A Perfect Day
She was my first Rabbit hound – Belle. Kind of tan and white, not the typical tri-colored beagle everyone else hunted with. I can’t remember where she came from, but I will never forget her. She came into my life at a crucial time for a boy of 13. We had moved just five miles “down the road” but it may as well have been fifty because I had to change school districts. Suffice to say that my first day in the sixth grade was a living hell. My mom and I went school shopping and she bought me a nice plaid shirt and a denim coat and jeans. I looked great – or so we thought. That first day of school I knew one cousin, two grades ahead of me, and he had agreed to “Show me around”.
I stepped off the bus, found my cousin and headed into the school Gymnasium where all the incoming students were gathering for a presentation by the middle school principal. Kids were laughing, pointing, snickering, scowling, you name it and they did it, and it seemed as if it was all directed towards me! Wait a minute – it was being directed towards me, the “Hick” with the blue jean jacket, plaid shirt and jeans! Everyone else was wearing rugby shirts: Izod, and jeans: Levis (mine were lowly Wrangler jeans). I had on some boots, nice work boots, but the other kids, they were wearing Nike or Puma sneakers. I fit in about as well as Tim the Tool-man at a Mary Kay convention – needless to say I thought that year was going to be miserable.
Fortunately for me I had that puppy, Belle, 3 months old by now. We had already spent time in the woods together. Me chasing the elusive native brook trout that inhabited some backwoods beaver bogs. Nice trout too, Black backs and sides covered with rainbow speckles.
8″-10″ trout were nice, and good eating also; and everywhere I went, Belle was there, sniffin’, sniffin, sniffin, she sniffed at everything: logs, trees, leaves, turtles, mice, she would sniff her way right across a dirt road and not even look before she crossed! Dad was a coon hunter and said she was “Nosey”! That meant she had a good nose for hunting.
As the seasons changed and the pressure to “Fit in” at school became greater I would yearn to get home and grab my dad’s old ‘Noble 20 gauge” and head for the woods. Me and Belle were hunters: Partridge, Woodcock, Squirrels, and the ultimate prize, Snowshoe Rabbits. Those big footed and famously fast fur-balls were what most men hunted when deer season ended. It was rabbits that dad said Belle would hunt best. It was rabbits I tried to get for her. After that first snowfall of 1976 we headed for the woods on a Saturday. Man there were rabbit tracks everywhere! I found a set and stuffed Belles nose down into them. Then I repeated the process on every track I could find. We followed tracks hoping to jump rabbits. After a few weeks of this I noticed that Belle could jump on a Rabbit track quick – but she always followed it backwards. I would turn her around and drag here the other way b ut she always went back and started going tin the opposite direction!
Then one day it happened. We jumped a rabbit – right in front of us! Not 10 or 12 feet away! Belle took off and me right after her! I was trying so hard to see that rabbit and
get a shot off – but to no avail. Belle drove that Rabbit out of earshot real quick, and then I noticed something, it was crazy, If I had not seen it with my own eyes I would not believe it. that fool Rabbit was running backwards! His big feet were in front of his little feet!
Yup, you guessed it, I had been teaching Belle to follow the track backwards. I did not know that the little front feet always fell behind those big snowshoes those rabbit
wore… So I stood there not knowing what to do next. I did not realize how fast all this was gonna happen? Then I heard Belles voice again, and she was coming closer too. What the heck she was backtracking’ O….I had ruined her! Just as the sinking feeling of failure entered my stomach that snowshoe about ran me over going by and 2 minutes behind it was Belle! Something else I did not know about Rabbits – Rabbits run in circles.
As Christmas came and went and the snow got deeper me and Belle went into the woods daily. I would run off the bus at 3:30, say hi to mom, grab that shotgun and a couple of shells and we would run to the woods together to hunt for an hour of daylight. As the snow got really deep I would grab my dad’s pickerel snowshoes and walk on them. Belle would follow me close behind until we got into the woods. Quite often I would fall headlong into the snow as Belle would get too close and step on the tail-end of my snowshoe. It was like someone had tied a rope to my leg and yanked my foot backwards – all forward momentum would cease. Many of these nights I would stand and listen to Belle, six months old, pounding Rabbits long after the sun had dipped below the horizon. We would return home well after dark with the sound of the snow crunching under foot and icicles hanging from our noses. But as cold as it got and as deep as the snow piled up, none of that mattered to me. By now, even the taunting at school meant nothing. I had a Rabbit dog. I had trained her myself. How many of those bozos could claim that!? I could walk through a dark wood with no flashlight and find my way home. I could tell if it was gonna rain, snow, sleet or be calm just by the smell of the breeze.
I had yet one more problem. I had not shot a Rabbit for Belle yet. Try as I might I just could not get a bead on one ’til they were gone and past me like a flash. Or, sometimes I stood stock still, just like dad had taught me to when on a deer stand. I would hear Belle drawing closer and closer and then she would pass with 30 feet of me and go on by. I would walk over and see the tracks in the snow. Those bunnies would sneak by that close and I could not see them!?
About this time I was having trouble in school too. My grades were lousy. Teachers were scolding me for not having the homework finished that “they claimed to have
written on the blackboard for all to see…”. My mom took me to the eye doctor. I was blind as a bat at long distance. O’ I could tell a John Deere from a Farmall, A bear from a Moose, but danged if I could see that Moose ’til I jumped him. This explained a lot. As Belle and I had jumped a Moose one day from behind a windfall. I bout ran into him too. He bellowed at me and Belle and the circus was on! Us running one way and the Moose the other. Those Palms on his head looked as big as steam shovels!
So I got glasses. That would help with the acceptance rating at school. But who cared, as long as I could see a rabbit and shoot it for Belle we were good.
By now the snow was melting, Rabbit season had ended and though we had some great times me and Belle, we had not caught a Rabbit one. As the weather warmed we returned to the brooks and beaver bogs looking for trout. Shooting squirrels with a slingshot. Going swimming together. Working in the garden. Whatever there was to do we did together.
Belle would occasionally sneak off, as many a Beagle will, and run Snowshoe rabbits on her own. I had failed to teach her how to read the state reg’s and try as I might to explain to her that running Rabbits after March was wrong – she either did not understand or care as she lived to hunt. So one afternoon mom was out back wringing out some clothes she had washed and I heard her yelling for me. I was in the garden I think, but anyway, I came running and what did I see, my little beagle sitting there – with a rabbit in her mouth! She had caught a Rabbit – alone! This would not be her last either. Belle returned at least three more times that Summer with her prey firmly gripped in her mouth: not eaten, not chewed on but certainly dead. She was like a cat coming to show off a mouse. You know what cat I speak of. The one who drops the mouse, head removed of course, in front of the wife while she is at the kitchen sink! A moment that generally raises quite a stir for the human – but does not raise an eyebrow for the cat. Belle would bring us those Rabbits as if to say: “See, I caught one, I know what I am doing, its OK that you are blind, I got your back!”
The rest of that summer passed uneventfully. Unless you count the bicycle trips to town so my best friend could make out with his girlfriend while I waited outside her parents home. Bicycle trips on bikes with “One Speed” over distances that took 30 minutes to cover in a car and roads that were as winding and hilly as anywhere in New Hampshire can be. O’, and the Brook Trout, it was a great Summer for Brook Trout. Mason and I had found a Beaver pond brimming with fat 10″ brookies. Not stockies – natives!
Anyway, back to Rabbits and Beagles. My dad and I trapped some Fisher that year and it really kept me from Rabbit hunting until January.
My dad had a friend, Dennis. He was Mason’s cousin. He had two of the best Rabbit hounds alive: Annie and Aggie. Standard beagles, 12″ at the shoulder, and boy could they pound Rabbits! My dad and Dennis were headed out to hunt one day and invited me along. Dad asked me not to bring Belle because he wasn’t sure Dennis would like that, a mongrel Beagle running with the cream of the crop (Just so you know, Dennis didn’t mind at all, he was elated over Belle as you will see in a minute).
We met Dennis at a fir swamp about a mile from our house. One that was just outside of mine and Belle’s usual hunting grounds. We unloaded Dogs and guns, strapped on our snowshoes and hit the swamps. In minutes Annie opened up – followed by Aggie. Those two Beagles made some beautiful music together. As we entered into the swamp and settled down in our separate stands we were not there long before Dennis shot. One down and not even 20 minutes into the day. The next was a longer run as no-one saw the bunny the first go round. Then it was dad’s turn.
Annie and Aggie were hammer down on a fresh track when we all heard a new voice, an excited voice, it was another beagle going hammers to hell not far from us. I knew instantly it was Belle, but dad didn’t believe me. He just figured someone else may have strayed into the area with their hound. (Rabbit hunting was fairly popular in New Hampshire before the Coyote’s arrived.) But I knew better and before long we had three dogs running two rabbits in the same swamp and Booommm! Dad dumped a fast-moving Snowshoe Rabbit almost at his feet; and five minutes later who comes down the track, yup, it was Belle.
It was dads habit to let the Rabbit lay til the dogs caught up with it. Belle ran right into her bunny, tail wagging and body shaking. It was her first Rabbit behind a gun. She got so confused for a minute as she was not used to seeing dad. Dennis shot again and missed so Annie and Aggie were still running their Rabbits. Dad cut open that bunny and gave Belle the heart and liver. She gobbled it up, stood still for a good pat from dad and then started sniffing around. As we waited for Annie and Aggie to come round again we lost track of Belle, until she opened up again! What a day that was. All day we had Rabbits and dogs going everywhere. I missed a Rabbit that sat 30 feet away looking at me. I emptied the clip of a Ruger 10/22 and never touched it. 30 seconds after that Rabbit ran away and Wham….! Dad got ’em. (Just so you know we set up a piece of cardboard and drew a circle on it with a pen. I snapped of several rounds and they all hit in a group the size of a quarter but three inches high! Dad shot a few too just to make sure it was the gun and not the shooter. It was the gun. Just thought I would let you all know that. No pride involved here though?!)
When we stepped out onto the black top later that day we had four Rabbits and three hounds. Dennis got his first good look at Belle and said she was a fine looking’ dog. Dennis would become my friend too. He, Mason, and I would hunt everything together, especially Deer and Raccoons later on in life. He also taught me and Mason how to drive his CJ-5 Jeep! Dennis died a few years back from cancer. I couldn’t make it to the funeral. I miss him right now.
That day could not have been more perfect. Dennis and dad wanted to hear all about how I trained that dog to hunt Rabbits – so I told them. Even the part about “backtracking” early on. Dennis aid he thought that helped make Belle such a good dog as she now knew the difference between a hot and cold track. I felt good about that and it made for a perfect day.
In life there are booksmarts and there are life smarts. As Dad would say “Lifesmarts” is learned in the school of “hardknocks”. Not that there is anything wrong with book learning – but not everyone is cut out for such things. What I learned in school had more to do with social acceptance, rejection and just plain dealing with people than it did with the books. What I learned in the field with that dog: Responsibility, critical thinking, humility, a sense of direction, these lessons have served me well for 35 years now.
I had other Beagles after Belle. Maybe I will tell you about them someday. Then, when Uncle Sam called and I went into the 82nd Airborne Division all of life changed and Beagles were lost to me. Life followed that four years of patriotic duty, along with an awesome wife and four great children. 4 weeks ago my wife and daughters disappeared for an afternoon and retrurned with a gift. As I write this, there is a miniature Beagle snoring at my feet “Jennie”. She is 11 weeks old and went on her first woods walk with me yesterday.
I do not know the first thing about squirrel hunting with dogs, thank the good Lord above for “You Tube”. We will both have to learn a thing or two. But I know this before I go into the process: whatever happens with me and Jennie will be worth writing about someday. The man still has some boy in him and still has some things to learn about life. Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed this small tale. For now, it is time to make like Isaac of old and enjoy one of my favorite meals: venison.
And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said unto him, My son: and he said unto him, Behold, here am I. And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death: Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison; And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die.