Negligible Tales, by Ambrose Bierce

The Race at Left Bower

“It’s all very well fer you Britishers to go assin’ about the country tryin’ to strike the trail o’ the mines you’ve salted down yer loose carpital in,” said Colonel Jackhigh, setting his empty glass on the counter and wiping his lips with his coat sleeve; “but w’en it comes to hoss racin’, w’y I’ve got a cayuse ken lay over all the thurrerbreds yer little mantel-ornyment of a island ever panned out — bet yer britches I have! Talk about yer Durby winners — w’y this pisen little beast o’ mine’ll take the bit in her teeth and show ’em the way to the horizon like she was takin’ her mornin’ stroll and they was tryin’ to keep an eye on her to see she didn’t do herself an injury — that’s w’at she would! And she haint never run a race with anything spryer’n an Injun in all her life; she’s a green amatoor, she is!”

“Oh, very well,” said the Englishman with a quiet smile; “it is easy enough to settle the matter. My animal is in tolerably good condition, and if yours is in town we can have the race to-morrow for any stake you like, up to a hundred dollars.

“That’s jest the figger,” said the colonel; “dot it down, barkeep. But it’s like slarterin’ the innocents,” he added, half-remorsefully, as he turned to leave; “it’s bettin’ on a dead sure thing — that’s what it is! If my cayuse knew wa’t I was about she’d go and break a laig to make the race a fair one.”

So it was arranged that the race was to come off at three o’clock the next day, on the mesa, some distance from town. As soon as the news got abroad, the whole population of Left Bower and vicinity knocked off work and assembled in the various bars to discuss it. The Englishman and his horse were general favorites, and aside from the unpopularity of the colonel, nobody had ever seen his “cayuse.” Still the element of patriotism came in, making the betting very nearly even.

A race-course was marked off on the mesa and at the appointed hour every one was there except the colonel. It was arranged that each man should ride his own horse, and the Englishman, who had acquired something of the free-and-easy bearing that distinguishes the “mining sharp,” was already atop of his magnificent animal, with one leg thrown carelessly across the pommel of his Mexican saddle, as he puffed his cigar with calm confidence in the result of the race. He was conscious, too, that he possessed the secret sympathy of all, even of those who had felt it their duty to bet against him. The judge, watch in hand, was growing impatient, when the colonel appeared about a half-mile away, and bore down upon the crowd. Everyone was eager to inspect his mount; and such a mount as it proved to be was never before seen, even in Left Bower!

You have seen “perfect skeletons” of horses often enough, no doubt, but this animal was not even a perfect skeleton; there were bones missing here and there which you would not have believed the beast could have spared. “Little” the colonel had called her! She was not an inch less than eighteen hands high, and long out of all reasonable proportion. She was so hollow in the back that she seemed to have been bent in a machine. She had neither tail nor mane, and her neck, as long as a man, stuck straight up into the air, supporting a head without ears. Her eyes had an expression in them of downright insanity, and the muscles of her face were afflicted with periodical convulsions that drew back the corners of the mouth and wrinkled the upper lip so as to produce a ghastly grin every two or three seconds. In color she was “claybank,” with great blotches of white, as if she had been pelted with small bags of flour. The crookedness of her legs was beyond all comparison, and as to her gait it was that of a blind camel walking diagonally across innumerable deep ditches. Altogether she looked like the crude result of Nature’s first experiment in equifaction.

As this libel on all horses shambled up to the starting post there was a general shout; the sympathies of the crowd changed in the twinkling of an eye! Everyone wanted to bet on her, and the Englishman himself was only restrained from doing so by a sense of honor. It was growing late, however, and the judge insisted on starting them. They got off very well together, and seeing the mare was unconscionably slow the Englishman soon pulled his animal in and permitted the ugly thing to pass him, so as to enjoy a back view of her. That sealed his fate. The course had been marked off in a circle of two miles in circumference and some twenty feet wide, the limits plainly defined by little furrows. Before the animals had gone a half mile both had been permitted to settle down into a comfortable walk, in which they continued three-fourths of the way round the ring. Then the Englishman thought it time to whip up and canter in.

But he didn’t. As he came up alongside the “Lightning Express,” as the crowd had begun to call her, that creature turned her head diagonally backward and let fall a smile. The encroaching beast stopped as if he had been shot! His rider plied whip, and forced him again forward upon the track of the equine hag, but with the same result.

The Englishman was now alarmed; he struggled manfully with rein and whip and shout, amidst the tremendous cheering and inextinguishable laughter of the crowd, to force his animal past, now on this side, now on that, but it would not do. Prompted by the fiend in the concavity of her back, the unthinkable quadruped dropped her grins right and left with such seasonable accuracy that again and again the competing beast was struck “all of a heap” just at the moment of seeming success. And, finally, when by a tremendous spurt his rider endeavored to thrust him by, within half a dozen lengths of the winning post, the incarnate nightmare turned squarely about and fixed upon him a portentous stare — delivering at the same time a grimace of such prodigious ghastliness that the poor thoroughbred, with an almost human scream of terror, wheeled about, and tore away to the rear with the speed of the wind, leaving the colonel an easy winner in twenty minutes and ten seconds.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31