day to buy some dog food for my lap hound and noticed a pickup truck parked out front with a jumbo dog box in the bed. Upon closer examination, I began reading various bumper stickers that totally covered the truck’s back bumper and onto the tailgate. They promoted radio stations, political candidates and gun owner’s rights. One read “My kid whooped your honor student” and one stated in bold electric type “Ain’t
Skeered.” The one that really took me back to where I’m from and poignantly illustrated this noble man’s philosophy of life read: “I coon hunt, therefore I am.”
A coonhound baying on a moon lit night is one of the most wonderful sounds on earth. The familiar sounds of dogs you’ve grown up with echoing on a crisp winter night far, far away…Baaaaaaaaw Baaaaaaaw Yip Yip Yip…until you can just make out who is who. I’m telling you, it’s beautiful.
I never have been much for hunting anything faster than a biscuit. But, in my youth, I did like to “run the dogs” from sun down ’til sun up with a friend of mine that enjoyed the sound of the hunt as much as I did.
Rafe was proud of his family’s dogs. But ‘pride’ may be the wrong word to use when one dog in particular was brought up…obsession would be more appropriate. Rafe’s chest would bow out as if he thought you should stand at attention when his hound’s pedigree was mentioned. He claimed that his prized Walker, “Jeff,” came directly from the legendary “Tennessee Lead,” a dog from the early 1800s that was supposedly stolen from a plantation owner/fox hunter from somewhere in Tennessee. This ill-gotten dog later became known as the best treeing hound ever and the foundation on which the modern breed was built.
Rafe kept Jeff away from the other hounds that were kept in pens out back of the house. Jeff slept on the screened-in porch outside Rafe’s bedroom window and, though he would never admit it except to those who had caught him, would sneak Jeff in the house to share the room with him on extremely cold nights. Rafe would even do without food by hiding pieces of streak o’ lean, river fish and fried chicken from the supper table, pretending he’d eaten it, and then sneak it out to the porch and the dog. Jeff was, by far, the finest coon dog in the county and possibly the whole state. At least he was to a twelve-year-old boy.
Jeff was huge. Bigger than any other of the half dozen or so in the rest of Rafe’s daddy’s pack. We guessed his weight by comparing him to Rafe’s chunky little sister. We’d pick the sister up, then the dog, then the sister, and then the dog again until we agreed they weighed about the same. We then asked Rafe’s momma what the girl weighed. Ninety pounds! What a whopper!
Rafe sold the hides of coon, bobcat and an occasional mink or beaver to a man that lived on the backside of the tracks, near the river outside our little town. I remember the man would also buy skinned raccoons for the meat, but only if you left one of the hind feet intact to differentiate it from a cat carcass.
Rafe had managed to save enough money from his hunting and trapping to buy another pretty good maiden Walker hound. He named her Mutt and wanted desperately to have a litter from her with Jeff as the daddy. He watched her like a hawk and when he suspected her coming into heat the last week of August, he penned her up in a separate paddock for protection, though he knew the other hounds couldn’t get to her past the wire roof on their pens.
School was starting in a week and Rafe’s momma made him go with her and the other two children to get some school clothes. He was edgy all that day, knowing that he needed to be watching Mutt. When they got home he ran around back to check on her. As he rounded the corner he saw her fast asleep in the sun in one corner of the pen. He stopped and sighed loudly with relief.
Just then, another head popped up from behind her large frame. “Oh, No!” he whimpered as the dogs stood up. Mutt’s sunbathing buddy was a lazy old basset hound named Chester from across and down the creek a ways. Nobody had ever seen Chester off of the front porch of the house where he lived. How could a decrepit bag of bones have walked over two miles through lowland brambles and thickets, swam the creek, then dug a tunnel under the fence into the pen?
Rafe’s daddy consoled him by saying the old basset hound didn’t have enough vim and vigor to make puppies after traveling that far and besides, he wasn’t tall enough! Rafe put Jeff in with her that same day hoping to somehow un-do any damage that might have been done.
About nine weeks later, Mutt gave birth to her first litter (if you can call one puppy a litter). Rafe had disavowed any knowledge of Chester ever crossing the creek and was positive this was Jeff’s only child, his prodigy that would some day lead the pack. He named him “Mighty Chief Joseph” or “Joe” for short.
Several months later it was obvious to everyone but Rafe (who was in denial) that Mighty Joe was not Jeff’s boy. Sure, he had the color, head, body and even the bellowing mouth of a coonhound but there was one major problem; his legs were so short that it looked like he was standing in mud up to his hocks.
Rafe, nonetheless, was determined that his beloved grand-dog, as he called him, would have a growing spurt and sprout legs.
Mutt and Jeff went on to have many litters together and continued the legendary bloodline. As it turns out, Joe never did grow legs. He did grow to the ripe old age of eighteen as a beloved family pet to tease Rafe about…treeing cats whenever he bothered to crawl from under the porch, dragging his front tracks out with his belly and howling at the moon with his haunting voice.