Dead Men Walk

The end of the day was good. Dapple-gray stood looking over the Plantation, absently smoothing the fur on his chest. He was tired, but it was good tiredness.

His teeth felt satisfied, that he had done so much work. All-day he and Curly-locks and their children, and Cross-Patch and Dame Trot and their children, and the others, had worked.

They had cut back branches and shoots and removed dead limbs. They had dragged off the cuttings to the canal. They had gathered the ripe eggs and sandwiches, and other fruits. At odd times they had gnawed on the old stumps of trees that had died, nibbling them down ultimately to the level of the short-grass lawns on which grew the food-bearing trees.

“Apple-seed and apple-thorn,” he sang, “Johnnie Daylight blows his horn, huh. Hick-a-more Hack-a-more, Dapple-gray’s done his chore, huh.”

Curly-locks his mate came to him, her fur all soft brown twists, and said to him, “Dapple-gray, my teeth no longer itch for work, huh; instead, my tummy itches for food.”

“My tummy also itches for food–” Dapple-gray began, but an uproar checked his Utterance before he could give the Executant of declaration.

The Gardiners turned and stared toward the edge of the Plantation, looking like so many brown or gray furry stumps. A creature came running toward the Plantation from the Haunted Wood, upright on hindlegs like themselves, but its legs were much longer and it ran very fast. Behind it came Cruelmouth the stripeycat, roaring. The Gardiners’ flat tails thumped the earth in alarm.

Dapple-gray pushed Curly-locks and cried to all, “To earth, ho; to earth, to earth, earth, earth, ha!”

In a moment all were in motion, not even Cross-Patch stopping to argue. Dapple-gray lolloped as quickly as his short curved legs would take him, Curly-locks beside him, to a kiosk. It was a circle of five small flowering trees, with a thatched roof slung between them and woven walls partway down the five sides.

He pushed her through the hole under one wall and looked fearfully over his shoulder, to see the creature dive into another kiosk. Then he followed Curly-locks headfirst, down the hole under the roof. He heard Cruelmouth’s furious roars as she tore at the kiosk the creature had gone down.

In the burrow, it was dark after the brilliance of the sunset without. Dapple-gray caught himself on his hands at the bottom of the hole, glimpsing Curly-locks’s feet kicking as she scrambled into the lateral tunnel. Extending his whiskers to feel the narrow passage, he reverted to quadruped and followed, hustling along on hands and feet.

They negotiated two more tight turns and the burrow eased, became larger. It was shored with now-dead limbs so intertwined that dirt never fell on the plastic-reeds matted on the floor. Dapple-gray’s eyes had adjusted enough to see by the pale light of the glow-mold that slowly ate the deadwood.

Curly-locks paused at a crossing of tunnels, where there was room enough for him to come alongside. Here they had dug straight up, built a domed roof at the bottom of the shaft, then filled the hole above it with dirt and sharp rocks from the river. And they had left a pipe, a hollow reed with flute-holes gnawed in its projecting length, below its closed tip. Air and light and noise came down this pipe.

Noise from Cruelmouth, yelling: “Give me back the man-kin cub, ho, you Gardiners! Give her me back, ho! She went in your burrows, huh, you filthy diggers! Give her me back, ho! I am hungry, huh. Hungry, ha; hungry, hungry, hungry, ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

“A man-kin, eh? Eh?” Curly-locks whispered, her brown eyes big in the dim light.

He looked back at her solemnly. They had never seen a man-kin.