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The hounds of youth.


One evening, on his way back from the mill, one of the Hatfield boys stopped at our place. He told me that my grandfather wanted to see me. It was unusual for grandpa to send for me, and it had me worried.

After a practically sleepless night, the next morning the dogs and I started for the store. Grandpa was in the store when we got there. He walked to the post-office part of the store and came back with a newspaper in his hand. He spread it out on the counter.

Pointing with his finger, he said in a loud voice, "Look, there!' I looked. The large black letters read, "Championship Coon Hunt to Be Held.' My eyes popped. Again I read the words.

Grandpa was chuckling. I said, "Boy, if that isn't something! A championship coon hunt.' Wide-eyed, I asked, "Where are they having this hunt, and what does it have to do with us?'

Grandpa was getting excited. He snorted a time or two, reared back, and almost shouted, "Do with us? Why, it has everything to do with us. All my life I've wanted to go to one of these big coon hunts. And I've got it all fixed, Billy. We can enter Old Dan and Little Ann in this championship hunt.'

He started talking with his hands. Pointing to a chair, he said, "Sit down, and I'll tell you all about it.'

Grandpa calmed down a little and started talking in a serious voice. "Billy,' he said, "it takes some doing to have a set of dogs entered in this hunt. I've been working on this for months. I've written letters on top of letters. I've even had several good friends in town helping me. You see, I've kept a record of all the coons your dogs have caught, and believe me, their catch is up there with the best of them. Now, I have already paid the entry fee and everything is fixed. All we have to do is go.'

I reared back and blurted, "It's all right with me, grandpa. Just tell me what to do.'

Grandpa slapped the counter with his hand. In a pent-up voice he said, "That's the boy! That's the way I like to hear a coon hunter talk.'

On my way home I didn't walk on the ground. I was way up in the clouds, just skipping along. With a song I told the sycamore trees and the popeyed gray squirrels how happy I was.

When I reached the house, I told papa all about it and that we were to go in grandpa's buggy and that I wanted papa to go with us.

I waited in silence for his reply. Papa sat there staring off into space and sipped his coffee. Finally he said, "I'd sure like to go, but I don't see how I can with all this work around here, and your mother and the girls.'

"Why, don't worry about the girls and me,' mamma said. "We'll be all right. Besides, it'll be several months yet before I need any help.'

When mamma said this, it dawned on me. I had been so busy with my coon hunting I hadn't noticed anything unusual. Mamma's tummy was all swelled up. She was going to have a baby. I felt guilty for not having noticed. I went over and put my arms around her and kissed her.

I saw a pleased smile spread over papa's face. He stood up. "All right, I'll go,' he said, "and by golly, we'll bring the gold cup back too.'

The morning of the 22nd finally dawned. After a good breakfast, we kissed mamma good-by and started for the store. When we reached the store, we saw the team was already hitched to the buggy. Grandpa had loaded the tent and several boxes of groceries.

Late that evening we reached Bluebird Creek. We made a lean-to and built a large fire out in front of it. While grandpa fed and watered the team, papa and I carried our bedding to the shelter and made down our beds.

Grandpa said, "While we're cooking supper, you see to your dogs. Feed them and fix them a warm bed.'

With supper over and the dishes washed, grandpa said, "Well, we had better turn in. I want to get an early start in the morning.'

Breakfast over and our gear stowed back in the buggy, we left Bluebird Creek. On that day grandpa drove a little faster than he had on the previous one. I was glad of this, for I was anxious to reach the campground.

When we came in sight of the camp, I couldn't believe what I saw. I stared in amazement. I had never seen so many people at one gathering. Tents were spread out over an acre and a half of ground; all colors, shapes, and sizes. There were odd-looking cars, buggies, wagons, and saddle horses.

I heard grandpa say almost in a whisper, "I knew there would be a lot of people here, but I never expected so many.'

Off to one side of the camp, under a large black-gum tree, we set up our tent. I tied my dogs to the buggy and fixed a nice bed for them under it.

I started walking through the large camp. Everyone was friendly. I looked at the hounds. They were tied in pairs here and there. I had seen many coon hounds, but none that could equal these. They were redbones, blueticks, Walkers, and bloodhounds. I marveled at their beauty. All were spotlessly clean with coats slick and glossy. I saw the beautiful leather leashes and the brass-studded collars.

I thought of my dogs. They were tied with small cotton ropes and had collars made from old check-line leather.

Walking back through the camp, I could feel the cold fingers of doubt squeezing my heart. One look at my dogs drove all doubt away. In the eyes of Little Ann, it seemed, I could read this message: "Don't worry. Just wait. We'll show them.'

The next day the head judge stepped up on the long table in the center of the camp. He shouted, "Over here, men! I have some announcements to make.'

We all gathered around.

In a loud voice he said, "Gentlemen, the contest will start tonight. I'm sure most of you men have been in these hunts before. For those of you who haven't, I will explain the rules. Each night five sets of dogs will be taken out to hunt. A judge will go along with each pair of hounds. Every morning the judges will turn in that night's catch. The two hounds that tree the most coons will qualify for the championship runoff. The other four sets will be eliminated from the hunt. Of course, if there is a tie, both sets will qualify. On the following nights, only those hounds tying the first night's score, or getting more, will be in the runoff.

"Twenty-five sets of hounds have been entered in the hunt. In this box I have 25 cards. Everyone in the contest will now line up for the drawing. The card you draw will tell you what night your hounds are to hunt.'

When it came my time to draw, my hand was shaking so hard I could hardly get it in the box. Pulling the card out, I saw I had drawn the fourth night.

In the afternoon of the fourth day, our judge came over and introduced himself. He told us he'd be going with us that night. About sundown we piled into our buggy and drove a few miles down river. I noticed other hunters doing the same thing. Everyone was trying to get away from the already hunted territory.

It was dark by the time grandpa stopped. I untied the ropes from my dogs. Little Ann reared up on me and whined. Old Dan walked off a few yards, stretched his body, and dragged his claws through the soft bottom soil. Opening his mouth, he let out one loud bawl and then disappeared in the thick timber. Little Ann was right on his heels.

We walked on. Every now and then we would stop and listen. I could hear the loud snuffing of Old Dan. Once we caught a glimpse of Little Ann as she darted across an opening bathed in moonlight. She was as silent as a ghost and as quick as a flitting shadow. Then we heard her bell-like cry.

In a whisper I said, "Come on, Dan. Hurry and help her.'

As if in answer to my words, his deep voice hammered its way up through the river bottom.

The coon was running up river toward our campground. We turned and followed. Then the coon crossed the river and continued on upstream. Soon my dogs were out of hearing distance. Twenty minutes later we heard them coming back. We stopped.

"I think they have crossed back to our side,' I said.

A few minutes later I heard my dogs bawling "treed.' On reaching the tree papa ran his hand back under his coat. He pulled out grandpa's gun.

At the crack of the gun the coon gave a loud squall and jumped. My dogs lost no time in killing him. We skinned the coon and soon were on our way again.

The next time my dogs treed, they were across the river from us. Finding a riffle, we crossed over and finished him off.

The judge looked at his watch. "It's after three o'clock,' he said. "Do you think they'll tree another one?'

As if to throw the words back in the judge's face, Old Dan opened up. I stood up and whooped. "Whoo-e-e! Get him, Dan! Get him! Put him up a little tree.'

My dogs had jumped the coon in swampland. The coon tore out for the river bottom. I could tell they were close to him by their fast bawling. All at once their baying stopped. We stood still and listened. Old Dan bawled "treed' a few more times and then stopped.

Coming up to my dogs, we saw they were working up and down an old rail fence. We stood and watched. Every now and then Old Dan would rear up on a large hackberry tree that was standing about seven feet from the fence and bawl "treed.'

As yet Little Ann had not bawled the tree bark. We watched her. She was working elsewhere. She climbed up on the rail fence and followed its zigzag course until she disappeared in the darkness. I told papa I was sure the coon had walked the rail fence and in some way had fooled my dogs.

At that moment the loud clear voice of a redbone hound, bawling "treed,' rang through the river bottom. It was the voice of Little Ann.

"Let's go to them,' grandpa said.

"No, wait a minute,' I said.

"Why?' he asked.

"Wait till Old Dan gets there,' I said. "It's daylight now, and if we walk up to the tree, the coon will jump out. It's hard to keep a coon in a tree after daylight. Let's wait until Old Dan gets there. Then, if he jumps, he won't have a chance to get away.'

"The boy's right,' the judge said. "It's hard to keep a coon in a tree after daybreak.'

Just then we heard Old Dan. His deep voice shattered the morning silence. Searching for the lost trail, he had crossed the fence and worked his way out into an old field. Turning around, we saw him coming. He was a red blur in the gray morning shadows. Coming to the rail fence, and without breaking his stride, he raised his body into the air. After halfway over and while still in the air, he bawled.

Hitting the ground with a loud grunt, he ran past us. Everyone whooped to him. Ahead was a deep washout about ten feet wide. On the other side was a canebrake. His long, red body--stretched to its fullest length--seemed to float in the air as he sailed over it. We could hear the tall stalks rattling as he plowed his way through them. A bunch of sleepy snowbirds rose from the thick cane, flitted over, and settled in a row on the old rail fence.

Nearing the tree, we could see it was a tall sycamore. There, high in the top, was the coon. Grandpa threw a fit. He hopped around whooping and hollering. He threw his old hat down on the ground and jumped up and down on it. Then he ran over and kissed Little Ann right on the head.

After we killed and skinned the coon, the judge said, "Let's walk back to that old fence. I think I know how the old fellow pulled his trick.

"The coon walked out on that hackberry limb,' he said, "leaped over, and caught the sycamore limb. Repeating this from tree to tree, he worked his way far out into the river bottom. What I can't figure out is how that hound found him.'

Gazing at Little Ann, he shook his head and said, "I've been hunting coons and judging coon hunts for 40 years, but I've never seen anything like that.'

He looked at me. "Well, son,' he said, "you have tied the leading teams. There's only one more night of eliminations. Even if some of them get more than three coons, you will still be in the runoff, and from what I've seen here tonight, you have a good chance of winning the cup.'

I walked over and knelt down beside Little Ann. The things I wanted to say to her I couldn't because of the knot in my throat, but I'm sure she understood.

As we came into the campground, the hunters came out of their tents and gathered around us. The judge held up the three big coon hides. There was a roar from the crowd.

On the last night of the eliminations, none of the judges turned in more than two hides.

That day, about noon, the owners of the other winning teams and I were called for a conference with the head judge. He said, "Gentlemen, the eliminations are over. Only three sets of hounds are left for the runoff. The winner of tonight's hunt will receive the gold cup. If there is a tie for the championship, naturally there will be another runoff.'

He shook hands with each of us and wished us good luck.

Later we climbed into grandpa's buggy and headed for the swamp. It was dark by the time we reached it.

Grandpa handed papa his gun, saying, "You're getting to be a pretty good shot with this thing.'

"I hope I get to shoot it a lot tonight,' papa said.

Under my breath I said, "I do too.'

It was Little Ann who found the trail. Before the echo of her sharp cry had died away, Old Dan's deep voice floated out of the swamp. The coon broke out of the swamp and headed for the river. Listening to my dogs, I could tell they were close to him. I said to papa, "I don't think he'll ever make it to the river. They're right on his heels now.'

By the time we had circled the swamp, they were bawling "treed.'

The judge said, "Boy, that was fast.'

My dogs had treed the coon in a tall ash that stood about 50 yeards from the river. We spied the coon in the topmost branches. At the crack of the gun he ran far out on a limb and jumped, then ran for the river. The coon was just one step ahead of my dogs as they all hit the water.

Running over, we stood and watched the fight. The coon was at home in the river. He crawled up on Old Dan's head and tried to force him under. Before he could do it, Little Ann reached up and pulled him off.

Grandpa was scared and excited. He was jumping up and down, whooping and hollering.

Round and round in the deep water the fight went on. The coon climbed up on Old Dan's head again and sank his teeth in one of his long, tender ears. Old Dan bawled with pain. Little Ann swam in and caught one of the coon's hind legs in her mouth. She tried hard to pull him off. All three disappeared under the water. I held my breath.

The water churned and boiled. All three came to the top about the same time. The coon was between the bank we were standing on and my dogs. He swam toward us. They caught him again, just as he reached shore. He fought his way free and ran for a large sycamore. Old Dan caught him just as he started up. I knew that was the end of the fight.

After it was all over and the coon had been skinned, grandpa said, "I hope we don't have to go through that again tonight. For a while I sure thought your dogs were goners.'

The judge said, "Well, have you ever seen that? Look over there!'

Old Dan was standing perfectly still, with eyes closed and head hanging down. Little Ann was licking at his cut-and-bleeding ears.

"She always does that,' I said. "If you'll watch, when she gets done with him, he'll do the same for her.'

We stood and watched until they had finished doctoring each other. Then, trotting side by side, they disappeared in the darkness.

We followed along, stopping now and then to listen.

Looking up at the sky, papa said, "That doesn't look good up there. I think we are in for a storm.'

The sky had turned a dark gray. Fast-moving clouds were rolling through the heavens. We heard a rattling in the leaves and underbrush. It was beginning to sleet. The air turned cold and chilly.

From far down river we heard the deep baying of a hound on a trail. It was Old Dan. Seconds later the rhythmilke crying of Little Ann could be heard. Swallowing the lump that had jumped up in my throat, I whooped as loud as I could. The ground was turning white with sleet. The storm had really set in. We hurried along.

Papa shouted above the wind. "I don't know if we can take much more of this.'

The judge spoke up. "Fellows, I think we'd better go in,' he said. "There's no telling where they are. They may have crossed the river.'

Scared and knowing I had to do something, I said, "They're closer than you think, probably treed by now. You can't hear them for this wind.' I begged, "Let's go a little farther.'

"Billy, we couldn't find them,' papa said. "You can't see or hear a thing. We had better start for camp. A man could freeze to death in this storm, and besides, your dogs will give up and come in.'

"That's what has me worried,' I cried. "They won't come in. They won't, papa. Little Ann might, but not Old Dan. He'd die before he'd leave a coon in a tree.'

Papa was undecided. Making up his mind, he stepped away from the trees and said to the others, "I'm going on with him. You fellows coming or going back?'

He turned and followed me. Grandpa and the judge fell in behind him. By this time the ground was covered with a thin white layer of sleet. We kept slipping and falling. Once during a momentary lull of the storm I thought I heard the baying of a hound. I told my father I thought I had heard Old Dan.

A few minutes later papa stopped. He shouted to the judge, "Did you hear anything?'

"I though I did, but I'm not sure,' the judge said.

At that moment all of us heard the deep voice of Old Dan. "It sounds as if they're close,' grandpa said.

We trudged on. Old Dan bawled again. The sound of his voice seemed to be all around us.

"The way that wind is whipping the sound through this timber,' the judge said, "we'd be lucky if we ever found them.'

Papa shouted over the roar of the wind, "We can't take much more of this. We'll freeze to death.'

The men were giving up. I felt the knot again as it crawled up in my throat. I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer and hoped for a miracle.

We heard a sharp crack and a loud crashing noise. A large limb--torn from a tree by the strong wind--fell to the ground. The sharp crack of the limb gave me an idea. Shouting to my father, I said, "Shoot the gun. If my dogs are close enough to hear it, maybe Little Ann will come to us.'

Papa didn't hesitate. Pointing the gun high over his head, he pulled the trigger. The sharp crack rang out into the teeth of the storm. We waited. Just when I had given up all hope and had sunk to the lowest depth of despair --out of the white wall of driving sleet--my little dog came to me. I knelt down and gathered her in my arms.

Taking one of the lead ropes from my pocket, I tied it to her collar. I said, "Find him, little girl. Please find Old Dan.'

Right then I didn't care about coons, gold cups, or anything. All I wanted was my dogs. I don't know how she did it. Straight into the face of the storm she led us. Time after time she would stop and turn her head this way and that. I knew she couldn't scent or see anything. Instinct alone was guiding her. Over a winding and twisting trail we followed. She led us into a thick canebrake. Falling and stumbling, we kept pushing on.

Grandpa shouted, "Hold up a minute. I'm just about all in.'

We stopped. The judge spoke up, "Fellows, no dog is worth the lives of three men. Now let's do the smart thing and get out of here while we can.'

Kneeling down, I put my arms around Little Ann. I felt the warm heat from her moist tongue caressing my ear. Closing my eyes, I said, "Please, Dan, bawl one more time, just one more time.'

I waited for my plea to be answered. My father tried to talk above the wind, but his words were lost in the storm. Just before another blast--clear as a foghorn on a stormy sea--Old Dan's voice rang loud and clear. It seemed louder than the roar of the wind or the skeleton-like rustling of the tall, swaying cane.

I jumped to my feet. My heart did a complete flip-flap. The knot in my throat felt as big as an apple. I tried to whoop, but it was no use. Little Ann bawled and tugged on the rope. There was no mistaking the direction. We knew that Little Ann had been right all along. Straight as an arrow, she had led us to him.

Old Dan had treed down in a deep gully. I slid off the bank and ran to him. His back was covered with a layer of frozen sleet. His frost-covered whiskers stood out as straight as porcupine quills. I worked the wedges of ice from his body with my hands. Little Ann came over and tried to wash his face. He didn't like it. Jerking loose from me, he ran over to the tree, reared up on it, and started bawling.

Hearing shouting from the bank above me, I looked up. I could dimly see papa and the judge through the driving sleet with their backs to me. Catching hold of some long stalks of cane that were hanging down from the steep bank, I pulled myself up.

Papa shouted in my ear, "Something has happened to your grandfather.'

Turning to the judge, he said, "He was behind you. Didn't you hear anything?'

"Hear anything?' the judge exclaimed. "How could I hear anything in all that noise? I thought he was behind me all the time and didn't miss him until we got here.'

"Shoot the gun,' the judge said.

Papa shot time after time. It was useless. We got no answer.

Little Ann came up out of the gully. She stood and stared at me. Turning, she quickly disappeared in the thick cane. Minutes later we heard her. It was a long, mournful cry. She didn't stop until we reached her.

Grandpa lay as he had fallen, face down in the icy sleet. His right foot was wedged in the fork of a broken box-elder limb. When the ankle had twisted, the searing pain must have made him unconscious.

Papa worked grandpa's foot free and turned him over. I sat down and placed his head in my lap. While papa and the judge massaged his arms and legs, I wiped the frozen sleet from his eyes and face.

Burying my face in the iron-gray hair, I cried and begged God not to let my grandfather die. Papa lifted him to a sitting position and told the judge to start slapping his face. Grandpa moaned and moved his head.

"He's coming around,' papa said.

I asked papa if we could get him back to the gully where Old Dan was. I had noticed that there was very little wind there, and we could build a fire.

"That's the very place,' he said. "We'll build a good fire, and one of us can go for help.'

Papa and the judge made a seat by catching each other's wrists. They eased grandpa between them. By the time we reached the gully grandpa was fully conscious again and was mumbling and grumbling. After easing him over the bank and down into the gully, we built a large fire.

While papa and the judge made grandpa comfortable, I carried wood for the fire.

"There's no use standing around gawking at me,' grandpa said. "I'm all right. Get the coon out of the tree. That's what we came for, isn't it?'

The tree was about 30 feet from our fire. We walked over and took a good look at it for the first time. My dogs, seeing we finally were going to pay some attention to them, started bawling and running around the tree.

Papa said, "It's not much of a tree, just an old box-elder snag. There's not a limb on it.'

"I can't see any coon,' said the judge. "It must be hollow.'

Papa beat on its side with the ax. It gave forth a loud, booming sound. He said, "It's hollow all right.'

Squatting down between my dogs, I held on to their collars.

Papa turned to the judge: "Come on and help me. I think we can push it over.'

After much grunting and pushing on their part, the tree snapped and fell. I turned my dogs loose. On hitting the ground, the snag split and broke up. Goggleeyed, I stood rooted in my tracks and watched three big coons roll out of the busted old trunk.

One started up the gully and ran between us and the fire. Old Dan caught him, and the fight was on. The second coon headed down the gully. Little Ann caught him.

Hearing a loud yell from grandpa, I looked that way. Old Dan and the coon were fighting close to his feet. He was yelling and beating at them with his hat. The judge and papa ran to help.

The third coon climbed up the steep bank close to me and disappeared in the thick cane.

Hearing a squall of pain from Little Ann, I turned. The coon was really working her over. He had climbed up on her back and was tearing and slashing. She couldn't shake him off. Grabbing a club from the ground, I ran to help her.

Before we had killed our coon, Old Dan came tearing in. We stood and watched the fight. When the coon was dead, papa picked it up, and we walked back to the fire.

"How many coons were in that old snag?' papa asked.

"I saw three,' I said. "The one that got away climbed out over there.' I pointed in the direction the coon had taken.

I never should have pointed. My dogs turned as one and started bawling and clawing their way up the steep bank. I shouted and scolded, but to no avail. They disappeared in the rattling cane.

We stood still, listening to their voices. The sound died away in the roaring storm. Sitting down close to the fire, I buried my face in my arms and cried.

I heard the judge say to my father, "This beats anything I have ever seen. Why, those dogs can read that boy's mind. He just pointed at that bank and away they went. I never saw anything like it. I can't understand some of the things they have done to-night. Hounds usually aren't that smart. If they were collies--or some other breed of dog--it would be different, but they're just redbone hounds, hunting dogs.'

Hearing my grandfather call my name, I went over and sat down by his side. Putting his arm around me, he said, "Now, I wouldn't worry about those dogs. They'll be all right. It's not long till daylight. Then you can go to them.'

I said, "Yes, but what if the coon crosses the river? My dogs will follow him. If they get wet, they could freeze to death.'

"We'll just have to wait and hope for the best,' he said. "Now straighten up and quit that sniffling. Act like a coon hunter. You don't see me bawling, and this old foot is paining me awful.'

I felt better after my talk with grandpa.

"Come on, let's skin these coons,' papa said.

I got up to help him. After the skins were peeled from the carcasses, I had an idea. Holding one up close to the fire until it was warm, I took it over and wrapped it around grandpa's foot. Chuckling, he said, "Boy, that feels good. Heat another skin the same way.'

The remainder of the night I repeated it over and over.
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Title Annotation:part 2; short story
Author:Rawls, Wilson
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1986
Previous Article:My father and other good guys: plastic surgeons abroad.
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