When they had all remounted, Smith picked up without missing a beat. “I had hoped that like your son, he would study business. But his mother taught him to love books, and if I didn’t know better I’d think he’d avoided getting an MBA just to spite me. But this plantation has always been Beau’s first love. From reading your magazine, I can tell you two have a lot in common. He’d rather spend an hour on a horse watching his dogs – and believe me when I tell you these two are HIS dogs. Wilson just handles them when we have guests.”
Beau’s stock was going up in Al’s mind even though it was obvious that his father was not impressed by a son who would rather spend time in the field instead of in the cutthroat competition of the board room. He looked at Beau and nodded. A wry smile crossed his face and was gone before his father could see it.
“Now Beau and I have made a deal, he’ll come into the business if I get him a magazine that interests him.”
Smith left it there for a long pause — as Al quickly saw what was coming next.
Smith was obviously an astute businessman and watched Al process what he had just said. “That’s right, Al, I want to buy your magazine for my son.”
Al was not in Smith’s league when it came to business, but he knew how to keep his cards close and not give away what he was holding. “Well, that’s very interesting. I had hoped my son would take over the magazine, but considering the direction his life has gone I don’t think that will ever happen. I really hadn’t considered selling.” Which was a flat out lie, as Al had been putting out feelers to some outdoor publishing groups to try and test the waters. He wondered if Smith had somehow gotten wind of it.
“I’m sure once we looked over your books we would make you a fair offer.”
“This isn’t really what I expected this morning, but it’s something I would obviously have to consider.”
Wilson once again called point. All offered to let father and son have this covey, but Smith wouldn’t hear of it. Smith cut in front of Al to take the left side this time. Al smiled, knowing that the real competition had begun in Smith’s mind, and he was trying to throw his opponent off by putting the left handed shooter on the right side of the covey. On the rise Al easily dropped two birds and Smith did the same. So far 11 shots had been fired and there were 11 birds in the cooler on the back of the wagon.
Rather than return to the conversation with Smith, Al turned his attention to Beau. “I’d be interested in reading your thesis at some point. Buckingham is one of my favorites. If you can connect the dots between his writing and Faulkner’s The Bear, I would expect that you don’t have to reach very far to validate the thesis that this type of writing is literature. Throw in a little Hemingway and who could argue with you.”
Beau smiled. This was his type of conversation. “Actually, Faulkner and Hemingway are both included in the paper, but I’m trying to make a larger point than sport as literature. Buckingham and many others who wrote about the sporting life of the South have indirectly captured the angst felt by many Southerners for the lose of the agrarian life. It’s why men like my father spend huge sums of money on places like Riverbend. Some of our workers are the descendants of slaves who lived on this plantation. I mean we pay them a living wage, give them health benefits, and let them keep their houses when they retire, but it is still a connection to a South that rightfully no longer exists.”
Al could see Smith scowling, but ignored him. “That’s very interesting. I think we have an atavistic need to somehow be attached to the land, even if all it amounts to is keeping the grass of some suburban tract house green and well manicured.”
They were again interrupted by pointing dogs. This time they had a divided find right next to the wagon road. Beau and Al dismounted and four more quail were dead. The dogs were led back to the wagon and put in there boxes. It was time for a break as the wagon men produced thermoses of coffee and a cooler full of water and soft drinks. Donuts and other pastries also appeared on the tailgate of the wagon. Al grabbed a diet coke. Both Smiths had coffee from different thermoses. The seniors was black, Beau’s appeared to have cream and sugar.
Al turned to Beau, “Those were two very nice dogs. Have you ever run them in field trials?”
“Thank you. Last year when they were derbies, Jim and I ran them in a couple of prairies derby stakes. But they really didn’t have the run for that. We had really tailored them for the shooting string. Now when Joe was a derby, it was different story. He wanted to see the country.”
Smith interrupted his son. “That was one of my mistakes, I thought the hard work of summer on the prairies would convince him that he should take an interest in business so he could afford to hire people to train and take care of his dogs. Instead the harder it was, the more he wanted to do it. If it hadn’t been for his mother he probably would have skipped college to be a dog trainer.”
Beau smiled at Al. “As much as I love it, I have understood for a long time that I needed intellectual stimulation of books and writing to go along with it. That’s why I’ve made this deal with my father. If he finds me a magazine I can be happy editing and running, and I stay with it for ten years, then I get Riverbend and enough money to keep it the way it is. We have even had a trust agreement drawn up that spells it all out.”
Al realized that there was a lot of face saving involved in the complex agreement between this father and son. Each had given up much to come to their deal. Al decided then and there he would let Beau have the magazine but he would let Smith squirm a little before he gave in. “Well, Beau, that puts me in a rather awkward position. I would hate to come between a father and son. But on the other hand, I have to think about my own family and a certain loyalty I feel to the readers of the magazine. Some of them have been with us since the first issue 20 years ago.”
Beau didn’t realize at the time but the next words out his mouth clinched the deal. “I can understand that. I had Dad get me a subscription about ten years ago and then we bought all the back issues. I’ve still got them.”
Smith almost snorted. “Boy, you are two savvy businessmen. We better get hunting before we are all reaching for our hankies. Why don’t you get that grouse dog out.”
People like Smith have a misconception about what a grouse dog is. In Al’s mind all it meant was the dog had experience pointing grouse. Bess was a multiple cover dog champion who had also won numerous amateur horseback stakes. She was in the prime of her life and had just come off two months of running the Rolling Plains of Texas where she regularly out birded all the other dogs on the ranch.
Al had a hunch that he was being set up and was not surprised when the wagon man brought Riverbend Joe out of the wagon. He was not intimidated, if that was in fact Smith’s intent. Bess had been in the piney woods before and he’d put her up against any quail dog in the country when it came to finding birds.
Al smiled and talked directly to the dog. “Well, Joe, I had hoped to see you run today. I hope you’ll be a gentleman when you run with my little grouse dog. “
At that point, the other wagon man opened Bess’s kennel and missed her as she came shooting out of the box. Al barely raised his voice. “heel.”
Bess came immediately to his side and began to whimper and tremble. She was raring to go and could hardly contain herself. Al was pretty sure he could heel her over to the horses but decided not to chance it and grabbed her collar. When he got her next to Joe, two things were readily apparent, Joe outweighed her by 15 plus pounds most of it in his massive chest. At the same time Bess was his equal in length of leg and body. With a critical eye and the experience of having seen Joe in a trial, Al looked at the two dogs and was pretty sure they would be pretty evenly matched in ground speed.
Smith took one look at Bess and scowled again. “That bitch doesn’t look like some little grouse dog. How’s she bred.”
Al threw out a couple of well known all-age and shooting dog setter champions that were close up in her pedigree. Beau caught his father’s eye, “This is White Mountain Lady, she won the Lakes States and The Pennsylvania Championships last year. If I remember correctly there were 90 some dogs in the Pennsylvania.”
“You must read The Field as well as my magazine.”
“Yes, sir. I’m probably the only student at Duke who had it mailed to his dorm when I was an undergraduate. When other kids were going off to drink beer on the weekends, I’d go up to Hoffman and bum a horse from some one and ride the braces.”
Smith threw up his hands in mock surrender. “See what I’m up against . . . we aren’t going to shoot any quail standing here.”
With that Wilson and Al let go of the dogs and they took off with more purpose than the two young dogs they had just run. Bess went to the right, Joe to the left. Al knew Bess would show to the front or would be standing somewhere on the right side of the wagon road. After a couple of minutes, Joe crossed way out to the front and then stopped in plain sight of the hunting party.
Smith smiled, “Looks like Joe’s drawn first blood.”
Wilson kicked his horse up into a lope and the others followed. When he got close to the dog he look first at his boss, then at Al, then back to his boss. “The setter’s in front of him in the bicolor.” As he said it, all three of them saw her high in tight in front of the pointer. “How do you want to handle this Mr. Fowler?”
“Why don’t we let the Smith’s shoot. I’ll flush.”
Father and son were quickly down off their horses as Al and Wilson stood by. When they were in position Al stepped into the head high bicolor and birds exploded up all around him. Bess never moved a muscle as the four shots rang out in the brilliant morning air. Al looked at Wilson and both men couldn’t help but smile. The two bird dogs were led back to the wagon road and the retriever made quick work of the four downed birds. Al snuck a look at Smith and could see a small cloud starting to build over his face. The man obviously took winning and losing very seriously.
With the dogs once again cast away. The group rode quietly along as they caught glimpses of the two dogs attacking the course. Soon Joe had his first find with Bess backing. This time Al and Smith shot. It was in many ways like a heavyweight fight as the dogs traded finds with a slight edge going to Bess. After an hour and a half both dog were showing no sign of letting up. Then Bess once again was first to the birds with Joe backing. Again it was Smith and Al who went in with their guns. On the flush four shots again rang out. No one had missed a bird yet.
When Al turned back to caution Bess, he was struck by the silence. There were no congratulatory remarks from Wilson, Beau, or the wagon men. When he looked at Smith, Al believed he knew why. The man’s whole demeanor had changed. “Not only did you beat my best dog, 6 coveys to 4, but I’m the goat with the first miss of the day. We have a long standing custom here at Riverbend. The one who misses first supplies the scotch at the end of the day.” Smith stuck out his hand which Al took not knowing what to say, “I have to get back to Atlanta and they’re waiting for me at the airport. Beau will be your host for the rest of the day.”
“Thank you for your hospitality. This is quite a place.”
Smith held Al’s hand and locked eyes. “What are we going to do about your magazine.”
Al knew Smith would ask the direct question at some point. He hadn’t expected it right then. Then he remembered something. One of the girls back home who had babysat for them many years ago, was a lawyer in Atlanta who specialized in intellectual property law. She could probably help him or recommend someone who could deal with Smith. “Reggie, I have an old family friend whose a lawyer in Atlanta. I’ll call her when I get home and have her get in touch with you.”
If the fact that Al had a lawyer in Atlanta surprised Smith he didn’t show it. “That will be fine. I underestimated you and your dog today. I won’t do it again.”
With that he handed his gun to the wagon man, jumped into the saddle, and rode away. It was like a scene from some old “B” western with the two antagonists parting company in a cloud of dust. It was also as if a weight had been lifted from the rest of the group. Wilson spoke first with genuine deference to his future boss. “What do you want to do now, Mr. Beau?”
Beau had them bring out two more dogs and then made the loop that would take them back to the barn and lunch at the big house. On the first find Beau looked at Al, “Why don’t you do the honors, Mr. Fowler.”
“I’m afraid I might break my streak. If I stop shooting now, I can say I shot at Riverbend and never missed a bird. Many more flushes and my luck is bound to run out. And please call me Al.”
“Just flush them, Jim.”
Wilson got down off his horse and pulled a battered single shot out of his scabbard. There wasn’t a dog trainer worth his salt who did have a gun just like the one Wilson stepped in front of the dogs with. When the birds flushed he fired in the air and then sent the dogs on.
When they got back to the barn and kennels, Beau gave Al the tour. Talking about each dog, how it was bred, its strengths and weaknesses. There was a special building just for the bitches that had or were about to whelp litters. Beau talked excitedly about two of them that he had selected himself to breed to Joe. He hoped to get more field trial dogs.
Despite the difference in age, Beau and Al were soon carrying on like old friends talking about Faulkner, Buckingham, bird dogs and field trials. As the plane was making its descent into Atlanta, Al couldn’t help but experience a bittersweet feeling towards the memories of that afternoon that he had spent with Beau working dogs. If only his own son had Beau’s interest in it all, there would be no question about selling the magazine. But Josh was not a writer. He could write clear and concise business plans and merger proposals but that did not make him a writer. Al just hoped that he would find something to be passionate about before his fast-paced life outran him.