A Christmas Encounter

It was unusually cold, even for late December in those days — and late Decembers in Tennessee were colder back then than late Decembers in Tennessee today. White Christmases weren’t terribly uncommon.

But this was beyond white-Christmas-cold. The holiday was still five days off, but temperature highs had dropped into the low 20s during the day. Nighttime temperatures were in the single digits, with even some subzero temperatures recorded.

Yes, it was cold for a Tennessee late December. That 1952 cold snap was the coldest recorded pre-Christmas in a half-century. But the cold wasn’t likely to stop Virgil Stephens. With his faithful companion — a blue tick hound named Jake that any fellow would’ve been proud to share a hunt with — at his side, Virgil would grab his pap’s old shotgun and his oil lantern and head to the hills after the sun had set.

Coon hunting was his game, and Virgil Stephens was good at it. So good that folks from all over the extremely rugged, rural community of Capachene would come to him to get his take on how good, or poor, the coon hunting would be at any particular time.

Coons weren’t hard to find in Capachene. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now. Between the small town of Oneida to the west and the small town of Jellico to the east, there was nothing but rugged terrain — miles and miles of woods, and tiny logging and coal camps. A school here and there, all of them consisting of a single room, a post office, and a handful of churches were the only structures in those hills. The folks who made their home there were those who made their living on that land, working for the mining and timber companies in the Cumberland Mountains. They were few and far between. A gunshot in those hills would likely as not go unheard.

Capachene was located along the upper reaches of Jellico Creek, a half-day’s walk along a rutted country road from U.S. Highway 27 that ran north to south along the western edge of the mountains. Virgil had helped build the highway in the 1920s, when he was in his early 40s and still able to handle the demanding tasks of blazing the road.

Sixty years later, the road to Capachene is paved — at least as far as Jellico Creek. You can still get a two-wheel-drive vehicle the rest of the way in if the weather is dry. But Capachene remains every bit as rural today as then. The schools are gone. Most of the churches are gone. Some of the houses are still there, but they’re aging, and no new ones are being built. Many residents have moved out or simply passed on. If there’s a more rural place in Tennessee, one would be hard-pressed to find it.

But all of that is neither here nor there. On that cold, late December night in 1952, Virgil took down his old gun from the pegs behind the door and slipped a leash onto the collar of his old hound. And that’s what this story is about.

Jake was 84 in dog years, so Virgil figured they made a pretty good pair: two old bachelors who weren’t getting any younger. Virgil often wondered when they would traipse into the mountains for their final coon hunt. It would be a sad affair, that day, and the damnable misery of it was Virgil didn’t figure it would be long into the future. With the arthritis set into Jake’s old hound bones as it was, it was amazing he could even get out on these unusually cold nights. It seemed to take Jake a long time to work the creak out of his bones most mornings, and Virgil could feel his pain. His own arthritis wasn’t getting any better. The day would come, Virgil supposed, when one or the both of them wouldn’t have the desire or be able to get up and out as the sun set over the mountains. As it was, they were staying closer to the road than they had in years past, and Virgil knew the days of either of them being able to outrun a coon were long past. But Jake could still outsmart them and Virgil could still shoot a fair bit, if he did say so himself. And so the hides kept getting tacked up on the side of the leaning old shed out back.

Most folks would have been amazed that the old hound, let alone his master, was still chasing the vermin across those hills. But as Virgil often said, “If me and Jake can both go t’gether, and if we go whilst we’re chasin’ after a big boar coon, I can’t imagine a better way for the Lord to call both of us on home.”

And so Jake and Virgil headed out on that bitterly cold December night in 1952, Virgil with his aging gun in one hand and Jake’s leash wrapped around the other; Jake walking with a slight limp but still eager to get off the leash.

It didn’t take long for Jake to strike up a trail, and the hunt was on. Virgil ambled in the direction of the old hound’s familiar bark. Soon, he heard Jake tree, and he smiled at the old hound’s sure-fired ability to put a coon up a tree. He was still two hollers away, from the sound of it, and these days, that might be a 30-minute hike. “You jest get yourself prepared for a wait, ol’ boy,” he said to no one in particular as he lumbered along in the dull glow of the lantern. “I’m on my way.”

As he walked, Virgil thought of the upcoming Christmas holiday. Christmas was nothing special to him and Jake, of course, but it would be nice if some of his grandkids stopped by to pay him a visit. They didn’t make it up his way much since his wife had passed on, 10 years earlier, and Virgil didn’t reckon he could much blame them. They were busy building their own families, and Christmas was spent with their own kids — his great-grandkids. They had no reason to visit his old house way up I the sticks, with its sagging roof over the front porch and its torn linoleum floors. Still…

“Naw,” he thought. “They ain’t been up to see you in what, three or four Christmases? No reason to think this year will be any different, ol’ man.” He didn’t get many visitors. In fact, his neighbor, Willie, and Willie’s young son Harry had been by to see him earlier in the day, to see if he needed anything from town, and they had been the first folks to stop by his house in almost a week.

Virgil could tell from Jake’s bark that the old hound was just over the next rise. He needed to cross one more steep-sided draw on the side of the hill. As he felt his way up the steep embankment on the far side of the draw, his foot slipped. As it slipped, he grabbed for a root in the bank. But his advanced age had slowed more than just his walk, and he only felt his fingertips brush the root as he slipped back down the slope.

His right foot twisted sharply underneath him as his body weight pitched him backward. Crying out, he instinctively tried to twist himself, to avoid landing back-first on the rocks in the stream bed below. The gun bounced off the rocks as he tried to put his hands down to break his fall. He was mostly successful, but his knee struck a rock, causing flashes of pain to rip through his mind as he blacked out.

***

The first thing Virgil noticed as he regained consciousness minutes later was that the pain wasn’t nearly as bad as he had figured it would be. The second thing he noticed was that he couldn’t move his right leg. Figuring it had already gone numb, he reached down and gingerly felt of his knee cap. The misshapen feel was enough to tell him that the knee was dislocated. If he was lucky, his ankle would only be sprained, but it would be a bad sprain. And what good would luck do him anyway? He was a good three miles from home and probably five miles from the nearest neighbor.

“It ain’t luck I need but a dad-blasted miracle,” he thought. As Jake continued to bray in the next hollow, Virgil noticed something else: How bitterly cold the night air really was.

***

Virgil was brought to by a cold nose brushing his face. It took a moment for him to remember where he was, and to figure out that he must’ve blacked out again. “Jake?” he said. “What are you doing here, anyway? Never knowed you to leave a tree unless’n you was forcibly pulled off it.”

Jake whined and licked Virgil’s nose. “Yeah,” Virgil said. “I reckon I’m pretty bad off, ol’ boy. I can’t feel my leg no more. We got to think of a way to get up out of here.”

As Virgil blacked out for a third time, he found himself wondering again, this time to himself, what in the Sam Hill had caused Jake to leave a treed coon and come back to him. Had the old dog sensed that his master had gone down? It was a funny thing, instinct.

As the moon shone brightly through the naked treetops and the night grew colder still, old Jake paced anxiously in the creek bottom for a brief time, whining on occasion, looking first at his master and then at the trail towards home. Finally, he trotted back to Virgil and laid down beside the old man’s frail body, still twisted in the awkward position in which he had landed.

***

“Don’t be late, Henry!” his mother called as Henry dashed out the door. “Your father wants us to spend Christmas night as a family, you know!”

“Yeah, Mom. Be back before eight,” Henry called back as he jumped inside his friend Terry’s Chevy pickup. Terry and Bobby were already inside, and the truck was rolling out of the driveway almost before Henry had gotten his feet off the ground.

“Where too, Oh-Henry?” Terry asked as the truck pulled out. “Anywhere, I reckon,” Henry replied as he reached behind the seat and pulled out a Mason jar containing homemade moonshine. “Let’s just get off the main road. Cops are likely to be out heavy tonight, it bein’ Christmas ‘n all.”

“Head up Pleasant Grove,” Bobby said, “up towards Jellico Creek.”

“Sounds good to me,” Terry said, turning the truck north. Stuck doing Family Stuff most of that Christmas Day in 1978, the teens were ready for some general “hell-raisin'” as they put it, a way to inject a little excitement into their holiday. It had become a little bit of a tradition: Go out, drink a little homemade brew, chase the smell off their breath with soda pop, and head home before their parents became too worried about them.

A short time later, the truck had left the pavement and was bouncing along the rutted road that led across the mountain at Capachene. It was raining; a cold Christmas rain. The forecast called for the rain to change to snow later in the night.

As they drove beneath the tree branches that were overhanging the roadway, the boys caught a glimpse of a light ahead.

“What the heck?” Terry said. “Didn’t figure on seeing anybody else all the way back in here on Christmas night.”

Moments later, the truck’s headlights illuminated the source of the light: a lantern, carried by an old man walking slowly along the side of the road, a shotgun in his hand and an old blue tick hound ambling along beside him.

The boys drove by and left the man and dog behind before Henry turned to Terry, a puzzled look on his face. “What in the world do you reckon that old man was doing out this time of night on Christmas … in the rain?”

“You got me,” Terry said with a shrug. “From the looks of that gun, I’d say huntin’. But in this weather? He’s liable to freeze to death.”

“Reckon we should go back and offer him a ride?”

“Yeah, I’d say it wouldn’t hurt. There ain’t no house for at least seven or eight miles around here. Let’s see if he needs some help. A man that old ain’t got no business out in the rain, especially when it’s cold like this.”

Terry turned the truck around at the first wide spot in the road, and the boys headed back in the opposite direction. But the old man and his dog were nowhere to be seen.

“What do you make of that?” Terry asked. “You don’t reckon they went into the woods, do you?”

“Naw, we’d have seen that light in the woods, I think,” Bobby said.

“Well,” Terry said, “I don’t guess there’s nothin’ we can do here but just get on home. It’s gettin’ late and our folks are gonna be made at us if we’re out too long.”

Their encounter might have been forgotten if Henry hadn’t stopped in at the local Texaco station after school a few days later. As he chatted with the station’s owner, Harry, the storekeeper asked if Henry had managed to get in any hunting over Christmas.

“Hope,” Henry said, “But that reminds me. Me and the guys were ridin’ up at Capachene on Christmas night and we saw the strangest thing: an old man and a dog. Remember how it was rainin’ and cold that night? Pourin’ the rain. Anyway, the guy had a gun and they looked like they was probably out huntin’. But anybody would have to be a fool to be out huntin’ in that weather. Especially on Christmas.”

The corners of Harry’s mouth turned up in a knowing smile. “It was an old man, you say?”

“Yeah.”

“And the dog walked with a limp?”

“Yeah.”

“And I guess the old man was swinging a lantern?”

“Yeah. You know ’em?”

Harry chuckled. “Yeah, I know ’em, alright. Henry, I guess it’s safe to say that you and your pals met ol’ Virgil Stephens and his coon hound, Jake. Ol’ Virgil was one of the best coon hunters to ever walk them hills, the old-timers say.”

“Wait a minute,” Henry said. “Old man Virgil Stephens? That can’t be. I’ve heard my dad talk about him. Ain’t he the man that died up there years ago?”

“Mm-hmm,” Henry nodded. “About 30 years ago. Busted his leg up pretty good and froze to death.”

“Well then, how…” Henry stopped, grinning sheepishly. “Nuh-uh. No way. I ain’t fallin’ for one of your old ghost stories.”

Harry chuckled again. “Well I can’t tell you what to believe, but you ain’t the first person that’s come out of those hills around Christmas with a story to tell about an old coon hunter and his hound dog, swinging a lantern down Capachene Road.

“See,” he continued, “Ol’ Virgil was one of the most respected coon hunters in these parts — one of the most respected coon hunters this side of Nashville, probably. But he lived by himself way up there in an old house. It’s been torn down since. His wife had died and none of his folks lived around here. It was just him and Jake. They kept those woods hunted pretty good. Then one night in 1952 — I remember it was the coldest I’ve ever seen it around here in December; the cold front of the century, they all said. It got down to about five below that night. Anyhow, him and Jake was out hunting. They ought to have known better, both of them just about unable to get around and taking off in that cold. But, anyway, they went. And they didn’t come back. I was just 10 years old then, and my daddy stopped to see Virgil earlier that day. Virgil mentioned that they were going out hunting that night. Far as I know, me and Dad were the last ones to see ol’ Virgil alive.”

Harry spun the top of a Mason jar filled with hard candy and offered it to Henry. Henry shook his head.

“It’s untellin’ how long he would’ve laid out there if his grandkids hadn’t stopped to see him the day after Christmas,” Harry said. “By that time, it had been nigh on a week. They couldn’t find him, so they went down the road to our house — we was the next house down the road, you see — and Daddy got a search party together to find him. We found him laying in a creek up there two or three miles from his house. Doc Frazier, he was the doctor here in town back then, he looked t him and said that he had busted up his leg good. There was some skid marks on the bank and we figured he must’ve slipped, then he just laid there and froze to death. We like to think it happened quick, but Doc Frazier said it could’ve taken a couple of nights. Of course, Virgil was old and not in the greatest health, so…

“Anyway,” Harry continued, “the darnedest thing about it was it wasn’t just Virgil we found up there. Jake was laying right there beside him, stiff as a board. He was dead, too. Jake wasn’t a pup, for sure, but he was a strong old dog and he wouldn’t have frozen to death as long as he had food and water. Dogs are made to be out in the cold all winter. But there he was, just huddled up against Virgil’s body. Dad figured Jake must’ve tried to huddle up against Virgil to keep him warm, and then just laid there and kept tryin’ to keep him warm until he plumb froze to death his own self.”

Harry paused, shaking his head. “It was the darnedest thing I ever seen. Some folks say that whenever a cold snap hits, especially right around Christmas, you can sometimes see Virgil and ol’ Jake, wandering around up there. Most of the times that they’ve been seen, they’ve been walking the road. But they did like to scare a deer hunter to death up there a few years ago. He said he got to his spot a ways before daylight and he saw this light coming towards him. Got closer and he saw that it was an old man swinging a lantern and carrying a gun, a dog limping alongside him. Said they was headed down towards the old Stephens homeplace. Said he whistled and hollered but the man never turned his head, just kept walking slowly along like he had someplace to go. Course, you’ll have to make up your own mind, but I’d lay money that you saw ol’ Virgil and ol’ Jake, still roaming those hills and hunting those coons.”

Henry nodded, a little speechless, paid for his Coke, and walked back to his truck. He never told Terry or Bobby about his conversation with Harry, but he made several trips back to Capachene in the weeks that followed. He never again saw the old man and the old dog walking the road by the light of an old oil lantern. But even today, when Christmas rolls around, especially if the temperature is brisk and cold, Henry remembers the Christmas encounter and wonders if the old man is still up there, roaming his old hunting grounds with his faithful hound by his side.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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