Read The Case of the Vampire Cat Online

Authors: John R. Erickson

Tags: #cowdog, #Hank the Cowdog, #John R. Erickson, #John Erickson, #ranching, #Texas, #dog, #adventure, #mystery, #Hank, #Drover, #Pete, #Sally May

The Case of the Vampire Cat (2 page)

BOOK: The Case of the Vampire Cat
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Chapter Two: Loper Melts a Water Pipe

W
ell, at least he was kind and decent enough to let us ride in the cab with him, although it wouldn't have surprised me if he'd made us ride in the back.

He has this strange theory, you see, that snow makes dogs wet and wet dogs stink. I've tested that theory myself and I can report that it just doesn't hold water, so to speak. If you ask me, wet cowboys stink, but nobody ever asks my opinion.

He let us ride in the front, and we made our way through the snow and ice to headquarters. Along the way, we passed several bunches of cows. Their backs were covered with snow, and they were humped up and facing away from the north wind. And every time they breathed, which was fairly often, their breath made fog in the air.

Yes, it was a cold, miserable day, and according to the weather report Slim picked up on the radio, the day promised to get even colder and miserabler.

When he heard the report, he pressed his lips together and shook his head. “And I have to face all that without a cup of coffee.”

We pulled around in front of the machine shed and came to a stop beside the water well. Loper was there, doing something with the cutting torch, and whatever he was doing didn't appear to be bringing him much happiness. He wore a frown.

Slim watched him for a moment. “Plumbing froze up?”

Loper looked up from his work. “Yeah. You got any cute remarks about it?”

“No, only that if you'd take the time to wrap them pipes when it's warm, they wouldn't freeze up when it's cold.”

“No kidding? Thanks.” He went back to heating the pipe with the torch.

“This happens every year, Loper. A good ranch manager would catch on after a while. You'll notice that my pipes don't freeze. That's because I take care of my business.”

What? I stared at Slim and thumped my tail on the seat. Unless I had heard him wrong, he had just told a big whopper of a lie. His water pipes HAD frozen up, that very morning.

Slim's gaze shifted to me. “Hush. What he don't know won't help him.” Back to Loper. “You know, Loper, I was thawing out pipes with a torch one time and burned a hole in the pipe. Boy, that sure makes a mess.”

Loper turned off the torch and came over to the window. “Do you want to do it?”

“Not really.”

“Good. I'll do it and you can either watch or go do something constructive, but don't sit there in a warm pickup and give me advice.”

“Well, you don't need to get snarly about it. I was just trying to help.”

“Thanks. When I need your advice on plumbing, I'll give you a call. We've got phones, you know.”

“I know how you operate, Loper: slam-bang and always in a rush. That's the wrong way to thaw out pipes.”

Loper went back to the torch, shaking his head and talking to himself. “No wonder you're still a bachelor. No woman could stand you in the morning.”

“Well, you ain't such a sugar cake yourself, if you want to know the truth, and I've often wondered how Sally May has put up with you all these years.”

Loper started the torch again and tuned in the flame. “She's a very lucky woman and she knows it.”

“That's too much fire, Loper.”

“Just hush, Slim. Control yourself for two minutes and I'll have this thing thawed out, and then we'll find some little job for you to . . .”

By George, he struck water.

Slim shook his head. “I tried to tell you.”

Loper shut off the torch and threw it down in the snow and came storming over to the window. “Get me a hacksaw with a sharp blade, and don't say one more word. It was a sorry pipe to start with.”

Slim got out. “Sure it was. What are you going to fix it with, bubble gum?”

Loper was scrambling to shut off the main water valve. “Get me one of those compression joints off the workbench. And if it's not too much trouble, why don't you hurry.”

It took 'em an hour to fix the pipe. They had to cut out the bad section with a hacksaw. The blade was not sharp. I could have predicted that. This ranch has never had a sharp hacksaw blade. I think they buy dull blades at a special store.

Once they got the pipe cut out, the rest was fairly easy. They slipped the compression joint over both ends and tightened them down. They pressured up the lines, stopped all the leaks, and hollered down for Sally May to turn on a faucet.

She did. It worked. The job was done, and Slim and Loper had managed to do it without any bloodshed. Sally May even brought out cups of coffee for the “heroes,” as she called them.

I waited to see if Slim would admit that this was his first cup of the morning, and then explain why, but he didn't.

Well, the boys put up their tools and stood at the door of the machine shed, sipping their coffee and watching the snow come down.

“Well, what do you reckon?” asked Loper.

“Radio says more this afternoon and tonight. It's liable to take us all day to feed and bust ice.”

“I think what we'd better do is split up. I'll take the flatbed and get Sally May to drive for me, and we'll feed hay up north. You take the old pickup down to the Hodges' Place and feed there. You probably better use the army truck, bad as those roads are liable to be.”

Slim nodded. “What if it won't start?”

“Well . . . why don't you take Alfred? He can pull you. He's done that before, and then he can drive while you string out the feed.”

“Okay with me, but his momma might not go for the idea of me taking him off in a snowstorm, and I've got a few questions about that myself. I'd hate to get stranded with him along.”

Loper chuckled. “Why, he's a nice boy, Slim. You two would have a ball together.”

“I know he's a nice boy. That ain't the problem. I just hate being responsible for somebody else's child in a storm.”

Loper gazed up at the clouds. “Well, I think we're going to need all the help we can get today. I'll clear it with his momma. Oh, and you can take the dogs.”

“Thanks a bunch. Two wet dogs and one urchin child ought to fix me right up.”

Loper went back to the house to organize the troops. Slim finished his coffee and then pulled the flatbed pickup around to the hay lot and started loading it up for Loper. The snow was coming down harder than ever.

While I looked for mice under the bales, Drover stood out in the snow, shivering and moaning.

“Oh Hank, I'm so cold! I wish I could go back to bed.”

“Drover, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”

“I don't know what that means, and I'm freezing!”

“It means that if you could turn your fondest wish into a horse, you could . . . I don't know, give some beggar a ride into town, I guess.”

“Where would you go to find a beggar in this weather?”

“Well, you'd just . . . how should I know? Quit asking silly questions and catch some mice.”

“I don't even know what a beggar is, and I'm too cold to care.”

“A beggar, son, is one who begs.”

“One
what
?”

“One beggar. A beggar is one beggar who begs. That's simple enough.”

“Why are they going to town?”

“Because they . . . I don't know. They need a horse, I guess.”

“I thought horses lived in the country.”

“They do live in the country but . . . never mind, Drover, just never mind. I'm sorry I brought it up.”

“Oh, that's okay, but I'm still freezing.”

After that, I stayed as far away from Drover as I could. Just being close to him made me feel goofy.

Little Alfred arrived on the scene just then. He was all dressed up in a red snowsuit, red mittens, snow boots, and a wool stocking cap.

Slim got the hay loaded, just about the time Loper and Sally May and Baby Molly arrived. Alfred had been cleared by Headquarters to go with us to the Hodges' Place, but Sally May still had quite a bit of advice to give Slim about being careful.

Then we all said good-bye and went our separate ways. Loper and his bunch went north to feed hay, and Slim and our bunch loaded up in the old blue pickup and headed south.

When we passed Miss Viola's house down the creek, Slim honked his horn and said, “That's where my petunia lives.” We didn't see his petunia, but her two dogs, Black and Jack, came ripping out of the driveway and barked at us.

Well, you know me. I don't take such things lightly. I sprang to the window and barked back at them, and if the window glass hadn't been rolled up, I probably would have thrashed them both, right there in the middle of the county road.

Nothing makes me madder than . . .

Hmmm. Slim stopped the pickup and opened his door, and then he said to me . . . I think he was addressing me . . . he said, “You really want a piece of those dogs?”

I, uh . . . no, that was okay. There was no actual law against . . . heck, as long as they just barked and didn't . . . no, we'd let it slide this time.

In other words, no thanks.

“Then hush.” He slammed his door and started off again.

Fine. I could handle that. Hushing had never been a problem for me.

Chapter Three: We Meet the Weirdest Cat You Ever Saw

H
ave I mentioned that Loper had taken a lease on the Hodges' ranch? Maybe not, but he had, and we were wintering a bunch of cows on it. It was a dandy place to winter cows, because all the canyons and rough country gave them protection from storms.

But it wasn't such a dandy place to reach in a two-wheel-drive pickup, in a snowstorm. Once you left the blacktop highway up on the flats, you faced nine miles of long, lonesome road, without a single house to mark the way or give you the feeling that you could get help if you needed it.

And there were spots in that long, lonesome road where a guy could get himself stuck. Slim came pretty close on several occasions. The road was bad and getting worse.

The road came to an end at the little camp house. When we got there, Slim shut off the pickup and took a deep breath.

“Whoo boy! I wasn't sure we were going to get here. We shouldn't have tried to make it down here without a four-wheel-drive. It's a good thing we've got the Cammo-Stealth army truck down here. Let's see if she'll start.”

We all piled out of the blue pickup and moved over to the Cammo-Stealth army truck. What was the Cammo-Stealth army truck? A 1953 Dodge 4 x 4 with big mudgrip tires all the way around, a six-cylinder engine, and a four-speed transmission. It had a canvas top and was painted camouflage colors.

That's where the “Cammo” part of the name came from. The “Stealth” part came from . . . let's see if I can remember what Slim told Little Alfred . . . the old truck was so well camouflaged that it was “invisible to enemy radar.”

That's what he said, and if you want to know who the “enemy” was and why they were using radar on the ranch, you'll have to ask Slim.

Actually, I think it was some kind of joke.

Anyways, we hiked over to the Cammo-Stealth, which was parked on the west side of the camp house. Slim climbed in under the wheel and called Little Alfred over to watch.

“Pay attention, Button. I may get hurt down here one of these days and need you to drive me to town. I want you to know how to start this old thing.”

The boy climbed up on the running board. “Okay, Swim.”

“First thing you do when you drive any vehicle is check the gas gauge, only the gas gauge don't work on this truck, so you run a shovel handle into the tank. Here, I'd better show you.”

He got out and ran a shovel handle into the tank. He pulled it out and showed the boy the wet mark. “That means you've got about ten gallons of gas.”

He got back inside and went through the whole starting routine: put the gearshift into neutral; pull out the ignition switch; pull out the choke as far as it will go, but don't press on the gas pedal, “'cause this thing will flood if you even say ‘gas pedal.'”

“What does ‘fwuud' mean?”

“It means the motor won't start because . . . I don't know why. Just do what I tell you and never mind the how-come.”

It was then that the cat appeared. Descrip­tion: female calico, medium height and weight, longhair, pink nose, long white cat whiskers, and a pair of eyes that were something between greenish and yellowish.

They called her Mary D Cat.

She crawled out from under the house and came running toward us—yowling. Now, most of your ranch cats will yowl once in a while but not all the time. This one, once she started a yowl, she hung on to it and didn't quit.

It wasn't a short and simple “meow.” It was more like “Meeeee-yowwwwwwwww.”

Well, Drover and I were standing there beside the Cammo-Stealth, listening to Slim's lecture. The cat came bounding over to us, and right away I noticed that she didn't have much respect for a dog.

I mean, most of your ranch cats will approach a dog with some caution. They should. Not only is that the proper and mannerly thing to do, but it is the smart thing to do.

See, some dogs don't need much of an excuse to thrash a cat. You might even say that we . . . uh, they . . . you might even say that they consider pounding cats part of their job. Or even a form of sport—a good, clean, wholesome sport that all the family can enjoy.

And for that reason, your smart cats . . . or to put it another way, your cats who are less dumb than the dumber ones will NOT come bounding up to a dog they've never met before, because that is a really stupid thing to do and it can get a cat into deep trouble.

But this one? Here she came, bounding straight toward us and yowling.

“A crust of bread? Baloney, cheese?

Spare a morsel, if you please.

Marooned, I am, oh hateful place!

At last I've found a friendly face!”

Well, this was very strange. She came right up to me and began rubbing on my leg and yowling in my face. I guess you know how much I love being rubbed on by cats. I don't. But there she was, all over me, just as though we were old friends, and we weren't. Not yet and maybe never.

“A crust of bread? Baloney, cheese? Spare a morsel, if you please.”

I pushed her away. “Uh, Kitty, I think there's been some . . . I don't have any cheese. No cheese, no baloney, no bread, and
would you please stop rubbing on me
!

She went right on. “Marooned I am, oh hateful place! At last I've found a friendly face!”

I backed up several steps to get away from . . . fellers, this was a weird cat! I'd been rubbed on by cats before, but nothing like this. I backed up to get away from her, but there she was again—rubbing, purring, and yowling about cheese.

“Kitty, I'm sorry you've been marooned and I guess you think you've found a friendly face after all these years, but . . . get back, will you? I think you've made a slight error. That is, I think you've mistaken my face for . . . WILL YOU STOP RUBBING ON ME!”

“Cheese, just one little piece of cheese. I dream of cheese, you know. And baloney. And Vienna sausage. And sir, you have such a friendly face, I just know you won't turn me away.”

I was baffled. I mean, what can you do with a cat that is half-starved, half-crazy, and trying to love you to death? You can't just beat her up and go on about your business.

I solved the problem by surrendering my spot. I ran around to the other side of the army truck and waited to see what Drover would do. When I left, Kitty didn't miss a beat. She moved right in on Drover and started the same routine about cheese and a friendly face.

Drover wasted no time with niceties or small talk. He didn't know what was wrong with this cat but he knew something was screwy, and he wasn't going to take any chances. You'd have thought he was facing a python or a boa constrictor or a ghost.

Zoom! He vanished. Kitty had just lost another friendly face. Not one to be discouraged, she went straight to the Cammo-Stealth and jumped up on Slim's lap. He was deep into his lesson on starting the truck.

“Okay, you pull out the choker, let 'er sit for a minute, then . . .” He pitched the cat away. “Then you mash down on the starter . . .” The cat was back in his lap. “. . . with your foot, like this here.”

He pitched the cat and pushed on the starter. It turned over with a growl. The cat jumped back on his lap. He pitched her again. The motor continued to turn. Then it fired once. The cat was back in his lap.

Slim stopped what he was doing and looked down at her. She rubbed her ear across his chin and then flicked her tail over his nose.

“Kitty, I know you love me and I don't blame you 'cause I'm so wonderful, but we're fixing to have a problem. I can't start this truck with your tail in my face. Now scram.”

He pitched her out, and two seconds later, she was right back. “Button, will you get this love-crazed cat out of here? 'Cause if you don't, I'll be forced to break her heart and possibly her neck.”

Little Alfred took charge of the cat problem, and right away I could see that he had just the right approach. Holding her in a loving headlock, he began dragging her around through the snow. And it worked. The cat just went limp, didn't fight or scratch or struggle or make any kind of protest.

Well, with the cat under control, Slim turned back to the problem of starting the truck, which sounded as though it didn't want to start. He hit the starter again and the motor turned over and over, until at last it kicked off.

I had the misfortune of standing near the exhaust pipe when the motor kicked off, and it may be years before I get all of that blue smoke out of my lungs. Boy, that was quite a . . . COUGH, HARK, ARG . . . quite a cloud of smoke, and I decided to move my business around to the front.

Slim revved up the motor and adjusted the choke and told Alfred to get in—without the cat. Then they pulled around to the cake house and started loading sacks of feed.

I followed and heaved a sigh of relief. At last we were rid of the . . .

You'll never guess who went streaking past me and headed straight for the cake house. I'll give you a hint. She was calico-colored and weird.

Yes, it was the cat.

Perhaps you know where I stand on the issue of letting cats pass me on the way to the cake house. I don't allow it. It sets a bad example, don't you see, and can lead to trouble later on. Cats should always be last.

So I reached for the afterburners and hit full-throttle and went streaking through the snow. And she beat me to the cake house.

Hmmm. That was a pretty fast cat.

BOOK: The Case of the Vampire Cat
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