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
“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.
“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 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.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART ELEVEN