The Apprentice

By Tom Word

When the apprentice stuck the key in the post office box in the North Dakota village at noon on a July day in 2003, he could not know that a message inside would threaten his career. Inside the box lay a thin newspaper, chronicle of his industry, training and handling field-trial pointing dogs. The American Field had been published in Chicago since 1874, mailed from there each week to fanciers and professionals, carrying news of upcoming contests and reports of completed ones, advertisements for training services, stud services, and dogs and equipment for sale.

The publisher of the Field owned also the Field Dog Stud Book, a dog registry. Only dogs registered in it could earn wins recognized in the Field and the Stud Book. Thus, the American Field Publishing Company owned the sport of pointing dog field trials, which it called a pastime. It had nurtured its monopoly with a mostly benevolent dictatorship for a century and a quarter. It set the rules of the pastime simply by publishing them. Its current managing editor, one Bernard J. Matthys, was the Wizard presiding over this little Land of Oz.

The apprentice returned to his dusty pickup and opened the Field. An article titled “DNA” caught his eye, and he scanned it. Then he read it carefully and read it again. He felt a sense of foreboding, and then of depression. He drove west to Lignite. In the grocery store he collected in a shopping basket the items on his employer’s wife’s list, checked out, and walked across the street to the neon windowed saloon. Three other bird-dog trainers were seated at the bar; one had his Field folded before him.
The barmaid knew his preference and placed a long-neck Bud before him on a cork coaster branded with the Saloon’s logo. He nodded thanks and asked his compatriots how things were going. They shook their heads and expressed the universal wish that the heat would break. Only at dawn and dusk could dogs even be roaded briefly on 4-wheelers. With half a Bud inside him, the apprentice asked if they had read the DNA article. They hadn’t, but the one with his Field quickly read it, read it again, and passed it to the other two. The four speculated on how it would work, then on what it could mean to certain prominent breeders.

The apprentice finished a second Bud, paid his tab, and drove for camp, a rented farmhouse in a shelter break ten miles east of Lignite. There his employer and the employer’s wife watched satellite TV news from their Lazy Boys. He dropped the Field in the handler’s lap. “You will want to read the article about DNA,” he said, trying to mask his foreboding.

The apprentice had worked two seasons as the handler’s assistant and scout. Before that he’d worked as an auto mechanic. In those days, he’d competed in field trials as an amateur. He’d been farm raised in Oklahoma, served two years in the army, mustered out a corporal. Those two years had been his best, taught him self-discipline, cemented the work ethic begun on the farm where his father had struggled on marginal land with just enough owned acres to get him credit for equipment to farm more rented land. He’d left the farm for the army when drought and low crop prices squeezed his father into defeat. Now his father, a broken man, boarded horses on the mortgaged acreage that had been in the family since the Cherokee Strip Land Rush. He worked nights at Wal-Mart in an effort to hold on to that land. The apprentice was thirty and still single.

He’d loved bird dogs since he was a little boy. His father had kept one that lived under the porch, a cold-blooded pointer that could find coveys and singles and retrieve with a soft mouth, looks and style immaterial. Old Joe had taught him at thirteen to hunt quail. He went forth after school with Jean pockets of shells and his grandfather’s single-shot Iver Johnson. “Just follow Old Joe” had been his father’s only instructions once he’d taught him safe gun-handling.
A neighbor had been into field trials, and as a high school senior, he’d caught the trialing bug from him. He had a gift with animals, horses as well as dogs.
His plan was to give up his job as the handler’s assistant at the end of this prairie season, and, with a short string of dogs he’d put together, to “go down the road” on his own. He’d told the handler of his plan before they’d left home base in Georgia. There’d been no objection, for the handler had been expecting it. His pay for the summer was cut since he’d be working his own dogs a part of each day, which he agreed was fair.

His strongest hope lay in a coming derby pointer he’d had since weaning, a derby he believed could win in any company and, if it stayed healthy, could become an all-age champion. Every aspiring handler needed a dog of its caliber to propel his career, build his reputation. Until he’d read the DNA article, he’d counted on this derby (call name Joe after the pointer that taught him to bird hunt), to fill that role. Now that hope was gone.
The derby Joe had come to him by theft. A customer of the handler had sent a blue-hen bitch to be bred to the handler’s best dog, and they were to keep her at the kennel and raise the litter. He’d been left in charge of the kennel while the pups were nursing (a horse accident had temporally sidelined him from scouting). Joe had been the runt of an eight-pup litter. Unable to afford the breeder’s $800 asking price, he’d stolen Joe at weaning time, told the handler he’d died. He’d sent the pup to his father, hoping to give him something to occupy his mind besides worry. As his father socialized the pup and walked him, he realized Joe had something special. When the apprentice saw him at six months old on a visit home, he realized the pup had trial potential. It was the only thing he’d ever stolen, except a tomato off a farm vendor’s truck as a boy. His guilt had haunted him daily since he’d stolen the pup.

He’d placed Joe with an owner who would be his chief sponsor when he went on his own at summer’s end, the same Oklahoma neighbor who’d introduced him to trialing. Joe had been registered as one of a litter from this owner’s kennel; no questions asked as to why. (The owner was more than happy to oblige, for if Joe turned out, his own stud’s reputation would be enhanced.)

Through the rest of the summer, the apprentice worried while Joe continued to improve. Then the first trial loomed. It would be run on the training grounds of Gary Pinalto, twenty miles west. The apprentice entered Joe in the derby stake, where the draw was eighteen. Sure enough, Joe placed first with two finds and a good, forward race. The thirty-odd trialers who’d ridden were all talking. The apprentice had used only Joe’s call name to enter him.
The derby stake had finished mid-afternoon the first day. One brace of the all-age stake was over when a thunderstorm rolled in from the northwest, its giant thunderheads moving like a time freight. They made it back to headquarters just in time to unsaddle the horses and get under the tin roof of the leaning red barn, built by homesteader John Kopplesloen in 1907 and owned now by his grandson Jerome. As they stood cooling with the rain drilling down and thunder booming, the apprentice decided what he must do.

If he gave Joe’s registered name and number to the club secretary and if Joe later placed in a championship, his false registration would be exposed. By the Field’s decree, a dog placed in a championship must submit saliva on a swab for DNA typing. This would prove Joe an impostor and the apprentice a liar and a thief. The storm cooled the prairie and refreshed the air, breaking the summer-long heat wave. It was too late now for another brace, and so everyone cared for the dogs and the stock and one by one drove for Columbus and the Outback Saloon. When the apprentice arrived, he ordered a pizza and a beer, but he could finish neither. The handler had arrived before him and was smoozing customers at a corner table. The apprentice approached him and said, “Can you come outside a minute? I need to talk to you.”
“Sure,” said the handler, rising with long-neck in hand and following the apprentice out the side door into the gravel parking lot.

As the apprentice turned and started to confess his crime, the handler, grinning, reached in the breast pocket of his western shirt and removed a registration certificate for a littermate of Joe that had died in a kennel fight. He had endorsed it in blank. Thrusting the paper into the hand of the apprentice the handler said,
“I knew where that Joe pup came from the first time you turned him loose. Don’t forget—you’ll owe me forever. Keep him healthy, and he’ll make you.”
The handler turned on the heels of his roping boots and headed back into the Outback, leaving the apprentice with his mouth agape.