The Five
By Tom Word
Five worked at this field trial. Never again would that many be gathered. Their jobs were being taken by the sons, daughters, and wives of the handlers. But in the end, it would be the buddy system, with most handlers traveling alone and scouting for one another, that would spell the demise of the black scout tradition. The loss to the game would be profound.
Theirs was a role as old as the game, founded in 1874 on the outskirts of Memphis, an import from England, where the first trial had been held in 1865, as Americans died in battle by the thousands. A decade later, men in the North and South had laid down their rifles in favor of scatterguns, to go for sport after quail. Field trials were a natural extension, a quest for the ultimate bird dog.
From the start, white professional dog handlers hired black scouts, the essential second human in the handling team, the one charged with finding the big-going setter or pointer on point, or more frequently with finding and steering the errant dog back on course. The scout did much more than scout. At home he started the pups, fed the dogs, cleaned the kennels, and tended the horses. A good scout was a jewel, essential to a handler’s success. Men like Charlie Murray and Man Rand helped build the reputations of their white-handler employers, in Charlie’s case, James Avent of Tennessee, in Man’s case, Clyde Morton of Alabama, the two who dominated the National Championship in their eras. But by the time of this tale, the dominance of black men as scouts had already waned.
When handlers, scouts, owners, judges, spectators, and reporter gathered for a trial, the black scouts banded together, by natural inclination and the force of segregation, outlawed for public schools in 1954, but still a powerful force throughout America (but never in Canada where Charlie Murray had migrated early, to become a standout trainer, based in Vancouver).
Of the five on hand, all were old hands, except one. He was a rookie, eighteen years old, a natural athlete and horseman with eyesight better than 20-20 and a deep love of bird dogs and horses. His name was Bo Carter, and he came with Ben Grimes, a handler with a reputation as dark as Bo’s ebony skin. For Ben Grimes, winning was everything; his unspoken motto was “Anything goes, just don’t get caught.” He knew all the tricks, and how to perform them like Houdini, never allowing himself to be seen in an unsanctioned move. If he rode off another’s derby, he did it unseen. Ben’s tricks were all suspected, never proved. Circumstances suggested them, but like a master jewel thief, he was never caught with the goods.
None of the veteran black scouts at the trial had ever worked for Ben Grimes, though they had observed him and his former scouts at dozens of trials through the years. Like their boss, Ben’s former scouts were never seen breaking the rules (of course, they rode to the front when shielded from view by trees or terrain, as all scouts do, but that was expected, not considered a breach of the rules unless seen by a judge).

            At this trial, the five were staying in one motel room, as custom dictated. The four veterans decided they’d use the time with the rookie to learn Ben Grimes’ course of instruction to his scouts. But they were frustrated in the attempt, for apparently the first thing Ben Grimes taught his scouts, including Bo Carter, was don’t talk to other scouts about our bag of tricks.
The trial had progressed through four days when the veterans finally made a breakthrough. Ben Grimes and Bo Carter had handled a dog on the first day that all agreed was the leader. Their pointer Intrepid had run a near-perfect ground race and scored three clean, evenly spaced finds in his hour; on the last, he was found far forward five minutes after time. All agreed he would likely not be beat, and that they were running for second and third places only.
As a tradition of this trial, the sponsoring club’s president’s wife presented the black scouts on their last night with a dinner from her kitchen. This year, the food was fried chicken with homemade biscuits and milk gravy, snaps, and butter beans, plus two apple pies for dessert. A linen-lined basket holding the meal was waiting in their room when the scouts got in from the grounds. (One of the scouts had influenced the menu, thanks to a secret once-a-year-more-than-casual relationship with the wife's cook). The weather was fine as they ate the feast on a picnic table behind the motel. Bo Grimes was expansive, happy as any young scout would be in the catbird’s seat of a major trial winding down.
Rudy Butler was the senior scout and the master of ceremonies at the last-night feast, as well as the menu influencer. As the second apple pie was disappearing, all the veteran scouts, but Rudy, had said in one way or another that Intrepid would not be beat, provoking grins from Bo. Then Rudy said,
“Don’t forget, fellows, that ole Firebrand goes tomorrow.” Firebrand was the scourge of the all-age circuit, the most consistent dog running in that day, and a dog that had often bested an unbeatable performance. Rudy was Firebrand's scout.

           At that moment the cockiness of youth overcame training, and Bo spoke when he should have remained silent.
“We ain’t worried about ole Firebrand. Even if he finds six coveys, two unproductives will trump him.”
In one untoward sentence, Bo Carter had confirmed a tactic of which Ben Grimes and his scouts had long been suspected: riding up a bracemate's birds.
When the last brace was called to the line next day, Rudy Butler and Bo Carter were leading the dogs; Rudy had Firebrand, Bo a first-year dog none expected to finish (he’d been lost in each of his all-age outings, though he’d won a half dozen places as a derby).
The scouts said good luck to one another, thought the handlers did not–Ben Grimes saw that tradition as a hypocrisy reserved for amateurs. In the large gallery rode the other three black scouts.
“Let ‘em go,” said the senior judge. Rudy and Bo were mounted in an instant to watch their dogs. In no time, Firebrand began to click; at the half hour, he had scored three finds, and his groundwork was the equal of Intrepid’s on the first day. Then at forty minutes, the call of point came from deep in woods to the left; it was Rudy Butler calling point for Firebrand. It proved unproductive.
Bo Carter had been unseen for the last twenty minutes, supposedly out looking for his dog. After Firebrand resumed his race, Sam Reams, one of the veteran black scouts, approached the senior judge and asked if he might speak with him away from the gallery. Seconds after they rode aside, Sam galloped away.

            “Ben, your dog’s out of judgment, gone too long. Call in your scout with your whistle,” the senior judge yelled. Ben Grimes did so halfheartedly, then spurred his horse to go look for his dog.
“Come back here, Ben,” the senior judge called out. When Ben stopped his horse and scowled back, the senior judge said quietly,
“Your dog will be found without you riding out front.” The implication was clear and insulting, but the judge didn’t care. He’d been in the game too long to be intimidated by a dirty look from Ben Grimes.
At 1:05, Rudy Butler’s call of point was heard again. This time Firebrand had birds. When ten minutes later the placements were announced, Intrepid was second, Firebrand first. The decisions were applauded.
Bo Carter and Sam Reams had not returned to the gallery during Firebrand’s race. Shortly after, they were seen riding in slowly from the front, Bo with his dog on a check cord, Sam riding beside him.

            No one knew just what had happened out of sight, except five black scouts. They knew that Sam Reams had given the rookie Bo Carter a lesson in the ethical traditions of black scouts.