All winter long the Barrens had slept still and white. Rows and regiments of low pitch-pine trees, whose blue-green needles grow in threes instead of the fives of the white or the twos of the Virginia pines, marched for miles and miles across the drifted snow. Through their tops forever sounded the far-away roar of the surf of the upper air, like the rushing of mighty wings, while overhead hung a sky whose cold blue seemed flecked with frost. The air tingled with the spicery of myriads of pine trees. Grim black buzzards, on fringed, motionless wings, wheeled and veered over this land of silence.
Then, with the suddenness of the South, spring came. The woods became a shimmering pool of changing greens. The down-folded leaves of the little lambskill stood erect again, like rabbits’ ears, over claret-colored flowers, and the soft warm air was sweet with the heavy perfume of cream-white magnolia blossoms. On jade-green pools gleamed the buds of yellow pond-lilies, like lumps of floating gold, and the paler golden-club, whose blossoms look like the tongues of calla lilies. Everywhere, as if[Pg 1][Pg 2] set in snow, gleamed the green-and-gold of the Barrens’ heather above the white sand, which had been the bed of some sea, forgotten a million years ago. In the distance, at the edges of the Barrens, were glimpses of far-away meadows, all hazy with blue toad-flax and rimmed with the pale gold of narrow-leaved sundrops with their deep orange centres.
Through the woods wound a deep creek, whose water was stained brown and steeped sweet with a million cedar roots. Unlike the singing streams of the North, this brook ran stilly, cutting its deep way through gold-and-white sand, and meeting never rock nor stone to make it murmur. On its bank in the deepest part of the woods grew a vast sweet-gum tree, covered with star-shaped leaves. Tangles of barbed greenbrier set with fierce curved thorns, and stretches of sphagnum bogs guarded the tree from the land side. In the enormous hollow trunk, some fifty feet above the ground, a black hole showed.
There, one May afternoon, as the sun was westering far down the sky, a small face appeared suddenly, framed in the dark opening. It was a funny little face, surmounted by broad, pricked-up, pointed ears, and masked by a black band, which stretched from above a pair of twinkling golden eyes clear down to a small pointed muzzle. As the owner of the face came out of the hollow and began to creep slowly and cautiously down the side of the great tree, his fur showed in the sunlight a dull brownish-gray, with black-tipped hairs on the back, while those on the round little belly had white ends. Last of all appeared the black-ringed, cylindrical tail which is the hall-mark of the aracoun, raccoon, or coon, as red, white, and black men have variously named the owner of said tail.
This particular little coon was the youngest of four fuzzy, cuddly, blind babies, which had appeared in the old den-tree early in March. His father was a wary, battle-scarred giant among his kind, who weighed thirty pounds, measured three feet from the tip of his pointed nose to the end of his ringed tail, and was afraid of nothing that crawled, ran, swam, or flew.
As the little coon walked carefully, head-first, down the tree, he showed his kinship to the bears by setting the naked black soles of his little hind feet flat, instead of walking on his toes as most of the flesh-eaters do. His forepaws were like tiny black hands, with a very short little finger and the thumb the same length as the other three long, supple fingers.
It was the first time that this particular youngster had ever ventured out of the home-nest. A great bump in the middle of the trunk was his undoing. He crept over the edge, but in reaching down for a safe grip beyond, lost his hold and, with a wail of terror, fell headlong. Fortunately for him, the gum was surrounded on three sides by shallow pools of standing water. Into one of these the young climber fell with a splash, and a second later was swimming for dear life back to his family tree.
At the very first sound of that little SOS the head of Mother Coon appeared in the opening, with three other small heads peering out from behind her. Seeing the little coon struggling in the water, she hurried down the tree, followed in procession by the rest of the family, who had evidently resolved not to miss anything. By the time she came to the bump, however, the small adventurer had reached the trunk from which he had fallen. Fixing his sharp claws into the bark, he climbed up the tree, bedraggled, wet, and much shocked at the manifold dangers of life.
Seeing him safe, Mrs. Coon at once turned back. The three little coons turned with her, and the reversed procession started up to the hole. The littlest of the family climbed slowly and painfully as far as the bump, whimpering all the time. There his feelings overcame him. He was positive that never had any little coon suffered so before. He was wet and shaken and miserable and – his mother had deserted him.
“Err, err, err,” he began to cry, softly, but exceeding sorrowfully.
It was too much even for Mother Coon's stern ideals of child-training. Once again she crept down the tree and, stopping on the bump, fixed her claws firmly into the bark. Stretching far over the edge, she reached down and gripped the little coon firmly but gently by the loose skin of his neck and, turning around, swung him safely up in front of her between her forepaws. Then, urging him on with little pokes from her pointed nose, she convoyed him up the tree toward the den, from which three little heads looked down. At times the memory of his grief would be too bitter to be borne, and he would stop and whimper and make little soft, sobbing noises. Then Mother Coon would pat him comfortingly with her slim, graceful paws and urge him on until at last he was safely home again. So ended well, after all, the first journey into the world of any of this little family.
By this time the sun was set, and the old coon climbed down the tree to the nearest pool, for a bit of supper. As she approached, there were squeaks and splashes, and several cricket frogs dived into the water ahead of her. Wading in, she looked around at the woods and the tree-tops in the darkening light, in a vacant way, as if frogs were the very last thing she had in mind; but under the water her slim fingers were exploring every inch of the oozy bottom with such lightning-like speed, that in less than a minute three frogs had been caught, killed by a skillful nip, and thrown up on the dry bank. Convinced that there were no more left in the pool, she approached her supper-table; but before she would eat came the ceremony and ritual of her tribe and blood.
No raccoon, in winter or summer, by night or by day, at home or in captivity, will willingly eat any unwashed food except green corn. One by one the dead frogs were plunged under the water from which they had just been taken, and were washed and re-washed and rubbed and scrubbed, until they were clean enough to suit Mrs. Coon. Then, and not until then, were they daintily eaten. Thereafter soft little chirring calls from the tree-top said that her babies were ready for their supper, too; and she climbed back to the nest, where they snuggled against her and nuzzled and cuddled and drank of the warm milk which would not flow much longer for them, since mother raccoons wean their children early.
While they were still at supper, there sounded from the black depths of the pine forest a long whickering “Whoo-oo-oo-oo,” much like the wailing call of the screech-owl. It was Father Coon on his way home from where he had been spending the night in one of his outlying hunting-lodges, of which he had several within a radius of a few miles; and a little later he joined the family. He brought Mother Coon a little tidbit in the shape of a fresh-water mussel, which, although the shell was still dripping, she climbed down and washed before she cracked and ate it like a nut.
After supper, the two started off on a hunting-trip, while the babies curled up in a round ball, to sleep until they came back. The gray hour just before dawn found the hunters crouched in the long marshy grass at the very tip of a point of land that ran into a little pond, which was ringed around with the stunted pines of the Barrens. Just as the first light showed in the sky, a flock of mallards, headed by a magnificent drake with a bright green head, swung in to feed. Never a sign nor sound betrayed the presence of the ambushers until the drake reached the edge of the shore. The startled bird had not even time for one quack before there was a splash, and old Father Coon had twisted that gay and gallant neck and was back on the shore again, with the quivering body thrown over his shoulder.
Part of the duck was washed and eaten then and there, and the rest was carried back to the den-tree, where the four little coons were taught to tear off little strips of the rich, dark meat, and to wash them repeatedly before eating. That first taste of flesh and blood forever barred them from the warm milky fountain which had been theirs before. From this time on, they had to hunt for themselves.
The very next night their education began. In the warm fragrant dusk, the whole family trotted in a long, leisurely procession through the underbrush, until they came to a broad bank of warm, white sand that overhung the deep waters of the stream which wound its silent way like a brown snake through the Barrens. Here, in a half-circle, the whole family crouched and dozed comfortably, with their pointed, striped noses on their forepaws, while the dusk deepened into the soft-scented, velvet blackness of a summer night. For long they stayed there, in the still patience which only the wild folk possess.
At last, over the tips of the pointed cedars the moon rose, and turned the white beach to silver. All at once, from where a sand spit sloped gradually into the water, sounded a tiny splash, and out into the moonlight crawled a monstrous, misshapen object. From under a vast black shell ridged with dull yellow a snaky neck stretched this way and that, surmounted by a fierce head, with a keen, edged beak and gleaming, cruel eyes which stared up and down the whole beach. It was a snapper, one of the largest of its kind, which weighed perhaps half-a-hundred pounds and would have filled a small washtub.
As the great turtle crawled slowly up the bank, the little coons crouched tensely, and turned their heads to see how the veteran hunters of the family proposed to attack this demon of the stream. As if asleep, both of them crouched motionless; for long ago they had learned that watchful waiting is the best policy when Mrs. Snapper comes out of the water of a spring night. Back and forth the monster crawled heavily, stopping to look and listen for minutes at a time. Satisfied at last that no danger threatened her on that lonely beach, she chose a little ridge of loose sand not ten feet from the raccoon family, and scrabbling with her hind legs and thrusting with her thick, strong tail in the warm sand, dug herself in. There she stayed all the night through, until she had laid a couple of hundred parchment-covered, cylindrical eggs, the greatest delicacy on the whole bill of fare of the hunting folk.
Just before dawn, she pulled herself heavily out of the hole she had dug, and the loose sand poured in after her, filling the cavity and covering the eggs that were hidden there. Not until the turtle had smoothed over the displaced sand and waddled back into the stream did the head of the raccoon family make a movement. He was no coward, but he knew too much to trust his slim paws or his pointed nose anywhere near Mrs. Snapper’s shearing jaws. When the brown water at last closed over her monstrous body, Father Coon led his waiting family to the bank and deftly uncovered the newly laid eggs, on which they feasted until sunrise sent them back to bed.
As the freshness of spring melted into the hot, green sweetness of summer, the education of the little Cleanlys went on rapidly. They soon became experts in breakfast-botany, and learned to dig for the nutty tubers of the wild bean, with its brown purple blossoms, the spicy roots of the wild sarsaparilla, with its five ashlike leaves and fuzzy ball of white blossoms, the wild ginger, the spatterdock, and a score or so of other pleasant-tasting wild vegetables. They learned, too, how to hunt frogs, and to grub up mussels, and to catch those little fresh-water lobsters, the crawfish, without getting their fingers nipped.
The Cleanly children made few mistakes, and hardly ever disobeyed their parents. There was a reason. Disobedience among the wild folk means death, and he who makes one mistake often never gets a chance to make another. The sister of the littlest coon was a sad example of this fact. She decided to become a reformer. It seemed to her that it would be pleasanter to hunt by daylight than after dark, so she tried it – once. On her first (and last) trip she met old Sam Carpenter, a Piny, who always carried a shotgun with him.
Of course, accidents will happen in wild-folk families just as among us humans, only in a wild-folk family, an accident is more apt to be fatal. It was the oldest of the three little Cleanlys, after the reformer had gone, who suffered first. He had been hunting in the wildest part of the five-mile circle, which the family used, and it was after sunrise when he scrambled out of the shallow pool where he had been frogging.
Suddenly from a dry dense thicket near by, there was a fierce hiss like escaping steam, and from a tangle of fern darted the mottled brown-and-white length of a great pine snake. Its curious pointed head, with its golden, unwinking eyes, shot forward, and the next second a set of sharp teeth closed on the soft nose of the small coon. Unlike the poison people, the pine snake has no fangs, and its teeth are used only to hold its prey for the grip of its choking, crushing coils. This particular snake was nearly eight feet long, and as thick around as a big man’s wrist. Luckily for the little coon, the thick bushes guarded him for an instant against the smothering coils.
Dragging back from the dreadful glare of the fixed, lidless eyes, he tried to tear loose, and squalled with all his might for his mother. Fortunately for him, she was not far away. Anyone who had ever watched Mrs. Coon climb carefully down a tree-trunk, or move deliberately through the thickets, would never have identified her with the furious figure which flashed through the bushes at the very first cry of the little coon. Before the great snake had time to draw its coils clear of the branches, or even to disengage its head to meet the attack, the raccoon was upon it, and sank her sharp teeth through the reptile’s spine just back of its head. At once the shut jaws gaped, and the little coon sprang back from the heavy body, which writhed and twisted and beat the bushes horribly in its death agony.
Mother Coon was always practical, with an open mind in regard to matters of diet, and while her cub whimperingly licked, with a long, pink tongue, a much-abused little nose, she began to strip off the speckled skin of her late opponent, and to convert it into lengths of firm, white meat on which the whole raccoon family fed full that night.
It was the youngest of the family who was the next victim. Again it was Mother Coon whose love and wisdom and courage outweighed chance on the scales of life and death. He had been exploring the shallows of the stream near a deserted cranberry bog. All the raccoon people like to follow the shallows of a stream, on the chance of picking up frogs, mussels, crawfish, and other water-food. A solitary rock off a tiny island, in shallow water close to the bank, is always a favorite spot for a hunting coon. Old Sam Carpenter knew all about raccoon habits, and also about one of their weaknesses.
On this night the latest-born of the family came splashing down the warm shallows, and half waded and half swam out to a tiny sandbar some six feet from the bank. There he crouched and scanned the water in the moonlight, on the chance that he might catch a sluggish, red-finned sucker as it winnowed the water through its long wrinkled tube of a mouth. Suddenly, against the yellow sand, he saw three or four gleaming, silver disks, brighter even than the silver-scaled shiners which he had often tried vainly to catch. Old Sam had begged from a traveling tinker a few scraps of bright tin and strewn them near the little islet.
No raccoon can help investigating anything that glistens in the water, and this one felt that he must have his hands on that treasure-trove. Wading carefully out into the shallows, he dabbled in the sand with his slim forepaws, trying to draw some of the shining pieces in to shore. Suddenly there was a snap that sent the water flying, a horrible grinding pain, and the slender fingers of his right forepaw were caught between the wicked jaws of a hidden steel trap.
“Oo-oo-oo-oo!” he cried, with the sorrowful wail of a hurt baby coon.
But this time Mother Coon was far away, around two bends of the crooked stream, investigating a newly found mussel bed. The little coon tried in vain to pull away from the cruel jaws, but they held him unrelentingly. Then he attempted to gnaw his way loose, but only broke his keen little teeth on the stubborn iron.
At first, he was easily able to keep himself above the water; yet, as the minutes went by, the unremitting weight of the trap forced him under more and more often, to rest from the weary, sagging pain. Each time that he went down, it seemed easier and easier to stay there, and to slip into oblivion under the glimmering water and forget the torture that racked every nerve in his struggling little body. Yet, in spite of his funny face and quiet ways, the little coon came of a battling breed which never gives up. Once more he struggled up from the soothing coolness of the water, and for the last time his cry for help shuddered faintly across the Barrens. At last and at last, far away down the stream, he heard the snap of a broken branch, and a minute later the rapid pad-pad of flying feet along the sand, as he fought weakly to stay above the surface, sure that the coming of his mother meant rescue from all the treacheries that beset him.
In another minute she had reached the bank, and with a bound, her fur bristling, was beside her cub, ready to fight for him to the last drop of blood in her lithe, powerful body. Fortunately for her cub, the years had brought to Mother Coon wisdom as well as courage. Once certain as to what had happened, she decided instantly upon the stern and only answer which the wild folk have for the snares of their cruel human brethren. She waded out so that her back was under the exhausted little body of her cub, and, ducking under, gripped the trap with one of her flexible hands, strained the little paw away from it with the other and with a few quick slashes of her sharp teeth severed the three black, slim little fingers that the bitter jaws held fast.
As she cut off one after the other, she could feel the warm furry body that rested upon hers thrill and quiver with the pain; but never a sound nor a struggle came from the littlest of the coons. Another minute, and slowly and limpingly he was creeping back to the den-tree. Better, alas, for any child of the wild folk to go maimed and halt through life than to fall alive into the hands of us humans!
The weeks went by. Summer waxed, until the Barrens were green waves, starred and spangled with flowers, and echoing with bird-songs. All through the long, warm, flower-scented nights the raccoon family feasted and frolicked, and the little ones grew apace. One velvety warm night, when the crescent moon had sunk in the west, Father Coon led his family toward the farm lands, which year by year crept farther into the Barrens. Beyond the woods they came to a field of towering stalks, whose rustling leaves overshadowed plump ears of creamy corn, swathed in green husks and wound with soft silk. At the sight the leaders for once seemed to forget all their caution.
Into the field they rushed, like mad things, and, pulling down stalk after stalk, they stripped off the husks from an ear, and took a bite or so of the angel-food beneath, only to cast it aside and grasp another. The little coons followed their parents’ example, and pulled and hauled and tore and chanked among the standing corn, until it looked as if a herd of hungry cows had been there. The feasting kept on until every coon, big and little, was brimming full of melting, creamy corn.
As they ambled contentedly back toward the dense woods, there came a sound which made Father Coon hurry them forward. Scarcely had they reached the edge of the first thicket, when across the field dashed three mongrel hounds, which belonged to Sam Carpenter, and were out hunting to-night on their own account. There was no time to gain the shelter of the trees. Just ahead of them one edge of the stream touched the cleared country, while its farther bank was deep in the Barrens. Following their leader, the whole family took to the water. They had hardly reached the middle of the wide stream when, with a splash, the dogs plunged in, only a few yards behind. Immediately Father Coon dropped back, for when it comes to matters of life and death it is always Father Coon who fights first. To-night, in spite of numbers, the odds were all in his favor; for the raccoon is the second cousin of those great water-weasels, the mink and the otter, and it is as dangerous to attack him in the water as to fight a porcupine in his tree or a bear in his den.
The first of the pack was a yellow hound, who looked big and fierce enough to tackle anything. With a gasping bay, he ploughed forward, open-mouthed, to grip that silent, black-masked figure which floated so lightly in front of him – only to find it gone. At his plunge the raccoon had dived deep, a trick which no dog has yet learned. A second later, from behind, a slim sinewy hand closed like a clamp on the dog’s foreleg, too far forward to be reached by his snapping jaws. As the hound lowered his head, vainly trying to bite, the raccoon reached across with his other paw, and gripped his opponent smotheringly by the muzzle.
Slowly, inexorably, he threw his weight against the dog’s head, until it sank below the surface. As the other dogs approached, the coon manœuvred so that the struggling body was always between himself and his attackers. Never for an instant did he allow his prisoner’s head to come to the surface. Suddenly he released it, and flashed back into the shadows. The body of the great hound floated on the surface, with gaping jaws and unseeing eyes.
Once more the coon dived and dragged down, with the same deadly grip, the smaller of his remaining opponents. This time he went under water with him. The dog struggled desperately, but paws have no chance against hands. Moreover, a raccoon can stay under water nearly five minutes, which is over a minute too long for any dog. When the coon at last appeared on the surface, he came up alone.
At that moment old Sam, aroused by the barking and baying of his dogs, hurried to the bank and called off his remaining hound, who was only too glad to swim away from the death in the dark, which had overtaken his pack mates. A moment later the victor was on his way back to the den-tree. The next morning, in a little inlet, where an eddy of the stream had cast them, Sam found the bodies of the dogs who had dared to give a raccoon the odds of the stream; and he swore to himself to kill that coon before snow flew.
Many and many a time he tried. Everywhere the old Piny saw the tracks of the family, the front paws showing claw-marks, while the hind paws, set flat like those of a bear, made a print like a baby’s bare foot. One track always showed three claws missing. Yet, hunt as he would, he could never surprise any of them again by day or night, while the many traps he sowed everywhere caught nothing.
One September night summer passed on, and the next morning there was the tang of frost in the air. The leaves of the sour-gum, the first tree to turn, showed blood-red. Day by day the woods gleamed, as the frost-fire leaped from tree to tree. The blueberry bushes ran in waves of wine along the ground, the sassafras was all sunshine-yellow, the white oaks old-gold, while the poison-ivy flaunted the regal red and yellow of Spain.
Before long, the Hunter’s Moon of October was in the sky; and the night it was full, assembled the first coon-hunt of the season. Sam Carpenter was there, and Mose Butler came with his Grip, while Charlie Rogers brought Pet – famous coon dogs, which had never been known to run on a false scent. Came also old Hen Pine, with his famous gun. It had a barrel only about a foot long, for once, while hunting, the old man had slipped into a bog, plugging the muzzle of his gun with mud. The result was that the next time Hen fired it off, half the barrel disappeared. He claimed, however, that, barrel or no barrel, it was the best gun in the country, bar none. Anyway, a gun was only needed to frighten a treed coon into coming down, since the etiquette of a coon-hunt is the same as that of a fox-hunt – only the dogs must do the killing.
It was just before midnight when the party reached the dense woods where Sam Carpenter had so often seen the tracks of the Cleanlys. Early in the evening the little family had found a persimmon tree loaded down with sweet, puckery, orange-red fruit, and were ambling peacefully toward one of their father’s hunting-lodges in an old crow’s nest. They happened to pass the neck of woods nearest Sam’s cabin just as the whole party entered it. Lanterns waved, men shouted, and dogs yipped and bayed among the trees, as they ran sniffing here and there, trying to locate a fresh trail.