The One-Eared Bear
“You, Tom! You, Jerry! come here!” called Balser one morning, while he and Jim were sitting in the shade near the river in front of the house, overseeing the baby.
“You, Tom! You, Jerry!” called Balser a second time with emphasis. The cubs, snoozing in the sun a couple of paces away, rolled lazily over two or three times in an effort to get upon their feet, and then trotted to their masters with a comical, waddling gait that always set the boys laughing, it was such a swagger.
When they had come, Balser said, “Stop right there!” and the cubs, being always tired, gladly enough sat upon their haunches, and blinked sleepily into Balser’s face, with a greedy expression upon their own, as if to say, “Well, where ‘s the milk?”
“Milk, is it?” asked Balser. “You’re always hungry. You’re nothing but a pair of gluttons. Eat, eat, from morning until night. Well, this time you’ll get nothing. There’s no milk for you.”
The cubs looked disgusted, so Jim said, and no doubt he was right, for Jim and the cubs were great friends and understood each other thoroughly.
“Now, I’ve been a good father to you,” said Balser. “I’ve always given you as much milk as you could hold, without bursting, and have tried to bring you up to be good respectable bears, and to do my duty by you. I have whipped you whenever you needed it, although it often hurt me worse than it did you.”
The bears grunted, as if to say: “But not in the same place.”
“Now what I want,” continued Balser, regardless of the interruption, “is, that you tell me what you know, if anything, concerning a big one-eared bear that lives hereabouts. Have you ever heard of him?”
Tom gave a grunt, and Jim, who had been studying bear language, said he meant “Yes.”
Jerry then put his nose to Tom’s ear, and whined something in a low voice.
“What does he say, Jim” asked Balser.
“He says for Tom not to tell you any thing until you promise to give them milk,” answered Jim, seriously.
“Jerry, you’re the greatest glutton alive, I do believe,” said Balser; “but if you’ll tell me anything worth knowing about the one-eared bear, I’ll give you the biggest pan of milk you ever saw.”
Jerry in his glee took two or three fancy steps, awkwardly fell over himself a couple of times, got up, and grunted to Tom to go ahead. Jim was the interpreter, and Tom grunted and whined away, in a mighty effort to earn the milk.
“The one-eared bear,” said he, “is my uncle. Used to hear dad and mother talk about him. Dad bit his ear off. That’s how he came to have only one. Dad and he fought about mother, and when dad bit uncle’s ear off mother went with dad and wouldn’t have anything to do with the other fellow. Couldn’t abide a one-eared husband, she said.”
“That’s interesting,” answered Balser. “Where does he live?”
Tom pointed his nose toward the northwest, and opened his mouth very wide.
“Up that way in a cave,” interpreted Jim, pointing as the cub had indicated.
“How far is it?” asked Balser.
Jerry lay down and rolled over twice.
“Two hours’ walk,” said Jim.
“How shall I find the place?” asked Balser.
Tom stood upon his hind legs, and scratched the bark of a tree with his forepaws as high as he could reach.
“Of course,” said Balser, “by the bear scratches on the trees. I understand.”
Jerry grunted “milk,” so Jim said, and the whole party, boys, bears, and baby moved off to the milk-house, where the cubs had a great feast.
After the milk had disappeared, Jerry grew talkative, and grunted away like the satisfied little pig that he was.
Again Jim, with a serious face, acted as interpreter.
“Mighty bad bear,” said Jerry. “Soured on the world since mother threw him over. Won’t have anything to do with anybody. He’s as big and strong as a horse, fierce as a lion, and mean! He’s bewitched, too, with an evil spirit, and nobody can ever kill him.”
“That’s the name he has among white folks,” remarked Balser.
“Better be careful when you hunt him, for he’s killed more men and boys than you have fingers and toes,” said Tom. Then the cubs, being full of milk and drowsy, stretched themselves out in the sun, and no amount of persuasion could induce them to utter another grunt. The bears had told the truth, that is, if they had told anything; for since it had been learned throughout the settlement that it was a one-eared bear which had pursued Liney, many stories had been told of hair breadth escapes and thrilling adventures with that same fierce prowler of the woods.
One hunter said that he had shot at him as many as twenty times, at short range, but for all he knew, had never even wounded him.
The one-eared bear could not be caught by any means whatsoever. He had broken many traps, and had stolen bait so frequently from others, that he was considered altogether too knowing for a natural bear; and it was thought that he was inhabited by an evil spirit which gave him supernatural powers.
He certainly was a very shrewd old fellow, and very strong and fierce ; and even among those of the settlers who were not superstitious enough to believe that he was inhabited by an evil spirit, he was looked upon as a “rogue” bear; that is, a sullen, morose old fellow, who lived by himself, as old bachelors live. The bachelors, though, being men, should know better and act more wisely.
Notwithstanding all these evil reports concerning the one-eared bear, Balser clung to his resolution to hunt the bear, to kill him if possible, and to give Liney the remaining ear as a keepsake.
Balser’s father knew that it was a perilous undertaking, and tried to persuade the boy to hunt some less dangerous game ; but he would not listen to any of the warnings, and day by day longed more ardently for the blood of the one-eared bear.
So one morning shortly after the conversation with the cubs, Balser shouldered his gun and set out toward the northwest, accompanied by Limpy Fox and the dogs.
In truth, the expedition had been delayed that Limpy’s sore toe might heal. That was one of Liney’s jokes.
Limpy had no gun, but he fairly bristled with knives and a hatchet, which for several days he had been grinding and whetting until they were almost as sharp as a razor.
The boys roamed through the forest all day long, but found no trace of the one-eared bear, nor of any other, for that matter. So toward evening they turned their faces home ward, where they arrived soon after sunset, very tired and hungry.
Liney had walked over to Balser’s house to learn the fate of the one-eared bear, and fully expected to hear that he had been slaughtered, for she looked upon Balser as a second Saint Hubert, who, as you know, is the patron saint of hunters.
One failure, however, did not shake her faith in Balser, nor did it affect his resolution to kill the one-eared bear.
Next day the boys again went hunting, and again failed to find the bear they sought. They then rested for a few days, and tried again, with still another failure.
After several days of fruitless tramping through the forests, their friends began to laugh at them. “If he ever catches sight of Tom,” said Liney, “he’ll certainly die, for Tom’s knives and hatchet would frighten any bear to death.”
Balser also made sport of Tom’s armament, but Tom, a little “miffed,” said: “You needn’t be so smart; it hasn’t been long since you had nothing but a hatchet. You think because you’ve got a gun you’re very big and cute. I’ll bet the time will come when you’ll be glad enough that I have a hatchet.”
Tom was a truer prophet than he thought, for the day soon came when the hatchet proved itself true steel.
The boys had started out before sun-up one morning, and were deep into the forest when daylight was fairly abroad. Tige and Prince were with them, and were trotting lazily along at the boys’ heels, for the day was very warm, and there was no breeze in the forest. They had been walking for several hours, and had almost lost hope, when suddenly a deep growl seemed to come from the ground almost at their feet. The boys sprang back in a hurry, for right in their path stood an enormous bear, where a moment before there had been nothing.
“Lordy! it’s the one-eared bear,” cried Tom, and the hairs on his head fairly stood on end.