As I fought my way through the thick brush down in the creek bottom, I could hear Al, my Walker coonhound, treeing hard up on top of the ridge. I found a good place to cross the creek, and began my climb up the steep hillside to get to where he was. I had to grab onto saplings to help myself up in places. Losing traction and falling backwards down the long slope would be deadly, so it was important to stay low to the ground and hold on when possible.
My dog had treed in an ancient white oak, so big it would've taken three grown men to reach around the trunk. When I finally got to him, he was still dead after it, taking runs at the tree, biting anything hanging down, shaking the massive vines that ran down the trunk. He knew the coon was up there, and he was doing anything he could think of to get it to come down. Pieces of shredded bark incircled the base of the tree and Al had blood and slobber all over his mouth.
I got back from the tree with my Wheat light and shined every limb, looking for the coon. Al's voice was almost gone, and I could see how exhausted he was, but he wouldn't quit. And even though I was starting to doubt that there was a coon, I kept searching. I owed him that.
Finally, as I shined the tree once more, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. In the fork of a big limb was the coon, looking at me like he'd been there all the time. I slid a bullet in the chamber of the .22 I had slung over my shoulder and took aim. The report of the rifle made Al stand still, and when the coon hit the ground, he worked it over.
We rested on top of the ridge afterwards. I rubbed Al's head and looked up into the night. I had never seen the stars so clear and bright before. I never would've dreamed that this would be the last time we'd do this together.
The next morning, I went outside to feed him, but he didn't come out to greet me like usual. I reached in and rubbed his head one last time and thanked him for all of the nights we roamed the hills together.