Erd Neff dropped a thin bundle of currency into the $100 bill drawer of the flat-top desk and kicked the drawer shut with a dusty boot.
He flicked the drip from his hooked nose, which was chronically irritated by the wheat dust of the warehouse, then he wiped his fingers down the leg of his soiled denims. Across the 12 X 12, windowless room John stirred awake from the noise and began nosing in the debris of his filthy cage.
“Time for supper, John?” Neff tugged at the twine at his belt and examined his $3 watch. He pinched a dozen grains of wheat from a two-pound coffee can and let them sift through the wires of the cage. John pounced on the grain hungrily.
“Wait a minute! What do you say, dammit?” Neff’s hand reached for the marshmallow-toasting fork that hung from a hook on the wall. He touched the points, filed needle sharp. “What do you say?” he repeated, twanging the tines like a tuning fork.
John skittered to the far corner, tearing new holes in the old newspaper with frantic claws. Cowering against the wires he spat half-chewed flecks of wheat trying to say the magic words that would spare him from the fork. “Tinkoo! Tinkoo!” he squeaked, straining to make the two syllables distinct.
Neff hung up the fork, and John turned to lick at the old scabs clotted from earlier jabs, taking sullen inventory to be sure there were no new crimson leaks in his louse-infested hide. Until two months ago, he had been just one more gregarious specimen of Mammalia Rodentia Simplicidentata Myomorphia Muridae decumanus. Now he had another name. Like each of his predecessors in the cage, he was a large, brown rat called John--after Erd Neff’s despised and deceased father. Neff named all his rats John.
“Well, don’t get fat.”
John finished the grain, pawed the air and squeaked, “Mur!”
“More, hey? You talk fine when you’re hungry.”
“Peef, mur, mur!” John begged. He did well with his vowels, but “I” and “s” sounds were beyond him. He said “f” for “s”. “L’s” he ignored entirely.
Neff gave him one more wheat head. “Okay, get fat!”
He turned to the door, lifted the inside, mechanical latch, shoved with his foot and snatched his revolver from his hip-holster. The vault door opened ponderously revealing an empty warehouse. Neff peeked through the crack between the hinges to clear the area concealed by the door itself.
One hoodlum hopeful had hidden there. Spotting him through the crack, Neff had simply beefed into the foot-thick slab of fireproof steel. Inertial plus surprise had disposed of that one. Neff hadn’t even had to shoot.
Tonight there was no one. Funny. The wheat country was getting tame, or else the tin-horns had learned their lesson. It was no secret that Erd Neff never visited the local bank, yet it had been more than six months since anyone tried to hold him up.
The local bank hated him plenty. He was costing them. His five loan offices in the rich wheat county skimmed the cream of the mortgage loan business. Of course, nowadays most people paid off their loans, and the low interest rates he charged to lure the business barely paid expenses. Yet, he still picked up an occasional foreclosure. Farmers still got drunk, divorced, gambled, broke legs or committed suicide once in awhile, and Neff’s loan documents were ruthless about extensions of time.
These foreclosed acreages he traded for grain elevators and warehouses when crops were small and operators were desperate. Then came the bumper years during and after World War II. Wheat on the ground and no place to store it but in Erd Neff’s sheds. It wasn’t cheap to store with Neff, and he had a virtual monopoly in Ulma County.
Neff swung the great door back into place with its whoosh--thunk that sealed in air, sound and nearly a hundred thousand dollars in currency. He levered the bolts into place and spun the expensive combination lock.
The vault, tucked away in the front, left-hand corner of the old frame warehouse expressed Neff’s distrust and contempt for mankind. Concrete and steel. Bed, shower, toilet and desk. In this walk-in cash box he was fireproof, bomb-proof, theft-proof and, most important of all, people-proof. There he consorted unmolested with the one mammal on earth he found interesting--John, the brown rat.
He slid the broad warehouse door closed behind him with a cacophony of dry screeches and padlocked it. The dusty street was deserted except for a black sedan which two-wheeled the corner a block away and sped toward him. Neff dropped his pistol back in its holster. “Now, what the hell--?”
He waited on the splintery platform, a huge man, ugly of face, shortlegged and long-bodied with a belly swollen from regular overeating. His shaved head swivelled slowly as the police car leaned into a skid-stop.
Officer Collin Burns got out and stared up at the motionless statue in sweat-dust stained denims. Burns was half Neff’s 56 years, tall and thin. He wore gray, a silver star and a big black hat. He said, “I’ll take your gun, Erd.”
“Now what? I got a permit.”
“Not any more. It’s revoked.”
“There were witnesses this afternoon.”
“Witnesses? What in hell are you--oh, no! Not that damned dog?”
“The puppy belonged to a little girl. You can’t claim self-defense this time.”
“He was coming down here chasing the cats away every day.”
“So you shot him, like you did Greeley’s collie.”
“Cats count for more. You know well as I do, you can’t control the rats around a warehouse without cats.”
“You’ve shot five men, too, Erd. Three of them are dead.”
“I was cleared, you know damned well! Self-defense.”
“You’re too handy with that pistol. Anyway, I didn’t file this complaint. It was the child’s mother, and she made it stick with the chief. Give me the gun, Erd.”
“You got a warrant for my arrest?”
“No, but I will have in an hour if you insist.”
“I got a perfect right to protect my property.”
“Not with a gun. Not any more.”
“I just get these punks convinced, and now you want to turn loose on me again. Who put you up to this Collin?”
“You did. When you shot that pup. I’m not here to debate it. You’re breaking the law from this minute on if you don’t hand over the gun.”
“Dammit, Collin, you know how much money I got in there? You know how much I pack around on me sometimes?”
“That’s your business. You can use the bank and bonded messengers--they get along with dogs.”
“Telling me how to run my business?”
“I’m telling you to give me that gun. You’ll get the same police protection as any other citizen.”
Neff sneered openly. “I’d a been dead thirty years ago depending on cops.”
“I don’t doubt that a minute. You’re easy to hate, Erd. Are you going to give me that gun?”
“You like things the hard way, don’t you?” Burns got back in the squad car and drove off. Neff spat a crater in the wheat-littered dust and got into his own car.
Two minutes later he turned up Main Street and stopped before city hall. Inside the tiny police station he dropped his pistol on the counter. Bud Ackenbush looked up from his desk. “You could have saved Collin some trouble.”
Neff stalked out without a word and crossed the street to the Palace Cafe. He ordered a double-thick steak, fried potatoes and pie. He liked the way the waitresses scrambled for the chance to wait on him. Women didn’t like him. He was ugly and smelled of sweat, and on the street women looked the other way when they met him. All but the waitresses at the Palace. When he came in they showed their teeth and tongues and wiggled their hips. He was a 50-cent tipper.
The important thing was it got him his steak, really double thick and double quick. People could be real efficient. Like brown John. Prod ‘em where they live and they’ll do anything. Even talk to you.
“You look kinda naked tonight, Erd,” Gloria kidded.
Neff wiped steak juice from his chin and stared at her breasts. It used to excite him, but now it was just habit. It was better than looking at red-smeared lips that smiled and eyes that didn’t, eyes that said, “Don’t forget the tip, you filthy bastard!”
Funny. Hang a gun on any other citizen in town and people would stare. Take the gun off of Erd Neff and people make cracks.
He did feel naked.
“I didn’t order this damned succotash!”
“It’s free with the steak dinner, Erd.”
Go ahead, pinch my leg like the harvesting crews do. I’m free with the dinner, too. Like the ketchup. Like the mustard and the salt and pepper and the steak sauce and the sugar and the extra butter if you ask for it, just don’t forget the tip.
Clarence Hogan, the fry-cook, came around the counter and leaned on the booth table beside Gloria. “You don’t like succotash? How about some nice peas, Erd?”
Clarence was Gloria’s husband.
“Put some ice-cream on my pie,” Neff said. He looked up at Clarence. “No, I don’t want any goddamned peas!”
They brought his pie and left him alone. He finished it and felt in his pocket for the tip. He changed his mind. To hell with Gloria and her fat leg! The steak was tough.
He paid the check and went out. The sky was pink yet. Later in the week the sunsets would be blood-red, as the great combines increased in number and cruised the rippling ocean of wheat, leaving bristly wakes and a sky-clogging spray of dust.
Neff’s busiest season. Damn that dog! Damn Collin Burns!
His hand brushed his leg where the leather holster should be. Damned laws that men made. Laws that acquitted him of homicide and then snatched away his only weapon of self-defense because he shot a yapping dog.
As he got in his car Collin Burns came out of the station. He tossed Neff’s gun through the open window onto the seat. “Here’s your property. The Marshal came in, and he changed everybody’s mind. It’s going to cost you a hundred dollars and a new pup for the little girl, probably. Here’s the subpoena. Tuesday at ten.”
“I don’t get it.”
“The Marshal said to let you fight your own battles.”
Neff started the car and let the clutch out. The Marshal knew his way around. The transient harvesting crews were a wild bunch. If word got out that Neff was unarmed, packing thousands of dollars the length of the county, the enforcement people would have a lot of extra work on their hands.
He parked behind the warehouse, next to the railroad tracks.
He came around front, unlocked the big door, pulled it shut behind him and bolted it. The warehouse was jet black now, but he knew every inch of the place. He could fire his pistol almost as accurately at a sound as at a visible target.
He practiced on rats.
Holding a pocket flash, he worked the combination. As the final tumbler fell silently, a faint, raspy screech came to his ears, like a board tearing its rusty nails loose under the persuasion of a wrecking bar. He listened a minute, then he levered the bolts back, stepped into the vault-room, closed the door and shot the mechanical bolts.
Sure. Someone was out there, but they’d get damned tired before morning. He flicked on the light and touched the other wall switch beside it. The powerful blower and sucker fans cleared out the musty air and rat-stink.
John rustled in the cage, blinking at the sudden light. “Hi, Neff! Meat! Meat! Meat!”
Smart little devil! Neff sometimes brought him a scrap from his dinner, but he hadn’t thought to tonight. He sucked at his teeth and pulled out a tiny string of steak. “Here. Bite my finger and I’ll poke both your eyes out.”
John picked the thread of gristle from Neff’s finger with his fore-paws and devoured it, trembling with pleasure. Neff lifted the cage. “Okay, now let’s have a few tricks.”
At once John made for the can of wheat. “Get outta there!” Neff scooped him up and dropped him on the desk, snapping his tail with a forefinger. John whirled, laid his ears back and opened his mouth. At bay, the brown rat, Neff knew, is the most ferocious rodent of the 2000 species, but Neff held his hand out daring John to bite.
Neff knew all about rats. More than anybody in the world knew about rats. When you live among them for three decades you find out about their cunning wariness, fecundity, secretiveness, boldness, omnivorous and voracious appetites. Fools reviled them as predators and scavengers. Neff appreciated them for what they really are: The most adaptable mammal on earth.
John was smart but no smarter than the rest. Neff had proved this by teaching every rat he captured alive to talk.
Impossible they had told him. Even parrots and parakeets only imitate sounds in their squawking--yes, and pet crows. Animals don’t have thinking brains, they said. They react, trial and error, stimulus and response, but they don’t think.
Neff didn’t know about the others, but he knew about rats.
Keep them hungry and lonely for a mate. Hurt them. Torture them. To hell with this reward business. Rats are like men. Mentally lazy. They’ll go for bait, sure, but they’ll go faster to escape pain--a thousand times faster.
And rats have lived with man from the first. They have a feeling for language like the human brat. Between partitions, inches from a man’s head when he lies in bed talking to his wife, under a man’s feet while he’s eating, over his head in the warehouse rafters while he’s working. Always, just inches or feet away from man, running through sewers, hiding in woodpiles, freight-cars, ships, barns, slaughter-house, skulking down black alleys, listening, hiding, stealing, always listening.
Yes, rats know about man, but rats had never known a man like Erd Neff, a man who hated all mankind. A man who chose a rat for a companion in preference to one of his own kind. Rats named John learned about Neff. They learned that his tones and inflections had specific meaning. They learned very fast under the stabbing prod of the marshmallow fork. With just enough food to keep them alive, their blind ferocity changed into painful attention. They learned to squeak and squawk and form the sounds into a pattern with their motile tongues. In weeks and months, they learned what the human brat learned in years.
“Stand up like a goddamned man!”
John stood up, his tail the third point of the support.
“Say the alphabet.”
Neff lit a cigar and watched the smoke float away from the ceiling blower and vanish into the overhead vent in the far corner. He bobbed one foot in time to the squeaky rhythm of the recitation. He took no exception to John’s failure with “I,” “s”, and “z”. The other Johns had been unable to handle them, too.
“Hungrih, Neff. Hungrih!”
The big man picked out three grains of wheat. He noticed the can was almost empty. One by one he handed the kernels to his pet, waiting for John’s “Tinkoo!” in between.
“Lazy tongue! It’s more, not mur!”