Wednesday, December 24, 2008


The cold floor sent a shock from my bare feet to my brain and jolted the fog of sleep from my head. The wood box for the kitchen stove was empty. As the oldest son, it was my job to keep the wood box full. The coals from last night’s fire had dimmed, and mom couldn’t start breakfast until I got the stove going again.

At least this chore had one advantage in winter. You know the old saying, chopping your own wood warms a man twice.

I grabbed my old coat, pulled on stiff boots in the mudroom, and stepped into the gray pre-dawn chill. I was met by a cold black nose, which was connected to a black and tan coon dog. It wasn’t our dog, nor did it belong to any of our neighbors as far as I knew. You would have thought he was on his own porch, looking at me like I was late getting his breakfast.

I lived in country where coon hunting was a serious endeavor. I grew up hearing the men talk about this hound or that, and how they could trail and tree. Many in this blue collar area supplemented their income with coon pelts, and the best coon men were more respected than the town banker or the preacher over at the church.

To be a coon hunter meant you were also a hound man. The most successful hunters kept a bunch of good hounds, but that costs money... something a boy has in short supply. I ran a small trapline on the creek that ran through the back pasture that made me a little money, but it would take several good seasons to earn enough for even a single dog. So I kept listening to the men at the feed store tell stories of coon hunts, and dreamt of having a kennel full of dogs of my own someday.

Having a dog show up on our porch a week before Christmas was the answer to my prayers. I didn’t believe in Santa much anymore, but I thought I would give praying a shot, and it seemed to have panned out.

Mom and dad wouldn’t let me keep the dog, since its owner was probably looking for it. Most likely it had become lost on a late night hunt, and just showed up at our place. Dad would want me to find the owner and return the dog to him. So I made a half-hearted effort at inquiries to find the owner, hoping that no one would come forward. After a week no one had.

Even if the owner did show up, what harm would it be to hunt some coons in the meantime? I figured the black and tan ought to earn his keep as long as we were feeding him. I named him John after John the Baptist. I remembered that the Bible said John was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”. Seemed like a fitting name for a coon dog to me.

Friday night I slipped out of the house with my rifle and flashlight. John was on the porch as usual. I put a scrap of rope from the barn around his neck and led him back to the tree line that clung to the creek at the border of the farm. Here there were plenty of coons, judging from the tracks they left in the soft mud of the creek bank.

Now as I understood it, coon hunting goes something like this…you put the dog in a likely location, turn him loose, and he sniffs around for a “hot” trail; one that is very recent and theoretically leads to a coon. When the dog strikes a hot trail, he begins to bark, also called a “chop”. The hunter waits and listens to the dog, sometimes following a long distance behind as the dog works out the trail.

Hunters know how the hunt is going by their dog’s voices. Hunters with packs of hounds can pick out individual dogs by sound and can judge how the hunt is going just by their chops or bays. When a dog trees the coon, his bay changes in pitch and cadence, telling the hunter it’s time to come get the coon.

So I went deep into the woods, and turned John loose…”hunt em up John!”, I encouraged. John ran off into the dark, and I sat down at the base of a large oak tree to wait for him to hit a trail and sound off.

The night was dark and cold, but the shivers that night were more from excitement than the cold. Coon pelts that year were going for ten dollars each and I knew that soon I would be able to buy my own hounds with the windfall that John was going to provide. Why, I probably would even be one of those great coon hunters the other men spoke of at the feed store. Mom and especially dad would be proud, but I would have to remain humble. Boasting and bravado were not welcome at mom’s dinner table.

These woods were familiar to me. I had played, hunted and trapped them since I was barely tall enough to wander away form the house. Tonight however, I was like a stranger. The sounds were unfamiliar and menacing. I could have sworn I heard footsteps in the leaves. I grasped my rifle tighter and pushed the fear in my chest down. It wouldn’t do for the county’s new best coon man to be afraid of the night!

Time passed, and I slowly came to the realization that even thought two hours had passed, I hadn’t heard a peep from John. Dejected, I surmised that he had probably figured out how to get home, and was probably there, warm and sleeping while I shivered in the woods. Of course, since he got lost once he might just be lost again. I decided I would leave my hunting coat there on the ground and come back in the morning to see if John was there. This was an old coon hunter’s trick. The master’s scent would draw the hound back and when the master returned on the morrow, the dog would be found sleeping on the coat.

I stood from my spot under the ancient, twisted oak and stretched. I stripped off my hand-me-down coat and noticed that the night had grown cold. My breath billowed out like cigarette smoke. I dropped my coat to the ground and flicked on the flashlight. I was startled by a sudden movement on the other side of the tree. I leveled my rifle and shined the light around the trunk. There, curled up and sleeping on the leaves was my dog John.

Apparently after trotting off to the woods he had come back and napped the two hours away. I realized that my dreams of riches and respect were probably not going to materialize quite as quickly as I had thought.

Then again the circus is coming to town next month…

Tight Lines


Sara Lisch said...

Sheesh - it's been too long without an update. Even I updated my long ago abandoned blog!

Mark said...

I know. This season has drained my creativity. Will probably post tomorrow, but it will probably be somber.
My former brother in law is being taken off life support tomorrow.
There will be no funeral, so my kids have to say goodbye to their uncle in the hospital.