It was October 9 when I first saw the limestone
pillars at the entrance
to Jack Slone's farm. Jack drove slowly on the narrow lane, worn deep
to bedrock, a quarter
mile through a bluegrass pasture. Tap-scarred sugar maples, their
leaves half fallen, lined the lane. In a saddle of the hill in an oak
grove stood the white clapboard farmhouse with its black-green tin
roof. Thick limestone chimneys anchored the house on each
end. On the porch, four rockers and a chain-swing welcomed. A
white picket fence defined the yard and a vegetable garden, but the
tops of all the pickets had been sawed off (so a pup's collar couldn't
catch on them, Jack explained). On a knoll to the west adjoining
an apple orchard, the family burial ground lay within a dry stone
wall. Just beyond, a smaller burial ground was outlined by a
single course of stone.
I felt a deep sense of coming home. One large room
filled the first floor of the original front part of the
house, thirty feet long and twelve deep. Fireplaces at each end
were set in rough-cut stone; the mantles were of huge adz-hewn chestnut
timbers. Books on dogs, horses, cattle, sheep, golf, history
lined the walls beside the fireplaces up to small windows that bathed
the room in sunlight. In photographs framed on the exposed log walls,
smiling men and women
knelt with bird dogs, leaned on golf clubs, cast with fly rods. A
wagon-wheel light fixture hung above a poker table and captain's
chairs, a worn couch and armchairs. Tattered American Indian
throw rugs lay here and there on the heart-pine floors.
Behind this front room a bright kitchen looked
through a bay window on
a five-acre pond and just beyond the pond a long bend in the Greenbrier
River. The kitchen table's legs were scarred by the chew marks of
puppies. There was a wood cookstove, as well as a modern electric
range and refrigerator. The counter tops were unusually low, as
if fitted for someone in a wheel chair. On a peg by the kitchen door
hung a covered stirrup, a bullet hole
through one side, the dried leather branded "US" on one side, "CS" on
the side with the hole.
"That stirrup explains the horseshoes over the doors,"
hinting at a story I would hear later.
Sure enough, a horseshoe
was nailed above every door on the place. Jack put my duffel in an
upstairs bedroom and took me out back to see
the rest of the farm.
A stone springhouse explained the choice of
the house site. The pungent smell of mint came from the spring
creek we crossed on a stone footbridge to reach the kennels.
Barking pointers and setters, Brittanys and Germany Shorthairs in
training occupied the runs. Beyond the kennels loomed a massive
old barn, the faded silhouette of a walking horse painted on its loft
doors. Inside a dozen empty horse stalls opened onto a wide stone
center way. The barn's lower walls were of stone, the cantilevered loft
chestnut boards. In paddocks beside the barn, four saddle horses
grazed, one a gray gelding almost white with age. Flip trotted
over to the gelding and lay down beside it. The gelding lifted
its muzzle and sniffed him, then went back to its grass.
"They're pals," Jack said. "His name's
Copenhagen. Like me,
he's gettin' long in the tooth. He's been my number-one dog horse
for fifteen years. You like to ride?"
"Yes, sir." I had never been on a horse in my
"How’d he get the name Copenhagen?" I asked.
Jack grinned, "Lots of people have asked me that—I
usually won’t tell
_em. That was the name of the horse Wellington rode at the battle
of Waterloo—his favorite mount. I saw it on an old print of the
battle scene in a Pennsylvania inn. Since a field-trial horse is
sort of a war horse, I thought it fit."
The hilly bluegrass pastures were ringed by
snake-rail fences, studded
with limestone outcroppings the color of pewter, dimpled by limestone
sinks. Beyond the pastures, the fall orange and browns of the
mountain's oaks blended with the yellows of poplars, the reds of gums
and maples, the greens of hemlocks. Angus cows and Cheviot ewes,
their newborn calves and lambs beside them, grazed on the hillsides.
"Where's Montana Flip?" I asked.
"Gone. His owner pulled him out of my string,
put him with
another handler who gets to more trials than I do . . . . How'd
you know about Montana Flip?"
"He's the daddy of Halifax Flip--bred Pat the day
you lost him at the
Danville field trial." I told Jack all about my Groundhog's Day
"I'll be darned--I couldn't figure who put him back
trailer. He jumped a deer, swam the river after it, and that was
the last I saw of him until I found your note on my windshield."
That afternoon we visited neighboring farmers,
carefully admiring their
sheep and cattle, confirming permission to hunt grouse and train dogs
in their woodlots in the coming season, and delivering bushels of
apples from Jack's orchard, a hunter's ritual tribute. For supper Jack
roasted a wild turkey he'd harvested in the spring,
with potatoes, green beans and turnips from his garden. A few
hands of gin rummy before a mesmerizing fire sent us to bed at
ten. (Mom had loved to play gin rummy; I dreamt of her, as I did
almost every night.)
I woke in gray dawn to the patter of rain on the tin
had gone to sleep beside Jack's bed, but when I woke he lay beside
mine. (He would do the same every night from then on--we never
knew when during the night he switched rooms, but he somehow sensed our
mutual need and love for him, and this was his response.) The smell of
coffee and the crackle of lighterwood told me Jack was
up. I poured myself a mug of coffee and joined him on the
porch. He smiled and motioned me to a rocker. Flip lay at
his feet, his coat wet from a quick romp around the yard.
"How's school?" Jack asked.
"I hate it." And then I burst into
tears. Jack handed me
his red bandanna and let me cry. In a few minutes, he said,
"Let's have some breakfast."
He had a pot of grits simmering and the bacon
drained on a brown paper
bag the same way Grandfather used to do it (no wasteful paper towels
for them). Jack scrambled our eggs in a black iron skillet; we
sat before the bay window to eat. I slipped Flip a piece of
biscuit. Jack smiled.
"Grouse season opens tomorrow. Want to go?"
"Yes, sir! Can we take Flip?"
"He's a little green for that yet, but I'll show you
what he can do as
soon as the rain lets up."
Jack washed the dishes and I dried. On the
back porch, we pulled
on rubber barn boots, and Jack snapped a stiff check cord to the ring
of Flip's collar.
At the pigeon house, Jack captured a bird and dizzied it by windmilling
his arm. He told me to place it in the wheat stubble between
mowed strips in the adjacent training field, with its head tucked under
"Hunt close, Flip," Jack said.
Flip ran up and down the edges, muzzle uplifted, seeking the scent. In
seconds he pointed the pigeon, with his head high and his tail ramrod
straight toward the sky.
"He looks just like the big white dog--I mean he
looks just like his
daddy," I said.
"Now walk up and flush the pigeon." Jack said.
Holding the end of the check cord, he gave Flip
slack to chase.
Flip trembled as I walked by him to flush, but he
held. The pigeon flapped its wings noisily and Flip
lunged after it.
The check cord brought him up short, but Jack did not jerk or
scold. The pigeon flew to the Judas gate at the eaves of the
pigeon house and rejoined its cooing companions
inside. Jack lifted Flip in his arms and carried him
back to the spot where he
had pointed. He had him stand still there for three minutes as he
repeated "whoa" in a soothing voice and rubbed his shoulders.
"That's enough for now. At his age, best to keep the lessons real
short. Let's go get a newspaper and a hunting license for you."
We drove ten miles west to Lewisburg, Flip on the
us. At the drugstore Jack picked up a paper and greeted the
pharmacist in back.
"Joe, need a hunting license for this lad."
"Resident or nonresident?" he asked.
I looked at Jack. "Can we talk a minute?" I
We sat on stools at the old marble soda fountain;
Jack ordered us
"Mr. Slone, could I work for you and go to school
here? I'm real
handy around a farm. I can fix machinery, weld, keep the kennels
cleaned, feed the dogs and the stock, help you with the dog training .
. . ."
For a long time Jack didn't say anything.
"I don't know . . . your uncle's got the say-so
about you, and he wants
you to go to Blue Ridge School. All I can do is talk to
him." When we finished the coffee, Jack walked back to the
"Make that a resident license, Joe."
Jack called my uncle that night, and they talked a
Toward the end it turned into a pretty hot argument.
Finally, Jack came back to the porch grinning.
"Okay, David. We'll give it a try. First
thing, from now on
you call me Jack."
That was Jack’s signal that he would treat me as an
adult, and that I
was expected to earn that respect. For the next hour
we talked out our deal--set times for study, set
times for chores. Most weekends Jack would be gone to field
trials in Virginia, Maryland or North Carolina. I would stay on
the farm and look after the kennels and livestock, a job for a neighbor
before I arrived. He would pay me three dollars an hour; I would
pay him fifteen a week for room and board. I would have to keep a
B average, no grade below a C. (I had not been a good student
since my voice started to change, but I promised myself to reform.)
On Monday we hunted grouse, using a dozen different dogs Jack was
training in short heats. Jack let me do the shooting while he
handled the dogs. I missed my first three shots, but finally got
one on my fourth, over the point of a young pointer Jack was training
for a federal judge in Charleston. She retrieved, and we sat on a
stump and admired the bird. That night Jack spread the tail
feathers in a fan, pressing them flat with boxes of shotgun shells.
At noon we bought Pepsi-Colas, sardines, slices of
hoop cheese, a big
onion and soda crackers at a country store. It was the same
hunting lunch my father always got for us. We ate sitting on the
tailgate of Jack's truck.
"Why do you call your kennels No Sevens?" I asked.
"I'll show you," Jack replied.
After lunch we drove north on Route 219 into
Pocahontas County and over
Droop Mountain. Jack pulled off the highway onto a dirt road,
parked, let out two dogs, and we hunted west through the most beautiful
forest I had ever seen, the white oak trees tall and stately, perfectly
formed, more than two hundred years old, Jack said. The young dog
flushed a flock of wild turkeys and barked as he chased them.
"We'll come back here when the turkey season opens,"
"Whose land is this?" I asked.
"Mine. All seven hundred seventy-seven acres
Then Jack told me why the property was
great-great-grandfather had bought the tract in 1862. Ever since,
the number seven had been considered unlucky by all Slones.
The school year passed in a whirl, Flip growing bigger and stronger
with each passing week and me growing like a weed too. My uncle wanted
me to come to Richmond at Christmas, but I begged off. Jack
framed the grouse tail on red felt with a dog-collar brass plate under
it stamped, "David Burch--First Grouse," and gave it to me Christmas
morning. I gave him a Havilah Babcock book of hunting and fishing
stories I’d found in a Lewisburg junk store.
My report cards showed all B's--except for algebra,
where I managed C's
by the skin of my teeth, and A's in shop. Jack was a whiz at
algebra and helped me with my homework. On weekends when Jack was
off at trials, I taught myself to ride horseback. (I'm sure Jack
knew I had never ridden, but he said nothing about it.) My knack
with machinery got around the neighborhood, and soon I was making extra
money tuning up tractors and welding broken implements.
Jack taught me his method of training bird dogs, not
by formal lessons,
just by his doing and my watching. He let me make mistakes,
figure them out and correct them. Occasionally he would stop me
and say, "Try it this way." The keys, I learned, were consistency
and repetition., and never losing your temper. Jack
treated each dog in training a little differently, depending on
how soft or tough, how compliant or resistant the dog was by nature.
"It's such a pleasure when you get one that
naturally wants to learn;
sometimes they seem to anticipate what you want from them," Jack
said. Flip was one of these.
Jack had placed quail callback pens along rail
fences and brushy areas
on his land and his neighbors'. He had courses we could ride for
hours, and the dogs could point birds released from the pens all along
the way. Streams on the courses let the dogs cool off and drink
at will. The first day we worked dogs together from horseback,
"Never attach your dog's check cord to your saddle
when you're on the
Much later, those words would ring in my
ears. When I got home from school one Friday
afternoon, a Cadillac with
Pittsburgh license plates was parked in front of the house. I
walked around to the kennels where Jack and the Cadillac man stood
talking. The Cadillac man pointed to a tricolored
setter. Jack sent me to the pigeon house. I
planted three. Then
Jack released the setter from its run and talked to it in a soft
voice. In less than a minute it was on point. I flushed the
pigeon, and it flew back to the Judas gate; Jack fired his training
pistol. The setter remained immobile and marked the pigeon's
flight with its eyes. Jack touched the dog's head, and it resumed
hunting, quickly repeating its act on the other two pigeons. In the
meantime, a neighbor drove up and joined us.
As Jack worked the setter on the pigeons, the Cadillac man asked
questions: how was the dog bred, how wide did he hunt, how good
was his nose, would he back, would he retrieve? Jack answered
each question with studied understatement, never giving the dog better
than fair marks. The neighbor didn't say a thing, but from his
expression I could tell he was interested in the dog too, and that if
the Cadillac man didn't buy it, he would make a bid. The neighbor
wasn't a bird hunter or a field trialer, so far as I knew.
As Jack heeled the setter back to its run, the
Cadillac man asked the
price. Jack said three thousand dollars. The Cadillac man
began to haggle, but Jack just smiled. The Cadillac man pulled
out his checkbook.
Jack said, "Are you sure you want him? When he leaves this farm
he's yours." The Cadillac man gave Jack his check, loaded the dog
and drove off. Jack invited the neighbor and me to
the springhouse and dipped us tin
cups of cider from a crock resting in the cold water. It tingled on my
tongue. Jack took out his wallet and handed the neighbor a
After the neighbor left, I asked Jack about the
"When I have a buyer coming, I sometimes ask him to
stop by. He's
sort of a sales assistant. We'd have been another hour without
"But he didn't say a thing!"
"I know," Jack smiled. "He never does.
He's just a born
trader. Matter of fact, his granddaddy and mine were partners in
the cattle trading business back in the twenties. They were both
good traders, but they weren't so good on bookkeeping.
"They would drive around to hardscrabble farms and
buy up calves in the
spring, bring 'em here to the valley and fatten 'em on grass, sell 'em
in the fall. They had no books--just operated out of a bank
account and split what was left after they sold out in the fall.
"One year prices went against them and so did a
after they'd sold the last steer, they were amazed to find they had
five thousand dollars in the bank. They divided it. Next
spring they went out to see one of the farmers they always bought
from. After they negotiated for his calves, the farmer said, 'By
the way, gentlemen, I've still got your check for five thousand for
last year's calves in my wallet.'
"My granddaddy and his partner nearly fainted.
They asked the
farmer to hold their check a little longer. Then they scrambled
back to Lewisburg and borrowed the money to cover the check. That
was the end of their trading partnership."
"How do you learn to trade?" I asked Jack.
"Well," Jack said, "I never really thought about
it. Like most
things, tradin' is mostly instinct and experience, I think. Like
nose in a bird dog--you either have it or you don't. There are a
few rules. My daddy used to say, 'Never buy cattle after four in
the afternoon--the evening light makes 'em look better than they are,'
and 'Never deal with a man who tells you he's honest, 'cause that's a
sure sign he's not.'
My old grouse-hunting buddy Bill Pannill had
a strange one--never deal with a man from Philadelphia. His daddy
got stung on a deal with somebody from there when he first went in
"Main thing is, every trader has to learn his
way. Every trader has to get burned bad, once."
"How did you learn your lesson?" I asked Jack.
Jack grinned, the deep grin that meant he was
summonsing a memory, and
said, "I got my big lesson early--when I was eight.
"My granddaddy gave me a saddle for
Christmas--prettiest saddle you
ever saw. I'd seen it in the feed store in Lewisburg and dreamed
about it for a year. The day after Christmas, I saddled up my
pony and rode off pretending I was Hopalong Cassidy.
"'At noon I came up on a boy walkin' the road.
He had a trombone
he’d had got for Christmas. He was trying to play it, without
"I saw that trombone, and suddenly I had to have
it. I pictured
myself in a band, playing a solo.
"I said, 'What will you take for that
trombone? The boy said, 'It
ain't for sale.' Then he saw my saddle, and added, 'But I'll trade you
even for your saddle.'
"Without even thinking, I said, 'You've got a deal',
slid off the pony
and untied the cinch.
"In less than a minute I was ridin' home
bareback. I laid the
reins over my pony's neck and began to blow the trombone. At
first I couldn't get any noise out of it. Then I got my mouth
right, and a toot came out. The pony spooked. I grabbed for
the reins and let go the trombone. It hit the road, and the pony
stepped on it.
"When I rode bareback into the barnyard holding that
tears were streaming down my cheeks. My granddaddy was sitting
over there on the granary steps, patching harness.
"'Where's your saddle?' he asked.
"I told him between sobs. Then he said very
quietly, 'That's all
right, son. You've learned a lesson. You come from a
trading family. All your life, you are going to be making deals.
You will make some good ones, and some not so good. Just
remember, you've got to make a few more good ones than bad ones to stay
"Whenever I feel an urge to trade for something, I
see that bent
trombone lying in the road."
I've got a weakness for horses--good ones are
scarce. When you
see a handler at a trial watching another handler real close, you can
bet he's coveting his horse. It's mighty easy to get took in a
Jack sensed my fascination with trading. That night at supper he
said, "If you really want to learn to trade, I've got the perfect
classroom for you, and it's free. You'll have to get up an hour
early Thursdays. We can stop by on the way to school."
Thursday was livestock auction day at
Lewisburg. The market was a
three-acre shed just outside town with board pens and runways to the
scales and auction pit. Twenty trucks were lined up, waiting to
unload stock. The farmers sat in their trucks, impatient, anxious
to get home to the day's chores. Three men with stock canes over
their wrists stood by the door to the scale house.
"Watch those guys; they're your professors," Jack
When a new truck arrived and enough time passed to
assure its driver's
impatience, one of these men would go out and speak to the farmer, then
climb on his stockbed and poke at the live cargo with his cane, making
a lightning inspection. He'd offer to buy the
load. The farmer's expression would turn grave as he
weighed the offer
against his own estimate of the weight, grade and likely price per
pound of his animals. He had been pondering this ever since he
loaded at his barnyard before daylight. He had left home
confident of his estimate but grown doubtful with the passage of
time. If he took the offer, he could unload and the fretful
waiting would be over--but surely this buyer was bidding low, figuring
a big profit on the resale that could be the farmer's if he waited his
turn to unload. Sensing the farmer's uncertainty, the buyer began
his spiel, casting doubt on how the stock would grade (noting any
blemishes his quick inspection had detected), talking down the day's
likely prices, wondering aloud which of the usual packers' reps might
be absent from the bidding today. Then he raised his offer a
little, saw the farmer's resolve weaken, then stiffen again . . .
raised the offer a little more, saying it was final . . . the farmer's
right hand poked out the window to shake on the deal.
The farmer's truck pulled out of the line and backed
up to the buyer's
truck, parked just down the road; the stock changed trucks. The
buyer went into his pocket for his roll of bills, secured by a thick
rubber band. The farmer stuffed the tendered bills in the bib
pocket of his overalls (he would decide later whether to record the
cash on his books; chances were he would, but not until just before
church time on Sunday). The buyer scratched out a bill of sale,
and the farmer signed it. Before the farmer drove a mile toward
home he felt regret, sure he’d been taken.
"Who are those guys?" I asked Jack.
"Pinhookers. Watch them and you can learn to
Later Jack asked me what I had seen, and I told
him. He responded:
"That's about right. They judge the weight of
a calf within five
pounds, know how it will grade, what the day's prices will likely be,
the demand for each head of stock in the farmer's truck. And they
know the farmers--which ones have their own livestock scales at home,
which are stock smart, which are not, which will have had a pull of
vodka to cut the morning chill.
“Notice they don't waste much time if the farmer's
got his wife in the
truck--women are mostly too shrewd to fall for a pinhooker's offer.
“Pinhookers will pasture some of what they buy, take
some to another
auction in a day or two where a better price is likely. But most
of what they buy they'll resell right here today--for more than they
paid. Tomorrow they'll be at the sale over at Monterey, next day
at Staunton--they move from place to place with the sale days, same as
the packers' reps.
"I pinhooked a couple years when I got out of the
it up when the dog training picked up to where I didn't have time for
both. Pinhooking has to be a full-time job--if you don't stay at
it every day you'll loose your edge, and edge is what it's about.
Knowing more than the seller--about his stock and about him—that and
never letting feelings influence your trades."
Jack knew everyone at the market--farmers,
pinhookers, packers' men,
graders (his father had been a stock grader), cook and waitresses in
the little restaurant by the scale house, auctioneers, the motley hands
who moved the stock around the runways and loaded them on the big semis
at the end of the day. Soon I knew them too. At
the scales Jack would bet on the weights of the incoming lots of
lambs, calves, steers--but never on hogs. "I never could judge a
hog's weight," he admitted. He gave me tips on how to judge grade
and weight, and soon I was betting too. Each bettor would write
his estimate on a slip of paper, and when the scale man announced the
weight, we would show our numbers, and the bettor who guessed closest
got the pot. The bets were always small--a nickel, a quarter,
rarely a dollar. Sometimes Jack would lure a pinhooker into side
bets for five or ten dollars, but on those he lost as often as he
"The guy who looks at stock every day has got
an edge on
me," Jack said.
Three weeks later when we made our Thursday morning
stop at the
livestock market, an old friend of Jack's was with the
pinhookers. His name was Sy Beale, a beardless Santa Claus, with
twinkling rheumy eyes as blue as Jack's.
"What in the world brings you from Elkins?' Jack asked after
“I've retired from Ashland Coal and bought my sisters' interests in the
home place—they’ve moved to Florida. I’m going to live there and
do a little farming. I'm looking for a dozen feeder steers to
keep the grass mowed."
Jack volunteered to help Sy find his steers, and we
toured the pens in
search of a likely bunch. When we didn't find any, Jack and Sy
decided to spend the day canvassing county farms. When I got home
from school Sy and Jack were on the front porch talking old
times. They had found the steers Sy needed, and the farmer who
sold them would deliver them to Elkins in his truck next day.
Sy owned a single engine Cessna, and Jack loved to
morning, Sy took us up from the Lewisburg Airport.
From the air Jack showed me his favorite places in the mountains--Dolly
Sods, Buzzard Ridge, Seneca Rocks, the Roaring Plains. We flew
above the courses of the New and the Gauley and the smaller streams
that made them. The mountains of eastern West Virginia were
beautiful, unspoiled country. Jack loved the mountains, and I was
coming to love them too. By spring my grieving for my
parents had begun to ebb, and I had grown
three inches. I sensed that something was troubling Jack; it was
The spring field-trial season wound up at the end of April, and then
Jack was home weekends. He took me fishing for native trout in
high streams to the west of the farm, worked on his golf swing.
Jack's swing was beautiful: compact, effortless, always the same no
matter what club or iron. He took me along to a driving range,
taught me the basics of the game.
After school let out for the summer, we worked dogs
early and then Jack
would be off to The Greenbrier or The Homestead to play golf for
money. Some nights Jack wouldn't come home 'til sunup--poker
followed golf when he could find a money game. Jack
went about the golf and poker like a man possessed. He was
desperate to get out of debt. The dog business and farming were
not going to do it. But there was a practical limit to what Jack
could win. Like the gambler in a Wild West saloon, he had to keep
his winnings modest to stay in the games. Where had
the debt come from, I wondered, for Jack was frugal almost to
a fault. Gradually I figured it out.
Beside Jack's bed was a photograph of a girl with
red hair on a dun
horse, prairie in the background. Jack had met Ann on his first
trip to Canadian prairies when he was twenty-four. She was the
teenage daughter of a wheat farmer he'd gone to see in search of a
horse to rent. He came back to the farm the next day and asked
her to a movie in town. The next summer they had married after a
When Jack decided to try the major circuit, Ann became his scout.
Dogs and horses were second nature to her; she rode like the wind, gave
young dogs back their confidence when Jack tried to bring them along
too fast. She took over the puppy raising and starting. Her
disposition was naturally sunny, offsetting Jack's sometimes acid
ways. They complemented one another, professionally and
personally, enjoyed their roving life on the circuit and the few quiet
months each year on the farm. But it hadn't been all bliss--they
had wanted children, but none came.
Then in an instant their free-roaming life had
ended. On a rainy
day at a Mississippi trial, Ann's horse slipped on a muddy ditchback;
she was paralyzed from the waist down. After that the woman who
could ride any horse had to get around in a wheelchair. Jack left
the major circuit and campaigned only at close-to-home trials. He
took a second part-time job as a rural mail carrier; Ann rode with him
most days making deliveries.
Ann's injury required surgeries, and they had no
Jack mortgaged the farm to cover the costs. And then Ann died of
a stroke. Jack had fought ever since to pay off the debt, but it
was an uphill fight. Some years he only managed to pay the
interest; some years he dented the principal; but the mound of debt
stayed there. Jack tried to conquer the debt by his
wits--specifically his gambling
wits. But the trouble with gambling is, you've got to have the
games. Jack was well-known in the casino states--minutes after he
stepped to a casino blackjack table, he'd be invited to leave.
Private poker games were hard to find—the casino poker tables were well
stocked with pros who took away his edge. Occasionally a
high-stakes private game would come to The Greenbrier, the players
flying in from around the country, South America, Europe, the
Orient. Jack had lookouts among hotel staff to alert him when a
big game surfaced.
I began to fancy myself a knowledgeable dog
trainer. One night
Jack got a call from an old customer who wanted to send us a green
derby. When Jack hung up, he said,
"This one will be tough. His sire near about
broke me before I
broke him, but when he finally came around he made a good one."
Two days later the derby arrived at the Lewisburg
let him out of his crate on a check cord. He stretched and looked
around, proud and aloof, then lifted his leg on a lamppost in the
parking lot. He was the handsomest pointer I'd ever seen, white
with perfectly marked liver head and ears, silky coat, deep chest, long
legs with small, tight feet, already muscled up in the hindquarters, a
poker straight tail set high on his back, big dark eyes. He had
the dignity of a bishop. I fell in love with him.
"Not a bad looking derby," Jack said.
When we got home I wanted to see if he would point a
pigeon, but Jack
said no, to put him in the kennel run. Jack had a rule, a new dog
stayed in the kennel for three days before any training.
Next day when I got home from school Jack was in Lewisburg seeing his
banker. I walked to the kennels and got in the run with the new
pointer. He was not affectionate like Flip, but tolerated my
petting and wagged his tail a little.
I planted a couple of pigeons in the training field
and led the pointer
out on a check cord. He pointed the first pigeon from ten yards
with breathtaking style. Still holding the check cord, I walked
around him and flew the pigeon--he chased it like a sprinter and almost
jerked me off my feet. He pointed the next pigeon at
an unbelievable distance. What a
nose! When I moved to flush I faced a dilemma--the check cord was
too short to let me fly the pigeon and still hold the cord. I
decided to take a chance, figuring I could step on the cord and stop
the pointer when he chased by me after the pigeon. It almost
worked. I managed to step on the cord, but the pointer's strength
and momentum pulled the rope through before I could get a grip.
The pointer realized he was free and broke for the low ground.
When he reached the fence he took the edge and disappeared into the
woods a half mile north of the kennel. He ignored my calling.
I was frantic. I ran after him, still calling,
but when I reached
where he had entered the woods, there was no sight or sound of
him. At his speed he could be two miles away by now.
Jack returned just before dark and I told him what had happened.
He didn't say anything, just looked at me with those steel blue eyes.
We drove the river road first up to where it meets Route 219, then
made a circle. By then it was pitch dark.
"Might as well go home. If we're lucky he'll
go up to someone's
house and we'll get a call,” Jack said.
I knew the things that could happen if we weren't
lucky. No call
came that night, and at daybreak we drove the roads again. Jack
had called all the close neighbors, but none had seen the pointer.
It was two days later when we got the call from the mail carrier.
He had seen the pointer's body in a ditch beside the highway six miles
south of the farm. Jack went to pick up the carcass while I dug a
grave in the lot marked by the single course of limestone.
Jack lifted the body from the bed of the truck and
handed it to
me. I laid it in the grave, then unbuckled the collar with the
check cord still attached. In his wild running the handsome
pointer had worn the cord slick as glass. I covered the body with
earth, patted the mound round and firm. Jack sprinkled grass
seed, and I tamped the mound again.
"Let's go make the call," Jack said. Jack
dialed and told the
owner the news with a simple apology. "What did you have in him?"
Jack asked. Then he hung up.
"You owe Rosewell Page six hundred dollars.
it. You can pay me back four dollars a week at nine percent
interest--that's what I'm paying the bank."
As we removed the dishes from the supper table, Jack
"A dog is a denning animal. Once he gets used
to the place he
sleeps, it gets to be the center of his universe, and he will home to
it. When he's moved to a new place, he's disoriented for a
while--that's why we leave a dog in his kennel run three days before we
Jack wrote a check to me for six hundred
dollars. I made out one
from my own account to Rosewell Page in the same amount and a note of
apology. Then I walked to the mailbox and put up the flag.
That was the last time Jack ever mentioned the death of the
pointer. Not all my lessons were as grim as the one
with the runaway
pointer. Some were downright funny--even if the humor was at my
Jack had a little old tractor, a '52 John Deere MT. When I first
got to the farm, it was in bad shape, blowing smoke, hydraulic system
leaking. I convinced my shop-class teacher to let us overhaul it
as a class project; with rings and gaskets replaced, it was good as
new. I loved to drive it, mowing pasture, plowing the
garden, hauling hay to
feed on the pasture hillsides. One of my least favorite jobs was
picking up field rocks. Each winter's freeze and thaw brought a
new crop of rocks to the surface. Lifting rock onto the hay
trailer was torture, so I designed and built in the school shop a sled,
four-feet wide and six-feet long, with oak runners, a plank floor, and
a chain bolted to the runners for hitching to the tractor. It was
ideal for rock gathering because I didn't have to lift high to load or
One Saturday in May, I was picking up rock when a
thunderstorm came up
suddenly. I jumped on the tractor and headed for the shed,
running wide open, the little engine put-put'n like a sewing
machine. I pulled under the shed just as the clouds opened.
Then I looked behind me, and there was the sled, burdened with a ton of
rock. I was trapped; you can't back a sled pulled by a
chain. Jack was in town, due back any minute. I
was desperate to hide my
stupid mistake. Ignoring the rain, I furiously threw rock off the
sled so I could hand-pull it from behind the tractor, reload, and get
the rock to a sinkhole.
Just as I lifted the last rock off the sled, the rain stopped, and I
heard the whine of Jack's truck. I stood by the tractor rain
soaked, the evidence of my stupidity all around me. Jack walked
over, his face grave as a pallbearer. Then he broke up. For
five minutes, he laughed so hard he cried. I was soon laughing
That night on the porch Jack whittled on a piece of
siding. When he finished, he hung it in the hall between our
bedrooms. It was a little sign carved in block letters,
Above the words he’d carved the outline of a twisted
trombone, below of
the sled. "Trombone" and "Rock Sled" became our code words to one
another for "Be careful--you're about to do something stupid."
One afternoon when I came in from school, I found Jack dressed in a
lime-green leisure suit, shiny patent leather ankle boots with zippers
on the inside and a big diamond ring. Jack said this was his
coal-baron outfit. He'd got word of a big-stakes poker game at
The Greenbrier, and an assistant golf pro had arranged an invitation
for him to play, saying Jack was a coal operator with deep pockets and
a gambling compulsion. (Of course the diamond was synthetic.)
"Don't laugh. This is a work suit," Jack said.
He was gone two days and nights. I started to
players figured he was a ringer, done him in? I had visions of
George-Raft-type characters in the game. When Jack finally got
home, he was dead tired but grinning. He had thirty thousand
dollars in cash. It was enough to cover Ann's remaining
long-overdue hospital bills and get a renewal of the farm mortgage one
more year. Jack's big poker winnings would come back
to haunt us, but as we
prepared for the trip to Doc Bates ranch in South Dakota, we were in a
high state of cheerful. In May I overhauled the pickup engine and
replaced the trailer wheel bearings in high-school shop. Early
one morning in June, Jack went to The Greenbrier, but this time not for
golf or poker.