Foxhunting is a sport unique to the hills of North Carolina and Tennessee. It's quite unlike it's British counterpart. In the British version of the sport, the objective of the hunt is to catch and kill the fox.
In the hills, the sole objective of the hunt is to hear the hounds baying on the trail of a good running fox. A hound which might actually be stupid enough to catch and kill the fox is, very shortly thereafter, dispatched posthaste to Doggie Hell. Lead poisoning--courtesy of it's master! The foxhunters don't gather on the mountains anymore, but when I was a child during the 50's and 60's, the hunts were a weekly event.
A hunting party was usually made up of eight or ten gentlemen who were beyond the age of participation in the more strenous sports of bear and boar hunting. Each man would have as many as a dozen hounds and several small children with him.
Older men in the hills have often out-lived several wives and it's not unusual for them to have small children when they are in their 60's and 70's. They tend to keep marrying younger ladies as these don't wear out as quickly as the older ladies do. My own father was in his 60's when I was born and there are three children younger than I am.
As a child, I always looked forward to hunt nights when Daddy would say, "Grab a coat Sis and tell your mama you're going with me." This was one of my favorite excursions with Daddy. Of course, being the "Daddy's girl" that I was, I was always tagging along wherever he went, but foxhunting was special. It was "by invitation" only.
The hunters would gather at one of their houses and depart for the chosen mountaintop together. When we got to the camping spot for the night, usually Mr. Tom Alexander's, Mr. Hiram Campbell's, or Miss Lizzie Edwards' pasture,or perhaps the Purchase, all of the children were sent to gather firewood and pile it near the fire ring. The fire ring was a large circle of stones which had probably been there over a hundred years and used by generations of hunters.
After the fire was built and a big pot of coffee set to brew in the coals, the men would bring out their "grub boxes" and spread out whatever the "old woman" had packed for them to eat. This could range from fat back and fried hog jowls in biscuits to fried chicken and chocolate cake. Just whatever the old woman had handy at the time. The men didn't care, all that mattered was that they had "vittles" and plenty of them. All of the food was shared by everyone and it tasted so much better than it ever did at home.
After everyone had eaten and the grub boxes put away out of the reach of dogs and varmints, it would be near sunset and the real excitement would begin.
You have to be able to imagine six or eight elderly gentlemen, about a dozen children, and up to a hundred hounds. The children are all running and yelling with excitement, the hounds are barking and straining at their leashes, and the men are doing their best to restrain the whole lot of them.
The children are finally rounded up and settled down and the hounds are turned loose. The hounds run in all directions, barking excitedly and searching for the hot scent of a fresh fox trail.
Suddenly, there comes the clear, distinctive baying of a lead dog making a strike. Just remembering that sound makes a chill go down my spine. There is no other sound on earth which has the eerieness of the wail of a good strike dog hitting on the fresh, hot scent trail of a running fox. It's sad that that sound is no longer heard echoing across the high mountaintops at sunset.
As soon as the lead dog makes the strike, the rest of the pack joins in and the hunt is on!
To the hunters, there was no sweeter music than the sound of a hundred dog pack on the trail of a good running fox. These men knew their mountains so well that they could pinpoint the location of their hounds at any moment in the hunt. They could even tell what breed of fox was being chased by the way it led the dogs. A good fox will not go to ground. It will lead the chase over hills, through valleys, up, down, and over mountains until dawn. It will run as long as there is a dog able to chase it. I have often thought that the fox knows that the chase is a game and plays it's position well.
The men and children settle down around the fire to listen to the hounds and tell stories. Daddy often brought his fiddle along and played a quiet accompaniment to both.
Each of the stories told on those nights was a beautiful, mystical, melodic connection to the past. The past which, to these gentlemen, was as alive and vibrant as when the events being told of actually happened, whether in their lifetimes or a hundred years earlier. The storytelling was as much a part of the hunt as were the dogs and the fox.
We become the person we are because of the people and events which touch our lives with a lingering impact. A very important part of me was formed on those long ago nights on the mountaintop listening to the dogs and the quiet stories of those old gentlemen.
On those nights, I lay wrapped in an old quilt, watching the stars and listening to the quiet voices of the hunters recalling hunts of years gone. Remembering old dogs and beloved friends, both now long gone but never to be forgotten. Pausing now and then to whisper softly, "Listen to the sweet mouth on old Cindy. They're bringing it around Old Shining. Must be a red, a gray don't travel like that.", and then quietly resume their storytelling.
It was then and there that I realized that I was proud to be one of these people. It was there that I realized that at that very moment, lying on the hard ground beneath the stars, near a roaring campfire surrounded by elderly gentlemen nearing the end of their days, I was richer than any heiress could ever be.
Then I would very quietly sneak up near the fire, sit at Daddy's feet, and lean my head against his knees. As he talked and listened, his hands would absentmindedly play with my hair and I was content in knowing that I was one of the very special and privileged people on earth. I was my Daddy's little girl and I was dearly loved. And so, I slept and dreamed, happy in a way of life that was fast disappearing and would never come again.
All of the foxhunters which I knew have passed on now, but their memories and their stories live on in those of us who were their children on those long ago nights by the campfire.
So, to my Daddy, Mr. Frank Howell, and his foxhunting friends, Mr. Sam Frady, Mr. Jerry Jenkins, Mr. DeVoe McElroy, Mr. Algey Ratcliffe, Mr. Vee Jones, Mr. Robert Arrington, Uncle Bob Gibson, the Judge Horatio Davis, Mr. Malcolm Jaynes, Mr. Jum Hosaflok, and Mr. Tom Alexander, neither you or your stories have been forgotten. I believe that somewhere beyond the stars, you're sitting around a roaring campfire, telling stories and listening to old Cindy bring a red fox around the far side of Old Shining. Perhaps to the quiet accompaniment of my Daddy's Welsh fiddle.
You are all missed and remembered with love by this daughter of an old-time foxhunter.