Volume IV, No. 1, Fall 1976
Story and drawings by Emery Savage
Eighteen year old Ivan Hill grunted as he pulled on the last worn boot over two pairs of woolen socks, his eyes searching the room for his flashlight and pocketknife. When he rose to his feet, he looked nearly out of porportion with his thin face and hands sticking out of the thick layers of insulated underwear covered by a large cotton flannel shirt and tattered and faded overalls. A piece of bent wire replaced one of the overall buckles and large thick burlap patches were sewn on the knees and thighs to allow him to walk through blackberry patches with little fear of getting stuck. Ivan grabbed his flashlight and slid a plug of Days Work Chewing Tobacco into the hip pocket of his overalls.
As he searched through the old dresser for some .22 shells, he dreamed of catching that big coon over on the old Morlock place that his Pa had treed many times before. The coon was said to be nearly twenty-five pounds and would bring a good price down at the fur trade. Many a man had trailed that old coon and many a story had been told of how he always outsmarted anyone that tried for him. Nightly he ran in the thoughts and dreams of every coon hunter that had ever seen the big boar coon.
But Ivan was sure that he wouldn't be out smarted by the old coon. He wanted to take him so badly he could taste it and he thought how proud he would be when the men down at the fur trade saw that he had finally caught the big boar coon that everyone called Ol' Ned.
His dream was cut short by a call from the front of the small three room house.
"Ain't you ready yit? What the hell are ye doin'"
"I'm lookin' fer them twenty-two shells."
"They're in here in my pocket."
The voice was that of Ivan's father, Amos, a country man as at home in the woods as the deer. He was so tall and lanky that he slouched and his broad shoulders sagged. His hair was nearly gone and his whiskered face was still brown from working long summer hours in the sun. He stood impatiently at the door with one hand on the throw latch and two leashes made from braided binder twine in the other.
"Hurry up, son!" His voice grew more impatient. Ivan finally entered the room slowly and smiling broadly.
He knew that waiting on anyone aggravated the daylights out of his Pa so he took advantage of it every chance he got.
"You ain't gettin' anxious, are ye?" Ivan was grinning even bigger now, delighted by his father's torment.
"Hell, no, but I don't want to stand 'round here all night while you're in that bedroom messin' around."
"Well, ye don't have to git all red in the face about it."
His father's eyes started to rage with anger and Ivan burst out laughing. Amos tried to keep a straight face when he realized he once again had been a sucker for his son's torment.
"Oh, some on," he grinned.
He unlatched the door and they walked out on the porch into the cool, damp night air. The sky was black with only a few stars to dot the cold black night.
"Good night for a hunt," Amos said, gazing at the sky. "They ought to be stirrin' pretty good."
As they started down the old wooden steps and down the winding path to the dog houses, they could hear the hounds barking in excited anticipation, pulling and tugging at their chains.
Ivan took a leash and walked to the house under a large walnut tree to a large male black and tan hound. Ivan had raised him from a pup. He was sure that if there was a dog in the county that could take the old boar coon, it would be John. John was young, fast and strong, a good tree dog and a fighter. But the one thing John lacked was experience. That's where Granny, Amos's dog, came in.
Any man who coon hunted had heard of that old speckled blue tick hound. Granny was fourteen years old and had seen more hunts than most dogs could ever dream of. But now, she was slow and fat. Her ears and nose were scarred from many many hunts and her voice was coarse and cracked. All but two of her teeth were gone, so she was no longer much of a scrapper, but she was very wise. If there was a coon around, Granny would find him and stay with him until she had him treed, and Granny never left a tree.
Amos snapped on the leash and started toward the truck with Granny trotting a little ways ahead of him. Ivan snapped his leash onto John's collar and unsnapped his chain. Like a bolt of lightning John charged the truck, nearly dislocating Ivan's shoulder. He took off dragging Ivan over a series of rocks, stumps and ditches, and through several large briar bushes.
"What's the matter, son? Can't ye handle that little ol' black and tan?" Amos teased when John came running by dragging Ivan at the end of his leash, arms and legs flopping like a shirt in the wind.
Amos saundered on up the path with Granny slightly tugging at her leash. When they got to the wood pile, Amos stooped to pick up the chopping ax.
"I got a feelin' we're gonna need this tonight," he said to Granny patting her.
When the two finally reached the truck, Amos found John already in the back of the truck and Ivan sitting on the ground gasping for breath.
"Well, it's about time ye was a-gittin' here," Ivan puffed.
"Yeah, if I couldn't handle my dog, I probably would have got here sooner, too," Amos chuckled.
Amos loaded Granny in the truck and they tied the two dogs to the racks of the old truck. A lot of dogs had been lost jumping out of pickups.
Amos and Ivan climbed into the shakey old blue truck and gave each door five hard slams before either door shut. Amos fired up the old truck and it belched up a big puff of blue smoke. He jammed her in gear and they bounced down the old road through the woods to the main road. A rabbit darted across the road when the old truck passed a large blackberry patch. But Ivan scarcely noticed, being so preoccupied with hoping that Amos planned on hunting the old Morlock place.
"Where ye figger on huntin' at?" Amos knew what the boy had on his mind. He wanted to hunt the old coon as badly as his son, but he didn't want to seem anxious.
"I thought maybe we would go over to o1' man Baker's place. He said the coons are gettin' thick over there and he's gettin' too old and crippled up to keep 'em hunted out. I figger we could do pretty good over there on a night like this."
Amos paused a moment and glanced over to see the disappointment on his son's face. "Don't ye think that would be a pretty good idea?" Amos asked, testing the boy.
"Yeah, Pa, I've been wantin' to git into them coons over there," he said as convincingly as he could.
The little truck clamored on down the old road through the woods until it met the main road. The road to the left went to old man Baker's and the road to the right went to the old Morlock place. Amos pulled to a stop, and then suddenly turned to the right.
"I though ye were goin' to Baker's!" Ivan said surprised.
"Well, I figgered if we went over on Baker's, we'd most likely tree four or five coons, and that o1' Granny dog of mine is a-gettin' to where she don't like to tree much more than one coon a night. So I figgered we'd go over on that old Morlock place and see if we can't git that ol' big coon you're always hollerin' about."
Ivan grinned from ear to ear while Amos chuckled to himself.
"You sure that ol' dog of yours can keep up with that big coon any more?" Ivan asked smiling.
"Don't you worry none about that o1' Granny dog. All you've got to worry about is keepin' that dog of yours from gettin' after a deer and gettin' lost."
This was the most insulting thing Amos could say about Ivan's dog, because Ivan had had a lot of trouble with John running deer. Then just about the time Ivan thought he had him broke of it, he took John to the big UKC hunt, the coon hunting organization's annual hunt and competition in events that range from buddy hunts and bench shows to water races and singles hunts. Usually Ivan would get together with the other coon hunters and listen to big stories and share old memories. But last year Ivan entered John in the buddy hunt, where two men hunt their dogs together escorted by a judge who awards points, or subtracts points for such things as treeing a possum, leaving a tree, or, the sin of all sins, running a deer. In the middle of the hunt, Ivan's dog got after a deer and was lost for several days. Every hunter around heard about it, and as if this wasn't embarrassment enough, Amos's dog got a first place trophy in both the buddy hunt and the singles hunt.
Ivan flashed a mock smile across his face and turned this head toward his window to hide his embarrassment.
They pulled onto a dim road that went down through a big white oak woods. A warped wooded gate guarded the road like a faithful old soldier. Ivan jumped out of the truck slamming the door. A startled red bird darted out of a small cedar tree and disappeared into the darkness. Ivan opened the ricketey gate and Amos pulled the truck through, scarcely slowing down as Ivan jumped in the back with the dogs.
As they wound their way deeper into the woods, the dogs began to get restless. They stuck their noses through the pickup racks, sniffing the air for a single trace of a scent. Suddenly Granny laid her head back and let out a long bawling bark. Her frosty breath rose and swirled in the air like a ghost as she tugged hard at her chain. Amos pulled the old truck over and Ivan unsnapped the chains from the dogs' collars. They bolted out of the truck and disappeared into the darkness, their presence evident only by the rustling autumn leaves. Ivan jumped out of the back of the truck cursing as he hit the hard frozen ground. Amos got his ax and Ivan's .22 caliber rifle.
"You think that was the ol' big coon my dog smelled back there?" Amos asked.
"Well, I don't think we'll find out standin' around here." Ivan grabbed his light and started walking down the hollow with Amos not two steps behind. By the time Amos's long legs had crossed three deep hollows, Ivan was fifty long steps behind.
Amos laid down his ax and sat down on a decaying log. Soon Ivan, more tattered than ever, came stumbling up the hill. He lay down on the frost covered leaves leaning on one elbow and gasping for air.
"I figgered ye could use a rest. Boys now-a-days can't walk like they used too," Amos bragged.
"Yeah, I can outwalk you without even tryin'. I was just layin' back to give the dogs time to hunt," he said puffing.
"Oh," said Amos with mock surprise, "then how come you're pantin' like a lizard on a hot rock?"
Both men laughed as they settled down for a short rest to give the dogs time to hunt. They heard a rustle in the leaves as the old blue tick emerged from the darkness, then was gone as fast as she came.
"She's checkin' up to see where we're at," Amos said. "I don't like a dog that hunts too close, but it's good to have one that'll check in now and then."
Ivan shut off his light and they were thrown into a completely different world. Both men lay still listening to the clear night sounds. A whippoorwill sang his lone call deep in the hollow. The cold wind carried the mournful cry of a barred owl through the dead leaves of the whispering oaks. Ivan watched two glow worms start their slow race under the frost covered ferns. A chill ran down his back as the cold breeze stirred the dry leaves around him. He gazed up through the trees at the stars. The stars had an uncanny brightness like shards of ice in the coal black sky. Entranced by their never-ending number, he was brought back to earth by the shrill scream of a screech owl.
Amos shoved his big hand into his pocket and pulled out a small white pouch of Country Gentlemen Tobacco and one cigarette paper. With skilled hands he creased the paper and dumped in some tobacco. He grabbed one draw string on the pouch between his teeth and pulled the pouch shut. Carefully he sealed the edge of the paper with his tongue and placed the cigarette loosely between his lips.
"Did I ever tell ye about the time I got stuck in that big sycamore tree down at the end of this big holler?"
He scratched a wooden match across his overalls and lit the cigarette as he began his story.
"Well, I was a-huntin' down here, oh, about ten year ago, I reckon, when I had that little red bone bitch named Ruby. We was a-huntin' down here one night, and I swear it was so damn dark you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. I didn't have a flashlight back then, so I carried this o1' kerosene lantern with me when I weNt a-huntin'. But we got down here and she treed right down at the end of this holler where it joins that little creek down there in an ol' sycamore tree. I bet it must have been a hundred and fifty feet high. But I knowed there was a coon in there cause ol' Ruby never treed possums. So I decided I was gonna climb it. I started climbin' and after a while I got high enough that my lantern wouldn't shine all the way to the ground, but I was still low enough it wouldn't shine to where the coon was. I didn't know how much higher it was to the top, but I kept on a-climbin'. I climbed and I climbed and I finally got to the top, and sittin' out on one skinny limb was the littlest coon you've ever seen in yer life. I bet he weren't no bigger than a damn squirrel. I shook him out of the tree. I didn't know how high I was, but I knew it took that coon a long time to hit the ground.
"I started back down and I got a bunch of that damn sycamore bark in my eyes. I was a-fumblin' around there and I dropped that damn lantern. When it hit the ground, it caught some of the leaves on fire and kinda lit up the place so I could see how high I was. I looked down there and I could see Ruby. I swear she looked to me like an ant! I bet I was at least a hundred and seventy-five feet up, and there I was without a sign of a light. It was so dark I couldn't see a thing. I just got scared as hell, ye know, and I couldn't make myself move. But I couldn't stay up there cause I'd freeze to death before morning if I did. I had to feel my way out of that tree! It took me almost half the night to get out. When I finally got to the bottom I was so cold and scared and grateful for gettin' out that I just stood there and shook for a long time. But that was the damndest night I ever put in, in my life. And the very next day I went over there with an ax..."
Amos was cut short by the barking of a dog in a distant hollow. Both men strained to catch the faint sound on the wind. Soon they heard it again.
"That's your black and tan, ain't it, Ivan?" he whispered.
"Yep. He's barkin' on a cold trail."
While they listened, the barks got longer and closer together.
"We better start toward him. I think he's gonna tree," Ivan said.
Amos broke into a slow trot crossing the hollow with Ivan at his heel, scarcely slowing down to cross a rusty barbed wire fence. They climbed up a steep hill and crossed a field edged with large bulldozed piles of trees and brush. When they reached a creek bottom, they paused to listen. The barks had now turned to long deep bawls.
"Ain't he got a purty tree mouth?" Ivan asked proudly.
"Yeah, we better get to 'im before he leaves tree," Amos said.
They struck off up the creek bed occasionally stumbling over a loose rock. Finally their flashlights showed John jumping up the trunk of a half grown hackberry tree.
Ivan ran up and immediately started hissing John on the tree. "Whooo, bark on 'im, boy!" he screamed while patting the side of the tree and squawling like a coon. Amos's light searched the limbs of the tree for a pair of glowing eyes while the big dog's excitement grew more intense. Finally the light fell on an old squirrel nest half way up the tree.
"Bring me your twenty-two," Amos said. "I think he's in a squirrel nest."
Ivan handed Amos the gun and watched as he took careful aim at the center of the nest. Crack! The bullet hit the nest with a solid thud. The dog stopped barking and looked up, waiting anxiously for his prize.
"I hit somethin' in there, I know, cause I heared it thud," Amos said.
Suddenly the nest rattled as something kicked its way out. It came crashing down through the trees and hit the frozen ground. Almost before it hit John seized it in his jaws. Ivan hurried over to hiss him on. Suddenly he stopped short and his excited expression turned to cold anger.
"It's a damn possum," he screamed. "You stupid animal! What's the matter with you? Drop that possum!" He seized the dog by the collar and briskly boxed his ears. John opened his mouth and the possum lay still on the ground.
"You git out of here and tree a coon, Ivan ordered, helping him on the way with a swift kick in the dog's rear. John slunk away with his tail between his legs.
Amos picked up the possum by his bare tail to inspect it.
"Is it dead?" Ivan asked.
"Nope. He's just sulled right now. I just hit him in the leg, so I think he'll be all right."
They laid the possum down and walked away. Ivan shined his light over his shoulder just in time to see the little gray animal go scurrying into the darkness.
"Yep, that John's gonna make ye a good possum dog someday," Amos said tauntingly. "Ye noticed Granny didn't have nothin' to do with that, didn't ye?"
"Where is ol' Granny, anyway," Ivan asked.
A bark on top of the hill answered his question.
"There she is," Amos said. "Sounds like she'd tryin' to pick up a track." Her barks became more intense.
"She's trailin' one up on that cedar ridge."
Soon John came darting by to join in the hunt. The two men listened as both dogs began trailing together.
"It's a hot track," Amos said. "We'd best get up there." They started a fast walk up the steep cedar bluff, the limbs of the cedars grabbing at them to slow them down. when they reached the top of the bluff, they paused to listen to the hounds.
"They're headin' fer the river," Ivan said, gasping for breath.
They crossed a fence and ran across the stubble of a corn field, when they reached the woods on the other side, they stopped again to listen.
"They're both treed down by the river," Amos said. "Come on."
They ran down the bluff jumping logs and stumps. Briar bushes tore at their clothes. Their heavy breath rose in the air like dragon's steam.
When they reached the bank of the river, both dogs were jumping excitedly at the foot of a huge sycamore tree. John clawed wildly at the bark of the tree. Both men shined their lights searching for eyes while hissing the dogs on. Ivan shined his light on a large hole half way up the trunk.
"He's in a hole," he yelled above the barking dogs.
Amos started swinging his ax with the skill of a lumberjack. Ivan kept his light on the hole and hissed the dogs on.
"Whooo, bark on 'em, boy, bark on ' em."
After about fifteen minutes the large tree cracked and came crashing to the ground. Suddenly a huge dark coon unfolded out of the hole.
"Whooo, it's o1' Ned," Amos yelled. Both dogs lunged at the coon like a pack of wolves. The large coon got a firm grip on John's nose with his teeth. The dog yelped with pain and tried to back off, but the coon held his grip. Granny circled behind and grabbed the coon on the back of the neck, but the coon turned and caught one of her ears, tearing it and making her jump back with pain. Again John lunged at the coon, this time catching him just behind the ears and shaking him wildly. But the coon worked loose and took a deep hunk out of the dog's leg. Puffs of gray fur floated in the air as squalls and yelps filled the night's silence. Finally the coon backed up both dogs just long enough to spin and run for the river. John leaped after him, but the coon reached the water first.
"That coon's luring him out there to drown him," Amos said. "He'll wrap around his head and take him under."
Ivan held his breath as he watched his dog swim after the old coon. The water in the big eddy never looked so deep, black, and cold before. As John drew nearer to the coon, the coon suddenly disappeared in the black water. John swam in circles around the place where the coon had gone under. Then without warning, he too disappeared into a swirl of water.
"He's had it now," Amos yelled. "That coon's got him under there. If a dog gits water in his ears, he's as good as dead."
Ivan began peeling off his boots and socks. He waited a moment longer, but could see nothing of the big dog. He began unsnapping the galluses of his overalls when the water swirled and up came John. Ivan called him, but the dog ignored his commands.
John swam a couple of small circles and again disappeared in the icy water.
"If he ain't got sense enough to come when I call, then let him drown," Ivan said angrily.
His tune soon changed though, when John failed to come up after several moments. Granny stood at the water's edge barking wildly and Amos jumped up and down with excitement. Ivan stood on the steep muddy bank waiting anxiously for any sign of John.
Then Ivan could wait no longer. He peeled off the heavy overalls and flannel shirt and was busy unbuttoning the top of his long handles when Amos began to holler.
"He's comin' up!" he yelled. "Here he comes!"
"He's got Ol' Ned," Amos screamed. Both men watched with astonishment as John swam toward the bank holding tightly to his prize.
"That coon had hold of a log under there, I bet," Amos said, "and John had to shake him loose."
John swam steadily toward the bank, gurgling when the heavy weight of the coon pulled his head under water.
"I think he's dead," Ivan bragged. "I think o1' John drowned him."
He swallowed his words when the coon sprang back to life five feet from the bank. He folded himself around John's head taking him under the water.
At that moment Granny leaped into the water like a shot and grabbing the coon by the neck pulled him loose. The coon swam to the bank and ran into the woods with John and Granny at his tail barking with every breath.
"Git yer clothes on, boy," Amos laughed with delight. "We got us a race goin' now."
Ivan pulled on his last boot while they listened to the coon trying to outsmart the dogs. They heard them run across the rocky ridge right above them, then across the hollow and up the creek bed. Suddenly the dogs' barking stopped.
"He's lost 'em," Amos said. "But don't ye worry. He ain't lost Granny fer long."
Amos rolled another cigarette as they waited for Granny to pick up the trail again. They heard a bark deep in the hollow, very faint as first, then growing clearer.
"Why, that's John," Ivan exclaimed holding a hand to his ear. "John's pickin' up his trail." His face glowed with pride. "I knew he was a good trail dog. He just needed some time."
"Listen closer, boy," Amos said. "Listen to which way he's a-goin'."
"He's back trackin', ain't he?" "Yea, sounds that way, don't it. But don't ye worry. Granny will straighten 'im out."
No sooner had Amos spoken than Granny was again hot on the track.
"I told ye she'd pick 'im up," Amos boasted. "Ain't a coon alive can outsmart ol' Granny."
Soon John had joined in the race. They listened as the dogs ran deeper and deeper into the woods until at last their voices faded and disappeared into the still night. Both men lay silent for a moment just listening. Then Amos mashed out his cigarette and rose slowly to his feet stretching his long legs.
"We best git on a hill where we can hear," he almost whispered.
They turned on their lights and started slowly up the hill, pausing often to catch the thinnest sound on the wind.
When they reached the top of the steep hill, the woods were unusually quiet with only the wind and the rustle
of leaves. Amos put a hand to his ear and listened quietly for one sound. Then it came, far in the distance, almost too quiet to be heard. Then it grew.
"I think they're treed," Amos whispered. "Yep. Listen."
They listened to the faint little barks. Then the sound was unmistakeable as John joined in with his loud bawling voice.
"Hot damn!" Ivan yelled. "They're treed!"
The two men bolted over the hill leaping rocks and logs, dodging limbs and bushes. They crossed three big hollows, a large sumac thicket, a wire fence and ran through a sloping pasture.
They took long strides down the hill when suddenly Amos tripped and flew through the air. He came down landing hard on the ax and cursing.
"Are you all right?" Ivan asked. "Yeah, I just cut half my leg off is all."
"You need some help?"
"No, git down there to them dogs before they leave tree. I'll wait fer ye here."
Ivan rushed over the hill increasing his stride with every bark of the hounds. He finally reached the large oak tree where both dogs were barking and jumping. Ivan hissed the dogs as he walked around the tree shining his light into the branches. His light fell on two glowing green eyes where the coon coiled himself in a fork of the tree. Ivan held the light with one hand and took aim with the other. The dogs silenced and watched, looking up and waiting anxiously.
"Get ready, boy. Here he comes.
Ivan carefully aimed at the pair of eyes and held his breath to steady his aim. Then slowly he squeezed the trigger. Click'
"Damn' Amos didn't load it," he muttered to himself. He reached into his overalls pocket, pulled out a shell and stuck it into the breech of the gun.
Again he took aim and began to squeeze the trigger. When he looked into the small green eyes, he paused. He thought what an exciting hunt the old coon had given them and how many other men had got to know the pleasure and excitement of hunting him. Then he thought of how hard the coon had fought for his life and how badly he wanted to live. Somehow it just didn't seem right that he should sweep his life away in a single moment.
He lowered his rifle and cursed the old coon. Then he pulled two leashes from his outer pockets and snapped them on the two dogs' collars. He had to drag them from the tree, patting them both on the head. They climbed the hill to the sloping pasture where he had left Amos. When they reached the top of the hill, they found Amos sitting under a small persimmon tree smiling and smacking persimmons.
"Where's your coon?" Amos asked smiling.
"He got in a hole under a big rock," Ivan said.
"Why didn't you dig 'im out?"
"Why didn't you come down there and dig him out?'
"Hell, I hurt my leg."
"Hurt your leg? I think that old men just can't walk like they used to." "That may be," Amos said laughing. He rose to his feet and took Granny's leash as they started the long walk back to the truck.
"Did I ever tell ye about the time I treed that big black coon over on Anderson's place?" Amos asked.
"Don't think you ever did," Ivan said.
As he listened to the old familiar story, he wondered how many other men had passed up their chance to kill that big coon named Ol' Ned.
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.