Night fox hunting, the way they do it in Mississippi and other parts of the rural South and Midwest, is as far removed from fashionable riding to hounds, with its tallyho and view halloo, as a country square dance is from the courtly quadrille of which it is a rollicking parody. Night hunters in Carolina still chuckle over the story of one of their number, Bill Austin of Marshville, N.C., and how he got caught up in a fancy hunt during his hitch in the Army. "First thing I know," says Bill, when he tells the tale, "I'm bein' squeezed into some little bitty old white pants and plumped on top of a horse with dogs friskin' all around me. Then a man in a red coat blows a horn—toot! toot!—and all at once this sorrowful critter under me raises his head and bolts down the road after them dogs till we come to a fence five strands high. That old horse soared over that tall fence like he was on wings, and when we finally hit the ground I was hangin' on so tight, I declare I thought I'd split right in half!
"I tell you, that was the last time I ever done any fancy fox huntin'."
The form of fox hunting practiced by Austin and about 100,000 other night hunters in the South and Midwest is a far less strenuous and far more mystical sport. Not quite a participant sport, since the hunters are generally far removed from both the dogs and the quarry, and not quite a spectator sport, since it generally takes place in the almost total invisibility of nighttime, it is most of all a listening sport, and in it the hunters hear what they call "music."
Night hunters are great listeners. Gathered around a fire on a southern hilltop with rustling woods on all sides and their hounds released in pursuit of the fox, they listen and listen—to the night, to their dogs and to each other. They listen to the faint far-off baying that indicates the hounds are hard at work. They listen for the sharper note as one hound "opens" (i.e., gives tongue) as a signal to the others that he has jumped a fox. They listen as the other hounds hark to the first one, join him in trailing and then, as they close on their quarry, give voice together in excited concert. They listen in rapture to the result—a fearsome blend of dog voices, bawling, chopping, squealing, squawking, baying and howling; tenor voices and bass voices and voices in between, yip-yip-yipping and owk-owk-owking in a contrapuntal rhythm that sometimes reaches its climax only when the fox's own death rattle sounds a finale. The music of a pack of hounds in full cry, say the fox hunters of the South, is very much like grand opera.
As if to prove it, they even have a story—night hunters always have a story—of one old north Georgia fox man who got fairly carried away at the opera in Atlanta one night when the lead soprano let out with a loud, high-pitched note. The old man suddenly jumped up out of his seat, wildly waving his hat, and shouted for all to hear, "The little bitch done got it—and gone!"
"You'd be surprised," say hunters, "how close a soprana's singin' is to a hound's mouth if she's a good goin' hound with a good voice."
Night hunters, indeed, are quite prepared to argue that "good goin' hounds" with good mouths are easier to understand than any grand opera. A well-bred hound, according to them, can, by the pitch and timbre of its voice, communicate considerable information—the type of game it is pursuing (rabbit, gray fox, red fox or deer), how close it is and if it has managed to tree (or trap) its quarry. Because it is a matter of immense pride to own hounds that have good voices, hunters claim they can distinguish the voices of their own hounds from others in the pack and, having identified a dog, can tell whether it is in the lead or not by the excitement in its voice—a hound sounds more excited when it does not have to sight the fox through the legs of other hounds. The bark can also tell the hunter if his hound is caught on a fence—a major hazard in hunting fox—or if he has caught a fox.
When hounds catch and kill a fox their voices rise to new highs of excitement, but they don't always catch him and they almost never eat him. About 90% of the time the fox eludes the hounds and escapes or scoots into a hole before they can catch him.
Because the fox is more likely to be out foraging at night than in the daytime and because the voices of his pursuers can better be appreciated in darkness, fox hunting, southern style, is mainly a nocturnal pastime. But darkness can serve as well to hide a hunting dog's faults as to enhance his virtues, so every now and then during the year the fox hunters put their hounds to work in daylight to test their mettle before sharp-eyed judges in championship competition. In these trials the judges watch carefully for such faults as "babbling" (giving tongue without having scented the fox), "cunning running" (taking a shortcut to where the hound presumes the fox will go without bothering to follow him) and "backtracking" (running the line of scent in the wrong direction). Dogs that chase rabbits when they should be after fox are likewise committing faults.
The most exacting of all the annual field trials is the U.S. Open, which recently took place for the third straight year in a scrubby, woodsy, thorn-filled, hilly area near Durant, Miss., a town about 50 miles north of Jackson. With Nicholas Solovioff, the artist, I went to Durant for five days to have a look at it.