Dirty Shirt, My Friend
Author: Don Fraser


There was an indian girl that lived on the reservation in North Dakota with her father and two brothers.

One day a roaming Irishman came to the reservation, [I don't know why,] he stayed for a few days, the indian girl had an affair with him. Her father caught the two as they were doing it, and he shot and killed the Irishman, and was sent to prison for murder.

About two months later, the indian girl told her brothers she was pregnant. Her brothers told her not to worry they would take care of her and the baby. Six months later, she had a baby boy, in honor of it's father she named the baby Niel Sullivan. That is where this truthfull story begins.

One day a man came to the reservation looking for someone to work for him at the horse race track. He saw a boy about forteen years old racing other boys and girls on his indian pony. "Where is you Ma and Pa kid? I want to talk to them."

"My Pa is dead and my Ma is is over there in that shed." The man went to the shed and knocked on the door. The indian woman opened the door, her and the man talked for a while, and then he took his hat off and went in.

As the boy watched the door closely for what seeemed an hour, the man came out putting his hat back on his balding head. He walked over to the boy and said. "Get your things, your going to be working for me at the horse track." The kid said no as he was holding his pony.

"My Mamma wouldn't let me go that easy." He ran to the shed to ask his mother, if what the man said was true.

His mother with tears in her eyes said "Yes son, I'm afraid it is. Your uncles are drunkards, and can not support you and me any more. I barely can support myself, I think that you are old enough to be on your own."

"No Mamma no," the boy cried. "I don't want to leave you."

"You have to son, just see what the world is about, and pray every night. May God be kind to you and have a good life." Saying that she turned her back to the boy so he couldn't see the tears in her eyes.

A boy that was barely in his teens was going out to see the world, he packed what belongings he had in an old suitcase that was his fathers and reluctantly headed for the mans car. He stopped abruptly and called back to his mother, "Sell my pony Mamma he will bring some money to you, and buy yourself a nice dress, by Momma."

On the trip to the track, the boy didn't say a word until, they were going in the gate of the stables. He saw some horses sticking their heads out of their stalls. "Will I be riding those horeses," he asked.

"No not at first, you have to learn about race horses first" the man answered. He stopped the car in front of a long stable with beautiful horses in every stall. "You sleep here" the man said.

"Where? with some horse?"

The man smiled and said, "no at the end where the tack room is."

The boy got out of the car, he got the old suitcase out of the back seat and went to the end of the barn. He had never seen a tack room before. It looked better than his dirt room on the reservation. In one corner there was a rollaway bed, he saw the mattress on the inside of some springs, but from there he was lost. He had left the door open, and standing outside, was a man about fourty years old. He was small in stature, and he walked with a limp as he entrered the tack room.

"You having troubles son?" the man said in a nice tone.

"Yeah, is this a bed?" The boy inquired.

"It sure is, let me show you how it works." The man walked over to the rollaway and released the metal strap on top. The bed popped open to the boys astonishment.

"Well if that don't beat all." The man told him that he would have to use ol
d burlap sacks for covers until he can get better. "This will do fine, it's better than I had on the reservation. "

After cutting some burlap sacks with his pocket knife he went out to see the horses. The small man named Ben went with him. Jim told him each horses name and their charecteristics, when he rode them for exersize. "You ride them?" Niel asked.

"Yeah every morning."

"I want to ride them too, do you think the boss will let me?"

"In time in time" Ben answered. Niel went back in the tack room and laid on the bed that he had prepared for himsef. He laid on top of the burlap and thought of his mother and the reservation, and wondered what life would be like without them.

Early the next morning there was a loud pounding on the tack room door. "Come on, get your lazy ass up." Niel fell asleep with his clothes on the night before, he got to his feet and opened the door, standing there in the light of the dawn was an elderly man.

"Hi, my name Is Jim, I'm the barn forman. As soon as you get washed I want you to clean stalls. Is that clear?" The boy nodded. "Ben didn't have enough time to ride them before the track closed down." Neil went to the nearby bathroom and washed his face and hands, he had no tooth brush he never had one on the reservation he knew nothing about them.

After he had washed waiting for him right out of the door was the barn foreman with a pitchfork in his hand. "My name is Jim. and I'm going to tell you what goes on around here. First you gotta get up in the morning, you have to take a shower after two days, you smell like you havn't showered in a month."

Niel didn't know what a shower was he had always bathed in a big tub on the reservation, He remebered his Mamma always telling him, "don't forget to wash behind your ears Niel."

Jim continued on, just remember I'm the boss around here anything I tell you to do you do it, savvy?"

" "Yes I savvy" the boy replied. They had used that word on the reservation often. But how did Jim know that he was an indian? Niel wondered, He looked like his Father his Mother had told him all of his life, and didn't the kids at the reservation always call him paleface?

Neil worked a year cleaning stalls and walking sweating horses until they cooled down. Sometimes Jim would have him ride the saddle horse taking a race horse around the track for exercise when Ben didn't have enough time before the race track closed for maintanence. Niel would hold the race horse by the leather strap and spur the saddle horse into a gallop taking the race horse around the track. He had to learn how to use a saddle. At the reservation he rode his pony bareback, he never put his feet in the stirrups of a saddle at the race track, but he rode that saddle horse as good as anyone could.

Then one morning Jim said to Niel, "Ben is sick. The boss said that you are going to have to ride the horses for their exercise.

" Me?" Niel almost dropped the pitchfork he was holding. At last he can ride those beautiful animals.

"But there is only one thing you have to do."

"What? Put your feet in the damn stirrups." After a big black was saddled Ben helped Niel on his back. The saddle felt strange to him, but he did as Jim had told him. He put his feet in the stirrups. He was about the same size as Ben, so they were at the right length. Jim was giving him instructions as he led the horse to the track. "Just gallop him, and don't let him run off with you, a mile ought to do it, that's once around the track you know."

They reached the track and Jim let the horse go as soon as they got in the gate. The horse lunged and tried to run off, but Niel held it to a gallup just once around the track as Jim had instructed him too. When Niel stopped the horse on the track by the entrance, Jim said "I'm surprised, the boss was right, you can ride."

Ben was sick for a week and Niel got on the horses every day. He would work them full out as
Jim would time them. Every morning when Niel was through riding, Jim would compliment him. One morning Jim said, "Ben is not sick he's drunk, the boss couldn't take any more so he fired him, you are the exercise boy from now on."

Niel jumped about five feet in the air. "Me? Do you mean it Jim?"

"You are good kid."

Neil went in his tack room and grabbed his one towel. He was taking a shower every two days now, he would take one every day except his towel wouldn't dry. He had taken his first shower the night that Jim had told him to. He dried with scratchy burlap that night, but the shower felt so good to his hot skin. Someone had left some soap in the holder so Niel used it, when he washed his hair, he used the lather to wash behind his ears.

Niel felt so proud he had graduated to excersise boy, but what about Ben? Ben had been so nice to him when he first arrived at the race track. Ben was his friend and he had to find him.

Niel went downtown he looked in every bar he saw, some of the bartenders told him "get out of here your too young." He didn't even have a chance to ask about his friend Ben.

Finally he went into a run down bar, there was Ben sitting at the bar with his head between his hands, it was obvious he was drunk. "Let's get out of here" Neil said as he pulled Ben to his feet.

"he's not gitting out of here until he pays his barbill he ain't goin nowhere," the bartender said.

"How much does he owe you?" Niel asked.

"Twenty one dollars." Neil looked in his wallet but there is only a twenty dollar bill in there, he had been saving that to send to Mamma.

He hadn't written to his mother for over two weeks to tell her of his promotion in riding race horses. But he was to busy with his work and now taking care of Ben in town. Ben had taken his last paycheck and put most of it on a room in a cheap hotel. that is where Niel took him that day. He walked to town every day to make sure his friend was alright.

The next week, Jim had good news for Niel. "Since you have been doing such a great job galloping the horses, The boss decided to give you a raise," he handed a check to Niel, the check was twenty dollars higher than what he had been earning. Niel quickly headed for the bank to cash his check. He bought a money order for twenty dollars more than he had in previous weeks, then he wrote a note and said, "Sorry momma I missed last weeks money to you, so I'm sending you double this week." He put it in an envelope that he got from the post office nearby, and mailed it, then he went to see his friend.

Ben had been sober over two weeks. Neil was giving him money to eat on. Ben would buy things like beans and bacon and cook it on a little hot plate in his room. He knew he wasn't supposed to, but the man had to eat.

Every morning Ben would go to the race track to find another job. Ben had been one of the best jockeys in the world until a horse fell, and another horse in the race stepped on his leg. It had broken it in six places and Ben was never able to ride again.

Ben found a job, but it wasn't what he expected. He had to walk hots. his new boss said, take it or leave it hot shot. Needless to say Ben took it. When Ben came to see Niel in his new tack room. Ben said as soon as I can get some money together I promise to pay you back dear friend.

And so started a friendship that goes down in race track history. Ben was given a promotion, he was galloping horses again. In the mornings he would see his friend Niel, he would pull up beside him and say good morning, they would chat a little and then go on with their work.

One morning Niel recieved the best news that he had ever heard in his life. Jim told him, "don't tell anybody but one of the owners has been watching you and wants you to get a jockey's license so he can name you on all of his horses." Niel never told a soul not even his friend Ben.

When all of the horses in the barn had been exe
rcised, he went to the stewards office to get a jockey's license. He told the girl at the front desk what his name was and why he was there. Proudly he told her, "I'm gonna be a jockey." The girl went in a door she was only gone for a minute, she was followed out by a large man with a beard covering most of his face. Ben could see the smile in his eyes and the teeth that sparkled with that smile. The bearded man had his hand extended as he said, "it's about time Neil!"

As Niel shook his hand he asked, "about time?"

"Your jockey license has been ready for you for days. We stewards have been watching you and we think you will be the best jockey in America. Heres your license."

Three days went by, in the morning as they met on the track Niel told Ben "they are going to let me be a Jockey now I am going to be under contract to Mr. James our trainer."

"Ain't that great?" Ben says "yeah that's great but you are going to have to have a jockey's agent." Niel had a puzzled look on his face as he galloped off.

When he brought the horse back to Jim, he asked, "What is a jockey's agent?"

Jim told him all about what an agent does. "If the jockey is an apprentice he can only ride for the person that he is signed up with, unless that person doesn't have a horse in that race, but whoever wants you to ride has to have the contract holders permission. Thats where the agent comes in. He or she gets twenty percent of what the jockey makes on outside horses, usually the agent talks somebody into letting that jockey ride for them, savvy?"

Ben had been his friend and didn't he teach him all he knows about riding race horses? He had been one of the best riders in the country before he got hurt. Who better for an agent? He helped Jim unsaddle the horse and put the tack away. He almost ran over to the barn that Ben worked at. "Will you be my agent Ben?"

Ben had the biggest smile on his face that Niel had ever seen. "Yes my friend as he hugged his friend. you really are my friend arn't you"? There were tears in both their eyes.

Mister James had named Niel to ride the cheap claimer in a race. Neil was on pins and needles waiting for the day of the race. Ben tried to calm him down but it couldn't be done. Finally the day of the race arrived, Niel went to the jockey's room an hour before he was told to be there. He saw riders in what they called the hot box. [ sweat box] They were trying to lose weight. Neil didn't need the hot box he was just right. 107lb. As he sat on a bench an older jockey came over and sat beside him, "Your first race kid?"

"Yeah" Niel answered.

"Don't let it get to you, the worse thing you could do is be nervous. Being nervous is almost like being scared, that would be the worse thing a rider could be." Niel remembered what the older rider said the rest of his riding days.

He thought he might pass out when the jockey room steward called all jockey's to weigh. There were two jocks in front of him in line. The older jock was right behind him. "Hang in there kid" he said.

As he expected he weighed 107. Now he had to go to the saddling paddock where the owner and the trainer waited for him. the trainer said to him, "I have never been on this horses back, you ride him almost every day. Just do your best son, and have a safe trip."

Then Niel heard someone yell. "Riders up". Niel lifted his leg like he did every morning, and Mister James took his ankle in his strong hand and lifted him on the horses back. The trainer then led the horse out to the track and let him go, Niel knew the horse. He didn't need any help, horses seemed to trust him, He seemed to have a sixth sense with Niel. He put the horse in line. He was number three, there were two horses and riders heading the post parade in front of him, they both had saddle ponies with girls on their backs riding them. Niel thought to himself, they won't be in front for long.

The assistant starters put tw
o horses and riders in the starting gate, before they started to put his horse in. A man took hold of one of the reigns, and led Niels horse into number three stall. The horse gave the man no trouble it walked right in. Niel was getting so nevous waiting for the rest of the horses to be loaded that his lips started to quiver. Luckily the older rider had the stall next to him. "Are you nervous kid? Remember what I said." That helped Niel find security in himself. All of the horses were loaded in the gate now. All the riders were waiting for, was the head starter to ring the bell and open the gates to the stalls.

The bell rang and instantly the gates opened. Niels horse was in third place at the start, He continued running third around the first turn, on the back stretch he moved his horse up to the front. While he was in the stretch he pulled out his whip to hit the horse, but Niel could tell the horse was to tired to continue it's speed, so he never hit him with the whip again.

Niel finished third on his first ride as a jockey. He felt ashamed when he galloped the horse to Jim. I'm sorry he said, "If you are sorry, tell me why you didn't hit the son of a bitch with your whip commin down the stretch hot shot?"

The next day after Ben's and Niel's horses were exercised and put in their stalls. Ben and Niel went to the race track restaraunt to have a cup of much needed coffee and some breakfast. "Well you rode your first race kid! how'd ya like it?"

"It was great, but I didn't win. Jim gave me hell for not using my whip, whoops I mean your whip." Ben had loaned Niel everything a jockey needed to ride races with.

"I saw it kid that horse was too tired to use the stick on, if you did it would have fallen on it's head. and maybe broke it's neck, as far as I'm concerned you did the owner and everybody including you a favor."

When Niel came back to his tack room, all of his belonging had been thrown on the ground. Jim came up to him and said, "I hope you are satisfied chicken! we lost a client because you didn't stick that horse yesterday."

The race meet would be over in ten day's, Neil didn't mind cleaning stalls and walking horses that had had their excersise in the mornings. He wondered what his boss would do with him when they went to the next track?

He asked that question to his friend over coffee one morning. Ben said, "don't worry you are a good rider you will show them."

"but what about my contract?"

"I have a feeling that mister Johnson will give it back to you."

"But if I don't have a contract how can I ride?"

"You just wave your apprenticeship, then you won't be allowed pounds off anymore."

The race track closed for the season, Ben was right. Mister Johnson gave Niel back his contract and Niel had to ride at the weight that the horse was assigned.

"How am I gonna get mounts at this race track?"

"Just leave it to me your agent." Ben had quit exercising horses. He was going to be a full time agent now an concentrate on getting Niel mounts. Ben went to every trainer that was at the new track, they all remembered that he used to be a great rider. But he was careful not to ask Mister James if he would name Niel on a horse, but he got many rides for Niel. When the race meet was over Niel was named the leading rider.

"Now we are off to the races so to speak," Ben said. "You can write your own ticket now kid."

"I've been reading in the paper that there is a lot of horse racing in Havana, lets go there".

"You mean Cuba?"

"Yeah it will be fun." Niel went back to the reservation to see his Mamma. Both of his uncles had drank themseves to death. She was alone now, an old lady that shuffled when she walked, she was bent over so bad she looked like she was near death.

"Look Mamma! I bought this for you." He had taken her to a brand new house that was built on the reservation. His mother put her arms around her son and ki
ssed him.

"You shouldn't have son, I can't afford the payments, and what am I going to do for food"

"Don't worry Mamma, I will always take care of you." Niel only stayed long enough to help his mother move.

Havanah was the biggest city that Niel had ever seen. As he and Ben walked down the street they admired their surroundings, the people were so colorfull and they looked so romantic. They took a taxi to the race track and signed in as a jockey and his agent.

The clerk turned to Ben after reading his name. "I remember you, you were one of the best jockeys in America. What ever happend to you?"

Ben said, "it's a long story" and let it go at that, then the clerk turned his attention to Niel.

"Glad to have you with us sir, and good luck."They had the clerk call a taxi for them and went to the hotel that the clerk had recomended to them. They checked in and they paid for a months stay in advance. Three days later Niel was riding races. He didn't win his first two days, but he came in second and third most of the time. But on the third day he won five races, as Ben said, he was off and running.

For the next three weeks Niel became the leading rider. But his friend Ben got so sick that Niel had to take him to the hospital. two days later his friend died.

Niel was alone now. A boy from an indian reservation in Dakota in a foriegn country. He went to the track bookkeeper and asked for all of his money. The bookeeper said in a Cuban accent, "you must have not read the paper you signed senior, you can not draw your money for six months except a little, you have too much."

"Well then give me what you can and I will send you the adddress where I'll be." The book keeper gave him in cash three hundred dollars and Niel took a flight to the United States..

He threw his clothes in the old suitcase. Yes, he still had it. He put on a clean shirt before he left. While he was on the flight, the stewardess gave hin a dish of ice cream, the airplane hit an air pocket just as Niel was putting a spoonful to his mouth. The ice cream dropped to his shirt, the stewardess tried to wipe it off as did Niel, But the spot stayed there.

The airplane landed in Floida, unknown to Niel there were reporters waiting for him to get off. He didn't know that the Miami newspaper had had an article about him. "YANK IS THE BEST JOCKEY IN CUBA" Nor did he know that there would be cameras taking his picture. As soon as he stepped out of the door he was blinded by the flashing lights of the camera's. They published the picture of him with his dirty shirt on, from then on he was known as Dirty Shirt Sulleven.

He tried to ride in the states but he couldn't find an agent like his friend Ben was. He bought a cheap claiming horse with his money from Havana and started his career as a trainer. He wasn't a very good trainer, all of his thoughts were of his friend, his Mother and when he was a boy on the reservation.

Dirty Shirt Sulliven [Sully] died at the age of seventy, I don't know what happened to his mother.

------- Author's Notes -------

I still miss you Sully, your friend forever. Don. This story was told to me in the most part by Dirty Shirt Sulleven Himself, there was a two page spread in a San Fransisco newspaper about his life and his death. I hope I will see you again Sully..


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