Today is (the real) Seth’s seventh birthday.
Many a night, he’s shown me sets of amber eyes reflected in my headlamp.
And he’s become a nursemaid, making sure this old man is okay as we travel the forest at night. Twice now, Seth has come back at a certain point in a certain trail, to lead me around a steep drop-off—a place where the story in the snow told that even the sure-footed deer didn’t attempt a descent.
During a recent hike along the stream that inspired Ryland Creek—the very place where I’d realized he would someday make an exceptional hound—Seth came back to wait for me to negotiate the way to the top of the waterfalls.
As he lowered his head to watch me, I was reminded of a scene from The Last Coon Hunter, Fifth Anniversary Edition—a new scene added to the original edition—that explained how the character Seth earned the title, The King of Hounds.
In this scene, Nathan Ernst has taken a wounded Seth (a porcupine quill in the ebony hound’s back leg that had become infected) to a base of a cliff to work through the pain.
A transition from puppy to hound.
From prince to king . . .
Nathan unsnapped Seth’s leash, and the ebony cur peered up at his master.
“There’s no way you can get up this mountain on just three legs, boy. Work through the pain and follow me.” Nathan paused with a smile. “I believe in you.”
Driving his walking stick into the earth to leave it standing upright, Nathan began the climb. Soon, however, his trek slowed, owing to the hill’s steepness and the nature of the soft clay covered with red pine needles, making for a slippery going. Soon, on hands and knees, he clawed for each new purchase on the cliff. The sequence repeated—find a handhold and pull himself up higher. After nearly seventy-five yards, Nathan looked behind.
At the bottom of the hill, Seth remained hesitant but studied his master.
Refocusing his attention uphill, the young man reached. His palm came down on a sharp rock hidden beneath the pine needles, and blood trickled down the side of his arm. His hand quivered, but his grip held. Nathan again glanced down the hillside at his hound, who stood, watching but unmoving.
With a wave, Nathan shouted, “You can do this, Seth.” However, the awkward position caused him to lose hold, and he slid downhill several feet.
“Dah!” Shaking his head, Nathan chastised his foolishness.
For the hills of Painted Post do not suffer fools, even those trying to help an exceptional hound.
Gritting his teeth, Nathan quickly regripped the mountainside. The small, sharp rock that had cut his hand dislodged and tumbled down the cliff.
Hearing Nathan’s pained cry had caught the young dog’s attention. When the rock covered with his beloved master’s blood rolled to a stop very close to him, Seth looked at the offending stone and then upward.
Slowly, Seth lowered his hurt leg into the healing ground of Ryland Creek. The swollen limb made the adolescent hound let out a yelp, causing Nathan to peer downhill over his shoulder.
But the coon hunter saw something emerge in his dog not there moments before. Determination.
With his body braced—the prince’s thick muscles tightening—Seth bounded onto the hill. As the wounded leg came down repeatedly in search of firmament, the ebony cur grunted.
Eyes wide with hope, Nathan watched as his coonhound kept coming toward him, sinking paws into the muck, matching the mountain’s stubbornness with equal fervor.
In less than half a minute, Seth had climbed even with his master and stopped, wagging his tail.
“You can do it, boy,” Nathan assured the hound, whose muzzle was only inches away. “I’ve got this.” When his faithful dog hesitated, the young man motioned with his chin uphill. “Go on, now! Get to the top.”
Waiting only a moment, Seth then began ascending the mountain again, with all four limbs working hard.
Returning his attention to the unforgiving cliff, Nathan began climbing anew. The grade increased to where his chest touched the ground. His fingers sunk into the cold, wet earth while his knees anchored him. After several minutes, he neared the crest of that ravine, his arms and legs trembling for relief.
A short bark caught Nathan’s attention, and he looked up. Thoughts of his wounded hand and throbbing muscles quickly disappeared.
On a rocky outcropping just above, Seth stared across the expanse, surveying the other hilltops of Ryland Creek. Spots of brownish clay—evidence of his rite of passage—decorated Seth’s otherwise shiny, black coat. With all four paws firmly planted on the ground, the ebony cur lowered his crown to gaze upon the young man.
Sprawled in the mud, Nathan’s breath seized.
For no longer did he spy a wounded prince but stared back into the eyes of a king.
A King of Hounds.