A Castle On The Brandywine continued…
Balser! Tom! Jim! Tige! Prince! Awaken! Awaken!
On comes the heavy footfall, cautiously. As it approaches the castle a few hurried steps are taken, and the black, awkward form lifts his head and sniffs the air for signs of danger.
The baron has returned to claim his own, and Jim’s prophecy, at least in part, has come true. The tracks upon the snow left by the boys and dogs, and the sleds leaning against the tree, excite the bear’s suspicion, and he stands like a statue for five minutes, trying to make up his mind whether or not he shall enter his old domain. The memory of his cozy home tempts him, and he cautiously walks to the doorway of his house. The deerskin stretched across the opening surprises him, and he carefully examines it with the aid of his chief counsellor, his nose. Then he thrusts it aside with his head and enters.
He sees the boys on the opposite side of the tree, and doubtless fancies that his mate has gotten home before him, so he complacently lies down beside the bearskins, and soon, he, too, is in the land of bear dreams.
When a bear sleeps he snores, and the first loud snort from the baron’s nostrils aroused Balser. At first Balser’s mind was in confusion, and he thought that he was at home. In a moment, however, he remembered where he was, and waited in the dark ness for a repetition of the sound that had awakened him. Soon it came again, and Balser in his drowsiness fancied that Tom had changed his place and was lying beside him, though never in all his life had he heard such sounds proceed from Limpy’s nose. So he reached out his hand, and at once was undeceived, for he touched the bear, and at last Balser was awake. The boy’s hair seemed to stand erect upon his head, and his blood grew cold in his veins, has he realized the terrible situation. All was darkness. The guns, hatchets, and knives were upon the opposite side of the tree, and to reach them or to reach the doorway Balser would have to climb over the bear. Cold as the night was, perspiration sprang from every pore of his skin, and terror took possession of him such as he had never before known. It seemed a long time that he lay there, but it could not have been more than a few seconds until the bear gave forth another snort, and Tom raised up from his side of the bed, and said: “Balser, for goodness’ sake stop snoring. The noise you make would bring a dead man to life.”
Tom’s voice aroused the bear, and it immediately rose upon its haunches with a deep growl that seemed to shake the tree. Then Jim awakened and began to scream. At the same instant Tige and Prince entered the tree, and a fight at once ensued between the bear and dogs. The bear was as badly frightened as the boys, and when it and the dogs ran about the room the boys were thrown to the ground and trampled upon.
The beast, in his desperate effort to escape, ran into the fireplace and scattered the coals and ashes. As he could not escape through the fireplace, he backed into the room, and again made the rounds of the tree with the dogs at his heels. Again the boys were knocked about as if they were ninepins. They made an effort to reach the door, but all I have told you about took place so quickly, and the darkness was so intense, that they failed to escape. Mean time the fight between the dogs and the bear went on furiously, and the barking, yelping, growling, and snarling made a noise that was deafening. Balser lifted Jim to his arms and tried to save him from injury, but his efforts were of small avail, for with each plunge of the bear the boys were thrown to the ground or dashed against the tree, until it seemed that there was not a spot upon their bodies that was not bruised and scratched. At last, after a minute or two of awful struggle and turmoil a minute or two that seemed hours to the boys the bear made his exit through the door followed closely by Tige and Prince, who clung to him with a persistency not to be shaken off.
You may be sure that the boys lost no time in making their exit also. Their first thoughts, of course, were of each other, and when Balser learned that Jim and Tom had received no serious injury, he quickly turned his head in the direction whence the bear and dogs had gone, and saw them at a point in the bend of the creek not fifty yards away.
The bear had come to bay, and the dogs were in front of him, at a safe distance, barking furiously, Then Balser’s courage returned, and he hastily went into the tree, brought out his carbine, and hurried toward the scene of conflict. The moon was at its full, and the snow upon the trees and upon the ground helped to make the night almost as light as day. The bear was sitting erect upon his haunches, hurling defiant growls at the dogs, and when Balser approached him, the brute presented his breast as a fair mark.
Tom also fetched his gun and followed closely at Balser’s heels. The attention of the bear was so occupied with the dogs that he gave no heed to the boys, and they easily approached him to within a distance of five or six yards. Tom and Balser stood for a moment or two with their guns ready to fire, and Balser said: “Tom, you shoot first. I’ll watch carefully, and hold my fire until the bear makes a rush, should you fail to kill him.”
Much to Balser’s surprise, Tom quickly and fearlessly took three or four steps toward the bear, and when he lifted his father’s long gun to fire, the end of it was within three yards of the bear’s breast.
Balser held his ground, much frightened at Tom’s reckless bravery, but did not dare to speak. When Tom fired, the bear gave forth a fearful growl, and sprang like a wildcat right upon the boy. Tom fell to the ground upon his back, and the bear stood over him. The dogs quickly made an attack, and Balser hesitated to fire, fearing that he might kill Tom or one of the dogs. Then came Jim, who rushed past Balser toward Tom and the bear, and if Jim’s courage had ever before been doubted, all such doubts were upon that night removed for ever. The little fellow carried in his hand Tom’s hatchet, and without fear or hesitancy he ran to the bear and began to strike him with all his little might.
Meantime poor, prostrate Tom was crying piteously for help, and, now that Jim was added to the group, it seemed impossible for Balser to fire at the bear. But no time was to be lost. If Balser did not shoot, Tom certainly would be killed in less than ten
seconds. So, without stopping to take thought, and upon the impulse of one of those rare intuitions under the influence of which persons move so accurately, Balser lifted his gun to his shoulder. He could see the bear’s head plainly as it swayed from side to side, just over Tom’s throat, and it seemed that he could not miss his aim. Almost without looking, he pulled the trigger. He felt the rebound of the gun and heard the report breaking the heavy silence of the night. Then he dropped the gun upon the snow and covered his face with his hands, fearing to see the result of his shot. He stood for a moment trembling. The dogs had stopped barking; the bear had stopped growling; Jim had ceased to cry out; Tom had ceased his call for help, and the deep silence rested upon Balser’s heart like a load of lead. He could not take his hands from his face.
After a moment he felt Jim’s little hand upon his arm, and Tom said, as he drew himself from beneath the bear, “Balser, there’s no man or boy living but you that could have made that shot in the moonlight.”
Then Balser knew that he had killed the bear, and he sank upon the snow and wept as if his heart would break.
Notwithstanding the intense cold, the excitement of battle had made the boys unconscious of it, and Tom and Jim stood by Balser’s side as he sat upon the snow, and they did not feel the sting of the night.
Poor little Jim, who was so given to grumbling, much to the surprise of his companions fell upon his knees, and said, “Don’t cry, Balser, don’t cry,” although the tears were falling over the little fellow’s own cheeks. “Don’t cry any more, Balser, the bear is dead all over. I heard the bullet whiz past my ears, and I heard it strike the bear’s head just as plain as you can hear that owl hoot; and then I knew that you had saved Tom and me, because nobody can shoot as well as you can.” The little fellow’s tenderness and his pride in Balser seemed all the sweeter, because it sprang from his childish gruffness.
Tom and Jim helped Balser to his feet, and they went over to the spot where the bear was lying stone dead with Balser’s bullet in his brain. The dogs were sniffing at the dead bear, and the monster brute lay upon the snow in the moonlight, and looked like a huge incarnate fiend.
After examining him for a moment the boys slowly walked back to the tree. When they had entered they raked the coals together, put on an armful of wood, called in the dogs to share their comfort, hung up the deerskin at the door, drew the bearskins in front of the fire, and sat down to talk and think, since there was no sleep left in their eyes for the rest of that night.
After a long silence Jim said, “I told you he’d come back.”
“But he didn’t eat us,” replied Tom, determined that Jim should not be right in everything.