Remembering Maggie by Mike Roberts

From the time I was a kid some of my favorite books, songs, and movies were themed about boys and their dogs. Topping that list were Lassieand Old Yeller,mainly because I could relate to the sentiments expressed by little Timmy and Arliss. During the late 1950s, whenever Wayne Martin sang Red Foleys Old Shepon stage at Huddleston High School, a hush would fall over the audience as emotions brought on a flood of tears some of which were mine. A talented musician and vocalist, Wayne could sing the song about that old German shepherd better than Elvis ever once did even though I cried each time I heard the King singing it, too. In the early 1960s, Wilson Rawls authored a novel entitled Where the Red Fern Grows. That account of a boy and his coon dogs roaming the Ozarks takes me back in time when one of the most memorable parts of my life was following a redbone hound through the woods. The difference being, Rawlsstory was fictional; the one you are about to read is true.    

 While catching up on work at home a few nights ago, I pushed back from my desk piled high with a backlog of other people’s expectations long enough to walk outside for a visual embrace of the November night sky. As autumn’s first cold front drifted southward, the heavens over Virginia were purged of the usual atmospheric haze, thus magnifying the radiance of a million shimmering stars. Constellations of bears, wolves, and hunters, so easily recognized as straight-lined renderings, remained hidden from an exhausted imagination. All was peacefully quiet, except for a pair of great-horned owls communicating their January plans to claim a vacant red-tailed hawk’s nest on the backside of our farm.

Then, as if mocking the silence, a lone hound struck a hot track a half-mile or more downstream of the property boundary. Almost immediately, two other dogs joined their companion in the noisy chase that took them across several laurel-choked ridges. Predictably, the pursuit was short-lived, coming to an end in a stand of hardwoods standing in steadfast vigilance alongside Orrix Creek. Amplified by the still, crisp air, the chaotic bawling quickly changed into sweet, three-part harmony. Somewhere in the darkness, a couple of coon hunters were making their way toward the relentless baying. The hounds had treed!

For a few brief moments, I sided with the woods-wise raccoon, hoping the tree chosen in obvious haste was the same hollow one that had provided shelter through more than a few previous winters. Perhaps nature’s imperfection now offered emergency refuge – sparing the masked bandit to sport the pack another night.

Envisioned was a young boy holding tightly to his father’s hand as they carefully waded knee-deep across a stream reflecting slivers of golden light from a full moon and a kerosene lantern. Sympathy for the raccoon evaporated in the excitement of that youngster scrambling out of the water and up the cliff to the base of a giant, leafless oak. Anxiously casting the beam from his flashlight, he soon caught the glimmer of two eyes glowing like hot coals from a limb high overhead. Even above the overture of hound music, I could hear the boy shouting, “There he is Daddy, there he is, and he’s a big one!”

Slapping the tree and speaking in a broken language only coon dogs and coon hunters could interpret, the man coaxed his hounds into a maddening frenzy. Then, after surveying the situation with an over-sized, aluminum flashlight, the aging gentleman reached into his heavy denim coat pocket and removed a tattered, paper box securing the cartridges so significant to the outcome of the hunt. Upon chambering a round, he handed the single-shot .22 to his impatient son.

Cautiously, the youngster raised the rifle until its forearm came to rest against a leaning sourwood sapling. As he pulled the hammer back, there was sudden awareness of a heart thumping in rapid response to the first-time experience. With comforting words from his father, the lad aimed and, ever so gently, touched the trigger.

Snapping back into reality, I listened for the sharp report of a .22 rim-fire echoing from the ridge, but it never came. In all likelihood, a den tree had indeed saved the raccoon’s life – this time. Suddenly, a chill raced up my bare arms, which sent me hurrying back toward the comfort of a warm room and the stack of paperwork that would be ignored until another evening.

Retiring to bed, I knew sleep would not come easily.  Those hounds had unleashed a thousand memories of the dog that had been the best friend a boy could have ever known. Tonight, I would again revisit my childhood – remembering Maggie.

The morning Roy Hackworth opened that broken-down barn door to show my Dad his hound’s week-old litter of puppies seems so very, very long ago. Yet, even through a 60-year fog of forgetfulness, I clearly recall squeezing between the two men for a closer look. There on the plank floor, in a pile of loose straw, were a dozen whining pups squirming about in blind confusion. One-by-one, Daddy carefully lifted them from their warm bed, only to turn the little fellows upside down for a physical examination I failed to understand at such a young age. To my delight, Mr. Hackworth agreed to give us a pair of them once they were weaned from their mother.

The weeks of waiting for those puppies were more suspenseful than a whole year’s worth of anticipating Christmas. Yet, sure as Santa Claus, the day finally came when two pint-sized puppy dogs arrived at our home in a cloth-lined, cardboard box. In one way, that was the beginning of my life.

Though the details are somewhat unclear, there is recollection of my mother and father discussing potential names for the new family members. For whatever reason, or the lack of one, the pups were christened Maggie and Trailer. From day one, Trailer assumed the dominant role in everything from eating to playing – a trait he would retain for life. In contrast, Maggie was gentle and always eager to participate in the sort of games little boys delight in. Together, we roamed the grassy hills of our pastureland and hayfields, investigating every nook and cranny along the way.  There were frolics on the ground and Maggie’s relentless, face-licking tactics I so despised which, nevertheless, resulted in binges of sidesplitting laughter. We were inseparable.

Early on, it became increasingly noticeable that Maggie possessed an incredible eye-to-mouth coordination. That dog could catch a leftover biscuit regardless of how high it was tossed. She probably could have been ranked among the top-ten biscuit catchers in the world, but there was little demand for coon dogs that did anything other than chase raccoons. With the approach of autumn, early during Maggie’s second year, my father reminded me of her purpose in life and it had nothing to do with being a boy’s pet.

With October serving final eviction notice to summer, Maggie’s nightly training sessions began in earnest – without her best friend. I was too little to tag along, at least that was my mother’s reasoning. Whenever Daddy and his trusted neighbor, Lonnie Brown, loaded up the dogs and headed for the woods, I went to bed wondering how it felt to follow the dogs along the creek.

Even with two, heavy, homemade quilts pulled over my head, I would wake up in the middle of the night to the familiar sound of that old Chevrolet pickup pulling back into our driveway. Wide-eyed and sitting upright in bed, I anticipated the usual clamor of a tailgate slamming against the truck’s rear bumper, followed by the dogs growling and both men yelling, “Get back; get back in there!” From that cold, upstairs bedroom, I strained to hear their conversation for a hint of success – crossing my fingers in hopes that Maggie had been first to strike the coon’s track.

Usually, however, I learned more about the hunt at breakfast the following morning. Raccoons were scarce in Bedford County during the 50s, but occasionally the hunters got lucky and there was a fresh hide for the smokehouse wall. More often than not, there was talk of cold trailing, den trees, treed possums, lost dogs and, once in a blue moon, lost hunters.

Just when I thought life was perfect, a big, yellow bus stopped at our driveway one Monday morning in September and turned my world upside down. With Mama’s words of encouragement and a little push, I reluctantly boarded the bus that would transport me to school. Some folks educated in animal behavior declare dogs are not smart – merely trainable. I disagree. Maggie knew precisely the time I was to return home from school each day because she was always waiting in the yard. Whenever I stepped off the bus, that crazy hound would run and jump about frantically – sometimes knocking me to the ground and spilling the leftover contents of my Davy Crockett lunchbox.

Finally, while still in a state of adolescent confusion, the wish to go coon hunting was granted. I remember the autumn weather being unusually warm, which was probably the factor tipping the scales in my favor. After loading up, and taking a short ride down a gravel road, Daddy unlatched the door on that smelly dog box and released the hounds. Even before the lanterns could be lit, one of Lonnie’s black-and-tans hit a smoldering track. Soon the whole pack was off running. Both hunters whooped and hollered like mad men and I, thinking it the proper thing to do, chimed right in. Maggie’s familiar barks resonated loud and clear in the night air and I was thrilled. This coon hunting stuff was great.

The chase was brief and my Dad nodded in agreement when Lonnie remarked the raccoon was up a tree. Grabbing the rifle, glowing lanterns, and flashlights, we took off toward the baying dogs. From the rear of the procession, it was all I could do to keep up with the grownup’s pace. After what turned out to be an exhausting hike for a 9-year-old, the three of us reached the tree surrounded by hounds. Some of them were feverishly trying to climb the white oak, while others patrolled around smelling the ground. Then I spotted Maggie; she was sitting on her haunches a few feet from the base of that oak, looking up and barking with every breath. No doubt, the raccoon was hiding somewhere aloft in the tree’s leafy branches.

Turning on their flashlights, Daddy and Lonnie probed the height of the oak for the telltale reflection of red eyes. After what seemed forever, Lonnie yelled, “Here he is!” Racing over, I got my first glimpse ever of a living raccoon. Wedged tightly in the fork of a limb was a ball of black fur sporting a yellow and black ringed tail. All at once the animal stared directly down at me. At that very moment I realized the target of this coon-hunting obsession was something more than a lifeless carcass or a pelt tacked to an outbuilding wall. Tears trickled down both my cheeks as I called out, “Goodbye, Mr. Raccoon,” all the while trying to justify the inevitable.

Seconds later, a bullet sent the mortally wounded creature tumbling earthward. With all the fur flying and squalling, from dogs and raccoon alike, I was unsure as to which of them was winning the fight. Furthermore, Maggie was smack in the middle of the brawl. To say that big boar coon was anything less than a gallant warrior would be an understatement, but the odds were stacked too heavily against him. The ruckus soon ended and the woods were quiet. Daddy lifted the dead animal and dropped its limp body into a burlap bag. After slinging the sack over his shoulder, my father began calling the dogs; we were heading home. That night I reached a milestone in my young life, coming to grip with the fact that death is sometimes a part of the hunt. There would be no more tears – at least for raccoons.

Within a couple of years Maggie had become a veteran coon dog and I now had an eye on Daddy’s two firearms. One, a long-barreled, 12-gauge shotgun, was a taped up, nasty looking thing that truly frightened me whenever I thought about shooting it. The other, however, was a Model 6 Remington .22 – just right for a kid who loved the outdoors. That little, single-shot rifle soon replaced my worn-out Daisy BB and the final piece of the hunting puzzle slipped into place.

On Saturdays and after school hours, when the colorful leaves had fallen from the hickories and maples, Maggie and I headed to the woods for gray squirrels. With a super-keen nose, my four-legged hunting companion had little trouble putting those bushy-tailed rodents up a tree. Her eyesight amazed me, too. Oftentimes she saw the squirrel before I did; and whenever one began jumping tree-to-tree, as they frequently did, that dog somehow managed to maintain visual contact. In all probability, it was those biscuit-catching lessons from years earlier that honed Maggie’s special skills to perfection.

One unusually cold and windy Thanksgiving Day we had hunted long and hard with no luck. Finally, in the small block of woods near our neighborhood church, Maggie treed up a tall shagbark hickory. Approaching the tree, I finally spotted the squirrel in a fork near the top, but that little fellow knew all the tricks! Each time I maneuvered around for a clear shot, the crafty creature shifted to the opposite side of the hickory. Even the old reliable stick-tossing trick failed. After missing a couple of shots, I discovered that my box of bullets was missing – there was a hole in my coat pocket. Looking around at the hopeless situation, and with Maggie still barking enthusiastically, I noticed a large grapevine growing up the trunk of the tree. Knowing squirrels were short on nerves, I began shaking the vine. Within seconds, the critter came unglued. Running out onto a limb, he attempted to escape by jumping into a nearby tree. With a slight miscalculation of distance, the hapless creature sailed helplessly to the ground and into Maggie’s jaws. Thanks to her sharp eyes and super-quick reflexes, fried squirrel with gravy and biscuits graced my plate at suppertime the following evening.

A year or so later, on Christmas morning, a long, beautifully wrapped package lay beneath the decorated cedar tree in our living room. Mama’s neat handwriting proclaimed the gift to be mine. After ripping away the colorful ribbons and layers of shiny paper, I opened the box and discovered the gift of all gifts – a brand new .22 bolt-action rifle. The Virginia Game Commission’s regulation of seventy-five squirrels per season suddenly did not seem nearly as difficult. With Maggie’s help, I accomplished that legal limit for many years thereafter.

Seldom does a youngster learn two valuable life lessons in one day, but once I did. Even at twelve years of age, my parents placed few restrictions on how far from home Maggie and I could hunt on Saturdays. That particular morning we started our usual round through the woods behind Bethlehem Baptist Church and crossed the open field to a stand of timber owned by Tommy Miles. From the Miles farm, we hunted down the hollow to Will Whitten’s place along Otter River. By the time we reached the bridge on Route 24, I was already carrying five squirrels. Heading up Robert Lee Tucker’s cliff, Maggie treed again, but in a den tree riddled with holes. Halfway up Otter River Hill she put two squirrels up a single oak and a well-placed shot filled my limit for the day. The other squirrel began jumping and Maggie, being a dog and unable to count, continued the chase. I headed toward home, knowing Maggie would eventually tire and pick up my trail. The hound had done so many times.

Having completed the exhausting hike to the top of the steep hill, a big, green Plymouth pulled up along side and slowed to a stop. On the driver’s side door was a white logo that read “Virginia Game Commission.” It was Billy Shields – the local game warden. Although my rifle was unloaded and I had not exceeded the limit on squirrels, my heart was pounding and both knees felt like rubber. Rolling his window down the man said, “Looks like you’ve had a good morning son.”  Intimidated, I replied, “Yes Sir.” Then he asked, “Is that your Redbone hound down the road a ways?” Suspecting Maggie was likely on her way home, I answered, “Yes Sir.” While rolling up the glass he courteously said, “Have a good day.” For some reason I blurted out, “Don’t you want to check my license?” Rolling the window back down and smiling, the warden looked at me and answered, “Young man, you would not be out here on this highway without one.” With those words of wisdom, he pulled away. Pondering my foolish question, I turned to see Maggie, with her tongue hanging out, running up the hill. Once she caught up, we continued on our way.

While walking past the little country store owned and operated by Floyd Thomas, a big dump truck pulled into the gravel driveway. Rolling the window down, a long-haired, rough-looking character stuck his head out and, in shades of déjà vu, said, “Looks like you’ve had a good morning son.” Startled by the man’s appearance, I replied, “Yes Sir.” Then he asked, “Wanna sell those squirrels?” Shocked, but without deliberation, I answered, “Sure!” “How much,” he questioned? “Fifty cents,” – thinking per squirrel, of course. With three dollars, I could purchase two boxes of .22 long-rifle bullets, a cold Coke, a bag of peanuts, and have enough change left over for a pack of those white, plastic fishing worms. Opening the truck’s door and stepping out, the man handed me a wrinkled one-dollar bill, grabbed the squirrels from my hand, and jumped back into the truck. While rolling up the glass he courteously said, “Have a good day,” and pulled away in a cloud of dust – before I could clarify the misunderstanding. I suppose he figured fifty cents for six squirrels was just too good of a deal, or either his math was worse than mine. Not knowing selling wildlife was prohibited, I headed for the house – much wiser!

Maggie’s daylight hours were dedicated to squirrels, but her nights were reserved for raccoons. The nocturnal rambling that came naturally to my dog was pure misery for me, but I soon learned to cope with cold hands, wet feet, and blisters. In spite of such, walking through the dark woods close behind another hunter, especially one rushing toward treeing dogs, was nothing short of agony. The occasional limb in the face and the searing pain of a sapling switch stinging a numb ear was cause for questioning the sanity of coon hunting. Often I lay on the damp ground, cuddled up close to the kerosene lantern, waiting for Lonnie’s cold-nosed black-and-tan female to unravel a scent trail that the other dogs could not begin to smell. Once, in a selfish attempt to be the first person to the tree, I crossed the creek and hung the crotch of my blue jeans on the barbed wire of a “hot” electric fence. With wet boots to better conduct the alternating current, there was some fancy footwork and screaming going on until Daddy rescued me. From that point in time, being first to the tree became a somewhat less significant aspect of the sport for me.

Night hunting was typically tough, but it had a lighter side, too. Like the time Brat Brown, one of Lonnie’s brothers, tried out his new, mail-order coon squaller, only to have a big mama coon jump out of the tree onto his back and knocking him to the ground in the process. You should have seen Brat rolling around in the leaves among that pack of hounds and one very angry she-coon. There was the October night, with its full, Harvest moon, when a perplexed youngster chose coon hunting over Halloween candy. Later, while watching Linwood Nichols climb a maple to shake a raccoon from its upper branches, I felt my childhood slip away never to return.

Of all the coon hunts experienced, only one would I choose to erase from my memory. That night the hunters had just turned the dogs out when the whole pack took off down the creek on a dead run. The men knew at once their hounds were chasing something other than a raccoon, but how they concluded it to be a mink remains a mystery to me.

At first, I thought this was a good thing. My only association with those super-sized weasels was an irresistible attraction to the string of glass-eyed, clasped pelts Aunt Marguerite wore draped around her full-length fur coat. Soon, however, it became evident that neither of the two men shared my sentiments. When they finally got the hounds off the mink track, and hands on their respective dogs’ leather collars, a training recourse began – the likes of which I had never witnessed.

Taking great pride in owning hounds that strictly ran raccoons, both Daddy and Lonnie began kicking and beating the cowering dogs unmercifully. Having never seen my father upset, it shocked me at first. Then, because of Maggie’s painful yelps, I became irate and began screaming for him to stop. When the ordeal ended, Daddy knew I was furious; not a word was spoken throughout the course of the hunt or during the long ride home. Even though I intended to remain angry for the remainder of my life, things returned to normal within a day or two. That was the last time I saw my father react in such a manner and, to the best of my knowledge, Maggie never chased another mink.

With an ever-increasing population of raccoons in Bedford County during the 60s, the popularity of hunting them grew, also. Because coon hunting was primarily an autumn sport, the night hunters were constantly looking for ways to train their hounds during the off-season. One of the methods that gradually crept into Virginia, from the Deep South, was a modified version of the inhumane training known as “coon on the log.” Every boy considers his hunting dog to be the best and when word came that Dan Watson would be holding a coonhound water race at the lake on his dairy farm, I knew Maggie could win top honors.

Daddy and Lonnie discussed the merits of such a race several times and finally decided to participate. When that late-summer morning finally arrived, we loaded the dogs in the pickup and were off to the Watson farm. When we pulled up to the barn, there must have been at least a hundred hunters already in line registering mongrels of every breed and size imaginable. Even with all the competition, my hopes remained high.

The first five contestants were selected through a random drawing and placed in individual compartments of a big, wire cage located near the edge of the impoundment. Soon as the dogs were confined, a man walked down to the pond with a small, wire crate containing one extremely nervous raccoon. Pacing back and forth in front of the cage, he began teasing the agitated hounds with the critter; their barking was deafening. After securing the crate to a platform on an inflated inner tube, the man signaled two other men on the opposite side of the pond to begin winching the rope onto a huge, wooden spool. In a rushing wake, the captive raccoon was pulled further and further from his tormentors. When the tube had traveled about forty yards, the wire barrier was raised and the five dogs jumped out simultaneously in a head-high spray of water. To win its respective heat, a hound had to swim the width of the pond and be first to tree the raccoon hoisted up into a big poplar on the far-side bank. Although exciting to watch, the concept was simple.

After several such heats, Maggie’s name was finally drawn. As Daddy led her down to the wire enclosure, my heart raced with enthusiasm. Patting Maggie on the head, I whispered some last-minute advice. When the barrier was raised, all five dogs hit the water simultaneously. For the first few yards, the race was nose-to-nose, but it quickly became apparent something was terribly wrong. Instead of concentrating on swimming, Maggie barked continuously, which allowed the other four dogs to pull away. By the time an ugly, long-legged Plott hound had swam the distance and treed, the dog I knew could win was less than halfway across the pond. Maggie dog-paddled in big, wide circles, as if trying to locate the raccoon’s scent. Eventually, she completed the swim and treed, but dead last! With hopes of a blue ribbon gone, I hugged her wet neck; she was still the best darn coon dog in the whole, wide world.

Later that day, with the race in full swing, Brat Brown approached me with his two big Redbone hound on separate chains. Youngsters love it when adults need help and I was tickled to death when he asked me to hold one of the dogs, while he put the other in the cage for the next contest. Gladly accepting the request, I wrapped the chain leash around my wrist several times and looped it back through for insurance. That hound was not about to get away!

As in each previous race, the man with the caged raccoon approached the coop and the hounds inside went berserk. When the barrier flew open, six dogs headed for the water – five from the cage and the one tethered to my right arm! In an instant, I was off my feet and bouncing along the ground, headfirst, toward the cattails and water. There was no stopping that bull of a dog and no possible way to unwrap the chain; short-term evaluation of the situation was not all that promising. Luckily, just before the hound reached the pond’s edge, two men came to my rescue. One grabbed the chain and the other my feet. For sure, two things were bruised that day – an arm and an ego. So ended my first, and last, coonhound water race.

With age, Maggie’s red muzzle matured to silver gray and I woke up one morning in May knowing how it felt to be 16 years old. My best friend’s stamina was, by then, somewhat diminished, but her Redbone bred enthusiasm was strong as ever. Other teenagers talked about pretty girls, money, and fast cars, but autumn was all about hunting for the old dog and me.

From the time she was a mere pup, never once did I consider life without Maggie. Sure, we lost her a few times when hunting but that was to be expected. The reality of death hit hard one Sunday morning. While standing in the churchyard chatting with friends, my sister came running, in tears, to tell me my brother-in-law had accidentally hit Maggie with his car. I raced home fast as possible – praying all the way it was a case of mistaken identity.

Near the gate, I found Maggie lying motionless in the tall grass. Fighting off the tears, I knelt and softly spoke her name. Unable to move, she rolled those big, brown eyes in a futile attempt to respond. Moments later, with a final gasp, her sides relaxed and the suffering ended. Broken-hearted, I stood to see the blurred image of Daddy walking down the highway. Not a word was exchanged as we passed along the edge of the pavement, but the expression of grief on his face shall never be forgotten. That was the darkest day of my young life.

Like seasons of the year, life changes, too. In our family there were marriages, births, retirements, the premature death of an outstanding grandson, and my divorce. One morning, eleven years after having married and left home, I was once again sitting at my parents’ breakfast table eying several stacks of Mother’s steaming hot, homemade pancakes. Even with Aunt Jemima’s enticing smile guaranteeing palate-pleasing maple syrup, I dared not pick up a fork until my father had taken a seat and blessed the food.

Mama was still standing at the stove when Daddy returned thanks. After the blessing, he blurted out, “I heard Maggie treeing down the creek last night – somewhere below the hop rocks.” With pancake batter dripping from the cup in her hand, my mother wheeled around and asked, “Clyde, are you all right?” Without answering, he stared down at an empty plate and continued murmuring. Daddy had not mentioned the old dog’s name for years. Tears swelled in Mama’s eyes as he rambled on and on about coon hunting. With a lump in my throat, I thought he had possibly suffered a mild stroke and his confusion signaled the beginning of troubled times. Then, sitting upright and reaching over for the plate of pancakes, Daddy smiled and said, “It was just a dream!”

Shoving away from the table, I walked outside onto the back deck. Standing there crying and looking out across the fields, the memory of Daddy blowing his old, brown, cow horn to summon the hounds home for a night’s hunt reverberated through my mind. Only then, twenty years thereafter, did I realize how much Maggie had meant to her rightful owner.

Maggie’s death marked the end of an unconditional love and the sort of relationship only a boy and his dog could come to know. All that remains of those precious years are a few faded photographs and countless, cherished memories to be shared with two grandsons when the time is right. Though my coon huntin’ days have long since passed, whenever I am driving along and a big, fat raccoon scampers across the highway, a lost passion stirs deep within my soul. Sometimes at night, I hear Maggie treeing and sit up in bed, hoping it is not another dream. Each time, before drifting off to sleep again, I thank God for great parents, cool October nights, and that little, red puppy!