Borrowed Fire continued…
On comes the bear, paw over paw, foot over foot, taking its time with painful deliberation, and, bearlike, carefully choosing its way; for it thinks full sure the boy cannot escape. Hurriedly Balser reaches into his pouch for a bullet. He finds one and puts it to the muzzle of his gun. Ah! worse luck! The bullet will not go in. It is too large. Balser feels with his finger a little ridge extending around the bullet, left there because he had not held the bullet moulds tightly together when he had cast the bullet. The boy impatiently throws the worthless bullet at the bear and puts his hand into the pouch for another. This time the bullet goes in, and the ramrod drives it home. Still there is the last patch to drive down, the one which holds the bullet, and still the bear climbs toward its intended victim. Its growls seem to shake the tree and its eyes look like burning embers.
The patches and the bullets Balser kept in the same pouch, so, when the bullet has been driven home, the boy’s hand again goes into the pouch for the last patch. He can find nothing but bullets. Down goes his hand to each corner of the pouch in search of a patch; but alas! the patch, like a false friend, is wanting when most needed. On comes the bear. Not a moment is to be lost. A patch must be found; so the boy snatches off his cap of squirrel skin, and with his teeth bites out a piece of the skin which will answer his purpose. Then he dashes the mutilated cap in the bear’s face, only a foot or two below him. Quickly is the squirrel-skin patch driven home, but none too quickly, for the bear is at Balser’s feet, reaching for him with his great, rough, horny paw, as a cat reaches for a mouse. Balser quickly lifts himself to the limb above him, and hurriedly turning the muzzle of his gun right into the great red mouth, pulls the trigger.
Bang! And the bear falls to the ground, where it lies apparently dead. It was only apparently dead, though, as you will presently see. Balser breathed a sigh of relief as the bear fell backward, for he was sure that he had killed it. No bear, thought he, could survive a bullet driven by the heavy charge of powder behind the one which had sped so truly into the bear’s mouth.
Again Balser failed to make haste slowly. He should have remained in his secure position until he was sure that the bear was really dead; for a badly wounded bear, although at the point of death, is more dangerous than one without a scar. With out looking at the bear Balser called Jim to come to him, and began climbing down the tree, with his carbine slung over his shoulder, and his back to the bear. All this happened in a very short space of time. In fact, the time during which Balser was load ing his gun, and while the bear was climbing the tree, was the same time in which the dogs were freeing themselves from the wagon; and Balser’s second shot was heard by Jim just as the dogs went bounding off to Balser’s relief. When the boy jumped to the ground, lo! the bear was alive again, and was on its feet, more ferocious than ever, and more eager for fight. Like our American soldiers, the bear did not know when it was whipped.
At the time the dogs bounded away from Jim, there came down the path toward him a young girl. Who do you think it was? Liney Fox. She was carrying in her hand a lighted torch, and was swinging it gently from side to side that she might keep it ablaze. This was the fire which Liney had been sent to borrow. She had heard Balser’s cry and had heard both the shots that Balser had fired. She ran quickly to Jim, and with some difficulty drew from him an explanation of the situation. Then, as the dogs bounded away, she followed them, feeling sure that their instinct would lead them to Balser. The girl’s strength seemed to be increased a thousand fold, and she ran after the dogs in the hope that she might help the boy who had saved her life upon the night when she was lost in the forest. How could she help him? She did not know; but she would at least go to him and do her best.
Just as Balser reached the ground, the bear raised itself upon its hind feet and struck at the boy, but missed him. Then Balser ran to the side of the tree opposite the bear, and bear and boy for a few moments played at a desperate game of hide-and-seek around the tree. It seemed a very long time to Balser. He soon learned that the bear could easily beat him at the game, and in desperation he started to run toward the river, perhaps two hundred yards away. He cried for help as he ran, and at that moment the dogs came up, and Liney followed in frantic, eager haste after them. Balser had thrown away his gun, and was leading the bear in the race perhaps six or eight feet. Close upon the heels of the bear were the dogs, and closer than you would think upon the heels of the dogs came Liney. Her bonnet had fallen back and her hair was flying behind her, and the torch was all ablaze by reason of its rapid movement through the air.
At the point upon the river’s bank toward which Balser ran was a little stone cliff, almost perpendicular, the top of which was eight or ten feet from the water. Balser had made up his mind that if he could reach this cliff he would jump into the river, and perhaps save himself in that manner. Just as the boy reached the edge of the cliff Liney unfortunately called out “Balser!”
Her voice stopped him for a moment, and he looked back toward her. In that moment the bear overtook him and felled him to the ground with a stroke of its paw. Balser felt benumbed and was almost senseless. Instantly the bear was standing over him, and the boy was blinded by the stream of blood which flowed into his eyes and over his face from the wound in the bear’s great mouth. He felt the bear shake him, as a cat shakes a mouse, and then for a moment the sun seemed to go out, and all was dark. He could see nothing. He heard the dogs bark, as they clung to the bear’s ears and neck close to his face, and he heard Liney scream; but it all seemed like a far-away dream. Then he felt some thing burn his face, and sparks and hot ashes fell upon his skin and blistered him.
He could not see what was happening, but the pain of the burns seemed to revive him, and he was conscious that he was relieved from the terrible weight of the bear upon his breast. This is what happened: after Balser had fallen, the dogs had held the bear’s attention for a brief moment or two, and had given Liney time to reach the scene of conflict. The bear had caught Balser’s leather coat between its jaws, and was shaking him just as Liney came up. It is said that the shake which a cat gives a mouse produces unconsciousness; and so it is true that the shake which the larger animals give to their prey before killing it has a benumbing effect, such as Balser felt. When Liney reached Balser and the bear, she had no weapon but her torch, but with true feminine intuition she did, without stopping to think, the only thing she could do, and for that matter the best thing that anyone could have done. She thrust the burn ing torch into the bear’s face and held it there, despite its rage and growls.
Then it was that Balser felt the heat and sparks, and then it was that the bear, blinded by the fire, left Balser. The bear was frantic with pain, and began to rub its eyes and face with its paws, just as a man would do under the same circumstances. It staggered about in rage and blindness, making the forest echo with its frightful growls, until it was upon the edge of the little precipice of which I have spoken. Then Liney struck it again with her burning torch, and gave it a push, which, although her strength was slight, sent the bear rolling over the cliff into the river. After that she ran back to Balser, who was still lying upon the ground, covered with blood. She thought he was terribly wounded, so she tore off her muslin petticoat, and wiped the blood from Balser’s face and hands. Her joy was great when she learned that it was the bear’s blood and not Balser’s that she saw. The boy soon rose to his feet, dazed and half blinded.
“Where’s the bear?” he asked.
“We pushed him into the river,” said Jim, who had come in at the last moment.
“Yes, ‘we pushed him in,'” said Balser, in derision. “Liney, did you?”
“Yes,” answered Liney. “I don’t know how I did it; but after I had put my torch in the bear’s face, when he was over you, I pushed him into the river.” And she cast down her sweet, modest eyes, as if ashamed of what she had done.
“Liney, Liney” began Balser; but his voice was choked by a great lump of sobs in his throat. “Liney, Liney” he began again; but his gratitude was so great he could not speak. He tried again, and the tears came in a flood.
“Cry-baby!” said Jim.
“Jim, you’re a little fool,” said Liney, turning upon the youngster with a blaze of anger in her eyes.
“Jim’s right,” sobbed Balser. “I am a c-c-cry-baby.”
“No, no! Balser,” said Liney, soothingly, as she took his hand. “I know. I understand without you telling me.”
“Yes,” sobbed Balser, “I c-c-cry because I thank you so much.”
“Don’t say that, Balser,” answered Liney. “Think of the night in the forest, and think of what you did for me.”
“Oh! But I’m a boy.”
Balser was badly bruised, but was not wounded, except in the foot where the bear had caught him as he climbed the tree. That wound, however, was slight, and would heal quickly. The cubs had broken away from the loaded wagon, and Jim, Liney, Balser, dogs, and cubs all marched back to Mr. Brent’s in a slow and silent procession, leaving the load of nuts upon the path, and the bear dead upon a ripple in the river.