The One-Eared Bear continued…
“Lordy! it’s the one-eared bear,” cried Tom, and the hairs on his head fairly stood on end.
My! what a monster of fierceness the bear was. His head, throat, and paws, were covered with blood, evidently from some animal that he had been eating, and his great red mouth, sharp white teeth, and cropped ear gave him a most ferocious and terrifying appearance.
Balser’s first impulse, now that he had found the long-sought one-eared bear, I am sorry to say, was to retreat. That was Tom’s first impulse also, and, notwithstanding his knives and hatchet, he acted upon it quicker than a circus clown can turn a somersault.
Balser also started to run, but thought better of it, and turned to give battle to the bear, fully determined to act slowly and deliberately, and to make no mistake about his aim.
He knew that a false aim would end his down days, and would add one more victim to the already long list of the one-eared bear.
The dogs barked furiously at the bear, and did not give Balser an opportunity to shoot. The bear and dogs were gradually moving farther away from Balser, and almost before he knew it the three had disappeared in the thicket. Balser was loath to follow until Tom should return, so he called in an under tone: “Tom! Limpy!”
Soon Tom cautiously came back, peering fearfully about him, hatchet in hand, ready to do great execution upon the bear he afterward said.
“You’re a pretty hunter, you are. You’d better go home and get an ax. The bear has got away just because I had to wait for you,” said Balser, only too glad to have someone to blame for the bear’s escape.
The boys still heard the dogs barking, and hurried on after them as rapidly as the tangle of undergrowth would permit. Now and then they caught a glimpse of the bear, only to lose it again as he ran down a ravine or through a dense thicket. The dogs, how ever, kept in close pursuit, and loudly called to their master to notify him of their whereabouts.
The boys and bears played at this exciting game of hide-and-seek for two or three hours, but Balser had no opportunity for a good shot, and Tom found no chance to use his deadly hatchet.
When the bear showed a disposition to run away rather than to fight, Limpy grew brave, and talked himself into a high state of heroism.
It was an hour past noon and the boys were laboriously climbing a steep ascent in pursuit of the bear and dogs, which they could distinctly see a few yards ahead of them, at the top of a hill. The underbrush had become thinner, although the shadow of the trees was deep and dark, and Balser thought that at last the bear was his. He repeated over and over to himself his father’s advice: “When you attack a bear, be slow and deliberate. Do nothing in a hurry. Don’t shoot until you’re sure of your aim.”
He remembered vividly his hasty shot when he wounded the bear on Conn’s Creek, and his narrow escape from death at that time had so impressed upon him the soundness of his father’s advice, that he repeated it night and morning with his prayers.
When he saw the bear at the top of the hill, so close to him, he raised his gun to his shoulder and held it there for a moment, awaiting a chance for a sure shot. But disappointment, instead of the bear, was his, for while he held his gun ready to fire, the bear suddenly disappeared, as if the earth had opened and swallowed him.
It all happened so quickly that even the dogs looked astonished. Surely, this was a demon bear.
The boys hurried to the spot where they had last seen the animal, and, although they carefully searched for the mouth of a cave, or burrow, through which the bear might have escaped, they saw none, but found the earth everywhere solid and firm. They extended their search for a hundred feet or more about them, but still with the same result. They could find no hole or opening into which the bear could possibly have entered. His mysterious disappearance right before their eyes seemed terribly uncanny.
There was certainly something wrong with the one-eared bear. He had sprung from the ground, just at their feet, where a moment before there had been nothing; and now he had as mysteriously disappeared into the solid earth, and had left no trace behind him.
Balser and Tom stood for a moment in the greatest amazement, and all they had heard about the evil spirit which inhabited the one-eared bear quickly flashed through their minds.
“We’d better let him go, Balser,” said Tom, “for we’ll never kill him, that’s sure. He’s been leading us a wild-goose chase all the morning only to get us up here to kill us. I never saw such an awful place for darkness. The bushes and trees don’t seem natural. They all have thorns and great knots on them, and their limbs and twigs look like huge bony arms and ringers reaching out after us. I tell you this ain’t a natural place, and that bear is an evil spirit, as sure as you live. Lordy! let’s get out of here, for I never was so scared in my life.”
Balser was also afraid, but Tom’s words had made him wish to appear brave, and he said: “Shucks! Limpy; I hope you ain’t afraid when you have your hatchet.”
“For goodness’ sake, don’t joke in such a place as this, Balser,” said Tom, with chattering teeth. “I’m not afraid of any natural bear when I have my hatchet, but a bewitched bear is too much for me, and I’m not ashamed to own it.”
“How do you know he’s bewitched?” asked Balser, trying to talk himself out of his own fears.
“Bewitched? Didn’t he come right out of the ground just at our very feet, and didn’t he sink into the solid earth right here before our eyes? What more do you want, I’d like to know? Just you try to sink into the ground and see if you can. Nobody can, unless he’s bewitched.”
Balser felt in his heart that Tom told the truth, and, as even the dogs seemed anxious to get away from the dark, mysterious place, they all descended the hill on the side opposite to that by which they had ascended. When they reached the bottom of the hill, they unexpectedly found that they were at the river’s edge, and after taking a drink they turned their faces toward home. They thought of dinner, but their appetite had been frightened away by the mysterious disappearance of the bear, and they did not care to eat. So they fed the dogs and again started homeward down the river.
After a few minutes’ walking they came to a bluff several hundred feet long, and perhaps fifty feet high, which at that time, the water being low, was separated from the river by a narrow strip of rocky, muddy ground. This strip of ground was overgrown with reeds and willows, and the bluff was covered with vines and bushes which clung in green masses to its steep sides and completely hid the rocks and earth. Tom was in front, Balser came next, and the dogs, dead tired, were trailing along some distance behind. Suddenly Tom threw up his hands and jumped frantically backward, exclaiming in terrified tones:
“Oh, Lord! the one-eared bear again.” When Tom jumped backward his foot caught in a vine, and he fell violently against Balser, throwing them both to the ground. In falling, Tom dropped his hatchet, which he had snatched from his belt, and Balser dropped his gun, the lock of which struck a stone and caused the charge to explode. Thus the boys were on their backs and weaponless, while the one-eared bear stood almost within arm’s length, growling in a voice like distant thunder, and looking so horrid and fierce that he seemed a very demon in a bear’s skin.
Tom and Balser were so frightened that for a moment they could not move; but the deep growls which terrified them also brought the dogs, who came quickly to the rescue, barking furiously.