The Rivals or a Good Day’s Work
It had built between them for a decade, but its seeds had been sown at their births. Their fathers had been rivals before them, and they had apprenticed under the fathers. In this tenth season of their independent careers as handlers the final ingredients of the rivalry emerged: each man had a top contender in his string. One could sense from the prairie trial reports that this would be the season. There would be drama, and fireworks. The year was 197–.
The ingredients for rivalry had lined up. To start was geography: Bill hailed from Alabama, Sam from Georgia. From the birth of the sport, owners and handlers from the states divided by the Chattahoochee River disdained one another. The river’s fierce annual floods symbolized their differences. The bridge at Columbus served as a reminder. Handlers crossing it to compete on the other side got a few minutes to reflect on their dislike for the competitors waiting across the stream to battle them.
From the start there had been two types of pro handlers, those employed exclusively by a single rich man, and independents who handled “for the public,” meaning for several owners with the handler being an independent contractor with his own facilities and hired help.
Both approaches had drawbacks. The single rich man could lose interest, lose his fortune, get sick or die. The independent could fail to attract or retain enough loyal customers. Either way was a risky business, but the love of a good dog and of competition kept a few at it.
Bill from Alabama handled “for the public” as had his father. He leased training grounds west of Selma. Sam from Georgia handled privately for Simon Prince, owner of Perfection Plantation, a twenty thousand acre spread east of Thomasville. Sam’s father had handled for Prince before him.
Both handlers had summer training grounds in Manitoba, just a few miles apart, leased from pioneer prairie farmer-rancher families with whom they were close. Both loved to fish the lakes on Sundays, often together. It was the one time and place they declared a truce, though they competed for biggest fish and most fish, $5 staked on each.
Bird dog competitions appealed to just a few dog owners who could afford the trial sport using professional handlers. Most rich sports preferred to see birds fall before their pricey double guns and shunned trials and trial dogs.
It was ironic how the competitors, some not rich at all, kept these sports’ kennels filled with meat dogs with some class. Without the competitions the bird shooter types would all be shooting over low tailed ankle warmers. They mostly had no clue about this side benefit of trials. Such were the little known facts of the “drag of the breed”.
Simon Prince was one of the few plantation plutocrats who loved both the hunting and trialing sides of the bird dog culture. In trialing as in business (he was an Atlanta banker) he would do anything to win. He hunted the same way, the weight of the game bag his measure of success, never honoring the invisible line between his and a fellow gun’s side of a rise. Sam had adopted Simon’s approach to trialing, or vice versa.
Bill currently had a strong stable of owners, some holdovers from his father’s loyalists, others attracted by him through his strong work ethic. He too was ruthless in his drive to win.
Bill and Sam were each blessed with a sagacious scout. Bill’s was Booty Blevins, black as coal, with pearly white teeth often flashed in a startling smile. Sam’s was Freddie Washington, with skin the color of coffee lightly creamed, and a sly smile as winning as Booty’s, accented by a gold tooth left center. They could ride like the wind and on a dark horse, move through woods like ghosts.
Truth be known, Booty and Freddie were better liked in the sport than their employers and equally respected for their skills. Their only negative side was their propensity to get other scouts in over their heads in crap shoots or juke jive outings from which they might return hung over and effectively disabled for an early morning brace.
Booty and Freddie never let their rivalry or the rivalry of their employers interfere with their mutual fun. They fished together in spring, after the trials were over, on lakes, ponds and rivers in Georgia and Alabama and North Florida as well. They hunted raccoons at night with prized coon dogs over Christmas break. They also made mischief together on the circuit. Each had at least one lady friend living on or near the several trial grounds they visited annually in their work.
Bill’s serious contender this season was Alabama Al, a precocious pointer first year dog who had won the Dominion Championship. Al was owned by John Canter, a Birmingham banker and business rival of Simon Prince.
Sam’s contender was Georgia Peach, a first year female pointer which had won the Saskatchewan Championship. In December, the handlers brought them to Chinquapin Farm in Lake City, Florida to compete in the Suwannee River Open All-Age.
The trial attracted many of the piney woods based handlers, including Fred Arant and George Hodge of South Carolina, John Rex Gates, George Moreland and Bill Rayl of Georgia, Freddie Epp and George Evans of Florida, and Billy Morton and Collier Smith of Alabama, as well as Bill and Sam. Fred Arant had laid out the courses after the Club’s inaugural trial in 1969. Its sponsor, Ted Baker, was supplementing the purse to $5,000.
Bill and Sam were there determined to get Alabama Al and Georgia Girl qualified for the National Championship, which would require a win of first place. At the conclusion of the running on Friday the judges announced a run off between Al and Girl for first place. The loser would be awarded second. They would go at 8 Saturday morning. They had each scored three finds and run good forward races.
That night in a room at the Piney Woods Motel, which the Bakers had bought to house hunting guests and trial participants, Bill and John Canter and Booty Blevins huddled to plan strategy for the run off. It would be held on the second course on the north side of Highway 247, everyone’s favorite course at Chinquapin. It opened into hilly but open country, the course path laid out by Arant on a ridge top to give judges and gallery sweeping views on left and right. A public sand road on the right set the east boundary, and after a half mile the course turned left (south) at a hilltop, then proceeded south with another sand road as boundary on the right. All along the course the left side could swallow up a dog that veered deep left, and many were lost that way, so a scout usually rode the left flank.
After twenty minutes of sketching possibilities on a piece of butcher paper, John Canter said, “Booty, I want you to ride Georgia Girl off to the left and get her lost. If you do it means a $100 bonus.” Booty looked at Bill, who nodded concurrence.
“O.K. Boss Men, I can do that, but you will have to keep up with Alabama Al while I is doing it.”
Meanwhile in another room on the second floor of the Piney Woods Motel, Sam and Simon Prince were plotting strategy with Freddie Washington. At the end of twenty minutes, Simon said, “Freddie, I want you to ride that Alabama Al dog out of the country on the left. There is a $100 bonus in it for you.”
“I can do that, but you all is going to have to keep up with Georgia Girl while I is at it,” Freddie said, showing his gold tooth at the finish. Sam nodded his assent, though Freddie could see worry in his eyes.
Booty and Freddie were staying with a black family on the other side of town and caught a ride there with another scout who was driving his boss’s truck. After arrival at their lodgings they conferred and agreed on a plan for tomorrow. Then they walked next door where a craps game was in progress in a garage.
Next morning at 7:40 the callback participants and the judges and marshals and a small gallery met at the breakaway. Al and Girl strained at their scouts’ reins. The senior judge called for attention.
“Gentlemen, this brace will go for an hour. One of these dogs will be awarded first, the other second, no matter what. If one dog is declared out of judgment, it gets second, the one still in judgment gets first. If both are lost we will flip a coin for first and second between them. If there is a breach of manners, the dog at fault gets second, the other first, or if both misbehave we will decide which is most at fault and it gets second, the other first. The stake definitely ends with this brace. Let ‘em go.”
They sprinted up the big sand hill that marked Florida’s second highest point. Handlers, judges and gallery followed, the scouts drifted left. At the ridge top the dogs could be seen close together far ahead at the front. Then they disappeared. When the field trial party reached the first left turn and began the decent toward Route 247, both dogs still unseen, Bill and Sam handling and the dogs’ owners each riding front, all began to feel uneasy. The handlers’ singing had turned to pleading squalls for their dog’s return.
Scouts were unseen, last seen riding in deep on ridges to the left. Thirty minutes after breakaway the judges called a halt and ruled both dogs out of judgment. The senior judge flipped a coin and declared, “Alabama Al first, Georgia Girl second.” The judges dismounted, gave reins to the marshals, and climbed onto the dog truck. The senior judge said to his fellow judge, “That’s why I hate run offs.” He had argued for a coin toss instead of the run off.
Meanwhile, Booty and Freddie had their dogs at heel, riding backwards on the course, headed for the kennels to drop off the dogs, and then off to see their local girlfriends. They had each earned $100 bonus money plus scout’s percent of the first and second place purse shares, which they had agreed in advance to split evenly. A good day’s work.