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By Frances M. Deegan

"Curiosity killed the cat" is an oldie that Tom the "crazy" cat didn't believe in. He liked hunting—hunting killers, that is! 

LIKE a gray shadow, the cat slipped through the cool meadow grass. His lithe maltese body seemed a part of the shifting sunset mist that clung to the ground.

His rippling movement stopped abruptly, the blunt head turned warily to the left. The damp, earthy sweetness was tainted with dog smell. His neck arched in a swift, fluid curve as he peered over the grass. For a long moment his motionless grace was unbroken, the green eyes blackened with intensity, then the tip of his tail twitched angrily.

The hated hounds were there, eagerly watching the younger of their two masters. He was digging swiftly in the rich black loam, the three hounds circling about him expectantly.

The cat stared thoughtfully, savoring the scent of freshly turned earth. There was a strong gopher smell, which meant a mound of the animals had been disturbed.

A loud explosion blasted the quiet, and the cat flattened himself instinctively. Echoes rolled aimlessly about the meadow and died. Nothing moved for a long time, until a meadow lark soared, dripping notes of wistful regret.

The cat reared his head cautiously. The hounds had vanished, but the older of their two masters stepped from the shelter of the trees bordering the field. He stooped awkwardly over a dark lump in the grass, straightened with a pair of feet clamped under one arm, and scuttled into the trees. Soon he was back, smoothing and patting the disturbed earth with a shovel. At last he disappeared among the trees.

The melting sun spread a burnished pool behind the trees and sank with a molten splash. The cat licked his chops and crouched in the grass, sniffing at the ground experimentally. After a while he crept toward the tantalizing smell of the scattered gopher mound. Almost at once he pounced on a long striped shape that slid through the grass. He struck expertly behind the head, gave a savage jerk, and experienced a sharp sense of astonishment.

Instead of smooth fur, his teeth gripped a hard, scaly surface, and the thing thrashed about insanely. He clawed at the writhing length with all four feet and twisted the spineless head. His teeth sank deeper, but there was no exhilarating taste of warm blood. He hung on relentlessly until the cold, slippery thing tired and its squirming grew slow and weak. Satisfied, he lifted it in his claws and trotted homeward...

The small Dinning cottage was faintly gilded in the afterglow. It looked snug and inviting, nestling there in its old-fashioned flower garden with gay chintz curtains at the windows; but Greg Dinning sighed wearily as he approached it from the road. He was a tall, lanky young fellow with a sunburned face and anxious gray eyes. His heavy boots dragged a little, and the battered felt hat sat dejectedly on the back of his head.

THE moment he stepped on the porch there was a scurry of running feet, and Mary was there, breathless and pink-cheeked. The stars in her eyes dimmed at sight of him and she came into his arms slowly.. He could feel the ache of understanding in her as he pressed her close and brushed his lips gently across her hair.

"Oh, Greg! " she said in a small muffled voice. "Isn't there anything we can do?"

"Not unless we want to take it to court, honey, and sue Nelson." He patted her shoulder. "That's kind of expensive, and—"

"I know. You'd have to hire a lawyer and all that, and we just haven't got the money! But there must be some way you can make him let you plow up that pasture, it's yours, you rented it and paid for it!"

"We can't blame Henry Nelson too much, hon. He got a raw deal out of it, too, when his brother took the whole year's rental I paid him and skipped out with it."

"I blame him!" she said indignantly. "Those Nelsons—they're all crooks. He should have told you the well water was poisoned before you spent good money for those cows. If you hadn't had to sell them at such a loss, you might have enough money now to hire a lawyer."

"I guess I'm just not very smart," Greg said gloomily. "Maybe I wasn't cut out to be a farmer. I guess maybe we should have stayed in town and saved our money. Now all we've got is this house, and an empty barn, and ten acres of pasture standing idle."

"Oh, darling, I didn't mean that! It's just that it makes me so mad because it's not fair. What did Sheriff Bergan say when you told him about it?"

"Said it looked like a tough break all around. Said he was surprised at John Nelson lighting out that way, he always thought John was the steady one in the family, and Henry was the lazy no account. But I suppose if there's bad blood in a family, it's bound to come out one time or another."

"It does seem funny that he'd walk out and leave his own son," said Mary, frowning. "Gavin Nelson seems like a nice enough boy, and I know he doesn't get along with his uncle Henry. It must be kind of hard on him, too."

"Hon!" Greg pinched her cheek. "I thought all the Nelsons were crooks. Especially when their hound dogs chase your cat!"

"They do not!" She stepped back indignantly. "Tom's not scared of those cur dogs. He jumps them every time. You should have seen him this morning, he nearly gouged an eye out of one of them, jumped right for the dog's face when he came snooping around the back yard."

"Now, honey! Any cat that would do that is just plain crazy."

"He did too, do it! I guess I saw him, Greg Dinning. And that old hound let out a yelp and ran, with his tail between his legs and bloody teeth-marks around his eyes."

"Claw marks, honey. Cats don't fight with their teeth."

She looked at him with feminine exasperation. "Tom does," she said firmly. "How else do you suppose he catches all those rabbits and things he brings home?"

"Only very little rabbits," Greg teased her. "You ought to let me take him with me next time I go hunting. I'd train him to retrieve something his own size."

"Oh, Greg! I know you're only trying to kid me out of the dumps, and you must be hungry, too. Come on, supper's almost ready."

He followed her to the kitchen, and felt a familiar wave of tenderness sweep through him, watching her straight, independent back and the business-like tilt of her blond head, intent on the important job of feeding her man.

He washed up at the sink, and continued to watch her as he dried his hands and face. She was so little, and quick and competent. He felt suddenly like a clumsy, inadequate fool who had clutched at a dream, and muffed it. His jaw moved stubbornly.

"Don't worry, honey," he said harshly. "I'll think of something—figure out some way—"

Tom announced himself with muffled triumph at the kitchen door. Mary turned her bright head from the stove and went to let him in. He deposited his trophy at her feet and gazed up with a bland little thrill of achievement.

Mary leaped away as the thing wriggled feebly, hiked up her skirts and shrieked. Greg galloped across the kitchen and kicked the thing out the back door. Then he sat down and roared with laughter.

"That crazy cat!" he gasped. "He's dragged home everything now but a skunk. I can hardly wait!"

Mary smoothed her skirts down and asked breathlessly: "What was that?"

"Only a little garter snake, but what the dickens did he want with a snake? I tell you that cat's crazy!"

TOM was at the screen door, peering out and sniffing the air, apparently puzzled at the reception given his prize.

"He's not crazy," Mary declared. "It's because he's not afraid of anything that crawls or walks. That thing could have been a rattlesnake for all he cared. Maybe you'll believe me now when I tell you he jumps Nelson's hound dogs."

"All right, honey. He's some cat, even if he is a little nutty."

"Never mind, Tom," coaxed Mary. "I think you're a wonderful, smart cat, and I'm going to give you some salmon for your supper. Do you want some salmon?"

"M-yeah!" agreed Tom running to her with tail lifted expectantly.

As Mary got down the can and opened it, they continued their odd conversation of words and expressive responses, apparently in complete understanding.

Greg pulled up his chair and sat at the table, grinning a little. "That darn thing almost talks, at that," he admitted gravely. "Ask him how he happened to bring home a snake. That ought to be some cat tale!"

After supper Greg stayed in the kitchen, smoking his pipe and rather wistfully turning the pages of a farm catalogue, as Mary cleared away the supper dishes. She scalded and dried a gallon milk can and called Tom.

"Come, Tommy. Milk time." The cat come instantly, mewing in anticipation of their daily visit to the Coburn farm where he received a shot of warm milk direct from the cow.

Mary leaned over Greg's shoulder and kissed his ear. "We'll have our farm, Greg," she said, "and make enough money to buy all the tractors and farm gadgets you want."

"Sure we will, honey," said Greg, too heartily.

The way to the Coburn farm led over a hummocky rise thickly overgrown with tall, bush clover which scented the dusk with sharp sweetness. Mary followed a path, but Tom knew his way unerringly, and prowled among the tangled growth, his hunter's instinct on the alert.

Jim Coburn was a stocky, red-faced man with a genial grin. He was busy with his milking when Mary entered the barn, and greeted her over his shoulder.

"Evening, Mis' Dinning. Where's that thirsty Tom cat?"

"He'll be along," said Mary. "He wouldn't miss his evening call for anything."

"Reckon not," Coburn agreed, concentrating once more on the frothy streams filling the pail. "How'd Greg make out in town today?"

"Not very well. Sheriff Bergan seems to think the only thing we can do is take it to court."

"Uh-huh. I was afraid of that. It sure does beat me how John Nelson ever came to do a thing like that. Henry claims he never knew nothing about it until you folks moved in, and that was a month, six weeks after John had disappeared. When Henry found out you folks had paid John a whole year's rent, he quit lookin' for him. Says he figured John just got tired of farmin', and took the money and skipped."

"There must have been something else," said Mary. "Some other reason why he wanted to disappear. The money gave him the means to get away, but he must have been in some kind of trouble, or he surely wouldn't have gone away and left his son without a word."

"That reminds me—you see anything of Gavin today?"

"No. Why?"

"His uncle Henry was by here just before suppertime, askin' if we'd seen him. Says the kid's been gone all day, and left him with all the chores to do. Henry ain't much of a hand to do farm chores, so he was pretty sore about it. Likely he's been workin' the kid pretty hard since John left."

"You think Gavin has disappeared too? Maybe he knows where his father is."

"He ain't been actin' like he knew anything," said Coburn thoughtfully. "Gavin was pretty much attached to his pa, and after he disappeared the boy went around like a lost hound dog. Don't seem likely his pa could have got word to him without Henry finding it out."

Tom had entered the barn and placed himself strategically near the foaming milk bucket. Coburn pretended not to notice him until the cat yowled impatiently.

"Oh, you here again?" grinned Coburn. "Here you are—" He directed a stream of milk expertly toward the cat, and Tom as expertly absorbed it, wiped his whiskers with a pink tongue, and yowled for more.

DUSK had thickened when Mary started back toward home. The wild clover seemed taller and thicker, and the white blossoms sent forth a heavier sweetness in the dew. Tom ranged through the jungle-like growth on some trail of his own until a stealthy movement ahead arrested him. His ears flattened as he caught a faint dog scent. There was man scent too. The cat crept nearer and leaped suddenly at a face. For the second time that day he was astonished, his jaws opened as the thing reared up and became a man, and the cat let go his hold and dropped to the ground. There was a wild thrashing as the man beat his way through the thick growth, and the cat dove toward the path and ran home like a streamlined streak.

Mary stood stock still on the path, terror beating up into her throat, then the man was gone. She gasped and ran, heedless of the thick leafy sprays whipping at her face and hair, the milk sloshing noisily in the heavy gallon can.

Greg heard her running feet and came swiftly out of the kitchen to meet her. He caught her with one arm, and reached for the milk can as she stumbled against him, sobbing and panting.

He held her without speaking until her ragged breathing became easier. "What scared you, honey?" he asked quietly.

"A man!" she gasped. "There was a man there—in the clover."

"Who was it?"

"I don't know. He—he was just there—all of a sudden—in front of me. And then he ran—"

"He didn't touch you?"

"No—no. He just jumped up and ran."

"You come on in the house. I'll go see—"

"No, Greg, don't go!"

"Sh-h. You'll be all right. You can lock the door. I'll take the shotgun and a flashlight. I have to see what he was up to. We don't want any prowlers around here." Greg led her into the kitchen, talking to her all the while he loaded the gun and rummaged in the closet for a flashlight. Slowly the color came back in to her face and her eyes lost their glassy terror.

"Maybe it was Gavin Nelson," she said shakily. "Mr. Coburn told me he's disappeared from home too. Maybe he had a fight with his uncle."

"Wouldn't be at all surprised," said Greg. "But you lock the door anyway. I'll be right back."

He was back in five minutes, beating on the locked door. When Mary opened it the cat scampered in and Greg followed, his face tight with shock.

"Greg! What is it?" she gasped.

He set the shotgun near the door. "It's—pretty bad, honey, he said harshly. "I'll have to call up Sheriff Bergan. It's Gavin Nelson—he's been shot. Whoever it was you saw must have left him there—dragged him from some place else and left him."

SHERIFF BERGAN was a hearty, robust man of sixty. He drove out from town alone in his battered Ford. He said, "Figure we might need a little help here. I phoned Jim Coburn to come over. Phoned Henry Nelson—he's coming, too."

Briefly, Greg told him about the prowler and his discovery of the body.

"And you got no idea who it was you saw, Mrs. Dinning?" His mild blue eyes turned to Mary. They were neither kind nor cold, merely questioning.

"No—no. I couldn't—it was too dark to see," Mary faltered.

"Seems kind of funny," mused the sheriff, "him jumping up that way. If he'd just laid still, you wouldn't have known he was there, would you?"

"You can take a look through that clover," said Greg grui?y. "You ought to be able to find some sign of where he was hiding. Mary can show you about where it was."

"That's okay," said the Sheriff. "And I'm not doubting your word—yours or Mrs. Dinning's. I just want to get it all straight in my mind before I go ahead. I'd like to know where Gavin Nelson was all day. Jim Coburn tells me his uncle was looking for him round about suppertime."

"That's right," said Greg. "He mentioned it to Mary—asked her if she'd seen anything of Gavin today."

"And you hadn't?" asked the sheriff.

"Oh, no. I was home here all day," Mary explained. "And he—they, neither one of them came around here after Greg had that argument with Henry Nelson."

"Yeah." Sheriff Bergan brushed his gray mustache with a hard hand, first to the left and then to the right. "There was quite a bit of bad feeling between you and the Nelsons I expect. Didn't happen you told them to stay away from this place—threatened them maybe?" He eyed Greg with a sharp, still gaze.

"Of course not." Greg threw out a defenseless hand. "What would be the good of that? There's nothing here they want."

"No," said the sheriff, but his bushy brows lifted questioningly as he looked at Mary.

"Maybe you'd better come out and take a look at the body," said Greg roughly. "Coburn ought to be coming by that way soon. We can met him out there."

"He won't be coming that way," said the sheriff. "Told him to drive around by the road. Don't want nobody messing around out there—Guess that'll be him coming now."

A second car turned in from the road and stopped behind the sheriff's Ford. Jim Coburn's round, red face was drawn with gravity when he entered the parlor. He nodded briefly, and said, "Evening."

"Would you mind stepping outside and showing us where you saw this prowler, Mrs. Dinning?" asked the sheriff.

"Of course I don't mind," said Mary stoutly. "It was about half-way through that patch of clover, and the man was hiding off to the left of the path where the body was."

"How'd you know there was a body?"

"I— Why, I didn't!"

"I told her where the body was," said Greg angrily, "after I'd found it. And if you've got any idea Mary or I had anything to do with this—"

"Now, now," said the sheriff mildly. "Let's not get excited till we know what's what. We'll take a look-around first, and then we'll sit down and talk it over."

The sheriff's "look-around" lasted only half an hour and produced very little additional information. They found the broken trail through the tangled clover where the body had been dragged from a wooded section. There the trail ended. They found the spot indicated by Mary where the clover was crushed as if a man had lain there in hiding, but Sheriff Bergan was not much impressed. It was obvious that he was thinking that Greg could have done it to bolster Mary's story about a prowler.

IN THE glare of the flashlights Mary looked white and nervous, and Greg's jaw was set grimly. Their own predicament almost overshadowed the shock of seeing Gavin Nelson lying there in the dank night, rumpled and grimy, like a carelessly discarded piece of trash. He had been shot in the left side and his blood-soaked body wrapped in a filthy blanket.

Greg and Jim Coburn carried the stiffening body back to the cottage, and Sheriff Bergan telephoned Dr. Bradkin, the coroner. When he turned from the phone, his face was bleak and his voice was flat. He said, "Figure he was shot about sundown, maybe in that patch of woods that runs between here and the Nelson farm." He looked at Greg under shaggy eyebrows. "You left me round about four o'clock," he said. "Did you come straight on home?"

"Yes, I did. But I couldn't get a ride, so I walked. It must have been close to six when I got here."

"It was," said Mary thinly. "Because I had supper all ready, and we sat right down and ate. Greg didn't go out at all after he came home, until that man scared me, and that was after dark."

Jim Coburn cleared his throat raggedly. "It was coming on dark when Mis' Dinning left my place," said the man unhappily. "We talked a while about Gavin Nelson. About him disappearing like his pa."

"Say, how about that?" Greg lifted his head tensely. "Maybe John Nelson did disappear like his son. Maybe he was put out of the way, too, by somebody that—that—"

"By Henry Nelson you mean, don't you?" said the sheriff heavily. "I don't see as Henry would have any cause to kill off his own relations."

"But maybe he did have!" said Mary sharply. "Maybe they had a fight. You said yourself that John Nelson wasn't the kind to run off and leave his son and his farm."

"Nor he wasn't," said the sheriff. "But that don't signify. Man gets his hands on a hunk of money, and no telling what ideas he'll get in his head."

The cat suddenly left his place beneath Mary's chair and stalked across the parlor, his fur ruffled and tail stiff. A step sounded on the porch and Henry Nelson stood in the door. The dogs ran about the yard nervously, panting and whining, and Tom backed up angrily, a low snarl in his throat.

"Come in, Henry," said the sheriff stiffly. "Took you quite a while to get here."

"I told you I had all the chores to do. Where's Gavin? How'd he get hurt?"

His voice rasped belligerently, and his narrow face sagged loosely in lines of discontent. He entered without removing his hat which was pulled low on his forehead. As he faced the room Mary made a small choking sound and covered her mouth with her hand. Strips of tape outlined the man's left eye in the shape of a V with the point toward his nose.

"It was you!" gasped Mary. "You were the prowler! You left Gavin's body in the clover patch, you—you killed him! "

"What you hollerin' about?" said Nelson angrily.

"Sheriff!" Mary turned wildly toward -her husband. "Greg! Make them listen to me! Don't you see—his eye? Tom jumped him in the clover—that's why he got up and ran! There are teeth marks under that tape—iust like the marks on his dog's face. I know it—I just know it!"

GREG looked bewildered and put his arm about her protectingly. "Wait a minute, honey," he said tautly. "That sounds a little crazy. I don't think—"

"You always say that!" cried Mary hysterically. "I tell you it's not crazy!" She left him suddenly and scooped up her cat. "Now call those dogs in here and I'll show you the marks around that hound's eye. Just like the ones on his face—pinched together at one end where Tom sank his teeth, and spreading out as Tom lost his grip."

"Mrs. Dinning, you're a little excited," said the sheriff placatingly. "That don't hardly make sense—what you're saying."

Jim Coburn got up suddenly and brushed past Nelson to open the screen door. "We can soon find out about the hound, anyway," he said brusquely, and strode out to call the dogs. He returned immediately with a dirty brown and white hound in his arms. The cat writhed in Mary's arms, spitting feline curses, and the hound cowered trying to wriggle backward out of Coburn's grasp.

"He's marked up all right," said Coburn, displaying the jagged V around the dog's left eye. "And Henry never had no marks on him when he stopped by my place this evening, so he must've got 'em afterwards."

"Danged rake fell on me when I went out to the barn to milk," growled Nelson. "I had all the chores to do, an' I was rushed."

"That ain't so," said Coburn quietly. "Them cows hadn't been milked when I drove by a little bit ago. They was bawlin' their heads off. An' you ain't had time to milk four cows since then. Chances are, if we went over to your barn right now, we'd find the cows still bawlin' to be milked."

"You got scratches along the side of your jaw, too," said the sheriff thoughtfully. "Couldn't get those off no kind of rake I ever saw."

"What are you tryin' to do?" Nelson's voice was hoarse with fury. "Tryin' to make out I shot my own nephew? Why you—Hey! What you doin'? Leave me go!"

"Shut up!" said Sheriff Bergan coldly. "Nobody told you Gavin was shot. When I rang you up I told you he'd had an accident. If you know how he was killed, you must know a whole lot more than you been lettin' on. Let's have a look at those marks around your eye."

"Leave me go, you—" Nelson cursed viciously as he struggled against the sheriff's grip. Coburn thrust the hound out the door and stepped swiftly to the sheriff's side, securing Nelson's free arm. The man gasped as the sheriff ripped off the tape, revealing a jagged V almost identical to that on the dog's face.

Mary was squeezing Tom so tightly that he let out a sharp wail of protest, breaking the tension in the room. Mary sank limply to the couch and Greg sat beside her with his arm about her shoulders.

Henry Nelson was trembling with rage and fright as Coburn and the sheriff kept their grip on him. "I guess maybe I'll have to use these," said the sheriff apologetically, bringing out his handcuffs. "I'm holding you, Henry Nelson, as a material witness, until I find out some more about what's been goin' on around here. Greg, I guess you and Mrs. Dinning will be here when I want you?"

"Yes, sir! We certainly will," said Greg loudly. "This means everything to us."

The next morning Greg was out at dawn with a scythe, cutting down the wild tangle of clover. At the far edge of the patch he met Jim Coburn, who was gray-faced and haggard, after being up all night.

"Well, we found most of the cash you paid John Nelson," he told Greg wearily. "Found it in Henry's bedroom, together with a copy of the lease you signed. So he's been lyin' right along. Looks like he might've done away with John and Gavin both."

"He can't be charged with John Nelson's death unless you find the body," said Greg. "And most of the evidence against him in Gavin's death is circumstantial." He grinned crookedly. "We can't very well put Mary's cat on the witness stand."

"DON'T reckon we're gonna need his testimony," said Coburn with solemn humor. "Sheriff recalled what you told him about the well in the pasture bein' poisoned. Said he wondered at the time how a good well could get poisoned all at once, and have to be filled in. Soon as it was daylight we went out and had a look, an' what we saw was mighty suspicious. There'd been somebody diggin' there just recently, an' we found what look to be blood spatters on the grass around it. We figure maybe Gavin got suspicious an' started diggin' up the well to see if anything was buried there. Sheriff's got men workin' on it now."

"If he killed John Nelson and buried him in that well, he must be pretty dumb," protested Greg. "You say he had the lease, so he knew we were moving in here. He'd known I'd want the use of that well. Why would he bury his brother there when he had a whole farm to himself where he could bury any number of bodies without anybody being the wiser?"

"That's just where the catch comes in. County Attorney was out to the Nelson house last night, an' he read the lease over. He says there was a mistake in the description of the land you leased. What you got is not a lease on that ten acre pasture, but on that plowed field the other side of the woods. That's how come Henry might have thought it was safe to pick the pasture well for a buryin' spot."

Greg looked dumfounded. "My gosh!" he said weakly. "My gosh! Maybe I've still got time to plant wheat if I get right at it. I'll have to—My gosh! I'll have to tell Mary..."

Mary met him at the kitchen door, her eyes wide with important news. "Greg! They've found John Nelson's body—and you'll never in the world guess where!"

"In the pasture well that was supposed to be poisoned," said Greg promptly.

"Oh-h!" Mary looked at him reproachfully. "I thought I'd surprise you. How did you know?"

"I was just talking to Jim Coburn, and I've got the darndest surprise for you! Where's that price list from the grain company? You know—the one I sent for when I thought I might plow up the pasture and— What's the matter?"

"Oh, Greg! I—I'm awfully sorry. Tom sort of tore it up, and I—It wasn't much good any more so I burned it up."

Greg's grin was wide and happy. "That's all right, honey. Tom can tear up all my correspondence after this. I take back everything I ever said about him. He's not crazy—he's just a huntin' fool!"