Of all the canny beasts, Brother Coon is the wisest, and were it not for his imprudence and self-assurance, he would be less frequently captured than the coyote, who is also a very clever gentleman. As it is, a raccoon hunt is a nocturnal escapade that may be enjoyed by any lively boy or man who happens to own a coon dog.
Now a coon dog is any sort of a dog that has a sporting instinct and a large propensity for combat. We have, of course, that product of culture and breeding, the coon hound, an offshoot from the English fox hound. This dog is a marvel in his own sphere.
Although we have not devoted a great deal of time to coon hunting, one or another of our group has counted the scalps of quite a number of Procyon lotor. Having been accepted as a companion of one or two or more ambitious and enthusiastic dogs, we start out at dusk to hunt the creek bottoms for coons. Provided with bows, blunt arrows, and a lantern, we unleash the dogs, and the fun begins.
One must be prepared to scramble through blackberry vines, nettles, tangled swamps, and to climb trees. The dogs busy themselves sniffing and working through the underbrush, crossing the creek back and forth, investigating old hollow trees, displaying signs of exaggerated interest and industry.
Suddenly there is a change in their vocal expression. Heretofore the short, snappy bark has spoken only of anticipation and eagerness; now there comes the instinctive yelp of the questing beast, the hound on the scent. It bursts from them like a wail from the distant past. As if shot, they are off in a bunch. A clatter of sounds, scratching, rustling, and scrambling, we hear them tearing through the brush. We follow, but are soon outdistanced. Down the creek bed we go, splash through mud, clamber over logs, stop, listen, and hear them baying, afar off. Their voices rise in a chorus, some are high-pitched, incessant yelps, some are deep-voiced, bell-like tones. We know they have him treed and, breathless, we push forward, arriving in the order of our physical vigor, those with the best legs and lungs coming first.
High up in a tree, out on a limb, we see a shadowy form and two glowing orbs--that is the coon. The dogs are insistent; since they cannot climb, although they try, man must rout the victim out. Somebody turns a flashlight on the varmint. Frank Ferguson is the champion coon hunter; so he draws a blunt arrow from his quiver, takes quick aim and shoots. A dull thud tells that he has hit, but the coon does not fall. Another arrow whistles past, registering a miss; then a sharp click as the blunt point of the third arrow strikes the creature's head, a stifled snarl, a falling body, a rush of dogs on the ground, and all is over. The hounds are delighted, and we count one chicken thief the less.
Sometimes the coon becomes the aggressor. He boldly enters our camp at night and purloins a savory ham or rifles the larder and eats a pound of butter. He fully deserves what is coming to him. I loose Teddy and Dixie, my two faithful hounds. The morning mist is rising from the stream, the tree trunks are barely visible in the early dawn, the grasses drip with dew.
The eager dogs take up the trail and start on a run up the stream bank. They cross on a great fallen tree and mount the wooded hill on the other side where I lose them in the jungle. I run on by instinct, listening for their directing bark. Once in a while I catch it faintly in the distance. They must be mounting rapidly and too busy to bark. Again it is audible far off to my left and I force my tired legs to renewed energy, climbing higher and higher.
Up I mount through the forest, alert for the telltale yelp. There it is, a whine and faint, stifled guttural sounds, but so indistinct and so obscured by the prattle of the stream and the murmuring tree tops that I fail to locate it. So I flounder on through vines and underbrush, wondering where my dogs have gone. I blow the horn and Dixie answers with a pathetic howl, away off to the right. I run and blow the horn again; again that puppy whine. Teddy doesn't answer and I wonder how Dixie could have been lost, though after all, he is only a recent graduate from the kennel and unseasoned in this world of canine misery and wisdom. Unexpectedly, I come upon him, looking very disconsolate and somewhat mauled. There is no doubt about it, he has rushed in where angels fear to tread. He has received a recent lesson in coon hunting. So I console him with a little petting and ask him where is Teddy. Just then I hear a subterranean gurgle and scuffle and rushing off to a nearby clump of trees, I find that away down under the ground in a hollow stump, there is a death struggle going on--Teddy and the coon are having it out. From the sounds I know that Ted has him by the throat and is waiting for the end. But he seems very weak himself. As I shout down the hole to encourage him, the coon, with one final effort, wrests himself free from the dog and comes scuttling out of the hole. With undignified haste I back away from the outlet and fumble a blunt arrow on the string, and I am just in time, for here comes one of the maddest and one of the sickest coons I ever saw. With a hasty shot back of the ear, I bowl him over and put him out of his misery. Turning him over with my foot to make sure he is finished, I note how desperate the fight must have been. His neck and brisket are a mass of mangled flesh and skin. Then reaching deep down in the hole I grab poor exhausted Teddy by the scruff of his neck, lift him out, and let him regain his breath in the fresh air. He certainly is a weary champion. The coon has bitten him viciously between the legs and along the abdomen. After a while we all go down to the stream and there bathe the wounded heroes.
With the rascally old coon over my shoulder, we three wander back to camp in time for congratulations and wonderment of the children and the consolation of hot victuals.
That is a typical coon hunt with us. Some are less damaging to the dogs, but usually this little cousin of the bears is able to give a good account of himself in the contest.
Ferguson and his pack of fox terriers have had more experience with the redoubtable raccoon than the rest of us; he hunts them for their pelts. He is also a trapper for the market and long since has found that the blunt arrow shot from a light bow serves very admirably for dispatching the captured varmint when once trapped.
The fox is more difficult to meet in the wilds. His business hours are also at night, but he extends them not infrequently both into the sunrise and twilight zones. One of the most beautiful sights I ever witnessed came unexpectedly while hunting deer.
It was evening; dusky shadows merged all objects into a common drab. Two silent, graceful foxes rose over the crest of a little eminence of ground before me. Outlined distinctly against a red dirt bank across the ravine, they stood just for a moment in surprise. I drew my bow and instantly loosed an arrow at the foremost. It flew swift as a night-hawk and with a rush of wind passed his head. As is usual at dusk, I had overestimated the distance. It was but forty yards; I thought it fifty.
Half-startled, but not alarmed, the two foxes fixed their gaze upon me a second, then gracefully, and with infinite ease, they cleared a three-foot bush without a run and disappeared in the gloom.
But in that leap I gained all the thrill that I missed with my arrow. Such facile grace I never saw. Without an effort they rose, hovered an instant in midair, straightened their wonderful bushy tails as an aeroplane readjusts its flight, and soared level across the obstacle. One final downward curve of that beautiful counterbalance landed them smoothly on the distant side of the bush where, with uninterrupted speed, they vanished from sight. For the first time I appreciated why a fox has such a light, long, fluffy caudal appendage. Marvelous!
Often at night when coming late to camp through the woods, a fox has emerged from the outer sphere of darkness and given a querulous little bark at me. Wheeling with a bright light on the head, I could have shot him, but then he is such a harmless little denizen of the woods that I hate to kill him. But after all, is he really harmless? The little culprit! He actually does a deal of harm, destroying birds' nests, eating the young, catching quail and rabbits--I don't know that we should spare him.
With horses and hounds we have chased many foxes over the sage and chaparral-covered hills.
The fox terrier and the black and tan are excellent dogs for this sort of work. These little hunters are keen for the sport and make their way beneath the brush where a larger dog follows with difficulty. With strident yelps the pack picks up the hot trail, and off they rush, helter skelter, through the sage and chaparral; we circle and cross cut, dash down the draw, traverse the open forest meadow and follow the furious procession into the trees.
There the hard-pressed little fox makes a final spurt for a large red pine, leaps straight for the bare trunk, mounts like a squirrel and gains a rotten limb, panting with effort. As we approach he climbs still higher and lodges himself securely in the crotch of the tree, gazing furtively down at the dogs.
Who ever thought that a fox could climb such a tree! It was twenty feet to the first foothold on a decayed branch; yet there he was, and we saw him do it.
Sometimes when the fleeing fox has mounted a smaller tree, we have shaken him from his perch and let the dogs deal with him as they think best--for a dog must not be too often cheated of his conquest or he loses heart. Sometimes we have mounted the tree and slipped a noose over the fox's neck, brought him close, tied his wicked little jaws tightly together with a thong, packed him off on the horse to show him to the children in camp, and later given him his liberty. Or, as in the case of our little villain up the pine tree, we have drawn a careful arrow and settled his life problems with a broad-head.
In winter time the trap and the blunt arrow add another fur collar to the coat of the feminine sybarite.
The woods and plains are full of hunters. The hawk is on the wing; the murderous mink and weasel never cease their crimes; the bird seeks the slothful worm and jumping insect; the fox, cat, and wolf forever quest for food. And so we, hunting in the early morning light, once saw a flock of quail flushed long before our presence should have given them cause for flight. Compton and Young, arrows nocked and muscles taut, crept cautiously to the thicket of wild roses out of which flew the quail. There, stooping low, they saw the spotted legs of a lynx softly stalking the birds. Aiming above the legs where surely there must be a body, Young sped an arrow. There was a thud, a snarl, and an animal tore through the crackling bushes. Out from the other side bounded the cat, and there, not twenty yards off, he met Compton. Like a flash another arrow flew at him, flew through him, and down he tumbled, a flurry of scratching claws, torn up grasses and dust. Young's arrow, having been a blunt barbed head, still lodged in his chest, and as the lynx succumbed to death I took his picture.
Lazy, sleepy cat, both lynx and wildcats, we meet not infrequently on our travels. Still they are ever up to mischief in spite of their indolent casual appearance. Often have we seen them slink out from a bunch of cover, cross the open hillside, and there, if within range, receive an archer's salute. Many times we miss them, sometimes we hit; but that's not the point, we are not so anxious to get them as to send greetings.
Then, too, since Ishi taught us to do it, we have called these wary creatures from the thicket and sometimes got a shot.
With the dogs, the story is soon told and the rôle of the bowman is without triumph; so for this reason, we prefer the accidental meetings and impromptu adventures to the more certain contact. Still when at night we hear the tingling call of the lynx up in the woods, we yearn for a willing dog and a taut bowstring.
With the distant barking wail of the prairie wolf or coyote, one feels differently. I presume that man has become so accustomed to the dog that he has rather a kindly feeling toward this little brother of the plains, called by the Aztecs coyote, or "wild one." We know his evil propensities and his economic menace, but still we love him, or at least, look upon him much as the Indians do, as a sort of comedian among animals.
Ishi used to tell me of his laughable experiences with coyotes. When coming home at night with a haunch of venison on his shoulder, a band of these gamins of the wilds would follow him teasing at his heels. Ishi would turn upon them with feigned fury and chase them back into the shadows or wield his bow as a short lance and jab them vigorously in the ribs--when he could.
With him the coyote was the reincarnation of a mythical character, half buffoon, half magician. He was cunning, crafty, humorous, and evil, all in one, and no doings of the animal folk ever progressed very far without the entrance of the "coyote doctor" on the scene. He was the doer of tricks and caster of spells, but still he himself met with misadventure--witness how he lost his claws. Of course, he had long claws like the bear in the beginning, and fine silky fur. But one night, coming weary from hunting and cold, he crept into a hollow oak gall to sleep. The wind fanned the embers of the camp-fire and the dry grass burst into a blaze. It swept up to the sleeping coyote, where only his feet protruded from his hollow spherical den. Here they hung out for lack of room. So, of course, his claws were burned off before the pain wakened him. He leaped out of his nest, dashed through the blaze, and plunged into the creek, not in time, however, to keep his beautiful long hair from being singed. Even to this day he has that half-scorched, moth-eaten pelt, and his claws are only those of a coyote.
When met in the open, the prairie wolf seems so weary and listless. If at a distance, he protests at your entrance upon his domain with a forlorn wail, or insolently stares at you from a ridge. He sits and looks or moves about dyspeptically waiting for you to go.
Once I remember that we saw one sitting on his haunches a hundred and eighty yards away. Compton loosed an arrow at him, one of those whining, complaining shafts that drone through the air. The coyote heard it coming; he pricked up his ears, pointed his nose skyward, rose and limped lively to the left, turned, peered into the sky, and ran a short distance to the right, then loped off just in time to be missed by the descending arrow, which landed exactly where he sat originally. It was indeed a most ludicrous performance, incidentally a splendid shot.
Just as with a rifle, the coyote simply is not there when your missile strikes. He doesn't seem to bestir himself greatly, but just seems to drag himself out of harm's way at the last moment. How often have we let fly at him, sometimes at a group of them, but seldom has he been hit. A beginner's luck seems to fool him, however. One of our neophytes with the bow, having had his tackle less than a month, was out riding in his new automobile in company with a group of friends. The bow at that time was his vade-mecum; he never left it home. He chanced to see a stray coyote near the side of the highway when, after passing it a hundred yards or so, he stopped his machine, grabbed his trusty weapon, which he had hardly learned to shoot, strung it, nocked an arrow, and ran back to take a shot at the animal in question. His eagerness and obvious incapacity so amused the gay company in the machine, that they cheered him on with laughter and ridicule.
Undaunted, our bowman hastened back, saw the crafty beast retreating in a slinking gallop, drew his faithful bow, and shot at sixty yards. Unerringly the fatal shaft flew, struck the coyote back of the ear and laid him low without a quiver.
Mad with unexpected triumph, our archer dragged his slain victim back to the car to meet the jeering company, and confounded them with his success. Loud were the shouts of joy; a war dance ensued to celebrate the great event. When done the merry party cranked up the machine and sped on its fragrant way, a happier and a more enlightened bevy of children.
Thus is shown the danger of utter innocence.
These chance meetings seem rather unlucky for coyotes. Frank Ferguson, when trapping in the foothills of the Sierras, repeatedly had his traps robbed by an impudent member of the wolf family. One day while making his regular rounds and approaching a set, he saw in the distance a coyote run off with the catch of his trap. Seeing that the wolf turned up a branch creek, Ferguson cut across the intervening neck of the woods to intercept him if possible. He reached the stream bottom at the moment the coyote came trotting past. Having a blunt arrow on the bowstring, he shot across the twenty-five yards of bank, and quite unexpectedly cracked the animal on the foreleg, breaking the bone. A jet of blood spurted out with astonishing force, and the brute staggered for a space of time. This gave Ferguson a moment to nock a second shaft, a broad-head, and with that accuracy known to come in excitement, he drove it completely through the animal's body, killing it instantly. When next we met after this episode, he showed me the bloody arrows and wolf skin as mute evidence of his skill.
Ferguson was won over to archery when, as packer upon our first trip together, he asked Compton to show him what could be done with the bow in the way of accurate shooting. Compton is particularly good at long ranges, so he pointed out a bush about one hundred and seventy-five yards distant. It was about the size of a dog. Compton took unusual care with his shots, and dropped three successive arrows in that bush. When "Ferg" saw this he took the bow seriously.
The timber wolf is seldom met in our clime, and so for this reason he has been spared the fate common to all fearsome beasts that cross the trail of an archer. But with that fateful hope which has foreshadowed and seemingly insured our subsequent achievement, I fervently wish that some day we may meet, wolf and bowman.
In the absence of this the more austere and wicked member of the family, we shall continue from time to time to speed a questing arrow in the general direction of the furtive coyote.