The Puppy Man
Carl Reed occupied a special place in the quail-plantation culture of Southwest Georgia and North Florida. He was known by all as The Puppy Man.
Carl had been a gandy dancer on the Southern Railroad when in his early twenties he’d lost his right arm in a work accident. Ben Reach had represented him on the long ago FELA claim, which produced an award Carl used to buy a small farm and build a cottage, a stable, and a kennel on it. From then on Carl worked by the day at odd jobs on quail plantations and “fooled with bird dogs” in his spare time.
Carl had a touch with and an eye for a bird dog. He’d learned as a boy from his father, a plantation hunt guide. Very gentle and shy by nature, with a stammer he never overcame, Carl was happiest when caring for canines and equines.
Carl kept two pointer females as brood matrons. He bred them each fall to what he judged the best sires available. The sires’ owners were always happy to do this on a stud-fee puppy proposition. And buyers were lined up for the other pups, for Carl had a reputation. Some become wagon dogs (mule-drawn shooting wagons were traditional quail-hunting conveyances on the Yankee-owned plantations.) A few became trial dogs.
Carl always kept four pups from the two annual litters, selling the rest at weaning. These four he schooled from birth, first just by holding them, then walking them, then teaching them manners. Their genes told them their life’s purpose. Carl liked to say that he just let them be bird dogs. He sold the four he kept in the fall when they were age two.
He introduced them first to pigeons, which he kept in a house with a high Judas gate window. Then he’d place them on a barrel and fly pigeons around them, letting them stand bug-eyed. Their first fall, he foot hunted them for wild quail, which were plentiful on the three plantations adjoining his little farm.
Ben Reach ran into Carl now and then at a county store, or he’d see Carl’s pickup with its dog box parked off a sand road as he worked his pups. Ben would stop and watch Carl work his magic a few minutes. Ben marveled at how handsome, intelligent, obedient, and happy Carl’s trainees always appeared.
When Ben met Carl in mid-November at Stover’s Store, he asked
“Have you got your derbies all sold Carl?”
“All but one, Mr. Ben. I ain’t committed on the last one yet, but they’s several what wants him,” Carl said.
“When will you decide?” Ben asked.
“I’ve got to decide soon, Mr. Ben. The derby championships is coming up, and the boys wants to run him in those.”
Thus, Ben knew the last pup would go as an all-age field-trial prospect, not a wagon dog.
“Let me know who gets him, Carl,” Ben said.
A week later, Carl called Ben at his office.
“Mr. Ben, I can’t decide what to do about selling Sam.”
The pup had been named for Ben’s best friend and Carl’s physician, Sam Nixon, M.D.
Carl had never before asked Ben advice about selling dogs, a subject Carl knew much more about than Ben. Ben told him as much.
“It’s not that, Mr. Ben. I know how to sell him when I make up my mind to sell him. I just been thinking about keeping him and running him myself in the Continental Derby Championship. What do you think about that, Mr. Ben?”
“I think that would be splendid, Carl. And I’ll be there to see him run.”
Carl had a nephew, Gerald Reed, who worked as a hunt guide on one of the neighboring quail plantations and helped Carl work his dogs. Gerald would scout for Carl in the Championship — Carl arranged it by promising Gerald’s employer a chance to bid on Sam after the Continental.
The Continental stakes would start the third Monday in January, with the derbies run first. Carl had often scouted in trials, all-age and shooting dog, and he had no qualms about handling Sam at Dixie Plantation in country like that where he trained. Through the first of January, Carl and Gerald polished Sam’s pattern in workouts. Ben bought Carl a Garmin GPS tracker, which made it easy for Carl and Gerald to know just where Sam hunted and the moment he pointed birds.
“That’s some magic, Mr. Ben,” Carl said with a grin after using the Garmin.
The world of bird-dog competitions was peopled by a small fraternity of fanatics who stretched like a spy ring across the continent. They were mostly oddball individuals — surgeons to undertakers, oil barons to tobacco farmers. They shared only a deep love of a class bird dog, one that runs off, but not quite.
Especially since the advent of the Internet, the fraternity churned with intelligence, often inaccurate thanks to egos and strategic misinformation. Who had a promising derby was always the leading topic of fall gossip. This year’s gossip soon centered on Carl Reed and his derby Sam. While Sam Nixon knew some of the folk of the bird dog cult, Ben Reach knew them all. He judged a trial or two each year, and talked regularly with the pros based in Georgia and in South Alabama (there had always been a fierce rivalry between dog folk on either side of the Chattahoochee, owners as well as handlers, and Ben observed it with wry amusement.)
On a mid-December Friday, Ben prepared to close his office at noon and send his assistant, Joanne, home. As usual, she had a long list of chores and errands to get ready for the weekend and in preparation for Christmas. It was a cool, crisp day, and Ben’s spirits were buoyed by the prospect of the weekend. He decided to drive out to Carl Reed’s and check out the progress with Sam.
When he arrived, Carl and Gerald were saddling up. Gerald had the afternoon off since the owner of his plantation had cancelled his weekend hunt.
Carl invited Ben to ride with them, an invitation Ben had hoped for. In minutes Sam was sweeping the plantation’s best hunting course. And what a show he put on. Every few minutes the Garmin would beep and show him on point far ahead. Two hours later they picked Sam up near where he’d been released (the course circled back on itself). He’d scored ten finds, all on the limb. Carl and Gerald were grinning, and Ben Reach knew the rumors were true — Carl Reed had in Sam a spectacular derby.
As they walked their lathered mounts back to Carl’s stable, Sam in harness pulling eagerly on his check cord, an idea came to Ben Reach. Through the magic afternoon, Ben had been thinking beyond the sale of his old friend’s prize derby. He had in mind a bigger scheme to solve a problem that had been vexing him.
Carl had just turned sixty. It would be five more years before he qualified for Medicaid and Social Security. His health was fragile — Sam Nixon had recently diagnosed diabetes. Carl had no health insurance.
While Carl and his nephew unsaddled the horses and hosed them down, Ben talked to Carl.
“Carl, let me help you sell Sam. When someone wants to make you an offer, just refer him to me. I won’t sell him without your approval and not before you and Gerald run him at Dixie.”
Ben thereafter rode a workout with Carl each week, usually when Gerald had his day off. They went to a different plantation each time, and the plantation’s dog man ran a bracemate for Sam. The managers welcomed Carl, hoping for a chance to buy Sam after the Continental. Carl referred them all to Ben.
“Mr. Ben has the say-so on selling this derby,” Carl would say.
They figured Carl owed Ben money and that the old lawyer had a lien on the dog. Ben let them think it, and so did Carl.
Carl’s little farm sat at the intersection of three elite Yankee plantations. All three owners had tried over the years to buy Carl’s forty acres for protection, but Carl would not sell, on Ben’s advice.
Carl and Gerald concentrated on getting Sam ready for the Continental. On Christmas Eve, Ben Reach and Sam Nixon visited Carl, bringing a turkey breast with dressing, cranberry sauce, and snaps that Joanne had prepared for him. They walked to the kennel to see Sam the pointer. Ben and Sam Nixon marveled at how the youngster had matured. His muscles rippled, and his eyes showed his happiness and affection for Carl.
Finally, the third Monday in January approached. The Continental stakes would be drawn the Saturday before. Ben called the Dixie Plantation office Saturday evening and learned that Sam was drawn to go on Tuesday. Ben cancelled his office appointments for that day. He was as excited as a boy at Christmas — he’d adopted Sam as if he were his own. Sam Nixon was just as excited.
The week before, Ben had called the owners of the three plantations adjoining Carl’s farm. He made each the same offer. He faxed them a copy of the plot for Carl’s farm on which he’d drawn lines to show it divided in three parcels, one attached to each of the three plantations. He included a written version of the offer. Carl would give each plantation owner an option to buy the piece of Carl’s farm adjoining him. The exercise date would be at the latest a month after Carl’s death. Until then, Carl would have a put to require that all three buy their optioned parcels from Carl. The price in each case had a floor — 150% of the current appraised value. When the put or call got exercised, another appraisal would be made, and if the value were higher than the current appraisal, 150% of that would be the price. Each buyer would be obligated to place a conservation easement on what he bought — this worked to everyone’s benefit because a buyer would not risk having his plantation spoiled by adjacent tacky development.
The last paragraph of Ben’s proposal was the irresistible part. Carl’s derby Sam would be offered in a sealed bid auction with the three plantation owners the only bidders. The minimum bid would be the highest offer Carl got for Sam from others before the Continental stakes ended. The bids opening would be the day the Continental All-Age Championship ended, at the front door of Dixie’s big house just after the winners’ pictures were taken. Ben would first give the three bidders the minimum bid number. Fifteen minutes later, he’d open their bids.
There was one other requirement. Each plantation owner would be required to offer Carl employment to age sixty-five as an assistant dog trainer at reasonable pay, plus disability and health insurance. His workweek would be thirty hours, with summer off without pay, but with his insurance maintained.
Each owner was required to let Ben know by Wednesday if he wanted to participate. On Tuesday each man E-mailed Ben he was in for the deal. Ben drove to Carl’s farm late Tuesday afternoon to give him the news. Carl was overcome with gratitude.
Thus a bird dog had opened a way for Carl Reed to have reasonable security into old age. His neighbors would be assured his farm would not become an ugly neighbor. Everyone would win. The remains of Carl’s recovery from the long ago FELA case was safely invested in Vanguard index funds under Ben’s supervision, 60% in investment grade bonds, 40% in U.S. and foreign stocks.
Ben Reach was riding in the gallery at Dixie on Tuesday when Carl ran Sam with Gerald scouting. Sam Nixon rode in the dog wagon with Ben Washington Senior.
As the two curmudgeons drove home at day’s end, they speculated on whether Sam would be named Champion or Runner-Up, or not placed. He’d scored four finds in his hour, each flawless, and he’d run enough, Ben thought. But you never knew when a better race might appear, and a bigger race and just two finds could unseat Sam.
On Thursday at noon, Sam was named Derby Champion. The minimum bid for Sam that Ben announced to Carl’s three neighbors was $50,000.
What price Sam brought in the sealed-bid auction will forever remain a secret; Ben had put a confidentiality clause in the invitation to bid. Field-trial rumors had the price at $101,000. Only Ben and Carl and the winning bidder know for sure.
Carl exercised his option to work for the neighbor who employed his nephew Gerald and who bought Sam in the sealed bid auction. Though his contract called for Carl to work only thirty hours a week, he never worked less than forty.
Thanks to Tom for another great story!