M ERRY EYES, the silver fox, came loping along the hard sand-bar which divided Marsh Realm from the pine forest. Merry Eyes was the largest fox that lived in either woods or marsh, and the only one who possessed a grey coat that shimmered like star-dust when he ran in search of his supper, or chased his bushy tail in play after that supper had been won.
Merry Eyes was a crafty chap. He had a very friendly manner in addressing the rabbits, blackbirds and snipe—who were in deadly fear of him—for although just now his red mouth was agape with laughter, at heart he was quite a wicked fellow. He thought no more of snapping up a baby muskrat or a frog than he would of eating a clam. Even Daddy Long-Neck was given to peering carefully about before alighting in a pond, for fear Merry Eyes might be lurking near to spring upon him.
This morning Merry Eyes was in a very gleeful mood indeed. Only an hour or so ago he had played a prank on old Whiskernose Otter, who owned a fishery at the point of Marsh Realm, nine miles away.
Whiskernose was a quiet, law-abiding otter, and had the reputation of being the most honest dweller in all Marsh Realm; but because Merry Eyes had earned the name of being the most dishonest one, and because he so dearly loved a practical joke, he had been wanting for a long time to do something which would make it appear to the Marsh Realm folk that Whiskernose was not the honest, hard-working fellow folks thought him.
Accordingly, a couple of hours before dawn, when he had come across old Swamp-Coon's little son, Tabbybar, playing in a square of moonlight, a short distance from his hollow elm home, he had stopped up short in his lope, and had stood considering.
"If I could only get hold of that little Tabbybar," he had told himself, "I would carry him up to old Whiskernose's house and hide him. Then I would come down and tell old Swamp-Coon that Whiskernose had stolen him. Ho, ho! Maybe that old otter wouldn't catch it then!"
Merry Eyes knew something of coon babies; knew that they were fun-loving and curious. He knew, too, that wee Tabbybar had stolen away from the home-tree in disobedience of his parents' orders. "That Tabbybar thought he would creep out and try and do some hunting for himself," Merry Eyes decided. "He's just old enough to be looking for adventure. Maybe if I crouch low in the grass and imitate the squeaking of a mouse, he'll come over to me."
So Merry Eyes had hidden in the grass and given a squeak or two, very like the call of a mouse, and little Tabbybar Swamp-Coon had come galloping clumsily across to try and catch him.
But when instead of a little brown mouse, Tabbybar had caught sight of Merry Eyes, he had been frightened, and had opened his little, red mouth to call for his mother.
But Merry Eyes had jumped up, and catching him by the scruff of his neck, had drowned his cry against his breast. Then he had sprung away across the marsh to the long sand-bar, poor little Tabbybar swinging from his jaws.
Merry Eyes did not wish to hurt the baby coon. If he did, he knew old Swamp-Coon would make him suffer; and even as it was, that fierce fighter might call him to account. He had taken the baby coon up to old Whiskernose's house.
He had found the house empty. Whiskernose and his family were out in the ponds fishing. Merry Eyes had crept into their home and had placed little Tabbybar in one of the beds. The little coon was so tired that he had fallen asleep immediately. Merry Eyes had hurried out and away.
And now, with the rosy dawn lifting above the eastern hardwoods, he was back close to the elm-tree home of Swamp-Coon, and he wondered if the father and mother had returned to find their little Tabbybar missing.
As he was chuckling in satisfaction at how well he had played his joke, suddenly there fell on his uplifted ears a long, wild cry. Merry Eyes jumped in alarm. He knew that voice; it was Mother Swamp-Coon's, and it told as plainly as words that she had returned to the hollow tree to find Tabbybar gone.
"Oh my!" shivered Merry Eyes, "I wouldn't like to be in Whiskernose Otter's hide when those coons learn what I have to tell them."
Merry Eyes turned from the bar and bounded into the rushes. At the foot of the elm tree he found old Swamp-Coon and his wife prancing up and down and muttering all sorts of threats on the abductor of their young son.
"Why, Mrs. Swamp-Coon," cried Merry Eyes in his most sympathetic tones, "whatever is wrong? Have you and Swampy been eating toad-stools, or some other poisonous growth?"
"No, no," wailed Mrs. Swamp-Coon. "Our little Tabbybar has run away from home. We can't find him anywhere."
"He's been kidnapped," growled old Swampy, gnashing his teeth. "Just you wait till I find out who did it!"
Mr. Swamp-Coon and Sly‑Boy Red‑Fox
"Why," cried the naughty Merry Eyes, "I believe I can tell you that. This morning, about two hours before daylight, I saw Whiskernose Otter going up the bar towards home, and he was carrying something in a bag; something alive, I'm sure, because I saw it squirm."
"Ah," growled Daddy Swamp-Coon, sharpening his claws on the rough bark of the tree, "I'll tear that old hypocrite in strips for this. You see if I don't!"
"Wait a minute," called a voice from above their heads.
All three glanced up to see Long-Neck Crane seated on a dead branch of the tree, peering down at them.
"It wasn't Whiskernose who stole little Tabbybar at all!" cried the crane. "It was Merry Eyes, there. I saw him do it, and I followed him up the bar and saw him leave your Tabbybar in Mr. Otter's house."
Merry Eyes glanced quickly about him. Behind him was a wide, weedy pond; on his right was old Swamp-Coon and on his left the vicious Mrs. Swampy. The big elm stood directly in front of him, so he could see no way of escape. He knew that in about another second the air was going to be full of teeth and claws reaching for him. If ever he was crafty, it was necessary for him to be crafty now. He saw old Swampy's muscles tighten for a spring, and heard Mrs. Swampy draw in her breath hissingly.
Then he cried: "Oh look! There comes little Tabbybar now!" He pointed away toward the bar. Mr. and Mrs. Swamp-Coon turned to look, and Merry Eyes made a leap straight over their heads and ducked into the long marsh grass. The sly fellow knew that no Swamp-Coon could hope to keep up with him in a race.
He was panting hard when at length he reached the ridge, and his splendid brush was dragging with muck and weed-slime, but he kept right on going until he had put a safe distance between himself and his pursuers.
"Oh my, oh my!" he panted, "I might have known that meddling Long-Neck Crane would spoil everything. Never mind, I'll catch that old trouble-maker yet."
Just at this moment a shadow fell on the sward and looking up, Merry Eyes saw Long-Neck flying low above him.
"Oh, oh!" chortled the crane, peering down at the fox's matted tail, "you look as though you'd been having a brush with the enemy, my clever friend."
"If I ever get hold of you, I'll tie your long legs and neck into a knot," threatened Merry Eyes.
"Ha, ha!" laughed Long-Neck, "I'll have a good time gossiping today."
He flew away toward the forest, and Merry Eyes, head low and tail dragging, crept into the friendly shelter of the thicket. He knew that Long-Neck would tell all the folk of the woods and marsh how he had been made the victim of his own joke, and it angered and humiliated him.
He cocked his ears and a sly grin parted his red jaws.
"Why I know how I'll get even with Long-Neck," he chuckled, "I'll go right this minute and find Croaker Crow. I'll hire him and his flock of news-criers to fly all over the marsh and pine forest and tell the birds and animals that it was Long-Neck Crane who tried to play a joke on the Swamp-Coons and Otters, and had the joke turned on himself."