I grew up in the foothills, swamps and muggy woods of South Carolina.
As soon as my siblings and I hit ten years old we were taught to safely use and maintain hunting tools like knives, bows, traps and firearms. Our parents made sure to instill a respect in us for the animals we took for food and an understanding of the food chain.
This particular story is from when I was around seventeen years old and a fairly experienced hunter for my age. I had developed a deep love of raccoon hunting and took part every season. I was a black sheep in the local hunting community though because unlike most people my age I refused to hunt alone.
In most young hunters' minds they picture the hunt, the kill and the praise they would get from putting food on the table but as I stated above I understood that no matter how strong I was or how big my gun was I could always fall prey to something.
More often than not my usual hunting partner was my stereotypical hillbilly uncle we'll call R. He was raised very much the same as us and had never failed to pass on a useful tip or guide me to a better location to hunt or fish.
This night we were on the land off the banks of Broad River close to the North Carolina state line hunting raccoons with his two best hounds Babydoll and Scooter. It was pitch black as the clouds hid the moon behind a thick blanket. The night was frigid and dead silent except the distant flow of the river and the dogs rattling around in the dog box.
Looking back now I fully understand that night hunting is not for everyone. The temperature was dipping into the single digits and every branch our lights touched resembled long bony fingers reaching limply out of the blackness for the ground below. We geared up and did a basic check of the surrounding area to confirm it was safe to hunt. We met up at the tailgate and with a nod we cut them loose to track.
Scooter and Babydoll were from the same litter and their teamwork in the woods was hard to beat despite having vastly different methods for tracking a scent.
Babydoll was notorious for bolting after a scent and covering hundreds of yards before stopping to find it again. She was like a razor blade gliding through the dark trees and across frozen creeks.
Scooter on the other hand was a slow mover. He stayed only just behind Babydoll shuffling around in the brush as a midpoint between his sister and us who were at the truck watching them on the tracking system only leaving his usual post when she found one or if there was trouble.
Tonight. There would be trouble.
The GPS alerted that Babydoll had treed and as we watched Scooter bolt in her direction we did the same. We moved quickly through the frozen brush calling to the dogs encouraging them as we jogged deeper into the maw of the forest.
I'm not sure when it happened because of how rough the terrain became to get through at certain points but I got separated from R and wound up alone in the dark standing in the bottom of a deep wash with a shallow stream babbling across pebbles and tree roots to the river. I couldn't hear the dogs anymore and my calls to R went unanswered.
I climbed back up the wall of dirt I slid down in my persuit hoping the high ground would help carry my voice. After two more yells with no reply I reluctantly tried calling his cellphone. He answered on the first ring and shouted into the phone only audible between gunshots.
"GO BACK! GO BACK! GO TO THE ROAD!" and the phone went quiet.
It was then I heard the distant echoes of the gunshots cascading over the silent ambiance accompanied by vigorous yips and barks. I remember being confused for a minute or so wondering what had happened and if I should try to help. I came to the conclusion I should backtrack to the road but every so often yell back to let him know where I was if he could hear me. I walked about fifty yards and yelled back through the trees with only distant crashes and racket to answer me.
I had almost made it another ten yards when I heard a fierce ripping of vines and bushes. It was Babydoll in a full sprint in my direction. I thought she might slow down as she got closer but she never missed a beat and ran past me like greased lightning. Then another crash and the yips I heard over the phone returned in the distance getting closer.
I knew then why R panicked. In their charge the dogs had disrupted a pack of coyotes and they were chasing them-and by association- us. I began jogging after Babydoll hoping to secure her in the box and get off the ground. The yips, growls and barks were getting louder behind me. I struggled to navigate the brush in my thick winter clothes but kept moving, my dull yellow head lamp turning my world into a hazy blur of tree trunks and shadows.
I came within view of the road and saw Babydoll already on the lowered tailgate barking into the woods. Another shredding of brush behind me sent me into a full panic but galloping past my legs came Scooter mouth open bawling as he went. I started up the hill to the truck and my headlamp went out.
I fumbled around in the darkness and made my way up the hill on my hands and knees out of breath and hands shaking. I opened the box doors so the dogs could get inside and hopped up into the bed pulling the tailgate shut and searching my coat pockets frantically for a light which thankfully I found.
I stood upright in the truck bed, flashlight in one hand shaking violently and rifle in the other and they appeared like stars shining through the pitch black. The eyes. Those gleaming eyes and ravenous sounds flowed out of the tree line like a nightmare come to life. I start shooting into the trees and the air trying to scare them enough to turn them back. It didnt take long.
They ran back into the trees and the eyes disappeared but I still heard them. They were just out of view but still there. Watching me. I didn't know what to do. I couldn't just jump down and get in the truck it was locked and R had the keys. I couldn't risk shooting where they might be because I didn't know where R was. Even if they did come into view again I only had four rounds left in the magazine. I was stuck.
I tried yelling to R again and again but my voice was overrun by the pack's symphony from the trees. The cold was getting to me. The mad dash back to the road caused me to sweat heavily and it felt like icecicles were falling from my forehead. My light was dim and my legs throbbed. Even with the circumstances as they were I was fighting the urge to sleep.
I tried calling R's phone a few times over the next few minutes but no answer. On my last attempt it went straight to voicemail. Dead phone. The ruckus from the trees began to get more and more distant and I started hearing gunshots and brush thrashing violently. I see R's headlamp bouncing through the trees.
When he comes into full view he's white as a sheet and out of breath. He stopped at the bottom of the hill and fired three more shots into the shadows and climbed up.
We rushed home after that and fed the wood stove thick blocks until the metal popped and groaned from the heat. We were cut up, battered, frozen, shaken and exhausted but we went right back the next night to hunt again.