The Conflict - By Tom Word

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A lawyer fears a conflict of interest like a foot-plowing share cropper fears a kicking mule. And so fear grew in me after on impulse I recommended Sweetie to John Bassett as a grouse dog after his beloved Jill went to her reward. That recommendation put me in jeopardy of losing both my two best friends and best client and principal source of referrals, and my regular quail-hunting partner and key to quail hunting territory.

The client and friend-in-need-of-a-grouse dog was John D. Bassett III, subject of author Beth Macy's best selling book, Factory Man. My quail hunting partner, also a dear friend, was Joseph D. Prince of Stony Creek, Sussex County, Virginia, legendary farmer and six-day-a-week quail hunter and breeder-owner of the setter Sweetie.

Here is how it happened. But first a brief profile of the characters and my connections to them.

John Bassett is the namesake grandson of J. D. Bassett, founder in 1901 of Bassett Furniture Industries, the world's leading maker of furniture. John had worked at Industries twenty years but at the time of these events had recently left it for another Bassett family-founded furniture maker in southwest Virginia, Vaughan-Bassett of Galax, Virginia, which he was engaged in turning around from near bankruptcy.

I had first met John as a twelve-year-old at the 1950 National Boy Scouts Jamboree held at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania where together we heard President Harry S. Truman speak on July 4, followed by an epic fireworks show. John did not remember me from the Jamboree when I met him again in 1969 at my law firm where he had come for tax advice from my senior tax partner following his father's death. But soon our mutual love of grouse hunting and my lower hourly rate had bonded us in a friendship and lawyer-client relationship that continues to this day, five decades later.

My friendship with Joe Prince began in November, 1973, when Joe's brother David, a life insurance salesman, introduced us in hopes of getting client insurance referrals from me. Joe worked seven days a week March through October grain farming (peanuts, corn, wheat, soybeans). November through February, Joe quail hunted Monday through Saturday, and on Sundays walked bird dog puppies and looked for new coveys. He was a farming and quail hunting legend in Sussex County, where his father had practiced family medicine almost sixty years. As a result, Joe had hunting permission on most every farm in a ten-mile radius of Stony Creek, a farming village that had once supported four cotton gins. Most Saturdays and any weekday I could get away from the office, Joe welcomed me to hunt quail with him.

When I met Joe he had a kennel full of pointers, all descended from Lucky, a pup of unknown lineage Joe bought in the 1950's from a dog jockey at Zions Cross Roads, Virginia, named Wilson that became famous in Sussex County. He was named by Frank Slade, a hunting buddy of Joe's at the time, on the last day of his first hunting season after spending that season running up birds. Joe had been patient with him until the season's last day when Joe and Frank administered Lesson No. 9 to the pup repeatedly until near the day's end, when Lucky finally became reliably staunch and never again bumped, much less ran up, a quail. Until that day, the pup had run free on Joe's farms and around Stony Creek learning to find birds on his own.

Now about Sweetie. I was a setter man (Joe had hunted setters in childhood but gave them up when he found Lucky, ostensibly because of the ubiquitous presence of sheep burrs in his territory. "I don't have time to pick burrs out of dogs ears," Joe said.)

To ingratiate myself with Joe, I gave him a setter pup sired by Anchor Man, a Smith setter. Joe let the pup run free (his unvarying practice with puppy prospects) and in two weeks reported the pup dead (it fell asleep in the shade of Joe's pickup and Joe accidentally ran over it when leaving home to inspect crops).

Joe was mortified. To console him I got for Joe from my friend Bill Anderson of Danville a weanling setter pup he named Flash. Flash proved the equal (in Joe's estimation) of the original Lucky, a stylish Adonis, white with gold ears, poker straight twelve o'clock tail, a bird-finding machine and naturally soft-mouthed retriever.

Joe hinted he would like to raise pups from Flash and I responded by acquiring from Arthur Bean a young daughter of Alamance Pride as a gift for Joe . He named her Stony Creek Pat for my bride. Bred to Flash repeatedly (they had more than a dozen litters) they proved a great nick. It was this nick that produced Sweetie.

Joe picked her as a keeper and allowed her to run free through puppyhood in the accustomed manner. When quail season opened when she was a derby she was loaded in Joe's truck without training and turned loose with Flash as the day's first brace. They were down together until the lunch break and together found eight coveys, sometimes Sweetie in front with Flash backing, sometimes the reverse. They bumped not a bird. Sweetie backed without command and retrieved with a soft mouth.

Amazingly, Sweetie was born broke, the only example I ever saw. That first day I saw in her an ideal grouse dog, a nose that told her "woah" at the first hint of bird scent and a natural keep-the-front pattern. That's why when a year later John Bassett called me inquiring about a grouse dog to buy, I thought of Sweetie. I told John about her and then said, " I doubt Joe would sell her but if I were looking for a grouse dog she would be my first choice."

"Call Joe and ask him," John responded. (John had earlier hunted quail with Joe and me at Stony Creek and seen Flash in action).

So I called Joe and asked if he would consider selling Sweetie to John Bassett for a grouse dog. Joe hesitated just a moment, then said, "Yes, a fair price."

"What do you consider a fair price, " I asked.

Again a brief pause, then Joe said, " I will let you set what is a fair price. You have seen Sweetie hunt and I trust you."

" I am not going to get in the middle of this deal," I said.

"You already have," Joe said, and from his voice I could picture his grin. He hung up.

I called John and told him Joe would sell Sweetie but would not set an asking price, insisting that John make him an offer.

John responded: "What should I offer?"

"I don't know John, and I don't want to get into the pricing of Sweetie. You and Joe are my best friends and I have a conflict of interest."

" I will offer what you think is fair," John said without hesitation. I had not told John that Joe had said he would take what I said was fair.

I was firmly caught in the spider web of the worst conflict of interest of my then twenty-four-year career as a lawyer. I saw the prospect of the loss of two dear friends, my best client and referral source, and the best quail hunting deal in America.

"You call Joe Prince and tell him I will offer him for Sweetie whatever you say is a fair price," John said.

"Joe has already said he will take what I say is fair, but I refuse to say. It's not fair to ask me to get in the middle on this. It's a clear conflict of interest. Lawyers are prohibited by ethics rules from getting involved in conflicts of interest."

"This is not a legal matter. It's a bird dog matter," John said, a hint of disgust in his voice. "I waive any conflict of interest and Joe has told you he does too."

I knew they both waived the conflict and wanted me to price Sweetie. I desperately wanted not to. But I knew I was hooked. They were going to insist, and I could not refuse.

"Let me think about it," I said, and hung up. I called Joe and he confirmed his willingness to sell Sweetie for whatever I said was fair.

"You know John is my best client and best referral source for law business," I told Joe again. "Yes, I know that," Joe said, and hung up.

I began to sweat. I slept little that night. Next morning I called Joe and then John and said, "I think $1000 is a fair price." It was 1985.

John drove with his wife Pat to Stony Creek on Sunday, and I met them there. As Pat sat in her car reading a book, Joe, John and I took Sweetie and Flash to see if we could find a quail (the quail season had ended). Flash found a paired off couple, and Sweetie backed him.

"I think $500 would probably be fair," John said, half in jest

" I might have been born in Stony Creek, but it wasn't yesterday," Joe responded.

Back at Joe's house, John had Pat write Joe a check for $1000 and with Sweetie in the trunk they left for the long drive back to Galax, Virginia.

Three days later, John called me. "Sweetie won't get out of her box in the kennel. When I try to coax her out she growls at me. She won't eat."

I couldn't believe it. This was totally unlike Sweetie, one of the most affectionate dogs I had ever known.

"Is she Ill?" I asked.

"I think she is homesick," John said.

My worst nightmare had been confirmed.

"I'll buy her from you for $1000, plus your expenses coming to Stony Creek," I said.

"Let me work with her a while, see if I can get her over it," John said.

I called him against on Sunday. She still would not eat or come out of her box, still growled at John when he approached her run.

" I put a pan of water in her box, but she won't come out for food or let me pet her. I am going to try to get her to my Vet tomorrow to be sure she does not have a medical problem," John said, disgust in his voice. I repeated my offer to buy her.

Joe called me for a report, and I told him the news. Joe just chuckled.

Monday night I called John again. " Vet says he thinks she is just depressed, misses all the dogs in the kennel where she had lived, or misses Joe. Says she should get over it, but maybe not." I repeated my offer to buy her.

I was relieved there was apparently no physical problem, but there sure was a mental one. I was praying for a cure now, and cursing myself for getting between my two best friends on a dog trade.

A week later when I called John, he said, " I think I've made a little progress. She has stopped growling at me, eats a little, but still stays in her box mostly and won't come out when I am around."

*. *. *
It took Sweetie more than a month to acclimate to her new home. John spent time every evening at her kennel run making friends. Grouse season arrived and I held my breath, awaiting a call from John on Sweetie's performance as a grouse dog. She had never smelled a grouse or been hunted west of Virginia's tide line, just west of Stony Creek. In those days John and I hunted grouse mostly in Highland and Bath Counties, Virginia, and eastern West Virginia.

Early reports were cautious, but by season's end John confirmed my instincts. Sweetie had proved herself an ideal grouse dog, and saved me from the loss of my two best friends and best client. I have never since expressed an opinion on the monetary value of a dog owned by another.


About the Author

Tom Word
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Tom Word is a lawyer who represents individuals about managing their assets and for amusement writes fiction and non-fiction about bird dogs and humans obsessed with them.


About the Artist

Leah Brigham
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After graduating from Millersville University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelors of Science in Art Education, Leah began teaching Art to inner city Middle School students in Houston and later Dallas, TX. Leah has shared with her students her passion for art and nature. This passion has sustained her and continued throughout her life in the form of painting and drawing.

Leah was introduced to American Field Horseback Field Trails and has been able to experience the excitement of seeing her own dog, competing for the National Championship at Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, TN ...standing on point, head and tail held high. This has inspired her to create works of art depicting dogs and the wildlife associated with the sport and hunting.

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