The Last Summer — Maybe
It would be their last summer together on the prairie. Or so they thought.
Ben Kane had taken his twin sons Fred and Carl, named for their grandfathers, first when they were eight. That was the first year their mother Mary was not working in Montgomery as a hospital nurse and so could join Ben, a bird dog field trial trainer-handler, on the trip to North Dakota from Alabama, the family’s home base, for the northern training season, July through mid-September.
As for dozens of other professional bird dog men over more than a century, the prairies exerted an irresistible pull on Ben because of the presence of game birds, the cooler weather early and late in the day, and terrain ideal for teaching dogs to reach out in search of the winged quarry nature made them seek. Ben rented for nominal fees the right to work the dogs on twenty thousand acres. For living quarters he rented a rustic farmhouse built by a homesteader whose grandson had left the country for warmer winter climes and become an absentee owner.
This summer Ben would turn fifty, his twin sons twenty-five. Mary had that first year in North Dakota landed a seasonal job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a visiting nurse, driving over Reservations to check on the health of and inoculate Native American children living in desperate conditions. She had become a beloved summer presence to the Indians.
Fred and Carl were in temperament as different as chalk and cheese, yet they were close emotionally. Both had joined the Army on graduating high school, served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, seen combat and escaped physical injury. Now mustered out, they were casting about for careers.
Both liked what their father did — handle dogs for multiple owners on the open shooting dog circuit — but Ben had discouraged them from making it a life’s work as he — too insecure, too uncertain, he counseled.
The summers Fred and Carl had spent with their parents on the prairie had taught them the bird dog training craft, their years in military service had taught them discipline, self reliance and the need for teamwork.
One of Ben’s dog-owner customers knew the sons’ history and the search for careers they were on. That customer was Frank Hale, head of an executive search firm in New York. Kale’s profession sensitized him to Fred and Carl’s problem, but his immediate field was looking for big business manager types. Still, he had an instinct for what might be a match for the lads’ talents and experience and a need. This insight was triggered by his love of and experience with bird dogs, both hunting and field trial.
Frank Hale visited Ben Kane’s camp for a week in early August and rode daily with father and sons. When he got back to New York he called a frequent contact, a man who often hired him to search for talent to run portfolio companies owned by his private equity fund. He knew the contact loved to quail hunt and he asked if he knew of any Georgia or Florida quail plantation owners who might be looking for staff for a plantation.
He learned to his surprise that the contact himself had just contracted to buy half of Gnarled Oak Plantation. The ten thousand acre plantation was being split and half sold because it’s owner had died with two children, only one of whom wanted to continue with Gnarled Oak. The other wanted cash for a Montana ranch. The one who would continue owning a halved Gnarled Oak wanted also the equipment and staff for its quail production and hunting operations, so Frank’s contact would be hiring a new crew and building new facilities for the half he was buying. He had decided to name his half Straight Oak Plantation, a totally fictional name because all oaks that grew in the region grew gnarled.
Meanwhile back on the prairie the Kane family was nearing the end of its summer idyll. By tradition, Ben had from the first year assigned a pup to each twin as his personal training project for the season. Some years Fred’s pup turned out best, some years Carl’s did, but the sibling training competition was always intense.
Over the years Ben had observed that Fred did best with bold, big going pups, field trial material, while Carl had more success with pups destined to be wagon dogs. They were often from the same litter, but Fred seemed to bring out the reach hidden in his pups, Carl, the search in his. This year the opposite had — Fred’s pup had developed as an obvious wagon dog prospect, Carl’s as a first class trial prospect.
At supper the Saturday night before the last week of training, while steaks grilled over charcoal, Ben said after his sons had discussed their pups, “Boys, why don’t you trade pups?” Fred and Carl looked at one another, then nodded simultaneously. The trade was made just that quickly. There would be one week to see if it was a wise trade.
Frank Hale was coming back for the last week, and bringing with him the man who had bought half of Gnarled Oak and named it Straight Oak, Roger Flint. He would be sizing up the Kane twins, one as a possible dog man for Straight Oak but the Kanes had not been told this. Frank Hale had introduced Flint without mention of his purchase, and the rumors of the deal had not yet circulated as they soon would through the plantation world culture with the speed of light.
The final week of prairie training was festive at the Kane camp by tradition. The summer heat had abated, the sharp tails and pheasants had matured and turned wily, the Huns flew like rockets and as always were tough for the dogs to pin. This year all three species were abundant.
The week after camp closed a trial would be held fifty miles down the road. It was one of the reasons Frank Hale had come back, to run his dogs in the amateur stakes and watch Ben Kane run them in the open stakes.
Roger Flint had planned to fly home at the end of the final training week but he’d had so much fun he decided to stay for the trial. The trial grounds were close enough that all could stay on at the Kane camp and commute daily to the trial, leaving the horses in pipe corrals at trial headquarters. Flint was new to trials but seeing the three Kanes and his friend Frank put final workouts on their entries had whetted his appetite for the coming competitions.
He would not be disappointed. Frank Hale placed a dog first in the Amateur Shooting Dog stake, Ben Kane took a second with another of Hale’s dogs in the Open Shooting Dog. The final stake was the Open Derby, and the traded pup won it for Fred Kane with his twin brother Carl scouting.
The only sadness during the week came when Ben Kane told Frank Hale he would be retiring from the circuit at the end of the upcoming season on the advice of his orthopedist. Like many in his line of work he had suffered one horse wreck too many and arthritis in his spine was progressing and inoperable. He had not yet told his sons. Frank told Roger Flint in confidence.
The trial ended on Sunday afternoon, and Roger Flint’s private jet was scheduled to pick up Roger and Frank Hale mid morning Monday at a nearby strip recently put down to accommodate the booming oil and gas fracking boom.
At breakfast Monday Roger Flint offered the Kane men a package deal. He would hire Ben as manager of Straight Oak, Carl as its resident dog trainer-hunt manager, and Fred to campaign a private string of trial dogs for him, plus Frank Hale’s dogs if Frank so chose. The Kanes caucused with mom who had fixed breakfast and the other meals. They accepted.
Mary drove Roger and Frank to the jet strip while the Kane men made final preparations for the long drive to Alabama. On the way Roger offered Mary the job of manager of the Big House on Straight Oak, the ground breaking for which was weeks away. She thanked him and took the offer under advisement.
“By the way, I want you all to continue coming up here summers to train dogs,” Roger Flint said as he climbed into his jet. “I was hoping you’d say that,” Mary said.