They did call again, once on the Saturday before Thanksgiving Day and again in December, when the woods and fields were white with snow and they wore their warm sweaters and arctics. On each occasion they became better acquainted with Sam's dogs and learned something new about training dogs and finding game, and Sam showed them the mechanism of his shotguns and rifles. He also explained to them his method of curing the pelts of muskrats and the beautiful silver-gray fur of the little moles that the people in charge of the Poor Farm were very glad to have him trap in their garden. And as the boys came to know Sam's dogs better they began to see how each differed from the others in character and disposition and in the way they understood and did things.
"Just like people," said Sam; "just like people."
Even Mrs. Whipple was unable to discover that the boys' manners had been damaged greatly by their association with Sam Bumpus, though she was surprised 34 at their continuous talk about dogs and the strange jargon, as it seemed to her, which they used in that connection. She was no less surprised to find that her husband appeared to understand the meaning of "bird sense" and "freezing to a point" and "retrieving" and "blood lines" and "cross-breeding" and to be able to discuss these mysterious matters with the boys.
"But what is the good of their filling their heads with all that stuff?" she asked him.
"My dear," replied Mr. Whipple, "you may not believe it, but it is just as much good as arithmetic and geography, and you're always worrying because they don't take more interest in those things. There are more ways than one to get an education."
But Mrs. Whipple only shook her head perplexedly.
It was on the day before Christmas that the great event occurred that I have been leading up to. Ernest and Jack Whipple had returned from an hour's coasting on the long hill over by the brickyard and were standing on their sleds beside the front gate bemoaning the fact that the snow had melted so badly and speculating on the surprises which the morrow might have in store for them. It was vacation, and they were considering how best to spend the long hours that would intervene between dinner and time for lighting up the Christmas tree, when Ernest stopped abruptly 35 in the middle of a sentence and stood looking up the street.
"Jack!" he exclaimed. "Look who's coming!"
Jack turned and beheld the familiar, lanky figure and long, easy stride of Sam Bumpus. Both boys set up a yell and started on a run up the street.
"Merry Christmas, Sam!" they cried. "Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas, men," replied Sam, grinning.
One on each side of him, they escorted Sam down the street.
"Have you come to see us?" inquired Ernest.
"Why, no," said Sam. "I came to see the President of the United States, but I found he wasn't in town, so I thought I'd drop in on you. You haven't seen anything of him around here, have you?"
The boys laughed delightedly; they had come to understand Sam's kind of joking.
"Well, you must come into our shack," said Ernest. "We'll introduce you to mother, and father will be home soon."
"Well, I don't know as I'll exactly go in," replied Sam, doubtfully. "Maybe your mother ain't asked to be interduced to me. Anyway, I can talk better outside."
"Where's Nan?" asked Jack.
"I left her home, doin' up the dishes in the 36 kitchen," said Sam. "The city don't agree with Nan. It don't agree with me much, either. I won't stop but a minute."
"Aw, come on in," pleaded Ernest.
But Sam shook his head. "No," said he, "I just want to show you something, and then I must be goin'. Can't we go over to the barn?"
"Sure," said the boys, and led the way to the stable in the yard that was now used only as a tool house and garage.
"We'll show you our carpenter shop," said Ernest.
But Sam did not stop long to examine the carpenter shop. There was something very mysterious about his attitude which aroused the boys' curiosity to top pitch.
"Come over here," said Sam, stepping toward an unused stall.
He began fumbling in his capacious pockets, and the boys crowded close about him, expecting to see some unusual sort of game he had shot. Suddenly before their astonished eyes there appeared two fuzzy, dappled puppies, running and sniffing about the floor of the stall.
"Puppies!" cried the boys in unison.
"Yep," said Sam. "English setter puppies."
"Where did you get them?" demanded Jack, catching up one of the sprawling little dogs in his arms.
37 "Nellie gave them to me," said Sam.
A look of comprehension began to dawn in Ernest's eyes. "So that's why you wouldn't let us go near her kennel last time we were there," said he. "She had them all the time."
Sam grinned. "They're pretty young to take away from their mother," said he, "but she has three more. She's a good mother, Nellie is. You ought to see her chase the other dogs away. I had a job of it gettin' these two weaned before Christmas."
"Why did you have to get them weaned before Christmas?" asked Jack.
"Now you jest think that over, and see if you can tell me," said Sam.
Ernest had already half guessed the wonderful truth, but he didn't yet dare to say what he thought.
"Don't be afraid of 'em," said Sam. "They won't bite—or leastways, not serious. Besides, they're your own dogs."
"Our own dogs?" gasped Jack in astonishment, the glad light beginning to break in upon him.
"Sure," said Sam. "What else would they be here for? I thought Santa Claus might happen to forget you, and so I brought 'em down."
"Oh!" cried Ernest. "Christmas presents! To be our very own dogs! I guess none of the other boys will have such fine presents as these, Jack."
38 But Jack was speechless with joy.
"Have they got names?" asked Ernest.
"Sure," said Sam. "I told you how I name all my dogs with names beginning with the same letter. All my own puppies, I mean. It's for good luck. There's Rex, you know, and Robbin and Rockaway. These two are Romulus and Remus and they're twins. This one with the black ear is Romulus, and this one with the little map of Africa on his side is Remus. That's how you can tell 'em apart."
"Which is mine and which is Ernest's?" inquired Jack, at last finding his voice.
"Well, now, I hadn't thought of that," confessed Sam. "Suppose you draw lots for 'em. Here, I'll hold these two broom straws so you can't tell which is longest. You each draw one, and the one that gets the longest straw can have first choice of the puppies. Is that fair?"
The boys agreed to the plan and drew the straws. Ernest's proved to be the longer one.
"Well, he's older, anyway," said Jack. "Which one do you choose, Ernest?"
"I'll take Romulus," said Ernest promptly, having noted that the one with the black ear was a shade the larger of the two.
"All right," said Jack, "and Remus is mine." And 39 he asserted stoutly that he would have chosen Remus anyway.
"That's good," said Sam. "Then you're both satisfied. Grown people would have made more fuss about it, I'll warrant you.
"Well, I must be steppin' along," he continued. "Take good care of the puppies, because they're valuable. Remember that they're used to sleepin' close to a warm mother and see that they have a good bed. I'd put some rags in a box for 'em if I was you. Let 'em have fresh air and sunshine and a chance to stretch their legs, but don't let 'em get wet or chilled through and put their bed where they ain't no draughts. Remember they ain't got their warm coats yet.
"Give 'em a saucer of milk with the chill taken off, six times a day, and break a little bread into it at supper time. In a few weeks you can cut down to three meals a day, with more solid food, but I'll be down to see you before then, if you don't get up to see me, and I'll tell you just how to manage. Let me know if you have any trouble of any kind, but I guess you won't."
The clicking of the front gate announced the return of Mr. Whipple to his noonday meal. The boys ran to the stable door and shouted, "Father! Oh, father, come see what we've got for Christmas!"
40 They dashed toward him and dragged him by main force to the stable. But when they got there, Sam Bumpus had mysteriously disappeared, without giving the boys a chance to thank him or to wish him another Merry Christmas.
Mr. Whipple examined the puppies with interest and watched their clumsy antics with amusement. Like most people he could not resist the charm of a wet-nosed, big-footed, round-bellied, fuzzy little puppy. Presently, however, a look of doubt came over his face.
"What do you propose doing with them?" he asked.
"Why, having them for our dogs," said Jack, surprised that his father should ask so obvious a question.
"I mean, where do you plan to keep them?"
"Why, in our room, I guess," said Ernest.
But Mr. Whipple shook his head doubtfully. "I don't imagine they've been taught yet how to behave themselves in the house," said he. "And anyway, I don't believe your mother will want them there. She doesn't like dogs, you know."
"Aw, she wouldn't mind little bits of soft dogs like these," protested Ernest.
"Well, you can try it and see," said Mr. Whipple, "but I wouldn't get my hopes up too high, if I were you."
Mrs. Whipple did object quite decidedly, and for 41 a time it looked as though Romulus and Remus were unwanted guests in that household and that their young masters would be forced to part with them. Tears were shed, but of that we will say little. At last Mrs. Whipple was persuaded to grant a truce in order that the Christmas Eve festivities might not be entirely spoiled. Besides, it was too late now to take the puppies back to Sam Bumpus, and even Mrs. Whipple was not hard-hearted enough to think of merely putting them out into the cold. The upshot of it was that, Delia having been given the evening off, Romulus and Remus were banished to the kitchen for the night, with a bed prepared in a box and another box of sand placed hopefully near by. The boys insisted on serving their supper in two separate saucers with the idea that each would recognize his own and observe the rights of the other.
Occasional stealthy visits to the kitchen that evening disclosed two remarkably wakeful and active puppies engaged in unexpected explorations, but at last they curled up together in their new bed, two innocent little balls of fluff, and Ernest and Jack bade them goodnight with much ceremony.
On Christmas Day there was trouble from the start. In fact, it was one of the liveliest Christmas Days in the history of the Whipple household. In the first place, when Delia came back early in the morning to 42 get things started for the Christmas dinner, she discovered the two little strangers in her kitchen, and promptly made known the fact that they were puppies whose manners were not at all what they should be. Mr. Whipple averted a domestic storm by taking the puppies out into the yard, where he had his hands full to keep them out of the snow.
By this time the boys had finished the examination of their bulging stockings and the larger contributions of St. Nicholas which stood beside the fireplace, and bethought themselves of Romulus and Remus. They dashed pell-mell out into the yard where their father was pondering what he should do with them next. The boys promptly solved this problem by picking up the puppies, each taking his own, and carrying them forthwith into the house.
Mrs. Whipple was in a good humor that Christmas morning, and she really wanted her boys to be happy all day, so although she added one admonition to another, she allowed the boys to play with the puppies in the sitting-room. They would have to part with them soon enough, she thought, and meanwhile they might as well have as much fun as they could.
But as the day wore on her good nature and kind intentions were sorely tried. Romulus and Remus appeared to think that the house was some sort of hunting ground especially provided for little dogs, and 43 that it was their duty to pursue, worry, and kill every sort of strange creature they could find. Evidently they were imaginative puppies, for they discovered enemies in overlooked corners of the room, on closet floors, and everywhere. These enemies might be the discarded paper wrappings of Christmas presents, or they might be perfectly good balls of darning cotton. It mattered not to Romulus and Remus so long as their primitive impulse to catch and slay was satisfied. They were very bloodthirsty little dogs.
But it ceased to be a joke, even to the boys, when Mrs. Whipple, for awhile put off her guard by a period of unusual quiet, discovered Romulus and Remus engaged in the joint pastime of reducing to small woolly bits a new gray felt slipper which she herself had presented to her husband that very morning. Hastily she cleared out the bottom of a closet, thrust the puppies inside, and ruthlessly closed the door, deaf alike to the piteous little squeaky whines of Romulus and Remus and the louder protests of Ernest and Jack.
"Now you see what they've done!" cried Mrs. Whipple, holding up the forlorn and tattered remnants of the slipper. "I guess this will about finish it. Wait till your father comes home."
Mr. Whipple had gone out for a little while that afternoon, and the boys awaited his return without 44 much optimism. When his key was at last heard in the latch they looked at each other with eyes big with apprehension.
Somebody had given Mr. Whipple a big cigar, and a lot of people had wished him Merry Christmas, and he was in a very jovial mood indeed. Mrs. Whipple and the boys expected to see this mood suddenly change when he observed the ruined slipper.
Mrs. Whipple handed it to him without a word. He took it, examined it carefully with a puzzled expression, and then (strange to relate) began to grin. (I wonder if the fact that Mr. Whipple detested felt slippers could have had anything to do with it.)
The grin broke into a hearty laugh, and Mr. Whipple sank into a chair, still holding the slipper before him.
"Well," said he, "they certainly made this look like a last year's bird's nest. My eye! I should like to have seen them at it. The little rascals! How did they ever escape your eagle eye, mother?"
But Mrs. Whipple did not reply. Two red spots glowed in her cheeks and her eyes were snapping. She turned and left the room. Mr. Whipple puffed thoughtfully at his cigar for a moment and then rose and followed her, leaving the boys to engage in whispered conjectures as to the outcome of the affair.
I don't know what Mr. Whipple said to his wife 45 in the other room, but he doubtless apologized for his ill-timed mirth and then talked over certain things with her. The upshot of it all was that a compromise was reached in that household. It was decided that Ernest and Jack might keep the puppies they had so set their hearts upon provided they were kept entirely away from Mrs. Whipple and were not permitted to intrude themselves upon her affairs. The boys must assume entire charge of them and be responsible for their actions, must feed and care for the dogs themselves without bothering their mother, paying for their food out of their own earnings and savings, and must on no condition bring them into the house. That was the ultimatum; Mrs. Whipple vowed that she would never allow another dog to enter her doors.
"It's up to you, boys," said Mr. Whipple.
Strangely enough, the boys did not feel that these restrictions imposed great hardship. In fact, it gave them a sense of pride and not unpleasant responsibility to be given sole charge of Romulus and Remus. Nothing, indeed, could have suited them better. And they were so relieved to find that they were not to be deprived of their new possessions after all that they were quite excitedly happy.
The only question that now seriously concerned them was to find a warm, dry place to keep the puppies 46 in during the cold weather, while they were still so delicate and helpless. It was here that their mother came to their rescue. Having won her main point about keeping the dogs out of the house, she was mollified, and perhaps her conscience troubled her a little. She was really a very tender-hearted woman, and it occurred to her that her ultimatum might be the cause of real suffering on the part of the puppies. So it was she who sent for a carpenter and had him make a sort of room out of one of the old stalls in the stable, quite tight against draughts, and with a door in the front for convenience.
When Mr. Whipple learned of this he laughed and patted his wife on the shoulder. "I always knew you were a cruel monster," he said.
He inspected the new abode of Romulus and Remus and expressed his approval.
"It's the best thing in the world for them," he said to the boys. "They will be really better off here than in a heated house. They'll grow up sturdier and stronger. They only need to be protected against draughts and dampness, as Bumpus said. But you mustn't forget to keep both doors closed and to warm their milk and water a little, while their stomachs are still tender. They'll curl up close together and never mind the still, dry cold. They'll be all right here."