The Longest Hour (fiction)

November in northern New Hampshire can bring just about anything in the way of weather – mild Indian summer days, torrential rains as the last tropical storms of the year bump into the White Mountains and the moisture collected over warm Atlantic water is wrung out causing the local streams and rivers to flood, and snow.  Some years, snow can start well before Thanksgiving and bare ground will not appear again until April.   Although it was only the eighth of the month, the weather had already run the gamut.  Five inches of rain on the first and second had forced the Grand National Grouse Championship to start a day late on a clear crisp Indian summer Wednesday, and the grouse had been out feeding in bunches.  There were 68 dogs in the stake and it would take them almost six days to run them over the six courses of Kilkenny. 
            By Monday morning, the last day of the trial, many of the participants had already returned home.  They had come from all over New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as a few from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  Sunday had been the worst day of the trial as far as birds were concerned.  The wind had blown as a cold front spit rain and sleet at those unlucky enough to be drawn to run in those braces.  Birds that had been predictable in the first four days disappeared on Sunday as they roosted high in the trees to avoid the changing weather.
            Monday morning there was a thin coating of snow blanketing the mountains and valleys of the North Country. When Al Fowler parked his truck at the breakaway for the Ammonusuc Course, his long time friend, Steve Randle, sat next to him drinking coffee.  Steve had run a dog earlier and had hung around to scout for Bess, Al’s setter, who had settled down in her box now that the truck was stopped.  Bess was pushing seven and had finally broken through last season, winning twice and then winning the Invitational in the spring.  This fall she had won in New York and at the Amateur Woodcock in Woodstock, New Brunswick, but in 30 years of running dogs, Al had yet to win the Grand National.  He thought Bess was his best shot in a long time.
            As he sat waiting for the first brace to end and the judges to arrive, he thought about where he wanted Bess to be at different points on the course.  He knew the birds would be feeding this morning.  If they were there, she would find them.  She always found birds.  It was one of her strengths and one of her weaknesses.  She wanted them pinned in front of her.  If they tried to walk off, she would move up to keep her nostrils full of that intoxicating scent.  It had been her undoing many times.  She had finally found the line she couldn’t cross and rarely crowded a bird into flushing anymore.
            He worried about his bracemate.  The dog was more of a gundog and the handler was loud.  It didn’t bother Bess, she always stayed focused on finding birds to the front, but it made it hard to keep track of her bell.  Al would never do anything to intentionally take out a bracemate, but he gave it some thought on this morning.  At 8:45 the trucks from the first brace came rolling down the hill – which meant that both dogs had been picked up early.  Al and Steve got out of the truck and went to get Bess.
            “You got your gun?”
            Al touched the .32 caliber blank pistol that he had stuck in the back pocket of his jeans and nodded.
            “Which bell?”
            “The one with the orange reflector collar.”  It was the same one she had worn every time he had run her since she was a puppy.  Win or lose – he thought of it as his lucky bell.
            After the announcement of the dogs in the brace, the judge said, “Let’em go.”
            Bess and her bracemate, Mike, burst forward at full speed.  Immediately the other handler started yelling and blowing his whistle.   Mike stopped about 50 feet down the trail and lifted his leg.  He then went into the woods on the right.  Al could just hear Bess’s bell as she ran out to the front.  If she was running to form, she would be back in a minute or two, and then she’d go to work.  When Bess came flying back up the path, she dove into the woods on the left and headed for the large cut.  The trail would follow the edge of the cut for about five minutes and then would make a left turn around the bottom of it.
            Despite the yelling behind him, Al could clearly track the bell as Bess worked her way down through the cut.  As they approached the corner, Mike came in from the right about 25 yards down the trail.  He started to slow as he reached a bunch of high bush cranberries that still had a few bright red berries on them.  He almost stopped before a grouse came boiling out and shot right up the path and over the gallery.  Mike came up in hot pursuit, and then slammed into a picturesque point as he realized John was right in front of him.  The closest judge told John to put the lead on his dog.  By the time John had the bell off and was headed back up the trail, Al realized that Bess’s bell had stopped.  He wasn’t sure where.
            He turned to look at Steve who had stepped off the trail away from the commotion.  Steve nodded to Al indicating that he had a pretty good idea where the dog was.
            “Send my scout, Judge?”  Al asked as form dictated.  Steve was on his way before the obligatory consent was granted and was headed out along the bottom of the cut.  Al continued down the trail in hopes of being close when Steve found the dog.
            With his bracemate out of the way, Al felt his chances of getting a good performance from Bess had just increased exponentially.  Some dogs need a bracemate to fire them up.  Bess always seemed to be running on jet fuel whether there was a bracemate or not.  As Al, the judges, marshals, and gallery made the turn at the bottom of the cut, they heard Steve call, “Point.”
            Al and the judges went quickly away from the trail towards Steve’s voice.  He was about 50 yards away, just outside the thicker cover of the cut.  As Al got close, Steve pointed to their right, “She’s about 25 yards down along the cut and about 15 feet in from the edge.”
            Steve had backed off from the dog before calling point in hopes of not spooking the birds.  Al and the judges quickly went to the dog.  She was standing with her head high and her tail pointing at twelve o’clock.  Al took one look at her and knew the bird was there.  He could see the loose skin on her muzzle fluttering in and out as she sucked in the scent of the bird.  He took another step towards her, the bird thundered out, and he fired his blank gun.  She never moved.  Al took her by the collar and led her back towards the trail.  When they were almost back, he cast her off to the front.  It was up to her – she had a great limb find, now she needed a great race to go with it.  Her next cast took her deep to the right across a steep valley and onto the next ridge.

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