My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind . . . and their heads are hung With ears that sweep away the morning dew . . . Slow in pursuit, but match'd in mouth like bells, Each under each. A cry more tuneable Was never holloa'd to nor cheer'd with horn . . ." -- from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream
On a hill in Carroll County, Maryland, in one direction there are farms and woods as far as the eye can see. In the other direction are signs of encroaching suburbanization -- a housing development. Still, from the woods comes the primal baying of the bassets and the cry of a hunting horn.
Short blasts encourage the hounds. (One never calls them dogs.) Then, a red flash streaks in front of us, and we yell the words we have always dreamed of yelling:
We're part of the "field" -- the encouraging onlookers -- in one of the weekly hunts of the Timber Ridge Bassets, who stalk rabbits and foxes while human members of the group follow on foot. One of the functions of members of the field, says field master Herb Rice, who also owns the farm where we're hunting, is to tell the huntsman when they spot a rabbit or fox that the huntsman hasn't seen.
"There goes a fox," yells an amazed little boy.
"Where are the bassets?" asks an adult spectator.
"They got him out," explains another.
"Oh, keep going, fox," implores someone.
Meena Rogers, master and huntsman of this oldest recognized basset pack in the United States, and her staff of six whippers-in round up the hounds and emerge from the woods in hot pursuit.
"He went halfway down the hill and then circled right around," Rice tells them, and soon the hounds are barking excitedly: "giving tongue" in basseting parlance.
"They've got him!" someone yells, meaning not that the hounds have found the fox but that they've picked up the scent and are following the trail.
The running to catch up, we follow the hounds down the hill and across a cornfield. They enter a heavy thicket -- "good game cover," Rice calls it -- and then emerge into a clearing near the pump house recently built for sewer lines to all the new tract houses. The hounds stop: They have lost the scent. Some head for mud puddles to cool off in and drink from.
"Come on, hounds," a spectator urges.
"They've been blessed today," says Rice. "Maybe we should have sworn at them."
Before the hunt, the Rev. Rick Lindsey blessed the hounds, the people, and, in absentia, the hares. Bill Holden, a member of the field, recited a passage from A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose Theseus keeps a basset pack over the hounds. But still they are not finding rabbits, though perhaps, someone suggests, it isn't the hounds' fault.
The foxes are killing the rabbits, he says. Or perhaps the farmers are using pesticides that kill rabbits. And then there's the relentless march of suburbia, replacing game cover with lawns and swing sets.
A dog tied in back of one of the tract houses barks, confusing some members of the field.
"They're over there," says a man, pointing to the houses on the hill.
"No, that sounded like a chihuahua," says Rice. Bassets, he explains, "have a good voice, a real bay," instead of the yap that beagles make. Beagles, he concedes, are fasteer hunters: Bassets were bred to be slower, "so gouty old Englishmen could follow them on foot," as we are doing.
The field, about a hundred strong, includes little kids and one man who says it's his 88th birthday. They dress in everything from three-piece suits to jeans, and some of the longstanding members wear, as a special privilege, harrier green jackets with the Timber Ridge Basset colors -- old gold with blue piping -- on the collar. The hunt staff also wears this jacket, but with black velvet hunting caps, a white stock and white duck pants, which by now are spotted with mud and covered with burrs.
The hounds are routing around in a pine woods. Suddenly a pheasant flies out of the bushes. The bird is gone, but one of the hounds, a puppy named Sarah, follows the bird's scent around the bushes. There are eight couples, or 16 hounds, in this hunt and Sarah is the youngest, explains whipper-in John Laubach. The "couple," says Laubach, comes from the practice of tying a new member of the pack to an older hound for training purposes. The Timber Ridge Bassets don't do this, says Laubach, but puppies like Sarah are expected to follow the others. While other hounds go elsewhere, Sarah still tracks the pheasant.
"Come on, Sarah," urges another whipper-in, and when the hound doesn't obey he whips the ground near her. The snap of the whip breaks the sound barrier, someone explains, and makes the hound snap to.
"Stay out of the soy beans, please," asks Rice as we skirt a field almost ready for harvesting. We follow the hounds to the bottom of a wooded hill and Rice tells us to "hold hard" or freeze where we are while the hounds sniff around the hill. One of the hounds comes down the hill and joins the field.
"That must be George," says a kid, who is ordered by Rice not to pet the hound.
"Horn please, Meena," says one of the whippers-in, and at the sound of the horn George returns to the pack.
The hounds are then all called in with a long, plaintive cry of the horn and we head back toward Rice's house. There hasn't been a kill, but there rarely is, and nobody seems to mind.
"I think most people would be horrified if we had many kills," says Rogers, who is, however, disappointed that the hounds didn't find a rabbit to trail. "There was no scent and the hounds were bored," she says. "Civilization is encroaching."
The hounds are put in the trailer and staff and field say, almost in unison: "Thank you, Meena." Then coolers and bottles are carried into the Rice's house where crackers, cheese and dips have been set out.
"This is the best part of basseting," declares a member of the field. "It's like the 19th hole in golf."