Gateway to the Classics: The Bears of Blue River by Charles Major
The Bears of Blue River by  Charles Major

How Balser Got a Gun

For many years after the killing of the big bear, as told in the preceding chapter, time was reckoned by Balser as beginning with that event. It was, if I may say it, his "Anno Domini." In speaking of occurrences, events, and dates, he always fixed them in a general way by saying, "That happened before I killed the big bear;" or, "That took place after I killed the big bear." The great immeasurable eternity of time was divided into two parts: that large unoccupied portion preceding the death of the big bear, and the part, full to overflowing with satisfaction and pride, after that momentous event.

Balser's adventure had raised him vastly in the estimation of his friends and neighbours, and, what was quite as good, had increased his respect for himself, and had given him confidence, which is one of the most valuable qualities for boy or man. Frequently when Balser met strangers, and the story of the big bear was told, they would pat the boy on the shoulder and call him a little man, and would sometimes ask him if he owned a gun. Much to Balser's sorrow, he was compelled to admit that he did not. The questions as to whether or not he owned a gun had put into his mind the thought of how delightful life would be if he but possessed one; and his favourite visions by day and his sweetest dreams by night were all about a gun; one not so long nor so heavy as his father's but of the shorter, lighter pattern known as a smooth-bore carbine. He had heard his father speak of this gun, and of its effectiveness at short range; and although at long distances it was not so true of aim as his father's gun, still he felt confident that, if he but possessed the coveted carbine he could, single-handed and alone, exterminate all the races of bears, wolves and wildcats that inhabited the forests round about, and "pestered" the farmers with their depredations.

But how to get the gun! That was the question. Balser's father had received a gun as a present from his  father when Balser Sr. had reached the advanced age of twenty-one, and it was considered a rich gift. The cost of a gun for Balser would equal half of the sum total that his father could make during an entire year; and, although Little Balser looked forward in fond expectation to the time when he should be twenty-one and should receive a gun from his father, yet he did not even hope that he would have one before then, however much he might dream about it. Dreams cost nothing, and guns were expensive; too expensive even to be hoped for. So Balser contented himself with inexpensive dreams, and was willing, though not content, to wait.

But the unexpected usually happens, at an unexpected time, and in an unexpected manner.

About the beginning of the summer after the killing of the big bear, when Balser's father had "laid by" his corn, and the little patch of wheat had just begun to take on a golden brown as due notice that it was nearly ready to be harvested, there came a few days of idleness for the busy farmer. Upon one of those rare idle days Mr. Brent and Balser went down the river on a fishing and hunting expedition. There was but one gun in the family, therefore Balser could not hunt when his father was with him, so he took his fishing-rod, and did great execution among the finny tribe, while his father watched along the river for game, as it came down to drink.

Upon the day mentioned Balser and his father had wandered down the river as far as the Michigan road, and Mr. Brent had left the boy near the road fishing, after telling him to go home in an hour or two, and that he, Mr. Brent, would go by another route and be home in time for supper.

So Balser was left by himself, fishing at a deep hole perhaps a hundred yards north of the road. This was at a time when the river was in flood, and the ford where travellers usually crossed was too deep for passage.

Balser had been fishing for an hour or more, and had concluded to go home, when he saw approaching along the road from the east a man and woman on horseback. They soon reached the ford and stopped, believing it to be impassable. They were mud-stained and travel-worn, and their horses, covered with froth, were panting as if they had been urged to their greatest speed. After a little time the gentleman saw Balser, and called to him. The boy immediately went to the travellers, and the gentleman said:—

"My little man, can you tell me if it is safe to attempt the ford at this time?"

"It will swim your horses," answered Balser.

"I knew it would," said the lady, in evident distress. She was young and pretty, and seemed to be greatly fatigued and frightened. The gentleman was very attentive, and tried to soothe her, but in a moment or two she began to weep, and said:—

"They will catch us, I know. They will catch us. They cannot be more than a mile behind us now, and we have no place to turn."

"Is some one trying to catch you?" asked Balser.

The gentleman looked down at the little fellow for a moment and was struck by his bright, manly air. The thought occurred to him that Balser might suspect them of being fugitives from justice, so he explained:—

"Yes, my little fellow, a gentleman is trying to catch us. He is this lady's father. He has with him a dozen men, and if they overtake us they will certainly kill me and take this lady home. Do you know of any place where we may hide?"

"Yes, sir," answered Balser, quickly; "help me on behind you, and I'll take you to my father's house. There's no path up the river, and if they attempt to follow they'll get lost in the woods."

Balser climbed on the horse behind the gentleman, and soon they plunged into the deep forest, and rode up the river toward Balser's home. The boy knew the forest well, and in a short time the little party of three was standing at the hospitable cabin door. Matters were soon explained to Balser's mother, and she, with true hospitality, welcomed the travellers to her home. During the conversation Balser learned that the gentleman and lady were running away that they might be married, and, hoping to finish a good job, the boy volunteered the advice that they should be married that same evening under his father's roof. He also offered to go in quest of a preacher who made his home some two miles to the east.

The advice and the offer of services were eagerly accepted, and the lady and gentleman were married that night, and remained a few days at the home of Mr. Brent until the river was low enough to cross.

The strangers felt grateful to the boy who had given them such timely help, and asked him what they could do for him in return.

Balser hesitated a moment, and said "There's only one thing I want very bad, but that would cost so much there's no use to speak of it."

"What is it, Balser? Speak up, and if it is anything I can buy, you shall have it."

"A gun! A gun! A smooth-bore carbine. I'd rather have it than anything else in the world."

"You shall have it if there's one to be bought in Indianapolis. We are going there, and will return within a week or ten days, and you shall have your carbine if I can find one."

Within two weeks after this conversation Balser was the happiest boy in Indiana, for he owned a carbine, ten pounds of fine powder, and lead enough to kill every living creature within a radius of five miles.

Of course the carbine had to be tested at once. So the day after he received it Balser started out with his father on a hunting expedition, fully determined in his own mind to kill a bear twice as large as his first one. They took with them corn-bread and dried venison for dinner, and started east toward Conn's Creek, where the houses of the settlers were thinly scattered and game plentiful.

They had with them two faithful dogs, "Tige" and "Prince." Balser considered these dogs the most intelligent animals that walked on four feet. They were deer-hounds with a cross of bulldog, and were swift of foot and very strong.

Our hunters had travelled perhaps three or four miles into the forest when they started a deer, in pursuit of which the dogs bounded off with their peculiar bark, and soon deer and dogs were lost to sight. Balser and his father listened carefully for the voices of the dogs, for should the deer turn at bay, the dogs, instead of the quick bark, to which they gave voice in the chase, would utter a long-drawn-out note—half howl, half yelp.

The bay of the hounds had died away in the distance, and Balser and his father had heard nothing of them for two or three hours.

The hunters had seen other deer as they walked along, but they had been unable to obtain a shot. Smaller game was plentiful, but Balser and his father did not care to frighten away large game by shooting at squirrels or birds. So they continued their walk until they reached the bank of Conn's Creek, near the hour of noon; by that time Balser's appetite was beginning to call loudly for dinner, and he could not resist the temptation to shoot a squirrel, which he saw upon a limb of a neighbouring tree. The squirrel fell to the ground and was soon skinned and cleaned. Balser then kindled a fire, and cutting several green twigs, sharpened the ends and fastened small pieces of the squirrel upon them. He next stuck the twigs in the ground so that they leaned toward the fire, with the meat hanging directly over the blaze. Soon the squirrel was roasted to a delicious brown, and then Balser served dinner to his father, who was sitting on a rock near by. The squirrel, the corn bread, and the venison quickly disappeared, and Balser, if permitted to do so, would have found another squirrel and would have cooked it. Just as dinner was finished, there came from a long way up-stream the howling bark of Tige and Prince, telling, plainly as if they had spoken English, that the deer was at bay.

Thereupon Balser quickly loaded his gun, and he and his father looked carefully to their primings. Then Mr. Brent directed Balser to climb down the cliff and move toward the dogs through the thicket in the bottom, while he went by another route, along the bluff. Should the hunters be separated, they were to meet at an agreed place in the forest. Balser climbed cautiously down the cliff and was soon deep in a dark thicket of tangled underbrush near the creek.

Now and then the deep bay of the dogs reached his ears from the direction whence he had first heard it, and he walked as rapidly as the tangled briers and undergrowth would permit toward his faithful fellow-hunters.

He was so intent on the game which he knew the dogs held at bay, that he did not look about him with his accustomed caution, and the result of his unwatchfulness was that he found himself within ten feet of two huge bears before he was at all aware of their presence. They were evidently male and female, and upon seeing him the great he-bear gave forth a growl that frightened Balser to the depths of his soul. Retreat seemed almost impossible; and should he fire at one of the bears, his gun would be empty and he would be at the mercy of the other. To attempt to outrun a bear, even on level ground, would be almost a hopeless undertaking; for the bear, though an awkward-looking creature, is capable of great speed when it comes to a foot-race. But there, where the tangled underbrush was so dense that even walking through it was a matter of great difficulty, running was out of the question, for the thicket which would greatly impede Balser would be but small hindrance to the bears.

After Balser had killed the big bear at the drift, he felt that he never again would suffer from what hunters call "buck ager"; but when he found himself confronted by those black monsters, he began to tremble in every limb, and for the life of him could not at first lift his gun. The he-bear was the first to move. He raised himself on his haunches, and with a deep growl started for poor Balser. Balser should have shot the bear as he came toward him, but acting solely from an instinct of self-preservation he started to run. He made better headway than he had thought possible, and soon came to a small open space of ground where the undergrowth was not so thick, and where the bright light of the sun dispelled the darkness. The light restored Balser's confidence, and the few moments of retreat gave him time to think and to pull himself together. So, turning quickly, he lifted his gun to his shoulder and fired at the bear, which was not two yards behind him. Unfortunately, his aim was unsteady, and his shot wounded the bear in the neck, but did not kill him.

Balser saw the disastrous failure he had made, and felt that the bear would be much surer in his attack upon him than he had been in his attack upon the bear. The boy then threw away his gun, and again began a hasty retreat.

He called for his father, and cried, "Tige! Prince! Tige! Tige!" not so much with a hope that either the dogs or his father would hear, but because he knew not what else to do. Balser ran as fast as he could, still the bear was at his heels, and the frightened boy expected every moment to feel a stroke from the brute's huge rough paw. Soon it came, with a stunning force that threw Balser to the ground, upon his back. The bear was over him in an instant, and caught his left arm between his mighty jaws. It seemed then that the light of the world went out for a moment, and he remembered nothing but the huge, blood-red mouth of the bear, his hot breath almost burning his cheeks, and his deep, terrible growls nearly deafening his ears. Balser's whole past life came up before him like a picture, and he remembered everything that had ever happened to him. He thought of how deeply his dear father and mother would grieve, and for the only time in his life regretted having received the carbine, for it was the gun, after all, that had got him into this trouble. All this happened in less time than it takes you to read ten lines of this page, but it seemed very, very long to Balser, lying there with the huge body of the bear over him.

Suddenly a note of hope struck his ear—the sweetest sound he had ever heard. It was the yelp of dear old Tige, who had heard his call and had come to the rescue. If there is any creature on earth that a bear thoroughly hates, it is a dog. Tige wasted not a moment's time, but was soon biting and pulling at the bear's hind legs. The bear immediately turned upon the dog and gave Balser an opportunity to rise. Of this opportunity he quickly took advantage, you may be sure. Soon Prince came up also, and in these two strong dogs the bear had foemen worthy of his steel.

Balser's great danger and narrow escape had quickened all his faculties, so he at once ran back to the place where he had dropped his gun, and although his left arm had been terribly bitten, he succeeded in loading, and soon came back to the help of the dogs, who had given him such timely assistance.

The fight between the dogs and the bear was going on at a merry rate, when Balser returned to the scene of action. With Prince on one side and Tige on the other, both so strong and savage, and each quick and nimble as a cat, the bear had all he could do to defend himself, and continually turned first one way and then another in his effort to keep their fangs away from his legs or throat. This enabled Balser to approach within a short distance of the bear, which he cautiously did. Taking care not to wound either of his faithful friends, he was more fortunate in his aim than he had been the first time, and gave the bear a mortal wound.

The wounded animal made a hasty retreat back into the thicket, followed closely by the dogs; but Balser had seen more than enough of bear society in the thicket, and prudently concluded not to follow. He then loaded his gun with a heavy charge of powder only, and fired it to attract his father's attention. This he repeated several times, until at last he saw the welcome form of his father hurrying toward him from the bluff. When his father reached him and saw that he had been wounded, Mr. Brent was naturally greatly troubled; but Balser said: "I'll tell you all about it soon. Let's go in after the bears. Two of them are in the thicket up there next to the cliff, and the dogs have followed them. If Tige had not come up just in time, one of the bears would have killed me; but I think the shot I gave him must have killed him by this time."

So without another word, Balser having loaded his gun, they started into the dark thicket toward the cliff, in the direction whence came the voices of the dogs.

They had not proceeded farther than a hundred yards when they found the bear which Balser had shot, lying dead in the path over which Balser had so recently made his desperate retreat. The dogs were farther in, toward the cliff, where the vines, trees, and brush grew so thick that it was almost dark.

The two hunters, however, did not stop, but hurried on to the help of their dogs. Soon they saw through the gloom of the thicket the she-bear, and about her the dogs were prancing, barking, and snapping most furiously.

Carefully Balser and his father took their position within a few yards of the bear, and Balser, upon a signal from his father, called off the dogs so that a shot might be made at the bear without danger of killing either Tige or Prince.

Soon the report of two guns echoed through the forest, almost at the same instant, and the great she-bear fell over on her side, quivered for a moment, and died. This last battle took place close by the stone cliff, which rose from the bottom-land to a height of fifty or sixty feet.

Balser and his father soon worked their way through the underbrush to where the she-bear lay dead. After having examined the bear, Balser's attention was attracted to a small opening in the cliff, evidently the mouth of a cave which had probably been the home of the bear family that he and his father had just exterminated. The she-bear had taken her stand at the door of her home, and in defending it had lost her life. Balser examined the opening in the cliff, and concluded to enter; but his father said:—

"You don't know what's in there. Let's first send in one of the dogs."

So Tige was called and told to go into the cave. Immediately after he had entered he gave forth a series of sharp yelps which told plainly enough that he had found something worth barking at. Then Balser called the dog out, and Mr. Brent collected pieces of dry wood, and made a fire in front of the cave, hoping to drive out any animal that might be on the inside.

He more than suspected that he would find a pair of cubs.

As the smoke brought nothing forth, he concluded to enter the cave himself and learn what was there.

Dropping upon his knees, he began to crawl in at the narrow opening, and the boy and the two dogs followed closely. Mr. Brent had taken with him a lighted torch, and when he had gone but a short distance into the cave he saw in a remote corner a pair of gray-black, frowzy little cubs, as fat and round as a roll of butter. They were lying upon a soft bed of leaves and grass, which had been collected by their father and mother.

Balser's delight knew no bounds, for, next to his gun, what he wanted above all things was a bear cub, and here were two of them. Quickly he and his father each picked up a cub and made their way out of the cave.

The cubs, not more than one-half larger than a cat, were round and very fat, and wore a coat of fur, soft and sleek as the finest silk. Young bears usually are gray until after they are a year old, but these were an exception to the rule, for they were almost black.

Leaving the old bears dead upon the ground, Balser and his father hurried down to the creek, where Mr. Brent washed and dressed his son's wounded arm. They then marked several trees upon the bank of the creek by breaking twigs, so that they might be able to find the bears when they returned that evening with the horses to take home the meat and skins.

All this, which has taken so long to tell, occurred within the space of a few minutes; but the work while it lasted was hard and tiresome, and, although it was but a short time past noon, Balser and his father were only too glad to turn their faces homeward, each with a saucy little bear cub under his arm.

"As we have killed their mother," said Balser, referring to the cubs, "we must take care of her children and give them plenty of milk, and bring them up to be good, honest bears."

The evening of the same day Mr. Brent and a few of his neighbours brought home the bear meat and skins. Balser did not go with his father because his arm was too sore. He was, however, very proud of his wound, and thought that the glory of the day and the two bear cubs were purchased cheaply enough after all.

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