The clubhouse buzzed with excitement as Joe passed through the open door. He met the eyes of friends and foe with a blank gaze. His emotions were running high but he didn’t want to give the crowd any more fuel for the fire. He took a seat next to a long-time friend, training partner and fellow field trialer, David Howe. David full well knew what a win today meant for Joe and his four year old pointer Jack. If Jack, officially known as Rebels Captain Jack , was to be named champion or runner up champion, he would be qualified for the National Championship. Often referred to as the super bowl for bird dogs, the National Championship trial at the Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tennessee was and still is, one of the most prestigious all age trials in the country. Only dogs that have competed and won multiple times at the highest level are eligible for entry. Qualifying is a feat to be proud of in and of itself.
David put a hand on Joe’s shoulder and whispered low and quiet, “Ol’ Jackie put on a show today. The way I see it, they’ve got him as champion and that little setter bitch that Tommy ran as runner up.”
“I don’t know,” replied Joe, “we’ll find out soon enough.”
David knew well, what Joe was worried about. One of the two judges for this stake was a setter man himself and was none too fond of Joe Williams. The two dog men had a colorful history that spanned the better part of two decades. From their first meeting in the fall of ’02 they had never seen eye to eye. In fact the dislike seemed to grow more every season that passed. It ran so deep the Joe had considered staying home and saving his entry fees when he learned Mark Enlow was listed as a judge. Being an amateur in a pro’s world was hard enough. One didn’t need to play against a stacked deck. The entire room seemed to sense Joe’s tension as they gave him silent nods and watched him as they visited amongst themselves and tapped into the beer in the clubhouse refrigerator. For they knew too, the situation between the two dogmen. On this day, one a judge, the other a handler. It’s a tricky thing, judging, in this great sport of chasing bird dogs; the men that run against you the week before just might be the judge this week. Now of course, all judgements are supposed to be fair and without bias of men or canine contestants. However infallible a man may be, this is hard to do. But after multiple days in the saddle and watching forty or more dogs place their bid, the cream, as they say, rises to the top. On the all age circuit trials, the dog that runs the biggest and most far flung race, while staying completely focused on finding and pointing birds with style and polished manners is ultimately the winner.
Joe had been in a similar situation 4 years prior, with Lucy. He was fixated on that memory. Lucy was a stunning specimen of a bird dog. A clean white pointer with and evenly marked orange mask, rippling muscles and a burning fire to find birds for her boss. That uncharacteristically cool morning on the South Dakota prairie, Joe’s hopes collided with a disappointing fate. Lucy had been drawn to run in the last brace of the All-American Chicken Championship and the weather was making a turn for the better. All week, the temperatures peaked out in the mid-nineties, and winds blew hard. Too hard, to give any good dog a reasonable chance to scent a bird. It was the first morning that actually felt cool enough to need a jacket and the winds had laid down to a gentle breeze. “For once,” Joe thought, “things were falling into place.” At the judges, “Turn em’ loose.” The scouts turned Lucy and her bracemate loose and they were off to the races. Covering ground faster and wider than any other dog had all week long, Lucy had all who watch sitting tall in the saddle. At the forty five minute mark she stood tall and motionless indicating that there were birds in front of her. It was her third find and she looked even better than she had on the first two. Joe couldn’t help but to admire her as he dismounted his horse and walked in front of his charge to flush her birds. Her intensity rising as he approached. Her eyes peered forward as if she could see through the grass to the bird hunkered down fifteen yards straight ahead. Her tail stood poker straight at twelve o’clock and her hide stretched across taunt muscle and pulsed with pent up energy. Joe had walked a big arc out in front of her and the sharp-tailed grouse, simply called a chicken by the fraternity of field trailers, flushed from the grass and sailed away as he fired the shot from his blank pistol. He calmly walked back to Lucy, who hadn’t even flinched throughout the ordeal and grabber her collar and led her away. The scout, another trailer who is asked to help assist the handler, brought Joe’s horse over and helped water Lucy. Joe knew he was in the money with this last find. No other dog that had run previously had more than one find during their hour on the ground, and Lucy’s race was bigger, more powerful, and fancier than theirs as well. He checked his watch and after working this bird and watering her, he just needed to show the judges a strong finish. Judges like to see a strong finish that showcases a dog’s endurance and drive. Joe was knelt down by Lucy and soaked her belly with water from the repurposed laundry soap bottle that hung from his scout’s saddle. As quietly and as calmly as he could, he whispered to his scout,
“all we need is a solid finish, we don’t need any more bird work today… and whatever you do, don’t lose her.”
Joe gave control of Lucy’s collar to his scout and climbed back up on his Tennessee Walking Horse and nodded and nonchalantly said, “Alllrigghht”. He had stalled, and used up as much time as he could without it being obvious.
With this the scout let go of Lucy’s collar and she blasted off showing no signs of fatigue. She bolted straight ahead in a dead sprint for one hundred and fifty yards before she settled into a just slightly slower and more animated hunting pace. Joe assumed the front positon of pack as sole handler, as Lucy’s bracemate had been picked up for a breach of manners at the ten minute mark. Following behind him were the two judges, then his scout and the gallery of riders. Most of whom were other participants who wanted to see all the dogs run, along with a few folks that just liked to ride and enjoyed the fellowship the trialing community brings to the prairie every summer. Lucy had made a nice cast to the left coursing across the hillside, and sifting through any scent she could find. Joe knew that they didn’t need to score on another bird, but Lucy did not. She had a one track mind. She was relentless in her pursuit. After showing well on a series of hills to the left, she veered back to the dead front at about seven hundred yards and crossed over the horizon and out of sight. Joe was not worried at all. He checked his watch and there were 8 minutes left. That would be just enough time to get over the rise and point her out to the judges, before they called time. Then he could ride hard to the front, get her reined in and put a rope on her. He couldn’t help but to think that he had this thing won hard. Or rather, she had it won hard.
As he topped over the ridge, he peered deep into the grassy swales but couldn’t spy her anywhere. Joe stayed calm and without panic in his voice, hollered back down the hill to the judges trudging towards him, “toppin’ that ridge right there.” Joe knew the judges couldn’t see anything from their vantage point and he also knew that there could only be seconds left. In his mind, confidently calling out the dog charging over the next rise was a hell of a lot better than sitting up there looking as if he couldn’t find her. The call of “pick em’ up” came literally just seconds after he made the false claim. Joe tapped his heals against his horses ribs and picked up speed as fast as he could. He was followed only by his scout to assist in getting the ol’ gal picked up. The judges stopped at the crest of the ridge and watched intently for the dog and kept an eye on the clock. Trials have guidelines that state a dog must not be out of judgement for more than one third of the allotted time they are running. In this case Lucy, although running a monster of a race, had not been out of view for any considerable continued amount of time, and thus should have nearly all of the twenty minutes if it took Joe that long to gather her up.
Joe was an experienced handler and he knew his dog well. He didn’t have a doubt in his mind that she wouldn’t be found to the front. He urged his horse on up the hill that lay in front of them. The hill was steep and rose nearly higher than all that surrounded. He knew Lucy hadn’t likely ran up and over the top of this hill but rather stayed down in the draw just to the west. However, the top of this ridge would give him the best vantage point to spot her and that was the first order of business. He reached the top of the rise and squalled on his dog, ordering her to come back to him, as if he had seen her just down the draw on the other side. This field trialing business is every bit as much showmanship as is it the test of dog flesh, and Joe knew this all too well. He kept his horse moving forward over the ridge, making it look as if he was riding directly after her. He never let up on the squalling and his horse never thought about slowing down either. The horses that play this game, at least the good ones, know exactly what is going on and they seem to thoroughly enjoy running dogs down. When Joe had descended the opposite side of the ridge far enough to surely be out of the judges sight, he slowed his horse down to a fast walk and his head swung from side to side as if it were on a swivel. He still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Lucy. His scout caught up soon after and Joe sent him to search the draw to the right, and he took the search to the draw to their left. Picking up speed again he raced across the pasture with a lump growing in his throat with every minute that passed.
He rounded a small knoll to his immediate right and saw his scout cantering towards him with a white and orange pointer in a roading harness. She pulled in the harness as if she was ready to go again. Joe spun his horse around and they started back to the judges to show that they had her. Joe checked his watch not once but twice and felt confident when it read just 12 minutes past the hour mark. Both men had big smiles on their faces and the brims from their sweat stained cowboy hats couldn’t contain their excitement. There was no doubts in their minds or on their faces that Lucy had just turned in the winning performance. Not only a winning performance but one that everyone would remember for many years to come.
Both Joe and his scout, with Lucy still pulling them along, moved hurriedly up the hill to the judges. Slowing down to a flat walk, Joe eased up to both men, still mounted, who had their note pads out, to retrieve his Garmin GPS unit, and the scout steered clear and headed toward the dog wagon. Joe tried mightily hard to control his excitement but it was evident to even the gallery who were gathered some 30 yards away. When he reached the judge holding his Garmin, he thanked them both for “lookin’ at his dog.” He took his hand held tracking unit from the mounted judge nearest him. The second judge, looked him square in the eye and said, “Can’t use your dog. Ran out a’ time, bout’ two minutes before you popped back over that hill.” And Mark Enlow turned his horse and started riding back to camp.
To be continued…