Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Charles Major

The Black Gully

Note — The author, fearing that the account of fire springing from the earth, given in the following story, may be considered by the reader too improbable for any book but one of Arabian fables, wishes to say that the fire and the explosion occurred in the place and manner described.

The Fire Bear had never before been seen in the Blue River neighbourhood. His former appearances had been at or near the mouth of Conn's Creek, where that stream flows into Flatrock, five or six miles southeast of Balser's home.

Flatrock River takes its name from the fact that it flows over layers of broad flat rocks. The soil in its vicinity is underlaid at a depth of a few feet by a formation of stratified limestone, which crops out on the hillsides and precipices, and in many places forms deep, cañon-like crevasses, through which the river flows. In these cliffs and miniature cañons are many caves, and branching off from the river's course are many small side-cañons, or gullies, which at night are black and repellent, and in many instances are quite difficult to explore.

One of these side-cañons was so dark and forbidding that it was called by the settlers "The Black Gully." The conformation of the rocks composing its precipitous sides was grotesque in the extreme; and the overhanging trees, thickly covered with vines, cast so deep a shadow upon the ravine that even at midday its dark recesses bore a cast of gloom like that of night untimely fallen. How Balser happened to visit the Black Gully, and the circumstances under which he saw it—sufficiently terrible and awe-inspiring to cause the bravest man to tremble—I shall soon tell you.

The country in the vicinity of Flatrock was full of hiding-places, and that was supposed to be the home of the Fire Bear.

The morning after Polly and Balser had seen the Fire Bear, they went forth bright and early to follow the tracks of their fiery enemy, and if possible to learn where he had gone after his unwelcome visit.

They took up the spoor at the point where the bear had crossed the river the night before, and easily followed his path three or four miles down the stream. There they found the place where he had crossed the river to the east bank. The tracks, which were plainly visible in the new-fallen snow, there turned southeast toward his reputed home among the caves and gullies of Flatrock and Conn's Creek.

The trackers hurried forward so eagerly in their pursuit that they felt no fatigue. They found several deer and at one time they saw at a great distance a bear; but they did not pursue either, for their minds were too full of the hope that they might discover the haunts of the monster upon whose death depended, as they believed, their lives and that of Liney Fox. When Balser and Polly reached the stony ground of Flatrock the bear tracks began to grow indistinct, and soon they were lost entirely among the smooth rocks from which the snow had been blown away. The boys had, however, accomplished their purpose, for they were convinced that they had discovered the haunts of the bear. They carefully noticed the surrounding country, and spoke to each other of the peculiar cliffs and trees in the neighbourhood, so that they might remember the place when they should return. Then they found a dry little cave wherein they kindled a fire and roasted a piece of venison which they had taken with them. When their roast was cooked, they ate their dinner of cold hoe-cake and venison, and then sat by the fire for an hour to warm and rest before beginning their long, hard journey home through the snow. Polly smoked his after-dinner pipe,—the pipe was a hollow corn-cob with the tip of a buck's horn for a stem,—and the two bear hunters talked over the events of the day and discussed the coming campaign against the Fire Bear.

"I s'pose we'll have to hunt him by night," said Polly. "He's never seen at any other time, they say."

"Yes, we'll have to hunt him by night," said Balser; "but darkness will help us in the hunt, for we can see him better at night than at any other time, and he can't see us as well as he could in daylight."

"Balser, you surprise me," answered Polly. "Have you hunted bears all this time and don't know that a bear can see as well after night as in the daytime—better, maybe?"

"Maybe that's so," responded Balser. "I know that cats and owls can see better by night, but I didn't know about bears. How do you know it's true?"

"How do I know? Why, didn't that there bear make a bee-line for this place last night, and wasn't last night as dark as the inside of a whale, and don't they go about at night more than in the daytime? Tell me that. When do they steal sheep and shoats? In daytime? Did you ever hear of a bear stealing a shoat in the daytime? No, sirree; but they can see the littlest shoat that ever grunted, on the darkest night,—see him and snatch him out of the pen and get away with him quicker than you or I could, a durned sight."

"I never tried; did you, Polly?" asked Balser.

Polly wasn't above suspicion among those who knew him, and Balser's question slightly disconcerted him.

"Well, I—I—durned if that ain't the worst fool question I ever heerd a boy ask," answered Polly. Then, somewhat anxious to change the conversation, he continued:—

"What night do you propose to come down here? To-morrow night?"

"No, not for a week. Not till seven nights after to-night," answered Balser, mindful of the charm which he hoped Liney's prayers would make for him.

"Seven nights? Geminy! I'm afraid I'll get scared of this place by that time. I'll bet this is an awful place at night; nothing but great chunks of blackness in these here gullies, so thick you could cut it with a knife. I'm not afraid now because I'm desperate. I'm so afraid of dyin' because I saw the Fire Bear that I don't seem to be afraid of nothin' else."

Polly was right. There is nothing like a counter-fear to keep a coward's courage up.

After they were warm and had rested, Balser and Polly went out of the cave and took another survey of the surrounding country from the top of the hill. They started homeward, and reached the cozy cabin on Blue River soon after sunset, tired, hungry, and cold. A good warm supper soon revived them, and as it had been agreed that Polly should remain at Mr. Brent's until after the Fire Bear hunt, they went to bed in the loft and slept soundly till morning.

After Balser announced his determination to hunt the Fire Bear, many persons asked him when he intended to undertake the perilous task, but the invariable answer he gave was, that he would begin after the seventh night from the one upon which the Fire Bear had visited Blue River. "Why after the seventh night?" was frequently asked; but the boy would give no other answer.

Balser had invited Tom Fox to go with him; and Tom, in addition to his redoubtable hatchet, intended to carry his father's gun. Polly would take Mr. Brent's rifle, and of course Balser would carry the greatest of all armaments, his smooth-bore carbine. Great were the preparations made in selecting bullets and in drying powder. Knives and hatchets were sharpened until they were almost as keen as a razor. Many of the men and boys of the neighbourhood volunteered to accompany Balser, but he would take with him no one but Tom and Polly.

"Too many hunters spoil the chase," said Balser, borrowing his thought from the cooks and the broth maxim.

Upon the morning of the eighth day Balser went over to see Liney, and to receive from her the precious charm redolent with forty-nine prayers from her pure heart. When she gave it to him he said:—

"It's a charm; I know it is." And he held it in his hand and looked at it affectionately. "It looks like a charm, and it feels like a charm. Liney, I seem to feel your prayers upon it."

"Ah! Balser, don't say that. It sounds almost wicked. It has seemed wicked all the time for me to try to make a charm."

"Don't feel that way, Liney. You didn't try to make it. You only prayed to God to make it, and God is good and loves to hear you pray. If He don't love to hear you pray, Liney, He don't love to hear any one."

"No, no, Balser, I'm so wicked. The night we saw the Fire Bear father read in the Bible where it says, 'The prayers of the wicked availeth not.' Oh, Balser, do you think it's wicked to try to make a charm—that is, to pray to God to make one?"

"No, indeed, Liney. God makes them of His own accord. He made you." But Liney only half understood.

The charm worked at least one spell. It made the boy braver and gave him self-confidence.

Balser, Tom, and Polly had determined to ride down to Flatrock on horseback, and for that purpose one of Mr. Fox's horses and two of Mr. Brent's were brought into service. At three o'clock upon the famous eighth day the three hunters started for Flatrock, and spent the night in the vicinity of the mouth of Conn's Creek; but they did not see the Fire Bear. Four other expeditions were made, for Balser had no notion of giving up the hunt, and each expedition was a failure. But the fifth—well, I will tell you about it.

Upon the fifth expedition the boys reached Flatrock River just after sunset. A cold drizzling rain had begun to fall, and as it fell it froze upon the surface of the rocks. The wind blew and moaned through the tree-tops, and the darkness was so dense it seemed heavy. The boys had tied their horses in a cave, which they had used for the same purpose upon former visits, and were discussing the advisability of giving up the hunt for that night and returning home. Tom had suggested that the rain might extinguish the Fire Bear's fire so he could not be seen. The theory seemed plausible. Polly thought that a bear with any sense at all would remain at home in his cave upon such a night as that, and all these arguments, together with the slippery condition of the earth, which made walking among the rocks and cliffs very dangerous, induced Balser to conclude that it was best to return to Blue River without pursuing the hunt that night. He announced his decision, and had given up all hope of seeing the Fire Bear upon that expedition. But they were not to be disappointed after all, for, just as the boys were untying their horses to return home, a terrific growl greeted their ears, coming, it seemed, right from the mouth of the cave in which they stood.

"That's him," cried Polly. "I know his voice. I heerd it for one mortal hour that night when he was a chasin' me, and I'll never furgit it. I'd know it among a thousand bears. It's him. Oh, Balser, let's go home! For the Lord's sake, Balser, let's go home! I'd rather die three months from now than now. Three months is a long time to live, after all."

"Polly, what on earth are you talking about? Are you crazy? Tie up your horse at once," said Balser. "If the bear gets away from us this time, we'll never have another chance at him. Quick! Quick!"

Polly's courage was soon restored, and the horses were quickly tied again.

Upon entering the cave a torch had been lighted, and by the light of the torch, which Polly held, the primings of the guns were examined, knives and hatchets were made ready for immediate use, and out the hunters sallied in pursuit of the Fire Bear.

On account of the ice upon the rocks it was determined that Polly should carry the torch with him. Aside from the dangers of the slippery path, there was another reason for carrying the torch. Fire attracts the attention of wild animals, and often prevents them from running away from the hunter. This is especially true of deer. So Polly carried the torch, and a fatal burden it proved to be for him. After the hunters had emerged from the cave, they at once started toward the river, and upon passing a little spur of the hill they beheld at a distance of two or three hundred yards the Fire Bear, glowing like a fiery heap against the black bank of night. He was running rapidly up the stream toward Black Gully, which came down to the river's edge between high cliffs. This was the place I described to you a few pages back. Balser and Polly had seen Black Gully before, and had noticed how dark, deep, and forbidding it was. It had seemed to them to be a fitting place for the revels of witches, demons, snakes, and monsters of all sorts, and they thought surely it was haunted, if any place ever was. They feared the spot even in the daytime.

Polly, who was ingenious with a pocket-knife, had carved out three whistles, and in the bowl of each was a pea. These whistles produced a shrill noise when blown upon, which could be heard at a great distance, and each hunter carried one fastened to a string about his neck. In case the boys should be separated, one long whistle was to be sounded for the purpose of bringing them together; three whistles should mean that the bear had been seen, and one short one was to be the cry for help. When Balser saw the bear he blew a shrill blast upon his whistle to attract the brute's attention. The ruse produced the desired effect, for the bear stopped. His curiosity evidently was aroused by the noise and by the sight of the fire, and he remained standing for a moment or two while the boys ran forward as rapidly as the slippery rocks would permit. Soon they were within a hundred yards of the bear; then fifty, forty, thirty, twenty. Still the Fire Bear did not move. His glowing form stood before them like a pillar of fire, the only object that could be seen in the darkness that surrounded him. He seemed to be the incarnation of all that was brave and demoniac. When within twenty yards of the bear Balser said hurriedly to his companions:—

"Halt! I'll shoot first, and you fellows hold your fire and shoot one at a time, after me. Don't shoot till I tell you, and take good aim. Polly, I'll hold your torch when I want you to shoot." Polly held the torch in one hand and his gun in the other, and fear was working great havoc with his usefulness. Balser continued: "It's so dark we can't see the sights of our guns, and if we're not careful we may all miss the bear, or still worse, we may only wound him. Hold up the torch, Polly, so I can see the sights of my gun."

Balser's voice seemed to attract the bear's attention more even than did the torch, and he pricked up his short fiery ears as if to ask, "What are you talking about?" When Balser spoke next it was with a tongue of fire, and the words came from his gun. The bear seemed to understand the gun's language better than that of Balser, for he gave forth in answer a terrific growl of rage, and bit savagely at the wound which Balser had inflicted. Alas! It was only a wound; for Balser's bullet, instead of piercing the bear's heart, had hit him upon the hind quarters.

"I've only wounded him," cried Balser, and the note of terror in his voice seemed to create a panic in the breasts of Tom and Polly, who at once raised their guns and fired. Of course they both missed the bear, and before they could lower their guns the monster was upon them.

Balser was in front, and received the full force of the brute's ferocious charge. The boy went down under the bear's mighty rush, and before he had time to draw his knife, or to disengage his hatchet from his belt, the infuriated animal was standing over him. As Balser fell his hand caught a rough piece of soft wood which was lying upon the ground, and with this he tried to beat the bear upon the head. The bear, of course, hardly felt the blows which Balser dealt with the piece of wood, and it seemed that another terrible proof was about to be given of the fatal consequences of looking upon the Fire Bear. Tom and Polly had both run when the bear charged, but Tom quickly came to Balser's relief, while Polly remained at a safe distance. The bear was reaching for Balser's throat, but by some fortunate chance he caught between his jaws the piece of wood with which Balser had been vainly striking him; and doubtless thinking that the wood was a part of Balser, the bear bit it and shook it ferociously. When Tom came up to the scene of conflict he struck the bear upon the head with the sharp edge of his hatchet, and chopped out one of his eyes. The pain of the wound seemed to double the bear's fury, and he sprang over Balser's prostrate form toward Tom. The bear rose upon his haunches and faced Tom, who manfully struck at him with his hatchet, and never thought of running. Ah! Tom was a brave one when the necessity for bravery arose. But Tom's courage was better than his judgment, for in a moment he was felled to the ground by a stroke from the bear's paw, and the bear was standing over him, growling and bleeding terribly. Polly had come nearer and his torch threw a ghastly glamour over the terrible scene. As in the fight with Balser, the bear tried to catch Tom's throat between his jaws; but here the soft piece of wood which Balser had grasped when he fell proved a friend indeed, for the bear had bitten it so savagely that his teeth had been embedded in its soft fibre, and it acted as a gag in his mouth. He could neither open nor close his jaws. After a few frantic efforts to bite Tom, the bear seemed to discover where the trouble was, and tried to push the wood out of his mouth with his paws. This gave Tom a longed-for opportunity, of which he was not slow to take advantage, and he quickly drew himself from under the bear, rose to his feet, and ran away. In the meantime Balser rose from the ground and reached the bear just as Tom started to run. Balser knew by that time that he had no chance of success in a hand-to-hand conflict with the brute. So he struck the bear a blow upon the head with his hatchet as he passed, and followed Tom at a very rapid speed. Balser at once determined that he and Tom and Polly should reach a place of safety, quickly load their guns, and return to the attack. In a moment he looked back, and saw the bear still struggling to free his mouth from the piece of wood which had saved two lives that night. As the bear was not pursuing them, Balser concluded to halt; and he and Tom loaded their guns, while Polly held the torch on high to furnish light. Polly's feeble wits had almost fled, and he seemed unconscious of what was going on about him. He did mechanically whatever Balser told him to do, but his eyes had a far-away look, and it was evident that the events of the night had paralyzed his poor, weak brain. When the guns were loaded Balser and Tom hurried forward toward the bear and poor Polly followed, bearing his torch. Bang! went Balser's gun, and the bear rose upon his hind feet, making the cliffs and ravines echo with his terrible growls.

"Take good aim, Tom; hold up the torch, Polly," said Balser. "Fire!" and the bear fell over on his back and seemed to be dead. Polly and Tom started toward the bear, but Balser cried out. "Stop! He may not be dead yet. We'll give him another volley. We've got him now, sure, if we're careful." Tom and Polly stopped, and it was fortunate for them that they did so; for in an instant the bear was on his feet, apparently none the worse for the ill-usage the boys had given him. The Fire Bear stood for a little time undetermined whether to attack the boys again or to run. After halting for a moment between two opinions, he concluded to retreat, and with the piece of wood still in his mouth, he started at a rapid gait toward Black Gully, a hundred yards away.

"Load, Tom; load quick. Hold the torch, Polly," cried Balser. And again the guns were loaded, while poor demented Polly held the torch.

The bear moved away rapidly, and in a moment the boys were following him with loaded guns. When the brute reached the mouth of Black Gully he entered it. Evidently his home was in that uncanny place.

"Quick, quick, Polly!" cried Balser; and within a moment after the bear had entered Black Gully his pursuers were at the mouth of the ravine, making ready for another attack. Balser gave a shrill blast upon his whistle, and the bear turned for a moment, and deliberately sat down upon his haunches not fifty yards away. The place looked so black and dismal that the boys at first feared to enter, but soon their courage come to their rescue, and they marched in, with Polly in the lead. The bear moved farther up the gully toward an overhanging cliff, whose dark, rugged outlines were faintly illumined by the light of Polly's torch. The jutting rocks seemed like monster faces, and the bare roots of the trees were like the horny fingers and the bony arms of fiends. The boys followed the bear, and when he came to a halt near the cliff and again sat upon his haunches, it was evident that the Fire Bear's end was near at hand. How frightful it all appeared! There sat the Fire Bear, like a burning demon, sullen and motionless, giving forth, every few seconds, deep guttural growls that reverberated through the dark cavernous place. Not a star was seen, nor a gleam of light did the overcast sky afford. There stood poor, piteous Polly, all his senses fled and gone, unconsciously holding his torch above his head. The light of the torch seemed to give life to the shadows of the place, and a sense of fear stole over Balser that he could not resist.

"Let's shoot him again, and get out of this awful place," said Balser.

"You bet I'm willing to get out," said Tom, his teeth chattering, notwithstanding his wonted courage.

"Hold the torch, Polly," cried Balser, and Polly raised the torch. The boys were within fifteen yards of the bear, and each took deliberate aim and fired. The bear moaned and fell forward. Then Balser and Tom started rapidly toward the mouth of the gully. When they had almost reached the opening they looked back for Polly, who they thought was following them, but there he stood where they had left him, a hundred yards behind them.

Balser called, "Polly! Polly!" but Polly did not move. Then Tom blew his whistle, and Polly started, not toward them, alas! but toward the bear.

"Don't go to him, Polly," cried Balser. "He may not be dead. We've had enough of him to-night for goodness' sake! We'll come back to-morrow and find him dead." But Polly continued walking slowly toward the bear.

"Polly! Polly! Come back!" cried both the boys. But Polly by that time was within ten feet of the bear, holding his torch and moving with the step of one unconscious of what he was doing. A few steps more and Polly was by the side of the terrible Fire Bear. The bear revived for a moment, and seemed conscious that an enemy was near him. With a last mighty effort he rose to his feet and struck Polly a blow with his paw which felled him to the ground. When Polly fell, the Fire Bear fell upon him, and Balser and Tom started to rescue their unfortunate friend. Then it was that a terrible thing happened. When Polly's torch dropped from his hand a blue flame three or four feet in height sprang from the ground just beyond the bear. The fire ran upon the ground for a short distance like a serpent of flame, and shot like a flash of chain lightning half-way up the side of the cliff. The dark, jutting rocks—huge demon faces covered with ice—glistened in the light of the blaze, and the place seemed to have been transformed into a veritable genii's cavern. The flames sank away for a moment with a low, moaning sound, and then came up again the colour of roses and of blood. A great rumbling noise was heard coming from the bowels of the earth, and a tongue of fire shot twenty feet into the air. This was more than flesh and blood could endure, and Balser and Tom ran for their lives, leaving their poor, demented friend behind them to perish. Out the boys went through the mouth of the gully, and across the river they sped upon the ice. They felt the earth tremble beneath their feet, and they heard the frightful rumbling again; then a loud explosion, like the boom of a hundred cannons, and the country for miles around was lighted as if by the mid-day sun. Then they looked back and beheld a sight which no man could forget to the day of his death. They saw a bright red flame a hundred yards in diameter and two hundred feet high leap from the Black Gully above the top of the cliffs. After a moment great rocks, and pieces of earth half as large as a house began to fall upon every side of them, as if a mighty volcano had burst forth; and the boys clung to each other in fear and trembling, and felt sure that judgment day had come.

After the rocks had ceased to fall, the boys, almost dead with fright, walked a short distance down the river and crossed upon the ice. The fire was still burning in the Black Gully, and there was no need of Polly's torch to help them see the slippery path among the rocks.

The boys soon found the cave in which the horses were stabled. They lost no time in mounting, and quickly started home, leading between them the horse which had been ridden by Polly. Poor Polly was never seen again. Even after the fire in the Black Gully had receded into the bowels of the earth whence it had come, nothing was found of his body nor that of the Fire Bear. They had each been burned to cinder.

Many of the Blue River people did not believe that the Fire Bear derived its fiery appearance from supernatural causes. They suggested that the bear probably had made its bed of decayed wood containing foxfire, and that its fur was covered with phosphorus which glowed like the light of the firefly after night. The explosion was caused by a "pocket" of natural gas which became ignited when Polly's torch fell to the ground by the side of the Fire Bear.