The Seed of the Toc-Toc Birds
by Francis Flagg
TALBOT had been working that day, far up in the Catalinas, looking over some mining prospects for his company, and was returning to the Mountain View Hotel in Oracle when, from the mouth of an abandoned shaft some distance back of that town, he saw a strange object emerge.
'Hello,' he said to Manuel, his young Mexican assistant, 'what the devil can that be?'
Manuel crossed himself swiftly.
'Dios!' he exclaimed, 'but it is a queer bird, senor.'
Queer, it certainly was, and of a species Talbot had never before laid eyes on. The bird stood on the crumbling rim of the mining shaft and regarded him with golden eyes. Its body was as large as that of a buzzard, and its head had a flat, reptilian look, unpleasant to see. Nor was that the only odd thing. The feathers glittered metallically, like blued copper, and a streak of glistening silver outlined both wings.
Marveling greatly, and deciding that the bird must be some rare kind escaped from a zoo, or a stray from tropical lands much further south, Talbot advanced cautiously, but the bird viewed his approach with unconcern. Ten feet from it he stopped uneasily. The strange fowl's intent look, its utter immobility, somewhat disconcerted him.
'Look out, senor,' warned Manuel.
Involuntarily, Talbot stepped back. If he had possessed a rifle he would have shot the bird, but neither Manuel nor himself was armed. Suddenly — he had looked away for a moment — the bird was gone. Clutching a short miner's pick-ax, and a little ashamed of his momentary timidity, he strode to the edge of the abandoned shaft and peered down. There was nothing to see; only rotting joists of wood, crumbling earth for a few feet, and then darkness.
HE pondered for a moment. This was the old Wiley claim. He knew it well. The shaft went down for over two hundred feet, and there were several lateral workings, one of which tunneled back into the hills for a considerable distance. The mine had been a bonanza back in the days when Oracle boomed, but the last ore had been taken out in 1905, and for twenty-seven years it had lain deserted. Manuel came up beside him and leaned over.
'What is that?' he questioned.
Talbot heard it himself, a faint rumbling sound, like the rhythmic throb of machinery. Mystified, he gazed blankly at Manuel. Of course it was impossible. What could functioning machinery be doing at the bottom of an abandoned hole in the ground? And where there were no signs of human activity to account for the phenomenon? A more forsaken looking place it would be hard to imagine. Not that the surrounding country wasn't ruggedly beautiful and grand; the hills were covered with live-oak, yucca grass, chulla, manzanita, and starred with the white blossoms of wild thistle. But this locality was remote from human habitation, and lonely.
Could it be, Talbot wondered, the strange bird making that noise? Or perhaps some animal? The noise sounded like nothing any creature, furred or feathered, could make, but, of course, that must be the explanation. However, it would be dark within the hour, with Oracle still two miles distant, so he turned reluctantly away, Manuel thwacking the burros from the grazing they had found. But that was not to be the end of the odd experience. Just before the trail swung over the next rise, Talbot glanced back. There, perching on the rim of the abandoned mining shaft, were not one but two of the strange birds. As if cognizant of his backward glance, they napped their gleaming, metallic wings, although they did not rise, and gave voice to what could only be their natural harsh cries, measured and, somehow, sinister.
Talbot went to bed determined to investigate the old Wiley claim the next day, but in the morning an urgent telegram called him and Manuel to Phoenix, and so the matter was necessarily postponed. Moreover, on mature reflection, he decided that there was nothing much to investigate. The days went by, the matter slipped his mind, and he had almost forgotten the incident.
IT was an Indian who first brought news of the jungle to Oracle. His name was John Redpath and he wasn't the average person's idea of an Indian at all. He wore store clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, and spoke English with the colloquial ease of one whose native language it was. It was ten o'clock in the morning, the hour when people gathered at the local store and post-office to gossip and get their mail, when he came driving into town in his Ford, his terrified wife and three children crowded into the back seat.
'What's the matter, John?' asked Silby, the constable.
'Matter?' said Redpath. 'I'll tell you what's the matter.'
He held the attention of the crowd which now began flocking around him. 'You know me, Silby; I'm not easily frightened; but what's happened at my place has me scared stiff.'
He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow.
'When we went to bed last night, everything looked as usual; but this morning….'
'Something over night had grown up in my pasture. Don't ask me what it is. The whole hillside was filled with it. I went to the pasture to milk my goats — that's some distance from the house and over a rise; you know how rugged my land is — and there was the stuff, acres of it, twenty, thirty feet tall, like — like nothing I had ever seen before. And Silby' — his voice was suddenly low—'I could see it growing.'
AT this remarkable statement, everyone in sound of his voice gaped with astonishment. Had it been any other Indian they would have said he was drunk — but not John Redpath. He didn't drink.
'Growing?' echoed Silby stupidly.
'Yes. The damn stuff was growing. But it wasn't that which stampeded me out of there. It was the globe.'
'The globe!' said Silby, more mystified than ever.
'It was floating over the growing stuff, like a black balloon. Just over my place the balloon began to sift down a shower of pebbles. Like beans, they were; seeds, rather; for when they hit the ground they started to sprout.'
'Sprout?' The constable was capable of nothing more than an echo.
'I'm telling you the truth,' continued Redpath. 'Incredibly fast. I had barely time to crank up the car and get out of there. I never would have done it if the strange growth hadn't left the way clear from the garage to the road. Silby, I had the devil of a time getting the wife and kids out of the house. When I looked back after going a quarter of a mile the house had disappeared under a tangled mass.'
There was no time for anyone to question John Redpath further. Even as he finished speaking a large automobile dashed up and out tumbled a well-dressed and portly red-faced stranger.
'What the devil's the matter with the road above here? Funniest thing I ever saw. The road to Mount Lemmon's blocked. My family,' he said inconsequentially, 'is at Mount Lemmon for the summer and I want to get through to them.'
Blocked! The crowd stared at him wonderingly. John Redpath threw in his clutch. 'So long,' he said. 'I've a brother in Tucson, and I'm going to his place until this blows over.'
As he left Oracle, John Redpath noticed several dark globes drifting down on it from the hills.
THE first inkling the outside world had of the terrible tragedy that was happening at Oracle came over the phone to Tucson while John Redpath was still en route to that city.
'Hello, hello! Is this the police station? Silby speaking. Silby, town constable at Oracle. For God's sake, send us help! We're being attacked. Yes, attacked from the air. By strange aircraft, round globes, discharging — oh, I don't know what it is; only it grows when it hits the earth. Yes, grows. Oracle is hemmed in. And there are the birds — b-i-r-d-s, birds—'
There was a stifled cry, the voice suddenly ceased, and the wire went dead.
'My God!' said the chief of police of Tucson, 'somebody's raving.' He lost no time in communicating with the