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Charles Major

Borrowed Fire

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 or 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 been 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 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.

After the boys, bears, and dogs had eaten a hurried meal, they again went forth in quest of nuts; but they took a different course this time, toward the south—that is, in the direction of the house of Mr. Fox—for the purpose of visiting a hazel thicket, which was a mile from home. Soon the hazel patch was reached and about five o'clock the wagon was full of beautiful, brown little nuts, than which there is none sweeter.

When the wagon was loaded the boys hitched up the team, much to the delight of the latter, for by that time the dogs and cubs had come to think it great sport, and the caravan moved homeward.

Soon after leaving the hazel patch, the boys entered a dark strip of woods and undergrowth, through which it was very hard work to draw the wagon. So they attached a long piece of tanned deerskin to the tongue of the wagon, and gave the team a helping hand.

There was but one path through this dark strip of forest over which the wagon could be drawn, and it led through a low piece of ground that was wet and marshy. Upon the soft earth of the path Balser soon noticed the long, broad tracks of a bear, and the dogs at once began to bark and plunge in their harness. The tracks appeared to Balser to be an hour old, so he quieted the dogs, but did not release them from the wagon as he should have done. The boys went forward, regardless of the warning bear tracks, and the dogs and bears, drawing the wagon followed closely at their heels. As they proceeded the bear tracks became fresher, and Balser began to grow somewhat fearful. Jim had become frightened, and had taken a position at the rear of the wagon to give a helping hand by pushing at the load. He said he could push better than he could pull anyway.

After the little party had got well into the darkest part of the forest, the dogs began to show such evident signs of uneasiness that Balser grasped his gun, and held it in readiness, prepared for a fight, should one become necessary.

The ground had been frozen earlier in the day, but it had thawed, and the path was slippery. Balser, who was walking a short distance ahead of the train, as a sort of advance guard, suddenly stopped and held up his hand warningly to Jim; for right ahead of him in the path stood a huge bear, with its head turned backward, looking inquiringly in the direction of the boys. Jim at once stopped the team. The dogs, of course, were dancing with impatience to be released from the harness, and even the dull-witted bears seemed to realize that something was wrong.

"It's running away," said Balser. "It's not safe to shoot at it from behind. I might wound it, and then we should be the ones to run. What shall we do?"

"Let it run," answered Jim, quickly. "I don't like to run with a bear after me, anyway. If you're going to shoot, I'll run now so as to get a good start."

"No, you don't! You stand right where you are, and take care of the team. If you move a foot, I'll lick you," answered Balser, as he moved cautiously ahead in the direction of the retreating bear.

Jim was frozen by fear to the spot upon which he stood, as Balser walked out of sight. In a moment he again heard Balser speak, and then he heard a loud, deep growl.

The dogs barked and plunged; the cubs whined and gave forth savage little baby-bear growls, half whines, for they were only learning to grow. Jim began to weep and to scream. Balser, who had disappeared from sight around a curve in the path, cried out:—

"Let the dogs loose, for goodness' sake, Jim! It's after me."

The dogs seemed to understand Balser's cry better than Jim did; for they barked and plunged more violently than ever in their harness. Jim seemed dazed, and could not, or at least did not, unharness the dogs. Then it was that the good dog sense of old Prince showed itself. Instead of waiting for help from Jim, who he saw had lost his wits, the good dog began to gnaw at the leather harness which held him and Tige to the wagon, and in a short time the dogs were freed from the wagon, though still tied to each other.

Tige caught inspiration from Prince, and the dogs backed away from each other and pulled with all their strength, until the harness slipped over the head of Prince and left the dogs free. Then Prince plunged rapidly into the thicket to the rescue of his master, followed closely by Tige, dragging the broken harness.

"Help! help!" cried Balser. "Why don't you send the dogs?" And his voice seemed to be going farther and farther away.

"Where are you?" cried Jim, in despair. His terror was so strong upon him that he could not move, and could not have helped Balser, had he been able to go to him. Jim was a little fellow, you must remember.

"Help! help!" cried Balser again, his voice sounding from a still greater distance. "I've wounded it, and it's about to kill me. Help! help!" but the cries came fainter and fainter.

Jim stood his ground and screamed manfully. Soon after Balser had left Jim and the wagon, the bear turned toward its pursuer and presented to Balser its broadside. This gave the boy a good chance for a shot. For a moment, Balser forgot his father's admonition to be deliberate and to act slowly, and his forgetfulness almost cost him his life. Balser shot, and wounded the bear in the neck, but did not kill it. Then it turned, and Balser, fearing to run back upon the path lest he should bring the bear upon Jim, started into the thicket, toward the river, with the bear in hot pursuit. Balser gained rapidly upon the bear at first, but he knew that his advantage could not last, for the bear was sure to catch him soon. What should he do? He hastily went over in his mind the possibilities in the case, and soon determined to put forth his utmost speed to gain as much upon the bear as possible, and then to climb the first tree, of the proper size, to which he should come. With this intent he flung his carbine over his back, by a strap attached to the gun for that purpose, and ran for dear life.

Soon the boy reached a small beech tree, the branches of which were ten or twelve feet from the ground. Up this tree he climbed with the agility of a squirrel. He afterward said:—

"I was so badly scared that it seemed as if my hands and feet had claws like a wildcat."

The bear had followed so closely upon his track, that, just as the boy was about to draw himself up among the branches of the tree, the bear rose upon its hind legs and caught the boy's toes between his teeth. Balser screamed with pain, and tried to draw his foot away; but the harder he pulled the harder pulled the bear, and the pain was so great that he thought he could not stand it. While he clung to the limb with one hand, he reached toward the bear with the other, and caught it by the nose. He twisted the bear's nose until the brute let loose of his foot. Then he quickly drew himself into the tree, and seated himself none too soon astride of a limb.

When Balser had fixed himself firmly on the limb he proceeded at once to load his gun. This was no slight matter under the circumstances; for, aside from the fact that his position in the tree was an uneasy one, the branches were in his way when he began to use his ramrod. Balser had hardly poured the powder into the gun, when the bear again rose on its hind legs, and put its front paws upon the body of the tree, with evident intent to climb after the boy who had wounded it and had so insultingly twisted its nose. Bears like to scratch the bark of trees, and seem to take the same pride in placing their marks high upon the tree-trunks that a young man does in making a long jump or a good shot. Vanity, in this case, proved to be the bear's undoing, as it has often been with men and boys. When it was reaching upward to make a high scratch, that it thought would be the envy of every bear that would see it, it should have been climbing; for while it was scratching Balser was loading. Not hurriedly, as he had shot, but slowly and deliberately, counting one, two, three with every movement; for when he had shot so hurriedly a few minutes before and had only wounded the bear, he had again learned the great lesson to make haste slowly. The lesson was to be impressed upon Balser's mind more firmly than ever before he was through with the wounded bear; for to the day of his death he never forgot the events which befell him after he came down from the tree. Although Balser was deliberate, he had no time to waste, for soon the bear began climbing the tree, aided by a few small branches upon the lower part of the trunk, which had given help to Balser. Up the bear went, slowly and surely. Its great red tongue hung out at one side of its mouth, and its black, woolly coat was red and gory with blood from the wound that Balser had inflicted upon its huge neck. Its sharp little eyes were fixed upon Balser, and seemed to blaze with fury and rage, and its long bright teeth gleamed as its lips were drawn back in anger when it growled. Still the bear climbed, and still Balser was loading his gun. Would he have it loaded before the bear reached him? Now the powder was all in—a double charge. Now the first patch was in, and Balser was trying to ram it home. The branches of the trees were in his way, and the ramrod would not go into the gun. Inanimate things are often stubborn just when docility is most needed. Ah! At last the ramrod is in, and the first patch goes home, hard and fast upon the powder. On comes the bear, paw over paw, foot over foot, taking its time with painful deliberation and, bearlike, carefully choosing its way; for it thinks full sure the boy cannot escape. Hurriedly Balser reaches into the pouch for a bullet. He finds one and puts it to the muzzle of his gun. Ah! worse luck! The bullet will not go in. It is too large. Balser feels with his finger a little ridge extending around the bullet, left there because he had not held the bullet moulds tightly together when he had cast the bullet. The boy impatiently throws the worthless bullet at the bear and puts his hand into the pouch for another. This time the bullet goes in, and the ramrod drives it home. Still there is the last patch to drive down,—the one which holds the bullet,—and still the bear climbs toward its intended victim. Its growls seem to shake the tree and its eyes look like burning embers. The patches and the bullets Balser kept in the same pouch, so, when the bullet has been driven home, the boy's hand again goes into the pouch for the last patch. He can find nothing but bullets. Down goes his hand to each corner of the pouch in search of a patch; but alas! the patch, like a false friend, is wanting when most needed. On comes the bear. Not a moment is to be lost. A patch must be found; so the boy snatches off his cap of squirrel skin, and with his teeth bites out a piece of the skin which will answer his purpose. Then he dashes the mutilated cap in the bear's face, only a foot or two below him. Quickly is the squirrel-skin patch driven home, but none too quickly, for the bear is at Balser's feet, reaching for him with his great, rough, horny paw, as a cat reaches for a mouse. Balser quickly lifts himself to the limb above him, and hurriedly turning the muzzle of his gun right into the great red mouth, pulls the trigger. Bang! And the bear falls to the ground, where it lies apparently dead. It was only apparently dead, though, as you will presently see. Balser breathed a sigh of relief as the bear fell backward, for he was sure that he had killed it. No bear, thought he, could survive a bullet driven by the heavy charge of powder behind the one which had sped so truly into the bear's mouth. Again Balser failed to make haste slowly. He should have remained in his secure position until he was sure that the bear was really dead; for a badly wounded bear, although at the point of death, is more dangerous than one without a scar. Without looking at the bear Balser called Jim to come to him, and began climbing down the tree, with his carbine slung over his shoulder, and his back to the bear. All this happened in a very short space of time. In fact, the time during which Balser was loading his gun, and while the bear was climbing the tree, was the same time in which the dogs were freeing themselves from the wagon; and Balser's second shot was heard by Jim just as the dogs went bounding off to Balser's relief. When the boy jumped to the ground, lo! the bear was alive again, and was on its feet, more ferocious than ever, and more eager for fight. Like our American soldiers, the bear did not know when it was whipped.

At the time the dogs bounded away from Jim, there came down the path toward him a young girl. Who do you think it was? Liney Fox. She was carrying in her hand a lighted torch, and was swinging it gently from side to side that she might keep it ablaze. This was the fire which Liney had been sent to borrow. She had heard Balser's cry and had heard both the shots that Balser had fired. She ran quickly to Jim, and with some difficulty drew from him an explanation of the situation. Then, as the dogs bounded away, she followed them, feeling sure that their instinct would lead them to Balser. The girl's strength seemed to be increased a thousand fold, and she ran after the dogs in the hope that she might help the boy who had saved her life upon the night when she was lost in the forest. How could she help him? She did not know; but she would at least go to him and do her best.

Just as Balser reached the ground, the bear raised itself upon its hind feet and struck at the boy, but missed him. Then Balser ran to the side of the tree opposite the bear, and bear and boy for a few moments played at a desperate game of hide-and-seek around the tree. It seemed a very long time to Balser. He soon learned that the bear could easily beat him at the game, and in desperation he started to run toward the river, perhaps two hundred yards away. He cried for help as he ran, and at that moment the dogs came up, and Liney followed in frantic, eager haste after them. Balser had thrown away his gun, and was leading the bear in the race perhaps six or eight feet. Close upon the heels of the bear were the dogs, and closer than you would think upon the heels of the dogs came Liney. Her bonnet had fallen back and her hair was flying behind her, and the torch was all ablaze by reason of its rapid movement through the air.

At the point upon the river's bank toward which Balser ran was a little stone cliff, almost perpendicular, the top of which was eight or ten feet from the water. Balser had made up his mind that if he could reach this cliff he would jump into the river, and perhaps save himself in that manner. Just as the boy reached the edge of the cliff Liney unfortunately called out "Balser!"

Her voice stopped him for a moment, and he looked back toward her. In that moment the bear overtook him and felled him to the ground with a stroke of its paw. Balser felt benumbed and was almost senseless. Instantly the bear was standing over him, and the boy was blinded by the stream of blood which flowed into his eyes and over his face from the wound in the bear's great mouth. He felt the bear shake him, as a cat shakes a mouse, and then for a moment the sun seemed to go out, and all was dark. He could see nothing. He heard the dogs bark, as they clung to the bear's ears and neck close to his face, and he heard Liney scream; but it all seemed like a far-away dream. Then he felt something burn his face, and sparks and hot ashes fell upon his skin and blistered him. He could not see what was happening, but the pain of the burns seemed to revive him, and he was conscious that he was relieved from the terrible weight of the bear upon his breast. This is what happened: after Balser had fallen, the dogs had held the bear's attention for a brief moment or two, and had given Liney time to reach the scene of conflict. The bear had caught Balser's leather coat between its jaws, and was shaking him just as Liney came up. It is said that the shake which a cat gives a mouse produces unconsciousness; and so it is true that the shake which the larger animals give to their prey before killing it has a benumbing effect, such as Balser felt. When Liney reached Balser and the bear, she had no weapon but her torch, but with true feminine intuition she did, without stopping to think, the only thing she could do, and for that matter the best thing that any one could have done. She thrust the burning torch into the bear's face and held it there, despite its rage and growls. Then it was that Balser felt the heat and sparks, and then it was that the bear, blinded by the fire, left Balser. The bear was frantic with pain, and began to rub its eyes and face with its paws, just as a man would do under the same circumstances. It staggered about in rage and blindness, making the forest echo with its frightful growls, until it was upon the edge of the little precipice of which I have spoken. Then Liney struck it again with her burning torch, and gave it a push, which, although her strength was slight, sent the bear rolling over the cliff into the river. After that she ran back to Balser, who was still lying upon the ground, covered in blood. She thought he was terribly wounded, so she tore off her muslin petticoat, and wiped the blood from Balser's face and hands. Her joy was great when she learned that it was the bear's blood and not Balser's that she saw. The boy soon rose to his feet, dazed and half blinded.

"Where's the bear?" he asked.

"We pushed him into the river," said Jim, who had come in at the last moment.

"Yes, 'we pushed him in,' " said Balser, in derision. "Liney, did you—"

"Yes," answered Liney. "I don't know how I did it; but after I had put my torch in the bear's face, when he was over you, I—I pushed him into the river." And she cast down her sweet, modest eyes, as if ashamed of what she had done.

"Liney, Liney—" began Balser; but his voice was choked by a great lump of sobs in his throat. "Liney, Liney—" he began again; but his gratitude was so great he could not speak. He tried again, and the tears came in a flood.

"Cry-baby!" said Jim.

"Jim, you're a little fool," said Liney, turning upon the youngster with a blaze of anger in her eyes.

"Jim's right," sobbed Balser. "I—I am a c-c-cry-baby."

"No, no! Balser," said Liney, soothingly, as she took his hand. "I know. I understand without you telling me."

"Yes," sobbed Balser, "I—I—c-c-cry—because—I—thank you so much."

"Don't say that, Balser," answered Liney. "Think of the night in the forest, and think of what you did for me."

"Oh! But I'm a boy."

Balser was badly bruised, but was not wounded, except in the foot where the bear had caught him as he climbed the tree. That wound, however, was slight, and would heal quickly. The cubs had broken away from the loaded wagon, and Jim, Liney, Balser, dogs, and cubs all marched back to Mr. Brent's in a slow and silent procession, leaving the load of nuts upon the path, and the bear dead upon a ripple in the river.