The scout William Jackson sat alone at the end of a bench munching barbecue chicken and canned green beans. It was during lunch break at the end-of-season championship in a piney woods state. Jackson was the last of a proud once ubiquitous gild of craftsmen, black scouts.The craft had been rendered obsolete, like American-made wood furniture, by economic forces. Handlers could no longer afford to hire their own personal scout and buy, feed and haul horses for the scout to ride. For three decades now the handlers had just scouted for one another in a buddy system called “helpin’ each other.” Jackson survived in his job because one holdout dog owner who could afford it was sentimental about the old ways and believed Jackson was worth the money.
As always Jackson was alert with his eyes and ears, a crucial skill in a scout. He saw the trial’s sponsor and owner of the shooting plantation where it was being held enter the clubhouse and begin to talk one-on-one with the handlers seated on other benches, having finished lunch and enjoying last minute rest before saddling up for the afternoon braces.The sponsor was asking the handlers one-by-one to volunteer a horse for a day for the reporter to ride. He had thought the reporter was bringing his own mounts but the reporter had not.
A sense of alarm rose in Jackson. He rose and carried his paper plate to the trash barrel, thanked the ladies serving at the buffet who had also cooked (or warmed in the case of the beans) the lunch, and walked out in search of his employer. He found him seated on a folding canvas chair beside his horse trailer, plastic cup filled with Dewars and soda in hand.
“Mr. John, I’m afraid we is about to have a problem. Mr. Fred (the trial’s sponsor) is asking all the handlers to provide a horse for the reporter for one day each.”
William Jackson did not have to say more. John Bain, despite his Dewars’ fog, knew just what William feared. The reporter, Tom Wood, was a notoriously poor horseman. And he had a sharp pen, that is to say if a dog did a poor job Tom did not hesitate to say so in his report in the American Field. This, William Jackson had recognized, was a recipe for disaster. A handler harboring a grudge for a disparaging sentence could serve up a skittish horse for the reporter to ride when his turn to provide the reporter-horse came up.
“Do not know what we can do about that,” John Bain said. William frowned. Then he said, “All the handlers got at least one safe horse he brings for his owners to ride. I knows which ones they is. I’ll watch and if a handler don’t serve up his safe horse to Mr. Tom when it’s his turn to provide I’ll have Rusty on standby as substitute.” (Rusty was John Bain’s one calm, safe horse, usually reserved for his grandchildren).
“That is a really good idea, William,” John Bain said, and returned to nursing his mid-day Dewars-and-soda. William walked off in search for Tom Wood so he could explain the game plan.
The next three days went off without a hitch. William Jackson watched, and each day the handler charged with supplying the reporter’s mount saddled up his owner-horse for Tom Wood to ride so William could rest easy. On the fourth day John Bain went to William before the first brace and said, “William, drive into Town and buy me two half gallons of Dewars. I’m out.” William tried to delay his departure until he could determine what mount would be saddled for Tom Wood, but John Bain, anxious for his whisky supply to be replenished in time for his morning fog cutter, customarily taken after the second brace and mixed from his flask, ordered him to depart. He still did not know what horse would be saddled for the reporter. Worse, he knew the handler with the responsibility today did not like Tom Wood. (There were no secrets from William Jackson in the small tight-knit world of pointing dog field trials).
On his way to the truck William ran into Tom Wood standing outside the club house talking with the pretty wife of a dog owner. “Mr. Tom, if you don’t feel comfortable with your horse this morning just get off him and get on the dog truck. I’ll be back directly and bring ole Rusty to you.” It was a warning that may have saved the old reporter’s life.
When the reporter walked to the breakaway a handler was standing there holding the reins of two horses, one for himself, one for the reporter. There was something familiar about the palomino of the pair, but the reporter could not remember what it was. The handler pitched the reins over the palomino’s neck and offered the reporter a leg up, then adjusted the stirrup straps. “Is he calm?” The reporter asked.
“Let ‘em go,” said a judge.
All seemed well until ten minutes into the brace when “point” rang out from a half mile to the right of the course path. It was the scout of the handler who had supplied Tom Wood’s mount. The handler and his assigned judge lit out toward the call, half the gallery following. Tom Wood’s mount became electrified and sprung into a gallop for the find. Tom Wood remembered. His palomino was a handler-horse that he’d seen ridden at the home plantation of the handler now going to his dog. He held on for dear life, one fist gripping the pommel the other the mane of the palomino. He prayed he could keep his balance and his boots in the stirrups and that the palomino would see in time the ubiquitous holes in the piney woods left by rotted roots of dead pines.
In three minutes that seemed an hour the palomino arrived at the scene of the find and seeing the pointing dog, stopped abruptly thirty yards from the dog. Tom Wood barely avoided going over his neck. Then he rolled off and stood trembling holding one rein. The palomino trembled too, with excitement rather than fear. Then handler and judge arrived, followed by gallery riders. The point proved unproductive. Tom Wood did not remount, instead leading the palomino back to the course path. Half way there a marshal rode back to him. “I’ll take him, Mr. Tom, you ride mine.” The marshal was Rick Furney, his horse one he kept for dog owners to ride, a horse Tom Wood would come to love.