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The Best Horse in Town

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"Ain’t she a beauty?"

Old Meserve liked to say that, talking about his wife. He was right. Even I, just a boy, could see that. When Mrs. Meserve cantered Bob, her chestnut stallion, past our house, she wore her hair tied back tight; her wide eyes could look right into your heart. She looked to me like the picture of Mary in our Bible when the angel came to see her.

"She ain’t afraid of nothin’," Old Meserve liked to say.

To which she replied, "Don’t boast, Jote. Of course I’m afraid of things like anyone, but when I am, Jesus comes and heals it."

"Well why don’t he do it for everyone?" Jote sometimes asked.

"Because they don’t believe in him," Mrs. Meserve would reply, which Old Meserve said was a good answer.

Some people thought Mrs. Meserve talked too much about Jesus, but I didn’t mind. She was good to me, and I spent a lot of time at her house when I could, eating her pies and Indian puddings while she observed me close and told me stories from the Bible–how Jesus drove some devils into a herd of swine, how he raised Lazarus from the tomb, how he walked on water easy as Bob walked across a mown field, how when he came it was sudden, a miracle, like wind under the door. Once she took me into the bedroom where she and Old Meserve slept, and where her only baby had slept until he died. They named him Ammi. Something was the matter with his heart, and she stayed up all night every night giving him sips of rum every half hour. But his face got blacker and blacker until he died. That was one of the times Jesus took her fear away.

"He told me my boy was in heaven," she said and her eyes narrowed. "There’s no dying there."

The time I remember best was the time she raced Dr. Cartwright at Litchfield Fair. It was a fine day. We were sitting in the grandstand, watching the trotters, when the doctor came up wearing tight gray riding britches and boots the way gentlemen in magazines did but the men in our town didn’t. People said the doctor was in love with Mrs. Meserve, but that she didn’t like him so he was angry, wanted to show her. He was smiling and hard.

"When the trotting’s over, why don’t we run your Bob against my Bayard?" he said looking only at her. "You and me find out who’s got the best horse in town. I’ll give you a length."

Old Meserve stood up. "You won’t give her nothing," he said.

"Sit down, Jote," she said. "Bob doesn’t need a length."

So they agreed, but when I saw them come up to the start side by side my heart sank. Bayard was a brute—a hand taller than Bob and at least a hundred pounds heavier. At the start, the doctor went to the whip right away and pulled in front on the rail, but Mrs. Meserve settled Bob in just two paces back. My heart rose to see him stay there, nice and easy, and her talking to him all the while. When they came out of the final turn, she moved Bob outside for the sprint, but the doctor saw her coming and moved out to block her the way jockeys do who win any way they can. Bob tossed his head. I thought he would break, but Mrs. Meserve leaned forward, still talking, and gave him a sign. Like a miracle, like wind under the door, he shifted inside on the rail in the narrow gap the doctor had left. Between Bayard’s thundering like a freight train on one side and the rail like a razor on the other, Mrs. Meserve and Bob were going through. For a moment she and the doctor were knee to knee, so close they might have been touching. He looked over and shifted his whip. Everyone saw it go up and down three times, and everyone saw Mrs. Meserve throw her arm out along Bob’s neck. Then Bob burst into the clear, headed for home as though he were walking on water, going away to win by a length.

The crowd let Old Meserve through and me right after him. "Ain’t he the devil?" he was saying . . . then he saw the blood on her slashed sleeve and threw up his hands. "Jesus . . . " he yelled, but she cut him off.

"Don’t say another word, Jote. Passing inside is dangerous."

Back at their place, I watched Old Meserve get the calendula and beeswax out and wrap her arm. I said, "You weren’t scared."

She said, "Of course I was. When I saw that whip coming down on Bob’s neck, I wanted to run away, but Jesus came and healed me, so I put my arm out."

"He wanted you to win," I said.

"Maybe he did," she said, and her eyes narrowed, "but I can’t believe that’s what he really cares about. Not down here. I wanted to beat Dr. Cartwright, and I did, but I wanted to keep Ammi alive too, and I couldn’t, not down here. No. What Jesus did for me today was take my fear away." Then she pulled her hurt arm away from Old Meserve and the salve, and took my face in her hands and gave me a kiss. "Remember that," she said.

I do.
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