Edward Ellis.

The Boy Hunters of Kentucky



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CHAPTER I.
A YOUNG PIONEER

There was no happier boy in all Kentucky than Jack Gedney on the morning that completed the first twelve years of his life, for on that day his father presented him with a fine rifle.

Now, you must know that some of the best riflemen in the world have been born and reared in Kentucky, where the early settlers had to fight not only the wild beasts, but the fierce red men. The battles between the Indians and pioneers were so many that Kentucky came to be known as the Dark and Bloody Ground.

Some of you may have heard that the most famous pioneer in American history was Daniel Boone, who entered all alone the vast wilderness south of the Ohio, and spent many months there before the Revolution broke out. The emigrants began flocking thither as soon as it became known that the soil of Kentucky was rich, and that the woods abounded with game.

Among those who went thither, towards the close of the last century, were Thomas Gedney and his wife Abigail. With a dozen other families, they floated down the Ohio in a flat boat, until a short distance below the mouth of the Licking, when they landed, and, taking the boat apart, used the material in building their cabins.

It happened at that period that there was less trouble than usual with the red men. Some of the settlers believed that the Indians, finding themselves unable to stay the tide of immigration that was pouring over the west, would move deeper into the solitudes which stretched beyond the Mississippi. Instead of putting up their cabins close together, a part of the pioneers pushed farther into the woods, and began their houses where they found better sites. Most of them were near natural "clearings," where the fertile soil was easily made ready for the corn and vegetables, without the hard work of cutting down the trees and clearing out the stumps.

Thomas Gedney and his wife were among those who went farther than the spot where they landed from the flat boat. Indeed, they pushed deeper into the woods than any one else who helped to found the little settlement that was planted a hundred years ago on the southern bank of the Ohio. Their nearest neighbours were the members of the Burton family, who lived a mile to the eastward, while a mile farther in that direction were the little group of cabins that marked the beginning of one of the most prosperous towns of to-day in Kentucky.

Mr. Gedney was fortunate enough to find a clearing of an acre in extent, with a small stream running near. Since he had helped his neighbours to put up their cabins, they in return gave him such aid that in a few days he had a strong, comfortable structure of logs, into which he moved with his wife and only child, Jack, then but six years old.

The sturdy men who built their homes in the depths of the wilderness a century ago were never in such haste that they forgot to make them strong and secure.

The red men might be peaceful, and might make promises to molest the white people no more, but the pioneers knew better than to trust to such promises. There are no more treacherous people in the whole world than the American Indians, and no man is wise who places much faith in their pledges.

But I have not started to tell you the history of the pioneers who came down the Ohio in the flat boat, but to give an account of some strange adventures that befell Jack Gedney, shortly after his rifle was given to him by his father. Jack had been trained in sighting and firing a gun as soon as he could learn to close his left eye while he kept the other open. His father's rifle was too heavy for him to aim off-hand, but kneeling behind a fallen tree, or a stump, or rock, his keen vision was able to direct the little bullet with such precision, that Daniel Boone himself, who one day watched the little fellow, gave him much praise.

In those days there was nothing in which a Kentuckian took more pride than in his skill with his rifle. Thomas Gedney had never met his superior, and he meant that if his boy Jack lived the same should be said of him. And so, while the mother gave the boy instruction in reading and writing, the father took many long tramps with him through the woods, and taught him how to become a great hunter. He showed him the difference between the tracks of the various game, and told him of the peculiar habits of the wild animals and the best method of outwitting them. More than all, he did his best to teach Jack how to guard against his most dangerous of all foes-man himself.

Mr. Gedney was a man who took great precautions when constructing his cabin. He built it just as strongly as it was possible to make it. The windows were so narrow that no grown person could force his body through, the roof was so steep that the most agile red man could not climb it, and the heavy door, when closed and barred inside, was really as stout as the solid walls of logs themselves.

I have not time to tell you about several incidents that proved his wisdom in taking so much pains to guard himself and family against their dusky foes the Indians, but the time came when the woodcraft thus taught to the boy proved of the greatest value to him.

Among the important rules laid down by the father for the son's guidance was that the very first thing to be done after firing his rifle was to re-load it; that in tramping through the woods he should bear in mind that he was always in danger, and that he must look not only in front but beside and behind him; that he must take all pains to hide his trail whenever there was the least cause to fear the red men; that he must use the utmost precaution when lying down to sleep for the night; that in communicating with his friends he must do so by means of signals that a foe could not understand; that he must always be on the watch for signs of an enemy's presence; and that, when brought face to face with a foe, he must remember that a second's forgetfulness or impatience was almost certain to give the other the decisive advantage over him.

These were but a few of the rules that were impressed upon Jack by his father, who, as I have already told you, spent many hours with him in the woods, the two afterwards coming back to the cabin laden with game that kept the family well provided with food for many days.

Mr. Gedney had sent eastward for the gun which he gave to his son on his birthday. It was of fine make and somewhat lighter than his own, for several years must pass before Jack would be strong enough to handle a man's weapon. The piece would not have been looked upon in these days as of much account, for it was a muzzle-loader with a flint-lock. When Jack wished to load it, he emptied the charge from his powder-horn into the palm of his hand; this was carefully poured into the muzzle of his gun, and then the round bullet, enclosed in a piece of greased cloth or a damp bit of paper, was rammed down upon it. The ramrod was afterwards pushed back in place on the under-side of the barrel, and, raising the clumsy hammer, which clasped the piece of yellow flint, the pan beneath was filled with powder, connecting by means of a touch-hole with the powder in the barrel behind the bullet.

The hammer was let down so as to hold the powder in place. When the owner wished to fire the gun he drew back the hammer, sighted, and pulled the trigger. The flint nipped against a piece of steel, giving out a spark of fire, which set off the grains in the pan, the latter also touching off the powder in the breech of the barrel, which drove out the bullet.

CHAPTER II.
TRAINING A KENTUCKY RIFLEMAN

I really think that if Jack Gedney had not known of the present his father meant to make him he would have been too delighted to act like a sensible boy. As it was, he could hardly keep from hugging the handsome little gun when his father placed it in his hands, and told him that it was his so long as he proved that he knew how to use it, and that he had enough sense to be trusted alone in the woods.

Unwilling to accept Jack's promises, his father took down his own weapon from the deer's antlers over the broad fireplace, and went a short distance with him to test the new piece. On the edge of the clearing he paused until the lad loaded the weapon with powder and ball (for, of course, the cow's horn and bullet pouch went with the present), and then, looking among the branches overhead, where several grey squirrels were whisking along the limbs, he told Jack he might take his choice. During the few seconds that the boy was darting his quick glances at the lively creatures his father quietly cut a piece of hickory as thick as his thumb, and three or four feet long. Jack looked askance at him; he knew well what it meant.

Since the youth had not yet fired his new gun, he decided to make his task as light as he could. He raised his piece and sighted at a squirrel less than a hundred feet away, but before he could make his aim sure his father spoke sharply-

"Take the black one on the tree beyond."

It was a long and difficult shot, but Jack's nerves were steady, and a few seconds after he raised his rifle he pressed the trigger. The gun "hung fire" scarcely a moment, when a jet of flame shot from the muzzle, and Mr. Gedney, who had his eyes fixed on the squirrel, saw it vanish over the limb, and then come tumbling and overturning through the branches to the ground.

"Fetch it here," commanded his father.

Without moving a step, Jack deliberately began re-loading his piece, never pausing until the powder was poured in the pan and the hammer let down in place. The father half smiled, for he had expected his boy to forget in his natural excitement the rule about re-charging his gun.

Having finished, Jack walked forward to the foot of the tree, picked up the small furry body where it lay among the leaves, and brought it to his parent. The latter took it from his hand, glanced down, and then flung it aside, tossing the hickory after it.

Shall I tell you why he cut that stick just before his boy fired at the squirrel? When he looked at the little animal he saw that its head had been shot off. Had the bullet missed the head and struck any other part of the body he would have plied that stick about the legs and back of his boy until he yelled for mercy. He had done it more than once, and he, like many another Kentuckian, considered that that was the right way to train his child how to shoot.

"Bark that one up there," said Mr. Gedney, pointing at another of the creatures that was skurrying along one of the upper limbs, its bushy tail spread out like an angry cat.

Crack!

As the sharp report rang out among the trees the squirrel at which the boy fired flew up nearly a foot above the limb along which it was running, as though thrown aloft by a steel spring, and then it dropped through limbs and leaves to the ground, where it lay stone dead.

An examination showed no wound upon it. The bullet had been sent directly beneath the body so as to chip off some of the bark, which flew against the squirrel with such force as to knock the life out of it. This is called "barking," and is sometimes practised for the fun of the thing by skilful marksmen.

Having viewed the work of his boy, Mr. Gedney could find no fault. Indeed, he did not expect him to do so well, knowing his agitation over his present. He did not seem to think it worth while to praise Jack, but, with a twinkle of his eye, he merely said-

"You'll do; off with you!"

And without another word, Mr. Gedney, with his heavy rifle slung over his shoulder, strode off to his cabin, leaving his boy to spend the day as he chose, well knowing how he would pass it.

As I have told you, the nearest neighbours to Mr. Gedney were the Burton family, who lived about a mile to the eastward. Mr. Burton was more fortunate than Mr. Gedney in the way of children, for he had two boys, William and George, the one a year younger and the other a year older than Jack, while Ruth, the daughter, was a sweet girl of seven years.

It was natural that the two families should become fond of each other, and that there should be much visiting on the part of the parents as well as by the children. There was hardly a night that Jack was not at the Burton cabin, or his friends were not at his own home. They did a good deal of hunting together, and the Burton boys were skilful with their guns, each one owning a weapon light enough to be handled by its youthful owner. I must add, however, that neither of them was the equal of Jack, as was proven in many contests between them.

Now Will and George Burton had known for several weeks of the present that was to be made to Jack, and they were as pleased as they could be over his coming good fortune. What could be more natural, therefore, than that Jack should set out for the home of his young friends, that they might rejoice with him over the prize that had fallen to his lot?

It was a bright sunshiny day in October when the proud boy set out over the winding but well-worn path that led to the cabin of the Burtons a mile away. The leaves on the trees were beginning to turn yellow and red before, aflame with the beauties of autumn, they fluttered to the ground. It was a royal time for hunting, for the deer, bears, buffaloes, and indeed all kinds of game, were in prime condition. The heart of the boy beat high with the thought that many of these prizes must fall before that splendid weapon of which he had just become the owner.

I am sure you would have said that Jack Gedney was a fine fellow, could you have seen him as he strode along the path through the Kentucky forest a hundred years ago. In the first place, he was rather large for his years, and erect, sturdy, and strong. His brown eyes sparkled with high health, and his round cheeks glowed like the pulpy fulness of a red apple. The life that the young pioneers led was one that was sure to make them strong, rugged, and vigorous.

If you had met Jack in the streets of London or New York you would have been struck by his dress. His cap was formed by the deft fingers of his mother. It was of brown thick cloth, without any forepiece, soft, warm, and able to stand a great deal of wear. Its make and pattern were such that no matter how it was put on its head, it was in place.

His coat was of the same material, and it was intended to last a good long time. In some respects it resembled the suits often worn by bicyclists of the present day, having a band that enclosed the body just below the waist, while the skirt was only a few inches in length. The coat was buttoned down the front, and contained several pockets within. Underneath the coat was the homespun shirt, made by the spinning-wheel, under the guidance of his mother.

The resemblance of the dress to the bicycle suit of to-day was made more striking by the trousers ending at the knee, below which were the thick woollen stockings and heavy shoes. During very cold weather the stockings were protected by leggings, reaching from the knee to the shoes. I suppose you know that the fashion of the trousers worn by you was altogether unknown during the days of your great-parents.

Now, I am sure that none of us can blame Jack if, on this beautiful October morning, when he slung his pretty rifle over his shoulder, he threw his head a little farther back than usual, and stepped off with a prouder step than he had ever shown when carrying the heavy gun of his father.

"Ain't she a beauty?" he asked himself, stopping short and bringing the weapon round in front, so that he could admire it. "Father thought when I aimed at that first squirrel that I couldn't knock his head off; and," he added, with a smile, "I had some doubt myself, but I noticed that he cut a bigger stick than usual, and I didn't want it swinging round my legs. I never clipped off a squirrel's head more neatly, though I barked the next one just as well. I wouldn't mind now if I should meet a bear or a deer."

He had resumed his walk, and he looked sharply to the right and left among the trees, but no game worthy of drawing his fire was to be seen, and he kept on along the path, as alert and vigilant as ever.

About half-way between Jack's home and the cabin of his friends the path descended into a slight hollow, through the bottom of which wound a brook or small creek. It was some ten feet in width, and hardly half as deep. For a short time after a violent rainfall this stream was swollen to three or four times its ordinary volume, but for a number of years it had not risen high enough to carry away the bridge by which people crossed the stream.

This bridge was simply the trunk of a tree which had been felled so as to lie with the stump across the stream. While this could not give as secure a footing as you would like in passing over it, yet it was all that was wanted by those who had to use it. Had the means and all the necessary materials been at their command, they would probably not have taken the trouble to put up a better one.

CHAPTER III.
THE MEETING ON THE BRIDGE

Jack Gedney walked down the slight descent, and stepping upon the fallen tree, moved to the other bank. As he came up again to the general level, he still looked around for some game, but nothing met his eye.

"There's one thing certain," he added: "I'm not going any farther without shooting off this gun."

A hundred yards ahead he saw the whitish trunk of a spreading beech which grew near the path. A patch of the bark about as big as his hand was stained a darker colour than the rest, as though some object had rubbed against and soiled it. The target was a good one, and he took a quick aim and fired.

"That makes three times that I have tried her," he said, with a glow of pleasure, as he examined the tree and saw the bullet embedded in the centre of the spot, "and she hit the eye every time."

He now walked at a more rapid pace than before, and it was not long before he reached the log cabin of the Burton family. The two or three acres of natural and artificial clearing had been well cultivated, and Mr. Burton and his two boys were busy gathering corn and the produce that yet were left out of doors. Mrs. Burton and Ruth were busy within.

As soon as Jack appeared, Mr. Burton and his boys gathered around him to examine and praise the present, which, it may be said, they saw the moment the owner came in sight.

"To-morrow," said Mr. Burton, "you must come over and go with the boys on a hunt: that will be the best test for your gun."

"I had hopes that Will and George could go with me to-day," remarked Jack, reading aright the wistful looks of his friends.

"No," was the kind but decisive reply of the father; "there is enough work to keep them busy until dark."

The boys knew better than to plead with their father after he had once given his decision, so, like the manly fellow that he was, Jack leaned his rifle against a tree, and fell to work with the boys to help in the task.

The work was finished just as the sun was setting, and Jack, declining to stay to supper, once more slung his gun over his shoulder and set out for home, promising his young friends that he would be ready at daylight the next morning to join them in a big hunt.

"It's a pity I didn't get a chance to use her to-day," thought Jack, as he turned his face homeward, little dreaming how soon he would be forced to call upon the weapon to help him out of a peril that threatened his very life.

It was the season of the year when the days were quite short, and Jack knew that the night would be fully come before he could reach his home. He cared nothing, however, for that. He had gone over the trail (or path) many a time when the hour was much later, and it may be said that he knew it so well that he could have walked the entire length with his eyes shut.

The youth had advanced only a little way when he noticed that the darkness had closed in, and, though the moon was shining above the thick branches, the gloom was so deep in most portions of the forest that he could see only a short distance along the path, even when it took a straight course: which was not often the case.

You must not think that our young friend had any such emotion as fear. Most boys who have spent their lives in the city would shrink from such a journey after nightfall, for it was a fact that Jack Gedney was walking through a stretch of woods in which not only wild animals abounded, but through which the fierce red men hunted, and he was liable to meet both the former and the latter; but he had no more hesitation than he would have felt in climbing from the lower floor of his cabin home to the loft where he slept every night.

You must not forget, too, that he carried his new rifle, and that made him feel secure.

A youngster in the situation of Jack may do a good deal of thinking as he walks briskly along, but, if he has been rightly trained he always keeps his wits about him. So it was that his eyes and ears were always open. He stepped as lightly as an Indian, peering as far ahead as he could in the gloom, glancing from side to side and behind him, and now and then halting for a moment to catch any sound that might fall on his ear.



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