Buck noticed the unusual silence around the house as he left the barn. Usually when he got home from a trip to town Al was outside bouncing one of the molding baseballs against the side of the barn or on rare occasions doing his chores. Today though the yard was silent and Al was nowhere to be seen. Buck wondered if his son had gotten into enough trouble to merit being sent to his room. He was generally a good kid, but he tended to let Jimmy's girls push him into all sorts of mischief. Buck hoped whatever it was it hadn't put Lou into too bad of a temper. He let himself into the house and shouted into the silence that welcomed him, "Hello, anyone home?"
A lean face peered over the banister upstairs. "Shhhh," Al admonished fiercely before running down the stairs none too quietly himself.
"You supposed to be down here, Al, or are you in trouble?"
Al pouted as though offended his father thought so poorly of him. "I ain't done anything wrong." His voice was a whisper. He grabbed Buck's hand and started leading him to the stairs. "Come see what I found today."
"Found?" Buck asked nervously, knowing exactly what sort of unpleasant things young boys tended to "find".
Al chattered excitedly, trying and failing to maintain a hushed voice. "Uh-huh, at the livery. Mr. Clark said that gray cat of his had kittens and me and Nell could each have one if we found them."
So that was it, Buck thought with relief, a kitten. "How old is it?" Buck whispered back.
Al shrugged, "Only a few days, Doc says, maybe a week. Uncle Jimmy said her momma didn't want her."
Buck ruffled his son's hair softly. Al had a soft spot for animals and Buck knew losing a kitten would be a matter of great sorrow for his boy's tender heart. "Well, try not to get too attached then," he warned, "if she's that young, she might not make it without her momma."
The boy stopped cold in the doorway to his parent's room. "Ma's takin' care of her," he said resolutely, "she's gonna be fine." For Al's sake, Buck hoped that was true.
Inside the bedroom, Lou was leaning over Al's old cradle, cooing softly. Buck stared at the sight in disbelief. Lou liked cats well enough and he knew for Al's sake she'd do what she could for the little thing, but putting it in the cradle? Keeping it in their room? That was hard to believe. She looked up at him as he approached and smiled. Caring for kittens was evidently good for her; she looked radiant and Buck couldn't help but kiss her before looking down at his son's find. "Isn't she beautiful," Lou whispered.
Buck looked down at the small squirming bundle in the cradle. "That," he said slowly, "is not a kitten."
Lou looked at him and her tiny frame shook with a sudden burst of laughter. "You thought it was a kitten?"
"Don't wake her up," Al admonished them both and shooed Lou away from the cradle so he could speak gently to the baby inside, who was already starting to fuss.
"That's a baby," Buck said dazedly. Feeling a little lightheaded, he let himself sit on the edge of the bed.
"You thought it was a kitten," Lou repeated, barely keeping her voice down.
"He said he was looking for kittens," Buck said defensively. "I didn't know you found babies in livery stables. Where's the mother?"
Lou's face turned grave. "Jimmy thinks it must have been one of the girls that work at Parker's place. You know he kicks girls out if he finds out they're expecting. Whoever it was, nobody's claimed her yet." Suddenly the baby started to scream. "She's gonna be plenty grumpy until she gets fed. Lucy went out to Mrs. Crosby's place to see if she'd be willing to nurse her." Lou said as she went to pick up the squalling baby. Al beat her to it and his parents watched with pride as he gently picked her up and cradled her in his scrawny arms. "Careful," Lou said, stopped short from helping him by his defensive glare.
Lou sat next to Buck with a gentle sigh. "What do you think of her?" she whispered.
"Well, uh," Buck struggled for something to say as he tried to fully comprehend the situation.
Lou looked up at him with pleading eyes. "I thought you'd be pleased. You wanted more children and I gave us such a late start."
Buck put a tender arm around her shoulder. "I've never been disappointed," he assured her. He looked at his son and the baby with concern and shook his head slightly as though he disapproved of the scene. "She's too little to be away from her mother, Lou, she may not make it." He tried to speak as softly as possible, hoping Al was too absorbed in rocking the still crying baby to hear him.
But very little ever got past Aloysius Cross and his head snapped up to stare accusingly at Buck. "She's going to be fine," the boy stated firmly. "Mama will be her mother too. She's part of the family." He very carefully stepped to the bed and handed the baby off to Lou.
"You going to argue with him?" Lou asked as she cuddled the baby close.
Buck leaned into Lou to peer more closely at the baby's face. For a moment she stopped crying and stared up at him with a defiant expression. "I know better than to argue with either of you. If Al says she's family," he shrugged helplessly, "then I guess it's so." He couldn't help but grin at the beaming smiles of his wife and son. "But God help me," he muttered as he gently touched the baby's plump pink cheek, "she looks almost as stubborn as the two of you."