The mountains that tower above the Birch River weather the brunt of winter storms that sweep across central West Virginia, and it was among them on a November night that a legendary battle between man and nature was fought.
Though his legend has grown obscure, Bill Barnett was a hero in the hills where Braxton and Nicholas counties join—known far and wide as the greatest of the bear hunters. When he lived and died is not entirely certain, though most folks assume he witnessed the Civil War, though chances are that he was already old by the time of the conflict.
What follows is an amended text that was featured in the 1976 West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, though other versions of the story exist. But a tale such as this deserves detail, and the encyclopedia’s editor, Jim Comstock, was never shy about making sure there was plenty to be had.
“People in that area say that on one occasion in November he went hunting with his muzzle-loading rifle and his dog, Bounce. After walking half the day, he reached a rocky hill on which unmistakable signs of bear could be detected. It was not long before the bear appeared, and immediately the big, black animal received a charge from Barnett’s muzzle-loader. Then the dog was upon it, and a fierce, if uneven, fight ensued.
“Perhaps because he didn’t want to hit the dog, his second shot went wild, and he determined to attack with his knife. He had to do something or his dog would have been killed, so without a second thought, he waded into the fray. As the three rolled about on the ground, Bill slashed again and again with his knife, and the bear gnashed back with his teeth.
“After an hour or more of fighting, the bear suddenly came down on the hunter’s chest, and as he did so, Bill caught him by the scruff of the neck and hacked with his knife until he was able to pierce the animal’s brain. Dead, at last, the bear rolled down the hill, and, later, people found that it had grabbed at rocks with its teeth while rolling and bit them in two. After resting momentarily, Bill tried to rise to go to the bear but found that one leg could not be used. Crawling on his hands and one knee, he got down to the dead monster and gutted him. Then he took a piece of bloody cloth, tied it to the neck of the dog, and sent it home. His only hope was that Bounce would get to civilization and bring back help.
“It was not long afterward that Bounce reached the house where Mrs. Barnett was fixing dinner. She ran from one neighbor to another, and soon a party was made up to search for the wounded man. The dog attempted to lead them, but it was so exhausted that it soon was unable to go on. That evening the search party returned without its man. They had not been able to find him.
“Meanwhile, Bill had cut himself a crutch and tried to walk out, but he was in such pain that he finally returned to the carcass of the bear and lay down on it for its softness and warmth. Snow began to fall, so by using some gunpowder, he managed, painfully, to make a fire. Within several hours, however, a fever had set in, and he had a powerful thirst which he could not quench with moisture from the dead leaves. He felt sure that he would not live until morning.
“It was in that condition that he was found by Morgan Baughman, who went off in search of Barnett after returning with the unsuccessful search party. Reaching the half-dead man, he brought him a drink of water from the creek in his boot. It was the best drink Bill Barnett had ever had.
“The bear which Bill had hoped would be his family’s winter meat supply barely lasted one night. After Baughman brought Bill home, a group of neighbors went out after the bear, and Bill, despite his pain and his injuries, was too much of a gentleman not to invite everyone to help themselves. ‘There’s more out there where that came from,’ he said, but it was not until the following winter that he felt able to hunt bear again. Nevertheless, we are told, Bill Barnett lived another 42 years after the time he tangled with the bear.”
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