Our human woman-chasing wolves come well by their names. The male wolf has an exceptionally strong sex drive, and before his lifetime mate has arrived on the scene, he will sometimes go prospecting among the young ladies of the nearest domestic canine community. In Red River County in northeast Texas the offspring of one of these clandestine trysts had all the physical characteristics of a wolf but the head of a bulldog. Wolves have been known to break into shacks housing female dogs in heat, spend long happy hours under the Texas moon and leave their female friends with gaudy, purple memories. Earl Needham knows a man who mated a wolf with a black and tan, a hound dedicated with every fibre of its being to the slaughter of wolves. The offspring was a house divided. "He didn't know whether to hunt himself," says Needham, "or hunt himself!"
Needham's own wolf dogs come in all shapes and sizes, for the test of a wolf dog is not his pedigree but whether, when the issue is joined, the hound will tangle willingly with the slashing teeth of a wolf. As Needham puts it, "Some hunters won't use anything but a registered dog; the pedigree got to be three feet long. But that paper don't run that wolf. Trial and error is what you use till you got the right dog. I've used all kinds of hounds: Walkers, Julys, blue ticks, Triggs, black and tans, Goodmans and what we call 'potlickers,' mixed breeds. They cost me about $150 apiece, and if I get one good dog out of every coupla dozen I buy I figure I'm lucky."
Wolf dogs are trained and treated like scholarship athletes at UCLA. Needham's own pack runs from 15 dogs up; the number is always changing, because hounds are killed by wolves and new dogs are brought in and others die when they get to be about 6, old age for a working wolf hound. Needham has no stomach for training his own dogs; he has found the necessary techniques too offensive to his own gentle nature. "The way they train dogs to fight wolves," he says, "is they'll catch coyotes in traps and they'll tie the coyotes' mouths, which is cruel, and I've never been able to do anything like that in my life. Then they'll turn the coyote loose and let the young dogs catch him and kill him. When the dogs learn how to do that, they'll let one coyote go without his mouth being tied, and then the dogs'll learn a little more. They get some of those hounds so highly trained they'll tear through a screened wire so they can get at a wolf."
After a dog has learned how to hunt wolves, he must be kept in shape, like any other athlete, and the only way to keep him in shape is to keep him running wolves. "It's like trainin' a fighter to fight," says Needham. "You got to have those dogs hard as arn to catch wolves. So you got to hunt 'em. They won't exercise, and if you don't hunt 'em for a few weeks they get fat and sloppy and short in the wind." The discerning reader already will have noted a strong similarity between wolf hounds and baseball pitchers, in matters other than appearance. Both can function like machines so long as they keep in motion, but as soon as they stop for any appreciable length of time they stiffen up and become useless. Fay Autry, a county commissioner in east Texas, learned this the painful way and is still paying a stiff price in smart remarks by his friends. Autry's dogs had spent four hours catching a wolf and working it over, and now the animal was presumed dead. Autry had roped the wolf and dragged it out of the brush when he noticed that one of his dogs was lagging behind as though injured. He let go of the wolf to administer to the dog, and when he turned around the "dead" wolf was gone. Not one of the dogs in the pack had deigned to give chase. "They were so tired and sore," said the rueful Autry, "that they wouldn't even look for the trail." Needham had a similar experience. A wolf, certified dead by a coroner's jury of wolf hunters, was pitched over a barbed-wire fence toward Needham. "That wolf came down on his four feet and took right off into the cedar brush," Needham recalls. "Lucky I had one big old dog left with enough energy to go catch him again. The rest of my hounds had cooled out."
Also like major league pitchers, wolf hounds are expected to perform as specialists, not as all-round stars. Their job is to find, chase and kill wolves, and nothing else but wolves. And if their attention wanders off to other forms of wildlife, they are sent back to the minors. To chase anything but wolves is called "trashing," and a dog that "trashes" is subjected to stiff punishment. "A lot of hunters will whup the whey out of a dog that trashes," says Needham, "and I've even known 'em to shoot their own dogs in the tail with a light load of No. 7 shot from a .410. It's like a sharp spray, but the noise scares 'em, and pretty soon they learn that they're gonna get hurt if they open on anything but a wolf trail."
As if the poor hound dog doesn't have enough problems, he is expected to follow a code of ethics as strict and inflexible as the rules for admission to the Junior League. "Silent trailing," for example, is a major breach of the code. A silent trailer will jump a wolf track and go off in quiet pursuit, single-o, leaving the pack far behind. If he catches up to the wolf, he won't be able to make the kill alone and may well pay the supreme penalty for his rashness. The proper behavior for a dog that cuts a wolf's trail is to bark bloody murder, thus bringing the whole pack into the chase and improving the odds. The converse of the silent trailer is the dog that begins barking just for the sheer dizzy joy of being out in the country of a pleasant evening. "We call this kind of dog a babbler," says Needham. "He shoots off his mouth for nothin' and drags the whole rest of the pack with him."
But the ultimate offense against the code of the hunt is the dog that gets too smart, the so-called "cutting dog." "He'll chase that wolf with the rest of the pack for a while," says Needham, "till he figures out the pattern the wolf's runnin' in. Wolves usually run in circles, five or six miles around, and they keep passin' the same checkpoints over and over again during the race. Now this smart dog'll dope this out, and he'll find a spot where the wolf is crossin' and lay there waitin' for him, and when that wolf comes by the dog'll take out after him ahead of the pack. Now we consider that downright unfair. We try to make the race equal to all the dogs, and this cuttin' dog is cheatin' because he's not makin' the whole race. So we get rid of him."
Wolf hunters can tell exactly what's going on during a hunt by the sounds made by their dogs, by what they call the dog's "mouth." "We got all kinds," Needham says, "and you just have to learn to tell 'em apart, one by one. We got dogs that on a cold trail they may be bawlin', wailin' and squallin'. Then they get on up there close to that wolf and they'll begin to chop a little bit, shorter barks. They're changin' their mouth now, and you can tell from this how things are goin'. Course, there's different mouth dogs—some of them are squallin' mouth dogs till they start runnin', but a squallin' mouth dog don't usually give as much mouth when he starts to runnin' a wolf. There's chop mouth, coarse mouth, fine mouth, horn mouth that sounds like a horn, and bawlin' dogs. We got a dog that's a goose-mouth dog and another one is a turkey-mouth dog: talk, talk, talk, talk, like a old turkey gobbler. We got dogs with high screamin' mouths that gives a lot of mouth, very loud, and they scare a wolf and make 'em move out and tire their-selves. When my dogs take out after a wolf, I can tell each dog and what he's doing and what his mouth means. You get to know 'em. It's just like you listenin' to a crowd of people and you can recognize different voices."
The mise en sc�ne of this vigorous listening activity is about an hour's drive, at presidential speed, westward out of Houston. Flatonia lies at a point where the arid sections of south Texas, the blacklands of east Texas and the gently rolling sand-and-clay hills of north central Texas all come together. Most of this land is barren, inimical to life, and yet certain forms of flora and fauna brazen it out: post oaks, mesquite, cactus, bobcats, roadrunners, wolf hunters. Once longhorn cattle roamed free here, but then the long-horns died away and the country was chopped into small, harshly demanding farms. During the Depression people began leaving for the big cities; the trend has never stopped, and now hundreds of these submarginal farms have been abandoned and turned back into range for the kind of cattle Earl Needham raises and sells: "hoopies," mixed breeds, scrawny animals of the second rank. One comes across deserted homes rotting into the ground, old dipping vats rusting away, bare spots in the woods where a pot and a patterned stand of oaks and a cistern are all that remain of a homestead. Here and there an elderly couple will be hanging on, running out their strings on social security and occasionally calling on Earl Needham to catch a wolf that has been chewing on their chickens and turkeys and lambs.
With homo sapiens slowly vanishing from the landscape, wildlife has moved back in. Wildcats and gophers abound, blackbirds blot out the sun in flights of tens of thousands, roadrunners and larks and hawks wheel about. The armadillo, once a rare sight, considers the area around Flatonia to be his Levittown and provides the wolf with a steady staple of diet. Sometimes hunters will find as many as 50 vacant armadillo shells around wolf dens. But few men share the wolf's enthusiasm for the flavor of the "poverty pig." Says Hunter Bill Stulting: "We barbecued a armadiller once, but it was a old one and the longer I chewed it the bigger it got. I threw it away." On wolf hunts at night one sees armadillos gnawing away at roots in the fields; they look like miniature knights of yore all dressed for the lists but, unlike knights, they are easily frightened. Sometimes their first reaction to danger is a jump straight up in the air, right out of the Terrytoons, followed by a 50-yard dash that would do credit to Bob Hayes.