American Field

What Mr. Billy Morton Taught Me

By Danny Bardwell | Jul 23, 2020
Billy Morton

PLANS were made for several of us to meet at the restaurant in Robert and then head to Poplarville and the New Year’s Day running of the Southern Championship.

At the time, none of us had ever seen a big-time trial. The weather was unusually warm and humid with a forecast of a cold front coming that afternoon.

After breakfast I parked my truck and trailer off to the side and loaded my horse in with Fury, Lee Willie’s black mount. (Fury is another story. He pulled on the reins from the day he was born until the day he died. Lee was a big man and it took all he had to hold Fury back.)

Our three trucks and trailers headed northeast for ninety minutes. We left  before six, allowing ample time for incidents. There were none so we arrived at an early 7:15 a. m.

The road off the main highway to the clubhouse was a typical red Mississippi mud road and a recent rain had it in a sloppy state. We made it alright, but the entire face of our trailers were covered.   It was nasty.

No one was stirring around the clubhouse when we arrived so we unloaded, saddled up, and began talking dogs and the warm weather. That’s when it occurred to me that I had left my “just in case” jacket back in my truck at Robert. Oh, well, I sure didn’t need it at that time. I was wearing a new shirt my wife had given me for  Christmas. It was white, long sleeved, with green embroidered scroll on the shoulders and down the back a ways, a western shirt. I really liked it. Forty years ago and I can still picture that shirt in my mind, and what it reminds me of every time.

A whirring, spinning sound came from out of sight and down the muddy road. Someone was coming in a hurry.  A big white Lincoln Continental came fish tailing around the last curve, back end spinning from ditch to ditch. It was making slow but steady progress. Mud was flying from the rear tires and the engine was whining at a high rate. The car would have been doing seventy miles an hour had it been on solid ground. We cleared our horses away and gave much respect and ground to the incoming vehicle. The pilot spied our area and no doubt sensed it to be terra firma and zeroed in on us.

The car came to a sliding stop and out stepped a young man twenty or so, about my age. He  excitedly bid us good morning and asked if the first brace had left. We answered in the negative and saw an immediate relief to his demeanor. “Whew,” he said. “I thought it started at seven.” He then proceeded to open the back door of the Lincoln, revealing a red leather interior, red carpet throughout, and the latest amenities available to a vehicle of that day. Also revealed was a slim lightly speckled ear pointer stretched out in slumber on the seat.

“Come here, Bess,” the pilot said to his lone passenger. Bess blinked, raised her head, rose from her leather bed and made the little leap hock deep into the red mud. She walked away slowly, taking time to raise each paw clear of the mud before making another identical step where she carefully went hock deep again. When she had went a lady-like distance away from our crowd she squatted, peed, and made the same muddy trek back to the car. With the door still open she leapt  up onto the red leather seat, mud and all. The pilot reached for a rag on the front seat and cleaned her paws. Then she laid her head down and returned to her slumber.

“What dog is that?” I asked.

The polite pilot answered. “That’s Allure, she’s running in the first brace.”  By then others were arriving, and the scene began to take on a typical field trial atmosphere. Horses were  being brushed and saddled. Excited men calling for “Dogs on the truck!” Our little group was still in shock. Allure? We looked at each other, the storied belle of Sedgefields Plantation, Mr. Jimmy Hinton’s Bess, Billy Morton’s champion! If we’d left right then and there our trip would have been a complete success.

But we didn’t leave right then and there. We mounted our horses and fell in with the large gallery headed to the breakaway. Riders that morning included Dr. Larry Mitchell, Richard Boetler, Flop Morrison, Marshall Loftin, Bill and Linda Hunt, and many others, making the list too rich for me to digest at the time. Let’s just say it was star-studded.

The dog truck was waiting as we arrived. Mrs. Barbara Fairchild took a moment to announce the trial formalities, judges, and contestants to be released that morning. My mind though was primarily focused on Billy Morton and Allure. I don’t recall their bracemate’s name or the other handler.  The young pilot, I now know to be Billy Wayne Morton, Mr. Billy Morton’s son, led his horse to the dog truck and retrieved Allure from a box on the top row. He snapped one of his reins onto her collar and led her and his horse to a spot twenty or so feet out in front of our gallery. She sat on her back haunches, seemingly unconcerned or maybe “unimpressed” by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the championship unfolding that day.

Bert Wimmer and Urban Spaetti, two dog men from the farm country of Indiana, were judging. “Turn ’em loose,” one said, and we were off.

The bracemate sped off in exactly the way I envisioned a field trial dog would. White, strong, courageous and fast, it sped over the hillside and was shown going away. Mr. Morton and Allure set out in a very different mode, a mode quite like I had set out on often, like a hunting trip.

Off to one side, Allure slipped quietly down toward and around a thicket in an oak bottom and disappeared from sight. Both handlers rode the ridges and occasionally pointed out their dogs hunting likely spots. Allure seemed to seek the quieter, softer edges, briar patches and oak flats. The bracemate chose the longer pasture perimeters. He was making bold casts, and was thrilling to watch.

The weather was beginning to make a change. Cooler air began to drift in and it forced the humid air to the ground forming a cloud layer just above the surface, like what you see in a horror movie during the cemetery scene, ominous.

Morton, at about thirty minutes into the ninety-minute heat, came riding out from a thick bottom and signaled that Allure was pointing. The gallery cantered to where Morton waited. When we arrived his outstretched arm guided our eyes to a speck of white buried in a tangle of dead honeysuckle vine. Allure’s tail and the last third of her slim frame were all that were visible, and then only when a gust of cool breeze blew the fog layer away for a moment.

Morton rode toward her, dismounted, pulled his shotgun from its scabbard. As he waded into the brush, quail began to lift out of the haze now covering the ground. The shotgun blast sent a cluster of oak leaves drifting in the now brisk breeze.

Later in the brace, maybe seventy-five minutes into it, Morton seemed puzzled as to where his dog was. In the distance to the north, the sky was turning dark black, and a sense of urgency was now taking grip on us all. Heavy rain was imminent. Morton would ride one way and then the other, calling, ever scanning across the wide open course ahead and then into the bottoms that bordered our flank. He hadn’t shown her since crossing through the big gap entering the stocker pasture we were riding in. We rode on for five or ten minutes and the ninetieth and final minute seemed to be closing in without Allure on hand.

The sky darkened even more. The chill of a wind fresh just ahead of a cold rain began to hit us. We then heard a voice call from far to our left and slightly behind. It was the young pilot, Billy Wayne, riding at a lope waving his Red Man cap in the air. “POINT! Point over here!” We turned and galloped our horses toward the rider, who by now had stopped and waited for us. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but the son was fervently telling his father just how to find the lost dog. After a series of arm gestures and finger indicating direction, the elder Morton galloped a quarter-mile to a fence, peered over it and raised his hat as the ninety minutes ticked away.

As we rode we watched Mr. Billy climb over a barbed wire fence and walk the hundred yards to another tightly grouped covey that flew away from under Allure’s nose. “Pick ’em up!” One of the judges shouted.

The judge’s voice could have been the voice of God calling rain down from heaven. As quick as the orders cleared the judge’s mouth a rare clap of January thunder echoed across the wide expanse of the Poplarville landscape, and rain drops as big as white oak acorns began to pelt everyone in attendance. The wind howled and blew  blinding sheets of water sideways across the stocker pasture, sending calves bawling into the nearby thickets, and the gallery racing, heads bowed, toward the dog truck parked on the knoll ahead.

The  wet white shirt clung tight to my cold goose pimpled skin and my pants were soaked. Rain water had filled my boots up to the pulls. The wetness could have been tolerated as the storm was short lived, but the fifteen minutes of strong rain was followed by plummeting temperatures.  What became wet instantly, became freezing just as quickly. I shivered uncontrollably and my teeth were chattering like a child’s. My horse shook to rid himself of the wetness and nearly threw me off. I was almost too cold to maintain my balance.

I managed to get to the dog truck just as Mr. Billy got there. He, in a yellow slicker, handed off his horse to someone and jumped into the truck. In a few moments Billy Wayne came riding up with Allure straining at the end of a check cord snapped to the saddle.  As Mr. Billy got out of the truck, the yellow slicker fell off the truck seat onto the ground. He wasn’t wearing it anymore, instead, he was wearing a warm looking blue coat with a hood.   Somehow, in the confines of the truck, he was able to remove the slicker and put on the new coat. My chance I thought. “Mr. Morton,” I asked, “do you think I could borrow your slicker until we get to the clubhouse?”

He was in the process of unsnapping Allure from the cord and looked over his shoulder to see who had addressed him, me. He glanced just a moment and returned his focus to Allure. “No son, I need it,” he answered. Now what in the world would he be needing that slicker for in the cab of that truck I thought. He had Allure by the collar now and with one hand reached to the truck seat and retrieved a bath towel. He briskly rubbed Allure. He cleaned the caked mud from her and toweling her both with the grain of her hair and then against, and then finally smoothing her totally dry. He then took the slicker, turned inside out with a thin  fleece lining exposed, and blanketed the inside of the top box. He carefully place Allure inside and snapped the  wire door shut. She curled up in a tight circle with her head lying on her front paws, content.

No other braces were run that day or the next. Pipes froze and school was called off. Two days later the trial continued and when all the dogs had run, Allure was called back to run again. I wasn’t on hand for the callback, but I was told she had three covey finds that time down and won the coveted Southern Championship (1979).

Besides Allure’s showing that day being a favorite dog memory of mine, I’ve always remembered what Mr. Billy Morton taught me . . .  When you run a dog in a field trial, go bird hunting, don’t forget your jacket.

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