view counter

A Rabbit in the Pot

It’s never too cold to eat

I had been pushing through the brush, briars and a foot of snow for about an hour, short of breath and dumb from the cold. I couldn’t feel my face or most of my fingers in spite of the hand warmers clutched in each of my gloves. Then the baying hounds turned in my direction. Fingering my 20 gauge, I turned to face the dogs and froze. I mean that in every sense of the word.
    The now-howling beagles — Lou, Slim, Copper, Junior and Jack — converged on a brush pile of downed pine tops not far in front of me. I was pretty sure the cottontail was still holding tight in there. The hounds, singing frantically, worked the pile closer and closer until there were only a few feet of brush left. I was ready.
    But I wasn’t ready for the brown, furry rocket that launched itself at least four feet into the air and sideways, out over the end of the pile. I tried to get my shotgun pointed to where the airborne critter was going. But as soon as the rabbit touched the earth, it bounded off into a new direction.
    My shot charge hit the snow harmlessly some three feet to one side of the speedy fur ball. My second shot was no closer as the rascal changed directions yet again. All I could do was point with my empty gun and shout, there he goes, there he goes!
    Slim gave me a dirty look as he climbed out of the brush pile, shook his fur free of snow and resumed baying as the pack reassembled, sorting out the bunny’s escape route through the saplings of the woodlot. I managed two fresh shells into my over-under and wiped my endlessly running nose.

Into the Cold
    Two afternoons ago the outside temperature read 23. It was yet ­another sub-freezing day in this long and particularly uncomfortable winter.
    On the phone was a sporting friend, a consummate houndsman who had one of the best beagle packs in Maryland, Charles Rodney. So when he suggested that I join him in a rabbit hunt, I did not even think about the frigid conditions we might be facing. I just signed on.
    Pulling on an extra layer of clothes as I came downstairs on the appointed day, I glanced at the weather gauge. It read 13 degrees. It had been a long time since I had been afield under conditions so frigid. Grabbing a quick breakfast, I piled some extra hard-weather gear next to the front door.
    Fifteen minutes later, I peeked again at the gauge to see how fast the day was warming. What a surprise. It read 11 degrees. Outside, big snowflakes filled the air. Whoa! I told myself, This is getting ugly.
    A short while after, the phone rang. I thought that it must be a cancellation, imagining not even Charles was crazy enough to head out on a day like this.
    “Dennis, everything is still on,” he said. “But we’re going to be just a bit late because things are worse in Cambridge and we need to give the roads time to clear. You’re still going, right?”
    “Sure am! Fantastic,” I replied. “I’ll be ready when you get here.”

Rabbit for Dinner
    The flying rabbit I missed made good its escape, something that seldom happens once Rodney’s pack gets on the trail. But powdery snow can be difficult for the dogs. When the rabbit bounds away, the snow tends to collapse onto the rabbit’s tracks and cover the scent.
    But we all persevered. Over the next four hours the five of us —Charles, Van Hand, Dan Rider and Mac Macdonald, the farm owner — would push out several more cottontails. Though the shooting was as difficult as the walking, each of us would end up scoring at least one fat bunny for the bag.
    The next day I sectioned my rabbit, dusted the pieces with corn starch and browned them in olive oil and butter in a deep cast-iron pot. Then I threw in some chopped onions and mushrooms and poured in a bottle of Guinness Stout. Adding fresh rosemary, basil and garlic with a bit of salt and pepper, I gave it a gentle stir, put on the cover and consigned it to a 225-degree oven for two hours.
    My memories of cold, fatigue and numbed extremities melted away with the first bite of the savory dish.