It took all of Jarrod’s steely self-discipline and control not to laugh out loud on the journey back to the Barley ranch that afternoon.
Nick on the other hand couldn’t keep the smile from his face as he watched the little kangaroo, known as Joey, bounce along the trail happily in the artificial pouch that was the open necked shirt of his younger brother Heath.
Heath on the other hand looked decidedly uncomfortable. The little bundle of joy in his shirt was nothing but a downright pest as far as he was concerned. It was awkward, had very sharp claws and that tail got into the most extraordinary places. Sure Joey was enjoying this, it was probably just like his real mothers pouch, but he, Heath, wasn’t.
“Smirk one more time Nick.” He threatened “And I’ll personally wipe it off your face.”
“Now, now Mom” Nick teased, the smirk getting bigger and bigger “You’ll upset the little one making noises like that. It’s in there because it feels safe.” He continued peering again at Joey with his head still sticking out of Heaths shirt. “And we wouldn’t want it to lose the sense of security it feels now would we. After all it’ll be lost and all alone in this big country if it should escape.”
Nick was really laying it on thick and there was little Heath could do at this point but wear it.
On the other side of Heath and Joey, Jarrod did manage a small grin. Nick hadn’t seen what other animals McKinney had in his collection and what one’s would be heading to the Barkley ranch to wait the arrival of Dr Manningham of the San Francisco Zoological Gardens.
“You’ll get yours soon Nick.” He promised.
“What on earth have you boys brought home now?” Victoria Barkley asked as she watched her sons approach the yard and saw the unusual bugle in Heaths shirt
“Ohh mother look isn’t just the cutest little thing.” Audra was beside Heath’s side before any of the boys could answer Victoria’s question. “Can I hold it? Can I keep it?”
“Audra for crying out loud this is a working ranch.” Nick bellowed. “ Not a sanctuary for every stray that take’s your eye.”
“But it’s soooo cute.”
“Here sis, take it.” Heath was only to pleased to be able to get the little kangaroo out of his shirt. Not only had it whacked him in the face with it’s tail, scratched him something fierce with it’s claws but five minutes before the boys had reached the ranch it had began to search for something he couldn’t supply. “I think its hungry.” He blushed and stomped away.
Victoria and Audra did their best to hide the grins that spread across their faces.
“Jarrod Nick, where did the joey come from? Now there’s now denying it’s cute, but doesn’t it belong to someone?”
Jarrod then went on to fill both Victoria and Audra in on the events that happened earlier on in town.
“So some of McKinney’s animals will be coming here and the rest will be staying at Ed Coverington’s place.
“How’d you manage that?” Nick asked.
“Ed was only too pleased to help.”
“Well just you make sure those cage doors are securely locked.” Nick jabbed Jarrod in the chest with his index finger.
“Hey come back here.” Audra cried as Joey jumped out of her arms and headed in the direction that Heath had taken. Into the house.
“Watch out Heath.” Audra called as she followed the little kangaroo in the back door and to the parlour where Heath was helping himself to a drink.
“My best glassware.” Victoria moaned and hastily followed Audra and Joey.
Hiding their grins as best they could from their mother Nick and Jarrod followed their mother into the house.
By now Silas the Barkley butler was involved. Broomstick in hand he was chasing the little fur ball out of his kitchen and into the corridor leading to the parlour and entrance hall.
“I didn’t seeing it coming Miz Barkley.” Silas tried explaining.
“Its alright Silas.” Victoria said calming the manservant down while trying to locate the missing animal “Which way?”
“Through there Miz Barkley with Miz Audra after it”
“My decorations.” Victoria moaned again as the end of a paper chain she was planning to hang hopped out of sight The pile of Chinese paper lanterns destined for parlour ceiling were now just a flattened stack of pretty coloured papers.
“HEATH” Audra’s voice floated down the corridor.
“Audra get off me.” Heaths voice followed.
“The drinks trolley.” Nick called as another crash and the sound of breaking glass was heard.
Nick couldn’t help but laugh out loud at the sight before him. In a tangled heap on the floor where his two blonde siblings and back in his makeshift pouch, head poking out like before, was Joey.
“Are you going to stand there all day laughing like a hyena?” Heath growled “Or do you think a some point you might consider helping us up.”
By now both Victoria and Jarrod had joined him and were having a little smirk to themselves.
“Are you both all right?” Victoria asked as she regained her composure slightly
“I landed on Heath.” Audra answered as both Nick and Jarrod held out their hands
“Heath?” Victoria’s attention switched to her youngest son
“Only my pride.” Heath grouched
“And the little one?” Nick asked as he reached out and scratched the little head.
“He’s just dandy.”
Movement at the door caught Jarrod’s eye. Russ and Sam two of the hands that he’d assigned to collect the animal cages from McKinney were beckoning.
Nicks payback time had arrived.
“Our guests have arrived. “ He announced. “And the boys brought a little something extra back for you brother Nick.”
“An old friend you haven’t seen for years was also in town. An exotic beauty about six feet tall, large green eyes. Ring any bells?” He asked with total innocence
Puzzled Nick mentally went through all the women of his acquaintance who’d fit Jarrod’s description. Maria? No she was only five feet tall. Claudette? No she had large blue eyes Cassandra? She was the right height but had hazel eyes.
Still puzzled he made for the back door.
Behind his back Heath made a claw sign to Jarrod who responded with the smallest of nods. Huge grins spread over both their faces.
For a few moments there was silence then...
“You yelled Nick?” Jarrod asked sweetly as he opened the back door and allowed Victoria, Audra and Heath to precede him.
Three cages stood with in the Barkley compound. Two still with there travelling covers on. The third was minus its cover.
“IS THIS YOUR IDEA OF A JOKE?” Nick bellowed as he heard the rest of the Barkley family approach, never once taking his eyes off the occupier of the cage.
Sitting in the cage, never taking her eyes off Nick was a lovely black and white tiger. As Jarrod described six feet from tail to whiskers and with large green eyes.
“Why Nick I thought you’d be thrilled to see her again after what four years?” Jarrod said as a huge grin continued to cover his face. “I was so sure you’d remember her. She seems to remember you.
“MEOWWRRARAR” The tiger said.
“Ok you’ve had your little game, now how about packing her off to Ed’s place?” Nick first off glared at his brother, the switched his attention to the cage. “And that’s enough from you.”
“Sorry brother dear the tiger stays here.”
As Nick turned to remonstrate further with his older brother, the family were amazed to see the tigers eyes light up, her rather large tongue lick her lips and her jaws open and close as if taking a bite from her prey.
“Jarrod I’m just a little confused.” Victoria put in “How do these two know each other?”
“Easy Mother. Do you remember four years ago the day Nick came home with the seat of his pants missing?” Jarrod went into another fit laughter.
“I do.” Audra piped up. “He almost made it to the top of the stairs and then…”
“Thanks Audra. We really don’t want to hear it again.” Nick began to turn red.
He too remembered that scene. He’d made it to the top of the staircase without being spotted by either his mother or sister, He’d been just about to open the door to his bedroom when Audra and two of her friends had come out of her bedroom and spotted him with his dignity fully exposed.
“Meet the cause.” Jarrod waved his hand in the direction of the cage. “Of course she was only a kitten at the time. Which reminds me Nick, she’s a mother now as well.”
From behind the bigger cat, a pair of cubs emerged both with large green eyes and both with regular tiger colouring. Although not marked like their mother, just by their mannerisms you could tell they were her cubs. Both sniffed the air, looked at Nick and licked their lips.
Audra’s attention was now drawn to the two covered travelling cages.
“What else did you bring us?” She enquired and lifted the covers of the first cage.
“Well in this one there’s..” Jarrod began
“Baby chimps, aren’t they just the cutest little things you’ve ever seen?” Audra cried as the covers were lifted to reveal three little chimps huddled together in the far corner of the cage. “They look so scared and alone.” She continued as she held out her hands to the little primates.
“NO Audra you can’t keep them.” Nick pre-empted the question. “And don’t even think about opening that cage.”
“Just because you’ve had a bad experience with McKinney and his cages why spoil it for us?” She pouted and continued to play with the little apes.
“You let even one out of that cage, you chase and catch them when they escape.”
“And the other cage Jarrod?” Victoria asked, almost dreading the answer.
The third cage contained a flock of four mid sized birds. Cream with dark markings, an almost mask like covering near their eyes and the tiniest hint of blue in their wing feathers.
“Do they sing as pretty as they look?” Victoria asked.
The family gathered around the cage admiring the strange looking birds.
“All McKinney told me is that their call is very distinctive. No other bird makes a sound like it.” Jarrod told the group. “I think maybe I’ll have them moved to the windows near the study. Give me something of beauty to look at and listen to while I’m working.”
Having settled their new guests down, and having smoothed over Nick’s ruffled feathers also Jarrod retreated to the study and his latest problem, the Cotters will.
For an elderly lady with no children of her own Emily Cotters sure did leave him a mess to clear up. Granted the old dear was nearly eighty when she died and may have been not quite with it in her later years, but this will was a nightmare. Twenty nieces and nephews not to mention the great nieces and nephews and each one of them had to get an equal share.
He was grateful that ranch duties keep both Nick and Heath out of his hair and trying to get the party the family was having later that night back on track keep both Victoria and Audra busy as well. For this kind of job he needed peace and quiet.
“KOO, KOO, KAR, KAR, KAR.”
The noise was so sudden and so loud he dropped the pen he was writing with and knocked the ink well all over his papers. In his hurry to prevent anymore damage to the Cotters will he ended up knocking all his other files onto the study floor causing them to spill their contents everywhere.
“KOO, KOO, KOO, KAR, KAR, KAR.” The call came again, only this time much louder and with more then one voice.
All four of them by now had their bills open and where emitting that awful sound. It was almost like they were laughing at him.
He looked at them again. They were! They were laughing at him.
“They really do make a distinctive call.” Nick laughed as both he and Heath stood by the door watching their eldest brother getting flustered. “There’s no denying that.”
“Shut up Nick.” Jarrod growled, “And both of you come here and make yourselves useful.”
Neither Nick nor Heath moved. Both were too busy clutching their sides and laughing
“I don’t which is worse, you two hyena’s or them.”
“KOO,KOO,KAR KAR KAR.” The bird quartet began again.
“You wanted them near the window. “ Heath reminded him with tears rolling down his face. “Something of beauty to look at and listen to if I remember right.”
“Thanks Heath, you’re a big help. Any way what are you two jokers doing here? Don’t you have a ranch to run? As I seem to recall Nick you’re the one who’s always going on about this being a working ranch. So why aren’t you working it?”
“Just stopped in to bring you this.” Nick handed over an envelope. “And to asked just how you’re planning to feed our guests?”
“Right now giving mama tiger out there have a piece of you is looking tempting.” Jarrod sniped back. “But since that’s out of the question regrettably. Dr Manningham has provided some answers. And McKinney also handed over a few things.”
“Jarrod?” Victoria called as she and Audra joined the men folk “Is everything all right in there? We heard this awful racket.”
“Everything’s fine mother.” Jarrod answered. “That was just our friends in the cage and two laughing hyena’s in here.” Giving both Nick and Heath a good long glare.
“Jarrod food?” Nick prompted.
“Yeah, Dr Manningham has wired me $200.00 to cover the purchase of two or three steers for the tigers. The chimps require fruit so that won’t be a problem. Joey there will eat grass, but does require a bottle of diluted cows milk last thing at night Heath. “He threw a mischievous glance toward his younger brother
“And our laughing friends?”
“McKinney handed me a sack of dead umm snakes for them.”
“SNAKES!” Audra cringed. "UGHH”
“They’re dead don’t worry.’ Jarrod quickly reassured her. “Oh and Nick, if any of the boys spot any snakes while out ask them to kill them and bring them back.”
“Jarrod, this a cattle ranch, not a snake farm.” Nick protested. “And the ‘boys’ have better things to do then go spotting for snakes.”
“KOO,KOO,KOO,KAR,KAR,KAR” The chorus started up again.
“You know in it’s own way it’s a melodic sound. Quiet charming” Victoria observed as she stood by the window studying the birds. “Do we know what they are and where they come from?”
“There should be something in that latest edition of ‘Birds of the World.” Jarrod said as he carefully picked his way from the mess surrounding the desk to one of the many bookcases by the wall.
Running his finger along the various book spines he soon located the volume in question. Flipping through the many pages he wasn’t really paying attention to where he was walking on his way back to the desk. His right foot came down on a pile of papers, which slipped along the carpeted floor. Quick thinking on his part was the only thing that stopped him from ending up face down on the floor.
“Jar..” Victoria started to give a warning.
Words failed him and all he could do was glare at the quartet angrily.
“Here they are.” He stopped on the relative page. “They come from the same place as Joey. Australia. McKinney was busy on his little trip.”
“Well what are they?” Nick asked impatiently.
“Kookaburras, more specifically the Laughing Kookaburra.” Jarrod read. “A member of the Kingfisher family. What we have here is the largest member of the Kookaburra family and the only one that has the distinctive laughing call. They are family orientated birds, which explains why those four seem to be huddling together. They eat snakes, frogs and lizards, but are also partial to rats and mice. So not only is McKinney a joey knapper, but also a bird knapper.”
“What about that laugh?” Heath asked.
“Like all birds it can be heard at all times during the day, but they are at their loudest just before dawn and just before sunset.” Jarrod said as he closed the book. “Speaking of which it is getting pretty close to sunset.”
“The party!” Nick exclaimed “GREAT.”
“Don’t panic Nick.” Victoria said in a calming tone. “Just do what you have to, feed the cats, Audra, you handle the chimps, Heath see to Joey, Jarrod clean up this mess.”
“What about the kookaburras?” Audra asked concerned that they would be forgotten.
“I’ll handle them myself.”
While waiting for the first of the slaughtered steers to arrive for the big cat and her family Nick found himself standing and watching the cat family interacting with each other.
For all her growling and hissing Beauty, as he called the mother tiger, was a very gentle and patient parent. With two active cubs in a small-enclosed space and not a lot to keep them amused she had to be.
When the cubs weren’t chasing each other, biting tails and ears, they were attacking their mother’s tail and ears. Beauty took in all in her stride, only swatting at them if they bit to hard or played too rough.
Having turned to check on the progress of the steer Nick turned back and found a pair of large green eyes watching him Instead of the growling and playful licking of the lips that had occurred earlier in the day Nick was greeted by nothing but…