Buck Smith’s Option

Part Fourteen

   By Tom Word
 
Despite the release of 500 birds on the courses two weeks before the Invitational’s kickoff, there were no finds the second hour.  When the brace was picked up near the entrance highway, their handlers were discouraged, through both dogs had hunted good races.  Buck and Kyle decided to ride the third brace to get a feel for where birds might be on the course.  Hardie Dillard elected to continue with them.  
Buck liked this course, considered it lucky.  Still, it had plenty of bear traps, places where a dog could slip away from handler and scout and be lost.  But a dog didn’t have to be shown to the judges at the end of its heat, and with the entire four hours considered one heat, a long absence was not necessarily fatal if the dog made up for its absence with good work while in judgment.
To the gallery’s delight, the hour produced four finds—two by each dog—though the races were not extreme in reach.  Buck and Kyle explained to Dillard the detraction of short range.  Dillard was just beginning to comprehend the differences between all-age, shooting dog, and wagon dog standards, but he seemed a quick learner.
When the dogs reached a pond after a horseshoe turn adjacent to a big bean field on private land, Buck explained to Dillard the hazard if a dog were tempted to circle the bean field.  “Them folks don’t like field trialers—you ride over there to get your dog, and you hope all you get is a cussin’.”
The dogs had a divided find on a released covey at the far end of the pond.  A half dozen birds flew from cover as the handlers walked in front of their dogs to flush.  Both pistols popped, and the dogs stayed steady with adequate style.  The action from here to the highway, coursing through bean fields with edges to carry the dogs, was nicely hunted by both, but sill not at the range one would hope for.  Then the entry road was crossed again, and the dogs faced the hardest test of the course, the long fescue stretch under power lines that lay behind the clubhouse.
    “A dog’s got to reach through here to impress, and a tired dog don’t have much to inspire him,” Buck said to Dillard.  These two did not reach enough when their handlers hit their whistles, but instead ducked into cover, left and right of the power lines, and had to be scouted.  Time was called, and Buck and Kyle showed Dillard the way into the stable by a shortcut path.
“How’d they do?” Dillard asked.
“They’ll have to do a lot more tomorrow to have a chance for the finals.  ‘Course a lot depends on what the others do,” Buck said.
They unsaddled and washed down their mounts and released them in pasture surrounding the stable; then drove to the clubhouse for lunch.  Kyle made sure Hardie Dillard met other owners and handlers on hand.  After finishing their baked chicken and snaps, the three returned to their stable.  Headstrong and the other dogs were snoozing on their chains beside the stable, enjoying the warm sun.  Kyle gave each a fresh pan of water from a five-gallon army-surplus fuel can.  Then it was time to saddle up for the three afternoon heats.
When the day’s running ended, Kyle and Buck were pleased.  They judged Headstrong’s groundwork and bird work were as strong as any they’d seen today.  With as good tomorrow, they believed Headstrong had a good shot at being called for the two-hour finals.  But tomorrow could bring a good race or disaster for Headstrong and the other eleven as well.  Hardie Dillard was nervous, keyed up by the competition.  Buck thought that a good sign for his future in field trialing.
The club sponsored that night a cocktail party in the motel lobby where they had a chance to see that Dillard got to talk with other owners, the judges, and club officers.  Everyone knew Dillard was new to the sport and made it a point to make him feel at home.  Then Kyle drove them to the Outback Restaurant for supper.  They were all three in bed by 9:30, dead tired.  Their steak produced nightmares for Kyle and Buck—dreams of Headstrong lost.  Dillard had eaten fisht and dreamed of shooting over Headstrong at his Mossy Swamp Plantation.
Sunday dawned with the treat of rain.  Headstrong was drawn for the day’s last brace.  Kyle and Dillard rode the morning braces, but Buck elected instead to road other dogs in his string.  They met at the stable after the morning’s running.
        “What you see,” Buck asked Kyle.
“Some pretty good work, but nothing that closes the door if Strong does his usual,” Kyle said, trying to calm Dillard without getting him overconfident.
The first two afternoon braces produced two good performances and had Kyle worried.  When Headstrong was cut loose at the highway for the day’s final brace, the sky was darkening and the temperature falling.
Strong burst to the front and was soon gone from view on the horizon.  He was unseen for ten minutes, then spotted by Kyle dead at the front and reaching.  Kyle’s arm shot up and  the senior judge yelled “yes!” signaling he’d seen Strong.  His tone said he liked what he saw.  Buck, riding beside Dillard, grinned to let him know the “yes!” was a good omen.
Kyle rode up on Strong pointed dead on course at a fence line at twenty minutes.  The birds flew as Kyle walked in, and Strong stayed a lofty statue at shot.  Buck watered him and released him for Kyle who was mounted again.
When they reached the pond, Strong stood again where the covey had been yesterday.  This time there were twice as many birds, some of which flew weakly, but Strong was not tempted.  Buck again watered him and released him for Kyle, whose adrenaline was flowing strongly.  Strong hunted out of sight at the front . . .  and did not reappear.  There were twenty-five minutes to go.
Buck and Kyle searched furiously, but they could not find Strong.  The judges called time and handed Kyle his tracker (only after call of time could a tracker be used without disqualifying the dog).  Kyle got a signal immediately, indicating Strong was on the farm adjacent to the pond where he’d had his find, and was stationary.  Kyle suspected Strong had encountered a deer at the front while out of his sight and been turned by it back to the farm . . ..
To be continued in Part Fifteen.