Most fox hunters, when asked, can narrow their interest down to a single moment: When the pack finally hit on a scent trail and begins to give chase. Up until that point, there might have been scattered yowls from a hound here or there, but when they land on good quarry, the voices of the pack all rise up into what my grandmother once told me was one of the most beautiful sounds she’s ever heard. Hunters call it “hound music.”
“It does something primordial to you,” says West Hamryka, Shakerag’s other master of fox hounds, who leads the first field on hunt days, right behind Eaton and the hounds. “It gets your heart racing and your palms get a little sweaty and you’re excited and just looking and you’re with your horse that you trained with and you’re running and you’re jumping over these fences, galloping through these rivers, creeks, following those hounds and seeing them go—it is just the most wonderful, exhilarating experience.”
“It still makes the hairs on my back of my neck stand up,” Eaton tells me. “It’s just, I dunno. It’s just bloody great, do you know what I mean? It’s just bloody great.”
As huntsman, Eaton knows the sound of each of his hounds’ mouths and can tell the quarry not just by how the pack is running (coyotes, for one, love to run wide and circle back on themselves), but by which hound is most vocal (Casino, for one, loves bobcats). But hounds come in varying degrees of trustworthiness, and this can be a problem—you don’t want a hound yowling like she’s on the trail of a fox when she’s not, throwing the pack and the riders into a frenzy for nothing.
Uncle Bob Lee had a hound called Mattie who was so honest he nicknamed her The Character Witness. Hill Topping opens with her eulogy. “Many are the times she would come in hearing, running her fox when all the other hounds—good hounds—had given up. She never told a lie in her life,” he wrote. “When she gave tongue hounds came out of their beds in the corner of the fences and went to her. Lame hounds or sore hounds would hobble off on three feet, young hounds would step in your faces, if you had given up, too, and stretched out on a sheep-skin for your forty winks.”
Honesty is prized in fox hounds, but less so in their masters. The name Hugo Meynell often comes up in discussion of the sport’s more recent past. In an 1843 tome called Hunting Reminiscences: Comprising Memoirs Of Master Of Hounds, Notices Of The Crack Riders And Characteristics Of The Hunting Countries Of England, the sportsman Charles James Apperley, writing under the pseudonym Nimrod, cited the Leicestershire nobleman as the “Maecenas of fox-hunting.” This reputation persists, despite Meynell himself never making the claim, few other sources having much to say about him, and Apperley’s own account being suspect. (“Meynell’s reputation is a myth and that fox hunting continued as it began, a medieval practice,” the academic Iris Middleton wrote in her 2006 Sport in History article, “The Origins of English Fox Hunting and the Myth of Hugo Meynell and the Quorn.”) So it may be that Apperley is the legendary originator here, not of the sport itself but of one of its great sub-traditions—that of the generous embellishment of fact.
There’s a story I’ve heard my dad tell about one of my grandfather’s hunting buddies. During one overnight hunt, as the men sat talking around the campfire, this guy spent the whole time bragging on one of his hounds. “She’s out front! I can hear her—she’s running that fox hard,” he kept saying, going on and on about how this was the fastest, most honest hound he’d ever run. After a few hours of this, he stood up to relieve himself, took three steps and tripped flat over a hound—his hound, the one he’d been talking about all night. She’d been there the whole time, sleeping just beyond the edge of the campfire’s glow.
Out on the Tally Ho wagon, I began to understand why all those tall tales get told. After our stop in the first field, we thumped back onto the main road and followed it a ways down to a dirt road that threaded between cow pastures on one side and chicken houses on the other. I hadn’t anticipated the overwhelming sense of elsewhereness I began to feel out there. I was on what basically amounted to a boozy hayride on a beautiful October morning, so it was hard to feel anything like real regret. But I still began to wonder how close I would have to get to feel like I was really in there, like I was experiencing anything essential. At what point would it cease to feel like it was all happening somewhere else? We could trail the action but we would never catch up. Even the riders operated at various degrees of removal, behind the huntsman who was behind the hounds who was behind the fox itself, though today there wasn’t even that, just a nasty old rag tossed out hours ago. No wonder all those tall tales got told. You’d hardly have anything to talk about otherwise.
After a while the Tally Ho wagon train heaved upwards through a field of unmowed grass to the top of a hill that rose from a brushy creek bed—the hunt’s halfway point. The tractors stopped and we all hopped off, stretching in the nearly-noon sun. Mark produced a few aluminum pans from a cooler and began pushing sandwiches: BLTs and chicken salad, regular and buffalo, on tiny croissants. More Bloody Marys were poured and a Port-A-Potty was located under the hilltop’s lone tree. Then a woman yelled, “Everybody, watch! Here they come!” and we waded through the grass for a better look.
To the south of us, Eaton and the hounds had burst from the dark tangle of the creek bed. He was wailing like a banshee, screaming “Cut, cut, cut!” between long blasts on his horn as the hounds plowed up the hill towards us. The other hunters had split off and come up the other side of the hill and now flooded our ranks at the top, everyone still on horseback but bending halfway to accept the drinks and cheese straws soon offered up to them. The hounds spilled up over the hill and into the crowd of humans, eyes and mouths wide, like they just couldn’t believe their luck in finding us out there.
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