Buck Smith’s Option
Part Eleven

By Tom Word

    November finally brought cooler weather to South Georgia. Headstrong had earned the right to compete in the Quail Championship Invitational at Paducah, Kentucky, the weekend after Thanksgiving, and Kyle and Buck decided to stay home and use November to ready Headstrong for the contest.
The top eleven Purina Points winners were invited to compete (plus the previous season’s winner regardless of its points). These twelve went an hour Saturday and a second hour Sunday. Based on these performances, the three judges (always including one pro handler) selected as many as they liked to go two hours on Monday. The winner (and a runner up in the judges’ discretion) was selected considering the four hours as if one heat.

    The Invitational was a unique test of endurance and consistency. The grounds were a huge state wildlife management area surrounding a gaseous diffusion nuclear plant where uranium was enriched. Until recent years, it had been a strictly wild-bird contest, but as elsewhere the bobwhites’ disappearance had necessitated use of released birds to supplement the few wild birds still on the grounds. In the early days (the trial had come to Paducah in 1963), wild birds had been plentiful, thanks to the efforts of area manager J. D. (Duke) Boss, a diminutive bantam rooster who rode every brace of the Invitational and the Kentucky Quail Classic that followed through his 80s. Duke and his partner Arthur Curtis had made the Invitational their life’s work, with early help from Henry Weil. Now John Russell, a retired professor who served as President of the Invitational, and a small but dedicated contingent of Kentucky trialers, including Jim and Mike Crouse and Gary Lester, kept alive Duke and Arthur’s dream and the Invitational’s proud traditions.

    Paducah was notorious for bad weather Thanksgiving weekend. Often storm systems plunged down across the prairie states and met others coming up the Mississippi drainage from the Gulf of Mexico. A weekend could open warm and sunny, followed by rain, snow, sleet, high winds, and bitter cold. It was a trial every handler and owner wanted to win, but one requiring great stamina and determination in a dog. Neither Buck nor Kyle had ever had a winner at Paducah, but Headstrong was by nature a likely candidate. As they worked him to build his stamina for the grinding three days, they watched carefully for soreness, but the dog seemed to revel in the more frequent and longer workouts. During these, they answered Hardie Dillard’s constant questions about field trials. The sport’s many unwritten rules and traditions intrigued him.

    Kyle and Buck left on Tuesday for Paducah to avoid the heavy traffic of the holiday weekend and give Headstrong and their other dogs (which would compete in the Kentucky Quail Classic and Derby) a chance to acclimate to local scenting conditions. Hardie Dillard flew in Friday morning in his Gulfstream jet. Kyle met him at the Paducah airport and drove him to the Baymont Inn, headquarters for the trials. After carrying Hardie’s duffel to his room, Kyle invited him to his and Buck’s room for coffee before the three went to the WMA to tend to their horses and dogs.

    Buck and Kyle were watching the weather channel when Hardie arrived, wearing a new Aussie-style waxed canvas hat he’d just picked up at Stafford’s in Thomasville.

    “That’s a good lookin’ hat,” Kyle said, just as Hardie removed it and tossed it on the bed nearest the window. Buck erupted from his chair, grabbed the hat and, running from the room, threw it down the hall as far as he could. When he came back in the room, his face showed pure fury.
    “What did I do wrong?” Dillard asked meekly, startled as a deer in headlights.

    Kyle said, “Mr. Dillard, you don’t never put a hat on the bed. It’s sure bad luck.”

    “Sorry—I didn’t know that,” Dillard said.

    Buck, still shaking with fury, said nothing and refused to look Dillard in the eye.

    “Let’s drive out to the grounds,” Kyle said, hoping to get Buck’s mind off the disaster.

    Kyle drove, and Buck sat silent in the back seat of the dually, still furious. Hardie Dillard had taken his new Aussie hat back to his room and replaced it with a Purina gimme-cap. The Aussie hat would not be seen again.

    At the grounds they watered and fed oats and hay to the horses stabled in one of the converted ammunition storage bunkers that had long served as barns for trialers’ mounts. (The grounds had been the Kentucky Army Munitions Arsenal during World War Two.)

    Kyle had bought for Dillard two first-class McCurdy walking horses for his new hobby of field trialing, both strawberry roans.

    “Roans have got good stamina,” he’d explained to Dillard who’d expressed a preference for blacks. “Blacks tend to get hot in warm weather,” Kyle said in advising against them. “Color don’t matter near as much as a smooth gait, sure feet, and a calm disposition,” Buck had said. The roans met that test.

    In their dog-training sessions, Buck and Kyle had tutored Dillard on his duties as front rider. Kyle had asked Gary Jones, who always marshaled for the Invitational, to keep an eye on Dillard and give him assistance if he got in difficulty.
    “If you doubt what to do in any situation, just ask Gary,” Kyle had told Dillard.

    “Mr. Dillard, that’s a mighty fine horse you’re riding,” Gary had said to Dillard as Headstrong’s first heat began Saturday on the first morning course. (Gary always rode fine horses himself).

    Gary could tell Dillard was nervous as a cat in his first field trial as a dog owner. Gary soon determined that Dillard was at home on his mount, an experienced rider, which relieved his initial worry when Kyle had asked him to watch out for his well-heeled new patron.
Before a quarter hour passed, Dillard and Gary were at ease with one another and enjoying a beautiful morning, temperatures in the sixties and skies clear. Headstrong had shown at the front and on course every five minutes as they crossed the creek and headed into the up country beyond. Kyle was riding close in front of the judges, letting Headstrong swing through the country on his own and pleasingly forward, making deep probes along forward reaching hedgerows. Buck rode just to the left and just behind the judges, awaiting an arm signal from Kyle to ride left or right in search of Headstrong should he disappear for long or make a cast obviously off course.

    When the judges reached the hilltop before the decent past the handicap fishing pond, Headstrong was unseen, but Kyle had seen him cross the ridge and head for the front on the right. He signaled right to Buck who drifted away to ride right of the pond. After the judges had come out of the bottom past the pond, a distant call of “point” came from the far right. The judges cantered to it, led by Kyle, with the gallery close behind. Headstrong was poised on a wild covey in a thicket. They roared away as Kyle walked in, and Headstrong stood on tiptoe to watch them, moving not a hair. Hardy Dillard felt a thrill like none he could remember. Buck watched from atop his horse, taking in the whole scene and thinking, he’s hooked for sure and forever, and Kyle has got his anchor-owner.

    In the time since Kyle had come to live on his farm, Buck’s affection for his protégé had increased to the point where he regarded Kyle as a son. He silently rooted for Headstrong and Kyle every moment of the dog’s performance, never letting his attention waver from his job as scout. And a rapport had developed between the two men and the dog that was telepathic—they read one another’s minds. Headstrong now knew the meaning of competition, knew he was being judged, understood the need to finish far to the front and not to dabble in his search for game. And he knew finding game was his reason for being—it was not just the joy of running, but the joy of smelling birds, that propelled him. This was the aspect of field trials that gripped Buck and Kyle, kept them in the game despite the sure knowledge it would leave them poor in old age. The satisfaction they felt during and after a performance or workout when the telepathic mutual awareness of the team’s goal came through was a spiritual thing—even the dog horses felt it, perhaps stronger than the humans or the dog. They were ever alert for the dog, often seeing its movement at great distances when their rider did not, and alerting with a bob of the head.

To be continued in Part Twelve.