The Savage Sound

In this quiet lament, Mr. Ford conveys the subtle reactions of a civilized man when an animal’s taught gentleness is overcome by the natural instinct to kill. This story will be included in FISHES, BIRDS AND SONS OF MEN. a collection to be published by Atlantic–Little, Brown in the fall.


Two rooms away, in the farmhouse kitchen under a utility table, the whippets, Bett and Mistress, slept the sound sleep of innocence and youth, coiled like little springs, snuggled against the old bedspread Morgan’s wife, Sadie, had put there for them when they were first received into the house five months before, as puppies.

In the high-ceilinged bedroom Bud Morgan tossed in his half sleep, and finally, for what seemed at least the tenth time, he reached for the bedside lamp switch, put on the light, and picked up his watch — ten after four.

He had pulled on his canvas trousers and was lacing his boots when the phone in the kitchen rang. Going down the hall and through the dining room he saw, through the tall windows, pale morning at rest over the fields like gray wings. In the warm, good smell of the kitchen the whippets greeted him from beneath the table’s shadow, a soft thumping of tails against the old bedspread. Morgan answered the wall phone.

“Morning,” said Yates.

“I’m already up,” Bud Morgan said. “I’ve hardly slept.”

“I forgot to say this basset bitch of mine is gonna find pups,” said Yates. “I wouldn’t want you to be expecting too much from her. But a good run is what she’s needing. My young dog, she’s just finding what it’s all about.”

“Well, my puppies are just stark ignorant. They don’t know what a rabbit is.”

“See you in about fifteen minutes,” said Yates. He rang off.

Bud Morgan stooped to leash the young whippets. They kept leaping against him. With soft mouths they playfully gnawed his wrists. Mistress, the shyer, began methodically licking his thumb. It was her usual show of affection. Bett, the bolder, the faster, and the stronger of the two fawn-and-white bitches, kept gazing up at her master, her gray eyes dark, her narrow face anxious. Her lean body quivered under his gentle hands. Bound up in her life more than any other single wish, the man knew, was the urge to run. This, by the dark look of her eyes, was what she told her master.

Stepping quietly, Morgan went out the front door. Going up the curving gravel drive to the hard road, the whippets jerked and danced against their leashes. Quite a picture, Morgan thought, those deep chests, narrow heads, flat ears, flat stomachs, and long, muscled haunches. Waiting beside Morgan on the shoulder of the road, the whippets stood and shivered, white tails curled down, forward between their slanting hind legs.

Yates appeared driving his old green hunting car. His pleasing, honest face was still solemn with sleep. He smiled. His bassets bayed and yodeled and shook their leash chains, making a commotion from the closed trunk of the automobile.

Going around the car Bud Morgan got in the front seat. He took the whippets up in his lap and shut the door. Adoring him, the young hounds rested their long necks against his thick arms.

“I’ll say, they’re pretty little things, ain’t they,” said Yates. He drove on east toward a pale pink sky. The road went curving down to cross the cypress bottoms, still as sleep. Then it climbed out of the swamps to high ground again.

The hunting place Bud Morgan had decided on was a twenty-acre hayfield with a soybean crop laid in long bushy rows beside it.

“Rabbit sign is fresh in those bean rows all about,” Bud Morgan said. “If you want to, slow down now. Turn in here, by the fence line.” The land was his own.

Yates made the turn. Down alongside the field they went, on ground packed smooth by tractor treads.

“I believe we’ll find this place all a man could wish for,” Morgan was saying. Because he wanted to hide his impatience and mask his excitement he spoke very slowly, almost as though apologizing. “The rabbits ought to be in there,” he said seriously.

“But now don’t expect too much of my good old bitch,” said Yates. “She’s awful heavy right now.” There was a gray stubble of whiskers on his pink healthy face. He stopped the car and got out.

Standing by the car trunk, Yates yawned and began rolling his sleeves halfway to the elbow, baring strong, sun-weathered wrists. The bassets bayed and thrashed to be let out, but Yates attended his sleeves with the studious air of a man dedicated to unending postponement. Beyond adjusting his sleeves he might not have another thought in the world. Like Morgan he wore faded canvas trousers reinforced against briars. His shirt was of green cotton work cloth, and his boots, like Morgan’s, were quarter length and moccasin style, carefully oiled last night with neat’s-foot, and carefully laced this morning with new hide thongs. Squatting, Yates checked his bootlaces again. Finally, he stood up and opened the lid of the car trunk. He grabbed for the leashes. “Here, Molly!” he said, with calm pride in his voice.

Carrying a whippet under each arm Morgan walked around to where Yates stood bent over the trunk, untangling the leashes. Suddenly Yates stepped back. The heavy bassets shook themselves. With a surprising, explosive nimbleness, both hounds leaped out of the trunk and began following close at Yates’s heels, moving easily, as though somehow rolling ahead on their short, crooked legs. Their leash chains jingled a quick march rhythm, a sound professional and sure; it told Bud Morgan that these animals knew what they were about. They were no strangers to the business. Watching all this, the whippets cowered in Morgan’s arms.

ALTHOUGH the sun was still below a line of trees far off to their right, the threat of its appearance gave the air a certain damp heaviness. Dew stood in droplets on the hunters’ boots. Blackberry brambles pulled at their trousers. They stopped.

Beyond, in the midst of the bean field, a clump of willows marked the location of a pond. Yates knelt and unleashed the bassets. He whispered something to them. Tails high, the two heavy beasts disappeared in the rows. They were hardly out of sight when their clear voices belled against the flat stillness of August and broke the gray morning silence that had seemed to stand like a veil between Bud Morgan and the approaching day.

The singing cries entered Morgan’s heart and set it pounding against itself. Curiously solemn, the whippets ceased their squirming, first begun when he knelt with them a little distance from Yates.

Yates stood listening. Still as iron, Yates seemed.

Leaning in Bud Morgan’s arms, the whippets pressed forward. Their nostrils moved as though to ask what the smell and meaning of this new sound might be. Suddenly they drew back, as though to take shelter under the man’s body. The bassets came closer. Now they moved away through the bean field again, making a wide, slow circle.

“About now we should see the old rabbit,” Yates said in a low voice.

Just then, sure enough, the cottontail appeared. Out of the bean rows he came. He hopped almost straight at the hunters before slowly veering from sight again beyond the tall foliage of the spreading bean plants.

Steady on, and carefully slow, the bassets came, now baying almost in unison. Coming out of the rows they made the same circuit, the same veering turn that the rabbit had managed so easily. The bassets moved over the ground with painful exactitude, as though savoring a mysterious, requisite love of their slow work.

Laden with her cargo of unborn pups the old bitch paced head down beside her daughter, as though trying somehow to embrace the ground with her bent legs. Both heavy heads went forward, as though freighted by their huge leathers, those ears hanging like dark, dead-brown magnolia leaves. Then they were gone, gyp and bitch, the one no less painstaking and slow than the other.

“Let Molly take him twice around. Then we’ll scare him. Let’s see if we can’t spook him off to the hayfield,” said Yates. “Then your little beauties can take and ride him a little bit.”

“If they will,” said Morgan, nodding in agreement. After coaxing Yates as he had, after beguiling his friend into this new partnership, Morgan was suddenly unsure about it. Though he had set them down at cottontails time and again, the whippets had never coursed a rabbit. At the sight of Morgan’s little dogs the sitting rabbit had always crouched, as wild animals will. Just when the whippets looked away, wondering what their master could be about, by setting them forward thus, and so urging them, saying: “Sic! Sic! Sic!” in such a hissing voice — invariably, as they turned back in their wonderment, the wise rabbit chose that instant’s confusion to go bounding into the honeysuckles.

“Here he comes,” said Yates in a quiet voice.

Loafing along hopping slowly, just as before, the rabbit appeared. “Hey! Hey!” Yates shouted. The man jumped forward. The startled rabbit crouched and then leaped out in a flat sudden sprint, heading straight to the open field.

At the same time Bud Morgan unleashed the pups. The whippets sprang away, paused an instant, and then dashed suddenly on, full speed after the rabbit. Bett passed the little creature. The frantic cottontail swerved. Mistress, close behind, made every turn and tracked every zigzag. Turning a short circle and coming back, Bett cut between the rabbit and the honeysuckle thicket, turning it back into the field and driving it zigzag once more, down the breadth of the mown meadow. Like hawks, the whippets skimmed, coursing back and forth tirelessly.

Emerging from the bean rows the bassets dutifully took the trail to the open field where the whippets went swerving this way and that, turning, deviling, and chivying the rabbit.

Yates dashed forward and caught his hounds. He leashed them in a scramble of whistling, dusty confusion. “They caught him yet?” Yates yelled. He ran to Morgan, dragging the hounds.

“Not yet. Over there — see!”

Dodging uncertainly between the dogs, the rabbit suddenly stopped. The whippets stopped. They stood panting, tails up, ears forward, gazing at the gasping, stretched-out cottontail.

Morgan ran through the mown stubble. “Kill!” he cried. “Sic! Sic!”

Yates crossed the field, his bassets straining in front of him.

Without looking away from the rabbit the whippets sat down. Then, just as casually, though Morgan, shouting and running full speed, came closer, they slowly crouched beside the exhausted rabbit.

At a word from Yates the bassets ceased their lunging.

Caught in the wonderment of what they saw, both men knelt.

“They don’t know to kill,” said Morgan softly.

The rabbit made no move to be up.

“See how they lie there,” said Yates. “Down by him, beside him like he was a lamb.”

The rabbit, catching its wind a little, and again sensible of danger, struggled up. Hopping uncertainly, it went west to the bean field, toward the willows, the pond thicket where it had been born and where it had lived its brief life.

“Sic! Sic!” Morgan hissed.

Standing up, ears forward, the whippets gazed after the rabbit.

They began trotting, going slowly at first. Then, tirelessly and gracefully, like machines, they leaped forward in unison, and flattened down to full speed, like pale arrows. Slowing suddenly beside the rabbit, they loped along on either side of it, like an escort. At the bean rows, where the rabbit disappeared, they turned back. They made a wide circle of the meadow, full speed. Bett went leading, as usual, and shy Mistress came behind. On they came, full speed. They flung themselves at Morgan, who sat squatting on his heels. Mistress licked his thumb. Bett lay across the foot of his boot.

WELL,” Yates said. “Try another cast?”

“All right.” Bud Morgan leashed his animals.

“What a sight. I still can’t hardly believe it,” Yates was saying.

“It’s their puppyhood. They don’t know quite what they’re supposed to do.” Like a ball of blood the sun had risen above the dusty horizon. Bud Morgan picked both whippets up in his arms again. He marveled at their beauty in the red new light. The dew on their sides wet his shirt.

“Oh —they downright played with that rabbit. They never harmed a hair of him,” Yates was saying. He came close. He touched each little dog on the head. “Not a hair!” he said.

“I’d never want to tell anybody. Not about that,” said Bud Morgan.

“Why, who’d believe? Besides,” Yates went on, “give ‘em time. They’ll learn. They’ll get a fine edge in time. Oh, aren’t you a pretty sight! One nip and you’ll break brother rabbit’s neck so clean and quick he’ll never know what came between him and daylight — one of these days!”

“Maybe I spoil them,” said Morgan. “They’ve such a sweet nature. May be as I’ve petted them too much and shut out their natural instinct. Eh?”

They walked east, across the hayfield. Sunup splayed the branches of a huge oak at the field’s edge. Just in its shadow Yates bent to unleash his bassets. They trotted off to a fine stand of cotton, dark green and blooming and well cultivated, with the earth showing dry and clean between the rows, a fine yellow loam, soft as powder.

“No, no,” Yates said, politely disagreeing. It was his way. “Love never harms. Only give them time, Bud. Once they know what’s wanted of them, they’ll be all the better. Then they’ll kill themselves to please you.”

“They’ve been raised with the cats. They were taught not to hurt kittens, not to chase chickens,” Bud Morgan said. “Now when it’s time to kill something, they don’t seem a-tall sure about it. Sadie pets them worse than I do.”

He squatted. The little dogs crouched under him again. They put him in mind of adoring children.

The bassets gave tongue.

“Here we go,” said Yates. “Look for him this way in about one minute. Your little beauties are going to kill this one, Bud. See if they don’t! Let’s let him pass the second time.”

The whippets stood and trembled when the rabbit broke cover. It circled the oak. When the bassets came, the whippets began leaping. They whimpered. They shivered to be set free.

“There — be patient!” Bud Morgan whispered. He caught them close in his arms. They licked him, but this licking was a different sort. They licked him now as a means of supplication. They begged him to be let go. “Hold a little!” Morgan said. Bett growled. “There, little sweethearts — another minute now!” Morgan said, listening to the chase. Off deep in the cotton plants the rabbit had turned.

Now suddenly it came out of the rows. Yates ran forward. With a loud yell he spooked the cottontail, waving his arms. Morgan slipped the whippets’ leashes.

The rabbit turned to sprint, so close by that Morgan could see its little mouth working, opening and closing with fright. Before it could pass the outer spread of the oak a snapping, slashing, somersaulting frenzy of snarls overtook it. The rabbit leaped and was tossed. The whippets struck it one after another, whirling to strike and snap again, fighting and rearing over the carcass. Blood streaked their sides. Again and again they flung themselves on the sodden mass of fur between them. Seeming not to know the cottontail was dead, they went on and on shredding it, snatching it one away from another and shaking it till it smacked their ribs. When Bud Morgan knelt to pull them away Bett whirled and bit him between thumb and forefinger, drawing blood. She coiled back as he leashed her. Her lips drew back in a snarl, her eyes were dark and aglaze. She had no seeming sense of what she had done.

The bassets came. Standing, Morgan pulled the yapping whippets back a few paces. The heavy bassets approached cautiously. Molly, the big pregnant bitch, pushed the torn carcass a few times with her blunt nose. She looked at Yates and sat down, almost wearily. The younger basset only sniffed the carcass and turned away. Yates leashed them both, saying: “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you?”

When Bud Morgan picked them up the whippets fought his embrace. Leaning in, stretching at each other across his broad chest, they snapped and snarled. Blood was like grease down their sides. Morgan’s hands were sticky with it. “Hush!” said Morgan. “Be still!” Both animals, as though waked from a trance, subsided.

“Want to try another cast?” Yates was asking. “I believe they’re on to it.”

A strange sorrow had entered Morgan’s breast. He looked at the little whelps panting in his arms. Bett stretched her neck and licked his nose.

“Yes,” Morgan said. “All right. If you’re satisfied your hound is up to it — heavy as she is.”

“Oh, she needs to run,” Yates replied. “And yours — why yours really caught on!”

“Yes,” Bud Morgan said in an odd voice. He knew he must harden himself down to the truth. He had sent away clear to New Jersey for these dogs. They were the first whippets ever seen in this part of Tennessee. Men must surely marvel at the sight of them, how they killed a creature. As hunter, heretofore Morgan had always done the killing himself. That, he decided, walking a little way behind Yates so his friend would not see his face, that was the difference. Now the dogs were obliged to do the killing. The man was left with nothing but an uneasy feeling across the shoulders, like a strange harness.

Caught in his new strangeness Morgan realized it was too late to turn back. Uneasy though he was, he had already knelt again. Far off, low to the ground, hidden by the dark green field beyond, the bassets gave a long, victorious cry.

The savage sound gave Morgan’s breast a surge. He plucked a crawling tick from Bett’s smooth neck and mashed it between his thumbnails. “Don’t fret,” he whispered. “You’ll soon be used to it. Don’t fret, pretty girls. It’s all right.”

The pups hardly seemed to hear him. Though he held them close, they were already far, far away, gone a strange far distance such as he might never span. Suddenly they had, so it seemed, gone away to another world.

If he didn’t unleash them soon, they would turn on him. He watched his hands move obediently to the leash toggles. His heart was no longer beating so rapidly.

“Here he comes!” Yates was calling, above him. “Here he comes! Steady, steady now/”