- Tall grass, a suicidal raccoon, and a cooling line provided excellent lessons for Paper and the other young hounds
AS humid as Friday morning was, you could smell a little fall in the air. Undoubtedly the hounds can smell it better than we can, and now that they’re getting fit and the mornings are dawning cooler, you can see that the older ones know what we know: cub-hunting season is only a few weeks away.
Paper and his fellow freshmen don’t know about cub-hunting yet, but they do know this: morning exercise has gotten a lot more interesting recently. Their leader, Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason, is on horseback now, and so are the whippers-in. We all–hounds, horses, hunt staff, and field members–move along briskly these days. And there are alluring trails left in the dewy grass when the hounds pass across the fields, smells that intrigue them and are stronger in the cool early air. Things seem somehow more serious and purposeful. “Yes, things are very interesting now,” the puppies must be thinking!
At this time of year, just before cub-hunting, we can begin to see the summer’s lessons paying off, especially for the puppies. Trotting along with six couple on Friday morning, Lilla pointed out how the older, experienced hounds were leading the way, straight through a field of tall grass and tangled clover and toward a covert known as The Sinkhole. The grass was thick and breast-high to the hounds, but they bounded along, with puppies Paper, Gaudy, and Hailstone willingly following their elders.
“This is good for them, to teach them how to get through tall grass,” Lilla said. Much of the grass will die back in the winter, but the fact that the young hounds plow through it now reinforces their confidence to jump into coverts, too, which can remain dense with brush, vines, and briars even in the winter.
- Paper (left) had an outstanding day and spoke for the first time!
The older hounds went straight into The Sinkhole’s heavy brush without a pause; they learned long ago that this is a likely place for a fox or coyote. Again, the young hounds gamely plowed in behind them, though a few puppies popped out again before pushing back in.
Suddenly, a field member exclaimed, “Raccoon!” A young raccoon, disturbed by our arrival, had bolted from a hedgerow and was hustling through the deep grass, visible only by the rustling trail he made as he went. But he wasn’t running from the pack. He was racing toward them.
“Not one of your smarter raccoons,” someone observed as we watched in dismay. Sure enough, the juvenile met up with two couple of hounds right at the edge of The Sinkhole, who looked just as startled as we did to find a raccoon right under their noses. The surprise, we assume, was mutual. But the raccoon, taking advantage of the hounds’ surprise, shot into the covert just as the two couple pounced. There was a lot of growling from all parties, but the covert was so thick we never were exactly sure what became of the foolish raccoon. We think it’s possible he got lucky and found a safe spot in the overgrown debris that clutters the middle of The Sinkhole. We never saw any evidence that he didn’t survive the encounter! On the other hand, we didn’t see any evidence that he did survive it, either. There’s just not much to do, we agreed, if something decides to run harum-scarum into your hounds rather than away from them.
The puppies, Lilla said, actually got a good lesson from the bizarre episode. “Now they’ll know that coverts are interesting places where interesting things happen,” she said.
Paper was in on the raccoon, but he quickly discovered something else at least as wonderful and much easier to catch and carry out of the covert: an old bone. And here he came, with a graceful leap, straight out of the thickest part of The Sinkhole, the priceless artifact in his jaws. Tail curled, he darted around the covert, advertising his find and clearly hoping to make his colleagues jealous of it. To be fair, it was a lot better than the usual dirt clod, and even better than last week’s highly desirable stick.
Paper: “Ooooh, bone! I’ve got a bone! Catch me, I’ve got a bone!”
The pack: “Dude. Get over yourself. It does not compare with the wonders of The Sinkhole.”
Even Paper soon saw the logic of this and rejoined the group inside, exploring the thickety depths. But when Lilla moved off, he came out promptly with the others, ready to trot on to Davenport’s Corn.
- Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason
One hound, however, did not follow everyone out: Barman, one of the four English imports that arrived from the Cottesmore and the North Cotswold in the spring. A pure white hound as handsome as a pinup, he has become the Big Man on Campus in the kennel, according to kennelman Michael Edwards. But he and the three other new imports–Bonsai, Baffle, and Driver’s mother Dragonfly–are still learning American culture.
You wouldn’t think it would be that different; isn’t the Currier-and-Ives scene pretty much the same around the world? Not a chance. Consider it from the hound’s-eye view. In the Cottesmore’s hunt country, the grass doesn’t grow to such a monstrous size as it does in the hot, humid Kentucky summer. (The hot, humid weather is, in fact, another thing the English hounds have to get used to.) And each huntsman has his own distinctive way of blowing the horn. The Cottesmore horn’s English accent, so to speak, is not the same as Lilla’s American one. It can be pretty confusing for a hound who finds himself on the far side of a woolly covert while the pack is disappearing into the grass on the other side.
With the aid of whipper-in Blaine Holloway, however, Barman soon got sorted out and found his way back to the pack.
- The morning air was lush with the scent of mowed grass, late wildflowers, and the slight tang of decaying foliage that signals the coming autumn
The best part of the day came shortly after The Sinkhole, when the hounds, after exploring an overgrown fenceline, moved out into the low grass of Davenport’s field. Suddenly, the first group, a couple and a half of older hounds led by five-year-old Stax, had their noses down and were running excitedly in tight formation, each trying to own what appeared to be a coldish line, probably one from early that morning when a coyote had made his way across the field.
We all sat up straighter in our saddles, alert for what we knew would come next, and it did: Stax spoke, and the group of white hounds took off faster, criss-crossing the field as they puzzled out the faded scent. This was a beautiful scene, but even more exciting was that, as they wound around in front of our horses, Paper was right in among them, periodically lowering his nose, too. From the way he carried himself–loping along a little more relaxed than the older hounds, not working hard as they were, and putting his nose down only here and there, a little more tentatively–it was clear that Paper had felt the stirring of instinct but wasn’t quite sure yet exactly what it meant. He was excited, he knew something was up, he was catching the whiff now and then of a something that excited him, and the rapid, electric movements of the older hounds excited him, too. All at once, he put his nose down and spoke, a brief, clear note. It was thrilling.
The hounds quickly charged to the end of the field and into an adjoining one, but they were silent, the line now fading further as the day heated up, and in the end Lilla collected them and took them to a cool creek for a much-needed drink. We had been out less than two hours, but there had been so many little victories. The hounds lolloped along in front of Lilla’s dappled-gray horse, their eyes bright and their tongues hanging out as they went along, completely at ease and satisfied with their morning’s work.
Approaching a gate, Lilla extended her right arm and lowered the thong of her whip over her horse’s shoulder. “Come behind, come behind,” she called out to the hounds, and they obediently moved behind her horse to go through the metal gate, as disciplined and professional as an Army platoon. Once through the gate, they spread out and trotted along again, always casting an eye back to their huntsman. They were the picture of canine contentment.
“You see how relaxed they are?” Lilla said. “They’ve had their run, and now they know it’s time to go in. It’s the worst thing if you take them in before they are ready–it’s like they feel cheated. I did that once, and I’ll never do it again. It broke their hearts, and it broke mine, too.”
- Remains of the Day: the biscuit bag after a morning’s work