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Now You See Him, Now You Don't

by Bill Bennett

The north side of Morgan Ditch has always been one of your favorite rabbit hunting patches. As you cross the gravel road and struggle up a steep incline, Bell and Sam pull at their leashes in a state of excitement in anticipation of the hunt.

            The cold morning air is crystal clear as a bright sun hangs over the eastern horizon. A million reflections, like tiny diamonds sparkle off the frost covered brambles and vegetation that sprawl eastward along the huge drainage ditch.

            One half mile to the east is a pocket of timber marking the entrance of a smaller ditch that feeds the monstrous ditch with drainage water from the adjacent fields. On its eastern side hidden in a small corpse of hardwood trees are the remnants of a long forgotten house place from a bye-gone era. History of the Delta region reveals when logging operations from the lumber industry was a mainstay of the economy, a major cabinet manufacturing company obtained the rights to enormous tracts of timberland to be cleared. The company recruited occupants to move onto forty-acre plots and provided them with a small, well constructed four room house. The house and land were deeded to the occupants after they cleared the timber of the company. The residents then tilled the soil and eked out a living by producing cash crops of cotton. Some of these small rugged abodes remain but they are extremely rare. Ravaged by neglect, time and weather, most have succumbed to Mother Nature’s relentless march to reclaim the land to her.

            You release Bell and Sam sixty steps away from the roadway at the top of the huge ditch. They immediately plunge down the steep embankment, thrashing the frost-covered weeds. Your post allows you the advantage to watch them work a growth of stunted green cane near the waters edge.

            On your left, the remains of a cut over cotton field spread five hundred yards to the north and east. It is bordered by the smaller drainage ditch with its’ thin line of timbers and dilapidated house place. The desolate cotton field is streaked with several shallow depressions that serve as miniature drains to feed the large ditch with run off water. Scattered, snow-white cotton boll remnants dot the massive field, evidence of its’ late autumn harvest.

            The topsoil is frozen solid but you notice the only ice is along the waters edge. A few small standing pockets of water are covered with thin ice, but the main channel is ice free as the slow moving water pushes its’ way to the west. A few bare limbed scrub oak and thorn sprouts are scattered along the sides of the ditch, interspersed with tangles of honeysuckle, long stemmed Johnson grass, saw briars, and crab grass.

            The bottom and side of the ditch is covered with a maze of thick vegetation. There are numerous old and freshly cut pin oak, willow, sassafras, and ironwood saplings strewn in a helter-skelter fashion along the waters edge as far as the eye can see. It is the resulting work of a healthy crop of industrious beavers. The white frost covered branches reach above the undergrowth, seemingly to revive them in the sparkling sunlight.

            The minutes pass slowly as both dogs search for a fresh rabbit scent line. You glance at the bare ground near your feet and spot signs of rabbit tracks and droppings frozen in the bare topsoil. A three quarters morning moon hangs silently over the southern horizon: its’ white surface contrasting with the clear blue sky. A bright red cardinal calls from a lonely green cedar tree, protesting the intrusion of man and dogs for interrupting his morning feeding.

            You whistle to the Beagles and talk to them in an encouraging tone of voice. Neither appears to pay attention to you, but you sense they not only hear you, but also are grateful for your involvement in the hunt.

            Minutes drag bye in agonizing slow motion. As you watch and listen to the sharp, loud slap of a beaver tail striking the water in a warning, floats on the still cold air from one hundred yards to the east. Sam stops, cocks his head toward the noise, and then returns to the business at hand. Bell continues her search and sniffs excitedly under a stack of limbs.

            You breathe in the refreshing cold air and squint your eyes against the bright sunlight. You are glad you decided to wear your insulated coveralls and gloves. Adjusting the bill of your blaze orange cap to shade your eyes from the bright sun, you listen and watch the dogs work the tangles.

            Three hundred yards to your left, a flock of black birds ripple through the quiet morning and land in the cut over cotton field, hoping to find a breakfast or discarded cottonseeds. You remind yourself how fortunate you are to have the opportunity to be a part of natures’ beauty and challenges.

            The serenity of the morning quiet is broken suddenly by Sam’s thunderous, baritone bawl. The sound echoes off the sides of the huge ditch with an impact that startles you. Seconds later, Bell joins her bracemate with her high chopped tongue, as an enormous blue heron gracefully lifts itself into the air on its six-foot wingspan. It floats effortlessly away from the commotion in the direction of a harvested rice field south of the large ditch.

            Holding your twelve-guage shotgun in a “port arms” position, you watch in the direction of the tonguing Beagles to see if the rabbit will head in your direction. Within seconds you determine he is escaping in the opposite direction. As the Beagles give full cry on the hot scentline, you feel a thrill; a shiver stabbing at your heart as the sound of the race filters through the chilled air.

            You walk slowly in the direction of the clamoring hounds watching the edge of the field. You anticipate the rabbit will break from the thick stuff and race into the harvested cotton field within gun range. The palms of your hands sweat and your heart pounds as you stand quietly waiting for the quarry to appear. The hounds howl excitedly as the rabbit bolts from the underbrush sixty-yards away and races diagonally across the eastern corner of the field. He quickly dives into the cover of the smaller ditch line and disappears.

            The dogs break from the frost covered tangles and momentarily loose the line. In seconds they both discover the hot scent and with tongues hanging out, tails wagging furiously, they howl at the top of their lungs as they race along the path of the invisible scent. In a matter of seconds they disappear into the cover of the smaller ditch line.

            A sudden hush settles over the frost-covered world as the hounds loose the scent line and begin their check. The distant sound of a redheaded woodpecker, pounding on a grub infested oak tree, sifts across the still cold air from a woodlot located on the south side of the giant ditch. You wonder to yourself if he is finding enough to eat for breakfast. The quiet drags on like a heavy steel weight as you argue the point with yourself of moving in the direction of the race.

            As you fidget and wiggle your toes against the cold, Bell’s loud high chopped bark rings across the Delta landscape. Sam answers immediately with a deafening bawl and the race heads east into the stubble of a harvested soybean field. Your best guess is that the rabbit will head for an abandoned briar and honeysuckle covered trash dump, forty yards beyond the old house place. Seconds later you realize you are wrong again as the race moves further east. It appears the rabbit is determined to out run the howling, pursuing hounds.

            The race turns south in the direction of the huge ditch. The dogs are nearly out of hearing so you walk in their direction and take a post where the smaller ditch intersects the larger ditch. From your vantage point, you can see the hump of the abandoned dump, with its entanglement of briars and honeysuckle. The old house place is barely visible except for a few scattered, rotten planks. A strand of bare limbed mimosa trees silently guards the place.

            As you inspect the remains of the almost invisible homestead, you wonder who might have lived there? Your imagination searches the past for clues. Undoubtedly, life at this lonely place at the turn of the century was harsh and cruel. You can almost sense the ghosts of those who where born, lived, and struggled to extract a meager livelihood from the once forested area. You can almost hear the laughter of children, the conversations of family members; yes, even arguments, the joys of a Christmas season, and the stillness of the frost covered morning you feel an emotion kin reverence as you wonder what stories this small, simple place could tell, if only it could speak.

            Suddenly, you are jolted from your daydream like state, as the sound of the hounds draws nearer. They are running along a nearly invisible game trail bordering the waters edge at the bottom of the large ditch. Whey you spot the dogs thirty yards away, you feel foolish for having been caught off guard. The rabbit has obviously slipped bye you unnoticed.

            You quickly turn and walk one hundred yards west along the top of the bank, hoping to intercept the elusive quarry. Meanwhile, the dogs keep up their loud chorus of howls, the scent filling their noses, and propel them along the unseen scentline.

            You stop and scan the tell tale signs of the hidden game trail. A flicker of movement wiggles the tops of a clump of tall water grass at the edge of the slow moving water. You fix your attention on an opening between two ironwood sprouts, hoping the quarry will appear. The clamor of the hounds is less than sixty yards away as they thread through the thick tangles on the steep bank.

            In the twinkling of an eye, a dark brown blur pops through the narrow opening and slips into a briar patch. It is perfectly camouflaged against the background of briars, leaves, and dead weeds. You suddenly realize this is no ordinary cottontail but rather a larger cousin, commonly called a ‘swamp rabbit’!

            The “swamper” or “cane cutter” rabbit is known to weigh seven pounds or more. His legs and ears are longer and than his smaller cousin, the cottontail. Frequently, he is dark brown or deep gray in color with a blue tint of fur on his undersides. Most noticeably, he is absent the white ‘cotton’ of a tail.

            He is a tremendous game animal. When pursued by hounds, he will often ‘side jump’ in an effort to throw the hounds off the scent line. He will often jump on top of a fallen tree or log, run its length, reverse himself, and backtrack along his previous scent line. Then he will leap off the opposite side of the log and quickly out distance he pursuing hounds.

            Another trick in his bag of survival skills is to dive into deep water and submerge himself with only his dark nose exposed. He will remain motionless in this position until the real or perceived danger has passed, and his ability to swim borders on the phenomenal.

            His numbers as a species once rivaled the cottontail across the Delta, but his numbers continue to dwindle as changing agricultural practices and development eliminate large chunks of his swampy habitat. Nevertheless, he holds onto life frequently co-existing with his smaller cousin the cottontail. A swamper can really test the skills of man and hounds to their limits.

            As the howling brace of Beagles wind their way through the tangles of the ditch bank, the swamp rabbit fidgets and cocks his long ears in the direction of the noise. Without warning, he springs from his hiding place with an enormous leap and lands with a splash in the slow moving water. He expertly swims the remaining fifteen yards to the south bank and silently slips up the steep side into a patch of thick honeysuckle.

            Meanwhile, the hounds continue their stubborn pursuit on the fresh scent line. Arriving at the swamp rabbit’s hiding spot, they begin to cast about in an effort to relocate the line. Sam circles up the side of the bank while Bell casts toward the waters edge. Both dogs whine with a look of frustration knowing the quarry had been at this exact spot only moments ago.

            You call to the hounds and both look up at you with a quizzical look in their eyes, as if to ask, “Where did he go, Boss?” After several minutes of calling to them, they reluctantly climb up the bank where you watched the entire episode. As you leash them, they stare back down the bank in the direction of the canecutter’s escape as though in disbelief.

            The sun has warmed the air as you walk westward in the direction of your awaiting truck. You talk to Bell and Sam in a reassuring tone of voice that the loss of the swamp rabbit today means an opportunity for another test of wills with him on another hunt. You unleash them near a sprawling honeysuckle patch, interspersed with persimmon and water tupelo sprouts, commanding them to “Check.” Bell dives into the thicket while Sam methodically circles the entanglement investigating the escape routes.

            Within seconds, Bell opens beneath the honeysuckle vines, her bark slightly muffled by the thick vegetation. The cottontail breaks cover and speeds down a shallow depression leading into the cotton field. Sam bellows at the top of his lungs as he catches a glimpse of the rabbit making a hasty retreat from the area. Both dogs join forces and with a chorus of howls and barks, race after the speeding rabbit. Halfway across the open field, you watch the rabbit turn sharply to the right and head full speed toward the cover of the bank.

            You should the twelve-guage pump and patiently wait for the target to get into shooting range. At thirty yards you find the bobbing brown and white target in the sight picture and squeeze the trigger. The blast of gunfire roars across the open field as the rabbit flips head over heels and lies still in a furrow. You unload the gun and walk over to where the rabbit lies. You quietly wait for the dogs to finish working the scent line before picking it up and allowing them to momentarily mouth the game. They whine in disapproval as you leash them. A few soft words calm them down as you walk slowly toward the awaiting pick-up truck.

            The hunt comes to a close as you load the dogs into the carrier box and store your gun. The hunt has been exhilarating and rewarding. Not so much in terms of a heavy game bag, but rather in reflections at the old house place with its ghosts of the past, the tricks played by the wise swamp rabbit, the beauty of the song birds, the fresh clear morning air, the opportunity to be outdoors and being a part of nature, but most importantly, to be a part of the work of the dogs and their loyal companionship. They are the reason to be out there. They have provided another adventure – a memory to be filed away in the deep recesses of your mind.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).