26, 1975: in the arcane world of horseback shooting dog competition, it
was the best of times and the worst of times. Di-Lane Plantation,
Mr. Henry BerolÕs Georgia field-trial mecca, stood at its zenith,
thanks to drip torch and dozer. The quail population soared; nature for
once complemented manÕs efforts. In one morning Tommy Olive, Mr.
BerolÕs trainer, and neighboring pro Harold Ray worked their strings on
forty-one coveys of quail! But Henry Berol was dying, and Di-Lane would
soon be gone. Shooting dog standards had also soared. Inspired by
the founding of the National Open Shooting Dog Championship and the
Shooting Dog Futurities, all sights had been lifted. Better and better
trials emerged. Classics became Championships, one by one. But Guy
Lewis, on whose Virginia grounds the National had been founded, had
passed from the ranks, and with him the fabled Hawfield grounds. Better
dogs appeared each year, in the strings of talented and hard-working
young pros: Moon and Ray, Kuser and Rayl, Miller and Herrington, Tracy
and Grubb and Gates. Sage Doc Nitchman concentrated on shooting dogs
now, and had his best yet in Champion Smart. But inflation raged,
interest rates and gas prices soared, the stock market was just
emerging from the tank. All but the die-hard owners of trial dogs were
leaving the game, as happens when hard times come.
On the porch of a bungalow on Elm Street in High Point, North Carolina, a graying shooting-dog handler and his wife said good-by to their children and grandchildren and watched them drive off, leaving memories of a warm family Christmas. The handler, Arthur Bean, took deep satisfaction in those three children, reared and educated with winnings and training fees earned over twenty-five years. But ArthurÕs career was in sunset, and he knew it. In two months he could draw Social Security. His string, never deep, had withered to just two adults--a setter named Pride and a pointer named Sam--and a single derby, PrideÕs son Zeb. Just five years before, things had been different for Arthur: with Auburn Jill, he had beat them all in the Virginia Classic (now the Eastern Championship) in a record field of seventy-six; with Elhew Summer Tan, litter mate of Doc NitchmanÕs Smart, he had done the same in the North Carolina Classic (now also a Championship). Tan had made North Carolina Shooting Dog of the Year. Two years before that, Tan had topped a record field of 107 as Georgia Champion when less than three years old. Arthur then carried the Elhew Kennel banner with Sundown and Knickebocker and Chesterfield. But Tan had died suddenly, and Sundown and Nick and Chesterfield and Jill were gone from his string. Had Jimmy the Greek handicapped the coming 1976 Georgia Shooting Dog Championship scheduled for February 1, the Arthur Bean entry would have rated the longest of odds.
With the Bean children seen off to
their own homes, Arthur
drove to his kennel on the outskirts of town. Its sandy runs adjoined
tobacco farms Arthur and other Carolina trainers (English, Grove,
Jordan, Walker) had long leased for training grounds. Now urban sprawl
and cattle farming, with its insidious fences and fescue, had reduced
ArthurÕs lease to one twisting hour. Few native quail remained. A far
cry, Arthur mused on this cold gray day, from the February afternoon in
1938 when, with snow gently falling, SportÕs Peerless Pride, bound next
day for Grand Junction and immortality, had pointed seventeen bevies in
his jaunt from the Fairfield Grocery back to DeweyÕs kennel just over
the hill. Yes, things looked bleak for Arthur Bean the day after
Christmas in 1975. But in the number one run in the Bean kennel, there
boarded a young pointer that gave Arthur hope. The pointer Sam had come
into the world three years before in the Winston-Salem kennel of master
breeder Bracey Bobbitt. HeÕd passed at weaning to Virginian L. W.
Kelly, any pointer pupÕs best friend, a man who searched for the gifted
pointer like the Holy Grail. (L.WÕs system was simple: take two from a
well-bred litter, put them on a farm and give the farmer his choice in
exchange for six-monthÕs board and freedom to roam. The farmer would
always choose the closer hunter, and L.W. would get what he sought, the
potential trial dog. Not foolproof, but now and again it worked; L.W.
had discovered many a good one.) From L.W. the pup had passed to
another faithful pointer booster, ArthurÕs friend Dwight Smith. When
Arthur had gone to DwightÕs to look at Sam, Dwight had said:
ŅIf youÕre getting the pup for Miss Anne (ArthurÕs wife, who had owned and still grieved for the fallen Champion Tan), heÕs yourÕs for $75. If youÕre buying for a customer, the price is $375.Ó Arthur watched the pup run for fifteen minutes, and tendered his check for $375. He wanted the pup for a new customer from New York.
Arthur had campaigned Sam as a derby with marked success--four good placements. And as a first-year shooting dog, heÕd put four more notches on SamÕs gun barrel. But in phone calls with the owner, Arthur could now detect doubt, and waning enthusiasm. When he arrived at the kennel this day after Christmas, planning to pack for tomorrowÕs trip to Waynesboro and his traditional JanuaryÕs work with fellow pro Fred Bevan, a message waited: call SamÕs owner. Arthur dreaded returning the call. He had an omen the owner meant to sell Sam. This time the owner didnÕt say that, he just wanted to know how to get in touch with Arthur in Georgia. But he sounded discouraged, in spite of ArthurÕs encouragement: ŅIÕm getting him right. HeÕs not quite there yet, but IÕve got a month, and Fred says thereÕs worlds of birds this year.Ó
Next day Arthur and Anne, Sam, Pride and Zeb, plus the horses, Strawberry and Midnight, struck out at dawn for Georgia in the old pickup and trailer rig. When they made Waynesboro next day, Fred Bevan, much ArthurÕs senior (heÕd won the National in 1935 with Homewood Flirtatious), waited at his kennel. The first words of the tall, slim trainer with the eternal grin came as no surprise to Arthur: ŅHavenÕt you got rid of that Midnight yet . . . thatÕs the roughest ridinÕ walkinÕ horse this side of Tennessee.Ó (It was true, but Midnight was tireless and surefooted and knew how to watch a dog. Arthur wouldnÕt let him go Ōtil he could find his better at an affordable price.) Fred Bevan had found a house trailer nearby for the Beans to rent. Better quarters than usual for their Georgia stay, but with a drawback they would soon discover. Its tiny propane tank often emptied in the middle of a cold Georgia night, leaving Arthur and Anne shivering beneath their blankets, and Arthur scurrying at dawn for a refill. Next morning, Arthur and Fred saddled up to work their prospects on FredÕs ample leased acres of pine and farmland.
ŅHeÕs turned into a right good lookinÕ pointer,Ó Fred said as Arthur put Sam in the roading harness for the ride to their starting place. As the days ticked by, the two old pros worked patiently to put the numbers in SamÕs head. In hour-and-a-half workouts, Sam searched and reached and found six to ten coveys (and now and then a rattlesnake, the one feature of Georgia training Arthur didnÕt much like).
ŅArthur, IÕve got a feeling that dog can win it. IÕve never seen a dog hunt this country like Sam is doing it now,Ó Fred said two weeks before the drawing. Arthur could feel SamÕs self-confidence building, but he kept a check on his own. He watched now for signs of overtraining or staleness, but each time Sam went down, he seemed more ambitious and happy at his work. And then, three days before the drawing, the dreaded call came. SamÕs owner had an offer for Sam, and if the bidder came through with the cash, he would take it. Who was the bidder? At the sound of his name, ArthurÕs heart sank. Another handler, perhaps the only one in the country Arthur did not count as a friend. The man had for years tried to buy dogs off his string.
ŅPlease donÕt sell him Ōtil IÕve run him at Di-Lane. HeÕs gettingÕ right, and I think he can win it.Ó
But the owner didnÕt buy it. ŅThat will just be another $100 IÕll be out for the entry fee, and this offer may go down if he doesnÕt win.Ó
That night Arthur told Anne of his conversation with the owner. ŅWhy donÕt you offer to buy him yourself?Ó Anne asked. Arthur drove to a pay phone and called.
ŅWould you sell me Sam for the same price?Ó
ŅWell . . . I guess so.Ó