More Chores And Pastimes
Does it seem as though John's chores would never end? If it does to
you, how must it have seemed to John? But luckily the pastimes were
pretty well sandwiched in between the chores' and the more chores
there were, the more he had to exert his ingenuity to wrest some fun
out of them. Necessary evils, they certainly were, but trust a boy to
endure such evils with some degree of comfort, not to say pleasure,
since they could not actually be cured I
There was a deep pool below the grist-mill down in Hardscrabble creek
where, of a warm May-day, the farm hands would drive the sheep for
their annual bath, preparatory to the shearing. John helped only with
the driving, the rest was work for men. Once down in that deep cool
gorge by the waterfall, they dragged the victims from the huddled
frightened herd on the rocks and doused and rinsed them one by one,
in spite of their objections, John looking on somewhat ruefully, his
sympathies always with the bleating sheep. As the work progressed, he
clambered about on the rocks in a general tour of inspection. Every
year he found a phoebe's mossy nest with its five or six white eggs,
cunningly placed under the grey ledges, within easy reach of his
hand, yet safe from minks and skunks, and well-protected from the storms.
The shearing of the sheep was usually done in June. Bringing the
wayward creatures from the fields, the boys shut them up in the barn
where the farm hands ruthlessly divested them of their woolly coats.
Poor, protesting, struggling creatures! their shorn hides presented
many a bleeding jab after these tussles. As fast as they were sheared
and released by the boys, they went bleating up on the mountain
again, their lambs and their tails behind them.
The wool was taken to the fulling-mill over in Meeker's Hollow, where
it was carded or combed on a wire brush, made up into rolls, and then
spun into yarn by the womenfolks, on the big spinning-wheel.
The yarn was dyed in a primitive way with chamberlye and indigo. The
skeins, previously wound with strings, were thrown into the dye-tub
where they lay for weeks, after which, on being wrung out and the
strings removed, they presented the variegated blue and white
appearance of the yarn then so commonly used.
A familiar sound of John's boyhood was that crescendo and diminuendo
of his mother's spinning-wheel
Z-z-z-z-rh! Z-z-z-z-rh! as his mother would walk up to the wheel and
retreat, while spinning the yarn.
Coverlids and coats were made from that wool, and yarn for their
stockings, mittens, wristlets, and comforts. Overcoats were not
common, but the long knit comforts that went around the necks,
crossing the chests, and around the waists, kept them good and warm.
FLAX-GATHERING AND WEAVING
John's father grew the flax and his mother spun it into thread and
wove it into linen for their sheets, towels, shirts, and summer
trousers. When we buy a yard of linen at a shop to-day we little
think what slow, laborious work went into its making; this was
especially true in those days of crude processes and primitive ways.
When the flax was ripe in the fall the boys pulled it, laying it on
the ground to rot. When gathered into the barn, it was broken with a
crackle -a machine for breaking up the woody 'parts, but not the
fibre; it was like a glass rod encased in a cloth, the rod would be
shattered, but the cloth left intact.
The next step, to swingle it, or to get out the woody fibre, was done
by means of an upright board and a swingling-knife. The farmer would
throw great handfuls of the flax over the edge of the board, striking
it again and again with the swingle -- a wooden implement about two
feet long, shaped something like a sword, with one edge thinner than
the other. The shives, or small particles of the brittle, woody
stalks, would drop down, and, in due time, the flax be comparatively
freed from them. But before the flax could be used, it had to be
hetchelled, or combed out on a board set full of sharp teeth.
Although it was a combing process, instead of running the comb
through the hair, the hair was in this case run through the comb till
it was clean; the pieces, probably twenty inches long, were like
strands of silky hair.
In the hetchelling process great wads of tow-the shorter and coarser
pieces of flax-were combed out. From this the boys made twine for
bagstrings, to tie up the corn, oats, and rye. They claimed the
surplus tow themselves, making of it a glorious bonfire down in the
meadows in the early autumn evenings.
Next came the quilling, or winding the thread on the distaff, and
from there on the spools, after which the thread was woven into cloth
on the loom. The boys made the spools by pushing out the pith from
pieces of elder. Even when quite a little fellow John used to sit on
a low stool and help his mother with the quilling. When the thread
was on the spools, and the spools were in the shuttle, his mother
would- stand and throw the shuttle back and forth, while weaving the cloth.
The cloth was of a greyish hue, and, as some of the shives always
remained in, in spite of the hetchelling, the new shirts and towels
were pretty harsh, or "hash," as they used to say, so that
breaking in a flax-made shirt, and wiping on a new towel were among
the rough experiences of John's boyhood which have left a smarting
recollection behind. It was like wiping on a brier bushthat home-made
towel. Well that it did not scratch out both his eyes, for he has
made very good use of those organs, has even taught some of the rest
of us why we have two eyes in our heads. After each washing, the
shirts would bleach a little, and when about worn out, were nearly
white. Those shirts and trousers were tough and strong. If a boy fell
out of a tree catching by his trousers on the way down, he would hang
wherever caught, until released.
SALTING THE YOUNG CATTLE
Sunday mornings John's father sent him up on the sidehill toward Old
Clump with a pail of coarse salt for the sheep and young cattle, a
chore about which he never murmured. It was a job that could be
indefinitely prolonged, and there was always much to see by the way.
The prairie horned larks flitted before him with their shuffling,
jingling, lisping calls; goldfinches soared above in
MORE CHORES AND PASTIMES 103
their billowy flight, calling gaily, "Here we go, here we
go!" the vesper sparrow kept companionably near; the indigo
bunting sang incessantly from the trees along the fence borders;
butterflies sailed around him; and grasshoppers danced in a merry
maze wherever he started them up as he climbed.
Then there were springs to be visited-the one high up toward the
mountain-top, under the ledges, and others in the pastures, these,
especially, often needing his attention. Whenever he found one fouled
with leaves and trodden by cattle he cleared it out, on his return
finding the water clear and cool. The salting of the cattle itself
was a never-failing delight. The knowing creatures, seeming to divine
when it was Sunday, were waiting for him at their "lick,"
instead of rambling here, there, and everywhere. How they would
follow him about, eagerly licking up the salt as he scattered it on
the smooth stones! He loved to watch them smack their lips over it,
and gnaw the sward for the last bit. It was almost as good fun as to
watch them eat pumpkins or apples, which always made his mouth water.
Sometimes a cow would be missing from the herd pastured below the
beechwoods. This meant that the boys had to go on a hunt for
heranother agreeable task. They never had the wondrous adventure,
though, that Granther once had in that vicinity, years before: One
night while wandering around in search of the lost Io, he heard
something in the brush, and lot out in his path there stepped a bear!
The bear did not get him, nor 'did he get the bear. Bruin ran away
even more scared than was Granther.
When the early settlers had come in that region, they had to cut the
birch, beech, maple, and basswood to browse their cattle, there
being, of course, no hay until they could clear the land, raise and
rake in the rye, sow grass seed, and thus secure a crop of hay. As a
result of their tree-cutting, numerous stumps dotted the cleared
land, and in John's boyhood a part of the spring work for boys was
the burning of those stumps.
As they would come down to breakfast in the early April mornings,
their father would say:
"John, you and Eden go up to the clover meadow to-day and burn stumps."
This was a lark. Building a huge fire, they would wort with a will
the long forenoon through, working merrily day after day. The sparks
burnt holes in their clothes burning them more and more each day,
till after several days at the job, they were almost past wearing.
One day Eden's new hat got afire and a big hole was burned in it That
wasn't so much fun when they got back to the house
Sometimes they found a stump with a bluebird's nest in it. They
always spared that stump. Approaching it stealthily, and clapping his
hat over the nest, John could usually catch the bird in his hand.
Then, on lifting his hat, he would free the little prisoner, which
would rush out with a glad cry. Granther Kelly used to do the same
thing when a boy. Once, when putting his hand in a stump to feel for
bluebirds, he felt something peculiar, something 16 comical," he
used to say, and on withdrawing his hand hastily, out came the head
and neck of a black snake He ran, and the snake ran after him. It had almost
MORE CHORES AND PASTIMES 105
reached him when a ploughman struck the snake with his ox-whip. Safe
to say John never questioned this story when Granther told it, but
nowadays he would doubtless say that Granther, whose imagination was
most lively, must have imagined that part about the snake chasing him.
In that mountainous Catskill region the meadows and pastures were
divided, as to-day, by long lines of stone walls which give the land
a characteristic and pleasing checker-board appearance. These dark,
rugged boundary lines frame the fields, inclose the woods, creep up
the steep hills, and descend to the valley bottoms. John used to
listen with interest when Uncle John Kelly on his visits from
Pennsylvania told how free the land in their state was from stones;
how their fences had to be made of rails. A rail or a board fence was
unheard of around Roxbury. The boy wondered why there was such a
difference in the two regions, but there was no one to explain to him
that it was the great Ice-sheet that was responsible for all that
back-breaking work of picking up stones, of which he had so much as a
boy. Those grooves he used to see on the rocks, high up on the hilly
pastures and which he regarded so curiously-he had no inkling that
they had been made by the glaciers passing over them, transporting
the rocks and gravel, and leaving those tell-tale marks. Nor did he
know a thing about that other mysterious force, Erosion, which had
had so much to do with smoothing and rounding the familiar
broad-backed hills, and scooping out the wide valleys of his native landscape.
The farmers, in that country so abundantly supplied with stone,
turned their hindrances into helps, by "making the fields grow
their own fences." A stone wall is a veritable sermon in stones,
and a long, tiresome one at that. So thought John, and so thought his
brothers while being pressed into the service of prying up rocks, and
picking up stones.
Every spring John's father built about fifty rods of new wall, and
sometimes as much more in the fall. The boys groaned in spirit when
these times came round.
Stones of all sizes and shapes, big and little, round and square,
thick and thin, smooth stones, jagged stones, stones of no shape at
all-all was grist that came to the mill of the stone-layer. All were
piled on the stone-boat drawn by Brock and 'Bright, and hauled to the
place where the wall was to be laid. They were first thrown along in
a windrow-an irregular, chaotic line of - stone from which the new
wall slowly grew. Hiram, as has been said, was a good stone-layer;
his enduring monuments stretch in never-ending line all over the
Burroughs farm to-day; but the other boys, not entrusted with such
skilled work as that, were chiefly helpful in gathering the raw
material. They liked to watch the building of the wall, and to be on
hand when blasting was to be done. The stone-layer makes his wall
broad and deep at the bottom and firm and smooth on the top, making
one side, the face side, much smoother than the other. Two rods a day
was a good day's work, but a certain man who worked for John's father
had a record of laying eight rods in one day!
The boys rejoiced when there was a barn-raising on hand. A
"raising" meant just the putting up of the frame, the
weather boards and the roof being added later. First the foundation
was prepared and the sleepers and sills put in-work taking several
days-then the neighbours came from miles around to help with the raising.
Carrying the beams and posts and joists to their places on the
platform, they put together the first "bent," fastening it
with oak pins. Then fifteen or twenty men with pike-poles ranged in
line abreast of the bent, awaited the sharp commands of the
"boss" as he steadied and guided the corner post:
"Take holt, boys! Now set her up! Up with her!" "Up
They hoist it shoulder-high, then each man with pikepole braced
awaits further orders:
"Altogether, boys!" "Heave her up!" "He-o-he!
he-o-he!" shouts the boss at the top of his voice, every man
doing his utmost.
There was one man at the barn-raisings, Rice Bouton, who always took
John's eye; his strength was prodigious; his nimbleness and alertness
were remarkable. The first one on the bent, catching a pin and
putting it in place, he would walk the high beams fearlessly with the
great beetle in his hand, and putting the pins in the holes would
drive them in, as much at home in that perilous position as a
squirrel on a limb.
When John was thirteen years old his father decided to move the old
house away (the house in which John was born) and build a new one on
the old site. It was indeed an exciting time. The house with all its
contents was to be transplanted to the orchard, where they were to
continue to live while the new house was building. These days were
brimful of interest, When Farmer Burroughs bid his neighbours to his
Moving-Bee, twenty farmers came, each bringing his yoke of oxen. The
preparations for the moving, however, had taken several days: Two
long smooth beech trees were cut down and hewn for the runners, and
many green beechwood poles for skids. Prying up the house, they
placed it on the runners, with the skids beneath. How queer the old
house looked loosed from her mooring! She was setting out on her
first journey pretty late in life.
With the heavy log chains, each link as big as a man's thumb, they
chained her to the runners, and then hitched fast the twenty yoke of
oxen and steers, in two long lines, one at each runner. Men and boys,
stationed with levers, awaited orders.
" Go! "
Slowly the two long lines of oxen straighten; the great creatures
settle into their bows; the chains around the runners tighten; the
strain continues-but look! something has given way! A chain has
broken! There's a delay while it is mended. Presently the work is
resumed. Again the command:
Gads are flourished. Shouting lustily, the men urge on their teams,
laying their "buds" on harder and harder. The excitement
grows intense. The oxen bend to their work; their eyes bulge; their
nostrils widen; the commands from the drivers rise to a discordant
Babel. The old house creaks; she groans as if alive; she starts; she
moves; and, once in motion, moves away to the orchard "as nimbly
as a boy on a hand-sled," while the onlookers cheer mightily.
Haying in John's time, lacking modem machinery, was a thirty days'
war, or more, and had something of the urge and excitement of battle.
The work required many "hands" who came from near and far.
Good mowers would quit their regular work, and, with scythe over
shoulder, go about from farm to farm to help with the haying. Wages
for this work were extra good, and the men were expected to work
extra hard. They had a certain pride about it, too; the boys soon
caught the fever -hay fever, shall we say? -- and were eager to do
their stunts as well as the men.
The hay-makers were usually in the meadows working an hour or two
before breakfast. With a stroke level and sure, they cut a wide
swath, leaving no spears standing. There is a rigid etiquette of the
hay field which John learned in his teens: One must not take
another's swath; each has his turn as leader; it is not good
hay-manners to mow too close to your neighbour, unless driven by the
man behind. When one mower tries to put another through, that other,
not to be out-done, follows close, and a heated race is on.
What a picturesque sight of a midsummer afternoon as the mowers move
amid the ripening grain! and when, toward sundown, the smooth slopes,
shaven and shorn, are dotted with haycocks! The great stack is built
in the meadow, a man atop of it taking the forkfuls of hay from the
pitchers below. But when the hay is mowed away in the loft, the
picturesqueness is as hard to find as a needle in a haystack-it is
just a hot, dusty, tiresome job!
John worked at spreading and raking hay long before he was old enough
to take a turn at the mowing. But when he was fifteen or sixteen he
could hold his swath against any youth of his age in any field, and
even with some of the men, although on quitting for the nooning, his
knees would shake under him from his sturdy efforts at keeping up
with the men.
When the scythes got dull he had to turn the grindstone while Hiram
ground them. At the best that was no picnic, but how he dreaded to
see Uncle Ezekiel come to help with the haying! for he carried a gin
bottle in his pocket, and after resorting to it a few times, mowed
stones as readily as grass. The grown-up boy nowadays points to a
field near Woodchuck Lodge and says, "Uncle Zeke cut the tops
off all those stones in that field there, and I had to turn the grindstone!"
Haying always comes in the hottest weather. Many a time John fairly
panted for breath in the hay-field. When it got unbearable, if they
were anywhere near the swimming-hole, he dropped his scythe and took
a dip, not stopping to remove his scanty clothing which was scarcely
wetter when he came out than when he went in. And Oh! the delight of
those pauses in the mowing, when they would stop and draw out the jug
of spring water from its place in the shade, each mower in turn
putting it to his sweaty lips and taking long draughts! They knew
nothing about germs in those days and, blissfully ignorant, shared
and shared alike with the little brown jug under the swath.
At ten o'clock, resting under a tree, and looking out over the
quivering air of the fields, they ate their snack of rye bread and
butter, with perhaps a cucumber and a doughnut to top off with. Thus
fortified, on they mow till twelve, when summoned by the dinner horn,
all hands hurry to the house. Washing up at the watering-trough, and
taking their turn at the roller-towel, they seat themselves
unceremoniously at the long table amid much clatter, raillery and guffaws.
The women bustle in with the heaped-up dishes; the hungry men fall to
and attack the food. Now and then one reaches with his long arm,
pieced out by his fork, and spears a slice of bread. Generous pieces
of pie, cheese, doughnuts, and other eatables go the way of all the
other food, arid, wiping their mouths on the backs of their hands,
and shoving back their chairs, they scatter, some going out on the
doorstones, others, leaning against the wall in tilted chairs, smoke
or keep silent, until the" boss" gives the signal to return
to the fields.
In the fall and winter John and his brothers threshed oats and rye on
the floor of the barn that stood out in the field, called the barn on
"John, I want you and Curtis to go out and thresh five or six
shocks this morning," his father would say at the breakfast table.
A shock was fifteen sheaves.
Filling their pockets with apples, the boys start out and tackle the
job: Laying the sheaves down with their heads together in two long
rows, they set-to with the flail-the instrument for beating grain
from the sheaves. It was a straight, strong, hickory hand-staff to
which hung, by means of a leathern thong, a wooden swipple, two and a
half feet long, and about three inches in circumference, the swipple
being the part with which the beating was done.
What a flapping and a pounding they gave those heads of oats and rye!
what a jolly noise it made as the flails chased each other through
the air! and what fun it wasfor a little while. But the dust filled
their nostrils and settled on their clothes and in their hair, and,
somehow, the fun was done long before the stunt was.
When they had threshed a flooring, the straw was bound into bundles,
the grain being left in a pile till enough accumulated, when it was
ran through the fanning-mill.
Threshing was a far more agreeable process to watch than to engage
in. John delighted in watching them thresh buckwheat in the open: The
men would spread the ruddy sheaves on a broad flat rock, or on a
level piece of ground, and set to with a will. What a picture they
made beating out the grain! and what a loud thud they made! and when
there were three or four beating together, it was a continuous roll
of sound. Threshers had to be very deft to keep from hitting, or
being hit, with those swinging flails.
Out in the autumn sunshine it was lively and interesting work, but
the dullest of drudgery in winter when, day after day, on dry cold
days the boys, or, what was worse, one boy, would be sent to pound
away by himself on the barn floor with the flail.
John remembers hearing of a suitor of his sister, Olly Ann, who
threshed for them one fall -- a man of prodigious strength who could
shoulder a barrel of flour. He threshed fourteen shocks of oats in
one day-an unheard-of thing! Jonathan had looked upon Olly Ann and
had found her as beautiful and well-favoured as Jacob had found
Rachael, and would fain impress Farmer Burroughs with his industry,
and Olly Ann with his great strength, and so the fourteen shocks had
seemed unto him but a few sheaves, for the love he had for her; but,
alas! the maiden did not look with favour upon the sturdy Jonathan,
and the sound of his flail was heard from the barn on the hill no more.
It Lives there a boy, a live boy, anywhere who does not like apples?
-- green apples, sour apples, crab apples, the poorest seedlings,
even frozen apples-any of these will do in want of better ones, for
an apple's an apple, even though there are apples and apples to the
real apple connoisseur.
An apple is full of sunshine, and full of sugar-try those brown,
juicy frozen ones that you find hanging on the bare trees in winter
if you don't believe it. The apple is a rose when it blossoms, and a
rose when it's ripe, so says the man who learned to be an expert
judge of apples when a boy. He had apples in his blood and in his
bones. The apple lured him, as it did Mother Eve, into forbidden
regions, even into Neighbour Scudder's orchards where special
favourites grew. He was invariably apple hungry when a boy.
The very sound of the apple dropping in the orchard was music to his
ear; the siren winked at him with its single eye; it nodded to him
from the boughs; it beckoned to him from afar; he willingly helped
store it in the cellar in the fall, and fill the apple-hole in the
back-yard, later in the season. On his tramps over the hills he
crammed his pockets with apples: taking one out he would toy with it,
rub it round and round, press it to his cheek, fumble it in his
pocket, smell it, toss it in the air, roll it on the ground, and, in
due time, eat it; and then he would eat another, and another, and another.
Apple-gathering almost ranked with sugar-making as a work that was
three-quarters pastime. In the mellow October days, piling the bags
and bushel baskets on the wagons, they drove over to that part of the
home-farm called the Rundle Place, and gathered the fruit from both
upper and lower orchards. What delightful work to sort the red and
green and golden piles and fill the bags, and then the cellar bins!
Later in the season, some were put into the apple-hole. Some also
went into special nests in the hay-mow where they lay and mellowed
and, in dwindling numbers, awaited the frequent visits of the
apple-misers who had hid them there; but if old Brindle, as sometimes
happened, got her nose through the open door, she quickly smelled out
the hidden hoard and made short work of it.
This is the way they made the apple-hole: Digging a shallow pit about
a foot deep, and perhaps five feet in diameter, they spread in it a
thick layer of rye-straw and dumped the apples in, many basketfuls,
the hardiest, choicest varieties. They piled them up to as steep a
peak as they could and still have them stay put.
How good they looked-the Greenings, the Spitzenburgs, the Northern
Spies, the Tallman Sweets, the Swaars, the Kings, the Russets, the Belle-flowers!
Covering them all round, close and warm, in a coat of rye-straw, and
spreading over this a layer of dirt so as to hide the straw, they
also added, before winter set in, an overcoat of dry stable manure;
the winter snows completed the covering. No frost could penetrate to
the garnered fruit, and there it lay till spring, growing in grace
and flavour in the darkness and silence.
As the supply in the cellar bins got low toward spring, the boys
would attack the apple-hole. Taking a spade and an axe, they
penetrated through snow and frozen earth till reaching the coat of
straw, a little dingy and the worse for wear, but still serviceable;
then, thrusting in their arms and mining for their favourites they
drew them forth, crisp and cold, and glad to see the daylight again!
When the time for cider-making came round the boys sorted out the
inferior apples, even the rotten and wormeaten ones, and took them
over to the Gould farm in the West Settlement, where Jay Gould's
father, who was the only farmer in that region owning one, had a cider-press.
The apples were first crushed in a mill. The horse, hitched to a
sweep that turned the wooden cylinders, walked round and round. The
crushed fruit was shovelled up to form the "cheese "-a
layer of straw, a layer of apples, a layer of straw, a layer of
apples, over and over, this was the "cheese." The press was
then put on and screwed down, the mass yielding the amber juice that
ran down a groove into a tub. Leaving it over night, they came back
the next day and barrelled it up.
When the gimlet-holes were bored in the barrels for vents, the boys,
armed with long straws, with bellies on barrels, lay and sucked up
the delicious juice till too full for utterance. While hauling the
barrels home they smacked their lips in anticipation of further
delights. The contents would enliven many an autumn evening in the
Among the Snow Walkers on which the Burroughs boys kept a sharp eye
were the raccoons that would come out early in the spring, lean and
hungry, from their dens under the rocks, so much in want of food that
they even came around the barns and outbuildings.
One morning in early spring, before daylight, the boys, hearing Cuff
bark vociferously, knowing what was up, quickly got into their
clothesWilson, Curtis, Eden, and John; and, on rushing out, found
Cuff standing at the foot of an ash tree not more than thirty rods
from the house. The dog was looking up into the tree and complaining
sharply at the tardiness of the boys; and well he might! For there on
one of the bare branches clung a big threatening 'coon!
Wilson, the boldest of the "bunch," shinned up the tree to
shake the 'coon down, while Cuff bounded and barked with delight as
he saw him climb. When he got within ten feet of the 'coon, seizing
the branch on which it clung, he shook it long and vigorously, but to
no purpose. Wilson was in greater danger of losing his hold than was
the 'coon of its. Moreover, the 'coon growled and showed unmistakable
signs of advancing on the enemy, causing Wilson to go down much
faster than he went up.
They finally brought the rascal down with the gun, but for some
moments it fought the dog fiercely, returning bite for bite, giving
up the ghost only after it had been shaken unmercifully by Cuff and
bitten clean through the small of its back!
" The raccoon is clear grit," says John, in rehearsing the
incident. "He never shows the white feather. He is probably the
most courageous of all our wild animals."
It was in the fall that cooning was such a pastime. Then the
creatures were desirably fat and sweet-fleshed from their raids on
the corn fields.
One moonless October night the boys and the 'coon dog started out in
search of the nocturnal thieves, stealthily creeping near the ravaged
fields at the east end of the farm.
" Hunt 'em up, Cuff, hunt 'em up! " they called as they
sent in the dog; and Cuff went rattling through the corn; but the
'coons escaped on the opposite side of the field, displacing a stone
which rattled loudly as they made for the nearest woods.
Presently the dog struck the trail and, clattering over the wall,
entered the woods. One or two short barks, then all was still, for
the dog barks very little when on the trail. But when the barking
became loud and continuous -- a baying sound-they knew that Cuff had
treed his 'coon.
Pell-mell up the hill and into the woods they rushed in the darkness,
falling over logs, pitching into hollows, one losing his hat, another
tearing his clothes, and all so wildly excited by Cuff's mad barking
that they stopped, breathless, only on reaching the tree.
Making a light they try to shine his eyes, but the 'coon is either
too well hidden, or too knowing to look at the light, and, as the
tree is too large to fell, their only course is to sit at its base
and wait till light enough to see their quarry. Hiram and Curtis go
home, but Wilson and John stick it out till morning, when Wilson
brings the captive down with ready skill, Cuff frankly and
emphatically expressing his approval when Wilson slings the 'coon's
warm body over his shoulder. As the sleepy boys and triumphant dog
march home, their mouths water at the thought of the roast 'coon that
is soon coming to them.
HOUND AND FOX
One of the winter joys in the Catskills was the wild cry of the fox
on the mountains. John used to go out and stand in front of the house
on still moonlight nights in winter and listen to that weird call,
uttered at intervals, almost seeming to see the wily creature up
there on the shoulder of Old Clump, sitting on the snow in his furs.
Sometimes as he listened he would hear the voice of an other fox
answering amid the ghostly winter hills.
The long, trumpet-like baying of the hound on the mountain was music
to John's ears. Sometimes it could be heard for a mile or more; now
it comes near, now recedes, or is lost entirely, as the dog pushes on
or descends into a gully; again it comes nearer and is loud and
sharp, only to be lost yet again as the hound moves farther and
farther away. The fox seems to enjoy the chase as much as does the
hound which he lures on from spur to spur of the mountain. Confident
of his superior fleetness, he even seems to wait for the dog; he sits
down and listens; he stops for a mouse; he crosses and recrosses' and
doubles on his track, apparently chuckling at thus perplexing his
pursuer. But when the snow is very deep, or wet, it is the hound that
laughs last, for then the fox's tail gets so be draggled he is forced
to be a quitter, and take refuge in his den. When caught, they say, a
fox "looks too cut up for anything."
John used to practise for fox-hunting by aiming at pumpkins which the
other boys would roll down " Steepside." One day when he
thought himself skilled enough to a bag Reynard, he took the old
musket and followed Spot they could, on the mountain. As the hound
started on the scent, burying his nose in the snow, he drew a deep
breath and gave a snort; the scent being but faint at first, he
wagged his tail in silence; but on coming upon more convincing
evidence, he let out a melodious bay and was off.
On finding the run-way of the fox, John waited there a long while,
gun in hand, but, no fox appearing and becoming chilled and benumbed,
he rested the butt on the ground, keeping his hand on the barrel, and
waited some more. Presently something stirred. Not fifty feet away a
superb red fox, a large male, his massive tail tipped with white,
came into view.
So startled was the lad and so fascinated at the sight of that yellow
pumpkin that was not a pumpkin, as the handsome creature came loping
along, that he stood motionless, gazing in amazement and admiration
while Sir Fox gracefully disappeared over a knoll!
Aroused too late to his duty as a sportsman, feeling cheap enough,
and out of humour as well, John trudged off home, mentally cursing
hounds and foxes generally, and himself in particular. The worst was
when he told his brothers about it:
"Why didn't you shoot, you goose!" asked his brothers, and
all the answer the mortified lad could think of was, "B-b-because
I had my m-mmitten on," and for years thereafter that mitten
was thrust in his face.
"Did you have your mitten on, John?" Curtis would ask
tauntingly if John failed in any undertaking.
It is about fifty years since the passenger pigeons have frequented
our fields and groves, but in John's boyhood they could be seen in
myriads passing over his father's farm. There were millions of them
then because the conditions of climate and food favoured their
increase. They did not tarry long in one place to tempt their
enemies, but came and went like the summer clouds, not always every
year, but every beech-nut year.
John used to watch their vast armies passing over, and listen to
their tender, childlike calls. Sometimes the sky was actually
darkened with them.
One day in early spring when they began to pour down in the
beechwoods, he seized his musket, and running up the road, crept
along behind the stone wall till within a few yards of the swarm of
fluttering birds. The air, the woods, and the ground were blue with
them; they whirled, and rushed, and fluttered, and cooed, as they
moved about picking up the sprouting beechnuts. The ground seemed a
yard deep with pigeons. The excited boy pointed his gun at the
surging mass, then sat motionless, spell-bound -had the whole world
turned to pigeons? Why did he not shoot? Still they came pouring down
from the sky, and still the boy sat there waiting, his eye travelling
along the gun-barrel, his whole being under a spell.
Suddenly they arose! With a rush and a roar they were gone! and then
the dazed dreamer came to his senses!
There was no pigeon pot-pie that day for dinner in the Burroughs
home, but one wonders whether the luckless hunter did not, after all,
bag more birds that day in the beechen woods than if he had sent his
deadly shot into the fluttering masses.
Pot-hunters and netters are responsible for the extermination of
those beautiful birds. Though so abundant, they could not withstand
the ruthlessness of the hunters. John used to hear of vast hordes of
pigeons in other parts of the Catskills, especially in the Neversink
valley; they nested in the trees over a tract many miles in extent,
and there the greedy gunners thronged, making a perfect fusillade as
they slaughtered them by tens of thousands.
It was the custom of the female to sit on the nest till noon, when
the male would come and "spell" her; knowing this, the
merciless hunters timed their attacks so as to kill them both. The
birds that escaped went on with incubation as though nothing had
happened, but countless nests were thus broken up. This continued for
years, and then the birds began to take wider and wider range in
search of food. Their last great nesting-grounds on record were
certain localities in Michigan, where a fearful slaughter of them was made.
The hunters also set nets for them: After baiting them for awhile,
they would hide in bough shelters, with ropes running from their nets
to the bough houses; thus entrapping tens of thousands. Any of our
other birds might share the fate of the passenger pigeon if our game
laws failed to protect each species.
Instead of protecting the birds, there were in John's boyhood some
states that even protected the conscienceless hunters: Massachusetts
in 1848 passed a law protecting the netters of wild pigeons, and
levying a fine upon any one who frightened the birds from the nests!
but in 1870 it passed a law protecting pigeons-birds which had once
been sold in its streets for a cent apiece! It is said that in the
town of Hartford, Michigan, in 1869, there was a daily shipment of
three carloads of pigeons for forty days, and that two years later,
in another town in the same state, there were marketed 15,840,999
birds! The shipping records early in the nineteenth century show that
every great market from St. Louis to Boston received hundreds of
thousands of barrels of pigeons in one season.
The last wild pigeon Mr. Burroughs ever saw was in April, 1875, and
that year seems to be the time when wild pigeons were last seen in
great numbers anywhere in the United States, only a few in scattered
flocks having been reported as observed later. It is believed that a
female wild pigeon born in 1885, raised in captivity by the
Cincinnati Zoological Society, and dying in 1914, was the last of the race.
Every little while, from various parts of the country, come reports
of one or two of these birds having been seen, but on investigation
they are usually found to be mourning-doves. In 1910, or thereabouts,
several persons earnestly concerned in saving the wild pigeons, if
they were indeed not extinct (Mr. Burroughs among the number),
offered rewards amounting to over two thousand dollars for an
undisturbed nest of wild pigeons anywhere in North America. Although
the offer held good for two years. none of the rewards were ever
claimed, many supposed "finds," on investigation, proving
to be mourning-doves. The mourning-dove is about four inches shorter
than the wild pigeon and seven inches less in spread of wings. It
lacks the blue tint about the head and the reddish undersurface of
the persecuted bird, and it never gathers in flocks for nesting
purposes, though it may be seen in small flocks in winter.
Mr. Burroughs says it would be one of the gladdest hours of his life
if he could again see the spring and fall migrations of the passenger pigeon.