Just like he’s done probably a dozen times in the past year-and-a-half, Swansboro’s Ronnie Johnson was putting the finishing touches on a burn pile.

Johnson, who along with his brother Randy handles maintenance at Lilliepad Acres Mobile Home Park, said he was tossing on a few more limbs, just before dousing it with gasoline.

But as he was about to pour, he heard a kitten’s cry.

“We had a big brush pile down here,” he said as he gestured toward a few charred stumps – all that remained of the burn pile – in a clearing at the rear of the park. “I came down to burn it the other day.”

The pile of limbs and stumps was about 20 feet tall and 30 feet in diameter, according to Johnson, who has lived and worked at the mobile home park for about 18 months.

“I walked around it to throw some branches on it,” he said. “And when I did I heard a faint meow, like a baby kitten.

“I walked over to where I thought the kitten was and I took some of the branches apart, away from the brush pile and the kitten went up into the middle of the brush pile.”

Johnson, who moved here last year from West Virginia – “We just got tired of the cold and snow up there” – could not see the kitten, but he said he could mark its movements by listening.

“I could just hear it,” Johnson said. But, he added, there was no way he could reach it. “Well, I knew I didn’t have any choice, I wasn’t going to burn the cat up. I didn’t want to burn one of God’s animals up. So I disassembled the whole brush pile.”

After about 45 minutes of working by hand, he said he could finally see the kitten. It was a dark brown kitten with spots of orange and white, small enough to fit in a pocket.

“I got down to about five or six branches left, and there was that kitten, right in the middle,” Johnson said. “If I hadn’t heard that kitten … I was getting ready to put gas on it.

“It didn’t look too weak,” he said of the kitten. But while the kitten was small, “He had gotten old enough to wander.”

By this time, Johnson said the man who owned the kitten had walked over to the burn pile and was able to reach in and get the kitten.

“He took the kitten,” Johnson said, and returned it to the kitten’s mother. “She was glad to see it.”

Left to rebuild the burn pile, Johnson said he had no regrets.

“Thank God I heard him,” he said. “If I hadn’t heard him it would have been terrible.

“I’m so glad I found him.”

Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy@tidelandnews.com.

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