American Field


By Danny Bardwell | Oct 05, 2020

EVERYONE  called him Preacher. That’s all I had ever heard. So I asked Mr. Turley what Preacher’s real name was. “Gene Turner,” Mr. Turley replied. “Hahaha. I’ve got to say, he got it honest. Was the beat’nist thing I ever saw. Faith, that’s what it was. Maybe not in God, but faith nonetheless.”

It seems that Gene Turner was just starting out on his own in the professional bird dog ranks and had only one working dog in his string. It was owned by a retired minister. The minister had always adored the fleet-footed gamers but couldn’t or wouldn’t afford them while he was in the ministry. He had kept a dog or two for afternoon hunts since seminary but longed for the time in his life when he could indulge, maybe splurge, on a dog to campaign for a season or two. His children chipped in and made his dream come true.

“Go pick you one out, Dad. Any dog, anywhere. We’ll pay the bills. Enjoy your retirement.”

The minister made his way around to several kennels looking at dogs and settled on a pair of Derbies from a well-known breeder’s kennel.

Gene had not long before that left the employment of an all-age handler who after years of success figured out he’d rather drink than train. All the work fell to Gene as did the criticism from the senior handler when owners weren’t satisfied. Gene left without pay. He didn’t own a horse or tack. It was all sold to the  plantation when he hired on. Gene didn’t have the cash to buy it back, but once said he got all he wanted, “far away.”

He took day labor work to make ends meet. It was his second job, mixing mortar and hauling brick for two masons that landed him in the company of the minister. It was a bird dog and its keep that the children promised their father, but a new den with a big log-burning fireplace is what their mother got.

So every morning Gene arrived early at the minister’s home and fired up the mixer. He made mortar and stocked bricks on the chimney scaffold. It was hard hot work but did the trick to keep his mind off his past. There was something about the trade that he appreciated. When the fireplace is finished they’ll call it a masterpiece. The hard work that no one sees in the finished product reminded him of the endless hours spent training and conditioning a champion.

The gallery only sees a finished competitor. “Natural born,” they’ll say. Gene knew better. He continued until the work area was filled with material, and then waited for the hungry masons to arrive and devour them in short order. But as typical bricklayers are, they often arrived late, so Gene spent the time investigating the dog barks coming from the back of the minister’s shed.

He knew good breeding and he knew dog sellers. The bitch had promise, long legs, a deep chest, and broadness between her bright eyes. She wasn’t quick to the gate. She only came after her brother crashed into the wire and flipped their water pan. He, as wide as he was tall, bounced off the walls while she stood scanning and sniffing the hod-carrier from midway of the pen.

The minister found Gene admiring the dogs. Gene had figured it correctly. A shrewd kennel master had indeed thrown the dog into the deal to “ice the cake,” the minister said. They were the only two in the litter. They discussed the pair’s breeding, the minister’s plans, and Gene’s current plight in life.

“Come back after work and we’ll take’em out.” The minister offered. “Let’s see what we got!”

The friendship grew. The minister ministered, and the trainer trained, and the leggy, liver-headed Derby pressed the front on every cast, wanting more each time out. Her brother tagged along, too, occasionally expending a limited amount of energy to chase a lark, but not too far. Gene wasn’t given to a sullen way. He tried to see the best in every situation, but he was having a hard time seeing his way back into full-time dog training.

The minister and Gene rode two gnarly-headed horses the minister borrowed from a neighbor. They had no perceivable gaits but did serve for conveyance, and sight above the eye level of a walking man. The minister rode the flank, but seldom had to turn the handler’s charge. She, Delilah as she was called, was a natural front runner, and game finder. Gene was tempted to canter to ridges ahead to spot her, but his discipline as a true handler kept him in a steady walk, singing to the unseen hunter ahead.

All Fall the quartet maneuvered the weed fields and dormant wheat edges. At first quail were knocked and chased, but by Christmas, Delilah was standing in her tracks, and retrieving when called on. She was ready. Her brother, aptly named Brother, never pointed a bird.

THE minister knew by now how badly Gene wanted to re-enter the field trial game, and to enter it on his own terms. So, as ministers do, he counseled.

“Don’t borrow money, take your time, (which to a young man from an old man is seldom accepted), pray about it. It’s all about faith.” That last one, the one about faith, was the one that caught Gene’s attention the most, or at least it was the one that triggered the most questions.

“What’s the difference between faith and not caring which way something turns out?” Gene asked. The questions were not easy, but the minister had heard them all. Gene was in good hands.

“If you’re willing to accept whatever comes along, you don’t need faith. Faith is the total trust in something that might not have ever given anyone reason to trust in it before. Or maybe it has been trustworthy for years. You still need to have faith in it every time it’s used. If it fails, it’s not your faith that fails, it’s the object or person that failed. You’ve did your part. And even after it fails, your faith can continue until something or someone else comes along to pick up the failure and make the purpose whole. Without faith, you fail when the situation or person around you fails.”

It wasn’t a pat answer, not one swallowed quickly or wholly for that matter. Gene gnawed on it for some time.

January presented itself with numerous opportunities to show Delilah. The Continental Derby Championship was chosen as the event to show their wares. Gene would be returning to nearby haunts. The minister had awaited this or a similar event for most of his life. Delilah would debut with the best of the best.

Soaped saddles, and a new dog box, courtesy of the minister’s son, were loaded the evening before. New brakes and lights were added to a neighbor’s trailer and it was deemed road worthy. Gene had absorbed as much of the minister’s counseling as possible and had begin to adhere to the tenets offered. “Faith” . . . he now murmured to himself.

Sixty dogs drew and a crueler scenario could not have been drawn up. Gene’s former employer had to fill in as a last-minute judge. The reporter, as it turned out, was not a fan of Gene either. Gene had once openly challenged an article’s veracity and the author’s allegiance to a well healed owner over the sport itself. Gene wished he hadn’t, but he had, and now he’d have to overcome more than the usual trial challenges. “Faith.” It stayed on the tip of his tongue.

By the last brace, when Delilah was scheduled to run, birds were known to be scarce, and if found, for the last day or two were jumpy. Everyone, especially judges who had been up late every night, was ready for the trial to be over. There was a champion in a dog that ran two days earlier and a runner-up in a young dog belonging to an ex-client of the fill-in judge. No one needed to see another dog run to have a successful championship, except the duo limping in on three good tires and a flat.

Gene knew the course. He had scouted for several handlers throughout the three years he lived in the area. He also knew that his professional career hinged on his performance and the performance of Delilah that day. The reporter might use every opportunity to discount his efforts and the ex-boss judge might not even look at his dog. “Faith,” it had never seemed so real before.

The minister led Delilah to the line and waited as the dogs and handlers were announced. Gene held his head high despite the snickers from the gallery. His horses were ragged, his scout was a preacher at his first trial, his tack was minimal and frail. Delilah and Faith were his closest companions that day.

The minister unsnapped Delilah. She took a wagon trail to the front and crossed an open savannah well out ahead. Gene turned to see the judge and reporter conversing, paying no heed to him or Delilah.

Gene espied her flashing well ahead crossing the bottom pasture. He pointed her out. Some in the gallery sat a little higher, but the judiciary remained uninterested.

At twenty minutes into the brace, Gene showed Delilah standing shoulder-deep in a patch of lespedeza. The report appearing later in The Field correctly stated that it took a full five minutes straight ahead to get to the standing dog.

Walking horses can cover a lot of ground in five minutes. That she could even be seen at that distance was a fluke of nature, combining a high ridge, open bean fields and an equally open sedge grass-covered expanse of upward sloping hillside, but she was seen, and by all. Everyone knew they were witnessing a changing of the guard.

Again, at forty-five minutes, she demanded attention. Standing at the end of a long feed plot she watched as Gene put to flight a huge covey under her nose.

One thing the minister told Gene was that faith wasn’t faith until you used it. Faith, untested, is just a wish, nothing more. When there is absolutely no other way, no earthly cure, no way around, no possible explanation or reason to continue without it, and you forge ahead, that’s faith.

Until now Gene hadn’t needed faith. Delilah was winning and winning hard. It would take a criminal act to withhold her title . . . unless she doesn’t finish. That devil — doubt — the enemy of faith crept in. Delilah was shown headed over a pine ridge. Gene had never seen her run like she was running that day.

Wagon trails and fire lines are known to coax a running dog far off the course and off the plantation as well. It had been ten minutes since Gene pointed her out. He knew his ex and the reporter would like nothing better than to call his dog out of judgment. Gene looked at his watch. About three minutes remaining. He saw the marshal ride over to the judges and confer. Before the huddle broke up, Gene stood high in his saddle. “Point!” he yelled. He stood up in the stirrups and raised his hat, “POINT!” He raised his arm and hand to the sky and again signaled, “POINT!”

“Pick ’em uuup!” echoed a reply from the judges’ huddle.

The marshal and two club officials met with the judges and spoke a moment. “POINT!” Gene yelled in defiance. The judges refused to ride to the handler. The handler refused to surrender. Enough time had elapsed to allow Gene to realize that his act of faith may cast ever-ending shame on him and ruin any chance of returning to his profession. The judges surrendered. They and the gallery rode to the standing handler.

“Where’s your dog pointed?” the marshal asked.

“Straight in yonder, just beyond that planted timber.”

“Can you see her? How do you know she’s pointed? That’s over a mile.” The marshal was on Gene’s side, but Gene was delivering such unbelievable information.

The club officials and the judges agreed to let the marshal ride with Gene to where he said his dog was standing. If they could make it there in ten minutes and if the dog was indeed standing where the young handler said she was, the marshal was to radio back for the judge’s attendance. The marshal and Gene made the ten-minute ride straight ahead, and found the dog right where Gene said she’d be. They summoned the judges and the large gallery, and after the nearly thirty minutes now Gene put up a scattered covey and leashed his dog. The marshal rode to Gene and asked how he knew his dog was pointed and where she was pointed. “Faith,” Gene answered and several gallery riders heard his answer.

From somewhere in the gallery a word came out. “More faith than a Preacher! Hahaha, Preacher.”

And the congratulations were like the exit of a church on Sunday morning, “Great job, Preacher.”

The minister and his horse were spent. Thoe horse was tied to the rear of the dog truck and the minister was in the front seat. Seated next to the minister was an old club official, one of the group who conferred earlier with the judges. He was also a Southern Baptist Convention member. The two talked about old times and about their retirement and of course the minister’s new pup, Delilah. They laughed at the name, summoning visions of Sampson’s seductive betrayer.

“Come back any time.” The club official called out as the group made their way from the award ceremony, where it had been announced, “Graham’s Delilah, Continental Derby Champion.”

Preacher and Delilah went on the next year to win the first of three National Championships. Potential clients called and wrote daily to get their dogs on Preacher’s string. Offers for astounding amounts of money were bantered about for Delilah’s pups, but a veterinarian’s examination revealed Delilah could not have pups. Her breeding held true in every respect. She was barren. BUT… what didn’t hold true was Brother’s prepotency. Brother was deemed fertile with exceptional virility. Over the next decade he went on to breed many females. Thousands of dollars of stud fees passed across Preacher’s desk. Brother sired many winners, and Delilah lay by the new fireplace, at the minister’s feet to get her ears rubbed well into her old age.

Preacher had touched every brick in the masterpiece.

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