The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FOUR

GROOMER’S HOUSE

Chapter 27

 

      Every hair, every drop of blood, every louse on my skin—all of me—wanted to follow Bandy and run blindly among the apple trees until I knocked myself senseless against a protruding rock. A stupor would have been welcome, anything to get away from that cascading mob.

          “Stand with me, Daks!” Mish-Shka snapped, sensing my panic. “As long as we’re in here, they’ll have to come at us one after one.”

          I wasn’t nearly comforted. Mish-Shka can’t fight in a place where he can’t stand erect I thought. And there are two openings. Do I have to defend the other one?

          They were flooding down the banks of the ditch too quickly for much more thinking, but there was time enough to isolate the source of my fear. It wasn’t the soprano Oggs. They could only nip at me, head to head, and Mish-Shka could step on them as they came. Even the terriers and hounds weren’t the primary threat. It was the owner of that low grumble, that voice that rolled across the orchard like curses from an angry mountain. Whatever made that sound, that was the source of my fear.

          “Stand with me, Daks,” Mish-Shka whispered. “If we must die, let’s not do it alone.”

          So much for that feeling I’d had earlier in the evening that everything was turning out fine.

* * *

          The first wave was the lippy little ones. The long-legged bird-Oggs actually reached the opening first, but it is their nature to locate the prey and wait. I didn’t know yet what these hounds were waiting for, but I expected it was that thunderclap bringing up the rear. The yippers were eager to get at it, eager to demonstrate that physical stature and bravery were not related. The first head into the opening was knocked back out so swiftly that I couldn’t be certain it was an Ogg. Its coat was long, it ran with a teetering bounce, and it spoke with a stutter. ” … TUH-TUH-TEACH YOU A LUH-LUH-LESSON … I’LL RUH-RIP YOUR GUH-GUH-GIZZARD LOOSE AH-AH-AND . . .”

          Mish-Shka, without even looking down to be sure his aim was true, brushed one foreleg across the other and the strident little thing was bowled over backwards, rolled out of the culvert like a furry ball. “YEE-YEE-YEE-YEEKS!” it said when he came to his feet. “HE’S A BUH-BUH-BIG ‘UN, CHUH-CHUMS!”

          Two more ratty creatures followed. (Listen to me. They were both smaller than I … but not by much.) The first stopped in his tracks, looked up into Mish-Shka’s underside, and muttered to himself. “Big ‘un? Greem ‘o’ mighty, I’ll say.” The other one raced straight through Mish-Shka’s legs as though he didn’t even see the giant. This fellow had his greedy eyes on me and I braced myself for a collision. But as he passed under Mish-Shka’s chest, the wolfhound arched his neck and took the wiry tail. He flipped his head and the yipper went sailing back out of the culvert, squeaking like a forced fart. The other, the one with the discerning sense of proportion, backed out, mumbling something about returning with a bigger brother.

          The horde without paused while the three yippers discussed the problems they had encountered within. They were all talking at once. ” … BUH-BUH-BUH-BIGGER THAN BUH-BUH-BILLY, HE IS . . .”

          “AN’ HE’S GOT TWO HEADS … I SWEAR TO YA’. THE OTHER ONE IS DOWN ON THE END OF HIS TAIL.”

          “Greem ‘o’ mighty … he’s really … really … reeeeel-leeee big!”

          A voice thick with conviction said, “Big doesn’t matter. It’s what’s right that matters, and stealing Groomer’s chickens isn’t right! I’ll get him out o’ there.” A form flashed into the opening and I saw spots, blurred spots, as Mish-Shka was set upon. This new attacker was no lap-lying Ogg. He was not nearly as big as my friend, but he was strong, judging by the way Mish-Shka was knocked into the mossy sides of the tunnel. And he was quick. Mish-Shka recovered from the blow to his wounded shoulder only to find himself besieged from the other side as the spotted stranger tore at his snout. There was nothing I could do. Mish-Shka was scrambling, all flailing legs, to meet this onslaught, and I could see only shreds of the action. The snarling and snapping of teeth reverberated in the steel culvert like porcelain birds bouncing off glass walls.

          In the low confines of the tunnel, Mish-Shka could not employ his most effective battle technique. How many times had I seen it, Mish-Shka rising up like a mighty flower unfolding, then dropping, enveloping his opponent with fangs and fury? But in this place, his height was no advantage, and his age was a decided disadvantage. He tried to stoop and go in low, but his stiff, old legs would not cooperate. He was being pushed backwards, and I was being pushed with him. The back opening of the culvert was looming, and to make matters worse, I saw the figures of at least two more large Oggs there, silhouetted against the sky. I faced them. “KEEP YOUR DISTANCE … I MEAN IT … FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY!”

          They didn’t seem to be impressed. The biggest shadow, an Ayurd’O’Dell male, screamed back with bitter words. “BLAST YOUR THREATS, THIEF! YOU CAN NOT TAKE GROOMER’S CHICKENS!” He went directly at Mish-Shka’s flank, not bothering with me even a bit, except to kick my face as he came. I was slammed into my friend’s hind legs and trampled by both Mish-Shka and the Ayurd’O’Dell. It had never occurred to me before that moment that I might meet my end by being crushed into the toe pads of fellow Oggs.

          Whatever Mish-Shka did next saved his hide, and mine. Somehow, his jaws found purchase in a foreleg and the spotted Ogg screamed. I would have thought it impossible, but Mish-Shka twisted his head, snapping the bird-Ogg’s leg as easily as a trout’s spine, and spun, his butt tucked down and his neck contorted so that it almost lay against his body. I’ve seen swans do it—lay their head under a wing—but I never would have believed an ancient, arthritic hound could have done it. It was the only way he could have turned in that artificial tunnel. The bird-Ogg stumbled backwards and tripped.

          When Mish-Shka came around, his head was low, so low he brushed my ribs with his nose. He came up under the Ayurd’O’Dell like a snake striking, taking the terrier’s entire breast plate in his jaws. I was so close, so entwined in the action, that I could lick the spittle from Mish-Shka’s jowls as he ripped the heart from this enemy …

          … had he indeed ripped the heart from this enemy.

          He didn’t. The threat alone was sufficient to petrify the Ayurd’O’Dell. The spotted Ogg struggled to rise, but his ruined leg would not support him. He went down and whimpered. A heavy truce settled in. Mish-Shka could have crushed the terrier’s chest in the time it takes a drop of dew to fall from a dandelion flower, and the terrier knew it. He would not move, and Mish-Shka could not speak without loosing his deadly hold. Clearly, I was left with the job of speaking.

          “Back away, you. Just back away, and you might live to see your puppers have puppers.”

          The Ayurd’O’Dell shook his head and Mish-Shka tightened his jaws in response. The terrier winced. Outside, the Ogg posse yowled out a constant chorus of threats and camaraderie, but under this dank roof, it was oppressive and still. “We meant no harm,” I said. “Please. Leave us alone and we’ll go away. Just don’t bother us anymore.”

          Slowly, with intense thought behind every word, the Ayurd’O’Dell forced a reply. “You killed Groomer’s chickens. You can’t keep coming here to kill Groomer’s chickens.”

          I squinted to see through Mish-Shka’s legs. The bird Ogg was lying on his side, blocking the entrance and panting out shocked breaths. Beyond him, another silhouette moved into the opening. I thought at first it must have been two, maybe even three Oggs, melded together so that they blocked the sky. “We’ve never been here before, Mister. Bandy … our friend … he went for chickens because we’re hungry. Really hungry. But we didn’t mean anything. And we’ve never been here before.”

          “WHY LIE?” the terrier bellowed. For sheer stubbornness, Ayurd’O’Dells are un-matched. “Thieves! That’s what you are! You killed Groomer’s chickens last night, and you killed them tonight. You are thieves and liars.”

           Anger filled me. “I am not a liar, and neither is Mish-Shka. You don’t know who you’re calling a liar, you … you … you want to know who’s about to rip your insulting heart out? He might steal a dinner, but Mish-Shka never lied to anyone. Ask anyone if they’ve heard of Gray Mish-Shka.”

          “Yes, Alexander. The stranger is right. The Mish-Shka I knew would never lie.” The depths had turned to words. The great basso filled the culvert. Mish-Shka released the Ayurd’O’Dell and rose so quickly his head struck the tunnel roof. “Be careful, old stinker,” said that rumble of a voice. “After living this long, you don’t want to bash your head open in a hole like this.”

          Mish-Shka was stricken dumb. His mouth, and his mouth alone, moved, but only one whispered word came.

          “Bee-Hee-Mouth!”

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