Today’s guest post was written by J. Wayne Fears
No one these days can appreciate an event that took place at the foot of Tater Knob Mountain in the late 1940’s unless they could have been there. One must remember that all the deer in the Cumberland Mountains of north Alabama and southern Tennessee, not unlike much of the eastern U.S., had been hunted to near extinction before the War Between the States. In the 1940’s and 50’s the only deer in our part of the country were a few in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Bankhead National Forest of Alabama. In between, there were no deer. If a hunter wanted to see a deer he had to buy a copy of one of the outdoor magazines and look at pictures of deer taken in the “far north” or “out west”. While all of us who loved hunting would have liked to have had deer to hunt, but there just wasn’t any, period. Deer hunting was just a remote dream of me and my pals, plus plenty of men.
It is with that knowledge that you can understand the uncontained excitement that spread throughout Tater Knob that November Friday afternoon when Buck Rivers came into the general store and announced that while scouting Hurricane Creek in preparation for the coming muskrat trapping season he had found the tracks of a deer. By the size of the tracks he surmised it was a buck, a big buck! The deer had crossed the creek adjacent to the wooden bridge near the Bales farm. It had come off Tater Knob Mountain, waded the creek at a muddy shallow cattle crossing and was headed towards Lewis Mountain.
The store had its usual gathering of old men sitting around the pot-bellied stove swapping hunting tales and several farmers at the front counter settling up accounts with Mr. Miller after selling their cotton. When Buck came in telling his news quickly there were pickup trucks loaded with old men and farmers racing to the bridge. The fact a real live deer was in the valley was big news and everyone wanted to see the tracks for themselves.
About the time Buck arrived at the store with his big news, school let out and Chipmunk, Punky and I were walking home, a route that took us by the store. As we approached the store we saw the door fly open and men jumping into trucks with a sense of urgency. Why ‘ol man Purty hadn’t walked without his cane in years but he left his cane in the store and jumped up on a tailgate of a truck like a fine coon hound.
Not knowing what was going on, we reckoned that somebody’s barn must be on fire. We feared the worst.
Then a beat-up Model-A Ford emerged from all the dust and slid to a stop next to us. It was Bug Wilson and his dad. With his bug-eyes popping with excitement, Bug shouted that a deer had crossed Hurricane Creek at the bridge and for us to squeeze into the back seat to go see the tracks. Not wanting to miss seeing real deer tracks, we all tried to get in at the same time.
The short ride to the bridge was breath-taking, not because of speed, the old Model-A wouldn’t go fast, but because Punky was sitting on me and compressing my chest.
By the time we got to the bridge there was an excited crowd gathering. Buck was down in the mud at the edge of the creek showing the tracks and trying to protect them from the feet of eager onlookers at the same time. Someone produced a Kodak box camera and was down in the mud trying to take pictures, for this would be a day to remember.
It was amazing just how quickly the word went up and down the valley and within an hour the viewing of the deer tracks had turned into a community event. Men, women and children were crowding each other on the bridge to see the tracks. This did not go un-noticed by Chipmunk and Bug. They saw it as an opportunity to make some fast money.
The next morning was bitter cold and Chipmunks dad had decided to kill hogs. Hog killings were a community affair and most of us arrived at his farm early that morning to help with the sizable chore. When my dad and I got there the hogs had been shot and the hair removing was taking place using scalding hot water.
I walked over to where my friends were working at the wood pile carrying wood to keep the fire under the scalding water kettle burning hot. I could tell by the grin on Chipmunks and Bugs face something was up. Chipmunk spoke up as soon as I walked up, “JW, you ever look at the front foot of a hog”, he questioned. Not giving me time to answer he continued, “It looks just like the foot of a deer.”
I saw it coming! Excitedly, he revealed his and Bug’s plan. “Bug and I are going to slip one of the front feet of my dad’s dead hogs just as soon as the feet are cut off, he won’t miss it. Then we are going to let it dry and place it on a stick. Then we are going to go down there next to the Elders Branch foot log on Bug’s dad’s place and make some tracks in the mud. In fact we are going to make it look like a whole herd of deer passed through. Next we are going to get Punky to run into the store and announce that he has found deer tracks in Mr. Wilson’s pasture. Bug and I will man the pasture gate at the road and charge a toll to get in, two-bits each. What do you think?” he asked breathlessly.
“I think you are going to get skinned for pulling such a prank. Look at the front foot of a pig, do you think these men have never seen one and it don’t look like them deer tracks”, I almost shouted at him with Bug standing there taking it all in. I continued, “Everybody here has tracked hogs that escaped the pen and these folks know a pig track don’t look like a deer track. You’re gonna make a fool out of yourself and get into big trouble!”
He and Bug didn’t listen to me and the only thing that saved their hide was that while the pig foot was drying, hid in some bushes behind Punky’s mother’s chicken house, something, probably a possum, got it and, I guess, ate it. For months after that Chipmunk and Bug lamented about all the money they loss that cold November.
I hope you enjoyed J. Wayne’s post as much as I did. When I was growing up deer were very rare here too. I remember we saw one along Hedden Road on our way to Granny Gazzie’s after church one Sunday. We were so excited you would have thought we’d saw a zebra.
All these years later, deer are beyond common in my area. I can rarely drive to the Folk School without seeing a least a few. The other day The Deer Hunter and I saw a whole herd of deer in cow pasture down the road.