In 1860’s frontier Montana, a good horse could make the difference between life and death when its rider needed to outrun bullets or arrows. Combine the great value of a good horse with the gambling nature of the populace in general, and one can see why horse racing was a frequent pastime. Langford, in “Vigilante Days and Ways” (p. 296) gives us a vivid example of the great proclivity men had to horse racing. While the arresting party was escorting the outlaw Ives back to town for trial in the murder of Tiebault, he (Ives) was able to convince them to race him. At first short races, then longer and longer until he nearly got away by reaching a ranch first (where he could exchange for a fresh steed).
It’s unlikely that Martha Canary/Calamity Jane herself raced a horse as in my story, “Calamity Jane- How the West Began,” but she probably witnessed such races. Jean Davis, in “Shallow Diggin’s” (p. 96) quotes a newspaper article of this era which locates these contests (they were a recurring event) within easy walking distance of Jane’s home in Adobetown:
“[there was an odd character,] Sam Grim. He was of huge frame, weighing some 250 pounds, feet amputated at the insteps. He was of lamb-like disposition, yet rugged and rough in a western way. He was an inveterate horse racer and originated the man-against-horse race. The race was conducted in the following manner: The race was usually 50 yards to a perpendicular pole, then turn and race back.
“Grim was obliged to ride the smallest cayuse which could be found. The horse nearly always reached the pole first but in making the short turn he would lose so much ground that the foot racer, on the homestretch would, often, outdistance the rider and be declared the winner.
“Many dollars changed hands in these contests and for thrills and excitement no other outdoor sport was compared with it. The fun and thrills were afforded by the rider who, in his quick effort to make the turn as quickly as possible and secure an even break with his opponent, would often find himself and his horse rolling over in the dust.”
Cayuses (see below) were small horses to begin with, so a 250 pound man riding one must have been a comical sight to Jane and the rest of the spectators.
Plummer’s horse, Jane’s equine opponent in my “Calamity,” has an interesting history as well, as told in “Hanging the Sheriff,” by Boswell and Mather (p. 52-53):
“The young lawyer succeeded in getting the accused thief acquitted, receiving as payment his client’s horse. But when he went to the stable to pick it up, he was informed he would have to pay a bill for the animal’s upkeep, a sum of $19. Pemberton [the young lawyer], informing the sheriff that it was not right for him to be charged since his client had been found innocent, refused to pay the livery bill. Plummer, though, insisted the new owner could not take the horse until the stable owner was paid. Threatening to initiate a lawsuit over the matter, Pemberton angrily commenced filling out the necessary paperwork, and Plummer, watching him for a time, then sauntered over. ‘Pemberton,’ he said, ‘you ain’t got no use for that hoss.’
“‘No, I ain’t got no use for that hoss, but he’s mine!’ Pemberton answered.
“‘Well, wouldn’t you rather have two hundred dollars in gold dust than that hoss?’ When Pemberton admitted he would, Plummer had the horse auctioned in the street and bought it himself at a bid of $221. Thus Pemberton got his money for the acquittal of his client, the stable got its fee, and Plummer got a ‘mighty pretty hoss’… and the bay mare Plummer bought turned out to be ‘one of the best horses they had in the gang’.“
Langford, in “Vigilante Days and Ways” (p. 187) describes one of Plummer’s horses, probably a different one, as he kept it hidden:
“At one time, having occasion to go to the ranche where my horse was kept, I saw there a very superior saddle-horse. Having never seen it before, on inquiry, I was informed that it belonged to Plummer, who often visited the ranche to exercise it, but never rode it into town, or used it for any long journey. It was presented to possess greater qualities of speed and endurance than any horse in the country. Why was he keeping this horse, unused, and away from the public view, if not for the purpose of escaping from the country in case of failure of his criminal enterprise?”
Langford relates another vignette that tells us how horses were generally recognized by their markings (p. 367). Just prior to his Plummer’s capture, his horse was noted being brought into town from the ranch(e) where he kept it (in company with the horses of two others of the gang). From this the Vigilantes deduced that Plummer planned to flee. That horses were recognized by their markings also explains why bandits covered their horses with blankets.
Glick seems to have been an unlucky horse owner. Langford relates (p. 129), that after only a few months in the area, Glick had had seven horses stolen from him “by prowlers” before Langford was able to return one to him.
And what of Jane’s diminutive horse in my story? Lightning was an Indian pony, a cayuse as mentioned above, which breed were typically short legged, with large hindquarters. They were similar to the other horses common to the area, “bronchos, or wild horses from California, neither in quality nor breed suited for the service [of overland mail stages], unreliable, and easily broken down.” (Langford, p. 233).
But Jane loved lightning.