fiction

Dapple-gray thrust his head cautiously out of the burrow within a kiosk and looked toward the Kingtree. There was the stripeycat, prowling about and lashing her tail.

“Ha, Cruelmouth!” he cried.

She turned in an instant and pounced toward him with a roar: “Give me back the man-kin cub, ho!”

He flinched but did not duck. “We shall not, ha!”

“You shall, ho!”

“We shan’t, ha!”

“Shall, ho!”

“No, ha!”

“Yes, ha!”

There was a pause; they looked at each other in the faint remaining light.

“I am hungry, huh, my tummy gripes and pinches,” whined Cruelmouth. “I hunted the man-kin cub from the river, huh. She is mine, huh. Mine, ha! Give her me back, ho!”

“We cannot, huh; she has commanded us.”

“I command you, ha! Give her me back, ho!”

“We need not obey you — you are only a cat, ha!”

“Gardiner, ha! Filthy digger, ha!”

“Go away, ho, cruel-mouthed cat!”

“I will eat you instead, ha!”

Dapple-gray sank down in the burrow as Cruelmouth pounced upon the kiosk, but its trunks were close-set and well withed together. The kiosk shook and petals fell upon her from the blooms above. The stripeycat fell back, licked a bruised paw. With a final angry wordless roar, she turned away and stamped furiously off toward the Haunted Wood.

Dapple-gray watched her go, then returned to the Big Room. “She is gone, huh,” he said reassuringly.

“Oh, wonderful,” said Mistress Dolly. He thought that must be an exclamation, despite the lack of the exclamatory Executant. “Bring me food, ho,” she said. “I am very hungry.”

They went hastily to the larder and came clumsily back, carrying armfuls of eggs. Curly-locks and Dame Trot stripped the fibers from the lips of two eggs and squeezed the hinges, so that they opened like clams. They proffered the eggs to Mistress Dolly on the half-shell.

She drew back, crying, “I cannot eat eggs raw, ha! Cook them, ho!”

Their small ears flattened. “We have no fire, huh, Mistress Dolly.” To refuse an order was painful, but unavoidable. “You can make fire in our fire place, eh?”

“No, heh, not without fire things. You have what else to eat, eh?”

They brought her sandwiches clumsily in their arms, crawling along the passages from the larder.

“I don’t like yellow-sauce; take these back and bring me sandwiches with white sauce, ho,” she cried, as soon as she saw the trade-marks that grew on the shucks.

So they brought her sandwiches with white sauce.

“Take these away, ho,” she commanded. “I do not like pork flavor. Give me the beef flavor, ho. And the fish, ho.”

Then she tore one up, trying to get the shucks off it, and wailed, “Help me, ho!”

She was indeed a cub. So they gathered about her to bite the blossom ends off the sandwiches and tear the shucks back, to expose the bread and meat, wrapped in the clean white inner husk.

“Faugh!” she cried, sounding disgusted. “This is still green, ha! Bring me ripe sandwiches, ho.”

They had picked the sandwiches just before they came ripe, so that they would keep for a week or so. Dapple-gray looked at Cross-Patch. They were the tallest two, and could run the fastest.

“Let us go, huh,” said Dapple-gray, and started out.

He was surprised that Cross-Patch followed him, but of course the man-kin had ordered them to feed her. Nothing would stop Cross-Patch from grumbling, of course: “We are to do what with a man-kin cub, eh? She does not belong here, huh. She should go back to her own kind, huh.”

Dapple-gray thought about that, but could not decide. “I do not know, heh.”

They went to a kiosk far across the Plantation and Dapple-gray peered out into the dimness, sniffed the cool air. No scent of cat.

“She is gone, huh.”

Cautiously they slipped out, went to a sandwich tree, and carefully bit off ripe sandwiches of beef and fish, in white sauce.

She ate three of them and called for drink. They brought her tree-milk in the nut, which they had to gnaw open for her. Dame Trot brought a salad head, but she spurned it, crying, “I’m not going to eat anything you’ve had in your dirty mouths, ha!”

“I am forry, ha;” said Dame Trot contritely, in her emotion not speaking plainly past her teeth. “I fhould have picked it wiff my hands.”

Cross-Patch went to the larder and returned with a violet fruit, carrying it carefully in his hand. Dapple-gray smelled valeriana, which they gave to their cubs, to help them sleep. That is good, he thought wearily.

He called up the hollow root to the wafflebird that slept in the hole in the Kingtree’s trunk, saying, “Sing ho, wafflebird, sing a sleep song for the man-kin cub, Mistress Dolly, ho.”

“I am a girl, huh,” said Mistress Dolly. “Not a cub.”

“I care nothing for man-kin cubs, huh,” said the wafflebird. “But I shall sing for myself, huh.”

“Sing a sleep song, ho!”

“I shall sing a sleep song for the chicks, huh,” said the wafflebird, and sang:

“Sleep, baby, sleep, ho.
“Our tree-trunk hole is deep, oh.
“The little bird is in the blue, huh,
“His feathers all so neat and new, huh —
“Sleep, baby, sleep, ho,
“Sleep, baby, sleep, ho.
“Yes, where the woodbines creep, oh.
“When in the nest, never peck or kick, ho,
“A kind, and sweet, and gentle chick, oh;
“Sleep, baby, sleep, ho.
“I sleep, mother, sleep, oh.”

And the wafflebird went murmuring drowsily on, singing to itself, a soothing background to their talk.

“You came here how, eh?” Dame Trot asked Mistress Dolly.

Mistress Dolly yawned. “I came down the river, heh.”

“Be pleased to tell us more, huh,” Curly-locks said.

“There’s nothing to tell, stupid Gardiners, ha,” said the man-kin cub angrily. “The Hunter pushed me off and I floated down the river, that is all. He put me in a gourd, that grows by the river. I am sure my Stepmama never told him to do this to me, ha. It is true she told him to take me into the forest — but not to drown me in the river, I am sure of it, ha!”

Her voice became higher in pitch as she spoke. “I know she has never cared for me, though she does not let my Papa know. I do not know why she told the Hunter to take me into the forest. Papa was not at home — he was not at home, for why, eh?”

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