A Tom Sawyer of a Hound

Before I met Blandford, I thought I would know how to recognize the lead hound in a pack. The lead hound has all this presence. When you watch a pack of hounds returning from galloping over hill and over dale, there will be one hound who has a lot of lonely dignity about him, like Abraham Lincoln during the war years, and you will say, “That’s the lead hound, I’ll bet.”

What I said when I first caught sight of Blandford was, “That’s the clown in the pack, I’ll bet.” Blandford is a foxhound with the Santa Fe Hunt, which carries on an aristocratic tradition, but he keeps being not quite consonant with this tradition. He has, for one thing, an odd way of moving, more like the raw-boned, loose-limbed critters of the yarns told in the American South than like the elegant hounds in English paintings, with their smoothly articulated appearance.

He has an odd way of looking at you, too. Flave Pisciotta, who with her husband, Alex Pisciotta Jr., sees to the care of the hounds, calls it a spaced- out look.

When I met him, the riders, horses and hounds were just returning from a morning spent clattering across a rocky but inviting landscape, just inland from the coast. All were thirsty and eager to cool off. The riders were impatient to get to the elaborate picnic lunch known as the hunt breakfast. The other hounds and the horses were cooperating happily in this project, part of which entailed Alex Pisciotta, the master of foxhounds on this hunt, taking the hounds down to a shaded pond to swim and splash. After the hounds were refreshed, they all (all but Blandford) responded enthusiastically to the cry calling them in to food and rest.

Blandford was thinking things over. I was there with my camera, hoping for some nice shots of a sleek hound streaking up the hillside. Blandford, reading my intentions correctly, stopped to pretend to scratch a flea ungracefully every time I got ready to click the shutter. Blandford doesn’t have fleas--he just enjoyed seeing how exasperated he could make me, and how excited he could get the master of foxhounds, who was redoubling his efforts to call him in.

The other hounds had come up out of the pond and were back in their position around the master’s horse. Blandford was sitting at the edge of the water, on the other side, inaccessible, with his head tilted, watching my efforts and everyone else’s with interest. He had just about pushed us to the exact moment when lesser people like me would start using bad language. Then, as though it had just come to his attention that there were people on the other side of the pond, he waded over amicably and joined the rest of the hunt. I got a couple of nice shots of him, but they won’t go into my book on the nobility of the foxhound. They’ll go into my book on the amazing fact that certain hounds survive to old age without being hung, drawn and quartered.

Blandford, who’s still in his adolescence, hasn’t been with the Santa Fe Hunt long--he was one of six hounds the hunt drafted from the Los Altos Hunt last October. He was at first shy to a ridiculous point, and Flave Pisciotta tells me, “We couldn’t even get to him at first. He just dug in and hid. I’ve never seen an animal that melted into walls like he does--I don’t know how he does it, he just melts.” (Imagine Abraham Lincoln cowering at the sight of visitors.)

He is also one of their better hunting hounds; once, in fact, when the Los Altos Hunt struck the trail of a boar--a large and fierce animal--Blandford took the lead. He is good at picking up a line, and at sounding it, and what is more, the other hounds honor him when he announces a line. (This means that if he says he’s found something, the other hounds believe him and follow, even if they can’t scent it directly.) This tells me a lot about Blandford. It also confuses me, since the foxhounds who have what it takes to strike a line and hold it--and have the other hounds honor their lead--are supposed to be bold and friendly critters, and Blandford has shown himself to be other than that.

Then I remembered that a foxhound is a kind of detective, nosing things out, and that this is, after all, America, and that our national heroes include Tom Sawyer, who as a lad was not famous for his cooperative spirit. Friends and neighbors of the young man used to say things like, Tom will be President someday, but only if he doesn’t get hung first. Tom didn’t become President, but he did become a detective, and Blandford the hound does strike a line and hold it, and the other hounds honor his call.