American Field

A Better Way — Part Two

By Tom Word | Mar 12, 2019

The Option Agreement between Dry River Plantation’s owner and Bill Gaps was signed, the option money was paid and Bill Gaps took possession under the lease. Bud Earp was hired by Bill Gaps as dog man and hunt manager. The Dry River stock, including horses, mules, pointing dogs and retrievers, were also bought by Bill Gaps.

Bud Earp moved to a cottage near the kennels and barns and met with the Plantation’s manager to discuss plans for future operations. It was March 1. The prescribed burn was scheduled to begin tomorrow and would keep all hands, including Bud, busy fourteen hours a day for three weeks. Bud was put in charge because the manager, now seventy, knew Bud had sufficient experience and license credentials.

Bud quickly learned which of the hands could be relied on and which not. The three weeks were harrowing due to unexpected winds and low moisture, but finally Bud and the team achieved the planned 60%-of-cover burn with no injuries, major flame escapes or intrusion of fire onto neighbors.

Next Bud went to work evaluating the stock purchased. He knew in a day that he had a major rebuilding job ahead, mostly in pointing dogs. Bud’s predecessor had not replenished the wagon dog string in two years. Bud set about lining up coming Derby prospects and puppies. He would work them on Dry River until heat made that impractical, then July 1 take them to North Dakota and work them on lands he and his father had used to train Pinion Pine’s dogs on since Bud was twelve.

Meanwhile Ben had learned Bill Gaps had a fifteen-year-old son, Bill Jr. or Billy.

Using his unique brand of subtle salesmanship by storytelling, Ben convinced Bill that the lad might benefit from a summer of work outdoors in North Dakota with Bud. He knew a way to a father’s heart was through his son, in particular through exposure of the son to the pleasures (and pain) of physical work outdoors. He correctly suspected Bill would welcome his son’s absence from home in Silicon Valley for the out-of-school months.

Billy arrived at Dry River Plantation at the end of his school year in early June. Bud set him to work check-cording pups and Derbies and learning to ride horseback and care for horses. Soon they were loading for the long drive north, and on July 1 they lit out for North Dakota. Bud and Billy traveled in a Dually pulling a long gooseneck trailer loaded with dogs and horses. They were followed by Walter Earp driving a similar rig pulling a like cargo of Pinion Pine Plantation’s horses and young dogs.

Riding shotgun with Walter was a black lad Billy’s age, Freddie Blevins, whose family had lived and worked on Pinion Pine for three generations.

For two nights they stopped at farms of friends en route where paddocks and kennels were waiting, as were suppers, beds and bird dog conversation. The host farmers raised bird dog pups as a sideline and Bud and Walter had lined up Derby and puppy purchases which were added to their north-bound cargoes (some of the best pointing dogs on the continent were bred by these farmers, the proof lying in the field trial statistics kept at the office of the Field Dog Stud Book maintained on Dearborn Street in Chicago since 1874).

Finally arriving at their destination in far northwest North Dakota, they unloaded at the empty homesteader’s house on prairie rangeland where the dogs would be trained for the next two months on sharptail grouse, pheasant and Hungarian partridge. The lands were owned by absent descendants of the Norwegian-born homesteaders who occupied and farmed them beginning in 1901, when the lands were opened to homesteading by the Great Northern Railway, granted it by Congress as part of the deal that brought the east-west rail line just beneath the Canadian border.

Today the country was experiencing an oil and gas boom thanks to fracking, and active rigs and horse-head pumps beside storage tanks dotted the range, crop and hay lands. An oil collection and tank car filling plant had recently been built on the rail line just north of their training grounds. Here and there acres were fenced for grazing cattle. Within a radius of a hundred miles perhaps thirty other bird dog men and women from the South were occupying similar quarters for the short training season.

The nearest town, nearly abandoned, was Columbus, and just west of it lay the little active city of Crosby, population just over a thousand souls, county seat of Divide County. This was their place to buy groceries and supplies. Just west of it lay vast table-flat wheat lands stretching to Montana and its Badlands.

The region was hot in summer and very cold in winter but in August and September early and late in the day temperatures dropped enough to accommodate the training from horseback of bird dogs on wild game birds. This was what drew the Deep South bird dog folk like Bud and Walter Earp.

Billy and Freddie were quickly fast friends, fans of the same bands and vocalists and rappers and video games. Freddie taught Billy the finer points of horsemanship, and introduced him to weekend Rodeos. Billy taught Freddie the finer points of his laptop computer, entryway to the net. They both took to the magic of fast-learning dogs and game birds and prairie sunrises and sunsets, as Ben Reach had counted on and coached Bud to encourage.

When Labor Day loomed Ben approached Bill Gaps by phone about their flying to see Bud and Billy and his string of bird dogs in training. Bill had been receiving occasional texts from Billy who much to Bill’s surprise had not complained about his summer exile since mid-July. Billy also invited his father to fly up to see the dog training operation. So the Saturday before Labor Day, Ben found himself in Bill Gaps’ private jet flying at 35,000 feet from Albany to Williston non-stop. There Bill had a rental Tahoe waiting and in two hours they arrived at Bud and Walter’s camp. (They would bunk in a Crosby motel).

A bar was set up on a picnic table and the four adults were quickly enjoying the cocktail hour while Billy and Freddie shot hoops on a makeshift backboard nearby. Bud grilled steaks accompanied by a salad and baked potatoes fixed by Walter. All agreed they were the best steaks they could remember. Bud announced that at daylight horses would be saddled and the coming Derbies would be worked for their owner’s and Ben’s appraisal. Bill and Ben then drove to the motel in Crosby.

Next morning they drove back to camp in pre-dawn darkness arriving as instructed just as the sky lightened. The first brace, one handled by Walter, one by Bud, were led to the breakaway (right by the shelter-break where all the dogs were chained at plastic barrels on their sides with an end partly cut out). Billy and Freddie would scout.

Then the dogs and six riders were off and Bud and Walter began to sing to their charges. Bill Gaps was amazed to see Billy ride with the confidence of a cowboy, totally comfortable on his long-striding mount and intent on watching his dog.

In forty minutes they arrived at two airline crates under cottonwoods beside a section road containing the next two Derbies to be worked. The first two were watered and wet down from detergent bottles set by the crates and placed in the crates. Billy and Freddie would handle the second brace Derbies and Bud and Walter would scout them (Bud explained to Bill Gaps that the boys had been assigned these two for training on arrival at camp).

Each second brace Derby scored a find and on the second Billy’s Derby backed Freddie’s voluntarily. Billy grinned with pleasure and pride as he stood by his dog and watched Freddie flush a young pheasant for his dog which took a couple steps at flight but stopped on command by Freddie.

In thirty minutes they arrived at two more shaded crates and again switched dogs. Ben complimented both boys heartily on their dogs’ performances and their handling and the boys beamed with pride. For the third brace the boys were again scouts. Bill was amazed at the confidence and joy Billy showed in his work.

At 11:30 they were back at camp where sandwiches and naps were waiting. At 3:30 they rode out to work Derbies and pups until dusk. Hamburgers and hot dogs were grilled and Ben and Bill fell into bed in the Crosby motel at 9:30, dead tired but happy.

Bill and Ben were scheduled to fly back to Albany (and Bill on to California) on Wednesday but Bud lobbied hard for his new boss to stay for at least the start of the field trial opening on Thursday nearby. Bill resisted but succumbed to his son’s encouragement to stay (Ben had orchestrated this as part of his plan to make Bill a field trial fan and he hoped a trial dog sponsor for Bud to handle).

A one-hour Open Derby would lead off the trial. Bud and Walter each entered three, including the two Billy and Freddie had handled in the first-day workout. This would be the first trial Bill Gaps would attend, and Ben and Bud had fingers crossed. They needn’t have worried. When two days later the winners were announced Bill was hooked. It did not hurt that Freddie’s dog placed second and Billy’s third out of the twenty-four Derbies entered.

On Saturday Bill, Billy and Ben flew out of Williston. They dropped Billy in Boston where his mother waited at the airport to check him into an Ivy League prep school famous as a precursor to admission to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown and other top-tier colleges and universities including Stanford, Billy’s current choice.

In three years that would change to Emory. Billy had decided he wanted to study medicine and hoped to enter Emory’s Medical School after pre-med studies there. He hoped to do research on cancer and teach.

He and Freddie had spent their three intervening summers in North Dakota with Bud and Walter and their Christmas vacations at piney woods field trials scouting dogs they had worked during the summers. Freddie would enter Auburn on a basketball scholarship — he was 6’7” and still growing.

Ben’s plan had worked out. Bud Earp was now manager of Dry River Plantation, owned by Bill Gaps, as well as its dog man. And he campaigned locally for Bill and Billy Gaps an occasional trial dog that had proved its worth as a Derby in North Dakota. Ben and Sam had standing permission to fish the ponds on Dry River Plantation.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.