"Hunting the Wild Cat" by Alexander Gaston [II]
[From: The Daily Journal, September 24, 1882]
Hunting the Wild Cat—As Enjoyed in North Carolina.
Newbern, Sept. 22, 1832.
We have a species of game with us which, I believe, is peculiar in this section of country—at least I see no mention of it made in your excellent magazine, where I have met with descriptions of every variety of hunting. And yet the wild cat will afford the huntsman as much sport, and the hounds as much work, as any other that I ever followed. Indeed it requires a staunch and numerous pack to take them, for even when run to a stand still—no easy work, by the by—they are enabled, from their great strength and ferocity, to keep five or six dogs at bay without difficulty.
The wild cat is much larger, and infinitely stronger, than the gray fox (the red not being an inhabitant of our woods, I know nothing of). It is about as fleet as the common fox, but as it confines its run to very strong and thick covers, the chase lasts much longer than that of a fox. And being, in addition to this, a terrible enemy to the farm yard, taking off pigs, poultry, lambs, and sometimes even grown sheep, our sportsmen, who are all farmers, pursue them with inveterate industry.
Invited by the flattering appearance of the weather last week, Mr. W. and myself determined to give our dogs a trial. We according rode to cover on Saturday morning, with six couple of as fine dogs as ever followed deer, fox or wild cat. It was our first turn out this season, the whole pack was, consequently, full of riot, and the young dogs in particular were perfectly frantic. The morning was as auspicious as we could wish—the dog fennel and pine bushes hung droopingly overloaded with dew. It was quite cool, clear as a bell, and so perfectly calm that the joyous notes of the dogs, as they gamboled in wild excitement before us, or leaped up fawningly upon our horses, were heard to reecho over the distant Neuse.
After leaving the river a little to the right we threw off the hounds to a very promising cover, on the north side of Smith’s creek. Here we had not proceeded very long, when old Drummer told us that some prowler had been passing during the night. The scent was very cold, and we worked it slowly and with difficulty along the windings of the creek, frequently interrupted by the outbursts of the young dogs, after rabbits, etc. By dint of whipping and scolding, we succeeded in bringing these last under some subjection. The trail still appearing very cold, we made a cast on the opposite bank of the creek, but with no better success. The game had been there, but it must have been very early on the previous evening. In the meantime old Drummer continued to work it with untiring perseverance. The drag appearing to grow warmer, he concluded to bark the other dogs to him. Echo and Rover soon gave tongue. Macduff and Nimrod joined in; still our best fox dog, old Milton, refused to recognize the trail as legitimate; we were not sure of the nature of our game; it must be a wild cat. We continued to encourage the dogs with increased anxiety. At last all of them, young and old, acknowledged the trail, and growling into a confirmed drag, it proceeded through the river swamp, deep into the marsh, far along the margin of the river, and then what a crash! You might have heard them down the wind three miles off. And now swelling into louder and still louder strain, the quarry makes directly for the spot where we had taken our stand, upon the verge of the swamp, as far as we could well make our way. We had raised our voices in one exulting shout when the wild burst had told us the game was up. But in the tumultuous roar behind him every other sound was hushed, and the cat made straight for us, either not hearing or heeding our halloo. We were now as still as statues—and the pack came rushing on—the crushing of the reeds, the rending of the undergrowth, the splashing of the mud and water, and the deep mouth roaring of the hounds, uniting together, like the mingling tumults of a September gale, and seeming to give to the terrified animal the wings of the wind.
He must have passed within ten steps of us, but owing to the thick cover we could not catch a view. The pack, however, were close upon him, for they passed us, running breast high, all together—no running dog, or in line, but each emulously dashing for the lead. The cat seemed determined to try their mettle and beat them by downright game. Contrary to the usual practice of the animal, he made a straight stretch over the highland, along the border of Smith’s old field, at such a slashing rate that to lie by them made Madge blow like a blacksmith’s bellows on a frosty morning (he’s a little too fat at present, and not long from grass). Finding this game could never last long the cat endeavored to throw them off by a rapid succession of ugly dodges, which bothered the young dogs excessively. But old Milton was wide awake—he had followed too many foxes in his day to be outgeneraled even by a wild cat. He followed him cautiously but unerringly through all his circles and angles, and the whole pack winding after him with such close and unremitting assiduity that they only made two losses, and then for only two minutes. After circling for about half an hour in a very thick gum swamp, where he had a great advantage over the dogs, Monsieur le Chat, finding himself considerably in advance of the hounds, thought he might try them again at long tow; so, hoisting out all canvass, he made sail for Bachelor’s creek. This is just what the pack wanted; the young dogs were terribly pestered in the swamp, but here again all was plain sailing; and so the cat seemed to think too, for finding that he could not make good his retreat to Bachelor he tacked ship and stood back on his old track—but he was done up. He did indeed contrive to get back on his old place of refuge, the swamp, but we knew by the manner in which the old dogs were pushing for the lead that his fate was sealed.
He had been now two hours and a half on the pad, and we could tell, as we saw him mount a log, his eyes flashing, his hair bristling, his short tail lashing, “as doubting to return or fly,” his race of existence was run. As we raised the view hallo his tail dropped again, which he was elevating as a signal for combat, and he dropped himself from the log with weak, unsteady steps. Scarcely had he jumped from one end of the log when Milton and Echo mounted it at the other, followed by the rest of the pack. Animated by our cheer, and the sight of the devoted game, they seemed to gain additional vigor, and before we had made our way a hundred yards further in the swamp we heard a sharp angry growl, then Echo’s shrill yelp as she leaps upon the prey, and then a cry from her as if she had run afoul of a kettle of hot water. Talleyrand next gave a howl of agony as he shrunk from the rude welcome of the wild cat. All the rest as they came up seemed to acknowledge by their cries that they had caught a tartar. But what can one do against twelve? Most of them, too, young, strong and active. Why, Jackson and Beaufort alone are strong enough to pull down the strongest buck that ever stood at bay! Even a wild cat must yield to such fearful odds. So that when we succeeded in scrambling to them we found our enemy (and a huge one he was) dead upon the field and the dogs limping and baying around, manifesting, by their condition the severity of the chase and combat.
Alexander Gaston bears the name of his grandfather, Dr. Alexander Gaston, victim of the Tories. He never approached his father in ability, and was more fond of field sports, in fact early in life all kind of sport, than business of any kind. His first wife was a daughter of Dr. Hugh Jones, of whom we have spoken in connection with the sword exploit in John Caruthers Stanly’s barber shop. Mrs. Gaston was a lady of extraordinary business capacity, as some of those still in our midst could testify. She died leaving a daughter and two sons. William was killed in his first skirmish with the Indians, in Oregon, just before the war. At the time he was in Col. Stephens’ command. Hugh Jones, his second son, had a short arm and was exempt from service. Yet he volunteered in the late war, and was Adjutant of the Forty-eighth N.C. He was possessed with the belief that he would be killed in his first battle, and it turned out to be true. Being mortally wounded at Sharpsburg, his first fight, he died a week afterwards. Susan, Alexander Gaston’s daughter, married Mr. Bayliff and lived in Cuba. Her husband died, and she is now living in Boston. Some of our citizens can yet remember what a daring and graceful horsewoman she was when a young lady visiting Newbern some years ago.
The Honorable Edward Stanly’s first wife was also a daughter of Dr. Hugh Jones. She is buried in the Stanly lot in our cemetery. D.