Her bell faded out to the front. Al knew the course and many handlers had made the mistake of going to look for a dog over there only to have it come back over the ridge to the front. He kept going forward – hoping that he had guessed right. He sang to the dog as he continued down the course. Singing is probably a misnomer in this case. What Al did sounded more like the call of a hoarse bull moose, its only purpose was to let the dog know where he was and where the front was. The money was always to the front.
She was only gone for a minute or two, although it seemed longer. He could sense the excitement in the younger of the two judges’ voice, when he let Al know he could hear the bell coming back over the ridge to the front. His younger ears were the first to hear it and they all walked faster – seemingly pulled along by the power of the dog. Al got on her then. She needed to come in before the course turned. It almost seemed like Bess was following a choreographed plan as she dipped down into the valley and came up about 75 yards in front of them. When she hit the trail she didn’t stop, she just turned her head to acknowledge that she knew where Al was, and then she was gone to the left.
It was clear running under mature spruces up the side of the hill, and they got glimpses of her as she ran – her feet were barely striking the ground. It was because of moments like this that Al had never given up on her, had suffered all the frustrations. Even those who didn’t know bird dogs were impressed when they saw Bess in high gear. And she was definitely in high gear on this day. The course started to turn away from her and Al started calling. She bent around to again take the front and Al stopped calling. This time instead of coming in she just kept going to the front.
Al figured she was 300 yards away and over on the next course when the bell stopped. She had to be at a spot that had originally been part of the Ammonusuc course and was known by all as the grouse knoll. Steve was ready to go but Al gave a slight shake of the head and turned to the judges.
“The bell stopped over by the grouse knoll.”
“Let’s go!” said the younger judge as he practically took the lead. The older man understood his enthusiasm, probably even shared it, but had long ago learned to keep his game face on when he was judging.
It took a couple of minutes to get to her, but they found Bess pointing into the top of a blown down spruce with the same intensity she had shown on her first bird. The bird left almost silently, but they all saw it. Al fired again. Two finds and they hadn’t yet reached the birdiest, and most difficult part of the course. The older judge had judged in Kilkenny many times and knew the courses better than some of the people who had laid them out. It was 300 yards back to the course if they went the way they came to the dog. But it was only 75 yards up the river trail to the course. When Al collared Bess, the older judge told them to follow him. When they were on the river trail, Bess was once again cast to the front. They were quickly back on course and headed for the hard part. The course followed the river for a while down through an alder run that was only about 50 feet wide. On the other side of the alders was an old beaver pond that still held quite a bit of water.
Bess was again driving hard to the front and deep to the right, away from the river. As they entered the alder run Al called her. She turned to the front but stayed on the far side of the beaver pond. If she pointed over there, it would take a long time to get to her. If she tried to come in, she would have to contend with the pond.
Bess was in the zone, and Al fought against any stray thoughts to stay there with her. As they neared the end of the alder run Bess could be heard coming. She hit the pond at full stride and it sounded like a retriever going in the water after a duck. They all heard her clearly as the bell started to ring on the near shore, it rang a couple of times and then silence. She wasn’t more than 75 feet away but no one could see her through the thick tangle of alders.
Al and the judges went to the dog for the third time. Again she was statuesque. This time there was a pair of grouse in front of her. They flew out towards the gallery where a buzz was starting to build about what everyone was witnessing. This was the type of performance it took to win a national championship. When Al got back to the course he looked at his watch. And only 30 minutes had ticked by. He knew she could win if he could hold onto her, and she didn’t cut her own throat. The older judge instructed him to take her about 20 yards up the course and across the beaver dam before he let her go. Bess wanted to go now, but Al held on tight knowing that the judge was trying to help Bess by getting her out of the alders.
The rest of the course was in more open woods where a dog would either prove its mettle on the ground or show that it couldn’t finish the way it started. Once across the beaver dam, Al sent her down along the river. The course headed up in the spruces but Bess hugged the birdier cover along the river. Al had to stop and really get after her to haul her up when he knew the course was about to turn away and start climbing back out of the valley. It was a tug of war. Bess knew she was in the right kind of cover. Al knew they had to turn. He finally stopped walking and continued to call. He would not go on without her. A little roughness at this point was fine, but she had to come on soon. And she did. Bess broke off from the river and came flying up the hill towards Al’s voice and the front.
She barely acknowledged the presence of her handler and the rest of the party as she cast out to the right of the course. This wasn’t the best way to go. The course was going to make a sharp left shortly but then would turn back to the right in the general direction the dog was going. Most handlers would have hacked the dog back in to go around the jog in the course. Al let her roll. He had taken the same gamble the first time the Grand had been run on these ground. That dog had had a similar ground race but no birds, and he had gone up the far side of the big clearing, rejoining then at the top of the opening. He was betting Bess would do the same.
As they followed the course up the left side of the cut, Bess was just barely in bell range on the right side and to the front. Al got on her and she once again came across the front. It was poetry. But Al wasn’t able to appreciate it yet. There was still over 10 minutes to go and he didn’t want to get his hopes up. He also wanted to stay with Bess. He owed her that. If it went bad, it wouldn’t be because he had wandered. Steve was practically bumping into the judges as he concentrated on the dog and tried to mentally urge them forward faster so they could keep up with the dog. The gallery was silent as everyone strained to listen to the bell.