The Longest Hour (Third and Final Installment)

Part Three
            At the top of the big opening, Bess crossed to the left and was still flying at her top speed.  She hadn’t slowed even slightly.  The dog was at her best.  There was no question in anyone’s mind that she would still be going strong at the end of the hour.  She crossed the front one more time in the waning minutes of the hour.  The road was only a couple hundred yards off to the right and ran parallel to the course.  Bess was there, on the top of a small ridge to the front with two minutes to go, when the bell stopped again.  They all had a pretty good line on her when they started in but the top of the ridge was a maze of blow downs.  By the time they found her, time was up.  Al looked at the dog and knew the bird had moved away from her.
            “I think the bird’s gone.”  He reached for his lead and was going to pick her up.  After the performance she’d just put down a non-productive would not hurt her chances.
            As he stepped toward her the younger judge said, “Go ahead and move her up.  The rules allow for time to be extended for a relocation.”
            Al fought down panic.  The rules also allowed for the dog to take a non-productive.  But now that the judge had expressed his wishes, he didn’t have any choice.  This was Bess’s greatest weakness.  She had very little stealth in her – it was full throttle, all the time.  Al stroked her side a couple of times and spoke softly to her, “Easy, girl, easy.”
            He stood and tapped her gently on the head.  She shot forward maybe 50 feet as Al held his breath.  And then she froze.  Al moved almost as fast as she did and the younger judge was right there with him.  Al stepped up beside the dog and the grouse burst into the air with thundering wings from under the log right in front of the dog’s nose.  One jump and she could have had the bird in her mouth.  God knows she had tried to catch many of them in years past.  This time she held and Al fired and quickly grabbed her.
            The older judge turned and headed back to the course.  The rules call for a dog to be sent on after a find to ensure that the dog doesn’t go back and chase the bird it had just pointed.  Al turned to the judges when they got to the path. “Do you want me to turn her loose?”
            The older judge spoke quickly, “No, we’ve seen enough,” as he turned and walked towards the end of the course and the waiting trucks.  There would be no further discussion.  Al just stood there on the side of the trail as the gallery walked by.  Some shook his hand, others patted Bess on the head.  It was a gesture that meant little to her at this point.  She wanted to go and find more birds – an hour was never enough for her. 
            Once they had all passed, Al bent down and put his arms around the dog and just hugged her.  He buried his face into the wet fur of her back and tears welled up in his eyes.  Al spoke softly to the dog, “You showed them, baby.  I knew you could do it.”
            Back at the truck, Steve toweled Bess off and put her in her box.  The other trucks were heading back up the hill for the breakaway on the Moosehorn course.  Al looked at his watch.  It was 10:00.  If there were no pick-ups, they would know if Bess had won sometime after noon.  But at this point in a trial, a lot of the handlers knew what they had to beat.  If their dogs weren’t getting it done, they’d pick-up and save their dogs for another day. 
            Al and Steve sat in the truck and talked.  It came easy to them after the many years they had been friends.  Dogs they had seen, owned, and hunted over were always part of the conversation, as were discussions about breeding.  There had been many dogs in Al’s life over the years and most of them had carved out a little piece of him.  He thought of it as his own little Greek tragedy.  He lived on as a god in the eyes of the dogs as their far too short lives passed by. 
            The trucks were coming back down the hill.  Al looked at his watch.  They had only been gone 45 minutes.  Two down, two to go.  Al started the truck and followed them over to Deer Mountain.  The last brace was two professional trainers, running dogs that were both multiple champions, and Deer Mountain was a course where you could let a dog roll.  It was a generational conflict as well.  The older trainer had passed his peak.  He was obviously paying a physical price from all the years of walking through the woods chasing dogs.  He was running a setter bitch that was, like him, past her prime.  The young trainer had a big pointer male that could be a threat to Bess.
            Al was too nervous to sit still, “You can stay with the truck.  I’m going to walk this one.”
            Steve shrugged.  If Al was walking he would join him. The two handlers broke the dogs away and the last brace of the Grand National was underway.  Two handlers, two judges, two scouts, two marshals, and a gallery of a dozen followed the two dogs. 
            The pointer swung for the fence and was gone out of bell range within the first couple of minutes.  That wasn’t all that bad, if he came back within five minutes or so.  As the group headed up onto the first big landing the pointer had not been heard from.  The handler stopped and called to the dog.  Nothing.  He had two choices: he could aimlessly head down into the large cut to the right of the course and maybe stumble on the dog on point, or he could go forward and hope the dog turned up to the front soon.  The setter was doing her usual hopping and popping.  She did not have a gait that had much eye appeal when she was running in the open ground that Deer Mountain presented.
            At the 20 minute mark, the pointer’s bell was finally heard deep to the right but coming up towards the course.  The young handler just shook his head and unhitched the lead that he wore over one shoulder and across his chest.  It was as poignant as throwing in the towel in a heavyweight fight.  When the dog came to him, he slipped off its bell and snapped the lead on its collar.  Al thought, one down, one to go.
            The little setter had a heart as big as the snow-capped White Mountains that could be seen when the course would crest a ridge or pass through an opening.  She was giving it her all.  She had been a noble champion, but she had never had what it took to run with Bess.  The handler kept blowing his whistle trying to get her to run more.  It was a futile effort and he knew it.  When they rounded Movelle’s Corner at 30 minutes, a spot named after a handler whose dog had an unfortunate incident with a bird during a championship many years ago, the handler called the dog in and reached for his lead. 
            When they arrived at the small house commonly called the guard shack, the secretary-treasurer of the club had the grouse bowl arranged on the picnic table with the ribbons, plaques, bags of dog food from the sponsor, and other secondary prizes.  Everyone milled around, waiting for the announcement slip from the judges.  There is usually little discussion at the end of the trial, the fact that it was taking the judges a while to get there made Al edgy.  His stomach was doing flip-flops.
            Finally the truck pulled up.  The judges had their game faces on.  Al couldn’t tell if they were just playing out their role to the end, or if there had been a rift in the opinion.  The older judge handed a slip of paper to the secretary-treasurer who took a sideways glance at the judges and began, “I want to thank the judges of this year’s Grand National.” Everyone applauded politely. “I also want to thank all the people who helped out with the trial and our sponsors.”  More polite applause, “And without any further ado, there is no runner-up to this year’s Grand National.  The winner is White Mountain Bess, owned and handled by Al Fowler.”
            The applause was much heartier than before and Al was soon surrounded by well wishers.  Without being rude he walked from the crowd and over to the judges. Thanked them one at a time and shook their hands.  When he got to the older judge, the man held his hand tight and leaned and whispered, “The only question at the end, was whether any other dog was close enough to Bess to be named runner-up.  There wasn’t.”
            This was the moment he had been waiting for since he ran in his first grouse trial 30 years ago.  As he looked at Bess, he realized that the real joy had come earlier in the day when she had run the race of her life and the lives of many who watched her – including Al.  He hugged the dog and once again tears ran down his cheeks into her fur.  She didn’t want hugs, she was ready to go again.
            Al wiped his eyes, and lifted the dog down off the tail gate and stopped.  He handed Steve the lead, “You pose her for the picture, that’s the scout’s job.”
            Even Steve, who Al had never seen shed a tear in 30 years of friendship as it was something paratroopers never did, wiped his eye and muttered something about the cold wind as he took the lead and proudly led the dog to the picnic table.  Steve put the dog up on the table and posed her up as she had stood on her birds.

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