On sundays, autumn to spring, quiet lies over the winter-brown farm hills of Hunterdon County in north Jersey. In the stillness the cacophony of the crows over Pottersville can almost be heard in Oldwick. Then, at 2:30 at one or another of the back-country crossroads, the air fills with the yawping of basset hounds as they come tumbling from the back of a trailer. It is the meeting hour for the Tewksbury Foot Bassets—time for hounds and men and women to gather to chase the hare on foot, the hounds scatter-legged with eagerness and the men and women burdened with the ballast weight of Sunday dinner.
This Sunday they met near Oldwick, beside the 19th Century iron fence around Dr. Farley's grave. The unbroken gray sky threatened to unload and drench them all, hound and man. The ground was cold, wet from the night's rain—indeed a bleak day but a fine one: the scent would hold well on the cool, moist ground.
The hounds (never, never call them "dogs") are always prompt at the place of meeting, flouncing over the muddy ground on their short legs, long ears aflop, body and tail waggling in excitement. This Sunday promises to be such a good hunting day that the two green-coated masters, Morristown Architect James Jones and New York Attorney Haliburton Fales, are kept busy containing the pack. Impatiently the nine and a half couples (it is a gaucherie to denote pack strength by any other count than couples) gambol around Huntsman Jones, splattering mud on his cream-white shorts and bare knees. One hound and then another straggles away momentarily, anxious to move off. Master Fales chants endlessly, urging them to stay back with Jones: "Sal, up to him. Up to him. Oh, so good, Sal. Errant, boy, go to him. Hup together. Delano, to him. Go to him, Delano. DELANO!" The whippers-in, wearing green coats like the masters, stand on either side of the pack, joining Fales's chant and cracking their whip thongs over the hound heads.
At 2:30 only eight followers (basset men dislike being called "hunters," since they do not carry guns) are on hand, but then, the "field" is seldom on time. (Always refer to all persons on the hunt, other than masters and whips, as "the field.") By 2:45 there are 32 men, ladies, girls and boys milling about, in sneakers and blue jeans, or walking shoes and flannels, tweed coats, windbreakers or lumpy sweaters—anything loose and casual, tattered or trim.
Huntsman Jones puts brass horn to lips; a soft tootling announces that the hounds are moving off. For a few out for the first time, the start may be a disappointment. At a walk Huntsman Jones leads the pack onto the macadam road toward a likely field to "draw" for a hare. The field straggles behind like the Pied Piper children of Hamelin town. There is no sudden rushing to it, no pell-mell of scrambling hounds and bounding people. Basseting is not like that. It is similar to the better-known hunt form, beagling—a slow, steady pace downroad, across country, over fence and creek, uphill and down, the whips spread out on each side and the hounds spread out across the fields, searching for the scent. When a hare is "put up," it goes more briskly and most often over harder terrain, mile after mile. Basseting and beagling differ essentially in the type of hound in the pack, basset or beagle. (For all the similarity, however, never say "beagling" when you mean "basseting" or your hunt reputation may be mired for a whole season.)
This Tewksbury pack now livening up Sundays in north Jersey is maintained on a voluntary contribution basis, open to anyone who cares to join the hunt—the field has numbered as high as 100 and averages about 42 persons each week. "We are one of the three basset packs recognized by the National Beagle Club," says Master Fales. "Why they bother to recognize bassets, I don't know, but it is nice that they do." The Tewksbury pack is basset for a particular reason: because of the basset's shorter legs and tractable nature, riot in the pack is easier to quell than in a beagle pack. Deer are abundant in Hunterdon County, herds of a dozen head a common sight, the fallow fields crisscrossed with hoof-marks, the scent often fresh and enticing. There is a constant temptation for the bassets to break from the hare scent and riot after the deer. The whippers-in shout "Ware haunch. Ware haunch." (Lay translation: "Forget the venison haunch; get back to the hare.") But the pack might still riot, some going after the deer and some loyal to the hare scent.
TALLYHO FOR HARES ONLY
This Sunday the pack goes a quarter-mile downroad, then huntsman and whips and hounds turn into an expanse of corn stubble. John Ike, the long-striding field master, marshals the followers. This is the method: while the hounds work over the most promising area with their noses, the field spreads out behind, possibly putting up a hare for the hounds to chase. (On putting up a hare, the proper cry is "tallyho!" in the finest ringing voice. Whatever you cry in excitement, for the love of John Peel don't shout, "I flushed a rabbit." The quarry is never flushed, it is "put up," and it is not a rabbit. It is a hare, a European migrant to north Jersey, which nests atop the ground and affords a good hunt, sometimes running for hours until caught or lost. In the thickets or hedgerows adjoining the fields lives the cottontail rabbit, disdained as poor sport because he pops back into his burrow and spoils the hunt. The "put up" is a critical moment for the timid novice. He who cannot tell rabbit from hare as it flashes past had best suppress the urge to "tallyho.")
Even before the hare has been put up, basseting distinguishes itself from mounted hunting. In mounted hunts there is more obligation for the field to make a show of it, to try to keep up with the pack, often at the cost of a grieved rump or broken bone. Members of the basset field can, and do, take the weekly hunt in various ways. "It is like a drive-in movie," admits Jones, who as huntsman is necessarily intent from start to finish, "you can go and do anything you want to."
On this most recent Sunday, even before the bassets have left the macadam road, two of the field, Dr. Robert Pierce and Mr. Clark Henry, are straggling 200 yards back, discussing the local problem of heifers straying into Hell Mountain woods. Mr. and Mrs. H. N. Slater, in the company of two others, consider the moist sod off the road and decide there is no point pressing the matter since there is a good chance the hounds will be doubling back. Mrs. L. W. Perrin pushes on 200 yards and decides that is far enough, seeing that she has granddaughters Barbara and Vieva in hand and her French poodles Cricket and Lulu on leash. At this moment the cry "tallyho!" goes up. There is John Ike, field master, brandishing his cane. A hare (or possibly a rabbit) flashes past Mrs. Perrin, granddaughters and poodle dogs. The poodles are disinterested, but here come the bassets bobbing, bumping across the plough furrows. The hare slips under a wire fence, then through a rail fence. The wire fence gives the basset pack some trouble, but a moment later along the rail fence bassets are pouring through every interstice, mingling full voice with the short, sharp notes of Huntsman Jones "doubling" on his horn. (When the huntsman doubles on his horn, the field knows that a hare has been put up and the serious business begins.)
THE FIELD DROPS BACK
Back across the macadam road the hounds carry the scent, up a fence line, into a copse and out. The field, following seriously, is now strung out a quarter-mile behind. Some who do not care for more hunting by foot, seeing that the hunt roughly parallels a dirt road, catch up by automobile. This maneuver can be a great assist to the hare, since car fumes obliterate the scent. It becomes more intense. Mrs. Louis Hall snags her tweed suit on barbed wire. Thirteen-year-old Anna-belle Gibson sits in the road, removes her galoshes, then proceeds lighter afoot. Mrs. Walter Terry, moving with fine stride across an opening of saplings and thick weed, overlooks a wire fence lying flat and goes down as if thrown by a caltrop. She recovers and advances 20 yards to clear an aging rail fence, but her weight buckles the top rail and she goes down again.
The bassets have pressed on, more than a mile from where the hare was put up, but in the lee of a trash dump they lose the scent. They are "checked," as the phrase goes. Until this moment, around the trash dump, Walter Reider, age 7, and his brother Michael, age 4, with cap pistols, bandannas and Stetsons, were playing a game of U.S. Cavalry and Indians. Now they desist and stand stiff and quiet lest they distract the hounds. "Please be quiet," admonishes Huntsman Jones. "They may pick it up." But it is no use, the hare scent is lost, and lost too is one of the hounds. Master Jones sounds his horn to collect the hounds, but an old bitch named Sal is missing. Sal, being deaf, has strayed after a cottontail. Whipper-in Jim Peale chases half a mile to bring her back.
BASSETS IN THE GROOVE
Without rest the huntsman leads the hounds out again across country. It is now close to 4 o'clock, a chill in the air, and the field has shrunk to six hearties. A half-mile beyond the road there is hollering and horn blowing as three deer jump and the pack riots. By this time the rest of the hunters are heading homeward or seated in rows on fence rails and culverts. A doubling on the horn drifts faintly back at 4 o'clock, but by then the last stragglers are tittering cheerily, enjoying a thermos of hot toddy behind Jim Claggett's station wagon.
Though there is only a field of two remaining with the hounds, whippers-in, and huntsman for the last seven miles, the second hare put up by the pack is magnificent. For two hours he takes the pack on a chase through the woods, across fields, into a bog, out, uphill and down, sweeping in clockwise circles (a righthanded hare, as the basseters say). The hare squats and is put up thrice, the hounds finally losing the scent on a hilltop in the last light of the day.
It has been a splendid hunt, Huntsman Jones confirms at the end. "During the hunt," he says with pride, "we put up two more hares, but the pack stayed on the first one. They were like a jazz band. In the groove all the way." To one who has not hunted, it seems strange; all that running and no hare. But it is not at all strange to the Tewksbury followers who have had the pack out over 40 times this season and have killed only two. "We like to kill hares occasionally to reward the hounds," explain Messrs. Fales and Jones, "but it really doesn't matter. It's the hunt that's important. The advantage, after all, is all with the hare."