They saw him silhouetted on the ridge to the east, the early morning light behind him. He was bounding around like a crazy person, leaping in the air, tumbling to the ground and then kicking out at empty air, up again, and spinning dizzily with one leg thrust out in front of him. “What do you suppose that’s all about?” Fara asked.
“I don’t even know what he is. And I certainly don’t know what he’s doing,” replied Rollie.
For several hours before dawn, the travelers had been trudging along the meandering valley streambed. But now there was enough light to see the figure on the horizon. They knew it was some kind of creature, but no creature any of them had ever seen before. Other than a certain craziness, the creature didn’t seem to be any of the ones they had to fear. They continued up the streambed, but kept a wary eye on the crazy one. When they were near enough to see what he was, the creature also saw them and stopped his acrobatics. He stood still, watching them. Then he leaped to his feet and came bounding down the slope toward them. The travelers all stopped and watched him skid to a stop in front of them. It was a rabbit of some kind, but not the kind Rollie had ever seen before. Nor Fred. Nor Fara. Nor Buzz nor Millie.
He was about twice as tall as Rollie, with ears that stood high high above his head. And his feet were huge. The creature would have made Tucker look like a midget.
He stood before them, his eyes taking them all in, his nose twitching, twitching. Then, “If you’re not a sorry lot. I’ve seen better looking corpses out here in the desert.” He shook his head and chuckled at them. “My name is Black, Black Jack, and what would be the names of you one, two, three, four, five?”
They all looked at each other, confused by this strange looking, strange speaking rabbit. Then Rollie said, “Well, I’m known as Rollie, and this young lady is called Fara, and my crotchety friend here is Fred. The two you see on the mesquite branch are Buzz and Millie.”
“Fine names, fine names. And a fine looking band you are. What exactly brings you out here in this wilderness? Are you lost and in need of directions?”
“No, no,” Rollie hastened to say. “We’re on a quest to find a better place to live than the one we now have. And so far, we haven’t seen anything better. But we just know there must be such a place just down the road, or streambed, or over the next hill.”
“Hmm,” the rabbit said. “Hmm, I don’t know where you began this journey but I’ve lived out here most of my life and there isn’t much in front of you that’s any different from what’s behind you—sage, sometimes green or gray and dusty, sometimes in purple bloom, tired saguaros standing like skeletons to provide homes for cactus wrens and grackles and starlings, mesquite and ragweed and chuckawallabush and prickly pears.”
“We saw you up on top of the slope and didn’t quite understand what you were doing. What were you doing?” Rollie asked.
“Oh, that was my ninja warmup. I do that to get the old muscles moving and the blood warmed up.”
“Your ninja warmup? What’s that?” Rollie asked.
“It’s how I manage to live out here. It’s my hedge against those who are bigger and meaner than I am.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“Let me tell you a story. Then you’ll understand.”
This is Black Jack’s story in his very own words:
When I was just a little thing, about your size now, Rollie, I was always afraid of everything and everyone I met. And I didn’t like living here in the desert. And my parents wouldn’t let me do anything. They just didn’t understand me. So one day, I ran away from home. I traveled far to the east and I survived on my wits and not my strength.
One day, I smelled something that smelled really good, like carrots and peas and clover blossoms, all mixed together. I moved closer and closer to that wonderful smell, and just when I could see it and nearly taste it, a steel door came crashing down right behind me. And when I tried to run, I found out I was in a cage, a steel cage with no way out and no carrots and peas and clover blossoms.
A human came and carried me away, cage and all. But still no carrots and peas and clover blossoms. Just a trip to a place where they put me in a big room with other creatures—cats and dogs and rabbits and hamsters and ferrets and rats. And that’s where we all were kept, in cages. Oh, they fed us all right. But never carrots and peas and clover blossoms.
One day, a human came in and looked at me and looked at me. He was dressed all in black, with a black top hat and a black vest under a black suit. He had a long face with a silky black mustache and eyes that were black and hard as stones and they seemed to hypnotize me. I tried not to look at him but he wouldn’t let me look away.
He said to the human who kept us, “I’ll take him!”
And take me he did. He took me to a place with canvas houses and lights that were on all night, flashing and blinking in reds and greens and blues. And there was music and strange machines that twirled and spun and went up and down. And people everywhere screaming and laughing. He took me into one of the canvas houses and put me down on the ground, still in my cage. He looked me right in the eye and said, “Hello, Mr. Rabbit. I hope you like your new home. You will be my assistant. You will do exactly as I tell you or you will end up in a rabbit stew. Now, which would you rather be? My assistant or a tasty rabbit stew?”
I didn’t think that was a very good choice, so I nodded my head. I would be his assistant. But I didn’t know what I’d be assisting him with. I found out later.
That night, when the sun was down and the lights of red and green and blue were brightest, he took me with him and put me in a hole somewhere, a black and scary hole at that. I sat there shivering and then I heard him shout, “Abra Cadabra!” and I felt him grab me by the ears and pull me out of that hole. The lights were so bright I could hardly see where I was. Then I heard humans screaming and clapping their hands. They were out in the dark where I could barely see them. The human in black bowed and held me up before the crowd and then he popped me back in the hole. Only now I knew it was into a tall black top hat on a table. And there was a hole in the bottom of the top hat, and I fell back into that hole from which he’d pulled me. I didn’t care very much for that place. I sat there and shivered and after a time, I heard the humans clapping and shouting again. Then I felt him take me by the ears and carry me back to my cage. Still no carrots and peas and clover blossoms, just a dry crunchy something that tasted like mesquite chips.
He looked me in the eye and he smiled the slipperiest smile you could imagine and said, “You did very well tonight, my little rabbit assistant. And you will do well to do well every night from now on. Do you understand me, little rabbit?”
I nodded my head. But inside my body I shivered and I shook and I very much wanted to go back home to live with my parents and my sisters and brothers who never made me feel the way this human made me feel.
I was there with him for a long time, assisting him with his tall top hat, listening to the humans clap and shout at him. He even allowed me to roam away from my cage, knowing probably that I wouldn’t run away. I knew how to run but I didn’t know where to run. I ate well and the work wasn’t difficult. So I stayed.
One day, a human dressed not at all like my human came into our canvas house and looked at me. He was dressed in a white garment like silk pajamas that were tied around his middle with a black silk binding. And his feet were bare. With both hands together before him, he bowed to me and then stood erect.
He said, “Good morning, mister rabbit. And how are you today? My name is Domo Arigato and I live several tents away. I specialize in an act involving volunteers from the audience to come into a ring with me, to see if they can stay there for a full three minutes. None ever do. But it is a silly thing for me to be doing. Once I was a proud ninja warrior in a country far far away but somehow I was brought here to perform like a trained seal. I have been doing it for too long but have no other place to go to use my skills. So I stay.
“I have seen you with The Great Gasparini, helping him with his act. I could not help but notice your powerful legs. I come here today to ask if you would be my student. I have missed my teaching. Now I only perform silly things in front of silly people. I have asked The Great Gasparini if he would allow it and he said he didn’t care what you did when you weren’t working. Do you wish to study with me, to learn the art of judo and jujitsu, of karate and tae kwondo? They are noble arts and you would enjoy the discipline they involve. What say you, mister rabbit. Just nod if you agree.”
I nodded. I didn’t know exactly what it was I was going to learn, but I was willing to learn anything. Anything would be better than the dull life I was leading as a top hat rabbit.
For the next two weeks, Mister Arigato and I trained early in the morning, before anyone else was up. We trained on the dirt floor near my cage. First, he showed me how to do starting exercises—stretching, balancing on one foot and then the other, slow spins and hops. Then he began showing me moves to disable an opponent, like stripping his feet from under him by spinning sideways close to the ground and kicking at his legs. Or the jump and hop and spin and kick to the chest or chin. He told me that many moves involve using the hands and arms but that mine were too small and weak. But he said my feet and legs were my true weapons. They were large and strong. Some moves, he said, were not allowed in the honorable systems of self-defense. He would not show me those because he didn’t want me to dishonor his teaching. He presented me with a white sash made of the same material as the black sash he wore. He tied it around my middle and patted me on the head and said I was now a white belt beginner in the martial arts. I looked down and touched my sash. I felt very proud that he was proud of me.
Finally, after nearly a month, he said I was proficient enough that he didn’t need to teach me anymore. That I had now earned a brown belt to replace my belt of white. And he gave it to me and tied it around my middle. I looked down and touched my new sash and felt so proud I thought I would burst.
My life fell into a terrible routine. I worked for Mr. Gasparini and I practiced and I worked for Mr. Gasparini and I practiced, and then I worked some more for Mr. Gasparini and then I practiced some more. Life was not very exciting for me.
One night, at the performance of The Great Gasparini, I was in the hat and I heard him shout, “Abra Cadabra!” and he reached in the hat and grabbed me by the ears and he lifted up the hat and me together. I seemed to be stuck and he couldn’t free me and the people in the audience all began to laugh at him. He was very angry.
He put the hat and me back on the table, but not very gently, and then he tried to continue with his act, but the audience all laughed and booed and many got up and left. Oh my, was the Great Gasparini angry. His face was like a tomato, a huge, round, very ripe tomato, and his little black mustache wiggled up and down as his nose twitched back and forth. When everyone was gone, he grabbed the hat and he grabbed my ears and he tugged me out and in doing so he tore the brim right off the hat. But he got me out and he held me by my ears in front of his red red face and he snarled, “You’ve grown too big to be any use to me! I can’t use a rabbit whose ears and feet are as big as a baby kangaroo’s! Go! Go! Get out of my sight!”
And that’s just what I did. I found Mr. Arigato and thanked him for his kindness and training. He said he would miss me. He also told me never ever to dishonor my training and the belt I had earned. I told him I would never dishonor him and would never forget him. I waved goodbye and he waved back. I left that place of canvas houses and bright lights and I found my way back out to the desert where I belonged. I never found my former home, however, and I never again saw my parents or my brothers and sisters. I miss them, but I’m now I’m a full-grown jack rabbit and have learned to live by myself.
Thus ended Black Jack’s story.
Rollie and the others had remained motionless all through the story. They were all excited by his tales of that other place, of canvas houses and bright lights. But they didn’t think much of being caught in cages. No, even Rollie could see that wasn’t the good place he was looking for. Fara turned her head and sniffed the air and said, “Ooooo, what’s that smell? It smells even worse than skunk and you all know how bad a skunk smells. But what is that?”
Just then a fox came loping down the slope toward them. He was zigging and zagging as he came, and he shouted, “Ooowee! Here I come and I’m about to dine on rabbit or cat or lizard, or maybe all three. Ooowee!” Black Jack stood where he was and just as the fox leaped toward him, he spun in the air and threw out a powerful jackrabbit leg and shouted, “Aheeee Yah!” and his foot went thud into the fox’s chest and sent him tumbling up in the air and down to the ground in a puff of dust. The fox lay there panting, unable to get up, and Jack stood over him and said, “Now, what was that you were saying, Mister Fox? I’d like to hear it again. Something about rabbit or cat or lizard for your dinner? Was that it?” The smell was even stronger now that the fox was there among them. “Don’t you ever take a bath, Mister Fox? Is that why you stink so much?”
Finally, the fox got his wind back and pulled himself slowly, painfully, to his feet. “You, you caught me off guard with your cowardly kick to my chest. You would not be able to do that again. My name is Pepe Vulpine, that is three syllables, Vul-pee-nay. And I do not stink. It is you who smell bad to me.” He began to circle away from Black Jack and get some distance between them. “And now I am going to have that dinner!” he shouted and dashed again at Jack. This time, Jack fell to the ground and kicked the feet right out from under Pepe Vul-pee-nay, and the fox went sliding headfirst through the dust and right into a nearby prickly pear.
“Owwww! Oh now see what you have done! My nose, my poor nose is full of prickly pear prickles!” He pawed at his nose but couldn’t get any of the tiny spears out. “Oh, oh, oh, I will never be able to look any of my foxy lady friends in the face, ever again. This is the end of me.”
“If you promise not to try anything else against us, I’ll help you with your prickly pear problem,” Fara said. “Even though I can barely tolerate your smell. I guess I’ll just have to close by dose and breathe through by bouth while I do it. Dow hold still.”
She moved cautiously to the stricken fox and one by one, she opened her mouth and bit down on each sticker and pulled them out of his nose. One, two, three, four, five, six stickers. When she was done she spit into the sand and backed hurriedly away. “Oh, whew!” she said, breathing through her nose again. “Now that was something I never thought I’d ever do. And I’ll never do it again. Mr. Pepe Vulpine, you should be thankful we’re not as mean and vicious as some people I could name. Now you should just tuck your tail between your legs and go back to wherever you came from. And you can take your smell with you.”
The fox licked his paw and then rubbed his nose and looked at the six of them. And slunk slowly away, his tail very much between his legs, up the slope and over the crest and was gone. But his foxy stink lingered on.