September 23, 2010
This article first appeared in the November 1983 issue of Shooting Times.
It was the tail end of February 1939 in Hereford, Texas, and except for school, there was little to occupy me and Joe Bishop. Hunting season was long past, and our fishing gear wouldn't be coming out of storage for a couple of months. My scuffed old football lay in disuse in my closet, and neither of us liked basketball.
Saturday was the bright day of the winter week. A dime apiece gained us admittance to the Star Theatre, and this particular Saturday found us in the front row, inhaling big nickel bags of popcorn and watching a Ken Maynard western three times. We always watched the matinees three times, making sure we got our money's worth. Three times was no chore because we liked the way Ken Maynard handled his sixgun, and we especially liked the dashing way he rode his horse Tarzan, who was some horse.
Blinking as we walked into the bright afternoon sunlight, I asked Joe, "Whaddaya want to do next? We got two hours to kill before supper."
"Let's drop into Streu's and see what's new," suggested my skinny sidekick.
Streu Hardware was just a couple of doors down Main Street. Me and Joe got as much entertainment there as we did at the Star since Streu's had a large rack of new and used rifles and shotguns, along with a good variety of ammunition. For some reason, Streu's didn't sell handguns.
Mr. Streu knew me and Joe were not able to buy anything more than the occasional box of .22s or shotgun shells, but he was invariably obliging when we wanted to handle one of the guns on his rack. On that day, after greeting the merchant, we simultaneously spotted a handsome new rifle on the rack. We pointed and, speaking at the same time, asked, "May I see that?"
Mr. Streu reached for the gun and handed it over. Deeply blued, with varnished, figured stock and fore-end, it was a flat-sided, sleek .22 Long Rifle automatic. It handled beautifully. It was a dream gun. It was a Model 63 Winchester. Charlie Burke, our rancher friend, had an old, blue-worn 63 Winchester he'd let us shoot, and we liked it, but the hardware store rifle was the first new one me and Joe had ever seen. It was irresistible.
"How much?" I asked, dreading the answer. Mr. Streu silently pointed to the price tag looped to the trigger guard and ruined my day. The blue crayon mark read "$40."
The price was astronomical. In our part of the country in 1939, you could hire the services of a good man for two weeks for $40. To a pair of 12-year-old youngsters, this was an impossible sum. Might as well have been $4,000.
Reluctantly handing back the little Winchester, we thanked Mr. Streu and left the store, walking for our homes.
"I'm gonna have one of those someday," Joe said grimly.
"Me, too," I responded, with what I hoped sounded like conviction.
A brief talk with my mother that evening confirmed there was no way the family coffers could yield up $40 for a .22 rifle. After all, hadn't it been only the previous fall that she'd paid $12 for my good, used .22 Remington pump? What did I need with two rifles?
My argument fell on deaf ears. Maybe I could get a job. No, grown men were going without jobs. Besides, I had to go to school. I could sell newspapers, but the local Hereford Brand was only a weekly. It would take two years to make $40. I was stymied, but I couldn't get the little Winchester off my mind.
The next day, Joe's dad drove us to an abandoned caliche pit where he and his friends sometimes gathered for informal shoots. The pit was empty when we arrived, but before we could unlimber our .22s, C.C. "Rock" Roden and his son Tom, a boy our age, showed up riding bicycles. Both were physical fitness enthusiasts and exercised constantly. Then came Charlie Burke and Jimmy Stocks, a pair of cowmen who liked to shoot.
We had a quorum and immediately paired off, shooting at rocks and tin cans. Big Joe--Joe's dad--shot a new Colt Match Target Woodsman with odd, skirt-like stocks. Charlie shot his venerable Model 63, and Jimmy had a short High Standard pistol. Rock Roden fired a newish-looking Colt Woodsman--the sport model--and his boy Tom used a Remington single-shot bolt-action rifle to good effect. Me and Joe plodded along with our old guns, mine a Remington Model 12 pump and his an antiquated, worn-out Stevens single-shot pistol with a detachable shoulder stock.
Tom Roden was a good shot, but me and Joe could beat him. We could also beat all the men--except Joe's dad, an ex-Texas Ranger who was deadly with a pistol.
Rock Roden loved to bet on anything and got up some small wagers among the men. Being broke, me and Joe and Tom were excused. Big Joe won all the money, and the guns were put away. We repaired to the bed of Charlie's pickup, where a galvanized tub of iced Budweiser in long, brown bottles lay under a gunny sack. The men uncapped beers for themselves; then, after mock debate and dire warnings against telling our mothers, they offered one beer each to us boys. Tom declined, saying he was in shape. Me and Joe figured we were in pretty good shape ourselves, but we kept quiet and thirstily quaffed the proffered suds.
The talk covered topics from shooting to other sports to bicycling, with the two ranchmen and Big Joe curiously examining the Rodens' bikes. Then came the claim that was to change the lives of me and Joe.
Rock seemed to inflate his chest a few inches as he flatly stated, "A man on a bicycle can outrun a man on a horse over a long distance."
I thought Big Joe, Charlie, and Jimmy were going to choke on their beer. I was pretty taken back myself. Joe chewed a stem of tickle grass and looked inscrutable.
A heated argument broke out, the horsemen snorting at the idea of a dude on a pedal machine even being in the running against any decent horse. Rock stuck to his guns (and his bicycles) and said he would pit Tom against any horseman that could be enlisted in a 10-mile race.
"And I've got a hundred dollars that says he'll win," he declared.
Charlie and Jimmy each counted $100 from their wallets, and Big Joe wrote a check. There would be a race. No details were worked out then. Everyone left the caliche pit a little mad. The horse set retired to the Bishop house for a council of war. Charlie Burke took the floor.
"First thing we've got to do is pick a horse
and a rider. It won't look right to have a man ride against the Roden boy. Joe and Skeeter can both handle a horse. One of them will do. I got the horse."
Me and Joe raised a clamor. He wanted to ride Nick, his old gray gelding; I nominated Freckles, my little roan. Both were rejected, Nick because he was too old and Freckles because he was too soft and fat.
"I got just the horse," repeated Charlie. "I was down on the Milliron Ranch last month receiving cattle. They gave me this little dun to ride, and he was plumb dandy. Fast, gentle, smart, and tough as a boot. Everybody else had to change horses during the middle of the day, but I gathered cattle on him all day, and the boys out at the place have been using him every day. He's hard and just right for this race."
The next decision was the big one for me and Joe. Who would be the rider? I thought it was kind of cold-blooded when the men put us on a bathroom scale, but that settled the matter. I weighed almost 10 pounds more than the rawhide Joe. He would ride.
Joe cast a look of sympathy at me, and I averted my eyes. Just once, I would have liked to have been the hero. I kept my mouth shut.
The next day, Joe's dad told us he had made the final arrangements for the race with Rock. It would be 12 miles instead of 10, the course being Highway 60 from Hereford to the hamlet of Summerfield, a distance of 6 miles, and return. The bicyclist would ride on the blacktop, the horseman on the soft dirt shoulder of the road. The race would take place on the last Saturday in March, three weeks hence.
Me and Joe were waiting later in the week when Charlie Burke backed his horse trailer up to the corral behind Joe's house. He unloaded one of the best looking horses we had ever seen, a light dun with a dark stripe from the end of his mane to the base of his tail. His mane and tail were the same brown as the narrow stripe. He was a typey quarterhorse with powerful hindquarters, a wide chest, short neck, and trim, clean legs. We could see muscles ripple under his rough winter hair.
And he was dog gentle. After an investigatory circle of his new pen, he walked to me and Joe to let us pet him and scratch his ears. We both rode him there in the lot, bareback and without a bridle.
Charlie gave us our instructions. "Exercise that Milliron dun every day. Start him at 5 miles and add a mile a day until he's going the full 12. Trot half a mile and lope half a mile. We'll have him doing the whole distance by race time. Feed him a gallon of oats and a couple of those high-gear bundles twice a day."
The training regimen began. Every day after school, me and Joe would hurry to the horse corrals and saddle up, him on the Milliron dun and me on Freckles. We would ease the horses down to Highway 60, then break into a brisk trot toward Summerfield, changing the gait to a lope after an estimated half-mile. They had been right; Freckles could keep up with the tough dun for only a mile or so before he began to get winded. The Milliron dun never tired.
Most afternoons we would see Tom pumping along on his bike, leaning low over the handlebars. His dad drove his old Chevrolet along behind him, protecting him from traffic. Me and Joe didn't spy on them, and they didn't spy on us. We never worked out together.
By the end of the week, Joe was riding the Milliron dun the full distance to Summerfield and back. By the week of the race, he was making the whole 12 miles in better time. Both horse and rider were in top shape.
Big Joe told us the word about the race was out, and a big controversy was raging all over town. A lot of money had been bet on both sides. By now, a long line of slow-moving cars accompanied Joe on his run each day, timing him, while I waited with Freckles a mile or two out of town.
The fateful Saturday finally arrived. Post time was 10 a.m., and a crowd had already gathered when me and Joe got to the starting line. Tom Roden sat on his bicycle, quietly talking to his father. He didn't look nervous.
I'd left Freckles at home and went to the starting point with Charlie Burke in his pickup. Joe sat mutely on the Milliron dun, not talking with the crowd.
Charlie counseled Joe: "This west wind is pretty strong. You boys will be facing it all the way to Summerfield. It will make Tom work hard, but it will be at your backs coming home, and he'll get more push. I want you to get in the lead at the start and stay there all the way. If he's pushing you at the end, you'll have to make that horse run. I forgot to bring a quirt."
I ran to Charlie's pickup and looked in the bed. An old fan belt lay there. I grabbed it and ran back to Joe. "Here, this'll make a quirt. Don't use it 'less you have to."
The race started on time. The riders were off right together, heading into the 15-knott wind. Joe took a slight lead, and Tom leaned low over his handlebars. Neither horse nor biker was working too hard at the beginning.
A highway patrol car, its driver knowing about the race, pulled in front of the riders and led the way with red light flashing. Charlie and I managed to head the long line of observing cars and got a good view of both riders.
At the end of the first mile, Tom was obviously having trouble. Joe had increased his lead to 100 yards, and Tom struggled against the wind. Rock's old Chevy honked at Charlie and me, and we pulled over. Rock ran to the pickup and spoke to Charlie.
"Any objections if I drive in front of Tom to give him a windbreak?" he asked.
Charlie considered for a second, then said, "No, go ahead."
Rock hurried back to his car and pulled in ahead of the struggling Tom, the box-backed car breaking the wind for the young rider. He picked up speed.
Joe and the Milliron dun loped and trotted steadily, rhythmically. At Summerfield, the turnaround point, they were 400 yards ahead of the bicycle. Without stopping, Joe whirled the horse and headed for home, still at the regular, mile-eating lope. Then he considered his lead and slowed to a trot to spell the dun.
This was a mistake. Immediately after Tom made the turn, he had the wind at his back. Pumping was easier, and he began to close the gap. Looking over his shoulder, Joe saw the situation and resumed a lope. Tom continued to gain slowly.
They went into the last mile. The Milliron dun was slowing, and Tom was within 50 yards. By the quarter-mile mark, he was right on the horse's heels. He stood up to pedal, gave it everything he had, and pulled alongside Joe and the tiring horse.
Joe suddenly grabbed the fan belt looped over his saddlehorn and slapped the pony's rump, right and then left. The dun was surprised for an instant, then fell into a dead run, ears laid back.
The Milliron dun streak
ed across the finish line a city block ahead of the gutsy bike rider. All the cars in the procession started honking their horns, the drivers cheering and whistling.
Charlie and I drove to where Joe had stopped the horse. Joe slid off wearily, leaning against his saddle for a moment. I clapped him on the back, shook his hand, then loosened the cinch and led the Milliron dun away. He was lathered, breathing deeply and fast; his great heart thumped mightily against his ribs. I talked to him as we walked up and down the roadside, telling him what a fine horse he was. It was a long time before his heavy breathing and rapid heartbeat slowed. I hoped he was all right.
Charlie waved me back, and Joe took the horse. A photographer from the Hereford Brand wanted a picture of him and Tom. The crowd around them must have numbered 200 people.
After the picture, me and Joe left them and slowly walked the Milliron dun the 2 miles to the horse pens. There we unsaddled him and let him drink sparingly. We watched him into the late afternoon, occasionally giving him a little water. Charlie Burke came by, took a look, and said to feed the horse. He was all right. Charlie said he would be taking the dun back to his ranch that night. He slipped us each a $10 bill.
Me and Joe never saw the Milliron dun again.
An Associated Press stringer picked up the story, and news of the race was printed the next day and broadcast all over the nation. It was the headline story in Thursday's Hereford Brand, and there was a big picture of Tom and his bicycle and Joe and the Milliron dun. The reporter who wrote the story wondered why the Milliron dun didn't have a name. Me and Joe wondered why ourselves.
Joe and Tom were famous. They took a lot of good-natured hoorawing at school, but it was easy to see the other boys were just jealous. I was, but I kept quiet. Lots of the town merchants gave them free samples of their wares. Joe split about 3 feet of theatre tickets with me and took me to the Coney Island, where the hot dogs were on the house.
In May, Hereford staged her first annual Pioneer Day celebration. There was a parade, and me and Joe rode Nick and Freckles in it. After the parade, a huge barbecue was held in the state park along Tierra Blanca Creek.
The mayor spoke from a high wooden stand, carrying on at great length. Just when everyone thought he was finished, and we could eat, he summoned Joe and Tom to the stand and introduced them. After a brief account of how they had "put Hereford on the map," he gave them each a gift from the town's businessmen.
Tom received an expensive pair of Justin boots. When the mayor handed Joe his prize, I almost fell apart. It was the Winchester 63 from Streu's.
I walked to Joe's side and asked, "Were you surprised?"
"Naw, Dad told 'em that's what I wanted."
"You sure won yourself a nice rifle."
Joe handed me the Winchester. "You mean we sure won ourselves a nice rifle."