Volume IX, No. 1, Fall 1981
by Deidra Morgan
Drawings by Jill Splan
Photography by James Heck
I could hardly sit still when I heard the first faint sound of the hounds from beneath the bluff. Gradually the sounds increased.
"They've got a race!" Stanley Arnold exclaimed, jumping up to hear better. From the Niangua River bottom below us we could hear several more hounds joining in. The barks got higher and steadier as the race sped up the valley to our left. Even though we could see no further than the timber line in the moonlight, we followed the hounds with our ears.
"Just listen to that! Did you ever hear anything prettier?" Stanley asked. We were sitting on the ground, our backs to the fire, looking over the edge of the timber into the darkness where we knew the river flowed.
"I never did," agreed Ralph Usery.
"That one in the lead sounds like mine," Ray Gilbertson said. "Boy, when he gets excited if he don't get high and loud. Oh, he's got a pretty mouth when he's running."
"They're really on the trail now," Dean Reagon said contentedly, sitting back to enjoy a long night of fox hunting.
I was equally as pleased. I have always loved to hear a foxhound cry while in pursuit of a fox. I guess it's in my blood because my father has been an avid fox hunter all his life.
More dogs joined in as the race circled back. "They're stinking now!" Raymond Medley said.
This was what we came for when Jill Splan, James Heck, Dwayne Sherrer and I arranged to go with Stanley on a fox hunt, though we had no idea what awaited us. My father and I had been on some fox hunts alone, but none like the one I went on with Stanley Arnold and his friends.
Meeting Stanley at dusk at the kennels we crossed some stile blocks to enter what looked like a city of dogs set off from the road in some woods. There were pens of hounds everywhere. Fox hunters are very serious about their sport and take great care of their hounds.
The pens were made of woven wire, high enough so that the hounds could not jump out, and set
deep enough in the ground so the hounds could not dig out, although some manage to get out.
The doghouses were made of different materials, such as camper shells, barrels, as well as regular
doghouses. "These make great doghouses," said Stanley.
All the houses had straw on the floor for bedding. Stanley had a small shed in which he put straw on the floor to put hounds in when he comes in late at night. "This is kind of a catch-all. You see, when I come here of a night, like one o'clock, two o'clock, whatever, I don't want to come up here and fool with putting them all in their separate places, so I just turn them loose here. They know where they are. This is their home. They just sleep in that good bed. It's a dandy. I keep it real inviting. Then the next morning I come out to feed and put all the hounds away. It's warm. It's a dandy--a good place."
Stanley had built some small table-like benches for the hounds' comfort. "All those benches, they're all for shade. Also the hounds just love to get up on them and lay there and look around and see. They just love those high spots."
Before we left Stanley introduced all his hounds to us. Some of the names of the hounds were interesting: Aladar, Dicky Doo, Hy Fashion, Gidget, Cover Girl, Sadie Hawkins and Crystal Gale.
Jill asked, "Where do you come up with all these names?"
"Some are race horses, Rocky Top is," Stanley answered.
We loaded the dogs into the pickup. The pickup bed had a camper shell to protect the dogs. In the back there was a chain running across it so that we could chain the dogs to it. Once loaded we headed toward Rocky Top Acres, a narrow piece of land on a bend of the Niangua River.
Though Stanley had told us a few fox hunting friends would join us, we got a big surprise when we got there. There must have been five or six pickups waiting where the gravel road turned off the highway and when we drove down the road to Rocky Top Acres another fox hunter awaited us. Everyone was dressed for the night temperatures wearing heavy jackets and boots. Ralph said, "I wear insulated coveralls when I go out at night. They are the finest things." The warm clothing is to protect the hunters as they sit around the fire.
We all got acquainted, got out our folding chairs, built a campfire from old post stumps and settled down to listen to the race. The atmosphere was perfect for the hunt. It was a lovely mild night for late September, with the full moon. The air was just cold enough for a jacket.
Excitement was in the air. The huntress were getting ready to listen to the hounds chase the fox. The hounds were pulling at the chains to be released for they were just as excited about the race as the fox hunters were, though they never made a sound. Finally, the hunters turned the hounds loose. They went running silently off down the road, their tails over their backs.
Willa Jean Usery asked the fox huntress, "You guys don't get out and holler at your dogs, do you? When my dad used to turn his dogs loose, he'd want to give a big yell to get them started off and get their spirits up."
Dean Reagon replied, "An old neighbor over in Moon Valley used to get drunk and he had fifteen or twenty dogs. When he'd turn his dogs loose, you could hear him holler plumb down here."
"Oh, it kind of helped get your spirits up," said Willa Jean.
We noticed Stanley kept a couple dogs tied in his pickup. "Why don't they turn them all loose at the same time?" asked Dwayne.
"Well, sometimes we do, but sometimes you'd wish you'd saved one or two back, too. You may want to move on someplace else and turn them loose. If the hounds don't jump on a fox pretty soon, we'll go someplace else."
James asked, "Do you ever go hunting when the dogs don't raise a fox?"
"Oh, no," said Ralph. "They'll turn up one tonight. Yeah, they'll just keep turning dogs loose."
"Are there some nights that you don't hear them running?" I asked Stanley.
"They generally always find a fox. Maybe it'll run an hour or two hours and then it goes in a hole. Then the hounds jump another one."
While waiting for the hounds to find a fox, Willa Jean said, "We saw two foxes as we came up the hill by the side of the road. It looked like one was catching a grasshopper." The red fox has a reputation of being very playful.
"I saw one this morning right down there by the pond," Jill said. "It ran right across the road and just stared at me."
While we talked, we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, drank cider and coffee and popped popcorn over the open fire.
The hunters were concerned about the possibility they couldn't hunt much longer since the Conservation Commission opened the season on red foxes this year. The fox hunters were unhappy about it. When most people think of a hunter, they probably think he is out to kill. But not all hunters kill, and that is especially true of the Ozark fox hunter. He never purposely kills a fox, red or gray. A true fox hunter goes to hear the sounds of the race. Therefore, he doesn't want the fox killed. He wants to let his dogs race him again another night.
The hunters were concerned that the open season on red foxes would thin out the fox population so that there would be few foxes left for the races. Their dogs would hunt all night without raising a fox.
"The season's been closed for two years, but this year they opened it," said Stanley.
"They'll kill every one of them," Ray Gilbertson said.
"They'll kill all they can because there won't be many left," Stanley agreed.
Fox hunters really get mad when they hear of foxes being killed or mistreated. Willa Jean remembered how angry her father was. "One time when I was just a kid, we was all in the wagon ready to go to church, and our neighbor came down and told my father that they'd stuffed up a fox's den with the babies in it. And I'll tell you one thing, there were a bunch of mad men. Now they were mad. My dad and them went and unstuffed it, and put out some treats because they wanted those little babies to live so they could have a lot of good hunting."
Far from killing them, sometimes fox hunters make sure young ones will live by raising the pups until they are old enough to fend for themselves. One hunter said, "A year ago last spring, I took a live trap up in the holler and this old fox had seven. We set that thing. And before we could hardly get away, we caught three of them. I put them in the hen house and I raised them there until fall."
"A lot of these laws are made at clubs. They don't really know how to preserve wildlife," said Willa Jean.
"City people don't know the enjoyment of listening to this music." I said.
"That's right." replied Willa Jean.
When I asked Stanley if he hunted just to listen to the music, he answered, "That's right. I'd rather hear a good fox race than I would the Grand Ole Opera, and I'm fairly fond of that, I'll tell you. It's my favorite. I'd rather hear a good fox race. All fox hunters would. They're all alike in certain ways. Fox hunters have a language all their own, and if you're not a fox hunter, you wouldn't understand. I don't know whether it's in your blood or you're borned a natural fox hunter. Sometimes I wonder."
"I agree thoroughly," I said. You have to be born with fox hunters' blood in you to be able to hear the music. My father is a fox hunter. I guess that means I have fox hunters' blood in me.
"A few years ago Ancil Barber told some Bittersweet staff members about the same thing," I continued. "He said, 'A fox hunter is born. You can't make someone a fox hunter. I'm eighty-five and I never shot at a fox in my life, wouldn't. I want to hear the chase for the music the hounds make. People ask me, what music does a hound make? They don't see any music in it. You got to be born that way. They couldn't see nothing in going and sitting all night to listen to hounds running a fox. But now to a born fox hunter that's music, and I can't explain it to you at all. But it is just something a fellow that is a born fox hunter gets.' That's what he said."
"That's the way it is," Ralph agreed. "Ancil said he's always been that way," I said. "He said, 'When I was a little kid and lived down in the hills in an old log house where I was born, I'd hear the hounds running in the night, it'd wake me up and I'd get up in the bed and set and listen. I thought I never heard anything as nice in my life as them hounds a-running. And I wasn't nothing but a little kid.'"
The conversation died down as we all listened for the hounds. Ralph said, "They haven't started yet. They're just looking. When they start you can hear them real plain. I can't hear them now at all." We sat there quietly listening to the night sounds. "They're getting a track now," Ralph said. "It's getting warm. They're not running--they're just getting warm."
"How do you know?" asked Jill. "They're missing now. The trail is pretty good. They're trying to run it hard. See, when they smell it one place, they'd try to get down there and smell it again. That's a fair track. We call that stinking. They're getting to stinking now.
"I remember once Willa Jean had this dog, and the other dogs come in a-running real fast. Willa Jean said, 'They've got the fox stinking. I'm going to turn this pup loose.' And her mother said, 'Can you smell him?'"
Willa Jean explained. "That was the fox, see. We had these young dogs, and they turned the older dogs loose to start the chase. Mother and I was quite a ways away, and we had the young dogs in the car. And so Ralph said, 'Now Willa Jean, when we get that fox to stinking...' See when foxes run a little ways they throw off an odor. And the farther they go, the hotter they get, the more of the smell--the stronger the smell. That's when my mother said, 'Oh, Willa Jean, can you smell him?'
"If the dogs get real close in the pursuit, the fox will go up a tree and then they'll come back down, see, to throw them off, and the dogs will get mixed up. Sometimes they'll go into sheep or cows to throw the dogs off the track," said Willa Jean.
By this time the race had really started. I walked up the road a bit to record the hounds barking. Although they were on the next ridge, I could hear them as if they were next to me.
"There's one or two way back in there, way back. There's something," said Ralph.
"That's my dog," said Raymond Medley.
Jill wondered how he knew it was his dog. Ralph said, "Everybody knows his own hound. That Stanley is the best guy I've ever known to know dogs--him and Wilford McGuire. They both can tell hounds. If they hear him bark a few time, they can tell who he is. This Wilford, he's really good in telling hounds. He hears them once, he just knows whose they are. That Gilbertson's got one of the best hounds here. They're down there in the holler. They're getting in tune. Sounds like we might have something." He put the hearing horn to his ear. "You can't get direction on this thing. All you can do is hear them."
We could hear the dogs in the distance.
Jill asked if the fox hounds ever caught a fox. Ralph replied, "Sometimes they do."
"What do they do if they catch them?"
"Well, they kill them. But seldom do they ever. Sometimes an old fox, if it's a wet morning, like down there in the bottom--it's wet--and he'll get a lot of water on his tail and it gets heavy. I don't know, the foxes just won't go in a hole sometimes. And just before the dog catches the fox, the fox'll turn around and face toward him to try to bluff him."
Jill asked, "You said you lose foxes, do you also lose dogs?"
"Yes," replied Ralph. "Oh, you get a lot killed on the highway. You lose them and you never hear of them. They get hung in the fences. They get hung in a steel trap. When I was in the dog business, I kept yearling dogs growing all the time. You'd lose several of them. And times you'd never hear of them. Sometimes they get off miles from home, people'd steal them and take them off and sell them someplace else."
"They're worth a lot?" asked Jill.
"Well, a good dog now'd bring two hundred dollars. I bet Gilbertson wouldn't take two hundred dollars for that one dog of his."
I asked, "Did someone ever find dogs and keep them without calling you to tell you they got them?"
"Happens all the time," commented Wilford McGuire.
"And you lose them on the road?" "Yeah, about three years ago I had nine a-running up there right at home. Five of them come in. It was awful hot and dry and they'd run every morning and I kept feed and water out there for them when they'd chased. And you know there was four of them never did show up. I don't think nothing about it when I lose one. They get hung in fences awful bad and highways, but when you lose four at one time, you've lost too many."
Now most fox hunters put their telephone numbers and "call collect" on the hounds' collars, so that if the hounds do get lost, the person who finds him can give the owner a call. The name of the owner and his address are usually on the collar, too.
Hunters also lose foxhounds on the ice. Stanley said he lost one of his foxhounds that way. The other hounds had come in all wet after a hunt. He figured that the hound fell through the ice while crossing the river.
Stanley was telling us about a time when one of his young hounds was gone for twenty-nine days. Jill commented, "If a dog went twenty-nine days, it must know how to live out there."
"She was just young. She was seven and a half months old when I turned her loose. The first time I ever turned her loose she went with the hounds right off!'
Ralph started up a conversation about other old races they'd had on this spot. "When I lived over there right at Bennett Spring, I had a little female. She was a nice little dog. There was some fox-hunters came in here with their dogs, and when they came under the bluff down there at the spring, I heard my little dog go to them. When they came back, the other dogs was following her and had been all night long, but she'd been running in here in the bend of the river, see. She knew where every little path dropped, where to pick it up. A lot of dogs get stranded on this bend. We call this The Bend, and it used to be the worst place in the world to run a dog if they wasn't used to the bend. Well, the dogs they come to a high bluff and they can't get down and don't know how to hunt a place. Hunters have lost their dogs, some that come up here. And I said to one of the hunters, I said, 'Did you have a strange dog last night?' He said, 'Yeah, had a bitch!' I said, 'How'd she run?' He said, 'Oh, about length of them telephone poles apart.' She run all night ahead of them hounds!"
"Do you think your dogs are running in the bend now there or do you think they ran across the road?" asked Jill.
"I thought they crossed the road," said Ralph.
"How far off can you hear?"
"That depends on where they're at and how the wind is. Sometimes you can hear them a long ways and sometimes you don't hear them. We can hear across the river. If they're on a high ridge, a lot of times you can hear them a mile and a half. But sometimes if they're coming in here like under this bluff, you just don't hear them at all until they come out again. They come out this bluff and you just don't hear them until they pop out right over here. Sometimes them foxes will bark for the dogs to run them."
"They'll bark? What do they sound like?" asked Jill.
"Well, like a little feist, a little dog," continued Ralph. Last time we were down here on the ridge a little fox started barking over there by the power house and it came clear across that ridge, just a-barking, and them dogs bailed in after that fox. It was all they could do to work it and trail it and it was just walking and barking, and they was just walking behind it. If a fox runs, a dog'll run. If he stops and walks, that dog'll stop and walk. And if he darts again, that dog'll dart. If that fox stops, that dog stops and walks too.
Yeah. That's the way they trail them."
"Does the fox have fun, too?" asked Jill.
"Yeah, the fox likes it," replied Stanley, "Not all of them, but some do. They'll outsmart the hounds and they'll wait on the hounds when the hounds get back too far, a lot of times, the fox'll just stop and turn around and just listen for the hounds a-coming. Yeah, I've seen that lots of times."
"The dog just goes the same speed as the fox," said Dean Reagon. "The fox gets out on a dusty road and just loses the dogs. He just walks down a road and he's got them lost. Blacktop the same way. The dogs have to wait until he gets out the side of the road before he can pick him up."
"How come they can't smell them on blacktop?" asked Dwayne.
"It's got a lot of tar, I guess. It's got a lot of chemical," said Ralph. "They just can't smell them."
"If there's water on it from a rain they can," said Dean.
All fox hunters love to tell stories. The time-honored one is about taking a preacher fox hunting for the first time. "It took a lot of doing but I finally talked our preacher into going fox hunting with us. We were setting around listening to the hounds over on the next ridge. The sound just drifted across the holler clear as could be. I could hear old Bell in the lead. 'Just listen to that beautiful music,' I said. 'I can't hear any,' preacher said. 'Sure you can,' I said. 'Just listen to that music.' Preacher just snorted disgusted-like and said, 'I can't hear any music for them damned dogs!"
Another hunter told this story about one of his hounds. "She was running one of my pet foxes one day, and the fox come around the corner of the house. I had a hole in the hen house there where it could get in. This fox had so much speed up it couldn't get in the hole, so he went around the house. There was a chicken fence there, and he hit that fence and it knocked that fox back about as far as from here to that fire. When the fox hit the fence, that dog was just a-grabbing. Boy, I got a-hold of her fast."
Another hunter said that he'd seen foxes run so close you could see them by the fire.
"A lot of times you get a race started and they'd run until the sun come up," said De
n. "I lay down there one time by that hickory tree all night long. Then I walked in from that tree after daylight. Oh, talk about feeling rough. I got my chores done up the next morning and laid down on the floor to take a nap. A neighbor's daughter came up and wanted me to help put up hay. Well, they was neighbors and I had to go. That was the miserablest day I believe I ever spent. I'd pitch it up there on that wagon and go up there and pitch it off in that old big barn. Oh, I was sick."
In foxhunting the fox hunters don't chase the fox, they let the hounds do that. Willa Jean Usery and Dean Reagon quietly sit around enjoying the fire on a mild winter evening, listening to the hounds in pursuit of the fox. Ralph Usery uses the earhorn to hear the race better. Photo by Dwayne Sherrer
As we were sitting there listening to the hounds run the fox Ralph said, "That's Pete and Goldie."
"Do dogs run together?" asked Jill.
"Oh yeah," said Ralph. "They all try to run in front. They don't but they try to."
"Do they run each other over?"
"Oh, sometimes they just knock each other end over end to get in front. I've seen them just knock one another down trying to get in. I've heard them dogs to be a-running so hard they'd just be a-grunting not barking. They'd be just a-beat-ing the ground. Man, they'd really be a-running."
Ralph put his ear horn up to his ear. "Listen down here in the bottom. Put this up to your ear. If you can hear good, it don't help you. I just barely can hear them, but I put that up there in my ear and I can hear real good. They cost about nine dollars."
Jill asked Stanley, "Do they ever get two foxes going?"
"Yeah, they've got two going now."
"Can two foxes get the hounds mixed up?"
"Hounds don't miss the trail as bad as you'd think. They stay on the same track without too much trouble."
"Do you ever do this during the day when you can see them?" asked James.
"I don't hunt in daytime much anymore. We run coyotes in the day. They run better than a fox."
We were nighttime hunting, although fox hunters do go daytime hunting. Daytime hunting is preferred in the winter but is not too desirable in the summer because the fox hounds would soon tire out in the heat.
Not every night is a beautiful night to fox hunt like the one when we went.
"Have you been out when a storm hit or something bad?" asked Jill.
"Yes," replied Stanley. "We don't always come on a nice night. I've been when it come up a storm all night."
If it's raining, a fox hunter might sit in his pickup with the windows rolled down. The fox hunters
stay out as long as they can. On beautiful nights it's fun to stay.
"You know it'll make you sick, but you turn right around and stay out all night again, then be so tired you don't know where you are--weaving around." said Willa Jean.
"Just the way with an old hound. They run until they can't run, then let them rest and right back in again. They know they ain't going to catch the fox," commented Dean.
After the race is over the hounds usually come back to where they were let loose. Since Stanley hunts this bend often, he fixed a place for his hounds. Over under the shelter of the trees, he had a pile of fresh hay, on which the hounds could sleep when they returned. Stanley had a plastic bucket he left for the hounds. "I leave this with water in it for the hounds. I'm going to build me a shed for the hounds to come back to in the wintertime. I'll come back in the morning and they'll be waiting for me."
"Do they just stay here?" asked Jill.
"They come back and make themselves at home. They just lay down in the shade or whatever until I come back for them."
What makes fox hunting so beautiful at night? This is what Willa Jean has to say. "One thing it's the night sounds that you don't never hear any other time. There's a completely different world at night. Birds are one thing, they're all in harmony. They're never out. To me it's peaceful."
"It sure is," said Stanley. "It's just a God-given privilege we're all still able to enjoy."
This night will be a night I will always remember. We ate, talked and listened to the fox hounds run the fox. We listened to the fox hunters tell their stories, whether they pertained to fox hunting or not.
When we got ready to leave, we all stood around the fire holding hands.
Then we all said the Lord's Prayer aloud.
"We've had some good ones here haven't we, Raymond" said Stanley.
"Oh mercy yes." replied Raymond Medley.
"Same place next time?"
"Yep, see you all."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.