When your fist date is a coon hunt, you’re in for a life of moaning up a tree.
by H. William Rice
From the February/March 2009 issue
In my world, coon hunters were a breed apart. Perhaps it was because they hunted in the night. Perhaps it was the dogs, those dangle-eared hounds that could cost a thousand dollars or more but looked like they lived under the front porch of a shotgun house..
...and slept sprawled in inch-thick dirt all day—the kind of dogs that cock a sleepy eye when a car drives up only to drift quietly back into the land of nod before the door opens.
Perhaps it was the hunters themselves. They always seemed to have wandered into town from way out in the country, so far out they rarely get in, so far out they could hardly talk in a way you could understand. To this day the banjo twang of their voices rings in my ears.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered Angela was a coon hunter. She was one of those women who become beautiful after you see them a few times. I was young enough not to have a working knowledge of women but old enough to think about them all the time. Though I had never successfully pursued women, I had done plenty of looking and imagining. So when she showed up at church, I sized her up.
This is one of those terrible habits we men have. You categorize the women your age as either hopelessly beyond your reach, within your reach, or someone who just doesn’t interest you “in that way,” as people say. But the truth is, women never stay where you put them. Inherently smarter than men, they’re always collapsing your neat categories like a row of dominoes.
So it was with Angela. I saw her at my father’s church, assigned her category three, saw her in the grocery store, decided I might have pigeonholed her too soon, and then saw her at church again and wondered if she hadn’t exchanged bodies with a movie star. She had that subtle beauty one comes to know in the same way one might come to enjoy a fine wine: slowly.
So I did something very uncharacteristic of me: I talked to her. How we got around to hunting I’m not sure. I think maybe I was trying to convince her of my manliness. And in Alabama in those days, there was no better way to make such an argument than to bring up hunting exploits.
So she said in an offhand way, “Ever been coon hunting?”
I was too surprised to lie. “No,” I blurted out. So in 15 minutes we had a date of sorts. I was to go hunting with her and her father and some of his friends.
Now my overprotective parents might not have been too happy about me going off coon hunting with people they didn’t really know, except that Angela’s father was the pediatrician in our little town, and although he wasn’t my doctor, everybody knew him and pretty much liked him. But he did have his strange side. He was a coon hunter, of course, not something most physicians claim to be. He was also the lead singer in a country band of some sort, so that outside the office everybody knew him as “Whippoorwill,” or more properly, “the Whippoorwill.” He even had the name on his ornate mailbox at the end of the long, winding drive leading to his palatial farmhouse on 20 acres of pristine land that had never been plowed or cut.
I had never laid eyes on the man. I just knew all this from town stories. But when the Whippoorwill and his lovely daughter came to get me on an early spring afternoon in a huge, throbbing pickup, I added another piece of information to the mix. The Whippoorwill didn’t look at all like a physician. He looked like a cross between Richard Petty and Hank Williams Senior.
“Preacher,” he said to my father. “We’ll have him back here before dawn if we don’t get lost.”
I was already looking at the dogs. They were in metal cages in the back of the pickup, looking out at me with rolling, excited eyes, their noses pressed against the bars of the cage so they could get a whiff of me. I heard the low murmur of a good-natured growl or two. Then one whined. They knew where we were going.
“That one is mine,” Angela explained. “Peanuckle, you hush!”
When we got to the hollow just off Highway 53, I discovered that the dogs had nothing on the rest of the Whippoorwill’s six-man hunting troop. One was nearly 70, and the others were an array of backwoods types dressed in bib overalls and camo jackets. The range of weights was staggering. The Whippoorwill himself couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds soaking wet after a big meal. Some of his buddies were even thinner. And then one of them, a perpetually smiling character called “Frog,” would have tipped the scales at 300 pounds.
From the cages in the bed of every pickup, dogs whined and cavorted like circus animals waiting to be fed. But the men paid them no mind. They stood as silent as monks or cajoled one another with well-worn phrases that made me know they’d been doing this a while.
“This here is Angel’s friend, Will,” the Whippoorwill said quickly. “He ain’t never been coon hunting.”
“Angela’ll show him what to do,” the Frog said, smiling broadly. Then to me, “Just follow the dogs, that’s all. It’s all about the dogs.”
An hour later the dogs had been released, and we all sat around a fire.
I’m sure I’d been in the woods at night before because I’d been a Boy Scout, but I know I’d never been completely aware of the enchantment and mystery therein. Part of the feeling came because Angela sat beside me wearing a camouflaged jacket and cap and jeans and boots. I probably didn’t have the language to call her sexy, but that’s what she was. There are certain women who gain sexuality rather than lose it when dressed in clothes normally associated with a man, and she was clearly one of these. Her face was far too beautiful for a hunting hat, but for some reason I could not then and still cannot explain, the hat made her even more beautiful than she was.
The boys, as they called themselves (“We boys,” they’d say), talked in low murmurs and passed around a flask or two. In the light of the roaring fire, I had the sense of things unseen. Men and women had sat around fires like this ever since the world began, dealing with the basic elements of finding food, staying warm, staying connected to one another. They had learned to feel at one with enormous trees and the sounds of animals and the magic and danger of the night air. They had learned to see in the darkness, to hunt in packs with dogs as their companions, which is just what we were doing. Somehow I had lived in a television version of the world, and I’d never known these things. I felt more alive than I had ever felt before.
It was a clear night in early spring, and the air was vaguely damp; the dew would be settling in soon. The moon was one or two days from full, hanging about 30 degrees above the horizon as clear as if it were just over the hill. Its light suffused the night with an amber glow. Otherwise, we’d have been closed in by the glow of the fire, creating a ring of light in the darkness.
The dogs were all around us. Sometimes I’d hear them running, and then I’d hear the mournful sound of their whining and baying. Except for now and then, the men seemed not to notice. Once or twice one would look over at the Whippoorwill who sat/leaned/slumped against a huge fallen oak, bracing himself on an elbow
“Whattcha think, Peanut?” one of the men would say.
The Whippoorwill would shake his head and say a word or two: “Cold trail,” or “Not yet,” or “Maybe—just wait and see.”
All the while Angela was leaning toward me, translating. At times I pretended not to hear her so she would
lean closer, but after a while I caught onto a few facts.
First, the Whippoorwill’s other name was “Peanut.” To this day I don’t know why. But I can say that, among coon hunters in the outer reaches of Alabama, a man or a woman might have four or five names, all used at various points in a sentence. I’m quite sure there is a grammar here I don’t understand, but I’ve given up trying. Second, understanding the dog’s baying, whining, and cavorting is even more complex than understanding the mystery of Alabama names and grammar. Good coon hunters know exactly what the dog will sound like when there is a coon and when there might be a coon and when there was a coon and he’s gone and when there is no coon—all of those things. I do know that when the dogs’ baying acquired a plaintive, almost desperate moan, the men stood up, all of one accord, and gathered their guns and lights and headed out. Angela was one of the first ones up. She motioned me to follow.
Through the woods we ran like hell! I felt fortunate to be following rather than leading, because we were bounding over rocks, through thickets, up and down hills. The Frog wasn’t with us, I noticed, but everyone else, including the 70-year-old man called Hefflin, was keeping up. The baying of the hounds grew louder and louder, and then we were there. It was a sight I’ll always remember. The dogs boiled around the bottom of a huge live oak. Angela’s dog, the bluetick named Peanuckle, stood on his hind legs and tried to climb the tree. He raised his snout and moaned like a man in love. But the other dogs wanted his place, so they’d go between his hind legs and the base of the tree, sending him sprawling. Sometimes the dogs would fight for position, snarling away at one another with surprising fury. But the fights never lasted long, for the dogs were transfixed by what was in the tree.
The Whippoorwill shone his light up, pushing dogs this way and that, kicking them if need be, and then when he finally saw what they had treed, he dropped back and said, “Damn!”
From the darkness around the tree, I heard a chorus of “What?” Or “What’d you see?” Or “I hope that don’t mean what I think it means.”
The Whippoorwill continued to look up the tree as though trying to figure out a difficult math problem.
“It’s a damn bobcat,” he finally said, still looking up the tree.
I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I had never seen a bobcat, but I knew they were sort of an Alabama version of a leopard. But the men didn’t seem frightened at all. Rather, they were disappointed.
“I knew it,” old man Hefflin said in a rusty, despondent voice. “Could tell it by the bark of the dogs.” It was the first thing he’d said all evening.The men talked about what to do. One said they should shoot the cat, but the Whippoorwill, a real conservationist who believed in shooting only what you would eat, said no. Suddenly I realized this meant that Angela and the Whippoorwill ate coon, and I found this mildly disturbing. But the conversation continued as I thought through what was being said.
It seems the central problem was Peanuckle. Getting him off the tree wasn’t possible unless the bobcat fled or died. The Whippoorwill was adamant on this point. “That dog,” he said, “is a damn fanatic. He’ll not leave where he’s treed unless you pull him away, and then soon’s you let him go, whist,” the Whippoorwill gestured with his hands the motion of something whizzing by like a jet plane, “he’s back on the tree like a boomerang.”
I looked at the dogs. If anything, they were more agitated than they had been when we got there, and Peanuckle was at the center of the group still trying to climb the tree. When he got tired, he’d just lean there with his long snout pointed up the tree and his
paws clinging to the bark, and howl and moan with a human-like plaintiveness. It was clear he’d have that cat no matter what.
By now the Frog had arrived, breathing heavy from his slow traipse through the woods. He stood there catching his breath for a minute, and then he weighed in on the conversation, declaring that the Whippoorwill was right: There was no pulling Peanuckle off a tree.
Then the cat began to move, which sent the dogs into renewed paroxysms of grief and longing. By now every light we had was trained on the tree, and you could see the cat up there. He had been sprawled out astraddle a limb panting from the chase, but now he started
moving in toward the center of the tree, edging down a bit. He moved slowly and carefully like a tightrope walker, and he would pause once in a while to look down at the dogs and hiss. But move though he might, the cat had nowhere to go. There was no neighboring tree he could jump to, and if he jumped down the dogs would be there waiting. And of course if we pulled Peanuckle away he would head straight back the moment we let him go. The only thing we could do was give up on the hunt.
And then the miracle occurred. In her quiet, womanly way Angela proposed a solution. I was amazed the men listened to her. I was amazed that her father let her do what she proposed. But more than that, I was amazed at her courage. She proposed that she would stand on her father’s shoulders, climb onto a limb beneath the cat’s perch, and poke him with a pitch pole.
The chief argument for this course of action was her size. She was small and agile and could easily be lifted up, and the men could distract the cat while she climbed. Her small size would keep her from shaking the tree. Then when she surprised the cat with a poke, he would hopefully leave for parts unknown, and Peanuckle would chase him a while and then give up and go find a coon.
The Whippoorwill again looked as if he were doing math. “Angel,” he finally said, “I don’t like my baby girl up in a tree with a damn bobcat.”
Hefflin readied the bolt action on his rifle with a metallic click. “Peanut,” he said (meaning the Whippoorwill, of course), “I’ll have my gun trained on that cat, and if he moves on toward Angel I’ll pop his ass.” He paused meaningfully. “Be a dead cat.” He looked away as though the matter were resolved.
These were action men and an action woman, so as soon as the Whippoorwill consented with a nod Angela was up the tree with the pitch pole, and the men were making all kind of threatening sounds to distract the cat. Then just as they had planned, Angela poked the cat. He came out of that tree clawing the air like somebody had set him on fire.
To this day I have never seen such chaos embodied in living creatures. The cat hit the ground already running, and the dogs sprawled and lunged after him. I got knocked down by something—a dog, I think. And then before you could snap your fingers the action was off through the moonlit woods with the diminishing fury of a tornado leaving your neighborhood.
Angela, down from the tree now, helped me up. But the solution to the problem proved not as foolproof as we had hoped. The dogs chased the cat for an hour before they could be brought back to coons, and even then Peanuckle was nowhere to be found. And without Peanuckle, the other dogs couldn’t seem to find anything but cold trails.
Peanuckle showed up two days later with a rip in his chest, which the Whippoorwill stitched up. But the Whippoorwill said later that Peanuckle was never the same. “That old bobcat just took the smartass right out of him,” the Whippoorwill lamented.
And I guess of the whole event, I remember Peanuckle the most. For on that moonlit evening, I was smitten with Angela. Seeing her climb that tree was the final moment when all my defenses failed. It made me know that if I lived to be a thousand, I would never understand or fathom that woman. How can a beautiful woman also be a coon hunter who eats coon and at the same time be willing to climb a tree after a bobcat? I had no answer for that.
And like Peanuckle, longing and moaning after that cat, I was fated to long and moan after Angela. We dated a while, but she always had other interests—other trees to climb, you might say. I guess she was category one, out of my league, even though it took me one hell of a long time to find that out. She eventually followed her father’s lead and went to med school, and she’s now a neurosurgeon in Birmingham and still not married. At least that’s what I think.
But I wince every time I call home, sure somehow that my parents will tell me about her wedding.
Until then, she’s still out there somewhere and I’m still howling and moaning like poor Peanuckle at the bottom of that live oak, for Angela quietly took the smartass right out of me when she climbed that tree after the cat, and I have never been the same since.
H. William Rice grew up in Alabama, among coon hunters, squirrel hunters, country musicians, beautiful and deceitful women, long-winded politicians, lying fishermen, and a wild-eyed preacher or two. Somehow he survived and now lives in Rome, Georgia, with his wife and son. He chairs the English Department at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta.