Late one afternoon—it was the day before Christmas—Balser and Jim were seated upon the extra backlog in the fireplace, ciphering. Mrs. Brent was sitting in front of the fire in a rude home-made rocking-chair, busily knitting, while she rocked the baby's cradle with her foot and softly sang the refrain of "Annie Laurie" for a lullaby. Snow had began to fall at noon, and as the sun sank westward the north wind came in fitful gusts at first, and then in stronger blasts, till near the hour of four, when Boreas burst forth in the biting breath of the storm. How he howled and screamed down the chimney at his enemy, the fire! And how the fire crackled and splattered and laughed in the face of his wrath, and burned all the brighter because of his raging! Don't tell me that a fire can't talk! A fire upon a happy hearth is the sweetest conversationalist on earth, and Boreas might blow his lungs out ere he could stop the words of cheer and health and love and happiness which the fire spoke to Jim and Balser and their mother in the gloaming of that cold and stormy day.
"Put on more wood," said the mother, in a whisper, wishing not to awaken the baby. "Your father will soon be home from Brookville, and we must make the house good and warm for him. I hope he will come early. It would be dreadful for him to be caught far away from home in such a storm as we shall have to-night."
Mr. Brent had gone to Brookville several days before with wheat and pelts for market, and was expected home that evening. Balser had wanted to go with his father, but the manly little fellow had given up his wish and had remained at home that he might take care of his mother, Jim, and the baby.
Balser quietly placed a few large hickory sticks upon
the fire, and then whispered to
"Let's go out and feed the stock and fix them for the night."
So the boys went to the barnyard and fed the horses and cows, and drove the sheep into the shed, and carried fodder from the huge stack and placed it against the north sides of the barn and shed to keep the wind from blowing through the cracks and to exclude the snow. When the stock was comfortable, cozy, and warm, the boys milked the cows, and brought to the house four bucketfuls of steaming milk, which they strained and left in the kitchen, rather than in the milk-house, that it might not freeze over night.
Darkness came on rapidly, and Mrs. Brent grew more and more anxious for her husband's return. Fearing that he might be late, she postponed supper until Jim's ever ready appetite began to cry aloud for satisfaction, and Balser intimated that he, too might be induced to eat. So their mother leisurely went to work to get supper while the baby was left sleeping before the cheery, talkative fire in the front room.
A fat wild turkey roasted to a delicious brown upon the spit, eggs fried in the sweetest of lard, milk warm from the cows, corn-cakes floating in maple syrup and yellow butter, sweet potatoes roasted in hot ashes, and a great slice of mince pie furnished a supper that makes one hungry but to think about it. The boys, however, were hungry without thinking, and it would have done your heart good to see that supper disappear.
As they sat at supper they would pause in their eating and listen attentively to every noise made by the creaking of the trees or the falling of a broken twig, hoping that it was the step of the father. But the supper was finished all too soon, and the storm continued to increase in its fury; the snow fell thicker and the cold grew fiercer, still Mr. Brent did not come.
Mrs. Brent said nothing, but as the hours flew by her anxious heart imparted its trouble to Balser, and he began to fear for his father's safety. The little clock upon the rude shelf above the fireplace hoarsely and slowly drawled out the hour of seven, then eight, and then nine. That was very late for the Brent family to be out of bed, and nothing short of the anxiety they felt could have kept them awake. Jim, of course, had long since fallen asleep, and he lay upon a soft bearskin in front of the fire wholly unconscious of storms or troubles of any sort. Mrs. Brent sat watching and waiting while Jim and the baby slept, and to her anxious heart it seemed that the seconds lengthened into minutes, and the minutes into hours, by reason of her loneliness. While she rocked beside the baby's cradle, Balser was sitting in his favourite place upon the backlog next to the fire. He had been reading, or trying to read, "The Pilgrim's Progress," but visions of his father and of the team lost in the trackless forest, facing death by freezing, to say nothing of wolves that prowled the woods in packs of hundreds upon such a night as that, continually came between his eyes and the page, and blurred the words until they held no meaning. Gradually drowsiness stole over him, too, and just as the slow-going clock began deliberately to strike the hour of nine his head fell back into a little corner made by projecting logs in the wall of the fireplace, and, like Jim, he forgot his troubles as he slept.
Balser did not know how long he had been sleeping when the neighing of a horse was heard. Mrs. Brent hastened to the door, but when she opened it, instead of her husband she found one of the horses, an intelligent, raw-boned animal named Buck, standing near the house. Balser had heard her call, and he quickly ran out of doors and went to the horse. The harness was broken, and dragging upon the ground behind the horse were small portions of the wreck of the wagon. Poor Buck's flank was red with blood, and his legs showed all too plainly the marks of deadly conflict with a savage, hungry foe. The wreck of the wagon, the broken harness, and the wounds upon the horse told eloquently, as if spoken in words, the story of the night. Wolves had attacked Balser's father, and Buck had come home to give the alarm.
Balser ran quickly to the fire pile upon the hill and kindled it for the purpose of calling help from the neighbours. Then he went back to the house and took down his gun. He tied a bundle of torches over his shoulder, lighted one, and started out in the blinding, freezing storm to help his father, if possible.
He followed the tracks of the horse, which with the aid of his torch were easily discernible in the deep snow, and soon he was far into the forest, intent upon his mission of rescue.
After the boy had travelled for an hour he heard the howling of wolves, and hastened in the direction whence the sound came, feeling in his heart that he would find his father surrounded by a ferocious pack. He hurried forward as rapidly as he could run, and his worst fears were realized.
Soon he reached the top of a hill overlooking a narrow ravine which lay to the eastward. The moon had risen and the snow had ceased to fall. The wind was blowing a fiercer gale than ever, and had broken rifts in the black bank of snowcloud, so that gleams of the moon now and then enabled Balser's vision to penetrate the darkness. Upon looking down into the ravine he beheld his father standing in the wagon, holding in his hand a singletree which he used as a weapon of defence. The wolves jumped upon the wagon in twos and threes, and when beaten off by Mr. Brent would crowd around the wheels and howl to get their courage up, and renew the attack.
Mr. Brent saw the boy starting down the hill toward the wagon and motioned to him to go back. Balser quickly perceived that it would be worse than madness to go to his father. The wolves would at once turn their attack upon him, and his father would be compelled to abandon his advantageous position in the wagon and go to his relief, in which case both father and son would be lost. Should Balser fire into the pack of wolves from where he stood, he would bring upon himself and his father the same disaster. He felt his helplessness grievously, but his quick wit came to his assistance. He looked about him for a tree which he could climb, and soon found one. At first he hesitated to make use of the tree, for it was dead and apparently rotten; but there was none other at hand, so he hastily climbed up and seated himself firmly upon a limb which seemed strong enough to sustain his weight.
Balser was now safe from the wolves, and at a distance of not more than twenty yards from his father. There he waited until the clouds for a moment permitted the full light of the moon to rest upon the scene, and then he took deliberate aim and fired into the pack of howling wolves. A sharp yelp answered his shot, and then a black, seething mass of growling, fighting, snapping beasts fell upon the carcass of the wolf that Balser's shot had killed, and almost instantly they devoured their unfortunate companion.
Balser felt that if he could kill enough wolves to satisfy the hunger of the living ones they would abandon their attack upon his father, for wolves, like cowardly men, are brave only in desperation. They will attack neither man nor animal except when driven to do so by hunger.
After Balser had killed the wolf, clouds obscured the moon before he could make another shot. He feared to fire in the dark lest he might kill his father, so he waited impatiently for the light which did not come.
Meanwhile, the dead wolf having been devoured, the pack again turned upon Mr. Brent, and Balser could hear his father's voice and the clanking of the iron upon the singletree as he struck at the wolves to ward them off.
It seemed to Balser that the moon had gone under the clouds never to appear again. Mr. Brent continually called loudly to the wolves, for the human voice is an awesome sound even to the fiercest animals. To Balser the tone of his father's voice, mingled with the howling of wolves, was a note of desperation that almost drove him frantic. The wind increased in fury every moment, and Balser felt the cold piercing to the marrow of his bones. He had waited it seemed to him hours for the light of the moon again to shine, but the clouds appeared to grow deeper and the darkness more dense.
While Balser was vainly endeavouring to watch the conflict at the wagon, he heard a noise at the root of the tree in which he had taken refuge, and, looking down, he discovered a black monster standing quietly beneath him. It was a bear that had been attracted to the scene of battle by the noise. Balser at once thought, "Could I kill this huge bear, his great carcass certainly would satisfy the hunger of the wolves that surround my father." Accordingly he lowered the point of his gun, and, taking as good aim as the darkness would permit, he fired upon the bear. The bear gave forth a frightful growl of rage and pain, and as it did so its companion, a beast of enormous size, came running up, apparently for the purpose of rendering assistance.
Balser hastily reloaded his gun and prepared to shoot the other bear. This he soon did, and while the wolves howled about his father the two wounded bears at the foot of the tree made night hideous with their ravings.
Such a frightful bedlam of noises had never before been heard.
Balser was again loading his gun, hoping to finish the bears, when he saw two lighted torches approaching along the path over which he had just come, and as they came into view imagine his consternation when he recognized the forms of Liney Fox and her brother Tom. Tom carried his father's gun, for Mr. Fox had gone to Brookville, and Liney, in addition to her torch, carried Tom's hatchet. Liney and Tom were approaching rapidly, and Balser called out to them to stop. They did not hear him, or did not heed him, but continued to go forward to their death. The bears at the foot of the tree were wounded, and would be more dangerous than even the pack of wolves howling at the wagon.
"Imagine his consternation when he recognized the forms of Liney Fox and her brother Tom."
"Go back! Go back!" cried Balser desperately, "or you'll be killed. Two wounded bears are at the root of the tree I'm in, and a hundred wolves are howling in the hollow just below me. Run for your lives! Run! You'll be torn in pieces if you come here."
The boy and girl did not stop, but continued to walk rapidly toward the spot from which they had heard Balser call. The clouds had drifted away from the moon, and now that the light was of little use to Balser—for he was intent upon saving Liney and Tom—there was plenty of it.
The sound of his voice and the growling of the bears had attracted the attention of the wolves. They were wavering in their attack upon Mr. Brent, and evidently had half a notion to fall upon the bears that Balser had wounded. Meantime Liney and Tom continued to approach, and their torches, which under ordinary circumstances would have frightened the animals away, attracted the attention of the bears and the wolves, and drew the beasts upon them. They were now within a few yards of certain death, and again Balser in agony cried out: "Go back, Liney. Go back! Run for your lives!" In his eagerness he rose to his feet, and took a step or two out upon the rotten limb on which he had been seated. As he called to Liney and Tom, and motioned to them frantically to go back, the limb upon which he was standing broke, and he fell a distance of ten or twelve feet to the ground, and lay half stunned between the two wounded bears. Just a Balser fell, Liney and Tom came up to the rotten tree, and at the same time the pack of wolves abandoned their attack upon Mr. Brent and rushed like a herd of howling demons upon the three helpless children.
"He fell a distance of ten or twelve feet . . . and lay half stunned."
One of the bears immediately seized Balser, and the other one struck Liney to the ground. By the light of the torches Mr. Brent saw all that had happened, and when the wolves abandoned their attack upon him he hurried forward to rescue Balser, Liney, and Tom, although in so doing he was going to meet his death. In a few seconds Mr. Brent was in the midst of the terrible fight, and a dozen wolves sprang upon him. Tom's gun was useless, so he snatched the hatchet from Liney, who was lying prostrate under one of the bears, and tried to rescue her from its jaws. Had he done so, however, it would have been only to save her for the wolves. But his attempt to rescue Liney was quickly brought to an end. The wolves sprang upon Tom, and soon he, too, was upon the ground. The resinous torches which had fallen from the hands of Tom and Liney continued to burn, and cast a lurid light upon the terrible scene.
Consciousness soon returned to Balser. And he saw with horror the fate that was in store for his father, his friends, and himself. Despair took possession of his soul, and he knew that the lamp of life would soon be black in all of them forever. While his father and Tom lay upon the ground at the mercy of the wolves, and while Liney was lying within arm's reach of him in the jaws of the wounded bear, and he utterly helpless to save the girl of whom he was so fond, Balser's mother shook him by the shoulder and said, "Balser, your father is coming." Balser sprang to his feet, looked dazed for a moment, and then ran, half weeping, half laughing, into his father's arms . . . just as the sleepy little clock had finished striking nine.