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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Hunting Possums and Ghosts

One of our pastimes in the fall in the Ozark hills—and sometimes a profitable one—was to go possum hunting.  After the first frosts of the year the persimmons got ripe and the possums would be out at night fattening up for their winter hibernation.  Their fur would be at its thickest and glossiest.  The itinerant fur dealers that came through periodically would pay maybe a dollar and a half for a good possum hide.
I recall very clearly one possum hunt that Richard and I went on probably the fall of 1935.  It was a cold, crisp, clear night.  A less than half moon was just rising.  We were carrying a flashlight and the little twenty-two Remington.  Pup, of course, was right at our heels.  We took off cross country through Bertha Beck’s farm and over toward Maze Creek to the west where Richard said he knew about a good stand of persimmon trees.
As I may have mentioned before, possums love ripe persimmons.  The persimmon trees do not grow very tall or very large so the idea was to find a fat old possum munching away in a persimmon tree where he would be easy prey.  A good possum dog, like old Hoover would have been, would range out ahead of you and would sit down and bark when he found a possum in a tree.
Pup went ranging out ahead of us all right, but squirrel hunter though he was, he was not a possum dog.  After a while we heard him barking up ahead to tell us he had something treed.  We headed that way and found him barking at a brush pile.  We could not smell any skunk odor so we shook the brush pile for him and, sure enough, out popped a rabbit and ol’ Pup took off after it.  Richard was disgusted and scathingly said, “See, lamebrain.  I told you that Pup is nothing but a biscuit hound.  All he knows how to do is eat, crap, and run rabbits!”
There was not much use in my arguing the point so we went on to the persimmon grove, moving silently through the starlit night.  Before very long Richard put out his hand and whispered, “There!  There’s one right up there in that tree!”
Sure enough, about ten feet off the ground there was the silhouette of a fat possum perched on a branch.  Richard shined the flashlight on him and his beady little eyes glowed in the dark like amber coals.  I was carrying the rifle.  “Okay,” I said, “I’ll shoot him.”
“No, nipple-noggin,” Richard snorted, “don’t do that.  A bullet hole will ruin the hide!  We got to climb up there and shake him out of the tree.  When he hits the ground, he’ll just curl up and play dead.  Goi on—climb up there and shake him down.”
The memory of that ill-fated star skunk was all too fresh and I drew back.  “Horeseapples!  YOU climb up there and shake the s.o.b. down!  I ain’t gonna do your dirty work like I did with that dang skunk that time!”
My brother snorted derisively and growled, “You fraidy-cat!  That old possum ain’t gonna hurt you ‘less you let him bite you!  All right—hold the light and I’ll go up there and get him.  If he don’t play dead when he hits the ground, grab him by the tail before he gets away.”
At the phrase “grab him by the tail” I remembered that skunk again and was suddenly ready to go up and shake the tree but Dick had already swung himself onto the lower branch.  When he was opposite the possum he shook the little tree and kicked at the animal with his foot.  Pretty soon the possum lost his grip and fell to the ground where he promptlyl curled up into a ball.  Richard dropped nimbly out of the tree.  “Well, knothead, grab him by the tail and kill him!”
I got the possum by his rat-like hairless tail and picked it up.  It was quite heavy and remained curled up in a ball.  I was used to killing rabbits by holding them by the back legs and whacking them on the neck with the side of my hand but I could not get the possum’s head straightened out and it was evident that it was stronger than any rabbit.
“It won’t straighten out.  How the heck am I supposed to kill it?”
Richard grinned.  “You was sure behind the door when they passed out brains!  Everybody knows the only way to kill a possum is to pull on his tail!”
“Shoot—I’m holding him by the tail.  No way is that going to kill him.”
Richard’s white teeth flashed in the dim starlight.  He was enjoying giving me a lesson.  “Here, flea brain—give him to me.  I’ll show you how to kill a possum pulling his tail.”
He took the curled up animal by the tail in one hand and reached for the twenty-two with the other.  Then he pounded the possum on the frozen ground until he got the head loose from the forepaws and got its chin on the ground.  Placing the little rifle barrel across the back of the possum’s neck, he stood on the rifle barrel with a foot on each side and pulled upward on the tail.  There was a crack when the neck broke and the animal went limp.  “See,” he said triumphantly, “nuthin’ to it!”
We walked on through the dark countryside under familiar stars without finding any more possums until we were nearing Maze Creek.  Pausing on the bank of the stream, Richard pointed to a rocky promontory at the top of a low bluff on the far side of the creek.  “Did you know that there bluff over there is haunted?”
“Horsehocky, you know dang well there ain’t no such thing as ghosts!”
“That’s what you think, bird brain,” he said maliciously.  “That there bluff, at least the big old boulder up there, is haunted.  Ask anyone.  Years ago, old man Morgan owned this whole little valley here along Maze Creek.  That’s why they call it North Morgan township—named it after him.
“Thing is, Morgan didn’t want to lose his land so, when he died, he left instructions that he was to be buried up there right behind that big old boulder overlooking the creek.  They did that and now, every time there is a full moon in October, old man Morgan’s ghost comes up out of that shallow grave and stands there on that boulder looking out over the valley.”
I did not really believe in ghosts but I could feel the hair prickle on the nape of my neck as I nervously looked at the newly-risen half-moon in the east.  “Bullshit!”
“No, no bull,” Richard said solemnly, “I can prove it.  You know that ‘simple-minded’ white haired old fellow over at Cane Hill?”
“Sure.  He just babbles and doesn’t make any sense when you talk to him, but he was born that way.”
“That’s what you think,” Richard said.  “He was as sane and normal as anybody until he was about twenty years old.  Had coal black hair.  Well, him and a bunch of other young fellows were talking about old man Morgan’s ghost one night in October when there was a full moon.
“His name is Cal Coombs.  He didn’t believe in ghosts like you say you don’t and he said there was nothing to it.  The rest of them made hi bet that he couldn’t go up there and spend the rest of the night on that boulder.  Cal bet them and they took him up there just about this time of the night.  They let him have a kerosene lantern and a double-barrel shotgun.
“After Cal was settled down up there on the boulder, the rest of them went over to the old Blankenship place that is deserted now and waited with a jug of moonshine.  Along about midnight—which is when Morgan’s ghost is supposed to come out and stand up there moaning—they heard that shotgun go off.
“They took off right away and ran up there.  They found poor Cal laying on the ground smashed and the shotgun had both barrels discharged.  Cal was senseless so they carried him back to the Blankenship house.  Next morning his black hair was snow white and nuthin’ he said made any sense.  When they asked him what happened, he just babbled at them like he still does to this day.”
The familiar night suddenly seemed ominous.  I was not going to fall for one of Richard’s tall tales, however.  “Horseapples.  I don’t believe a word of it!  Ain’t no such thing as ghosts!  You ever seen old man Morgan’s grave?”
“We—ell—no,” Richard admitted, “but it’s up there.”
I must have been feeling unusually brave.  “Okay,” I said and started toward the creek swinging the carcass of the possum, “let’s go up there and have a looksee while we are here.”
He held back.  I think that his tale had sent gooseflesh up his own spine.  “Be better if we came back in the daylight,” he said.
“Now who’s chicken,” I jeered.  “Got the flashlight, ain’t you—and the moon ain’t half full.  You skeered?”
He could not let me face him down so of course he scrambled u the low bluff to the large boulder at the top.  There was a level clearing beyond it.  I stood looking around in the dim moonlight.  “Where’s the grave, huh?”
Richard played the yellow beam of the flashlight over the brown grass, leaves, and weeds.  “There—over there by the bushes.  There’s a sunk in place.  That’s gotta be it.”
We walked over and knelt down.  There was undeniably a shallow depression about six feet long and two feet wide.  There was no grave marker or stone of any kind.  The hair on the back of my neck was prickling again.  I was determined not to show any fear but my voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, “How deep you reckon they buried him?”
Before Richard could answer, we both froze and went wide-eyed in apprehension when there was a sudden rustling in the bushes bordering the small clearing.  Someone or something was coming!
I had a sudden urge to urinate or defecate or maybe do both at once.  I still had the possum by the tail in one hand and the little rifle in the other, but I could not even lift it.  Richard swung the flashlight beam around at the bushes.  To our immense relief, Pup popped out of the underbrush.  He trotted over to us, tongue hanging out, and plopped down, his rabbit chase finally over.
By mutual and unspoken agreement, we decided then and there to come back sometime in the daylight to explore old man Morgan’s grave, if that was what we had found.  With Pup trailing meekly at our heels, we made our way down the bluff and back across the creek.
Once back on more familiar territory, our bravado began to return.  Richard had another ghost story for me. “Y’know,” he said as we trudged through the darkness toward home, “there are a lot of things you can’t explain if you don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Like what?”
“Well,” he said, “you know that screened west back porch on Uncle Coy’s house?  You walk on it and those old floorboards squeak like the devil.  Also that old screen door screeches whenever it’s opened.
“Not long ago Uncle Coy was gone to Greenfield one evening.  Aunt Morma, Eldon, James Lowell, and the girls were there by themselves.  After supper they were sitting around in the kitchen by the lamp waiting for Uncle Coy to come home.  It got to be well after dark.  Now he always goes in by the east kitchen door from the open cement porch like we all do over there but all of them suddenly heard that west screen door screech open, then closed and footsteps came across the porch to the kitchen door.  The doorknob turned, then slowly turned back and there was not another sound.”
Now not only were the hairs on the back of my neck prickling but there was also goose bumps on my arms as Richard went on, “They all waited a minute then Aunt Norma called out, ‘Coy, is that you?’  There was still not a sound.  Finally, Eldon, being the oldest, got Uncle Coy’s shotgun, then went over and opened the kitchen door.  There was no one on the porch and none of them had heard anyone leaving after the doorknob turned and turned back.  Now, it is impossible to cross that old porch without those old floorboards squeaking and you can’t open that screen door without it making a racket.  I know, because James and I tried it.  Now, you tell me who or what came on that porch and turned that doorknob!”

The frosty, dark night suddenly seemed cold.  Somewhere in the far darkness a dog howled and a vagrant breeze caressed the nape of my neck like a clammy hand.  I shivered, pulled up the collar of my sheepskin coat and looked at the familiar stars that were brilliant overhead for reassurance.  I could see the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, Casseopia’s Chair, and the Seven Sisters were in their places to the east.  I found myself wishing that the yellow lamp light of home was closer than more than a mile away.  Pup must have sensed my mood because he whined and crowded close to my heels.’ I was just trying to think of some smart-aleck comeback when everything sort of came unglued.  We had been hiking through dry weeds across an old farm and past an unkempt burial ground that was enclosed by a high wire fence supported by big corner posts made of field stones piled into a circle of woven wire.  We came around one of those corner posts and suddenly from the graveyard, something white reached out in front of us in the dim moonlight.  It was truly a specter.
There is no telling who broke first but suddenly we were running as if our very lives depended on our feet in those clodhopper shoes as we bolted toward where we could see the lamplight in the kitchen at home.  We never slowed until we came to the county road in front of the house where we slid down into the ditch to catch our breath before we went inside.  I believe I got there ahead of Richard but he was close behind.  Ol’ Pup was not with us—he was already ensconced under the kitchen porch, his pink tongue hanging out on his forepaws.
I went over by that old graveyard during daylight not long after that, and it turned out our graveyard “ghost” was a very faded flag at the grave of a Union soldier killed during the Civil War and buried beside the fence.  Apparently a slight breeze had flipped the flag out toward us and it had appeared white in the dim light of the half-moon.  It was a bit disappointing—I would have much rather gone on thinking that maybe we had seen a genuine ghost rise up out of the grave.

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