Buck Smith’s Option
Part Twenty-Four
                          By Tom Word
Thursday morning dawned overcast and calm, temperature 45 at the 8 a.m. breakaway.  Kyle, Buck, Hardy Dillard, and Simon Green were riding to watch the next-to-last brace, though their minds were on the last one, Headstrong’s in the afternoon.  The morning dogs were well known to Kyle and Buck, who saw them as unlikely to be winners or much of a threat.  They’d qualified cheap, as the saying went, winning two firsts at trials with light entries and out of the campaigning territory of most of the top strings.  This thought proved correct, and both dogs were picked up before the halfway mark in the brace.
This gave Headstrong’s team more time to kick gravel and increase their anxiety levels.  By eleven they were back at the roadside stables cleaning off the morning mounts.  Many gallery riders and handlers stopped by to wish Headstrong good luck in the afternoon.
There had been four races that Kyle and Buck thought might be chosen for a National Champion this year.  Each included seven or eight finds and responsive, though not spectacular, ground coverage.  All the four dogs had shown style enough and good manners.  Their locations had not been spectacular, but they hadn’t needed to be.  The birds were acting like libbies, and scenting conditions for all had been good.
To win Headstrong needed to lay down a big but controlled race, going to the limits of the course but not beyond.  And, of course, he would need enough bird work—the number of finds in the three-hour marathon race counted, as did the quality of the finds.  Much depended on whether birds would be moving in the afternoon.
The team, plus Doc Keen, went to the Junction Inn for lunch.  Kyle was too nervous to eat more than a small bowl of soup.  Buck had a hamburger, his usual lunch at the Junction.  Hardy Dillard, Doc Keen, and Simon Green got the special—country-style steak with white gravy.  Hardy would regret it as he learned rich gravy and even the smoothest walking horse don’t mix.
They were on the line fifteen minutes before the 1:00 p.m. breakaway.  The temperature was dropping, the sky more overcast, still just a hint of a breeze from the northwest.  The brace was announced, and Buck released Headstrong.  Adrenaline surged through Strong’s team as he surveyed the country before him, then chose the right field edge, his bracemate in his wake.
At two hours Strong had scored six finds, all far at the front and on course.  Buck figured he had a shot at the title . . . with another hour as good on the ground and two more finds.  Buck hadn’t had to scout him, except to drag likely edges—he’d found him pointed twice, each time twenty yards in from a field edge where he’d dug in to find the birds where they huddled in briars.
Hardy Dillard called him over.  “What do you think Buck?”  Buck nodded solemnly, then said, “He’s doing a job.  This hour will tell.  They’ll be looking hard at his finish.”  He nodded at the three judges riding ahead, intent as hawks on Strong, who was reaching the end of a forward reaching tree line and turning left across the front.  Kyle’s easy song drifted back over the following riders.  The bracemate had been lifted at 1:45, her handler saying, “Thank you for looking at her, gentlemen,” and putting his very tired dog into harness.
Snow began to fall, a few large flakes at first, then smaller ones.  Visibility became more difficult, and riders wearing eyeglasses reached for their handkerchiefs.  Kyle signaled for Buck to ride the right flank, and he drifted away from the gallery.  Five minutes passed, then ten, and Strong remained unseen.  Tension mounted, but still Kyle, riding far ahead, sang confidently and rode the course.
Then Strong appeared from the left and came in to the gallery, not from the rear but the side.  Doc Keen, riding front, asked permission of the judges to ride out and handle until Kyle could respond to the calls of “Here’s your dog,” and ride back to take charge of Strong.
“Let’s water him, give Kyle time to get back,” Simon Green called to Doc Keen.  It was just the maneuver Buck had warned Doc to be alert for.  Doc and Simon Green reached Strong together (he had stopped at Doc’s yell of “Woah”).  Simon swung down and took his detergent bottle of water from his saddle, removed the cap, and poured water into Strong’s lapping jaws.  Then Kyle arrived from the front at a gallop to handle Strong.
Strong took Kyle’s whistle signal and lit out for the front, grabbing the edge on the right of the course.  He had thirty-five minutes left in his three hours.  Gallery riders who knew of his fading in the finals at Chinquapin and Dixie were predicting he’d not have the stamina to finish strongly as the National’s standard demanded.  But Kyle and Buck and Doc Keen had no doubt he’d have plenty of go at the end.  He just needed to score two more finds and not be lost in the worsening visibility.  A faint gathering of snow now covered the ground in a few spots where the ground temperature didn’t melt the faster falling flakes.
Twice Kyle lifted his cap and yelled “point” from far ahead.  Each time Strong had birds, and they flushed close before him, his manners perfect, his style still good—tail at eleven o’clock, intense and high headed.  Now, if only he could show a good finish.  Kyle looked at his watch—five minutes to go.  He put his whistle in his mouth and blew long and loud.  Strong leaped into a higher gear—he knew what the signal meant.  They had just come through a gap and entered a large open field with weedy edges.  The judges strained to see Strong—he was an aspirin tablet now, dead at the front and still reaching.  Then he was out of sight.  “Pick him up,” called the senior judge.  Buck cantered to join Kyle in the search for Strong as the judges halted and then rode off to themselves fifty yards to talk out of the gallery’s hearing.  Hardy Dillard and Doc Keen rode off together.  “What do you thing Doc,” Hardy asked.  “I think you’ve got your National Champion, Mr. Hardy”, the young veterinarian said with a grin.
Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen.  The tension was unbearable.  Then at twenty minutes, the distant call of point came from the front—Kyle was riding back through the snow at a gallop.  When he caught sight of the judges and gallery, he wheeled, cap waving, and rode back to the front.
The judges forgot their no-cantering rule and spurred their mounts into slow lopes.  Buck was with Strong a five-minute ride ahead, the dog standing proudly on a covey huddled in honeysuckle.  Kyle put them to wing and fired the blank, and it was over.
Back at the Manor House an hour later, Headstrong was named 2010 National Champion.
To be continued in Part Twenty-Five.