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The Stray Lamb
ABOVE THE BATTLE
SANDRA looked up from her drum.
"It's a shame we haven't a camera," she observed. It was.
Mr. Lamb was lying majestically beside an uprooted tree. Its reaching branches still drew vital sap that nourished fresh green leaves. The tawny coat of the lion was splashed with pointed shadows. They shifted over the great, still body as small, inquisitive breezes searched through the arms of the fallen tree.
Round the tip of the lion's tail was bound a once dainty but now bedraggled brassiere. Undoubtedly it had once been becoming to its wearer. Despite this fact it failed to add to the dignity of the lion. Sandra had insisted on sacrificing this restraining influence for the protection of the bullet-chipped tail.
The silence of the forest was unbroken save by the sporadic throbbing of the drum upon which Sandra practised when the spirit moved her. The sound of the drum lent a barbaric note to this already sufficiently fantastic woodland scene.
Through a rift in the trees a green world unrolled far below them. The slanting sun sent a flood of gold along the path of a winding river. There were farm-houses down there, pasture lands and meadows. The quiet of evening seemed to have fallen over forest, field, and farm. From where they were sitting they looked the clouds in the face. Caught in the rays of the setting sun they fell burning down the sky.
Mr. Long was wandering leggily about in his drawers. Sandra and Hebe, from half to two-thirds naked themselves, were sitting cross-legged on the ground and endeavouring to make up for their lack of raiment by fashioning garlands of wild flowers for their hair. Sandra had promised the lion one for himself, but the lion, without troubling to move his massive head merely rolled his large, disapproving eyes in her direction, then returned to the contemplation of the gold and green world in which he found himself.
All had been well rained upon. A heavy shower had wet them to the skin. Garments both dainty and ludicrous were decorating the limbs of neighbouring trees.
"I find it fresh as the deuce," complained Melville Long, shivering convincingly in his drawers.
Sandra laid aside her garland and, picking up her drumsticks, made an enthusiastic noise.
The beating of the drum throbbed weirdly through the silence of the forest. From afar a wandering naturalist heard the broken rhythm and pictured again in his mind's eye a certain clearing in a jungle on a distant tropic isle.
"Strange sound to hear in this part of the world," he thought aloud, as he put some utterly useless-looking stones into his pack and resumed his way.
Back on the mountain top Hebe was asking questions.
"What becomes of the major's clothes when he turns into things?" she demanded.
The lion looked interested. This subject touched him vitally.
"What becomes of all of him?" asked Sandra. "His clothes must go the way of all flesh."
"No," said Hebe. "His arms and legs and things turn into the corresponding parts of the animal he's exploiting at the moment, but it's different with his clothes. They have to go somewhere, because they always come back."
Sandra puzzled over this problem a few minutes, then her face brightened.
"I know what becomes of his clothes," she announced. "They naturally turn into fur, feathers, or scales as the case may be."
"But there's his skin to be considered," replied Hebe.
Mr. Lamb did not entirely approve of the drift of the conversation. To him it seemed hardly proper that these two young ladies should sit there as if he were not present, and dispassionately consider his skin and the various parts of his body. He gave a low cough of protest, but the girls continued.
"His skin remains his skin," Sandra explained. "Sometimes stretched, at others shrunken. His clothes merely form the decoration."
"Well, I wish to God I could get my hand in the pockets of his trousers right now," Melville Long put in earnestly.
His wish was fathered by the realisation that the money in his own trousers pockets was running low. Only an emergency fund remained, a small one.
To obtain food and supplies they had been forced to resort to rather high-handed methods. These methods had been as simple as they were successful. Mr. Lamb had merely presented himself at the local country store in the little village at the base of the mountain. He did not have long to wait. Everybody went away just as soon as they could and stayed away. Sandra then appeared with a list prepared by the efficient Hebe, and, with this list before her, deliberately selected the articles desired.
The drum had not been among the items on the slip of paper. The drum had been left behind by a member of the local band. Its existence had completely slipped his memory in the press of departure. One of Sandra's many suppressed desires had always been the mastery of the drum, so seeing one conveniently at hand she made it her own. Some day, she promised herself, she would also take up the fife. One thing at a time. Beating the drum very badly indeed, but with great contentment, she had preceded the lion through the village and up the mountain-side. The lion had carried the bundle of provisions. Through the slits in their blinds the village's entire population had reviewed this incredible procession with bewitched eyes, and prayed quite fundamentally to their variously conceived God. Needless to say both the lion and the lady were slightly drunk—not much, but just enough to make them believe they were convulsingly amusing.
For five days now they had been, as it were, on location. Having found the sea-coast inhospitable they had gone to the other extreme and taken to the mountains. Through the uncanny driving of Mr. Long and the presence of Mr. Lamb they had eluded the state troopers, but not entirely escaped their memory. The automobile had been left concealed at the base of the mountain, but already, unknown to its owners, it had been discovered and reported. Several intrepid troopers had reconnoitred the position of the fugitives, and certain plans were at this moment well under way.
All these developments would have been highly disturbing to the lion and his three companions, happy as they were in their false security, had they, but been aware of them.
That night they finished the last bottle of whisky and ingeniously hid the remaining case of gin in a hollow tree. Mr. Long was now taking no chances. He had agreed to get them alive out of the mess into which he had plunged them. No less than the sun-tanned hand of Hebe depended upon the success of his endeavours.
The lion placed his head on the fallen tree and stretched his massive limbs. A whistling sigh escaped his lips. Sandra, trailing an automobile robe, crept close to him and rested her head on a soft spot just back of his left foreleg. From within the body of the lion came the strong, steady beat of his great heart. The sound of it gave the girl a feeling of confidence and safety. Once she tickled his ribs, and the lion, raising his head from the leaves, gently but firmly nipped the ear that had been the cause of so much trouble. Sandra gave a little scream and draped her arms round the lion's neck.
On the other side of the embers Hebe vainly attempted to interest Mr. Long in her plans. Mr. Long strove manfully to listen to the prattling girl, but sleep was among those things that he held most sacred. The last thing he remembered was a long string of unpleasant names that Hebe was muttering monotonously in his ear. The sound of her voice helped to lull him off to sleep.
In the darkness of the forest one of the lion's large yellow eyes shone brightly as if it were reflecting the beams from a sharply chiselled star hanging directly overhead above the trees. Silence . . . only the voice of Sandra singing softly to the lion.
"Hebe," she whispered suddenly. "How's this: The lion and the lamb lie down together—actually in one."
"A little too pat to be funny," replied Hebe. "Tell that great hulk of an animal good-night for me. My little prize package has gore bye-bye."
"So has mine," said Sandra, and presently she emulated his example.
According to his custom, Mr. Lamb arose at dawn next morning and took a stroll through the forest. He knew of a certain mountain stream in which he could partially submerge his body. It was a refreshing thing to do in the quiet of the morning. He would lie there and listen to the birds and allow an old squirrel to examine him from a safe distance. Each morning the distance had decreased. To-day the old fellow was almost familiar.
Mr. Lamb lay quite still and let the water swirl and chuckle about his haunches. No trains to catch. No bonds to sell. No orderly rows of houses. No meaningless words to say. Not even the sound of a motor-car or the smell of petrol. Lamb's nerves were resting, taking on a protective coating of fat. He realised now that his life with Sapho had never been restful. There had always been a debilitating undercurrent of irritation. No room for laughter and heedless relaxation. No delirious unleashing of passion. No companionship in sleep. Like so many secretively immoral women, she had hidden her true nature behind a screen of diffidence and niceness. With her one could never be vulgarly natural any more than one could be self-forgetfully passionate. She was bad without knowing how to be bad. Life had entered her only a little way. It had never really settled in her body nor given animation to her brain. He himself had been only half alive. He had accepted things altogether too easily, and too consistently avoided trouble. Perhaps if he had been different Sapho would have been different. However, he knew for certain that he never could have brought himself to mingle with the Woodbine Players or to talk symbolically about sex as if he were actually feeling it with his hands. The thought of sex brought Sandra to his mind. There was a woman—sex with lightness and laughter and with other skylights of interest to let the sunshine through.
Thinking of this beautiful, bare-armed young sinner, the lion rose so abruptly that he startled the squirrel into a frenzy of precautionary measures. It was high time the camp awoke. Shaking the glinting beads of water from his flanks he passed with the consciousness of nobility and power between the trees.
The camp was empty—deserted. No clothing hung from the limbs of the trees. Even the automobile robes were gone. With growing suspicion and alarm the lion nosed about the place. The world, which had been so cheerfully ordered only a few minutes ago, was now a wilderness of vast discontent. Then his eyes fell on a note pinned to a tree. It had been scrawled hastily and was signed by Hebe. Mr. Lamb read:
Surprised and captured. The big stiffs are taking us to Brookford to visit the judge. Rescue suggested. They have no evidence, the crooks! . . . Curses. Hebe.
Then the lion descended from the mountain. As he crashed through the trees and sprang to the road he was a sight to inspire terror in the hardiest of souls. An automobile passing casually by stopped within a foot of the lion, then started again and went into reverse. Mr. Lamb did not even notice the car. Hebe had suggested rescue, and he fully intended to act on her suggestion. Was he not the monarch of all he surveyed? Or was that title a mere piece of flattery? He would soon find out. With powerful strides he disappeared down the road to Brookford, some five miles distant.
A lion is seldom crowded, that is, a lion on the loose. Round him one usually finds a considerable quantity of unoccupied territory. As Mr. Lamb passed down the main street of Brookford no one got in his way. What traffic there was withdrew to the pavements or turned into side streets. An earnest gentleman drove his car clean through the front window of a furniture store, where he partially concealed himself beneath the ruins of a completely demolished bed. A horse harnessed to a farm wagon was found later in the wagon itself, and had to be driven home by a more courageous steed.
Utterly ignoring the small furore he was occasioning, Mr. Lamb padded down the street and entered the court-house, in front of which he recognised his parked automobile. Behind his ponderous desk the judge was having a hard time establishing a case against the youthful prisoners. He was rapidly losing heart. No liquor had been found in the car or at the camp, no liquor had ever been delivered or actually seen. On a charge of bootlegging he could find no plausible grounds for holding them for general sessions. He was beginning to dislike state troopers as heartily as those they had captured and dragged to court without a scrap of evidence. For the twentieth time the judge was trying to discover what had become of the liquor.
"Now, miss," he was saying, "what did you say your name was?"
"Doon," replied Hebe promptly, "Lorna Doon."
"Well, Miss Doon," continued the judge—who officially was not a judge at all but merely a recorder and not as au courant as he might have been—"your face looks honest enough. Why don't you help us out and tell us what you did with the liquor?"
"Why should I help you out to help us in?" asked Hebe with her sweetest smile.
The judge looked annoyed and shifted his discouraged eyes to Sandra.
"Will you make a clean breast of it?" he demanded.
"Why, your honour," said Sandra, dropping her eyes. "What a thing to ask!"
"What do you mean?" asked the judge uneasily. "I wouldn't like to say," the girl replied.
"Do you know what you did with the liquor?" repeated the judge, his face growing gradually red as he gazed into Sandra's eyes, now alarmingly raised to his.
"In view of the fact that we drank the liquor, your honour, your question seems rather indelicate," the modest young lady replied.
At this moment a deep growl sounded in the rear of the court-room. This growl was followed by a general and concentrated drive on the windows on the part of every single spectator present. The judge was about to rap for order when he stopped, with gavel poised in mid-air, as he found himself gazing into the open mouth of an enraged lion. Never had he seen such a furious animal, and never had he felt less like seeing one. Abandoning his prisoners to the lion and the mercy of God, he withdrew with his attendants to his chambers.
The lion and his grateful companions wandered round the deserted court-room for a few minutes, then emerged from the building into the equally deserted street. Leisurely climbing into the automobile, they drove off unmolested. Nor were they molested throughout the remainder of their journey back to their original point of departure, the Lamb residence—a place which its owner had come to fear he might never see again.
"Pardon our lion, Thomas," said Hebe breezily, as the aged servant hurried out to meet them. "He's not a bad sort at all if you like lions."
"Never had much of a chance to get acquainted," replied Thomas. "Is there anything I can do for this one, Miss Hebe?"
"Yes," said Hebe. "Give the poor creature all the meat you can find, either alive or dead in the kitchen. He's been eating beans for the last five days, and he might start in on us if we don't do something about it."
Thomas hurried away, and Mr. Lamb went to show himself to the turtle, who as usual was not impressed.
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