Concerning events that culminated in a most unusual horse race (Late 1800’s)
Neely’s – El Paso
Another slow burning day, fire in the sky throwing down smouldering heat like it was pouring out the devil’s own furnace. I’d gotten in a few days ago and I was glad to be home I can tell you. I’d been travelling for about three months and the trail had taken its toll on my aging bones. The gelding stepped out lively and there’s just got to be something wrong with a horse that willing. I was glad to be home just to walk around and loosen the kinks in my spine from all that jouncing around.
I was sitting down to a steak heaped over with fried potatoes and chilli beans when Neely pulled up a chair and told me about Utah Red with whom, he said, he’d had a passing acquaintance back in the days when Harpo Kane the Colorado Gunfighter was a young man, and Neely’s was just a rundown saloon, come meeting place with rooms to rent.
Neely said, “Utah was a bronco buster with the uncanny knack of gentling horses nobody in his right mind wanted any part of. That’s a rare gift BW, man like that gets talked about and Utah was no exception. He rode a horse folks called Old Snaky; I never did hear what Utah called it. I swear to God BW that horse looked like a bag of bones asleep on its feet and not likely to rouse itself anytime soon and damn it was ugly. Fact is I’d never seen a horse like it before or since, like it was put together all wrong, had a long, snaky neck and a head like a mule.
You see Utah riding into town you sort of stop and stare and find yourself willing that ole bag of bones he’s riding to make it to the hitchin’ rail, it looked that frazzled. Forelegs all splayed out, head drooping like its too heavy for its neck to support, eyes half closed and damn it kind of shuffled through the dust like its too plain wore out to walk spry, and you just have to ask yourself why a man like Utah, whose forgotten more about horseflesh than most of us will ever know, would bother to even climb aboard, and yet Utah swore by that horse. “You ain’t looking at it right,” he’d say, “you just ain’t seeing what’s there, you’re letting your eyes make judgement, you’re blind siding yourself,” he’d say with a wry half smile, “looks ain’t all, I can tell you and I’m a man who knows horseflesh. You might want to think about that. Ain’t good to pass judgement on looks alone, ain’t good at all, but I expect you all know that now don’t you.” Then he’d call for a round and shift the topic of conversation to something else.
And then one day the whole damn town found out why Utah Red swore by that horse.
Jake Silvers owned a cattle ranch a few miles north of town. Jake was pugnacious, disputatious and about as loud mouthed as they come. He rolled over you like an avalanche airing his views in a listen to me kind of voice like he was God’s own authority on anything and everything under the sun. The idea that you just might not want to listen to much of anything he had to say never entered his mind. Jake was bad for business what with folks scattering to the winds when he walked in calling for a beer.
Basically, and I’m doing him a favour here, Jake’s problem was he knew he was right. He was born knowing he was right and you just can’t reason with a man who thinks like that now can you. So of course nobody tried, it just wasn’t worth the effort of trying. Mostly his victims kind of stood there looking pissed off, suffering in silence until his mouth ran down or he turned toward some other hapless soul more deserving of his opinion that was, to Jake’s way of thinking, akin to holy writ.
As for why he was tolerated, well now BW, what you have to understand is back then cash money was almighty scarce. Folks mostly traded for their needs so any reasonably steady source of cash money, and I’m talking silver dollars here, was treated with the respect it deserved, and Jake Silvers was just that, a steady source of income you just don’t want to lose, for all he was an irksome man. What I’m saying is the town, such as it was, needed Jake Silvers more than Jake Silvers needed the town, and he knew it.
Jake was a good cattleman, a decent boss who paid well and ran a decent spread, but I’d say it was his Frenchie cook that was the draw card. He served up the tastiest grub in the territory day in day out. The story goes that he was a big time chef in one of those famous hotels back in Paris France only he got a little too friendly with the owner’s daughter. Seems like his boss was one of those old noble bloods all piss and pride. He said Lewy had shamed his daughter and dragged his name through the mud. He said, “Marry my daughter and all is forgiven. If you do not,” he was told, “I will have you killed.” Of course Lewy agreed, what other choice did he have. A wedding was planned the date set in stone. The owner treated Lewy like family and promised him a free hand to run the kitchen and the hotel.
The wedding day was confusion so of course no one had time to wonder where the groom might be other than in his rooms dressing for the ceremony. Lewy wasn’t even in Paris, seems like he bided his time during the weeks leading up to the wedding, laid his plans and come the day of the wedding he sailed on the morning tide aboard a trading ship bound for New York. Once he set foot on American soil he took off running and headed west. He was down and out when Jake hired him and according to Jake he never leaves the ranch.
And then one day Jake bought a fast horse and wouldn’t you just know things got a whole lot worse. He said he bought the horse, a black mare, from a drifter who claimed he found the animal wandering around the Glass Mountain country.
The black was fast, over four miles it couldn’t be beaten. Jake was in his element. The town groaned. There wasn’t much entertainment back then so any kind of a race turned into a social event and Jake milked it for all it was worth.
He put up a personal stake of one hundred dollars and let it be known that he would race the black against any rider who matched his stake. Once word got around, damn, they came from all over. Tucson, Socorro, Laredo and any place in between that had a rider with a fast horse. Over four miles the black beat them all, again and again, and Jake made a pile of money. The town did alright too. People flocked to the races which were held the last Saturday in every month and of course Jake never stoped talking about the black and how smart he was to buy that horse from a no account drifter because he realised the minute he laid eyes on it that the black was a winner. Of course he didn’t know, it was just plain luck, but by then Jake had convinced himself otherwise and never stopped letting folks know how smart he was. This went on for about twelve months before it all dried up. There were no fast horses left to race against the black. Jake said he’d race the black against any horse for the hell of it no money involved but there were no takers. By then folks were just plain fed up of listening to Jake’s mouth and prayed to God for a fast horse to come along and beat the black just to shut him up. Damn he was irksome.
Utah had been out of town for close on twelve months breaking horses for the army over to Fort Stockton and Fort Worth. He’d heard about Jake’s black but he never said much, just rode in one day and settled down to wait for his next job. He was in demand so the most he got was a week or two before riding out again. It didn’t take him long to find Jake’s one sided conversation concerning the black downright wearisome. You understand BW Jake just plain wore everybody down. He wasn’t a bad man but damn he could empty a barroom faster than a rattlesnake on the loose, and Utah as it turned out was not appreciative of his rest time being continually interrupted by Jake mouthing off at every opportunity.
As it turned out Utah surprised the hell out of the whole darn town. Even the preacher went down on his knees and gave thanks the day Jake finally slowed his mouth down.
It was a lazy Saturday afternoon, the bar had about twenty customers spread around inside and out on the boardwalk. Across the street a group of children kicked a ball around. Womenfolk wandered by clutching shopping baskets, eyes averted when they passed by the saloon. A yellow backed dog panted in the shade, head resting on its paws. Horses stamped and blew at the hitching rail. The day was warm but not hot, the air still and hazy with sunlight. Utah was seated in a corner; legs stretched out as he drank his beer and rolled a smoke. All was right with the world until Jake walked in. He ordered a beer and started in talking about his fast horse before he even tasted a drop. I swear to God you could just about hear the town groan, and from the look on some of the faces in the barroom there was going to be a mass walk out any minute. Like I said earlier, Jake was real bad for business.
Utah sighed like a locomotive blowing off steam, straightened up in his chair and said in voice loud enough to get Jake’s attention; “Your black ain’t that fast Jake.”
Jake turned and stared at Utah like he hadn’t heard right. Every voice in the barroom stilled, you could have heard a pin drop. The boys outside shuffled in, nobody wanted to miss this. You understand BW this was the stuff of legend in the making. Utah Red, a noted authority on horseflesh had just told Jake Silver that his fast horse ain’t that fast. A horse that so far had never been beat over a distance of four miles. There just wasn’t another horse in the territory faster than Jake’s black and Utah had just said, ‘Your black ain’t that fast Jake,’ damn it was priceless.
Jake kind of puffed up like a bullfrog and stared at Utah, who didn’t bat an eye, and said in a belligerent tone of voice, “Back off Utah you know you’re talking shit, that black of mine ain’t never been beat.”
“Well,” Utah replied all slow and easy, “that’s because your black ain’t raced against what you’d call a fast horse over that four mile track of yours.”
You could see Jake was puzzled, as indeed we all were. Jake said, “Where you go’n with this Utah. I just plain don’t follow your thinkin’, everybody in town has seen me ride that black against the best there is, and I ain’t never been beat!”
Utah swallowed a mouthful of beer, rolled a smoke and said into the silence, “They weren’t fast horses Jake.”
All eyes were on Utah, even Jake wasn’t blustering anymore, when Utah said, soft as a whisper, “Truth is Jake, there ain’t but one fast horse in the territory.”
“Oh yeah,” says Jake, “and what horse might that be?”
“Why,” Utah said with a smile, “Ole Snaky of course.”
Jake just gawped, took a breath and said, “Aw come on Utah, that old bag of bones has trouble crossing the street.”
Utah smiled like a wolf and moved in for the kill, “You want to bet on it Jake, your black against Ole Snaky over four miles.”
It was so quiet it hurt your ears.
“You ain’t serious Utah, you can’t be!!”
Utah just smiled and said, “It’s your call Jake.”
Jake shrugged and looked around like he wasn’t really sure what was going on, you could almost hear him thinking, is Utah setting this up to make a laughing stock out of me, or is he for real. But he can’t be Ole Snaky is no contest against the black. What the hell is he playing at?
“Okay Utah,” Jake finally conceded, “I’m willing to bet on the black, what do you have in mind?
Utah said, “I’ll put up a stallion and a thousand dollars cash money against your black winner take all. Utah smiled, I’m of a mind to set up a horse ranch and your mare will do fine, she ain’t fast,” he added laconically but she ain’t slow that’s for sure. Yep,” he said, “your mare and my stallion will do just fine.”
Jake gaped like he couldn’t believe what he was hearin’. Then his face clouded over and you just knew he was boiling inside. “Jesus Christ Almighty Utah, are you crazy or what?”
Utah just sat there with a faint smile on his face. About then Jake realised he had to put up or shut up, you could just about see all the bombast and bluster leaking out like snake oil.
“Alright Utah,” he growled, “you called it, so yeah I’ll take your bet and everything you own. I’ll match your thousand and your damn stallion which I ain’t seen hide nor hair of, but I’ll take your given word the stallion is sound. You can eat my dust Utah because that’s about all you’re gonna see, and you’d better bring a spare mount unless you’re planning to walk home,” he added with a sneer as he turned round and stomped out.
The race was set for the following Saturday afternoon three o’clock sharp. I was elected to hold the prize money, all two thousand dollars of it. That kind of money makes a man sweat, so I hired one of the boys in off the range to sit in my office with a shotgun loaded and primed just in case the devil came calling and hung out his temptation shingle because its for sure the town was home to more’n its fair share of sinners back then. Yeah you can smile BW, but I didn’t rest easy until that race was yesterday’s news.
Word of the race and the bet spread like a prairie fire. Three days before the race and the town was bursting at the seams. I swear to God I don’t know where all the people came from. Mostly folks set up camp outside town. Cowboys, drifters and gamblers slept rough. Whole families rolled in, setting up tents and a huge communal fire pit come meeting place. There was fiddle players and dancing, beer and beef, and some of the womenfolk set up Dutch ovens and started in to baking pies and cakes. The coming race was a show, an entertainment and folks were making the most of it. There was wrestling when the men got drunk enough and target shooting, pistol and long gun for a prize of free beer or maybe one of those sweet cakes I swear would tempt the Lord himself. On the morning of the day of the race the womenfolk had a bake off. Jake’s Frenchie cook Lewy was the judge handing out prizes of blue ribbons and a bolt of calico. Jake had somehow persuaded Lewy to leave the ranch and he was making the most of it. He set up an iron spit across the fire pit and set to roasting haunches of beef, so tender it damn near fell off the bone.
The day turned out to be a glory. Warm and still. The smell of baking and roasting beef filled the air. The blue sky shone like polished glass and the sun was a mellow, yellow lamp beaming down. There was laughter and music and a lot of courtin’ going on between the young folk. In between all this a lot of bets were being laid, signed and sealed with a hand shake. At first all the money was on the black to win as you would expect. The town in general tut tutting over Utah’s foolish bet. I mean Sweet Lord, Ole Snaky against the black, you’ve got to be kidding.
Then one night when a crowd was gathered around the fire pit eating Lewy’s beef, Joe Switch who ran the livery stable back then said he’d known Utah on and off for most of his life. Joe was up front sitting near the fire sippin’ white lightning when he said, “Maybe you folks have got it all wrong.”
There’s a hush and then a voice says, “What exactly do you mean by that?”
“Well,” says Joe, “think about it. Utah knows full well Jake’s black ain’t never been beat. You all know Utah ain’t hasty, what I mean is he ain’t rash, he don’t jump before he looks, and he’s for damn sure the best judge of horseflesh in the territory. We say he’s got Indian sense, the banker calls it intuitive knowingness (whatever that might be) the preacher says it’s a gift from God. What I’m saying is, we all know about it but we don’t think about it, it’s just Utah, it’s what he does and any one of us would accept Utah’s opinion on a horse like it was holy writ.” The silence as Joe spoke was profound. “So ease off and think about it, is all I’m sayin’. Years back when Utah rode in on a horse that looked so damn tired you’d swear it was sleep walking, we all laughed fit to bust. Utah didn’t take offence, he just smiled and said he swore by that horse and from that day to this not a one of us has ever seen him riding another horse, ‘cept when he’s working o’course. Now why is that, did you ever stop to think, why does Utah, who knows horseflesh better’n anybody in the territory, swear by Ole Snaky?
The next day a few bets were laid on Utah but not many. Folks had seen the black run against the best and win every time, and there was Ole Snaky practically leaning on the hitchin’ rail, long neck drooping, eyes half closed, front legs splayed out like they was having difficulty supporting its weight and it couldn’t even raise enough energy to swish its tale and keep the flies away from its arse. Folks took one look and shook their heads muttering about nobody’s perfect and Utah slipped up big time when he claimed Ole Snaky was a fast horse. Pride they said, that’s what it was, the devil filled him full of pride and pulled him in, damn did you ever see a sorrier looking bag of bones, fast horse – yeah right – in Utah’s dreams maybe.
Utah of course never said a word. He just sat in a corner of the barroom, legs stretched out drinking coffee and rolling smokes taking a break from his hectic schedule every now and again to take a piss and eat a plate of chilli beans and beef with a slab of bread on the side. That’s about all he did right up to the day of the race, and then suddenly it was show time.
Outside of town there’s an old, dead stump by the side of the trail painted white. From the centre of town to the white stump is judged to be two miles, or as close to as makes no difference. To the white stump and back to the centre of town, marked that day by a white line, was the race. First across the line takes all. The preacher sat his horse to one side of the white stump to ensure no contestant rode short and turned before the full body length of his horse had passed the stump. The course was straight and flat and sandy, no surprises, but it was a punishing run for any horse running flat out. Your mount would need speed and endurance, and the black had both. Therefore only a faster horse, possessed of a greater depth of endurance was likely to win out against the black; if, that is, one considers the rider’s level of horsemanship to be about equal: The black looked big and strong, Ole Snaky low and long and droopy.
A single pistol shot signalled the start of the race.
You understand BW, I wasn’t riding with the contestants, I can only describe what I could see. I’d made my way to the edge of town, a big crowd was gathered, the cheering and screaming was deafening. From where I stood I could see the white stump gleaming in the sun. The preacher sat his horse well off to the left so he wouldn’t get in the way of the riders if they swung a might wide as they turned. I figured whichever rider passed by me first on the return leg would be the winner, unless of course they was running neck to neck which wasn’t likely. I’d got money on Utah to win.
I reasoned there was no way Utah was racing for pride alone. He’d put up everything he owned including his stake to set up a horse ranch. He’d spoken about it now and again over the years. So I figured there just had to be more to Old Snaky than met the eye. (Neely shook his head.) You just wouldn’t believe the odds I got betting on that horse, ninety to one, he breathed out reverently.
The sun was low and mellow. A strange hush descended on the crowd. Somewhere a dog yelped and then suddenly a single pistol shot ruptured the silence. The crowd started yelling fit to bust when the black took off like it had been swatted across the rump. Jake leaned forward and low to cut wind resistance. Dust boiled up behind the black’s flying feet. Damn it was fast. Jake risked a quick glance over his shoulder and you could see him grin. Ole Snaky was so far behind I guess Jake figured he’d already as good as won. Now that was prideful. The black was halfway to the stump by then of course so maybe at that point Jake was justified in thinking such. By the time Jake rounded the stump in a billowing cloud of dust, Utah had caught up some but not by much. And then it all seemed to happen at once.
I could see Utah bending real low, sort of stretching forward as if he was talking in the horse’s ear. Ole Snaky was running all out of plumb like his legs didn’t belong to his body and he really didn’t know what to do with ‘em anyway, and that long neck of his was just getting in the way. If his head dropped any lower I swear it’d be dragging in the dust. When Utah rounded the stump Jake was halfway home. As best as I could judge I’d say he was a shade under a mile in front and in a horse race that’s a long, long way. Ain’t no horse alive you would think that could eat that kind of distance up and come home a winner. You’d put money on that. Fact is nobody in there right mind would bet their hard earned cash on a horse trailing a mile or so behind, a horse pounding home with less than a mile to go.
Like I said, I saw Utah bend forward and low like he was talking to Ole Snaky. Sweet Jesus BW you wouldn’t believe what happened next, you just wouldn’t, it was one of those rare moments you have to witness for yourself. Whatever Utah said to that horse acted like a magic potion. Ole Snaky had by then rounded the stump and it was a straight run to the finishing line, winner take all.
Well, that horse of Utah’s sort of stretched out, his long neck up a little and slightly arched, like he wanted to see where he was going and how far in front the opposition might be. His whole body changed all fluid muscle and legs pounding smooth as pistons eating up distance. You wouldn’t believe this was the same horse you’d seen earlier leaning on the hitching rail half asleep, I swear BW it transformed itself into a running machine. The crowd fell quiet. I expect they couldn’t believe what they was seeing either.
Jake had a quarter mile to go, Utah no more than three lengths behind him. Jake looked over his shoulder and visibly shuddered. He urged the black to increase its speed. The black was willing and shot forward. It looked like it was pulling Ole Snaky along in its wake Utah was that close. Jake looked desperate. Utah bent low and talked to his horse. Ole Snaky flowed over the track. I seen one of them English greyhounds run like that one time. That’s what Ole Snaky looked like the way he was running and increasing his speed. Damn it was beautiful, no other word for it. It put me in mind of what that poet said, poetry in motion. The black did its best and God knows it was willing to run. Ole Snaky just seemed to draw it in and streak by a few lengths out from the edge of town and he didn’t seem to be struggling none and you just knew as you watched Jake’s race collapse around him that Ole Snaky could run even faster if it was of a mind to, but why bother when its current speed was carrying it home a winner.
When Utah crossed the finishing line six, maybe eight lengths in front of the black, damn near the whole town gasped and groaned in shock.
Utah set up his horse ranch. Jake finally dropped his irksome ways. Joe Switch won some money, how much he never did say. As for me I had to practically pistol whip the gambler who took my bet before he made good on what he owed. Lewy up and disappeared one day. He left a note saying he was heading back to France.
Wasn’t but a couple of years later; well, maybe closer to four, when Harpo Kane showed up under an assumed name: I knew who he was right off: He just wanted a place to stay and relax for a while and he always paid cash money up front. A lonesome kind of a man, like he carried a burden, a ghost on his back you might say, but like I said I knew who he was right off; Harpo Kane, the Colorado Gunfighter, friend to the outlaw Johnny Sonora.
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