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Old No. 7 and a ‘Coon Hunt

by D. Amos

 

I remember the smell of burlap, and wet dogs, and the nip of clean autumn air on my face.  I remember campfire flames that leapt and licked and chased shadows up the hollows.  I recall the crackle of kindling and the orange glow of hot lighter knots. Most of all, I remember an old man and his three motley hounds and the night we treed the big bore ‘coon.

A lanky old man, dressed in Red Camel overalls and a frayed John Deere baseball cap, tromped a narrow trail up the bank of a Northwest Georgia cold water creek.  His aged, knee-high, rubber boots, covered in red and blue bicycle tube patches, wheezed with each step.  Bruton’s snuff ran from the corners of his mouth in brown tracks to his chin. There, it clung to a three day old beard, caked like mud on a drying pond bed. 

“Wait a minute, your legs are longer than mine,” said an eight year old boy as he attempted to keep up.  For each of the old man’s steps, the kid took three. 

 

“Should’a figered.  Maybe ya shouldn’t take a young’un on a night hunt.  It’s tiresome and ted’ous.  We cudda been playin’ checkers or checkin’ the trot line and such.  We’d be more likely to git a ‘coon that way --- ‘coons don’t like talk any more than me,” said the curmudgeon.

“Just fine, but we’re here and can’t do that stuff righchet.  We gotta go git us a real ‘coon.  Checkers and trot lines and such‘ll keep ‘til ‘morrow,” insisted the child.  The old man almost spit his teeth out laughing.  For a spell the boy thought he’d choked on finely ground tobacco. 

“Boy, do ya talk all the time? If’n ya hush, I’ll give ya somethin’ I wus savin’ fer later. Now, promise to hush up cus we’re losin’ light and it’s still a mile to the swamp.”  The old man handed the youngster a Mars Bar, then tousled his hair.

The troupe arrived at the swamp’s lip as the last sunbeam escorted in a shadowy gray dusk. Grandmother Moon awakened to cast her halo across Mt. Horn’s highest ridge, where the orb clung, as if to forestall her nightly trek. 

“This’ll do fer us to set and listen,” said the old man.  The kid gathered fuel for the fire, while the gentleman burrowed a soft seat of leaves and spongy moss in the crotch of a fallen Sycamore.  He reclined and freshened his snuff from a tiny tin. The hypnotic sound and smell of hissing rubber boots, placed too close to the fire, wafted heavenward.

 

In the flickering firelight, the old huntsman raised a silver filigreed, seven-shot flask. It was engraved at its center with the Jack Daniels Distillery label.  “My true love gave me this.  It was full of Old No. 7.  I wus bad to drink too much when we wus first together,” he began, just above a whisper.  The vessel glowed like a talisman in his gnarled hand. “She had this cut fer me on our seventh anniversary --- said I’d not have her much longer if’n I drank more’n this a week.  And, I ain’t since, but I enjoy a li’l taste all along.  Credit’s hers---made me a better man for learnin’ mod’ration. Oh yeah, she gemme a daughter just ‘fore our next anniversary.”

“Tell me another story ‘bout her,” pleaded the lad.

“Another time,” promised the elder.  He surrendered to the sweet shackles of memory and fell silent.

 

The full, pewter moon crested over Horn and, without warning, a single arrow of sound pierced the darkness.  It was the old man’s lead dog, Spot.

 “Go git ‘im, Babies! They’re on to one, Boy! Listen to ‘em!  They’ll tell ya what they’re doin’!  Gotta learn the’r voices --- Spot’s leadin’!  Gyp’s ‘bout 30 yards back ‘n closin’!” yelled the old man. “S’pose Hey You stopped to lick hisself?” the old coot snickered.  Laughter echoed through the bottoms. 

 

 The hunters raced toward the epicenter of the melee.  As the moon climbed, it cast the valley in muted hues of blue and green.  Three frenzied hounds clamored at the base of a young river birch, where a treed bore ‘coon swayed over a deep, stagnant pool of yellow and green pond scum.  “Fetch me the axe, Boy,” the old man barked.  “Go git ‘im!  Git in the water!” he ordered his hounds.  Spot was first, followed by Gyp.  Hey You padded back and forth on the bank until he was pushed.     

Two hacks of the axe dropped tree and ‘coon down onto the canines who madly dog-paddled about.  A cacophony of sound erupted as the old masked bandit landed on poor Spot’s head.  While Gyp and Hey You swam in circles, the ring-tailed trickster bit and clawed at any available fur or flesh.  He bared sharp, yellow teeth in a grin full of the hair of the dog as he  swam away, unscathed.

The old man crooned to his dogs while he daubed White Camphor liniment on their battle wounds. “ ‘At’s one ole ‘coon won’t mess wid my buddies agin.  C’mere.  Let Pa make ya feel better.”  As he finished, he said, “Don’t go chasin’ somethin’ if’n ya don’t know what to do wid it, shud ya ketch it.”

The weary hunters reached a fork in the path.  The boy took the right.  The old man took the left.  The boy looked back and said, “When can we go night huntin’ agin?”

The old man responded, “I’ll talk to ya momma.  Be ready Friday evenin’ ‘bout 6:00---I don’t wanna git ther’ ‘n not have fire time.”

“Thank you for takin’ me.  I love you, Grandaddy!”  

 

*    *   *

 

 

In the course of one night’s hunt, I became one of those Georgia boys who raises and runs dogs, and dreams and hunts raccoons just like the boys in Tennessee, or ‘Bama, or the Carolinas, or the Florida panhandle.  The flavor of that night lingers in my memory like the taste of sweet gum on a young boy’s tongue.

 

It’s odd, the things we remember. How is it that the most ordinary occurrences, in a place, in a time, leave such deep and profound bookmarks in the mind?

 

 

 

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