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The Bears of Blue River written by Charles Major who was an American novelist. This book was published in 1901. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The Bears of Blue River
“Balser was more fortunate in his aim, and gave the bear a mortal wound.”
CHAPTER I. THE BIG BEAR.
CHAPTER II. HOW BALSER GOT A GUN.
CHAPTER III. LOST IN THE FOREST.
CHAPTER IV. THE ONE-EARED BEAR.
CHAPTER V. THE WOLF HUNT.
CHAPTER VI. BORROWED FIRE.
CHAPTER VII. THE FIRE BEAR.
CHAPTER VIII. THE BLACK GULLY.
CHAPTER IX. ON THE STROKE OF NINE.
CHAPTER X. A CASTLE ON THE BRANDYWINE.
Away back in the “twenties,” when Indiana was a baby state, and great forests of tall trees and tangled underbrush darkened what are now her bright plains and sunny hills, there stood upon the east bank of Big Blue River, a mile or two north of the point where that stream crosses the Michigan road, a cozy log cabin of two rooms—one front and one back.
The house faced the west, and stretching off toward the river for a distance equal to twice the width of an ordinary street, was a blue-grass lawn, upon which stood a dozen or more elm and sycamore trees, with a few honey-locusts scattered here and there. Immediately at the water’s edge was a steep slope of ten or twelve feet. Back of thehouse, mile upon mile, stretched the deep dark forest, inhabited by deer and bears, wolves and wildcats, squirrels and birds, without number.
BASS AND SUNFISH AND THE BIG-MOUTHED REDEYE.
In the river the fish were so numerous that they seemed to entreat the boys to catch them, and to take them out of their crowded quarters. There were bass and black suckers, sunfish and catfish, to say nothing of the sweetest of all, the big-mouthed redeye.
South of the house stood a log barn, with room in it for three horses and two cows; and enclosing this barn, together with a piece of ground, five or six acres in extent, was a palisade fence, eight or ten feet high, made by driving poles into the ground close together. In this enclosure the farmer kept his stock, consisting of a few sheep and cattle, and here also the chickens, geese, and ducks were driven at nightfall to save them from “varmints,” as all prowling animals were called by the settlers.
The man who had built this log hut, and who lived in it and owned the adjoining land at the time of which I write, bore the name of Balser Brent. “Balser” is probably a corruption of Baltzer, but, however that may be, Balser was his name, and Balser was also the name of his boy, who was the hero of the bear stories which I am about to tell you.
Mr. Brent and his young wife had moved to the Blue River settlement from North Carolina, when young Balser was a little boy five or six years of age. They had purchased the “eighty” upon which they lived, from the United States, at a sale of public land held in the town of Brookville on Whitewater, and had paid for it what was then considered a good round sum—one dollar per acre. They had received a deed for their “eighty” from no less a person than James Monroe, then President of the United States. This deed, which is called a patent, was written on sheepskin, signed by the President’s own hand, and is still preserved by the descendants of Mr. Brent as one of the title-deeds to the land it conveyed. The house, as I have told you, consisted of two large rooms, or buildings, separated by a passageway six or eight feet broad which was roofed over, but open at both ends—on the north and south. The back room was the kitchen, and the front room was parlour, bedroom, sitting room and library all in one.
At the time when my story opens Little Balser, as he was called to distinguish him from his father, was thirteen or fourteen years of age, and was the happy possessor of a younger brother, Jim, aged nine, and a little sister one year old, of whom he was very proud indeed.
On the south side of the front room was a large fireplace. The chimney was built of sticks, thickly covered with clay. The fireplace was almost as large as a small room in one of our cramped modern houses, and was broad and deep enough to take in backlogs which were so large and heavy that they could not be lifted, but were drawn in at the door and rolled over the floor to the fireplace.
The prudent father usually kept two extra backlogs, one on each side of the fireplace, ready to be rolled in as the blaze died down; and on these logs the children would sit at night, with a rough slate made from a flat stone, and do their “ciphering,” as the study of arithmetic was then called. The fire usually furnished all the light they had, for candles and “dips,” being expensive luxuries, were used only when company was present.
The fire, however, gave sufficient light, and its blaze upon a cold night extended half-way up the chimney, sending a ruddy, cozy glow to every nook and corner of the room.
The back room was the storehouse and kitchen; and from the beams and along the walls hung rich hams and juicy side-meat, jerked venison, dried apples, onions, and other provisions for the winter. There was a glorious fireplace in this room also, and a crane upon which to hang pots and cooking utensils.
The floor of the front room was made of logs split in halves with the flat, hewn side up; but the floor of the kitchen was of clay, packed hard and smooth.
The settlers had no stoves, but did their cooking in round pots called Dutch ovens. They roasted their meats on a spit or steel bar like the ramrod of a gun. The spit was kept turning before the fire, presenting first one side of the meat and then the other, until it was thoroughly cooked. Turning the spit was the children’s work.
South of the palisade enclosing the barn was the clearing—a tract of twenty or thirty acres of land, from which Mr. Brent had cut and burned the trees. On this clearing the stumps stood thick as the hair on an angry dog’s back; but the hard-working farmer ploughed between and around them, and each year raised upon the fertile soil enough wheat and corn to supply the wants of his family and his stock, and still had a little grain left to take to Brookville, sixty miles away, where he had bought his land, there to exchange for such necessities of life as could not be grown upon the farm or found in the forests.
The daily food of the family all came from the farm, the forest, or the creek. Their sugar was obtained from the sap of the sugar-trees; their meat was supplied in the greatest abundance by a few hogs, and by the inexhaustible game of which the forests were full. In the woods were found deer just for the shooting; and squirrels, rabbits, wild turkeys, pheasants, and quails, so numerous that a few hours’ hunting would supply the table for days. The fish in the river, as I told you, fairly longed to be caught.
One day Mrs. Brent took down the dinner horn and blew upon it two strong blasts. This was a signal that Little Balser, who was helping his father down in the clearing, should come to the house. Balser was glad enough to drop his hoe and to run home. When he reached the house his mother said:—
“Balser, go up to the drift and catch a mess of fish for dinner. Your father is tired of deer meat three times a day, and I know he would like a nice dish of fried redeyes at noon.”
“All right, mother,” said Balser. And he immediately took down his fishing-pole and line, and got the spade to dig bait. When he had collected a small gourdful of angleworms, his mother called to him:—
“You had better take a gun. You may meet a bear; your father loaded the gun this morning, and you must be careful in handling it.”
Balser took the gun, which was a heavy rifle considerably longer than himself, and started up the river toward the drift, about a quarter of a mile away.
There had been rain during the night and the ground near the drift was soft.
Here, Little Balser noticed fresh bear tracks, and his breath began to come quickly. You may be sure he peered closely into every dark thicket, and looked behind all the large trees and logs, and had his eyes wide open lest perchance “Mr. Bear” should step out and surprise him with an affectionate hug, and thereby put an end to Little Balser forever.
So he walked on cautiously, and, if the truth must be told, somewhat tremblingly, until he reached the drift.
Balser was but a little fellow, yet the stern necessities of a settler’s life had compelled his father to teach him the use of a gun; and although Balser had never killed a bear, he had shot several deer, and upon one occasion had killed a wildcat, “almost as big as a cow,” he said.
I have no doubt the wildcat seemed “almost as big as a cow” to Balser when he killed it, for it must have frightened him greatly, as wildcats were sometimes dangerous animals for children to encounter. Although Balser had never met a bear face to face and alone, yet he felt, and many a time had said, that there wasn’t a bear in the world big enough to frighten him, if he but had his gun.
“A WILDCAT ALMOST AS BIG AS A COW.”
He had often imagined and minutely detailed to his parents and little brother just what he would do if he should meet a bear. He would wait calmly and quietly until his bearship should come within a few yards of him, and then he would slowly lift his gun. Bang! And Mr. Bear would be dead with a bullet in his heart.
“LITTLE BALSER NOTICED FRESH BEAR TRACKS, AND HIS BREATH BEGAN TO COME QUICKLY.”
“FRESH BEAR TRACKS.”
But when he saw the fresh bear tracks, and began to realize that he would probably have an opportunity to put his theories about bear killing into practice, he began to wonder if, after all, he would become frightened and miss his aim. Then he thought of how the bear, in that case, would be calm and deliberate, and would put his theories into practice by walking very politely up to him, and making a very satisfactory dinner of a certain boy whom he could name. But as he walked on and no bear appeared, his courage grew stronger as the prospect of meeting the enemy grew less, and he again began saying to himself that no bear could frighten him, because he had his gun and he could and would kill it.
So Balser reached the drift; and having looked carefully about him, leaned his gun against a tree, unwound his fishing-line from the pole, and walked out to the end of a log which extended into the river some twenty or thirty feet.
Here he threw in his line, and soon was so busily engaged drawing out sun fish and redeyes, and now and then a bass, which was hungry enough to bite at a worm, that all thought of the bear went out of his mind.
After he had caught enough fish for a sumptuous dinner he bethought him of going home, and as he turned toward the shore, imagine, if you can, his consternation when he saw upon the bank, quietly watching him, a huge black bear.
If the wildcat had seemed as large as a cow to Balser, of what size do you suppose that bear appeared? A cow! An elephant, surely, was small compared with the huge black fellow standing upon the bank.
“IMAGINE ... HIS CONSTERNATION WHEN HE SAW UPON THE BANK, QUIETLY WATCHING HIM, A HUGE BLACK BEAR.”
It is true Balser had never seen an elephant, but his father had, and so had his friend Tom Fox, who lived down the river; and they all agreed that an elephant was “purt nigh as big as all outdoors.”
The bear had a peculiar, determined expression about him that seemed to say:—
“THE BEAR HAD A PECULIAR, DETERMINED EXPRESSION ABOUT HIM.”
“That boy can’t get away; he’s out on the log where the water is deep, and if he jumps into the river I can easily jump in after him and catch him before he can swim a dozen strokes. He’ll have to come off the log in a short time, and then I’ll proceed to devour him.”
About the same train of thought had also been rapidly passing through Balser’s mind. His gun was on the bank where he had left it, and in order to reach it he would have to pass the bear. He dared not jump into the water, for any attempt to escape on his part would bring the bear upon him instantly. He was very much frightened, but, after all, was a cool-headed little fellow for his age; so he concluded that he would not press matters, as the bear did not seem inclined to do so, but so long as the bear remained watching him on the bank would stay upon the log where he was, and allow the enemy to eye him to his heart’s content.
There they stood, the boy and the bear, each eying the other as though they were the best of friends, and would like to eat each other, which, in fact, was literally true.
Time sped very slowly for one of them, you may be sure; and it seemed to Balser that he had been standing almost an age in the middle of Blue River on that wretched shaking log, when he heard his mother’s dinner horn, reminding him that it was time to go home.
Balser quite agreed with his mother, and gladly would he have gone, I need not tell you; but there stood the bear, patient, determined, and fierce; and Little Balser soon was convinced in his own mind that his time had come to die.
He hoped that when his father should go home to dinner and find him still absent, he would come up the river in search of him, and frighten away the bear. Hardly had this hope sprung up in his mind, when it seemed that the same thought had also occurred to the bear, for he began to move down toward the shore end of the log upon which Balser was standing.
Slowly came the bear until he reached the end of the log, which for a moment he examined suspiciously, and then, to Balser’s great alarm, cautiously stepped out upon it and began to walk toward him.
Balser thought of the folks at home, and, above all, of his baby sister; and when he felt that he should never see them again, and that they would in all probability neverknow of his fate, he began to grow heavy-hearted and was almost paralyzed with fear.
On came the bear, putting one great paw in front of the other, and watching Balser intently with his little black eyes. His tongue hung out, and his great red mouth was open to its widest, showing the sharp, long, glittering teeth that would soon be feasting on a first-class boy dinner.
When the bear got within a few feet of Balser—so close he could almost feel the animal’s hot breath as it slowly approached—the boy grew desperate with fear, and struck at the bear with the only weapon he had—his string of fish.
Now, bears love fish and blackberries above all other food; so when Balser’s string of fish struck the bear in the mouth, he grabbed at them, and in doing so lost his foothold on the slippery log and fell into the water with a great splash and plunge.
This was Balser’s chance for life, so he flung the fish to the bear, and ran for the bank with a speed worthy of the cause.
“WHEN THE BEAR GOT WITHIN A FEW FEET OF BALSER ... THE BOY GREW DESPERATE WITH FEAR, AND STRUCK AT THE BEAST WITH THE ONLY WEAPON HE HAD—HIS STRING OF FISH.”
When he reached the bank his self-confidence returned, and he remembered all the things he had said he would do if he should meet a bear.
The bear had caught the fish, and again had climbed upon the log, where he was deliberately devouring them.
This was Little Balser’s chance for death—to the bear. Quickly snatching up the gun, he rested it in the fork of a small tree near by, took deliberate aim at the bear, which was not five yards away, and shot him through the heart. The bear dropped into the water dead, and floated down-stream a little way, where he lodged at a ripple a short distance below.
Balser, after he had killed the bear, became more frightened than he had been at any time during the adventure, and ran home screaming. That afternoon his father went to the scene of battle and took the bear out of the water. It was very fat and large, and weighed, so Mr. Brent said, over six hundred pounds.
Balser was firmly of the opinion that he himself was also very fat and large, and weighed at least as much as the bear. He was certainly entitled to feel “big”; for he had got himself out of an ugly scrape in a brave, manly, and cool-headed manner, and had achieved a victory of which a man might have been proud.
The news of Balser’s adventure soon spread among the neighbours and he became quite a hero; for the bear he had killed was one of the largest that had ever been seen in that neighbourhood, and, besides the gallons of rich bear oil it yielded, there were three or four hundred pounds of bear meat; and no other food is more strengthening for winter diet.
There was also the soft, furry skin, which Balser’s mother tanned, and with it made a coverlid for Balser’s bed, under which he and his little brother lay many a cold night, cozy and “snug as a bug in a rug.”
“THE BEAR HAD CAUGHT THE FISH AND AGAIN HAD CLIMBED UPON THE LOG.”
For many years after the killing of the big bear, as told in the preceding chapter, time was reckoned by Balser as beginning with that event. It was, if I may say it, his “Anno Domini.” In speaking of occurrences, events, and dates, he always fixed them in a general way by saying, “That happened before I killed the big bear;” or, “That took place after I killed the big bear.” The great immeasurable eternity of time was divided into two parts: that large unoccupied portion preceding the death of the big bear, and the part, full to overflowing with satisfaction and pride, after that momentous event.
Balser’s adventure had raised him vastly in the estimation of his friends and neighbours, and, what was quite as good, had increased his respect for himself, and had given him confidence, which is one of the most valuable qualities for boy or man. Frequently when Balser met strangers, and the story of the big bear was told, they would pat the boy on the shoulder and call him a little man, and would sometimes ask him if he owned a gun. Much to Balser’s sorrow, he was compelled to admit that he did not. The questions as to whether or not he owned a gun had put into his mind the thought of how delightful life would be if he but possessed one; and his favourite visions by day and his sweetest dreams by night were all about a gun; one not so long nor so heavy as his father’s, but of the shorter, lighter pattern known as a smooth-bore carbine. He had heard his father speak of this gun, and of its effectiveness at short range; and although at long distances it was not so true of aim as his father’s gun, still he felt confident that, if he but possessed the coveted carbine he could, single-handed and alone, exterminate all the races of bears, wolves and wildcats that inhabited the forests round about, and “pestered” the farmers with their depredations.
But how to get the gun! That was the question. Balser’s father had received a gun as a present from his father when Balser Sr. had reached the advanced age of twenty-one, and it was considered a rich gift. The cost of a gun for Balser would equal half of the sum total that his father could make during an entire year; and, although Little Balser looked forward in fond expectation to the time when he should be twenty-one and should receive a gun from his father, yet he did not even hope that he would have one before then, however much he might dream about it. Dreams cost nothing, and guns were expensive; too expensive even to be hoped for. So Balser contented himself with inexpensive dreams, and was willing, though not content, to wait.
But the unexpected usually happens, at an unexpected time, and in an unexpected manner.
About the beginning of the summer after the killing of the big bear, when Balser’s father had “laid by” his corn, and the little patch of wheat had just begun to take on a golden brown as due notice that it was nearly ready to be harvested, there came a few days of idleness for the busy farmer. Upon one of those rare idle days Mr. Brent and Balser went down the river on a fishing and hunting expedition. There was but one gun in the family, therefore Balser could not hunt when his father was with him, so he took his fishing-rod, and did great execution among the finny tribe, while his father watched along the river for game, as it came down to drink.
Upon the day mentioned Balser and his father had wandered down the river as far as the Michigan road, and Mr. Brent had left the boy near the road fishing, after telling him to go home in an hour or two, and that he, Mr. Brent, would go by another route and be home in time for supper.
So Balser was left by himself, fishing at a deep hole perhaps a hundred yards north of the road. This was at a time when the river was in flood, and the ford where travellers usually crossed was too deep for passage.
Balser had been fishing for an hour or more, and had concluded to go home, when he saw approaching along the road from the east a man and woman on horseback. They soon reached the ford and stopped, believing it to be impassable. They were mud-stained and travel-worn, and their horses, covered with froth, were panting as if they had been urged to their greatest speed. After a little time the gentleman saw Balser, and called to him. The boy immediately went to the travellers, and the gentleman said:—
“My little man, can you tell me if it is safe to attempt the ford at this time?”
“It will swim your horses,” answered Balser.
“I knew it would,” said the lady, in evident distress. She was young and pretty, and seemed to be greatly fatigued and frightened. The gentleman was very attentive, and tried to soothe her, but in a moment or two she began to weep, and said:—
“They will catch us, I know. They will catch us. They cannot be more than a mile behind us now, and we have no place to turn.”
“Is some one trying to catch you?” asked Balser.
The gentleman looked down at the little fellow for a moment, and was struck by his bright, manly air. The thought occurred to him that Balser might suspect them of being fugitives from justice, so he explained:—
“Yes, my little fellow, a gentleman is trying to catch us. He is this lady’s father. He has with him a dozen men, and if they overtake us they will certainly kill me and take this lady home. Do you know of any place where we may hide?”
“Yes, sir,” answered Balser, quickly; “help me on behind you, and I’ll take you to my father’s house. There’s no path up the river, and if they attempt to follow they’ll get lost in the woods.”
Balser climbed on the horse behind the gentleman, and soon they plunged into the deep forest, and rode up the river toward Balser’s home. The boy knew the forest well, and in a short time the little party of three was standing at the hospitable cabin door. Matters were soon explained to Balser’s mother, and she, with true hospitality, welcomed the travellers to her home. During the conversation Balser learned that the gentleman and lady were running away that they might be married, and, hoping to finish a good job, the boy volunteered the advice that they should be married that same evening under his father’s roof. He also offered to go in quest of a preacher who made his home some two miles to the east.
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