University of Virginia Library


Page 44


In the more thinly settled regions of the South and
West, a thousand sports are resorted to, to compensate
the want of society, and to supply equivalent pleasures
for those of a great city. On public days, the villages,
or hamlets rather, are always crowded with people.
The County Court brings together hundreds who rejoice
that they have no business within its precincts; while
on days of sheriff and public sales, other hundreds
appear within sight of the auctioneer's hammer, who
have neither means nor wish to buy. Muster-day calls
forth its hosts in addition to those who come for training;
and Charity, availing herself of the popular need, opens
her frequent fairs for philanthropic purposes, relying
on the universal desire for society to persuade into useless
expenditure those whom it would not be easy to
tempt to a benevolence for its own sake. Saturday, in
these regions, is almost as much a holiday with the
full-grown farmer as it is with the schoolboy, and usually
takes him to the nearest place of gathering, which is
usually a grocery, under the pretence of laying in the
supplies for the week; but really with the no less human
motive of procuring those social excitements which do
not always result in the elevation of his humanity.
Here, he rewards the patient labor of five days at the
plough with potations which exhaust much more certainly
than any labor. He calls for his quart of
whiskey, which he shares with comrades, who find
similar supplies, and, towards evening, he may be seen
wending homewards, balancing himself with no little
difficulty upon his steed, with a jug well filled, hanging


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in one end of a sack across his saddle, the other end
being stored with such supplies as will soothe the apprehended
anger of his spouse. It is not unfrequently
the case that, overtasking his capacity, he imbibes too
many potations for his equestrianship, and man, jug,
and saddle find their way into ditch or thicket, while
the unincumbered horse gradually crops his way home.
This, fortunately, is but an occasional history now.
There was a time when it was much more frequent, and
associated with other practices—the brutal scuffle, the
vindictive fight, the blasphemous language, which left
our hopeful humanity but little of which it could really
boast. Happily, this period is one of which the memory
grows daily more and more imperfect. The sports of
the people of the South and West, even along the border
settlements, are of a more grateful character. The
horserace is that which more nearly resembles those of
the past, since it necessarily brings into most decided
activity the animal tendencies of the people. It is here
that the great masses prove their affinity with the ancient
Saxon family of Bull! The picnic and the fishing-party
will suffice for girls and boys in the season of
romance, which is one simply of mutual confidence and
hope; but the turf for all parties, at all seasons. It is
here that all meet as upon a common ground, and amidst
a thousand inequalities of wealth and life, show and
condition; no one thinks so much or so meanly of himself
as to be absent. Few think of themselves at all,
at such a period. The horserace commends itself to the
great body of the forest population more than any other
amusement. It is an image, in some degree, of war. It
appeals particularly to a people scarcely one of whom
fails to keep, and not one of whom is unequal to the
most excellent management, of a horse. Commend us,
accordingly, to the Southern turf. Here, the sport is
not an affectation. It is enjoyed with a zest. Here
life and nature speak out in all their varieties of character.
The dullest peasant looks animation as the sleek
coursers wind beneath his sight. His eye becomes bright


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and knowing. He looks at head, heels, and neck, with
the eye of a connoisseur. He feels the breast and
shoulders knowingly. He adopts his favorite, and then
shouts his preference in defiance to all comers. He is
ready with or for a banter. He is prepared to stake
his earnings of a year upon his judgment. His greasy
pocketbook lies ready in his grasp. His bales of cotton
are folded up in tens, and twenties, and hundreds, waiting
deliverance or companions in bondage. He is no
longer a person of drooping and grave aspect, drowsily
going forward as if without hope or purpose. He is
now all life, eager for opposition, and confident of success.
Nor is it the inferior taste and understanding
only to which the announcement holds forth temptation.
Education here is not construed to assume the total subjection
of the animal nature, and the elevation of the
moral at the expense and sacrifice of the passions.
The excitement which arises from the contemplation of
the bold, the fleet, the strong and energetic, is supposed
to be clearly consistent, within certain limits, with the
laws of refinement and civilization; and the young damsel,
who will prattle sentiment with you by the hour,
quoting freely and understandingly from the pages of
Moore and Wordsworth, yet bounds at the tap of the
drum which warns the courser to depart, and glows at
the progress of the contending bloods; her soul as much
excited at what she sees as the young dragoon for the
first time jingling his spurs in the heady tempest of
the fight.

But a glimpse at the race-course of Hillabee itself
will afford us a much better idea of the scene, as it
ordinarily appears, than we could possibly convey by
any process of generalization. The ground is chosen
in a pine barren, which, being entirely level, and free
from ridge or inequality for a space of several miles,
renders it suitably firm and hard for the required purpose.
The trees are cleared away, leaving a spacious
amphitheatre something more than a mile in circumference.
Within this space the course is laid out in a


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circle, and designated by ditches running parallel, with
a track of eighty feet between them. The original
forests surround the whole; a deep green girdle of massive
pines, at whose feet have sprung up, taking the
place of those which have been eradicated from the
outer edges of the course, a narrow belt of scrubby oaks.
Among these, you see numerous carts and wagons.
These contain supplies of food and liquor. Here are
ginger-cakes and cider, of domestic manufacture. Here
are cold baked meats in abundance, ham and “chicken
fixings,” mutton and pork, spread upon long tables of
rough plank, and waiting for customers. On one hand,
you see rising the smokes of a barbacue; a steer is
about to be roasted entire above a huge pit, over which,
by means of a stake, he hangs suspended. Steeds are
fastened in every thicket, and groups of saddles lie
beneath every tree. Their owners are already scattered
about the turf, while hundreds of negroes are ready,
within and without the circle, pushing forward wherever
there is promise of novelty, and anxious to emulate their
betters in perilling every sixpence in their possession
on the legs of their several favorites. There is a yet
greater attraction for these in the huge white tent,
spread at one extremity of the area; over which hang,
in greasy and tattooed folds, the great stripes and stars
of the nation. The attraction here is a novelty. It is
a company of circus-riders. Their steeds, gayly caparisoned,
have already gone in clamorous procession over
the course to the sound of music; a thousand negroes
have followed at their heels. Their exercises begin at
the closing of the races, which cannot possibly take
place before the afternoon. The interval to these is
one of the most trying anxiety; to be soothed in part
only by the events of the race. For this, the preparations
are actively in progress. A glance at the opposite
extremity of the ring, where the judges have a rude
but elevated structure, not unlike a Chinese pagoda,
shows us a handsome sprinkling of other visitors, on
horse and foot. Many of these have a deeper interest


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in the progress of the day than arises from simple
curiosity. There are the sportsmen, the jockeys, the
owners of horses, their admirers, riders, and those who,
in some way, look to the future with some selfish consideration.
They dart about in large survey, or crowd
in groups around some favorite steed or speaker. There,
you may see a dozen around the drum, whose office it
is to give the signal which sets horse and man in motion;
and not far distant, you may behold the amateur fifer that
perambulates merrily by himself, discoursing through
his instrument, somewhat imperfectly, of Robin Adair
and Roslyn Castle. Others, again, are more busily
and officially employed. They are weighing steed and
rider, measuring the track, taking down bets and entries,
and, altogether, looking and behaving as if the next
movement of the great globe itself depended upon the
wise disposition which that moment should make of their

Looking beyond this circle, and the prospect is equally
encouraging. The eye naturally falls first upon the
imposing cortège of the higher classes. Here you perceive,
in coach, carriage, barouche, and buggy, that the
upper ten thousand are tacitly permitted by the multitude
to form a little community to themselves. The
vehicles crowd together, as if in sympathy, the carriagepoles
interlacing; the horses withdrawn and fastened
in the shade of neighboring thickets. Here, seated in
their carriages, appear the ladies, as various in their
ages as in their separate style of beauty. They form
close compact knots, or circles, according to the degrees
of intimacy between them, and jealously force out all
intruders; leaving such avenues only as will permit the
approach on horseback of their several attendants and
gallants. Showily and richly dressed, and surrounded
by these dashing gentry of the other sex, all well mounted
and eager to show their horsemanship, they give to the
scene a gayety and brilliance which wonderfully add to
its life and animation. Their gallants whirl around
them with anxious attentions; now fly off to ascertain


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the course of events, and now dash back, at full speed,
to report progress. They describe and designate the
horses to the delighted fair ones, direct them in their
choice of favorites, and lose to them glove and ribbon
with the happiest gallantries. You may note the emblems
and badges upon each fair bosom; these are white
and pink, and red and green; they designate the colors
of the selectest horses; and beauty, in this way, does
not feel mortified at being made tributary to the beast.

The more numerous multitude, if less attractive in
their exhibitions, are much more various and not less
imposing. A glance to the right confines the eye to
a crowd in the midst of which a wagon appears, surmounted
by a red streamer which waves twenty feet
high from the peak of a pine sapling. The shaft is
rigidly held in its perpendicular by the embrace of a
group of barrels, from one of which the more abstemious
may obtain a draught of domestic cider or switchel;
while from another, the stronger head imbibes his modicum
of whiskey or apple brandy; a poor Western
apology for Irish poteen, which, after the first season,
our Patrick learns to swallow with something of the
relish with which he smacked his lips upon the brown
jug in his native island. Other wagons and flags appear,
each in the margin of the thickets, sheltered by its
shade, yet not hidden from the eyes of the thirsty and
hungry citizen. They divide themselves, according to
their experience, between the several wagons; and it's—

“Ha, Uncle Billy, and what have you got for a dry
throat to-day?” Or—

“Thar you ar', Daddy Nathan, as bright as a bead
of brandy, always bringing something for a tharsty sinner!”
And Uncle Billy responds with a smile:

“Yes, Joel, my son, and it's I that's never too old
for the sarvice;”—or, Daddy Nathan shouts back, with
the voice of a “blood-o'nouns,”

“And what would you hev', you great jugbelly with
a double muzzle? Ain't I here for the saving of such
miserable sinners as you, that never think you're half


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full till you're fairly running over and can't run no
more. Ride up, and see if you can find the way to your
own swallow. Here's the stuff that'll make you open
your mouth, though your eyes never seed it; as a
hungry pike jumps up for the bait, jest because his nose
tells him it's sartainly out somewhar' in the pond.”

Then comes the rugged wit in answer, fashioned
after the same model; a mild, good-humored banter;
ending with a summons to the boys, to “come up to the
rack,” and try the peach or apple brandy, the whiskey
or the cider, each according to his taste, of the uncle
or the daddy.

“Whose treat?” demands two or three in the same

“Who's but Joel Norris's?” or Pete Withers's, or Ben
Climes's, or some other well-known boy of the masses,
whom they have learned to reverence for that equal
freedom of hand which enables them, with just the
same readiness, to bestow buffet or beverage, according
to the mood of the moment, or the character of the
provocation given. And thus the groups form; and the
meeting leads to the drinking; the drinking to the betting;
and they part, or group themselves together,
busy, from the moment in which they appear upon the
field; much more earnest in the pursuit of fun than in
the prosecution of their daily tasks.

He must be of difficult taste, indeed, whom such a
theatre will fail to satisfy. Yonder, upon the grass, sit
a cluster of rustic damsels. They are only spreading
their baskets of cakes, gunjas, as they call them, and
boiling huge vessels of coffee. Beyond them, at a
little distance, appear others of the sisterhood, busy in
preparing their tables with plate, knife, and fork. Towards
noon you will see them smoking with hot dishes,
and well surrounded by hungry gamesters. Cards and
dice already begin to interest other parties, that crouch
away in remoter places along the skirts of the wood;
and the more personal matters of “poker” and “old
sledge” render many an ardent spirit momentarily indifferent


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to the approaching horserace, upon which he
has no sixpence left to stake. You will see him start
to his feet as the shouts of the crowd without, and
the rush of the horses, announce the approach of the
contending steeds; but a glance suffices; and, satisfied
that he neither wins nor loses by the event, he sinks
down upon the turf or log, and renews the game of
“brag” with fresh nonchalance and audacity.

Look, now, at the ring forming within the wood, where
an eager circle encourage two rivals to a stand-up
wrestle. They are stripped to the buff; the broad breast,
and full, rigid muscle, promising a noble struggle. They
approach with equal deliberation and good-humor, and
the hug is fairly taken. They pause, and each lifts the
other from his feet; and now they bend to it and wave
to and fro, like tall saplings shaken adversely by capricious
winds; now yield, now recover; a stern, close
issue, very doubtful to the bystanders, who, soon forgetting
their individuality, unconsciously follow the
wrestlers in all their contortions, and, before they know
where they are, glide into the ring and into the embrace
of well-matched opponents, with whom they tug
and tumble about without a single word of preliminary.
In the shade of yonder avenue, you see a couple attended
by their admiring followers, coats and shoes cast
off, hands clasped, and about to dart forward in a foot-race
of a hundred yards. Beyond them, still farther in
the wood, you are called upon to witness a trial of skill
between the crack rifles of two adjoining counties, of
whom their respective friends have been boasting for
several seasons. They have now, for the first time,
been brought together. A race-turf, like that of Hillabee,
will assemble the best fellows of several counties
upon extraordinary occasions. They have planted a
dollar at eighty yards. Could a shilling be seen at
that distance, the smaller coin had been preferred.

And thus the field is laid off and divided. Thus the
parties group themselves throughout the day, except
when the race is of peculiar interest, when all small


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matters are necessarily merged in the one result. But
many wander about nearly listless, who depend for
their pleasures rather upon the sports of others, than
because of any direct participation with them. These
sway to and fro at every summons that promises novelty
or excitement. Now, there are sounds of strife
and clamor, that declare a fight; and they hurry with
open-mouthed delight to the scene of action. Now, a
barrel of whiskey rolls from the wagon, and the owner,
attended by the yells of a delighted circle, prances and
rolls over it to his own confusion. Now a table of
plank yields beneath the elbows of the guests, and the
bacon and the pans go over with the company into the
sand; and now an ill-trained horse bolts from the track,
and scatters the clustering group of terrified spectators,
compelling them to a use of their heels not less eccentric
than his own. So much for the general aspect of
the race-course at Hillabee on the memorable day in
question. But it is high time that we should be more
particular, and concentrate our regards upon those personages
in whom our reader is expected to take the
deepest interest.