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Wednesday, 12 March 2014 13:37

A bear hunter for the ages

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John Baker (Little John) Cable Jr. is one of the prominent figures in Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (1913; revised and expanded in 1922). He steals the show in Chapter 4 (“A Bear Hunt in the Smokies”), which most everybody — including those who don’t care much for other parts of the book — agrees is a fine piece of writing.

 

As a side note, it’s not improbable to suppose that Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner read that chapter pretty closely himself in preparation for the writing of his novella The Bear, which was published as “Lion” in Harper’s Magazine (December 1935) and as “The Bear” in the Saturday Evening Post (May 1942) before appearing as part of the novelistic collection titled Go Down, Moses (1942).  

In Faulkner’s version, there is a semi-mythic bear named “Old Ben,” whose foot had been mangled in a trap, and a mighty hunting dog,“Lion,” of mixed heritage. In Kephart’s version, there is a semi-mythic bear named “Old Reelfoot,” who twisted his hind paws when walking, and a noble hunting dog, “Coaly,” of mixed heritage. In both instances, bear and dog die as the result of fights involving humans. Those familiar with Faulkner’s novella will pick up on some of the reverberations in Little John’s rambling discourses below.

Faulkner scholar Tom Mchaney advises me that while there are no copies of Our Southern Highlanders in Faulkner’s personal library, there are multiple copies of the first edition in the library of the University of Mississippi in Oxford, “which Faulkner frequented.”

 According to Duane Oliver, author of Hazel Creek From Then Till Now (1989) and himself a native of Hazel Creek, Little John and Dock Jones were “the two best-known hunters” on the watershed “near the turn of the century.” That’s saying something, when the region boasted hunters such as Granville Calhoun, Bill Cope, and Matt Hyde, all of whom were on the bear hunt with Kephart; or rather, he was with them.

Duane was also of the opinion that, “The best chapter in the book is Chapter 4 in which [Kephart] gives an excellent picture of what a bear hunt was like, showing that it was dangerous and exhausting for the hunters and the dogs, as well as clearly showing their bravery, intelligence, and sense of comradeship. From the chapter, one also gains a feeling of how wild and remote the top of the Smokies was at the time.”

Little John was born in 1856 on land his grandfather had purchased, and he lived there for 84 years on the home place. The land stayed in the family until they were forced out by the Tennessee Valley Athority in the early 1940s to make way for the flooding of the Fontana Lake reservoir. He hunted with a muzzle-loading rifle of his own making. He also made the hunting knives they skinned animals with or fought bears with when need be. 

And like many of the old-time hunters he could rare back and talk up a blue streak when he was in the right mood. One of his saddest moments was when the bullet from a powerful 30-30 carbine passed through Old Reelfoot, killing the bear and Coaly, who had jumped unseen up on a log behind the beast.

That’s enough by way of introduction. It’s early winter of 1906. Little John Cable is sitting with his companions in the old herder’s cabin on the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee, waiting for the next day’s hunt. They’re all excited. Then Kephart riles up Little John by asking if any of his dogs “have got the Plott strain.” Kephart has heard that “Plott hounds are the best bear dogs in the country.” Little John is not amused.

 “’Tain’t so,” snorted John. “The Plott curs are the best: that is, half hound, half cur — though what we-uns calls the cur, in this case, raelly comes from a big furrin dog that I don’t rightly know the breed of. Fellers, you can talk as you please about a streak o’ the cur spilin’ a dog; but I know hit ain’t so — not for bear fightin’ in these mountains, whar you cain’t foller up on hossback, but hafter do your own runnin’.”

 “What is the reason, John?”

 “Waal, hit’s like this: a plumb cur, of course, cain’t foller a cold track — he just runs by sight; and he won’t hang — he quits. But, t’other way, no hound ’ll raelly fight a bear — hit takes a big severe dog to do that. Hounds has the best noses, and they’ll run a bear all day and night, and the next day, too; but they won’t never tree — they’re afeared to close in. Now, look at them dogs o’ mine. A cur ain’t got no dew-claws — them dogs has. My dogs can foller ary trail, same’s a hound; but they’ll run right in on the varmint, snappin’ and chawin’ and worryin’ him till he gits so mad you can hear his tushes pop half a mile. He cain’t run away — he haster stop every bit, and fight. Finally he gits so tired and het up that he trees to rest hisself. Then we-uns ketches up and finishes him.”

“But somebody, thinking that dog-talk had gone far enough, produced a bottle of soothing-syrup … Then we discovered that there was musical talent, of a sort, in Little John. He cut a pigeon-wing, twirled around with an imaginary banjo, and sang in a quaint minor:

 

Did you ever see the devil,

With his pitchfork and ladle,

And his old iron shovel,

And his old gourd head?

O, I will go to meetin’,

And I will go to meetin’,

Yes, I will go to meetin’,

In an old tin pan.

 

Other songs followed, with utter irrelevance — mere snatches from “ballets” composed, mainly, by the mountaineers themselves, though some dated back to a long-forgotten age when the British ancestors of these Carolina woodsmen were battling with lance and long-bow.

 

La-a-ay down, boys,

Le’s take a nap:

Thar’s goin’ to be trouble

In the Cumberland Gap —

 

Following an uneventful day, they head back to the cabin, dog-tired and quiet until Little John gets in the talking mood again:

“That pup Coaly chased off atter a wildcat. We held the old dogs together and let him rip. Then Dred started a deer. It was that old buck that everybody’s shot at, and missed, this three year back. I’d believe he’s a hant if ’t wasn’t for his tracks — they’re the biggest I ever seen. He must weigh two hunderd and fifty. But he’s a foxy cuss. Tuk right down the bed o’ Desolation, up the left prong of Roaring Fork, right through the Devil’s Race-path (how a deer can git through thar I don’t see!), crossed at the Meadow Gap, went down Eagle Creek, and by now he’s in the Little Tennessee. That buck, shorely to God, has wings!”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .      

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