F&S Classic: The White Coon
Once or twice in a lifetime you encounter something in the woods that is truly strange. How you react will stay with you forever.
The dogs were just about to lose their track, and Mr. Richard was losing his patience fast. I shifted my weight from side to side and tried to kick some feeling back into my numb toes. In February, when the clock gets close to midnight, the wind that comes whistling through the hardwood timber sends a shiver down a man’s back. We were standing on the edge of Muckaloon Creek, a small tendril of water that travels slowly through canebrakes and cypress on its way to the Yocona River, the biggest body of water around Tula, Miss., and the bank where we stood was slippery with frozen mud. Ice crystals had been forced out of the ground by the freezing and thawing turns that the water had taken. After three hours of bumping and splashing in and out of the creek, we were convinced that our three experienced hounds had jumped something besides a coon. There was nothing we could do but wait.
“They must be running a cat, Larry,” Mr. Richard said.
“Yes sir,” I answered with another shiver. “They must be. Something’s sure got ’em messed up.”
We were tired from fighting our way through wicked patches of briers and buckvine that tore at our hands and faces. The only way to get through the worst places was to back in, letting our thick coats take the thorns. Mr. Richard’s waders had a hole punched in the right knee and had already been in water higher than that several times. I could hear ice water squishing between his toes every time he took a step, but he didn’t complain.
The year was 1968, and as a high-school junior, I had to attend school the next day. Richard Grimes had to be on his job at the state highway department at seven o’clock sharp. Old Rock, Mr. Richard’s white-footed redbone, was having a hard time following the track. Whenever his voice rolled through the big timber, it sounded unsure and questioning. Red, his littermate, and Smokey, my young bluetick, were chiming in and helping when they could.
“Boy,” he said, “your mama’s liable to skin my head for keeping you out this late on a school night.”
“Aw, she won’t say nothing,” I said, even though I knew she probably would. My English grades were directly affected by the number of times we took the dogs out during the week. They dropped low enough during my senior year that my teachers denied me a diploma, but at that point in my life, I honestly believe I loved coonhunting as much as any man could. The voices of the dogs as they tore through a cotton patch or creek bottom, going all out, so close you could hear their bodies crashing through the brush, filled me with a thrill like no other endeavor, certainly not homework or school.
The dogs were running a little better now and moving away, so we walked on down in the bottom to get closer. They finally got it straightened out and got a pretty good race going, and we just stood and listened for a while. I knew it had to be past midnight by now, but I didn’t say anything. I’d learned a long time before that when you went coonhunting, there were no set hours. You might catch one in an hour and you might stay out until daylight. It all depended on the dogs.
The trees around us were tall and dark. Their naked branches were outlined against the blanket of stars above them. The dogs suddenly stopped running and the woods were quiet for a few seconds. Then Old Rock opened up with a steady, hammering chop that said, Treed!
“That’s it, Larry,” Mr. Richard said.
“Yes sir, I believe it is. Old Smokey’s even barking a little.”
“Let’s get to ’em,” he said, and we headed that way.
Our six-volt lanterns picked out a narrow trail of light through the frozen woods. In places, the mud was hard as rocks. The dogs’ voices got louder as we got closer and they started barking harder when they saw our lights coming through the darkness. Rock was treed solid with his two white feet up on the trunk of a huge old slick-barked oak. It was covered with vines that climbed all the way to the top and twined and twisted among the limbs. Smokey and Red barked a few times, but Rock was our main tree dog. The walls of Mr. Richard’s den were covered with trophies that that old dog had won in club hunts against some pretty stiff competition.
The temperature must have been hovering in the 20s by that time, and I tried not to think about the warm spot in my bed next to my little brother, Darrell. Instead I turned my light up into the darkness, trying to shine the coon’s eyes.
“There he is, Larry,” Mr. Richard said. I looked where he was pointing his light and saw a pair of bright orange eyes, and then, on another limb, I saw another pair.
“There’s two of them up there, Mr. Richard. Wait a minute, there’s another pair. There’s three coons up there!”
He moved his light around in the other branches. “You think you can climb it, son?”
I looked up at the trunk. It was too big for me to reach all the way around, but I was pretty sure I could “coon it” up to the first limb. The vines would either help or hinder me. I took off my belt and passed it through the handle of my lantern and looped it over my shoulder. I stepped up to the tree and hollered at Smokey. He leaned up on the bark and howled a few times, and I wrapped my legs and arms around the trunk as far as they would go. By pulling up with my arms and legs, I could usually gain about 8 inches with each effort, depending on how big the tree was.
I found out quickly that the vines were going to present a problem. They were between me and the tree, keeping my belly pushed away and making it hard for me to get a good grip. Mr. Richard saw I was having a hard time getting started, so he came over and pushed me up as high as he could reach, then stood back and watched. He always had great faith in my ability as a tree climber, and he bragged on me every chance he got.
I made it up past the thickest of the vines, but my arms were aching and tiring quickly. I knew I couldn’t rest until I made it to the first limb, so I kept doggedly gripping, higher and higher into the black night. When I finally touched that limb, it was strong and live and as big around as my leg. I hauled myself up on top, and straddling the limb, rested for a few minutes. Both of us shined the coons again to see how much farther I had to go, and that’s when I got a very big surprise. There were three coons up there all right, but the one in the middle was snow white. I could hardly believe it. Mr. Richard’s light must have been too dim for him to see it.
“Hey, Mr. Richard,” I yelled. “One of these coons is white.”
“Aw, Larry,” he laughed, “don’t be pulling my leg like that. Get on up there and jump one of ’em out.”
I thought I might be seeing things so I stood up on the limb and climbed higher in the tree, about 15 more feet. I got directly under the coons and they backed up a little and bunched together, huddling fearfully in the glare of the light and from the racket the dogs were making at the base of the tree. The dogs knew a coon was about to come sailing into their midst, and they were ready to fight. I couldn’t decide what to do at first. I couldn’t figure why three grown coons would be running together and climbing the same tree. That was the reason the dogs had been messed up so bad on the track. Young coons will run together like that in roastin’ ear season, but this was the dead of winter.
“There ain’t no doubt about it,” I called. “I’m right under ’em and this middle one’s white.”
He couldn’t get over it, and we talked back and forth, trying to decide what to do. Season was open, but we didn’t want to kill all three of them at once. I wouldn’t have done it, and Mr. Richard wouldn’t have allowed it. We decided that he’d hold all three dogs away from the tree, and I would start jumping them out, one by one. He would try to hold the dogs off the brown coons to let them get away to run another night. When I jumped the white coon out, he’d turn the dogs loose.
Some people might not think it’s fair to jump a 15-pound coon out of a tree into the middle of three or four 50-pound dogs, but a mad coon is something you don’t want to tangle with. When he hits the ground, he’s all teeth and claws. I’ve seen dogs come away from a fight looking like they’d been into it with a buzz saw.
Mr. Richard caught Rock and Red and Smokey, and I could see his light moving away far below me on the ground. After all the effort of climbing that tree, I wasn’t cold anymore. Mr. Richard yelled he was ready, so I went up and got on the limb with the coons. One of the brown ones ran out to the end of the limb and stopped, looking back at my light. I gave the limb a little shake and hissed at him. He leaped, spreading his four legs wide, just like a big flying squirrel. I heard the thump his body made when he hit the ground, and the dogs went crazy when they saw him. Mr. Richard had a hard time, but he held them tight.
The coon made his escape into the bushes, and the dogs didn’t like it at all. They were howling and lunging as hard as they could, trying to get loose. The other brown coon went off to one side and walked quietly down the tree to the ground. I don’t think the dogs even saw him.
I inched up on the limb and actually got to within 5 feet of that beautiful creature. As I looked at him, I wondered: Did he know he was different from his brothers? Were these other two his litter-mates or were they only rutting on this cold night? This may sound crazy coming from someone who’s killed as many of them as I have, but I love coons. I’m guilty of sending a lot of them to their deaths. Any man who has a real love of hunting is always a little sad over the death of his game.
I took one long last look at his elegant white fur. It was milky white and looked as soft as down. His eyes held no fear or anger or accusation that I could see, only a slight bewilderment at this large one-eyed monster that could follow him to his last refuge. I shook the limb hard, almost regretfully, and he made his leap. Mr. Richard turned the dogs loose, and I started back down as quickly as I could go without falling. The white coon’s high-pitched chattering cries mingled with the savage voices of the dogs as they caught him, and by the time I reached the ground, it was all over for him.
A Boy’s Mistake
I helped Mr. Richard pull the dogs away, and we knelt side by side to look at his snow-white pelt, thick and lustrous a few minutes before, but spotted now with blood and dirt. He wasn’t a true albino, we could see now. He had a black mask over his eyes and black rings around his tail like any other coon, and he didn’t have pink eyes. We looked at him for a while, but it was already late and it would be much later when we got back to the truck. I picked him up, and Mr. Richard whistled at the dogs and asked me what I was going to do with him. I thought about it for a minute and said, “I don’t know. Dress him when I get home, I guess.”
“Boy, it’ll be daylight before you get the hide off that thing,” he said. I knew he was right. It was close to two o’clock in the morning and my school bus came by at 7:15. That would give me a little over five hours to dress him, clean up enough to get in bed, get a little sleep, and then get back up to eat breakfast in time to catch the bus.
We started out of the woods with Mr. Richard pulling his two dogs on leashes, and me carrying the white coon in one hand and leading Smokey by his chain with the other. It was cold, bad cold, and we were wet and tired and the truck was a long way off. The coon got heavier and heavier, and I had to keep changing hands as one cramped and got cold, then the other one.
Listen to me making all these excuses for what I did halfway back to the truck. There’s nobody to blame but myself. We all do things that we regret, and then look back years later and think, Why did I do that? It never does any good because you can’t call it back.
I’d like to be able to say that the white coon’s hide is mounted on a board and hanging on a wall in my house, or that we had him stuffed and he’s sitting in a lifelike pose in my bedroom, but I can’t. The truth is that a young boy got so cold and tired of carrying a once-in-a-lifetime trophy that he handed the leash of his dog to the man walking beside him and dropped back until the dogs couldn’t see what he was about to do. He walked over to a slough filled with icy black water and dropped the trophy into its murky depths.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever be lucky enough to see another one like him because I don’t figure God makes very many of his kind. But if I did, I wonder what I’d do this time. I like to think I’d turn my light off and carefully back down out of his way in the darkness, hoping he wouldn’t jump out before I reached the ground. Maybe then the debt would be paid.