Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Joel Tyler Headley (18131897)
[Born in Walton, Delaware Co., N. Y., 1813. Died in Newburgh, N. Y., 1897. The Adirondack, or Life in the Woods. 1849.Revised Edition. 1875.]
HERE in the heart of the Empire State is a man whose fame is known far and wide as the mighty hunter, and if desperate adventures and hair-breadth escapes give one a claim to the sobriquet, it certainly belongs to him. Some ten or fifteen years ago, Cheney, then a young man, becoming enamored of forest-life, left Ticonderoga, and, with his rifle on his shoulder, plunged into this then unknown, untrodden wilderness. Here he lived for years on what his gun brought him. Finding in his long stretches through the wood, where the timber is so thick you cannot see an animal more than fifteen rods, that a heavy rifle was a useless burden, he had a pistol made about eleven inches in length, stocked like a rifle, which, with his hunting-knife and dog, became his only companions. I had him with me several days as a guide, for he knows better than any other man the mysteries of this wilderness, though there are vast tracks even he would not venture to traverse. Moose, deer, bears, panthers, wolves, and wild cats, have, by turns, made his acquaintance, and some of his encounters would honor old Daniel Boone himself. Once he came suddenly upon a panther that lay crouched for a spring within a single bound of him. He had nothing but his gun and knife with him, while the glaring eyes and gathered form of the furious animal at his feet told him that a moments delay, a miss, or a false cap, would bring them locked in each others embrace and in a death-struggle. But without alarm or over-haste, he brought his rifle to bear upon the creatures head, and fired just as he was sallying back for the spring. The ball entered the brain, and with one wild bound his life departed, and he lay quivering on the leaves. Being a little curious to know whether he was not somewhat agitated in finding himself in such close proximity to a panther all ready for the fatal leap, I asked him how he felt when he saw the animal crouching so near. I felt, said he, coolly, as if I should kill him. I need not tell you that I felt a little foolish at the answer, and concluded not to tell him that I expected he would say that his heart suddenly stopped beating and the woods reeled around him; for the perfect simplicity of the reply took me all aback,yet it was rather an odd feeling to be uppermost in a mans mind just at that moment; it was, however, perfectly characteristic of Cheney.
His fight with a wolf was a still more serious affair. As he came upon the animal, ravenous with hunger, and floundering through the snow, he raised his rifle and fired; but the wolf, making a spring just as he pulled the trigger, the ball did not hit a vital part. This enraged her still more; and she made at him furiously. He had now nothing but an empty rifle with which to defend himself, and, instantly clubbing it, he laid the stock over the wolfs head. So desperately did the creature fight that he broke the stock into fragments without disabling her. He then seized the barrel, which, making a better bludgeon, told with more effect. The bleeding and enraged animal seized the hard iron with her teeth, and endeavored to wrench it from his grasp; but it was a matter of life and death with Cheney, and he fought savagely. But, in the mean time, the wolf, by stepping on his snow-shoes as she closed with him, threw him over. He then thought the game was up, unless he could make his dogs, which were scouring the forest around, hear him. He called loud and sharp after them, and soon onea young houndsprung into view: but no sooner did he see the condition of his master than he turned in affright, and, with his tail between his legs, fled into the woods. But at this critical moment the other hound burst with a shrill, savage cry, and a wild bound, upon the struggling group. Sinking his teeth to the jawbone in the wolf, he tore her fiercely from his master. Turning to grapple with this new foe, she gave Cheney opportunity to gather himself up and fight to better advantage. At length, by a well-directed blow, he crushed in the skull, which finished the work. After this he got his pistol made.
You know that a bear always sleeps through the winter. Curled up in a cavern, or under a fallen tree, in some warm place, he composes himself to rest, and, Rip Van Winkle-like, snoozes away the season. True, he is somewhat thin when he thaws out in the spring, and looks voracious about the jaws, making it rather dangerous to come in contact with him. Cheney told me that one day, while hunting on snow-shoes, he suddenly broke through the crust, and came upon a bear taking his winters nap. The spot this fellow had chosen was the cavity made by the roots of an upturned tree. It was a warm, snug place; and the snow, having fallen several feet deep over him, protected him from frosts and winds. The unceremonious thrust of Cheneys leg against his carcass roused up Bruin, and, with a growl that made the hunter withdraw his foot somewhat hastily, he leaped forth on the snow. Cheney had just given his knife to his companion, who had gone to the other side of the mountain to meet him farther on, and hence had nothing but his pistol to defend himself with. He had barely time to get ready before the huge creature was close upon him. Unterrified, however, he took deliberate aim right between the fellows eyes, and pulled the trigger; but the cap exploded without discharging the pistol. He had no time to put on another cap; so, seizing his pistol by the muzzle, he aimed a tremendous blow at the creatures head. But the bear caught it on his paw with a cuff that sent it ten yards from Cheneys hand, and the next moment was rolling over Cheney himself in the snow. His knife being gone, it became simply a contest of physical strength, and in hugging and wrestling the bear evidently had the advantage, and the hunters life seemed not worth asking for. But, just then, his dog came up, and seizing the animal from behind, made him loosen his hold and turn and defend himself. Cheney then sprang to his feet, and began to look around for his pistol. By good luck he saw the breech just peeping out of the snow. Drawing it forth, and hastily putting on a fresh cap, and refastening his snow-shoes, which had become loosened in the struggle, he made after the bear. When he and the dog closed, both fell, and began to roll, one over the other, down the side-hill, locked in the embrace of death. The bear, however, was too much for the dog, and, at length, shook him off, leaving the latter dreadfully laceratedtorn, as Cheney said, all to pieces. But, he added, I never saw such pluck in a dog before. As soon as he found I was ready for a fight he was furious, bleeding as he was, to be after the bear. I told him we would have the rascal, if we died for it; and away he jumped, leaving his blood on the snow as he went. Hold on, said I, and he held on till I came up. I took aim at his head, meaning to put the ball in the centre of his brain; but it struck below, and only tore his jaw to pieces. I loaded up again, and fired, but did not kill him, though the ball went through his head. The third time I fetched him; and he was a bouncer, I tell you. But the dog, Cheney, said I: what became of the poor, noble dog? Oh, he was dreadfully mangled. I took him up, and carried him home, and nursed him. He got well, but was never good for much afterwards; that fight broke him down.
He was once hunting alone by a little lake, when his dogs brought a noble buck into the water. Cocking his gun, and laying it in the bottom of the boat, he pulled after the deer, which was swimming boldly for his life. In the eagerness of pursuit, he hit his rifle either with his paddle or foot, when it went off, sending the ball directly through one of his ankles. He stopped, and looking at his benumbed limb, saw where the bullet had come out of his boot. The first thought was to return to the shore; the next was, said he, I may need that venison before I get out of these woods; so, without waiting to examine the wound, he pulled on after the deer. Coming up with him, he beat him to death with his paddles, and, pulling him into the boat, rowed ashore. Cutting off his boot, he found his leg was badly mangled and useless. Bandaging it up, however, as well as he could, he cut a couple of crotched sticks for crutches, and with these walked fourteen miles to the nearest clearing. There he got help, and was carried slowly out of the woods. How a border life sharpens a mans wits. Especially in an emergency does he show to what strict discipline he has subjected his mind. His resources are almost exhaustless, and his presence of mind equal to that of one who has been in a hundred battles. Wounded, perhaps mortally, it nevertheless flashed on this hunters thoughts, that he might be so crippled that he could not stir for days and weeks, but starve to death there in the woods. I may need that venison before I get out, said he; and so, with a mangled bleeding limb, he pursued and killed a deer, on which he might feed in the last extremity.