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Little Esme, our coal-black barn cat, is the sole female feline around these parts. She is tiny and well-mannered, and of all our cats, she is my favorite. When I brought her home last fall, however, it was with trepidation. She was the third black female cat we’d had acquired in as many years. The other two met grim fates; apparently, they weren’t bad luck for us, as much as we were for them.

All through the bright days of autumn and early winter, the Bean and I played outside with Esme and her brother, Nando. They both followed the Bean like puppies, his perfect black and gold shadows, putting up with his aggressive toddler snuggling and not-so-gentle petting. Then Emmy Rose was born, and I was consumed with diapers and nursing and days that lasted all night.

I still saw the kittens quite often, as they would come nearly every evening and huddle pathetically by the sliding glass door, watching us with big, sad eyes. It was almost more than I could bear, but two more house cats, in addition to a new baby, was enough to give even a soft touch like me pause. Plus, the house cats we already have are enough of a nuisance. It seemed one or the other of them was always sneaking in a bedroom and waking someone up. The bottom line was, we didn’t need more cats inside, even adorable, cuddly ones.

The winter lagged on, dumping snow drifts as high as our second story windows, with bitter winds that never tired of running. Eventually the kittens gave up on us, and sequestered themselves in the deep straw of the barn. It wasn’t as warm as the house, but it was warmer than the porch.

By the time the Esme and I started sharing an orbit again, she was heavily pregnant, and half feral. She seemed to have forgotten we’d ever been friends, and I could hardly blame her. Once her babies were born she softened to me again; it may have been the warm milk I brought (leftovers from the bum lambs’ bottles) or the treats I smuggled her and her kittens. Either way, it appeared I’d been forgiven.

Despite the extra food, Esme grew thinner and thinner as her kittens grew fatter. I was relieved when they were old enough to wean, and we gave them to our neighbor. I think Esme was too. I figured a summer of mice and barn kibble would be the cure.

That hasn’t been the case. Esme often waits for us in the garden, and then wraps her long tail around my legs when I stoop to pet her. Beneath her shiny coat, her bones are as narrow as a bird’s. The other barn cats are lean as well, from hunting the outbuildings and adjacent fields, traveling long miles in search of adventure. Only Esme is thin to the point of fragility.

Our terrible track record with black cats, and my own latent guilt, have been nickering at the corners of my mind for a while. Then tonight I noticed, hanging beneath the frail snake of her spine, her round, full belly. The poor cat is pregnant again.

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It’s only September, but the nights are already growing cold. We’ve had to close the windows before bed all this week to keep the chill out. With a newborn and a toddler to tend, I could harden my heart to two half-grown kittens, but the prospect of doing so again, with a whole litter? I can’t decide which is worse: letting them tear my house up, or leaving them alone to live or die as nature sees fit.

When the man of the ranch and I began cohabitating, he kindly asked that we cap the indoor animals at four -- which was, coincidentally, the number of indoor animals I already had. When my little dog went missing just after the Bean was born, that number shrunk to three. If the man of the ranch had his druthers, the cap would probably continue to drop as these animals age, and nature takes its course.

I wish I felt the same. The knowledge that Esme is expecting has me contemplating the four indoor animal cap. Visions of Christmas kittens dance in my head. And yet, and yet…I am finally MAYBE learning the lesson you can’t save every soul that crosses your path. Ranch life will teach you that faster than probably anything else, but I am not a quick study.

I’ve been trying to follow the mantra: Let the wild take it’s own. Let the wild keep its own. But what of those half-wild ones? I am not sure. We will see. In the meantime, Esme will be getting fresh eggs for breakfast every morning, and I will be going to bed with a guilty conscience every night...

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