1. A Haunt in the Wind
THE MORNING is fair and filled with the smells of spring. It is the year 1909, and the young Indian community of Chickasha, in the new state of Oklahoma, is stirring with excitement. The day of the long-postponed race has come at last—the match race between the big-striding Missouri mare, Belle Thompson, and an untried filly named U-see-it.
The time of year is May, and already the bluestem grass is nearly stirrup high. On either side of the Chisholm Trail it ripples across the broad grazing grounds on its way to meet the sky.
On this clear spring morning the wind is livelier than usual, swirling the grasses into sea-green whirlpools, now pale, now dark. Quail scuttle and bob along, making whispers in the grass. And wild turkeys fly above the fields, squawking their praise to the morning.
Today the old Chisholm Trail has suddenly come to life. The dust that had settled when the new railroad was built is boiling and billowing again. But it is a different kind of dust, not a steady-flowing cloud as in the days when steers slow-footed their way from Texas to the corn belt in Kansas. Today there are joyous spurts of dust caused by quick-stepping horses pulling buggies, spring wagons, runabouts, surreys, and even shiny hearses with dark-eyed Indian children peeking out the windows.
People from everywhere—from Comanche, from Empire City, and as far away as Red River Station—are on their way to a full day of merrymaking. They are hard-working farmers and grocers, butchers and printers and carpenters who need a holiday. Their women have vied with each other in preparing hampers of fried chicken and apple and berry pies.
The children have been up since long before dawn, grooming the horses, doing their chores in double-quick time, singing as they worked:
“Hook up, hook up the one-hoss shay,
And away we’ll go to Chickashā!”
By midmorning the trail is alive with horses trotting, wheels rumbling, people shouting—all moving toward the neat half-mile track in Chickasha. Right here the excitement begins. A long freight train comes chuffing by, smokestack belching, bell ringing. A few daring drivers try to race the train, their horses wild with fright, snorting, rearing up on their hind legs.
The engineer, leaning out his window, toots his whistle and laughs to see the horses bolt like scalded cats.
As the trail nears the town, excitement mounts. Wags of Indians come streaming in to join the procession. At the helm of each wagon sits an Indian brave, tall and solemn; behind him his squaw and children, bright-eyed. They have just left the government warehouse, where new farm implements were being parceled out—rakes and plows, discs and harrows. But today is the match race! Spring planting can wait!
Now the trail takes a quirly turn and the whole parade is fanning out around the race course. Horses are blown, men and children calling to each other, women sighing in relief that the trip is safely made.
In the more orderly activity near the track, two men are talking earnestly before an open shed. Within it stands the lone filly, U-see-it, still as a little wood carving. She is studying the two men with her big wide-set eyes, and they in turn are studying her.
The shorter of the men is saying, “Far as I can see, Al, the postponement hasn’t done a thing for Halcomb’s U-see-it. He must’ve thought a little more time was all his filly needed, but,” he paused, “it don’t appear so to me! My Belle Thompson is fit as a fiddle, and knows how to run. Sort of embarrasses me to match her against this poor little greenhorn.” It is Ben Jones speaking, young Ben Jones who has a knack of getting speed out of his horses.
The other man is Al Hoots—tall, dark-eyed, dark-haired Irish Al Hoots, who looks more Indian than the Osage tribesmen with whom he lives. On the palm of his hand he is offering U-see-it a pink peppermint. He starts to pick off a few shreds of tobacco clinging to the candy, then laughs at his foolishness, remembering that horses like both. “Here, little one. My pocket has dirtied it some, but it’s still tasty.”
As U-see-it crunches the peppermint, Al Hoots sizes her up, thinking. So wispy she is, and little. Nothing about her to make one take notice—her coat mud-brown, like Oklahoma ditch water in spring, her tail and mane sparse. Nothing to set her apart. Nothing except maybe she’s just coming into her power. Else why that knowing, eager look?
“Ben,” he says, “she’s plain-looking and drab as a November hillside, but her eyes seem to kind of follow me around, like she’s begging me for something, and I don’t mean just a peppermint!”
Clusters of people are gathering about the shed, exchanging family news, talking crops, talking horse. They make room for a handy-boy who steps forward, eases a saddle onto the filly’s back, and a bit into her mouth.
Ben Jones starts off to saddle his mare, Belle Thompson, but something makes him wait. He understands men as well as horses, and he likes big, soft-spoken Al Hoots. He senses the man’s impulse to run his hands over the filly, to stroke her neck, her barrel, her rump. “Hey, Al,” he laughs, “you’re not thinkin’ of buying Halcomb’s little critter, are you?”
There is no answer.
“I been wrong before,” Ben goes on, “but if there’s a promise here, ’tain’t just around the corner.”
Al Hoots shakes his head. “Maybe not now. But I’ve been watching her. Under that mousey coat of hers she looks Thoroughbred. And,” he smiles, “to me, she’s big for her size!”
A second time Ben Jones turns away, then thinks better of it. He can spare a moment; Belle Thompson saddles and bridles easily.
“Al,” he says, “you already own a bunch of poor platers. And I’ve seen this one in her workouts. She’s a skittery thing. Jumps in the air at the start and gets left at the barrier. Then she wakes up and sprints like a jackrabbit. But then it’s too late!”
The dark eyes are laughing now. “Sure, sure. From a two-year-old what else can you expect? She sprints, yes. But my wife Rosa, in her Osage talk, would say, ‘She’s . . .’” he hesitates a long time before he adds, “‘She’s a haunt in the wind.’”