Buck Smith’s Option

                     By Tom Word

They had been master and apprentice two years, partners the next two (both with their own strings, but helping each other and traveling in one rig), and independent competitors the last sixteen.  Twenty years in the oddest of professions, bird-dog men.  Buck Smith, the senior, was sixty, nearing the end of his working years.  Kyle Frith, the junior, was just reaching the top of his form.

Both loved the sport of pointing-dog field trials, loved the dogs, the horses, the open country north on the prairie and south in the piney woods.  Loved the competition, and that’s what it took to last.  Both had under reasonable control the temptations of a life on the road—they drank too much sometimes, but not during the workday, didn’t do drugs.  Both were single after divorces brought on by the lifestyle.  Neither had children.  Both had learned to save their money and cut their expenses, the key to survival in their line of work.

They both headquartered March to July in South Georgia, the land of their birth.  Buck had inherited a forty-acre tract near Thomasville, his parents’ home at their deaths, what was left of his paternal grandfather’s two-hundred-acre cotton farm.  It now held pasture and a hay field for his dog horses, kennels, and a small horse barn, his grandfather’s frame bungalow, and a few acres of pines.  When the time came, he figured he could sell it to the neighboring Yankee for enough, with Social Security, to see him through his retirement years.  Of course, he hoped he’d never retire, die in the saddle or falling out of it.

Kyle rented a lot for his doublewide and makeshift kennels ten miles down the road from Buck.  His dad had been a dog trainer-hunt guide on a Yankee plantation whose owners now let Kyle work his string on their hunting lands.  At age thirty-eight, he had built a reputation that brought him enough solvent owners to fill a reasonable string, and he made a little extra breaking wagon dogs for Yankee plantations like those where his father had worked.  Buck did the same.
This year they each had a standout all-age pointer, qualified for the National Championship and capable of winning it.  Of course, the odds were long that either would win it.  Neither handler ever had, though each believed he’d handled a dog that should have been given the title.

Buck Smith’s contender this year was an eight-year-old bitch named Naomi, a daughter of Lester’s Absolute out of a House’s Rain Cloud bitch.  She was a strong bird finder and a natural front runner, and she had enough style.  Kyle’s was another Miller-bred top and bottom with enough of all required and not too many holes, a five-year-old male named Headstrong.  Stamina was his best suit, and the National required it.

Buck’s dog Naomi was owned by an old timer in the game, a peanut farmer from Southside Virginia.  Kyle’s dog’s owner was Harry Brent, a Hartford, Connecticut hedge-fund manager and a very rich man.  He was new to field trials, but bound and determined to own a National winner.  He was used to success in a big way and to getting his way.

When the National finally rolled around in mid-February, each dog had won two championships, and they were neck and neck for the Purina Award.  Both were talked of as strong contenders to win at the Ames Plantation.  Headstrong was drawn to go Wednesday morning of the first week, Naomi to go in the last brace the following Thursday.

While Buck and Kyle had scouted for one another the first four years of their overlapping careers, they had ceased the arrangement when their partnership ended.  It was not that they did not trust one another, just that Kyle didn’t think Buck rode hard enough when he scouted.  Buck was not about to break his neck for another man’s dog, or even his own.  Kyle, still feeling the invincibility of youth, rode like a banshee, handling or scouting.
Headstrong did a job for Kyle, scored six finds, and ran a heck of a race.  The gallery had him as the top dog.  The judges had told Kyle the day before to have Headstrong and his owner on hand for the announcement, so they knew Headstrong had the National won if Naomi or her bracemate didn’t beat them.  (The bracemate didn’t have three hours in him.  His sire was in the Hall of Fame, but that sire had never made three hours in its life, and its offspring was not about to either).
The night before Naomi was to run, Buck Smith got a phone call on his cell phone.  The caller was Harry Brent, and he wanted to meet and talk.  Buck said he’d meet him at Stella’s Shanty, a beer joint north of Collierville.

Harry got right down to business.  He offered Buck the same dollars he’d get if Naomi won the National to pick her up before she’d been down an hour.  He had half with him in $100 bills.  He said he’d pay the rest when Headstrong got the title.  Buck took the money.

Naomi was cut loose at eight next morning.  She went to work promptly, and at forty minutes, she’d scored three finds.  She was going with a vengeance, and birds were moving.  Her bracemate had been picked up at thirty minutes.  
Buck Smith rode ahead and entered woods on the right where he expected he’d intercept Kyle Frith’s scout if he waited just inside the cover edge.  The scout had no business riding there, was just looking for a chance to ride off Naomi.  Sure enough, the scout rode up, and Buck called him over. “Give this to Mr. Brent,” Buck said, and handed the scout a paper bag.  It contained the money Harry Brent had given him the night before, together with a cassette tape of their conversation.  Buck had another copy of the tape.

The scout stuffed the bag in his saddlebag, wondering what it contained.  Buck rode back to the course and called on Naomi, who was rimming the opposite edge.  Buck wondered if Kyle knew what Harry Brent had done.  No, he figured.  He would not have had his scout riding the flank to do mischief if he’d known Brent had already paid to eliminate Naomi.