Story type: Essay
If civilization owes a debt of gratitude to the self-sacrificing sportsmen who have cleared the Adirondack regions of catamounts and savage trout, what shall be said of the army which has so nobly relieved them of the terror of the deer? The deer-slayers have somewhat celebrated their exploits in print; but I think that justice has never been done them.
The American deer in the wilderness, left to himself, leads a comparatively harmless but rather stupid life, with only such excitement as his own timid fancy raises. It was very seldom that one of his tribe was eaten by the North American tiger. For a wild animal he is very domestic, simple in his tastes, regular in his habits, affectionate in his family. Unfortunately for his repose, his haunch is as tender as his heart. Of all wild creatures he is one of the most graceful in action, and he poses with the skill of an experienced model. I have seen the goats on Mount Pentelicus scatter at the approach of a stranger, climb to the sharp points of projecting rocks, and attitudinize in the most self-conscious manner, striking at once those picturesque postures against the sky with which Oriental pictures have made us and them familiar. But the whole proceeding was theatrical.
Greece is the home of art, and it is rare to find anything there natural and unstudied. I presume that these goats have no nonsense about them when they are alone with the goatherds, any more than the goatherds have, except when they come to pose in the studio; but the long ages of culture, the presence always to the eye of the best models and the forms of immortal beauty, the heroic friezes of the Temple of Theseus, the marble processions of sacrificial animals, have had a steady molding, educating influence equal to a society of decorative art upon the people and the animals who have dwelt in this artistic atmosphere. The Attic goat has become an artificially artistic being; though of course he is not now what he was, as a poser, in the days of Polycletus. There is opportunity for a very instructive essay by Mr. E. A. Freeman on the decadence of the Attic goat under the influence of the Ottoman Turk.
The American deer, in the free atmosphere of our country, and as yet untouched by our decorative art, is without self-consciousness, and all his attitudes are free and unstudied. The favorite position of the deer–his fore-feet in the shallow margin of the lake, among the lily-pads, his antlers thrown back and his nose in the air at the moment he hears the stealthy breaking of a twig in the forest–is still spirited and graceful, and wholly unaffected by the pictures of him which the artists have put upon canvas.
Wherever you go in the Northern forest you will find deer-paths. So plainly marked and well-trodden are they that it is easy to mistake them for trails made by hunters; but he who follows one of them is soon in difficulties. He may find himself climbing through cedar thickets an almost inaccessible cliff, or immersed in the intricacies of a marsh. The “run,” in one direction, will lead to water; but, in the other, it climbs the highest hills, to which the deer retires, for safety and repose, in impenetrable thickets. The hunters, in winter, find them congregated in “yards,” where they can be surrounded and shot as easily as our troops shoot Comanche women and children in their winter villages. These little paths are full of pitfalls among the roots and stones; and, nimble as the deer is, he sometimes breaks one of his slender legs in them. Yet he knows how to treat himself without a surgeon. I knew of a tame deer in a settlement in the edge of the forest who had the misfortune to break her leg. She immediately disappeared with a delicacy rare in an invalid, and was not seen for two weeks. Her friends had given her up, supposing that she had dragged herself away into the depths of the woods, and died of starvation, when one day she returned, cured of lameness, but thin as a virgin shadow. She had the sense to shun the doctor; to lie down in some safe place, and patiently wait for her leg to heal. I have observed in many of the more refined animals this sort of shyness, and reluctance to give trouble, which excite our admiration when noticed in mankind.
The deer is called a timid animal, and taunted with possessing courage only when he is “at bay”; the stag will fight when he can no longer flee; and the doe will defend her young in the face of murderous enemies. The deer gets little credit for this eleventh-hour bravery. But I think that in any truly Christian condition of society the deer would not be conspicuous for cowardice. I suppose that if the American girl, even as she is described in foreign romances, were pursued by bull-dogs, and fired at from behind fences every time she ventured outdoors, she would become timid, and reluctant to go abroad. When that golden era comes which the poets think is behind us, and the prophets declare is about to be ushered in by the opening of the “vials,” and the killing of everybody who does not believe as those nations believe which have the most cannon; when we all live in real concord,–perhaps the gentle-hearted deer will be respected, and will find that men are not more savage to the weak than are the cougars and panthers. If the little spotted fawn can think, it must seem to her a queer world in which the advent of innocence is hailed by the baying of fierce hounds and the “ping” of the rifle.
Hunting the deer in the Adirondacks is conducted in the most manly fashion. There are several methods, and in none of them is a fair chance to the deer considered. A favorite method with the natives is practiced in winter, and is called by them “still hunting.” My idea of still hunting is for one man to go alone into the forest, look about for a deer, put his wits fairly against the wits of the keen-scented animal, and kill his deer, or get lost in the attempt. There seems to be a sort of fairness about this. It is private assassination, tempered with a little uncertainty about finding your man. The still hunting of the natives has all the romance and danger attending the slaughter of sheep in an abattoir. As the snow gets deep, many deer congregate in the depths of the forest, and keep a place trodden down, which grows larger as they tramp down the snow in search of food. In time this refuge becomes a sort of “yard,” surrounded by unbroken snow-banks. The hunters then make their way to this retreat on snowshoes, and from the top of the banks pick off the deer at leisure with their rifles, and haul them away to market, until the enclosure is pretty much emptied. This is one of the surest methods of exterminating the deer; it is also one of the most merciful; and, being the plan adopted by our government for civilizing the Indian, it ought to be popular. The only people who object to it are the summer sportsmen. They naturally want some pleasure out of the death of the deer.
Some of our best sportsmen, who desire to protract the pleasure of slaying deer through as many seasons as possible, object to the practice of the hunters, who make it their chief business to slaughter as many deer in a camping season as they can. Their own rule, they say, is to kill a deer only when they need venison to eat. Their excuse is specious. What right have these sophists to put themselves into a desert place, out of the reach of provisions, and then ground a right to slay deer on their own improvidence? If it is necessary for these people to have anything to eat, which I doubt, it is not necessary that they should have the luxury of venison.
One of the most picturesque methods of hunting the poor deer is called “floating.” The person, with murder in his heart, chooses a cloudy night, seats himself, rifle in hand, in a canoe, which is noiselessly paddled by the guide, and explores the shore of the lake or the dark inlet. In the bow of the boat is a light in a “jack,” the rays of which are shielded from the boat and its occupants. A deer comes down to feed upon the lily-pads. The boat approaches him. He looks up, and stands a moment, terrified or fascinated by the bright flames. In that moment the sportsman is supposed to shoot the deer. As an historical fact, his hand usually shakes so that he misses the animal, or only wounds him; and the stag limps away to die after days of suffering. Usually, however, the hunters remain out all night, get stiff from cold and the cramped position in the boat, and, when they return in the morning to camp, cloud their future existence by the assertion that they “heard a big buck” moving along the shore, but the people in camp made so much noise that he was frightened off.
By all odds, the favorite and prevalent mode is hunting with dogs. The dogs do the hunting, the men the killing. The hounds are sent into the forest to rouse the deer, and drive him from his cover. They climb the mountains, strike the trails, and go baying and yelping on the track of the poor beast. The deer have their established runways, as I said; and, when they are disturbed in their retreat, they are certain to attempt to escape by following one which invariably leads to some lake or stream. All that the hunter has to do is to seat himself by one of these runways, or sit in a boat on the lake, and wait the coming of the pursued deer. The frightened beast, fleeing from the unreasoning brutality of the hounds, will often seek the open country, with a mistaken confidence in the humanity of man. To kill a deer when he suddenly passes one on a runway demands presence of mind and quickness of aim: to shoot him from the boat, after he has plunged panting into the lake, requires the rare ability to hit a moving object the size of a deer’s head a few rods distant. Either exploit is sufficient to make a hero of a common man. To paddle up to the swimming deer, and cut his throat, is a sure means of getting venison, and has its charms for some. Even women and doctors of divinity have enjoyed this exquisite pleasure. It cannot be denied that we are so constituted by a wise Creator as to feel a delight in killing a wild animal which we do not experience in killing a tame one.
The pleasurable excitement of a deer-hunt has never, I believe, been regarded from the deer’s point of view. I happen to be in a position, by reason of a lucky Adirondack experience, to present it in that light. I am sorry if this introduction to my little story has seemed long to the reader: it is too late now to skip it; but he can recoup himself by omitting the story.
Early on the morning of the 23d of August, 1877, a doe was feeding on Basin Mountain. The night had been warm and showery, and the morning opened in an undecided way. The wind was southerly: it is what the deer call a dog-wind, having come to know quite well the meaning of “a southerly wind and a cloudy sky.” The sole companion of the doe was her only child, a charming little fawn, whose brown coat was just beginning to be mottled with the beautiful spots which make this young creature as lovely as the gazelle. The buck, its father, had been that night on a long tramp across the mountain to Clear Pond, and had not yet returned: he went ostensibly to feed on the succulent lily-pads there. “He feedeth among the lilies until the day break and the shadows flee away, and he should be here by this hour; but he cometh not,” she said, “leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.” Clear Pond was too far off for the young mother to go with her fawn for a night’s pleasure. It was a fashionable watering-place at this season among the deer; and the doe may have remembered, not without uneasiness, the moonlight meetings of a frivolous society there. But the buck did not come: he was very likely sleeping under one of the ledges on Tight Nippin. Was he alone? “I charge you, by the roes and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not nor awake my love till he please.”
The doe was feeding, daintily cropping the tender leaves of the young shoots, and turning from time to time to regard her offspring. The fawn had taken his morning meal, and now lay curled up on a bed of moss, watching contentedly, with his large, soft brown eyes, every movement of his mother. The great eyes followed her with an alert entreaty; and, if the mother stepped a pace or two farther away in feeding, the fawn made a half movement, as if to rise and follow her. You see, she was his sole dependence in all the world. But he was quickly reassured when she turned her gaze on him; and if, in alarm, he uttered a plaintive cry, she bounded to him at once, and, with every demonstration of affection, licked his mottled skin till it shone again.
It was a pretty picture,–maternal love on the one part, and happy trust on the other. The doe was a beauty, and would have been so considered anywhere, as graceful and winning a creature as the sun that day shone on,–slender limbs, not too heavy flanks, round body, and aristocratic head, with small ears, and luminous, intelligent, affectionate eyes. How alert, supple, free, she was! What untaught grace in every movement! What a charming pose when she lifted her head, and turned it to regard her child! You would have had a companion picture if you had seen, as I saw that morning, a baby kicking about among the dry pine-needles on a ledge above the Au Sable, in the valley below, while its young mother sat near, with an easel before her, touching in the color of a reluctant landscape, giving a quick look at the sky and the outline of the Twin Mountains, and bestowing every third glance upon the laughing boy,–art in its infancy.
The doe lifted her head a little with a quick motion, and turned her ear to the south. Had she heard something? Probably it was only the south wind in the balsams. There was silence all about in the forest. If the doe had heard anything, it was one of the distant noises of the world. There are in the woods occasional moanings, premonitions of change, which are inaudible to the dull ears of men, but which, I have no doubt, the forest-folk hear and understand. If the doe’s suspicions were excited for an instant, they were gone as soon. With an affectionate glance at her fawn, she continued picking up her breakfast.
But suddenly she started, head erect, eyes dilated, a tremor in her limbs. She took a step; she turned her head to the south; she listened intently. There was a sound,–a distant, prolonged note, bell-toned, pervading the woods, shaking the air in smooth vibrations. It was repeated. The doe had no doubt now. She shook like the sensitive mimosa when a footstep approaches. It was the baying of a hound! It was far off,–at the foot of the mountain. Time enough to fly; time enough to put miles between her and the hound, before he should come upon her fresh trail; time enough to escape away through the dense forest, and hide in the recesses of Panther Gorge; yes, time enough. But there was the fawn. The cry of the hound was repeated, more distinct this time. The mother instinctively bounded away a few paces. The fawn started up with an anxious bleat: the doe turned; she came back; she couldn’t leave it. She bent over it, and licked it, and seemed to say, “Come, my child: we are pursued: we must go.” She walked away towards the west, and the little thing skipped after her. It was slow going for the slender legs, over the fallen logs, and through the rasping bushes. The doe bounded in advance, and waited: the fawn scrambled after her, slipping and tumbling along, very groggy yet on its legs, and whining a good deal because its mother kept always moving away from it. The fawn evidently did not hear the hound: the little innocent would even have looked sweetly at the dog, and tried to make friends with it, if the brute had been rushing upon him. By all the means at her command the doe urged her young one on; but it was slow work. She might have been a mile away while they were making a few rods. Whenever the fawn caught up, he was quite content to frisk about. He wanted more breakfast, for one thing; and his mother wouldn’t stand still. She moved on continually; and his weak legs were tangled in the roots of the narrow deer-path.
Shortly came a sound that threw the doe into a panic of terror,–a short, sharp yelp, followed by a prolonged howl, caught up and reechoed by other bayings along the mountain-side. The doe knew what that meant. One hound had caught her trail, and the whole pack responded to the “view-halloo.” The danger was certain now; it was near. She could not crawl on in this way: the dogs would soon be upon them. She turned again for flight: the fawn, scrambling after her, tumbled over, and bleated piteously. The baying, emphasized now by the yelp of certainty, came nearer. Flight with the fawn was impossible. The doe returned and stood by it, head erect, and nostrils distended. She stood perfectly still, but trembling. Perhaps she was thinking. The fawn took advantage of the situation, and began to draw his luncheon ration. The doe seemed to have made up her mind. She let him finish. The fawn, having taken all he wanted, lay down contentedly, and the doe licked him for a moment. Then, with the swiftness of a bird, she dashed away, and in a moment was lost in the forest. She went in the direction of the hounds.
According to all human calculations, she was going into the jaws of death. So she was: all human calculations are selfish. She kept straight on, hearing the baying every moment more distinctly. She descended the slope of the mountain until she reached the more open forest of hard-wood. It was freer going here, and the cry of the pack echoed more resoundingly in the great spaces. She was going due east, when (judging by the sound, the hounds were not far off, though they were still hidden by a ridge) she turned short away to the north, and kept on at a good pace. In five minutes more she heard the sharp, exultant yelp of discovery, and then the deep-mouthed howl of pursuit. The hounds had struck her trail where she turned, and the fawn was safe.
The doe was in good running condition, the ground was not bad, and she felt the exhilaration of the chase. For the moment, fear left her, and she bounded on with the exaltation of triumph. For a quarter of an hour she went on at a slapping pace, clearing the moose-bushes with bound after bound, flying over the fallen logs, pausing neither for brook nor ravine. The baying of the hounds grew fainter behind her. But she struck a bad piece of going, a dead-wood slash. It was marvelous to see her skim over it, leaping among its intricacies, and not breaking her slender legs. No other living animal could do it. But it was killing work. She began to pant fearfully; she lost ground. The baying of the hounds was nearer. She climbed the hard-wood hill at a slower gait; but, once on more level, free ground, her breath came back to her, and she stretched away with new courage, and maybe a sort of contempt of her heavy pursuers.
After running at high speed perhaps half a mile farther, it occurred to her that it would be safe now to turn to the west, and, by a wide circuit, seek her fawn. But, at the moment, she heard a sound that chilled her heart. It was the cry of a hound to the west of her. The crafty brute had made the circuit of the slash, and cut off her retreat. There was nothing to do but to keep on; and on she went, still to the north, with the noise of the pack behind her. In five minutes more she had passed into a hillside clearing. Cows and young steers were grazing there. She heard a tinkle of bells. Below her, down the mountain slope, were other clearings, broken by patches of woods. Fences intervened; and a mile or two down lay the valley, the shining Au Sable, and the peaceful farmhouses. That way also her hereditary enemies were. Not a merciful heart in all that lovely valley. She hesitated: it was only for an instant. She must cross the Slidebrook Valley if possible, and gain the mountain opposite. She bounded on; she stopped. What was that? From the valley ahead came the cry of a searching hound. All the devils were loose this morning. Every way was closed but one, and that led straight down the mountain to the cluster of houses. Conspicuous among them was a slender white wooden spire. The doe did not know that it was the spire of a Christian chapel. But perhaps she thought that human pity dwelt there, and would be more merciful than the teeth of the hounds.
“The hounds are baying on my track:
O white man! will you send me back?”
In a panic, frightened animals will always flee to human-kind from the danger of more savage foes. They always make a mistake in doing so. Perhaps the trait is the survival of an era of peace on earth; perhaps it is a prophecy of the golden age of the future. The business of this age is murder,–the slaughter of animals, the slaughter of fellow-men, by the wholesale. Hilarious poets who have never fired a gun write hunting-songs,–Ti-ra-la: and good bishops write war-songs,–Ave the Czar!
The hunted doe went down the “open,” clearing the fences splendidly, flying along the stony path. It was a beautiful sight. But consider what a shot it was! If the deer, now, could only have been caught I No doubt there were tenderhearted people in the valley who would have spared her life, shut her up in a stable, and petted her. Was there one who would have let her go back to her waiting-fawn? It is the business of civilization to tame or kill.
The doe went on. She left the sawmill on John’s Brook to her right; she turned into a wood-path. As she approached Slide Brook, she saw a boy standing by a tree with a raised rifle. The dogs were not in sight; but she could hear them coming down the hill. There was no time for hesitation. With a tremendous burst of speed she cleared the stream, and, as she touched the bank, heard the “ping” of a rifle bullet in the air above her. The cruel sound gave wings to the poor thing. In a moment more she was in the opening: she leaped into the traveled road. Which way? Below her in the wood was a load of hay: a man and a boy, with pitchforks in their hands, were running towards her. She turned south, and flew along the street. The town was up. Women and children ran to the doors and windows; men snatched their rifles; shots were fired; at the big boarding-houses, the summer boarders, who never have anything to do, came out and cheered; a campstool was thrown from a veranda. Some young fellows shooting at a mark in the meadow saw the flying deer, and popped away at her; but they were accustomed to a mark that stood still. It was all so sudden! There were twenty people who were just going to shoot her; when the doe leaped the road fence, and went away across a marsh toward the foothills. It was a fearful gauntlet to run. But nobody except the deer considered it in that light. Everybody told what he was just going to do; everybody who had seen the performance was a kind of hero,–everybody except the deer. For days and days it was the subject of conversation; and the summer boarders kept their guns at hand, expecting another deer would come to be shot at.
The doe went away to the foothills, going now slower, and evidently fatigued, if not frightened half to death. Nothing is so appalling to a recluse as half a mile of summer boarders. As the deer entered the thin woods, she saw a rabble of people start across the meadow in pursuit. By this time, the dogs, panting, and lolling out their tongues, came swinging along, keeping the trail, like stupids, and consequently losing ground when the deer doubled. But, when the doe had got into the timber, she heard the savage brutes howling across the meadow. (It is well enough, perhaps, to say that nobody offered to shoot the dogs.)
The courage of the panting fugitive was not gone: she was game to the tip of her high-bred ears. But the fearful pace at which she had just been going told on her. Her legs trembled, and her heart beat like a trip-hammer. She slowed her speed perforce, but still fled industriously up the right bank of the stream. When she had gone a couple of miles, and the dogs were evidently gaining again, she crossed the broad, deep brook, climbed the steep left bank, and fled on in the direction of the Mount-Marcy trail. The fording of the river threw the hounds off for a time. She knew, by their uncertain yelping up and down the opposite bank, that she had a little respite: she used it, however, to push on until the baying was faint in her ears; and then she dropped, exhausted, upon the ground.
This rest, brief as it was, saved her life. Roused again by the baying pack, she leaped forward with better speed, though without that keen feeling of exhilarating flight that she had in the morning. It was still a race for life; but the odds were in her–favor, she thought. She did not appreciate the dogged persistence of the hounds, nor had any inspiration told her that the race is not to the swift.
She was a little confused in her mind where to go; but an instinct kept her course to the left, and consequently farther away from her fawn. Going now slower, and now faster, as the pursuit seemed more distant or nearer, she kept to the southwest, crossed the stream again, left Panther Gorge on her right, and ran on by Haystack and Skylight in the direction of the Upper Au Sable Pond. I do not know her exact course through this maze of mountains, swamps, ravines, and frightful wildernesses. I only know that the poor thing worked her way along painfully, with sinking heart and unsteady limbs, lying down “dead beat” at intervals, and then spurred on by the cry of the remorseless dogs, until, late in the afternoon, she staggered down the shoulder of Bartlett, and stood upon the shore of the lake. If she could put that piece of water between her and her pursuers, she would be safe. Had she strength to swim it?
At her first step into the water she saw a sight that sent her back with a bound. There was a boat mid-lake: two men were in it. One was rowing: the other had a gun in his hand. They were looking towards her: they had seen her. (She did not know that they had heard the baying of hounds on the mountains, and had been lying in wait for her an hour.) What should she do? The hounds were drawing near. No escape that way, even if she could still run. With only a moment’s hesitation she plunged into the lake, and struck obliquely across. Her tired legs could not propel the tired body rapidly. She saw the boat headed for her. She turned toward the centre of the lake. The boat turned. She could hear the rattle of the oarlocks. It was gaining on her. Then there was a silence. Then there was a splash of the water just ahead of her, followed by a roar round the lake, the words “Confound it all!” and a rattle of the oars again. The doe saw the boat nearing her. She turned irresolutely to the shore whence she came: the dogs were lapping the water, and howling there. She turned again to the center of the lake.
The brave, pretty creature was quite exhausted now. In a moment more, with a rush of water, the boat was on her, and the man at the oars had leaned over and caught her by the tail.
“Knock her on the head with that paddle!” he shouted to the gentleman in the stern.
The gentleman was a gentleman, with a kind, smooth-shaven face, and might have been a minister of some sort of everlasting gospel. He took the paddle in his hand. Just then the doe turned her head, and looked at him with her great, appealing eyes.
“I can’t do it! my soul, I can’t do it!” and he dropped the paddle. “Oh, let her go!”
“Let H. go!” was the only response of the guide as he slung the deer round, whipped out his hunting-knife, and made a pass that severed her jugular.
And the gentleman ate that night of the venison.
The buck returned about the middle of the afternoon. The fawn was bleating piteously, hungry and lonesome. The buck was surprised. He looked about in the forest. He took a circuit, and came back. His doe was nowhere to be seen. He looked down at the fawn in a helpless sort of way. The fawn appealed for his supper. The buck had nothing whatever to give his child,–nothing but his sympathy. If he said anything, this is what he said: “I’m the head of this family; but, really, this is a novel case. I’ve nothing whatever for you. I don’t know what to do. I’ve the feelings of a father; but you can’t live on them. Let us travel.”
The buck walked away: the little one toddled after him. They disappeared in the forest.