List Of Contents | Contents of On Horseback by Charles Dudley Warner
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hunter, guide.  So we rode down Bolling Creek, through a pretty,
broken country, crossed the Caney River, and followed it up a few
miles to Wilson's plantation.  There are little intervales along the
river, where hay is cut and corn grown, but the region is not much
cleared, and the stock browse about in the forest.  Wilson is the
agent of the New York owner of a tract of some thirteen thousand
acres of forest, including the greater portion of Mount Mitchell, a
wilderness well stocked with bears and deer, and full of streams
abounding in trout.  It is also the playground of the rattlesnake.
With all these attractions Big Tom's life is made lively in watching
game poachers, and endeavoring to keep out the foraging cattle of the
few neighbors.  It is not that the cattle do much injury in the
forest, but the looking after them is made a pretense for roaming
around, and the roamers are liable to have to defend themselves
against the deer, or their curiosity is excited about the bears, and
lately they have taken to exploding powder in the streams to kill the

Big Tom's plantation has an openwork stable, an ill-put-together
frame house, with two rooms and a kitchen, and a veranda in front, a
loft, and a spring-house in the rear.  Chickens and other animals
have free run of the premises.  Some fish-rods hung in the porch, and
hunter's gear depended on hooks in the passage-way to the kitchen.
In one room were three beds, in the other two, only one in the
kitchen.  On the porch was a loom, with a piece of cloth in process.
The establishment had the air of taking care of itself.  Neither Big
Tom nor his wife was at home.  Sunday seemed to be a visiting day,
and the travelers had met many parties on horseback.  Mrs.  Wilson
was away for a visit of a day or two.  One of the sons, who was
lounging on the veranda, was at last induced to put up the horses; a
very old woman, who mumbled and glared at the visitors, was found in
the kitchen, but no intelligible response could be got out of her.
Presently a bright little girl, the housekeeper in charge, appeared.
She said that her paw had gone up to her brother's (her brother was
just married and lived up the river in the house where Mr. Murchison
stayed when he was here) to see if he could ketch a bear that had
been rootin' round in the corn-field the night before.  She expected
him back by sundown--by dark anyway.  'Les he'd gone after the bear,
and then you could n't tell when he would come.

It appeared that Big Tom was a thriving man in the matter of family.
More boys appeared.  Only one was married, but four had "got their
time."  As night approached, and no Wilson, there was a good deal of
lively and loud conversation about the stock and the chores, in all
of which the girl took a leading and intelligent part, showing a
willingness to do her share, but not to have all the work put upon
her.  It was time to go down the road and hunt up the cows; the mule
had disappeared and must be found before dark; a couple of steers
hadn't turned up since the day before yesterday, and in the midst of
the gentle contention as to whose business all this was, there was an
alarm of cattle in the corn-patch, and the girl started off on a run
in that direction.  It was due to the executive ability of this small
girl, after the cows had been milked and the mule chased and the boys
properly stirred up, that we had supper.  It was of the oilcloth,
iron fork, tin spoon, bacon, hot bread and honey variety,
distinguished, however, from all meals we had endured or enjoyed
before by the introduction of fried eggs (as the breakfast next
morning was by the presence of chicken), and it was served by the
active maid with right hearty good-will and genuine hospitable

While it was in progress, after nine o'clock, Big Tom arrived, and,
with a simple greeting, sat down and attacked the supper and began to
tell about the bear.  There was not much to tell except that he
hadn't seen the bear, and that, judged by his tracks and his sloshing
around, he must be a big one.  But a trap had been set for him, and
he judged it wouldn't be long before we had some bear meat.  Big Tom
Wilson, as he is known all over this part of the State, would not
attract attention from his size.  He is six feet and two inches tall,
very spare and muscular, with sandy hair, long gray beard, and honest
blue eyes.  He has a reputation for great strength and endurance; a
man of native simplicity and mild manners.  He had been rather
expecting us from what Mr. Murchison wrote; he wrote (his son had
read out the letter) that Big Tom was to take good care of us, and
anybody that Mr. Murchison sent could have the best he'd got.

Big Tom joined us in our room after supper.  This apartment, with two
mighty feather-beds, was hung about with all manner of stuffy family
clothes, and had in one end a vast cavern for a fire.  The floor was
uneven, and the hearthstones billowy.  When the fire was lighted, the
effect of the bright light in the cavern and the heavy shadows in the
room was Rembrandtish.  Big Tom sat with us before the fire and told
bear stories.  Talk?  Why, it was not the least effort.  The stream
flowed on without a ripple.  "Why, the old man," one of the sons
confided to us next morning, "can begin and talk right over Mount
Mitchell and all the way back, and never make a break."  Though Big
Tom had waged a lifelong warfare with the bears, and taken the hide
off at least a hundred of them, I could not see that he had any
vindictive feeling towards the varmint, but simply an insatiable love
of killing him, and he regarded him in that half-humorous light in
which the bear always appears to those who study him.  As to deer--he
couldn't tell how many of them he had slain.  But Big Tom was a
gentleman: he never killed deer for mere sport.  With rattlesnakes,
now, it was different.  There was the skin of one hanging upon a tree
by the route we would take in the morning, a buster, he skinned him
yesterday.  There was an entire absence, of braggadocio in Big Tom's
talk, but somehow, as he went on, his backwoods figure loomed larger
and larger in our imagination, and he seemed strangely familiar.  At
length it came over us where we had met him before.  It was in
Cooper's novels.  He was the Leather-Stocking exactly.  And yet he
was an original; for he assured us that he had never read the
Leather-Stocking Tales.  What a figure, I was thinking, he must have
made in the late war!  Such a shot, such a splendid physique, such
iron endurance!  I almost dreaded to hear his tales of the havoc he
had wrought on the Union army.  Yes, he was in the war, he was
sixteen months in the Confederate army, this Homeric man.  In what
rank?"  Oh, I was a fifer!"

But hunting and war did not by any means occupy the whole of Big
Tom's life.  He was also engaged in "lawin'."  He had a long-time
feud with a neighbor about a piece of land and alleged trespass, and
they'd been "lawin'" for years, with no definite result; but as a
topic of conversation it was as fully illustrative of frontier life
as the bear-fighting.

Long after we had all gone to bed, we heard Big Tom's continuous
voice, through the thin partition that separated us from the kitchen,
going on to his little boy about the bear; every circumstance of how
he tracked him, and what corner of the field he entered, and where he
went out, and his probable size and age, and the prospect of his
coming again; these were the details of real everyday life, and
worthy to be dwelt on by the hour.  The boy was never tired of
pursuing them.  And Big Tom was just a big boy, also, in his delight
in it all.

Perhaps it was the fascination of Big Tom, perhaps the representation
that we were already way off the Big Ivy route, and that it would, in
fact, save time to go over the mountain and we could ride all the
way, that made the Professor acquiesce, with no protest worth
noticing, in the preparations that went on, as by a natural
assumption, for going over Mitchell.  At any rate, there was an early
breakfast, luncheon was put up, and by half-past seven we were riding
up the Caney,--a half-cloudy day,--Big Tom swinging along on foot
ahead, talking nineteen to the dozen.  There was a delightful
freshness in the air, the dew-laden bushes, and the smell of the
forest.  In half an hour we called at the hunting shanty of Mr.
Murchison, wrote our names on the wall, according to custom, and
regretted that we could not stay for a day in that retreat and try
the speckled trout.  Making our way through the low growth and bushes
of the valley, we came into a fine open forest, watered by a noisy
brook, and after an hour's easy going reached the serious ascent.

>From Wilson's to the peak of Mitchell it is seven and a half miles;
we made it in five and a half hours.  A bridle path was cut years
ago, but it has been entirely neglected.  It is badly washed, it is
stony, muddy, and great trees have fallen across it which wholly
block the way for horses.  At these places long detours were
necessary, on steep hillsides and through gullies, over treacherous
sink-holes in the rocks, through quaggy places, heaps of brush, and
rotten logs.  Those who have ever attempted to get horses over such
ground will not wonder at the slow progress we made.  Before we were
halfway up the ascent, we realized the folly of attempting it on
horseback; but then to go on seemed as easy as to go back.  The way
was also exceedingly steep in places, and what with roots, and logs,
and slippery rocks and stones, it was a desperate climb for the

What a magnificent forest!  Oaks, chestnuts, Poplars, hemlocks, the
cucumber (a species of magnolia, with a pinkish, cucumber-like cone),
and all sorts of northern and southern growths meeting here in
splendid array.  And this gigantic forest, with little diminution in
size of trees, continued two thirds of the way up.  We marked, as we
went on, the maple, the black walnut, the buckeye, the hickory, the
locust, and the guide pointed out in one section the largest cherry-
trees we had ever seen; splendid trunks, each worth a large sum if it

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