My heart beat out of control as I spun the old GMC around in the gravel road, the click-clack of rocks hitting the frame beneath my feet. At first I thought I hadn’t seen it, but glancing in the rearview mirror as I sped away, there was indeed the beam of a spotlight bouncing through the pasture.
The truck backfired twice as it fishtailed down the road to the cabin. My father would already be on alert from hearing the high-revved engine. I was only 13, and Lord knew I would take a beating for driving like that. But at the time, I didn’t care. There were poachers in the pasture and we had to do something about it!
My friend Lyle, bug-eyed in the passenger seat, sat silently as the truck came to a sliding halt in front of the cabin. Dust rolled past me as I jumped out to deliver the message. Dad was already on the porch, looking madder than hell, his face red and his lips pursing, but I stopped him before he bombarded me with a volley of curses and threats.
“There’s a spotlight in the pasture!” I said excitedly. “What are you gonna do about it?” I felt faint as the words left my mouth.
Thinking back, I’d held my breath as I tried to keep the GMC out of the fencerows and on the narrow road that ran through the heart of our farm. My body was still tense and my knuckles white as I worked my hands to regain some feeling. Only the steering wheel shared my burden.
My father did not say a word, but turned and walked inside the cabin. He returned with his Ruger Red Label, an old 12 gauge I’d seen him carry afield since I was old enough to notice.
Lyle was out of the passenger seat and stood silently beside me as Dad stepped off the porch.
“You two stay here,” he said.
Fear consumed me. I could only imagine the worst. Still facing the cabin, slightly conscious of the crunch of gravel as the pickup carried Dad into the night, I spun on my heel and with two bounds was in the bed of the truck. Lyle, unsure of my actions and certainly not relying on instincts, joined me as Dad stopped the truck. He didn’t say a word when our eyes met in the sideview mirror.
“Why didn’t I grab a gun?” I said aloud.
Lyle still hadn’t uttered a word since we’d seen the light.
“A country boy can survive,” had been the last time I’d heard his voice as we sang along to Hank Williams, Jr., completely carefree.
But that was gone, lost to another time as we strained our eyes against the darkness of night, looking for things that weren’t there.
We crested the hill of the big pasture and there it was, moving toward the tree line out in front and to the right. Dad must have seen it too because he pointed the GMC in its direction and accelerated without revving the engine much.
The spotlight stopped moving. Any second they would surely turn it on us. Lyle and I lowered ourselves into the bed just in case.
But the beam was only lowered to the ground and stayed that way until we reached its outer edge. There were three men standing close together. Somewhere in the woods a hound was bawling, my subconscious told me, but that was the least of my concerns.
“Evening, gentleman,” my dad said, getting out of the truck.
I could see the shotgun still on the seat in the cab.
“You fellas know you’re on private property, don’t you?”
One of the men carried .22 single-shot, slung over his shoulder.
“Yessir, we’re just follerin’ our coon dawgs,” said one of the men. He was shorter than the other two, a paunch in his midsection. Brown beads of tobacco juice hung from his stubbly chin and stained the front of his filthy t-shirt. The spotlight reflected off the wet leaves on the ground and I could see sweat glistening on his forehead, just below his pushed-up cap.
“You see, this here is one of th’ highest spots in all Moore County. A good listenin’ place to find ’em,” he said.
“I reckon this is a good place to do it,” Dad said. “We thought y’all were poachers.”
“Lawd, no,” said another man. “We seen the light on down in yor cabin and just wonted to find them dawgs.”
Feeling a flood of relief, I jumped down out of the truck.
“Had any luck?” I asked, sauntering up to the group.
About that time, the bawling on the ridge grew louder. Two hounds, their voices haunting the cool air as they echoed from the hardwoods below. The three men looked at each other, the message received.
“Well, might now,” one of them said.
We all looked at my father with anticipation before taking a step.
“Let’s get ’em,” he said.
And with that we were off into the woods. The man with the spotlight led the way and the others whooped as we jogged along. I was right behind the men, with Lyle next to me and Dad bringing up the rear. Our worries had been exchanged for excitement. I’d never coon-hunted before!
The tree was a giant white oak and the first branches started 40 feet above us. The two hounds circled the tree, both searching for the critter that set their instincts into motion. One was a bluetick named Clyde and the other was a redbone, I don’t recall its name. We surrounded the tree, the length of the spotlight projecting into the highest limbs.
“Ther’ he is,” said the man with the spotlight. “I see ’is eye.”
Lyle and I hurried over to join him. No coon. I could only see leaves. The other two men stood behind us, both agreeing that they too could see the coon’s eye reflecting in the light.
“Yep, ther’s his eye sho ’nough.”
Neither Dad nor Lyle had said a word. Perhaps I was the only one who couldn’t see the damn eye.
“One of you boys wont to shoot ’em?” the man with gun asked, holding the rifle out to me.
I took it in my hands, unsure–always unsure, it seemed–of what to do next. But I wasn’t going to let a little thing like not seeing the target stop me from shooting my first coon.
The gun looked like it had been on a few hunts. Heavy enough to crack a bear’s skull, it was one of those you wouldn’t mind leaving in the bed of a truck or carrying out in the rain.
I found a rest in the V of a small sapling, still unable to see the eye. The men were beginning to stir behind me. Even the dogs seemed to be wondering about the hold-up.
Finally, my enthusiasm waned and I relented. Faith wasn’t going to make that old raccoon move. I handed the rifle to Lyle. Maybe he could see him, but I couldn’t get a reading from ol’ Lyle’s face. Hell, he still hadn’t said two words since we first saw the spotlight.
After what seemed like several minutes, Lyle exhaled and the rifle’s report rang out across the ridge. Something came crashing down from above. It was the coon! How Lyle had seen it…
We all whooped with joy. One of the men snatched the limp body from the dogs’ hungry jaws and the hunt was over.
The three men lived in the adjoining county and it was late. And we had to be up early the next morning to deer hunt.
Over the years those same coon hunters would show up now and then in search of their dogs. Every time they would come by the cabin and offer to take us along. I never refused.
I can still feel the fright of facing the unknown that night, can hear the gravel rattling away in the frame of the old GMC pickup, and can taste sweet relief when the whole event turned into a wild adventure. I can still feel the rough coat of the old boar coon when I walk into the cabin, the hide well-worn, the hair beginning to fall out. Brushing the pelt with my hand, I hold still, listening for Clyde and his mate, their deep bawls ringing out over the ridges and through the hollows.
Those hounds left this earth many years ago and I fear their masters have likewise succumbed to the hands of time. They haven’t been back in a decade.
But the fact that they’re off hunting together, you can’t deny.
“This side of the tree boys, I can see his eye!”
Image courtesy Hunter Worth