The Lost Pup
The eight-month-old mostly white pointer pup showed up at the Gibbs Ranch homestead near Rugby, North Dakota on September 20, 2016, fit but collarless. His appearance gave no hint of his ownership or where he had come from. None of the few neighbors within a thirty-mile radius had ever seen him. Nor were there any Lower 48 dog trainers with camps within 75 miles of the Gibbs Ranch who had lost the pup, based on phone calls made by Ronnie Heart, the eighteen-year old son of Gibbs Ranch manager. Ronnie had worked that July and August for a pointing dog trainer from Southwest Georgia who rented training rights on the Gibbs Ranch.
Ronnie’s father Alfred managed the Gibbs Ranch for its owner, a great grandson of the Norwegian-born homesteader who had come in 1901 from his fatherland and worked a quarter section, then bought up lands around him in foreclosures or from foreclosure purchasers or from other homesteaders and their widows and children and grandchildren who became discouraged by crop failures, brutal winters, wheat price collapses, alcoholism (of himself or more often his wife), and of the myriad other hazards of the Dakotas over the first half of the Twentieth Century.
The Ranch now held twelve thousand acres of contoured crop land interspersed with grass land. Wind-formed berms where fences had once stood bore testament to the wind erosion of the Dirty Thirties, reminders that the land was by its nature suitable mostly for native grasses and not the plow, except marginally on contour. It held also oil and gas drilling sites that provided the owner most of his returns.
Ronnie and the pup, which he named Buck, bonded immediately. Ronnie set out to teach Buck basic commands, drawing on what he had learned over the summer from his employer. Buck showed at once a desire to please.
When the pheasant and sharptail season opened Ronnie took Buck in search of them. He could tell Buck had been allowed to learn the ways of the birds before his arrival at Gibbs Ranch. Ronnie assumed (correctly) Buck had been allowed to roam free from an early age on whatever lands had been Buck’s home before.
How had Buck arrived at Gibbs Ranch? Ronnie asked himself this question again and again. The answer was, by travel in the beat-up pickup of the thief who had taken him from the dog training camp of an Alabama-based dog trainer who, like Ronnie’s summer employer, leased training rights on lands in northwest Montana. The thief had stolen the pup intending to sell it, but lost his nerve and turned Buck loose on the highway as he drove east through the Gibbs Ranch the day before Buck arrived at Ronnie’s house. The thief had been employed by the Alabama trainer until fired after marijuana was found by the trainer in his pickup. As Ronnie suspected, Buck had been given freedom to roam around the Alabama trainer’s camp and develop bird sense.
When on July 10, 2017 the trainer who trained on the Gibbs Ranch arrived from Georgia he was greeted by a grinning Ronnie and tail-wagging Buck.
“Where’d you get that Derby, Ronnie?” the trainer, Fred Eanes, asked.
“He showed up here right after you left. Couldn’t find his owner. Tried,” Ronnie said. Fred could tell Buck was bred in the purple.
Ronnie asked if he could put Buck on the dog wagon in the rotation with Fred Eanes’ other Derbies.
“We’ll take a look at him,” Fred said.
One time down and Fred knew Buck was the real deal, a field trial prospect with a world of natural talent. And while Ronnie had not worked Buck from horseback, he had from an ATV. Buck was a natural front runner, a bird-finder, and staunch until flush. He had breathtaking natural style and a fluid, tail-cracking gait.
By summer’s end Buck was number one in the Derby string. Ronnie too had learned much about training and handling and scouting. The last week before the first prairie trial Fred would attend he and Ronnie broke Buck to be steady to wing and shot. They entered him in the open Derby of the trial.
Ronnie would handle, Fred scout.
Buck placed first in the thirty-minute stake with thirty entries and was the talk of the trial.
But Buck was not registered. What to do? Fred could register him as from a litter he had raised whelped about the time of Buck’s whelping, that would have been the easy answer before The American Field’s Field Dog Stud Book DNA rule. But now it could only lead to disaster. Before Buck could be credited with a championship placement his pedigree would have to be proven by DNA. Fred was confident Buck could win a championship.
Fred called The Field to ask hypothetical questions. Question: If a DNA swab were filed without identification of parentage could the parents be identified from The Field’s records if both of the parents’ DNA were on file? Answer: Yes.
Fred knew Buck’s parents were bound to be registered with their DNA on file at The Field. This presented a huge dilemma. If Buck’s DNA were filed and his parents identified so too would be Buck’s owner. Ronnie would have to give Buck up. But Buck could not become a field trial champion or sire of registered offspring as a practical matter without submitting his DNA to The Field. What to do?
Fred talked to Ronnie, explained the dilemma. Ronnie said, “Let’s submit Buck’s DNA, let the chips fall. When we know the result we approach Buck’s breeder, maybe his owner too, but at least the someone who can identify his owner. We can explain what we have done to care for and train him, see what we can work out.”
Ronnie was mature beyond his years, and honest, Fred Eanes thought with admiration.
The DNA swab was submitted. Buck’s sire and dam and their owner were identified. Both parents were all-age champions. The owner was Arleigh Peck, a Birmingham lawyer and long-time field trial patron.
Fred Eanes knew well Peck and Peck’s handler, had in fact run in competition with him for years. How to approach Peck?
Ronnie and Fred debated the possibilities. Fred could call Peck’s handler, Jordan Graham, tell the story and propose paying Peck the going puppy price for offspring of Buck’s sire and dam. Or have a lawyer or other third-party call Peck or Graham and explain the facts without identifying Ronnie or Fred Eanes.
Fred Eanes decided to call Ben Reach, his lawyer in Albany, Georgia, for advice.
“I know Arleigh Peck pretty well,” Ben said.
“So do I, and unfortunately the last time I saw him I gave him hell and called him ‘a blind man’ for not seeing birds I flushed for my dog that he should have seen or at least heard fly. Cost me a championship he was judging,” Fred Eanes said.
“You and Ronnie are in a tight place. You are in possession of lost or more likely stolen property, and you know it and the likely owner or someone who can identify the owner. You have an ethical obligation, maybe a legal one, to tell Peck what you know about Buck,” Ben Reach said.
“Ronnie says the same thing. Smart lad, and honest to the bone. And Mr. Ben, this Buck dog is special, maybe the best Derby I’ve ever seen,” Fred Eanes said.
Ben Reach remembered his father’s admonition from five decades before, “Do not get involved in a dog case, period.” Ben had only rarely ignored that advice, but he sensed this would be one of those rare cases. For one thing he was fascinated by Arleigh Peck.
Peck was a leader of the Birmingham plaintiff’s bar and rich as Creases. Alabama was the Promised Land for the plaintiff’s bar, a hotbed for class actions in banking, toxic torts, products liability, securities fraud and other very lucrative fields of law. Alabama juries were notoriously generous to plaintiffs they conceived as victims and Arleigh Peck was a master at convincing them his clients were victims. Plus Alabama judges were popularly elected and so often subject to political influence by campaign contributors. Peck was a generous contributor.
“If you and Ronnie want me to call Peck I will, but only if you authorize me to tell him the whole truth. Talk to Ronnie about it and get back to me,” Ben said.
“I’ll do that. Thank you, Mr. Ben,” Fred Eanes said.
Fred Eanes talked with Ronnie, explained Ben Reach’s position, his willingness to talk on Ronnie’s behalf with Arleigh Peck.
“What should we ask Mr. Peck for, Mr. Eanes?” Ronnie asked.
“I’m not sure, Ronnie. I know Mr. Peck loves a great dog and a good dog trainer. Let’s have Mr. Ben explain how Buck showed up at your house, and how you have made a trial dog out of him,” Fred Eanes said.
“OK,” Ronnie said.
Fred Eanes figured Ben Reach would know best how how to pitch Ronnie’s case to Arleigh Peck. When he called Ben back to ask him to contact Peck, Ben said, “Let me think about how to pitch him.” Then Ben told Sam Nixon M.D. the story of Buck and his theft and redemption, and Ben’s assignment to explain it to Peck on Ronnie’s behalf.
Sam knew a bit about Peck. He held the record for a jury award in a medical malpractice case in Alabama. But Sam believed a medical doctor egregiously guilty of negligence should be held responsible, a rare position for a practicing physician.
Ben called a law school classmate in Birmingham to get background on Peck. “The only thing bigger than Arleigh’s pocket book is his ego,” the classmate reported. “But he also has a soft spot for country boys,” the classmate added, to Ben’s relief.
Ben had Joanne call Peck’s office to arrange a time when Ben could see Peck in Peck’s office. Peck’s assistant asked, “What does Mr. Reach want to see Mr. Peck about and how long do you expect their meeting will require?”
“Bird dog business. Mr. Reach would like to take him to lunch,” Joanne answered. The assistant did not have to ask Peck whether to schedule the meeting. She knew he would want it on the first clear date mutually available on Peck’s and Ben’s calendar. The two assistants set it for a week later. Ben asked Sam to go with him.
Peck’s office was palatial, occupying the penthouse of Birmingham’s newest high-rise office building. The waiting room had a window with a view of the famous fifty-six-foot tall statute of Vulcan, “the iron man,” fitting Ben thought. The one subject Ben knew he would try to avoid during lunch was the Tide-Bulldog football rivalry.
Peck knew of Ben through mutual friends in both the legal and bird dog worlds. All he knew about the purpose of this meeting was that it involved bird dogs, but Arleigh like most field trialers was always glad to talk dogs.
Arleigh came to the reception room to greet Ben as soon as his presence was called back to Arleigh’s assistant, a good sign Ben and Sam both thought. Dressed in khaki slacks and a blue blazer with a pointer logo tie and inexpensive loafers, the tall slim trial lawyer appeared to be about forty-five.
Joanne had told Peck’s assistant of the curmudgeons’ love of soul food, especially fried catfish, and so Peck had a reservation at Molly’s, a Birmingham institution of that genre a block from Peck’s office.
As soon as they were seated and provided menus printed on stiff plastic impervious to grease, Arleigh asked, “What sort of bird dog business prompts you to honor me with a drive from Albany, and by the way I want to hear about the tornado damage to Nonami.”
As soon as they had given the waitress identical orders for catfish, coleslaw and collard greens, Ben said, “We came to give you good news. A farm boy in North Dakota has a lost pup, now a Derby, by your Vulcan out of your Alabama Cheerleader and he has turned it into a field trial winner Fred Eanes says is the best he’s seen in years. The boy knows the pup belongs to you or someone you sold it to.”
Peck was shocked and delighted.
“I didn’t sell any pups from that litter. All but one died from parvovirus and that one disappeared from my handler’s camp in Montana. He suspects it was stolen by a helper he fired but the helper disappeared and can’t be found.”
“That Derby is entered in the two open Derby stakes about to be run at Columbus, North Dakota, starting next week,” Ben said.
“Let’s fly up and watch him,” Peck said without a moment’s hesitation. Then he pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket and called his handler in Montana and told him to plan to drive to Columbus and call in entries for his dogs in the stakes to be run there. Next he called his pilot and told him to plan a flight to the closest suitable air strip near Columbus for his Gulf Stream arriving the day before the first stake was scheduled to run.
Ben was grinning. Sam said, “Thanks, but count me out.” Sam did not fly, private or commercial, when he could avoid it.
During lunch Ben answered Peck’s questions about the Derby Buck as best he could but to most he said, “Don’t know, but Ronnie Heart should be able to tell you.”
Part Three — Conclusion
Arleigh Peck’s Gulf Stream touched down on an oil company-owned asphalt strip thirty miles from Columbus. Ben had loved the flight which he joined in Albany. The views as they flew over the American heartland had been stunning. A rental club cab pickup awaited them at the strip. With the two pilots in the front seat they drove to a motel in Crosby and checked in. Arleigh’s handler, Jordan Graham, had arrived the day before with Arleigh’s string and six dog horses, now waiting at trial head-quarters, the Kopplesloen homestead at Prairie View, just east of Columbus.
Fred Eanes and Ronnie Heart were also sharing a room at the motel.
Arleigh Peck had invited everyone to dinner at a nearby steakhouse, reserving a private room for the group. Ben, who had years before come to judge at the trials, was amazed at the new businesses opened in Crosby due to the now-dormant fracking boom.
Buck had drawn the first brace in the first Derby stake. Ronnie would handle, Fred Eanes scout.
Fred and Jordan Graham had a history, having been paired in a mutual scouting arrangement a few years earlier that ended unhappily when Jordan cancelled on attending a trial he had committed to attend due to a last minute change in judges to one Jordan refused to run under. This had left Fred without a professional to scout his entries, resulting in his using an inexperienced dog owner for whom he had a dog. The result was Fred’s best dog being lost on point which in Fred’s view cost him a sure win and $6,000 in purse money. For Ronnie’s sake Fred hid his disgust with Jordan Graham during dinner.
Arleigh was a gracious host, picking up the check for all, drinks included. Announcing his intention to pay at the start, the handlers ordered the restaurant’s biggest steak. Ronnie and Ben ordered hamburger steak. Ronnie sat between Arleigh and Ben, and through dinner Arleigh peppered Ronnie with questions about Buck and how Ronnie had trained and developed him as a trial dog. Ronnie gave Fred Eanes much credit, but Fred, seated across the table from Arleigh, countered that all the credit belonged to Ronnie. Ben suspected the truth lay somewhere in the middle. Ben was impressed with the maturity and good manners of Ronnie. Jordan Graham, seated at the end of the table, avoided eye contact with Fred Eanes.
For Buck’s breakaway all were mounted at the 7:30 a. m. start. Buck laid down a beautiful race, finding pheasants twice, the first near the burial ground, the second eight minutes later at the southwest corner of the big harvested wheat field. He finished with a find on sharptails at the end of a deep cast to the front. His performance would be hard to beat, alł who had seen it agreed.
Arleigh had his pilots bring sandwiches and soft drinks for lunch for all in the group to headquarters. He complimented Ronnie on his handling and wasted no time in stating his intentions for Buck’s future. “I am going to pay you a good full price for Buck less $500, what I would have sold him for as a weanling if I’d been willing to sell him. We’ll agree on the price after the second Derby stake here. I want Jordan to handle him in the second stake and for you to scout him.”
Ronnie could not hide his disappointment at the thought of losing Buck, but he knew Arleigh Peck’s financial terms were fair. Fred Eanes had told him on their drive to Columbus that Peck’s proposition was as good as he could hope for.
At the conclusion of the Derby stake, Buck was named first, to no one’s surprise. In the following all-age his sire Vulcan won first with Jordan Graham handling and Arleigh Peck scouting. Fred Eanes handled the second placed dog with Ronnie scouting.
Buck had drawn the last brace in the second Derby Stake, run after the second all-age to accommodate a judge in the first Derby stake who had agreed to judge on condition he could run an all-age dog of his own in the two all-age stakes. Early on in Buck’s bid in the second Derby stake it became apparent Buck was not going to handle for Jordan Graham. Ronnie, scouting, was doing his best to get Buck to keep the front but the dog was obviously confused by his unfamiliar handler. Ben Reach saw what was happening and called Arleigh aside.
“Buck is confused by Jordan. Why don’t you convince him he’s developing a sore throat.” Arleigh grinned and at the first opportunity motioned Jordan to confer. A few minutes later Jordan went to the judges and asked permission to exchange roles with Ronnie, citing a sore throat coming on. Buck was again awarded first when the stake concluded.
That left only final negotiation of Arleigh’s payment to Ronnie. Ronnie asked Fred Eanes to come with him to the negotiation. Ben Reach also attended, though in what capacity he was unsure, at least at first.
Ronnie opened with a surprise.
“Mr. Peck, I am enlisting in the Marine Corps next month. I want to go to college and my father and I decided that’s the best way to get college paid for. I finished high school last May. My father served in the Corps in Desert Storm.
“Your terms for Buck are fair. But I don’t know what he’s worth. Also, I don’t know if he is going to handle for Mr. Graham. The only person who has handled him besides me is Mr. Eanes.”
Arleigh Peck thought a minute. Then he said, “How about we let Mr. Reach decide what the price should be. And I plan to put Buck with Fred Eanes instead of Jordan.”
Ben Reach thought a minute too. Then he said, “Arleigh, you know nobody sells a Derby that wins on the prairie until after the Derby championships. How about we wait to see how Buck does in those before I set the price you will pay Ronnie for Buck?”
Arleigh thought a few minutes. Then he said, “That may be a little too fair, since I’ll be paying all the costs of Buck’s campaign. But to show my appreciation for Ronnie’s service to our country I will do it.”
On the flight home Ben and Arleigh discussed Ronnie Heart’s future.
“Ronnie should be finishing basic training about the time the Derby championships run. Maybe he can come scout or handle Buck,” Ben said.
“I’ll write Ronnie and Fred and propose that, let them decide on handler and scout,” Arleigh said.