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Chapter 24 Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders

“You had foxes up in Maine, I suppose Mr. Wood, hadn't you?” asked Mr. Maxwell.

“Heaps of them. I always want to laugh when I think of our foxes, for they were so cute. Never a fox did I catch in a trap, though I'd set many a one. I'd take the carcass of some creature that had died, a sheep, for instance, and put it in a field near the woods, and the foxes would come and eat it. After they got accustomed to come and eat and no harm befell them, they would be unsuspecting. So just before a snowstorm, I'd take a trap and put it this spot. I'd handle it with gloves, and I'd smoke it, and rub fir boughs on it to take away the human smell, and then the snow would come and cover it up, and yet those foxes would know it was a trap and walk all around it. It's a wonderful thing, that sense of smell in animals, if it is a sense of smell. Joe here has got a good bit of it.”

“What kind of traps were they, father?” asked Mr. Harry.

“Cruel ones steel ones. They'd catch an animal by the leg and sometimes break the bone. The leg would bleed, and below the jaws of the trap it would freeze, there being no circulation of the blood. Those steel traps are an abomination. The people around here use one made on the same principle for catching rats. I wouldn't have them on my place for any money. I believe we've got to give an account for all the unnecessary suffering we put on animals.”

“You'll have some to answer for, John, according to your own story,” said Mrs. Wood.

“I have suffered already,” he said. “Many a night I've lain on my bed and groaned, when I thought of needless cruelties I'd put upon animals when I was a young, unthinking boy and I was pretty carefully brought up, too, according to our light in those days. I often think that if I was cruel, with all the instruction I had to be merciful, what can be expected of the children that get no good teaching at all when they're young.”

“Tell us some more about the foxes, Mr. Wood,” said Mr. Maxwell.

“Well, we used to have rare sport hunting them with fox-hounds. I'd often go off for the day with my hounds. Sometimes in the early morning they'd find a track in the snow. The leader for scent would go back and forth, to find out which way the fox was going. I can see him now. All the time that he ran, now one way and now another on the track of the fox, he was silent, but kept his tail aloft, wagging it as a signal to the hounds behind. He was leader in scent, but he did not like bloody, dangerous fights. By-and-by, he would decide which way the fox had gone. Then his tail, still kept high in the air, would wag more violently. The rest followed him in single file, going pretty slow, so as to enable us to keep up to them. By-and-by, they would come to a place where the fox was sleeping for the day. As soon as he was disturbed he would leave his bed under some thick fir or spruce branches near the ground. This flung his fresh scent into the air. As soon as the hounds sniffed it, they gave tongue in good earnest. It was a mixed, deep baying, that made the blood quicken in my veins. While in the excitement of first fright, the fox would run fast for a mile or two, till he found it an easy matter to keep out of the way of the hounds. Then he, cunning creature, would begin to bother them. He would mount to the top pole of the worm fence dividing the fields from the woods. He could trot along here quite a distance and then make a long jump into the woods. The hounds would come up, but could not walk the fence, and they would have difficulty in finding where the fox had left it. Then we saw generalship. The hounds scattered in all directions, and made long detours into the woods and fields. As soon as the track was lost, they ceased to bay, but the instant a hound found it again, he bayed to give the signal to the others. All would hurry to the spot, and off they would go baying as they went.

“Then Mr. Fox would try a new trick. He would climb a leaning tree, and then jump to the ground. This trick would soon be found out. Then he'd try another. He would make a circle of a quarter of a mile in circumference. By making a loop in his course, he would come in behind the hounds, and puzzle them between the scent of his first and following tracks. If the snow was deep, the hounds had made a good track for him. Over this he could run easily, and they would have to feel their way along, for after he had gone around the circle a few times, he would jump from the beaten path as far as he could, and make off to other cover in a straight line. Before this was done it was my plan to get near the circle; taking care to approach it on the leeward side. If the fox got a sniff of human scent, he would leave his circle very quickly, and make tracks fast to be out of danger. By the baying of the hounds, the circle in which the race was kept up could be easily known. The last runs to get near enough to shoot had to be done when the hounds' baying came from the side of the circle nearest to me. For then the fox would be on the opposite side farthest away. As soon as I got near enough to see the hounds when they passed, I stopped. When they got on the opposite side, I then kept a bright lookout for the fox. Sometimes when the brush was thick, the sight of him would be indistinct. The shooting had to be quick. As soon as the report of the gun was heard, the hounds ceased to bay, and made for the spot. If the fox was dead, they enjoyed the scent of his blood. If only wounded, they went after him with all speed. Sometimes he was overtaken and killed, and sometimes he got into his burrow in the earth, or in a hollow log, or among the rocks.

“One day, I remember, when I was standing on the outside of the circle, the fox came in sight. I fired. He gave a shrill bark, and came toward me. Then he stopped in the snow and fell dead in his tracks. I was a pretty good shot in those days.”

“Poor little fox,” said Miss Laura. “I wish you had let him get away.”

“Here's one that nearly got away,” said Mr. Wood. “One winter's day, I was chasing him with the hounds. There was a crust on the snow, and the fox was light, while the dogs were heavy. They ran along, the fox trotting nimbly on the top of the crust and the dogs breaking through, and every few minutes that fox would stop and sit down to look at the dogs. They were in a fury, and the wickedness of the fox in teasing them, made me laugh so much that I was very unwilling to shoot him.”

“You said your steel traps were cruel things, uncle,” said Miss Laura. “Why didn't you have a deadfall for the foxes as you had for the bears?”

“They were too cunning to go into deadfalls. There was a better way to catch them, though. Foxes hate water, and never go into it unless they are obliged to, so we used to find a place where a tree had fallen across a river, and made a bridge for them to go back and forth on. Here we set snares, with spring poles that would throw them into the river when they made struggles to get free, and drown them. Did you ever hear of the fox, Laura, that wanted to cross a river, and lay down on the bank pretending that he was dead, and a countryman came along, and, thinking he had a prize, threw him in his boat and rowed across, when the fox got up and ran away?”

“Now, uncle,” said Miss Laura, “you're laughing at me. That couldn't be true.”

“No, no,” said Mr. Wood, chuckling; “but they're mighty cute at pretending they're dead. I once shot one in the morning, carried him a long way on my shoulders, and started to skin him in the afternoon, when he turned around and bit me enough to draw blood. At another time I dug one out of a hole in the ground. He feigned death. I took him up and threw him down at some distance, and he jumped up and ran into the woods.”

“What other animals did you catch when you were a boy?” asked Mr. Maxwell.

“Oh, a number. Otters and beavers we caught them in deadfalls and in steel traps. The mink we usually took in deadfalls, smaller, of course, than the ones we used for the bears. The musk-rat we caught in box traps like a mouse trap. The wild-cat we ran down like the loup cervier.”

“What kind of an animal is that?” asked Mr. Maxwell.

“It is a lynx, belonging to the cat species. They used to prowl about the country killing hens, geese, and sometimes sheep. They'd fix their tusks in the sheep's neck and suck the blood. They did not think much of the sheep's flesh. We ran them down with dogs. They'd often run up trees, and we'd shoot them. Then there were rabbits that we caught, mostly in snares. For musk-rats, we'd put a parsnip or an apple on the spindle of a box trap. When we snared a rabbit, I always wanted to find it caught around the neck and strangled to death. If they got half through the snare and were caught around the body, or by the hind legs, they'd live for some time, and they'd cry just like a child. I like shooting them better, just because I hated to hear their pitiful cries. It's a bad business this of killing dumb creatures, and the older I get, the more chicken-hearted I am about it.”

“Chicken-hearted I should think you are,” said Mrs. Wood. “Do you know, Laura, he won't even kill a fowl for dinner. He gives it to one of the men to do.”

“'Blessed are the merciful,'” said Miss Laura, throwing her arm over her uncle's shoulder. “I love you, dear Uncle John, because you are so kind to every living thing.”

“I'm going to be kind to you now,” said her uncle, “and send you to bed. You look tired.”

“Very well,” she said, with a smile. Then bidding them all good-night, she went upstairs. Mr. Wood turned to Mr. Maxwell. “You're going to stay all night with us, aren't you?”

“So Mrs. Wood says,” replied the young man, with a smile.

“Of course,” she said. “I couldn't think of letting you go back to the village such a night as this. It's raining cats and dogs but I mustn't say that, or there'll be no getting you to stay. I'll go and prepare your old room next to Harry's.” And she bustled away.

The two young men went to the pantry for doughnuts and milk, and Mr. Wood stood gazing down at me. “Good dog,” he said; “you look as if you sensed that talk to-night. Come, get a bone, and then away to bed.”

He gave me a very large mutton bone, and I held it in my mouth, and watched him opening the woodshed door. I love human beings; and the saddest time of day for me is when I have to be separated from them while they sleep.

“Now, go to bed and rest well, Beautiful Joe,” said Mr. Wood, “and if you hear any stranger round the house, run out and bark. Don't be chasing wild animals in your sleep, though. They say a dog is the only animal that dreams. I wonder whether it's true?” Then he went into the house and shut the door.

I had a sheepskin to lie on, and a very good bed it made. I slept soundly for a long time; then I waked up and found that, instead of rain pattering against the roof, and darkness everywhere, it was quite light. The rain was over, and the moon was shining beautifully. I ran to the door and looked out. It was almost as light as day. The moon made it very bright all around the house and farm buildings, and I could look all about and see that there was no one stirring. I took a turn around the yard, and walked around to the side of the house, to glance up at Miss Laura's window. I always did this several times through the night, just to see if she was quite safe. I was on my way back to my bed, when I saw two small, white things moving away down the lane. I stood on the veranda and watched them. When they got nearer, I saw that there was a white rabbit hopping up the road, followed by a white hen.

It seemed to me a very strange thing for these creatures to be out this time of night, and why were they coming to Dingley Farm? This wasn't their home. I ran down on the road and stood in front of them.

Just as soon as the hen saw me, she fluttered in front of the rabbit, and, spreading out her wings, clucked angrily, and acted as if she would peck my eyes out if I came nearer.

I saw that they were harmless creatures, and, remembering my adventure with the snake, I stepped aside. Besides that, I knew by their smell that they had been near Mr. Maxwell, so perhaps they were after him.

They understood quite well that I would not hurt them, and passed by me. The rabbit went ahead again and the hen fell behind. It seemed to me that the hen was sleepy, and didn't like to be out so late at night, and was only following the rabbit because she thought it was her duty.

He was going along in a very queer fashion, putting his nose to the ground, and rising up on his hind legs, and sniffing the air, first on this side and then on the other, and his nose going, going all the time.

He smelled all around the house till he came to Mr. Maxwell's room at the back. It opened on the veranda by a glass door, and the door stood ajar. The rabbit squeezed himself in, and the hen stayed out. She watched for a while, and when he didn't come back, she flew upon the back of a chair that stood near the door, and put her head under her wing.

I went back to my bed, for I knew they would do no harm. Early in the morning, when I was walking around the house, I heard a great shouting and laughing from Mr. Maxwell's room. He and Mr. Harry had just discovered the hen and the rabbit; and Mr. Harry was calling his mother to come and look at them. The rabbit had slept on the foot of the bed.

Mr. Harry was chaffing Mr. Maxwell very much, and was telling him that any one who entertained him was in for a traveling menagerie. They had a great deal of fun over it, and Mr. Maxwell said that he had had that pretty, white hen as a pet for a long time in Boston. Once when she had some little chickens, a frightened rabbit, that was being chased by a dog, ran into the yard. In his terror he got right under the hen's wings, and she sheltered him, and pecked at the dog's eyes, and kept him off till help came. The rabbit belonged to a neighbor's boy, and Mr. Maxwell bought it from him. From the day the hen protected him, she became his friend, and followed him everywhere.

I did not wonder that the rabbit wanted to see his master. There was something about that young man that made dumb animals just delight in him. When Mrs. Wood mentioned this to him he said, “I don't know why they should I don't do anything to fascinate them.”

“You love them,” she said, “and they know it. That is the reason.”

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