Buck Smith’s Option
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
“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
“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,”
Kyle got the map out of the glove box.
“Yep. Fort Benton, right on the Missouri
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,
“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,”
(They still call beer joints saloons here—good, Buck
“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
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
“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