For the first time in weeks the evening stayed warm in Takoma Park. Under a large American elm, men moved easily between two metal stakes pounded into the bare earth. The distinctive clang of metal horseshoes hitting the stakes and one another punctuated the other sounds of the park.
"Throwin' it 'roun the pegs is what the game's about," offered a challenger clad in softball cap, a T-shirt emblazoned "Disco-time" and sandals. "And everyone here can throw," he continued while gesturing to another competitor, "but he can concentrate."
The "he" that can concentrate is King of the Hill, known as Jack away from the horseshoe pit, a tall man with more than an ample girth who is quietly throwing ringers. From underneath the brim of a brushed denim hat the King's eyes flash.
Bordering the pit along one side is a row of short posts, creosoted long ago and worn down from patient challengers sitting, impatient feet tapping and metal horseshoes banging both the dust from themselves and the idleness from the men who hold them.
The posts separate park from parking and serve as seats for the audience of eight.
The metallic clang is smothered quickly by the loose, light-brown dirt one can expect to find in the large holes worn down by thousands of horseshoes thrown by hundreds of men over dozens of years.
The cadence of calisthentics from the high school football team in the next field provides a staccato counterpoint to the muffled clang.
"He don't psyche you out 'cause we're not playing for money here," Danny Boy continues as Hal chimes in from two posts down.
"Sometimes you can't watch your own shoes for watching his," he says as his tired eyes shift back to the pit.
King of the Hill is in the process of beating Pops, a small man whose steel-gray hair and slightly swaying step are the only clues to his 70-plus years. The game is cutthroat.
"In cutthroat, when both men toss ringers, only the one that ends up on top can score," explains Danny, "whereas in cancellation, the two ringers just cancel each other out and nobody scores."
Ringers count five, leaners three with one point for the shoe closest to the stake should neither ringer nor leaner be scored.
"'Course in a tournament," Hal adds, "ringers are only three points. Otherwise the matches wouldn't go more than a couple of ends."
Pops seems to be giving the King a pretty close game, combining arm swing and wrist twist with the gentle touch needed to get the three-quarter rotation on the shoe so that the open end of the "U" presents itself to the stake 40 feet away.
Throwing shoes are much too big and improperly shaped for shoeing horses. There are no holes for nails, but the raised metal welts called calks -- one toe calk, two heel calks -- keep the shoes from sliding on impact. But only if the shoe lands calkside down.
The King accedes to the soft, repeated plea from Pops that the old man's shoe is closer and worth another point. But the King runs out the game, 21-6.
Hal throws a better game than Pops, but can manage only two points in the next game.
Danny Boy steps in, proclaiming his virtue in a voice and with a laugh made slightly overgenerous by regular pulls at a procession of beer cans.
"I'm a-comin' for yuh, King," he proclaims.
"You might not even score a point, Boy," the King mutters, eyes flashing from under his brushed denim hat, suddenly serious and smoking at the challenge. The King is concentrating now, while Danny is just throwing.
Danny Boy is lucky to get one point. He grows increasingly quieter as the King romps 21-1.
Sitting on a post a minute later, he shakes his head and for no apparent reason marvels that the King bowls at a 185 clip, too. "And he uses a thumb ball, ya know, just one hole for his thumb."
The gathering dusk sends some of the tennis players packing across the park. The football drills are quieter now. The coaches yell, but the would-be stars have no energy left to do so. The King has methodically taken all comers and is now watching the high-schoolers run wind sprints.
Pop throws well, but falls to the luck of Danny Boy, who in turn loudly calls for a rematch with the King. Danny is throwing better now, but the king quickly moves out to an 8-5 lead, then 17-6.
"Here's the game right here," says the King before calmly dropping two ringers on the stake nearest the trunk of the elm.
Danny hits nothing but dirt with his first toss. He drops his second shoe on top of the two ringers. Cutthroat. And the score is suddenly 17-11.
The fans sitting on the posts shake their heads and laughingly call for the instant replay. The King closes the match with his next two shoes, almost before Danny has had a chance to enjoy his luck.
As the players begin to drift off, Danny Boy delivers a parting, "Get ya tomorrow evenin'," but the King is now concentrating on the football players getting in their last laps.
The sun is down and the fine, light-brown dust covers everyone's shoes. Tomorrow there will be a game of throwing it around the pegs. That's what horseshoes is all about.