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- ANIMAL HEROES - 7/31 -
and passed. I had hardly time to drop the little door, as a yell burst from the men, "Arnaux! Arnaux! I told you he would. Oh, he's a darling; only three months old and a winner--he's a little darling!" and Arnaux's owner danced, more for joy in his bird than in the purse he had won.
The men sat or kneeled and watched him in positive reverence as he gulped a quantity of water, then turned to the food-trough.
"Look at that eye, those wings, and did you ever see such a breast? Oh, but he's the real grit!" so his owner prattled to the silent ones whose birds had been defeated.
That was the first of Arnaux's exploits. Best of fifty birds from a good loft, his future was bright with promise.
He was invested with the silver anklet of the Sacred Order of the High Homer. It bore his number, 2590 C, a number which to-day means much to all men in the world of the Homing Pigeon.
In that trial flight from Elizabeth only forty birds had returned. It is usually so. Some were weak and got left behind, some were foolish and strayed. By this simple process of flight selection the pigeon-owners keep improving their stock. Of the ten, five were seen no more, but five returned later that day, not all at once, but straggling in; the last of the loiterers was a big, lubberly Blue Pigeon. The man in the loft at the time called: "Here comes that old sap-headed Blue that Jakey was betting on. I didn't suppose he would come back, and I didn't care, neither, for it's my belief he has a streak of Pouter."
The Big Blue, also called "Corner-box" from the nest where he was hatched, had shown remarkable vigor from the first. Though all were about the same age, he had grown faster, was bigger, and incidentally handsomer, though the fanciers cared little for that. He seemed fully aware of his importance, and early showed a disposition to bully his smaller cousins. His owner prophesied great things of him, but Billy, the stable-man, had grave doubts over the length of his neck, the bigness of his crop, his carriage, and his over-size. "A bird can't make time pushing a bag of wind ahead of him. Them long legs is dead weight, an' a neck like that ain't got no gimp in it," Billy would grunt disparagingly as he cleaned out the loft of a morning.
The training of the birds went on after this at regular times. The distance from home, of the start, was "jumped" twenty-five or thirty miles farther each day, and its direction changed till the Homers knew the country for one hundred and fifty miles around New York. The original fifty birds dwindled to twenty, for the rigid process weeds out not only the weak and ill-equipped, but those also who may have temporary ailments or accidents, or who may make the mistake of over-eating at the start. There were many fine birds in that flight, broad-breasted, bright-eyed, long-winged creatures, formed for swiftest flight, for high unconscious emprise, for these were destined to be messengers in the service of man in times of serious need. Their colors were mostly white, blue, or brown. They wore no uniform, but each and all of the chosen remnant had the brilliant eye and the bulging ears of the finest Homer blood; and, best and choicest of all, nearly always first among them was little Arnaux. He had not much to distinguish him when at rest, for now all of the band had the silver anklet, but in the air it was that Arnaux showed his make, and when the opening of the hamper gave the order "Start," it was Arnaux that first got under way, soared to the height deemed needful to exclude all local influence, divined the road to home, and took it, pausing not for food, drink, or company.
Notwithstanding Billy's evil forecasts, the Big Blue of the Corner-box was one of the chosen twenty. Often he was late in returning; he never was first, and sometimes when he came back hours behind the rest, it was plain that he was neither hungry nor thirsty, sure signs that he was a loiterer by the way. Still he had come back; and now he wore on his ankle, like the rest, the sacred badge and a number from the roll of possible fame. Billy despised him, set him in poor contrast with Arnaux, but his owner would reply: "Give him a chance;'soon ripe, soon rotten,' an' I always notice the best bird is the slowest to show up at first."
Before a year little Arnaux had made a record. The hardest of all work is over the sea, for there is no chance of aid from landmarks; and the hardest of all times at sea is in fog, for then even the sun is blotted out and there is nothing whatever for guidance. With memory, sight, and hearing unavailable, the Homer has one thing left, and herein is his great strength, the inborn sense of direction. There is only one thing that can destroy this, and that is fear, hence the necessity of a stout little heart between those noble wings.
Arnaux, with two of his order, in course of training, had been shipped on an ocean steamer bound for Europe. They were to be released out of sight of land, but a heavy fog set in and forbade the start. The steamer took them onward, the intention being to send them back with the next vessel. When ten hours out the engine broke down, the fog settled dense over the sea, and the vessel was adrift and helpless as a log. She could only whistle for assistance, and so far as results were concerned, the captain might as well have wigwagged. Then the Pigeons were thought of. Starback, 2592 C, was first selected. A message for help was written on waterproof paper, rolled up, and lashed to his tail-feathers on the under side. He was thrown into the air and disappeared. Half an hour later, a second, the Big Blue Corner-box, 2600 C, was freighted with a letter. He flew up, but almost immediately returned and alighted on the rigging. He was a picture of pigeon fear; nothing could induce him to leave the ship. He was so terrorized that he was easily caught and ignominiously thrust back into the coop.
Now the third was brought out, a small, chunky bird. The shipmen did not know him, but they noted down from his anklet his name and number, Arnaux, 2590 C. It meant nothing to them. But the officer who held him noted that his heart did not beat so wildly as that of the last bird. The message was taken from the Big Blue. It ran:
10 A.M., Tuesday. We broke our shaft two hundred and ten miles out from New York; we are drifting helplessly in the fog. Send out a tug as soon as possible. We are whistling one long, followed at once by one short, every sixty seconds.
(Signed) THE CAPTAIN.
This was rolled up, wrapped in waterproof film, addressed to the Steamship Company, and lashed to the under side of Arnaux's middle tail-feather.
When thrown into the air, he circled round the ship, then round again higher, then again higher in a wider circle, and he was lost to view; and still higher till quite out of sight and feeling of the ship. Shut out from the use of all his senses now but one, he gave himself up to that. Strong in him it was, and untrammelled of that murderous despot Fear. True as a needle to the Pole went Arnaux now, no hesitation, no doubts; within one minute of leaving the coop he was speeding straight as a ray of light for the loft where he was born, the only place on earth where he could be made content.
That afternoon Billy was on duty when the whistle of fast wings was heard; a blue Flyer flashed into the loft and made for the water-trough. He was gulping down mouthful after mouthful, when Billy gasped: "Why, Arnaux, it's you, you beauty." Then, with the quick habit of the pigeon-man, he pulled out his watch and marked the time, 2:40 P.M, A glance showed the tie string on the tail. He shut the door and dropped the catching-net quickly over Arnaux's head. A moment later he had the roll in his hand; in two minutes he was speeding to the office of the Company, for there was a fat tip in view. There he learned that Arnaux had made the two hundred and ten miles in fog, over sea, in four hours and forty minutes, and within one hour the needful help had set out for the unfortunate steamer.
Two hundred and ten miles in fog over sea in four hours and forty minutes! This was a noble record. It was duly inscribed in the rolls of the Homing Club. Arnaux was held while the secretary, with rubber stamp and indelible ink, printed on a snowy primary of his right wing the record of the feat, with the date and reference number.
Starback, the second bird, never was heard of again. No doubt he perished at sea.
Blue Corner-box came back on the tug.
That was Arnaux's first public record; but others came fast, and several curious scenes were enacted in that old pigeon-loft with Arnaux as the central figure. One day a carriage drove up to the stable; a white-haired gentleman got out, climbed the dusty stairs, and sat all morning in the loft with Billy. Peering from his gold-rimmed glasses, first at a lot of papers, next across the roofs of the city, waiting, watching, for what? News from a little place not forty miles away--news of greatest weight to him, tidings that would make or break him, tidings that must reach him before it could be telegraphed: a telegram meant at least an hour's delay at each end. What was faster than that for forty miles? In those days there was but one thing--a high-class Homer. Money would count for nothing if he could win. The best, the very best at any price he must have, and Arnaux, with seven indelible records on his pinions, was the chosen messenger. An hour went by, another, and a third was begun, when with whistle of wings, the blue meteor flashed into the loft. Billy slammed the door and caught him. Deftly he snipped the threads and handed the roll to the banker. The old man turned deathly pale, fumbled it open, then his color came back. "Thank God!" he gasped, and then went speeding to his Board meeting, master of the situation. Little Arnaux had saved him.
The banker wanted to buy the Homer, feeling in a vague way that he ought to honor and cherish him; but Billy was very clear about it. "What's the good? You can't buy a Homer's heart. You could keep him a prisoner, that's all; but nothing on earth could make him forsake the old loft where he was hatched." So Arnaux stayed at 2ll West Nineteenth Street. But the banker did not forget.
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