There are misguided people in this world who profess to believe that only grown-ups can fully appreciate the beauties of nature. Oh, the grown-ups talk more about that sort of thing, to be sure, and know how to say poetic things about winter fields and sunsets that are usually locked in a boy's heart. But for the fullest appreciation of blue skies and autumn woods and sandy shores, and the most genuine enjoyment of broken sunshine on the forest floor, the smell of falling oak leaves, and the song of the wind in the pines or rustling across broad, rolling fields, give me a boy every time. I know, for I have been one.
That is why I am going to begin this story about boys and dogs by telling of a certain crisp October morning—a Saturday morning when boyhood enjoys its weekly liberty. There had been frost the night before and the air was still cool and very clear. It was like drinking cold water to take long breaths of 2 it. The golden sun was rising high above the rounded hills to the east and the sunlight turned to glistening silver the shreds of smoke that drifted lazily up from the chimneys of Boytown in the little valley a mile or so away.
I must digress for a moment to speak of Boytown. You will not find it on the map, for that is not its real name. It is not always wise to call people and places by their real names in a book, and so I have given this name to the Connecticut town where lived all the boys and the dogs that I am going to tell about. It was a nice old town, just about the right size, with a broad main street where the stores and business buildings were, and in the upper end of which a narrow green ran down the middle with a row of big elm trees in it. Most of the people lived on the side streets, some of which ran for quite a distance up Powder Mill Hill to the west. But most of the pleasant places in this part of the world lay to the east. The railroad ran along that side of the town, and beyond it were the brickyards and Hulse's Pond. If you were in search of adventure, you skirted this pond, went up over a long, grassy hill, and at length entered the woods which stretched all the way to Oakdale, broken now and then by farms and open stretches of hilly meadow or pasture land.
Here in the woods there was much to be seen on this 3 fine October day. There were squirrels everywhere, busy with the harvesting of their winter's supply of nuts, and if you were lucky you might catch a glimpse of a cottontail rabbit disappearing into a thicket, or a grouse shooting off among the trees with a great whirring of wings. The autumn foliage was at its finest, the deep green of pine and hemlock mingling with the crimson of the oaks, the flaming scarlet of the maples, and the translucent gold of the silvery-stemmed birches. Above the trees the sky was that soft blue color that you like to lie on your back and look at, with here and there fleecy little clouds constantly changing into all sorts of odd and whimsical shapes. From the branches of a tall pine a flock of sooty crows, alarmed by the sound of human voices, arose all together and floated off over a little clearing in company formation, cawing loudly.
If you had been one of those crows, you would have looked down at the figures of two boys emerging from the woods. One was a slender lad of about twelve, quite tall for his age, with straight black hair and bright black eyes. The other, who was perhaps three years younger, was so plump as almost to deserve the nickname of "Fatty." He had lighter hair and eyes and there were freckles across the bridge of his not very prominent nose. Both boys were dressed in their old clothes and carried white cloth flour bags 4 which already contained a few quarts of chestnuts. They stood gazing with practised eyes at the tree-tops around the little clearing.
"There ought to be some here, Jack," said the older boy. "The biggest trees always grow near the edges."
"They're the easiest to get at, too," responded Jack.
They walked together around the margin of the clearing and at length located a tree to their liking. With much boosting on the part of Jack, the older boy at last gained the lower branches and was soon making the brown nuts rattle down upon the leafy ground.
After they had stripped three or four trees of their treasure, Jack threw himself upon his back and began squinting up at a hawk sweeping high up in the blue sky.
"I'm tired, Ernest," he said. "Let's go over to the Cave."
"Oh, it's early yet," replied Ernest, "and we haven't got half a sackful."
"We have twelve quarts at home," said Jack. "We don't need any more. Besides, we haven't been to the Cave for two weeks. It rained so hard last Saturday that it may need cleaning out."
"All right," said Ernest. "Come along."
Jack scrambled to his feet and together they set 5 off into the woods again. A walk of half a mile or so brought them to a brook which they followed upstream until they came to a leaky dam of stones and logs which they had built the previous spring and which held back enough water to make a small pond above. This they called their Beaver Dam and Beaver Pond, and in the sandy bank at one side was Trapper's Cave.
Beaver Pond lay just within the edge of the wood, and from the Cave one's eyes commanded a view of an old, disused pasture, now grown up to sumacs and blueberry bushes, which stretched up and over a long hill that seemed to bear the rim of the blue sky on its shoulder. One could sit unobserved in the mouth of the Cave, quite hidden by the saplings and undergrowth of the wood's edge, and watch all that went on outside, with the depths of the dark, mysterious, whispering forest at one's back.
The Cave itself would hardly have housed a family of real Cave-Dwellers. It was neither very large nor very skilfully built, but it amply served the purpose for which it was intended. It was dug out of the soft sand of the bank. Two boards in the ceiling supported by two birch props did not entirely prevent the sand from falling in, and every visit to the Cave was attended by housecleaning. Nevertheless, it was a delectable rendezvous for adventurers.
At one side was a low bench built of fence boards and at the other a soap box with a hinged cover, hasp, and padlock, which served as a treasure chest and which contained, among other things, a hatchet, an old and not very sharp hunting knife, a dozen potatoes, and a supply of salt and pepper. At first the boys had attempted to build a fireplace at the back of the Cave, with a hole cut through the roof to the surface of the ground above to serve as a chimney, but it proved unsuccessful, and a circular pile of stones in front, with a rusty kettle supported on two forked sticks, now served as campfire and cook stove.
The boys filled the kettle at the little pond, not because they wished to boil anything, but because it made a fire seem more worth while. Then they kindled a blaze beneath it, and when there were enough red coals, they thrust four of the potatoes among them.
"Now for a good feed," said Ernest.
At length, when the potatoes were burned black on the outside, they pronounced them done and drew them out of the coals. They broke them open gingerly, for they were very hot, and disclosed the mealy insides, not at all troubled by the fact that the edible portion was liberally sprinkled with black specks from the charred skins. Adding salt and pepper, and using their jackknives as spoons, they proceeded to 7 eat with a relish which their mother would have found it difficult to understand.
As they were engaged in this pleasant occupation, Ernest suddenly rose to his feet and peered out through the saplings.
"What is it?" demanded Jack.
"Sh!" cautioned the older boy. "It's a man. He's coming down the hill. He's got a gun and a dog with him."
Jack arose and stood on tiptoe beside his brother. Together they watched the approach of a strange figure—a tall, lanky, raw-boned individual wearing a rusty old felt hat and with an old corduroy hunting 8 coat flapping about him. In his hand he carried a double-barreled shotgun which appeared to be the best-kept thing about him. Running ahead of him was a beautiful English setter, speckled white with black markings. Her every motion was swift and graceful as she ran sniffing from one clump of shrubbery to another. Sometimes the man would give a peculiar little whistle, and then the dog would pause and look up, and then dart off to right or to left in obedience to a wave of the man's arm.
Suddenly the dog stopped and stood rigid as a statue, her tail held out straight behind, one foreleg raised, and her neck and nose stretched toward a patch of sheep laurel. The man stealthily approached while the dog stood perfectly motionless with quivering nostrils.
They were quite near the boys now. There was a sudden movement in the sheep laurel, a whir of wings, and four or five birds rose swiftly into the air and shot off toward the woods.
"Bang!" went the man's gun, and both boys jumped so that they scarcely noticed a bird fall.
"Bang!" went the other barrel almost immediately, and another bird fell fluttering to earth. Then the dog broke her point and brought the birds back to her master in her sensitive mouth.
To tell the truth, the boys were a little frightened 9 at this gun-fire so close at hand, especially Jack, and they watched anxiously as the man reloaded his gun. But the birds had disappeared and the man started off in the direction they had taken. He whistled to his dog, but a new scent had attracted her attention, and she trotted down toward the brook and began sniffing the air.
"She smells our potatoes," said Ernest.
Jack forgot his fears in this new interest.
"Let's call her over," said he.
"Come here, sir!" called Ernest, making a kissing noise with his lips. "Come here!"
The dog lightly leaped the brook and came slowly up the bank toward the Cave, her tail waving in a friendly manner. Ernest scraped out a bit of potato and held it out to her. She stood for a moment, sniffing, as if in doubt. Then she came forward and daintily took the proffered food. In a few minutes both boys were smoothing the silky head, looking into the fine eyes, and talking to their visitor.
"Tryin' to steal my dog?"
They had not noticed the man's approach, he had stepped so softly, and the gruff voice so close beside them startled them.
"Oh, no," protested Ernest, hurriedly. "She—we——"
The man's face was very solemn, but there was a 10 humorous twinkle in his eyes that somehow made the boys feel easier. The dog placed her paw on Jack's arm as though begging for more petting.
"Won't you sit down?" asked Ernest, in an effort to be polite.
The man's face broke into many wrinkles and he laughed aloud.
"Don't know but what I will," said he, "if you ain't afraid I'll hurt your parlor chairs."
It was now the boys' turn to laugh, and the ice was broken. The man squatted down beside the fire as though glad of a chance to rest, and the dog stretched herself out at his feet.
"I'm glad you didn't mean to steal her," said the man, "because then I wouldn't have no one to find birds for me. Then what would I do?"
There seemed to be no answer to this, so Ernest asked him if he had shot many.
"Five this morning," said the man, and tumbled the pretty dead things out of his pockets.
"They're quail, aren't they?" asked Ernest, stroking one of them.
"Yep," said he, "Bob-Whites. They're runnin' pretty good this year, too."
Something in the man's friendly manner inspired a sort of boldness in young Jack.
"Don't you hate to shoot them?" he asked.
11 The man looked into Jack's frank brown eyes for a moment and then moved a little closer.
"Say," he said, "I'll tell you a secret. I s'pose I've shot more birds and rabbits than any man in this county, if I do say it, and I never bring down a partridge or kill a chicken that I don't feel sorry for it. I ain't never got over it and I guess I never shall. But it's the only thing old Sam Bumpus is good for, I reckon, and it has to be done. Folks has to eat and I have to make a livin'. I don't do it for fun, though I don't know any finer thing in this world than trampin' off 'cross country with a gun and a good dog on a fine mornin'. It's my business, you see."
"Gee!" exclaimed Ernest. "I'd like that business better than insurance, I guess. That's what my father is."
"Who is your father?" inquired Sam Bumpus. "You see I'm very partic'lar who I know."
"He's Mr. Whipple. We're Ernest and Jack Whipple."
"Oh, you live down on Washburn Street?"
"Well, that's all right," said Sam. "I guess you'll pass."
He seemed in no great hurry to be getting on. Taking an old black pipe from his pocket he filled it 12 from a greasy pouch and lighted it. He took a few reflective puffs before he spoke again.
"What do you know about dogs?" he asked, abruptly.
"Why—not very much, I guess," confessed Ernest.
"We like them, though," added Jack.
"Well, that's half the game," said Sam. "There's two kinds of people in this world, them that likes dogs and them that don't, and you can't never make one kind understand how the other kind feels about it. It just ain't possible. And if you don't like dogs you can't never know dogs, and if you don't know dogs you're missin'—well, I can't tell you how much."
"I've known Nan here," he continued, stroking the setter's head, while she looked up at him with adoration in her eyes, "I've known Nan for goin' on seven years, and I learn somethin' new about her every day. I raised her from a puppy, broke her to birds, and lived with her summer and winter, and I tell you I never seen a man or a woman that knows any more than what she does or one that I could trust so far. That's the thing about a dog; you can trust 'em. There's bad dogs and good dogs, and no two is just alike, but if you once get a good one, hang onto him, for you'll never find another friend that'll stick to you like him."
13 The man seemed so much in earnest that the boys remained silent for a time. Then Jack asked, "Can she do tricks?"
"If you mean sit up and roll over and play dead, no," said Sam. "I don't believe in spoilin' a good bird dog by teachin' 'em things that don't do 'em no good. But what she don't know about huntin' ain't worth knowin'. It positively ain't."
For half an hour more Sam Bumpus told the boys of various incidents that proved the sagacity of Nan and the other dogs he had owned. He told how once, when a burning log rolled from his fireplace in the night and set his little house on fire, a pointer named Roger had seen the flames through the window, had broken his collar, plunged through the mosquito netting across the window, and had wakened his master by pulling off the bedclothes and barking.
"If that dog hadn't known how to think and plan, I wouldn't be here to-day talkin' to you boys."
Suddenly he jumped to his feet.
"That reminds me," said he. "I've been sittin' talkin' here too long. I've got to be about my business and your folks'll wonder why you don't come home to dinner. Come, Nan, old girl."
The setter sprang up, yawned, and then stood ready for the next command. Both boys patted her and then held out their hands to Sam.
14 "I hope we'll see you again sometime," said Ernest. "We like to hear you tell about your dogs."
The man's tanned face seemed to soften a little as he shook hands with the boys.
"Well," said he, "I guess you can see me if you want to. My social engagements ain't very pressin' just now. I ain't got one of my business cards with me, but you can just call anywhere in these woods and ask for Sam Bumpus. The dogs'll know me if the men don't. So long, boys," and he strode off down the bank with Nan dashing joyously ahead.
"Good-by, Mr. Bumpus," called Ernest and Jack.
He paused in the act of leaping the brook and looked around, with the twinkle in his eyes.
"Say," he called back, "if I ever hear you call me that again I'll set the dog on you. My name's Sam, d'ye hear?" Then he slipped in among the underbrush and was gone.
Talking animatedly about their new acquaintance and about dogs, the two boys hastened to lock up their treasure chest and depart.
"Say, Ernest," said Jack, as they started off through the woods with their bags of chestnuts over their shoulders, "the Cave is a great place for adventures, isn't it?"
That evening, as the family were gathered in the living-room on Washburn Street, and Mrs. Whipple 15 was trying to repair the damage that chestnutting had wrought in a pair of Ernest's stockings, the boys asked their father if he knew Sam Bumpus.
"Bumpus?" he asked. "Oh, yes, he's that queer fellow that lives all alone in a shack in the woods off on the Oakdale Road. An odd character, I guess, from all I hear, but they say he's a wonderful shot and people take their bird dogs to him to be broken. How did you hear about him?"
The boys told their story, and then Ernest asked wistfully, "Papa, when can we have a dog?"
"When your mother says you can," replied Mr. Whipple, with a smile.
Sorrowfully the boys went off to bed, well knowing what that meant. For Mrs. Whipple was one of the people that Sam Bumpus had spoken of—the kind that don't like dogs.