Tragedy to Opportunity

By Tom Word

Sandy Williams was a shrewd countryman.  Careful not to appear shrewd, but ever observant of those around him, particularly of the wealthy folks he served.  He always addressed them by their first names preceded by “Mister” or “Miz,” as in “Mister Sam” or “Miz Sally.”  It was a Deep South convention, a subtle recognition of class in a society far from classless.

Sandy Williams was the son of a Georgia dirt farmer (cotton and pecans mostly).  Since finishing high school, Sandy had worked in the Yankee shooting plantation world, the blessed strip of earth between Albany (“All-Benny” to locals) and Tallahassee.  The lands had been discovered by Robber Barons of the Gilded Age about 1880 when the railroad came to Thomasville and made it the winter escape of a first generation of snow birds, top-tier entrepreneurial residents of the industrial north—Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, New York.  At Thanksgiving they fled the snow and ice of home for sun-drenched, pine scented, quail laden Georgia or north Florida.  They came first to Thomasville’s grand hotels, but soon bought up cotton farms and turpentine woods at less than $10 an acre and built estates on the British model, hiring locals—crackers and blacks—to serve their every need as managers, dog and horse trainers, huntsmen, butlers, cooks, maids, seamstresses, nurses, nannies, mule skinners, farmers, teamsters, and later chauffeurs.

There developed between the Yankees and their southern employees condescending affection (north to south) and a begrudging respect mixed with contempt (south to north).  The southerners recognized a good thing—a chance to make a little money, something in short local supply since the War Between the States, also known by old-time locals as The Late Unpleasantness.  The Yankees recognized a sagacious labor supply, good cooks, and exceptional animal handlers, folks quite different from the urban-bred sons and daughters of Irish, Italian, and Polish emigrants hired for similar services at their northern digs.

The southerners believed they understood their Yankee employers, but the Yankees recognized their southern employees as enigmatic—they understood them not at all.  The southerners liked it that way, none more so than Sandy Williams.  His father, a great poker player and livestock trader, had told him as a boy, 

“Don’t let ‘em know what you’re thinkin’ or what you know.  That’s your only advantage.”

As a lad his father had taken him to livestock sale barns to watch pinhookers pray on impatient farmers, using their superior knowledge of price, weight, and grade to buy stock cheap off the farmer’s truck for resale at auction or to another unknowing farmer.

“The pinhooker’s edge is what he knows that the farmer don’t,” Sandy’s dad preached.  Sandy understood.  He looked for the edge superior knowledge could give a poor man dealing with a rich one.  Sandy’s father had died in a logging accident when he was fifteen, and Sandy was now thirty.

Sandy had begun work as a stable hand at age twelve, then graduated to dog-training helper, at which he proved astute.  By the time he was twenty, he was known in the tight-knit world of quail plantations as a superb dog trainer-handler with both pointers and retrievers.  He’d left the plantation world for a few years to scout for a field-trial handler who worked “for the public,” that is, for a half-dozen owners of a trial pointer or two each.  It was a decidedly risky way to earn a living, but Sandy loved the freedom the “down the road” life entailed as they traveled in a dually with a horse trailer to trial grounds from Canada to Florida.  But Sandy soon realized that even in the best of times and with the best luck, the lifestyle was precarious.  He looked for a better deal.

He found it in Fred Eanes, a customer of his handler-employer.  Fred owned Mossy Swamp Plantation, one of the top Georgia quail plantations.  Fred was a recent “come here” to Georgia, but a very well-heeled one.  He’d made billions in the hedge-fund world, then cashed out ahead of Soros and Julian Robertson of Tiger Fund fame, and without suffering the end-of-era losses those two encountered when the trading environment suddenly went opaque on them.

Fred Eanes liked bird dogs and field trials, but what he really loved was burning powder.  He flew by Gulfstream to shoot driven grouse and pheasant in England and Scotland, driven red-leg partridge in Spain, doves in clouds in Argentina, and ducks without limit in a half-dozen South American countries.  He traveled with matched pairs of Purdeys in 28, 20, and 12 gauges.  His London Best shotguns were worth more than Sandy ever expected to earn in his lifetime.

Since retiring from the hedge-fund world, Fred Eanes invested just for himself and family and for his own charitable foundation.  He invited to Mossy Swamp all sorts of big shots (no pun intended) from the worlds of business, government, and academia, always seeking insights into how to invest.  Sandy Williams also studied the guests.  He too was looking for the big chance, or a series of small chances, to improve his lot.

When a guest CEO seemed worried, Sandy Williams shorted his company’s stock.  When a CEO mentioned to his host that he’d exercised options, Sandy bought his company’s shares.  When Fred Eanes seemed worried, Sandy sold everything and bought treasury bills.

Fred Eanes had just returned from a pheasant shoot in Poland when his cell phone began to ring with congratulatory calls—his pointer Mossy Swamp Flash had won the Continental Open Championship in his absence with Sandy handling.  Sandy told him Flash was the best dog he’d ever trained and might win the National Championship.  Sandy asked permission to spend extra time on Flash to get him ready for the mid-February contest.  Fred begrudgingly approved, but only after Sandy arranged for his friend Will Harp as a stand-in guide at Mossy Swamp.  (Will was a temporarily unemployed dog man who had been let go by a plantation in the previous season’s spring shuffle).  

Then disaster struck.  Sandy was called away from Mossy Swamp to look after his favorite uncle in North Carolina who’d suffered a heart attack while working in his tobacco barn.

Fred Eanes had not shot over Mossy Swamp Flash.  But hearing all the glowing comments from friends who had seen him perform in the Continental, he was dying to hunt over him.  He told Will Harp to put Flash on the wagon.  His shooting companion that morning was Bill Steel, a fellow hedge-fund genius who shared his love of the burnt-powder smell.  They’d been rivals in business, and now they were rivals in shooting fields and marshes around the world.

While Fred usually shot his 28 gauge on quail at Mossy Swamp, his rivalry with Bill Steel prompted him to put his 12 on the shooting wagon.  Bill Steel always shot a 12.  Will Harp told the rest of the hunt crew (skinner, scout, horseholder) to be sure they had their earplugs in.

Flash was saved for the morning’s last brace.  When Will Harp prepared to release him, Fred Eanes and Bill Steel were tied at ten quail apiece.  Birds were moving on Mossy Swamp.  In two minutes Flash was on point, and Will Harp’s hat lifted.  Fred and Bill Steel hustled up to the point, their London Best doubles at port arms. Just before they reached Flash, the covey erupted, and four shots rang out close over Flash’s head.  Will Harp, crouched to flush, was nearly deafened by the muzzle blast despite earplugs.

Four birds fell, and Will Harp marked them.  When he turned to signal the skinner to send the cocker off the mule wagon to retrieve, Mossy Swamp Flash was flat on his belly.  Will’s heart sank and fear gripped him.  He envisioned the beating Sandy might give him for putting Flash on the wagon.

Flash found two more coveys in his thirty minutes down.  Fred Eanes and Bill Steel dropped doubles from each.  And on both finds Flash dropped to his belly at the sound of wingbeats.  Will Harp knew Flash would never get over his newfound defense mechanism.  Fred and Bill, absorbed in their shooting, paid no attention to Flash’s drops on point.

Sandy arrived back at Mossy Swamp from his uncle’s in time to guide the afternoon hunt.  Will Harp was gone, but he’d left Sandy a note explaining the morning’s disaster, ending with an apology.  Sandy read it with growing anger, but by the end of a second reading, he had a plan to turn tragedy into opportunity.

When the day’s shooting was over and Sandy had delivered Bill Steel to his Sidley Hawker at the Albany airport, he stopped by the Mossy Swamp Big House.  Fred Eanes was seated before the fire in the gunroom, sipping a single malt Scotch and savoring memories of the day’s shooting.

“Mister Fred, I understand Flash dropped at flush today,” Sandy opened.

“Why yes, I believed he did, Sandy.  Is that a problem?”

Then Sandy explained that Flash’s field-trial career was over, and that he could not compete at the National.

Fred Eanes was not upset by this news, but he was upset by Sandy’s obvious distress.  Fred responded as Sandy had hoped he would.

“I’m so sorry Sandy.  Tell you what, I’m going to give you Flash.  I’ll bet you can cure him with kindness in time.  In the meantime, you can have his stud fees.”

When Sandy drove to his cottage on Mossy Swamp, Flash’s registration papers were in his shirt pocket.  Sandy found a card from the collection he kept of cards of shooting guests.  He sent an E-mail to a gentleman in South Africa who had been a guest in the fall.  The gentleman was a field trialer there.  He’d explained to Sandy that dropping on point was the desired conduct of trial dogs in South Africa, as it had been in early years in the U.S.  The gentlemen had told Sandy that if he ever found a quality dog that dropped on point, he would sure like to buy it.  With his Continental win, Flash might bring $50,000 on the South African market, Sandy speculated.

Author’s note: This story is fiction, but what happened to Mossy Swamp Flash has happened to many a bird dog.  This story is dedicated to the memory of George Clark, Roy Mann, Frank Slaw, and Virginia Pine—Tommy Liesfield will remember why.