TRYING TO TEACH A BACKYARD BEAGLE TO HUNT RABBITS CAN BE A DOG'S LIFE

April 18, 1983

We'd broken off the hunt to eat lunch, retiring with heavy game bags to the shack next to which the trucks were parked. Mr. George propped himself regally upon a tailgate, a sow's-meat sandwich in one hand, his customary Camel in the other. His beagles gathered at his feet, whining for food, and then rolled themselves into a knot when a crumb hit the ground. "These hounds deserve to be fed," Mr. George decreed. "Didn't quit on a rabbit all mornin'."

He pointed dolorously to a dog standing apart from the others. "That'n of yours," he said, smiling crookedly at me, "let's see now, boy, we can either shoot that no-account on the spot or maybe your daddy's got the kind heart to let you keep 'im for a lap dog."

Lap dog. Mr. George's words couldn't have been more deflating. I eyed Bo pathetically. At 13, I'd hunted with men for years but didn't feel I'd be one of them until I had a dog of my own. Now I had Bo. I'd been certain he'd match the other beagles' scent and step as they trailed the big canecutter rabbits through Alabama bottomland and cotton fields, but instead he'd followed at my feet on this last day of hunting season, impervious to what was breaking all around him.

I'd gotten Bo a week earlier from an older cousin, who had promised me a pup from his pack of beagles just before he was sent to Vietnam. The minute he returned home to Birmingham I reminded him of his offer. His face went blank before he apologized. There were no litters on the ground and none of his bitches was expecting. But he'd noticed the tears I tried to squint away and called a few days later with the news that he'd found a beagle for me. The dog was three years old, a pet who'd never been out of the backyard and whose owner had decided he couldn't afford to keep the dog.

Now, sitting on my father's lap in the crowded pickup cab on the drive home from the hunt, I made a silent vow that Bo would get a chance to redeem himself. Maybe he'd failed afield, but with those looks, that majestic head and that nose marked with a sweeping white stripe, he was worth working on. That night—and for many nights after—I ended my prayers "...and please let Bo learn to hunt." I believed he would, too.

Eight months remained before the start of the next hunting season, and because I hadn't discovered girls, cars or shopping malls, my time belonged to Bo. Teaching him to hunt, however, called for a companion dog, a beagle already trained, and I didn't have one. I decided to improvise. I went to the library and scoured books and magazines for any mention of rabbit hunting. In a dusty issue of an outdoors magazine was the article I needed on how to be a lead dog for an unpartnered puppy. It was all there: how to jump a rabbit in front of a pup and "bark" while giving chase; how to zigzag through brush where a rabbit might squat to elude pursuit. Unfortunately, the story addressed itself to dogs six weeks to six months old; few beagles take up hunting at Bo's age. My reclamation project had hit a snag. But then, on second thought, I figured if people in their 70s could earn college degrees, Bo still might make the grade as a hunting dog. The article's instructions were simple, and for Bo's sake I began leading a dog's life, though I came up short of asking Mama for dog biscuits in my school lunch sack.

Every day after school Bo and I went to Black Dump, a wooded site between two large steel mills where no hunting was allowed and small game thrived. We always scared up a couple of rabbits, but they made no impression on Bo. He was happy to be set free from the backyard and took pleasure from leisurely drinks of creek water and barking at iron-ore trains on their way to the blast furnaces. Trying to set an example for him by chasing the rabbits myself proved futile; he followed me, but disregarded the rabbits. I sought out all sorts of diversions—whittling, sampling the sumptuous nectar of honeysuckle blossoms, picking blackberries or idly removing "begguh-lice" from my clothes—to avoid the truth, that Bo was no closer to hunting than the day I got him.

But I was resolute. We went to the woods on sunny days because an extra half-hour of daylight came in handy for us, and we went on rainy days because Daddy said wet ground sensitized a hound's smell. We even went during a rare Alabama snow flurry, when I deluded myself into believing that if Bo saw a rabbit against a white backdrop, he'd begin to hunt. Occasionally he'd put his nose to the ground to sniff where another dog had been or would go into the kudzu and come out with a discarded Vienna sausage tin in his mouth.

We worked through the spring and summer and tightened what a boy and his dog feel for each other. Sometimes I wasn't sure how to interpret Bo's behavior. One day I found him in the yard of a neighbor, an aunt of the Oakland A's then owner, Charlie Finley, staring up a pecan tree at a gray squirrel I hoped he'd chased there. Another afternoon, on the way home from the dump, I heard strange musical notes wafting from an overgrown lot where a house had burned down. Investigating, I discovered Bo perched on the charred keys of a piano, his head weaving frantically to avoid the arched thrusts of an irritated tomcat. Daddy once insisted that even the best beagles occasionally mistake a stray cat for a rabbit, but I'd doubted it. A few days later, the priest from our church, which was across the street, came over to ask after Bo. Because I'd bagged my first canecutter on a riverbank one Saturday before serving as altar boy at five o'clock Mass, I wasn't too bashful to ask him to say a prayer for Bo.

In late September, a couple of weeks before the opening of hunting season, I sat on the side of an old Civilian Conservation Corps bridge, skipping rocks across a creek and contemplating the name JUNIOR BENOSKI spray-painted over the bridge's other concrete railing. Junior, a boyhood friend of my father's and the only man I knew who died in Vietnam, had been on my mind ever since I'd served at his funeral a few months earlier. Bo had wandered off, presumably to find a place to lie down. It was a Friday, football practice had finished early, and in my daydreams I already was big enough to play defense for the Crimson Tide. Out of nowhere came a bark I'd wanted to hear so badly for so long that I almost didn't hear it at all. Again and again it sounded, each bellow drawing closer. Just then, a rabbit darted past. Bo was right behind. As he ran by, that handsome head turned toward me as if to say, "So this is what it's all about." Then he went on with his business.

I'll never know what motivated Bo to hunt. Maybe it was steady encouragement. I sometimes think he was hedging on me until he got everything just right, like a child overdue to talk who says his first words in textbook English. He became an outstanding hunting dog so quickly that it was as if he was bent on making up for lost time. The briars were never too thick or the side of a hollow too steep when Bo got after a rabbit. He hunted till he dropped.

When the season wound down to its last day, Mr. George propped his leg on a brushpile where Bo had just jumped a rabbit and decided he ought to do a little horse trading. "Let's see now, boy," he said through his Camel. "I'm of a mind to offer $100 and two of my hounds for that'n of yours."

I pulled an apple from the pocket of my hunting coat and sliced off a bite with a barlow knife. "You mean to say, Mr. George," I asked with a smile, "you'd give that much for a lap dog?"

ILLUSTRATIONLAURA CORNELL

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)