Last Season ~ Final
Mossy Swamp Bill drew the first brace in the all-age. His bracemate was a full younger brother, a derby belonging to Ellen Koonce, who owned the plantation adjoining Mossy Swamp. Ellen had tried to hire Sam away from Mossy Swamp’s now deceased owner, Roger Biddle, but Sam was loyal to Biddle who had always treated him right. Sam had not told Biddle of Ellen Koonce’s offer, not wanting to stir up a feud with a neighbor. Besides, Sam sort of liked Ellen Koonce. She had spirit and style, knew a bird dog and appreciated dog work, and she was a darned good quail and duck shot.
Roger Biddle had given the pup to Ellen Koonce as a weanling. She’d had it with her in Maine its first summer, then sent it in the fall to her plantation adjoining Mossy Swamp. This summer the pup had come north for its derby season with a “for the public” trainer named Kyle Green. Kyle, who was a shooting-dog handler, was high on the derby, which he said showed real all-age promise, and since Ellen was coming up for the trials at Columbus, he entered the derby in both the derby and all-age stakes. It had won the derby stake with Sammy scouting.
“Gentlemen, if you’re ready…let em go,” the senior judge said, and Mossy Swamp Bill began his race going west toward the church-school-graveyard site, Sam handling, Sammy scouting. Bill’s younger brother, which Ellen had named Roger Biddle for the man who had given it to her, gave Bill a footrace for the first hundred yards, then broke off to cast independently to the left front.
By the time they reached the church site, Bill had scored a sharptail find, all in order, and Roger had pointed a hen pheasant, also with manners and style.
Both teams watered their dogs at the road crossing, then turned them loose to hunt through the pasture beyond, which they did with energy and range. Both responded to their handler’s call to turn south toward the huge flat wheat field. On its right edge, near a section road, Bill laid down a torrid pace, creating a dust cloud in his wake. Into the pasture again, Sammy found him pointing, this time a pheasant. Meanwhile, Roger had taken the left side through the wheat field at Kyle Green’s direction and reached for the front into pasture.
As their hour neared its end, both dogs had put down a performance that could gain them a placement, maybe first (Bill) and second (Roger). Bill had four finds, Roger three, and both had run big, searching races. Time was called just after they topped a ridge heading north at the end of a hay field dotted with round bales. The judges cantered to catch sight of them after time had been called.
Having seen the dogs after time, the judges turned their mounts toward the section road where the dog wagon tracked the field-trial party. Sammy and Roger’s scout rode forward to gather their dogs, expecting no difficulty in finding them and thus not bothering to pick up their Garmin signal receivers carried by the judges. When ten minutes passed and Sammy had not returned with Bill, Sam took the receiver unit from the judge and turned it on. It showed Bill on point a half mile ahead. Sam rode for the spot, looking for Sammy. Five minutes later he met Sammy riding back to get the tracker, his horse lathered and blowing.
“He’s right over yonder,” Sam said, pointing to where the Garmin indicated Bill was pointed. They rode for him. What they found was his collar, and horse tracks that led to a spot on the section road where truck and trailer tracks indicated Bill had been check corded and driven away, along with the horse and rider who’d abducted him. Bill had been stolen, and the discarded Garmin collar was the proof.
When the all-age stake was over three days later, Bill got first, Roger Biddle got second. Police had been alerted right after Bill’s
disappearance, but Bill was gone without a trace.
Sam and Sammy were devastated. What could they do? Then Ellen Koonce came to Sam and said, “I want to put Roger Biddle with you and Sammy. In fact, at Christmas I’m giving him to you (a nice way of saying she’d pay expenses and entry fees on Roger until then). See what you can make of him-and of that young man-the rest of the fall season.” Sam had broken down in despair over losing Bill and told Ellen of his illness and his goal to help Sammy.
Through the fall, time moved at the speed of light for Sam as his life ebbed away. Time barely moved for young Sammy. Together they drove down the circuit. They’d spent July and August at Mott, North Dakota, training, then beginning in September they attended trials week by week, migrating south. They had in their short string just one winner, the derby sensation Roger Biddle, younger brother of their stolen Mossy Swamp Bill. Roger had won or placed every time he’d been entered, including the Quail Futurity in Oklahoma. Now he would go down in the best derby stake of them all, the Continental Derby Championship.
Sammy drove up the clay road beneath the live oaks and longleafs, the Spanish moss hanging like cobwebs from their limbs. This was Sam’s favorite place on the earth, Dixie Plantation. Its hills and valleys hugged the Aucilla River on the Georgia-Florida line. When Sam had first come here, the Livingston lands lay in both states. Now only the Florida side made up Dixie. But that was enough, and Miss Geraldine had secured it for field trials forever, left it to her charitable foundation to be a nature center and field-trialing Mecca. Since Miss Geraldine’s death, it had been just that. Its wild quail crop had been nurtured by the practices advocated by Herbert Stoddard, the forester who studied quail in the neighborhood starting in the 1920s. Fire and disk, ragweed and partridge pea, nature had done the rest.
Before Gerald Livingston, a Wall Street financier, who’d founded a major investment bank, bought Dixie Plantation in bits from starving farmers and land speculators for $8 an acre in the 1920s, the lands had produced turpentine and cotton. Now it produced timber and quail, a little corn and hay for the stock. Randy Floyd farmed it and groomed it for trials. Joe Milligan and the other foundation trustees oversaw it. The trial community treasured it.
Sam had two missions as he and Sammy eased up the clay road into the heart of Dixie Plantation: to see Roger Biddle crowned Continental Derby Champion and to see Sammy’s future assured. He had a plan to accomplish both missions. He prayed his strength would hold out for this week. He could feel it slipping away day by day. He was not in pain, thank goodness, but each morning he had a little less strength. He tried not to let Sammy see it.
He felt elation as they passed the office on the left, then the machine shed on the right, then the fork where the left lane led to the big house and right lane lead to the tack barn and beside it the big barn, with commissary, kennels, and the old dairy barn up the hill and paddocks surrounding the whole curtilage. On the way they passed the cottages occupied by black families that had been on Dixie for generations stretching back to slavery days. “If you’re born on Dixie, you can die on Dixie,” Miss Geraldine loved to say. It applied to humans and animals alike. Sam smiled when he saw the birdhouses set on poles all around, reminders of Miss Geraldine’s love of all God’s creatures, especially birds.
Trialers’ rigs were parked helter-skelter around the ten-acre curtilage. Bubba Moreland was as usual parked on the left across from the tack barn. Bubba and
several of his patrons sat in canvas chairs drinking beer. They waived to Sam who waived back.
Sam was looking for a particular rig he hoped to park near, that of the handler Ben Rakes. He’d been a rival of Sam’s for their entire careers. They’d battled on trial grounds all over the continent, year after year, decade after decade. At times they’d been bitter toward one another, but the passing of time had
dulled those memories. They were both more mellow now, their values adjusted by the deaths of comrades and the birth of grandchildren.
Sam saw the trademark fire engine red horse trailer and F350 diesel of Ben Rakes on the hill beyond the dairy barn and told Andy to drive there, then back in their trailer next to Ben’s. They unloaded the horses and released them into an empty paddock, then put the dogs into kennels and watered and fed them. Ben Rakes was not around, so Sam walked the lot until he found Ben talking with a trialer Sam didn’t know by the truck of a peddler of horse and dog tack near the commissary.
Sam introduced Sammy to Ben and the two old warriors spent a few minutes reminiscing. Then Ben said, “I hear tell you’ve got quite a derby.”
“Yes we do,” Sam said, but nothing more. Then Sam led Sammy away.
Roger Biddle was drawn to go in the afternoon of the first day of the Derby Championship. When Sam and Sammy drove from the motel in Monticello to
Dixie at dawn, Sam had one hope on his mind-that Ben Rakes’ boss and the owner of Holy Smoke Plantation would be at Dixie to see Roger Biddle’s performance. Ben Rakes had ten years before giving up handling field-trial dogs “for the public” and “gone private” as working for one owner was called.
Wayne Jackson had made his fortune from a simple invention, a medical device that made open heart surgery safer and more efficient. He’d sold the patent and used part of the proceeds to buy Holy Smoke, a twenty-thousand acre spread between Albany and Thomasville. He hired Ben Rakes as his dog trainer, and two years later promoted him to plantation manager, and since then Ben had held both positions.
While Wayne Jackson liked field trials well enough, he preferred staying at Holy Smoke Plantation and entertaining friends there with quail hunts. He knew Ben Rakes’ heart was in trialing, and so he worked out a deal with Ben that suited them both. Ben could develop a few trial prospects, along with the wagon-dog string. He could compete in the Deep South derby championships (if he had a worthy candidate), and a few piney woods trials. He had no entry in the Continental Derby Championship, and Sam rightly surmised that Ben and his boss were at Dixie today to see Roger Biddle, perhaps with a chance
to buy him since they knew Ellen Koonce had given the derby to Sam.
To be certain Ben Rakes was riding when Roger Biddle competed, Sam had asked him to ride front. Now Sam knew Wayne Jackson would be riding with him. The stage was set.
Through the morning Sam coached Sammy on the Dixie grounds, the traps and the opportunities the grounds afforded a dog and its handler and scout. He wished Roger had drawn a later brace so Sammy would have more opportunity to learn the grounds, but that was the luck of the draw and at least the birds should not be as nervous or likely to be moved off the courses as would be the case for later braces. He was pleased to see that the bird crop was up—there
were at least two finds (and in two cases three and four) in each of the braces before Roger’s.
Roger’s brace came at Sam’s favorite time to run at Dixie, a little after 4 p.m. Roger sensed birds were feeding and went to his work at once. When his hour ended, he’s scored four finds, evenly spaced over his time. Twice Sammy had found him and called point. It was a performance not likely to be beat, Sam knew, and so did Ben Rakes.
The Derby Championship would end Thursday absent weather delays. Sam asked Ben if he could be back at Dixie then in case there was a second series. Ben conferred with Wayne Jackson and then promised to be back Thursday. Having Ben to ride front for Roger was not really why Ben wanted his old rival back.
When Thursday arrived, no dog’s performance had challenged Roger’s. Sam rode nervously until the last challenger had been picked up (no derby that day was left down a full hour, tacit recognition by the handlers that Roger deserved the title). When a whistle sounded from the commissary after the field-trial party had ridden in for lunch, everyone hurried over to hear the winners announced. Ben Rakes and Wayne Jackson were there when Sam and Sammy arrived.
Joe Milligan had in his hand a slip from the judges. He thanked everyone for coming, thanked the judges and reporter and marshals, then read the name of t he runner up and gave its handler a check.
“This year’s Continental Derby Champion is Roger Biddle, Sam Payne handler and owner.”
Everyone applauded, and then came to Sam to shake his hand and offer compliments on Roger’s performance.
“That dog’s going to win the National Championship if he stay’s healthy,” one of the rival handlers said. Ben and Wayne Jackson heard it and looked at one another. Sam saw their exchange of looks and knew he was close to his goal.
The Continental Open All-Age Championship would begin after lunch. Wayne Jackson asked Sam and Sammy to join him and Ben for lunch in the commissary. As they waited in the long line, folks kept coming over to congratulate Sam and Sammy on Roger’s win. Finally they made it to the buffet where Wayne bought four lunches, and they filled their plates with soul food—fried chicken, turnip greens, candied sweet potatoes, and peach cobbler and sweet tea. Then they sat, and Sam offered thanks.
Before they were finished, the commissary had emptied as trialers hurried to saddle up for the afternoon running. Sam turned to Sammy and said,
“Son, how about saddling up our afternoon mounts.”
“Yes, sir,” Sammy responded and hustled out of the commissary.
“Sam, would you be interested in selling Roger Biddle?” Ben Rakes asked.
It was the opening Sam had hoped for.
“Yes, Ben, I would.”
And with that Sam made his pitch to Ben and Wayne Jackson. He would sell them Roger Biddle, but what he wanted was for Wayne Jackson to hire Sammy to work at Holy Smoke Plantation.
“He’s a good dog man, and he’s going to be a good man all around. He’s been with me since the first of July, and he has not disappointed me once.
“Ben may have told you he served time for a drug charge. I took him as he got out of prison, and he’s been with me since. He’s respectful, appreciates animals and his elders, and appreciates a job. He can fix anything, and you know how valuable that is at a place like Holy Smoke. He worked as an automobile mechanic before he got in trouble.”
“What’s your asking price for Roger?” Ben asked.
“Fifteen thousand dollars,” Sam said, “if Sammy gets a job”.
“Make that twenty,” Wayne Jackson said and pulled out his checkbook.
“Where are you going from here?” Ben asked Sam as Wayne wrote the check.
“Well, Roger is entered in the National Derby Championship and that gets drawn Saturday night. If you’re going to run him, I might drive over there
and see him run.”
“How about if you ride over there and run him for us, you and Sammy,” Ben said. Wayne Jackson nodded concurrence.
“Well, that would be a nice way for me to bow out of the game,” Sam said with a grin.
Postscript: The story Last Season intentionally ends with questions: Who stole Mossy Swamp Bill, and what is his fate? Will Roger Biddle win the National Derby Championship and go on to all-age greatness?What lies ahead for Sammy?
I invite readers to submit further chapters to Strideaway.
Tom’s entire short story “Last Season” can also be found in pdf form in the pdf section (under List of Books in Recommended Reading)