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

Lost in the Forest

Balser's arm mended slowly, for it had been terribly bitten by the bear. The heavy sleeve of his buckskin jacket had saved him from a wound which might have crippled him for life; but the hurt was bad enough as it was, and Balser passed through many days and nights of pain before it was healed. He bore the suffering like a little man, however, and felt very "big" as he walked about with his arm in a buckskin sling.

Balser was impatient that he could not hunt; but he spent his time more or less satisfactorily in cleaning and polishing his gun and playing with the bear cubs, which his little brother Jim had named "Tom" and "Jerry." The cubs soon became wonderfully tame, and drank eagerly from a pan of milk. They were too small to know how to lap, so the boys put their hands in the pan and held up a finger, at which the cubs sucked lustily. It was very laughable to see the little round black fellows nosing in the milk for the finger. And sometimes they would bite, too, until the boys would snatch away their hands and soundly box the cubs on the ears. A large panful of milk would disappear before you could say "Christmas," and the bears' silky sides would stand out as big and round as a pippin. The boys were always playing pranks upon the cubs, and the cubs soon learned to retaliate. They would climb everywhere about the premises, up the trees, on the roofs of the barn and house, and over the fence. Their great delight was the milk-house and kitchen, where they had their noses into everything, and made life miserable for Mrs. Brent. She would run after them with her broomstick if they but showed their sharp little snouts in the doorway. Then off they would scamper, yelping as though they were nearly killed, and ponder upon new mischief. They made themselves perfectly at home, and would play with each other like a pair of frisky kittens, rolling over and over on the sod, pretending to fight, and whining and growling as if they were angry in real earnest. One day Balser and his little brother Jim were sitting on a log, which answered the purpose of a settee, under the eaves in front of the house. The boys were wondering what had become of Tom and Jerry, as they had not seen them for an hour or more, and their quietness looked suspicious.

"I wonder if those cubs have run away," said Balser.

"No," said Jim, "bet they won't run away; they've got things too comfortable here to run away. Like as not they're off some place plannin' to get even with us because we ducked them in the water trough awhile ago. They looked awful sheepish when they got out, and as they went off together I jus' thought to myself they were goin' away to think up some trick on us."

Balser and Jim were each busily engaged eating the half of a blackberry pie. The eave of the house was not very high, perhaps seven or eight feet from the ground, and Balser and Jim were sitting under it, holding the baby and eating their pie.

Hardly had Jim spoken when the boys heard a scraping sound from above, then a couple of sharp little yelps; and down came Tom and Jerry from the roof, striking the boys squarely on the head.

To say that the boys were frightened does not half tell it. They did not know what had happened. They fell over, and the baby dropped to the ground with a cry that brought her mother to the scene of action in a moment. The blackberry pie had in some way managed to spread itself all over the baby's face, and she was a very comical sight when her mother picked her up.

The bears had  retaliated upon the boys sooner than even Jim had anticipated, and they all had a great laugh over it; the bears seeming to enjoy it more than anybody else. The boys were ready to admit that the joke was on them, so they took the cubs back to the milk-house, and gave them a pan of rich milk as a peace-offering.

The scrapes these cubs got themselves and the boys into would fill a large volume; but I cannot tell you any more about them now, as I want to relate an adventure having no fun in it, which befell Balser and some of his friends soon after his arm was well.

It was blackberry time, and several children had come to Balser's home for the purpose of making a raid upon a large patch of wild blackberries that grew on the other side of the river, a half-hour's walk from Mr. Brent's cabin.

Soon after daybreak one morning, the little party, consisting of Balser and Jim, Tom Fox and his sister Liney (which is "short" for Pau-li -ne), and three children from the family of Mr. Neigh, paddled across the river in a canoe which Balser and his father had made from a large gum log, and started westward for the blackberry patch.

Tom and Jerry had noticed the preparations for the journey with considerable curiosity, and felt very much hurt that they were not to be taken along. But they were left behind, imprisoned in a pen which the boys had built for them, and their whines and howls of complaint at such base treatment could be heard until the children were well out of sight of the house.

The party hurried along merrily, little thinking that their journey home would be one of sadness; and soon they were in the midst of the blackberries, picking as rapidly as possible, and filling their gourds with the delicious fruit.

They worked hard all the morning, and the deerskin sacks which they had brought with them were nearly full.

Toward noon the children became hungry, and without a dissenting voice agreed to eat dinner.

They had taken with them for lunch a loaf of bread and a piece of cold venison, but Balser suggested that he should go into the woods and find a squirrel or two to help out their meal. In the meantime Tom Fox had started out upon a voyage of discovery, hoping that he, too, might contribute to the larder.

In a few minutes Balser's gun was heard at a distance, and then again and again, and soon he was back in camp with three fat squirrels.

Almost immediately after him came Tom Fox carrying something in his coonskin cap.

"What have you there, Limpy?" cried Liney.

The children called Tom "Limpy" because he always had a sore toe or a stone bruise on his heel.

"You'll never guess," answered Tom. All the children took a turn at guessing, and then gave it up.

"Turkey eggs," said Tom. "We'll have eggs as well as squirrel for dinner to-day."

"How will you cook them?" asked one of the Neigh children.

"I'll show you," answered Tom.

So now they were guessing how Limpy would cook the eggs, but he would not tell them, and they had to give it up.

The boys then lighted a fire from the flint-lock on the gun, and Balser, having dressed the squirrel, cut twigs as he had done when he and his father dined on Conn's Creek, and soon pieces of tender squirrel were roasting near the flame, giving forth a most tempting odour.

In the meantime Limpy had gone away, and none of the children knew where he was, or what he was doing.

Soon, however, he returned bearing a large flat rock eight or ten inches in diameter, and two or three inches thick. This rock he carefully washed and scrubbed in a spring, until it was perfectly clean. He then took coals from the fire which Balser had kindled, and soon had a great fire of his own, in the midst of which was the stone. After the blaze had died down, he made a bed of hot coals on which, by means of a couple of sticks, he placed the rock, and then dusted away the ashes.

"Now do you know how I'm going to cook the eggs?" he asked.

They, of course, all knew; and the girls greased the rock with the fat of the squirrel, broke the eggs, and allowed them to fall upon the hot stone, where they were soon thoroughly roasted, and the children had a delicious meal. After dinner they sat in the cool shade of the tree under which they dined, and told stories and asked riddles for an hour or two before they again began berry-picking. Then they worked until about six o'clock, and stopped to have another play before returning home.

They played "Ring around a rosey,"  "Squat where ye be,"  "Wolf,"  "Dirty dog," and then wound up with the only never-grow-old, "Hide-and-seek."

The children hid behind logs and trees, and in dense clumps of bushes. The boys would often climb trees, when, if "caught," the one who was "it" was sure to run "home" before the hider could slide halfway down his tree. Now and then a hollow tree was found, and that, of course, was the best hiding-place of all.

Beautiful little Liney Fox found one hollow tree too many; and as long as they lived all the children of the party remembered it and the terrible events that followed her discovery. She was seeking a place to hide, and had hurried across a small open space to conceal herself behind a huge sycamore tree. When she reached the tree and went around it to hide upon the opposite side, she found it was hollow at the root.

Balser was "it," and with his eyes "hid" was counting one hundred as rapidly and loudly as he could. He had got to sixty, he afterward said, when a shriek reached his ears. This was when Liney found the hollow tree. Balser at once knew that it was Liney's voice; for, although he was but a little fellow, he was quite old enough to have admired Liney's exquisite beauty, and to have observed that she was as kind and gentle and good as she was pretty.

So what wonder that Balser, whom she openly claimed as her best friend, should share not only in the general praise, but should have a boy's admiration for her all his own?

In persons accustomed to exercise the alertness which is necessary for a good hunter, the sense of locating the direction and position from which a sound proceeds becomes highly developed, and as Balser had been hunting almost ever since he was large enough to walk, he knew instantly where Liney was.

He hurriedly pushed his way through the bushes, and in a moment reached the open space of ground, perhaps one hundred yards across, on the opposite side of which stood the tree that Liney had found. Some twenty or thirty yards beyond the tree stood Liney. She was so frightened that she could not move, and apparently had become powerless to scream.

Balser hastened toward her at his utmost speed, and when he reached a point for which he could see the hollow side of the tree, imagine his horror and fright upon beholding an enormous bear emerging from the opening. The bear started slowly toward the girl, who seemed unable to move.

"Run, Liney! run for your life!" screamed Balser, who fearlessly rushed toward the bear to attract its attention from the girl, and if possible to bring it in pursuit of himself.

"I just felt," said Balser afterward, "that I wanted to lie down and let the bear eat me at once if I could only keep it away from Liney. I shouted and threw clods and sticks at it, but on it went toward her. I reckon it thought she was the nicest and preferred her to me. It was right, too, for she was a heap the nicest, and I didn't blame the bear for wanting her.

"Again I shouted, 'Run, Liney! Run!' My voice seemed to waken her, and she started to run as fast as she could go, with the bear after her, and I after the bear as fast as I could go. I was shouting and doing my best to make the bear run after me instead of Liney; but it kept right on after her, and she kept on running faster and faster into the dark woods. In a short time I caught up with the bear, and kicked it on the side as hard as I could kick. That made it mad, and it turned upon me with a furious growl, as much as to say that it would settle with me pretty quick and then get Liney. After I had kicked it I started to run toward my gun, which was over by the blackberry patch. For a while I could hear the bear growling and puffing right at my heels, and it made me just fly, you may be sure. I never ran so fast in all my life, for I knew that I could not hold out long against the bear, and that if I didn't get my gun quick he would surely get me. I did not care as much as you might think, nor was I very badly frightened, for I was so glad I had saved Liney. But naturally I wanted to save myself too, if possible, so, as I have said, I ran as I never ran before—or since, for that matter.

"Soon the growls of the bear began to grow indistinct, and presently they ceased and I thought I had left it behind. So I kept on running toward my gun, and never stopped to look back until I heard another scream from Liney. Then I looked behind me, and saw that the bear had turned and was again after her, although she was quite a distance ahead of it.

"I thought at first that I should turn back and kick the bear again, and just lie down and let it eat me if nothing else would satisfy it; but I was so near my gun that I concluded to get it and then hurry back and shoot the bear instead of kicking it.

"I heard Liney scream again and heard her call 'B-a-l-s-e-r,' and that made me run even faster than the bear made me go. It was but a few seconds until I had my gun and had started back to help Liney.

"Soon I was at the hollow sycamore, but the bushes into which Liney had run were so thick and dark that I could see neither her nor the bear. I quickly ran into the woods where I thought Liney had gone, and when I was a little way into the thicket I called to her, but she did not answer. I then went on, following the track of the bear as well as I could. Bears, you know, have long flat feet that do not sink into the ground and leave a distinct track like a deer's foot does, so I soon lost the bear tracks and did not know which way to go.

"I kept going, however, calling loudly for Liney every now and then, and soon I was so deep into the forest that it seemed almost night. I could not see far in any direction on account of the thick underbrush, and at a little distance objects appeared indistinct. On I went, knowing not where, calling 'Liney! Liney!' at nearly every step; but I heard no answer, and it seemed that I liked Liney Fox better than anybody in all the world, and would have given my life to save her."

After Balser had gone into the woods to help Liney the other children gathered in a frightened group about the tree under which they had eaten dinner. There they waited in the greatest anxiety and fear until the sun had almost sunk below the horizon, but Balser and Liney did not return. Shortly before dark the children started homeward, very heavy-hearted and sorrowful, you may be sure. When they reached the river they paddled across and told Mr. Brent that Balser and Liney were lost in the woods, and that when last seen a huge bear was in pursuit of Liney. Balser's father lost not a moment, but ran to a hill near the house, upon the top of which stood a large stack of dry grass, leaves, and wood, placed there for the purpose of signalling the neighbours in case of distress. He at once put fire to the dry grass, and soon there was a blaze, the light from which could be seen for miles around.

Mr. Brent immediately crossed the river, and leaving Tom Fox behind to guide the neighbours, walked rapidly in the direction of the place where Balser and Liney had last been seen. He took with him the dogs, and a number of torches which he intended to light from a tinder-box if he should need them.

The neighbours soon hurried to the Brent home in response to the fire signal, and several of them started out to rescue the children, if possible. If help were to be given, it must be done at once. A night in the woods meant almost certain death to the boy and girl; for, besides bears and wolves, there had been for several weeks a strolling band of Indians in the neighbourhood.

Although the Indians were not brave enough to attack a settlement, they would be only too ready to steal the children, did they but have the opportunity.

These Indians slept all day in dark, secluded spots, and roamed about at night, visiting the houses of the settlers under cover of darkness, for the purpose of carrying off anything of value upon which they could lay their hands. Recently several houses had been burned, and some twenty miles up the river a woman had been found murdered near the bank. Two children were missing from another house, and a man while out hunting had been shot by an unseen enemy.

These outrages were all justly attributed to the Indians; and if they should meet Balser and Liney in the lonely forest, Heaven itself only knew what might become of the children,—a bear would be a more merciful enemy.

All night Mr. Brent and the neighbours searched the forest far and near.

Afterward Balser told the story of that terrible night, and I will let him speak:—

"I think it was after six o'clock when I went into the woods in pursuit of Liney and the bear. It was almost dark at that time in the forest, and a little later, when the sun had gone down and a fine drizzle of rain had begun to fall, the forest was so black that once I ran against a small tree because I did not see it.

"I wandered about for what seemed a very long time, calling for Liney; then I grew hopeless and began to realize that I was lost. I could not tell from which direction I had come, nor where I was going. Everything looked alike all about me—a deep, black bank of nothing, and a nameless fear stole over me. I had my gun, but of what use was it, when I could not see my hand before me? Now and then I heard wolves howling, and it seemed that their voices came from every direction. Once a black shadow ran by me with a snarl and a snap and I expected every moment to have the hungry pack upon me, and to be torn into pieces. What if they should attack Liney? The thought almost drove me wild.

"I do not know how long I had wandered through the forest but it must have been eight or nine hours, when I came to the river. I went to the water's edge and put my hand in the stream to learn which way the current ran, for I was so confused and so entirely lost that I did not know which direction was down-stream. I found that the water was running toward my right, and then I climbed back to the bank and stood in helpless confusion for a few minutes.

"Nothing could be gained by standing there watching the water, like a fish-hawk, so I walked slowly down the river. I had been going down-stream for perhaps twenty minutes, when I saw a tall man come out of the woods, a few yards ahead of me, and walk rapidly toward the river bank. He carried something on his shoulder, as a man would carry a sack of wheat, and when he had reached the river bank, where there was more light, I could see from his dress that he was an Indian. I could not tell what it was he carried, but in a moment I thought of Liney and ran toward him. I reached the place where he had gone down the bank just in time to see him place his burden in a canoe. He himself was on the point of stepping in when I called to him to stop, and told him I would shoot him if he did not. My fright was gone in an instant, and I would not have feared all the lions, bears and Indians that roamed the wilderness. I had but one thought—to save Liney, and something told me that she lay at the other end of the canoe.

"The open space of the river made it light enough for me to see the Indian, and I was so close to him that even in the darkness I could not miss my aim. In place of answering my call, he glanced hurriedly at me, in surprise, and quickly lifted his gun to shoot me. But I was quicker than he, and I fired first. The Indian dropped his gun and plunged into the river. I did not know whether he had jumped or fallen in, but he immediately sank. I thought I saw his head a moment afterward above the surface of the water near the opposite bank, and I do not know to this day whether or not I killed him. At the time I did not care, for the one thing on my mind was to rescue Liney.

"I did not take long to climb into the canoe, and sure enough there she was at the other end. I had not taken the precaution to tie the boat to the bank, and I was so overjoyed at finding Liney, and was so eager in my effort to lift her, and to learn if she were dead or alive, that I upset the unsteady thing. I thought we should both drown before we could get out, for Liney was as helpless as if she were dead, which I thought was really the case.

"After a hard struggle I reached shallow water and carried Liney to the top of the bank. I laid her on the ground, and took away the piece of wood which the Indian had tied between her teeth to keep her from crying out. Then I rubbed her hands and face and rolled her over and over until she came to. After a while she raised her head and opened her eyes, and looked about her as if she were in a dream.

"Oh, Balser!" she cried, and then fainted away again. I thought she was dead this time sure, and was in such agony that I could not even feel. Hardly knowing what I was doing, I picked her up to carry her home, dead—as I supposed. I had carried her for perhaps half an hour, when, becoming very tired, I stopped to rest. Then Liney wakened up again, and I put her down. But she could not stand, and, of course, could not walk.

"She told me that after she had run into the woods away from the bear, she became frightened and was soon lost. She had wandered aimlessly about for a long time, how long she did not know, but it seemed ages. She had been so terrified by the wolves and by the darkness, that she was almost unconscious, and hardly knew what she was doing. She said that every now and then she had called my name, for she knew that I would try to follow her. Her calling for me had evidently attracted the Indian, whom she had met after she had been in the woods a very long time.

"The Indian seized her, and placed the piece of wood between her teeth to keep her from screaming. He then threw her over his shoulder, and she remembered very little of what happened after that until she was awakened in the canoe by the flash and the report of my gun. She said that she knew at once I had come, and then she knew nothing more until she awakened on the bank. She did not know of the upsetting of the canoe, nor of my struggle in the water, but when I told her about it, she said:—

" 'Balser, you've saved my life three times in one night.'

"Then I told her that I would carry her home. She did not want me to, though, and tried to walk, but could not; so I picked her up and started homeward.

"Just then I happened to look toward the river and saw the Indian's canoe floating down-stream, bottom upward. I saw at once that here was an opportunity for us to ride home, so I put Liney down, took off my wet jacket and moccasins, and swam out to the canoe. After I had drawn it to the bank and had turned out the water, I laid Liney at the bow, found a pole with which to guide the canoe, climbed in myself, and pushed off. We floated very slowly, but, slow as it was, it was a great deal better than having to walk.

"It was just beginning to be daylight when I heard the barking of dogs. I would have known their voices among ten thousand, for they were as familiar to me as the voice of my mother. It was dear old Tige and Prince, and never in my life was any voice more welcome to my ears than that sweet sound. I whistled shrilly between my fingers, and soon the faithful animals came rushing out of the woods and plunged into the water, swimming about us as if they knew as well as a man could have known what they and their master had been looking for all night." Balser's father had followed closely upon the dogs, and within an hour the children were home amid the wildest rejoicing you ever heard.

When Liney became stronger she told how she had seen the hollow in the sycamore tree, and had hurried toward it to hide; and how, just as she was about to enter the hollow tree, a huge bear raised upon its haunches and thrust its nose almost in her face. She said that the bear had followed her for a short distance, and then for some reason had given up the chase. Her recollection of everything that had happened was confused and indistinct, but one little fact she remembered with a clearness that was very curious: the bear, she said, had but one ear.

When Balser heard this, he arose to his feet, and gave notice to all persons present that there would soon be a bear funeral, and that a one-eared bear would be at the head of the procession. He would have the other ear of that bear if he had to roam the forest until he was an old man to find it.

How he got it, and how it got him, I will tell you in the next chapter.

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