The Bears of Blue River  by Charles Major

Borrowed Fire

Part 1 of 2

One day Tom Fox was told by his mother to kindle the fire, which had been allowed to grow so dim that only a smouldering bed of embers was left upon the hearth. Hanging from the crane was a large kettle, almost full of water. Now, in addition to his reputation for freckles, Tom was also believed to be the awkwardest boy in the Blue River settlement. Upon the day above referred to, he did all in his power to live up to his reputation, by upsetting the kettle of water upon the fire, thereby extinguishing the last spark of that necessary element in the Fox household.

Of course there was not a lucifer match on all Blue River, from its source to its mouth; and as Mr. Fox had taken the tinder-box with him on a hunting expedition, and would not return till night, Limpy received a sound thrashing, and was sent to the house loft, there to ponder for the rest of the day over his misdeeds.

Mrs. Fox then sent Liney over to Mrs. Brent's to borrow fire. Limpy would have been glad to go, had his mother seen fit to send him, but the task would have been a reward rather than a punishment. Liney was delighted to have an opportunity to visit the Brent cabin, so away she went, very willingly indeed. Before the day was finished she was doubly glad she had gone, and the help she was able to give to a friend in need made her devoutly thankful to the kind fate which, operating through Mrs. Fox, had sent her on her errand. The terrible adventure, which befell her, and the frightful—but I am telling my story before I come to it.

When Balser was a boy, each season brought its separate work and recreation on the farm, as it does now. But especially was this true in the time of the early settlers.

The winter was the hunting season. The occupation of hunting, which was looked upon as sport and recreation combined, was also a business with the men who cleared the land and felled the forests of Indiana; for a wagon-load of good pelts, taken during the winter season when the fur is at its best, was no inconsiderable matter, and brought at market more money than the same wagon filled with wheat would have been worth. So the settler of Balser's time worked quite as hard in the winter with his rifle, as he did with his hoe and plough in the fields during the months of summer.

Spring, of course, was the time for breaking up and ploughing. Summer was the wheat harvest. Then, also, the various kinds of wild berries were gathered, and dried or preserved. In the summer casks of rich blackberry wine were made, to warm the cold hunter upon his return from the chase during the cold days to come, or to regale company upon long winter evenings before the blazing fire. Blackberries could be had by the bushel for the mere gathering, and the wine could be made so cheaply that almost every house was well stocked with the delicious beverage.

Then came the corn gathering, and bringing in the fodder. The latter was brought in by wagon-loads, and was stacked against the sides of the barn and of the cow shed. It answered a double purpose: it made the barn and sheds warm and cozy homes for the stock during the cold bleak winter, and furnished food for the cattle and the horses, so that by spring they had eaten part of their houses. The wheat straw was stacked in the barnyard; and into this the sheep and calves burrowed little caves, wherein they would lie so snug and warm that it made no difference how much the wind blew, or the snow and rain fell, or how hard it froze outside; for the bad weather made their cozy shelter seem all the more comfortable by contrast.

The fall also had its duties, part task, and part play. The woods abounded in hickory nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts, and a supply of all these had to be gathered, for they furnished no small part of the winter food. Preparation was always made for this work by the boys of Mr. Brent's family long before a hickory nut had thought of falling. Shortly after the wolf hunt which I described to you in the last chapter, Balser and Jim began to make ready for the nut campaign. Their first task was to build a small wagon, for the purpose of carrying home the nuts. They found a tree twelve of fourteen inches in diameter, which they felled. They then sawed off four round sections of the tree, each about one inch thick, to serve as wheels. From the outer edge of these wheels they removed the bark, and bound them with tires made from the iron hoops of a barrel. They then cut round holes in the centre in which to insert the axles of the wagon. With their hatchets they split clapboards, which they made smooth, and of the clapboards they made the bottom, sides, and ends. The boys worked pretty hard for ten or twelve days and completed as perfect a two-horse wagon, in miniature, as any one ever beheld. There were the tongue, the axletree, the sideboard, the headboard, and the tail-gate and floor, all fitted so tightly together that you would have declared a wagon maker had made them. The wheels, bound with barrel-hoop tires, were marvels of their kind. The wagon bed would hold as much as could be contained in two large flour sacks, and when filled with nuts would prove quite a load to draw, consequently the boys must have a team of some sort. The team which they eventually rigged up was probably the most absurd and curious combination that ever drew a load.

The boys selected strong pieces of deer-hide, and made four sets of harness. For what purpose, do you suppose? You never could guess. Two for the dogs, Tige and Prince, and two for the bear cubs, Tom and Jerry, who they proposed should do something to earn their bread and milk, for they were growing to be great awkward, big-footed, long-legged fellows, and were very strong.

So the four sets of harness were finished, and one day the odd team was hitched up for trial. The little wagon was loaded with rocks, and the boys tried to start the team. The dogs seemed willing enough to obey, but the cubs, which were hitched in front, went every way but the right one, and showed a disposition to rebel against the indignity of work.

The bears were then taken from the lead, the dogs were put in their places, and the bears were put next to the wagon. The team was started again, but the cubs lay down flat upon the ground and refused to move. After trying in vain to induce the cubs to do their duty, Balser spoke to Jim, who was standing at the dogs' heads, and Jim started forward, leading the dogs, and Jim and the dogs dragged after them the cubs and the wagon. At almost every step the heavily loaded wagon would roll upon the hind feet of the cubs, and Balser threw thorns upon the ground, which pricked the bears as they were dragged along, until the black sluggards came to the conclusion that it was easier to work than to be dragged over thorns; so they arose to their feet, and followed the dogs, without, however, drawing an ounce of the load.

The boys kept patiently at this sort of training for three weeks; and at the end of that time, between bribes in the way of milk and honey, and beatings with a thick stick, the cubs little by little submitted to their task, and eventually proved to be real little oxen at drawing a load. The dogs, of course, had been broken in easily.

By the time the cubs were ready for work, the hickory nuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts were ready to be gathered; and the boys only waited for a heavy black frost to loosen the nuts from their shells, and a strong wind to shake them from the branches.

During the summer of which I told you in the preceding chapters, Mr. Brent had raised the roof of his house, so as to make a room in the loft for the boys. This room was floored with rough boards, between which large cracks were left, so that heat from the room below might arise and warm the boys' room. The upper room was reached by the most primitive of stairways. It was nothing more than a small log, or thick pole, with notches cut on each side for footholds, or steps. In going up this stairway the boys climbed hand over hand, and foot over foot, as a bear climbs a tree; and to come down without falling was a task of no small proportions to one inexperienced in the art.

One morning Jim awakened, and looked out from under the warm bearskin which served for a blanket, comforter, and sheet. He listened for a moment to the wind, which was blowing a gale, and then awakened Balser.

"Balser! Balser! said Jim. "Wake up! There's frost enough to freeze a brass monkey, and the wind is blowing hard enough to blow down the trees, to say nothing of the nuts. Let's get up and have an early start." Balser was willing, and soon the boys had climbed out from under the warm bearskin, and were downstairs preparing to kindle the fires.

The fire-kindling was no hard task; for the backlog which had put in the fireplace the evening before was a great roll of red coals, and all that the boys had to do to kindle the fire was to "poke" the backlog, and it fell in chunks of half-charred, burning hickory, that hissed and popped and flamed, and made the room warm before you could say "Jack Robinson." Then the boys threw on a large armful of cut wood, and soon the blaze was crackling cosily, and the kettle singing merrily on the flames.

The morning was cold, and the boys sat upon the great hearth, with their palms to the fire, getting "good and warm for the day," while the gray, frosty dawn was slowly frightening the shadows of night away from the forest, to which they seemed to cling.

Then came the mother, who made the breakfast of sweet fried venison buckwheat cakes floating in maple syrup and butter, hoe cake, and eggs. Instead of coffee they drank warm milk, sweetened with maple sugar, and I can tell you it was a breakfast to wax fat on.

The sun was hardly above the horizon, when breakfast was finished, and the dogs and cubs were fed. Then they were harnessed to the wagon, and boys, bears, dogs, and wagon, all started on their way to the woods. Hickory trees did not grow plentifully in the bottom-lands, so the boys made for the hills, perhaps a mile away.

Shortly after they had reached the hills, Jim cried out:—

"Oh, here's a great big shellbark! I'll bet the ground's covered with nuts."

Sure enough, the ground was covered with them, and the boys filled their wagon in a very short time. Then they started home. The trip home was marred by an upset owing to the perversity of the cubs; but the boys righted the wagon, loaded it with nuts again, and after considerable trouble deposited them safely at home, and went back for another load.

The dog-bear team worked team worked admirably, barring a general tendency to run over logs and stones, and two great loads of hickory nuts were safely brought to the house before dinner.