For Frank Hill and Roger Kirby, it had been a magical season. In it they had both moved from marginal to main stream, from barely known to well known, in their obscure world. That world was pointing-dog field trials, all-age category.
Well known did not mean prosperous, for prosperous was never the fate of a handler. The game did not work that way. Able to make a livable living was the best a handler could hope for. And with the state of the economy, even that was a stretch for nearly all. But Frank and Roger were making it, or getting by, meeting their truck payments on time, while their working wives (Frank’s a teacher, Roger’s a nurse) made the mortgage payments at home.
Frank and Roger were a team, though each had his own string of dogs, his own four dog-horses and his own rig to haul them up and down the continent–up (north) for summer training in North Dakota, down (south and southwest) for the trials held week by week starting in late August and concentrated after Christmas in the piney woods country of Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, with the finale–the National Championship–at Grand Junction, Tennessee, in February, before returning to South Georgia the first week of March for two final weeks of battle at Albany.
Frank and Roger’s emergence from obscurity had come thanks to each man’s best dog: Frank’s Georgia Giant, a pointer son of Lester’s Snowatch, Roger’s Alabama Albert, setter son of Shadow Oak Bo.
The handlers now were on the eve of the National Championship, neck-and-neck at the top in dog and handler Purina points, the measure of greatness in their arena. Giant had won the Saskatchewan, Oklahoma, and Florida Championships, Albert had won the Dominion, Georgia, and Continental Championships. In each of those contests and others through the season, Frank and Roger had scouted for one another’s entries. Neither doubted the other had done his best in spite of the temptation to slack off when the scout had a good job on the judge’s books by one of his entries.
Frank and Roger had partnered three seasons now, attending the same trials and bunking together in the same motel rooms. They’d also shared summer training grounds and lived together in a travel trailer July and August, forced into close quarters by the North Dakota oil and gas boom that had cost them the lease on their permanent camp (a former homesteader’s house they’d occupied in previous years).
Frank’s Georgia Giant drew the first afternoon brace at the National; Roger’s Albert drew the last brace of that stake. Giant’s draw proved very fortunate–conditions were perfect, and birds were moving and plentiful for his three hours. He made the most of it, scoring ten clean finds and backing his bracemate twice and running a masterful ground race. Gallery gossip had him top dog starting that Monday sundown, and now that almost two weeks of running had passed, no performance had changed that opinion. Meanwhile, both handlers had run in the West Tennessee All Age where Albert had won first and Giant second.
The night before Alabama Albert’s brace, Roger was treating Frank to a steak to celebrate Albert’s win at Danceyville. They were at the expensive Holly Springs steak house favored by wealthy dog owners attending the National. Usually the handlers would have chosen instead a Ryan’’ or an Outback, or a Taco Bell.
Frank had eaten at the Holly Springs place with Giant’s owner to celebrate the dog’s good job on opening day. During that meal, the owner had asked if he intended to scout Roger’s Albert. Without thinking, he’d said, “Of course.” The owner had given him a funny look, which puzzled him at the time. But in the days since he’d come to appreciate the reason for the funny look.
As Giant’s opening day performance held up day after day, he’d pondered the moral hazard involved in his scouting Alabama Albert. He dreamed about Albert mounting a challenge to his Giant’s performance, and the dilemma he’d face if he’d have to call point for Albert on a limb find that might put him ahead of his Giant in the eyes of the judges. Or suppose, despite his best efforts, Albert got lost when finding him was his responsibility. His imagination began to get the best of him–the “what ifs” were overwhelming him as the days slowly ticked by.
The wait for Albert’s bid was also taking its toll on Roger. He did not doubt that Frank would scout Albert honestly and do his best, but soon after Giant’s bid, Albert’s owner had sowed doubt in Roger’s mind, and asked him to hire another scout for Albert’s bid, offering to pay the cost. Roger had declined, said Frank knew the dog and could best scout him. Roger thought that was the end of it, but today, on the eve of Albert’s bid, the owner had come back to Roger and demanded that he hire as scout Wallace Fain, a local at Grand Junction who scouted for many entries and who knew the Ames Plantation like the back of his hand. When Roger again refused, the owner was furious and threatened to take Albert from Roger’s string if he didn’t relent. Later he called Roger on his cell phone and said he would scratch Albert if Roger did not hire Fain to scout him.
That was the state of affairs when Frank and Roger rode to Holly Springs for the steak dinner. Frank drove. Both men were silent for most of the drive, an odd thing in light of Albert’s race of tomorrow. Normally, they would have been talking strategy for the race.
When they entered the steak house, a half dozen handler-owner pairs at the bar came over to wish Roger well for tomorrow and to congratulate Frank on having the consensus leader for the National. Word had passed at the end of the day’s running that Frank’s owner had been called on orders from the judges and told to be on hand for the announcement tomorrow, as was the tradition.
Frank and Roger had a drink at the bar and were then shown to a booth for their meal. Both men were tense, each with a message for the other that he did not want to deliver.
Roger was in turmoil, conflicted by his owner’s demand, feeling that to follow it would be a breach of faith with his partner. Nevertheless, he was prepared to tell Frank he wouldn’t be scouting Albert tomorrow. Realistically, Roger had no choice. He could not risk having Albert, a dog of a lifetime, taken by its owner from his string.
Unbeknownst to Roger, Frank had received a comparable ultimatum from Giant’s owner when Frank called to tell him he needed to be on hand for tomorrow’s announcement. That owner had said, “If you scout that damned setter tomorrow, I’m moving Giant to another handler.”
The waitress came to take their orders. Both men ordered a rib eye. A long silence followed as each man gathered courage for his speech.
Frank spoke first.
“Roger, I can’t scout Albert tomorrow. Giant’s owner has forbidden it, says he will take Giant away from me if I do.”
Frank expected an angry explosion from Roger. Instead, his partner broke into a grin.
“Well, I’ll be damned. I was about to tell you that you couldn’t scout Albert ‘cause his owner says if you do, he’ll take Albert from me and scratch him!”
With the tension melted for the partners, Frank called out to their waitress for another round. The steaks were excellent, the best meal either man could recall since they’d left their homes in Leesburg and Union Springs at the end of July. Tomorrow would tell if either man could claim to have handled a National Champion. No matter the outcome, there would be no breakup this season of their over-the-road partnership.
Thanks to author Tom Word for another great field trial story. Tom’s complete collection of books in hard cover format are available in the Strideaway Store!