The Helper

By Tom Word

    Everyone in the game knew Bill Sikes was more than a little crazy. For his owners, that was part of his appeal—the intimidation factor. If they had a good prospect and put it with Bill, they felt confident the prospect would get a chance to win. A certain sort of owner liked that—an owner who had been on the sending end of dirty tricks himself. So Bill Sikes got a few good prospects every year, and won his share in spite of his crazy side.
Bill had trouble keeping help. The whispered joke in the game was that if you could last a season as Bill Sikes’ scout, you could make it anywhere. But those who went to work for Bill usually left the game after their brief time with Bill, and ended up working privately in the quail plantation world or as a truck driver or in some other invisible job. Why Bill’s help didn’t last was a mystery, but one thing was clear—former scouts for Bill Sikes didn’t talk about their time with Bill.

    The reason for that was simple. Bill had a ritual. Soon after Bill and his scout first reached Bill’s summer training camp in North Dakota, Bill cooked a steak dinner on the gas grill. He supplied the steaks and the scout’s favorite beverage. When things were mellow—the scout drunk and well fed—Bill made his speech. “If I ever hear you’ve told anyone anything about our work, my methods, I’ll kill you.” The scout knew Bill meant it. He woke with a hangover, but a clear memory of Bill’s speech. And a look into Bill’s cold blue eyes in the morning while they saddled up reinforced his belief that Bill meant his threat.
In truth Bill Sikes’ methods for breaking and handling dogs were not special. Like all pros, his methods were a collection of techniques he’d picked up from others over his twenty years as a for-the-public pointing-dog handler on the all-age circuit. His results were not a product of the methods, but of his ability to get inside the head of a dog—to know what the dog was thinking and was likely to do under any circumstance. And his ability to figure out quickly the dogs that didn’t have what it takes.

    Why then did Bill Sikes frighten his help into eternal silence? Not because of his training or handling tricks, but because of his dirty tricks—the things he did (and had his scout do) to assure a win—or at least another’s dog’s failure to win. That Bill Sikes used dirty tricks was an assumption by all his competitors, but none had caught him at it. Circumstances often suggested Bill’s team had played unfair, but the evidence was always shadowy.
This year Bill’s scout was Jeff Reed, a young man from no one knew where. He’d shown up at Bill’s house on a June Saturday morning and asked Bill for a job. He said he was from Arkansas, and he had an Arkansas driver’s license, whether genuine or a forgery Bill didn’t know or care. Bill put him to cleaning the kennels and yard-working pups, and realized quickly he knew his way around bird dogs. When July 1 came, Jeff was in the driver’s seat of Bill’s dually as it rumbled up the highway, with the dog-and-horse laden goose-neck trailer behind. Bill rode shotgun. He hated to drive through Atlanta; north of there they shared time behind the wheel.

    A week after they arrived at Bill’s camp, the ritual steak dinner and warning were administered to Jeff by Bill Sikes. Jeff pretended to be drunk—but he poured most of his drinks on the prairie. He listened to Bill’s warning speech and nodded understanding.

    As the summer progressed, Bill Sike’s curiosity about Jeff Reed grew. Jeff’s talent as a horseman was natural—he sat a horse as if he’d been born in the saddle, and he knew horse nature. Bill thought he may have been an exercise rider of racehorses, and he was right. Jeff had worked at Rio Doso Downs for three years—ages sixteen though eighteen. He was twenty-three now. When Bill asked him questions, he ducked them. Where had he learned about bird dogs? “I worked for a hunt guide in South Texas a season,” was the most he’d say.

    Then Bill Sikes’ paranoia took over. Jeff Reed was too talented, too smooth. He was here to steal Bill’s secrets. The suspicions grew by the day—and the night. Bill now dreamed about Jeff deserting him as the prairie trials were about to begin. Still, the work with the dogs went well—August first the weather improved, with cool early mornings and late afternoons. There was a good bird crop, plenty of pheasants and sharptails.
Bill Sikes had marked the kitchen calendar with a circle around August 23. Jeff asked him one morning what the circle meant. “That’s Cullin’ Day,” Bill said.
At noon they rode to town for groceries. When they passed a two-track to the west off the highway, Bill said, “That’s where you’ll take ‘em—there’s an old county trash dump at the end of that road, a couple of miles. Take the collars off, put them where they can’t be seen from the road. The coyotes and buzzards will make quick work of ‘em.” Jeff knew now what “Cullin’ Day” meant.

    At lunchtimes now, Bill Sikes talked about the derbies as they sat at the cable-spool table under the cottonwood. What he liked and didn’t like about each pupil. He was culling them in his mind, Jeff could tell.

    On Saturday nights through the summer, they went for dinner to Molly’s, a joint at a crossroads twenty miles northwest of camp. So did a dozen other teams of pro and amateur trainers and their helpers with camps in the neighborhood—a hundred-mile radius of Molly’s. The food wasn’t much, but the juke box held a good selection and the joint drew an eclectic crowd—oil-well service crews, farm and ranch hands, bikers passing through, the few single women (or women pretending to be single) looking a chance to dance. Jeff made it a point to talk to the other dog folk among Molly’s Saturday night crowd. Bill Sikes suspected Jeff was planning to leave him and work for one of the other handlers when the trials started.
A week before Cullin’ Day, Bill produced at the lunch break a tentative list of dogs to be culled. He passed it to Jeff and asked his opinion. “Your call” was all Jeff would say. The night before Cullin’ Day, Bill gave Jeff his final list, an even dozen. Then he handed Jeff a .22 automatic pistol and a box of .22 long rifle cartridges.

    Jeff was up at 3:00 a.m. While Bill Sikes slept, he loaded the twelve in the truck, short chaining them along the edges of the bed. When Bill woke, Jeff and the twelve culls were gone. So was Bill’s cell phone.

    Dawn came, then an hour after. Jeff should be back by now. Bill began to worry. At 9:00 a.m. Bill drove the four wheeler out the two-track to the highway. No sign of Jeff. With no truck, no helper, and no phone, he busied himself around the camp until noon when he again drove the four wheeler out to the highway. Still no sign of Jeff and no truck. He drove the same route again at 3:00 p.m.

    At the intersection of the two track and the Enchanted Highway sat his truck. The doors were locked. Bill used the extra key he kept hidden in a magnet container under the hood to open it. On the seat were twelve collars, his cell phone, and a note from Jeff Reed:

I sold the culls for wagon dogs. Thanks for a good summer.

Jeff Reed "

    In another envelope were cash and checks payable to Bill Sikes totaling $12,000.
Bill Sikes expected to see Jeff Reed at the prairie trials, working for some other handler. He was disappointed. Jeff was at Saratoga, working as a groom and exercise rider at a thoroughbred trainer’s barn.