MIDLAND, Ga. -- It is midmorning, a long, wet, bone-chilling morning of steady rain and 35-degree temperatures, when the hounds begin to sing.
In that moment the damp and the mud are forgotten. A roiling tumult of high yips, midrange yowls and bell-like tenor moans, this canine symphony is the music that Ben Hardaway has expended his millions to hear. This is Mozart to his ears, and he bristles with joy at the sound.
"Whoo! Hark him! Hark him!" the bright-eyed 78-year-old shouts as the pack disappears into a draw. One brown-eared pup is left behind, disoriented, wondering where they went. Mr. Hardaway bends his 6-foot-2 bulk down low and hollers at the tenderfoot, "Get away, hark! Whooo! Get away, hark!"
In dog language this means, "Listen to the leader, puppy, he's smelling something good. Now git!"
The pup listens, and well it should. The dogs listen because he is, by many accounts, including his own, the best foxhound man in these parts, probably the country, and maybe the world.
He has spent a good part of his life and fortune creating the ultimate foxhound, mixing and stirring elements from the American and English canine gene pools. The result is the Hardaway crossbred, a cocktail of American July hound and English Fell hound, a four-footed smelling machine that is fast, mean and resistant to distractions, and has, according to fox hunter Jennifer Rowe, "a voice that will bring tears of joy to the most scholarly of opera buffs."
The field sweeps past. In this inclement weather the field consists only of two very hardy young female riders, Carolyn Bouilliant-Linet and Amy Massengale, abetted by the horn-blowing huntsman Mark Dixon and two whippers-in. Mr. Hardaway jumps to his own mount: a Grand Cherokee with leather seats.
With a broken collarbone and three broken ribs, the result of a fall from a horse, and a massive subdural hematoma, the result of another fall, Mr. Hardaway gave up riding to the hounds in 1994. Now he follows the pack in his four-wheel-drive, known as "White Stallion," keeping to the dirt roads that crisscross his 3,000 acres just north of Columbus in west Georgia.
The hematoma almost took his life, but it also gave him the opportunity to lie in a hospital bed and mull over the previous 74 years. While recuperating, he wrote and self-published a story of hot pursuit, Never Outfoxed: The Hunting Life of Benjamin H. Hardaway III.
Published last month, it tells of Mr. Hardaway's family, his bucolic roots and his influences, including an oddball 19th-century fox hunter named John Mytton who once set himself on fire to shake a case of hiccups.
Mr. Hardaway dedicated the book to his rather tolerant wife of 52 years, Sarah McDuffie Hardaway. "I was certain to tell her the stories of John Mytton," he writes of their early years together, "so that she might consider me only mildly eccentric."
The hunters leap fences. Following suit, Mr. Hardaway all but gets his Jeep airborne. He listens to his two-way radio as the huntsman's crackling voice offers updates on the pack. Above the dash a compass with a digital readout gives Mr. Hardaway's bearing, as if he didn't already know.
"When I hunted here 40 years ago," Mr. Hardaway says, "I could go from here to the airport, (and) there wasn't a road I couldn't cross. But those days are gone." Now it takes a crew of support vehicles to keep the hounds from crossing nearby I-185, a death sentence for dogs.
Today is a bad day for hunting, Mr. Hardaway says, standing outside once more, as rain drips off his wool fedora and his waxed-cotton Barbour coat.
"The scent has got to evaporate up like smoke, but when it's 100 percent humidity it just lays there." As Mr. Hardaway describes the smell of a fox, one can almost see a physical presence, like a low fog.
"If it's too dry, it evaporates too fast, and the dogs never smell it. You want it to be between 20 percent and 60 percent humidity, so it's effervescent, so the hounds are running in a smoke of scent, about that far off the ground," he says, holding out a hand at knee level.
"I have smelled red fox scent. It's a quick pungent scent, a little like a polecat. About when you can smell it, the dogs can't smell it anymore, 'cause it's up too high."
The temperature dips from annoyingly cold to painfully cold, the scent disappears and after two hours all concerned are thoroughly wet. Finally, over the radio comes Mr. Dixon's dry benediction to the morning's festivities: "I believe everybody's had enough ecstasy, Mr. Hardaway." The master of fox hounds relents.
Mr. Dixon blows a nasal bleat on his tiny English-style horn and back to the kennel go his dogs.
Ms. Bouilliant-Linet, a resident of nearby Creekstand, Ala., is surprised and grateful that Mr. Hardaway is ready to call it a day. Though he's 33 years her senior, he's generally indefatigable, she says. "We've been out on cold, rainy days, run really hard, and I've thought, `If this man does not stop, I am going to die."'
It's because he's mellowed, says Ms. Massengale, who grew up in Midland and trained horses for Mr. Hardaway. In his earlier days, he was relentless and unforgiving, sending a rider packing if his horse kicked a dog. "His hounds always come first," she says.
Some people come to fox hunting because they love horses, and some come to fox hunting because they love hounds. For Mr. Hardaway, horses are secondary. "He'll ride on any old billy goat," says friend and fellow fox hunter Martha Wayt. The hounds are what matters.
Like his father, Mr. Hardaway attended Virginia Military Institute, became an engineer, worked for the Hardaway Co. and built dams, roads and power plants around the country and in the Caribbean and South America.
Mrs. Hardaway says that when her husband would return from his constant business travels, his first concern was not his family. "He usually went and checked on the kennel before he came home," she says.
Mr. Hardaway knows that the 110-member Midland Hunt, which he supports, is an embattled organization. In England, the birthplace of the hunt, the land that inspired Mr. Hardaway's passion, the British House of Commons recently approved anti-fox-hunting legislation.
Sentiment against fox hunting also is strong in this country, among a group that Mr. Hardaway calls the "antis." But a more powerful foe, in the form of cement, could end the sport sooner than any public outcry. Says Ms. Massengale, "By the time they make everybody quit hunting, there won't be any land left anyway."
Other problems threaten the sport. In Georgia, the red fox is besieged by mange and loss of habitat, and it now competes for the same territory with the bigger, stronger coyote.
Adjusting to the change, Mr. Hardaway's hounds also hunt coyote with great fervor. "I love a fox, but I can't get that feeling about a coyote," Mr. Hardaway says.
Though he's turned over many of the Midland Hunt responsibilities to son-in-law Mason Lampton, Mr. Hardaway still glories in, and lives for, the achievements of his pack. The illustrious Hardaway hounds have beaten, in open competition, even Virginia's prestigious Piedmont Hunt, the oldest hunt club in America. And he'll be damned if he'll listen to antis talking about animal rights as long as any of them eat meat or wear leather loafers.
"I went to war and fought Hitler for a lot less reasons than I'll fight for this," he says. "We hunt three times a week for six months, and we usually kill about three foxes," Mr. Hardaway says. "Why we kill those three, I don't know; they could go to ground. We're not out here to kill anything.
"We're here for the music."