It’s late November. The alarm goes off at 4:00 AM. The hard tile floor is cold on his feet as he heads to the bathroom. This is going to the kind of day he loves. Before long the sound of his beagle pack on the trail of a rabbit will be like music to his ears.
He puts a couple of left over biscuits into the oven to warm them up and walks into the hallway to knock and open up the bedroom door. His son is 14 and sound asleep.
“Hey. It’s time to get up. Come on.”
The son doesn’t share the excitement, yet. But he will. Getting up at this awful hour is not something that comes natural. It’s a learned commitment. The boy pulls on his hunting pants in the dark. His eyes are not ready. The light from the kitchen that finds its way into his room is enough for now.
The hunting jackets hang on the hooks on the wall by the pantry. The shotguns lean up in the corner and the shells are in a box on the floor underneath. A large cooler next to them. The result of preparations the night before.
The biscuits are consumed quickly. All the lights turned out. As soon as the man and boy step out the door on the back porch the beagles stir in the pen next to the smokehouse. They know what this day means. They know that they were made for days like this.
The old truck comes to life. Headlights streaming out across the pasture next to the house. The boy unhooks the chains on the tail gate and lets it down. The dog box is in the back. One by one the beagles are stuffed into the box. Tiny. Blue. Slim. Mule. All eight dogs known by their name. And last, Old Jack. He’s really too slow to be of much use, but he has earned the right to go on this hunt. If the younger dogs get lost on a cold trail, Old Jack will find it.
The plan is to drive to Griffin and pick up his hunting buddy and his 14 year old boy. Two men and two boys in the cab of a short bed Ford. Squeezed up shoulder to shoulder, legs spread out around the gear shift in the floorboard. Then the drive to Hawkinsville where the rabbits are plentiful.
By 5:30 they stop at a greasy spoon to get some breakfast. The place is full of men and boys in hunting pants and flannel shirts. This is a time before camo when brown canvas was enough to get the job done. Double layered thighs in the pants made for pushing through briars and brambles where the rabbits lived. The boys are awake now. It was the best breakfast they had ever eaten.
Back in the truck, they squeeze in. The boy’s job is to shift the gears between his legs while the men talk. His Dad doesn’t need to tell him when. He has learned to anticipate. He can hear when his Dad comes off the gas and pushes the clutch. He catches third gear and the truck picks up speed on down the road.
By the time they get to Hawkinsville, the sun is well up. There is a hard killing frost spread out across the fields like a blanket. The man on the passenger side points out the window.
“This looks like a good spot. What do you think?”
The truck rolls up a long dirt drive past the barns up to the house. He gets out and knocks on the door. The boy is thinking, “How does he know these folks?” Not realizing he doesn’t. But that’s the way it’s done. You find a place and knock on the door.
The farmer tells him to round up all the rabbits he can find. And if you get your fill here, Robert’s place down the road about a mile should be good, too. Just knock on the door.
They turn out the drive and ride down the dirt road just past the bridge. When they turn into the field road the dogs start howling. They can sense that they are about to go to work. The corn has been cut and you can see forever.
“This looks like a good head to hunt.” Meaning there’s a long row of trees and thick underbrush that winds along the low ground between two fields. It goes on for what looks like ¾ mile, nearly out of sight.
The men and boys get on their jackets. Shotgun shells fill the pockets. One boy has a .410 pump. The other a 20 gauge. The men use 12 gauge pumps. The plan is set. One father and son will walk up the left side of the head. The others will work the right side. The dogs are set loose, pouring over the tailgate like a wave of black and tan and white.
It’s hard to tell anyone exactly what it’s like who has never hunted with a pack of beagles. But the sound and the chase is something a young boy will never forget. A dog barks.
“Blue’s got one,” the man yells.
In a few seconds another dog chimes in. “Tiny’s with him.” The boy knows his dog’s voice. Men and boys yelling back and forth across the cold morning.
Eight beagles sounding off in rhythm. Their voices like a groundswell, moving through the swamp, telling you exactly where they are. They are pushing a cotton tail up through the briars. The hunters walk for bit and listen.
The boy jogs up the edge toward a tractor road that cuts through between the fields. And he waits. The dogs getting closer from his left. A rabbit breaks out of the thicket and tries to cut across into the cover on the other side. Boom! The boy gets the first rabbit of the day. The smell of powder wafts back to his nose. He picks up his kill and stuffs him into the back of his jacket.
The dogs gather round him. He gives them a quick chance to smell the result of their work. And they are off again. The men yell.
“Hey, yup! Hey-yunh! Hey-yunh! Get up in here Blue. Show ‘em where he’s at Old Jack.”
The boy learns the language of working the dogs. No one talks like this on a regular day. But this is hunting. And there is no other day on earth quite like it.
Lunch is bought at country gas station down the road. Sardines and Saltine crackers, maybe Vienna sausages. A cold Co-Cola and a few salted peanuts. Then they return to the field.
By early afternoon, more than 40 rabbits are cleaned and placed in the cooler for the ride home. Some are given to neighbors. Most find their way into Mama’s dumplings or gravy or stew with cornbread.
No sir. You can’t explain it to those who don’t understand. But for those who do, the days of rabbit hunting will live forever in the stories of old men who love to tell them.