Buck Smith’s Option

 Part Twenty

  By Tom Word
 
When Buck and Kyle reached Chinquapin, the parking area around the Clubhouse was already filling with rigs.  A cadre of handlers who regularly came to the Florida were gathered on canvas chairs by RicK Furney’s trailer, including Robin and Hunter Gates, Andy Daugherty, Fuz Smith, and Fred Rayl.   The conversation was about performances in the Georgia Championship, which had another day’s running to go.  Each of the handlers present believed he had a dog that might be chosen as Georgia Champion or Runner-up.
Kyle and Buck settled their strings into kennels (all except Strong, who would stay with them at the motel) and fed their horses, which they led to waiting shed stalls.  Then they joined the other handlers gathered at RicK’s trailer to hear the gossip and drink a beer.  Everyone had questions about Strong—Kyle was pleased to accept congratulations on Strong’s Invitational win.  Slade Sykes and Joe Hicks dropped by and reported that as usual there were plenty of birds on the courses.  “You’re even going to like Loncalla this year,” Joe said with a grin, but that was met by jeers.
Cocktails and supper would be served in the Clubhouse before the drawing, and at 5:30 the bar opened.  Talicia Hicks and Belinda Sykes were busy in the kitchen.  At 6:30 supper of roast beef, vegetables, and salad was served, and a hundred hungry handlers, scouts, dog owners, judges, and Suwannee River Club directors lined up to fill their plates.  At 8 Howard Brooks commenced the drawing.  One hundred dogs were entered, attracted by the $35,000 purse.
Strong drew the second brace on the second day for the forty-minute qualifying series.  When his time came, conditions were good, the temperature sixty degrees, the sky overcast, and a light breeze from the west.  When he reached Buck’s Hill (atop which Chinquapin Bisco Buck was buried), Strong lit out forward at a torrid pace.  When his time was called, he’d scored four finds and scorched the course, despite taking time to chase merganzers off the new pond.  He was a shoe-in for the callback, but Kyle and Buck hoped he wouldn’t be named top qualifier despite the $5,000 purse.  Winning the first series was regarded by every handler as a kiss of death for the championship.
After the race, Kyle called Hardy Dillard and told him to come down for the finals.  Hardy was delighted, and when Strong drew the same course for the finals, he and Kyle and Buck could not believe their good luck.  Hardy arrived by jet the night before in time for the oyster roast.  Simon Green had driven down that afternoon towing Hardy’s roans.  Hardy enjoyed the oyster roast, especially the compliments on Headstrong.  When it ended, Ted Baker invited him to come to the Big House for a nightcap.  There he saw the painting of Builder’s Addition, Ted’s and T. Jack Robinson’s 1980 National Champion and Hall of Famer,
Next morning when everyone gathered at the pipeline for the opening brace of the finals, Hardy Dillard was as excited as a boy on Christmas Eve.  Soon the first brace was over, and Strong’s time had come.
Buck took him from his box on the dog truck and attached the tracking collar.  Strong did not disappoint.  In the opening section of the beautiful course, he scored two finds, the first at five minutes near the fence line to the right, the second near the turn toward the highway.  He was then unseen for fifteen minutes, but Buck found him pointed in the corner with a big covey before him.  From here Kyle headed him east toward the pond, hoping he’d forget the merganzers.
As Strong took Kyle’s whistle after the third find, the handler detected a slowness in his gait and immediately felt alarm.  Buck noticed it too and asked the judge’s permission to ride up and confer with Kyle.  Kyle called to Strong, who stopped to be watered.  Handler and scout dismounted to inspect Strong, Buck with his detergent bottle of water in hand.
“He ain’t right.  I’m picking him up,” Kyle said without hesitation.
To be continued in Part Twenty-One.