The Black Gully continued…
Upon the fifth expedition the boys reached Flatrock River just after sunset. A cold drizzling rain had begun to fall, and as it fell it froze upon the surface of the rocks. The wind blew and moaned through the tree-tops, and the darkness was so dense it seemed heavy. The boys had tied their horses in a cave, which they had used for the same purpose upon former visits, and were discussing the advisability of giving up the hunt for that night and returning home. Tom had suggested that the rain might extinguish the Fire Bear’s fire so he could not be seen. The theory seemed plausible. Polly thought that a bear with any sense at all would remain at home in his cave upon such a night as that, and all these arguments, together with the slippery condition of the earth, which made walking among the rocks and cliffs very dangerous, induced Balser to conclude that it was best to return to Blue River without pursuing the hunt that night. He announced his decision, and had given up all hope of seeing the Fire Bear upon that expedition. But they were not to be disappointed after all, for, just as the boys were untying their horses to return home, a terrific growl greeted their ears, coming, it seemed, right from the mouth of the cave in which they stood.
“That’s him,” cried Polly. “I know his voice. I heerd it for one mortal hour that night when he was a chasin’ me, and I’ll never furgit it. I’d know it among a thousand bears. It’s him. Oh, Balser, let’s go home! For the Lord’s sake, Balser, let’s go home! I’d rather die three months from now than now. Three months is a long time to live, after all.”
“Polly, what on earth are you talking about? Are you crazy? Tie up your horse at once,” said Balser. “If the bear gets away from us this time, we’ll never have another chance at him. Quick! Quick!”
Polly’s courage was soon restored, and the horses were quickly tied again.
Upon entering the cave a torch had been lighted, and by the light of the torch, which Polly held, the primings of the guns were examined, knives and hatchets were made ready for immediate use, and out the hunters sallied in pursuit of the Fire Bear.
On account of the ice upon the rocks it was determined that Polly should carry the torch with him. Aside from the dangers of the slippery path, there was another reason for carrying the torch. Fire attracts the attention of wild animals, and often prevents them from running away from the hunter. This is especially true of deer. So Polly carried the torch, and a fatal burden it proved to be for him. After the hunters had emerged from the cave, they at once started toward the river, and upon passing a little spur of the hill they beheld at a distance of two or three hundred yards the Fire Bear, glowing like a fiery heap against the black bank of night. He was running rapidly up the stream toward Black Gully, which came down to the river’s edge between high cliffs. This was the place I described to you a few pages back. Balser and Polly had seen Black Gully before, and had noticed how dark, deep, and forbidding it was. It had seemed to them to be a fitting place for the revels of witches, demons, snakes, and monsters of all sorts, and they thought surely it was haunted, if any place ever was. They feared the spot even in the daytime.
Polly, who was ingenious with a pocket knife, had carved out three whistles, and in the bowl of each was a pea. These whistles produced a shrill noise when blown upon, which could be heard at a great distance, and each hunter carried one fastened to a string about his neck. In case the boys should be separated, one long whistle was to be sounded for the purpose of bringing them together; three whistles should mean that the bear had been seen, and one short one was to be the cry for help. When Balser saw the bear he blew a shrill blast upon his whistle to attract the brute’s attention. The ruse produced the desired effect, for the bear stopped. His curiosity evidently was aroused by the noise and by the sight of the fire, and he remained standing for a moment or two while the boys ran forward as rapidly as the slippery rocks would permit. Soon they were within a hundred yards of the bear; then fifty, forty, thirty, twenty. Still the Fire Bear did not move. His glowing form stood before them like a pillar of fire, the only object that could be seen in the darkness that surrounded him. He seemed to be the incarnation of all that was brave and demoniac. When within twenty yards of the bear Balser said hurriedly to his companions: “Halt! I’ll shoot first, and you fellows hold your fire and shoot one at a time, after me. Don’t shoot till I tell you, and take good aim. Polly, I’ll hold your torch when I want you to shoot.” Polly held the torch in one hand and his gun in the other, and fear was working great havoc with his usefulness. Balser continued: “It’s so dark we can’t see the sights of our guns, and if we’re not careful we may all miss the bear, or still worse, we may only wound him. Hold up the torch, Polly, so I can see the sights of my gun.”
Balser’s voice seemed to attract the bear’s attention more even than did the torch, and he pricked up his short fiery ears as if to ask, “What are you talking about?” When Balser spoke next it was with a tongue of fire, and the words came from his gun. The bear seemed to understand the gun’s language better than that of Balser, for he gave forth in answer a terrific growl of rage, and bit savagely at the wound which Balser had inflicted. Alas! It was only a wound; for Balser’s bullet, instead of piercing the bear’s heart, had hit him upon the hind quarters.
“I’ve only wounded him,” cried Balser, and the note of terror in his voice seemed to create a panic in the breasts of Tom and Polly, who at once raised their guns and fired. Of course they both missed the bear, and before they could lower their guns the monster was upon them.
Balser was in front, and received the full force of the brute’s ferocious charge. The boy went down under the bear’s mighty rush, and before he had time to draw his knife, or to disengage his hatchet from his belt, the infuriated animal was standing over him. As Balser fell his hand caught a rough piece of soft wood which was lying upon the ground, and with this he tried to beat the bear upon the head. The bear, of course, hardly felt the blows which Balser dealt with the piece of wood, and it seemed that another terrible proof was about to be given of the fatal consequences of looking upon the Fire Bear. Tom and Polly had both run when the bear charged, but Tom quickly came to Balser’s relief, while Polly remained at a safe distance. The bear was reaching for Balser’s throat, but by some fortunate chance he caught between his jaws the piece of wood with which Balser had been vainly striking him; and doubtless thinking that the wood was a part of Balser, the bear bit it and shook it ferociously.
When Tom came up to the scene of conflict he struck the bear upon the head with the sharp edge of his hatchet, and chopped out one of his eyes. The pain of the wound seemed to double the bear’s fury, and he sprang over Balser’s prostrate form toward Tom. The bear rose upon his haunches and faced Tom, who manfully struck at him with his hatchet, and never thought of running.
Ah! Tom was a brave one when the necessity for bravery arose. But Tom’s courage was better than his judgment, for in a moment he was felled to the ground by a stroke from the bear’s paw, and the bear was standing over him, growling and bleeding terribly. Polly had come nearer and his torch threw a ghastly glamour over the terrible scene. As in the fight with Balser, the bear tried to catch Tom’s throat between his jaws; but here the soft piece of wood which Balser had grasped when he fell proved a friend indeed, for the bear had bitten it so savagely that his teeth had been embedded in its soft fibre, and it acted as a gag in his mouth. He could neither open nor close his jaws. After a few frantic efforts to bite Tom, the bear seemed to discover where the trouble was, and tried to push the wood out of his mouth with his paws. This gave Tom a longed-for opportunity, of which he was not slow to take advantage, and he quickly drew himself from under the bear, rose to his feet, and ran away.
In the meantime Balser rose from the ground and reached the bear just as Tom started to run. Balser knew by that time that he had no chance of success in a hand-to-hand conflict with the brute. So he struck the bear a blow upon the head with his hatchet as he passed, and followed Tom at a very rapid speed. Balser at once determined that he and Tom and Polly should reach a place of safety, quickly load their guns, and return to the attack. In a moment he looked back, and saw the bear still struggling to free his mouth from the piece of wood which had saved two lives that night.
As the bear was not pursuing them, Balser concluded to halt; and he and Tom loaded their guns, while Polly held the torch on high to furnish light. Polly’s feeble wits had almost fled, and he seemed unconscious of what was going on about him. He did mechanically whatever Balser told him to do, but his eyes had a far away look, and it was evident that the events of the night had paralyzed his poor, weak brain. When the guns were loaded Balser and Tom hurried forward toward the bear, and poor Polly followed, bearing his torch.
Bang! went Balser’s gun, and the bear rose upon his hind feet, making the cliffs and ravines echo with his terrible growls.
“Take good aim, Tom; hold up the torch, Polly,” said Balser. “Fire!” and the bear fell over on his back and seemed to be dead. Polly and Tom started toward the bear, but Balser cried out: “Stop! He may not be dead yet. We’ll give him another volley. We’ve got him now, sure, if we’re careful.”
Tom and Polly stopped, and it was fortunate for them that they did so; for in an instant the bear was on his feet, apparently none the worse for the ill-usage the boys had given him. The Fire Bear stood for a little time undetermined whether to attack the boys again or to run. After halting for a moment between two opinions, he concluded to retreat, and with the piece of wood still in his mouth, he started at a rapid gait toward Black Gully, a hundred yards away.
The bear moved away rapidly, and in a moment the boys were following him with loaded guns. When the brute reached the mouth of Black Gully he entered it. Evidently his home was in that uncanny place.
“Quick, quick, Polly!” cried Balser; and within a moment after the bear had entered Black Gully his pursuers were at the mouth of the ravine, making ready for another attack. Balser gave a shrill blast upon his whistle, and the bear turned for a moment, and deliberately sat down upon his haunches not fifty yards away. The place looked so black and dismal that the boys at first feared to enter, but soon their courage came to their rescue, and they marched in, with Polly in the lead. The bear moved farther up the gully toward an overhanging cliff, whose dark, rugged outlines were faintly illumined by the light of Polly’s torch. The jutting rocks seemed like monster faces, and the bare roots of the trees were like the horny ringers and the bony arms of fiends.
The boys followed the bear, and when he came to a halt near the cliff and again sat upon his haunches, it was evident that the Fire Bear’s end was near at hand. How frightful it all appeared! There sat the Fire Bear, like a burning demon, sullen and motionless, giving forth, every few seconds, deep guttural growls that reverberated through the dark cavernous place. Not a star was seen, nor a gleam of light did the overcast sky afford. There stood poor, piteous Polly, all his senses fled and gone, unconsciously holding his torch above his head. The light of the torch seemed to give life to the shadows of the place, and a sense of fear stole over Balser that he could not resist.
“Let’s shoot him again, and get out of this awful place,” said Balser.