There are two popular ways to hunt coon (aka raccoon) in southeast Missouri. The objective of number one is to kill a treed coon. Raccoon meat is reported to taste great and the pelt is worth good money. Number two is just enjoy the bays and howls of the dog as it pursues its prey through the woods. We planned on number one, a modified version of number two is what transpired.
After church one fall Sunday evening, there was a knock at the door. On the doorstep stood wild eyed, tow-headed, Cotton Crabtree and his sidekick, dedicated underachiever, Mike Runyon.
Normally, I would not have associated with this reckless pair, but Cotton was Grandpa Archie's nephew and Mike came with the package. Mike was in my class at school and Cotton was in the grade above. Once, I asked Mike how he was doing and he replied, "Great, I got a job down at the Trailways station sucking farts out of bus seats!"
Mike had borrowed his cousin's pick-up truck, axe, carbide miner's lamp, point 22 calibre rifle and redbone coonhound named Booger. They invited me to join them for a night of hunting.
On a previous outing with this pair, we explored an uncharted cave on the banks of the St. Francis (St. Francois) River. That expedition should have set off warning signals. Parts of the cave were so narrow that a couple of times I thought we were stuck deep underground forever.
It may have been the call of the wild, or peer pressure, but the next thing I knew, we were parked up near the fire tower on top of Stono Mountain. Since I was known for being able to shoot the glint out of the eye of a possum by the light of the moon, I carried the rifle. Cotton had the axe and Mike carried the carbide lamp. Booger was in charge. We faithfully followed our leader, his nose to the ground, as he zigzagged in and out of thickets and hollows.
About an hour into the hunt, Booger suddenly went rigid for close to a full minute. Then, he took off at a run baying a particular note that Cotton and Mike recognized as, "I am on the scent!" We scrambled over roots and creek bottoms as best we could but Booger soon left us behind. Eventually, we heard an excited howl which my cohorts interpreted as, "I've got him TREED!"
We rendezvoused on the side of a steep canyon at the foot of a tall sapling. Booger's attention was focused on a hole about three quarters the way up the spindly tree. From his agitation, we deduced that whatever it was in the hole was going to be worth our while to extract.
Cotton, axe in hand, was ready to chop down the tree. We had a quick discussion about the situation. To me, it seemed like overkill to cut down a tree. I didn't win the argument because, "A decent sized raccoon skin is worth ten dollars, not to mention good eating!"
It only took ten minutes to chop down the sapling. As soon as the tree hit the ground, Booger leapt into action and jerked an animal out of the hole. Mike gleefully yelled, "Civet cat!" I had never heard of a civet cat before, it looked like a skunk to me. Later, I did some research at the Missouri Department of Conservation and found out that it was indeed a spotted skunk. Civet cat is a "colloquial misnomer". Another thing I learned was that spotted skunk musk is more pungent than common striped skunk musk. In fact, we all found this out very quickly.
Booger had the skunk tight in his jaws and was shaking it wildly. Far from being stunned, our skunk was spraying as if his life depended on it. Not only did Booger get his full share, we all got a liberal dose.
Suddenly, Booger dropped his prey. The skunk ran one way and Booger took off in the opposite direction as fast as he could go. A nose full of skunk juice had a drastic effect on our leader. I don't know if he thought he was on to the "scent of the century" or was just overwhelmed by such a strong shot of "mal oleo".
Rock musicians, bank robbers, swat teams and coon hunters have a saying, "Never leave a man behind!" I am sure, in his mind, Booger had not deserted us. We were certainly not going to desert him. Besides, Mike's cousin was strongly attached to his favourite coon dog. There would be questions asked if we left Booger on that mountain.
There is another saying, "The fox never smells his own hole." Cotton, Mike and I were all saturated with skunk sauce, but we didn't have time to point fingers. We were desperately trying to follow the diminishing sound of Booger's howls as we stumbled up and down the rugged terrain in the dark. Our carbide lamp was no longer operational.
Carbide lamps run on a mixture of calcium carbide and water. We had calcium carbide but no water. Always resourceful, Mike peed in the receptacle and voila, we had light! Under normal circumstances, I would have balked at this solution. That night, I looked the other way.
It was well after midnight when we realized that we were completely and utterly lost. We could no longer hear Booger's bark and we knew we were in a tight spot. When we were able to get a view from the top of hills, we could see lights from distant farm houses. When we descended, we were totally surrounded by trees and impenetrable thickets.
Cotton said he knew how to navigate by the stars and picked out a bright one. We did our best to follow that star for a couple of hours. That gave me time to remember something I had learned about celestial movements. As the earth turns in its orbit, the stars revolve in the sky. We were walking around in a big circle. We decided to follow a dry creek bed with the hope it would take us out of the woods.
As Shakespeare said, "Therein lies the rub." Folks in rural Missouri choose to live with elbow room and don't take kindly to midnight strangers. Then, as now, it is not advisable to walk up to an isolated Missouri farm house in the middle of the night equipped with a rifle and axe. We were all three savvy to this danger and when we eventually came to a dirt road we decided to keep walking.
Around 04:00 we came to a crossroads. There was a derelict country store and to our relief, a payphone outside. When we approached, a snarling collie dog came running out from under the porch. Call it fear or survival instinct, I drew a bead and was only a micro-second away from pulling the trigger when Cotton grabbed the rifle and screamed, "Don't be cruel to animals!"... "Tell that to the civet cat!", was my retort. (Lassie, you owe one to Cotton.)
Rescue was only a phone call away. But, who should we call?
Ma and Grandpa Archie were on a "party line". Making a call to them would wake up nosey party members around the county. Mike and Cotton were adamant that they didn't what to drag their fathers out in the middle of the night (another case of "survival instinct"?). Mike's cousin was not going to help; his pick-up truck was at the top of Stono Mountain.
I knew a man who not only, "Walked the walk, he talked the talk". I got the number of the 1st Baptist Church of Doe Run parsonage from the operator. A sleepy Brother Jack answered the phone. In the spirit of a good shepherd, he agreed to bring us lost sheep back into the fold.
Brother Jack knew the location of the derelict store. In thirty shakes of a lamb's tail, he pulled up in his near-late model Ford. I am not sure he would have volunteered for the mission if he had known how over ripe these three sheep were. Insisting we roll down all the windows, Brother Jack wasted no time transporting us back home.
Ma was still awake after a long night of worry. She didn't seem to mind that her grandson was covered in skunk spray. After a hot bath my essence was only half strength.
The next morning, I noticed that all of my money was missing from my dresser drawer. Sometime during the night Dan had given up hope of my return. He thought I was lost for good, deep in some bottomless cavern. To avoid questions of ownership he had quietly transferred my "goods" over to his jurisdiction. The fact that he had taken my goods didn't bother me. I was sad that my younger brother had been faced with such a dilemma.
Three weeks later, Booger turned up begging for scraps at Lacey's Grocery Store in Doe Run and was returned to his owner.
Over time I lost touch with Cotton and Mike. I heard Mike was MIA in Viet Nam and Cotton was shot during an argument in the nearby town of Leadwood.