The Hunters

by Joseph Samachson

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: To all who didn't know him, Curt George was a mighty hunter and actor. But this time he was up against others who could really act, and whose business was the hunting of whole worlds.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

There were thirty or more of the little girls, their ages ranging apparently from nine to eleven, all of them chirping away like a flock of chicks as they followed the old mother hen past the line of cages. “Now, now, girls,” called Miss Burton cheerily. “Don’t scatter. I can’t keep my eye on you if you get too far away from me. You, Hilda, give me that water pistol. No, don’t fill it up first at that fountain. And Frances, stop bouncing your ball. You’ll lose it through the bars, and a polar bear may get it and not want to give it back.”

Frances giggled. “Oh, Miss Burton, do you think the polar bear would want to play catch?”

The two men who were looking on wore pleased smiles. “Charming,” said Manto. “But somewhat unpredictable, despite all our experiences, muy amigo.”

“No attempts at Spanish, Manto, not here. It calls attention to us. And you are not sure of the grammar anyway. You may find yourself saying things you do not intend.”

“Sorry, Palit. It wasn’t an attempt to show my skill, I assure you. It’s that by now I have a tendency to confuse one language with another.”

“I know. You were never a linguist. But about these interesting creatures--”

“I suggest that they could stand investigation. It would be good to know how they think.”

“Whatever you say, Manto. If you wish, we shall join the little ladies.”

“We must have our story prepared first.”

Palit nodded, and the two men stepped under the shade of a tree whose long, drooping, leaf-covered branches formed a convenient screen. For a moment, the tree hid silence. Then there came from beneath the branches the chatter of girlish voices, and two little girls skipped merrily away. Miss Burton did not at first notice that now she had an additional two children in her charge.

“Do you think you will be able to keep your English straight?” asked one of the new little girls.

The other one smiled with amusement and at first did not answer. Then she began to skip around her companion and chant, “I know a secret, I know a secret.”

There was no better way to make herself inconspicuous. For some time, Miss Burton did not notice her.

The polar bears, the grizzlies, the penguins, the reptiles, all were left behind. At times the children scattered, but Miss Burton knew how to get them together again, and not one was lost.

“Here, children, is the building where the kangaroos live. Who knows where kangaroos come from?”

“Australia!” clanged the shrill chorus.

“That’s right. And what other animals come from Australia?”

“I know, Miss Burton!” cried Frances, a dark-haired nine-year-old with a pair of glittering eyes that stared like a pair of critics from a small heart-shaped face. “I’ve been here before. Wallabies and wombats!”

“Very good, Frances.”

Frances smirked at the approbation. “I’ve been to the zoo lots of times,” she said to the girl next to her. “My father takes me.”

“I wish my father would take me too,” replied the other little girl, with an air of wistfulness.

“Why don’t you ask him to?” Before the other little girl could answer, Frances paused, cocked her head slightly, and demanded, “Who are you? You aren’t in our class.”

“I’m in Miss Hassel’s class.”

“Miss Hassel? Who is she? Is she in our school?”

“I don’t know,” said the other little girl uncertainly. “I go to P. S. 77--”

“Oh, Miss Burton,” screamed Frances. “Here’s a girl who isn’t in our class! She got lost from her own class!”

“Really?” Miss Burton seemed rather pleased at the idea that some other teacher had been so careless as to lose one of her charges. “What’s your name, child?”

“I’m Carolyn.”

“Carolyn what?”

“Carolyn Manto. Please, Miss Burton, I had to go to the bathroom, and then when I came out--”

“Yes, yes, I know.”

A shrill cry came from another section of her class. “Oh, Miss Burton, here’s another one who’s lost!”

The other little girl was pushed forward. “Now, who are you?” Miss Burton asked.

“I’m Doris Palit. I went with Carolyn to the bathroom--”

Miss Burton made a sound of annoyance. Imagine losing two children and not noticing it right away. The other teacher must be frantic by now, and serve her right for being so careless.

“All right, you may stay with us until we find a policeman--” She interrupted herself. “Frances, what are you giggling at now?”

“It’s Carolyn. She’s making faces just like you!”

“Really, Carolyn, that isn’t at all nice!”

Carolyn’s face altered itself in a hurry, so as to lose any resemblance to Miss Burton’s. “I’m sorry, Miss Burton, I didn’t really mean to do anything wrong.”

“Well, I’d like to know how you were brought up, if you don’t know that it’s wrong to mimic people to their faces. A big girl like you, too. How old are you, Carolyn?”

Carolyn shrank, she hoped imperceptibly, by an inch. “I’m two--”

An outburst of shrill laughter. “She’s two years old, she’s two years old!”

“I was going to say, I’m towelve. Almost, anyway.”

“Eleven years old,” said Miss Burton. “Old enough to know better.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Burton. And honest, Miss Burton, I didn’t mean anything, but I’m studying to be an actress, and I imitate people, like the actors you see on television--”

“Oh, Miss Burton, please don’t make her go home with a policeman. If she’s going to be an actress, I’ll bet she’d love to see Curt George!”

“Well, after the way she’s behaved, I don’t know whether I should let her. I really don’t.”

“Please, Miss Burton, it was an accident. I won’t do it again.”

“All right, if you’re good, and cause no trouble. But we still have plenty of time before seeing Mr. George. It’s only two now, and we’re not supposed to go to the lecture hall until four.”

“Miss Burton,” called Barbara Willman, “do you think he’d give us his autograph?”

“Now, children, I’ve warned you about that. You mustn’t annoy him. Mr. George is a famous movie actor, and his time is valuable. It’s very kind of him to offer to speak to us, especially when so many grown-up people are anxious to hear him, but we mustn’t take advantage of his kindness.”

“But he likes children, Miss Burton! My big sister read in a movie magazine where it said he’s just crazy about them.”

“I know, but--he’s not in good health, children. They say he got jungle fever in Africa, where he was shooting all those lions, and rhinoceroses, and elephants for his new picture. That’s why you mustn’t bother him too much.”

“But he looks so big and strong, Miss Burton. It wouldn’t hurt him to sign an autograph!”

“Oh, yes, it would,” asserted one little girl. “He shakes. When he has an attack of fever, his hand shakes.”

“Yes, Africa is a dangerous continent, and one never knows how the dangers will strike one,” said Miss Burton complacently. “So we must all remember how bravely Mr. George is fighting his misfortune, and do our best not to tire him out.”

In the bright light that flooded the afternoon breakfast table, Curt George’s handsome, manly face wore an expression of distress. He groaned dismally, and muttered, “What a head I’ve got, what a head. How do you expect me to face that gang of kids without a drink to pick me up?”

“You’ve had your drink,” said Carol. She was slim, attractive, and efficient. At the moment she was being more efficient than attractive, and she could sense his resentment. “That’s all you get. Now, lay off, and try to be reasonably sober, for a change.”

“But those kids! They’ll squeal and giggle--”

“They’re about the only audience in the world that won’t spot you as a drunk. God knows where I could find any one else who’d believe that your hand shakes because of fever.”

“I know that you’re looking out for my best interests, Carol. But one more drink wouldn’t hurt me.”

She said wearily, but firmly, “I don’t argue with drunks, Curt. I just go ahead and protect them from themselves. No drinks.”


“I can’t watch you the way a mother watches a child.”

The contemptuous reply sent his mind off on a new tack. “You could if we were married.”

“I’ve never believed in marrying weak characters to reform them.”

“But if I proved to you that I could change--”

“Prove it first, and I’ll consider your proposal afterwards.”

“You certainly are a cold-blooded creature, Carol. But I suppose that in your profession you have to be.”

“Cold, suspicious, nasty--and reliable. It’s inevitable when I must deal with such warm-hearted, trusting, and unreliable clients.”

He watched her move about the room, clearing away the dishes from his meager breakfast. “What are you humming, Carol?”

“Was I humming?”

“I thought I recognized it--All of Me, Why Not Take All of Me? That’s it! Your subconscious gives you away. You really want to marry me!”

“A mistake,” she said coolly. “My subconscious doesn’t know what it’s talking about. All I want of you is the usual ten per cent.”

“Can’t you forget for a moment that you’re an agent, and remember that you’re a woman, too?”

“No. Not unless you forget that you’re a drunk, and remember that you’re a man. Not unless you make me forget that you drank your way through Africa--”

“Because you weren’t there with me!”

“--with hardly enough energy to let them dress you in that hunter’s outfit and photograph you as if you were shooting lions.”

“You’re so unforgiving, Carol. You don’t have much use for me, do you--consciously, that is?”

“Frankly, Curt, no. I don’t have much use for useless people.”

“I’m not entirely useless. I earn you that ten per cent--”

“I’d gladly forego that to see you sober.”

“But it’s your contempt for me that drives me to drink. And when I think of having to face those dear little kiddies with nothing inside me--”

“There should be happiness inside you at the thought of your doing a good deed. Not a drop, George, not a drop.”

The two little girls drew apart from the others and began to whisper into each other’s ears. The whispers were punctuated by giggles which made the entire childish conversation seem quite normal. But Palit was in no laughing mood. He said, in his own language, “You’re getting careless, Manto. You had no business imitating her expression.”

“I’m sorry, Palit, but it was so suggestive. And I’m a very suggestible person.”

“So am I. But I control myself.”

“Still, if the temptation were great enough, I don’t think you’d be able to resist either.”

“The issues are important enough to make me resist.”

“Still, I thought I saw your own face taking on a bit of her expression too.”

“You are imagining things, Manto. Another thing, that mistake in starting to say you were two hundred years old--”

“They would have thought it a joke. And I think I got out of that rather neatly.”

“You like to skate on thin ice, don’t you, Manto? Just as you did when you changed your height. You had no business shrinking right out in public like that.”

“I did it skillfully. Not a single person noticed.”

I noticed.”

“Don’t quibble.”

“I don’t intend to. Some of these children have very sharp eyes. You’d be surprised at what they see.”

Manto said tolerantly, “You’re getting jittery, Palit. We’ve been away from home too long.”

“I am not jittery in the least. But I believe in taking due care.”

“What could possibly happen to us? If we were to announce to the children and the teacher, and to every one in this zoo, for that matter, exactly who and what we were, they wouldn’t believe us. And even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to act rapidly enough to harm us.”

“You never can tell about such things. Wise--people--simply don’t take unnecessary chances.”

“I’ll grant that you’re my superior in such wisdom.”

“You needn’t be sarcastic, Manto, I know I’m superior. I realize what a godsend this planet is--you don’t. It has the right gravity, a suitable atmosphere, the proper chemical composition--everything.”

“Including a population that will be helpless before us.”

“And you would take chances of losing all this.”

“Don’t be silly, Palit. What chances am I taking?”

“The chance of being discovered. Here we stumble on this place quite by accident. No one at home knows about it, no one so much as suspects that it exists. We must get back and report--and you do all sorts of silly things which may reveal what we are, and lead these people to suspect their danger.”

This time, Manto’s giggle was no longer mere camouflage, but expressed to a certain degree how he felt. “They cannot possibly suspect. We have been all over the world, we have taken many forms and adapted ourselves to many customs, and no one has suspected. And even if danger really threatened, it would be easy to escape. I could take the form of the school teacher herself, of a policeman, of any one in authority. However, at present there is not the slightest shadow of danger. So, Palit, you had better stop being fearful.”

Palit said firmly, “Be careful, and I won’t be fearful. That’s all there is to it.”

“I’ll be careful. After all, I shouldn’t want us to lose these children. They’re so exactly the kind we need. Look how inquiring they are, how unafraid, how quick to adapt to any circumstances--”

Miss Burton’s voice said, “Good gracious, children, what language are you using? Greek?”

They had been speaking too loud, they had been overheard. Palit and Manto stared at each other, and giggled coyly. Then, after a second to think, Palit said, “Onay, Issmay Urtonbay!”


Frances shrilled triumphantly, “It isn’t Greek, Miss Burton, it’s Latin--Pig-Latin. She said, ‘No, Miss Burton.’”

“Good heavens, what is Pig-Latin?”

“It’s a kind of way of talking where you talk kind of backwards. Like, you don’t say, Me, you say, Emay.”

“You don’t say, Yes, you say Esyay,” added another little girl.

“You don’t say, You, you say, Ouyay. You don’t say--”

“All right, all right, I get the idea.”

“You don’t say--”

“That’ll do,” said Miss Burton firmly. “Now, let’s get along to the lion house. And please, children, do not make faces at the lions. How would you like to be in a cage and have people make faces at you? Always remember to be considerate to others.”

“Even lions, Miss Burton?”

“Even lions.”

“But Mr. George shot lots of lions. Was he considerate of them too?”

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