The site was selected because it affords good running ground for the fox and enough winding dirt and gravel roads to permit hunters to follow their dogs. This year, to make sure there were enough foxes to make things lively for the hounds and operatic for the houndmen, 21 red foxes were imported from Iowa, at $7 a head, and loosed in the woods near Durant. Red foxes are more interesting than gray because they travel in large circles and depend on speed to avoid the dogs, while the gray (with some characteristics of the cat, including the ability to climb trees) is less classic in his maneuvering.
There were 128 hounds entered in the competition at Durant, which was to last four days. They were mostly Walkers with a few Triggs and Julys. These, along with Goodmans, are the most popular breeds. The day before the race began was spent mostly in the official drawing, when the various dogs are given their numbers, and in exploration of the hunting area. In past years it had been thought so advantageous to have a low number that the hunters lined up at 3 in the morning for the draw. This year, since every owner was limited to two dogs in the trial, it was decided in the interest of fairness to give everyone a capsule containing two numbers, one high and one low. That way no one had to hurry to the draw, and everyone got more sleep—a precious commodity in the four-day trial.
When the drawing was over the hunters repaired to a kennel near the Durant Hotel to get the assigned numbers painted on their hounds. The paint generally used was fluorescent orange but, if a dog's coloring warranted, black and white were also used. One hunter painted his hounds' tails blue, the better to catch the eye of the judges.
After the painting was completed some of the hunters drove over to the area where the competition would be held. Others returned to their hotels or motels primarily to talk fox—that endlessly fascinating and, to a layman, often incomprehensible topic. When I got there the lobby of the Durant was filled with hunters. Some were admiring the silver trophies and bright blue ribbons that were displayed on a long table in the corner; some were exchanging notes on past trials.
One hunter, a small, elderly but gingery man—Dr. G. W. Bledsoe of Cullman, Ala.—was bemoaning the fate of a hound of his named Little Joker in an earlier trial. "Many men bragged on the dog because of its melodious voice and havin' such a good nose to run the fox when the other dogs couldn't," he was saying. "A number of men tried to buy the dog because he had proved so good late in the day, when most dogs had lost interest in the fox. Then I was surprised to look on the score sheet that afternoon and find that Little Joker had been scratched for openin' a little too long on the cast." Some of his listeners nodded; all at one time or another had dogs "scratched" (i.e., eliminated from a trial for bad performance). "Joker's real name was Cypress Creek Joker," said Dr. Bledsoe. "Dam was Ann Pickett. The sire was Joker G." Stories about foxhounds, I learned, almost always end with a quick genealogy.
"I had a hound in a Georgia state trial won after he was dead," said another hunter. "Scored so much on the first day that it didn't matter what happened after, but...."
Since we had to be up before dawn in the morning, I didn't wait to hear the genealogy on this dog, but I'm sure it followed sooner or later. It was cold and rainy next morning when I arrived at the casting ground (the open field where the hounds were to be loosed) with Stone Crane, a former president of the U.S. Open. We rode in a car driven by his old friend, L. L. Thompson of Cullman, Ala. The cast, particularly on the first day, is one of the most dramatic moments of a trial. The hunters rise about 2 a.m. to eat breakfast and check the condition of their hounds. They swarm to the casting ground with their dogs at about 6, when the sky is still dark. They come in pickup trucks, dog trucks, jeeps and passenger cars. In the gleam of auto headlights they have their dogs' numbers checked. Then, a sepulchral group of zealots, with their beasts on double leashes, they advance to the edge of the field to form a long, strung-out line, heads and bodies dimly silhouetted against the sky. There they await the signal to cast.
This morning, as always on the first day, the dogs were eager to be off—"full of go powder," commented one hunter—and barking more than their owners thought they should. One or two broke away and had to be rounded up. "I never seen a cast yet," said a lady hunter, "where some fool dog didn't get himself loose and run wild."
At about 6:25, when a vague gray light began to seep through the clouds, the Master of Hounds, Deward Henson of Brushyknob, Mo., welcomed the hunters to the trial, announced that the day's hunt would be over at precisely 11:30 in the morning and advised synchronizing watches. "I do hope the best dog wins," he said. He took off his hat, lowered it as a signal and the hounds were cast. They did not burst forth but trotted off, full of high spirits and unnecessary yapping.
"They won't be so dang energetic tomorrow." one hunter predicted. Mounted on horseback, some of the trial judges galloped off in the general direction of the hounds as the hunters chatted or strolled to their cars, awaiting the sound of a dog opening. In a few minutes all the dogs were out of sight, hidden by pine and oak trees. Dawn began to break in earnest, pink streaks lighting up sections of the sky. The remaining judges, riding in trucks equipped with radiotelephones, began to move out.