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The hounds of youth.



Billy Colmanjounced along in his grandfather's buggy with his feet hung over the side. From time to time he stroked the sleek red coats of Old Dan and Little Ann, nestled in the buggy box beside him. The newspaper announcement had read CHAMPIONSHIP COON HUNT TO BE HELD, and he and his father and grandfather were off to Black Fox Hollow to prove what Billy's hounds could do.

On the first day in camp Billyhad a lot to see and do, but what really mattered was the hunting. In the elimination round Billy's dogs did so well that a judge declared, "I've been hunting coons and judging coon hunts for 40 years, but I've never seen anything like that."

Old Dan and Little ann battled aroaring blizzard on the final night's competition and caught three raccoons. While Billy and the others trudged along behind them in the driving sleet, grandpa fell and painfully twisted his ankle so that it was impossible for them to keep on with the hunt. They took refuge from the wind in a sheltered gully and settled down to await daylight.


Just beforedawn the storm, with one last angry roar, blew itself out. A frozen silence settled over the canebrake. Back in the thick timber of the river bottom, the sharp snapping of frozen limbs could be heard. The tall stalks of wild cane looked exhaused from the hellish night. They were dropping and bending from the weight of the frozen sleet.

I climed out of the deep gullyand listened for my dogs. I couldn't hear them. Just as I started back down the bank, I heard something. I listened. Again I heard the sound.

Papa was watching me. "Canyou hear something else?"

"No, not the dogs," I said, "butI can hear something else."

"What does it sound like?" heasked.

"Like someone whooping," Isaid.

Papa and the judge hurried upthe bank. We heard the sound again. It was coming from a different direction.

"The first time I heard it," Isaid, "it was over that way."

"It's the men from camp," thejudge said. "They're searching for us."

We started whooping. The searchersanswered. Their voices came from all directions. The first one to reach us was Mr. Kyle. He looked haggard and tired. He asked if everything was all right.

"Yes, we're all right," papa said,"but the old man has a bad ankle. It looks like we'll have to carry him out."

"Your team broke loose and cameback to camp about midnight," Mr. Kyle said. "This really spooked us. We were sure something bad had happened. Twenty-five of us have been searching since then."

Several men climed down the bankand went over to grandpa. They looked at his ankle. One said, "I don't thing it's broken, but it sure is a bad sprain."

"You're in luck," another onesaid. "We have one of the best doctors in the state in our camp, Dr. Charley Latham. He'll have you fixed up in no time."

Mr. Kyle asked where mydogs were. I told him that theywere treed somewhere.

"What do you mean,'treed somewhere'?" he asked.

Papa explained what hadhappened.

With a wide-eyed look onhis face, he said, "Do you mean to tell me those hounds stayed with the tree in that blizzard?"

I nodded.

Looking at me, he said,"Son, I hope they have that coon treed, because you need that one to win the cup. Those two Walker hounds caught three before the storm came up."

The judge spoke up. "I'llalways believe that those hounds knew that boy needed another coon to win," he said. "If you fellows had seen some of the things those dogs have done, you'd believe it too."

Mr. Kyle took over: "We havework to do. We've been standing here acting like a bunch of schoolkids. All this time that old man has been lying there suffering. A couple of you men cut two poles and make a stretcher."

While the men were getting thepoles, papa heated the coonskins again and rewrapped grandpa's foot.

With belts and long lealther lacesfrom their boots the hunters made a stretcher. Very gently they put grandpa on it.

Again Mr. Kyle took command. "Partof us will start for camp with him," he said. "The others will go after the dogs."

"Here, take this gun," papa said tome. "I'll go with him."

Looking at me, Mr. Kyle said,"Come on, son. I want to see your hounds."

Mr. Benson led the way. "As soonas we get out of this cane," he said, "we may be able to hear them. They have the coon treed in a big blackgum tree. You're going to see a sight. Now, I mean a sight. They've walked a ring around that tree clear down through the ice and snow. You can see the bare ground. They're covered with ice, themselves."

"Wonder why they did that?"someone asked.

"I don't know," Mr. Benson replied,"unless they ran in that circle to keep from freezing to death, or to keep the coon in the tree."

I figured I knew why my dogs werecovered with ice. The cone had probably crossed the river, maybe several times. Old Dan and Little Ann would have followed him. Coming out of the river with their coats dripping wet, the freezing blast of the blizzard would have done the rest.

Nearing the tree, we stopped andstared. "Did you ever see anything like that?" Mr. Benson asked. "When I first saw them, I thought they were white wolves."

My dogs hadn't seen us when wecame up. they were trotting round and round. Just as Mr. Benson had said, we could see the path that they had worn down through the ice and snow until the bare black earth was visible. Like two ghostly white shadows, around and around they trotted.

With a choking sob I ran for mydogs. On hearing our approach, they sat down and started bawlking "treed." I noticed their voices didn't have that solid ring. Their ice-covered tails made a rattling sound as they switched this way and that on the icy ground.

A large fire was built. Standing mydogs close to the heat, the gentle hands of the hunters went to work. With handkerchiefs and scarves heated steaming-hot, little by little the ice was thawed from their bodies.

"If they had ever laiddown," someone said, "they would've frozen to death."

"They knew it," anothersaid. "That's why they kept running in that circle."

"What I can't understandis why they stayed with the tree," Mr. Benson said. "I've seen hounds stay with a tree for a while, but not in a blizzard."

"Men," said Mr. Kyle,"the loving heart of a dog is something that man has never fully understood. Take these two little hounds. They knew this boy wanted it. They were willing to give their lives for something their master wanted."

After these words werespoken, a thoughtful silence settled over the men. The mood was broken by the deep growling voice I had heard back in the gully.

"It's a shame that people all overthe world can't have that kind of love in their hearts," he said. "There would be no wars, slaughters, or murder; no greed or selfishness. It would be the kind of world that God wants us to have--a wonderful world."

After all the ice was thawed frommy dogs and their coats were dried out, I could see they were all right, I was happy again and felt good all over.

One of the hunters said, "Do youthink those hounds are thawed out enough to fight a coon?"

"Sure, just run him out of thattree," I said.

At the crack of a gun the coon ranfar out on a big limb and stopped. Again the hunter sprinkled him with bird shot. This time he jumped. Hitting the ground, he crouched down. Old Dan made a lunge. This gave Little Ann a chance. During in, her jaws closed on the back of the coon's neck. I knew the fight was over.

Arriving back at camp, I saw thatall the tents had been taken down but ours. A hunter said, "Everyone is in a hurry to get out before another blizzard sets in."

The hunter who had comeby our tent and collected the jackpot money came up to me. Handing me the box, he said, "Here you are, son. There's more than $300 in this box. It's all yours."

Turning to the crowd, hesaid, "Fellows, I can always say this. On this hunt I've seen two of the finest little coon hounds I ever hope to see." There was a roar of approval.

Looking down, I saw thebox was almost full of money. I was shaking all over. I tried to say "Thanks," but it was only a whisper. Turning, I handed the box to my father. As his rough old hands closed around it, I saw a strange look come over his face. He turned and looked at my dogs.

"Here it is!" someoneshouted.

The crowd parted and thehead judge walked through. I saw the gleaming metal of the gold cup in his hand. After a short speech, he handed it to me and said, "Son, this makes me very proud. It's a great honor to present this championship cup to you."

I don't know where the two silly oldtears came from. They just squeezed their way out. I felt them as they rolled down my cheeks. One dropped on the smooth surface of the cup and splattered. I wiped it away with my sleeve. Turning to my dogs, I knelt down and showed the cup to them. Little Ann licked it. Old Dan sniffed one time and then turned away.

Grandpa said, "Now that that'ssettled, I'm ready to go to town."

I went over and kissed grandpagood-by. He pinched my cheek and whispered, "We taught these city slickers that they can't come up here and beat our dogs."

I smiled. Grandpa was carried outand made comfortable in the back seat of Dr. Latham's car. I stood and watched as it wheezed and bounced its way out of sight.

"While I'm harnessing the team,"papa said, "you take the tent down and pack our gear."

On the back seat of the buggy Imade a bed out of our bedclothes. Down on the floorboards I fixed a nice place for my dogs. All through the night the creaking wheels of our buggy moved on. Several times I woke up. My father had wrapped a tarp around himself. Reaching down, I could feel my dogs. They were warm and comfortable.

Early the next morning we stoppedfor breakfast. While papa tended the team, I turned my dogs loose and let them stretch.

"eeling big and important, I said,"I don't like the looks of this weather. We'd better the scooting for home."

Papa laughed. "Sure you're not ina hurry to get home to show off the gold cup?" he said.

A smile was my only answer. Andso we left for home.

Two hundred yards this side of ourhome the road made a turn around a low foothill shutting off our house from view.

Papa said, "You're going to see ascramble as soon as we round that bend."

It was more of a stampede than ascramble. The little one came out first, and all but tore the screen door from its hinges. The older girls passed her just beyond the gate.

Mamma came out on the porch. Shewas just as excited as the girls were. She held out her arms. I ran to her. She hugged me and kissed me.

"It's good to have you homeagain," she said.

As mamma look the beautifulcup, she looked at me. The awed expression on my mother's face was wonderful to see.

"Who would have thoughtanything so wonderful could have happened to us? I'm so proud; so very proud," she said.

She walked over to papa. Afterkissing him, she said, "I just can't believe everything that has happened. I'm so glad you went along. Did you enjoy yourself?"

With a smile on his face,papa almost shouted, "Enjoy myself? Why, I never had such a time in my life."

On entering the house papasaid, "Oh, I almost forgot." He handed the box of money to mamma.

"What's this?" she asked.

"Oh, it's just a little giftfrom Old Dan and Little Ann," papa said.

Mamma opened the box. Isaw the color drain from her face. Her hands started trembling. Turning her back to us, she walked over and set it on the mantel. A peaceful silence settled over the room. I could hear the clock ticking away. The fire in the fireplace crackled and popped.

Turning from the mantel, mammalooked straight at us. Her lips were tightly pressed together to keep them from quivering. Walking slowly to papa, she buried her face in his chest. I heard her say, "Thank God, my prayers have been answered."

That night, as I was preparing forbed, a light flashed and peeked through the pane. It was mamma. Carrying my lantern and two large plates heaped high with food, she was heading for the doghouse. Setting the light down on the ground in front of it, she called to my dogs. While they were eating, mamma did something I couldn't understand. She knelt down on her knees in prayer.

After they had eaten their food,mamma started petting them. I could hear her voice, but couldn't make out her words. Whatever she was saying must have pleased them. Little Ann wiggled and twisted. Even Old Dan wagged his long red tail, which was very unusual.

Papa came out. I saw him put hisarm around mamma. Side by side they stood for several minutes looking at my dogs. When they turned to enter the house, I saw mamma dab at her eyes with her apron.

Although the winning ofthe cups and the money was a big event in my life, it didn't change my hunting any. I was out after the ringtails every night.

I had been hunting theriver bottom hard for about three weeks. On that night I decided to go back to the Cyclone Timber country. I had barely reached the hunting ground when my dogs struck a trail. Old Dan opened up first. They struck the trail on a ridge and then dropped down into a deep canyon, up the other side, and broke out into some flats. I could tell from their steady bawling that the scent was hot. Three times they treed the animal.

Every time I came close to the treethe animal would jump, and the race would be on. After a while I knew it wasn't a coon. I decided it was a bobcat.

The fourth time they treed they wereon top of a mountain. After the long chase I figured the animal was winded and would stay in the tree. In a trot I started to them. As I neared the tree, Little Ann came to me, reared up, and whined. By her actions I knew something was wrong. I stopped. In the moonlight I could see Old Dan sitting on his haunches, staring up at the tree and bawling.

The tree had lots of dead leaves onit. I knew it was a large white oak, because it is one of the last trees in the mountains to lose its leaves.

Old Dan kept bawling. Then he didsomething he had never done before. For seconds his deep voice was still, and silence settled over the mountains. His lips were curled back, and he snarled as he stared into the dark foliage of the tree. His teeth gleamed white in the moonlight. The hair on his neck and and along his back stood on end. A low, deep rumbling crowl rolled from his throat.

I was scared, and I called to him. Iwanted to get away from there. Again I called, but it was no use. He wouldn't leave the tree, for in his veins flowed the breeded blood of a hunting hound. In his fighting heart there was no fear.

I set the lantern down and tightenedmy grip on the handle of the ax. Slowly I started walking toward him. Then I saw them--two burning yellow eyes--staring at me from the shadowy foliage of the tree. I stopped, petrified with fear.

The deep baying of Old Danstopped, and again the silence closed in. I stared back at the unblinking eyes. I could make out the bulk of a large animal, crouched on a huge branch that was close to the trunk of the big tree. Then it moved. I saw it clearly as it passed between the moon and me. I knew what it was. It was the devil cat of the Ozarks, the mountain lion.

The silence was shattered by onelong, loud bawl from Old Dan. I'd never heard my dog bawl like that. It was different. His voice rang out over the mountains, loud and clear. The vibration of the deep tones rolled in the silence of the frosty night, on and on, out over the flats, down in the canyons and died away in the rim-rocks, like the cry of a lost soul. Old Dan had voiced his challenge to the devil cat.

There was a low cough and a deepgrowl from the lion. I saw him crouch. I knew what was coming. My hands felt hot and sweaty on the smooth ash handle of the ax. With a blood-curdling scream he sprang from the tree with claws outspread and long, yellow fangs bared.

Old Dan didn't wait. Rearingup on his hind legs, he met the lion in the air. The heavy weight bowled him over and over. He wound up in a fallen treetop. The colliding of the two bodies threw the lion off balance. Little Ann darted in. Her aim was true. I heard the snap of her steel-trap jaws as they closed on his throat.

I went berserk and chargedinto the fight. There in the flinty hills of the Ozarks I fought for the lives of my dogs. I fought with the only weapon I had, the sharp cutting blade of an ax. Screaming like a madman, with tears running down my face, I hacked and chopped at the big, snarling mountain cat.

I had cut the big cat several times. Bloodshowed red on the blades of the ax, but as yet I had not got in the fatal lick. I knew it had to be soon, for my dogs were no match against the razor-sharp claws and th elong, yellow fangs.

The big cat now had Old Dan bythe throat. At the pitiful bawl of Old Dan, Little Ann--throwing caution to the wind--ran in and sank her teeth in the lion's tough neck.

With her claws digging into themountain soil, she braced herself and started pulling. The muscles in her small legs knotted and quivered. She was trying hard to pull the devil cat's fangs from the throat of Old Dan.

In the rays of a bright Ozark moon,I could see clearly. For an instant I saw the broad back of the big cat. I saw the knotty bulge of steel-bound muscle, the pistonlike jerk of the deadly hind claws, trying for the downward stroke that could disembowel a dog.

Raising the ax high over my head, Ibrought it down with all the strength in my body. My aim was true. Behind the shoulders, in the broad, muscular back, the heavy blade sank with a sickening sound. The keen edge cleaved through the tough skin, on down through bone and gristle until the spine was severed.

As the heavy body struck theground, something exploded in my head. I knew no more. When I came to, I was sitting down. It was silent and still. A bird, disturbed by the fight, started chirping far up on the side of the mountain. A small winter breeze rustled some dead leaves in the deep canyon. A cold, crawling chill crept over my body.

I looked over at the lion. My dogswere still glued to his lifeless body. In his dying convulsions the ax had become dislodged from the wound. It lay there in the moonlight, covered with blood.

I got to my feet and went over tomy dogs. I knew I had to inspect them to see how badly they were hurt. It wasn't too hard to get Little Ann to loosen her hold. I examined her body. She was cut in several places, but nothing fatal. The only bad wound she had was in her shoulder. It was nine inches long and down to the clean, white bone. She started licking it immediately.

It was different with Old Dan. Tryas I might, he wouldn't turn loose. I took hold of his hind legs and tried to pull him loose. It was no use. He knew that the hold he had was a deadly one, and he wasn't going to let go until the body turned cold and stiff.

With my ax handle, I pried aparthis locked jaws. Holding onto his collar, I led him off to one side. I couldn't turn him loose, for I knew if I did he would go back to the lion.

With one hand I started examininghim. I ran my fingers through the short, red hair. I could feel the quivering muscles and the hot, sweaty skin. He was a bloody mess. His long, velvety ears were shredded. His entire body was a mass of deep, raw, red wounds. His friendly old face was pitiful to see. A razor-sharp claw had ripped down on an angle across his right eye.

What I saw was almost more than Icould stand. Far back in the soft belly, the slashing, razor-sharp claws of the lion had cut deep. In my inspections I had overlooked the wound. The walking and trotting motion of his body had started a heavy flow of blood.

He whimpered as I laid my hand onhis head. A warm, red tongue flicked out at it. With tears in my eyes I started talking to him. "Hang on, boy," I said. "Everything will be all right. I'll take care of you."

With trembling hands I packed thewound. Knowing that I couldn't carry him and the ax and lantern, I stuck the ax deep in the side of a white-oak tree. I blew out the lantern and hung the handle over the other blade. I wrapped my dog in my old sheepskin coat and hurried for home.

Arriving home, I awakened mymother and father. Together we doctored my dogs. Special care was given to Old Dan. The deep wound was sewed up and bandaged with a clean white cloth. We sat down and waited.

Our wait wasn't long. Slowly theheaving sides relaxed and the friendly gray eyes closed. My dog was gone. I picked him up, took him out on the porch, and laid him down. I went back inside and sat by the fireplace, lost in sorrow.

Long after my mother and fatherhad retired I sat by the fire. The hurt was so deep. I couldn't think. It had engulfed my very soul. The crackling of the fire and the tick tock, tick tock, tick tock of the grandfather clock seemed to blend in with the deep sorrow. I got up to look again at the body of my dog. Stepping out on the porch, I saw a pitiful sight. Little Ann was snuggled up ever so close to the lifeless body of Old Dan. It was too much. I couldn't stand it. I wanted to run.

I ran down through the barn lot, ondown into the fields, on and on to the riverbank. There in the gray shadows of a breaking dawn I cried the grief out of my heart.

From rough pine slabs I made abox for my dog. Upon the hillside, at the foot of a beautiful red-oak tree, I dug his grave. There, where the wild blue violets and the beautiful green ferns would grow in the spring, I laid him away.

I had a purpose in burying my dogup there on the hillside. It was a beautiful spot. From there one could see the country for miles--the long white crooked line of the river and the tall thick timber of the bottom, the sycamore, birch, and box elder. I thought, perhaps, that on moonlit nights Old Dan would be able to hear the deep voices of the hounds as they rolled out of the river bottom on the frosty air.

After the last shovel of dirtwas patted in place, I sat down and let my mind drift back through the years. I thought of the old can I used for a bank, and the first time I saw my pups in the box at the depot. I thought of the $50, the nickels and dimes, and the fishermen and black berry patches.

I looked at his grave and,with tears in my eyes, I voiced these words, "You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over." In my heart I knew that there in the grave lay a man's best friend.

Two days later, when I came infrom the bottom where my father and I were clearing land, my mother said, "Billy, you had better look after your dog. She won't eat."

I started looking for her. I went tothe barn, the corncrib, and looked under the porch. I called her name. It was no use. I was about to give up, and then I saw her. She had wiggled her way far back under the thorny limbs of a blackberry bush in the corner of the garden. I walked to her and tried to coax her out. She wouldn't budge. I got down on my knees and crawled back to her. As I did, she raised her head and looked at me.

Her eyes told the story. Theyweren't the soft, gray eyes I had looked into so many times. They were dull and cloudy. There was no fire, no life. I couldn't understand.

I carried her back to the house. Ioffered her food and water. She wouldn't touch it. I noticed how lifeless she was. I thought perhaps she had a wound I had overlooked. I felt and probed with my fingers. I could find nothing.

My father came and looked at her. Heshook his head and said, "Billy, it's no use. The life has gone out of her. She has no will to live."

That evening, when I camein from the fields, she was gone. I hurried to my mother. Mamma told me she had seen her go up the hollow from the house, so weak she could hardly stand. Mamma had watched her until she had disappeared in the timber.

I hurried up the hollow,calling her name. I called and called. I went up to the head of it, still calling her name, and praying she would come to me. I climbed out onto the flats--looking, searching, and calling. It was no use. My dog was gone.

I had a thought, a ray ofhope. I just knew I'd find her at the grave of Old Dan. I hurried there.

I found her lying on herstomach, her hind legs stretched out straight and her front feet folded back under her chest. She had laid her head on his grave. I saw the trail where she had dragged herself through the leaves. The way she lay there, I thought she was alive. I called her name. She made no movement. With the last ounce of strength in her body, she had dragged herself to the grave of Old Dan.

Kneeling down, I touched her. Shewas cold and lifeless. I couldn't cry. The hurt was too deep. I was numb all over. I felt as cold and lifeless as the body of my little dog.

Sitting down, I laid her head in mylap. Looking up to the heavens, I tried to see far beyond the vision of man, into the wonderful world of our God Almighty. In a choking voice I asked this question: "Why? Why must I hurt so? What have I done wrong? You gave them to me. Why did You take them away?"

I walked back to the house.

"Go on in to the supper table,"papa said. "I have something to say to you."

We went in and sat down. Mammaset our supper on the table. I could hear papa in the front room. I wondered what it was he wanted to talk to us about. When he came in, he had a small shoe box in his hand. A hallowed quietness settled over the room. Mamma came over and sat down. She had a sweet little smile on her face.

Walking to the head of the table,papa laid the box down. Still standing, he took the lid off, reached inside and started lifting out bundles of money. He stacked them in a neat little pile. I could see that the box must have been almost full.

Raising his head, he looked at me. "Billy,do you remember when you said a prayer and asked God to give you two hound pups?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," I said.

"That prayer was answered, wasn'tit?"

"Yes," I said, "but if He gavethem to me, why did He take them away?"

Papa said, "Billy, God works instrange ways. You see, your mother has been praying too. She was asking help so she could take you and your sisters out of these hills and into town where you could get an education. Both prayers have been answered. He gave you the pups to make you happy. Through your pups, your mother's prayer was answered. She is happy too."

Laying his hand on the money, hesaid, "This is the money earned by Old Dan and Little Ann. We now have enough to move to town."

I told papa I could see what hemeant, but I still couldn't understand why they were taken from me.

He said, "Your motherand I had already decided not to separate you from your dogs. We knew how much you loved them. We were going to leave you here with grandpa, but the good Lord didn't want that to happen. He doesn't like to see families broken up. That's why He called them back. He gave them to us as a gift. They had a job to do--the fulfillment of two prayers. When the job was done, He called them back."

Mamma said, "Somedayyou will all be married. You'll probably be scattered, living in different parts of the country, but I want you to always remember the gift that God gave us, Old Dan and Little Ann."

Papa said, "Now let usbow our heads and give thanks for our food and for all the wonderful things God has done for us."

The next day I made another box,smaller than the first one. I buried Little Ann by the side of Old Dan. I also buried a part of me along with my dog. As I stood and looked at the graves, I said, "You came together, you hunted together, and you're buried together. I'll always love you, and I'll never forget you."

I'm sure God made a heaven for allgood dogs, and I know my dogs are there. I know He made rivers, mountains, tall timber, cornfields, and old rail fences. And in that heaven, on moonlight nights, the beautiful voices of my dogs can be heard along the banks of a blue river, over the mountains, fields, and valleys and on and on through the heavenly night.
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Title Annotation:conclusion; short story
Author:Rawls, Wilson
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1986
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