Spring Shuffle ~ Matchmaker
Ben (“Long”) Reach had a soft spot for dog trainers. After fifty years as a lawyer in Albany (“All-Benny” in local speak), Ben knew them all—the ones who worked on the Yankee plantations and the ones from elsewhere who came to the quail belt in to compete in piney woods field trials (the Lee County at Leesburg; the Florida Championship at Branford; the Continental (Derby and All-Age) at Monticello; the Southeastern and Masters at Albany).
He knew the pros and the semi-pros, those farmers from Kentucky who bred and developed young dogs to sell to the pros to replenish their strings. More and more the pros relied on the semi-pros for talent, because the demands of campaigning left the pros little time to develop pups. Most pros figured they and their owners were better off buying, even at a long price, a highly promising derby than going through a raft of pups in search for “lightning in a bottle,” that one-in-a-thousand that could cut it in open competitions.
Ben had learned from his friends among the pros that each counted on two adult dogs in his string to keep him in the game. He might have ten or even fifteen to enter each week on the circuit, but he pinned his hopes on two at a time. And when one or both of those two were out of action from injury or illness, physical or mental, the pro suffered mightily.
While Ben loved both trial dogs (and trial people) and hunting dogs (and plantation dog men), most of his clients cared only about the meat dogs, or wagon dogs. (That name came from the fact that on Yankee plantations the gun dogs rode in cages on the mule-drawn shooting wagons traditional in the culture.) Ben observed that those lucky enough to own a quail plantation wanted world-class wagon dogs, but cared little for trial dogs. In fact, many didn’t like trial dogs at all—to them a dog not in sight (and therefore not under control) was anathema. This puzzled Ben, and then he realized the obvious. Rich folk mostly liked control of everything. For his part Ben loved to see a good trial dog blow out the front, to be found pointing ten minutes later. To each his own, Ben figured.
In truth, both a good wagon dog and a good trial dog were special and rare. As with people, mediocrity dominated the bird dog world.
Twice each year Ben indulged his love of bird dogs and bird-dog people. The first time was in early March when the Southeastern and Masters Championships ran simultaneously at Albany in an ingenious matrix of all-age and shooting-dog competitions. Over two weeks, four championships ran on two sets of nearby grounds?the all age first at the Southeastern Club’s grounds on Chicasaw and Abigail Plantations, while simultaneously the shooting dogs ran on Nonami, Blue Springs, and Wildfair, the Southern Club’s grounds. The second week the shooting dog handlers brought their strings to the Southeastern’s grounds, and the all-age boys moved to the Southern Club’s grounds. On the Saturday between, a big party for all was held at the Plantation Community Center, field trialing’s party-of-the-year where all-age and shooting dog fans and pros mingled (all-age and shooting dogs share more than they differ, the all ages just being expected to hunt bigger, or wider, in search of birds; style and decorum demands are the same).
For these idyllic two weeks, Ben rode horseback a half-day each day, using the draw sheets to pick which trial to attend and whether to ride morning or afternoon. Thus, he soaked up the scenery on some of South Georgia’s most beautiful and bird-laden lands. Though he would deny it, Ben was a social creature, needing the company of fellow bird-dog nuts. In those two weeks, he got his fill of camaraderie with dog folk from all over the country.
There was never a shortage of gossip. One sad but inevitable subject was the spring shuffle—the firings or quittings of dog men from their Yankee plantation jobs, and rehirings at different plantations for the lucky few. The gossip always centered on fault, on one or both sides. Over the years Ben had heard all the causes, based in sex, alcohol, drugs, laziness, or just plain stupidity. A poor bird crop always increased the cases.
The sex-based cases were easy to understand—a dog man seducing or being seduced by an owner’s wife or daughter; or an owner seducing or being seduced a by a dog man’s wife or daughter. Stories as old as humanity, at once funny and tragic.
The alcohol cases were universally sad, but they too were timeless. Sometimes the dog man’s drinking got out of hand, sometimes the owner’s, sometimes both. Ben recalled Ed Mack Farrior telling him how his father, Mr. Ed Farrior, had quit his job as manager of two Yankee plantations because their ultra-rich owner and his wife were both abusive drunks.
The drug-based cases were harder for Ben to fathom, for he was of a generation before pot, cocaine, and misused prescription drugs became ubiquitous. The owners could afford rehab; the dog men seldom got it. Instead they disappeared from the plantation scene as if they had never existed.
The laziness and stupidity cases took many forms. Sometimes an owner, brilliant in finance, was a dope when it came to bird dogs, and a dog man lost his temper when the owner shot too close over a dog, rendering it a dropper. Or worse, shot at a low flyer and killed or maimed a favorite dog. Sometimes a dog man failed to field a competent string of wagon dogs, embarrassing the owner with his high-toned shooting guests.
To stay on the right side of a plantation owner required more skill, hard work, and tact than some dog men could consistently muster, and to this many a firing could be traced. As familiarity with a dog man’s habits increased over months or years, the likelihood of a firing increased. Of course a long-term dog man was the devil one knew, and his replacement the devil one didn’t. Many times Ben Reach had seen a dog man dismissed, followed by buyer’s regret on his replacement. Ben’s emotions varied between sadness and amusement over these cases. For the dog men, it was just sadness.
The “Take this job and shove it” cases always amused Ben. Dog men tended to be quirky, independent types. Rich owners were demanding, “My way or the highway” sorts. Such oil-and-vinegar boss-dog man relationships abounded in the quail belt and fueled the spring shuffle.
A long career as a plantation dog man required diligence, talent, and patience, “the ability to suffer fools” Ben called it. Patience with the owner, his family and his guests, which could often be impossible. Some were just inexperienced, but the worst were unsafe. Quail hunting was the most dangerous of sports, requiring a hunter to have safety always first in mind. The guest with something else on his mind was the dog man’s worst nightmare. One thoughtless swing of the shotgun could end in tragedy, and the dog men all thought about it constantly.
Ben recalled a case when a dog man had taken the gun from a guest he judged unsafe, and it cost him his job. (The guest was important to his boss for a pending business deal.) When word spread of the reason for that dog man’s firing, he had three job offers in a week, all better than the one he lost. The justice in that story made Ben smile.
This March Ben heard first hand a rare spring shuffle story. Billy Ames was the dog man on Pecan Shell Plantation, owned by Ben’s friend and client Claude Shipp. Billy and Claude seemed well suited to one another, and Ben never noticed any tension when invited to hunt at Pecan Shell, a once-a-year treat. Billy fielded a good string of wagon dogs, and Pecan Shell always had a good bird crop. Billy and Claude saw eye-to-eye they should not be overshot. When the shooting party seemed too successful, Claude would wink at Billy, and young dogs would go down, to Ben’s amusement. Run-up coveys did not get shot into.
At the Southeastern, Billy rode up to Ben.
“Morning, Mr. Ben, how are you today?” Billy said with his usual cheerful grin.
“Just fine Billy, how about you?”
“I’m fine too, Mr. Ben, and I’ve got some news I wanted to tell you myself. I’m quitting Pecan Shell and going on the road handling trial dogs for the public. Its something I’ve always wanted to try and figured if I don’t do it now, I never will.”
It was a story Ben had heard before, and he heard it now with mixed emotions. He liked Billy and understood his desire for the independence and chance at glory Billy craved. But he knew what a perilous venture Billy was embracing; what a long shot he pursued. To line up supportive owners and dogs that could win, and to keep both happy and healthy was a juggling act few carried off.
Ben knew Billy would risk everything he and his wife had achieved on this riskiest of ventures, which had little upside except perhaps in personal satisfaction. Billy’s wife’s job as an operating-room nurse made the bet possible.
“Good luck to you Billy,” was all Ben said, though he wished he’d had a chance to talk Billy out of quitting Claude Shipp.
“Has Claude hired your replacement?” Ben asked as an afterthought.
“No Sir, not yet,” Billy said.
Ironically, some of the best dog men had difficulty keeping a plantation job. Too much pride in making great dogs sometimes led to neglect of other things owners valued more, like clean saddles. Many owners preferred meat dogs, dogs easy to handle that provided points to shoot over even if the dog was flat on its belly. Too much desire to field trial ended many jobs. Owners wanted their dog man to be on hand for hunts, including hastily scheduled ones. Many a dog man had been fired for sneaking off to compete.
Then there was the case of the plantation owner who suddenly became enamored of trials. He began to send his dog man to compete weekends, but never went to the trials himself. The dog man came home early when his dog got sick, and found the owner with his wife. End of job, end of marriage. A tale both sad and funny, but not funny for the three involved.
Ben’s other indulgence came in early September when he annually flew to Minot, North Dakota, and rented a car. For a few days, he drove around the state visiting dog men at their training camps. Then he drove to Columbus for the North Dakota Classics where for a couple of days he rode to watch the season’s derbies. Like old trialers everywhere, Ben was more intrigued with coming derbies than with the adult dogs. Nothing thrilled him like a fiery youngster finding himself on the prairies.
When this year Ben got to Columbus and checked into Ken’s Motel, he found he had the last room. At the Outback Bar, he found a dozen dog men who’d come to compete. They hailed from all over the country, from Idaho to Oklahoma, Kentucky to Florida. Ben had known most for years, had followed their fortunes through bad years and good, except for their derbies, which would debut tomorrow.
With beers in hand and pizza ordered, the talk turned as always to the derbies. Most were silent about their own, but had gossip to spread about others’ prospects. Would the year’s derby phenom be seen tomorrow? Ben hoped so, but always a realist, he knew it was not likely. Early fall derbies were unpredictable, especially when tuned loose on grounds that were new to them. Yet in the last few years, many trainers had found places to train within an hour’s drive of Columbus, the little near-ghost-town in the northwest corner of the state.
As luck would have it, Ben saw the best derby he’d seen in a decade in the next morning’s opening brace. The dog man who handled was a youngster Ben had never seen before, and a stranger to all at the trial. A Mexican-American who could not have been older than twenty-one, he came in a 1990 Dodge pickup pulling a two-horse quarter-horse bumper-pull trailer even older. His “string” was two derbies, both mostly white pointers. His license tags were from Texas, and his name was Jose Dix, which seemed strange to Ben—he’d never seen Dix as a Latino name.
Ben learned at breakfast in Ken’s Diner that Jose Dix had spent the training season helping Allen Vincent on Gary Pinalto’s old grounds, the same grounds where the North Dakota Classics were run. According to Allen, Jose had just shown up the middle of July and asked for work. When Allen said he had none to offer, Jose looked so crestfallen Allen invited him to stay for the day and work his two dogs. After Allen had seen him ride and handle for the day, he invited Jose to stay on for room and board and the chance to earn a few bucks when Allen’s owners came north later to ride and see their prospects in training. Jose had been a hit with all of Allen’s owners, especially his cheerful smile and quick anticipation of their needs (to have a horse groomed and saddled or dogs roaded, for example.)
When Jose loosed his first entry in the first brace, Ben and all others riding, including the judges, were quickly impressed. The derby was happy, quick, and ambitious. It lit out for the front, Jose riding calmly in silence. Then when it was just a speck near a ridgetop, Jose squalled, and the derby, call name Ben, reacted at once and swung across the front, then resumed a forward pattern. It found birds twice, a pheasant near the cemetery, a sharptail just before its hour ended, each handled with style, manners, and fire, with no sign of being cowed by rough training. When the derby stake ended, Ben was named first and Jose’s other entry, Betty (a littermate) got third.
That evening Jose came to Ben’s room at the motel. He asked if Ben could take his purse checks and wire all but $300 to his mother in Mexico. Ben gave him $300 in cash and mailed the check to his office, with instructions to his assistant Joanne to wire the proceeds to Jose’s mother’s bank account. Then he took Jose to the bar in Lignite for supper.
“Where are you going from here?” Ben asked Jose.
“I don’t know, Sir,” Jose said.
“Who owns your derbies?” Ben asked.
“I do, Sir.”
That was good news and bad news—the bad news was Jose would get no monthly checks or entry fees from an owner. The good news was Jose could raise some cash by selling his derbies.
“Do you have papers?” Ben asked.
“I am an American citizen, Sir. My father, who died when I was six, was a vaquero on the King Ranch.”
“I mean registration papers on the derbies,” Ben said.
“Oh yes, Sir. And DNA too.”
“Would you consider working on a Yankee plantation in Georgia, training dogs and guiding quail hunts?”
“You betchya, that’s what I did in Brooks County,” he said.
“Let me see what I can do,” Ben said.
Next morning Ben called Claude Shipp at Pecan Shell Plantation.
“Claude, I’ve got somebody I think you’d like to have as your dog trainer and hunt guide. He’s a little different, but I’ve seen he can break a dog, and he’s willing to work and well mannered. He’s also got two of the best derbies I’ve seen in many a year that need an owner like you.
“Hire him,” Claude said.