If Wishes Were Horses — Part 6: “The biggest hoss I ever seen in my life.” Essay
It’s fitting to round off this series with a post of one of REH’s most memorable and redoubtable characters - If Wishes Were Horses — Part 6: “The biggest hoss I ever seen in my life.” Essay introduction. And about the funniest. Like the dog Slasher in “Beyond the Black River,” this is a character with four feet. Yes, it’s Cap’n Kidd. Panthers and wolf packs flee from this wandering cayuse with their tails tucked under, whimpering.
Breckinridge Elkins, the stallion’s human counterpart, was an obstreperous brawler himself. His whims and Cap’n Kidd’s were well matched. A fair example of his social interactions can be found in this passage:
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If Joel Braxton hadn’t drawed a knife whilst I was beating his head agen a spruce log, I reckon I wouldn’t of had that quarrel with Glory McGraw … Pap’s always said the Braxtons was no-account folks, and I allow he’s right … I let go of [Joel’s] ears and taken the knife away from him and throwed it into a blackjack thicket, and throwed him after it. They warn’t no use in him belly-aching like he done just because they happened to be a tree in his way. I dunno how he expects to get throwed into a blackjack thicket without getting some hide knocked off.
Breck possessed remarkable diplomatic skills as well. After promising Glory to be tactful and meek when he confronts her father over the wedding arrangements, he enters the McGraw cabin and finds a dude with very hard eyes bargaining for Glory’s hand. He reacts as follows:
I come here to tell you the weddin’s off! Glory ain’t goin’ to marry Mister Wilkinson. She’s goin’ to marry me, and anybody which comes between us had better be able to rassle cougars and whup grizzlies bare-handed!
Wilkinson makes the mistake of telling Breck to get lost or suffer. Breck replies courteously, “Open the ball whenever you feels lucky, you stripe-bellied polecat!” Wilkinson draws, and so does Breck, shooting the gun out of Wilkinson’s hand “along with one of his fingers before he could pull his trigger.”
A free-for-all with Glory’s father and three brothers follows. After witnessing the ruction, Wilkinson becomes discouraged. When a distraught Glory (upset by the damage to her kin) shrieks that she’ll go with him and marry him right away, Wilkinson bleats:
I advises you to marry that young grizzly there, for the sake of public safety, if nothin’ else! Marry you when HE wants you? No, thank you! I’m leavin’ a valuable finger as a sooverneer of my sojourn, but I figger it’s a cheap price! After watchin’ that human tornado in action, I calculate a finger ain’t nothin’ to bother about! Adios! If I ever come within a hundred miles of Bear Creek again it’ll be because I’ve gone plumb loco!
Well, Glory is annoyed with Breck for almost murdering her entire family bare-handed and scaring away a suitor (although she didn’t really want him). She tells him off. Breck heads for the horizon vowing to come back wearing store-bought shirts and riding a real horse instead of the jug-headed mule Alexander, just to show Glory what she’s rejected. Searching for such a steed is the way he first hears of Cap’n Kidd.
By now, comparisons of Breck with the legendary superhuman Texan Pecos Bill should be evident. Bill was raised by a pack of coyotes and used to howl at the moon with them. His girlfriend was Slewfoot Sue and his horse was a murderous outlaw named Widow Maker. He tamed a forty-foot rattlesnake and used it for a lariat. Compare that with Breck Elkins’s lasso.
I’d made it myself, especial, and used it to rope them bulls and also cougars and grizzlies which infests the Humbolts. It was made out of buffalo hide, ninety foot long and half again as thick and heavy as the average lariat, and the honda was a half-pound chunk of iron beat into shape with a sledge hammer.
It’s possible that the stories of Pecos Bill aren’t genuine, blown-in-the-glass Texas folklore. Edward O’Reilly wrote them for The Century Magazine in 1917. They were reprinted as The Saga of Pecos Bill in 1923. O’Reilly claimed they were part of an oral tradition created by cowboys during the westward expansion, but that’s doubtful. It’s probably as spurious as James MacPherson’s “Ossianic Cycle” which he claimed (lying his head off) were genuine ancient Irish epic poetry by Ossian himself. He didn’t do badly with his literary fraud. Napoleon Bonaparte and Thomas Jefferson were among those who admired it!
Nevertheless, Bill’s “Widow Maker” and Elkins’s “Cap’n Kidd” are alike in obvious ways. Wild Bill Donovan, “which name is heard with fear and tremblin’ from Powder River to the Rio Grande”, informs Breck that Cap’n Kidd is “a pinto, the biggest, meanest hoss in the world. When he comes into a country all other varmints takes to the tall timber.” He adds that “Cap’n Kidd was a big pirate long time ago. This here hoss is like him in lots of ways, particularly in regard to morals.” The huge paint stallion, also according to Donovan, is “so mean he ain’t never got him a herd of his own. He takes mares away from other stallions, and then drifts on alone just for pure cussedness.”
There’s a comparable equine fury in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sir Nigel. Robert E. Howard was familiar with the novel and its companion, The White Company. In one of his letters he referred to the Lakota warrior Rain-In-The-Face, who came to Little Big Horn determined to cut out the heart of General George Custer’s brother Tom, (who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor twice) for tossing Rain-in-the-Face into the slammer. REH felt a certain sympathy with the grim red man. “Like Samkin Aylward, I warm to a man with a bitter drop in him,” he observed.
Samkin Aylward is one of the main characters in Doyle’s medieval novels, a roughneck archer. He becomes Nigel’s henchman after backing him (against dire odds) in a quarrel with the monks of Waverley Abbey. Nigel is borrowed from the historical Sir Nele Loring, a founder member of the Order of the Garter. The fictional Nigel, while brave, honorable, resourceful and chivalrous, is out of date even in the fourteenth century, brainwashed by his grandmother with tales of noble knight-errantry in a time that never really was. She’s also an arrogant grande dame with definite ideas about keeping commoners in their place. Like Breckinridge, Nigel isn’t the brightest light on the Christmas tree. Courage, a high spirit and battle prowess – yes. Hard common sense – not so much.
Sir Nigel in its early chapters describes the way Nigel obtains his war-horse, Pommers. The epic battle between man and beast before Pommers will allow Nigel to ride it is echoed by the battle between Breck and Cap’n Kidd. The superstitious monks believe that the terrible yellow horse is the devil himself. They give the dangerous animal to Nigel, their enemy, in the hopes that it will injure him or worse. Like Breck and Cap’n Kidd, Nigel and Pommers are equals in spirit.
His pride is as stubborn as the horse’s, holy father,” the sacrist answered, his gaunt face breaking into a malicious smile. “Man or beast, one will break the other, and the world will be the better for it.
— Sir Nigel, Chapter 3
Nigel and Pommers nearly do kill each other, in the event. But not quite. Finally, when they collapse together on a hillside after covering half the local country, Pommers owns an equal, and “beast and man lay prostrate and gasping”. Nigel whispers into the horse’s mane, “Now I know you, Pommers, and you know me, and with the help of Saint Paul we shall teach some other folk to know us both! Now let us walk together as far as this moorland pond, for indeed I wot not whether it is you or I who need the water most.”
In “Meet Cap’n Kidd,” there’s a real correspondence between the two stories. The malicious monks of Waverley Abbey have their counterpart in Wild Bill Donovan and his gang, who have been covetously trailing Cap’n Kidd for hundreds of miles. Breck’s incredible battle with the giant paint stallion parallels Nigel’s tussle with the Yellow Horse of Crooksbury. While it’s described in larger-than-life, Texas tall tale terms, there is a gut-level equivalence in the spirit and courage of the protagonists.
Breckinridge hears Cap’n Kidd before he ever catches sight of him. So does his mule Alexander, and he’s terrified. Breck is irritated with the mule at first, but then, “I heard what had scairt him. I never heard such a noise. My hair stood straight up. It was a stallion neighing, but I never heard no hoss critter neigh like that. I bet you could of heard it for fifteen miles. It sounded like a combination of a wild hoss neighing, a rip saw going through a oak log full of knots, and a hungry cougar screeching.”
His coming thus announced, Cap’n Kidd, before whom all the panthers, wolves and bears in the country have fled, makes his appearance. He chases Alexander into Breck’s camp, and Breck describes him flatly as “the biggest hoss I ever seen in my life.” He’s a gigantic black-and-white pinto with “his long mane flying agen the sunrise”, and he abandons Alexander as something he considers not worth chasing, with “a scornful neigh that nigh busted my ear-drums.”
Like Nigel with Pommers, Breck decides at once that this is the horse for him. “I says to myself I rides him or the buzzards picks my bones.” Both confrontations leave a sort of legend behind them, in their respective regions. Conan Doyle tells his readers that an “old Surrey ballad, now nearly forgotten” commemorates Nigel’s ride on the yellow horse. Breckinridge Elkins, finding a short blind canyon he sees as perfect to corral Cap’n Kidd, builds a stone wall across the narrow canyon mouth. “Later on I heard that a scientific expedition (whatever the hell that might be) was all excited over finding evidences of a ancient race up in the mountains. They said they found a wall that could of been built only by giants. They was crazy; that there was the wall I built for Cap’n Kidd.”
Breck’s first attempt at roping Cap’n Kidd from the back of his pot-bellied mule, Alexander, strong as Alexander is, doesn’t go well. It results in Alexander fleeing for home and Breck having to climb a tree. Affronted by the attempt to lasso him, Cap’n Kidd tries to bring Breckinridge out of the tree by kicking and biting pieces out of it “big as wash-tubs, but it was a good substantial tree, and it held. He then tried to climb it, which amazed me most remarkable, but he didn’t do so good at that.”
Using what wits he possesses, Breck follows Cap’n Kidd surreptitiously and contrives to trap him in the canyon. This infuriates the horse so much (“full of pizen and rambunctiousness as a drunk Apache on the warpath”) that he accidentally kicks loose a section of overhanging cliff. It falls on his head and stuns him long enough for Breck to saddle and bridle him. When the gigantic pinto comes around and realizes he has a man on his back, all his previous wild behavior seems like nothing. Like Pommers, he sees being ridden as degrading infamy and isn’t inclined to submit.
I dunno what all he done,” Breck says ruefully. “He done so many things all at onst I couldn’t keep track. I clawed leather. The man which could have stayed onto him without clawing leather ain’t born yet, or else he’s a cussed liar. Sometimes my feet was in the stirrups and sometimes they warn’t, and sometimes they was in the wrong stirrups. I cain’t figger out how that could be, but it was so … He occasionally rolled over and over on the ground, too, which was very uncomfortable for me, but I hung on, because I was afeared if I let go I’d never get on him again. I also knowed that if he ever shaken me loose I’d had to shoot him to keep him from stomping my guts out. So I stuck, though I’ll admit that they is few sensations more onpleasant than having a hoss as big as Cap’n Kidd roll on you nine or ten times.
Huge and powerful as he is, Breck loses some hide, most of his trousers, and suffers a few cracked ribs before he can persuade Cap’n Kidd to see his point of view.
He looked like he was able to go on forever, and aimed to, but I hadn’t never met nothing which could outlast me, and I stayed with him, even after I started bleeding at the nose and mouth and ears, and got blind, and then all to onst he was standing stock still in the middle of the bowl, with his tongue hanging out about three foot, and his sweat-soaked sides heaving, and the sun was just setting over the mountains. He’d bucked nearly all afternoon!
Breckinridge dismounts by simply pulling his feet out of the stirrups and falling to the ground. Neither he nor Cap’n Kidd recovers for about an hour. Later, Cap’n Kidd gives Breck a mean look as he approaches, but doesn’t make any hostile moves apart from one attempt to bite and a kick with his left hoof, at which Breck doubles him up with a kick in the belly and saddles him. Cordial relations thus established, when Breck mounts him again, Cap’n Kidd merely bucks about ten jumps and takes one snap at his rider’s leg for the sake of self-respect. Breckinridge Elkins may have proved himself the one and only man who can ride the outlaw stallion, but Cap’n Kidd is not about to let him take that for granted.
The covetous Wild Bill Donovan and his gang return at this point, and Donovan angrily lays claim to Cap’n Kidd. With Breckinridge’s gun hanging on a tree-limb and Donovan pointing a double-barreled shotgun at his dinner, Elkins submits to gambling for Cap’n Kidd against Donovan’s hat, and Donovan’s henchman deals from the bottom. Breck wouldn’t have endured it for a second, but as he says, he was young in those days “and bashful around shotguns”.
Donovan orders another henchman, Red, to ride Cap’n Kidd over to their camp. Red mounts him and Cap’n Kidd allows it. Breckinridge’s heart sinks, but then Red bellows to the horse, “Get going, cuss you!” Breck, still getting acquainted with the huge pinto, now discovers something about him that he hadn’t known before.
Cap’n Kidd is able to laugh.
I never seen a hoss laugh before, but now I know what they mean by a hoss-laugh. Cap’n Kidd didn’t neigh nor nicker. He jest laughed. He laughed till the acorns come rattling down outa the trees and the echoes rolled through the cliffs like thunder. And then he reched his head around and grabbed Red’s laig and dragged him out of the saddle, and held him upside down with guns and things spilling out of his scabbards and pockets, and Red yelling blue murder. Cap’n Kidd shaken him till he looked like a rag and swung him around his head three or four times, and then let go and throwed him clean through a alder thicket.
They discover later that the unfortunate Red has “seven busted ribs, a dislocated arm and a busted laig”. This occurs after Breck has punched out Donovan, taken his shotgun, and with it, control of the situation. He compels Donovan to gamble with him again, on another poker hand “from the top of the deck this time”. Donovan still gets a royal flush in diamonds, but he concedes without insisting on looking at Breck’s hand. That the Bear Creek hillbilly was pointing his own shotgun at his front teeth may have aided Wild Bill to be reasonable.
Then Breck and Cap’n Kidd head for Bear Creek. “A blue streak,” as Breck says. He also assures us that Cap’n Kidd ran fifty miles without pausing for breath. Some horse.
Cap’n Kidd always remained “a iron-jawed outlaw.” When his reins snap on one occasion, he takes the bit in his teeth, bolts “like he always does when he gits the chance” heads for a canyon, comes to a sudden halt at the verge, and tosses Breck down among five men waiting in ambush. While Breck is battling them, Cap’n Kidd occupies himself by trying to buck off his saddle.
Dolly Rixby, whom Breck was sparking at the time in an effort to make Glory Doyle jealous, may have said in some awe, “I’ve heard of you too! You broke Cap’n Kidd … ” but she didn’t quite have it right. Nobody who supposes that Cap’n Kidd was fully “broke” has it right. As Breck informs his readers, any time he falls off and doesn’t manage to grab the bridle on his way to the ground, he has a long walk ahead. Even after grabbing the bridle, he’s apt to be dragged “about seventy-five yards.” Cap’n Kidd never missed a chance to show that his independent spirit and wild wicked nature were still present, and in operational order.
Art credits: Bucking by N.C. Wyeth,Pecos Bill by Jason Goodwin & Glory McGraw by David Parsons
Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part 4a, Part 4b, Part 4c, Part 5a, Part 5b