A Little Advice
A Story of Fraternity and Promise for Christmas
By Tom Word

    Oscar Barnes had not been to a field trial in twenty years, not since his retirement the spring of '80.  Seventy now, he'd spent the last twenty years tending a little herd of Brahma-cross beeves on the West Texas ranch that had been his wife Nell's inheritance--three hardscrabble sections outside Dickens.  They leased out the few acres of cotton land, used the shinnery pasture, more mesquite and mottes than grass.  Through all the years, Nell nursed, first at the hospital in Lubbock, lately as head nurse at the small nursing home in Dickens.

    Oscar was headed to this trial to see one dog, an English Setter named Diomed.  He'd followed the dog's career in The American Field since his derby season.  He was a phenom, winning often for his novice owner in the best amateur competition.

    Diomed was a cold blood--no trial dogs in the first two generations of his pedigree.  Farther back were many good ones, including--several times--the best dog Oscar ever had in his string.  For three years, Diomed had won in the Deep South, where his owner lived, and occasionally in other climes at AFTCA regional competitions. But in the current season, accounts suggested a flaw emerging; a flaw reminiscent of the ancestor Oscar had campaigned.

    When the Field announced the Amateur Shooting Dog Invitational would be held on the Hangeron Ranch at Arlington, Oscar decided to go.  His old horse trailer moped on flat tires under a half-inch of dust in the shed, but the stock trailer he used to haul calves to market would serve well enough.  On the day of the Invitational's drawing, he loaded two horses and struck out east for the Hangeron.  He carried a case of motor oil, for his ten-year-old pickup had an unquenchable thirst.  On the seat beside him rode a setter pup, a son of Diomed, a gift of an old customer who'd buy him back if he proved trial-dog material.  (Having a pup around was essential to Oscar's good spirits, Nell knew.)  Since arriving as a seven week old, the pup had run free around the ranch in the snake-dormant months, except at night, when Oscar brought him in the house to be safe from coyotes.  Whenever an errand had the old man driving, the pup rode with him--to the mailbox, to town for supplies, to the sale barn on Thursdays.

    When Oscar pulled into the Hangeron, twenty rigs of astounding length were parked about.  The crew-cab duallys gleamed in four-door glory--gas V-10s or diesels loud as threshing machines.  Shiny walking horses munched hay in pipe-section corrals, finer horses than any Oscar could remember from his circuit days.  The excitement that had always engulfed him when he arrived at a trial came over Oscar.  Then he remembered he'd not be competing, and it faded.

    Oscar found an open space to park his trailer, snapped his pup to a bumper chain and led his horses to an empty corral.  Then he introduced himself to trailers busy taking care of their stock or gossiping in folding chairs by their trailers.  The names he heard were familiar from the Field, but none of them recognized his.  His fifteen minutes of fame had surely faded, Oscar mused ruefully.

    One by one Oscar found and appraised the twelve invited dogs.  The last he found was Diomed, asleep in the cab of its owner's truck, nearly as old as Oscar's.  The windows were down a couple inches, and as Oscar approached, the fabled setter awoke and stood on the seat, pressing his nose to the aperture, trail wagging in greeting.  Oscar put his face close to the window and spoke softly "Hey, boy."  The setter responded with a whine.  He's handsomer than his picture, Oscar thought as he appraised the balance of his conformation, the near-perfect head, the intelligent dark eyes that revealed a canine soul.  Like the ancestor Oscar had trained, his white coat was silky with tan freckles on nose and ears.  Then Diomed's owner and his wife appeared.  Oscar introduced himself, and to his surprise, they knew who he was, even knew the names of his trial dogs from an era when they'd have been in diapers.

    Diomed's owner was Billy Cudlip, a high school coach from Thomasville, Georgia.  His wife Anna was a nurse like Nell.  Diomed had been a gift from her father, a plantation manager for a wealthy Yankee (Diomed sprang from the accidental mating of two wagon dogs).  Anna and Billy had been Diomed's only trainers.  But they were the first to admit that Diomed was a natural, a dog that hunted in the cone at ideal shooting-dog range by instinct.  Breaking him had been easy (maybe too easy, Oscar thought).

    After a half-hour of talk about Diomed, the Cudlips invited Oscar to sit with them at the drawing.  Oscar drove to Arlington and checked in at the Days Inn.  He ignored the "no pets" sign in the office, left his pup in the bathroom when he went to the drawing.  There fifty milling trialers sipped cocktails from a cash bar and talked dogs.  Oscar tendered two dollars for a long-neck Bud and looked up the Cudlips.

    Linda Hunt, secretary of the AFTCA, whacked a water glass with a spoon and called for order.  She completed the drawing in a heartbeat.  Diomed drew the last brace before lunch the first day, the last of the day on the second.  Good luck, Oscar reflected.  Suddenly, Oscar realized he was dead tired.  As soon as he'd eaten a few morsels from the buffet, he excused himself for bed.

    An early riser by habit, he was feeding his horses before daylight.  An hour before the 7:30 breakaway, he had his morning horse tacked up, his drover coat tied behind the saddle in case of rain.  His old saddle bore faded engraving proclaiming the last championship he'd won.
    The first two braces had so-so races.  There were plenty of birds, thanks to above-average spring rainfall.  When time came for Diomed's release, two hundred riders filled the gallery.  Nothing like a good setter to bring 'em out, Oscar thought.  Billy'd asked Oscar to ride front, but because Oscar hadn't bothered to have his amateur status restored by the AFTCA, he'd had to decline.  But he'd ride with the judges as an honorary marshal, announced at the drawing at Billy's instigation.

    As always, Diomed hunted a flowing hour, reaching naturally, always turning correctly at the end of his casts.  Just when it seemed he'd slip away, he'd stop on a rise and look back to take direction.  He found coveys at 20 and 40, each a limb find, and he handled the birds without a bobble.  He finished hunting as swiftly as when released.  The best hour so far, Oscar thought.

    "Have you cured his problem?" Oscar asked Billy in private after the heat.

    "No.  It's on a third or fourth find that he blows.  He's still reliably broke for two, but beyond that he's likely to come unglued."

    For his second hour, Diomed had drawn the Hangeron's birdiest course.  He pointed his fourth covey at 40, and Billy walked in to flush.  Oscar saw quail running through the shinnery just ahead of the point.  Diomed saw them too, and ran them up.  It was over in an instant.  Diomed, clearly leading, was out of it.  Billy fitted the roading harness.

    "Come home with me for a couple of days," Oscar said to Billy and Anna as they rode back to headquarters, Diomed roading happily ahead.  The couple was due back in Thomasville for work, but they called and made excuses.  As dark settled, Oscar lead them to Dickens, the tail lights of his old stock trailer blinking off and on from a short.

    At 7:00 a.m., they were saddled for Diomed's workout.  Nell was riding too--she'd often scouted for Oscar in his trialing days, and as a girl she'd been a barrel racer.  They'd met as teenagers at a rodeo in Waco.  The country looked just like the Hangeron, except more barren, the shinnery motts thicker, the grass sparser.  Here and there oil well horseheads bobbed to the put put of their propane engines, making Billy and Anna think the Barnes must be rich, until Oscar explained that Nell owned just the surface.  The oil belonged to others.

    Oscar brought out an old Parker 20 gauge in a scabbard saddle that had been his father's and handed it to Billy.

    "When he points, you shoot him a bird.  Don't say anything to him--no cautions, no singing, no whistling.  You just ride, flush and shoot.  Does he retrieve?"

    "Yes--he loves to retrieve," Anna said.

    "Good," Oscar said, "When he breaks shot, just ignore him.  Don't take him back, don't punish him."

    Quail hadn't been hunted on the Barnes place in years, except by Oscar with blanks to train his annual pup.  They were plentiful this year.  Diomed quickly found them.  And as Oscar instructed, Billy shot him a bird from each covey.  When he saw the first bird fall, Diomed broke and raced to retrieve.  As the sun began to set, Billy put a fifteenth quail retrieved to hand by Diomed in his saddlebag.  Nell grilled them over mesquite coals for supper as Oscar told tales of his days on the circuit.

    Next day after breakfast, they began the hunt again.  On Diomed's seventh find at noon, Oscar said:

"Take your pistol in to flush.  Before you walk past him, say Woah once.  When the birds flush, look him in the eye, and say 'Woah' again, softly."  Billy did as instructed.  Diomed stayed for the shot, watched the birds fly, held tense without flagging.

    "Now, y'all head for Georgia," Oscar said with a grin.

                        * * *
   
Never again did Diomed break shot in competition.  The next year, he won the Amateur Free-For-All at Sedgefield's Plantation in Union Springs where Oscar rode as a judge.  It was the first job of judging he'd accepted since retirement, but it wouldn't be the last.  At the Free-For-All drawing party, Anna and Billy told Oscar their good news--Anna was expecting a baby in September.

    Oscar brought with him to Sedgefield the pup (now a derby) he'd snapped to the bumper at the Invitational.  When the trial was over, Oscar proudly worked him for Billy and Anna.  When the couple got back to Thomasville, they found him in a dog compartment of their trailer.  There was a note from Oscar too.  It said:

    Dear Billy and Anna,

    Try him out.  He's pretty well broke.  Send me a stud-fee pup by Diomed from a good Commander-bred bitch when you get one.  Come see us.

                Luck to you,

                    Oscar

    In June, Anna called Nell to tell her the baby was gong to be a boy--name to be William Oscar Cudlip.  Next day Oscar went to see his lawyer.  He had him draw up a codicil leaving the Parker to "William Oscar Cudlip, expected to be born on or about September 10."

Author's Note:
Diomed was the name of the dog who tells his life story in John S. Wise's 1896 classic biography of a setter dog.