When a bear sleeps he snores, and the first loud snort from the baron's nostrils aroused Balser. At first Balser's mind was in confusion, and he thought that he was at home. In a moment, however, he remembered where he was, and waited in the darkness for a repetition of the sound that had awakened him. Soon it came again, and Balser in his drowsiness fancied that Tom had changed his place and was lying beside him, though never in all his life had he heard such sounds proceed from Limpy's nose. So he reached out his hand, and at once was undeceived, for he touched the bear, and at last Balser was awake. The boy's hair seemed to stand erect upon his head, and his blood grew cold in his veins, as he realized the terrible situation. All was darkness. The guns, hatchets, and knives were upon the opposite side of the tree, and to reach them or to reach the doorway Balser would have to climb over the bear. Cold as the night was, perspiration sprang from every pore of his skin, and terror took possession of him such as he had never before known. It seemed a long time that he lay there, but it could not have been more than a few seconds until the bear gave forth another snort, and Tom raised up from his side of the bed, and said: "Balser, for goodness' sake stop snoring.
The noise you make would bring a dead man to life." Tom's voice aroused the bear, and it immediately rose upon its haunches with a deep growl that seemed to shake the tree. Then Jim awakened and began to scream. At the same instant Tige and Prince entered the tree, and a fight at once ensued between the bear and dogs. The bear was as badly frightened as the boys, and when it and the dogs ran about the room the boys were thrown to the ground and trampled upon.
The beast, in his desperate effort to escape, ran into the fireplace and scattered the coals and ashes. As he could not escape through the fireplace, he backed into the room, and again made the rounds of the tree with the dogs at his heels. Again the boys were knocked about as if they were ninepins. They made an effort to reach the door, but all I have told you about took place so quickly, and the darkness was so intense, that they failed to escape. Meantime the fight between the dogs and the bear went on furiously, and the barking, yelping, growling, and snarling made a noise that was deafening. Balser lifted Jim to his arms and tried to save him from injury, but his efforts were of small avail, for with each plunge of the bear the boys were thrown to the ground or dashed against the tree, until it seemed that there was not a spot upon their bodies that was not bruised and scratched. At last, after a minute or two of awful struggle and turmoil—a minute or two that seemed hours to the boys—the bear made his exit through the door followed closely by Tige and Prince, who clung to him with a persistency not to be shaken off.
You may be sure that the boys lost no time in making their exit also. The first thoughts, or course, were of each other, and when Balser learned that Jim and Tom had received no serious injury, he quickly turned his head in the direction whence the bear and dogs had gone, and saw them at a point in the bend of the creek not fifty yards away. The bear had come to bay, and the dogs were in front of him, at a safe distance, barking furiously. Then Balser's courage returned, and he hastily went into the tree, brought out his carbine, and hurried toward the scene of conflict. The moon was at its full, and the snow upon the trees and upon the ground helped to make the night almost as light as day. The bear was sitting erect upon his haunches, hurling defiant growls at the dogs, and when Balser approached him, the brute presented his breast as a fair mark. Tom also fetched his gun and followed closely at Balser's heels. The attention of the bear was so occupied with the dogs that he gave no heed to the boys, and they easily approached him to within a distance of five or six yards. Tom and Balser stood for a moment or two with their guns ready to fire, and Balser said: "Tom, you shoot first. I'll watch carefully, and hold my fire until the bear makes a rush, should you fail to kill him."
Much to Balser's surprise, Tom quickly and fearlessly took three or four steps toward the bear, and when he lifted his father's long gun to fire, the end of it was within three yards of the bear's breast. Balser held his ground, much frightened at Tom's reckless bravery, but did not dare to speak. When Tom fired, the bear gave forth a fearful growl, and sprang like a wildcat right upon the boy. Tom fell to the ground upon his back, and the bear stood over him. The dogs quickly made an attack, and Balser hesitated to fire, fearing that he might kill Tom or one of the dogs. Then came Jim, who rushed past Balser toward Tom and the bear, and if Jim's courage had ever before been doubted, all such doubts were upon that night removed forever. The little fellow carried in his hand Tom's hatchet, and without fear or hesitancy he ran to the bear and began to strike him with all his little might. Meantime poor, prostrate Tom was crying piteously for help, now that Jim was added to the group, it seemed impossible for Balser to fire at the bear. But no time was to be lost. If Balser did not shoot, Tom certainly would be killed in less than ten seconds. So, without stopping to take thought, and upon the impulse of one of those rare intuitions under the influence of which persons move so accurately, Balser lifted his gun to his shoulder. He could see the bear's head plainly as it swayed from side to side, just over Tom's throat, and it seemed that he could not miss his aim. A most without looking, he pulled the trigger. He felt the rebound of the gun and heard the report breaking the heavy silence of the night. Then he dropped the gun upon the snow and covered his face with his hands, fearing to see the result of his shot. He stood for a moment trembling. The dogs had stopped barking; the bear had stopped growling; Jim had ceased to cry out; Tom had ceased his call for help, and the deep silence rested upon Balser's heart like a load of lead. He could not take his hands from his face. After a moment he felt Jim's little hand upon his arm, and Tom said, as he drew himself from beneath the bear, "Balser, there's no man or boy living but you that could have made that shot in the moonlight."
"Balser hesitated to fire, fearing that
he might kill Tom or one of the dogs."
Then Balser knew that he had killed the bear, and he sank upon the snow and wept as if his heart would break.
Notwithstanding the intense cold, the excitement of battle had made the boys unconscious of it, and Tom and Jim stood by Balser's side as he sat upon the snow, and they did not feel the sting of the night.
Poor little Jim, who was so given to grumbling, much to the surprise of his companions fell upon his knees, and said, "Don't cry, Balser, don't cry," although the tears were falling over the little fellow's own cheeks. "Don't cry any more, Balser, the bear is dead all over. I heard the bullet whiz past my ears, and I heard it strike the bear's head just as plain as you can hear that owl hoot; and then I knew that you had saved Tom and me, because nobody can shoot as well as you can."
The little fellow's tenderness and his pride in Balser seemed all the sweeter, because it sprang from his childish gruffness.
Tom and Jim helped Balser to his feet, and they went over to the spot where the bear was lying stone dead with Balser's bullet in his brain. The dogs were sniffing at the dead bear, and the monster brute lay upon the snow in the moonlight, and looked like a huge incarnate fiend.
After examining him for a moment the boys slowly walked back to the tree. When they had entered they raked the coals together, put on an armful of wood, called in the dogs to share their comfort, hung up the deerskin at the door, drew the bearskins in front of the fire, and sat down to talk and think, since there was no sleep left in their eyes for the rest of that night.
After a long silence Jim said, "I told you he'd come back."
"But he didn't eat us," replied Tom, determined that Jim should not be right in everything.
"He'd have eaten you, Limpy Fox, if Balser hadn't been the best shot in the world."
"That's what he would," answered Tom, half inclined to cry.
"Nonsense," said Balser, "anybody could have done it."
"Well, I reckon not," said Jim. "Me and Tom and the dogs and the bear was as thick as six in a bed; and honest, Balser, I think you had to shoot around a curve to miss us all but the bear."
After a few minutes Jim said: "Golly! wasn't that an awful fight we had in here before the bear got out?"
"Yes, it was," returned Balser, seriously.
"Well, I rather think it was," continued Jim. "Honestly, fellows, I ran around this here room so fast for a while, that—that I could see my own back most of the time."
Balser and Tom laughed, and Tom said: "Jim, if you keep on improving, you'll be a bigger liar than that fellow in the Bible before you're half his age."
Then the boys lapsed into silence, and the dogs lay stretched before the fire till the welcome sun began to climb the hill of the sky and spread his blessed tints of gray and blue and pink and red, followed by the glorious flood of day.
After breakfast the boys skinned the bear and cut his carcass into small pieces—that is, such portions of it as they cared to keep. They hung the bearskin and meat upon the branches of their castle beyond the reach of wolves and foxes, and they gave to Tige and Prince each a piece of meat that made their sides stand out with fullness.
The saving of the bear meat and skin consumed most of the morning, and at noon the boys took a loin steak from the bear and broiled it upon the coals for dinner. After dinner they began the real work of the expedition by preparing to set the traps.
When all was ready they started up the creek, each boy carrying a load of traps over his shoulder. At a distance of a little more that half a mile from the castle they found a beaver dam stretching across the creek, and at the water's edge near each end of the dam they saw numberless tracks made by the little animals whose precious pelts they were so anxious to obtain.
I should like to tell you of the marvellous home of that wonderful little animal the beaver, and of his curious habits and instincts; how he chops wood and digs into the ground and plasters his home, under the water, with mud, using his tail for shovel and trowel. But all that you may learn from any book on natural history, and I assure you it will be found interesting reading.
The boys placed five or six traps upon the beaver paths on each side of the creek, and then continued their journey up stream until they found a little opening in the ice down to which, from the bank above, ran a well-beaten path, telling plainly of the many kinds of animals that had been going there to drink. There they set a few traps and baited them with small pieces of bear meat, and then they returned home, intending to visit the traps next morning at an early hour, and hoping to reap a rich harvest of pelts.
When the boys reached home it lacked little more than an hour of sunset, but the young fellows had recovered from the excitement of the night before, which had somewhat destroyed their appetites for breakfast and dinner, and by the time they had returned from setting their traps those same appetites were asserting themselves with a vigour that showed plainly enough a fixed determination to make up for lost time.
"How would a wild turkey or a venison steak taste for supper?" asked Balser.
Jim simply looked up at him with a greedy, hungry expression, and exclaimed the one word—"Taste?"
"Well, I'll go down the creek a little way and see what I can find. You fellows stay here and build a fire, so that we can have a fine bed of coals when I return."
Balser shouldered his gun and went down the creek to find his supper. He did not take the dogs, for he hoped to kill a wild turkey, and dogs are apt to bark in the pursuit of squirrels and rabbits, thereby frightening the turkey, which is a shy and wary bird.
When the boy had travelled quite a long distance down stream, he began to fear that, after all, he should be compelled to content himself with a rabbit or two for supper. So he turned homeward and scanned the woods carefully for the humble game, that he might not go home entirely empty-handed.
Upon his journey down the creek rabbits had sprung up on every side of him, but now that he wanted a pair for supper they all had mysteriously disappeared, and he feared that he and the boys and the dogs would be compelled to content themselves with bear meat.
When the boy was within a few hundred yards of home, and had almost despaired of obtaining even a rabbit, he espied a doe and a fawn, standing upon the opposite side of the creek at a distance of sixty or seventy yards, watching him intently with their great brown eyes, so full of fatal curiosity. Balser imitated the cry of the fawn, and held the attention of the doe until he was enabled to lessen the distance by fifteen or twenty yards. Then he shot the fawn, knowing that if he did so, its mother, the doe, would run for a short distance and would return to the fawn. In the meantime Balser would load his gun and would kill the doe when she returned. And so it happened that the doe and the fawn each fell a victim to our hunter's skill. Balser threw the fawn over his shoulder and carried it to the castle; then the boys took one of the sleds and fetched home the doe.
"Espied a doe and a fawn, standing
upon the opposite side of the creek."
They hung the doe high upon the branches of the sycamore, and cut the fawn into small pieces, which they put upon the ice of the creek and covered with snow, that the meat might quickly cool. The bed of coals was ready, and the boys were ready too, you may be sure.
Soon the fawn meat cooled, and soon each boy was devouring a savoury piece that had been broiled upon the coals.
After supper the boys again built a fine fire, and sat before it talking of the events of the day, and wondering how many beavers, foxes, coons, and muskrats they would find in their traps next morning.
As the fire died down drowsiness stole over our trappers, who were in the habit of going to bed soon after sunset, and they again crept in between the bearskins with Jim in the middle. They, however, took the precaution to keep Tige and Prince in the same room with them, and the boys slept that night without fear of an intrusion such as had disturbed them the night before.
Next morning, bright and early, the boys hurried up the creek to examine their traps, and greatly to their joy found five beavers and several minks, coons, and muskrats safely captured. Near one of the traps was the foot of a fox, which its possessor had bitten off in the night when he learned that he could not free it from the cruel steel.
The boys killed the animals they had caught by striking them on the head with a heavy club, which method of inflicting death did not damage the pelts as a sharp instrument or bullet would have done. After resetting the traps, our hunters placed the game upon the sled and hurried home to their castle, where the pelts were carefully removed, stretched upon forked sticks, and hung up to dry.
Our heroes remained in camp for ten or twelve days, and each morning brought them a fine supply of fur. They met with no other adventure worthy to be related, and one day was like another. They awakened each morning with the sun, and ate their breakfast of broiled venison, fish, or quail, with now and then a rabbit. Upon one occasion they had the breast of a wild turkey. They sought the traps, took the game, prepared the pelts, ate their dinners and suppers of broiled meats and baked sweet potatoes, and slumbered cozily beneath their warm bearskins till morning.
One day Balser noticed that the snow was melting and was falling from the trees. He and his companions had taken enough pelts to make a heavy load upon each of the sleds. They feared that the weather might suddenly grow warm and that the snow might disappear. So they leisurely packed the pelts and their belongings, and next morning started for home on Blue River, the richest, happiest boys in the settlement.
They were glad to go home, but it was with a touch of sadness, when they passed around the bend in the creek, that they said "Good-by" to their "Castle on Brandywine."