How Balser Got A Gun
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.
The advice and the offer of services were eagerly accepted, and the lady and gentle man were married that night, and remained a few days at the home of Mr. Brent until the river was low enough to cross.
The strangers felt grateful to the boy who had given them such timely help, and asked him what they could do for him in return.
Balser hesitated a moment, and said, “There’s only one thing I want very bad, but that would cost so much there’s no use to speak of it.”
“What is it, Balser? Speak up, and if it is anything I can buy, you shall have it.”
“A gun! A gun! A smooth-bore carbine. I’d rather have it than anything else in the world.”
“You shall have it if there’s one to be bought in Indianapolis. We are going there, and will return within a week or ten days, and you shall have your carbine if I can find one.”
Within two weeks after this conversation Balser was the happiest boy in Indiana, for he owned a carbine, ten pounds of fine powder, and lead enough to kill every living creature within a radius of five miles.
Of course the carbine had to be tested at once. So the day after he received it Balser started out with his father on a hunting expedition, fully determined in his own mind to kill a bear twice as large as his first one. They took with them corn-bread and dried venison for dinner, and started east toward Conn’s Creek, where the houses of the settlers were thinly scattered and game plentiful.
They had with them two faithful dogs, “Tige” and “Prince.” Balser considered these dogs the most intelligent animals that walked on four feet. They were deer-hounds with a cross of bulldog, and were swift of foot and very strong.
Our hunters had travelled perhaps three or four miles into the forest when they started a deer, in pursuit of which the dogs bounded off with their peculiar bark, and soon deer and dogs were lost to sight. Balser and his father listened carefully for the voices of the dogs, for should the deer turn at bay, the dogs, instead of the quick bark, to which they gave voice in the chase, would utter a long-drawn-out note half howl, half yelp.
The bay of the hounds had died away in the distance, and Balser and his father had heard nothing of them for two or three hours. The hunters had seen other deer as they walked along, but they had been unable to obtain a shot. Smaller game was plentiful, but Balser and his father did not care to frighten away large game by shooting at squirrels or birds. So they continued their walk until they reached the bank of Conn’s Creek, near the hour of noon; by that time Balser’s appetite was beginning to call loudly for dinner, and he could not resist the temptation to shoot a squirrel, which he saw upon a limb of a neighbouring tree. The squirrel fell to the ground and was soon skinned and cleaned. Balser then kindled a fire and cutting several green twigs, sharpened the ends and fastened small pieces of the squirrel upon them.
He next stuck the twigs in the ground so that they leaned toward the fire, with the meat hanging directly over the blaze. Soon the squirrel was roasted to a delicious brown, and then Balser served dinner to his father, who was sitting on a rock near by. The squirrel, the corn-bread, and the venison quickly disappeared, and Balser, if permitted to do so, would have found another squirrel and would have cooked it. Just as dinner was finished, there came from a long way up-stream the howling bark of Tige and Prince, telling, plainly as if they had spoken English, that the deer was at bay.
Thereupon Balser quickly loaded his gun, and he and his father looked carefully to their primings. Then Mr. Brent directed Balser to climb down the cliff and move toward the dogs through the thicket in the bottom, while he went by another route, along the bluff. Should the hunters be separated, they were to meet at an agreed place in the forest. Balser climbed cautiously down the cliff and was soon deep in a dark thicket of tangled underbrush near the creek.
Now and then the deep bay of the dogs reached his ears from the direction whence he had first heard it, and he walked as rapidly as the tangled briers and under growth would permit toward his faithful fellow-hunters.