Originally published in The Delineator, August 1905.
Pop Wombat had owned this same toothache for several hours, and it had turned his meek nature topsy-turvy. Indeed, the family had developed a nervous awe of the pain he suffered, and the unreliable state of his temper because of it. Suddenly the silence was broken. Pop writhed and tossed his round body as if frantic, and gave a most dismal howl.
"How absurd!" said Mom, a little impatiently. "Are you a bear, my dear Pop, that you growl so savagely?"
"Shut up!" said Pop, and rolled over in a huff.
No doubt, Mom's remark was annoying. There is little difference, in general appearance, between a wombat and a bear, except that the biggest wombat is hardly tall enough to reach to a bear's knee. But in their nature and disposition there is a vast difference in the two animals, for the bear is a meat-eater by preference, while the wombat feeds only on roots and vegetables. Of all creatures in the wilderness none has such a cheerful temper as the little wombat, who never fights unless driven to desperation, and attends strictly to his own affairs.
But to see Pop Wombat to-day no one would guess he possessed a mild and genial nature. The four cubs were filled with terror, and trembled every time their sire gave a groan or writhed upon the floor. And Mom Wombat, meek helpmate that she was, had become so nervous she could scarcely control herself.
"Why don't you have that tooth out, Pop?" she asked for the twentieth time that morning.
"Out! Have it out? Do you want to see me murdered?" he retorted, in a peevish tone. "If it's such fun, why don't you have your own teeth out?"
"If they ached, I would," answered Mom.
"That's it!" he snapped. "You're in no danger of getting hurt; so you want to see me mutilated and killed!"
"It won't kill you to have a tooth pulled, my dear," she persisted; "and Doc Pelican is down by the bend of the river now, and will do the job easily. If the tooth is out it won't ache, and until it's out it will ache, you know."
"Mind your business!" growled Pop as he held his jaw between two chubby paws and groaned aloud.
Mom sighed, and the cubs shuddered. And then silence was renewed until Pop resumed his awful groaning.
"Why don't you---" began Mom; but he cut her question short by suddenly jumping upon his feet.
"Hold your tongue, can't you?" he howled. "I'm going down to Doc Pelican's, and if you don't like it you can do the next thing!" And he marched toward the mouth of the cave.
Mom didn't mind his bitter words in the least, for she knew Pop loved her, and that it was only that toothache that induced him to say such things.
"Be very careful, dear," she called after him. "Remember it's broad daylight, and you may meet with enemies."
He gave a scornful grunt and walked away, groaning lustily with every step. Yet Mom's warning was not so foolish as Pop tried to make out. As a matter of fact, a group of dangerous foes was at that moment gathered in a cavern underneath the river bank, not a hundred yards away from the snug cave of the wombats.
"I'd like to eat old Pop as well as any of you," said Dick Wolf, licking his lean chops. " But you know the Law as well as I do. Unless he fights we dare not harm him."
"Let's make him fight!" suggested little Joe Weasel.
"We can't," replied Dick Wolf. "I've tried it."
"Well, let's claim he did fight," proposed Bob Peccary; "he can't prove he didn't, after he's eaten."
Then the conspirators paused to look upon one another curiously, for not one of them felt he could trust the others in case they were brought before the judges to explain Pop Wombat's death. Yet the thought of preying upon the fat and tender family of wombats was so tempting that they were ready to defy the Law and take the chance of their crime being discovered. If only Pop could be induced to fight, the rest would be easy; but who had ever known him to even quarrel with any beast?
While they hesitated, Ned Lynx, the spy, solved the problem by rushing into the cavern and shouting:
"He's out! Pop Wombat is out in broad daylight."
"Now's our time!" cried Hank Hyena, leaping up. "Let's hide ourselves, and catch him as he comes back."
They all agreed readily to this, and Charlie Fox said: "Make him fight if you can, my boys; but if you can't---"
"If we can't, we'll kill him anyhow," declared Jim Leopard; and the conspirators growled assent.
Meantime Pop Wombat had shuffled his fat body down to the river bend, moaning with the pain in his tooth with every step.
As Mom had predicted, he found Doc Pelican standing beside the water and eyeing the rushing stream with intent thoughtfulness.
"Say, Doc," said Pop Wombat, coming up. â€œIâ€™ve got a bad toothache, and---"
"And you want the tooth pulled, I suppose," said Doc. "Open your mouth, and I'll jerk it out in a hurry." Pop hesitated. "I don't think it's aching quite so bad, just now," he remarked.
"Humbug!" said Doc.
Pop felt his jaw tenderly.
"Will it hurt?" he asked.
"Not the least bit!" said the Pelican. "I pulled one for Nick Tiger, the other day, and he said it was a real pleasure. Open your mouth."
"This one," said Pop, touching it with his padded paw.
The Pelican thrust his long bill into the wombat's mouth, seized a tooth in a desperate clutch, wiggled it briskly to loosen it, and then threw back his head with a powerful jerk.
Pop howled in agony, and rolled upon the ground as if taken with a fit.
"It's all over," said Doc, dropping the tooth into the river.
"You idiot!" roared Pop, fairly beside himself. "Youâ€™ve pulled the wrong tooth!â€
"Oh, did I?" asked the Pelican, with a chuckle. "Let me see."
Pop stood up, shaking with pain, and opened his mouth again. Instantly the Pelican seized the aching tooth and gave it a jerk.
It was too much for Pop to bear. His strong little jaws came together with a snap, and he bit Doc's head off as neatly as if it had been cut with a knife.
"Dear me!" said Pop, gravely, as he watched the floundering of the headless Pelican; "what have I done?"
"You've fought and killed a harmless creature, and broken the Law!" said a voice in reply, and Ned Lynx crept from the clump of bushes where he had been hidden. "Your own life is forfeit, Pop Wombat!" he added, gleefully.
But Pop had no wish to die. The strain upon his nerves caused by his recent suffering had roused him from his usual gentleness, and his present horror and fear completely changed his nature. He sprang upon the Lynx and dealt him a blow that laid the spy stunned upon the path, and then he started on a trot back toward his cave.
"Hurrah!" cried Dick Wolf, from his ambush; "he fights at last! Pop fights, brothers!" and without more ado he launched his lean body straight at the wombat's throat.
Pop struck again, and in his anger hurled Dick Wolf a dozen paces into the brushwood. But now in the path crouched Jim Leopard, his eyes green and watchful and his long tail swaying gently from side to side. And back of Jim the gaunt hyena stood with open mouth, disclosing two rows of cruel teeth. And on one side was Bob Peccary, and on the other side Charlie Fox, while the blood-shot eyes of Joe Weasel glared at him with savage joy.
Usually he was as lazy as he was fat; but now terror lent him speed. He escaped the leopard's leap by a hair's breadth. He snapped at the hyena and caught the foe's muzzle between his own teeth. He knocked over the peccary so that the awkward beast tripped the rush of the fox. Next minute he was racing on in the lead of every pursuer.
But no wombat could keep up that speed for long, and Pop was about ready to drop when the opening of a cave met his eyes. He tumbled within and swung around with tooth and claw to guard his retreat.
But he was safe enough from his pursuers now. Indeed, his act filled them with consternation, and they hid themselves in the underbrush and lay panting and wondering and eyeing the cave.
"What audacity!" whispered Charlie Fox.
"What absurd recklessness!" said Jim Leopard.
"What folly!" declared the weasel.
By that time Pop Wombat agreed with them, for he remembered where he was, and whose cave he had invaded.
It was the lair of Mersag the Grizzly â€” the largest, the fiercest, most powerful beast for miles around! Mersag dominated both forest and plain; every animal, however big or little, stood in awe of him; he was cruel and merciless, courageous and blood-thirsty, ferocious and lawless. To face him was death; to hear his mighty footsteps crunching through the brush wood was a signal for instant flight; to penetrate his lair was a madness worse than suicide.
But Pop Wombat, wild with fear, had not noticed where his feet had led him until it was too late to retreat. The great cave was vacant just then; but to quit it meant to be torn to pieces by his hungry enemies, while to remain until Mersag returned meant certain death.
So Pop crouched and trembled, and outside his foes wondered and waited.
Nor was it long before the grizzly's heavy footfalls were heard approaching. Dick Wolf, Charlie Fox, Jim Leopard and the others of their band slunk quickly under cover of the bushes. Pop Wombat's heart stood still in terror. And now, swaying majestically from side to side, the huge bulk of Mersag's grizzled body hove into view and rolled up the path to his cave.
He had that morning stalked a deer, slain it and eaten until he could eat no more; and now he was coming home to sleep.
Very contented and good-humored was Mersag at the moment when he reached his lair and found the trembling intruder facing him. He was surprised, no doubt; but after one look at Pop Wombat he gave a laugh and said: "What, in the name of folly, brings you here? Did you come to be eaten, my good Pop?"
"I suppose so," answered the other, uttering a groan.
"Well, I have often longed to pick your bones," said the grizzly, reflectively; "and it strikes me you will make a dainty morsel, with your fat ribs and tender flanks. But, to be honest, Pop Wombat, I am so filled with venison at this moment that a single mouthful more would choke me."
Hearing this, Pop began to pluck up heart.
"Spare me, Mersag!" he begged, piteously; "protect me from my enemies!"
"Which of the small creatures dares touch you, you fat coward?" returned the grizzly, with contempt. "The Law protects the harmless ones - from all save Me."
"But I've broken the Law," wailed Pop; "I was driven to desperation by a toothache, and I've killed Doc Pelican, and bitten the nose of Hank Hyena and skinned the shoulder of Bob Peccary! So the meat-eaters chased me in a furious pack, and I didn't notice where I was going and ran in here to escape."
Mersag lay over on his side and roared with laughter. Pop's plaintive face was so comical that he could not help it. When he had finished his laugh and wiped his eyes with his paw, he said, cheerfully: "It's the best joke I've heard this year! Really, Pop, you are very entertaining. But, tell me, what has become of the enemies who pursued you to my door?"
"They're hidden in the bushes, outside," said Pop.
"Well," remarked Mersag, sitting upon his haunches and eyeing his victim shrewdly, "I'm awfully sorry I've no appetite for you at present. And you're so fat and fit that I hate to give you up to those miserable creatures waiting outside. Let me think what is best to be done."
"Save me! Save me, my dear, revered, handsome and most excellent Mersag! Save my life!" entreated poor Pop. grovelling before the gigantic form of the bear.
"Hâ€”mâ€”mâ€”m!" growled Mersag, reflectively. "I shall be hungry again, some day. I know it by past experience. One cannot always stalk a deer! See here, Pop, I'll make a bargain with you. For a month I will protect you from your enemies, and you shall be free to wander where you will and to enjoy your home and your family. But at the end of a month you must return here and be eaten."
"Mercy! Mercy!" wailed the unhappy wombat.
"Am I not merciful?" asked Mersag, surprised. "Instead of killing you to-day, I give you a month of life and freedom. Could anything be more generous and unselfish? But, of course, if you don't care to promise---"
He raised his huge paw, threateningly, and bared his horrible teeth.
Pop grovelled again.
"I promise!" he screamed. "I promise! Save me to-day from my enemies and I promise to return in a month and give myself up to you."
"Very good! Very good and wise," said the grizzly, with a sleepy yawn. Pop looked full into the cavernous mouth, and shrank back trembling.
But now, Mersag walked to the door of his cave and shouted, in a loud voice:
"Hear me, Dick Wolf, and all who are with you! Pop Wombat is under my protection from this time forth. If any harm comes to him through you, beware the vengeance of Mersag the Grizzly!"
There was no answer in words; but the brushwood crackled here and there as the scared and discomfited band of conspirators slunk away to their dens.
â€œAnd now. Pop,â€ said Mersag, swinging around, â€œyou may go. And go quickly, too, for I want to take my nap."
Pop did not await a second bidding. In an instant he was out of the cave and shuffling along the path to his home.
He was yet somewhat confused in mind, and hardly remembered what had happened to him. But the journey was not half over before he began to realize the fatal bargain he had made for a month of life, and the terrible fate that awaited him.
Presently he began to moan and groan, and he moaned and groaned with every step until he reached home.
"Well," said Mom, looking up as he entered, "did you have the tooth out?"
The tooth! Pop had forgotten all about it. It seemed a thousand years since he had left the cave with that miserable toothache through which he had forfeited his life.
He nodded silently in answer to Momâ€™s query. There was no need relating to her his dreadful experiences. It would only make her unhappy to know that in a month she would be a widow and their darling cubs fatherless.
A kind heart had Pop Wombat, as well as a gentle nature. So he kept his misery to himself, and devoted the month of life that remained to him in caring for his family with exceeding tenderness.
But to face a sure and horrible death is no easy matter, I assure you; and Pop worried and fretted until he lost all his plumpness and beauty and the brown fur hung upon his bones like a robe thrown over the back of a chair. Mom couldn't make out what was wrong with him, and tried in various ways to make him confess he had a secret that was weighing upon his mind. But Pop stoutly refused to burden her with his worries, and bore alone the bitter grief that was consuming him, while day by day his form became more lean and gaunt until it afforded a sharp contrast with the plumpness of his unsuspecting family.
When the month was up he dared not bid the dear ones good-by, for that might awaken their suspicions and cause a scene. So, with a heart-broken sob that could not be repressed, he marched out of the cave and took the path leading to the lair of Mersag the Grizzly.
"Now, by the bones of my grandsire!" cried Mersag when he beheld the skinny form of the wombat, "what on earth have you been doing to yourself? You are not fit for a vulture to eat!"
"Bah!" sneered the grizzly, and began pacing angrily up and down his lair. By chance he was fairly well fed at that moment, and although he might possibly have devoured a fat wombat, this lean specimen before him was repulsive to his appetite.
"Listen to me, Pop Wombat!" he said, pausing before his lawful prey; "I simply can't and won't eat you in your present demoralized condition. I'll give you another month to get fat in, and if you are not then as plump and round as you should be, I'll go to your cave and devour your wife and all your children. They're fat enough, I know; and you may depend upon it I'll keep my word. Now, run along and get fat!"
Pop withdrew in an agony of fear. Get fat! How could he manage to fatten himself to order, with that awful fate overhanging his loved ones in case he failed? But he must not fail! In some way he must manage to become round again, for otherwise he would be responsible for the murder of all those most dear to him.
But the fact that his worry was now redoubled prevented Pop from accomplishing his desire. Try as he would, he grew thinner and skinnier day by day, and a great horror fell upon him. His anguish, as the second month drew near its end, was something terrible to witness, and Mom, who was loving and sympathetic to a degree, began to worry so over Pop's declining health that she also became thin and haggard. But the cubs, unconscious of all danger, remained as fat and jolly as ever, and Pop moaned miserably whenever he looked upon them.
Nothing but absolute despair could have driven a wombat to the act that Pop finally resolved upon. These animals feed upon wild vegetables and roots, as I have said, a certain instinct teaching them what is good to eat and what is not. And among the plants this instinct warns them to avoid is one called the tintain, which, if eaten, puffs up their bodies like bags of wind and causes them much incidental pain.
Pop happened to think of the tintain plant upon that very morning when he was due to render himself up to Mersag the Grizzly. He knew very well that if he presented himself in his present condition to the bear that Mersag would keep his promise and kill Mom and the cubs. So he resolved to trick the tyrant, if possible, as a last and desperate resort to save his family.
At daybreak he crawled out of his cave and began to search for tintains. These were quite plentiful, because all animals avoided them; so within a few minutes Pop was busily eating of the dreaded leaves. It required bravery to do this, but Pop had the courage of a loving and unselfish heart.
Presently he began to swell up, and to suffer oppressive pains, too; but these were nothing when compared to his anguish of mind, so he did not notice them. So ravenously did he devour the leaves that it was not long before his wrinkled skin was puffed out to its fullest extent, and he became, to all appearances, as round and plump as in his happiest days.
"Now, my darlings are saved!" murmured the Wombat, joyfully, and he went toward the grizzly's lair well content to sacrifice his own life for the sake of those dear ones at home.
But, as he rolled along, a sudden strange sound fell upon his ears, and a pungent odor of smoke saluted his nostrils. Suspicious, as all the wild are, at unusual sounds and smells, Pop Wombat halted a short distance from Mersag's cave and hid himself in a clump of bushes. He was bound for his death, to be sure, but that was no reason instinct should not warn him to beware of other and unknown dangers.
Peering through the bushes he was startled to see terrible creatures in the dreadful form of Man grouped just outside the abode of the mighty grizzly. They had built a fire of the dead branches of trees, and upon the coals were roasting curious lumps of meat.
This was enough, in all reason, to astonish Pop Wombat; but his eyes grew even bigger next moment. For there before him, stretched broad upon pointed stakes and suspended against the trunk of a giant maple tree, swung the stripped and lifeless hide of the great grizzly himself!
Horror came upon Pop Wombat as he looked - horror, and then a growing sense of relief - and then unbounded joy.
For he was saved. His dear ones were saved. And that deadly creature Man had been the unconscious instrument of their salvation!
Softly and with grateful heart he made his way back to his own cave. Mom Wombat came anxiously to meet him, and her husband's bloated appearance and strange actions caused her much anxiety. For Pop's distended skin forced him to utter many dismal groans, yet he would stop groaning to laugh and caper madly about the room as if trying to surpass the antics of the cubs.
"He's been eating those poisonous tintains," thought Mom, "and the pain has driven him distracted."
Then she promptly knocked him over and began pummelling him briskly to get the wind out of him; and the cubs hurried up to join in the sport and cuffed poor Pop as hard as their little fists could strike.
And Pop laughed. He was happy as a prince. He even roared with merriment when Mom jumped upon him and kneaded his swelled body.
"To think you should be such a fool as to eat tintains!" she cried, indignantly, and continued her heroic treatment until Pop's body shrank slowly but surely into its accustomed condition.
Pop never minded the pain or the pounding a bit. He laughed, and hugged the cubs, and chucked his amazed wife under her double chin, and behaved in a way that was nothing less than ridiculous. The tintains are not especially dangerous, after all, and I think Pop had a right to laugh.
From that day he picked up flesh with his renewed cheerfulness, and became so fat that not a wombat in all the land could compare with him.
The Men who had hunted and killed the grizzly had disappeared from the neighborhood; Dick Wolf and his bloodthirsty pack had disbanded and were now scattered throughout the wilderness; peace and contentment reigned in and about the cave of the wombats, and the cubs were growing big and strong day by day.
It is no wonder that Pop became fat!
The Forgetful Poet's Puzzles
I must say it is hard to trip you up on geography, especially on islands. Almost every one guessed them correctly. They were Plum Island, Governor's Island, Paris Island, Long Island and the Thousand Isles.
Something to eat,
And a term, my dear,
Mathematic, will give
You a buccaneer.
A seasoning sharp and
A place where money
Is coined will give
A candy, honey.
And now, my ducks,
Can you tell, perforce,
Why a sausage resembles
A good golf course?
And WHY is an old book like a bow-wow?
[Answers next time.]
Copyright © 2011 Eric Shanower and David Maxine. All rights reserved.