If Burdock had been obedient, the Baxter farmers’ secret would have remained a secret.
Though it was only late September, the first cold crisp of autumn had slunk in overnight. It drifted down through the northern forests, tiptoed across the farm fields, and settled soundlessly into the old house and barn and disheveled outbuildings that made up the Baxter farm.
Burdock was having none of this cold.
In the barn, the gray tiger cat with large, moplike mitts and just one eye had awoken stiff and crabby from sleeping in a tight knot. He decided to investigate the house for warmth.
This was his disobedience. For Burdock knew perfectly well he was strictly a barn cat. A barn cat, not a house cat, not even a sometimes-allowed-in-the-house barn cat. But Burdock loved warmth more than just about anything, and besides, he had no intention of getting caught.
Getting inside was easy enough to do.
Burdock slipped past the sleeping animals, steaming like teakettles, out the small hole in the barn doors into the early daylight. Cold! Quickly Burdock picked his way down the grassy path to the woodshed.
The woodshed, for winter convenience, was attached to the house and Burdock knew the shed’s loft had a broken windowpane that let out onto the roof. In the dimness of morning, the cat silently climbed the stairs to the loft and maneuvered through the gap onto the patchwork of grayed roof shingles.
From here, he surveyed the farm for a moment.
The house was a faded yellow affair with a pitched roof and a covered porch on two sides. The old windows sat loosely and slightly askew in their casings, and the house’s paint, especially on the west side, curled up in patches like birch bark. Behind the house was a small fenced-in vegetable garden. In front of the house, up a slight hill, were the barn and garage. And spreading out from that on three sides were pasturelands and hay fields, corn, and sunflowers.
Burdock looked beyond the open land, and it seemed like only trees. All the way to the horizon a dense forest grew, mainly pine and fir, but stippled too with swaths of hardwood.
Ah, there! As Burdock turned his head he saw just what he had hoped to see—a ribbon of smoke coming up from the chimney. And now in his eagerness he wanted to run but he didn’t dare; the roof was still slick with morning dew.
Burdock picked up his big paws and set them down carefully. One paw in front of the other, tail out for balance, like an apparition in the thin fog he crossed the ridgepole and reached the open upstairs bathroom window of the main house.
Quickly he hopped up to the sill, paused for a moment to listen, and dropped down onto the faded linoleum. He was in.
Oh warm! Inside, Burdock could smell the warmth before he felt it. He closed his one good eye, lifted his whiskered head, and sniffed: drying wool, bacon grease, and onions. And even on the landing at the top of the stairs, he could hear the gentle tick of the large cast-iron cookstove coming to life as it began to heat up. He crept down to the kitchen and curled into the toastiest spot.
As far back as he could remember, Burdock had never liked the cold. Born behind a post office to a stray mother cat, he was, unusually, the only kitten in the litter. Each night when his mother left to seek out food, Burdock burrowed into the newspapers in the old mail crate and tried to stay warm until she returned. Maybe if he’d had brothers or sisters it would have helped. It was hard to know. All he knew was that when he was wrapped in warmth, the world was put right.
Burdock was yanked from blissful sleep under the stove. The shed door snapped open, cracked hard against the inside wall, boots pounded in, then the door banged shut.
Instantly alert, Burdock crouched, ears up, eye wide, and gaped at the slice of kitchen he could see through the narrow frame of stove and floor.
The door flew open again. Another pair of boots pounded in. Burdock froze.
“You’re out of your MIND, Dewey!” yelled Grady. “You can’t do this.”
“Why not?” Dewey flung down his armload of firewood into the box beside the stove.
The terrific crash came so close, and was so surprisingly loud, Burdock instinctively leapt back. His claws scrabbled on the wood floor. Instantly he feared he’d be detected, but at the same time Dewey was shouting:
“Listen, Grady, what else are we gonna do? This farm is losing more money every single day and I don’t see as you’ve had any bright ideas! What makes you so sure it’s not gonna work?” Dewey swung back a boot and angrily kicked a large chunk of kindling.
“Because it’s completely crazy, Dewey! Could you just think a little here? This is a farm, for Pete’s sake! You’re a farmer, remember? You can’t just—”
Already Dewey had turned, was stomping away.
“Dang it, Dewey, listen! You can’t b—”
Dewey Baxter didn’t stay to hear what his brother shouted after him. Dewey wrenched open the shed door again, slammed it shut from the other side, and gave it a violent kick for good measure.
But Burdock heard every word Grady said. Hot as it was under the kitchen cookstove, the barn cat felt a shiver of ice.
Three Important Things
That evening, three important things happened at the same time.
1. Grady Baxter packed his bags, left a note on the kitchen table, and drove away from the farm.
2. The old mudroom radio broadcast plainly, “Storm advisory: Very heavy rains will be arriving Saturday from the southwest. Sustained gale-force winds expected across the listening region.”
3. Burdock gathered the animals in the barn and prepared to break the ominous news.
“What happened to you?” asked Figgy the pig. “Did you see a ghost?” Figgy’s snout poked through the slats of her pen and her intelligent eyes appraised Burdock solemnly.
The barn cat was generally untended, with bits of hay, sticks, and burrs snarled in his bushy fur. Not to mention that with only one eye (the other had healed closed), he always looked slightly askew. But his current state went beyond his usual cockeyed appearance and questionable grooming. He looked genuinely spooked.
“I’ll get to that,” answered Burdock. “Uh, is everybody here? I’ve got some news.”
Nanny, the cinnamon-colored goat, took initiative as usual. She too could tell by his expression that something was wrong. “Oh dear, Burdock. This doesn’t look good. Let me help.”
Nanny was a barn mother and liked to think that everyone could benefit from her