They know, just as surely as if they had a calendar.
Their tails wag more; some bounce at the sight of any truck. Others bay constantly, even more than a normal hound whose life revolves around the three to five months that they work for a living each year.
Even if they can’t read, they await the second week of October as nervously as any two-legged hunter who knows this is the year he or she gets to actually hunt, not just ride along with Dad in the truck, or nap on Mom’s lap in the tree stand.
These worshippers of the autumnal equinox are Walkers, both deep-chested and longlegged, sometimes tri-colored and sometimes lemon-colored, all with the saddles of black or tan or red that make each one unique as a fingerprint. They are blue- and redtick hounds, square pillars of strength. They are deep voiced redbones whose songs can carry for miles through a swamp so thick there might be dinosaurs hiding in its tannin-brown recesses. They are bloodhounds and Plotts, wrinkled, squareheaded, stubborn, with chests deep and broad enough to pull a plow, unafraid of a fight under any circumstances. They are fat little shortlegged beagles with piping voices that can make the saddest statue smile.
They are hounds, and they just have to run.
When it comes to most game, I am a still hunter. I still love to hear beagles run a rabbit, and I’ll join them if I can. And there is absolutely nothing as beautiful as the voice of a good coonhound on a night when the stars are pinpoints of ice in a blue-black sky and the trees look taller than a high rise in any nasty old city.
Most of the times I have deer hunted over dogs, we spent more time hunting our dogs than the deer. I don’t have the mobility or the heart to hunt bears and hogs with hounds; it’s too rough on the dogs for my taste. The same goes for fox and coyote runs. I am not necessarily against such things, as are some of my stillhunting brethren. They just aren’t my preferred sport.
Almost every year, Miss Rhonda and I end up at least temporarily boarding a hound that was forgotten, dumped or lost at the end of the season. Some become permanent members of the family. Some have even been reunited with their actual owners the next fall. Others went on to new homes, usually where they no longer had to work for a living.
Due to some tragedies we don’t need to get into here, this is our first year without an official hound in the house, although 14-year-old Toni is half-Plott, and Happy Jack is an amalgamation of every hound breed in Southeastern North Carolina and Northeastern South Carolina, with some others thrown in for good measure.
At this time of the year, it makes things remarkably quiet. As the weather cools and the leaves change, and the acorns fall like a summer rain, the deer begin to move, the bears shake down their new socio-familial structure, and the coons forage farther afield. The scents spread across the breeze, and as all hounds have since man hunted with spear, bow and atl-atl, those big nostrils flare and the signature ears perk and an inquisitive “woof” sounds from where it was stored way back in December of last year.
Good William IX was among the most theatrical with his first notice of fall, although Gimpy Jack, an ancient throwaway I caught one January in a coyote trap, was equally demonstrative. Whereas William would explode into a frenzy at a deer sneaking down the railroad bed in front of our house, Old Gimpy Jack would just raise his head and “wuffle” a little bit as the deer crossed our front yard, stealing some corn or sweet feed. He had run his share of whitetails, thank you very much, and had the twisted hip to prove it. He had no need to show his bonafides, but it didn’t take too terribly much for him to half-leap, half-fall off the porch and set off after a complete pack of strangers who happened to be chasing what they thought was the last deer on earth. Even in retirement – well, in William’s case, his lack of skills – they were still hounds, and couldn’t resist the need to do what God designed them to do, especially since He declared it good.
There were others, of course – poor bent Ophelia, a lemon-walker with a half-crushed but healed head. Dan’l Grunt, a black and tan cross who would climb an eight-foot fence before you could shut the gate. Lorena, some kind of a cross between a Walker and a redtick, who had all the flash and beauty of both breeds but the brains of neither. Cleopatra was our grande dame who decided she had never hunted, and never would. Scarlett and Melanie were black-and-tan bottle babies who went to new homes before they had grown into their ears, but I perchanced to run across a mutual friend I shared with their new owner, and he chided me for not letting him have first dibs on pups. Seems they were absolute death on coons.
There have been so many through the years; I anticipate there will be more, short- and long-term, professional hunters or gunshy hounds turned yard dogs.
I have yet to meet anyone who hunts who saw or read Where the Red Fern Grows or Sounder and did not want a pair of hounds. Some of us have been blessed enough to have a pair, and then some, of long-eared, sometimes bad-smelling companions to flush a deer from a tangled Carolina bay, outwit the smartest coon ever to crawl out of the Green Swamp or the Cape Fear, or enter into combat with a hog or bear as cheerfully as any Viking warrior.
One of these days, the doctors will finish experimenting and tinkering with me, and I’ll be able to walk and maybe even run again, albeit slower and with a bit more care than when I was 25. When that day comes, I sincerely hope and pray that God sees fit to loan me a long-eared, broadnosed opera singer of a companion who has an irresistible need to see what’s on the other side of the woods, one who will caracole and howl and bay and bounce at the chance to chase a critter, even if we don’t catch it.
Of course, actually catching the prey isn’t what the hunt is always about. It’s the adventure, the chase, the camaraderie, the hits and misses, the memories and the bragging about a hound as he sleeps exhausted by an open fire, legs occasionally twitching when a little bark or growl escapes from long floppy jowls as the chase continues through a blue-black night, across the deepest swamp and through the thickest forest, joyous howls echoing through eternity.
After all, even when he’s asleep, a hound’s got to run.