The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART FOUR

GROOMER’S HOUSE

Chapter 28

         “Come on out, old chum. Let’s see what you’ve done with yourself over the years.”

        In deference to the giant outside, the wiry Ayurd’O’Dell backed away and the rest of the mob moved from view. Mish-Shka was perplexed beyond action. Over and over, he put out a foot as though to move, but then pulled it back, not sure if movement was the proper choice. At that moment, he seemed especially old, almost feeble.

        “We have much to talk over, Mish-Shka, and I have a warmer place than this dank hole. Isn’t the damp bad for your bones?”

        Mish-Shka’s whisper was as dry as rust. “Bee-Hee-Mouth, is that really you? Can this be?”

        The monster laughed. “And Scrats say there is no such thing as destiny. Come out now, Meesh. Meet my family.” The huge shadow moved away from the opening, and I could see patchy clouds reflecting moonlight.

        Mish-Shka said in a hoarse rattle, just loud enough for me to hear, “This is magic, Daks. Magic! Either the fairest or the foulest, but it is magic. We have no choice.” He stood as tall as the culvert roof would allow and took a deep breath. “Stay near to me.”

        Oggs of every variety lined the banks of the ditch, sitting impatiently on their haunches. It was a tribe, that much was clear—maybe twelve, maybe fifteen, Oggs. There were also two Scrats—a big, fat one with yellow fur and one ear missing—and a scrawny striped Skritten whose bones jutted out like broken stems. The fat one looked directly into my eyes and yawned. The Skritten arched her knobbed back. She hissed and spat and made the most horrible Scrat threats.

        “Goonter, we have insulted our guests enough. Let them be.” Standing atop the bank was the biggest hunk of living flesh I had ever seen that didn’t have hooves on the ends of its legs. What Mish-Shka had said of him was true: Bee-Hee-Mouth was huge in every dimension, tall and wide and deep, and he was brighter than the moon, his coat was so purely white. “Please excuse Goonter, Mish-Shka. She joined us less than a week ago, and she has yet to learn proper courtesy.”

        “You allow Scrats in your tribe, Bee-Hee-Mouth?” said Mish-Shka. “You’re more tolerant than I.”

        “We could argue that point, dear Mish-Shka. I understand you travel with Rawl’Colmbs, and many would say that is carrying tolerance too far.”

        It must have been a variety of humor peculiar to gigantic Oggs. I heard nothing funny, but both of them erupted with rolling laughter. “Tolerance is all I have left, Bee-hee-Mouth,” said Mish-Shka. “But, I suppose I could have been left with less.”

        “It’s so good to see you again, Meesh. You’ve been in my dreams over the years.”

        “I have told my family of Bee-Hee-Mouth. You’ve been in the dreams of many.”

        The stuttering yipper was close to me. “Duh-don’t forguh-get th-th-they tuh-tuh-took Guh-Groomer’s chi-chi-kens, B-B-Buh-Billy. Wuh-we c-can’t forguh-get thuh-thuh-that.”

        From behind me, the Ayurd’O’Dell added. “Yuppa yuppa, Geep’s right. Just ’cause these are friends of yours, Billy, that don’t mean they ought to be takin’ chickens night after night.” The chorus of mismatched Oggs mumbled agreement and the brat Goonter clawed the air dangerously close to my nose.

        “Alexander … Geep, let me talk to Groomer. I’ll work this out. And you, Meesh, where is your Rawl’Colmb companion? What did he do with the chickens?”

        “We didn’t eat any chickens,” I blurted out. “We didn’t even see any chickens. And we weren’t here night after night.”

        Bee-Hee-Mouth smiled to me. A glob of drool the size of a red squirrel dangled from his jowls and dropped to the ground. “What’s your name, little brother?”

        “This is Daks,” offered Mish-Shka. “And don’t let looks deceive. He took on Kruk the Valk-Hund, and we’re here now because of it.”

        The assembly exhaled a low, collective whistle. Obviously, they had heard of Kruk. Geep the yipper actually laid down at my feet. Only Goonter, the fledgling Scrat, remained unimpressed. “Poop-pa, poop-pa,” she spat.

        “I know of Kruk,” said Bee-Hee-Mouth. He nodded his head and looked like a thoughtful bear. “It says much that you met him and lived.”

         Something was coming through the orchard with a great deal of shuffling and thrashing about. The whole tribe chattered at once. ” … over here, Groomer … we caught ’em this time. . . GROOMER, GROOMER … almost as big as Billy … broke Shelley’s leg … ain’t guh-guh-got no t-t-tail, G-G-Guh-Groomer . . .” The obese Scrat and a few of the smaller Oggs ran in the direction of the approaching sounds.

        Mish-Shka turned to Bee-Hee-Mouth. “This Groomer must be quite the Ogg, to lead any tribe you’re a member of. And why do they call you ‘Billy?’  ‘Bee-Hee-Mouth’ suits you fine.”

        “‘Billy’ is the name Groomer gave me. Actually, it started out as ‘William.’  But names tend to take the easiest path, have you noticed? Like water. So now it’s ‘Billy’. Come up and meet him, Mish-Shka. You too, Master Daks. Groomer’s been the best thing to ever happen to me.”

        Mish-Shka was at the white giant’s side in two steps. I scrambled along after. I didn’t want to meet this king, this “Groomer”, sitting alone in the bottom of a ditch. Mish-Shka said, “The best thing after Lah-Tsee, don’t you mean, Bee-Hee-Mouth? Or is that a thing of the past?”

        “I haven’t forgotten Lah-Tsee, my friend. In truth, I believe I have found her. And she’s not so far away.” He grinned, adding a hint of mockery to his enigmatic answer.

        Mish-Shka quivered, he was so filled with questions, but at that moment, a strange sight emerged from the apple trees. First came two more shaggy Scrats, kneading the ground with their forepaws and prancing with excitement, then a gray goose, waddling from side to side like a squashed ball. After the goose came an old Gher-Maine Sheep-Herd, older than Mish-Shka. He walked slowly with a lame foot that dragged in the wet grass. Groomer? I was so taken with the infirm Sheep-Herd’s ancient dignity, that I was late in noticing the leash around his neck and chest. A short leash. And on the other end, beating at the low branches with a straight stick, was a man …

        … two legs and all.

* * *

        “He hasn’t seen a thing in his entire life, Meesh. As blind as a rock, but he’s wise. As wise as a creature can be.”

        Mish-Shka was stupefied. “A human. A human? Bee-Hee-Mouth  lets himself be led by a man?”

        “Billy? Where’s Billy?” said the man. His voice croaked with the brittle crust of great age.

        “I’m here, Groomer.” Bee-Hee-Mouth’s tail wagged and he pranced, thumping the ground with his mammoth paws. “These are friends. Old, dear friends. I’m bringing them in for dinner.”

        “That’s all fine, Billy. Very fine, very fine.” Groomer’s hair was as white as Bee-Hee-Mouth’s and his shoulders sagged. He wore the bottoms of his trousers rolled, but they still were soaking wet from dragging through the dewy grasses. He spoke as if he were wrapped in a delightful dream. “A walk in the evening air has never harmed a body … not a soul.” Something beyond vision caught the man’s eye. He raised his head to the stars and began mumbling to himself. “A walk … no, no, a stroll. I believe a stroll is better. In the thick’ning night. Aaaah, much better, much better.”

        To the Sheep-Herd, who stood at the man’s side with an exhausted patience, Bee-Hee-Mouth said, “Take him home, Milton. The damp isn’t good for him.” He spoke loudly and firmly, enunciating each word with distressing tediousness. After winking to the goose in a conspiratorial way, he turned to Mish-Shka, “Poor old Milton. He’s been with Groomer even longer than I. He’s almost as blind as Groomer and nearly deaf.”

        “And he leads the man?” asked Mish-Shka, with a certain mischievousness that I felt bordered on being rude.

        “The man follows the Ogg … the Ogg follows the goose. It works, but it works slowly.”

        “How’s this, chums?” Groomer raised an arm to the sky in a grand gesture. He stood straight, and his spine bones croaked in protest. “How’s this? ‘A STROLL INTO THAT THICK’NING NIGHT, NOT A SOUL HAS HARMED …

        ONE LAST WALK O’ER FIELD AND FURROW,

        ONE LAST LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE FARMED.

        IT HELPS YOU SLEEP,

        IT HEALS YOUR PAIN,

        IT AIDS IN YOUR DIGESTION.

        A TWILIGHT SPENT ‘MONGST WHAT YOU’VE GROWN

        IS SPLENDID MEDICATION.'”

        He held his arm to the heavens for a few moments. The gathered tribe remained silent, respectful, as though they were waiting for more, until the man’s hand drifted theatrically to his side and his back once again took on a tired curve. “It needs work, doesn’t it?” he asked no one in particular, and Bee-Hee-Mouth nodded.

        The goose rolled back into the apple trees and Milton, with a cranky sigh, turned the man around and followed. “Ya’ mighta told me this was gonna be a gamdassit wasted trip afore I made it,” The Sheep-Herd said over his shoulder. Groomer clucked at him like a squirrel.

        Bee-Hee-Mouth laid down and squirmed in the cool grass. For being at least as old as Mish-Shka, he was remarkably spry and playful. “We might as well sit for a while, brothers. There’s no sense getting to the house before Groomer, and I’m not so old that I care to walk as slowly as he does.”

        Most of the tribe went with the blind man, forming an entourage that encircled him completely as he felt his way through the darkness. If he had fallen, he would have landed on one or the other fawning creature. And it’s a wonder he didn’t fall, tripped by a dawdling Scrat, a clumsy Ogg, a twaddle-butted goose … or a snake with legs. I’d swear that’s what I saw in the mottled moonglow. A fat and befurred snake, or something with legs shorter than my own, so short they almost didn’t exist. I started to ask Bee-Hee-Mouth about it, but decided to keep quiet, lest I seem foolish.

        The spotted Bird-Ogg with the broken leg limped away with them. He found support from a female Chee-Ow!, who would have been quite pretty if her nose weren’t so squinshed up. She put her shoulder next to his and whenever he faltered, she pushed against him and kept him from collapsing onto his smashed leg.

        Alexander the Ayurd’O’Dell stayed behind with us, as did the Skritten, Goonter. Alexander didn’t even pretend to trust Mish-Shka and me. He had someone else on his mind as well. Someone I had temporarily forgotten. “There’s a thievin’ Rawl’Colmb ’round here, and blamma-dazzit, I ain’t gonna sleep t’night ’till I get ‘im.”

        “Now, now, Alexander,” said Bee-Hee-Mouth. “The Rawl’Colmb is our guest, too. That is, if he ever comes out of the orchard. It’s a shame about Groomer’s chickens, but it was a misunderstanding, you see? Mish-Shka and Master Daks here would never have taken part in this business if they’d known about Groomer. You understand that, don’t you? Alexander? Don’t you?”

        “Wuhhhlll, yuppa … maybe. But I ain’t gonna sleep t’night till I get ‘im.” He spun around in his tracks three times, and was off, loping away in the opposite direction than the rest had taken.

        “You’ll have to excuse him, Mish-Shka. Alexander means only the best.”

        “Typical Ayurd’O’Dell,” grunted Mish-Shka.

        Goonter clawed my fanny, then sat on her own angular bottom and grinned at me while I considered whether, as a guest, it would be proper to snap her snotty head off.

* * *

        It had been a long and eventful journey, and while we lingered in the orchard, Mish-Shka told Bee-Hee-Mouth about most of it. What he didn’t include, I did. Mish-Shka related the more abstract parts to our story: the plight in which his tribe found themselves, the nobility and valor of Peter and Ah-Teena (with an occasional reference to me), the righteousness of our mission, and the elusiveness of our vision—the tender mercy of Lah-Tsee. I filled in the spicy parts, about rifle-toting farmers, red rubber balls, D’Buerre-Munn Pinzi assassins, Wolven brutes, drunken hunters, and most of all, Bandy’s part in our adventure. I was hoping to persuade Bee-Hee-Mouth that the raccoon was not only invaluable to Mish-Shka, but one of the grandest souls to ever tread the earth.

        “It’s true,” said Mish-Shka. “The Rawl’Colmb can be as irritating as a nettle in the eye, but he saved my life, he save Dak’s life, and he’s added a certain rakish quality to our travels. I would miss him.”

        From a distance, the Ayurd’O’Dell bellowed out curses and threats, indistinct, but still displaying enough frustration and rancor that I had no doubt he had found Bandy. ” … NO FAIR … NO FAIR! YER A SNEAK AND A BLAMDASSIT THIEF! COME OUT O’ THERE AN’ I’LL SHOW YA’ WHAT’S WHAT!”

        Bee-Hee-Mouth understood our concern. “If it’s Alexander you’re worried about, worry no more. He’s dedicated, loyal, single-minded to a fault, and earnest beyond bearing at times. But is he clever enough to bring down a Rawl’Colmb? No.” When the great Ogg shook his head from side to side, spittle flew from his chops and caught the moonlight. “He will run himself into a frenzy, and then return to Groomer’s house and tell us how he drove hordes of Rawl’Colmb from the orchard. And he will repeat it until no one is awake to listen anymore.”

        “Bee-Hee-Mouth … er, Billy … you said that you’d found Lah-Tsee.” In spite of my awe of the great white Ogg, I broached the subject because it seemed Mish-Shka would never get around to it. And after all, that was what this whole thing was about.

        “Daks, don’t nag. When it’s time, he’ll tell us about Lah-Tsee.”

        Bee-Hee-Mouth said, “That’s okay, Mish-Shka. It’s simple, and it won’t take long.”

        Mish-Shka jerked. “NO! … no. . . let’s wait, Bee-Hee-Mouth. I would rather wait … really.”

        He was so adamant, so strongly averse to bringing up the subject, that I wondered. Why had we come so far, only to have Mish-Shka avoid the conclusion? Bee-Hee-Mouth chuckled, and in a mock whisper said, “Let’s humor the old goat, what do you say, Master Daks? We have time enough later to talk about Lah-Tsee. Right now, I think we should go home and find you chaps something to eat, before you take after Groomer’s chickens again.”

        On a narrow path worn down to the soil, we meandered through apple trees until they gave way to leafless plum trees, and then apricots. The orchard had been mostly stripped of its crop, and what remained lay on the ground. Everywhere we stepped, and my nose filled with the sour smell of rotting fruits. Goonter chased around Bee-Hee-Mouth’s legs and took an occasional swipe at me. She didn’t bother Mish-Shka at all.

        We went a good ways before coming upon the oddest structure I have ever seen. It was a house, a human dwelling. At first impression, though, it seemed a part of the orchard—some stunted and mutated bole that had spread out like a prolific cancer. It had started out small, no bigger than one room, but it had been added onto, and no two additions appeared to have been constructed with the same thought in mind. Old wood, gray and weathered to a sheen mingled with new, so fresh that sap still oozed from the pores, and the whole was laced with grape vines, ivies, creepers, and sumac saplings. There wasn’t a drop of paint anywhere on it, no windows, and no light came from its one portal. The back end seemed to be embedded into a hulking foothill and all around, even atop the sagging roof, were creatures of an alarming variety: more Scrats, more Oggs, chickens, ducks, one placid cow, and scattered amongst them with not a hint of discomfort were at least two squirrels, a gopher munching on a chunk of mysterious greenery, rabbits, and a family of floppy-eared goats. They regarded Mish-Shka with a combination of awe and distrust. It’s him … it’s The Gray Meesha-Shkaahhhh they whispered. They had been prepared for our arrival, but there was no doubting they had heard of my friend before that night.

        A young goat broke away from his mother’s teats and pranced up, butting at me with the most insignificant of horns. “Yew be the Dhahahags one? Yew-be Dhahahags? Funny name. Yew got plen-ee fun-eee name, if yew-be the Dhahahags one.” A few of the creatures snickered.

        Geep, the stuttering yipper, went up on his back legs and danced amid the ferns and late-autumn mushrooms that served as a front yard. ‘Thuh-thuh-that’s Duh-Daks, all r-r-right. F-f-funny name, all r-r-right. Huh, Buh-Buh-Billy?”

        “I suppose ‘Geep’ is a lot better, huh?” I didn’t mean it to sound as rude as it did, but I was growing quite weary, enormously hungry, and sick unto death of being a mere curiosity.

        The young goat bounced as though he was filled with over-wound springs. “Yew be no t-hahailed anywhere on ya’. No-tail Dhahahags. Baahaha.”

        “Enough of that,” said Bee-Hee-Mouth, and though he didn’t speak loudly, his voice rumbled and his words echoed from ear to various ear. Geep put his shaggy tail between his legs and pouted his way to a place beneath the infirm porch. The goatling never stopped grinning, and never stopped bouncing, but thankfully, he did stop bleating. “There’s food inside, Mish-Shka. And I assure both of you, you will be treated like guests from here on out. Isn’t that right, chums?”

        The assembly nodded with somber contrition.

        “And Master Daks,” he added, “I don’t see a single reason to change your fine name.”

        Oh my, what would the world be like without the few wise ones?

* * *

      It hadn’t been so long since I’d been inside a human nest that there weren’t certain things I expected. Machines to do the chores … air filled with contrived scents … false illumination, false sounds, false materials. When I was my youngest, I took a certain amount of comfort from those sounds and lights and walls—especially at night, when the dark outside could be overwhelming to a pupper.

        In Groomer’s house there were no lights at all, and very few machines. Sounds of a pleasing nature came from a dusty box sitting on a central table, and another metal box glowed red from an artificial fire. A third, towering box sat against a wall, between the sink and a door into another room. It was a refrigerator. I learned early to identify them and the culinary wonders they might provide. But those were the only machines to be seen in Groomer’s house. The air was thick with apple smell, a sour, fermenting presence that was not entirely unpleasant. One wall was nearly taken up with a large fire place and a roughly hewn mantle traversed the stones over it. Atop the mantle were two Scrats I’d not seen before. The great Scrat with the missing ear sat atop the refrigerator, and there was something that shrank back into the deepest shadows every time I looked its way. Something long and furry and next to legless.

        Three wooden chairs circled the table and one lumpy fabric chair sat close to the false fire. I had to look closely to tell that most of those lumps was actually Groomer, sunken into the chair and humming along with the soft music. In his lap was the spotted bird-Ogg, sniffling softly while the man tinkered with his broken leg. The ancient Gher-Maine Sheep-Herd lay on a rug by his side. I don’t know where the goose had gone, but creatures were everywhere and everything I could see was covered with hair. Scrat hair, Ogg hair, maybe even gopher hair, I can’t be sure. Hanging from the ceiling in several places were ornate cages.

        The man kept birds in the house!

* * *

        It could have been a lot dirtier in there, considering there were birds in the house. It might have been so soiled that I’d never have felt the wooden floors beneath my feet, but I did. The room was dusty and filled with hair, but there was no accumulation of filth. In other rooms that radiated off this one like petals out of a daisy, I could see shelves filled with plates and cups and little figurines of plaster and glass, and I saw stacks of paper materials in corners, all neatly piled so that nothing stuck out. My guess is, if a blind man can feel it with his fingers, he can straighten it up.

        Bee-Hee-Mouth put his broad head on the arm of man’s chair. “I brought friends home, Groomer. You’ve heard me speak of Mish-Shka. Gray Mish-Shka? I knew him many years ago, and now he’s here.”

      “Good Billy … good Billy. Old friends are the best friends, isn’t that right?” Groomer stroked the white head slowly, lovingly.

        “And we’ve found a new friend, too. Daks. That’s his name, ‘Daks.’  I need to prepare them some food. They’re sorry about the chickens, and they’re very hungry.”

        The man continued stroking . . .”Good Billy”. . . and staring into a world all his own.

        Mish-Shka entered the house with much trepidation. Not when he faced Roth, not even before Kruk and the Wolven savages, did he tremble and bow his head. But on the doorstep to this feeble and sightless man’s home, he picked out his steps as though he were treading on a bed of venomous serpents. “This is not right. This is foolishness.” He spoke to no one in particular. I think he was confronting the accumulation of everything he had come to believe.

        Bee-Hee-Mouth laughed at him, then opened up the refrigerator by hooking a clubbed paw under a handle on the front. Its false light sliced into the room. “Mish-Shka, I can’t offer you an end to the anxiety you feel. And I can’t offer any good reason why you should trust this human over any others. But I can offer you some milk … some eggs … and some beer.”

* * *

        In preparing our meal, Bee-Hee-Mouth put on quite the performance. Only an Ogg with a mouth so big and lips so pliable could have accomplished it in just that way. The refrigerator door swung away on it’s own, once it was persuaded open, and Bee-Hee-Mouth turned his head sideways to gain access. He came out with a large open bottle between his teeth and carried it to a wide platter one of the other Oggs had pushed to the center of the room. With a well-practiced combination of paw-work and nose-nudging, he was able to pour milk into the platter without spilling—much—on the wooden floor. That which missed the dish was immediately lapped up by eager Scrats, the most eager of whom was Goonter. The Skritten raced to consume the sloppings with her tail raised straight to the ceiling. I tried to get some, too, but from every angle I approached, her skinny, dirty bottom seemed to be in my face.

        Milk holds a special place in my heart, but I suppose nearly everyone could say the same thing. At that time, I was not so far away from my Mom’s teats that I had forgotten how sweet a nectar she had provided. Of course, this wasn’t Ogg nectar that Bee-Hee-Mouth poured, but it was the same chilled and rich stuff I had been fortunate to receive upon occasion, before I’d left the world of men. Until I tasted that milk on Groomer’s floor, I’d never put the two together—milk and cows. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in scent between my favorite juice and the dense creatures. To this day, I have never been able to reconcile such an exquisite flavor with such profound stupidity. Yet it certainly explains why humans tolerate so many cows around.

        Bee-Hee-Mouth wouldn’t let me into the platter of milk until he’d added the eggs. “Not yet, Master Daks. It’s not complete.” He returned to the refrigerator and took out eggs, one at a time, carrying them between his pliant lips, and one at a time, he dropped them into the milk, first raising himself up to his full height so as to ensure their breaking. One of them didn’t break. It rolled around in the milk, so Bee-Hee-Mouth shrugged and stepped on it with his paw. He winked to me. “Won’t bother the taste a bit, I assure you.”

        The final ingredient was a half loaf of bread, so stale that when one slice missed the plate, it actually clattered on the floor as though Bee-Hee-Mouth had dropped a flat river rock. I sat back and watched the bread soak up the mix. It wasn’t the most pleasant concoction to look at. There was something unsettling about the strings of yellow yolk draped over the brown bread, something that brought the butchered elk dame to mind. But thankfully, my eyes don’t have to be consulted every time I eat something, or I would have starved long ago. The dish satisfied my nose’s expectations, and when Bee-Hee-Mouth finally gave us the nod, the taste was enough to raise bumps along my spine. It was so good that having to eat as Bee-Hee-Mouth’s curious chums stared at us didn’t diminish my enjoyment.

        Mish-Shka ate with less relish than I. “I can’t take raw eggs, Bee-Hee-Mouth. They make my heart burn, ” he said. “The last time I ate an egg, I thought I would die.”

        Bee-Hee-Mouth nodded with understanding. “I know, I know. Believe me, I know about eggs.  But you’ve never had them with milk, have you? The milk makes all the difference. And the bread. Eat, Meesha … you’ll see.”

        Even with Bee-Hee-Mouth’s assurances, Mish-Shka couldn’t forget for a moment he was inside a man’s lair, dining on a man’s food. The creatures watching us made him even more nervous. From under his thick brows, he watched the big, orange Scrat atop the refrigerator with deep distrust.

* * *

        Groomer’s tribe waited in silence until we were finished. Goonter was in such a rush to get at anything we’d left, she vaulted over my back, only to be disappointed to find the platter licked spotless. She was furious. An enraged Scrat, even a bony Skritten, is a fearful sight. But I couldn’t stop a satisfied snicker from escaping my lips at the sight of Goonter, up on tiptoes with her eyes bulging from her skull, and my laughter maddened her even more. She flew over the platter and came at me, all claws and spit.

        I tripped over myself, trying at first to run backwards, then sideways, to escape the scrawny demon. Everywhere I turned, I encountered another obstacle—chair legs, walls, rugs that slipped away beneath me like unanchored moss, and an excitable hen chicken, who strolled into the center of my disagreement with Goonter just as I rolled out from under the table.

        “CRAHHHWK!” she said, and went straight up, setting loose a shower of feathers and dust. Even Goonter backed away, but that didn’t stop the hen. She continued to flail her wings and shriek.

     “HE’S AF-TUH-TER THE CHUH-CHUH-CHICKENS AGAIN, GGGGUUH-GROOMER,” screamed Geep. He had entered the house without my noticing. “CHUH-CHUH-CHICKEN THIEF!”

        “My oh my, what a clamor. Billy, what is all the racket?” Groomer raised halfway from the soft chair, nearly pushing the wounded Ogg on his lap to the floor. “Billy, see if you can persuade our chicken chum to go outside, will you?”

        Milton raised up, his head quaking like a heat vision, and croaked, “Noise! Noise! Away with all of you!”

     Mish-Shka snickered in a shy way and Bee-Hee-Mouth laughed outright. “Goonter! Leave Master Daks alone. And please show our feathery chum the door, would you?” Goonter jumped eagerly to the task. The hen had settled atop the table, next to the music-making box, and the Skritten went up first onto a chair, then up onto the machine. Once more, the chicken went into a frenzy, but this time, the frenzy took her in the general direction of the exit. In another moment, she might have been outside and the house might have regained a semblance of calm, had not Alexander the Ayurd’O’Dell entered, howling and scrambling as though he had a raccoon dug into his butt …

         … with Bandy dug into his butt.

 

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