Only Two Owls.
BY ALLAN FORMAN.
It was on the platform of a little water-tank railway station in the West that I first made the acquaintance of the Doctor and the Judge. The train had been crossing a hot, dusty prairie all the morning, its monotonous level only broken by the mounds of the prairie-dogs’ villages; here at the station it was quite as bare and uninteresting. The water-tank was the only structure that looked as if it had been built to stay; the station was a rickety shanty, and the half-dozen houses which formed the “town” were “dugouts ” which did not appear much more like human habitations than the dogs’ burrows which dotted the prairie in the distance. The engine stopped under the great iron tank, and I sprang to the platform to stretch my legs. From the little group of station loungers a small boy detached himself and came toward me. He had on a pair of trousers miles too large for him, and carried a small starch-box under his arm; aside from the layers of soil with which his face and hands were incrusted, the trousers and a fragment of a calico shirt were his only attire.
“Say, Mister,” he began in the nasal whine of the professional beggar, “Mother’s sick an’ the baby’s a-dyin’, and we ain’t got no money to buy no med’cine, an’ Father’s dead an’ “—
“Oh, go away,” I exclaimed; for I could see, not only by the boy’s manner, but by the grins of the station loungers that he was a juvenile confidence operator.
“S’trew, honest s’trew, Mister,” pursued the young rascal, unabashed; “an’ I’ve got ter sell my two pet owls;” and here he began to snivel and held out the box.
“Have you got two owls in that box?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he answered, brightening up, for he saw his victim was biting. “Don’t open it now or they will git away,” he added. “They’s two fine owls, an’ sich pets!”
“How much do you want for them?” I asked.
“Twenty-five cents,” was the expected and hasty answer.
It seemed that his elaborate tale of woe should have been worth at least a dollar, and on the impulse of the moment I produced a quarter. He clutched it and dashed off across ‘the prairie amidst the guffaws of the station loungers.
“So he’s took you in,’ remarked the Pullman conductor who had come up at the moment. “He’s a young imp, he is; his father is one of the section hands, but his mother died a couple of years ago and he’s run wild sence. What did he say was in the box? Last trip he sold one of my passengers a prairie-dog in a box, same way. Oh, it was thar all right, only I reckon it must have been dead a week or so by its smell.”
“He said that there are a pair of prairie-owls in the box,” I replied, rather stiffly; for I was nettled at having made a fool of myself.
“Mebbe thar is,” said the conductor. “’Bout a week ago he sold a passenger a Rocky Mountain bat; and when he opened the box he found half a brick—brick-bat, y’ know?” and the conductor walked off chuckling.
I debated in my own mind whether or not to fling the box out on the prairie; but my curiosity was too strong, besides I could feel something moving inside; so I took it into the car and, closing the door of my stateroom, I prepared to investigate my purchase. I cautiously slid the cover and almost dropped the box, for I was greeted by a whirring sound that, to my excited fancy, seemed like the warning of a rattlesnake; a glance reassured me the boy had told the truth. he had sold me two owls, but such looking objects! They were not more than three days old, and there was not one feather to the pair; they were covered with scanty down, powdered white by the starch which still remained in the box. They stood erect, close together, as if ashamed of their nakedness, yet glaring at me indignantly and defiantly with their big, round eyes. I began to ponder what I should do with them. I could not turn them loose, l did not know how to keep them, they were so young they would probably die, and they hadn’t feathers enough to stuff. My meditations were brought to a close by my mother, who entered the stateroom and asked what I had there.
“A pair of owls.” I replied, sheepishly. Then I told her the story of how I had been victimized. There were a few motherly words of advice about the desirability of not buying “a pig in a poke” or an owl in a box, and then, mother-like, she rose to the occasion and solved my doubts.
“You were very foolish to buy them, but now you have them you must take care of them. Go and get them something to eat.”
“What do owls eat?” I queried doubtfully.
“Mice and small birds.”
I suggested that the opportunities for catching mice and small birds in a Pullman car, were, to say the least, limited.
“A little piece of raw meat, cut very fine, would do,” she replied, ignoring my flippant remark and busying herself in brushing the starch from the youngsters’ fur.
I hunted up the cook of the dining car and secured from him a bit of raw beefsteak for which I was obliged to “tip” him a quarter! and I may remark that it cost me a quarter every time those birds ate until we reached New York; and their appetites were something enormous. When I returned. my mother had the two snugly cuddled on her lap, under her hands, and she fed them on the raw meat until they stood up with crops distended like a couple of pouter-pigeons. Their aspect of complacent, self-conscious dignity was so irresistibly funny that we named them Doctor and Judge at once.
The remainder of the railway trip was uneventful except that Doctor and Judge grew amazingly and sprouted feathers, so that by the time we arrived in New York they were almost full-fledged. They learned to snap their bills together when they were hungry, which was a signal for my mother to send me off on a foraging expedition. They were very intelligent, and in less than a week learned their names; they would turn their big eyes up inquiringly when my mother spoke to them. In time they grew very fond of me, and apparently recognized me as their master; but, during all their lives, and I kept them for over two years, their affection and confidence were given to my mother; if anything alarmed them, which was not often, for they were plucky little creatures, they would fly to her for protection, and they delighted to snuggle down in her lap, under her hands, making a queer, purring noise like a couple of contented kittens.
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: This is part one of “Only Two Owls.” Here is part two
Mr Allan Forman was a journalist and editor of The Journalist, a weekly journal for the trade.