On August 23, the mood at the ranch was like
Christmas Eve. The opening prairie trial would start in two days
at Rugby, North Dakota. We made lists, packed gear, cleaned
saddles and bridles, changed oil in the trucks, packed trailer-wheel
bearings with grease. I tested, soldered and retaped the
electrical wiring on all the horse trailers--their Achilles'
heel. (Everybody had a horror story about losing trailer lights
in rain at night, and nobody wanted to repeat it.) The only damper on
our cheer was Homer's call to tell us he wouldn't be coming up.
He'd lucked onto an option for a Louisiana oil property, and based on
surrounding production, he predicted a big score. He had to stay
south and scramble for investors--his option had a thirty-day fuse.
That afternoon two professional handlers with their
helpers, horses and dogs arrived to spend the night at Doc's
ranch. The first was Buck Higgins of Waynesboro, Georgia, a
twenty-year veteran of prairie summers with the solid backing of
wealthy Atlanta customers. The other was Arch Crowder, new as a
pro on the circuit and grimly determined to win. He had quit his
job as an assistant high-school football coach to give the circuit a
shot. His pretty young wife was his helper and scout. Jack
thought she looked worried; Doc said probably just weary.
Luck and coincidence had brought us together at
Doc's ranch. Without the big white dog's appearance at our farm two
years before, Halifax Flip and I would not have been there. Luck
and coincidence were about to collide again. We gathered on Doc's porch
as a fireball sun touched the horizon and made the prairie grass glow
as it waved in the wind. (The Sioux called it "greasy grass,"
John Proud Bear said.)
Far off a diesel engine broke the silence and grew steadily
louder. At Doc's lane its roar changed to a cough. A puff
of dust appeared, and the engine's rumble grew louder. The black
nose of an enormous motor coach rose above the ridge. Behind it,
half hidden by its dust, came a pickup pulling a horse trailer.
As the coach neared, we could read letters stenciled tall above a
Kansas license plate: “Here Comes Otto.”
"God, Almighty, that must be Otto Kuykendall," Jack said. At first Jack
assumed the coach was rented, for Otto was close to a dollar, and this
was a quarter-million-dollar model. But painted lettering . . .
? What could have caused the Kansas Scrooge to spend that kind of
money? The air brakes hissed, and a grizzly-sized man emerged. At
the porch door, he removed his Stetson to reveal a face of remarkable
ugliness. His neck and head projected like a watermelon from
sloping shoulders, hairless except for that which grew profusely from
nostrils and the lobes of very large ears. Drooping jowls
surrounded small pursed lips. His nose could have been borrowed
from W. C. Fields. The complexion matched the disappearing
sun. The eyes were like raisins pushed into cookie dough.
Crevices above the hairless brow formed a permanent frown. I
guessed him three hundred pounds and six foot six, but his stoop made
height hard to gauge. As his ham-sized hand reached for the
screen door, I remembered: he looked like my dad's last prize
Just as Otto reached the porch, a quite different person emerged from
the coach--a small female with raven hair and an alabaster
complexion. She wore a gingham shirt, tight jeans, cowgirl boots
with silver tipped toes and lots of silver and turquoise jewelry.
(Jack now understood what had induced Otto to buy the coach.) From the
pickup stepped a younger version of the boar-man, but with muscle where
the older man wore fat, and with a not unhandsome face. I guessed
him six foot four and two thirty, a worthy candidate for tight end on
any National Football League team.
Jack introduced Otto Kuykendall, and Otto introduced
the lady as "My lady friend, Miss Delores." She was uncomfortably
into her fifties, trying to return to her thirties, with valiant help
from her plastic surgeon. Her big blue laughing eyes were
accented by blue eye shadow and black lashes, too long to be home
grown. A full mouth, upturned at the corners, and cheeks like
plums gave her a slightly clownish look. You had to like her; she
exuded good cheer. (In the morning we would be startled when she
appeared for breakfast with green eyes. She used contact lenses
to change her eye color to match her mood or her outfit, I
supposed. I never knew for sure what color her eyes were.)
Jack greeted the younger giant, and introduced
me. Later Jack told me that Little Otto's appearance at a field
trial cheered everyone. He had a talent for making others have
fun, was always ready with a joke or a helping hand. If a horse
in the gallery turned unruly, Little Otto would trade mounts with its
rider. The unruly horse would feel Little Otto's authority, and
at the end of the brace, Little Otto would return the horse to its
owner, manners retaught. If a truck wouldn't start, Little Otto would
get his toolbox, and soon it would be humming.
"Got his disposition from his mom, but the rest
mostly from you know who," Jack said.
Jack and I went with Little Otto to take care of his
horses and dogs while Big Otto and Miss Delores settled on the porch
with highballs. Jack had known the Kuykendalls since
1967. Driving south from Canada in mid-September, Jack and Ann
had heard the rolling southeast Kansas farm country held quail,
pheasant and a few prairie chickens, and the lay of the country and
early fall weather were ideal for training. Jack knew that Ches
Harris and Jack Harper, two of the great bird-dog men, regularly
trained in east Kansas.
Jack and Ann had happened on the little town of
Fredonia, and a store owner suggested they try Big Otto, operator of
the local grain elevator and a major wheat farmer and cattleman.
Jack asked Otto for a one-month dog-working lease. Otto
agreed--on condition that Jack let his son, then a boy of twelve, tag
along. Young Otto was already good with a horse and quickly took
to dog training. As a junior at Kansas State, he would be NCAA
calf-roping champion. Every year thereafter until Ann's accident,
the Slones came from Canada straight to Otto's Kansas lands, training
there and entering Midwest trials until mid-November, when they
returned to West Virginia.
Over the years, Little Otto's interest in bird dogs
grew, and, with the lessons learned from Jack and Ann, he became an
accomplished amateur handler. When he got Big Otto interested in
the sport, they campaigned together in top amateur competition. After
college Little Otto took on responsibility for the cattle and wheat
operations, leaving Big Otto free to concentrate on grain buying and
investment schemes. Big Otto was known in Kansas as a hard trader
and a hard man, a reputation he relished. Little Otto's mother
had been his stabilizing influence. With help from her daughter
Shirley, called "Sister," she had kept the household reasonably civil
in spite of Big Otto's meanness. She died suddenly a year
ago. Big Otto had reacted by increasing his scotch ration and
withdrawing into his world of deals. In six months, he had taken
up with Miss Delores, the widow of a Topeka banker who had been one of
his investment partners.
Jack asked, "What's troubling you, Little
Otto? You seem lower than a snake's belly."
With that Little Otto poured forth the story of Miss
Delores' entry into the family's life, and Sister's furious
reaction--she considered Big Otto's quick courtship unseemly, an
affront to her mother's memory, and she let Big Otto know it.
Like her father, she was tough and uncompromising.
"Sister and Pop have gone to war," Little Otto said. "She's
forbidden her sons to visit Pop and she's giving him the silent
treatment. Pop reacted like the tyrant he is--he's sold the
elevator business and the ranch--except for a quarter section around
the home place. And he says he has changed his will--Sister and I
are out, and he ain't saying who's in, but I think I know one legatee."
"Damn," Jack said. "How did the old boy ever bring himself to pay
all that capital gains tax?"
"Oh," said Little Otto, "he's got an angle on that too--as
always. His lawyer set up a deal. If Pop reinvests the
money from the ranch and the elevator in other real estate within six
months, he can put off the tax indefinitely. He and Miss Delores
are on their way to Vegas to gamble and look for property to reinvest
in--he thinks this is a great time to buy real estate. He's
probably right, as usual."
"Is your dad planning to marry Miss Delores?" Jack asked.
"Don't think so. He's asked her, but she's got a big trust fund
from the banker, with a remarriage forfeit clause. She's not
lettin' go that banker's trust to grab a hold of a slippery rope hung
out by an old buzzard like Pop. She loves to go places and
gamble--and for now that's what Pop's providin'. I think her
strategy is to get in his will and then get him to drink one quart of
Johnnie Walker too many. That way she can get the spoils from Pop
without having to forfeit her trust fund. Of course, if Pop lives
very long she'll earn it." Even in adversity Little Otto kept his
sense of humor.
"Don't give up hope, Little Otto. There may be a way out of your
"Maybe so," Little Otto replied glumly, "but I sure don't see it from
With the Kuykendall horses and dogs fed and watered,
we joined the gathering on the porch. The talk of prairie
field-trial races from years past continued until midnight.
Finally Big Otto and Miss Delores retired to the coach, and Little Otto
took the extra bunk in the room I shared with Jack. Early next morning
Jack and I drove north on Route 83--the long highway that splits the
plains country like a zipper from Texas to Canada. We passed
through mile after mile of wheat, alfalfa and beet fields and long
stretches of rangeland. An occasional cow was the only sign of
life. Then a tiny bump would appear on the horizon, and slowly
grow as we rolled toward it--until a giant grain elevator took shape
like the spire of an ancient cathedral, marking a village ahead. At
Pierre we stopped at a convenience store for a Pepsi, and Jack used the
pay phone to call Homer in Houston. I heard one side of the
"Homer, you still lookin' for investors in your
"Well, I've got a hot prospect for you. Otto
Kuykendall has just sold out his Kansas real estate, and he's lookin'
to do a reinvestment deal so he won't have to pay tax on his
profit. He's got just six months to reinvest, and a month of that
is gone already. He's on his way to the trials with Little Otto
and a new girlfriend. Then he's swingin' west to look for real
estate deals. If you get up here quick you can maybe get your
whole deal sold to Otto in one piece . . .
"Okay, see you in a few days."
Flip rode between us, his ears perked and his eyes
scanning the sky. When he spotted a soaring hawk, he whined and
fidgeted, his eyes locked like radar on the floating bird until it
disappeared from sight. Occasionally a pheasant would walk out
into the road, and Flip would spot it and bark. Twice coveys of
sharptail grouse lifted from hillsides and flew across our path--Flip
barked and marked time standing on the seat.
Flip's eyes were his dominant feature. Large and dark brown, they
gazed direct, intense, unblinking. He looked into your soul, and
offered you his. Doc said he had only seen one other dog with
such an intelligent gaze--the legendary pointer Warhoop Jake, a dog
many considered the smartest field-trial dog of all time.
We got to Rugby in mid-afternoon and followed the
cardboard red arrow field-trial signs to the headquarters encampment
twenty miles east of town. A small stream supported a grove of
cottonwoods, which made shade for the handlers' chained-out strings of
dogs. Jack picked a parking spot close to the
cottonwoods. We unloaded the horses and put them in the
pipe-fence mobile corral, staked out Doc's amateur dogs under the trees
and gave them water. Rigs were arriving every few
minutes. They bore tags from all over the country, plus Manitoba
and Saskatchewan. Professional handlers, training on the prairies
for the summer, came in heavy-duty pickups with trailers made to carry
six horses and a full string of dogs. Owners and amateur handlers
came in every conceivable rig, from huge RV's pulling horse trailers,
to small pickup trucks with airline crates for the
dogs. Some owners had come to watch their dogs
compete under professional handlers. Some owners would run their
dogs in the amateur stakes, with a pro handling the same dog in the
open stakes. Other amateurs came with one or two dogs they had
trained and would handle themselves. They were participating in
an expensive sport on a shoestring, putting their hearts and souls into
A dairy farmer from Iowa, a brain surgeon from Cincinnati, an insurance
salesman from North Carolina, a psychologist from Arizona, a machinist
from Detroit: all they had in common was the love of a good bird dog
and willingness to drive forever and ride a horse in a deluge or a dust
storm. They all seemed to know one another.
The drawing was held that night in a volunteer
firehouse. The first stake to be drawn was the regional amateur
championship. (Jack and Doc had argued about entering Flip, and
as usual Jack had talked Doc out of it.) Doc had three other
entries--pointers that we had hauled up. Following
the amateur championship, the open stakes would be run--a one-hour
all-age and a derby. As we waited for the drawing ceremony to
begin, Jack pointed out a tall, distinguished man in his sixties with
military bearing, dressed in starched khaki shirt and trousers.
"That's Richard Jessup," Jack said. "Self-made
multi-millionaire. Built a chain of grocery stores in North
Carolina. Cashed his chips three years ago, and since then he's been
working hard at the dog business. He’s determined to handle a dog to a
championship. He's got a dog this year with a chance to win."
When the drawing got underway, a girl drew the
slips. She was my age and pretty. She had big blue eyes,
wore a white Stetson, a red and white checked shirt, and jeans that fit
Jessup's dog's bracemate would be a young dog owned by Jessup's best
friend and traveling companion, Ivan Duncan. The two had spent
the training season nearby. They had been fraternity brothers in
college, bird hunted together through the years and took up field
trials at the same time.
Jack said, "This is bad medicine."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
Jack gave me the look that meant wait and see for
yourself. When the last stake had been drawn, folding
chairs were moved against the walls, four men tuned up on guitars,
banjo and mandolin, and Jack brought his fiddle from the truck. They
broke into "Turkey in the Straw," and a square dance began, Jack
calling the numbers. The pretty girl who had drawn the dogs asked
me to dance. I didn't know how, but she quickly taught me the
Until the last brace, the amateur championship went
uneventfully. A couple of dogs put down fair races with two finds
each, and handled well enough. Little Otto had handled one; an
Arizonan the other. (Doc's dogs hadn't found but one bird between
them, and Jack was ribbing him about it.) When the
final brace was called to the breakaway, Jessup sat on his tall
chestnut gelding, proud, neat, unsmiling--and nervous. Above his
creased khakis he wore a loden Tyrolean hat weighted down with little
silver pins, emblems of past field-trial placements. Duncan, a short,
heavy, cheerful man in a perpetual dither, wore a huge straw
Stetson. Two stirrups hung on the left side of his saddle, one
six inches below the other. The bottom stirrup served as a
remounting step, a major chore for him.
"General MacArthur's braced with Elmer Fudd," Jack
The judge announced, "Gentlemen, let 'em go."
The dogs cast west into a twenty-knot wind, the sort that blows for
days in North Dakota. The temperature was at 80_. Jessup's
dog, a seven year old and a veteran on sharptails, was in the mood to
run, and she made a beautiful opening cast far to the front; when she
appeared the size of an aspirin tablet on the horizon, she pointed.
Jessup, followed by a judge and the gallery of twenty riders, cantered
to the point. The old man swung from the saddle, walked forward
with military erectness, flushed two sharptails and fired his
pistol. She moved not an eyelash. Meanwhile Duncan,
followed by the other judge, was off to the right and yelling, his dog
far off course.
Jessup watered his dog from his canteen, remounted, signaled his scout
to release her and blew the "all ahead" whistle. Again she took
off like a shot. Just as she was almost out of sight she
pointed. Jessup cantered to the point, dismounted, flushed and
fired while she stood as steady as Lot's wife. And once more
Jessup's friend Duncan was far away, this time to the left of the
course, and yelling for his errant dog.
As Jessup's hour neared its end, everyone riding knew he had his
coveted championship won--if only he could get through the next ten
minutes without a catastrophe. His dog was wheeling to the front,
right on course, hunting with purpose and speed, showing no hint of
fatigue despite the heat and the head wind. Everybody fell
silent. The only sounds were the wind, the creaking of saddle
leather, the jingle of bits, the muffled clop, clop of hooves on the
prairie grass, the breathing of the horses--and the far distant yelling
of Duncan, trying to get his dog back on course.
Riding beside me, Jack said low under his breath,
"I sure hope Mr. Duncan will catch his dog and put a
rope on it."
Then Jessup's dog pointed again, a quarter mile
ahead. The judge looked at his stopwatch. Five minutes to
go, just enough time for Jessup to flush her birds.
For a third time, we cantered to the point, but we pulled up far back,
no one wanting to risk an unruly horse interfering.
Just as Jessup got both feet on the ground, Duncan's dog, running all
out, arrived from the left. The prairie grass was high
here. Duncan's dog would be close before he could see the other
dog on point. We held our breath and said a silent prayer that
the dog would see her in time, and back. He saw her
with plenty of time to execute a back. In fact, he did back--for
one brief moment. Then he charged forward, passed her and put up
six sharptails. They cackled as they flew. It
was more than even Jessup's veteran could stand. She joined the
chase. In the blink of an eye, Jessup and his dog had gone from
sure winners to out-of-the-running. As the birds flew
over the horizon Duncan arrived on his lathered horse. Sweat
poured down the round face under the big straw hat. Anguish
filled his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Dick . . ."
"Why in the hell didn't you pick up your damn dog
when you knew he was out of it?"
"I was trying to . . . . I couldn't catch
him." Duncan's voice grew weaker with each word.
"Well, why didn't you just let him run into Canada,
that's where he wanted to go."
With that, Jessup grabbed Duncan by the sleeve, bent
him over in the saddle, grabbed the Stetson and threw it to the
ground. He jumped on it with both feet. Then he picked it
up and handed it to Duncan, turned on his heels, remounted and rode to
his dog. She was on point again, a quarter section away, having
marked the flight of the sharptails. Jessup rode the
rest of the trial in silence, the image of Chief Sitting Bull.
Little Otto won the amateur championship with a
three-year-old pointer named Hook'um Sport. Homer arrived in a rental
car and cornered Big Otto, and the two spent half a day in the big
coach negotiating Big Otto's participation in Homer’s Louisiana
oil-land play. Before they started talking, however, Jack took
"I'm not claiming a finder's fee, though I'm
entitled, but there's one thing you have got to put in your deal with
At first Homer refused, but finally he agreed,
extracting a promise from Jack in return. The next day Homer left
for Houston with the capital he needed to buy the Louisiana oil land.
Norman Klensch did not come to the Rugby trials--but his dogs
did. Just as the amateur stakes ended, a shiny black rig arrived,
a new Ford F350 with a matching six-horse trailer. Painted in
pink on the trailer's sides:
Norman Klensch, Proprietor
Home of Takeover Bill, National Free-For-All Champion
Takeover Betty, National Derby Champion
Fort Benton, Montana
Klensch's new trainer, Farley Snead, was tall and
dark, about thirty. His hair was jet black, and so were his
close-set almond-shaped eyes. His mouth was thin and
unsmiling. He didn't say much, although everyone tried to make
him feel at home. Like his employer, Farley Snead was
a Californian. He had started as an obedience trainer, and later
trained dogs for the movies. A few years before he had begun
handling bird dogs on the AKC circuit as a sideline, and soon dominated
that circuit in the Far West. Snead dressed cowboy,
but like his employer, it didn't quite suit him. He had a
drugstore cowboy look: hair too long and well-styled, hat crown a
little too high, shirt too loud, boots and belt too fancy. But as
Jack said, Snead had the two things that mattered, an understanding of
dogs and an iron will to win. He could ride well enough, but we
would learn he lacked the understanding of horses he had of
dogs. Beside Snead in the truck was a man so small
and thin I thought at first he was a child. He greeted Jack as an
old friend, smiled with bad teeth and extended his hand to shake.
Jack shook it reluctantly. All Jack said to him was, "Hello
Earl. How's Mary?"
"Who's that little fellow?" I asked.
"Name's Earl Shiflett. Used to work for me."
Jack would say no more, and I sensed not to press
him. Later Doc told me the little man's story.
Earl Shiflett came from Greenbrier County, from a destitute family of
hollow dwellers--folks so poor there's no road to their shanty.
When Earl was a boy, Jack's wife, Ann, saw him at a crossroads store,
barefoot, dirty, thin and pale, offering to carry groceries in hopes of
a tip. At Ann's urging, Jack commissioned him to trap pigeons
around farmers' barns and highway bridges--gave him traps and cracked
corn for bait, paid him two dollars a dozen. Earl proved handy at
pigeon trapping, and before long he and Jack were supplying a half
dozen other dog trainers. When Earl was thirteen, Ann
arranged for him to come live on the farm and help out with the
chores. Ann taught him to read--he'd been to school but never
learned anything. Jack let him help with the dogs, and, as Earl
passed into adolescence, he showed a gift with them. Ann had her
accident, and Jack quit the big circuit. Earl's wife Mary--at
sixteen he'd married a girl from a neighboring hollow--helped care for
Ann and the house. About then Jack had a fabulous
shooting dog derby in his string. She had five first places in
the fall half of the season, and Jack was sure she would win a
championship. Right after Christmas her tail went limp. The
vet showed Jack the x-rays.
"Those bright spots are No. 8 shot, Jack.
Someone shot Sal from the rear--at about forty yards. One of
those pellets worked its way into the tail nerve. We're going to
have to amputate to avoid gangrene."
Earl was the only person who could have done it. While many a dog
has been broke with a load of bird shot in the rear at the critical
moment from the critical distance, Jack was dead opposed to the
technique and had warned Earl never to use it. Jack confronted
Earl, and Earl confessed. Jack fired him and ordered him off the
Fifty dogs were drawn to run in the open
all-age. Flip drew the seventh brace, not a good omen. As
we saddled up, a patrol car, its blue lights flashing, turned in off
the highway. The trooper asked, "Is a Dr. J. D. Bates here?"
A propane line on a cook stove had ruptured, and Doc
was needed for surgery on two burned children. In minutes, a
helicopter from the Air Force base at Minot appeared on the horizon,
landed and whisked Doc away.
"Okay, David. You're my scout," Jack
said. I was dumbfounded--and scared. I'd never scouted in
an open stake, much less one that might requalify Flip for the National
Championship. But I didn't have time to think about it. In
seconds the judge said, "Let 'em go," and I released Flip. He
yipped as he sped into the wind. The course rolled like sea
swells, making it easy to lose a dog, but we knew it held sharptails.
Lost from judgment--those words strike dread in every field
trialer. Nothing is so agonizing. A dog is counted out of
judgment--ineligible to place--if it's out of the judges' view
continuously for one-third of its heat. Once the dog is counted
out, the handler and scout can ride in search--so long as they do not
interfere with the other dog in the brace. The
handlers of dogs often lost from judgment will tell you the cause is
drive to find birds. Truth is, a frequently lost dog is usually
unbidable--or prone to chase deer or antelope or
coyote. The great fear is that the lost dog will get
on a highway. No season goes by that several promising dogs are
not lost to automobiles. The speed of a field-trial dog carries
it great distances in a short time, so there's no such thing as running
grounds safe from highway traffic.
I had heard all the stories of dogs lost from
judgment--Mr. Thor, the Hall of Fame setter, found forty miles north of
Canadian trial grounds, resting happily on the front porch of an
Indian's shack; a National Championship contender that disappeared on
the Ames Plantation--to be found a week later in a Memphis preacher's
kennel (the preacher claimed he bought the dog from a Mississippi
redneck--but the dog's original collar with the owner's name on it was
hanging on a nail in the preacher's garage); and countless dogs never
found, dead or alive, and others found dead beside a highway, struck by
a speeder or riddled by buckshot. Lost dogs were a subject of
conversation whenever bird-dog people got melancholy.
Flip had never been lost from judgment. He was
a natural front-running dog; he oriented instinctively to his handler's
route. If Flip were gone more than a few minutes, we had
confidence he was on point or would show on his own to the
front. Flip was visible out front for the first
twenty minutes of his heat today. Then he disappeared over a
rise. When the judges pronounced him gone too long, Jack and I
seined the country, confident Flip had been overridden, that somewhere
behind us he stood pointing birds. But search as we might, we
couldn't find him. Still, Jack was confident he would come in on
his own once his birds flushed of their own accord, as they would
eventually. We rode both sides of the course, then hard to the
front. When we gave up at dark, Jack called the local radio
station and offered a reward. He asked the announcer to say the
dog was no good for hunting, but only for trials, and was marked with a
We did not sleep that night. We drove away
from the motel before dawn. Jack was now certain Flip had been
stolen. He didn't say it, but he thought he knew the
thief. The country out west was surveyed for
homesteading in square sections and quarter-sections (six hundred forty
acres and one hundred sixty acres). Roads run straight, east-west
or north-south, along section lines. Section roads around
Rugby were traveled infrequently only, by ranchers checking crops or
cows. Jack drove to the north-south section roads
intersecting Flip's course. At daylight Jack found tire tracks on
a section road just west of Flip's point of disappearance. We
follow the tracks to where they turned onto the east-west highway,
headed toward Rugby. We got to trial headquarters at breakaway time.
"Where's Earl Shiflett?" Jack shouted to the gallery
waiting for the breakaway.
"Over at the corral," Farley Snead answered.
Farley was mounted in the gallery as a spectator. We found Earl
currying a horse.
"Earl, I know you stole my setter. I found
your truck tracks on the section road where you picked him up.
Where is he?"
Earl looked like he’d been shot. Then he
regained a measure of composure and grinned, showing his bad teeth.
"Why, Jack Slone, I don't need to steal no
dogs. I got me a real good job working for Mr. Klensch. Why
would I steal your ol' shag?"
"I don't know why, unless for pure meanness.
He better be back before sunset or it's your skinny ass."
"Don't threaten me, Jack Slone," Earl said, but his
voice quavered, and I could see fear in his eyes.
Across the corral with his back to us stood a tall,
scruffy man with long, dirty blond hair. He ignored Jack and
Earl's exchange, didn't turn to look, which seemed to me very odd..
Jack started for our truck, and I followed.
"That fellow in the corral with Earl--do you know
him?" I asked.
"No--ranch hand I suppose."
"He acted odd when you accused Earl."
Just as we entered the highway, I spotted a
Harley-Davidson parked by the creek.
"That's it! He was at The Streak. He's
shaved his beard! I'll bet that's his chopper. Stop and
I'll check." But Jack didn't have to stop--he drove straight to
the sheriff's office in Rugby.
"Would you please check who owns motorcycle license
plate number 35171A?" he asked the dispatcher, a young woman with dark
hair piled on top of her head.
"We have to have a reason for a license check," she
"Ma'am, I think this person stole my bird dog.
It could mean the dog's life."
She was a dog lover and was dialing the Motor
Vehicles Department before Jack finished his sentence.
"That's a Harley-Davidson modified registered to
Arnold Kneudsen, address RFD 3 Box 310, Drake, North Dakota.
That's about thirty miles south of here, just off Route 52."
A deputy overheard and came forward.
"You got trouble with Arnie?" he asked.
"I think he's involved in stealin' our bird
dog. May be hidin' him for another fellow I'm pretty sure did the
actual stealing. I accused the thief, so he might try to destroy
the dog to get rid of the evidence. Could you all keep an eye out
for him 'til I see if my dog's at his place, Officer?"
"Sure. We've had trouble with Arnie for
years--mostly drunk and disorderly, but we've suspected him of
worse. I'll draw you a map to Arnie's house trailer--it's on a
section road and easy to miss."
We tore out of the parking lot and headed for
Kneudsen's place. Soon Jack was doing eighty; the front wheels
vibrated violently. Ten minutes later a CB message
from the highway patrol told us that Kneudsen had left the field-trial
grounds on his motorcycle just after we did. When Jack pushed the
truck to ninety, the front wheels miraculously ceased to shimmy.
"It was dumb of me to accuse Earl, especially in
that thug's hearing--but I'll bet he's got Flip," Jack said.
We made it to Kneudson’s section road in half an
hour. When Jack stopped the truck and jumped out, our fears were
confirmed--fresh motorcycle tracks led off the pavement.
The Harley-Davidson was parked at the house trailer, its engine still
hot, but no sign of Kneudsen or Flip. Jack broke the trailer door
with his shoulder. No sign of Flip inside. Boot tracks led
to the tire tracks of a small car or pickup going out the section
road. Jack called the dispatcher from Kneudsen's phone.
Sure enough, Kneudsen had a Toyota pickup registered in his
name. In a rusting horse trailer, we found a water
bucket, traces of white dog hair and a small amount of fresh blood . .
. had Arnie killed Flip here? . . . was he off now to bury
him? When we had followed the pickup’s tracks three
miles beyond Kneudsen's house trailer, the tracks left the section
road, and the prairie pasture was mashed down by tires. We
followed, keeping to the right on higher ground. When the
mashed-down grass showed the Toyota was heading for a streambed, Jack
cut for a ridge ahead. From the ridge top, we saw the Toyota
moving slowly, Flip's tail wagging above the bed. Jack stopped
and pulled the .22 Hornet from behind the back seat. Resting it
on the hood, he squeezed off a round that struck a front tire.
Kneudsen jumped out of the truck and ran. Flip barked, and we
drove down to him, bouncing high on ruts hidden by the grass.
Flip, tied in the trunk bed, was unhurt, except for a gash in his right
front pad, probably from trying to climb out of the horse
trailer. We got the highway patrol on the CB and left it to them
to round up Kneudsen.
As we drove back with Flip between us, Jack said,
"That's the most blatant dog-stealing stunt since a
Carolina scalawag stole Roy Mann's whole string off the chains at
Amelia, Virginia, back in 1980. Roy got an anonymous tip, and
found his dogs unhurt, tied to pine trees down near Mebane, North
Carolina, a hundred miles south of Amelia."
Arriving back at the trial grounds before noon, the
story of Flip's recovery went around. The highway patrol arrested
Earl Shiflett. Jack told Farley Snead he knew Snead had not been
involved in the theft. As a gesture of trust he offered to scout
for Snead. (It's not unusual for handlers to scout for one
another--to cut expenses they pair up, list their dogs as one entry so
they don't end up braced together. But it means they have to work
near twice as hard.)
"How did you know Earl Shiflett stole Flip?" I asked
"Somebody who knew how I handled dogs had to have
done it, because no one else could have called Flip when he was running
in a field trial. Earl had worked for me and he knew my
methods--it had to be him.
What I can't figure is why. Earl's smart
enough to know he was likely to get caught. Someone had to put
him up to it."
With Jack scouting for Snead, Takeover Bill took first place in the
open all-age stake. Those who saw it had respect for Snead, even
admiration. He could handle a dog. Klensch's string had
made the transition from Proud Bear to Snead without loss of fire or
polish or responsiveness, a rare thing.
Two days later, Earl Shiflett pled guilty to
criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, and received a fine and a suspended
sentence. The charge had been reduced from grand larceny at
Jack's request. Earl's wife Mary and two children were back in
Greenbrier County, and they would suffer if Earl were imprisoned.
Charges against Arnie Kneudsen were dismissed for lack of
evidence--there was simply no way to disprove his claim that Earl had
asked him to keep Earl's dog for awhile.
After his trial, Earl Shiflett asked to speak to
Jack alone. When I asked Jack what Earl had to say, Jack looked grim
and said, "I'll tell you some day." Jack took his check for the
scout's share of the purse for Takeover Bill's win, endorsed it "Pay to
Mary Shifflett" and mailed it to West Virginia. Doc
didn't get back to that trial until the excitement was over. As
we loaded to leave, Doc sought out Arch Crowder. Although the
dogs in Crowder’s string had impressed, none had been in the
money. After an earnest twenty-minute discussion, Crowder's wife
gave Doc a long hug. Soon Crowder pulled his rusting rig toward
the highway, and the young couple waved goodbye with sad smiles.
"What was that about?" I asked Doc.
"An old, old story. That boy came up here on
ambition and a shoestring--first trip to the prairies. Brought a
string of dogs for a rascal who didn't pay him up front. Now the
customer is in bankruptcy, and Arch didn't have the money to get
home. I made him a little loan. It'll take awhile but he'll
pay me back. They'll make it back to Georgia, and he'll go back
to coaching. Many are called, few are chosen. Field trials
are a tough way to make a living. If you don't work it like a
business you can't survive."
The irony is, that boy could stay home and train and
have a darn good business. Fellow named Willie Craig in Virginia
did it in the thirties--in the depths of the Great Depression. He
had five full-time trainers working for him, sometimes four hundred
dogs in training. He was honest and got the work done--that's all
it took. The sports beat a path to his door. It's the
circuit that's got no profit in it."
Flip's cut foot meant he couldn't run in any more prairie trials.
Jack and I went home to West Virginia.
(to be continued)