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Among the Night People by  Clara Dillingham Pierson


 

 

[Illustration]

THE KITTENS COME TO THE FOREST

[160] ONE day the three big Kittens who lived with their mother in the farmer's barn had a dreadful quarrel. If their mother had been with them, she would probably have cuffed each with her fore paw and scolded them soundly. She was not with them because she had four little new Kittens lying beside her in the hay-loft over the stalls.

You would think that the older Kittens must have been very proud of their baby brothers and sisters, yet they were not. They might have done kind little things for their mother, but they didn't. They just hunted food for themselves and never took a mouthful of it to her. And this [161] does not prove that they were bad Kittens. It just shows that they were young and thoughtless.

The Brown Kitten, the one whose fur was black and yellow mixed so finely as to look brown, had climbed the barn stairs to see them. When he reached their corner he sat down and growled at them. His mother said nothing at first, but when he went so far as to switch his tail in a threatening way, she left her new babies and sprang at him and told him not to show his whiskers upstairs again until he could behave properly.

His sisters, the Yellow Kitten and the White Kitten, stayed downstairs. They didn't dislike babies so much as their brother. They just didn't care anything about them. Cats never care much about Kittens, you know, unless they are their own, and big brothers always say that they can't bear them.

Now these three older Kittens were [162] perfectly able to care for themselves. It was a long time since their mother stopped feeding them, and they were already excellent hunters. They had practiced crouching, crawling, and springing before they left the hay-loft. Sometimes they hunted wisps of hay that moved when the wind blew in through the open door. Sometimes they pounced on each other, and sometimes they hunted the Grasshoppers who got brought in with the hay. It was when they were doing this once that they were so badly scared, but that is a story which has already been told.

There was no reason why they should feel neglected or worry about getting enough to eat. If one of them had poor luck in hunting, all he had to do was to hang around the barn when the Cows were brought up, and go into the house with the man when he carried the great pails full of foamy milk. Then if the Kit- [163] tens acted hungry, mewed very loudly, and rubbed up lovingly against the farmer's wife they were sure to get a good dishful of warm milk.

You can see how unreasonable they were. They had plenty to eat, and their mother loved them just as much as ever, but they felt hurt and sulked around in corners, and answered each other quite rudely, and would not run after a string which the farmer's little girl dangled before them. They were not cross all the time, because they had been up the whole night and had to sleep. They stopped being cross when they fell asleep and began again as soon as they awakened. The Hens who were feeding around became so used to it that as soon as they saw a Kitten twist and squirm, and act like awakening, they put their heads down and ran away as fast as they could.

They did not even keep themselves clean. Oh, they licked themselves over [164] two or three times during the day, but not thoroughly. The Yellow Kitten did not once try to catch her tail and scrub it, and actually wore an unwashed tail all day. It didn't show very plainly because it was yellow, but that made it no cleaner. The White Kitten went around with her fore paws looking really disgraceful. The Brown Kitten scrubbed his ears in a sort of half-hearted way, and paid no attention to the place under his chin. When he did his ears, he gave his paw one lick and his ear one rub, and repeated this only six times. Everybody knows that a truly tidy Cat wets his paw with two licks, cleans his ear with two rubs, and does this over and over from twenty to forty times before he begins on the other ear.

Toward night they quarreled over a dishful of milk which the farmer's wife gave them. There was plenty of room for them all to put their heads into the dish at once and lap until each had his [165] share. If it had not been for their whiskers, there would have been no trouble. These hit, and each told the others to step back and wait. Nobody did, and there was such a fuss that the farmer's wife took the dish away and none of them had any more. They began to blame each other and talk so loudly that the man drove them all away as fast as they could scamper.

Now that they were separated, each began to grow more and more discontented. The Brown Kitten had crawled under the carriage house, and as soon as it was really dark he stole off to the forest.

"My mother has more Kittens," he said, "and my sisters get my whiskers all out of shape, and I'll go away and never come back. I won't say good-bye to them either. I guess they'll feel badly then and wish they'd been nicer to me! If they ever find me and want me to come back, I won't go. Not if they beg and [166] beg! I'll just turn my tail toward them and walk away."

The Brown Kitten knew that Cats sometimes went to live in the woods and got along very well. He was not acquainted with one who had done this; his mother had told him and his sisters stories of Cats who chose to live so. She said that was one thing which showed how much more clever they were than Dogs. Dogs, you know, cannot live happily away from men, although there may be the best of hunting around them.

"I will find a good hollow tree," said he, "for my home, and I will sleep there all day and hunt at night. I will eat so much that I shall grow large and strong. Then, when I go out to hunt, the forest people will say, 'Sh! Here comes the Brown Cat.' "

As he thought this he was running softly along the country road toward the forest. Once in a while he stopped to [167] listen, and stood with his head raised and turned and one fore foot in the air. He kept his ears pointed forward all the time so as to hear better.

When he passed the marsh he saw the Fireflies dancing in the air. Sometimes they flew so low that a Kitten might catch them. He thought he would try, so he crawled through the fence and toward the place where they were dancing. He passed two tired ones sitting on a leaf and never saw them. That was because their wings covered their sides so well that no light shone past, and their bright bellies were close to the leaf. He had almost reached the dancers when he found his paws getting wet and muddy. That made him turn back at once, for mud was something he couldn't stand. "I wish I had something to eat," he said, as he took a bite of catnip. "This is very good for a relish, but not for a whole meal."

He trotted on toward the forest, [168] thinking about milk and Fireflies and several other things, when he was stopped by some great winged person flying down toward him and then sweeping upward and alighting on a branch. The Brown Kitten drew back stiffly and said, "Ha-a-ah!"

"Who? Who? To who?" asked the person on the branch.

The Brown Kitten answered, "It is I." But the question came again: "Who? Who? To who?"

That made the Brown Kitten remember that, since his voice was not known in the forest, nobody could tell anything by his answer. This time he replied: "I am the Brown Kitten, if you please, and I have come to live in the forest."

"Who? Who? To who?" was the next question, and the Brown Kitten thought he was asked to whose home he was going.

"I am not going to anybody," he said. [169] "I just wanted to come, and left my old home suddenly. I shall live alone and have a good time. I didn't even tell my mother."

"Who? Who? To who?" said the Great Horned Owl, for it was he.

"My m-mother," said the Brown Kitten, and then he ran away as fast as he could. He had seen the Owl more clearly as he spoke, and the Owl's face reminded him a little of his mother and made him want to see her. He ran so fast that he almost bumped into the Skunk, who was taking a dignified stroll through the forest and sniffing at nearly everything he saw. It was very lucky, you know, that he did not quite run into the Skunk, for Skunks do not like to be run into, and, if he had done so, other people would soon have been sniffing at him.

The Brown Kitten thought that the Skunk might be related to him. They [170] were about the same size, and the Brown Kitten had been told that his relatives were not only different colors, but different shapes. His mother had told of seeing some Manx Kittens who had no tails at all, and he thought that the Skunk's elegant long-haired one needn't prevent his being a Cat.

"Good evening," said the Brown Kitten. "Would you mind telling me if you are a Cat?"

"Cat? No!" growled the Skunk. "They sometimes call me a Wood-Kitty, but they have no right to. I am a Skunk, Skunk, SKUNK, and I am related to the Weasels. Step out of my path."

A family of young Raccoons in a tree called down teasingly to him to come up, but after he had started they told him to go down, and then laughed at him because he had to go tail first. He did not know that forest climbers turn the toes of their hind feet backward and [171] scamper down head first. Still, it would have made no difference if he had known, for his toes wouldn't turn.

He found something to eat now and then, and he looked for a hollow tree. He found only one, and that was a Bee tree, so he couldn't use it. All around him the most beautiful mushrooms were pushing up from the ground. White, yellow, orange, red, and brown they were, and looked so plump and fair that he wanted to bite them. He knew, however, that some of them were very poisonous, so he didn't even lick them with his eager, rough little pink tongue. He was just losing his Kitten teeth, and his new Cat teeth were growing, and they made him want to bite almost everything he saw. One kind of mushroom, which he thought the prettiest of all, grew only on the trunks of fallen beech trees. It was white, and had a great many little branches, all very close together.

[172] Most of the plants he saw were sound asleep. Every plant has to sleep, you know, and most of them take a long nap at night. Some of them, like the water-lilies, also sleep on cloudy days. He was very fond of the clovers, but they had their leaflets folded tight, and only the mushrooms, the evening primroses, and a few others were wide awake. Everybody whom he met was a stranger, and he began to feel very lonely. Cats do not usually mind being alone. Indeed, they rather like it; still, you can see how hard it would be for a Kitten who had always been loved and cared for to find himself alone in a dark forest, where great birds ask the same questions over and over, and other people make fun of him. You wouldn't like it yourself, if you were a Kitten.

At last, when he was prowling along an old forest road and hoping to meet a tender young Wood-Mouse, he saw a [173] couple of light-colored animals ahead of him. They looked to him very much like Kittens, but he remembered how the Skunk had snubbed him when taken for a Cat, and he kept still. He ran to overtake them and see more clearly, and just as he reached them they all came to a turn in the road.

Before he could speak or they could notice that he was there, the wind roared through the branches above, and just ahead two terrible great eyes glared at them out of an old log. They all stopped with their back-fur bristling and their tails arched stiffly. Not a sound did one of them make. They lifted first one foot and then another and backed slowly and silently away. When they had gone far enough, they turned quickly and ran down the old road as fast as their twelve feet could carry them. They never stopped until they were in the road for home and could look back in the [174] starlight and be sure that nobody was following them. Then they stared at each other—the Yellow Kitten, the White Kitten, and the Brown Kitten.

"Did you run away to live in the forest?" asked the sisters.

"Did you?" asked the Brown Kitten.

"You'll never tell?" said they.

"Never!" said he.

"Well then, we did run away, and met each other just before you came. We meant to live in the forest."

"So did I," said he. "And I couldn't find any hollow tree."

"Did you meet that dreadful bird?" said they,—"the one who never hears your answers and keeps asking you over and over?"

"Yes," said he. "Don't you ever tell!"

"Ha-ha!" screamed a laughing little Screech-Owl, who had seen what had happened in the old forest road and flapped along noiselessly behind them. [175] "Three big Kittens afraid of fox-fire! O-ho! O-ho!"

Now all of them had heard about fox-fire and knew it was the light which shines from some kinds of rotten wood in the dark, but they held up their heads and answered, "We're not afraid of fox-fire."

"Ha-ha!" screamed the Screech-Owl again. "Thought you saw big eyes glaring at you. Only fox-fire. Dare you to come back if you are not afraid."

"We don't want to go back," answered the Brown Kitten. "We haven't time."

"Ha-ha!" screamed the Screech-Owl again. "Haven't time! Where are you going?"

"Going home, of course," answered the Brown Kitten. And then he whispered to his sisters, "Let's!"

"All right," said they, and they raced down the road as fast as they could go. To this day their mother does not know that they ever ran away from home.

But it was only fox-fire.


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