Read CHAPTER XII - PETS of A Boy's Town , free online book, by William Dean Howells, on

AS there are no longer any Whig boys in the world, the coon can no longer be kept anywhere as a political emblem, I dare say.  Even in my boy’s time the boys kept coons just for the pleasure of it, and without meaning to elect Whig governors and presidents with them.  I do not know how they got them — they traded for them, perhaps, with fellows in the country that had caught them, or perhaps their fathers bought them in market; some people thought they were very good to eat, and, like poultry and other things for the table, they may have been brought alive to market.  But, anyhow, when a boy had a coon, he had to have a store-box turned open side down to keep it in, behind the house; and he had to have a little door in the box to pull the coon out through when he wanted to show it to other boys, or to look at it himself, which he did forty or fifty times a day, when he first got it.  He had to have a small collar for the coon, and a little chain, because the coon would gnaw through a string in a minute.  The coon himself never seemed to take much interest in keeping a coon, or to see much fun or sense in it.  He liked to stay inside his box, where he had a bed of hay, and whenever the boy pulled him out, he did his best to bite the boy.  He had no tricks; his temper was bad; and there was nothing about him except the rings round his tail and his political principles that anybody could care for.  He never did anything but bite, and try to get away, or else run back into his box, which smelt, pretty soon, like an animal-show; he would not even let a fellow see him eat.

My boy’s brother had a coon, which he kept a good while, at a time when there was no election, for the mere satisfaction of keeping a coon.  During his captivity the coon bit his keeper repeatedly through the thumb, and upon the whole seemed to prefer him to any other food; I do not really know what coons eat in a wild state, but this captive coon tasted the blood of nearly that whole family of children.  Besides biting and getting away, he never did the slightest thing worth remembering; as there was no election, he did not even take part in a Whig procession.  He got away two or three times.  The first thing his owner would know when he pulled the chain out was that there was no coon at the end of it, and then he would have to poke round the inside of the box pretty carefully with a stick, so as not to get bitten; after that he would have to see which tree the coon had gone up.  It was usually the tall locust-tree in front of the house, and in about half a second all the boys in town would be there, telling the owner of the coon how to get him.  Of course the only way was to climb for the coon, which would be out at the point of a high and slender limb, and would bite you awfully, even if the limb did not break under you, while the boys kept whooping and yelling and holloing out what to do, and Tip the dog just howled with excitement.  I do not know how that coon was ever caught, but I know that the last time he got away he was not found during the day, but after nightfall he was discovered by moonlight in the locust-tree.  His owner climbed for him, but the coon kept shifting about, and getting higher and higher, and at last he had to be left till morning.  In the morning he was not there, nor anywhere.

It had been expected, perhaps, that Tip would watch him, and grab him if he came down, and Tip would have done it probably if he had kept awake.  He was a dog of the greatest courage, and he was especially fond of hunting.  He had been bitten oftener by that coon than anybody but the coon’s owner, but he did not care for biting.  He was always getting bitten by rats, but he was the greatest dog for rats that there almost ever was.  The boys hunted rats with him at night, when they came out of the stables that backed down to the Hydraulic, for water; and a dog who liked above all things to lie asleep on the back-step, by day, and would no more think of chasing a pig out of the garden than he would think of sitting up all night with a coon, would get frantic about rats, and would perfectly wear himself out hunting them on land and in the water, and keep on after the boys themselves were tired.  He was so fond of hunting, anyway, that the sight of a gun would drive him about crazy; he would lick the barrel all over, and wag his tail so hard that it would lift his hind-legs off the ground.

I do not know how he came into that family, but I believe he was given to it full grown by somebody.  It was some time after my boy failed to buy what he called a Confoundland dog, from a colored boy who had it for sale, a pretty puppy with white and black spots which he had quite set his heart on; but Tip more than consoled him.  Tip was of no particular breed, and he had no personal beauty; he was of the color of a mouse of an elephant, and his tail was without the smallest grace; it was smooth and round, but it was so strong that he could pull a boy all over the town by it, and usually did; and he had the best, and kindest, and truest ugly old face in the world.  He loved the whole human race, and as a watch-dog he was a failure through his trustful nature; he would no more have bitten a person than he would have bitten a pig; but where other dogs were concerned, he was a lion.  He might be lying fast asleep in the back-yard, and he usually was, but if a dog passed the front of the house under a wagon, he would be up and after that dog before you knew what you were about.  He seemed to want to fight country dogs the worst, but any strange dog would do.  A good half the time he would come off best; but, however he came off, he returned to the back-yard with his tongue hanging out, and wagging his tail in good-humor with all the world.  Nothing could stop him, however, where strange dogs were concerned.  He was a Whig dog, of course, as any one could tell by his name, which was Tippecanoe in full, and was given him because it was the nickname of General Harrison, the great Whig who won the battle of Tippecanoe.  The boys’ Henry Clay Club used him to pull the little wagon that they went about in singing Whig songs, and he would pull five or six boys, guided simply by a stick which he held in his mouth, and which a boy held on either side of him.  But if he caught sight of a dog that he did not know, he would drop that stick and start for that dog as far off as he could see him, spilling the Henry Clay Club out of the wagon piecemeal as he went, and never stopping till he mixed up the strange dog in a fight where it would have been hard to tell which was either champion and which was the club wagon.  When the fight was over Tip would come smilingly back to the fragments of the Henry Clay Club, with pieces of the vehicle sticking about him, and profess himself, in a dog’s way, ready to go on with the concert.

Any crowd of boys could get Tip to go off with them, in swimming, or hunting, or simply running races.  He was known through the whole town, and beloved for his many endearing qualities of heart.  As to his mind, it was perhaps not much to brag of, and he certainly had some defects of character.  He was incurably lazy, and his laziness grew upon him as he grew older, till hardly anything but the sight of a gun or a bone would move him.  He lost his interest in politics, and, though there is no reason to suppose that he ever became indifferent to his principles, it is certain that he no longer showed his early ardor.  He joined the Free-Soil movement in 1848, and supported Van Buren and Adams, but without the zeal he had shown for Henry Clay.  Once a year as long as the family lived in the Boy’s Town, the children were anxious about Tip when the dog-law was put in force, and the constables went round shooting all the dogs that were found running at large without muzzles.  At this time, when Tip was in danger of going mad and biting people, he showed a most unseasonable activity, and could hardly be kept in bounds.  A dog whose sole delight at other moments was to bask in the summer sun, or dream by the winter fire, would now rouse himself to an interest in everything that was going on in the dangerous world, and make forays into it at all unguarded points.  The only thing to do was to muzzle him, and this was done by my boy’s brother with a piece of heavy twine, in such a manner as to interfere with Tip’s happiness as little as possible.  It was a muzzle that need not be removed for either eating, drinking, or fighting; but it satisfied the law, and Tip always came safely through the dog-days, perhaps by favor or affection with the officers who were so inexorable with some dogs.

My boy long remembered with horror and remorse his part in giving up to justice an unconscious offender, and seeing him pay for his transgression with his life.  The boy was playing before his door, when a constable came by with his rifle on his shoulder, and asked him if he had seen any unmuzzled dogs about; and partly from pride at being addressed by a constable, partly from a nervous fear of refusing to answer, and partly from a childish curiosity to see what would happen, he said, “Yes; one over there by the pork-house.”  The constable whistled, and the poor little animal, which had got lost from the farmer it had followed to town, came running into sight round the corner of the pork-house, and sat up on its haunches to look about.  It was a small red dog, the size of a fox, and the boy always saw it afterwards as it sat there in the gray afternoon, and fascinated him with its deadly peril.  The constable swung his rifle quickly to his shoulder; the sharp, whiplike report came, and the dog dropped over, and its heart’s blood flowed upon the ground and lay there in a pool.  The boy ran into the house, with that picture forever printed in his memory.  For him it was as if he had seen a fellow-being slain, and had helped to bring him to his death.

Whilst Tip was still in his prime the family of children was further enriched by the possession of a goat; but this did not belong to the whole family, or it was, at least nominally, the property of that eldest brother they all looked up to.  I do not know how they came by the goat, any more than I know how they came by Tip; I only know that there came a time when it was already in the family, and that before it was got rid of it was a presence there was no mistaking.  Nobody who has not kept a goat can have any notion of how many different kinds of mischief a goat can get into, without seeming to try, either, but merely by following the impulses of its own goatishness.  This one was a nanny-goat, and it answered to the name of Nanny with an intelligence that was otherwise wholly employed in making trouble.  It went up and down stairs, from cellar to garret, and in and out of all the rooms, like anybody, with a faint, cynical indifference in the glance of its cold gray eyes that gave no hint of its purposes or performances.  In the chambers it chewed the sheets and pillow-cases on the beds, and in the dining-room, if it found nothing else, it would do its best to eat the table-cloth.  Washing-day was a perfect feast for it, for then it would banquet on the shirt-sleeves and stockings that dangled from the clothes-line, and simply glut itself with the family linen and cotton.  In default of these dainties, Nanny would gladly eat a chip-hat; she was not proud; she would eat a split-basket, if there was nothing else at hand.  Once she got up on the kitchen-table, and had a perfect orgy with a lot of fresh-baked pumpkin-pies she found there; she cleaned all the pumpkin so neatly out of the pastry shells that, if there had been any more pumpkin left, they could have been filled up again, and nobody could have told the difference.  The grandmother, who was visiting in the house at the time, declared to the mother that it would serve the father and the boys just right if she did fill these very shells up and give them to the father and the boys to eat.  But I believe this was not done, and it was only suggested in a moment of awful exasperation, and because it was the father who was to blame for letting the boys keep the goat.  The mother was always saying that the goat should not stay in the house another day, but she had not the heart to insist on its banishment, the children were so fond of it.  I do not know why they were fond of it, for it never showed them the least affection, but was always taking the most unfair advantages of them, and it would butt them over whenever it got the chance.  It would try to butt them into the well when they leaned down to pull up the bucket from the curb; and if it came out of the house, and saw a boy cracking nuts at the low flat stone the children had in the back-yard to crack nuts on, it would pretend that the boy was making motions to insult it, and before he knew what he was about it would fly at him and send him spinning head over heels.  It was not of the least use in the world, and could not be, but the children were allowed to keep it till, one fatal day, when the mother had a number of other ladies to tea, as the fashion used to be in small towns, when they sat down to a comfortable gossip over dainty dishes of stewed chicken, hot biscuit, peach-preserves, sweet tomato-pickles, and pound-cake.  That day they all laid off their bonnets on the hall-table, and the goat, after demurely waiting and watching with its faded eyes, which saw everything and seemed to see nothing, discerned a golden opportunity, and began to make such a supper of bonnet-ribbons as perhaps never fell to a goat’s lot in life before.  It was detected in its stolen joys just as it had chewed the ribbon of a best bonnet up to the bonnet, and was chased into the back-yard; but, as it had swallowed the ribbon without being able to swallow the bonnet, it carried that with it.  The boy who specially owned the goat ran it down in a frenzy of horror and apprehension, and managed to unravel the ribbon from its throat, and get back the bonnet.  Then he took the bonnet in and laid it carefully down on the table again, and decided that it would be best not to say anything about the affair.  But such a thing as that could not be kept.  The goat was known at once to have done the mischief; and this time it was really sent away.  All the children mourned it, and the boy who owned it the most used to go to the house of the people who took it, and who had a high board fence round their yard, and try to catch sight of it through the cracks.  When he called “Nanny” it answered him instantly with a plaintive “Baa!” and then, after a vain interchange of lamentations, he had to come away, and console himself as he could with the pets that were left him.

Among these were a family of white rabbits, which the boys kept in a little hutch at the bottom of the yard.  They were of no more use than the goat was, but they were at least not mischievous, and there was only one of them that would bite, and he would not bite if you would take him up close behind the ears, so that he could not get at you.  The rest were very good-natured, and would let you smooth them, or put them inside of your shirt-bosom, or anything.  They would eat cabbage or bread or apples out of your hand; and it was fun to see their noses twitch.  Otherwise they had no accomplishments.  All you could do with them was to trade with other boys, or else keep the dogs from them; it was pretty exciting to keep the dogs from them.  Tip was such a good dog that he never dreamed of touching the rabbits.

Of course these boys kept chickens.  The favorite chicken in those days was a small white bantam, and the more feathers it had down its legs the better.  My boy had a bantam hen that was perfectly white, and so tame that she would run up to him whenever he came into the yard, and follow him round like a dog.  When she had chickens she taught them to be just as fond of him, and the tiny little balls of yellow down tumbled fearlessly about in his hands, and pecked the crumbs of bread between his fingers.  As they got older they ran with their mother to meet him, and when he sat down on the grass they clambered over him and crept into his shirt-bosom, and crooned softly, as they did when their mother hovered them.  The boy loved them better than anything he ever had; he always saw them safe in the coop at night, and he ran out early in the morning to see how they had got through the night, and to feed them.  One fatal morning he found them all scattered dead upon the grass, the mother and every one of her pretty chicks, with no sign upon them of how they had been killed.  He could only guess that they had fallen a prey to rats, or to some owl that had got into their coop; but, as they had not been torn or carried away, he guessed in vain.  He buried them with the sympathy of all the children and all the fellows at school who heard about the affair.  It was a real grief; it was long before he could think of his loss without tears; and I am not sure there is so much difference of quality in our bereavements; the loss can hurt more or it can hurt less, but the pang must be always the same in kind.

Besides his goat, my boy’s brother kept pigeons, which, again, were like the goat and the rabbits in not being of very much use.  They had to be much more carefully looked after than chickens when they were young, they were so helpless in their nests, such mere weak wads of featherless flesh.  At first you had to open their bills and poke the food in; and you had to look out how you gave them water for fear you would drown them; but when they got a little larger they would drink and eat from your mouth; and that was some pleasure, for they did not seem to know you from an old pigeon when you took your mouth full of corn or water and fed them.  Afterwards, when they began to fly, it was a good deal of fun to keep them, and make more cots for them, and build them nests in the cots.

But they were not very intelligent pets; hardly more intelligent than the fish that the boys kept in the large wooden hogshead of rain-water at the corner of the house.  They had caught some of these fish when they were quite small, and the fish grew very fast, for there was plenty of food for them in the mosquito-tadpoles that abounded in the hogshead.  Then, the boys fed them every day with bread-crumbs and worms.  There was one big sunfish that was not afraid of anything; if you held a worm just over him he would jump out of the water and snatch it.  Besides the fish, there was a turtle in the hogshead, and he had a broad chip that he liked to sun himself on.  It was fun to watch him resting on this chip, with his nose barely poked out of his shell, and his eyes, with the skin dropped over them, just showing.  He had some tricks:  he would snap at a stick if you teased him with it, and would let you lift him up by it.  That was a good deal of pleasure.

But all these were trifling joys, except maybe Tip and Nanny, compared with the pony which the boys owned in common, and which was the greatest thing that ever came into their lives.  I cannot tell just how their father came to buy it for them, or where he got it; but I dare say he thought they were about old enough for a pony, and might as well have one.  It was a Mexican pony, and as it appeared on the scene just after the Mexican war, some volunteer may have brought it home.  One volunteer brought home a Mexican dog, that was smooth and hairless, with a skin like an elephant, and that was always shivering round with the cold; he was not otherwise a remarkable dog, and I do not know that he ever felt even the warmth of friendship among the boys; his manners were reserved and his temper seemed doubtful.  But the pony never had any trouble with the climate of Southern Ohio (which is indeed hot enough to fry a salamander in summer); and though his temper was no better than other ponies’, he was perfectly approachable.  I mean that he was approachable from the side, for it was not well to get where he could bite you or kick you.  He was of a bright sorrel color, and he had a brand on one haunch.  My boy had an ideal of a pony, conceived from pictures in his reading-books at school, that held its head high and arched its neck, and he strove by means of checks and martingales to make this real pony conform to the illustrations.  But it was of no use; the real pony held his neck straight out like a ewe, or, if reined up, like a camel, and he hung his big head at the end of it with no regard whatever for the ideal.  His caparison was another mortification and failure.  What the boy wanted was an English saddle, embroidered on the morocco seat in crimson silk, and furnished with shining steel stirrups.  What he had was the framework of a Mexican saddle, covered with rawhide, and cushioned with a blanket; the stirrups were Mexican too, and clumsily fashioned out of wood.  The boys were always talking about getting their father to get them a pad, but they never did it, and they managed as they could with the saddle they had.  For the most part they preferred to ride the pony barebacked, for then they could ride him double, and when they first got him they all wanted to ride him so much that they had to ride him double.  They kept him going the whole day long; but after a while they calmed down enough to take him one at a time, and to let him have a chance for his meals.

They had no regular stable, and the father left the boys to fit part of the cow-shed up for the pony, which they did by throwing part of the hen-coop open into it.  The pigeon-cots were just over his head, and he never could have complained of being lonesome.  At first everybody wanted to feed him as well as ride him, and if he had been allowed time for it he might have eaten himself to death, or if he had not always tried to bite you or kick you when you came in with his corn.  After a while the boys got so they forgot him, and nobody wanted to go out and feed the pony, especially after dark; but he knew how to take care of himself, and when he had eaten up everything there was in the cow-shed he would break out and eat up everything there was in the yard.

The boys got lots of good out of him.  When you were once on his back you were pretty safe, for he was so lazy that he would not think of running away, and there was no danger unless he bounced you off when he trotted; he had a hard trot.  The boys wanted to ride him standing up, like circus-actors, and the pony did not mind, but the boys could not stay on, though they practised a good deal, turn about, when the other fellows were riding their horses, standing up, on the Commons.  He was not of much more use in Indian fights, for he could seldom be lashed into a gallop, and a pony that proposed to walk through an Indian fight was ridiculous.  Still, with the help of imagination, my boy employed him in some scenes of wild Arab life, and hurled the Moorish javelin from him in mid-career, when the pony was flying along at the mad pace of a canal-boat.  The pony early gave the boys to understand that they could get very little out of him in the way of herding the family cow.  He would let them ride him to the pasture, and he would keep up with the cow on the way home, when she walked, but if they wanted anything more than that they must get some other pony.  They tried to use him in carrying papers, but the subscribers objected to having him ridden up to their front doors over the sidewalk, and they had to give it up.

When he became an old story, and there was no competition for him among the brothers, my boy sometimes took him into the woods, and rode him in the wandering bridle-paths, with a thrilling sense of adventure.  He did not like to be alone there, and he oftener had the company of a boy who was learning the trade in his father’s printing-office.  This boy was just between him and his elder brother in age, and he was the good comrade of both; all the family loved him, and made him one of them, and my boy was fond of him because they had some tastes in common that were not very common among the other boys.  They liked the same books, and they both began to write historical romances.  My boy’s romance was founded on facts of the Conquest of Granada, which he had read of again and again in Washington Irving, with a passionate pity for the Moors, and yet with pride in the grave and noble Spaniards.  He would have given almost anything to be a Spaniard, and he lived in a dream of some day sallying out upon the Vega before Granada, in silk and steel, with an Arabian charger under him that champed its bit.  In the meantime he did what he could with the family pony, and he had long rides in the woods with the other boy, who used to get his father’s horse when he was not using it on Sunday, and race with him through the dangling wild grape-vines and pawpaw thickets, and over the reedy levels of the river, their hearts both bounding with the same high hopes of a world that could never come true.