Aside from the fun of trailing game in the snow, any sportsman may in a day or two learn more than by a whole season's hunting. One lesson that soon became obvious, even to the boy, was that a fox hunts slowly, going at a leisurely trot until his keen nose picks a whiff of scent from the air. Invariably he stops, holding motionless until he locates the direction of his game, and then reads up to it as if walking on eggs. And the moral was, as now I think of it, that sportsmen who train bird dogs to run at top speed are heading the wrong way, because it is a wholly unnatural way. At field trials I have seen excellent running dogs that hunt with their legs, as the trainer intended; but I get far more pleasure from a dog that hunts with his nose, as nature intended.
HE LIKES TO RUN
Another early lesson—this one learned by following the fox hunters but keeping out of sight because they did not want a boy to spoil their sport—was that a red fox, unlike the gray, keeps on his feet instead of taking to earth because he likes to run. I have known one fox that came on a winter night to yap-yap his challenge at a pair of kenneled hounds—the same hounds that had chased him only a day or two before. The red fox is by nature cunning; his lean body has plenty of muscle, and he can be amazingly fast, like a red streak across the snow, whenever he has need of more speed. So he runs ahead of the hounds, hour after hour, with the notion in his foxy head that he can both outwit and outrun his dog enemies. I have yet to see the hounds that can catch him in a fair chase.
The nearest approach to a draw occurred when I went out, after a 10-inch snowfall, with a grand pair of slow—running hounds. They jumped a fox and trailed him among echoing hills all day long; at nightfall, when I turned homeward, they were still running. Next morning I went out, and by sheer luck—for there was no trail cry to guide me to a runway—saw the fox on a steep hillside with one silent hound following only 20 to 30 yards behind. Both were walking in the deep snow, the fox too tired to run, the hound too tired to give tongue. Somehow the fox scrambled over the rocky crest of that last terrible hill and vanished. Under the crest on this side the hound fell down, and it seemed to me that he was asleep when he hit the ground. I carried him home in my arms, a dead weight. The other hound, his bracemate, was curled up on the straw of his kennel, and he, too, was dead to the world.
Like every other wild animal, a fox has his own range, which he regards as home, and it is next to impossible for hounds to drive him out of it. When he reaches its limit in any direction, he invariably turns back. The only exception is a tramp fox, this name being applied to a male or dog fox that in late winter leaves his own range in quest of a mate. If he finds one he stays on her range and follows the new runways as if he had known them all his life; otherwise he heads back to his home range, after emptying his stomach to lighten his heels for the long run. In a few minutes he takes the hounds out of hearing, and you will not see them again that day.
Of all the lessons learned in boyhood the one that most elated me, naturally, was that the foxes had some runways and crossings of which the veteran hunters were unaware. How it helped me to become an honorary member of the foxhunting clan happened in this way:
Chief of the clan was the Squire, a peppery and profane old gentleman with a toddy-blossom nose and gouty foot. For these features he had an alibi, saying that the devil had sorely afflicted him; everybody else knew that the affliction came from frequent potations of port. Because of the gout, which made walking difficult or painful, he hunted after every snowfall in a sleigh drawn by a fast horse. Being thus handicapped he could take his stand only at a road crossing, where he might be heard cursing his luck or his gout or his horse when he arrived at the crossing too late by a minute, only to hear the chase pass with a sound as of trumpets and bugles over a wooded hill where he could not follow.
On a December day when I was fishing with homemade tilts through the ice of Turnpike Pond, my eye alert for the dip of a red flag while my ear followed a trail cry that had been sounding near or far since early morning, the Squire's hunting sleigh came tearing down the pike. At the pond's edge he pulled up, with difficulty because his horse was fighting the bit. Over the ice came his bawling summons, "Hey, you boy! Come here! On the jump!"
With alacrity I went, hoping for adventure more thrilling than that of fishing, though the pickerel were biting well.
"Has that fox taken the bridge crossing?" roared the Squire, cupping hand to ear for my answer while I was yet 40 yards distant.