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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



"SUPPOSE I should tell him I've just gotten over being a horse?" Lamb mused to himself, as he politely eyed his customer, an aged person of many moth-eaten millions. "I guess the old blighter would drop those bonds and close his account on the spot."

He resisted the temptation to experiment with the old gentleman, and thereby materially added to his own not inconsiderable wealth.

When his customer had departed, Lamb summoned his secretary to him and told her all about Philadelphia. He had already told her about Philadelphia, but this time he told her better. He shrouded his future movements in tantalising mystery. Lamb was taking no chances. God only knew what the little russet man had in store for him, and Lamb very much doubted if he had taken even God into his confidence. He would have liked to have had a short conversation with the little russet man, but he knew of no way to get in touch with him.

All that week Mr. Lamb had been hearing about the horse. He had gleaned impressions from many unexpected sources. The stallion had created no end of excitement in the town and surrounding countryside. An enterprising reporter had strung together a story which the city people laughed at and dismissed, little realising that it was the most conservatively handled piece of news in the paper. Simonds was the most voluble about the horse. Also the most bitter. He had sent his own horse away for a change of scene. The poor animal was actually pining away in its lot, constantly fearing a return of that diabolical stallion. The state trooper had lost his easy post. He no longer postured about the station, a target for the come-on glances of women who with a sigh of relief had seen the last of their husbands for that day.

Lamb was highly edified by what he heard. He had been a horse among horses. His exploits would be remembered. Whenever Mrs. Lamb referred viperously to the Vacation Fund debacle he would thoughtfully finger his necktie and look at her significantly. Mrs. Lamb quickly changed the subject. Leonard Gray's neckties were constantly reminding her of a most disturbing interruption of what had started out to be an unusually diverting week-end.

"Wonder what we're going to be next?" Hebe speculated one evening, entering into the situation with the enthusiasm of her years. "How'd you like to be a giraffe? "

"God forbid," said Mr. Lamb quickly. "I hope the little chap feels that he has sufficiently convinced me of the unwisdom of unconsidered wishing."

But the little russet man did not feel that way about it, and when Lamb woke up one morning he found himself perched precariously on one of the four posts of his bed. When he attempted to stretch, as was his wont, he heard an unfamiliar swish in the air.

"I'm something else," he said to himself. "Wonder what it can be?"

Fluttering lightly to the floor, he observed himself in the mirror. His excitement was intense. What he saw was a smoky-looking seagull with black rings round its eyes. The effect was that of detached thoughtfulness. Mr Lamb spread his wings and looked with approval on their snow-white lining. He was a good gull.

"As gulls go," he admitted to himself, "I dare say I'm about as good as they come. Wonder how it feels to fly? Don't know the first thing about it."

He went to the table and looked at his watch. Sandra would be taking the usual train. He had plenty of time.

"No use disturbing the household," he thought, hopping to the open window and balancing himself on the edge. "Well, here goes for a Lindberg. Hope I don't foul a tree."

Lamb extended his wings and took the air. He landed in some confusion among the box bushes, but managed to beat his way out with the loss of only a few unimportant feathers.

"Must do better than that," he commented. "I'd best try a couple of take-offs."

He gave himself a running start and left the ground. This time he flew with gathering confidence and landed on Hebe's window, upon which he tapped gently. That young lady woke up without effort and immediately let him in. She had schooled herself to be surprised at nothing and to be prepared for anything. She looked at her father with admiring envy.

"Golly," she said, "I wish I was in your shoes." Lamb extended one claw and emitted a peculiar crackling noise intended to be a laugh.

"How does it feel to fly, major?" his daughter continued.

The gull gave an exhuberant hop expressive of much enjoyment, and Hebe understood.

"How about grub?" asked Hebe. "I suppose you don't fancy a couple of succulent worms?"

The gull shuddered and almost twisted its had off in the violence of its opposition to this revolting suggestion.

"Well, come along," said Hebe, slipping into her dressing-gown and quietly opening the door.

Mr. Lamb skipping lightly behind his swift-footed daughter, followed her to the pantry, where she set before him a bowl of puffed rice and cream. When he had eaten his fill of this he delicately polished his beak on a convenient napkin and spread his wings gloriously for the benefit of his daughter. After this he left the house and made his way to the station.

From a great height he saw Sandra leaving her house to start off for the station. Swooping dizzily down the air lanes, he circled round her head, then came to rest at her feet. Without a moment's hesitation, for Sandra had also been warned to be prepared for anything, she picked him up and held his head against her warm neck. Mr. Lamb was so elated that he freed himself and tried to loop-the-loop. This enterprising endeavour resulted in a small disaster. Mr. Lamb found himself flat on his back in the gutter. His claws were busily churning the air. It was a ludicrous sight, and Sandy laughed at the gull. Lamb adjusted himself with as much dignity as he could summon to his aid, and after a certain amount of necessary preening, preceded the girl to the station in a more orderly, if not so spectacular, manner. As he planed along the platform he took occasion to knock off Simonds's hat and had the satisfaction of seeing it roll to the tracks, where its usefulness was destroyed by the thundering arrival of the city-bound express.

When no one was looking Mr. Lamb slipped into the baggage-car and hid himself behind a trunk. Later, when he had made sure that the conductor was several cars ahead, he made his way on foot through the train. He was searching for Sandra. As the gull swayed cautiously down the aisle of the first car heads popped out from behind newspapers and amused eyes followed his progress. Mr. Lamb was uncomfortably aware of the interest he was creating.

"Why can't they mind their own business," he thought, "instead of staring at me? "

At the end of the car he turned and favoured its occupants with a hoarse cry, at the sound of which several heads darted back behind the newspapers.

The other half of Sandra's seat was unoccupied. Mr. Lamb quietly hopped up to it and sidled as close to her as possible. She spread her paper accommodatingly, and together they read the news of the day. From this Mr. Lamb looked up in time to discover the approach of the conductor. Mr. Lamb wanted no trouble. He was too large a gull to hide, too large to creep under the seat. Then a brilliant idea occurred to him. With one swift, insinuating look at Sandra he fell down on the seat and allowed his head to dangle over it. The head swayed distastefully with the rhythm of the train. To all intents and purposes the young lady was carrying a dead seagull to the city. Sandra, after some quick thinking, fathomed Mr. Lamb's intention and ordered her actions accordingly.

The conductor, arriving at her seat, looked down at the seagull with an expression of disgust. Years of service had inured him to all types of commuters. He had seen them carrying all sorts of surprising packages from vacuum-cleaners to French pastry. He had never, however, previously encountered a commuter carrying a dead seagull.

"That's a strange thing to be lugging about with you," he informed Sandra.

"He just died," replied the girl sadly. "I'm taking him to be stuffed. The poor old thing has been in our family for years."

She picked Mr. Lamb up by his legs and dangled him convincingly before the conductor's eyes. Although Lamb felt a rush of blood to his head, he continued to act the part of a dead gull. The conductor seemed convinced, especially when the bird flopped limply against his face. The remainder of the trip was uneventful, and when the train reached the station Sandra once more seized Mr. Lamb by the legs and carried him out with her. He was very much squeezed and rumpled. Once when a stout lady backed into him he was forced to resort to rather brutal tactics in order to induce her to remove a large portion of herself from his face. With an indignant expression, the stout lady looked suspiciously about her, then hewed a path through the crowd.

By the time he had been carried to the street Lamb was literally almost a dead gull. He cocked his head up as well as he could and looked pleadingly at the girl. She took him in her arms and smoothed his feathers. Lamb felt better. Then to the astonishment of many on-lookers he rose in the air and circled above Sandra's head. The on-lookers glanced at the girl questioningly. They had seen an apparently dead sea-gull come to life and fly away. Sandra was unconscious of their gaze. Higher and higher mounted the gull. All he could see now was the white face of the girl straining up to him. Impulsively she raised one hand in farewell, and something white fluttered in the air, then she faded from view.

For some reason, when Sandra turned away, her eyes were just a little bit moist. She wondered if he were lonely up there, and if he would ever come back.

"He doesn't know the first thing about being a seagull," she said to herself. "Anything could happen to him up there. Might even run into an aeroplane."

All that day Sandra was a greatly preoccupied young lady in underwear. She kept remembering the excited throbbing of the bird's heart as she had held it in her arms. Mr. Lamb was rapidly becoming a problem seriously to be considered. His sardonic grin and long lean body drifted across her vision. She was very much afraid she loved this man who happened at the moment to be a bird floating somewhere about in the sky. One of the reasons that made her more than suspect she loved him was the fact that she so thoroughly detested his wife.

"Have you any knowledge of your father's movements?" Mrs. Lamb asked her daughter that night.

"Not the slightest," answered Hebe truthfully, "but if you'd taken the trouble to look you'd have seen there's been a bird in his room."

Mrs. Lamb was slightly revolted. If she were only sure. If she could only get absolute proof. She thought of life with Leonard Gray and chewed her steak with abandon.

That night Hebe put a bowl of puffed rice on the back steps. At three o'clock in the morning she was awakened by a series of wild cries, and going to the window, saw a large bird chasing a cat round the yard. When she came down to breakfast, all that remained of the combatants was some fur and a few feathers. Hebe picked one of the feathers up and examined it attentively. It was smoky-grey, with a dash of white on the inside.

"The major's been here all right," said Hebe, half aloud, as she collected the rest of the feathers and carried them to her room.

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