I WANT TO KNOW WHY
We got up at four in the morning, that first day in the east. On the
evening before we had climbed off a freight train at the edge of town,
and with the true instinct of Kentucky boys had found our way across
town and to the race track and the stables at once. Then we knew we
were all right. Hanley Turner right away found a nigger we knew. It was
Bildad Johnson who in the winter works at Ed Becker's livery barn in
our home town, Beckersville. Bildad is a good cook as almost all our
niggers are and of course he, like everyone in our part of Kentucky who
is anyone at all, likes the horses. In the spring Bildad begins to
scratch around. A nigger from our country can flatter and wheedle
anyone into letting him do most anything he wants. Bildad wheedles the
stable men and the trainers from the horse farms in our country around
Lexington. The trainers come into town in the evening to stand around
and talk and maybe get into a poker game. Bildad gets in with them. He
is always doing little favors and telling about things to eat, chicken
browned in a pan, and how is the best way to cook sweet potatoes and
corn bread. It makes your mouth water to hear him.
When the racing season comes on and the horses go to the races and
there is all the talk on the streets in the evenings about the new
colts, and everyone says when they are going over to Lexington or to
the spring meeting at Churchhill Downs or to Latonia, and the horsemen
that have been down to New Orleans or maybe at the winter meeting at
Havana in Cuba come home to spend a week before they start out again,
at such a time when everything talked about in Beckersville is just
horses and nothing else and the outfits start out and horse racing is
in every breath of air you breathe, Bildad shows up with a job as cook
for some outfit. Often when I think about it, his always going all
season to the races and working in the livery barn in the winter where
horses are and where men like to come and talk about horses, I wish I
was a nigger. It's a foolish thing to say, but that's the way I am
about being around horses, just crazy. I can't help it.
Well, I must tell you about what we did and let you in on what I'm
talking about. Four of us boys from Beckersville, all whites and sons
of men who live in Beckersville regular, made up our minds we were
going to the races, not just to Lexington or Louisville, I don't mean,
but to the big eastern track we were always hearing our Beckersville
men talk about, to Saratoga. We were all pretty young then. I was just
turned fifteen and I was the oldest of the four. It was my scheme.
I admit that and I talked the others into trying it. There was Hanley
Turner and Henry Rieback and Tom Tumberton and myself. I had thirty-
seven dollars I had earned during the winter working nights and
Saturdays in Enoch Myer's grocery. Henry Rieback had eleven dollars and
the others, Hanley and Tom had only a dollar or two each. We fixed it
all up and laid low until the Kentucky spring meetings were over and
some of our men, the sportiest ones, the ones we envied the most, had
cut out--then we cut out too.
I won't tell you the trouble we had beating our way on freights and
all. We went through Cleveland and Buffalo and other cities and saw
Niagara Falls. We bought things there, souvenirs and spoons and cards
and shells with pictures of the falls on them for our sisters and
mothers, but thought we had better not send any of the things home. We
didn't want to put the folks on our trail and maybe be nabbed.
We got into Saratoga as I said at night and went to the track. Bildad
fed us up. He showed us a place to sleep in hay over a shed and
promised to keep still. Niggers are all right about things like that.
They won't squeal on you. Often a white man you might meet, when you
had run away from home like that, might appear to be all right and give
you a quarter or a half dollar or something, and then go right and give
you away. White men will do that, but not a nigger. You can trust them.
They are squarer with kids. I don't know why.
At the Saratoga meeting that year there were a lot of men from home.
Dave Williams and Arthur Mulford and Jerry Myers and others. Then there
was a lot from Louisville and Lexington Henry Rieback knew but I
didn't. They were professional gamblers and Henry Rieback's father is
one too. He is what is called a sheet writer and goes away most of the
year to tracks. In the winter when he is home in Beckersville he don't
stay there much but goes away to cities and deals faro. He is a nice
man and generous, is always sending Henry presents, a bicycle and a
gold watch and a boy scout suit of clothes and things like that.
My own father is a lawyer. He's all right, but don't make much money
and can't buy me things and anyway I'm getting so old now I don't
expect it. He never said nothing to me against Henry, but Hanley Turner
and Tom Tumberton's fathers did. They said to their boys that money so
come by is no good and they didn't want their boys brought up to hear
gamblers' talk and be thinking about such things and maybe embrace
That's all right and I guess the men know what they are talking about,
but I don't see what it's got to do with Henry or with horses either.
That's what I'm writing this story about. I'm puzzled. I'm getting to
be a man and want to think straight and be O. K., and there's something
I saw at the race meeting at the eastern track I can't figure out.
I can't help it, I'm crazy about thoroughbred horses. I've always been
that way. When I was ten years old and saw I was growing to be big and
couldn't be a rider I was so sorry I nearly died. Harry Hellinfinger in
Beckersville, whose father is Postmaster, is grown up and too lazy to
work, but likes to stand around in the street and get up jokes on boys
like sending them to a hardware store for a gimlet to bore square holes
and other jokes like that. He played one on me. He told me that if I
would eat a half a cigar I would be stunted and not grow any more and
maybe could be a rider. I did it. When father wasn't looking I took a
cigar out of his pocket and gagged it down some way. It made me awful
sick and the doctor had to be sent for, and then it did no good. I kept
right on growing. It was a joke. When I told what I had done and why
most fathers would have whipped me but mine didn't.
Well, I didn't get stunted and didn't die. It serves Harry Hellinfinger
right. Then I made up my mind I would like to be a stable boy, but had
to give that up too. Mostly niggers do that work and I knew father
wouldn't let me go into it. No use to ask him.
If you've never been crazy about thoroughbreds it's because you've
never been around where they are much and don't know any better.
They're beautiful. There isn't anything so lovely and clean and full of
spunk and honest and everything as some race horses. On the big horse
farms that are all around our town Beckersville there are tracks and
the horses run in the early morning. More than a thousand times I've
got out of bed before daylight and walked two or three miles to the
tracks. Mother wouldn't of let me go but father always says, "Let him
alone." So I got some bread out of the bread box and some butter and
jam, gobbled it and lit out.
At the tracks you sit on the fence with men, whites and niggers, and
they chew tobacco and talk, and then the colts are brought out. It's
early and the grass is covered with shiny dew and in another field a
man is plowing and they are frying things in a shed where the track
niggers sleep, and you know how a nigger can giggle and laugh and say
things that make you laugh. A white man can't do it and some niggers
can't but a track nigger can every time.
And so the colts are brought out and some are just galloped by stable
boys, but almost every morning on a big track owned by a rich man who
lives maybe in New York, there are always, nearly every morning, a few
colts and some of the old race horses and geldings and mares that are
It brings a lump up into my throat when a horse runs. I don't mean all
horses but some. I can pick them nearly every time. It's in my blood
like in the blood of race track niggers and trainers. Even when they
just go slop-jogging along with a little nigger on their backs I can
tell a winner. If my throat hurts and it's hard for me to swallow,
that's him. He'll run like Sam Hill when you let him out. If he don't
win every time it'll be a wonder and because they've got him in a
pocket behind another or he was pulled or got off bad at the post or
something. If I wanted to be a gambler like Henry Rieback's father I
could get rich. I know I could and Henry says so too. All I would have
to do is to wait 'til that hurt comes when I see a horse and then bet
every cent. That's what I would do if I wanted to be a gambler, but I
When you're at the tracks in the morning--not the race tracks but the
training tracks around Beckersville--you don't see a horse, the kind
I've been talking about, very often, but it's nice anyway. Any
thoroughbred, that is sired right and out of a good mare and trained by
a man that knows how, can run. If he couldn't what would he be there
for and not pulling a plow?
Well, out of the stables they come and the boys are on their backs and
it's lovely to be there. You hunch down on top of the fence and itch
inside you. Over in the sheds the niggers giggle and sing. Bacon is
being fried and coffee made. Everything smells lovely. Nothing smells
better than coffee and manure and horses and niggers and bacon frying
and pipes being smoked out of doors on a morning like that. It just
gets you, that's what it does.
But about Saratoga. We was there six days and not a soul from home seen
us and everything came off just as we wanted it to, fine weather and
horses and races and all. We beat our way home and Bildad gave us a
basket with fried chicken and bread and other eatables in, and I had
eighteen dollars when we got back to Beckersville. Mother jawed and
cried but Pop didn't say much. I told everything we done except one
thing. I did and saw that alone. That's what I'm writing about. It got
me upset. I think about it at night. Here it is.
At Saratoga we laid up nights in the hay in the shed Bildad had showed
us and ate with the niggers early and at night when the race people had
all gone away. The men from home stayed mostly in the grandstand and
betting field, and didn't come out around the places where the horses
are kept except to the paddocks just before a race when the horses are
saddled. At Saratoga they don't have paddocks under an open shed as at
Lexington and Churchill Downs and other tracks down in our country, but
saddle the horses right out in an open place under trees on a lawn as
smooth and nice as Banker Bohon's front yard here in Beckersville. It's
lovely. The horses are sweaty and nervous and shine and the men come
out and smoke cigars and look at them and the trainers are there and
the owners, and your heart thumps so you can hardly breathe.
Then the bugle blows for post and the boys that ride come running out
with their silk clothes on and you run to get a place by the fence with
I always am wanting to be a trainer or owner, and at the risk of being
seen and caught and sent home I went to the paddocks before every race.
The other boys didn't but I did.
We got to Saratoga on a Friday and on Wednesday the next week the big
Mullford Handicap was to be run. Middlestride was in it and Sunstreak.
The weather was fine and the track fast. I couldn't sleep the night
What had happened was that both these horses are the kind it makes my
throat hurt to see. Middlestride is long and looks awkward and is a
gelding. He belongs to Joe Thompson, a little owner from home who only
has a half dozen horses. The Mullford Handicap is for a mile and
Middlestride can't untrack fast. He goes away slow and is always way
back at the half, then he begins to run and if the race is a mile and a
quarter he'll just eat up everything and get there.
Sunstreak is different. He is a stallion and nervous and belongs on the
biggest farm we've got in our country, the Van Riddle place that
belongs to Mr. Van Riddle of New York. Sunstreak is like a girl you
think about sometimes but never see. He is hard all over and lovely
too. When you look at his head you want to kiss him. He is trained by
Jerry Tillford who knows me and has been good to me lots of times, lets
me walk into a horse's stall to look at him close and other things.
There isn't anything as sweet as that horse. He stands at the post
quiet and not letting on, but he is just burning up inside. Then when
the barrier goes up he is off like his name, Sunstreak. It makes you
ache to see him. It hurts you. He just lays down and runs like a bird
dog. There can't anything I ever see run like him except Middlestride
when he gets untracked and stretches himself.
Gee! I ached to see that race and those two horses run, ached and
dreaded it too. I didn't want to see either of our horses beaten. We
had never sent a pair like that to the races before. Old men in
Beckersville said so and the niggers said so. It was a fact.
Before the race I went over to the paddocks to see. I looked a last
look at Middlestride, who isn't such a much standing in a paddock that
way, then I went to see Sunstreak.
It was his day. I knew when I see him. I forgot all about being seen
myself and walked right up. All the men from Beckersville were there
and no one noticed me except Jerry Tillford. He saw me and something
happened. I'll tell you about that.
I was standing looking at that horse and aching. In some way, I can't
tell how, I knew just how Sunstreak felt inside. He was quiet and
letting the niggers rub his legs and Mr. Van Riddle himself put the
saddle on, but he was just a raging torrent inside. He was like the
water in the river at Niagara Falls just before its goes plunk down.
That horse wasn't thinking about running. He don't have to think about
that. He was just thinking about holding himself back 'til the time for
the running came. I knew that. I could just in a way see right inside
him. He was going to do some awful running and I knew it. He wasn't
bragging or letting on much or prancing or making a fuss, but just
waiting. I knew it and Jerry Tillford his trainer knew. I looked up and
then that man and I looked into each other's eyes. Something happened
to me. I guess I loved the man as much as I did the horse because he
knew what I knew. Seemed to me there wasn't anything in the world but
that man and the horse and me. I cried and Jerry Tillford had a shine
in his eyes. Then I came away to the fence to wait for the race. The
horse was better than me, more steadier, and now I know better than
Jerry. He was the quietest and he had to do the running.
Sunstreak ran first of course and he busted the world's record for a
mile. I've seen that if I never see anything more. Everything came out
just as I expected. Middlestride got left at the post and was way back
and closed up to be second, just as I knew he would. He'll get a
world's record too some day. They can't skin the Beckersville country
I watched the race calm because I knew what would happen. I was sure.
Hanley Turner and Henry Rieback and Tom Tumberton were all more excited
A funny thing had happened to me. I was thinking about Jerry Tillford
the trainer and how happy he was all through the race. I liked him that
afternoon even more than I ever liked my own father. I almost forgot
the horses thinking that way about him. It was because of what I had
seen in his eyes as he stood in the paddocks beside Sunstreak before
the race started. I knew he had been watching and working with
Sunstreak since the horse was a baby colt, had taught him to run and be
patient and when to let himself out and not to quit, never. I knew that
for him it was like a mother seeing her child do something brave or
wonderful. It was the first time I ever felt for a man like that.
After the race that night I cut out from Tom and Hanley and Henry. I
wanted to be by myself and I wanted to be near Jerry Tillford if I
could work it. Here is what happened.
The track in Saratoga is near the edge of town. It is all polished up
and trees around, the evergreen kind, and grass and everything painted
and nice. If you go past the track you get to a hard road made of
asphalt for automobiles, and if you go along this for a few miles there
is a road turns off to a little rummy-looking farm house set in a yard.
That night after the race I went along that road because I had seen
Jerry and some other men go that way in an automobile. I didn't expect
to find them. I walked for a ways and then sat down by a fence to
think. It was the direction they went in. I wanted to be as near Jerry
as I could. I felt close to him. Pretty soon I went up the side road--I
don't know why--and came to the rummy farm house. I was just lonesome
to see Jerry, like wanting to see your father at night when you are a
young kid. Just then an automobile came along and turned in. Jerry was
in it and Henry Rieback's father, and Arthur Bedford from home, and
Dave Williams and two other men I didn't know. They got out of the car
and went into the house, all but Henry Rieback's father who quarreled
with them and said he wouldn't go. It was only about nine o'clock, but
they were all drunk and the rummy looking farm house was a place for
bad women to stay in. That's what it was. I crept up along a fence and
looked through a window and saw.
It's what give me the fantods. I can't make it out. The women in the
house were all ugly mean-looking women, not nice to look at or be near.
They were homely too, except one who was tall and looked a little like
the gelding Middlestride, but not clean like him, but with a hard ugly
mouth. She had red hair. I saw everything plain. I got up by an old
rose bush by an open window and looked. The women had on loose dresses
and sat around in chairs. The men came in and some sat on the women's
laps. The place smelled rotten and there was rotten talk, the kind a
kid hears around a livery stable in a town like Beckersville in the
winter but don't ever expect to hear talked when there are women
around. It was rotten. A nigger wouldn't go into such a place.
I looked at Jerry Tillford. I've told you how I had been feeling about
him on account of his knowing what was going on inside of Sunstreak in
the minute before he went to the post for the race in which he made a
Jerry bragged in that bad woman house as I know Sunstreak wouldn't
never have bragged. He said that he made that horse, that it was him
that won the race and made the record. He lied and bragged like a fool.
I never heard such silly talk.
And then, what do you suppose he did! He looked at the woman in there,
the one that was lean and hard-mouthed and looked a little like the
gelding Middlestride, but not clean like him, and his eyes began to
shine just as they did when he looked at me and at Sunstreak in the
paddocks at the track in the afternoon. I stood there by the window--
gee!--but I wished I hadn't gone away from the tracks, but had stayed
with the boys and the niggers and the horses. The tall rotten looking
woman was between us just as Sunstreak was in the paddocks in the
Then, all of a sudden, I began to hate that man. I wanted to scream and
rush in the room and kill him. I never had such a feeling before. I was
so mad clean through that I cried and my fists were doubled up so my
finger nails cut my hands.
And Jerry's eyes kept shining and he waved back and forth, and then he
went and kissed that woman and I crept away and went back to the tracks
and to bed and didn't sleep hardly any, and then next day I got the
other kids to start home with me and never told them anything I seen.
I been thinking about it ever since. I can't make it out. Spring has
come again and I'm nearly sixteen and go to the tracks mornings same as
always, and I see Sunstreak and Middlestride and a new colt named
Strident I'll bet will lay them all out, but no one thinks so but me
and two or three niggers.
But things are different. At the tracks the air don't taste as good or
smell as good. It's because a man like Jerry Tillford, who knows what
he does, could see a horse like Sunstreak run, and kiss a woman like
that the same day. I can't make it out. Darn him, what did he want to
do like that for? I keep thinking about it and it spoils looking at
horses and smelling things and hearing niggers laugh and everything.
Sometimes I'm so mad about it I want to fight someone. It gives me the
fantods. What did he do it for? I want to know why.
I WANT TO KNOW WHY [Sherwood Anderson's short story]
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