Sometime Sunday afternoon Squeaky, a black and white cat, went underground. Down the drainpipe attached to a condominium in Reston. Curiosity and all that.

"He was probably chasing a mouse or something silly like that," said his owner.

But once Squeaky, a 6-year-old who was plucked from an animal pound, got down there, he stayed. In the time honored cat tradition, he'd climbed into something he couldn't get out of.

It took two days, two plumbing crews and about $1,500 worth of labor to wrest Squeaky clean. By that time, via a radio talk show and suburban newspaper, his plight had captured the imaginations and sympathies (even a checkbook or two) of hundreds, possibly thousands of Washington surburbanites.

Which gives rise to one question. Is any at worth $1,500?

His owner, Joyce Fox, a 29-year-old Mobil Oil secretary, thinks so. "I guess there are a whole lot of people who wouldn't think so. But you don't go into something like this calculating costs. He's my cat," she said yesterday. "I couldn't just leave him there to die."

"Oh, sure, it's just a cat and all that," shys one of the diggers. "But you figure, you'd have to get him out of there sooner or later. I mean, he would have plugged up the pipes."

It all started when a neighbor heard stranges cries coming from below a wall outside of her condominium. "I didn't know what it was," said Jill Dimitrijevich. "We couldn't see a thing. It was eerie."

She and her fiance got wirecutters and pulled down a drainspout. They couldn't see the cat, but the mews didn't let up. A man walked by and volunteered to get a friend whose cat was missing.

"Oh no," said Joyce Fox upon arrival. "My cat hasn't been around all day. You don't think . . . Oh no."

Oh yes.

They summoned the Fairfax County animal warden, who showed up with a stick and a rope attached to the end. Just the thing for a cat stuck in a tree.

Excavation was contemplated, but the condominium association had to approve. Operation Squeaky disbanded for the night in the hope that Squeaky would wander out by himself.

He didn't.

On Monday afternoon a team from Warner Plumbing and Heating Co arrived and opened a hole, 2 feet wide, 4 feet long and six feet deep. They removed a section of pipe. No cat.

A second hole. No luck. Back to the first hole. Still no luck. "And he was crying the whole time!" says Fox. "It was horrible."

By midnight Tuesday there were mounds of dirt everywhere; the condo's lawn looked like the dark side of the moon; and the plumbing crew had delivered an estimate of $750.

By Tuesday morning Squeaky was still crying and Fox was checking her checkbook. Her fiance took to the airwaves, pleading for help on a talk show. The American Humane Association donated $500 for the cause. And Anna Briggs, the owner of The Peace Plantation animal shelter in Loudoun County, gave $300. That's about $1 for every stray cat on her farm.

The plumbing company decided to donate a second day of its services. "We just got caught up in the spirit of the thing," said assistant manager Steuart Martin. Dimitrijevich's vet, Donald Draper of Vienna, volunteered to take care of the cat if and when it emerged.

In Reston, shrubs were still falling to shovels.

By Tuesday night it was over. Squeaky was hauled out of the abyss by his haunches, and taken immediately to an emergency clinic. "He was in shock," said Draper yesterday, "and suffering from overexposure. I've still got him on continuous I-V fluids. He's not stable yet." Draper says he expects his patient, to be released in a few days.

"You do what you have to do," says Draper philosophically. "Who knows why something like this arouses such a response in people. Some people treat their pets better than family."

He pauses for a moment. "Sometimes the pet has the nicer personality."