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Three weeks had slipped away in this manner, and though Ben's heart remained the same and unaltered, still affairs in the settlement had taken quite a different turn. The “ town gentleman,” as the other hunters usually denominated him, received a letter from Alabama requesting his return to that State as soon as possible. His uncle had suddenly died, and he was his sole heir, and consequently would be obliged to manage affairs there himself, especially as there was a large number of slaves on the estate ; he was therefore obliged to return without any further delay, and his love for the fair forest-flower, Sutton's charming daughter, induced him to make an offer of marriage. Before leaving, Mr. Metcalf proposed for her hand on the same day, and although Bessie gave him an unhesitating refusal, still the father, who appeared flattered by the prospect of having such a rich son-in-law, gave his hearty assent, assured his future son-in-law that the girl was only modest and wanted a little pressing, and begged him not to feel at all anxious in the matter. Metcalf would certainly have preferred a more favourable reply from the daughter, or at least not such a decided refusal ; but as it could not be helped he seemed satisfied, hoped that by kindness he would first win her friendship and then her love; at least he told the father so, and determined at any rate on giving a feast on the same night as he received the letter, to which all the inhabitants of the settlement were invited, and which he intended should be regarded by them as his festival of betrothal.
The evening arrived, and the Court-house, an unoccupied building made of rough logs, which had formerly served for holding the sessions, and hence had received the name, and which was going to be eventually used as a school, but was now employed as a storehouse, was brilliantly prepared and ornamented for the festivities. Many pounds of waxcandles, made out of the raw yellow wax which the hunters take from the bee-trees after they have been felled, illumined the large room; the floor had been cleaned from all the husks of com, and benches arranged around for the ladies, as well as a table with a chair upon it shoved into one corner, upon which it was intended that the sole musician, a fiddler, should take his station ; in short, everything possible had been done to make the room very comfortable, and anyone who had happened to witness the merriment of the extremely numerous guests assembled at a late hour, would most assuredly have been satisfied with the result. Bessie alone was sorrowful : she tbought on her poor Ben, who was now probably wandering about in the forest, and would not take part in the merriment and dancing. Only with dificulty was she induced to enter the ball-room ; but when there, she decidedly declined every invitation, and remained quietly in the place she first occupied, an observer of the surrounding pleasure.
Ben, however, was not without, in the woods, as his poor girl had fancied in her grief ; Old Sutton had even invited him expressly to join them, and indeed no one was excluded; but Ben had declined the invitation ; still he must remain in the vicinity. Busy friends soon brought him the news that it was intended to be a feast of betrothal, and he intended to witness with his own eyes that Bessie-his Bessie-had really utterly forgotten him, and then he would start for Texas. Uncle Sam was just then recruiting for the war; and such fellows as himselfBen wanted no mirror to tell him that—met with a speedy and hearty reception into the service. Bashfully and timidly, that no one might recognize him and guess his sufferings, he wandered for nearly an hour round the house, and listened to the cheerful shrill sound of the violin; he did not dare go nearer and cast a glance within. At last a couple of his acquaintances came out of the house ; and, after standing awhile in the doorway, walked together past the spot where Ben was concealed, towards their own dwellings. Ben squeezed himself up as well as he could, behind the trunk of an old hickory that stood there ; and one of the men said, as they were close to him,
“ Bessie didn't dance a step as long as I was in the house."
“She hasn't done so the whole evening, and declined once for all," the other replied ; “ ] don't believe she'll have him."
“ Ah, bah!" the other said, "you don't know what girls are ; he's got money, and in that case”.
The remainder of his speech was incomprehensible in the distance ; but what did Ben want to have more ? The last was a shameful calumny.
“Not danced a step!” the young man said with delight to himself, “ so she is not false then, and cannot forget her Ben. But how can that help you, my poor boy ? you've no good fortune-Bessie is lost for you ; and if she can't ever forget you—ah! then it would be all the worse for her ; but never-never better for you.” He took up his rifle which he had concealed in a neighbouring bush, threw a parting glance toward the brilliantly-lighted house, and silently and thoughtfully wandered along the foot-path toward the nearest hill. He could not bear to be in the settlement—least of all at night, and he intended to sleep by his fireside in the open air. A spot was soon discovered by a bubbling spring, which poured here from the rocky soil; a fire lighted; and wrapped in his blanket he lay there, with a stone serving as a pillow, and looked up thoughtfully and earnestly to the stars that glistened so amicably above him. In the wood all was marvellously quiet ; even the frogs did not croak so furiously and regularly as was generally the
ile could distinctly and plainly hear the stealthy movement of the opossuin, as it crawled to commit its nocturnal robbery among the chickens of the settlement; and there behind him-he raised his head and listened for a momentin truth it was a wolf, which was howling its heartbreaking evening song upon the summit of the mountain.
“ Whine away, you beast,” he at length muttered, and sank back into his former position ; “ whine away, but keep out of my reach : I have a great inclination to serve out your sort, and some one else too, this evening.” For a half-hour he lay thus, and sought to recal his
thoughts to the plans he had previously formed, but it was not possible; the continually approaching howl of the wolf attracted his attention to the spot; and now, “ By Heavens ! that was not so far off,” another voice replied from a ravine in his rear, where the whole pack was concealed, as he eventually discovered. He sprang up quickly from his bed, and seized his rifle ; the moon was just rising bright and cheerily from behind the gloomy shade of the distant hills ; his old love of sport was aroused, and it dissipated, momentarily at least, every other thought.
He was upon a highly favourable spot, rather open, and brilliantly lighted by the moon, between the pack and the solitary straggler that was now returning to it. His fire had burned low, and the still glimmering embers did not startle the animals, as there are continually fires in the woods, and wolf and deer are accustomed to meet with them on their path. A tree blown down by the wind, and which lay in the direction of the valley, offered him a famous ambuscade.
" You scoundrel,” he muttered, as he seized his rifle and glided behind the tree ; “just come out of the bush, and Ben Hope will give you a treat."
He raised his rifle on the tree, pointed it in the direction whence he expected the stray wolf—for the pack generally wait in the same place until the straggler has rejoined them-and then waited long and patiently : but the wolf would not make his appearance.
Had the brute perceived anything ? but the wind was in the right quarter. Hope laid his rifle in the tree, held his hands funnel-wise to his mouth, and gave a fearful howl ; the sound was a splendid imitation, and echoed in the most melancholy manner through the wood. But although no voice replied in the direction where the straggler must be, Ben was much too good a hunter not to be on his guard, or, by precipitation, to lose the advantage he had gained. He again took up his rifle quietly, remained in his old position, and awaited the result. This did not take long : the wolf gave no reply, it is true; but that was because he was so near; and as Ben, with the most anxious attention, was listening for the slightest sound, he suddenly heard hurried but cautious footfalls in the dry foliage of the adjoining trees. Trot, trot, trot, trot—and the brute stopped once more; it was scenting. It had probably received the smoke in its nostrils. The wolf, indeed, always crosses a clearing with extreme caution, not only because it apprehends danger personally, but at the same time is looking out for its
prey. Ben could distinctly hear the footsteps from where he was standing, but could not see the exact spot, and did not dare to move, because he did not know whether the brute's eyes might not at this moment be fixed on the spot where he lay. He dare not give a second ory ; the distance was much too trifling for the cunning brute not to notice the deception, and recognize the false summons. Nothing was left him then, but to remain quiet and motionless until the animal stepped out into the moonlight.
Suddenly the pack was again heard yelling loudly behind him, a little to the right, and a triumphant smile crossed Ben's face, but it as soon gave way to an expression of the most painful excitement, for at the same moment the wolf, who appeared to have nade up its mind after the last call, walked out from the gloomy shade upon the open ground, upon which only a few small bushes were growing. Ben's heart beat almost audibly, but his arm was as firm as iron ; he quietly raised his death-dealing barrel toward the foe, and sought to bring the sight of his rifle in a line with the animal's dark form, but all in vain. In the faint uncertain light objects became so mingled that he could not for his life feel certain where the bullet would go home, and he dared not miss his mark. He cautiously raised the barrel towards the brighter sky, where he brought the sight in a line with one of the glittering stars, then stooped down, and as soon as he had the form of the still motionless animal in a line, his finger touched the trigger. The shot thundered through the forest, and Ben sprang up with the speed of lightning
" There, you villain !” he said, as he saw the dark body lying motionless in the leaves which were brightly illumined by the moon. “ See there : I prophesied it. That is at least some consolation that I have stopped the handiwork of such a sneaking vagabond. Panthers and bears ! I wish God's lightning would strike all the scoundrels that, like you, wander about in the dark, shunning the light of day, in order to do mischief whenever they can. Ben, while uttering these words through his clenched teeth, had remained quietly in his old position, and had before all reloaded his rifle ; he now raised it with a curse, not loud, but deep, to his shoulder, and walked slowly toward the spot where his conquered enemy lay extended in the leaves. He was a large, powerful wolf, jet black, and with only the little heart-shaped white spot on his chest, which, in the moonlight, seemed really on fire. The bullet must have passed right through his head-he did not stir in the slightest.
“ I didn't even see him shudder,” said the hunter gently, and stooped down in order to feel for the bullet-hole. He passed his hand back and forwards over the whole body; but there was nothing—not even blood ; and his hand, when he held it up in the light, was white and clean. “An extraordinary shot,” growled the hunter ; “but, hang it, it's all one where the bullet is, as long as it has gone home, and as I shot the villain. Halloh !” he suddenly interrupted himself, " is the brute alive still ?” He raised his rifle to his cheek, and watched every movement of the animal, which certainly displayed signs of being alive, for it threw its head up, and then tried to rise on its fore-paws. Ben, however, had killed too many a head of game for this movement to leave him any doubt as to the actual condition of the wolf. In the first surprise he certainly started back, and almost involuntarily raised his rifle, but it was only for a moment; at the next he hurled it away, and boldly threw himself upon the animal, which had regained its whole strength and struggled furiously.
“ Ho ho! my fine fellow," cried the young hunter at the same time, and laughed with wild delight, as he sluog his
arm with gigantic strength round the struggling body of the wolf. “Ho ho! only creased*_ha
* By “creasing," the American hunter signifies a shot passing along the spine, or more frequently the neck of the game, when the bullet flattens the upper vertebræ or muscles of the neck, without, however, cutting them through. This hurls the animal to the ground, stunned for the moment, but not in any way injured. After a very short time it generally recovers again, and if the hunter is not close by with rifle or knife, it bolts off again, and is frequently out of shot before the astonished hunter has recovered his senses on seeing his fancied prey escape him. The Indians of the West capture wild horses by a shot of this description, in which more are naturally killed than are captured.
ha ha !-struggle away, struggle away, my fine fellow, you can't escape from this trap unless you can get out of your skin.”
The animal, which had now regained its entire consciousness, seemed to understand in what a highly unpleasant position it was, and tried to make its escape by snapping and kicking; but in vain. Ben held it as if in a vice, and pressed the whole weight of his heavy body upon it to such a degree, that the poor wolf was at last obliged to lie quite quiet, for all its strength was exhausted. But what to do vow?-should be kill the wolf? That would certainly be an easy task, for Ben had his bowie knife in his belt : but was not his object now gained ? He wanted a living, sound, uninjured wolf; and he held one now beneath him as firmly as if he were never going to loose his hold. But how should he bind him ? he had not a single strap about him-nothing but his belt ; and then again, how could he venture to make the attempt ? If he let the wolf draw breath, there would be another fight, in which he would be forced either to seriously injure the animal or let it go ; the one alternative almost as bad as the other. And yet how carry the heavy beast to the settlement ? He would require half-an-hour to reach it without the wolf, how much longer with him ? but he had no choice. “You or I, my fellow," he muttered; "and so let this evening decide my happiness or misery. Devil take it! I've often carried a deer twice as heavy as this, only for the sake of the miserable meat ; my strength will not fail me to-day, when I hope to attain the dearest object of my wishes. And with this hurriedly-formed determination he took a firm hold round the now madly struggling wolf, and raised himself slowly, with his shoulder resting against a neighbouring pine-tree. He held the wolf with its back towards him, with the left hand passing between his two front paws, and the right pressed firmly against the temples, and held it in such a close embrace that the animal could not possibly bite him. His rifle he naturally was obliged to leave behind him, as well as his cap, which had fallen off in the struggle ; still that did not baulk him : with firmly clenched teeth and the utmost determination, he walked on with his extraordinary burden struggling in his arms, step by step, toward the distant settlement,
In the meanwhile noisy merriment still prevailed in the old courthouse ; bowl after bowl of sweet“ stew” was brewed ; and the room had eventually become so hot through candles, drinking, and dancing, that the little window looking out on the forest had been thrown open to let in some fresh air. The sound of the fiddle grew shriller than ever in the performance of jigs and hornpipes, and the feet of the dancers came down more noisily on the floor. Metcalf, especially, was excessively jolly; he called poor Bessie, who still obstinately refused to dance with him or any other of the guests, his dear little wifey ; embraced old Sutton repeatedly as his father-in-law, and could not set any bounds to his delight. A slight interruption, however, suddenly took place : “ Lord Howe's hornpipe" was just concluded, and some refreshments were being handed round. Bessie, who by her father's orders, was obliged to attend to these duties, was sitting near the door,