On the south side of Flynn’s Bay on Grindstone Island was the Cummings homestead. On the north side is the marsh and to the south are the broad waters of the St Lawrence River. In the neat, well-manicured house, lived one of my mother’s sisters, Mildred (Dano) Cummings, with her husband Aaron, one of the best men of the clan. The home that my aunt maintained was to me frightening, so fragile, like a museum – I was almost afraid to go inside for fear of breaking some cherished item. Inside the home, the wooden floors were spotlessly clean and polished; priceless chairs, tables, and glassware throughout. I recall that Uncle Aaron had a wonderful collection of Indian artifacts that included arrow points, pottery shards, and cannon balls that were kept in a small varnished chest that adorned the living room.
Uncle Aaron was different; he was a farmer, but as I think back, not much of a farmer, at least by my father’s standards. Judged by my standards, he was much more. A rather tall man, he walked with a peculiar step, his farm had only ten or twelve cows and a bull, and a couple of the younger stock that were housed in the winter inside a new barn. There was an old weather-beaten shed that barely stood, braced for support in several places – it was something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, just like Uncle Aaron.
Uncle Aaron was a true outdoorsman; he knew how and where to catch squirrels, how to find wild honey trees, where to gather hickory nuts, how to trap a muskrat, and where the fish were biting – a true man of all seasons. When the month of November came around, Uncle Aaron rose to his greatest role, the king of raccoon hunters.
We made plans for our raccoon hunt and I arrived at Uncle Aaron’s farm before dark. Even in the darkness of the evening, his old boathouse still appeared to be ready to topple into the river. There were a few flowers leftover from summer that still stood in Aunt Mildred’s flower beds. There he was waiting, Uncle Aaron shod in tall rubber boots – ready for the hunt! Based on previous hunting experiences, this hunt would carry us through the weeds, rocks, woods, marsh, beaches, barns, and swamps of the island. Wherever the raccoon traveled, Ol’ Speed, Uncle Aaron’s hound dog, was sure to be close behind. Ol’ Speed was a typical multi-colored brown and black hound, some Walker, and a splash of white on his breast. His tail was just a stub due to losing it in a fight with a raccoon two years ago, and both ears were torn. All in all, he was one hell of a great dog. Uncle Aaron’s other dog, a female named Jill, refused to join us in the thrilling hunt. As we were departing, Jill retreated to the interior of the barn to begin her guard duties. Reflecting back on the day, it was a wise choice.
What a night! We walked on the path leading to Flynn Bay, with Speed leading the way. Most of the leaves were gone from the trees as they covered the ground like a carpet, the winds of November had not yet shaped them into piles along the bushes or fence lines. There would be frost by morning, the clear sky and lack of wind insured it. No matter, with Speed leading the way, our feet rustling and crunching the leaves with that unique sound that only dried leaves make. Without a sound, Speed dashed into the marsh grass and without warning let forth a loud howl – announcing to the world around Flynn Bay that he found a track and was in hot pursuit of his prey. More howls followed as he continued along the track. The night was very clear, the stars so bright and seemed so close.
Later, at moonrise, the stars would be chased away with the bright moonlight. Uncle Aaron following Speed was faster than I was, running through the high grass in the swamp and brush. I now think that I was afraid of missing the thrill that would occur when the raccoon was treed – climbing up any tree to escape the wrath of Speed. A half mile of marsh and thorn bushes and I finally caught up to them. There was Speed letting the raccoon know that he was holding him aloft and there was no escape. In the tree were three pair of eyes, a mother and two babies. Half an hour later, the three were now lying at the foot of the tree to be picked up tomorrow morning.
The night was young, so we started along the marsh and could feel the cool fall air. There were no frogs singing, just an occasional owl hooting. Ole Speed let out bark – he had picked up another track! His occasional short bark signaled us, to let us know that the game was on again. The dew had now fallen, wetting the grass and making it easy for Speed to track his prey across the hay field up to an escarpment. I paused for a moment at the top of the marsh at Flynn Bay and noticed that fog was starting to develop. Almost a mile away was a large spring fed pond. Uncle Aaron knew this pond well and knew that the raccoon was headed there. Ole Speed was announcing that his quarry was now cornered in a tree or rock hole – his bark was now a howl and we needed to hurry to the pond to see if the old dog was in trouble.
Across Clarence Garnsey’s hay field, then across Ernest Brown’s fields we flew. I was burdened with the lantern and a .22 calibre rifle of some ancient make. I was sure that if I were to be left behind my bones would be discovered in the future. Off to my right, the dogs from the Brown’s and the Garnsey’s, having heard Speed crossing their fields, unleashed their own chorus cheering Speed on or just complaining. Now the second wind of youth prevailed and I arrived at the edge of the pond together with Uncle Aaron. Speed stood defiantly on the edge of the pond throwing out challenges to the party of raccoons standing on top of the muskrat house almost in the center of the pond. Upon our arrival, Speed, knowing that he had support, plunged into the pond heading straight for his foes on the rat house. Uncle Aaron, without stopping, leaped into the water even with the water depth about 4 feet and he caught Speed to halt his assault on the rat house. If left alone in the water, Speed would have had no chance, the raccoons would have jumped on the dog’s head and drowned him.
There were four raccoons, but two believing that they had enough fun for one night escaped the area, while two – maybe younger and dumber – climbed the closest tree hoping for salvation. Uncle Aaron’s flashlight, a rather long, shiny metal D-Cell type, was temporarily disabled when he took the swim to retrieve Speed. We were blind without the flashlight; there wasn’t any way for us to find the two coons that were in the tree. The lantern that I carried guided us home, but before we left the pond, Uncle Aaron tied his coat around the tree about 5 feet above the ground. He assured me that the coat would imprison the two raccoons in the tree and we headed to his house. In the kitchen window, a small kerosene lamp burned with the wick turned down. I arrived home about 4 am, exhausted and happy that I had hunted once again with the master.
A week later I stopped to visit Uncle Aaron and to find out the ending to our recent hunt. Ole Speed, sleeping in the sunshine, barely raised his head to greet me. I did not have to ask about the hunt, because there on the wood shed wall were the five hides that Speed that pursued on that memory-making night.
By Manley L. Rusho
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