Beagling in the Briers


November loomed over into December.  The great blood-letting known as deer season reached its peak. The big guns now fell silent, and the beaglers strolled out with for a bit of sport before Christmas.

Davy Mitchell ran two beagles, an old lemon-and-white bitch named Yeller and young tricolor named Clint. Clint was a three quarters beagle, one quarter running Walker foxhound, and he was big and rangy for a beagle. And by West Virginia standards, he was a beagle and not a mutt, though he had no papers of any kind. Clint’s eyes were light and wild-looking, almost like a coyote’s, but his nose was pure and true. When he gave tongue on the quest of the rabbit trail, it sang out like a bell ringing from some medieval cathedral, dark and melodious to the point that one would expect to hear a Gregorian chant to come wafting in the breeze as the hound let loose his spoor call. 

By contrast, Yeller had some AKC papers, and for 11 winters, she’d winded her way through the brier patches. The cottontails bolted before her screaming cries, and the shotguns did their job. The reward was simple:  Rabbit in the crock pot, or rabbit fried in ginger ale batter for the master, and rabbit hearts and offal for the hounds.

The ancient rite of man hunting with dog, exercised out on these little Anglo-Norman hounds on thorny ridge-tops on what was once the hinterlands of the British Empire.  The quarry was not the nobleman’s warren rabbits but the true wild Eastern cottontail, which scorns the digging of dens and drops its kits in fur-lined form in the tall grass every spring. 

By the time late autumn finally loomed into winter, the trees and briers were all denuded of leaves, and the red-tailed hawks and foxes had already picked off all the stupid young rabbits of the year. All that remained were the wiry ones that knew how to hide and draw themselves in close while the predators searched hard for a bit of rabbit meat.

Davy went abroad with his brace of hill-beagles.  A long day had been spent at the feed store, selling out what straw and chicken feed the patrons, but by early afternoon, he closed shop, drove home to his manse, and wandered back to his dog yard to gather the brace and head for brierlands. 

In the true South and in Kentucky, beagles are run in packs on rabbits. The dogs usually don’t live together, but every hunt, a bunch of friends get together and run their dogs in a big cluster of screaming cries. And they shoot with caution and comradeship, as if they were hunting bobwhites behind setters, for this is a social event par excellence and not the mere pursuit of the coney by gun and hound.

In West Virginia, though, the beagler is almost monastic at his level of solitude. He often goes alone with a brace or two of his not particularly thoroughbred rabbit dogs, and he goes seeking meat in the last few honey holes of rabbitdom that can still be found in the overgrowing farmlands.

And that was the quest that Davy Mitchell was doing. It was a short December afternoon’s hunting with the good dogs, and all the company he would have were their wagging tails and baying cries and his own solitary thoughts about the world and life and how it should be.

The hounds did their job well that evening. Yeller jumped the first rabbit, a svelte young buck that gave the dogs a good run before the shotgun wad ended his wild chase. The next two were Clint’s to rise, and the strapping young hound bayed with his melodies as the rabbits ran their escape circle through the brush.

Three rabbits were now in Davy’s game bag. Two more would limit him out for the day. Three were a fine meal, but he wanted to give the dogs their sport before he put them away for the night.

The two hounds worked the brier patches. The scent of rabbit wafted through their noses, but no hot scent caught their attention.

The final rays of evening light began to cast upon the gray woods. A barred owl, out early for a bit of mousing or rabbiting as the situation occasioned, sailed over the brier fields. The long December night was in the offing.

The hounds still worked the coverts. They jumped on old fox squirrel, which scurried an dead and decaying red oak to squack out its warnings and its curses. The dogs ignored this distraction, though Clint did feel sorely tempted.

Baying hounds tend to scare off all game. Not a deer stirred from its bedding site, while the hounds worked the land.

But lying still as a stone in in the rocky cleft of a boulder was a big tom bobcat.  He had heard the baying hounds, but he had just eaten a big fill of venison from a gut shot fawn. He bet that the dogs would move on as the evening drew in, but as he rested, the sound of dog feet on briers grew louder and louder.

Clint caught the cat’s scent as he quartered downwind of the rocks. The hound let loose a growl and backed up from his startle. He barked and hackled up. Yeller rushed to her colleague’s side, and she, too, caught scent of the great cat.

The two dogs barked and then began baying like diminutive coonhounds, ad the bobcat tom rose from the cleft and stood on the high boulder, growling and glowering at the dogs that dared rouse him from his slumber. 

It was at that point that Davy approached the din. He glanced toward the boulder, and when his eyes came into focus at the big bobcat, man and cat found each other staring other’s eyes. They were thirty feet apart, and a mutual sense of terror combined with fascination crossed their minds.

Davy had never seen a bobcat up close, and the tom had never seen a man so close to him before. The two beings sized each other up. The sound of hound cries became totally mute. They stared at each other as if they were the only two entities upon the planet

For nearly 90 seconds they were paralyzed in that odd ecstasy of curiosity, but then the cat realized the potential peril of his situation. He gathered up his courage and leaped from the boulder, and then before the hounds could realize what was happening, he leaped again, hitting a favorite game trail that took him away from the brier lands and back into the big woods.

The two beagles raced wildly down the trail, but then they got too nervous in their advance into the big woods and turned to run back towards their master.

They came upon Davy just as the darkness fell upon the land. The rubbery soft hooting of a great horned owl rose from the big woods. A red fox barked out on a distant ridge, and both hounds danced around their beloved master. 

They had had their sport of their day, running the rabbits hard and then rousing this monster cat.  They were had done their running and singing for the day, and they were alive after their adventure. 

Yeller was particularly alive and bouncing. She was no longer the old lemon beagle that had jumped the first rabbit of the day. She was a true hound of Anglo-Norman splendor, standing tall on her beagle legs, a beast of the hunt, a beast of prey, now fully actualized and alive in this December twilight.

Davy smiled and stroked her ears. This was why he was a beagler. He felt that primal connection to the hunting dog that brings the man, the domestic beast, and the quarry into a communion. Thousands of years ago, the quarry was reindeer and wild horses, and the bobcat resting in the cleft of a boulder was a cave lion or a homotherium.

This rabbit chase in the briers was only slightly ersatz, for although lacking that wild glory of yore, it was still a greater experience than most men and dogs experience in their lifetimes.

The lives of dogs and humans is much removed from what we once were but in truth always are. We are still predatory, but our lives demand us to live so differently.

But the wild cries of hounds on the hunt still drive a few of us to wander behind them, letting them work their noses and tongues, and waiting to see what they might jump.

And the quest goes on, even as the world moves away from that organic and primal sort of existence and towards our own digitized epoch. 

From the woods and mud our kind sprang, and some of us go back to it, hounds scenting for a piece of the Eden in our minds that we know is there but can never find.

But it never stops the hunt. 

Natural History

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