I told you? Mama is doing a lot of special cooking for Christmas, so, you’re NOT to touch and NOT to take things from the storeroom without asking.”

David looked up from his cards and nodded, solemnly. Dark eyes blinked.

“Note ‘Utchin’!” he parroted.

Samuel did NOT look up. He stared at the knave of hearts so hard it went all blurred. He felt himself go hot.

Alex and Louisa watched the small face turn red. The tips of the ears peeping out from the blond hair burned scarlet. Samuel’s parents exchanged a glance.

“Samuel,” said Alex, gently. “Is there anything you want to tell Mama? About the ham and the pie, huh?” A pause. Still gentle, “Mama won’t be all cross if you forgot – forgot about having to save things for Christmas. Did you forget and cut her pie?” The blond head shook ‘No’, but the blue eyes did not look up at Papa. “Are you sure?” Samuel gulped. “Look up and answer me, Samuel. Did you eat that pie?”

“No! Didn’!”

“Look up at me, son,” said Alex, again. Samuel, very reluctantly, met Papa’s eyes. He wriggled uncomfortably. “Sure?” checked Alex, more sternly. “Remember what I’ve told you about how naughty it is to tell lies.”

“I didn’! Not a lie! Wasn’ me ATE it! Han’bul ate it! Was Han’bul!” Samuel blurted. He went even redder. He had snitched! A small hand clamped over the telltale mouth.

“Hey!” protested Hannibal. “I haven’t touched nothin’! Well – ‘cept the odd apple and cookie. But, just the ord’nary cookies in the jar. Not the Christmas ones!”

Samuel’s eyes shot over to his older brother. He had not meant THAT Hannibal. Hannibal was frowning at him. Under the little hand, a bottom lip began to wobble. Hannibal, who was the best big brother in the WHOLE world, would think Samuel was…

“What’s this?” snapped Louisa, swooping down on her son. His jersey was pulled and something lodged in the ribbing plucked off. It was a small – but recognisable – piece of glazed ham. Samuel looked at it. He gulped. Mama pulled him to his feet and brushed him down, hard. A few pastry crumbs fell to the rug. “I TOLD you – to leave those things alone!” scolded Mama. “I’ve already had to re-ice the cake ‘cause you had your fingers in it ‘fore it set! I told you over an’ over – no touchin’! Naughty boy!”

Samuel glanced up. Papa looked …cross? No! Not cross. It was worse. Papa looked real disappointed.

“Telling lies is naughty, Samuel. You know that. But, saying it was Hannibal is not just naughty. That was mean. Not owning up is one thing. Trying to blame someone else…that was mean!”

Tears spilled over hot cheeks. A button of a nose sniffled and was rubbed on the back of a small hand. Papa thought he was mean. Hannibal thought he was mean. But…but he could not explain. He had nearly given his refugee away once!

“Is there anything you want to say, Samuel?”

Samuel shook his head hard. He had to be real careful. ‘Hannibal’ – and his kittens – had to be protected. Papa might punish him. But – he would not DROWN him! He would be a brave boy and not say ANYTHING!

—oooOOOooo—

“You miss’d stor’wy, Sam’ul!” said David, as Mama helped him into his nightshirt. “You miss’d der MayGee!” The dark head emerged from the calico tent. “You was nordy!”

“That’s enough, David,” reproved Mama, as she tucked David up in the bed next to Samuel’s. “Samuel knows he was naughty. We’re all naughty sometimes. I’m sure he’s sorry. No need to say any more about it.”

Samuel buried his face in the crumpled, damp pillow. He was hungry. Papa had sent him to bed without any supper. He guessed Papa and Mama did not realise he was quite SO hungry. He had overheard them whisper.

“He’ll be OK?”

“Oh, sure, Alex. It was a good slice of pie he took and quite a portion of ham. He won’t starve.”

“Guess that’s why he’s trotted to the outhouse a few times. Might have been a bit rich for him, huh?”

Samuel was not crying any more. He felt real miserable though.

Last night, Papa had told him and David a story all about one of the Wise Men, Melchior. About how he travelled all the way from Persia. And – about his camel. And the things he and his camel had seen on their journey! And – and someone had tried to steal the gold! But Melchior’s little page, who was called Samuel – had saved it! Saved the day!

Tonight they had been promised a story all about Caspar. He travelled from China. On a milk-white stallion! Samuel had missed it. David would have had Papa’s lap all to himself and heard it ALL. And Hannibal would have helped out with wonderful, exciting details. And Mama would have been listening and knitting and smiling in her chair. And – David – who was too little to know better – would not EVEN have known the right questions to ask!

“Cashpah spage – he’s call’ DAVID!” exulted his small brother.

“Don’ care!” mumbled Samuel. “Didn’ wanna it hear it anyhow!”

He did care though. He cared a lot.

It was not the same getting into bed without his cuddle and kiss and being all tucked up properly. It was horrid thinking that Papa and Mama and Hannibal were all cross with him.

His mama came over.

“Hush,” she said. She lifted him up, plumped his pillow and turned it so he had the dry side. She tucked him up – all properly – and, brushing his fringe aside, kissed his forehead. She studied his face. “Are you hungry?” she checked. He nodded. “I’ll bring you up some bread and warm milk. So you can get to sleep, huh?” Her voice was soft and kind, not cross any more. “Then, in the morning – you’ll be my real good boy again? No more taking things? No more fibbing?” Samuel did not like to nod at that. He would HAVE to take something to feed ‘Hannibal’.

His Mama walked over to the door.

“Mama,” he stopped her. He clenched his fists as he asked the question, hoping hard for a ‘no’. “Papa an’ Han’bul – is they still cross with me?”

She came back over and perched on the side of the bed, stroked his hair.

“Me and Papa can’t stay cross long. We both love you too much. You know that.”

“What ‘bout Han’bul?”

“I don’t think Hannibal is cross at all, Samuel.”

“He don’ think – I’se mean?”

—oooOOOooo—

Mama did NOT bring up his bread and milk. Hannibal brought it up. He did not say anything about not being cross with Samuel. That would have been a bit – sappy. Hannibal did not say sappy stuff. But, he sat on the chair while Samuel ate and said Samuel could help with his morning chores before school if he liked. AND – he might remember some of the Caspar story and tell it to him while they did the chores.

Samuel felt a lot better when he handed back the empty bowl and snuggled down. Hannibal drew the quilt up. “G’night you,” he said and ruffled the blond hair.

—oooOOOooo—

Tuesday 23rd December 1862

Samuel was helping his Papa in the barn.

Last time he checked, ‘Hannibal’ had been fine. Real comfy in the wrap Samuel had taken up for him. Tucked away in a corner, up in the hayloft. The breath of the other animals took a little of the chill off the air. ‘Hannibal’ looked nice and warm in a nest of hay. It DID look kind of like a nest ‘Hannibal’ had made. Circling and circling and circling, still elegant in spite of his fat tummy. Round and round and round, purring hard. Samuel had found, this morning, ‘Hannibal’ liked eggs. That was good because Samuel helped collect them. It was real easy to put one aside! ‘Hannibal’ could have another egg for breakfast tomorrow. Maybe two! AND ‘Hannibal’ was SO clever he had already caught two mice! Could be more! Because, Samuel could only count the mice not eaten! ‘Hannibal’ had had a little of Samuel’s lunchtime hash too! That was harder to smuggle. But, it could not be called ‘taking things’ if it came off his own plate. Yes, ‘Hannibal’ was just fine. And, he was real smart because he was staying quiet and out of sight while Papa cleaned the stalls.

In fact, Samuel was wondering if there was really any need to keep ‘Hannibal’ a secret from Papa. Maybe he had been silly! He looked out to where he could just see Papa, now pumping water in the yard. Maybe he would tell.

Samuel pricked up his ears. Footsteps. His brother was home.

“Hello, son. Hello, Jed,” Alex called. “Are you staying, Jed?”

“No, thank you, Mister Heyes. Ma said I hafta go straight home,” said Jed’s voice. “’Cause – there’s a lot to be done.”

“We were just talkin’,” scowled Hannibal, “…So Jed walked along this way.” He leant back against the barn and sullenly kicked at the ground.

“What’s eating you?” asked Alex. “I’d have thought finishing school for Christmas would put you in a good mood.”

“’Tisn’t that Mister Heyes,” said Jed. “It was Mrs. Mueller. One of her cats is missin’.” Samuel, who had finished his sweeping and was about to run into the yard, froze. “She’s real cross. Reckons someone’s taken it. She was…” Jed hesitated for a word, “… askin’…” he chose, tactfully, “…Han an’ me if’n we’d anything to do with it.”

“Prob’ly…” glowered Hannibal, “…prob’ly she can’t get her broomstick to fly without it perched on the back, huh?”

Jed sniggered.

“Hey,” warned Alex, “…that’s enough!” He nodded, significantly, at the barn.

Hannibal peered round the door.

“Oh!” he said, seeing Samuel. He shot his father an apologetic look. Then, he shrugged. “What the Sam Hill would I want with her cat?”

“Mrs. Mueller was sayin’…it’s ‘bout to have kittens. She has plans for ‘em. An’ – if’n she finds out who’s to blame – she’ll have something to say ‘bout it,” explained Jed, chattily.

“I guess she will,” sighed Alex, picking up his buckets and heading for the house. “Hannibal, would you fill the third one and bring it in? Thanks, son. See you Thursday, Jed, if not before.”

Samuel blinked. Grandmamma had – plans – for the kittens? Did that mean…? He looked at the bucket of water Hannibal was pumping. He gulped.

Jed asked the question Samuel WOULD have asked if had not been trying so hard to stay – ‘nonshlan’.

“What do you reckon she meant, Han? Plans?”

Hannibal shrugged.

“Dunno,” he said. He glanced round to check Samuel was not listening. His Pa did not like him being nasty about Mrs. Mueller at all. BUT, he had told Hannibal it was certainly not fair to say stuff in front of Louisa, Samuel and David. Hannibal supposed he saw what his Pa meant.

Samuel did his very best to look as if he was not eavesdropping. He took his time carefully hanging his short broom on its hook, while the big boys talked, over by the pump.

Hannibal lowered his voice and joshed.

“Knowing that mean witch, she prob’ly plans to bite their heads off an’ use ‘em as a muff, huh?”

Jed giggled. An idea struck him.

“Nah! Not a muff, mittens!” he suggested, also keeping his tone low. “Kitten mittens! D’ya geddit, Han? Kitten mittens?” He stuck his hands deep in his pockets and strode off in the direction of the Curry farm. “See ya soon, Han!” he called over his shoulder. “Bye, Samuel!”

Samuel managed a wave and a ‘Bye, Jed’, although his heart sank to his sturdy boots. He may not have inherited the Heyes’ dark looks. He HAD inherited the Heyes’ sharp hearing. The wind carried off his brother’s murmured words, but ‘kitten mittens’ – THAT reached him! He thought of what Papa sometimes said; about not killing animals for fun, only if you meant to eat them or WEAR them. He thought of ‘Hannibal’s’ soft, glossy, silken pelt, all warm and cosy. He HAD done the right thing rescuing his ebony coated friend, with his tummy full of furry babies. Samuel’s bottom lip set, firmly. He was not going to say a word.

—oooOOOooo—

Unfortunately, Samuel did NOT overhear the following conversation between his parents. This was unsurprising, since it was concurrent with Hannibal and Jed’s sniggers over Mrs. Mueller.

“Just a word of warning, Gorgeous,” said Alex, as he closed the front door behind him, “…it sounds as if Hannibal’s had another argument with your mother.”

Louisa sighed. “What this time?”

“Apparently, one of the store cats is missing and Hannibal is prime suspect.”

“The Tom?” asked Louisa. “I mean…tomcats do stray. It’ll turn up.”

“Nope. Apparently, the Queen’s disappeared.”

“Oh! No wonder Mama’s cross!” Alex looked an enquiry. “Well, you know Papa paid ten dollars for ‘em – to keep the mice down?”

“Uh huh?”

“An’, you know Mama always likes to turn a profit?”

Alex gave a rueful little grin, as he sat down. That was an easy one! “Uh huh,” he agreed.

“That cat’s only a few days from droppin’ a litter,” Louisa explained. “Mama’s already got four or five folk offerin’ real good money for the kittens. Built ‘em up as guaranteed, sure-fire mousers!”

Alex absorbed this.

“She’s barking up the wrong tree,” he said, simply. “Hannibal’s cross as two sticks. If he’d been ‘cat-napping’ – he’d have that smug look.”

Louisa poured a mug of tea for her husband.

“Oh, by the way, you haven’t taken my shawl? My patterned merino. The one you bought for my twenty-first.”

“Yup,” said Alex, deadpan. “It’ll be just the thing for me to wear, hauling the tree. That rose-pink will really bring out my eyes, huh?”

His wife blinked. Then, ‘that’ dimpled smile told her she was being teased.

“Alex!” she giggled. A puzzled frown creased her brow. “I was gonna press it ready for over Christmas. I wonder where it’s gone?” She shrugged. “It’ll turn up. The milk jug disappeared earlier – and who’d wanna take a milk jug?”

—oooOOOooo—

Wednesday 24th December 1862

“Samuel, David,” a pair of sparkling blue and a pair of solemn brown eyes, looked up at Mama, “…that’s all the dried berries and popcorn strung. I’m goin’ to give you the gingerbread stars I made, an’ the candy canes from Grandmamma and Grandpapa to tie on. BUT…” she spoke very seriously, “…you understand they are for AFTER lunch tomorrow. They’re for Sarah an’ Ruth an’ Jed an’ the others too! They’re not all for us. Understand?” Two, rather reluctant, nods. “I’ve made these – extra special – stars for when we finish the tree. But the others – NO touchin’ after they’re hung!”

“Note ‘Utchin’!” parroted David. His gaze moved to his ‘extra special’ star. A podgy fist reached and was gently stopped by Mama.

“We finish decoratin’ first,” she reminded him. “Then, you can have your gingerbread and we’ll ask Papa to light the candles,” she smiled up at Alex, fixing wax tapers to the upper branches. “Are you gonna hang this candy cane, David? And – here’s one for Samuel to put on.”

—oooOOOooo—

“Now,” Alex unwrapped the star he had made four Christmases ago, “…David put the star on the tree last year, huh? So – this year, it’s Samuel’s turn.”

“No!” A small blond head shook, vigorously. “Han’bul’s turn!” Samuel looked through the open parlour door into the kitchen, where the best big brother in the WHOLE world sat. “Han’bul!” he chirped, happily. “Come put star on tree! Your turn!”

The parlour went very still. Mama stared real hard at the floor. She had gone all pink. Hannibal raised his eyes from his book, but made no move to stand up. He did not smile at all. Papa cleared his throat.

“I reckon Hannibal won’t mind you doing it, son.”

Samuel was still beaming over at his older brother. “C’mon, Han’bul,” he urged, “Your turn! Star!”

“Hang’bul! Star!” concurred David.

“I don’t wa…” Hannibal snapped. He looked at the two glowing, enthusiastic little faces. He stopped. A pause. “You can put the star on,” he said, more gently. “It’s your tree. YOUR mother has a tree for you three. WE never had a tree! It’s not what WE did …before…”

Samuel stared from his big brother to the – beautiful, magical, wonderful – tree. Was it really just for him and David and Amy? Really? But…

“You’se can SHARE, Han’bul,” he explained. “Me an’ David – we’se don’ mind! We – we WANT yer to! Don’ we David? Huh?”

David nodded, earnestly.

They waited. Samuel’s smile began to waver. Why was Papa so quiet? Why was Mama looking flushed? Why was Hannibal not coming? Why…? The bottom lip started to pout. It started to – wobble.

Hannibal rolled his eyes, pushed back his chair and strode over.

“Tell you what, ,” he said, ruffling the blond fringe. “You an’ David hold the star between you. I’ll lift David. Pa’ll lift you and, your mother can tell us when it’s straight! How’s that? No turns. We all do it together, huh?”

“Good plan, son,” approved Papa. He squeezed Hannibal’s shoulder. Papa and Mama seemed real, real EXTRA pleased as they all fixed the star. Samuel was not surprised. The tree looked SO pretty this year!

He glanced, past the star, out of the parlour window. Nearly dusk! His gingerbread would have to wait. He had responsibilities!

“I needs go ouddows!” he announced, ‘nonshan’ly’. “I’se’ll jus’ go – an’ – y’know – GO, an’ I’se’ll come stray’d back. After I’se – y’know – BEEN!” He paused at the door and looked round. “Well…” he clarified, “…I’se’ll wipe myselve first!”

“Keep us fully briefed, son,” deadpanned Alex.

“Yup,” agreed Hannibal, eyes once again rolling. “You don’t wanna leave us to fill in the gaps for ourselves.”

—oooOOOooo—

Very Early – Thursday 25th December 1862

From the top of the forbidden ladder, Samuel peered into the dark. A full moon shining through the open barn door just made the far corner of the hayloft visible to his sharp young eyes.

“Oh, Han’bul!” he whispered, as he climbed the final step.

‘Hannibal’s’ ears twitched back, just a shade. That meant – he was wary. Samuel did not go any closer. He sat down, quietly as he could and made a soothing sound. ‘Hannibal’s’ ears relaxed. His eyes glittered; green slits of proud contentment.

“Hello, kiddens,” breathed Samuel, softly, to the three new arrivals squirming busily, as they nuzzled and butted the protecting curve of ‘Hannibal’s’ tummy. “Hello.”

One small face, eyes still tight shut, turned at the sound. A shining pearl droplet of milk hung from a set of diminutive, inky whiskers. A white dribble caught the moonlight as it ran over a jet black, miniature chin. The pinkest of pink, tiny tongues flicked out.

“Han’bul!” Samuel breathed, reverently. “You’se a clever, clever, clever boy! They’s bewd’ful!”

A deep rumbling purr suggested ‘Hannibal’ entirely agreed.

—oooOOOooo—

Still early – but not quite ‘Parents of three children under four, early’ – Thursday 25th December 1862

“Sheesh,” exclaimed Alex, turning up the lamp to look at his pocket watch, as he stretched. He looked down at his wife, also just blinking awake. “Did you use your ‘stirring the plum pudding wish’ to request a lie-in, Gorgeous? How come we’re still in bed – alone – with no small fists hammering on the door, at THIS time on ANY morning, let alone today?” He snuggled back down between the warm sheets. “What do you say we…?”

An offer of an early and extra yuletide treat was whispered into Louisa’s ear. Her giggle turned into a murmur of pleasure, as a caressing hand slipped around. Her head turned as nibbling kisses under her ear travelled slowly down her neck. The watch, lying on the bedside table, caught her eye.

“SHEESH!” she squealed, pushing Alex away and bouncing upright. “It CAN’T be THAT time. Why didn’t you TELL me?” she scrambled for her wrap. “I gotta get that goose stuffed and in the stove! I gotta peel vegetables. I gotta whip cream. I gotta…” She gave up on listing the tasks to be done before Church so that everything was up to festive inspection standard BEFORE the Currys came back for Christmas lunch. “ALEX!” A yelp of house-proud panic, “WHAT were you thinkin’?”

“That some things are even more fun than stuffing a goose?” he ventured.

“Tchah! MEN!”

Louisa whisked out. She hurried over to Samuel and David’s room. David, placid and methodical, had pulled on socks and jersey over his nightshirt and sat cross-legged in the middle of his bed examining the contents of his Christmas stocking.

“Mare Kissmus, Mama! Mare Kissmus!” he managed, despite the impediment of a sugarplum in his mouth. “Look!” a slow smile lit David’s face, as he held up a mirror-bright polished quarter for Mama’s approval. “Look!”

“Merry Christmas, Darling,” answered Louisa, kissing the dark head. She looked at the second stocking hanging, untouched, on the end of Samuel’s empty bed. “Where’s Samuel?”

The deep brown eyes blinked at the crumpled white sheet and pushed back quilt.

“Nod dere,” David informed her. “When I goddup. Nod dere.”

Surprised, not that her lively older son was up, but at the untouched stocking and the lack of ‘Samuel Sound’ in the house, Louisa ran downstairs.

“Samuel,” she called. Not in the kitchen. ‘He’d better not be taking things off the tree,’ she thought, opening the door to her ‘visitor clean’ parlour. No. “Samuel. You’re not in the storeroom, touchin’ stuff?” she warned, checking. No.

A stamping sound out on the porch. Hannibal walked in, shaking his hair, on which a few white flakes had settled.

“Merry Christmas,” he said. He glanced back. “Snow. But, I reckon it’s nearly over. Won’t stop us getting into town.”

“Have you seen… Sorry…” Louisa interrupted herself. “Merry Christmas, Hannibal,” she said. “Have you seen Samuel?” she asked, reopening the door and peering out. An idea occurred. “The outhouse?”

“Not unless he’s disguised as an icicle,” shivered Hannibal, “I’ve just come from there.” He too, glanced outside. “It’s a bit dark still, for him to have started collecting the eggs,” he mused, “…even if he didn’t wait for me. Samuel!” he called. “Samuel!” Nothing. Hannibal looked at the pegs inside the front door. “He must be out,” he said. “His coat’s gone and his boots.”

“Problem?” asked Alex, still buttoning his shirt as he came downstairs.

—oooOOOooo—

Louisa was just crossing the threshold from ‘fretting’ to ‘frightened’, when her stepson’s voice floated out from the barn.

“Found him!”

Hannibal watched the small blond figure, curled protectively in front of mother and precious babies, wake, rub his blue eyes and sit up. A glance was thrown over a straw-strewn shoulder, at the refugee family sheltered by this small, but stalwart, human shield.

“Shush!” Hannibal was warned, sternly, his brother raising a small, scarlet mitten to his lips. “Shush, Han’bul! They’s ‘sleep inder hay!”

—oooOOOooo—

Later that day. After Church. Before Christmas Lunch.

“Can we pet ‘em, Pa?” breathed Ruth Curry. “We’ll be real gentle. Won’t we Sarah?”

Her young sister nodded, solemnly, eyes wide, as she stared at the tiny kittens squirming blindly over each other in a soft, silken melee.

“Not for a few days yet, me Darlin’,” whispered back Nathanial. He sat in the Heyes’ hayloft, his two youngest daughters circled by his arms. “Y’see, young Samuel has won the mother’s trust. But, she won’t want anyone else too close just yet. Sure, an’ we’ll watch from back here.”

Samuel, in the place of honour, next to the new parent, beamed proudly. After the explanations from Papa and, at church, from Grandmamma, he no longer feared any impending massacre of the innocents.

“What are you callin’ ‘em, Samuel?” asked Jed. Jed had been touched to discover that while Samuel’s favourite cat was, quite naturally, named in honour of Hannibal, the presumed father of the kittens rejoiced in the moniker, ‘Jedediah’.

“This ‘un…” began Samuel, indicating a black and white fluff-ball with splayed pink paws, far too busy to look around from ‘Hannibal’s’ tummy, “…this ‘un is named ‘Mel’ker’. ‘Cos…” he gathered himself for his explanation, “…Mel’ker was the oldes’ …wiv a long white beard…an’ this ‘un has a white patch down his chin an’ front! This un’…” the small finger moved to a patchwork calico mite, currently using her sibling’s head as a stepping-stone, “…he’s Caspar. ‘Cos Casper comes from a land o’ ginger, an’ flamin’ silks an’ golden spishes. An’ this ‘un…” Samuel’s voice softened still further, as the tip of his finger gently stroked a sable paw, “…this ‘un’s Balf’zar. Black as eb’ny an’ ridin’ all the way from Africa, on an’ el’phant who’s the grade gran’son of Han’bul’s fav’rite el’phant – Sawus.”

Alex, also seated at a safe distance, his arms circling David, glanced up at his oldest son. Hannibal could not suppress a pleased grin, at this parroting of some of the detail HE had added to last night’s story.

“Balf’zar’s my fav’rite,” explained Samuel, unnecessarily. “He’s jus’ like ‘Han’bul’. Dead spit!” A pair of sparkling blue eyes looked up, pleadingly. “Papa, I knows ‘Han’bul’s’ really Gran’ma’s an’ I shouldn’ have took him, but…” Alex had little trouble guessing what was coming next. “…can we’se keep him?”

“I think your Grandmother will insist on ‘Hannibal’ going home once…HER…” Alex emphasised the pronoun, though without much hope that Samuel would ever accept his word for it that ‘Hannibal’ was, almost certainly, a girl, “…kittens are old enough for her to leave them.”

The beseeching little face fell. A bottom lip pouted.

“Besides,” put in the human Hannibal, quickly. “Think of poor ‘Jed’, all alone in the storeroom.” He shot a look at his best friend. “’Jed’ll’ be lost without ‘Hannibal’. How will he come up with plans to catch mice on his own, huh? He’ll be havin’ no fun at all!”

Samuel thought about this. His – wonderful – older brother was probably right about that. Reluctantly, he nodded. ‘Hannibal’ and ‘Jed’ DID belong together.

“Can we’se keep the kiddens, then, Pa?” he asked. He pressed straight on to logical argument. “’Cos – if’n Gran’ma’s sellin’ ‘em to good homes – we’se could buy ‘em!”

“Rather depends how much she’s asking, son,” hesitated Alex, aware of the market price of working mousers in a farming area where cats were still a rarity.

“Can we’se afford to keep just Balf’zar?” pleaded Samuel.

Alex felt a tug at his sleeve. He looked down into David’s solemn face. He was being offered a mirror-bright, much prized, Christmas quarter. Samuel beamed at his younger brother. Good idea! From his pocket, he dug his own shining coin, which had nestled beneath nuts, sugar-plums and a small toy, in the toe of his own Christmas stocking.

“You’se can have mine too, Pa,” he offered, cheerfully. “That’ll be plenty, huh?”

Nathanial and Alex looked at the two trusting faces. They exchanged a glance.

“Sure, and I reckon you’re getting a kitten, Alex?” teased Nathanial.

“Looks like it,” agreed Alex.

“Pa,” piped up Sarah. Nathanial braced himself. “Can we’se have one? When they’se old ‘nuff?” An already much-fingered, shiny, Christmas coin was tendered as her contribution towards the expense. “We’se’ll be a real ‘Good Home’,” she assured Samuel, earnestly. He nodded, satisfied with this prospective adoptive mother.

Another paternal glance was exchanged.

“Sure, and I reckon you’re getting a kitten, Nathanial?” brogued Alex. Nathanial rolled his eyes.

“Is any of ‘em girls?” asked Ruth.

“Er…” hesitated Alex, “…It’s a bit early to tell, Ruth,”

“Nah,” Nathanial corrected him, confidently. “Caspar – she’s a girl!”

“Really?” said Alex, impressed.

“All Torties are colleens of the cat-world,” confirmed Nathanial. “Calicos,” he translated, seeing blank faces. “It’s…” he searched, “…it’s the law!” he declared, impressively.

“We’ll have the cute calico,” decided Ruth. A second, prized polished coin was pressed into Nathanial’s hand, the donor never doubting such largesse would easily purchase ‘Caspar’. “Sarah an’ me – we reckon girls are best.”

“Ain’t!” argued Jed. “Besides, what ‘bout Mel’ker? Can’t just LEAVE him?” He dug out his own Christmas coin. “Wanna go halves on a kitten, Han?” he asked, tentatively. Hannibal’s expression told him exactly how – sappy – his unsentimental friend considered such a waste of rare and precious hard currency. Jed wriggled. He did not mean to be sappy. But…but… SURELY they could not let the third Magi go to – just anyone?

As if on cue, Melchior, still very wobbly, rose to his feet and turned.

The white whiskers on the tiny face quivered under disproportionately huge, parti-coloured, lynx ears. A pink mouth opened in a gaping, though silent, ‘miaow’. The poignancy and pathos of that soundless cry for help would have wrung pity from Herod.

It EVEN worked on the resolutely un-sappy Hannibal Heyes.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” he capitulated, digging into his pocket.

Samuel beamed. Perfect!

‘Hannibal’s’ eyes narrowed into satisfied slits. She looked smug as her namesake, upon the success of a ‘Hannibal Heyes’ plan.

Purr-fect!

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