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Southern Life in Southern Literature/William Elliott


WILLIAM ELLIOTT

[William Elliott was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1788. After graduating from Harvard, he returned to South Carolina. Except for some early incursions into politics, he chiefly devoted himself to the management of his estates, and, as a writer and lecturer on agricultural and other subjects, became widely known. He contributed to one of the newspapers of Charleston the series of sporting sketches which were collected and published in 1846 under the title of "Carolina Sports by Land and Water." He died in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1863.]


A DEER HUNT

It was a glorious winter's day—sharp, but bracing. The sun looked forth with dazzling brightness, as he careered through a cloudless sky; and his rays came glancing back from many an ice-covered lagoon that lay scattered over the face of the ground. The moan of an expiring northwester was faintly heard from the tops of the magnificent forest pines. Three sportsmen, while it was yet early, met at their trysting place, to perpetrate a raid against the deer! They were no novices, those huntsmen; they had won trophies in many a sylvan war, and they now took the field "of malice prepense" with all the appliances of destruction at their beck—practiced drivers of the pack, often proved, and now refreshed by three days rest. Brief was their interchange of compliment; they felt that such a day was not to be trifled away in talk; and they hallooed their hounds impatiently into the drive—yet not as greenhorns would have done. "Keep clear of the swamps" was the order of the drivers—"leave the close covers—ride not where the ice crackles under the horse's hoof, but look closely into the sheltered knolls, where you will find the deer sunning themselves after the last night's frost." The effect of this order was soon evident, for in the second knoll entered by the hounds a herd of deer were found thawing themselves in the first beams of the ascending sun. Ho! what a burst! with what fury the hounds dash in among them! Now they sweep along the thickets that skirt the drive and climb the summit of that elevated piny ridge—destined one day to become a summer settlement and to bear the name of———. But not unforeseen or unprovided for was the run which the deer had taken. Frisky Geordy was in their path, and crack went the sound of his gun, and loud and vaunting was the twang of his horn that followed the explosion! And now the frozen earth reechoed to the tramp of horses hoofs, as the huntsmen hurried to the call that proclaims that a deer has fallen. There was Geordy, his gun against a pine, his knee upon the still heaving flank of a pricket buck, his right hand clenched upon his dripping knife, his left flourishing a horn, which ever and anon was given to his mouth and filled the air with its boastful notes.

"Halloo, Geordy! you have got him fast, I see. Where are the dogs?"

"Gone," said Geordy.

"There's Ruler in the east—what's he after?"

"A deer," says Geordy.

"And Rouser to the south—what's he after?"

"Another deer," says Geordy.

"And Nimrod to the southwest—I need not ask what he's after, for he follows nothing but deer. Your second barrel snapped, of course?"

"I don't say that," says Geordy; "I had wounded the six last deer I'd fired at, so I thought I'd kill one to-day, and while I looked to see if that was really dead the others slipped by me."

"Done like a sportsman, Geordy; one dead deer is worth a dozen crippled ones. I remember once your powder was too weak; and next, your shot were too small; and next, your aim was somewhat wild; and one went off bored of an ear, and another nicked of a tail. You are bound to set up an infirmary across the river for the dismembered deer you have dispatched there! You have done well to kill—let it grow into a habit. Nimrod to the southwest, said you? That rascal is a born economist; and not a foot will he budge in pursuit of a living deer after your horn has told him there is venison in the rear! Ruler will drive his deer across the river; Rouser, to the marshes. Nimrod's quarry is the only one likely to halt and give us another chance."

And sure enough, there came Nimrod trotting back on his track, his nose cocked up in air as if to indorse and verify the inferences of his ear, his tail curled and standing out from his body at an angle of forty-five degrees.

"This is the safe play—hang up the deer—sound your horn till the hounds come in from their several chases—and then for Nimrod's lead! to Chapman's bays, I think!—there are some sheltered nooks in which they will stop and bask when they find themselves unpursued."

"I'll go in with the boys," says Loveleap, with an unconcerned air, but a sly twinkle of the eye, which did not escape his comrades.

"As you like. Geordy and I will mind the stands."

Some time was lost before the hounds could be drawn from their several chases; yet, as emulation did not "prick them on," they came the sooner for being scattered. Loveleap heads the drivers, and it was just what we had anticipated, when, before a single dog had given tongue, we heard him fire; then came a burst, and then a second barrel; but to our great surprise no horn announced the expected success. The report of that gun went unquestioned in our sporting circle; it was in a manner axiomatic in woodcraft mysteries, and passed current with all who heard it for thus much—"a deer is killed." Loveleap did an extraordinary thing that day—he missed! But the drivers could not understand and the hounds would not believe it; so they rushed madly away in pursuit, as if it was not possible for the quarry long to escape.

"Push on," says Geordy, "they make for the river!" and away we went. We reined in for a minute at the ford; and finding that they had already outstripped us and were bearing down for Chapman s fort,—a mile to the west of our position,—we struck across for the marshes south of us, where we might, if he was a young deer, intercept him on his return to his accustomed haunts. In an old buck we had no chance; he is sure to set a proper value on his life, and seldom stops until he has put a river between his pursuer and himself.

Taking advantage of a road that lay in our way, we soon cleared the woods and entered an old field that skirted the marsh. It was a large waving plain of rank broom grass, chequered here and there by strips of myrtle and marsh mallows.

"So far, Geordy," said I, "we have kept one track; now let us separate. The hounds are out of hearing, and we have little chance of any game but such as we may rouse without their help. How delightfully sheltered is this spot! how completely is it shut-in by that semicircle of woods from the sweep of the northwest winds! How genially the sun pours down upon it! Depend upon it, we shall find some luxurious rogues basking in this warm nook, for, next to your Englishman, a deer is the greatest epicure alive! Now, then, by separate tracks let us make across the old field; a blast of the horn will bring us together when we reach the marsh."

By separate tracks then we moved, and had not advanced two hundred yards, when crack went Geordy's gun. I looked in the direction of the report, and his head only was visible above the sea of marsh mallows. The direction of his face I could see, and that was pointed toward me. Toward me, then, thought I, runs the deer. I reined in my horse and turned his head in that direction. It was such a thickly woven mass of mallows and myrtle—high as my shoulders as I sat in the saddle—that there was little hope of being able to see the game. I trusted to my ear to warn me of his approach, and soon heard the rustling of the leaves and the sharp, quick leap which mark the movement of a deer at speed. I saw him not until he appeared directly under my horse's nose, in act to leap; he vaulted, and would have dropped upon my saddle had he not seen the horse while yet poised in air, and, by an effort like that of the tumbler who throws a somersault, twisted him self suddenly to my right. He grazed my knee in his descent; and as he touched the earth I brought my gun down, pistol-fashion, with a rapid twitch, and sent the whole charge through his backbone. It was so instantaneous—so like a flash of lightning—that I could scarcely credit it when I saw the deer twirling and turning over at my horse's heels. Dismounting to secure him, it was some time before his muscular action was sufficiently overcome to allow me to use my knife. He struggled and kicked; I set down my gun, the better to master him. In the midst of my employment, crack went Geordy's second barrel, nearer than the first, and "mind! mind!" followed the discharge. Before I could drop my knife and gain my feet another deer was upon me! He followed directly in the track of the former and passed between my horse and me, so near that I might have bayoneted him! Where was my gun? Lost in the broom grass! What a trial! I looked all around in an instant, and spying it where it lay, caught it eagerly up—the deer had disappeared! It flashed across me that underneath these myrtles the limbs excluded from the sun had decayed, and that in the vistas thus formed a glimpse of the deer might yet be gained. In an instant I am on my knees, darting the most anxious glances along the vista; the flash of a tail is seen—I fire—a struggle is heard—I press forward through the interlacing branches—and to my joy and surprise, another deer is mine! Taking him by the legs, I drag him to the spot where the other lay. Then it was my turn to sound a "vaunty" peal! Geordy pealed in answer, and soon appeared dragging a deer of his own (having missed one of those that I had killed). Three deer were started—they were all at our feet—and that without the aid of a dog! It was the work of five minutes! We piled them in a heap, covered them with branches and myrtle bushes, and tasked our horns to the uttermost to recall the field. One by one the hounds came in, smelt at the myrtle bushes, seemed satisfied, though puzzled, wagged their tails, and coiling themselves each in his proper bed, lay down to sleep. Yet had any stranger approached that myrtle-covered mound every back would have bristled, and a fierce cry of defiance would have broken forth from every tongue, then so mute.

At last came Loveleap, fagged, and somewhat fretted by his ill success.

"I have been blowing till I've split my wind, and not a dog has come to my horn. How came you thrown out? and why have you kept such an incessant braying of horns? Why, how is this? the dogs are here?"

"Yes! they have shown their sense in coming to us; there's been butchery hereabouts!"

"One of P——'s cattle killed by the runaways, I suppose."

"Will you lend us your boy to bring a cart?" I said.

"Certainly, says Loveleap; "it will make such a feast for the dogs; but where is the cow?"

"Here!" says Geordy, kicking off the myrtle screen and revealing to the sight of his astonished comrade our three layers of venison! Oh, you should have seen Loveleap's face!

The cart is brought, and our four deer are soon on their way home. Do you think we accompanied them? No! We were so merciless as to meditate still further havoc. The day was so little spent—and as our hands were in, and there was just in the next drive an overgrown old buck who often had the insolence to baffle us—no! we must take a drive at him! Again the hounds are thrown into cover, headed by our remaining driver; but in the special object of our move we failed—the buck had decamped. Still, the fortune of the day attended us; and an inquisitive old turkey gobbler, having ventured to peep at Geordy where he lay in ambush, was sprawled by a shot from his gun and was soon seen dangling from his saddlebow.

This closed our hunt. And now that we have a moment's breathing time, tell me, brother sportsmen who may chance to read this veritable history, has it ever been your fortune, in a single day's hunt and as the spoils of two gunners only, to bring home four deer and a wild turkey? Ye gastronomes! who relish the proceeds of a hunt better than its toils and perils—a glance at that larder, if you please! Look at that fine bird, so carefully hung up by the neck; his spurs are an inch and a half in length, his beard eight inches; what an ample chest! what glossy plumage!—his weight is twenty-five pounds! And see that brave array of haunches! that is a buck of two years,—juicy, tender, but not fat,—capital for steaks! But your eye finds something yet more attractive—the saddle of a four-year-old doe, kidney covered, as you see; a morsel more savoury smokes not upon a monarch's board. How pleasant to eat! Shall I say it?—how much pleasanter to give away! Ah, how such things do win their way to hearts—men's and women's too! My young sporting friends, a word in your ear: the worst use you can make of your game is to eat it yourselves.