Thursday, February 18, 2010

Good Dogs

I was first in line at the cash register, unloading my cart as quickly as I could. I had an appointment with a lady at the community college and two more stops to make before heading home. Behind me stood two old men chatting comfortably, their arms full of purchases. As I leaned over to pick up a handful of cans I overheard the words "good dog". Dogs. They were talking dogs. Unable to help myself, I eavesdropped.

"I ain't had a dog tree like that one done in a long time."

"It's hard to find a good one. The only way to know if a dog 'll hunt is if you kin see the Ma and the Pa . . ."

I began to smile in spite of myself. They weren't talking about just dogs; they were discussing coonhounds. Coonhounds are more than canines; they are an icon of a deep tradition, a southern ritual. In an instant I was back in my bed in that old farm house in Northwest Arkansas. In mid-October, when the moon was full, high in the wooded hills of the Ozarks, the men would gather together with their hounds, point them into the wind and release them with a word understood by only the men and their dogs. The dogs would circle, noses to the ground, circle again and again, spreading out wider and wider, until some lucky hound would catch the scent of a coon and call out.

And, oh, what a call. To me, the one in bed, buried beneath the quilts listening, it was the music of autumn.

Here, it's here . . . the hound would bay.

Where, where, where . . . the others would answer, their voices rising in separate strands of excitement.

They would call to one another until they were all on the same scent track, entwining, harmonizing until they became one. Like Sunday-come-to-meetin' bells in the darkness, they would invite the hunters to follow. Here, here, here . . .

The man behind the cash register, a polite but taciturn sort, spoke to the two old men. "There's another cash register opening up over there."

They were so engrossed in their conversation that they didn't hear him.

"Any takers?" the man said.

The two old men drifted away without acknowledging him, and not toward the other cash register. Instead, they turned back into the store, their arms still full, and still talking. Reminiscing over dogs long gone, over legendary coons, and how coffee tasted in the woods after the hunts.

"They were busy," I told the cashier, "talking coon dogs."

He smiled a rare smile. "I noticed."

When last I saw them, they were circling the store a second time, still talking, their voices entwined.

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