The dog Crusoe was once a pup. Now do not, courteous reader, toss your head contemptuously, and exclaim, “Of course he was; I could have told you that.” You know very well that you have often seen a man above six feet high, broad and powerful as a lion, with a bronzed shaggy visage and the stern glance of an eagle, of whom you have said, or thought, or heard others say, “It is scarcely possible to believe that such a man was once a squalling baby.” If you had seen our hero in all the strength and majesty of full-grown doghood, you would have experienced a vague sort of surprise had we told you—as we now repeat—that the dog Crusoe was once a pup—a soft, round, sprawling, squeaking pup, as fat as a tallow candle, and as blind as a bat.
But we draw particular attention to the fact of Crusoe’s having once been a pup, because in connection with the days of his puppyhood there hangs a tale. This peculiar dog may thus be said to have had two tails—one in connection with his body, the other with his career. This tale, though short, is very harrowing, and, as it is intimately connected with Crusoe’s subsequent history, we will relate it here. But before doing so we must beg our reader to accompany us beyond the civilised portions of the United States of America—beyond the frontier settlements of the “far west,” into those wild prairies which are watered by the great Missouri river—the Father of Waters—and his numerous tributaries.
Here dwell the Pawnees, the Sioux, the Delawares, the Crows, the Blackfeet, and many other tribes of Red Indians, who are gradually retreating step by step towards the Rocky Mountains as the advancing white man cuts down their trees and ploughs up their prairies. Here, too, dwell the wild horse and the wild ass, the deer, the buffalo, and the badger; all, men and brutes alike, wild as the power of untamed and ungovernable passion can make them, and free as the wind that sweeps over their mighty plains.
There is a romantic and exquisitely beautiful spot on the banks of one of the tributaries above referred to—a long stretch of mingled woodland and meadow, with a magnificent lake lying like a gem in its green bosom—which goes by the name of the Mustang Valley. This remote vale, even at the present day, is but thinly peopled by white men, and is still a frontier settlement round which the wolf and the bear prowl curiously, and from which the startled deer bounds terrified away. At the period of which we write the valley had just been taken possession of by several families of squatters, who, tired of the turmoil and the squabbles of the then frontier settlements, had pushed boldly into the far west to seek a new home for themselves, where they could have “elbow room,” regardless alike of the dangers they might encounter in unknown lands and of the Red-skins who dwelt there.
The squatters were well armed with axes, rifles, and ammunition. Most of the women were used to dangers and alarms, and placed implicit reliance in the power of their fathers, husbands, and brothers to protect them—and well they might, for a bolder set of stalwart men than these backwoodsmen never trod the wilderness. Each had been trained to the use of the rifle and the axe from infancy, and many of them had spent so much of their lives in the woods, that they were more than a match for the Indian in his own peculiar pursuits of hunting and war. When the squatters first issued from the woods bordering the valley, an immense herd of wild horses or mustangs were browsing on the plain. These no sooner beheld the cavalcade of white men, than, uttering a wild neigh, they tossed their flowing manes in the breeze and dashed away like a whirlwind. This incident procured the valley its name.
The newcomers gave one satisfied glance at their future home, and then set to work to erect log huts forthwith. Soon the axe was heard ringing through the forests, and tree after tree fell to the ground, while the occasional sharp ring of a rifle told that the hunters were catering successfully for the camp. In course of time the Mustang Valley began to assume the aspect of a thriving settlement, with cottages and waving fields clustered together in the midst of it.
Of course the savages soon found it out, and paid it occasional visits. These dark-skinned tenants of the woods brought furs of wild animals with them, which they exchanged with the white men for knives, and beads, and baubles and trinkets of brass and tin. But they hated the “Pale-faces” with bitter hatred, because their encroachments had at this time materially curtailed the extent of their hunting grounds, and nothing but the numbers and known courage of the squatters prevented these savages from butchering and scalping them all.
The leader of this band of pioneers was a Major Hope, a gentleman whose love for nature in its wildest aspects determined him to exchange barrack life for a life in the woods. The major was a first-rate shot, a bold, fearless man, and an enthusiastic naturalist. He was past the prime of life, and, being a bachelor, was unencumbered with a family. His first act on reaching the site of the new settlement was to commence the erection of a block-house, to which the people might retire in case of a general attack by the Indians.
In this block-house Major Hope took up his abode as the guardian of the settlement,—and here the dog Crusoe was born; here he sprawled in the early morn of life; here he leaped, and yelped, and wagged his shaggy tail in the excessive glee of puppyhood, and from the wooden portals of this block-house he bounded forth to the chase in all the fire, and strength, and majesty of full-grown doghood.
Crusoe’s father and mother were magnificent Newfoundlanders. There was no doubt as to their being of the genuine breed, for Major Hope had received them as a parting gift from a brother officer, who had brought them both from Newfoundland itself. The father’s name was Crusoe; the mother’s name was Fan. Why the father had been so called no one could tell. The man from whom Major Hope’s friend had obtained the pair was a poor, illiterate fisherman, who had never heard of the celebrated “Robinson” in all his life. All he knew was that Fan had been named after his own wife. As for Crusoe, he had got him from a friend, who had got him from another friend, whose cousin had received him as a marriage gift from a friend of his; and that each had said to the other that the dog’s name was “Crusoe,” without reasons being asked or given on either side. On arriving at New York the major’s friend, as we have said, made him a present of the dogs. Not being much of a dog fancier, he soon tired of old Crusoe, and gave him away to a gentleman, who took him down to Florida, and that was the end of him. He was never heard of more.
When Crusoe, junior, was born, he was born, of course, without a name. That was given to him afterwards in honour of his father. He was also born in company with a brother and two sisters, all of whom drowned themselves accidentally, in the first month of their existence, by falling into the river which flowed past the block-house,—a calamity which occurred, doubtless, in consequence of their having gone out without their mother’s leave. Little Crusoe was with his brother and sisters at the time, and fell in along with them, but was saved from sharing their fate by his mother, who, seeing what had happened, dashed with an agonised howl into the water, and, seizing him in her mouth, brought him ashore in a half-drowned condition. She afterwards brought the others ashore one by one, but the poor little things were dead.
And now we come to the harrowing part of our tale, for the proper understanding of which the foregoing dissertation was needful.
One beautiful afternoon, in that charming season of the American year called the Indian summer, there came a family of Sioux Indians to the Mustang Valley, and pitched their tent close to the block-house. A young hunter stood leaning against the gate-post of the palisades, watching the movements of the Indians, who, having just finished a long “palaver” or “talk” with Major Hope, were now in the act of preparing supper. A fire had been kindled on the green sward in front of the tent, and above it stood a tripod, from which depended a large tin camp-kettle. Over this hung an ill-favoured Indian woman, or squaw, who, besides attending to the contents of the pot, bestowed sundry cuffs and kicks upon her little child, which sat near to her playing with several Indian curs that gambolled round the fire. The master of the family and his two sons reclined on buffalo robes, smoking their stone pipes or calumets in silence. There was nothing peculiar in their appearance. Their faces were neither dignified nor coarse in expression, but wore an aspect of stupid apathy, which formed a striking contrast to the countenance of the young hunter, who seemed an amused spectator of their proceedings.
The youth referred to was very unlike, in many respects, to what we are accustomed to suppose a backwoods hunter should be. He did not possess that quiet gravity and staid demeanour which often characterise these men. True, he was tall and strongly made, but no one would have called him stalwart, and his frame indicated grace and agility rather than strength. But the point about him which rendered him different from his companions was his bounding, irrepressible flow of spirits, strangely coupled with an intense love of solitary wandering in the woods. None seemed so well fitted for social enjoyment as he; none laughed so heartily, or expressed such glee in his mischief-loving eye; yet for days together he went off alone into the forest, and wandered where his fancy led him, as grave and silent as an Indian warrior.
After all, there was nothing mysterious in this. The boy followed implicitly the dictates of nature within him. He was amiable, straightforward, sanguine, and intensely earnest. When he laughed he let it out, as sailors have it, “with a will.” When there was good cause to be grave, no power on earth could make him smile. We have called him boy, but in truth he was about that uncertain period of life when a youth is said to be neither a man nor a boy. His face was good-looking (every earnest, candid face is) and masculine; his hair was reddish-brown, and his eye bright blue. He was costumed in the deerskin cap, leggings, moccasins, and leathern shirt common to the western hunter.
“You seem tickled wi’ the Injuns, Dick Varley,” said a man who at that moment issued from the block-house.
“That’s just what I am, Joe Blunt,” replied the youth, turning with a broad grin to his companion.
“Have a care, lad; do not laugh at ’em too much. They soon take offence; an’ them Red-skins never forgive.”
“But I’m only laughing at the baby,” returned the youth, pointing to the child, which, with a mixture of boldness and timidity, was playing with a pup, wrinkling up its fat visage into a smile when its playmate rushed away in sport, and opening wide its jet-black eyes in grave anxiety as the pup returned at full gallop.
“It ’ud make an owl laugh,” continued young Varley, “to see such a queer pictur’ o’ itself.”
He paused suddenly, and a dark frown covered his face as he saw the Indian woman stoop quickly down, catch the pup by its hind-leg with one hand, seize a heavy piece of wood with the other, and strike it several violent blows on the throat. Without taking the trouble to kill the poor animal outright, the savage then held its still writhing body over the fire in order to singe off the hair before putting it into the pot to be cooked.
The cruel act drew young Varley’s attention more closely to the pup, and it flashed across his mind that this could be no other than young Crusoe, which neither he nor his companion had before seen, although they had often heard others speak of and describe it.
Had the little creature been one of the unfortunate Indian curs, the two hunters would probably have turned from the sickening sight with disgust, feeling that, however much they might dislike such cruelty, it would be of no use attempting to interfere with Indian usages. But the instant the idea that it was Crusoe occurred to Varley he uttered a yell of anger, and sprang towards the woman with a bound that caused the three Indians to leap to their feet and grasp their tomahawks.
Blunt did not move from the gate, but threw forward his rifle with a careless motion, but an expressive glance, that caused the Indians to resume their seats and pipes with an emphatic “Wah!” of disgust at having been startled out of their propriety by a trifle, while Dick Varley snatched poor Crusoe from his dangerous and painful position, scowled angrily in the woman’s face, and, turning on his heel, walked up to the house, holding the pup tenderly in his arms.
Joe Blunt gazed after his friend with a grave, solemn expression of countenance till he disappeared; then he looked at the ground and shook his head.
Joe was one of the regular out-and-out backwoods hunters, both in appearance and in fact—broad, tall, massive, lion-like,—gifted with the hunting, stalking, running, and trail—following powers of the savage, and with a superabundance of the shooting and fighting powers, the daring and dash of the Anglo-Saxon. He was grave, too seldom smiled, and rarely laughed. His expression almost at all times was a compound of seriousness and good-humour. With the rifle he was a good, steady shot; but by no means a “crack” one. His ball never failed to hit, but it often failed to kill.
After meditating a few seconds, Joe Blunt again shook his head, and muttered to himself; “The boy’s bold enough, but he’s too reckless for a hunter. There was no need for that yell, now—none at all.”
Having uttered this sagacious remark, he threw his rifle into the hollow of his left arm, turned round, and strode off with a long, slow step towards his own cottage.
Blunt was an American by birth, but of Irish extraction, and to an attentive ear there was a faint echo of the brogue in his tone, which seemed to have been handed down to him as a threadbare and almost worn-out heirloom.
Poor Crusoe was singed almost naked. His wretched tail seemed little better than a piece of wire filed off to a point, and he vented his misery in piteous squeaks as the sympathetic Varley confided him tenderly to the care of his mother. How Fan managed to cure him no one can tell, but cure him she did, for, in the course of a few weeks, Crusoe was as well, and sleek, and fat as ever.