Ben K. Green (1912-1974) was a Texas writer. This excerpt is from his book Horse Tradin’, published in 1967. It’s best to read him as if you were listening to him tell the story, speaking all the parts in various dialects, and twinkling at you with his eyes. And be sure and give him a wee bit of leeway for stretching the truth a bit. In this story, he encounters an old con game when he trades horses with a sneaky Gypsy horse trader.
Gypsy Hoss Trade
My family had a high standard to raise children by, and as soon as they could tell that one wasn’t going to be a credit to the family name, they shipped him West which explains why I left home at such a tender age. After I was full grown and was an experienced cowboy and horse trader of about sixteen years old, I’d drift back to the farming country to visit my kinfolks, rattle my spurs, and loll around the farm boys.
I rode one good horse on this particular trip which was going to last about thirty days, and led another one that I hated and only rode occasionally to rest my good horse. This horse was one of the few paints I had ever owned or rode. He was a nice-made horse and had a very stylish way of traveling. He walked and trotted just like he couldn’t hardly stand to hit the ground. This beautiful paint horse had more bad habits than any horse I think I ever had. With all his style and at that time his color was popular, too he had about as much sense as a weak-minded West Texas jackrabbit. He was hard to saddle, hard to mount, and because he was so snorty, snaky, and boogery, he was hard to ride although he was not bad to buck.
One of the worst of his many bad characteristics was the way he pulled back when you tied him. He broke his bridle reins and the headstall of his bridle several times, and I had made a habit of tying him with a rope halter. He had his head pretty well skinned up around his ears and across his nose from settin’ back when he was tied hard and fast to a gentle telephone pole or a nice big tree that would hold him.
While I was visiting, I had led him out in a little pasture, and in a few days the skinned places around on his head had healed up and peeled off; he had a little bit of grass bloom on him and was in nice shape to trade off. On Trades Day in Greenville, Texas, I got up early in the morning, rode him pretty hard about fifteen miles into town, and came in on the trade square with some sweat and lather showing around on him.
It was middle morning, and the trade square was covered with work horses, work mules, the general run of milk cows, wagonloads of pigs, and so forth that might be seen at any trades day. Very few saddle horses were in sight. I moseyed around awhile on my horse and found a trader’s wagon with a number of saddle horses eating fresh hay out of the wagon. There was a good dappled gray gelding about fifteen hands high, in hard, sound flesh, and he was properly shod. The hair was rubbed short over his loins, there was a light mark on each side where the cinch ring of the saddle had rubbed, and you could tell by his general appearance that he was very much a usin’ horse.
Pretty soon the trader spotted me looking at his horses and came over. He walked around my paint and asked: "You want to trade stock?" which was the usual way of opening up conversation.
I told him that I wasn’t hurtin’ to trade, that I was pretty well mounted, but that I did like the looks of the gray horse. He made an awfully big speech about the gray horse but wound up by saying that he couldn’t trade him for a few days yet because he had made a man a proposition and had promised to wait until he heard from him. That was pretty rare and a little hard to believe, but still I didn’t know any different, so I looked around the wagon. On the other side tied to the front wheel was a real nice bay mare. She was about fourteen-two, which was about the size of my paint, and she was well kept and very gentle.
This little short, fat, squatty trader had every appearance of being an Irishman or some other breed of white man. He suggested to me that this was a mighty nice mare; he had known her a long time and knew her to be nice and gentle. He untied the little bay mare, jumped on her bareback, rode her off across the trade ground and back toward me. She traveled nice and smooth, had clean legs, and was a very nice kind of a little mare. When I was a boy, there were hundreds of horses that had never been ridden bareback, and when a horse would ride bareback it was proof of its gentleness and it was generally assumed that it would ride even better with a saddle.
I got down, looked in her mouth, and she was about an honest eight-year-old. Her feet and legs were exceptionally clean, and she didn’t give any appearance of ever having been used hard or mistreated. The trader asked to ride my horse, so I handed him the reins and he rode off. The paint horse wasn’t shod and was a little tenderfooted. The trader rode back, got off, and said he thought this would be a pretty nice horse if I had some shoes on him that he was too sore to travel. The trader didn’t know it, but that horse came nearer to traveling when you could stand to ride him tenderfooted than he would have shod.
We had quite a visit, and I finally gave him $20 boot. He took the halter off the little mare and I took my bridle off the paint, unsaddled him, and pitched my blanket and saddle on the bay mare. I reached under her and started drawing the cinch up. All of a sudden she swelled up like a toy balloon, walled her eyes, bawled, ran backward for about twenty feet, fell over on her side, and started groaning. I looked over at the trader and he showed every expression of shock and surprise and appeared to be terribly embarrassed. He said he didn’t know that a nice mare could act so bad.
My first fast young impulse was to stomp her head in the ground or kick her in the belly and make her get up. About the time I was about to hit her, the trader yelled: "Wait a minute!"
He walked over to her head, reached in his pocket, got her a lump of sugar, patted her, and talked sweet to her. He reached down, loosened the cinch, and the mare got up.
By this time we had a bunch of other horse traders and farmers gathered around watching the show. I tried to draw that cinch up about three more times, and every time she fell he would give her a lump of sugar and say: "Don’t hit her. Hittin’ her won’t do no good."
I left my saddle up on her without the cinch being tightened and walked away rattling my spurs and leading my mare. I always felt like a cowboy ought to set up and let his feet hang down when he moved, and that walking didn’t agree with my disposition and caused my little feet that were carrying those big spurs to complain about the way they were being treated. You could hear a little giggle and noise among the traders and farmers as I walked away, which didn’t add none to my ego.
I went down to Ingram’s wagonyard, and as I started in the gate I met Uncle Barney. He had worked for about everybody breaking horses, and he said: "Mister Ben, what you gone and done now? That there is a gypsy mare."
I asked: "Do you know this mare?"
"No, but I knows that gypsy man. He don’t look like no gypsy, but he am, an’ iffen you ever breaks even swappin’ with a gypsy, you’s done made a hoss trader. She sho looks nice, but that’s just the top side."
I went back to the back side of the wagonyard and put my mare in the lot. By now it was dinnertime, so I went off and ate a little. Then I moseyed back down to where I had left my mare in the lot and my saddle hanging on the fence. I decided that without that bunch of onlookers and helpers, I might saddle her up by myself but when I pulled that cinch she reared up, fell backward, rolled over, and groaned.
Al Eiland, who was a very fine horseman and a Southern gentleman, came strolling to the fence. As usual, he was wearing a starched white shirt and a black bow tie and looked every part the distinguished individual that he was. I looked up and said: "Howdy, Mr. Eiland." He had been my neighbor when I was a small boy, and we had always been great cronies.
He looked over the fence at my mare lying on the ground with my saddle on her. He turned, looked all around behind him and saw that no one was listening, then said: "Ben, you have traded for the Sleeping Beauty." He told me the gypsies had raised that mare from a baby colt on a bottle, and had started having her lie down for sugar when she was small enough that they could pick her up and lay her down to give her sugar. He said this Irish-looking gypsy was married to a very black gypsy, and that there were several of them camped down on Long Branch. He went on to explain that before the day was over, they would offer to give me my horse back and keep whatever money I had paid difference. He said the Sleeping Beauty had kept that particular band of gypsies in grub money for several years.
As he started to walk away, as an afterthought it seemed he stopped and said: "Did they have a good gray horse about seven years old and about fifteen hands high tied to their wagon?"
I had already thanked him for wising me up, but I wanted to repay him, so I described the gray horse. He said they had traded Mr. Marshall at Terrell, Texas, some other kind of a snide for him, and that Mr. Marshall had too much pride to buy the horse back. Mr. Marshall was his good friend and had asked Mr. Eiland to try and buy the gray horse back from the gypsies.
Mr. Eiland was going on toward the wagonyard gate when I had a bright idea and called him to wait. Times have changed now, but at that time a young boy didn’t holler at a grown man and tell him to com’ere; so he waited while I trotted up to him. I told him that if the Sleeping Beauty was as valuable as he said, I’d get the gray horse by night and he didn’t have to worry. He didn’t quite understand, but a twinkle came in his eye and a smile came on his big, fat face, and he said: "I’ll give you a chance, Ben, and I won’t bother with the gypsies until you’re through with them."
I didn’t leave my little mare, and about four o’clock here came about three or four copper-colored gypsy kids who stuck their heads through a crack in the fence. I knew then that the scouting party had arrived and the news would get back to the trading wagon fast. The little kids made quite a few strange noises to themselves, then one of them said: "What you doin’ to our mare?"
I kind of grumbled at him: "That ain’t your mare no more."
The biggest one of the kids said: "What you got all dem ropes on her foots for?"
I said in a normal, unconcerned tone of voice that when I untied her, she would have been lying there long enough that she would want to stand up when I turned her loose.
It wasn’t twenty minutes until that Irish-looking gypsy man, followed by a couple of darker, skinnier, more typical-looking gypsies, came stepping down through the wagonyard like dry steers that had just smelled water. They looked over the fence and saw the Sleeping Beauty lying on the ground with all four feet tied together and my saddle cinched hard and fast. They jabbered a while in their unknown tongue, then said if I was sick of the Sleeping Beauty, they would give me my horse back and keep the $20.
I told them that I wasn’t sick of her, but that she was going to get sick of me, and that I was going to leave her tied on the ground until she went to having nightmares instead of dreams of lumps of sugar. Then they decided they would give me half my money back and my horse. I told them that if I’d wanted that skunk-colored horse, I wouldn’t have traded him off to start with.
Up to now I hadn’t hit or whipped the Sleeping Beauty, but I reached over and kind of kicked her in the belly for their benefit. All three of them walked off a piece, then the one I had traded with came back and said he would give me all my money and my paint horse, too, if I would untie the Sleeping Beauty and trade her back to him. I told him no, I wanted to break her of that habit she had, and I believed I should keep her. As they left the wagonyard they were waving six or seven or eight hands and talking to themselves and to each other.
In no more than about half of a little bit, here came a wrinkled old gypsy woman moving swiftly as a ballet dancer. These modern gals think they invented petticoats they ought to have seen that old woman. She was wearing lots of them, and all were of a different color. She had gold earrings dangling to both shoulders, and the gold bracelets on her arm sounded like chain harness when she waved her hand. As soon as she got within smelling distance and rattling distance, the Sleeping Beauty raised her head off the ground and nickered in a moan that was nothing short of a pitiful, whipped cry, and began straining her legs against the ropes she was tied down with.
That old gypsy woman went down on her knees in that manure lot with all those petticoats and kissed the mare on her face, rubbed her, talked to her, and fed her some sugar. The mare had shown no sign of emotion when the men and kids came around, but she sure did take on when that old gypsy woman got there. The woman turned to me with soulful eyes and in a very expressive, deep voice said that I had a heart of stone to have tied the little mare to where she couldn’t get up. You never heard such begging and beseeching from a human being. She reached over to put her hand on the ropes I had tied all the mare’s four feet together with, and with those nimble old fingers she was about to undo my tying knots. I had a buggy whip in my hand, and I just tapped her a little stinging lick across her wrist and said: "Gypsy, get away from my mare."
She made a bunch of crosses on the ground and a lot of loud noises and gave me the most awful lecture that anybody ever got about being brutal to the Sleeping Beauty. She told me that she had put in many years training that mare since she was a wee bambino, and now I was ruining her. I told her no, I wasn’t ruining her, I was just untraining her to where she could stand a saddle on her while she stood up.
This old gypsy then stood up and hollered right loud, and here came the whole tribe through the gate. By this time it was getting rather late in the afternoon, and it didn’t look to them like they had a chance to get their Sleeping Beauty back before night, so finally they asked me what did they have that I wanted. All the time they kept insisting they would give me the paint horse back and more money than I had given them.
We had a whole wagonyard full of cotton farmers looking and listening, and I was leaning against the back side of the fence with my buggy whip facing that tribe of gypsies. There wasn’t any giggling going on in that bunch of cotton farmers standing behind them. I had remarked that my paint horse was too tenderfooted to ride, and that I didn’t want him back at all. The spokesman for the gypsies said: "We’ll go to camp and shoe the paint horse, then give you him and all your money back."
I kind of flipped my whip over against some corn cobs in the corner of the lot, like I was doing some deep thinking, then looked up and asked the spokesman of the tribe how long it took a gypsy to shoe a horse. He said in a very hopeful voice that he would be shod in an hour. I thought a minute and told him to bring that paint horse, well shod, and all my money in an hour or to bring the dappled gray gelding that I had wanted in the first place.
They scattered to their camp like a covey of quail, but I knew there wasn’t enough gypsies west of the Mississippi River to shoe that paint horse. The only time he had been shod, it took six good cowboys and he crippled some of them which was just another one of the bad faults which I had failed to mention. So I crawled up on the fence and sat down.
The farmers all went to asking me questions. I wasn’t in too good a mood with them because they had snickered at me when I left the trade ground leading my saddle; so I didn’t have too friendly a conversation to offer the waiting onlookers.
Just at dark the old gypsy woman came rushing back to the wagonyard, down to the pen, and said: "They bringin’ your horse. I untie my little baby."
I kicked a little dry manure on that pile of petticoats and said: "Gypsy, get away from my mare."
She wheeled and ran out of the wagonyard, and again the Sleeping Beauty nickered and cried at the sound of that old woman’s voice.
In a few minutes, here came the Irish-looking gypsy who had traded with me to start with, leading the dappled gray horse. I untied the Sleeping Beauty, took my saddle off her, and let her up.
I rode by Mr. Eiland’s and put the gray horse in his lot, left my saddle, and walked on the short distance to where I was staying. The next morning Uncle Barney admitted that I had made a horse trader. Mr. Eiland paid me a good price for the gray horse on behalf of his friend who wanted him back, and I saddled my good horse and started back to West Texas.