When THE Clouds COME
The sounds of hounds’ voices calling in the wintry night air stole his breath. The old man’s instincts told him his dogs were finally going to tree that ghost raccoon this night after so many previous attempts. The coonhounds’ excited trail barks told the story: the wily ringtail had finally run out of tricks.
The seasoned hunter surveyed the darkness to make out the forest’s many leafless oaks. A full moon hung above like a carbide lantern—the kind he’d once carried as a boy. He leaned against his beat-up truck on a lonely, nameless dirt road. His boots made a soft grinding noise in the crusted snow as he shifted his weight to listen intently to his hounds. The hunter could tell, after nearly six decades of pursuing ringtails through these hills, his hound, Ol’ Duke, led the younger dog, Samuel, as the chase continued.
A tinge of excitement shot up his left arm, but the man ignored the sensation, absorbed in the woodland chase’s drama unfolding. He looked up at the night sky. From the west, clouds were blotting out the stars and threatening to hide the moonlight behind a merciless gray curtain. He nodded, remembering the weather forecast of a coming storm expected before midnight.
It was Christmas Eve.
Hunting on this night, he thought, shaking his head. But she would have wanted it this way. Me out here with my dogs.
He focused on the lunar brightness and closed his eyes.
It had been on a warm, late spring day when he’d first seen her, so many years before, on the elementary school playground. Her eyes had been so bright then—full of life’s promises. She had dangled from the monkey bars halfway across. Between two outstretched arms, her long, black hair flowed down her back. Her white blouse transitioned to worn blue jeans, ending in amber-colored sandals, her small, bare toes squeezed together to keep her footwear from falling off.
He could sense, even then, her grip weakening, all the while laughing, as she struggled to grasp the next metal tube. Her reach failed. Her strength gave way, and she plummeted toward the graveled earth.
He’d caught her just in time. He had always been strong, and she was tiny. He held her suspended, safe above the certain cuts and bruises. Her expression grew from expected horror to a soft smile. One sandal had come off during her fall. She relaxed her other foot to let the other sandal land near the first.
Thank you, she had said.
He set her down gently as she donned her footwear again.
She had smiled with what would become a familiar impish grin. You’re stronger than you look, she said, running off to her other girlfriends on the other side of the playground.
Samuel’s melodious, long bark sounded, startling him. Even with eyes shut, he knew where the cagey coon was headed—toward a set of cliffs. It was a wise if desperate attempt to throw the canine pursuers of its scent.
The hunter shifted his position again to hear better, and the moonlight shone bright even behind his closed eyelids. Bright white.
Like the hospital linens had been.
Her breaths came ever slower with the plastic tubes running from her arms and beneath her nose. Several pillows propped her head up as she rested with eyes closed, her face framed by black-and-silver hair.
His ears, trained so through the years to listen to his hounds on a chase, detected the slight change in the rhythmic blip on the EKG. After so many days, he had found the monotone sound annoying. But the time between blips had lengthened, and his heart cried out for the machine’s sameness one more time.
She’d been so quiet for so long now—so unusual—he had thought her asleep.
He kneeled, praying beside her bed. I don’t want to live without you, he’d muttered.
Her eyes popped open, so bright as usual. Still, he could sense her grip weakening.
"You must go on," she had said. "It’s the way of things, my husband. Promise me you’ll continue into the forests as you always have."
She had ever supported his love of the forest. He likewise admired her stoicism. She endured many a lonely night as he traipsed through the woods after his hounds. Never would she mention any resentment about those routine nightly absences. All he ever recalled were those pretty eyes looking back into his when he awoke in the morning. Gratitude perpetually expressed to her long-ago rescuer.
Promise me, she had repeated in that sterile hospital room.
He only nodded on that Christmas Eve—five years ago to this day.
Her body had relaxed. A sandal-less foot poked out from beneath the white linens, and the EKG blared a final, continuous monotony.
Ol’ Duke’s long locate bawl pushed back the memory of the hospital machine’s indifference. The coon hunter’s eyes opened wide. Seconds later, both Duke and Samuel sounded off with their rapid tree barks.
“We finally got this old fellow,” he spoke aloud. Again, the tingle of excitement flowed up his arm.
The hunter knew this forest—appreciated the final strategy the ringtail had used in seeking sanctuary in some tree on that cliff. It would be a difficult climb—made even more so treacherous by the December’s wanton love of ice and snow. He took the scoped .22 rifle out of his truck’s toolbox. The old man threaded his left arm—still oddly tingling—through the black nylon sling. The gun rested diagonally across his back. Reaching into the truck’s bed, he found his walking stick. His other hand reached for the knob on his helmet, and with a familiar click, the headlight’s white beam dispersed the immediate darkness.
The sounds of his hounds still singing echoed in the otherwise silent night. Calling to him. He took his first step into the snow with a loud crunch.
His adult children from different cities would call to see how he fared. His oldest daughter often reminded him that he was “no spring chicken” and even suggested “long-term care alternatives.” It was a nursing home by any other name, and he’d never visited one of those places without leaving depressed for those bereft of another choice. Besides, he reasoned, he might not walk as fast anymore, but he could still make it to a treeing hound.
And that was all that mattered. Spring chicken or not.
The coon hunter began the trek. It was a little slow at first, waddling amongst giant oaks that dwarfed him. Yet, for as many times as he’d traversed these woods, the world always felt new beneath the starry-not-yet clouded sky. A joyful smile crossed his face at the echoes of his youth.
The hounds beckoned, and onward the old man continued.
The forest became busy with creeks and slippery rocks. This school ground had no monkey bars to aid in crossing these streams of varying width, nor did it matter. The hunter had been baptized once and had no intentions to revisit that rite again this night. He negotiated each watery challenge adroitly, perhaps no longer a star student but no dullard either.
The grade began to steepen. The old man knew the path was set, and he had only to follow it. He stepped forward with a mature vigor, finally stopping after several minutes to catch his breath at the base of the cliff. The dogs’ constant barking flowed overhead but still nearly a hundred yards away. The hunter assessed the steep grade. Here and there between ancient hemlock trees, partially snow-covered rocks jutted out from the earth where centuries of summer deluges had washed away even the stubbornest of dirt.
“Well,” he muttered, taking in the piney scents, “that ol’ coon isn’t gettin’ any closer.”
His walking staff bit into the mountainside, and he began the climb. Step by step, he closed the gap. The exertion from the effort quickly winded his body but not his will. The obligation to hold up his end of the bargain between himself and his hounds drove him on.
He slipped and fell hard, sliding several feet back down the cliff, losing precious ground. Face down in the snow and rock, he shook his head, frustrated at his clumsiness. Thankfully, his headlamp had stayed on. The thought of negotiating this terrain in the dark wasn’t appealing.
But the old man sensed he wasn’t alone. Looking uphill, the hunter saw his mottled black, brown, and white coonhound, Samuel, standing only inches away. The faithful dog wagged his tail and whined nervously.
“Don’t worry, Sam. I’m okay.” He laughed. “Besides, I have it on good authority I’m stronger than I look.”
Samuel, however, would not leave until the man began moving again. All the while, Duke continued barking to keep the ringtail from climbing down and starting the chase anew.
After several more minutes, clawing his way up the hill, the hunter and Samuel joined Ol’ Duke beneath a massive oak that grew there stubbornly despite the steepness. Searching the heavens once more, the old man could make out thick clouds beginning to tickle the far edges of the moon. They’d best hurry to beat the storm.
Turning the plastic switch at the back of his helmet several notches, the coon hunter dimmed the bulb’s luminosity. He used the soft white light to scan the tree’s upper branches. With what seemed like only moments, the amber-color of the raccoon’s eyes reflected back, revealing the critter’s location.
“Too easy,” he mumbled, unshouldering the .22-caliber rifle and loading the ammunition clip into the bottom of the gun. His fingers worked to release the bolt catch, followed by the familiar “thunk” as the bullet slid into the firing chamber. He turned on the small light clamped to the barrel and switched off his headlamp.
Both hounds began to bark even louder, assured their quarry, which had eluded them for so long, had run its course.
It was the way of things—running to one’s final destination.
As he lifted his left arm, pain shot through his shoulder. He must’ve been hurt during the fall, he reasoned. The coon hunter proceeded to look through the scope, finding the raccoon. He clicked off the gun’s safety as he placed the scope’s small dot on one of the coon’s eyes.
How bright those eyes were, staring at him beyond this time or place.
His right index finger found the trigger and began to tighten.
But it was those eyes that conjured a memory.
The old hunter lowered the .22. His hounds quit barking, clearly confused as they watched their master unload the weapon, turn off the barrel light, and sling the gun onto his back again.
“It’s Christmas Eve, boys,” he said to his canine companions. He then smiled at the raccoon. “Count yourself lucky this night, Mr. Ringtail. Merry Christmas.”
They began to move down the hillside carefully. Samuel followed close by. But when Ol’ Duke did not immediately join them, the old coon hunter turned back. The seasoned bluetick hound glanced reluctantly up the tree and then at his master—one grayed face to another.
“C’mon, boy. It’s time to go home.”
Head bowed, but tail wagging, the dog dutifully fell to his master’s side.
They retraced his path to the truck, although the man had to stop several times to catch his breath. When the trio reached his pickup, the hunter unslung the weapon and secured it back in the toolbox.
As the old man turned to his hounds, his chest seized with a heaviness, the pain excruciating. He slammed against the truck’s side and fell to the ground, sitting with legs splayed before him.
The coon hunter couldn’t breathe. As his dogs drew near, he panicked but then looked up into the sky at the moon making its brave attempt to fight off the storm.
The moon would lose the battle, he knew, and a calmness entered.
The hounds moved closer. Ol’ Duke rested his grayed head on the man’s lap, closing his eyes, and offered his last heartbeat. His master would not leave this forest alone.
Young Samuel sat on his haunches, his youth not completely comprehending the scene.
The old hunter leaned back and smiled. His breathing stopped. His eyes glazed as the moonlight dissipated behind the storm’s fury.
And when the clouds came, a white snow blanketed the ground.