The boys and bears played at this exciting game of hide-and-seek for two or three hours, but Balser had no opportunity for a good shot, and Tom found no chance to use his deadly hatchet.
When the bear showed a disposition to run away rather than to fight, Limpy grew brave, and talked himself into a high state of heroism.
It was an hour past noon and the boys were laboriously climbing a steep ascent in pursuit of the bear and dogs, which they could distinctly see a few yards ahead of them, at the top of a hill. The underbrush had become thinner, although the shadow of the trees was deep and dark, and Balser thought that at last the bear was his. He repeated over and over to himself his father's advice: "When you attack a bear, be slow and deliberate. Do nothing in a hurry. Don't shoot until you're sure of your aim."
He remembered vividly his hasty shot when he wounded the bear on Conn's Creek, and his narrow escape from death at that time had so impressed upon him the soundness of his father's advice, that he repeated it night and morning with his prayers.
When he saw the bear at the top of the hill, so close to him, he raised his gun to his shoulder and held it there for a moment, awaiting a chance for a sure shot. But disappointment, instead of the bear, was his, for while he held his gun ready to fire, the bear suddenly disappeared, as if the earth had opened and swallowed him.
It all happened so quickly that even the dogs looked astonished. Surely, this was a demon bear.
The boys hurried to the spot where they had last seen the animal, and, although they carefully searched for the mouth of a cave, or burrow, through which the bear might have escaped, they saw none, but found the earth everywhere solid and firm. They extended their search for a hundred feet or more about them, but still with the same result. They could find no hole or opening into which the bear could possibly have entered. His mysterious disappearance right before their eyes seemed terribly uncanny.
There was certainly something wrong with the one-eared bear. He had sprung from the ground, just at their feet, where a moment before there had been nothing; and now he had as mysteriously disappeared into the solid earth, and had left no trace behind him.
Balser and Tom stood for a moment in the greatest amazement, and all they had heard about the evil spirit which inhabited the one-eared bear quickly flashed through their minds.
"We'd better let him go, Balser," said Tom, "for we'll never kill him, that's sure. He's been leading us a wild-goose chase all the morning only to get us up here to kill us. I never saw such an awful place for darkness. The bushes and trees don't seem natural. They all have thorns and great knots on them, and their limbs and twigs look like huge bony arms and fingers reaching out after us. I tell you this ain't a natural place, and that bear is an evil spirit, as sure as you live. Lordy! let's get out of here, for I never was so scared in my life."
Balser was also afraid, but Tom's words had made him
wish to appear brave, and he
"Shucks! Limpy; I hope you ain't afraid when you have your hatchet."
"For goodness' sake, don't joke in such a place as this, Balser," said Tom, with chattering teeth. "I'm not afraid of any natural bear when I have my hatchet, but a bewitched bear is too much for me, and I'm not ashamed to own it.
"How do you know he's bewitched?" asked Balser, trying to talk himself out of his own fears.
"Bewitched? Didn't he come right out of the ground just at our very feet, and didn't he sink into the solid earth right here before our eyes? What more do you want, I'd like to know? Just you try to sink into the ground and see if you can. Nobody can, unless he's bewitched."
Balser felt in his heart that Tom told the truth, and, as even the dogs seemed anxious to get away form the dark, mysterious place, they all descended the hill on the side opposite to that by which they had ascended. When they reached the bottom of the hill they unexpectedly found that they were at the river's edge, and after taking a drink they turned their faces toward home. They thought of dinner, but their appetite had been frightened away by the mysterious disappearance of the bear, and they did not care to eat. So they fed the dogs and again started homeward down the river.
After a few minutes' walking they came to a bluff several hundred feet long, and perhaps fifty feet high, which at that time, the water being low, was separated from the river by a narrow strip of rocky, muddy ground.
This strip of ground was overgrown with reeds and
willows, and the bluff was covered with vines and
bushes which clung in green masses to its steep sides
and completely hid the rocks and earth. Tom was in
front, Balser came next, and the dogs, dead tired, were
trailing along some distance behind. Suddenly Tom threw
up his hands and jumped frantically backward,
exclaiming in terrified
"Oh, Lord! the one-eared bear again."
When Tom jumped backward his foot caught in a vine, and he fell violently against Balser, throwing them both to the ground. In falling, Tom dropped his hatchet, which he had snatched from his belt, and Balser dropped his gun, the lock of which struck a stone and caused the charge to explode. Thus the boys were on their backs and weaponless, while the one-eared bear stood almost within arm's length, growling in a voice like distant thunder, and looking so horrid and fierce that he seemed a very demon in a bear's skin.
Tom and Balser were so frightened that for a moment they could not move; but the deep growls which terrified them also brought the dogs, who came quickly to the rescue, barking furiously.
The bear sprang upon the boys just as the dogs came up, and Balser received the full force of a great flat horny paw upon his back, and was almost stunned. The long sharp claws of the bear tore through the buckskin jacket as if it were paper, and cut deep gashes in Balser's flesh. The pain seemed to revive him from the benumbing effect of the stroke, and when the bear's attention was attracted by the dogs, Balser crawled out from beneath the monster and arose to his feet, wounded, bloody, and dizzy.
Tom also felt the force of the bear's great paw, and was lying a few feet from Balser, with his head in a tangle of vines and reeds.
Balser, having escaped from under the bear, the brute turned upon Tom, who was lying prostrate in the bushes.
The dogs were still vigorously fighting the bear, and every second or two a stroke from the powerful paw brought a sharp yelp of pain from either Tige or Prince and left its mark in deep, red gashes upon their bodies. The pain, however, did not deter the faithful animals from their efforts to rescue the boys; and while the bear was making for Tom it was kept busy in defending itself from the dogs.
In an instant the bear reached Tom, who would have been torn in pieces at once, had not Balser quickly unsheathed his long hunting knife and rushed into the fight. He sprang for the bear and landed on his back, clinging to him with one arm about his neck, while with the other he thrust his sharp hunting knife almost to the hilt into the brute's side.
This turned the attack from Tom, and brought it upon Balser, who soon had his hands full again.
The bear rose upon his hind feet, and before Balser could take a step in retreat, caught him in his mighty arms for the purpose of hugging him to death, which is a bear's favourite method of doing battle.
The hunting knife was still sticking in the rough black side of the bear, where Balser had thrust it, and blood flowed from the wound in a great stream.
The dogs were biting at the bear's hind legs, but so intent was the infuriated monster upon killing Balser that he paid no attention to them, but permitted them to work their pleasure upon him, while he was having the satisfaction of squeezing the life out of the boy.
In the meantime Tom recovered and rose to his feet. He at once realized that Balser would be a dead boy if something were not done immediately. Luckily, Tom saw his hatchet, lying a few feet away, and snatching it up he attacked the bear, chopping away at his great back as if it were a tree.
At the third or fourth stroke from Tom's hatchet, the bear loosened his grip upon Balser and fell in a great black heap to the ground, growling and clawing in all directions as if he were frantic with rage and pain. He bit at the rocks and bushes, gnashed his teeth, and dug into the ground with his claws.
Balser, when released from the bear, fell in a half conscious condition, close to the river's edge. Tom ran to him, and, hardly knowing what he did, dashed water in his face to remove the blood-stains and to wash the wounds. The water soon revived Balser, who rose to his feet; and, Tom helping his friend, the boys started to run, or rather to walk away as fast as their wounds and bruise would permit, while the dogs continued to bark and the bear to growl.
As the boys were retreating, Tom, turned his head to see if the bear was following, but as it was still lying on the ground, growling and biting at the rocks and scratching the earth, he thought perhaps that the danger was over, and that the bear was so badly wounded that he could not rise, or he certainly would have been on his feet fighting Tige and Prince, who gave him not one moment's peace. Balser and Tom paused for an instant, and were soon convinced that the bear was helpless.
"I believe he can't get up," said Balser.
"Of course he can't," answered Tom, pompously. "I cut his old backbone in two with my hatchet. When he was hugging you I chopped away at him hard enough to cut down a hickory sapling."
The boys limped back to the scene of conflict, and found that they were right. The bear could not rise to his feet, but lay in a huge struggling black heap on the ground.
Balser then cautiously went over to where his gun lay, picked it up, and ran back to Tom. He tried to load the gun, but his arms were so bruised and torn that he could not; so he handed it to Tom, who loaded it with a large bullet and a heavy charge of powder.
Balser then called off the dogs, and Tom, as proud as the President of the United States, held the gun within a yard of the bear's head and pulled the trigger. The great brute rolled over on his side, his mighty limbs quivered, he uttered a last despairing growl which was piteous—for it was almost a groan—and his fierce, turbulent spirit fled forever. Balser then drew his hunting knife from the bear's body, cut off the remaining ear, and put it in the pocket of his buckskin coat.
The boys were sorely wounded, and Balser said that the bear had squeezed his "insides" out of place. This proved to be true to a certain extent, for when he got home it was found that two of his ribs were broken.
The young hunters were only too glad to start homeward, for they had seen quite enough of the one-eared bear for one day.
After walking in silence a short distance down the
river, Balser said to
"I'll never again say anything bad about your hatchet. It saved my life to-day, and was worth all the guns in the world in such a fight as we have just gone through."
Tom laughed, but was kind-hearted enough not to say, "I told you so."
You may imagine the fright the boys gave their parents when they arrived home wounded, limping, and blood-stained; but soon all was told, and Balser and Tom were the heroes of the settlement.
They had killed the most dangerous animal that had ever lived on Blue River, and had conquered where old and experienced hunters had failed.
The huge carcass of the bear was brought home that evening, and when the skin was removed, his backbone was found to have been cut almost through by Tom's hatchet.
When thy cut the bear open somebody said he had two galls, and that fact, it was claimed, accounted for his fierceness.
Where the bear had sprung from when the boys first saw him in the forest, or how he had managed to disappear into the ground at the top of the hill was never satisfactorily explained. Some settlers insisted that he had not been inhabited by an evil spirit, else the boys could not have killed him, but others clung to the belief with even greater faith and persistency.
Liney went every day to see Balser, who was confined to his bed for a fortnight.
One day, while she was sitting by him, and no one else was in the room, he asked her to hand him his buckskin jacket; the one he had worn on the day of the bear fight. The jacket was almost in shreds from the frightful claws of the bear, and tears came to the girl's eyes as she placed it on the bed.
Balser put his hand into one of the deep pockets, and,
drawing out the bear's ear, handed it to Liney,
"I cut this off for you because I like you."
The girl took the bear's ear, blushed a deep red,
thanked him, and
"And I will keep it, ugly as it is, because I—because—I—like you."