THE BLACK GULLY
fearing that the account of fire
springing from the earth, given in the following story,
may be considered by the reader too improbable for any
book but one of Arabian fables, wishes to say that the
fire and the explosion occurred in the place and manner
 THE Fire Bear had never before been seen in the Blue
River neighbourhood. His former appearances had been at
or near the mouth of Conn's Creak, where that stream
flows into Flatrock, five or six miles south-east of
Flatrock River takes its name from the fact that it
flows over layers of broad flat rocks. The soil in its
vicinity is underlaid at a depth of a few feet by a
formation of stratified limestone, which crops out on
the hillsides and precipices, and in many places forms
deep, caņon-like crevasses, through which the river
flows. In these cliffs and
 miniature caņons are
many caves, and branching off from the river's course
are many small side-caņons, or gullies, which at night
are black and repellent, and in many instances are
quite difficult to explore.
One of these side-caņons was so dark and forbidding
that it was called by the settlers "The Black Gully."
The conformation of the rocks composing its precipitous
sides was grotesque in the extreme; and the overhanging
trees, thickly covered with vines, cast so deep a
shadow upon the ravine that even at midday its dark
recesses bore a cast of gloom like that of night
untimely fallen. How Balser happened to visit the Black
Gully, and the circumstances under which he saw it—I
shall soon tell you.
The country in the vicinity of Flatrock was full of
hiding-places, and that was supposed to be the home of
the Fire Bear.
The morning after Polly and Balser had seen the Fire
Bear, they went forth bright
 and early to follow
the tracks of their fiery enemy, and if possible to
learn where he had gone after his unwelcome visit.
They took up the spoor at the point where the bear had
crossed the river the night before, and easily followed
his path three or four miles down the stream. There
they found the place where he had crossed the river to
the east back. The tracks, which were plainly visible
in the new-fallen snow, there turned southeast toward
his reputed home among the caves and gullies of
Flatrock and Conn's Creek.
The trackers hurried forward so eagerly in their
pursuit that they felt no fatigue. They found several
deer and at one time they saw at a great distance a
bear; but they did not pursue either for their minds
were too full of the hope that they night discover the
haunts of the monster upon whose death depended, as
they believed, their lives and that of Liney Fox. When
Balser and Polly reached the stony ground of Flatrock
the bear tracks began to grow indistinct, and
 soon they were lost entirely among the smooth rocks
from which the snow had been blown away. The boys had,
however, accomplished their purpose, for they were
convinced that they had discovered the haunts of the
bear. They carefully noticed the surrounding country,
and spoke to each other of the peculiar cliffs and
trees in the neighbourhood, so that they might remember
the place when they should return. Then they found a
dry little cave wherein they kindled a fire and roasted
a piece of venison which they had taken with them. When
their roast was cooked, they ate their dinner of cold
hoc-cake and venison, and then sat by the fire for an
hour to warm the rest before beginning their long, hard
journey home through the snow. Polly smoked his
after-dinner pipe,—the pipe was a hollow corn-cob with
the tip of a buck's horn for a stem,—and the two bear
hunters talked over the events of the day and discussed
the coming campaign against the Fire Bear.
"I s'pose we'll have to hunt him by night,"
Polly. "He's never seen at any other time, they say."
"Yes, we'll have to hunt him by night," said Balser;
"but darkness will help us in the hunt, for we can see
him better at night than at any other time, and he
can't see us as well as he could in daylight."
"Balser, you surprise me," answered Polly. "Have you
hunted bears all this time and don't know that a bear
can see as well after night as in the daytime—better,
"Maybe that's so," responded Balser. "I know that cats
and owls can see better by night, but I didn't know
about bears. How do you know it's true?"
"How do I know? Why, didn't that there bear make a
bee-line for this place last night, and wasn't last
night as dark as the inside of a whale, and don't they
go about at night more than in the daytime? Tell me
that. When do they steal sheep and shoats? In daytime?
Did you ever hear of a bear stealing a shoat in the
daytime? No, sirree; but
 they can see the
littlest shoat that ever grunted, on the darkest
night,—see him and snatch him out of the pen and get
away with him quicker than you or I could, a durned
"I never tried; did you, Polly?" asked Balser.
Polly wasn't above suspicion among those who knew him,
and Balser's question slightly disconcerted him.
"Well, I—I—durned if that ain't the worst fool question
I ever heerd a boy ask," answered Polly. Then, somewhat
anxious to change the conversation, he continued:—
"What night do you propose to come down here? To-morrow
"No, not for a week. Not till seven nights after
to-night," answered Balser, mindful of the charm which
he hoped Liney's prayers would make for him.
"Seven nights? Geminy! I'm afraid I'll get scared of
this place by that time. I'll bet this is an awful
place at night; nothing but great chunks of blackness
in these here
 gullies, so thick you could cut it
with a knife. I'm not afraid now because I'm desperate.
I'm so afraid of dyin' because I saw the Fire Bear that
I don't seem to be afraid of nothin' else."
Polly was right. There is nothing like a counter-fear
to keep a coward's courage up.
After they were warm and had rested, Balser and Polly
went out of the cave and took another survey of the
surrounding country from the top of the hill. They
started homeward, and reached the cozy cabin on Blue
River soon after sunset, tired, hungry, and cold. A
good warm supper soon revived them, and as it had been
agreed that Polly should remain at Mr. Brent's until
after the Fire Bear hunt, they went to bed in the loft
and slept soundly till morning.
After Balser announced his determination to hunt the
Fire Bear, many persons asked him when he intended to
undertake the perilous tack, but the invariable answer
he gave was that he would begin after the
night from the one upon which the Fire Bear had visited
Blue River. "Why after the seventh night?" was
frequently asked; but the boy would give no other
Balser had invited Tom Fox to go with him; and Tom, in
addition to his redoubtable hatchet, intended to carry
his father's gun. Polly would take Mr. Brent's rifle,
and of course Balser would carry the greatest of all
armaments, his smooth-bore carbine. Great were the
preparations made in selecting bullets and in drying
powder. Knives and hatchets were sharpened until they
were almost as keen as a razor. Many of the men and
boys of the neighbourhood volunteered to accompany
Balser, but he would take with him no one but Tom and
"Too many hunters spoil the chase," said Balser,
borrowing his thought from the cooks and the broth
Upon the morning of the eighth day Balser went over to
see Liney, and to
 receive from her the precious
charm redolent with forty-nine prayers from her pure
heart. When she gave it to him he said:—
"It's a charm; I know it is." And he held it in his
hand and looked at it affectionately. "It looks like a
charm, and it feels like a charm. Liney, I seem to feel
your prayers upon it."
"Ah! Balser, don't say that. It sounds almost wicked.
It has seemed wicked all the time for me to try to
make a charm."
"Don't feel that way, Liney. You didn't try to make it.
You only prayed to God to make it, and God is good and
loves to hear you pray. If He don't love to hear you
pray, Liney, He don't love to hear any one."
"No, no, Balser, I'm so wicked. The night we saw the
Fire Bear father read in the Bible where it says, 'The
prayers of the wicked availeth not." Oh, Balser, do you
think it's wicked to try to make a charm—that is, to
pray to God to make one?"
"No, indeed, Liney. God makes them
 of His own
accord. He made you." But Liney only half understood.
The charm worked at least one spell. It made the boy
braver and gave him self-confidence.
Balser, Tom, and Polly had determined to ride down to
Flatrock on horseback, and for that purpose one of Mr.
Fox's horses and two of Mr. Brent's were brought into
service. At three o'clock upon the famous eighth day
the three hunters started for Flatrock, and spent the
night in the vicinity of the mouth of conn's Creek; but
they did not see the Fire Bear. Four other expeditions
were made, for Balser had no notion of giving up the
hunt, and each expedition was a failure. But the
fifth—well, I will tell you about it.
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 dicussing 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 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
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
the infuriated animal was standing over him. 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 hatched, 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 tow 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
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
"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 tem 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 undetemined 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.
"Load, Tom; load quick. Hold the torch, Polly," cried
Balser. And again the guns were loaded, while poor
demented Polly held the torch.
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
come 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 fingers
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 hauches, 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 no resist.
"Let's shoot him again, and get out of this awful
place," said Balser.
 "You bet I'm willing to get out," said Tom, his
teeth chattering, notwithstanding his wonted courage.
"Hold the torch, Polly," cried Balser, and Polly raised
the torch. The boys were within fifteen yards of the
bear, and each took deliberate aim and fired. The bear
moaned and fell forward. Then balser and Tom started
rapidly toward the mouth of the gully. When they had
almost reached the opening they looked back for Polly,
who they thought was following them, but there he stood
where they had left him, a hundred yards behind them.
Balser called, "Polly! Polly!" but Polly did not move.
Then Tom blew his whistle, and Polly, not toward them,
alas! but toward the bear.
"Don't go to him, Polly," cried Balser. "He may not be
dead. We've had enough him to-night for goodness' sake!
We'll come back to-morrow and find him dead." But Polly
continued walking slowly toward the bear.
 "Polly! Polly! Come back!" cried both the boys.
But Polly by that time was within ten feet of the bear,
holding his torch and moving with the step of one
unconscious of what he was doing. A few steps more and
Polly was by the side of the terrible Fire Bear. The
bear revived for a moment, and seemed conscious that an
enemy was near him. With a last mighty effort he rose
to his feet and struck Polly a blow with his paw which
felled him to the ground. When Polly fell, the Fire
Bear fell upon him, and Balser and Tom started to
rescue their unfortunate friend. Then it was that a
terrible thing happened. When Polly's torch dropped
from his hand a blue flame three or four feet in height
sprang from the ground just beyond the bear. The fire
ran upon the ground for a short distance like a serpent
of flame, and shot like a flash of chain lightning
half-way up the side of the cliff. The dark, jutting
rocks—huge deman faces covered with ice—glistened in
the light of the blaze, and the
 place seemed to
have been transformed into a veritable genii's cavern.
The flames sank away for a moment with a low, moaning
sound, and then came up again the colour of roses and
of blood. A great rumbling noise was heard coming from
the bowels of the earth, and a tongue of fire shot
twenty feet into the air. This was more than flesh and
blood could endure, and Balser and Tom ran for their
lives, leaving their poor, demented friend behind them
to perish. Out the boys went through the mouth of the
gully, and across the river they sped upon the ice.
They felt the earth tremble beneath their feet, and
they heard the frightful rumbling again; then a loud
explosion, like the boom of a hundred cannons, and the
country for miles around was lighted as if by the
mid-day sun. Then they looked back and beheld a sight
which no man could forget to the day of his death. They
saw a bright red flame a hundred yards in diameter and
two hundred feet high leap from the Black Gully above
 the top of the cliffs. After a moment great
rocks, and pieces of earth half as large as a house
began to fall upon every side of them, as if a mighty
volcano had burst forth; and the boys clung to each
other in fear and trembling, and felt sure that
judgment day had come.
After the rocks had ceased to fall, the boys, almost
dead with fright, walked a short distance down the
river and crossed upon the ice. The fire was still
burning in the Black Gully, and there was no need of
Polly's torch to help them see the slippery path among
The boys soon found the cave in which the horses were
stabled. They lost no time in mounting, and quickly
started home, leading between them the horse which had
been ridden by Polly. Poor Polly was never seen again.
Even after the fire in the Black Gully had receded into
the bowels of the earth whence it had come, nothing was
found of his body nor that of the Fire Bear. They had
each been burned to cinder.
 Many of the Blue River people did not believe
that the Fire Bear derived its fiery appearance from
supernatural causes. They suggested that the bear
probably had made its bed of decayed wood containing
foxfire, and that its fur was covered with phosphorus
which glowed like the light of the firefly after night.
The explosion was caused by a "pocket" of natural gas
which became ignited when Polly's torch fell to the
ground by the side of the Fire Bear.