It was that time in winter when the sun seems to rise for no other reason but cast down a few pallid rays and then sink below the horizon. It was a time when the gray clouds would come barreling in with snow squalls, but today the sky was cloudless. The land was covered in the dormancy and death of gray drab winter.
A pothole encumbered country highway follows the course of river. It follows it not because the river provides bucolic and pastoral scenery, which it certain does in the more roseate seasons of the year, but because the hilly land of rural West Virginia demanded that the roads be laid out along the paths of least resistance..
The road is meant to be a smooth-skinned snake of asphalt winding its way along the river, but the years of salt trucks and overloaded hauls of timber have cut chunks in its hide. Some course are smoother than others, and a motorist can reach great speeds before bouncing a few tires in the tank trap that suddenly appears at the end of a straight stretch.
The river is wild. It flows down from the High Alleghenies on meandering tour of the hills, as it passes from the realm of the brook trout to the lair of the flathead catfish. Otters roam along its banks, their spraints marking their little highways into water where the suckers and the river redhorses are harried and killed. In summer, the belted kingfishers line the willow and birch trees, diving down like winged javelins to spear minnows and shad. During those same summer days, the long-nosed gars flit just below the surface of the water, slashing at any small fish that dares come near that jagged maw. Hidden in the murkiness, the Chautauqua muskellunge, the great river pike, lies in wait of mallard ducklings that might stupidly swim within striking range. Soft-shelled turtles and stinkpots and snappers fill the river on those summer afternoons . Sometimes, they climb onto logs that half submerged to sun themselves before another good bout of fish-hunting in the murk and muddy.
But on this winter day, none of those things was stirring. The otters were asleep in their holts, and all the river fishes and turtles were hibernating. Nothing was about. Only a few vehicles zipped along the highway that day. Hours passed between them.
At one bend in the road was a bit of bottom land, where the river never flooded, and here, were several dog houses. Tied on a twelve-foot chain to one of them was a long-eared bluetick coonhound. His home was a dog house, and the chain compelled him to stay. Behind him flowed the wild river and its various denizens, but he cared for them not at all.
His name was Banjo, and the only thing he cared about was following the trails of raccoons. He had learned from an early age that his neck would sting like a thousand static shocks if he tried to chase a deer or fox or opossum. The only quarry worth his time was the raccoon, which he’d run and run until it took refuge in a tree. And then he would let fly his baying at the tree trunks, the master would come with his fire stick, which would fire, and the raccoon would fall down where a hound could give its corpse a good mauling. In previous years, he’d run with three other hounds, who were also tied to houses in his dog lot. But the master was called away to work, and his time spent running hounds became shorter and shorter every year. He sold one hound, then another, and when left with only two, he’d sold the bitch and kept the dog. Banjo cold be used at stud and make a few dollars that way.
Banjo lived for the raccoon track. As soon as the fragrance of raccoon spoor would rise into his nostrils, he’d become so intoxicated with the fervor of chase that he’d bay out in excitement. All the best coonhounds do this. The Germans call a dog that bays on the track spurlaut, a feature that true houndsmen savor like the finest Champagne.
So driven was Banjo for the night quest after ‘coon that he had to be chained to a dog house. Virtually every fine scenthound is kept tethered in this part of the country. They are so driven to go off on a long trail that they soon find themselves miles and miles from where they started, or they might go trailing off so hard that they find themselves under the tires of a speeding pickup. His desire to hunt perhaps exceeded that of his lupine ancestors. He loved his master, but he loved the hunt more.
All Banjo could do on these short winter days was to lie out in front of his dog house and let the weak sun rays warm his dappled coat. He would close his eyes and dream and dream of long nights running along the crayfish-invested feeder creeks that trickled into the wild river, where the raccoons made their trails out of the laurel thickets to the repast of the bottom-dwelling pinchers and freshwater mussels.
And on this day, Banjo slept lost in his hunting dreams. At times, his legs kicked as if he running some old trail, and occasionally, his lips would let loose a few moaning whimpers.
Thus was the life of working man’s hound dog. His breed has been typecast as running with Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and later, Jerry Clower and Jimmy Martin. But now his lot is cast with the working-class, native-born white prole, the people now so despised for their Trump votes and the fact that they see their noble existence in toiling with callused hands and hard shoulders and not in class struggle.
But through his veins coursed far nobler blood. His ancestors were the hounds that tracked the red deer and fallow through the king’s forests in Medieval England. He also had ancestors who ran the boar and the murderous wolves in the South of France. These are the wolves that attacked peasant shepherds and cattle-herders in the forest and lifted children from firesides. His kind were never kept by anyone of low birth. They were the dogs of the king and stately duke or lord. Their “blue mottle hounds” and Grand bleus de Gascogne were transported to the wild country across the Atlantic and became the common bayer of the fierce monkey-badgers that roamed the cornfields and river bottoms.
However, when Banjo stood at the end of his chain in the winter sun, his noble bearing was hard to conceal. It was as if he belonged in a baying pack of wolfhounds, reading to go catch the murderous howlers that plagued the land. That hard hunter’s stare in his eyes made him look so eternally different from the sloppy bloodhound of cartoons. His muscles rippled under his looser skin. He was more than a simple hound. He was a beast.
As the sun began to sink in the western hills beyond the river, the hound rose from his slumber and moseyed over to the water bucket. He drank in slushy laps that splashed hollow against the buckets sides. Soon, the lady of the house would be coming with dinner. The master and his wife lived across the pothole road from the dog lot, and every evening she would come with a bucket of food. She would look both ways and scurry across the asphalt and dump out feed and run back home. She was not into hounds, but she loved her husband and so did her daily drudgery of feeding Banjo and checking his water bucket.
Banjo knew that if dinner came, there would be no hunt tonight, but if it came, the pungent taste of dog food and table scraps would break up the horrid monotony of the day– a win either way. So best to lap some water now and prepare for something.
As Banjo lifted his head from the water bucket, another smell wafted into his nose. It was the sent of a skunk dog, the little red fox that he’d learned that he should never chase. Up the river about 100 yards, a young red fox came loping. He was born the previous spring in the great expanse of hayfields that lay south of the river, and he’d spent much of the winter fighting with big dog foxes and running from wiry Walker hounds.
His kind were no more native to the land of the wild river than the blueticks were. They were long-believed to be an English import, but we now know they came wandering south of out the boreal when they discovered that European man had created a bounty of mousing meadows when the forests were cleared.
And at this moment, the young red fox had come looking for some mousing meadows to call his own. Beyond the master’s house was an expanse of grassland that once contained a herd of stately polled Herefords, but now that pasture land was kept solely for the growth of hay. Twice a year, mowing machines and balers would come calling. The roars and clanging din of the machinery would fill the whole river valley, and then they be gone and the grass left to grow again.
It was a paradise for voles and mice and a small number of cottontail rabbits, and as a paradise for those creatures, it should have been a smorgasbord for a red fox on the hunt.
But for whatever reason, no fox had claimed it. It was perhaps too isolated from the pasture and cornfield kingdoms that the red foxes rule, and it took a particularly brave one to venture this far into the river country. Now, the young fox had only to cross the road and he would have his own estate. And the mice and the voles and the rabbits would soon have something else to worry about.
Banjo stared hard down the river bottom and when his eyes finally registered the movement of the approaching fox, he let loose a deep primal growl at the intruder.
The fox, approaching downwind, froze in his tracks. A dog was nearby. That couldn’t be good. He sat on his haunches and tried to scent the dog. He then rose, trying to cast himself out of the wind’s current and in a direction where he could figure out where that dog growl was coming from. After five minutes of casting, his eyes finally locked onto the canine form of Banjo, and he froze in terror.
Here was a dog much larger than the running Walkers who’d harried him all winter. This was a fell creature that could make short work of him, but then he noticed the big dog wasn’t lunging toward him at all. It was as if it were somehow bound to that bit of earth on which it stood.
And his youthful curiosity suddenly kicked in. This was the first time he’d really had a good look at a dog. A fox rarely gets a chance to examine that which might kill it. Its life is paranoia. It must always be ready to bolt at the slightest twig snap.
The great hound sniffed the air again. He breathed in the skunky smell of a red fox. He’d never really had a chance to smell one for so long. He began to detect familiar odors emanating from the fox. The fox had a canine base to its smell, but it was not of the true dog kind. He’d smelled a fox a before, but never had he been able to catch these canine nuances before.
After a few minutes of study, the red fox knew his time was up and skip-loped across the asphalt and climbed the opposite embankment into a hedgerow of autumn olives. When he crossed the hedgerow, he soon found himself in the big meadow– and there was not another dog fox to be seen or smelled!
The red fox is bound by the territories of other foxes. Coyotes might run him off or kill him, and humans do so on occasion. But his life, though short and paranoid, is relatively free.
Banjo, the great bluetick, might wish for such an existence, but he must live the bulk of his life on the chain. But he truly lives when he’s let loose on a cool autumn night and the scent of boar ‘coon is rising along the creek bank.
The noble hound now lives the ignoble existence on a chain, yearning for his chance to go night questing again for the old monkey-badger with the ringtail.
But in those moments when he runs the quarry and bay it treed, he experiences the profound ecstasy a hunting being in pursuit of prey. It is a joy that surpasses all the other joys in his life. He is a beast, and all his bestial energies are let loose in one great orgasm of chase.
The chained hound becomes the fell wolf dog once again.