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The Stray Lamb


Thorne Smith



MR LAMB had been a seagull for several days, and had become a thoroughly experienced flyer. Since his defeat of the cat he had steadfastly refused to return home. He was going to be a seagull up or down to the last detail, but in doing so he was becoming an extremely hungry bird, not being able to accommodate his appetite to raw fish and the cast-off bounty of ocean liners. Once he had brought himself to nibble at a fair-looking piece of grape-fruit sliding along the waves, but had swallowed so much salt water in the attempt that he had been forced to abandon the object of his desire.

To-day he had been feeling rather light-headed as he swooped and circled over lower Manhattan. His sharp eyes looked down into the dark cañons of stone pierced by many windows. He thought about the office buildings. He considered them from a new point of view. Hitherto he had looked on them as outstanding examples of American industry and progress. To have things to do with them had always given him a feeling of accomplishment—a comfortable sense of regimentation. To-day he was not so sure.

"Millions of souls in those buildings," he mused, sweeping close to his own. "There's a good-sized town in that building of mine alone. And they're all working. Thousands of them loafing . . . just getting by. Poor pent-up devils! Suppose the little russet man had turned them all into gulls instead of picking on me. What a remarkable sight it would be. Trails of gulls issuing from every window. The air filled with the beat of many wings . . . all released!"

Lamb pictured the scene to himself. He was weary and painfully hungry. Still he soared—alone.

"Scissors dropped," he continued. "Pens rolling of abandoned desks. Stocks and bonds and crisp, clean bank-notes suddenly left unguarded."

Lamb, in his reverie, saw the sky growing black with gulls. Birds pushing their way to freedom, crowding on one another. He painted a mental picture of a little group of conscientious gulls, still held by habit, poising on window-ledges and peering back into their offices to make sure that all was in order before they took to the air. What a sight! A river of gulls, following the precedent of years, homeward bound across the bay to Staten Island. Another river flowing up-town, and a turbulent one into Brooklyn. A bridge of gulls passing over the Hudson. It would split at various commuting tracks and grow thinner at each suburb. Gulls everywhere pecking at windows, vainly trying to get their wives to understand that something unusual had happened to them—actually to them, their time-tabled husbands.

Lamb's thoughts were growing wilder as his hunger increased. He saw dense masses of gulls flocking to the subway stations, impelled there by habit. The dark tunnels would be filled with several counter-flying columns of frantically surging wings. Gulls trampled on in trying to get out, when they might just as well have been flying in the open air. And the buses, too. They would be packed to the top rails. Birds swaying in close ranks. All going home—home to their wives. Mostly men.

The girl gulls wouldn't go home. Not they . . . . They would be far too enterprising. Down to the Island for them. Snatching free rides on the scenic railway, no doubt, and keeping their eyes peeled for boy friends they had never met. Some of them would infest chop-suey joints and flutter about to the tune of an automatic piano. Others would just hang round soda shops and giggle and wait for something to happen. But the fact remained, the girls would be pleasure-bent—sex-driven, alert, seeking—they wouldn't go home. Lamb could hardly blame them. He wasn't going home, either. He was going to swoop around and pity the slaves in the office buildings below. He was—

"Oh, Hell!" he broke in on his thoughts. "This isn't getting me anywhere. Must have food. I'll take a chance and try it."

He coasted down from his high place and landed in a narrow street before the doors of a restaurant in which he had usually taken his luncheon. The restaurant at that hour was crowded, but the smell of food and the hospitable clatter of plates were irresistible to Mr. Lamb in his famished condition.

"Well, here goes," he said to himself as he waited his opportunity and sidled unobtrusively into the restaurant.

Mr. Lamb's unusually sharp eyes picked out a table at which one man was sitting. This gentleman's head was completely hidden behind his newspaper, and on the opposite side of the paper, between it and Mr. Lamb reposed a plate of chicken and French-fried potatoes. The waiters were in a fever of activity. Everyone was in one way or another occupied with food. The presence of the seagull passed unnoticed. The sight of the French-fried potatoes was too much for Mr. Lamb. Being a bird himself he decided that it would be rather indelicate to partake of the chicken. However, the potatoes would suffice. With the utmost caution he mounted the chair opposite the reading gentleman and, protruding a stealthy neck, fastened upon one of the potatoes. This swiftly disappeared. Once more his competent beak shot forth and another potato was done in.

By timing his forays judiciously, Mr. Lamb was getting along quite nicely—making a meal for himself. The table was a secluded one, and was partly concealed by a railing. But all good things must come to an ending, and Mr. Lamb's luncheon was rudely interrupted. The man lowered his paper and looked with some surprise upon the seagull. The seagull froze in the chair, a portion of potato still protruding from its beak. The bird returned the man's stare unwinkingly. This man, Lamb decided, was a mild man. There should not be much trouble. Of course, there would be some. No matter what happened it would be impracticable to try to deprive him of the potatoes he had already eaten. The gentleman neatly arrested the progress of a hurtling waiter.

"I say," he said, looking thoughtfully at the waiter. "Don't you cook your food any more? Am I expected to swallow that thing feathers and all?"

The waiter, regarding the motionless bird, almost dropped the tray.

"I don't know how it happened, sir," he said. "It never did before."

"There's always a first time for everything," continued the gentleman patiently. "And by the way, you seem to be stuffing it from the wrong end."

"That gull's been stuffing hisself," replied the waiter, and, quickly putting down his tray, seized upon Mr. Lamb, who just managed to gulp down the remainder of the potato before he was carried from the restaurant.

"Be gentle with him," admonished the gentleman. "That bird is rather an innovation in the line of gulls."

Mr. Lamb sent him a parting look of gratitude.

"Well," he said to himself philosophically, as he was cast into the street, "this is the first time I've been given the bums' rush since the halcyon days of Jack's."

He arranged his feathers and watched some pigeons picking something on the street corner. His first instinct was to swoop down on them and appropriate their food. Then he thought better of it.

"I haven't come to that," he decided. "Damn if I'll bully pigeons yet."

A brilliant idea was shaping itself in his mind. He knew of a seafaring café on the river front that rejoiced in a number of stuffed birds. He had always considered them as rather dusty and repellent decorations, but somehow they seemed a part of the place. If he could only succeed in insinuating himself into this café he might be able to pass himself off as one of thestuffed birds and thus pick up some choice bits. The place as he remembered it still sported a free-lunch counter. Prohibition had left it undisturbed.

Mr. Lamb put his plan into action. It was not difficult, because most of the occupants were standing at the bar with their backs to the free-lunch counter. This consisted of a huge buffet with a long, low shelf, upon which were displayed various ornaments which the proprietor seemed to feel were essential to the æsthetic contentment of his guests. Lamb saw a boat in a bottle, a framed flag done in silk, some particularly ghastly part of a fish, and a neat little group of extremely unlife-like glass flowers.

Awaiting his chance, Lamb sprang lightly to the shelf among this weird collection and immediately poised his wings. Directly facing him over the bar was a stuffed owl, and out of the corner of his eyes he could see a moth-eaten-looking hawk. He studied the technique of these two birds carefully. There were several others in the room, but he could not bring them into his range of vision without turning his head, which was thrust slightly down and forward over a dish of dried herring. This in his present state appealed to him greatly.

"I hate bolting down food," he thought, "but this is no time nor place to observe the niceties of table manners."

With a lightning-like dart of his head he snatched up one of the herrings and, cramming it into his mouth, once more became a stuffed bird. Only a slight tremor around the throat gave evidence of the activity that was going on within him.

Mr. Lamb made three more successful snatches before an interruption occurred. The interruption took the form of a stout gentleman with thick horn-rimmed glasses. Detaching himself from the bar, this individual lurched sleepily over to the lunch counter and leaned against it. He sampled a herring, then half turned to the bar the better to observe his friends.

"This bloated man is likely to camp here all day," thought Mr. Lamb dejectedly. " And if his friends come over and get into action they'll clean the place out."

Slowly moving his head as close as possible to the plate, he made a short, swift snatch. The herring was his, but the man had noticed something. He turned and looked hard at the gull, then transferred his eyes to the plate. Removing his glasses, he polished them deliberately, and once more, inspected the gull. As he walked over to the bar he stopped suddenly and looked back. Mr. Lamb was prepared for the move. He looked fixedly back at the man, and just before he turned away Lamb slowly closed one eye. The man stopped in his tracks, swayed back to the gull and, getting his face very dose to it, studied the bird for a full minute.

"Well, I give up," he muttered at last. "It must be the grog, but I didn't think I was as drunk as all that."

He hurried back to the bar and called for a double brandy. With this comfortably inside him, he returned once more to the gull.

It was unfortunate for the complete success of Mr. Lamb's luncheon that he was discovered in the act of consuming the largest herring of them all. He could not possibly hope to get the entire fish into his mouth.

Realising the fuddled condition of the man, Lamb had decided that he would retain no clear impression of what he saw. Therefore he leisurely finished off the fish before the man's bulging eyes, and resumed his inanimate position. The drunkard clutched the edge of the buffet and held on.

"Tell me," he demanded thickly. " Are you a stuffed bird or not? For God's sake be one or the other or I'll go potty."

Mr. Lamb returned the man's pleading gaze with a cold, dead eye. Only one herring remained on the plate, and Mr. Lamb had his heart set on that. He was determined that the inebriate should not have it. Watching the gull closely, the man moved his hand slowly toward the last herring. Lamb allowed him to pick it up, then shot out his beak and tore it from his fingers.

"That settles it," said the man aloud, stepping hastily back from the buffet. "When stuffed birds begin to snatch food from customers' hands, I'm through."

He lifted up his voice and demanded the immediate presence of the proprietor. That worthy party, bearing a mug of beer, joined him.

"What's wrong here?" he asked good-naturedly. "Not enough food?"

Still clinging to the buffet the man pointed a none too steady finger at the gull.

"Is that a stuffed bird?" he demanded. "Because if it is it must have been stuffed alive."

"Why, damn my eyes," said the proprietor, looking intently at the gull. "It must be a stuffed bird, although I don't rightly remember this one."

He paused and thought for a moment, then his face cleared. His mind insisted on explaining the presence of that bird. Unconsciously his imagination helped him.

"I remember now," he said. "We had a sort of a blow-out last week, and one of the boys must have brought him in. That's it. That's just how it got here."

The other man looked at the proprietor with a pitying smile.

"Did you ever hear of a stuffed bird polishing off a plate of fish and fighting for the last one?"

"Did that bird do that?" asked the proprietor.

"That and more," declared the other. "The damn thing had the nerve to wink at me."

This last statement settled the proprietor's doubts. His customer was seeing things. That was all there was to it. He took the man by the arm and attempted to lead him away.

"Come on over," he said coaxingly. "I'll stand the drinks. After that you'd better go home."

This irritated the other considerably. He reached up and, seizing the gull by the feet, carried him to the bar. Mr. Lamb stiffened his body and awaited developments. He caught an inverted view of a cuspidor and a floor covered with sawdust before he was roughly hauled aloft.

"Gentlemen, I ask you," cried the stout man. "Is that a stuffed bird?"

Mr. Lamb had passed from hand to hand along the bar. He was minutely examined. His feathers were parted and skin inspected. In the course of his journey up and down the bar his head was dangled conveniently over several glasses of beer from which he drank with avidity, the herring having made him thirsty.

"Of course it's a stuffed bird," one of the men said at last. "What do you think it is? No live bird would let himself be handled like this without putting up a hell of a squawk."

"Jim's right," put in another voice. "Sure it's a stuffed bird."

"What do you mean, stuffed?" asked a sceptical individual. "Look at the bird's skin. It's altogether too fresh to be stuffed."

Lamb's skin was again examined, and prodding fingers were thrust into various parts of his body. The wear and tear was beginning to tell on him.

"This is no go," he said to himself. "Those drunkards will make a wreck out of me."

"Well, put him down and let's have a drink on it," a reasonable voice suggested. "What do we care whether he's stuffed or unstuffed? It's all the same to me."

Lamb was placed at the end of the bar and allowed to get his breath. The gentlemen returned to their drinking.

"I earned that luncheon," he said to himself, thirstily watching the glasses. "I'd better be shoving off now before they're at me again."

He kept his eye fixed on the original cause of the investigation and, when that tippler's head was tilted back, leaped upon it and fastened his claws in the thick hair. Flapping his wings violently, Lamb strained his throat in a piercing cry and pulled with all his might. The man's cry was as piercing as the bird's. He staggered across the room and crashed to the sawdust, leaving in Mr. Lamb's claws several tufts of hair. Thoroughly interested now, Mr. Lamb swept down the bar, overturning glasses in his flight. Most of the investigation committee had taken refuge behind chairs and tables. With a final scream of triumph Lamb circled the room and made his exit through a conveniently open window.

"What did I say?" demanded the prostrate man in an injured voice. "I told you it wasn't a stuffed bird."

"Well, what in hell was it?" someone asked. "It wasn't a regular seagull. No normal bird has sense enough to act stuffed."

"I'm glad we all saw it," said a third, "or I'd be feeling awful now."

The gentlemen emerged from their various places of shelter, and returning to the bar, looked up at the owl suspiciously.

Lamb, dropping the hair in some innocent bystander's face, flew out over the harbour and settled himself on a wave. Here he was presently joined by a venerable-looking seagull who, without any form of salutation, plopped himself down beside him. Lamb regarded him respectfully as a gull much older than himself.

"How do you do," offered Lamb.

"What?" almost snarled the ancient.

"What?" repeated Lamb blankly.

"Yes," scolded the other. "How do I do what?"

"Oh, nothing!" replied Lamb. "I was just saying 'Hello.'"

"You weren't saying 'Hello,'" the old gull snapped. "If you'd said 'Hello,' I'd have heard 'Hello.' You asked me how I done. Don't think I'm deaf."

"Did," corrected Mr. Lamb.

"See!" cried the gull. "You're wrong again. I always use done."

"Then you always say it wrong," said Lamb, his irritation getting the better of him. "You're an insufferable old fool, and you don't know you're alive."

"There you go," retorted the other. "You're always wrong. If I wasn't alive I wouldn't be here."

"And I wouldn't miss you," replied Lamb.

"The sea is large," the old gull suggested. "Why don't you hop off?"

"I was here first," said Lamb.

"I'm always first wherever I am," his disagreeable companion announced. "And, besides, you've drifted half a mile since you lit on the water, so you're not the first because you're not there any longer, and I—"

"Oh, for God's sake," interrupted Lamb, "you win. Have it your own way."

"Of course I win," said the gull complacently. "I always win. I can argue you down on anything. Say something and I'll bet you're wrong."

Mr. Lamb made no reply. He abandoned the conversation as hopeless. Besides, he did not care for the old gull's rasping voice. The sea was rough at this spot, and Lamb was beginning to feel far from well. The choppy motion of the waves was seriously disturbing the herring. He looked over to see how his companion was standing it. The old bird was stolidly bobbing up and down apparently lost in some exasperating line of thought.

"Do you ever get seasick?" Mr. Lamb ventured.

The gull looked up irascibly.

"Put it properly," he rasped. "If you mean, do I ever get sick from or because of the sea, my answer is no, certainly not. On the other hand, if you are trying to ask, do I ever get sick of the sea, then that's altogether different."

He paused and looked broodingly at the sky.

"I'm fed up with the sea," he continued. "I'd like to retire and settle down. Build a nice little nest somewhere—nothing elaborate, you understand—and take life easy. I've been following the sea all my life, and now I'm about through with it I'd like to pass my few remaining years on shore. It's a dog's life for a gull."

"Why don't you retire?" asked Mr. Lamb. He was almost sorry for the old bird.

"Got to get my living, gotten I?" snapped the other.

"Haven't I," Mr. Lamb suggested mildly.

The old gull made an unpleasantly sarcastic noise.

"You're starting in again, I see," he observed, with a hint of a threat in his voice. "I said 'gotten I,' and I mean 'gotten I.' No good trying to trip me up, you know."

Mr. Lamb once more relapsed into silence. There was nothing to be gained by arguing with this opinionated old bore. Time passed and the sun began to consider the Jersey hills. It had had a full day making the city sweat. Now it was time to close up shop. The old gull stirred and looked at Mr. Lamb.

"Want to go inshore and eat fertiliser?" he asked.

Mr. Lamb shuddered and clung to the herring.

"Thank you, no," he replied when he had a little mastered his nausea. "I've already dined."

"It's swell chow," said the old bird, "but suit yourself. More fertiliser for me. I love it."

He clapped his beak together with repulsive anticipation.

"Well, we'll probably run into each other sometime," he continued. " A big liner goes out to-morrow. Lots of first-class garbage. Probably see you with the mob. So long."

He rose from the water and streamed away inland. Lamb watched him out of sight.

"What an uncouth old devil," he mused.

That night when Sandra was undressing for bed she looked up from her garters and saw a large gull sitting on her window-sill.

"You low-down old loafer," she said, deliberately pulling down the shade. "And I was actually feeling sorry for you."

A loud, ribald squawk clattered in the air, but when she went to the window the gull was gone. She sat for a long time that night looking into the darkness.

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