Home  

Chapter XV
Dog Friends And A Boy Chum

From "John Burroughs - Boy And Man" (1920)
By Clara Barrus

It may be said of John Burroughs as Froissart said of Count De Foix, "He mightily loved dogs above all other animals." He often says of himself, "I can look in the face of an ugly dog and win him, but with an ugly man I have less success, and with an ugly woman -- I would turn and flee."

Slabsides

John Burroughs at Slabsides

 
I have seen him make friends with an ugly and crabbed Chow who savagely repelled overtures from all others; have seen his neighbour's blind Rover jump about joyfully on hearing his voice, forsake his owner and follow Mr. Burroughs in blind devotion. The latter could not sneak by the house but that Rover knew his step, and would follow him to Slabsides. I have seen a wet, bedraggled strange cur steal into a room where Mr. Burroughs was sitting with several others, all equally strange; seen the cur go straight to him, climb upon his lap in spite of his protests, and settle down there, sure of his welcome, the protest insensibly merging into gentle chidings, and then into caressing tones, as the wet dog, unabashed, turned around and cuddled down upon his knees. Yes, he has mightily loved dogs, and they have mightily loved him.

 
In those first days at Riverby, before his son was old enough to be his companion, Mr. Burroughs had a dog, Rab, the light and life of the home, who shared his work and play; just a common cur, a mixture of black and tan terrier and mastiff, he yet had an uncommon amount of canine intelligence and devotion. The incarnation of youth and adventure was Rab -- a walking holiday, as it were, and he and John Burroughs were boon companions.

But the companionship was brief, only a few months. Rab got the dog distemper and, though seeming to recover, succumbed after a relapse. With what tenacity, though, he clung to life! For two days and nights they watched over him before release came, but even when too weak to lift his head, he recognized the voice of his master.

Rab's grave was made beside the flat rock that leads to the spring, and at its head his master placed the crooked staff which he had so often carried to the woods on their rambles. Carving Rab's name upon it, and the date of his passing, he said on thrusting it into the ground, "There, Rab! my staff shall be your monument. I shall not need it again this summer. I shall walk alone and staffless hereafter in the lonely woods." And leaning on his hoe handle, he looked across to the hills beyond the river, tenderly musing on his faithful friend.

Rover, whom he rechristened Rose Mary Rose, though not because of any real claim to the girlish name, was his next dog friend, the companion of his walks for two or three years, a spirited black and tan of good breeding, a slender dog with a tail like a rush, and a tongue like a roseleaf. Says Mr. Burroughs:

    As soon as I would begin to harness the horse, Rose would begin to bark like mad, and circle around the place. Finally, getting rid of his superfluous joy, he would sober down a little, and off we would start. If he saw me putting bread and grapes in my pocket, he knew that meant a trip to the woods and a joyous adventure.

Rose liked the woods better than the river. Once when they were out in a rowboat, the river being rough, a queer expression came over his face. He looked as though he were going to laugh; instead, up came his dinner, and a more forlorn-looking dog for a few minutes never wagged a tail.

It was Rose of whom he often speaks as "the hero of the Battle of Lundy's Lane." Although naturally peaceable, he could defend himself if need be, and when one day as they traversed the lane of Neighbour Lundy, two common curs came out and pitched into him, Rose, supple and spry, cut out right and left, and whipped them both, routing them-with his master's help. "He and I came off victorious. I told him I would erect a monument to him to celebrate the battle."

Poor Rose was poisoned by some boys who said that he bit them. " I laid him on a little bed at the foot of the stairs, and there he died. I kept him a day or two in his little bed, then buried him under the old gill-flower apple tree."

Lark was the next dog, the most gentle and affectionate of them all; an unsophisticated little mongrel, a short, shaggy, black and yellow dog, with a curiously-shaped head:

    I had first seen him with a man on the streets of Poughkeepsie, where we scraped acquaintance. He took a shine to me and I to him, so I gave the man two or three dollars for him, and we came home together -a happy pair!

    Lark was a little fellow. Many's the time I have carried him on my shoulders when the snow was too deep for him in the woods. He was my muse and the inspiration of all my walks. The "Notes of a Walker" are mainly his. He would sniff out the fact and I, as his secretary, would chronicle it. He hunted bees with me. "The Idyl of the Honey Bee" is Lark's as well as mine. He used to ride in the buggy with me in my trips to Roxbury. Ass he would sit on the seat beside me, he would unburden his mind threateningly to every dog we passed, but if I put him down on the ground, he would shrink back and seem to say, " Oh! I don't want to fight! I don't want to fight at all." I used to tell him his tail was a flag of defiance in front, and a flag of truce behind. He couldn't kill a woodchuck-couldn't kill anything. He had no more fight in him than I have. He was a pacifist through and through.

    I remember one day as we were coming home from the woods, I saw that Lark had something cornered against a stone wall.

    "What have you got there?" I asked.

    He danced and barked in glee. His prey was behind a flat stone that rested against the wall. He barked as much as to say, "You pull down that stone!" I did, and Lark received in his face the charge from the masked battery of the enemy in black and white uniform. Crestfallen, we went home, but the news got there before we did and for a long time our room was better than our company.

When Lark died, his master mourned him deeply, writing Myron Benton that he doubted if he should ever give his heart to another dog-it was too painful to be widowed in that way. And Lark was laid to rest with the others beside the old drift boulder.

When Julian was a very little fellow his father used to amuse him by making up doggerel about his dogs:

    Hark to the tale of my dog, Lark!
    He can bark after dark,
    And hit the mark
    Way over to Hyde Park.

There was a longer, never-ending one about Rose:

    Rose Mary Rose,
    Just you suppose,
    When the wind blows,
    And down come the snows,
    You should kick off the clothes
    And thus expose
    Both your nose and your toes
    Until they were froze. .

By this time the child would stop up his ears and plead, Oh, Papa, stop! stop!"

Laddie and Ino were two dogs which he had at the same time. Ino, a big shaggy black dog with a white breast, was a cross between a setter and some common breed. He was the companion of Julian as well as of his father. Whenever Mr. Burroughs would return from his trips of examining banks, Ino would be at the train to meet him, always so relieved on catching sight of him; but one day when Ino went as usual to the train, his master disappointed him, and Ino, hanging around the tracks, got run over by the cars.

Laddie was a mixture of water spaniel and black and tan, with bristly hair. He and his master once had an exciting adventure on the river ice toward spring. They started to go across to Hyde Park, but the ice being very brittle, they were in great danger of breaking through. While picking his way across, chancing to look up, Mr. Burroughs saw Laddie running for dear life toward the shore, while the shore itself was apparently going down stream very fast. The ice-harvesters had cut a canal twenty feet wide to the opposite shore, and the flood-tide was carrying the whole body of ice up the width of that canal. The ice moved up only twenty feet and stopped. Seeing that when the tide turned, the whole body of ice would go down the river, Mr. Burroughs said, "Laddie, we must leave our errand undone, and go back home as fast as we can." His own knees were shaking, and Laddie was trembling piteously, saying as plainly as a dog could say, " Dear Master, I beg of you, don't go back across the ice -- don't -- but if you do, I'll have to go with you."

There was no time to lose, and disregarding Laddie's entreaties, he again embarked on the ice, Laddie following closely. It was ticklish business, but they gained the home shore in safety. An hour later, away went the ice down the river, leaving a great smooth open space from the shore.

Laddie's fate was a sad one. He followed the butcher off one day, was attacked by a big Newfoundland dog, and died of the wounds:

    When I came back and saw him lying there, wounded, and all but dead, I cried, "Oh! Laddie, Laddie!" and all his wounds started and bled afresh. He knew my voice.

And, though so many years have passed, as Laddie's master speaks of this, the sorrowful voice is choked, and the eyes fill with tears.

"Rab and Rose and Lark and Laddie," he repeats tenderly -- " There they lie under the sod. They filled a need in my life. It seems as if it had been in some other world -the dear things!''

Nip, the last dog he ever had, was a fox terrier, white with a short tail, and a black spot on one eye and ear. He was given him by Mrs. Vanderbilt, his neighbour across the river.

One October day as Mr. Burroughs and Nip were going across the railroad bridge over Black Creek, as they had gone a hundred times before, Mr. Burroughs stopped at the end of the bridge to look down the creek. Nip stopped, too, looked about, and, somehow, forgetting himself, slipped off the tie and fell through, striking some fifty feet below on some stones.

He got up and ran crying a few steps, then fell over in his death agony. His master was stunned. It was one of the worst shocks he ever had, and for a few minutes the whole universe seemed bereft. Going down the steep bank, and lifting the limp body of his little friend, he placed it near the abutment of the bridge, and went sorrowfully home. All through the night he dreamed of Nip, and the next morning, carrying the lifeless body home in a basket, put it before the fire, craving to see him once again in his old place, before the earth should hide him forever from sight. On making his little grave near Slabsides, he felt in burying Nip that he was burying a part of himself.

Although he has cherished certain cats also, they were never as beloved as his canine friends; still Nig, Tom Tinker, and Silly Sally held warm places in his affections, in spite of the diligence they showed in pursuing the birds. Silly Sally, especially, was an ardent ornithologist. No matter how much he remonstrated with her because of her taste for birds, she pursued them with unabated zeal, and when, at last, old and decrepit, she went to the happy hunting-grounds where cats in time must go, he vowed he would have no more pet cats.

Nig, too, was a pet that would bear watching. One day as the Fruit Farmer was sitting in the summer-house with Nig on his knee, he saw Stripe Coat come out of his den in the side of a bank near the Study. Pausing in its doorway, the little rodent glanced nervously about, leapt to a tussock of grass, put up one foot appealingly, then scam

scampered away to a friendly pile of grape-posts down below. Nig saw Stripe Coat quite as distinctly as did her master, and jumped to the floor, but at his sharp command sat down demurely and folded her paws, regarding the chipmunk dreamily.

Shortly after, the master being called to the house, Nig improved her opportunity: as he was starting back, he met her coming toward him with Stripe- Coat hanging limp from her mouth. Angered, he rescued the victim and reproved Nig roundly. The little creature lay as if dead in his hand, though showing no marks of the cat's teeth. Soon it gasped and its heart began to beat perceptibly. Though Nig had choked it, it had been saved in the nick of time. He put it down by its door and watched till it had crawled inside. Later, calling to express his sympathy, he left some corn to atone for Nig's cruelty. Before many days Stripe Coat was travelling her accustomed ways, though warier than ever; and in the summer four baby Stripe Coats emerged from the little round doorway and frisked about in safety, for then the great black monster with the green eyes had gone where it could trouble them no more.

At a very early age Julian became his father's comrade, indoors and out. His father recited nursery rhymes to him, read him fairy tales, told him stories, and later read him many a tale of adventure and travel. It was hard to tell which liked best the rhymed tales of Robin Hood, by Howard Pyle; then there were the stories in Wide Awake and in the Youth's Companion; the Jack Hazard series by Trowbridge; Cab and Caboose by Kirk Munroe; Dana's Two Years Before the Mast; and the First Crossing of Greenland-to name a few of their favourites. And day by day, they read together in "Nature's infinite book of secrecy."

His father shared the lad's activities; helped him tame his various pets; make his fish nets, and the keel to his boat; went with him scapping for herring on the river; snaring for suckers, and ducking on the Shattega; and rowing and skating on river and pond. Together they sought the first spring flowers, hunted birds' nests, and traced the footprints of wild creatures in the snow. Together they tamed Molly Cotton-Tail, played fostermother to a young marsh hawk, and danced attendance on their pet 'coon. He taught the lad how to make basswood whistles and cat-tail penholders, and the lad taught him many things that he learned by himself, and others found in studying The American Boy's Handy Book. They fished and hunted together, and went in quest of wild honey. The joys of the wild creatures were their joys, the tragedies their tragedies. One day when Julian was a very small lad, he came in with a pitiful tale: He had seen a blue jay in one of the spruce trees, close to the nest of a vireo, and right while he was looking at it, the robber swallowed a just-hatched bird. As distracted as were the parent birds themselves, who snapped their beaks almost in the jay's face, the boy ran with the cruel tale to his father.

When quite a little chap, Julian discovered, as had his father before him, that the white-faced wasps were stingless, and used to amuse himself by showing the other boys how he could "tame" wasps so they wouldn't sting him. Boldly handling the harmless creatures, he would chuckle to see the others looking on in wonder, as the impotent wasps would go through all the motions of stinging, yet leave him unharmed. He never put the other fellows "wise" to the trick.

What days they had skating on the long still stretches of Black Pond! In the light covering of snow they would read the records of the wild creatures -- a fox, a rabbit, a muskrat-gathering much from the tell-tale footprints.

One day they came upon a strange track in the snow, about the size of a dog's, and traced it to the head of the pool where the creature had taken to the open water. Ugh! what a cold bath! It proved to be the little otter, rare in that locality, which tracks fish through the water as a hound tracks a fox over the hills.

One morning Prince was missing from the pasture and Julian and his father started out to find him. On coming to the highway, they asked each other:

"Which way-up or down the road?"

Thinking they saw a horse's track going down the road, they followed it, but presently on coming to where the road led through the woods, Julian, ahead, called out:

" Papa, Prince hasn't gone this way-see the spider's web across the road!"

"Good for you, my boy!" said his father, delighted at the lad's keen observation and correct deduction. " You've got eyes instead of buttons in your head!" And turning back they soon found Prince in the opposite direction.

Once Julian and his father tracked a weasel to its den on the edge of a tamarack swamp. Trying with mattock and shovel to dig the weasel out, they nearly got lost themselves in the maze of tunnels which they found, and, although handling a ton of earth over two or three times, they could not come upon the store-room where the creature had put all the mice and moles which they had watched him carry into his den.

One season they found a marsh hawk's nest in the Slabsides region, and as one of the young hawks was in danger of being starved to death, Julian brought it home, reviving it with warm milk by means of a fountain-pen filler. He kept his uncanny pet in a pen in the Bark Study. It had an old shrunken look, and for a time was helpless indeed. But not long and it was swallowing bits of meat, and soon eating ravenously. It kept up a sharp whistling-except when asleep! Though preferring mice, birds, and squirrels, it would accept butcher's meat. Julian was kept on the jump to supply the demands of his voracious boarder. He trapped and hunted and enlisted all the boys in the neighbourhood; even robbed Tom Tinker of his rightful prey to feed his hawk. His usefulness as a boy-of-allwork was seriously impaired.

" Where's Julian? " his mother would ask, time and again, "I want him to get a pail of water."

" Gone after a squirrel for his hawk," or "Hunting chip munks," would be the answer. One day, although its wing had been clipped, the hawk sailed away on the shoreless aerial seas, and his foster-parent knew him no more; but before he sailed he had devoured twenty-one chipmunks, fourteen red squirrels, sixteen mice, and twelve English sparrows, besides no small amount of butcher's meat.

As Julian and his father sat at dinner one day they heard Ino barking in a way that told them something was up outside. Something was up-in one of the spruce trees a few feet from the house. They threw up sticks and stones and soon, deep in the heavy foliage, espied a bunch of fur. With a long pole they belaboured that bunch of fur and, in time, dislodged it. It was a 'coon. A lively time followed. As Mr. Burroughs grabbed the 'coon by the tail, Ino dashed up and knocked it out of his hand. A still livelier tussle ensued, however, when, some days later they tried to put a collar on that 'coon. He proved a cunning pet, and Julian set great store by him, feeding him grapes, chestnuts, peanuts, and apples.

It was a sad morning when, going to the coop, Julian found the little door open and no Mr. Coon inside. He had evidently liberated himself by loosening the snap that held the little sliding door. That night the antics of Tom Tinker, and even the rhymes of Robin Hood, failed to wield their usual charm-the boy's heart was in the highlands chasing his wandering 'coon.

One day Julian called his father to the garden to see a black snake swallowing a garter snake. The little victim, though holding back with all its might, hooking its tail around the raspberry bushes, was being slowly engulfed, when the black snake, startled by the approach of man and boy, suddenly ejected his long mouthful and glided away. Although the little Jonah's head was bleeding, he had not suffered much from his short stay in the reptilian whale.

 

When one starts on snake tales they are likely to be longdrawn-out. A few days after that, " Hud " came down to the Bark Study and called the Man with the Pen to witness another snake contest -- a garter snake swallowing a little green snake. Half of the victim had disappeared; he was almost as long as his captor, and so slow had been the process of swallowing that he was dead when they attempted his rescue.

Boys often write to Mr. Burroughs telling him of their interests and of course hoping for an answer. Now he is always glad to get such letters, and answers a good many, but it would be quite impossible to answer all of them. One day, long ago, he did answer a letter from a boy in Rochester, and months later his reply was returned to him from the Dead Letter Office. Tom Brown will probably never know that Mr. Burroughs answered his letter, but perhaps some other boys will accept this as a reply to their own:

    Esopus, N. Y., June 1, 1883.

    Dear Tom Brown:

    I have been a-fishing or I should have answered your letter before. I always go a-fishing about this time of year, after speckled trout, and I always catch some, too. But dog-fighting I have nothing to do with, unless it be to help some little dog whip some saucy big cur. Game birds are all right in their season, but I seldom hunt them. Yet this is about the best way to study them.

    You want to know how I felt as a boy. Very much as I do now, only more so. I loved fishing, and tramping, and swimming more than I do these late years. But I had not so tender a heart. I was not so merciful to the birds and animals as I am now.

    Much of what I have put in my books was gathered while a boy on the farm. I am interested in what you tell me of your Band of Mercy, and should like much to see you all, and all the autographs in that pink covered book. Well, youth is the time to cultivate habits of mercy, and all other good habits. The bees will soon be storing their clover honey, and I trust you boys and girls are laying away that which will by and by prove your choicest possessions.

    Sincerely your friend,

    JOHN BURROUGHS.

 

Previous Chapter | Back to the Index | Next Chapter

 


Home
Do you have any information you'd like to share on this subject? Please email me!
The Catskill Archive website and all contents, unless otherwise specified,
are 1996-2010 Timothy J. Mallery