American Field

The Handoff

By Tom Word | May 17, 2018

Arleigh Gant had campaigned dogs for two decades, but this would be his last season. He’d gotten the news from his doctor in June. He’d decided to go to North Dakota in July as usual, but with only one adult dog,  Rampaging, a first-year, and last season’s Derby of the Year. Arleigh still owned him.

He’d told his owners of his decision to quit the circuit but not the reason.

He did not want anyone to know of his illness. He’d sent the owners’ dogs to other handlers of their choice.

He would take also three coming Derbies of his own, siblings of Rampaging from his bitch Hannah. He’d also take a dozen or so young dogs for shooting plantations.

He would take one helper, a seventeen-year-old lad named Bob Blevins. Ben Reach and Dr. Sam Nixon had asked Arleigh to take Bob with him. Bob was in trouble. He would face trial on an assault charge on his return to Georgia in September. He’d been living with Arleigh for two months now, learning to care for dogs and horses and to ride. Arleigh was a widower, so it had been only the two of them in the little house on twenty acres outside Leesburg. He’d also helped Bob complete a driver’s ed class and get a driver’s license.

So far Arleigh and Bob shared two traits: they were quiet, and observant. Through their two months together Arleigh had observed Bob get a feel for the animals. Observed too that Bob had a touch with animals. And that Bob was deeply troubled, by just what Arleigh did not know, but was determined to discover. Arleigh too had been troubled at the same age.

They made Columbus in three long days with only one flat tire, alternating at the wheel every four hours. They’d spent the first night on a friend’s farm in Kentucky where the four horses enjoyed a paddock with fresh hay and the dogs slept tethered on chains stretched in an empty hay barn, the second with a vet in Nebraska with similar arrangements for the animals.

Arleigh was fatigued when they finally made the old homesteaders house on the prairie, their home for the two months. He crawled into bed and left it to Bob to unload and settle the horses and dogs. Three hours later Bob took him a warm mug of home-made vegetable soup brought over by the nearest neighbor who lived two miles toward Lignite. He ate it and immediately fell asleep again, to wake at dawn.

He heard first the thump of a basketball being dribbled and the rattle of the chains hanging in the rim of the basketball goal in the yard. He smiled. Bob’s only possession brought with him, save his wardrobe of Wal-Mart boots, underwear, socks, jeans, khakis, T-shirts and khaki work shirts Arleigh had bought for him, was a basketball. The goal had been built by the last year-round resident of the house for his children. Arleigh would hear those sounds through the summer whenever Bob was not working, sleeping or eating.

Bob had made coffee. Arleigh poured a cup and walked out to the yard. Bob sunk a three pointer and grinned. Arleigh gave him a thumbs up.

The neighbor who had brought the soup also brought eggs, bacon and bread and Arleigh quickly made them breakfast. Arleigh then had Bob hook Rampaging and his three Derby siblings to the roading rig of the ATV and they took off for a section-road tour of their training grounds, Bob riding behind Arleigh. The dogs strained happily against their harnesses. An hour later when they returned to the house the temperature had risen to 85° and promised to reach 90°+.

Arleigh drove to Crosby and after cruising the few streets to show Bob the town, stopped at a small super-market and bought their list of supplies and groceries. Then Arleigh made a ritual visit to a farm equipment dealership to inspect its yard holding dozens of equipment relics of twentieth century prairie farming, tractors of every size and design from the teen years through the end of the century, plus the implements they pulled to plow, till and harvest. Then they drove the High-line Highway West to the Montana line.

Along the way they saw combines circling enormous wheat fields, engulfed in their own dust clouds, and on the road rolling toward them eighteen wheelers filled with grain from the combines, bound for elevators set beside the nearby east-west train tracks.

“It sure is flat,” Bob said.

Back at the house, Arleigh lay down for a nap. He dozed off hearing Bob’s basketball thumping the hard earth, then rattling the chains on the rim.

They could not legally turn loose the dogs before horses until July 15, so they began a day-long program to yard train the young dogs on check cords. Arleigh had arranged in advance of their arrival to acquire barn trapped pigeons from a farmer nearby and these had been housed in an old pigeon house. He showed Bob several ways to use the pigeons with the pupils to confirm their birdiness and pointing instincts. The pigeons had been trained by the farmer to fly back to the Judas gate in the pigeon house to rejoin their companions.

Arleigh assigned half the plantation pups and one of the Derby siblings of Rampaging to Bob. “These are yours to teach, and for you to learn from. Ask me questions anytime, and don’t worry about me thinking your questions are dumb,” Arleigh said.

While Bob was by nature almost painfully quiet, he soon peppered Arleigh with questions. Together they watched on TV bird dog training DVDs. Over coming days Arleigh often found Bob replaying these DVDs at all hours.

Bob also took responsibility for roading the dogs on the ATV early and late in the day and for keeping the ground around the plastic barrels to which they were chained in the shade of a shelter break picked up with shovel and hoe. He also saw to their feeding and watering, as instructed by Arleigh.

Bob rode their four horses daily to keep them in shape. Finally July 15 arrived. At dawn they began working the young plantation pups from horseback.

Young pheasants and sharptails were present in good numbers. They allowed the dogs to flash point and chase until they were thoroughly bird crazy and then showed realization they could not catch their quarry. Before long they were allowing Bob to walk in front of their points and flush the pointed birds. They worked this way early mornings and late afternoons.

There were twenty professionals and their helpers working grounds in a sixty-mile radius of their camp. All knew of Arleigh’s decision to quit the circuit, none of the reason. Rumors abounded — he was taking a plantation job, or a job not involving dogs. The speculation was most about Rampaging’s future, and who would buy him from Arleigh. All the all-age handlers had tried, but Arleigh had told them he was not yet ready to sell. They figured he figured the price would be highest just before the fall half of the season started, when handlers were discouraged by the lack of progress with the dogs they were training.


August 1 Arleigh decided to call Ben Reach. He timed the call just before 5 p. m. hoping to catch Ben and Dr. Sam together for their end-of-day drams. Joanne activated the speaker phone in the library-conference room where the curmudgeons sat nursing their plastic cups.

“How are you Arleigh?” Ben asked.

“Better than I expected to be now, Mr. Ben. Is Dr. Sam with you?”

“Yes I am, Arleigh.”

“Well that’s good, Gentlemen, I hoped I could talk with you both. I’ve got just one question for you. What caused Bob to be charged with assault? He’s the gentlest soul his age I’ve ever met.”

Ben and Sam looked at one another. Bob had asked them not to tell. Ben had answered him, “We won’t unless it’s necessary.”

“He beat up a neighbor in the project who called his mother a whore. She’s a single mother who works two full time jobs to support three children, two now that Bob’s with you,” Ben said.

“I figured something like that. By the way, he’s grown two inches and I think he could play college basketball.” Arleigh hung up.

Ben and Sam smiled at one another and Ben called out to tell Joanne but she had left for the beauty parlor.

Ben poured them a second dividend to celebrate.

Arleigh decided on a strategy for the remains of their summer. He would invite other handlers training nearby to come work with them for a day or two. It was a tradition in the game, gave the dogs a chance to hunt new ground, the handlers and help an opportunity to socialize and see how the competition’s prospects were coming along.

While he had only been roading Rampaging, which he planned to sell by the end of the prairie trials, he would show the dog to select handlers he figured had an owner willing to pay a good price. He had for sale also the three Derby siblings of Rampaging and they were coming along pretty well. They were also teaching Bob about training.

Through the month of August Arleigh and Bob worked dogs on their grounds with a dozen other handlers and their helpers. It was rewarding for them all, with Arleigh catching up with old friends (and fierce competitors) and Bob meeting the handlers and their helpers, often sons or daughters or neighboring farm boys from the handler’s home country, and seeing their dogs, mostly coming Derbies like Rampaging’s siblings.

By the end of August, Arleigh knew he had three very good prospects, better than any brought by the invited handlers, and Bob had gained a world of good experiences, for each time one of their pupils was put down, the bracemate was from the string of a guest handler, and a head-to-head competition resulted.

For some, Arleigh handled and Bob scouted, but when a pupil assigned to Bob was down, Arleigh had Bob handle. Arleigh was amazed at how instinctively Bob sensed the way to guide his charge to seek the front and how responsive the dogs were to swing to Bob’s call when the course changed. He’s a natural bird dog man, Arleigh thought by the end of August.

Meanwhile, when not working dogs or doing chores, Bob was shooting hoops. When other young men were in camp he organized half-court games or “21” shooting contests.

Arleigh was amazed at Bob’s basketball talent, as well as his ability to make friends with all the youngsters who came with the invited handlers. These handlers in turn complimented Arleigh on Bob’s talent with dogs and good manners.

Oddly, the best Derby in Arleigh’s string was not one of Rampaging’s siblings, but one of the plantation dogs brought to Arleigh the day before their departure from Leesburg. Arleigh knew nothing of its breeding, just that it had a super nose and great conformation and a floating gait. It was a female with liver mask and ears and the tell-tale liver spot at the set of her tail that said “Rebel.” It has been assigned to Bob.

Arleigh had decided they would attend only the back-to-back trials at Columbus that would begin right after Labor Day. He would enter Rampaging in the two all-age stakes and the three siblings plus the Rebel Derby in the two Derby stakes, and maybe one or two of the Derbies in the all-age stakes as well. His goal was to sell Rampaging and his siblings at good prices. But before the drawing date came he had widened his goal.

Meanwhile, the handlers he had invited to train with him were calling daily, trying to buy for their owners Rampaging and his Derby siblings and the Rebel Derby. Arleigh asked them questions about their owners and their backgrounds and interests and sources of wealth. The handlers thought he was doing so to assess the prices they might pay, but his purpose had to do with Bob’s future. His goals now had more to do with Bob than the dogs for sale, though the two were perhaps closely related.

Arleigh phoned the dog man on the plantation that had sent him the Rebel Derby. He told him that the Derby was more than a wagon dog, showed real all-age potential.

“I hoped that might be the case. I got her in a puppy trade, she’s by Funseeker’s Rebel,” the dog man said.

“Does Mr. Brown (owner of the plantation that had sent the Rebel Derby) have an interest in trials?” Arleigh asked.

“A little. And I have been trying to increase that interest,” the plantation dog man said. (He had been a for-the-public handler before landing the job with Mr. Brown).

“Does Mr. Brown like basketball?” Arleigh asked next.

“Does he ever. He’s a UNC graduate and a big supporter of their program.”

Arleigh smiled. He already knew that Mr. Brown had a large fortune gathered in Silicon Valley, wherever that was. He’d bought his ten thousand acre plantation near Albany three years before when his Unicorn went public, whatever that meant. Arleigh knew this from Wikipedia (Bob had shown him on Arleigh’s smart phone).

Next day Arleigh called the dog man back.

“Why don’t you and Mr. Brown fly up here and see your Rebel Derby compete. I guarantee she won’t disappoint you or him.” (Arleigh knew this was a reckless promise and that she might well disappoint, but this was time for a little salesmanship, he figured).

“I’ll give it a try.”

Arleigh decided to enter the Rebel Derby in the two all-age stakes as well as the Derby stakes. He would do the same for the best of the three Rampaging sibling Derbies, the one Bob had trained.

The back-to-back trials at Columbus were drawn together, and as soon as the results were out Bob used Arleigh’s smart phone to email the brace sheets to Mr. Brown and his dog man. Next morning Arleigh got a call telling him they would fly up in Mr. Brown’s private jet to see their Rebel Derby run in the first Derby Stake. He invited them to come on arrival to the camp for a cook-out and to see where their Derby had been trained.

After driving them around the training grounds in Arleigh’s truck they went back to camp for drinks and steaks on the grill. While the three adults talked, drinks in hand, Bob put on at Arleigh’s direction a hoop shooting and dribbling exhibition.

In two minutes Mr. Brown had stopped chatting and was mesmerized watching Bob as he sank three pointers one after another from all angles and every few minutes drove the bucket and dunked. When fifteen minutes later Bob took a break, Mr. Brown and his dog man applauded. For the rest of the evening most of the conversation was between Mr. Brown and Bob.

Two of the Rampaging siblings went down next morning in the first and third braces. Then in the day’s last brace Mr. Brown’s Rebel Derby, which Bob had named Sally after his mother, went down with an Alabama-based Derby that had the season before won the Dixie Puppy Classic.

Arleigh had mounts for Mr. Brown and his dog man and had been careful to introduce them to all the handlers who had come with their dogs to train on his grounds. They all had good things to say about Brown’s Rebel Derby. She did not disappoint today, scoring three dug-up finds in an excellent Derby race. She looked like a million on her birds, was steady on the first two, chased a little on her third but stopped on Bob’s quiet command.

Arleigh had seen no better performance before hers. One of the Rampaging siblings he had guessed to be carried by the judges in second place at the first day’s end.

Mr. Brown and his dog man were staying in a motel in Crosby and invited Arleigh and Bob to join them there for supper, but Arleigh declined. He was very fatigued, and it showed. Fortunately his camp was just a few minutes from the trial grounds. Bob loaded the dogs and horses on the trailer and drove for camp. Arleigh was asleep in the passenger seat before they arrived. Bob let him sleep there while he tended to the horses and dogs, then helped him into bed. In two hours he brought Arleigh a cup of soup. He ate it and immediately fell asleep.

Arleigh had expected Mr. Brown would leave after his Rebel Derby ran in the first Derby Stake. But to his surprise Brown announced his intention to stay to the conclusion of both trials. He’s caught the field trial bug, Arleigh thought, and winked at Brown’s dog man. But in truth Brown was more interested in Bob than the dogs.

The first Derby ended mid-day Wednesday. Brown’s Rebel Derby won first, the Rampaging sibling handled by Bob won third (Arleigh was furious at the judges’ call but tried to conceal it without success — Arleigh had never been able to conceal his feelings).

The first open all-age stake was won by Rampaging, and Brown’s Rebel Derby won second. Then in the second Derby Stake, the Rampaging sibling trained and handled by Bob won first, and Brown’s Rebel Derby won second

In the second all-age stake Rampaging again placed first, the Rebel Derby second, and the Rampaging sibling third, all handled by Bob.

Within minutes after pictures were snapped the last handler’s rig save Arleigh’s was leaving its dust cloud on the two-track leading to the north-south section road. The drivers and passengers were disappointed.

Mr. Brown asked Arleigh to get in his rental truck and the two drove the section roads around the trial grounds.

“Why are you quitting the circuit, Arleigh,” Brown asked.

“No choice, I am dying,” Arleigh said.

“What from?”

Arleigh told him. Brown was familiar with the ailment.

“What do you want for Rampaging and the three Derbies?”


“Depends on what?”

“Depends on what you can do for Bob Blevins.”

“How about I send him to a prep school for his junior and senior years of high school. One with a good basketball program and a better academic one?”



“What about college?”

“That will depend on Bob. If he does well enough academically and continues to develop physically the way I think he will he will have lots of choices.”

“What about summers?”

“What does he want to do summers?”

“Says he wants to do what he’s done this summer. Why don’t you take over my deal here, send your man and Bob up here with young wagon dogs to train and some trial prospects?”

Mr. Brown smiled. “That’s what I was hoping you might suggest.”

Arleigh felt a sense of joy unlike any he could recall since before his wife died ten years before.

“How much for the dogs?” Brown asked.“Make me an offer,” Arleigh said, knowing that whatever it was he would take it.

With the deal done, the four men went back to Arleigh’s camp for a celebratory supper of steaks on the grill. On the short drive, Mr. Brown made several phone calls.

Whiskey flowed, field trial stories were told by Arleigh and Brown’s dog man, some true, some maybe not. The steaks, supplied by Mr. Brown and grilled by his dog man, an expert, were the best Bob had ever eaten and though food didn’t taste good to Arleigh since the onset of his illness he enjoyed the first few bites.

Then Mr. Brown announced:

“Arleigh, here is what we are doing tomorrow. Bob and Fred (Brown’s dog man) are going to drive your rig back to Georgia. You and I are going to fly to Cleveland, to the Cleveland Clinic. You are going to undergo some tests, and if they go as expected you will be enrolled in an experimental drug trial I’ve been backing. Of course that will be your decision.”

When Arleigh’s illness had been diagnosed, Sam Nixon had talked with him about the possibility of enrolling in an experimental drug trial. He had declined. He had not changed his mind, but he was going to listen to what the doctors had to say. He now had something to look forward to. It would be great to see Bob out of his home environment with a chance to make a life.

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