(It’s snowing like crazy here today and I was looking for something to help pass the time. I remembered that there were some unpublished stories in the series that includes “The Longest Hour.” So here, one I that’s a little different. And Timmy. remember fiction means made-up.)
Al Fowler was riding at the Masters Championship that runs over a number of quail hunting plantations near Albany, Georgia. He was talking with one of the professional trainers that he had become friends with when he was first starting the magazine. They were talking over the dogs they had seen and who they thought the judges might be carrying. It was the typical gallery conversation at a field trial. As they rode along, Al realized that the guy on his left seemed to be listening to their conversation. When Al made eye contact with the man, he stuck out his hand as his horse siddled up to Al’s, “I’m R.J. Smith and this is my son Beau. You’re Al Fowler, aren’t you?”
Al reached across his horse to shake hands as he sized up the man. He was powerfully built and was wearing a well-worn pair of brush pants and an equally battered shooting jacket. His horse was extra fancy, like his clothes his tack was well used but of the best manufacture. He appeared to be a member of the local plantation set. The young man riding next to him shared his father’s good looks but without the hard edge of the elder Smith. As Al nodded to the son and then remembered who the father was, “Yes, I am. It’s a pleasure to meet you both. Last year I judged the Georgia All-Age, and we used your dog Riverbend Joe as runner-up. That was a really fine performance.” Al always remembered people’s dogs better than the people, and this time was no different as he could not remember if Reggie or Beau had been at the trial.
Reggie held eye contact with Al, “My trainer said that Joe should of won. He claimed he got short changed by a carpet bagging Yankee judge.”
“I wouldn’t expect a trainer to say anything else. The fact that Joe beat 98 out of the 100 dogs in the stake seemed pretty clear to me and the other judge. But he sure as hell didn’t beat the winner.” Al said it in matter of fact way but left no doubt that he was standing by his decision of the previous winter. Reggie laughed. “Yeah, that’s what my friends who had ridden the trial said, too.”
Al laughed along with him and knew that he had just passed some sort of test. And then he remembered something else about Reggie. He owned a dozen magazines, a handful of radio stations, and couple of TV stations. Al made a point of getting along with just about everyone. Through the dogs and the magazine he had rubbed shoulders with people in all walks of life including some extremely powerful people. He was also a good listener and knew instinctively that there was more that Reggie had to say to him.
“When are you leaving, Mr. Fowler?”
“Al is just fine, and I haven’t really decided when I’ll head back to the North.” Al could have said, “home” but used the charged North to bait Smith.
Smith had something in mind, as he ignored the bait, “I’d like you to see Riverbend, if you’re going to be in town for a couple of days.”
“Sure, I always enjoy visiting anyplace that has dogs and birds.”
“I have to go back to Atlanta soon, How about tomorrow morning at 8?”
“Do you need directions?” Now Reggie was baiting him, everyone in Albany knew where Riverbend was. The massive gates and sign announced it to the world that passed by on the main highway.
“I think I can find it.”
“Good, we’ll see you in the morning.”
Reggie and Beau rode off without further conversation. When Al turned back to the trainer riding next to him the man was smiling. “You must be able to walk on water, as I’ve been told that short of Jesus H Christ no one gets invited onto Riverbend. The talk among the trainers in town is it’s one of the top five quail plantations in the whole South.”
Al just shrugged his shoulders. He had been invited to some of the greatest ranches and plantations in the country. Often the owners hoped he would write about them in the magazine. Few of them were crass enough to broach the subject, however, when the places he visited were doing something interesting as far as managing their quail population, he wrote about it. When all they wanted was an article that would stroke their egos and they could show their guests, he didn’t.
At quarter to eight, he pulled his rig in through the fieldstone pillars from which the Riverbend sign hung. As the drive approached the main house, an antebellum mansion that had either been restored or spared the fate many of the homes in the area had suffered in the Civil War, the trainer who had run Riverbend Joe under him stepped out into the drive, Al stopped and rolled down his window.
“Morning Mr. Fowler, Mr. Smith and Mr. Beau are down at the kennel. I’m supposed to bring you along.” Al wracked his brain and then came up with the name, Jim Wilson.
“Do you want to hop in, Jim. Or are you just going to point me in the right direction.”
“If you don’t mind sir, I’ll take a ride. It’s almost half a mile to the kennels.”
Wilson walked around and got into the passengers seat of Al’s truck. Once they were rolling again and Jim had him headed down the road to the kennel, Al couldn’t resist playing the devil. “I heard yesterday, that I got it wrong last year at the Georgia Championship.”
The best dog trainers could communicate with a dog with a simple touch of their hands or a slight change in the tone of their voice. Communicating with people was always much, much harder for many of them. Wilson visibly blushed and stared down at his hands. “Well, sir, I sure would have liked to have been winner, and I had to tell the Boss something, when he asked why we didn’t win.”
Al looked at him and laughed lightly, “If I had your boss, I would probably have said the same thing.”
Then they both laughed, they were now coconspirators. Equals in the face of the Reggie Smiths of the world. They quickly arrived at the kennel and barn. A pair of mules was hitched to a traditional dog wagon and a black man was loading dogs into the wagon another was holding three horses.
Reggie came walking out of the barn with a white man who was obviously an employee. They walked over to the truck as Al and Jim got out. Jim went to help load the dogs and make sure things were set for the morning hunt. Reggie stuck out his hand, “Morning Al, this is my plantation manager, Paul Faulkner. No relation to the writer.” Faulkner stuck out his hand without acknowledging the Boss’s joke. It was probably well worn. “Now, Al you got any of your little grouse dogs with you that you want to put on the wagon. The boys will put any other dogs you have with you in the guest kennel. We also have a pen, if you want to turn out your spare horses.”
Two more black helpers appeared and there was a flurry of activity as dogs and horses were moved. Al had all his dogs with him as he was on his way back from Texas. He had them put Bess on the wagon. All the other dogs with him were puppies and derbies and this wasn’t the time or place for them. He began the process of saddling his horse.
Two of the black men were soon at his side offering to help. He much preferred to take care of his own animals, but this was their job and he didn’t want to buck the plantations customs. Beau came out of the barn with a shotgun under each arm. They were both side-by-sides and they looked to be Purdeys or Holland & Hollands. Beau put the guns in the rack on the wagon and walked over to him, “Do you have a gun with you Mr. Fowler? If not we have a guest gun your welcome to use.”
“Al is fine.” He reached into the trailer’s tack room and pulled out the case with his well-worn Winchester. “It may look a little shabby next to those. But I haven’t shot anything else in so long, I’m not sure I could.”
Al saw a twinkle in Beau’s eye as he pulled the gun from the case and repeated the old homily in a lowered voice that his father wouldn’t hear, “Beware the man with only one gun.”
Al, the two Smiths, and Jim Wilson all mounted and rode down a wagon road quietly for a few minutes. Al was impressed by how well manicured the piney woods of Riverbend were. It was obvious that Smith and those working on his plantation had incorporated all the current best practices in managing their land for quail. Food plots and cover abounded and there were signs that the woods had been burned in the last year or two to improve the natural habitat.
“It is customary for us to put down a guest’s dog in the first pair out of the wagon. But if you have no objection, the second hour of the morning course has been holding a few more birds.” Al nodded his assent. Although he wasn’t really being given a choice as the two wagon men were already each bringing one of the plantation dogs up from the wagon. The senior Smith continued, “These two are littermates by Joe out of one of our brood bitches. Beau picked them out of the litter and they’re doing alright.”
Al assumed that that was an understatement as Smith would only show his best to a guest with Al’s credentials. Wilson blew his whistle and the two almost identical pointers were off with an impressive burst of speed. Wilson was a good enough handler to let them have their heads for a few minutes before he called them back in to start hunting. When the dogs came back down the wagon road, he spoke to them and one went left and the other right.
Al and the Smiths followed a little behind Wilson as he handled the two dogs. It was not long before the one on the left slammed into a perfect point well back off a feed plot. Wilson called to the other dog that swung around and backed his brother. It was a moment that had been captured by the best sporting artists of the last 100 years — the towering pines, the dog wagon with a Labrador retriever on the seat between the wagon men, the handler and the hunters. Many contemporary artists would give much to have the opportunity to paint the scene in front of them.
One of the wagon men came forward carrying Al’s gun and one of the doubles. He handed the double to Reggie and the Winchester to Al. Being left handed Al had always found it easier to swing his gun on birds going to his left and without thinking, he instinctively went to the left side of Wilson. Reggie took the right. Wilson went to the dog and then looked to Al and then his Boss who had spread out on his flanks. When Smith nodded, Wilson stepped into the cover and the covey exploded. Al picked out a cock bird that presented a fairly straightforward shot and squeezed the trigger of his gun as the barrel pulled in front of the bird. It was a clean kill and the bird dropped out of the sky like a stone. At the same time he heard Smith’s double speak twice. While they were flushing the covey, the other wagon man had brought the Lab up to retrieve the downed birds. The dog picked up two birds on Smith’s side before coming to get Al’s.
“Our birds a little fast for you?”
“Excuse me.” Al had been thinking just the opposite. In comparison to the wild quail of West Texas these birds truly deserved the moniker “Gentleman Bob.”
“I only heard you shoot once. I thought maybe you couldn’t catch up to a second bird.” Smith said this matter of factly but Al sensed the underlying triumph of a hunter who still regularly kept score.
“I wasn’t sure of the protocol here and didn’t want to appear too eager to kill your birds.”
“Hell sir, that’s what I’ve got them for. Feel free to blast away.”
They went back to their horses, handing the guns back to the wagon man, as Wilson and the other man let the dogs go once again.
“We’ll let Beau shoot with you on the next covey. He’s almost as good a shot as I am.”
Al enjoyed the show that Wilson was putting on with the dogs as they stayed to the front often crossing simultaneously. They were not running the kind of race that would win a field trial but their hunting pattern was above reproach. This was the case with many plantation dogs whose owners saw them as a means to an end in the killing of birds. Dogs like Riverbend Joe were the exception on the plantations of the South. Few had the talent to adapt to the differences between a genteel quail hunt and the all out go for broke ground race that was needed to best a hundred other dogs.
Al was lost in thought about the nature of bird dogs and field trials when Smith brought him back to the here and now. “Do you have a son?”
“Yup, he’s an investment banker in Boston.”
Smith gave a glance at his son that Al really couldn’t read and then continued. “Then you’ll understand my problem. Beau here is finishing his master’s degree in literature and writing at Duke this semester.”
“Congratulations.” Al offered to Beau.
“Thank you, sir.”
Smith ignored the interchange. “In fact, he’s doing his thesis on Nash Buckingham. His premise is that those good ol’ boy stories about hunting and field trials are a unique form of Southern literature.”
There was a hint of pride in Smith’s voice, but there was something else as well. “I’ve always intended to turn the business over to Beau. He’s my only son by my first wife and I’ll probably be long dead by the time his half brothers are ready to come into the business.”
“Point!” Wilson called from the front as one of the dogs stacked up by another patch of cover. They repeated the tableaux, this time with Beau taking the right side and leaving the left to Al. On the flush, Al quickly picked out one of the lead birds and dropped it, then swung on a second with the same result. He was pretty sure that Beau fired twice as well. He hoped Beau had not missed. Al was obviously here for some reason that was as yet unrevealed and felt that somehow he and Beau would both be a part of it.