There were three besides myself in the party. First, Ben Gilroy, "rare old Ben," next Ned Hobson, then Harris B. Horne, and last, but by no means least, came your humble servant—a very fair specimen of the genus homo—looking for all the world like a colonel of infantry on a pleasure trip.
The summer was drawing to a close—so near it that one or two nipping frosts had been experienced upon some of the intervales—and we had come down as far as Conway, N. H., where we stopped with Col. Hill at the Pequawket House; said house having now been closed to travellers for some years on account of the erection of a larger, and in every way better, hotel. Bears are generally plenty in that section late in the season, and on the present occasion quite a number of corn-fields had been visited by them. So we determined upon a bear-hunt.
One bright morning we took our trap and guns, and started off for a corn-field where we had been informed these black varmints had done considerable mischief. The field in question was upon a high piece of table-land—or, rather, a long, wide swell—in the town of Albany, which rises upon one side from Swift River. We reached the spot a little before noon, and found the old farmer just in the act of cursing the "infernal creeturs." When we told him the object of our visit, he was highly delighted, and offered us all the assistance in his power. With him we went out to the corn-field, which we found to be a piece newly cleared, upon the edge of the forest, and surrounded by a common " bush fence." We easily found the place, upon the wood-side, where the bears had entered, and here we made arrangements to set our trap.
For the benefit of these who do not understand this sort of thing, I will explain the method of trapping the black bear. When they have once gained entrance to a corn-field they will, upon all subsequent visits, follow the original track, unless such change is made in the state of affairs as to excite their suspicion. They are fond of the tender corn when it is "in the milk," but unlike the 'coon, and other animals that prey upon the grain, they not only eat much, but they seem also inspired with an intense desire of mischief, as they invariably thrash about, and tear up and ruin a vast amount of corn which they cannot consume.
The trap is shaped like a fox-trap, with jaws from ten inches to a foot in height, and stout springs upon both ends. These jaws are armed with sharp teeth, or spikes, from two to three inches in length, which are firmly riveted upon the under side, and when closed stand about an inch and a-half apart. To this trap is made fast a stout chain, long enough to allow a fair sweep, upon the end of which is an iron ring some six inches in diameter. Into this ring is driven a "clog," a stick of strong wood some three feet in length, or longer or shorter according to the nature of the path by which the bear will make his exit. If the trap were made fast, so that it could not be dragged away, the bear would be sure to either tear himself out or break the trap. Upon finding himself in such a " fix," and fast at that, his rage would know no bounds. But by driving in the stout "clog" we have him secure enough. The moment he finds himself in the trap he starts off. We will be sure, if the fence be not far off, that he can get over that. When he reaches the woods he will ere long find himself fast. The clog has got across two small trees between which he has passed. Now he has gone that far without any insurmountable obstructions, and he naturally fancies that he has blundered into fault; so he carefully begins to study his way out. He knows the trap is not absolutely fixed, because he has already dragged it a long distance, and hence he will not make any effort to tear himself out. Perhaps he frees himself from this trouble, and once more jogs along. But very soon he finds himself in another "fix." The trees are thick, and he can pass where the transverse clog cannot. May be in this effort or in the next one, he gets the chain turned about a tree. All his ingenuity is at fault. His leg has become inflamed and sore, and every effort now gives him the most excruciating pain. He lies down and finds that he feels easier; and there he is likely to lie until his trappers find him—when powder and ball put an end to his life.
We found the place where the bear entered the corn-field to be an excellent spot for the trap, as a quantity of fine boughs had been trodden down directly in the path. The farmer cut us a clog from a small beech but, and having fixed it within the ring, we hid our trap under the brushwood, and then fixed everything as nearly as possible to what it was before. After this we returned to our host's cot, where we made a late dinner upon broad and milk, enlivened by the frank smiles of a pretty "darter," who expressed herself as "plaguey glad them fellers had come to ketch the tarnal bare what had been raisin' sich a muss in dad's corn-held."
After this we set the "gal" to watch the trap occasionally to see that no one disturbed it, and then we took our fishing tools and followed down a small brook that wound its way through a piece of woods back of the house. The result was, that we had a delicious supper of trout, and left enough with our host to keep himself and family in fresh fish for several meals. We had supper rather earlier than usual because one of the boys wanted to go "down to the corner" on some important business; and he was anxious to be back in season to see the "fun," as he called it. As soon as supper was over, which was very near sundown, the eldest, "darter" and a younger brother started off after the cows. The former was seventeen years of age, and though unpolished in manner, yet she was decidedly pretty. Could she have removed the tan from her plump cheeks, and been rigged up in "costly array," she might have caused envy in the bosoms of these who were already denominated beauties and belles. Her name was Mary, and I had not observed her long ere I made up my mind that whoever got her for a wife would get a Mary worth having.
Her brother was eleven, and answered to the name of "Lant," and "Lanty." His real name I found to be Elanson. The sun was some three or four times its own diameter above the tree-tops when they started, and they calculated upon finding the "critters" in ten or fifteen minutes, as the dog, which always went with them, was good at hunting them out among the thickets. This dog was a medium sized animal, a cross between the "bull" and the "spaniel," with considerable spunk, but with little cunning.
Mary and her brother had been gone some fifteen minutes, and we were all out in front of the house, smoking, when we were startled by a quick, sharp yelp of the dog. It wag not a bark; nor was it such a cry as the dog gives when angry at treed game; but it was a perfect yell of anger and fear combined. We instinctively started to our feet, and as we did so a loud, quick, agonizing shriek from Mary's lips came breaking through the air!
"Marcey!" screamed the hostess, who had hastened to the door upon hearing the cry of the dog. "Sumthin' 's the matter with Moll. It may be the bars!"
The same thought had come to my own mind; but if we had hesitated at first we did so no more; for hardly had the echoes of the maiden's voice died ere the dog began to bark furiously, and the cries of both Mary and Lanty were joined in chorus. We sprang for our rifles, which were all loaded, only Harris waiting to get his flask and shot-pouch, and at once started for the scene under the guidance of the host, his wife keeping pace with him.
The pasture was to the northward from the house, the corn-field being to the westward; but as the cattle had the range of some twenty acres of woodland, they could run around beyond the corn patch. The direction of the cries was in a direct line with the fence between the pasture and the corn, and along by this fence we took our way. At the distance of about a hundred rods we came to the woods, and some twenty rods further on we had to descend into a deep ravine where, at some former time, a stream must have run. This was thickly wooded with heavy beach; and as we reached the bottom of the run, the cries of the children were near at hand. The dog had been barking and "yelping" by turns; but just as we arrived at the edge of the ravine his noise ended in a sharp cry of pain. We heard his voice no more; but the others were still crying for help.
"Help! Oh! help! Father! father! Oh! Murder! murder!"
Such were their cries; and as they came piercing our very souls we hurried on. I soon saw an opening where a broad, flat, ledge-like rock made out like a platform into the ravine, which became abruptly deeper here. Our host was the first to reach it, and as he did so I saw him stop suddenly—throw up his hands in terror—and then cry out in the most agonizing tones I ever heard,— "Oh! my God!"
It was all he could say, for on the next moment he had to seize his wife to prevent her from leaping off amongst the rooks below. When I came up I saw a scene that made my blood run cold, and caused my heart to leap to my throat.
Upon the rocks below us. which were at a depth of some fifteen feet, I saw the mangled carcass of the dog and a dead cub. In a low brown ash tree, which grew out from the side of the bank, and hung over the gorge, were the two children, one more cub, and an enormous black she-bear! The cub had run up the body of the tree, and was now clinging thereto with his back hanging downwards. Mary had taken to the tree also, and was upon a stout limb which ran out parallel with the ravine; while Lanty had found a perch upon another limb nearer to us. The old bear was just making her way to the limb upon which Mary was seated when we came up!
What was to be done? The dog had evidently made the first attack upon the cub, and having killed it had himself been killed. The second cub had taken to the tree; and Mary, while the dam had been engaged with the dog, had leaped up the tree, hoping that the dog might overcome her enemy. She had heard that a person should never attempt to run up hill when chased by a bear. But she had exercised little reason. She had seized the first thought of safety that presented itself, and hence we found her where we did. The boy had simply followed her example, being himself too much frightened to think.
Of all the furious and fearless animals none can excel in those respects the she-bear, while her young are in danger. The mad beast was bent for Mary, and in a few moments she would be upon her! We, standing upon the rock, dared not fire, for both Mary and Lanty were in a line with the bear, the boy being directly between us and the brute, and his sister beyond. The agonised mother shrieked like a maniac, and the loud cry of Mary for help came upon us with startling force. I saw that the dam took no notice of us new comers, save once to turn her head and see where we were, but was only aiming at the girl. She had already placed her fore paws about the limb, and had one hind foot raised with which to lift herself on!
We all saw that not a moment was to be lost. We called to Lanty to drop from his perch, but he did not understand us. The shrieks of the mother drowned all else. On the next instant I resolved upon a hazardous movement. To reach either bank of the ravine, which was here very wide, made it necessary to go back some distance. Of course that would not do. One more cry from Mary, and I hesitated no longer.
"Look sharp!" I cried to my companions, and then, aiming for the body of the dog, I gave a leap down into the rocky gorge. I struck both feet upon the soft carcass, and fell forward upon my left hand, but was instantly upright. This movement, independent of any intent of mine, was evidently the means of the result which followed, for it attracted the bear's attention, and gave me time to level my rifle. Had not the brute turned her head, she would have had her fatal paw upon the poor girl ere another effective movement could have been made. Bruin saw me—saw that I was upon the rocks—and then turned once more towards her intended victim. On the instant I raised my piece and fired. I had aimed just behind the shoulder, but missed the heart. "Down! down! Drop!" I cried out to Mary, as the bear hesitated. The hope of escape had given the girl new strength, and while the beast yet made another angry motion towards her she slipped from the limb by her hands, and dropped upon the rocks, with a few unimportant bruises. With a snort—a half grunt—of rage, the bear leaped from the tree, and turned her head towards me. At that instant the report of Harris's rifle rang out upon the air, and the huge brute rolled over with a slug through her heart!
Mary sank down utterly powerless, and even Lanty had to be helped from the tree, as his fright had taken away all his strength. But we got them on the rocky shelf at length, and for a while I feared we should have to bring the mother to her senses also, she was so completely overcome. Ben Gilroy put a ball through the head of the remaining cub, and ere long we started for home, the sun having sunk from sight a few minutes before I leaped into the gorge, so that now the shades of night were fast creeping on.
When the elder son returned from "the corner," we took the horse and lantern, and went out to the place where we had left the bears. It was past ten when we got them home, but we had been surely repaid for our trouble. The skins were taken off, and the dam was found to weigh three hundred and eighty-nine pounds all dressed—a heavy brute, surely!
From Mary we learned that the first notice they had of their danger was the presence of the cub, which the dog attacked at once. She and her brother were then both in the rocky ravine, and when they saw the old bear coming, they started for the tree without noticing that another cub had gone up ahead of them. They could not climb up the sides of the gorge without a risk of losing footing, and the only easy avenue of egress was occupied by the approaching bear.
The feelings of the parents, and of the brother and sister, may be imagined; and the reader will not wonder that at midnight we took up our empty trap without the least regret. Yet we meant to set it again, and in the same place too, for we knew there were more bears in the neighbourhood.