Could Have, Would Have, Should Have....


Sue Kite



Four-star Admiral, retired, (but that was moot at the moment) Harriman Nelson gazed at the stuck-in-the-mud Mercedes and breathed a curse. He tried to study the dark, wooded countryside and breathed another epitaph when he could make out next to nothing. Looking up at the gloomy, cloud-covered sky, he began to mouth another epitaph, but stopped. It wasn’t helping his mood or the situation at all. He was stuck in some backwoods, too-far-from-civilization plot of land. In other words, Harriman Nelson, owner of the finest submarine in the world (in his considered opinion), recipient of the Nobel Prize, creator of the prestigious Nelson Institute of Marine Research, was lost.

It really galled him. It wasn't that Nelson felt he was too, well, important or smart to get lost. What irritated him the most in this case was that he could have easily avoided it. Harry knew that his body was giving him tired messages well over an hour ago. He could have found a motel along I-75, had a light dinner and gone to bed early, but he wanted to go a little farther. There was also the idea that he wanted to get off the freeway and take a more scenic route, too. See the sunset as he crossed the Tennessee River on one of the few existing ferries in the country.

So he had gotten off the interstate, headed west and found the ferry pulling to its dock on the other side of the Tennessee River, finishing its last run of the day. Nelson looked at the sign near the river’s edge. It didn't run after sunset, it said. The sun was just dipping below the rim of the western hills.

Then the clouds began drifting in. Harry turned the Mercedes around and headed back east. He'd get a motel room and decide what route to take tomorrow before hitting the rack, he thought. However, as it got darker, he apparently missed something and ended up on a non-descript and non-marked country road. The road got narrower and narrower, turned to gravel and then to dirt. It ended at a dilapidated old farmhouse surrounded by cows. They took scant interest in him, but Harry wondered how they stuck around if he could have come through an apparently open gate. He didn't recall a cattle crossing. Regardless, it felt like it might rain anytime and his body was getting more and more tired. He backed up to turn around and promptly got stuck.

Harry pulled out a flashlight and checked the back end. As he got out of his car, his feet sank into about an inch of mud. The back wheels were firmly ensconced in a large mud hole. Nelson would only be able to get out with the aid of a tow truck. He muttered darkly, but the only response he got was the soft mooing of a nearby cow. Taking a deep breath, Nelson thought of his next move. He was used to all kinds of situations, some extremely dangerous, but nothing like this. Somewhere way off, he heard the barking and howling of dogs.

The first thing was to try the mobile phone. Sweeping the flashlight in front of him, Harry avoided the worst mud and got back into the car. He pulled the phone out of the glove box and tried it. There was nothing but static. He was closed in by hills and trees. This far out there probably weren’t that many lines to tap into either. Despite the fact that it was late spring, Harry began to feel the chill of the night. He pulled his jacket on and pondered. He could sleep in the car; there was a blanket in the trunk. In the morning, he could get his bearings and either walk toward the river or try to find the road.

On the other hand, there had been other dwellings on his long and circuitous drive to this particular mud hole. If he started now, before it got too late, he’d be able to walk back to a paved county road and ultimately to civilization. Nelson shook his head. That could prove to be disastrous. A compromise solution could be to make his way to the gravel road and put up a sign. Maybe someone would see it sooner rather than later. That seemed the better course of action, so Harry dug in the trunk and found a piece of cardboard that would work. There was a marker in his briefcase and soon he had fashioned a sign that would lead any local here to help him. He hoped….

Nelson turned off his headlights to conserve the car’s battery and headed back the way he came. As he slogged along the wet grass and skirted frequent muddy patches he heard the dogs again. They seemed closer. In the far distance, perhaps on the other side of the river, he heard the noise of guns going off. They sounded like 30 aught sixes, but Harry couldn't be sure. Regardless of how far away they were, he felt nervous and began walking faster down the dirt trail. When he saw the gravel road, he realized how tired he was when he drove here the first time. The dirt road was the straight-ahead route, but the tarred-gravel road would have been easily seen had he been more attentive. It turned at a forty-five degree angle and headed south. There was a fence along the road and Harry put his sign on a tree with a nail. 

The guns were silent for the moment, but Nelson could still hear the dogs, perhaps less than a mile. Occasional baying told him these were domestic dogs and not coyotes. However, he knew that domestic dogs could run in packs and become feral. That made them even more dangerous than wild animals. The last thing he wanted to do was get tangled up with a group of feral dogs. He would be safer in his car where he could lock the doors and sleep through the night, even if uncomfortably.

Nelson started back to the pasture where he had left his Mercedes and then noticed that the light from his flashlight was paler. The trees on each side of the road seemed to close in on him in ways that he never felt closed in on Seaview. The light dimmed more and then went out. Between the barks and baying of the steadily approaching dogs, Nelson heard other noises. There was the rustling, creaking and crackling of brush and tree limbs. No moonlight meant almost pitch darkness in his path and Harry kept stumbling into mud holes and tripping over rocks and pieces of dead foliage.

He had to calm down. This was ridiculous. He wasn't some college freshman getting hazed, nor was he a brand new academy cadet out on basic maneuvers. The worst he could do here was to step in a cow patty. Taking a deep breath, Nelson squinted, trying to get used to the pitch darkness, and was finally able to make out the road ahead. He walked slowly and deliberately, even as the sounds of dogs came closer. They were probably out running a rabbit. He wasn't anything close to a rabbit so he was safe in that regard. Still, he'd feel better when he was in his car.

Harry passed between the crooked fence poles where a gate was presumed to have once stood and studied the pasture before him. He didn't hear any kind of movement like he had heard before. The cattle had apparently moved off. There was a dark shape a hundred yards ahead of him and he knew it was the dilapidated house. His car would be in front of him now. Walking toward it, he began fishing out the keys from his pocket. Just then Harry tripped on something, and fell into a large and sloppy mud puddle on his hands and knees. As he fell, the keys flew out of his hand. There were no curses this time, just a generalized picked-on feeling.

Nelson sat there in shock for the count of three seconds, then he groaned. Out of habit, he had locked the car when he left to take the sign down to the gravel road. There was nothing he could do except grope for the lost keys in the muck around him. At the same time he silently implored whatever boggart, imp, gremlin or demon that hated him to cease and desist. “What next?” he muttered as he felt through the chill mud for the keys. He sorely wished for that dry, warm and clean room near the interstate about now.

There was a chittering sound to his left and he froze. Something brushed by him and then went past him toward the car. Some kind of animal, Harry figured. Thankfully, it hadn’t been interested in him. Baying erupted from the direction of the gravel road where he had put up his sign. The dogs were coming nearer, their echoing cries reverberating among the trees. It wasn’t reassuring to him that it sounded like a whole pack.

Harry saw movement from one end of the field. A moment later there were several growling and baying hounds surrounding him. Their howls were ear deafening and their growls ominous. One of the dogs jumped forward and grabbed the sleeve of his jacket, but he jerked back and stumbled to his feet. Harry thought he could make out another one. They seemed intent on keeping him cornered, growling and baying. He tried to back away from the dogs toward his car. Another dog shot past him and toward the farmhouse.

One of the dogs grabbed his jacket again, but the admiral knocked it away with the dead flashlight. He continued to ease backward and bumped against the back fender of the Mercedes. A dog grabbed his shoe and he kicked it away. The dogs continued baying at him, but quit trying to get at him. The noise was deafening. This continued for what seemed an eternity and then he saw several lights bobbing up the road toward him. Flashlights, he wondered? People? Suddenly, it dawned on him. These were hunting dogs. The flashlight carriers were also carrying guns. It was pitch dark and they might think he was whatever animal they were hunting. “Hello!” he cried out. “Call off your dogs!”

The dogs kept baying and the lights came closer. Nelson watched the people draw nearer. The dogs continued to hold him prisoner against the back of his car, snarling and growling. Their occasional baying made his ears ring. He called out again, not wishing the approaching people to shoot before they knew what their dogs had cornered.

The lights bobbed closer and now shone directly into his eyes, bedazzling him. Harry held his hand in front of his face but still couldn’t see who was standing in front of him.

“Back!” a deep voice ordered.

The dogs backed off and stopped barking, although Harry could still hear low growling.

There had only been two of them, even though they made enough racket to account for a pack of twenty.

“You are the strangest lookin’ coon I ever seen,” the voice continued. Harry heard someone else snickering.

“Could you shine that away from my eyes,” Nelson asked.

With a grunt, the light moved up slightly, just above his head. “I b’lieve we caught us a Yankee, son,” the voice said with some amusement.

Harry was able to lower his hand. “Thank you.”  He still couldn’t see who was in front of him, except the man was tall with broad shoulders and a somewhat paunchy torso. The light was part of a helmet device, like miners used.

“Take care of that coon Maudie’s tree’d,” the man told the smaller figure beside him.

“Sure, Dad.” The boy moved off.

Harry leaned forward, hand stretched out. 

“Stand still, mister. You ain’t out of the woods yet.  Jake’s been wondering who’s been knockin’ his fence down.”

“The wind,” Harry snapped. He was not in the mood for this kind of bantering. He was cold, wet, covered in mud and ready for a hot shower, hot cup of coffee and bed. Amend that coffee to something a bit more potent, Harry thought. “That gate was already down, when I got lost and ended up here!”

“Kind of far off the beaten path, ain’t ya?” the man replied.

“I wasn’t paying attention to the road signs.”

The man barked out a laugh. “What are you even doin’ out here anyway?”

“I was on Highway 60 going to cross on the ferry. I missed its last run of the day,” Nelson explained. “I got turned around when I was heading back and then it got dark. I can show you my driver’s license if I can find my keys. I dropped them in the mud somewhere near here.”

“Looks like you done a bit of mud wrastlin’ yourself.”

Harry frowned. “I tripped."

Another laugh. “Not your day is it, Yankee?”

A sudden blast from a rifle made Harry jump. He was also getting a tired of being called Yankee. “My name is Admiral Harriman Nelson! I may be from the north, but I would prefer you use my name.”

There was about three seconds of silence. “The hell you are! You take me for a fool?”

Although he was extremely annoyed, Nelson could understand the man’s skepticism. “Like I said, my identification is in my car.”

Harry could feel the man’s scrutiny. The two dogs near his feet whined. “You stay put,” the coon hunter ordered him.

Harry stayed. He saw the movement of the light and then was stunned when he heard the crash of glass. “What the devil are you doing to my car?” he spluttered.

“Not grubbin’ around in the mud for a set of keys. Now get your license and we’ll see who’s the fool around here.”

“I already know I’m a fool for not getting a motel room on the interstate and going to bed,” Nelson growled. “And who’s going to pay for the window?”

“If you’re Nelson, then you can afford it. If you ain’t, then a broke window’s gonna be the least of your troubles. You’re welcome to get that ID now, but don’t do nothing funny, like trying to pull a gun.”

Harry reached into the gaping window and pulled his wallet from the glove box. Walking back to the man and his whining dogs, he pulled out his driver’s license and let the man shine his light on the card. The beam shone in his face again and then back at the driver’s license.

The man made a choking sound deep in his throat. “Oh, Lord. The boys at work ain’t gonna believe this,” he said in a low voice. “Uh, sorry ‘bout the window, Admiral.”

Nelson breathed a sigh of relief. He was coated in mud, had lost his way and his keys, had a stuck car, a broken window, coon dogs wanting to maul him, but at least the man believed him. “Personally, I would just as soon not let this little adventure become public.” Then the humor of the entire situation hit him and he began laughing. He finally tried to wipe his eyes and just smeared mud on his face. That elicited another laugh. “You know, if you can help me out of this mess, I’d be happy to treat you and your family to dinner somewhere.”

“Hell, Admiral, we’d be fit to be tied to treat you. And we have room for you to bed in our house, too, since there’s no way this car’s goin’ anywhere till mornin’.”

Nelson tried to wipe his hand off on his jacket and was only half successful. When he held his hand out this time, the other man took it. About that time the boy came back holding a dead coon in one hand, the rifle in the other. The accompanying dog sniffed his pants and then growled. The boy hushed it with a command.

“If you think you can walk back to our truck, we’ll go on to our house and get you some clean clothes and hot food.”

“That sounds like a plan, Mister…?”

“Tucker. Jim Bob Tucker and this is my boy, Jimmy. It was a good thing we were out practicin’ new dogs.”

“Indeed it was,” Nelson concurred.

“Oh, and we’ll bring back a piece of tarp to cover that window. Don’t think it’s gonna rain, but y’never know.”

As they walked away from the scene of his recent adventure, Nelson firmly believed that no one back at the Institute would believe this one, even if he were willing to tell them.


Notes:  Highway 60 runs east/west about 30 miles north of Chattanooga (and beyond). It crosses the Tennessee River just west of Birchwood, TN. About a decade ago, there was a ferry that shuttled cars and trucks across the river. There was one further north that crossed at Decatur (Hwy 30). Both are gone, replaced with new, large bridges.

I took real names that I put together for the coon hunter and his son. This wasn’t something I got from Beverly Hillbillies…. 

I also teach kids in my school at Birchwood who do coon hunt. It’s a very viable sport throughout the United States, but more popular in the southeast, I guess. Someone questioned that the dogs would even pay attention to Nelson, much less accost him. However, remember two things: a. something brushed him in the dark—a coon, we assume, and b. Tucker and his boy were ‘practicin’ dogs. These weren’t experienced dogs.

Anecdotal case: I found a hunting dog at my friend’s cabin one time that had gotten lost on the hunt and holed up there thinking it was his home, apparently. I fed it, took it to a lady down the road who knew exactly whose dog it was. (It had an electronic collar with a name and address, guess the battery had died). She said it happened all the time up there in the mountains.



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