The late August nighttime forests of Painted Post in Upstate New York had cooled considerably from the day’s temperatures. The dirt road’s gravel they drove on ceased popping under his truck’s tires as the old hunter pulled to a stop in a parking area beneath towering trees of many species. It was training season for raccoon now, one of the hunter’s favorite times of year to take his hounds to the woods.
Further, the natural feed was plentiful this year. Some domestic apple trees they’d passed a short while back had been loaded with fruit, causing the old coon hunter to muse aloud.
“Raccoon should run tonight,” he muttered, perhaps more to himself although he wasn’t alone. Turning to his only passenger, he added, “You oughta use a walkin’ stick, Zach,” he said to his nephew, who’d finally decided to join him chasing ringtails again after many years since their last hunt together. “Negotiating the woods at night is different than doing the same in daylight and a sight more difficult than walking those city streets you’ve become used to.”
“Nah, Uncle Joe,” his twenty-something nephew replied. “Won’t need it.”
“You sure? These hills are steep, and with the rain we’ve had lately, the forest floor is bound to be slippery.”
“Nope! I’m getting ready for those combat games”—Zach referenced a paramilitary exercise he’d signed up for, taking place sometime next spring—“and they don’t use walking sticks.”
Donning their headlamps and switching them on, the pair exited the vehicle and walked to the back of the truck. The elder dropped the tailgate and unlatched one of two dog box doors. A well-muscled ebony cur emerged from his coop into the night air, pausing to look the coon hunter in the eye. The hound wore a GPS collar paired with the transceiver the hunter carried in his vest pocket.
The old man smiled while patting the hound’s side. “Show us what you can do, Seth.”
“You can track him with your GPS, Uncle Joe?” Zack asked, motioning with his head at the coonhound while strapping on a nearly 50-pound camouflaged backpack he’d brought.
“Yeah, but you need to learn to use your compass. This thing,”—the old man patted the device in his vest—“needs batteries. A compass don’t.”
His nephew nodded, motioning at the hound. “How old is Seth now?”
“Turned seven two months back. He’ll be a father in a couple of days if all goes well.”
“He’s sort of old, like you.” His nephew’s grin was clear in the headlamp’s glow.
“Getting up there, but Seth is still in his prime. I’m not.” The coon hunter grabbed his walking stick placed alongside the dog boxes, which prompted the hound to jump off the tailgate and bound away, quickly blending with the dark. “We’ll go down that trail.” He used his headlamp to motion across the road, the white light reflecting on a yellow metallic sign put up by the state to indicate a man-made walking path. “For the first 250 yards or so, we’ll pass through some red pines, and their roots often pop up above ground. Be careful. It’s easy for your boot to catch one of those roots and cause you to trip.”
“I’ll be all right, Uncle Joe,” the younger man replied confidently. “I won’t face plant.”
As they crossed the road, the ebony cur sprinted through their light beams briefly to disappear down the trail.
“How does he know where to go?” Zach asked.
The coon hunter smirked. “He’s old, like me, remember?”
Down the narrow path the two men tread carefully. Less than ten minutes later, the pair emerged from beneath the tall pines into a mostly oak portion of the forest. The old hunter said a silent prayer, thankful his nephew hadn’t tripped.
“Where’s Seth?” Zach asked, breathing a bit heavier.
“Good question.” The hunter stopped to remove the transceiver from his vest. Reading the device’s display, he added, “He’s 400 yards to our south near a steep ravine.” He then replaced the electronics in its pocket. “Huh.”
“Seth might be runnin’ that cliff coon again.” Seeing his nephew’s cocked eyebrow, he continued, “Somethin’ of a grudge match between those two over the years. If he does tree in that ravine, I’ll call Seth off. I don’t want you climbin’ that cliff, especially with that backpack.”
The younger man’s face puckered. “But I’m here for the physical conditioning, Uncle Joe!”
“Getting’ in shape’s one thing. Breaking a leg in these backwoods quite another.” The old man headed down the pathway. “This trail leads drops fairly smoothly, but it’ll likely be a tough climb out.”
And walk they did. But after nearly five minutes, the hunter stopped again to check the GPS. “Seth’s treed,” he declared, “and over 900 yards behind us. It’s that damned cliff coon again.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Zach said. “How do you know he’s treed?”
“Does that thing tell you?” The younger man pointed to the GPS.
“It can, but it’s not now.”
“So, if it isn’t saying he’s treed, then how—”
“Seth isn’t moving, and he’s where that particular ringtail has run before. These things are great”—the hunter bobbed the device in his hand several times before tucking it in his vest—“but they’re no substitute for experience. We can’t hear him,” he continued, “because of the terrain and time of year. On a winter’s night, I’ve easily heard Seth over 1200 yards away. But now, the thick foliage tends to absorb sound.”
Without further delay, they left the trail, following the hill’s contour back to the hound.
“Be careful crossing these old stone walls,” the old hunter said. While the “wall” was barely six inches high, the long, man-made row of stones was still evident. “Even when it’s dry, the stones can shift under your feet. Now being wet, they’re downright tricky.”
“Why is a fence out here in the middle of the woods, anyway?” his panting nephew asked, moving over the dilapidated wall a little too fast to the old man’s thinking.
“Over a century ago, many ‘hilltop farms’ were started. Some survive to this day, but many went belly up during the Great Depression. The good soil those farmers were counting on to grow crops had long ago washed off with the rains down to the river flats. Those folks learned the hard way many of these hills are only good for growing trees.”
Minutes later, they came to the steep ravine—an otherwise cliff for all intents and purposes. The old hunter stopped and pulled out his GPS. “Seth’s in the same spot—six hundred yards out—and now the GPS shows him treed.” Looking at the precipitous grade and then to Zach’s face, which had small rivulets of sweat running down either side, he added, “I’m calling him off.”
Hitting the GPS’s recall button, the hunter spent the next few minutes reading the device, counting down the decreasing yardage as the hound returned, while calling Seth’s name. When the ebony cur appeared, he, too, was panting but wagged his tail upon rejoining his master. “Good boy, Seth. One day, we’ll catch that ol’ coon. Let’s see if we can’t find another.”
The younger man looked a bit pensive. "He just came back to you from treeing a coon, just like that?"
"Yeah," the elder replied. "When you're young and coon hunting, you value a hound's ability to tree a raccoon utmost. When you're older, that's still the most important, but how a hound handles becomes a much closer second. It's all about training--sort like what you're doing here tonight. He looked to his nephew. “Ready?”
“Yep,” Zach replied, the short rest clearly welcomed as he adjusted his backpack’s straps. “Lead the way, Uncle Joe.”
So, the old man headed uphill while Seth once more disappeared into the night.
Minutes later, the hunter would feel a bit guilty. He’d outdistanced his nephew by a couple dozen yards, climbing the ever-steepening grade, and failed to mention crossing what remained of another stone wall. His nephew crashing hard to the forest floor caused the old man to turnabout.
The coon hunter didn’t rub it in that a walking stick, akin to the one he now rested both hands atop, would’ve likely prevented the tumble. No, Zachary was kin, which likewise meant he’d choose to learn the hard way. The old man knew their family could be stubborn that way. “You okay?”
“Yeah, Uncle Joe.” Zach groaned, standing slowly. “Keep going, I’ll catch up.”
“All right.” The hunter studied the youth a moment longer before proceeding up the hill once more.
They crossed a small patch of grass that normally would have brushed mid-calf, but heavy rains had bowled the vegetation over, facing downhill, with slick patches of mud interspersed. The gap between the two men had grown, but Zach’s second fall was even louder than the first.
Despite the urge, the hunter didn’t mention aloud his nephew had in fact “face planted” this time in the indifferent mud.
His nephew answered his uncle’s unspoken question. “I’m okay.” Words and deed seemed a bit disconnected, though, as the young man took considerably longer to get to his feet this time.
“We’re about 150 yards from the road,” the hunter said. With that, he turned and began walking again.
A few minutes later, Zach joined his uncle, who waited patiently as Seth paced nearby.
“We can head to the truck," the old man said, "or we can head to some old apple trees not far from here and loop back to the truck from there. It’ll add an extra mile for your conditioning and all.”
The old man smiled with some familial pride at the youth’s grit when the muck-splattered youth replied, “Let’s take the long way back, Uncle Joe.”
They hadn’t gone twenty yards down that dirt road when Seth, ahead of them by twice that distance, threw his head up, catching a scent on the breeze. Quickly, the cur ran off the road into the woods.
The coon hunter man shone his walking light on a large tree more than seventy-five yards ahead and just off the dirt road to their right. “There’s the coon,” he said. Two amber dots near the tree’s top reflected in the headlight’s beam. “See him?”
“Yeah,” Zach replied, “but how’d you know it’s a raccoon?”
“Seth told me.” Seeing the curious look on his relation’s face, the coon hunter continued, “When Seth throws his head up like that, even if he doesn’t open immediately, I know he’s onto something. We’re moving against the wind, although it’s blowing a bit diagonally to us. That’s why Seth moved off the road to our left—to course the scent.” He paused. “That’s an apple tree we’re looking at, and the color of those eyes looking at us are amber. All that tells me it's a raccoon.” With his nephew nodding thoughtfully, he added, “Let’s keep walking but don’t shine your light on the tree. Let Seth do his job.”
When they came even with the tall apple tree, they stopped and turned off their lights. There was no need to use the GPS to locate Seth, for both men could hear the hound moving through the brush to their left and very close by.
“Why’s he taking so long?” Zach asked.
“Seth is checking things out. There may be more than one ringtail about, too. Odds are, when he does tree on any given night, there’ll be somethin’ up that tree. That’s because Seth’s thorough.” He turned to his nephew. “When you’re young, you expect things to go a certain way after only few times ’round the horn. As you get older, experience teaches you other potential outcomes, so you’ve a tendency to move a little slower. A bit more cautious.”
The ebony cur emerged from the forest, passing quickly without acknowledging the men and moving straight to the apple tree’s base. The hound circled the tree trunk once and threw his head in the air to immediately begin a hard, short chopping tree bark.
Turning on their lights, they quickly spotted the raccoon—a large one—staring back amidst the branches ladened with small green apples above.
“It’s only training season. You’re safe tonight,” the hunter said, still looking at the ringtail.
The woods bandit stared back nonchalantly.
The younger man sounded incredulous. “You’re talking to the raccoon?”
“Yep.” His nephew paused. "I'm sorry about falling in the woods back there."
"Nothing to be sorry about. For every time you fell tonight, I've done the same a hundred times over the years."
"I suppose a walking stick would've helped," Zachary added.
The hunter didn't directly respond, only smiled knowingly, and moved to join his hound beneath the tree, carefully patting his excited hound’s side. “Well done, old man.”
Zach smirked. “Talking to yourself, Uncle Joe?”
“Had that one coming. " The other man grinned back. "Let’s call it a night. That's enough training for everybody this night.” With a quick command, the hound left the tree to join his master.
They slowly made their way back to the truck with a curious ringtail watching—a slightly younger old man, a somewhat-older young man, and a hound in his prime, walking somewhere between.