At one point in the Ryland Creek saga—somewhere between The Last Coon Hunter and An Exceptional Hound—Seth earns the title, “The King of Hounds.” This short story explains how Seth came by that name. (5-minute read.)
It had been over two weeks since the porcupine quill had wedged deep into Seth’s back leg joint. The ebony coonhound, this young prince, had known not to mess with a “porky,” but had erred in judgment, as youth often does.
Nathan Ernst had missed removing that last quill, one of nearly fifty, from his prized coonhound’s well-muscled frame. Now, Seth favored that injured limb, refusing to put much weight on it. Further, Seth’s leg was now losing muscle because the wounded hound wouldn’t 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 inside the kennel.
Seth slowly wagged his tail but wouldn’t make eye contact.
“C’mon, boy. Time we went for a walk.” Nathan cradled an arm around the cur. 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 infection’s source. The coon hunter stood and took a few steps backward.
Seth dutifully hobbled forward as Nathan snapped a leash on the dog’s collar. With the aid of his walking stick, the youth led his ailing hound toward the forest. The lead grew taut when Seth refused to move. Nathan turned back. The ebony cur rose his head pitifully, but his master softly coaxed the hound on. “You can do this. I know you can.”
Reluctantly, if somewhat more stoic, the hound followed with a 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 foliage of the more mature trees hadn’t yet changed to their autumn oranges and purples. At times, they would pass a red maple, its leaves already turning its namesake crimson. Maples always had a head start on the other deciduous trees in the forests of Ryland Creek.
The old trail sunk into a deep ravine, its precipitous sides surrounding the hunter and the hound. After several more minutes, the forest-scape gave way to conifers as the man and hound arrived at the base of the hill, overshadowed by towering white pines and hemlocks. Owing to centuries of erosion with storms washing the soil away, many sharp rocks jutted from the ground.
Nathan unsnapped Seth’s leash. The hound looked up at his master.
“There’s no way you can climb this mountain on just three legs, boy. You’re going to have to use that leg. Work through the pain and follow me.”
The young coon hunter drove his walking stick into the earth at the ravine’s base 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, 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.
Seth remained 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 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.
Nathan waved his arm. “You can do this, Seth.” However, the awkward position caused him to lose hold, and he slid downhill several feet. “Daah!” He quickly re-gripped the mountainside, turning his head just enough to see Seth below.
The small, sharp rock that had cut Nathan dislodged and tumbled down the cliff.
Hearing his master’s alarmed cry had caught the young hound’s attention. The rock rolled to a stop very near Seth, who looked at the stone and then at his master. Slowly, the young prince lowered his hurt leg into the healing ground of Ryland Creek. The pain caused the adolescent hound to yelp as Nathan continued to peer over his shoulder.
But the coon hunter saw something emerge in his dog’s eyes not there moments before. Determination.
With his body braced—muscles tightening—Seth bounded onto the hill.
As the wounded leg came down in search of firmament, the cur grunted. Nathan watched as his coonhound kept coming toward him, sinking paws into the muck, matching the mountain’s stubbornness with equal commitment.
In less than half a minute, Seth had climbed even with his master and stopped, wagging his tail.
“Go, boy.” Nathan assured the hound, whose muzzle was only inches away. “I’ve got this.” When his faithful dog hesitated, he motioned with his chin uphill. “Go on, now! Get to the top.”
Seth waited only a moment but then launched his regained strength, with all four limbs working hard to rise higher up that mountain.
Nathan turned his attention back to the unforgiving cliffside. The grade increased to where his chest touched the ground. His fingers sunk into the cold, wet clay, while his knees anchored him. After several minutes, he neared the top 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 dissipated.
On a rocky outcropping, Seth stood, staring across the expanse and 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 the hound’s paws were planted into the ground. Transformed, the ebony hound lowered his crown to gaze at the young man.
Sprawled in the mud, Nathan’s breath seized as he stared 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 the title be capitalized as the “King of Hounds.” I acquiesced immediately.]