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
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
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
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.