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THE OUTLAW DOGS
Not a little farm work still remained to be done; — our farm work, in fact, was never done. For a fortnight after our return from the camping trip, we were busy, ploughing stubble ground, drawing off loose stones and building a piece of "double wall" along the side of the north field. There was also a field of winter rye to be got in. The Old Squire was, moreover, preparing to re-embark in the lumbering business at certain lots of timber land which he owned up in the "great woods." Loggers would be hired for this work, however, for Addison, Halstead and I expected to attend the district school which was announced to begin on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
It was mostly dull, hard work now, all day long, and often we were obliged to husk corn, or dry apples, during the evening. The only amusement for a time was one or two husking parties, and an "apple bee" at the Murches'.
On the morning of the 30th of October we waked to find the ground white with snow; several inches had fallen; but it went off, after a day or two; the weather had grown quite cold, however. Ice formed nearly every night. The cattle were now at the barns, but the sheep were still running about the pastures and fields. On the night of the 5th of November the upper part of the lake froze over, as well as the smaller ponds in the vicinity. I found that the boys thereabouts knew how to skate, and was not long in buying a pair of skates, myself. I had much difficulty in learning to use them for several days; at length, I caught the knack of it, and felt well repaid for a good many hard falls, when at last I could glide away and keep up with Halse, Addison and Thomas Edwards, who skated well. Even Theodora and Ellen could skate.
For a week that fall Lake Pennesseewassee was grand skating ground. Parties of boys from a distance came there every evening and built bonfires on the shore to enliven the scene.
I think that it was the third day before Thanksgiving that eight of us went to the lake, at about four in the afternoon, to have an hour of skating before dark. We found Alfred Batchelder there in advance of us. As Alfred did not now speak to our boys, he kept a little aloof from us.
Near the head of the lake is an island and above it a bog. We had skated around the head of the lake, and keeping to the east side of the island, circled about it, and were coming down on the west side along an arm, some two hundred yards wide, where there was known to be deep water. We thought the ice perfectly firm and safe there, since that on the east side of the island, over which we had just skated, had proved so. All of us were at full racing speed, and Alfred was keeping six or eight rods further out, but parallel with us. Suddenly we heard a crash and saw Alfred go down. The water gushed up around him.
There was no premonitory cracking or yielding. The ice broke on the instant; and so rapidly was he moving that a hole twelve or fifteen feet long was torn by the sheer force with which he went against it. As he fell through, he went under once, but luckily came up in the hole he had made, and got his hands and arms on the edges of the ice, which, however, kept bending down and breaking off. The breaking and his fall were so sudden that he had not even time to cry out till he came up and caught hold of the ice.
Instinctively we all sheered off toward the west shore at first. Then came the impulse to save him. A peeled hemlock log lay stranded on the shore upon rocks, with about four feet of its length frozen in the ice. I remember rushing to this, to get it up and slide it out to him. Finding I could not wrench it loose with my hands, I kicked it with first one foot and then the other, and broke both my skates; but the ice held it like a vise. Then I started on my broken skates to find a pole; two or three of the other boys were also running for poles, shouting excitedly.
All the while Alfred was calling despairingly to us; every time the ice broke, he would nearly disappear under the water, which was deadly cold.
Addison who had first pulled off his skates, then thought of green alder poles. Running to the nearest clump, he bent down and hurriedly cut off two, each as large as a pump-brake. Before I was done kicking the peeled hemlock log, or Halse was back from his pole hunt, Addison had shoved one of the long alders out to Alf, who managed to clutch hold of it.
Addison had hold of the butt end, and Willis Murch, nearer the shore, had reached out the top of the second alder to Addison. The ice yielded somewhat and the water came up; but they all held fast. By this time the rest of us had cut more alders, one of which was thrust out to Willis; and then by main strength we hauled Alfred out and back where the ice was firmer.
It is doubtful whether we should have got him out of the lake but for this expedient; for the water was so cold and the wind so bitterly sharp, that he could not long have supported himself by those bending ice edges. His teeth chattered noisily when at length we hauled him ashore; Addison's, too! Both were wet through. We started and ran as hard as we could towards home. Two of us had to drag Alf at the start; but he ran better after the first hundred yards; and we were all very warm by the time we got him home.
It is often difficult to determine why the ice on some portions of a pond should be thin and treacherous, as in the above instance, while on other portions it is quite safe. Indeed, there is no way of determining except by cautious inspection.
I must do Alfred the justice to record that he came around quite handsomely to thank Addison, and then asked his pardon for the hard words that he had used at Fair time.
The morning following is marked forever in my memory by an unexpected trip up to the "great woods" — the result of certain disturbing rumors which had been in circulation throughout the autumn, but of which I have not previously spoken, since they were confined mainly to a school district two miles to the east of the Old Squire's farm.
On that morning a party of not less than thirty men and boys, with hounds, was made up to go in pursuit of a pack of outlaw dogs which had been killing sheep and calves in that town and vicinity. As yet the flocks in our own neighborhood had not been molested, but there was no saying how soon the marauders might pay us a visit; and a public effort had been inaugurated to hunt the pack down and destroy it.
The history of these dog outlaws was a singular one and parallels in canine life the famous story of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The fact that dogs do occasionally lead double lives — one that of a docile house-dog by day, and the other that of a wild, dangerous beast by night — is well established. In this case a trusted dog had become not only an outlaw himself, but drew others about him and was the leader of a dangerous band.
A farmer named Frost, three miles from us, began to lose sheep from a flock of seventy which he owned and which were kept in a pasture that included a high hill and sloped northward over rough, bushy land to the great woods. It was not the custom there to enclose the sheep in pens or shelters, at night. They wandered at will in the pasture, and were rarely visited oftener than once a week, and that usually on Sunday morning. Then either the farmer or one of his boys would go to the pasture to give the sheep salt and count them. This was the custom among the farmers in that locality, nearly all of whom owned flocks sometimes as small as twenty, but rarely larger than seventy-five, since sheep in New England do not thrive when kept in large flocks.
Farmer Frost was not the only one who had lost sheep at this time. Six other flocks were invaded, but his loss occurred first. His son Rufus, going to the pasture to salt and count the sheep on a Sunday morning, found that two ewes and a grown lamb were missing. Later in the day the partially devoured remains of the sheep were found in the pasture not far from a brook.
"Bear's work," the farmer and his neighbors said, although an old hunter who visited the spot pronounced against the theory. But a bear had been seen recently in the vicinity; and Monday morning the Frost boys loaded their guns for a thorough hunt. Two traps were also set near the carcasses, which were left as found, to lure the destroyer back.
The destroyer did not return; the traps remained as they were set; and the youthful hunters were unsuccessful in rousing a bear in the woods. But on the following Wednesday night a farmer named Needham, living a mile and a half from Frost, lost two sheep, the bodies of which were found in his pasture, partly eaten.
It chanced that Farmer Needham, or his son Emerson, owned a dog which was greatly prized. They called him Bender. Bender was said to be a half-breed, Newfoundland and mastiff, but had, I think, a strain of more common blood in his ancestry, for there was a tawny crescent mark beneath each of his eyes. Bender was the pink of propriety and a dog of unblemished reputation.
On this occasion Bender went with the farmer and his boys to the sheep pasture, and smelled the dead sheep with every appearance of surprise and horror. The hair on his shoulders bristled with indignation. He coursed around, seeking for bear tracks, and ran barking about the pasture. In short, he did everything that a properly grieved dog should do under the circumstances, and so far from touching or eating any of the torn mutton, he plainly scorned such a thing.
The boys took Bender with them to hunt bears, as their main reliance and ally, and Bender hunted assiduously. Three or four other dogs, belonging at farms in the vicinity, were also taken on these hunts. One was a collie, another a mongrel bulldog, and a third a large brindled dog of no known pedigree. Still another half-bred St. Bernard dog set off with the others, but on reaching the sheep pasture, where they went first to get the trail and make a start, this latter dog behaved oddly, left the others and slunk away home.
Some of the boys attributed this to cowardice, and he was hooted; others suspected Roke, for that was his name, of having killed the sheep. Suspicion against him so increased that his master kept him chained at home.
No bears were tracked to their dens, and none were caught in the traps, which were also set in the Needham pasture; but less than a week later another farmer, this time the owner of the mongrel bulldog, lost three sheep in one night. As previously, the sheep were found dead and partly eaten.
If Roke's alibi had not had a tangible chain at one end of it that night, his character would have been as good as lost; for his refusal to hunt with the other dogs and the manner in which he behaved while near the dead sheep, had rendered him a public "suspect." When near the carcasses he had growled morosely, and shown his teeth. When barked at by the other dogs, he had taken himself off.
A few nights afterward Farmer Frost lost two more sheep from his flock in the pasture, and the following night Rufus watched in the pasture with a loaded gun, quite without results.
About that time two or three others watched in their pastures. Some shut up their sheep. But the losses continued to occur. Within a radius of three or four miles as many as twenty-four sheep were killed in the course of three weeks.
None of the watchers by night or the hunters by day had, as yet, obtained so much as a trace or a clue to the animal which had done the killing. They came to think that it was quite useless to watch by night; the marauding creature, whether bear, wild-cat, or dog, was apparently too wily, or too keen-scented, to enter a pasture and approach a flock where a man was concealed.
Rufus Frost, who had watched repeatedly, then hit on a stratagem. First he cut off about a foot from the barrel of a shotgun, to shorten it, and then made a kind of bag, or sack, by sewing two sheep-pelts together. Thus equipped, he repaired to the pasture after dark, and joined himself to the flock, not as a watcher, but as a sheep. That is to say, he crept into the sheepskin bag, which was also capacious enough to contain the short gun, and lay down on the outskirts of the flock, a little aloof.
The sheep were lying in a group, ruminating, as is their habit, by night. Rufus drew a tangle of wool over his head, and otherwise contrived to pose as a sheep lying down. He assumed that when thus bagged up in fresh sheepskin, the odor of a sheep would be diffused, and the appearance of one so well counterfeited as to deceive even a bear. His gun he had charged heavily with buckshot; and altogether the ruse was ingenious, if nothing more.
Nothing disturbed the flock on the first night that he spent in the pasture, nor on the second; but he resolved to persevere. It was no very bad way to pass an autumn night; the weather was pleasant and warm, and there was a bright moon nearing its full.
He had kept awake during the first night, listening and watching for the most of the time; but he caught naps the second, and on the third was sleeping comfortably at about two in the morning, when he was suddenly set upon, tooth and nail, by what he believed, on first waking, to be a whole family of bears. One had him by the leg, through the bag, shaking him. Another was dragging at the back of the bag, while the teeth of a third were snapping at his face. Still other teeth were chewing upon his arm, and the growling was something frightful!
This was an alarming manner in which to be wakened from a sound nap, and it is little wonder that Rufus, although a plucky youngster, rolled over and over and yelled with the full power of his lungs.
His shouts produced an effect. First one and then another of his assailants let go and drew back; and getting the wool out of his eyes, Rufus saw that the creatures were not bears, but four astonished dogs, standing a few feet away, regarding him with doubt and disgust.
To all appearance he had been a sheep, lying a little apart from the others, and they had fallen upon him as one; but his shouts led them to think that he was not mutton, after all, and they did not know what to make of it!
Rufus, almost equally astonished, now lay quite still, staring at them. The dogs looked at each other, licked the wool from their mouths, and sat down to contemplate him further.
Rufus, on his part, waxed even more amazed as he looked, for by the bright moonlight he at once identified the four dogs. They were, alas! the highly respectable, exemplary old Bender, the collie, Tige, the brindle, and the mongrel bulldog — all loved and trusted members of society. Rufus was so astonished that he did not think of using his blunderbuss; he simply whistled.
That whistle appeared to resolve the doubts of the dogs instantly. They growled menacingly and sprang away like the wind. Rufus saw them run across the pasture to the woods, and afterward, for some minutes, heard them washing themselves in the brook, as roguish, sheep-killing dogs always do before returning home.
But in this case the dogs appeared to know that they had been detected, and that so far as their characters as good and virtuous dogs went, the game was up. Not one of them returned home. All four took to the woods, and thereafter lived predatory lives. They were aware of the gravity of their offenses.
During October and early November they were heard of as a pack of bad sheep-killers, time and again; but they now followed their evil practices at a distance from their former homes, where, indeed, the farmers took the precaution of carefully guarding their sheep. On one night of October they killed three calves in a farmer's field, four miles from the Frost farm. Several parties set off to hunt them, but they escaped and lived as outlaws, subsisting from nocturnal forays until snow came, when they were tracked to a den beneath a high crag, called the "Overset," up in the great woods.
It was Rufus Frost and Emerson Needham, the former owner of Bender, who tracked the band to their retreat. Finding it impossible to call or drive the criminals out, they blocked the entrance of the den with large stones, and then came home to devise some way of destroying them — since it is a pretty well-established fact that when once a dog has relapsed into the savage habits of his wild ancestry he can never be reclaimed.
Someone had suggested suffocating the dogs with brimstone fumes; and so, early the following morning, Rufus and Emerson, heading a party of fifteen men and boys, came to the Edwards farm and the Old Squire's to get brimstone rolls, which we had on account of our bees. Their coming, on such an errand, carried a wave of excitement with it. Old Hewey Glinds, the trapper, was sent for and joined the party, in spite of his rheumatism. Every boy in the neighborhood begged earnestly to go; and the most of us, on one plea and another, obtained permission to do so.
All told, I believe, there were thirty-one in the party, not counting dogs. Entering the woods we proceeded first to Stoss Pond, then through Black Ash Swamp, and thence over a mountainous wooded ridge to Overset Pond.
In fact we seemed to be going to the remote depths of the wilderness; and what a savage aspect the snowy evergreen forest wore that morning! At last, we came out on the pond. Very black it looked, for it was what is called a "warm pond." Ice had not yet formed over it. The snow-clad crag where the cave was, on the farther side, loomed up, ghostly white by contrast.
Rufus and Emerson had gone ahead and were there in advance of us; they shouted across to us that the dogs had not escaped. We then all hurried on over snowy stones and logs to reach the place.
It was a gruesome sort of den, back under an overhang of rocks fully seventy feet high. Near the dark aperture which the boys had blocked, numbers of freshly gnawed bones lay in the snow, which presented a very sinister appearance.
Those in advance had already kindled a fire of drift-stuff not far away on the shore. The hounds and dogs which had come with the party, scenting the outlaw dogs in the cave, were barking noisily; and from within could be heard a muffled but savage bay of defiance.
"That's old Bender!" exclaimed Emerson. "And he knows right well, too, that his time's come!"
"Suppose they will show fight?" several asked.
"Fight! Yes!" cried old Hewey, who had now hobbled up. "They'll fight wuss than any wild critters!"
One of the older boys, Ransom Frost, declared that he was not afraid to take a club and go into the cave.
"Don't you think of such a thing!" exclaimed old Hewey. "Tham's desperate dogs! They'd pitch onto you like tigers! Tham dogs know there's no hope for them, and they're going to fight — if they get the chance!"
It was a difficult place to approach, and several different plans of attack were proposed. When the two hounds and three dogs which had come up with us barked and scratched at the heavy, flat stones which Rufus and Emerson had piled in the mouth of the cave, old Bender and Tige would rush forward on their side of the obstruction, with savage growls. Yet when Rufus or any of the others attempted to steal up with their guns, to shoot through the chinks, the outlaws drew back out of sight, in the gloom. There was a fierceness in their growling such as I never have heard from other dogs.
The owner of Watch, the collie, now crept up close and called to his former pet. "I think I can call my dog out," said he.
He called long and endearingly, "Come, Watch! Come, good fellow! You know me, Watch! Come out! Come, Watch, come!"
But the outlawed Watch gave not a sign of recognition or affection; he stood with the band.
Tige's former master then tried the same thing, but elicited only a deep growl of hostility.
"Oh, you can whistle and call, but you won't get tham dogs to go back on one another!" chuckled old Hewey. "Tham dogs have taken an oath together. They won't trust ye and I swan I wouldn't either, if I was in their places! They know you are Judases!"
It was decided that the brimstone should be used. Live embers from the fire were put in the kettle. Green, thick boughs were cut from fir-trees hard by; and then, while the older members of the party stood in line in front of the hole beneath the rocks, to strike down the dogs if they succeeded in getting out, Rufus and Emerson removed a part of the stones, and with some difficulty introduced the kettle inside, amidst a chorus of ugly growls from the beleaguered outlaws. The brimstone was then put into the kettle, more fire applied, and the hole covered quickly with boughs. And now even we younger boys were allowed to bear a hand, scraping up snow and piling it over the boughs, the better to keep in the smoke and fumes.
The splutter of the burning sulphur could plainly be heard through the barrier, and also the loud, defiant bark of old Bender and the growls of Tige.
Very soon the barking ceased, and there was a great commotion, during which we heard the kettle rattle. This was succeeded presently by a fierce, throaty snarling of such pent-up rage that chills ran down the backs of some of us as we listened. After a few minutes this, too, ceased. For a little space there was complete silence; then began the strangest sound I ever heard.
It was like the sad moaning of the stormy wind, as we sometimes hear it in the loose window casements of a deserted house. Hardly audible at first, it rose fitfully, moaning, moaning, then sank and rose again. It was not a whine, as for pity or mercy, but a kind of canine farewell to life: the death-song of the outlaws. This, too, ceased after a time; but old Hewey did not advise taking away the boughs for fifteen or twenty minutes. "Make a sure job on't," he said.
Choking fumes issued from the cave for some time after it was opened and the stones pulled away. Bender was then discovered lying only a few feet back from the entrance. He appeared to have dashed the kettle aside, as if seeking to quench the fire and smoke. Tige was close behind him, Watch farther back. Very stark and grim all four looked when finally they were hauled out with a pole and hook and given a finishing shot.
It was thought best to burn the bodies of the outlaws. The fire on the shore was replenished with a great quantity of drift-wood, fir boughs and other dry stuff which we gathered, and the four carcasses heaved up on the pile. It was a calm day, but thick, dark clouds had by this time again overspread the sky, causing the pond to look still blacker. The blaze gained headway; and a dense column of smoke and sparks rose straight upward to a great height. Owing to the snow and the darkening heavens, the fire wore a very ruddy aspect, and I vividly recall how its melancholy crackling was borne along the white shore, as we turned away and retraced our steps homeward.