The Fish-House Truce
John Door and Herman
Jones had been rivals from the start. From their home kennels on
opposing sides of the Chattahoochie, they traveled far and wide to
compete in bird-dog field trials. John occupied the Georgia side,
Herman the Alabama. They met to do battle on trial grounds across the
continent, beginning on Canadian prairies at Labor Day, continuing week
by week south through the Midwest, then into territory closer to home
for the midwinter quail trials. Their goal through the season was to
qualify their dogs for the National Championship held at Grand
Junction, Tennessee, in mid-February and to beat one another.
In those days, John and Herman traveled in two-ton trucks with their horses and dogs. Later they would pull long trailers with lighter trucks. With them traveled a helper or scout. The scouts were African-American, as were most all the scouts in those days.
The rivalry between John
and Herman was especially intense this season. Each man had a dog in
his string that could dominate the circuit. These two dogs were so
powerful and consistent that with reasonable luck one or the other
could win any stake.
The dominant dogs were
JohnÕs Herculese, a pointer, and HermanÕs Edgegripper, a setter. On the
prairie, each had won one of the seasonÕs first two championships.
After that John and Herman became intent on keeping the rivalÕs star out of the winnerÕs circle. Their scouts became goblins when they rode out of sight. John and Herman also used every trick in the book to keep the rivalÕs top dog from winning, even if it meant causing their own entry to be out of the money.
Cedrick Porter judged at the two prairie trials where Herculese and Edgegripper won. Cedrick was the most respected judge in the field-trial sport. He judged a half dozen major trials a year, including the National Championship. Judging provided his only vacation from a demanding business in a western oil-patch city.
Cedrick Porter arrived for each judging assignment in a large black Buick, chauffeured by a huge uniformed man with bulges under his armpits. When Cedrick climbed down from his mount at the end of a day of judging, the driver was waiting to whisk him away. Cedrick never came to trial social events, never slept at a trial headquarters, except during the National. Where Cedrick went after running hours, no one knew. But at the next morningÕs breakaway, he was always on time, and his chauffeur waited with the Buick for his return at dayÕs end.
Handlers liked to run under Cedrick Porter because they knew what he looked for in a dog. A front runner, a dog that hunted and didnÕt just run, a dog broke out of sight. He didnÕt insist on super style, but your dog better be intense on point with a good sense of location. Handlers also knew Cedrick Porter showed no favorites among handlers, owners, or dogs.
The third time Cedrick
saw Herculese and Edgegripper that season was at a trial he judged in
Kansas in November. He immediately knew what was going on. John and
Herman and their scouts were intent on seeing to it the otherÕs best
dog didnÕt win. While Cedrick didnÕt see the dirty tricks that assured
mutual defeat, he sensed what was happening out of sight. It was nigh
on impossible to fool Cedrick Porter.
As the season progressed, Cedrick read in the Field the weekly disasters of Herculese and Edgegripper. Time after time, the dogs failed to finish. Cedrick knew they were not by nature runoffs.
Cedrick was scheduled to
judge next in Mississippi the week before Christmas. A week ahead, he
wired John Door and Herman Jones to meet him the night before the
trialÕs start at a fish house near the trial grounds. When they
arrived, Cedrick was waiting in a private room at the back nibbling
hush puppies and sipping bourbon. CedickÕs chauffeur sat in the Buick
parked with a clear view of all arriving.
The rival handlers
entered the ramshackle, tin-roofed restaurant together. They nodded to
one another in surprise, but did not speakŅneither had known the other
was invited. Ushered by the restaurantÕs Cajun owner to the back room,
Cedrick Porter greeted them solemnly and invited them to sit. After
setups were served and whiskey added from the bottle Cedrick had
brought with him in a brown bag, Cedrick delivered his message:
ŌGentlemen, I asked you here to stop your nonsense. You need a truce, and IÕve got the terms. If you donÕt agree to them, youÕre going to lose the two best dogs youÕve ever had. Your owners are tired of Herculese and Edgegripper not finishing. If you donÕt reach a truce, other handlers will have those dogs.Ķ
Here Cedrick paused to let his message sink in. The handlers sat silent. They did not look at one another. They knew Cedrick was right, but they didnÕt know how to call off their war.
ŌGentlemen, hereÕs what youÕre going to do. ItÕs quite simple. Beginning this week, you two are going to split your winnings, 50-50, and so are your scouts.Ķ
John and Herman finally looked at one another. CedrickÕs solution was so simple, so totally logical. Their eyes told each other and Cedrick a truce had been made.
The waiter arrived with a big platter of catfish fried crisp in corn meal and another of hushpuppies and sliced Vidalia onions. After replenishing their glasses, the three men dug in. They finished the feast with pecan pie topped with vanilla ice cream, topped off with chicory coffee.
When the three left the
fish house, the handlers were still rivals, but friendly ones, with
prospects of a return to prosperity and of keeping Herculese and
Edgegripper in their strings.
The idea for the truce
had come to Cedrick Porter as he reflected on how heÕd solved the
problem of too much competition in his own businessŅthe gambling
business. HeÕd made a partner of his chief rival in a floating
high-stakes poker game. Together, theyÕd taken over the cityÕs policy
game, otherwise known as the numbers racket.
When the National
Championship finally rolled around, Herculese and Edgegripper were odds
even favorites. Both had won or placed in every stake theyÕd entered
after the night of the fish-house truce. Cedrick Porter looked forward
to watching their races at the Ames Plantation.
When John Door and Herman Jones told their scouts about the fish-house truce, they were met by grins. The scouts had many times in years gone by agreed with a fellow scout to split their winnings. In fact it was standard scoutsÕ practice in a call back. They wondered why it had taken John and Herman so long to come up with the obvious answer. They didnÕt know the answer had been provided by Cedrick Porter.
From that season on, John and Herman and their scouts had a standing agreement that when they both had entries in a stake they would split the winnings of their two best dogs. Like all handlers, they each depended on two dogs to make them a living. And their purse-sharing agreement remained a secret all the rest of their lives. And they swore off dirty tricks against one-anotherÕs dogs.