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The Sabbath Horse Sale: Short on line story of the frontier
What follows is a short story online that reflects the history of the Mississippi River with horses, American Indians, riverboats and rafts. There really were river pirates in those times.
I reckon it started when this city dude offered me a more than good price for some quarter horses. The hitch was he wanted them delivered to a little town in Missouri. Anyway I took a payment of half the price for the horses and bargained for the rest on delivering.
He told me to avoid delivering on the Sabbath ‘cause the preacher there was powerful strict about keeping the Sabbath and got up the town to pass a law ‘bout it.
I told Sandy, the deaf boy who helps me tend horses. I started calling him Sandy cause of his light reddish brown hair, sort of a sandy color. We also brought his dog Spot, named for the spots all over his white coat. For reasons that escape me the dog seems to keep the horses calm, almost like he can talk to ‘em. Chief Red Eagle came along because I could use his help too with the horses.
We went overland to the Mississippi River which none of us had been before. I’d given Sandy a book by Mr. Mark Twain, ‘bout his adventures on the river. He was gettin’ pretty excited about getting there. Truth to tell, I was pretty struck my own self when I first saw thet wide stretch of water. I shore wouldn’t want to try swimmin’ ‘crost it. Red Eagle just looked and said, “Need big canoe for horses.”
Down the river by barge
I couldn’t argue thet. A trading post down the river a bit had a large barge, not much more’n a big raft, with a shed for the crew and passengers to get out of the weather and a pen for livestock. I’d say she was’ bout 55 feet long and 16 foot wide. Big enough to hold the horses. Good thing I bargained for a good price on the horses ‘cause passage was quite a bit. Also, we’d have to make our own way back ‘cause this was a one way boat. When it got to it’s destination it would be broken down and sold for lumber. Boats like this didn’t do well going upstream.
T’wern’t much to do once we gotten aboard. So ‘bout this time I got out my pipe and settled down to relax awhile. Red Eagle found a dice game to bide the time and Sandy sprawled out to read Mark Twain.
Somehow Sandy, despite being deaf, manages to strike up friendships no matter what. Pretty soon he was swappin’ stories with the boat crew. He told them thru gestures and all bout where we come from and what we was up to. The crewmembers told him stories about Davy Crockett and Mike Fink. Fink was the hero of the river before the war. He was tough, rugged, blusterous and bragged he was “half horse and half alligator.”
The boatmen seemed to know a bit about Reverend Sims, the preacher man who got the laws passed agin’ doin’ anything on Sundays. He come from out east and graduated from one of them important colleges. Come from the pilgrim stock with absolutely no questions about church rules and that them rules should be for all of us as well as them. They say he is stiff-necked, ornery an’ always got a chip on his shoulder. Biggest thing ‘bout him, they say, is he’s no good dealing with folks and don’ understand how folks think.
If his aim was to fight sin, the river towns had ‘nough to go ‘round. The worst of it, the good Rev. decided that the top of the list was breakin’ the Sabbath. He got hoppin’ mad when he saw folks working, or playin’ of Sundays, specially dancin’ or goin’ to parties. The other ministers, naturally, wanted to keep Sunday as a day of religion, so they backed him on getting a law passed. The final law, they say, turned out a bit extreme for even the other preachers.
I didn’t much care about the local laws except it appeared it might hinder our bein’ able to unload the horses and turn them over to the new owner. Not only was we prevented from dockin’ at the town but we couldn’t sign no papers or do anything else involved in doin’ business. I didn’t cotton to spendin’ an extra day or two ‘specially as it would mean renting the barge a extra day.
In the meantime Chief Red Eagle was winning too much gamblin’ money from the crew and the captain sort of wanted rid of us. Since the barge couldn’t land in town on Sunday I figured we could get off upstream from the town and figure out something from there. Then the barge captain balked, as he didn’t want to get out of the main channel and take a chance at running aground. Red Eagle agreed to take a small rowboat to shore and look it over with Sandy and Spot along for whatever help they could give. In ‘bout two hours the rowboat was back with Sandy and the dog, Spot.
The chief found some Indians from a tribe related to his and willing to help us out. What I figured was we could get the horses to swim ashore we could lead in the rowboat. The Chief and his friends could help us heard the horses somewhere close to town. With the horses safe Sandy and I could wander casually into town and find the new owner. With any luck we could make the title transfer outside of town where the Sabbath law didn’t apply.
We left Spot to help with the horses and Sandy and me took two horses and rode the few miles into town. We didn’t know what kind of town to expect but we got there before noon on Sunday. The streets were ‘bout empty. As expected, the Saloon was closed and so was the cafe. Sure ‘nough the churches were all busy by the looks of it. Since all recreation places were closed up I reckon there wasn’t much of anyplace for folks to go. I figured it wouldn’t hurt Sand and me to attend a church service. We spotted a church where folks seemed to be just goin’ in so we kind of sidled up to the crowd and went along.
We wasn’t quite dressed in Sunday best but I figures goin’ to church in work clothes was better than not going at all. Darned if the Rev Sims could see it that way. He was outraged that we would show up in his church without proper clothes. He calmed down a little bit when I explained that we were traveling and didn’t have other clothes with us and we didn’t want to miss church on Sunday.
He allowed that we could attend since we was strangers and didn’t know no better. After the service I asked around for my buyer.
The horse deal
He recognized me when I went to his house at the edge of town. I told him I didn’t want to get here on Sunday but the arrangements for the barge made it hard to avoid.
He agreed the only way we could legally make a horse trade was to do it outside town. He was a bit nervous about the idea of Indians tending his horses but I managed to assure him that it would be O.K. I told him that we would head back and he could follow in an hour or so and meet us by the river where the barge is anchored.
He was smart ‘nough to bring along a friend who was a notary to witness the signatures. That should make it legal. I let Red Eagle make a deal with the Indians to deliver the horses the next day.
Red Eagle made a trade of some sort with the Indians for a canoe that we could paddle far enough up the river if we stuck to the areas where the current wasn’t strong. Likely close to shore. Not too much traffic went up the river unless it was steam powered. Well we could get far enough to reach a town where we could buy tickets to take us closer to home and catch a stage. I hadn’t counted on river pirates though.
I later found out that there were some gangs of pirates that almost controlled the river in places. Our luck that we had to go through one of those places. We was paddling along near the shore when two rafts with some tough looking rogues aboard stopped us. They searched us all and found the money I had just got for the horses. I told them that if they let me keep the money which I need to make another horse deal they can take Spot. Sandy played along and started signing.
“What’s the kid doing?” asked the one who looked like the leader.
“He’s a deaf mute and he can only talk in sign language. He’s saying don’t let them take his dog. The dog is all he’s got.”
“Why would we take his dog? Money is better.”
“That’s right,” I said. “What would you do with a circus dog, unless you was goin’ to charge folks to see him or sell him back to Barnum.”
“Who’s Barnum, you say. P.T. Barnum the most richest circus promoter in the world. Yes and that’s his dog. It can do any trick you imagine and then some. Ole P.T. would probably give a lot to get back this dog.”
Well, that took his mind off my stash for a bit. I was hoping he would believe we stole the dog and was on the run with him.
I told him a story of how the dog always worked in the circus with the ponies and horses so if they got any horses the best thing to do was keep the dog with the horses and he’s be happy. “Be sure to tie him with a long rope near the horses,” I said
Sandy kept signing as the pirates took Spot on the raft and told us to get along. They made us go to their camp to see if what I told them was true. Soon as Spot saw the horses he ran over to them and the horse got quiet. They had been a bit restless before. They got a long cord. I checked it to see that it was OK.
Sandy kept talking in sign even as we left. He wasn’t talking to me though he was talking to Spot.
We got far enough away from the pirates and pulled into shore. It was getting dark and we decided to set up camp for the night. Red Cloud looked for sign of some Indian that might be nearby and we waited. It took a couple of hours but pretty soon we heard some noise in the water. Just as I had hoped Spot came swimming ashore along with four horses. Sandy ran and hugged his dog and we all went about getting the horses settled in.
We headed out on horseback early in the morning. The pirates may have come looking but I think some local Indians might have put on a pretty good show for their benefit. Otherwise the trip home went pretty quietly.
© 2011 Don A. Hoglund