An east Texas wolf hunt in this bizarre setting will begin, like as not, at Needham's camp house, a ramshackle structure outside of town, where all the boys and their individual packs of hounds will convene around dusk. While the dogs wait nervously in the pens outside, the hunters stoke up on wolf hunters' stew, coffee and badinage. Wolf hunters' stew is a thick, bubbling mixture of potatoes, carrots, celery, meat, corn, onions, black pepper and "chili pateens," which are tiny wild peppers that may someday find their proper niche in industry, replacing such relatively mild substances as pyrosulphuric acid and sodium hydroxide. A hunter who has lined his stomach with chili pateens ("Don't ask me how to spell pateens," says Cook Lester Gosch. "I don't think it's ever been spelt") need never fear the cold on the range. "He may be freezin' to death," says Need-ham, "but he won't know it." Also useful is the gallon pot of coffee that is made first at the camp house and then trundled all night from campfire to campfire by the hunters. "A wolf hunt runs on coffee," explains Bill Stulting. "We heat it and reheat it, and by morning we have to chew it."
The long dinner in the camp house is as much a part of the hunt as the race itself. The hunters sit around and talk in the traditional manner of men without women, trading intimacies, walking the thin line between hostility and affection, and ragging one another now and then to show how bold they dare to be with their friendships.
"I bet you never take a bath."
"Never take a bath? I take three baths a day!"
"Man, you must be a dirty s.o.b.!"
Fay Autry likes to ride Needham about his hounds. "You got dogs that'll bay farm girls, I swear!" Autry says, while everybody laughs at Needham's feigned discomfort.
"Them ain't wolfhounds," says Stulting. "Them's armadiller dogs."
To any but close friends, these insinuations about the dogliness of a man's pack would be fighting words, but these men are old hunting partners, and no blood is drawn. Soon the hour, the wind and the temperature are deemed correct, and the hunters file out, load their pickups with hounds and listen to Commander in Chief Earl Needham's final words of advice, spoken in a pure Texas idiom: "Y'all go to whar you blowed the sireen the other night. Carl, you know whar you blowed the other night? We goin' up to Ernie Bee's and listen. I'm just gonna go back in on that hill so if they howl I can turn loose on 'em. And y'all'll know whar we at if we don't come down outa there now?" In a cloud of exhaust fumes the convoy of dog-carrying trucks takes off into the black Texas night, and another wolf hunt is on. Till dawn it continues, like a battle, with Needham deploying his troops, reassembling his dogs, sending his hunters far up backcountry roads to sound their "sireens" and occasionally joining them all around a camp-fire, there to chew some coffee and some fat. Observing this frustrating night, when not a wolf is heard or seen but only miles and miles of wolf tracks that might have been made by phantoms, an outsider gets the impression that the prospect of executing a wild animal is just a peg to hang the evening on, a Texas way of staying up all night with the boys and getting away with it.
Soon the excuse may be gone. Civilization, that implacable enemy of hunter and hunted alike, is approaching Flatonia; a freeway is inching across from San Antonio to Houston, and Earl Needham reckons that it will pass "right behind my dog pen." Nothing would kill wolf hunting faster than an uncrossable modern turnpike. Earl talked to the authorities about this encroachment on his constitutional right to foray all over the country in search of the red wolf, "and I told them they're agonna have to build them a underpass for my dogs to run." Then, with the look of a stubborn old Texan digging in for a long range war, Needham added: "Yes sir, that's all they are to it!" With his code of ethics, his faithful hound dogs and his chili pateens all going for him, Needham would seem to be the favorite.