The cursed cat. He was grinning at them, that insolent face just grinning and staring, those disgusting whiskers twitching, the disgusting muddy fur, the disgusting hole in his ear. Scampi and Mustard stood at the bottom of the tree, tongues slowly moving in and out. It was over, both of them knew. They stared right back at the mangy cat with hate in their eyes. Its tail was curling back and forth. "Can't we wait this time?" "No." "But-" "We could stand here all day, but we'd have to leave sometime. What's the use?" Scampi smacked the tree with his little paw. Nature was most unjust. The cat began cleaning itself arrogantly. The nerve, thought Scampi. Here's this new cat, obviously fresh out of the bad part of town, no owner, no home, no nothing, thinking it can roam around like a king. "There's a chain of command around here!" Scampi snarled. "Okay, it's over." Mustard sighed and lay down. This was the third time in a week that they'd failed. He had been around long enough to know when he was beat. "No respect. Where's the respect?" Scampi circled the tree in a haze of anger, his tiny legs beating furiously on the grass. The beagle could never quite get over a loss. Mustard lay his head on the ground and watched the passage of time on the street while Scampi vented. Soon, Roy the Basset and his owner walked by. Mustard nodded hello. "Who's that?" Roy asked, looking in the tree. "Dunno. New in town." "Which house?" "No house." "Freeloader, hm? Give him one from me." Roy's owner shushed him. Poor guy. Owner was one of those uppity types who had to have everything perfect. Mustard rolled on his belly. They had better catch the thing quick, or the whole neighbourhood would ridicule them. The brazen cat had been rooting around in gardens for a while, a slap in the face even to the cats, of whom there was admittedly a minority on the block. But who knows about cats? They never knew how to handle these things. It was up to the dogs to keep the balance of the neighbourhood in check. Today had been the worst by far. They had spotted the hobo a whole block away, quite by chance, so there was no real way of planning an attack. That wasn't really Scampi's style anyway, so they started running. The cat took off for the hedges around that corner house, trying to lose them in the underbrush, but the two dogs knew the block like the backs of their paws. Scampi stayed at the opening while Mustard circled around and up the porch from the other side. He stepped gingerly over the creaks and perched under the rail, overlooking the overgrown yard. The cat was scrambling from end to end trying to find an exit, but there was only one, Mustard knew. He jumped and almost had him, but the cat was streetwise and his senses were necessarily keen; he dashed out the hole before Mustard hit the ground. Following, Mustard plowed through the opening and found Scampi on his back. He said the cat scratched him, but Mustard knew it had simply barreled the little dog over. At this point it was really over, but they gave chase across the street and watched the streak of orange and brown disappear up the tree. The same tree it had climbed the last two times. Scampi seemed to be calming down. He was sniffing the air to see if there was anything interesting around. It was still the morning of a fine, early spring day and there was much to be done. "This is embarrassing. Now we just walk away and that's that, the bum thinks it can do as it pleases. I'm telling you, this really chaps my ass." "Yeah, well..." The yellow dog stood up. Not quite spaniel, not quite hound, he was a respected figure on the block. He had tenure. Scampi had a ways to go yet. They walked down the road. "Think Lulu might be in town? I think the winter's almost through." "Maybe." Scampi kept looking back at the tree. "I think she might be back in town. Where do they all go in the winter?" "You mean the owners?" "Yeah." "South." "South? What, like the birds?" "It's warm in the south." "Why don't they all go south?" "Dunno." "Why don't they just get more furs?" "Dunno." Mustard and Scampi walked like this often. Mustard had gotten used to Scampi's badgering. He was a good companion. They were always discovering something new within the few blocks they roamed and there was always news of the neighbourhood to keep up with. It was a carefree life, except for the occasional mishap like the stray cat. Across the street they saw a friend earnestly digging in his owner's beautiful garden. "Fontenelle!" A droopy-looking Weimarauner turned his head. Mustard and Scampi strolled over. "Hello, boys." Fontenelle was making large holes around the plants. "Hey, that's not good, you know. I mean, you know, they really don't like that." Scampi wanted to join in. "I figure you'd know that." Fontenelle was regarded around the area as something of a genius. His owner was apparently an incredibly smart person, some kind of teacher, and it was generally accepted that it had rubbed off on Fontenelle. This may have been praise from the loving pet, however. "There's no problem. My owner will be pleased. You see, these plants here are a blight to the garden. He wants nothing to do with them." "How do you tell the good ones from the bad ones?" "Experience." "Why don't you just rip them out?" "Because it is necessary to pull the roots out as well, lest the plants grow back. I like to be thorough." Mustard watched as Scampi started digging. He was always learning new things from Fontenelle. Fontenelle thought about things differently. He went in different directions. Mustard didn't know how to put it exactly, but his friend could just pluck things out of the air that Mustard couldn't even see. The ideas were baffling sometimes, but Fontenelle was rarely incorrect. Out of the corner of his eye, Mustard saw a flash of orange. He perked up just in time to receive a huge wad of hair and mucous in his face. "It's him!" Scampi yelled and was off like a shot. Mustard scrambled after, wiping his face on the grass. He blearily saw Scampi dashing down the road. The cat was almost his. "I got him! I got him! I got you, baby!" Scampi was close enough to reach out and touch it, but the cat veered right. Mustard saw the end right there. Another tree. Like it had jumped up on the branch. Scampi actually grabbed hold of the tree a few inches off the ground, but he fell. Mustard and Fontenelle ran over. "No! No no no no!" Scampi was foaming and biting the tree. "This is not happening! Tell me this is not happening! I can't take it!" Mustard looked up at the cat. It was settling down for a nice nap. It looked at Mustard one more time with the same insolent stare and then closed its eyes. Cat, Mustard thought, your days are numbered. "It is quite a predicament. This particular creature is certainly more agile than it looks." "Yeah, we know that, thank you." Scampi was pacing around. This loss certainly wouldn't go away. The three were back on Fontenelle's lawn, keeping a close watch on the tree. "What exactly are you proposing?" Mustard growled. "I don't know. This isn't working. We need an edge. We never had a real enemy like this. There's no chasing cats around here, it was only ever really in fun and we're too old for that. This one, I dunno, it plays by a different set of rules." "Yeah, all the cats around here have some respect." Scampi attacked a weed. "Boys, we may need to rely on some outside assistance." Fontenelle placed his head on his paws, deep in thought. "You mean call the whole neighbourhood to help out?" Scampi asked. "No... not necessarily. I'm thinking more along the lines of... human help." "The owners won't be able to catch it." "Yes, I'm aware of that. I was thinking that perhaps we might use some of their... tools." "Tools?" Mustard was intrigued. "Yes. I have observed my owner over the years, and he is familiar with many, many tools." "How can you possibly know what they're for?" "As I told your friend here, experience. Come here, I'll show you something." Fontenelle led them around to the back of the house, much to the protest of Scampi, who wanted to stay and guard the cat. It was agreed that he would keep vigil in the front yard. Mustard and Fontenelle went around to a smaller building. "Is someone in there?" "No, we'll get in ourselves." "How?" "Well, this part here, the entrance, has that small, protruding piece, see there?" "Mm-hm." "Now, what my owner does is... sort of..." Fontenelle reared back on his hind legs a few times, trying to catch the piece in his mouth. Finally he did. Struggling to keep balance, he walked slowly backward, pulling the piece along. Miraculously, the entrance slid open a few inches. Mustard recalled seeing his owner do this many times, but the entrance looked different and the wall swung outwards. "Voila," said Fontenelle as he nudged the entrance open further. Inside were several highly complex instruments. "Now, I'm looking for one in particular." Fontenelle searched through dust, dirt and strange machinery. Mustard could only wonder what some of the objects were, but he recognized the shape of a few, if not the function. One held his attention." "Hey, this is ours," said Mustard. "What?" "This big orange thing with the long jagged part here. It's my owner's. He lays it on a bush and it sort of chops it up. It looks just the same. Maybe your owner stole it." "My owner does not steal." Fontenelle moved to the other wall. "There it is. Up there." Mustard looked up to see two long bars attached by several smaller bars. Fontenelle came under the bottom and nosed it upwards, trying to dislodge it. With Mustard's help it came away and fell clattering backwards, hurting both dogs' ears. "How is this going to be useful?" "Just wait. Help me take it out." Each picked up one small bar with their jaws and managed to carry it out of the little building and through the yard, dropping it only once. They came around to the front where Scampi was staring hatefully at the tree. Fontenelle dropped his end. "Scampi, behold. The cat-catcher." Scampi looked doubtful, but the three of them dragged it over to the tree. The cat yawned and regarded them uninterestedly. "All right then, this might get tricky. We have to lean this contraption up against the tree." The trio looked at it lying there. "I understand," said Mustard with a grin. "It's like steps. You're supposed to climb up." "That's right. However, leaning it will be a problem." Fontenelle walked slowly around the object. Scampi tried to lift the front with his mouth just to see what happened. It gave the Weimarauner an idea. "Scampi," he began, "stay right there and drop your end. Don't let it move. Mustard, you lift the other end up." Each puzzled dog did as he was told. Fontenelle then walked under the object which Mustard was holding. Putting his head down, he walked forward. The object was now squarely on his back. As he walked forward, it pushed on his back. Scampi had to dig into the ground so it wouldn't move. Fontenelle kept moving forward and the raised front end was raised some more. Mustard let go. He was amazed. It was all so simple. Fontenelle strained against the thing as he moved towards its center and it lifted still higher. The cat was very interested now. Mustard joined Scampi in holding the bottom down while Fontenelle pushed against them but not against them. Each animal was working very hard. "You have to come forward," Fontenelle said. "It won't reach the tree." By this time the bars were fairly high, so it wasn't as much of a strain to push them forward. At last, this delicate balance gave out and Fontenelle toppled forward. The bars smacked against the tree, wobbled... and just barely held. "I don't believe this!" yelled Scampi. "We actually did it!" With reckless abandon, Scampi leaped on the bottom bar and nearly knocked the whole works down. After a harsh scolding, it was decided that Scampi should be the one to go since he was the smallest, but with extreme caution. The beagle put his paws on the second bar and hoisted. It took several tries, but he got his legs up. At the third bar, Scampi found that he would have less luck dragging himself across the bars vertically than trying to get a foothold on each one. He was doing it. He looked back at his friends and then up at the cat. "How you doing up there? Not too good, huh?" The cat had resumed his vacant stare. Scampi showed great patience in getting to the fourth bar and then the fifth. He was more than halfway there. Mustard and Fontenelle stood waiting at the bottom of the tree for the glorious moment of the cat's descent. Just as Scampi cleared the sixth bar, the cat leaned forward. Fontenelle realized what was going to happen. "Scampi! Jump down!" But it was too late. With several quick motions, the cat batted the climber to the left and with agonizing slowness, it twisted and fell, pinning Scampi underneath. Fontenelle came to his rescue, untangling the livid beagle. Once again, Mustard looked into the blank, mangy face. Maybe not so blank. "Well, that was just dandy, Mr. Genius," griped Scampi. "I've been personally humiliated three times today, and one of those times I nearly KILLED MYSELF!" Fontenelle was sitting dejectedly back in his yard. "Why didn't I see it?" he kept muttering. The two were a sorry sight. Mustard, however, was very much eager to continue. He considered this latest defeat a personal attack; first the hairball in the face, then poor Scampi's accident. That was a cold-blooded move, Mustard had no doubt. The cat could have knocked over the ladder as soon as they put it up, but no, it waited until Scampi was high off the ground. This had gone beyond getting the stray jumped out of the neighbourhood - the cat had declared war. "Come on. You have tons of ideas. There has to be something else." "I'm trying," said Fontenelle. "I don't know. If there was some way of getting him from the ground, we'd be in business." From the ground. Mustard considered this condition. He vaguely recalled a sharp pain he'd received years ago from one of Scampi's owner's offspring. The child was older and ostensibly more mature now, but at one time he was the terror of the block. For no reason, he would begin playing with the dogs and then suddenly whip out a piece of wood or something and somehow made it fire rocks. It was a nasty device with a long range. "Scampi," he began, "do you remember when your little owner used to hit us with rocks?" "Yeah. Lil' bastard. I peed in his closet for years." "Do you remember what he used?" Scampi's face brightened. "You wanna use what he used, is that it?" "Yeah, but I have no idea what it was. You know if he still has it?" "Mmm... he might." A trek was made to Scampi's. Fontenelle stayed behind to guard their quarry, who was deviously napping. Scampi's home had a small opening just for him, a feature Mustard wished for daily. Impatiently, Mustard waited while the owners patted him and scratched him and spoke to him in that tone owners always used. Fontenelle had once suggested that they mistakenly believed they the dogs could understand them in this tongue, but he had yet to prove the theory. Scampi let the younger owners lead them around. "We need to get up the steps and into where the older one sleeps. I think it might be in there. I hope it's in there." "Here, do the chase thing." Scampi scrambled back and forth, a signal to the children that he wished them to chase him. It was good for a few laughs now and then, but the young ones never seemed to tire of it. At any rate, it was serving a purpose. Scampi led Mustard quickly up the steps and into the little area where the one child slept. At this point the dogs gave up the game. "Now what?" asked Mustard. "Now maybe they'll stay here. They usually do." "What if they don't?" "Then we'll fake being tired. They'll get bored fast." There was no need, however; the children were playing in no time with reckless abandon. Toys were strewn and chaos ensued. "Okay, start looking." "I don't know what for." "Well, just... here, just grab a bunch of stuff. Whatever looks interesting." Mustard had played with enough children to know his way around. The round, soft, colourful things were no good. There was a long, silver stick with two ends that the little female owner kept twirling. No good. There were strange looking creatures, for some arcane reason made in the image of grotesque animals. No good. There was an extremely strange bent, green, bar-like object that you could actually see through; Mustard made a grab for it just in case. "I think I got it," Scampi said through clenched teeth. With that, they made a graceful exit, each holding a mouthful of bizarre items. It was high noon when they made their way back to the yard, and they saw a familiar face. Killer the pitbull from down the way had come visiting. Killer was one of those poor canines whose unfortunate name belied his lovable nature, despite his owner's attempts to prove otherwise. Mustard and Scampi dumped the contents of their mouths on to the grass. The group stared at their bounty. "Geez, you guys couldn't catch him after four times? Wow. And then with that big tall step-thing? Wow." "Yes, thank you, Killer, but this time we think we have something. As soon as Mustard here figures it out." "No, none of this stuff looks familiar." "I'm not sure if I remember either," said Scampi, nosing through the objects. "I think it might have been like tree wood. That's what it looked like." Fontenelle scratched at one oddly shaped item. "Might this here be tree wood?" The whole gang leaned in. It had a dry but organic kind of scent, dulled by years of handling by the owners. "Smells like trees," Scampi said, inhaling deeply. "By process of elimination, and based on all our evidence, this must be the one." "If you say so." Mustard lifted it in his mouth. "But how does this thing possibly have any use?" It was some sort of wooden protrusion, veering off in two different directions at the middle. The two offshoots were joined by some kind of white band, some strange material. Fontenelle took it and began exploring it, doting over the white band. "Pliant." "Stretchy?" "Hm." Scampi tugged at the band and it was pulled backwards, with some difficulty. This intrigued Fontenelle. "Boy, you guys, you sure aren't going to catch a cat this way." Killer watched the proceedings with some contempt, but he was highly interested. He hadn't seen the miracle of the steps. "Sh." Fontenelle played with the band, tugging it as far as it would go. After a minute or so of this, the band got away from him and snapped back audibly. "That's it!" said Mustard. The memory was painful but very clear now. The sound brought it all back. "When it snaps, the stones come out." "I didn't see any stones," Scampi said doubtfully. "Ah, I think I understand. We must put the stones in and then snap the band. It's ingenious. No wonder they're the owners." "What do you mean?" asked Killer. "Well, they're the owners. We're not the owners, no one else is an owner. This is probably why." Blank faces. "You see, this is a rather simple concept, but we wouldn't know how to begin... we don't truly understand... all that there is. That they've done." More blank faces. "So, why wouldn't they be the owners?" Scampi inquired slowly. "Well, yes, they are. They are the owners. But... because..." Fontenelle let the subject drop. He couldn't explain it himself. Several good-size stones were gathered up from the garden. Once more, the stalwart troupe, one stronger now, marched over to the tree. The cat was still there. It was growing restless. "You wanna come down? Do you? We'll get you down. Make no mistake." Scampi snarled at his nemesis, a less-than-terribly frightening sight. Mustard held the wood piece in his teeth. Scampi came up in front of him and placed a stone on top of the thin band, where it promptly fell on Mustard's head. "No, no," Fontenelle said as he picked up the stone. He came around to the back and placed his mouth over the band. Pulling his neck back, he stretched the band, but Mustard lost his jaw hold and the object snapped back and struck Fontenelle square in the eye. "You have to hold it tight!" Fontenelle yelled as he nursed his eye. Luckily, he could still see. He tried a second time; he pulled back on the band, this time with Mustard in full control, worked the stone in front and let go. This time the stone fell just past Mustard's head. Scampi was impatient. "This isn't working!" He exclaimed. The cat was slightly puzzled but not in the least threatened by these shenanigans. "It will work. Scampi, you have to pull. You have the smallest muzzle." "Thanks." "No, I mean you won't clomp down on the whole thing. Come around here." "What if he lets go again?" "He won't. Come here." Scampi mimicked Fontenelle's actions. He pulled back on the band and let the stone go. It actually flew a few feet. "Hey, I did it! I did it! Oh, cat, I'm gonna put another hole in those ears." "This time pull back harder, like I did before." With vicious glee, Scampi yanked the band back as far as he could take it without Mustard letting go. He opened his mouth and watched the stone rocket forward, way across the yard. This was met with acclaim. "Now hit the cat," Mustard said. Scampi was enjoying this. He had no idea why it was happening exactly, but he had power. The cat looked worried for the first time. The next shot veered off to the left, with half as much speed. "I said get the cat." "I know!" The next one smacked the tree straight ahead with a resounding pop. With frustration, Scampi got careless. The next three tried ended up rolling out his mouth or landing on Mustard. "What's the matter? Why haven't you got him?" "This stupid thing doesn't work! It won't go up!" Fontenelle thought. "It seems that while Mustard faces the same way, the stone will go that way. Interesting. Try rolling over." Mustard rolled. "Now grip it straight upwards. Good. Now go." Scampi pulled back the band and the wood pulled backwards a little as well. This time the stone sailed upwards and then down. Pulling harder, the stone flew further upwards. Trial and error gave way to some truths: Pulling too hard would cause the stone to fly straight upwards, going nowhere. If Mustard moved his head while not allowing any give, the stone would move in different ways. Bent forward, the stone rose up and away from Scampi. Cocked sideways, the stone cracked against the building. Only one stone actually reached the cat, but it was weak and more or less landed alongside the cat, who had once again grown bored. It was clear that this method needed some revision. "Oh, come on! I was getting it! I would've done it!" Scampi sulked by the tree. Fontenelle was at a loss. He could see no further alterations to the wooden piece or what they were doing. Dejection and melancholy set in. Through all of this, Killer had been very quiet. He recognized what the stone was doing and trotted back to Fontenelle's yard to retrieve another object. "Here, why don't you guys use this?" "What is it?" "Well, I guess I don't really know the name of it or anything, but it does what that thing does." "Oh?" Mustard was remembering Killer's last idea, which had been to drink all the tangy water that the children on the block had brought out and had given to passing owners. Killer was still considered a menace around these parts. His plans needed to be taken with a grain of salt. "Come on, guys. It'll work. My owner has a whole bunch. He uses it and the stones fly out really fast." "Is that what he does?" Fontenelle perked up. He had been to Killer's home and heard his owner making nasty sounds in the back. The one time he had been brave enough to look, he had seen several objects falling as if by themselves; he recognized them as the containers his food usually came out of. Killer's owner was holding a large something- or-other and each time it made that deafening noise, a can would fall. Then the owner would hoot and holler in happiness. "Is that really what this thing does? Make the stones fly out? Boys, listen to this. I believe we've found the answer. I've seen it in action." "But geez, this doesn't really look the same as any he has." "No?" "No way." "Let us see." "Oh, I don't know guys, we shouldn't really be messing with them. We could try this?" Mustard examined the strange green object. It was shaped like a bent bar, but it was more rectangular. There were ridges and contours that didn't seem to make sense. It looked like you could see inside. There was a long tube inside which ran down to the corner part where the bend was. Here was a round piece connecting each part. Inside this small loop was an extension of the tube, a hard white thing you could push. With great difficulty Mustard pushed it. Nothing happened. "No, I guess this isn't it. Sorry, guys. But my owner has that thing that you said. But we shouldn't touch it." "Killer," Fontenelle began, "do you see that cat?" "Uh-huh." "Do you know what it is?" "A cat?" "It's a stray. It feeds off what is rightfully ours. It's as bad as if it were snatching your own food away." "Really?" "Oh yes. It needs to be stopped, Killer. It could destroy the way we live around here. Do you want that?" "No." "Then let's see those stone-throwers. We'll stop him for good." "Okay. I hate that cat." "Good. Boys?" True to form, one of the pack stayed behind - Scampi again. The other three came into Killer's disheveled yard and into the open door. Killer's owner was the only one Mustard knew who didn't close the door. The inside resembled the yard, but no one took any notice. Killer led the three to the large case on the wall. Inside were several large replicas of the green squared bar, but the impact was far greater. These looked serious. Even to Fontenelle, the parts that flowed together in each whole seemed far too complex to comprehend. Mustard felt a certain foreboding, but the mission was of paramount importance. The cat deserved... this. "Which one?" Mustard gazed at them all. There were variations on the green plaything, but none were see-through. many were extremely long and some actually bore no resemblance whatsoever to their only model. The only characteristic common to all was that loop on the bottom with a small, thin piece inside. "That one," said Fontenelle. "It looks the simplest." Scampi was engaged in a staring contest with the cat. This one was very good. Scampi's eyes hurt him terribly. A considerable amount of time had passed and he had not moved a muscle. The sound of his friends returning broke his gaze. They were dragging a long, brown, mostly flat piece of wood. That was the one end. The other end looked dark and not wooden at all. It was made up of two long tubes connected to the wood by some kind of contraption with several small, interlocked parts. No one said anything as they sat around it, taking it all in. It was brilliant in its design and complexity. Mustard felt a sense of having crossed a line. What they were doing now wasn't simply revenge, they were treading into the realm of the owners. A faint glimmer of understanding about what Fontenelle had said came to him: Exactly what were the owners capable of? They would certainly find out before the day was through. Mustard was sure.
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