Joe Tremain was a man of mostly average description. He was medium height, medium build, medium colouring, medium circumstances, and middle-aged. His parents – dying young – had left him a house that had one bedroom, a loft that had been Joe’s bedroom, and not much land – but Joe got along well enough doing part time work for a number of locals. He lived alone – unless you counted the black cat that spent half its time mouse-hunting, and the other half asleep on Joe’s bed. The cat’s name – given with Joe’s usual basic tendency to be practical – was Blackie.
Joe lived in Bodie. He’d been just a bit too young to ride in the war, which made him useful locally since a number of those who had, came back damaged, while others never came back at all. So, while Joe wasn’t the brightest crystal in the saloon’s chandelier, he was bright enough, and he worked hard. What no one knew was that he was also an optimist. He dreamed, hoped that one day something would happen to take him out of his small dusty western town and off to the bright lights. Blackie could go to live with Old Mrs. Mariner if that happened. Joe knew the old lady liked cats and she’d be good to Blackie.
As I said, Joe was an optimist, and severely practical – in his own way – so that when Blackie came in that October night with a live mouse, and the mouse spoke to him, Joe wasn’t unduly surprised; and he listened as many others would not have. Blackie carried the mouse over, set it down by Joe, and placed a paw on it. The mouse looked up at Joe and its tiny black eyes widened imploringly.
“I don’t want to die.”
Joe considered that and found it reasonable. “I guess not.
“Why?” Joe was still reasonable. “You mice eat my food. I only put a flapjack to one side while I fetched my socks this morning and went I come back, one of you were eating it, nibbled all around the edge it were. That’s what Blackie’s for, does a fine job, he does.”
The mouse fell briefly silent. “I could give you something?”
“I have a treasure. Part of it has come down from my earliest ancestors. If you let me go, I’ll give it to you.”
“How’d I know you’ll come back at all if I let you go?”
The mouse pondered. “I could swear…”
“I kin swear too, don’t mean nothing.”
“I mean I could give you my word. I could promise on the fertility of my line. That’s an oath no mouse would break.” The tiny form tensed as it waited for the human to reply.
Joe thought about it. Not a lot to lose really. “All right. I let you go and by tomorrow morning, you’ll bring me your treasure. Put it on the shelf by my bed, right where I can see it when I wake.” And to the cat. “And you let him. He isn’t for you again ‘til he’s left the treasure and gone to his hole. Then when he comes out of that again, it’s back to the usual way of things.”
He received a disgusted look from the cat, who rose, strolled leisurely from the house, and went to nap in the sunshine. Joe picked up the mouse. “Guess I’ll just make sure he leaves you be.
Placed by the woodpile, the mouse dived between the logs and vanished. Joe looked after him. “You remember what’s riding on this for you, mouse. Forget and you’ll be the last of your line that ever lives.”
Joe went to bed that night and slept well as always. He woke at first light, turning over sleepily, and his gaze fell on the bedside shelf. What? He remembered the mouse, the promise, the treasure, and slowly he sat up, his eyes fixed on the items heaped on the shelf; nineteen kernels of corn, two bacon rinds, and a small, very mouldy, crust of bread. Joe sighed, the thought slowly percolating in his brain. He’d bargained for the mouse’s great treasure – the mouse had delivered as promised. What he hadn’t bargained for was that what was treasure to a human wasn’t necessarily treasure to a mouse.
Joe dumped the pretty red-striped corn kernels in his mother’s vase on the mantelpiece, the rinds and bread in the fire, and went to work.
Blackie continued to catch mice – but never that one again.
Joe continued to work, sleep in on Sundays, and come the right time of the year, he planted the corn. Waste not, want not, his mother had always said. It came up – a small sea of bright corn.
A group of Indians passed by late one night the winter after that. Joe never saw them. They saw the corn in the moonlight and rode on by, struck at a farmhouse some miles away, killed everyone, looted the place, and vanished into the night.
Joe ate corn all that year and found it good, he preferred this not-so-sweet type, and he liked the red striping. It was pretty. The elderly widow Mariner liked it too.
“Thank you, Joe.”
“T’isn’t nothing. Just thought you might like some to make cornmeal. Don’t say nothing around, you know how it is. I give you some, ever’body’s expecting their share.”
“I thank you kindly, Joe, and I’ll say nothing.” She used it as intended and never noticed when her arthritis disappeared.
Blackie the cat tried a kernel one night when the hunting had been poor, and found it good. Thereafter, while he caught mice still, somehow they were never eaten. He relished the lighter, spicy taste of the corn more and some how, while cats are not herbivores, he did very well on it. Joe had no objection so long as the mice weren’t a nuisance.
Time slipped by.
The widow Mariner died at the startling age of a hundred and nine. The local law, thinking that her birth certificate must have been her mother’s of the same name, had the lady noted in the cemetery records – by the undertaker – as having been eighty-nine when she died.
No one noticed, and Joe never cared, that Blackie was, by normal standards, an incredible age. Nor did it occur to anyone to recall Joe’s years. He was just Joe, the man that fixed things – fences, gates, pig pens, and who now and again, did a little gardening. He had a green thumb everyone agreed. It was a winter’s evening in nineteen-forty-six when Joe saw the mouse again. It entered, slipping around the half-open door, and sat on its haunches considering the man.
“I kept my promise,” it said.
Joe nodded. “You did. Not much use to me your treasure wasn’t, but you done what you said. “
The mouse stared. “Not much use? Tell me, human, what year were you born?”
“Eighteen-forty-six,” Joe said automatically
“And the cat?”
“Got him when I were thirty-seven. He’d have bin around six when he caught you.”
“And,” the mouse held his gaze with small black eyes. “What year is it now?”
Joe paused. The truth was that time had never mattered to him. He didn’t count the years, just the seasons – four of them, winter, spring, summer, and fall again. But he’d seen changes, town were gone now, just ranches around, he went with one of his occasional employers to a different town maybe twice a year for the things he didn’t grow and couldn’t swap.
“I dunno, long time gone, I guess,” he said slowly, reckoning it up, remembering. His gaze met that of his interrogator. “Long, long, time. Were that you?”
“Oh, so the widow, and Blackie too…”
“So why’re you here, want it back?”
“No. I’ve taken my share over the years. I just wanted to say goodbye.”
Joe blinked down. “You leaving?”
“No, you and Blackie are. The treasure only works for so long, and that time is up tomorrow.”
“Oh.” Joe pondered. “Well. I guess there’s some things I should do then, and thank you, mouse, guess it were a pretty good treasure after all.”
“Yes.” And there was a grey-brown ripple that slipped past the door again, going the other way, and gone.
Joe picked up the drowsing cat and stroked him slowly. “Bin a good life, cat, an’ you bin a good companion.” He laid the cat down on his bed and reached for pen and paper. That had been something his mother would have liked, that her son had finally learned to read and write. Nothing much, just the basics, but he could. He wrote for a few minutes, then blotted the ink, laying the letter aside.
Then he went out to his land, the small patch of corn was growing well, and he sighed, pulling it up piece by piece, taking the almost ripe corn inside and placing it on the fire until the last of it was gone. He checked, found a few kernels about the house here and there – he wasn’t always as tidy as he should be – but they too burned, and at last he straightened, walking over to stand in his doorway.
He considered the sky, the bright stars, the half-moon, and very slowly a smile lit his face. “’S bin a good life, I guess. Friends, never out ‘a work, a home of my own, and Blackie.” He walked to the bedroom where the old cat lay, breath barely moving his body “We’ll go now, I reckon. Tomorrow he said, and it’ll be that real soon.” He lay down, cradled the cat in one arm, and began to remember. His mother, his childhood, the widow Mariner who’d been a friend, all the employers over the years, some good, some bad, some indifferent. And the town he’d been born near, the town that they called a ‘ghost town’ these-days – would those ghosts come for him now?
And somewhere as the moon circled the sky, Joe and Blackie slipped from dreaming into another place. The bodies were found two days later, and buried together beside Joe’s parents – the cat being added surreptitiously to Joe’s coffin by the undertaker who’d owed his client a few favours over the years. The house was taken over by the local council, sold as he had asked, and the money given to the A.S.P.C.A. The only thing left from Joe’s time was a mouse that remembered, and the red-striped kernels that it still held. A mouse’s treasure, and never to be despised – despite what some humans might think.