The thrill of the chase lives on
Through the years, I’ve written at every opportunity about Aquilla (Quill) Rose — Civil War veteran, fiddle player, storyteller, moonshiner, and hunter — who was surely one of the more picturesque characters ever produced in the Smokies region. As an “original character,” he figured in Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (1913), wherein Kephart described the people living along Hazel Creek and adjacent watersheds on the North Carolina side of the Smokies years before the park was founded in 1934.
My favorite Quill Rose story involves his mighty fight to the death with a timber wolf. This account was written up in a long-neglected and exceedingly rare book by Wilbur Zeigler and Ben Grosscup titled The Heart of the Alleghanies, or Western North Carolina (1883). The authors visited Rose to hunt deer. As they settled in to spend the night at his cabin on Eagle Creek (just west of Hazel Creek on the North Carolina side of the Great Smokies), Quill obliged them with his wolf tale, wherein he had supposedly fought a three-legged wolf and strangled him to death in a pool of water. (In reality, as the authors subsequently discovered to their amusement, another hunter had actually battled the wolf. Quill wasn’t, after all, one to let details get in the way of a good story.)
I’ve related aspects of that story, from various angles, in previous Back Then columns. But I’ve never provided an account of the deer hunt that took place the next day. Zeigler and Grosscup’s observations provide some interesting details regarding hunting concepts and methods as practiced here in Western North Carolina during the second half of the 19th century. Here are some extracts.
Regarding hunting dogs, the authors noted that Quill’s pack “was a mongrel collection of half starved curs. Two of them however, were full-blooded deer dogs. Their keen noses, clear eyes, shapely heads, and lithe limbs, put us in high hopes ... By tying ropes around the necks of the two old deer dogs, Quill carried into execution his proposition to ‘yoke up’ the leaders; and, forthwith, explained that, at the instant of springing the first deer, he would loosen one hound, whom three of the other dogs would follow. The next plain scent he would reserve for the remaining leader and two followers.”
When the authors inquired, “‘Do the hounds follow by the ground scent?’” the answer was, “‘No, the best hounds leap along snuffing at the bushes that the deer has brushed against.’”
The authors were advised that most deer were killed, “‘on the river. Sometimes they steer straight for the water. If the day is hot, there’re sure to get there in a short time. On cool days, they’ll sometimes race the hounds from morning till night; and then, as a last hope, with the pack on their heels, they’ll break for the river.”
A hunter named Brit Mayner had dared to venture into the Little Tennessee River after a buck being pursued by hounds and “came near losing his life ... when he swam out. At his first pass at the deer, the hounds took umbrage and fiercely attacked him. It was deer and dogs against man. All were in earnest, and it was only by his expertness as a swimmer that Mayner escaped being drowned.”
The most memorable deer the hunters had ever encountered was the infamous “Duck-legged Buck,” so-named because he displayed such short legs. This particular deer had been seen and chased for 15 years in a row. But he had always escaped despite the length of his legs.
When the authors asked if any of the hunters had ever heard “of a stone being found in a deer” the answer was immediate: “Yes, the mad stone. People believe it will cure snakebites and hydrophobia. Here’s one. It was found in the paunch of a white deer I shot this fall a year ago; and, mind you, the deer with a mad stone in him is twice as hard to kill as one of ordinary kind ... Five bullets were put in the buck that carried this one.”
This particular stone was described by the authors as being “smooth and red, as large as a man’s thumb, and with one flat, white side.”
Mad stones exist, of course. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at their origins and the lore that surrounds them.