He arrived at Columbus, North Dakota, unknown and driving a battered twelve-year-old pickup, pulling a two-horse trailer twice as old. He unloaded two hard-worked horses into a portable pipe corral and chained five nearly identical derby pointers to iron spikes.
The oldest trainer-handler among five who were gossiping at the well walked over to the newcomer and said,
“Howdy, I’m Harry Bane. Anything I can do to help you?”
Harry was four-times Handler of the Year, a legend in field trials. Twenty dogs were on his string, six horses in his corral, there for him and his scout and his owners to ride through the coming two weeks of competition. The newcomer knew him, as well as the others standing around the well, only from seeing their pictures in the American Field.
“Thank you, I’m Wally Bell. I’m set,” the newcomer answered.
“Well, let me know if anything comes up, and welcome, Wally,” Harry said, and walked back to his companions.
Wally Bell had graduated high school in May, and with savings from sacking groceries and at other odd jobs, he’d bought his pickup and headed to North Dakota to fulfill a dream. He’d found a farmer who let him work his dogs in exchange for his help with the farmer’s stock. He’d arrived in June, worked for the farmer and finished yard training his derbies until July 15 when the law allowed him to turn them loose. Since then he’d worked the derbies from horseback mornings, helping the farmer afternoons.
He’d learned to train dogs from a retired professional who was his grandfather’s friend. He’d listened for hours while the two old men talked of the days when Mississippi teemed with wild quail and its pastures made prairie-like training grounds for trial dogs and gun dogs as well. His grandfather was a bird hunter, not a trialer, but his friend’s stories of trials had caught Wally’s imagination. When the old men took him to see a horseback trial at Hell Creek, he’d been hooked on a dream. He vowed to go north and work bird dogs for the summer after he finished high school. His grandfather gave him the trailer for graduation.
He’d never handled a dog in a trial, but after his summer working the derbies, he had no fear of it. The derbies belonged to old customers of his grandfather’s friend. The old man had raised the litter they had all come from. They were sired by a champion.
Each owner had paid $500 for Wally’s summer of work. He’d have to pay the entry fees himself. If he didn’t win some of the purse, he wouldn’t have enough money for gas back to Mississippi, but the prospect did not frighten him. He had the courage of youth, the faith that tomorrow would take care of itself. He’d figure out something if his money ran out.
He went to the drawing that night at the Legion Hall. Harry Bane made sure he met all the handlers and owners on hand.
In the first brace next morning, Wally had no one to scout for him. Harry said to his scout,
“Help the boy out, Sam.”
Sam was a black man, the only one at the trial. The other scouts were handlers, scouting for one another.
Wally’s first two derbies ran creditable races, but found no birds. Still, he was proud they’d kept the front, and he’d finished them. His best would go in the first brace the second day.
He was sleeping in a tent by his trailer. When he went to feed his horses after waking, he heart sank. Both were lame. He’d have to scratch. He went numb.
Harry Bane saw his horses.
“I’ll lend you a horse, son,” Harry said, pointing to one in his corral.
Wally’s third derby entry scored twice in its thirty minutes. Harry saw he was a natural front runner. His race had not been big enough to place in this stake, but Harry saw real all-age potential. Wally’s other derbies did fair jobs, but none placed. When the stake ended, Wally was broke. How would he get back to Mississippi?
Harry approached Wally as he stood by his rig, staring at the two lame mounts and his chained derbies.
“I’ve lined up scouting jobs for you in the all-age. You’ll earn enough to get home on. And I’ll buy three of your derbies—you know the ones—ten thousand for the best, $7,500 each for the other two—you call their owners, and ask for a thousand-dollar commission on each sale, tell ’em it’s a condition to my offer. You’ve done a good job with them.”
When Wally headed for Mississippi he felt pride. His best derby had placed second in the second derby stake. On Harry’s advice, he left his trailer on consignment with a farm equipment dealer in Cosby and left his still lame horses with the farmer he’d worked for, told him to sell them when they healed and keep half what he got. He’d bought them green at an auction in Kentucky for $100 each and broke them in a round pen with guidance from his grandfather.
When he made it back home, Wally joined the Army. Next fall when the trials at Columbus rolled around, the handlers were watching the 11:00 news at the Outback Bar when the pictures of those killed that week in Iraq were flashed on the screen. Silence fell over the barroom when the image appeared. Beneath Wally’s face the words read: “Wallace Bell, Corporal, U.S. Army, age 20, Greenville, Mississippi”.
Top photo of Columbus, N.D. thanks to Brad Harter.