considered himself the best at his craft. Begrudgingly, so did most of
his competitors, the twenty-odd other professional bird-dog handlers
working the North American all-age circuit. Theirs was a small,
little-known world of fierce competition, conducted on horseback from
August to March, under unwritten rules unchanged over a century and a
quarter. They competed on northern prairies early, then down the face
of the continent’s game lands to the Deep South quail-plantation belt
for the coldest months, with stops along the way in Kansas, Kentucky,
Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Illinois and Texas.
Sparrow Bates did not lack in confidence despite the fact he stood only five feet four inches tall in his ever-present cowboy boots. What he lacked in height, he made up for in strength–his shoulders were nearly as wide as he was tall. Sparrow campaigned a long string of pointers with different talents (and the usual weaknesses) for owners all across the country. He usually had a dog to put down that would fit the prejudices of any judge. Yes, Sparrow was shrewd. And he wasn’t afraid to work, the secret to consistent winning in his craft.
Sparrow had his peculiarities, as do all who go down the road on the circuit, year after year, driving a dually pulling a trailer long as a school bus, crammed with walking horses, bird dogs, and tack. For one thing, Sparrow was exceptionally frugal. So frugal that at his training camp on the North Dakota prairie, which he shared summers with his lifelong friend and fellow handler Beck Kearney, he bummed cigarettes from Beck or visiting dog owners, so he wouldn’t have to buy his own supply. Still, year after year, Sparrow’s name appeared high in the Handler of the Year rankings, and one or more of his dogs always stood near the top in the Purina Top Bird Dog list.
Beck Kearney was a top handler too. He was a character, a tease and a trickster, always looking for a way to get Sparrow’s goat. He’d plant rumors about Sparrow’s dogs so they'd get back to Sparrow. This drove Sparrow wild with worry, and Sparrow was a born worrier. But Sparrow was also a master at figuring out what his dog had to do to win. He never stopped plotting strategy–look in his beady eyes and you could almost see the wheels turning in his brain.
March had arrived when on a Saturday morning Sparrow and Beck stopped at Martin’s Corner Store near Hatchachubbie to buy crickets for a first go after bream. Inside the store loafed Mose Dillard, an elderly black man who for three decades had worked on Mossy Swamp Plantation where the season’s last trial was set to start Monday. Sparrow and Beck were entered, for they were within 100 points of each other at the top of the Handler of the Year list, and each had a dog that could capture the Purina Award with a win at Mossy Swamp. Mose served as front marshal for the Mossy Swamp trial. He knew every covey location on the place. As marshal, he was adept at showing handlers he favored how to find those birds with their dogs, and equally adept at steering handlers around the coveys if he didn’t favor them. Whether Mose favored a handler depended on whether the handler had greased Mose’s palm appropriately.
When Beck spotted Mose in Martin’s Store, he saw a chance to get Sparrow Bates’ goat. While Sparrow dipped crickets with a net from the store's screen-wire bin, Beck approached Mose and handed him four bills from his wallet, being sure Sparrow saw the handoff. Beck also whispered something to Mose that Sparrow didn’t hear.
Sparrow sent Beck to the truck with the crickets and ice for their cooler, then asked Mose to join him on the porch. There the two had a brief exchange, and Beck saw Sparrow hand Mose five bills from his wallet. (Mose looked shocked but pleased as he inspected Sparrow's bills and inserted them in the chest pocket of his bibbed overalls, muttering “Thank you, Suh!”)
The fishing proved good that morning. Beck especially enjoyed it. “What are you smiling about?” Sparrow asked as he noticed the serene look on Beck’s whiskered countenanced as he cast to the bank of the millpond.
“Just thinking,” Beck answered noncommittally. When at noon Sparrow rowed the boat to the dock, they had a hundred bream in their buckets, none smaller than one of Sparrow’s large gnarled hands.
* * *
The Mossy Swamp trial
was predrawn, and Sparrow had his best dog to run in the first brace
Monday morning. Beck didn’t have a dog to run until after lunch, but he
made sure to be on hand well before the 8 a.m. breakaway. He was
mounted at the starting place when Sparrow rode up and spoke to the
judges. Beck bit his lip as he watched Sparrow scan the crowd, looking
for Mose. Finally, Sparrow asked, “Where’s Mose?”
“He don’t work here no more, retired first of January,” replied Sam Green, Mossy Swamp’s manager. Beck knew this before he saw Mose at Martin’s Store. The four bills he’d given Mose were ones, delivered with “I hope you are enjoying your retirement, Mose.” The five bills Sparrow had delivered to Mose on the store's porch had been twenties. Yes, Beck had finally gotten Sparrow’s goat.