American Field


By Robert Franks | Sep 10, 2018
Remnants of the Southwestern Clubhouse as it looks today.

Junior Smith, Roger Blevins, and Jimmy Lee were in their middle teens when they first skipped school to be in the gallery of the old Southwestern trial held on the sanatorium grounds near Booneville, Arkansas. They clearly remembered Marshall Loftin, Hoyle Eaton, John Rex Gates, Man Rand, and many of the other personalities, handlers, scouts, and dogs connected to the trial.

All three had taken up field trialing as amateurs and had been very successful. Many years later they met for afternoon coffee on a cold, crisp November afternoon in Booneville, where all three made their home. The conversation turned to their memories of the Southwestern trial, as this week was the traditional starting date. After laughs about skipping school and discussion regarding famous dogs and scouts, the trio decided to make a quick trip to the grounds to see if the old clubhouse was still standing and shaking its fist at time.

Arriving just before dusk, the men exited Jimmy’s truck and stared at the clubhouse, which was, remarkably, still standing.

Junior broke the silence. “I still remember Robert Burris at the foot of Hen Scratch Mountain with a distant view of White Knight. My favorite dog was Monte Bello Peggy; she looked like a statue on point.”

All of a sudden, the conversation was cut short by a cold, wet breeze that almost took the visitors’ breath away. Simultaneously, a fog appeared out of nowhere, rising from the ground as if in a Hollywood movie. Turning in tandem, the trio started back to the truck, all sensing it was time to go.

Junior turned for one last look and grabbed Roger’s arm with a firm grip. “Did you see that?”

“What?” Roger replied, expecting a bobcat or deer.

“I saw a light in the clubhouse.”

“You saw what?” Roger looked straight at the weathered building in the near darkness.

“I’m not crazy. I know what I saw, and I saw a light in that building.”

Just as Jimmy turned to look, all three saw it. A dim, orange-yellow light and what looked like a figure moving between it and the window.

Jimmy spoke up. “Who’s in there?”

No answer came, but the light disappeared in sync with Jimmy’s first word. Puzzled, the men drove off asking the same question, “Who was in the clubhouse and for what reason?” A decision was quickly made to come back the next afternoon and do some detective work.

The next afternoon, the old gathering place appeared remarkably well preserved for its age and lack of care. The roof leaked and window panes were broken, but it was otherwise intact. Upon investigation, other than a few critters and a bird or two, the inside showed absolutely no signs of use. Their questions of the previous evening were only answered by more questions that afternoon. As they were no nearer to solving the mystery than before the investigation, the decision was made to wait outside in the same place as the night before.

Exactly as the previous night, the same light appeared, accompanied by the cold, moist breeze and the fog.

This time there looked to be several figures casting shadows between the light and the window.

The men were silent in anticipation of what might happen next. Then, faint sounds of horses and whispers could be heard, the sound carried by the cold wind. By this time the men were shivering, as the temperature had dropped significantly from the time of their arrival.

Junior saw them first, then the other two men: a woman and two men on horseback, coming out of the heart of the fog, headed toward the clubhouse.

Adjusting his weight, Roger stepped on a twig and it snapped. The sound was not loud but enough to be heard in the early twilight. The three figures looked directly at the source of the sound revealing the trespassers and then disappeared into the night.

Heading back to Booneville, there was no discussion — just silence. The trio was doing their best to digest what they had just witnessed. Arriving in Junior’s driveway, Roger spoke.

“What in the world did we just see?”

There was silence for a minute, then Jimmy slowly and thoughtfully said, “All I know is that there were three horses and three riders. We all witnessed that. After those facts, it’s anyone’s guess. What I cannot grasp is how they looked at us before they disappeared. I don’t know what we have stepped into, but one thing is for sure: I want to go back.”

The trio was in agreement; they would go back the next night.

Arriving the following night, the threesome witnessed the light in the clubhouse only to see what looked like more activity inside. The smell of burning wood and smoke exiting the fireplace was witnessed along with the faint, sweet smell of supper being prepared. Disbelief showed on the face of each man. Suddenly the temperature plummeted as the frigid fog rolled in quickly, accompanied by muffled voices and the sound of horses.

Unlike the night before, there were several horses and riders. There were also some dogs attached to the saddles by ropes. Upon arriving, the group unsaddled the horses and headed into the clubhouse. Before entering, the three figures that had been witnessed last night turned and looked directly at the white-faced onlookers. Their facial features were prominent and could clearly be seen, although there was a ghostly appearance to them. They looked at the men for what seemed like a lifetime, then turned and went in to join the gathering.

Just then, another rider of African-American descent appeared out of the fog with an all-white dog draped across the saddle. The man looked at the three, nodded his head, gave the dog a pat, and disappeared into the fog.

The trio stayed longer, but no other activity occurred except in the clubhouse. Unlike the first night, the light did not disappear.

Turning onto the highway, Jimmy slapped the steering wheel and said, “I got a good look at some of the men, the lady, and the last rider. You’re going to think I’m crazy, but they look familiar.”

Roger and Junior chimed in and said the same thing. Each man had his own ideas about the faces they had seen but kept those impressions to themselves.

“I’ve got a thought,” Junior said. “My granddaughter is an art instructor at Booneville High School and is very talented. Let’s see if she can create a sketch of the woman from our description.”

The meeting was arranged and the session started. When the sketch was completed, the three stared at each other. The color had left their faces. “This is not possible,” Junior slowly said, looking directly at Roger and Jimmy.

Roger stared wide-eyed at the sketch and then cautiously replied, “It can’t be, but it is.”

Jimmy whispered, It’s been so long; we were in our teens.”

“We’ve got to be sure,” Roger said, giving another look at the lady. “Let’s take this sketch and show it to old Mr. Shillings. He judged the Southwestern more years than we can count.”

All were in agreement that this was an excellent idea. On the way there was ample conversation in the truck but not a word uttered regarding what they knew was almost certain fact.

Walking up the white sidewalk to Mr. Shillings’ front door, Jimmy tightly gripped the folder that contained the sketch, as if it might somehow disappear into the winter wind. They were greeted at the door by a man who had seen most of the great dogs and handlers since the early 1950s.

“We have something to show you,” Roger said, handing the folder to Mr. Shillings, who was putting on a pair of reading glasses.

He looked at the sketch, removed his glasses, and gave a puzzled look to the three gentlemen. “Why, that’s Mary Oliver. No mistake about it. For some reason, I was just thinking about her the other day. Where did you get this?”

“Mr. Shillings, that sketch was done today from descriptions we gave.” Jimmy said. He paused and gave a long exhale. “You may think we are crazy, but . . . the three of us just saw her last night riding up to the old Southwestern clubhouse.” They then recounted the whole unbelievable story, every detail.

After the story was finished, Mr. Shillings did not bat an eye but rather pointed a shaking finger right at them and, with sparkling eyes, said, “Let me tell you a tale. As it became obvious that we would not be able to keep the Southwestern going at Booneville, the whole lot of us were in the clubhouse one afternoon because of a weather delay. We began to talk and reminisce along with a glass or two of pick-me-up. It was agreed on that rainy day, and sealed with a toast, that if possible, after our time on earth was through, to meet at the clubhouse once a year, enjoy old times, and have another trial. Yes sir, it looks like some have found their way to again run a dog with the best there ever was and ever will be!

“I want to go with you tonight. I know I’ll slow you down, but I’ve just got to go,” Mr. Shillings implored.

The trio unanimously agreed, and in the late afternoon, the quartet set out for another adventure.

Just like the previous nights, with the last rays of the sun tickling the winter landscape, a light came on in the clubhouse. There were unrecognizable figures moving about and the unmistakable aroma of supper being prepared. The cold, damp fog appeared just as before, but this time there were many ghostly riders, slowly appearing out of the fog, heading toward the clubhouse.

“I can’t believe my eyes,” Mr. Shillings softly murmured. “That’s Mary Oliver and Leon Covington. And look, that’s . . . that’s . . . Robert Burris with White Knight over his saddle. I know them all. It’s all my friends. They’re here, they’re really here.”

The figures dismounted and headed into the clubhouse. Before entering through the door, they turned and looked straight at the mesmerized men. The look was only for a few seconds but seemed like an eternity for the quartet. It was as if the figures were looking for something or someone.

Silently, the men made their way back to the truck. After the motor was started, Mr. Shillings broke the heavy silence and in a hushed tone said, “It was like they were looking squarely at me, trying to tell me something. This is just incredible. Thank you for taking me to see this.”

Upon exiting the truck after it arrived at his home, Mr. Shillings again thanked the trio, paused, and then took a slow walk to his front door.

Early the next morning, Jimmy’s phone rang. It was Junior. “I just got the sad word that Mr. Shillings passed away peacefully in his sleep last night.”

That afternoon, Jimmy, Junior, and Roger paid their respects to Mr. Shillings’ family. Upon leaving the house, the sun was heavy and starting to set.

“I want to go back to the old clubhouse,” Junior said, his eyes fixed on the wintry horizon as if he were looking for answers to questions that have no answer. The other two men agreed as their eyes also searched the horizon for clues.

When they arrived at the clubhouse, the light of a full moon was competing with the setting sun. As before, a chill came over the men, but this time it was different. This chill was not like any other they had experienced in their lives — it was cold, damp, and penetrating. Then came the arrival of the fog and the sound of riders and horses, which seemed to appear within the bat of an eye. There were many more riders than before. There they were: John S. Gates, Stub Poynor, Peck Kelley, Man Rand, Mary Oliver, Leon Covington, and more.

The men stood transfixed, as if time had opened up for this moment and the night was rolling back to the golden era of field trials. As the group headed into the clubhouse, one figure stopped, turned, and looked deep into the eyes of the three men. This look was longer than any look before, one that seemed to penetrate their very souls. Slowly turning, the figure waved at the men and proceeded into the clubhouse.

Junior finally said it as they headed back to the truck. “That was Mr. Shillings.” The other two shook their heads in disbelief and agreement.

All three made a pact on the way home to never mention the events of the past evenings to anyone and to never return to the old clubhouse in their mortal life. They did agree to meet at the clubhouse with all the other shades, after their passing, to once again experience the running of the Southwestern.


What is heaven? If a hundred people were asked, there would likely be a hundred answers. A good friend of mine who only had weeks to live conveyed this to me. She said, “How can heaven be heaven without the people we love and the things we love to do? When we meet again, I’ll be at my favorite grounds running my favorite dog. We’ll pick up our friendship like we have never been apart.”

So who is to say that in November, on the week when the old Southwestern was contested, there is not a gathering of eternal friends again feeling the cold wind in their face, following the dogs they love so dearly.

Even in this technologically advanced world, there are still many occurrences that cannot be explained. Could this really happen? Possibly.

The only way to find out for sure would be to travel to the Southwestern grounds on a November evening and find out for yourself.

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