Shelley O'Higgins was waiting for the pastor, and maybe she was just a little worried. After all, no pastor meant no blessing -- and then maybe no luck in the fox hunt.

Apple-cheeked and cloaked in scarlet, O'Higgins, huntsman of the Bull Run Hunt, sat atop her gelding, fussing and clucking like a school marm at the 37 fox hounds swarming underfoot.

Hunters in scarlet coats and white breeches paraded by on their horses, bidding each other good day, preening for spectators and surveying the Bull Run Mountains in western Prince William County. Horse country folks in their plaids and tweeds milled about, chatting, sipping sweet sherry and wondering where the pastor might be.

"He had another service this morning in Fauquier County," said O'Higgins.

That quieted some of the gentry, who gathered yesterday morning for the annual Blessing of the Hounds, a hunting tradition punctuated by horse country pageantry.

"The pastor usually covers all aspects of the hunt -- he blesses the hounds, the riders, the foxes," O'Higgins explained. "You get that much more luck that way. Hopefully, it'll do you for the whole damn year."

Originally a European hunting tradition, the Blessing of the Hounds crossed the Atlantic and has become an American Thanksgiving ritual. The French would take their dogs into a church to have them blessed, according to Joan Jones, the master of the hunt.

Many of the hunters gathered at Derby Meadows for the blessing yesterday were back for their 10th or 12th or 15th Thanksgiving. They wore top hats and velvet hunting bowlers on their heads, bunched white silk cravats at the neck and tight white breeches. A few women rode sidesaddle and wore the corresponding long black overcoat appropriate for that style of riding. All the horses' manes and tails were tightly braided.

As the wind picked up, O'Higgins speculated on the strength of the fox' smell. "The scent just lays on the ground like the pieces of a puzzle," she said. "And when the wind is up the pieces of the puzzle blow away and the puzzle is ruined. I just want a lovely hunt today." O'Higgins said the foxes are seldom killed, since they take shelter in a hole when they are too tired to keep running.

Not too far behind schedule, hustling and only a little slightly abashed, the pastor arrived. In black robes and a long white silk liturgical stole, the Rev. William B. Day Jr. said he was also back "for my sixth or eighth year, I think."

The congregation moved into an open pasture, where O'Higgins and the pastor managed to hush both the two- and four-legged onlookers.

"Bless, O Lord, rider and horse, and the hounds that run, in their running," intoned Day.

"Bless and shield these riders from danger to life and limb. May Thy children who ride and Thy creatures who carry, come to the close of the day unhurt.

"Bless all the creatures who partake in this hunt and grant that they may find their true destiny in Thee."

"Woof!" spoke an apparently appreciative hound, his voice summoning a glare from O'Higgins.

"Amen," spoke the assembled hunters and spectators a moment later, signaling the end to the benediction and the start of the day's hunt.

Minutes later, still in view of the spectators, the hounds in the valley took off suddenly, crying like crazy, apparently with a line on a fox. Single file and in a hurry, the hunt raced off toward the hills.