Can't say as I care much for cats. Never liked 'em. Sneaky things, you know. I'm a dog person myself.''
The hair on the back of my neck prickled. I'm definitely a cat person. Sam gave Margaret the hairy eyeball and then stretched out full length in the window seat. Margaret went on sipping her hot drink. She had come by to welcome us to the neighborhood, although I had already begun to have reservations about how welcome we were actually going to be.
''I had a cat once,'' she said loudly for Sam's benefit. ''He was supposed to be a mouser. That's what I got him for. Never caught a thing. Just ate like a horse.''
''Oh?'' I said.
''Like a horse,'' she repeated, as she chomped down on another cookie. ''Mice are a real problem out here in the country, you know. But that cat was worthless. I finally took him back to the pound.''
I stole a glance at Sam. He yawned, jumped up on the table, and began to wash his face.
''Let's go into the living room where it's more comfortable,'' I said, thinking a change of scenery might be best for everyone. Margaret grabbed another cookie and led the way through the door to the living-room sofa. Sam, seemingly immune to her insults, followed us right along.
''Where you folks from?'' Margaret asked. Getting and imparting the facts -- this was her style, and the quicker the better, I gathered.
''Indiana,'' I said, ''the Midwest.''
''Never been there myself,'' Margaret said.
Sam began to rub against Margaret's legs, then jumped up on the sofa and leaned in close to her.
''Guess I'd better be going,'' she said, retreating from Sam's affectionate advances.
''Nice of you to drop by,'' I said.
''I hope you plan to keep that in,'' she said, nodding at Sam who was playing the perfect host and seeing Margaret to the door. ''I feed the birds, you know.''
''Thanks for stopping.'' I ignored her comment. Sam spent a large part of the day outside, and since we were living in the country, I saw no reason to keep him in. He was road wary and an experienced hunter, quite self-reliant.
When Margaret had gone, Sam rubbed against my legs, and as I picked him up, he began to purr.
''Sam Cat, you old fox, you'd better behave yourself. Margaret doesn't much like your kind.'' I let him down and he sauntered back to the window seat.
A few days later Margaret called to inform me that she had seen Sam doing his business in her garden. Then she found a dead bird in her yard. I sympathized and suggested to Sam that he hunt somewhere else. Unfortunately, he headed in the direction of Margaret's every morning when I let him out. I was beginning to believe the tale about cats gravitating to those who dislike them the most.
Margaret was right. Mice were a problem in the country. It was October and beginning to get cold outside, but Sam was rarely without a meal. Several days each week, a mouse appeared on our porch. But we had no mice inside.
I was raking leaves one afternoon, and Sam was supervising from a low branch of the dogwood tree, when Margaret appeared in the driveway and began to scold him about jumping up onto her windowsills and making holes in her screens.
''You've got to keep that cat in,'' she said. ''I don't have any truck with cats.'' She was about to stomp off when Sam jumped down and started the old rub-the-legs routine.
But Margaret wasn't having any this time. She backed off, but Sam persevered. Every time Margaret moved away, Sam was right there.
''I'm surprised Sam has been over to your place, Margaret. He's been so busy catching mice around here. Why, I'll bet he's brought in half a dozen this week,'' I said not quite truthfully. ''We haven't had one in the house so far this fall.''
Sam ignored the praise. He was entirely focused on Margaret.
''You don't say,'' she said, with new interest. ''What's your name, pussy?''
''Sam,'' I said quickly, hoping Sam wouldn't notice. He flicked his tail.
''Well, Sam, how about you coming over to my place and taking care of the mousies over there,'' Margaret said sweetly. ''Come on, Sam, kitty-kitty,'' and she turned and began to coax him back toward her house.
Much to my surprise, Sam followed her. He looked back once, and I could have sworn he winked. I watched as he disappeared with Margaret through her back door.
At dusk Sam appeared and wanted in as usual. He settled himself on the recliner in the living room, and when I nudged him off, he seemed content to snooze in my lap while I watched TV.
I didn't see Margaret for almost two weeks. Cold weather kept us in, but Sam continued to go across the street first thing in the morning, his usual routine.
''Come on over for a hot drink,'' Margaret called out to me one morning as I was getting the mail.
I walked over to her house and Sam followed. He seemed right at home when we went in. I noticed a cat dish in the corner of Margaret's kitchen, and a pillow on the kitchen table in a warm sunny spot.
''Here, Sam, that's a good boy,'' said Margaret as she set out some food in the dish. This was a change.
''I didn't know you had gotten a cat, Margaret,'' I said, trying not to act too surprised.
''Well, I don't have a cat,'' Margaret said, a little embarrassed. ''But Sam comes over every morning, and well, I haven't had a mouse since he's been comin' in. We have this deal worked out, you see.''
I saw all right. Sam was getting special treats for superior mousemanship. Sam Cat settled into his pillow on Margaret's table and squinted sleepily at the sun. Margaret and I sipped our hot drinks. It was all quite neighborly.