Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/January 1899/True Tales of Birds and Beasts




HE was just a bird when he was born, and a very ugly bird at that. For he had big splay feet, with all the toes turned forward and joined together in one broad web, and his wings were thick and clumsy, and underneath his long bill there was a big red sack that he could fill with fishes, and when it was full he could hardly walk or fly, so large the sack was and so great was his appetite.

But he kept the sack well filled and he emptied it out every day into his stomach, and so he grew very soon to be a large bird, as big as a turkey, though not as fat, and each day uglier than ever.

But one morning, when he was walking out on the sand flat of the Astillero at Mazatlan, Mexico, where he lived, he saw a big fish which had been left by the falling tide in a little pool of water. It was a blue-colored fish with a big bony head, and no scales, and a sleek, slippery skin. He did not know that it was a bagre, but he thought that all fishes were good to eat, so he opened his mouth and slipped the fish, tail first, down into his pouch. It went all right for a while, but when the fish woke up and knew he was being swallowed, he straightened out both of his arms, and there he was. For the bagre is a kind of catfish, and each arm is a long, stiff, sharp bone, or spine, with a saw edge the whole length of it. And all the bagre has to do is just to put this arm out straight and twist it at the shoulder and then it is set, and no animal can bend or break it. And it pierced right through the skin of the bird's sack, and the bird could not swallow it, nor make it go up nor down, and the bagre held on tight, for he knew that if he let go once he would be swallowed, and that would be the last of him.

So the bird tried everything he could think of, and the fish held on, and they kept it up all day. In the afternoon a little boy came out on the sands. His name was Inocente, and he was the son of Ygnacio, the fisherman of Mazatlan. And Inocente took a club of mangrove and ran up to the struggling bird and struck it on the wing with the club. The blow broke the wing, and the bird lay down to die, for with a broken wing and a fish that would not go up nor down, there was no hope for him.

When Inocente saw what kind of a fish it was, he knew just what to do. He reached down into the bird's sack and took hold of the fish's spines. He gave each one a twist so that it rolled over in its socket, the upper part toward the fish's head, and then they were not stiff any more, but lay flat against the side of the fish, just as they ought to lie. Then the fish knew that it had found a master, and lav perfectly still. So the bird gave a great gulp, and out the bagre went on the sand, and when the tide came up it swam away, and took care never to go again where a bird could get hold of it. And the bird with the broken wing had learned something about fishes, too. But he could not fly away, so he waited to see what the boy was going to do.

The boy took the bird into his boat and brought him home. And old Ygnacio put a splint on his wing and covered it with salve, and by and by it healed. But the bone was set crooked, and the bird could not fly very well. So the boys called the bird Señor Alcatraz, which is the Spanish for Mr. Pelican, and Señor Alcatraz and all the boys and dogs and goats became good friends, and all ran about on the streets together. And when the boys would shout and the dogs bark, all Señor Alcatraz could do was to squawk and hiss and open his big mouth and show the inside of his red fish sack.

And when the boys would go fishing on the wharf, Alcatraz would go, too, and he would stow away the fishes in his pouch as fast as the boys could catch them. But if they caught a bagre fish, he would turn his head the other way and then run away home just as fast as his splay feet would take him.

And when the men drew the net on the beach Alcatraz would splash around inside the net, catching whatever he could, and having a great deal of fun in his clumsy pelican fashion. Then he would run along the street with the boys, squawking and flapping his wings and thinking that he was just like the rest of them. And if you ever go to Mazatlan, ask for Dr. Rogers, and he will show you the way to Ygnacio's cabin on the street they call Libertad. And there in the front yard, in a general scramble of dogs, goats, and little Indian boys, you will see Señor Alcatraz romping and squabbling like the best of them. And you will know which he is by the broken wing and the red sack under his throat. But if you say "Bagre" to him, he will run under the doorstep and hide his face till you go away.


Once there was a little blue fox, and his name was Eichkao, and he was a thief. So he built his house down deep among the rocks under the moss on the Mist Island, and his little fox children used to stay down among the rocks. There they would gurgle, gurgle, gurgle, whenever they heard anybody walking over their heads. Eichkao and his fox wife used to run all round over the rocks to find something for them to eat, and whenever Eichkao saw anybody coming he would go clin-n-n-g, cling-g-g, and his voice was high and sharp, just like the voice of a buzz saw.

One day he walked out on the rocks over the water and began to talk to the black sea parrot, whose name is Epatka, and who sits erect on his carelessly built nest with one egg in it, and wears a great big bill made of red sealing wax. He has a long white quill pen stuck over each ear, and over his face is a white mask, so that nobody can know what kind of a face he has, and all you can see behind the mask is a pair of little foolish twinkling white glass eyes. What the two said to each other I don't know, but they did not talk very long, for in a few minutes when I came back to his house among the rocks Eichkao was gone, and there lay out on the bank a bill made of red sealing wax, a white mask, and two little white quill pens. There were a few bones and claws and some feathers, but they did not seem to belong to anything in particular, and the little foxes in the rocks went gurgle, gurgle, gurgle.

One day I lay down on the moss out by the old fox walk on the Mist Island, and Eichkao saw me there and thought I was some new kind of walrus which might be good to eat, and would feed all the little foxes for a month. So he ran around me in a circle, and then he ran around again, then again and again, always making the circle smaller, until finally the circle was so narrow that I could reach him with my hand. As he went around and around, all the time he looked at me with his cold, gray, selfish eye, and not one of all the beasts has an eye as cruel-cold as his. When he thought that he was near enough, he gave a snap with his jaws, and tried to bite out a morsel to take home to the little foxes; but all I offered him was a piece of rubber boot. And when I turned around to look at him he was running away as fast as he could, calling klin-n-g-g, klin-n-g, klin-n-g, like a scared buzz saw all the time as he went out of sight. And I think that he is running yet, while the little foxes still go gurgle, gurgle under the rocks.


{With acknowledgment to Mr. A. C. Bassett, of Menlo Park, California.)

Once on a time there was a great tall rabbit, the kind the miners call a "narrow-gauge mule"; but he was not a mule at all, and his real name was "Jack Rabbit." His home was in Montana, and he lived by the river they call the Silver Bow. He could run faster than any of the other beasts, and he went lickety-clip, lickety-clip, bounding over the tops of the sagebrush, for he had no brush of his own to carry.

And there was a red fox who lived on the Silver Bow, too, and he went hunting because he wanted rabbit for dinner. But while he could run very fast he could not bound over the tops of the sagebrush, for his own brush, which he always carried with him because he was so proud of it, would catch on the thorns of the other kinds of brush and so would keep him back.

So he sent for his cousin, the coyote, to come and help him. Now, the coyote lived out in the country by Emigrant Mountain. He was not proud at all, for he hadn't much of a brush, and nobody flattered him for his beauty. But for all that the coyote could run very fast, as he had Indian blood in him. The only trouble was that his hind feet ran faster than his fore feet. So he had to stop every little while and run sidewise to unkink himself and give his fore feet a chance to catch up.

When the coyote came up the rabbit was bounding along through the bushes, going around in a great circle so that he always came back to the same place, for that is the way of the rabbit-folk. So the fox lay low and hid his brush in the sage, and the coyote followed the rabbit around the circle. And he just kept up with the rabbit all the way, for the rabbit wasn't scared, and didn't run very fast. And when they had gone once around the circle the rabbit passed the hidden fox. Then the fox got up and chased him, and was only a few feet behind. And the coyote stopped and ran sidewise for a while to unkink himself, and then he lay down in the bushes and waited for the rabbit to come back. The rabbit was much scared when he saw the fox close behind him, so he ran and bounded very fast, and the fox kept falling behind because he had his long brush to carry. But he kept at it just the same, and when the rabbit came around the circle to where he started there was the coyote waiting for him. The rabbit had to make a great jump to get over the coyote's head. Then they went around again and the coyote kept close behind all the way, and the rabbit began to get tired. When the coyote's hind legs got tangled up then the fox was rested, and he took up the chase; and so they kept on, each one taking his turn, except the rabbit, who had to keep his own turn all the time.

When the race was over there was nobody there to see how they divided up what they caught. But I saw the coyote the next day, and he looked so very empty that I think that the red fox must have taken all the rabbit meat for himself. Most likely he left his cousin just the ears for his part, with a rabbit's foot to carry in his pocket for good luck.