Moonlight filtering between branches and ground cover creates ominous shadows. Creatures of the night pass through this eerie spectacle in search of food or mates, while barred owls and coyotes add desolate sounds.
The average greenhorn fears this unfathomable world where imagination conjures up “haints” or wild creatures. Coon hunters thrive in this barbarous arena of survival.
John Ryan was an ex-Marine who survived Korea and Vietnam. He chose to live unconnected with civilization except for a few friends and a pack of baying coonhounds in the middle of a Northwest Missouri woodlot.
I met Ryan on Nov. 16, 1971, after a hunting buddy spoke of his hounds. I wanted a good finish dog and called the unpublished phone number my friend provided. He gruffly invited me to come over.
I drove an hour before turning on a road that most people drove past. Gravel pounded the side of my pickup like hail hitting a tin roof during a severe storm until I slowed down. The gravel ran out and a dusty dirt road began then ended at his driveway.
I arrived to the vivid sounds of baying hounds announcing my presence. Ryan stepped out of his house with a shotgun tucked under his right arm and peered at my old Ford pickup.
He wore a blue work shirt and Big Smith bib overalls. His unpolished boots were laced up tight with a Marine patrol-style hat cocked so you could barely see his shadowed eyes that studied me like a coiled rattlesnake.
“You the young man wanting to see my coonhounds,” he said in a low, dark voice.
“Yes sir, they say you have some of the best,” I answered.
“Well then, come over here and watch your step, might be a dog pile or two scattered around.”
Baying greeted me as only hounds can. He opened the kennel gate and I waded into 10 of the healthiest dogs ever raised.
Ryan lived in a rundown farmhouse while his hounds had the best of everything. I kneeled down and was immediately surrounded by soulful eyes. I started petting blue ticks, walkers and a couple of older redbones that showed their appreciation with long, licking tongues that I unsuccessfully tried to dodge.
The dogs loudly showed their disapproval when I stood up and moved toward the gate. I noticed that Ryan had a slight smile when I walked back to the pickup.
“You seem to know hounds, boy,” he said. “How come?”
“My family didn’t have much money and we trailed coons to afford groceries,” I answered. “I borrowed a couple of my uncle’s dogs and chased coons every night. He had an old walker that was a great pressure-tree dog. I sold a lot of coon hides because of her.”
“Want to run some coons tonight, boy?” Ryan asked.
“Yes sir,” I answered, barely containing my excitement.
“Then be here around 9 o’clock, don’t be late.”
I was in Ryan’s dirt driveway 20 minutes early that evening and waiting when he stepped out the door. He walked over to his pen and released four hounds while the remaining six loudly protested being left behind.
“The long oak ridge we are going to run behind my house is long and full of hollers and sticker bushes,” Ryan said. “Some say they had a scrimmage here during the Civil War and there are ghosts. Does that worry you, boy?”
“No sir,” I answered with a half grin. “I heard those same stories about our woods during my youth. I ain’t seen a ghost or a haint yet.”
“Me either,” he said. “So put this headlamp on your ball cap and let’s get moving.”
Ryan and I led two dogs each on leashes and released the pack at the ridge’s northern point by a bright full moonbeam. The dogs took off, crashing through the woods with one bawl-mouthed hound sounding off with every lunge.
The dogs were quickly trailing and their baying increased. Ryan was 20 years older, but he quickly moved through the pitch-dark brush that laced the long oak ridge while I tried to keep up. I caught up where the hounds treed a big sow coon loudly announced by their change-over bays. Our headlamps picked up eyes on a limb about 20 feet up.
“Do you want to climb up and kick that coon out?” Ryan asked.
“No sir, don’t believe I do,” I said, hoping he was kidding.
He pulled out his .22 pistol before I could pull mine and expertly shot the coon that dropped down to the waiting hounds. Ryan quickly wired the coon on a limb where we could find it on the way back out. Soon we were listening to the beautiful sound of hounds on another hot trail, the first of many hunts.
That Christmas I took Ryan a carton of Redman Chewing Tobacco. He accepted the gift with a look of surprise.
“That is the first Christmas present I have received in many years,” he said. “I have a daughter, but she took off with her mother many years ago and I haven’t seen her since. Thanks, boy!”
I spent the next decade running coon hounds with Mr. Ryan. Then one day I drove to his house in early fall and was shocked to find the house burned down and boards across the driveway. I turned to see a new Cadillac pull up behind me.
“What are you doing on my property,” a portly man asked while tipping his fedora over dark colored eyes.
“Your property?” I answered in a surprised voice.
“That’s right boy, the old fool that lived here burned up in his house with all his hounds on a cold night last winter. If it’s any consolation to you, the firemen thought inhaling smoke killed them first. Everyone guessed he brought the dogs in to stay warm around his old wood stove. I bought this property on the courthouse steps and plan to build houses here, now get lost.”
I thought about smacking the big-mouthed dandy around, but obliged without another word and silently drove home in my old pickup.
There are rumors that you can hear coon hounds trailing across the old oak ridge on any cold night with the ghost of Ryan close behind. I revisited that wooded strip several nights and only heard owls and coyotes.
No, I never again heard his hounds, but wouldn’t have been surprised to hear their ghostly baying. You see, John Ryan had some of the best track-straddle coon hounds ever sired and they likely are raising a ruckus on some heavenly ridge during a hunter’s moonlit night.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at email@example.com.