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Split Race

by Bill Bennett


            The headlights of your pick-up truck slice an eerie path through the predawn darkness. The absence of stars in the sky instantly tells you the day will be overcast. You hope the weather will hold off and not spoil the hunt. After all, the recent rainy weather has played havoc with your hunting plans for the past three weekends and there is no guarantee Mother Nature will suddenly decide to cooperate. 

            Just ahead, you watch the tail lights of Glenn Shanks pick-up truck pierce the darkness like a red-eyed monster, as you follow fifty yards behind. Glen, with his friend George Glover riding beside him are briefly illuminated by your headlights through the rear window before the truck disappears on the downside of an unguarded railroad crossing. 

            Stan Filmore, your best friend and hunting partner, peers out the passenger side window into the darkness and wonders out loud, how much further the Carpenter Farm is from the tracks. You tell him you are not certain but you do know the country road you are traveling ends at the banks of the Black River, a short five miles to the west. 

            You watch the brake lights on Glen’s truck brighten as it slowly approaches a section of road gutted with deep ruts and shallow ‘washboard’ wash-outs caused by the recent heavy rains. You slow your truck to a crawl as you negotiate the rough stretch. The rear tires spin and the light cargo bay slips and slides to the left and right before the front wheels strike the safety of solid ground. 

            Five minutes later, you follow Glen’s truck as it turns left into a wide gravel layered gate entrance and park beside his mud splattered vehicle. 

            Shutting off the headlights and motor, you and Stan climb out of the cab and stretch your arms and legs. Bell and Sam whine softly from the canvass covered fiberglass carrier box, as they sense your movements. You talk to them in a quiet, calm voice, assuring them all is well. 

            Cordial greetings and warm handshakes are exchanged before the group plans the hunt strategy. Forty year old, Glen Shanks, is nearly six feet tall, thickset, muscular, dark haired and green-eyed. His relaxed manner and winning smile immediately draw people to his engaging personality. A sales representative for a large automobile manufacturing parts company, Glen is an avid sportsman and conservationist. 

            George Glover, a retired railroad employee, is a long time friend of the Carpenter family who own the five hundred acre property. The silver streaks of gray in his hair reveal his sixty odd years, but his sense of humor and enthusiasm for rabbit hunting belie his true age. His steel gray eyes flash an unmistakable youthfulness and his easy smile immediately puts strangers at ease. He carries his one hundred sixty five pounds on a five foot ten inch frame. His boyhood years were spent exploring the Black River Bottoms and his vast knowledge of the areas’ wildlife, habitat, and terrain have earned him a near legendary reputation among local sportsmen and wildlife managers. 

            Dim streaks of white filter across the eastern horizon, announcing the breaking of dawn as the small group of hunters make last minute preparations putting on blaze orange vests and water-proof boots. Each man carefully uncases and checks the open action of his shotgun before gathering at the cargo bay of your truck. The thirty degree temperature is not uncomfortable but a five mile per hour north wind bites the bare skin of your ungloved hand as you release the dogs from the carrier. You quickly pull on your wool hand gloves before lowering the tailgate of the truck. 

            Bell and Sam bounce off the lowered tail-gate onto the cold, damp ground with excited tail wagging. They immediately sniff the ground in search of a fresh scentline as the group of hunters move west, up a low hill in the direction of a huge farm equipment storage building. 

            The rolling hillside is covered with yellow frost killed Johnson, Bermuda, panic and crabgrass. There are several intersecting fencerows spread across an area the size of a football field. The weather worn fencerows once formed a system of holding pens for live strands of barbed and mesh wire stand naked in the cold winter morning. But there is one fencerow leading to the south that is covered with tangles of honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, muscadine vines, saw briars, blackberry vines and dock weed. Interspersed along the mesh and barbed wire structure are bare branched sassafras, sumac, ironwood and needle sharp black thorn sprouts. 

            As the hunters walk at a leisurely pace to the top of the hill, you scan the thicket one hundred yards to the southeast. It is a massive tangle of brambles. The seventy five foot wide, one half mile wall of cover is bordered on the east by a three hundred acre harvested soybean field. Sprinkled along the edge of the thicket are patches of honeysuckle, frost killed panic and Bermuda grass, clumps of yellow-brown sage grass, dark brown cocklebur stalks and remnant soybean plants. Visibility into the thickets is limited to less than five feet except on the north end which contains openings dotted with small clusters of swamp grass and stunted green cane. Small pools of standing water on the extreme north end feed a single copse of mixed hardwoods containing water locust, cypress, water tupelo, black gum and willows. The open sandy loam soil of the soybean stubble reveals numerous rabbit tracks and droppings. Dozens of ‘rabbit runs’ twist through patches of thick weeds along the edge of the thicket and disappear into the massive tangles. 

            The west side of the huge thicket is bordered by another harvested soybean field. However, the Carpenters have left a thirty foot wide section of soybeans unharvested. These standing rows are laced with three foot tall dock weeds and dark brown cocklebur stalks. The strip of additional small game cover extends the entire one half mile length alongside the thicket from north to south. The soft ground between the rows are littered with rabbit droppings and tracks. 

            Several small openings along the west side offer glimpses into the massive thicket. There are numerous deadfalls covered with tangles of honeysuckle, sawbriars, blackberry and multiflora rose patches. Muscadine and honeysuckle vines cling from the stunted trees like masses of twisted ropes. Swamp privet, honey locust, elderberry, poplar, basswood, sugarberry and hackberry sprouts pepper the thicket with intertwined bare branched limbs. A sprinkling of winterberry bushes dot the thick tangles; their bright red berries decorating the drab gray brambles like clusters of rubies set in a giant silver necklace. 

            The mammoth section of thickets is bordered on the south by a dim seldom used field road that cuts east-west across the landscape. The road parallels a huge Corps of Engineers constructed drainage ditch that gently curves to the southwest. The ditch bank is covered with the typical thick Delta vegetation of honeysuckle, briars, Johnson, crab, swamp grasses and can thickets. Standing along the ditch line is a tall thin line of hardwoods; their bare dead like branches breaking the bleak gray horizon. The timbers disappear from view more than two miles away to the southwest where they loose themselves in a sprawling block of standing hardwoods. 

            As you reach the top of the hill, you and George easily step across the dilapidated covered fencerow. Stan and Glen take posts along the east side as you point at the cover and give Bell and Sam the ‘check’ command. The Beagles respond immediately and begin threading their way through the thick cover. 

            In less than two minutes, Bell’s loud, chopped mouth bark cracks the cold, morning air. Sam immediately joins his bracemate; his deep baritone bawls rolling across the hillside like claps of thunder. You watch forty yards ahead as the cottontail briefly slips from a patch of briars. Sensing danger of the open space, the smart, late season rabbit quickly disappears into the safety of a stand of ironwood sprouts as the Beagles howl and bark at the top of their lungs. 

            Without warning, the rabbit suddenly breaks from the cover again and races in the direction of his starting place. Glen stops the speeding cottontail with a single shot from his twelve guage double. The sound rolls across the hill side and carries across the adjoining fields as the Beagles follow the scentline to the rabbits resting place next to a clump of sage grass. Glen holds the prize in for their work and stuffs the rabbit into his game vest before the hunting party moves slowly eastward in the direction of the small copse of hardwoods at the north end of the monstrous thicket. 

            Shortly, the hunters arrive at the small copse of hardwoods and quickly decide Glen and Stan will post along the western edge of the thickets while you and George circle left around the north end and post in the soybean stubble. The hunt will then proceed south to the seldom used field road. George reminds everyone to watch closely for ‘bonus rabbits’ to flush from the cover as the dogs work the thick tangles. Courteous reminders regarding knowing the whereabouts of hunters and dogs are mentioned before the men take their individual posts. 

            When you and George arrive on the east side of the hardwoods, you give the Beagles the check command once more. They immediately dive into the cover, thrashing an area of swamp grass, stunted green cane and deadfalls, under the canopy of the hardwoods. 

            Bell squirms beneath a small vine covered deadfall; her wagging tail indicating there must be a rabbit hiding under the tangles. In seconds, a cottontail explodes from its’ hiding place. Sam catches a glimpse of the fleeting rabbit and howls at the top of his lungs. Bell joins him on the hot scent line and they race to the south with a chorus of howls and barks. 

            The race has gone less than thirty yards when two cottontails speed into the open soybean stubble and quickly turn south. You raise your twelve guage pump shotgun. Find the furthermost target in the sight picture, you pull the trigger and the rabbit drops in a heap. The second rabbit has ventured east in an attempt to escape over a gentle rise in the soybean stubble. You watch him turn to the west and head toward the safety of the thicket. George misses on his first shot but the second puts the fleeting target down before the rabbit can escape into the tangles. 

            Together, you and George begin walking to retrieve the game, when two shots ring through the cold morning air from the west side of the thicket. “I got him!” Stan yells, as the dogs turn up the volume of their baying and howling. The sound of another gunshot filters through the tangles as you hear Glen call out, “I missed him! How much am I supposed to lead these things?” 

            You and George pick up the downed rabbits and begin walking slowly south. The dogs continue their clamoring excitement on another fresh scentline and wind their way through the tangles heading toward the southwest. You have taken less than thirty steps when a cottontail explodes inches from Georges’ foot, speeds into the thicket and disappears. “Where did he come from?” George wonders out load. Smiling, you shake your head in surprise and listen to the sounds of the race floating across the cold morning air. 

            The race soon turns in your direction. The Beagles stubbornly stay with the scentline as the rabbit makes a series of loops and zigzags through the massive tangles. There are no ‘checks’ in this race as the baying of the hounds steadily increases. Your heart beat increases and palms of your hands perspire as the chorus of barks and howls grows. You feel that familiar thrill stabbing at your heartstrings as the hounds methodically move the rabbit in the direction of the soybean stubble. 

            You watch the dogs break from the thick cover fifty yards ahead. Your eyes water as you strain to pick up the telltale movements of the quarry. As you watch and listen, the dogs turn up the volume. Tails wagging furiously tongues hanging out and feet flying, they streak across the open stubble on the fresh scent as the ancient ritual of pursuit, predator and prey is played out before your eyes. 

            You are startled by the blast of George’s twelve guage, fifteen paces behind you. “He tried to slip around to your left, Bill, but I got him with a lucky shot!” George yells from his post. 

            Quickly, the dogs follow the scentline to the downed rabbit. George holds the cottontail in the air for them to mouth. Bell is obviously excited. Sam on the other hand, gives the rabbit a casual sniff, and with that ‘So what?’ look on his face, heads toward the thick stuff in search of another fresh scentline. You wait for George to field dress the rabbit and slip it into his game vest. As you both walk toward the south, George hangs the entrails on a sassafras limb beside the thicket, providing an easy meal for scavengers who will make short work of cleaning up the leftovers. 

            “Hey, are you guys doing OK?” Stan yells from across the massive tangles. “Everything is great over here,” you reply. “Let’s hunt to the field road and change places after a break,” you suggest. 

            Sixty yards from the field road, the Beagles open on another fresh scentline. This time the rabbit loops to the west and heads in the direction of Stan and Glen. The dogs push the rabbit into the rows of soybean stalks when two shots roar across the thicket. “We both missed again!” Stan yells. “Watch for him. I think he is headed your way!” 

            You and George stand quietly listening to the barking and howling of the dogs on the fresh scentline. Suddenly, the rabbit breaks from the cover and speeds south. Before the cottontail reaches the field road, he darts into the safety of the tick tangles. “I’ll intercept the dogs at the field road and we can take a short break before changing places and starting back toward the trucks,” you tell George. 

            The Beagles continue to follow the scentline as you wait for them near the field road. You watch the rabbit scurry to the west but no shots are forthcoming from Glen and Stan. The Beagles slightly protest being placed on leashes but you sense they to are ready for a short break. In less than five minutes, George, Stan and Glen join you at the edge of the field road and find seats on an old, discarded metal culvert. The twelve foot long, two foot high culvert is covered with a golden brown coat of rust and serves as a suitable resting place for tired backs and aching legs. 

            Twenty minutes later, you and George change posts with Stan and Glen. The hunt proceeds north in the direction of the trucks where the promise of a tailgate lunch of bologna sandwiches, cold soft drinks and hot coffee awaits growling stomachs and thirsty throats. The five rabbits bagged so far are more than enough for everyone. There is less concern over bagging more game than listening to the Beagles work the scentline with their excited howls and barks, ….the sound that is pure music to a Beagle owning rabbit hunter. 

            As Bell and Sam strike another fresh scentline, they race toward the north. Bell’s high pitched, chop mouth bark and Sam’s thunderous baritone bawl mouth work in perfect harmony as the sound of the race grows dim in the distance. You and George trudge through the thawed, muddy soil. Clods of mud cling to your rubber boots, adding additional weight to your already tired legs. Heavy as your feet are, you slowly walk northward among the cocklebur stalks and rows of unharvested soybeans, trying to keep within hearing of the dogs. 

            The sudden hush of the ‘check’ catches you by surprise, considering the number of rabbits flushed on the first pass south through the thickets. However, the cottontails may have slipped out of the thickets or have sought refuge in deep holes beneath the tangles in order to escape the harassment of hounds and men. Nevertheless, the quiet drags on slowly like a heavy steel weight. To your right, a red-wing blackbird perches nervously on a bare-limbed red oak branch, watching your every move. To you left, a pair of killdeer sail overhead; their high pitched cries floating across the cold gray air. A puff of cold north wind sets the dead, dark brown cocklebur stalks waving restlessly to the rhythm of the breeze. You strain to hear the sounds of the dogs but there is only silence and the whisper of the wind. The minutes tick bye slowly as you feel the pounding of your heart and anxiety level rising. 

            You fidget nervously and are about to move in the direction from where you last heard the dogs when Bell’s familiar high chopped bark breaks the silence which lowers your anxiety level considerably. You wait patiently, expecting Sam to join her on the scentline, but she continues to trail the rabbit toward the east without him. 

            You wait another anxious five minutes as your concern deepens. There is still no sound from Sam. “Where is that food dog?” you ask yourself. He can’t be that far away. He was with her when they began the check. 

            You about to walk toward the area where the dogs lost the scentline, when far off to the south, you hear the faint bawl of a Beagle on a hot scentline. You listen again with an intensity that borders on painful. You hear the faint bawl again. No! Surely that’s not him! That hound is way beyond the field road, running along the bottom of the huge drainage ditch. Yet …..? 

            You listen once more. As the familiar baritone thundering bawl echoes from the distance, it is unmistakably Sam! 

            You had a leash to George, asking him to leash Bell is she heads in his direction. You explain to him that you will have to go and get Sam. George offers to go with you but you explain, Sam is your dog and you will be responsible for him. It’s best you go alone. Besides, he needs to let the others know you are going to be a little late for lunch. He nods his head with silent understanding as you turn and walk south in the direction of the distant sounding hound. 

            After walking fifty paces, you stop and listen. You can barely hear Sam’s bawl as the ever increasing north wind carries the sound further away from you. You remind yourself not to lose your patience when you reach him. You cross the field road and stand at the edge of the huge ditch bank. Again you look and listen. 

            Another forty yards takes you to a spot on top of the giant ditch bank. From this vantage point you scan a cutover cotton field on your right and the water line at the bottom of the ditch on your left. As you listen, the sound of Sam’s bawl grows louder. You quickly walk another fifty yards and stop again. To your right, a rustling movement in some dead weeds along the edge of the cotton field catches your eye. It is the cottontail slipping under the cover. 

            You wait a few more anxious minutes. As Sam’s thundering bawl lifts from the steep side of the large ditch, the rabbit streaks north in the direction of the field road. You unload your shotgun and slowly thread your way to where you first noticed the rabbit’s movement and patiently wait for Sam to arrive on the scentline. 

            Experience tells you it will do no good to try to call Sam to come to you. His instincts and heredity have taken over his trained habits and discipline and you can accept the fact of the situation. As Sam reaches your waiting spot on the scentline, you intercept him. He protests the leash but after talking to him in a smooth tone of voice and gently petting him, he quiets down. You pet and reassure him things are OK. It would accomplish nothing to scold him for something he is born and trained to do….chase and trail rabbits. Thankfully, these split races seldom happen. They are a source of anxiety, extra work and a real pain in the neck. But you accept it as payment of dues to the sport of Beagling and rabbit hunting. 

            You walk north in the direction of the hunting party with Sam on the leash. You can see George looking in your direction. He has Bell on a leash and she is standing quietly beside him. She to is looking in your direction. You wonder to yourself, if she also had a concern for Sam while he was on his solo run? Who really knows? 

            Twenty minutes later you and George arrive a the trucks where Glen and Stan have been milling around waiting for you. Stan tells you he was considering sending a posse in search of you, but realized when he heard Sam in the distance, you must have gone to look for him. 

            George breaks out a cooler of soft drinks. Glen grabs four folding chairs from the back of his truck. Stan finds a thermos of hot coffee and Styrofoam cups. Meanwhile, you place Sam and Bell in the carrier box and give them a treat of white bread slices. They show their appreciation by drumming their tails against the fiberglass walls. In seconds, the treats disappear. You drop the canvas cover over the box to block out the cold north wind and join the others for a much welcomed lunch. 

            Somehow, cold bologna sandwiches taste better outdoors with a group of hunting friends. Good natured teasing and hunting stories from the past that vaguely resemble the truth, dominate the conversation. Before the meal is completed, promises are made to keep in touch and plans are laid for another hunt before the season ends. After the last relaxing cup of coffee is downed, goodbyes and warm handshakes make the rounds. 

            As you and Stan make the long drive home, your spirit is renewed and mind silently replays the hunt. You are convinced again the real outcome of the hunt is not measured in the weight of the game bag, but rather in the number of years the memory of the adventure will last in the minds of those who took part. And this adventure, like all the others, is possible because of your Beagles. To them you are grateful and wonder to yourself, what adventures lie ahead?

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).