The Fire Bear
One evening in December, a few weeks after Liney had saved Balser's life by means of the borrowed fire, Balser's father and mother and Mr. and Mrs. Fox, went to Marion, a town of two houses and a church, three miles away, to attend "Protracted Meeting." Liney and Tom and the Fox baby remained with Balser and Jim and the Brent baby, at the Brent cabin.
When the children were alone Liney proceeded to put the babies to sleep, and when those small heads of their respective households were dead to the world in slumber, rocked to that happy condition in a cradle made from the half of a round, smooth log, hollowed out with an adze, the other children huddled together in the fireplace to talk and to play games. Chief among the games was that never failing source of delight, "Simon says thumbs up."
Outside the house the wind, blowing through the trees of the forest, rose and sank in piteous wails and moans, by turns, and the snow fell in angry, fitful blasts, and whirled and turned, eddied and drifted, as if it were a thing of life. The weather was bitter cold; but the fire on the great hearth in front of the children seemed to feel that while the grown folks were away it was its duty to be careful of the children, and to be gentle, tender, and comforting to them; so it spluttered, popped, and cracked like the sociable, amiable, and tender-hearted fire that it was. It invited the children to go near it and to take its warmth, and told, as plainly as a fire could,—and a fire can talk, not English perhaps, but a very understandable language of its own,—that it would not burn them for worlds. So, as I said, the children sat inside the huge fireplace, and cared little whether or not the cold north wind blew.
After "Simon" had grown tiresome, Liney told riddles, all of which Tom, who had heard them before, spoiled by giving the answer before the others had a chance to guess. Then Limpy propounded a few riddles, but Liney, who had often heard them, would not disappoint her brother by telling the answers. Balser noticed this, and said, "Limpy, you ought to take a few lessons in good manners from your sister."
"Why ought I?" asked Tom, somewhat indignantly.
"Because she doesn't tell your riddles as you told hers," answered Balser.
"He wants to show off," said Jim.
"No, he doesn't," said Liney. But she cast a grateful glance at Balser, which said, "Thank you" as plainly as if she had spoken the words. Tom hung his head, and said he didn't like riddles anyway.
"Let's crack some nuts," proposed Jim, who was always hungry.
This proposition seemed agreeable to all, so Balser brought in a large gourd filled with nuts, and soon they were all busy cracking and picking.
Then Liney told stories from "The Pilgrim's Progress" and the Bible. She was at the most thrilling part of the story of Daniel in the lions' den, and her listeners were eager, nervous, and somewhat fearful, when the faint cry of "Help!" seemed to come right down through the mouth of the chimney.
"Listen!" whispered Balser, holding up his hands for silence. In a moment came again the cry, "Help!" The second cry was still faint, but louder than the first; and the children sprang together with a common impulse, and clung to Balser in unspoken fear.
"Help! help!" came the cry, still nearer and louder.
"Some one wants help," whispered Balser. "I—must—go—to—him." The latter clause was spoken rather hesitatingly.
"No, no!" cried Liney. "You must not go. It may be Indians trying to get you out there to kill you, or it may be a ghost. You'll surely be killed if you go."
Liney's remark somewhat frightened Balser, and completely frightened the other children; but it made Balser feel all the more that he must not be a coward before her. However much he feared to go in response to the cry for help, he must not let Liney see that he was afraid. Besides, the boy knew that it was his duty to go; and although with Balser the sense of duty moved more slowly than the sense of fear, yet it moved more surely. So he quickly grasped his gun, and carefully examined the load and priming. Then he took a torch, lighted it at the fire, and out he rushed into the blinding, freezing storm.
"Who's there?" cried Balser, holding his torch on high.
"Help! help!" came the cry from a short distance down the river, evidently in the forest back of the barn. Balser hurried in the direction whence the cry had come, and when he had proceeded one hundred yards or so, he met a man running toward him almost out of breath from fright and exhaustion. Balser's torch had been extinguished by the wind, snow, and sleet, and he could not see the man's face.
"Who are you, and what's the matter with you?" asked brave little Balser, meanwhile keeping his gun ready to shoot, if need be.
"Don't you know me, Balser?" gasped the other.
"Is it you, Polly?" asked Balser. "What on earth's the matter?"
"The Fire Bear! The Fire Bear!" cried Poll. "He's been chasin' me fur Lord knows how long. There he goes! There! Don't you see him? He's movin' down to the river. He's crossin' the river on the ice now. There! There!" And he pointed in the direction he wished Balser to look. Sure enough, crossing on the ice below the barn, was the sharply defined form of a large bear, glowing in the darkness of the night as if it were on fire. This was more than even Balser's courage could withstand; so he started for the house as fast as his legs could carry him, and Polly came panting and screaming at his heels.
Polly's name, I may say, was Samuel Parrott. He was a harmless, simple fellow, a sort of hanger-on of the settlement, and his surname, which few persons remembered, had suggested the nickname of Poll, or Polly, by which he was known far and wide.
By the time Balser had reached the house he was ashamed of his precipitate retreat, and proposed that he and Polly should go out and further investigate the Fire Bear.
This proposition met with such a decided negative from Polly, and such a vehement chorus of protests from Liney and the other children, that Balser, with reluctance in his manner, but gladness in his heart, consented to remain indoors, and to let the Fire Bear take his way unmolested.
"When did you first see him?" asked Balser of Polly Parrot.
"Nonsense," said Balser. "He wasn't blazing when I saw him."
"Of course he wasn't," responded Poll. "He'd about burned out. D'ye think a bear could blaze away forever like a volcano?" Poll's logical statement seemed to be convincing to the children.
"And he blazed up, did he?" asked Liney, her bright eyes large with wonder and fear.
"Blazed up!" ejaculated Polly. "Bless your soul, Liney, don't you see how hot I am? Would a man be sweatin' like I am on such a night as this, unless he's been powerful nigh to a mighty hot fire?"
Poll's corroborative evidence was too strong for doubt to contend against, and a depressing conviction fell upon the entire company, including Balser, that it was really the Fire Bear which Polly and Balser had seen. Although Balser, in common with most of the settlers, had laughed at the stories of the Fire Bear which had been told in the settlement, yet now he was convinced, because he had seen it with his own eyes. It was true that the bear was not ablaze when he saw him, but certainly he looked like a great glowing ember, and, with Polly's testimony, Balser was ready to believe all he had heard concerning this most frightful spectre of Blue River, the Fire Bear.
One of the stories concerning the Fire Bear was to the effect that when he was angry he blazed forth into a great flame, and that when he was not angry he was simply aglow. At times, when the forests were burned, or when barns or straw-stacks were destroyed by fire, many persons, especially of the ignorant class, attributed the incendiarism to the Fire Bear. Others, who pretended to more wisdom, charged the Indians with the crimes. Of the latter class had been Balser. But to see is to believe.
Another superstition about the Fire Bear was, that any person who should be so unfortunate as to behold him would die within three months after seeing him, unless perchance he could kill the Fire Bear,—a task which would necessitate the use of a potent charm, for the Fire Bear bore a charmed life. The Fire Bear had been seen, within the memory of the oldest inhabitant, by eight or ten persons, always after night. Each one who had seen the bear had died within the three months following. He had been stalked by many hunters, and although several opportunities to kill him had occurred, yet no one had accomplished that much-desired event.
You may be sure there was no more games, riddles, or nut-cracking that evening in the Brent cabin. The children stood for a few moments in a frightened group, and then took their old places on the logs inside the fireplace. Polly, who was stupid with fright, stood for a short time silently facing the fire, and then said mournfully: "Balser, you and me had better jine the church. We're goners inside the next three months,—goners, just as sure as my name's Polly." Then meditatively, "A durned sight surer than that; for my name ain't Polly at all; but Samuel, or Thomas, or Bill, or something like that, I furgit which; but we're goners, Balser, and we might as well git ready. No livin' bein' ever seed that bear and was alive three months afterwards."
Then Liney, who was sitting next to Balser, touched his
arm gently, and
"I saw him too. I followed you a short way when you went out, and I saw something bright crossing the river on the ice just below the barn. Was that the bear?"
"Yes, yes," cried Balser. "For goodness' sake, Liney, why didn't you stay in the house?"
"You bet I stayed in," said Jim.
"And so did I," said Tom.
No one paid any attention to what Jim and Limpy said, and in a moment Liney was weeping gently with her face in her hands.
Jim and Limpy then began to cry, and soon Polly was boohooing as if he were already at the point of death. It required all of Balser's courage and strength to keep back the tears, but in a moment he rose to his feet and said: "Stop your crying, everybody. I'll kill that bear before the three months is half gone; yes, before a month has passed. If Liney saw him the bear dies; that settles it."
Liney looked up to Balser gratefully, and then, turning
"He'll save us, Polly; he killed the one-eared bear, and it was enough sight worse to fight than the Fire Bear. The one-eared bear was a—was a devil."
Polly did not share Liney's confidence, so he sat down upon the hearth, and gazed sadly at the fire awhile. Then, taking his elbow for his pillow, he lay upon the floor and moaned himself to sleep.
The children sat in silence for a short time; and Jim lay down beside Polly, and closed his eyes in slumber. Then Limpy's head began to nod, and soon Limpy was in the land of dreams. Balser and Liney sat upon the spare backlog for perhaps half an hour, without speaking.
The deep bed of live coals cast a rosy glow upon their faces, and the shadows back in the room grew darker, as the flame of the neglected fire died out. Now and then a fitful blaze would start from a broken ember, and the shadows danced for a moment over the floor and ceiling like sombre spectres, but Balser and Liney saw them not.
Despite their disbelief in the existence of the Fire Bear, the overwhelming evidence of the last two hours had brought to them a frightful conviction of the truth of all they had heard about the uncanny, fatal monster. Three short months of life was all that was left to them. Such had been the fate of all who had beheld the Fire Bear. Such certainly would be their fate unless Balser could kill him—an event upon which Liney built much greater hope than did Balser.
After a long time Balser spoke, in a low tone, that he
might not disturb the
"Liney, if I only had a charm, I might kill the Fire Bear; but a gun by itself can do nothing against a monster that bears a charmed life. We must have a charm. You've read so many books and you know so much; can't you think of a charm that would help me?"
"No, no, Balser," sighed Liney, "you know more than I, a thousand times."
"Nonsense, Liney. Didn't you spell down everybody—even the grown folks—over at Caster's bee?"
"Yes, I know I did; but spelling isn't everything, Balser. It's mighty little, and don't teach us anything about charms. You might know how to spell every word in a big book, and still know nothing about charms."
"I guess you're right," responded Balser, dolefully. "I wonder how we can learn to make a charm."
"Maybe the Bible would teach us," said Liney. "They say it teaches us nearly everything."
"I expect it would," responded Balser. "Suppose you try it."
"I will," answered Liney. Silence ensued once more, broken only by the moaning wind and the occasional popping of the backlog.
After a few minutes Liney said in a
"Balser, I've been thinking, and I'm going to tell you about something I have. It's a great secret. No one knows of it but mother and father and I. I believe it's the very thing we want for a charm. It looks like it, and it has strange words engraved upon it."
Balser was alive with interest.
"Do you promise never to tell any one about it?" asked Liney.
"Yes, yes, indeed. Cross my heart, 'pon honour, hope to die."
Balser's plain, unadorned promise was enough to bind him to secrecy under ordinary circumstances, for he was a truthful boy; but when his lips were sealed by such oaths as "Cross my heart," and "Hope to die," death had no terrors which would have forced him to divulge.
"What is it? Quick, quick, Liney!"
"You'll never tell?"
"Well, I'll tell you. I've a thing at home that's almost like a cross, only the pieces cross each other in the middle and are broad at each end. It's a little larger than a big button. It's gold on the back and has a lot of pieces of glass, each the size of a small pea, on the front side. Only I don't believe they're glass at all. They are too bright for glass. You can see them in the dark, where there's no light at all. They shine and glitter and sparkle, so that it almost makes you blink your eyes. Now you never saw glass like that, did you?"
"No," answered Balser, positively.
Liney continued: "That's what makes me think it's a charm; for you couldn't see it in the dark unless it was a charm, could you, Balser?"
"I should think not."
"There's a great big piece of glass, or whatever it is, in the centre of it—as big as a large pea, and around this big piece are four words in some strange language that nobody can make out,—at least, mother says that nobody in this country can make them out. Mother told me that the charm was given to her for me by a gypsy man, when I was a baby. Mother says there's something more to tell me about it when I become a woman. Maybe that's the charm of it; I'm sure it is." And she looked up to Balser with her soft, bright eyes full of inquiry and hope.
"I do believe that thing is a charm," said Balser. Then meditatively: "I know it's a charm. Don't tell me, Liney, that you don't know a lot of things."
Liney's sad face wore a dim smile of satisfaction at
Balser's compliments, and again
they both became
silent. Balser remained in a brown study for a few
moments, and then
"Where does your mother keep the—the charm?"
"She keeps it in a box under my bed."
"Good! good!" responded Balser. "Now I'll tell you what to do to make it a sure enough charm."
"Yes, yes," eagerly interrupted Liney.
"You take the charm and hold it on your lips while you pray seven times that I may kill the bear. Do that seven times for seven nights, and on the last night I'll get the charm, and Polly, Limpy, and I will go out and kill the bear, just as sure as you're alive."
The plan brought comfort to the boy and girl.
Soon Liney's eyes became heavy, and she fell asleep; and as Balser looked upon her innocent beauty, he felt in his heart that if seven times seven prayers from Liney's lips could not make a charm which would give him strength from on high to kill the bear, there was no strength sufficient for that task to be had any place.
Late in the night—nine o'clock—the parents of the children came home. The sleepers were aroused, and all of them tried to tell the story of the Fire Bear at one and the same time.
"Tell me about it, Balser," said Mr. Fox, seriously; for he, too, was beginning to believe in the story of the Fire Bear. Then Balser told the story, assisted by Polly, and the strange event was discussed until late into the night, without, however, the slightest reference to the charm by either Balser or Liney. That was to remain their secret.
Mr. and Mrs. Fox remained with the Brents all night,
and before they left next morning, Liney whispered to
"I'll begin to-night, as you told me to do, with the charm. Seven nights from this the charm will be ready—if I can make it."
"And so will I be ready," answered Balser, and both felt that the fate of the Fire Bear was sealed.