With hunting season upon us, we share an excerpt from THE BIG DEER and Other Stories were written by Nathaniel Curtis Marvin in the early 1890s and edited by Linda Norris for the Delaware County Historical Association, where a copy still remains and is available for viewing and research in the DCHA Library on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Please call 607-746-3849 for more information or to schedule a visit.
CAUTION: GRAPHIC LANGUAGE IS USED IN THE RETELLING OF THE HUNT.
THE BIG DEER
During the Forties, we often heard or saw the track of an enormous Buck between the East and West Branches of the Delaware River.
That section was nearly an unbroken forest averaging eight or ten miles wide and extending from Hancock to the head of the rivers at Stamford and Grand Gorge. In fact, it connected too with the wilds of the Beaverkill and the Neversink. The old veteran ranged at will over the whole section of sixty miles in length, staying perhaps a year or two at the upper end of his range and when it got too warm for his comfort, moved to another part.
Every year or two he would be found in our section. It was the ambition of every hunter, and there were many, for deer were plenty over the whole range, to kill the Buck.
He was better known by his track (for no one had ever set eyes on him) than any animal in that region. I had often seen his track which was well known to every hunter. It was often described as like the track of a three year old steer, which in fact it much resembled. The toes of his hoofs were rounded, by which it was known that he was a Buck, as the toes of a doe are sharp and the sex is easily determined from that fact, after the animal is two or three years old. I do not wish to be understood that the Bucks were born with rounder toes than the does. They wore them off in coquetting with an amorous chase of the does.
The track of this particular Buck was easily distinguished from its size and the fact that the inside of his right hind foot was missing and made no impression in the snow. The necessity for change of location was apparent for no sooner was it known that he was in a neighborhood than the first tracking snow would find the woods full of hunters who while they would not neglect an opportunity to shoot at another deer, made it their especial task to get upon the big track. More wear of muscle had been expended inchase of the big Buck than on any ten others. Very many hunters had started him up but he was so wary and took his rest after planning so carefully against surprise by lying where he would have the wind of the track or so that the pursuer must come to him through a briar patch or thicket so that he was always on the alert. He would be off before the hunter came up and after leading his pursuer about until he discovered what it was. If finding the pursuer persistent, he could take a straight course a day’s journey away without once breaking his jump. He was not to be caught making doubles on his course like less experienced deer. And now, having led his hunter beyond his acquaintance with the woods, the pursuit would be abandoned.
He was not often hunted with hounds while the law permitted and on two and three occasions a hunt especially for him was organized and the usual runways guarded along both branches of the river and the best and most courageous hounds were selected to run him out. However the big Buck never appeared at the runways, nor did the dogs always return. It was noticeable that the most persistent and courageous hounds were oftenest among the missing. Several times dogs put after the veteran would come out with a broken leg and scratches along their flanks which scraped off the hair but had not penetrated the body. Owners of good hounds were reluctant to have their dogs put in chase of him. I have heard them say to the starter going out with the dogs, “Don’t put them after the big Buck.”
Driving deer was quite common and my brother or myself living near the middle of the veteran’s range often joined the hunt. We had a rifle not easily beaten in those days and a long fowling piece made in England before the Revolution for a captain in the Connecticut line and carried by him in the war, which had descended in the family as a relic. It carried twenty-four balls to the pound, was as good as any gun for twenty five rods. It was a famous piece in its day. Having only a crease in the butt of the barrel instead of a block sight you could not take very close sight but it answered very well for a mark the size of a deer and had brought down many a one. But being little used after rifles became common we were not so careful to have balls molded and ammunition for it always in readiness.
One morning in November 1851 a hunt was on and my brother was out with the rifle.
I was busy near the house. Shortly after dinner I heard a hound coming round the mountain toward a runway eighty rods above the house where a maple sugar bush reached from the mountain down across the wagon road to the river. I quickly caught the fowling piece and powder horn but could find only two balls, and loading as fast as I can, soon reached the runway. The sugar bush had been underbrushed and I saw the big Buck through the open woods coming on fifty rods away. He was jumping in easy lopes, head thrown back loftily. I did not at first notice at that distance his immense size. As he came nearer it grew upon me. He seemed as large as a horse. The hound came close behind but the Buck seemed to care little for him and kept his measured leaps. He looked so grandly lofty. I must confess to some slight tremours of the Buck fever, which I thought I had long outgrown, ran shivering down my back (although I have never before admitted it). I fired as he passed me and he went down on the frozen ground with a thump. Instantly, he sprung up and ran for the river sixty rods distant. The hound, a strange one, following, the blood spurting at each jump. My shot was too high for the heart but had passed through the lungs. The smell of blood made the hound almost frantic and he ran on wildly with hair erect.
I hastily reloaded and ran on across the river. My quarry had crossed and recrossed the river and now was fighting the hound in a clump of bushes on the opposite side. Presently he started again for the river, jumping from a ledge at its edge twelve or fifteen feet above the water. He came up snorting and swam slowly to the shore and having no more ammunition I was about to climb a convenient butternut tree when I saw his fore legs were useless. My last shot had broken both fore shoulders.
He was swimming about in the deep water shaking his horns and snorting defiance. The hound once or twice swam towards the Buck who would make a dive at him with horns bent in front and the hound with a squeal of terror would retreat. Going up opposite he swam fiercely, using only his hind legs, to the bank, some two feet perpendicular. He could just touch bottom with his hind feet and would rear up and jump towards me with all his strength, but he could not raise the bank. He would the back up, shaking his head viciously and come on again with no better result. His eyes were fairly green with rage and hair standing forward. Every time he backed up, he shook his head in challenge for me to come in the water as he could not get up to me. I understood the challenge but having had some quite unpleasant experiences in attaching maddened and wounded bucks, at one time coming off considerably hurt and with scarcely a rag of clothes left on me before I killed him, stripped by blows from his hind feet which are about as dangerous as their horns, while I was holding them and stabbing with my hunting knife for his jugular, which I finally reached. For once the fight is on, retreat is not to be thought of, as letting go the horns you are surely the next moment impaled upon them. So I did not accept his challenge, but cutting a thorn plug fitted to he bore of my piece, I loaded with it instead of ball and fired squarely against his forehead not more than six feet away. Thinking to kill or at least stun him until I could cut his throat. It had no effect except to further enrage him and make him shake his head and show greater fury. This lasted half an hour and until bleeding to death from the wounds he floated on his side and the current carried him down to the bar below. I examined the hind foot. The claw on the right foot was missing. I had killed the big Buck.
Hearing the shooting, several small boys had collected. One was sent for my man to bring the oxen and sled. We could not, even with the help of the boys, load him on the sled, and had finally to hitch the oxen and drag him on, heavy almost as a beef ox.
I have always regretted that I did not weigh him, which I could have easily done.
I can only give his size by comparison with other deer. Deer skins were tanned by the brain process very nicely in the neighborhood and made into mittens, the homemade being universally worn. We had tin patterns, man’s size, to cut them by and could get five or six pairs from a large deer skin, seven pairs the largest ever before known. This skin cut fourteen full size pairs, doubling the largest.
The hound was well fed and allowed to go home. In looking him over which he would not permit until full fed and after much coaxing, we found what we had suspected, that he had bee fighting with the big Buck by various horn marks on the skin with some slight punctures. His agility saved his life and his pluck and persistence finally compelling the monarch of the woods to take to the water to throw him off.