The Bad Summer
For 130 summers they had trekked north in July to the northern prairies with their young bird dogs. They sought relief from the brutal southern heat, and the game birds that thrived on the vast open lands. For two months they worked their pupils early mornings and long late afternoons. The effect could be magic on a talented pupil, transforming a gangly pup into an accomplished all-age derby performer, that performer every trainer-handler sought but seldom found.
Times had changed over the decades, but the magic of the prairies and the natures of men and of dogs had not changed. The ambitions of the small band of craftsmen, changing in name but not in their iconic nature, had remained constant over thirteen decades. They were competitive perfectionists when it came to molding their pupils. To a man they sought the rare great dog that could beat the competition consistently. A trainer-handler might find that great candidate once a lifetime or at best once a decade, or never.
In the summer of 2014, in the state of North Dakota, two trainer-handlers, working on lands two hundred miles apart, believed by late August they had found their magic derby. In early September they headed to Columbus in the state’s north west corner to test their derbies in two open derby stakes run back to back on the Kopplesloen homestead lands at Prairie View, beneath the brow of Divide Ridge and just below the Canadian border.
In the decade just past this remote land had been transformed from agricultural to a petroleum promised land. The oil and gas boom held it now, but miraculously the sharp tails and pheasants remained on the lands in good numbers, and the trainer-handlers flocked here for the two trials Texan Gary Pinalto had founded and descendants of immigrant homesteaders supported as civic projects of their Lions Club, just before they snow-birdied to New Mexico and Arizona for the winter.
A decade earlier patrons of the trials had bought up nice three bedroom houses in Columbus for use during the trials for less than $5,000. Now with the oil and gas boom the houses went for many thousands. Roustabouts and technicians of fracking and horizontal drilling occupied them year round.
Fred Stant and Jeff Briggs were the trainer-handlers with the derbies they believed great. They were coming to Columbus with histories in the field trial sport and with one another. They had three years before been partners in the buddy system called “helpin’ each other,” under which handlers traded scouting services to avoid hiring a scout. It was a system economics dictated in modern times, but it inevitably created conflicts of interests that caused individual deals to self destruct. Sooner or later a scouting handler slacked off, or was conceived to, because of an entry of his own that had done a good job or might later. Fred’s and Jeff’s breakup had sprung from an incident where another scout had spread the rumor he had witnessed Fred riding up Jeff’s dog’s birds on a limb find. Whether the allegation was true, or false and intended to break up the team, remained and would always remain unknown. But the bad blood between Fred and Jeff was now indelible.
In the first derby stake at Columbus, Fred’s derby, Pete of Paducah (call name Pete) had come second to Jeff’s Columbus Chief (call name Chief) after the pointer derbies ran as brace mates in the fifth brace. Fred had protested loudly to the judges that Pete and he had been robbed, but his protest had been met with cold stares and silence by the experienced judges.
As the trials progressed Fred continued to brood on the perceived injustice. Then it was the eve of the start of the second derby stake. Fred decided to take drastic action. He drove to the old Kopplesloen house site, trial headquarters, where the handlers parked their trailers and corralled their mounts.
The site was empty of humans when Fred arrived. Jeff’s string was staked out by his trailer. Fred removed Chief from his chain and put him in a crate in the bed of his pickup. Then he drove away, out the only access road and by the Lutheran burial ground where the church had once stood and on the opposite side where the remains of the one-room school still stood, its windows broken but with shingle roof still intact. What would he do with Chief now occupied his desperate thoughts.
He had almost reached the blacktop when in turned Jeff’s pickup, headed for trial headquarters. As the handlers passed one another neither waived. Fred’s desperation grew as he realized Jeff would suspect he had taken Chief off the chain. He must rid himself of the evidence of his desperate larceny.
When he reached the blacktop east-west highway he turned right toward Lignite. What must I do now, his fear muddled brain asked. He passed the turnoff to the village of Lignite and continued east. The traffic of oil and gas field workers from the east roared past him. From behind he was crowded by others wanting to pass him. Occasionally he pulled in at a turnoff to let following traffic pass. He was shaking with fear.
When his odometer showed he’d traveled thirty miles from where he turned on to the blacktop he pulled in on a farm road and followed it a mile. No buildings came into view. He turned around to be headed back toward the blacktop, then stopped. He went to the crate holding Chief, removed Chief’s collar, and turned him loose. He took the pea whistle on a lanyard around his neck, put it between his lips, and gave Chief Jeff’s hi-on blast, sending Chief on a cast away from the blacktop. He repeated the blast three times until Chief disappeared over a rise a half mile from Fred’s truck.
Then he drove for Columbus where he had rented a room from another handler whose principal customer had bought the house in the days of cheap houses. He stopped at the grocery in Lignite for bread and sandwich meat so the time stamped cash register receipt could explain his drive east on the blacktop if Jeff or another handler or owner had seen him driving east.
He turned in at the Outback Saloon in Columbus and went in and ordered a beer at the bar. Word had already reached the handlers present that Chief was off his chain. The speculation was Chief had somehow caused the snap to open on his own and gone on a walkabout, but in his call to alert the bartender Jeff had said, “Somebody took him and I’ll bet I know who.” This sent a chill down Fred’s spine.
An hour later Fred was on his third Budweiser when the bartender answered a phone call. It was Jeff, and Chief had been recovered. Fred was stunned — how could Jeff have Chief? He had released the derby without a collar thirty five miles from where he had been removed from his chain. Someone could have picked Chief up, but without a collar to identify him how could his finder have got word to Jeff? He supposed it was possible Jeff had alerted law enforcement and the finder had called in to law enforcement that he had a dog without a collar, but in so short a time? Fred wondered, had Chief been fitted with some non-visible GPS device, enabling Jeff to locate him just as if he wore a Garmin locator collar? Fred thought some more, and through his beer fog realized that if Chief were fitted with an under-skin locator, that would be illegal and might get Chief and Jeff banned from trials. He ordered another Bud. The night’s fear had turned to thoughts of revenge.
Just before closing time the door of the Outback burst open, and in strode Jeff Briggs and beside him Chief’s owner, a prosperous plaintiff’s lawyer from Alabama with an ego as big as the prairie. In Jeff’s left hand was Chief’s collar, which Fred had forgotten he had left on the bed of his pickup beside the crate. He saw Jeff’s right fist an instant before it struck his temple, tumbling him off the bar stool and onto the saloon’s floor. He sensed he’d been out for a moment when he felt hands under his arms lifting him. Jeff and the owner of Chief had already left the Outback.
Fred was offered a ride the three blocks to his lodgings and though he protested he could drive the bartender insisted he take it or he’d call the law. When he woke at dawn he remembered nothing but seeing Jeff’s fist coming. Then he remembered his surmise that Chief must have a GPS chip embedded beneath his skin and he tried to figure how to play his hand on that.
Fred walked to his truck. The bread and lunch meat were on the seat. He threw the lunch meat in the Outback’s garbage bin and drove to a convenience store, new thanks to the petroleum boom, where he bought jars of peanut butter and jam and filled his thermos with coffee and drove to trial headquarters.
Handlers and owners were scrambling to get mounts ready for the breakaway scheduled for 7:30. It was now 6:50. Neither Fred nor Jeff had a dog drawn to run today but early pickups or scratches could change that for Chief and Pete were drawn in tomorrow’s opening brace. As he moved the dogs in his string from their trailer compartments to the chain and gave each a pan of water, Jeff approached, followed by Chief’s owner. Both glared at Fred, who returned the glares with a smirk.
“We want to talk with you in private and if you want to save your sorry ass from jail and a ban from trials you better come to my truck right now,” Jeff said in a low voice so as not to be heard by others.
“Sure,” Fred replied, still smirking, and trying to think how best to spring his knowledge that Chief was fitted with an illegal apparatus.
When they reached Jeff’s dually the lawyer got in the back seat behind Jeff and Fred got in the front passenger seat.
Jeff opened, “We are going to offer you a chance to stay in the game and not go to jail and be banned, but you must take it before you get out of this truck. Finding Chief’s collar in your truck was final proof you stole him and we have got more. Mr Carter here will buy Pete from you for $500 and we will give you a release and confidentiality agreement. Otherwise we are calling Bernie this morning and telling the stakes manager what you did.”
Carter handed Fred a one page paper headed “Purchase Contract and Release,” no doubt produced by Carter on his lap top computer. Fred read it quickly, then replied,
“No thank you, gentlemen. I’m planning to call Bernie myself, tell him Chief’s got a GPS chip under his sorry hide.”
Jeff and Carter looked at one another in puzzlement, then Jeff spoke.
“You dumb son-of-a-bitch, you think that’s how we found Chief after you turned him loose. No way. When I found Chief gone off the chain I called Billy (Jeff’s scouting partner this season) and asked him to drive east on the highway fast as he could and try to catch you. I knew you had to have gone east or west and I had a hunch it was east ‘cause there is more open pasture that way. Billy caught up to you and followed you to where you turned on the farm road. He parked where he could watch for you to come back to the highway and when you did he drove in and found your tracks where you turned around and stopped and got out and let Chief loose. He took pictures with his phone of your tire and boot tracks in the road dust. We’ve got pictures of your tire treads that match and of chief’s collar in the bed of your pickup we took last night at the Outback. Billy just called for Chief from where you turned him loose and he came lopin’ in. Chief ain’t got no GPS chip in him.”
Fred was devastated. He knew he would take Carter’s offer. But he made one attempt to better the terms.
“Mr. Carter, I will take your deal, with one slight change. Let me run Pete tomorrow — he can go down as your dog. I need the purse to have enough money to get home. When I do I’m going to quit trials and see if I can get a plantation job.”
Carter looked at Jeff, who was shaking his head. Then Carter said, “OK, it’s a deal.”
Pete won first, Chief second in the second derby stake. Fred made it back to Georgia and commenced to look for a job. Meanwhile lawyer Carter negotiated a huge settlement with General Motors in several defective ignition death cases and bought a Yankee plantation outside Thomasville. He offered Fred a job as his dog trainer-hunt manager.
Fred asked Ben Reach to look over the contract and told Ben the story of Chief and the theory of the GPS chip, under lawyer-client privilege of course.
“Fred, I expect you and Sam Carter will make good partners. You have comparable ethics.”
As Fred left Ben’s office he wondered, “What does comparable ethics mean?”
Pete and Chief, meanwhile, were tearing up the circuit, first one and then the other taking first and second and after Christmas Champion and Runner Up in the derby championships, both in the string of Jeff Briggs.
…the story of Pete and Chief continues in Callback
Thanks to Tom Word for his wonderful series of Ben Reach stories!