Buck Smith’s Option
Part Nine

By Tom Word

    Soon they were beyond the enormous flat wheat fields west of Columbus and nearing the Montana line. Kyle’s eyes were glued to the signal-receiver device as Buck sped west through the Bad Lands.  They had closed half the distance to Headstrong when the dot on the screen began to wander west at about the speed they were traveling.

    “He must be in a vehicle now,” Kyle said.

    Buck figured Kyle’s cell phone might ring any moment.  His reading was that Headstrong had been picked up by a second hunter, seen at roadside after his run-off escape from the thieves.  Buck was right about what had just happened to Headstrong, but the call would not come.  The thieves had removed Headstrong’s leather collar with Kyle’s’ name and cell number on it, and replaced it with one with no tag. Headstrong was now short chained in the bed of a pickup headed for Fort Benton, driven by an octogenarian wheat farmer and rancher named Soggy Baine.  He’d picked up Headstrong from the roadside exhausted, as Buck had surmised.

    Soggy had been in the Bad Lands to look at a yearling heard bull prospect for his small Angus cow-calf herd, a sideline from his wheat farming.  He’d declined to buy the yearling—something about its high rear end turned him off, though he knew that was the current fashion in Black Angus conformation.  As he sped west at 80 mph, his mind was on the list of winter- preparation chores that awaited him on his acreage—winterizing three combines, moving round bales of hay to beside the wind-breaked lot where his cattle would be moved for the bad weather months, draining the radiators of the tractors and trucks and refilling them with fresh anti-freeze, testing all the batteries on the winter-use farm equipment and replacing weak ones.  Soggy approached his ranch, just south of the Missouri ten miles from Fort Benton, just as darkness approached.  At the last minute, he decided to drop off Headstrong at his vet’s clinic.  He figured the vet would know best how to get the word out on a found bird dog or find it a home if no owner appeared to claim it.  The vet was a bird hunter who came to Soggy’s ranch to shoot the pheasants that collected in fall in the cooleys beneath his high, flat wheat fields.  That’s when Headstrong’s chip’s signal disappeared from the receiver device in Kyle’s hand.
   
    “Damn, I’ve lost the signal,” Kyle said.  Buck figured it out in a heartbeat.
    “Somebody’s got him in a place where the link to the satellite is broken,” Buck said.
    “What do we do now?” Kyle asked.
    “How many miles ahead of us was the signal when you lost it?” Buck asked.
    “About a hundred miles I guess.”
    “Look at the map and see if there’s a town there,” Buck said.
   
    Kyle got the map out of the glove box.

    “Yep.  Fort Benton, right on the Missouri River.”
   
    They made Fort Benton in ninety minutes.  The signal had not reappeared.  The little town was dark, except for streetlights on the corners and an occasional lighted window in a house or a closed store.  Buck drove the streets slowly, looking for a policeman or an open store.  Then he saw the Grand Hotel, a restored relic of the 1890s.  Buck parked the truck, and the two walked into the dimly lit lobby where a young woman with oriental features sat behind the registration counter reading a paperback.
   
    “Can I help you,” gentlemen?”
    “Yes—do you have a room for tonight?”
    “Yes—we have a room with two double beds for $40, plus tax.
    “We’ll take it,” Buck said and put two twenties and a ten on the counter.  The young lady pushed a registration card in front of Buck, and he filled it out.     

    She read it and put the cash in a drawer, returning a $5 bill to Buck.  Then she placed two keys on the counter.

    “The room is the first door at the top of the stairs”, she said, nodding to the lobby’s open staircase.
    “Any place around to get supper?” Buck asked.
    “There’s a saloon down the street a block, Harry’s,” she answered.
    (They still call beer joints saloons here—good, Buck thought.)
   
    “Is there a radio station here? Kyle asked her.
    “No—the nearest is in Great Falls,” she answered, wondering why the strange question.
    “We’re lookin’ for a lost bird dog—thought we might get the radio station to broadcast a lost dog message,” Kyle said.
    
    Her face lit up—an animal lover, Kyle thought, bet she’s got a cat or two.  Without their asking, she got a phone book from beneath the counter and looked up the radio station number and wrote it out on a slip of notepaper for them.

    “Thanks,” Kyle said, and Buck nodded agreement.  Then they walked to Harry’s saloon.  It was dark and smoky and smelled of stale beer, as a saloon should.  A dozen patrons were seated in high-back booths and at the bar.  Webb Pierce’s There Stands the Glass  blared from the sound system.  The jukebox glowed in the back.
    “Kitchen open?” Buck asked as they straddled bar stools.  The bar maid, a still-comely lass of Buck’s generation, said,  “We got warm soup and cold sandwiches I can fix ya.”  She had an unmistakable South Georgian accent.  
    “Where you from?” Buck asked.
    “Somewhere near where you’re from,” she answered.
    “I’m from Moultrie” Buck said.
    “Camilla,” she said with a million-dollar (by Buck’s count) grin.

    Then Buck and Kyle remembered they were hungry.  They ordered BLTs and Budweisers, and the barmaid popped the tops on two Buds and went into the kitchen, returning in four minutes with BLTs on toasted light bread, lots of crisp bacon and mayonnaise oozing between the toasted slices.  The two handlers devoured their sandwiches and ordered their second Buds.  Hank Williams, Jr., now blasted from the sound system.  Kyle punched the radio station’s number into his cell phone, but got a recording of daytime operating hours.
   
    “Damn,” he said.
    “What’s your problem, honey,” the barmaid asked.
    “Trying to call a lost dog announcement into the Great Falls radio station,” Kyle said.
    “Lost dog?  What kind?” the waitress asked.
    “Birddog, pointer,” Kyle said.
    “Doc Byrd back there said a lost bird dog was brought into his place just before closing.  Hey Doc, these guys may be looking for your lost dog!”, the barmaid yelled to a tall mustached fellow in jeans and cowboy shirt and pointy boots sitting in a booth entertaining a couple of big-chested young girls of questionable drinking age in nurse-style smocking tops.
   
    Buck and Kyle walked over to the booth.  The mustached fellow said, “Are you guys missing a mostly white male pointer?”

    “We sure are,” said Kyle, hope in his voice.
    “Well, I’ve got one, Soggy Bates picked him up on the highway and brought him in to me about an hour ago.  The girls chimed in, “He’s a sweetheart; lets go see if he’s yours.”
    “I’m Carl Byrd,” said the vet, rising with a grin to shake the hands of the dusty handlers.  His female companions rose too and offered their names.( they were the vets assistants).  Buck and Kyle reciprocated with their names, and the five walked out.  Buck put two twenties on the bar and said, “We’ll be back.”
Doc Byrd’s clinic was in the next block, so they all walked.  Headstrong and Kyle were reunited to tears and laugher.
   
    “Who’d you say brought him in?” Buck asked.
    “Soggy Bain.  He’s a wheat farmer—runs a few cattle just out of town—said he saw him on the highway when he was driving home after looking at a herd bull prospect in the edge of the Bad Lands.     Kyle asked Doc Byrd for a bill, to which Doc said, “No charge.”  Buck gave Doc’s clinic assistants, $20 each and hugs, and they all walked back to the saloon, Headstrong at heel behind Kyle.  He curled up under the bar rail as Kyle stuffed quarters in the jukebox.  About then the hotel desk clerk came in alone, her shift over.  A celebration ensured.  

    Buck and Kyle were glad they could walk to their room when the saloon finally closed down at two  AM. Headstrong slept at the foot of their beds—all three snored loudly.  The saloon’s bartender served as designated driver to get Doc Byrd and his three ladies home.

To be continued in Part Ten.