Menace From Above
By the time the sun had reached its crest, they had traversed much of the plain. Theobald barely clung to Malcolm. He kept his eyes, now dry and weary, closed except to glimpse how much farther the tree line was.
“Do you think there’ll be anything to eat?” muttered Rollo.
“Possibly,” said Malcolm.
“Water,” Theobald muttered.
“Maybe the Goat was talking about a mountain stream,” said Rollo encouragingly. “Maybe there’ll be some stream veg. In point of fact, mountain stream veg is very succulent.”
“We’ll find something,” said Miranda quietly.
Theobald tried to visualize the mountain stream—cool, clear, with a mud pool at the bottom. He could hear water splashing. He could feel the water wash over his carapace as he dove into the pool. Fish darted here and there, plants waving lazily at the bottom of the pool, such good gringy green things to eat! “Ooooo,” he moaned.
Theobald was aware that Malcolm was calling him. “What?” he muttered, his throat rasping.
“Are you alright?”
“Ummnn.” Theobald felt the dryness pull at him as he stared at the tree line ahead. Were the trees real? Or was it a mingy bit of forest? It seemed to grow sparser the closer they approached. He thought he could see fir, spruce, alder and cottonwood. A sliver of hope promised him water, but he could see the canopy was thin. How could it shelter, feed, shade and, most importantly, water any animal?
“Have you noticed anything?” asked Miranda.
“No,” replied Malcolm, plodding on.
“I can’t hear bird song.”
“Maybe we’re too far away,” suggested Manley.
“No, she’s right,” said Malcolm, who had stopped, “we’re close enough to hear something.”
They stopped and listened. They were now possibly 10 tree lengths from the wood but could hear nothing.
“Maybe no birds live here,” said Rollo.
“When was the last time you saw a tree with no birds,” said Malcolm.
“Maybe there’s no birds or water,” wheezed Theobald.
“We’re close to the mountains. In point of fact, birds don’t like mountains,” Rollo informed them, “because of the cold.”
Opening his tired eyes, Theobald noted Rollo staring up at the mountain peaks.
“If there are no birds,” said Manley, “maybe there are no moles or turtles or fisher martens or mooses, or rats.”
Theobald wanted to yell ‘be quiet’ but hadn’t the strength. “Water, please…”
“What do we do?” asked Manley anxiously.
“What do you mean?” asked Malcolm. “We need to find water.”
“Do we continue? I mean, into the trees?”
“Where else would we go?” asked Malcolm.
“We don’t know what’s there.”
“Manley, there is no water here, so we need to go where there is some. Right now, that’s the only possibility.”
“What’s troubling you?” asked Miranda.
“It looks dangerous.”
“It might be.”
“Do we have an alternative?”
“No,” said Manley wearily.
“If we could find something to eat, I’d feel a lot better,” offered Rollo.
“Yes, thank you, Rollo,” said Malcolm.
As Malcolm started off again, Theobald almost fell off. He couldn’t see Manley and assumed he was walking under Malcolm. He had glimpsed Miranda jaunting next to Malcolm on one side and Rollo flanking him on his right side—a pathetic attempt to make the group seem formidable. What enemy, seeing a Moose with one ear carrying a turtle on its back, flanked by a rat, a mole and a fisher marten, would cringe at such a sight? Ease up, Theobald. That’s your pain talking.
Approaching the tree line, Malcolm stopped abruptly and cocked his head, listening, almost dismounting Theobald a second time. Then, Miranda cried out, “Manley!” and Theobald caught a flashing glimpse of wings swooping just below him. Panic shot through his dried body at the same moment that Malcolm twisted, his antlers colliding with what seemed like wings as the something cried out and soared abruptly upward.
Theobald clung tight to Malcolm’s hide. “Wha..what was that?”
“An eagle,” said Miranda.
“How’d you see him?” asked Malcolm.
“I caught him in the corner of my eye.”
“Whe.. where is he now?” Rollo asked from somewhere under Malcolm.
Theobald squinted up into the trees.
“I can see three of them,” said Miranda quietly.
“Two in the tallest tree just inside the tree line and one in the tree behind it.”
“Wha..what’re we going to do?” Rollo asked.
“Move slowly,” said Malcolm, “and be more cautious. You and Manley walk under me.”
“We’re going into the trees?”
“It’ll be harder to pick us off in the trees.”
As Malcolm moved off again, Theobald caught a glimpse of Miranda in front, walking slowly, gazing ahead intently. If they didn’t find water, maybe being swooped up by an eagle would be a mercy.
“I still can’t hear any birds,” repeated Miranda.
As they entered the tree line, the shade brought some relief, and clouds of insects, humming, and swarming them.
“Ahhhhh,” yelled Rollo, covering his face.
Theobald shouted, “forget the insects, we need water” when a familiar sound touched his ear. “I can hear water!” he wheezed, almost choking on the words. “Water!” he croaked, louder, through a dry throat, bouncing as Malcolm trotted hurriedly through the insects towards the sound. Within steps they had reached a mountain stream. Theobald felt Malcolm tilt himself and the next thing he knew he was falling into a small creek.
Hitting the surface with a sharp pain, Theobald left himself sink into the cold water and his spirits rose. He gurgled and flapped his claws and glided forward. His pain began to ebb. He drank. He was delirious with water. Finally, he tilted his head above the surface. For a moment he thought he must dreaming. The others were nowhere to be seen.
As Theobald instintively dropped below the surface, something scraped against his carapace. It had to be an eagle. He rolled under the surface, peering up through the water, spotting Malcolm’s head beside a tree, looking up. He couldn’t see Manley, Rollo or Miranda. He resubmerged to think. If he could keep his head down so that the eagles couldn’t pluck his eyes out, the rest of him might be safe. No. Eagles would be strong enough to carry him off. It was a frightening thought and he tried not to dwell on it. How then would he get to where the others were? Could he risk it? What choice did he have?
Slowly, he let his body float to the surface, keeping his head down. Abruptly, he felt a scratch at the edge of his shell and heard Miranda shout, “Theobald!” He paddled quickly, and when his nose hit the water’s edge, he scrambled up onto the rocks, keeping his head down. A furry body suddenly bumped against his.
“It’s only me. Keep your head down,” Miranda cautioned.
“I’m doing that,” he muttered. He waited. A few breaths later, he felt Miranda move and heard an eagle’s shriek. He shivered. He felt movement, heard the eagle’s shriek again, close by, more plaintive this time, then felt a hard thud against his shell and the scuffle ceased.
“Miranda?” he whispered, not daring to open his eyes.
“It’s alright, Theobald,” he heard her say, panting.
Theobald opened his eyes. In front of him an eagle lay still, its eyes staring out. Spattered blood speckled its white-feathered neck, insects already swarming at its head. Miranda was lying on her back. There was blood on her paws and around her mouth. Her eyes revealed shock, gazing up into the trees.
“Where are the other two?” Malcolm called quietly to her.
“There are three left, I think.”
“Rollo sees only one.”
“It would appear there are others.”
Tense, Theobald waited. “What’re they doing?”
“Lift up your head as if you are going to move forward.”
“Yes. It’ll be all right.”
Theobald hesitated. Then slowly he put out a claw, pulling himself forward, and lifted his head.
He had only moved two steps when, again, he felt Miranda spring up. He could feel her struggling with something, and then saw an eagle’s talons as she grasped them, and pulled the bird towards her. It loosened one claw and viciously slashed at her, gouging her flank. Miranda pulled at the eagle, sunk her teeth into its throat, and shook her head violently from side to side. The eagle shivered in spasm and lay still. Theobald looked up. Miranda was covered in blood, a startled expression in her eyes, insects darting at the blood on her back.
“You’re bleeding,” he said anxiously.
“On your back.”
Miranda glanced up. “Keep your head down,” she instructed him, “and move to the stream.”
As he did, he heard a splash, then more splashing and finally the sound of her stepping from the water.
He looked up. Miranda’s fur was soaked but the insects were still buzzing at her.
“Am I still bleeding?” she asked. She sounded weak.
He looked. “Yes, I think so… no.” He was trying to comprehend the two dead eagles on the rocks covered with insects.
“One was watching us… from there,” she said, looking at a tall tree, “there might be others.”
Theobald looked up but saw no eagles. He clawed his way across the forest floor as quickly as he could to the clump of trees where Malcolm and the others were hiding. Seeming in pain, Miranda limped beside him, paying no attention to the insects swarming her.
Reaching the tree, Malcolm examined her flank. “How do you feel?”
Theobald felt sickened by the sight of blood speckled on Miranda. How had she, who was against killing and eating animals, managed it? She tried to lick at her wound, while Manley and Rollo tried to divert the insects.
“It’s still bleeding a bit. You should rest.”
“There’s at least two more,” she said.
“There’s three more,” said a tired voice from behind a dead birch on the ground.
Theobald didn’t move. Rollo and Manley, beside him, stopped breathing.
“Who spoke?” said Malcolm, sharply.
Peering behind the fallen tree, Theobald saw a scrawny, scarred animal, about the size of Manley, sitting in a hole, watching them.
“How do you know there’s more?”
“There’s always more. You thinks it’s safe to grab somethin’ to eat, so’s you look ‘round and there’s no beakheads, so’s you run out and wham, one of’em whips you up in his talons to where the others can rips yous head off. That’s what they did to Howie.”
“How do you know?”
“I could hear him screaming.”
Theobald noted the scrawny animal’s eyes had a slight twitch. “Howie was your friend?”
“Me and him was the last ones. I’m glad you ripped their throats out cause I hates’em. I hates’em so much.”
“It’s useless to hate,” said Miranda, “and it’s wrong to kill.”
“Not them. It’s good to kill them.”
“It’s not right.”
“Killing beakheads is good and right,” said the animal adamently.
Gazing at the Marmot’s thin, scarred body, Theobald, noticed his tail was missing, and wondered if he’d been brave to stay, or just not able to imagine living anywhere else.
“Eagles are predators.” said Malcolm.
“What if they’d a’ ripped open one a’ yous?”
“Killing only leads to more killing,” said Miranda quietly.
“The beakheads you killed ain’t killing any more. That’s less, not more.”
Miranda said nothing. She watched the animal carefully.
“How many of you,” asked Theobald, “were there?”
“About 10, Me and Howie, another male, some females and some kits.”
“All killed, your… family, friends…?”
“Yep. And they killed all the birds.”
“All the birds?” said Malcolm.
“Whydya think we got so many insects?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you hear any birds?”
“No…” said Malcolm.
“So who’s eatin’ the insects?”
“Ah,” said Malcolm.
Theobald, trying to comprehend, stared at the animal’s sunken cheeks. “The eagles killed all the birds?”
“Yep… how come you got no hair?”
“Ah… I… I’m a turtle.”
“A turtle? I never seed a turtle.”
“Well, we got… we have no hair.”
“Dontchya get cold?”
“I don’t mind it.”
“Interestin’. Well, anyway, the beakheads ate all the animals and the birds, and I’m the only one left, and now I gots an insect problem.”
Malcolm bent low to him. “What’s your name?”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to be rude. Murray. Murray Hoary Marmot,” he said, bending his head back to gaze up at Malcolm. “What’s yours, you don’t mind my asking?”
“Good to meetchya. It looks like the beakheads got you, too.”
“No, not eagles.”
“One of the reasons I hates’em is cause they is so stupid,” the Marmot sneezed. “Most animals, snakes, even fish, got smarts, but the beakhead is the stupidest…”
“I heard they were intelligent,” said Malcolm.
“Don’t make me snort.”
“Sorry. You were saying?”
“Yeah, I…ah… My point is they was greedy, eatin’ everythin’. How’em I gonna get my forage?”
“With the birds gone, aren’t there more seeds and berries?” asked Miranda.
The Marmot looked at her. “That’s right,” he said, “but how do I get it with beakheads whoopin’ around? I gotta get ready for the big cold.”
“It’s some time off, isn’t it/”
“I gotta gorge so’s I can hibernate. And who’s gonna eat the insects?”
“I could eat a few,” said Theobald, “but not all.”
“I could eat a few,” said Manley.
“What will you do, Murray?” asked Malcolm.
“I dunno. It ain’t gonna be easy. I ask myself, how’s I gonna manage it? You ain’t hanging around, is you?”
“We have to keep moving.”
“Wouldya mind killin’ the last ones for me ‘fore you leave?”
Miranda stared at him. “I only killed to protect Theobald.”
“Couldn’t you kill to protect me?”
“Where would I stop?”
“The last beakhead.”
“I’m hungry,” whispered Rollo.
“Murray,” asked Malcolm, “we don’t want to impose, but is there some forage we could take?”
“That’s very generous.”
“That’s okay, wich you around I can get a bite too.”