Exclusive Excerpt: The Sweetest Sound, by Rick Bragg (From “Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty”)
The Sweetest Sound
(Excerpted from Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty, a collection of stories inspired by Garden & Gun magazine’s popular “Good Dog” column. Other contributors include Jon Meacham, Roy Blount, Jr, Dominique Browning, P.J. O’Rourke, Ace Atkins, Jill McCorkle, and Robert Hicks. Good Dog goes on sale today)
By Rick Bragg
As we made our way diagonally up a ridge, rocks turning our ankles beneath the slick carpet of leaves, I felt myself begin to slide sickeningly straight down the mountain, straight toward what I knew to be a bone-breaking deadfall. I caught myself on a gummy pine sapling, breathed a minute, and started up again, even farther behind. No one had even turned around, and the romantic in me, the one who read about lost souls on desert islands, wondered how long I would have lain there, broken and forgotten. My brothers said I thought like that because I read too many books.
But falling was not romantic on the mountain. Falling was what you did up here. You walked; you fell. You chewed some Brown’s Mule, or some Beech-Nut, if your stomach could handle it. I did not chew, so mostly I just walked and fell.
What a dumbass I was, I thought, as I slid again and lost thirty yards of the uphill ground I had gained. A smart boy would have chased some brighter light, somewhere, because the light was where the girls lived. A smart boy would have been in town, leaning on the hood of a car at the Rocket Drive Inn with a Cherry Coke in one hand and a beautiful woman in the other. Or, at least, that was how I figured it should be. I was not yet ten years old, and a beautiful woman would have sent me into a convulsion.
No, we went the other way, away from perfume and soft shoulders, gouging deeper and deeper into the dark, into the foothills of the Appalachians along the Alabama-Georgia line. It was November, maybe even as late as December, 1969, but it could have been any night when boredom was stronger than common sense, after the cold sent the snakes down into the earth, and walking out into nothing was as much adventure as we could divine.
My big brother, Sam, was only three years older than me, but he drove a Willys Jeep he had hacked out of a rust pile and made to live again by soaking its bones in buckets of dirty gasoline. And so, he got to walk in front. He had an ax in a tow sack, but no gun. This was as far from a gentleman’s hunt as I guess a fellow could get.
We were all the same, us boys, on the outside. We did not own big parkas or camouflage anything, because while we still had real winter back then, it was too short in which to invest much wealth. We wore flannel shirts and thermal undershirts and something called a car coat, a thin and useless thing that, as near as I could tell, was made out of polyester, cat hair, and itch. Walmart would, one day, sell a trillion of them. We got a new one every other year; that, and a gross of underwear.
The smart ones in the group wore two pairs of pants, even three, because the briars ripped at our legs with every step. Sometime, back in the times of our grandfathers, these mountains had been old-growth hardwoods and towering pines, but none of us could remember a time when the South looked like that. Old men talked of an age when the great trees towered into the clouds and the forest floor was dark and smooth and clean, but these mountains had been clear-cut generations before, creating a tangled mess of skinny trees fighting for the light, with undergrowth and saw briars strung between them like razor wire.
It was a time before hunting was a fashion. We hunted in our work boots, laced up around two pairs of socks—three, if you were growing into them. The ones who had gloves wore them and the ones who didn’t walked through the woods with a pair of tube socks over our hands. I guess an outsider would have laughed at us, but outsiders did not get to go.
So armored, spitting, and breathing hard, we attacked the mountain. And no one said a word. I tried to whine, once, and ducked just in time to avoid being slapped back down the mountain.
“Hush,” my brother hissed, then, gentler: “Listen.”
The baying was so thin it vanished in the wind in the trees.
But he could hear it plain.
“Joe,” he said.