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Cobwebs From an Empty Skull
by Ambrose Bierce (AKA: Dod Grile)
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I don't think I can better illustrate the preposterous longitude of this pet, than by relating an incident that fell under my own observation. I was one day walking along the highway with a friend who was a stranger in the neighbourhood, when a rabbit flashed past us, going our way, but evidently upon urgent business. Immediately upon his heels followed the first instalment of Dad Petto's mongrel, enveloped in dust, his jaws distended, the lower one shaving the ground to scoop up the rabbit. He was going at a rather lively gait, but was some time in passing. My friend stood a few moments looking on; then rubbed his eyes, looked again, and finally turned to me, just as the brute's tail flitted by, saying, with a broad stare of astonishment:

"Did you ever see a pack of hounds run so perfectly in line? It beats anything! And the speed, too—they seem fairly blended! If a fellow didn't know better, he would swear there was but a single dog!"

I suppose it was this peculiarity of Jerusalem that had won old Petto's regard. He liked as much of anything as he could have for his money; and the expense of this creature, generally speaking, was no greater than that of a brief succinct bull pup. But there were times when he was costly. All dogs are sometimes "off their feed"—will eat nothing for a whole day but a few ox-tails, a pudding or two, and such towelling as they can pick up in the scullery. When Jerusalem got that way, which, to do him justice, was singularly seldom, it made things awkward in the near future. For in a few days after recovering his passion for food, the effect of his former abstemiousness would begin to reach his stomach; but of course all he could then devour would work no immediate relief. This he would naturally attribute to the quality of his fare, and would change his diet a dozen times a day, his menu in the twelve working hours comprising an astonishing range of articles, from a wood-saw to a kettle of soft soap—edibles as widely dissimilar as the zenith and the nadir, which, also, he would eat. So catholic an appetite was, of course, exceptional: ordinarily Jerusalem was as narrow and illiberal as the best of us. Give him plenty of raw beef, and he would not unsettle his gastric faith by outside speculation or tentative systems.

I could relate things of this dog by the hour. Such, for example, as his clever device for crossing a railway. He never attempted to do this endwise, like other animals, for the obvious reason that, like every one else, he was unable to make any sense of the time-tables; and unless he should by good luck begin the manoeuvre when a train was said to be due, it was likely he would be abbreviated; for of course no one is idiot enough to cross a railway track when the time-table says it is all clear—at least no one as long as Jerusalem. So he would advance his head to the rails, calling in his outlying convolutions, and straightening them alongside the track, parallel with it; and then at a signal previously agreed upon—a short wild bark—this sagacious dog would make the transit unanimously, as it were. By this method he commonly avoided a quarrel with the engine.

Altogether he was a very interesting beast, and his master was fond of him no end. And with the exception of compelling Mr. Petto to remove to the centre of the State to avoid double taxation upon him, he was not wholly unprofitable; for he was the best sheep-dog in the country: he always kept the flock well together by the simple device of surrounding them. Having done so, he would lie down, and eat, and eat, and eat, till there wasn't a sheep left, except a few old rancid ones; and even those he would tear into small spring lambs.

Dad Petto never went anywhere without the superior portion of Jerusalem at his side; and he always alluded to him as "the following dorg." But the beast finally became a great nuisance in Illinois. His body obstructed the roads in all directions; and the Representative of that district in the National Congress was instructed by his constituents to bring in a bill taxing dogs by the linear yard, instead of by the head, as the law then stood. Dad Petto proceeded at once to Washington to "lobby" against the measure. He knew the wife of a clerk in the Bureau of Statistics; armed with this influence he felt confident of success. I was myself in Washington, at the time, trying to secure the removal of a postmaster who was personally obnoxious to me, inasmuch as I had been strongly recommended for the position by some leading citizens, who to their high political characters superadded the more substantial merit of being my relations.

Dad and I were standing, one morning, in front of Willard's Hotel, when he stooped over and began patting Jerusalem on the head. All of a sudden the smiling brute sprang open his mouth and bade farewell to a succession of yells which speedily collected ten thousand miserable office-seekers, and an equal quantity of brigadier-generals, who, all in a breath, inquired who had been stabbed, and what was the name of the lady.

Meantime nothing would pacify the pup; he howled most dismally, punctuating his wails with quick sharp shrieks of mortal agony. More than an hour—more than two hours—we strove to discover and allay the canine grievance, but to no purpose.

Presently one of the hotel pages stepped up to Mr. Petto, handing him a telegraphic dispatch just received. It was dated at his home in Cowville, Illinois, and making allowance for the difference in time, something more than two hours previously. It read as follows:

"A pot of boiling glue has just been upset upon Jerusalem's hind-quarters. Shall I try rhubarb, or let it get cold and chisel it off?

"P.S. He did it himself, wagging his tail in the kitchen. Some Democrat has been bribing that dog with cold victuals.—PENELOPE PETTO."

Then we knew what ailed "the following dorg."

I should like to go on giving the reader a short account of this animal's more striking personal peculiarities, but the subject seems to grow under my hand. The longer I write, the longer he becomes, and the more there is to tell; and after all, I shall not get a copper more for pourtraying all this length of dog than I would for depicting an orbicular pig.



SNAKING.

Very talkative people always seemed to me to be divided into two classes—those who lie for a purpose and those who lie for the love of lying; and Sam Baxter belonged, with broad impartiality, to both. With him falsehood was not more frequently a means than an end; for he would not only lie without a purpose but at a sacrifice. I heard him once reading a newspaper to a blind aunt, and deliberately falsifying the market reports. The good old lady took it all in with a trustful faith, until he quoted dried apples at fifty cents a yard for unbolted sides; then she arose and disinherited him. Sam seemed to regard the fountain of truth as a stagnant pool, and himself an angel whose business it was to stand by and trouble the waters.

"You know Ben Dean," said Sam to me one day; "I'm down on that fellow, and I'll tell you why. In the winter of '68 he and I were snaking together in the mountains north of the Big Sandy."

"What do you mean by snaking, Sam?"

"Well, I like that! Why, gathering snakes, to be sure—rattlesnakes for zoological gardens, museums, and side-shows to circuses. This is how it is done: a party of snakers go up to the mountains in the early autumn, with provisions for all winter, and putting up a snakery at some central point, get to work as soon as the torpid season sets in, and before there is much snow. I presume you know that when the nights begin to get cold, the snakes go in under big flat stones, snuggle together, and lie there frozen stiff until the warm days of spring limber them up for business.

"We go about, raise up the rocks, tie the worms into convenient bundles and carry them to the snakery, where, during the snow season, they are assorted, labelled according to quality, and packed away for transportation. Sometimes a single showman will have as many as a dozen snakers in the mountains all winter.

"Ben and I were out, one day, and had gathered a few sheaves of prime ones, when we discovered a broad stone that showed good indications, but we couldn't raise it. The whole upper part of the mountain seemed to be built mostly upon this one stone. There was nothing to be done but mole it—dig under, you know; so taking the spade I soon widened the hole the creatures had got in at, until it would admit my body. Crawling in, I found a kind of cell in the solid rock, stowed nearly full of beautiful serpents, some of them as long as a man. You would have revelled in those worms! They were neatly disposed about the sides of the cave, an even dozen in each berth, and some odd ones swinging from the ceiling in hammocks, like sailors. By the time I had counted them roughly, as they lay, it was dark, and snowing like the mischief. There was no getting back to head-quarters that night, and there was room for but one of us inside."

"Inside what, Sam?"

"See here! have you been listening to what I'm telling you, or not? There is no use telling you anything. Perhaps you won't mind waiting till I get done, and then you can tell something of your own. We drew straws to decide who should sleep inside, and it fell to me. Such luck as that fellow Ben always had drawing straws when I held them! It was sinful! But even inside it was coldish, and I was more than an hour getting asleep. Toward morning, though, I woke, feeling very warm and peaceful. The moon was at full, just rising in the valley below, and, shining in at the hole I'd entered at, it made everything light as day."

"But, Sam, according to my astronomy a full moon never rises towards morning."

"Now, who said anything about your astronomy? I'd like to know who is telling this—you or I? Always think you know more than I do—and always swearing it isn't so—and always taking the words out of my mouth, and—but what's the use of arguing with you? As I was saying, the snakes began waking about the same time I did; I could hear them turn over on their other sides and sigh. Presently one raised himself up and yawned. He meant well, but it was not the regular thing for an ophidian to do at that season. By-and-by they began to poke their heads up all round, nodding good morning to one another across the room; and pretty soon one saw me lying there and called attention to the fact. Then they all began to crowd to the front and hang out over the sides of the beds in a fringe, to study my habits. I can't describe the strange spectacle: you would have supposed it was the middle of March and a forward season! There were more worms than I had counted, and they were larger ones than I had thought. And the more they got awake the wider they yawned, and the longer they stretched. The fat fellows in the hammocks above me were in danger of toppling out and breaking their necks every minute.

"Then it went through my mind like a flash what was the matter. Finding it cold outside, Ben had made a roaring fire on the top of the rock, and the heat had deceived the worms into the belief that it was late spring. As I lay there and thought of a full-grown man who hadn't any better sense than to do such a thing as that, I was mad enough to kill him. I lost confidence in mankind. If I had not stopped up the entrance before lying down, with a big round stone which the heat had swollen so that a hydraulic ram couldn't have butted it loose, I should have put on my clothes and gone straight home."

"But, Sam, you said the entrance was open, and the moon shining in."

"There you go again! Always contradicting—and insinuating that the moon must remain for hours in one position—and saying you've heard it told better by some one else—and wanting to fight! I've told this story to your brother over at Milk River more than a hundred million times, and he never said a word against it."

"I believe you, Samuel; for he is deaf as a tombstone."

"Tell you what to do for him! I know a fellow in Smith's Valley will cure him in a minute. That fellow has cleaned the deafness all out of Washington County a dozen times. I never knew a case of it that could stand up against him ten seconds. Take three parts of snake-root to a gallon of waggon-grease, and—I'll go and see if I can find the prescription!"

And Sam was off like a rocket.

* * * * *



MAUD'S PAPA.

That is she in the old black silk—the one with the gimlet curls and the accelerated lap-cat. Doesn't she average about as I set her forth?

"Never told you anything about her?" Well, I will.

Twenty years ago, many a young man, of otherwise good character, would have ameliorated his condition for that girl; and would have thought himself overpaid if she had restored a fosy on his sepulchre. Maud would have been of the same opinion—and wouldn't have construed the fosy. And she was the most sagacious girl I ever experienced! As you shall hear.

I was her lover, and she was mine. We loved ourselves to detraction. Maud lived a mile from any other house—except one brick barn. Not even a watch-dog about the place—except her father. This pompous old weakling hated me boisterously; he said I was dedicated to hard drink, and when in that condition was perfectly incompatible. I did not like him, too.

One evening I called on Maud, and was surprised to meet her at the gate, with a shawl drawn over her head, and apparently in great combustion. She told me, hastily, the old man was ill of a fever, and had nearly derided her by going crazy.

This was all a lie; something had gone wrong with the old party's eyes—amanuensis of the equinox, or something; he couldn't see well, but he was no more crazy than I was sober.

"I was sitting quietly by him," said Maud, "when he sat up in bed and be-gan! You never in all your born life! I'm so glad you've come; you can take care of him while I fetch the doctor. He's quiet enough now, but you just wait till he gets another paralogism. When they're on—oh my! You mustn't let him talk, nor get out of bed; doctor says it would prolong the diagnosis. Go right in, now. Oh dear! whatever shall I ought to do?"

And, blowing her eyes on the corner of her shawl, Maud shot away like a comic.

I walked hurriedly into the house, and entered the old man's dromedary, without knocking.

The playful girl had left that room a moment before, with every appearance of being frightened. She had told the old one there was a robber in the house, and the venerable invalid was a howling coward—I tell you this because I scorn to deceive you.

I found the old gentleman with his head under the blankets, very quiet and speaceful: but the moment he heard me he got up, and yelled like a heliotrope. Then he fixed on me a wild spiercing look from his bloodshot eyes, and for the first time in my life I believed Maud had told me the truth for the first time in hers. Then he reached out for a heavy cane. But I was too punctual for him, and, clapping my hand on his breast, I crowded him down, holding him tight. He curvetted some; then lay still, and swore weak oaths that wouldn't have hurt a sick chicken! All this time I was firm as a rock of amaranth. Presently, moreover, he spoke very low and resigned like—except his teeth chattered:

"Desperate man, there is no need; you will find it to the north-west corner of my upper secretary drawer. I spromise not to appear."

"All right, my lobster-snouted bulbul," said I, delighted with the importunity of abusing him; "that is the dryest place you could keep it in, old spoolcotton! Be sure you don't let the light get to it, angleworm! Meantime, therefore, you must take this draught."

"Draught!" he shrieked, meandering from the subject. "O my poor child!"—and he sprang up again, screaming a multiple of things.

I had him by the shoulders in a minute, and crushed him back—except his legs kept agitating.

"Keep still, will you?" said I, "you sugarcoated old mandible, or I'll conciliate your exegesis with a proletarian!"

I never had such a flow of language in my life; I could say anything I wanted to.

He quailed at that threat, for, deleterious as I thought him, he saw I meant it; but he affected to prefer it that way to taking it out of the bottle.

"Better," he moaned, "better even that than the poison. Spare me the poisoned chalice, and you may do it in the way you mention."

The "draught," it may be sproper to explain, was comprised in a large bottle sitting on the table. I thought it was medicine—except it was black—and although Maud (sweet screature!) had not told me to give him anything, I felt sure this was nasty enough for him, or anybody. And it was; it was ink. So I treated his proposed compromise with silent contempt, merely remarking, as I uncorked the bottle: "Medicine's medicine, my fine friend; and it is for the sick." Then, spinioning his arms with one of mine, I concerted the neck of the bottle between his teeth.

"Now, you lacustrine old cylinder-escapement," I exclaimed, with some warmth, "hand up your stomach for this healing precoction, or I'm blest if I won't controvert your raison d'etre!"

He struggled hard, but, owing to my habit of finishing what I undertake, without any success. In ten minutes it was all down—except that some of it was spouted about rather circumstantially over the bedding, and walls, and me. There was more of the draught than I had thought. As he had been two days ill, I had supposed the bottle must be nearly empty; but, of course, when you think of it, a man doesn't abrogate much ink in an ordinary attack—except editors.

Just as I got my knees off the spatient's breast, Maud peeped in at the door. She had remained in the lane till she thought the charm had had time to hibernate, then came in to have her laugh. She began having it, gently; but seeing me with the empty bottle in my sable hand, and the murky inspiration rolling off my face in gasconades, she got graver, and came in very soberly.

Wherewith, the draught had done its duty, and the old gentleman was enjoying the first rest he had known since I came to heal him. He is enjoying it yet, for he was as dead as a monogram.

As there was a good deal of scandal about my killing a sprospective father-in-law, I had to live it down by not marrying Maud—who has lived single, as a rule, ever since. All this epigastric tercentenary might have been avoided if she had only allowed a good deal of margin for my probable condition when she splanned her little practicable joke.

"Why didn't they hang me?"—- Waiter, bring me a brandy spunch.—Well, that is the most didactic question! But if you must know—they did.

* * * * *



JIM BECKWOURTH'S POND.

Not long after that (said old Jim Beckwourth, beginning a new story) there was a party of about a dozen of us down in the Powder River country, after buffalo. It was the worst place! Just think of the most barren and sterile spot you ever saw, or ever will see. Now take that spot and double it: that is where we were. One day, about noon, we halted near a sickly little arroyo, that was just damp enough to have deluded some feeble bunches of bonnet-wire into setting up as grass along its banks. After picketing the horses and pack-mules we took luncheon, and then, while the others smoked and played cards for half-dollars, I took my rifle and strolled off into the hills to see if I could find a blind rabbit, or a lame antelope, that had been unable to leave the country. As I went on I heard, at intervals of about a quarter of an hour, a strange throbbing sound, as of smothered thunder, which grew more distinct as I advanced. Presently I came upon a lake of near a mile in diameter, and almost circular. It was as calm and even as a mirror, but I could see by a light steamy haze above it that the water was nearly at boiling heat—a not very uncommon circumstance in that region. While I looked, big bubbles began to rise to the surface, chase one another about, and burst; and suddenly, without any other preliminary movement, there occurred the most awful and astounding event that (with a single exception) it has ever been my lot to witness! I stood rooted to the spot with horror, and when it was all over, and again the lake lay smiling placidly before me, I silently thanked Heaven I had been standing at some distance from the deceitful pool. In a quarter of an hour the frightful scene was repeated, preceded as before by the rising and bursting of bubbles, and producing in me the utmost terror; but after seeing it three or four times I became calm. Then I went back to camp, and told the boys there was a tolerably interesting pond near by, if they cared for such things.

At first they did not, but when I had thrown in a few lies about the brilliant hues of the water, and the great number of swans, they laid down their cards, left Lame Dave to look after the horses, and followed me back to see. Just before we crossed the last range of hills we heard a thundering sound ahead, which somewhat astonished the boys, but I said nothing till we stood on a low knoll overlooking the lake. There it lay, as peaceful as a dead Indian, of a dull grey colour, and as innocent of water-fowl as a new-born babe.

"There!" said I, triumphantly, pointing to it.

"Well," said Bill Buckster, leaning on his rifle and surveying it critically, "what's the matter with the pond? I don't see nothin' in that puddle."

"Whar's yer swans?" asked Gus Jamison.

"And yer prismatic warter?" added Stumpy Jack.

"Well, I like this!" drawled Frenchwoman Pete. "What 'n thunder d' ye mean, you derned saddle-coloured fraud?"

I was a little nettled at all this, particularly as the lake seemed to have buried the hatchet for that day; but I thought I would "cheek it through."

"Just you wait!" I replied, significantly.

"O yes!" exclaimed Stumpy, derisively; "'course, boys, you mus' wait. 'Tain't no use a-hurryin' up the cattle; yer mustn't rush the buck. Jest wait till some feller comes along with a melted rainbow, and lays on the war-paint! and another feller fetches the swans' eggs, and sets on 'em, and hatches 'em out!—and me a-holding both bowers an' the ace!" he added, regretfully, thinking of the certainty he had left, to follow a delusive hope.

Then I pointed out to them a wide margin of wet and steaming clay surrounding the water on all sides, asking them if that wasn't worth coming to see.

"That!" exclaimed Gus. "I've seen the same thing a thousand million times! It's the reg'lar thing in Idaho. Clay soaks up the water and sweats it out."

To verify his theory he started away, down to the shore. I was concerned for Gus, but I did not dare call him back for fear of betraying my secret in some way. Besides, I knew he would not come; and he ought not to have been so sceptical, anyhow.

Just then two or three big bubbles rose to the surface, and silently exploded. Quick as lightning I dropped on my knees and raised my arms.

"Now may Heaven grant my prayer," I began with awful solemnity, "and send the great Ranunculus to loose the binding chain of concupiscence, heaving the multitudinous aquacity upon the heads of this wicked and sententious generation, whelming these diametrical scoffers in a supercilious Constantinople!"

I knew the long words would impress their simple souls with a belief that I was actually praying; and I was right, for every man of them pulled his hat off, and stood staring at me with a mixed look of reverence, incredulity, and astonishment—but not for long. For before I could say amen, yours truly, or anything, that entire body of water shot upward five hundred feet into the air, as smooth as a column of crystal, curled over in broad green cataracts, falling outward with a jar and thunder like the explosion of a thousand subterranean cannon, then surging and swirling back to the centre, one steaming, writhing mass of snowy foam!

As I rose to my feet to put my hand in my pocket for a chew of tobacco, I looked complacently about upon my comrades. Stumpy Jack stood paralysed, his head thrown back at an alarming angle, precisely as he had tilted it to watch the ascending column, and his neck somehow out of joint, holding it there. All the others were down upon their marrow-bones, white with terror, praying with extraordinary fervency, each trying his best to master the ridiculous jargon they had heard me use, but employing it with an even greater disregard of sense and fitness than I did. Away over on the next range of hills, toward camp, was something that looked like a giant spider, scrambling up the steep side of the sand-hill, and sliding down a trifle faster than it got up. It was Lame Dave, who had abandoned his equine trust, to come up at the eleventh hour and see the swans. He had seen enough, and was now trying, in his weak way, to get back to camp.

In a few minutes I had got Stumpy's head back into the position assigned it by Nature, had crowded his eyes in, and was going about with a reassuring smile, helping the pious upon their feet. Not a word was spoken; I took the lead, and we strode solemnly to camp, picking up Lame Dave at the foot of his acclivity, played a little game for Gus Jamison's horse and "calamities," then mounted our steeds, departing thence. Three or four days afterward I ventured cautiously upon a covert allusion to peculiar lakes, but the simultaneous clicking of ten revolvers convinced me that I need not trouble myself to pursue the subject.

* * * * *



STRINGING A BEAR.

"I was looking for my horse one morning, up in the San Joaquin Valley," said old Sandy Fowler, absently stirring the camp fire, "when I saw a big bull grizzly lying in the sunshine, picking his teeth with his claws, and smiling, as if he said, 'You need not mind the horse, old fellow; he's been found.' I at once gave a loud whoop, which I thought would be heard by the boys in the camp, and prepared to string the brute."

"Oh, I know how it goes," interrupted Smarty Mellor, as we called him; "seen it done heaps o' times! Six or eight o' ye rides up to the b'ar, and s'rounds him, every son-of-a-gun with a riata a mile long, and worries him till he gits his mad up, and while he's a-chasin' one feller the others is a-goin' aeter him, and a-floorin' of him by loopin' his feet as they comes up behind, and when he turns onto them fellers the other chappy turns onto him, and puts another loop onto his feet as they comes up behind, and then—"

"I bound my riata tightly about my wrist," resumed old Sandy, composedly, "so that the beast should not jerk away when I had got him. Then I advanced upon him—very slowly, so as not to frighten him away. Seeing me coming, he rose upon his haunches, to have a look at me. He was about the size of a house—say a small two-storey house, with a Mansard roof. I paused a moment, to take another turn of the thong about my wrist.

"Again I moved obliquely forward, trying to look as if I were thinking about the new waterworks in San Francisco, or the next presidential election, so as not to frighten him away. The brute now rose squarely upon end, with his paws suspended before him, like a dog begging for a biscuit, and I thought what a very large biscuit he must be begging for! Halting a moment, to see if the riata was likely to cut into my wrist, I perceived the beast had an inkling of my design, and was trying stupidly to stretch his head up out of reach.

"I now threw off all disguise, and whirled my cord with a wide circular sweep, and in another moment it would have been very unpleasant for Bruin, but somehow the line appeared to get foul. While I was opening the noose, the animal settled upon his feet and came toward me; but the moment he saw me begin to whirl again, he got frightened, up-ended himself as before, and shut his eyes.

"Then I felt in my belt to see if my knife was there, when the bear got down again and came forward, utterly regardless.

"Seeing he was frightened and trying to escape by coming so close I could not have a fair fling at him, I dropped the noose on the ground and walked away, trailing the line behind me. When it was all run out, the rascal arrived at the loop. He first smelled it, then opened it with his paws, and putting it about his neck, tilted up again, and nodded significantly.

"I pulled out my knife, and severing the line at my wrist, walked away, looking for some one to introduce me to Smarty Mellor."

THE END

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