How the rays defended the ford
In South America there is a river called the Yabebirì; and it flows through the city of Misiones. In this river there are many rays, a kind of mud fish like the salt-water skate; and the river, indeed, gets its name from them: “Yabebirì” means the “river of ray fish.” The ray is a wide, flat fish with a long, slender tail. The tail is very bony; and when it strikes you it cuts, and leaves poison in the wound.
There are so many rays in the river that it is dangerous even to put your foot into the water. I once knew a man who had his heel pricked by a ray. He had to walk more than two miles home, groaning with pain all the way and fainting several times from the poison. The pain from a ray bite is one of the sharpest pains one can feel.
But there are also other kinds of fish in the Yabebirì; and most of them are good to eat. That is why some evil men once began to fish for them with dynamite. They put the dynamite under water and set it off. The shock of the explosion stunned and killed all the fish nearby; and not only the big fish, but also the little ones, which cannot be eaten. It is very cruel and wasteful to hunt fish with dynamite.
However, there was a man who lived on the bank of the river; and he was sorry for the poor fish, especially the little ones; and he told the bad men that they must stop bombing the fish. At first they were angry and said they would do what they liked. But the man was known everywhere to be an upright, honest man, and finally they obeyed him and set off no more bombs in the river.
And the fish were grateful to this man, whom they had come to know the moment he approached the edge of the water. Whenever he walked along the bank smoking his pipe, the rays especially would swim along the bottom to keep him company. He, of course, did not know he had so many friends in the river. He lived there just because he liked the place.
Now, it happened one afternoon that a fox came running down to the river; and putting his forepaws into the water he called:
“Hey there, you ray fish! Quick! Quick! Here comes that friend of yours! He’s in trouble!”
All the rays who heard came swimming up anxiously to the edge of the water.
“What’s the matter? Where is he?” they asked.
“Here he comes!” answered the fox. “He has been fighting with a panther, and is trying to get away! He wants to get over to that island! Let him cross, for he is a very good man!”
“Of course we will! Of course we will!” the rays answered. “As for the panther, we will fix him!”
“Yes, but remember a panther is a panther!” said the fox; by which he meant that a panther is almost as hard to fight with as a tiger. And the fox gave a little jump and ran back into the woods, so as not to be near when the panther came.
A second or two later, the branches along the river bank were pushed aside, and the man came running down to the water’s edge. He was all bleeding and his shirt was torn. From a scratch on his face the blood was streaming down off his chin, and his sleeves were wet with blood also. It was clear that the man was very badly hurt; for he almost fell as he ran out into the river. When he put his feet into the water, the rays moved aside so that their tails would not touch him; and he waded across to the island, with the water coming up to his breast. On the other side he fell to the ground fainting from loss of blood.
The rays did not have much time to sit there pitying him. Some distance behind the man the panther came jumping along with great leaps to catch him. The big wildcat stopped on the bank, and gave a great roar; but up and down the river the rays went calling; “The Panther! The Panther!” and they gathered together near the shore to attack him if he tried to cross.
The panther looked up and down the stream, and finally he spied the man lying helpless on the island. He, too, was badly wounded and dripping with blood; but he was determined to eat the man at any cost. With another great howl, he leaped into the water.
Almost instantly, however, he felt as though a hundred pins and needles were sticking into his paws. You see, the rays were trying to block the ford, and were stinging him with the stingers in their tails. He gave one big jump back to the river bank and stood there roaring, and holding one paw up in the air because it hurt him to step on it. After a moment he looked down into the water and saw that it was all black and muddy. The rays were coming in great crowds and stirring up the bottom of the river.
“Ah hah!” said the panther: “Ah hah! I see! It is you, you bad, wicked ray fish! It was you who gave me all those stings! Well now, just get out of the way!”
“We will not get out of the way,” answered the rays.
“Away, I tell you!” said the panther.
“We won’t!” said the rays. “He is a good man. It is not right to kill him!”
“He gave me these wounds you see,” said the panther. “I must punish him!”
“And you gave him his wounds, too,” said the rays. “But that is all a matter for you folks in the woods to settle. So long as this man is on the river, he is in our province and we intend to protect him!”
“Get out of my way!” said the panther.
“Not never!” said the rays. You see, the rays had never been to school; and they said “not never” and “not nothing” the way children sometimes do and never ought to do, not never!
“Well, we’ll see!” said the panther, with another great roar; and he ran up the bank to get a start for one great jump. The panther understood that the rays were packed close in along the shore; and he figured that if he could jump away out into the stream he would get beyond them and their stingers, and finally reach the wounded man on the island.
But some of the rays saw what he was going to do, and they began to shout to one another:
“Out to mid-stream! Out to mid-stream! He’s going to jump! He’s going to jump!”
The panther did succeed in making a very long leap, and for some seconds after he struck the water he felt no pain. He gave a great roar of delight, thinking he had deceived his enemies. But then, all of a sudden, sting here and sting there, in front, in back, on his sides! The rays were upon him again, driving their poisonous stingers into his skin. For a moment, the panther thought it was as easy to go forward as back, and he kept on. But the rays were now all over along the island; so the panther turned and went back to the shore he had left.
He was now about done. He just had to lie down on his side to keep the bottoms of his feet off the ground; and his stomach went up and down as he breathed deeply from fatigue and pain. He was growing dizzy, also, because the poison from the stings was getting into his brain.
The rays were not satisfied, however. They kept crowding up along the shore because they knew that panthers never go alone, but always with a mate. This mate would come, and they would again have to defend the ford.
And so it was. Soon the she-panther came down roaring through the bushes to rescue her husband. She looked across to the island where the man was lying wounded; and then at her mate, who lay there panting at her feet; and then down into the water, which was black with rays.
“Ray fish!” she called.
“Well, madam?” answered the rays.
“Let me cross the river!”
“No crossing here for panthers!” said the rays.
“I’ll bite the tails off every one of you!” said the she-panther.
“Even without our tails, we won’t let you cross!” said the rays.
“For the last time, out of my way!” said the she-panther.
“Not never!” said the rays.
The she-panther now put one foot into the water; but a ray struck at her with its stinger, and made a sting right between two of her toes.
“Oooouch!” growled the she-panther.
“We have at least one tail left!” mocked the rays.
But the she-panther began to scowl now. When panthers are thinking very hard they scowl. This one scowled her face into deep wrinkles; which meant that she had a very important idea. She did not let on what it was, however. She just trotted off up the bank into the woods without saying another word.
But the rays understood what she was up to. She was going to some place farther along the stream where there were no rays and would swim across before they could reach her. And a great fright came over them. Rays cannot swim very fast, and they knew that the she-panther would get there before they did.
“Oh, oh!” they cried to each other. “Now our poor man-friend is done for. How can we let the rays down there know we must prevent the panther from crossing at any cost?”
But a little ray, who was a very bright and clever little fish, spoke up and said:
“Get the shiners to carry a message! Shiners can swim like lightning; and they too ought to be grateful to the man for stopping those bombs!”
“That’s it! That’s it! Let’s send the shiners!”
A school of shiners happened to be just going by; and the rays sent them off with a message to all the rays along the river:
“Sting the she-panther if she tries to cross! Hold the ford against the she-panther!”
Though the shiners swam very, very fast, they were barely in time. The panther was already in the water, and had begun to swim out beyond her depth. In fact, she was almost over on the other side toward the island. But when her paws struck bottom and she began to wade again, the rays were on hand. They rushed in packs upon her legs and feet, stinging them with tens, hundreds, thousands of stings. At the same time more rays crowded in between the panther and the shore. Roaring with pain and anger, she finally swam back to the place where she had jumped in, and rolled about on the ground in agony. When she came back to where her husband was lying, her paws and legs were all swollen from the poison.
The rays, for their part, were getting very tired from all this stinging and hurrying to and fro. And they were not much relieved when they saw the panther and the she-panther get up all of a sudden and go off into the woods. What were they up to now? The rays were very much worried, and they gathered together in council.
“Do you know what I think?” said the oldest ray. “I think they have gone off to get all the other panthers. When they come back, they will be too much for us and they will surely get across!”
“That is so!” said the other rays, the older and more experienced ones. “At least one or two will get across. That will be the end of our friend, the man! Suppose we go and have a talk with him!”
For the first time they now went over to where the man was lying. They had been too busy up to then to think of him.
The man had lost a great deal of blood, and was still lying on the ground; but he was able to sit up enough to talk. The rays told him how they had been defending the ford against the panthers who had been trying to eat him. The man could hardly keep in his tears as he thought of the friendship these fishes had for him. He thanked them by reaching out his hand and stroking the nearest ones on the nose. But then he moaned:
“Alas! You cannot save me! When the panthers come back there will be many of them; and if they want to get across they can.”
“No they can’t,” said a little ray. “No they can’t! Nobody but a friend of ours can cross this ford!”
“I’m afraid they will be too much for you,” said the man sadly. After a moment’s thought he added:
“There might be one way to stop them. If there were someone to go and get my rifle … I have a Winchester, with a box of bullets … but the only friends I have near here are fish … and fish can’t bring me a rifle!”
“Well…?” asked the rays anxiously.
“Yes … yes …” said the man, rubbing his forehead with his right hand, as though trying to collect his thoughts. “Let’s see…. Once I had a friend, a river hog, whom I tamed and kept in my house to play with my children. One day he got homesick and went back to the woods to live. I don’t know what became of him … but I think he came to this neighborhood!”
The rays gave one great shout of joy:
“We know him! We know him! He lives in the cave just below here in the river bank. We remember now that he once told us he knew you very well. We will send him to get the rifle.”
No sooner said than done! A shiner, who was the fastest swimmer in his school, started off down the river to where the river hog lived. It was not far away; and before long the river hog came up on the bank across the river. The man picked up a fishbone from the ground near him; and dipping it in some blood that was on his hand wrote on a dry leaf this letter to his wife:
“Dear Wife: Send me my Winchester by this river hog, with a full box of a hundred bullets.
(Signed) The Man.”
He was just finishing the letter when the whole river valley began to tremble with the most frightful roars. The panthers were coming back in a large company to force a crossing and devour their enemy. Quickly two rays stuck their heads out of the water. The man handed them the leaf with the letter written on it; and holding it up clear of the water, they swam over to where the river hog was. He took it in his mouth and ran off as fast as he could toward the man’s house.
And he had no time to lose. The roaring was now very close to the river and every moment it was getting nearer. The rays called anxiously to the shiners, who were hovering in the water nearby waiting for orders:
“Quick, shiners! Swim up and down the river, and give a general alarm! Have all the rays gather about the island on every side! We will see whether these panthers get across!”
And up and down the river the shiners darted, streaking the surface with tiny black wakes, so fast did they move. The rays began coming out from the mud, from under the stones, from the mouths of the brooks, from all along the river. They assembled in solid masses, almost, around the island, bent on keeping the panthers back at whatever cost. And meanwhile the shiners came streaming up and down past the island, raising new recruits and ready to give the word when the panthers appeared.
And the panthers did appear, at last. With a great roar an army of them came leaping down to the river bank. There were a hundred of them, perhaps; at least all the panthers in the woods around Misiones. But, on the other hand, the river was now packed with rays, who were ready to die, rather than let a single panther across.
“Get out of our way!” roared the panthers.
“No trespassing on this river!” said the rays.
“Gangway!” called the panthers.
“Keep out!” said the rays.
“If you don’t get out of the way, we will eat every ray, and every son of a ray, and every grandson of a ray, not counting the women and children!” said the panthers.
“Perhaps,” said the rays; “but no panther, nor any son, grandson, daughter, granddaughter, sister, brother, wife, aunt or uncle of a panther will ever get across this ford!
“For one last time, get out of the way!”
“Not never!” said the rays.
And the battle began.
With enormous bounds and jumps and leaps, the panthers plunged into the river. But they landed on an almost solid floor of ray fish. The rays plunged their stingers into the panthers’ feet, and at each prick the panthers would send up the most bloodcurdling roars. Meanwhile the panthers were clawing and kicking at the rays, making frightful splashes in the water and tossing up ray fish by the barrel full. Hundreds and hundreds of rays were caught and torn by the panthers’ claws, and went floating down the Yabebirì, which was soon all tinged with ray blood. But the panthers were getting terribly stung, too; and many of them had to go back to the shore, where they lay roaring and whining, holding their swollen paws up in the air. Though many more of the rays were being trampled on, and scratched and bitten, they held their ground. Sometimes when a ray had been tossed into the air by a panther’s paw, he would return to the fight after he had fallen back into the water.
The combat had now lasted as long as half an hour. By that time the panthers were tired out and had gone back to the shore they came from, where they sat down to rest and to lick the stings on their paws.
Not one of them had been able to cross the ford, however. But the rays were in a terrible plight. Thousands of them had been killed; and those that still remained were about tired to death.
“We cannot stand a second attack like this one,” said the rays. “Hey, shiners! Go up and down the river again, and bring us reenforcements! We must have every single last ray there is in the Yabebirì!”
And again the shiners were off up and down the river, flecking the surface of the water with the wakes they left. The rays now thought they should consult the man again.
“We cannot hold out much longer!” said the rays. And some of them actually wept for the poor man who was going to be eaten by the panthers.
“Never mind, please, my dear little rays!” answered the man. “You have done enough for me! It’s a pity that any more of you should die. Now you had better let the panthers come across.”
“Not never!” cried the rays. “So long as there is a ray left alive, we shall defend the man who defended us and saved our lives from the bombers.”
“My dear friends,” said the man in reply, “I think I am bound to die anyway, I am so badly wounded. But I can promise you that when that Winchester arrives, you will see some exciting things. That much I am sure of!”
“Yes, we know! We know!” said the rays. But they could not continue the conversation: the battle was on again. The panthers had now rested, and were crouching all on the river bank, ready to take off with great leaps and bounds.
“We’ll give you one last chance!” they called to the rays. “Now be reasonable! Get out of our way!”
“Not never!” said the rays, crowding up close along the shore in front of the panthers.
In a flash, the panthers were in the water again, and the same terrible fight as before was taking place. The Yabebirì from shore to shore was one mass of bloody foam. Hundreds and hundreds of rays were tossed into the air, while the panthers bellowed from the pain in their paws. But not a panther and not a ray gave an inch of ground.
However, the panthers were little by little forcing their way forward. In vain the shiners darted up and down the river calling in more and more rays to battle. There were no rays left anywhere along the stream. Every last ray was either fighting desperately in the army around the island, or was floating bruised and bleeding down the current. Such as were still left were all but helpless from the fatigue of their great efforts.
And now they realized that the battle was lost. Five of the biggest panthers had broken through the lines of the rays, and were swimming through clear water straight toward the island. The poor rays decided they would rather die than see their poor friend eaten by the panthers.
“Retreat to the island!” they called to each other. “Back to the island!”
But this was too late, alas. Two more panthers had now broken through the line; and when the rays started for the island, every last panther on the shore jumped into the water and made for the wounded man. Ten, twenty, fifty, perhaps a hundred panthers could be seen swimming with just their heads out of water.
But what was that down there? The rays had been so busy fighting they had not noticed before. From a point on the shore some distance below the ford a brown, fuzzy animal had gone into the water, and had been swimming all this time toward the island. It was the river hog, paddling along as fast as he could with his head and neck out of the water and the Winchester in his mouth. He was holding his head away up like that to keep the rifle dry. On the end of the rifle hung the man’s cartridge belt, full of bullets.
The man gave a great cry of joy; for the river hog was quite a distance ahead of the panthers, and he would be ashore by the time they began to wade again. And the river hog did get there in no time. The man was too weak to move much; so the river hog pulled him around by the collar so that he lay facing the panthers. In this position the man loaded the rifle and took aim.
The rays, meanwhile, were heart broken. Crushed, scratched, bruised, bleeding, worn out from struggling, they saw that they had lost the battle. The panthers were almost over to the island. In a few moments their friend would be eaten alive!
C-r-r-ack! C-r-r-r-ack! Bing! Bing. The rays who had their eyes out of water suddenly saw a panther, who was just coming up out of the river toward the man, give a great leap into the air and fall back to the ground in a heap.
The rays understood! “Hoo-ray! Hoo-ray Hoo-ray!” shouted the rays. “The man has the rifle! He is saved! We have won!” And they dirtied all the water, so much mud did they stir up by the dancing they started on the bottom of the river. C-r-r-r-ack! C-r-r-ack! Bing-g-g! Bing-g-g! The rifle kept going off and the bullets kept singing through the air. At each shot a panther fell dead on the sand or sank drowning under the water. The shooting did not last more than a minute and a half, however. After ten or a dozen panthers had been killed, the others swam back to the opposite shore and ran off into the woods.
The panthers that were killed in the water, sank to the bottom where the horn-pouts ate them. Others kept afloat, and the shiners went down the Yabebirì with them, all the way to the Parana, having a great feast off panther meat, and jumping and hopping along the top of the water to express their delight. When the friends of the wounded man came to get him, they skinned the panthers that were lying on the shore; and the man’s wife had a set of new rugs for her dining room.
Soon the man got well again. And the rays, who have a great many children each year, were as numerous as ever after one season. The man was so grateful for what they had done in trying to save his life, that he built a bungalow on the island and went there to live during his vacations. On nights in summer, when the moon was shining, he would go out in front of his bungalow and sit down on a rock over the water to smoke his pipe. The rays would creep up softly over the bottom and point him out to fish who did not know him. “There he is, see? The panthers came across over here; we stood in line over there. And when the panthers broke through, the man took his rifle, and….”