“Everything in this story means so much more than it seems at first. Two boys headed out for a night of regular coon hunting with their dogs, nothing unusual really in that, but instead they embark upon a true Night-Sea Journey of discovery and meaning. This is a strong story about loss and longing that never once slides into easy sentimentality. All of its deep emotions feel totally earned in the end, and it has a final line that can break an old hillbilly’s heart.”Chuck Kinder
A Hunter’s Moon
An autumn moon a few nights from being full rested on the treetops. It shed light on the back porch where Junior bent over the washstand studying his reflection in the mirror propped against the clapboard wall. “Can’t hardly see myself, Queenie girl. Black coal dust and black hair. Even in all this moonlight.” Quickly, he pushed his head down into the basin and came up with a clean face except for rivulets leaving streaks of coal dust on his face. “There I am. Not bad looking. Right, Queen?”
Queenie raised her head and looked sleepily at him, but only rearranged her black and white mottled body and long legs. One dark, floppy ear fell over her face.
“That’s okay, Queenie, go back to sleep but lots of the girls at school pay attention to me, I can tell you. They wear their tight little sweaters and walk down the hall looking over at me.” He shoved his chest out and walked over to Queen.
He lowered his voice to a whisper, “It’s Saturday night. Worked all day in the mine. No school ‘til Monday.” Junior looked up at the sky and the bright, face of the moon. “ Going coon hunting tonight.”
This time Queenie didn’t lift her head or open her eyes. She merely thumped her tail on the porch boards making a hollow thump, thump sound.
“You won’t pay no attention to nobody ‘cept Carl, will you? Well, he ain’t here. It’s jist you and me. He could’ve waited ‘til I graduated. Me and him could’ve enlisted together. But no, no. Not Carl. Not my big brother. He couldn’t wait to sign up and start fighting those Nazis.” Junior held his comb under his nose to make a mustache, raised his other arm straight out and began to goose step back toward the kitchen.
He went into the house to pick up his .22 and his jacket. Junior was walking quietly past his mother’s room to keep from waking her when she called to him, “June, you’re jist now going? It’s awful late.”
“Couldn’t help it, Mom. That old punch mine of ours is hard and harder to work in. Had to crawl most of the way. Loaded up Pony Boy, but he couldn’t pull it all. Have to take’im back up the mountain for the rest.”
“Did you put Pony up in the barn?”
“Sure did, Mom.”
“Okay. Now, don’t forget Jack is only twelve years old. Watch him.”
“Sure will, Mom.”
Junior closed the kitchen door quietly. “Okay, Queenie, git to the truck. You ain’t the best Bluetick coonhound for nothing. Jack’ll be waiting for us.” Queenie lifted her head and fixed her eyes on him but never moved.
She laid her head down but kept her eyes on Junior.
Junior, impatient now that he was ready, snapped, “Stop your damn waiting, Queenie. Told you, Carl ain’t coming. When you going to learn? Git up! Now!”
Junior turned and walked quickly down the path. He unhooked the gate and the rusted hinges swung the gate closed behind him. The squeaky sound brought Queenie to her feet and she raced down the path to find the gate closed. She sat whining, swishing her tail and waiting. Junior turned to go back and for the barest moment, he thought he saw Carl on the other side standing with Queenie. He was wearing his khaki Air Corps uniform and holding his hat in both hands. In the moonlight his dark hair showed a streak of copper and his hazel eyes were shining. His gaze was so direct that Junior felt tears in his eyes. When he put his hand on the gate, Carl was gone. He kneeled down to pat Queenie and the moment was past.
Junior tried to start the truck, but the engine died each time he took his foot from the starter. “Oh, cripes! Forgot to warm up the truck. That’s what Queenie was waiting for. Waiting for me to start up the truck. She knows Carl always gits the motor goin’ before he loads up.” He turned around and saw her out the back window, curled up and ready for the truck to move.
Eventually the truck started, and Junior got it moving fast enough to clamber up the steep, narrow road over the mountain. When he reached the top, he took a deep breath at the countryside spread out before him. This was where the world was divided for him. Behind him was home. No outsiders troubled themselves to come so far up the rutted, steep road. In front of him was the rest of the world. In the moonlight the acres of corn stubble on the uphill side had a sheen of silver and on the downhill the long shadows of trees lining the creek had deepened. He remembered the times in early mornings when Carl drove them here to the top and mist would be rising from the creek. Right here was where things fell into place for him and where he could understand the rest of the world.
The narrow road continued down hill and around steep curves. When Junior turned to get to Jack’s house, the road became so rutted that he had to hold the steering wheel tightly with both hands. He was pumping the brakes to stop when he saw his nephew leaning against the mailbox. His dark hair, shaped from the bowl his mother used to cut it, fell nearly to his eyes. His face was set in a frown as he stared into the lights of the truck.
Junior rolled down the window and yelled above the clamor of the truck, “Come on, Jack, get in.”
“Never knowed you’d be all night gitting here. Where you been, June?”
“I been plenty busy. Plenty. Worked in the mine all afternoon. Come on, git in.” Junior leaned over to open the door for Jack. “Wait a minute! What you got there?” Standing behind Jack was a reddish brown coonhound. “Dad let me bring Driver. He said you and Queenie could straighten ’im out.”
“Oh, he did? Now I’m s’pose to teach a prize’ Redbone to hunt? Cripes. Git ’im on the back. But, hell’s fire, let’s go, Jack.”
Jack led Driver to the back of the truck. “Jump, Driver.” The dog squatted low but waited. “How we going to git any coons with you taking all night. See, Queenie’s waiting. Now, jump, Driver!” The dog squatted his long legs even lower and sprang onto the truck bed and settled himself beside Queen.
Jack, carrying a paper bag and his .22, climbed into the truck. He put his things on the floor and turned around to pull a ragged blanket over the bare springs of the seat. “Ain’t going to be poked in the butt the whole time.
“Brought some clothes. Mom said I could stay with you and Grandma tonight.”
“Never misses a chance to git rid of you, does she?”
“Good. You can help me load up the coal tomorrow. You looked big enough standing there by the mailbox to do it by yourself. You’re growing.”
“Going to be tall like you, June.
“It’s a fact. You got more of our family in you than your dad’s.”
“I’m counting on making some money tonight on at least one coon. Are they paying fifteen dollars a pelt now?”
“Sure are. Wouldn’t be s’prised to see it go up. Everything else is. What with the war an’ all.”
“Might git me two coons,” Jack said. Dad let me bring Driver, didn’t he? Two coons would be thirty dollars. Boy!”
“You can’t git even one if Driver don’t catch on to treeing a coon. That’s a bad habit, he has. Running a coon into a hole in the ground. Then digs at the hole all night. Your dad oughta break him of it,” Junior said.
“Dad thinks you and Queenie can help him. Everybody knows Queenie’s the best.”
“Queenie can’t stop Driver from digging if your Dad keeps letting him. Maybe Carl could.”
“June, do you think Queenie hunts as good for you as she did for Carl? Is she your dog now that Carl is missing in action?”
The heavy rumbling of the truck gave way to a steady bumping as the road became wider and straighter and they got closer to the hard road. Junior cleared his throat a few times, not used to talking about Carl to other people, even their own nephew. “Queenie’s got lots of heart, Jack. And don’t trouble yourself none, she knows whose dog she is. Knows I’m only standing in ‘til Carl gits home.”
“When’s that going to be? Mom ain’t had no letters for a long time.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you all I know. Plain and simple. His plane got shot down in the mountains in Germany. That’s where the Nazis are. Some of the fellers from Carl’s plane parachuted out. And if Carl did? If he’s out there somewhere in their mountains? Ain’t no German can ketch Carl in the woods. He’s hiding. Running and hiding. Live off crawdads if he has to. Guess they got crawdads in their cricks. And, he’ll be hunting Queenie agin.”
“And he was s’posed to drop bombs on them Nazis, right, June?”
“He’s a bombardier. That’s what the hell they do.” Junior said.
“A bombardier. Boy! Can’t wait ‘til he gits back here.”
Junior looked over at Jack. “Okay? No more questions.”
“Okay, June. But jist one more. When Carl does come home, will you all be taking me hunting with you?” He tugged at the seat blanket to keep it under him.
Junior laughed, “You must be ketching up on your talking tonight.”
“Ain’t no use talking at home. Too many kids. Baby’s always bawling. She cried ‘most all last night.” Junior shifted to look over at Jack, “Hey, did you really ask if you could come up home tonight or did you jist decide yourself?”
“You think I want a beating? ‘Course, I asked. Don’t want no beating. Dad’s started hitting me with his fists when Mom ain’t around.”
Junior sat up straighter in the seat and let his foot lift slightly from the gas pedal. “Hitting you with his fists? Ain’t nobody knowed that. Why didn’t you tell somebody?”
“I’m telling you now, ain’t I?”
“You’ll be up home tomorrow. Tell Mom in the morning.”
“I wanted to tell Grandma, but I git afraid he’ll find out.” Jack turned from looking at Junior to staring straight ahead at the road with his arms folded tightly against his chest.
“Your dad ain’t going to buck Mom, I can tell you. Not when she puts her foot down.”
Junior knew something important had been settled and he could see Jack relax and start to look out the window. He began to enjoy the ride and the comfortable silence between them. He was done with talking and glad to hear only the clamor of the truck.
They rumbled across the covered bridge over the West Fork River and turned a sharp left to get on the hard road. They passed through the narrow streets of Jane Lew and across the railroad tracks. Woods began to line both sides of the road. Junior had to slow down knowing it would be easy to miss the turn off. There was really no road just a clearing. When Junior was sure of the place, he pulled off and they slowly continued over the bumpy ground until they were deep into the woods. Finally the truck lurched to a stop.
Before Junior and Jack could open the doors, Queenie and Driver had jumped off the truck. Junior followed after them and leaned down to speak quietly to Queenie. “Okay, girl, go do your stuff.” He pointed her uphill and she streaked deeper into the woods. Driver waited a moment, but dashed to follow Queenie.
The dogs had startled an owl and Junior caught sight of it taking flight from one of the trees. The bird spread his large, dark wings and imprinted them across the moon before disappearing into the night. Standing still and taking his time to watch, Junior could feel the exhaustion of the day beginning to lift.
Junior pointed, “Jack, look at that owl.”
“Big devil, ain’t he? ‘Specially in front of that moon.”
“You know, some people call it a Blood Moon. You ready, Jack?”
“ I heard it called that but never knew why,” Jack said.
“Well, the first moon after the September moon is always extry bright. Good for hunting and you leave a trail of blood of what you killed. That’s what they say. Comes from the Indians. We always called it a hunter’s moon.”
I’m leaving my jacket in the truck,” Jack said. “It’s pretty warm.”
“Me, too. But, don’t forget your coon whistle,” Junior reminded him. “I got the flashlight for spotting the coons.” They began to hear Queenie’s running voice. She was telling Junior where she was. The bugle sound at the end of each bay told him more. It said she would use every muscle to run as fast as she could until she had treed her coon. He could count on her.
They headed up the mountain toward Queenie’s voice. “Might be harder walking here,” Junior said. “Awful steep, but I’m still glad ol’ Queenie ain’t down near the river. Easier to git coons up here.”
“June, I ain’t heard Driver. Where you ‘spose he is?”
“Jist keep climbing, Jack.”
They crossed a wide crevice and turned to find an easier path up the mountain when they heard Driver’s barking, and realized he was not with Queenie. His voice was intermittent and the pauses were long. Tracking back down a ravine, they found him digging furiously at a hole in a mound of dirt. Junior watched him, shaking his head, “Cripes, Jack, that damn dog is crazy. He’s run a coon into that hole, and thinks he can dig’em out. He’s ruint for hunting if you don’t break him. He’ll be there all night. I’m going on to find Queenie. It’s up to you. Git’im off that hole.”
Queenie’s voice had changed to her treeing howl. It carried through the woods, telling Junior that she had treed her coon, and he should come. They had a victory to share. Junior bounded up the steep slope balancing his .22 in front of him. Breathing hard, he found her at a large oak with her two front legs on the trunk and with her head back looking up into the branches. The tree was full of brown, dried leaves waiting for a storm to bring them to the ground. Junior shined the flashlight over the branches while Queenie kept barking.
“Hey, Jack.” Then, louder, “Jack! Come here! Bring the whistle!
Jack came running. “Got the whistle. Driver can dig the rest of the night by hisself, I guess. Show me them coons.”
“Can’t see the tricky devils. They got their eyes closed.” Junior was still moving the light over the branches.”
“We’ll show’em who’s tricky,” Jack said. “They’ll think some female coon is calling to ‘em.” Jack blew a long whistle and then another one.
Three sets of eyes opened in the dark boughs. Junior shot and a coon fell to the ground. The other coons scattered before Jack could shoot.
Queenie picked up the lifeless coon in her teeth and shook it vigorously but lost interest when it offered no fight. She dropped it when Junior kneeled beside her. “You are the best. The very best,” he praised patting her on her rump. “Ready again, girl?” He pointed her up the mountain.
Junior put the coon in the bag and turned to Jack. “Go on back down there and pull Driver off that hole. I’m following Queen.”
“Okay, June.” Jack sounded disappointed not to follow Queenie but turned to start down the mountain to Driver.
“The next coon is yours,” Junior called. “I swear.”
Queenie was soon on the trail again. With her tail flying like a pennant she ran toward the top of the mountain. While listening for her running voice, Junior swinging the dead coon by its tail slowed down and then decided Queenie would let him know when she had treed her next coon.
It was time for a chew and Junior reached for the Redman pouch in his hip pocket. He tucked the tobacco back in his jaw and sat down leaning against a tree and looking up into the night sky. The moon had turned a lighter gold color which made its craters and shadows visible. Its smooth rim gave way on one side and Junior’s eyes tried to follow the pieces. There were big pieces and increasingly smaller and smaller pieces until they were infinitesimal. He tried not to think about his worries. He managed until his eyes could not find any more pieces of the moon. Then, the questions came at him. Where was Carl right now? Was he in the woods in Germany? Was he hunting for something to eat? What about the farm? Could anything ever be the same again?
Junior was startled to hear a shot, and he jumped to his feet. Then he heard Jack yelling, but he couldn’t hear what he was saying. Grabbing his .22, he began hurtling down the mountainside leaping over logs and outcroppings of rock. He ran as direct as he could down the mountain toward Jack’s voice. He ran until he came to the river.
In a swath of moonlight in the middle of the West Fork River, Junior saw Jack treading water. His flannel shirt was still unbuttoned and hanging on him. . “June, I can’t find Driver. He’s in the river.” He pushed his wet hair from his eyes.
“Git outta the river. Now, Jack!”
Too late. Jack had already pushed himself under the water leaving Junior to stare at the moonlit spot where he had been. “I’ll be goddamed! I’m goin’ to kill that boy.” He stood fuming and watching closely for Jack to surface.
When he could wait no more, Junior threw his gun down next to Jack’s and kicked off his shoes. He leaped as far as he could into the river. He swam to the area of moonlight where he had seen Jack and dived under the water. He did not make it to the bottom and came up with his chest heaving. He gulped deeply for as much air as possible, determined not come up again until he brought Jack with him. He followed the shaft of light down through the dull, green water and headed to the muddy bottom. He could see a log lying at the bottom, and, then, something moving. It was the tail of Jack’s shirt. He managed to grab it. Suddenly, he could feel his hands on Jack’s arm. He tugged, but he couldn’t pull him free. He swam behind Jack and felt the shirt caught on the edge of the log lying in the mud. He pulled the fabric from another direction. It came loose and in seconds they surfaced. Junior held Jack’s head above the water and headed toward the bank. He heaved himself and Jack on the grassy bank just far enough to be out of the water, their feet still submerged. With a last surge of strength, he crawled underneath Jack and pushed against his back until he bent him over with his head toward his knees. He heard him begin coughing and spitting water. As he grew assured that Jack was breathing, Junior fell back and lay on his side watching the boy. The numbness began to wear off and relief came over him. Gradually, he became aware of Queenie baying from a distance and he sat up. Amazed, he could hear Jack trying to talk.
Jack jumbled his words together. “June, Driver. Driver. Under the water, June. I couldn’t find Driver. June, Driver. Coon held’im under the water.” He gasped and sat up straighter. “June, got to git Driver.”
“Aw, Jack, for Christ sake, you almost drowned. You could’ve drowned, and me, too. He studied Jack’s face in amazement, then sighed, “I’m too tired or I would throw you back in. For now, we got to git back to the truck. Look at you shivering. Can’t make it back up the mountain. Jist go straight through the woods. There’s one crick. We’re already wet. Git yourself up and start walking.
“Git up now!”
“Okay, June. I’m up. I can hear Queenie, too.”
“She’s up the mountain. Treed a coon. She ain’t going to stop baying unless I come. Soon as we git to the truck, I’ll blow the horn. She might come. And if that don’t work, have to leave her. Come back and git her tomorrow. Had to leave the coon I shot. It’ll be eaten tonight but might be able to save the pelt.”
At the truck Jack wrapped himself in the seat blanket while Junior started the engine and turned on the heater. He pulled off his wet shirt and slipped on his jacket. He pushed hard on the horn. The blast rolled off the trees and echoed through the woods. He started the truck and began slowly moving through the clearing and when he looked in the side mirror he saw Queenie racing toward them. He stopped long enough for her to jump on the back.
When Jack saw Queenie, he began to cry. His cries mounted to sobs, subsided briefly, and then more sobs. Junior kept his eyes on the road. Finally, he said, “What happened, Jack?”
“Got Driver away from digging at that hole and we went tracking. He got a scent and followed it to the river. Chased a coon up a tree and up on a long branch hanging over the river. I got a good shot and the coon fell in the water, but it wasn’t dead. It jist started swimming down the river.”
“Oh, no,” Junior groaned.
“Driver jumped in and caught up to the coon. That ol’ coon jist turned over on his back and fought Driver. He used his front paws and back legs. Pushed Driver right under the water and held’im down. I had to jump in and try to pull the coon off Driver. ‘Fore I could git my hands on the coon, he just went under the water and never came back up. Never saw ’im or Driver again.” The truck had warmed up but Jack kept shivering.
“Don’t you know? No dog can fight a coon in the water. Coons are way too strong,” Junior said.
“So what? Dad’s goin’ to kill me anyway. Lost his Redbone.”
“Jack, told you, ain’t nobody going to hurt you. Driver prob’ly drowned. But you didn’t actually see ‘im. We’ll come back and look ‘round tomorrow. Try to beat the buzzards to the coon I left.” They turned from the hard road and Junior pushed down hard on the floor gear. The transmission rattled like it might fall out.
“Driver cost at least twenty dollars.”
“Your dad should’ve trained’im. That’s what the rest of us do. Breed our own coonhounds and train’em. Nobody asked your dad to go order some show dog.”
As they came over the last big mountain, the first light of day was at their back and cast a warm blush over the pastures and meadows. The rays of the sun struck the tin roof of the house. Junior saw no sign of the horses or cows. They were still sleeping in the barn. Nor could he see the pigpen beyond the barn, but he was sure the old boar would be near the trough ready for his morning slop. He passed the chicken house. He could see it was tightly closed and even locked against the foxes. Directly ahead in the western sky was the dim outline of the hunter’s moon.
Queenie threw herself down and curled up on her rug in the corner of the porch. Junior noticed he had not thrown out his dirty wash water from the basin. It could wait. They walked quietly through the kitchen and into Junior and Carl’s bedroom. Junior put some clean underwear on the bed for Jack.
Finally, he pulled the quilts up to his chin. The cold bed warmed to his body and he sank into the quiet safety of the room he had slept in all his life. Always in the bed beside his brother. Gratitude swept over him. He could hear Jack breathing. Between sleeping and dreaming, he wished he could jump in a river and save Carl.