Buck Smith’s Option

 Part Twenty-One
 
                                                  By Tom Word
 
They were home when Kyle got a call on his cell from Joe Hicks telling him Headstrong had been named top qualifier at the Florida and asking if Strong was OK.  “Yeah, he was fine by breakfast time.  My vet couldn’t detect anything at all wrong with him.”
“Good luck at the Continental.”  Joe Hicks said in signing off.
Buck and Kyle had time for just one workout for Strong before going to Dixie for the Continental.  In it, Strong seemed his old self.
Strong drew the first morning course for his first series race at Dixie.  Kyle and Buck loved this course, as did every handler.  It opened through hay fields, crossed the entry road, went into a wooded bottom and then followed ridges to Pikes Peak, on to Cadillac Field and Cadillac Pond, and finished at the corner before the turn toward the Y.  Strong filled it, showing dead ahead every five minutes and scoring five good finds in his hour.  Once again he seemed certain to gain a call back.  Sure enough, before the first series was over, the judges announced Strong and four others as called-back dogs.
Kyle called Hardy Dillard and told him when Strong would likely go in the finals, absent weather delays.  
Hardy was at Mossy Swamp so he could drive down with his roans in an hour.  He and Simon Green arrived before daylight with the dually and horse trailer bearing the Mossy Swamp logo of a cypress tree laden with Spanish moss.
Strong drew the second morning brace.  When the first one-hour-fifty-minute brace ended, Buck took him from the dog box on the trailer and led him by a rein to the breakaway just beyond the Boy Scout camp, first wetting him down all over to cool him off. He noticed that someone else had wet him down earlier.
Ten minutes into the heat, Kyle detected he was loggy and called him in to be watered.  When Buck rode up to help, Kyle said, “He ain’t right again—I can tell.”
“Maybe he will come out of it in a bit,” Buck said, his heart not in the words.
Fifteen minutes later, Kyle signaled to the judges he was picking Strong up.  He’d first ridden to Hardy Dillard and, taking him aside from the gallery, said, “Mr. Hardy, he don’t seem hisself, and I don’t want to risk having him not right for the National.  If it’s OK with you, I’m going to pick him up.”
“Whatever you think best, Kyle,” Dillard said, concern in his voice and expression.
Their vet was riding in the gallery, and Buck rode to him.  “Doc Keen, Strong don’t seem right.  Could you take a look at him?”
The vet rode to Kyle, who had Strong in roading harness.  He quickly examined the dog, listening to his heart with a stethoscope from a saddlebag.  Kyle put Strong on his pommel, and they rode for headquarters.  There Doc Keen took blood samples from Strong, and they followed him to his clinic.  He had not yet detected any cause accounting for Strong’s apparent lethargy.
To be continued in Part Twenty-Two.