“BA-ROOOOO! BAA-ROO-ROO-ROOOO!” The distinctive baying comes from a dog hardly big enough to fill a shoebox, with a voice big enough to fill a canyon. It’s Abbe, a beagle belonging to my wife’s uncle and a seasoned rabbit-getter. Of course I might be confusing her with Annie, my brother in-law’s beagle, or even Allie, my wife’s cousin’s beagle. See the pattern? Yeah, it’s hokie, but the dogs all seem to know their names and they all disregard their master’s whistles and yells with equal ambivalence.
We’re in a gulley a hundred yards wide, just filled with the nastiest, thorniest tangle of multiflora rose and briars you’ve ever seen. I’m talking Brer Fox’s nightmare! Yet, this is perfect rabbit habitat and that means we pull up our Carhart overalls, pull on our leather gloves, resign ourselves to getting a face full of scratches and wade into the thicket, eight men abreast.
It’s slow going, with the thorns of every branch seemingly reaching out to stick on your knit cap and flannel jacket. You take a step, shift your gun to the other hand, carefully pull the briars off, peer down through the thicket looking for something to move, take another step and repeat. Who in their right mind would do this for recreation? It’s part of the pride in doing this that there’s a little adversity to the process. Twenty yards to my left there’s the distinctive CRACK! of a four-ten shotgun and the “Thoomp!” of the single-shot gun ejecting its empty shell.
“Did you get him, Paul?” a faceless voice in the thicket yells out.
“Naw.” You can hear the disappointment in the teenager’s voice.
“Well…why not?” jibes his father.
It’s all in good fun and getting ribbed for missing a shot is an expected part of the hunt. It’s not easy with a .410 (pronounced “four-ten”). Although it’s a lighter gun with less kick, you’re throwing a lot less lead, really just a thimble-full, and you need to lead your target just right. The rabbits appear and disappear like phantoms. By the time your mind’s eye tells you it’s for sure a rabbit and not a dog, he’s usually out of sight or down a hole. A single shot four-ten is often a youngster’s first gun and every growing boy dreams of graduating to a twelve gauge someday, like dad has.
“BA-ROOOO!” the dog is back on him. Two shots in close succession boom out as the bunny tears effortlessly through the hollow, a beagle and loads of hot lead close at his heels. I see the dog, and the rabbit, but they’re too close for me to get a shot off and have an acceptable margin of safety. “Coming your way, Denny!” I holler over my left shoulder to the barely visible patch of orange at the top of the hill. But he doesn’t see anything, and the dog runs out of the end of the thicket, looking around left and right furiously like somebody is pulling on her tail. Did the rabbit double back past me? Every man in the hunting party is now looking deep into the thicket, under branches and thorny stumps, jumping up and down on bundles of twigs for the rabbit that has vaporized into thin air, until SNAP! goes the report of a twenty-two out in the open field.
Walking between the furrows of corn stubble, my father-in-law has been staying outside the thicket with a bicycle rifle he’s owned since he was a kid, on the odd chance a rabbit might just slip past us and break from cover. We scoffed at the idea, claiming that he just didn’t want to face the thorns like the rest of us blood donors, but who’s laughing now?
We push on down to the end of the thicket and there are many more shots and celebrations before we reach the road at its end. A five gallon bucket full of bunnies, stripped of their fur and soaking before they go in the stew pot bears testament to our diligence and in the end each one of us bags at least one rabbit, even Paul. Then there’s a call from the porch of the farm house, breakfast is on the table and we group of happy hunters must break up to our various days’ work at the office, or dropping kids off at school, some have cows to milk and chores to do, and some of us have to go back out and look for Annie who ran off behind the dairy. It’s true what they say about beagles, you hunt for them twice as much as you hunt with them.