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Chapter 12 Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders

The first time I had a good look at the Morris cat, I thought she was the queerest-looking animal I had ever seen. She was dark gray just the color of a mouse. Her eyes were a yellowish green, and for the first few days I was at the Morrises' they looked very unkindly at me. Then she got over her dislike and we became very good friends. She was a beautiful cat, and so gentle and affectionate that the whole family loved her.

She was three years old, and she had come to Fairport in a vessel with some sailors, who had gotten her in a far-away place. Her name was Malta, and she was called a maltese cat.

I have seen a great many cats, but I never saw one as kind as Malta. Once she had some little kittens and they all died. It almost broke her heart. She cried and cried about the house till it made one feel sad to hear her. Then she ran away to the woods. She came back with a little squirrel in her mouth, and putting it in her basket, she nursed it like a mother, till it grew old enough to run away from her.

She was a very knowing cat, and always came when she was called. Miss Laura used to wear a little silver whistle that she blew when she wanted any of her pets. It was a shrill whistle, and we could hear it a long way from home. I have seen her standing at the back door whistling for Malta, and the pretty creature's head would appear somewhere always high up, for she was a great climber, and she would come running along the top of the fence, saying, “Meow, meow,” in a funny, short way.

Miss Laura would pet her, or give her something to eat, or walk around the garden carrying her on her shoulder. Malta was a most affectionate cat, and if Miss Laura would not let her lick her face, she licked her hair with her little, rough tongue. Often Malta lay by the fire, licking my coat or little Billy's, to show her affection for us.

Mary, the cook, was very fond of cats, and used to keep Malta in the kitchen as much as she could, but nothing would make her stay down there if there was any music going on upstairs. The Morris pets were all fond of music. As soon as Miss Laura sat down to the piano to sing or play, we came from all parts of the house. Malta cried to get upstairs, Davy scampered through the hall, and Bella hurried after him. If I was outdoors I ran in the house; and Jim got on a box and looked through the window.

Davy's place was on Miss Laura's shoulder, his pink nose run in the curls at the back of her neck. I sat under the piano beside Malta and Bella, and we never stirred till the music was over; then we went quietly away.

Malta was a beautiful cat there was no doubt about it. While I was with Jenkins I thought cats were vermin, like rats, and I chased them every chance I got. Mrs. Jenkins had a cat, a gaunt, long-legged, yellow creature, that ran whenever we looked at it.

Malta had been so kindly treated that she never ran from any one, except from strange dogs. She knew they would be likely to hurt her. If they came upon her suddenly, she faced them, and she was a pretty good fighter when she was put to it. I once saw her having a brush with a big mastiff that lived a few blocks from us, and giving him good fright; which just served him right.

I was shut up in the parlor. Some one had closed the door, and I could not get out. I was watching Malta from the window, as she daintily picked her way across the muddy street. She was such a soft, pretty, amiable-looking cat. She didn't look that way, though, when the mastiff rushed out of the alleyway at her.

She sprang back and glared at him like a little, fierce tiger. Her tail was enormous. Her eyes were like balls of fire, and she was spitting and snarling, as if to say, “If you touch me, I'll tear you to pieces!”

The dog, big as he was, did not dare attack her. He walked around and around, like a great clumsy elephant, and she turned her small body as he turned his, and kept up a dreadful hissing and spitting. Suddenly I saw a Spitz dog hurrying down the street. He was going to help the mastiff, and Malta would be badly hurt. I had barked and no one had come to let me out, so I sprang through the window.

Just then there was a change. Malta had seen the second dog, and she knew she must get rid of the mastiff. With an agile bound she sprang on his back, dug her sharp claws in, till he put his tail between his legs and ran up the street, howling with palm She rode a little way, then sprang off, and ran up the lane to the stable.

I was very angry and wanted to fight something so I pitched into the Spitz dog. He was a snarly, cross-grained creature, no friend to Jim and me, and he would have been only too glad of a chance to help kill Malta.

I gave him one of the worst beatings he ever had. I don't suppose it was quite right for me to do it, for Miss Laura says dogs should never fight; but he had worried Malta before, and he had no business to do it. She belonged to our family. Jim and I never worried his cat. I had been longing to give him a shaking for some time, and now I felt for his throat through his thick hair and dragged him all around the street. Then I let him go, and he was a civil dog ever afterward.

Malta was very grateful, and licked a little place where the Spitz bit me. I did not get scolded for the broken window. Mary had seen from the kitchen window, and told Mrs. Morris that I had gone to help Malta.

Malta was a very wise cat. She knew quite well that she must not harm the parrot nor the canaries, and she never tried to catch them, even though she was left alone in the room with them.

I have seen her lying in the sun, blinking sleepily, and listening with great pleasure to Dick's singing. Miss Laura even taught her not to hunt the birds outside.

For a long time she had tried to get it into Malta's head that it was cruel to catch the little sparrows that came about the door, and just after I came, she succeeded in doing so.

Malta was so fond of Miss Laura, that whenever she caught a bird, she came and laid it at her feet. Miss Laura always picked up the little, dead creature, pitied it and stroked it, and scolded Malta till she crept into a corner. Then Miss Laura put the bird on a limb of a tree, and Malta watched her attentively from her corner.

One day Miss Laura stood at the window, looking out into the garden. Malta was lying on the platform, staring at the sparrows that were picking up crumbs from the ground. She trembled, and half rose every few minutes, as if to go after them. Then she lay down again. She was trying very hard not to creep on them. Presently a neighbor's cat came stealing along the fence, keeping one eye on Malta and the other on the sparrows. Malta was so angry! She sprang up and chased her away, and then came back to the platform, where she lay down again and waited for the sparrows to come back. For a long time she stayed there, and never once tried to catch them.

Miss Laura was so pleased. She went to the door, and said, softly, “Come here, Malta.”

The cat put up her tail, and, meowing gently, came into the house. Miss Laura took her up in her arms, and going down to the kitchen, asked Mary to give her a saucer of her very sweetest milk for the best cat in the United States of America.

Malta got great praise for this, and I never knew of her catching a bird afterward. She was well fed in the house, and had no need to hurt such harmless creatures.

She was very fond of her home, and never went far away, as Jim and I did. Once, when Willie was going to spend a few weeks with a little friend who lived fifty miles from Fairport, he took it into his head that Malta should go with him. His mother told him that cats did not like to go away from home; but he said he would be good to her, and begged so hard to take her, that at last his mother consented.

He had been a few days in this place, when he wrote home to say that Malta had run away. She had seemed very unhappy, and though he had kept her with him all the time, she had acted as if she wanted to get away.

When the letter was read to Mr. Morris, he said, “Malta is on her way home. Cats have a wonderful cleverness in finding their way to their own dwelling. She will be very tired. Let us go out and meet her.”

Willie had gone to this place in a coach. Mr. Morris got a buggy and took Miss Laura and me with him, and we started out. We went slowly along the road. Every little while Miss Laura blew her whistle, and called, “Malta, Malta,” and I barked as loudly as I could. Mr. Morris drove for several hours, then we stopped at a house, had dinner, and then set out again. We were going through a thick wood, where there was a pretty straight road, when I saw a small, dark creature away ahead, trotting toward us. It was Malta. I gave a joyful bark, but she did not know me, and plunged into the wood.

I ran in after her, barking and yelping, and Miss Laura blew her whistle as loudly as she could. Soon there was a little gray head peeping at us from the bushes, and Malta bounded out, gave me a look of surprise and then leaped into the buggy on Miss Laura's lap.

What a happy cat she was! She purred with delight, and licked Miss Laura's gloves over and over again. Then she ate the food they had brought, and went sound asleep. She was very thin, and for several days after getting home she slept the most of the time.

Malta did not like dogs, but she was very good to cats. One day, when there was no one about and the garden was very quiet, I saw her go stealing into the stable, and come out again, followed by a sore-eyed, starved-looking cat, that had been deserted by some people that lived in the next street. She led this cat up to her catnip bed, and watched her kindly, while she rolled and rubbed herself in it. Then Malta had a roll in it herself, and they both went back to the stable.

Catnip is a favorite plant with cats, and Miss Laura always kept some of it growing for Malta.

For a long time this sick cat had a home in the stable. Malta carried her food every day and after a time Miss Laura found out about her and did what she could to make her well. In time she got to be a strong, sturdy-looking cat, and Miss Laura got a home for her with an invalid lady.

It was nothing new for the Morrises to feed deserted cats. Some summers, Mrs. Morris said that she had a dozen to take care of. Careless and cruel people would go away for the summer, shutting up their houses, and making no provision for the poor cats that had been allowed to sit snugly by the fire all winter. At last, Mrs. Morris got into the habit of putting a little notice in the Fairport paper, asking people who were going away for the summer to provide for their cats during their absence.

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