The beagles, they're just hounds, but hunting runs in their blood. They have names like Arrow and Precious and Playboy and Butler, and rooting around with their noses to the ground and sniffing out bunnies is what they were bred to do. Some of them are better at it than others. Some--like Jupiter and Palestine--even came over from England.
In England, they kill thefoxes. Sometimes they'll even cut off their heads and tails and award the "mask and brush" to the first rider on the scene, which really riles the animal-rights folks.
But killing foxes is how the sport evolved. There were too many of them, and they raided the British farms and ate the lambs and scarfed the chickens. Farmers struck back with fox hunts, and once the gentry figured out how much fun thatcould be, they made a macho, status-screaming sport of it,being wealthy enough to breed fast horses and smart hounds.
And hounds is what they are. You mustn't say "dogs" when you're talking about the beagles, not unless you want somebody to correct you. The proper term is "hounds.'
The Paradise Valley beaglers say hunting with hounds is much more fun than just going single file down the same desert trails over and over. It's a chance to explore unknown territory. "It's a little like skiing, the exhilaration," says member Susie Shultz, a founding member.
The hounds generally start going nuts as soon as they see the beaglers in their tight-fitting breeches. "Even the horses get excited," Shultz says. Though they're not bred and trained for the job like the hounds are, the horses are breeds like Arabians and thoroughbreds.
In the field, riders assume their respective roles: the huntsman, who has the short, straight hunting horn that calls the hounds to action; the whips, who flank the pack to the sides and the rear and chase after stray hounds; and the field master, who leads the rest of the riders, the field.
During the hunt that precedes the beagle blessing, huntsman Susie Stevenson blows the horn, which lets the hounds know it's okay to start doing their thing. Susie's husband, Craig, is the field master, and he keeps the field at bay until sign of a scent is given.
The beagles cast themselves into a circle, one of those things that just come naturally to them, and sniff through the brush. They spread because, on top of running 40 miles an hour, the jack rabbits they're after can leap 20 feet at a time, and scents can get pretty scattered. The uniformed riders are quiet, careful to stay out of the way.
Eventually, one of the hounds finds something and starts barking, which the beaglers call "giving tongue." Sometimes they're false alarms, but the hounds know each other's voices and whom to trust. Prophet, for instance, not even 2 years old, is still learning the ropes, and no one pays much attention to him.
When the signal comes from an "honest" hound, though, another beagle inevitably will echo the discovery, and then a few more will chime in, and then the huntsman toots the little horn, and it's off to the races through cactus and bush and ravine. It happens pretty fast.
If they lose the scent, the hounds circle again and find it. Sometimes a rider sees the critter before the hounds do and shouts, "Tallyho!" A whole chase can run 15 or 20 minutes.
The hounds get a good line going on a rabbit in the opening hunt, but somewhere along the way, the one they call Precious takes a wrong turn, which no one realizes until the horn calls them all back to pack formation. It is halftime, time to hit the watering hole.
To get an idea of how incredibly disciplined the hounds are, imagine coming across a big pond in the desert after an hour of running around in the sun and being able to hold back until someone says otherwise.
The second they hear the word "water," though, it is everybody into the pool.
"Pack it up," Stevenson, the huntsman, says after a while, tooting her little horn. "Come on."
"We had a great run on a jack," Bohannan says to her husband, Bob. "But we lost Precious."
And then Precious' brother Pilgrim comes up limping, an invisible thorn lodged in his paw. He'll be soaking it in Epsom salts that night. He's the kind of hound that likes to keep scents to himself, and sometimes he'll take one of the youngsters with him on his own chase and not tell anybody.