[Somewhere between book one (The Last Coon Hunter) and book two (An Exceptional Hound), the coonhound Seth earns the title “The King of Hounds.” This short story explains how Seth came to be known by that name. For your Sunday reading pleasure.]
It had been over two weeks since the porcupine quill had wedged deep into Seth’s back left leg joint. The ebony coonhound, this young prince, had known better than to mess with the “quill pig,” but had made an error in judgment, as many things of youth wantonly do.
Nathan Ernst had missed that last quill, one of nearly fifty, lodged in his hound’s leg when pulling them from the ebony cur’s well-muscled frame. Now, his prized hound favored that injured limb, refusing to put much, if any, weight on it. His dog was losing muscle because of Seth’s refusal to place all four limbs on the ground and exercise properly.
In the cool, early fall air, Nathan kneeled near Seth. Balanced on the balls of his feet, his boots made a grinding noise against the gravel in the kennel.
Seth slowly wagged his tail but would not make eye contact.
“C’mon, boy. It’s time we went for a walk.” Nathan said, cradling an arm around his dog. Moving the limb’s muscles, he reasoned, would break up the quill and let the young hound’s body’s immune system naturally dissolve the source of the infection. The coon hunter stood and took a few steps back.
Seth dutifully hobbled forward as Nathan snapped a leash on the dog’s collar. With the aid of his walking stick, the coon hunter began to lead his ailing hound toward the forest. The leash grew taut, as Seth refused to move. Nathan turned back. The ebony cur rose his head pitifully, but his master softly coaxed, “You can do this. You have to work through the pain.”
Reluctantly if stoically, the hound followed with his trammeled three-legged gait, keeping the wounded limb from touching the ground. Into the forest they went beneath a clouded, gray sky. They took a familiar, long-abandoned logging road, lined with sizeable oaks of several species: red, white, black, and even chestnut. The leaves of the mature trees hadn’t yet changed to their autumn oranges and purples. At times they would pass an out-of-place red maple, its leaves already turning its namesake crimson. Maples always seemed to have a head start on the rest of the deciduous trees in the forests of Ryland Creek.
The old trail sunk into a deep ravine, its steep sides surrounding the hunter and the hound. The woodland of oaks slowly gave way to ever-greens. After several more minutes, they came to the base of a particularly steep part of the hillside overshadowed with towering white pines and hemlocks. Here and there, owing to erosion—the soil washed away centuries ago by raging storms—sharp rocks jutted from the hillside.
Nathan unsnapped Seth’s leash. The hound looked up at his master with a pitiful look.
“There’s no way you can go up this mountain on just three legs, boy. You’re going to have to use that leg. Work through the pain and follow me.”
The coon hunter drove his walking stick into the earth where it stood to await his return. He began the steep climb through the reddish-brown pine needles. His trek slowed, owing to the steepness and the nature of the soft clay, making for a slippery going. Soon, he was on his hands and knees, clawing for each new purchase on the cliff-side. The sequence repeated: grab the dirt and pull himself up further. After nearly seventy-five yards, Nathan looked behind.
Seth stood still at the bottom of the hill—hesitant but watching his master closely.
The young man reached again. His palm came down on a sharp rock hidden beneath the pine needles. Blood trickling down the side of his arm. His hand quivered, but his grip held. Nathan glanced down the hillside to see his hound watching but still unmoving.
Nathan motioned with a wave of one arm to the young canine, calling back “You can do this, Seth.” However, his awkward position caused him to lose hold, and he slid downhill several feet. “Daah!” he shouted and turned and re-gripped the mountainside. He managed to turn his head just enough to see Seth below.
The small, sharp rock dislodged and tumbled down the cliff.
Hearing his master’s short, alarmed cry had caught the young hound’s attention. The rock rolled to a stop very near the ebony cur. The hound looked at the rock and then looked at his master’s precarious position.
Slowly, Seth lowered his wounded leg into the healing ground of Ryland Creek. The pain caused the ebony cur to let out one short yelp, as Nathan continued to peer over his shoulder. Now, the coon hunter saw something emerge in the young hound’s eyes. Determination.
The dog’s body braced—his muscles tightening—and Seth bounded onto the hill.
As the wounded leg came down in search of the firmament, Seth grunted. Nathan watched as the determined kept coming toward him, sinking paws into the muck, matching the mountain’s stubbornness with equal commitment.
Seth came even with his master and stopped, wagging his tail.
“Go on, boy,” Nathan assured the hound, whose muzzle was only inches away. “I’ve got this.” When the hound still hesitated, he spoke again, commanding, “Go on, Seth! Get to the top.”
The hound hesitated for a moment more but then launched his regained strength with all four limbs working hard to scale the cliff
Nathan turned his attention back to the unforgiving mountain. The grade increased to the point where he had to lie on the ground. His fingers sunk into the cold, wet clay, while his knees acted as anchor points. After several minutes, he neared the top of the hill, his arms and leg screaming for relief,
A short bark from above caught Nathan’s attention, and he looked uphill. Thoughts of his wounded hand and throbbing muscles quickly disappeared.
For there, upon a rocky outcropping, stood Seth. The ebony cur stared across the expanse, studying the other hilltops of Ryland Creek. Spots of brownish clay—evidence of his rite of passage—decorated Seth’s otherwise shiny black coat. All four of his paws were planted firmly into the hill’s crest. So transformed, the ebony hound lowered his crown to stare at the coon hunter.
Sprawled in the mud, Nathan’s breath momentarily seized, as he looked back into the eyes of a King.
[Closing editorial: originally, throughout An Exceptional Hound, Seth’s title had been in lower case as the “king of hounds.” Technically, that wasn’t wrong. After reading the draft manuscript, my fabulous copy editor, Joyce Mochrie, insisted that the title be capitalized as the King of Hounds. I acquiesced.]