The night was crisp and cold at Granny and Grandpa's farm near Steelville.
The year was 1973, and I was visiting for Christmas vacation. Earlier that day, I had been after Grandpa to go coon hunting in the evening. He thought it over for about half a second before agreeing it would be a good idea. So, after one of Granny's superb, rib sticking dinners (including milk from Fullbucket, even though she was nearly dry that time of year, string beans from the garden, roast beef and gravy), Grandpa and I readied ourselves for the cold night hunt.I bundled up with an old pair of Grandpa's long underwear, jeans, T-shirt, long sleeve flannel shirt, and then my lined coveralls, with warm gloves and hat. Of course, I also covered my feet with thick socks stuffed into waterproof leather boots. I was particularly proud to bring along my new Remington .22 pump rifle that Dad gave me for my birthday the previous August.
Both Grandpa and I loved to hunt, and we couldn't have asked for a more perfect coon hunting night. When we stepped outside on the concrete front steps, the dew had begun turning to frost on the grass, so it provided good scent for Grandpa's coonhound, Sharp. Sharp was fresh, full of dinner and excited for the hunt. There was virtually no wind, the moon was almost full, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. We could see about half as well as we could in the daytime. The two huge sycamores by the house cast long shadows on the ground.
Our breath froze in the frigid night air. I had forgotten my stainless steel, waterproof match holder, so I rushed back into the old farm house to get it. On my way back out, Granny caught me for one last tight hug and smile, and wished us good luck. Of course, her hands were soft, and she smelled like the evening meal.
Grandpa was already down the cinder block steps and almost to the garage. Sharp sat patiently beside him, slowly swishing his tail, knowing what was to come. I started to rush down the stairs, but a word of caution by Grandpa, and my growing level of maturity (including my parent's trust in me to carry a gun), slowed me down and re-focused my attention on the loaded gun cradled in my arms. As I took the 10 steps over the gravel swale between the steps and garage, I noticed that the rocks were frozen together.
Grandpa looked at me with his characteristic half smile, his pipe clenched between his false teeth. A well worn, lined hunting cap covered his bald head. He was five feet, eight inches tall, strong and lean as a rail from a lifetime of hard work. Rare was the day that he wasn't working on something on his 140-acre homestead farm. He had turned 69 the previous September, but he was still fit as a fiddle.
As always, Grandpa led the way, followed by Sharp, then me, as we walked along the road past the old garden spot. The pole bean vines stood like white shrouded ghosts against the fence. Grandpa puffed on his ever present pipe, and I got an enjoyable whiff every once in a while of the new tobacco blend I had bought him for Christmas.
Grandpa opened the steel gate and let me and Sharp out. As always, Sharp stayed back and waited for Grandpa to look him in the eye and give him permission to come.
Sharp was born on the adjacent Harman farm in 1969. The Harman boys didn't want to see him die, so they abandoned him in Grandpa's barn. Grandpa recognized something special about the little dog, so he kept him and later named him Sharp. With Grandpa's training, Sharp turned into the best hunting dog, livestock dog and friend a man or boy could ever hope for. He was part German shepherd and part mutt, and he must have collected all the good traits from both family lines. He was handsome black, with brown eyebrows and paws. He stood as tall as any German shepherd and he was unusually powerful, smart and quick. No dog or other beast could best him in a fight.
When we got within 200 feet of the trees, Sharp and I kept looking at Grandpa for the sign. About 100 feet from the trees, Grandpa hissed, "Sharp!" and the hunt was on. His hiss was a light, short whistle sometimes followed by, "Get em boy." Sharp flew across the frosty grass and was out of sight in five seconds. His black coat blended perfectly with the night, and if it hadn't been a full moon, we couldn't have seen him after he'd left our side.
Grandpa and I walked quietly for about five minutes as we entered the woods. We didn't hurry because Sharp let us set the pace of the hunt, unless he found a scent or heard coons talking. He would check the woods in front of us and circle back occasionally to check our location and direction. After about 10 minutes in the woods, we came upon a small watering pond. I walked down to the pond to check for animal signs or anything else of interest. Grandpa refilled his pipe. The sides of the pond had begun to freeze, and the dirt was too crusty to reveal fresh animal prints. I walked around the pond but didn't turn up anything worthy of note.
I was startled back to the hunt by Sharp's clear, strong bark. We walked slowly in his direction. I wanted to hurry, but Grandpa advised a slow approach because Sharp wasn't too far away, and it gave him a chance to verify the tree. Given time, Sharp would abandon a treed coon or squirrel if the tree had a hollow spot in it. He knew all the trees around.
We kept up our slow pace until we saw Sharp circling and looking up into a medium size red oak. As usual, old polite Sharp had stopped barking, which allowed us to look carefully without unnecessary commotion and the potential to scare our game. After about one minute of looking, Grandpa said in a hushed voice, "There he is, Tommy." He pointed to a spot where three of the larger limbs came together at the trunk. The moon and sky were so bright that I didn't need Grandpa's flashlight to see the coon.
"Let's see if that new gun is as good as you say," said Grandpa. I aimed, but the coon had flattened against a limb, and I couldn't get a head shot. So I circled the tree until I could finally see the back of his head. I aimed carefully and squeezed the trigger. In the night air, the .22 just made a light crack. Nothing happened.
"Hold on ... give him a chance to fall," said Grandpa. "He's angled in a resting position."
About a minute later, we saw movement. Then, the coon released his grip on the limb and dropped to the ground. Of course, old Sharp had been quietly watching the whole time.
The sow coon was dead when she hit the ground, so Sharp didn't even need to wrestle her. He brought her to Grandpa and laid her on the ground at his feet. Grandpa rewarded Sharp with a kind word and scratch between the ears, and then I did the same. After praising Sharp, I picked up the coon and said, "Wow, you might need to carry her, Grandpa." He took her from me and said it was one of the biggest he'd seen around. At that point, I couldn't have asked for more, but Grandpa and Sharp wanted to continue, and so did I, for that matter.
Sharp was more eager than ever and acted like he knew right where we should go next. He waited for Grandpa to hiss him off again, and then he took off like a shot. We walked toward the creek, keeping a wide distance from Blanton's house so we wouldn't wake their dogs. We crossed the creek at the road to keep from risking a fall in the shallow, icy water. We talked in low voices about anything that came to mind. I asked Grandpa stuff like, "How many coons do you figure you've killed in your life?" and, "What do coons do all day to keep out of sight?" and, "Tell me about your best coon hunt."
Grandpa's dripping nose and my numbing fingertips told me the night was getting colder. We had planned to turn north on the creek (Grandpa and Granny called it the branch) and head upstream to Miller's property. We hadn't gone but a few steps when Sharp's voice called us again. This time, he was far across Blanton's field and up the hill to the east. Grandpa and I stepped a little quicker this time because Sharp was so far away. We crossed the field and climbed over Blanton's gate. Grandpa grumbled about being so close to the Blanton house and barn and that we might wake their dogs. Sure enough, Blanton's dogs started howling at us and Sharp, and there was nothing we could do about it. Grandpa muttered something I couldn't quite understand.
We didn't have to go far up the hill to find Sharp. He was circling the largest post oak in sight. The tree was so big and had such a good canopy that we couldn't find anything for a while. In fun, Grandpa said to Sharp, "It better not be a possum."
After about five minutes of circling and looking, I started to wonder if the tree had a hole unknown to Sharp. Pretty soon, I asked Grandpa for his advice on that possibility.
"Don't bet on that," he said. "Just keep looking."
Soon, I took the light from Grandpa and made my own inspection. In a quiet voice, I called for Grandpa to come quickly. I shined the light on a fork of this huge tree. Both sides of the fork were about 40 feet above the ground and could rightfully have made their own tree in the fork. There we saw two shiny points that looked like eyes.
We conferred over what to do. Finally, Grandpa said, "We're far enough from everything that if you don't hit it or it turns out to be nothing, there will be no harm done. And, this might be our best and only shot."
Grandpa put down the other coon and bent down behind me to shine the light over my shoulder and through the sights. His tobacco smell and general Grandpa scent added to my confidence. It was a long shot, but our spirits were high and we thought things lined up pretty well. I squeezed the trigger like my Dad had taught me, and again the Remington responded with a light "crack." The two shiny points immediately disappeared, and within five seconds, we heard a great thud on the ground.
Sharp didn't need any instructions on what to do. He went to it immediately and with a good deal of effort, dragged the huge boar coon to Grandpa. Again, we rewarded Sharp with words and rubs. He wiggled and squirmed in delight at having pleased us so.
"Lookie there Tommy," said Grandpa with a great wrinkled smile. "You won't ever see one bigger than this." He said it weighed 30 pounds or more. Upon closer examination, he said, "Well I'll be darned" (or something like that), "that is one straight shooting gun. You hit him right between the eyes." I don't believe I ever saw Grandpa happier than at that moment.
All three of us basked in the thrill of the hunt, bursting with pride. On the way home, we talked nonstop about the tree, the shot, the size of the coons, and everything else that happened that night. It didn't matter what we carried or how heavy it was. We were so happy: Grandpa, Grandson and dog on a cold, unforgettable night.