Last Season (Part I – VII)
Sam Payne got the diagnosis a week after serving as a pallbearer for his employer, Roger Biddle, owner of Mossy Swamp Plantation. Sam had a year, more or less, his doctor said. The good news was he’d feel good and remain strong until near the end of his time, and the end would be sudden.
Sam was thankful for that. After the initial shock, he did not feel cheated by his fate. He’d always dreaded ending up in a nursing home, and now he knew that wouldn’t likely happen. In a week of reflection, he made his plan.
His employer had left him $100,000 and any he chose of the horses and bird dogs on Mossy Swamp, plus the truck he was driving and a horse trailer. Mossy Swamp would be sold—Roger Biddle’s daughters had no interest in owning a classic Georgia Yankee plantation, but plenty of interest in the money it would bring. And despite the world’s financial crisis, Mossy Swamp should bring plenty.
He chose four of Mossy Swamp’s walkers. There was only one dog Sam Payne wanted. Mossy Swamp Bill had won the National Derby Championship for Sam and Mr. Biddle in January. Had Mr. Biddle lived, Bill would have been sold. Sam’s understanding with Biddle allowed him to develop and campaign only one derby each year, and that only in one prairie contest held near his summer training grounds and a few winter piney-woods derby stakes.
Sam Payne had campaigned “for the public” before taking the job as Mossy Swamp’s manager and dog trainer ten years ago. He hadn’t missed the “down-the-road” life, though he’d often found it hard to tolerate some of Biddle’s shooting guests. Raised on a South Georgia working farm by his father, a dirt farmer, and his mother, a school teacher, his values were centered on hard work, self respect, and personal dignity, though he’d not lived up to his parents’ ideals in his youth. He’d been rebellious and stupid well into his thirties. But then the grindstone of experience had taken hold. He’d quit liquor and settled into a solid working life, though not before his wife had left him. She’d done the right thing, he now admitted.
Sam Payne was sixty now, his only child, a daughter, was forty, and his only grandchild, a boy named for him, was now twenty. That grandson, Sammy Two he was called, and the pointer Bill had together shaped his plan for the last year of his life.
Sammy Two would be released from prison July 1 after serving a year and a day for cocaine distribution. He’d not been a dealer, or so he said, but the amount of the drug in his car when they stopped him classed him as such. Sam’s plan was to take Sammy and Mossy Swamp Bill down the road. He didn’t tell Sammy’s mother or grandmother of his illness when he told them of his plan; they had worries enough. They endorsed his plan, for they had no alternative for Sammy.
It was 104° when Sam picked up Sammy Two at the prison farm south of Jackson. He’d visited the lad a week before to tell him of the plan. He didn’t tell Sammy about his illness, just that he had a job for him for the best part of a year. He’d be Sam’s apprentice as a dog trainer and field-trial scout. Sammy had been to North Dakota with Sam the summer after he’d finished high school, knew the prairie routine. He’d been homesick that summer, pining away for his puppy-love girlfriend. He’d run away the second week of August, used the wages he’d saved for a bus ticket home. When he reached Atlanta, he discovered the girlfriend had found a new boyfriend. Things had gone down hill for him ever since. He’d flunked out of community college, gone to work as an auto mechanic for a Chevrolet dealer where he made good money and developed bad habits. He’d been working there when the Saturday night traffic checkpoint landed him on the prison farm.
Sam had on the trailer the four horses and ten coming derbies belonging to South Georgia plantations and destined for their wagon-dog strings, plus Bill. A worried Sam parked the rig in the one shady spot available and hurried to the exit gate where Sammy waited. The lad was clad in fresh Jeans and a white T-shirt, his hair cut white-sidewall, boot-camp style. He managed a grin and a “Hello, Pop,” and Sam returned it.
“Let’s get moving before the animals suffer any more in this heat,” Sam said. He had a block of ice in each dog compartment, and battery-run fans moving air vainly over the horses, but to little effect. Before they made it out of the parking lot, he’d decided to stop at Luke Weaver’s farm at Jackson and wait for the heat wave to break.
He reached Luke on his cell phone on the first try, and Luke said “Sure, come on, I’ll meet you at the farm.” A half-hour later, they led the lathered horses off the trailer and released them in pasture where they loped for water, then shade. They put the dogs out on tie-out chains in a pasture-edge tree line, then poured water on them. Sam felt a huge sense of relief.
They sat in Luke’s living room and talked of the old days, covering in an hour three decades of shared memories. Memories of bird dog, good and bad, humans, saints and rascals.
Carol Weaver called them to supper of fried bream from Alabama just out of the freezer, plus corn on the cob fresh off the stalk. Sammy ate three plates full, his first home-cooked meal in a year.
A front brought thunderstorms from the west in the night, and at 4 a.m., the heat wave briefly broken, Sam and Sammy Two resumed the trek north. Luke had given them a pup to work. The rush hour around Atlanta was just gathering steam when they made it out the north end, bound up the interstate toward Chattanooga.
Sammy Two’s driver’s license had been revoked, but Sam, with Ben (“Long”) Reach’s help, had it restored on a restricted basis so Sammy could take shifts behind the wheel on their journey. Long had also secured permission from the Parole Board for Sammy to leave Georgia to work for Sam.
Sam had spent enough of his inheritance from Roger Biddle to put new tires on the trailer and truck, plus a new set of bearings and new wiring in the trailer. His worst memories of his days on the circuit were of trailer lights failing on rainy nights on the road.
They made Mott, North Dakota, three days later and set up housekeeping in a rented one-room section-road schoolhouse built in 1904, later converted to living quarters for harvest workers. The farmer whose lands they would work on came over to say hello and invite them to a cookout on Saturday night.
Training season wouldn’t open until July 15, so they spent the first two weeks yard working and roading the derbies. “Watch what I do and do the same with yours,” was all the instruction Sam gave Sammy after dividing the wagon-dog prospects evenly between them. Sam watched how Sammy worked and realized the youngster had an easy way and a natural rapport with the pups. He didn’t get mad, didn’t vary the routine, spoke softly. He seemed to genuinely like his pupils, the best sign of all.
Sammy was quiet the first three weeks. Then his spirits seemed to lift once they turned the dogs loose at dawn before the horses. Work and routine, the fresh air of the prairie, did the job for Sammy as it had every summer for Sam over three decades. But in their rest time Sam saw that Sammy had a deep inner sadness, born no-doubt of self loathing. Sam vowed to cure that, if he had enough time.
Sam’s hope was that Sammy could find himself in their year together, outdoors, on horseback, with a bird dog bearing the seeds of greatness.
What a great bird dog could mean to a young man’s life was something Sam had long contemplated. What would James Avent have been without Sioux, Er Shelley without Pioneer, Ed Farrior without Jay R’s Boy, Chesley Harris without Candy Kidd, Jack Harper without The Texas Ranger? Every bird-dog pro worth the name had a dog early that made his reputation, established his credentials in the first rank. Sometimes the dog’s reputation outlasted the man’s, as the man came up short due to whiskey or drugs or a weakness for women already spoken for.
Sam had never before had such a first-rank dog—not until Bill. But Mossy Swamp Bill might be the dog he could leave as a worthy legacy to his grandson.
A month after their arrival at Mott, Sam and Sammy had settled into a steady routine. They worked five and a half days a week from dawn to dusk, with a long midday break when they ate their main meal and took a nap. Sam was teaching his grandson more than dog-craft, cooking as well. It was a style of cooking he’d learned from his mother, Old-South-style cooking. Green beans cooked long seasoned with bacon grease. Corn bread in a black iron skillet, not sweet, vegetable soup simmered long, seasoned by soup bones and their marrow. Chicken slow-fried crisp in a black-iron skillet or barbecued on the propane
grill. Saturday nights they had steak on the grill. Sundays they fished.
Mossy Swamp Bill’s work had been only roading until now. He slept in the schoolhouse with the two men. Always a sociable dog, he was calm as an
old dog. He rode in the cab when either man drove the truck on an errand, and he went fishing on Sundays, jumping from boat into water when he needed to cool off, then circling and coming close to be lifted back in the boat once he’d cooled himself.
When they turned Bill loose for his first workout, the pointer did not disappoint. In thirty minutes he found pheasants three times and sharptails once, his last find. He broke on the first, chasing twenty yards, but a sharp “whoa” from Sam stopped him. Then Sam picked him up, carried him back to the spot where he’d stood and had him stand there three minutes while Sam looked at him in silence. He did not break again in that workout or two others, one Wednesday, one Saturday morning.
The next week they ran him with one of the more mature derbies. He showed composure when the derby failed to back, to Sam’s satisfaction. Then when the derby had a find, Bill failed to back.
“That’s where we’ve got our work ahead of us,” Sam said. Using pigeons and a pop-up plywood dog, they began giving Bill short on-foot backing lessons after his three-a-week horseback workouts. When time came to go to Columbus for the two trials run back-to-back there, Bill was backing reliably with good style,
though Sam could tell he didn’t much care for it. It seemed to Sam that he felt bad he hadn’t found the birds each time he backed.
Sam had spent the second month giving Sammy tips on scouting. It was a subtle art. Sammy seemed to have excellent distance vision, certain to be a help to him in scouting. Finding a dog on point was a challenge for him. Sam told him: “Walker Lee, Mr. George Moreland’s scout, told me something a long time ago that’s stuck in my head.. ‘Look for something’ shouldn’t be there when you’re lookin’ for a dog maybe on point’ Walker Lee said.”
Sammy thought about that the rest of the day and that night. Next morning he figured out what Walker Lee had meant. “Point” Sam heard Sammy calling from way off—he’d found Bill in a heavy clump of CRP cover beyond an alfalfa field. The dog had a clutch of sharptails. “I seen first just the tip of his tail,” Sammy said with a grin. “That Walker Lee was smart”
Finally, time for the North Dakota trials at Columbus arrived. Sam and Sammy sent the wagon-dog pupils home with a plantation dog trainer who’d come up to work with them for the month of August. He was glad to have the revenue to supplement his modest salary. Sam was pleased to note that that Sammy’s half of the pupils were as well broke as his half, maybe a little better. He chose for Sammy the prospects he’d judged most likely to break out sound.
The summer’s work had done wonders for Sammy physically—he was fit and suntanned. Whether the thing he most needed—self-respect—had started to come, Sam was unsure. Success breaking the dogs in his care should be a start.
With only one dog in their string to campaign, Sam had a plan to offer Sammy’s services to others along the way. He’d called around to see who might need help. Owners liked to come to Columbus to see their dogs perform, and that created a demand for help tending their mounts. Nearly all the handlers offered Sammy work roading their dogs via four-wheeler. Sam hoped that after they saw Sammy scout, they might offer him the job of scouting for them. Sammy had in him the makings of a good scout, Sam believed, and he could learn much in a season of scouting for hire down the circuit.
Sam had taught Sammy another useful skill during the summer. He’d taught the basics of horse shoeing. Sammy could handle an emergency shoe replacement with confidence he’d not lame the horse, a skill every handler needed now and then.
They took the western route to Columbus, driving up the Enchanted Highway (Route 8 ) to I-94, then driving west to Dickinson and from there north on 22 to 23 and back on 8 again, crossing the Missouri at the start of Lake Sakakawea, then on north to the Highline (Route 5) before turning west for Columbus.
When they reached Columbus on September 10, they found the Koppelsloen homestead filled with trialers’ rigs, dually trucks and horse-dog trailers. The pipe corrals were near filled with horses; tie-out chains held strings of pointers and a few setters. After they’d settled their dogs and horses, Sam introduced Sammy to handlers and owners, judges, and club officers. The mood of all seemed upbeat. The hot summer was over, competition about to resume. An urge to compete was the one thing the diverse group, drawn from all over North America, had in common.
Sam then showed Sammy the red barn, built by John Koppelsloen in 1910 and leaning east from a century of near constant wind, and the house, built
in 1919 after the continent’s best agricultural year ever. John’s wheat crop had financed the handsome two-story Sears & Roebuck house, with its steep roof and gables and a welcoming front porch facing south. In the gables were painted the universal symbol of homesteader hope, the rising sun. After almost nine decades, the painted sunrays had not fully faded, due to the dryness of prairie air. “Nothing rots or rusts up here,” Sam said.
Sam explained how John Koppelsloen had arrived here in April 1901 with a team and a wagon loaded with seed and a few balsa boards to frame a sod house. John was alone, but in August his wife arrived, heavy with child and with two toddlers at her side. Six more would be born on the homestead for a total of nine. By the time his wife arrived, he’d dug a well (the same that watered stock today) and built the sod house where the family would survive through
minus 40°F weeks on end and the baby would be born. “Tough . . . these Norwegian homesteaders were tough, no other words for it,” Sam said. “How about crazy?” Sammy said with a grin.
On the drive in they’d passed a one-room school house, its glass windows out, but still standing, and across the section road from it, a burial ground dotted
with granite stones. Sam explained that a church had been built by the homesteader community at the spot, and now stood with a collection of similar churches collected at Lake George, a village to the south just over the ridge that marked the continental divide—ground water north of the ridge flowed to Hudson’s Bay, and south of it into the Missouri River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi. On the drive here, they’d passed large fields of sunflowers and canola and to the west thousands of acres of table-flat harvested wheat lands. Around the homestead the land varied from softly rolling to flat, with crop fields interspersed among pasture and hay fields. In the distance oil-well sites, marked by tanks and steel horse heads, dotted the horizon.
The area had been prospected for dog training by Texan Gary Pinalto, twice winner of the National Championship. Now a half dozen pros trained in the area. Some of their owners had bought houses in Columbus, real bargains because of the exodus of permanent residents to Minot in summer and Arizona in winter.
My name is Mossy Swamp Bill, and I am a pointer. A special sort of pointer, a field-trial pointer, all-age category. That means I’m a dog that “runs off—but not quite,” as an old timer named Uncle Dave Rose supposedly said a hundred plus years ago.
I’m in a string—I am the string—of a handler named Mr. Sam. He travels with a scout who’se his grandson, Sammy he calls him. We’re now way up North in North Dakota—at Columbus, up against the Canadian border with Montana just to the west. It’s a glorious place this time of year—September. It’s big
country, not many people, lots of game birds—sharptails and Huns, pheasants, potholes full of nervous ducks and geese getting ready to fly south for the winter.
We’re about to start a field trial, and I intend to win the Open All-Age stake. I love to compete, especially up here. This summer was dull for me until a couple weeks ago. I just got roaded off the four wheeler and slept in the school house at night. Then Mr. Sam and Sammy finally turned me loose to find birds in a workout, and I was back in business like last season. That was my first—what they call the Derby season—and they say I did real good. At the end I won the National Derby Championship, the only 90-minute stake for Derbies (that’s two-year-olds).
My name is Sammy, and I am a convicted felon. I was convicted of cocaine possession and served a year on a Georgia prison farm. When I was released, my grandfather, Mr. Sam, came for me and brought me here, to North Dakota, to work as his apprentice as a bird-dog trainer. We’ve spent the summer training at Mott, just north of the South Dakota border in the middle of the state. It’s big open farming country with alfalfa and CRP lands that hold pheasants, sharptails, and a few Huns.
I’d been here before with my granddad when I was in high school, so I knew the routine. But this year was different because granddad’s long time employer had died, so instead of bringing his plantation wagon dogs to break, we had pups from other plantations and one trial dog that granddad had inherited
from his boss, Mossy Swamp Bill, a first-year all-age. We’ve sent home the wagon dogs, and now we’ve just got Bill. We’ve brought him here to Columbus to compete in two back-to-back trials. After that I’m not sure what granddad has got planned.
When I walked out of prison, I was low, man, low. I saw nothing ahead but despair. But somehow the simple day-by-day work, the routine, and the dogs, the teaching them and being taught by them, and being with granddad, seeing him get up every morning and go to work in his steady way, that saved me. Slowly my anxiety and feelings of worthlessness left me. Work for its own sake, knowing it was there to be done, that predawn darkness would turn to sunrise, that the horses would be waiting for their morning feed, how the saddle would feel under my butt when we swung up to ride, peace came from that. It was sort of like magic settled on our little camp, the schoolhouse where homesteaders’ kids came to learn their ABC’s in 1901 that now was our digs . . . .
They began drifting in to the Columbus Legion Hall for the drawing just before six Saturday evening. They came from every walk of life and economic strata and from all over North America. Field trials were, as always, a mixing bowl of humanity. Among the dog owners arriving were:
• Buck Stump, an independent oil man (wildcatter) from Houston, flush from the recent run-up in crude and West Texas gas finds, but broke four times before in his sixty years (“That’s Texas,” he’d say with a belly laugh when recounting his long up-and-down career);
• Carl Breeze, a commercial real-estate developer from Miami, worth multimillions two years ago, dead broke now, his two dozen shopping centers all up-side-down (their mortgages exceeding their value), but with a cool twenty million bucks protected in his pretty wife’s name, bucks put there when he was solvent and thus beyond the reach of the bankruptcy trustee to be appointed for Carl Breeze next week (but that pretty wife was, unbeknownst to Carl, already contemplating hubby two, her tennis pro, with whom she was currently cavorting in the Caribbean as Carl prepared to watch his bird dogs on the prairie);
• Sully Parter, a Southside Virginia timber baron who’d begun as a land man for Camp Manufacturing out of high school, used his keen mind filled with natural math skills to estimate board feet with uncanny speed. Sully soon leaft corporate employment to buy for his own account. Sully first used a piper cub, rented by the hour at the Wakefield strip, to spot likely stands. Then he researched court records, looking for old widow owners, got to know them through their preachers, brought them roses and chocolates—Sully was outrageous in his schemes to buy timber on the stump, but his real secret was his patience. Sometimes he’d wait years before pouncing at just the moment an owner was desperately hard up for cash. Sully was seventy now, wily as ever, still on the lookout for good timber the owner of which did not know its worth and for a good pointer pup;
• Randy Hutchins, a small animal vet from St. Louis, who’d figured out twenty years ago the secret of financial success in his chosen possession was location and hiring other vets and a keen accountant to run the numbers. Location was tied to PPA—Poodles Per Acre—Randy’s secret formula. Just as credit card companies used zip codes to target their mass mailing card offers, Randy bought old service station sites near posh neighborhoods and turned them into animal clinics combined with grooming centers. Randy secretly hated poodles and cats and the bleached-headed mommas who brought them in via Mercedes, but he sure liked the dough they put in his bank account;
• Ellen Koonce, an heiress of New England old money traceable to an early 20th Century monopoly and carefully managed for four generations by a Boston law firm that specialized in the tactics celebrated by Dickens in Ebenezer Scrooge. Ellen divided her time between “The Vineyard” (Martha’s), “The Mountain” (Roaring Gap, North Carolina), “The Sound” (Hobe Sound, Jupiter Island, Florida), Provance and Thomasville, Georgia, the seat of her quail plantation and her interest in bird dogs. She’d inherited from and through her dad, a third generation coupon clipper. Ellen was in her prime as a woman, old enough to know how to enjoy herself and her money. She’d recently dropped her second husband with the ease of a snake shedding its skin, thanks to an air-tight pre-nup drafted by her Boston lawyers. Her great granddaddy’s trust had said she had to have a pre-nup from each of her husbands to be eligible for income, creating a Hobson’s Choice for an man who desired to live off her money.
To be continued in Part VII.