Buck Smith’s Option
Part Sixteen

By Tom Word
 
Kyle, Buck, and Hardy Dillard ordered steaks and baked potatoes from a delivery restaurant and ate together in the handlers’ room.  The aroma of the steaks drove Headstrong wild (they’d fed him lightly a mixture of raw hamburger and dry food as soon as they’d reached the motel, and he’d gobbled it down, but he was still hungry).  They put Strong in the bathroom and shut the door.  He whined as the three hungry men devoured their supper in silence while watching the Weather Channel.  Its message was ominous.
A huge Canadian front was roaring down on Paducah.  The high would overcome the Gulf- origin moist air that had dominated today.  By dawn the sky would be clear and the temperature frigid—how frigid Kyle and Buck wanted to know.  Fifteen degrees Fahrenheit at 5 a.m. the Weather Channel map finally showed.  Winds from the northwest, fifteen to twenty miles per hour.
“Brutal,” Buck said.  Kyle’s biggest worry was for Strong’s pads. The hard frozen ground, moist from the end-of-day rain, could make razor blades to remove Strong’s pads.  Ice would form on any puddled flooded ground.  Strong had never run in boots, but Kyle was thinking he might start in them tomorrow.
Hardy Dillard, exhausted from the day’s excitement, left for bed as soon as the steaks were downed.  Kyle and Buck talked strategy for an hour, drawing maps on notebook paper to show each other  thoughts on what could happen on the course, unfolding in their mental video chips of every inch of the land and its cover.
At 10:30 Kyle took Strong out to empty.  The sky was filled with stars, the temperature already below freezing, the wind crisp.  By 11:00 the three roommates were snoring, Strong curled on the carpet between Kyle and Buck’s beds.
At 5 a.m. Hardy Dillard arrived at the handlers’ room to go to breakfast.  They drove to the restaurant a block away where the heavenly smells of bacon, sausage, coffee, and biscuits greeted them.  Other trialers filed in after them and came by their table to offer good luck.  When they walked out to the dually, Strong was curled on the back seat for warmth, having fashioned a bed from Buck’s quilted coveralls.
On the drive to the grounds, they saw deer cross the road at three places.  Kyle worried Strong might be tempted by the many deer on the course, but suppressed the worry—there was nothing to do about it but pray.
The water tank at the stable had an inch cover of ice, which Buck broke so their mounts could drink.  They tacked up and, at 7:30, rode for the breakaway.  Frosty breath issued from all horses and riders as they milled about waiting.  John Russell greeted all and announced the two finalists.  The senior judge said, “If you’re ready gentlemen, Let ‘em go.”
Kyle had decided against booting Strong, but by the time they reached the first big bottom, he wished he had.  The night’s freeze up had made the dirt road surfaces icy as he’d feared.  He prayed Strong’s pads would be tough enough to stand the abrasion.  When they reached the first creek crossing at fifteen minutes, Kyle stopped Strong to water him and inspect his feet.  Buck rode forward to help.  Strong’s pads were intact with no signs of tenderness or bleeding.  From here the course would mostly be grassy, less a hazard to Strong’s feet, Kyle and Buck hoped.
Headstrong and his bracemate, The Redman, call name Red, were hunting ambitiously at the front.  With a two-hour heat ahead, neither handler was pushing his dog to reach, each content to ride close to the judges who had set a steady and constant pace, not too fast, not too slow.  The dogs were hunting their natural patterns, taking tree lines forward and field edges in logical fashion, keeping down wind of cover likely to hold birds.  They were worthy contenders, and the small gallery that braved the brutal weather was being treated to two good all-age races.
Redman drew first blood with a find in the hilltop field just before the railroad crossing.  He handled it well, stylish and intense and unmoving at flush.  The birds were libbies, but good flyers.  Headstrong had not been seen for ten minutes, and Buck was combing on the right; he found Strong pointed near the road the dog truck went on, and call of point was relayed in.  Kyle cantered to the find, judges and part of the gallery following.  Strong had a wild covey beside the road in a strip of soybeans left unharvested.  He was majestic.  “Best find of the stake,” the senior judge told his companions when he returned to the front.
The dogs were not required to hunt the hated loop before the crossing to the second hour, and they were gathered at the road by scouts and led across and released.  Kyle and Buck liked the second hour better than the first and hoped Strong would too.  His pads were still intact, which Kyle thought a miracle.  Redman’s feet too seemed to be tolerating the miserable conditions.  Hardy Dillard had never had feet so cold as his were now, but the excitement of Headstrong’s find had temporarily taken his mind off his physical misery.
The dogs, inspired by their finds, were hunting their hearts out now through the hard frozen country.  The wind had subsided a little, but still blew enough to make hearing at a distance difficult.  Headstrong was one of the smart dogs who would look up his handler if he couldn’t hear his song, a blessing today.  He would not come in, but would seek a vantage point and look for moving horses—a rare talent that had endeared him to Kyle and several discerning judges.
Through the big bean fields of the second hour, Strong lay out at the front, as a true all-age should.  Every five minutes, Kyle’s arm would go up, and the judges would respond that they saw Strong in the distance.  Redman too was hunting a very good pattern and showing enough, always far at the front.  Buck had the dogs about even and wondered  how the judges were seeing it.
They reached the Atomic Plant without further finds, and then the dogs hunted the horseshoe by the cemetery and headed east again parallel to the entrance road.  Kyle chose not to take Strong near the highway through he knew birds were likely beside it.  Redman’s handler elected to take his dog down the far left of the course, near the road.  The handlers were riding parallel, but three hundred yards apart, Kyle nearest the judges.
Redman’s handler called point near the road, but it proved unproductive, the birds likely having flown across the road.  Strong had not been seen since he struck out east up the course after the horseshoe turn.  Kyle signaled Buck to ride the right flank figuring it more likely Strong had gone that way, but knowing it was a gamble either way.  Then there was just six minutes until time . . . and then time was called.
“How long have we got to show him, Kyle asked the judges.”  The question was customary, for the four-hour-as-one heat concept made for ambiguity.
“We will signal when you are down to five minutes,” the senior judge said, leaving the question still ambiguous, just as the judge intended.
Kyle and Buck rode to meet and plan their search.  “You go right and come back counter- clockwise,” Kyle suggested.  “I’ll ride left and come clockwise to meet you.”  Buck nodded agreement.  They had no idea where Strong was.
They rode for fifteen minutes without results, and then the front marshal rode out and lifted his arm to signal five minutes more.  Redman too was being searched for.
    Buck rode to the far right, and then turned back toward the highway, looking in likely spots for Strong.  He spotted what might be a dog half buried in honeysuckle and cantered to get a closer look—it was a dog, it was Redman.  He stopped and thought a minute, then bellowed “Point.”  It took four minutes for judges to arrive.  Red’s handler said thanks, dismounted, stopped, turned back to Buck and the judges, and said, “He’s backing.”  Deeper in the honeysuckle was Headstrong, just the tip of his tail showing.
Kyle was way off, so Buck was deputized to flush.  A wild covey was in front of Strong, and he was steady.
“What do you think?” Hardy Dillard asked Buck as they rode for the Clubhouse.   “Don’t know,” Buck said, for he knew judges were unpredictable.  Kyle had heard the three-whistle blast and came to them.  Buck explained what had happened.  Kyle was overjoyed.
Back at the Clubhouse, John Russell took the slip from the judges and announced to the remnant crowd, “The 2009 Invitational runner up is The Redman, the champion is Headstrong.”  Applause and handshakes preceded the pictures.
“You and Headstrong will be on that wall with the best of the best,” Buck said to Hardy Dillard, pointing to the photos of past Invitational champions adorning the south wall of the Clubhouse.
To be continued in Part Seventeen.