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Hunting the Bucks

(In Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons, Bear is a wise old Cherokee chief. Here he reflects on one of his regrets in life, as related by the narrator, his adopted son Will Cooper…)

Bear was not exempt from self-congratulatory regret. In his last years, he often thought back on his vast killing of animals. He said he didn't regret one animal he killed out of hunger, but it was the hunting for trade he wished he hadn't done. In the young days of the world, there had been prayers to the animals, the dwellers in the wilderness, begging their pardon for the necessity of killing them for food and spilling their blood, bear and deer especially. They hold a great deal of blood, an embarrassment of it, like killing a man. It spills out all over the place. So there were rules for dealing with it. You fed the river with the blood of bear and deer that pooled in the fallen leaves. When you spilled it, you prayed and fed the river, and you were square with the world. But that was back when the women farmed and the men hunted. And together they made a living that neither could accomplish alone, a fact acknowledged in the very marriage ceremony, which included an element of trade, an equal exchange between woman and man of corn for meat skins. But then, not long ago, all of a sudden there was money to be made from killing, to the extent that deerskin was currency and the buck a more common denomination than a dollar and of equal value. You'd see men leading long strings of packhorses with twenty badly cured skins stacked high and stiff across the back of each one. Lots of bucks.

In the face of so much money, men did as they always do; they lost their manners. The prayers went away, and then before long the bear and deer went away too. And Bear always said it like that: the deer went away. Or the deer left. He never said the exact truth, which was that people killed every valuable animal they could hunt down for cash money or in trade for tin pots or gingham cloth at the post, and never acknowledged that the elk and bison didn't just wander off somewhere else and disappear from this world entirely but were every one hunted down. In a note of unintended irony, the place where the last one in each section of country was killed usually became memorialized in the name of a creek or a cove or a ridge. Or at least with a rotting patchy hide tacked to a barn wall.

Bear described walking up to a badly wounded buck sprawled on the ground too weak to move, one hind leg broken by a ball and twisted beneath it and another ball in its belly, blood blackening the leaves around it. An entire branch of antler sheared off near the skull by another missed ball. Bear remembered the look in the buck's eye as it watched him coming to cut its throat and sell its skin for a dollar.

—There's not a prayer for that, he would say.

Bear was always in a wistful mood telling that story. I heard it a dozen times. But back in the trade-hunting days he would not have been wistful. He would have wanted that dollar, would have wanted a great high stack of them.

- Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons (Random House, 2006), pp. 326-327.