The ebony cur’s loud voice echoed in the nighttime hollow. Not even Ryland Creek responded with the sound of rushing water, for it lay buried beneath several inches of ice. The winter air nipped at any daring to travel the forest this night. The moon’s light slipped between thick hemlock branches, falling onto the snowy ground.
But the coonhound’s deep trail bark didn’t go unheard.
In the darkness, Nathan Ernst listened intently, a .22 rifle slung to rest diagonally across his back, as the three young pre-teens with him whispered to themselves. They stood, waiting in the cold with their headlamps turned off.
“Do you think Seth will find the raccoon, Mr. Ernst?” Jason asked.
Nearby, Bobby shifted, his boots making a crunching noise in the snow. Tara turned her head to course the hound’s voice, calling out once more.
“Hard sayin’, but let’s follow the creek ’cause that’s where Seth is headed,” Nathan replied.
The quartet snapped on their headlights, the white beams pushing back the night’s veil, and the young people followed behind the coon hunter.
They hadn’t gone one hundred yards when something caught Tara’s eye. “Here’s Seth’s track, and the coon’s, too!” she shouted.
Nathan took a few steps to where she pointed and planted his knee in the snow. “Well, I’ll be. It’s Ol’ Three-Toes.”
“Old Three Toes?” Jason repeated.
“Look at the right front paw,” Nathan said. The kids obeyed him, and the paw print told the story—this raccoon’s right foot was missing two toes. “I thought he’d be long gone by now.”
“You’ve chased this one before?” Bobby asked, still peering at the misshapen footprint.
“This woods bandit is one of the reasons Seth became a good hound.” Nathan stood. Noting the three confused youngsters staring back, the coon hunter continued. “When he was a pup, Seth crossed this raccoon’s trail no less than a dozen times. Three Toes used every trick in the book. Sneaking through blown-down treetops, swimming up or down a stream, passing through hollow logs, and crossing swamps. Once, this critter even crawled through an old abandoned truck in the middle of the woods to fool Seth. I guess in a way, you could call Ol Three Toes, ‘Seth’s teacher’.”
“But you never could catch him, huh?” Bobby noted.
“Nope,” Nathan admitted. “By the time Seth figured each trick out, Three Toes would make it to a den tree—safe and sound.”
Jason nearly hopped as the cur’s voice sounded again. “Do you think Seth will find him tonight, Mr. Ernst?”
“Just as sure as Seth knows where we’re at right now.” The coon hunter began walking again toward his beckoning hound.
“Seth knows where we’re at?” Bobby asked.
“Our scent carries on the wind like any animal,” Nathan explained.
Tara smirked as she pinched her nose. “Especially your smell, Bobby.”
“Yeah? Well, I bet Ol’ Three Toes is just as mean as you!” Bobby retorted, which earned him a hard punch in the arm from the girl. “Ouch!” he said, rubbing his smarting limb.
“I have all my toes, thank you very much,” Tara’s smirk grew a bit wider in Bobby’s headlight beam.
The ebony hound sounded a long locate call that echoed in the ravine, and then the hound switched over to a rapid barking cadence.
“Treed!” Nathan declared. “C’mon. Seth can’t be more than two hundred yards away.”
The quartet moved carefully down the frozen creek. Inside of five minutes, they stopped, only needing to scale the stream’s tall, washed-out bank to reach Seth, who they could hear treeing so close now but not yet see.
As the youngsters began noisily clambering up the steep embankment, vying to be first to reach the top, Seth quit barking.
“What’s happening, Mr. Ernst?” Jason looked back.
The sudden silence even perplexed the experienced hunter. “Not sure.”
With a hint of awe, Bobby asked, “Do you think Three Toes jumped out of the tree and started running again?”
“With this ringtail, all bets are off,” Nathan replied. Before he could continue, Seth began treeing again, but Nathan noted his hound had shifted his location ever so slightly.
“Let’s go!” Tara shouted.
The youngsters slipped over the stream bank and out of sight.
With a short laugh, Nathan followed. When he cleared the top, he found his young charges close by, using their lights to explore the upper, leafless branches of an ancient, spreading white oak. Seth kept singing, his front paws on the tree’s trunk.
After a minute, Bobby complained. “There’s no raccoon here! Three Toes got away again!”
Nathan studied the tree. Despite the monstrous oak’s size, without its fall foliage, the ringtail should have been easy to spot. Further, there was no hole in the oak. It wasn’t a hollow den tree where the coon could find refuge inside.
It was as if Ol’ Three Toes had simply disappeared as he always had.
Replaying the moments in his mind before they had arrived, Nathan began to circle the tree as the kids continued to search the oak’s branches. The coon hunter found where Seth had approached the oak. Following the dog’s footprints backward, he saw a large sugar maple not more than forty yards away.
Looking up the maple, Nathan’s headlight caught the reflection of amber eyes in the tree’s upper reaches. Even at this distance, the huge raccoon staring into the light seemed old and tired. With an unexplainable certainty, Nathan knew there were two toes missing on that wood bandit’s right front paw. The hunter’s hand found the rifle barrel hanging at his side, and he began to unsling the .22.
A short huff from the black cur drew Nathan’s attention.
Now, Seth also stared up the old maple and could clearly see his ring-tailed nemesis. The ebony hound turned his gaze back to his master and whined anxiously. It was clear. Seth had known the exact whereabout of Ol’ Three Toes. Just as the hound’s keen senses had known where Nathan and the children had been, following alongside Ryland Creek, when the coonhound had suddenly switched trees at the last minute.
Once the student, Seth was unwilling to give up his old teacher.
“C’mon, young’uns,” Nathan said, still focused on his hound and releasing his rifle. “There will be another coon to chase tonight. Den tree!” At that command, Seth wagged his tail.
As one, Jason, Bobby, and Tara groaned their disappointment—blissfully unaware of how close their quarry was. But they dutifully obeyed and followed Seth, who trotted ahead of them. The trio talking excitedly about how the legendary Ol’ Three Toes had once again fooled his pursuers.
As their lights faded from the huge oak and sugar maple harboring an old raccoon, Nathan silently reflected on the true lesson that night—one he’d been taught years before. . . .
Hunting wasn’t about the killing.