Buck Smith’s Option
Part Ten

 By Tom Word

    Buck and Kyle left the hotel at Fort Benton before dawn to return to Columbus, but they had first to stop at Soggy Bain’s to thank Headstrong’s savior.  They crossed the Missouri, and the truck labored up the grade made famous in a Charles Russell painting.  In twenty minutes they reached the turnoff marked by a cattle guard and eased down the lane a mile to the little bungalow surrounded by corrugated steel grain-storage tanks, machinery sheds, and the feeding lot with its steel-panel windbreaks on the northwest side to catch the constant bitter winds that would soon bear down on this country.  They’d called ahead, and Soggy had a pot of coffee and biscuits and preserves waiting on the kitchen table.  They stayed until the obligatory minimum one pot of coffee was drained, talking of the eternal subjects common to countrymen, moisture prospects and commodity prices—grain, beef, oil, fertilizer.  
Soggy was not a hunter, but was generous to friends who came to his ranch to shoot pheasants, Huns, and ducks on his “tanks” (dammed cooleys that collected groundwater). As they made ready to say good by, Soggy said, “Let me show you something I think you’ll find interestin’.  You can follow me in your truck, won’t take a minute, and then I’ll show you a shortcut to get back on the highway.”
Soggy drove a rocky path across sparse rolling pasture beyond his flat wheat lands to a cliff-like structure.  At the foot of an abrupt forty-foot drop, the grass was lushly green.  He stopped at the foot of the cliff and got out of his truck, and Buck and Kyle did likewise.

    “This here is what the Sioux call a ‘biscum.’  It’s the ledge they drove buffalo over, then slaughtered ‘em.  The squaws and children followed the herd, and a brave disguised with a buffalo head and hide  ran toward the ledge to attract them. He had to be good with his timing not to be trampled. This grass is green from the decayed remains.  There’s buffalo bones here by the tons, collected over centuries.”

    After sharing their marvel at the red man’s culture and more thanks to Soggy, Buck and Kyle lit out for Columbus.  Their dogs were drawn to run tomorrow and later in the second set of derby and all-age stakes.  They saw few vehicles on the highline road.  Each pickup they met was driven by a Stetson-topped man of middle or older age who lifted one index finger from the steering wheel in the universal “howdy” signal of the rural west.
They made Columbus at 7 p.m. and drove to the Koppelsloen homestead to check on their animals.  They’d called earlier to be sure fellow pros had fed and watered.  They put the dogs in their trailer compartments and drove back to town, put Headstrong in the motel room and went to the Outback for supper; then early to bed.

    Headstrong was drawn to go in the fourth brace of the all-age, braced with a first year in Billy Wayne Morton’s string.  They again had the first course.
With the obligatory mutual “good luck,” the dogs were cut loose.  Headstrong went over the ridge to the right, then came to the front on his own, guided there by Kyle’s singing.  He found sharptails a hundred yards before reaching the cemetery and handled them perfectly.  Then he flew through the pasture beyond the one-room schoolhouse, finding sharptails again near its far end.  These too he handled stylishly; Buck watered him and released him for the leg across the wheat field, which he took in one rimming cast, again kicking up dust at his heels.  Buck watched him like a hawk as he entered the rising pasture beyond the wheat field and drifted out of sight.  Kyle signaled Buck should ride the right flank.  After the course turned east, Buck rode to the far right in search of Headstrong.  He found him pointing.  It was a true limb find, and with a good finish should clinch first place, both Buck and Kyle figured.  Headstrong finished with a flourish through the hay field going north.
    At the end of the third day, Headstrong was named winner.  The other dogs in their strings had run creditable races, but none good enough for placements.  They loaded up and headed for Georgia, planning to make it in three days with stopovers with friends along the way.
They made it safely without breakdown.  South Georgia was still stifling hot.  They decided to open at the Lee County trial at Coney Lake Plantation outside Leesburg.  It would be a sad reunion, the first Lee County without Mr. George Moreland.  But his son Bubba and all the rest of the Georgia-Alabama contingent would be there to reminisce about Mr. George and tell all the tales about his and his generations’ exploits and foibles.  Coney Lake was, because of the Morelands, the heart and soul of the heritage of Georgia field trialing.  And what a heritage it was, going back to the beginnings.  In the memory of a few still living, it included the Farriors, Edward and Ed Mack, the Gates, John S and John Rex and now Robin and Hunter, the Mortens, Billy and sons Billy Wayne and Charles and grandson William, the Epps, Cap’n Freddy and sons Ed and Roy, so sadly just departed, Tommy Davis, Rick Furney, the Rayls, Bill and sons Fred and Eddie, and dozens of avid amateurs, plus the shooting dog contingent, another whole culture of avid and skilled dog men who brought dogs every bit as talented as the all-age boys, just bred and trained to a slightly shorter running standard.  The Lee County Trial had open and amateur stakes for all age and shooting dog contenders.  It was the traditional Georgia opening gathering, and a meet where good feelings usually prevailed, thanks to the Morelands and the fact trialers had had a long summer to forget or suppress the petty grudges of the previous season.

    Kyle had still not sold Headstrong, but he knew he would soon have to find his dog-of-a-lifetime a new owner.  He’d had plenty of inquiries, for all in the game knew the dog was a strong contender to win the National, this season or in a later one.  Kyle and Buck had spent many hours talking about the subject.  Buck had said over and over, “The most important thing for you is your owners.  Of course, you have got to have great dogs, but if you can get good owners, just a few—and starting with just one—you can survive in the game.  And in Headstrong, you’ve got your dog of a lifetime.  You need to be sure you find him the right owner.”
When Buck and Kyle got back to Georgia, they found the Yankee plantation that adjoined Buck’s ancestral farm, Mossy Swamp Plantation, had changed hands.  The new owner was a billionaire (they said) named Hardy Dillard, who’d invented a medical device that might revolutionize the treatment of certain ailments or infections requiring emergency injections.  Dillard was a farm boy from Virginia with a natural born talent, developed at M.I.T. and Harvard Medical School.  He was a genuine genius and based on initial contacts maybe a genuine nice guy.  Buck had gone to see him to explain he was a neighbor who would be glad to help any way he could to make Hardy’s ownership pleasant.  Of course, his real reason was hoping to secure permission to train his and Kyle’s dogs on Mossy Swamp, as he’d been able to do with the previous owner.

    Hardy Dillard proved to be a good neighbor.  Despite his wealth, he was an ordinary guy, a Virginia farm boy who’d been lucky in inheriting brains and talent and turned them into a vast fortune with ease.  His father had been a shoe leather bird hunter and initated him in the sport, but he’d never been to a field trial.  Buck invited him to attend the Lee County, and he accepted.  He was immediately fascinated by the sport and the people involved in it.  He began to join Buck and Kyle to watch their training sessions.  And he fell in love with Headstrong, which had placed second in the Lee County Open All Age.
On their drive home after the Lee County, Buck had said to Kyle,

    “You might consider selling Headstrong to Mr. Dillard.”
    “I’ve been thinking about that,” Kyle responded.

    They weighed the pros and cons.  Selling to a newcomer to the sport risked misunderstandings—Hardy Dillard might not understand if, for example, Headstrong had a cold spell.  And Kyle would need to be sure that if he got tired of field trials, Kyle could keep Headstrong in his string under ownership of any subsequent owner or would have a first refusal to buy Headstrong himself.  They decided to offer Headstrong to Hardy Dillard.
The day after they returned home from the Lee County trial, the two handlers drove over to the Mossy Swamp Big House to make the pitch.  Hardy Dillard was interested.  Buck could tell he was uncertain about the price, so he suggested Mr. Dillard talk to Naomi’s owner about its fairness.  It turned out Dillard’s father knew Naomi’s owner, had once hunted quail on his farmlands in Amelia county.  He confirmed the price as reasonable and assured Dillard that Headstrong was a strong contender to win the National.  The deal was sealed.

    Through early November, Buck and Kyle worked their strings on Mossy Swamp Plantation.  They were getting along fine with Mr. Dillard, but Buck had an uneasy feeling.  The reason was Dillard’s plantation manager, a former field-trial handler named Simon Green.

    Green had been a fierce rival of Buck’s before giving up the circuit to join the ranks of plantation managers, another unique cadre in the Deep South’s exotic world.  Green didn’t like the fact that his boss had taken a liking to Buck and Kyle and their field-trial dogs.  Dillard had even said in Green’s presence how much classier those dogs seemed compared to his own wagon-dog string, all of which had been bought by Green ready trained for Dillard (Green didn’t much enjoy breaking dogs now that he’d advanced to plantation manager.).  When Dillard announced to Green that he’d bought Headstrong, the displeasure had shown though, and Dillard, a keen judge of character, had recognized the jealousy involved.