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THE DARKNESS TOWARD THE EAST was thinning now. Still the owl’s cry drifted down the pathways of the forest, pale stars glimmered in the farthest gloom; but fox and marten paused from hunting, belly-deep in mist, and sniffed the coming dawn.
Trees, unwilling to awake, turned restless leaves; the birds that roosted in their branches opened round and sleepy eyes. A twig snapped suddenly.
“Who’s that?” a startled magpie cried. “Who’s that moving there?”
Her mate drew a sleepy head from under his wing.
“No one! Who could it be?” he chided her crossly. “Just worry, worry, worry, and it’s hardly dawn . . . !”
“We heard it, too, we did! There’s surely something coming!” the tomtits in the bushes whispered fearfully.
A blackbird tried a fluty note. A jay, inquisitive and unafraid, screeched cheerfully:
“It’s Faline, the roe-deer! Faline and her children!”
Crows came flapping from their nests.
“Faline!” they echoed disapprovingly. “She spoils her children. They have their own way in everything. Disgraceful!”
Faline turned her quiet brown eyes upward to the treetops.
“You see, Geno,” she said, “what they think of me? Now, be a good boy and stop whining.”
“But I’m tired. I want to lie down,” Geno complained.
“He’s not a bit tired!” His sister Gurri trotted close to her mother’s red-brown flanks. “It’s just because I ran faster than he did when I played his stupid old game. He’s an old sorehead!”
“I’m not a sorehead, and you can’t run as fast as I can! You’re just a girl, that’s all you are . . . !”
“I’d like to know what that’s got to do with it!” Gurri tossed her head and a shower of dewdrops fell gleaming from a low-hanging bush.
“Children!” Faline remonstrated soothingly.
“Well, Mother, if he wasn’t such a spoilsport! Boso and Lana wanted to go on playing, but he,” she mimicked him disparagingly, “he was so tired!”
Angrily Geno drummed his small hoofs on the winding path.
“You’ll see! I won’t show you any more games!”
“All right, I’ll make up my own!”
“All right, Boso will! He’s cleverer than you are and he’s nice!”
The crows flew away with great flapping of black wings.
“You see? What did we tell you!” they croaked scornfully. “Just listen to those children!”
“Nasty black things!” Geno scoffed. “If my father, Bambi, were here, he’d show you!”
“Ho, ho, ho!” chortled the crows. “Teach him manners, Faline!”
A woodpecker paused in his drumming at an old oak tree.
“That’s it, Faline,” he cried shrilly; “otherwise he’ll have no friends when he needs them.”
“The woodpecker’s giving good advice,” Faline told her son; but Geno interrupted her. He leaped away from the path-side, jostling his sister.
“Something’s coming through the bushes!” Black nostrils trembled; ears peaked toward the sound.
Faline regarded him placidly. “It’s only the polecat,” she told him. “He won’t hurt you. Don’t be frightened.”
“The polecat smells awful!” Gurri shied a little, nostrils closed.
“That’s how he protects himself. It’s good protection. He doesn’t have to run fast, or to watch forever, even in the most dangerous place.”