The Fire Bear
ONE evening in December, a few weeks after Liney had saved Balser’s life by means of the borrowed fire, Balser’s father and mother and Mr. and Mrs. Fox, went to Marion, a town of two houses and a church, three miles away, to attend “Protracted Meeting.” Liney and Tom and the Fox baby remained with Balser and Jim and the Brent baby, at the Brent cabin.
When the children were alone Liney proceeded to put the babies to sleep, and when those small heads of their respective house holds were dead to the world in slumber, rocked to that happy condition in a cradle made from the half of a round, smooth log, hollowed out with an adze, the other children huddled together in the fireplace to talk and to play games. Chief among the games was that never failing source of delight, “Simon says thumbs up.”
Outside the house the wind, blowing through the trees of the forest, rose and sank in piteous wails and moans, by turns, and the snow fell in angry, fitful blasts, and whirled and turned, eddied and drifted, as if it were a thing of life. The weather was bitter cold; but the fire on the great hearth in front of the children seemed to feel that while the grown folks were away it was its duty to be careful of the children, and to be gentle, tender, and comforting to them; so it spluttered, popped, and cracked like the sociable, amiable, and tender-hearted fire that it was. It invited the children to go near it and to take its warmth, and told, as plainly as a fire could, and a fire can talk, not English perhaps, but a very understandable language of its own, that it would not burn them for worlds. So, as I said, the children sat inside the huge fireplace, and cared little whether or not the cold north wind blew.
After “Simon” had grown tiresome, Liney told riddles, all of which Tom, who had heard them before, spoiled by giving the answer before the others had a chance to guess. Then Limpy propounded a few riddles, but Liney, who had often heard them, would not disappoint her brother by telling the answers. Balser noticed this, and said, “Limpy, you ought to take a few lessons in good manners from your sister.”
“Why ought I?” asked Tom, somewhat indignantly.
“Because she doesn’t tell your riddles as you told hers,” answered Balser.
“He wants to show off,” said Jim.
“No, he doesn’t,” said Liney. But she cast a grateful glance at Balser, which said, “Thank you” as plainly as if she had spoken the words. Tom hung his head, and said he didn’t like riddles anyway.
“Let’s crack some nuts,” proposed Jim, who was always hungry.
This proposition seemed agreeable to all, so Balser brought in a large gourd filled with nuts, and soon they were all busy cracking and picking.
Then Liney told stories from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and the Bible. She was at the most thrilling part of the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, and her listeners were eager, nervous, and somewhat fearful, when the faint cry of “Help!” seemed to come right down through the mouth of the chimney.
“Listen!” whispered Balser, holding up his hands for silence. In a moment came again the cry, “Help!” The second cry was still faint, but louder than the first; and the children sprang together with a common impulse, and clung to Balser in unspoken fear.
“Help! help!” came the cry, still nearer and louder.
“Some one wants help,” whispered Balser. “I must go to him.” The latter clause was spoken rather hesitatingly.
“No, no!” cried Liney. “You must not go. It may be Indians trying to get you out there to kill you, or it may be a ghost. You’ll surely be killed if you go.”
Liney’s remark somewhat frightened Balser, and completely frightened the other children; but it made Balser feel all the more that he must not be a coward before her. However much he feared to go in response to the cry for help, he must not let Liney see that he was afraid. Besides, the boy knew that it was his duty to go; and although with Balser the sense of duty moved more slowly than the sense of fear, yet it moved more surely. So he quickly grasped his gun, and carefully examined the load and priming. Then he took a torch, lighted it at the fire, and out he rushed into the blinding, freezing storm.
“Who’s there?” cried Balser, holding his torch on high.
“Help! help!” came the cry from a short distance down the river, evidently in the forest back of the barn. Balser hurried in the direction whence the cry had come, and when he had proceeded one hundred yards or so, he met a man running toward him, almost out of breath from fright and exhaustion. Balser’s torch had been extinguished by the wind, snow, and sleet, and he could not see the man’s face.
“Who are you, and what’s the matter with you?” asked brave little Balser, mean while keeping his gun ready to shoot, if need be.
“Don’t you know me, Balser?” gasped the other.
“Is it you, Polly?” asked Balser. “What on earth’s the matter?”
“The Fire Bear! The Fire Bear!” cried Poll.” He’s been chasin’ me fur Lord knows how long. There he goes! There! Don’t you see him? He’s movin’ down to the river. He’s crossin’ the river on the ice now. There! There!” And he pointed in the direction he wished Balser to look. Sure enough, crossing on the ice below the barn, was the sharply defined form of a large bear, glowing in the darkness of the night as if it were on fire.
This was more than even Balser’s courage could withstand; so he started for the house as fast as his legs could carry him, and Polly came panting and screaming at his heels.
Polly’s name, I may say, was Samuel Parrott. He was a harmless, simple fellow, a sort of hanger-on of the settlement, and his surname, which few persons remembered, had suggested the nickname of Poll, or Polly, by which he was known far and wide.
By the time Balser had reached the house he was ashamed of his precipitate retreat, and proposed that he and Polly should go out and further investigate the Fire Bear.
This proposition met with such a decided negative from Polly, and such a vehement chorus of protests from Liney and the other children, that Balser, with reluctance in his manner, but gladness in his heart, consented to remain indoors, and to let the Fire Bear take his way unmolested.
“When did you first see him?” asked Balser of Polly Parrot.
“‘Bout a mile down the river, by Fox’s Bluff,” responded Polly. “I’ve been runnin’ every step of the way, jist as hard as I could run, and that there Fire Bear not more’n ten feet behind me, growlin’ like thunder, and blazin’ and smokin’ away like a bonfire.”
“Nonsense,” said Balser. “He wasn’t blazing when I saw him.”
“Of course he wasn’t,” responded Poll. “He’d about burned out. D’ye think a bear could blaze away forever like a volcano?” Poll’s logical statement seemed to be convincing to the children.
“And he blazed up, did he?” asked Liney, her bright eyes large with wonder and fear.
“Blazed up!” exclaimed Polly. “Bless your soul, Liney, don’t you see how hot I am? Would a man be sweatin’ like I am on such a night as this, unless he’s been powerful nigh to a mighty hot fire?”
Poll’s corroborative evidence was too strong for doubt to contend against, and a depressing conviction fell upon the entire company, including Balser, that it was really the Fire Bear which Polly and Balser had seen. Although Balser, in common with most of the settlers, had laughed at the stories of the Fire Bear which had been told in the settlement, yet now he was convinced, because he had seen it with his own eyes. It was true that the bear was not ablaze when he saw him, but certainly he looked like a great glowing ember, and, with Polly’s testimony, Balser was ready to believe all he had heard concerning this most frightful spectre of Blue River, the Fire Bear.
One of the stories concerning the Fire Bear was to the effect that when he was angry he blazed forth into a great flame, and that when he was not angry he was simply aglow. At times, when the forests were burned, or when barns or straw-stacks were destroyed by fire, many persons, especially of the ignorant class, attributed the incendiarism to the Fire Bear. Others, who pretended to more wisdom, charged the Indians with the crimes. Of the latter class had been Balser.
But to see is to believe.