Chris yawned, trying to stay alert as he drove toward home. Beside him, Buck followed suit, yawning loud and long then rubbing his hands over his face to wake himself up.
They'd spent the crisp autumn afternoon at Nettie Wells' farm, doing a little handiwork to help her get ready for winter. The boys had helped Casey feed the animals and do her chores, but mostly they'd run around and played in the big barn.
Chris felt about as worn out as the boys likely were.
He glanced over his shoulder, a little surprised to find both boys wide awake. Not only wide awake, but looking like two cats who'd just swallowed canaries. He'd been sure the two of them would pass out the minute they hit the highway.
He couldn't imagine what that look was about, and was just about to ask, when he heard a strange, muffled noise.
Buck turned toward him, raised an eyebrow as if to ask, 'Did you hear that?'
Then they heard it again. And again.
Vin coughed, and then JD did, as well. Both boys were obviously trying to cover the sound, but as loud as it was getting, no amount of coughing was going to work.
Chris wanted to grin, so he kept his eyes on the road as he tried to control the muscles of his face.
He knew better than to look at Buck, but for some reason he did, anyway. Buck was looking out the window, a huge grin on his face that did nothing to help Chris control his own.
"Poor little things sound hungry," Buck murmured quietly to Chris.
Chris snorted. It took another moment to get control of himself, and then he adjusted his rearview mirror so it was aimed at the boys. "So, boys, what all did you do today?"
Okay, it was going to be like that, huh?
Buck decided to help. "Did you feed the animals?"
"We fed the baby cow with a bottle!" JD cried happily. "Just like a real baby!"
"Wow," replied Buck. "What other animals did you see?"
"Um, goats." This from Vin.
JD was a bit more forthcoming. "And the dogs, and the chickens! The chickens ate seeds and grains and their heads went like this." He demonstrated by jerking and bobbing his head back and forth.
Buck grinned. "Anything else? Vin?"
Vin shrugged, glancing up through his eyelashes. "I don't know," he said very quietly.
In the rearview mirror Chris managed to catch Vin as he gave his partner in crime a minute shake of his head.
"I don't know, either."
Chris nodded, realizing they were not going to get an easy confession. Then he scowled at Buck who had turned back around, his shoulders shaking with laughter. This was supposed to be a serious moment, although he had to admit it was hard to keep a straight face when the noise in back was growing louder and more insistent by the minute.
Finally, Chris pulled over on the shoulder of the road and put the truck in park, then turned to look at the boys. He smiled. "You happen to see any cats in the barn?"
Vin and JD both looked at each other.
"I think you did."
The kittens, wherever they were - Chris couldn't see any sign of them -- were crying and mewing up a storm. Vin looked down at his feet, while JD's eyes suddenly shone with happiness. Chris wasn't sure why.
"Okay, boys, where are they?"
JD's face brightened even more and he reached into the pocket of his coat and pulled out a little orange ball of fluff. Before Chris could look to Vin, for him to comply as well, JD reached into his pocket again and pulled out another, then another from the other pocket. And another. Four, in all. "Casey's aunt said they can't keep 'em. It's too many. So, we're savin' 'em!"
"You're saving 'em, huh?"
"I see." Chris didn't press further. He didn't want the boys to think there was a chance they could keep the kittens. They were tiny, probably only a few weeks old. They barely even looked like kittens.
Vin's pockets had yet to be emptied. "C'mon, pard, time to show and tell," Chris said, raising an expectant eyebrow at Vin.
Vin slumped in the seat, looking as guilty as a person could look.
Slowly, Vin pulled kitten after kitten from pockets Chris hadn't thought were big enough to hold so many. All in all, the boys had nine tiny, mewling, hungry kittens. Some gray, some orange and one black that Vin held up to his cheek. "I love this one. His name's Jack Sparrow."
"I think they're hungry," JD declared, still smiling brightly. "We better get 'em home."
Buck tried, but was unable to keep from laughing out loud. Chris scowled at him then put the truck in gear, made an illegal U-turn, and headed back to Nettie's.
"Where we goin'?" Vin asked.
"Like JD said, they sound pretty hungry."
"We best get 'em back home, to their momma, don't you think?"
"Aw," JD whined, "can't we keep 'em?"
"Just for a little while?" Vin pleaded.
"For one thing, they're not old enough to be away from their momma."
"But they're so little and the barn's so cold, and what if they get lost, or stepped on?"
"Their momma will take care of them," Buck assured.
"But I love them!" JD wailed.
"We already have two dogs and a torkus, not to mention the horses." And Vin had a stuffed cat, although he was pretty sure that wouldn't count.
"But we don't got any kitties!"
"We don't need any kitties."
"Can't we just have some of them?" Vin tried to compromise.
Vin glared at Chris.
Chris glared back.
Cats were stubborn, solitary creatures, that didn't listen or obey. They pretty much did whatever they wanted, and weren't good for much, other than mousing. And their barn didn't have any mice, and if it did, well, in his opinion, mousetraps were just as effective as any cat.
By the time they got back to Nettie's, she'd already noticed the missing kittens. She stood at the barn door, awaiting their return. Chris was thankful that she made the effort to looks serious, unlike some people. He ignored his smirking partner. There were times, like this, when Buck was no help at all.
The boys reluctantly handed over the kittens, casting woeful glances at Chris as they did. Nettie patiently explained that the kittens weren't old enough to eat regular food; they still needed their mother and would need her for a few more weeks. And then she smiled hopefully at Chris. "Truth is, I don't know what I'm going to do with nine kittens. That's way too many mouths for us to feed."
"We don't need a cat."
"I understand," she said gravely, and then turned to the boys. "Would you boys like to help me put them back, and say goodbye, one last time?"
The boys sniffled, and followed Nettie into the barn, glancing back at him with big, sorrowful eyes.
Beside him, Buck sniffled as well, and Chris elbowed him in the ribs. "We are not getting a cat."
"Course not, pard."
"No cat," Buck repeated, then winked, patted Chris on the shoulder and trailed the others into the barn.
Chris folded his arms across his chest and glared at the barn and all its occupants. They weren't getting a kitten. They didn't need one. They had enough animals. Besides, cats weren't even real pets. They were for barns, not houses. They already had dogs, and dogs and cats didn't get along. He was pretty sure they didn't, anyway.
No, they were definitely not getting a kitten - or kittens, incase that was what they were plotting. And he knew that's what was going on in that barn. All of them were plotting to wear him down, thinking of ways to get him to bend to their wills.
Obviously, they didn't know who they were dealing with. Chris Larabee was no push-over. He was a seasoned law enforcement officer, a federal agent, a team leader, a trained negotiator. He was a man well-equipped to withstand anything two big-eyed little boys, and one big-hearted overgrown boy, had to throw at him.
If he said no cats, he meant it. Besides, cats were probably even more expensive than dogs. There were shots, and spaying or neutering, and then there was the matter of those damn claws - little razor sharp things could tear a man to shreds, or a house. The last thing they needed was two troublesome kittens running around, getting into everything, slicing them up and ripping everything they owned to pieces.
No sir, not in his house.
Jack Sparrow. What kind of a name was that? Not that a cat actually ever came when you called its name. God only knew what JD was going to name his kitten.
Wait, what was he thinking? They were not getting any kittens, and that was final. He'd let them know, in no uncertain terms, just as soon as they came out of that barn. Which had better be soon, because he was not going in there after them.
~ 4 weeks later ~
Chris opened the door and stepped cautiously into the house -- his house, he reminded himself -- and paused, automatically looking around for any sign of threat. "Ahhh! Shit!" he yelled, before he could even remember to watch his language.
A moment later, Vin and JD ran up to him and pulled the two kittens from his pant legs where they were clinging, digging their little needle sharp claws into his flesh. Again.
"No, no, Jack! You're not s'posed to climb folks! " Vin scolded shaking his finger at the tiny black kitten who mewed sweetly and batted at the finger. Vin cuddled the kitten with a happy sigh. "I know you're sorry. Ya didn't mean it."
Chris shook his head. He wondered again how he was gonna break the news to Vin that Jack Sparrow was a girl. It was becoming more and more clear that 'Little Bit', which was what JD had been calling his kitten, was a male and, well, Jack was not.
"They're just happy to see ya," JD informed him, cuddling his kitten. And then, "You said a bad word."
"Yeah, ya shouldn't say bad words in front of 'em, they're just little."
With a heavy sigh, Chris looked to the ceiling and said, "You're right. I'm sorry." He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and handed over a dollar for the swear jar.
Buck, who'd been leaning against the doorframe behind him, probably smirking, patted him on the shoulder. "I think about half your paycheck is in that jar, already, pard."
Chris shot a glare over his shoulder, then looked down at his pants. Sure enough, the cats had left their marks again. He was probably going to need all the money in the swear jar to buy a new wardrobe. "Don't see why we have to wait to get those damn claws removed."
JD's lower lip trembled.
"Don't even start," Chris warned, not wanting to hear about the cruelty of removing their deadly little claws. "If you want them to stay in the house, then the claws have to go."
At his feet, Ringo whuffed in agreement, his nose probably still smarting from one of the swipes he'd received lately. Elvis seemed to know better than to get too close to the sharp little claws, but Ringo was curious and kept sticking his nose into dangerous places.
"I know." JD took a deep breath, managing to contain his tears, then stared up at Chris with big, brown watery eyes. The gray kitten stared up at him too, looking deceptively sweet and harmless. "Chris?"
"You said another bad word."
Chris sighed. He hadn't even put his wallet away yet; he opened it again and handed over a five. "Here, just take that." He had a feeling he'd owe even more before the boys' bedtime.