Baby’s Breath

Summary: Dedicated to Mazique—my recently departed, sweet angel kitty.

Word Count:  3900

 

Baby’s Breath

 

Storm clouds had been building since early morning and the wind had started picking up when Ben sent Adam and Hoss out to the barn to make sure it and the horses were secured. He didn’t want to have to worry about tracking down the animals in the rain and mud. Marie’s mare, Bonnie, was heavily pregnant and would be foaling within the next month, so Ben didn’t want the horse exposed to any dangers that could result in the death of mother and baby.

Checking the ties across Beauty’s stall, Adam grimaced at the sound of scream-crying. Little Joe was teething and the pain was causing him to wail during the day and night, leaving his parents and siblings on edge and without much sleep.

“I wish Little Joe’s teeth would finish comin’ through,” said Adam while pinching the bridge of his nose. “You whimpered some when you were teething but you never screamed like this.”

“Maybe mine didn’t hurt,” answered Hoss.

The volume of the scream-crying increased and Adam said, “It’s almost as if Little Joe is in the barn with us. Marie or Pa isn’t bringing him out here, are they?”

Hoss poked his head out the barn door and looked towards the house and then in the other direction. “Ain’t nobody out there,” he said as he walked back to Adam. Standing in front of some stacked hay, he cocked his head to better hear the wailing noise. Going to the hay, he crouched down and began digging through it.

Seeing his brother messing up the hay, and knowing Pa would give them a lecture before having them re-shape it, Adam said, “Stop messing up the hay and help me with the horses.”

Feeling something softer than the surrounding hay touching his fingers, Hoss took hold of the softness and gently pulled. He was surprised to see a small gray tabby kitten hanging from his hand. The volume of the scream-crying increased as the kitten was pulled from its nest. Looking it over, he held it up for his brother to see and said, “Ain’t she cute, Adam?”

“Sure. Now put it back before its mother claws you to shreds.”

Keeping a gentle yet firm hold on the crying kitten, Hoss searched through the hay for more kittens or the cat. Not finding any, he began searching through the barn, hoping to return the kitten to its littermates and mother. Since he was unsuccessful, he climbed the ladder to the loft, expecting to see a feline family snuggled up there against the coming storm; maybe the little tabby had fallen out of the loft and couldn’t figure out how to get back to its family.

“Get down from there and help me with these horses!” said Adam with exasperation. Pa had given them a chore to do and they needed to get it done before the storm arrived. Adam didn’t like the thought of going back inside and listening to Little Joe scream for hours and not being able to escape from the noise because of the weather. He knew Hoss didn’t enjoy Little Joe’s screaming either but this foot-dragging over a kitten was getting annoying.

“There ain’t no cats up here,” Hoss called down.

“Maybe the mother was moving her kittens and she just hasn’t come back for that one yet.”

“But why would she move ‘em when it’s about to storm?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she knows something about the weather that we don’t. Besides, we’ve got to finish up so get back down here and help me.”

Hoss tucked the kitten into his shirt, hoping the furry little bundle would feel safe and secure in a warm and snuggly spot. The little kitten’s cries turned to mewls after it was in Hoss’ shirt and that noise then turned into purring. The boy descended the ladder, careful not to bump the kitten against it.

Finishing up with the horses, the boys headed for the barn door. Adam realized that purring was coming from Hoss’ shirt. “You can’t bring that into the house! Marie and Pa won’t let you!”

Fixing his brother with a pleading puppy look, Hoss asked, “Can’t ya jest pretend that you don’t know? I’ll take her up to my room as soon as we get inside. I’ll take care of her an’ make sure she stays in my room. Please, Adam?”

“I’m not gonna lie to Pa and Marie.”

“I ain’t askin’ you ta lie. Just don’t tell ‘em.”

Sighing loudly and rolling his eyes, Adam said, “Okay. But if Pa or Marie tells you to bring it back out here, then you’re gonna have to.”

Hoss’ face beamed with a smile and he gently patted the bundle in his shirt. “Ya heard that, Stormy? Adam ain’t gonna tell.”

“What kind of a name is that for a kitten?”

“Well, it’s about ta storm and this lil’ kitten is about the same color as the clouds.”

Adam slightly shook his head. Since Hoss had named the kitten, he probably wouldn’t bring it back to the barn if Pa or Marie told him to.

Arriving on the front porch, Adam grimaced as he heard Little Joe’s wails. He had tried everything he could think of to comfort his youngest brother

— rocking him, gently bouncing him on his knees, giving him some strips of leather to chew on, and rubbing his gums with a cold chamomile tea. Nothing had worked so far. He knew Pa and Marie were just as tired and almost at the end of their wits. Surely he’d never made as much noise as Little Joe, and Hoss had hardly cried at all.

Hoss tried to adjust Stormy so the kitten didn’t look as bulgy under his shirt. He figured if he could get inside and up to his room without being noticed, then he had a good chance of making sure the kitten would get settled in without any questions. Stormy again got comfortable and the purring increased in volume.

Entering the house, the boys saw their father sitting at his desk, massaging his temples. Their mother was pacing back and forth, trying her best to comfort her crying son. Both adults had dark circles under their eyes from lack of sleep and little rest. Marie was almost surprised that she hadn’t worn a hole into her Petit Joseph’s back with all of the rubbing she’d done to try to soothe him. It was small comfort to her that no one else could calm the baby; at least it didn’t mean that her child preferred someone else to his own mother. Even Hop Sing had been trying, without success, to ease the baby’s pain.

Adam crossed the room to Marie and the two exchanged a look; she then handed the crying infant over to him. He pulled a strap of leather from his pocket and tried to get Little Joe to bite on it; the baby, however, kept turning his head away and cried even louder. Ben found himself rubbing his temples with more pressure, hoping to ease his headache. Four days ago he never would have thought that a child of his could cry so loud for so long. Adam had cried while teething but never at this volume and for this length of time. Hoss had whimpered but happily chewed on strips of leather and drooled until his clothing was soaking wet.

Hoss took advantage of the noise and focus on his younger brother to go upstairs with the kitten. Reaching his room, he pulled Stormy from his shirt and the kitten began to mewl. “Ssshhh… You stay in here an’ I’ll get ya some milk ta drink.” He pulled back the covers on the bed, gently placed the kitten on the mattress, and covered her with the quilt. Except for a very small bump, Hoss was sure no one would notice anything.

Picking up one of his carved wooden animals, he went back downstairs. Going over to Adam, he tried to move the horse in front of Little Joe’s eyes but the baby wasn’t interested. Looking over his shoulder, Adam said, “Leave him alone. He doesn’t want to look at it.”

Hoss went over to the settee and sat down beside Marie with a sad look on his face. She draped a comforting arm around her step-son’s shoulders and drew him close. “Petit Joseph will stop crying soon, mon fils.”

“Why do babies have ta cry so much?”

“Some babies rarely cry and others…” Her voice trailed off as her Petit Joseph increased the volume.

“Do you think he’d be more comfortable in his crib?” asked Adam.

“Perhaps he’ll cry himself to sleep in a short while,” Marie answered hopefully.

She started to stand and Adam said, “I’ll take him up and sit with him.” The look of gratitude she gave him made him smile. He enjoyed spending time with his baby brother, even if it meant listening to screams that practically echoed off the walls. “Come on, Buddy, let’s go upstairs and lay you down for a while.” While Adam headed upstairs, the rest of the family had a view of Little Joe’s scrunched up, red, puffy, tear-streaked face; his little fists gripped Adam’s shirt tightly.

Ben got up from his desk and went over to the brandy decanter; pouring himself a glass, he looked over at his wife and asked, “Would like a little something to soothe your nerves?”

“Mais oui,” she replied.

Bringing two glasses over, Ben sat down at the other end of the settee so Hoss was between his parents. Both adults sipped at the warm liquid as their son’s screams continued at a slightly lower volume. A clap of thunder reminded them of the building storm. Ben looked up at the ceiling and asked aloud, “Do we really need more noise?” Hoss and Marie let out giggles, relieving some tension.

Upstairs, Adam had laid Little Joe in the crib and was singing softly to the baby in Swedish. Little Joe screamed and flailed his little arms in frustration against the pain. Finally giving up, Adam rested his arms on the edge of the crib, leaned forward, and rested his forehead on his arms. It seemed that absolutely nothing was going to make Little Joe stop crying. A clap of thunder only increased Little Joe’s volume.

Needing a few moments of peace, Adam went to his own room and sat on the bed. He wished that something could be found to comfort his youngest brother and ease his pain. Actually, he hoped that something could be found to stop his youngest brother’s crying and ease their headaches and tension. Pa had been in a bad mood for two days now because of Little Joe’s endless crying and, as a result, had been snapping at his sons about their chores.

*****

The lump in Hoss’ bed began moving to get out from under the quilts. All of the crying noises from down the hall interested Stormy. She slid from the edge of the bed to the floor and went to investigate. Padding softly on the wood floor, the kitten walked down the hall with her ears pricked in curiosity. Reaching the doorway where the noise was loudest, she went inside and looked around. Going over to the crib, she let out a cry of her own and was answered with a loud cry from the crib. Standing up on her back paws, she rested her front paws against the crib and looked through the bars; her little nose worked hard at deciphering the smells. The creature in there didn’t look or smell like her mother or littermates, yet the kitten decided to investigate further.

Pulling herself between the crib’s slats, Stormy sniffed at Little Joe’s blankets, clothing, and face. She licked at his tears, which startled the baby. He looked at the kitten and reached for it with a pudgy hand. Touching the soft fur, his eyes widened in surprise and the volume of his screaming became a little softer. Stormy sniffed at the little hand and gave it a lick; she then rubbed her cheek against it. Little Joe’s screams began to subside as he looked at the kitten. A loud clap of thunder scared the kitten and Stormy rubbed against the baby’s face and arm in an attempt to soothe herself. As Little Joe’s cries became softer, Stormy snuggled up next to him and purred loudly.

Worried by the lack of loud noise, Adam rushed into the room and looked into the crib. Loud footsteps alerted him to Ben and Marie hurrying up the stairs. Adam was about to reach for the kitten when his parents entered the room. “What’s wrong with mon bébé?” Marie asked.

“He’s okay but there’s a kitten in here.”

“A kitten? How did that get in here?” asked Ben.

“Hoss brought it in,” said Adam. He had told Hoss he wouldn’t lie but he couldn’t deny the kitten’s existence now that they’d seen it.

“Get that chaton out of the crib,” said Marie. “It’ll steal Petit Joseph’s breath.”

Looking down at his son and the kitten, Ben said, “At least he’s stopped screaming.”

“That animal might have some illness we don’t know about,” said Marie. “What if our petit should fall ill?”

Hoss came in the room and saw his parents and brother looking into the crib. He walked over and peered down to see Stormy looking up through half-closed eyes; she was purring loudly. The boy looked at his mother with pleading eyes and asked, “Can she stay with Lil Joe, Mama? Please? I promise she won’t be no trouble.”

“No, mon fils.”

“But, Mama…” Hoss began.

“Your mother said no. Now take the kitten back to the barn where it belongs.”

“But she ain’t got no mama or family ta go to. Ain’t that right, Adam?”

Adam wilted under Hoss pleading look and said, “Hoss couldn’t find the kitten’s mother or littermates. It was in the barn all alone. But I never said he could keep it in the house.”

Marie was clearly not pleased with the idea of a cat in the house or one sharing her son’s crib. Ben was surprised that his son’s screams had turned into whimpers; if the mere presence of the kitten could cause such a calming effect, then he thought it should stay.

Taking Marie by the elbow, Ben steered her into the hall. “Maybe we should let the kitten stay with Joseph. He’s already calmed down a lot.”

“If he wants something soft, we should give him a stuffed toy of some sort, not a chaton. That thing was out in the barn. It could be sick or carrying some illness or…”

“Why don’t we let it stay for now and see how things go? Maybe we can get some sleep since Joseph has stopped screaming.”

Putting a hand to her cheek, Marie frowned a bit while thinking. A nap sounded very tempting but who knew what could happen with a cat in the crib with her Petit Joseph. If the animal didn’t steal her child’s breath, it could hurt him with its claws.

Hoss came into the hall looking sad and dejected. Sniffling, he looked up at his parents he said, “I just wanted Stormy to have a family. She’s got no one and was all alone out in the barn.”

Marie melted at Hoss’ quivering lower lip and pulled the boy to her. “Your père and I have decided to let le chaton stay with Petit Joseph for a little while.” Hoss smiled up at her through his tears. Placing a finger under his chin she said, “You must be the one to take care of that chaton since you’re the one who brought it inside.”

“Yes, Ma’am! I’ll take good care of Stormy.” A clap of thunder reminded everyone of how the kitten had gotten its name.

The noise from the thunder scared Little Joe and he started to cry again. Marie rushed into the nursery, expecting to have to take the baby from the crib and walk with him again but the kitten was rubbing its cheek against Little Joe’s face and purring loudly. Little Joe’s cries began to subside to whimpers as he calmed down from the kitten’s soothing rubbing.

Noticing how tired Pa and Marie appeared, Adam said, “I’ll stay here with Little Joe if you want to get a nap.”

Marie looked at Ben and he lifted his eyebrows as if asking why not. “Thank you, mon fils. Be sure to wake us if Petit Joseph should need anything.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I will.”

“Can I take a nap, too, Mama?” asked Hoss.

“Sure, son,” answered Ben. “Adam will stay here with Joseph and if he gets tired, he’ll come wake you.”

“Thanks, Papa. Thanks, Mama.” Hoss then went to his room and climbed into the bed. The boy was snoring soon after settling into his bed.

Marie looked into the crib again to make sure the kitten wasn’t trying to hurt her baby. Seeing the contented look on her son’s face and hearing the purring of the kitten, she decided that a short nap would give her the energy to comfort her son again when the pain became too much for him to bear. Taking her husband’s hand, she led him to their room so they could get some much-needed sleep.

Adam reached down into the crib and stroked the kitten’s soft fur. Stormy looked up through half-closed eyes and yawned. “Keep an eye on him, okay?” The kitten closed one eye in response. Adam then stroked his brother’s soft, chestnut hair. Little Joe’s only response was a sniffle.

Sitting on the floor with his back to the wall, Adam read from The Last of the Mohicans. Periodically, he looked up from his book to make sure that Little Joe was still sleeping. Noticing that Little Joe was noisily sucking his thumb, Adam leaned into the wall and read. After reading the same paragraph eight times, he decided to close his eyes for a few minutes; Little Joe had stopped screaming, and with the house so peaceful, it was hard for Adam to not give into the silence and sleep.

Marie had been sleeping soundly when she became aware of her Petit Joseph crying loudly. Her body tried to tell her that everything was all right and that she should go back to sleep but her mind was telling her to get up and check on the baby. Starting to sit up, she was startled to see a creature on her in the dim light; the sound of a crying baby came from its mouth. She screamed, hoping to frighten what she hoped was a dream-induced image from the room.

Dreaming of British soldiers desperately fighting off the attacking Huron, Adam thought he could hear a woman screaming in the midst of the battle. Feeling a strong hand shaking his shoulder, Adam groggily opened his eyes and looked around. Pa was squatting in front of him, a firm hand gripping his shoulder. “What’s going on?” Adam asked.

“You fell asleep. Didn’t you hear crying?”

“No, Sir.” Adam’s groggy mind tried to think but he couldn’t remember hearing Little Joe cry.

Looking at the crib, Adam was startled to see Little Joe and Stormy gone. Was the screaming woman he’d heard in his dream related to the missing baby and kitten? “Where’s Little Joe?” he asked, starting to panic.

“Everything’s okay. Your mother has him.” Helping Adam stand, Ben escorted him to the master bedroom. An ashen Marie was sitting in the rocker, holding her Petit Joseph to her tightly while Stormy perched on her lap. Little Joe was sniffling and whimpering but not screaming.

“What happened?” Adam asked his parents.

“We were sleeping and I thought I heard Petit Joseph crying. When I awoke, it was to see a strange shape that cried like a bébé yet it wasn’t. I got up to check on your petit frère and found him in his crib but not breathing.” Looking down at Stormy, she said, “If le chaton had not been in the crib with mon petit, he might have never breathed again.”

Adam’s face paled at hearing that. He’d failed his father and step-mother since he told them that he’d stay awake and watch Little Joe while they napped. Seeing the guilt on his eldest’s face, Ben pulled Adam to him and gave his son’s shoulders a squeeze. “I’m sorry, Pa, Marie. I shouldn’t have fallen asleep. I didn’t know…”

“It’s all right, son. Your brother’s all right, thanks to Stormy.”

“What if Stormy hadn’t been in the crib? What if no one realized until…?”

Turning Adam so he could look him in the eye, Ben said, “We aren’t blaming you for falling asleep. God knows we’ve all needed sleep for several days. We’re just thankful Stormy was here to let us know something was wrong.”

Hoss walked into his parents’ room, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked.

“Stormy saved Little Joe,” answered Adam.

“Ain’t she a great kitten?” asked Hoss with a huge smile.

“Mais oui, mon fils,” said Marie with a smile. “But you will need to make sure that le chaton has the food it needs and is properly taken care of.”

“Yes, Ma’am! I shore will, Mama!”

Going over to his mother, Hoss knelt down and scratched Stormy behind her ears. The kitten purred loudly and leaned her head back to enjoy the scratching. Marie gazed down at the fluffy little bundle and was grateful that Hoss had found the motherless creature. She thought that maybe a guardian angel had sent Stormy to watch over her petit fils and keep him safe.

Ben was thinking Stormy was a special cat already. She’d been able to stop Joseph’s crying when nothing else could and now she’d alerted them when he’d stopped breathing. It was a good thing that Hoss had decided to sneak the cat into the house after all.

Even though Adam had been unhappy with the idea of Hoss sneaking the kitten inside, he was glad his brother had done it. He had fallen asleep in the silence and knew he’d never forgive himself if Little Joe had died and he hated to think of what Pa and Marie would have done to him if that had happened. Maybe having a kitten in the house wouldn’t be too bad after all, especially if Hoss fed it and looked after it.

Marie was thankful that the kitten had alerted her so she could get her son breathing again. Maybe the stories of cats stealing babies’ breath were just tales after all. She certainly believed that to be the case since the cat had cried to get her attention rather than staying in the crib. Her petit Joseph let out a contented sigh and snuggled into her neck; she smiled down at the kitten and swore she could see it smiling back at her as it purred loudly.

***The End***

 

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