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The Rabbit Man

by Keith Sutton

          In most respects, he was a common man. But in the few seasons I hunted with him, I found in The Rabbit Man a depth of character as rare and priceless as precious jewels.

          I met him in the winter of 1987. "Let's get together this weekend and go rabbit hunting," my friend Lewis said. "One of my clients invited us. Sounds like he has some good dogs. Says they had a good hunt a couple of days ago."

          And so it was that two days later, in the parking lot at his office, Lewis introduced us, The Rabbit Man and me.

          I knew from the start there was nothing pretentious about him. "Nice meetin' ya," he said, extending a callused hand. "Now if we're done with the pleasantries, maybe we can go huntin'."

          Crotchety old cuss, I thought. And, indeed, that morning, The Rabbit Man looked the part. He smiled very little, and a three-day stubble of beard roughened his furrowed face. He was a big man, but he looked haggard and old for his 65 years, like the pictures you see of farmers who lost it all in the Dust Bowl. He dressed in typical hunter's garb--a plaid flannel shirt, brushbuster breeches with a swath of vinyl across the front of each leg, red suspenders where he hitched his thumbs, a camo hunting cap, a canvas coat and rubber knee boots. A shiny, black-and-white cow horn with a pewter mouthpiece dangled from a piece of twine slung over one shoulder--a come-hither signal for his dogs.

          The picture stuck with me as we followed his pickup, driving to the bottoms. What makes this man tick? I wondered. Why did he invite us here?

          Not far from the town of Pine Tree, a gravel road cuts into the middle reaches of the L'Anguille River. Not far from that gravel road, down a muddy dirt path, is a little blackwater seep the locals call Lost Pond. The name is befitting, for you might pass within a few yards of Lost Pond and never know it is there. That is part of its charm. In its isolation, deep within this sea of bottomland hardwoods, this tiny pool rarely receives human visitors. Wood ducks come to rest and feed. Deer drink from its cool, tannin-stained waters. The woodlands around it are eternally damp and thickly understoried, a haven for swamp rabbits, woodcocks and other wetland creatures.

          It was here The Rabbit Man led us.

          We parked just east of the pond and stepped onto a blanket of hard-crusted snow. The wind was nippy but refreshing. I felt the twinge of heady anticipation that always precedes a good rabbit chase.

          The Rabbit Man turned out his dogs, whistling and bellowing to spur them on. Then, cradling guns under arms, we followed the snuffling pack of hounds into the heart of the Lost Pond woods.

          I studied the old man as we walked, and remember, quite clearly, how the curmudgeonly, wayworn facade faded away. He reminded me of a bruised child given a mother's kiss to make it all better. The sullen glower was replaced with a broad smile, and when we stopped, The Rabbit Man began to talk.

          "This here's God's country, son, or at least the closest I've ever come to it," he said, gesturing with a sweep of his outstretched hand. "Lotsa folks don't care much for it. Too muddy. Too many mosquitoes and snakes. But the swamp rabbits and cottontails like it plenty good. Lots of 'em, all through here. And me and my dogs ... well, we kinda take a hankering to any place there's lots of rabbits."

          He beamed as he talked, and I realized the grumpy disposition I perceived at first had not been that at all. It was more a bit of agitated impatience, an old man eager to get out of the city and back to the out-of-the-way haven where he was happy and at ease.

          We hunted several hours--talking, listening, waiting, when a chase was on. The dogs yammered in the distance, tracing huge ellipses and figure eights through the woods as they hounded the Lost Pond swampers.

          The Rabbit Man could not see the dogs, but then again, he could. His gaze followed their every move, and now and again, he related what was happening beyond the trees.

          "They've lost him," he'd say when the woods fell silent. "But just you listen. Ol' Pete'll figure him out." Shortly, the clamor would start again, and The Rabbit Man would smile a knowing smile.

          He knew what the dogs would do before they did it, and though the rabbits seemed totally unpredictable to me, never showing when I'd expect it, The Rabbit Man always inserted one of our hunting party in just the right place to cut short their escape. Only rarely did he step in himself to shoot, that privilege being appointed for his guests.

          I watched him slip through the bottoms that day, like a will-o'-the-wisp--here now, then gone, silently and unexpectedly--and knew the man was more than a visitor in those bottoms. He was as much a part of the swamp as the rabbits he chased, at home, fully incorporated into the landscape.

          I remembered a few lines I read once in a Barry Lopez story. "To hunt means to have the land around you like clothing. To engage in a wordless dialogue with it ... It means to release yourself from rational images of what something 'means' and to be concerned only that it 'is.'"

          That's how it was with The Rabbit Man. When he set his hounds loose in the bottoms, all pains and worries melted away. It was enough just to be there; the reasons why mattered not.

          Despite my initial misgivings, something special happened that day. A seed was planted, and over the next hunting season and the next, it grew into a deep, unexpected friendship. The long drive between our homes kept me from hunting with The Rabbit Man as much as I would have liked, but I went afield with him at least once or twice each season.

          We were generations apart, but being in those Lost Pond bottoms had a magical way of erasing our many contrasts. We listened to that glorious dog music and talked for hours about beagles and swamp rabbits, hunts past and hunts to come, and other matters of mutual importance. There were always jokes he'd saved special for the occasion, but they were tempered by bouts of pensiveness when the old man spoke of deep concerns. Mostly he worried about the noose of agriculture tightening 'round the neck of his beloved bottomlands.

          "It'll all be gone someday," he said, staring into the autumn woods. "Thirty years ago, when I first started hunting here, there was so much more. Cypress trees six feet through the middle. Oaks you could have built a house in. Game everywhere, like you couldn't imagine. Now it's shrinking away. Cleared up for the plow. Given over to soybeans and rice. I hope I'm not around when it's gone."

          I hated to see those days end, but it's the endings I remember most.

          "Hear those dogs, boy?" he'd ask me, looking out over his beloved woods. "They're playing my song. I hate to call 'em in."

          Then he'd pull that old horn from under his coat, and placing it to his lips, he'd sound a note, long and mellow, and the dog music would end.

          The layers of character that made The Rabbit Man different from the many other rabbit hunters I have known cannot be reduced to a single proposition. Yet, were I forced to choose one trait that set him apart from others, I would say it was the intense, unwavering love he had for the sport.

          For him, hunting rabbits was no mere passion. It was a vital function, like a heartbeat and breathing. Being in his favorite coverts, listening to his dogs chasing a canecutter or cottontail, was an elixir that nourished and sustained him. Like an aged man who'd found the Fountain of Youth, he returned to partake of the potion again and again, as often as possible. Had he been deprived of those outings, which were an almost daily event during rabbit season, I have no doubt he would have withered away long before I met him.

          I've met others like The Rabbit Man, but they are a rare and dying breed, destined, I'm afraid, for unheralded extinction. It is unfortunate that most hunters, even those of us who consider hunting an undying passion, can no longer devote ourselves to our pleasures in such an all-encompassing manner. Despite our preferences to the contrary, we find ourselves caught up in day-to-day affairs that demand an ever-increasing share of our time. As we give ourselves over to business and family matters and other such importances, we surrender to the notion that we're "doing what's right," that pleasures can be indulged only after we finish our toil.

          That is why, I suppose, I felt compelled to write this. The Rabbit Man may have been a common man, but he was also one who embraced his passion for the outdoors and made it a priority in his life. In that respect, he was part of a small and vanishing brotherhood. We should remember his kind, if only because most of us wish that we, too, could more often indulge our fancies.

          Hugh "Ed" Middleton, The Rabbit Man, passed away on February 19, 1991. Though I thought about it several times, I didn't hunt with him that season. It was the first time in several years we'd not managed a trip or two together. Too much to do at home and in the office. Too little time for "unimportant" stuff like rabbit hunting.

          When I read about his passing in the obituaries, I wasn't too shocked. The Rabbit Man was getting slow of late, complaining more about his arthritis and walking shorter distances before stopping to catch his breath.

          I spoke to him in January, listening as he complained about two new pups that wouldn't mind him. Pete had died the last season, and Scrapper was too old to chase rabbits any more. The young pups couldn't fill the shoes of the old veterans.

          When I learned of his death, I went to the doghouse and turned my little Beagle pup out into the woods. I listened as she ran a cottontail across the hillsides.

          Booorrooo! Booorrooo!

          It was a harsh sound, primitive and untamed. But it fell on my ears like a choir of angels.

          "Can you hear that, Rabbit Man?" I said, casting my eyes toward the orange sunset. "She's playing your song."

          In the distance, I thought I heard the long sonorous note of an old black-and-white horn.

SPECIAL NOTE:  At the 73rd Annual Outdoors Writers Association of America (OWAA) Conference, this article was awarded an Excellence in Craft Award for a small game article under the Magazine Category. Keith Sutton hails from Alexander, AR, USA. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Please note as well that BEAGLES UNLIMITED is a Supporting Member of the OWAA.

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