Short Story: The Horse Knows Best by Gregg Sapp
Brief bio: Gregg Sapp is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer who has worked at colleges and universities in Idaho, Montana, Florida, New York, and Washington. The author of over 60 academic articles and some 300 reviews, his first novel, "Dollarapalooza, was published in 2011 by Switchgrass Books. Since then, he has published humor, poetry, and short stories in Defenestration, Waypoints, Semaphore, Kestrel, Zodiac Review, Marathon Review, and been a frequent contributor to Midwestern Gothic. His new “Fresh News Straight from Heaven,” based upon the folklore of Johnny Appleseed, was released by Evolved Publications in January, 2018. For more information, see www.sappgregg.net
The Horse Knows Best
(Being an excerpt from “Fresh News Straight from Heaven,” a novel on the true mythology of Johnny Appleseed, based upon real events that might possibly have happened in Newark, Ohio, summer 1805.)
by Gregg SAPP
As the afternoon wore on, Reverend Copus noticed that while more and more folks kept coming into Black’s Tavern, nobody ever seemed to leave. The line of people waiting to place bets with the proprietor, Joseph Black, snaked right out the door. He wrote down their wagers, counted their money, gave them their receipts, then dropped the cash into a mush pot on top of the bar. Judging by the size of the pile of bills, Copus estimated that the purse easily exceeded any amount of tithes that he and Otis McDonald, his partner, had ever gathered. The reverend was even tempted to stake a small amount of his own funds on a particular pony about which he had a hunch. That might be a conflict of interest, he supposed, but the more that he thought about it, the less wrong it seemed.
Around dinner time, when the tavern was so full that it didn’t seem like there was room for one more person, the doors swung open and a voice shouted above the din: “Hello, friends. I me-self have arrived, bringing fresh news straight from heaven!”
It was Chapman, the Appleseed – or Johnny, as the reverend recollected that he preferred to be called.
“Hey, Mister Appleseed,” Elias Smucker snorted, “What’d God say t’ ya’ll to-day?”
In response, Johnny held a large book above his head, opened it with a flourish, and began tearing out random pages and tossing them into the air. “’Tis all written here, friends. Every word direct from angels’ mouths.”
At every table, Johnny was heartily greeted. Everybody wanted to buy him a drink, but he declined, explaining that he was too busy.
“What’s yer hurry?” John Larrabee challenged him.
“I have much to do with the time that God has allotted me in this life,” Johnny replied, tearing another page from the book and handing it to him.
“Yah can do God’s work fer th’ both ‘f us,” Richard Pitzer laughed, “an’ ah’ll do all the drinkin’ fer both ‘f us.”
“I am a-drinking from God’s everlasting cup!” Johnny testified.
“Wha’s in that thar cup? Beer, cider, whiskey, or wine?” roared Jim Craig.
Johnny mimed as if he was drinking from an invisible chalice. “Why, the most intoxicating beverage of all – the blood of Jesus Christ!”
This remark attracted widespread laughter, affable even if it was a bit mocking. Johnny only seemed to care that the more he clowned, the more people extended their hands to receive the pages that he was now distributing as fast as he could tear them out of the book.
Reverend Copus nudged through the crowd to meet Johnny, who, seeing him, whistled “Well, how-dee-doo Reverend Copus. Are ye in town for the race?”
“Uh, no, sir.”
“Just having a drink or two, then, are ye?”
“No, well, mostly not...”
“Enjoying the fellowship, then? This is not a bad gang of folks here, although I do suspect that most of them are bound for eternal hell. Only the Lord can say. I do believe that any soul can be turned.”
“That is the truth.”
“The Truth, indeed, is hard to find. I say that a man is more likely to stumble over it by mistake than if he searches for it his whole life. God’s plan is mysterious like that. Do ye not agree?”
“I reckon so…”
“We see things alike, reverend,” Johnny pronounced. He took the corner of a page in his book and snapped it out crisply. “Read this page; the words contain fresh news straight from heaven.”
Reverend Copus tilted his head to read the title on the book’s spine, The True Christian Religion. He wasn’t sure if he had ever heard of it. Johnny handed him the page facing forward, so when he took it, he started reading: “The natural man is not capable of any perception of God, but only of the world and adapting this to himself. Consequently, it is among the canons of the Christian Church that the natural man is opposed to the spiritual, and that they contend against each other…” It occurred to him that those words pretty accurately described the present scene inside of Black’s Tavern.
“Thank you,” the reverend said. He wanted to know more, but was cautious about inviting further discussion on the subject.
“Ye are most welcome, sir.” Johnny closed the book. “But, if ye don’t mind me asking: if ye are not here for the race, why are ye here?”
“To preach, of course. Have you not heard? There will be an open-air Methodist church service on the town square, Sunday afternoon.”
“Sunday afternoon?” Johnny repeated quizzically. “During the race?”
“Sunday is the Lord’s Day, after all.”
“But the whole town will be at the earthworks racetrack.”
“Alas, I do fear that it will be difficult to sway some people from their gambling and debauchery.”
Johnny’s eyes burst with sudden insight. “I see no reason why ye could not combine a race and a church service, all at once.”
Upon first thought, that notion didn’t offend the reverend as much as he figured it should, so he indulged himself to think about it some more. Alas, he doubted if Otis McDonald would agree.
Joseph Black interrupted the two men’s conversation by calling Johnny over to where he was counting the money that he’d taken in for fees and wagers. “There’s our banker, now,” Black howled, dumping all of the cash and receipts into the mush pot in front of him. “Mister Chapman, this here pot contains th’ entire kitty for th’ morrow’s race. Bein’ as how yah’ll’ve been elected th’ keeper of th’ funds, I do hereby give everything o’er to yah. But be warned if so much as one fippenny goes missin’, yah’ll git murdered in ten different ways.”
Johnny laughed. “This money is as safe with me as with Jesus Christ himself.” With that, he emptied the cash into his kerchief, knotted it and tied it to his walking stick, then took the empty mush pot and placed it upon his head. He departed via the back door, not to be seen again until the morning of the race…
The quarter mile horse racing track in Newark had been cleared and leveled inside a circular earthen mound that, according to popular lore, was the ring of debris around a hole in the ground that in ancient times marked the entrance to the underworld, where half-human, half-wolf Shawnee monsters dwelt in darkness and devoured each other’s young. Occasionally, folks still worried that racing horses upon a bedeviled landscape risked provoking the hungry damned. Other than that, though, it was a flat, green prairie, where racing spectators could sit anywhere along the perimeter and had an unobstructed view of the entire course. Until somebody actually saw one of those baby-eating gargoyles, the races would continue. Besides, the night before the big race there were so many fans gathered at the site that they figured they had the demons outnumbered. Come dawn, the grounds looked something like a battlefield, with bodies strewn among a field of debauched wreckage. It almost looked as though an Indian curse would have done less harm.
Reverend Copus cringed to see spiritual carnage that surrounded him. “I’ll make some coffee,” he said to Joseph Black. “It will help get folks onto their feet.”
Black bent over and snapped off a coneflower blossom. “Mix some of these in wit’ th’ grounds. It’ll purge their guts good as new.”
Reverend Copus did so, even though he was none too certain that he wanted to see what would happen if this bunch of ruffians felt an urge to purge their guts all at once. After thinking about it all night, he didn’t feel entirely right about what he was doing, but still more right than wrong. After riding the Ohio circuit with Reverend Otis McDonald for three years, he knew that no matter how he explained what he was doing, McDonald would scream “Judas!” and threaten him with an eternal damnation of getting flayed by goat-headed harpies swinging red hot meat hooks. There could be no peace between them in separation, so it was best that they split without goodbyes. Reverend Copus had made up his mind that, for once, he was going to peach to the people rather than at the people.
While the drowsy race fans began stirring, the riders and their horses for the day’s event began arriving well before the scheduled starting pistol. The late registration of Mister Rope’s horse, Mojo, resulted in a field of nine. Since the original plan had been to sponsor a series of two-horse match races leading to a final pairing, the odd number forced the race organizers into some labored recalculation of the seedings. “Cain’t we git another horse?” Joseph Black had lamented, “t’ make it an e’en number?” That appeal failing, they eventually decided to run three, three horse heats, with the winners galloping against each other for the grand prize. This alteration of plans also triggered a flurry of late betting, so Black turned over a barrel and used that as his desktop for conducting transactions.
At about that time, Johnny Appleseed appeared, strolling along the rim of the Indian mounds, stepping gingerly over slumbering bodies in his path. He cut to the front of the betting line and presented himself to Joseph Black, who remarked, “I was gettin’ ready t’ send out a posse t’ fetch yah.”
“Ha,” Johnny laughed. He untied his kerchief and delivered the purse money to Black, along with his personal guarantee that every last red cent of it was accounted for. Then Johnny took a straw whisk broom out of the same kerchief and asked: “Do ye mind if I tidy up the track a wee bit?”
Joseph Black chortled, “I don’t care if yer lick it clean.”
“That will not be necessary. This small broom will suffice.” And Johnny set about sweeping pebbles off the entire quarter mile length of the dirt track, so that none of the horses might land upon one and twist a leg.
Watching Johnny get to work prompted Reverend Copus into action. As per the agreement that he and Joseph Black had hashed out the previous night, the reverend was going to be the master of ceremonies for the races. He went to inspect the three horse stalls that had been cobbled together for a makeshift starting gate; the workmanship was rather rickety, but he figured that it would hold together. To one side of the gate, he rolled a couple of large stones together and placed a plank between them to serve as his podium. Stepping up, Copus composed himself, not so much having second thoughts as realizing that there was no turning back. A sign from God would’ve been welcome, though.
“This coffee tastes like black tar mixed with bitch-in-heat piss,” one man near him complained, then poured whiskey into his cup. When he recognized the reverend, he added, “But hallelujah anyhow.”
By noon, when the first heat was scheduled, it looked like the entire population of the Licking River valley had all turned out. (Reverend Copus wondered how many folks were simultaneously congregating at the town square to hear Otis McDonald preach.) Early arrivals sat in tiered rows along the earthwork mounds, while stragglers spread out in the grass flats wherever they could unfurl a blanket. Johnny Appleseed paced along the sidelines of the track, attempting to preserve clear pathways for the horses, even though the leading edge of the crowd kept elbowing closer and closer to the racing lanes. Still, with bottles already being passed, a general sense of pleasant anticipation kept everybody’s energies mostly positive.
Three riders led their horses into the starting gates. “Let th’ races begin!” Joseph Black screamed at the top of his lungs, inciting cheers, foot stomping, and chest pounding.
“But first,” Black continued, “This being th’ Lord’s Day an’ such, we’re gonna start with a right proper prayer. Reverend…”
This was Reverend Copus’s moment; he’d never spoken to so many people at once in his entire life. “Brothers and sisters in Christ,” he began, then, reconsidering, toned it down a notch, “Ladies and gentlemen… and horse racing fans everywhere: welcome to this glorious day that the Lord has given us.
“Some would say that a horse race ain’t a fit place for a church sermon. I disagree. There’re many valuable lessons that we can learn here. First, I’d argue that any purpose that brings so many people together in fellowship must be right and good, ordained by God, because He knows that life here can be downright brutal, and folks pioneering this land deserve some honest entertainment. God wants every one of you to enjoy this day. Just don’t forget that He is watching.
“Life is a race, after all. It’s a race against death. Victory in this kind of race doesn’t always go to the swiftest. In fact, those who live fastest, lose. You win not by finishing first, but finishing strong. Along the way, you may get sidetracked, or you may trip and fall, or you may find yourself running backwards… but the heavenly prize goes to those who pick themselves up, mend their ways, get themselves on the right path, and stick with it all the way to the finish line, which is at Saint Peter’s pearly gate.
“There’s another way that life is like a race. Some of you all have a wager or two on these horse races, and that’s okay with God, too, because there’s a lesson to be learned. Life is a gamble. When you decide to live according to the commandments of God, you place the biggest bet that you ever can. At stake is your immortal soul. If you win, the payoff is eternal life in paradise. Or, you have the free will to live as you please, in defiance of God’s plan; but when you die, your soul belongs not to God, but to Satan. I’m asking you just use your common sense to decide: which is the smarter bet? To live a life of sinful pleasure, then pay for it with eternal suffering? Or to live a righteous life that pleases God, then spend endless time with Him in paradise? Nobody gets out of this world without making that wager.
“So, let’s all say the Lord’s prayer.” Reverend Copus started the prayer, and was gratified when folks joined in, so that by the time that they got to “amen,” the reverberations of the assembled voices felt like a scene straight out of the gospels. All that was missing were the loaves and fish. Afterwards, the reverend remained atop his podium and accepted the starter’s pistol from Joseph Black. A rope drawn tight in front of the starting gate was all that held back the restless horses. At side of the gate was Millie Blubaugh, prepared to yank the rope aside when the pistol was fired. The riders were on their horses, making fists around the reigns, with their other hands poised to bring down their crops. Way down at the end of the track, Johnny Appleseed, the spotter, had cleared enough space so as to have an unobstructed line of sight at the finish line. Copus rammed the powder and lead shot in his pistol, aiming it into the treetops, and fired…
The first race was effectively over before the echo of the starting pistol faded. A jittery Palomino owned and ridden by a lawyer named Portius Miller spooked at the get-go and reared on its hind legs, before charging through the crowd and disappearing over the mounds – “and good riddance to lawyers,” some folks laughed. Meanwhile, the favorite, an Indian horse owned by Jim Danner and ridden by a Potawatomi wearing eye black, started from the center gate and may have been nudged or distracted by the commotion, so that it got off to a slow start and never gained traction. The victor by a couple of lengths was Mojo, whose jockey, an escaped slave named Heck, was actually heard to be singing for the entire duration of the ride.
“Re-do! Re-do!,” cried those who had stakes on the losing horses.
“Ain’t no re-dos,” Joseph Black pronounced decisively.
The second race was closer, but less dramatic than the first, for within the first twenty yards of the race all three horses had settled into the precise positions in which they ran the entire course and in the order that they finished, not one of them gaining or losing a single step on the others. The winner was Dan Sapp, a newcomer to the community, who guided his chestnut filly, Lulu, as efficiently as if she was an extension of his own legs. At the end, Johnny Appleseed spotted the precise margin of Lulu’s win and measured it to be the length from the tip of his middle finger on his right hand to a knob on his shoulder bone. That being pretty even-on to what everybody had seen, nobody questioned the accuracy of his calculation.
That set up the third heat, which was the most eagerly anticipated of the qualifying races, as indicated by the number of wagers placed and the amount of money on the table. In lane one was a powerful cavalry horse being ridden by a soldier who was absent-without-leave from the Kentucky militia; he bragged that he’d escaped by outrunning the entire brigade on that same horse’s back. Bristling in the center lane was a gray stallion from George Rennick’s farm, supposedly bred of stock from the famous Godolphin Arabian. The longshot in this race was Jim Craig’s sleek animal, Horny, which had gained popularity in the late betting because many people had hunches that its rider, Otto Blubaugh, just seemed to have a way of getting the most out of any horse. While the riders in the first two stalls mounted their horses and braced for the start, Otto sat on Horny’s back as casually as if they were preparing for a leisurely trot along a murmuring creek on a spring day. The last thing Otto did before Reverend Copus fired the starter’s gun was wink at Millie, for luck, and damned if that Horny horse didn’t wink at her, too.
The horses launched at full steam and kept galloping harder and faster with every foot strike. Whenever one horse began to pull ahead by even the slightest distance, another surged suddenly, and then the third would get inspired, so that they were neck and neck and neck, accelerating, the entire length of the track. The cavalry horse chugged on the inside as if it was being pursued by the entire Bluegrass State militia, the British dragoons, and most of the Shawnee nation. Early in the race it gained half a head lead. But the thoroughbred, sprinting as if it was generating its own wind, surged ahead about halfway from the finish line. With the end in sight, though, Otto Blubaugh crouched flat on his horse’s back, wrapped his legs around its ribs, and screamed “Go git Horny boy!!!” The finale was breathlessly close, but Horny’s charge beat the thoroughbred by a nose – or, according to Johnny Appleseed’s precise declaration, by the exact distance between the lobe of his left ear and the corner of his right eye. Otto fell off Horny into the Millie’s arms. Horny neighed happily.
This turn of events triggered another episode of frenetic wagering on the outcome of the final race between Dan Sapp’s Lulu, Mister Rope and Heck’s Mojo, and Jim Craig’s Horny, ably ridden by Otto Blubaugh. Winners were eager to parlay their profits into even greater revenues. Losers took heart from the surprising outcomes in the semi-final races as reason for hope that they were just one shrewd bet away from recovering their fortunes. The volume of transactions was far beyond what Joseph Black could manage by himself, so he deputized a handful of men that he hoped he could trust to function as bookmakers on his behalf… and once the likes of Smucker, Pitzer, and Larabee started accepting people’s ventures, they expanded the scope of wagering to beyond just who was going to win, so as to include side bets on such things as if Reverend Copus was going to make them all pray again, which horse would drop the most turds before the next race, and what were the chances that at any point Millie Blubaugh would get so excited jumping up and down that her bosums would pop out of her smock. If there was a chance that anything might happen, somebody was willing to put money on it.
Reverend Copus wandered amid the crowd just to be seen, for the sake of whatever moderating effect his presence might exert. Once, he thought he heard a distant echo in the breeze that sounded like Otis McDonald crying “doom and perdition!” but it was soon shouted down by a slow, but building refrain of “Start the race. Start the race! Start the race!!!”
Meanwhile, Joseph Black seemed like he’d be content to take people’s money all night, as long as there was one more person with a nickel to plunk down; but when the reverend tugged at his sleeve, he finally declared that the betting was officially closed by shouting: “It’s show time!” All around, bodies swarmed the track, every person on his or her feet, some standing on chairs or sitting on friends’ shoulders, and every tree along the route was filled with gawkers clinging to even the most tenuous branches. The late afternoon sun angled behind the starting gate so that three columns of light shone through, into which stepped the three horses casting elongated shadows. The riders mounted their beasts. Reverend Copus hopped onto his platform, whispered “Jesus have mercy,” and raised the starter’s pistol. The silent suspense felt like waiting for the Second Coming.
The shot unleashed a riot of cheering, a mob wave of body heat, and the thunder of marauding horseflesh. The horses ran like a three-headed Biblical beast in one body, racing to pull itself apart. Their strikes pummeled the dirt track, trailed by a cloud of dust and gravel. The animals streaked by so fast that the only thing anybody could see was a muscular blur, as if the air itself was warped in the backdrafts. Some people were knocked over. Others were left panting for breath. Around ten seconds into the race, the horses stormed by the post marking the halfway point, but nobody could separate them clearly enough with naked eyes to tell which, if any, was in the lead. Mojo, Horny, and Lulu struck their leading legs in seemingly synchronized unison, and except for slight variations in when each tipped its muzzle, there was no discernible space between them. Even the jockeys rode in identical compressed postures, pinned back by the force of the velocity. As they sprinted toward the finale, they were still gaining speed, like three boulders rambling down a steep hill. Folks with the prime viewing positions along the side of the track backed off, sensing that they might get trampled. All except Johnny Appleseed, that is, who centered himself, locked his knees into place, intertwined his fingers, and squinted so that all he could see was the plane which marked the precise finish line. In a flash, the horses galloped past it and kept going. People clustered behind the end of the track scattered to get out of the way, while the horses kept on chugging, as if they intended to race all the way to the horizon.
It was over, but nobody knew what had happened. Everybody looked at everybody else for an answer. Meanwhile, though, Johnny Appleseed leaped into the center of the track and promulgated: “The winner is Lulu, by a whisker!?”
“Noooooooo!” erupted a cacophony of voices. “Yesssssssss!” exploded a chorus of others. The most prevalent sentiment in the crowd, though, was expressed by Joseph Black, who stomped his foot and insisted, “I don’t believe it’s possible t’ say so!”
“I am certain. I saw it me-self, as clear as if that moment was frozen in time. Bring the horses to me. I will prove it to ye.”
It took a few minutes to turn around the horses, during which time people started recovering their senses of either indignation or triumph, whichever was the case. Sensing unrest, Reverend Copus stood next to Johnny, offering his visible support… even though he, too, doubted if it was possible that any mortal eye could’ve truly seen what happened at the race’s conclusion.
Johnny waved at Dan Sapp. “Bring your Lulu horse over here. Stand her up straight. Lift her head. There…” Johnny pointed. “Do ye all see that long whisker a-poking out from her left nostril? ‘Tis the very one that crossed the finish line ahead of every other horse. That would be the exact margin of victory.”
It was true that Lulu had a stray nose whisker sticking straight out of her nostril, but it was only visible upon looking closely, almost certainly impossible to discern at full gallop.
Some began taunting: “Appleseed ain’t right of mind!”
Summarizing popular opinion, Joseph Black said: “That ain’t proof fer nothin’, Appleseed.”
“I could be wrong, but I do not ever lie. I know what I saw,” Johnny calmly reaffirmed. Sensing that his words were less than convincing, however, he added: “If ye do not believe me, ask the horses.”
Shaking his head, Joseph Black lamented: “Appleseed, I’m a-feared that you are mad.”
Undaunted, Johnny tsk-ed and walked to where Mister Rope, Heck and Mojo were standing. Johnny rubbed the horse’s muzzle, looked it in the eye, and asked: “Did ye win that race, Mojo?”
Mojo snorted and shook its head from side to side.
Next, Johnny went to Horny, who was flanked on one side by Otto and Millie, and on the other by Jim Craig. In the same manner as before, he posed the question: “Did ye win that race, Horny boy?”
Horny blew air from both nostrils, shaking his head from side to side.
Finally, Johnny marched to Lulu. He stuck his open palm under the horse’s neck. “Now, Miss Lulu, did ye win that race?”
Lulu jerked her head up and down proudly and whinnied in a way that sounded to everybody like she was saying “yeaaaaaahhh.”
“There you go,” Johnny said.
Thus, the matter was settled beyond further dispute, for none among the mob was brazen enough to question a horse’s own word of honor. Page 1> Page 2>