As the evening air cools, it settles near the ground and turns the humid atmosphere to liquid, slowly drenching the earth, which holds the scent of everything that passes.
“There you go,” I half whisper to my brother Chris. Barely visible in the remaining daylight, two does stand motionless. As the truck rolls to a stop, they turn and bound noiselessly out of sight, skipping away like ghosts in the fading light.
In the dog box on the bed of the pickup, a half-dozen Walkers shift restlessly. Their panting has grown more rapid and shallow. Some whimper and tremble with the promise of release. Chris leaps the ditch into the field. Wagging tails hammer the inside of the box. Wet noses surge forward, pressing against the gate.
“Hi, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya!” my brother hollers in the tradition of the Southern dog driver. A flip of the latch and the hounds explode from the box, their cries shattering the still air. The group falls apart momentarily as each dog seeks its own space. Then the lead hound stumbles onto the fresh tracks and begins to bawl. The pack instantly regroups and surges toward the tree line. Never mind that they will never catch what they seek, or that no deer will fall to a hunter’s gun.
That was nearly two decades ago. Back then, with those first cool nights hinting at the coming deer season, Southern houndsmen would put their canines on the trail of a whitetail. It was a chance for dogs to get in running shape and hunters to swap stories and share in the primal fascination of hounds in chase.
Today, with changes in both land use and attitudes in many rural areas, chasing deer during closed seasons has been largely outlawed. Instead, hunters participate in field trials or run their dogs in fox pens, which provides a more controlled environment with much of the same excitement and camaraderie. The dogs are given their time to run; then, as they tire and return to the roads, the houndsmen ride about and pick them up, returning home in the wee hours of the morning, feeling tired and alive.