THERE is less than half an hour left on the judge's stopwatch, and we have yet to see a coon. We hoped to surprise a few munching on ripe mulberries in a nearby grove, but the dogs led us to huge, crooked post oaks instead. We probe their branches with the beams of our headlamps and blast on whistles designed to sound like an injured animal (raccoons are inveterate rubberneckers), but though the dogs bark with real conviction, our lamplight catches no glimmering, inquisitive eyes. Slogging back to the road through a marshy meadow, the dogs and their owners look equally abashed, their shapes stooped and spectral ahead of me.
"Well, Katie, I don't know what the hell you're doin'," one of the hunters tells his bluetick. "But it's about time you treed a damn coon."
Beck doesn't talk to her dogs much on a hunt, "but I like 'em to talk to me a little bit more than Sandy's been doin'," she says now. At moments of unseemly quiet hunters used to comfort themselves with tales of raccoon subterfuge--of animals jumping from tree to tree or running down gravel roads to hide their scent--but competitive hunts, with their quick-treeing dogs, have changed the character of coon legends. Hunters now talk about how tough coons can be in a fight, how they can whip almost any dog one on one. A week earlier Beck was at a hunt in Paris, Texas, where four dogs chased a raccoon into a lake. Clumsy in the water, while the raccoon was in its element, the dogs had to content themselves with swimming around it and barking. The coon bided its time. When it noticed that one of the females was tiring, it calmly crawled onto the dog's head and drowned her.
Halfway back to the trucks the dogs seize upon another trail. As the minutes tick off on the judge's stopwatch, we listen to them toiling through the mulberry grove, their voices now exaggerated, trying to convince themselves as well as their owners. Fireflies drift above the marsh grasses like torches carried by a distant search party. Then comes a blaring squall from far to our left, well away from the other dogs.
While the other dogs were wasting time on cold trails, it seems, Beck's dog peeled off and found a coon on her own. If so, this is a "split tree" in coon-hunter parlance--the crowning skill of a well-trained coonhound.
But Beck is suspicious. She has a dog named Alf that will bark 135 times a minute when he trees a raccoon. Sandy isn't usually so exuberant--she averages eighty or ninety barks a minute--but on this night she is downright taciturn. We try to follow the sound of her voice, but minutes go by without a bark. When Sandy starts up again, her voice has a hesitant, faltering quality, like that of a child who is knowingly telling a lie but can't seem to remember the truth.
"Please, y'all, don't judge her by tonight," Beck says, scissoring her legs across a barbed-wire fence. Sandy isn't the quickest dog in her kennel, but she is usually a "classy" tree dog: up on her hind legs, propped against the trunk, head thrown back as she barks. By the time we reach her, however, her pose is hardly self-assured. Cowering against the base of the trunk with the rest of the dogs, Sandy looks up at Beck, clearly disconcerted. Her only consolation is that the other dogs don't know what to make of the situation either.