Old Kettlefoot

Robert Sherrill © 1998

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Wires had been crossed and twisted tight as banjo strings beneath the split bottom seat of the old chair, but it still yawed and wavered ominously, with each shift and gesture of the immense weight entrusted to it. Big Tom Wilson’s awesomely broad bottom bulked out, comically, over the margins of the seat, the only one in the primitive innards of the room he was building onto his store at the entrance to Mount Mitchell State Park. He was leaning forward, his elbows on the inside of his knees, his hands hanging loosely, until he made a point. He looked a little like an old bear himself; the agate eyes set deep in the bluff, weathered face were right, though blue and encircled by those striking aureoles that come with age. They were not dead eyes, for they flared and darkened as they looked inward to the great hunts of the past. Big Tom Wilson was a bear hunter. His daddy, the first Big Tom, had been a bear hunter and his name was uttered around those hills with reverence. “He could tree a bear himself,” a hunter from the Tennessee side of the mountains said. The Toms had killed, or led hunts in which others had killed hundreds of black bear. And, now, with old Tom long gone, it is said that bear are brought in from elsewhere, not enough natives left to keep the hunters occupied in the dwindling wilderness where once the least doughty nimrod could help himself to a heap of game.

In front of Big Tom, on the bearded, bleeding pine sub-flooring, was the head of the biggest black bear I’d ever seen. Biggest Tom’d ever seen, too. A “monster,” he said. The neck must have been two-foot through, and Big Tom, or someone else, told me it weighed seven hundred pounds dressed out, thrice the size of the ordinary black bear, big as a grizzly. “I couldn’t lift up the hide,” Tom said. “Old Kittlefoot.”

He shook his head with disbelief. Tom had seen the bear’s sign and paw prints all over the mountains but mostly amongst a stand of oak in which Kettlefoot and a few of his friends dined on acorn mast, and you could tell he was a big one. “Eeenormous,” said Tom. “Kittlefoot’s paws were big as meat platters. Lord amighty I hoped I’d get that bear.” And then he hoped he wouldn’t. A broad, deep rip had mutilated the bear’s right hind paw early in life, so that is toes came down like those of an old black wash pot. It must have hurt Kettlefoot, for he favored the paw; but if it did, it never hindered him. Tom’s dogs struck the bear’s trail a dozen times but never got close. He could go straight up a cliff, practically, that the dogs had to fight or go around. Big as he was he shook them with his great strength and speed. Tom said once he had gotten ahead and above the pack chasing old Kettlefoot. He saw him humping it across a clearing, two dogs close behind. Bears don’t like for dogs to get close, so Kettlefoot turned and swept up the lead dog with a crushing blow and then swatted him twenty feet with the other paw--fungoed the beast. “He just kept turning and went on, just aflyin’,” Tom said, “hardly lost a inch. That dog was a sight to behold. Pitiful. Hell, heuz dead first time Kittlefoot hitim.” Bear dogs were unique. Back fifty or a hundred years ago, or more, they resembled no known breed because they were of many breeds. They were usually stocky, broad-backed and heavy up front. They were fearless and would run forever. At rest, they were quiet, somber and wary. They seemed to be looking at you. They were. There was only one copy of each and they were sometimes worth a fortune up in the mountains. Bear dog trading was a serious business and a dog known around the hills would have some hunters mortgaging their goods right down to their bed covers. Trading was as much a part of the hunt as the race itself.

Big Tom had taken his last deer hunt down into the hammocks of the Great Dismal in northeastern North Carolina. “Why,” he said, “they’s a sight more animal down there; way more, but you can’t shoot good through all that brush and you can’t hear the dogs.” “Can’t hear the dogs.” Ah. You mean there’s something more to bear hunting than killing and mounting the head for the knotty-pine-paneled wall of your den? The music. No true Blue Ridge hunter would set his dogs on a coon, a pig, a fox or a bear unless he could hear his precious animals. It’s a race to see who’s dog will tree first, and you can’t tell unless you hear them. A hunter will run himself to ground once he’s caught in the seductive barking and baying of a pack on the trail. If you ever once hear that hoarse call to the race, you’ll know why. That long deep brimstone bellow joined then with a chorus of harrowing, haunted howls from no place on this Earth would make an angel shiver--transfixing, irresistible; baying at the moon.

After the good Lord knows how many years, old Tom met Kettlefoot on a night so bright you could read the fine print of a n insurance policy. But, Tom’s victory troubled him; it wasn’t exactly the way he wanted it. He was bringing in his coon dogs from a run this night when they jumped Kettlefoot’s trail and off they went, filling the coves with their riotous hollering and whooping. They shouldn’t have done that; it’s not good etiquette for coon dogs to chase bear. And it can be unhealthy. Still, they broke and went for old Kettlefoot. That trail was so hot, he could have followed it, Bit Tom said. Bear smell is powerful stuff. “I just followed those dogs; couldn’t stop um, and then before I knew it, I came upon him, right up almost to the top of this old chestnut snag.”

From the moment the dogs set up a fuss until Kettlefoot treed, no more than a minute or two had gone by. So there he was, betrayed in an astonishing flash by a pack of coon dogs’ lack of character. “He just stood out so against the full moon; he made the prettiest picture you ever did see. I don’t know why, I had some punkin balls in my shotgun, so I just raised her up and shot; Kittlefoot’s paw went up and waved good-bye, and down he came. Shook the ground. Never in my life saw such a bear. Then I went over and stuck my nine Luger in his ear, you know, just to make sure.” And there he is, what’s left of him, a head stuck to an oval plague of oak wood. Old Kettlefoot.

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